Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Japanese have a word for it...

And the word is Tsundoku. It describes a phenomenon that will be familiar to any book buyer - buying books that are destined to spend the rest of their lives standing neglected and unread on the groaning shelves. We are all guilty - though I like to think I'm a lot less so than I once was. Good to know there's a word for it anyway.

Meanwhile, I must report that I'm off again, to Derbyshire and Lincolnshire, where the hunt for Epiphanius Evesham monuments continues...

A Nigel Writes

It seems the once proud name of Nigel is dying out - see, for example, this wittily titled piece from the Guardian. The writer - a Nigel himself - gets most of the notable Niges in there (including Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit), but unaccountably omits Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel and my own hero and role model Nigel Molesworth [above].
 For myself, I owe my moniker - which, like most Nigels, I've never liked - to a combination of my mother's transparent snobbishness and my father's enthusiasm for the historical novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, a couple of which feature the adventures of Sir Nigel and the White Company. He might also have been thinking of the great locomotive engineer Sir Nigel Gresley - I'd like to think so.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Johnson and Johnson

Good to hear Boris Johnson describing the current Cabinet as 'a nest of singing birds' (in the full knowledge that 'nest of vipers' would be nearer the mark). The phrase might ring a bell with readers of Boswell's life of another eminent Johnson. After looking back on his days at Pembroke College, Oxford - days when he was 'mad and violent, being miserably poor and thus opposed to all authority' - Johnson rejoices that his old college has produced so many eminent men. 'Being himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive triumph, "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds."'
 Before Johnson - both Johnsons - the phrase was widely used to describe England in the reign of Elizabeth. Widely and, it seems, aptly. John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, noted in 1560 that sometimes at St Paul Cross there would be six thousand people singing together (surely an exaggeration, but even so). Before the sermon, the congregation would always sing a psalm, with choir and organ, all making glorious music together. 'I was so transported,' wrote Jewel, 'that there was no room left in my whole body, mind or spirit for anything below divine and heavenly raptures.'

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Departure

I thought I'd take a break from the likes of Elizabeth Jenkins and Ivy Compton-Burnett and read something completely different - a crime novel. I'd come across something online about the American crime writer Donald E. Westlake and particularly liked the sound of his posthumously published The Comedy Is Over. I duly bought a copy, complete with garish dust jacket (which I promptly disposed of), and began to read...
 I was, of course, instantly hooked - Westlake really knows what he's doing (he's been described as 'the writer's writer's writer') and loses no time reeling the reader in.  The Comedy Is Over introduces us straight away to the character at the centre of the action - Koo Davis, a wise-cracking old-school comedian whose style and CV resemble Bob Hope's. The time is the late Seventies, and Davis is back on top after a career wobble when he found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over the Vietnam war. Now he has his own high-rating TV show - from the set of which he is suddenly, shockingly kidnapped.
 Koo's kidnappers are a bunch of sad but dangerous leftovers from the heady days of 'revolutionary' action, and they don't seem to realise that times have changed, leaving them behind - like Davis after Vietnam, but with no route to a comeback. Their inept attempt to secure the release of ten 'political prisoners' in return for Koo Davis ends in farce, and the gang become increasingly desperate, as does Koo's plight...
 Westlake draws us into Davis's ordeal by taking us into his head and by describing his situation so deftly that we're right there with him, in first one and then another California modernist 'safe house'. And he makes him likeable, despite his many human flaws - and funny, with his unstoppable flow of one-liners. Not many crime novels are as full of gags as this one. Nor, I think, are they likely to include a sex scene in which the male participant recites a passage from Pope's Essay on Man while in flagrante.
 I've got a feeling I might be reading more Westlake in future.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Then...

A few places ahead of us in the queue for the London-bound EuroStar was a familiar figure - none other than Frank Field, one of our most intelligent and honourable MPs (there aren't many of them - they should be treasured). He was conversing amiably with his travelling companion as we all shuffled along, clearing security and heading for the train...

  Later, at St Pancras, as I was making my way along one of those endless tiled corridors to the Victoria Line, I found myself behind a short, rotund superannuated hippy with an impressively dense tail of matted hair hanging from his nape and an unmistakably cannabinoid smell emanating from his baggy t-shirt. From his gait, I got the impression of a genial soul, still truckin' after all these years. As I overtook him, he called out: 'Hey, aren't you...? Oh no' [scrutinising my face] 'you're not.'
'No, I'm not,' I replied. 'Are you?'
'No,' he replied, chuckling by now, 'I'm not either.'
'I often wish I was,' I said as I picked up speed, and we bade each other a cheery farewell.
I liked him, He had something of The Fugs about him, or Fat Freddy of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Quite took me back...

 Then, at Victoria, as I got off the Tube, there was Frank Field again, walking towards me. I gave him a conspiratorial smile, but I don't think he noticed.

And Back

Well, Maastricht was good - a fine town, with all the Dutch virtues in evidence, embodied in solid handsome architecture, clean and orderly streets and public spaces, a magnificent railway station (that's a corner of it above, early in the morning, with a woman playing Fur Elise on the piano), and decently dressed citizens riding about town on sit-up-and-beg bicycles. No Lycra, no cycle helmets, no racing bikes - that sort of thing is only to be seen in the countryside; urban cycling is just a natural extension of walking, with no hint of the ferocious competitiveness and aggression of cycling in London.
 As well as streets lined with good-looking, well-built houses of all periods - and surviving stretches of medieval walls and later defensive ramparts - Maastricht also has the wide river Meuse and two cathedral-sized churches of ancient origin, with imposing, castle-like westworks. Sadly, as so often in Catholic regions, the interiors fail to live up to the promise of the exterior, partly as a result of accretions of bad sculpture, bad painting and oversized bondieuseries of every description, and, in Holland, partly because of the activities of the Cuypers brothers, ubiquitous church restorers whose aim seems to have been to make every old building look as fresh and crisp as if it had been made yesterday. All rather regrettable.
 We got out of town - by train - and took a walk down the river valley (the Geul, a tributary of the Meuse), along almost too well-kept paths, through spick-and-span villages, sleepy pastures and green woodland just beginning to show its autumn colours. Along the way, we came across the enigmatic, rusting frame of what seemed to have been some kind of industrial building. A notice explained that this was the remnant of a Nazi slave labour enterprise, built into the limestone caves - a chilling reminder of the suffering endured, within living memory, by this so long fought-over land.

On the way back, we spent a few hours in Brussels, where the Grand Place was packed and noisy, with various hideous kinds of music being performed. After a mussel lunch in a decent bourgeois brasserie, we strolled awhile in what is now the Musée de l'Art Ancien, where a surprising number of paintings had been removed from the walls because of water damage (what happened?), but Breugel's Flight of Icarus remains in place, looking smaller, brighter and more freely painted than one might expect. The painting, of course, teaches a lesson...

Musée des Beaux Arts
(W.H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.



Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Off gallivanting again

I'm going to be in Holland (Maastricht and environs) for a few days, so there may be a hiatus...