Friday, 31 December 2010

Christmas Day on the Rye

A little cold, a little damp.  It's Christmas!!

Friday, 24 December 2010

It's gonna be a bad one...

Bread and circuses.   If they think they need to put on two Royal Weddings to distract our attention in 2011, it really is going to be a bad year. 
So panic now, before the rush.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Snowy Garden last Saturday

Poem of the Week

My Girl
Madness (Michael Barson)

My girl's mad at me
I didn't wanna see the film tonight
I found it hard to say
She thought I'd had enough of her
Why can't she see
She's lovely to me?
But I like to stay in
And watch TV on my own
Every now and then

My girl's mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard
Why can't I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
'Cause everything I say
She doesn't understand
She doesn't realise
She takes it all the wrong way

My girl's mad at me
We argued just the other night
I thought we'd got it straight
We talked and talked until it was light
I thought we'd agreed
I thought we'd talked it out
Now when I try to speak
She says that I don't care
She says I'm unaware
And now she says I'm weak

The Joy of Fez

- and porkpie hats, plastic trombones, skinheads and their children, ties and two-tone jackets...
In summary, to Earls Court through the snow to see Madness play the last gig in their latest UK tour:
A mixed crowd, to say the least. Age range from 4 to 60 and still older.  But then I suppose they have been going a while...

The crowd were quiet when the supporting act was on (some dancing when classics were covered), but exploded when Madness started.  And stayed raucous, noisy and exploded to the end.  Youngest likened it to being a marble on a tin tray full of marbles, when suddenly someone picks it up and starts shaking it vigorously.  And you aren't the biggest marble.

But everyone seemed to know the words, and it was pretty good-natured.  Lots of apparent skinheads singing and dancing to anti-racists songs.  All of the well-known tracks -  Our House, My Girl's Mad at Me, Night Boat to Cairo, Baggy Trousers, Driving In My Car, It Must be Love, One Step Beyond, plus the the marvellous Clerkenwell Polka from Norton Folgate.

Immensely enjoyable, I thought (but then I'm a bigger marble I suppose...).

Monday, 13 December 2010

Misty Rye

At 8am this morning...

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Poem of the Week

Pirate Jenny
Bertolt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein (English translator in 1954)
Music: Kurt Weill

You people can watch while I'm scrubbing these floors
And I'm scrubbin' the floors while you're gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town, in this crummy old hotel
But you'll never guess to who you're talkin'.
No. You couldn't ever guess to who you're talkin'.
Then one night there's a scream in the night
And you'll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin' while I'm scrubbin'
And you say, "What's she got to grin?"
I'll tell you.

There's a ship, the black freighter
with a skull on its masthead
will be coming in.

You gentlemen can say, "Hey gal, finish them floors!
Get upstairs! What's wrong with you! Earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips
and look out to the ships
But I'm counting your heads
as I'm making the beds
Cuz there's nobody gonna sleep here, honey
Nobody! Nobody!
Then one night there's a scream in the night
And you say, "Who's that kicking up a row?"
And ya see me kinda starin' out the winda.
And you say, "What's she got to stare at now?"
I'll tell ya.

There's a ship, the black freighter
turns around in the harbor
shootin' guns from her bow

Now you gentlemen can wipe that smile off your face
'Cause every building in town is a flat one
This whole frickin' place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, "Why do they spare that one?"
Yes, that's what you say.
"Why do they spare that one?"
All the night through, through the noise and to-do
You wonder who is that person that lives up there?
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair.

And the ship, the black freighter
runs a flag up its masthead
and a cheer rings the air

By noontime the dock is a-swarmin' with men
comin' out from the ghostly freighter
They move in the shadows where no one can see
And they're chainin' up people and they're bringin' em to me
askin' me, "Kill them NOW, or LATER?"
Askin' ME! "Kill them now, or later?"
Noon by the clock
and so still by the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I'll say, "Right now.
Right now!"
Then they'll pile up the bodies
And I'll say,
"That'll learn ya!"

And the ship, the black freighter
disappears out to sea
And on it is me.

German version:
Brecht and Weill

Meine Herren, heute sehen Sie mich Gläser abwaschen
Und ich mache das Bett für jeden.
Und Sie geben mir einen Penny und ich bedanke mich schnell
Und Sie sehen meine Lumpen und dies lumpige Hotel
Und Sie wissen nicht, mit wem Sie reden.
Und Sie wissen nicht, mit wem Sie reden.
Aber eines Abends wird ein Geschrei sein am Hafen
Und man fragt: Was ist das für ein Geschrei?
Und man wird mich lächeln sehn bei meinen Gläsern
Und man sagt: Was lächelt die dabei?

Und ein Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit fünfzig Kanonen
Wird liegen am Kai.

Man sagt: Geh, wisch deine Gläser, mein Kind
Und man reicht mir den Penny hin.
Und der Penny wird genommen, und das Bett wird gemacht!
(Es wird keiner mehr drin schlafen in dieser Nacht.)
Und sie wissen immer noch nicht, wer ich bin.
Und sie wissen immer noch nicht, wer ich bin.
Aber eines Abends wird ein Getös sein am Hafen
Und man fragt: Was ist das für ein Getös?
Und man wird mich stehen sehen hinterm Fenster
Und man sagt: Was lächelt die so bös?

Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit fünfzig Kanonen
Wird beschiessen die Stadt.

Meine Herren, da wird ihr Lachen aufhören
Denn die Mauern werden fallen hin
Und die Stadt wird gemacht dem Erdboden gleich.
Nur ein lumpiges Hotel wird verschont von dem Streich
Und man fragt: Wer wohnt Besonderer darin?
Und man fragt: Wer wohnt Besonderer darin?
Und in dieser Nacht wird ein Geschrei um das Hotel sein
Und man fragt: Warum wird das Hotel verschont?
Und man wird mich sehen treten aus der Tür am Morgen
Und man sagt: Die hat darin gewohnt?

Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit fünfzig Kanonen
Wird beflaggen den Mast.

Und es werden kommen hundert gen Mittag an Land
Und werden in den Schatten treten
Und fangen einen jeglichen aus jeglicher Tür
Und legen ihn in Ketten und bringen vor mir
Und fragen: Welchen sollen wir töten?
Und an diesem Mittag wird es still sein am Hafen
Wenn man fragt, wer wohl sterben muss.
Und dann werden Sie mich sagen hören: Alle!
Und wenn dann der Kopf fällt, sag ich: Hoppla!

Und das Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit fünfzig Kanonen
Wird entschwinden mit mir.

From Rev to Essex

Another Saturday, another inadvertently listened-to Home Truths. At least today’s was fronted up by the Reverend Richard Coles (ex Bronski Beat and the Communards - far better than Fi Glover – see my previous on that topic), and Tom Hollander was the studio guest. He played baddie Cutler Beckett in Pirates of the Caribbean, but more recently was the Rev in  Rev.

I didn’t see that much of Rev, but what I saw impressed me mightily – and I was please to hear from the radio that Rev Series 2 is on the way. But hearing him on the radio caused me to reflect on the amount of very high-quality TV we are getting at the moment.

I don’t mean the big headline-grabbing celeb stuff like X-Factor, Strictly and so forth. I mean the other stuff. The hard-to-properly-characterise stuff.

Misfits has had an awful lot of praise, as has the Inbetweeners, (not the Goodies’ song). But I would also point at Getting On, Roger and Val Have Just Got In, … and Rev. They all seem to feed from a strand of ‘realist’ ‘comedy’, like The Office and The Royle Family, but take it to a new level of both subtlety and rigour. Being Human may also fit in to the same group.

Of these, perhaps the one that was least well received was Roger and Val… - which I thought remarkably good, to be honest. It may have been that viewers wanted to see fat funny lady Dawn French being a fat funny lady rather than something more nuanced – however what made it so good for me was that Roger was played by Alfred Molina. (Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears and Doc Ock in Spiderman 2 – according to an uncited reference in Wikipedia he is the only character to have three Lego minifigs modelled after him). He can stand still and breath silently in a scene and still be the only person you want, intensely, to watch – you can see French visibly improve as she works with him. Marvellous stuff.

And yet, it may also be that my judgement is growing impaired with age.

It isn’t just that I have a sneaking and impossible-to-justify preference for Coming of Age over the Inbetweeners. No, that may be an aberration and somewhat alarming, but taste and enjoyment don't always have to coincide. Or Balamorey! As DK would put it.

This is far worse.

I’ve become hooked on The Only Way Is Essex (on ITV2. ITV2?!?).

Now this is simple and silly and people keep telling me that I’m letting my brain rot by watching it.

And yet, and yet.

Strange bronzed people in odd clothes, challenging and romancing each other in such odd language - so formal and stilted and banal, all at the same time. If only to defend my reputation I’ve resorted to telling people it has something in common with classical Greek drama – read in translation, at least.

And I almost believe it.  The behaviour and speeches conform to a code I don’t understand and have no access to. It is so bizarre and outlandish in performance that I end up helplessly diverted and horribly fascinated by the strange aliens on display.

Maybe I need help on this one...

Tebbbit memories

So I heard on the radio that apparently the Duchess of Cornwall was poked with a stick during the window-breaking and paint-splashing event that she and Charles got themselves caught up in last week.

So it is official. The Royal Family have become more popular.  Someone has touched them with a bargepole.

That was a left-wing memorial joke first heard in the mid-1980s, when the subject was one Norman (skinhead) Tebbit.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Pubs Around Nunhead: 10 1/2

Having got over that brief burst of Tourettes, I should just note that when  I discussed the Rye Hotel a few days back I forgot to include the usually-obligatory outdoor photo.  So here it is.

Monday, 6 December 2010


I've just been reading a wonderful book about swearing and swearwords (Filthy English: The How , Why, When and What of everyday swearing, Silverton, Peter, (2009)).

It therefore follows - given I am about to speak of the book and recent Radio 4 broadcasts - that I'm about to swear. 
A lot.
So if you want not to read or hear this filth, look away NOW!

(Otherwise scroll down...)


Cunt, Fuck, Bum. Armpits,


The Silverton book is wonderful. Please buy and read it.

It tells me that my favourite newspaper (The Grauniad) is easily the sweariest in the World.


And the book is also highly analytic - it speaks of how the nastiest words change; eg as we become more attuned to racism, disability, sexism, what we (as a group) think of as unacceptable or allowable alters substantially.


But PS also claims that the strength of the traditional bad words has generally decreased enormously - shit, bastard, fuck, cunt, etc. No one cares anymore...?

Overall, and speaking for myself, I doubt there is an absolute measure.

And focusing on the swearingness of something may mean the politics can get lost.

It is clearly true that when Jim Naughtie spoonerised the name of Jeremy Hunt, our Hulture Secretary (sorry-one of those H's should have been a C) - and Andrew Marr an hour later copied him, it was amusing and the 'bad' word was copied aound a lot.  An awful lot.

But it was too funny, and we forgot the point. 

Given his cutting of the Beeb, it is clear the man is a rotter. So the rude word is probably precisely accurate. Not just funny.

At least he is justifiably hated from within Auntie. 

They say there is  no longer a bad word bad enough for the man.

So perhaps we should all swear at him by what ever means we have, and not pretend it was a slip...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Poem of the Week

Clive William Langer and Declan MacManus

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy's birthday
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we'll be shipbuilding.......
Well I ask you
The boy said "Dad they're going to take me to task, but I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again
It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding........
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.

Friday, 3 December 2010

So now we know...

Send Ken Livingstone and some National Labour politicians - win the Olympics for London, defeating the perfidious French.
Send Boris Johnson, other upper-crust Tories and Royals - cede the World Cup to the Russians and well, almost anyone else.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Hubris: Five in a Row

On Radio 4's Brain of Britain, if you answer your five questions in a row you gain an extra point. 

My achievement last week was far more modest - but I did at least achieve it.  I solved all five of the weekday cryptic crosswords (in the Guardian). (Wow!)

Quite astonishing, for me. 

I guess in part it just shows the extent to which solving crosswords is a learned skill, and is much less to do with inherent wonderfulness.  I started regularly attempting the hard crosswords at the back of the paper about 2-3 years ago.  And at that point, I didn't solve them - or only very, very rarely on my own. Perhaps one every 2-3 months.  Instead if they did get finished it was because I collaborated with others, sharing and pinching answers.

But you improve - or I did, anyway.  And I also started to become more entertained: I began to enjoy the wordgames more as I became more able to solve them.  Eventually, and in a sad way, I even gave clues little exclamation marks if I thought they were particularly witty or graceful. (I'm not proud of this).

And then a few months back I realised I was solving one a week on average, and then two.  Usually the easiest ones of course - which I think often occur at the start of the week.  The tough ones can be really tough, for me (and I'm not discussing the Saturday prize grids here - they seem to be more variable, somehow).

Actually cryptic crosswords go back much further with me.  I remember sitting in the school library in the mid-seventies, with mates who shared the same free periods, finishing an Arucaria.  You remember stuff quite randomly sometimes: I remember that the last clue we solved of that puzzle was 'Begin description of dining room. (8)'   (*).

So I've kind of known how the cryptic clues worked and occasionally solved them, or attempted them with friends for many years.  Doug Gray, Neil Frowe.

But it is harder on your own.

A year or so ago, I also discovered the Fifteen Squared Web site (see links).  I never look there beforehand, but sometimes it helped me after I'd given up to see how a particularly knotty clue worked.  So, thanks to them also.

Anyway, here are the five.

Monday, 22nd November
I think it is fairly easy to see that I found this one quite straightforward.  You can see I even wrote down that it only took me 40 minutes.  Since I tend to try my hand at them on the train journey coming home from work, there is usually an upper limit of around an hour and a half or two hours.  After which there is no time left in the day.  Still, 40 minutes is not bad, even for the first grid of the week. Redcoats seemed difficult, and Audience took me a while.

Tuesday, 23rd November
I found this a little harder, and it shows - not just because it took longer (50 minutes plus), but because of the big question mark I'd left by 15 down.  I did enter the solution correctly in the grid (without help, honest), but I didn't know that 'foramina' was a word meaning little openings.  It just had to be the answer from the rest of the clue.

Wednesday, November 24th
This was easily the prize of the week.  Amazing.  A clue in French (with an answer also in French), with some Italian, German, and Latin used elsewhere.

I vaguely remembered Amoretti was a little cupid/cherub/putto (ie fat boy).   Gourde was the last solution - I had no idea it was Haitian currency (settler is a stretch I think), and had to construct it from the rest of the clue. Quatre Bras was also hard, as I only had the faintest of memories of some kind of battle and had, again, to construct it.  And Crucible took a while because of the brilliant misdirection.

Altogether it took me well over three hours - but I had the time as I was in town seeing someone. 

I was pleased to finish it, but it had been hard.  So when I looked at the comment in FifteenSquared I was pleased that many other people also said they found it tricky.  It wasn't just me. 

Then someone pointed out that not only was it a pangram (all of the letters), but it also, if you looked carefully, contained the French integers from Un to Neuf scattered around the grid.  Amazing, indeed.  (If I'd spotted that it would have made Gourde easier to solve!)

Thursday, November 25th
Again, you can see I found it really tough.  Clues full of unforgiving surfaces, I thought.  I went down to Southampton Uni with eldest that day, so I had the three hours+ it needed for me to complete the solution, whilst sitting on the train. 

But in all honesty more than half of it came in about an hour of the journey back.  I needed to make the odd correction along the way, as you can see - but more because of simple spelling errors than major mistakes.  8 down was a joy when I spotted it, but 15 across I disliked (Father Christmas as a Ho-Ho-er?)

Friday, November 26th
You have to imagine how tense I was by Friday.  I was on a full house, or a hat trick, or whatever, having finished two tough crosswords during the week that would normally have defeated me.  Whether that was only because I had the time for them, by chance, was neither here nor there.  They were both realistically challenging.  It hadn't been an easy ride.

So anyway there was this new goal, which made me try extra hard. 

I think you can see that I was quite stressed by this one.  With several solutions, although I worked out the answer, I couldn't get the clue to make sense (9 across was a case in point - only when I later read FifteenSquared and saw 'Bess' in 'Pub, Essex' did it seem logical to me).  And I struggled for far longer than was necessary with Eclair.  On the plus side, I quite liked the 'shops' theme, which I spotted early and it helped a lot.

To be honest, however, I nearly gave up right at the end with one clue left.  For some reason I drew a blank on 9 down (which at other times might have proven to be pretty easy).  Indeed, it only got solved when I saw, belatedly, that it formed 'John Lewis' with 16 down.  Altogether, just under two hours. 

But what next?  Last week felt like a real achievement, but also like something completed.  Something over. Time to move on?  But where to?  Harder crosswords? Shorter solving times?  But those options partly miss the point - the pleasure and enjoyment of the wordplay.  (Of course, it is also unquestionably true that I'll probably fail horribly at the next puzzle I try. Too much hubris just at the moment).

Or stop.  Draw a line, and use the time released to do something different - more 'meaningful' or 'creative'?

I don't know.  But I do know that this week I've gone cold turkey- no crosswords.  And I'm having a think.

(* - Ans: "Initiate")

Bleak, Snowy Peckham Rye

The trains are intermittent (translated: only the ones I don't want are moving), some buses are breaking down (their drivers want to go home), and the snow on the Rye makes it look bleak and washed out...

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Pubs Around Nunhead: 10

A rebooted series because I realise there were several pubs I didn't mention the first time around, including The Rye Hotel.
This pub is mentioned in Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye, but is no longer a proper boozer like it was then.  It has turned into an expensive gastropub.  Rumoured to be hard on the staff from time-to-time, it has a pleasant feel, is gay-friendly, and despite the high prices has been mentioned approvingly - but very briefly - in the Guardian (but only for being accommodating to dogs). 

Probably the biggest asset is the huge garden out back, which is often full to brimming on sunny days. 

But not in today's snow.

Poem of the Week

The Hollow Men
T. S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

            A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Mangan taste

It has finally become clear that the problem with Lucy Mangan is that from time-to-time she suffers a failure of taste.  Hence the Tory husband.  Hence her views on Billy bookcases.
And it appears, her views on Dr Who.  A week or so she ago announced that Christopher Ecclestone was clearly the worst Doctor.  So I checked. It isn't true.


Although it is far from being my favourite programme, I nevertheless frequently find myself subjected to Saturday Live on Radio4.  It's worse, of course, when it is fronted up by regular presenter Fi Glover  - just as it's predecessor Home Truths was worse when introduced by John Peel in mawkish mode; David Stafford was much better.
This weekend was particularly cold, so I was particularly unable to get out of bed to switch it off.  Which turned out to be all to the good, because Alexei Sayle's "inheritance tracks" (music that was passed on to him, and music he wants to pass on to others) were wonderful.
Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny" and Robert Wyatt singing "Shipbuilding". 
After the first was played, I lay there thinking 'he can't equal this with his second track' - and then he did.  Absolutely marvellous.  And Sayle's explanations and reminiscences were a perfect accompaniment. 
Apparently he has a book out - so as a result of Radio4 it may get bought (by me that is).  And his blog (see links) is recommended.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Poem of the Week

Mine Own John Poynz
Sir Thomas Wyatt

Mine own John Poynz, since ye delight to know
The cause why that homeward I me draw,
And flee the press of courts, whereso they go,
Rather than to live thrall under the awe
Of lordly looks, wrappèd within my cloak,
To will and lust learning to set a law:
It is not for because I scorn or mock
The power of them, to whom fortune hath lent
Charge over us, of right, to strike the stroke.
But true it is that I have always meant
Less to esteem them than the common sort,
Of outward things that judge in their intent
Without regard what doth inward resort.
I grant sometime that of glory the fire
Doth twyche my heart. Me list not to report
Blame by honour, and honour to desire.
But how may I this honour now attain,
That cannot dye the colour black a liar?
My Poynz, I cannot from me tune to feign,
To cloak the truth for praise without desert
Of them that list all vice for to retain.
I cannot honour them that sets their part
With Venus and Bacchus all their life long;
Nor hold my peace of them although I smart.
I cannot crouch nor kneel to do so great a wrong,
To worship them, like God on earth alone,
That are as wolves these sely lambs among.
I cannot with my word complain and moan,
And suffer nought, nor smart without complaint,
Nor turn the word that from my mouth is gone.
I cannot speak and look like a saint,
Use willes for wit, and make deceit a pleasure,
And call craft counsel, for profit still to paint.
I cannot wrest the law to fill the coffer
With innocent blood to feed myself fat,
And do most hurt where most help I offer.
I am not he that can allow the state
Of him Caesar, and damn Cato to die,
That with his death did scape out of the gate
From Caesar's hands (if Livy do not lie)
And would not live where liberty was lost;
So did his heart the common weal apply.
I am not he such eloquence to boast
To make the crow singing as the swan;
Nor call the liond of cowardes beasts the most
That cannot take a mouse as the cat can;
And he that dieth for hunger of the gold
Call him Alexander; and say that Pan
Passeth Apollo in music many fold;
Praise Sir Thopias for a noble tale,
And scorn the story that the Knight told;
Praise him for counsel that is drunk of ale;
Grin when he laugheth that beareth all the sway,
Frown when he frowneth and groan when is pale;
On others' lust to hang both night and day:
None of these points would ever frame in me.
My wit is nought--I cannot learn the way.
And much the less of things that greater be,
That asken help of colours of device
To join the mean with each extremity,
With the nearest virtue to cloak alway the vice;
And as to purpose, likewise it shall fall
To press the virtue that it may not rise;
As drunkenness good fellowship to call;
The friendly foe with his double face
Say he is gentle and courteous therewithal;
And say that favel hath a goodly grace
In eloquence; and cruelty to name
Zeal of justice and change in time and place;
And he that suffer'th offence without blame
Call him pitiful; and him true and plain
That raileth reckless to every man's shame.
Say he is rude that cannot lie and feign;
The lecher a lover; and tyranny
To be the right of a prince's reign.
I cannot, I; no, no, it will not be!
This is the cause that I could never yet
Hang on their sleeves that way, as thou mayst see,
A chip of chance more than a pound of wit.
This maketh me at home to hunt and to hawk,
And in foul weather at my book to sit;
In frost and snow then with my bow to stalk;
No man doth mark whereso I ride or go:
In lusty leas at liberty I walk.
And of these news I feel nor weal nor woe,
Save that a clog doth hang yet at my heel.
No force for that, for it is ordered so,
That I may leap both hedge and dyke full well.
I am not now in France to judge the wine,
With saffry sauce the delicates to feel;
Nor yet in Spain, where one must him incline
Rather than to be, outwardly to seem:
I meddle not with wits that be so fine.
Nor Flanders' cheer letteth not my sight to deem
Of black and white; nor taketh my wit away
With beastliness; they beasts do so esteem.
Nor I am not where Christ is given in prey
For money, poison, and treason at Rome--
A common practice used night and day:
But here I am in Kent and Christendom
Among the Muses where I read and rhyme;
Where if thou list, my Poinz, for to come,
Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my time.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


I remember how Nick Lowe, in his great and witty talk Black Wine of Thentis, told us that creative writers - and especially the typical authors of science fiction and fantasy - would sometimes find that their muse had failed and as a result they would frantically look around their horrible writer's den seeking inspiration. 

The author's eyes would light upon that constant to almost all writers: a cup of a warm, mildly stimulating beverage, usually coffee, and they would use this desperately, somehow, anyhow, to pad out the text and prod their narratives back into life.

Klatchian coffee.  Black wine.

In a more mundane vein, I do the same when I'm attempting to solve the crossword and I'm lost for inspiration.  I look around, seeking help anywhere.  Thankfully, the Guardian helps with short articles of interest, appropriate to the back page, alongside the grid.  Weatherwatch, Starwatch, Spacewatch.  Rarely dull. 

And, to be scrupulously honest, they rarely help directly with the crossword.

A week ago on Friday, Kate Ravilious wrote in Weatherwatch:
Umbrellas first emerged in dry, hot places, to provide protection from the hot sun. The word umbrella comes from the Latin word "umbra", meaning shade or shadow. It isn't clear where and when the very first umbrella was made, but evidence from India, China and Egypt indicate that umbrellas have been around for more than 4,000 years. The Chinese were the first people to make waterproof umbrellas, by waxing and lacquering the paper parasol cover. Eventually umbrellas caught on in the west, especially northern Europe, during the 16th century. Many of these umbrellas were made from wood or whalebone and had oiled canvas parasols.

Amazingly they didn't find favour in soggy Great Britain until the Restoration, in the late 17th century. Rumour has it that the Puritans' disapproved of such frivolous devices, which would prevent Heaven-sent rain from properly wetting a person.

However, when umbrellas did arrive in Great Britain, the unpredictable climate soon made them popular. Coffee houses started the fashion; providing umbrellas to shelter customers as they walked to their carriages. At first they were considered a woman's accessory, but when English traveller and philanthropist Jonas Hanway began to carry one during the mid 18th century, men began to adopt them too. By 1830 the UK had its first dedicated umbrella shop in London, and nowadays every British household usually has at least one umbrella.
Which was a piece I quietly enjoyed (despite the weakness of the last line about 'every British household'), but it put me in mind of a more political take on the brolly by Neil MacGregor, presented to staff at the British Museum a few years ago (I was staff then). 

He looked at images across cultures and history showing umbrellas and sunshades, and found that in an awful lot of them they were used to show a power relationship.  The servant shades the Lord or Queen,  protecting them from the elements while having no cover themselves.  From overlords in ancient middle-Eastern cultures reviewing grain harvests to 1930s politicians speaking at rallies in wet North-of-England  rain, the brolly shows who is important and who is not.

Now it would, I think, be perfectly possible to construct an argument that the BM, built in part upon the spoils of political power, still can't avoid probing and testing issues of power, morality and hierarchy, like a tongue testing out a rotten tooth.  While the Guardian article by contrast is more free, and about personal use - liberal without even thinking about it.  Aren't stereotypes wonderful?

However, I'm minded instead to think about the UK's "first dedicated umbrella shop" - that Ravilious mentions in her piece.  This is James Smith and Sons, established 1830 and still going strong in New Oxford Street.  An establishment brand, the tiniest of walking distances from the Museum.

And I have to say, at the time a few of us suspected it was the inspiration for the Director's talk. You can see how it might happen, inspiration briefly fails, not even the black wine helps, so you decide to nip out for a walk around the block to clear the mind and get the creative juices flowing again.  And the first thing you spot is...

Brollies.  That will do nicely.

(Of course, I'm writing this after a week off, when I haven't felt minded or inspired to post much at all.  So maybe this whole meander is just my version of Klatchian coffee...)

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Why Kew? (Age of Wonder)

If we spent a pleasant later-Summer day last month in Kew, looking at the buildings and all sorts of things, one of the stronger reasons why I wanted to go was that I'd just finished reading Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

This is his 'relay race of scientific stories' - telling the tale of the second scientific revolution in Britain (at the end of the eighteenth century).  From a starting point of Joseph Banks' trip to Tahiti, he tells the stories - in particular - of Davy and the Herschels, as well as those of the early balloonists; Mungo Park in Africa and Frankenstein.  Coleridge's philosophy and influence is ever-present, and Holmes also tells the story of the Royal Society under Banks, and the succeeding generation of scientists (John Herschel, Faraday amongst many).

It's very compellingly written, and although the subject matter in places may be gnarled and hard to cut through, he does so with a certain lightness of touch which can be quite beguiling.  (Although on the downside this does mean Holmes can be somewhat self-indulgent, as when he puts in a pleas for GM Food in one of his otherwise-excellent footnotes).

Banks of course was the first Director at Kew.  The book doesn't discuss his work there very much (by that point in Banks's life the narrative focuses more on his Presidency of the Royal Society and his growing influence on the development of all Sciences through that office.

So I thought it would be interesting to go to Kew.  Clearly correct (technically it hadn't been my idea originally but I'd been glad to go along).  There is a lot about the history & heritage on the Kew InterWeb site (where they also suggest that Banks wasn't the first Director - reading between the lines he was either the second, or he was a Superintendent, in charge but without the title.  So I suppose I got  that wrong).

Poem of the Week

Pubbe Gagge
Bill Bailey


Dandelion Mind is a new show by Bill Bailey, at the glorious, refurbished Wyndham’s theatre near Leicester Square.   On the general theme of doubt (or is it?).

Eldest and I went along.

What a good evening. BB - in case you don't know - is a highly talented comedian/musician; he came out, looked at the newly-decorated auditorium with its rich painted ceiling, chandelier and over-the-top pink-white ornamentation and immediately played something that sounded 18th century baroque-y harpsichord-y on his keyboard. “That’s what you need for a place like this, innit?”

This has to count as one of the best nights out I’ve had for many years (school events excluded of course – that wouldn’t be fair). We were in the second row of the stalls (an extravagance, plus we booked early), and the BB was at most 3-4 metres away from us for most of the show. From that angle, he seemed a God - admittedly a God that looked a lot like a bemused troll, but nevertheless…

Bailey seems to shamble on stage and do his stuff in a kind of stream-of-consciousness way, ad-libbing where necessary. And yet I think it's actually quite highly structured – with space for free-form flights of imagination where he needs them. So he begins with a structured rant against the Lib Dems (and Tories of course), which is very funny, before moving on to his despair at the England football team. He does them very well, but somehow I felt that there was little specifically Baileyish about these set pieces.

However, a little later, he reminded us just how superb his ad-libbing can be. Talking to a member of the audience, he said that the instrument he was holding was a lute. To which she apparently said “Ood”. This led to a wild fantasy which is very hard to describe properly – he repeated the word while slowly ageing on stage - imagining the ‘rise and fall of great civilisations outside the theatre – giant, scarlet crabs eventually taking over and superseding the human race’ while inside all was locked into ‘Ood. It’s an Oood. Ooood….’

This is an evening which ranges across a terrific range of subjects (and musical styles of course). At one point he explained why a spokesman for the Large Hadron Collider had said that there would be ‘inverse femtobarns’ of results. Ending – ‘it’s a kind of physicists joke, you see’. Which of course it is. (Look up the barn on Wikipedia – the physical unit – then the prefix femto – then consider the inverse. The spokesman meant there would be huge, uncountably many results). 

BB made this funny. A little later he gives us a speedy art-historical chat (with slides) on the history of the story of Doubting Thomas in renaissance paintings - also funny.  Marvellous.

Of course that approach means that some of the references he gives as asides don't work - he may have seen '2012' but it seemed few of his audience on Friday had...

A little later he moved back to science:

BB: Nuclear Fission, who knows how that works then? Come on, anyone?
(Nudged by eldest, I reluctantly raised a hand. Second row of the stalls, so I get spotted).
BB: Oh great. So you know about this stuff do you?
Me: Yes. (reluctantly)
BB: So I’ve always wondered. Is it like a kettle?
Me: Yes
BB: Great. So now I know. Nuclear fission’s like a kettle.
BB:Is it really like a kettle?
Me: No.
BB: So how’s it work then?
Me: Bits of stuff, bash together, bit of stuff left over comes out as energy, there you go.
BB: Great. Did you all hear that? Stuff comes together. Bish-bash-bosh (London accent - do I sound like that?) - Energy. So now we know.

I think he looked slightly disappointed. As though he wanted a proper description (and of course I’d confused fission and fusion in my ‘explanation’). Sigh.

And I do think he wants to know and talk about stuff properly. A little later, he was explaining how – in response to a London cabbie’s ‘Be Lucky!’ - he’d gone off on an existential rant on the meaning of luck and the pointlessness of the exhortation. Including a cross-reference to the feeling of being 'fated' as felt by Chaucer’s Palamon and Arcite in The Knight’s Tale. Nice.

I’d better shut up – although it is tempting to recite as much of the show as I can remember, that’d hardly be fair. Instead I’ll just end by exhorting all and sundry to go and see it for themselves. And stay for all of the encores…

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Go, Litel booke.

Amongst the many wonderful places linked to from the trees around Nunhead is Geoffrey Chaucer’s own blog.

Amazingly, it’s now been rendered physical. Turned into a book (Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog: Medieval Studies and New Media).

So I had to buy it.

Certes yt is somethynge of a Curate’s egge. Ich kan followen the speche of the aucteurs – but yt is peraventur not alweys sich good mattere.

The extracts from the original blog are – mostly – very funny. But the book has been published under the ‘New Middle Ages’ imprint- which defines itself as ‘ a series dedicated to the pluridisciplinary (sic) studies of medieval cultures, with particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history and on feminist and gender analyses. This peer-reviewed series includes both scholarly monographs and essay collections’.

Clearly this book falls into the second category. And the problem it has is that some of the essays and other ancillary pieces just aren’t that good. Old medieval jokes I heard told once. A discussion whether medievalists are more humorous than other academics. And one or two of the better pieces could do with more careful editing.  Despite its subtitle there is also little reflection on the impact of new media on medieval studies, over and above simple notions of efficacy and instrumentality.

And yet I can’t do anything but recommend it. Because the Blog extracts are beguiling, and for the better of the more academic essays. For Chaucer’s ‘appeal’ against Gower (‘… hereof Ich appeale thee John Gower thou art a wanker’). And also for John Gower’s witty introductory poem (‘Why Ye Sholde Nat Rede this Booke’).

So on balance I have to say: go and read it.  Soon.

Friday, 29 October 2010

A Final Kew

A final few photographs from Kew.
Chillies in the Waterlily House:
Magnolia tree:
And some more from within the Princess of Wales Conservatory...
 And, finally, an English country garden.  Apparently.

So now, finally, we know

In the latest of the Sarah Jane Adventures (the two-parter called 'The Death of the Doctor', written by Russell T. Davies and as might be expected exhibiting all of his considerable strengths, and weaknesses), Clyde, crawling through a ventilation shaft - of course - asks the Doctor how many times he can regenerate.
The Doctor answers, "507".
So now we know.
(Except he says it flippantly and you don't know if he's being serious or not... )

Thursday, 28 October 2010

More Kew

This brings together more of Kew, both inside and out.
Evolution House:
Pink Corkscrew:
The Temperate House:
In the Palm House:
The Waterlily House - tiny but packed: