Friday, 30 December 2011

Less than Great Expectations

While it is understandable that screen versions, big or small, require books to be filleted, one would have thought it well nigh impossible to rob Dickens' greatest book (certainly in terms of craft) of almost all its humanity.  But this, astoundingly, is what the recent BBC adaptation has managed.  Here we had a Pip entirely without character, a Joe Gargery without warmth (not a lark to be seen or heard), an Estella with feelings, and a Miss Haversham with the curtains open.  Jaggers was reduced to hard-bitten efficiency and Wemmick was robbed of his Aged P.  Herbert retained some hint of innocence and Bentley Drummond was perhaps the only character close in his malevolence to that portrayed by his original creator.  Ray Winstone as Magwitch was excellent. This was Great Expectations as social realism, missing humour and warmth and, most of all, love.  Dickens would have loathed this dull, inanimate thing.

Monday, 19 December 2011

R I P Havel & Hitchens

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons."
                                                             Robert Whittington on Thomas More (1520)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest

A slight misnomer: the attempted conquest of Everest, surely?  But it is wrong to quibble.  This is a book as big as its subject, a truly epic work.  The quite extraordinary men involved in the attempt to climb Everest had almost all been involved in World War One (Irvine, who disappeared with Mallory on the last attempt, was too young).  All had seen a lot of death. The hell of Everest was chosen in a way in which the hell of war was not.  While the latter had to be survived, Everest was to be lived.  It is humbling to get to know some of these characters, and it is Davis's greatest triumph to have brought them so vividly to life (and where possible he has done the same with the Sherpas who left no record).  None were without fault, but their virtues were greater than their vices.  They all wrote terrifically well - letters, journals, notes, reminiscences.  It is hard to imagine a present day expedition of such hardship that would bring forth so literate and so evocative a flood of prose.  A wonderful book, and terribly sad.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Hitchens v Nietzsche

Christopher Hitchens' latest report from the front line of his battle with cancer.  As engaging as ever and somehow forbidding mourning.  Here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Jeremy Clarkson: "disgraceful and disgusting"

Jeremy Clarkson's remarks about shooting public sector workers are, according to Ed Miliband, "disgraceful and disgusting".  Isn't that rather the point of comic exaggeration? Replace with "Jeremy Clarkson should be taken out and shot" (chortle chortle) and I'm sure no-one would bat an eyelid. Seems to me the best piece on this is by Index on Censorship's Padraig Reidy here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Simply Sublime

A really quite beautiful try by the Scarlets against Perpignan, finished off by St Rhys, brought to my attention by my son.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Umbrella Man

Terrific short documentary (with enormous production team) by Errol Morris, brought to my attention by Mr Rupert Walters.  Watch it here.

I ought  to add that it is only six minutes long, so will not disrupt your day too greatly.

If you can't get to it on the link, try googling "new york times umbrella man"

Saturday, 19 November 2011


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 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

I've not drunk in the Prince Bonaparte for years
But if I went I would miss the smoke and the spilled beer
(Though 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 decor
And even the svelte young women, I would not rejoice.  

Wynn Wheldon

NB I'm delighted to say that the great Hugo Williams has considered this poem fit for publication this week in that august and discriminating journal of fine writing, The Spectator

Further reading: The Moon under Water by George Orwell, to be found here

Friday, 18 November 2011


I read this thirty odd years ago and it was wonderful. It is even more wonderful now. A masterpiece in fact. In a hundred pages all the big themes are touched on - the Great War, religion, sex, friendship, art - but what the book is chiefly about is the power of nostalgia. It takes nostalgia seriously. Written from the point of view of an old man writing about his youth, it reflects on what I'm afraid I want to call the 'tristesse du bonheur' - the sadness of happiness - happiness's preciousness and rarity, which goes some way to explaining the bittersweet nature of nostalgia. It is also a love story, with a McEwan-like 'moment' at the end on which all turns. I'm afraid I have to add this to my books of the year. I'm very much hoping that the next book I read will not be a masterpiece or that I'll take too long to finish it if it is.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


This is an incredible story. A Chinese government Ministry wants to award Putin a 'Confucius Peace Prize' for his treatment of the Chechens and his opposition to the NATO action in Libya. Those in a higher Ministry yet don't want to. Last year the prize was awarded to someone from Taiwan who was never made aware that he had won and an unknown girl accepted it in his stead.

Dissident and recipient - to communist fury - of the Nobel Peace Prize (which of course he was not allowed to collect) LIU XIABO remains in prison.

Personally I think the former KGB man and the current communist regime in China deserve one another and should be encouraged to award each prizes every year. Or perhaps they could combine and award the Occupyers a Mao-Stalin Prize for Direct Action.

Altogther very reminiscent of old communist practice. i thought China was supposed to be the 'coming' nation.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Gordon Nunns

Graves of Gordon Nunns, my grandmother's brother, who died on September  1st, 1918.
More information here.

NB Actually this of course is not the grave, but a memorial tablet.


After the woeful 'The Jury', last week's great disappointment, a night of first class telly yesterday evening, beginning with University Challenge, followed by Masterchef, then Andrew Graham Dixon on the Art of America, which had a little too much history and not enough art, but still had AGD doing his immensely engaging stuff.  After this there was a documentary charting the sad story of the theft of the incomparable Barnes collection of post-impressionist paintings by the Philadelphia establishment, which put one off thoroughly from visiting that city, with its undeniably dodgy-looking Mayor and ethically questionable 'charitable foundations'.  This in turn was followed by a documentary telling the extraordinary story of Mark Hoffman, a genius forger but a really crummy murderer (still, to be both these things at the same time is fairly incredible), who attempted to bring down the Mormon church in which he grew up by forging documents calling its founding into question.  He also knocked off the odd poem by Emily Dickinson and letters by Melville, Twain, Hawthorne, and even a copy of the earliest printed document in American history.  I'd like to have learned more about his techniques but I suppose there wasn't really room for more.  Cracking stuff, and the end of a first class evening's viewing.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

After the rather wonderful Edward Thomas biography by Matthew Hollis I wanted to read ‘Into the Silence’, the book about mountaineer George Mallory that has had such rave reviews. I took a look at the price and decided against (I have subsequently ordered it from Amazon at less than half the price). Instead I picked up ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves, a book I remember my father urging on me when I was about 17 (he and Graves got on very well during a Monitor). And it turns out that George Mallory was Graves’s Best Man (Graves could not imagine Mallory not reaching the summit of Everest).

Well, it is book of the year so far (I discount Great Expectations on the grounds that I have read it before): astounding book. It is written with a dispassionate artlessness that fails entirely to disguise the fact that Graves cannot help himself simply telling stories. Stories of school, stories of war, and stories of peace. It is, nominally, an autobiography, but a less reflective autobiography it is impossible to imagine. Instead we have a sort of Homeric approach which is all about what happens. What we make of what happens is pretty much up to us. Either the author took for granted what we would make of things or he is uninterested in weighing up or analysing. For example, it is not until the later stages of the book that his objection to the war becomes explicit (it was Graves who made sure that Sassoon was delivered to Rivers at Craiglockhart rather than court-martialled).

Graves wass proud of his regiment (Royal Welch Fusiliers), in particular the first battalion, walked whenever he could on the hills behind Harlech in north Wales, once ran a grocery shop in Islip, was a professor of English in Cairo (where he taught Nasser), was given up for dead three times, saw ghosts, was a virgin until he married, visited Thomas Hardy and knew Lawrence of Arabia.

The number of characters - people – who die may explain the dispassion. Had Graves lingered on each one we would have a had a very long book indeed. Horrifying. Getting children to read this rather than study history from dry text books would give an altogether truer picture of the Great War. A very good book indeed.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Caitlin Line

I've no idea what is going on in this picture: It looks like two lions snoozing in the sky above Ally Pally. I may be wrong. I like it very much. Check out Caitlin's Goldsmith's blog here.

Well, it's not Ally Pally - it's Crystal Pally.  It is important to know that this is a BIG picture - about nine foot square.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Casablanca debut

The band formerly known as Lo Fi Culture Scene, and now to be known as Casablanca, will play their debut gig at the Islington O2 Academy on 27 November. You can buy tickets here.

You can hear a couple of tracks here. More to be added next week.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France

The Last Years of Edward Thomas
by Matthew Hollis

I never took to Edward Thomas. His complicated syntax (‘The great diamonds / Of rain on the grassblades there is none to break’) and that blasted, twee, “cloudlets” in ‘Adlestrop’ kept me at arms length. Then last year my son had to study ‘At the Team’s Head-Brass’, which I thought a seriously good poem.

And now there is this marvellous book about the poet’s last years. Actually what it is about is the poet’s becoming a poet, which happened, pathetically, to happen in the final years of his life. One of this book’s pleasures is the unravelling of the poems by the poet-biographer. He handles them not roughly as a critic would, but tenderly, as a brother; nothing is asserted, but the intimacy between subject and writer gives the readings real power. We are dealing not with ‘text’, as the academics would have us do, but with a person. Which is not to say that Hollis merely uses the poems to explain the life. It would be more accurate to say that he uses the life to explain the poems. Very much as Thomas himself would have wanted, I think.

It is a good story, because there is a series of climaxes which the reader lusts towards: the meeting with Robert Frost, the first poem, joining the army, leaving England, and death. The first half swarms with interesting minor poets: Drinkwater, Abercrombie, Hodgson, Munro, Brooke; and occasional major ones: Yeats, Pound (major-minor perhaps), Eliot. In he second half Thomas becomes a poet, and seems to emerge into himself, while the other characters slip away. We are left with Eleanor Farjeon, an astoundingly beautiful woman (judging from the photograph) called Edna Clarke Hall, Frost, and Thomas's wife Helen.

Poets do not need to be likeable to be good, it should go without saying, and I think Hollis does like his subject, but I don’t much. He reminds me of my own self-obsession. The hero of the book is his wife Helen, who perhaps does not get quite the credit she deserves (that goes to Frost). Thomas spends a great deal of his time running away from her and from his children, on the grounds that he cannot bear the way he treats them; but the fact that Helen is always there must have given the often dithering Thomas some sense of stability. She emerges as steadfast, intelligent, full of loving-kindness.

I suppose it is impossible, when telling a story, not to make the end seem inevitable. Thomas’s death, then, reads like the only way in which this book could finish. A melancholy man, by turns self-pitying and self-recriminating, his becoming a poet brought him happiness. This was followed by his becoming a soldier, which also seemed to bring him some kind of content. His commitment to these jobs seemed enough in itself. The coming war and the war itself pervades the four years the book covers, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Thomas and the war were on a collision course.

One of the books Thomas read in the days before he died was a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, sent to him by Helen. My own father quoted Sonnet 129 in his own witnessing of war thirty years after Thomas: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”.

An enormous sob shook me as I read Frost’s condoling letter to Helen. Edward Thomas was indeed a poet, and I am prepared now to forgive him for those cloudlets, and read him properly. This is a simply terrific book.

Monday, 24 October 2011

from 'In Medias Res' by Christopher Reid


Splitting an apple,
I find a cache of commas.
Every tomato
wears an asterisk.
A bookworm in the kitchen,
I take note
how you hold your tea-cup
by the question-mark,
and how you smile in quotes.

from Arcadia, OUP 1979
© Christoper Reid 1979

Mobile by Molly Line

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Lowell on Structuralism

Came upon this line from Robert Lowell:

is structuralism the bridge from Marx to death?
(from 'Levi-Strauss in London')

- wish I'd known it thirty-five years ago when Neil Bartlett was trying to persuade Oxford undergraduates to demand more structuralism from their tutors...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Praise Be

This is from 'The Breakdown', the Guardian's rugby blog:

When Graham Henry was the Wales coach between the summer of 1998 and the beginning of 2002, he was known as the Great Redeemer, or at least he was at the start. Today's Dominion Post asks whether that has prompted Henry to look to the Bible this tournament for inspiration as he looks to end the All Blacks' World Cup jinx.

He assembled a squad that include an Israel (Dagg), a Zachary (Guildford), a Daniel (Carter), an Adam (Thomson) and a Samuel (Whitelock). When Carter pulled out, an Aaron (Cruden) was called on and a Hosea (Gear) has also been added. A Matthew (Todd) trained with the All Blacks last week.

Which reminds me of John Taylor's kick in the last minute against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1971, following Gerald Davies's try, to secure the Grand Slam (I think): "The greatest conversion since St Paul". (Matched only by St Gav's almost 35 years later - where was he last Saturday?)

Proper Music

Joss Stone singing 'Don't Start Lying to Me Now'. Good stuff. Unofficial fan videos are usually not up to much, but this will do nicely. I like the way she smiles a lot. Also like that there is no blimmin' choreography.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Winning Words

I hope everyone is going to visit the simply brilliant 'Winning Words' website. Not to be missed.


Slipping from their cups the acorns rain, making

Tiny disturbances in the universe.

Clattering gently through dark boughs, blue beyond,

They pool around stiff trunks, their newness fading

As they fell; they crack now beneath the foot,

Brittle brown, translated from seed to sound.

Here on the Heath on an October afternoon,

The sun destroying vision, the acorns rain

And the shades of ancient poets

Flit between the hedgerows, comfortingly sighing.

Wynn Wheldon

France v Wales

What if
What if
What if

The sadness is not so much that Wales lost but that we have lost what might have been a classic Final. Speaking of which, that is pretty much going to be decided tomorrow. Can anyone see France beating Australia or NZ (refereeing decisions allowing)?

The truth is Wales should have landed their kicks - 11 points went spare - which is not to say that the French might not have tried harder had those points been scored (alhough one wonders if they are capable). To be honest, I think Wales lost a game they should have won, even with 14 men - they were that much better.

Yes. Brutal.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Land of My Fathers

Had to post.

NB I have to say that I am particularly moved by the plucky Air Wales aeroplane.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Glenkindie Arms Hotel

The Glenkindie Arms Hotel in the Cairngorms was where spouse and I spent a memorable weekend at the the end of August. A great restaurant and a hopeless hotel, into which we were (accidentally) locked one night by the chef-proprietor, Ian Simpson, while he laid on a banquet for 200 a few miles up the road (to which we had been invited). And now this:

- which does not surprise us at all. The hotel required proper investment, which it never received. I had been given to understand that we were the last paying guests. Ridiculously expensive, it was money well spent, if just for the anecdotes it produced, but I can quite easily imagine subsequent guests refusing to pay a penny for the broken saniflow, the Primark bedspreads, the Victorian heating system, the broken stair-rail, the unopening windows, the flaking paintwork, etc etc...

Ian Simpson is a terrific chef. Should you come upon an establishment owned or leased by him, certainly eat there, but...

Mozart again

The most beautiful TV advertisement ever made.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Names to Conjure With...

Wales 22 Ireland 10

Friday, 7 October 2011

Soave sia il vento - Mozart

Well, Lou Reed and Andrea Corr are one thing, but I heard this on the radio this morning, and I wondered whether perhaps it is the most beautiful thing in the world. This is from Cosi Fan Tutte. I'm not an opera buff in any way, shape or form, but I've heard Puccini and Wagner and Verdi, and they're all wonderful in their own ways, but they ain't Mozart.

Soave sia il vento,

Tranquilla sia l'onda,

Ed ogni elemento

Benigno risponda

Ai nostri {vostri) desir.

Gentle is the wind,

Calm is the wave,

And every one of the elements

Answer warmly

To our (your) desire.

Pale Blue Eyes

The Lou Reed song as performed by Andrea Corr. I have always loved this song, and this isn't at all a bad stab.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A Few Good Quotations

culled from my old Commonplace Book. The last is my favourite.

...the kiss of the past is narcotic...
from 'Western Landcsape', Louis MacNeice

The awesome mystery of beauty! God and the Devil are locked in battle over this, and the battlefield is the heart of man.
from 'The Brothers Karamazov', Fyodor Dostoevsky

All the great goods cannot live together.
Immanuel Kant

God, in the whizzing of a pleasant wind,
shall march upon the tops of mulberry trees.
from 'David and Bathsheba', George Peele

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Amanda Knox

Thank god for that. Whatever the truth may be, the Italians haven't done themselves any favours. Justice seems to have played a minor role in the case. The Italian police are hopeless, and the Italian press isn't exactly a by-word for the bold questioning of authority (the Italian Press is ranked 24/25 in Western Europe in the Freedom of the Press rankings published by Freedom House). Which is not to exonerate the British tabloids, the reports in which have been lurid, sensational and downright mendacious, surprise, surprise. I have always thought Knox's confused initial stories indicated innocence rather than guilt, as in The Winslow Boy. Anyway, I'm glad she can leave Italy. I wonder what Sollecito will do?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Ireland v Wales

6.00 am next Saturday
This should, of course, be the semi, but there we are. The lame ducks of England and France contest the other quarter and Wales and Ireland must fancy themselves getting to the final against either of them. Then again rugby, not unlike football, as it happens, to be honest and other cliches, is a funny old game, and both England and France are perfectly capable of beating anyone if the rhythm is right. Still, Ireland and Wales have been the exciting Northern hem teams, and I am bound to say that it is a very long time since it was so exciting supporting Wales. Even the two recent Slams (2005, 2008) weren't quite like this. (Having said that, I don't think I have ever been so mind-bogglingly, lung-emptyingly astonished as at that Wales -Scotland match last year). The idea that we don't have to play Hook or Shane Williams in order to put out a first team is invigorating. I believe the dark arts of the experienced Irish, the dominance of O'Connell at the line-out and the genius of BOD make them favourites, and judging from the Irish newspapers, some Ireland fans think the thing is done. The Welsh, however, can't see a good thing coming until it has gone. I hope Wales win. If they do it will be because the Irish have finally run out of puff, if not of fight. My prediction: Wales winning in the last quarter.

Disraeli and Gladstone

On 1 September, 1833, Disraeli (1804-1881) wrote in his diary:
I have passed the whole of this year in uninterrupted lounging and pleasure.

On 29 December, 1833, Gladstone (1809-1898) wrote in his diary:
I have now familiarized myself with maxims sanctioning and encouraging a degree of intercourse with society, perhaps attended with much risk.

Now, who would you rather have lunch with, the Liberal or the Tory?

These entries were brought together by Philip Magus in his biography of Gladstone.

The Shameful Secret of Poetry

"...the shameful secret of persona of the poet..."
Czeslaw Milosz

An American in Paris - Trailer

A trailer in which all the hyperbole is justified. Fairly rare.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Quizlamic Fundamentalists at the Q Trust Quiz

Cannily, our leader Mrs O'Bryen played an early joker (round one, in which we doubled our 8 points to 16 - though I was personally disappointed that my Round Britain Quiz - a winning answer - was dismissed so cavalierly). This kept us among the leaders from the start. Storming rounds followed on maths and the moon, Messrs Kean and Tennant revealing hitherto unknown strengths. We scored fairly well on a dubiously entitled 'Culture Vulture' round, which included questions on Downton Abbey and various other TV programmes (more pigeon than vulture, methinks), and romped to 10/10 on straplines and catchphrases. Following the break we began to falter, dropping no less than five points on the final music round (which included no classical whatsoever). We finished fourth, three points behind the winning team - The Week.

This is always a terrific occasion, and this time no less than others. Our spread was particualrly impressive, with a wide range of pork pies on offer. Unlikely, but true. The other spread - of knowledge - was equally wide. Best of all though was the company: cheerful, beautiful (well 50% of us anyway), generous and friendly. A great team. Thanks to Emma for having paid for the table and inviting us.

The Q Trust quiz is in aid of muscular dystrophy. The trust was set up by Mark Reynolds in honour of his friend Quentin Crewe. More information here.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Coriolanus is a difficult play; this is a first class movie. Ralph Fiennes directs and stars. His performance is outstanding. He is, I think, a better film actor than theatrical. On stage he can seem inanimate; on film, in close-up, we become aware of his eyes, which are the main tools of his talent. He is perfectly cast as Coriolanus. This is a tragic figure for whom honesty, both emotional and intellectual, is a weakness. He is not particularly sympathetically portrayed here, and yet the “lonely dragon” does garner our pity, as he surely must for the play to work, and this is due to Fiennes’s uncanny combination of fragility and brutality. This same quality I think gave weight to his part in Schindler’s List, in which, although he plays a monstrous character, he is not wholly monstrous, to the extent that we rather chillingly recognise him as human.

The supporting cast is equally good; even Vanessa Redgrave fails to irritate as Volumnia, and indeed the penultimate scene with Fiennes is riveting and bravely long (John Logan, screenwriter, producer and progenitor of the affair, has remained on the whole faithful to Shakespeare, and he and Fiennes have been unafraid to keep in what is central - but this is emphatically a movie, nonetheless). Brian Cox, as usual, is first rate and Gerard Butler looks very much the part as Coriolanus’s rival Aufidius, bravehearting his tattooed crew in his native Scottish accent. At any moment I expected him to declare “This is GLASGOW!”

Actually, the film is set in the recently-contemporary Balkans, and uses mock newsreel footage and Sky Newsflashes. The former works, the latter doesn’t, the sight of Channel 4 Newsreader Jon Snow speaking Shakespeare raising an unhelpful giggle rather than adding any verisimilitude. However, more than making up for this is the visual geography: a scarred, unfamiliar landscape. This is a world in which brute force thrives – in which, sometimes, it is morally necessary – and in which the sight of the warrior “sweating compassion” is therefore all the more telling.

Coriolanus is an undeservedly underperformed play. It is Shakespeare’s most overtly political, and provides perfect counterpoint to Julius Caesar (Caesar, unlike Coriolanus, having no principled scruples when it comes to loving the mob). Is Coriolanus a good man? Yes and no. Is Coriolanus a good film? Assuredly yes. Highly recommended.

Monday, 19 September 2011

John Gray on Religion and Science

Excellent BBC broadcast by John Gray, brought to my attention by Prof Robin Herbert of this Parish. The words can be heard here and read here.

While I'm about it there's a clip of Michael Donaghy reading hsi poem 'Machine', here. I think it disappears soon. Donaghy's is the second poem in to the programme.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Covering some of the same ground as the last M. Amis, this is an altogether superior work, a novella that grows in intensity as it moves towards its final revelation. While constantly insisting on the difference between life and literature, it demonstrates exactly the power of literature to ask Big Questions. The Sense of an Ending is almost Tolstoyan in that respect, although Tolstoy would probably have called it 'Remorse'. Anyhow, a good, thought-provoking book about life and how to lead it. I shan't reveal more because it can be read in a day, and ought to be. This is my favourite Barnes novel since 10 and a half chapters.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Great Great Expectations

I found myself reading and re-reading this wonderful paragraph towards the end of Great Expectations. Pip has been burned saving Miss Havisham, and further injured in Orlick's preparations for his execution. At last he sleeps soundly.
Wednesday morning was dawning when I looked out of the window. The winking lights upon the bridges were already pale, the coming sun was like a marsh of fire on the horizon. The river, still dark and mysterious, was spanned by bridges that were turning coldly grey, with here and there at top a warm touch from the burning in the sky. As I looked along the clustered roofs, with Church towers and spires shooting into the unusually clear air, the sun rose up, and a veil seemed to be drawn from the river, and millions of sparkles burst out upon its waters. From me too, a veil seemed to be drawn, and I felt strong and well.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Lost Innocence

In last Sunday's Sunday Telegraph Paul Theroux wrote this:
In time — the feeling ate at me like a sickness — I realised that it was not the Twin Towers, and part of the Pentagon, and the downed plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, that had been destroyed, but something much bigger, our national confidence, and that the “lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” (the words are Nabokov’s), the country that I had known as triumphant since childhood, was overwhelmed, and rattled in a way I had never seen before; our innocence was toast.
That rather flip "toast" suggests the writer didn't really believe what he was writing, but liked the sound (or perhaps the thought) of it nonetheless. A much better version of a similar idea was written by Philip Larkin.


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

'Here' and 'High Windows'

Both poems seem to end on a similar note, a kind of divine resignation (this was a phrase Conrad used to describe the Russians) without the divinity, so to speak (no sweating in the dark), and with a delicate yearning - for what?  The freedom of wordlessness?
                                     Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

                          the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.


There’s a blackbird on the fence
Still as stone and somehow straight.
The day is cold, the year is late.
I stand and stare.
How sad the sense
Of something so immaculate.

Wynn Wheldon

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Goodbye to the Villa Piranha by Francis Hope

Prepare the journey North,
Smothering feet in unfamiliar socks,
Sweeping the bathroom free of sand, collecting
Small change of little worth.

Make one last visit to the tip
(Did we drink all those bottles?) and throw out
The unread heavy paperbacks, saving
One thriller for the trip.

Chill in the morning air
Hints like a bad host that we should be going.
Time for a final swim, a walk, a last
Black coffee in the square.

If not exactly kings
We were at least francs bourgeois, with the right
To our own slice of place and time and pleasure,
And someone else’s things.

Leaving the palace and its park
We take our common place along the road,
As summer joins the queue of other summers,
Driving towards the dark.

NOTE: I am most grateful to the Comment added by 'Haimona', correcting several mistakes in my original post of this poem.  I have now corrected the layout, added the missing letters and word, and herewith add the following: "Francis Hope was one of the passengers killed in the Paris crash of Turkish Airlines Flight 981 on Sunday 3 March 1974. This poem was published in the New Statesman of 8 March 1974 at the end of Corinna Adam's obituary, "Francis Hope 1938-74", printed on page 324."  It remains true that it was brought to my attention by Mr Rupert Walters. Hope was Rupert's wife Margy's cousin.

Friday, 2 September 2011

A Visit to the Highlands, Part Two

Sunday morning we were left to our own devices and we went and looked in a local antique shop. I didn’t notice much except the vast number of books on the Royal family and a book called ‘Fun in Bed’, which wasn’t at all what you think - it was subtitled ‘The Convalescent’s Handbook’. Published in 1934, and still with dustcover intact, it was worth probably a good deal more than the £18 being asked, though I wouldn’t have wanted to sell it.

The rain was already fairly fierce, but fiercer still was the wind. We dashed back to the car and returned to the hotel to pick up our packed lunch: 2 apples, 2 bananas, 2 nutty bars, 2 diet cokes, and 4 cheese and ham rolls, all wrapped in foil and placed in a JD sports bag. It was like going on a school trip.

We were going to Corgarff Castle for lunch followed by “a gentle walk across the moors”. “Be prepared for rain”, James had added in his itinerary notes.

Corgarff castle is not a romantic looking castle. From afar it looks like some kind of grain silo. Actually, it is jolly old and distinguished and full of history and so on. The thing was, today, officially, it was closed because of the high winds. HSE of course. But Sir James Forbes, Bart, was not to be stymied and made an arrangement which allowed us access at least to the barracks.

But by god the wind was high, as high as I have ever felt, at land or sea. And it was not simply its velocity but the cold it carried with it. Where on earth did that come from? It was too cold even for snow, so instead we had sleet that felt as though it would rip the skin off our faces.

Through this biting weather a good number of us made it to the castle, including Professors Brian and Catherine Skinner, both in their eighties, both still teaching (at Yale), both still dancing. He edited the Oxford Companion to the Earth, and she is the world’s leading expert on asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral. If you leave it alone it is harmless. The worst thing you can do if you find asbestos is to start ripping it out. That is altogether far more dangerous than leaving it in. This is one of the many things I learned in Scotland.

The daughter of these distinguished bods is the filially conscientious and cheerful 'Weeds' fan Lassa Skinner, the founder of 'Culture'; she and Debby hit it off well and spent a good deal of the next couple of days laughing together.

After eating our packed lunch I decided to find out if anyone wanted to take "the gentle walk over the moors". Several were up for it, mostly Californians (of whom there were no less than 18 non-family members for the celebrations), but after descending to the car park (a couple of hundred yards through the slicing sleet) James looked at me and used the word “brutal” and decided in his quiet way that no-one was going to catch hypothermia or be blown to kingdom come on his watch. Instead we repaired to a local knit-shop where we drank hot chocolate full of marshmallows, and talked of what might have been. (Actually, we talked about the rise of the Napa Valley wineries, with winemaker Penny and her husband Chip, who is interested in Sustainable Energy, and has a magnificent beard, and a gravity of diction that masks a dry humour).

That evening we were supposed to rehearse our flinging and reeling at a bash in the Lonach Hall, open to all. Food was laid on for the out-of-towners, and we took two bottles of wine (one of which I had won in a raffle at the Glenbuchat ceilidh the night before).

I managed one eightsome reel, with the aid and gracious assistance of several Californians who had been diligently practicing all year long. Debby and I tried a Gay Gordon but thankfully we joined too late to make utter fools of ourselves. We were nevertheless soon exhausted and made it back to the hotel in time for Match of the Day 2 to watch North London (Spurs + Arsenal 3) being humiliated by Manchester (Utd + City 13).

The cold of the day had seeped into our hotel room. The radiator had ceased to work (it transpired that Ian had run out of oil for the heater). I slept in two shirts and socks.

And so to Monday. I wanted rather to do the walk we hadn’t done the previous day, but there was a much higher priority. We had to find some shoes that Debby could dance in. She had gone all Imelda Marcos about her shoes and brought four pairs of high heels, along with several floaty frocks, and a vintage ball gown. She had brought neither dancing shoes nor walking boots. She had not packed, in short, for Scotland. She had packed for Park Lane.

It was an altogether brighter, warmer day, and we embarked on a tour that took us to every shoe shop in the region. We went to Ballater (I’m still unclear on pronunciation) where Debby bought me a coat and pair of trews at McCalls of Perth and she couldn’t find shoes; we went to Dinnet and Aboyne and eventually to Banchory. At Banchory there is a huge new Tesco. It was the only shop that had dancing shoes in Debby’s size.

The landscape is wonderful. It is so varied. You pass quickly from arable land to moor, to forest, and past the odd loch. We moved between the parallel rivers of the Don (to the north) and the Dee - sinuous full-flowing rivers comfortable in the landscape, just below flood level. We stopped at Cambus O’May (ah, the names – Tom a’Char, Muir of Fowlis, Tough, Echt) and took photos on the suspension bridge.

At Craigievar Castle Debby wanted to know if it had been painted (it is very pink). It hadn’t. It was the natural colour of the rendering (known I think as ‘harling’). We wandered about the garden. I felt a twinge of gout. This boded ill for the reeling. I stood and stared at the views from the castle and thought that it would turn me into a painter: that variegated landscape, that changed with every scud of a cloud, would fascinate endlessly. I could see why Henry James had time for these hills. It is a remote place, but it is not wild. Very different from North Wales, which is less remote, but stonier altogether.

We got back to the hotel. Our room: the bed had not been made, the dirty cups had not been taken away – the room had not been touched. There was no heat. And the saniflo had not stopped going from the morning’s ablutions – it was on permanent grind. There seemed to be a large number of flies. Nonetheless, despite cutting myself on the ear with a razor, producing more blood than any ear has the right to contain, and a zip problem on Debby’s vintage ball gown, we were ready by ten to eight, which would get us to Lonach Hall by eight or thereabouts. Perfect.

Ian – who was catering for the party at the Hall - had locked the front door.

And the back door.

He had locked his only paying guests into his own hotel.

We were the only people in the place. Debby made phone calls from a list on the wall of the kitchen (Ramsay would have gone ballistic at the state of it), while I looked for a key. Eventually I re-examined the door. It was a double door. There were two locks. The right hand side of the door was bolted top and bottom. I undid them both and kicked. I didn’t think it would open, but it did. We were free.

Driving to the hall we realised that not only had we left the Glenkindie Arms Hotel open to all comers, but that our own computers were in there. It would be necessary for someone to go back and relock the doors.

Turned out I had to. “Could you pick up some corkscrews while you’re there?” added James.

I sank a dram and back I drove, through the darkening glen. I went inside, found a couple of corkscrews, closed the doors and then wondered about the Yale lock. Surely I should lock that too. I sat in the car and pondered. Yep. I got out, relocked, headed back for supper.

Which was, of course, fabulous. Pork, mushroom risotto, spinach, apple. Crackling to die for. I sat in between Professor Mrs Skinner, who told me about the asbestos, and an extremely stately and beautiful woman called Dawnine Dyer, who was a wine-maker.

At 10.00 pm the dancing commenced. Debby gamely joined in the eightsome reel and looked absolutely gorgeous, beaming confusedly. And then we stripped the willow successfully (what a dance that is!) before speeches and then the climb into impossibly complicated Highland reels, all of which seemed to be know to the Californians, who were a joy and a laugh throughout the celebrations.

This was a great occasion. The dancing is transfixing. It allows for the joyfulness of music, the physical exertion of dance, the innocence of flirtation, and the happiness of communal experience. I am looking forward to James and Kerry's 50th, because there is no age limit in any of this. the young and the old do exactly the same thing and take exactly the same pleasure.

Well past midnight, perhaps past one, Debby and I were done in. We went to find Ian to get the keys to the hotel. Well, apparently, there was no Yale key and so two of Ian’s henchmen had returned to the hotel to open the back door in order to open the front door from inside and so let us in. When we got there for some reason that had not been achieved. I say “some reason” but it may be because the chief henchman was up to the gills with drink. After we had entered through the back door he tried to inveigle me into having a nightcap with him. “What’s all this red tie?” he asked me (I was wearing a red bow tie), as though in the answer clarity of thought would magically assert itself.

We went to bed.

An hour or so later I awoke. Smelled burning. I went downstairs to the dining room door. Red Tie and the peach-faced boy who accompanied him came out full of apologies. Red Tie was trying to start a fire – in the fireplace, at least. A lot of newspaper had been burned.

I turned to go back upstairs. Nope. Red Tie wanted another word. Between the two of them they explained that Ian’s car – which Red Tie had driven back from the Hall – had had a puncture that couldn’t be fixed till morning; the peach-faced boy (“I’ve been driving for four years”, he told me in a bid to borrow my car) had run out of petrol. Ian and his team were stranded at Lonach Hall. Would I consider…?

I got dressed, and drove, once more, to Lonach Hall. When I got there I found Kerry raging at the state the kitchen had been left in and James storing bottles of champagne. There was no-one else around. Ian and his gang had left.

James and Kerry’s daughter Theodora had also left – with the keys to James’s car. And she was not answering her phone (it was gone 3.00 am by now). Could I possibly give them a lift back to Glenbuchat?

I was more than happy to do this, because James and Kerry have been the cause of one of the best weekends of our married life, and I felt waves of gratitude and sympathy coursing through me. They are exceptionally nice people, and they deserve all the good that will ever come to them, and more.

They were just about to get into the car when James’s mobile rang. It was his daughter. “Tell her to get here AT ONCE”, said Kerry. And I believe she did.

I drove back to the Glenkindie Arms Hotel. It was locked. I went in through the back. We had to be away by 7.30 in order to catch the train home.

At Aberdeen station we bumped into a fellow guest, who had taught me the word “dreich” (not unsurprisingly a term for some of the weather we’d had). We asked her what she did. She was in Sustainable Energy.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


For anyone interested in Shakespeare:

(but why does Stephen Fry get five minutes when everyone else only gets one?)

Some Good Lines

a hard attention
boring through the flesh
to stroke the bone.

from 'Penitence' by John Burnside

We're only ever twenty, we're only ever at the start.

from 'Happy Seventieth Birthday Blues' by Carol Rumens

In a word, it was impossible for me to separate her, in the past or in the present, from the innermost life of my life.
from 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens (getting all Lawrentian)

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A Visit to the Highlands, Part One

A year or so ago, at my wife’s 50th birthday party, we were invited to Scotland to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of James and his wife Kerry.

My wife Debby had met James when she was employing him as a location caterer on various shoots (I mean commercial films, not grouse-bagging); he then approached her with a TV idea, This is Your Fridge. (Although we failed to sell it in the UK, it did become Norway’s most popular TV show.) Relations have been maintained, albeit from afar because James and Kerry live in California, and make wine.

Then the invitation turned up, directing us to a website, and we realised that we were not being invited merely to a wedding feast but to an entire civilization.

On Friday August 26 we woke early in order to get the Aberdeen train, leaving from Kings X at 10.00 am. We could not take a later train because in order to hire a car in Aberdeen after 6.00 pm you have to travel to the airport from Aberdeen station. The problem is that if you do get a later train you may not have time to get to the airport before that closes. It is complicated.

Not as complicated, it would seem, as sitting down on a 7 hour train journey. We thought we had reserved seats. We hadn’t. The train was full. I took up a standing position in the centre of a carriage and decided to re-evaluate my attitudes to Zen Buddhism for the next half-day. Debby went to make enquiries in the buffet car. Moving up and down the aisle was slow and hazardous. Ill-tempered people squatted on the floors between the seats, deaf to those approaching from behind because seeking refuge from their misery in their iPods and iPhones and iDontknowwhats. Small children looked miserable as only small children can – with a kind of blank hopelessness which makes you realise that this is indeed a vale of tears etc…

Debby returned eventually with various stories about football matches, the last weekend of the Edinburgh festival, broken-down trains and so forth. We could upgrade to First Class but it would cost us each £136 just one way. And it would mean the ticket inspector having to root out First Class impostors (of whom, apparently – and understandably – there were many).

And now we were smiled upon, because we were standing next to a young, beautiful and fit couple. Pete gave up his seat to Debby. Kate tried to give up her seat for me. We both refused. They were, however, persistent, and finally Debby sat down almost all the way to Leuchars in Pete’s seat. Pete and Kate are in Sustainable Energy. More importantly Pete, an Anglo-Welshman, had spent four years at the University of St Andrews and when we explained that we would be reeling and whatnot at a wedding party, warned us to avoid the 51st Regiment, a reel of grace but diabolical complication (although, as it turned out, as simple as the Twist when compared with the Duke of Perth). They were gallant and charming and Kate had a wonderful laugh and Pete seemed to know many of the facts that I have forgotten (Tay Bridge disaster, curious international status of Berwick-on-Tweed, etc) and they were altogether a very silver lining to what had been a thoroughly grey and heavily rain-laden cloud.

A cheerful young woman was only 15 minutes late with our nippy little Peugeot and we headed off west towards an increasingly impressive sunset and the Cairngorms.

I’d phoned ahead to make sure the hotel was ready for us, and was assured that they were and that they’d hold a table. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded cheerful but hard-pressed. It was the voice of Chef Patron Ian Simpson.

I couldn’t escape a feeling of dismay as we pulled up at the Glenkindie Arms Hotel. I had had a vision of bourgeois luxury and modern hospitality in a setting of traditional blah blah blah, but the old drovers inn hadn’t been painted for years, and there was a general air of untidiness and neglect about the place.

We were shown to our room, which was to be our home for the next four nights. It wasn’t a £100 + room. In the ensuite bathroom there was a Saniflo loo, no bath, a quaint like-in-your-gran's-house switch for turning the hot water on, and the shelf above the lavatory was covered with a towel to hide the badly peeled paint work. The shade was pulled down to save us from a view of the Chef-Patron's caravan and the kitchen wastebins. The linen on the bed was from Primark.

We ate a breathtakingly good meal. I had warm mackerel with something delicious drizzled and draped over it, and Debby had curried scallops. I had ‘barbury’ duck, she had lamb. I had chocolate fondant. Debby had crème brulee. We drank a delicious bottle of Cabernet Merlot, chatted to an elderly American couple from Texas (he was in Unsustainable Energy) who were visiting the Games not for the first time, and retired to bed. All well and good.

Thing was we had to be up at 7.00 in order to get to Bellabeg Park in Strathdon for the Morning Muster of the Clansmen before the commencement of the Lonach Games. We made it, staked our claim just over the bridge from the Spar, and watched as at 8.01 precisely the pipe band and clansmen began their march through the glen. Seven times they would stop for a dram before reappearing in the games arena at 1.00 pm.

I found the whole thing rather moving. A pipe band in full regalia is a magnificent beast and makes a magnificent noise. The clansmen marching behind, long pikes against their shoulders, perhaps did not bristle with the ferocity of their ancient forebears, but they were manly enough to have more than satisfied the founder of the games, Sir Charles Forbes, 1st Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie. He dictated that the Society that administered the games should support “loyal, peaceful and manly conduct; and the promotion of social and benevolent feelings among the inhabitants of the district.” Debby and I followed to the first stop, and then went back to Glenkindie for breakfast (which included the best mushrooms I have ever eaten) and a nap.

We were back in Bellabeg for mid-day and the beginning of the sport. We watched some caber tossing, some hoiking the bloody heavy stone over the bar, some hammer throwing, some individual piping, some highland dancing by very young girls and eventually the return of the band and the clansmen. Debby’s friend James turned out, much to my wife’s surprise, to be Sir James Forbes, 8th Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie and Patron of the Lonach Games. He it was who led in the clansmen, looking grave (perhaps a little dram-grey?) with his sword held before him, and very much the part, his long white sporran swinging before the dark Forbes tartan of his kilt.

We wandered around, bumped into Kerry, James’s wife, and their children, Catherine and Theodora. Kerry is a lovely diminutive matriarch, of good cheer, and her daughters are an utter credit to their parents: beautiful, bright, polite and, it would turn out, sinuous natural reelers.

Debby bought a hat that she afterwards regretted on the grounds that it looked like an old lady’s hat. I liked it on the grounds that it looked practical. I bought a shirt, having brought the wrong sort for my DJ, which I was going to be wearing on Monday night.

We left the crowds and went for tea in a nearby garden centre. Although the hotel restaurant was fully booked for the evening, Ian told us that he could feed us at 5.30. I had Aberdeen steak. Debby had the scallops again.

Now it was time to get up to Glenbuchat Hall for a local ceilidh. The idea had been to make barbecues, but the weather had already begun to turn and by the time we got there (never have I seen so many rabbits, as we drove up) everyone was inside, drinking and dancing. We kept ourselves hidden away at the back of the hall and selfishly tried to monopolize James and Kerry before they pushed off to a Grand Do at the Billy Connollys. (Billy and Pamela’s had been one of the dram stops, and there was a Billy Connolly prize for the best piping at the games – won by a Simon McKerrell of Lenzie).

We left soon after them and made our way back cautiously through a very dark and increasingly cold night. We were to find out what 'cold' really means the following morning.

The McZimmerman Award for Best Sporran goes to:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


How about a writerly riot -
bespectacled quirks looting Thomas Hood’s
Complete Poetical Works or lurking,
penknifed, in the Humanities stacks
turning up their noses at the paperbacks?
Or perhaps a Thomas Wyatt riot,
lovelorn ruffians torn between conceit
and passion, roughing up the ruff-makers,
daubing sonnets on the walls and wailing
in (and wearing) their melancholy fashion.
Or, best, a quiet riot, the lawless streets
aglow with bowed heads over Bardic tweets,
bookshop windows by greed for wisdom burnished:
conflagrations devoutly to be wished.

Wynn Wheldon

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

ADLESTROP by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop -only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Et in Arcadia Ego

On the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border - within walking distance of Traitor's Ford, (still a ford and named during the Civil War, though by which side I can't remember), and Hook Norton, home of the famous beer, and Cherington, where so many delicious English days were passed in what now feels a sort of Bridesheady youth, and, of course, not that far from Adlestrop itself - an idyllic weekend. Leaving London on Saturday, sans children, buying damsons and Evesham plums and English prosciutto, eaten with sweet bread from Ronnie's bagel bakery in West Hampstead, snoozing post-prandially in the sunshine, reading a superior thriller, before a little romance, showers and then out, to walk the half mile to the neighbouring village, there to eat barbecued lamb and grilled courgettes sliced thinly, and to drink well around a restoked barbecue in the company of old and good friends. Waking the following morning with the sky blue before us, breakfasting on local eggs, and heading off to a nearby yard sale, where we buy a Burmese oven and a pretty garden bench decorated with fruit. There follows a walk, a good hour above the two villages and through the woodlands, down through meadows fluffy with poppies and cornflower and purple thistle and daisies and meadowsweet and I don't know what, to the pub; two pints of the local brew and half a pint of prawns, and then returning again to the friend's garden, which is half meadow itself, light as summer, where we sit for a while before returning with a dawdle to our own cottage. A siesta, a watering of the plants, and a clear up before we pile into the car with bench and oven and dog and return to London... meanwhile, at Trent Bridge, Broad and Bell are making cricket important again. Summer in England.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has picked up tantalising fluctuations which might - or might not - be hints of the sought-after Higgs boson particle... Without the Higgs, physicists cannot explain why particles have mass. BBC News, 23/7/11

One inverse femtobarn of data
May have revealed
The Higgs boson particle to be real.
Massive news. More later.

Wynn Wheldon

This poem is included in the collection 'Tiny Disturbances', published by Acumen on 1 June, 2012

Saturday, 16 July 2011

RUNNING by Richard Wilbur

1933 (North Caldwell, New Jersey)

What were we playing? Was it prisoner's base?
I ran with whacking keds
Down the cart-road past Rickard's place,
And where it dropped beside the tractor-sheds

Leapt out into the air above a blurred
Terrain, through jolted light,
Took two hard lopes, and at the third
Spanked off a hummock-side exactly right,

And made the turn, and with delighted strain
Sprinted across the flat
By the bull-pen, and up the lane.
Thinking of happiness, I think of that.

Note: "keds" is the brand name for "the original sneaker".

Saturday, 9 July 2011

News of the World: A Devil's Advocacy

I am reminded of Captain Renault in 'Casablanca': "I'm shocked - shocked - that gambling has been allowed on the premises" Claude Rains tells Bogart, before accepting his roulette winnings with a gracious "thank you".
The News of the World is a muck-raking organ. That is its point. In order to muck rake well it is necessary to be a) unscrupulous and b) unsentimental. If we do not want muck-raking, fine, let us let the muck settle. The sanctimonious outpourings of the public (and of course politicians, for whom the death of the News of the World will be most welcome) is symptomatic of that sentimental view of the world which believes that things ought to be perfect. Kill the News of the World and you bury all sorts of nasty stuff that will never see the light of day.

NB I have not personally bought a copy of the News of the World for about 35 years. We liked to buy the Observer for the sport and the NOTW for what had been raked from the muck.

"Keep the world from running backwards"

I came across the following in an essay by Joseph Epstein in the New Criterion. It is a quotation from a book by F.L. Lucas, called Style (1955). It is a paragraph that could be used as a definition of sanity.
It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars.”

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Street Photographs by Nils Jorgensen

Those who are fond of Cartier-Bresson (that's one of his above) will have an extremely engaging half an hour or so here:

Not Adlestrop by Dannie Abse

Not Adlestrop, no - besides, the name
hardly matters. Nor did I languish in June heat.
Simply, I stood, too early, on the empty platform,
and the wrong train came in slowly, surprised, stopped.
Directly facing me, from a window,
a very, very pretty girl leaned out.

When I, all instinct,
stared at her, she, all instinct, inclined her head away
as if she'd divined the much married life in me,
or as if she might spot, up platform,
some unlikely familiar.

For my part, under the clock, I continued
my scrutiny with unmitigated pleasure.
And she knew it, she certainly knew it, and would
not glance at me in the silence of not Adlestrop.

Only when the train heaved noisily, only
when it jolted, when it slid away, only then,
daring and secure, she smiled back at my smile,
and I, daring and secure, waved back at her waving.
And so it was, all the way down the hurrying platform
as the train gathered atrocious speed
towards Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire.

from Collected Poems, 1948-1976, Hutchinson, London 1977

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Feel Like Going Home

This song by Charlie Rich really ought to be disgustingly self-pitying, but the defeat is so thorough that the singer, you feel, is not asking for pity at all, simply stating the bald facts of a failed life. It is desperately sad, and Knopfler's yearning guitar perfectly complements the lyric. Beautifully sung, too.

Lord I feel like going home
I tried and I failed and I'm tired and weary
Everything I ever done was wrong
And I feel like going home

Lord I tried to see it through
But it was too much for me
And now I'm coming home to you
And I feel like going home

Cloudy skies are rolling in
And not a friend around to help me
From all the places I have been
And I feel like going home

Lord I feel like going home
I tried and I failed and I'm tired and weary
Everything I ever done was wrong
And I feel like going home

Thursday, 23 June 2011



Lovely Shirley and Mrs Queenie Jones
Are neighbours forever, until, sans pity,
Age and weather desecrate their stones
Bestowing final anonymity.

And here is Elsie Flynn who fell asleep
And Harry Baker, who vanished like a dream.
At night the brambles a little further creep
About their stones, and no-one screams.

As for George Edwin Fish and the Tinks
They too will succumb at last, return to dust
And then when the sun’s too large to sink
All will be gone: life and death and love and lust.


The blackberries sweeten about Baron Lister.
They are swallowing his sarcophagus
And blackening my oesophagus.
There are bones among the roots perhaps
Roots among the bones.

Soon after rain, the sun spangling the brambles
The cemetery’s empty. The light calms the silence
Before a siren wails.

Wynn Wheldon

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Clarence Clemons, The Boss's clarinet player, responsible for that solo in 'Jungleland' which evokes all the sweaty melancholy and yearning of lives that know only the city. Who the hell gets that job now?

Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose writing has the ability to render what is vicarious experience for the reader damn nearly actual. Where is Volume 3?

Glenn Gould plays Bach Partita 2

Utterly transfixing

Monday, 20 June 2011


3 pm and all over Soho
Chefs are sitting on steps, leaning at doors
Smoking or chatting into mobile phones
Slipped from flapped tunics or checkered trousers.
The dull morning has given way to warmth
And pretty girls and boys bloom outside bars
As the restaurants wind down / wind up for night
And a whole new crowd from the further city:
Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, tourists
Native and foreign, noses in the air,
Wondering at that herb and this spice,
Chowing down, then taking in a show.
They’re succeeded by the demi-monde,
The leanest consumers in town,
All salads, cigarettes and metrosex.
And soon it is 3 am in Soho.
Chefs are sitting on steps, leaning at doors,
Smoking; dawn’s not far off, and breakfast.

Wynn Wheldon

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Regina Spektor - "Fidelity"

I'm proud to say that it has only taken me five years to catch up with this. Unfortunately embedding is disabled, so i shall simply have to trust you to go here. Please skip the Pokemon ad as soon as you possibly can.

Ah-ha! I have found a live version that I'm allowed to embed.

Thursday, 16 June 2011


This is not about motor racing, not about sport, not about celebrity; it is a film about mortality and what it means to be alive. It is beautifully paced and edited, and never lingers; it eschews the sensational (we see Senna's final crash only once), the morbid and the maudlin. It is an engaging portrait of an exceptional life. Outstanding.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


…beck’s novel Cannery…
Ms Ozick in her dandelion-yellow Piper Cherokee
The Baskerville Q in all its glory
And so at (of course) Baker Street (though this is not a story):
‘ere mate, which way’s London?
Summons the guard, who’s from Sunderland
By way of Tehran.

Disparities spice each hour in the city
Data hangs like fruit on vines of electricity
Hear the bells tolling for memory while
Sodcasting* girls on the back seat smile.

I purchase an old fashioned lolly pop
And simply keep strolling.

Wynn Wheldon

*Verb - The act of playing music through the speaker on a mobile phone, usually on public transport. Commonly practiced by young people wearing polyester, branded sportswear with dubious musical taste. (source: the Urban Dictionary)

Written very quickly. Perhaps even hastily. All comments of whatever stripe most welcome.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Walks so far

2005 - Glastonbury Tor
2006 - Dulverton (south Exmoor)
2007 - Golden Cap
2008 - Porlock 1
2009 - Porlock 2
2010 - Great Bedwyn
2011 - Salcombe (South Hams)

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Walk 2011 - Part 2

Old boys on a boat

Val, proprietor of the B&B in Slapton, the name of which escapes me, was terrific. She was cheerful, straightforward, and when asked about Bruce Forsyth (the paper announced his K) didn't seem to have much time for baubles (she may well be a secret republican) , and had even less for mountain cyclists on the coastal path. "Devils", she called them. The rooms were especially comfortable in the sense that they were not too B&B starchy - rather like Val herself in fact. A very good night.

Morning brought anticipation of seeing TPJM at the end of Slapton sands, by The Tank. He would walk with us to Salcombe. It was indeed a real pleasure to see him. Strange how the familiarity of school friendships endures. Of course he's a terribly easy chap anyway...

RR had been concerned about Group Dynamics. Was there going to be an HR problem? We had never been so large a party before. We have shrunk to six, and we had thought eight was the optimum number, but the extras we took on this year - all west country bods - made nothing but a pleasurable ripple. This walk was perhaps the best yet.

JAH and I took an interesting diversion not far from the coast, and found ourselves in deeply jungular surroundings. Keep following the stream we said to each other, as though we'd been shot down behind enemy lines. We both had sticks, without which passage would have been impossible. It struck me later that night that of all the party JAH was the one I would have chosen to be in that mess with: optimistic, temperate, amused, aware of the world immediately around him, never too earnest, but not childish either. It took me back to days following him down streams turning over rocks to find crayfish. We'd made a mistake, but like a Leonardo blot, something rather special had been made out of it.

JAH and I reached the Pigs Nose in East Prawle just in time to miss lunch, but sandwiches did fine and what was to follow was the most spectacular walk we have had so far, along the coast to Salcombe. Breathtakingly lovely. The light was sharp, defining everything with utter clarity. This was early summer, before the haze sets in; there was a breeze; the silver sea sparkled. JAH wanted to know why it was ever necessary to go to Turkey or anywhere else for that matter. TPJM was of similar mind. SAF was reminded of the Costa Brava. RPH and MDF swam again in a tiny cove we had thought only accessible by water until we spotted a vertiginous little path that health and safety haven't put their ruinous little signposts and barriers into yet.

We walked into Salcombe up and over and around, through the bracken, into the sun, and took the little ferry across to that town and made our way to the third rate hotel with first rate views. Company made it first-rate anyway, so our complaints were amused rather than angry. I finished my evening in the legendary Room 312, sitting out on the balcony until the rains came.

We are lucky people to have such friends, and I think we also deserve each other. Thanks, as ever and always, to RR for laying on a hint of heaven for us all.

Please add comments, chaps.

Asked at Baker Street

Asked on the platform at Baker Street station, in a broad cockney accent: "'ere, mate, which way's London?"

Coastal Destinations

A little caesura in my account of The Walk: I note that National Geographic magazine reckons the Pembrokeshire Coast Path to be the second best "coastal destination" on earth. The South Hams don't get a look in! A disgrace, in my view... full list here.

Cymru am byth!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Walk 2011 - Part 1

Old boys throwing stones at a stick, Slapton Sands, June 2011

So this year we were a round dozen, swollen gently and delightfully to thirteen on Saturday for the stupendous coast path walk to Salcombe.

We met at Tuckenhay at The Waterman's Arms on the Dart. The first shock was to find that GOB and TC had matching waterproofs. Still, there was nothing to be done now, for the weather was closing in and we had to get going. There was a flapping of goretex and headware appeared. The Alpha males decided we couldn't possibly actually walk to Slapton, or at least not all the way, and so we drove to Blackawton, parked the cars, walked for about a quarter of a mile and got lost. Luckily we found a hedge to crawl through and a lane to slide into from it. What japes. (I think it is worth recording here that as we disembarked from our taxis at Blackawton - 12 aging boys, some more corpulent than perhaps they ought to be, self very much included - a woman on her bicycle asked "are you terrorists?". Actually it turned out that she hadn't asked that at all. She had asked RPH if he was a Rotarian. Few are the people less like a Rotarian than RPH. He is closer to being a terrorist - although of course a very sensitive one).

The most direct walking route, according to Google maps, ought to have taken us an hour and a half. Four and a half miles. We managed to turn that into 7.8 miles (and I don't know how long), according to GOB's GPS. But RR said GPS machines were "bollocks", and who are we to argue. We walked through a rather well-done nature reserve out to Slapton Sands, which naturally are not sands at all. Well, not what i would call sands. I'd call what we sat on as very small pebbles, a sort of ur-sand. MDF performed his first inimitable act of nudity, brave soul, and dipped into the icy brine.

The evening was of course dedicated to MAH, 50 that very day. Everyone made a speech saying how much they loved the dear man (among other qualities his Big Packet and his Sense of Priority were highlighted). Then MDF and AK argued about the merits or otherwise of circumcised and uncircumcised penises, too loudly for JAH's liking. (MDF and AK like to have at least one big row per walk - tradition is important.)

All this took place at the utterly exemplary Tower Inn, managed by the fragrant and beautiful Thea, with whom everyone fell a little in love.