Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year!

As I totter, like dear old Dorando Pietri, towards the 2010 finishing line, I pause to wish all who read this a very happy New Year. This hasn't been the best of years for Nigeness; the world has been too much with me, draining my mental and physical energies, occupying too much of my time, and keeping me cooped up indoors on days when I should have been out and about among the butterflies and other delights of the world - though, in the end, it wasn't too bad a year on the butterfly front; I have good memories and, thanks to my lovely daughter-in-law, I now have Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles to get me through the winter, just as The Aurelian Legacy got me through last year's butterflyless months.
Sadly I didn't get to many of the art exhibitions I wanted to visit, but among the few I did see, Cristen Koebke at the National Gallery was a revelation. My reading year was more satisfactory, as 2010 was the year I finally got to grips with Marianne Moore and Kay Ryan, discovered Barbara Comyns, rediscovered Alice Thomas Ellis (thanks, Tricia) and William Gerhardie, read Elizabeth Taylor's unforgettable Angel and John Williams's simply magnificent (and magnificently simple) Stoner, and continued to explore the wonders of Penelope Fitzgerald and William Maxwell, both of whom seem to get better and better the more I read. As I posted on all of those, I guess it wasn't such a bad year's blogging - and the best news, at year's end, is that my mother, having given every impression of being halfway over the threshold of death's door a few months ago, is now restored to health and very nearly indeed her old self. There is, as at the end of every year - of every day - much to be thankful for. Again, Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Thespian's Art

'Acting is the supreme test of physical and mental courage. It is like climbing Everest single-handed in the dark. It is like painting the Sistine Chapel with a shark on your back. It is like being asleep on a helter-skelter with no pyjamas and a hangover...'
Thus the 'absolutely bloody passionate' actor Nicholas Craig in his searingly honest account of the thespian's art, I, An Actor. If you haven't come across this brilliant spoof, concocted by performer Nigel Planer and writer Christopher Douglas (who went on to create that supremely seedy hack Ed Reardon), then seek it out. It's the funniest, most acute anatomy of luvvy absurdity I know of. Even the pictures are funny - and the reviews on the back: 'Disloyal, vindictive, bitter, scandalous and insulting' - Sheridan Morley, The Times. 'He could almost be doing a send-up of a theatrical biography' - Yorkshire Post. 'Ha bloody ha' - The Stage. Douglas/Planer nail the more tiresome mannerisms of a certain kind of actor with deadly accuracy - the faux modesty alternating with preposterously inflated claims for his art/craft, the faux blokiness alternating with fey and winsome 'jokes' (identifiable by the exclamation marks), the bonhomie and hissy-fit touchiness, the fawning ingratiation and vicious bitchiness, the obsessive elaboration of every detail of the career accompanied by shrugging protestations that none of it amounts to anything, the toe-curling anecdotes and slices of theatrical lore, all jostle together in an excruciatingly camp confection that out-Callows Callow and out-Shers Sher.
Planer developed 'Nicholas Craig' on TV in The Naked Actor and a series of masterclasses for aspiring young actors (including one for TV weather forecast presenters) - and he popped up again last year on BBC4, with another masterclass on How To Be Old. The essence of Craig, though, is in the book.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A Good Christmas

So - how was it for you? Me, I was in an even deeper stupor than usual at this festive time of year, thanks to one of those low-level but very draining cough/cold bugs, on top of all the food and fatigue and jollity and overheated sitting around (yes, the boiler was finally fixed on Christmas Eve). But that's enough of the downside; what singled this Christmas out from all others and will make it live in my memory is that I was given an object of heart-stopping beauty (as well as undoubted utility)- a MacBook! Dear lord, are MacBooks really made by the hand of man? It was the last thing I expected, and even while it was in my hands and I was feeling its satisfying heft and turning it over to view its elegant beauty from all angles, I still couldn't believe that it was an actual MacBook - and mine! No more will I have to spend time wrestling with a clunky and failure-prone PC, where every operation seems to have been made as difficult and complicated as it can be - now I am sailing the smooth still waters of Macworld, where all is reduced to primal simplicity, everything flows, everything makes sense... Admittedly I'm not there yet, as I'm still exploring the MacBook's wonders, and getting used to working with a touchpad instead of a mouse, but that won't take long. And even when I'm not using it, I can simply sit and worship, admiring the sleek beauty of this amazing thing.
What's more, I was also given several very fine shirts, a bottle of superb champagne cognac, Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles (a lovely book that I'd been on the point of buying for myself), a block of 100percent cocoa solids chocolate (Criollo beans, what's more) - and a quite magnificent vintage cravat by Tootal of New Zealand, which I have worn all Christmas and am wearing now. Bug or no bug, it doesn't get much better than this - sitting here in a splendid new shirt and glorious cravat, at my own stupendous MacBook. Yes, a good Christmas...

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Happy Christmas

Fearing that tomorrow will be engulfed by domestic concerns - not least the last phase of the boiler replacement saga - I take this early opportunity to wish all who browse on this blog a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the Dabbler over the next couple of days for reflections on Christmas by me and many another...

Abbey Road

So, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road is to be given listed status by English Heritage. There are several odd features to this story. One is that this is not even the 'iconic' zebra crossing that the Beatles famously walked over in 1969 (McCartney barefoot, a detail that fed into a ludicrous conspiracy theory that he was dead and it had all been covered up). That crossing is one with Nineveh and Tyre, while this crossing is a different crossing, in a different place. This listing decision then, is less about what is being listed than about English Heritage courting a bit of publicity and the favour of the tourist industry. No harm done, though (unless it means other, more deserving landmarks being neglected).
The most startling detail, though, is that this strangely potent image that has lived on and on and been re-created by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Simpsons, was the product of a ten-minute photoshoot. Ten minutes! In my experience of photographers today, ten minutes is not a unit of time they would even recognise. Recently I had to have my photo taken - for reasons I shan't go into, but no it was not police mugshot. The process ate up a whole morning of my life, which divided into several phases. 1. Waiting while the 'team' (pohotographers never work alone) bantered and joshed and laid on the phoney affability, with coffee etc thrown in. 2. Make-up (I'd managed to fight off Wardrobe, being more than adequately dressed). 3. More waiting and affability. 4. An endless session in which two (yes two) photographers snapped what must have been well over 200 images of me, in black and white and colour, in every conceivable pose - standing, sitting, assuming various expressions, facing this way and that, doing everything short of lying on the floor kicking my legs in the air. When all this was finally over, I was worn out and my face had frozen in a permanent rictus... And the end result of this long long morning's activity (and huge expense - but it wasn't me paying) was a little black and white head and shoulders snap I could have taken myself.
And yet it took one photographer ten minutes to get that Abbey Road album cover.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Good Thing (or Two)

As snow and ice maintain their frosty grip on Bbrrritain, there's no doubt what this December's must-have, can't get accessory is - it's a pair of these babies. Every time one of the half dozen outdoor shops on Kensington High Street gets a consignment in, they sell out in a couple of hours. By pure chance, I managed to get a pair, but haven't been able to get any more since. I can report that they work a treat, though they're not the most elegant addtion to a chap's footwear (I might have to have my spats extended to conceal them). Whereas before I was liable to skid and fall all too easily, I now skip o'er ice and snow like the sure-footed chamoix, laughing at danger...
There's an upside to all this weather too - by putting a stop to so much unnecessary activity, expecially shopping, it's at least slowed down the usual consumer frenzy and in many ways simplified Christmas, reducing it to something nearer its essentials. Nature, with which there is no arguing, has at least opened up the possibility of relaxing and resigning yourself to a smaller, simpler Christmas - and that is surely a good thing.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Strictly Speaking

Now that the Grand Final is behind us - and the name of the winner (eerily) appeared in Wikipedia weeks ago, when her odds were 4-1, why didn't I put money on her? could have paid for that new boiler - never mind - As I say, now that the Grand Final is behind us, it's time to 'fess up: I am a Big Strictly Fan. Yes I love it and have been glued to the screen throughout this series. I think it's the best popular television show around - the best talent contest, the best 'reality' show, whatever - and I'm glad it's Christmas next Saturday so I won't notice it's not there any more (apart from the Christmas Special - hoorah!).
Strictly is good old-fashioned entertainment, and what chiefly distinguishes it (and marks it out as old-fashioned) is that the whole thing is conducted in such a spirit of positive good cheer and unforced affection, with no commercial imperative (except as a by-product), no vicious rivalry, no dirty tricks or fixes. Compare and contrast the ghastly X Factor, where minimally talented performers who all sound the same and sing the same dreary repertoire are hand-picked for maximum profit potential, while smug Simon Cowell becomes as rich as a small nation. The X Factor also mercilessly exloits the vulnerable and deluded and causes much human collateral damage on its triumphant progress. Of Strictly, one can truly say: No humans were harmed in the making of this programme. Indeed every contestant seems enhanced by competing - if only by gaining the rudiments of a useful social skill - and those who progress to the later stages become wholly immersed in the experience, changed, and, to all appearances, very much the better for it. They have spent a long time learning to master a very difficult combination of skills - a genuine achievement - and when they invariably reach for the word 'journey', who can blame them?
The competition is at all times good-natured, the judges (apart from the redundant Alesha) are brilliant, the costumes are amazing, the whole thing's as camp as Christmas - and it's fronted by dear old Brucie. What's not to like? (Plenty, it seems. The usual suspects were attacking it on Late Review, I gather, while candidly admitting that they hadn't actually seen it. I'd like to see that approach applied more widely: 'No, I haven't actually read it... didn't make it to the theatre, etc. But here's what I think...' Pah! A plague on 'em.)

Friday, 17 December 2010

December: Difficulties

Let us, as Nabokov says at the beginning of Transparent Things, illustrate our difficulties...
I got up the other morning to discover that the boiler - the boiler that has hitherto drawn reluctant gasps of admiration from hardened heating engineers - was leaking water all over the kitchen. Later that day it was declared officially dead. Defunctus est. And so it remains while estimates (for new boiler and quite possibly a couple of rads) are prepared, breath is drawn in sharply, telephone calls are not made, Christmas draws ever nearer, and, inevitably, a bravura display of Global Warming sweeps remorselessly south from the Arctic (which, when last heard of on the BBC, was little more than a subtropical lagoon). Snow tomorrow. And unfortunately the house is so designed that, in the absence of central heating, only one downstairs room can be effectively heated up. So there we shall huddle for the duration, sipping gruel and cursing our fate.
What is it with December? It was much the same last year... All this, and the inevitable NigeCorp workstorm, and the pre-Christmas frenzy, and the weather - December is in serious danger of becoming my least favourite month.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


I'm sorry, but the sight of Mark Stephens, the egregious Julian Assange's lawyer, irresistibly puts me in mind of Jonathan Miller's description of Paul Johnson as looking 'like an explosion in a pubic hair factory'. Probably the only funny thing (of his own) Miller ever said...

Monday, 13 December 2010

And did you once see Stevie plain...?

Over the weekend I caught an episode of Adventures in Poetry, a rather good Radio 4 series which studies individual poems in some depth (and rather more breadth). This one was devoted to Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning - a poem that is almost too famous, its title having entered the language to the point where it's become a journalistic standby. It remains a remarkable poem, but it's not all there is to Stevie Smith. There is this wise and funny poem, for example...

Distractions and the Human Crowd

Ormerod was deeply troubled
When he read in philosophy and religion
Of man's lust after God,
And the knowledge of God,
And the experience of God
In the achievement of solitary communion and the loss of self.
For he said that he had known this knowledge,
And experienced this experience,
Before life and after death;
But that here in temporal life, and in temporal life only, was permitted
(As in a flaw of divine government, a voluntary recession)
A place where man might impinge upon man,
And be subject to a thousand and one idiotic distractions.
And thus it was that he found himself
Ever at issue with the schools,
For ever more and more he pursued the distractions,
Knowing them to be ephemeral, under time, peculiar,
And in eternity without place or puff.
Then, ah then, he said, following the tea-parties
(And the innumerable conferences for social rearrangement),
I knew, and shall know again, the name of God, closer than close;
But now I know a stranger thing,
That never can I study too closely, for never will it come again, -
Distractions and the human crowd.

I once saw Stevie Smith giving a reading - an unforgettable sight, with her hair cut in that angular bob, an acute amused smile on her face. An unforgettable sound too - that cut-glass voice articulating her words with such old-world precision. She seemed like a creature of another age - or no age. This can't have been long before her death... I also saw one of Marlene Dietrich's last performances, and that was pretty memorable. I have lived that long.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Penelope Fitzgerald: 'The courage of those who are born to be defeated...'

Well, the NigeCorp workstorm raged all week (and is not blown out yet), engulfing my life and draining me of mental as much as physical energy. But I managed to carry on reading, having decided to resume my backward journey, from last to first, through the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald with The Bookshop, a pleasingly slim volume. Slim but by no means slight - any impression that this might be a gentle provincial comedy about a woman opening a bookshop in a small town is instantly dispelled in the first paragraph, when Florence Green, the would-be bookshop owner, recalls something she had once seen: 'a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.' And Florence, clearly, has taken on too much in planning to open the only bookshop in the aptly named East Anglian estuary town of Hardborough. We sense from the start that her project is doomed - the question is not whether it will fail, but how (and the answer, when it finally comes, makes the outcome shocking, even brutal, for all its inevitability).
Hardborough and its inhabitants are portrayed with Fitzgerald's usual sharp eye and ear, the setting beautifully drawn, the characters springing into all too vivid life. She misses nothing, and everything, however small, she leaves in her meticulously pared-down narrative is significant, even if its significance is not apparent at the time. There is ample material for tragedy here, but what she has made of it is undoubtedly a comedy, a quietly devastating - yet often very funny - comedy. The Bookshop perfectly embodies what Fitzgerald once said about her novels in general:
"I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weakness of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?"
How indeed?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Born on This day...

Me! And Tom Waits, same day, same year - 61 today (cue for a song, Tom?). We're having a quiet one this year, Tom and me, though we're sorely tempted to look in on Edmundo Ros's 100th birthday bash. Now there's a guy who knows how to throw a party...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Nouns into Verbs

While the listening nation reeled from Jim Naughtie's unfortunate spoonerism on Today this morning, the programme moved on to a discussion of a supposedly deplorable, supposedly recent trend in our language towards 'verbing' - turning nouns into verbs. A doughty lexicographer was on hand to defend these noun-verbs, pointing out their utility, and the obvious fact that many of the objectionable ones are ugly jargon terms (often springing from the ugly world of 'management') that are unlikely to outlast their immediate use (lexicographers sometimes call them 'nonce words'). I would defend the ready shift from nouns to verbs more vigorously as one of the deeply embedded features of our language that give it its richness, expressive force and suppleness - in marked contrast to French, a language seriously deficient in active verbs. If you doubt the utility of noun-verbs, try doing some DIY without nailing, drilling, screwing, sawing, hammering, need I go on?

One I Made Earlier...

Over at the super soaraway Dabbler, I ponder a painting by Lorenzo Lotto.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Here is something rather wonderful - and seasonal - forwarded to me by my cousin in Derbyshire. They are so heart-lifting (or rather soul-lifting), these glorious eruptions - and hard to watch dry-eyed.


On this day in 1901, the physicist Werner Heisenberg was born. Probably.
Yes, I know - you loyal followers and friends of Nigeness deserve better than a lame joke, but early December finds me once again caught up in a workstorm so fierce that it's even engulfing this Day of Rest (hollow laugh) and diverting altogether too much of my mental activity from more pleasurable channels. Normal service will, I hope, resume before long...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Read This Book

I've just finished reading what I am pretty certain is a great novel. The surprising thing about is that it was published as recently as 1965, and that nobody on this side of the pond seems to have so much as heard of it. I only learned of its existence from references on American literary blogs (especially Patrick Kurp's) but didn't get round to buying and reading it until now. John Williams's Stoner is an old-fashioned novel which tells the life story of one man from childhood to death in a straightforward linear narrative. What holds the attention - and it is quite riveting, impossible to skip or speed-read - is the delicate skill with which Williams builds his character, traces the events (internal and external) of his life and paints in the people important to him.
William Stoner is born into a dirt-poor farming family in Missouri, gets sent to the state university to study agriculture, but changes tack when he falls in love with literature and learning, and embraces the academic life. He suffers a succession of disappointments: a misguided marriage estranges him from his family, then in turn from his wife and daughter; his career is stymied when he makes an implacable enemy at the university; and his belated discovery of new, true love is doomed to a premature end. And yet, despite all this, Stoner is, in the end, in his stoic way, a triumphant figure. By the time of his death, the reader - this reader anyway - feels that he not only knows but loves him, and is unlikely to be left dry-eyed.
It's hard to pin down quite how Williams brings Stoner so completely and compellingly to life. I guess it is just the old-fashioned virtues of close imaginative attention and accurate (at the deepest level) prose - unshowy but perfectly modulated - along with a delicate, tender honesty. Williams is clear-sighted, lucid and - when it comes to Stoner - loving. Though he is technically in the position of omniscient narrator, he keeps himself entirely out of the picture - as I said, this is old-fashioned, no-nonsense storytelling. But it works miracles. All I can say is: Read This Book.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Underrated Great: Osbert Lancaster

Thanks to my old pal Bob Crowe and his merry band of Tube strikers, I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning from Victoria to Kensington. As I was going up Pont Street, with its rows of tall, elaborately gabled mansions in red brick and terracotta, the phrase 'Pont Street Dutch' came into my head. It was coined, along with other similarly useful descriptive phrases (Stockbroker Tudor, Bypass Moderne, etc), by the great and much underrated Osbert Lancaster. This cartoonist and illustrator, author, art critic, stage designer and light-touch historian of English architecture and taste was not only versatile but extremely productive, and he made it all seem quite effortless. Everything he did was done with delicate wit and irony; he took nothing - least of all himself - very seriously, and his work was never less than entertaining. All of these qualities are, of course, precisely those that lead posterity to underrate you, and so it has been with Lancaster. His many books offer (among other things) a thoroughly enjoyable, satirically tinged introduction to English building design, the development of towns, the ways of the aristocracy and the vagaries of English taste, Lancaster's elegant prose matched by equally elegant and fabulously accomplished draughtsmanship. There is really no one like Lancaster for reducing a building to its essentials - his line is amazingly assured - and at the same time expressing its character (see, for example, Pillar to Post and Home Sweet Homes). And he is just as effective in townscapes (Drayneflete Revealed, Progress at Pelvis Bay, etc) and in his pastiche portraiture (The Littlehampton Bequest). His books are simply delightful things to leaf through - and most of them can be picked up amazingly cheap in charity shops, secondhand bookshops, or online. Surely they will one day become collectible - but for now I'd advise snapping up any that you see.
In his later years, Lancaster and his old friend John Betjeman would sit in on GLC meetings at which the fate of London historic buildings was discussed. By this time, Lancaster was (or pretended to be) very deaf, and if he was bored by anyone's 'expert' testimony he would turn to Betjeman and bellow 'What's the damn fool talking about now, John?' That's the spirit.

Quiz Alert!

My latest Round Blogworld Quiz brain teaser is on The Dabbler now. Hurry, hurry, before someone gets the answers...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

'Take a step or two forward, lads...'

It was on this day in 1922 that (Robert) Erskine Childers, having converted from loyal British Imperialist to fanatical Irish Nationalist and fallen foul of the Irish Free State authorities in the course of the Civil War, was executed by firing squad at the Beggar's Bush Barracks in Dublin. Sportingly, he shook hands with each member of the firing squad and suggested they 'take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way.' He also left instructions to his son to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant. No hard feelings then.
Childers' claim to literary fame - and it's an enduring one, as the book has never been out of print - is The Riddle Of The Sands, one of the first spy novels and a very influential invasion scare novel. It is still a jolly good read, if a little heavy on the yachting side of things...


Here is a masterclass in nuanced screen acting, showing how much can be achieved with the merest hint or fleeting shadow of an expression. On the big screen, less is indeed more.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Alice Thomas Ellis Revival Starts Here

Over on the Dabbler, I write about The Inn At The End Of The World and urge everyone to get reading Alice Thomas Ellis...

By the way...

Don't miss the chance to win a Christmas Fox. Lovely little books they are...

A Call to Arms

Enough frivolity - it's time to get serious and get behind the gay griffons of Munster (in a non-sexual way of course). These blameless birds, exercising their basic griffon right to express their sexual identity with a bit of hearty man love and nest-building, are to be forcibly separated by the heterosexist authorities. Naturally the gay community, in solidarity with its feathered brethren, is up in arms about this monstrous infringement of griffon rights. And no wonder - when it comes to gay birds, Germany has form - remember the gay penguins of Bremen, brutally torn asunder in the name of heterosex. First they came for the penguins and we did nothing. Then they came for the griffons...
I'm thinking of starting an e-petition... Or, on reflection, perhaps not.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Afterlife Again

Reading John Williams's novel Stoner (of which more later), I came across this passage, describing his hero William Stoner's reading as a student:
'He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marvelled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.'
Doesn't this perfectly express what's right about the 'pagan' attitude to death and what's wrong about the Christian attitude - the one that leads all the way to Dylan's 'poor immigrant' who 'passionately hates his life and likewise fears his death'? The pagan's relaxed equanimity in the face of personal extinction seems attractive and humane. In fact, the more I learn about evolved late classical paganism, the more attractive it seems, and the more mystifying the takeover of Christianity becomes. The religion of late classical times seems to have been such an easygoing matter, to do with asserting cultural identity rather than searching one's conscience, observing the cult rituals rather than wrestling with the knotty business of belief. With due observance made, a person was free to go about the business of enjoying life, untroubled by thoughts of death and judgment. The supernatural world seemed very present but largely non-threatening and taken for granted, the gods very much like ourselves, apart from their special powers. The afterlife, in as much as there was one, seems to have been a hazy affair that was most unlikely to involve an ordinary person in eternal torments - there was nothing to be feared. Compare this with the ever-present horrors of Christian eschatology and the demands imposed by the Christian belief system on the individual conscience. How did such a joyless and painful world view make headway against the pleasures of pagansim? Perhaps it didn't - perhaps the reason for the phenomenal success of early Christianity was simply the power and beauty of Jesus's actual teachings, before they were distorted into the ugly forms of Christendom as The Church arose. Also, of course, Christendom was very clever at adopting and adapting the externals of paganism (and no doubt brutal in its suppression). I don't know - I'm no historian - but that the comfortable, civilised late pagan world embraced Christianity so quickly and completely (apart from Julian the Apostate's attempted fightback) has long seemed to me a great mystery. It surely can't all be explained by the conversion of Constantine - can it?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Watching a pied wagtail busily trotting about on a platform at Clapham Junction this morning got me thinking about how dramatically the bird life of town and suburbia has changed in my lifetime. When I was a boy, you would only ever see pied wagtails in the country, always by rivers - ditto herons, which were also very much scarcer than the wagtails. Jays and magpies were country birds, only rarely seen in town - as were long-tailed tits - and crows never appeared in the vast numbers that are common now. Cormorants had been absent from London's river for centuries, and kingfishers were a rare sight anywhere near town. The only bird of prey you might (if you were lucky) see was a kestrel, egrets were unheard of, and the collared dove an exotic vagrant. No one would have dreamed that squadrons of screeching ring-necked parakeets would one day be overflying London's parks... How things change - and it's good that not all the incoming birds are of the broad-shouldered, bullying, scavenging kind. The dainty pied wagtail, with its 'rather sprightly' manner (as the RSPB describes it), is always a joy to see. I first realised just how urban it had become when, one winter dusk, I came across a loudly twittering town centre tree. Taking a closer look, I saw that it was full of roosting pied wagtails - maybe a couple of hundred - settling down for the night, in the full glare of the streetlamps, untroubled by the loud bustle of human life around them. These urban roosts are quite normal now. Wagtails have also been known to roost at sewage treatment centres, riding around through the night on the rotating arms of the sedimentation tanks. That I would like to see...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Birthday Girls

On this strangely productive day in 1887 were born the artist Georgia O'Keefe (hence the picture) and the poet and unlikely celebrity Marianne Moore. I keep finding out new and strange things about Miss Moore - the latest being that she wrote the liner notes for Muhammad Ali's spoken-word album I Am The Greatest! She was also invited, in 1955, to come up with 'inspirational names' for Ford's big project, the E-Car. Among her suggestions were Resilient Bullet, Mongoose Civique, Varsity Stroke, Pastelogram and, in a flash of true inspiration, Utopian Turtletop. And what did Ford do? They ignored all her suggestions and called it the Edsel. No wonder it flopped - if they'd only gone with Utopian Turtletop, they'd surely have had a hit on their hands... Anyway, to mark the day here's the inimitable Marianne in full flow:

The Paper Nautilus

For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters' comforts? Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,--
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-

laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
a Parthenon horse,
round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.


Sorry blogging has been thin lately - an unfortunate combination of a NigeCorp workstorm (liable to blow steadily for a few weeks yet) and technological breakdown at home. I did manage to contribute to The Dabbler's Remembrance anthology, and hope to be posting again during the week. By the way, the Wilkinson Protector 3 is still shaving well, with no change of blades...

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Cecil, Cowper and Crown Constables

I've been reading The Stricken Deer, David Cecil's life of Cowper, reissued in 1933 as one of the Crown Constables series, handsome volumes aimed at 'enlightened folk whose taste for literature is as discriminating as their shelf-room. Crown Constables will occupy and enchant the finest minds, but will not overcrowd the smallest flat.' Golly!
The Stricken Deer is a typical Cecil biography - elegant, fluent, stylish and not overlong - a refreshing change from the clunky doorstop biographies of our day. Cecil's learning is lightly worn; he doesn't 'show his workings', rubbing the reader's nose in the depth and breadth of his research. He never loses sight of the fact that a biography is, above all else, a story, not a compendium of laundry lists. As a result, he is never less than readable.
Cecil - full name Lord Edward Christian David Gascoyne-Cecil is an interesting figure. He was an authentic aristocrat, the younger son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, and in the course of his career he evolved from gentleman scholar and man of letters to professional academic and, improbably, TV presenter and minor media celebrity - this despite a pronounced lisp and his caricature toff appearance (his son is the actor Jonathan Cecil, who specialises in posh silly ass roles). His books are easy to find - they often turn up in charity shops (as did The Stricken Deer) - and they are all worth reading. I'd especially recommend his two volumes on Lord Melbourne, his biography of Max Beerbohm, and his double-headers, Two Quiet Lives (Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Gray) and Visionary and Dreamer (Samuel Palmer and Edward Burne-Jones).
I see from the back pages of The Stricken Deer that among the already published Crown Constables are The Tale of Two Lovers, translated from the original Latin of Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini by Flora Grierson, and Philine, unpublished fragments from Amiel's Journal. How times change...

Over in Dabbler Country...

I report on the epic struggle between crows and squirrels. Go, crows!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Perfect Razor?

Regular readers will know that I am a man forever in quest of the Perfect Razor. I have succumbed to the siren call of the space-age Azor, and returned, a sadder and a wiser man, to the five-bladed certitudes of the trusty Gillette
Fusion, but still, as I mowed away with the Fusion or from time to time switched to the lightweight Mach 3 (original version), I sensed that my life was lacking something, that I had still not found the object of my quest. Then, one day recently, happening to be in immediate need of a razor, I scanned the limited choice in a small branch of Boots and, with little thought (this was but a stopgap razor), selected a Wilkinson Sword Protector 3 (that's not me in the picture, by the way). I was immediately impressed by the weight and hand-friendly curvaceousness of the body - this was a razor with a bit of heft, something to get the hand round, and that's good to find. The blades - a mere three, but that really is enough - are nicely mounted on a floating head that rides the face's contours smoothly, and deliver a good close shave. What more could a man ask? And the beauty of it is that you can buy blades for the Protector 3 without having to take out a second mortgage - in fact, by the inflated standards of razor prices, they're cheap as chips.
Regulars will also know that I am an enemy of stubble. A man may grow a beard, if he feels he really must, or he may shave - no stubble, thank you, and no inbetween phantom beards a la Mark Thompson or Charles Clarke. However, it happened that this morning I unavoidably found myself with a two-day growth of stubble marring my features. Would the Protector 3 be up to the challenge? Gentlemen, it was - it made short work of it, without a nick or cut, and my face was soon restored to its customary smoothness. I was impressed. I do believe I have at last found it, the razor of my dreams.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

On The Dabbler today...

it's Birdwatching Wednesday - Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! While Wednesday lasts. Posts include my uncharitable thoughts on twitchers.

Treasures from Budapest: A Skippers' Guide

The Royal Academy's Treasures from Budapest exhibition is a bit of a slog - 12 large rooms, a fatiguing prospect (is anything more tiring than gallery-going?). It amounts to a potted history of art from the 15th to the 20th centuries, combined with a potted history of Hungary. The paintings are, for the most part, second-rank works by first-rank artists, and first-rank works by second-rank artists, and there are altogether too many of them. However, by skimming the fillers and homing in on the gems, there are many pleasures to be extracted from this exhibition. The Esterhazy Madonna is a sweet and beautiful early Raphael (still quite Peruginesque, but with Leonardo rising), none the worse for being unfinished. This Madonna is the poster girl for the exhibition, along with Egon Schiele's Two Women Embracing, which, I was astounded to learn, 'explores the theme of lesbian love'. Lovers of Venetian art (yes please!) are soon rewarded by a sumptuous Jacopo Bassano, The Way to Calvary, all writhing bodies and saturated colours, the paint positively glistening - and a glorious Tintoretto, The Supper at Emaus, which is worth long, detailed attention. Further on, there's another Tintoretto - a bizarre 'comic' painting of Hercules Expelling Faunus from Omphale's Bed - and, still further on, some fine Tiepolo drawings and a brilliant small painting, The Virgin Mary with Six Saints. Also worth noting, a small, busy Canaletto, in his darker register, The Lock at Dolo - and a splendid Bellotto, of the Arno in Florence.
Hung, oddly, among still lives and genre scenes, is a typically luminous Saenredam church interior. Among the portraits, there's a beauty by Hals - such dash! - a charming Half Length of a Girl (looking upwards) by Jan Lievens, and a quite magnificent painting of a Sleeping Girl, painted by artist unknown (but clearly very gifted) in Rome about 1610-20. An extraordinary El Greco, all blue and silver, of St Mary Magdalen, bathed in moonlight, the penitent teasingly exposing a nipple as usual, is complemented by a much more sobre head of St James the Less. Goya is represented by a glittering full-length portrait of a lady, and two fine genre paintings, of a knife-grinder and a water-carrier. Towards the end of the exhibition, look out for a superb Bonyngton watercolour View of the South Coast, and a lovely little Corot, Nest Robbers. There's a good Toulouse-Lautrec of Women in the Dining Room, and, at the end of the trail, the Schiele is flanked by an early Chagall gouache and a lovely, tender Picasso Mother and Child, in watercolour.
But what, Nige, I hear you ask, is The One You Would Have Stolen? It is the Rembrandt drawing illustrated, of Saskia sitting at a window. There are rather too many drawings in this exhibition - but this one is breathtaking. A few lines sketched in, a bit of wash, and there she is, as fresh and vividly real as if she were sitting there, in that cool Dutch light, today. That is drawing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

For All Souls' Day...

Schubert's short, achingly beautiful Litany...
This rather silences all the discussion here, doesn't it? Such a beautiful vision, that touches us so deeply, must surely have some kind of truth in it. As Keats said (or hoped), famously, 'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty'.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Kay Ryan - Nothing to Add

'They will explain themselves,' says Keats of his poems, 'as all poems should do without any comment.' (He wasn't to know that future generations would have little or no knowledge of classical mythology.) One modern poet to whom his dictum can surely be applied is Kay Ryan. Her poems say what they have to say, do what they have to do, with such economy of means and simplicity of expression that there is little, if anything, to explain. Take a poem such as Carrying A Ladder (which I've mentioned before)...

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

Is there really anything that can usefully be added?
Or to this one - Chinese Foot Chart

Every part of us
alerts another part.
Press a spot in
the tender arch and
feel the scalp
twitch. We are no
match for ourselves
but our own release.
Each touch
uncatches some
remote lock. Look,
boats of mercy
embark from
our heart at the
oddest knock.

All I can add to that is that, on me at least, it enacts itself - it 'touches' me, I feel it in my scalp, that tingle. And of course it's beautifully, artfully constructed, with all that fierce enjambment, those rhymes and half-rhymes, assonances, echoes. Try to work out the sound patterns in this equally short poem, Fake Spots, and they begin to seem endless...

Like air
in rock, fake
spots got here
really far back.
Everything is
part caulk.
Some apartments
in apartment blocks
are blanks;
some steeples
are shims. Also
in people: parts
are wedges: and,
to the parts they keep
apart, precious.

The language is always simple, homely even; Ryan's 'place' is clear enough, in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore; her imagery... Ah her imagery. Who but Kay Ryan would image silence in terms of Sharks' Teeth?

Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks.

Who else would come up with this image?

Tired Blood

Well, not tired
so much as freighted.
As though foreign objects
had invaded.
As though tiny offices
had dumped
their metal furniture
among the glossy lozenges
and platelets -
chairs that stick together,
painful cabinets.

Ryan's is a very singular imagination, full of odd angles and unexpected swerves, and it often works by a kind of reversal, as in Sharks' Teeth, as in this - The Material

Whatever is done
leaves a hole in the
possible, a snip in
the gauze, a marble
and thimble missing
from the immaterial.
The laws are cruel
on this point. The
undone can’t be
patched or stretched.
The wounds last.
The bundles of
nothing that are
our gift at birth, the
lavish trains we
trail into our span
like vans of seamless
promise, like fresh
sheets in baskets,
are our stock. We
must extract parts
to do work. As
time passes, the
promise is tattered
like a battle flag
above a war we
hope mattered.

She can be funny, as in 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.

And she can be strangely moving, as in Still Life, With Her Things

Today her things are quiet
and do not reproach,
each in its place,
washed in the light
that encouraged the Dutch
to paint objects as though
they were grace -
the bowl, the
goblet, the vase
from Delft - each
the reliquary
of itself.

Ryan is an exhilarating poet, offering intense and particular pleasures. Each poem feels as if it has been hewn down, drastically but with immense care, to the barest spine of essentials - but the essential is still there, intensely concentrated. There is nothing to add. Her poems do, as Keats would have it, 'explain themselves'.


'The fact was I left Town on Wednesday - determined to be in a hurry. You don't eat travelling - you're wrong - beef - beef - I like the look of a sign. The Coachman's face says eat, eat, eat. I never feel more contemptible than when I am sitting by a goodlooking coachman. One is nothing - Perhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody. You must be when slice after slice - but it wont do - the Coachman nibbles a bit of bread - he's favour'd - he's had a Call - a Hercules Methodist - Does he live by bread alone? O that I were a Stage Manager - perhaps that's as old as 'doubling the Cape'. "How are ye old 'un? hey! why don't 'e speak?' O that I had so sweet a Breast to sing as the Coachman hath! I'd give a penny for his Whistle - and bow to the Girls on the road - Bow - nonsense - 'tis a nameless graceful slang action. Its effect on the women suited to it must be delightful. It touches 'em in the ribs - en passant - very off hand - very fine - Sed thongum formosa vale vale inquit Heigh ho la! You like Poetry better - so you shall have some I was going to give Reynolds.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun...

That's the joy - one of the joys - of Keats's letters. You never know what's coming next, as he slides and swerves from sense to nonsense, from his inner to his outer life, from cod Latin to a few dismissive words that suddenly introduce, in this case, his last great poem, the Ode to Autumn. There's an added frisson here, as his throwaway remarks on bowing foreshadow that heartbreaking last farewell, a little over a year later: 'I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow...'
The Ode to Autumn, in manuscript and (much revised) finished form can be found, with much else, on this fine website devoted to Keats, great poet and great man, born on this day in 1795.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A Literary Editor Speaks Out!

It's good to see someone - someone in the business, what's more - pointing out one of the things that's clearly wrong with modern fiction. On the rare occasions when I've made it to the end of a recently published novel, I'm nearly always left with two thoughts: 1. So what? and 2. That was surely about a third too long. I don't suppose Claire Armitstead often concurs with 1 or she wouldn't be in the job she's in, but she seems to agree with 2 - much to the chagrin of the publishing industry, an industry which, it is clear, has only itself to blame.
Another scourge of contemporary fiction (encouraged no doubt by the 'Creative Writing' industry)is the fashion for present tense narration. Philip Pullman has called it 'a silly affectation' and he's surely right, at least in those cases where there's no good reason for it; it's a lazy short-cut to bogus immediacy and 'significance'. Worse still is the use of the present tense and the impersonal 'he' or 'she' to lend spurious mystery and yet more 'significance'. Any book that begins in such a mode is almost certain to be worthless. Unless it's this one:
'From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star's revenge...'
That's Samuel Beckett. The rules don't apply.

Friday, 29 October 2010

At Last - The Liberal Gene!

Here's a prime specimen of nonsense dressed up as science - genetics, indeed! So, 'liberals' are more disposed to 'seek out new experiences', are they? Not in my (limited, reactionary) experience. Some of the most firmly closed minds I've ever come across have been politically 'liberal' - also some of those with the least exposure to 'a wider variety of lifestyles and beliefs'. I suspect that it's at least as true that the more exposure you have to the rich variety of the world as it is, the more likely it is to turn you in a conservative direction. Many a conservative is a liberal 'mugged by reality', i.e. by wider experience of the world as it is.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Beyond the Veil

This post on Frank Wilson's blog and the interesting piece to which it links have started a lively comment strand. For myself, I've never seen the attraction of any kind of personal survival after death. Compared to the thorough extinction of 'me', it seems a hellish prospect. Imagine coming out at the other side of death, still yourself, surviving to see your life whole, to repine and regret and be powerless to change anything, to look on helplessly at the grief caused by your death, and at all that follows, including of course the gradual extinction of your memory (Nige? Who was he?) and to have no way of ceasing to be 'me'. If, however, there is no 'I' at the far side of death, there is nothing to fear, as there will be no 'me' to do the fearing, or to experience anything. Therefore I hope that if there is any survival, it is not of the 'me' I now know, it is not in any normal sense 'personal'.
The experiment described in the piece can hardly tell us anything about 'life after death', but it could throw light on the fascinating possibility that consciousness can operate independently of the brain, that 'I' am not my brain. There seems to be evidence in some forms of hysteria, hallucinations and hypnagogic or hypnopompic states (at either edge of sleep) that consciousness can roam free of the brain. Consciousness is certainly the least scientifically understood human phenomenon - and perhaps can never be scientifically understood (there's ultimately no place to stand outside consciousness from which to examine it). Meanwhile, I entirely agree with Frank that simple gratitude for being should be our focus, rather than speculation about what might come next. As the Iris de Ment song puts it, 'Let the mystery be.'

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


The Central Library of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is a very fine building. I was sitting outside it this lunchtime, on a sunny bench, when a distinguished old cove (Kensington is awash with them) sat down beside me and launched into a loud and staggeringly inconsequential conversation on his mobile phone. He was phoning A because he was under the impression that A had told him that B had married C when B and C were both working in Kabul. Was this not so? No it was not. A did not even know B and C. Distinguished cove mystified. Was it D, A wonders, the one who married E? No, cove didn't think so. F perhaps? Eureka! Got it! It was F, who married G, and it must have been H who told cove about it. Cove apologised profusely for the confusion, and in a flurry of civilities the conversation ended. That was it: cove had rung A purely to establish that B had married C, and discovered that, far from it, F had married G. It must be wonderful to have connections, I mused, admiring the library's fine facade and enjoying the sun on my face.

False Pasts

Television, that futuristic medium, is deeply in love with the past. It likes nothing more than sending people back in time to experience 'living in the past' for our delectation in 'historical reality shows' - coming very soon to a TV set near you: Turn Back Time (shopkeepers sampling retail life at various periods from the 1870s on), Edwardian Farm (sequel to - you guessed - Victorian farm), even Giles and Sue Live the Good Life (Seventies self-sufficiency, sitcom-style). That's not to mention the period dramas - ITV's Downton Abbey is currently sweeping all before it with its golden vision of the Edwardian age. But this 'past' that TV is so drawn to is of course always a partial and falsified version, viewed through the distorting lens of our present preoccupations, and wrong in so many ways. Leaving aside anachronisms of detail and (more importantly) attitude, TV just lays it on too thick; it tends to caricature the past, even the recent past. Victorian times were never that Victorian, and, as those of us who lived through them will testify, the Sixties were never that Sixties (the Seventies were far more Sixties).
David Cecil, in the Prologue to his life of Cowper, The Stricken Deer, is very good on this falsification of the past. Writing at the end of the 1920s, when the 18th century was very much in vogue, he describes the vision of that century embraced by the 1920s enthusiasts as 'not at all like the England of the eighteenth century... For one thing, their idea is too homogeneous. Only countries of the mind are so much of a piece. The past does not, any more than the present, escape that incompleteness, that inconsistency which is the essential characteristic of life as we know it, as opposed to life as we should like it to be. An historical period is not a water-tight compartment, containing only what it has itself created, sharing nothing with what has gone before and what comes after. It is a tangle of movements and forces, of various origin, sometimes intertwined and sometimes running parallel, some beginning, some in their prime, some in decay... To describe any period, then, as all of a piece is as inaccurate as to paint a picture of its streets with all the houses of the same age and style.' Precisely. The past, at any period, felt just the way the present does now - after all, it was the present.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Startling developments...

over at The Dabbler, where the fiendish Round Blogworld Quiz is launched on an unsuspecting blogosphere. Remember - points mean, er, points...

Friday, 22 October 2010

By the way...

Don't miss out on this competition - with a prize worth winning - over at the super soaraway Dabbler.

On the Desert Island...

Michael Mansfield, long-haired QC, republican, vegetarian and darling of the Left, was on Desert Island Discs this week. I caught some of it on Sunday, and found myself listening again, with fascinated horror, this morning on the train. It was everything you'd expect, as the ineffable Mansfield seized the opportunity to outline precisely how wonderful he is and in precisely how many ways. Rejecting the Bible as his Desert Island reading matter in favour of Tom Paine's The Rights Of Man, he chose as his luxury a drum kit. Michael Mansfield is in his 70th year... Like many men with no sense of humour, he is a fan of the Goons and chose them for one of his discs - but it was something else that had drawn me back to this vintage edition of DID. He had unblushingly chosen a 'rap' against 'consumerism' performed (if you could call it that) by one of his numerous brood, which was duly played. Could it really have been that excruciatingly, toe-curlingly, jawdroppingly bad? Reader, it could and was. If it had been a parody, it would have been hilarious, but no, this was serious. As I listened again, aghast, I was the only person on that commuter train laughing. So, thank you Michael - despite everything you have brightened my morning.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

'A Study Has Found'

Brit laments elsewhere that standards are falling on the BBC News website - but all's well with the world when it can still come up with stuff like this. I just love this kind of story - especially when it's so sensitively illustrated. As you scroll down through paragraph after paragraph (more crossheads would have been good), feeling your will to live slowly sapping away, ask
yourself, when you arrive just barely alive at the final sentence: What have I learnt today?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

'I was the shadow of the waxwing slain...'

I've been rereading Nabokov's Pale Fire. It's something I've been doing at intervals ever since I first read that extraordinary book 40 years ago. On that first reading, I pretty much dismissed the poem at the centre of the book (John Shade's Pale Fire) as a pastiche of the kind of cosy campus poetry so brilliantly lampooned in Kenneth Koch's comic poem Fresh Air. But with each subsequent reading, the poem has come to seem better and better, its strange and moving beauty has gradually emerged, and now I would be happy to read it, for pleasure, if it was published as a separate volume - no novel attached, no critical apparatus. If it was published? It seems it very soon will be, and all hell will break loose in Nabokovian circles. This lively piece tells the story. I'd recommend reading it to the end, since it also gives an excellent introductory account of the novel, illuminates its unique appeal, and, as it goes on, makes quite clear that the overheated world of Nabokovian scholarship can be quite as mad as anything in Charles Kinbote's commentary.

Revealed at Last: TheTrue Nature of Britishness

There's been a lot of discussion about 'Britishness' in recent years - that eminent North Briton Gordon Brown (remember him?) took a suspiciously lively interest in the subject for a while. What is it, the question went, that defines British identity? Various answers were given - all of them pretty nebulous and open to question - but now, I'm happy to report, there is a solid, concrete answer. (It came up on Radio 4 early this morning in a piece about Argos having announced its latest healthy profits.) The one thing that distinguishes us Brits from lesser tribes is this: we are happy to 'shop' at Argos. We and we alone thrill to the 'retail proposition' that is Argos: pay, take a chitty, go and queue at a Generation Game-style conveyor belt till what you bought eventually emerges from the maw of the stockroom. Argos has been a big success in this country and, understandably, the company thought it would be a straightforward proposition to 'roll out' its 'business model' over half the globe - but no, whatever country they tried it in, the answer came back loud and clear: What the...? You're kidding, aren't you? Johnny Foreigner, it seems, just can't see the unique allure of the Argos experience - he doesn't get it. Well, it's his loss... Meanwhile, Britons awake! Assert your national identity - get down to Argos now!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Tender Ghosts

Patrick Barkham, who recently wrote about the Purple Emperor on the blog everyone's talking about - The Dabbler - also has a fine piece, My Butterfly Marathon, in the current issue of Butterfly, the magazine of Butterfly Conservation. This is a look back over his summer devoted to spotting all 59 British butterfly species (something some manage to do year after year, which must rather take the magic out of it). Looking back over my own butterfly year, I see that I've totted up my usual 30-something species, despite some disappointments (no purple hairstreak, no wall butterfly, no clouded yellow) and despite circumstances having often kept me from my usual haunts on perfect butterfly days. Never mind - there were memorable sightings: the Dingy Skipper in Derbyshire; that Green Hairstreak laying eggs; the heart-stopping moment when a Silverwashed Fritillary landed in my garden;a cheering profusion of Gatekeepers and others on my own doorstep; those Tortoiseshells on Buddleia in Derbyshire; and a glorious sunny afternoon among the Adonis Blues (and that beautiful pale Chalkhill)... Barkham ends his piece with a quotation from Nabokov that perfectly describes how the intensest butterfly encounter feels. I can do no better than to requote him: 'And the highest enjoyment of timelessness - in a landscape selected at random - is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants.This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern - to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal.'

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Just for the Fun of It...

Here's Australian throwback blues/jazzman C.W. Stoneking - looking rather less dapper than usual (he prefers high-waisted white trousers and short-sleeved shirt with bow tie and boater, like Governor Huey Long on a warm day) - as he sings Jungle Blues. Enjoy!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Grow Up!

Watching Autumnwatch last night (as one does, despite its annoying features - not least the chap with the long hair who keeps putting his glasses on then taking them off and sweeping his hair about and clearly fancies himself rotten and is beginning to irritate me in a big way), I was struck by how quickly and completely the word 'poo' has migrated from its rightful place in the nursery to become the neutral generic term for a substance for which, heaven knows, the English language (not to mention Latin) has plenty of words. Even the Great Attenborough has succumbed. Whereas the Attenborough of old would have talked of droppings or dung or faeces, the great man now unblushingly uses the nursery term without any indication that he's lapsing into babytalk. Will it be 'birdies' next, and moo-cows and baa-lambs? Will presenters of railway documentaries start talking about choo-choos? It seems wildly improbable, but then a very few decades ago it would have seemed equally unlikely that grown men and women would appear on TV, in supposedly scientific documentaries, straightfacedly talking about 'poo'. I believe it is called infantilisation. It's everywhere.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Over at The Dabbler...

I review another fine book available for a copper - William Maxwell's The Chateau.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


Howard Jacobson has won the Booker! Last year Hilary Mantel, this year Jacobson - it's beginning to look as if the Booker might have become a meaningful prize again. Or so I thought, anyway, until I heard that The Finkler Question only won by a whisker from Peter Carey's latest unreadable slab. Oh well.
Finkler is being described as the first comic novel to win the Booker. Is it really? Surely J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur is a comic novel, or at least there's plenty in it to smile at - as there is in Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore, and Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils... But yes, Booker has been very much a prize for the big, earnest, humourless, 'ambitious' kind of novel, not for anything that might be taken as comic fiction. Which is odd, as the most vigorous tradition in English fiction is surely a comic one, from Fielding, Smollett and Sterne to Wodehouse and Waugh and even Amis pere et fils (before they discovered 'seriousness'), by way of Peacock, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Meredith and the greatest and most English of them all, Dickens. Against that joyous, tumultuous stream, the sobersided tradition in English fiction - Richardson, George Eliot, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene?, the Booker-winning set - seems a thin, sour trickle. Why did 'seriousness' come to be valued above all else? Perhaps it's something to do with Leavis's baleful influence, or with a simple failure of the imagination, a suspicion that anything that makes the reader laugh or even smile must be somehow shallow. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Oscar Wilde (representing an equally vigorous tradition of comic drama) remarked: 'Life is far too important to be taken seriously.'

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


I was always rather fond of that medley of national tunes, woven together by Fritz Spiegl, that used to start the day at 5.30 every morning on Radio 4, and was sorry when it was axed. It was hardly great music, but very cheering, and the perfect marker of the switch from the wider world of the World Service back to dear old Blighty. Now it seems the then Controller, Mark Damazer, got rid of it by mistake. There is something so very BBC about this, isn't there?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Something I Never Thought I'd Do

The trouble with inland Norman towns in autumn is that they are shuttered up and asleep by 10 at night - even the hotels, as my brother and I discovered on the first night of the trip from which I've just returned. Having gone out after dinner to find somewhere for a nightcap - the choice was limited to two low dives, of which we chose the less low - we returned at 11.40 to find our hotel locked, lightless and dead to the world. As we had no key to get in, and as nothing we did could rouse anyone, we were driven to contemplate desperate measures. The window of our room (on the first floor) was ajar - it would just be a matter of climbing the tall, spike-topped metal grille in front of the window below, hauling oneself bodily over the sill and... Fortunately we thought better of that, and, after 40 minutes, when it was beginning to seem that a night of trudging the pavements in the cold night mist lay ahead of us, my brother's despairing bellow of 'Allo? Hotel?' led to a small high window opening, a female head popping out - a beautiful sight, believe me - and, after a while, this angel in human form (one of the staff) appeared again downstairs and let us in. I have seldom been so relieved in my life. The next morning, le patron, totally deadpan, asked us if we required the front door key. And, looking up from the street in the light of day, my brother realised that that window didn't belong to our room after all.
The next day (in company with my brother and the others) I did something I never thought I'd do - visit Monet's house and garden at Giverny. I continued to think I'd never do it when we descended from the hills, having climbed up from the valley and walked through miles of misty woods, into a village swarming with visitors, taking photographs of everything as they strolled along the (very picturesque) street and forming long queues to get in to the house, their numbers augmented by the arrival of an endless stream of coach parties. We retreated to take an early lunch, after which - by a double miracle - the sun had piereced the morning mists and was shining gloriously, and the queues had temporarily gone. Siezing our chance, we went in... I have to report that, though the place was still fairly overrun, it was ravishing. The garden on a sunny autumn day is just the kind of garden I love most - richly, abundantly planted, full of colour and interest, artifice and nature beautifully blended. The immense profusion of michaelmas daisies naturally had me looking out for butterflies, and, as well as plentiful whites, I spotted several red admirals, a brimstone and a couple of speckled woods. As for the house - yes, rather on the ravishing side too, with an abundance of fascinating and beautiful Japanese prints that I wasn't expecting. Yes, Giverny can feel like Monetworld, international HQ of MonetCorp - and yes I'm not a huge fan of Monet overall - but that house and garden somehow retain something enchanting despite the visiting hordes (who were back in force by the end of our visit). If Monet had planned the whole thing - if he'd envisaged his own global megapopularity and the pulling power of Giverny - he could hardly have got it righter. It works.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I'm off to Normandy first thing tomorrow, so there will be blog silence for a few days I'm afraid. You may entertain yourselves with visions of me scoffing bowlfuls of moules, quaffing muscadet and striding through fine Norman countryside, striking fear and wonder into the locals, hem hem.

Messages from Another Life

The eventful life of my trusty old Siemens A62 mobile took another turn the other day when I fumblingly dropped it on a hard pavement. At first it withstood the blow with commendable fortitude - but not for long. Soon it was behaving very strangely, and all my attempts to fix it (including a degree of bashing and shaking)having failed, I realised the poor old thing was nearing its last gasp. I promptly ordered another Siemens A62 ('A design classic' - Nigeness) off eBay (£6.99, with charger) and it arrived, in the nick of time, today, in full working order and raring to go. As ever when swapping a SIM over into a new phone (at least at this low-tech level), it brings with it a seemingly random smattering of what was on it in the old phone. My phonebook seemed to be intact, but with additions I didn't recognise, left over from the phone's previous owner, a man with extensive contacts in the building trade. Having cleared those unwanted numbers out, I checked the SMS inbox and discovered that virtually all my messages had been lost, and what was left was intermingled with messages to the man with extensive contacts in the building trade. These messages, however, were not from builders. As I identified and deleted them one by one, it soon became apparent that this was a married man with a girlfriend with whom he was on, er, visiting terms and who was seldom entirely gruntled - who can blame her? The messages made oddly compelling - and guilty - reading, of a kind that, I suppose, is only possible in this mobiled-up age. In earler times, the nearest thing would have been chancing on someone else's private letters - but letters are very different things from text messages... What if, instead of these texts, I'd come across messages suggesting that two people were conspiring to kill someone or commit come other major crime? There must be a detective thriller in that (no doubt it's been done). Being me, of course, in those circumstances I'd hand it in to the police - and then where would I be? Back on eBay looking for another Siemens A62, of course - story of my life.

Derbyshire to Surrey

Returning from a delightful day in Derbyshire, I see that my piece on the Surrey Style is in Dabbler Country.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Through the Year with Kingsley

Browsing in a local charity shop today, I came across a curious item - a Charles Kingsley Year Book, published by his widow in the 1890s. A handsomely produced volume, it has for each day of the year a quotation from Kingsley's works and, on the facing page, a space for a personal note. In this copy, touchingly, there were pencil-written entries noting 'My wedding day 1913', 'Mother died' etc. Books of this kind were a common form of literery tribute at one time - I remember once coming across an Arthur Wing Pinero(!) year book - and they now serve as a reminder of how hugely popular certain writers were in their day, how big a thing literary fame once was, and, usually, how steeply a reputation can decline in the decades after death. Leaving aside The Water Babies - which lives on as one of those 'much-loved classics' that is seldom actually read in its original form - Kingsley is one of the forgotten Victorians, and his writings for adults are surely unread outside academe (if there). I did once, for some reason, read his Chartist novel, Alton Locke, but it was long ago and I wouldn't recommend it. Yet so popular was Kingsley's Westward Ho! in its day that it gave its name to the Devon town (the only English town with an exclamation mark in its name). There was a hotel there named after him - which he opened himself - and even another Kingsley Hotel in Bloomsbury. I wonder, too, if they had Charles in mind when Mr and Mrs Amis christened their bonny boy Kingsley...
Anyway, I resisted the temptation to buy this curiosity - especially as I had spotted on the same shelf David Cecil's The Stricken Deer or The Life of Cowper, in the modestly handsome 'Crown Constable' edition (1933), complete with ligatured 'ct's and 'st's. They don't make books like that any more - nor are we ever likely to see a Kingsley Amis Year Book (though it mightn't be such a bad idea, come to think...).

Things You Don't Often See...

The other day I found myself sitting on a train with, in front of me across the aisle, a delightful and very happy toddler being entertained by - and entertaining - her mother. Behind me was another delightful and very happy toddler being entertained by - and entertaining - her parents and older sister. There should be nothing remarkable in this, but sadly there is (which made it all the more cheering to see). Far more often when there's a toddler on a train, the child is being entirely ignored until, in a desperate bid for parental attention, s/he does something disruptive - at which point the parent shouts at the child and forces him/her to sit down and stay still and silent, on pain of punishment. The parent then resumes the far more important business of reading a magazine or doing something ferocious on a mobile phone. What is it with us Brits (not you, Brit!) and children? Compared to most other countries, we just don't seem to get it - to grasp that, despite the difficulties and demands of parenting, children are essentially a joy and a consolation. Too many of us seem determined to deny ourselves that joy and consolation, to make parenthood part of our unhapppiness, another burden to be borne. And this is not a class thing - it's perfectly commonplace for 'professionals' to regard children as a problem to be solved, to be somehow fitted in around the important business of life, i.e. Work (a word that never seems to be applied to the very much harder and more useful business of raising a child) and professional advancement, not people to be valued and enjoyed for themselves. Ah well, we in this country have always been notorious for not much liking children, and it seems this aspect of the national character is proving stubbornly resilient.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


It's a difficult (but undeniably popular) subject, extinction, with all manner of claims being made about how many species are 'facing extinction' and how many extinctions are happening each year. Consider this - a pretty representative story - and wonder, as I do, what it actually means and how seriously we should take it. Then ponder the implications of this finding, and throw into the mix the fact that all estimates of the number of species on Earth are guesswork - no one really has a clue, and there's probably no way of ever knowing. Every time the more biodiverse and/or less thoroughly explored habitats - rainforest, deep oceans - are examined closely, they yield hundreds, thousands of new species. My suspicion is that we know too little about the natural world to make any kind of authoritative judgments about matters of extinction. The Earth is always bigger and infinitely more complex - and resilient - than we take it for.

Ed, Meet Kay...

This blog doesn't really do Politics (apart from Old Nige's uncannily accurate prognostications, at which markets and empires tremble) - but there's been no escaping this Milliband business. I doubt the Second Coming itself would get more coverage than the elevation to the Labour leadership of 'Ed', a man with the charisma of a tent peg and the appearance of something Aardman Animations thought better of. His lamentable speech proclaimed that 'We're the new generation' (and no doubt, like the Monkees, 'we've got something to say'). It was of course (what political speech isn't these days?) peppered with talk of 'change' and 'vision' and a 'new start'... With all this ringing in my ears, I stumbled into bed last night and sought escape in my trusty volume of Kay Ryan. Opening it I found not just escape but a curiously apposite blast of wisdom. I'll let it speak for itself...

Least Action

Is it vision
or the lack
that brings me
back to the principle
of least action,
by which in one
branch of rabbinical
thought the world
might become the
Kingdom of Peace not
through the tumult
and destruction necessary
for a New Start but
by adjusting little parts
a little bit – turning
a cup a quarter inch
or scooting up a bench.
It imagines an
incremental resurrection,
a radiant body
puzzled out through
tinkering with the fit
of what’s available.
As though what is is
right already but
askew. It is tempting
for any person who would
like to love what she
can do.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Walerian Borowczyk

The other evening The Yard (he may have fallen silent blogwise but he still walks the earth) and I were talking about the film-maker Walerian Borowczyk. This often happens. Borowczyk's weird early films were one of the surer delights of our intensive cineaste days when we would haunt arty cinemas and film clubs, taking whatever they could throw at us. Rather amazingly, Borowczyk enjoyed mainstream success for a while when he moved into feature films (Blanche was especially big over here) but it didn't last, and he gradually sank into making films that were barely distinguishable from standard pornography and were often marketed as such (he even directed one of the Emmanuelle franchise), until he gradually faded from view...
I've all but forgotten those early films of his, but they came back into my mind when I read the latest luminous piece by RetroProgressive Susan and watched the film of that extraordinary automaton. Didn't Borowczyk make some short films of automata? Looking on YouTube, I couldn't find automata as such, but what I did come across was this astonishing and moving piece of work. As you watch it, bear in mind that this was done in the days of celluloid - no digital effects here. As I say, astonishing.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Over there...

I'm in Dabbler Country again - and I should explain that that one was written a few days ago, before the weather took this nasty turn. I'm not so sorry to be in the office now. Might get in and edit it if I can find my way around WordPress or whatever it is...

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Some Birthday Thoughts On Mickey Rooney

Today is the 90th birthday of Mickey Rooney, who no doubt has a great many more years in him yet. His enormous popularity - especially with the opposite sex - remains one of the enduring mysteries of the entertainment business. Married eight times, he took as his first wife Ava Gardner, no less - yes, Ava Gardner - Ava, what were you thinking of? Since his first appearance, playing a midget in a 1926 short, he was clocked up 323 acting credits in movies, plus countless TV appearances and appearances as 'himself'. Despite the fact that, since an angel appeared to him in a coffee shop, he has been a 'born-again' Christian, rumours persist that Rooney is actually an emissary of Satan. This, I suspect, is entirely based on his appearance, and he is no doubt a blameless and delightful man. My own theory is that one of his parents was an elf, or possibly a goblin.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Oh Kay!

The more I read of the extraordinary American poet Kay Ryan, the more I admire - actually love - her. I've passed on the odd poem of hers in the past... What I didn't realise was that she's equally gifted - and in much the same way - in prose. Yesterday I came across this wonderfully funny, blisteringly honest and expertly crafted piece of rapportage. Only Kay Ryan could have written this - the spare, wiry style, the tangy turn of phrase, the sharp insight, always the fewest words necessary - but I must say that I wholeheartedly share her aversion to all forms of co-operative endeavour in the 'creative' field. Never was it so well (and generously) expressed.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Real Grapes

I've been enjoying some real grapes - remember them? They rarely turn up these days, when seedlessness rules. Seedless grapes save you the minor inconvenience of dealing with a few little seeds, but there's a price to day - they are also mostly flavourless and juiceless, they feature gristly little bits that are the undeveloped seeds, and they're encased in a tough chewy skin. A real grape, by contrast, is fragrant, thin-skinned and bursting with juice and flavour. It's the kind of grape you can indeed, like Keats, burst against your palate - which leads me to his Ode On Melancholy (see lines 27-28). What a strange and beautiful ode this is, though there's something forbidding, declamatory, almost angular, about it that perhaps explains its relative lack of popularity, compared to Keats's other odes - but what an ending! And now for another grape...

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Mystery Deepens

Yesterday's intriguing RetroProgressive post by The Dabbler's style guru, the fabulous Susan, has given rise to a sparkling comment stream (on my head, by the way, I'd have the words May Contain Nuts). Among the comments is the Ineffable Malty on the great contemporary mystery of all those shaven heads everywhere. A still greater mystery is that a shaven head takes at least as long as a hair-covered one to deal with at the barber's, as I discovered this morning at my local barbershop - a Kurdish establishment, nice people ('Kurds. Good people', to adapt Jack's summing-up of Costa Ricans in Vexed). Next to me, and ahead of me in the queue, was a lightly tattooed thirtysomething man with a crop that a Prussian officer of the old school might have thought a tad harsh. When he took his place in the barber's chair, he issued some instruction to the barber which I didn't catch, but which I imagine were along these lines: 'Good day to you, barber. I grieve to report that a mutinous faction among my follicles have dared to raise themselves perilously near to the quarter-inch mark. Would you oblige me by hunting them down and putting paid to their presumption. Employ all weapons at your disposal, and by all means take your time about it. You may, if you like, converse with me the while about football and kindred matters...' And so began an agonisingly long wait while all manner of minutely detailed work was done with a range of electric clippers and even scissors, largely devoted to snipping thin air, followed by blow-drying and the application of unguents and gels. When the lightly tattooed fellow at length rose from the chair, looking just that little bit worse than before, my spirits rose as at least it would now be my turn - but not a bit of it: he had his son with him, a lad of about seven sporting a crop at least as severe as his papa's, and he too was to 'have his hair cut', a procedure that took very nearly as long as what had gone before and left him effectively bald but for a few tiny gelled spikes. The lad seemed well pleased - as was I to at last have my turn in the barber's chair. It might have been my imagination, but the barber seemed glad to have some actual hair to get to work on. He did a fine job (Kurds. Good barbers) and I emerged onto the street a happier, less shaggy man. Outside the shop I was accosted by my old friend, the one-eyed gentleman from County Galway, with the news that, as I had neglected the simple precaution of being born again, I was likely facing an eternity of roasting in the fires of hell. I bore the tidings with equanimity.

Born on This Day...

... in 1796 was Hartley Coleridge, the unfortunate son of Samuel Taylor. He inherited a good deal of his father's character and inclinations, but nothing like the full range of his talents. However, he was a dab hand at the sonnet form and wrote several that deserve to survive. Half a dozen are rounded up on Hartley Coleridge's page of Sonnet Central, a rather wonderful website devoted entirely to the sonnet form. Night seems especially well made, and November is the work of a man who has really looked and listened. I especially like that scentless rose...

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Over at The Dabbler, I'm the 1p Book Review - Time Will Darken It, one from the archives.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Tillotson anyone?

The reference library in Croydon is part of this grand complex, a gloriously extravagant expression of Victorian municipal pride and aspiration. The last time I went in, I was pleased to find it quite wonderfully old-fashioned and unmodernised, complete with chained newspapers, wooden lecterns and dim book-lined galleries - but that was a long while ago, and I'm sure it's a very different story now. However the exterior survives unchanged, with its tall stained-glass windows and, above each, the names of various English worthies, literary and artistic, in threes on little scrolls - very Victorian. Mostly they are the names you'd expect - the likes of Shakespere [sic], Chaucer, Hogarth, Reynolds - but one trio is decidedly odd: Scott, Macaulay (with you so far) - and Tillotson. Who? And why? The only Tillotson of note I can unearth (apart from Johnny 'Poetry in Motion' Tillotson and it's unlikely to be him) is this 17th-century divine. Presumably he enjoyed a Victorian vogue - or perhaps he was a kinsman of the Mayor of Croydon. Who knows?

Alas Poor Jumbo

It was on this day in 1885 that the famous T.P. Barnum elephant Jumbo was killed, struck by a locomotive while crossing the tracks in a marshalling yard at St Thomas, Ontario. The collision derailed the train, and it took 150 people to haul Jumbo's body up an embankment. The melancholy scene is pictured above. Barnum of course couldn't leave it at that. In what was then the largest taxidermy project ever undertaken, he had Jumbo stuffed so that he could carry on touring with the circus. After four years, Barnum let Jumbo go, donating him to Tufts University, where he became the university's much-loved mascot - until he was destroyed in a fire in 1975. His ashes are now kept in a 14-oz Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter tin in the office of the Tufts athletics director, but his tail, which had been removed earlier, resides in the Tufts archives. That peanut butter tin troubles me - surely Jumbo deserves a more dignified resting place after all he's been through...

Monday, 13 September 2010

A Marvellous Thing

I'm just back from a rather wonderful weekend in Derbyshire, which was mostly about an unusual and unusually joyous family get-together - but, this not being That Kind of Blog, I'm not going to go into all that... Two beautiful, non-family-related images linger in my pleasure centres. One is the spectacular view from the tall gothick window of room 7 of the Temple Hotel in (but safely above) the curious resort of Matlock Bath - surely one of the best hotel room views in England (and the hotel itself is delightful, a nicely frayed-at-the-edges Regency house with none of the character-destroying horrors that afflict most modern hotels). The other lingering image is from Sunday morning, when the warm autumn sun broke through early and the late butterflies were flying and basking. On the remaining flowers of a large buddleia bush I saw a marvellous thing - a dozen and more small tortoiseshells feeding happily (along with a red admiral and a peacock). Not so long ago this would have been a common sight, but lately those of us who live in the southeast have been starved of tortoiseshells as their numbers fell steeply. The cause has still not been established, but the likelihood is that a parasitic infection is to blame, rather then the default culprit 'global warming' (in my experience butterflies seem to rather like warmth). This year there were encouraging signs that the tortoiseshell was rallying in the south. Perhaps a dozen of them on a buddleia bush will once again become a common sight - but it will still be a marvellous heart-lifting thing at summer's end.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Where There's a Will...

I'm developing one of my irrational loathings again - and, having asked around, I don't think I'm alone in this one. It's that Will Gompertz, the BBC's Arts Editor, i.e. spouter-in-chief of modish banalities about The Yarts (as Sir Les Paterson eloquently calls them). With his bald dome fringed by long hair (not a good look) and combination of very open-necked shirt, formal jacket and tight jeans (an even worse look on a middle-aged man), his appearance is so strikingly unpleasant as to distract the viewer from what he's saying - which might very well be a mercy but is hardly an advantage for a man in his job. He also likes to stride around self-consciously and chop the air with mannered hand gestures - and he's now adopted a conspicuous glottal stop. And who is Will Gompertz (apart from a former director of Tate Media, whatever that is)? He is, Wikipedia informs us, the third cousin of Simon Gompertz, a reporter on BBC2's Working Lunch. That is quite possibly the most obscure fact I have ever learnt about any living person. Hands up those who know who their third cousins are? Hands up those who even know what a third cousin is? Hands up those who would happily get through the rest of their lives without another report on The Yarts by Will 'Third Cousin of Simon' Gompertz...

A World without Men

Gareth Malone - geeky choirmaster and motivator extraordinaire - launched his latest venture on BBC2 last night. This time he's tackling the sad fact that boys fall way behind girls in primary schools these days, especially in reading and writing. He's going to be giving special boy-friendly lessons to a group of lads in an Essex primary school - and no doubt his efforts will improve their plight. But what a sad plight it is - at school these boys clearly feel themselves in a largely alien world, one where they can only fail, because the whole setup plays to the strengths of the girls. Gareth will be giving them something more tailored to their need for outdoor activity, competition and risk-taking - and from the get-go they seem to thrive on it. But what is most striking about their world, in school and, apparently, out - and what is never actually mentioned - is that there are virtually no men anywhere. Occasionally a father is glimpsed in the background, but there's no sign of a male teacher, or a man in any capacity, at the school. It's a female world. Not only do these boys have no male role models - some of them seem to have no men at all in their lives. Also striking is that several of the all-female staff who you would have assumed were classroom assistants or teenagers on work experience are actually fully qualified teachers - and estuary English is spoken throughout the school, from the head(mistress, natch) down. This is all rather dispiriting to those of us who remember when teachers came in two sexes and gave us something to aspire to, some kind of role model - oh and they also taught us stuff, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, perhaps there's some hope for the boys in Gove's latest wheeze...