Monday 30 September 2019

Another Bump in the Writer's Road

How fondly I look back on those happy, carefree days when I was still writing my book. It's been an uphill struggle ever since – first, getting it into book shape and print ready, and now, having achieved that, trying to get Amazon to do the heavy lifting for me. Despite being an all too frequent Amazon buyer, I cannot, it seems, become an Amazon seller. To establish my identity (as if they didn't know it already) I had to supply scans of my passport and a bank statement. Easy enough, you might think, but each attempt was rejected with the words 'could not verify' – and now, it seems, my time is up. I had a thoroughly discourteous message today telling me I could not be an Amazon seller, and any further communication on the subject would elicit no response on their part.
  So, what do I do now? I have the books, a hundred-plus of them, and it looks as if I'm going to have to become a freelance warehouseman if I want to shift them. Of course I've no idea what the demand is likely to be – I could end up with half of them unsold, in which case I wouldn't have much of a problem shipping the sold ones myself. But if there's a more substantial demand, I could be looking at a time-consuming and rather laborious job (might have to refresh my fork-lift truck skills). Are there any alternatives? Could I get anyone else to take these books off my hands and flog them for me (for a percentage)?
 Whatever happens, I'm doing nothing just yet. It can wait till after I get back from France (I'm off again on Wednesday), and then I'll announce the book to the waiting world. Meanwhile, if anyone's got any bright ideas, they'd be very welcome...

Sunday 29 September 2019

When Kenny Met Lenny

Last night I watched a long and richly depressing documentary on BBC2 – Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, made by semi-gonzo film-maker Nick Broomfield. As the name suggests, its focus was the relationship between L. Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian girl he met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. In a way, it's quite a sweet story about a loving relationship that lasted, off and on (mostly off), through both their lives, and resulted in some great songs. However, the film also made clear that the free-form hedonism of life among the expats on Hydra in the Sixties took a pretty terrible toll: less on the men (unless they succumbed, as some did, to the drugs and booze) than on the women and, especially, the children. Among the casualties was Marianne's own son (by writer Axel Jensen), who at the age of eight was dumped at A.S. Neill's madhouse of a boarding school, Summerhill, and who spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions. 
  The poet Kenneth Koch, however, came through unscathed. He spent some while on Hydra in the Sixties (see 'The Departure from Hydra', 'With Janice', etc), where his path inevitably crossed with that of Leonard Cohen, whose later rise to fame as a singer surprised and bemused Koch. Cohen later suggested that Koch too should try his hand at being a singer. In an interview, Koch ruefully recalled the occasion:

'I met Leonard Cohen on the island of Hydra in Greece where Janice [K's wife] and Katherine age five and I had gone for a summer vacation. And we became very good friends. We travelled also to Turkey together, to Istanbul. I liked Leonard a lot and so did Janice. We saw each other then a few times after that, it was nice and intense, but never more than a day. After some years, we were already living on West 4th Street, Katherine must have been ten by then. I ran into him on a bus. “Leonard!” I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Don’t you know? I’m a singer.” He had been a poet and a novelist. I got him to tell me all about it. I invited him over to our place and he told me I should become a singer too. I should sing all my poems. It was wonderful because you met lots of women and made a lot of money and you got to travel around and it was very satisfying to sing your poems. I said, “That’s great, Leonard,” and of course I was interested. I said, “Leonard, I can’t sing.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can’t carry a tune.” He said, “That’s good, that means no one else will be able to sing your stuff.” And I said, “Well okay, but also I don’t play an instrument.” He said, “You can probably learn — let’s try.” There wasn’t anything that made noise except a vacuum cleaner. I plugged in the vacuum cleaner and I thought I’d be more in the mood to sing if I stood up on a chair. He said, “Sing one of your poems.” I said, “There’s no music to any of my poems.” He said, “That’s okay.” I sang, with intermittent noise from the vacuum cleaner, “You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse” in a hillbilly voice.
Leonard interrupted me after a few bars I think they’re called — “You’re not serious.” Well there I was standing up on a chair and playing a vacuum cleaner. I stopped playing the vacuum cleaner and tried to be serious. He said, “I don’t believe you. Who are you singing to?” “Leonard, I’m singing to you, there’s no one else here.” “No — who in the audience. Who do you want to go to bed with after the show? Who are you addressing? Who do you want to like you?” “Twenty-two year old women.” “No. Everybody wants 22-year-old women. Sing to somebody else. You know who I sing to? 14-year-olds and 40-year olds.” I’m not sure those are the exact numbers — something like 14 and 40. I said, “Okay, I’ll try to sing to 14 yr olds.” But trying to sing my poems? It didn’t work too well. I said I’d try. At my age how can I get started? I can’t carry a tune, I don’t play an instrument, and I’ve never sung before. I was already 40 at least by then. “There’s one way you can help me.” And he said, “Anything, what is it?” “Are you going to have tributes on your sleeve, put me on the record jacket. Say, ‘Even the legendary Kenny has come out of retirement to praise Leonard Cohen.’” I figured that people who respond to this kind of thing are not exactly scholarly. He promised he would put this on the record cover. Months went by. I never heard from Leonard. I did receive from him this big rectangle, his record. On the cover was this girl (I don’t know if she was 14 or 40) rising from flames, somewhere in between, and on the back was Leonard, his lyrics, and no tributes. And no Kenny, and that was the end of another career, another attempt to become rich.'

Friday 27 September 2019

Sounds of the Suburbs

The soundscape of suburbia has changed a lot in the course of my sentient years. More noise from cars, obviously, and planes (helicopters, too, around here), and things like electronic alarms and garden power tools that didn't even exist a few decades ago. Also the lack of whistling on the street, the clinking of milk bottles, the clop of horses' hooves... But equally striking – and, for the most part, equally deleterious – has been the change in the sounds of suburban nature. Those conquistador corvids now are everywhere, and their calls are far from melodious: the harsh cackles of magpies and jays, the raucous cawing of crows, the... actually I'll let the jackdaws off, I rather like their way of talking. All of these are birds that used to live in the country and rarely venture into town, but now they are dominant suburban species, and in terms of decibels exceeded only by the flocks of Ring Necked Parakeets that are constantly flying over, squawking at ear-splitting volume. These birds were, until quite recently, confined to a few colonies of escapees – or to the bird cages where they belong. Now they are everywhere, at least in southeast England. And another bird that in my boyhood was unheard of but is now ubiquitous, the Collared Dove, can hardly be commended for its (incongruously grating) call.  A good thing we still have the reliable cooing of wood pigeons all through the summer and beyond, and blackbirds singing beautifully into the evening. And one newcomer to suburbia, the now very abundant Goldfinch, makes a pretty, silvery sound.
  Overall, however, it's been a story of the loss of garden songbirds and their melodies – chaffinch, bullfinch, greenfinch, song thrush – and their replacement by cacophonous corvids and other makers of suburban noise. And what makes matters infinitely worse in my garden is the hideous din kicked up by those verminous tree rats we call Grey Squirrels. It took me a while to isolate this sound – I thought it was some peculiarly nasty variant of jackdaw or jay – but now I know: it's the 'squirrels' expressing their implacable aggression with their narrow but relentless, and relentlessly ugly, repertoire of angry chittering and furious repetitive scolding, on and on and on. If ever we needed another reason to hate these hugely destructive pests, here it is.
 But let's end on a positive note. A suburban bird we still have, thank heavens, is the swift (whose screaming call is not pretty, but has a rare evocative beauty all its own), and there's an excellent, and uncharacteristically short, piece on these wonderful birds in the London Review of Books. Here's the link... 

Wednesday 25 September 2019

Robert Hunter RIP

Sorry to hear of another Grateful Dead death – lyricist Robert Hunter, who died on Monday, aged 78. Hunter (who, according to Wikipedia, was born Robert Burns) wrote lyrics that were sometimes not easily distinguishable from drug-soused drivel (did Dark Star really need words, let alone those ones?). But – and it's a big but – on the other hand – and it's a big hand – Hunter gifted the world the glorious Ripple, and Brokedown Palace, Box of Rain, Casey Jones, Friend of the Devil, Sugar Magnolia, Uncle John's Band, and this anthem of its strange times...


I met some efts the other day. They're young newts, at that stage in life when they look like large, slim tadpoles, but with feathery external gills as well as little fore and hind legs. We came across them in the local nature reserve, where a conservationist was doing some pond dipping, netting a wonderful array of wriggly little aquatic creatures, including freshwater shrimps, tiny fish, damsel fly nymphs, leeches (which don't wriggle but have their own, rather sinister way of moving) – and, yes, efts. Apparently this is the accepted zoological term for larval newts, though it used to be what everybody called adult newts, until the word started to die out some time in the 19th century. I was quite sure it occurred in Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth?), but no, it seems not. One dictionary cites the use of 'eft' in the unlikely setting of A Spot of Ink (Une Tache d'Encre), the autobiography of the early 20th-century French novelist René Bazin (presumably in translation) –
'From time to time out of the depths of those submerged thickets an eft darts up.'
A rather lovely sentence, I think.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

McEwan Goes Satirical

Our greatest living writer, Ian McEwan, is rightly famed for his legendary sense of humour and his wholly original and profound take on contemporary politics, so naturally one can hardly wait to read his new 'satirical novella' about Brexit (he's against it, I was startled to learn). It's called The Cockroach, and its big idea is a reversal of Kafka's Metamorphosis: a cockroach wakes up one morning and finds that he's been transformed into – wait for it... – the Prime Minister of pre-Brexit Britain (a 'modern Pericles', no less – who could he be thinking of?)! Only it's not Brexit that's dividing the country but the deep division between Reversalists and Clockwisers. Reversalists believe in a transparently absurd economic theory in which employees pay employers, retailers pay people to take stuff away, cops hand speeding motorists £50, etc – and, guess what, they've won a referendum! What to do?
Needless to say, this great publishing event earned McEwan an admiring interview on the Today programme. Happily I missed most of it, but heard the great man mocking the notion of sovereignty, which he clearly did not understand. No surprise there. 

Monday 23 September 2019


Born on this day in 1865 was the painter Suzanne Valadon. She is an intriguing figure, who came into the art world by the unusual route of being an artist's model – that's her in Renoir's famous Dance at Bougival (above). Born into poverty, Valadon began modelling at the age of 15, and at 18 gave birth to a son who himself became a successful painter, Maurice Utrillo. She never attended an academy but learnt how to paint by observing the methods of the artists for whom she posed – especially Degas, who, impressed by her early drawings and paintings, befriended and encouraged her.
  Like her near namesake Felix Vallotton, she was never seriously part of any school, and her work resists easy classification.
Her nudes and portraits, painted with a clear strong line and the special insights of a former model, are strikingly honest and direct, if sometimes awkward and  rarely elegant.
 She also painted some lovely still life and flower paintings, drew well, and was prolific throughout a long career.
Valadon, whose life is notably well documented, has long been a subject of interest to feminist historians, so it's rather surprising there hasn't been a full-scale exhibition of her work in London (there have been many in Paris). Maybe one for the Royal Academy?

Sunday 22 September 2019

At Last

Delighted to hear that P.G. Wodehouse, our greatest comic writer of the 20th century, finally has a memorial stone in the South Quire Aisle of Westminster Abbey, where the dead poets and other creative types congregate. As with Philip Larkin, it's been a long wait – in Larkin's case because of a silly fuss about the attitudes revealed in his biography and letters, in Wodehouse's case because of an equally silly, but very damaging, fuss about some broadcasts the author foolishly made for the Nazi occupiers of France in 1941. It took many years before the absurdity and injustice of claiming that Wodehouse was in any way a Nazi sympathiser became fully apparent, though many tried to keep the slur alive long after the war.
 At the unveiling ceremony in Westminster Abbey on Friday, Alexander Armstrong (who also gave the address – he's President of the P.G. Wodehouse Society) read from The Code of the Woosters, the novel that features the appalling Roderick Spode and his paramilitary Black Shorts. There were also readings from The Mating Season (one of the very best) and a Blandings story, and performances of a couple of Wodehouse songs. One of the most enjoyable unveilings, by the sound of it – and a nice, jolly plaque.

Saturday 21 September 2019

From Mann to Mog

Browsing in my latest charity shop purchase – 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies ('The International Bestseller', translated from the German) – I came across a name that rang a surprising bell.
 1913 is, as the name more than suggests, one of those books that paints a picture of a single year – in this case month by month, in a series of little vignettes: it begins, strikingly, with the 12-year-old Louis Armstrong being arrested in the first seconds of the new year for firing a stolen revolver. Later in January we find Thomas Mann reluctantly attending the first night of his play Fiorenza, which he fears will be a debacle, not least because he knows that 'Germany's greatest critic and vainest popinjay' will be in the audience, sharpening his pen and waiting to get his revenge on the rival who stole his love object, Katia Pringsheim, now Mrs Thomas Mann. The name of the critic and popinjay is Alfred Kerr – and that name was familiar to me because he is the same Alfred Kerr whose daughter Judith, the writer and illustrator who died earlier this year, wrote about him in her semi-autobiographical Out of the Hitler Time trilogy (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, etc).
 What is surprising is that Judith Kerr's father was established as 'Germany's greatest critic' as early as 1913 – but he was then already in his mid-40s (born 1867). He was over 50 when he married for the first time, a much younger wife whom he lost in the influenza epidemic of 1918. He married Judith's mother, the distinguished musician Julia Weissman, in 1920, and in 1933 he wisely fled Germany to escape imminent arrest by the Nazis. Eventually the whole family ended up in England, where Alfred and Julia's son Michael rose to became a prominent English lawyer, and their daughter Judith became, well, Judith Kerr, author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog books, and an English national treasure. The time span from Alfred Kerr's birth to Judith Kerr's death was a remarkable 152 years.

Friday 20 September 2019


Oddly enough, The Ballad of Pekham Rye has, like Praeterita, an unexpectedly beautiful closing paragraph:

'Humphrey drove off with Dixie. She said, "I feel as if I've been twenty years married instead of two hours."
 He thought this a pity for a girl of eighteen. But it was a sunny day for November, and, as he drove swiftly past the Rye, he saw the children playing there and the women coming home from work with their shopping-bags, the Rye for an instant looking like a cloud of green and gold, the people seeming to ride upon it, as you might say there was another world than this.'

It was on Peckham Rye that the eight-year-old William Blake saw 'a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings spangling every bough like stars'.

Thursday 19 September 2019

Ruskin's Fireflies

'I walked with her to Camberwell Green, and we said good-bye rather sorrowfully at the corner of New Road; and that possibility of meek happiness vanished for ever...'
That's John Ruskin (writing in Praeterita), and I came across the quotation in the unlikely setting of Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It's quoted, a propos of nothing in particular, by the devilish protagonist, Dougal Douglas, who has landed a 'job' at not one but two local firms, each of them desperate to have 'an Arts man' on the payroll to shake things up and inject some fresh thinking. Dougal does no work for either of them, but spends his time on what he calls 'social research' into the neighbourhood, which consists largely of swanning around charming (and sometimes alarming) the locals and sowing trouble. He is, you might say, an early adopter of the now commonplace 'bullshit job'. But he does do some reading along the way – hence the Ruskin quote.
  The girl Ruskin walked to Camberwell Green with was one Charlotte Withers, and she was but one of several with whom a potential romance was nipped in the bud by Ruskin's excessively controlling parents, who dominated his life for many years. 'Charlotte Withers,' Ruskin recalls, 'was a fragile, fair, freckled sensitive slip of a girl about sixteen; graceful in an unfinished and small wild-flower sort of a way, extremely intelligent, affectionate, wholly right-minded, and mild in piety. An altogether sweet and delicate creature of ordinary sort, not pretty, but quite pleasant to see, especially if her eyes were looking your way, and her mind with them. We got to like each other in a mildly confidential way in the course of a week ... If my father and mother had chosen to keep her a month longer, we should have fallen quite melodiously and quietly in love; and they might have given me an excellently pleasant little wife. Charlotte went away at the week's end, when her father was ready for her. I walked with her to Camberwell Green...'
  Praeterita (which begins with a chapter titled The Springs of Wandel, of which the first sentence is 'I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school...') is the most extraordinary autobiography. In a long essay on that invaluable website The Victorian Web, Elizabeth Helsinger describes it as 'a strangely self-destructive autobiography ... evidently written by a man who did not like himself'. True enough, and as an autobiography it conforms to no known pattern. Though there is recognisable structure to the earlier parts in particular, it does not, as we expect an autobiography to do, follow the life of a person through its succeeding stages, tracing the principal events; what it presents is less a person than a particular sensibility – a sensibility, what's more, that cares for and responds to places (and of course to art) rather than people. Ruskin entirely omits major events and major figures from his life, focusing rather on some of the lesser characters and following curious byways. The narrative, such as it is, becomes more and more diffuse and meandering as it nears the end, perhaps as a result of Ruskin's failing mental powers – but he pulls it all together to give his sui generis autobiography a final paragraph of quite astonishing beauty. In it he recalls his last visit to Siena, with his American friend and correspondent Charles Eliot Norton, and he remembers the fireflies...
'Fonte Branda I last saw with Charles Norton, under the same arches where Dante saw it. We drank of it together, and walked that evening on the hills above, where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly gold sky calm behind the gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit," and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars.'


Phew. I've been rather tied up these past few days, getting my 'eagerly awaited' book all checked over and ready for the printers. It's been a long and predictably rocky road, but I got there in the end. I even managed to do it all myself, but for one thing – putting together the elements of the cover (I'd designed it, but couldn't for the life of me work out how to make it ready for the printers, so I delegated that bit to them, and it looks fine). So, at this rate of progress, the book should be published and available (from Amazon, I'm afraid – I'm offloading all that side of things) in early October, DV.
 Meanwhile, with that taken care of, I shall resume proper (or improper) blogging very soon.

Monday 16 September 2019

Sixty Years On

It was on (or around) this date 60 years ago that I arrived, a tenderly reared lad of but nine summers, in the suburban demiparadise where I have been securely rooted, off and on, ever since.
  My mother had secured me a place in the local state primary school, though the headmaster (a large plump man who, I noted, kept a hacksaw in his study) was clearly reluctant to swell the population of his already bursting-at-the-seams institution. I joined a class of 50-plus coevals, and soon discovered that I had a very strange curriculum to contend with. Having until now been educated at a cosy little prep school (whose uniform, embarrassingly, I was still wearing), I was used to learning Lat, Fr, Geog, Hist, Geom, Algy, ect, ect (as Nigel Molesworth would put it), but now I discovered that the most important thing, the one thing, the sine qua non, was to master the approved Surrey County Council italic script. And so a titanic struggle ensued, involving the purchase of a pen with a kinky nib to cope with my curious lefthanded grip, and much laborious copying out of words and passages. Eventually I was able to produce an acceptable semblance of S.C.C. italic and could embark on this next, rather undemanding phase of my education. 
 The huge class was presided over by a formidable woman of ample build and mighty bosom who, with the aid of a weaponised wooden ruler, singlehandedly maintained order and, greatly to her credit, managed to teach us to a level that, in some areas (grammar, punctuation, spelling) was about on a par with today's undergraduates. To my horror, I discovered that this strange curriculum also included, of all things, Country Dancing (Strip the Willow, etc). Such was my complete ineptitude in this essential life skill that I was finally allowed to sit it out and man the Surrey County Council gramophone.
 I passed through all this, as through just about everything else in life, in a state of utter bewilderment mingled with ear-burning embarrassment, but I went along with it, having no choice. And there were compensations – not least, Gurls! Yes, half my fellow pupils belonged, I was delighted to see, to a sex with which, until then, I had had all too little contact. I plunged into this new world of boys and girls with alacrity, making new friends of the opposite sex (we didn't have genders in those days, except in Lat, Fr, ect) and enjoying many a spirited game of kiss chase in the playground.
 But back to my first day. When the final bell rang out, I fell in with a little gang of boys who constituted a loose-knit 'tree climbing club' devoted to climbing all the trees – from veteran Spanish chestnuts to half-grown newcomers – in Carshalton Park. They knew every tree, had given names to many of them, and had worked out just how to climb each one and to what height you could go before things got really dangerous. They also knew where every bird's nest was (including, in those days, owls' nests) and where to find frogs, newts and other attractive wildlife. On a mellow sunny September afternoon, this all seemed to me like a little taste of paradise, and I arrived home at the end of that day happy to discover that I'd fallen on my feet. I just loved this new place.
 And, 60 years on, here I still am.

Saturday 14 September 2019

Good News (for now) on Butterflies

Like many, I'm listening to Radio 4's Today programme less and less (and generally avoiding all news programmes, especially on TV), but early yesterday morning I happened to catch a pleasantly surprising item on Today – a report on the state of the nation's butterfly population that was actually upbeat in tone. What was still more surprising was that a spokeswoman for those dismal Jimmies at Butterfly Conservation was in the studio sounding positively cheery and delivering only good news – not a word about threatened species or 'climate change'. What occasioned all this good cheer was the news that this summer has been a Painted Lady summer, with a huge influx of these beauties swelling the numbers of butterflies being seen and contributing to a very heartening Big Butterfly Count result. John Humphrys, who was doing the interview, seemed very happy about it all, and also seized the opportunity to launch a little tirade against people replacing their lawns with Astro Turf (quite right too).
  In my inbox this morning was the Butterfly Conservation report that led to all this jollity – and it is indeed an unusually upbeat document, which arrived with the label 'A Smashing Summer' (not the kind of language BC often uses). The picture it presents is actually quite mixed, with, for example, 'Whites on the Wain' (to quote a bizarre crosshead) – but there is more than enough to justify the 'smashing summer' label. No doubt by the time all the numbers are in, Butterfly Conservation will have found ample contrary evidence to justify their traditional yearly jeremiad.
 My own butterfly summer – which has indeed been pretty 'smashing' (37 of Surrey's 41 species spotted) – continued this afternoon with a stroll around Belmont Downs, where there was a fine abundance of butterflies. Most of these, admittedly, were late Meadown Browns, flapping around with a decidedly fin de saison air (though one pair had mustered the energy for a bit of lepidopteral how's your father, as we scientists call it). But I also saw several pretty little Brown Arguses and Small Heaths, a few late Common Blues and the odd Speckled Wood. Earlier in the day I'd also seen several Red Admirals, a Peacock and a lovely, burnished Small Copper. So yes, a good season – and it's not over yet...

Friday 13 September 2019


Yesterday I finally visited the Felix Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy, something I'd been meaning to do ever since it opened back in May, but you know how it is...
I only knew Vallotton from a few of his better known woodcuts, like the gorgeous La Paresse

I didn't know his much darker (in every way) woodcuts, like this one (L'Argent) from the series Intimités

Or Vallotton's lively Parisian street scenes, like this one, Le Coup de Vent

This exhibition has a fine display of his woodcuts, which make it clear that he was one of the very best woodcut artists of his time.
As for Vallotton's paintings, the only one I was familiar with was this strangely disturbing image of a little girl chasing a ball –

I had much to discover, and this superb exhibition opened my eyes to a remarkable artist, one who never settled long into any of the art-historical pigeonholes available – which is surely one reason he is not better known (this, I think, is the first major exhibition of his work in the UK). He vigorously resisted Impressionism, and, although he was one of the group that called itself Les Nabis (which included Bonnard and – an artist much closer to Vallotton in spirit – Vuillard), he seems always to have stood a little apart, as in this awkward, semi-parodic group portrait (he's standing at the left) –

The Swiss-born Vallotton began in thrall to the sharp naturalistic precision of the painters of the Northern Renaissance, as can be seen in this early, very accomplished self-portrait, painted at the age of twenty –

It shows too in such crisp and forceful paintings as La Malade, an early domestic interior –

Look at the play of reflections in the bottles on the bedside table. This is virtuoso stuff –

But Vallotton had soon developed a much looser style, dependent on flat masses of colour and blurring out of detail, that clearly owed something to Vuillard, especially when he turned his attention to domestic interiors –

Here, as so often with Vallotton, what looks at first sight like a cosy domestic scene becomes something rather unsettling – strangely disturbing indeed – as one absorbs it. This one shows his wife Gabrielle (a wealthy widow, to whom he owed his financial security) and her young daughter, but it is emotionally flat, and those reds (his best colour, along with green) are almost oppressive.
Here is another faintly menacing interior scene, of a woman looking for something (what?) in a cupboard –

  Vallotton's later career was dominated by his adoration of his artistic idol, Ingres, and his growing fascination with the possibilities of the nude. The trouble with Ingres, IMHO, is that he was a phenomenally brilliant painter, but a very bad model for imitation, not least because nobody could paint the kind of things he painted half as well as he did. Vallotton's austere Ingres-influenced nudes seem to me rather to prove the point, and their effect is generally chilling. However, among Vallotton's nudes, is also this extraordinary work, La Blanche et La Noire, clearly painted in response to Manet's Olympia. Whatever is going on here, this is definitely not a portrayal of a white mistress and her attentive black handmaiden. In the original, it's a large, powerful and deeply enigmatic picture  –

Late is his career (he died in 1925), Vallotton also painted stylised, pared-down landscapes, composed more in his head than en plein air. This one, of sandbanks on the Loire, is a good example...

And he painted some glorious, semi-abstract sunsets. This one really has to be seen in the original, and close up. It's a glowing, vivid painting that seems to engulf you as you get closer to it –

This is a terrific exhibition that I found quite fascinating from beginning to end, with no trace of the gallery fatigue that so often overcomes me well before the last room. It was, for once, a real journey of discovery. The exhibition is on until 29 September, so there's still plenty of time to catch it.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

A House of Many Mansions

I've just finished reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House, a novel that tends to get overlooked even by her admirers. It has been described as 'fragmentary and inconclusive', 'broken' in structure, psychologically ambivalent and (more pompously) 'morally and psychologically unachieved'. All those supposed faults are, it seems to me, the actual strengths of a book that never spells anything out, never (as it were) makes up its mind, but lays out the elements of what it is made of and invites us to put them together ourselves. And there is a fine abundance of elements for a book so small in scale – Professor St Peter's inability to leave the old house where he has lived the most productive part of his life and move into the smart new one; his daughters and the sons-in-law, representatives of the modern world, who are now the focus of his wife's passion; Tom Outland, the gifted and beloved should-have-been son-in-law who died in the war, leaving behind a fortune that has proved a deeply troubling legacy; Outland's first-person narrative of the discovery of an ancient cave city and a lost culture in the Southwest desert (shades of The Song of the Lark); the Professor's reflections on the course of his life, on science, home (a great Cather theme), civilisation and the modern world...
 It's easy to read, or rather deconstruct, the novel as composed of unresolved oppositions, mostly revolving around the modern world of 1920s America and older civilisations, older values, each element embodied in one or more characters. Which is fine, if that's how you want to read, but personally I'd sooner enjoy (the crucial word) this novel in the way you might enjoy a three-movement sonata, or a painting – or rather a set of paintings, domestic interiors contrasted with the vibrant plein air of Tom Outland's narrative, the central section of the book that some blame for breaking the novel's structure. Which, it seems to me, makes about as much sense as saying the middle movement of a sonata breaks its structure. The Professor's House is a richly rewarding book, replete with far more than appears on the surface (as always with Cather, it's 'the heat under the simple words') – a book to be read, slowly, on its own terms, and enjoyed.

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Peter Nichols

Sorry to hear of the death of that rather wonderful playwright Peter Nichols. He had reached a good age – 92 – and lived long enough to be, finally, recognised for his achievements, with a CBE, awarded last year. Happily, his work lives on – or at least one of his plays, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which is soon to open in a new production at Trafalgar Studios. That play and the very different Privates on Parade will surely endure, and several of the others are worth a revival any time. And, for the theatre averse (like me), there's also Nichols's gloriously named autobiography, Feeling You're Behind.
Here's how the Preface begins...
'At another man's publication party, someone asked me about my writing plans now that I'd left the theatre. I told him, with some pride, that I'd been commissioned to write my life.
 "So has everyone in this room," he said.
 A glance at the assembled drunks and derelicts was enough to show that I would need better reasons than vanity to sustain me through the writing...'
 Happily there were better reasons (not least the money), and Nichols found that his autobiography was 'a pleasure to write. No vainglorious director rewrote it, no manager talked about Bums on Seats or last trains, no numbskull actors told me it wouldn't stretch them or thanked me for what they called "a vehicle".'
 Feeling You're Behind is a joy to read – especially the chapters about his early years with his family in Bristol, in a part of the city still haunted by the recent presence of young Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant, whose mother was committed to the local asylum, from which she was eventually sprung by her now famous son. Nichols's account of touring in Malaya with Combined Services Entertainment, along with the likes of Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter (the inspiration for Privates on Parade) is great stuff too, much of it – as with a great deal of this playwright's memoir – written in dialogue. The line between Nichols's private life and his plays is so very fine that these dialogues from life and those from the stage are sometimes almost interchangeable. It's an unusually open and frankly spoken autobiography, and often very, very funny. If you see a copy, snap it up.
 And meanwhile RIP Peter Nichols.

Monday 9 September 2019


Well, I'm back from my latest Derbyshire trip with a grim, disabling 'cold' (there really should be a more descriptive word for it), but with more happy Mercian memories, including a glorious wealth of early autumn butterflies flying in the (intermittent) sunshine and feasting on Buddleia: more Tortoiseshells than I've seen down South all year – many more – and a wealth of Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, plus Commas and Peacocks, Speckled Woods and the odd Small Copper, Common Blue and Small Heath. And a couple more Wall Browns at the Hoe Grange butterfly reserve. Something to remember on this grey, rainy morning...

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Birthday Girl

Time to turn away from the endless political brouhaha and wish a happy birthday to that fine old trouper Mitzi Gaynor, 88 today. Born with the splendid name of Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber, Mitzi was a great all-rounder – singer, dancer, actress – and is best remembered for her award-worthy performance in the film of South Pacific. But here she is taking Cole Porter's Anything Goes and giving it the works. Not a great singer, but she sure can put a song across, and those camp-as-Christmas male dancers are great fun. Enjoy!

Tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels again. It's all go...

Tuesday 3 September 2019

The Day War Broke Out

A visitor from another planet might be forgiven for concluding that this country stands on the brink of a catastrophe unprecedented in our island history and that a murderous fascist (yes, there's an 's' in it) regime has staged a coup in order to seize the reins of power and drive us all into the abyss. With a little investigation, our extraterrestrial friend might discover the cause of all this jumping up and down is simply that we're pulling out of a moribund would-be superstate, and that a new Prime Minister has, perfectly constitutionally, prorogued Parliament. And he might deduce something rather unflattering about the emotional resilience (and intellectual powers) of us Earthlings.
  Those who are hyperventilating over these supposed catastrophes would do well to think back to this day 80 years ago, when Neville Chamberlain was obliged to broadcast to the nation, informing us that we were, unavoidably, at war with Germany (a country with a five-star, fully accredited, world-class murderous fascist regime). Already the Nazis were sweeping across mainland Europe, and soon France would fall and we would stand alone against the world. That is a catastrophe, that is an existential threat.
 Within minutes of Chamberlain's broadcast, sirens began to sound across Britain – sirens that were then taken as warnings of impending toxic gas attack from the air.  'This was an opportunity for the people of Britain to demonstrate their traditional calm in the face of danger,' a Movietone newsreel reported. 'There was no sign of panic – men and women in the streets made their way to the nearest shelter and queued up in orderly processions at the entrances.'
  I hope that kind of spirit still lives on today – I believe it probably does, if only in pockets – but the evidence to the contrary is all too stridently present, especially in London. 

 Below, as a reminder of bygone times, is Robb Wilton's famous monologue, 'The Day War Broke Out'. The Home Guard (descendants of Shakespeare's Dogberry constabulary) proved such an inexhaustible mine of comedy gold that Dad's Army is never off the air, 42 years after the last new episode aired, and 74 years after the war ended (and there were excellent new productions of three 'lost' episodes just recently)...

Sunday 1 September 2019

A Cambridge Sketch-Book

Here's my latest charity shop find – a pleasingly slim little volume originally published in 1913 and reprinted or reissued several times over the years (my copy dates to 1950). It's a fine specimen of skilful pencil sketching, with expert shading and cross-hatching, the product of a time when most educated people would have learnt to draw competently in the natural course of things.
Here is a familiar view of King's College chapel, with deftly positioned clergyman –

And here is a less familiar view, by way of Clare College gates –

And here is the market, overlooked by Great St Mary. The punters look a deal smarter than they did in the days when we reprobates used to cluster around Andy's record stall...