Sunday, 30 October 2016

NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan

No-one plants unease as well as Ian McEwan.  I had thought, before 'unease', to write, unthinkingly, 'disease'; now it occurs to me that maybe disease is an even better word.  His prose, which I would suggest is now among the best the English language has, digs in and under, and fills the imagination with all kinds of mental dyspepsia.  It is quite brilliant; but of course one knows that it will all end badly.  With McEwan it always does.   'Nutshell' is actually a novella, a long short story, longer than some novels. The claustrophobia, the intense detailing, are reminders of those earliest, shocking tales in 'First Love, Last Rites', the only collection of short stories, in my literary lifetime, that have had the impact of an important novel.  I've a feeling that, like an English football player's overhead goal, this book would be praised to the treetops were it by a Czech or Vietnamese or Egyptian writer.  It is a state-of-the-world tract encased in the nutshell of an English - very English - short story.  A book about shuffling on the mortal coil, it is worth the read for the prose alone, but it may leave you sadder and not necessarily all that wiser.

Thursday, 27 October 2016


It's not great - not the blast that Keith Richards' 'Life' is or the new thing that Dylan's 'Chronicles' is - but it is interesting, often funny, often touching.  The first couple of books, which take us up to the Tunnel of Love album, are more or less compulsive reading.  Once domesticity and depression kick in, Springsteen gets very earnest.  The whole thing is of course full of 'honor', 'service', pledging' and, naturally, 'soul', and tremendously Bruce-ish, but what works well in the artifice of a song lyric becomes perhaps a little overwrought in prose.  Still, there are some great stories, well told, and one can just about forgive the earnestness because he is trying so damn hard.  That sounds a bit condescending, but it is hard not occasionally to hear the faint sound of women fans uttering "ah, bless" to themselves from time to time.  Other than the rock and roll stories, he is acute on being a band leader, on how bands work. And there is no false modesty.  He is aware of his status, and aware that he is the onely begetter of the E Street Band.  At the same time he is never less than generous to all those who have helped him. An engaging book, weighed down a little by the author's seriousness of intent.  It is of course that very quality that has made him the best live act on the planet, the mover of now ageing men and women, the Boss.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


"Indifferent to truth, willing to use police-state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on health care, and flippant and fast and loose with national security; the case against Hillary Clinton for President is open and shut."
Christopher Hitchens

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Went today to Paddington Rec, where I can let my bouncy dog off the lead in areas dedicated to such madness.  Fine, though took an age to park.  Once there two unusual things happened.  First I was accosted by an incredibly old man who said that he lost his dog during the war.  "Oh", said I, with my eyebrows raised.  "Yes, we lived on the Wirral peninsula, and since we were close to Ireland, which was neutral, there was a fear that the Nazis would invade from there, so the beaches were mined.  My dog was blown up by one.  About thirty yards from where I was walking."  What do you say?  Fatuously, I said, "well, that's not an experience you can have shared with many people".  He then told me about giving some Americans tea.  I didn't understand.  He repeated the story.  I still didn't understand.  It didn't matter.  He shuffled off.  Very very slowly.

I wandered down by the tennis courts.  Suddenly I felt a warmth on my ankles.  I turned and investigated.  Flames were licking delicately out of the bottom of a modern plastic rubbish bin that was festooned with instructions surrounding holes for various kinds of rubbish.  I stood stupidly staring.  Soon I noticed flames at the top of the thing (it was about 5 feet tall, and self-contained).  I wondered, still stupidly, whether this was some kind of modern rubbish disposal device.  Only for a moment, mind you.  It so happened that my phone was showing a map of the Rec, with a phone number attached.  The phone rang for a while before a lackadaisical voice answered.  I told her what the problem was, trying to load my words with the urgency i thought the situation warranted.  The flames were now licking out a good deal less delicately.  Savagely, I reckoned.   The lackadaisical quality of the woman's voice did not waver or crack.  She'd send someone over.  I wasn't convinced, so I began to make for 'administration', wherever that may be, but I passed a chap looking concerned with a walkie talkie, wearing a high-vis, striding across the green swards towards the smoke, which was beginning to billow.  Another followed. About five minutes later another chap turned up, strolling, nattering on his phone, carrying a fire extinguisher.  I was pretty sure that wasn't going to do the job.  I had visions of a conflagration, Randolph Avenue being evacuated and so on.  As it happens, as I left the park a Fire Engine turned up.  I felt relieved, but also oddly dispossessed.  It had been my discovery after all.  And all I have for it is this piece of prose.

Saturday, 15 October 2016


I'm reading Simon Schama's delicious 'Face of Britain', and so I pootled along to the National Portrait Gallery today in order to have a look at one or two of the pictures he has written about.  Once in, I decided to stick with the 18th century, and look for the striking or the kind among the worthies.  Uppermost, I wanted to see Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of William Wilberforce.  I found it in a room dedicated to the Abolitionist movement.  What a picture it is.  I'm fairly sure there can't be a more lovely face in the entire collection, both intelligent and kindly.  He seems to glow.  Perhaps it is the dark chocolate coloured background halo around the head, and the fact that the body remains only sketched in, which gives the face this luminescence, but I think more likely this was Lawrence at the top of his game painting an exceptional man.

Other stuff that caught my eye: Tom Paine with the gaunt, goaty look of the radical - Ken Loach, Jeremy Corbyn; Sir John Fielding, the great and just magistrate, somehow appropriately blind (the painter someone called Nathaniel Hone); the deceptively soft-faced Edmund Burke by Reynolds; Lawrence's disdainful Wellington. There are first class Reynolds portraits of Laurence Sterne and Joseph Banks.  JR much better than I remember him being.  The face I liked best after Wilberforce's is that of Lord Mansfield, by Copley.  Mansfield, like Wilberforce, was a good man, and he looks it.

No postcards for any of them (fine if you want Bowie, Kate Moss or Tracey Emin; Keats gets a card but not Wordsworth).

Big Picasso portraits show on: crowds.  I liked wandering back into the 18th century.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


I'm really very heartily sick of the Far Left, with its love for Putin and Assad, its hatred for the West, its apologies for Islamofascism, with its toe-curlingly hypocritical sanctimonious self-righteousness, for its love of DOWN WITH, for its slimy contempt for those it pretends to represent, for its bitter, ungenerous, dogmatic shutting down of conversation and debate, with its ignorance of human nature, its dum, dim binary view of the world, and with its constant, snotty whine. Just saying. Phew.

Friday, 7 October 2016


Have recently enjoyed Ann Murray singing Dido, stately and passionate, at St John's, Smith Square; terrific Kate Winslett (surely the best of her generation) in Steve Jobs; The charming Beatles in Eight Days a Week; an erudite and pleasing TV programme called Britain's Lost Masterpieces; and the first series of Suits, which is smart and funny and a nice twist on the age-old buddy theme (a comic creation, after all).  Am also reading a thoroughly engaging book by Simon Schama, called 'The Face of Britain'.  Did you know that Victoria, following Albert's death, always slept with a cast of his hand on her pillow?  That Van Dyck's mistress, Margaret Lemon, tried to bite his thumb off? That the 7th Earl of Barrymore was married to a female bare-knuckle boxer?