Monday 31 December 2012

Happy New Year!

A very happy 2013 to all who browse here. May it be another year of wonders, great and small...

Looking Back at 2012

Well, what a year it's been... No, really - it has. Consider:
It was the year of the London Olympics, an event greeted here on Nigeness with, I must confess, something less than wholehearted enthusiasm - and which turned out to confound all the dismal predictions herein passim by being an unmitigated triumph. (The thing is, you see, I have to call one wrong every now and then to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities...)
And it was the year of the Diamond Jubilee. Who will ever forget the BBC's coverage of the great river pageant,  as comprehensive a shambles as has ever been seen on the nation's screens? The man in charge, one George Entwistle, was duly rewarded with the Director Generalship (after several hundred thousands of pounds had been spent on 'headhunters') and walked the plank after 56 days in office.
But let's talk about the weather. 2012 began with drought - and a glorious early spring - but by May had switched to rainy mode and has seldom relented since, ending up as the wettest year on record. The result was the worst butterfly summer I can remember, following hard on the heels of one of the best and earliest springs. But I enjoyed a few golden days on the Surrey hills and in the Derbyshire dales - and a magical encounter with a Valezina - and when the rain did ease off briefly in late summer, it turned out to be a prodigious year for Chalk-hill Blues, which I hadn't seen in such quantities since boyhood. And talking of magical encounters, this was the year of my very first meeting with that legendary rarity the Camberwell Beauty. Yes, it was in another country (where it is known as the Mourning Cloak and is surprisingly common), but it was still one of the butterfly experiences of a lifetime...
On the book front, much of my most enjoyable reading has been rereading, as usual, and it's not been a year of great discoveries. I've spent a while exploring the extraordinary life and work of Ivy Compton-Burnett, belatedly discovered Willa Cather and read my first collection of Alice Munro - I'll be back for more of both of them, I'm sure. Reading Byron Rogers's two classic biographies, of J.L. Carr and R.S. Thomas, gave me (and, I trust, blog readers) much harmless pleasure. And I finally read Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond and was not disappointed.
Among the various joys of a year blessed with an abundance of them were the golden spider silk cape in the V&A, and some glorious churches visited in Herefordshire and Norfolk. And, topping it all - this was the year I became a grandfather, with the birth of the auspiciously named Sam.
Even despite the Lost Summer, this was a vintage year.

Friday 28 December 2012

A Sick Man Writes

Apologies for my unwontedly long absence from the Blog; I've been knocked out of action by what we doctors call a full-on stonking megabastard cold-flu type virus, from which I am only now beginning to recover. Mrs Nige had it first, and then, with perfect timing for the Festive Season, I succumbed last Saturday - and of course it's a proven scientific fact [citation needed] that we men are hit far harder by this kind of thing. Suffice to say that by Christmas Eve, simply thumbing a text message was a major challenge, and attempting anything on a computer keyboard not to be thought of - so I couldn't even manage my traditional Christmas Wishes to all followers of Nigeness. So, after the event, I hope you all had a great Christmas. With luck, I'll manage a New Year message - perhaps even a look back over the year. Meanwhile I shall concentrate on getting better...

Friday 21 December 2012

Today's the Day

'Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.'
[Robert Frost]
And some say that the world will end in a mighty cosmic collision some time today, as predicted (hem hem) by the Mayans. Hundreds of hacks and a few dozen wackjobs have descended on the French village of Bugarach, where extraterrestrials will emerge from a nearby mountain (which doubles as a UFO launch pad) to save those humans who happen to be in the vicinity. So, the end population of planet Earth will consist of a miscellaneous collection of hacks, nutters and seriously disgruntled Pyrenean villagers. This might make an interesting sitcom (Only Fools and Journos?), but I can't help feeling it has something of an air of anticlimax about it.
Oh, and in case the Mayans turn out to to be right - Cheerio everybody, it's been a lot of fun.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Alma-Tad of the Royal Acad

I've written before about Lawrence Alma-Tadema,'the worst painter of the 19th century' (according to Ruskin, never one to mince his words). Sir Lawrence I should say, for the doughty fellow was knighted in 1899, joining the distinguished list of foreign-born artist to be so honoured - Rubens, Van Dyck, Kneller, etc. A celebratory banquet, attended by the giants of the artistic world, was duly laid on at the Royal Academy, and great was the rejoicing; the genial Alma-Tadema seems to have been as popular with his fellow artists as with the public. The proceedings became positively uproarious when a song, the Carmen Tademare - specially written by the dramatist, critic, gallery owner and impresario Joseph Comyns Carr, with music by George Henschel (also present) - was sung, with everyone joining in on the chorus with gusto:

'Who knows him well he best can tell
That a stouter friend hath no man
Than this lusty Knight who for our delight
Hath painted Greek and Roman.
Then here let every citizen
Who holds a brush or wields a pen
Drink deep as his Zuyder Zee
To Alma-Tad - of the Royal Acad -
Of the Royal Academee!'

Happy days!
Still reading Victorian Olympus then? you inquire wearily. I am. Although it's a short book, my reading time has been even shorter - but I shall be finishing it today and moving on...

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Olympics again

Over on The Dabbler, my piece on the Cotswold Olympics has been posted. For reasons of space, my prophetic words on the then forthcoming London Games - "the joyless hypertrophied big-money fascistic spectacle about to be inflicted on the unfortunate city of London" - have been omitted.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Piltdown: Giving the Scientists What They Wanted

When I was a boy I had an old encyclopaedia with an illustration of the reconstructed Piltdown Man skull in it, presented as the key 'missing link' in the transition from ape to man. On the centenary of this famous hoax, it's worth recalling that such a version of human evolution was the received scientific wisdom for four decades (though, to be fair, there were always doubters). It's a classic case of scientists persuading themselves, for scant reason, that X is the case, then seeking out proof that they are right. Many palaeontologists had convinced themselves that the brain led the way in human evolution, so they were looking for a big brain in an otherwise ape-like skull; and the British ones were determined that there must be major finds waiting to be discovered in Britain as they had been on the Continent. Indeed it would be only right and fitting, wouldn't it, if humanity had made its crucial evolutionary breakthrough in England's green and pleasant land, that the first humans were free-born Englishmen. In such a climate of belief, it was no wonder an ingenious hoaxer came along and gave the scientists what they wanted.
Who was the hoaxer? I like the idea that it might have been that man of many parts Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - philosopher, Jesuit priest, palaeontologist, hoaxer? However, Teilhard came to believe that there probably were no 'missing links' to be found, owing to what he charmingly called the 'suppression of the peduncles'. The big breakthroughs in evolution happened, he concluded, rather suddenly, thus appearing in the fossil record fully formed. Piltdown Man, then, was a redundant peduncle.

Monday 17 December 2012

Stark Insensibility

'His tutor, Mr Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was  not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college, I waited on him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr Jorden asked me why I had not attended? I answered, I had been sliding in Christ Church meadow: and this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my Tutor." BOSWELL. "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON. "No, Sir, stark insensibility."'

If ever (heaven forbid) I were to write a memoir of my prolonged adolescence, it would be titled Stark Insensibility. A recent flurry of activity on the excellent Commonplace Blog got me looking back with an appalled shudder to those years. Last Friday, Dave Myers owned up to The Books I've Stolen - which got his readers queuing up to confess to their own book thefts. My mind reeled back to student days, when I could scan my book collection and know that fully a third of it had been stolen - from bookshops, from libraries, I don't think from any individuals (which is something, I suppose).
What was I up to? I guess it was partly the zeitgeist. Those were strange unsettled times (the turn of the Seventies) and, in some of the circles I moved in, theft - at least from more or less faceless institutions - was no big deal. There were those around who concurred with Prudhon's maxim, Property Is Theft. I wasn't really one of them, but I was more than stupid enough - and amoral enough - to disregard property rights when it suited me. I didn't even get a thrill from the risks I was running - or only from the most audacious feat of swiping; mostly it was just something I (and many others) did. And there is, undeniably, something different about stealing books - which is why so many people who would never dream of stealing anything else will pinch books without too many qualms. It's the form of theft that seems to come closest to the popular euphemism - 'liberating' property.
But here I am again, looking back aghast, and asking why the heck I did what I did. And the best answer is still Johnson's: Stark Insensibility.

Friday 14 December 2012

Boots, Boots

These boots were made for gardening. They are the boots of Miss Gertrude Jekyll, eloquently painted in 1920 by the great William Nicholson. I was put in mind of them when I read about the national art collection - i.e. every publicly owned painting in the land - having been made available online. They're all there, and as some 80 per cent of them are normally hidden from public view in storage and office space, this is excellent news - the kind of thing that only the internet can do. The exercise has thrown up some interesting finds too - not least the identity of the artist with the largest number (by miles) of publicly owned paintings. Any guesses? Turner perhaps? No - it's Herbert Barnard John Everett (me neither), a maritime painter, who left a vast amount of his work to the National Maritime Museum. And the boots? The boots are the subject of this painting, which resides in the National Football Museum and is the work of one Doris Brand, of whom nothing is known. It's rather a fine painting - but who was she? And who, come to that, was Christopher?

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Waxwings in London!

This morning, the suburban demiparadise where I live was in full Winter Wonderland garb. Every twig and every leaf, every grass blade and strand of spider silk was rimed with white whiskery hoarfrost, to brilliant effect. The Beast from the East has moved back in, clamping its icy grip on the land. And moving in with it have been Waxwings - these spectacular winter visitors have been seen in London, busily stripping the rowan trees of berries. I've only once seen a Waxwing, and that was but a glimpse from a train - but I live in hope, especially this winter. Meanwhile mysteriously absent are the Redwings (and, come to that, Fieldfares) who normally sweep in with the first icy blast. There were dozens of them around in the demiparadise last winter, and the winter before that - the Hard One - they and the Fieldfares were everywhere. This year I've barely seen either. Has anyone else seen much of them this winter? Perhaps their absence could be a sign that the Beast from the East isn't all it's cracked up to be and we could soon be reverting to the familiar mild wet winter...
Meanwhile, there's a fine sun-warmed painting by John Linnell on The Dabbler, with a few words from me.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Watts on the Bat

As just now my weekday life consists almost entirely of working flat out and reading snatches of William Gaunt's Victorian Olympus (between intervals of sleep and stupor), I make no apologies for returning again to that fascinating volume. Yesterday I learned that one of G.F. Watts's first commissions was to illustrate a cricket book with a series of drawings showing the various positions adopted by the batsman. Yes, that G.F. Watts. It's an improbably down-to-earth start for a high-minded artist who seemed interested only in Abstractions and the Ideal, but so it was. Watts owed the commission to an early patron, a remarkable man called Nicholas Wanostrocht, who inherited the running of a school at the age of just 19 when his father died, but whose main interest was cricket. Fearing that his pupils' parents might take a dim view of his cricketing activities, he played under the name of Nicholas Felix, and became a stalwart of the great Kentish side of the mid-19th century (along with the gloriously named Fuller Pilch). His batting manual, Felix on the Bat, was published in 1845, with Watts's illustrations. Credited with the invention of the Catapulta bowling machine and India-rubber batting gloves, Felix was also a classicist, musician, linguist, writer, artist, you name it - another of those Victorian all-rounders. As he was at cricket, batting left-handed and bowling (underarm) slow left-arm orthodox. Oddly he ended up buried in Wimborne cemetery just yards from Montague Druitt, another cricketer and, posthumously, a Jack the Ripper suspect. Small world.

Sunday 9 December 2012

'The age of each had its dangers...'

'The disparity of age might preclude, apart from the fact that Adelaide was married, the thought of love between them: and yet there was an affection, no less tender because disinterested. Obviously, she was pleased by the good looks, the talent of the young man - and he, on his side, adored her as an ideal being. The age of each had its dangers. A motherly sentiment on the one hand and a feeling of reverence on the other were not absolute safeguards against a warmer emotion, but it would be an idle speculation to pursue this thought, and irrelevant to their mutual recognition of a lofty and even abstract excellence...'
  Henry James surely? No, it's William Gaunt in Victorian Olympus (see below, 'Proudly and Furiously Bad..', 5th December). He's writing, with that Jamesian delicacy of discrimination, about the relationship between the young Frederic Leighton and Adelaide Sartoris, born into the Kemble acting dynasty, married to an art critic and amateur painter - and clearly very impressed by the young Leighton.
  Art historians don't write like that nowadays, more's the pity. Gaunt's approach - which would today be roundly condemned as fanciful and unscholarly - is unashamedly novelistic. He has a story to tell, and he has characters to bring to life, along with their various milieux - and he does it superbly well. His three studies of Victorian art movements - The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, The Aesthetic Adventure and Victorian Olympus - are irresistibly readable page turners. First published in the late Forties and early Fifties, they are out of print now, but seem to be available for 1p on Amazon, in paperback (an edition by Cardinal with covers that make them look like Seventies erotica).
 Not only do art historians not write like that; neither, I fancy, do artists. Here's Leighton writing to his mother ahead of the exhibition of his first major work, warning her to be indifferent to the 'scribbling of pamphleteers; the self-complacent oracularity of those pachidermata is rivalled only by their gross ignorance of the subject they bemaul.' But Leighton needn't have worried; the painting was a triumph. It was Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession Through the Streets of Florence - which now hangs over the grand staircase of the National Gallery. And which I have written about elsewhere...

Friday 7 December 2012

A Birthday Message from HMRC

My 63rd birthday (yep, me and Tom Waits both - spared for another year), and Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs mark the occasion by sending me a letter headed 'Are you affected by changes to Child Benefit?' My children, I should point out, are in their 30s, and one is living in New Zealand.
A series of questions follow, and if the answer is No (as it was, unsurprisingly, in my case), 'The changes explained in this letter will not affect you. Please ignore it.' It put me in mind of the famous notice saying only 'Do Not Throw Stones at This Notice'... A waste of tax-payers' money, for sure, but it has its up side: clearly 'they' don't know as much about us as we sometimes fear they do. In fact they appear to know nothing.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Corruption, Conspiracy, Cover-Up... Really?

In any league table of institutional corruption you'll find the Scandinavian countries - and our own - languishing way down in the relegation zone. And yet, if you were to judge these nations by their TV dramas, you'd conclude that they are riddled with corruption from top to bottom. The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge all involve high-level cover-ups, conspiracies and dirty deeds, while every episode of Wallander exposes a seething nest of vipers at the heart of every apparently tranquil community (or indeed family). As for British TV, it seems to be impossible any longer to make a thriller that hasn't got an almighty conspiracy and/or cover-up at the centre of it. Secret State was the latest of many, with The Town now doing the same trick on a small-town scale, and The Hour applying it to period drama. All is conspiracy and cover-up, despite the evidence all around us that those in High Places can barely run a tap, let alone an all-embracing conspiracy.
Why do we entertain these fantasies? Is it precisely because we know they don't reflect reality, that we're secure enough to indulge thrilling projections of evil at the core of society? Or are we exercising our uncommonly well-developed ethical sensitivities, warning ourselves of what is possible when the worm of corruption does start boring away at a society? Is it just the strange fascination (to some) of conspiracy theories? Or, wait a minute, maybe all these conspiracy thrillers actually reflect reality - after all, if cover-ups are successful no one will know, will they? And who compiles these corruption league tables anyway? Whose pocket are they in? Think on...

Wednesday 5 December 2012

'Proudly and Furiously Bad...'

Rereading (after many years) William Gaunt's Victorian Olympus - the third volume of his wonderfully readable trilogy on Victorian art movements - I came across a name that was unfamiliar to me: Antoine Wiertz. When the young and prodigiously gifted Frederic Leighton was travelling around Europe, working with and learning from a range of artists whose talent he would soon eclipse, he visited the Brussels studio of Wiertz, an artist Gaunt describes as 'proudly and furiously bad'. This seems to be a fair judgment of a painter driven by paranoiac delusions of grandeur, who was convinced not only of his own genius but of his ability to reform society by means of his eloquent brush (the painting above, for example, Buried Too Soon, is a typically understated plea for cremation). As his themes grew larger - Greeks and Trojans Fighting for the Body of Patrocles,  The Fall of the Rebellious Angels -  so did his canvases. 20ft by 12ft was his kind of size, and he developed a new medium that enabled him to cover large areas fast with a flat matt finish (it involved mixing petrol in with colours and turpentine, and it hasn't lasted well). Lurching between classicism and lurid, not to say morbid romanticism, Wiertz's paintings became ever more grandiose, and his ambitions grew with them. Amazingly, he managed to persuade the Belgian government to build a dedicated museum to display in perpetuity all his works, which he donated to a not terribly grateful nation. Still more amazingly, the museum is still there - attracting an average of ten or so visitors a day - in a suburb of Brussels where it stands quite overshadowed by another ugly monument to delusional folly, the European Parliament complex. If I find myself in Brussels again, I must go and have a look. Meanwhile, if you can stand it, there are images of many of Wiertz's paintings here....

Tuesday 4 December 2012


I see I'm celebrating Deanna Durbin (happy birthday!) over on The Dabbler...

Short and...

As ever at this time of year, a pre-Christmas workstorm is raging here at NigeCorp. Times like these call for something short and sweet on the blog - or perhaps, in this case, bittersweet... Sonnets certainly don't come much shorter, or more tightly packed, than Elizabeth Bishop's last, which was also the last poem she both started and completed. It was published shortly after her death in 1979.


Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Whether intentionally or not, this poem feels like a summing-up and a leavetaking. The first half is full of images of containment, tension and division, while the second half sings of release, freedom, vibrant colour, happiness, ending on the exclaimed 'gay!' - a hard-won gaiety, but  all the sweeter for that. And Bishop has turned the traditional sonnet division upside down here, breaking at line 6/7 rather than 8/9 - her sonnet is bottom-heavy, weighted in favour of gaiety and release, in the end weightless, flying free.

Monday 3 December 2012

A Happy Anniversary

In the interest of spreading good cheer, here's an anniversary worth celebrating - on this day 85 years ago, the first Laurel and Hardy film was released. Putting Pants on Philip is not exactly a classic, and Stan and Ollie have not yet settled into their archetypal incarnations, but the chemistry is already amazing, and there are glimmers of the comic wonders to come. Ollie plays a well-dressed, well-set-up fellow who's deeply embarrassed by the arrival of his Scottish nephew, Philip, in a kilt. The young fellow must be taken to a tailor forthwith and kitted out with trousers. But getting him there will not be straightforward - not least because Philip can't resist the ladies, leaping into the air in a cartoonish manner at sight of one and setting off in hot pursuit. Stan chasing skirt, imagine! Not to mention Stan in his kilt prefiguring Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch... There's a taster of Putting Pants on Philip here (with a rather tiresome voice-over) and the whole film can be tracked down by the determined on YouTube.