Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Pertinent Bard

“If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work.”
1 Henry IV

Birches by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

I had never heard of this book. My sister gave it to me for Christmas. It is a wonderful present, like one of the pebbles that the author might pick up from one of the shingle beaches he so beautifully describes. In reading I thought of two other authors in particular - Seamus Heaney and Patrick Leigh Fermor. There is a love of language here that goes beyond mere cleverness or look-at-me; the language makes the world it describes. Language becomes as articulate as painting in rendering particular experience. It is a book about the 'wild places' of the British isles, but it is also about friendship and science and history and poetry. I shall post separately a poem by Robert Frost quoted in the text.

Thursday, 24 December 2009


There is an exhibition currently running at the Vatican that purports to prove that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. Maybe he was. I think the truth is that he was - like John Donne and many many others of the time (it tended to depend on the monarch) - both an Anglican AND a Roman Catholic. Those of us who enjoy Shakespeare are ever conscious - and appreciative - of the absence of God from most of his plays. I think that this absence may explain both his enduring and international popularity.

Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo, a 53-year-old poet, literary critic and former professor previously jailed for nearly two years for his role in the 1989 student-led protests at Tiananmen Square. is on trial again in Beijing. His role in promulgating Charter 08, a manifesto in favour of Chinese political freedom, is the chief reason for the government’s latest attempt to silence Liu.

UPDATE Liu Xiaobo has been sentenced to 11 years in jail.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Howards End

It is of course ridiculous - perhaps even shameful - that an Oxford English graduate should not have read 'Howards End', but I haven't until now. A few years ago I read Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' for the first time. I was shocked that no-one had ever told me how very good it was. Nobody had said to me "you have GOT to read this book. It's marvellous". Well, the same is true of 'Howards End'. Why did nobody tell me? It is a scintillating piece of litearture. I know everyone knows this, but I didn't and it has come as an utter pleasure and surprise. I chose to read it after reading a review of Frank Kermode's new book, 'Concerning E. M. Forster'. I like Kermode and fancy reading this, but there would have been little point without knowing something of Forster first, and so...

As I was thinking about this - and about how Trilling, too, had written a book about Forster - I remembered a scene from 1974. I was sixteen years old. I was standing in a group of people at a party or gathering of some sort. We were in a triangle of room that obtruded from some house or institution somewhere in Colorado. At the apex of the triangle were shelves. On either side were windows strecthing from ceiling to floor. The views were spectacular, over the Rockies. We were very high up. To my left was my father. To his left was Lionel Trilling with tremendously white hair. To Trilling's left was Isaac Stern, the great violinist. Between Stern and me was, I think, Saul Bellow. I think. Of the first three I am certain.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Optical Illusion

Failing to Resist a List

Since - and including - the year 2000 - people from the USA have been awarded no less than 67 Nobel Prizes. The UK boasts 15. These two added together (82) are considerably more than the rest of the world put together (60). So despite what many a continental European intellectual would maintain, that Anglo-Saxon culture is essentially philistine, it doesn't seem to do badly. Next up after the UK by the way are Japan and Germany (8 each).

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Oh Mr Porter

I fear I'm getting altogether too sporty. One of the reasons why I shy away from politics is that I get so terrifically angry about so many things and I fear my own incoherence. One of the things that drives me crazy is the State's approach to children (who says New Labour isn't socialist?). The blessed Mr Porter says it all for me, here.

Ballon d'Or Winners

1956 - Stanley Matthews (England), 1957 - Alfredo di Stefano (Spain), 1958 - Raymond Kopa (France), 1959 - Di Stefano, 1960 - Luis Suarez (Spain), 1961 - Omar Sivori (Italy), 1962 - Josef Masopust (Czechoslovakia), 1963 - Lev Yashin (USSR), 1964 - Denis Law (Scotland), 1965 - Eusebio (Portugal), 1966 - Bobby Charlton (England), 1967 - Florian Albert (Hungary), 1968 - George Best (Northern Ireland), 1969 - Gianni Rivera (Italy), 1970 - Gerd Mueller (West Germany), 1971 - Johan Cruyff (Netherlands), 1972 - Franz Beckenbauer (West Germany), 1973 - Cruyff, 1974 - Cruyff, 1975 - Oleg Blokhin (USSR), 1976 - Beckenbauer, 1977 - Allan Simonsen (Denmark), 1978 - Kevin Keegan (England), 1979 - Keegan, 1980 - Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (West Germany), 1981 - Rummenigge, 1982 - Paolo Rossi (Italy), 1983 - Michel Platini (France), 1984 - Platini, 1985 - Platini, 1986 - Igor Belanov (USSR), 1987 - Ruud Gullit (Netherlands), 1988 - Marco van Basten (Netherlands), 1989 - Van Basten, 1990 - Lothar Matthaeus (Germany), 1991 - Jean-Pierre Papin (France), 1992 - Van Basten, 1993 - Roberto Baggio (Italy), 1994 - Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria), 1995 - George Weah (Liberia), 1996 - Matthias, Sammer (Germany), 1997 - Ronaldo (Brazil), 1998 - Zinedine Zidane (France), 1999 - Rivaldo (Brazil), 2000 - Luis Figo (Portugal), 2001 - Michael Owen (England), 2002 - Ronaldo, 2003 - Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic), 2004 - Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine), 2005 - Ronaldinho (Brazil), 2006 - Fabio Cannavaro (Italy), 2007 - Kaka (Brazil), 2008 - Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).

And this year? Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Monday, 30 November 2009

Sports Personality of the Year

Well the one who made me weep was Jessica Ennis. Team has to be the Lions despite losing, because they undoubtedly gave the greatest pleasure. International: has to be Federer doesn't it? and international team (if there is such a thing) Barca. Are these all a bit ruddy obvious?

And why has Gareth Edwards never received a knighthood? Sir Clive Woodward? but Mr Edwards? I suppose when you are a god it doesn't much matter.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I came late to Steinbeck because somehow nobody had ever insisted that I read him. I suppose about ten years ago I read 'The Grapes of Wrath' and then 'East of Eden', and it was clear to me that Steinbeck wasn't very far off the Tolstoyan peaks. Like Tolstoy, indeed, he is concerned with the great sweep of history, and like Tolstoy again he is concerned even more with the lives of individuals. "Of Mice and Men' has the power of Greek tragedy. Its lucidity and its fearlessness (Steinbeck does not run away from the edge of sentimentality or from simple meanings) are exemplary. I believe it is a book full of writerly lessons in construction and economy - less is more. The attempt in schools to turn it into a sociological tract would have appalled the author. This is a work of mythic scale.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

See How Easily You Can Transform

A meaningful collage by your umble blogger. I'm putting it up in case it gets "lost" when we move house.

Orson Welles on Kafka

Orson Welles interviewed by Dad for Monitor, 1962 (click on the title above). And a clip from the movie itself.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Walking Back to Buck's by Tarka Huxley Kings

Tarka Kings
Walking Back to Buck’s 2009
pencil on paper
57 x 76 cm, 22.4 x 29.9 in

Tarka and Kate Atkin are showing drawings next week, 25 November - 8 December at 52 Hoxton Square. Looks pretty cold walking back from Buck's. I hope he sent them off with a hot toddy.

Jonah Jones

"Episode 3 in the ‘Hidden Histories’ series for BBC Cymru Wales, produced by Element Productions in association with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, will be shown on Tuesday 17 November 2009 at 7.30 pm on BBC Two Wales. It will include a feature on the wall sculpture ‘Avo Penn Bid Pont’ by Jonah Jones (1969–70), in the students’ refectory at Coleg Harlech, whose future is threatened by the proposed demolition of the students’ block in 2012."

The above is a message from David Townsend Jones

Ground by Luke Elwes

57 x 76 cm
mixed media on paper

I saw this painting the other day. It is a picture of tidal marshland in the Blackwater estuary, near Maldon, site of that blasted battle all English university students had to read about in the original Anglo-Saxon. I liked it at once. I'm partial to works that play between the abstract and the figurative (Ivon Hitchens is my favourite). I learned furthermore that the co-author of the painting was the very sea itself. Luke allows the tide to do its work with his paper. He also uses mud, wax, watercolours. There is the sense both of super-realism as well as flat abstraction. Lots to look at inside it. Something too of Monet's late lilies.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Foreword to Poems by Robert Graves, 1945

"Since poems should be self-explanatory I refrain from more foreword than this: that I write poems for poets, and satires or grotesques for wits. For people in general I write prose, and am content that they should be unaware that I do anything else. To write poems for other than poets is wasteful. The moral of the Scilly Islanders who earned a precarious livelihood by taking in one another's washing is that they never upset their carefully balanced island economy by trying to horn into the laundry trade of the mainland; and that nowhere in the Western Hemisphere was washing so well done."

Robert Graves

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Calder's Circus

David Young brought this to my attention this evening. Really quite delightful.


ENGLAND PL118 W53 L53 D12 WIN%44.92
FRANCE PL85 W43 L39 D3 WIN%50.59
IRELAND PL112 W61 L45 D6 WIN%54.46
ITALY PL14 W11 L2 D1 WIN%78.57
SCOTLAND PL114 W63 L48 D3 WIN%55.26

as of 12/11/09

Letter from Ed Vulliamy to Amnesty International

When i was young Amnesty International was an organisation recognised as politically neutral and therefore trustworthy. That is no longer the case. Read this.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Jentacular Confabulations

Many thanks to my friend Seth for the word JENTACULAR, which was new to me. Here is the entry from the OED


[f. L. jent{amac}cul-um breakfast (f. jent{amac}re to breakfast) + -AR.]

Of or belonging to breakfast.

1721 AMHERST Terræ Fil. App. 318 Nothing more..can be expected from those jentacular confabulations. 1811 A. KNOX in Corr. w. Jebb (1834) II. 44, I therefore wish to close at this ante-jentacular hour.

Citizen Kane

Went to see Citizen Kane this evening with Jacob, at the NFT. It isn't my favourite film, but it is undeniably rich. Whereas most movies are concerned chiefly with framing the characters and providing rhetorically neutral background, in Kane the whole frame is full. There seems to be always more than one thing going on or more than one thing to look at in each scene. And of course as with any great work new things are seen on each viewing. This time I noted that the last words of the film are printed on a sign: "No Trespassing", an ironic comment perhaps on the biographer's questionable craft.

Thomas Jefferson's 'Three Greatest Men'

This is a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Trunbull, dated February 15, 1789. In Jefferson's opinion "the three greatest men that ever lived, without any exception" were Bacon, Newton and Locke. Locke of course provided the philosophical meat for the Declaration of Independence (written by Jefferson). I post this now because I have just watched two hours of the magnificent 'John Adams', HBO's dramatisation of David McCullogh's biography. Apart from a few rather irritating bits of token (anachronistic) feminism it is almost faultless. Other than the central performances I particularly liked Tom Wilkinson as Franklin (a well-written part) and whomsoever played Jefferson (again, a finely made portrait).

Friday, 6 November 2009

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

This is a terrifically arch book. It is an amalgam of genres, including autobiography, memoir and fiction. I believe it is supposed to be One Thing. As I say, it is arch, very much the product of creative writing courses, written for the academy. Which is a shame because the central story, about an almost comically inept father and his son trapped on an island off Alaska approaches a Tolstoyan grandeur and simplicity at moments. Unfortunately it, too, is spoilt by creative writing-itis, as the point of view shifts mid-way from son to father for a reason I shall not give away (although it is preposterous). So some good stuff and I certainly couldn't do better. Has a lot of fish business in it.

Anne Bayefsky at the United Nations

Anne Bayefsy is a highly-regarded Canadian human rights lawyer. Unfortunately for her she is also regards Hamas as a genocidal terrorist organisation, not at all a fashionable view at the moment.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Megan's Shoes

This is the classic 'Megan's Shoes', the movie that introduced my sister (or at least her shoes and dodge tights) to the world wide web.

The Humbling by Philip Roth

New novella by Philip Roth. Covers familiar Rothian territory, namely the identity of the self. This time the protagonist is an actor who has "lost his magic". He has lost his ability to be someone other than himself, and in doing so he has lost himself. As usual in Roth books, sex is the answer, the place where he can slough off any personal identity and become merely animal. In this book the sex is with a lesbian who eventually reverts to her original predilections in the actor's presence, donning a strap-on dildo, and thereby becoming no longer herself but a pretend man. The bed becomes a stage, and therefore the actor is robbed even here of the ability to be his primeval self. Roth is all ego and id. But he writes beautifully, beautifully, beautifully. However, among our senior novelists I do not think Mr Roth is maturing as well as Mr Trevor.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

An Education

Good film. First rate central performance from Carey Mulligan, who is both pretty and plain, young and mature - in other words perfect casting for the wise and naive Jenny. In fact the strongest element of the film is the casting which is spot on throughout. The ethos that pervades it all is of course liberal, but in the end our sympathies lie not with the young man who shows Jenny Paris but with the stuffy "frightened" father so well played by Alfred Molina. Not unlike 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie' the picture ends up extolling the virtues of the milieu it affects to despise. The touch is light and the drama never really compelling, but it is a change to see something a little less than breathless in the cinema.

PS "Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking." Dpes this mean that 'Casablanca' is now a PG-13 in the USA?

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

Nick Cave's new novel. Part picaresque, part ghost story, but chiefly an old-fashioned morality tale concerning itself chiefly with lust. Bunny Munro, named for his ability to copulate like a rabbit, as well as for his animal nature, is a salesman for Eternity Enterprises. He sells anti-aging creams to vulnerable women. After his wife's suicide at the beginning of the book he sets off on a journey to hell, in the company of his son, Bunny Junior, the true hero of the book, and the character closest to the reader. Bunny is a disgusting, repellant, charmer, but he is undeniably full of life and as irresistible to us as he is to the women he seduces. Written with tremendous verve and love of the unexpected simile (hair pouring down the back of a character "like chicken soup"), this is an enjoyably old-fashioned book, and altogether more compassionate than you might think.

Christopher Walken recites Poker Face

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Rasselas by Samuel Johnson

"The most intelligent book ever written" Howard Jacobson
Some hyperbole is simple gushing. This is considered hyperbole. And perhaps it isn't even hyperbole. Perhaps it is true. It is the one neglected masterpiece mentioned on Mariella Frostrup's radio programme that I have a) heard of and b) actually read.


Dionysus bangs his bucket at the locked door.
I send down a maid to explain I cannot see him
And she does not return.

Soon the clank starts up again. I down my pencil
And, cautious for my son, who is intrigued,
I go myself, and do not return.

Wynn Wheldon

Friday, 30 October 2009


"If I had to say which was telling the truth about society - a speech by a minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time - I should believe the buildings."
Kenneth Clark, Civilization, BBC

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Dan Jacobson on Dad

I have always loved these two sentences of Dan's, and just came again upon the letter from which they come. 'Jess' is Dan's daughter.

"I shall never forget Huw kneeling down with a tiny Jess to do a charade of Jack and the Beanstalk, in the garden of Jonah Jones' house, above that estuary in Wales. All of him was there."

Hate Crimes

Pauline Howe, 67, wrote a letter to Norwich Council objecting to a local gay pride march. Subsequently two police officers turned up on her doorstep to warn her that she had committed a “hate crime”. I expect she will now go down on the little list that the Police are compiling of "domestic extremists", which includes people who do not like war or Islamism or cruelty to animals or speed cameras.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Books of the Year

Perhaps it is too early for this, but I don't mind, because I haven't done a list yet and it is way past time. So here are the ten novels i have most enjoyed reading in 2009.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy (1878)
Love and Summer - William Trevor (2009)
Dirt Music - Tim Winton (2001)
Journey in Moonlight - Antal Szerb (1937)
The Dying Light - Henry Porter (2009)
The Midnight Bell - Patrick Hamilton (1929)
Netherland - Joseph O'Neill (2008)
Breath - Tim Winton (2008)
Juliet, Naked - Nick Hornby (2009)
The Believers - Zoe Heller (2008)

Honorable mentions for John Updike, Lee Child, Robert Crais, William Boyd. Nick Cave

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Chris Steele-Perkins

This wonderful photograph featured in The Times magazine today. It made me laugh out loud. It was taken by Chris Steele-Perkins, and was taken on Blackpool beach in 1982. It comes from a collection called 'England, My England', published by Northumbria Press

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Love and Summer by William Trevor

"On the streets of darkened towns, on roads that are often his alone, bright sudden moments pierce the dark: reality at second hand spreads in an emptiness."

William Trevor's new novel is that very rare thing: perfect - as well made as a butterfly.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


I am in two minds. It is an unusually vulgar version, Austen's wit and cleverness filleted out, but i find Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller make terrifically good television. Her wide eyes sometimes become tiresome but she has invested in the character a real liveliness that makes it hard to tear oneself away.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Freedom to be Disagreeable

Jan Moir, a columnist in the Daily Mail wrote last week that Stephen Gately's death had been "anything but natural" and suggested that all may not have been as it seemed. She went so far as to suggest that Gately's lifestyle may have contributed to his death. She revealed herself as a not altogether fulsome supporter of civil partnerships. Agree with her or not (and it isn't a very agreeable column), she is entiteld to her opinion. Isn't she?

"A repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathsome and inhumane". This was Stephen Fry's response to Ms Moir's article. This strikes me as pretty offensive (and certainly smugly condescending) not least to those two and a half million people who buy the Daily Mail. Given that one cannot switch on a TV, radio (or phone) or pick up a newspaper without coming upon the ubiquitous, omniscient Mr Fry making his views felt it seems a bit rich that he should be laying down the law on what others with less exposure may have to say. It now seems that spurred on by the bien-pensant elite Ms Moir has been reported to the Metropolitan Police on suspicion that she may have committed a "hate crime".

In another article on this subject Yasmin Alighia-Brown uses the word "toff" as a term of abuse to dismiss the views of Martin Amis (who, so far as I know, has said nothing about Stephen Gately's death, even assuming he knows who Stephen Gately is or was). Many years ago I interviewed Ken Livingstone, on the subject of lying in politics. I put to him an Orwell quotation - i think it was "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful" - and his first response was to dismiss anything written or said by an Old Etonian. So there we are then: Toffs' opinions count for nothing among ex Mayors and those with double-barreled surnames.

Just for the record: I don't listen to Boyzone and I don't read The Daily Mail, but I do think there should be a place for anti-establishment views.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Charles Trenet, 'Boum', Paris 1938

My father was in Paris in 1938. He described the French as being full of "quick-glancing panic" - something nasty stalking them. Hitler's autumn speeches were widely reported. In the same year Duchamp curated an exhibition of surrealism, lining the beautiful galleries of the Beaux Arts with 1,200 coal sacks.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Thursday 16 October

Blimey. Quite a day. Spouse and I walked on the Heath in brilliant October sunshine. We exchanged on a house. The band played a gig at the Luminaire, debuting a new song. I attended a seminar on the fall of Communism at the British Academy. The band's manager quit. If you examine this list carefully, it represents an enormously wide gamut of emotions, states of feeling, modes of thought. Perhaps I'll list them later.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Dutch bees

"I have not yet forgotten the first apiary I saw, where I learned to love the bees. It was many years ago, in a large village of Dutch Flanders, the sweet and pleasant country whose love for brilliant colour rivals that of Zealand even, the concave mirror of Holland; a country that gladly spreads out before us, as so many pretty, thoughtful toys, her illuminated gables, and wagons, and towers; her cupboards and clocks that gleam at the end of the passage; her little trees marshaled in line along quays and canal-banks, waiting, one almost might think, for some quiet, beneficent ceremony; her boats and her barges with sculptured poops, her flower-like doors and windows, immaculate dams, and elaborate, many-coloured drawbridges; and her little varnished houses, bright as new pottery, from which bell-shaped dames come forth, all a-glitter with silver and gold, to milk the cows in the white-hedged fields, or spread the linen on flowery lawns, cut into patterns of oval and lozenge, and most astoundingly green.

To this spot, where life would seem more restricted than elsewhere - if it be possible for life indeed to become restricted - a sort of aged philosopher had retired; an old man somewhat akin to Virgil's - "Man equal to kings, and approaching the gods;" whereto Lafontaine might have added - "And, like the gods, content and at rest."

Here had he built his refuge, being a little weary; not disgusted, for the large aversions are unknown to the sage; but a little weary of interrogating men, whose answers to the only interesting questions one can put concerning nature and her veritable laws are far less simple than those that are given by animals and plants. His happiness, like the Scythian philosopher's, lay all in the beauties of his garden; and best-loved and visited most often, was the apiary, composed of twelve domes of straw, some of which he had painted a bright pink, and some a clear yellow, but most of all a tender blue; having noticed, long before Sir John Lubbock's demonstrations, the bees' fondness for this colour.

These hives stood against the wall of the house, in the angle formed by one of those pleasant and graceful Dutch kitchens whose earthenware dresser, all bright with copper and tin, reflected itself through the open door on to the peaceful canal. And the water, burdened with these familiar images beneath its curtain of poplars, led one's eyes to a calm horizon of mills and of meadows.

Here, as in all places, the hives lent a new meaning to the flowers and the silence, the balm of the air and the rays of the sun. One seemed to have drawn very near to the festival spirit of nature. One was content to rest at this radiant crossroad, where the aerial ways converge and divide that the busy and tuneful bearers of all country perfumes unceasingly travel from dawn unto dusk. One heard the musical voice of the garden, whose loveliest hours revealed their rejoicing soul and sang of their gladness. One came hither, to the school of the bees, to be taught the preoccupations of all-powerful nature, the harmonious concord of the three kingdoms, the indefatigable organization of life, and the lesson of ardent and disinterested work; and another lesson too, with a moral as good, that the heroic workers taught there, and emphasized, as it were, with the fiery darts of the myriad wings, was to appreciate the somewhat vague savor of leisure, to enjoy the almost unspeakable delights of those immaculate days that revolved on themselves in the fields of space, forming merely a transparent globe, as void of memory as the happiness without alloy."

Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of Bees, 1901
(brought to my attention by Jane Ridley, for which many thanks)

Radio One

Waxwork was played by Zane Lowe on BBC Radio One last night.

Promises Promises

"To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers-that-be. That's why ID cards, 42 days and Labour's surveillance state are so utterly unacceptable, and why we will sweep the whole rotten edifice away."
David Cameron, Conservative Part conference 2009

Monday, 12 October 2009

Nobel Prizes

Of the thirteen awards this year, eleven went to Americans. I guess they thought giving Philip Roth literature would have been seen as plain Silly. Not bad for a nation so often characterized as full of idiots by intellectually feeble British comedians.

The Dream of the Virgin

Killing time in the National Gallery before lunch at the Academy Club I wandered around the icons and early Renaissance stuff. Not something that would usually attract me, but since 'Wonderworker' my interest has been pricked. I came across this extraordinary picture by Simone dei Crocefissi. It is called The Dream of the Virgin. The cross issues from the sleeping virgin's womb. Adam and Eve, crudely not quite nude, are being liberated from limbo by some strange unbodied hand, and an old woman reads at the end of the bed. There's a fairly groovy bedspread. Then there are very tiny little castles all over the place. There is lots of activity, and the painter clearly enjoyed himself. It has no dry piety about it and a certain kind of sensuousness in the curves that makes it very appealing.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Motorbiking News for Women

I understand that the Hamas government in Gaza has just banned women from riding on the back of motorbikes. Apparently this is not a curb on women's freedom as you can ''see women sitting in cars and walking freely in the streets". Phew, that's all right then.

Lo-Fi Culture Scene - Waxwork

Directed by Rik Green. This track can be bought on iTunes.

Friday, 9 October 2009


So they don't make them like they used to, eh? Among the plethora of children's films - Transformers and its like, including all those moronic Dude movies - comes Up, which is thoughtful, mature, exciting and funny. I kept thinking Spencer Tracy. No bad thing to keep thinking. So my films of the year are Up and The Hurt Locker. Pretty darn eclectic huh?

The Same Hymn Sheet

"The warmongers in London and Washington, aided by the liars in the controlled media, are busy whipping up a war fever against Iran using the same techniques of deceit they used against Iraq..."

"Obama's "showdown" with Iran has another agenda. The media have been tasked with preparing the public for endless war."

Match the quotation with the writer

Arthur Kemp - Foreign Affairs spokesman for the British National Party
John Pilger - New Statesman columnist

Barack & Books

Why has Barack Obama won the Nobel peace prize? What peace has he brought to where?

The Times today has published a list of the 60 best books of the last 60 years. It is a laughable collection, part meretricious, part infantile and generally depressing. For 1964 Len Deighton's Funeral in Berlin has been chosen over Saul Bellow's Herzog. That is one example of numerous fatuous choices. There are only five books written in a foreign language. Where is Milan Kundera? Where is Invisible Man? Where is Achebe? Or Oz? Where is The Bonfire of the Vanities? Muriel Spark? Richard Hughes? A House for Mr Biswas? R.K. Narayan? Where is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, you moronic Top People? Simenon? Where, in the name of all that is good and holy, is The Master and Margarita? I understand that the books were selected by readers of The Times. Gawd help us. I am a self-confessed middle-brow but this lot takes the biscuit. For what it is worth, my favourite novel of the past 60 years is The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Normando Hernández González

Why can I find no information about the condition of imprisoned Cuban journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez on either the Amnesty site or the Human Rights Watch site? Does it have something to do with the accents on the 'a'? I think probably not, alas. From what I can gather from Amnesty's site the human rights that organisation is concerned with are those denied ordinary Cubans by the American embargo. Curious priorities, it seems to me, suggesting that Amnesty is now in the hands of a cabal that sees dictatorship as acceptable so long as it is anti-American.


On October 8th, 1982, all labour organisations in Poland, including Solidarity, were banned. Seems like yesterday. I had a 'Solidarnosc' sticker on the rear window of my car. I also had a sticker that read 'Help the KGB, support CND'. I think the combination of these two impelled persons unknown to pour turquoise paint all over the back of my black mini. It looked rather fetching, I thought.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Dying Light by Henry Porter

Of the three state-of-the-nation novels I have read recently - A Week in December, and Ordinary Thunderstorms are the others - this is by far and away the best. It is, yes, a political thriller, but it is written with more vim, more conviction, better grasp of character and motive, and more determination to make a difference than either of the others. I shall not outline the plot, except to say that it is set in Britain in the very near future and that you won't walk or drive past a CCTV camera again without thinking twice.


This was a new word which my darling wife came across while we were admiring the windows of the preposterously gorgeous Ste Chapelle in Paris.  It means, literally (from the Greek), "ox-turningly".  Here is the definition from the OED:     (Written) alternately from right to left and from left to right, like the course of the plough in successive furrows; as in various ancient inscriptions in Greek and other languages.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


"Tarantino’s only use for the past is to make pasta out of it"  Frederic Raphael in Commentary Magazine. Read more here.

A Nine Lemons Composition

A painting by Jason Line. More art by Jason here.

North End Avenue

May, and the new is still fresh,
Celebrating itself.
Boughs bow to one another in the breeze.
Trees green-barked a month ago
Now strut in darker suits.
Where the daffodils waved
Now the bluebells ring.
The ditches are drying, the ivy glitters.

I would have walked my mother
Up North End Avenue.
She'd be all curiosity
(Perhaps the name of a flower, that,
Like Honesty).  I miss the love she had for me.
I miss giving the love I had for her.

Wynn Wheldon

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Sunbathing Before Troy

A mid-period work by your umble blogger


I cannot pretend that I am not disappointed. I was rather hoping to have been inundated with interesting / interested comments. Clearly I am not being contentious enough. I am going to try harder in future.

The Scorpion by Paul Bowles

This is a short story by Paul Bowles.  An old woman lives in a cave.  A man sits outside on a boulder.  Her son comes to take her away.  She dreams of swallowing a scorpion.  The old man says goodbye.  She ignores him.  At first reading it infuriates, as one tries to locate some kind of meaning. Eventually one must accept that this is a piece of surrealism.  It is full of mythic resonance but it is without message.  It is as pure a piece of escapism as can be imagined. What is left in the reader's mind is a series of images. It is a kind of gift to the reader's imagination. This can only be written with absolute authority.  The writer's mark is as indelible as the painter's signature. At the same time, there is no style, no "look-at-me"; the reader is not diverted. Masterful stuff.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Ordinary Thunderstorms

This is a new novel by William Boyd that seems to have provoked a good deal less interest than Sebastian Faulks's new book.  They are similar in many ways.  There is a Big Baddie (Bankers in SF; the Pharmaceutical industry in WB); there is a wide cast of characters; and there is the setting (London).  Drugs and hospitals and fathers and sons figure in both.  Boyd's however is much much better.  Without having the burden of writing a kind of programme-state-ofthe-nation novel, as Faulks has tried to do, Boyd has simply told a story.  His story is more preposterous, but it is better told and therefore more convincing.  His characters are fuller, the descriptions more acute, the risks taken in the way of Dickensian coincidence bolder.  It is much more of a novel altogether.  What is more the very writing itself is better wrought without straying into look-at-me territory.  Thoroughly enjoyed, then, and a true London book.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Happy Birthday Bruce

Bruce Springsteen was 60 on the 23rd September. This is the front cover of the magazine of the AARP - the American Association of Retired Persons.  The Baby Boomers are going down rocking.


To Trafalgar Studios to see Lenny Henry in Othello.  First rate.  He's a big man, for a start.  He looks like a warrior.  He also has a kind of tenderness about him, so that the wounds by which he is inflicted do seem really to tear.  Against Henry's bear like presence is set the quick, ratty Conrad Nelson as Iago.  Henry was terrific at stillness, Nelson compelling in motion.  We sat in seats that were more or less on the stage.  They were apparently cheaper.  God alone knows why.  And Shakespeare really is very good. All that stupendous language - and then "cold, cold, my girl" and your heart bursts.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Inherit the Wind

To the Old Vic last night with sleepy son to see Inherit the Wind. I was fairly sleepy myself. Under normal circumstances both of us would probably have been comatose by half time but this was very enjoyable. David Troughton, in particular, held the stage (just as his character is supposed to) staying just the right side of caricature. Spacey enjoyed playing the great liberal icon, Clarence Darrow, all worldly-wise and witty with it, but perhaps overdid the agedness. St Trev directed with usual aplomb. The play ends rather whimperingly. It could perhaps be fifteen minutes leaner. But a good evening, much enjoyed by both of us.

A Week in December

At the risk of sounding like the bitter literary critic R. Tranter, whose story makes up one of the threads in this novel, A Week in December is a little disappointing. In fact I'd go so far as to say pedestrian. It has the dryness of an exercise well done. But what I really object to - and I admit this is a failing on my part perhaps - are the endless pages of financial talk, of synthetic bonds and proprietary bank traders and gilts and trades and mercantile exchanges. I am sure that such a book needed to be written, but Tom Wolfe this ain't.

The second half is much better than the first, and I nearly wept at the end of two separate threads.  This obviously is no mark of quality but rather a demonstration of a thundering sentimentality on my part that I try very hard to hide.  So: not as bad as I originally tought, but not pushing my top ten for 2009.

The Road by Frank Turner

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Spooky Action at a Distance

"The premise behind a quantum computer is simple - provided you swallow the unpalatable quantum truths that underlie it. One is that objects such as atoms and electrons are not confined to being either this or that, as the objects of our everyday macroscopic world are; they can be both this and that at the same time. They might, for instance, be spinning clockwise and anticlockwise simultaneously, or adopt two different energy states at once. This is known as superposition.

What's more, these ambiguous quantum characters can club together so that what you do to one affects the others. This is the phenomenon of entanglement or, if you're Einstein, "spooky action at a distance". Together, the characteristics of superposition and entanglement make for a computer of awesome power.

Take a classical computational bit such as a transistor current. It can adopt one of two states: 0 (off) or 1 (on). Not so its quantum counterpart, the qubit. Superposition means a single qubit can simultaneously be 0 and 1, giving you twice the information storage capacity right from the start. Then entanglement kicks in, allowing further bits to share their superposed states in a common pool. The result is that computing power grows exponentially with the number of qubits. While three classical bits are needed to store the number 7, three qubits can store all eight numbers from 0 to 7 simultaneously. Just a few hundred qubits could store more numbers than there are thought to be atoms in the universe."

Michael Brooks, New Scientist, 21 September 2009

Blimey! I don't really understand this stuff, but I love the hyperbole that turns out to be simple fact.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

I didn't realise it was you Norbert

"I remember once I slid in on this United player and all I'd seen were this pair of red socks. I clipped him, sent him flying. As I was lying there, I suddenly realised it was Nobby Stiles. I thought 'Oh God, what have I done? I'm for it now'. He looked me up and down and he seemed genuinely surprised. 'What did you do that for Mike?' So I said: 'I didn't realise it was you Norbert. I wouldn't have done it if I'd known.' And he said: 'Well, you better get up and start running, Mike. And you'd better keep running.'"
Mike Summerbee, Daily Telegraph, September 19, 2009

Friday, 18 September 2009

Dawkins on Death

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."
Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
I have pinched this directly from Terry Teachout's terrific blog 'About Last Night'.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


An English summer.
Mud and ashes and leaves turned
On foreign beaches.

Wynn Wheldon

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


The Mother of God Pelagonitisa by Macarios the Icon Painter

This is the icon mentioned in my story 'Wonderworker'. Unfortunately I do not have the computing skills to make it any bigger.

The White Album

There is a confessional game in which, say, English graduates admit they have never seen Hamlet or read Great Expectations. Well, I must now admit to never having owned The Beatles' white album. My friend James Postgate had it (or perhaps it was his sister Debbie) and it may have been on in the background as we played subbuteo on the dining room table, but I never really listened. And so now I have bought it and I am going to listen to it properly.

Showering Malady

I read in the New Scientist that shower heads can give you some non-tubercular unpleasantness if you don't clean them before use. I have always myself preferred a bath with a good book. (I'd add the link to the article if I could figure out how to.)


"He was nine years old, he was a child; but he knew his own soul, it was dear to him, he protected it as the eyelid protects the eye."
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Juliet, Naked

This is Nick Hornby’s best book. His subject (as usual) is love and his mode (as usual) is the tragi-comic. To say ‘love’ is not quite enough. It is, I think, loving kindness – caritas or charity – that Hornby really rates. His warmth as a writer derives from a kindliness that is rare in any kind of writing, let alone comic writing, which depends so often on a merciless eye or ear. I suspect that Hornby is close – or at least thinks he is - to his creation in this book, Tucker Crowe, an ex-singer-songwriter. We are constantly told how frightful Tucker has been to his wives and children and girlfriends, but this has all happened in an alcoholic past. The Tucker the reader sees is a good father and a gentleman who likes reading Dickens, though somewhat idle. He doesn’t much like himself and at the same time has no illusions about the frightfulness of frightful people.

Like most of the men in the book, Tucker is fairly useless (the women earn the money, make the decisions, bring up the children, talk the sense…). He does nothing. The book is a description of the mutual redemption of the two central characters, Tucker Crowe himself, and Annie, a woman locked into a loveless marriage with an obsessive ‘Croweologist’, Duncan. Crowe lives in the United States. Annie and Duncan on the Lincolnshire coast. The plot lies in the way Hornby brings them together.

He must have been delighted when he thought it up. It is another part of Nick Hornby’s attractiveness as a writer that he is so very easy to read, which invariably suggests that whatever one has read must have been very easy to write, which I daresay it wasn’t. He has great fun inventing Crowe, messing about with all sorts of rock and roll archetypes, traits and tropes that will appeal to the pop-culturally-aware readership that laps him up. He has a go, too, at the academic study of that very same pop culture that tends to lend to the trivial all kinds of weight that it should not be asked to bear.

It is a funny book, as well. There is something Kingsley Amis–like in Hornby’s determined eschewing of the high-falutin’. He writes with a delicious clarity. His authorial presence is ghost-like. We hear everything through his characters’ voices, the third person no bar to this. It is a deft trick. At the same time all three of the main characters make use of Hornby’s characteristic extended metaphors – the ones that (purposefully) break down like inexperienced tight-rope walkers desperately trying to keep their balance (there’s one beginning here, do you see?).

A final note: I would probably not have picked this up had I been reading piece-meal, but there are in the text I think at least four references to the verb tenses which are being employed. Has Nick Hornby been reading Michael Dummett?

Del Potro

The boy done good


Ninth game of the fourth set. Federer magisterial.

Lo-Fi Culture Scene

Lo Fi Culture Scene perform 'Too Late Anyway' at the Joiners in Southampton, July 2009

Cal as a Viking an Age Ago

Monday, 14 September 2009


First blog. Experiment.
Badly want Federer to win. So much so I cannot watch the blasted match. Why should this be? Surely the neutral should root for the underdog? I also tend to want Man Utd to win things. I want the best to be the best. Then again perhaps I simply crave authoritativeness. Is that so odd in one who aspires to be an author?