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)