Wednesday, 29 July 2015

MOONBRIGHT by Dannie Abse

Afterwards, late, walking home from hospital,
that December hour too blatantly moonbright
 - such an unworldly moon so widely round,
an orifice of scintillating arctic light -

I thought how the effrontery of a similar moon,
a Pirandello moon that would make men howl,
would, in future, bring back the eidolon
of you, father, propped high on pillow
your mouth ajar, your nerveless hand in mine.

At home, feeling hollow, I shamelessly wept
- whether for you or myself I do not know.
Tonight a bracing wind makes my eyes cry
while a cloud dociles an impudent moon
that is and was, and is again, and was.

Men become mortal the night their fathers die. 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

William and Estelle Faulkner

Excerpt from a letter to my mother, in Notting Hill, from my father, in Oxford, Mississippi, dated October 14, 1959

The Alumni House
University of Mississippi

Wednesday October 14, 1959

Dearest Jay

I did not see Falkner [sic] in the end, but only Mrs Falkner: but this was beyond all reasonable expectation.  The Connection is made, & if ever Falkner wants a platform, I think she’ll fix it.  But I don’t suppose he ever will.
         He has lived here all his life.  The house is simply beautiful.  White as usual, built of wood on Kentish ply-board lines, the usual tall wooden portico pillars, cedars surrounding.  The tall, airy, high-ceiling-rooms and the slender wooden bannisters & the weathered timber floor all joined in a lovely unity.  They were burning cedar in the fireplaces, & the aroma spread through the house.
         Falkner stands for absolute negro equality, for the new South, for the American south in a way.  Like an Irishman he savours and chews over the intolerable inescapable marvellous memories of his childhood & his past, but could not, I think, be called backward looking in any way.  He is unsentimental, and is no longer fighting the civil war, as so many of them are in a fatuous Golf Club kind of way, claiming association and identity with virtues & graces they never had & never will have except by bogus proxy – and yet the picture over the sitting room fireplace in Falkner’s house is the picture of Robert E. Lee…
         Mrs Falkner, Mrs Estelle, is 58, delicate, survivor of two husbands, fragile, once a Southern Belle, and an absolute No 1 knock-out with more sex-appeal in pure concentrated quite irresistible form than all of Hollywood added together & multiplied by six.  She was adorable, and, of course, quite impossible I suppose.  She does not vote, ON PRINCIPLE: and what the principle is, as you watch her holding her cigarette between her fourth and little finger, her hands moving exquisitely on the fulcrums of her thin brown wrists, as you watch here alert, lovely head, and take in the lace and the fragrance, what the principle IS, who can tell?

         I liked her.  A knock-out. Once an alcoholic I seems, and her sister a crook.  Oh Jay, you should have been here.  To hell with California, interesting like Selfridges: but here, the interest is like Chartres or Dublin.”

Friday, 24 July 2015

Gordon Stuart, 1924-2015

Painter Gordon Stuart died today at the age of 91.  His portrait of my father hangs in - or at least is owned by - the National Portrait Gallery.  Among others, he also painted Kingsley Amis, Dylan Thomas, Beryl Bainbridge, and Thomas Beecham. Below is a detail of one of his preliminary sketches for the portrait of Dad.


Sorry to read of the death of Owen Chadwick, who wrote one of my favourite books, 'Victorian Miniature' - a study of the relationship between the squire and the parson in the Norfolk village of Ketteringham, between 1838 and 1869.  Doesn't sound like a page turner, does it, but it did it for me. A little classic.

'It reads like a novel, and it is in fact a small masterpiece.' John Clive, The Times Literary Supplement

'Better than any fiction.' The Times

'Chadwick tells their story with grace and great charm, for he is as fully a master of writing as of history, and there can be hardly anybody who would not rejoice over the reading of such a book as this, which is quite fascinating from its first page to its last.' The Guardian

Thursday, 23 July 2015


Note left by Dad at my college in Oxford, 1978?  The drawing is a self-portrait with Mum.  Both pretty accurate actually.


from a letter written by Dad in Chicago to Mum in Notting Hill, 1959
Note: the art gallery here is stupendous.  At first, I was angry at the thought of all this splendour, the Rembrandts & the Picassos, the El Grecos and the Utrillos, all the wealth of pictures being here in this brutal town.  And I sneered at the hanging, the spaciousness, the smooth money-no-object presentation, and saw it as being based simply on the fact that this picture is worth three million dollars, that another cool million.  But gradually the snarl & the criticism died down & became irrelevant.  I would prefer to see Velasquez in some dirty gallery in Italy or Spain, where the glory is not abstracted, conscious, but a fact of being, like the glory of the sun and the whiteness of dust – but all the same all this was trivial & petty because in fact the artists forbid you through pure power to do anything but realise that you are in the presence of people whose vision & authority is so enormous that you are only a mangy mongrel anyway & you had best keep your trap shut.  So I wandered about, as you do in a gallery, at a loss even for emotion or thought which could match the guessed-at glory, and in the dim and ignorant way, paid my respects and yours to dozens of pictures I had seen a hundred times in reproduction, notably the double-picture landscapes by Monet, one at sunrise & one at sunset; to strip cartoons by Goya; to Picasso after Picasso (mainly blue ones – that old guitar player, those three desolate figures on a foreshore) to Bosch (Paradise) El Greco (the gigantic assumption of the Virgin) & to Rembrandt who towers so humanly and is really damn and blast all words and ignorance and stupidity (one’s own) so undeniably, bugger the gas works, bloody marvellous.

Some Wedding Pics

Thomas, Nora, Johanna

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Bethump'd with words

Zounds! I was never so bethump'd with words

Since I first call'd my brother's father dad.

Philip the Bastard
Shakespeare, King John, Act 2, Scene 1

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


I understand that TV Centre is to be demolished. A shame. Great building, much loved by those who worked there. Probably fair to say that it was among the most creative places on earth during the 60s and 70s. (I wonder what will happen to the ‘Statue in the Doughnut’ – the figure being the sun god Helios.) Here's a pic of Sixth Floor Nabobs: Kenneth Adam, Michael Peacock, David Attenborough and Dad (Huw Wheldon).

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Me in all my glory, outside what may be my favourite bookshop in the world, ever.  Palma, Mallorca. Four floors of chaotic organisation. Had neither the time, nor the baggage space to actually purchase anything, but at least grabbed a kwik pic of Damon Runyon's Poems for Men (the book itself was in pieces).

LOVE WITHOUT HOPE by Robert Graves

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire's own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


Five years ago Sam Munson published The November Criminals.  His new novel, The War Against the Assholes is out now.  I look forward to reading it. Here follows my Amazon review of the first book.

To begin with, you think you are in one of those novels by young men that describe the debauched life they lead as though it was interesting. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Certainly there are drugs, weed, here, in fact importantly so. But there is no graphic sex and no unworthiness before the great god Rock. In fact this is a rather high brow book, dense, intellectual, even difficult.

The voice is Catcher in the Rye conversational, the conceit being that the book is an essay written for the benefit of the University of Chicago selection board, describing the narrator's best and worst qualities. Addison Schacht, brought up by his oafish but good-natured artist father, sells dope to his high school fellows and is fluent in Latin, with a special love for the Aeniad.

The story of the book, such as it is, recounts Addison's amateurish attempts to discover the murderer of a classmate, Kevin Broadus. Addison fails utterly but in so doing recreates himself, emerging a sadder but wiser man, one who can, at eighteen years old, not only smoke, but buy cigarettes, not only love but admit to loving, his girlfriend, the intriguing Digger.

Kevin Broadus, a saxophonist in the school band, attracts Addison's attention when, in a class about Music and Its Relation to African American Literature Broadus, an African American, does "not particularly" agree with the notion, put forward by the teacher, that African American literature is less constrained than other literatures. This is the only thing Addison remembers Kevin saying in class, ever, but before he can congratulate him Broadus is murdered.

`The November Criminals', as I learned it, was a phrase given to the Germans who surrendered at the end of the First World War and who subsequently accepted the Versailles treaty. I don't know whether it was Hitler's own phrase but it could have been. So: traitors (but, from our point of view, surely, good traitors). If you know this before you start you spend much of the book wondering about its title. The explanation, when it comes, is not entirely clear, but I think that what Addison is struggling to say is that we are all of us traitors to an ideal notion we have of how things should be. Or something. (Addison loves his italics and his 'ors' and 'whatevers').

But perhaps his point is more specifically about contemporary America. Addison certainly has very little time for multicultural orthodoxy, the central tenet of which is: "we're all still racists today". Addison regards this as mere gesture; indeed, in its extended meaning he regards it, as exemplified by Black History Month, say, as "the ultimate fantasy of a slave owner". For his part he, a Jew, collects Holocaust jokes. It is impossible to read this other than as an act of defiance that proclaims THIS IS HOW THE WORLD IS - BE TRUTHFUL.

`The November Criminals' is a superior work of fiction, written with authority and verve. It is occasionally very funny. Chicago would have been foolish not to accept Addison Schacht.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015


Reading a review of Mary Norris's 'Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen', I find the following information: "...the humble comma [was] invented in the late 15th century by Aldo Manuzio, the same Venetian printer who created the first italic type-face".

Saturday, 6 June 2015


Mildly diverting exhibition by a New York artist who started off abstract but went figurative in the early 70s.  There are one or two examples of the early stuff - mostly astoundingly dull with the exception of a couple of small pictures with stars in them.  Four or five large paintings that give the exhibition its title - 'In the Land of Giants' - take as their theme standing stones that the artist has seen in Ireland, where she worked for some ten years or so in the 70s and 80s.  They are big, and tend to have a kind of void - either an emptiness or a darkness - at the their centre (echoing rather the dull abstract pictures).    There are elements of proper drawing - rather amateurish to this uncuratorial eye - in them but at least there is a focus in the stones.  Other paintings in the exhibition are full of disparate images, some half-realised, some cunningly hidden in the layers of the picture.  This isn't surrealism.  I'm not sure what you'd call it.  On the back of the 'File Note' that accompanies the exhibition are two quotations from Dylan Thomas, 'adapted' by Jo Baer, but actually it is the other Dylan, Bob, that these paintings bring to mind, particularly the albums of 1965-66, though they suffer by comparison, having no voice or rhythm to give them coherence.  Still, they are enjoyable, almost persuading one to take the time to try and decipher their 'meanings' (an attempt, that, as with Dylan, would probably prove fruitless).  Recommended if passing by on a sunny day.  Lovely outside garden and cafe.  Free entry, so why not?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Thursday, 4 June 2015


OK, so not Donaghy standard, but mine own.


Playing pool at the Prince Bonaparte
Was not always such a genteel pastime.
I’m not saying you were going to be knifed
Or have your gut perforated with a pool stick,
Just that you got looked at.  If you’ve been looked at
You’ll know what I mean. The smoke was good
And the stink of beer, and altogether the sense
Of usedness the place had, like an old tool.

These places are gone or going now
Because renewal is the luxury we have time and money for
And doesn’t the year do it, anyway?
Isn’t it natural? Isn’t there a happy bruise or two
Of purple crocuses on the green?
Don’t we rejoice?

I’ve not drunk in the Prince Bonaparte for years
But if I went I would miss the smoke and the spilled beer
(It’s more merlot now than ESB)
And even the being looked at, and I’m afraid
That in the good food and the new d├ęcor

And even the svelte young women, I would not rejoice.

(This originally appeared in The Spectator and is included in a forthcoming collection, called 'Private Places' (Indigo Dreams))