Tuesday 31 March 2015

Election Fever

The election campaign is under way (contain, if you can, your excitement), and last night's BBC news gave us a chilling foretaste of what's to come. We were treated to 20 minutes and more of stupefying tedium, anchored by Huw 'Mogadon' Edwards, live (if the word can be applied to him) from outside 10 Downing Street - plus, as if that weren't enough, a little bit more at the end of the bulletin. I've lived through quite a few elections in my time, and I  have never known one where the gulf between the frenzied excitement of those inside the politico-media bubble and the sullen apathy of the disenchanted electorate (outside Caledonia) has been quite so vast. I fear the two surest outcomes of this campaign will be a low turnout and a steep decline in viewing (and listening) figures for the news.
 Never mind - at least this election has given us a catchphrase, and it's a corker: 'Hell yes,' said Ed when asked by Paxo if he's tough enough to be PM, 'Hell yes, I'm tough enough.' Labour were soon doling out 'Hell yes' T-shirts and hailing their leader's toughness. I've written before about the Milliband brothers' place in the world of puppet animation - clean-cut David as head of International Rescue, Weird Ed as the face (and body) of Aardman. Now, it seems, Ed is moving on, aligning himself with the macho puppet world of Team America - 'F*ck yeah!' Shame he didn't go the whole hog - that would have livened things up a bit.

Monday 30 March 2015

Jaunt Notes

Well, I am back from a weekend of jaunting, church-crawling - and, latterly, sheltering from torrential rain - in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, where the highlights were the beautiful little church of Blore, where one chapel is entirely filled with the immensely grand Bassett monument (see below), and the glorious perfection that is Pugin's spired steeple of St Giles, Cheadle (the interior is equally elegant in design but the relentless decoration in oppressive).
 Before that came an afternoon walking, in whipping winds, around Cuckmere Haven in Sussex and up onto the first of the Seven Sisters cliffs, where the inevitable idiot daredevils were sitting with their feet dangling over the friable edge. Then, the following day, it was over the border into Kent for a walk on Romney Marsh. This began at St Mary in the Marsh, where due homage was made at the humble wooden grave marker of E. Nesbit, made and inscribed by her second husband, Thomas 'The Captain' Tucker, a genial old salt with whom she spent the last years of her life.
 From New Romney, we rode the small-scale Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railway - a splendid, slightly absurd survival from the 1920s which has proved its usefulness and lives on, to the delight of tourists and vintage railway enthusiasts - to Dungeness. This is a windswept coastal outpost that, even on a spring morning with the sun shining, epitomises the word 'bleak' in all its dismal dimensions. A shingly straggle of huddling pseudo-cottages and hutments, interspersed with outcrops of arty gentrification, it has little to commend it but its two rather fine lighthouses. Prospect Cottage, where the late Derek Jarman lived and created an unaccountably famous garden out of flotsam and pebbles, does little to lift the gloom, but happily the place is served by two well windproofed pubs. The New Romney to Dungeness section of the railway was reopened as a single-track shuttle service in 1947 by Laurel and Hardy, no less, and there is no better way to cheer yourself up after a visit to Dungeness than watching this newsreel footage of the event - what pros! Their genius glimmers through even this.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Sargent: Always a Pleasure

And yesterday it was the National Portrait Gallery for the John Singer Sargent exhibition, Portraits of Artists and Friends, which is, unsurprisingly, brilliant. Such dash, such effortless technical mastery, such dazzling brushwork, such living likenesses - what more could you ask? Well, it's hard to say, but as so often with Sargent, after the initial impact, there's a sense of something missing - it's nothing essential but its lack means that enjoying his paintings is not one of the deeper, most satisfying or lasting pleasures that art has to offer. But so what? Pleasure it surely is, an intense and delicious pleasure - and no one could complain that Sargent's best portraits lack psychological penetration (try his Rodin for size). And many of the best are assembled at the NPG, a lot of them gathered in from various American galleries, notably the two astonishing portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, the double portrait of the Peilleron children (looking as if they're auditioning for The Turn of the Screw), the wonderful Le Verre de Porto (A Dinner Table at Night), the powerful full-length of the actor Edwin Booth (elder brother of John Wilkes Booth), The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati (a plein-air portrait of Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn) and An Artist in His Studio, a quietly dazzling portrait of Ambrogio Raffele at work in a makeshift studio in his hotel room. It is a joy to see all these - and many more - together. It's only a shame that Sargent's most notorious picture - the Portrait of Madame X - didn't make it across the Atlantic. But for sheer painterly pleasure, this exhibition could hardly be topped. Enjoy!
 (And now I'm off jaunting around for a few days, so there might be a blog hiatus.)

Travellers and Coppard

Over on The Dabbler I'm writing about the Travellers' Library series of the 1920s. Some might recall that I subsequently wrote about A.E. Coppard here...

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Salt and Silver

Yesterday I went to see Salt and Silver, an exhibition of early photography (1840-1860) at Tate Britain. Most of the pictures on display are salt prints, the oldest photographs on paper that have survived. They are rare and precious, fascinating in themselves - and often in their subject matter -and many of them are very beautiful. There are four rooms of photographs: one of early, pioneering images, then a room of pictures recording Modern Life, a room of archaeological and historical images titled Epic, and a final room - Presence - of portraits (with a couple of nudes).
 The wonderful thing about salt prints (especially from paper negatives) - the thing that can't be reproduced but has to be seen in the original - is the softness of tone, the richness of texture, the extraordinarily delicate interplay of light and shade (Hill and Adamson's portraits were even likened to Rembrandts). In these early images, light emerges from darkness, and the borderline between the two is soft and porous - rather like the sfumato effect of the Italian painters. The famous image above - William Fox Talbot's The Great Elm at Lacock - is a case in point. In reproduction, it just looks like a rather crude image of a tree against the sky, but the original is a marvel of subtle tonality, especially where the branches end in a haze of twigs against the sky, the one merging into the other. Fox Talbot achieved this effect - whether intentionally or not - by not masking off the sky (as became common practice later, the development of the sky posing problems that could compromise the main image).
 This exhibition is light on the technicalities, with only an outline explanation of the processes involved. The focus, quite rightly, is on the pictures - this is, after all, an art gallery, and many of these photographs, including the documentary ones, were conceived as works of art. Often they echo pictorial modes of the past - most noticeably in the posing of portraits - but even by the 1850s, the art of photography was breaking free from the painted past into a new informality, into exploring the things that only photography could do.
 There are many memorable images here - of the last of Georgian England and the birth of the Victorian age, of survivals from mediaeval and ancient times (the Egyptian photographs of John Beasly Greene and Auguste Salzmann are worth a small exhibition of their own), architectural studies, images from the Crimean and American Civil War, and some startlingly vivid and intimate portraits: a particularly poignant one is of Captain Lord Balgonie, photographed by Roger Fenton at Crimea, shellshocked and already a broken man at 23. A strikingly beautiful one is of the photographer Gustave le Grey standing in elegant profile against a rough-textured sunlit wall - it could almost be a Manet. All these portraits pack an extra punch because these are the first images of 'ordinary' people to survive their subjects' death. In an age when death was likely to be just around the corner (Lord Balgonie was dead at 25, John Beasly Greene at 24), that was quite something.
 If you're interested in seeing Salt and Silver, there's plenty of time - it's on till June. And there are many more images from the exhibition online - though, as I say, this is a case where you really do have to see the real thing.

Monday 23 March 2015

Them Bones

The extraordinary brouhaha surrounding the reinterment of Richard III's bones in Leicester 'Cathedral'  shows that certain strains in the English character still thrive. We have a native genius for inventing pageantry, along with the rituals - and indeed the history - to support it; and a strong streak of sentimentality animates our enjoyment of a 'good show'. The events in Leicester at times seem weirdly reminiscent of the public mourning for Diana, but emptier and infinitely less understandable. Perhaps the Richard III business is essentially about 'putting Leicester on the map', but its apparent success is surely due to these deeper forces in the English character - and to the enduring place of Shakespeare in the public imagination. All of which is rather heartening, however little any of it has to do with the historical Richard, last of the bloodiest dynasty in England's history. Richard himself, whose crooked bones were found under a municipal car park, would surely be appalled at what is going on - partly because he would have wished to be buried in York, but largely because such scant provision has been made for his immortal soul: no chantry, no priest clearing the immense deficit of masses accrued in all those centuries in his unknown grave... For a clearer-eyed view of the whole thing, let us turn again to Geoffrey Hill -

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,   
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.

Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,   
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,   
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs   
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted,   
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,   
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea   
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

Saturday 21 March 2015

What would Captain Mainwaring say?

This morning I stepped into my local branch of Barclays bank to get some cash, and I am still aghast at what I found there. This branch has three indoor 'hole in the wall' machines, each with a different function, as was hitherto apparent at a glance. Now, however, the notice above each machine carries not an indication of what it does but a name. The machines are now 'Sally', 'Jake' and 'Mike'. Under each notice is a further notice, beginning 'Hello, I'm Sally/Jake/Mike, and here's what I can do for you...' Oddly, these notices didn't even line up with the names above, so that Jake had ended up under Sally, which I'm sure was very nice for him - but, not for the first time, I find myself asking Has the world gone mad? (Yes, I know the answer). More specifically, has the infantilised population really reached such a depth of imbecility that it can only relate to a bank machine if it's given a name and introduces itself? Or is it only the hotshot consultants brought in to make the bank more 'accessible' and 'friendly' who think we're that stupid? I hope so.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Anyone for Deskfast?

It grieves me to report that today is the first-ever National Deskfast Day. That is to say, it 'is' in the dreams of the various interested parties who are backing the 'A Better Breakfast' campaign that has - I'm sure you've noticed - been sweeping the land all this month (and whose press release has somehow ended up in my appalled hands). These interested parties profess serious concern over the decline in the nation's inclination to guzzle their breakfast products. Breakfast is, they remind us, the 'most important meal of the day' (why?) and should not on any account be skipped. The IPs  - who are concerned, inevitably, to 'celebrate the diversity of breakfast' - are alarmed at the national 'overall decline in breakfast occasions' and blame 'changing consumer lifestyles and a busier schedule ' for pushing breakfast 'down the To-Do list' (well, that's true - I can't remember the last time when 'Eat breakfast' featured on my To-Do list...) But mere busyness and lack of time is no excuse: you can always start your working day by enjoying a 'deskfast' with your merrily munching colleagues - 'a relaxed way to ease into the day and get the mind up to gear [sic]'. Or you could just nail your hand to the desk - it would probably be more fun.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Retroprogressive News

It's good to see that the design for the 'tails' side of the new £1 coin looks exactly as if it could have been issued as part of the Queen's first set, back in 1953. And this pleasingly retro design is the work of a 15-year-old schoolboy - a grammar school pupil, what's more. Perhaps we should get him to redesign the irredeemably ugly 50p coin, with a sensible number of sides (or none) this time.

All Right

Today brings the sad news that Andy Fraser, a founder member of the briefly brilliant band Free, has gone to join the ever-growing jam session in the sky, at the age of just 62. His name will live on as co-author (with Paul Rodgers) of Free's mighty rock anthem All Right Now. This phrase, 'All Right' (or, alas, 'Alright') expresses the very essence of  rock 'n' roll in its feelgood aspect. Indeed rock 'n' roll began with it, when young Elvis Presley belted out Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's That's All Right during that epoch-making session at Sun Studios in Memphis. 'All right' was in the DNA from the start - from Bob Dylan (Don't Think Twice It's All Right) to The Who's The Kids Are Alright, BobMarley's Everything's Gonna Be All Right, Supergrass's teen anthem Alright, even Paul Simon's American Tune ('ah but I'm all right...') and the glorious belting refrain of Lou Reed's Rock 'n' Roll - 'Despite all the amputation, You could dance to a rock 'n' roll station And it was all right, It was all right, All right...'
 Anyone who's been young and foolish, high on loud music, drink and/or drugs, love and/or friendship will know what that feeling of Everything being 'all right' is like. On a more exalted level, it's not that far from (though much less securely based than) Julian of Norwich's 'All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well' - or Romain Rolland's 'oceanic feeling'. It is, most definitely, All Right.
 And Andy Fraser is surely all right now.

Monday 16 March 2015

National Bird Time

The search is on, then, for a British national bird, to be democratically decided and unveiled on the day of the General Election. The search was instigated by a birder who feels 'embarrassed' that we, almost alone among nations, have no national bird to embody all we hold dear. The winner seems certain to be that garden favourite, the friendly and charming Robin, who, as he tips his head on one side and eyes you beadily, is likely thinking two things - (1) I hope this dupe has dug up some nice juicy worms for me, and (2) if only he/she were a whole lot smaller, I could get medieval on him/her to grievous effect. Anyone who has read David Lack's classic Life of the Robin will know what I mean - but the little charmers delight us still. Myself, I'd sooner the Blackbird won - not only is it beautiful in a more understated way, it also makes the most beautiful melodies, the sweet sound of an English summer evening. Or there's the Wren, which has been a national icon before - on the farthing coin (which is by boyhood could buy you one BlackJack, Shrimp or Fruit Salad) - and which, as a small thing that makes a big noise, might fittingly symbolise Britain's place in the world.
 One set of birds that predictably failed to make the cut are the crows, but if I had to name my favourite birds - in the sense of the ones I most enjoy watching and interacting with - it would be those phenomenally intelligent, wily creatures, the only birds in whose eyes there's a spark of something we humans can recognise and relate to. The rest, let's face it, are flying mini-dinosaurs. And the Rook provides the aural signature of the English countryside - as every radio producer knows: rookery sounds in the background, Instant Country!  

Sunday 15 March 2015

The Triumph of Black

Early this morning I was lying in bed half listening to various people talking about colours on the World Service. Every decade, it seems, has its defining colours, and we of the 2010s have ended up in an overwhelmingly black decade, relieved only by greys and subfusc shades of brown. The colours of the Sixties were black-and-white (as in Op Art) and, by contrast, sunshine yellow, which in the Seventies darkened into orange and purple/maroon, while the Eighties brought us electric blue, reds and greens before subsiding into grey, ushering in the first wave of black, followed by many weary years of every new trend anywhere being identified as 'the new black'.
 And now black reigns supreme, as a quick survey of one's fellow public transport passengers and pavement-walkers in town (let alone cars, technology etc) confirms - a sea of black and grey with various dull browns. I too, I must confess, conform to the chromatic zeitgeist, at least in terms of outerwear (shirts and ties are another matter). We seem to have achieved, five decades on, the vision of Danny (and Presuming Ed) at the end of Withnail and I - but I don't think fashion trends were uppermost in their mind...
 'They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And, as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.'
 Incidentally, when I first heard the Rolling Stones' Paint It Black, I took the first line to be 'I see a radio and I want it painted black.' Which seemed a reasonable ambition, but rather limited.
 (Still more incidentally, I watched Withnail yet again a few weeks ago, and it only seems to get better with age - rather like the finest wines available to man...)

Friday 13 March 2015

Two Nonagenarians

It was good to hear the unmistakable tones of veteran racing commentator Peter O'Sullevan on the radio this morning, talking about Cheltenham. Prompted by the interviewer, O'Sullevan recalled that he had his first winning bet at the age of 10, when he backed Tipperary Tim in the 1928 Grand National. That race was run on very heavy ground, in thick mist, and in the course of it every single horse fell and/or unseated its rider - except the 100-1 shot Tipperary Tim, who duly ran home the winner, followed by just one other finisher, whose rider had managed to reseat himself. Oddly enough, my father too had taken a punt on Tipperary Tim. He was then working as an apprentice in an engineering works (his father having refused to countenance a university education) and his colleagues were mightily impressed by his sporting acumen, pestering him for tips for some while after, until they realised it had been no more than a lucky fluke.
 Peter O'Sullevan celebrated his 97th birthday earlier this month, and hearing him put me in mind of another great nonagenarian who is happily still with us - Richard Wilbur, whose 94th birthday fell a couple of days before O'Sullevan's 97th. As it's Friday (?), it's time we had a poem, so here is a slight, witty little piece by Wilbur, one that at once celebrates art and the casual disregard of art...

Museum Piece

The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,

Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.
Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.
See how she spins!  The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together.
Beauty joined to energy.
Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.

Wednesday 11 March 2015


From the BBC News website comes this disappointingly concise piece on a subject that was surely worth a couple of thousand more words - the deplorable ascendancy of liquid soap over old-fashioned bars of the stuff. The BBC News piece does effectively marshal the principal arguments in favour of the soap bar, all of which are strong and cogent, but I would have preferred a deal more depth, a range of supportive testimony, and perhaps a visit to a supermarket or pharmacy to inspect the situation and gather a little vox pop. In my experience it's becoming increasingly hard to find a bar of soap - certainly anything beyond a handful of brands - whereas the liquid stuff dominates the shelves with an ever-expanding array of scents, colours, antibacterial claims and other gimmicks. There is of course one place where it is possible to find a truly dizzying range of solid soaps - the unaccountably successful chain that calls itself Lush. I am not, however, tempted by their foul-smelling, candy-coloured, randomly shaped chunks of whatever the heck their stuff is made of. It will indeed by a cold day in Hell when I set foot in one of their ghastly shops. By the way, whatever happened to soap on a rope?  

Tuesday 10 March 2015

'God's most glorious work'

Any excuse for a saucy picture here - and this one is a characteristic nude study by William Etty, born in York on this day in 1787. He painted a wide range of mythological and historical subjects, but, not surprisingly, it was his voluptuous nudes, which showed off his great skill in painting flesh tones, that made the most impact. Unlike the classical nudes of his time, who appear to be formed of cold marble, Etty's are unmistakably of warm, living flesh, and shaped like real women rather than ideal forms. As the Victorian era got under way, these nudes inevitably sparked controversy, The Times judging Etty's work in this line 'entirely too luscious for the public eye', while other voices urged him to 'turn from his wicked ways'. Etty's defence was simple: 'Finding God's most glorious work to be Woman, that all human beauty had been concentrated in her, I dedicated myself to painting - not the Draper's or Milliner's work - but God's most glorious work, more finely than ever had been done.' He got away with it, dying rich and respectable, albeit largely on the strength of his ambitious but inferior historical-mythological works. But it is for his nudes that he is remembered. There are many more online if you fancy a little high-class early Victorian erotica...

Monday 9 March 2015

'Nature and human nature and their privacies': Pritchett's London

I've been reading (rereading technically, but that was long ago) a short book by V.S. Pritchett, apparently written for the American market - London Perceived. It was published in 1962 and describes, with affection, erudition and sharp insight, a London that I remember clearly from my boyhood and that is now largely gone, one with Nineveh and Tyre. Pritchett seems aware as he writes that this London is a city poised on the cusp of a great transformation. His chapter on the river describes beautifully the miles and miles of docks and wharves (23 miles on either bank) that then lined the Thames, but acknowledges that, under threat as they are from other forms of freight transport, they are unlikely to last many more decades. Romantically he envisages a future Thames lined with miles of riverside pleasure gardens, not the endless deserts of ugly gimcrack housing and monstrous office blocks that have replaced most of dockland.
 Pritchett approvingly quotes Henry James's conclusion that 'London is on the whole the most possible form of life'. For Pritchett, London is the most liveable of cities because 'so much has been left to Nature and human nature and their privacies' - privacy and reserve being among the essential characteristics of the Londoner (then), along with an amused, patronising tolerance of foreigners and a habit of forming institutions and associations of all kinds, despite each Londoner being essentially a recalcitrant individualist. The calm of the London face strikes Pritchett: 'It reposes on its worry like a turnip on imperfect soil, and positively fattens on self-control. Of all the great cities I have known, London is the least on edge...' Ah, how long ago it seems.
 And so it was. This was a London of bomb sites, where the memory of the war and the blitz were fresh. Some of the best writing in the book relates to wartime London (Pritchett was a fire-watcher). He recalls an August afternoon when a fine green snow fell in Holborn - a bomb in Hyde Park had pulverised the leaves of the trees to these strange smithereens. And here he talks about the eerie silence of the early evenings of wartime:
'One walked down mile after mile of empty streets to the sound of one's own heels only, and voices carried far, as if across water. I remember two painted old crones sitting out alone on a bench in Lincoln's Inn Fields... They were, no doubt, caretakers, and I could hear their voices far across the square. They were talking about actresses and distant connections of the Royal Family, of course, One night I saw a soldier come fighting out of a pub and get his teeth knocked out. One could hear them fall as distinctly as pebbles, a hundred yards away.'
 When Pritchett writes about the Tower of London, his vision is coloured by wartime and continuing horrors: 'We are now closer to the Middle Ages than the Victorians were. These picturesque lumps bristle and wake up. In what way does the medieval ethos now differ from that of Europe or, indeed, the greater part of the world? The Tower means murder now, torture now, stranglings, treacheries, massacre, the solitary cell, the kick of the policeman's boot... The Tower, grey and nasty, is awake again, and the dirty water of the Thames lapping under Traitor's Gate, where they rowed the fellows in, looks sly and has the light of a conniving modern eye.'
 This is not a sentimental or picturesque view of London, though Pritchett clearly loves the city. It is London perceived with heart and mind and eye, and to bring out the essence of the place Pritchett roams at large in its history and in the lives and writings of great Londoners, from Pepys to Dickens, by way of Defoe, Hogarth and Johnson, among many others who make brief appearances or are quoted in Pritchett's pages. It's a richly enjoyable book - even if one's pleasure is tinged with sadness at the loss of so much of what once constituted the special character of London.
 One final quotation. Here's Pritchett on the subject of London brick:
'The browns, blacks, reds and ochres, the varieties of grey, in a London brick wall change with the weather, the light, the time of day, and are as tender as plumage... what to the impatient or dramatic eye appears to be blank and without distinction is to the active and curious eye rich in texture, sensuous, and warm.' As tender as plumage... Pritchett, to be sure, never lost his endlessly active and curious eye.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Borsetshire Weather

Now I understand - the Met Office's forecast of the wettest winter since Noah built his ark applied only to the county of Borsetshire. Listening to the omnibus edition of The Archers was like hearing the soundtrack of a disaster movie, as the previously placid Am was swollen into a raging torrent by incessant downpours, burst its banks and swiftly engulfed all the low-lying parts of Ambridge, sweeping all before it. As the desperate residents were herded to high ground and local heroes nearly drowned in their struggles to clear blocked culverts, the dialogue consisted largely of names shouted frantically over the din of the raging storm. And on and on it went, until at last the waters receded, the missing turned up and those sundered by the flood were duly reunited. Listening to all this on a warm, sunny spring morning was most amusing. Sometimes I wonder if The Archers might not be a fly-on-the-wall documentary after all...

Friday 6 March 2015

New Normals

Well, it seems yesterday's mini Hannibal Lecter went unremarked, but World Book Day hit the headlines today after an 11-year-old lad marked the occasion by turning up to school dressed as Christian (Fifty Shade of) Grey, duly equipped with cable ties and an eye mask. You may well inquire, wearily, what the world has come to - especially as, it seems, one of the teachers turned up dressed as Dexter, the well-known serial killer. World Book Day appears to have become - at least in our schools - a kind of  alternative Halloween, with only tenuous connections to the world of books. Not that it matters - every day is an international day of something or other and no one notices, or has any reason to. What might matter rather more is that the kind of practices - collectively known as BDSM - celebrated in Fifty Shades of Grey (to an accompaniment of Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium) seems to be becoming 'the new normal'. A 'sex therapist' writing in the current Standpoint is not at all happy about it. Why this rise in masochism? Beats me.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Arts Clown

I've remarked before on how popular science and stand-up comedy are becoming interchangeable as a small army of science-graduate comics eagerly spread the word for scientism, while the groovier scientists adopt the tropes and tricks of stand-up. It's begun to happen with popular history too, with the likes of Paul Sinha - and now, I fear, a similar process might be under way with stand-up comedy and art history. Last night on Radio 4 I caught a woman called Hannah Gadsby, who is Tasmanian and gay (nothing wrong with either of those) and describes herself as a 'comedian/ art historian' (plenty wrong with that). She delivered a supposed comedy lecture on Manet's Olympia, which managed to convey nothing new or interesting about that much-studied painting, and was most definitely not funny. The 'comedy', such as it was, was infused with that right-on, aren't-we-the-smart ones smugness that characterises Radio 4's science/comedy mash-up The Infinite Monkey Cage, but it was even less funny. Not that that deterred the studio audience, each of whom had apparently been equipped with a face mask and a tank of nitrous oxide. Gales of helpless laughter swept the auditorium punctually every 15 seconds or so. The series is called Hannah Gadsby: Arts Clown, and I do not recommend it.

It's World Book Day...

and here's one little chap who's really getting into the spirit of this dressing-up-as-a-favourite-character thing -

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Fairy Doors

I feel I should alert my readers to the alarming situation developing in a Somerset woodland, where elfin construction has got out of hand. 'Fairy control is required,' says A Spokesman, 'otherwise we'd be covered in fairy doors... We're trying to keep people to the paths, but the fairy doors are making it a free for all.' No fairies were available for comment, alas.

Bird book

Over on The Dabbler, I revisit a bird book of my early boyhood.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Doc Watson

Born on this day in 1923 was the great (blind) guitarist, singer-songwriter and bluegrass god Arthel Lane 'Doc' Watson. Here is a video of his last performance, recorded in the year of his death at the age of 89, with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. You might find it hard to watch dry-eyed...

Monday 2 March 2015

Love and Work

Such is the lamentable state of what passes for political discourse these days that it's a rare pleasure to come across something like this - a recent speech by Jon Cruddas that takes its text from William Morris: 'Love and work, these two things only.' It even includes a quotation from Edmund Burke, about 'that state of things in which liberty is secured by equality of restraint' (that highly desirable state of things...). Of course I don't agree with everything Cruddas says here, and of course it is a political speech - with all the limitations that implies - rather than an essay. But at least it engages with real ideas and the realities of life, and at a level stratospherically higher than most of what is uttered by our party politicians.
Cruddas is a rarity in today's political world - a man who genuinely thinks and genuinely cares, rather than going through the motions and hoping enough people are fooled. Like Frank Field - another cherishable rarity - he is a natural conservative and a loyal Labour man. Field, you might recall, was invited by Blair to 'think the unthinkable', only to have all his ideas ignored. Cruddas is Labour's Policy Coordinator, and it's hard to imagine that his ideas will get any further than Field's while his party is under the dead hand of Milliband-Balls.

'Whatever may be meant by moral landscape,' writes Geoffrey Hill in The Triumph of Love,
'it is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in cross-section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.'