Friday 31 August 2012

Hurray for the Riff Raff

As yet more proof that America is a bottomless well of home-grown musical talent, here are the gloriously named band Hurray For The Riff Raff. Play that video of them making a joyful noise in what seems to be their own back yard, then check the tour schedule to the right and if they're playing anywhere near you, go see them! There's more on YouTube (be sure to skip the ads), including a 35-minute set apparently attended by a dozen or two people, many of whom seem to spend most of their time coming and going and ignoring the music. This is a larger band than in the back yard video, including a rather fine old-school keyboardist who at times really lifts the band's sound. As for the lead singer - and indeed songwriter and creative force - Alynda Lee Segarra, she is definitely one to watch. Alynda ran away from her home in the Bronx and travelled America by hopping freight trains (yes, it can still be done), ending up eventually in New Orleans, where she formed this band. No Depression magazine said of Look Out Mamma that it 'sounds like something The Band would’ve had playing on a Victrola while making Music From Big Pink in Woodstock.' Quite so. What is it with these roots/Americana/alt country bands that they keep coming up with songs that sound as if they've been around for ever? Continuity, I guess.

Thursday 30 August 2012

95 Today

Today Denis Healey - Baron Healey as he is now - is 95. There are very few politicians for whom I have anything that could be called a soft spot, but he is one of them. Yes, he was, in his prime, a notorious political bruiser (and, in the Thirties, a Communist - there isn't much in his politics that I like), but he had a very good war - North Africa, Sicily, Italian Campaign, could have stayed in as a Lieutenant Colonel - and, unlike so many of today's politicians, he seems a fully rounded human being, with a wide 'hinterland' beyond politics, including, among much else, a love of the works of Samuel Beckett, which can only be a good sign.
  Healey also has a nice turn of phrase, famously likening being attacked by Geoffrey Howe to being 'savaged by a dead sheep'. He originated the First Law of Holes - 'When you're in one, stop digging.' Unsurprisingly he was not keen on Mrs Thatcher, calling her 'Petain in petticoats' and 'La Pasionaria of middle-class privilege' (harsh, harsh). On one occasion, he accused Ian Mikardo of being 'out of his tiny Chinese mind' - a phrase he borrowed from Hermione Gingold, but which the Chinese Embassy took for an insult and accordingly kicked up a fuss. Some things never change...
  Despite his socialism, Healey also enjoys the distinction of being the only Chancellor of the Exchequer in recent decades who actually managed to wrestle public expenditure down - albeit at the behest of the IMF. Happy birthday to him!

About Last Night

Well, compared to the Danny Boyle extravaganza that launched the Olympics, last night's Paralympic opening ceremony was positively restrained, even austere. And it was remarkably coherent. Titled Enlightenment (a bit of a clue there), it was nothing less than a full-on celebration of the Enlightenment Project (at this late stage!), offering a vision of Scientific Inquiry and Human Rights marching in lockstep towards an ever brighter future.
  A curious pairing - Science and Rights. Some might say that the advancement of human rights had rather little to do with scientific inquiry, and rather a lot to do with Judaeo-Christian theology and the vision of all humanity being made in the image of God. No room for that kind of thing, of course, in a vibrant, inclusive, multicultural, secular, go-ahead spectacular like last night's. There was, though, room for Shakespeare again - indeed The Tempest again. While the Boyle extravaganza featured Caliban and his isle full of noises, last night's do foregrounded Prospero, that well known scientist and proponent of universal human rights (played by Ian McKellen in a Harry Potterish robe).
  Ah well, it is part of Shakespeare's greatness that all manner of horrors can be perpetrated in his name and he remains what he is, undiminished and undiminishable. As Matthew Arnold put it, 'Others abide our question. Thou are free.'

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Mr Piano

Amazed by how many readers remember Dickie Henderson - and even have tales to tell of him - I'm emboldened to recall another of the strange, faintly troubling showbiz presences of my early years, and another Henderson - Joe 'Mr Piano' Henderson. He's a reminder of how popular a pretty, er, basic style of piano music was with the record buyers - and indeed sheet music buyers (remember sheet music?) - of the Fifties and thereabouts. This was the age of Russ Conway, Winifred Atwell and the ineffable Mrs Mills, when jingly piano solos often rode high in the charts (at the 'sophisticated' end of the spectrum was Horst Jankowski's A Walk in the Black Forest - Number 3 in the UK as late as 1965).
  'Mr Piano' - whose looks, I must say, are not improved by that ill-advised cravat (the ability to carry off a cravat is not given to all) - was for some years Petula Clark's main squeeze and musical collaborator, but apparently he decided he'd sooner be 'Mr Piano' than 'Mr Petula Clark'. My recollection of him is from a slightly later period when he had his own radio show, one of those inescapable programmes that seemed to be always there. And then it was gone, as a new age dawned - the age of Horst Jankowski perhaps?  How long ago it all seems. And is.

Monday 27 August 2012

'He then put a vibrator up his jumper...'

Here's a story I came across in my local paper. I pass it on because, for various reasons, it made me laugh, and because it seemed such a perfect vignette of (low) life in contemporary Britain...

'A thieving drug addict who stole a £49 sex toy while shopping with his pregnant girlfriend blamed the welfare state for his crime of passion.
  Lee Friend-Huggett, 33, appeared at Croydon Magistrates Court on Monday, charged with the theft of a vibrator from Ann Summers in the town centre.
  The prosecution said: "Mr Friend-Huggett went to Ann Summers with his girlfriend when he proceeded to the vibrator section of the store. He then put a vibrator up his jumper and left the shop with no intention to pay for it.
  He was arrested and told police he wasn't at Ann Summers at the time and was, instead, at a drug rehabilitation programme.
  He then insisted that it was not him that was in the shop, but his twin brother."
  Friend-Huggett, however, pleaded guilty on Monday...'

It's all there, isn't it? The welfare state connection, by the way, is that our friend the thieving drug addict explained that he stole the vibrator because he had not (he claimed) received his benefit money. Shame on us taxpayers for not coughing up punctually to support this fine fellow's lifestyle.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Scott McKenzie again

My old friend, the Sage of Tiverton, surprised me with the sad news that Scott McKenzie died last week. As my birthday post from his 70th attracted a ridiculous number of hits for no obvious reasons, I'll repost it. Poor Scott died of Guillaine-Barre syndrome. There's an obit here.
  I like the image of Scott walking around barefoot in Joshua Tree, talking to plants. Pretty standard behaviour in Joshua Tree, I imagine. Scott also used to talk to, and hang around with, that self-destructive genius Gram Parsons, with whom he wrote songs (never recorded), doodled on the guitar and got drunk.
 In his later years, McKenzie wrote this rather lovely sketch of himself: 'Reclusive septuagenarian. I live with a 15 year old cat named Spider in Silverlake, which is in Los Angeles. I spend lots of time on the internet, mainly researching all sorts of things - I can't recall how I spent my time before Google. I was a professional singer for years, had a 1967 hit called "If You're Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair". I sang at The Monterey Pop Festival. I've lived In New York City; Laurel Canyon; San Francisco; Virginia Beach. I cherish my friends, many of whom have passed on. This trend shows no signs of abating.'

Thursday 23 August 2012

Remembering Dickie H

I see the Scarborough Cricket Festival takes place next week. Ah the memories...
  Back in my boyhood days, I'd often be there, with my brother, neatly clad in our little sports jackets, enjoying the beautiful airy seaside ground, the comings and goings, the old geezers in white coats selling the Pink 'Un, and whatever was going on on the field. Those were Yorkshire's glory days - from the all-conquering Ray Illingworth team to Brian Close and the rise of a young bespectacled chap called Geoffrey Boycott - and the visitors always seemed to be having fun, cutting loose and giving it some welly. I remember seeing even the notoriously stroke-averse Australian Bill Lawry ('the corpse with pads on') whacking the ball all over the ground...
  Sometimes the stars of the summer shows would drop in too. One I remember seeing is Dickie Henderson, a comedian and entertainer who is no doubt forgotten now by everyone but me and my brother (and, I'll warrant, Malty). A short dapper chap, permatanned and nimble on his feet (he was a dancer as well), he was long on easy, not to say oily, charm and somewhat short on comic material. He had a relaxed air and a mid-Atlantic accent that suggested rather more sophistication than he possessed - but at least the accent, unlike the similar drawl affected by his pal and frequent collaborator Bob Monkhouse, was earned. Dickie spent much of his childhood in Hollywood, where his father, rotund singer and dancer Dick Henderson (who made the first British recording of Tiptoe Through the Tulips), was touring in vaudeville. As a child actor, young Dickie appeared in the film of Noel Coward's Cavalcade, and, with Cicely Courtneidge and Max Miller, in Things Are Looking Up. He was being seriously considered for the young David in George Cukor's David Copperfield when his father hauled him back to Blighty. And there he was, a quarter of a century later, topping the bill at the Floral Hall, Scarborough, and enjoying the hospitality at the cricket ground. I may be wrong, but he looked like a man who hadn't often said no to a drink.

Wednesday 22 August 2012


I caught a piece of news this morning that normally I wouldn't have taken much notice of, but something in it made me sit up and pay attention. The British Retail Consortium, having done a survey, has concluded that online crime cost British retailers 'at least' £205.4 million last year (these wild guesstimates always come up with a strangely precise figure). So far, so unsurprising - but wait a minute: it turns out that, of that figure, only £77.3 million was lost to actual fraud. The rest was largely accounted for by the cost of fraud-prevention measures and - an estimated £111.6 million - by business lost when honest would-be purchasers became so frustrated by endless online security checks that they gave up the attempt to buy. So, anti-fraud measures are costing retailers a great deal more than fraud. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere, but I don't know quite what it is. Perhaps that sometimes it's easier just to go to a shop.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Signs of the Times

I haven't seen a single Lime Hawk Moth this year, but earlier today, as I was sitting in the gardens that were once the old Kensington churchyard, I had the pleasure of watching a big plump Lime Hawk caterpillar making its way across the path in front of me. It wasn't a young one in its bright green skin (with yellow go-faster stripes) but an ageing specimen, nearly ready to pupate, the skin mottled and indigo-tinged, like the one in the picture.
 Caterpillar motion is a wondrous thing - a muscular contraction that passes from the hind end to the front, propelling the larva forward at a surprisingly smart pace. It's restful and faintly comic to watch. The one that crossed my path was heading determinedly away from the trees and towards open lawn, which seemed odd, but I left it to its own devices and soon it had disappeared into the grass...
 When I got back to the office, I found a single poplar leaf had fallen into my bag. It's in front of me now - dry, russet-gold, curling at the edges and the tip. Autumn is coming.

A Walker

I learned yesterday that one of the group of friends with whom I have been walking off and on - mostly off - for 30 years and more, has died. I say 'one of' but he was a stalwart, the stalwart of the group. He seldom missed a walk, and was the strongest walker among us, always in the vanguard, striding along, whatever the weather, whatever the terrain, uphill or down - keeping up with him was a challenge; we generally took it in turns to walk a while by his side before falling back, outpaced.
 Then, a couple of years ago, symptoms of Parkinson's Disease became sadly apparent, and walking was more and more a struggle for him; he fell back to the rearguard and eventually, having kept walking as long as he possibly could, he had to give up. It turned out that the Parkinson's symptoms had been masking the advance of cancer, and there was only going to be one ending. He bore the illness, the treatments, and the prospect of his death, with the most exemplary calm and stoicism. Which, couched in more Christian language, would sound very much like one of the innumerable epitaphs he must have read in a lifetime of church crawling. But - unlike, probably, many of those epitaphs - it is true.
  He was a man of very wide interests, knowledgeable, well read and with a notably well furnished mind. A master of the ingeniously turned (not to say excruciating) pun, he was also a rich source of quotations and allusions. Once, while booting up for a day's walking, he turned to me and remarked, quoting Montaigne: 'Il faut toujours être botté et prêt à partir.' Booted and ready to leave. And so he was.

Monday 20 August 2012

Dog Days

These are the dog days, Fortunatus... The stupefying heat and humidity of the past weekend in the Southeast did a pretty effective job of closing me down for the duration, at least as far as mental activity went, though I did manage some sweat-streaming work in the garden and a train journey into Oxfordshire (and on my return journey hit a mighty swiftstorm - I'd guess at least 30 or 40, circling in a feeding frenzy, no doubt in preparation for the flight South). Other people - to judge by the angry cries from parks and gardens and the constant coming and going of wailing patrol cars and ambulances - were being driven plumb loco by the heat. It's hardly surprising, given that this kind of weather comes in such short spells that we never get a chance to acclimatise and adjust - that's the trouble with living in a country with no climate and a ridiculous amount of weather.
But the butterflies were out in what numbers they could muster, enjoying the sunshine. And, today, there was a hen blackbird basking in an apparent state of ecstasy in a flowerbed in Kensington Gardens, wings spread, head lifted, mandibles apart, much like Bernini's St Theresa. This was not in fact sunbathing, let alone religious ecstasy - the blackbird was sitting on an antheap, enjoying the sensation of ants crawling on its skin, killing off mites. They call it formication - but it ain't no sin.

Friday 17 August 2012

Mr Joad's 'buzzing bluebottle'

As well as being a 'botanophile' (as he terms it, to distinguish himself from a proper botanist), Jocelyn Brooke was also a keen maker of fireworks, an interest he developed while still at school. Once, 'quite unwittingly, I nearly blew up Professor Joad. I was at Bedales by this time, and had become friendly with Julian Trevelyan, to whom, in the holidays, I sent a parcel of home-made fireworks. Mr Joad, who was staying with the Trevelyans, was detailed, it seems, to ignite one of my maroons. Either Mr Joad was too slow, or the fuse was too short: the maroon, at any rate, exploded with an annihilating report within a few inches of the philosopher's nose. Had the distance been only slightly less, the BBC might have been a different (and doubtless inferior) institution.'
  C.E.M. Joad - all but forgotten now - was in his day one of the most famous public intellectuals in a country notoriously suspicious of public intellectuals. And looking at the example of Joad, one can see why. If he hadn't existed, a satirical novelist would surely have invented him.
  A brilliant student (double first from Balliol etc), he moved smoothly (and fashionably) from Syndicalism to Guild Socialism to Fabianism, until he was expelled from the Fabian Society for sexual misbehaviour at a summer school. He entered the Civil Service, bent on infusing it with a socialist ethos, before moving on to Birkbeck College, where he became a great populariser of philosophy and a prolific author.
  Along the way Joad had married, settled in the delightful hamlet of Westhumble in Surrey, and fled to Snowdonia at the prospect of conscription (this was the Kaiser War, and Joad was, of course, a convinced pacifist). When the coast was clear, he returned, then a couple of years later left his wife and three children for the first of a long string of mistresses. Sexual desire he regarded as 'a buzzing bluebottle that needs to be swatted promptly before it distracts a man of intellect from higher things'. He was a firm believer in the all-round uselessness of the female mind, and had no interest in women who (mysteriously resistant to the combined firepower of paunch, pipe and whiskers) wouldn't go to bed with him.
  In the Thirties, Joad effectively won the famous Oxford Union debate on the motion: 'This house will in no circumstances fight for King and Country' (this just after Hitler became Chancellor). And he indulged an interest in the supernatural, going on ghost-hunting expeditions with Harry Price, though Joad's publications in this field were coolly received by the Society for Psychical Research.
  With the Hitler War came Joad's big break, when he talked himself onto the new radio discussion programme The Brains Trust, by means of which he became a national celebrity, famous for his catchphrase 'It all depends what you mean by...' Joad hugely enjoyed his fame, but it all ended in scandal - not over his sexual behaviour, but over train tickets. Having foolishly boasted in print that 'I cheat the railway company whenever I can', he was shortly thereafter convicted of travelling without a ticket on a train from London to Exeter, fined, and sacked by the BBC. His career as a celebrity philosopher was over, but he still found time to renounce his long-standing agnosticism and return to the bosom of the Church of England before he died.
  And now we have to make do with Alain de Botton...


I had a feeling, even as I was writing it, that yesterday's Last Swifts post might have been tempting (benign) fate - and sure enough, my homebound train last night passed through a veritable swirling swiftstorm between Mitcham Junction and Hackbridge. I counted 19, but there must have been many more, all very lively, swooping, screaming and feeding. And then I spotted two more this morning, high up over Balham...
The 40 percent Swift decline figure I do find surprising, but as it's endorsed by Malty (see comment below Last Swifts) it must be true. Perhaps it's just that ever since childhood I've lived, like Worm, among houses eminently suitable for swifts - and sparrows - to nest on, so they've always been there. (A chap from the RSPB on the radio the other days described House Sparrows as 'extremely rare' in town, which is nonsense.) If we want to help swifts - and swallows and martins and sparrows - Building Regulations should be adjusted so that all newbuild houses offer suitable nesting places. Sorted.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Last Swifts

I might as well face it - I've probably seen my last swift of the year. Or swifts, to be precise - a pair of them circling lazily over Hackbridge on Monday evening. Since then, nothing...
At least the Great Disappearance of the last weekend in July proved a false alarm. The swifts were back in the early days of August, and twice last week I saw a dozen and more, but by last weekend they had dwindled to zero again, and if the pair I saw on Monday were indeed my last for this summer, they have gone a good fortnight earlier than last year. And who can blame them heading for the warm South after a dismal summer like this one?
Still, I'd be interested to hear if anyone else still has swifts. Let's postpone the evil day when these mysterious and beautiful birds are gone...
There's a fine piece about them by Mark Cocker here.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Biggest Problem in the World

Sorry to get serious, but hearing an interview on the radio last night with a Tunisian woman got me thinking...
  I've long suspected that the Biggest Problem in the World - the one that underlies all the world's other Big Problems - is not over-population or hunger or poverty or environmental depredation (I'm leaving out 'climate change' this time, even though Radio 4 is about to explain to us that Britain will soon be just like Madeira, with avocadoes hanging from every tree) or ethnic conflict or authoritarian rule or the absence of democracy - no, the Biggest Problem in the World is Corruption, which creates poverty and hunger (and, often, environmental depredation), destroys individual autonomy, undermines the institutions that make civic society possible, erodes the rule of law, takes away all hope of justice, redress or self-advancement from the poorest, and makes democracy meaningless.
  The tendency of  liberal democratic Western opinion to see social progress in terms of a struggle for democracy seems to me a huge error - what would benefit people far more, and what many are in fact struggling for, is rather an end to corruption. Without corruption, institutions and infrastructure work and people can get on, make a living, buy and sell without endless extortions and payouts draining away the fruits of their enterprise, making the power elites richer and the poor unable to help themselves. Without corruption, great swathes of the globe that are now poor, hungry and desperate would be doing fine. To adapt Clinton's one memorable statement (apart from 'I did not have sex with that woman') - it's the corruption, stupid. The uprising in Tunisia that launched what we foolishly call the Arab Spring was sparked not by activists hungry for Jeffersonian democracy but by a street trader who had finally had enough of corrupt officials taking away his livelihood, and burnt himself to death in his desperation.
  Now Tunisia has democracy, and the result is an Islamist government which (among other ominous developments) intends to scrap clauses in the constitution that protect the status of women. And why did people vote the Islamists in? Precisely because they thought that, being religiously motivated, they would be less corrupt than the previous lot. Well they might be - we'll see - but their idea of democracy sure ain't ours, and the thought of a wholly Islamist Middle East ranged around an isolated Israel is not a happy one.

Monday 13 August 2012

'... and Meadow Browns of course': A Lesson

'Against the hot blue sky, the terraced knoll loomed enormous, its summit lost in a shimmering heat-haze. The grassy flanks seemed to radiate a reflected heat, enfolding us in a weighted, thyme-scented silence, enhanced rather than disturbed by the monotone of a thousand insects. On the banks at the hill's foot, the cropped turf was gemmed with the small downland flowers, many of which I had never seen before: rockrose, milkwort, centaury...'
  Thus Jocelyn Brooke in The Military Orchid - a memoir (which I'm reading at the moment) built around his passion for wild flowers, especially orchids. He is recounting a first boyhood visit to the downs above Folkestone which kindled a lifelong love of chalk downland flora. 'Rockrose, milkweed, centaury...' I couldn't visualise Centaury and meant to look it up, but was distracted by the name. Apparently it does derive from the obvious source - Centaur - and from a legend that it was Chiron the Centuar who first divulged the secrets of Centaury's healing powers (it's still widely used in herbal medicine).
  The chalk downland flora were in their high summer glory yesterday when I took a walk in the Surrey Hills with my cousin down from Derbyshire. Blue scabious and yellow hawkweed over knapweed and wild marjoram, bird's-foot trefoil and clover... And the lovely pale Chalkhill Blues were flying in uncountable numbers, along with Common Blues - disappointingly no Adonis - and the odd Brown Argus. Gatekeepers were everywhere, and Meadow Browns of course. A pale-looking specimen flew past which I instantly identified as yet another Meadow Brown - but my cousin, not so sure, watched it land and called me over for a closer look. Yes, I confirmed with one glance of my expert eye, a paler-than-usual Meadow Brown. But then I took a proper look...
 Yes, it was pretty pale, but the eye on the forewing that was just showing was altogether too small and lustreless - and why were those wings staying so firmly closed? That's not Meadow Brown behaviour. The obliging specimen stayed put, quite immobile, long enough for me to consult my trusty field guide and conclude that this was no Meadow Brown, but a Grayling, a species I hadn't (knowingly) seen in years. When it eventually, reluctantly took to the air and flew weakly away for a few yards, then dropped to the ground again in the identical pose, wings tight shut, slightly off-vertical, the identification was confirmed, and I had learnt a lesson: Use your eyes! Look properly, even if you think you know what you're seeing.
 Amid all the butterfly spotting (and misidentifying), we were also taking an interest in the flowers - among which was a pretty little item with small pink, five-petalled flowers. We took one stem (came off in my hand, honest) home to identify. Yes, it was Centaury. Now I know.

Friday 10 August 2012

Modern Tess

We live in strange times. When I came across a link on Frank Wilson's indispensable Books, Inq. blog labelled 'Thomas Browne, 17th-Century Author, Draws New Interest', my first thought was that - like Thomas Tallis - Sir Thos had had a mention in Fifty Shades Of Grey, and suddenly the Religio Medici was walking off the shelves and they couldn't print Hydriotaphias fast enough to satisfy the vast army of 'mummy porn' aficionadas ('Mummy is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for Balsams...'). But no - it turned out, happily, that this was a far more innocent and firmly grounded revival of interest in the works of Sir Thomas Browne.
 However, one literary author who has benefited from the Fifty Shades effect is Thomas Hardy, whose Tess of the D'Urbervilles is (in its first edition - three volumes, set you back a few grand) the first gift given by the ghastly Mr Grey to his unfortunate female victim, Lord knows why (and I've no intention of finding out). Sales of Tess have, by all accounts, tripled as a result of Mr Grey's endorsement, and I have lately been noticing young women reading it on train and Tube. Heaven knows what they will make of it - but then Heaven knows what I make of it really, after rather more readings than is entirely healthy (I studied it for A-level). I think Deeply Flawed Masterpiece about sums it up. Certainly, for all its beauties, its great set pieces and emotional power, it is marred by some pretty awful writing. But if you've got through Fifty Shades that is probably no impediment at all.

Thursday 9 August 2012

The Wife of Martin Guerre

I've just read The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis - another gift of the blogosphere, for I doubt I would ever have heard of it if it wasn't for having come across admiring references to it on various American literary blogs.
Janet Lewis was the wife of the eminent critic Yvor Winters, and a considerable poet and novelist in her own right. The Wife of Martin Guerre is a novella published in 1941 that reimagines the intriguing case of a 16th-century Frenchman who disappeared for eight years, then reappeared and resumed his life (and his wife) - only this time, apparently, it was not the real Martin Guerre, but an impostor... It's the story told in the French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre and the American Civil War movie Sommersby, not to mention several musicals and stage shows. But nobody tells it like Janet Lewis. Her achievement, in a 90-page novella, is to create an entirely convincing medieval world - the world of a relatively wealthy Gascon peasant clan - and an entirely convincing medieval heroine in Martin Guerre's wife, Bertrande de Rols. Janet Lewis pulls off the great imaginative feat of making Bertrande at once wholly of her time, thoroughly alien in her medieval (essentially religious) way of thinking - into which no trace of modern sensibility obtrudes - and entirely sympathetic, so that by the time the story comes to its shattering conclusion we feel deeply for her, are fully involved in her impossible dilemma and her sad fate. This plain tale plainly told in spare, lucid prose - precisely the kind of short fiction that is so easily overlooked and undervalued - works a subtle, special magic on the reader. Or it did on me - I think The Wife of Martin Guerre will haunt me for a long long time.
 If it sounds like your kind of thing, hurry along to Amazon, where it is available for as little as 5p.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Expanding the Frontiers of Ignorance

The television obituary for the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, who died yesterday, included a wonderful, too brief, clip from a late interview with his fellow astronomer and Sir, Patrick Moore. Lovell said something like this: Twenty years ago, we thought we had a virtually complete picture of the Universe and how it works, but 'now we know almost nothing'. This, we should always remember, is what true science does - not establish certainty but constantly expand the frontiers of ignorance. Perhaps the final achievement of science will be to discover that, after all, we know nothing. But how would we know?

Tuesday 7 August 2012

And Another Thing...

Suddenly, it seems, everyone - or at least far too many people - have started saying 'ath-a-lete' instead of athlete. I hear it on the radio all the time, from reporters and competitors alike. Could this be the Olympics that ushered in the age of the trisyllabic athlete? Is this what they mean by Legacy?

The Great British Nay

In his comment below my last post, Madfolly asks, reasonably enough, for an explanation of the strong and persistent strand of negativity and 'can't do' in what might pompously be called our national discourse.
 Well, the first thing to say is that it shouldn't be taken too seriously: we indulge in a lot of 'can't do' moaning because we know that really, when it comes to it, we probably can do - as these Olympics prove. It was the perpetually grumbling, negative Poor Bloody Infantry that won us two world wars against overwhelming odds. Perhaps nations with less confidence - and competence - cannot indulge nay-saying on a British scale (though clearly America doesn't fit this picture).
 Another strand feeding into our great national grumble is a deep-seated distrust of airy idealism - of Big Ideas, especially those of a progressive kind that promise a Better World. We rarely fall for it: the short period after the Last Spot of Bother when we accepted New Jerusalem thinking and got the NHS and the Welfare State (talking of mad folly) was an aberration, as was the Things Can Only Get Better madness that swept Blair to power. Most of the time we empirical Brits love to debunk big ideas, because we know that they are not rooted in human reality - just as we like to bring down the mighty and pretentious, who have similarly lost touch with what they are. This is deep in our cultural bloodstream, at the core of our sense of humour and of the comic imagination that suffuses all our greatest literature, from Chaucer on.
 However, having said all this, I can't help but feel that the Great British Nay is not what it was. Ever since the London Olympics were announced - to whoops and air punches all round - the nay-sayers have been in a minority, and now that minority is dwindling to a rump. There's an awful lot of positive energy around, a lot of affirmation, and it all feels a bit odd and unEnglish - but then there probably always has been. It's just that we Brits like to balance it with healthy doses of scepticism, moaning and debunking humour, grumbling as we get on with it. Long may it be so.

Monday 6 August 2012

Failing to Fail

I must confess I'm feeling badly let down by the home nation's efforts in these Olympic Games. Those us who practise the national sport (grumbling) at the highest level, have been in training for years for this one, honing our Jeremiads, fine-tuning our dehortations, polishing our polemics. This was going to be the Big One, when the whole shebang fell apart, London ground to a halt, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, Team GB slid ignominiously down the medals table, and we became at last what we have so long yearned to be - the laughing stock of the world. But it was not to be - instead we Jeremiahs have been left looking on in disbelief as everything has gone like clockwork, London has been working rather better than usual, there have been no foul-ups, the world looks on in admiration - and, to cap it all, Team GB has been hoovering up the medals in unprecedented quantities. Why I've even found myself watching the damned thing from time to time. At this rate London 2012 is going to end up being hailed as a triumph. Surely we can do better than this - come on Team GB, pull your socks up (or rather, let them fall around your ankles) - we'll be expecting you to put all this behind you in good time for Rio de Janeiro. Fail again, fail better!

Friday 3 August 2012

Dolores, Fred, Ginger, Rio...

This blog, being what it is, cannot let the birthday of Dolores Del Rio (1905) go unmarked. She was a remarkable woman, and not only for her beauty - a shilling life (or rather Wikipedia) will give you all the facts, one of them being that she was Orson Welles's lover when he was at his creative peak and ultimately, he said, the love of his life (as he seems to have been of hers). However, lovers of Fred and Ginger will know her as the ostensible co-star (with Gene Raymond) of Flying Down to Rio, the rather dreadful film in which Astaire and Rogers made their celluloid debut - and stole the show. The film comes to a climax with a quite extraordinary aerial ballet, which has to be seen to be believed - enjoy!

Thursday 2 August 2012

'a token for a pound of best steak'

One morning in the early Seventies, the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd was startled to receive in the post a copy of a novel, accompanied by a token for a pound of best steak from George Ellerbeck, butcher of Kettering. These, the accompanying letter explained, represented the Ellerbeck Literary Award:
 'The Prize is awarded at infrequent intervals, and you are only its third recipient. The circumstances are that Mr Carr, who makes a living by writing, is one of my customers and pays me in part with unsold works, known I understand as Remainders. These I give to better customers in lieu of my customary picture calendars. Mrs Ellerbeck, who goes to the WEA and is not averse to a bit of literature, suggested some years ago that I award one of these copies as an encouragement to another member of the literary world, this to be known as the Ellerbeck Prize. We decide who it is to be from the most graphic and telling picture of the outside world outside Kettering that we read the month after Mr Carr delivers his books and we settle with him. Sometimes it is a complete book, and sometimes it is only a few lines. In your case it is only a few lines. I came upon them in some newspaper that Mr Timpson saves for us for outer wrappings. It describes you wrestling in the dark beside a wheelbarrow of sodden volumes and cleverly inserting your signature in a book a dissatisfied customer was attempting to return to you. As a tradesman this has happened to me, and I can appreciate your courage and skill. I have removed the dust-jacket for two reasons. As I store these with my carcasses they have a slight taint, and also I am told that without the jacket it will be harder to sell.'
 Yes, it was J.L. Carr, the Card of Kettering, up to his tricks. Needless to say, there was no such butcher in Kettering. The 'Prize' was one of Carr's devices for getting rid of the remaindered copies of his novel The Harpole Report that he had bought from his publisher (he always bought his remainders, and at the first opportunity bought back all his rights). Other copies had been delivered by hand as Christmas cards - cheaper, the author calculated, than buying cards - but there were still hundreds of remainders in Carr's garden shed. Until, that is, the humorist Frank Muir (who, like Carr, had served in the RAF Photographic Unit during the war) appeared on Desert Island Discs and chose The Harpole Report as the book he would take with him to the mythical island. Carr's flagging literary career was suddenly revived - and his shed emptied, as the canny author sold off all his Harpoles at full trade price.
 But that's enough J.L. Carr. I've now finished Byron Rogers' The Last Englishman, and it did not disappoint - a quite extraordinary biography, and a real page-turner. And now I've bought his biography of R.S. Thomas, which promises to be at least as much fun...

Wednesday 1 August 2012

London: All Quiet

The Olympics are in full swing (I understand), and the effect on London has been very strange. Most of the city, away from the obvious Olympic 'hotspots', is eerily quiet - quieter than I've ever known it in recent years. It seems the first impact of this Olympiad has been to drive people away from our capital city and spark a mini-recession in the one part of the country that makes any money. Shops, theatres, museums and tourist attractions stand empty, tumbleweed bowls down a deserted Regent Street, coyotes howl in the distance... Personally of course I blame myself. The persistent warnings of gridlock, chaos, riots, famine and pestilence on Nigeness - the blog the world reads - have had their effect. Sorry about that - but it does make things surprisingly agreeable for those of us obliged to carry on commuting in Olympic London.