Saturday 31 December 2011

The Year

It was the year of the Wedding - not that Kate and Wills affair (to which, owing to an unaccountable oversight, I wasn't invited) but this one. Technically it was not a wedding but a Blessing - and it certainly worked; first grandchild due in July! It was on the wedding morn that I saw my first swift of the year, the start of an unusually long swift summer, which lasted nearly to the end of August.
A poor butterfly summer though. After a glorious spring, the weather turned mostly dismal and inimical to my flying friends. But it began and ended well - and, thanks to one magical encounter, this year will live in my memory as the Year of the Emperor.
Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles was among the pleasures of another good reading year, in the course of which I journeyed through Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder, read one of the funniest books I've ever come across, marvelled again at John Williams, plunged into Richard Wilbur's poetry, read a strangely wonderful one-off, and- oh - much else...
Other highlights of the Nigeness year were the discovery of this wonder of the blogscape, the birth of a new prose form, and my long delayed discovery of the glories of Purcell. I look forward to hearing more and more Purcell in the new year - and I look forward to another year of blogging about this and that. To all who browse here I wish a very happy 2012 - or I would if that date hadn't been annexed by the London Olympiad junta. Happy New Year!

Friday 30 December 2011

The Fate of a Humorist

'A half truth, like half a brick, is always more forcible as an argument than a whole one. It carries better.'
The wise words above - whose truth is daily demonstrated in the blogosphere - were written by Stephen Leacock, economist and humorous writer, born on this day in 1869. In his heyday, the 1910s and Twenties, Leacock was probably the most famous humorist in the world, and one of the most famous writers - indeed it was said that more people had heard of Leacock than had heard of Canada (the country of his birth). But who now has heard of him? It seems Leacock's humour - like most humour - was of the kind that doesn't long outlast its time.
Oddly, I discovered a relic of Leacock's fame while looking through the books left behind by my old English teacher (and friend and mentor) when he died. There was a copy of Leacock's Nonsense Novels, in an edition from the 1920s, already in its umpteenth printing. It was a notably handsome volume, with jolly illustrations (by John Kettelwell), so I took it, but I must confess I haven't even attempted to read it. As Groucho Marx (a Leacock admirer) once wrote to a man who had sent him an unsolicited volume: 'I laughed from the moment I picked it up to the moment I put it down. One day I'll read it.'

Thursday 29 December 2011

'One large stage set...'

Among my most prized presents this Christmas were a bottle of 12-year-old Craigellachie (dangerously drinkable at 46%) and a book that I didn't even know existed - Edward Bawden's London (V&A Publishing, 2011). This handsome volume explores Bawden's life and work through his many depictions of London life and London locations. The life story throws up a few surprises - I didn't know, for example, that Bawden was on board the Laconia when it was torpedoed. Saved from drowning, he was adrift on an open boat for five days before being picked up by the Vichy cruiser La Gloire and interned in Morocco. The biggest surprise, though, was to learn that - far from being the genial, carefree, cheery character that his works suggest - Bawden (the product of a severely Methodistical upbringing) was a shy, socially awkward man who shunned company and preferred to shut himself away and work. His close friend Eric Ravilious - they met on their first day at the Royal College of Art and 'clicked' instantly - was the outgoing, gregarious one. It was as if Bawden somehow 'caught' Ravilious's good cheer and, unable to express it personally, expressed it in his art. He found his style early, and 'was to spend the next 66 years expanding and refining his technique, but never wavering in his belief that the world was one large stage set populated by slightly mad people whose antics continued to surprise not only himself but also the innocent birds, cats, ants and bees who had to share it with them'. So his very detachment from the world was also the source of his comic vision.
Beautifully produced and packed with good reproductions of linocuts, lithographs, engravings, drawings and much else, this is a book that every Bawden lover should seek out. It is also one of those volumes that you simply have to have in your hands (it even has pictorial boards, showing the Tower of London, under the dust jacket) - any electronic version would be a feeble simulacrum. Perhaps this is how the book (as codex) will survive in the age of the ebook - as a thing of beauty. Perhaps the coming of the electronic book will trigger a new golden age of book design... A pity the great Edward Bawden isn't still around to contribute to it.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

An Odd Winter

After the rigours of the pre-Christmas workstorm, it's really rather pleasant to return to the office after the festivities and enjoy the short lull between Christmas and the New Year. Part of the pleasure is in the relative quietness of London at this time - and especially the all but deserted commuter trains. I was enjoying the comfort of a quiet, roomy carriage as my train drew into Victoria this morning when, gazing out of the window as we neared the station, I saw - of all things - a row of sunflowers rising above a boundary wall in front of one of the less upmarket of the apartment blocks to the west of the line. And the sunflowers were in full bloom! I know the weather's been mild - but surely not that mild. And why hadn't I noticed them before? It is an odd winter, this one. A bumblebee flew past me on Boxing Day... Oh and yes, it was a very good Christmas - as I hope was yours.

Friday 23 December 2011

Happy Christmas

This year's Nigeness Christmas card is this Adoration of the Shepherds - a very beautiful, very Venetian treatment of the subject, probably by Giorgione but quite possibly by Titian. It comes with very best wishes to all who browse here for a Happy Christmas. For myself, I've already had one very special present - the news that our first grandchild is due to come into the world next July...
There should be a Christmas thought from me on tomorrow's Dabbler.
Meanwhile, Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

The Wired Bookworld

Over on The Dabbler, the redoubtable Jon Hotten asks, in a comment, if I deliberately held off from buying Muriel Spark's Memento Mori online when I could easily have done so for 1p. In that particular case, I did indeed hold off. After so many years of finding the charity shop bookshelves groaning with every other Spark title (if I had a penny for every Girls of Slender Means or Far Cry From Kensington I'd seen, I would be on my way to being a rich man), I was becoming mildly obsessed with the curiously absent Memento Mori and determined to track it down in what is surely its natural habitat. Eventually I did. But would I bother denying myself the instant gratification of online purchase for any other titles, or is that the last? My quest, after all, began way back in the pre-Amazon, pre-AbeBooks dark ages...
This question feeds into my mixed - conflicted even - feelings about online book buying. I love the ease and convenience - and, usually, cheapness - of it, and yet I hate that it's taken all the excitement out of book searching. I know with a deadening certainty that there are very few titles indeed that I couldn't find and purchase online, sometimes with a little patience, but usually with no more than a few keystrokes. Where's the fun in that? Where's the pleasure of deferred gratification? The only game left in this wired bookworld is finding the book I want at a lower price than I could get it for online - and this can be done, even with the famous 1p books on Amazon, 1p usually translating as £2.76. However, saving the odd 77p is hardly a thrill worth pursuing with much enthusiasm. Another downer in all this is that charity shops now have expert valuers, so the chances of finding a real bargain are very slim. In the past I've picked up, for example, a mint-condition first of Dead Babies (in wraps) for 25p, and a first of Mervyn Peake's Hunting of the Snark for the same price, both from branches of Oxfam - those days will never come again. To find a real bargain nowadays, you can only hope for a bookseller - or a charity shop valuer - getting a price spectacularly wrong, or you can rummage at jumble sales, fairs, car boot sales and such places. But I seem to have changed the subject... So - would I ever again defer buying a book online for the sake of finding it in physical from? Probably not. But do I continue to scan the shelves and rummage for books wherever they are to be found? Of course I do. The thing about books is that you don't know what you want - what you need, what you must read - until you see it, and hear its call.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

The Chamber Idyll

And then I got to thinking about wood engraving, and in particular about this little beauty - little indeed; the original image is barely three inches by one and a half. It's The Chamber Idyll by Edward Calvert, and it's in Tate Britain, though I don't think it's on display at the moment. An exquisitely beautiful - and erotically charged - work, it's beautifully composed, atmospheric, packed with meaning and amazingly delicately engraved. And yet Calvert only had a few years' experience of wood engraving when he made it, in 1831, and it was apparently the last work he produced in this medium. Calvert was one of the Ancients, the disciples of William Blake who for a few magical years gathered around Samuel Palmer in Shoreham. Later, like Palmer himself, Calvert went into an artistic decline (though Palmer's imagination flared up again in his late etchings and watercolours). Calvert spent the rest of his long life painting competently in a kind of vapid classical style, and the engravings of his golden period remained unseen by the world. Then, ten years after his death, an edition of his wood and copper engravings was published by his son, who later donated The Chamber Idyll to the Tate. The British Museum also has some Calvert prints, but The Chamber Idyll is surely his masterpiece.

Monday 19 December 2011


I've just noticed that I'm on The Dabbler, writing about Muriel Spark's Memento Mori.

The Great Successor

This Kim Jong-Un - aka the Great Successor - looks like a promising young fellow, full of pep and vigour and get-up-and-go. I like the cut of his jib. Of course we'll miss his old dad, but no doubt Kim Jong-Un will effortlessly acquire the superhuman powers that go with the job. Just now, though, the little fellow must be feeling a bit ronery...

Sunday 18 December 2011

Another Sagittarian

Today is the birthday of Paul Klee, born on this day in 1879. I find him one of the few great modern painters whose works (mostly) lift the heart, cheer the sprits, even raise a smile. His jaunty natural draughtsmanship, acute sense of pattern and brilliantly inventive use of colour are instantly attractive. He's lucky to be taken seriously in an age that tends to overvalue the appearance of seriousness and difficulty, and undervalue humour and the light touch. Klee might have died in the Kaiser War, having volunteered to fight on the German side. Happily his family pulled strings to keep him out of danger and he was put to work painting camouflage - even in war, painters have their uses!
Meanwhile, I have acquired a ferocious 'cold' on top of the WRSE (Work Related Seasonal Exhaustion). But I don't complain...

Friday 16 December 2011

Admirable Frankness

Last night, after a Herbert Spencer of a day at work, I arrived at Victoria to discover that - per contra the high-tech indicator boards, and unremarked by whoever was manning the tannoy - the trains on my line were not running. I eventually escaped the growing throng by boarding a train heading in roughly the right direction, which proceeded southward at a stately snail's pace. After a while, the driver came on the intercom to apologise. Here we go, I thought, expecting one of the usual meaningless (non)explanatory formulas - but no. 'I don't know what's going on,' he continued with admirable frankness. 'No one's telling me anything. We seem to have got behind Miss Daisy's chauffeur.' I laughed, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Perhaps by that stage I was hallucinating.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Naked Amazement

The fiercest NigeCorp workstorm since records began has left me, in my unoccupied moments, capable of little but listening to music and reading the odd chapter of More Women Than Men, which is (but really shouldn't be) strangely soothing... Last night, I happened on this: John Martyn singing his beautiful song May You Never, with Danny Thompson on bass, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Kathy Mattea pluckily trying to duet with the wayward Martyn. Her facial expressions are a picture - especially after the performance ends. Did you ever see such naked amazement on a musician's face?

Monday 12 December 2011

Virtual Nige Takes a Walk

Although the corporeal Nige is toiling in the mighty engine rooms of NigeCorp HQ, I'm pleased to see that his virtual form is over on the Dabbler, walking the fields of Leicestershire. Corporeal Nige very much wishes that he was, too...

Sunday 11 December 2011

'Ain't life grand when yer daft?'

The other day I found my mind turning to the Lancastrian comedian Frank Randle (it must be the overwork). I've been uneasily fascinated with this monster of comedy ever since reading King Twist: A Portrait of Frank Randle by - of all people - Jeff Nuttall, whose Bomb Culture was on every bookshelf in my student days. This clip from a recent BBC4 series, Rude Britannia, gives a flavour of Randle, a comic hugely famous in his day, who was to Blackpool what Elvis was to Las Vegas, though a lot less wholesome. It is hardly surprising that his fame did not outlive him - he was absolutely of his time and place and belonged to a particular phase in the history of impolite popular entertainment. And yet there is something so Dionysiac, so anarchic, so darkly clownish about him that he is bigger than that, almost archetypal. He represents, perhaps, a particular twist (King Twist) on the Shakespearean fool at his darkest and most unruly. Perhaps.
Randle, who seems to have spent much of his life drunk, was also brilliant at playing drunk scenes, so one was invariably included in the handful of low-budget feature films he made (in one of them, mind-bogglingly, he appeared with Diana Dors). The best of the drunk scenes involves Randle negotiating a grand staircase while barely able to stand - I couldn't find that one, but here's a taste of Randle in action, making good use of one of his catchphrases, 'Geroff mi foot!' Those were the days...

Saturday 10 December 2011

An Unexpected Tag

Among the birthday gifts showered on me by a grateful nation last week was a bottle of champagne, to which was attached a small laminated plastic tag with the legend 'Remove before microwaving'. These mysterious tags turn up, it seems, on all manner of unlikely items - DVDs for one. I wonder if they are there for any other purpose than to be removed before you carelessly toss your bottle of champagne or DVD into the microwave. Once they are removed, is their work here done? Are they perhaps like the famous notice that says only 'Do not throw stones at this notice'?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Born On This Day: Nige

In the eye of the raging workstorm, I achieve my 62nd birthday today - as does my exact coeval, dear old Tom Waits. Sadly, Edmundo Ros, having reached his 100th on this day last year, is no longer with us. Why does He always take the best ones first? (as the priest said at Father Jack's funeral, or something like it)...

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Dabbler alert

I see I've popped up on the Dabbler again, with a poet and two naturalists...

Sunday 4 December 2011

Deanna, Kiri, Slava

Today is the 90th birthday of Deanna Durbin, singing film star of the 1930s and 40s. And she is still alive to enjoy it, somewhere in France, where she has lived quietly for decades since turning her back firmly on the biz we call show and marrying a French producer-director.
Durbin was huge in her day. Among her legion of fans was the young Anne Frank, who, living in hiding with her family in the Achterhuis, pasted a photo of Deanna Durbin to her bedroom wall, where it can still be seen... A more surprising Durbin devotee was the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who said in an interview, 'She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronised to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity.' And Durbin has another surprising musical legacy: the New Zealand nun Sister Mary Leo admired her style and technique so much that she trained all her charges to sing the Durbin way - among them, most famously, Kiri Te Kanawa.
How good was she? Well, here she is in full flow, at the age of just 17...
Pretty amazing, wasn't she?

Saturday 3 December 2011

More Women than Men

The annual NigeCorp workstorm having swept furiously in, my time and energies have been distracted from more agreeable pastimes, including blogging. However, I am reading slowly (appropriately slowly) Ivy Compton-Burnett's More Women than Men, one of her less well-known titles, in a paperback edition from 1983, when it was republished by Allison & Busby (along with Elders and Betters). Written in 1933, More Women... is set, like all ICB's works, in an upper-middle-class late Victorian-Edwardian world that is all her own. Here she creates, as ever, an enclosed world of people at close quarters, seething - below the politest of surfaces - with tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments. This time it is a girls' school, presided over by Mrs Josephine Napier, a woman easily taken for a paragon, but who is, as soon becomes apparent, a ruthless manipulator of all around her. However, a combination of circumstances might be about to loosen her iron grip on all around her...
What is most extraordinary about ICB is the way in which almost everything - the action, the characterisation and character development, sudden twists and revelations - is carried by dialogue alone. Her characters' ultra-civilised, razor-edged conversation teems with subtext and unspoken passions, is indeed a heavily mined battleground. It has to be read with care to discover, now gradually, now explosively, what is really going on. The author - at once absent and omniscient - never tells; she only shows. Or rather her characters show, with what they say.
Not all is dialogue, though; each character is introduced with a thumbnail sketch that seems at first old-fashioned and conventional, but is always barbed, askew, off-kilter. Here, from the first page, are - one after the other - Mrs Napier and another major character, Miss Luke:
'Josephine Napier, the head of a large girls' school in a prosperous English town, was a tall, spare woman of fifty-four, with greyish auburn hair, full hazel eyes, an impressive, high-featured, but simply modelled face, a conscious sincerity and simplicity of mien, rather surprisingly jewelled hands, and hair and dress arranged to set off rather than disguise experience.
Miss Theodora Luke, a mistress in her school, was an erect, pale woman of thirty-eight, with a simply straightforward and resolute face, smooth, coiled hair, grey eyes with a glance of interest and appreciation, and an oddity of dress displayed in the manner of the university woman of Victorian days, as the outward sign of the unsuspected inner truth.'
Or how about this, a little later?
'William Fane was a local lawyer... It was a need of his nature to feel self-esteem, and as he had no unusual quality but the power of sinking below his class, he esteemed himself for being a man and a potential husband; which human attributes were, to do him justice, less general than many he possessed.'
Indeed being a potential husband is an attribute not very general among the men in this novel. Homosexuality is taken for granted as a feature of the Compton-Burnett landscape, not worthy of remark - a relaxed attitude that has, strangely, made the author something of a heroine of 'Queer Studies'. Well, it helps to keep her name alive... But in her fictional world - in which everything up to and including murder is likely to pass unremarked - homosexuality is the least of what's going on.
I'm not yet halfway through More Women than Men, but already a couple of quiet bombshells have been detonated - by dialogue alone - and I'm sure there will be more. I read on, enthralled, appalled and hugely impressed by a most extraordinary literary talent. I should add that she is also, in her uniquely pungent way, very funny. However dark her materials, she is in the end - thank heavens - a comic writer.