Thursday, 30 April 2015

Dickie Davies: The Eyes Have It

Eighty-two years old today is Dickie Davies, the fondly remembered long-time presenter of ITV's World of Sport. A touch of Poliosis gifted Dickie with a trademark white streak through the centre of his fine bouffant hair. This streak inspired the short-lived rhetorical question, 'Do badgers take a picture of Dickie Davies to the barbers'?' (or was it the other way round?). But Dickie's immortality was assured by Half Man Half Biscuit in their strangely beautiful, if vituperative, song Dickie Davies Eyes... Happy birthday, Dickie!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Jack Ely

Sad news today of the death of Jack Ely, lead singer with the Kingsmen, the ultimate 'one-hit wonder' band - but what a hit, what a wonder! I still remember the shock of hearing their version of Louie Louie for the first time; it sounded like nothing else I had ever heard - it was way, way ahead of its time, it had no place in the pop landscape of 1963 when America stood poised for the Britpop invasion. Louie Louie was recorded in a $50 session in a 10' by 10' room, with a microphone hanging from the ceiling and Jack Ely stretching up on tiptoe, bawling into it to make himself heard above the band, who were, for sure, giving it all they'd got. It was Ely who'd had the idea of changing the beat of Louie Louie from the straightforward rhythm of Rockin' Robin Roberts' version to the inspired riff that drives the Kingsmen's Louie Louie. According to Wikipedia, the band gave a 90-minute live performance of the song at a local teen club the night before recording - yet even so they still managed to muck it up during the one-take studio session (all part of the record's raw charm).
 The mostly undecipherable lyrics of the Kingsmen's Louie Louie famously provoked a lengthy (31-month!) FBI investigation, searching for subversive or obscene messages emebdded in the song. In the end they found nothing (and missed an F-word uttered by the drummer after a drumstick fumble). Initially the single made no impact, but it began to take off after a Boston DJ played it as 'Worst Record of the Week', By the time it became a hit, the band had split, and Jack Ely didn't stay long in the music business. He had done enough.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015


As you can hardly fail to have noticed, the 70th anniversary of VE Day is drawing near, and with it a TV documentary and a feature film devoted to what the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret got up to on VE night. The maker of the TV documentary was on the radio this morning, along with Diana Athill and Corelli Barnett, who'd been invited in to share their VE Day memories. Barnett, who was 17 at the time, was refreshingly frank about his experiences of the Great Day on the streets of London. All he remembered were crowds of bewildered and woebegone people shuffling around miserably from street to street and square to square, wondering where the action was and never actually finding any. This has the ring of truth about it: I'm sure many historical events consist, for most of those caught up in them, in stumbling around in a bemused state trying to work out what, if anything, is going on, and not having a clue until History gets to work and tells the story.
The anniversary was also used as a peg for a Radio Times interview with the great Denis Healey, now 97 and deaf as a post. His first words to his interviewer are 'What's all this about?' followed by 'What's the French for "balls"? Oh, I know - couilles.' As for his VE Day memories, he's not at all sure where he was - 'Florence, I think, I don't remember anything in particular...' Brilliant.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Mango Time?

The longest, dreariest, most stage-managed and over-analysed election campaign in living memory grinds on - still another ten days to go (which, according to 'strategists', means that the electorate might now be beginning to think about which way to vote - so what was the past five weeks about?). It's almost enough to make you wish you were in Venezuela - well, leaving aside the fact that it's a Socialist Paradise that manages to translate huge oil wealth into grinding poverty for the masses. At least their politics is livelier. The other day a female voter lobbed a mango at the beleaguered Presidente, Nicolas Maduro, connecting with his noggin. It carried her telephone number and was flung as a way of drawing attention to her housing problem - and it worked. Cannily El Presidente turned the situation to his advantage by getting his 'people' to call her and tell her the Pres had fixed an apartment for her, as part of the 'Grand Venezuelan Housing Project'. If only a few mangoes - or any other soft fruit really - were heading the way of our political leaders in these dying days of a becalmed campaign. With perhaps a small haggis reserved for Wee Nicola Sturgeon...

Friday, 24 April 2015

Your Larkins Today

Today's date - the 24th of April - seems to have been a good one, creatively, for Philip Larkin. On this day in 1954 he signed off on this cheery little number, Continuing to Live - an elegant expression of his appalled fixation with death. The formal finesse is, as usual with Larkin, wonderful to behold. Those half-rhymes, those clinching, squashing fourth lines of each quatrain...

Continuing to live — that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries —
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise —
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Then, on April 24th, 1968, Larkin gifted us Sad Steps, one of the more resigned masterpieces of his maturity, combining a wonderfully vivid evocation of an everyday experience (especially to those of a certain age) with bleakly amused reflections on moon imagery and the passing of time and youth. It's a shock to realise that he was only 45 when he wrote it... 

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by   
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie   
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.   
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow   
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart   
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—   
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain   
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain   
Of being young; that it can’t come again,   
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

From the Past: Rickett, Cockerell

Glancing out of the train window this morning, I read the legend 'Rickett, Cockerell & Co' on the back of a battered little outbuilding of the station where we had stopped - and experienced a little wave of nostalgia. In the grimy, coal-fired land of my boyhood, every railway station had a little coal merchant's office - usually Rickett, Cockerell & Co, usually a kind of half-timbered miniature house with a tiled, hipped roof and a central chimney. These ubiquitous little buildings used to fascinate me and I wondered what went on in them, surmising that it must have something to do with the coal lorries that went the rounds and the coalmen who heaved great greasy sacks of the black stuff onto their backs (protected by a medieval-style leather jerkin with leather cap attached) and staggered to the coal hole to unburden themselves with a great clattering din.
 Well, those days are long gone, local coal merchants are few and far between, and the Rickett, Cockerell name survives only on weathered signboards on the remnants of their quaint former premises, now converted into minicab offices, estate agencies and the like. The name has a certain glamour, with its faint echo of Ricketts and Shannon, the aesthetic duo - and a stronger connection with Sydney Cockerell, the great curator, whose family firm it was. Indeed he began his working life as a clerk in the business, until he met the likes of Ruskin and Morris and got drawn into an altogether less grimy world.
 The name lives on too, I was amused to discover, in an important case in consumer law: Wilson v Rickett, Cockerell & Co Ltd (1954). Mrs Wilson was a housewife who in good faith purchased a consignment of Coalite from the company. When she lit it, a detonator in the Coalite exploded, taking out her fireplace. The company's defence was that, yes, it happened to contain a detonator, but there was nothing wrong with the Coalite itself. This did not cut much ice with the judge.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Fishy 2

How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
'Fish', it seems, is also the answer to the question: Which non-human life-form do politicians like to reach for when being photographed? Dead fish are most definitely the preferred option with today's vote-chasing political leaders - perhaps they think a glazed-eyed gaping cod will make them look good by comparison? There's a report on the phenomenon in The Times (mostly lurking behind a paywall, alas) with a picture of Boris Johnson cradling a codfish, while BBC News has Nick Clegg scrutinising a Ling. Ed Milliband seems to be steering clear of fish, perhaps fearing invidious comparisons, but the pioneer in this field - the master fish-wrangler - is of course David Cameron, who never misses an opportunity to look at fish. And we should also put in a word for Kim Jong Un, a man capable of looking at a great many fish at the same time.  

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


The Mole valley last weekend was dazzling white with blackthorn - white on black - and the wild plums and cherries in full bloom everywhere. In Surrey suburbia I am surrounded by cherry and plum cultivars all thick with blossom, white and pink, sometimes a rather oppressive near-red. The pear trees too are at their peak of beauty, and this sunny morning I saw the first open flowers on my apple tree. Even better, walking in to work I inhaled my first lilac blossom of the year...
 I'll probably be corrected on this, but I think English is the only major European language to have a specific word for the spring flowering of trees - and what a perfect word: blossom. (Other languages have variants of 'tree-flowers' or just use 'flowers' indiscriminately.)
 Anyway, this has been a wonderful spring for blossom, thanks to a lot of dry, still weather and sunny days followed by cold nights. Blossom time is brief - that is part of its beauty. Enjoy it while it's here.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Wodehouse Complete

There was a feature on the radio this morning celebrating the completion of the Everyman Wodehouse - the first ever complete edition of all of P.G. Wodehouse's works under one imprint, all 99 volumes of them. Naturally one's instinct is to applaud - this, after all, was the greatest comic writer of the 20th century, the Master, whose works remain, after all these years, irresistibly, laugh-aloud funny. Well yes, I would agree with all that - but with a caveat: it is only really true of the Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings Castle oeuvre, and not even of the later entrants in those canons. That still leaves a body of classic comedy writing that dwarfs all others of the 20th century, but I have always found that reading the Other Wodehouse (i.e. non Jeeves/Blandings) has been a disappointing experience - too much formula, too much repetition, too much to plough through for the odd nugget of comedy gold. Maybe it's a harsh judgment, but it seems to me that Wodehouse is not a good candidate for completist publishing; he wrote too much, and too much of it was mere pot-boiling. All the same, I can't help feeling that the Everyman edition is a Good Thing and a worthy memorial for a writer who was indeed, at his best, great. And if anyone can recommend some really good stuff from outside the Jeeves/Blandings canon, I'd be delighted...    

Friday, 17 April 2015

Bonfire of the Slippers

I caught this arresting phrase on the radio this morning. Apparently it's been coined by one Sir Muir Gray, who was, believe it or not, 'Chief Knowledge Officer' for the NHS, and who has written a book brusquely titled Sod 70! He advocates giving older people dumbbells and resistance bands rather than slippers, to make sure they stay fit, active and engaged. Not for me, thanks - I'd sooner upgrade my slippers...
The radio discussion, in which he was joined by 'Green Goddess' Diana Moran, was actually sensible stuff, advocating Walking above all things, with a gentle daily exercise routine to maintain suppleness, core strength etc. Also the importance of starting early - Sir Muir seemed to be suggesting the early 30s, which is surely pushing it a bit. John Stewart Collis, who enjoyed a spry old age, also argued (in his book on the human body, Living with a Stranger, I think) for starting early - before 40 was his recommendation, and I followed it, though largely because back problems drove me to develop an exercise routine. Now here I am, an ageing baby boomer, still mobile, still working (not for long!), GSOH, own teeth, etc, and hardly able to believe that in a few years I'll have reached the biblical span, and will at some point be joining the ranks of the dumbbell-wielding, band-stretching Elderly. Oldsters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your spectacles.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Brown, Grandson and Grandfather

Above is Manfred on the Jungfrau, a typically understated early picture by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, who was born on this day in 1821. His typical works are characterised by energy and drama, strong clear light, flat perspective and an intense focus on sometimes grotesque detail (indeed some of his work can, at a glance, look almost like Richard Dadd). Fittingly, Brown's best-known painting is the strenuous and morally charged Work, followed perhaps by that morose tondo The Last of England. For myself, I prefer Brown in more relaxed mood, in landscapes such as Carrying Corn, The Hayfield and An English Autumn Afternoon...
Ford Madox Brown was the grandson of John Brown, originator of the Brunonian System of medicine, which was briefly a major force in medical theory, at least on the Continent. Its basic idea, roughly speaking, was that all medicine was a matter of stimulation or sedation - and his system favoured stimulation. Ford Madox Brown was also the grandfather of Ford Madox Hueffer, who became Ford Madox Ford, and who definitely favoured stimulation.


A piece I wrote on Charles Holden and the Suburban Sublime is there to reread on The Dabbler today.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


As it's just about possible that our coastal waters might warm by nearly 2 degrees (C) in the next half century - if, that is, this particular projection from the Met Office's so far spectacularly wide-of-the-mark portfolio of warming predictions turns out to be right - it really is high time, is it not, that we started thinking about what fish we might be obliged to eat with our chips in 50 years' time. It could be that some less familiar members of the finny tribe will extend their range northward if those projections are right, and some of them might do well in our waters. And others not. Either way, it's surely worth a story on the BBC News website (drawing on a piece in the journal Nature Climate Change - the clue's in the title), and it's always nice to see a picture of a plate of fish and chips. Is it really haddock though? That's what I want to know. Who's to say it's not cod? Or, come to that, reconstituted John Dory? These things matter.
(By the way, I love that phrase 'according to modelling work' - if that's what the fish are looking for, I don't think the John Dory's going to get much.)

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A Heartening Encounter in the Churchyard

A sunny morning in the churchyard as I strolled through this morning, on my way to the station. Two young men, one in a hoodie, both smoking, backs turned, appeared to be scrutinising the Epitaph mounted on the South wall of the church. And so, it turned out, they were.
 As I passed them, one of the youngsters called out: 'Excuse me, mate - can you tell us anything about this?'
 'My dear fellow,' I replied, 'you have come to the right man.'
 No, don't worry, I didn't, but I told them a little about the epitaph and its subject.
 They'd clearly been trying to decipher the inscription for a while. Unfortunately it was in the shade and therefore largely illegible, so worn it is, and the lines had slipped from my sieve-like memory. One of the young men was especially taken with the skull at the top of the stone and I was able to tell him there were more such gravestones around the side of the church. Both of them were touchingly, non-ironically, grateful for what I could tell them (I've often found this with the young products of an education system that seems determined to prevent them learning anything about anything, outside a few prescribed PC topics). 'Lucky we asked someone who knew about the history,' they said. 'Well,' I replied, 'I've lived here half a century and more. I'm part of the history.'

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Breakfast Incident

Warm spring sunshine again yesterday morning, and there I was sitting quietly in the front parlour, with my breakfast on my lap - toast and Marmite since you ask - listening to (or enduring) The Archers. Happening to glance out of the window, I caught a sudden flash of bright silver-blue and, in my excitement, leapt to my feet, with the inevitable result that my precarious breakfast went flying. Picture the scene, if you feel like a laugh to start the week... Happily there was no one present at the time to witness it - and anyway the Marmite jar didn't break, and the toast landed butter side up, so no harm done. And it was well worth that leap to the window, for there it was - my first Holly Blue of the year!
 There were to be many more of these gem-like little beauties as I took my morning stroll - this must have been the day of the big first hatching. As I saw my last Holly Blue of last year in November, this was surely the shortest hiatus ever. Peacocks were flying too, and a couple of Commas, a Red Admiral - and my first sightings of Large and Small Whites. This adds up to a good tally for what is still early April...
 The other highlight of the weekend was seeing a red squirrel in a park in Cheam. Of course it was not a Red Squirrel but a Grey Squirrel (or bushy-tailed tree rat) giving a remarkably effective impression of its red cousin. I've come across brownish Grey Squirrels often enough, but this one was a uniform reddish brown - it was practically Tufty, or Squirrel Nutkin. For a moment it had me fooled - if I'd been holding anything, I'd probably have dropped it.

Friday, 10 April 2015


I woke this morning to the sad news that the great Richie Benaud has gone to join Arlott, Johnners and CMJ in the celestial commentary box. This news, I'm glad to say, was deemed sufficiently important to knock the latest election nonsense off the top of the bulletins - Benaud was probably the last cricket commentator to be that big a figure (yes, all right, Geoffrey - maybe you too).
 Benaud was a brilliant leg-spinner and a wily captain who never lost a series - I'm old enough to remember seeing him in action - but as a commentator, especially as he matured into the role and became ever more laconic, he was in a class of his own. He knew the value of stillness and silence, and never wasted a word, saying exactly what was needed, and no more, with a perfect blend of immediacy and accuracy (he had the sharpest eye of any commentator). To do this at all - let alone to keep it up for as many years as Benaud did - is an extraordinary feat. It is, after all, a kind of simultaneous translation - of the action, often subtle and complex, on the pitch into clear images in the listener's mind. Benaud mastered it like no one else - and his is a case where, truly, there will never be another. The style of cricket commentary has changed too much, from Benaud's 'less is more' approach to the virtually non-stop chatter of today. I miss those silences.

Coppard again

I notice - a day late (that's how busy I've been) - that my little review of some A.E. Coppard short stories is up on The Dabbler...

Thursday, 9 April 2015


Some while back, I mentioned (while celebrating French pylon design) that a competition had been launched to find a new design for British electricity pylons. Well, now we have the result - and it seems to me that, yes, the best pylon won. While it lacks Gallic charm, it's a notably simple and elegant design - indeed so elegant that an incredulous interviewer on the radio this morning asked if it wasn't going to blow down or fall over (the answer is no, by the way). Here's an in-depth report on it all, and scrolling down through the shortlisted designs reveals some real eyesores - though you have to admire H&J Architecture for ignoring the brief altogether. A word of warning though - don't scroll down too far or you'll come across the hideous visage of Chris 'Jailbird' Huhne.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Thunder Lizard Rethought

Good news for retroprogressives everywhere - the Brontosaurus is back. The noble 'thunder lizard', with its glorious name, has for a century and more been non-existent in the eyes of science. Now, however, a closer look reveals that it was rightly identified as a distinct species all along. The dinosaur world turns out to be 'much more diverse' than was thought - and this discovery might be just 'the tip of the iceberg'. I look forward to the next discovery - that the Crystal Palace dinosaurs are in fact anatomically correct in every detail. Onward, Science - back to the future!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

At Last!

Yesterday warm sunshine came at last, and with it the hoped-for butterflies. On my morning stroll, I was treated to Brimstones galore (especially welcome as I saw strangely few last autumn), my first Peacocks of the year, an early Speckled Wood, a Comma and more Tortoiseshells (the recovery goes on, hurrah!). This means that I have now seen six species so far this year - which is exactly where I stood this time last year, except that then the six included both Large and Small Whites: no Tortoiseshell till later in April, and no Red Admiral, bizarrely, till May. Every butterfly year is different, but the start of it always stirs the soul and lifts the spirits - they're back, spring is truly here!

Sunday, 5 April 2015


Happy Easter to all who browse here.
Pictured above is the Easter-blooming Pasque Flower. This, writes Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman's Flora, 'has a fair claim to being the most dramatically and exotically beautiful of all English plants'. Folklore gives it exotic origins too, as Danes' Blood or Danes' Flower, growing from the blood of fallen Danes on ancient earthworks and barrows. Although it is now a threatened species, it still thrives on such sites, outcrops as they are of that dwindling resource, un'improved' calcareous grassland. As with so many other precious plants and insects, the loss of grazing and the spread of scrub have driven the beautiful Pasque Flower into scarcity.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Farrell's Troubles: Lost and Found

Recently I was chatting of this and that with Bryan when the subject of J.G. Farrell came up. Is he still read, we wondered (in the manner of the Marsh-Marlowe Letters). He was good, we recalled - God, he was really good. Shame if he's on his way to becoming a forgotten writer - he was far too good for that. The Siege of Krishnapur, The Singapore Grip, Troubles - especially Troubles...
  Sure enough, a week or so later I was browsing in a charity shop and there it was on the bookshelves, giving me the glad eye - Troubles! A Flamingo paperback edition from 1984 (original publication was 1970 - this was the first of Farrell's 'Empire trilogy'). Reader, I bought it. Reader, I have read it. Reader, I was not sorry - I have loved it all over again, just as I did when I first read it back in the 70s.
 Troubles chronicles the experiences of Major Brendan Archer, coming out of the Army after the 1914 war and travelling to rural Ireland, to the crumbling Majestic Hotel, owned by the family of a girl to whom he somehow got engaged while on leave three years ago. Since then, their relationship (if that's the word) has been sustained by a string of bewilderingly detailed and impersonal letters from her - and things become no less bewildering, on all fronts and in every way, when the Major arrives at The Majestic, a once grand establishment that now barely functions as a hotel and is populated mostly by dotty old ladies with nowhere else to go.
 The Major is an upright, conventional, faintly absurd character, often ineffectual, always an easy prey for any woman who cares to run rings around him. Over the next three years or so, the Major (who also has nowhere much else to go) finds himself unable to tear himself away from the decaying hotel and its mystifying ways. He falls in love and is duly run rings around. He frets about the state of the hotel and the troubling developments in Ireland that he reads about in the papers. The building, already in a bad way, becomes increasingly decayed and uninhabitable, while the locals become restive and 'troubles' begin to break out - small things at first, but building up...
 This is a long novel - a full 450 pages - but it is extraordinarily readable, largely (I think) because it never descends into solemnity, despite its darker themes, but retains a sparkling, unpredictable brightness. The Major is a likeable, strangely compelling character, and Farrell clearly has a magical gift for storytelling. This is a real page-turner, it is very funny - often laugh-aloud funny - and it is, I think, something very like a great novel, a classic.
 Happily, I discovered after my re-reading that Troubles had not been forgotten but was awarded the once-only Lost Booker Prize, for novels written in the 'lost' period of 1970 when the Booker changed its criteria and its timing. The judges were surprisingly - and rightly - unanimous that it had to be Troubles. Sadly, Farrell himself, at the height of his powers and aged just 44, died in 1979, swept out to sea while fishing in Bantry Bay. Heaven knows what he might have achieved had he lived longer. But what he left behind - the Empire Trilogy at least - is amazing stuff and should never be forgotten. If you haven't had the pleasure, read him; if you have, reread him.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Butterfly News

Good news from Butterfly Conservation about the High Brown Fritillary (which I'm old enough to remember seeing) and the Duke of Burgundy. The report shows once again that the most important factors are the weather - last year's was friendly to most species, apart from that dismal August - and human intervention, in particular carefully planned grazing and woodland management. As was learnt (eventually) from efforts to conserve the last remaining Large Blues, the worst course of a action is to withdraw and leave nature to it; the result in invariably scrubby, light-blocking growth, inimical to flowers and butterflies alike.
 Meanwhile, this butterfly year - for me, at least - is getting off to a strangely bumpy start. After that startlingly early Red Admiral (February 18th), I've seen two or three more (one in the same garden), a few unidentified flying objects whizzing past, and a definite Small Tortoiseshell in a car park in New Romney last weekend. No Brimstone, no Peacock, no Comma, nothing more - and it's April now. The reason is not far to seek - this perishing weather, with a persistent cold wind keeping the hounds of spring firmly restrained on winter's traces. When at last things warm up, it should be quite spectacular - and I hope it will involve many more butterflies.

Dabbler Deluxe

A deluxe illustrated edition of my recent post on the Sargent exhibition at the NPG is on The Dabbler today.