Wednesday 30 November 2011

Adopt Late, If At All...

Rather a good piece here on the many and various virtues of being a late adopter (and a mender) - and here's another, more sobering piece about the hidden cost of all this endless upgrading. Needless to say, I am a very tardy adopter myself (if I bother adopting at all - I certainly feel no urge to own a games console or a large-screen TV). For my listening pleasure when I'm on the move, I am happy to rely on a teaplate-sized CD Walkman and a chunky radio-cassette player, both of which earn me bemused or pitying looks on the train. I have my beloved MacBook of course, and a decent digital camera, but these were both bought for me, and I've yet to learn how to download, or upload or whatever it is, pictures from the camera (must get round to that). When it comes to mobile phones, I am more than satisfied with my 'design classic' Siemens A62 (which I got for, I think, £6.99 on eBay). Oddly - in a reversal of the normal state of affairs - my primitive machine now looks strangely small compared to a modern iPhone. Rather elegant, in fact...

Tuesday 29 November 2011

'A life beyond the grave of contemporary reputation...'

I've remarked before on the ludicrously extravagant praises heaped on mediocre, so-what fiction by today's reviewers. However, one thing they rarely do is predict a long life and enduring high reputation for the books they're puffing. Perhaps they are held back by some residual sense of proportion, even honesty, as they must know that, even in good times, only a tiny proportion of fiction lasts - and, in times like ours... Well, it's hard to imagine anything much from the past 20 years of English fiction lasting long.
Things were different in the interwar years, where it was a commonplace of criticism to declare which books would stand the test of time and still be read by future generations - and reviewers were pretty bold about it. Here's Desmond MacCarthy on Logan Pearsall Smith's All Trivia:
'I agree with those reviewers who have predicted for it a life beyond the grave of contemporary reputation. It is the sort of bibelot that Father Time often keeps on the mantelpiece when he changes the furniture in the house...' [they don't write them like that any more]
And here's Robert Lynd on the same subject: 'Many good critics believe that this is one of the few books of our time that will still be read a generation hence.'
Another writer who attracted confident predictions of literary immortality was Ivy Compton-Burnett. Here's Norman Shrapnel in The Guardian:
'Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure...'
And here's David Holloway in the Telegraph: 'It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels will be discussed a century hence.'
Dangerous indeed it is. Ivy Compton-Burnett's works are mostly out of print (scandalously), while Waugh posthumously thrives - as does the great comic novelist Shrapnel doesn't mention, P.G. Wodehouse. As for Logan Pearsall Smith - Father Time seems to have got out of the habit of keeping bibelots on the mantelpiece... Still, these were honest critics' assessments of writers' true worth - unlike so much that is written in the review columns these days.

Monday 28 November 2011

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

I see that over on The Dabbler I'm offering some thoughts on dressing for the country. Commenters have adroitly switched the subject to cycling attire - long a national scandal and offence to the eye. Here's how to dress if you're riding a bicycle - exactly as if you're not riding a bicycle at all, just walking about being effortlessly stylish. Not a trace of Spandex or Lycra here, and not a single helmet. As so often, the Danes show us the way...

Sunday 27 November 2011

Hilary Hahn

The startlingly young American violinist Hilary Hahn is 32 today. Her recording of the great Bach Chaconne is one that I listen to again and again, and it never palls. Here it is (and you can segue smoothly into part two if you're quick)... Thank you Hilary - and Happy Birthday!

Saturday 26 November 2011

An Unfortunate Find

Having just finished Penelope Fitzgerald's superb joint biography, The Knox Brothers, I was browsing online seeking to find out a little more about Ronald Knox's own favourite of his books (though oddly unmentioned by PF), Enthusiasm - and so it was that I came across this extraordinary outpouring of bile, written when the poor man was barely cold in his grave. There's the true Xtian spirit if you like - and it would seem my friend the Galway Cyclops is not the only one with firm views on Masons (and, of course, 'their Jewish progenitors')...

Thursday 24 November 2011

Birdsong and Heroes

Having been hit by a thoroughly unpleasant 'cold', I've been awake rather a lot lately in the small hours, and I find that the birds are singing more lustily than ever, kicking off around 2am and keeping going, with occasional pauses, till sunrise. It still seems very odd, but I suppose it will be taken for granted by future generations of town dwellers.
Meanwhile, after reading the obituary of the interesting poet Peter Reading, who died last week, I followed a link and found this altogether extraordinary chap. At a time when members of the armed forces are referred to generically as 'heroes', it's good to be reminded of the real thing. And read to the end for his prophetic words about 'Europe'...

Shakespeare Got There First

I was interested to see this - and to hear the good doctor on the radio early this morning... Was Shakespeare a 'pioneer of psychosomatic research'? Hardly. It's more that - as I've always maintained - all you need to know about being human, about our inward and outward lives, is contained in his works. If you needed to explain to an alien race looking on from some distant galaxy what human beings are, you could do no better than to refer them to those works, which tell far more than any science-based descriptions of us. Science - especially the dubious science of psychology - limps along behind Shakespeare, picking up scraps. He was there first, and he went in deeper than any psychologist.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Balls Gets Teary

In these lachrymose times, it seems that the defining question interviewers ask of Famous People is becoming 'What makes you cry?' Ed Balls is the latest to reveal to a startled world what tickles his tear ducts, and it seems that Balls, like most thugs, has a sentimental streak. The Sound of Music, he claims, makes him cry - as do those moments on Antiques Roadshow when the expert reveals that the unconsidered trifle bought for a song is in fact a treasure worth a king's ransom. Perhaps this explains the Balls-Brown approach to the nation's economy - all along they were convinced that one day something would turn up in the attic worth so much that they could pay off all those debts. Picture them falling into each other's arms, weeping with helpless joy...
There was a time when the defining question was 'What do you believe?' In her wonderful biography of The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald recalls that in the Twenties, a time when the press had a great hunger for celebrities, 'another use for Famous People, so popular that it amounted to mania, was the collection of their opinions about God - 'What I Believe'. Everyone was asked, from Bertrand Russell to the excavators of Tutankhamun's tomb. Eddie [PF's journalist father] contributed to this in Punch by claiming to have interviewed Steve Donoghue, the champion jockey, and getting the reply: 'I have always been conscious, especially at the finish of a race, that Good and Evil are Relative Notions, and Sin is a Mere Negative', while Jack Hobbs is said to have smiled quietly at the scant interest his fellow batsmen took in eschatology...'

Monday 21 November 2011

'Push, pull, squat, brace...'

I suppose it had to happen - there's a call for mandatory testing in PE (or, as it's inventively called here, 'physical literacy') in all schools. Hmm... In my experience, PE was less a 'subject' than a regime of physical pain and humiliation, overseen by chippy sadists with more or less repressed homosexual urges. My finest hour on the PE front came when, with a friend, I managed to duck under the radar and avoid PE classes for a whole term - no mean feat in a regimented, sport-fixated school. We passed our time agreeably in a nearby cafe, smoking, drinking tea and discussing the profounder meanings embedded in Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde - much healthier pursuits for a growing lad than all that 'push, pull, squat, brace, rotate, accelerate and change of direction'. Our absence was eventually noticed, and I was summoned to the deputy head's office for a telling-off, but as I peered through the fog of tobacco smoke and observed his impressively yellowed fingers, I could tell that his heart wasn't really in it...
If schools want to teach 'physical literacy', they should switch to Pilates and yoga.

Saturday 19 November 2011


I think these chaps are rather amazing... Cahalen puts me in mind of The Band's Garth Hudson in the early days (miniaturised of course). And I love the affectionate rapport between them. Enjoy!

Friday 18 November 2011

Non-hydrating Water

After long study, the finest minds of Europe have decreed that water is quite powerless against dehydration. It is only a matter of time before they declare that breathing is of no proven benefit to health. Or that the Euro has been a resounding success - no, hang on, they've already declared that one...

Thursday 17 November 2011

Looking at Things the Kim Jong Il Way

I'm not quite sure why, but I find this pictorial blog very funny. Ever since Team America demonstrated his comedy potential, it's been hard to keep a straight face whenever the Dear Leader hoves into view (despite the fact that he is one of the world's prime murderous bastards). Back in the days when Kim Il Sung was the Dear Leader and I was a librarian, I used to enjoy the North Korean propaganda magazines that were sent, I believe, to every library in the land. Badly printed, written in often impenetrable 'English' and illustrated with grey photos of the Dear Leader amid rapturously smiling citizens, they looked forward confidently to the day when the rest of the world would come round to the North Korean way of creating an Earthly Paradise. Funny that never happened.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Toast Sandwich

The rediscovery of the toast sandwich - a slice of toast between two slices of bread - put me in mind of Woody Allen's chronicle of the Earl of Sandwich's painstaking discovery of the sandwich (written back in the days when he could be quite funny). I take up the story with the Earl's university days...

1736: Enters Cambridge University, at his parents' behest, to
pursue studies in rhetoric and metaphysics, but displays little
enthusiasm for either. In constant revolt against everything academic,
he is charged with stealing loaves of bread and performing unnatural
experiments with them. Accusations of heresy result in his expulsion.
1738: Disowned, he sets out for the Scandinavian countries, where
he spends three years in intensive research on cheese. He is much
taken with the many varieties of sardines he encounters and writes in
his notebook, "I am convinced that there is an enduring reality,
beyond anything man has yet attained, in the juxtaposition of
foodstuffs. Simplify, simplify." Upon his return to England, he meets
Nell Smallbore, a greengrocer's daughter, and they marry. She is to
teach him all he will ever know about lettuce.
1741: Living in the country on a small inheritance, he works day
and night, often skimping on meals to save money for food. His first
completed work — a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a
slice of turkey on top of both — fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed,
he returns to his studio and begins again.
1745: After four years of frenzied labor, he is convinced he is on
the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of
turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all
but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and
encourages him. Heartened by the philosopher's friendship, he
returns to work with renewed vigor.
1747: Destitute, he can no longer afford to work in roast beef or
turkey and switches to ham, which is cheaper.
1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecu-
tive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest,
mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains
unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his
reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for
by Voltaire.
1751: Journeys to France, where the dramatist-philosopher has
achieved some interesting results with bread and mayonnaise. The
two men become friendly and begin a correspondence that is to end
abruptly when Voltaire runs out of stamps.
1758: His growing acceptance by opinion-makers wins him a
commission by the Queen to fix "something special" for a luncheon
with the Spanish ambassador. He works day and night, tearing up
hundreds of blueprints, but finally—at 4:17 A.M., April 27, 1758 — he
creates a work consisting of several strips of ham enclosed, top and
bottom, by two slices of rye bread. In a burst of inspiration, he
garnishes the work with mustard. It is an immediate sensation, and
he is commissioned to prepare all Saturday luncheons for the
remainder of the year.
1760: He follows one success with another, creating "sandwiches,"
as they are called in his honor, out of roast beef, chicken, tongue, and
nearly every conceivable cold cut. Not content to repeat tried
formulas, he seeks out new ideas and devises the combination
sandwich, for which he receives the Order of the Garter.
1769: Living on a country estate, he is visited by the greatest men
of his century; Haydn, Kant, Rousseau and Ben Franklin stop at his
home, some enjoying his remarkable creations at table, others
ordering to go.
1778: Though aging physically he still strives for new forms and
writes in his diary, "I work long into the cold nights and am toasting
everything now in an effort to keep warm." Later that year, his open
hot roast-beef sandwich creates a scandal with its frankness.
1783: To celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, he invents the
hamburger and tours the great capitals of the world personally,
making burgers at concert halls before large and appreciative
audiences. In Germany, Goethe suggests serving them on buns — an
idea that delights the Earl, and of the author of Faust he says, "This
Goethe, he is some fellow." The remark delights Goethe, although the
following year they break intellectually over the concept of rare,
medium and well done.
1790: At a retrospective exhibition of his works in London, he is
suddenly taken ill with chest pains and is thought to be dying, but
recovers sufficiently to supervise the construction of a hero sandwich
by a group of talented followers. Its unveiling in Italy causes a riot,
and it remains misunderstood by all but a few critics.
1792: He develops a genu varum, which he fails to treat in time,
and succumbs in his sleep. He is laid to rest in Westminster Abbey,
and thousands mourn his passing.
At his funeral, the great German poet Holderlin sums up his
achievements with undisguised reverence: "He freed mankind from
the hot lunch. We owe him so much."

The Knight of the Plastic Window

The 'home improvement' company called Anglian - plastic windows and so very much more - occasionally telephone me at home. It's surprising how often they happen to be in the area and on the lookout for homes in which to fit their plastic windows at a special reduced rate. Surprising, too, how often I fill in consumer surveys then clean forget all about having done so. If I allow the conversation to proceed, they will ask how many windows I would, in an ideal world, have replaced with plastic - one? Two? Three? Four? 'Sir/madam,' I reply, 'in an ideal world I would at this moment be reclining in the sun on a bed of wild thyme surrounded by nectaring blue butterflies...' Actually I don't of course - I've usually hung up with a polite 'Thank you' before they've so much as shown their hand. But now I understand Anglian's persistence. Anglian Home Improvements are 'on a home improvement crusade'. I saw one of their vans this morning (in the area again! What are the chances?) and there it was, proudly emblazoned on the side: 'Anglian Home Improvements. On a home improvement crusade.' This mission statement was illustrated by a large image of a vaguely medieval-looking warrior type on a warlike prancing steed. Needless to say, no Christian iconography was to be seen - no red cross on a white ground here, but a vague inverted V, white on blue. This blue knight is on a decidedly cross-free crusade. In an ideal world, indeed, it would be better called a 'fenestrade'. And so very much more.

Tuesday 15 November 2011


Suppose that, back in 1948, you had to tell someone involved in the London Olympics that, the next time our capital city hosted the Games - comfortably within a lifetime - surface-to-air missiles would be deployed in the interest of Olympic security. If you managed to convince them that this was true (and it would be hard), they would surely conclude that, in the intervening 64 years, the Olympics in particular and the world in general had gone stark, staring mad. And they would be right.


You'll find me over on the Dabbler writing about a formative volume from my childhood...

Monday 14 November 2011

A Knox and The Housman

I'm reading The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald's affectionate biography of her father and his three brothers, all of them extraordinarily gifted men. It's a brilliant piece of work that brings its subjects vividly alive - beautifully written, of course, but also hugely entertaining. This passage, about her classicist uncle Dilwyn (Dilly) and A.E. Housman, who encountered each other at Cambridge, had me laughing out loud...

'Housman, too, could be allowed to understand English metre. The three-stress rhythm of Is My Team Ploughing affected Dilly so much that he bit right through the amber mouthpiece of his pipe, which was heard by those in the rooms below him to crash to the ground...
His Fellowship dissertation had been on the prose rhythms of Thucydides; his argument was said to be unacceptable but so clever that nobody could contradict it. Then he returned to Greek poetry. Mr Ian Cunningham, a recent editor of Herodas [Dilwyn's speciality], writes:
'He discovered, more or less simultaneously with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, modern classical scholars, U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, what is now known as the Wilamowitz-Knoxian bridge. This is a highly technical point of Greek metre. A bridge is a point in the verse where word-end is forbidden. This one relates to the iambic trimeter of the early period...'
To be remembered by a few because of a rule about a word that doesn't end in lines of poetry that scarcely anyone reads - if Dilly ever desired immortality, it would be of this kind. In Housman's words, all exact knowledge 'pushes back the frontiers of the dark' and consoles mankind for his discovery that 'he does not come from the high lineage he fancied nor will inherit the vast estate he looked for'.

I might be returning to this subject - The Knox Brothers, that is - not the Wilamowitz-Knoxian bridge.

Sunday 13 November 2011

First and Last

After much cloud and rain during the week, the sun appeared today (at least here in the Southeast) is no uncertain fashion, blazing down from an enamel blue sky, generating an almost summerlike heat - in mid-November! Walking on Ashtead Common, I thought this warmth would probably have brought out the odd late butterfly, and so it proved. I hadn't been there long when a Red Admiral swept past, flying strongly into the sun's dazzle, where I lost him. Then, a little later, beside the path, flying about a bramble patch, I spotted a Brimstone. It was a female - the wings that beautiful greenish tint, rather than the sulphur yellow of the male - and she settled for some while on a bramble leaf, wings closed, trembling as if in a wind, though there was none. After several minutes, she took off again, pottering about the bramble patch, never quite settling, then finally weaving away into the woods. She was probably my last butterfly of the year (though you never know when you're going to encounter a Red Admiral). If so, a year that began with a Brimstone falling like an autumn leaf ends, fittingly, with a Brimstone rising from an autumn leaf and flying away...
Later, as I left the common, I saw - and heard- my first Fieldfares of the year. A party of half a dozen of these beautiful winter visitors were flying noisily from tree to tree - and wondering, no doubt, what has happened to the British weather.

Friday 11 November 2011

William Matthews

Last night, opening Don Paterson's anthology 101 Sonnets at random, I came across this beauty, by William Matthews, an American poet I had never encountered before (he died in his 50s in 1997, having never been fashionable). This sonnet, loosely Miltonic, vividly evokes (for me anyway) that awful bleak loneliness of the adolescent male (the boy 'in molt'). It's simply, often monosyllabically worded, but exquisitely crafted, and towards the end the conversational tone rises into a higher register - 'for I knew none by name among that hazy company' could be Edward Thomas - bringing the sonnet to a strong, sad finish.

CHEAP SEATS, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959

The less we paid, the more we climbed. Tendrils
of smoke lazed just as high and hung there, blue,
particulate, the opposite of dew.
We saw the whole court from up there. Few girls
had come, few wives, numerous boys in molt
like me. Our heroes leapt and surged and looped
and two night out of three, like us, they'd lose.
But 'like us' is wrong: we had no result
three nights out of three: so we had heroes.
And 'we' is wrong, for I knew none by name
among that hazy company unless
I brought her with me. This was loneliness
with noise, unlike the kind I had at home
with no clocks running down, and mirrors.

Intrigued by this, I dug out a couple more Matthews sonnets. Here's one taking a very different, disenchanted look back:


We talk about – what else? --- the old days.
It was time we complained about then:
“What’s your poison?” the barkeep would say,
and we all knew. Now we’re on the wagon,
which, these days, as then, doesn’t travel far.
How did the old joke go? “Driven to drink?
It’s only half a block. Why take the car?”
No way this was the road to hell – succinct,
unpaved, a scuffle of blurred dirt. We sat
like drowsy money in a bank, the mold
of interest growing on us, minus
some paltry fees, minus taxes, minus
the unexpected costs of growing old.
And then our ship came in, and we were it.

And here's one that will surely resonate with anyone whose working life is spent in an office:


Drab bickering, the empire dead and tax
reports alive, paperwork, erasure,
the grime on the philodendron leaves
since who tends everybody’s plant?
It’s the triumph of habit over appetite,
like comparing the stars to diamonds.
We make copies. We send out for food. Food
arrives. We have spats and tizzies and huffs.
Isn’t it great being grown up, having
a job? We get our work done more or less
and go home. How was it today? we’re asked
and don’t know what to say. It’s like wet soot,
like us, like what we feel: stuck on itself,
as, from here, starlight seems stuck to its star.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Review Alert

Over on The Dabbler, I review the new Clive James book.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Spare That Tree

'Please Don't Burn Me' said the notice tagged on to the tree (in fact, on to a whole row of trees) on Kensington High Street. Being a tender-hearted fellow unable to resist such an eloquent appeal for mercy, I set aside my flame thrower and read on. The notices are products of a campaign called, with admirable directness, Stop Burning Our Trees - and it's come not a moment too soon. How often have you stepped out in the morning with a song in your heart, only to find a blackened stump where once a proud tree stood in all its leafy glory? It seems they're burning our trees to fuel power stations (boo) instead of making tables (hurrah) which would 'lock up' carbon. So it would presumably be okay to make all our trees into tables - hmmm... In point of fact, wood is used very little in power generation, its burning generates 50-80 per cent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, and - what all these 'save our trees' campaigns always overlook - trees are an endlessly renewable resource. Still, hats off to SBOT for staying the hand of the Royal Borough, whose officials were no doubt on the point of torching its rather fine street trees without a second thought.

Is It a Fence?

I was delighted to discover that the world of fencing (as in enclosing, not thrusting and parrying) has been giving The X Factor a run for its money. Here, chosen from literally, er, tens of entries, is the winner of the competition that's set the fencing world ablaze - Fence Factor. It is a very fine piece of work, but I have to ask - is it a fence? It seems to achieve its effect, paradoxically, by a studied absence of fence. Playing subtle perceptual games with our expectations of opacity and transparency, it is perhaps inviting us to supply an ideal, a platonic fence, a fence of the mind. In this sense, its very evasion of fenceness achieves a kind of ultimate fenceness...
I recommend a look through the gallery of ten finalists too. They may not be much, but I'd sooner look at any one of them that look for one minute at The X Factor.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Byng's Bit of Cake

Just now I was reading about Douglas ('Bawdy but British') Byng - pantomime dame, camp cabaret act and master of the saucy comic song - when I discovered that he had composed his own epitaph. Finding himself living out his declining years in an Actors' Charitable Trust home, he wrote these lines, which I think show a fine spirit:
'So here you are, old Douglas, a derelict at last.
Before your eyes what visions rise of your vermillion past.
Mad revelry beneath the stars, hot clasping by the lake.
You need not sigh, you can't deny, you've had your bit of cake.'

The Man Who Was Thursday

I don't know why I had never got round to reading G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday - or, come to that, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I've now repaired the first omission - and great fun it has been. Subtitled 'A Nightmare' and generally classed as a 'metaphysical thriller', The Man Who Was Thursday seems at first to be an unusually high-spirited, but recognisable, Edwardian adventure story about a chap becoming a detective and infiltrating a dangerous circle of anarchists. But the chap is more poet than policeman, and it isn't long before things get rather too strange for any kind of conventional thriller. From the very beginning - in the suburb of Saffron Park, 'on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset' - the lighting effects are superbly lurid and dramatic, not quite of this world, indeed more like 'A Nightmare'. But it's a very jolly kind of nightmare, full of comic moments and sharp wit, and building up to an all-action climax (or pre-climax) built around an epic chase (Chesterton has a Kiplingesque relish for vigorous, even violent action - as well as, of course, food and drink).
It's hard to say much about the story without spoiling the fun for those who have not yet read it, or irking those who have. It is a book full of wise and wonderful observations and paradoxes, firmly on the side of Life, the real life of real humans, and savagely against inhuman - and godless - Ideas. And it is often very funny. Here's a passage that brilliantly ridicules what is wrong with a certain way of thinking - a way of thinking still all too prevalent among today's terrorists. An anarchist has got up to address the meeting:
'Comrades,' he began, as sharp as a pistol-shot, 'our meeting tonight is important, though it need not be long. This branch has always had the honour of electing Thursdays for the Central European Council. We have elected many and splendid Thursdays. We all lament the sad decease of the heroic worker who occupied the post until last week. As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organised the great dynamite coup of Brighton, which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you also know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygienic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow. Cruelty, or anything approaching to cruelty, revolted him always...'
GKC himself described The Man Who Was Thursday as 'a very melodramatic sort of moonshine', adding that it was 'intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion'. No doubt both are true - but it is also the most tremendous fun.

Monday 7 November 2011

Over at The Dabbler...

I'm on about blurb adjective inflation. It's a big, boiling post, vital, intense, unsettling and searingly honest.

Friday 4 November 2011

Roll Over, Beethoven

I received my musical education, such as it was, in an atmosphere of Beethoven Worship. The prevailing view was that the German Romantic composers represented the summit of musical creativity, that the symphony was the supreme musical form, and that Beethoven, the great symphonist, reigned as the God of Music. Around his throne were ranged the lesser genii, most of them stars of the same Germanic firmament. Italian, French - and especially English - music were rated considerably lower, and 'early music' was strictly for cranks. In my tender years I plunged headlong into the Beethoven symphonies (and the piano sonatas) and indeed became so obsessed with the great Ludwig that for some time I scarcely looked beyond his mighty oeuvre. Schubert and Purcell I knew only for a handful of charming songs, and Bach for a few popular gems. Now, all these years later, Schubert is one of the composers I love the most (and it's his 9th symphony that I'd have as my single Desert Island Disc), Bach is another, and Purcell, I suspect, is well on his way to becoming a third. It has taken me many years to get to Purcell, but now, finally, I am beginning to explore his music - and finding beauty and wonder at every turn. Was ever an English composer so prodigiously gifted? Did anyone ever put English words to music so exquisitely, so beautifully? (How about this? Or this?) And the songs are just a part of his enormous body of work (though he died at just 36) - I have so much more to explore... It took me far too long, but I am so glad that at last I am beginning to discover the greatness of our own Purcell.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Tulip Tree

Just now, between rain showers, I was admiring the avenue of Tulip Trees in Kensington Gardens, now at the peak of its autumn glory, the colours of the leaves ranging from late green, through bright yellow and gold, all the way to a rich russet bronze. A very fine tree is the Tulip Tree, shapely and good-looking in all seasons - and, as if its beautiful foliage weren't enough, it also flowers abundantly, with the large, yellow-green tulip-shaped blossoms that give the tree its name. But what's most wonderful is that the shape of the leaf, by a rare piece of morphic rhyming, also resembles the outline of... a tulip.

Wednesday 2 November 2011


... these pictures from the Ghosts Of Gone Birds exhibition that's on in Shoreditch - artists' visions of extinct birds. Some of them are lovely, I think - and some very funny (and some both).

100 Per Cent

From the train window I caught sight of a poster. It portrayed a chap in, I suppose, early middle age sitting at a desk looking important but approachable. A chap best described as one of life's smug gits. The legend ran thus: 'I ask my team for 100 per cent. If they give me more, that's good too.' I've no idea what it was advertising - perhaps a course in elementary arithmetic? But I thought what a wheeze it would be to get a copy and put it up over my Nigecorp desk. Then I thought, no, on the whole I'd prefer to see out my working life with my limbs still attached to my body...

Tuesday 1 November 2011


Sadly the suburban demiparadise I call home was in the news yesterday, for the worst of reasons - featuring in a report on vandalised war memorials.
A couple of weeks ago, the fine plain memorial that overlooks the ponds was stripped of the bronze plaques naming our war dead, prised out and taken for scrap (and probably worth no more than £50). Much can be said about the downward path from demystification to ethical relativism to moral nihilism - but what could more eloquently symbolise a culture where nothing is sacred than a vandalised war memorial? The depth of pain and outrage such an act inflicts on a community is beyond calculation - and sadly, in this case, the stripping of the brass was not the first act of desecration. Last year the York stone paving from around the memorial was laboriously jemmied up and carted away. Happily a local firm replaced the stones free of charge - an act demonstrating that, of course, all is not lost. Not yet. The brass will probably have to be replaced with stone plaques (of not too valuable stone) - just as, all over the country, churches are now obliged to replace the stolen lead on their roofs with something less attractive to passing scumbags. We must not despair.