Thursday 27 February 2014


Born on this day in 1622 was Rembrandt's most gifted pupil, Carel Fabritius, best known for his wonderful little painting of a goldfinch, one of the very few of his works that survive. I've mentioned Fabritius before, in the context of his sadly early death, but since then (as all the world surely knows) Donna Tartt has published her widely acclaimed novel The Goldfinch, which has Fabritius's picture at its centre (if it can be said to have a centre).
 When The Goldfinch came out, I was startled to hear one of the critics on (I think) Saturday Review admit to having found its 800-odd pages something of a slog, and even to suggest that it was perhaps a little repetitive, a tad prolix, a touch disorganised. Well well, I thought, that's something you don't often hear said in culturally correct circles about an otherwise widely acclaimed new novel - this one must be a real stinker. Sure enough, it then turned up as Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, and I must report that, even reduced to a mere 10 quarter-hour episodes, it became as it went on (after an admittedly arresting start) ever more rambling, uninvolving, repetitive and grindingly, mind-numbingly tedious. I dread to imagine what it must be like to read - or attempt to read - the novel at full length. Some of the 1-star reviews on Amazon, I fancy, give a pretty good idea...
 But anyway, the upside was that publication of Tartt's doorstop coincided with a Dutch art exhibition at the Frick, to which many thousands flocked to feast their eyes on Fabritius's masterpiece, The Goldfinch.

Wednesday 26 February 2014


Time for a poem. Here's Donald Justice, writing about something we all do as we get older - thinking about the past. It's an informal sonnet, more or less unrhymed, and breaking at the fifth and tenth lines. It was featured on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac as a tribute on Justice's 80th birthday in 2005 (he died the year before). As the poem nears the end, I think it becomes extraordinarily poignant and beautiful...

Thinking about the Past

Certain moments will never change, nor stop being—
My mother's face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
That red-haired girl with wide mouth—Eleanor—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands.
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery's, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvelous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton...
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs...

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Arlott 100

Today is the centenary of the birth of John Arlott, 'the voice of cricket', a man who was surely the greatest cricket commentator who ever drew breath (or quaffed claret). Certainly, in terms of phrasing, timing and the painting of word pictures, he was unequalled; the very different Richie Benaud was probably the greatest in terms of technical acuity and conciseness (though some may disagree).
 Arlott's experience of first-class cricket was limited. While still serving in the Hampshire Constabulary (he was in the force 12 years, rising to Sergeant), he was watching his county team playing Kent when they discovered that they were short a 12th man for their next game, against Worcestershire. Arlott, a club cricketer, made himself available and took to the field as a substitute, his name appearing in the Western Daily Press's match report as 'Harlott'. He had the pleasure of watching the Nawab of Pataudi score a typically elegant century for Worcestershire. Aah the Nawab of Pataudi - you don't get the likes of them wielding the willow these days... That was in 1938, and it was Arlott's only match. 'I've failed at everything,' he observed later in life.
 When Arlott commentated on his last Test match, in 1980, a public address announcement after the end of his last stint prompted a standing ovation. The crowd, the entire English team and the entire Australian team all joined in. Geoffrey Boycott was even observed to remove his batting gloves to applaud. There is no higher honour than that.

Monday 24 February 2014

From Geoffrey Hill to Call My Bluff

Browsing last night in Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, I noticed that some of them have footnotes  - most of which are not exactly illuminating. But the note to Hymn IV is a beauty. Here's the Hymn:

'I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots
and endings. Child’s-play. I abode there, bided my
time: where the mole

shouldered the clogged wheel, his gold solidus; where
dry-dust badgers thronged the Roman flues, the
long-unlooked-for mansions of our tribe.'

And here's the footnote:

'"I was invested in mother-earth." To the best of my recollection, the expression 'to invest in mother earth' was the felicitous (and correct) definition of  'yird' given by Mr Michael Hordern in the programme Call My Bluff televised on BBC2 on Thursday January 29th 1970.'

Call My Bluff! This was, in its late Sixties/ early Seventies prime, one of the  most enjoyable programmes on TV. It had a simple format: two teams of three each had to offer definitions of wildly obscure words, only one of which was genuine. In the show's golden age, the chairman was the urbane king of the comb-over Robert Robinson, the team captains were the puckish Arthur Marshall (whose memoir Life's Rich Pageant is well worth a look - as mentioned here) and the languid humorist Frank Muir, whose pal Patrick Campbell was also a fixture on the show. Campbell, an Irish aristo (the 3rd Baron Glenavy) and prolific writer of humorous columns, was even taller than Muir and every bit as languid. A cheery soul, he was afflicted with a stammer that often made it hard for him to get started; he would slap himself on the knee and urge himself to 'Come along! Come along!' Call My Bluff was extremely jolly, utterly civilised, often very funny and genuinely informative - and it came with panellists whose like would never be seen on today's TV (if indeed their like still exists). It's nice to think of Geoffrey Hill watching it, notebook in hand...

Sunday 23 February 2014

Cather to Elkin

I recently finished reading Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop - a title that to English ears sound like a Golden Age whodunit. It is of course no such thing, but a historical novel about a Bishop (then Archbishop), Jean Marie Latour, and his great friend and fellow priest, Joseph Vaillant - both of them from the Auvergne - working to establish a Catholic diocese in the vast and hostile territory of New Mexico in the second half of the 19th century. The Bishop is a version of the real-life Bishop Lamy, who built the very French cathedral of Santa Fe (pictured). The novel is a kind of companion piece to Shadows on the Rock, which I wrote about recently: both books have similar virtues, and both deal with the bringing of the old gods to new places (though from the Mexican point of view, it would have been the other way round) and the concrete things that make a life - the careful preparation of food prominent among them (they are French, after all). It offers a fascinating account of its time and place, one that is sympathetic (in a realistic, unsentimental way) to the Indians and the Mexicans, as well as to the Church's endeavours. In a series of episodes spaced out across the years, Cather evokes the look and feel of New Mexico, traces events, and explores the characters of Latour and Vaillant and the deep, touching bond between the two men. There are even a few appearances by the legendary Kit Carson, one of the heroes of my boyhood!  It is a beautiful, accomplished and subtly achieved piece of writing - though, for myself, I warmed more toward Shadows on the Rock than toward this one.
  Having finished Death Comes for the Archbishop, I felt like a change, so I reached for a Stanley Elkin I'd recently bought - The Magic Kingdom. I've written about Elkin and The Dick Gibson Show before, and I should have known to expect the unexpected - but The Magic Kingdom is something else. It's essentially an exuberant black comedy about a man deranged by grief after the death of his young son - who hatches a scheme to send dying children on a dream holiday to Disney World. So far, so Elkin - but what I had not expected was an English novel, set (initially) in England, with an English protagonist and English characters all talking to each other in a bizarre Mary Poppins/ Swinging Sixties argot. The first chapter takes us straight to an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace - while finding time along the way for many a long jazzy Elkin riff, one of which could have won him a Bad Sex Prize any year. The chapter ends with the Queen signing a special Royal cheque for £50, which is not to be cashed but shown around a bit and returned to her:
'It isn't for keeps, Your Majesty?'
'Nothing is for keeps, Mr Bale.'
'You want it back? Fifty quid? You want it back?'
'Does the Pope shit in the woods?' asked the Queen of England.'
   This is going to be quite a ride...

Friday 21 February 2014

World Ends Again

I feel it's only fair to warn you that, if the Norse myths are to be relied on - and there is no reason to doubt it* - the world will be ending tomorrow. Rogmarok - a succession of unfortunate events, on the kind of grand scale that Norse mythology favours - will tomorrow culminate in the submersion of the world in water. Only a few of the gods will survive, plus a couple of humans, Líf and Lífþrasir, whose job will be to set about repopulating the world.
 Oddly, with all this end-of-the-world stuff going on all around it, the otherwise exhaustive Norse chroniclers make no specific mention of the fate of the world-tree Yggdrasil. According to some interpretations, it could be that Lif and Lífþrasir survive the unpleasantness by sheltering in the world-tree. That would be nice.
You might recall that Yggdrasil (or Igdrasil) gets a mention in Richard Wilbur's homage to Robert Frost - Seed Leaves.

* apart from the fact that they are a pile of ballsachingly tedious hokum.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Coincidence - or Watt?

I've been thinking vaguely that it might be good to re-read Samuel Beckett's Watt soon. But my battered old Calder & Boyars paperback is falling apart now...
So there I was, browsing among the bookshelves of the hospice shop (it has only bookshelves, it sells only books) just now, when I spotted it - the Calder & Boyars paperback Watt, but in near-mint condition, despite its age. I opened it, and on the flyleaf was written, in a childish hand:

'To Dada,
with many happy returns of the day
(30 March 1971)
lots of love from Caroline.
"Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep,
Dreaming of both."
(Gerontion: T.S. Eliot)'

Musing, I bought it.

A New Word in the Morning?

Half-listening to the radio this morning, I think I might have caught the birth of a new word. The head honcho from British Gas - of was it Centrica? - was defending his company's performance. Some aspect or other of its ongoing endeavour to make the world a better place, teach it to sing in prefect harmony etc, had been unfairly 'underlooked'. Clearly he was torn between 'overlooked' and 'undervalued', and came out with this novel portmanteau word. It's a good one, I reckon, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it took off. I'll be (half-)listening out for it...

Angel Music?

Here's something rather beautiful to start the day - a bit of Bach played on the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle of Swedish origin. In old paintings, angels are often depicted playing the nyckelharpa, and we can be sure that, if there is music in heaven, it will be Bach's...
Meanwhile, over on The Dabbler, I write about George Mikes's How to Be an Alien.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Oh, Merle!

'I couldn't dance or sing or write or paint. The only possible opening seemed to be in some line in which I could use my face. This was, in fact, no better than a hundred other faces, but it did possess a fortunate photogenic quality.' That's an unusually modest statement for a film star - especially one as spectacularly beautiful as Merle Oberon, who assessed herself thus in an interview in 1939.
  Merle was born on this day in 1911. That date - and her birthplace, Bombay - is one of the few certainties about her beginnings. Also the approximate name of her father, Arthur Thompson, who was to die a few years later, at the Somme (of pneumonia). Merle's birth name was Estelle Merle Thompson, and her mother was Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian from Ceylon with partial Maori origins. Or at least, Charlotte is named on the birth certificate as Merle's mother, but it seems quite likely that the real mother was Charlotte's daughter Constance, then just 12 years old (but Charlotte had given birth to her at the tender age of 14). Merle liked to confuse matters by claiming that she was born and brought up in Hobart, Tasmania - where she is still fondly remembered and memorialised, despite the fact that she never set foot there until she was already a star (and, when there, was careful to avoid questions from the locals).
  Merle's spirit, intelligence, performing talent and looks propelled her from genteel poverty in India to film stardom under the tutelage of Alexander Korda. She was married to him for some years, but also had affairs with Leslie Howard, David Niven and wartime hero Richard Hillary, who wrote The Last Enemy. Her most striking film performance was opposite Laurence Olivier in the lush 1939 Wuthering Heights. She found Olivier insufferable; he detested her and - charming fellow that he was - made no attempt to disguise the fact. Poor old David Niven, playing Edgar Linton, was given something to assist  his weeping in the deathbed scene, with the result that some kind of 'green goo' came out of his nose.

Last Summer

It was good to wake to happy news from Butterfly Conservation about last summer's great resurgence in our butterfly population. We can only hope now that this relatively warm and ridiculously wet winter isn't going to prove a setback, and that we have another sunny summer like 2013 in store. As Dr Zoe Randle wisely states, 'We're at the mercy of the weather, to be honest.' So far this year, despite the downpours, seven species have been spotted - Brimstone, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma and Speckled Wood all in early January, and, more surprisingly, a Painted Lady on February 7th. I've yet to see anything myself, but it shouldn't be too long now...

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Dropping Urns

I'm not one to condone the vandalising of works of art (especially portraits of Henry James), but I must say my sympathies are a little torn in the case of the chap who dropped an Ai Weiwei pot and smashed it. The incident - read all about it here - took place in a Miami gallery, where a man described as a local artist responded to an Ai Weiwie artwork by picking up one of the gaudily painted urns that constitute said artwork and, when challenged, dropping it to the ground and breaking it - just as Ai Weiwei is seen to do in the black-and-white photographs that form the backdrop to the gaudy urns. Indeed the whole kaboodle is titled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. According to Ai Weiwei, the gaudy urns are indeed of the Han dynasty, and a valuation of $1 million per urn has been put on them, whether as Han urns or as Ai Weiwei artworks is unclear. If they are indeed of the Han Dynasty, Ai has certainly done a good job of ruining them with that hideous paintwork.
  The 'local artist's' motives seem confused, his defence being that (a) he was making a protest about big-money international artists' work monopolising provincial galleries, and/or (b) that he got carried away, joining in the spirit of the thing by smashing an urn, just like Ai Weiwei. Perhaps things will become clearer later, but for now it looks roughly like this: Big-money international artist smashes valuable urn - that's Art. Small-time local artist smashes valuable (but hideously painted) urn - that's a crime. 

Monday 17 February 2014

The Next Big Thing

Talking of the film business - following the success of The Lego Movie (soon to spin off into an all-Lego episode of The Simpsons), the time is surely ripe for Bayko: The Movie.
 For those of us who spent a formative portion of our early years assembling red, white and green 30s-style houses from bits of bakelite, Bayko will always occupy a special niche in our memory and affections. Me, I never seemed to have enough pieces, and was often frustrated by the tendency of those upright rods to curve out of shape - but when Bayko went well, there was nothing like it. The only trouble was that, having once built your little masterpiece, sitting on its green base, there was nothing for it but to break it up and start again, playing whatever variations on the theme you could muster (and there weren't many when you had as few pieces as me)... It was the Danish interloper Lego, principally, that put paid to Bayko, which was never the same after the company was sold to Meccano. The colour scheme was changed - grey bases, yellow doors and windows, green roofs. And the roofs, instead of being satisfyingly chunky one-piece items, now had to be slotted together. No wonder Bayko didn't last much longer.
  So here's the outline: a middle-aged man wakes up one morning to find himself living in a computer-generated Bayko world (original colour scheme) and, er... well... Okay - over to you, Hollywood creatives. Make it happen.

Meades etc.

So, last night, after the inevitable Call the Midwife (too little Sister Monica Joan this week), it was over to BBC4 for Jonathan Meades' latest - a two-parter under the fittingly heavy title Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness: Concrete Poetry. These creations of Meades' are always a joy to watch, if only because they are so uniquely wide-ranging, visually inventive, densely argued and unpredictable. Whereas most TV documentaries say virtually all they've got to say in the first few minutes and then plod along well-worn ruts to the appointed end, Meades' creations are more like a kind of jazz, flowing in a series of often bonkers riffs to who knows where. In this one, Meades was (I think) throwing everything into an argument that the style of architecture known as Brutalism or New Brutalism is in a grand tradition of ugly and offensive architecture that we should value and enjoy, precisely for its unabashed ugliness. Hmm. This srikes me as perverse and wrong - the Georgian troika of  Commodity, Firmness and Delight will do me, thanks - but it was an exhilarating, not to say mind-boggling ride, and I'll be back for part two next week.  
  Then it was over to BBC1 to catch the last hour of the Baftas, presided over by a clearly depressed Stephen Fry. Lifetime achiever Helen Mirren gave the big speech, and couldn't stop herself signing off by reciting 'Our revels now are ended...' Best Film was 12 Years a Slave, and it was good to know that the film industry - always at the cutting edge of morality - is now firmly and unanimously of the opinion that slavery is a Bad Thing. Never afraid of sticking their necks out, those movie makers...

Friday 14 February 2014

'I think it'll brighten up yet'

As the rain continues to fall and the waters to rise, here's something at once topical and cheering...

Thursday 13 February 2014

De Botton's Bouillon

What on earth are we to make of this? It purports to be Alain de Botton's riposte to that all-devouring media behemoth the Mail Online, and de Botton does indeed head the editorial board of The Philosophers' Mail. On one level, it mimics Mail Online rather brilliantly - the look and feel of that website, the salacious sidebar tales, the headline-heavy, picture-heavy, overstretched 'stories' - but it's nowhere near funny enough to be an Onion-style spoof. The comedy, such as it is, makes an uneasy fit with the serious content, such as that is. It isn't anywhere near clever enough to be a real 'alternative' or to offer a more genuinely insightful take on the news. In fact the philosophical content, inasmuch as it has any, is de Botton and water - and that makes an awful lot of water, a thin bouillon of tasteful truisms. The Philosophers' Mail is actually a project launched to support de B's latest book - The News: A User's Manual, described on de Botton's website as 'dazzling'. In the current Private Eye, Craig Brown spears it neatly with a piece called Tea: A User's Manual. If The Philosophers' Mail was half  as smart as Brown's piece, it would be worth keeping an eye on.


Yes, the weather - there's no escaping it, and it has indeed been frightful, even in the normally untroubled Home Counties, let alone the drowned West Country and the still-vexed North. But it's always as well to keep some perspective in these matters and remind ourselves that things could be, and have been, worse.
 Swift, writing on this day in 1740 to Mrs Whiteway, declares forlornly that  'I hope we have almost done with this this cursed weather, yet still my garden is all white...' He was writing after a lengthy period of storms and bitter cold, which was to last until the end of the month and all but destroy the potato crop. A prolonged drought followed, then the snow returned in May to ruin the crops of wheat and barley, leading to famine in the countryside and food riots in the cities. August storms, October blizzards and December frost and floods completed the disaster, and by the time decent weather returned, an eighth of the population - some 300,000 people - had perished. Swift himself entered his terrible old age, tormented by a succession of cruel physical and mental afflictions.
 But let us cheer ourselves up with a more good-humoured account of extreme weather, also written on this day, SS Cyril and Methodius' Eve, in 1870. The Rev Francis Kilvert reports a poor turn-out at church - and no wonder:
'The weather fearful, violent deadly E wind. Went to Bettws in the afternoon wrapped in two waistcoats, two coats, a muffler and a mackintosh, and was not at all too warm. Heard the Chapel bell pealing strongly for the second time since I have been here, and when I got to the Chapel my beard, moustache and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on my mackintosh. The baby was baptised in ice which was broken and swimming about in the Font.'
Ah, they were hardier souls than us in those days.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Radio Poems

Radio - spoken word radio, that is, with which we Brits are abundantly blessed - has inspired a few poems over the years. The tangy prose poetry of the Shipping Forecast, with its evocative litany of sea areas, sparked a Seamus Heaney sonnet -

'Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.'

And it also finds its way into Carol Ann Duffy's Prayer, a sonnet in strict English form -

'Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.'

And then there's Philip Larkin. Hearing the evening Office of Compline - of which I've written elsewhere - on an old-fashioned radio (the dial lit from behind), he wrote this, in three typically well crafted quintains:


Behind the radio’s altar light
the hurried talk to God goes on:
'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done...
produce our lives beyond this night,
open our eyes again to sun.'

Unhindered in the dingy wards
lives flicker out, one here, one there,
to send some weeping down the stair
with love unused, in unsaid words:
for this I would have quenched the prayer

but for the thought that nature spawns
a million eggs to make one fish.
Better that endless notes beseech
as many nights, as many dawns,
if finally God grants the wish.

It's not vintage Larkin perhaps, but it's getting there - especially in the middle stanza - and it ends, for once, on an up beat. It's dated to this day, February 12th, in 1950.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Photogram of the Day

This beautiful image of an insect's wing is a photogram by William Henry Fox Talbot, born on this day in 1800. Frustrated by his efforts at tracing images projected in a camera obscura, Fox Talbot took to experimenting with objects placed directly onto light-sensitive paper, producing minutely detailed and hyperrealistic photograms - a kind of photography without cameras. Like many such very early images, they have a strangely haunting quality.

Monday 10 February 2014

Leigh Hunt Lives - in Poplar!

You probably don't have me down as the kind of chap who watches Call the Midwife - and you'd be right. However, Mrs N is fond of this warm-hearted BBC drama about midwives and nuns working in Poplar in the Fifties, so I often find myself watching it. It's good to see all those plump, well-fed, two-month-old babies that the ladies of Poplar gave birth to in those hard times, and I must admit the show has a habit of sneaking up on you and tickling the tearducts. It's also capable of springing real surprises - and it did so in spades last night. Never mind the plot - you'll find no spoilers here - the best surprise for me came when Jenny was leaving Nonnatus House in a black cab and Sister Monica Joan came forward to bid her farewell...
A word of explanation: Jenny is the pretty, prissy and rather tiresome midwife with the perfectly permed dark hair, and Sister Monica Joan is the most interesting character in the show, and the one with by far the best lines. Sister MJ is the dotty elderly nun, a woman with a singularly well furnished mind, stocked with lore and learning, quotations and allusions - but, in its failing state, it's more of a disordered lumber room than a salon. The result is that you never know what she'll come out with - and last night, in bidding Jenny a tearful farewell, she reached into the lumber room and came out with... this:

'Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!

Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.' 

These are Leigh Hunt's well known lines memorialising a happy encounter with Jane Welsh Carlyle (of whom, and of which, more here). What a delightful surprise that they should turn up in such an unlikely context. Judy Parfitt, who plays Sister Monica Joan, gave them some wellie too. Meanwhile Jenny - the one with  the perm - just looked bemused.

Friday 7 February 2014

And Another...

The big art world story today is that our National Gallery (my favourite of all the larger galleries) has 'acquired its first US artwork'. It is George Bellows' 1912 painting Men of the Docks - a handsome piece of work indeed, but does it belong in the National? Wouldn't it look more at home in Tate Modern? After all, the National's policy is supposedly to represent as best it can British and European painting from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. Bellows' picture fits none of those categories, and there's little in the National Gallery with which it would very happily sit, despite its obvious French influence - it doesn't really fit the narrative of the National's collection. If the gallery is to start buying American, it would make more sense, I'd have thought, to concentrate on the great 19th-century landscape tradition, with its roots in Claude and Poussin, in the English romantic tradition, the Brabizon painters and the Dusseldorf school. It seems, actually, that this might once have crossed the National's mind, as the gallery does in fact already possess a fine landscape by George Inness of The Minnesota Water Gap - that's it (or most of it) above. We could do with more like that in the National - and leave the 20th century to Tate Modern. Meanwhile, they could at least take the Inness out of storage and hang it on the wall.

Picture of the Day

It's The Artist Moved to Despair at the Grandeur of Antique Fragments, by Henry Fuseli, born on this day in 1741 - born Swiss, but British by adoption, for years the grand fromage of the Royal Academy. Most of his work mixes over-muscled Classicism with overstretched Mannerism, throwing in lashings of the Sublime and Terrible. His male figures tend to sinew-snapping, eye-popping emotion, while his females tend to languid and etiolated passivity. The effect is often ridiculous. His landscapes are non-existent - 'Damn Nature! She always puts me out' - which makes him a most un-English painter (especially as he largely avoided portraits too). For relaxation, he made elegant pornographic pictures - and fantasies like the one above, which strikes me as rather funny, but I'm not at all sure it's meant to be.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Water, Water...

This winter's relentless rain has not been a lot of fun, even in the relatively dry Southeast - but it has had a wonderful effect on the suburban demiparadise of Carshalton (see Nigeness passim). For several weeks now, all the old watercourses that dried up 50-odd years ago have been full to the brim. Carshalton is now the Venice of Northeast Surrey, and people come from far and wide (well, maybe Wallington) to photograph it in all its reflective beauty. The canals laid out by an 18th-century landowner, who ran out of money before he got round to building a house to befit his grandly planned grounds (including a grotto and a bridge built to an elegant Venetian design), are now looking much as he would have intended, rather than being dry grassy dips. Even the spring-fed pond in Carshalton Park is full of water now, and the Wandle itself, embanked as it flows through the Grove Park, has never been fuller or faster - the waterfall is positively roaring. All this is very gratifying, especially as it takes me back to my boyhood, when the spring water bubbled forth from the chalk, and mosquitoes bred in huge numbers in the water-filled canals (that was the down side. Every summer morning, the walls of our bedrooms would be streaked with blood from swatted, well-fed mozzies)... Will this be the shape of things to come as Carshalton returns to its watery glory? Has the water table risen for good, or will the greedy water companies soon have it falling again? Time will tell.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Odds and Ends

I noticed a poster at my station this morning advertising something called Urinetown: The Musical. Surely, I thought, someone is taking the.....? But no, it seems this is indeed a musical - a revival, in fact, of a hit American show from a decade or so ago. It's a satirical comedy musical set in a drought-stricken town where all public urinals are controlled by a megacorporation, which also enforces a ruthless penal code. On the up side, I gather, it takes a few pops at other musicals (the first number is called Too Much Exposition, the last I See A River), and has a pleasingly sour ending, when the overthrow of the megacorporation actually makes things much worse and everybody dies. Or something. Anyway, it's coming to London soon. I don't expect to be at the head of the queue.

It's the 90th birthday of  'the pips' - the Greenwich Time Signal, which reaches us in the form of six irritating beeps coming out of the radio every hour (well, almost). The start of the sixth beep is the precise moment at which the hour changes - though the pips are increasingly useless as more people listen digitally, i.e. several seconds after the event. The signal is calibrated to be precisely accurate for anyone listening on Long Wave (remember that?) up to 100 miles from the Droitwich transmitter. Anyway, the wags on the Today programme thought the birthday worth marking this morning, with a special, pip-heavy version of Happy Birthday, and a chat with veteran BBC announcer Charles Lister, an agreeable fellow who was once reprimanded for wearing yellow socks while on duty. Quite right too.

A researcher delving in the archives of the Exeter newspaper The Western Press has found the word 'Face-book' being used in 1902. It was then 'the latest novelty for wiling the time in a country house'. Guests at house parties would draw a face in an album or 'Face-book' before signing their name, thereby causing great hilarity among their fellow guests - the worse the likeness, the better. How we roared! I gather that Facebook is now one of those 'social media' we hear so much about.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

'She knows, y' know'

Which leaves me free to concentrate on the important matter of marking the 109th birthday of the late 'peculiarly northern' comedienne Hylda Baker - catchphrase 'She knows, y' know'. After a largely blameless career treading the boards and starring in such once-popular sitcoms as Nearest and Dearest (trading heartfelt insults with Jimmy Jewel) and Not On Your Nellie, Hylda unaccountably teamed up with cockney knucklehead extraordinaire Athur Mullard to record a unique interpretation of You're the One that I Want, the John Travolta - Olivia Newton-John hit from the film Grease. Arthur and Hylda's performance on Top of the Pops is the stuff of legend, and can be found on YouTube (I forbear to provide a link on this occasion). What's worse, the duo even released an LP, wittily titled Band on the Trot - 16 solid-gold tracks, from Rivers of Babylon to Save Your Kisses for Me...
  Stop me if you've heard this one, but it was a highlight of my life on the fringes of the biz we call show - I once found myself  'chatting to' Arthur Mullard at a do. When I say chatting, it was more a matter of desperate attempts at establishing any line of communication whatsoever. I hadn't been aware that Mullard was looming so close until I realised - as the sweat started from my brow - that not only was I standing facing him but everyone else had mysteriously retreated some distance and were now standing in a ring, looking on with amused interest. As well they might. Suffice to say that conversation was hampered not only by Arthur Mullard being - well - Arthur Mullard, but by his being, at this stage in his life, extremely deaf. It did not go well... If only I'd thought to take along a copy of Band on the Trot for him to autograph.

Over there...

On The Dabbler I'm pondering the still life.

Monday 3 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: Flippin' Brilliant

Yesterday, in a rare moment of connection with the Zeitgeist, I accompanied Mrs N to the kinema to see a new movie - the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. Such has been the publicity blitz around its release that I'm sure you know what this is about - a week in the life of a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961 - and that the reviews have been mixed, but with quite a few unmitigated raves. Well, as far as I am concerned, the raves are right - Inside Llewyn Davis is flippin' brilliant. I stumbled out of the cinema in the kind of blissful state I remember from my cinema-haunting student days after I'd seen something really really good - and in fact feeling much as I did after my last cinematic excursion, to The Artist. I should get out more.
   What's so great about Inside Llewyn D? Well, the little-know Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn, acts and sings brilliantly, has great presence and is clearly going to be a huge star. John Goodman, Carey Mulligan and yes Justin Timberlake also give cherishable performances, and the minor parts are, as ever with the Coens, brilliantly cast. The film is cleverly structured and scripted, looks just perfect for its time and place (the Greenwich village exteriors simply are the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), the music is spot-on, and the Brothers manage to make you care for a guy who can be thoroughly obnoxious and  is aptly described at one point as 'King Midas's idiot brother' - everything he touched turns to ordure.
  Like all the best Coen Brothers films, Inside takes you on a journey, one where you never know quite where you are or where you're going to be next, but you don't want to miss a minute - the polar opposite of so many films, novels, artworks etc, which take you on a guided stroll around a corner of a world you already know too well. I think this is because the Coen brothers' imagination is so entirely cinematic - there seems to be no other art form lurking under the surface, no sense of adaptation, only of creation.  (On the other hand, I wish they'd make a movie of Charles Portis's The Dog of the South - they've already done True Grit, and Dog of the S has their names all over it.) 
 Oh and I forgot to mention - Inside Llewyn Davis is also very, very funny.
  'Where's its scrotum, Llewyn? Where's its scrotum?'
  You have, of course, to be there...