Wednesday 31 August 2011

Consider the Bees...

Today's date marks, by one definition, the end of summer (by my own, swift-based definition, summer probably ended last Saturday, when I saw what I'm pretty sure will be my last swift of the year). It certainly feels like the end of summer, as August draws to a close cool, grey and dismal - in the Southeast it has been, they say, the coolest summer since 1993 (ah the paradoxes of global warming). Once again, though, the bees - honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees - seem to me to have been as busy and numerous as ever this summer, for all the warnings of impending Swarmageddon, to be followed in short order by the end of human life on Earth. The industrious bees seem always to have something to teach us - but do they? Here's the great idler Logan Pearsall Smith, in an early Trivia piece, The Busy Bees:
'Sitting for hours idle in the shade of an apple tree, near the garden-hives, and under the aerial thoroughfares of those honey-merchants, - sometimes when the noonday heat is loud with their minute industry, or when they fall in crowds out of the late sun to their night-long labours, - I have sought instruction from the Bees, and tried to appropriate to myself the old industrious lesson.
And yet, hang it all, who by rights should be the teacher and who the learners? For those peevish, over-toiled, utilitarian insects, was there no lesson to be derived from the spectacle of ME? Gazing out at me with composite eyes from their joyless factories, might they not learn at last - could I not finally teach them - a wiser and more generous-hearted way to improve the shining hours?'

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Rivers Reborn

Even I, a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, have to admit that in at least two respects life in England has unequivocally improved in the course of my lifetime. One is the range and quality of food available in shops, cafes and restaurants - I'm old enough to remember when olive oil was only available in tiny bottles from the chemist (and it wasn't cold-pressed extra virgin) - and the other is the water quality in many of our rivers. A news report today confirms how transformed these rivers are from their polluted past - and it's good to see 'my' river, the Wandle, getting a gold star.
Actually, before the Wandle became the river that runs through my life, it was the Thames (I spent my first nine or ten years in west London). The Thames of my boyhood was effectively dead in central London and so poisoned that it was said you'd die if you fell in and swallowed any water. Even some way upstream, where remnants of aquatic life hung on, I remember the nose-wrinkling chemical smells (on top of the pong of coal gas from the gasworks) and the sight of great masses of detergent foam sailing along the body of the river and filling up the creeks.
It was much the same on the Wandle when I first found myself in that suburban demiparadise where it springs from the dip slope of the North Downs (no, I don't mean Croydon). As well as the familiar islands of foam floating by, mysterious great lumps of rough-hewn white polystyrene were a frequent sight, and there was no life in those murky waters. Industrialisation had long since transformed what was once a sparkling chalk stream, famous for its plump brown trout, into one of the most comprehensively polluted waterways on earth. And yet today the water is again clean and clear and the trout are back, along with a range of other fishy life, attracting kingfishers, herons, cormorants and even egrets. The Wandle sparkles and teems with life again, and the passing years have, for once, brought nothing but improvement - though the habit of dumping litter and other detritus in the river remains stubbornly persistent. Every prospect pleases, and only man is vile...

Over on The Dabbler...

I put in a word for Veronese. By the way, it's not immediately obvious (at least to a technoramus like me) but there's a handy facility on the National Gallery online image (follows the link) that lets you browse at large on the picture, enjoying the details.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Is That A Fish In Your Ear?

A kindly publisher, trusting in the mighty power of Nigeness to spread the good word, has sent me a pre-publication copy of a snappily titled book by David Bellos - Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation And The Meaning Of Everything. This is a fascinating, mostly very readable study of the mysterious art and business of translation. And mysterious it is - one of those things that we take for granted but which becomes stranger and stranger the closer we look at it.
I can say airily, without a thought, that I've read this or that by Tolstoy or Kafka or Homer, when in fact I've done no such thing - I've only read them in translation, and translation, as we all know, is 'no substitute for the real thing'. Actually, Bellos points out, that's exactly wrong: translation is a substitute for the real thing. And then, as we all know, 'poetry is what gets lost in translation' - Robert Frost said that, didn't he? Well no actually, as Bellos points out. Despite some 15,000 citations on the Web, there's no record of Frost writing or saying any such thing. It seems that most of what we think we know about translation is either wrong or but partly true.
Bellos asks big basic questions about translation and comes up with often surprising answers. What Is A Translation? Is Translation Avoidable? Is Your Language Really Yours? How Many Words Do We Have For Coffee? An interesting one, that - as Bellos points out, 'if you go into a Starbucks and ask for 'coffee' the barista most likely will give you a blank stare'. In a chapter headed Meaning Is No Simple Thing, Bellos concludes that 'the only way of being sure that an utterance has any meaning at all is to get someone to translate it for you'. And Meaning Is No Simple Thing is followed by Words Are Even Worse...
A chapter on simultaneous interpreting makes you wonder that it is possible at all. Indeed it had never been seriously attempted until the Nuremberg Trials, which would have been all but impossible without it. There are very few people in the world capable of the advanced mental gymnastics involved in translating while listening, and it can only be achieved in complex multilingual bodies like the United Nations by a complex system of 'relays' and 'retour' (there's a helpful diagram). As for literary translation, that's really the easy end of the work - get it wrong and you won't start a war or make an appliance blow up in someone's face. And, as Bellos points out, in the English-speaking world, it's 'paid at piece rates equivalent to a babysitter's hourly charge'. (It's a different matter in Japan, where superstar translators get equal billing with the author, and there's even a gossip magazine about the translators' glamorous lives.)
Having covered such subjects as The Myth Of Literal Translation, Translating Humour and What Translation Is Not, Bellos ends his book ends with Afterbabble: In Lieu Of An Epilogue, in which he takes a characteristically refreshing look at the origins of language. Here he unveils his 'blindingly obvious' conclusion that 'It is not poetry, but community, that's lost in translation. The community-building role of actual language use is simply not part of what translation does.' But it does 'almost everything else'...
Well, Is That A Fish In Your Ear? is published on the 1st of September. Though the going occasionally gets a little tough for the general reader, I'd recommend this sparky, thought-provoking book to anyone with even a passing interest in translation.

Thursday 25 August 2011


Promising youngster Martin Amis is 62 today (as is his exact contemporary Gene Simmons of Kiss). Elvis Costello turns 57, Howard Jacobson hits 69, and Sean Connery achieves 81. How old does this make you feel?

Ill Fares the Land...

I've been reading Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt. For some while I'd been meaning to read Judt and, given the recent graphic evidence of how ill the land is faring, it seemed a good time to pick up this highly praised polemic on what is wrong and what needs to be done. Clearly Judt was a good egg, a humane and highly intelligent man, and a pretty good writer - and he wrote this book while suffering the kind of terrible illness that would make most of us give up any such attempt. I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, though, I soon realised that Ill Fares The Land is built on (unexamined) assumptions that I don't share, or rather entirely disagree with - as I went on to entirely disagree with something on just about every page, if not in every paragraph. Nothing wrong with that of course - it was more the growing perception that what Judt is offering, in what is supposed to be a 'passionate polemic', is a collection of dubious and, sadly, not very original or radical thoughts. Basically Judt seems to be a Keynesian (JMK is quoted approvingly throughout), with a strong belief in welfarism, public expenditure and the power of the state to do good. Like him I'm deeply nostalgic for the good old days of the postwar consensus when the welfare state seemed a good thing and society was more or less united in a common moral purpose. However, I'd disagree entirely with his diagnosis of what went wrong and why we are where we are. He barely mentions, for example, the catastrophic collapse of state education in Britain, nor does he seem to recognise the role of welfarism in creating poverty and inequality, or the untiring work of the liberal intelligentsia in spreading ideas and practices deeply destructive to a wider society, particularly the poor and vulnerable. He gives the impression that the state is withering on the vine, whereas, in Britain at least, it has carried on getting bigger and bigger and spending more and more (only once in recent decades did public spending fall year on year - under Callaghan and the IMF). But then, Judt's focus is very wide - perhaps too wide, as it takes in the US and continental Europe, with occasional excursions elsewhere (and it's quite a short book). When he says 'we', as he does repeatedly, it's hard to know who he means - most of the time it seems to be 'Americans'. This country has its own specific problems, and a book called Ill Fares The Land might have done better to concentrate only on them (as Roger Scruton does in his blistering, thoroughly un-Judt-like polemic, England: An Elegy). That said, Judt's analysis of globalisation is interesting, he comes up with some striking facts and figures, and it is hard to disagree with him that society is in need of remoralising - but his proposals for bringing this about seem vague and unconvincing, nothing like as forceful as his critique of what is wrong. In the end, Ill Fares The Land has left me neither shaken nor stirred, just vaguely disappointed. Never mind - I intend to carry on with Judt, as I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy The Memory Chalet a lot more.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Over on the Dabbler...

you'll find me up a tree.

Obsolete Schmobsolete

I'm still reeling from the news that the words 'aerodrome' and 'charabanc' have been judged obsolete. Well, I say 'news', but of course it's just an attention-grabbing press release issued by the publishers, in time-honoured fashion, ahead of a new edition. Collins dictionaries are by and large descriptive rather than historical, but it still seems harsh to bundle 'aerodrome' and 'charabanc' in with the like of the truly defunct 'wittol', 'stauroscope' and 'woolfell' (though I can imagine Geoffrey Hill using that one). 'Succedaneum' has been lodged in my mind, along with a lot of other useless stuff, ever since my schooldays when I came across it in The Prelude -
'Science appears as what in truth she is,
Not as our glory and our absolute boast,
But as a succedaneum, and a prop
To our infirmity.'
As for 'supererogate', some of us are keeping that one going...
I must confess that my brother and I share a taste (no doubt annoying and/or incomprehensible to all around us) for archaisms and obsolete words, never failing to pronounce jazz 'jass', golf 'goff' and skiing 'shee-ing'. For us, a shrink will always be an 'alienist' (pace Collins) and that new-fangled moving-picture device the 'kinematograph', while lawn tennis and table tennis are respectively 'sphairstike' and 'whiff whaff'. In such company, 'charabanc' and 'aerodrome' have a dangerous whiff of modernity.

Monday 22 August 2011

Ebenezer Good

It's not often I come across a novel that I can truly say is like no other I've ever read - but The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, which I've just finished (it's a long read), is one such book. An old friend has been recommending it to me at intervals for years, but I had somehow never got round to it (it's not the easiest book to find) - then one day I was idly browsing in an Oxfam shop and there it was, in a paperback American edition (Moyer Bell, 1995). Naturally I snapped it up and, as soon as I started reading, I was gripped, enthralled. It is a wonderful book...
The Book of Ebenezer le Page was the only published work of its almost wilfully obscure author, G.B. Edwards. It was finally written, at a friend's urging, when the author was already in his late 60s, and it wasn't published until after his death. Told entirely in the first person, it is the fictional memoir of an elderly, shrewd, cranky, fiercely individual Guernseyman, looking back on his long life - lived entirely on Guernsey, but for one short excursion to Jersey. He seems to be in full flow when we join him, and he never lets up, relating a meandering saga of family quarrels, tragedies, bitter feuds that last for generations - all interwoven with moments of vivid happiness and, especially, with deep and enduring friendships. He is (like William Maxwell, oddly) especially good on the intense friendship - love indeed (of a non-sexual kind) - that can grow up between boys and men. A lot of the emotional life of the book is in the love between Ebenezer and his boyhood friend Jim, and the rather different love between Ebenezer and his strange, sweet-natured cousin Raymond, who has a highly original take on Christianity (Church and Chapel are big presences in this book, though Ebenezer has little time for either). Raymond trains and fails as a priest, and makes an unfortunate marriage... But I'm not going to start rehearsing the plot here - apart from anything else, there's so much of it. This is a big, compendious saga, incorporating in its decades-long span wars, Nazi occupation and the complete transformation - or ruin, in his view - of the island Ebenezer loves.
The magic of the book is in Ebenezer's unique, inimitable voice and the distinctive language that he uses, peppered with Guernsey French patois. The voice is so beguiling that when he's in full flow you don't want Ebenezer ever to stop, don't care how complicated and populous the story is getting, or what's to happen next... Unfortunately the voice is also so beguiling that, towards the end, as the action approaches the (fictional) present, the author himself falls in love with his creation, cannot resist softening and simplifying him, making good things happen to him and contriving an ending in which happiness is piled on happiness. The critic Guy Davenport wrote that 'I know of no description of happiness in modern literature equal to the one that ends this novel'. I fear I'm more inclined to agree with John Fowles (who provides an Introduction to the edition I read) that by the end, the story has lapsed into sentimentality. It is a great shame.
Davenport also describes The Book of Ebenezer LePage as 'a masterpiece' and I'd agree there; it is a masterpiece indeed - but a flawed one, thanks to its closing chapters.
Never mind. Here, to give a flavour of this extraordinary book and its unique voice, is a passage describing the death of Ebenezer's best friend Jim's beloved dog:
'Victor died. He wasn't all that old for a bull-dog and I have always thought he must have got himself hurt inside on his last gallivant. He lost interest and wouldn't move, but lay in his basket all day long and got fat and wheezy. The vet said there was nothing wrong with him: it was his breed and he would get over it; but he began to have shivering fits and had a hot nose. He wanted to drink a lot of water, but went off his feed. Jim's mother said she was sorry but she couldn't have him in the kitchen any longer because he smelt; so Jim put his basket in the stable and gave him plenty of straw. One Saturday afternoon we was all having tea in the kitchen when out comes Victor from the stable and trots across the yard. He was as lively on his bandy legs as when he was a pup, and grinning all over his ugly face. 'Victor's got better!' said Jim. In came Victor and Jim's mother patted him and Wilfred, who was there, said, 'Hullo, Victor!' though he didn't like him much, and I said, 'Well done! Good boy!' and at last he got round to Jim, jumping and licking and wagging his tail; and Jim was nearly in tears, he was so happy. Victor went quiet then and rolled his black eyes at the rest of us and trotted back across the yard to the stable. Jim couldn't wait to finish his tea but must get up from the table at once and make a mash of meat and potatoes to take to him. 'He'll eat this now,' he said, as he went out with it. He hadn't been gone two minutes when he came back out of the stable with Victor dead in his arms.'

Sunday 21 August 2011

This Is Getting Silly...

Since that solitary swift on Thursday, my swift count has been as follows: Friday 2, Saturday 4, Sunday 2 (so far). This is of course very cheering, but I don't recall ever seeing so many stragglers before. I wonder what is going on and when the last swift will be... Anyone else still spotting them?

Friday 19 August 2011

Endless Summer

'The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable..'

Actually, today the sun is shining in London and the sky is blue. But yesterday was utterly grim - cold and grey, with rain siling down for much of the day. And yet, in the evening, as I headed homeward, staring glumly out of the train window - suddenly, somewhere around Mitcham common, there was another swift! One solitary bird, charging bravely through the gathering gloom... That's another four days added to my swift summer! Will it ever end?

Thursday 18 August 2011

Blog Thoughts

In the comments under my Dabbler piece on The Rings of Saturn, Jonathan Law suggests that it's a book that is really a 'frustrated blog'. I think he's right - it would have made a brilliant blog, illustrated with those grainy black-and-white pictures, and with links ramifying out in every direction. Looking back, there have been many literary writers who, in another age, might have made great bloggers - imagine the likes of Montaigne or Sir Thomas Browne or Lamb or Hazlitt let loose in the blogosphere; or, nearer our own time, Chesterton or Orwell - or the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, whose multiple identities and fragmented writings might be made for the age of the blog. Some writers' works now enjoy a posthumous existence as blogs - e.g. The Blog of Henry David Thoreau and The Diary of a Nobody in blog form - and some blogs can be seen as works (in progress) of literary art in themselves...
There was wild talk recently of the 'death of the blog' - that it was a form that had been superseded by newer, snappier means of communication. Well, it may be that the neophiliacs have moved on - they won't be missed, nor will those who really were born to tweet, not blog. Rather that dying, I think (or rather hope) there might be a long-term trend across the blogosphere towards a winnowing out of the dross - especially of the more combative, up-for-a-scrap stuff - leaving the higher-quality content intact. This may be a fond dream, and the whole blogging business might be an ephemeral phenomenon, a passing fad that will leave no legacy. The British Library, however, doesn't seem to think so, and is busy archiving some of the more worthwhile UK blogs for future generations. Well, I say worthwhile, but I note they've archived some curiously named stuff...

Wednesday 17 August 2011


Did anyone else see the documentary Surviving Hitler: A Love Story on BBC4 last night? The story of the love affair between a half-Jewish girl and a young soldier involved in the Valkyrie assassination plot, I found it completely riveting (and it takes a lot to rivet a mental gadabout like me). Indeed I'd say it was one of the most remarkable documentaries I've seen in a long time. Partly this was because the then teenager, Jutta Cords, was still alive to tell the amazing tale - and tell it calmly, engagingly and well - but also because so much of her family life and her time with the soldier, Helmuth, was preserved in photographs and informal cine footage. The delicate way this footage was edited into the story, so that it exactly matched the action and intensified the emotion was quite brilliant (great work by director John Keith Wasson), the gradual revelation of the story was perfectly paced, and the overall effect of the film was, as I say, quite riveting.
There is talk in the air of cutting back on BBC4's content, as part of the BBC's cost-cutting proposals. I can only hope this is a ruse designed to spark a mighty backlash and lead to a hasty reversal (as with BBC 6 Music). BBC4, after all, is most of the time the only BBC TV channel worth looking at.
(By the way, if you missed it, Surviving Hitler should be on the BBC iPlayer.)

Over There...

I see my 1p Book Review of Sebald is back on The Dabbler.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Old Lady

It's surprising what you see if you keep your eyes peeled. As I was making my way out of Victoria station this morning, part of the usual commuter throng ('I had not thought death had undone so many'), I looked up and saw a large dark moth flying - or rather blundering - around under the roof, just a few feet above the heads of the crowd. This would almost certainly be an Old Lady moth, a species that seems to like living more or less indoors and not to mind being endlessly flushed by human activity from wherever it happens to be roosting. I remember how, in my boyhood, Old Ladies used to haunt the grotto (a remnant of an over-ambitious 18th-century scheme of landscaping) in Carshalton Park. I believe they still do, but the grotto has been wire-fenced off, doubtless on health and safety grounds, so adventurous children can no longer scare themselves in its dank and mysterious depths. Ah the lost pleasure of crawling on your hands and knees in total darkness along a rubble-strewn brick tunnel, with a fine trickle of decaying mortar falling on your head. Kids today, they don't know what they're missing...

Monday 15 August 2011

A Foretaste

When I arrived at the station yesterday to take my train to Boxhill & Westhumble, I saw notices around the place about a cycle race that was taking place. The railway was expecting a surge in passenger numbers and was therefore laying on extra carriages and barring travellers from taking their bikes by rail. Expecting to have to fight my way on to the train, I was rather surprised to find that, when it drew in, it was all but empty. However, things were even stranger at the other end. At Boxhill & Westhumble (one of the prettiest stations in Surrey), just three of us stepped down from the train - to find the place swarming with jerkin-clad officials of one kind and another. Some were railway employees, some were 'race stewards', half a dozen or so were police (you never know when it's going to kick off in Westhumble). In all, they must have numbered at least two dozen, and none of them had anything to do. Indeed, the whole area was, if anything, even quieter than it would normally be on a reasonably clement Sunday morning. Meanwhile, however, across much of London and Surrey, chaos reigned. This is what it will be like during next year's Olympics - only far, far worse, and for weeks on end. Call it off now! It's not too late...

Sunday 14 August 2011

A Swift Recalculation, and Some Blues

Last evening, sitting in my son's garden, I looked up and saw... a solitary swift, flying purposefully overhead - this a full eight days after what I had taken to be the end of my swift summer. What was even more remarkable was that my cousin in Derbyshire also saw a swift last evening, followed by another lone straggler today. So there may yet be more. The end of the swift summer seems to be less abrupt and total this year than it usually is.
The swallows, of course, are still with us in numbers. I was watching them skimming a field earlier today as I took a much-needed walk in the Surrey Hills. It was a day of warm sun and dark cloud, and when the former predominated the butterflies were merrily flying in good numbers. Mostly they were the familiar Meadow Browns, dark Ringlets and jolly Gatekeepers, those butterflies that best seem to catch and embody the relaxed, easy-going mood of high summer. A little busier and harder to follow in flight were the Small Heaths, pale little beauties with bright eyespots on the underside of their forewings. And then, much livelier and easier to lose sight of, there were tiny Brown Arguses (also having a good year), which fly fast and erratically, then land very suddenly to bask. The mystifying thing about them is that they appear pale and silvery in flight, suggesting a very small Blue - yet when they land and open their wings, they turn out to be a rich dark brown, studded all round the margins with dots of bright orange. Why is it that they look so completely different in flight?
The great joy of my walk, though, was to find myself among Chalkhill Blues, my first this year, and they were flying in their dozens - more than I've seen in ages. These too are pale and silvery in flight, but that's because they are pale and silvery, for Blues - and also large, for Blues, so mercifully easy to identify. As a boy, when I first learnt to identify them, I used to think the name was descriptive of the colour, a chalky blue, rather than the habitat...
And just now I looked up (I'm in the garden) and saw - another swift! It's still summer.

Friday 12 August 2011

'To apricot myself...'

'Just to sit in the Sun, to apricot myself like a fruit in its heat - this is one of my country recreations. And often I reflect what a thing after all it is, still to be alive and basking here, above all the buried people of the world, in the kind and famous sunshine...'
Thus Logan Pearsall Smith, beginning one of his Trivia pieces, Tu Quoque Fontium (which nimble-fingered Googlers will find is a quotation from Horace's Ode 3.13). 'To apricot myself' - how about that for a verb! It's surely a unique usage, though there's a related verb, to apricate, meaning to bask in the sun, which was once in use but has become obsolete. I intend to adopt them both - and, if the sun ever reappears in the remainder of this dismal summer, you may be sure that, circumstances permitting, I'll be out there apricoting myself.
'Kind and famous sunshine' is good too...

Thursday 11 August 2011

A Sermon for Slovenly Times

Maybe I'm spending too much time in Kensington - maybe? I'm definitely spending too much time in Kensington - but I keep noticing men with waxed moustaches (usually with beards attached). I wonder if this is a 'trend'? Perhaps Susan, who writes the indispensable Retroprogressive column in The Dabbler on Saturdays, might explore the subject... Anyway, trend or not, it is to be commended. If you're going to sport facial hair, the least you can do is take good care of it, introducing a little order - and a little raffish style - by bringing those moustachios to a neat point. It is all part of the great programme of making the best of ourselves, making sure we're well turned out. In these slovenly times, this, I believe, is a quasi-moral imperative. The way we dress and groom ourselves affects how we feel, how we move, how we carry ourselves and interact with the world - ultimately how we behave. It might be possible to behave decently while dressed in a shell suit, or in tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie - but it will be an uphill struggle against powerful countervailing forces. Examine the pictures of those rioters who have lately been a feature of our urban streets. Not a waxed moustache among them. Nor, I'll warrant, a cravat. In dress as in prose, le style est l'homme meme. I rest my case.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

It's Too Quiet, Sarge - I Don't Like It...

All was eerily calm last night as I made my way home - far fewer people than usual on the Tube, at Victoria, on the train... And then I got off at Carshalton - that suburban demi-paradise - and the place was in lockdown. The park locked, the shops closed and shuttered, the streets all but deserted - I could scarcely believe my eyes. But I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised - it's the classic pattern: massive overreaction when it's too late. Pile 16,000 cops onto the streets to fulfil their time-honoured role of standing around, close down shops and businesses and, hey presto, things quieten down. The stable door is most effectively locked, barred and triple-bolted - but, as Roy Campbell put it in another context, where's the bloody horse? Fled, in this case to return when the coast is clear.
In the meantime, though, there are at least hopeful signs that people - having had it so graphically demonstrated to them that they can't count on the police - are making their own ad-hoc security arrangements. They will surely be more effective than anything les flics currently have to offer.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

On a happier note...

There's something by me about Marianne Moore on The Dabbler.

The New Jerusalem

Last night I was watching a BBC4 archive programme called Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words. There were Keynes and Beveridge and Attlee (spot the Great Thinker?) extolling the wonders of the impending New Jerusalem in which, thanks to benign state intervention, an age of peace and plenty would dawn and all social ills wither on the vine...Then came the News - and there, in our age of peace and plenty, were the grandchildren of the New Jerusalem ('these strange children, Pitiless in their ignorance and contempt', in Geoffrey Hill's phrase) rioting, looting, pillaging and burning their way across swathes of London.
Among the most saddening images was that of Reeves furniture store in Croydon - just a couple of miles down the road from me - ablaze, burning to the ground. Reeves Corner has been a local landmark, part of the geography, all my life - and for generations before (the company is 140 years old) - and now it's gone, for no reason at all. What makes it even worse is that it was - in its older, artsy-crafty parts - an attractive and interesting building, in a town that can ill afford to lose many of those.
The one upside of all this is that it's yet further proof that London is a city unfit to host a modern Olympic Games. Call it off now!

Monday 8 August 2011


This lunchtime, while sitting in a Kensington public garden with my book and sandwich, I was hit on the back of the head by flying bark. In a lifetime replete with more-or-less comical minor indignities (I like to think of myself as a kind of English Monsieur Hulot), this was a first. The bark, I should explain, was plane-tree bark, and great chunks of it were being stripped from the trees by the fierce northwest wind, every gust bringing more bark gliding through the air and clattering to the ground around me. It's beautiful stuff, plane-tree bark, with its curved, cedar-brown underside like the lining of a cigar tube, and, happily, it's light enough to be the bark of choice if you have to be hit by a chunk of the stuff. Indeed it was a pleasure to be struck - a rather wonderful experience - and I don't think I've ever before seen such a dramatic barkstorm.

Weather Lore Updated

'Short summers lightly have a forward spring,' remarks Shakespeare's Richard III, murderously eying the young Prince Edward...
Last Friday evening, the swifts treated me to one more flypast over the trackside hotspot - I counted a round dozen - and one lone straggler overflew the garden later, in the dusk. That, almost certainly, was it, so my swift summer (the essential summer) was short indeed, running from the 7th of May to the 5th of August. And today there's a chilly Northwest wind blowing in London, the first leaves are falling from sycamores, planes and the poor, blighted horsechestnuts, some of the urban rowans and cherries are putting on their fall colours, and it's feeling like autumn already. But it wasn't a forward spring; as last year, it was rather late - and, again as last year, it was glorious when it came. In fact, it was even more glorious - and certainly more long-lasting - than last year. And, as last year, it was followed by a lot of really pretty dreadful weather in June and July, the months when it matters most (I'm thinking, of course, of the needs of my butterfly friends). Perhaps a new rule is emerging in English weather lore: 'Bad summers lightly have a glorious spring.'

Thursday 4 August 2011

The Swifts

Any day now, the swifts will be gone. The skies are already quiet, with only one or two silent stragglers passing overhead. My best local site, where 50, 60 or more swifts could be seen hurtling acrobatically through the air at the height of the season, was down to a dozen or so birds earlier in the week, and to just one last night. I see this swift-rich site from the train window on my way home, and I know that very soon, perhaps this evening, I'll look out and there will be no swifts at all. And summer - the real summer - will be over. Their stay is so short - just three months in which to arrive, nest, mate and rear the next generation (I saw my first swift on the morning after my daughter's wedding, which was on May 6th - a week later than last year). No wonder Gilbert White was so convinced that his beloved swifts (and swallows and martins) spend the winter in hibernation rather than migrating - how could a bird be raised from a helpless nestling to a creature capable of flying thousands of miles south in such a short period of time? What White didn't know, and what makes the fact still more extraordinary, is that our swifts take epic flights of anything up to 800 miles to evade oncoming storms, leaving their young untended. The fledglings survive by sinking into a semi-comatose state - closely resembling hibernation - which enables them to last for up to ten days with no food. And even after losing half their body weight, the young swifts can recover and grow to full strength, ready for that epic flight south. Wonderful, mysterious birds - how we'll miss them...

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Holiday Reading?

What a dismal business British political life is. I can only hope that Ed Milliband has no intention of reading any of this lot
and has a couple of real books stashed away, or even a poolside page-turner... How very different is the approach of Iron Man Putin - no sissy reading lists for him. He will no doubt be spending his hols wrestling bears into submission, swimming in raging torrents and tearing small animals apart with his bare hands. Come on, Ed - throw those books away! Find your inner Putin... And while you're about it, stop trying to dress down as badly as Cameron.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Dowson Day

'They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream...'

'I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind...

I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! after my fashion.'

The poems of Ernest Dowson, who was born on this day in 1867, are rich in sonorous phrases which live in the memory and, in the case of those quoted above, survive in the titles of a film (Days of Wine and Roses), a novel and film (Gone with the Wind) and a song (Cole Porter's Always True to You in My Fashion). Dowson also, if the OED is to be believed, made the first written use of the word 'soccer' for football (though he spelt it 'socca' - it's unlikely he ever played a game). He was a hard-working writer, a member of the Rhymers' Club and a prolific contributor to magazines such as The Yellow Book and The Savoy, but his personal life was a chapter of tragedies. There was his doomed love for a Polish girl whom he first met when she was 11 years old and whom he finally lost, after years of dogged pursuit, to a tailor who lodged above her father's restaurant. Then Dowson's consumptive father died of an overdose of chloral, after which his mother, also consumptive, hanged herself. This succession of events was too much for Dowson, who went into a steep, alcohol-fuelled decline, dying derelict at the age of 32. His poems, full of lovesickness, languor, world-weariness and (understandable) longing for oblivion and release, are prime specimens of English 'Decadent' verse, overripe for modern tastes. But, in small doses, Dowson is still worth reading - and he certainly had an ear for the music of words. His lines might tend to hollowness, but they sing.

Mad As Hell?

I heard on the radio that, in polls, some 70 per cent of Americans now assent to the proposition 'I'm as mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it any more'. Well, God bless America! In this country - where, God knows, we have every reason to feel mad as Hell about the political/cultural elite's apparent determination to send us off on the highway to Hell in a fleet of custom-built handcarts - you'd be lucky to get 70 per cent to assent to the proposition 'I'm really a bit cross, since you ask, but I know I'm going to have to carry on taking it for the foreseeable future'. Which, I wonder, is the healthier approach? Is being mad as Hell likely to make the slightest difference? Do we really have any other option but to carry on 'taking it'?

Monday 1 August 2011

What I Did On My Holidays: Two Finds, A Belated Spot and an Exhibition

1. In The Bookshop in Wirksworth - where, as usual, half a dozen items seriously tempted me - I found a volume I didn't even know existed: a King Penguin edition of Cowper's Diverting History of John Gilpin, illustrated with typical dash and brio by Ronald Searle. You can see the pictures online here.

2. In Whitby, I not only ate the best fish and chips of my life - at a quayside restaurant misleadingly called The Magpie Cafe, where long queues outside signal the quality of the food within. But the big surprise was that the Magpie not only has a good wine list but also, by way of aperitif/digestif, that versatile nectar Pineau des Charentes, both white and red. Mind you, I say versatile, but last time I tried to get a Pineau as a digestif - in a somewhat swanky restaurant in La Rochelle - I was summarily refused and advised/ordered to drink something else. Clearly I had broken the laws of gastronomy - but a Pineau is actually very good after dinner.

3. In Derbyshire, belatedly, I saw my first Small Coppers of the year. Disappointingly, I hadn't seen a single one of these little beauties back in the sunny spring, and wondered if I was going to draw a blank with this far from uncommon butterfly, so it was a great delight to spot the first, basking prettily on a hedegrow leaf.

4. We made our way home by way of Castle Howard, which I had never visited before. For the most part, I found the interiors as oppressive as they are impressive (and was appalled by the repainted ceiling of the great dome, a terrible piece of work). The grounds, though, are full of wonders - and, in the house, there was a fascinating exhibition devoted to George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle. A friend and patron of many of the great names of late Victorian art, he was also an accomplished, if patchy, painter. Some of his portraits, and the oils he painted on his travels in India and the Middle East, are very fine.

And now I am back from my northern jaunt, as ever feeling better for having escaped the Great Wen and discovered that there's another England out there, a rather friendlier and more relaxed one.