Wednesday 31 December 2014

Happy New Year!

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

Monday 29 December 2014

The Up Side

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

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Season's Greetings

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

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Mount Cocker

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

Monday 22 December 2014


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

A Sad Triad

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

Thursday 18 December 2014

It's Life, Jim...

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

Over there...

on the Dabbler, I'm talking pidgin.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Tickell's Exploded Beings

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

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

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

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Dog's Wool

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

Monday 15 December 2014

Some Trees

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

Some Trees

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 13 December 2014

Not Silence

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

Friday 12 December 2014

Thought for the Day

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

Thursday 11 December 2014

Statin Island

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

Wednesday 10 December 2014

'Melvil' Dewey, Piece of Work

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

Monday 8 December 2014


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

Thursday 4 December 2014


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


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

Wednesday 3 December 2014


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

Tuesday 2 December 2014


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

Monday 1 December 2014

'religion and methodism'

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

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