Friday 30 November 2012

To a T

This strange-looking T-shaped creature is a Plume Moth. Its wings are indeed plume-like, but at rest the Plume Moth rolls them up tight, like an umbrella, and holds them at right angle to its body, thus managing to look more like an arrangement of thin twigs or grass than a moth. Two of them - two perfect Ts - have taken up residence on the ceiling of my bathroom. In view of the time of year, and the cold, I had begun to think they were probably dead - but no, last night as I lay in my bath, I noticed they had completely changed their positions since I last saw them. They are still hanging on. One more day and they'll have made it into December...

Thursday 29 November 2012

Clothar and the Disappearing Monkey

Wikipedia's list of historical anniversaries is an invaluable resource - the chronological inspiration for many a post on this blog, I must admit - but it has its little quirks. Browsing on it last night, I found that the very first entry in the Events section read '561 - king Clothar I dies at a monkey Compiegne...' Annoyingly, someone has since nipped in and removed the intriguing words 'a monkey'...
I looked up Clothar and found his entry disappointingly lacking in monkey action, but full of bloodshed. Clothar, King of the Franks, seems to have occupied most of his life in warfare and pillage, when not bumping off members of his own family, beginning with his brother Chlodomer's children and ending with his rebellious son Chram, whom he burnt to death with his wife and children in a cottage in Brittany, whither the unfortunate Chram had fled. Following this last deed, he travelled to Tours to pray forgiveness at the tomb of St Martin, before going on to die at a monkey Compiegne.
Shouty Waldemar Januszczak has a TV series on BBC4 at the moment called The Dark Ages: An Age of Light. The Dark Ages, he booms, were no such thing - they were 'AN AGE OF LIGHT!' Well, no doubt he has a point, but when you read about the likes of Clothar, you do get the impression there was rather a lot of dark around too.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Any Excuse for a Picture of Venice...

'The built environment can be more beautiful than nature,' declares Planning Minister Nick Boles, calling for more open land to be built over as a means of 'solving a housing problem'. He envisages 'beautiful' building that is sensitive to its locality - at which point one is tempted to suggest that he really ought to get out more. Are the developers currently blighting the land with what even Boles can see is 'ugly rubbish' suddenly going to be converted into enlightened and sensitive builders, creating houses that fit their setting and are pleasing to the eye? Even if they could - and most of them are architecturally illiterate - they would have to price such houses very high, which is hardly going to solve any housing problem.
 The built environment can indeed be more beautiful than nature - the city of Venice, for example, is surely one of the most beautiful things on the surface of the Earth. But a large part of that beauty is down to its setting in the lagoon, to sky and light and water (i.e. Nature), to buildings consciously created for beauty and grandeur - and built to last - and to centuries of history and human activity.
 Houses that live up to Nick Boles's ideal already exist, in choice parts of the country, solidly built with local materials, bedded into the landscape, each with its little plot of land - and these models of commodity, firmness and delight cost a fortune, because everyone wants them and they can't be reproduced. The likely future for the British landscape, if Boles gets his way, is that much more of it will disappear under the familiar extrasuburban sprawl of standardised Noddy Vernacular houses, poorly built, poky, clumsily detailed, placeless, historyless, owing nothing and contributing nothing to their setting. This might help to ease the housing shortage, but it will certainly do nothing to beautify the land.

Dabbler alert

I see my thoughts on that terrible terrible terrible man Frank Randle are on the super soaraway Dabbler today.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Kenneth Koch: Thank You

Kenneth Koch's Thank You and Other Poems is - like the Rolling Stones - fifty years old this year. My increasingly battered copy of the Evergreen Original paperback has been a cheering presence somewhere in my life for around forty of those years. At present it's in the bedside pile, a reliable spirit-lifter, containing some of the funniest, happiest serious verse I've ever come across.
 Koch's laudable aim in his poetry was to express 'the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness'. Along with his 'New York school' friends (notably Frank O'Hara and the early John Ashbery), Koch was in the business of blowing away ponderous introspection and replacing it with something fresh, playful, light-footed, exuberant and cosmopolitan, drawing inspiration from abstract expressionism, surrealism, music and pop art imagery. His long poem Fresh Air - read it here - is a kind of manifesto, though the word is far too solemn for such a piece of work.
 Here is a characteristic poem from the Thank You collection - one of my favourites - in which Koch dances nimbly between the comic and the lyrical...


One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Each Sentence says one thing—for example, “Although it was a dark rainy day when
        the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure and sweet expression on her face
        until the day I perish from the green, effective earth."
Or, “Will you please close the window, Andrew?”
Or, for example, “Thank you, the pink pot of flowers on the window sill has changed color
        recently to a light yellow, due to the heat from the boiler factory which exists nearby.”

In the springtime the Sentences and the Nouns lay silently on the grass.
A lonely Conjunction here and there would call, “And! But!”
But the Adjective did not emerge.

As the Adjective is lost in the sentence,
So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat—
You have enchanted me with a single kiss
Which can never be undone
Until the destruction of language.


Here's something for fans of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton to look forward to. Clearly a very classy biopic is in prospect...

Monday 26 November 2012

All Over Now

I've been idly working out how much I'd have had to be paid - cash, upfront - to get me to the O2 Arena to see the Rolling Stones 50th birthday gig. I reckon I'd have done it for two grand, maybe a bit less - probably around the kind of money some desperate fans shelled out for a ticket. Most of my price, I must admit, would have been to cover the multiple hassles of getting to and from Greenwich and into and out of the stadium, and to compensate for my deep-seated loathing of giant music venues (I once made the mistake of taking up the offer of free tickets for the Three Tenors at Wembley - suffice to say we were out of there long before the interval...).
The Rolling Stones might well be 'the greatest rock and roll band in the world', but they were that 40-plus years ago, at their peak, and they've done little since, apart from somehow staying together and making it to this big-money semicentennial. I used to love their albums up to (and probably not including) Exile on Main Street - but hey, that was then, when it was all new; this is now, when it's all over. However well the aged Stones perform - and by all accounts they were on good form - there's nothing new here; it can only be pastiche and repetition. Rock music of the golden age (early 60s to early 70s) is music that can't happen twice - and doesn't need to, as all the best of it is there to be revisited on vinyl or CD. It's that river you can't walk through twice. Isn't it?

Friday 23 November 2012

Ash Dieback: The Key

I was enjoying a revivifying beer on the homeward train last night when I noticed, on the table at which I sat, a single ash key. It must have blown in through the window from a lineside tree. They're everywhere at the moment, these winged (or rather tailed) seeds of the ash tree, and large numbers of them will strike a root and a shoot and grow from sprig to sapling to mature tree - or will they? If the dire predictions of the effects of Ash Dieback disease are to be believed, we could be about to see the near-extinction of one of our most abundant and beautiful trees - a grim prospect...
Later that evening, on the radio, I caught the naturalist and writer Peter Marren talking about Ash Dieback, and he was very clear about how and why this disease reached our shore - as a product of our stupid craze for planting trees, especially so-called 'natives', in vast numbers, under the impression that this is self-evidently a Good Thing. It is not: tree planting can be more of a problem than a solution. As practised at present, it creates unhealthily dense plantations, not woodlands. And it inflates demand to the point where it can only be met by imported trees - which, in the natural course of things, are more than likely to bring pathogens into the country with them. Marren expands his argument in this piece.
I'm not sure the effects of Ash Dieback will be as severe in this country as they were in Denmark (90 percent loss). It may be that we have more resistant strains here, capable of withstanding the disease - we'll find out in the next year or two. But whatever happens, I do hope it will get all those involved to think hard about the wisdom of mass tree planting and, especially, of importing trees.

Thursday 22 November 2012


Following my recent musings on flashmob events (When the World Turns Over), my correspondent Susan in New York has pointed me the way of this wonderful video of an event in Buenos Aires. I pass it on to brighten this November day...

Lorenz Hart

On this day in 1943, the great lyricist Lorenz Hart died in New York City of pneumonia brought on by exposure after a drinking binge. This was just months after the death of his mother, with whom he had lived all his life.
Hart's lyrics are famous for their playful wit, wordplay and brilliant rhyming, but there's often an undertow of melancholy - and he could also write a straightforward, rapturous love song like With A Song In My Heart (written, like all his best, with Richard Rodgers). It's an overworked standard (the theme tune of Two Way Family Favourites, for heaven's sake!), but the delicate artistry of Ella Fitzgerald - here - brings out all its tender beauty...
Hart had no one in his life to whom he could sing such a song; he considered himself so repulsive that love was out of the question; he was a self-loathing, shame-racked gay, a lifelong depressive and a self-destructive alcoholic.
And he wrote that. 

Wednesday 21 November 2012

RST Enjoys a Mitcham Cabbage

More than once I have written about the magical experience of finding myself among goldcrests - notably here. So I was especially delighted to find, towards the end of Byron Rogers' life of R.S. Thomas (I've just finished it - what a book!), that the poet too had this experience, and wrote of it (in a 1984 anthology, Britain: A World By Itself) far better than I ever could. On an October day, Thomas had come upon an isolated clump of bare trees, walking towards it so quietly that his approach had gone unnoticed. Stepping inside, he had, it seems, 'the one mystical experience of his life'...

'It was alive with goldcrests,' he writes. 'The air purred with their small wings. To look up was to see the twigs re-leafed with their small bodies. Everywhere their needle-sharp cries stitched at the silence. Was I invisible? Their seed-bright eyes regarded me from three feet off. Had I put forth an arm, they might have perched on it. I became a tree, part of that bare spinney where silently the light was splintered, and for a timeless moment the birds thronged me, filigreeing me with shadow, moving to an immemorial rhythm on their way south.
  Then suddenly they were gone, leaving other realities to return: the rustle of the making tide, the tick of the moisture, the blinking of the pool's eye as the air flicked it, and lastly myself. Where had I been? Who was I? What did it all mean? When it was happening, I was not. Now that the birds had gone, here I was once again...'

That is poet's prose, and when Thomas sticks to description it is quite wonderfully evocative - the purring air, the twigs re-leafed, those needle-sharp cries (and beaks), the seed-bright eyes, the tick of the moisture - but the more he takes off into speculation about the meaning of the experience (citing Coleridge on 'the primary Imagination' and 'the infinite I AM'), the less convincing he becomes. Never mind - he had his taste of eternity in that clump of trees, and no one has ever written more vividly about that heart-lifting experience of being among goldcrests.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

They Dance

It's all Peter's fault. His comment below yesterday's post got me thinking about dancing butterflies. Not that I hadn't already been thinking about butterflies. I'd been doing what I quite often do at this time of year, visualising a sunny, flowery downland slope, dotted with wild marjoram and knapweed, hawkweed and scabious, and butterflies dancing from flower to flower - there you go: dancing.They do dance - well, most of them. Some, like the Large White and Meadow Brown, do little more than flop around in the air, and one or two - such as the seldom seen Mountain Ringlet - barely bother to take flight at all. At the other end of the scale, the Skippers dart about at such speed, in straight lines and zigzags, that they can scarcely be said to dance. On the other hand, most of the Blues and Browns - and Marbled Whites (pictured) - of downland and meadows have a dainty dancing flight, especially when they're deciding where to touch down. But woodlands are home to the most graceful dancers, with the power swooping of the Silver-washed Fritillary and the more elegant gliding of my favourite, the White Admiral - not to mention the ever present Speckled Woods, dancing in and out of the dappled sunlight that their wings so perfectly mimic, or rising in pairs, fight-dancing in an ascending double helix. These are cheering summer images for the butterflyless months - and here are more dancing butterflies (foreigners alas, but some quite nearly resembling our own White Admiral). Enjoy.

Monday 19 November 2012

When the World turns over

Something you don't often see at the public library...
This strange, joyful image is from Jordan Matter's Dancers Among Us, a book of quite amazing photographs of dancers doing what dancers do - but in wholly unexpected  everyday situations. It began with a male dancer dressed in full commuter uniform taking off and flying across a Times Square subway platform, and it soon grew into a phenomenon - there's lots more imagery, video footage etc here.
Dancers Among Us is closely related to the flash mob movement, where one reality suddenly erupts into another - as in this glorious food market Brindisi from Philadelphia. At such moments the world turns over and shows its joyful spontaneous side, reminding us of another reality that is always there, but for so much of the time lost in the busyness of everyday. And there are dancers among us everywhere - unconscious dancers, mostly very bad. As soon as you become aware of the way people move - as I am increasingly doing - you realise that there is a kind of dance going on around us all the time, on every city street. Mostly it is a dance of shuffle and slouch, but sometimes you catch someone moving beautifully, with real grace. There are dancers among us, but they are too few.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Running Over

What is wrong with this poem?

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

It's Via Negativa  by R.S. Thomas, and according to Donald Davie, enjambment is what's wrong with it - there's far too much of it. Enjambment is what happens when a phrase or sentence runs over the end of a line, instead of ending at the line-break. It's an essential tool in the poet's armoury, breaking the jog-trot tendency of regular metrical verse, throwing the emphasis onto unexpected words, and setting up a creative tension between syntax and structure. It is entirely apt that Via Negativa, a poem that is all about tension, should embody it in frequent enjambment. And when it's read aloud - or voiced in the head - it works perfectly.
R.S.'s namesake Edward, whose work often seethes with tension, was another  master of enjambment, especially (as with R.S.) in his later poems. Here he is, cranking up the tension, in Beauty...

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph--
"Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one." Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.

And then there is Kay Ryan, enjamber extraordinaire...

Shark's Teeth

Everything contains some   
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour   
of city holds maybe   
a minute of these   
remnants of a time   
when silence reigned,   
compact and dangerous   
as a shark. Sometimes   
a bit of a tail   
or fin can still   
be sensed in parks.

 What would Donald Davie have made of that?

Wednesday 14 November 2012

'Happiness is the wrong word'

A 72-year longitudinal study has concluded that the key to a long and happy life is in close relationships with others - who'd have guessed! Friends and family are far more important factors than any inherited benefits, the scientists report.
 'The finding on happiness,' says the current director of the project (who sounded a happy fellow on the radio this morning), 'is that happiness is the wrong word. The right words for happiness are emotional intelligence, relationships, joy, connections and resilience...' Or, to put it another way, loving, giving, enjoying and enduring.
 Not for the first time, science 'discovers' what we have always known.

The Keep Calm Mystery

So now there's an album too - Keep Calm and Stay Cosy, 3 CDs of soft pop to calm you into festive catalepsy. I caught a TV ad for it last night, more than once.
What is it with the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon? What began a few years ago as a rediscovered, never issued propaganda poster from the Last Spot of Bother, designed to sustain morale if things got really hairy, has spread to encompass everything - stationery in all its forms, T-shirts, mobile phone covers, textiles, wallpaper, you name it. There's a book, a website, an online Keep Calm-o-matic on which all manner of variations on the theme can be forged (one of the better ones is illustrated here) - it's only a matter of time before there's a Keep Calm and Carry On theme park...
Why has this clunkily designed poster with its functional sanserif and flat Tudor crown become the popular design phenomenon de nos jours? Does it, as some have suggested, chime with the hard times we're supposedly living through, reminding us of the great British spirit of stoically muddling through? Or is it rather (as I suspect) an example of austerity chic, a product of easy rather than hard times?
The last time a 'look' take off on quite this all-engulfing scale was when The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was published in the late 70s and its vapid watercolour style inspired a 'look' that gradually spread across the land. There were, I remember, various attempts to explain it, but none of them was convincing. These things just happen, and in time they fade away and are forgotten. All we can do is, er, keep calm and carry on.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Happy Birthday Hermione

Born on this day in 1906 was the redoubtable character actress, scene stealer and revue artiste Hermione Baddeley (sister of Angela, namesake and professional rival of Gingold), who has the distinction of having played the shortest role ever nominated for an Oscar - it was as Simone Signoret's best friend in Room at the Top, and it came in at just 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The star of that film, Laurence Harvey - her junior by 20-odd years - was one of Hermione's lovers, and there were two husbands. Her first marriage, to the Hon David Tennant, stalwart of Soho's notorious Gargoyle Club, got off to a shaky start when she turned up at the register office an hour late, by which time the registrar had gone missing. The happy couple moved in to a Wiltshire manor house, which soon became notorious for their wild parties. After divorcing Tennant - who remained the love of her life - Hermione married Captain J.H. 'Dozey' Willis, a decorated Dunkirk veteran, and again things got off to an inauspicious start when most of the wedding presents were stolen from the reception. The marriage didn't last long.
  An animal lover, Hermione Baddeley dedicated her autobiography - by all accounts a characteristic mix of industrial-scale name-dropping and disarming candour - to her dog.

Monday 12 November 2012

On the Other Hand...

... yesterday - Remembrance Sunday - was a gloriously sunny autumn day, the sky cloudless and intensely blue, the sunlight sweet and mellow, the trees in all their golden coppery glory. I spent a long while sitting in a kind of natural bower, surrounded by purple dogwood under ash and birch, looking out over a small lake from which the sedge had not yet quite withered. Basking I was, in the first warm sunlight I'd felt on my face in weeks. It was still cool in the shade, but in the sun genuinely, warmingly warm - though, disappointingly, not quite warm enough to tempt any hibernating butterflies, even a Red Admiral, into a brief waking. Still, I was granted the sight (and sound) of a party of foraging goldcrests - which took me back to another occasion when these tiny, delightful birds appeared close at hand, an unlooked-for gift...

The Inevitable BBC Post - feel free to skip...

As it happened, in the hour before the hapless George Entwistle stepped out of Broadcasting House to announce his resignation as BBC Director General on Saturday night, Radio 4 had broadcast an edition of Archive On 4 devoted to the founding father and first DG of the BBC, Lord Reith. Thus was ninety years of BBC history neatly bookended by a giant and a pygmy.
 But the giant Reith was also a full-blown megalomaniac, who created the BBC in his own  megalomaniac image - and the megalomania survives in the institutional DNA of the Corporation. Having worked for a (mercifully) few years inside the BBC, I  must say that I have never encountered  an organisation with such delusions of grandeur, so unshakably convinced of its manifest destiny and its innate, self-evident superiority, despite all the human evidence to the contrary seated around its meeting tables (which is where most BBC staff seem to spend most of their time). Megalomaniac organisations are fine so long as they are dominated by personalities and talent, however maverick (some newspapers still fit this image), but the BBC has become over the years an organisation so dominated by structures, by faceless management, navel-gazing  and endless bureaucratic procedures that it rewards mediocrity - hence the rise of Entwistle to the top - while stifling originality and creativity. And of course it continues to pat itself on the back - insisting that it is still has the public's 'trust', whatever that means - even as it falls apart. Clearly the BBC is in need of a radical shake-up; incredibly, those who appointed him thought Entwistle, the 'insider's insider', was just the man to do the job. Only the BBC could delude itself on quite such an epic scale.

Friday 9 November 2012


Another triumph for European Union diplomacy - after a mere 21 years, the Banana Wars are over. Roll on that joint European foreign policy, I say...

Reflections on the Book Trade

Will fewer books be sold this Christmas than last? I doubt it. Whatever inroads are made by electronic publishing, the book as gift will surely always survive ('I've downloaded the new Jamie into your Kindle' doesn't have quite the festive ring, does it?). More broadly, the book as desirable object will also surely survive. In fact I have high hopes that the ebook revolution - which at present has the big publishers circling the wagons and merging into ever larger conglomerates - could be good news for those of us who love actual books, those board-and-paper objects of desire. There is already some evidence that book design and production standards are improving - books are looking more attractive than they did a decade or two ago, and they're better made. Of course this isn't necessarily so at the mass-appeal blockbuster (or, increasingly, bonkbuster) end of the market - but that is precisely the area of the trade that best lends itself to electronic publishing. Why heft that 500-page airport doorstop around with you, when you could have it and any number of others all stored in one palm-sized gizmo? The ebook could take care of the book trade's heavy lifting - not just the blockbusters and bonkbusters but also all those pumped-up, over-length 'literary' or 'serious' novels - leaving the publishers of paper-and-board books to concentrate on more elegant productions.
  I hope that all this upheaval might even result in a revival of the small book in all its forms - the novella, the little collection of short stories, the slim volume of verse, the long essay. The logic of the time is surely with small books. Just as the mighty Victorian three-decker was the perfect book form for an age of leisurely reading with few distractions, so the short book would surely suit our busy, media-saturated times better than the now standard 300-400 page novel (at least a third of which is likely to be padding anyway). If we must have big long books, let them migrate to their natural home on the ereader, and let those of us who love actual books have them better made, better designed - and smaller.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Sabellianism: Always Good for a Laugh

More on R.S. Thomas's sense of humour (see below: 'A cheese box...'). Byron Rogers reports that only one Punch cartoon ever made Thomas laugh out loud. In it, a parson is delivering a sermon to a blank-faced congregation. 'Now, I know what you're thinking,' he says confidentially. 'You're thinking that I'm being guilty of Sabellianism.'
  Thomas once told a friend that the Church only kept him on because he was capable of explaining such things as Sabellianism. It's a third-century heresy based on the eminently sensible notion that God does not have three distinct persons but three modes or aspects in which we mortals perceive Him. I doubt a gag like that would get past any cartoon editor these days, even on the Church Times.
  Does the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Selby, have a view on Sabellianism, I wonder?

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Soaking Up the Rays

One of the more endearing habits of pigeons - and frankly there aren't that many to choose from - is sunbathing. Every morning I see them lined up on sunny roof slopes and in the higher branches of sun-facing trees, breasts to the sunlight, soaking up the rays. Mostly it's Wood Pigeons, rather than our feral 'flying rats', who sunbathe, and they appear to be the only birds to make such a habit of it. Indeed they seem to seek the sun almost as much as butterflies (or German tourists) do. I hope they (the pigeons, that is, not the German tourists) soon discover that they can get a bit of extra warmth from the solar panels that disfigure so many roofs these days - a scattering of basking pigeons would greatly improve their looks.
 The pigeons - and all of us - have certainly been in need of warming sun in these recent weeks of cold, rain, frost and fog. How different it all is from this time last year, when a November heatwave gifted me my last Brimstone of the year on November 13th. That won't be happening this time.

Trebizond Again

Over on The Dabbler, I'm writing about The Towers of Trebizond and Rose Macaulay. I should add that the account of the heroine's attempt to learn Turkish and its unexpected consequences is one of the funniest things I have ever read.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

'I could be at home watching television.'

'Stop, stop, stop! It doesn't work and you don't work. It is not good enough. I could be at home watching television.' Thus the booming tones of theatrical legend Sir Peter Hall from a seat in the stalls of the Vaudeville Theatre towards the end of a performance of what is by most accounts a pretty dire new production of Uncle Vanya. Sadly he then spoiled the effect of this blast of plain speaking by apologising profusely, hosing the cast with adulation, and describing the production and all involved in it as absolutely lovely, super and wonderful. He had, he explained, been 'briefly disorientated' on waking up after having nodded off - which in itself suggests that he was rather less than enthralled by what was going on on stage. Could it be that his brief disorientation led him to blurt out the truth - a thing that is not done in theatrical circles.

The Inevitable Subject

So, here we are again - the US Election. We know it's an historic occasion because BBC TV News have sent their solid-wood anchorman Huw Edwards over there to sit in that nice studio with a view of the White House and do the links to the various correspondents who are already over there, mostly in Ohio. While he was Stateside, Huw also got his Who Do You Think You Are? moment when he discovered some very distant relations living in a small town somewhere (I think I was nodding off by then). Meanwhile, Radio 4's Today has Jim Naughtie over there, filing those self-consciously lyrical reports that always come over as bad pastiches of Alistair Cooke. Ah well - it will soon (or fairly soon) be over...
This time four years ago, I wrote 'Heaven knows what kind of president Obama will make - I just hope he doesn't turn out to be, beneath the glamour and the eloquence, Jimmy Carter mark 2. I hope he gets off to a better start than Bill Clinton did. And I hope above all that the psychos of Al Qaeda don't decide to test his mettle early on with one of their trademark atrocities. For now, let's look on the bright side,and rejoice that America has yet again proved that, in the final analysis, it's a resoundingly Good Thing.'
Well, America is still, I believe, a resoundingly Good Thing, and Al Qaeda didn't strike early on, but 'Jimmy Carter mark 2' doesn't seem too wide of the mark. By the time of his inauguration, Obama already looked stricken, as if he'd just received really bad news, and it hasn't really got much better. The hugely attractive, charismatic candidate became a strange, emotionally detached and largely ineffectual figure. He doesn't deserve to win - in fact, for his handling of the Libyan embassy siege, he probably deserves to be impeached - but the chances are that the formidable Democrat machine will inch him over the winning line. We'll see, eventually...
Also four years ago, I mentioned that the excellent Laurence Rees's latest TV series, WWII: Behind Closed Doors - a superb account of Stalin's making and breaking of alliances in the course of the war - was coming soon. As it happens, he's got another, equally superb series, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, starting next week on BBC2. Don't miss it.

Monday 5 November 2012

'A cheese box containing a puffin's beak...'

It's not often a biography has me laughing out loud - let alone in the Introduction. But so it was with Byron Rogers' The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas, which I began the other day. The Introduction ends with Rogers discovering that all that survived by way of a personal inventory of the lives of the late poet and his artist wife was contained in four supermarket bags. A list of the contents of one bag follows, beginning with
'The skull of a hare. An envelope from L.Garvin, Honey Merchants, containing grey mullet scales. A cheese box containing a puffin's beak, together with a Windsor & Newton leaflet containing advice on the control of moth damage to paint brushes. An envelope containing snow bunting feathers. A list of mills from Merionethshire. An envelope containing bits of silver foil ('from Aunt Ethel')...
and so it goes on, through 'A book of telephone numbers - containing none. An exercise book containing a hair prescription from a Dr Ferguson of Bromsgrove...' to 'Large photo. Sheep in a slate pen' to 'Various brown envelopes (empty). Envelope containing a single dead prawn.
That,' declares Rogers, 'was when I decided to write his biography.'
  Who wouldn't?
  Even the captions to the photographs are funny. A picture of the poet as a baby depicts 'His first, and possibly most successful, attempt at a smile.' Thomas appears behind his young son in another picture, his back turned, bent grimly over a scythe. 'R.S.' notes Rogers 'brooded much on grass and the bluntness of scythes.' Of course he did.
  If it seems strange that such an austere and forbidding figure as Thomas should be the subject of such a laugh-packed biography, bear in mind that a BBC arts correspondent told Rogers that he'd only met three genuinely funny men in his life - Lenny Bruce, Ken Dodd and... R.S. Thomas.
 Thomas the man emerges from Rogers' account as a great comic figure - and it's not all unintentional. There was a lot of play-acting and of bone-dry, pitch-black comedy in Thomas's carefully cultivated persona - and a lot of absurdity in his posturing, which Rogers brings out beautifully. The result is a hugely revealing portrait of a man who did his level best to conceal, mystify and mislead - not least in his 'autobiographical' writings - and a very very funny book. I'm not half way through yet and it has already made me laugh aloud - often on public transport - a dozen times or more. What more could you ask?

Friday 2 November 2012


With the gloriously named national emergency committee, Cobra, holding a meeting on the threat of ash dieback disease to our native trees, it's clear that it's being taken very seriously. I hope this will prove to be another case of needless panic and of underestimating the ability of trees to look after themselves and bounce back from whatever disasters come their way. However, we are told that 90 per cent of Denmark's ashes are dead, and that is worrying.
 The question I've been asking ever since this story broke is why on earth anyone would bother importing a self-sewing weed tree that is hugely abundant and will come sprouting up virtually anywhere. The explanation is here: unbelievably it is cheaper either to import trees, or to export seedlings to be grown on abroad then reimport them - in both cases labelling them 'native' or 'British' - than it is to grow ash trees here. How can this be? Truly it's a mad world.


Here's a picture to celebrate the birthday (in 1699) of the great French painter Chardin. This one - one of several versions of The Young Schoolmistress - is in the National Gallery, as is one I wrote about earlier. The Young Schoolmistress is painted with exquisite brushwork and typical mastery of the effects of light on surfaces, and it has that quality of absorbing stillness that characterises all of Chardin's best work. It is touching without being sentimental, and gains new poignancy when you reflect that the artist lost two daughters in infancy. He must have loved children, I think, to be able to paint them so well. 'Who said one paints with colors?' he once remarked. 'One employs colours, but one paints with feeling.'

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Strange Case of the Editor and the Talking Mongoose

So there I was, reading - for reasons that now escape me - the Wikipedia entry on the defunct BBC magazine The Listener, when I stumbled on something that made me rub my eyes in disbelief. I quote:
'The first editor, Richard S. Lambert, left in 1939 after successfully suing Sir Cecil Levita for slander over allegations that he was unfit for his job because of his credulity in believing in Gef, the talking mongoose.'
 Gef, the taking mongoose? Some kind of Wiki joke surely... But no. Gef was, in his day, something of a celebrity, a very well known talking mongoose indeed (though there was some debate over whether or not he was technically a mongoose - he didn't seem too sure himself). Gef - about whom Lambert had indeed co-authored a book with his ghost hunter pal Harry Price - lived with a family called the Irvings in a farmhouse known as Cashen's Gap near the hamlet of Dalby on the Isle of Man.
 The Irvings first became aware of his presence when they started hearing mysterious sounds as of a rat scratching, or a ferret spitting, or a dog growling, or a baby gurgling. Gef (pronounced Jeff) soon resolved the mystery by announcing himself as a mongoose, born in New Delhi in 1852 - in his own words, 'an extra extra clever mongoose'. He was, according to the only member of the family to get a proper look at him, about the size of a small rat, with yellowish fur and a large bushy tail. But Gef himself declared 'I am a freak. I have hands and I have feet, and if you saw me you'd faint, you'd be petrified, mummified, turned into stone or a pillar of salt!'
 Gef liked to joke around with the Irvings - once taking it too far by pretending to be poisoned. He obligingly spied on the neighbours and reported back, and made himself useful about the house. The Irvings rewarded him with biscuits, chocolates and bananas, served up on a saucer suspended from the ceiling. The friendly mongoose even joined the family on their trips to market, chattering away merrily from the far side of the hedgerows.
 Unsurprisingly, the story of Gef attracted the attention of the press and of psychic investigators, who flocked to the island. No very firm conclusions were reached as to what exactly Gef was, and his fame faded with the coming of the war. When the Irvings had to sell the farm in 1945, they found that Gef had somewhat depressed its market value. The farmer to whom they eventually sold was an unsentimental soul who claimed to have shot Gef, but the body he displayed was black and white and nothing like a mongoose.
 I should add that I had a distant female relative living on the Isle of Man around this time who used to have all her housework done, when she was out, by the helpful 'little people' in return for milk and the odd titbit. I rather fancy the Isle of Man is that kind of place. Or was.