Thursday 30 January 2020

A Pritchett Curiosity

The city centre of Wellington, as I’ve noted before, is blessed with three very good second-hand bookshops, all within a few minutes’ walking distance of each other, and each rewarding in its own way. At the smallest of them, The Ferret Bookshop on Cuba Street, I found the other day a novel by V.S. Pritchett that I didn’t even know existed…
  Dead Man Leading was published in 1937, politely received, and then, it seems, forgotten, until it was reissued as a Twentieth Century Classic by Oxford in 1984, with a perceptive Introduction by Paul Theroux. That’s the edition I found on the Ferret’s shelves. Dead Man Leading tells the story of an expedition heading deep into the Brazilian jungle in search of the missionary father of the explorer-hero Harry Johnson, an intense, solitary man driven by strange compulsions. His father has been missing for 17 years, so the expedition is clearly a forlorn hope, but Harry, who has a great deal of what might be called charisma, has persuaded the experienced Charles Wright to be its leader, and Gilbert Phillips, a journalist, is also of the party. Each of these three men is linked to one woman, Charles’s step-daughter Lucy, with whom Gilbert has had a short, fairly straightforward romance, and Harry – a man brought up to hate women – a far from straightforward one, from which the expedition is a form of flight.
  What unfolds is at once an adventure story, full of dramatic incident and reversals, a tale of survival (and the opposite), and a study in the psychology of exploration – in Harry’s case at least, the morbid (and specifically male) psychology of exploration. Although Pritchett had never set foot in Brazil at the time he wrote this novel, his evocation of the jungle – of the sapping heat and teeming life, the sounds, sights and smells – is entirely convincing (though he slips up once, when an orang-utan makes a brief appearance). Years later, Pritchett visited Brazil and was glad to discover that he’d got the atmosphere of the endless jungle right in his novel of 1937.
  Dead Man Leading is a very atypical Pritchett work – if I’d read it without knowing who was the author, I don’t think I’d have guessed it right – and it could have been rather heavy going (at least for one not much given to reading adventure stories) if it had stayed narrowly focused on the three Englishmen and their mad expedition. Fortunately, however, along the way a character crops up who is more in Pritchett’s regular line – the unabashed scoundrel Calcott, a Londoner in unhappy exile, who carries a very English chip on his shoulder about class and ‘university men’, and who fights the boredom of his life with séances stage-managed by his urbane Portuguese friend, Silva. The energy generated by the scenes featuring these two suggests another novel – or at least a short story – struggling to break out of Pritchett’s tale of adventure, but it’s one that never got written. Instead we have Dead Man Leading, a novel that is of course well written, of course readable, of course full of nice touches – this is Pritchett after all – but ultimately more of a curiosity than a must-read.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Nicholas Parsons

He reached the grand age of 96 in extraordinarily good shape, and working very nearly to the end, but the death of Nicholas Parsons still comes as sad news. We certainly shall not see his like again – urbane, gentlemanly, infallibly well mannered, endlessly versatile, equally adept as comic and straight man, a true gentleman in a business where they are few and far between (despite so many more in the biz now being public school and university products). Though he was a professional through and through, and nobody's fool, Parsons' death marks the end of a gentler, more innocent era – and Just a Minute, if it survives, will never be the same again.
He was, of course, a frequent presence on this blog, not least as the first in an occasional series of Cravat Heroes, and more than once as Birthday Boy, most recently on his 95th birthday.

Sunday 26 January 2020

Book News

Much to my relief, the latest printing of The Mother of Beauty is at last available, on Amazon or (come February) direct from me.

Saturday 25 January 2020

Schubert in Wellington

Posed enticingly on a street plan of Wellington city centre, this wine cork bearing the name of my favourite composer (after Bach) is something I pocketed last night as a souvenir of a wonderful father-and-daughter evening out. We dined at a restaurant/ wine bar called Noble Rot, off Cuba Street, and it was one of the best meals I've had in Wellington, or anywhere – perfectly balanced, well-thought-out dishes, full of harmonising flavours, and a mighty impressive wine list, including, among pages of reds, a Schubert Selection Pinot Noir from Martinborough.
It had to be the Schubert – and it turned out to be a good choice: gloriously fragrant, light but full of flavour, a joy to drink. We raised many a glass, to each other, to present happiness, to the future... As I said, a wonderful evening. I look forward to the next one.

Friday 24 January 2020

Good Cheer and Gusto: SpongeBob SquarePants

I'm happy to report that the grandsons' taste in animations remains solidly retro, the current favourite being Popeye, of which long-running classic they prefer the early episodes (as far back as the 1930s) to later incarnations. There is, however, one more recent animation that they both love, and that is SpongeBob SquarePants.
  I was glad to learn this, as it's something I heard good reports of when it began, back in the days when I was too busy to watch anything much beyond what I was getting paid to watch. Now, on the far side of the world, I was glad to get the opportunity to catch up and enjoy it alongside the grandsons. The early episodes, it seems to me, are every bit as good as everyone said they were, though later ones are usually disappointing (fans say the show 'jumped the shark' some time after its first three series).
  SpongeBob SquarePants is wonderfully old-fashioned, being a proper animation, not computer-generated and not Disney slick, and it celebrates good cheer and gusto, perseverance and kindness. But it is also gloriously weird. Seeing it properly for the first time, I had to wonder how on earth it got commissioned: it is, after all, an animation about a cheerful kitchen-sponge-shaped, er, sponge who dresses like a prewar French schoolboy, but works, with tremendous enthusiasm, flipping Krabby Patties at the Krusty Krab eaterie, an establishment run by Mr Krabs, a money-grubbing crab who seems to think he's in charge of a pirate ship. And SpongeBob's best pals are a vain and embittered squid, Squidward, who wants nothing to do with the endlessly bouncy Spongebob; and a cheerful starfish, Patrick (pictured), who shares SpongeBob's zest for life but is, alas, fantastically stupid. And there's Mr Krabs' teenage daughter, who is (mysteriously) a sperm whale, and Sandy, a squirrel from Texas, and the unscrupulous one-eyed copepod, Plankton, who runs the Chum Bucket, a rival establishment to the Krusty Krab... And all this takes place on the ocean floor, in a community called Bikini Bottom.
  So how on earth, I wondered, was this crazy scenario pitched? Surely it can't have been easy? Actually, I discovered from Wikipedia, the pitch went very smoothly, helped by show creator Steve Hillenburg's Hawaiian shirt and a terrarium mock-up of the characters. The Nickelodeon execs leapt at it, and the rest is history.
  I also discovered from Wikipedia that Hillenburg, when he created SpongeBob, was not some drug-crazed maverick but an experienced animator (Rocko's Modern Life) – and a marine biologist. Indeed SpongeBob SquarePants had its origins in an unpublished educational comic book created by Hillenburg, The Intertidal Zone. And, what's more, in 2011 a newly described fungus was named Spongiforma squarepantsii in honour of SpongeBob. Yes, this animation has scientific credentials, though I wouldn't altogether recommend it as an introduction to marine biology. But it is – or was in its prime – very funny, brilliantly imagined and wonderfully cheering. What more could you ask?

Tuesday 21 January 2020

'And every time I like him when we meet'

One Maori word I have managed to memorise – I could hardly fail to – is Tui, the name of the bird whose loud and distinctive call forms a major element in the soundscape of the Wellington suburbs. 'Tui' is onomatopoeic, an approximation of one of the amazing range of sounds that make up the Tuis' incessant discourse – whistles, croaks, squawks, gobbles and grunts, mechanical-seeming noises.
Here is a Tui in full flow –

When several of these birds are conversing, it sounds like a raucous, ribald commentary on the passing scene.
  From our daughter's house, up in the hills above the city centre, there is a wide and spectacular view, and across this vista Tuis are constantly flying to and fro. Heavy-bodied birds, they flap their wings laboriously (and surprisingly loudly) to achieve lift and remain airborne, but manage to fly, dipping and rising, for some distance at a good steady speed before landing amid the Pahutakowas to resume their vocalising. They are as numerous as crows are back in England, but more colourful, with their blue backs and that odd tuft of feathers at the throat. They certainly have the same rascally air and braggart ways. They are indeed very much in charge and I'm sure would see off any corvine competition. I've grown to like Tuis very much, and now feel about them very much as Kay Ryan does about crows in her Felix Crow

'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.'

Saturday 18 January 2020

Maori Matters

Out here in Aotearoa – or New Zealand, as we diehard colonialists still call it – Maori matters and Maori culture are never far from the public arena. Nor is the Maori language, which is afforded equal status with English on virtually all civic signage, despite being spoken by barely three percent of the population. I have no problem with that – it seems a natural extension of the Kiwis' extraordinarily well developed niceness – but I do have a problem retaining any Maori words in my memory. I'm constantly trying to memorise words for birds, trees, flowers, etc, only for them to slip almost instantly from my mind. It might help if the Maori language availed itself of more consonants; most of the time it uses only about a third of those available – t, k, r, n, p, h... – and compensates with a lavish use of vowels, making almost every word polysyllabic (compare 'Aotearoa' with 'New Zealand'). Or so it seems to me.
  Long-time readers might recall that on my first visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud, I courted instant deportation with a less than awestruck account of the Maori artefacts in the Te Papa museum. Now I learn that Te Papa's prize exhibit – the famous Rongowhaakata meeting house, the oldest of its kind – is to be returned to its original community, to serve (it is hoped) as a centre for traditional arts and crafts and ecotourism. This will probably take a very long time and involve a great deal of negotiation, but this kind of repatriation is happening everywhere, even in deepest Surrey, where the carved structural elements of a Maori meeting house in the grounds of Clandon Park are to be sent home to Aotearoa (I do believe I've memorised that one now, though it will probably be gone by tomorrow) in exchange for modern carvings in the same tradition.
  Clandon Park is owned by the National Trust, but the meeting house was acquired back in 1892, when the Earl of Onslow, the outgoing Governor General, took it home with him and set it up in his grounds. The house only dated back to 1880, and it had survived being buried in volcanic ash in 1886. It makes an incongruous sight in the grounds of Clandon Park, but apparently is much appreciated by Maori visitors and cultural groups.
 Meanwhile, back in Wellington, the generic red and green 'men' on pedestrian crossings in part of the city have been replaced by outlines of a Maori in a haka pose (red for Stop) and another apparently throwing a spear (green for Go).

Thursday 16 January 2020

Landor Miniatures

Following a link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog, I see that another blog, Form in Formless Times, has nominated Leigh Hunt's 'Jenny Kiss'd Me' as the best short poem ever – which I think is stretching it a bit, but it's certainly a delightful little anthology piece. I've written about it here before – and it's even been quoted on Call the Midwife. Oddly I've never featured another short poem of Leigh Hunt's that has at least an equal claim to be one of the best, and is even shorter. This one, a perfectly formed epitaph –

Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm'd both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

And then there's this intriguing little number, which has some formal similarity to 'Jenny Kiss'd Me', but is very different in tone –

“Do you remember me? or are you proud?”
Lightly advancing thro’ her star-trimm’d crowd,
         Ianthe said, and lookt into my eyes,
“A yes, a yes, to both: for Memory
Where you but once have been must ever be,
       And at your voice Pride from his throne must rise.”

And 'Ianthe' is the subject of another short and sweet Landor miniature –

From you, Ianthe, little troubles pass   
Like little ripples down a sunny river; 
Your pleasures spring like daisies in the grass,   
Cut down, and up again as blithe as ever. 

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Lucy Gayheart

I've just read Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather's penultimate novel, and am in the state of awestruck wonder that Cather's novels almost always leave me in. How does she do it, achieving such effects, building such depths of emotion and meaning under such plain words, in such simple, slight structures? Lucy Gayheart, which is little more than novella length, is pared down even more than most. Divided into three parts, it tells the tale of the eponymous heroine, a free-spirited girl who lives up to her name and who chafes against the restrictions of small-town life, longing for the city, for great things and heroic spirits. And she finds her hero when her musical abilities take her to Chicago, and she falls head over heels in love with a famous singer, Clement Sebastian – but fate has something sudden and shocking up its sleeve, and she retreats, broken, to the small town from which she set out with such high hopes and exalted dreams.
  It's hard to say much more about Lucy Gayheart without the need for massive spoiler alerts, but Part Two picks up the story with Lucy gradually recovering and once again relishing the prospect of escape to the city. But once again her hopes are cruelly dashed. Part Three of the novel  – which no one but Cather would even have thought of writing – is perhaps the most remarkable, picking up the story 25 years on, and bringing Lucy's small-town suitor, the very eligible Harry Gordon, to the fore, showing him for a man more complicated and more sensitive than he seems, and, through his eyes, revisiting the story of Lucy Gayheart and shining a subtly revealing new light on it. The ending – like many other moments of the novel – I found intensely moving. Willa Cather is truly a miracle worker – and I've just realised that now I have only one of her novels (One of Ours) left to read. What am I going to do? Apart from reading them all again...

Monday 13 January 2020

Thorntree Press, Wirksworth

Just a quick clarification for anyone out there who might be after information about my book: it is not published by Thorntree Press of Portland, Oregon, specialists in, ahem, 'non-traditional relationship models, love and sexuality', but by Thorntree Press of Wirksworth, Derbyshire (DE4 4FL). The book is now reprinting, having sold out following an unexpected surge in demand, and should be available again next week. Any enquiries in the meantime, just mail me at

Sunday 12 January 2020

Roger Scruton

The death of Roger Scruton, at the now relatively young age of 75, comes as sad news indeed. There will be well deserved tributes galore to this great conservative thinker and writer. I will only add that reading his England: An Elegy was an eye-opening experience for me, one that made me really think about England, and love and appreciate it all the more for the fact that it was slipping away. A poignant and personal book, published in 2000, it was also sadly prophetic of the way things would go over the next 20 years. RIP.

A Curious Monument

One of the best walks in Wellington takes you around the beautiful Botanic Gardens (which can be reached in minutes from the city centre by a steeply climbing 'cable car' – actually a funicular railway) and downhill back into the city through the wonderfully scenic Bolton Street Memorial Park, the oldest cemetery in Wellington. Here is to be found, among much else, the monument shown above. 
This curious essay in a late classical revival style, feebly carved and with undertones of homoeroticism and fascism, commemorates, of all people, Henry Edmund 'Harry' Holland, the second leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, who died in 1933. Presumably it's intended to represent Holland's endeavours to 'free the world from unhappiness, tyranny and oppression', but I don't think it can be accounted a success.
 I have never seen Ramsay MacDonald's grave, but I very much doubt that it bears much resemblance to the Henry Holland extravaganza.

Friday 10 January 2020


A very nice review of my book by Christopher Hart in today's Daily Mail.
Here's a link to the online version –
– though of course I'd recommend buying a copy of the paper.

Wednesday 8 January 2020


Wellington Central Library – pictured above 'in happier times' – presents a forlorn spectacle now, the building abandoned and surrounded by hoardings. This closure is due to the need for 'earthquake strengthening' – always a concern in Wellington, as elsewhere in New Zealand – and the work is clearly going to take a long while. A shame, as I've always enjoyed visiting this library, one of the best and most attractive central libraries I know – and one that, happily, still has a traditional, book-centred feel. Unlike many English public libraries, it's well staffed and well stocked and seems very efficient.
  They take their public libraries seriously in New Zealand. The first were established as early as the 1840s, almost as soon as organised European settlement began, and later Carnegie money encouraged the building of more and more good public libraries. New Zealanders seem to be keen readers – hence not only the thriving library service but also the remarkable profusion of second-hand bookshops, at least in Wellington. I'm looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with these at the earliest opportunity...

Monday 6 January 2020

Deja Zoo

Yesterday we all visited Wellington Zoo again.
I wrote about these attractively sited zoological gardens four years ago, on my first New Zealand visit. Here's the link:

The difference this time was that the weather was cold and grey, and I had acquired the lobster colouring a couple of days earlier, when the sun was shining and I had rashly gone for a swim without first anointing myself. The sun is still fierce here, though on the afternoon of our arrival it was no more than a dull flat disc of orange-red in a grey-green sky – an effect caused by the pall of smoke from the Australian bush fires.
Today was sunny again, and I had a little game of soft-ball cricket with the grandsons. Their first (and more than a little misleading) taste of the great game...

Friday 3 January 2020

Outside Every Fat Man...

On the long long flight(s) to the city of the Agapanthus and the Pohutakawa, I finished One Fat Englishman, an early (1962) novel of Kingsley Amis's that I hadn't read for forty-odd years. It chronicles the misadventures of the appalling Roger Micheldene, an English publisher on a business trip to America, as he lurches from one drunken party to another, from one high-risk joyless sexual encounter to another, and from self-pity to self-loathing, while indulging a steadfast contempt for all things American. Entirely selfish and driven by compulsive lechery, insatiable gluttony and an unquenchable thirst, the aptly named Roger is clearly a grosser, fatter, even more appalling self-portrait of Amis – a self-portrait, you might say, in a convex mirror. All of this would be unbearable, were it not that One Fat Englishman is just so damn funny. Amis is a master of comic prose, incapable (at this stage of his career) of writing a dull or inelegant sentence, and he's no slouch at constructing comic narrative either. Narrated in the third person, but seen entirely through Roger's jaundiced eyes, this novel is, as much as anything, a glorious compendium of prejudices not so very different from Amis's own, expressed with jaw-dropping directness and deadly comic spin. I found myself laughing several times in every chapter, often on a single page – what more can you ask of a comic novel?
Roger Micheldene's ruminations contain one of Amis's best-known quotations, a reworking of Cyril Connolly's 'Imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signalling to be let out':
'Outside every fat man there was an even fatter man trying to close in.'
One Fat Englishman is also probably the only novel title to have been written on the ample flesh of its author: Amis's exasperated first wife wrote on his back as he lay torpid on a beach 'One Fat Englishman: I Fuck Anything' – and photographed her handiwork.

Scrolling desperately through the inflight 'entertainment' offers, I found nothing I wanted to see or hear, and much that I would pay good money to avoid seeing or hearing – until I eventually found a small selection of classical music. Here I discovered Mio Caro Handel, a collection of Handel arias sung by Simone Kermes, a singer blessed with a quite amazing voice, perfectly suited to Handel. Listening to her was sheer joy.

Another small highlight: Stepping outside the hotel in Singapore into a wall of tropical heat, I stayed just long enough to have a look at the flower bed planted against the hotel exterior. This was planted mostly with big showy tropical flowers, but there was a border of much smaller yellow daisy-like flowers, and on these a number of tiny oriental blues of various species, with nothing of the tropics about them, were busily feeding. My travel-weary heart was instantly lifted.

Then, at Auckland airport, a man – a lanky, balding, dishevelled American who looked as if he'd lived a little (or rather a lot) – came dashing after me as I stepped out to take a breath of air, tapped me on the shoulder and told me I was the living image of Jimmy Stewart, a man he had himself had the pleasure of meeting. He'd been on the fringes of the movie business and knew them all, and I, he could assure me, was, as stated, the living image of J. Stewart. Well, I am not, but this has happened to me before – and it is invariably an American who somehow contrives to see me as Jimmy Stewart to the life. Odd.

Wednesday 1 January 2020


New Year's Day is nearly over in New Zealand, and I'm not long off the plane and struggling to stay awake – but Happy New Year everyone!