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!