Wednesday, April 30, 2008

While London Freezes...

Tut tut, those naughty newspapers have been very bad. 'Significant divergence from the scientific consensus' - that will never do. Surely it's the job of all media to conform to the scientific consensus - the broadcast media are already squared, what's wrong with the press? (And it's not just the tabloids.) I blame myself. Or global warming. One or the other.

The Way We Live Now

Rage and surveillance collide in this all too emblematic story. I'd always thought of the lollipop lady as a reassuring sign that a gentler, better-mannered, sweeter-natured Britain survived - and then 'lollipop rage' came along. The hellbound handcart trundles on.

Pigs Might Fly

I think this is very nearly the perfect news story. Do read it to the end... I trust Barack will speedily distance himself from the porcine inflatable. 'That's his pig, not mine - he said so!'
If Bryan spots this one floating overhead, who knows what he might conclude...

Further Bombinations

Yesterday's Bombylius Major having proved a surprise hit, let's hear it today for the genus Bombus - the doughty bumble bees. Bumble bees, as this makes abundantly clear, are in crisis. What I did not know, until I caught a report on the radio very early this morning, was that bumble bee enthusiasts are combing the field margins and 'setaside' land of England in search of the buzzy tribe in all its threatened variety. They have even trained dogs to sniff out the bumble bees. A keen young lady, working a likely habitat with a sniffer dog called Toby, remarked: 'His whole life revolves around bumble bees.' Things like this make you glad to be alive ('Oh I wouldn't go that far' - S. Beckett) and in England and listening to Radio 4 in the very early morning...

Metamorphosis and the Power of the Prayer

So I was lying by this pool in Desert Hot Springs - this trip is increasingly inexplicable - and I decided that in precisely twenty minutes I would swim 50 lengths. After ten minutes a small group of young people came and stood - stood! - in the pool. One girl was eating - eating! - as she paddled aimlessly about. My eyes closed, I willed them to leave. One minute later I heard shrieks and splashing. I opened my eyes. A reddish snake about 2 feet in length was swimming across the pool. As the gilded - though zoologically ill-informed (the only poisonous snakes in the state are, I gather, all rattlers) - youth of California leapt from the pool, the snake slid elegantly up the steps and on to the lawn. The Y of C fled the scene as did almost everybody else. I looked up. The snake had now metamorphosed into a humming bird hovering over my head. I grinned, it dipped and plunged. Completing my 50 lengths, I rose dripping from the pool to be greeted by yet another incarnation of my spirit friend - a roadrunner. It stepped elegantly past me before accelerating into the bushes. The desert understands me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Quiet Conference

In an ever noisier world, initiatives like this are increasingly necessary and laudable, even if the battle against noise seems always to be a losing one. It is simply astonishing the amount of 'background' noise we tolerate and take for granted now, especially those of us who live in and around cities. Even on the more frequented roads of that suburban demiparadise I call home, it's often all but impossible to hear ordinary human speech or conduct a conversation at much below shouting level - and that is just from the sheer volume of traffic driving by. Add to that the range of pernicious new nuisances we now have to live with - especially the various forms of electronic noise pollution and the bellowing of the ever-swelling army of those who conduct their business and vent their feelings at maximum volume, regardless of their surroundings - and it seems to me that our poor battered brains are being subjected to something barely tolerable, which must at some deep level be doing us serious harm. What is that thumping, bone-shaking 'music' that escapes from passing yobmobiles doing to those inside the car? It cannot conceivably be good.
When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.
Let us seek quietness, and treasure it when we find it.

Twice Bittern

Here's a good new story - hats off to V, the saviour of her race! Let's hope there's some bittern action at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes this year too...

Roget... And Who?

It was on this day in 1852 that Roget's Thesaurus was published for the first time (with a mere 15,000 words included). This volume, which subsequently grew and grew, was one of many heroic attempts in the high 19th century to encompass, pin down and classify a vast expanse of human knowledge - and it was one that lasted into a later age, presumably because of its utility. Personally, I almost never go near a Thesaurus, working on the assumption that if you can't think of the word, it's not the right word. However, as the advancing years addle my brain, I might well have to rethink that stance. Anyone out there a regular user?
Today is also the birthday of one still living who is almost certainly the bestselling poet in the world (65 million volumes in dozens of languages). He can also claim sales of 100 million as a songwriter. Who is this lucky man?


Sorry about the hiatus. Bryan is of course still detained in the desert on a horse with no name and, as we all know, in the desert you can remember your name, 'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain... Meanwhile, I was bombinating about in a distracted manner and unable to post. (Talking of bombinating, on Saturday I had a close-up view of one of these weird creatures, which hang in the air, hovering and looking exactly like one of Bosch's minor creations.)
The news has been so tedious it's hard to care. This morning, no doubt, Austria will be on the analyst's couch, searching its collective soul etc, after the latest wacko emerges blinking into the sunlight. God knows Austria has much to question itself about, but this particular phenomenon is by no means confined to Austria. The situation there will no doubt remain what it always was - 'desperate, but not serious'.
Meanwhile, it's good to see that the true Olympic spirit thrives in North Korea. As Pak Hak Son, chairman of that country's Olympic committe puts it: ' While some impure forces have opposed China's hosting of the games this summer and have been disruptive, we believe that constitutes a challenge to the Olympic idea.' Quite so.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Solution

Correct - the Joshua Tree Desert where the Garden of Eden is to be found; it is called Hidden Valley. The Californian High Desert is now my favourite place on earth.

An Olympic Hero

Browsing idly through stuff on the 1908 London Olympics (budget £15,000, profit in excess of £7,000), I came across this fine fellow - the kind of Olympic hero we can all relate to. Sadly, the running deer events were not as exciting as they sound - rather than release wild deer, they dragged a deer-shaped target at speed along a line 110 yards from the guns. For the 2012 Games this could be adapted, with targets representing... Well, what? Any ideas (apart from Ken)?


Yet again, I'm grateful I'm not a driver. This 'industrial action' has led to the usual would-be reassuring paraphrases (delivered with a decidedly worried look) of Corporal Jones's injunction: 'Don't Panic!' As in Dad's Army, the result can only be panic - and panic buying is in fact the rational response to the situation, which is why people do it. Panic buy and you'll end up with something; don't panic buy and you might well end up with nothing, because of those other people panic buying. And the Grangemouth situation is of course far worse than it might seem, as it will take three weeks, maybe more - no one really knows - to get it up and running again after the strike. If I was a driver, I'd be down at the pumps right now.
Meanwhile, things are now so bad for Oor Gordie that it's getting silly - this today, among much else. If the Tories have any sense (always a big if), they'll start being nice to him, in a faintly patronisng manner. After all, they need to cherish him if they're to win the next election - almost any other candidate would stand a better chance than poor old Broon now.
An interesting report from Chechnya here. Whatever's really going on, it's another heartening example of the human urge - and, happily, ability - to rebuild after destruction. The state of Grozny was indescribable - I remember trying to watch a documentary about it and finding it literally too much to bear. There was no longer anything recognisable as a city - and yet now, a few years later, it's back. It's like all those continental towns and cities rebuilt - often just as they were - from piles of rubble after the world wars. Cities, the greatest of human constructs, are very hard to destroy. Even Carthage, razed to the ground, rose again.

A Further Clue

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Puzzle Picture

For Humph

The death of Humphrey Lyttelton is sad news indeed. The world will be that bit darker for the lack of his continuing presence, especially as the sublimely insouciant (and gloriously mucky) chairman of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. So long as that show was there, and Humph in charge, it seemed the world couldn't be half as grim as it otherwise seemed. And now he's gone. Barry Cryer, in one of many heartfelt tributes, spoke of his 'style and grace' - exactly so, and those are increasingly rare qualities. With his death coming so soon after that of Alan Coren, two truly irreplaceable figures are gone, the gaiety of the nation takes another blow. It feels as if the lights are going out...

Here are almost the last words Humph spoke at the end of the last broadcast episode of ISIHAC: 'I wish I could tell you how much I've enjoyed it [pause] But I'm not allowed to before 9pm.' RIP.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Question

Talking of the BBC News. Huw Edwards - why?


Ever since I caught it last night on the BBC's ghastly, portentous 'new look' News, I've been unable to shake the nauseating memory of this murderous scumbag's farewell to his pixellated baby daughter. What is it with these people? I mean, really, what is it? They're living - they were born in - a tolerant, civilised democracy (as the world goes), they appear pretty thoroughly integrated into it, they clearly have a range of decent human feelings, they look entirely unremarkable - and they hate us, with such a fanatical passion that they want us dead and will kill themselves in the process to maximise the carnage. I can only conjecture that it's a fatal collision of young men and dangerous (deadly dangerous ) ideas, catalysed by a deeply entrenched sense of victimhood. Young men are of course hormonally deranged and up for just about anything (I was one myself, I recall, dimly). If they are already feeling aggrieved and victimised (as most young men are likely to, one way or another, even without any particular cultural allegiance) and that sense of grievance is intensively and expertly stimulated by an ideology that appeals at once to two Young Man urges - self-aggrandisement and self-destruction - then maybe that is enough. Can it be? I truly don't know, and I find it depressing even to think about. Captain B? Any thoughts?

Clive James Wins

I'd class this as good news - the Clive James bit of it, that is. It seems odd that he's winning a prize for political journalism of all things, but he's certainly a master of the essay, as he proves every week (well, most weeks) on Radio 4 with A Point of View. His fans await with trepidation the return to the POV slot of David 'Deadly' Cannadine... Meanwhile, let's enjoy James - and congratulate him.

Health Update

I am happy to report that last night I had a drink (well, three or four). This is only notable because, from Sunday evening to Thursday evening, not a drop had passed my lips. I was getting worried that I might even have lost the taste. What, without drink, would life hold? It didn't bear thinking about...
The last time I went so long without a drink was about a quarter of a century ago, when I was broke, with young children, and thought a sensible economy would be to give up booze. I soon learnt my lesson. After about a week, I started getting palpitations, which were bad enough to send me to the doctor, who in turn sent me to have an ECG, which found nothing physically wrong. Putting two and two together, I promptly resumed drinking and the palpitations went. I have never looked back, and commend my case history to anyone in two minds about drinking. Cheers!

North Korea: An Explanation

Looks like North Korea's in trouble again, with these suspicious goings-on in Syria. What has gone less noticed is that the land of Kim Jong 'I'm So Ronery' Il is about to become a cricketing nation (which I trust will do wonders for them). Surely the explanation for the Syrian jaunt is that the kindly North Koreans were advising the Syrians on the design of their impressively large indoor cricket training centre.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Butterflies Again

It would be sheer dereliction of duty on my part if I didn't note this sad story. Last year was truly a shocker for us butterfly lovers, having started in such glorious style with a warm and sunny April and lots of early sightings - and then declined into that horrendously wet, cool summer (though, for myself, I did twice see a dozen or so of these beauties). Butterflies are so dependent on the weather (not the climate) - and in Britain we just get too much weather. The hot dry summer of 1976, which scorched the grass from public parks and withered trees where they stood, was a revelation, producing clouds of contented butterflies everywhere and affording us a tantalising glimpse of what our countryside might be like if only we could count on proper summers. I shall make no mention here of global warming. D'Oh!

Not Politics

Who is this high-domed , careworn, tieless fellow, his mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone? I feel a caption contest coming on...

U Turn if You Want To...

Hats off to Gordon, I say. This so-called U-turn has achieved its objective - to bamboozle his opponents and buy time by kicking the issue into the long grass, as he always has done with every tricky issue. When it next emerges, it will be so entangled in complications and small print that no one will be able to work out what he's actually done and they'll just give up. Works every time - but I'm surprised a politician as bright as Frank Field has fallen for it. I suspect he's woken up this morning with a dawning realisation that he's been had, and no doubt he will (rightly) return to the attack - but by then it might be too late. Gordon has made the narrative - Brown's U Turn.
A lively PMQ though, from which I extracted this entirely baffling statement from Broon (jabbing an accusing finger at the Tories): 'We are for opportunity for everyone. They are for opportunity in everything.' Come again? At some point, he also uttered this beauty: 'There are better ways of helping low income families than scrapping the 10p tax rate.' What, like not scrapping it, for example?
That's enough politics.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

One good thing...

I saw a Brimstone just now, flying strongly westwards down Kensington High Street (of all places). The original 'butter-fly', always a joy to see, first or last.


The undead Hillary, in one smooth movement plucking the stake from her heart, extracting the silver bullet from her skull and casting aside her winding sheet, rises from the political grave in all her raging glory. Well, she got 55 percent in Pennsylvania (and I hold Susan B's husband personally responsible). She is not, she declares, a quitter. Nor are the American people quitters. Therefore... Well, actually, there's quitting and there's quitting, isn't there, and it rather depends on the cause in which you're not quitting - if it's merely clawing your way to the White House by any means, fair or foul, then not quitting is hardly a virtue. Maybe it was her declaration that she'd nuke Iran that swung it (I pass this particular link on for the benefit of anyone eager to 'meet single Persians').
Back in Blighty, we do politics differently. This made me laugh...

Ikea Aieee

Well this wretched bug and its after-effects continue to drain my energies, mental and physical - so I'm grateful to Malty (see under Radio Day) for reminding me of this momentous event, which I somehow missed. It seems that, true to form, Ikea celebrated by creating traffic gridlock in every city where they have a presence. What is it about Ikea? They sell some really rather good stuff, much of it well designed and attractive (as well as some dross) - and yet they manage to create one of the most horrendous retail experiences known to man. Personally, my last visit to Ikea made me vow never to set foot in the place again, and I've stuck to it. There are, after all , several companies that will do your Ikea shopping for you, and deliver, for a consideration. Why would anyone then inflict the full 'Ikea experience' on themselves? Some kind of herd instinct perhaps, or even an evolving national pastime. As for lutefisk - it's scary...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Radio Day

Yesterday, between bouts of vomiting, I spent dozing and half-listening to Radio 4, which was a largely painless and often rewarding experience, tho the endless churning of news and programme trailers was irksome. It seemed to be Atheism Day, with the dreaded Dennett on Start the Week, where he (the No 1 Bright) seemed pretty dull against our own Raymond Tallis (also an atheist, but of a humane, tolerant bent). But then came the Afternoon Play - an extraordinary affair, titled Grace and co-written by one Mick Gordon and, er, Prof A.C. 'the Hair' Grayling. The heroine (Grace!) was a ghastly, shrieking, bullying, castrating woman driven by fanatical atheism, whose party piece seemed to be a gleeful unpicking of William Paley (very cutting edge). She's driven into a Medea-like fury when her son decides to (hoho) become a priest. I must have nodded off (several times probably) because next thing it seems the son has been killed in some kind of Islamist atrocity (religion, you see - it kills people) and she is belatedly setting about a spot of self-questioning - apparently by having her brain electrically stimulated in the hope of having a 'religious experience'. All very strange. I suppose it might have worked if Grace hadn't been so loud and hysterical and entirely alienating. It certainly didn't do anything to further the atheist cause - or maybe, in the eyes of atheists, it did. Most things do.

Monday, April 21, 2008

From the Sick Bay

Not well today. Blogging will be light.
Here's a poem for the time - and sound - of the year, when the beautiful daft wood pigeons are crooing away...

The Dove In Spring

Brooder, brooder, deep beneath its walls -
A small howling of the dove
Makes something of the little there,

The little and the dark, and that
in which it is and that in which
It is established. There the dove

Makes this small howling, like a thought
That howls in the mind or like a man
Who keeps seeking out his identity

In that which is and is established... It howls
Of the great sizes of an outer bush
And the great misery of the doubt of it,

Of stripes of silver that are strips
Like slits across a space, a place
And state of being large and light.

There is this bubbling before the sun,
This howling at one's ear, too far
For daylight and too near for sleep.

Wallace Stevens of course.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Go Camille

Here's our favourite feminist getting stuck into Hill. She's right of course - if Mrs C is a role model for women, God help us all...

Tomorrow's News Today

Bowing to the relentless pressure piled on him by other southern African nations, Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe makes the following announcement: 'The election recount is now complete. I can confirm that - as I suspected - there had been serious undercounting of votes for the Movement for Democratic Change, who are now the clear victors at every level. This is the perfect climax to my political career, and I am delighted to stand aside for my old friend Morgan and his excellent movement.' (Warmly embraces Tsvangirai, who then takes to the stage while the band strike up 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow'.)
Also today. Brown: I Was Wrong All Along...

Prezza Makes Satire Redundant

Hmm I'm beginning to supsect Bryan is trying to emulate his hero Negley Farson and visit all the places listed on that bit of paper spilling out of the Farson typewriter (see, for example, this). He's had a faraway look in his eye ever since he bought that book...
Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the news continues to make satire redundant - just as well, as we have no satirists worthy of the name (except perhaps Chris Morris). It seems that scowling, malevolent lardbucket Prezza was a tragic victim of Bulimia all along. Well, it would explain his £4,000 a year expenses claims for food. To judge by his ever expanding girth, he was every bit as useless at being a bulimic as he was at being Deputy PM.

From the Deeper, Desert Beyond...

...I can tell you I interview Nicholson Baker in The Sunday Times.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Brown and the Elephant

With the suddenly lovable Pope and the never lovable Broon both in America, the air has been thick with big portentous speeches. Is it not strange that neither of them seems to have given so much as a mention (unless I've missed something) to the Big One - i.e. the ongoing threat from Islamic Jihadism in its various forms? The BBC TV coverage of Gordo's big speech was quite bizarre, presenting it as a clarion call for America to end its 'isolationism' (characterised by the deployment of tens of thousands of troops on two far-flung fronts) and engage in some mighty effort of international co-operation that will somehow make things better. This was not just 9/10 (i.e. before the day the world changed), it was pure Kennedyesque retro - and sure enough that old horror 'Teddy' Kennedy was there, stays creaking, to talk up Gordo as the slayer of poverty - according to him, Gordon will have put an end to it by 2010 - way to go! Not a word in Brown's speech about the Elephant in the Room - which must surely have baffled his American listeners. In the US, thankfully, they're taking it seriously - see What Preparations Are We Making? on Michael Burleigh's blog.
And even as I write, yet another released 'innocent' Guantanamo internee is bleating on Radio 4 and being believed...

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Way We Live Now

A sadly familiar story, this. Note the police quote though: 'As part of an ongoing operation to target drug-related crime, officers entered the wrong house.' See, it was all part of the plan.

The Great Stink

Sacré bleu! I can confirm that this is true - I smelt it myself as I stepped out of the house this morning and it was indeed precisely like merde de chien. Franky I think the Frenchies owe us a proper explanation.

Old Nige's Weather Lore

Today, as London shivers in the blast of an icy East wind, my mind naturally goes back to a time before I was born - the balmy spring of 1945, when the temperature in the Southeast reached 79F today - or indeed 1949, when it topped 80 on the two previous days. Similar temperatures for the rest of the month in 1893... This global warming, eh? It takes some very perplexing forms.


Call me a reactionary - in fact call me anything you like (Ishmael?) - but I entirely agree with this. One of the glories of cricket was always that its players were the best dressed of any sportsmen. White trousers and shirt, cream wollen jumper if needed, cap - elegant and perfect in every way. All changes to that look have been for the worse - and now, the fleece! Well, for heaven's sake...
On the other hand, as a traditionalist, I've nothing against this IPL 20/20 extravaganza. Competitive cricket began as a gimmicky, crowd-pulling, big money game (the money was in the betting - as it no doubt is in India to a large extent) with all manner of crazy games, stunts and challenges. Even after the Victorians tidied it up and made it a game for gentlemen, it still had its larky side - the first Australian touring team, for example, was made up of Aborigines, who entertained the crowds with spear throwing and boomerang demonstrations. It's a wonder the game ever settled down into the grand, stately and infinitely subtle thing it was through much of the 20th century. So long as that 'real' cricket - Test matches and the 3/4 day game - continues, the crowd-pleasing stunts don't matter (and, in their crude way, they'll entertain an awful lot more people than any other form of cricket).


The death of Gwyneth Dunwoody is a sad loss to a Parliament already seriously short of independent-minded, plain-speaking politicians who won't be bullied into toeing the line (unlike that junior minister no one had ever heard of, who decided not to resign after all, following a transatlantic phone call from the Supreme Leader). When Blair, typically, tried to get rid of La Dunwoody, fed up with her 'Vinegar Lill' acuity, her fellow MPs for once rallied round and refused to do their master's bidding. Of course she was a frightful old leftie at heart - but that's not the point.
This is also the day on which Einstein died, having, in his latter years, embodied all too successfully the Scientist as Sage and Magus. The absurd notion that because someone is especially good at a branch of science they are somehow in touch with eternal verities and profound wisdom is, alas, still with us, embodied now in the all too iconic form of Stephen Hawking. Let's hope he's the last of the line.
Much less the magus, but a scientist who gave the world a nice idea, Edward Lorenz of 'butterfly effect' fame, also died the other day. Chaos theory - now that makes sense...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Invisible Torch

The progress of the Olympic torch around the world becomes ever more surreal. Delhi has devised one solution - make sure no one can see it (even workers in buildings overlooking the route, who are forbidden from looking out of the window) and no one knows it's happening. Meanwhile, the pro-Tibet elements lay on the star-studded celebration with a parade of their own. Is it too late to start a parallel Tibetan torch relay, perhaps going the other way around the world?
It seems Australia's going to be fun too, as the Aussies have warned the Chinese goons that they'll be arrested if they so much as raise a hand to anyone. Excellent.

All Geek to Me

Is this the future? Comments only in Nerdic, please - not that I'll understand them...

Joke Over

Not long ago, 'passive drinking' was a joke. Not any more. Read this and weep.

Warmists and Truth

I pass this on without comment, except to draw your attention to Ms Abbess's instructive use of the word 'truth', as in 'the emerging truth' and even 'the truth'. This kind of clinching recourse to 'the truth' was formerly the preserve of the religious (as properly understood), but they are now denied it and asked to defend their position on entirely inappropriate 'scientific' grounds, whereas the supposedly scientific have taken over the religious prerogative and can lay claim to unquestionable 'truth'. Yet more evidence that Warmism is indeed spilt religion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Rubbish

True to form, mankind seems to be turning its little corner of space into an orbiting rubbish dump - with the Chinese enthusiastically positioning themselves in the vanguard of space littering. The implications of 'supercriticality' are worrying indeed... Meanwhile, back on Earth - where Everest itself has become an outdoor rubbish dump - the Naples rubbish crisis has reached such a pitch that Berlusconi will (he says) be spending three days a week working on it. When buffalo mozzarella is under threat (dioxin contamination from garbage-infected pasture), it's time to act!

Ponder Point (Unnumbered)

This is written on my Waterstones bag:
'A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking'
Jerry Seinfeld.
Hard to agree, I'd say, especially if that bookstore is Waterstones and it's the only one in town...
And thinking what?


Gordon Brown strode down the steps from his plane (GB1) onto the JFK tarmac. Unrestrained cheering broke out in the teeming crowd of spectators. 'We've seen nothing like it since Beatlemania,' remarked a harassed cop, holding back the excited throng. Greeting the Great British Leader on the tarmac, an excited George Bush embraced him with a fervour that almost brought a tear to the eye of the stern-faced son of the manse. Later, as they stood in the open limo for the tickertape parade along Broadway, Bush lifted his British hero's arm aloft in mutual triumph... And then Gordon woke up.
There's bad timing, very bad timing, and Brown's visit to the US. Not only is the Pope - that representative of an outworn and moribund creed, famously lacking in battalions - getting all the attention and the brouhaha, while the man known to the Great American Public as Gordon Who? slips in all but unnoticed. There's also an impending visit from the South Korean leader, the frenzied build-up to the Pennsylvania primary - and, back home, disgruntlement and sharpening of knives amid economic panic. Heaven knows what Brown will go back to. Blair, typically, has timed his visit perfectly for next week when all is quiet and he can bask in the limelight. Och weell...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


News reaches me of a serious threat to civilisation, our way of life and all we hold dear. There's a chance that SAG, the Screen Actors Guild (not to be confused with Team America's FAG) might go on strike! Dear God, can we take any more? We're still reeling from the screen writers' strike. Please, guys, show some pity. Think of the children...

Art and Abart with Nige

Yesterday I went to see Robert Dukes's
paintings at Browse and Darby on Cork Street. He is a young painter - barely
in his 40s - but working firmly in the tradition of the Old Masters. Not
that his paintings look old masterly at first glance, having an unfinished,
spontaneous air - but is is soon apparent that this is a painter who
knows and loves paint and who is consciously working in the tradition. Most
of the paintings are small still lives, singing with vibrant colour,
succulently painted and bursting with life. Fruit, shellfish and flowers are
his subjects, rendered in a manner that uses paint at once with great
precision and calculated roughness - they are exactly as finished as they
need to be, so that they seem somehow inevitable. Spanish masters are
obviously in his mind, though the nearest superficial resemblance would be
perhaps to Euan Uglow's still lives (though Dukes's are very much less austere). In
addition the exhibition also has a few portraits, a range of drawings and
some lovely studies after earlier masters - A Church in Naples after Thomas
Jones and Danae after Rembrandt stand out. It's a glorious little exhibition
for anyone who loves real painting (and it closes on May 2nd. Hurry, hurry, hurry...).
After that, I resigned myself to queuing among the tourists to
see Amazing Rare Things at the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. This is
a lovely and fascinating exhibition of 'the art of natural history in the
age of discovery'. What is notable is how full of life and character these
paintings of animals and plants are, however hard the painter tries to be a
mere scientific illustrator. Mark Catesby (working in the American colonies
in the 17th century) aims to be 'flat, tho' exact', but his work is anything
but flat - the best of it seems more alive than his (dead) subjects, and he
cannot help but make Pictures. Alexander
Marshal, horticulturalist, aims to provide accurate paintings of plants for
gentlemen connoisseurs - and such they are, beautifully done - but he can't
help adding monkeys, dogs, parrots and, in one startling case, a dead jay
that seems to have sunk to the foot of the sheet, casting a shadow on it. As
for Maria Sibylla Merian's paintings of the wildlife of Surinam, they are
riots of vivid colour and intense natural drama. This is an exhibition that
puts a smile on your face (as, in my case, did the Dukes) - and no wonder.
These artists express - as David Attenborough puts it - 'the profound joy
that all feel who observe the natural world with a sustained and devoted
intensity'. As, in his different way, does Dukes.
(There's a link of a kind here to Dukes.)

Beer Foils Kidnap

I pass this on simply as an illustration of what a very different, more gentle world we lived in just 40 years ago. Being a gentleman, Sir Alec kept the incident completely hushed up to avoid landing his bodyguard in the soup. He appears not to have needed post-trauma counselling either.

How Democracy Works

In Italy you get the revenant Berlusconi, in Nepal you get Maoists (democracy in Nepal, bad idea), and in Kenya and Zimbabwe you get the guy you didn't vote for. Still - what's the alternative?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jeff Looks Ahead

Another epic post from Jeff, who is nearing the end of his triumphant Australian tour. He's off to India next, which he expects to be 'very different to Australia and the US'. Spot on, as ever.

Travel News

This inventive fellow has caused a bit of a stir with his lurid 'confessions' of what he got up to when working on Lonely Planet guides. Sadly his story is fast unravelling - but then he is a self-confessed fantasist, so that's hardly surprising. The general point - that it's a miracle these guidebooks are as reliable as they are, considering the way they're made and the kind of people employed on them - holds good. But work they do - presumable because of a pool of willing young people so intoxicated by notions of travel and 'adventure' that they'll do the legwork for peanuts. Wanderlust is another of the false religious consolations of our time.
Imaginative writers, of course, have no trouble writing about places they've never visited. A recent example was H.R.F.Keating, whose Insepctor Ghote novels were widely praised for their vivid evocation of life in Bombay - even though he'd been writing them for ten years before he set foot in India. There must be many more such examples... Anyone?

Brain Again

Here we go again - the media and other scientistically inclined elements leap on the latest gobbet of 'evidence' that we are the helpless victims of mechanical processes of which we are entirely unconscious. Yes, our brain makes the decision, not us. Hmmm. Even in the course of this account, the inflated claims as the start are looking pretty sorry by the end, and the man who did the experiment seems to see the weaknesses as clearly as anyone - the fact that the experiment is entirely artificial and unlike life as lived, the unimpressive 60 percent 'prediction' rate, the unexplored possibilities of changing one's mind, the fact that anyway conscious and unconscious will are the same process, and, in the end, the huge uncertainty over what such findings actually tell us. Still, these stories certainly entertain and gratify those who feel the need to believe we are machines. The more interesting question is why anyone should be so desperate to believe such a thing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nige At It Again

Readers with long memories might recall that my eBay habit was a running theme for a while. Well, I still make the odd foray - always buying, never selling (yet) - and this morning, with a well-timed late bid, I 'won' a Nicole Farhi summer suit (beige cotton), barely worn, for £26 (i.e. about a 20th of list price). I am rather pleased about this. My Nicole Farhi reversible winter coat (£60) is already the stuff of legend. Bryan, of course, assured me that it would burst into flames as soon as I put it on. He's an Issiye Miyake man himself.

Sunday Morning Miscellaneous

Somewhere in the small hours, half asleep, I heard the author of this book being interviewed on the radio. He sounded more interesting and serious than this blurb would suggest, and I think he definitely has a point. For example, it has always struck me as very odd that the Nicene Creed features Jesus only as a product of virgin birth and subject of Roman persecution and Resurrection - not a word about his life, work and teachings, which for most us are rather the point.
Anyway, later on the radio I heard Peter Tatchell recalling meeting Robert Mugabe face to face (not on the occasion on which he tried to 'arrest' the Saviour of Zimbabwe). He was, Tatchell found, quite short, anything but imposing, timid and 'slightly effeminate' in manner. Rather like Hitler in that then.
On the domestic political front, it just gets better and better for Brown, who continues to break all records, though not perhaps the ones he'd prefer. Maybe he'll have to go after all, if any of that craven bunch dares to challenge him.
Enough of these ephemera. Today is always a red letter day for some of us, since it was on this date in 1906 (he liked to claim it was Good Friday, but it wasn't) that the great Samuel Beckett was born - a calamity from which he never entirely recovered. But then, which of us does? For those of us who read and loved him in our formative years, there is something about Beckett's work that seeps in deeper almost than anything else. He changes everything.

An Emission from the Ether with Regard to Matt Groening

From beyond I feel able to tell you that I interview Matt Groening in The Sunday Times.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

What Happened?

What happened? I've absolutely no idea. Like the rest of you I was unable to get onto this hallowed corner of the blogosphere for the past 36 hours and more, during which time I was of course seething with stuff I wanted to get off my chest. The story that really got me - and, I imagine, many others - going was that of a council in Dorset using anti-terrorist-style surveillance to check that a couple weren't trying to get their child into the 'wrong' primary school - here's a local take on it. The story's still going, with the council defending their actions and apparently bemused by the fuss - and they even have a degree of suport from the 'public', God help us.
Well, we shouldn't be surprised really. Such deformations of reality are the inevitable result of state control of education, driving down standards and creating scarcity, so that the remaining decent schools have to be protected by any means from parents who might want to send their children there. Things could be so much better. Thirty yers ago, Frank Field (one of Britain's few decent politicians - hence his failure to rise) was proposing the Danish model, whereby if 300 parents decided they wanted to start a school, they were given the money the state would have spent on their children and left to get on with it (with a minimum of oversight). This has led to an enviable situation where there are enough schools to satisfy virtually all parents, and, because of the competition, standards are high. A similiar situation pertains in Sweden and, happily, the Tory Michael Gove (also, I think, a decent man) has proposed the Tories adopt/adapt it when, eventually, power can be grasped from the cold dead hand of Gordon. Well, let's hope they mean it... (Field also proposes a school leaving certificate for 14-yr-olds who have acquired basic literacy and numeracy - no mean feat in many a 'comp' - with the state money for their remaining schooling being diverted to training in something useful. Again this seems very sound - certainly a better idea than driving them towards 'university'.)
Meanwhile, I see that shaggy-haired, doom-voiced popster Mark E Smith of The Fall is in trouble with the squirrel lovers. Unfortunately he seems to have picked on the wrong kind of squirrels, i.e. the real ones, rather than those grey tree rats. Perhaps he'll have better luck with the seagulls.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New Meanings 3

In New Meanings 2 Bryan pondered the all-conquering phrase 'Do the math'. Well, here's another one, to be heard in every shop, restaurant and, especially, café in the land, usually from the mouths of the relatively young - 'Can I get a...?' As in 'Can I get a coffee?' Where did this come from? I suspect it's American, and might be the result of too many hourse spent sitting around watching old episodes of Friends. For the life of me I can't see its usefulness, let alone its appeal - it merely sounds slightly ruder than the other possible ways of asking for something. I look forward to hearing the following exchange:
Young Person: 'Can I get a coffee?'
Barista: 'Why yes, young person, you most assuredly can get a coffee. And, as it happens, you can get one right here, as you are in an establishment that makes a bit of a speciality of selling coffee. The giveaway is in the name, café. I hope that answers your question.'

A Way Forward for the Torch

And so it goes on... San Francisco took the French bus idea and, er, ran with it - but not for long. Soon, in a masterstroke of improvisation, they had the torch hidden away in a warehouse for 45 minutes. And then, they presented the authorities with the perfect solution to their dilemma - keep the torch relay going, but... don't let anyone know where it is! Fantastic. San Francisco has shown the way forward - let the world follow.
Meanwhile, back in London, we edge closer to the realisation that we'll be paying for the more than dubious privilege of hosting the Olympics for a generation and more. Our only hope is that the whole thing will be called off - but what would it take?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Time for a...

caption contest. Any ideas?

Shameless Indeed

It seems this ghastly woman might have got the idea for faking the kidnap of one of her numerous progeny from Channel 4's underclass 'comedy' Shameless. This is startling news. I'd always assumed that Shameless was there to indulge the nostalgie de la boue of the educated middle classes, providing them with easy laughs and transgressive thrills. But no, it seems the very kind of people portrayed in Shameless also watch it - just as, I've been told, rural populations listen to The Archers to learn how to be 'country folk'. It puts me in mind of The Sun, back in its 1980s heyday, when it had been roundly denouncing prison rioters who'd climbed out onto the roof and refused to budge as 'scum'. Noticing that one of them had a copy of The Sun up there with him, the paper promptly came up with the inspired headline 'Even the scum read The Sun!'

Hardback? Paperback? Do We Care?

The publishers Picador have somehow managed to make a story out of the fact that they are now publishing simultaneously in hardback and paperback (as they have been for years - it's just that they've now made it permanent and universal, and the hardback print runs will be very small). Stories like this always arouse a certain amount of tepid bookish passion, especially in serious book collectors (to whom a book read is a book ruined). For such as them, the potential loss of the hardcover - with pristine dust jacket, of course - is a chilling prospect. For the rest of us... Well, isn't the important thing how well a book is produced, regardless of whether it's hard- or paper-bound? The quality of design, printing and binding can be extremely low in hardbacks and extremely high in paperbacks. At the moment, for example, I have at my bedside (appropriately) the Bedside Book of Birds, edited by Graeme Gibson. This is in paperback, but it is quite beautifully designed, produced - and bound - and the hardback edition adds nothing except weight. (It also contains a superb collection of writings, often from unexpected and obscure sources - and magnificent illustrations, mostly from old prints. A beautiful book -and it ends beautifully, with this.) Oddly, I actually found it in the most unexpected place - a Waterstone's bookshop. But that's another story...

Hugo Nixes Homer - Why?

Strange news from Venezuela, where man of the people Hugo Chavez has pulled The Simpsons from the airwaves, on er moral grounds, and replaced it with erm Baywatch (a show, incidentally, with a worldwide audience in excess of the world's Muslim population). Clearly this isn't, for once, a blow against US cultural imperialism - both shows are American as apple pie - so what is he up to? Is he reinforcing Latin American machismo by giving the nation's young males plenty of bobbing bikini action - or is something else going on? The Simpsons is, of course, one of the most deeply moral TV shows ever made - but you wouldn't expect Chavez to see that. His own contribution to Venezuelan TV last year, I believe, totted up to eight whole hours of ranting against the 'devil incarnate' George Bush and all his works (though not, presumably, Baywatch).

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Jeff Exults, Selena Stares into the Abyss

The ineffable Jeff, whose latest post is of truly stunning (I use the word advisedly) length, has published his most recent monthly figure for 'hits' - colossal, naturally, but as it's dated April 1st, who knows? Meanwhile, Selena is in an unusually dark, apocalyptic frame of mind. Oh dear - perhaps we happy Thought Experimenters should try to cheer her up (although she's probably right)?

Teaching Maths

A friend has forwarded this to me. It seems a very neat summing-up of the effects of socialistic state education over the years....

1. Teaching Maths In 1970
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price.
What is his profit?

2. Teaching Maths In 1980
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or £80.
What is his profit?

3. Teaching Maths In 1990
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is £80.
Did he make a profit?

4. Teaching Maths In 2000
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.
His cost of production is £80 and his profit is £20.
Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Maths In 2008
A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands.
He does this so he can make a profit of £20.
What do you think of this way of making a living?
Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers. )

Sweary Parrot

This is the funniest story of the day - and it's bird-related.

Si Monumentum Requires...

With Bryan absent - last heard of on Boston Common, from where he draws my attention to this very fine monument - I find it impossible to wrench my attention from the unfolding farce of the Olympic torch relay. Even the French, it seems, can't handle this one. If that's the way they treat visiting heads of state - extinguishing them and putting them on a bus - the world's leaders should take note. However, I think they might have shown the way forward for the torch relay - it should ride in a heavily armoured bus, speeding along closed-down boulevards, flanked by motorcycle outriders, while Chinese heavies line the pavements, eyeing the crowds and fingering their discreetly concealed weaponry. This, I think, would perfectly express the spirit of Beijing 2008.
On the up side, there was this prediction, as startling as it is confident. Is he right? We need Captain B to rule on this, but I suspect he too is in the Land of the Free.

From Glitchville

Technical problems here. Posting later...

Monday, April 07, 2008

Another Triumph for Thought Experiments

I am happy to report that the government has bowed to pressure from this blog and cracked down on hard standing. From an article in the current issue of The Garden (which happened to be in my dentist's waiting room), I learn that, from October, planning permission will have to be sought by anyone intending to put down non-porous surfacing in front of their house. It will cost about £150, involve lots of form-filling and take at least two months, so the expectation is that this measure will deter the kind of wholesale garden vandalism I lamented. There you go - the power of the blog.

The Tumult and the Shouting Dies...

Well, that must have embarrassed the hell out of the Chinese authorities - so let us quietly rejoice as the torch leaves our shores and crosses to France, where the government has rather startlingly declared that the flame will be treated as a head of state - let's hope, for the hardworking torch's sake, that this includes dinner with the lovely Madame Sarkozy - it will certainly involve a massive French-style motorcade and no doubt some broken heads among the protesters.
But enough of that - it's time to return to Birdsong, one of the running themes of this blog (or my thread of it). This gratifying report caught my eye, confirming that I am not alone in my affection for this in its way perfect radio station. Sadly it appears to be doomed, as it can't make money - it needs 'an eccentric millionaire' to save it. Come on, Appleyard - here's something useful you can do for a grateful nation...
Here, in another story that caught my attention, is how Alan Titchmarsh is doing his bit for his part-time home, the Isle of Wight. Are the locals grateful? Of course they're not. I once spent a holiday on that island, when my children were small - and spent is the word. The whole island is one massive engine of extortion, sucking the money from visitors' pockets with awesome ruthlessness. Most of the island's attractions seemed entirely bogus too - impossibly cute villages (crammed with moneygrubbing attractions - I remember a laughably appalling, jawdroppingly expensive wax museum). Even the churches have a theme park air to them. My only fond memories of the place are of the salvaged London Underground trains that rattle up and down the east coast - and of the countryside, which is indeed very fine. Every prospect pleases, and only man is vile... Allowing for inflation, that Isle of Wight jaunt is probably still the most expensive holiday I ever had. I bet they charge Titchmarsh for the uniform.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Major Weather

Global warming has London in its strangely icy grip today - or, as I'd
prefer to think, the weather gods are making clear what they think of the
farcical parading of the Olympic torch through the capital. Either way,
this major weather should put a damper on things - including,
unfortunately, the promised protests. No doubt the ghastly parade will go
smoothly - the authorities are worryingly good at this sort of thing,
especially if it involves closing down stretches of London on behalf of a
totalitarian regime and squashing protest (unless it takes the more
acceptable form of Kill the filthy kuffar, Behead the unbeliever, etc).
Sadly, though, Gordon Brown will almost certainly have abandoned his plan
of anointing himself liberally in olive oil and donning a knee-length Doric
chiton for the torch presentation. It's touch and go, too, whether Andrew
'perpetual' Motion will have his Pindaric Ode ready on time (he hadn't
reached that chapter in Teach Yourself Poetry when the call came).
Meanwhile, hairless king of the swimming pool Duncan Goodhew, a prefectly
decent fellow, was to be heard yesterday justifying his decision to carry
the torch. We must, he pointed out, be careful to separate the Olympic
ideal from politics. It was all about, he continued without apparent
effort, Equity (that's why everyone's given a gold medal) and Fair Play
(hence no drugs testing), both of which are values closely associated with
Democracy (which, when I last checked, was a political idea -albeit one
with little application to the current Olympic hosts). Olympic sponsors
Samsung, on the other hand, assure us that the torch relay is all about
Peace and Unity. That'll be Peace as in Solitudinem faciunt pacem
appellant, and Unity as in Ein Volk, Ein Reich...
Never mind, the snow in the suburbs was very beautiful.

(Sorry, technical problems here at NigeCorp, hence no links, etc)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Twixt Torch and Trap

While he eagerly awaits the arrival of The Torch (a gift from the great People's Republic, of which more tomorrow), Gordon appears to have walked into yet another elephant trap of his own making. Such was his determination to steal a headline and discombobulate the Tories with his last Budget that he thought he could double the tax on the lowest paid in the land and get away with it. He did, to the extent that the Tories didn't even notice at the time (Ming the Old One spotted it). But now, a year on, it is about to happen, and Gordy is going to have to deal with it (laughter off).
It seems we now have a society in which people living on barely a third of average earnings (and substantially less than they'd be making if working fulltime on minimum wage) are having to pay tax at 20pc to subsidise the standing army of welfare-dependent non-workers - which they themselves now have every incentive to join. And so the state advances, and we workers devote a clear five months of every year's labour to it. A self-respecting vassal in feudal times would baulk at that.


Nige will be here, will he? News to me. Oh well, while I gather my thoughts(which may take some while), here's something beautiful and seasonal to look at. Wish I was there, but is seems I'm here...

Whan That Aprille ...

I may or may not be posting for a while. Nige will be here. In The Sunday Times tomorrow I review Michio Kaku's book and I investigate Gordon Brown's secret department - the ECGD. Have a good April.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Believe It or Not...

I have just discovered that the writer Nigel Balchin invented the Aero chocolate bar. He also came up with the Black Magic box concept and named the Kit Kat bar. He was, of course, working for Rowntree's of York at the time, as an industrial psychologist, whatever that is.

Great News

I am sure we are all agreed that American civilisation would be a very good idea. Well, now it's happening. The ever startling Dave Lull - the blogosphere's Stig - links me to this remarkable feature in the New York Times. Yes, they are playing cricket. What next? Proper cheese? Steady now, one thing at a time.

In Dreams Begin... What?

Since this is, among other things, a What If? kind of blog - here's one:
I woke in the small hours from a tortuous dream in which I was apparently attempting to make my way across Holland by train, impeded at every turn by endlessly ramifying, fantastically detailed Kafkaesque complications (in dreams I can't so much as cross a road, let alone Holland, without stuff like this happening). As I awoke I was filling in some kind of fiendishly elaborate form, in a script I didn't recognise... My first thoughts were along the lines of Duh, where did all that come from? (I haven't the faintest idea). And then I thought, What would life feel like if we didn't dream? I think it would hugely affect our sense of ourselves, of what our selves are, and would make life flatter, more prosaically causative, diminished by what amounts to a dimension, and a most mysterious one at that...
Any thoughts? What would it be like if we just went to sleep, woke up and that was that? (We'd probably be less tired - I would anyway).

Mugabe Survives End of Universe

These are momentous times. Naomi Campbell has been handcuffed on a plane. I note that she chose to wear a baseball cap to conceal her features from the snappers. This is the preferred style of celebrity arrestees as it does not fully conceal and gives the paps just enough to leave them begging for more. Ordinary types tend to favour a blanket or coat. Meanwhile, Blair has decided to do God in the midst of his post-prime ministerial idyll. God is said to be flattered and delighted. And, finally, if you think the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world if not the universe, then you are, apparently, a moron. So that's it then, we've got less than a year left. Morons, 'brights', supermodels and ex-prime ministers will be consumed by the soft whoosh of a phase transition in the cosmic background energy or vacuum metastability disaster. A kinder, gentler cosmos will replace the one we know and feel distinctly ambivalent about. Zimbabwe, however, will remain much the same.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

An Indignity in Holland Park

Walking in Holland Park just now, minding my own business and enjoying the cherry blossom, my reverie was rudely shattered by a passing bird which - sorry, there's no other way of putting it - beshat my head from a considerable height. A far as I can recall, this has only once happened to me before - in Dieppe, when an aggrieved mouette struck a blow against perfidious Albion by similarly anointing my head. What manner of bird the culprit was this time I didn't see - perhaps it was a cormorant bent on revenge. This is war.

A New Baggott?

I might have been dreaming, or lapsed into some kind of TV-induced state of altered consciousness, but I'm pretty sure that last night I saw an Olay Regenerist commercial which appeared to be new and did not feature Nadine Baggott. This woman had a similarly immobile face, unmarked by any evidence of cognition, emotion or other human life-related activity, but definitely had dark hair and, I'm pretty sure, a name that was not Nadine Baggott. The ad itself was, of course, every bit as nauseating as the original. It spoke of a 'new pack', which might have justified a change of Baggott - but as I say, I might have been dreaming. I'm also pretty sure I saw an ad in which a man fed cat food - Whiskas, I believe - to a cat. This has never happened before in adland, where they work on the commonsense assumption that any man keeping a cat as a pet is by definition gay. This ad, though, had not the slightest hint of pink appeal. Truly we live in strange times - but I'd be relieved to have confirmation that, Regenerist-wise, I was not dreaming...

A Serious and Practical Suggestion from Nige?

So - the eagerly awaited (not) new coin designs are unveiled. They have the predictable air of a 1st-year art school design project, but perfectly express the fragmentation of the United Kingdom under the Labour regimen. I doubt this was intended. But I was going to post about coins anyway, to point out that, here in Britain, there are just too many of the blasted things - 27 billion in circulation, apparently, which is more than 500 per man, woman and child. Why do we not hit paper money till £5 is changing hands - in practice £10, as fivers are in notoriously short supply. There can't be another currency in the world so coin-dominated. The result is bulging trouser pockets for the gentlemen, bursting purses for the ladies, and nuisance all round. Personally I tend to count out the exact money when I can, in the continental fashion, but even I end up staggering under the weight of loose coinage. Happily I am ofen passing through London railway termini, and there, on many retail counters, there are collecting boxes for a charity called Railway Children (a proper charity, it seems, not supporting the obese children of overpaid RMT members). I regularly and gratefully unload my pockets of loose copper and small silver into these boxes. But the problem is universal - so, for once, I have a serious and practical suggestion: why doesn't another charity, or consortium of charities, place collecting boxes on every retail counter in the land? A grateful nation would unburden itself of coinage and the charities would be raking it in.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The End of the World Is Nigh, But...

You have to laugh, don't you? Wasn't this good enough for them - their world ending a little earlier and without the hail of brimstone?

Short Books

Yesterday the subject of Edward Burne-Jones came up - this was in that strange world beyond the blogosphere where people talk etc - and I recommended to a friend the book Visionary And Dreamer by Lord David Cecil. For those who don't know it, this is a pair of elegant, discerning biographical essays which compare and contrast Burne-Jones (dreamer) and Samuel Palmer (visionary). It makes its point and tells ou all you need to know within the compass of one pleasingly silm volume. He performs a similar trick (though not comparing and contrasting) with Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Gray in Two Quiet Lives. This is a model of biography that seems now to belong to the past, as biographers - too many of whom are academics (as was Cecil, of course, though in a sense unknown to modern Academe) - revert to the Victorian shove-it-all-in model, resulting in huge, often all but unreadable, tomes which might give you all the facts, but precious little insight. Cecil's selective and sympathetic biography of Max Beerbohm is a vastly more rewarding read, and tells you much more about the man, than more ambitious modern efforts, e.g. N. John Hall's compendious Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life.
Why are books so big these days? It's not just biographies (I'm currently reading one of Captain B's fat histories, a daunting prospect even in paperback (perfect bound of course, so the spine snaps at the points where the plates and bunched) - excellent book though, needless to say). Most contemporary novels too could be cut by a third and more with no loss. Hearing some of these read on Radio 4, they often still seem overlong - and they've already been cut by 80 percent. This literary gigantism seems quite counterintuitive - if these books are actually intended to be read (and in some cases I have my doubts). Who, beyond the small world of dedicated readers, has the time for these baggy monsters? Isn't modern life notoriously fast and full of distractions (e.g. the blogosphere)? We want short books - well I do - and make them small too. With a necessarily long book, why not publish in two volumes? As Cecil did with his best known work, his great biography of Lord Melbourne...

The Blogger Humbled

The thing about blogging, since we are on the subject, is that it's humbling. In the decades in which I was a journalist without a blog, I, like most hacks, idly regarded readers as an occasional inconvenience. Responses to the snail mails were hurriedly sent, a chore and no more. (Once I realised I had sent the same reply to the same reader at least seven times. He kept writing and I kept responding - 'Thank you for your fascinating letter..' - without ever noticing that he was not many men but one.) The blog changed all that. The comments on this blog are, on average, better written, funnier and often better informed than anything in any newspaper or magazine. And, perhaps because the commenters are a  self-selected bunch, they also seem to know me better than I thought I could be known by mere readers - Elberry, in particular, seems to have an access all areas pass to my psyche. This is, as I say, humbling because it gives me repeated Gray's Elegy moments - 'Full many a flower is born to blush unseen' - and it draws my attention to the perhaps obvious truth that the best people are not necessarily those granted access to the luxuries of public expression and status. In part, these thoughts are inspired by the reactions to my post of yesterday, but also I was struck by 'Richard Madeley's' post about his friend whose novel is not now being published. People burn to write and, in the case of Richard's friend, they believe that making people smile is 'a moral way of living'. They are right to burn and right to believe. The gifted people who use this blog to show what Auden called an 'affirming flame' are the reason I continue and why Nige has joined me with such brilliance and enthusiasm. Okay, that's done, back to cheap laughs and futile metaphysical head clutching.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Blog in Boring Crisis

My wife emails me - she is six feet away, but doors can be such a nuisance - to tell me my blog is getting boring. I am at a loss. Is it possible to burn blogs as overwrought poets and novelists used to burn manuscripts? I must look into this.

April Fools: A Roundup

April Fools' Day and there's some pretty obvious spoof news items out there. The Guardian, for example, tries to persuade us there has been an inquest into the death of Princess Diana inspired by allegations that she was killed by MI6 and - get this - the Duke of Edinburgh. The Telegraph nudges us in the ribs with some ludicrous tale about thousands of lost bags and cancelled flights at the new Heathrow Terminal 5. In The Sun we are told the Italian police want to protect Manchester United fans. Yeah, right. The Mail pretends that Harriet Harman was so stupid that she wore a stab-proof vest while walking round her own constituency. The Times seriously expects us to believe that Tibetans welcomed the Olympic flame. The Daily Star kids us with the news that Velvet Revolver will NOT be suporting Led Zep on their world tour. The FT has some preposterous yarn about UBS losing even more money. I have to say these are all pretty feeble. None of them fooled me for a moment and none are actually funny - except Harman's stab vest. Must try harder next year, guys, and now back to reality...