Tuesday 28 June 2016

Summer of '76

This day 40 years ago was the hottest June day ever recorded, with temperatures rising to a scorching 35.6 C (96.1 F)  - and this was just one day of a relentless heatwave that ran through most of the summer. It made 1976 a spectacularly good butterfly year - I remember walking across Wimbledon Common with clouds of butterflies rising up all around me - but the heat was hard to bear for us temperately inclined Brits. The worst of it was that all this heat coincided with, and worsened, a prolonged drought that had begun the previous year with a hot, dry summer followed by low winter and spring rainfall. Everywhere trees died - especially beech and lime - while rivers and reservoirs dried up, crops failed (food prices rose by 20 percent), and what had once been lush grassland turned to baked earth. There were standpipes in the street and we were advised to reuse bathwater, share a bath, or even give up bathing altogether - not a huge leap for many Brits in those less fragrant times.
 Things became so desperate that a Minister for Drought was appointed - one Denis Howell, who was already Minister for Sport, and not a man noted for his charisma. A week into his new job, he was turning on a ceremonial stopcock in Yorkshire when it began to rain stair-rods. Howell was obliged to shelter under an umbrella while talking to a local TV crew about the urgent necessity of conserving water. Suddenly Howell had become the Rainmaker, a man with uncanny powers of summoning rain from the heavens. He was for a while a kind of comic national hero - and his reputation travelled abroad too. On a visit to Tashkent, where there had been no rain for two years, he was asked if he'd kindly employ his legendary rainmaking powers. 'I could only reply' [he recalled in his memoirs] 'that anything could happen.' Sure enough, that night there was a sudden electric storm, followed by an almighty deluge.
 We shan't be needing Howell's rainmaking powers this summer, that's for sure.

Monday 27 June 2016

Max, D.H, Fred

'Poor D.H. Lawrence. He never realised, don't you know - he never suspected that to be stark, staring mad is somewhat of a handicap for a writer.' That's Max Beerbohm (nearly always a sound judge) talking, as quoted in Joseph Epstein's acute and enjoyable little  book on Fred Astaire (Yale, 2008).
 Epstein thinks that Max, as depicted in his early self-portrait cartoons, is the nearest thing to Fred Astaire's 'look' - 'sleek, kempt, elegant'. And also, he might have added, blessed with a notably large head.

'In the pink'

'Tojo can't beat a man who's served time on t' Corporation bus!'
 'Tojo', denoting the mighty Imperial Japanese Army - that's the authentic voice of a soldier of the 14th Army fighting in the Burma campaign. Readers of George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant memoir of his Burmese experiences, Quartered Safe Out Here, will recall that he and his comrades invariably refer to the enemy as 'Tojo'. It cuts him down to size in typically British manner.
 The soldier quoted above was one of those featured in an affecting documentary on Channel 4 last night, Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army, built around a cache of filmed messages from soldiers, mostly Lancastrian, of the 'forgotten army', recently rediscovered by chance in Manchester.  A film unit had given the men the chance to speak to their loved ones, who would, with any luck, be watching when the footage was shown in a Manchester cinema. In the documentary, we see the reactions of the men's descendants - and a couple of veterans - watching today. The emotional moments are lingered on rather, and it would have been nice to have a bit more on the campaign itself - but the messages themselves, messages from what now seems like another world, were given due prominence.
 Naturally they are often stilted - these men were not used to being filmed - and they are invariably upbeat, despite the horrors they had lived through in this extraordinarily brutal campaign. The same phrases keep cropping up - 'In the pink', 'Keeping well', 'Best of luck to you all', 'Well, cheerio for now' - phrases that date the film, not just by their language but by the chin-up attitude. These men, who have been through hell, put on an extraordinarily cheery show. At one point they even treat us to a song - what else but Lassie from Lancashire (as performed here by the incomparable Sam Sherry).
 When they finally came home - those who did - these men never said anything about what they went through. No post-traumatic stress counselling for them. They resumed their lives without a word, job done.

Sunday 26 June 2016

To Die in Interesting Times

Ralph Stanley, veteran of the first generation of bluegrass musicians, died last Thursday at the age of 89. Amazingly, in the midst of all the referendum brouhaha, his death got a mention on the BBC news (on radio at least). Stanley was performing well into his 80s, his career having been given a new lease of life when his version of the Appalachian dirge O Death was featured in the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother Where Art Thou? It even won a Grammy.
 Here he is, in good voice, looking forward to the life to come. RIP Dr Ralph.

Friday 24 June 2016

Picture of the Day

The first Lord King, Lord Chancellor of England, broods atop his monument (by Rysbrack) in All Saints, Ockham, the symbols of his office at his feet.

Thursday 23 June 2016


The above photograph of Joseph Roth is surely one of the great author portraits of the 20th century. It is almost, indeed, a portrait of the 20th century in all its tragedy and suffering, the weight of which seems to bear down on the shoulders of the dejected figure sitting on his luggage waiting for who knows what, the next train to who knows where. He is the eternal refugee, the man in transit from his own world, and the chalked-on freight truck behind him has an all too obvious resonance, post Holocaust.
 Poor Roth saw it all coming, and long before almost anyone else - certainly before his long-suffering friend Stefan Zweig. 'We German writers of Jewish extraction,' Roth wrote in 1933, 'are the first to have been vanquished for Europe.' On the day Hitler became chancellor, Roth boarded a train from Berlin to Paris, and never returned. 'We are headed for a new war,' he wrote. 'I wouldn't give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.'
'Let me say it loud and clear,' he wrote in November 1933.  'The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination.' Happily, he was not entirely - or finally - right, but he was righter than he could bear. He had drunk himself to death by May 1939. Zweig killed himself three years later, having completed his masterpiece The World Of Yesterday

The Day, the Shame

So, the Great Day has come at last. Here in London, the weather gods have been making their feelings very clear with spectacular electric storms, incessant torrential rain overnight, and more to come. I fully sympathise.
 I was finding the whole referendum farrago dispiriting but just about bearable - until that fateful day last week when the MP Jo Cox was murdered. This was a horrific and terrible event, but clearly not one that had anything at all to do with the EU referendum; the killer was a lone whackjob whose views on the In/Out question are not known and who was certainly not acting on behalf of any Brexit campaign. However, the Remain camp was soon spinning furiously and shamelessly, to such effect that suddenly a vote for Brexit would seem like an insult to Jo Cox and an encouragement of the dark forces that, unleashed by the Out campaign, had killed her.
The spinning that has gone on ever since Ms Cox's murder has recalled the very worst excesses of the Blair/Brown years, and might well be perpetrated by the same grubby, scruple-free operatives. And it has probably worked; a Remain vote is looking more and more likely. If the Remainers do swing it and get a majority, it will be on the back of a campaign so shameful and squalid that they should take no pride in their victory. And that, I hope, is the last I'll have to say on this topic. Happily, I shall be church crawling in deepest Surrey when the result becomes known tomorrow.

 But here is something to gladden the heart. Kris Kristofferson turned 80 yesterday - eighty! It doesn't seem possible. To honour the anniversary, here he is - just five years ago - giving a lived-in, rough-edged performance of his most beautiful and touching song. He was not thinking of the referendum when he wrote 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose'...

Monday 20 June 2016

The Awful Truth

In the absence of Antiques Roadshow last night (and the presence of a truly dismal footie game - France v Switzerland), I reached for a DVD I'd recently bought but hadn't got round to watching: The Awful Truth (1937) starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, with Ralph Bellamy, a strong support cast and a brilliant wire-haired fox terrier called Skippy playing 'Mr Smith'.
 It's a stagey affair, with a mostly predictable story arc - the Warriners (Grant and Dunne) are planning to divorce, but you know they won't and it's perfectly clear why (they love each other and are a perfect fit). A screwball 'comedy of remarriage', then, along the lines of The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, My Favourite Wife, etc. But what makes it a classic is the sheer quality of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne's performances - both of whom come across as phenomenally gifted natural comic actors at the top of their game.
 Oddly, however, this was not the case, and getting The Awful Truth made was an uncertain and often troubled process. Grant was unhappy with his part and with the director Leo McCarey's instinctive, improvisational way of working. At one point, Grant even wanted to switch roles with Ralph Bellamy, feeling he'd be more at home as the third point of the love triangle. Happily McCarey stood firm, stuck to his methods, and worked with Grant to create the comic persona that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. He even encouraged Grant to copy many of his own mannerisms (McCarey looked rather like Grant).
 The comic genius of Cary Grant, then, emerged from the messy business of lashing together a film with which he was by no means happy. None of which, of course, is apparent on the screen, where Grant seems to be sailing through a part that is second nature to him. As does Irene Dunne, who deservedly won an Oscar for a performance that is at least on a level with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Rosalind Russsell in His Girl Friday - which is about as good as it gets. Dunne, however, did not for a long while see herself as a comic actress, preferring musicals and straight dramas. Indeed, she had made 20-odd films before she tackled her first comedy (Theodora Goes Wild) and found she rather enjoyed it. Incredibly, The Awful Truth was only her second comic role.
 It goes without saying that both leads are every bit as elegant as they are funny. The script - at least as long as Grant and Dunne are together - sparkles and crackles, and the dialogue is all the more effective for its rough edges (the result of McCarey's working methods), moments when they speak over each other or when Dunne keeps up a running commentary to what Grant is saying. They really do seem like a couple talking to each other, not a pair of actors speaking lines.
 The whole production is visually gorgeous - Grant's suits and Dunne's dresses alone are worth the entrance fee, but we are also treated to a range of fabulous, no-expense-spared Thirties interiors. It's always a joy to look at as well as to listen to. Is it still funny? Oh yes, I'd say so - it certainly had me laughing, especially towards the end, when Dunne hits new heights of comic invention and sets the action spinning towards its inevitable, and deeply satisfying, end. And the whole thing comes in at under 90 minutes - they knew how to edit in those days.

Saturday 18 June 2016

As You've Never Seen Him

This playful photograph (originally a bromide print) is titled 'Max - With apologies to all concerned'. Showing Max Beerbohm in 1916, parodically posed as Whister's Thomas Carlyle, it was taken by Filson Young, better known as a writer and journalist, among many other things. I came across it in the Introduction to a splendid volume of Max Beerbohm Caricatures (Yale University Press, 1997) that I picked up for a song at one of my regular charity shops. No fewer than 213 caricatures, with plentiful quotations from Max as well as useful commentary by one N. John Hall, an American academic - this is a book that is clearly going to give me a lot of pleasure. As did the wholly unexpected image of Max as Carlyle.

Friday 17 June 2016

Amis Gets a Glimpse of Things to Come

In an amusing piece on the pleasures and pains of public lecturing in America, Kingsley Amis recalls an occasion on which 'vanity rather than greed' induced him to appear in New York as one of a panel discussing the topic, 'Is There a Beat Generation?' His fellow panellists were New York Post editor James Wechsler, anthropologist Ashley Montagu and Jack Kerouac 'who as they say needs no introduction'. Kerouac, the other panellists were assured, was 'very nice, perfectly charming in fact, provided he was convinced that those present were on his side, felt sympathetic to him, in short liked him'.
 When Kerouac appeared, he greeted Amis, mystifyingly, with 'Hallo, my dear' and Montagu with 'I saw you on the Jack Paar show. You didn't have anything new to say.' Amis continues:
 'Having thus variously put the pair of us at our ease, he crossed to the back-stage piano without giving us the chance to tell him how much we liked him. Then, seating himself at the instrument, he began a version of the dear old Warsaw Concerto, but broke off every now and then to appear before the photographers. When he did this he weaved and bobbed rather as if about to start what we squares used to call jitterbugging...'
 Later, some way into what was meant to be a ten-minute stint, we find Kerouac 'talking about a swinging group of American boys intent on life, forecasting the appointment of a beat Secretary of State, and saluting Humphrey Bogart, Laurel and Hardy and Popeye as ancestral beats. Half an hour later or so, he said he would read his poem on Harpo Marx...' Later still, during Ashley Montagu's contribution, Kerouac, 'wearing Mr Wechsler's hat, began a somnambulistic pacing of the stage, occasionally breaking off to wave balletically to the photographers in the wings. He went on doing this while Mr Montagu's ironies flew above the beat sections of the audience.' And so it went on.
 This account was written in 1959. In 1970 Amis added a postscript, which concludes: 'I think I was a bit urbane in my description of the late Jack Kerouac's activities. This was complacent and unimaginative of me. I did not give him sufficient credit as a pioneer of the movement, now in full career, to reduce argument to animal bawling and culture to egoistic tomfoolery.' A movement that has only gained strength since Amis's time (anyone see Eddie Izzard on Question Time last week?).

Thursday 16 June 2016

Stan Laurel, Birthday Boy

The great comic actor Stan Laurel was born (as Arthur Stanley Jefferson) on this day in 1890, in the northern town of Ulverston. Buster Keaton's assessment of Stan's talent, as overheard at Laurel's funeral, was that 'Chaplin wasn't the funniest, I wasn't the funniest, this man was the funniest'. Some extraordinary cine footage of Keaton at the funeral, clearly grieving, survives - here's the link. Less than a year later, Keaton too was dead.
 But, on a happier note, here is some equally extraordinary footage of Stan Laurel visiting his father (and stepmother) in 1932. The love and affection - not to mention the physical resemblance - between the two shines out. In those days, for a grown man, and a Northerner at that, to kiss his father - or ever his stepmother - so exuberantly would have been seen as dangerously unbuttoned behaviour. But not if it was Stan, the Holy Fool of comedy, a man you couldn't help but love.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

A Heart So White

Acting on a hot tip from Bryan and a fated sighting on a charity shop bookshelf, I've been reading a novel by the highly rated Spanish writer Javier Marías - A Heart So White. Along the way I'd also been impressed by hearing Marías talking on a Radio 4 book programme and coming across as vastly more interesting and (in the best sense) cultured than most writers who turn up there.
 A Heart So White could, I suppose, be characterised as a meditation on time and memory, love and matrimony, and the telling and keeping of secrets. It begins with a bang, with the one truly dramatic event in the whole story - a shocking suicide - related in the extraordinary opening sentence:
'I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn't a girl any more and hadn't long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father's gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.'
After that, who would not read on? I was duly hooked, but I must admit I didn't find it easy, and for a while I had my doubts about Marías. Or rather, perhaps, about his narrator, Juan, a newly married (Spanish) translator and interpreter who is in the grip of an undefined sense of foreboding, and who seems unable to stop himself qualifying every tentative statement he makes, piling up the subordinate clauses, and making life difficult for the reader by writing in very long sentences broken only by commas.
 This was for a while rather wearing, but before long I found it was becoming strangely enthralling - what was Juan/Marías up to? Each chapter seemed quite discrete - on honeymoon in Havana, Juan is mistaken for her unreliable lover by a very angry woman in the street below his balcony; Juan acts as interpreter at a high-level meeting between an English politician (who is clearly Mrs Thatcher) and her Spanish opposite number; Juan meditates on the murder of Duncan in Macbeth... But gradually, as you read on, you realise that patterns are forming - fascinating patterns - and that this is an extraordinarily cleverly constructed novel, an elegant cat's cradle of associations, echoes, reflections and resonances. Nothing, however apparently irrelevant, goes to waste; every thread is woven back in, often long after its first appearance. The great W.G. Sebald called Marías his 'twin writer' and, in terms of structure and tone of voice, it's not hard to see why, though A Heart So White is more like a novel, as commonly understood, than anything Sebald wrote. 
 I already have Marías's All Souls and his (non-fiction) Written Lives on order. I feel as if I've found a real writer here, thanks to that hot tip.  

Tuesday 14 June 2016

A Political Activist Writes

Much to my own surprise - and greatly to the detriment of my reputation as a quietistic flâneur - I have lately spent a few rain-affected hours delivering leaflets door to door. I was guilted into doing this by an old (and very political) friend to whom I had made my views on a Certain Subject all too clear. As to the nature of that Certain Subject, I can only repeat the words of the great Fred Kite: 'My politics is a matter between my conscience and the ballot box.' Hem hem.
 Delivering leaflets, even in the rain, has its up side - you get to see some very nicely planted front gardens, some agreeable porches, and some fine front doors, especially the Victorian survivals, complete with stained glass. These Victorian doors usually feature the very best letterboxes too, ones that open obligingly to let the post in without impediment - surely the essence of what a letterbox is supposed to do. More modern ones, however, tend to be so heavily fortified against the possibility of draughts that getting anything as flimsy as a leaflet into them is a frustrating, finger-shredding business. And a letter box can be anywhere, from ground level to eye level, vertical or horizontal, set in the door or the wall, porch door or front door (or, in one or two cases, apparently nowhere at all). You'd have thought, wouldn't you, that the EU could have made itself useful by standardising the design and location of domestic letterboxes... Anyway, that's the last time I lapse into political activism.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Monken Hadley: A Stone Monument and a 'Bloody Great Mansion'

With perfect mannerist poise, Sir Roger Wilbraham and his wife await the life to come. Their splendid monument, by the great Nicholas Stone, is in Monken Hadley church, in the Hertfordshire/North London borderlands. I was walking there the other day with my cousin, who studied dance at nearby Trent Park (a house with quite a history).

Also in the church is a rare example of a Jacobean monument, all of painted wood, with a portrait of its subject (or one of them - the memorial is to Henry Carew and his mother, Alice Stanford). The church itself was remodelled in the mid-19th century in a manner 'redolent of early Tractarianism', as the Victoria County History puts it.
 For somewhere so close to London, Monken Hadley has a surprisingly rural, villagey feel, though the smell of big money hangs in the air. There are many fine Georgian houses, in one of which Mrs Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony) lived for a spell, writing furiously, while her husband was in prison for debt. Another grand house, called Lemmons or Gladsmuir, was home to a remarkable household for eight years from 1968, when Kingsley Amis and his wife Elizabeth Jane Howard bought it and moved in.
 'This is a bloody great mansion,' wrote Kingsley to Philip Larkin, 'in the depths of the country though only 15 miles from the centre, and with lots of room for you to come and spend the night.' Into the 'bloody great mansion' moved Jane's mother and brother, two artist friends, and, at various times, the three young Amises: Philip, Sally and, of course, Martin. A host of distinguished (and less so) house guests came and went, and in the house during the spring of 1972 were Cecil Day-Lewis, then the poet laureate, his wife Jill Balcon, and their children, Tamasin and Daniel. The poet wrote his last poem at Lemmons, and died there soon after.
 Out of Lemmons in those years came ten of Kingsley's books, including The Green Man, Ending Up and The Alteration, Jane's Something in DisguiseOdd Girl Out and Mr Wrong, and Martin's The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies. It was Jane who made a writer of Martin, encouraging him to read something more exalted than comic books and Harold Robbins, and ensuring that he got to Oxford. How she managed to find time for her own writing is a mystery, as dear Kingsley expected her to do most of the cooking and domestic work for that endlessly hospitable household, as well as driving Kingsley around, looking after the finances and doing much of the gardening. She ended up exhausted and on tranquilisers.
 Even though Jane loved the house, it was probably just as well that Kingsley eventually decided he'd sooner be back in London. They moved to Hampstead, and the long-suffering Jane ended the marriage a few years later. 'The big house disappeared,' wrote Martin, 'and so did love.'

Friday 10 June 2016

By the way...

Here's a piece I wrote about  Leighton House Museum for those fine purveyors of designer lamps, Pooky.

A Rag-and-Bone Man

Walking back from the shops this morning, I heard a sound from the past - the slow clip clop of a weary horse's hooves on tarmac, accompanied by the desultory ringing of a bell. I hadn't heard, or seen, a traditional horse-drawn 'rag-and-bone man' - as we used to call them - on the street for a long time, but here was one ambling up our road towards me.  I stopped to watch as the cart turned into the next road.  It was laden with the modern equivalent of rag-and-bone - an unwanted (probably unused) exercise bike, a redundant microwave oven, an old mower, obsolete electronics - but the driver, who was sitting slouched under a shapeless hat, had the timeless look of detached indifference that is the mark of those who follow traditional trades. The horse was a grubby-coloured, blinkered pony, no longer young, plodding along resignedly, head hung low, its thoughts no doubt on the next nosebag.
 It was a wonderful thing to see, a glimpse of a past that I thought was lost and gone, at least in these parts. When I was a boy, the milk was still delivered by horse and cart (this in suburban London), and the milkman's horse was a cherished presence in our lives. Rag-and-bone men - who in those days supplemented the bell with a forlorn cry of 'Ra'bo-o-o-ne!' - were a stock feature of street life, taken for granted, like so much else that was about to disappear, or at least motorise.
 More than seeing and hearing today's rag-and-bone man, what was most evocative was the faint but unmistakable smell of a passing horse. That really did take me back, all the way to the streets of my childhood... 

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Millais's Rascally Paradise

Today is the birthday of John Everett Millais (born 1829), so here is one of his finest paintings, Ophelia, depicting that unhappy young lady's death, as described in Act IV, scene VII of Hamlet. The chief beauty of the picture is the meticulously rendered, exquisitely detailed setting, painted from nature on the banks of the Hogsmill river, a tributary of the Thames that reaches the river at Kingston (Millais's spot was upriver in Old Malden). It was not unalloyed fun: 'The flies of Surrey [wrote Millais] are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay ... and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.' Those Victorians weren't given to understatement...
 Famously, the figure of the drowned Ophelia was posed by the Pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddal, lying in a bath in Millais's London studio. It was winter so, to prevent hypothermia, the bath was heated by oil lamps under the tub. However, Millais let them go out, Lizzie caught a severe cold, and the artist had to pay her medical expenses.
 When the painting was displayed, the response was as tepid as Lizzie Siddal's bath water. Even Ruskin, at this stage a staunch champion of Millais, praised only the technique, deploring the artist's decision to set the picture in a Surrey landscape: 'Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature and not that rascally wire-fenced garden-rolled nursery-maid's paradise?' This seems more than harsh; if the setting of Ophelia is not beautiful, I'd like to see what is. I should add that the river in Millais's painting resembles parts of the cleaned and restored - indeed reborn - Wandle as it flows through Carshalton.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Odds and Ends

'At the risk of being written off as a spiritual wakey-wakey man, it is worth asserting that to tear one's fascinated gaze away from the raree-show of one's own dilemmas, to value Mr Pickwick higher than Raskolnikov, to try to be a bit pleasant occasionally, are aims worth making an effort for.'
 That's Kingsley Amis, reviewing Colin Wilson's smash-hit existentialist primer The Outsider in 1956 (he was not impressed). Here he is again, on the Big Questions that Wilson's archetypal Outsider is forever ruminating:
 'These, of course, are real questions, the most real questions. Are they? Admittedly, to ask oneself: "How am I to live?" is to ask something real, though even here it could be argued that the continual taking of moral decisions, a fairly common activity, needs no encrustation of internal catechising to make it valid. But it would be hard to attach any meaning, except as an expression of lunacy or amnesia, to: "Who am I?"'
 Quite. The best answer to the question 'Who am I?' has always been 'Who's asking?'


As the dismal EU referendum 'debate' drags on, the broadcasters are understandably looking for new angles all the time. One result of this has been a number of looks back at the 1975 referendum, sometimes with accompanying archive - which has illustrated, if nothing else, that politicians' accents tended to be unashamedly posh in those days (no sign of the Blair-Osborne glottal stop) and that the standard of public discourse was rather higher, or at least more articulate. This morning on the Today programme, it was the 1975 Oxford Union referendum debate that was revisited, with archive of Peter Short in full flow and Ted Heath under full sail. What is seldom pointed out on these occasions is that in 1975 the UK was voting for something entirely different from what's on offer now - for continued membership of an eight-nation Economic Community, rather than a 28-nation, ever expanding pan-European political entity with hugely extended powers and the avowed aim of 'ever closer union'. The political ambitions of the Euro elite were already very much there in 1975 - they had been from the start - but a combination of hectoring and mendacity ensured that the voting public were not let in on what the 'economic community' was really about.

Ever since I ventured into the strange world of FaceBook, I have been targeted by a steady stream of irrelevant advertising. Mostly I just ignore it, but I always look out for the latest from my new hero and role model, the cravat-wearing supermale Stirling Gravitas. And I'm not the only one - these ads have become something of a cult. I assume I'm being targeted because of my advanced years, which is fine by me - keep 'em coming, Stirling!

Sunday 5 June 2016

Attractions You Won't Want to Miss

I have, in my time, put up one or two reviews on Trip Advisor, usually as a favour to a deserving restaurant. So I'm used to getting a steady stream of communications from this sometimes useful organisation, most of which are deleted unread. However, I couldn't resist their latest: 'Carshalton attractions you won't want to miss'. Having lived here for a mere 57 years, I was naturally keen to find out which attraction I might have missed.
 I soon found out. The list began, reasonably enough,  with the Grove Park and Honeywood museum, then a couple of pubs - most definitely not the two I'd have chosen - and then, at Number Five... Craggy Island! What? A Father Ted theme park - how could I have missed that?
 Alas, it is no such thing. It's one of those places where children go to climb up walls covered with protuberances ('Yes, said Mr Hackett, there are protuberances and protuberances'*). Such facilities, I noticed, abound in Wellington, where every wall seems to sprout such protuberances for the benefit of the agile citizens. I had no idea Carshalton boasted such a facility, but I think I will list it among Carshalton attractions I do actually rather want to miss.
 Meanwhile, here are Craggy Island's top attractions, as listed on Trip Advisor.
1: The Holy Stone of Clonrichert.
2: Fun Land.
3: The Very Dark Caves.
4: The Chinese Pub.
5: Carshalton.

* Samuel Beckett. Watt.

Friday 3 June 2016

Another Day, Another Quest

Yet another cool, grey, cloudy day, with the wind still in the North and no prospect of sun. No chance of seeing any butterflies either, so I thought I'd make a reconnaissance expedition to a local nature reserve I had heard of, known for its population of rare Small Blues, just to establish where it is and take a first look. It's another unlikely out-of-the-way site - this one not in suburban Croydon but off a busy roundabout where Cheam merges wearily into Ewell.
 It took a while to get to - I'd forgotten how long those residential roads that spread south from Cheam are, though I had trudged them often enough in my youth, at a time when I mingled with the jeunesse dorée of the neighbourhood. Most of their fathers, as I recall it, were geezers made good, with brassy wives and flash houses to suit their status, and some of their sons were involved in criminality to a quite startling extent, the apple not having fallen far from the tree. There was also a breathtakingly beautiful girl on whom I had a big (unreciprocated) crush, but that's another story... Suffice to say, trudging those endless roads again brought back enough memories to keep me entertained.
 Eventually I reached the fabled roundabout and took the unmarked path that led swiftly away from it. Almost immediately it forked and, in the absence of signage, I took the more promising-looking path. I'm sure I need hardly tell you that this proved to be a bad decision, and soon I was walking field margin after field margin in scenes painfully reminiscent of my recent quest for the Glanville Fritillary. Once again I bashed through a spinny in hope of better things - only to find myself on a wholly unexpected golf course, from which I retreated at the first opportunity, finding my path again and retracing my steps all the way back to that fork in the path.
 As a last throw of the dice, I set out again along the less promising-seeming way. When this path delivered me to a cricket field, I decided to give up my futile quest there and then and write the day off - but, taking a last look around, I glimpsed a line of fencing and a notice. Could this be it, the elusive reserve? Reader, it was; I had found it. By now, after all those field margins and spinnies, I was quite footsore and, since there was no prospect of butterflies, I decided to memorise the location and return when the sun was out. I turned and headed back, crossing a patch of level waste ground that looked as if it might once have been concreted over. Nature was fast reclaiming it, and I was pleased to find some Spotted Orchids growing out of the thin grass...
 And then it happened. As I walked along, something flew up in front of me and settled on a Dogwood leaf - a day moth? No, it was a Small Blue, tiny, dark and beautiful, and all the more so for being entirely unexpected. Seconds later, there was another, and while I was gazing at that one - another male - I noticed two more basking close by. Basking in what I don't know - there was still no hint of sun or warmth - but there they were, wings spread, quite still, not going anywhere. And there were two or three more, just yards away, as I made my way back to the path, marvelling. This was truly one of the great butterfly surprises of my life - and I hadn't even set foot in the reserve. But at least I'd found it. In the end.

Thursday 2 June 2016

'Unfortified with cold fowl and Madeira...': Amis on Peacock and others

My latest charity shop purchase is a rather battered (ex-library) copy of What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions, a 1970 collection of mostly literary essays by Kingsley Amis. As you'd expect with such a stylish, opinionated - and funny - writer, it's bracing stuff.
 The title essay is an exercise in precision bombing targeted on Mansfield Park, the character of Fanny Price in particular, and what Amis perceives as the 'corruption' of Jane Austen's judgment and moral sense, as embodied in Fanny - 'a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel. What became of that Jane Austen (if she ever existed) who set out bravely to correct conventional notions of the desirable and virtuous? From being their critic (if she ever was) she became their slave.' Bracing stuff indeed, not to say harsh and provocative.
 This fierce opener is followed, however, by something more nuanced - a pithy and discriminating survey of the novels of Thomas Love Peacock, written at a time when that literary one-off seemed in danger of being altogether forgotten, except perhaps as a friend of Shelley and sometime father-in-law of Meredith. Amis acknowledges both the weaknesses and the strengths of Peacock's novels and is happy to separate out (accurately) what is most worth reading:
 'A line must be drawn somewhere between the living and the faded parts of his work, but merely to draw the line between living and faded targets of ridicule ... would not be quite adequate. To throw in a reflection on Peacock's inordinate capacity for simple diffuseness and repetition would have the advantage of helping to get Melincourt and Gryll Grange out of the way (where they belong), but would be little use on the harder question. What can we turn to next, then? To plot versus no plot? No: the answer that appeals to me is that Peacock was only at his best in farcical-sentimental comedy with a satiric background. The moment the satirist holds the stage he makes a dive for the lectern, and the reader, unfortified with cold fowl and Madeira, spreads a handkerchief over his face.'
 (That's Amis the comic novelist breaking through in the last sentence.) 'Almost the whole of Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey' survive Amis's critical scrutiny (along with parts of several other novels), and that would seem a very fair judgment. He characterises Peacock as 'far more energetically original' than even his admirers have often realised, and ends with a perfect summing-up: 'That enchanting urbanity, which gave him command of a whole range between witty seriousness and demented knockabout, was something which disappeared  from the English novel almost before it had properly arrived.' And more's the pity.
 Opinionated as he is, Amis is also capable of changing his mind (as he did about politics, swinging dramatically from Left to Right early in his career, as described in another essay collected here, Why Lucky Jim Turned Right). In The Poet and the Dreamer, Amis subjects Keats's poetry to a withering critique that leaves little standing beyond the middle stanzas of the Ode to a Nightingale and a small part of the revised Hyperion. Having, in this 1957 essay, dismissed Keats as 'an often delightful, if often awkward, decorative poet', self-indulgent and lacking in craftsmanship, Amis returns to the subject in a 1970 postscript which, while still expressing reservations, acknowledges that 'I neglected to celebrate, or took for granted, that tremendous originality and audaciousness which went far beyond any mere "decorative" quality...'. And he concludes, generously and rightly, that 'Whatever the detail of Keats's performance, his achievement is such that no one who has never thought him the greatest poet in the world, no matter for how brief a period, has any real feeling for literature.'