Saturday, 31 December 2016

December index

    Here's the index for December's blogs. Click on the title (and don't ask me why they all appear underlined).. Knock yourself out. And the scroll to the bottom of this blog for a message.

      December 2016

  • 22  My second most popular blog - and it's an odd one
  • 23  My most popular blog, ever - and it's not what you'd expect
  • 24  Parlour Games - is that you, Montagu?
  • 25  Ho ho ho - no blog today
  • 26  Ho ho - not today either
  • 27  Ho - nor today
  • 28  Ho hum - getting bored
  • 29  Comedy clergymen - my top five
  • 30  On Kate Hopkins  - two blogs about the artist from the archive
  • 31 December index - you're looking at it 

   And that's it, from me, for now.  

   Much as I enjoy blogging regularly I simply shan't have the time to do so in the foreseeable future (not that the future is ever foreseeable). I have two books to write in 2017, and a new job that will keep me very busy as well as other commitments, so will start this new year with an extended hiatus. Thank you for reading. You know who you are.



Friday, 30 December 2016

On Kate Hopkins

For my last blog of 2016 I ransack the archives once again for two pieces I wrote about the artist Kate Hopkins, the first in 2013 and the second in February this year. If you're expecting to read something about her ghastly near-namesake Katie Hopkins you will be, I hope, agreeably disappointed. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Kate Hopkins - recent paintings

Here are three lovely recent paintings by the artist Kate Hopkins:

What we call 'still life' (with such appealing ambiguity in that 'still') is what the French call nature mort. This is not the place to explore the complex cultural relations between art and mutability and death, but let's agree that they exist and that these beautiful images are part of that discourse.

French film critics have long employed the term temps mort (literally 'dead time', although also meaning 'injury time' in sport) and this is something I'd like to mull over with you. An example of temps mort would be the wonderfully ripe moment when Laurel and Hardy settle down together 'outside' the narrative, as it were, to deliver some ruminations unrelated to the plot, if there is a plot. The story is temporarily abandoned, or put on hold, while the protagonists reflect, bicker, mooch around, smoulder (and Ollie in particular is a wonderful smoulderer), or do nothing at all. It's lovely.

Hollywood cinema isn't much given to rumination these days - hyperkinetic helter-skelter blockbusters have no room for thought, for reflection, for stillness and for what the silent film pioneer D. W. Griffith called 'the wind in the trees'. There's no place in such films - as in much contemporary art - for nature or the human.

In a rowdy market-place Kate Hopkins' paintings create their own space. Here are two more pictures - of grapes (below) and cherries (below the grapes). She must have looked very closely and for a long time at these two modest clusters of fruit, and has captured perfectly, and permanently, the mustiness of the grapes and the enamelled glamour of the cherries. They are small images but have monumental presence. These and the pictures above all have something of temps mort about them - something essential salvaged from the wreck of time. They are not loud or pushy or overbearing or sentimental or gauchely confessional - they're the sound of the wind in the trees. 

But this prompts an afterthought. Victor Enrice's 1992 film The Quince Tree Sun (El Sol del Membrillo) is that rarest of things - a film that captures the process of the making of a painting in the smallest detail. It's a quasi-documentary about the painter Antonio López García (playing himself) and his attempt, in the course of a long summer, to paint a quince tree. López works conscientiously as the tree changes day by day, and the light changes constantly, and old friends drop by and interrupt him. Just as he chronicles the dying tree, the film chronicles his effort. It becomes, improbably, a nail-biting race against time. Beautiful.

Still from The Quince Tree Sun

And here's a second blog from earlier this year:

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Comedy clergymen

My blog on Harold Davidson, the disgraced Rector of Stiffkey who was killed by a lion in Skegness, prompted an email from a regular reader and prompts further brooding on clergymen, and their representation in film and on the telly as comic figures.

Clergymen, mind you, and not priests - my shortlist is all Protestant, which explains the omission of Father Ted Crilley and Father Dougal McGuire, immortals both.

Who are they, then, the top comedy vicars?

1  The sans pareil is Canon D'Ascoyne, played by Alec Guinness in Robert Hamer's masterpiece Kind Hearts and Coronets. Here's a short clip, featuring Dennis Price trying to keep a straight face as Guinness pulls out all the stops, but quietly. "Ab-sti-nence!"

Who can forget his delivery of the great great line, chumbled with manic dodderiness as he shows Price (who is bent on murder, and who can blame him) around his church: "My west window has all the exuberance of Chaucer without, happily, any of the more concomitant crudities of his period."

Dad's Army offered a secure billet for some wonderfully odd actors, not least the camp, adenoidal, short-tempered Reverend Timothy Farthing of St. Adhelm's, Walmington-on-Sea (which Ive always assumed was in Sussex). He did a kind of double act with the Verger, a very eccentric performer called Edward Sinclair.

3 I loved All Gas and Gaiters as a child - on the radio and later on television. Wonderful booming fruity actors. most of whom seemed to be pissed, in a gentle sub-Trollopian comedy awash with gallons of sherry. The cast included Derek Nimmo (Mervyn Noote), Robertson Hare (Archdeacon Henry Brunt), William Mervyn (Bishop Cuthbert Heaver) and John Barron (Dean Lionel Pugh-Critchley). I wonder if old episodes are available on the internet. If so i can suspend all other priorities for an afternoon.

4 A huge dental overbite and a strong weakness for pious homily, the  anonymous vicar incarnated by the unlikeable 'character actor' Dick Emery was a staple of BBC Light Entertainment back in the 1970s. Was he funny? Not really, but he was on the telly.

5  Can't think of any more. But there must be dozens.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

On parlour games

From The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith:

He suggested we should play “Cutlets,” a game we never heard of.  He sat on a chair, and asked Carrie to sit on his lap, an invitation which dear Carrie rightly declined.

After some species of wrangling, I sat on Gowing’s knees and Carrie sat on the edge of mine.  Lupin sat on the edge of Carrie’s lap, then Cummings on Lupin’s, and Mrs. Cummings on her husband’s.  We looked very ridiculous, and laughed a good deal.

Gowing then said: “Are you a believer in the Great Mogul?”  We had to answer all together: “Yes—oh, yes!” (three times).  Gowing said: “So am I,” and suddenly got up.  The result of this stupid joke was that we all fell on the ground, and poor Carrie banged her head against the corner of the fender.  Mrs. Cummings put some vinegar on; but through this we missed the last train, and had to drive back to Broadstairs, which cost me seven-and-sixpence.

Parlour games! It's the time of year when Charades and Consequences make an appearance at Christmas time in many households, a durable hangover from their Victorian heyday, when there were parlours aplenty in which to play "Cutlets". Few homes today have parlours, and fewer still enough space space for 'Is that you, Montagu?' (two blindfolded players with rolled-up newspapers roll around on the floor - the game features in David Nicholls'  novel One Day). 

While parlour games remain popular the parlour itself has gone the way of the pantry and scullery in domestic architecture. From the  Anglo-Norman French parlur (‘place for speaking’) the parlour was, in medieval Christian Europe, the two rooms in a Silent Order monastery where monks, constrained by vow or regulation from speaking, could natter away too their hearts' content with their fellow monks.

We no longer tend to use formal reception rooms although 'front parlour' used to be the term used in the North of England as the room for the (seldom-used) ground floor front room, kept 'smart' for special occasions.

The parlour has a rather downbeat commercial afterlife - think of funeral parlours, beauty parlours, tattoo parlours and, though less frequently, ice cream or pizza parlours. As a domestic feature it has declined, along with the pantry, to the point of near extinction. I'm drawn to objects which retain a husk of their original, utile meaning; 'glove compartment', for instance, harks back to the time when a motorists would sport a pair of leather gauntlets. The term exists but I don't suppose one in a million drivers keeps gloves in that odd little cubby hole.

But enough already. Let's get down to business:

Three words! First word? Four syllables! First syllable, sounds like . . .

A Merry Christmas to all my readers. You know who you are.

Friday, 23 December 2016

My most popular blog, ever

So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.

For some reason hard to fathom the following is by far the most popular of the 800-odd blogs I've posted since 2013, at least in terms of the baffling number of readers it has attracted. I have no idea why this should be the case, although suspect the 'Numbering' link may be responsible. 

Tomorrow will be the day before the night before Christmas and to mark the occasion I've perpetrated a seasonal blog, after which I plan to go quiet for a few days. Then in the dog days between Christmas and the New Year a further rummage in the archive.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Morbid pedantry

A fascinating review by Judith Flanders in the current TLS of an exhibition of Dutch flower painting at the National Gallery. I was particularly struck by the following:

The art historians Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips have estimated that of the 10 million-plus paintings produced in the Netherlands between 1580 and 1800, less than 1 per cent have survived.

That's still an awful lot of paintings, isn't it? If we can rely on the figures it means around 5 million paintings per century were produced during the period, at a rate of 67 per day (including Sundays) or almost three per hour. Astonishing. How the two art historians arrived at the big number I cannot imagine. Were Dutch painters especially prolific compared with their peers in Italy, for example? I assume they were catering more for a secular demand from the rising merchant class than ecclesiastical commissions. But what do I know?
I was slightly taken aback by something else in the review :

From the mid-century, painters like Jan Davidsz de Heem continued to experiment with both form and content. 

Which painters were they, the ones like Jon Davidsz de Heen, who continued to experiment thus? Or does the writer mean painters such as Jan Davidsz de Heen? Presumably yes. There was a time when no sub-editor would have let this pass uncorrected.

It was Frederic Raphael who alerted me (not personally, you understand, but in an essay) to the increasingly commonplace use of 'like' instead of 'such as' when giving comparative examples. It's incorrect to say, for instance,

     Countries like Australia are home to exotic flora and fauna.

Which countries? It's correct to say:

     Countries like Australia, such as New Zealand and Tasmania, are home to exotic flora and fauna.

Actually this is merely a pretext to share a clip of the comedians Mitchell and Webb performing one of a series of very funny sketches featuring a fictitious and utterly baffling telly game show called Numberwang. Amusing, this, and they have fun with 'like' and 'such as' at some point.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

My second most popular blog

This is really odd. On the first day of each month I usually publish an index of the previous month's blogs and for some reason the April Index this year attracted a monstrous cohort of readers. I have no idea why. But here it is, my second most-read blog ever, and a link to thirty other blogs. Tomorrow's blog will re-cycle my single most popular blog over the past three years - and it's quite a surprise.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

April index

As is customary on the first of the month I offer an index to the previous month's blogs, on the assumption that you may not have read all, or most, or even any of them. I hate to think of you missing out, and feeling bitter about it. 

I shall never tire of describing the monthly index as 'a veritable smorgasbord'. So here it is: a veritable smorgasbord. Click on each title for a link back to the original blog. What larks!

    Wednesday, 21 December 2016

    My third most popular blog

    This blog seemed to strike a chord, and became my third most-read. This really is the worst poem ever written. There's no mitigation.

    Friday, 26 September 2014

    Worst. Poem. Ever.

    This dashing fellow is Théophile-Jules-Henri "Theo" Marzials who was, despite his exotic monicker, a British composer, singer and poet. His French clergyman father married his English mother and Theo, born in 1850, was the youngest of five children.

    At the age of twenty he started work in the British Museum as a junior assistant in the librarian's office where his path crossed those of Coventry Patmore, John Payne, Arthur O'Shaughnessy, and Edmund Gosse (who may have been his lover). He was not really cut out for a library career - he reportedly once yelled "Am I not the darling of the British Museum reading room?" from the balcony of that noble institution.

    He nevertheless continued working there until retiring at the ripe old age of 32, on a handsome pension of £38 a year supplemented by royalties estimated at around £1000 annually. These were derived from his successful career as a composer, noted for his settings of Christina Rossetti's verses and some popular ballads that were all the rage in the 1880s.

    He moved to Devon in the early 1900s where he became addicted to chloradyne (a potent patent medicine invented in the 19th century by Dr. John Collis Browne, a doctor in the British Indian Army as a treatment for cholera, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia and migraines. It was made from a mixture of laudanum, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform.) He died in Colyton in February 1920.

    As a poet he had his admirers - Gerard Manley Hopkins for one - and his work featured in that era-defining periodical  The Yellow Book. He is now forgotten, though not entirely, and for rather a sad reason. His poem 'A Tragedy', included in his only published collection The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873), has strong claims to being the very worst poem ever written in the English language. I first came across it the other day in Ross and Kathryn Petras' harrowing anthology Very Bad Poetry (1997). It isn't bad in the way (say) William McGonagall's oddly memorable and sweet-natured doggerel is bad. Marzial's astonishing perpetration has no mitigating qualities.

    I've typed it out in full below for you to read and savour.

    A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials

    The barges down in the river flop.
    Flop, plop,
    Above, beneath.
    From the slimy branches the grey drips drop...
    To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop...
    And my head shrieks - "Stop"
    And my heart shrieks - "Die."...
    Ugh! yet I knew - I knew
    If a woman is false can a friend be true?
    It was only a lie from beginning to end--
    My Devil - My "friend."...
    So what do I care,
    And my head is empty as air -
    I can do,
    I can dare
    (Plop, plop
    The barges flop
    Drip, drop.)
    I can dare, I can dare!
    And let myself all run away with my head
    And stop.
    Plop, flop,

    Tuesday, 20 December 2016

    My fourth most popular blog

    Continuing a short season in which I thriftily (or lazily) re-cycle my top five most-read blogs. This, the fourth most popular, is very recent (and if the thousands of readers who have so far read the blog all buy several copies of the novel then this terrifically gifted writer's future is assured. 

    Thursday, 1 December 2016

    Forbidden Line - an Essex epic

    The Only Way is Essex is a rowdy reality television show which does not, let's agree, represent my home county at its best. This begs the question: what does? 

    John Betjeman's 'sweet uneventful countryside' of silted creeks and farms and drowsy villages under high East Anglian skies offers a bucolic alternative:

    The deepest Essex few explore
    Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
    And out of elm and sycamore
    Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.

    That Essex, home to John Fowles, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, Coventry Patmore, Ruth Pitter, Jilly Cooper, Sydney Smith, Warwick Deeping, Sabine Baring-Gould and Joseph Conrad, is a calmer, stranger and admittedly duller place than the makers and viewers of TOWIE will ever be likely to explore. Which version of Essex is echt and which ersatz will depend on your cultural priorities.. 

    In the Middle Ages the county was so renowned for the quantity and quality of beef calves dispatched to London meat markets that 'Essex Calf' became the slang term for a native. The sassy types caught on camera living life the Essex way, simultaneously exploiting and exploited by the medium within which they appear to flourish are, one hopes, savvy enough to avoid becoming calves for the slaughter. They all seem to know and like and even understand what they're doing.
    Essex traditionally gets a bad press and has not, as far as I'm aware, provided the setting for a major literary novel. Until now, that is.

    Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge is published today by the Norwich independent Galley Beggar Press. The author's first book is a breathtakingly ambitious attempt to re-purpose Cervantes' Don Quixote for our times. The adventurous contemporary pair are the maniac autodidact Donald J Waswill (Don) and his doltishly engaging companion Isaiah Olm (abbreviated to Is, which never fails to look like a typo and I had no idea how this should be pronounced until it's made clear after several hundred pages). The duo set off on a shambolic adventure from Don's Colchester base in the colossal Victorian water tower known locally as Jumbo (and you should Google this extraordinary structure).

    What Forbidden Line immediately brings to mind is the great short story by Borges - 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', originally published in 1939. You'll know this, I expect, and if not can read it here (and it takes about 15 minutes). This single story anticipates and demolishes the more absurd tendencies of literary post-modernism. Menard's grandchildren crop up briefly in the later stages of Forbidden Line in a seriously hilarious hospital episode featuring one Ian McEwan, who is clearly THE Ian McEwan.

    Stanbridge's Don is every bit as deranged and single-minded as his Spanish prototype - obsessed with a baffling metaphysical phenomenon he calls 'the hyperfine transition of hydrogen' and in thrall to Lady Chance, a capricious secular deity who dictates his every random move. He and the shrewdly cloddish Is set off on foot together to undergo a series of downbeat, farcical encounters with the contemporary world - our world. These are beautifully rendered and as funny anything in Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet or Beckett's Mercier and Camier (two abiding favourites, both of which feature incompatible male compadres navigating the wide world and beside which Forbidden Line confidently takes its place).Don and Is make their way slowly to London, running into drunks, crusties, Chelmsford dignitaries, the Essex constabulary and feuding locals. They repeatedly destroy a hefty home-made case containing Don's Encyclopedic life work, which repeatedly reappears with its contents miraculously intact. Is cannot read or write (unless the plot requires him to do so) but has the same gift of total mental recall as Funes the Memorious (another Borges link, from the Ficciones) and becomes Don's lumpen recording angel. Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl are among the intellectual shades who accompany the travelling pair.
    What grips at once is Stanbridge's beautiful, stately, eccentric and richly rewarding prose. He never lets up, never falters. The lyrical descriptions of backwater Essex are consistently lovely, providing a backdrop for mesmerisingly erudite riffs by Don on every subject under the sun, while the hapless Is offers a stalwart comic foil subject to no end of painful indignities. There's a deeply satisfying and sophisticated philosophical undertow, lots of very good jokes, lavish digressions, pointless repetitions, countless literary references,stretches of dialogue in Greek and Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, sudden violent reversals, dazzling rhetorical flights and, throughout, a sense of unalloyed authorial joy in the whole project. His sole concern is all for our delight and, while he is unafraid to court tedium when the fancy takes him (generously inviting the reader to skip such passages), he has the rare gift - vanishingly rare - of making one laugh out loud, and regularly. Chapter 27 reduced me to a giggling puddle of contentedness: at one point therein Don and Is discuss what they respectively pronounce as 'déjà vu' and 'deja-vu', leading to a wonderfully mad mis en abyme in which simultaneous hypothetical déjà vus (or deja-vus) are embedded within one another. leading inevitably to 'an eternal stasis of the hyperfine transition of hydrogen'.

                         - What you are saying is so far over my head, said Is, that it has ice on it.

    Forbidden Line is very, very silly and as wholly and profoundly serious as Cervantes' original. It's a rich plum pudding of a novel, but a plum pudding with antlers.
    For the first time in my ramshackle career as a literary hack I sent the publishers an unsolicited encomium (in case they needed an early blurb). In it I said that Forbidden Line was "breathtaking, magisterial, uniquely demented and hilarious - a lavish comic masterpiece". It really is. You can, and certainly should, buy a copy from the publishers here. Read it in the dog days between Christmas and the New Year.

    If my enthusiasm isn't recommendation enough you might like to know that the novel has been long listed for the first Republic of Consciousness Prize the founder of which, Neil Griffiths, has this to say:

    A modern day Don Quixote channeling early Wittgenstein and late Heidegger, and the events of the Peasant’s Revolt, Forbidden Line take us on a picaresque journey through Essex and London in what must be the most exuberant and maximalist novel of ideas ever written in English. It really shouldn’t work, but it does so with a kind joy and comic panache that few writers possess. It’s an achievement to be admired, relished, and loved. Not only will there be PhDs written about this novel, there will be fan-fiction and meta-fiction, and I won’t be surprised if very soon there are clubs and secret societies dedicated to unravelling how the ‘hyperfine transition of hydrogen’ permits a chest of papers continually to appear after many determined destructions. This isn’t magical realism – it’s so much more mysterious and profound than that.