Monday 31 October 2011


This 'cashless society' lark is developing into one of life's minor, but intense, irritations. Popping into one of those little M&S take-away outlets this lunchtime, I was expecting to be in and out in no time with my sandwich - but no! Every single person ahead of me paid with plastic - and none of them was buying anything more than a single sandwich. Even the fastest card machine is a whole lot slower than a simple cash handover, and the cumulative effect is to slow things down dramatically. Who are these people that they don't carry a couple of quid in cash on them? (I didn't recognise any of them as members of the royal family.) And why do retailers allow card payments for the paltriest sums, thereby ensuring slower service for all? Ah progress, progress...

Sunday 30 October 2011

Sweet Mediocrity

One of the functions of our national church is to keep us amused, to add to the gaiety of the nation - and on that score, it's been doing a great job lately by making such a complete horlicks of dealing with the 'Occupy London' protest outside St Paul's. Heaven knows what will happen next - the proposed Ring of Prayer sounds like fun - but no doubt the situation will continue to be managed with the professionalism and finesse (hem hem) we've come to expect from the dear old C of E. For myself, I'm happy to live in a country where the church is so well-meaningly hopeless, so shambolic, so paralysed by its internal contradictions and a fatal impulse to niceness; it expresses something rather attractive in the national character, and is greatly preferable to the alternative. Imagine a briskly efficient, sure-footed, ruthlessly effective national church - a horrible thought, and most unEnglish. We should surely cherish what George Herbert called 'the sweet mediocrity of our native church'.

Friday 28 October 2011


The Venetian artist known as Canaletto was born on this day in 1697. His beautiful early painting, A Stonemason's Yard (above) is one of the lesser delights of the National Gallery. But for myself - speaking as an ardent lover of Venice - I find most of his later, more developed view paintings oddly unexpressive of what is so magically different about that city; Canaletto - unlike the bolder, freer Guardi - could be painting anywhere. Indeed the Canaletto style proved equally applicable to London and other English scenes when he came over here (having long been popular with English milords and Grand Tourists). It wasn't so much that he made London look like Venice, or Venice look like London - more that he made everywhere look like a Canaletto painting. During his English years his style became so tired and mechanical that the connoisseur George Vertue accused him of being an impostor. So poor Canaletto had to stage public painting demonstrations to prove that he was indeed Canaletto. He had come a long way from the Stonemason's Yard.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Too Boring and Complicated

Today the Eurozone leaders seem to have fooled the markets into thinking they've cracked it this time, so let's hope things quieten down on the crisis front for a while now. In all the vast sea of media coverage and comment that has spread like an oilslick around this slow-motion catastrophe, one piece - which I came across yesterday - stands out in its refreshing candour. He's right, but I don't suppose it will stop the commentariat continuing to mystify and stupefy us on a grand scale until the whole ghastly business finally unravels.

I Am Not A Number! Hang On, Maybe I Am...

Thanks to this fine little timewaster, I now 'know' that I was the 2,518,495,377th person on Earth when I was born, and the 75,635,268,976th person to have lived 'since history began'. Thank you, BBC - and thank you too for the wonderful report on last night's TV news in which a very excited man revealed, with the aid of the snazziest CGI graphics, effects and holograms, that the UN reckons the world population is about to hit seven billion, and by the end of the century (cue 3-D graph) could hit 16 billion - though, on the other hand (cue another 3-D graph), it could fall to six billion. At which point the studio began to fill with computer-generated 'people' and my will to live drained quietly away...

Wednesday 26 October 2011


Talking of death, I'm at it again in The Dabbler.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

RIP The Indestructible Cat

Sadly, I have to report that Scruffy, the Indestructible Cat, who earlier this year staged a miraculous comeback from presumed death, is no more. Last weekend her epilepsy worsened, with a succession of terrible fits (nightmarish to witness, but from which she bounced back with admirable aplomb) against which her medication proved powerless. We were forced to take the hard decision and take her to the vet for that last injection. She had a happy, mercifully fit-free, last morning in the sun - it was the very end of the great Indian Summer - and a wonderfully peaceful end.
I warned her the last time I wrote her obit, that I wasn't going to do it again - so I shall simply 'reprint' it here:

'Scruffy - a name initially apt but quite inappropriate for the sleek svelte creature she became - was a small black cat with a ludicrously long tail. She made her first appearance in our lives 10 or 11 years ago, yowling piteously from the side return of our then house. How she got there we never knew, but she was clearly hungry, distressed and very frightened of all human contact. After a while desperation drove her to take food from us, but she was still extremely wary, and remained very highly strung long after we took her in, taking fright at the slightest thing and dashing away to her hiding places. The vet reckoned she was already three or four years old, and had clearly been someone's pet, before presumably being abandoned.

When, a few years later, we moved house to our present home, this proved altogether too traumatic an upheaval for Scruffy, who took off for several days, before being spotted, bedraggled and forlorn, hanging around the old house. My son and I managed to cajole her into a carrying box and took her, yowling and protesting, to her new home, where she spent the next few days mostly cowering in the cupboard under the stairs. However, as she got to know the new house, she became at last a much more relaxed cat. With a smaller garden to patrol, no enemies among the local cats, and a house full of cosy nooks and corners, she began to give every appearance of contentment - and to be much more relaxing company. She was also good comedy value, with her strange outbursts of kittenish skittering and her way of mistiming a jump onto a chair arm or a lap and being left dangling by one paw - she never quite mastered the art of retracting her claws. She and I would have many fine conversations, though admittedly I supplied all the words...

And now she has gone, and how we miss her... Every time I walk into the kitchen, I instinctively glance towards that octagonal window, still half expecting to see her familiar shape on the sill. I think I hear her plaintive miaow or the faint tinkle of her bell or the soft thud as she jumps down from basking on a warm radiator shelf. Or I fancy I glimpse her just on the edge of sight. In the morning she is no longer there waiting at the top of the stairs when I get up, stretching herself for a good long head-to-tail stroke from me, before skittering down the stairs ahead, with breakfast on her mind...'

It was written in an infinitely sadder context, but Jon Silkin's line perfectly describes the sense of loss: 'Something has ceased to come along with me.'

Sun and Rain

Earlier today, I was munching a thoughtful sandwich in the shelter of a cherry tree while a few spots of rain fell unthreateningly and the sun fitfully shone. As I stood to brush the crumbs from my coat and go on my way, I spotted a tiny bird, unconcernedly foraging in the near branches, an arm's length from me - a goldcrest! Something very like this happened to me two years ago, to similar cheering effect. What followed completed the sense of something special having happened. The rain strengthened, and simultaneously the sun came fully out. Suddenly, for a moment, every passer-by was smiling, taking pleasure in the fine rain and sunlight and the prospect of a rainbow - and there it was, low and flat, just above the roofline. And then it really started raining...

'Quite an Accomplished Baker'

I found this item - which came to me via Frank Wilson and Dave Lull - strangely cheering. There's something about the image of Emily Dickinson in an apron working up a healthy glow as she gets to work on her cake mixture (no food processors then) while the oven heats up... I wonder which other great writers might have made good bakers - apart, of course, from Mr Kipling with his exceedingly good cakes. My cousin suggests Emily Bronte - 'given the right ingredients'. Charlotte too was probably a safe pair of hands in the kitchen. I doubt George Eliot could bake a cake...

Sunday 23 October 2011

Augustus: Depth of Field

Having read and raved about John Williams's Stoner and Butcher's Crossing - the latter of which has haunted me and grown in my imagination ever since I finished it - I couldn't resist the opportunity to read the third of his acknowledged novels (a fourth he more or less disowned), Augustus. This is a 'historical novel' in much the same way that Stoner is a 'campus novel' and Butcher's Crossing a 'western' - i.e. it is something greater, stranger and vastly more accomplished than the run of its genre. And it is, of course, quite unlike Stoner or Butcher's Crossing - to the point where you'd hardly know it was by the same author (an author one of whose gifts is to remain resolutely absent from his works).
Augustus tells the story of the life and reign of Octavius, the unpromising youth who became Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. A rich, complex picture of Octavius and his world is built up, mosaic-style, by Williams's deft use of (fictional) letters, memoranda, personal writings and official communications. Some of these - and this is the key to the depth of field that gives Augustus its special quality - are contemporaneous, while others look back over years, decades even. The writers range from unfamiliar (and invented) figures all the way to the great names of Augustan Rome, including Virgil, Ovid and Horace. Williams's gift for clear-eyed characterisation, for imaginatively entering into his creations, keeps a wide range of characters and their often conflicted motives fully alive and individuated across the stretch of a sweeping historical narrative. This is a tremendous achievement - I can't recall another historical novel with so many voices issuing from so many convincingly realised characters, great and small.
Octavius himself, by contrast, comes to life largely in the accounts of others - he is the observed of all observers. We share the initial bewilderment of those around him as they are forced to acknowledge an extraordinary, almost superhuman force of character in the withdrawn, apparently negligible youth who initially crosses their path. Eventually he is the hub around which the world revolves, a brilliantly intelligent manipulator, an expert thwarter of conspiracies, a man capable of the utmost ruthlessness if it is called for. The exalted position of Emperor and the power and responsibility that go with it seem to hollow him out as a man, and we learn more of him from his actions than from his own testimony - until, in one sustained and moving final passage that (all but) closes the book, the dying Augustus speaks at length in his own voice, looking back over his life and all it has demanded of him, and finding at last a kind of rest.
If the book has a flaw, it is (I think) that we get rather too much of Julia's account of her life - Julia, Augustus's beloved daughter whom he banished into exile for reasons of state. Her voice I found the least compelling and the least convincing in the book - as if Williams hadn't quite managed to inhabit her, to feel what it was like to be Julia. Maybe that's just a personal reaction on my part... Anyway it does little or nothing to detract from Augustus's stature as a historical novel of quite extraordinary skill, depth and imaginative power.

Friday 21 October 2011


Just to alert my regulars - it seems the End of the World (an event delayed from May 21) will take place today, so I hope your affairs are in order. It's been fun...
Of course there's an outside chance it might not happen. Apocalypse fanciers will need no reminding that tomorrow, October 22, is the anniversary of the Great Disappointment, when in 1844 Jesus Christ rather discourteously missed an appointment with William Miller and his followers. Wikipedia tells the sorry tale here. Today, I suspect, will be at most the Mild Disappointment.

Thursday 20 October 2011

The Joy of Pylons

One of the incidental pleasures of hurtling through France on a TGV is the sight of all those fine pylons marching past. They are so various, so charming, so French, so unlike our own unvarying, sternly utilitarian pylons. The French style in the picture, with its suggestion of a feline or Flookish face sweetly snoozing, is a favourite, and it's often complemented by a much more masculine, broad-shouldered model, suggestive of a muscle-man holding weights in either hand. No such fun with our British pylons - but now, it seems, we're going to get some new designs. A competition has been under way, and the winning entry, a Danish design, is really rather elegant - an army of those marching across the landscape would not offend the eye. However, I don't like the look of the Totem design that is also under consideration - it smacks of the notorious perforated Olympic torch...

Wednesday 19 October 2011

First-Person Bookers

On last night's BBC News, our old friend Will Gompertz - ever the dangerous outsider, a man living on the edge, playing by his own rules - reported from the black-tie Booker Prize dinner in his trademark open-to-the-chest shirt and jeans (let's hope he'd been thrown out and was standing in the street). He brought us the shock news (hem hem) that Julian Barnes had won, at the fourth attempt, with The Sense of an Ending, a work described by the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, as 'a beautifully written book that speaks to humankind in the 21st century'. Martin Amis was unavailable for comment... Our Will delivered his usual string of consensual banalities, and played us a dispiriting clip of Barnes reading from his masterwork - but Gompertz's report included one interesting tidbit: all six of this year's Booker finalists were written in the first person. Why is it that today's novelists are so helplessly attracted to the first-person mode? Is it that they daren't risk the distancing effect (however slight) of the third person? Do they believe it is more 'vivid'? Is it a publisher's fad? Or is it just that, for a writer of limited imaginative powers, the first person is just, well, easier?

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Most Relaxing?

They say it's the 'most relaxing music ever' - which seems a large claim. Having heard some of it on the radio last night, I suspect they might be blurring the fine line between 'relaxing' and 'stupefyingly boring' (as in, for example, Enya - number 4 in the Top Ten at the end of that piece). The definition of 'relaxing' here is narrowly physiological, based on heart rate, brain activity (or inactivity), etc - and of course no account is taken of musical merit. Great music that could be classified as 'relaxing' is relaxing in a far more profound way, relaxing our grip on the things of this world and easing us into a weightless realm of fictive beauty, where nothing holds us but the music. Something, perhaps, like this...

Monday 17 October 2011

Over There

I see I've turned up again in Dabbler Country, via the Piccadilly Line.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Perhaps College Isn't for Everyone

The young till jockey in my local supermarket - nice chap, hard-working, obliging - was chatting to a customer as he scanned her purchases. He was telling her he was getting nowhere looking for another job - applications not even acknowledged etc, a familiar story - and that he was thinking of going to college. As she worked at the local college (or university or whatever it is these days, I lose touch), she suggested helpfully that, next time she came in, she'd give him a prospectus. He thanked her and she went on her way. A moment later, he turned to his colleague at the next till. 'What was all that about?' he inquired. 'What's a prospectus?'

A Surprising Comparison

It was a second visit to Nimes, and the place seemed even more wonderful than last time (the unbroken autumn sun helped). With its extraordinary Roman remains and 18th-century waterworks, fascinating ancienne ville, fine restaurants and beautiful shady terraced gardens rich in bird life, butterflies and red squirrels, surely Nimes is one of France's most delightful small cities. Not, it seems, to all. In one of those fine restaurants, we got talking to a young local couple dining at the next table (their English was good) and the young fellow couldn't speak too highly of London, which he'd visited just once, flying in via Luton airport. London, he declared, was the finest city on earth - he absolutely loved it. But what of Nimes? we protested - Isn't this a wonderful city? Nimes? he replied, as if surprised at the suggestion. Oh no, he declared, Nimes is like Luton.

Monday 10 October 2011


I'm back from Normandy, but only to turn on a sixpence and head off again, this time to Nimes, by rail - we leave early tomorrow. I see that another of my Oxfam book finds lives again on The Dabbler - maybe something else will pop up while I'm off in the sunny (I hope) South...
As ever, the trip to Normandy was a reminder of how large, various and variously wonderful the country is - also, this time, of how much has survived the most appalling bouts of destruction, both self-inflicted (internal wars and the bloody Revolution) and external (two hideously destructive world wars). I had never visited Caen before, and was amazed how much more there was of the old town than I'd imagined. I'd thought there'd be nothing left after all those bombs but the cathedral and a few scattered remnants, but no - the castle and its outer defences are still monumentally present, along with large numbers of fine churches of one kind and another, and great tracts of the ancienne ville. Still more amazing is Falaise, site of the some of the most ferocious fighting and relentless bombardment of the last War: though much of the centre is rebuilt (rather well, if a little blandly), the indestructible castle where William the Bastard was born still looms hugely over the town, where the two grandest churches survive, along with many other old buildings and great stretches of the massive town walls.
Then there was Sees (there should be an acute accent on that first e) - a gem of a town, seemingly quite untouched by the general destruction and largely undiscovered by tourists. The Abbey is utterly beautiful, rather like a small-scale Amiens in its purity of line... We also visited the 'Norman Alps', as they're half-seriously called - the Alpes Mancelles - taking a look around Saint Ceneri-le-Gerei (acute on first e), an achingly picturesque riverside village much frequented in its day by painters and poets, with a wall-painted medieval church (disfigured, when we visited, by a truly terrible display of modern 'art') and the saint's little hermitage chapel, where he slept on a thoroughly unsuitable lump of stone...
But enough - I'm off again. Au revoir, amis!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Et maintenant...

- or rather in the unthinkably small hours of tomorrow morning - I am off to Normandy for a few days of walking, conviviality and flaneuring around. A bientot, mes amis!

From the Tabard Inn to the long looked for 'American Novel'

So there I was (again) browsing the bookshelves of the Oxfam shop when my eye was caught by a rather handsome binding and the enigmatic title D'Ri and I, 1812. This was clearly not the date of the book, so I opened it to find out more, and was immediately arrested by the delightful bookplate - the Tabard Inn Library - and the owner's name written on the flyleaf with an address in Bedford Park (the west London garden suburb). Aha, I thought - so the Tabard Inn in Bedford Park (which I visited recently) had a lending library. How very Bedford Park... I was of course quite wrong, for this Tabard Inn Library ('With all the Red Tape on the Box') was 'under the business management of The Booklovers' Library', whose office address was given as 1030 Chestnut St, Philadelphia (in this - and in not having an accession number - my bookplate differs from the one pictured).
Intrigued, I looked up the Tabard Inn Library online and found this account of the enterprise. What's more, Tabard Inn revolving bookcases are, it seems, very collectible antiques. And no connection whatsoever with Bedford Park. Besides, the Tabard on the bookplate is clearly the Southwark inn from which Chaucer's pilgrims set off...
As for the book, it's subtitled 'A Tale of Daring Deeds in the Second War with the British, being the Memoirs of Colonel Ramon Bell, U.S.A', by Irving Bacheller, published by Lothrop of Boston in 1901, with sepia illustrations all too characteristic of the period and genre by F.C. Yohn. I must confess I had not heard of Irving Bacheller, but - as his Wikipedia entry makes clear - he was a considerable figure in newspaper publishing and journalism (particularly instrumental in the success of Stephen Crane), as well as a very popular novelist. D'Ri and I is 'a tale of adventurous and rugged pioneers', a stirring heady mix of riproaring action, straightforward jollity and easygoing romance. Bacheller even finds space for this saucy roundelay - a kissing game - which he prints complete with melody:
'Oh, happy is th' miller who lives by himself!
As th' wheel goes round, he gathers in 'is wealth,
One hand on the hopper and the other on the bag;
As the wheel goes round, he cries out "Grab!"
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this,
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this,
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this -
To stay all night for one sweet kiss?
Oh,' etc.
D'Ri, by the way, is the nickname of Darius, a rugged pioneer if ever there was one. He is companion, friend and mentor to the young Ramon, and speaks in a picturesque accent, which (in the manner of the time) is laboriously transliterated, to tiresome effect. D'Ri and I is the follow-up to Bacheller's biggest success, Eben Holden. This one is advertised in the endpapers of D'Ri and I: 'The most American of recent novels, it has indeed been hailed as the long looked for "American Novel".' Eat your heart out, Jonathan Frantzen, Don DeLillo - Bacheller got there first.

Laughing on the Train

Yesterday I was in my spiritual second home, the Derbyshire dales, where my cousin and I spent the afternoon enjoying the most spectacularly picturesque of them all - Dovedale (where we were greeted on arrival by a fine Red Admiral, posing to advantage on a sycamore leaf -but enough of Admirals)... On the train on the way back, I noticed a chap sitting diagonally opposite me on the other side of the gangway reading a book. Every few paragraphs, it seemed, he would be overcome by helpless laughter, rocking with delighted mirth. He wasn't guffawing or braying embarrassingly, just hugely enjoying himself. That must be one funny book, I thought, idly glancing across from time to time. What could it be, this riproaring ribtickler? A Wodehouse perhaps, even a Tom Sharpe?... And then I caught sight of the title: it was Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage. Now, this is a very fine novel - I wrote about it here - but a riproaring ribtickler it is not, by any stretch. I fear the chap on the train probably belongs to that class of eccentrics I used to come across in my reference library days, who would take down, say, the Port of London Tide Tables from the shelf and read them closely with every sign of enjoyment, laughing merrily at who knows what 'jokes' visible only to them.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Admirals Again

Is it an Indian summer? Strictly not - indeed it's too early to qualify even as St Luke's Little Summer - but whatever it is, the heat continues, the skies are still blue and perfectly cloudless and the sun shines down on us here in the South of England. After the dismal summer it is more than welcome, and especially so to those of us who love our butterflies and thought we had probably seen our last of the year (bar the odd flushed hibernator) back in the grey cold of mid-September. Speckled Woods - which seem to thrive whatever the English summer throws at them - are still flying, and yesterday I saw (as well as Small and Large Whites) a bright Brimstone and a couple of passing Peacocks. But once again the stars of this Indian (or not) summer are the Red Admirals - and not tired, tattered, end-of-season specimens, but fine, fresh ones, full of energy. Yesterday on Ashtead Common, one was careering around an oak tree as if he were a Purple Emperor defending his tree. Then later, at the very point of my leaving the common to head home, right beside the gate, a fine Red Admiral suddenly flew up from the path and landed on my calf, perching on my trousering (beige cotton, since you ask) and unfurling his proboscis to taste a speck of something that seemed to be to his fancy. This beautiful close-up lasted for some minutes, until the Admiral tired of it, flew off in a small quick circuit, then landed back on the path at my feet, where I watched him for several minutes more. It was almost a replay of my Purple Emperor encounter, on the same common back in June, and it would have seemed fitting if this was my last butterfly of the season. But it wasn't - as I got off the train, there, charging around at speed, in and out of the station shop, was another beautiful indomitable bright Red Admiral.