Sunday 31 May 2015


Happily last year's Lime Hawk Moth encounter repeated itself this morning - same place, same tree, just 11 days later (as I was beginning to give up on seeing any Lime Hawks at all this year). And it was a magnificent specimen, looking very much like the one in the picture. A glorious surprise on a cool wet Sunday morning.

Friday 29 May 2015

'We ate a Kendal Mint Cake...'

On this day in 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest. In his diary, Hillary permits himself an exclamation mark:

'Tenzing and I shook hands and he so far forgot himself as to embrace me. It was quite a moment! We took off our O2 and for ten minutes I photographed T holding flags, the various ridges of Everest and the general view. I left a crucifix on top for John Hunt and T made a little hole in the snow and put in some food offerings, lollies and biscuits and chocolate. We ate a Kendal Mint Cake and then put back on our O2. I was a little worried by the time factor so after 15 min on top we turned back at 11.45am.'

When the two men at length arrived back at camp. Hillary summed up the day's work with the words 'Well, we knocked the bastard off.'
 News of the conquest of Everest was sent back to The Times in London (in coded form) by their correspondent with the expedition, James Morris, later to become a justly famous travel writer and historian and, in 1972, to transition into a female identity as Jan Morris.
 Hillary Rodham Clinton, born 1947, was of course named after Sir Edmund by her clairvoyant mother, who sensed that the obscure New Zealand climber and beekeeper had greatness in him.

Thursday 28 May 2015

'Sometimes I heard him emit a small sigh...'

I must admit I've never read the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (despite his being a favourite of Patrick Kurp's), but I heard his name mentioned on the radio this morning, a propos a biography - and a propos writer's block. For Mitchell was known not only for his writings but for his non-writing, a phase of his literary career that began in 1964 and lasted until his death in 1996.
 Mitchell built his reputation through the Thirties (the New Yorker hired him in 1938), Forties and Fifties as a chronicler of city life in New York, of its street characters, bohemians and others living more or less on the margins. One of these was Joe Gould, aka Profesor Seagull, who claimed to be writing a vast, encyclopaedic Oral History of the Contemporary World (or Oral History of Our Time), for which he was constantly taking notes and collecting material. In fact, this book did not exist; Gould was disguising an extreme case of writer's block.
 Mitchell wrote two profiles of Gould, then fictionalised his plight in a novel, Joe Gould's Secret. The novel was published in 1964, and that same year Mitchell fell prey to an equally extreme case of writer's block. The amazing thing is that the New Yorker continued to employ him. This is a colleague's account of Mitchell's 'working day':

'Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained.'

An extraordinary and sad case - though surely a journalist with writer's block is better described as an ex-journalist.


I offer a few thoughts on Carl Larsson over on The Dabbler. The pictures are wonderful...

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Going Forward

This Future Library project - is it a good idea? An interesting idea? Maybe the latter, but it's a project that's bound to reflect literary fashion rather than quality, and to favour prolific authors who have plenty of stuff to (effectively) discard. Those contributing in the early years will never see their works printed, but the archive is being added to each year, so the later contributors will be alive and (more or less) currently fashionable. It might have been more interesting to make a time capsule of the whole thing by rounding up all the writings now - what would they look like in 100 years? At least they would be of historical interest. Imagine if a literary time capsule from 1915 were opened now - it would probably leave us largely baffled by the state of literary taste and fashion 100 years ago, and things might be rather worse if a 2015 capsule were opened in 2115... The Future Library project seems to be inspired by some notion that literature is forever looking backwards, when it should be looking forward. But surely literature - real literature - goes forward by looking backwards, not by projecting into some notional future. Also very, very few books last 100 years.

Monday 25 May 2015


My impending retirement and the still more impending visit of the New Zealand branch of the clan have combined to create a veritable Perfect Storm of busyness - and I fear it's not over yet. However, while shopping the other day, I was cheered to spot my first urban Grey Wagtail. This beautifully coloured, most unfairly named bird is close kin to the Pied Wagtail - which, as I've noted before, is now very much an urban bird. The Grey is a little larger and more elegant, longer in the tail and even more active, especially in the tail-wagging department. I often see Greys in their natural habitat beside the now clear and free-flowing Wandle - but this one was down a little alley beside a high-street shop, seemingly quite at home, fossiking around to see if there was anything worth eating. I wonder if this was a one-off, or an early sign that the Grey, like the Pied, is moving into town. It would certainly add a welcome touch of lively beauty to the urban landscape.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Over on The Dabbler...

There's a new review by me of two recently published volumes of short stories from the enterprising Turnpike Books.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Addle, Farrell

Lady Addle Remembers is a spoof memoir, supposedly written by a late-Victorian grande dame but actually the work of one Mary Dunn, first published in the Thirties (when this kind of thing had a bit of a vogue) and reissued at least twice since. Blanche, Lady Addle of Eigg (nee Coot of Coot's Balder) - a rampant snob and a woman entirely lacking in self-awareness or indeed awareness of anything much else - is happy to bestow on her grateful readers a few cherished memories, nuggets of wisdom, poetical effusions and  (startlingly grotesque) family photographs. Lady Addle Remembers is a minor comedy classic - not up there with Augustus Carp, Esq, by Himself - but an enjoyable read.  Here, Lady Addle remembers the occasion when, after an absurdly protracted courtship, the imbecilic Lord Addle finally managed to propose to her:

'And so the years sped on, and at last came the day when Addle asked me to be his wife. Even that was typical of the nobility of his character. The occasion was a ball at home, and we had danced twice together, I remember, regardless of scandal. Afterwards he led me to our magnificent conservatory, and seating me gently between two red-hot pokers, sank on his knees and told me he loved me. It was a wonderful moment and I was sorely tempted to say 'Yes' at once. But I dared not allow myself to be swept off my feet by the suddenness of it all, so I paused for ten or twelve moments considering my answer. It was then I noticed that his forehead was damp and his face drawn as though in pain. That decided me. 'If he really loves me like that,' I remember thinking, 'it must come right.' I hesitated no longer, but gave him my hand, and I shall never forget the look of utter relief and thankfulness as he rose to his feet and drew me tenderly to him.
  It was not until long afterwards that I learnt that one of my father's prize cactus plants had been behind him that night, and the minutes when he waited for my answer had been spent in pure agony.'

This rang a bell... Yes, the Major's inadvertent quasi-proposal to Angela in J.G. Farrell's Troubles:

'...the only other thing he recalled quite distinctly was saying goodbye to her at an afternoon the dansant in a Brighton hotel. They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere. The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings.'

I wonder if Farrell had read Lady Addle and unconsciously absorbed the comic possibilities offered by cacti and tender moments.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

His True Face?

So, the 'true face of Shakespeare' - a portrait 'drawn from life, and in the prime of life' - has been discovered on the frontispiece of Gerard's Herbal. Really? There does seem to be good reason to believe that the figure (bottom right of the four) is intended to represent Shakespeare, but that's all it is - a representation, a stylised image, not a portrait likeness. That's why this 'Shakespeare' has pretty much the same face as the other three figures (especially his near-twin at top left). Still, it's an interesting find - if not exactly 'the literary discovery of the century'.

Bless their fluffy little heads...

In the course of a fatuous radio discussion on the latest proposal to cut the drink driving limit down to approximately zero, I caught this contribution, which went unremarked: 'Women like to drink white wine, and it's hard for them to work out the size of a glass and how much they're drinking.' It went unremarked because it was spoken by a woman. Just imagine if a man had said it...
'Glass of white wine for the lady,' as Al Murray always says.

Monday 18 May 2015

Buzz Buzz

As I sail into my last three weeks of wage-slavery here at NigeCorp, the pace (much to my chagrin) seems to have been set at accelerando, rising to presto furioso. So much for winding down...  However, my Tube journey this morning was enlivened by the presence of a large and vigorous bumblebee bombinating around the carriage, then flying off (on a subterranean beeline) further down the train. I didn't see where he got off. Or indeed on. But once again this year I'm struck by how well the bumblebees are doing, at least in the London area, flying virtually all year round and seeming more numerous than I remember them ever being - this despite the dire warnings that they are in danger of dying out. Not on my manor, it seems.

Friday 15 May 2015

The Big Story

This time last week, the nation was digesting the unexpected (by the pundits) election result. Naturally I wrote a post about the quest for Britain's National Bird. Now that the smoke of election battle has dispersed, it's clear what the Big Story is: Nigel Farage's phantom retirement and an outbreak of dissent in the upper ranks of UKIP. Well, that's the big story as far as the BBC is concerned: it seems to have been leading every bulletin for days, with long reports, interviews and features thrown in. Some of us might not be too surprised that UKIP is in a degree of disarray, having got more votes than the SNP and the Lib Dems combined and yet crossed the finishing line with one seat and no leader. As UKIP is a party of loose cannons - its very lack of management might indeed be part of its electoral appeal - it's no surprise that they're rolling around the deck even more than usual and a couple of them have crashed overboard.
 You and I (and probably the entire world outside of the BBC) might have thought that the big story of the election was the collapse of the Labour vote across the whole nation (apart from London) following a catastrophically inept campaign under a disastrously awful leader, an unelectable cerebral weirdo of apparently extraterrestrial origin. With Labour in complete disarray, leaderless, rudderless and with no obvious reason to exist, you might have thought that would be the story, especially as said leader was expected (not least by himself and his inner circle) to become PM last week. But no - UKIP's the story...
 No, hang on - a Labour story has managed to shoulder UKIP off the BBC's top spot at last: Chuka Umunna has withdrawn from the 'battle' for the Labour 'leadership'. Funnily enough, I spotted him at Victoria station last night, with his 'girlfriend', waiting for a train. He was looking worried and uneasy. Little did I realise that I was witnessing history.

Wednesday 13 May 2015


I see the house on Church Walk, Kensingon, in which Ezra Pound once lived is for sale, for the thick end of five million smackers (that's Kensington for you). Pound rented an upstairs room in this house, hard by St Mary Abbots church (tallest spire in London, fact fans) - whose bells maddened him - from 1909 to 1914. It was the base from which he conducted his assault on English letters, making himself known to the likes of Ford Madox Ford (whose English Review was housed a short walk away), Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Gaudier-Brzeska, T.E. Hulme and Robert Frost, who once climbed the stairs to Pound's room and found him in the bath. It was in this sparsely furnished room, with its single gas ring, that Pound wrote most of the delicate lyrics collected in Lustra. He wasn't quite living in a garret, but his poem The Garret rather sweetly sums up his Church Walk life...

Come let us pity those who are better off than we are.
Come, my friend, and remember
       that the rich have butlers and no friends,
And we have friends and no butlers.
Come let us pity the married and the unmarried.

Dawn enters with little feet
       like a gilded Pavlova,
And I am near my desire.
Nor has life in it aught better
Than this hour of clear coolness,
       the hour of waking together.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Something New

Over on The Dabbler, there's a new and exclusive review by me of a new book - that doesn't often happen...

Monday 11 May 2015

Cather Again: My Mortal Enemy

I've been reading Willa Cather again - My Mortal Enemy, a short novel (indeed barely a novella) published in 1926, between The Professor's House and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and regarded by Cather scholars as something of an enigma and an anomaly. It does, though, have obvious parallels with A Lost Lady, being essentially a complex, subtle, ever-changing portrait of a lady seen through the initially idealising, later disillusioned eyes of a younger person.
 In My Mortal Enemy, the young person is the narrator, Nellie Birdseye, and the object of her fascinated attention is Myra Henshawe, or rather Myra and her husband Oswald. Their romantic elopement, in the teeth of immovable opposition from her family, is the stuff of legend in the small Illinois town where Nellie grew up. It is there that, as a teenager, she first meets Myra, on a rare revisit with Oswald. She is impressed and dazzled, but with a sense of disappointment that the Henshawes don't quite live up to the romantic picture in her mind. However, a later visit to New York, where the Henshawes live in style on Madison Square, Myra surrounded with artistic types and young people in need of romantic guidance, restores much of the glamour to Nellie's view of the fabulous Henshawes. Until, that is, she is presented with undeniable evidence that the great romance is more than tinged with bitterness and disappointment on Myra's part, and flawed in ways Nellie had never dreamed of.
 The second part of the story is set in an unspecified western city ten years later, where Nellie, purely by chance, comes across the Henshawes again, living in sorry circumstances in a rooming house. Oswald's money has gone and Myra is an invalid, seriously ill, deeply unhappy, bitter and seething with resentment towards her husband. Here, as events unfold, the last of Nellie's romantic idealism is stripped away, though she continues to love and care for Myra and, less intensely, the flawed and helpless Oswald.
 'My Mortal Enemy' are the last three words of the story, spoken by Myra, and one of the puzzles of this intriguing book is who or what she means by them - and whether they indeed have a special meaning for Cather, who took them as her title. The book seems to be a kind of exorcism of the author's own youthful tendency to idealise and romanticise those she admires, and it reads as if it is based on events and people in her life, and is the product of a kind of crisis. Cather gave nothing away, but, in an essay in the Willa Cather Archive, Charles Johanningsmeier presents a very persuasive argument that the models for the Henshawes were S.S. McClure (founder of McClure's Magazine) and his wife Hattie.
 Be that as it may, My Mortal Enemy is a fascinating, absorbing, often startling book, beautifully written, with never a wasted word or a redundant detail. This is a novella that punches way above its weight. As ever with Cather, there is so much more going on than is apparent on the surface - 'It's the heat under the simple words that counts,' as she herself once wrote. The heat under My Mortal Enemy is intense.

Friday 8 May 2015


Well, I don't mind admitting I'm disappointed - not by the election result, of course, which confirmed Old Nige's Prognostick (as such things generally do) - but with the Britain's National Bird vote. I'd been hoping to find that our national bird had been named today, but no - seems I misread the original story: Election Day was the day voting closed on this vital national issue, not the day the result would be announced (and it could be close, according to this source). We'll  have to wait until June, whistling softly to ourselves and shifting from foot to foot...

Thursday 7 May 2015

Slow TV

BBC4 has been broadcasting a string of documentaries that simply show something happening, very slowly, with no commentary, no music, no nothing. There was Frederick Wiseman's typically leisurely three-hour stroll around the National Gallery, three rather shorter films showing people working with glass, metal and wood (half an hour each) and - the big successes of the series - an hour devoted to the Dawn Chorus (beautiful) and a two-hour canal trip, with nothing to see but the canal and its ever changing banks, nothing to hear but birdsong, the faint drone of the motor and the susurration of the narrowboat's prow easing through the still water - on which, from time to time, captions floated past, giving snippets of information.Needless to say, I didn't have time to watch it myself, but I would have loved to.
 The success of the Canal Trip has no doubt taken the BBC by surprise, but I hope it is making them think of the possibilities of Slow TV. There is, I'm sure, a big unmet demand for this kind of television, the ultimate in restful viewing. There really ought to be a 24-hour channel devoted to it - it would be a public service, improving the nation's mental health no end.  

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Birthday Boy

Here's an image familiar from every student bedsit and hangout of the Sixties, Seventies and beyond - and from many a more respectable wall to this day. It is almost the defining Toulouse-Lautrec print, and certainly the defining image of its subject, Aristide Bruant, born on this day in 1851. Bruant was a very successful singer, scabrous comedian and showbiz entrepreneur in the golden age of seedy bohemian Montmartre. When Bruant opened his own club, Le Mirliton, Toulouse-Lautrec was among the first patrons - and the only one consistently treated with respect; most were denounced as they arrived with various salty epithets, but for T-L, Bruant would silence the house and announce: 'Here comes the great painter Toulouse-Lautrec...'  The great painter certainly did Bruant plenty of favours in return, plastering his striking image all over Paris - and, as it turned out, ensuring this otherwise marginal figure would be remembered by posterity. If only for his image.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Birds, etc.

Well blow me down - I'm on The Dabbler again, tracing a bizarre connection between John Snagge and one Wally Hope... Meanwhile, of course, my mind is on higher things. In two days' time, the nation will make known its will and Britain's National Bird will be named.  Oh and there's that other business going on too, so I guess it's time for Old Nige's Prognostick - which is, for what it's worth, that Cameron will scrape home, with the help of some kind of alliance/coalition. I predicted a Cameron scrape in 2010 too, with rather more confidence. But the Miliband Monolith might turn out to be Ed's Sheffield Moment ('We're awriiiight!') - the moment at which it became clear that he has already gone mad, before even setting foot in Downing Street. Whatever Cameron's been up to, at least he hasn't gone mad, after five years of it - which is no mean feat these days.
 Meanwhile, an Orange Tip flew my way in Holland Park on May Day - and this morning, as I stared blearily out of the train window, I spotted my first Swift of the year, looking rather small and lonely as it circled quietly under lowering clouds. The globe's still working.

Sunday 3 May 2015


Over on The Dabbler today you'll find my piece on T.E. 'Blackbird' Brown, duly embellished.

Friday 1 May 2015

Sandys and Howell

The Victorian artist Frederick Sandys was born on this day in 1829. That's not him in the picture, though - it's a portrait by Sandys of one of the shadier figures from the Victorian art scene, Charles Augustus Howell. Howell, a man of considerable personal charm, ingratiated himself with Ruskin in the 1860s and became his secretary, a position from which he attempted to gain control of the great man's finances - until Burne-Jones managed to persuade Ruskin to sever the connection. Howell was very close to the Rossetti family, and oversaw the grisly venture in which Dante Gabriel retrieved his poems from the grave of Lizzie Siddal. That connection is believed to have ended when Howell got his lover to fake Rossetti drawings.
 Howell was also a business adviser and intimate of Swinburne - until he was (or so Swinburne believed) involved in a blackmail attempt on the poet. After Howell's death, Swinburne wrote that he hoped he was 'in that particular circle of Malebolge where the coating of external excrement makes it impossible to see whether the damned dog's head is tonsured or not'. Nice. As for Howell's death, at the age of 50, that was a bizarre affair. He was found dead outside a Chelsea public house, his throat slit and a gold coin in his mouth. The cause of death was given as 'pneumonic phthisis'...
 Howell was a rather more interesting figure than Sandys, who lived a fairly quiet life, painting subjects from mythology and fearsome, firm-jawed 'stunners' in the manner of Rossetti. But, as the portrait of Howell shows, he was an accomplished portraitist - and also a fine wood engraver, who made his mark with the uncharacteristically light-hearted squib, The Nightmare. Based on Millais's Sir Isumbras at the Ford, this show Millais with Rossetti and Holman Hunt, all seated on a donkey bearing the initials 'J.R., Oxon.' [John Ruskin].