Monday, 30 April 2012

Nature, red in tooth and claw

Tennyson, from In Memoriam. I've had a good deal of it today.  At my desk in the morning, I was suddenly aware of a terrific twittering.  Blackbirds have been nesting in the clematis.  Now the parents were dashing about frantic, their tails all ruffled and splayed, up and down and in and out and around, and then suddenly, horribly, a magpie emerged from the clematis and made off.  I went into the garden to see if i could see anything of the nest, couldn't, returned indoors, and the next time I looked out I saw two chicks, almost fully fledged - almost.  One hopped away, I didn't know where.  The other was motionless.  But breathing.  I examined it.  It seemed to have had its eyes removed.  It was hobbled.  Could not move.  I rang a friend who told me to drown it.  I filled a watering can with water, put on a pair of rubber gloves, picked up the poor thing and drowned it.  It struggled mightily, for much longer than I thought reasonable.  I heard myself saying, over and over again, "oh dear".

We've had a lot of mice. I finally discovered, while looking for the gloves, that they had gone into the place where we keep the dog's treats.  We have put poison down.  At the bottom of the chest of drawers I found a dead mouse.  It followed the dead chick into the bin.

A chick reappeared.  Two chicks.  Three.  Fat, motionless and every now and then a hop, like a clockwork toy that has wound down almost entirely.  We moved them back under cover of the deep clematis and surrounded them with garden chairs in the hope that the magpie would not be able to get through.  A little while later we found they had moved back to where we had moved them from.  Now one had somehow hopped onto the top of the front fork of a bicycle.  Every now and then I heard the dry unpleasant clack of a magpie and went out to shoo it ff.

The doorbell.  The next door neighbour informs us that he has had a large fox in the garden.  i thank him.  Within half an hour I see a large fox on the garden wall.  Looks healthy and young and ready for chicks.  The poor parent birds, which have been feeding their chicks constantly when not on guard against the blasted magpie, now fall again into mad cheeping and twittering and dashing from bough to bough.  Poor buggers.  Magpies and foxes, not to mention a curious Tibetan terrier (who nevertheless doesn''t much like the weather).

A mouse runs from under the sofa to the fireplace in the sitting room.  Night falls.  I have left every light on in the hope that the foxes / magpies / stoats / rats etc will think twice about going for our chicks, but i think there is little hope for the little blighters despite the brave and tireless work of their parents in defending them.  All horribly sad.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Wynn Powell Wheldon

I knew my grandfather ('Taid') had been involved in the League of Nations in some capacity, and while googling I came upon this rather lovely notice from the magazine Welsh Outlook, for April 1933.  I'd love to be described as being "a balanced and genial personality" ,"neither bureaucratic or academic" and having "broad sympathies and varied interests".  Best of all would be to be known for my "unfailing courtesy".  Some chance.

THE retirement of Sir Percy Watkins from
the post of Permanent Secretary to the
Welsh Department of the Board of
Education and the appointment of Mr. Wynn
Wheldon in his place serve to remind us of how
much we owe to our own great public servants.
These two men have won the confidence and
respect of all who know them, and the nation is
satisfied that in whatever positions they are placed
they will fill them with ability, with wisdom, and
with unfailing courtesy. Neither of them is
bureaucratic or academic in the sense in which
these terms are used as epithets. Both are men
of broad sympathies and varied interests, and
their devotion to Wales is plain for all to see.
Mr. Wheldon's ancestry, his training and experi-
ence of law and administration, his work for Col-
lege, for County Council, and for League of
Nations, all emanating from and fused in a bal-
anced and genial personality, marked him out for
the high office to which he is now called. The
absence of surprise at the President's choice is the
best testimony to its rightness.

Catholic Herald Archive

I have just stumbled upon the Catholic Herald archive, and in particular my short-lived association with the newspaper.  I reviewed books of all sorts: biographies of Joyce Cary, Dora Carrington, Gerard Manley Hopkins (two - not surprising I suppose), Kafka and Conrad, novels by William Trevor, Martin Amis, Carlos Fuentes, Celine (phew!), Tisma, Skvorocky, and so on. My favourite book was a notebook kept by Mircea Eliade. I lasted from January 89 to April 91, when I must have been outed as a confirmed Anglican.  Anyway, should anyone be remotely interested, you can read them here.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Barcelona 2 Chelsea 2

I have just deleted two paragraphs of footie-fanboy rubbish and I'm not by any means a Chelsea supporter.  Suffice to say, stuff like this gets all the old-fashioned virtues asserting themselves as if for a last hurrah.  So hurrah for Chelsea, and to hell with their so-called captain.

GOAL! Barcelona 2-0 Chelsea, 2-1 agg (Iniesta, 44 min): That, ladies and gentlemen, is that.
                                Jacob Steinberg, in The Grauniad

A Poem and Two Pictures by J.A. Hoare

Binton's banger coming up the hill,
drop by for some grog and a refill.
How are you young boys?  I'll give you some charm
because you have got the U.S. dollars for my wife's cool arms,
fresh vegetables and an outhouse too.
Your properties are worth money to you -
children are what you have,
all fourteen, and they live in your pad.
One's learnt to limbo and play in a band
another drives the reggae bus in jitney land,
so they are all happy and live in peace.
But take care you don't trespass or teaf
or Binton's twelve bore will scrape your cheek,
if you are a rasta-boy he won't be weak.
If you are in trouble you know who to seek.
Just call me your uncle Binnie.

My friend Pom sent me this from the West Indies, a lifetime ago.  I've always loved it (I think of it always as 'Binton's Banger', but 'The Landlord' is a much more accurate title). Nary a cliche to be seen, and reekin' of trut'.  Pom's a pretty good artist, too.

Two flying fish drawn by Pom.  They are in the Moghissi-Pajunen Collection, and the reproduction is used with permission (thanks Sirps).  And, below, from the collection of Mr Thomas Cash, Bananas.

Friday, 20 April 2012


Prole is a literary magazine.  Issue 7 has just come out and it contains a story of mine, called 'Amanuensis'.  Naturally I would like you to purchase the mag itself, which you can do on paypal through the website, here. Having read the story you may then post flattering compliments on the comments page, here.  If you are not willing to buy this magnificent volume (and your payment will include a donation to Anti-Slavery) then I may consider allowing you to see my own copy, but you will have to let me know.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

TIANAMEN by James Fenton

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tianamen.

You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there.
What happened there
In Tiananmen.

The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
In Tianamen.

They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Another lie’s
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
From Tianamen.

Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
To Tiananmen.

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989 (11 days after the massacre on June 4th)

From 'Out of Danger', Penguin, 1993 

More about James Fenton here.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


The magnolia’s made a mess on the lawn again.

         It happens every spring.

         I spend April sweeping.

    Those fat white petals won’t skeet with the wind.

    They soak in the rain as though it was gin

And lie soused, kaleidoscoped, about the crooked trunk.

    That magnolia’s nowt but a dandy drunk.

Wynn Wheldon 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Plus ca change

I was a bit early with the Herrick and I'm a fortnight too late with this bit of Browning, but i think it is worth having nonetheless.

Oh what a dawn of day!
How the March sun feels like May!

from 'A Lovers' Quarrel'' by Robert Browning

Porches by Wynn Wheldon

I don't get a lot of reviews, but this seems a pretty good one, and who am I not to share it with the world?  I have only just come across it. It is from the Chicago Tribune, and is no less than 8 years old. You can now buy used copies of 'Porches' (published by Barron's) for £0.69 on Amazon.

Book extols the neighborly notion of home porches

April 23, 2004|By Robert Bruss, Inman News.

While browsing in a bookstore, I stumbled on the new book "Porches" by Wynn Wheldon. My first reaction was "Who would write a book just about porches?"

But as I read the first few pages, I quickly realized how important porches are to past and current American home architecture. When I paid for the book, the cashier said, "This must be a good book. This is the second copy I've sold this morning." She was right. It's a very good book.

The book's introduction says "porch" comes from the Latin "porticus," which is related to both portal and passage. Then British author Wheldon artfully summarizes a home porch's purpose is to connect "in" and "out."

"The porch also conveys a notion of neighborliness and openness to the world. There is something so inviting about it, which is why it's such a good place to talk as friends," he continues.

The beautiful color photos of dozens of porches show many unusual porch styles. Old Victorian porches, double-decker two-story porches, rundown porches badly in need of paint, pristine porches with beautiful water views, rotting porches, row houses all with porches, small porches, big porches, porches filled with junk, the pillared porch at Mt. Vernon, a log cabin porch, new porches, ugly porches, store porches, beautiful round porches and even a sharecropper's ramshackle porch are all in this book.

To accompany the color photos, the author selected excerpts from mostly well-known authors. For example, next to the color photo of an elegant old home's porch is "They topped the rise and the white house reared its perfect symmetry before her, tall of columns, wide of verandas, flat of roof, beautiful as a woman who is so sure of her charm that she can be generous and gracious to all," (from author Margaret Mitchell in "Gone With the Wind").

The book's emphasis is on southern porches, although one porch photo shows snowflakes. Usually, there are rocking chairs or at least a suspended porch swing in the photos.

My favorite quotation, however, accompanies the photo of a plain plank porch with a huge hanging American flag. "We meet on democracy's front porch, a good place to talk as friends. For this is the day when our nation is made whole, when our differences, for a moment, are suspended." That quote is from President George H.W. Bush's 1989 Inaugural Address on the "front porch" of the U.S. Capitol.

After enjoying this beautiful little book, readers will never think about front porches the same way again. My long, narrow front porch has two chairs with a little table. I've often sat there on warm evenings reading a book or just staring at the beautiful trees in the distance.

But from now on, enjoying my little porch will be much different as I compare it with the elegant and also the not-so-elegant porches photographed in this unusual book.

Every home builder, designer and architect should be required to spend at least an hour with this innovative book--never again would an American home ever be built or remodeled without at least a modest, covered front porch.

Until reading Wheldon's new book, like most homeowners, I never thought about the importance of porches as comfortable places to relax and to make the transition, as the author suggests, between "in" and "out."

On my scale of 1 to 10, this most unusual and very thoughtful book rates a solid 10.

"Porches," by Wynn Wheldon (Barron's Publishing, $11.95). Available in stock or by special order at local bookstores, public libraries and on the Web.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Orson Welles' Sketchbook, Episode One

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

...for the Elderly and Beautiful

I went expecting whimsy and charm.  Plenty of that, but plenty of much more than that too. A love song to India, a homily on the duty to live life to the full, and a tender-hearted examination of love in several forms. A pure delight. Funny, unashamed of sentiment, well-paced, and performed with zest and pleasure by a terrific cast. Dev Patel is preposterously likeable and Judi Dench adds, as always, a degree of depth that lends humanity without any ponderous earnestness. Maggie Smith - again as always - gives a star turn.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Casablanca at the Scala

OK, so this is not the band formerly known as Lo Fi Culture Scene, nor is the singer Avril Lavigne as I had mistakenly thought for several months.  Rather, this is the Asteroids Galaxy Tour from Denmark, who headlined The Scala at Kings X on Tuesday night.  They were preceded by a couple of bands, the first a proficient Franz Ferdinandy sort of outfit called Foreign Office (the lead singer had a good voice with a touch of the David Byrnes about him with his specs and grey school shirt), the second Casablanca (the band formerly known as etc). The stupendous Crouch End five-piece played a set of seven numbers, two of which were songs hitherto unperformed. The first of these - could have been called 'Take My Hand' - was a real banger, as i think the young people like to say (meaning "cracker" in old language). I wasn't sure about the second although I was assured by all that it was the highpoint of the set and a classic in the making and so on and so forth.  The set-list ran as follows: Natalie, Matter of Time, Waste of Time, Take My Hand, Need to Know, Dodgy New Song,Yes.  A fairly good house (five hundred or so?) obviously enjoyed the gig.  The band only need to overcome their shyness (they celebrate six years together in May, and they've played over 60 dates - you would have thought they'd be comfortable by now) and do a bit of projecting, and a mighty show will be on the road.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Universe

I understand that the universe is gathering speed as it explodes into the nothingness it is presumably filling - in other words the Big Bang is still happening.  What I don't quite get is where in the universe the big bang took place.  It cannot be expanding all in the same direction, in an odd linear way (or can it?) so there must be some central spot or source.  No?  If so, where is that spot?  If not - well: all explanations gratefully received.

The Hunger Games

Terrific film.  Takes you right at the start and pretty much doesn't let you go until the end.  Adaptations from books often have longeurs which work well with the individual reader but simply make movies look flabby.  No flab on this.

The whole thing is extremely familiar - futuristic totalitarian state, all gleaming right angles and weird modernist hair-do's, feisty rebels in the forest - but done here with panache and the oddly powerful presence of Jennifer Lawrence, who has the same range of expression as Gary Cooper, and is equally mysteriously watchable.

Think Rollerball meets Lord of the Flies, add a soupcon of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and a hint of Brazil, powder it all with Robin Hood and there you have it.

This perhaps makes it sound more lightweight than it is; this is intense and pretty damn dark.  Looking forward to part two.