Wednesday 31 January 2018

In-Flight Entertainment

Well, I'm back in Blighty, after a very wonderful (but not blog-friendly) sojourn in Wellington, a city I like even more with every visit. If only it wasn't so ridiculously far away...
 En route, the in-flight entertainment offered slim pickings on the film front. I watched Goodbye Christopher Robin, a lumpy, often clichĂ©d drama about the relationship between A.A. Milne and the son he cursed with the lifelong burden of being the insufferably winsome 'Christopher Robin'. A.A. does not come out of it at all well, and that is probably fair. The only other films I watched were Logan Lucky, a Steven Soderbergh crime caper that felt as if it should have been a lot funnier than it actually was, and the extraordinary, hand-painted animation Loving Vincent. This struck me as a great endeavour let down by a rather lame, detective-drama-style script. There's also a real problem matching actors' speech to animation of this kind, which looks beautiful but is inevitably wobbly and not naturalistic when it comes to facial and bodily movements. This mismatch between speech and image gives the dialogue scenes an oddly stilted feel. However, Loving Vincent passed a chunk of flight time very agreeably.
 The musical entertainment on offer in the Classical section (I didn't feel inclined to catch up on the latest developments in K-Pop or J-Pop) was the usual mix of the entirely predictable and the unexpected. There was an album of Scarlatti sonatas and another devoted to Szymanowski (some sacred works and the Third Symphony), also much Ravel piano music, and even a performance of Busoni's Violin Concerto. The big surprise, though, was an album called Handel Goes Wild, which I tried out of sheer curiosity; there was almost no information on it, so I had no idea what to expect. My immediate reaction was What the heck is this? Handel meets Jazz/World Music? Surely that can't work – and yet, as I carried on listening, I realised that, at least some of the time, it did, and rather beautifully (though on other occasions it certainly failed and seemed simply bonkers).
 I discovered later that Handel Goes Wild is an album by theorbo player Christina Pluhar and her ensemble L'Arpeggiata, with guest players and singers. They have also made an album in which they take a similar approach to Purcell – I must have a listen... For someone like me who grew up at a time when Baroque music was seriously undervalued and under-explored – and was played very straight, on modern instruments – it's been good to experience the ongoing rediscovery of the Baroque and the development of so many new ways of performing and interpreting the music. It's almost as if Baroque music has come back from the near dead and is fully, vividly – sometimes crazily – alive again. That's got to be a good thing.
 But enough of in-flight entertainment. Now that I'm back on home ground, normal service will resume in due course...

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Bookshops Again

I'm happy to report that the second-hand book trade continues to thrive here in Wellington. All of the three bookshops I wrote about two years ago are still very much in business – indeed one of them (the second of the three in my original post) has expanded and moved into larger premises. The first continues to be the well stocked, organised emporium I remember – and when I dropped in a couple of weeks ago I was happy to find a volume of Bernard Malamud short stories on its scrupulously alphabetical shelves (Rembrandt's Hat, of which I found at least three stories – The Silver Crown, Man in the Drawer and The Letter – rather wonderful).
 The third bookshop – the one with the outside tables – is still a joy, but seems a little more orderly than it was, with fewer random elderly volumes sprinkled about outside. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico was still there though, and I noticed two stout volumes of Mrs Earle's once popular Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden (a work that later lent its name to a characteristic John Betjeman poem). Looking around the inside again, I realised that the huge stock is actually pretty well organised, once you've cracked the eccentric classification and unexpected juxtapositioning.
 It was in a coastal suburb of Wellington last week that I experienced a truly, sublimely disorganised bookshop, one where the owner seems to have spent decades cheerfully buying anything at all that comes through the doors and, some while back, to have given up on any serious attempt to organise it. However, after a while, I realised that the fiction section – despite the fact that the volumes were mostly piled up on top of each other in heaps rather than shelved – was broadly alphabetical. Buried in the Ws (for how long?), I found a battered 40-year-old Penguin of Angus Wilson's Late Call, which I am now reading with great pleasure. 
 Wellington really is a fine city for the lover of second-hand bookshop browsing – considerably more rewarding and enjoyable than London these days.

Sunday 21 January 2018


One of Chuck Jones's rules for the animated world inhabited by Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner was that 'All materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation' – this despite (or rather because of) Acme products being spectacularly failure-prone, guaranteeing humiliation and/or severe injury for the Coyote every time he tried to use one.
 The other day I was delighted to discover that Acme is still in business here in Wellington, making cups and saucers for the city's innumerable cafĂ©s – and, happily, these particular products function perfectly well.

 I've been seeing a lot of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner lately, as Sam and Ethan, the New Zealand grandsons, are massive fans. With Summer, the granddaughter back home, equally devoted to Bugs Bunny, that's a clean sweep for Chuck Jones and an impressive demonstration of the enduring power of authentic animation in this age of CGI.

I came out to New Zealand with my trusty Wilkinson Protector 3 but no spare blades, nor were any to be found here. What I did find was a razor of broadly similar appearance, complete with six (count them) three-blade  cartridges, all for the equivalent of £4.50 sterling. Could I resist this? Of course not. Was it too good to be true? Of course it was. My first shave with it left my face peppered with lacerations and coated in a strange kind of slime – presumably the lubricant gel. One contusion was so bloody I had to wear a plaster on my chin all day.
 I suspect this razor was a product of the Acme Corporation.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Frances Hodgkins

Yesterday I dropped in on an interesting exhibition at Wellington's National Portrait Gallery – Frances Hodgkins: People. Hodgkins, though she spent much of her life in England and various parts of Europe, was born and raised in Dunedin and began her career in New Zealand. She was in her thirties when in 1901 she first sailed for England and subjected herself to the various cross currents of European art.
 The effect was soon apparent in such works as Babette [below], a delicate, Whistler-influenced study spoilt only by that clumsy hand that seems to belong to someone else.
 Throughout her career, Hodgkins seems to have had problems drawing hands and often fudged them – a strange shortcoming in an artist with a terrific natural gift for catching a likeness and making something strongly expressive of it, as in the intentionally harrowing Belgian Mother and Child (painted in 1914). This painting [below] also shows Hodgkins' extremely loose and free brushwork.
 This exhibition is limited to portraits, so gives a necessarily incomplete picture of Hodgkins' oeuvre, but it shows clearly enough how open the artist was to just about every trend in European art, some of which came less naturally to her than others. Not all the pictures on show are successful, but the best of them are really very fine, especially some of the double portraits – something of a Hodgkins speciality. Below is Bridesmaids, a particularly bold and striking work. It takes a brave portraitist to dress two sitters in such a strong green – but it works.

After a long, prolific and successful career – which, but for the war, would have included representing Britain in the 1940 Venice Biennale – Frances Hodgkins died in Dorchester in 1947.
 The painting at the head of this post is Hodgkins' distinctive take on that ever popular subject The Goose Girl.

Monday 15 January 2018

Every Man a Gnomon

It's always good to discover a new word, even if its likely fate is to languish unused in some remote recess of the verbal mind until entirely forgotten. The other day, in the unlikely setting of Wellington's magnificent botanic gardens, I came across one that is surely destined for such a fate - 'analemmatic'.
 What you see pictured above is, it seems, an analemmatic sundial. And what is an analemmatic sundial? I refer you to Wikipedia, in the hope that you can make more sense of the description than I can. The root of the word is 'analemma', a kind of chart of the changing position of the sun in the sky through the year, as mapped from a particular point.
 Well, that's good to know. This particular sundial is labelled 'The Sundial of Human Involvement', which makes one fear the worse – some kind of PC representation of the dire effects of humanity on sweet Mother Earth? But no – what it is is simply a human sundial. You, the representative human being, stand at the appropriate point in the year, with your back to the sun, raise your arms above your head, and note where your shadow falls to discover the time. You are the gnomon – a word that has stuck, and has finally come in useful.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Van Loon and Cronin

Browsing in Nabokov's Pnin, I came across this passage describing the eponymous Professor's search for rooms to rent in a private house. These houses, while differing in many respects, 'had one generic characteristic in common: in their parlour or stair-landing bookcases Hendrik Willem van Loon and Dr Cronin were inevitably present .... exchanging looks of tender recognition, like two old friends at a crowded party.'
 Hendrik Willem van Loon was a name I knew, if only as the author of such ambitiously titled volumes as The Story of Mankind and Man the Miracle Maker – but who was his bookshelf buddy 'Dr Cronin'? The name of A.J. Cronin came to mind, but surely this Scottish writer of middle-brow fiction wasn't that popular in America, was he? Well, yes, as I now discover, he was. Several of his novels were adapted into Hollywood films: The Citadel, The Stars Look Down, Hatter's Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Spanish Gardener, etc. Cronin and his family even went to live in various parts of America during the war years, which no doubt increased his Stateside fame. He was a hard-working (five thousand words a day!) and hugely successful writer, whose books sold in immense numbers and were indeed a fixture on bookshelves on both sides of the Atlantic.
 And now they languish, unsold and unread, on the shelves of charity shops, exchanging looks – or perhaps now something more like resigned shrugs – with the equally unwanted volumes of Hendrik van Loon. You can always rely on the bookshelves of the representative middle-brow readers of any time – including (oh very much including) ours – to furnish the charity shop and jumble sale stock of future decades.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Totally Bonkers

Here, for your delectation, are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as you never saw them before – constructed entirely from Lego. This wonder of the ancient world was but one of the exhibits on show in what was perhaps the most totally bonkers exhibition I have ever visited.
 Let's Go Build: A Festival for Lego Lovers was on – and proving very popular indeed – at Wellington's Te Papa museum (of which I have written before). Obviously this was one for the grandsons, so we duly paid the exorbitant entrance fee for what is essentially a massive marketing opportunity for Lego, an organisation that increasingly seems bent on world domination.
 The exhibition consists of 50 of 'the world's most iconic landmarks' reconstructed in Lego by a team of specialist Lego builders, who put in 5,000 nerd hours to bring us the likes of Michelangelo's David (life size and unspeakably awful), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Titanic going down (iconic?), the Flying Scotsman (rather good) and, er, St Mark's Square, Venice (of which the less said the better).
 The classical scholars among you will surely recognise the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus [below].
 It was good to see the Ancient Wonders still getting a look in, among all the modern towers, skyscrapers and feats of technology. Perhaps the oddest exhibit of all was an unnerving Mona Lisa - how this was done with Lego bricks alone I cannot begin to think, nor do I particularly wish to.
 The trouble with Lego is that it's fine for constructing buildings and artefacts, but hopeless on organic forms and human figures. The same bunch of smiling idiots with giant heads and robot arms populate every scene, from the Piazza San Marco to the sinking Titanic (where they're in period dress) – and when Lego takes on Nature, the results are risible. The Lego Great Barrier Reef was a garish mess that looked like nothing on Earth. The building blocks of Nature are not, thank heavens, Lego-shaped.
 However, the joy of this exhibition was that it let the young visitors get busy building their own versions of the wonders on show. Sam and I enjoyed constructing a really rather impressive 15-tier pyramid, and both boys had fun rolling little wheeled vehicles down ramps. The visit left me with an unusually severe case of museum fatigue, but it was, er, an experience, and it certainly gave the boys a good deal of Lego-based fun, culminating in the ultimate treat – chocolate Lego bricks. Oh dear, oh dear...

Sunday 7 January 2018


The novel I mentioned in my last post was Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi (I shan't attempt the accents), which I picked up in that unfailing source of happy finds, The Bookshop in Wirksworth. I had never heard of either book or author, but Richard, the bookseller, assured me it was a good one – and so it proved. Good and more than good.
 Kosztolanyi was and is a famous Hungarian novelist, poet, critic and translator, but he is little known to the wider world. He was born into the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1886 and died, in a wholly changed world, a few years before the Second World War. The town of his birth, Szabadka, is now called Subotica and is in Serbia. Skylark (almost his only work available in English translation) is set in a fictionalised version of Szabadka which he calls Sarszeg, at the very end of the 19th century. The novel – short enough to be classed as a novella – is, at one level, a sharply drawn satire of small-town life in a provincial outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire. With its jocular Victorian-style chapter hearings ('in which we walk the length of Szechenyi Street to the railway station and the train pulls out at last'), it has the initial appearance of an affectionate, slightly whimsical comedy, but it develops into something far more interesting and, in the end, deeply moving. It is, in a nutshell, a study in sorrow, in the sadness and cost of living the lives we have to lead.
 The plot is rudimentary, an inversion of the familiar story of parents going away on holiday and the youngsters left behind going crazy and wreaking havoc. In Skylark, it is the daughter (whose wildly inappropriate nickname is Syklark) who, reluctantly, goes on holiday, and the parents left behind who, to their own increasing surprise, go wild.
 The parents, Father and Mother, are presented as a fussy elderly couple (in their late fifties!) who have effectively closed down their lives and eschewed all pleasures and luxuries in order to devote themselves to Skylark, who, we quickly realise, is no youngster but verging on middle age. And ugly. Hideously, irredeemably ugly, and with a personality to match – dull-witted, joyless, dismissive and domineering, rigidly controlling every detail of the household regime and her parents' lives. Bound by parental love and duty to this monstrous cuckoo, the elderly couple have got used to living within the narrow bounds dictated by their daughter rather than exposing themselves – and Skylark – to the outside world.
 All that changes once Skylark, after much fussing and fretting, is finally put on the train and sent off to stay with family in the country. She will only be away a week, but the prospect fills her parents with horror and foreboding – what will they do with themselves in her absence? Tentatively at first, they re-enter the dangerous outside world of Sarszeg, then begin to enjoy it and come to realise that the week without Skylark will be more than bearable – it will be a liberation...
 What matters about Skylark is not the plot but the action, the deeper movement of the unfolding story that leads us further and further into the terrible predicament of Skylark's parents (and, along the way, the sad predicaments of various of the well-drawn minor characters). The wilder Father's behaviour gets, the closer we draw to the inevitable, shattering climax when, returning home to Mother furiously drunk, he finally voices, loud and clear, the unspeakable truth about their daughter and their parental plight.
 Can there be any way back from there? Well, yes – that truth about Skylark is not the whole or only truth. There is enough love left, just, for Father and Mother to pull themselves back from the brink. They must, after all, carry on. As we all must. As Skylark herself, in her own strange lonely sorrow, must.
 It's easy to apply the word 'tragicomic' to works that are neither properly tragic nor properly comic. This extraordinary novel is, triumphantly, both, and both at once.

Friday 5 January 2018

From the Antipodes

Apologies for the blog silence: it was a long journey, and things have been busy here in Wellington since we arrived. The weather – always a big feature of Welly life – has been extraordinary: mostly hot, hot, hot (it's been a most unusual, drought-affected summer) but suddenly switching yesterday to wet, wet, wet, with rain sheeting down in tropical style and gale-force winds adding to the fun. Eighteen hours later, the storm has finally blown itself out and the sun has reappeared. With it will come the butterflies, which are flying in glorious abundance here on the Brooklyn heights, where the Agapanthus and Pohutokawa are in full bloom, along with less showy flowers more familiar to English eyes. The chief attractors of butterflies are, as in England, the Buddleia bushes, and these are alive with, mostly, the New Zealand Yellow Admiral [pictured above]. This creamy beauty is flying in astonishing abundance, as numerous as the Cabbage Whites (official NZ name), with here and there a New Zealand Red Admiral, and every now and then a stately and spectacular Monarch.  All this against a soundtrack of virtuoso improvisation –  a mix of tuneful notes, bell-like sounds and wolf whistles with clicks, grunts, pops and strange mechanical sounds  – courtesy of the pugnacious, nectar-feeding Tuis [below].

Along the way, I have managed to read a rather remarkable novel, on which I intend to report in my next post.