Friday 30 August 2013

Two Days and 50 Years Ago

The Wednesday just past was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's great March on Washington. Blogwise I missed the date, but caught quite a lot of the TV and radio coverage, and stirring stuff it (mostly) was. Though I didn't catch any sound of him (only, alas, of Joan Baez warbling We Shall Overcome), Bob Dylan performed at the rally, singing Only a Pawn in Their Game, attracting some controversy for doing so, and feeling uncomfortable as a white man representing the movement for black rights.
  It was also on that date - August 28th, 1963 - that one William Zantzinger appeared in court in Baltimore, Maryland, and was sentence to six months for manslaughter and assault. In a drunken rage, he had beaten to death (in effect) a black waitress called Hattie Carroll for being, in his judgment, too slow in bringing him a drink. Zantzinger went to jail on September 15th. On October 23rd, in New York City, the 22-year-old Dylan recorded The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, one of the first songs to reveal his talent in all its blazing glory.
  Adjusting Zantzinger's name to Zanzinger - a name to be spat out, if ever there was one - Dylan came up with a song that builds the tension from the start, in long verses of contained anger, dense with internal rhyming and pounding repetition. Listen to it again. Listen here if you like...
That - not Joanie's warbling, not preppy Pete's list of potential uses for a hammer - is a protest song. That is the Swiftian saeva indignatio. Listen and marvel.

'Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace
and criticise all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now is the time for your tears.'

Thursday 29 August 2013


'We cannot stand idly by.'
Why is that whenever I hear this phrase, I think of the line from Beyond the Fringe, 'We need a futile gesture at this stage.'
Can we not stand idly by? (a) We can and frequently do. (b) What else have you got?
If only it were merely a futile gesture - that might indeed raise the tone. Futile and actually damaging to our interests is a more likely outcome.
All this, I fancy, is an example of the amazingly strong strain of priggishness that pervades our unserious culture - a cost-free claiming of the high moral ground. Cost-free, that is, to the person claiming it. As Marilynne Robinson says in her great essay Puritans and Prigs:
'People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing.' Indeed.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Light on His Feet

As a pendant to last week's excursion into clog-dancing, here's another amazing dancer, of more recent vintage, in a joyous double act with a very fine fiddler, both of them clearly having a great time.

How Middle-Aged Are You?

Thanks to what is I'm sure a most illuminating survey, we now know that middle age begins around 53, rather than the more traditional 41. This report helpfully lists 20 Tell-Tale Signs that you're middle-aged. Although I'm a decade into middle age as now defined, I scored a paltry 8 (partly composed of half marks). There are many things listed that I would never dream of doing - tea in a flask? Dressing for comfort? Booking a cruise? Falling asleep after one glass? On the other hand, several indicators have applied to me from an early age - listening to The Archers (and watching Antiques Road Show), being entirely baffled by technology, hating noisy pubs... But then I always rather fancied the idea of middle age and looked forward to it as a period of life when I would come into my own. I knew I was making a hash of my younger years, and that youth, with its endless possibilities for self-absorption and self-destruction, wasn't the ideal environment for me. Roll on my 40s, I used (at some level) to think - little knowing that it would soon cease to be 'middle age'. I enjoyed my 40s, I enjoyed my 50s, so far I've enjoyed my 60s. I'd be hard put to say I enjoyed my youth.
Another illuminating, and I'm sure authoritative, survey recently 'found' that the 60s are the happiest decade of our lives. That may well be true - at least if you have your health (which I, thank G--, have). Now, where did I put those Werther Originals...?

A Gift

With heartfelt thanks to Arthur Ransome (see below) for the gift, I cannot resist posting Edward Thomas's How At Once -

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year -
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone. 

This had quite slipped my mind, though I was sure there must be a poem somewhere on the 'last swift' theme. Thomas perfectly expresses the sweet sorrow of the occasion, its unique quality of loss - 'but with the swift alone'. And who but Thomas could get it so right? A perfect meeting of bird and poet.  

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Last Swifts?

Yesterday I saw what might well prove to be my last swifts of the summer - a pair, circling lazily over the road I live on, as if summer were just beginning, rather than nearing its end. A late last sighting, though of course I continue to scan the skies in the hope of seeing more.


Dave Cameron and Bellicose Billy Hague seem to have convinced themselves it would be a capital wheeze to lob a few missiles into Syria and show Assad who's boss. They might be wise to pause and take a look at this graphic created by Egyptian blogger The Big Pharaoh, a perfect image of a hopeless tangle if ever there was one. Unfortunately the UK isn't represented - a fact that speaks volumes - but if it was, a quiverful of green 'Have No Clue' arrows would surely suffice. Meanwhile, it's good to see how quickly the Peruvian Drug Mule look has caught on. Now that's what I call iconic!

Monday 26 August 2013

Gilly Flower, Gillyflower, Gillyvor

As well as being the day on which my beloved son was born, today is also the 105th birthday of the beautifully named actress - alas, no longer with us - Gilly Flower. She is remembered for one role - one that conferred the nearest thing television has to immortality: Miss Abitha Tibbs in Fawlty Towers. The deaf, amiably bewildered Miss Tibbs was, with her friend Miss Gatsby,  a permanent resident, and strangely admiring of the appalling Basil Fawlty, despite the abuse and indignities he heaped on them - which in Miss Tibbs's case culminated in being locked in a cupboard with a dead body.
  The name Gilly Flower leads naturally to Gillyflower or Gilliflower, a name for a wide array of spice-scented plants, including Carnations and Pinks, Wallflowers and Stocks. Gillyflowers (Gillyvors)  are the subject of a famous - and famously obscure - passage between Polixenes and Perdita in Act 4 of A Winter's Tale:

Sir, the year growing ancient, 
Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth 
Of trembling winter, the fairest 
flowers o' the season 
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors, 
Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind 
Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not 
To get slips of them. 

Wherefore, gentle maiden, 
Do you neglect them? 

For I have heard it said 
There is an art which in their piedness shares 
With great creating nature. 

Say there be; 
Yet nature is made better by no mean 
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art 
Which you say adds to nature, is an art 
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry 
A gentler scion to the wildest stock, 
And make conceive a bark of baser kind 
By bud of nobler race: this is an art 
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but 
The art itself is nature. 

So it is. 

Then make your garden rich in gillyvors, 
And do not call them bastards. 

I'll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them...

  Reams of commentary have been written on this passage, which is clearly a version of the great Art/Nature debate. Perdita's negative view of Gilliflowers seems to be based on their being products of Nature and Art, but this feels like one of those Shakespeare passages where there's something going on that his audience would have readily understood - and  been engaged by - but that we no longer have easy access to. But it begins beautifully.

Friday 23 August 2013

'What is a snail's fury?'

Excited reports this morning of a research project to discover what garden snails get up to at night, how much ground they cover, and how fast they travel - faster than we might have thought, it seems, though I'm rather surprised the maximum speed was so low; I'm sure they get around faster than that in my garden (and in every garden I've ever had - I am, willy nilly, a friend to the snail). There's a related video on the BBC site that shows snail racing in France - with the big Roman snails - and they certainly cover the ground at quite a lick, perhaps spurred on by the knowledge that the slower among them will be boiled up in a big pot and eaten.
  For a truer, deeper insight into the snail's nocturnal progress, let us turn to Thom Gunn's poem Considering the Snail, which travels at a steady seven syllables a line -

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth's dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail's fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Sam Sherry, Legend

Don't ask me to reconstruct the chain of events, but I just now found myself watching this and finding it really rather wonderful. Of course it could be that I've taken leave of my senses...

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Gogol in China

In the small hours of the morning I caught a fascinating World Service report from China on how numbers of fake officials are wandering the country, enjoying the high life, taking bribes for promised favours, and being feted and fawned on wherever they go. They can get away with it because a high level of secrecy is part of the mystique that surrounds public officials in China, and no one dares challenge the fakes in case they turn out to be the real thing; the repercussions would be dire. This guy got found out because he somewhat overreached himself, setting up an entirely bogus 'China Dynamic Investigation Committee' with 34 offices nationwide. Smaller-scale operators are probably getting away with it all over China.
This will ring a bell with anyone who's read or seen Gogol's The Government Inspector (or Government Spectre, as Nabokov calls it in his book on Gogol). In the play, the bogus official is not a conscious impostor but a stranger who is mistaken for a government inspector and is treated accordingly, taking full advantage of the situation. That, too, has probably happened in China. I wonder if  The Government Inspector has ever been staged there. It seems unlikely...

My Beautiful Gnome

On the Tube this morning, I noticed a young lady reading a book called My Beautiful Gnome. That's nice, I thought - then I looked again, and saw it was actually called My Beautiful Genome. It's a book by one Lone Frank - no relation to Lonesome George, but a Danish journalist who decided to trace her entire genome, gene by gene, and see what it told her. Apparently she achieved this and concluded, reasonably enough, that genetics can only get us so far, that her genes are not her destiny but rather the 'set of cards' she's been dealt. Fair enough. Meanwhile, I'm getting to work on designing a range of garden genomes - spirals of DNA equipped with fishing rods and pointy hats. They could catch on...

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Edgar Guest, the People's Poet

Born on this day in 1881 (in England's Second City, Birmingham, though his family soon emigrated to the Land of the Free) was Edgar Guest, whose uplifting, nationally syndicated verse became so popular in the US that he was known as the People's Poet. He wrote perhaps 11,000 poems, many of them collected in more than 20 published volumes. Guest had his own radio show and TV show, and was the first and (so far) last Poet Laureate of Michigan. (He also, as it happens, was the great-uncle of Judith Guest, who wrote Ordinary People.)
  The kind of popularity (and income) enjoyed by the likes of Guest and Nick Kenny is pretty much a thing of the past, now that poetry has retreated from the mainstream of popular culture. There's been the odd eruption, like the pop star-style fame of the Liverpool Poets or Rod McKuen, but they didn't last long. The works of 'Patience Strong' long ago passed their sell-by date, and the nearest thing we have to an Edgar Guest now is perhaps the comic poet Pam Ayres, still going strong and able to fill a concert hall anywhere in the country. There will, most likely, never be another.
 Guest it was who wrote the eminently mockable It Couldn't Be Done  - recited in all seriousness by Idris Elba at last year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
      But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
      On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
      At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
      Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

I think I prefer the version that ends 'he tackled the thing that couldn't be done - and he couldn't do it.' But the poem is notable for its cheeky use of an obsolete word to provide a rhyme for 'did it' - 'quiddit'. This is defined in Johnson's Dictionary as 'A subtilty; an equivocation. A low word.' But not too low for Shakespeare -
'Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?' muses Hamlet at the graveside, 'Where be his quiddits now? his quillets? his cases? and his tricks?' 

Monday 19 August 2013

Willa Cather: 'The heat under the simple words'

It may still be Silly Season, but it's high time I knuckled down and wrote about a book. So here goes...
 Since my belated discovery of the wonderful Willa Cather, I've been reading more - recently a bumper collection of short stories (Virago, edited by Hermione Lee), and just now the novel Shadows on the Rock. The short stories show, among other things, her extraordinary range as a writer, and Shadows on the Rock is further evidence - a historical novel set in the late 17th-century in the city of Quebec. Essentially it's a series of scenes from the life of a widowed father and his daughter, with a few other Quebecois - from the Count and the Bishop down to others far less fortunate - coming and going in the narrative. Cather herself described how, when she first visited Quebec, she responded to the city as to 'a series of pictures remembered rather than experienced, a kind of thinking, a mental complexion inherited, left over from the past, lacking in robustness and full of pious resignation'. Which would almost serve as a description of her novel, though there is no lack of robustness, in her characters or her writing.
  Cather's novels of pioneer life demonstrate her toughness clearly enough. She knew - and knew that she knew - more of life in extreme conditions than any other novelist - 'but,' as she wrote, 'I could never make anyone believe it, because I wear skirts and don't shave'. Shadows on the Rock is a pioneer novel too - her characters are French exiles in effect, making a life on an exposed rock on the far side of the Atlantic. As with the pioneer novels, her theme is the Virgilian one of bringing the old gods to new places:
'Inferretque deos Latio. When an adventurer carries his gods with him into a remote and savage country, the colony he founds will, from the beginning, have graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spirit. Its history will shine with bright incidents, slight, perhaps, but precious, as in life itself, where the great matters are often as worthless as astronomical distances, and the trifles dear as the heart's blood.'
  And the gods are no abstract deities; they are things too, the stuff of daily life, of a way of life transplanted and maintained, a life made in a strange place:
'These coppers, big and little, [reflects Cecile, the daughter] these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days, - the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.'
  Shadows on the Rock is full of wonderfully vivid descriptions of Quebec through the changing seasons (I'm glad I visited last year, and that so much of the old city is still recognisably there). Cather's great capacity for tenderness is amply evidenced, as is her rare ability to portray simple goodness convincingly (as in such great late short stories as Neighbour Rosicky and Old Mrs Harris). Sometimes she can seem to teeter on the brink of sentimentality, but she is always far too tough-minded and clear-sighted to fall.
 Quite why and how such seemingly simple writing as Cather's packs the punch it does remains, at least to me, a mystery. It's like a kind of close-up magic, where you can see exactly what's going on - nothing special, no tricks, see - and then suddenly... Hey presto! Something amazing has happened and you've no idea how - you're simply left reeling. Perhaps the key is in something she herself wrote in a letter:
'It's the heat under the simple words that counts.'

Saturday 17 August 2013

Good News

Number One Son and Lovely Daughter-in-Law have brought forth a fine baby girl, 8lb weight and all well. I am now what we in the world of dance call a Grandpa de Deux.

Thursday 15 August 2013

Nesbit Nesbit

I see from today's Google doodle that it's E. Nesbit's 155th anniversary. I thought that rang a bell - and sure enough, five years ago, on the Big One, the 150th, I'd written about her. Here's the link...

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Crows and Herons

Yesterday evening, looking out of the train window as I travelled home, I saw a sight I'd never seen before. Two herons were perched high up in a tree among a couple of dozen crows who were taking up positions to roost - and who seemed quite unperturbed by the presence of herons among them. Whenever in the past I've seen crows and herons in any kind of  proximity, the former have been relentlessly mobbing the latter and driving them away. Are the crows changing their ways - and if so, why? There must be something in it for them, as they're extremely smart birds who in the past few decades have developed from solitary country dwellers to gregarious, streetwise urban scavengers. Now they are so numerous wherever there's a bit of water, herons too have changed their ways, becoming almost fearless in the presence of humans (now we're not shooting at them) and taking their place among the lesser waterfowl, even competing with the ducks for thrown bread.  But if a new age of detente with the crows is dawning, we may be sure it's the crows who are controlling the situation. I wonder what is going on. Has anyone else noticed this new behaviour, or was it an aberration?


I can't say I'm exactly looking forward to next year's epic celebrations of the centenary of the Kaiser War (expect much reverential sentimentality, peddling of hoary myths, Oh What a Lovely War, endless repeats of the last episode of Blackadder - or am I being unfair? Probably). However, one very good thing that will come of the centenary is that, ahead of it, the war cemeteries are being refurbished, with every stone in need of restoration being repaired and recarved. The work of the (then) Empire War Graves Commission after the Great War, as embodied in those amazing cemeteries and memorials, is in its way one of the Supreme Works of the Human Spirit - just as what it memorialises is one of the supreme works of human self-destruction. Anyone who has visited the vast cemeteries of Flanders, or stumbled on one of the smaller ones that are dotted about the countryside, will know what an emotional punch they pack by virtue of their restraint and reticence, the classic plainness of the stones, their simple inscriptions, their uniformity across all ranks, levelled by death. And of course, in the larger cemeteries - and at such extraordinary memorials as the Menin Gate at Ypres - the sheer scale of the slaughter they commemorate. The supreme irony is that the work of memorialising the dead of the First War was not completed until 1938 - just in time for the Second, as the bloodiest of centuries lurched on its way. Lest we forget indeed...
Talking of restraint, here is a short and simple poem by Edward Thomas (buried in the Agny Military Cemetery, Row C, Grave 43) -

A Private
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
"At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush," said he,
"I slept." None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France - that, too, he secret keeps.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

This and That

The skies are quieter now - apart, that is, from the ever-growing flocks of ring-necked parakeets (40 or 50 at a time these days) making their raucous, shrieking way to wherever the food is. They, I fear, will be always with us - but the swifts have gone for the year. Or as good as gone, after a summer in which they seemed more numerous, vocal and lively than they've been for some while. I thought I might have seen my last on Friday, but no - yesterday evening, quite high up over Carshalton village, three swifts were flying quietly and purposefully into the southwest...
This was a cheering end to a somewhat grim day, which began with a visit to the dentist. As I lay there  in the dental chair, with dark glasses on (he insists), while he drilled, injected and poked away and his assistant plied the suction tube, I became aware that Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia was playing, pianissimo, in the background. 'Melancholic music, I'm afraid,' said the dentist. 'Rather lovely though', I ventured, speaking from the still functioning side of my mouth (he'd given me a double dose of anaesthetic). He told me he'd treated himself to a big boxed set of Vaughan Williams, which he found in a large, wonderfully well stocked record store in London. 'Whereabouts?' I asked, as you would. He seemed a little embarrassed at this and, after a little prevarication, had to admit he hadn't the faintest idea. He thought it might be somewhere near Oxford Circus, but really it could be anywhere. Definitely London though. Whenever he is in London, he told me, he loses all sense of direction and hasn't the faintest idea where he is. I think, in the circumstances, he's doing rather well to find his way to the surgery every morning (let alone find his way round so many mouths). Anyway, next time I see him, he promises, he'll be able to tell me where to find this musical goldmine.
I went on my way, for the next four hours unable to eat, barely able to drink, and feeling as if half of someone else's jaw had been crudely attached to mine in some sort of Frankensteinian experiment. All's well today, though, apart from a little residual pain.
PS: I see Blackberry is in trouble. Clearly they should merge with Apple. Easy as pie. This could be the anaesthetic talking...

Monday 12 August 2013


Over on The Dabbler, I'm remembering Dickie Henderson (of all people)...

Sunday 11 August 2013

Melon Day

Today, being the second Sunday of August, is Melon Day in Turkmenistan. This celebration of the very superior melons of glorious nation Turkmenistan was inaugurated in 1994 by President Saparmurat Niyazov, who preferred to be known as 'Turkmenbashi' - leader of the Turkmens - a name he also bestowed on the most succulent variety of melon, a hybrid whose superior qualities made it the undisputed leader of the Turkmen melons (rather as the haggis is the great chieftain o' the pudden race). Melon Day involves abundant displays of the fruit in all its varieties, dances, music events and all things conducive to the glorification of the melon.
'Almighty God,' declared Turkmenbashi (the man not the melon) in 2004, 'has turned Turkmen soil into a fertile source of an abundance of the tastiest fruits. Among them are Turkmen melons, which are the result of farmers' hard work and which have a unique taste reminiscent of the fruit of Paradise.' 
'The Turkmen melon,' he remarked on another occasion, 'is the source of our pride. Its taste has no equal in the world, the smell makes your head spin.' No wonder the doughty Turkmens are so keen to celebrate their melons. 
They also, by the way, have an annual celebration of the wonders of water. It falls on the first Sunday of April and goes by the name Drop of Water Is a Grain of Gold Festival.

Friday 9 August 2013


Just in case - and it seems unlikely on recent form - you've come here looking for something in the way of serious thought, or a bit of lit crit, perhaps a poem - I can only apologise and suggest you look elsewhere. I'm afraid this warm August has thoroughly addled my pate, I seem to be permanently tired - and everywhere I look it's the Silly Season. I managed not to post yesterday on the Jimmy Savile float outrage (it's given me an idea for next year's Carshalton Carnival), but today I found myself reading the story of a lady vicar's offensive bumper sticker. This sticker (which, we are assured, went unremarked by Rowan Williams himself) bears the legend WTFWJD, i.e. WTF would Jesus do? A variant on the better-known WWJD - What would Jesus do?  (a good, if often unanswerable question), the WTF version is generally employed by 'anti-fundies [fundamentalists]' and indeed anti-Xtians, as a weapon of mockery (there's even a song of the same name), so I'm not sure if the lady vicar really knows what she's doing, other than being, well... silly. But then I read on - and was astonished to learn that this lady vicar is none other than the well-known librettist Alice Goodman, who is the wife of our Greatest Living Poet, Geoffrey Hill! What on earth are we to make of this? Of all the names one might expect to turn up in a Silly Season story, that of Geoffrey Hill is surely the very last. 

Thursday 8 August 2013


August 8th presents an opportunity to put that much-misused word  'iconic' to an appropriate use - for it was on this day in 1969 that photographer Iain MacMillan erected a step-ladder outside the Abbey Road studios and snapped the Beatles walking in single file across a zebra crossing. I've remarked before on that well-nigh miraculous ten-minute timeframe, and touched on the dreary business of the 'Death of Paul' conspiracy theories (incidentally, the number plate of that parked VW -  supposed to contain a coded clue to the death - was subsequently stolen repeatedly, and now both car and plate reside securely in a German museum). A similar but less widespread 'Death of Dylan' conspiracy  theory was sparked by the cover of John Wesley Harding - another casual snapshot that became iconic.
  Looking at Abbey Road's list of titles is a reminder that even this, perhaps the best Beatles album (certainly the best Side 2), contains some clunkers - the unforgivable Her Majesty, Maxwell's Silver Hammer, and of course Ringo's distinctive contribution, Octopus's Garden. Talking of Ringo, did you know about his addition to the James Bond songbook? Let Ringo himself tell the tale...

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Bongo Fury

I see the mythical kingdom (or, more likely, People's Democratic Republic) of Bongo Bongo Land is back in the news. Those of us with longish memories will recall that the ineffable Alan Clark got into a spot of bother for using this phrase, and claimed in his defence that he was simply referring to the then President of Gabon, Omar Bongo. Bongo, a noted kleptocrat, ruled his country for 41 years, using its wealth to bankroll himself, his family and any French political parties needing to make secret payments for one thing or another. Since his death in 2009, Gabon has been ruled by Omar's son, Ali Bongo, who by chance shares his name with a noted comedy magician, aka 'The Shriek of Araby'.
  The 'Bongo Bongo Land' phrase has been revived by one Godfrey Bloom, an MEP in the UKIP interest, who clearly reached for his Bongos to describe a representative African kleptocracy where the nation's wealth is spent very much in the Omar Bongo manner (though perhaps without bankrolling French political slush funds). Bloom made a hilariously unrepentant appearance on the Today programme this morning, where poor Jim Naughtie seemed too flabbergasted to ask any pertinent questions, and ended up eliciting Bloom's views on foreign aid rather than, as one might have expected, labouring the point that the BBL phrase might be seen as 'racist' or  at least derogatory. Never mind, there are plenty of others queuing up to do that.
  Meanwhile, the juice drink Um Bongo ('Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo') goes on its merry way, apparently without causing any offence. For some reason (a shared African colonial past perhaps), it sells particularly well in Portugal - 'Um Bongo, o bom sabor da selva'. Indeed.

Dabbler alert

My brief review of a brief novel - Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre - is over on The Dabbler today.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The Discreet Charm of Scientism

On the train this morning I noticed an unprepossessing young(ish) man, somewhat on the large and lardy side, wearing a belligerent expression and a most unfortunate attempt at a haircut. What he was also wearing - and the reason I noticed him - was a T-shirt that bore, in large block capitals, the word 'SCIENCE' and, underneath, the legend 'It works, bitches.'
 I assume the comma in that is not doing the work of an 'and', as in American headlines (The Onion on Clinton's accession: 'New President feels nation's pain, breasts'). It works and bitches? No, it would appear this unhappy fellow was assuming that those around him were inclined to deny that science works and were therefore 'bitches'. Yet another touching example of the discreet charm of scientism.
 It's hardly worth arguing the point, but religion too 'works' - and has been shown to do so (in terms of mental health and various good outcomes) by what can only be called 'scientific' research. However, I don't feel inclined to wear a T-shirt pointing out the fact. 'RELIGION. It works, chums'? Hardly.

Monday 5 August 2013

Chicken Sexing: An Unsung Art

As I read today's lively exchanges on The Dabbler on the subject of chickens, my mind naturally turned to that vital yet strangely unsung art - chicken sexing. Vital, that is, to poultry production and, especially, egg production. For hatchling chicks adjudged by the skilled chicken sexer to be male and therefore not required for egg production, the outlook is grim indeed (and very short). This is a fact worth mentioning to egg-eating vegetarians who imagine that their dietary choice is saving vast numbers of animals from needless death (as is the sad fate of male calves in a system geared to producing vast quantities of the cows' milk enjoyed by lactovegetarians). The Wikipedia entry on Chicken Sexing is not for the faint-hearted. The paragraph on Vent Sexing is especially harrowing... ('Many professional vent sexers are Japanese...' I wonder how they get on at drinks parties: 'So what's your line of business, Tojo?')
If anyone can shed further light on the place of the 'example of the chicken sexers' in the internalism/externalism debate in epistemology [see Trivia], I'd be delighted to hear from them.

A Final, Considered Response to the Doctor Who Announcement

Oh really? That's nice.

Butterfly Bonanza

Like the rest of the world, I'm sure, I am still struggling to digest the full implications of the earth-shattering, epoch-defining news - as announced in a typically understated 30-minute special by the BBC last night - that another actor is to take over the lead role in Doctor Who. When I feel able to, I shall post my considered response to this development...
  Meanwhile, this glorious Butterfly Summer goes on giving. On a routine walk to and from the shops on Saturday morning - when it was not spectacularly sunny or hot, and I was making no particular butterfly-spotting effort - I saw a Peacock, a Red Admiral, two Commas, a Common Blue, three Painted Ladies and a Speckled Wood, as well as innumerable Whites (Small and Large) and Gatekeepers, and two Jersey Tigers (day-flying moths, quite easily mistaken, in flight, for Painted Ladies). A Sunday morning walk a little further afield added Green-Veined White, Meadow Brown, Small Skipper and Ringlet to the list. It's been years since I saw that many species, all at once, so close to home - but what is most wonderful about this summer is the sheer abundance, the prodigious numbers of individuals flying. You can't walk many yards without one or more flying into - or out of - view, starting up from the ground or a nearby leaf, or even (as happened to me yesterday with a Red Admiral) settling on your clothes. It takes me back to the long ago summers of my boyhood...
  This year's abundance of butterfly life demonstrates the simple fact that butterflies (or nearly all of them) require warm/hot, dry and sunny weather if they are to thrive. The recent decline of most of our species surely has far more to do with the dismal run of harsh winters and cool wet summers than anything else. If the warmists' predictions has turned out to be accurate and we were indeed to be in for reliably mild winters and scorching summers, it would have been very good news for our sun-starved butterflies.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Morley and Mee

A strange and rather wonderful thing happened on Radio 4 this week. I found myself listening to the Book at Bedtime and enjoying it! What's more, it's a new title - a novel by Ian Sansom (whom I'd never heard of) called The Norfolk Mystery. At first I took it to be a deft, well written and very amusing period comedy (it's set in 1937) - but now it turns out to be a murder mystery (I guess the clue was in the title) and I'm rather disappointed, being no fan of the whodunit. However, I shall definitely keep listening - it's on through next week too...
The Norfolk Mystery begins with one Stephen Sefton newly returned, thoroughly disillusioned and fed up, from the Spanish Civil War, and finding himself stony broke and at a loose end. Answering a strangely worded ad in a newspaper, he finds himself taken on as amanuensis by 'Professor' Swanton Morley, an omnivorous intellect, indefatigable writing machine and all-round powerhouse, who has spent his life turning out works of popular education and patriotic uplift in phenomenal quantities. He is now embarking on a history of traditional England in the form of a series of books about the counties. Beginning with Norfolk - and The Norfolk Mystery is to be the first of a series of mysteries titled The County Guides. Thirty-nine more to come? Why not?
Here is Ian Sansom's sales pitch for The Norfolk Mystery:
'I have written another book.
Like all of my other books it probably won’t be stocked in your local Waterstones.
There will be no reviews. You will not find it in airports.
I will not be interviewed by Mark Lawson or Mariella Frostrup.
I will not be attending literary festivals. Or giving readings.
There is no Facebook page. And I'm too tired to tweet.
Basically, frankly - I'll be totally honest - there is no publicity.
For what it's worth, here's my pitch: it's a good book. You might like it.'
I like the cut of his jib...
The inspiration for Swanton Morley is surely the phenomenally productive Arthur Mee, who, like Morley, embarked on a series of county guides, under the title The King's England (they're still around, often turning up in second-hand bookhops). Mee described this project as 'the first census of the ancient and beautiful and curious historic possessions of England since the motor car came to make it possible...' Among his other products were two hefty anthologies which I remember having around the house in my boyhood - Arthur Mee's Book of Everlasting Things and Arthur Mee's Book of One Thousand Beautiful Things, both illustrated, as I recall, with plates that showed a marked predilection for 18th-century portraits (English and French school).
But enough of that. The Norfolk Mystery may be a whodunit but 'it's a good book. You might like it.'