Thursday, 26 August 2010

We have moved!

Thank you to all readers and commenters who have joined us during our warm-up lap in the Blogger 'beta' format.

The Dabbler will now continue in Wordpress at

We have a better design and some new features we've been saving for the proper launch.

So update your bookmarks and join us over there! You will also need to update any RSS subscriptions you might have.

Funny Old World

If I'm going to get a telephone call at work from my bank, I'd sooner it was a machine at the other end than one of those chummy humanoids who insist on giving me their first name and asking after my wellbeing. Yesterday I got a call from a machine with an automated female voice. She didn't tell me her first name but amusingly pronounced mine as 'Nidgle'. When I'd pressed various buttons to confirm that I was indeed this person, the automated voice read out a string of figures relating to blocked transactions attempted on my bank card somewhere in Panama. More button pressing led me eventually to a human, who turned out to be a sensible woman with no desire to share her first name or ask after my state of health, with whom I soon sorted things out. I've absolutely no idea how some version of my bank card (still reassuringly present in my wallet) should end up being abused in Panama, but that's the modern world for you. Endlessly mystifying.
Getting off the homeward train last night, I stepped straight into torrential, monsoon-style rain, coming down in sheets. As I strode away from the station, I found I'd been joined under my large umbrella by a cheery young lady of Chinese origin who happened to be going my way. She was visiting from Oxford, where she was studying for a PhD in mathematics. She already had a Masters, and her employers (in the City) were subsidising her PhD. Clearly a bright spark then - and she was a violinist, on her way to see a musician friend. The time passed agreeably enough under my umbrella (cue Hollies song). At the high street, our ways parted and she skipped off into the rain. By the time I got home I was soaked to the skin, the wake from a passing car having thoroughly finished the job. This morning there was a large garden snail asleep on the front door. On the inside.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Coming soon

All will become clear(ish) soon.
Illustration by 'Stan'.

Dabbler Country - The Nation's Favourite?

Here is a 'near impossible task' indeed - to identify 'the nation's favourite poem about the countryside'.

Hmmm. The National Trust might be a little more honest about it - rather it's an attempt to get National Trust-supporting types to make a choice from a highly contentious shortlist drawn up by a poet with an agenda, in order to draw attention to the National Trust and its properties. It might indeed 'raise awareness of poems about the countryside' - along with the blood pressure of many poetry lovers - but it certainly won't identify the 'nation's favourite'; that would be to 'play the same old records', so all the likeliest candidates have been omitted from the list. No Shakespeare or Betjeman indeed - or Larkin come to that - no Milton or Herrick or Cowper, and none of the big-hitting Romantics; but what is truly inexcusable is that in a list that includes John Davidson and Ivor Gurney, there's nothing of the greatest 20th-century poet of the English countryside, Edward Thomas - not even this, which would probably (and deservedly) win in an open contest...

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Lazy Sunday Afternoon - Live (not quite) at Fillmore West

For this week's music feature, a bit of jazz/funk/soul...

If you’re anything like me there’s a good chance you first encountered King Curtis in the film Withnail and I – that’s his smoky sax version of A Whiter Shade of Pale playing as we pan across the squalid flat in the wonderfully atmospheric opening sequence.

The track is taken from the 1971 album Live at Fillmore West, as is Curtis’s almost parodically funky ‘introducing the band’ number Memphis Soul Stew ("and now we need a pound of fatback drums...").

Curtis Ousley (born 1934) started as a New York session musician, playing saxophone for Buddy Holly and Andy Williams, amongst others. Later he headed up the Kingpins, opening for the Beatles at their 1965 Shea Stadium show. The Kingpins of course were Aretha Franklin's backing band, and the Live at Fillmore West recording was made during a run of concerts with Franklin in San Francisco. It was to be King Curtis's last recording. On 13 August 1971 Curtis was lugging an air-conditioning unit back to his brownstone apartment in NY, when he encountered a pair of junkies doing what junkies do on his front steps. Curtis objected and in the resulting dispute one of them, Juan Montanez, stabbed him in the chest. Curtis managed to wrest the knife from his assailant and knife him four times before collapsing. Montanez survived and was eventually sentenced for murder; Curtis died within the hour.

Jesse Jackson adminstered his funeral, at which both Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder performed. He is buried at the Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, New Jersey - a particularly jazzy graveyard as the remains of John Coltrane and Count Basie are there too.

Unfortunately there don't seem to be vids available from the actual Fillmore Street gigs, but the ones below will give the general idea...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Modern Times

I was never much taken with Charlie Chaplin, too cute, I preferred the comparative austerity of Buster Keaton. But a couple of days ago I came across this picture. It is the last shot of Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). At first glance it seems merely generic - hero and heroine walk off into the sunset and their future. Also Chaplin is in his standard tramp gear so one tends to think 'Charlie Chaplin' and move on. Nevertheless, I was transfixed. Declining towards the vanishing point, there are telegraph poles on one side and palm trees on the other. In the distance, pale hills recede. The sun is low, the shadows are long and the two figures are little more than silhouettes. The raking light also shows up the odd roughness of the roadway. It is still generic, but beautifully so. But what really lifts the shot is the way the girl (Paulette Goddard) is dressed - big disc hat, tight suit or dress and heels. This is obviously all wrong. She is not likely to get far. She is too well dressed both for her tramp boyfriend and for the journey. The discontinuity is surreal and anticipates those shots in neo-realist Italian movies of high-heeled divas on dusty road or the group marching aimlessly down an anonymous road in Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The picture has become generic but not in the way it seems at first glance. I must give Chaplin another look.

RetroProgressive - Fashionable tailors of Wandsworth

Rumour has it that fashionably retro-progressive gents are investing in the priceless heritage of a bygone era. For those who want to go one better than the blinging new labels of Savile Row, there’s a firm of ‘fashionable tailors’ offering the epitome of understated style. Curiously located on a perilous stretch of the Wandsworth one way system, just around the corner from the Angelic Hell Tattoo World, is WG Child and Sons, established in 1890.

The shop’s uniquely characterful frontage, strangely reminiscent of a Victorian funeral parlour, houses a fusty smelling interior that’s suspended in something of a time warp. Sepia photographs on anaglypta covered walls chart the history of the local area and five generations of the Child family. There are antique clocks, pieces of old fashioned tailoring memorabilia and original retro look books dotted around the the cosy waiting room. And, at the rear of the premises, is a rather starkly decorated workroom, furnished with little more than a cutting table, alongside a men’s changing room that’s a veritable curiosity in itself. This is much more a living museum of tailoring than a gentleman’s outfitters.

You’ll probably be greeted by the friendly proprietor, Philip Child (below right), who bears a curious resemblance to Paul ‘suits you sir’ Whitehouse. Philip, a graduate of the London College of Fashion, kindly offered to give me a tour of the shop for The Dabbler, whilst his father (who, along with Grandfather, was Savile Row trained) pottered about in the back room.

Philip explained the process of choosing a fabric and making a bespoke suit – plus the advantages of having a garment personally designed, not to show off the label, but to look and feel good. Here, everything is beautifully made and stitched by hand, using only the finest quality fabrics and real mother of pearl buttons. Suits are made up within seven to eight weeks – and, once a custom-made pattern has been created, future requirements can even be fulfilled by email.

The tailor has clients all over the world, including places as far flung as Alaska. What’s more Child and Sons can make virtually anything, from purple linen suits to tweed hacking jackets. They recently designed an outfit for an Imam, who wanted to feel at home in a Westernized business environment - so style details from traditional religious dress were adapted into a suit for him. The wedding market is also a substantial part of their business, and customers include a number of “significant businessmen, though not what you’d call celebrities”, says Child, “because they tend to go for the names” when shopping for clothes.

Expect to pay around £1200-£1500 for a bespoke suit – a lot less than in Savile Row, and worth it just to see this extraordinary shop and own a piece of quality British craftsmanship... Not forgetting the priceless stories you’ll hear from this traditional family tailors' remarkably long and fascinating history.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A-List Mugshots - Hollywood

Dennis Hopper

Hopper, then 39, was arrested by New Mexico police in July 1975 and charged with reckless driving, failure to report an accident, and leaving the scene.

Jane Fonda

Arrested in November 1970 in Cleveland after she allegedly kicked a local police officer. She had been stopped at the airport by U.S. Customs agents for having a large quantity of pills in her possession.

Steve McQueen

Busted in Anchorage, Alaska for drunk driving.

More of these things here.

Key's Cupboard - Ayn Rand: Why She Liked Stamp Collecting

By Frank Key

She has been dead for nearly thirty years, but there's no stopping Ayn Rand. Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged still sell in vast quantities in the United States, appealing as they always will to a certain stripe of libertarian individualist. (I hesitate to use the term "right wing", as I suspect that defining politics by a left / right divide is getting less and less useful.)

Should you decide to devote yourself to the philosophical system Rand dubbed "Objectivism", you will need a hobby, and clearly you ought to pursue the pastime recommended by the woman who started life in Russia as Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum. And no, I am not referring to chain smoking, of which she was a lifelong devotee. In a 1971 essay with the endearingly artless title Why I Like Stamp Collecting, Rand explains:

I started collecting stamps when I was ten years old, but had to give it up by the time I was twelve. In all the years since, I never thought of resuming the hobby. It left only one after-effect: I was unable to throw away an interesting-looking stamp. So, I kept saving odd stamps, all these years. I put them into random envelopes and never looked at them again.

Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I met a bright little girl named Tammy, who asked me - somewhat timidly, but very resolutely - whether I received letters from foreign countries and, if I did, would I give her the stamps. I promised to send her my duplicates. She was eleven years old, and so intensely serious about her collection that she reminded me of myself at that age.

Once I started sorting out the stamps I had accumulated, I was hooked.

It was an astonishing experience to find my enthusiasm returning after more than fifty years, as if there had been no interruption. Only now the feeling had the eagerness of childhood combined with the full awareness, confidence and freedom of age.

My first step was to acquire a Minkus Master Global Stamp Album. In a year and a half, it has grown to four volumes, plus four special albums - and my collection is still growing, at an accelerating rate. No, I have not forgotten Tammy: I send her piles of duplicates every few months, and I feel very grateful to her.

In all those years, I had never found a remedy for mental fatigue. Now, if I feel tired after a whole day of writing, I spend an hour with my stamp albums and it makes me able to resume writing for the rest of the evening. A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer...

Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people - because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world.

A career requires the ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady progression toward a goal. Purposeful people cannot rest by doing nothing nor can they feel at home in the role of passive spectators. They seldom find pleasure in single occasions, such as a party or a show or even a vacation, a pleasure that ends right then and there, with no further consequences.

The minds of such people require continuity, integration, a sense of moving forward...

But - it is asked - why not collect cigar bands, or coins, or old porcelain? Why stamps?

Because stamps are the concrete, visible symbols of an enormous abstraction: of the communications net embracing the world.

While the world politicians are doing their best to split the globe apart by means of iron curtains and brute force, the world postal services are demonstrating - in their quiet, unobtrusive way - what is required to bring mankind closer together: a specific purpose cooperatively carried out, serving individual goals and needs. It is the voices of individual men that stamps carry around the globe; it is individual men that need a postal service; kings, dictators and other rulers do not work by mail. In this sense, stamps are the world's ambassadors of good will.

So there you have it. First, get your Minkus Master Global Stamp Album, and you will be on your way with a proper Objectivist hobby. Just one warning: Ayn Rand's stamp collection grew to over fifty thousand stamps, but she would not, and did not, collect a single stamp from a communist country.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

A stupefying work of painstaking bad taste and technical skill

In his second volume of autobiography, A Dubious Codicil, Michael Wharton describes the Shaftesbury Avenue studio of cartoonist Michael ffolkes, as “a strange room of narrow triangular shape crammed with an astounding assortment of treasures” and draws particular attention to:

...A huge photograph of a painting by the nineteenth-century French Salon painter Bouguereau was pasted on one wall, showing a crowd of naked nymphs, all identical, perfectly shaped, white-skinned, and of ideal nubility. This stupefying work of painstaking bad taste and technical skill amused Michael greatly; but it would be hypocritical to say that he – or any other man – did not enjoy looking at it.

Wharton does not specify which of Bouguereau’s ‘stupefying’ works adorned ffolkes’s wall, but it seems a reasonable guess that it was Les Oreades, which fits the description perfectly.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The mallet slipped long since

The Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) is now somewhat undervalued I suspect. He was part of that generation that included Auden and Spender and a load of heroic literary alcoholics. Unlike many of his contemporaries he never fell for Communism, though he did for drink. By the end of his life he was ‘living on alcohol’ and regularly drinking himself to oblivion with Dominic Behan (brother of Brendan, the hellraiser's hellraiser of a playwright who famously described himself as "a drinker with a writing problem").

MacNeice's death was mildly tragicomic – having gone caving in Yorkshire to gather sound effects for his radio play Persons from Porlock he was caught in a storm and did not change out of his wet clothes until he was home in Hertfordshire, as a consequence of which he contracted bronchitis and then, fatally, pneumonia.

Many of his poems have a strong emotional force, very Irish, and ‘in-the-moment’, of a style popular amongst bad amateurs. But MacNeice does it well. The nostalgic (Proustian, you might say if you were that way inclined) Soap Suds is a good example. Most poems are about this, aren’t they?

Soap Suds

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.


I've seen two things in the last couple of weeks that have unsettled me. Not disturbed, just unsettled. One was the Cow Leg Trouser from our marvellous Retroprogressive feature. The other was this story about artisanal pencil sharpening:

"With an electric pencil sharpener, a pencil is meat," Rees said. "It's this thoughtless, Brutalist aesthetic. For me, it's almost a point of pride that I would be slower than an electric pencil sharpener."

This is how Rees' artisanal pencil sharpening works: You might send him your favorite pencil, but Rees more often selects and sharpens a classic No. 2 pencil for his clients, he promises, "carefully and lovingly." He slides the finished pencil's very sharp tip into a specially-sized segment of plastic tubing, then puts the whole pencil in a larger, firmer tube that looks like it belongs in a science experiment. Throw it at a wall, he says, and it won't break. The cost? $15.


So far, Rees is the leader in the field. "Nobody else is doing what I do," he said. "I guarantee an authentic interaction with your pencil. What mechanical pencil sharpener can say that? The X-ACTO XLR 1818? The Royal 16959T? Don't make me laugh."

"I'm going to have this nice, authentic, considered reaction with your pencil," Rees said. "I just want to treat it with respect..."

Both of these things - the Cow Leg Trouser and the artisanal pencil sharpening - may have been embarked upon in a mood of high seriousness or they may be elaborate jokes, but whatever the intention I like the note they hit: internally plausible but externally absurd. The closest analogous thing I can think of is Duchamp's Fountain. In which case perhaps they're both art? If so, they must be very good - contemporary art is always threatening to unsettle but, for me at least, it doesn't usually do half as good a job as these.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

'Like a bomb at a tea-party' - P H Emerson versus Peach Robinson

Emerson - Gathering Waterlillies, East Anglia 1886 - Getty Museum

Dr. Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) was a Cuban-born, American-raised British surgeon, naturalist, meteorologist, bird-watcher, champion billiard player and, for which he is remembered, influential photographer.

At a time when photographers were going to enormous lengths to recreate paintings – staging very artificial scenes (see Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away for the archetype) – Emerson insisted that the camera should capture “people as they really are - do not dress them up.” Many of his works feature the rural labourers of the Norfolk Broads going about their arcane business, gathering water-lillies or harvesting reeds.

Though defending photography’s right to be classed as a proper art form, Emerson argued for a naturalistic approach: "The photographic technique is perfect and needs no… bungling”. He called the then-popular business of retouching “the process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting", so one wonders what he would have made of Photoshop (which the Yard has described as Satan’s Snap Fixer).

Another radical Emerson argument was the notion that pictures should be slightly out-of-focus, to replicate the reality of human vision: "Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into something else, often so subtly that you cannot quite distinguish where one ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature.”

These arguments were laid out in an 1889 book called Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art, the effect of which one reviewer described as “"like dropping a bomb at a tea-party.” Certainly Peach Robinson objected, declaring: “Healthy human eyes never saw any part of a scene out of focus”.

Emerson’s retort? “I have yet to learn that any one statement of photography of Mr. Robinson has ever had the slightest effect on me except as a warning of what not to do…”

During the Reed Harvest, 1886 - Gordon Fraser Gallery Limited

Snipe Shooting, 1886 - Joseph Bellows gallery

Monday, 16 August 2010

6 Clicks for the Endless Voyage: Gaw

In Anthony Burgess’ short story The Endless Voyager, a businessman throws away his passport and wallet mid-transit and, unable to enter any country, spends the rest of his life shuttling from airport to airport. He eventually goes mad. Today, of course, such a traveller might stave off purgatorial insanity by dabbling on his iPhone or netbook. 

In this post, The Dabbler's own Gaw selects six cultural links that might sustain him in an interminable succession of departure lounges.

Being still a good Welsh boy at heart I can get homesick at the best of times. So this really would be a trial. I shall resist making one of my clicks my wife's Facebook page as it might be more tantalising torment than home comfort (and it's also hardly something that's going to be added to Dabbler readers' bookmarks).

I will be needing some pretty strong distractions, then. So what's called for? Boredom is surely going to be the chief enemy, followed by despair (the latter tending to follow on from the former). So I think I'll be looking for clicks that are either able to retain an element of freshness or alternatively present some sort of ongoing challenge. More generally, we'll want them to impart some indefatigable optimism.

Click 1

I know that my first click will fit the bill. I've been listening to John Coltrane's My Favourite Things for over twenty years now and still find it absorbing, still discover new things in it, and still find my mood lifting when I hear it. It's the most beautiful piece of music I know and it's also the most intelligent. Beautiful doesn't need explaining but intelligent does: MFTs seems to be having an engrossing conversation with itself and with the listener; and each time I hear it there's something new being said. The conversation has many moods and inflections, enough to fit any frame of mind. I can see its attractions lasting another twenty years, at least.

Click 2

One of the many things I've learnt through two years of illness - sometimes requiring me to stay at home for days at a time - is that consumption isn't enough. I mean consumption of books, blogs, news and so on. Being passive is fine for a while but it gets boring and is ultimately dissatisfying. After a while, you need to direct some mental energy outwards, you need to produce, and I've found the best outlet to be writing. I was mildly surprised to find myself blogging after about six months of hanging around the sofa. But I was utterly shocked to find myself writing a novel less than a year later and then starting another shortly after that. I'd never seen myself as someone who'd write a novel; indeed, I really couldn't see how it might be at all possible.

Theory tells us that if you present an infinite number of chimps with an infinite number of typewriters and allow them an infinite amount of time the complete works of Shakespeare might get written. But I can confirm empirically that presenting me with a laptop and nothing much to do for about a year can produce a novel. I wonder what would be produced if I embarked on our endless voyage? It certainly wouldn't be equivalent to the complete works of Shakespeare but I'd have a real crack at writing something worthwhile.

My second click is therefore Google Docs, a fantastically useful bit of software that allows your documents to be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection and which processes your words perfectly adequately; it also reassuringly backs them up safe and sound in a place far, far away. It even has a spreadsheet function should I get the urge to do some graphs.

Click 3

My next click is the original 1611 version of the King James Bible. This isn't primarily for religious reasons - though I'm somewhere between being an agnostic and a very occasional communicant of the CofE (a distinction without a difference some would say). It's more because I love the language of the KJB and would find it tremendously satisfying to really immerse myself in it for a long time. This work (and its predecessors) is surely, along with Shakespeare, one of the foundations of English literature, especially its poetry. I'd like to see what would happen to my appreciation of language following such an immersion. It also happens to be very long and very complicated, both helpful in whiling away the hours.

Click 4

Next, poems. I've gone for these as they can bear a lot of re-reading unlike the vast majority of novels, at least in my experience. There are a number of 'poem a day' sites around but I've gone for the Transport for London poetry archive, a sort of sidings for Poems on the Underground. It's suitably middlebrow and middle of the road; old favourites with a modest amount of the new or off-the-wall. Also I like the idea of being comforted by Poems on the Underground whilst in interminable transit. It's what they're for.

Click 5

Now, I hesitate to choose this click. It's something that's made the web notorious amongst some; it's something that's kept some boys and men - singles mostly - confined to their bedrooms, making them all pale and grey-eyed; too much of it can even leave your wrists aching from RSI. Confessing my choice is something that's likely to severely embarrass me, particularly in the eyes of women. But I have to be honest.

My next click is a fantasy role-playing game. I've never actually had a go at one yet, partly because I know I'd become addicted and partly because I'd feel a bit foolish, as if I'd reverted to my twelve year-old self. Back then I loved Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons, moving on from them for the usual reasons: girls, pop music, smoking, etc. But given I'd be deprived (or no longer interested) in a few items on that post-rites of passage list it might be an idea to go back to something from a more innocent age.

Not having a wallet on me, I'd have to choose something free and most of them aren't. Fortuitously, I've learnt that an official, 'free-to-play' Warner Bros Lord of the Rings Online role-playing game is coming out this Autumn. I can't think of many better venues for escapist fantasy than a departure lounge so that seems just perfect.

Click 6

At first, I thought this last click didn't really fit my criteria: I chose Welsh Rugby - the '80s for sentimental reasons.

For a start, the '80s? Why not the '70s, the golden age of Welsh rugby? Well, mainly because I was at a lot of these matches and being able to say, along with Max, that "I was there" does make a difference.

But it's also worth pointing out that Wales in the '80s had some extravagantly talented players: J Davies, M Ring, R Collins, S Evans, J Devereux, A Hadley, R Jones, T Holmes, R Norster, P Moriarty, etc. etc. It's just a shame that a lot of them 'went North' as it was known, i.e. turned professional to play Rugby League. Half of those I just mentioned - scientifically selected off the top of my head - did so. No home international team could have coped with those losses. So the third place in the inaugural 1987 World Cup (their highest ever ranking) and the subsequent Triple Crown and Championship of 1988 turned out to be a couple of minor peaks preceding another trough rather than foothills on the way to a new era of success.

I've ended up thinking that this wasn't a wholly sentimental selection, something that would soon bore me. Rugby is one of the great enthusiasms of my life and this compilation has some of the best that I've seen. I think it could bear a lot of reliving.

This has been an interesting exercise: a reduction of everything I like into a sustaining essence. One thing that's struck me is how little I've changed since my youth: I can imagine having made these or similar selections any time over the last twenty years. Funny, that - I could have sworn I'd developed a bit over that period.

Dabbler Country - The Perfect Bedside Book?

Dabbler Country is The Dabbler's outdoorsy column.

Today, Nige finds the nature-noter's perfect book...

I think I've found the perfect bedside book, at least for those of us of an outdoor-loving disposition. It came to me via my Derbyshire cousin, who found it - of course - on the shelves of the Magic Bookshop. It is Country Matters: Selected writings 1974-1999 by Richard Mabey, a collection of short pieces of a perfect length for the day's last dose of literary pleasure and - what? - 'natural philosophy' is perhaps the best term. Mabey ranges over subjects and places as diverse as Yarmouth (in winter) and the Yorkshire Dales, the Camargue and the Burren, Don McCullin's photos and Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, the TV series Living In The Past and Madeleine Pinault's The Painter as Naturalist - but always the strongest thing is Mabey's quietly observant, thoughtful, appreciative sense of place. Always he has something interesting to say, some unexpected insight that is entirely his, and always he writes well, though never in any way drawing attention to himself in a 'literary' manner. This is by origin journalism, not literature - but (as is often the way with the best journalism) it is a whole heap better than much writing that passes itself of as literature.

The other night I happened on a short piece from 1988 called A Walk Around The Block (it first appeared in John Hillaby's Walking In Britain). A defence of walking - purposeless 'sauntering' - for its own sake, it quite took the words out of my mouth. Complaining of how walking has been hijacked by the sponsored hike, the mass marathon, the therapeutic claims of the health industry and the needless elaborations of consumerised hobbyism, he laments that 'Going for a stroll, one of the most civilised of pleasures precisely because it can be indulged in for its own sake, is now expected to do something, either for you or the world.' Mabey goes on to mount a pithy heartfelt defence of strolling for its own sake, enlisting along the way Samuel Johnson, George Borrow, Hazlitt and Thoreau - who always found himself sauntering towards the Southwest 'where the earth seems more unexhausted and richer' - with experiences of his own first strolls in places newly arrived at (always the most magical). He then considers the importance of the 'home patch', taking us briefly through the healing 'ritualistic' walks that root him where he is. Do styles of walking, he wonders, find their way directly into the style of written accounts? A thought which takes him off via W.H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies, John Clare, John Cowper Powys and Bunyan, before arriving at 'the patron poet of strollers', William Cowper, with whom (and with ten lines from The Task) Mabey ends this richly rewarding essay - just one of the many treasures in this satisfyingly large bedside book. If you spot it anywhere, buy it.

The Dabbler alas can't seem to find 'Country Matters' on Amazon for a penny or any other amount, but there are other Mabey works to be had. If you know where to find it, do let us know in the comments.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Lazy Sunday Afternoon - Four letters

Being a retroprogressive site, The Dabbler approves of Youtube music videos about snail mail. For this week's music feature, here are four songs about letter-writing to help while away your Sunday afternoon...

The Young/Heyman standard Love Letters is an unavoidable choice. It’s been rendered by scores of artists, notably Elvis in 1966 and Alison Moyet in 1987, who respectively took it to numbers 6 and 4 in the UK charts. Ketty Lester, below, also managed number 4 in 1962 and I've gone for her - even though once Elvis has sung a song, it sort of stays sung - because I never knew what she looked like (rather stunning).

Alex Chiltern, who died earlier this year, had one of the 1960s' great black soul voices - which was quite surprising given that he was a skinny white boy. A suspiciously odd (ie. stoned) performance here from his first band The Box Tops of their most memorable hit, observe in particular the keyboardist's weirdness from about 1m15s.

The White Stripes, meanwhile, are eminently ‘retroprogressive’ with their raw blues played at an earsplitting, 21st century volume and an attention span-deficient speed.

Finally, Please Read the Letter is one of the best songs from one of the best albums of last few years, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. Enjoy.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

RetroProgressive - Gregory's winning style

Every Saturday, Susan Muncey - blogger, trend forecaster and founder-curator of the online curiosity shop, - brings you The Dabbler's style column RetroProgressive...

Post recession shoppers do not wish to appear ostentatious, so luxury designer brands are paring down their logos and replacing them with more subtle designs, as part of a move towards ‘anti-bling’ fashion.

I wonder if that goes for Wags too? I accidentally stumbled upon some on the Internet the other day, posing naked (in body paint bikinis) for Sports Illustrated, and I’m curious to know what sort of people look at this stuff. Presumably young men who are impressed by pneumatic breasts, glow-in-the-dark teeth, designer shoes and oversized handbags?

In the days of Gregory’s Girl, it was the football that mattered. Wistful schoolboy and dabbler extraordinaire, Gregory, manfully dabbled at the drums, mastered curious snippets of Italian, learned cookery with his budding chef friend, and took on board style tips from little sister Madeline in order to win Dorothy’s affection. And all because, in addition to her long flowing locks and buttock skimming shorts, Gregory’s Girl, Dorothy, was also admired for having a skill – her ‘natural ability’ on the football field.

As it turned out, the results of Gregory’s efforts weren’t quite as intended, but in the meantime he learned an awful lot about girls, and all manner of life-affirming things. He also ditched his ill-fitting school jumper for an oversized 1980s style cream jacket, but still managed to maintain his endearing adolescent awkwardness.

Anyway, on the basis of Madeline’s advice, perhaps Wags should think less about love and more about football? In which case, innovative young Scottish designer, Emma Cowie, has come up with the perfect solution: designer clothing made from recycled footballs.

Friday, 13 August 2010

A-List Mugshots - Music

Jim Morrison

A 19-year old Morrison was arrested in 1963 for drunkenness and for the Bertie Woosterish theft of a policeman’s hat.

Frank Sinatra

In 1938, a 23-year-old Sinatra was arrested on charges of ‘seduction’ and ‘adultery’. His initial charge stated that: 'On the second and ninth days of November 1938 at the Borough of Lodi' and 'under the promise of marriage' Sinatra 'did then and there have sexual intercourse with the said complainant, who was then and there a single female of good repute.' Sinatra was released on $1,500 bond, but when it was determined that the lady in question was married a complaint of adultery was substituted, with Sinatra's bond being lowered to $500. That charge, too, was dismissed, and neither crime exists today.

Billie Holiday

In May 1947 the jazz legend, then 32, was locked up for eight months on a drug conviction.

David Bowie

Bowie, then 29, was arrested along with Iggy Pop in upstate New York in March 1976 on a cannabis possession charge following a concert. He was held for a few hours then released. His mugshot is as cool as hell, isn’t it, but it was taken a few days after the arrest when he appeared in court for arraignment.

Key's Cupboard: The Glimpsed Cases of Sherlock Holmes

By Frank Key

Now the BBC's trio of Sherlock dramas has come to a close, and the critics have had their say, it is appropriate to note that it missed an opportunity. Why do writers feel they need to come up with entirely new stories when Conan Doyle – or rather his narrator Dr Watson – left us so many tantalising glimpses of cases he never got round to recording in full?

Instead of concocting new plots, would it not be better to flesh out the details of Von Bischoff of Frankfurt, Mason of Bradford, the notorious Muller, Lefevre and Leturier of Montpellier, Samson of New Orleans, Van Jansen of Utrecht, the Ratcliff Highway murders, Dolsky of Odessa, the wills in Riga in 1857 and St Louis in 1871, Mrs Cecil Forrester's domestic complication, the woman who poisoned three children for their insurance money, similar cases in India and Senegambia, the Bishopsgate jewels, the Trepoff murder, the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee, the mission for the Dutch royal family, the Darlington substitution scandal, the business at Arnsworth castle, the Dundas separation case, that intricate matter in Marseilles, the disappearance of Mr Etheredge, the similar cases in Andover and The Hague, the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, the Amateur Mendicant Society, the loss of the barque Sophie Anderson, the Grice Patersons on Uffa, the Camberwell poisoning, the Tankerville Club scandal, two murders, the throwing of vitriol, suicide and a number of robberies associated with the Blue Carbuncle, Mrs Farintosh and the opal tiara, the madness of Colonel Warburton, the Grosvenor Square furniture van, the King of Scandinavia and similar cases in Aberdeen and Munich, the affair of the bogus laundry, the Tarleton murders, Vamberry the wine merchant, the old Russian woman, the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, the club-footed Ricoletti and his abominable wife, Baron Maupertuis and the Netherland-Sumatra Company, the Worthingdon bank robbery, Adams and the Manor House, the tired captain, the French Government case in Nîmes and Narbonne, the Scandinavian royal family, the Vatican cameos, Wilson of the district messenger office, the Grodno blackmail and others, Little Russia, the Anderson murders in North Carolina, the Colonel Upwood card scandal at the Nonpareil Club, Madame Montpensier's murder charge against her daughter, the Molesey Mystery, Morgan the poisoner, Merridew of abominable memory, Matthews who knocked out Holmes's left canine in the waiting room at Charing Cross, the murder of Mrs Stewart in Lauder, the papers of ex-President Murillo, the Dutch steamship Friesland, Bert Stevens the murderer, the persecution of tobacco millionaire John Vincent Harden, Archie Stamford the forger, the Ferrers documents, the Abergavenny murder, the death of Cardinal Tosca, Wilson the canary trainer, the dreadful business of the Abernetty family, the Conk-Singleton forgery, Crosby the banker and the red leech, the contents of the Addleton barrow, the Smith-Mortimer succession case, Huret the Boulevard Assassin, Arthur H Staunton the forger and Henry Staunton, the Randall burglars of Lewisham, the Margate woman, Colonel Carruthers, Brooks, Woodhouse, Fairdale Hobbs, the Long Island cave mystery, Abrahams in mortal terror, Rotherhithe, old Baron Dowson, the disappearances of James Phillimore and of the cutter Alicia, the madness of Isadora Persano, the ship Matilda Briggs and the giant rat of Sumatra, the forger Victor Lynch, Vittoria the circus belle, Vanderbilt and the Yeggman, Vigor the Hammersmith Wonder, Sir George Lewis and the Hammerford Will, Wainwright, the Duke of Greyminster and Abbey School, the Sultan of Turkey's commission, two Coptic patriarchs, the St Pancras picture-frame maker, and a coiner?

Not to forget the finest case Watson never bothered to record, that of the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant (mentioned in The Adventure Of The Veiled Lodger).

Frank has assured The Dabbler that every single one of the above cases is genuinely mentioned in the canon - Ed

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Tyburn

“Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reach’d the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean”.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The "secret river" has long been an obsession of dabblers, perhaps since the times when we lived in caves, and our ancestors listened to the murmer of distant torrents tumbling through unseen chambers below. Of course there must be underground confluences everywhere we walk, but in London, the ever-layered city, these hidden places can be accessed.

map of london's smaller and 'lost' rivers. click to enlarge

Numerous 'lost' rivers flow beneath the city's streets, the most famous of which is The Fleet. Less well known is The Tyburn, which runs under a large part of the more valuable bits of the West End (including, sewer dwelling terrorists please note, Buckingham Palace) before trickling out into the Thames at Pimlico.

The Tyburn outfall at Vauxhall Bridge, pic courtesy of The Londonist

The course does not fully discharge here. The water pools and creeps beneath the city. Culverts carry the main flow eastwards under the embankment all the way to Barking Creek, along the elaborate subterranean arteries of Bazalgette, surely one of London's noblest achitects.

En route, the river's gurgle can be heard. On Tachbrook street in Pimlico, the sound of the river is clearly audible, rising up through the blank eyed manhole covers, allowing you to hear what the poet Glyn Maxwell called 'the city-licking sound of water moving slowly through the Thames like years in thought.'And in one special place, the mysterious brook is claimed to resurface and be visible - in the basement of Grey's Antiques in Mayfair.

This is such a lovely prospect and a fine sight that one wishes it to be true. Unfortunately, when you consider that the entire underground course is no longer really a river at all, but one of London's most noisome sewers (Officially The King's Scholars' Pond Sewer), the provenance of the crystal clear waters babbling through the antique shop begins to look a little muddied.

But the true pulse of the Tyburn is too strong to be contained in a chi-chi drinking trough. Tendrils curl outwards, luring the curious to unearth it's obscurity. Certainly, The Tyburn has admirers, foremost of which are the members of The Tyburn Angling Society.

Run by a property developer with tiresomely predictable faux-eccentricity, the society claims a royal charter of 959, has a Latin motto, traditions, and even a Nicholas Soames. So far, so forgettable. But their secretary, James Bowdidge, has managed to come up with a plan that, whilst whimsical and unrealistic, is also rather intriguing. Bowdidge suggests that we lay waste to great swathes of the most valuable parts of London, demolishing the buildings standing above the river's old course, and opening the poisoned Tyburn up to the air.

Berkeley Square, as reimagined by Bowdidge

Who would miss the great grey lumps of Mayfair, when we could be reconnecting the inland with the sea, irrigating the concrete deserts and opening up the scleroid arteries of the great river, letting light and air and crisp clear water run freely through the streets?

South Molton Street, by Bowdidge. Abandoned shopping trolleys and bags full of drowned puppies not pictured.

Violet reaction

Class is in the news again: we're still all middle class, apparently (well, nearly all of us).

Looking back we can trace how far those people formerly known as the upper classes have come. On Friday the 8th of October 1954 George Brown MP, son of a Southwark van driver, was on Any Questions? at the Town Hall, Lydney:
'We stayed at the Feathers Hôtel,' recorded a seasoned fellow-panellist, Lady Violet Bonham Carter. 'Ralph Wightman and Mrs Wightman rolled up later - & at dinner [ie before the programe] a new member of the Team - George Brown - Attlee-ite Labour who was Minister of Works... Everyone was agreeable to him - but he was obviously lacking in "touch" - or any kind of "amenity" or intercourse.' Then came the programme itself, as ever going out live: 'George Brown's "form" cld not I thought have been worse. He made 2 really "bad form" howlers - one a quite gratuitous & irrelevant insult to the Liberal Party - the other an allusion to my age!' The transcript reveals that his crack against the Liberals was that 'they hardly have any conference worthy of the name', while he did indeed make a jocose reference to Lady Violet's 'present age of 26 or thereabouts'. Yet more unpardonable was still to come. 'When we returned to the hôtel (our BBC hosts having left us) & we sat up talking he hectored & harangued us & addressed me repeatedly as "my dear Violet". I was frozen - but did not I fear freeze him. I have never before - in the course of an unsheltered life, spent among all sorts & conditions of men - met anyone so completely unhouse-trained'.

Written in a sort of code: the various euphemisms for vulgar; the circumflex in hotel, persisted with despite other abbreviations; the unspoken expectations of deference. The van driver's son from Southwark, however, proved resistant, even to being 'frozen'. In fact, rather than making 'howlers' I suspect he was deploying his own social chaff: 'my dear Violet' was surely no accident.

But whilst Lady Violet may appear excessively genteel to our eyes, I can't help wondering how much of our progress to a classless (or mono-class) society is just down to the codes becoming more subtle, what with our manifold middle class.

In any event, it can't be denied that she was on to something: the 'completely unhouse-trained' George Brown later became notorious for his drunkenness, volatile temperament and occasional brawls. Indeed, despite his reaching high office, he will surely be remembered more as the man who gave rise to the euphemistic phrase tired and emotional than for any political achievement (I was sad to discover, though, that the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima incident was probably apocryphal.)

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The 1p Book Review: Jonathan Rendall - Twelve Grand

The strange ways of internet commerce have meant that countless secondhand books can be bought online for £0.01 plus postage. The Dabbler will be recommending some of the out-of-print, forgotten or neglected gems that can be yours, at the time of writing, for a penny.

Today, guest writer Jon Hotten recommends Jonathan Rendall's Twelve Grand [Yellow Jersey]

No-one’s ever written a perfect book have they? Jonathan Rendall hasn’t, but he’s written a couple of very good ones, and in improbable circumstances too. His first, a boxing memoir called This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own (a line spoken to him by a man in a bar in Las Vegas after a Frank Bruno fight), carries jacket blurbs from Tom Stoppard and Tom Wolfe, won the Somerset Maugham prize and is by some distance the best book about boxing I’ve read. His second, Twelve Grand, is finer still and to be frank, it’s a disgrace that you can buy it for 1p because Jonathan Rendall is an artist and 1p is no sort of a price for art.

Twelve Grand began as a stunt book. Rachel Cugnoni, the publisher at Random House’s sports imprint Yellow Jersey, wanted to give a writer an advance in the form of stake money for gambling. The proviso was that the entire sum, the Twelve Grand of Rendall’s title (yes, twelve grand is the sort of money they give you – a bloody scandal, isn’t it, considering the work they’re asking for…), had to be gambled and the narrative of the bets turned into a book. If the writer stayed ahead, they kept the winnings; if they lost, then the book must still be delivered.

Rendall realizes immediately that a) he is not the first writer that Rachel has contacted, and b) that the offer is a sucker bet in itself. So he does what any proper writer would do in the circumstances: he takes the money and writes whatever he wants, which in this case is a lovely, melancholic, autobiographical novel based around a flailing, boozy writer trying to capture some of the self-destructive beauty of a gambler’s life.

Twelve Grand is a mood piece; it has to be, because it covers a lot of ground. Early on, he visits a short-lived theme park built by Noel Edmonds; later he’s in Mexico and Vegas at the scenes of old sins and old affairs. You need great control of tone and form to hold elements like that together cohesively. As for the money, well he can’t get rid of it quickly enough. There’s a tremendous little scene where he buys a new suit from the backroom of a shop, and another as he lies to Rachel about the bets he’s supposedly placed. In the beautifully realised and downbeat ending, he catches perfectly the gambler’s real psyche – the one that non-punters just don’t get – when he wins big on a Lennox Lewis fight and is repulsed by the rolls of notes in his pockets. The narrative voice becomes more and more spare as his state of mind slips and splays, but you’ll be right there with him as it does.

Jon is the author of The Years of the Locust and Muscle, and is also the proprietor of the web's finest cricket blog.

Permanent and benevolent disorder

I came across this terrific description of a Roman Catholic home the other day:

The village was one of those half-urbanised Georgian settlements on the edge of Bath where English Catholics of a certain standing have elected to gather in their exile. The cottage lay at the country end of it, a tiny sandstone mansion with a steep narrow garden descending to a stretch of river, and they sat in the cluttered kitchen on wheelback chairs, surrounded by washing-up and vaguely votive bric-a-brac: a cracked ceramic plaque of the Virgin Mary from Lourdes; a disintegrating rush cross jammed behind the cooker; a child’s paper mobile of angels rotating in the draught; a photograph of Ronald Knox. While they talked, filthy grandchildren wandered in and stared at them before tall mothers swept them off. It was a household in permanent and benevolent disorder, pervaded by the gentle thrill of religious persecution. A white morning sun was poking through the Bath mist. There was a sound of slow water dripping in the gutters.

John le Carré - A Perfect Spy

My own Catholic heritage, alas lapsed, is of the dirtpoor Irish Merseyside variety, but having grown up in the affluent south I have spent formative time amongst such households and know their ‘permanent and benevolent disorder’ well.

The Tall Mothers invariably have long dark hair either descending in a straight ribbon to the waist or tied in a bun, and they carry on conversations while picking distractedly through hallways of strewn wellies and junior cricket equipment, generally assisted by the eldest daughter, a clone in miniature. Boys run about in unseasonal school uniform and hand-me-downs, appearing suddenly in doorways to make earnest announcements about meteor showers or dead rodents in the garden. The father is absent, or distant when present and often the first cousin of his wife.

There is always too much old furniture crammed into small, impractically-shaped rooms. Welsh dressers, egg cups, Guild of St Stephen medals ... apostle spoons, why not; and the general ambience is that of a true aristocratic bloodline in temporary exile, bumbling through a few generations until the world, which somehow took a wrong turn with Henry VIII, rights itself and the loyal are returned to their natural dominion.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Important monkey/flying squirrel insight news

For those who enjoy news about the relationship between monkeys and flying squirrels, and also good uses of the words ‘might’, ‘possible’, ‘insights’ and ‘important’ in the field of evolutionary psychology, this story will be most welcome. (My emboldening.)

Researchers have observed small monkeys called Japanese macaques going bananas at the sight of a flying squirrel...This riled-up response is probably just a false alarm, with the monkeys mistaking the squirrel for a predatory bird. On the other hand, male macaques – some of whom give chase and even attack a harmless rodent – might be trying to impress females in their troop.

Although this tough-guy motive was not proved in a new study, "it is possible that adult or sub-adult male monkeys may be 'showing off' their fitness" as potential mates, said Kenji Onishi, an assistant professor of behavioral sciences at Osaka University and lead author of the paper being published in the current issue of the journal Primate Research.

Biologists and psychologists have long studied macaques' complex social interactions for insights into human evolution and behavior.

However, much remains unknown about how macaques get along (or not) with other creatures. Better documentation of such encounters could reveal more about macaque societies as well as that of our shared primate forebears.

"Human evolution occurred alongside primate evolution from a common mammalian ancestor," Onishi told LiveScience. "Therefore, it is important to learn the evolution of primates in understanding the previous steps in human evolution."

Dabbled by Dave Lull

Siren City

I popped into the elegantly bijou Estorick Collection the other day to see their latest exhibition: Siren City, photographs of Naples taken by Johnnie Shand Kydd.

It played, quite beautifully, to just about every preconception you might have about the city. Use of black-and-white film and an old camera (a Rolleiflex - I made a note as I now know how interested some are in this sort of thing) has given the images a timeless quality; subjects looked as if they'd stepped out of a film by Visconti or Norman Lewis's classic Naples '44 or even a Caravaggio.

The city itself looked strikingly unimproved, its people living in a present that seemed very like the past. And it's not just a case of artful photography. Old buildings - even sacred buildings: goal posts painted onto church gates, for instance - didn't look as if they'd been taken out of circulation in order to be conserved and revered; rather, they gave the appearance of being carelessly consumed.

It seemed very different to a city such as Paris, where one is too often conscious of looking at places that might be under glass; on display for the tourist and antiquarian rather than there for the unselfconscious use of the descendants of those who built them and first inhabited them.

Under-investment as a product of poverty and corruption is, I think, the main reason one receives this impression of Naples. Money applied rigorously and rationally brings a tidying up and a sorting out - of people as well as buildings - but it can tend to degrade a lived environment into empty heritage. Paris's Marais and Les Halles districts testify to the dangers of this approach - places once full of messy life that are now sterile and rather boring.

Mind you, the old-time poverty of a community often looks a lot less romantic from the other side of the lens. An improvement of the built environment is something poor Neapolitans - struggling with inadequate accommodation, unreliable services and other, sometimes dangerous, aspects of the area's poverty and corruption - would undoubtedly welcome. The trick is to put the money in without losing the people or, what we might sentimentally call, the spirit of a place. This seems to be a difficult one to pull off. Not that in Naples' case there seems any prospect of things changing for better or worse.

The images are exotically compelling and my reservations added to their interest: well worth a visit (as is the courtyard café!). The exhibition closes on September 12th.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Ghent in Wartime

Frank Key of Hooting Yard and our own Key's Cupboard is taking advantage of the wonders of web publishing to post his mother's wartime memoirs in weekly instalments at a blog, Ghent in Wartime:
During the 1980s, my mother [Lydia Brusseel] wrote a memoir of her teenage years in Belgium during World War Two. The first version was written in longhand, and then she bought a typewriter, typed it up, and made copies for her children. As far as I know, she never submitted it for publication. The other day, my brother had a bright idea. Why don’t we publish it on the internet?, he suggested. Although it is not written in diary format, I added my tuppenceworth to the effect that it would lend itself to appearing as a blog...

It contains some memorable anecdotes and observations, which convey very effectively the daily distress of war. They are recounted plainly and without fuss and are quite affecting. This is probably because the events we read about are occurring just a remove or two from ordinary life: it's uncomfortably easy to put ourselves in Lydia's shoes. From last week's, which deals with the family's attempt to flee Ghent for the coast and England:
My young brother was in charge of the dog on a leash. We, the older children carried bags with all the food and drink we could muster together. On the handle of the pram hung wet nappies to dry, washed at the last minute. We must have looked a most bizarre group of travellers. I guess we had walked about half way to the main highway when the baby started to cry. The mother was distressed and insisted we all stop, so she could feed the baby. 
Our little dog had never run very far from home, after going a little further the poor wretch was probably tired, hot and thirsty and had a fit, foaming at the mouth and rolling his eyes. My little brother had hysterics, upset at seeing his pet like this.

But that's not to say one can't learn about the bigger events too. One is given an ongoing account of the response of Ghentish society to military defeat: the suspicions of Germany fed by memories of the previous war (from the week before last); the 'dejected gloom' of the families fleeing for the coast, rapidly turning to 'frozen fear' and then panic when they appear to be strafed; the brave patriotism of Lydia's father and a friend who set off on bikes for the coast to join the Allied armies in England, leaving behind fearful wives and families (how last week's ended). However, it's always grounded in the personal: 'During the following two weeks I saw my mother age about ten years.'

This is the sort of testimony that makes David Kynaston's books on post-war England so compelling. Those familiar with Austerity Britain and Family Britain will recognise this as a strong recommendation.

Introducing Dabbler Country

Dabbler Country will be another recurring feature on the site, as our intrepid dabblers - headed by the web's leading nature-noter Nige - venture into the Great Outdoors.

For the debut, Nige on August and swifts...


Every schoolchild knows that August is the best month of the year. Every adult knows that it is one of the worst. Partly this is for the same reason - school holidays are good news for children, but bad news for anyone else wishing to go anywhere, as resorts fill up, prices rise and crowds proliferate. But there are deeper reasons for not liking August, and I'm feeling them rather keenly this year. The best of the summer is over - I'm sorry, but it's true: Summer, the real summer, was in June and July. By August, nature looks tired, faded and tatty (and, after this year's dry summer in the Southeast, dusty and desiccated), the butterflies are past their best while wasps and other noisome insects thrive, the air is stale, the default weather grey and breezy, oppressive if it heats up or chillingly autumnal if it cools down. The days are noticeably shortening and Autumn is clearly coming, but the glories of that season are still a long way off.

Meanwhile we have a kind of hiatus, when fading summer is suspended and nothing much is happening except a slow uninteresting decline. What's worse, this year the swifts seem to have already departed - at least from my neck of the woods, where I haven't seen one since Tuesday. This is always saddening - Gilbert White (who was amazed every year by the speed with which each brood of swifts grew from helplessness to mastery of the air) could hardly bear the departure of his hirundine friends and persuaded himself that many swallows, swifts and martins overwintered in England, hibernating in holes in trees or riverbanks, or even at the bottom of lakes. A pity he wasn't right - it's a cheering thought... As is the prospect of a really glorious autumn, with plenty of mellow sun and a fine show of turning leaves - that will make up for dreary August.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Lazy Sunday Afternoon – Mad Pianists

The evidence would suggest that piano virtuosity and wild eccentricity go hand-in-hand. This Sunday, here are three of the most troubled Greats (and this is not even to mention David Helfgott, made famous by the movie Shine, or Grigory Sokolov, who takes each piano apart before playing it and makes notes of his observations in a book).

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)
One of the 20th Century’s supreme virtuosos, the Russian played at Stalin’s funeral but preferred to give impromptu free concerts at tiny, remote towns. He claimed that his repertoire ran “to around eighty different programs, not counting chamber works” and at a wedding he once played the entire first act of Madame Butterfly from memory for a small group of guests. This prodigious memory was also a curse: a '”terrifying, nonselective memory”. He could recall the name of every person he ever met and if one escaped him he lost sleep over it. He was tormented by a droning melody in his head, which he eventually identified as a version of Rachmaninoff's ''Vocalise'', heard in childhood. At one troubled period in his life he insisted on having in his possession, at all times, a plastic pink lobster. More here.

Here is Richter playing Chopin's Etude no.4 extremely fast.

John Ogdon (1937-1989)
A sadder case, this. Regarded as perhaps the greatest British pianist as well as a prolific composer, Ogdon was a gentle giant. He won the prestigious Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962 with performances of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, as well as the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto which became his signature piece, but he also had a keen appetite for new, experimental music. He gave the first performance in 50 years of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s four hour epic, Opus Clavicembalisticum, and then offered to repeat the entire piece as an encore. But his life was blighted by chronic depression and mental illness (never fully diagnosed but probably schizophrenia) which led to three suicide attempts: one, gruesomely, by cutting his own throat. He spent long periods in Maudsley Hospital, London, undergoing lithium treatment and electroshock therapy, yet he died at the age of 52 of natural causes connected with undiagnosed diabetes. More here and here.

Here he plays Debussy's La Danse de Puck

Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982)
One of the most notoriously eccentric (to put it mildly) of all pianists, the Canadian called himself ‘The Last Puritan’ and once said that "Mozart was a bad composer who died too late rather than too early". When playing he usually accompanied himself with odd humming (to the immense irritation of many, especially sound engineers during recordings), made strange physical movements and at concerts always insisted on sitting, on a knackered old chair made by his father, precisely 14 inches above the floor. He was obsessive about the cold, wearing heavy clothes even in warm climates, which once led to him being arrested for vagrancy when sitting thus attired on a park bench in Florida. He hated touching other humans, generally refusing handshakes, and such was his hypochondria that when an employee of Steinway Hall tapped him on the back he wore a body cast for a month and threatened to sue the company. He died at the age of 50, after suffering a stroke. More here.

Here is a pretty sublime Goldburg Variations...