Friday 31 January 2014

Something beautiful to end the month

It's Schubert's birthday (born 1797) - so why not?

Thursday 30 January 2014

When Poetry Lovers Attack

You know how it is - it's a winter's night, you've had a few drinks, it's getting late, and the conversation turns to poetry and prose, relative merits thereof. Your friend asserts that prose, not poetry, is the only 'real literature' - so, poetry lover that you are, you grab a knife and stab him. We've all been there... No we haven't, but that is what happened recently in a small Russian town deep in the Urals. The Russians take such arguments very seriously; it's not long since a lively discussion of Immanuel Kant ended when one of the debaters shot the other with an air gun. But my favourite case of a drunken discussion getting out of hand occurred on home soil a couple of years ago. The subject was white spirit, flammability thereof, and to prove his point that no way was the stuff flammable, one party doused himself in white spirit and applied a match. Whoops - or rather Whoosh.


I read that Reading gaol - where Oscar Wilde served most of his dreadful sentence of two years' hard labour for 'gross indecency' - is to be closed, having reached the end of its 170-year life. But first, amateur photographers were let in to take some pictures, including photographs of the cell in which Oscar was held. You can read about it, and see the resulting images, here...
  No one really knows what drove the suicidal bravado that landed Wilde in gaol, having turned down all sound advice and all offers of an escape route - it would have been easy, even at the eleventh hour, to take the next steam packet to Dieppe and live out his life in comfortable exile. But no - Reading gaol it was, an experience that effectively broke him, even if his invincible spirits appeared to bounce back as soon as he was a free man again. The literary products of his incarceration were the painful long letter to 'Bosie', De Profundis, and the mawkish long poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (no, Oscar, each man does not kill the thing he loves). But the occasion of Wilde's arrest inspired what is certainly one of John Betjeman's best poems...

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

 The switch of mood in the final stanza is brilliantly done, I think. 'Terrible-eyed' does it. Wilde's 'bees-winged eyes' in the first stanza, by the way, are the veinous, gauzy eyes of a heavy drinker. 

Wednesday 29 January 2014


I've been dipping again into Donald Justice's Collected Poems, and he seems to get better and better with every revisit. His is the kind of subtle, elegant and unshowy work that, I think, needs time to reveal itself fully - so little is up front, so much beneath the surface.
 The last poem in the collection - and the last he completed before he died - is an extraordinarily beautiful piece. Its three stanzas, rhyming by repetition (against all the rules, but it works perfectly here), were written across the space of 13 years, and each could stand alone as a poem in its own right. It surely is what it reads as - a resigned and unregretful farewell to the world, in all its mingled pain and sweetness, and a recognition of how little, and how infinitely much, our lives count for. The last stanza quotes directly from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. And why not?

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

The Dreadful Menace

If you've been watching BBC television at all in recent days, it can't have escaped your attention that the Sochi Winter Olympics will soon be upon us and that the BBC is very excited about it all. So excited that it has commissioned a toweringly grandiose trailer for the event, featuring epic images of a vast icy mountain, up which various athletes toil through a blizzard, in the manner of the youth who bore mid snow and ice a banner with this strange device - Excelsior! Actually, that Longfellow poem might have done nicely for this trailer - but no, the bombastic, doom-laden tones of Charles Dance (best known these days as Tywin Lannister in Game Of Thrones) boom out, intoning something in rhyme (I hesitate to call it a poem), prefaced by the question 'Nature - Who will conquer it?'
'I am the dreadful menace.
The one whose will is done.
The haunting chill upon your neck.
I am the conundrum.

I will summon armies.
Of wind and rain and snow.
I made the black cloud overhead.
The ice, like glass below.

Not you, nor any other.
Can fathom what is nigh.
I will tell you when to jump.
And I’ll dictate how high.

The ones that came before you.
Stood strong and tall and brave.
But I stole those dreams away.
Those dreams could not be saved.

But now you stand before me.
Devoid of all dismay.
Could it be? Just maybe.
I’ll let you have your day.'

Nobody has so far come forward to claim authorship of this piece of work, so it was presumably cobbled together by 'creatives' at the advertising agency. I'm sure its stirring words will inspire our curling team to ply their brooms with superhuman vigour.

Monday 27 January 2014


It's Samuel Palmer's birthday today (born 1805), so here is his early masterpiece In a Shoreham Garden (which hangs in the V&A), a foretaste of blossom time on this chilly winter day - though no earthly blossom could ever be quite so gloriously, quintessentially blossomy as Palmer's. Usually described as apple blossom, in its clotted abundance it looks more like cherry blossom to me - but a breath of Eden wafts through this garden, so apple it must be...
 Oddly Google celebrates this day not with a Palmer doodle but with Violette-le-Duc, the architect who restored (to put it mildly) so many of France's Gothic buildings. Google could also have celebrated Mozart (born on this day in 1756), 'Lewis Carroll' (1832), Jerome Kern (1885) - or even Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836). I read his Venus in Furs once many years ago, but remember absolutely nothing of it...

Friday 24 January 2014

Other Selves, Other Souls?

'The human body is the best picture of the human soul.'
This sentence leapt out at me from this morning's (Radio 4) Thought for the Day, attributed by the speaker (Tablet editor Catherine Pepinster) to Wittgenstein. Quite so. It comes in the Philosophical Investigations, at a point where Wittgenstein is dealing with the kind of pickles that Cartesian dualism and radical scepticism can get us into. He's unapologetic about using the word 'soul' -
'I do not believe (nor am I certain) that the people I see are not automata. The question whether someone is an automaton cannot even arise without first discarding a great deal of what goes into my basic attitude toward other people. Though talk about people's having souls is a figurative expression, we do not use it in place of other, literal expressions.' Similarly, 'My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.'
 There's a good piece on these issues here (by Giles Fraser - not one of my favourite people, but that's Nige for you - fair-minded to the last [hem hem])... What on odd kind of thing philosophy is, indeed - and what a shame so many philosophers seem bent on making it ever odder, rather than, like Wittgenstein, showing us a way out. 'What is the aim of philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.'

Thursday 23 January 2014

Bon on this day...

... in 1832 was the great French painter Edouard Manet. Last year I greeted this birthday with the heading 'Manet Happy Returns'. Shame on me - I shan't be doing that again; there are only so manet times you can crack that one. I like his flower paintings very much, so here is one - though you might say that this one is more of a vase painting...

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Looks Good, Tastes Good and By Golly...

For me, pastis is the taste of France. Nothing says 'Welcome back, and where the heck have you been?' (in French) more clearly than the first Ricard on French soil. It's never the same back home. Though I usually bring a bottle back (pastis being spectacularly cheaper over there), drinking it is just a pale reflection of the French experience. Or it was until now. At Christmas, a niece who knows the shortest way to her uncle's heart presented me with a bottle of Henri Bardouin Pastis. This is pastis in a different league from the Ricards and Pernods. It comes from Provence and, according to Wikipedia, contains 50 herbs and spices. Wiki lists 29 of them - from Mugwort to Fennel, by way of Star Anise, Centaury, Grains of Paradise, etc, etc. The remaining 21 ingredients, Wikipedia claims, are secret.
According to the Distilleries de Provence website (impregnably protected from under-18s by demanding that users key in a date of birth), this is an underestimate of Henri Bardouin's bounty; this Pastis - the only one ever to win a gold medal at the Paris Agricultural Show - contains no fewer than 65 herbs and spices. It is also the only pastis, so Distilleries de Provence decrees, that can be drunk throughout a meal - a tempting prospect, but I must conserve my supplies... The Wormwood Society (you didn't know?) also praises it highly, describing its flavour as 'incredibly complex' and its aroma as 'an herbal feast'. Both true - it is also that wonderful thing, an alcoholic drink that actually feels it's doing you good. Perhaps it is - I like to think so. The question is, what do I do when I've finished the bottle? (Actually I know the answer to that, having found a couple of ways of buying it online.) Cheers!

Tuesday 21 January 2014

This and That

Talking of 'immersive' reading experiences, I've been having one myself these past six weeks or so - which is why you haven't heard from me lately about my reading. I've been thoroughly immersed in Tom Holland's In The Shadow of the Sword, a sweeping history of what we call Late Antiquity, subtitled The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. It's riveting stuff, racily written, eye-opening and a real revisioinist page-turner. But it is undeniably a damn'd thick square book (the Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon, a propos volume one of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: 'Another damn'd thick square book! Always scribble scribble scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?'). Which is why, slow reader that I am, I'm still barely two thirds of the way through. But immersed I undoubtedly am.

Last night on Radio 3, a new series of The Book that Changed Me began with Alan Johnson, a former Home Secretary and rare example of a fully human politician, talking about the explosive impact his first reading of David Copperfield (at the age of 13) had on him, and the hope the book gave him that he could build a happy and secure life. He had  had a sad and difficult start in life - orphaned at 12 when his mother died, he was brought up by his sister, then 16. 'I had read lots of books but nothing like this complex saga; so moving, so emotionally intertwined. I loved Peggoty, laughed at Micawber, loathed Uriah Heep. And I cried. Tears that never fell for my mother fell for Ham.'
You should be able to hear this quietly moving talk on the BBC iPlayer.

First it was Rob Ford, the (er) colourful Mayor of Toronto; then it was Paul Flowers, fun-loving 'crystal Methodist' chairman of the Co-Op Bank. Now, the latest rotund figure to find himself caught up in unsavoury scandal is the corpulent Lord Rennard, the Lib Dems' alleged 'sex pest'. What is it with these generously upholstered gents? Let's hope it's not Eric Pickles next...

The contents of the bags disposed of in rather sensitive circumstances by Charlie Brooks (husband of flame-haired tabloid editrice Rebekah) were disclosed in court yesterday. I was touched to note that, in among the computers and notebooks and porn DVDs (Bride of Sin, Lesbian Psychodrama Vols 2 and 3, Instant Lesbian, etc) were the newsletter of the British Kunekune Pig Society (not quite Whiffle on the Care of the Pig, but a good sign) - and a conker. A single conker. Suddenly I'm warming to the man...

Monday 20 January 2014

Novel as Boxed Set

Whither the novel? That's the question on everyone's lips these days (hem hem). I caught a worrying hint of where the novel might be heading when I heard something on the radio over the weekend. A novelist (I didn't catch her name) mentioned a conversation she'd had with her agent, in the course of which the agent assured her that what publishers, in their wisdom, are looking for now is novels that are the literary equivalent of the TV boxed set, novels that are an 'immersive experience', novels that are, presumably, very long - even longer than the bloated beasts now being published. Factor in the spread of the baleful Booker Effect to the US (newly eligible for this absurdly over-hyped prize) and the future looks to be one of big, fat - sorry, 'immersive' - volumes that would give the Victorian three-decker a run for its money.
  The novel as the new boxed set, then - really? Boxed sets became so successful because, from about The Sopranos on, there was a remarkable surge in quality, long-form TV drama, stuff that everyone was talking about, stuff that demanded - and in many case actually repaid - a big investment of time. If people couldn't make that investment at the time, they'd buy the boxed set and either indulge in an orgy of catching up or (how often I wonder?) enjoy owning it without actually getting round to watching it. Is this a model for book publishing to emulate? Has there been a surge in quality fiction, is there a buzz about the contemporary novel? Do readers want more? Are they keen to make the time investment in ever longer and fatter novels? I must say it seems very unlikely to me.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Samuel Beckett: Atom Brain

Being somewhat prostrated by what is laughingly called a 'cold', I've been lying on the sofa listening to things on the BBC iPlayer - one of which was Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica (read in five parts by Hugh Bonneville). Interesting stuff - though one often felt for poor Monica - with insights into the genesis of some of the poems (invariably dismissed by Larkin as sorry stuff at the time of their birth). And of course many of his grievances, peeves and pet hates get an airing. I hadn't realised quite how extreme was his dislike of Samuel Beckett until I heard this passage, an account of a visit by Beckett to Belfast, where Larkin was working in the University Library:

'Samuel Beckett turned up for a day recently, and I thanked God I was not to live with him further. Faint embers of my dislike glowed in me, ready to flap into flame. He had had an absurd American haircut and looked like the top boy of his grade whom his mates call Atom Brain.'

Well, this is very funny (it made me laugh anyway), but also pretty bizarre. I'm not surprised that Larkin, like many right-thinking common-sensical red-blooded Englishmen might be suspicious of Beckett as being altogether too much the wilfully obscure French Intellectual - 'one of Jean-Paul Sartre's lot,' in Tony Hancock's phrase - but Larkin seems to have been one of very few to have disliked Beckett in person as well as in theory. The observations on the haircut are especially bizarre, as this was no American crew cut but a then standard French style. Beckett continued to wear his hair 'en brosse' for the rest of his life - and at a recent Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen, a celebration of all things Beckettian, a local barber was offering to give all comers 'a Beckett' for £6. I don't think there were many takers.

Friday 17 January 2014

Quote of the Day, etc.

'The world is disgracefully managed; one hardly knows to whom to complain.'

Ronald Firbank (born on this day in 1886) - or rather Mrs Shamefoot in his funniest novel Vainglory.

  Firbank was a true exotic, an orchid sprung up in the sturdy herbaceous border of English letters. His writings are uneven, can be tiresome, and are definitely an acquired taste. At his best he is startlingly original, outrageously funny, and quite unlike any other English novelist - though some, notably the early Evelyn Waugh, clearly owe something to him. And then there's Ivy Compton-Burnett. I hadn't realised, until I recently started exploring her works, the affinity between Ivy and Firbank.
  Both use dialogue very extensively and in endlessly inventive ways, loading it with far more freight - both comic and serious - than almost anyone else. Both are capable of taking breath-taking liberties with the expected proprieties of the novel, to the extent that both are exhilaratingly unpredictable, from sentence to sentence, let alone page to page. Both are also dense, complex and demanding writers, while remaining essentially comic. Of course their preoccupations are wholly different, but it is perhaps just possible to think of Firbank as Ivy without the oppressive domestic hierarchies, and Ivy as Firbank without the sex, Catholicism and exotic wildness (not to mention Wildeness).

  Another quote: Chapter XX of Firbank's Inclinations (a tale of thwarted Sapphic love) in its entirety:
  'Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!
   Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!'

  And an anecdote: At Cambridge, Vyvyan Holland (Oscar Wilde's son) once spotted the famously effete Firbank - so effete he seemed barely capable of sustaining life (he took in little but air and alcohol) - dressed in sporting kit. Astonished, Vyvyan asked what he had been doing. Firbank replied that he had been playing football. Rugby or soccer? Holland inquired. 'Oh,' replied Firbank, 'I don't remember.'

Thursday 16 January 2014

Ekphrasis 2: 'What wholly blameless fun...'

This is A Dutch Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch (of whom I wrote recently), which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Delft again, of course - that's the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk in the background, as seen in Vermeer's great view of the city - and it's a conventionally convivial scene, executed with De Hooch's customary tenderness and precision. In his poem, A Dutch Courtyard, Richard Wilbur ponders on the picture's - any picture's - ultimate impenetrability, and imagines it driving the collector Andrew Mellon to distraction, or rather to purchase. Wilbur's subtle and delicate craft mirrors that of De Hooch. What fine enjambment... 

What wholly blameless fun 
To stand and look at pictures, Ah, they are 
Immune to us. This courtyard may appear 
To be consumed with sun,

Most mortally to burn, 
Yet it is quite beyond the reach of eyes 
Or thoughts, this place and moment oxidize; 
This girl will never turn,

Cry what you dare, but smiles 
Tirelessly toward the seated cavalier, 
Who will not proffer you his pot of beer; 
And your most lavish wiles

Can never turn this chair 
To proper uses, nor your guile evict 
Those tenants. What surprising strict 
Propriety! In despair,

Consumed with greedy ire, 
Old Andrew Mellon glowered at this Dutch 
Courtyard, until it bothered him so much 
He bought the thing entire.

(The glass the woman holds, by the way, is a 'pass-glass', as used in drinking games. Each drinker has to drink down precisely to the level of a circular ring in the glass - missing it means having to drink down to the next one, and so on. Convivial indeed. And the little girl is bringing hot coals to light the soldiers' pipes.)

Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Moving Toyshop

The chap opposite me on the train this morning (40ish, well dressed) was reading, with every evidence of concentration if not overt enjoyment, The Moving Toyshop, a Gervase Fen mystery, by Edmund Crispin. He was reading it in a natty reprint (Vintage), but I remember it as one of the many well-thumbed green-and-white Penguins on my father's detective-heavy bookshelves. In my boyhood years I must have read them all (certainly all the Crispins) - probably enough detective-reading for a lifetime; I certainly never feel the urge now. On  the other hand, I'm tempted to make an exception for The Moving Toyshop...
 Edmund Crispin - real name (Robert) Bruce Montgomery - was an interesting figure. An Oxford friend of Philip Larkin's - to whom The Moving Toyshop is dedicated - he had two parallel careers, as writer of witty detective fiction and composer of film music, until drink problems effectively put paid to both. He wrote the scores for a clutch of British comedy films, including six of the Carry On series - indeed, we owe to Montgomery the original Carry On theme.
 The detective fiction is somewhat higher of brow, its hero being the erudite and eccentric don Gervase Fen, Professor of English at Oxford. The stories, which are fantastical confections that never take themselves seriously, include amid the sometimes farcical action much literary and cultural chat and allusions (I remember a scene where Fen and his sidekick pass the time by swapping the titles of unreadable books - one of them, shamefully, comes up with Tristram Shandy). In The Moving Toyshop, Crispin goes so far as to 'break the fourth wall' (as we say these days): during a chase scene, Cadogan (sidekick) suggests 'Let's go left - after all, Gollancz is publishing this book.' The climactic scene - which I do remember - takes place on a fairground roundabout, an exciting passage that must surely have inspired the almost identically staged scene in Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train.
  I wonder what it would be like to reread The Moving Toyshop now - would it be a big disappointment? I guess there's only one way to find out...

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Out of the Blue

A pleasant surprise in my email inbox this morning. Someone called Mark Marowitz (anybody know him? He seems to be based in New York) mailed me the lyrics of the Gram Parsons song Brass Buttons. Just that, out of the blue - no message - nothing but the lyrics. Naturally it sent me straight to YouTube to listen again to that achingly beautiful song... A gift to start the day - thank you, Mark.

Monday 13 January 2014

Forgotten Names

On consecutive pages of my treasured book of Eric Ravilious Wood Engravings are two commissions from 1935, both marking the Silver Jubilee of George V. One is for a Golden Cockerel Press volume called The Hansom Cab And The Pigeons, with a text by L.A.G. Strong, subtitled 'Being random reflections upon the Silver Jubilee of King George V'. It begins with a memory of sitting in the orchard of a Devon tea shop, in a corner of which was the body of an old hansom cab, now tenanted by pigeons - just the kind of subject Ravilious loved, as is evident in the brilliant engraving he cut for the frontispiece (above).
  The other 1935 commission was for a Curwen Press volume, Thrice Welcome, promoting Southern Railways (those were the days). Ravilious engraved three headpieces, the third for an essay, The Beauty of Southern England, by S.P.B. Mais.
  L.A.G. Strong, S.P.B. Mais... How evocative those names, with their strings of initials, are of a lost literary England in which now forgotten authors, popular and prolific, turned out novels, essays, travel books, history, biography, criticism, journalism, whatever was required, in prodigious quantities. The speed of  S.P.B. Mais's output was such that Churchill himself (no slouch at the word-churning) joked that it made him feel tired to think about it. And, on top of the writing, Mais was also a successful broadcaster, who originated the Letter From America some 13 years before Alastair Cooke made it famous.
 The still more prolific L.A.G. Strong was an extremely popular novelist and a successful poet, as well as turning out volume after volume of history, criticism, short stories, thrillers and belles lettres. But Strong was not quite the typical middle-brow man of letters: he was a friend of Yeats and of George Moore, and wrote about James Joyce, Synge and William Faulkner. What's more, his pamphlet A Defence Of Ignorance was the first title published by Louis Henry Cohn's decidedly cutting-edge House of Books in New York in 1930. Look on the endless list of his works in Wikipedia and marvel...

Mrs Caudle

Over on The Dabbler, I'm revisiting a classic of Victorian comedy...

Saturday 11 January 2014

They're Here!

Walking home from the shops just now, I was looking up into a tree (as you do - well, as I do) and wondering why I hadn't seen a single Redwing or Fieldfare in the area this winter, when suddenly a small mixed flock of both - somewhere between a dozen and twenty - landed in that very tree (an ash), settled a moment to look around, then flew off again. Perhaps we shall have a cold spell after all.

Friday 10 January 2014

Technical News

As regular readers might be aware, I from time to time mention Radio 4's Book at Bedtime - not always in the most flattering terms (search 'Book at Bedtime' on Nigeness) - and it continues to provide a mild background irritant or soporific as I take my nightly bath. The other night - Wednesday it was - something rum happened. Instead of the promised third episode of The Lonely Londoners, Trinidadian author Samuel Selvon's account of life in London in the 1950s, an episode of Absolute Beginners, Colin McInnes's account of life in London in the 1950s, was played. What's more, no one seemed to notice until it was over, when there was a hasty apology. Absolute Beginners is scheduled for next week - clearly, Radio 4 is determined to leave us with a very thorough grounding in life in London in the 1950s - but somehow an episode must have got picked up and played in error. No one, it seemed, was listening - or no one at the BBC anyway...
  More mystifyingly, the Radio 4 6pm news bulletin went missing on Sunday, leaving the hapless continuity announcer to tread water, in increasing desperation, for eight whole minutes. (Back in the old days, she could just have announced 'There are no news today' and returned to the Savoy Orpheans...) 'Technical problems' were, as ever, to blame - as they were when a recent Bob Harris programme on Radio 2 was afflicted by an 'echo' that made it all but inaudible, and again was not noticed by anyone at the BBC until, finally, a barrage of calls and tweets from listeners drew a belated response.
  As with the frequent communications breakdowns on Radio 4's Today programme ('We seem to have lost the line...'), it seems that the more high-tech and state-of-the-art the technology gets, the more prone it becomes to embarrassing breakdowns. And, because of a touching faith in the infallibility of the technology, a total reliance on it has developed, meaning there's often no back-up, no old-style analog Plan B. The human element in the set-up is left to flounder helplessly (if it's there at all - much of this stuff is done by computers). Was this ever better illustrated - or in a more appropriate setting - than by director Michael Bay's performance at the super-high-tech Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when the teleprompter went down?
Oh dear.

Thursday 9 January 2014


I'm rather engulfed in NigeCorp work today, but I did spot this witty item on the Books Inq. blog and it made me laugh, so I pass it on.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Sweet Sounds

I caught the violist Jordi Savall on Radio 3 this morning, playing the Celtic viol while someone whose name I didn't catch played the Irish harp. They made a beautiful sound. Browsing later I found this - Greensleeves as you've never heard it, with Savall playing viola da gamba and someone unnamed on theorbo. It's rather wonderful, I think...

Jean Ingelow

'Unless a man is an extraordinary coxcomb, a person of private means, or both, he seldom has the time and opportunity of committing, or the wish to commit, bad or indifferent verse for a long series of years; but it is otherwise with woman.'
Lawks! This withering verdict on female versifying was published in the Cambridge Guide to English Literature, a propos the writings of the Victorian poet and children's author Jean Ingelow. She was very popular in her day, and her name just about lives on as the author of the well-loved anthology piece, The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire (often requested on Radio 4's Poetry Please) - no doubt it was the recent spell of atrocious coastal weather that put that into my mind. It's a powerful piece, if overlong, overblown and overloaded with archaisms - read it here, if you like.
 A poem of Jean Ingelow's that I hadn't come across before was her other great success - Divided. And this the Cambridge Guide praises, if grudgingly: 'If we had nothing of Jean Ingelow’s but the most remarkable poem entitled Divided, it would be permissible to suppose the loss [of her], in fact or in might-have-been, of a poetess of almost the highest rank... Jean Ingelow wrote some other good things, but nothing at all equalling this; while she also wrote too much and too long...' Divided - while not exactly a model of brevity and understatement - is a vivid piece of work that packs quite an emotional punch. And it contains a lovely glimpse of butterflies:
''Twixt the two brown butterflies waver,
Lightly settle, and sleepily swing.'
Sleepily swing... Meadow Browns, I'm guessing. You can read Divided here - and it's well worth a look.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Retroprogressive News

In what is fast becoming an annual fixture, I'm happy to report that vinyl sales are up again - by a whopping 101 percent in the UK (where CD sales fell by 13 percent). What's especially heartening about this trend is that it's being driven not by grizzled nostalgists but by groovy (gedit?) youngsters discovering for themselves the manifold attractions of the 12-inch vinyl LP.

Arnold Ridley

Born on this day in 1896 was the actor and playwright Arnold Ridley, whose years playing the sweet-natured Private Godfrey in the Home Guard sitcom Dad's Army earned him a place among the comedy immortals. Ridley was one of those unfortunates who served in both world wars (and even did a spell in the Home Guard). He was initially turned down in August 1914 because of a broken toe, but the following year he was able to enlist. In 1916 he was discharged on medical grounds, shell-shocked, his legs riddled with shrapnel, his left hand virtually useless, and suffering from the effects of having been bayoneted in the groin and clubbed on the head with a German rifle butt. As if that wasn't more than enough, Ridley was commissioned for the second spot of bother in 1939 and again swiftly discharged on medical grounds, but mercifully without having suffered any more injuries.
  A bit of well deserved good luck came his way in 1923 when a night stranded at a remote railway station gave him the idea for his big hit play - The Ghost Train. This ran and ran, and was filmed twice, the second time with 'big-hearted' Arthur Askey. Ridley became for a while a famous and prolific playwright, until his kind of work fell out of fashion. He was getting by as a jobbing actor - one of his roles was as the baker Doughy Hood in The Archers (I remember him well) - when Dad's Army came along and made a star of him, in his 70s, and carried him on into his 80s, still working. 'Well done, Godfrey.'

Monday 6 January 2014

Kindle: How Not to Do It

I've finally succumbed to Kindle - well, not me personally, but  I bought one for Mrs N for Christmas, thinking it would serve her very much better than me. I also thought it would be a doddle to set it up and get it working - I mean, the packaging has such a pleasingly low-tech, book-like feel to it, and the Kindle itself looks like the simplest conceivable piece of kit, the kind of thing the most technophobic bookworm could handle. Surely, I thought, even I will be able to get to grips with this one...
 You're ahead of me here, no doubt, and asking yourself Will he never learn? The first challenge was to connect to the home WiFi network, which of course required a password, which of course I didn't know and which of course should have been on the router, but nothing I found thereon functioned as a password. At this point, I gave up for the first time. Yesterday, I renewed my assault on the impregnable Kindle. I had soon made a major breakthrough, having noticed that there was a way to connect to WiFi without a password (as, no doubt, any fule kno). It worked. With a hearty cheer, I announced that we were connected and ready to go. Next step, sign in to Mrs N's Amazon account. The work of a moment. Done. Here we go at last. Except that we don't - or rather we do go, but straight back to square one, as if  none of the above had happened. At this point, with something rather stronger than a muttered oath, I gave up for the second and last time.
 The Kindle awaits the next visit from my son, who will get it up and running in a matter of minutes. It's a generation thing.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Beautiful Bookshops

My daughter sent me a link to this gallery of pictures of beautiful bookshops around the world. Enjoy...

Friday 3 January 2014

What Did She See in Him?

'Woman's metier in the world - I mean, of course, civilized woman, the woman in the world as it is - is to inspire romantic passion... Romantic passion is inspired by women who wear corsets. In other words, by women who pretend to be what they not quite are.'
So opined Hubert Bland, born on this day in 1855. A founder member of the Fabian Society, Bland would be an even smaller footnote than he is, had he not also been the husband of the great children's writer E. Nesbit. Clearly no feminist, he was also a rum kind of socialist, holding strongly pro-imperialist views and characterising democracy as 'anti-national and vulgar'. A large, pugnacious and fearsome man, with a voice 'like the scream of an eagle' (according to Shaw), Bland completed a full house of contradictions by joining the Roman Catholic Church in his middle age, though he was barely observant. Nobody seems to have had a good word to say for him, and yet many otherwise intelligent people fell under his spell - including, alas, Edith Nesbit.
 Edith was just 18 when she met Bland, and they married in haste, with Edith seven months pregnant. At first Bland lived partly with Edith and partly at home with his mother and her companion - whom Edith later discovered to have had a son by him. And there turned out to be another woman who believed herself to be Bland's fiancee. But worse was to come later, when Edith discovered that her good friend Alice Hoatson was also pregnant by Hubert, who bullied Edith into taking in Alice and the child. Thirteen years later, Alice bore another child by Hubert, who was also taken in to the household and adopted.
 Bland also found time to father three children by Edith, of whom her favourite son Fabian tragically died at the age of 15 in a botched tonsilectomy. By now Nesbit was launched on the successful career as a children's writer that would support Hubert and the family and enable them to entertain on a grand scale - though Edith was often upstairs writing, sustained by gin and cigarettes. Around 1911, Hubert began to go blind, and Edith, of course, cared for him until his death in 1914. Happily, she went on to remarry - this time to the genial and much less problematic Thomas 'the Captain' Tucker, at the time an engineer on the Woolwich ferry. They ended up living companionably and very happily in New Romney, where Edith died. She is buried in the churchyard of St Mary in the Marsh, her grave marker made by her grieving second husband.

Thursday 2 January 2014


Unfortunately I seem to be unable to start my day - my working day anyway - without the Today programme playing on the radio. This being the festive season, we are currently being subjected to a run of  dreary and mildly irritating 'guest editors' - and today's was the singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey, described throughout as an 'artist'. Happily I missed most of the programme - including the ineffable Julian Assange's contribution - but I did catch a sustained rant by the notorious John Pilger, a man who has, we were reminded, won major awards for his journalism. Since everything he says and does is motivated by a blatant, overt and unshakable preconviction that the West (notably the US and its 'poodle' the UK) is by definition evil and murderous, one wonders how his work can be taken seriously, but it is, it is - especially by the likes of  P.J. Harvey and the BBC (though Pilger's work only ever seems to surface on ITV). Pilger began by blaming 'the media' (singular) for the 'fact' that the British public didn't 'know' that a million civilian deaths had been caused by the US-UK intervention in Iraq... And so it went on. I'm sure you get the gist.
 I wonder, would a journalist motivated by the opposite preconviction - that We are by definition the good guys in all circumstances and the Others the bad guys - get air time, even as a guest of a guest editor? It seems unlikely. But even by the standards of the BBC, letting Polly Harvey loose on the Today agenda looks like a step too far. She even inflicted some dreary songs on us - and a poem by Rowan Williams, who is probably already regretting his participation. Let's hope so. And let's hope the BBC is lining up Rush Limbaugh as a guest editor next year.