Wednesday 31 December 2014

Happy New Year!

Heavens, is that the date already? Yes, it's time to bid farewell to 2014 and wish all browsers in the pastures of Nigeness a very happy new year. A shame we can't get together and dine inside an Iguanodon mould like the jolly fellows in the picture. They were guests at a New Year's Eve banquet held at the Crystal Palace in 1853, where the great life-size dinosaurs were being built for the surrounding park by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, with cutting-edge scientific advice from Sir Richard Owen.
 The trouble with dinosaurs is that our knowledge of them even now is patchy and liable to be transformed by stray finds - and it was even patchier back in the 1850s. The result was that the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, built to embody the latest scientific knowledge, soon proved themselves risibly inaccurate. Gradually, along with the park itself, they fell into neglect and disrepair. However, wholesale restoration of dinosaurs and habitat - mostly on three islands in the lake - began in the 1950s, and the models continue to delight visitors. More quaint than terrifying, they are, among other things, a monumental reminder of the folly of taking current scientific knowledge as the Last Word. There - a thought to take into the New Year. May it smile on you.

Monday 29 December 2014

The Up Side

Well, I celebrated Christmas in traditional manner, i.e. by falling ill with this year's variation on the debilitating cold/cough/flu syndrome. In this case it was a rip-snorting, body-wracking cough that at least had the decency to stay at a distance till halfway through Boxing Day (and before that, Christmas, with son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, was a joy).
 The up side of these flattening seasonal malaises is that a person can lie around doing nothing very much with a clear conscience, there being little other option. So I spent a lot of time dozing to Radio 4 and Radio 3, and to whatever seemed bearable on TV - Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, Family Guy (including an episode in which the action was suddenly suspended in favour of glossy 1980s colour footage of Conway Twitty singing all three and a half minutes of I See the Want To in Your Eyes - brought in as a distraction technique by Peter Griffin. I thought I was hallucinating...). But I also managed something more substantial - i.e. two Laurel and Hardy features.
 A Chump at Oxford, which I haven't watched in ages, is a patchy affair, beginning with an irrelevant 20 minutes, tacked on to bring the film up to European length. After that it improves rapidly, though it's not much of an advert for Oxford, where the strangely middle-aged-looking students seem to be sadistic psychopaths to a man (one of them, bizarrely, is the great Peter Cushing, in his second Hollywood role, and sporting a moustache). Things take a very interesting turn when Stan, for reasons too far-fetched to explain, becomes Lord Paddington, the university's most comprehensively gifted ornament. It's the only time Stan ever stepped out of character, and he makes a brilliant job of it.
 I'm sure I needn't tell you that Way Out West is a comic (and musical) masterpiece, but if you want to confirm that, check it out on You Tube. You will feel better for it. In fact, come to think, it might have been Laurel and Hardy who made me feel better enough to haul myself back into work today. Gee thanks, fellas...

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Season's Greetings

Just a word - and a suitable image (Christmas Eve at Mr Wardle's from the 'good-humoured Christmas chapter' of Pickwick) - to wish a very happy Christmas to all who browse here.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Mount Cocker

Joe Cocker has gone to join the celestial jam session (up where he belongs?). Naturally Radio 4's rockin' Today programme had extensive coverage of his death, including an interview with Joe's older brother Vic, who rose to be Chief Executive of Severn Trent Water. Joe seemed to have found peace and contentment towards the quiet end of his raucous life, settled with his wife in the mountains of Colorado. 'I think I've become a mountain,' he told his brother.
 Then - prompted by the fact that Cocker's breakthrough hit was a soulful waltz-time reboot of the lame Beatles song With a Little Help from My Friends - there was a discussion of cover versions that eclipsed the originals. Taking of which, this one certainly doesn't eclipse the original - but golly it's beautiful... Enjoy.

Monday 22 December 2014


In Derbyshire at the weekend (yes, again), I visited a quite extraordinary site/sight that I'd never even heard of before. Lumsdale is a spectacular wooded gorge high above Matlock which, not content with being an area of 'outstanding natural beauty', is also one of the most important water-powered undustrial archaeological sites in England, the location of at least seven mills dating back to the Arkwright period and before, plus various other industrial and domestic buildings, nearly all of which are now more or less ruined.
 The water from Bentley Brook flows into two placid mill ponds before tumbling over the edge of the gorge in an endless succession of waterfalls. This dramatic combination of falling water, rugged rocks, romantic ruins and encroaching trees is quite achingly picturesque, and it's hard to imagine why Lumsdale isn't better known. Even by Peak District standards, it's a gem.
 That it has come down to us as it is today is  largely thanks to one woman, the aptly named Marjorie Mills, who in 1939 bought the then thickly wooded site, determined to preserve it. She rejected all offers for the building stone, refusing to permit demolition, but the task of maintaining such a site was too much for one person, and 40 years later it was leased to the Arkwright Society, who undertook to offer safe public access where possible, to maintain the charm of the wooded areas, and not to restore the buildings but to preserve them 'frozen in their picturesque decay'. They have done a brilliant job.

A Sad Triad

Today is the 25th anniversary of Samuel Beckett's death and, by grim chronal coincidence, news comes of the death of Billie Whitelaw, his 'perfect actress', who rose gloriously to the challenges of his fiercely concentrated late dramas - and the photographer Jane Bown, who captured perhaps the greatest of all images of Beckett (above). It was, incredibly, a stage door shot, caught as Beckett exited the Royal Court during rehearsals for a 70th birthday production of Happy Days.

Thursday 18 December 2014

It's Life, Jim...

Last night, belatedly, I caught up with the second of Jim Al-Khalili's two-part Secrets of Quantum Physics, and mind-boggling stuff it was, featuring the Quantum Robin, whose navigational skills depend on quantum entanglement, the Quantum Nose that doesn't smell but listens, the Quantum Frog whose metamorphosis depends on quantum effects - to say nothing of Quantum Ghosts, Quantum Weirdness, proton jumps and quantum mutations. Al-Khalili was exploring the emerging field of quantum biology, which sees quantum effects not as strange things that happen at the subatomic level and don't affect the 'real' macroscopic world,  but as essential elements in all the processes of life. If this approach is right - and Al-Khalili certainly made a strong case - the possibilities are endless, and life (in the scientific sense) suddenly becomes vastly stranger and more interesting.
 Most science documentaries I find either boring or annoying, or both. Too many of them overdress their assertions and explications with dazzling graphics and camerawork; too many are dogmatic and/or bombastic and overreach themselves. With Secrets of Quantum Physics, however (a low-budget production), the content was so strange and fascinating that it needed no dressing up and could hardly be illustrated - so Al-Khalili, rather endearingly, made do with a range of balls of various sizes and colours, the larger ones reminiscent of The Prisoner. They worked rather well.

Over there...

on the Dabbler, I'm talking pidgin.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Tickell's Exploded Beings

Born on this day in 1685 was the amusingly named minor poet Thomas Tickell, also known as 'Whigissimus' on account of his political leanings. A protege and favourite of Joseph Addison, Tickell had a good deal of worldly success in his lifetime, and perhaps rather more literary fame than he deserved. His longest poem is a mock-heroic effort, Kensington Gardens, in which Prince Albion, in love with a fairy maid, takes on Oberon and his forces on the site of what is now Kensington Gardens (where, as regulars will know, I often take a lunchtime stroll, weather permitting).
Tickell sets the scene thus:

'Where Kensington, high o'er the neighb'ring lands
'Midst greens and sweets, a Regal fabrick, stands,
And sees each spring, luxuriant in her bowers,
A snow of blossoms, and a wilde of flowers,
The Dames of Britain oft in crowds repair
To gravel walks, and unpolluted air.
Here, while the Town in damps and darkness lies,
They breathe in sun-shine, and see azure skies;
Each walk, with robes of various dyes bespread,
Seems from afar a moving Tulip-bed,
Where rich Brocades and glossy Damasks glow,
And Chints, the rival of the show'ry Bow...'

And so on, and on, for several hundred lines.
In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson remarks of Kensington Gardens that 'the versification is smooth and elegant, but the fiction unskilfully compounded of Grecian Deities and Gothick Fairies. Neither species of those exploded beings could have done much; and when they are brought together they only make each other contemptible. To Tickell, however, cannot be refused a high place among the minor poets...' A major minor then - at least to Johnson.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Dog's Wool

Staring vacantly into the window of an up-market Kensington bookshop - modern firsts, glossy leather, decorative bindings - my eye was caught by a framed poster. It was an appeal from the British Dog's Wool Association to the dog-owners of Kensington to comb out their dogs' coats and donate the combings to the war effort, 'for Supply of Comforts to the Sick and Wounded' of the Great War. Full particulars from a Miss du Cros of Holland Park Road.
 This led me to the Dog Wool Spinners of the Royal Academy, whose commendable zeal and industry you can read about here.
 Now I think of it, I have a feeling my mother used to have a dog's wool scarf - not of Great War vintage though. The world is probably full of dog's wool spinners - hats off to them.

Monday 15 December 2014

Some Trees

Workwhelmed again - time for a poem. This is John Ashbery's Some Trees, the title poem of his first collection. It won him the Yale Younger Poets Prize, though W.H. Auden, who judged it, later claimed he hadn't understood a word of the winning manuscript. This seems unlikely. Some Trees is hardly obscure or experimental - it's even rhymed, more or less. Explicable meaning, as ever with Ashbery, tends to swim in and out of focus, and there are private meanings in here (to do with Ashbery's love for Fank O'Hara; 'these accents' in the last line might even be a reference to their shared non-Harvard accents). But it works on its own terms, without inside knowledge, and at the least makes a beautiful music...

Some Trees

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Not Silence

Well, that's my Christmas sorted. Last night I caught an ad on the telly for a CD compilation called Silence Is Golden. A tricky theme for any collection of, well, music, but The Sound of Silence is present and correct (Simon & Garfunkel, not, thank G--, The Bachelors), also the title track (the Tremeloes, alas, not the Four Seasons original). The rest is not silence, and the subtitle '60 Hits from the Original Chilled Generation' better expresses what it is - lots of mellow and, for those of the right age who misspent enough of their youth, powerfully evocative music.
 Most of what you'd expect is here, from Whiter Shade of Pale and Nights in White Satin to God Only Knows and Albatross, from Green Tambourine to Blue Bayou, Everybody's Talkin' to Mellow Yellow. Plenty of West Coast sounds - Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful, even a couple of Tims (Rose and Hardin, not Buckley), Scott McKenzie but, oddly, no Mamas & Papas (copyright problems?). Otis Redding fans are already complaining that, once again, it's the inferior stereo mix of Dock of the Bay, rather than the original mono - but, more to the point, there are some odd selections: Subterreanean Homesick Blues (chilled?!), It Ain't Me Babe sung by Johnny Cash, not to mention those imperishable classics Can't Let Maggie Go (Honeybus) and Let's Go to San Francisco (Flowerpot Men). On the other hand, there are things you wouldn't expect to find on this kind of compilation: the Velvets' Sunday Morning (lovely song but no one noticed at the time), Nick Drake's Time Has Told Me (ditto), and tracks by Love, Pentangle, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Dammit, I might even buy the thing.

Friday 12 December 2014

Thought for the Day

Here's the kind of 'question' you're unlikely to find anywhere but on the BBC News website - Can yoga solve climate change? The answer, by the way, is No - but the UN's highly meaningful declaration of an International Yoga Day (June 21st - one for the diary) has undoubtedly given yoga 'a leg up', as is hilariously illustrated on the video.
 I like to think that, in a very real sense, blogging too is doing its bit to solve climate change. After all, you simply cannot do it while driving a gas-guzzling SVU (take it from me) - and very few blog posts emit significant levels of greenhouse gases (as distinct from hot air). We are all, are we not, doing our bit...

Thursday 11 December 2014

Statin Island

So, nearly half the UK population is on prescription medications - and, in a related development, Microbial Apocalypse looms, as a result of reckless overuse of antibiotics. How very strange all this would have seemed to the founders of the National Health Service, who genuinely believed that, once the NHS was up and running, it wouldn't be needed for long, as an increasingly healthy population had less and less need for medication. Similarly, the welfare state was expected to more or less wither on the vine as rising prosperity lifted almost everybody out of poverty.
 In practice, the huge initial surge of demand for spectacles, false teeth and uterine prolapse correction very nearly sank the NHS as soon as it was launched. And, with demand remaining infinitely elastic and the service continuing to appear 'free', the result is what we see today - an increasingly unhealthy (or, rather, differently unhealthy) population scoffing astonishing amounts of medication, much of which is probably useless or even harmful. It was never meant to be like this when those starry-eyed idealists were building the postwar New Jerusalem. Never underestimate the delusions of idealists.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

'Melvil' Dewey, Piece of Work

'To my thinking, a great librarian must have a clear head, a strong hand, and, above all, a great heart. And when I look into the future, I am inclined to think that most of the men who achieve this greatness will be women.'
 As a one-time librarian, I cannot let pass the birthday (in 1851) of Melvil Dewey (a most unlikely Sagittarian), who originated that bane and blessing, the Dewey Decimal Classification. Dewey, it seems from all the evidence, was a piece of work, a man with a highly developed gift (not uncommon among librarians) for putting backs up and making enemies. 'Although he did not lack friends,' wrote a biographer, 'they were weary of coming to his defence, so endless a process it had become.' He also, apparently, suffered from 'a persistent inability to control himself around women' (a malady perhaps less incident to librarians in general). Indeed, on one ten-day trip to Alaska, he was reported to have made unwanted advances to no fewer than 'four prominent librarians'.
 In addition to his career in librarianship and Academe, Dewey established the Lake Placid Club as a health resort and winter sports centre - though here too he ran into trouble, over the club's policy of excluding Jews and other minorities. A man of many parts, he was also, like G.B. Shaw, a keen proponent of simplified spelling - a sure sign of the irredeemable crank. (His given name was Melville, not Melvil.) There is still an 'Adirondac Loj' near Lake Placid, and menus at the resort in Dewey's day featured such items as 'Hadok', 'Letys' and 'Ys cream'. Enough said.

Monday 8 December 2014


Sorry - what with the December workstorm (about to hit its peak), this hard-to-shake 'cold' and my legendary birthday celebrations (yesterday), blogging is likely to continue thin for a day or two. However, after that, I intend to swing back into action...

Thursday 4 December 2014


Today, incredibly, Anna McGarrigle, sister of the much missed Kate, turns 70 (just days ahead of Tom Waits and me clocking up our 65th). It was Anna who wrote that heart-breakingly beautiful song Heart Like a Wheel. There's an intimate, even slightly ragged performance of it here, from 1990. Watch and weep... Happy birthday, Anna.


On The Dabbler today, I recall an unfortunate incident at the Royal Academy...

Wednesday 3 December 2014


No sooner do I announce my intention to retire than dear old Bob Mugabe, genial President of Zimbabwe (i.e. leader of the toughest gang), begins to think that, at the age of 90, it might be time to step down. Not to give the other fellows a chance in free and fair elections, of course, but to hand over the reins to his fragrant wife Grace, 40 years his junior, who seems only too willing to take over.  In the course of a BBC news report on this matter last night, a spokesman for the ZANU PF Youth League was invited to give his view of the succession. The ZANU PF Youth League, he assured the interviewer, is 'one hundred and twenty per cent' behind Grace Mugabe.
 This is the first time I have heard this expression, and I have an awful feeling it won't be the last. Before long to be a mere 110 per cent behind something, or to be a giving a mere 110 per cent of effort, will be seen as lukewarm and halfhearted. Where will it all end?

Tuesday 2 December 2014


Work, work, work - not to mention a cold dark drizzly day outside - and the 'bug' that is making me feel even more exhausted than usual at this time of year (but never mind - this time next year I shall be retired, hurrah!). Today is the birthday (in 1859) of the great Georges Seurat, who died far too young - and what more cheering, warming and calming sight than that of his Bathers At Asnieres, which hangs in the National Gallery? The critic Paul Alexis described it as 'faux Puvis de Chavannes'. At the risk of sounding like Oscar Wilde, I'd say that much of Puvis de Chavannes' output was faux Puvis de Chavannes.

Monday 1 December 2014

'religion and methodism'

misfortunes, troubles, disappoinments, grief...206
religion and methodism......................................90
childbed.................................................... .........79

These figures are for 'Lunacy by Cause' in a table published by the apothecary of the Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) towards the end of the 18th century. I came across it in The Air Loom Gang, Mike Jay's fascinating study of the case of James Tilly Matthews.
 The table can read like a kind of macabre poem, or summing up of human life. I particularly like the category 'religion and methodism' - as if Methodism were not quite worthy of classifying as 'religion'. This no doubt reflects contemporary suspicion of the inflammatory emotionalism of some Methodist preachers. Methodism was blamed by some for triggering not only religious mania but also sexual frenzy and its regrettable consequences. Indeed it was commonplace in some parts of the country for young men to loiter outside Methodist chapels in the hope of taking advantage of the aroused state of susceptible young women after a particularly strong sermon by a good-looking preacher. How very unlike the present-day incarnation of Wesley's great movement.

Saturday 29 November 2014


A blue-skied sunny morning and unseasonally warm - and just down the road, nectaring methodically on a Viburnum bush in a front garden, was a beautiful bright Red Admiral. On November 29th!

Friday 28 November 2014

Tomi Ungerer and Flat Stanley

Today is the 83rd birthday of the French illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Over the year's Ungerer's charming illustrations have enlivened many a children's book, among them Jeff Brown's Flat Stanley. This is one of many fine works I only discovered in the course of reading to and with my children, and I loved it. Flat Stanley tells the cheering story of a boy who, having been reduced to a two-dimensional state by an unfortunate mishap, learns to enjoy the opportunities for fun, mischief and even good deeds that his new-found flatness affords. Sliding under doors is the least of it...
 What I didn't know is that this book inspired the Flat Stanley Project, a global initiative in which schoolchildren who have read of Flat Stanley's exploits make a cut-out image of their hero and mail him, along with a letter, a short journal and perhaps a photograph, to schoolchildren in other parts of the world, who then mail him on with more of the same, etc. Thus literacy, communication and international understanding are encouraged - and Flat Stanley, that cheery fellow, gets to travel the world.  Apparently he was on board US Airways flight 1549 when it landed safely in the Hudson river in February 2009. Stanley was, according to Wikipedia, 'carried to safety in the briefcase of his travelling companion'.

Thursday 27 November 2014

'A giant absence'

Here's a seasonal poem, perfectly fitted to the London outdoors just now, and to my own state of mind as I half relish autumn and half yearn for the lost summer...

In the Elegy Season
by Richard Wilbur
Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls':
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.
Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air. And now the envious mind
Which could not hold the summer in my head
While bounded by that blazing circumstance
Parades these barrens in a golden trance,
Remembering the wealthy season dead,
And by an autumn inspiration makes
A summer all its own. Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.
Less proud than this, my body leans an ear
Past cold and colder weather after wings’
Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,
The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,
Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells
Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight
Of green leaves building into the light
And azure water hoisting out of wells.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Cui Bono?

I can't resist passing this story on. The first sentence, in particular, is one to savour. Further down, it spells out that there would likely be catastrophic effects for 1.2 -4.1 billion people, i.e. most people on Earth - but hey, if it's 'for the good of the planet', that's surely a price worth paying...?
There's also a pleasingly frank admission that the issues surrounding geo-engineering are 'really really complicated'. But probably nothing like as complicated as climate itself, which stubbornly continues to defy the warmists' computer models.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Tristram's Big Idea

Dr the Hon Tristram Hunt (University College School, Trinity Cambridge) - failed TV historian turned jut-jawed class warrior - was on the radio this morning (and in The Guardian), threatening private schools with dire punitive measures unless they do more to break down 'the Berlin Wall in our education system'. He even wants public schools (note to American readers: these are elite private schools) to send their teachers into state schools, because they have superior knowledge and expertise. I don't think there will be many volunteers (or, indeed, much point, unless he's proposing that they be re-employed - maybe that's the next step)...
 Dr Hunt should be reminded that it was comprehensive education (pursued under both Labour and Conservative governments) that erected that 'Berlin Wall'. Under the grammar school system, there was no great gulf between public schools and grammar schools; teachers in state grammar schools (as I've recalled before) had real knowledge and expertise; and products of state education would find themselves at no appreciable disadvantage even in the best universities.There was also, back in those days, such a thing as social mobility - remember that?  

Monday 24 November 2014


Workwhelmed again. Time to reach for a poem - and a picture. Yes, it's a Kay Ryan, and to get the full sense of this one, you need to bear in mind a specific meaning of the word chop, as a Chinese stamp of authority, authorship or ownership - the ultimate chop being that of the emperor, expressing his incontestable will and power.


The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp -
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor's chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Addison Mizner

Recent posts might suggest that I am doing little these days but listening to the radio, looking at the BBC News website and reading Bill Bryson's At Home. In fact, most of my time has been taken up with riding the traditional NigeCorp pre-Christmas workstorm, which will be building to a peak over the next couple of weeks. However, I am still reading (solely at bedtime) Bryson's 'Short History of Private Life' - which I have now concluded is no such thing, but rather a big baggy receptacle for all manner of odds and ends from Bryson's researches. By halfway through, At Home has really given up all pretence of being in any way attached to the layout of Bryson's Norfolk house. The chapter headed The Study, for example, devotes barely a paragraph to that room before diving into the subject of mice (by way of the Little Nipper mouse trap), then on to rats, bed mites, bugs and lice, microbes and bacteria, then back up the scale to bats and locusts. Study? What study?
  By similar routes of free assocation, the chapter headed The Passage leads to an architect I had never heard of before and was glad to make the acquaintance of - Addison Mizner. Mizner is the man who originated the Mediterranean/Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture that gave the wealthier resorts of South Florida a look that still characterises them to this day (and, in various debased forms, has spread far beyond Florida - as far, indeed, as the English South coast). He built and planned on a grand scale for clients of almost unlimited wealth, and was widely believed, by his detractors, to be some kind of charlatan. He had no academic training, and was the very embodiment of the 'Society Architect', rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous and charming extravagant commissions out of them. He rose spectacularly, and his career crashed equally dramatically when a combination of wildly ambitious schemes and the impact of the Wall Street Crash on his clients and on the Florida land boom brought Mizner's career crashing down around him.
 There are anecdotes galore about Mizner's slapdash, devil-may-care working methods (forgetting to install bathrooms, stairs, doors) - many of which Bryson, ever the entertainer, gleefully passes on. However, reading around the subject a bit, I gather that a recent biography has done much to dispel the myths about him (one being that he couldn't draw; he was actually a fine draughtsman and watercolourist) and to restore something of his reputation.
 I'm no fan of the Spanish Colonial Revival style (eminently practical though it is for hot parts of the world), but, to judge from pictures of Mizner's grander buildings, there seems to be a lot more going on than Spanish Colonial. He was indeed tirelessly eclectic, building in a range of different styles, all in the interests of achieving an impression of organic growth. Mizner's aim, he wrote, was to
'make a building look traditional and as though it had fought its way from a small, unimportant structure to a great, rambling house...I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner had added a very rich Renaissance addition.'
 This seems to me a pretty sound way to go about building (especially in a country with little actual history), and is surely in line with Arts and Crafts ideas of creating houses that look as if they have grown organically.
 After the Florida crash, Mizner designed several buildings in the North, the most remarkable of which was La Ronda at Bryn Mawr. This vast edifice is known as 'the only Mediterranean Revival building North of the Mason-Dixon Line', though there is nothing South Florida about it; it is more of a baronial castle than a luxury villa. Or rather was. Sadly La Ronda (that's part of it in the picture above) was demolished in 2009, despite a determined campaign to save it. Perhaps if Addison Mezner was taken more seriously, it would still be standing.

Friday 21 November 2014


As Rochester and Strood fall to the advancing UKIP juggernaut (and Labour, with one magnificently contemptuous tweeted image, self-immolate yet again), the Tories can't say they weren't warned - on this very blog and only last year. What Carshalton thinks today, the nation thinks tomorrow... There's even an outside chance now that that 'Image from #Rochester' (unexceptional house with fake portico, white van, three St George's cross flags) might have lost Labour the election. Funny old world.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Beaujolais Nouveau and the Art of Sinking

With the non-event of Beaujolais Nouveau Day drawing near, the BBC News website reliably sinks to the occasion with a non-article pondering the non-question of whether there is a Beaujolais Nouveau revival under way. It begins, solidly enough, with a look back at the peak of the Beaujolais Nouveau craze in the Eighties and a mention of the Japanese enthusiasm for the stuff. Then, clutching at some handy statistics, it suggests that yes, maybe, there's been a revival of interest in the UK, perhaps because the wine now tastes better... Around this point, the hapless writer scratches his head, stares into space a while and remembers the question he started with. He assures us - on the basis of one wine bar owner's uncorroborated testimony - that Beaujolais Nouveau Day is still huge in Swansea, and getting bigger every year. By now losing the will to live, the writer decides it's time to wrap up - and, in a fine display of the art of sinking, wrap up he does, with a deflating final quotation that brings the piece to a gloriously bathetic end. 'A temporary spike in retro-nostalgia' indeed. Couldn't have put it better myself.

Wednesday 19 November 2014


There was an interesting critique of the famous Milgram Experiment on the radio last night. This experiment is supposed to demonstrate that a state of blind obedience can be induced in otherwise decent people,to the point that they will actively inflict severe pain and distress on an innocent person. But does it (this critique argued) demonstrate blind obedience or something else - that people can be induced to override their moral instincts if they are convinced it is in the service of a greater good, in this case (God help us) Science? Most of the people who obeyed were not in a state of cold-eyed-killer detachment but deeply distressed by what they were being asked to do, and had to be forcibly persuaded that it was imperative they continue, for the sake of the Experiment, for the sake of Science. Milgram tells us little or nothing about human nature, I think, but much about the lengths Science is prepared to go to, and the deadly danger of overriding our moral sense in favour of any Greater Good whatsoever.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Daguerrotype of the Day

The Parisian street scene above dates from 1838, and was captured by Louis Daguerre, who was born on this day in 1787. Daguerre, who achieved worldwide fame with his Daguerrotype process, began his photographic researches with Nicephore Niepce, creator of the world's first heliograph, and continued to pursue them, with increasing success, after Niepce's sudden death in 1833.
 In the image above, the Boulevard du Temple seems eerily deserted, but this is the result of the ten-minute-plus exposure required by Daguerre's process at this time. Passing traffic and pedestrians would not have been in place long enough to register. Only the man having his shoes shined at lower left, and the chap doing the shining, were still long enough, and now they live on, the first unwittingly photographed people in history, caught on a sunny afternoon in Paris in 1838.
 'I have seized the light!' cried Daguerre, in a moment of excitement. 'I have arrested its flight!' Well, not quite.

Monday 17 November 2014


Good news - the Met Office has declared that this will be the wettest winter yet. The prolonged dry spell that will surely follow this bold forecast will be most welcome, especially after last year's (mysteriously unforecast) downpours.
To quote Old Nige's Weather Lore - 'If the Met men call it wet, Dry is what you'll likely get' and again 'If the Met men call it dry, Be sure to keep your brolly by.'
 The impending winter deluges are, we are assured, down to the Jet Stream (a meteorological phenomenon we never used to hear of until a few years ago). It's unusually vigorous and unusually far North, they say, though on last night's weather report it was pictured looping way down to the South and petering out. The situation, we are warned by a Met Office boffin, calls for a new word to be introduced into weather forecasts (as they whimsically persist in calling them): Baroclinicity. Well, I'm all for learning new words, but I don't think I'll bother with this one. Maybe I'll just take an extra shot of whatever I'm drinking every time I hear the word...

Sunday 16 November 2014

On the Dabbler today...

Me on Thom Gunn on Vuillard (ekphrastically).

Saturday 15 November 2014

Butterworth Dancing

Something I heard on the radio led me to this poignant curiosity - footage of the composer George Butterworth dancing in 1912. As is clear even from this short clip, he's a fine dancer - indeed he was so good that for a while he was employed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society as a professional morris dancer, one of the society's demonstration team.
 Four years after this footage was filmed, Butterworth was dead, shot through the head at the Somme. His body was never recovered.
 Here is his beautiful setting of Housman's Loveliest of Trees...

Thursday 13 November 2014

New Pictures, Old Camera

As a fan of old cameras and of the hereditary principle, I was naturally pleased to come across this story. It seems a pity the photographer hasn't made more of the possibilities of his 100-year-old camera - most of the images look quite modern - but the portrait of the Marquess of Bath is a beauty and looks as if it could  have been taken 100 years ago.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Far from Literal

The dark, dramatic engravings of Gustave Dore [you'll have to imagine the acute accent] have done a lot to fix our image of Victorian London, in all its murky squalor. I was interested to learn, from another informative footnote in Bill Bryson's At Home, that they are in fact far from literal representations of the city. Dore was hugely popular in England, where there was a permanent exhibition of his work at a Mayfair gallery, but he spoke very little English and spent most of his time in France, pursuing a succession of love affairs (including one with Sara Bernhardt) while continuing to live at home with his mother.
 When Dore landed the commission to supply 180 engravings for a lavish new book, London: A Pilgrimage, he spent some time exploring London locations, but would make no sketches, as he couldn't bear working in public, so his scenes were recreated from memory and imagination. Their inaccuracies became notorious, and drove the unfortunate author charged with supplying the letterpress to distraction. This writer was Blanchard Jerrold, son of Douglas, the creator of Mrs Caudle. Like his father before him, Blanchard was a journalist, author, dramatist, amateur actor, and friend of Dickens. However, Blanchard and Dickens fell out bitterly when, on Douglas Jerrold's death, Dickens, with typical officiousness, set about organising benefits for the family - and was then deeply indignant at Blanchard's lack of due gratitude. Happily, the two men made up after a while, and Blanchard gave Dickens a presentation copy of his life of his father. He also wrote an affectionate memorial tribute to Dickens in the Gentleman's Magazine in July 1870.
 As for Dore, though he regarded himself as one of the great artists of his age, he is today remembered chiefly for those engravings of London life.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Don't miss...

... the selection of Armistice Day poems over on The Dabbler.


This superb crayon portrait is of the artist (and author and anarchist) Paul Signac, born on this day in 1863. The portrait is by Seurat, with whom Signac worked in developing Pointillisme. He went on to work with many others, including Van Gogh, and to try his hand at various styles, with results that never achieved the greatness of Seurat at his concentrated best. Signac spread himself too thinly, and his works seldom rise above the interesting and/or pretty. Or so it seems to me. They do, however, fetch good money, which is why the Hotel Spaander in Volendam was delighted to discover recently that a view of the harbour that had long hung on a rusty nail in the lobby was a Signac, dashed off to pay his bill. It's reckoned to be worth 100,000 Euros today.

Monday 10 November 2014

Retroprogressive News

The latest development in the Great Analogue Reawakening is, of all things, a Polaroid revival - celebrity-led, it seems. I didn't see this one coming, but when you think about it it makes perfect sense, especially for, ahem, 'sensitive' material - though I do hope they've improved picture quality and solved the problem of the fading image. The old Polaroids in my photo albums (from the 70s and early 80s, I guess) are a sorry sight now... But there you go - there is no stopping the backward march of retroprogress.

Then and Now

I saw something rather wonderful on the television last night. Unfortunately it only lasted about two minutes, and it was more than 40 years old. It was a short compilation of moments from Jacob Bronowski's 1973 series The Ascent of Man. There he was, with no script, thinking (and pausing for thought) as he spoke, first expressing his abhorrence of Hegel (and putting in a word for Gauss), then leafing through Newton's Principia in the Wren Library, and finally at Auschwitz (where many of his family died), standing at the swampy edge of the lake where the ashes from the incinerators were dumped. This famous passage is 'once seen, never forgotten' TV and I remembered it well - but all the same, the impact of it was again utterly electrifying.
 Of course there was much to disagree with in Bronowski's thesis, but the very fact that such a series - so thoughtful, so intellectually challenging, so eloquently and spontaneously expressed, so packed with individuality and learning - could be made at all seems astonishing now. The more so for its having been made and shown by a mainstream BBC channel and having attracted big audiences (we owe it, in fact, to David Attenborough, then in charge of BBC2, who made The Ascent as a science-based complement to Kenneth Clark's urbane blockbuster Civilisation). Nothing like it could conceivably be made today - least of all by a TV scientist.
  Alas, this two minutes of wonder was but a tiny element in Prof Brian Cox's latest extravaganza - a BBC4 discussion of science TV plus screenings of some of Cox's favourite shows from the past. Rashly, he had invited the, er, exuberant actor and space fanatic Brian Blessed to participate in the studio chat, and Cox had to do his desperate best to keep Blessed from erupting into full flow. The discussion, such as it was, was almost entirely between Cox and his other guest, Prof Alice Roberts, who shares with Cox the rare ability to talk through a permanent smile. Such is TV science now.

Thursday 6 November 2014

'He was cool'

So said Garth Hudson (of The Band) on the radio this morning. He was being interviewed about the legendary Basement Tapes made by Bob Dylan and the (soon to be) Band in New York in 1967 and now being reissued yet again in even more comprehensive form. Who was cool? Why, Dylan was. Garth had been asked how Dylan was at the time of the recordings, 'He was cool,' said Garth. This was clearly not enough for the interviewer, who pressed on, determined to find out more - he was off his face, he was whacked, he was a mumbling wreck of a man, something like that. At length Garth Hudson elaborated. 'There were no indications,' he declared,'that I can recall, that he was not cool.' Brilliant.
I remember Kinky Friedman once being interviewed about Dylan, with whom he had just been touring (in the late 90s maybe?). 'Mr Dylan,' he opined, 'is somewhat past his sell-by date, but he has his moments of lucidity.'

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Longhi's Clara

Born on this day in 1701 was the great Venetian  painter of charming (and strangely haunting) genre scenes, Pietro Longhi. His Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice (above) is one of the minor delights of the National Gallery (and there's another version of it in Venice, in Ca' Rezzonico).
 The rhinoceros is Clara, an Indian rhino, who was adopted as an orphan by a Dutch East India Company merchant and shipped to the Netherlands, where she disembarked at Rotterdam and began a hugely successful career as a touring attraction, appearing all over the Continent in the course of the next 17 years. Somewhere along the way, she rubbed off her horn - or it might have been cut off; opinions differ. Note the fellow at the left of Longhi's painting, waving the horn around, no doubt with ribald intent...
 Clara eventually ended up at the Horse and Groom public house in Lambeth, where she was exhibited to the curious for a charge of  6d or 1s, and where she died in 1758, aged around 20. For a rhinoceros, she'd had quite a life - and been immortalised in art.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Dabbler news

The good new is that the worm-prone Dabbler is back in working order. Hie there for a very fine Dabbler Diary...

Teeth (not for the faint-hearted)

So, yesterday morning I pootled down to the dentist, not exactly with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, but confident that this one last filling (the latest to be overlooked by my technology-loving, Classic FM-listening regular dentist) would free me from thinking about my teeth for the rest of the year. (This saga kicked off with a raging toothache on my return from Nice - another legacy of the Classic FM-lover, who had given me a 'check-up' only a couple of weeks before.)
The very efficient irregular dentist shot me full of something numbing - she has a generous hand with the anaesthetic - and drilled away. And discovered the tooth was in such a state that it could either be (a) saved and crowned after extensive, intensive and very expensive work, or (b) extracted. And it was a wisdom tooth - an upper, but still a wisdom tooth. So (a) it wouldn't be missed, but (b) it would probably be a bastard to extract.
Well, I opted to lose it there and then, and the irregular set to work with a will and an alarming range of instruments. Much yanking and heaving ensued (I'll spare you the details) and for a while it looked hopeless, but in the end - ping! Out it came. The reason it put up such a fight was that it was blessed with one more root than expected. This is said to indicate Iberian genes (well I certainly love Lisbon) and the extra root is something I have in common with Mrs N - that and our shared passion for Brian Cox documentaries, hem hem.
 Anyway, the aftermath was not pleasant and I spent most of the ensuing day and night feeling grim, with half my mouth stuffed with blood-soaked gauze. But the bleeding finally stopped some time in the small hours, and the pain hasn't been too bad. And that, I hope, is the last you'll hear of my teeth for a good long time.

Sunday 2 November 2014

Back with the Men of Letters

'If there was one thing as remarkable as the range of his learning, it was his refusal to learn.'
That's John Gross on the eminent literary critic Sir George Saintsbury. Yes, I'm still reading The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, taking it slowly - not least because I'm enjoying it so much that I'm spinning it out as I near the end. It is fascinating to find out more about so many writers that I knew mostly as names on spines on the more neglected shelves of second-hand bookshops - names like Augustine Birrell (Obiter Dicta), Austin Dobson, Andrew Lang, Charles Whibbley, Churton Collins (the original 'louse on the locks of literature'). Not only has Gross conscientiously explored the writings of these now obscure figures - even of the Rev George Gilfillan, 'the McGonagall of criticism' - he provides a pithy and laudably fair-minded verdict on each, always taking pains to acknowledge his particular strengths (not quite possible with Gilfillan, about whom Gross notes drily 'the 19th-century taste for the tumid died hard'), as well as deftly analysing his weaknesses.
 Gross gives the Edwardian age of sweeping judgements, tweedy bookishness and broad-brush amateurism its due, and even seems to feel real nostalgia for its expansive, easy-going geniality. He quotes from a late essay of Chesterton's, written in 1936, in which GKC characterises the times as 'intellectually irritated'. Gross continues, 'And he could equally well have characterised the Edwardian literary scene by its comparative lack of irritability. For better or worse, the writers who held the stage before 1914 were thicker-skinned than their successors. They were expansive; they believed (not too fanatically) in their schemes for saving the world; they didn't feel compelled to write as though they were always on oath. If there was such a thing a dominant Edwardian note, it was one of confident give and take. It is a note that has largely disappeared; but the fact that it would ring false if anyone tried to revive it today shouldn't mislead us into supposing that it was not once natural and spontaneous.'
 Later, as he moves into Modern Times (the age of Eliot and co), Gross gives a typically balanced account of the strengths and weaknesses of the influential critic Desmond MacCarthy. 'MacCarthy,' he concludes, 'was not a strikingly original critic, nor even, in himself, a particularly important one. His importance was simply that of someone who helped to keep alive a tradition of breadth, enlightenment, rational sociability, civilised forbearance. Despite the Criterion and Scrutiny and Geoffrey Grigson and Grigson's friend Wyndham Lewis, it is not a tradition that was entirely superseded, even in the baton-swinging 1930s - though no doubt we should all be much more rigorous and exacting today if it had been. Those of us, that is, who survived to tell the story.'
 This is a wonderfully humane book - a rare quality in literary criticism.

Saturday 1 November 2014


This morning turned out to be as sunny and nearly as warm as yesterday, and as I walked home from the shops and looked down from the railway footbridge onto a fine mass of sunlit ivy beside the tracks, there was a glint of silvery blue, then something took flight - then another - two Holly Blues, chasing each other, settling, giving chase again. And fine, bright, lively specimens they were - nothing end of season about them. I was to see two more, equally fresh and full of life, later in the morning. And another Speckled Wood. And a Red Admiral, which glided past just as I neared the house. All on the first day of November!

Friday 31 October 2014


Well, I made it out of the building, all to briefly, to enjoy this glorious, summer-warm sunshine - the last of the year, we are assured. November tomorrow and the thermometer will fall.
 In Holland Park the trees were in their autumn beauty, and there, spreading its wings on a sun-splashed hazel leaf, was one faded, autumnal Speckled Wood. If this proves to be my last butterfly of the year, the symmetry is near perfect; it was no more than a couple of paces from where I saw this year's first - a Comma.
 In the course of my brief wanderings I was also divebombed several times by disoriented ladybirds, woken from early hibernation - the big ones, Harlequin ladybirds, they're everywhere.
 And I developed a minor nosebleed.
 It was soon gone.


I see that a mighty educational research project has, after much labour, come to the startling conclusion that overpraising poor work is not a terribly good idea. Still more shockingly, it concludes that the two key factors in improving results are the quality of the teaching and the teachers' subject knowledge - who'd have guessed? (The National Union of Teachers, needless to say, is having none of it.)
 When I look back to my own schooling, in what was by the standards of the time a fairly run-of-the-mill state grammar school, I am gratefully amazed at the quality of teaching and the subject knowledge of many of the teachers. They were certainly of a calibre that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in the state sector these days. Indeed, the rot set in (even in this school, which escaped being comprehensivised) when the generation that taught me retired. My old friend, mentor and English teacher - let us call him K - handed over his department in the mid-70s to a younger man who was a perfectly capable and effective teacher, but, to K's bemusement, had no apparent interest in or enjoyment of  his subject, knew no more of it than he needed to, and read little beyond the syllabus. By contrast K lived and breathed English (and French and Italian) literature; he had more close, detailed knowledge of Shakespeare than anyone I ever knew (including at university) - likewise Milton, and Dante, and, above all, Keats, whose great odes and much else he knew by heart.  As today is John Keats's birthday (1795) - and as it's the kind of glorious sunny, unseasonably warm day when here in the city I feel unusually pent, let's have this fine sonnet:

To one who has been long in city pent,
         'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
         And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart's content,
         Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
         Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
         Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet's bright career,
         He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear
         That falls through the clear ether silently.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Boswell - What If...?

Among my current bedtime reading is another damn'd thick square book by the notoriously readable Bill Bryson. At Home is a history of the development over the years of the home and all the comforts we now take for granted. Built around a room-by-room tour of the Norfolk rectory that is now Bryson's home, the book soon develops into a big, baggy - and, dammit, immensely readable - history of, well, nearly everything (a subject he's already covered in another fat book). Bryson is a virtuoso of research - or rather of distilling vast quantities of material into fascinating titbits - and he's happy to roam at large in his subject, wandering off into digressions and footnotes, and as a result delivering far more than his subject might promise. For example, last night, while reading about the agricultural revolution of the 18th century (this in the chapter devoted to The Drawing Room), I learnt from a footnote that the Ayrshire breed of cattle - a handsome, good-natured and bountiful breed - was developed by Bruce Campbell, a second cousin of James  Boswell. Campbell was put in charge of the estate when Boswell turned down the life of a Scottish country gent in favour of something a deal more raffish and metropolitan. Just think - if Boswell had decided to take over the estate, we would most likely not have Ayrshire cattle, and we could certainly not have Samuel Johnson - Johnson the man, that is, as large as life and larger: Boswell's Johnson.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

A Hole in the Floor

It's high time we had a poem here - and this one is oddly apposite, as our house is currently in the grip of two simultaneous flooring crises, with floorboards up and strange, alarming sights on view. Of course Richard Wilbur's poem is not about flooring. The subject is the hole, the hidden darkness and mystery - the 'buried strangeness' - that sustain the life we think we're living, here in the light. The poem has a characteristically controlled and orderly surface, but there's a strong undertow, something threatening to break through. Looking into a hole is not far from staring into the abyss. 'For God's sake, what am I after?'
The poem is dedicated to Rene Magritte.

A Hole in the Floor

The carpenter's made a hole
In the parlor floor, and I'm standing
Staring down into it now
At four o'clock in the evening,
As Schliemann stood when his shovel
Knocked on the crowns of Troy.

A clean-cut sawdust sparkles
On the grey, shaggy laths,
And here is a cluster of shavings
From the time when the floor was laid.
They are silvery-gold, the color
Of Hesperian apple-parings.

Kneeling, I look in under
Where the joists go into hiding.
A pure street, faintly littered
With bits and strokes of light,
Enters the long darkness
Where its parallels will meet.

The radiator-pipe
Rises in middle distance
Like a shuttered kiosk, standing
Where the only news is night.
Here it's not painted green,
As it is in the visible world.

For God's sake, what am I after?
Some treasure, or tiny garden?
Or that untrodden place,
The house's very soul,
Where time has stored our footbeats
And the long skein of our voices?

Not these, but the buried strangeness
Which nourishes the known:
That spring from which the floor-lamp
Drinks now a wilder bloom,
Inflaming the damask love-seat
And the whole dangerous room.

Monday 27 October 2014

Top Trees

Good to see the shortlist for Tree of the Year has been published. I rather fancy Old Knobbley, a tree with a substantial fanbase and its own website -  its most recent offspring, Young Knobbley, also has an online presence.
 It's a bit of a shame - though unsurprising - that oaks so dominate the shortlist. Me, I'd nominate the mighty (and immensely elegant) London Plane beside the Old Rectory in Carshalton...

Rebranding Brand

On the Today programme this morning, Tom Sutcliff came on to tell us who his guests were for Start the Week. One of them, he announced, was 'comedian Russell Brand'. 'Is he a comedian now?' mused Jon Humphrys, a tad sardonically. 'Shouldn't we call him a thinker?'
 No, Jon. Now that Brand has set up as a thinker, the label 'comedian' fits him better than it ever did when he was at large in the world of comedy. As a thinker, indeed, he makes a first-rate comedian. The trouble - and the mystery - is that he gets taken seriously.

Friday 24 October 2014


I've just noticed that a piece of mine on Marianne North is over on the new-look soaraway Dabbler... 

Thursday 23 October 2014


Quotations have their uses. Without them, according to Wodehouse, any conversation between chaps would be nothing but an endless succession of 'What ho's. Oddly, these days, they are increasingly becoming an element of interior design, gracing the walls of pubs and restaurants. Pubs, that is, of the kind that feature living-room furniture and by-the-yard books, where a few quirky, perhaps 'thought-provoking' quotations on the wall represent another short cut to 'character' and 'charm', though their sourcing probably owes less to wide reading than to the quote troves of the internet.
 Now, it seems, it's spreading. Yesterday I noticed a florist's stall whose canopy was embellished with aptly floral quotations. One of them was this: 'To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat' - Beverley Nichols. The fey quotation is all too characteristic of Nichols in whimsical mood.
 I first came across the curious figure of Beverley Nichols in the course of my assiduous childhood reading of my mother's Woman's Own magazine. By this point in his career, Nichols was reduced to writing soppy stuff about, mostly, cats (there was even a Beverley Nichols Cat Calendar) - a sad plight for one whose literary career had begun with such golden promise. He published his first novel, Prelude, while still at Oxford (editor of Isis, president of the Union, etc), with two more, Patchwork and Self, swiftly following and establishing him as the bright rising star of the literary scene.
 A terrific charmer and networker, Nichols soon knew everybody, from the highest of high society to the wider world of literature and showbusiness, and was for years extravagantly praised by friends and critics alike (they were often one and the same). Well-paid journalism, successful stage plays and books galore followed (he totted up 60 and more in his writing career), and Nichols scored another massive success with Down the Garden Path (illustrated by his friend Rex Whistler) and its various sequels. However, after the war, he seems to have somehow run out of steam and/or gone out of fashion, and so began the descent to winsome jottings in women's magazines - though the books kept on coming, and he achieved one final blaze of glory (of a kind) in 1972 with Father Figure. In this startling book, he described how he killed his alcoholic and abusive father. Whimsical it wasn't.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

A Nasty Piece of Work

Born on this day in 1870 was that singularly nasty piece of work, Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's 'Bosie'. His appalling treatment of Wilde, both during and after their relationship, is notorious, and Wilde's tolerance of it must be put down, I suppose, to an extreme and tragic case of blind love or  amour fou. The literary landscape and the whole cultural life of England might have been very different had Oscar never met Bosie, had the scandal and the trial never happened...
 Douglas's excesses after the Wilde years (when he was happy to denounce Oscar as 'the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years') are perhaps less well known. One astonishing example came in the course of his editorship of a magazine called Plain English, devoted largely to vicious anti-Jewish propaganda (blood libel, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, etc). In its pages he accused Winston Churchill of falsely reporting that the British fleet had been defeated at Jutland. His motive, Douglas alleged, was to bring about a crash in British securities, enabling a cabal of Jewish financiers to buy them up cheaply. Churchill's reward was to be a houseful of furniture, to the value of £40,000. Happily, Lord Alfred was found guilty of libel on this occasion and sentenced to six months in prison. While there, he wrote his poetic testament, In Excelsis (cp De Profundis), but  was obliged to leave it behind when he was released. He claimed afterwards that his health had been ruined for life by sleeping on a prison bed without a mattress.
 When Douglas eventually died, in 1945 in Hove, his funeral was attended by only two people - one of whom, according to his son, was the actor Donald Sinden, who himself died last month. He was probably the last living link with the egregious Lord Alfred.

Monday 20 October 2014


As the Dylan Thomas centenary year grinds on, it's good to see that some of his most characteristic works of the imagination - the bouncing cheques that littered his path through life - have come up for auction. If ever a cheque was destined to be returned by the bank, it was one signed 'Dylan Thomas'. A fine piece of Welsh canniness on the part of the landlord to keep these specimens back, rather than throw them away. He should have got him to sign a few beermats as well - or maybe he did...

Sunday 19 October 2014

'Mischievous commonplaces'

'There is already an abundance, not to say superabundance of writers who are able to express in an effective manner the mischievous commonplaces which they have to say.'
That's John Stuart Mill, rebuffing a request for support from the gloriously named Neophyte Writers' Society [as quoted in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters]. And if he was right then, he'd be even righter now when, in an age of mass media and open-access electronic media, we are afloat on an ever widening sea of inane verbiage and 'mischievous commonplaces'. In any age, only a tiny - and ever dwindling - portion of what is being written is far above the level of tosh, and virtually all, even of the most respectable and articulate of it, will be deservedly forgotten within a short space of time.
 Anyone who has spent much time in a large library with historic holding will have come to this realisation, as they discover shelf after shelf, stack after stack of works published by respectable houses, doubtless in a hopeful, even triumphant spirit, only to fall into more or less instant oblivion, to survive only in a few obscure warehouses of the past, unread and meaningless to all but the occasional scholarly specialist. And these are the relatively spare and worthy relics of the age of print. What an infinitely vaster field of dust and delusion is represented by the exponentially growing archive of the electronic age...
 Yes, there is no virtue - and perhaps much mischief - in encouraging people to write. The likelihood is that the few worthwhile writers will persevere regardless; we are better off without the rest. In particular, those who believe themselves to be writing poetry should be firmly disabused, as is regularly proved on various Radio 4 'poetry' programmes week after week.
 Meanwhile, of course, I carry on writing.

Friday 17 October 2014

Picking Up Prints

I just picked up some prints from the chemist's - and realised, as I did so, how long it's been since I felt the particular excitement of handling a package of photographs I'd taken but hadn't seen. I guess it's one of those once familiar experiences that is dying out fast. In my case it only happened because we found ourselves in Nice without a camera or a decent mobile phone between us. When I spotted a single disposable camera - probably the only one in town (they're dying out too) - at the till of a minimarket  I snapped it up, and set about using it to create some kind of record of the short holiday.
 I handed the camera in at Boot's two days ago and, as it was Boot's, I knew that picking up the prints was unlikely to be straightforward. For many years this chain chemist seems to have operated a strategy of selecting counter staff for their skills in conversing among themselves, getting hopelessly confused, walking around looking puzzled and wandering off on mysterious errands, rather than for any till-related abilities.
 Two staff were on the photographic desk, each of them, predictably enough, caught up in some fantastically complex customer problem that looked likely to last for much of the afternoon. One of them, however, soon became free - well, freeish; she couldn't actually attend to me until she'd been given a number and punched it in to the till. This task having twice defeated her, her colleague came to her aid, the number was duly punched, and I handed in my collection slip, which was promptly scanned with a bar-code reader. After that, the assistant seemed quite at a loss and stared uncomprehendingly at the slip for some while before turning to the alphabetically arranged ranks of prints behind her. She began in the Ts - which, as my surname begins with an A, didn't seem such a great idea. I directed her attention towards the As, and, when I had explained the situation, she delved among them - with (you're probably ahead of me here) no success.
 Her colleague again came to her aid: the prints, she said, might be in the basket. The basket was in a storeroom behind the scenes, to which access could only be gained by punching a numerical code into a keypad. After several attempts at this, the assistant called for her colleague, who once again went to her aid. 'She's got a problem with numbers, that one,' she sighed good-humouredly. Both of them then disappeared into the storeroom for some while. Much to my surprise, when at length they emerged they had found my prints!
 As always, actually opening the exciting package and seeing the prints was a disappointment. Disposable cameras do have their limitations; indeed, they have little else.  

Thursday 16 October 2014


It's time for a picture - and this one is by way of marking the birthday of the great Edward Ardizzone (born 1900, in Tonkin of all places, in what was then French Indo-China). Ever since I first came across his illustrations in childhood, I've loved Ardizzone's delicate, instantly recognisable style - a style that belongs as much to the 18th century (particularly Rowlandson) as to the 20th. Whatever his subject - and he was a prolific war artist, at home and abroad - there is a sense of good cheer and enjoyment of the world behind almost everything Ardizzone drew. He was a lover of rounded forms and rounded women, and a devotee of that great institution, the English public house. Some of his best informal work was done in the pubs of  Maida Vale, works full of keen enjoyment for every aspect of pub life (he was the perfect choice of illustrator for Maurice Gorham's The Local). The image above shows Home Guards at the Local - it's one of many Ardizzones at the Imperial War Museum. And isn't that Private Frazer ('We're all doomed!') leaning on the bar?

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Why Are We Here?

If (and it's a big if) I've learnt one thing in 40 years of marriage, it is that Mrs N must have her science documentaries, and while she watches them I must maintain silence and try to keep the incredulous snorts and head-shaking to a minimum (not easy). Last night it was ever-smiling, ever-awestruck moptop physicist Prof Brian Cox and his Human Universe, this week posing the question Why Are We Here? Quite rightly, Cox did not address this question (which is a religious/philosophical one if it's anything) but set about answering another one: How Come We Got Here? What chains of causality culminated in Us, here and now? 'The life of the Universe,' he declared at one point, 'is just like a game of cricket.'  I see - that would explain a lot...
 Soon he was edging back to his favourite subject, the one that seems to strike most awe into him, however many times he returns to it: those few basic Laws of physics and those Numbers (neither of which exist in themselves) that explain Everything.
 How did it all begin? Cox favours the theory of Inflation - 'eternal' Inflation, no less (eternal?) - which, as he explained it, seems to rely on the presence of some form of energy to set it in motion, i.e. yet again the Something from Nothing conundrum is sidestepped (energy is surely Something, and was Before). Inflation  necessarily implies the creation of a multitude ('infinite' no doubt) of Multiverses, each slightly different. We're the lucky ones - the Human Universe is the 'winning ticket' in the Multiverse lottery. It is also 'inevitable'. 'You are,' concludes Cox, 'because you have to be.' Or in other words (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here. We're here because.... etc, etc.'

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Emerson Lives?

With the winner of the Booker Prize due to be announced this evening, Radio 4 ran a little piece this morning in which each of the shortlisted authors spoke of their literary inspirations. It was all pretty routine stuff - except when it came to Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour ('an investigation into doubt, belief and the importance of flossing'). His inspiration? Ralph Waldo Emerson, no less. He quoted some lofty utterance of the great man that had apparently convinced him of his literary vocation.
 I must say, of all the names I expected to hear in this context, R.W. Emerson was about the most unlikely. Isn't this about on a par with an English writer naming Herbert Spencer as his inspiration? Or is Emerson still a living presence in American literary culture?

Technical note

In view of recent events at The Dabbler - now relaunched in all its glory and more - I've reinstated word recognition on Nigeness. Hope it's not inconvenient. My stats are also suspiciously high, and I don't think it's all human activity...

Monday 13 October 2014

'still has the power to irritate'

I'm finally reading a book that's been in my sights for quite a while - John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the English Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800 (1969 - mine's a browning Pelican edition from the 70s) - and I'm loving it. Tracing his subject from the rise of the reviewers (a pretty terrible bunch) early in the 19th century to the ascent of Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold and on to the Higher Journalism of the Victorian era... Actually, that's as far as I've got at this point, but I can report that I haven't enjoyed a work of literary criticism so much since I reread Keats and Embarrassment.
 Gross is immensely readable, quietly humorous, never dull or pompous, and with a shrewd, sharp but always humane and balanced judgment. He is brilliant on Carlyle, giving full weight to his virtues as well as his all too evident flaws and insisting (probably too late) that the latter should not be allowed to eclipse the former. And here he is on George Henry Lewes, whose status as Literary Footnote is secured by his relationship with George Eliot (of whose critical essays in Lewes's Westminster Review, Gross writes 'Aspiring wherever possible to praise rather than condemn, she none the less manages to temper her mercy with a disconcerting amount of justice'). But Lewes had many more strings to his bow - from theatre critic and writer of potboiling farces to essayist and reviewer, translator, biographer of Goethe, writer of many volumes of popular science, and serial dabbler in utopian philosophies:
 'If a longing for intellectual certainty predisposed him towards the secular messiahs and utopian conventicles thrown up by the age, his native wit usually saved him from toppling over into complete extravagance. On the other hand, there was often the strong odour of a crank's kitchen about the circle in which he moved.' Of Lewes's essay on Dickens (in which 'the "advanced" critic plods along behind the unintellectual author'), Gross says that it 'still has the power to irritate'. Which is something...
 Gross clearly loves his subject, and his book is in part a celebration of how the world of letters used to be in a lost age when a living common culture (literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, political) seemed at least a possible reality - and before English Literature was packed off to the universities as an increasingly arid and irrelevant 'discipline', of interest to none but specialists.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Nice PS

One of the most surprising things about Nice was that the city of Matisse and Dufy seems now to be entirely devoted to Bad Art, both upmarket and down - I haven't seen so much hideous tat (expensive as well as cheap) since my last stay in Honfleur. There are the museums and galleries of course - including, out of town, the Matisse Museum - but outside their walls, virtually no trace of the two artists. No reproductions or posters to be seen, not so much as a postcard even. In the light of the massive popularity of the cut-outs, you'd have thought that Nice would be branding itself as a themed city, Matisseville-sur-Mer - but no, far from it. And as for the city's (recent) Public Art, it could scarcely be worse - mostly a matter of gigantic steel girders incongruously placed, as if Nice were some decayed industrial town rather than the jewel of the Cote d'Azur. All very odd.


In the event, I spent less time on the Promenade des Anglais - magnificent though it is, the ceaseless adjacent motor traffic is irksome - than up above the Old Town on the peaceful Colline du Chateau, where every prospect - of bay, town, port and inland hills - pleases. Densely wooded with pines, cypress, holm oak, palms and Arbutus, this magnificent outcrop was in the 19th century made into one of those brilliantly designed semi-wild parks at which the French excel (it's much like the one in Nimes, though on a grander scale). They even diverted water from a nearby canal to create a spectacular waterfall (above).
 Some 400 steps (I lost count) lead from the town to the plateau that is the site of the long-gone castle (thoroughly destroyed by Louis XIV) - or, for the daunted, there's an Ascenseur almost to the summit. It's a free and ticketless service, but, in the approved French manner, still employs two people to sit behind glass in a kiosk and look forbidding. Those who make the climb on foot are rewarded with ever wider, more dramatic views of sea, sky and land at every vantage point on the way up (and, at the summit, a couple of restorative cafes and a souvenir shop). Winding paths and flights of stairs offer an endless variety of ways down and around - and an equally inexhaustible range of breathtaking views.
 In warm October sun, all of this - with the song of birds, the scents and the abundance of flowering Oleander, Morning Glory, Bougainvillea, Plumbago, Solanum and Hibiscus - was a daily feast for the senses and the soul. And there were butterflies! Red Admirals everywhere, gliding down from the trees to bask on sun-splashed paths, Speckled Woods almost as abundant (home away from home!), tiny blues and arguses darting busily about among the lower-growing flowers with larger Long-Tailed Blues. In town, just outside the hotel, I spotted a splendid Brimstone-like Cleopatra (Citron de Provence, the French call it), and, back on the castle hill, a pair of Scarce Swallowtails enjoying a lively aerial chase. All this and swifts too - swifts, martins and swallows, still flying. This was a glorious extension to summer's lease.
 And, reader, I swam - in the sea. It was wonderful.