Thursday 31 January 2013

rivverrun past Eve and Adam's...

Here's a surprising story from far Cathay - they're lapping up a Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (can it really be translated?). Not everyone is impressed though, a state-approved professor declaring that 'Joyce must have been mentally ill to create such a novel', while author Li Jie says sales of Finnegans Wake are being 'pushed by a current of unprecedented vanity'. He may well be right; FW might be a book for having on your shelves rather than reading, or attempting to read.
  I blush to recall that when I attended my admission interview at an august seat of learning, I boldly lied that I had read Finnegans Wake all through. I had in fact read parts of Anthony Burgess's short version, and reasoned that there was no way I could be cross-questioned on this, as plainly my interviewers hadn't read it either. This was not the only farcical element of an interview in which at one point I found myself arguing in favour of armed revolution (I felt like Miranda in one of those moments when she turns to the camera in helpless bewilderment, unable to believe what is coming out of her mouth). Instead of picking me up by the scruff of my neck and the seat of my trousers and chucking me out, the fools let me in.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Nursery Talk

This story about the dire consequences of the British 'stiff upper lip' - or rather a British combination of embarrassment, fatalism and not wanting to make a fuss - is probably, like most such stories, nonsense (the counter-example of Denmark would seem to suggest as much). But of course it has attracted much media coverage, and was discussed at some length on the radio this morning. (In the course of this discussion I was interested, if hardly surprised, to learn that, of all those self-testing bowel cancer kits sent out to everyone as they turn 60, barely half come back.) One of those taking part in the 'stiff upper lip' discussion, and supporting the case, was A Doctor (I didn't catch his name), whose ringing conclusion was that we must overcome the taboo that surrounds matters of 'blood and bottoms and poo'... 'Poo' eh? Now there's a man not afraid to break taboos and call a spade a spade.
Alas, this nursery euphemism, until recently the preserve of toddlers and young children, is now universal, to the point where it's rare to hear the stuff called anything else. Even in otherwise grown-up science programmes, even in the magisterial wildlife films of David Attenborough and co, 'poo' is always the word. 'Wee', I suspect, is fast catching up, with who knows what other infantile terms to follow. I suspect our plainer-speaking friends across the Atlantic must be mystified by it all...

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Mature Attitude

The film star Victor Mature (his real name, improbably enough) was born on this day 100 years ago. Like many of his war-straddling generation - and almost none of today's stars - he never took acting (or himself) very seriously. 'I was never that crazy about acting,' he said, after he'd more or less given it up. 'I had a compulsion to earn money, not to act. So I worked as an actor until I could afford to retire. I wanted to quit while I could still enjoy life... I like to loaf. Everyone told me I would go crazy or die if I quit working. Yeah? Well what a lovely way to die.' In fact he enjoyed a full 20 years of loafing after his last film.
Many years ago I had the strange experience of watching Mature in Samson and Delilah, opposite Hedy Lamarr, in a cinema in Split (Spoleto), with Serbo-Croat subtitles. This was the film about which Groucho Marx famously uttered words to the effect that he couldn't take an interest in a movie where the leading man's bosom was larger than the leading lady's. Harsh, but not far short of the truth...
You have to warm to a man who, when refused membership of an up-market country club on the grounds that he was an actor, protested 'I'm not an actor - and I've got 64 films to prove it!' They don't make them like that any more.

Monday 28 January 2013

Mark Doty: Tenderness and Style

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is the title of a painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem (above)  that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York - or rather it was the title; it was recently changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, ignoring that glorious curl of lemon. But it still the title of a rather wonderful slim volume - a long essay really - by the American poet Mark Doty, which I've just read. 
Doty's small book begins with an encounter with De Heem's painting and takes off into a heartfelt meditation on our attachment to things, their place in our lives. Doty's brilliant analysis of the power of the Dutch still life interweaves with scenes - and objects - from his own life, from the red-and-white-spiral mints that his grandmother always carried, to memories of his wife's mother and her house (it was an early, doomed marriage), rummaging and collecting with his late partner (death is ever present here), things seen and picked up, things that stayed in his life, others that were lost... He finds in the Dutch still life a celebration of abundance, of the pleasures of the senses, the fall of light on objects, their Presence, their Thisness. The most commonplace things are intensely seen and celebrated for their own sake, as in Adriean Coorte's Still Life with Asparagus, which is simply a bunch of asparagus painted with meticulous attention, against a brown darkness, the bundled stalks brought (or restored) to the fullness of their being by the act of concentrated attention. 
Towards the end of his essay, Doty ponders the relationship between painting and poetry, seeing both as essentially unparaphrasable; they can only exist as they are, in the form they are in. Whatever he says about a painting will always fall short, will always miss an element of mystery - its 'poetry'. Part of that poetry, Doty concludes in his beautiful closing sentences, is 'the inner life of the dead, held in suspension. It is still visible to us; you can look at the paintings and you can feel it. This is evidence that a long act of seeing might translate into something permanent, both of ourselves and curiously impersonal, sturdy, useful.
  Of what use, exactly? As advocates of intimacy, as embodiments of paradox, as witnesses to earth, here, this moment, now. Evidence, thus, that tenderness and style are still the best gestures we can make in the face of death.'

Sunday 27 January 2013


I spotted a couple of these little beauties sporting their lustrous metallic sheen on a lavender plant today. Very striking they are - and, unfortunately, pretty deadly to lavender, rosemary, sage and various other plants. The Rosemary Beetle (or Lavender Beetle) was first seen in the UK in 1994, but it really took off around 2003. A fast breeder with no predators to stand in its way, it's now spread across the whole of Southern England and is advancing northward, its larvae chomping their ways through all those tasty plants. And if the beetles are out and about already, just after a bitter cold snap, they are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Friday 25 January 2013

Thrushes, Darkling and Otherwise

Sad news today about that fine bird, the Mistle Thrush - though I must say that, like many such reports from the RSPB, it rather contradicts my own experience. Down my way, the Mistle has never been much of a garden bird, preferring the tall trees and open spaces of the many parks with which my southern suburban demiparadise is blessed. When I was growing up (in the same demiparadise), the Song Thrush was a common garden bird, and it is certainly much less common now, though I see more than I used to ten years ago. I still see pretty much the same number of Mistle Thrushes as I ever did - a fine pair unusually close only the other day in one of the parks. As for the Starling - in steep decline according to the RSPB - I haven't seen so many in years as I've seen this winter. They are recovering very strongly down my day, and on these cold days I'm seeing far more Starlings than anything else. But back to the Mistle Thrush - I wonder if Hardy's Darkling Thrush was a Mistle? It sings pretty much all year round and in the grimmest circumstances (hence its other name, Stormcock). Hardy would have known of course, but he doesn't say. Here's the poem, in which Hardy, inspired by nothing more than a thrush's song, almost lapses into optimism...

I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Thursday 24 January 2013

The Joy of Soda

The old-fashioned soda siphon was a thing of beauty. Elegantly shaped, made of impressively thick and heavy glass - engraved with fancy patterns and the maker's name - it used to be a fixture in every drinks cabinet and on every bar (not to mention essential kit for soda fights at the Drones Club). In my boyhood I thought it a very wonderful thing, partly because of the huge deposit payable and reclaimable (recycling paid then) - if you happened to come across an empty soda siphon and took it to the off licence, you would be handsomely rewarded. And if you got the chance to use the thing - what larks! A press of the lever and that sudden exciting gush of fizzy water... (We made our own amusements in those days.)
But the classic soda siphon has long been a thing of the past. Pubs now squirt fizzy water from multifunction bar hoses, and those of us who like a splash of soda in our whisky or brandy when drinking at home have to make do with the bottled stuff, which invariably goes flat long before it's finished. Or so I thought, until - clapping my hand to my brow - I realised that I could just buy a soda siphon online. Not the elegant glass artefact of old, but a serviceable siphon nonetheless, squirting fresh fizzing soda every time. I bought myself one recently - black it is - and it's become one of my life's little pleasures. Once I'd given up on the wholly impenetrable instructions for putting the thing together - even the pictures made no sense - I soon had it working, and it's never let me down since. It stays full of fizz to the last squirt, and when it runs out it's the work of a moment to refill it, screw in a new metal slug of CO2 and start again.
Jeeves - my usual B & S, if you would!

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Manet Happy Returns

It's Edouard Manet's birthday today (his 181st) and the Royal Academy's blockbuster exhibition of his portraits is imminent. Our old friend Will Gompertz was banalising away about the great pre/proto/quasi/non-Impressionist last night on the news, but even that was not enough to put me off what will surely be a must-see event.
But will I actually go to see it? Much though I love this endlessly fascinating artist, I'm not at all sure I will. Despite my height advantage, I find it hard to enjoy looking at paintings when I'm in the thick of a milling crowd. And despite my love of looking at paintings, I cannot do it for very long without a kind of aesthetic exhaustion setting in, so big blockbuster exhibitions - unless I know exactly what I'm looking for and what to skip - tend to defeat me. There are 'more than 50' works in the Manet exhibition (one of them, coming in from Brazil, is currently delayed at Heathrow) and that is surely far too many to take in in an hour or so. Even if you lingered for two hours (and I can never last much beyond an hour), you would have averaged barely two minutes with each painting. Is that enough? Have you really seen the exhibition or merely 'done' it? Ideally it ought to be possible to come and go as often as you like, concentrating on a few works each time - that is the beauty of permanent collections, and it's the downside of time-limited, crowd-pleasing exhibitions. Still, if you're prepared to pay a whacking £30, you can 'avoid the crowds' and see the Manets on Sunday evenings (with a 'drink' thrown in) -  if those special tickets haven't already sold out.
Incidentally, isn't it a little surprising that this show is proving quite as popular as it is? Manet is not an obvious crowd pleaser: his paintings aren't pretty, and are often strange and unsettling. Maybe it's that magic word 'Impressionist' (not that he was one), and perhaps the fact that he nearly shares his surname with that other chap...

Tuesday 22 January 2013

The Arrow of Progress

Breakfast television (two words which most definitely do not belong together) is, rather startlingly, 30 years old. I've never watched it - TV in any form would be unbearable at that time of day - but I well recall the unanimous verdict of the Experts at the time breakfast TV was launched: This is it then - breakfast radio is doomed, no one will bother with it any more and the bright shiny go-ahead medium of TV will conquer all. Thirty years on, the Experts - not for the first time - have been proved entirely wrong: breakfast radio continues to thrive, with Radio 4's Today programme (for all its faults) reaching four or five times more people than breakfast TV, and millions tuned (for some reason) to Radio 1 and 2.
The Experts' prediction about breakfast TV was based on a simplistic notion of how 'progress' works - the idea that every technological advance will sweep away what went before and become the norm. Hence the current predictions that the internet and e-readers will kill off books (they won't, any more than photography killed off painting) and newspapers (they might in time, at least the profusion of paid-for nationals we have in the UK). Who would have thought - not the Experts, that's for sure - that supersonic passenger aviation would prove to be a short-lived fad rather than the cutting edge of a brave new high-speed future? Who would thought that manned moon flights, far from becoming the norm, would cease altogether 40 year ago? As every retroprogressive knows, the arrow of progress seldom flies straight and the way to the future is often the path to the past.

Monday 21 January 2013


Banks eh? I've been having more contact that usual with mine lately, having had a card swallowed by an ATM and immediately put to felonious use (to the tune of two and half grand). When I eventually got to speak to someone at my bank that day - in person - I must say they were really quite helpful, even if I did have to spend another half hour hanging on the telephone in a little cubicle at the bank. It was all sorted out in the end... But the ongoing irritation is, and has been for many months, the calls I get from some keen young chap at the bank wanting me to come in and 'review' my account or something to that effect. From experience I know this to be a complete waste of time, but when I got a call from a young lady with an Italian accent, rather than the keen young chap, I finally succumbed and agreed to drop in at 4pm (note that time) tomorrow.
This call was followed by another from the keen young chap, who had no idea what had happened and sounded extremely miffed that the young lady with the Italian accent had nipped in and nabbed an appointment. Seething he was...  And then, this morning, I had a text message from the bank, helpfully reminding me of my appointment with the Italian lady at 9am tomorrow. As I said, banks eh?

Sunday 20 January 2013

Now Then...

The hysteria sparked by the exposure of Jimmy Savile as the wrongest wrong 'un active in the golden years of  pop-related light entertainment (an era not lacking in wrong 'uns) shows no signs of dying down. The BBC - the very BBC that little more than a year ago devoted a hagiographic documentary to the man - has for months been engaged in a Soviet-style post facto purge, expunging every image and record of Savile from its archives, reducing him to the status of a 'non person', one who never was. Sadly - or rather, hilariously - they hadn't thought of The Tweenies, a children's puppet show that was scrapped ten years ago but is still regularly repeated on the CBBC channel. Here's the story - and the picture - and I must admit I found it very funny. It's surely only a matter of time before uttering such phrases as 'Now then, guys and gals' and ''Ow's about that then?' will become a crime. Quite right too.

Friday 18 January 2013

Schuyler Again

After I recently posted James Schuyler's Faure Second Piano Quartet,  Susan in New York City directed me to this rather wonderful poem by him - one full of air and light and life, but with a sharp dark edge, and a brilliant closing image. (Non-American readers might not know that Evangeline was a hugely popular narrative poem by Longfellow, set against the background of the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia.)
I didn't know Schuyler could be this good...

Air from Canada

A wonderful freshness, air
that billows like bedsheets
on a clothesline and the clouds
hang in a traffic jam: summer
heads home. Evangeline,
our light is scoured and Nova
Scotian and of a clarity that
opens up the huddled masses
of the stolid spruce so you
see them in their bristling
individuality. The other
day, walking among them, I
cast my gaze upon the ground
in hope of orchids and,
pendant, dead, a sharp shadow
in the shade, a branch gouged
and left me "scarred forever
'neath the eye." Not quite. Not
the cut, but the surprise, and
how, when her dress caught fire,
Longfellow's wife spun
into his arms and in the dying
of its flaring, died. The
irreparable, which changes
nothing that went before
though it ends it. Above the wash
and bark of rumpled water, a gull
falls down the wind to dine
on fish that swim up to do the same.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Silver Lining

The butterfly figures are in for the Summer that Never Was, and unsurprisingly the news is not good. However, Butterfly Conservation finds the silver lining - several grassland species benefited from all that rain, at least in the short term. It was also, as I've mentioned before, a bonanza year for the Chalkhill Blue (pictured). It won't be till next year that we discover the full extent of the damage done by that endless rain - let's hope that we have a warm, dry summer this year and our butterflies get the chance to demonstrate their powers of recovery.
Meanwhile, London continues in the grip of a bitter cold snap - a beautiful sparkling frost this morning - and more snow is threatened. And yet there seem to be no Redwings or Fieldfares at all, which is very strange. I'll take it as a sign that the cold spell won't last long. And winter will soon pass into a glorious spring, which in turn will be followed by a summer of sunshine and butterflies. Well, a man can dream...

Wednesday 16 January 2013

First Record

In the wake of HMV's not exactly unexpected collapse, the BBC News website is asking 'What was the first record you bought?' Most of us, I'm sure, would like to answer with something impeccably cool. Some of us might even have blocked the memory of our actual first buy in favour of something more representative of our taste and discernment. For myself, I have to confess that the first pop record I bought was the 7-inch vinyl single of (gulp, blush) Frank Ifield's I Remember You. This was the first of the Anglo-Australian yodeller's four (count them) UK number ones, all clocked up in 1962/63, years we prefer to associate with the outbreak of Beatlemania. Can anyone top my first record buy for sheer uncoolness?

'Back of the bar, in a solo game...'

'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game,
sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love,
the lady that's known as Lou...'

Robert W. Service, the man who wrote those imperishable lines (the opening of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, published in 1907 in Songs of a Sourdough) was born on this day in 1874 - not in the Yukon but in Preston, Lancashire, from where he moved to Scotland, entered a bank and emigrated to Canada at the age of 21. After several years of drifting, he returned to banking and was sent to Whitehorse on the Yukon, where he took up verse writing, partly to have something to recite on social occasions. It came easily to him, and he soon had enough for a small volume, which he called Songs of a Sourdough. Its success was immediate and phenomenal, with seven printings before it was even officially released, followed by umpteen more in Canada, the US and England. Clearly Service had given the public something they very much wanted, and they lapped up volume after rattling volume. The author turned his hand equally successfully to novels, some of which were filmed, and soon became one of the wealthiest writers in the business.
Service spent much of the rest of his life in France, where for some years he led a double life, dressing and acting like the rich man he was during the day, then changing into shabby clothes and exploring low dives at night. He and his French wife - who long outlived him, dying in 1989 at the remarkable age of 102 - spent summers at their country house in Brittany, and in later years Service wintered in Monte Carlo. And all the time the royalties rolled in...
Prodigiously successful writers like Service are usually forgotten once their time has passed, their fame becoming a mystery to future generations - which is a consoling thought as we survey the bestselling authors of our own time. Today Service's volumes languish unsold on the shelves of many a charity shop; yet such is the sheer vigour of rollicking ballads like Dan McGrew that they are all but indestructible. In its unsophisticated, melodramatic way, it's a terrific full-tilt verse narrative - once you start reading it, it's hard to stop (try it here) - and an absolute gift for public recitation, which of course was what it was written for. Whenever Ronald Reagan and the Canadian PM Brian Mulroney got together, they would seize the opportunity to perform their two-handed recitation of The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Somehow I can't see Barack Obama and Stephen Harper doing that... 

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Figure It Out

So there I was, queuing at the checkout in Waitrose. Ahead of me was one woman, who had bought four bottles of Peroni marked down to 69p (wish I'd spotted those) and one can of something fizzy cut to 29p. When she presented these at the till, everything seemed to go into slow motion (as so often happens, I find, when I'm next in the queue). The woman behind the till froze in an attitude of bewilderment and mild panic when confronted with these manually labelled items. Apparently they could not be processed in the usual way - someone would have to add up the price in their head. Clearly it was not going to be the woman at the till - she wasn't even going to try. She left her post, returning shortly with a young man who had a headset mike and a managerial air. Confidently he totted up the items - four at 69p, one at 29p - £4.03, sorted. At this point, the woman who was attempting to buy them pointed out politely that he was wrong. He took a run at it and tried again, coming up with a figure closer to the right total, but still out. The purchaser at this point gave him the correct figure and he rang it up without demur.
Can it really be that we live in a world where people below a certain age - even those who work in jobs where it might be decidedly useful - have no mental arithmetic? Has the 'education' system combined with our ever growing dependence on technology to deprive much of the population of what is surely still an important life skill? I hope not...

Monday 14 January 2013

'Like an extra heartbeat...'

Oddly, Wendy Cope's Heaven On Earth anthology (see below, Not Writing White) doesn't include anything by Kenneth Koch, whose every poem radiates happiness - but two of his 'New York school' fellows are featured. Frank O'Hara is represented by the cheerily exultant Autobiographia Literaria, moving deftly from parodic lament to parodic self-congratulation - 

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.
I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.
If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
And then there's this one, by James Schuyler, celebrating a particular mingling of the sounds of rain and music on a particular day in a small apartment in New York City - 'all this beauty' suddenly together -
Faure Second Piano Quartet
On a day like this the rain comes
down in fat and random drops among
the ailanthus leaves—”the tree
of Heaven”—the leaves that on moon-
lit nights shimmer black and blade-
shaped at this third-floor window.
And there are bunches of small green
Knobs, buds, crowded together. The
rapid music fills in the spaces of
the leaves. And the piano comes in,
like an extra heartbeat, dangerous
and lovely. Slower now, less like
the leaves, more like the rain which
almost isn’t rain, more like thawed-
out hail. All this beauty in the
mess of this small apartment on
West Twentieth in Chelsea, New York.
Slowly the notes pour out, slowly,
more slowly still, fat rain falls.
This is the music Schuyler had in mind, and rather lovely it is...
(As ever, please excuse lack of accents.)

Friday 11 January 2013

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 7.

My favourite Mimosa tree - the one in the Alec Clifton Taylor memorial garden, tucked away in the old churchyard of St Mary Abbots, Kensington - is already beginning to come into flower on its lower branches. This is very early - it's usually February - and is all the more cheering for that.

The Little Parmesan

Today is the 510th birthday of the Italian mannerist painter known as Il Parmigianino - yes, the Little Parmesan. His youthful showpiece, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (above), is one of the most extraordinary paintings of its time - and has had a long afterlife, inspiring one of John Ashbery's finest, most controlled long poems.
Despite his early reputation as 'Raphael reborn', the Little Parmesan never quite became a Big Cheese in the art world. As with so many artists of his time, his career never quite coalesced, and he died young, leaving a handful of strange masterpieces behind him. Two of them are in London's National Gallery - the tall altarpiece of The Vision of Saint Jerome, an unusual composition of typically elongated figures, quite beautifully painted and well worth a long close look. And then there's the Portrait of a Collector, a picture so thundery, unsettling and rebarbative that it's hard to linger anywhere in its vicinity. A strange painter indeed, Il Parmigianino...

Thursday 10 January 2013

Not Writing White

On the shelves of my trusty local Oxfam, I recently found an anthology called Heaven On Earth. Compiled by Wendy Cope, this is a collection of '101 Happy Poems'. They range across time from ancient China to the present day, with a weighting towards the contemporary. Some poems are familiar, others obscure, some not obviously happy, but all work towards Cope's stated aim of disproving the received wisdom that 'happiness writes white', that the emotion cannot convincingly be conveyed in the written word.
Naturally Richard Wilbur - a poet who (in Randall Jarrell's words) 'sees, and shows, the bright  underside of every dark thing' - is represented in Heaven On Earth, with 'April 5, 1974'. As the long remainder of winter stretches before us, Russian cold heads our way and spring seems impossibly far off, it's one to lift the heart and remind us that the great transformation will surely come, hopefully before Wilbur's date. It also has a quite wonderful ending...

April 5, 1974

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream,
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Wrinkles and Boredom

If you've ever wondered why, after too long in the bath, your fingers and toes get wrinkly, our friends in the white coats have come up with an explanation. Stories like this (and they come up often enough, heaven knows)  begin from the assumption that whatever is, is - or has been at some past time - evolutionarily adaptive. The scientist's job, then, is simply to construct a plausible narrative that 'explains' how evolution brought it about. Isn't this all rather circular?
This story, on the other hand, doesn't invoke evolution, even though it plausibly could - surely human life was for the most part interminably boring until, in very recent times, we developed the means to distract ourselves around the clock. Maybe sheer tedium was the engine of human evolution? I remember my own childhood as a landscape containing great stagnant lagoons of boredom, and I think being bored for much of the time probably did me more good than harm, making me develop my 'inner resources'. We probably could all do with more empty space in our mental lives - but I hope employers don't take this story seriously and start inflicting more workplace tedium on us in the hope of reaping creative rewards. It certainly wouldn't work in my case - when I'm staring into the middle distance, the last thing I'm thinking about it work.

Very Small and Fast

I've said it before and I'll say it again - it's amazing what you see if you keep your eyes peeled...
There I was yesterday evening, strolling through the expensive back streets of Kensington on my way to the underground railway (150 years old today), when I saw, scampering towards me on the nearside of the pavement, in the lee of the garden walls, something very small and fast. At first I thought it must be a House Mouse, but it was too small even for that - really tiny - and it looked too pointy at the face end. As it hurried towards me and took a sharp left turn into the safety of a garden, I concluded it must have been a Common Shrew. The last time I saw one of those was back in the days when we had a cat - the late Scruffy - who liked to present rodent tributes to her owners, in the form of dead mice and shrews. The Common Shrew is indeed common, in all manner of leafy sheltered habitats,  but rarely seen. What mine was doing hurtling along a Kensington street I have no idea - unless the unseasonably mild weather had turned its mind to thoughts of love...

Monday 7 January 2013

Whiff Whaff's Coming Home

If you caught any of the TV coverage of the Olympic table tennis, you'll know that the game has become so blisteringly fast and fiendish that the action is little more than a blur, rallies are over in the blink of an eye, and as a result it's a pretty useless spectator sport. Now - in another piece of news to delight retroprogressives - sports promoter Barry Hearn aims to rescue table tennis from itself by going back 30 years to reinvent the much more watchable and involving ping pong. This is the game most of us remember from our younger days, when our desperate quest to meet the opposite sex led us to hang around in youth clubs, where ping-pong was one of the few entertainments on offer. Played with a sandpaper-covered bat, ping-pong was - and is and will again be - a slower and more elegant game than modern table tennis, the old-fangled bats offering much less scope for power play and spectacular spin than today's dimpled sponge jobs. Long and (fairly) exciting rallies - even between mediocre players - were the result, a game that was fun to play and to watch.
Table tennis - like so much else in life - has fallen victim to the fatal concept of Progress. This pernicious notion used even to infect the world of classical music - until the period instrument revival demonstrated that composers of earlier centuries weren't blindly groping their way towards the blazing sound of the Berlin Philharmonic circa 1960, and that the music they wrote sounds far better on the instruments it was written for. One can only hope that a period sports revival might now be on the way, with (for example)  lawn tennis reverting to wooden racquets and gut strings and regaining its erstwhile elegance. The ping-pong revival might be just the start. Boris was surely right when he gave his pre-Olympic rallying cry of 'Ping-pong's coming home!' Whiff whaff - the precursor to ping-pong, played with books and a golf ball or cigar box lids and champagne corks - surely cannot be far behind.

Friday 4 January 2013

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 6.

Retroprogressives will rejoice at the news that, for the sixth year running, sales of supposedly obsolescent vinyl records have risen (though shellac, alas, remains static). At the same time, the market in 'physical CDs' continues to decline sharply, along with sales of video games (whatever they are), and generalist record shops seem doomed to total extinction, with only a few specialist outlets thriving - often riding the resurgent vinyl wave.
It's easy to succumb to false nostalgia when looking back at those golden days when every town had at least one record shop, its racks groaning with desirable vinyl. The fact is that, outside the big cities and university towns, most record shops were dreadful, your chances of finding anything that wasn't in the 'charts' was slim, the Classical section was little more than an afterthought, and you'd almost certainly have to put in an order and wait weeks to get anything worth having. I remember being obliged to put in a special order for Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, for heaven's sake! Most of the coolest music was only available on import, and could only be found in those rare gems of record shops that we now recall  precisely because they were so rare and so good to find.
Mainstream record shops deserved to fail, and the only surprise about it was that it took so long. We now have the internet, enabling us to buy at the touch of a button the kind of things we'd once have had to spend years tracking down and would probably never find. And the range available is simply staggering. Who needs record shops - except of course for the tactile joy of handling vinyl?

Thursday 3 January 2013

Mr Jerrold and Mr Caudle

Born on this day in 1803 was Douglas William Jerrold, one of those industrious Victorians writers who seem never to have slept. He was a successful dramatist (his first staged piece written when he was 14), a hugely prolific critic and journalist, a famous conversationist and wit, friend of Dickens, founder-editor of half a dozen magazines and a mainstay of the early Punch. It was there that he published the work for which he is still (just) remembered - that gem of Victorian comedy, Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures. These are verbatim accounts, written from memory (as a kind of bitterwseet memorial) by the widowed Mr Caudle, of a series of withering monologues delivered by his wife as the hapless Mr C climbed into bed in hope of sleep - only to be reminded of some indiscretion that would surely bring about in due course the fall of the house of Caudle. A naturally generous and convivial type, Mr C (pictured with a friend at his club, The Skylarks) is sometimes a little the worse for wear when he comes to bed, and knows what he must expect. On other occasions, though, it is some insignificant and barely noticed lapse that has set Mrs Caudle's dark imaginings to work, and he must be forcibly reminded of the inevitable consequences. Here, for example, has has thoughtlessly lent an umbrella. Oh dear...

'BAH! That's the third umbrella gone since Christmas.

"What were you to do?

"Why, let him go home in the rain, to be sure. I'm very certain there was nothing about him that could spoil. Take cold, indeed! He doesn't look like one of the sort to take cold. Besides, he'd have better taken cold than take our only umbrella. Do you hear the rain, Mr. Caudle? I say, do you hear the rain? And as I'm alive, if it isn't St. Swithin's day! Do you hear it against the windows? Nonsense; you don't impose upon me. You can't be asleep with such a shower as that! Do you hear it, I say? Oh, you do hear it! Well, that's a pretty flood, I think, to last for six weeks; and no stirring all the time out of the house. Pooh! don't think me a fool, Mr. Caudle. Don't insult me. He return the umbrella! Anybody would think you were born yesterday. As if anybody ever did return an umbrella! There—do you hear it! Worse and worse! Cats and dogs, and for six weeks, always six weeks. And no umbrella!

"I should like to know how the children are to go to school tomorrow? They sha'n't go through such weather, I'm determined. No: they shall stop at home and never learn anything—the blessed creatures!—sooner than go and get wet. And when they grow up, I wonder who they'll have to thank for knowing nothing—who, indeed, but their father? People who can't feel for their own children ought never to be fathers.

"But I know why you lent the umbrella. Oh, yes; I know very well. I was going out to tea at dear mother's to-morrow—you knew that; and you did it on purpose. Don't tell me; you hate me to go there, and take every mean advantage to hinder me. But don't you think it, Mr. Caudle. No, sir; if it comes down in buckets-full I'll go all the more. No: and I won't have a cab. Where do you think the money's to come from? You've got nice high notions at that club of yours. A cab, indeed! Cost me sixteenpence at least—sixteenpence! two-and-eightpence, for there's back again. Cabs, indeed! I should like to know who's to pay for 'em; I can't pay for 'em, and I'm sure you can't, if you go on as you do; throwing away your property, and beggaring your children—buying umbrellas!

"Do you hear the rain, Mr. Caudle? I say, do you hear it? But I don't care—I'll go to mother's to-morrow: I will; and what's more, I'll walk every step of the way,—and you know that will give me my death. Don't call me a foolish woman, it's you that's the foolish man. You know I can't wear clogs; and with no umbrella, the wet's sure to give me a cold—it always does. But what do you care for that? Nothing at all. I may be laid up for what you care, as I daresay I shall—and a pretty doctor's bill there'll be. I hope there will! It will teach you to lend your umbrellas again. I shouldn't wonder if I caught my death; yes: and that's what you lent the umbrella for. Of course!

"Nice clothes I shall get too, traipsing through weather like this. My gown and bonnet will be spoilt quite.

"Needn't I wear 'em then?

"Indeed, Mr. Caudle, I shall wear 'em. No, sir, I'm not going out a dowdy to please you or anybody else. Gracious knows! it isn't often that I step over the threshold; indeed, I might as well be a slave at once,—better, I should say. But when I do go out,—Mr. Caudle, I choose to go like a lady. Oh! that rain—if it isn't enough to break in the windows.

"Ugh! I do look forward with dread for to-morrow! How I am to go to mother's I'm sure I can't tell. But if I die I'll do it. No, sir; I won't borrow an umbrella. No; and you sha'n't buy one. Now, Mr. Caudle, only listen to this: if you bring home another umbrella, I'll throw it in the street. I'll have my own umbrella or none at all.

"Ha! and it was only last week I had a new nozzle put to that umbrella. I'm sure, if I'd have known as much as I do now, it might have gone without one for me. Paying for new nozzles, for other people to laugh at you. Oh, it's all very well for you—you can go to sleep. You've no thought of your poor patient wife, and your own dear children. You think of nothing but lending umbrellas!

"Men, indeed!—call themselves lords of the creation!—pretty lords, when they can't even take care of an umbrella!

"I know that walk to-morrow will be the death of me. But that's what you want—then you may go to your club and do as you like—and then, nicely my poor dear children will be used—but then, sir, then you'll be happy. Oh, don't tell me! I know you will. Else you'd never have lent the umbrella!

"You have to go on Thursday about that summons and, of course, you can't go. No, indeed, you don't go without the umbrella. You may lose the debt for what I care—it won't be so much as spoiling your clothes—better lose it: people deserve to lose debts who lend umbrellas!

"And I should like to know how I'm to go to mother's without the umbrella! Oh, don't tell me that I said I would go—that's nothing to do with it; nothing at all. She'll think I'm neglecting her, and the little money we were to have we sha'n't have at all—because we've no umbrella.

"The children, too! Dear things! They'll be sopping wet; for they sha'n't stop at home—they sha'n't lose their learning; it's all their father will leave 'em, I'm sure. But they shall go to school. Don't tell me I said they shouldn't: you are so aggravating, Caudle; you'd spoil the temper of an angel. They shall go to school; mark that. And if they get their deaths of cold, it's not my fault—I didn't lend the umbrella."

"At length," writes Caudle, "I fell asleep; and dreamt that the sky was turned into green calico, with whalebone ribs; that, in fact, the whole world turned round under a tremendous umbrella!"

Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures quite often turns up in bookshops in nice illustrated Victorian editions. It has also been reprinted in the excellent series of Prion Humour Classics, with an appreciative introduction by Peter Ackroyd, no less.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Fotherington-Thomas Lives!

Today's obituaries of the superb cricket commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins have been full of accounts of the poor man's titanic struggles with modern technology. Here was a chap who was fully capable of mistaking his TV remote control for a mobile phone and trying to make calls on it. And he could never make head or tail of a computer, frequently mistaking the Delete and Send buttons, with catastrophic results. But, whatever the provocation offered by the high-tech world, CMJ was never heard to swear, making use instead of home-made oaths such as 'Fotherington-Thomas!'.
Yes, Fotherington-Thomas - literary offspring of Gussy Fink-Nottle and Madeleine Bassett - the 'gurl', 'wet' and 'utter weed' who skips his way through the pages of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle's chronicles of prep-school life at St Custard's. The perfect foil to the self-consciously 'tuough' (but actually tender-hearted) Nigel Molesworth, Fotherington-Thomas is blithely unconcerned by the hostility of his fellows, and is in fact Molesworth's secret friend when the eyes of the tougher boys are off him. The two of them while away the time agreeably enough in and around the goal mouth during football matches, Fotherington-Thomas being the perpetual goalkeeper and Molesworth an idle full back. Oddly, for all his weedy wetness and 'Hullo clouds, hullo sky' catchphrase, Fotherington-Thomas was a fiend on the tennis court. Sadly, however, he did not distinguish himself on the cricket field... Anyway, it is good that the noble name of Fotherington-Thomas is yet alive, and as an inventive substitute for the F-word it has much to commend it.