Showing posts from 2010

Christmas with Christina and John

The shade of John Milton, channelled through his statue in a side-aisle and his bust by the bell-tower, was listening in St Giles Church, Cripplegate, as my daughter and her school-fellows sang carols and madrigals this week for Christmas.
“Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.” While I write this, the snow still falls, and the king’s head flowerpot on our garden wall, which in summer is crowned with red geraniums, now wears a mitre of snow.
“In the bleak midwinter,” particularly when sung by sweet trebles and melancholy altos, is the carol most likely to moisten my eyes. It was written by Christina Rossetti, who was a child of December, born on the fifth in 1839 and dying on the 29th in 1894, and who lived, as we do, in Camden.
It was only when I found this pencil portrait of her, drawn by her brother, the better-known artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that I realised what an archetype she was of the pre-Raphaelite female, lat…

A strange change from Major to minor (poet)

The poetry of John Major, eh. Now there’s a tantalising prospect. What next? The love songs of Edward Heath?
A few days ago, Sir John gave a lecture at Churchill College, Cambridge. Thanking his hosts for accepting the donation of his papers, he added:
“Those that I’ve held back – personal notes, contemporary thoughts, partial diaries, even poems – will follow in due course. I hope that, taken together, these will add to knowledge, and be of use to historians.”
Can poems help historians? “Poets find the things that last,” according to Holderlin, so there’s always a possibility that Sir John will do for Black Wednesday and the ERM debacle what Homer did for the Trojan War.
However, the auguries aren’t good, given the clues we have to the style of Major’s poetic opera, which seems to belong to the Wisden School. Here’s the start of a piece he auctioned last year for charity:
“The mellow sound of bat on ball
The wherewithal to enthral
On feather bed or fiery track
Talent far above the pack

Take these chains from my inbox

Puzzling phenomenon, the chain letter or email. The principle is the same as the pyramid sell, but the manifesto with the chain tends to protest an innocuous or even virtuous purpose, and sometimes a mystical engine, which only makes it all the weirder that, invariably, just before bidding farewell, the writer pauses to take a stab at blackmail.
You know the kind of thing – a mortally ill child, send on to six mates, a business card and a couple of quid, eternal good fortune; oh, break the chain and ditto your arm.
A friend of mine and I got peripherally caught up in one the other day. Here’s our correspondence:
This came through this morning from a kind, if slightly batty, friend and having a moment to consider such things I thought I’d pass it on.
Of course I did hesitate about sending it, but let me know if you get some money in 4 days time....

“An interesting fact about October 2010: This October has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays, all in 1 month. It happens once in 823 yea…

It was nineteen years ago today...

The wooden eggs are still there on the roof, a perch for seagulls and an enigma for the young. The vertical metal lettering at the front of the building, however, has been obscured by four fat blue discs.
Lorraine Kelly and Mike – Mike who, for heaven’s sake? I sat with him at lunch in the Camden Bistro while he raged, close to tears, I thought, at the injustice of the auction in which TVAM had been stripped of its franchise. Now I’ve forgotten his name.
Nineteen years ago today, October 16, I was in Plymouth, sitting in an office with Nick Smith, Pete Colebrook and Tom Goodison. It was a grim morning, soot-coloured clouds rolling down from the Hoe. We were watching the internal TV service. Harry Turner, our MD, stepped up to the microphone.
“We’ve lost,” said Tom, before Harry said a word. And we had. TSW was history. So were Thames, TVS and TVAM. We went to a pub called The Bank and got drunk on Mr Bass’s bitter and Mr Bell’s whisky.
Mike Morris. Thank you, Google. Apparently he went …

Trust Labour once again? Hmm – do they trust each other?

It wasn’t the elevation of the younger Milliband which surprised me. Given the choice between Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, the extra-parliamentary party, smarting from years during which powerful leaders had been out of its control, opted perhaps inevitably for the more manipulable of the brothers.
No – what stopped me short was a line on the radio in the run-up to the coronation.
We were told that the five candidates, before being placed in purdah and told who’d won, had been obliged to surrender all Blackberries, mobiles, pagers and any other electronic means of communication.
The precaution – if this commentary was true – must have been taken in case one or more of them chose to leak the news.
Aren’t decency and trustworthiness necessary qualities if one is to be eligible to lead a party, a parliament, and a country?
In other words, shouldn’t it have been sufficient to say, “look, we don’t want to rob our lady chairperson, the conference, the media and the country of their moment of theatre,…

“In darkness, and with dangers compassed round...”

It’s January 22, 1942. Six years to the day since Edward VIII was proclaimed King, and now the proclamation is to be repeated. Beside Edward is his Queen, Wallis, née Simpson. His brother, described these days by the State-run Press as “the usurper Albert,” is in hiding (Canada? New Zealand?) with his wife and their two daughters.
The honour guard at St James’s Palace consists of Royal Horse Artillery and Waffen SS.
There is jubilation among the people – at least the bombs have stopped falling and the boys are home – but there’s also fear, loathing and anxiety.
Winston Churchill died in the early Summer of 1941. Hitler seized the moment to redouble the blitz, adding what he called “influential” to strategic bombing. Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Buckinghamshire were on the way to becoming wastelands when the appeasers resumed power and the public clamour – “why are we fighting this war?” – caused Parliament to sue for peace.
The invasion, therefore, happened without a shot being fired. Th…

Gearbox lows and Dolphin highs

That Wintle, he no blog no more. Where he gone? (Ssssh, says you, don’t encourage him).
What happened was this. We went to Greece, to an island called Zakynthos, where, by the way, given the state of the local economy, a plate of calamari costs c. £31.23, and a bottle of wine only slightly less. And we hired a car – Renault? Citroen? can’t remember: some sort of grey mackerel tin, anyway, with an underpowered engine and an unforgiving gearbox.
So that: after two weeks crashing the wretched machine upward into first on every ascending mountain corner, and wrenching down through the box on each anfractuous descent, your blogger inflicted himself with a bad case of right-arm tenosynovitis.
Ever had this? Lower arm and hand swell up, redden and get hot, and the exquisite accompaniment is a pain I’d describe as like a constant toothache in the wrist. If you do get to sleep, you’re woken shortly after by the screech of your own profanities as you turn over. And among the things you can’t do a…

Banksy, Beryl and dubious doorways

Two events on successive days. First, one of our neighbourhood walls acquired a Banksy overnight. Next, the author Beryl Bainbridge died.
The Banksy is sharp and whimsical. Picture and caption (“Make Tea, Not War”) indicate that the “beautiful” generation of flower-empowered potheads who minted the phrase “Make Love, Not War,” is now settling towards a last life-chapter in which their pot is the teapot which chinks on the cup beside the herbaceous border, which is where all the flowers may turn out to have gone.
We are being satirised, ladies and gentlemen.
Beryl Bainbridge was 75, or 77, depending which paper you read.
Is that old, either way? I used to see her drinking whisky in one of the pubs on Camden Parkway. When it was still permitted, she alternated swigs of scotch with drags on a cigarette.
According to The Times, she wrote in her diary on Tuesday, April 18, 2000: “The foundations of our view of the world are laid down in childhood. Save for a few exceptions,…

On the trail of comets' tails: Mary, Queen of Shops

At one time there was a nameplate on a door in BBC Broadcasting House which said: “Head of the Spoken Word.” Dylan Thomas, apparently, walked past and murmured: “but just think of the power of the Head of the Unspoken Word.”
That’s not just a good gag, it’s a truth, and one worth flagging up while the BBC, and ITV, Channels 4 and 5, Sky and Virgin, behave as if no factual programme passes the quality test unless every piece of information is recycled every fifteen minutes, with each clue or inference signalled several times more and explicitly spelled out.
Which is why Mary, Queen of Shops (BBC 2, Monday’s., 21:00) is probably the best show around – the stories it really tells are the ones it leaves unsaid.
Here’s the pitch: Mary Portas – “I made my life in high end designer retail” – is on a mission, because the local high street is under assault from the big stores, who are “killing” Britain’s small retailers. Five hundred village shops close every year. “We’ll miss our neighbourhood s…

In praise of the Irish National Font

A week in County Clare, thanks to the hospitality of generous friends, beside the majesty and mystery of Lough Derg, the waters of which, every time you glance back from book, or plate, or glass, or the face of lover or friend, have changed their colours.
The herons lift their great bodies off the stones with one or two wing-flaps, and then retract their necks as they soar, rather as a plane retracts its undercarriage. The swans (albeit bigger) need a long, long run, step and frantic flap along the lake before they get airborne. But once aloft, that creaking, calling sound carries from one shore to the other...
“All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter step...”
We’re near enough to visit (again) Yeats’ one-time home, Thor Ballylee, shut this year after a flood, and Coole House and Park, where he memorialised the swans, and to wonder why exactly the mansion there was demolished (one of our friend…

“Watching the wheels go round”

So, first, a question: what do these countries have in common? Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK?
Answer: all these nations’ entries in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest are sung in English.
I fetch back a recollection of the first EVSC I ever saw, in 1961, when a UK duo, The Allisons, came second with a bright and harmonious number called Are You Sure. What I remember of the other contestants is a kaleidoscope (if you can have a black-and-white kaleidoscope) of language, costume, dance, performance and minstrelsy which ranged from the picture-postcard quaint through the exotic to the bizarre.
I also remember thinking how, as they watched, viewers in each country must be ranking the performances on a spectrum that rose towards “extraordinary” from a base point of “ordinary” which was settled in their own countr…

A new belt for Bunter

“I say you fellows, all the more stickies for us now Wharton’s bagged the top job, eh?” The Fat Owl of the Remove rolled his eyes and rubbed his ample belly with a grubby paw.
“What rot are you jawing now, Bunter?” yawned Bob Cherry, momentarily closing his tattered copy of Hillard and Botting’s Latin Primer.
The boys of the Greyfriars Remove were enjoying the May sunshine under an oak tree by the old tower, some sprawled on the turf, some perched or sat cross-legged on the fallen pillars that were all that remained of the ancient Franciscan monastery which had given the school its name.
“I mean, now Wharton’s been elected head of the National School Assembly, he’ll make sure his chums at the alma mater don’t go short in the jam tart and cake department,” said Bunter.
“Sadly I think the tartlessness of the future will be terrific,” murmured Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur. “Neither can I be foreseeing many abundancies of cake.”
“Eh?! Ow!!!” Sitting up suddenly, an alarmed Wi…

Here comes the coalition

You can speculate about what kind of sentient creature a population becomes when combined into an electorate in the way that entomologists speculate about the collective behaviour of swarming bees, or ants, or clouds of fruit flies.
This creature of the masses wanted to punish Gordon Brown – to continue his endgame – and it did. It wanted to break a two-party system which it saw as increasingly corrupt and self-serving, and perhaps to remind M.P.’s that in their origins they represented the people against the depredations of crown and court, and that now, all but sporting crown and coronet, the M.P.’s were acting as if they had inherited the roles of crown and court. The reminder was duly served, and despite the anticlimactic Lib Dem vote, I think the system has been broken.
Now what? Possibly –
1. Brown and Clegg go into alliance or coalition, the deal being electoral reform at the top of the agenda. As soon as it becomes expedient and publicly tolerable, Clegg detaches, brings down Br…

The wrong-side-of-the-rainbow election

High up in Hampstead live the really rich characters, and that’s where you’ll see most Labour posters. The People’s Soviets of Parliament Hill, and Nassington and Tanza Roads (average house price, £2,000,000) are militant for Gordon.
This is a phenomenon which could bear a bit of deconstruction, some time. As might the fact that The Guardian, journal of the left-leaning radical, is the newspaper of choice for lone diners in restaurants serving sushi, the national cuisine of the profoundly conservative Japanese.
Anyway, drop down a few contours from Hampstead (as house prices also drop, by more than a half) to Parks Tufnell and Dartmouth, and the Lib Dems predominate. Descend still further, among the bedsits, scruffy flats and sub-prime territory surrounding Kentish Town and Camden, and you’ll see, it’s true, a meagre scattering of Labour red and yellow, but almost all the windows are blank.
Conservative posters? I’ve spotted about three (one in Pang’s Kitchen, Kentish Town). But this may…

All in the mind? The defeat of Gordon Brown

And so we move to the endgame for Gordon Brown. For a Tent in the French Camp, read a Public Hall in Birmingham. Here was an exhausted man, a prematurely agèd man, grey of face and with red-rimmed eyes, gasping for breath as he spoke, staring with hatred at the young pretender, Cameron, and the younger upstart Clegg, shaking his head and grinning at random his awful, loveless, lifeless grin.
“Pray do not mock me: I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upwards; and, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments...”

Even were he to win, which now appears impossible, somehow he would still have lost. When one of your own cabinet ministers (the personable Alan Johnson) publicly describes you on the eve of the critical and defining debate as “a politician not of this age,” then surely you’re starting to hear the music…

“Bigotgate”: it’s what happens when you compromise

That confrontation between OAP and PM never happened. That’s the important point to grasp.
“Happen” derives from an old English verb, “to hap” – “to come about by hap or chance,” where the noun “hap” means “chance or fortune (good or bad).”
As in the old rhyme:

Were it to hap that we should meet
In some poor northern town,
Arriving, I would grin and greet,
Departing, curse and frown.

So the meta-story was that Gordon Brown, touring Rochdale, happened upon 66-year-old Mrs Gillian Duffy, a pensioner and widow with whom he happened to have a happy and lively conversation, but in an unhappy sequel, when he thought he was unobserved in his car, he happened inexplicably to lose his temper and call her a “bigoted woman.”
And the real story? Of course, the entire Rochdale excursion was confected for the media, up to and including the meeting with Mrs Duffy, who was propelled into the PM’s presence by his entourage, they having auditioned her on the street and established that she was a salt-of-the-e…

Election 2010 Emergency Meeting – Worshipful Guild of Media Trainers

A crisis had struck the craft of media training, one which pierced to the very heart of its time-honoured methodologies, and that crisis had dramatically unveiled itself during the first of the UK Party Leaders’ Election Debates, declared the President of the Worshipful Guild of Media Trainers, the Worshipful Bro. A DJING-HACK, at an emergency meeting of the Guild, convened in the snug bar of the Lens & Pen Inn, London EC1.
For many years the craft had rested its practice securely upon on coaching clients to observe the celebrated fourfold formula: “IMPACT-ANECDOTE-ARGUMENT-POINT”, memorably described by one of his [The President’s] late and illustrious predecessors as “the unturnable poignard of media engagement”.
Sist. KNIB asked to be reminded what exactly a “poignard” was?
The President explained that it was a kind of medieval dagger.
Sist. KNIB asked why, then, he [the late President] did not simply say “dagger”?
The President replied that he did not know
Bro GRUB: “What about the …

On spring, sapphires and electoral silence

We walked for six hours, at first beside a narrow river and then climbing high into the Chiltern Hills. When we set off, there were scarcely any leaves on the trees, but the sun blazed and temperatures climbed, and by evening buds had opened and shoots had shot, butterflies were dancing, fish jumping, and the world was sprinkled green and bright.
It was as if, at last, someone had found the keys to the kennel and the hounds of Spring, unleashed, had burst out in a frenzy.
I’m picking books at random off the shelves, at present, letting my fingers make the choice for a re-reading. Before the walk, last Thursday morning, they reached me down for my journeys on the underground the formidable American critic Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism.
These fingers, perhaps, are curious to see whether their mental equivalents have more luck grasping the meaning of the book than they did first time around (A: only a little).
Bloom writes of the Sefirot (the interlinking orbs of the great figure)…