Thursday 30 August 2018

The Kingfish

Born on this day in 1893 was the great populist Governor of Louisiana Huey Long, aka 'The Kingfish', whose life was cut short by his assassination in 1935.
This is the perfect pretext for playing not one but two songs from Randy Newman's classic Good Old Boys album, complete with vinyl crackle. Here is Kingfish

And here is Every Man a King, Huey Long's theme song, which he co-wrote with Castro Carazo, band director of Louisiana State University –

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Again, with Differences

A year ago today, I put up a post about an end-of-season visit to my favourite Surrey hillside in search of late-flying butterflies. I could repeat that post almost word for word to describe my visit yesterday, in uncertain sunshine, to that same hillside. The differences were that there were rather fewer Meadow Browns and Small Heaths, and I saw two fewer Silver-Spotted Skippers (but to see any of those heat-loving sun-seekers was good going). However, the abundance of Adonis Blues was even more spectacular than last year, and the numbers of Brown Arguses were simply astonishing. Everywhere I looked was the celestial blue of male Adonises and the paradoxically silvery dazzle of Arguses in flight. A butterfly fancier of the Nabokovian type could have taken two or three of each at a single sweep on the net.
  It's chilling to recollect that Nabokov – who wrote so beautifully about the ecstatic joy of being among butterflies – had his net always in hand, and would kill any specimen he wished to keep by pinching its tiny thorax, folding back its wings and slipping it into a piece of folded card for safe keeping.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Found at the Fair

Yesterday was the day of the Environmental Fair, when wizened hippies, folkies, musoes, Lefties, Greenies and representatives of countless other tribes make their annual descent on Carshalton Park to mingle with the locals. I always rather enjoy it, but chiefly for the opportunity to scour the abundantly stocked second-hand book stalls.
  This year's finds were the jolly little threesome (all three are pleasingly compact volumes) pictured above. Sonnets from the Portuguese is a beautifully presented volume published by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York, printed in Janson types on excellent paper, with woodblock decorations on every page. La Grande Thérèse, a spin-off from Hilary Spurling's life of Matisse, tells the story of Thérèse Humbert and 'the scandal that nearly destroyed the French Third Republic'. Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is an earlier novel by the author of the extraordinary The Vet's Daughter, which I enjoyed a few years ago
  All this lot for £1.40. Not bad, eh?

Monday 27 August 2018

Modern Baptists

'He was very, very funny,' said the BBC man, wrapping up an obit piece on Neil Simon (who died yesterday), 'but he could be much deeper than that too.'
  Well, it's the standard line on comic and 'serious' writing. Only the latter can carry the 'deeper' truths and meanings. Hence the general undervaluing of comic writing and writers in our literary culture. A case in point is James Wilcox.
  I had never heard of James Wilcox until, a week or so ago, my eye alighted on one of his novels in a local charity shop. It was a Penguin Classic with the curious title of Modern Baptists. I noted a puff from Anne Tyler on the back – 'Wilcox has real genius. He is a writer to make us all feel hopeful' – and of course I bought it.
  James Wilcox, I learned, has spent his writing career accumulating rave reviews but never selling enough books to make a living. He doesn't have the kind of self-promoting chutzpah that is so important to a modern literary career; being something of a one-off, he cannot be easily classified – always a handicap; and, worst of all, he writes comic novels, and no one's going to take them seriously (except the more discerning critics and fellow writers). All the same, Modern Baptists  – his first novel, published in 1983 – found its way into Harold Bloom's The Western Canon.
  Having now read it, I'm inclined to agree with Anne Tyler: Wilcox does have a measure of comic genius. Modern Baptists is one of the funniest and most deftly executed comic novels I've come across in recent years. It's set in Louisiana (Wilcox's birthplace), but in a very particular corner of Louisiana, among the panhandle parishes that were never part of the Louisiana Purchase and so are less French and more Baptist.
  In the small town of Tula Springs, Mr Pickens, an unprepossessing middle-aged man, works at the Sonny Boy store and tries to cling on to respectability and lead a regular life. Under the impression that he's dying of a skin cancer, he invites his reprobate half-brother, F.X., to come and stay with him when he gets out of jail. This is his big mistake, the one from which all else follows, though there's another one – a silly prank he plays on a workmate, Toinette – that also has dire consequences. Toinette unfortunately falls for the handsome F.X. on sight, just as Mr Pickens finds himself falling in hopeless love with her. He is himself the equally hopeless love object of chunky checkout girl Burma LaSteele.
  From this initial scenario, the comedy grows, drawing in more characters, confusion, chaos and confrontations as it builds into a fine comic imbroglio that mingles satire, slapstick and farce, while remaining true to its characters. Modern Baptists is at the same time a vivid evocation of life in a small town in a particular corner of Louisiana, and a convincing psychological account of one man's increasingly desperate struggle to do the right thing.
  As for the title, the phrase 'modern Baptists' first occurs in a scene in which Mr Pickens (Bobby) and Burma are sitting by the canal, talking over the latest hair-raising developments in the F.X.-Toinette saga.

'"Bobby, do you think you drink too much?''
''I guess so.''
''And we're Baptists.''
''Modern Baptists can drink. It's only stuffed shirts like Dr McFlug who don't.''
''Well, I guess I"m a modern Baptist, then.'' She was still looking at the sky. ''Want to get drunk?''

The definition is expanded later, after Mr Pickens, with his life falling apart around him, decides he's going to be a preacher.

'Mr Pickens knew that once be got his preaching diploma, he would open a church for modern Baptists, Baptists who were sick to death of hell and sin being stuffed down their gullets every Sunday. There wasn't going to be any of that old-fashioned ranting and raving in Mr Pickens's church. His church would be guided by reason and logic ...'

Unsurprisingly, Mr Pickens never does get to be a preacher, though he does, on one occasion, get to rant and rave with the best of them...
  I'm glad to have found this book and discovered James Wilcox. I'll certainly be looking out for more titles by him.

Friday 24 August 2018

Creatures of Consensus

Another fine post on Stephen Pentz's wonderful First Known When Lost blog. This one is about what he identifies as 'the current form of puritanism', i.e. the 'liberal', right-on, virtue-signalling form, in all its self-righteous, repressive glory. Among the luggage unpacked in the Norman MacCaig poem he quotes we could now include Diversity, Inclusivity, Tolerance (and its mirror image Zero Tolerance), Multiculturalism, etc.
  But is it, quite, puritanism? Marilynne Robinson would say not. In her essay Puritans and Prigs, she mounts an eloquent defence of historical puritanism against the common charges levelled at it, and carefully distinguishes puritanism from another phenomenon that she thinks more characteristic of our times – priggishness.
  Noting the modern 'liberal' antipathy to morality – 'a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills' – she identifies priggishness as an irresistibly easy substitute:

we have priggishness at hand, up-to-date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, as self-persuaded as a Method actor. It looks like morality and feels like it, both to those who wield it and those that taste its lash.
True morality tends to quietism, self-interrogation and empathetic understanding of the failings of others, whereas

 priggishness makes its presence felt. And is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. 

And priggishness has now reached such a pitch that it does more than embarrass dissent – it positively forbids it, often by legal or quasi-legal means.
  The behaviour of prigs, being (in their eyes) inherently good, can only have good consequences (and if they are shown to be otherwise, the intention was still good, and that is all that counts). They are in effect blind to the consequences, and, as Robinson notes, 

People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing.

The hardest thing becomes the easiest. No wonder this new priggishness is so universally popular among the hard of thinking and the easily led.


Over on the Pooky website (fine lighting for the quality), I take a tour of Knebworth House.
Here's the link...

Wednesday 22 August 2018


Born on this day in 1862 was the great French composer Claude Debussy.
Here is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Reflets dans l'Eau, from the first volume of Images. Enjoy.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Glottal Stops and Attitude

Wherever I go, there seems to be one question on everyone's lips these days: What on earth has happened to Radio 4? Why is so much of its output becoming simply unlistenable? Including (or perhaps especially) the Today programme.
  I was having dinner with B last night, and it was only a matter of minutes before the subject came up. We agreed, I think, that elements long present in Radio 4's output (and that of the BBC in general) had now reached critical mass, a tipping point or whatever metaphor you like, with the result that a network that had once been at least listenable, and often enjoyable and rewarding, nearly all the time had suddenly become something that is all too frequently unendurable. Those long present elements are the kind of things Mrs N likes to call 'cultural Marxism' – an unexamined, cost-free mix of moral relativism and hostility/indifference to traditional institutions, along with the relentless pushing of an agenda of 'diversity', 'inclusivity', intersectional feminism (don't ask) and multiculturalism. Lately on Radio 4, the most conspicuous symptom has been an apparent drive to foist female presenters – and ideally all-female line-ups – on as many programmes as possible (and if the women are from ethnic minorities and/or don't speak RP, so much the better). There are, of course, many excellent women broadcasters, including some of my own radio favourites, but they owe their success to their excellence, not their sex. Once you embark on what is in effect ideological quota-filling, quality will inevitably suffer. For evidence of how dire the effects can be, I would refer you to the two recent series mentioned here... If the aim had been to prove that women aren't funny, they could hardly have done a better job.
  The metropolitan 'liberal' bias of the BBC – so deep-seated and all-pervasive that the BBC itself genuinely cannot perceive it – used to be something that we could put up with and easily discount. But now, as it takes on more and more of the trappings of cultural Marxism, it has spread out from its traditional strongholds – notably Woman's Hour (the continuation of the Guardian women's page by other means), topical 'comedy' and arts programmes – to encompass more and more programmes, thereby making more and more of Radio 4 unlistenable. Everywhere there are glottal stops, attitude and reflex leftism (Trump evil, all migrants good, Brexit bad, 'Europe' good, socialism moral, conservatism immoral, etc, etc.). As Jeremy Corbyn says on that brilliant Private Eye cover, 'Enough already.'
  However, all is not lost: though much is taken, much abides. Radio 4 still has some very good programmes, and continues to come up with things that are well worth hearing. Just this morning, I was listening to Reflections, in which Peter Hennessy encourages politicians to look back over their careers and reflect thereon. This can be pretty tedious stuff, but today it was Iain Duncan Smith, a man fatally lacking in charisma but one of the more decent and thoughtful politicians of recent times (and one with an interesting back story). When the conversation got round (inevitably) to Brexit, he told of meeting with a group of EU ambassadors and presenting them with a thought experiment. Could you not, he asked, entertain the notion of 'British exceptionalism'? To the bemused ambassadors, he elucidated: Britain, because of its very different history and its island status, has never felt the same way about the EU as they have, and has never made an easy fit with it or been fully committed to it. We, for example, don't feel that we owe the postwar decades of peace and prosperity to the EU (in its various incarnations), nor have we had any reason to. Still less do we feel the need for 'ever closer union'. Could the EU not recognise that we are not just another member state, one whose departure will open the floodgates for the rest; the rest will have as many reasons to stay in after Brexit as before. We have always stood apart, we are not representative but exceptional. Surely we could be accommodated in such a way as to recognise that fact and enable us to live with the EU as a friendly, co-operative but independent neighour?
  A stunned silence fell. All were aghast.
  Finally one of the ambassadors spoke up. 'Only a British citizen could say that,' be declared. Which rather made IDS's point.

Sunday 19 August 2018


On the happy day when I retired (a little over three years ago now) I had a list of things I was going to do with the new-found leisure I was fondly expecting to enjoy. Some of them I have managed, including, I'm happy to say, 'get more sleep'. However, 'stare vacantly into the middle distance' is one that I've not often achieved – in fact I probably did more of that in my working years, from sheer exhaustion / boredom. Retirement has turned out to be pretty much as busy as work was, just busy in wholly different ways, mostly familial, domestic and hedonic (under which title I include research for my book). Which is all by way of explaining why this blog tends to fall silent more often now than in my hard-pressed working days. 
  Never mind. Today I can report that, happily, the swifts have not left after all – or not all of them. Though their screams – the true sound of summer – are no longer to be heard, there are still stragglers up there. I saw one over the garden on Monday, then another over the road the next day – and today, sitting in the garden after (granddaughter) Summer's birthday party, I looked up and saw another – then another, and another, three flying together, lazily circling while drifting generally southward, to Africa. Come to think, I might well have been staring vacantly into the middle distance when I saw them – but upwards, at the sky.

Thursday 16 August 2018

The King

It was on this day in 1977 that Elvis Presley died. I remember getting off the train to work the following morning (the news reached the UK overnight) and seeing that someone had already scrawled, high up on a wall opposite the station, the words 'Are you lonesome tonight?'
  As music star deaths go, Elvis's was more unglamorous than most, and less premature (he was 42). His best work was surely behind him – and so much of the material he had recorded (not to mention the films he made) had anyway been unworthy of him. Compared to the loss, much earlier in their lives and  careers, of two other Seventies casualties, Gram Parsons and Tim Buckley, Elvis's death did not deprive the world of much musical potential. Who knows where either of those two might have taken their music if they had lived?
  However, with all that said, Elvis Presley's death felt like a great blow and a palpable loss. For a few years, Elvis simply was rock 'n' roll, and even to the end and in spite of everything, he had an aura, a magic, an almost numinous quality about him, something that singled him out from all others (and was strangely blended with an almost childlike vulnerability). Perhaps the best musical tribute paid to him – one that capture that strange and special aura – is Gillian Welch's beautiful Elvis Presley Blues (a song that links him with the American folk hero John Henry). The King is dead, long live the King.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Ain't It Grand...

Among Radio 4's more annoying features – which currently include a jaw-droppingly infantile 'history' series, with 'jokes', called Did the Victorians Ruin the World?, and the least funny topical comedy ever broadcast (and God knows it's got a lot of competition), Where's the F in News – where was I? Oh yes, and then there's the habit of larding every factual programme with snatches of music, or even a 'music bed', to the point where some become unlistenable: I recently had to turn off a perfectly decent programme on economics because the accompanying music was, as Danny Dyer would say, 'doin' me 'ead in'.
  The use of music is usually either crassly literal or entirely irrelevant – but sometimes something turns up that catches the ear, in a good way. It happened the other day with a programme about undertakers, which kept giving us snatches of a wonderfully macabre song called Ain't It Grand to Be Bloomin' Well Dead, which I knew only by title and had never heard. Sung in a broad old-fashioned cockney accent, with a sneer in every verse, it's a little gem of black, cynical, deeply misanthropic comedy. Looking it up, I discovered that it's a traditional song of obscure origin, and was popularised by the man singing it on Radio 4 – Leslie Sarony! Yes, Leslie Sarony, the jolly songster who gave us such jaunty classics as Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors and I Lift Up My Finger (And I Say Tweet Tweet), not to mention Jollity Farm. And here's something for fact fans: Sarony, who was also an actor and busy to the end of his long life, played Uncle Stavely in the final series of Peter Tinniswood's fondly remembered I Didn't Know You Cared. 'I heard that! Pardon?'

Monday 13 August 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 2

A day devoted to wrestling with technology – fending off an online scam bombardment and trying to get my new printer working. After an hour and ten minutes on the phone with a helpful, if sometimes bemused, operative, I do at least have a working printer. Long may it last (and thereby buck my past record with printers).
  On the upside, my spirits were lifted by the sight of a belated swift circling desultorily over the garden – just when I thought I'd seen my last of the year.
  But to the matter in hand: the novels of Auberon Waugh. I have now read his second, Path of Dalliance, published in 1963. A kind of modern picaresque, it's a less ambitious affair than his debut, The Foxglove Saga – looser, more relaxed, even a little baggy (it could have shed thirty or forty pages). But it's every bit as funny – which is rather the point with comic novels, though sometimes you'd never know it – and it's written throughout in Waugh's beautifully managed prose, with never a dead sentence.
  Like The Foxglove Saga, Path of Dalliance begins at Cleeve, the Catholic school, whence it follows several ex-pupils out into the world – chief among them, Jamey Sligger, an ineffectual, slightly priggish (but in practice often amoral) young innocent who hasn't much of a clue about the outside world. He is off to Godolphin Hall, a highly exclusive Oxford college where he is to share rooms with his rich Cleeve friend Guy Frazer-Robinson. Jamey finds Oxford life as bewildering as everything else, and blunders through it in much the same way as he will blunder (after his inevitable sending down) through his first foray into the world of work – as a journalist, for heaven's sake.
  Waugh's satirising of student life at Oxford – the endless talking (in lieu of doing), the intrigues and snobbery, the posing, the casual cruelty, the abortive love affairs and, in particular, the mad world of student activism – is spot-on. It's striking how little the idiocies of the student left have changed in the half century since Path of Dalliance. though perhaps their methods are rather less insanely devious than the futile plots hatched by the activists of yesteryear. The fellow students who cross Jamey's path are a mixture of university types and more convincingly drawn individuals – and the latter category also includes Mrs Price-Williams, principal of St Rachel's, and her husband, a philosophy don with infantile urges. Later there is some satirising of the modern art market which is rather more, er, broad brush, but Waugh's picture of life in newspaper journalism in the days when the print unions still ruled is much more successful.
 As he blunders through Oxford, and for some while after, Jamey remains under the influence of Cleeve, sending regular reports to one of the Brothers – and of his monstrous, endlessly embarrassing mother, who is perhaps the strongest character in the book. By the end of the story Jamey is, perhaps, beginning to break free and grow up, but you wouldn't want to bet on it. Path of Dalliance ends back at Cleeve with a reunion of old boys and others. It's a satisfying and immensely enjoyable read, and surely deserves to be reprinted. My copy was reissued by Robin Clark, along with the other novels, in the Eighties – and that was a long time ago.

Sunday 12 August 2018

Quid Pro Crow

Never mind the Boris-Burqa row, here's a real news story – a team of trained rooks is being deployed to pick up litter, and generally spruce things up, at a French theme park. There's an uncharacteristically concise account of this heartening development on the BBC News website. While you're there, do follow the links to 'Crow with Yorkshire accent filmed' and 'Police rescue man from baby squirrel'.
Meanwhile, this is surely an occasion to rehearse Kay Ryan's great crow poem...

Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

Friday 10 August 2018

Journey by Moonlight

Having limbered up with The Pendragon Legend, I last week read Antal Szerb's acknowledged masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight. This one is a very different kind of novel, but the tone of voice – playful, quicksilver, endlessly ironical – is very similar. Szerb has a gift for making his material at once deadly serious and not serious at all (is this a Hungarian thing?). Journey by Moonlight chronicles what is in effect a catastrophic mental breakdown, but it is closer to a fast-moving, unpredictable, often funny adventure or escape story than to a psychoanalytical study. Szerb's is, decidedly, a comic imagination – and a very distinctive one.
  Journey by Moonlight has the kind of opening paragraph that defies you not to keep on reading:

'On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back alleys.'

Mihaly, we learn, is on his first visit to Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon. He has travelled a good deal, but always avoided Italy:

'Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.'

But now he was married, on his honeymoon, so 'now, he reasoned, there was nothing to fear from the danger Italy represented'. Until, that is, he felt the irresistible pull of those Venetian back alleys and, unplanned and unannounced, spent the night wandering in a daze among them. This is the beginning of Mihaly's 'journey by moonlight'.
  Trying to explain this nocturnal fugue to Erzsi, his long-suffering wife, he tells the story of a phase in his boyhood when he came under the spell of a group of free-spirited friends, dominated by the beautiful, death-obsessed Eva and Tamas Ulpius. It is in that luridly intense period of Mihaly's past that the key to all that follows resides, and it is to that phase of his life that Mihaly's flight from present reality repeatedly returns him. When one of those friends of his youth, the unreliable Janos, turns up in person, Mihaly is shaken and knows he cannot carry on with his life as it is. Soon he leaves Erzsi behind by half-consciously boarding the wrong train and taking off on his own, with no idea of where he's going. His journey takes him from one Italian city to another, and to various remoter locations, guided only by hints from Janos, who keeps turning up wherever Mihaly finds himself. But can the troubled Mihaly ever find a way of breaking free of the past that haunts him?
  That bald (and very incomplete) synopsis makes Journey by Moonlight sounds a lot more solemn than it is – indeed solemnity is a note that Szerb's writing never strikes. Reading him is always, for all sorts of reasons, fun; he's a great storyteller, and Journey by Moonlight is a real page-turner. It is also one of those books that is, I think, liable to haunt you for a long while after you've put it down.

  Szerb was a glittering star of the Hungarian literary firmament, the author of three major scholarly surveys of English, Hungarian and world literature, as well as the novels and numerous short stories. But he was Jewish (the son of assimilated Jews, and a baptised Catholic), and therefore vulnerable in the Hungary of the times. In 1944 he was removed from his professorship at the University of Szegad and sent to a forced labour camp. Friends and admirers offered to save him with falsified papers, but he turned them down, wishing to share in the common fate of his people. He was beaten to death in 1945, at the age of 43, and buried in a mass grave.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Giles Cooper

Today is the centenary of the birth of Giles Cooper – a name that might still mean something to lovers of radio drama (if they're of a certain age). Cooper was a prolific dramatist who wrote for both radio and TV – among much else, he adapted Simenon's Maigret novels for the hugely successful TV series starring pipe-smoking Rupert Davies. Perhaps his best known radio play was Unman, Wittering and Zigo, which also became a TV drama and a feature film (screenplay by Simon Raven).
  Cooper, who was born into a landed Anglo-Irish family, confounded family expectations by enrolling in drama school, but before much longer he was conscripted into the Army and sent to Burma, where he fought for three years in the jungle in that most gruelling of campaigns (see George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here). After the war Cooper worked as an actor (encountering Kenneth Williams and Harold Pinter in rep), then moved into script editing and playwriting. He died at the age of 48 after, bizarrely, falling from a train as it passed through Surbiton. He had been attending the Guild of Dramatists' Christmas dinner at the Garrick and was perhaps excessively refreshed. The coroner's verdict was misadventure.
  Happily his name lived on for some years after his death, in the shape of the Giles Cooper Awards for radio drama, jointly sponsored by the BBC and the publishers Methuen. These awards ran from 1978 to 1992, and winners included Tom Stoppard, William Trevor, Fay Weldon, Anthony Minghella, Rose Tremain and bloody Harold Pinter. I remember being at several of the (pretty minimal) awards ceremonies back in the days when I was writing about radio for the late lamented Listener. A pity there isn't a prestigious award for radio drama these days – it might raise the standard.

Wednesday 8 August 2018


And I got back to find that the swifts have flown – already (but then it always feels like 'already'). I thought they looked as if they were getting ready to go when we left for Dieppe, but was hoping they might hang on a little longer. After all, they got off to a belated start, not settling down until mid-May – but, like the butterflies, they recovered to enjoy a prodigious season, thanks to weeks of warm sunshine. I hadn't seen so many over our house in years.
  Susan Hill, writing in the Spectator, reports a complete absence of swifts in her neck of the woods (North Norfolk?) until, one July evening, they suddenly arrived – 'a few, then dozens, soaring, diving, swooping, crossbows in the blue sky'. Since then, she claims, she has done nothing but watch them, and she urges the rest of us to 'gaze while you can. Neglect everything. These are not birds, they are angels.' I hope they are still with her.

Back from La Canicule

Blue skies and unbroken sunshine meant that this Dieppe jaunt was – unusually in a part of France not famous for brilliant weather – something of a beach holiday, and all the more enjoyable for that. However, I did find time to visit the two great churches and check on progress. The restoration of St Jacques continues at an arthritic snail's pace – but at St Remy things are really moving, with impressive progress on the decayed Northern facade, most of which is now convincingly restored.
  This visit also added a word to my French vocabulary – 'canicule', meaning heatwave. This word was everywhere, all over the papers and television, where, in addition to alarming 'scorchio' weather reports, there were endless, very French discussions of the implications of 'La Canicule' for the future of the planet, etc.
  And then it was back to England, and to endless, very English discussion of a subject encapsulated in another single word – Burqa. The brouhaha over Boris Johnson's 'letterbox' remark – in the course of a piece arguing for the 'right' to wear the burqa – seems peculiarly fatuous and confected, even by the standards of such brouhahas. And nobody seems to have pointed out that it's based on an erroneous use of words: it is not the burqa but the niqab that lends the wearer the fetching letterbox look Boris remarks on. The burqa offers its wearer complete insulation from the lustful gazes of men by covering the entire body, eyes included. You don't come across it too often over here, but I've seen women shopping in the full burqa on Kensington High Street. They order this matter better in France, where the burqa is banned.

Thursday 2 August 2018

To D***** Again

No prizes for guessing which French port-resort I'm heading for tomorrow. Mais oui – it's Dieppe again. In what seems set to become an annual tradition, Mrs N and I are spending a few days there with son, daughter-in-law and ever adorable granddaughter. There might be the occasional dispatch; if not, normal service will be resumed some time next week.

Wednesday 1 August 2018

The Welsh Claude

Born on this day in 1714 was the Welsh painter Richard Wilson, who turned out lots of fine restful landscapes, suffused with the spirit of Claude Lorrain and the Dutch landscapists, and reflecting his early experience of painting in Italy. Wilson was a rarity in his time for concentrating so heavily on landscape painting – and he seems to have been the first to notice that his native Wales had a few landscapes that were worth painting (that's Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris, above).
  Wilson, Ruskin opined, 'paints in a manly way, and occasionally reaches exquisite tones of colour'. Ruskin also acknowledged that 'the Welsh Claude' had a significant influence on his hero Turner. Good to know he painted in a manly way.