Thursday 31 January 2013

Elizabeth David on Death Row

In Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking (1960) the author reports an episode originally recorded in George Musgrave's A Ramble Through Normandy (1855):

He watched a couple (on their honeymoon, he thought) on board the river steamer at Rouen consuming a midday meal of soup, fried mackerel, beefsteak, French beans and fried potatoes, an omelette fines herbes, a fricandeau of veal with sorrel, a roast chicken garnished with mushrooms, a hock of ham served upon spinach. There followed an apricot tart, three custards, and an endive salad, which were the precursors of a small roast leg of lamb, with chopped onion and nutmeg sprinkled upon it. Then came coffee and two glasses of absinthe, and eau dorée, a Mignon cheese, pears, plums, grapes and cakes. Two bottles of Burgundy and one of Chablis were emptied between eleven and one o’clock.

If I ever find myself on Death Row and  invited to choose a last meal I think this would do for me as a pre-oblivion blow-out.  Or at least what Musgrave calls 'the precursors', up to but not including the endive salad. Things seem to start all over again with that 'small roast leg of lamb' so I'd opt simply for black coffee and a digestif  before taking the long walk, enjoying a final, guiltless, high tar cigarette.

Wednesday 30 January 2013


If you've never seen a 'tilt shift' film here's the place to start.

It's a camera technique that's been around for a few years and produces startling results through a combination of selected focus, digital manipulation (less, though, than you might think) and high level perspective creating something quite staggering - making the real world look like a scale model of itself.

It doesn't sound like much - but the results are astonishing. The technique has been applied quite brilliantly to a very short film about Dover and its ferry terminal, and you can find it here:

If that doesn't melt your butter, here are the opening lines of Auden's fine poem about the town:

Steep roads, a tunnel through the downs are the approaches;
A ruined pharos overlooks a constructed bay;
The sea-front is almost elegant; all this show
Has, somewhere inland, a vague and dirty root:
Nothing is made in this town.

Whenever I read this I hear the brisk, strident, mildly hectoring tone of a 1930s documentary film commentator.  The last line is terrific, isn't it? Now look at the clip. Please. I haven't got all day.

Extract from Dover © The Estate of W. H. Auden

Monday 28 January 2013

Marxist trainspotting

Looking at the poet, painter and film-maker Humphrey Jennings’ notebooks. In one margin he has doodled a charmingly naive sketch of a typical steam locomotive, a bit like Thomas the Tank Engine, with chimney, dome and cab, above which he writes:

You know when a locomotive is streamlined it loses its smoke stack, sometimes altogether;  
      and that produces a sort of worry in us. The sequence funnel, dome, valve and cabin, turns 
      into a class-series: top-hat, Bowler hat, cloth cap. 

'A sort of worry' when faced with a cultural signifier anticipates the reaction of later commentators like Roland Barthes. Jennings' view reminded me of the very different appearances of the American space shuttle (gleaming white, smooth, swept-back wings and sexily aerodynamic) and the Soviet space station, which appeared to be bolted together in a totally functional way, like an allotment shed. It had visible rivets and was (unless I'm making this up) painted a kind of bauxite colour like old railway trucks, with a stencilled hammer and sickle on the hull. One had the impression that the whole thing wasn't so much welded as caulked. This suggested a kind of collectivist integrity and 'all-hands-on-deck' quality that continues to exercise a strong appeal, to me at any rate. I've always preferred the unadorned, the utile and the functional to the modishly tweaked.  Russian engineers were clearly in charge of the project, not designers and (yet-to-be-invented) brand managers.


Streamlined locomotives were much in vogue in Britain in the 1930s - the Mallard of the London & North Eastern Railway, designed by Nigel Gresley, is the most famous of the breed and remains to this day the fastest steam locomotive ever built. But the three other major private companies (the Southern, the Great Western and the London, Midland & Scottish) each had their own streamlined fleet, employed on crack express services. Perhaps it's just as important that streamlined engines look very fast, even when stationery - engineering's equivalent to modernist gestures in architecture. On display in York's National Railway Museum (where eager dads drag their underwhelmed offspring), the garter blue, red and black Mallard is coupled to a dynamometer car, an antique, wood panelled vehicle with clerestory roof and Edwardian doorhandles, packed with sensitively-calibrated devices for recording speed, fuel consumption, tractive effort, etc. and the contrast is every bit as striking as that between the space shuttle and Soyuz.

Streamlining was as much an aesthetic gesture as a speed-enhancing feature and following the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 these locomotives were stripped of their casings to allow easier maintenance and to reveal perfectly orthodox machines, beautiful in their own way and - yes - with the 'class-series' now visible.

Jennings was writing in the 1930s, a time when class distinctions were immediately legible, not least through headgear - toffs wore toppers, clerks wore Bowlers and flat cloth caps were for the proletariat. It's interesting that, in Jennings's notebook entry it's the loss of the chimney (ie the top hat of the ruling classes) that provokes disquiet. Is he unconsciously asserting the legitimacy of the established order? Or simply that a locomotive without a chimney is aesthetically troubling, like a face without a nose?

Jennings is concerned with class distinctions (which will always be with us). Distinctions are not the same thing as barriers - and much was achieved in the last few decades to erode the very barriers that are now, alas, being rapidly re-erected. Distinctions are part of the texture of any society - not as the basis for hostility and discrimination but simply for recognition and understanding. Although, to be sure, we don't wear caste-defining hats much any more. Jennings would find modern Britain a far less legible culture.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Raphael's Judgement of Christ

A very short extract from Distant Intimacy, the forthcoming Frederic Raphael / Joseph Epstein correspondence (see my January 18th blog). Here's the former, on the Son of God:

He put down his betters in a very 1960s-ish way and showed off as he did it, but he never said anything that one wishes one had said oneself, did he?

A good point well made.

J. Christ (by Raphael)

I'm reminded of a friend at school (this would be in the 1970s) who once told our RE teacher (the aptly-named Mr. Oddie) that he'd been reading the Gospels very closely and thought they were all true. Then he added: "But I don't think they're important."

Saturday 26 January 2013

Bysshe. Rhymes with sissy.

In 1811 a small printing company in the sedate south coast resort of Worthing produced a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism in which its ninteen-year-old author made an eloquent case for disbelief in a Divinity. The writer was an undergraduate at University College Oxford named Percy Bysshe Shelley, and he opened his polemic with an appeal to rationality (a bad move, it turned out), arguing that reason is founded primarily on the evidence of our senses and that the senses are the source of all knowledge upon which the mind makes decisions, and that the experience of others - espcially the religious experience - 'occupies the lowest degree' of evidence supporting the existence of God. This went down badly with the authorities and Shelley was promptly  'rusticated' - expelled - from the University. Four months later he eloped to Scotland to marry his sixteen-year-old mistress. Ten years later he was dead, and famous - an exemplary radical, a trailblazing subversive.

Shelley doesn't appear in W. H. Auden's Academic Graffiti (1971), a lacklustre collection of clerihews, with fifty examples of the form alphabetically arranged from Henry Adams to Socrates' wife Xantippe. They are all donnish, whimsical, and erratically amusing although the witty illustrations (by Fillipo Sanjust) do most of the work, as Auden conceded in his introduction. Here's a random example:
Fulke Greville
Wrote beautifully at sea level;
With each rising contour his verse
Got progressively worse.

And another (with its clumsy use of take/taken):

William Blake
Found Newton hard to take,
And was not enormously taken
With Francis Bacon.

This slim volume is not the book for which Auden would want to be remembered. Neither is it, as one critic optimistically claimed, Auden's attempt to rival the popularity of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. A world-conquering musical based on a collection of four-line squibs about Thomas Aquinas, Rider Haggard, Karl Kraus and Nietzche would tax even the fertile genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But Academic Graffiti is good clean fun for the ten minutes or so it takes to skim, and if you're the kind of person who enjoys this sort of thing you'll leave the house with a spring in your step and a smile on your face. But to return to the point, the clerihew that particularly snagged my attention, and which links to the rusticated poet of paragraph one, is this:

Among the prosodists, Bysshe
Was the syllable-counting old sissy,
The accentual pest.

Even by the book's highbrow standards these are vanishingly obscure figures. Auden (or his editor) provides a helpful gloss identifying the two men as Edward Bysshe and Edwin Guest, authors respectively of Art of Poetry (1702) and History of English Rhyme (2 vols, 1836-38). What comes as a shock is that, according to Auden, Bysshe rhymes with sissy.

For as long as I can remember I've referred to the author of Ozymandias and The  Masque of Anarchy as Percy Bysshe (to rhyme with 'fish') Shelley. I've never heard anyone pronounce Bysshe to rhyme with sissy. Have you? Of course you haven't. Nobody has, because nobody does. And if, in a moment of wild daring, you ever once ventured to pronounce Bysshe to rhyme with sissy in public, you'd never do it again because you'd be drowned out by the hoots and howls and catcalls. It would be like pronouncing 'Goethe' correctly to the citizens of Rancho Cordova . . .

Let me explain. In this Californian town there was, until quite recently, a public place called Goethe Park. It has now been renamed River Bend Park, and this is because the Goethe in question was not the author of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (or Werthers Original as I think of it), but another Goethe entirely. Charles M. Goethe (1875-1966) was a prosperous Sacramento businessman who left his colossal $24 million fortune to California State University and he was also a complete shit - a virulent racist, keen eugenicist and Nazi sympathiser. He therefore, according to a deadpan press release from the town council, 'did not represent the general feeling of the community.' So all the institutions bearing his name - the university arboretum and botanic garden, the Charles M. Goethe Middle School (now renamed the Rosa Parks Middle School) and the aforementioned Goethe Park - have now been airbrushed out of local history and Charlie Goethe is no longer a stain on the Sacramento brand. Fair enough - he was a thoroughly nasty piece of work and we live in more enlightened times. But what interests me is that the park bearing his name was always referred to by the folk of Sacramento County as GAYtee Park, with stress on the first syllable. That, they agreed among themselves, was how Goethe, their Goethe, the wrong Goethe, should be pronounced. Like 'Frood' (for Freud) and 'Sow-crates' (Socrates) in the paradigmatic Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1993). I admire their take on the savants of the past - "no pantywaist European pronunciation for us. We're Sacramentians, dammit." Likewise the vast majority of people now agree that 'Bysshe' sounds like 'fish', or 'fishy' and you'd be a damn fool to say it different.

Time for a tangent - have you noticed the way the assumed views of 'the vast majority of people' are now flourished as a way to defend (say) the government's position on very complex and contentious issues? It doesn't amount to anything approaching an argument but is, rather, an end to argument, with a unreflecting deployment of 'might is right' reasoning. Is there any chance of some statistician confirming that 'the vast majority of people' are just as likely to be wrong about something as right? 'The vast majority of people' - and this includes me of course - are fundamentally unsound when it comes to just about everything under the sun - economics, string theory, engineering, science, architecture, linguistics, art and literature and so on because these are all specialist domains, not for the amateur.The vast majority of people are decent, kindly, reasonable, hard-working, good-humoured and law-abiding. But that doesn't make them right.

In any case that 'vast' is hyperbolic - and certainly no improvement over what was until very recently known as 'an overwhelming majority'. (The indefinite article works well there.) In such inflationary rhetoric 'the vast majority of people' is simply an unreflecting invocation of a shadowy mob that in the speaker's view would be likely to share his prejudice. In a society that prizes - indeed fetishises - individualism, it's sobering to reflect how often we - or, if you insist, the vast majority of us - are presumed to be in total accord. It's also unnerving, in our post-secular culture, to see the decay of public discourse and the collapse of reason. Shelley would have views on this, and might even blog on the subject.

Clerihews © The Estate of W. H. Auden

Friday 25 January 2013

More poets - official

Since my 4th January blog 'How many poets are there?' I've learned (from the forthcoming Frederic Raphael/Joseph Epstein correspondence Distant Intimacy) that there are today 26,000 poets officially registered in the United States.

Epstein provides this information and sourly wonders where you should go to register . . .

I suspect the figure, if not plucked from thin air, is based on census returns or IRS data, or extrapolations from some kind of consumer research and should not be taken any more seriously than  those citizens who 'self-identify' as Jedi Knights, Klingons, warlocks or Hobbits. Many of them are likely to turn their hand to verse as well.

26,000 registered poets is (depending on your point of view) a heartening confirmation of cultural advancement or dispiriting evidence of the opposite. The 2011 International Who's Who of Poets listed just 4,000 working in English worldwide.

What's going on here? Or rather there?

Thursday 24 January 2013

Gone (after Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead)

The old South Kensington Museum
Is not a place I'll ever see again, though
Once I trawled contentedly around
The shallow dioramas,
Pressed brass buttons
To make things spin or glow,
Approving then the forced perspectives and
The little figures in their period gear.
Then, after scrabbling for that golden ball
I stood with other children at the automatic door,
A wondrous harbinger of soon.

I took my son last week
And he was all agog
To see the mighty three-ton lens from Castle Birr
Ground for a year, none bigger ever made, but
Now (they said) no longer on display -
Lugged off to some remote suburban store.
And what we saw on every floor
Instead of all the things we'd come to see
Was all the crap that's taken over science.

Gone the Deltic Locomotive,
Baby blue with golden whiskers, 
Gone too Caerphilly Castle
Signal box and tram, The working model coal mine

Downstairs a loud Australian "worked the room"
As schoolkids shrieked. 
Balloons went bang, the whole place stank
Of feet, was all unserious.

It's also all so gone to pot:
A lot of other stuff's been thrown out. 
A sad-eyed warden told me that
The maritime gallery, a favoured place,
Was closing soon to (can you believe)
Become a new hands-on display of telecoms.

Gone the brass and iron apprentice models
Gone the engines, blueprints and maquettes,
Gone the wide-hipped dreadnoughts
Fishing sloops and trawlers, clippers and destroyers
Blue riband Cunarders
And London's only model quinquireme.

They're phasing out the simple stuff
The dirty heavy simple stuff
That made us what we used to think we were.
That past, the only one we have, is going, going, gone
While out on Exhibition Road
The street is full of motor cars, pedestrians and air.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Gallopin' Gertie

I post links to short films each Wednesday by way of relief - not light - from the otherwise constant onslaught of prose. Today's must-see item is from the 1940s.

You may have come across this before on television - in fact you must have seen it at some point because it used to be broadcast even more often than the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. (Can you remember, by the way, what you were doing when you first saw the Zapruder footage? Watching television, I expect. Does anyone reading this blog buy into my theory that the intended target that day in 1963 was actually the First Lady? The evidence is overwhelming but THEY won't allow the truth to come out. More of this in the future perhaps.)

But back to today's short film. Television tended only ever to show the same thirty second extract, and in grainy slow motion black and white. Here's the full six-minute real-time version, and it's in colour, and with some appropriate music added. It's spellbinding. Look out for fearless Professor Farquharson and his luckless dog.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Buzz words

Buzz Aldrin's first words as the second man to make a giant step for mankind were: "Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation." The first half is weak and the second rings false, and has (as they say) a stink of the lamp. It's a Douglas Sirk movie title. What he could have said, and I think should have said, is this:

"I claim this moon on behalf of Webster Presbytarian church"

I expect you're wondering why. Well, Aldrin was a devout Presbytarian and became, although this was not publicised at the time, the first person to conduct a religious ceremony on the moon, giving himself holy communion using a 'do-it-yourself' kit supplied by pastor Dean Woodruff of the Presbyterian Church in Webster, a Houston suburb near the Johnson Space Center, where Buzz was (and for all I know remains) a communicant.

This three-inch-tall silver chalice he used on the moon is now in the possession of the church, and is used annually on the Sunday closest to July 20th, the day of the moon landing in 1969. You can find a picture of it, and some other unsettling stuff linking evangelical christianity with the space programme, here:

Lunar communion. Lunar communion. Lunar communion. Helicopter. (This will make sense only if you've read my blog of 21st January.)

Monday 21 January 2013

Dylan's helicopter

In the whimsical branch of linguistics called phonoaesthetics (bear with, bear with) the English compound noun cellar door has long been cited as an example of a word or phrase which is beautiful purely in terms of its sound, regardless of any meaning. That is, phonoaestheticians have established that foreigners without any command of English nevertheless recognise something attractive in the three-syllable sequence of phonemes, from the sibilant 'c' in 'cellar' to the  very lovely diphthong in 'door'.

Cellar door. Cellar door. Cellar. Door.

Recognition of the strange and particular beauty of these two words dates back at least to 1903, although the origin is obscure. The origin, I mean, of a belief in their aural gorgeousness.

Cellar doors have presumably existed as long as cellars have, and cellars have been around for - oooh donkey's years. There are plenty of speculative attributions - Edgar Allan Poe is a popular, though unproven, source. Is it partly down to the ghostly homophone 'adore'? And the whiff of the French 'c'est la' in 'cellar'? When one says 'cellar door' aloud all kinds of nice things happen to the lips and tongue and palate - is that partially because there's a French echo in the string of euphonious sounds?

It reminds me that the camp television presenter Larry Grayson, a dead ringer for Kenneth Tynan (see blog for 17th January) had a catchphrase - "Shut that door!" - that enjoyed an unlikely popularity in the 1970s and reportedly derived from his attempts, in some unspecified context, to say je t'adore.

Other candidates? Henry James plumped for 'summer afternoon'. Dylan Thomas opted for 'helicopter'.

Cellar door. Helicopter. Summer afternoon. Cellar door. Helicopter. Summer afternoon.

No contest.

Friday 18 January 2013

Distant Intimacy

I'm currently reading an advance copy of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, a collection of sensationally entertaining email exchanges between Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein.

They're both American, Chicago-born. They're both secular Jews (and Jewishness, not Judaism, is a regular subject), both are untroubled by low self-esteem, both have a weakness for bad puns and they both choose to see themselves as outsiders. Neither man is in the first or even second flush - although Raphael gallantly notes that after 33 years of marriage his wife, once older than he, is now considerably younger.

The two authors remind me of the fastidious Felix Unger and shambolic Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. Raphael is the more polished and Epstein, who still lives in Chicago, the rougher diamond. Raphael is the dazzling aphorist (and there's a zinger on every page), Epstein the  gutsier, more candid anecdotalist. They are both waspish (though naturally never WASPish), bracingly pre-PC in their attitudes and swift to demolish their contemporaries with gleeful swipes. They are sometimes serious - they both write very movingly about the loss of a child - but never solemn.

The publishers trumpet the fact that the two men have never met, or even spoken on the telephone to each other. Perhaps it's a selling-point. I hate to say I laughed out loud, but I really did, and very often. It's published at the end of March, an early and strong contender for my book of the year.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Buzz Aldrin and Kenneth Tynan

Buzz Aldrin also took that one small step. What did he say? What were the first words of the second man on the moon?  Did some thoughtful hack back at mission control supply him with a pithy follow-up - a deflationary wisecrack, an Armstrong-topping quip? 

What, come to that, was Neil Armstrong's second utterance that day, or that night? How do you follow the most famous fluffed line in history? And what, if any, were the slightly less historic words uttered by Neil and Buzz's uncelebrated successors Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo 12), a few months later?  Were they tempted to make an ironic reference to Scott and Amundsen's race to the Pole? Nobody anywhere seems to know what they said, or what any subsequent Apollo explorers said, intrepid souls whose names escape us all. What did they say?

Hermann Schmitt (I had to look this up) was the last astronaut to 'do an Armstrong' as we old NASA hands call it - the last space man to  step out of a module, stand on the moon's surface and make the final giant leap for all mankind. He was, rather surprisingly, the one and only astronaut with a scientific training, in geology. What did he say? "Hey ho. Same old same old" perhaps. I noticed that he's called (rather unfortunately) Jack Schmitt on the NASA website, a misjudged attempt to up his all-American credentials.

Schmitt's space oppo, his allocated Buzz, was Eugene Cernan, who would be the very last person to walk on the moon before blasting off on December 14th 1972. What, if anything, did he say? Was he inclined to deliver a poignant valedictory address to the junk and clutter left behind? Did he remember to turn out the lights? And how about all the other astronauts who stepped onto the surface of the moon after Armstrong and before Cernan in what was, for each of them, a hugely significant and life-changing moment. What did they say? What did they think?

This leads me, naturally enough, to speculate on the history of the public utterance of the word 'fuck'. It was, as we all know and may even remember, the theatre critic and cultural provocateur Kenneth Tynan who first used the word live on air during a BBC interview conducted by the late Robert Robinson (who is much missed, and was the Buzz Aldrin, if you will, of profanity). The date was 13th November 1965 and I was fast asleep in my cot,  gearing up for the all-night transmission of the moon landing just a few years away. So I missed that watershed cultural moment because it was, well, after the watershed. The Tynan programme has, alas, not survived so I had to look this up as well. Asked whether sexual intercourse could be represented in the theatre, Tynan replied: "Well, I think so, certainly. I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word 'fuck' would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden. I think that anything which can be printed or said can also be seen."

Après lui, le déluge. But who, since we're on the subject, was the first person to say 'fuck' on the wireless? Was it pre-Tynan? 

Wednesday 16 January 2013

High Steel

The answer to yesterday's riddle-me-ree: all were born with a caul. There now!

Wednesday is film day on Salvēte! and if you're ever at a loss for something new to watch a good place to start is the website of the National Film Board of Canada -

There are thousands of wonderful free films here, and very few duds. It was our own John Grierson who helped to set up the NFBC and his high-minded Reithian values still hold good. You're spoilt for choice, in fact, so let me make a  particular recommendation - the films of Don Owen. As a novice young director he worked with W. H. Auden on Runner (1962), a short lyrical documentary about the Canadian athlete Bruce Kidd. I know that 'cool' is a near-universal term of thoughtless approval and lacks purchasing power. But Runner, with its luminous black and white cinematography and jazz score is cool, really cool.

A later film, High Steel is on the NFBC website, a brilliant and hair-raising study of the fearless iron workers labouring hundreds of feet up building skyscrapers in New York. What starts as a conventional account suddenly changes direction and . . .  but see for yourself. It's just 13 minutes long.

Owen also made a very good film about Leonard Cohen before he was famous (Cohen, that is). It's also on the NFBC site.

Tuesday 15 January 2013


Here's a good one. What connects:

Lord Byron, 
George Formby, Jr.
Sigmund Freud
Lillian Gish
Liberace and

Answer tomorrow.

Monday 14 January 2013

Smoked cat and paraffin

Is this a possible origin of the phrase 'bells and whistles' as applied to technology boasting extra features? It's more often linked to fairground organs, although surely they don't have whistles - just pipes. 

The late Sir Peter Masefield, ex-chairman of the British Airports Authority, once recalled a job he had been given at [the aircraft manufacturers] Fairey in the mid-thirties as a junior draftsman, designing a holder for a brass handbell and an ultrasonic whistle to fit into the cockpit of the Fleet Air Arm's Fairey Seal bombers. 'The handbell was to be rung after alighting in fog. The whistle was to frighten off flamingos and similar hazards before taking off from (for example) the Nile and Khartoum. In those days they thought of everything.

                        From James Hamilton-Patterson's Empire of the Clouds (Faber and Faber 2010) p. 113.

This comes from a brilliantly indignant account of the rise and fall of the now defunct but once mighty British aircraft industry. We used to be world-leaders in the design and construction of futuristic jet fighters and civilian airliners but decades of dud management and government ineptitude put paid to that. Hamilton-Patterson is eloquent in his contempt for the shifty and expedient ministers and industry time-servers who oversaw the collapse of another British institution, but also retains a schoolboy enthusiasm for the boffins and the builders and (especially) the ice-nerved test pilots who were public figures in their day and are now largely forgotten. 

The author is better known as a novelist than an aviation writer, and you really must read his brilliantly filthy, sick and witty comic trilogy about an anarchic gourmand  named Gerald Samper. If the idea of 'smoked cat and paraffin' raises a smile, this is the book for you. Hamilton-Paterson, who should be much better known, has a Wodehousian flair for comic language and situation. The three books are, in order: Cooking with Fernet Branca, Amazing Disgrace and Rancid Pansies. The third volume's title is a very satisfying anagram. 

Sunday 13 January 2013

Gertrude Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I vowed to avoid the hack's trick of working a modish public figure into my first paragraph to snag the reader's attention. You know the sort of thing: "Many top celebrities, like Mick Jagger and Nigella Lawson, will be seeing in the New Year with friends and family. But what about those calories?"

I'm told this is a way of attracting internet search engines - so if an article on quantitative easing name-checks Lady Gaga it may just snare the attention of a gormless browser. And the more hits on a newspaper website the better the advertising revenue, and the better the revenue the happier the cynical, grasping and immoral proprietors.

This blog isn't like that, so I'll begin today's entry by introducing the Estonian poet and short-story writer Jaak Jõerüüt, whose name flourishes a cluster of umlauts that reminds me of first seeing the word 'Fijiian' in print. He was at one time his country's Defence Minister, resigning voluntarily over the so-called 'T-shirt affair' in 2005. (That's worth a Google when you have a moment.) If, like me, you haven't read his stuff it may be down to the fact that his name is unpronounceable, even by fellow Estonians. How would you ask for his books in Waterstone's? The amiable assistant in my local branch has enough difficulty with J. K. Rowling (to rhyme with bowling? or fouling?).

Jõerüüt takes the palm for unbankable cognomens in the Anglophone world - but how about such higher-profile names as Michael Houellebecq, Annie Proulx and Theodore Roethke?  They are respectively and approximately Wellbeck, Prool and Rottker. At least that's how I say them - but then I recall the lecturer who confidently and consistently pronounced Yeats to rhyme with Keats. Yeets. Nobody questioned this as she was no fool and might even have been on to something. 

And, likewise, I think I may be on to something. Browsing in Foyle's bookshop recently I made a note of all the authors appearing on the first few shelves of General Fiction. Here they are, as they appeared, and with no exclusions: 

Kobo Abe, Kia Abdullah, Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, Leila Aboulela,   Diana Abu-Jaber, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aravind Adija, Sholem Aleichem, Aynd Alethar, Turki Al-Ahmad, Isabelle Allende, Uwem Akpan, Niccolò Ammaniti, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Tashmina Nam . . .

And there I stopped, not least because any more books in the sequence were displayed below knee level, and I wasn't prepared to squat uncomfortably in pursuit of a thesis. (It's a baffling aspect of bookshops that they feel a need to display so much of their stock at ankle level - who knows what authors languish undisturbed down there?)

For some reason there were no Ackroyds or Ackers on display, but I noticed a stray Eric Ambler a few feet away. Of course the familiar giants of the nineteenth century are shelved elsewhere as 'Classics', and various genres now have their own point of sale displays. I'm not complaining about the dazzling ethnic diversity of current fiction - far from it. The astonishing range of talents to be found in a few feet of bookshelves - Chilean, Italian, Indian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Nigerian and Sudanese writers, some of them writing in English, others translated - is a cause for celebration, and the rise of post-colonial literatures is one of the most exciting and optimistic developments in the arts in generations. Multiply the dozen or so authors listed above by several hundred and you'll have an idea of the range on offer. I'm all for it. 

But here's a Pooterish admission. With the exceptions of Chinua Achebe and Isabelle Allende and Niccolò Ammaniti (whom I haven't read) and the two Amises, I don't know for sure how any of these authors' names are correctly pronounced. I can make a fair guess in most cases but feel uncomfortably aware that I might well be wrong, fear such an exposure and don't know who to ask. Are authors and publishers missing a commercial trick here? Could they not improve their sales by inviting their authors to adopt more reader-friendly names? Not Anglo-Saxon names, to be sure, but phonetically unambiguous and instantly pronounceable. While they're at it they might do something to improve the look and feel of the books - all of which resemble The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye, complete with fulsome encomia from some heavyweight name. 

What's also worth noting is that almost every book in the list is a work in translation and seems to trail plaudits from other authors in the same category. I tend to avoid novels in translation for the same reason that I avoid (say) 3D movies and Virgin Trains - the experience tends to be all gong and no dinner.

And I couldn't help but notice an inverse relation between the alluring exoticism of the authors' names and the lacklustre quality of the titles: Child's Play, Wandering Stars, I'm Not Scared, The White Tiger, Half of a Yellow Sun and (my favourite) Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them.

Getting back to writers though - none of the others I've listed, with the exception of Kia Abdullah (and I may look at her in a later blog), is a negligible talent, and none is is as challenging to an English reader's eye (or preconceptions) as the distinguished Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Renouncing English, Christianity, and the baptismal name James Ngugi as oppressively colonialist back in the 1970s, he began to write in his native Gĩkũyũ and Swahili - a case where the author's choice of a name articulates a complete and coherent artistic and political position, and more power to him - he's a substantial and admirable figure and makes a point worth making. He'd be the first to give my observations the bum's rush, and quite rightly. 

But when it comes to an apparently simple issue of pronunciation are we even on firm ground when it comes to 'Jekyll'? Not as in Gertrude Jekyll (which as we all know rhymes with treacle) but as in the depraved Mr. Hyde's strait-laced alter ego. These days it's universally pronounced to rhyme with freckle, but I expect Robert Louis Stevenson would be taken aback. Only a morbid pedant would bother to mention this, to be sure - but we live in a culture in which pedantry is necessarily morbid. 

Saturday 12 January 2013

The Toksvig Elision

The mighty broadcasting armada that is BBC Radio 4 has a flagship in the Today programme, whereon every morning between six and nine a procession of expert and establishment figures are grilled, and sometimes roasted, by the show's famously combative presenters. These presenters are smarter, better briefed and more eloquent than most of the pundits and politicians they interrogate, but if you're a regular listener you must of late have noticed a very horrible and increasingly commonplace feature of these encounters, namely the way the pundits and politicians and other riff-raff have adopted a new tactic when responding to a hostile question, or any question.

It's a technique that presumably gets pummelled into them by consultants on intensive training programmes in communication skills. What they do is to initiate their reply, no matter what the subject, with a trite and facetious observation, a kind of jocular ice-breaker. Like this:

McNaughtie: Minister can you justify your thinking when it comes to this highly contentious, and if I may say so, undemocratic piece of legislation?

Minister: Well Jim I didn't get into politics to be popular! URRR but to answer your question I have to remind you of the legacy we inherited when we came to power . . . 

It's that URRR. I hate it. Hate hate hate hate hate. As if the speaker is a stand-up comedian who has taken on a tough room, won it over with a well-honed zinger and can now, with a kind of quizzical 'where was I?' expression, return to a default register of relative seriousness, having established his command of the situation and proved that no issue is so grave as not to admit an element of facetiousness, because (and you know what comes next) 'we're all in this together.'

I hate the lumpen assumption behind the ploy. I hate the kind of mind that assumes cracking some lame gag is a legitimate way of engaging with a subject (although to be sure there are still a few news events, like primary school shootings, that fail to attract such an approach). I hate the self-regarding phonetic double declutch of that URRR sound. This has become such a chronically commonplace trope in public discourse that it's infecting ordinary conversation. I do it myself, for God's sake.

Let's agree to call it the Toksvig Elision, after the ubiquitous pint-sized Radio 4 presenter who is especially prone to this very annoying trope.

Sandi Toksvig! She's never really in danger of becoming a national treasure, is she? Her  every leaden quip is followed by a throaty URRR, presumably to reassure her audience that something amusing has just taken place. It has by now, after many thousands of public outings, become an aspect of her respiratory cycle and for all I know punctuates her snores. Perhaps her days unfold like this:

Butcher: Good Morning. What can I do for you?

Toksvig: That's a bit personal! URRR I'd like some brisket.

(Later, on the train)

Ticket collector: Tickets please!

Toksvig: Do train drivers I wonder all long to be small boys? URRR Here you are.

If you can bear for more than a moment what Julie Burchill has called 'her stupid, harrumphing, daft-old-Colonel voice' (and Burchill  trouncing another media figure's idiolect is a jaw-dropping instance of pot and kettle); if you can further tolerate her frequent high-pitched sing-song 'is it just me?' register; if you can stomach her smugly pondering manner, her infectious bloody laugh and tiresome gurgling delivery; if you can stand her shiny ironic showbiz jackets - then you're probably Sandi Toksvig and we'll just have to agree to disagree. (Brightly) I didn't start this blog to be popular! URRR (serious voice) but you'll surely agree that a society is judged by its standard of public rhetoric and - if you'll just let me finish Jim . . .

In the spirit of fair play I listened to all of the Toksvig-chaired News Quiz (Radio 4, Friday 11th January, 6:30pm). She perpetrated nine of these irritating glottals in an overall tally of twenty. Voila, but enough! This, I solemnly promise, is my first, last and only grumpy outburst. Tomorrow I shall post something altogether more life-affirming. 

Friday 11 January 2013

The Heart of the World

The Heart of the World is written and directed by Guy Maddin and produced for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival. 

6 minutes, black and white. You'll want to see it more than twice.

Coming next on Salvete!

* Toksvig's Elision

* Gertrude Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

* Rummaging in Oscar's handbag

* Smoked cat and paraffin

Thursday 10 January 2013

Sit down man.

In case you haven't noticed I recommend at the foot of this page the topographical writer Owen Hatherley's excellent blog 'SIT DOWN MAN YOU'RE A BLOODY TRAGEDY'. He writes mostly about the built environment - he's very sharp, very eloquent. 

His title (which I wish I'd though of first) comes from a parliamentary heckle by the great Scottish socialist and member of the Independent Labour Party James Maxton. When Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald gave his last meandering, incoherent speech to Parliament he was interrupted by Maxton who shouted the deflationary words Hatherley has adopted as his rallying cry.

We need more Maxtons.

We also need more Owen Hatherleys. You can, via his blog, sign the petition to save Preston Bus Station from crass and greedy redevelopment. This really matters, both as a practical local issue for the good people of Preston and as a symbolic confrontation between public and private sector values, past and future.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Best short story in the language

The well-paced post-prandial Edwardian phrases of the first paragraph barely prepare us for the mind-bending thrills in store:

Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of new sensations will become apparent enough.

H. G. Wells's The New Accelerator was first published in 1901 and has been dazzling new readers ever since. There are other contenders for the best short story ever written in English - Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Joyce's The Dead, D. H. Lawrence's Odour of Chrysanthemums, Beckett's First Love (translated by the author from the original French) and any number of Pritchetts - but for my money The New Accelerator beats them all for strangeness, originality, invention and dark wit. It's about Professor Gibberne's discovery of a wonder-drug, an elixir that accelerates the user's metabolism to a tremendous degree. It seems a boon in 'these pushful days'. But there are some unpredictable side effects . . .

It takes around twenty minutes to read and will stay with you. If nothing else you may one day decide to make a bank holiday pilgrimage to the Folkestone Leas, where the story unfolds.

You can find the complete text here:

Tuesday 8 January 2013


Forget the nightingale, the albatross, the windhover and all other birds with claims on a place in poetry. I give you  . . .  the vidua bird!

I mentioned this creature in my blog last week and belatedly looked up some images. They're also known as indigobirds and whydahs, and they're terrific. The breeding males have a sepulchral black or indigo plumage and tremendously long tail feathers - like one of Edith Sitwell's hats. 

Scuttling off to Wikipedia to learn more I discovered the following (lightly adapted for copyright reasons):
All are brood parasites which lay their eggs in the nests of estrildid finch species. [What would Beckett make of 'brood parasites'?] Unlike cuckoos they do not destroy the host's eggs. Typically, they lay 2–4 eggs alongside those already in the nest. The eggs of both the host and the squatter are white.
Indigobirds and whydahs imitate their host's song, which the males learn in the nest. Although females do not sing, they also learn to recognise the song, and choose males with the same song, thus perpetuating the link between each species of indigobird and firefinch.

Everything about them seems designed to charm.


Monday 7 January 2013

Mrs Woolf goes to the movies

On Sunday 14th March 1926 Virginia Woolf did something that may seem to us mildly surprising - she spent the afternoon at the cinema. We shouldn't really wonder at this - T. S. Eliot attended boxing matches at the Albert Hall and Wittgenstein liked to watch rowdy Betty Grable musicals. One can't be ferociously highbrow all the time.  

Mrs Woolf was 34 years old and her taste in movies didn't extend to the wholly lowbrow. She was one of the earliest members of the recently-formed Film Society, an organisation devoted to the promotion of avant-garde, foreign and (as we would now say) 'indie' films.

This was the fifth screening in the Society's first season. Virginia sat through a typically eclectic bill beginning with an early factual film from France, la Circulation du Sang (1912), followed by the experimental short Ballet Mécanique (written by Fernand Léger to music by George Antheil, 1914), D. W. Griffith's two-reeler western The Sheriff's Baby (US 1913) and, as the main feature, Robert Wiene's expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). 

We know what the author of Mrs Dalloway made of all this because the screening prompted her to write a magazine piece entitled 'The Cinema' which first appeared in the New York journal Arts in June and in the Nation and Athenaeum the following month. It's full of surprises.

She begins by describing her response to different kinds of film starting with newsreel (i.e what would later become known as documentary):

[A]t first sight, the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the King shaking hands 
       with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand 
       National.  [Jack Horner was the American race horse who won the 1926 Grand National at odds of

She then reflects on the mutability of such banal events caught by cinematographers and captures something of the melancholy that permeates cinema, including the audience and her readers in a personal pronoun:

         Further, all this happened ten years ago, we are told. We are beholding a world which has gone     

         beneath the waves. Brides are emerging from the abbey – they are now mothers; ushers are ardent  
         – they are now silent; mothers are tearful, guests are joyful; this has been won and that has been 
         lost, and it is over and done with. 

'Ten years ago'? Woolf is making a point, but manipulating timescales to do so. She's actually in a kind of future subjunctive, i.e. 'all this will have happened ten years ago, we shall in time come to realise'. In a spellbinding passage she reflects on the ephemeral instability of the image and suggests it is the 
audience, not the flickering representations of fellow humanity, which are the spectral presence; that the film has an objective existence independent of the spectator's gaze: 

         We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in 

         it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not 
         knock us down. The King will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this    
         point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to 
         generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave 
         break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation 
         – this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.

I'm currently researching the responses of modernist writers to cinema in the 1920s and was delighted to discover that most of the newsreel footage seen and described by Mrs Woolf that Sunday afternoon over ninety years ago can now be found on the British Pathé website: 

It's all there - whether we behold it or not.

Sunday 6 January 2013

On spinach

Here's Flaubert on spinach:

Ne jamais rater la phrase célèbre de Prudhomme : « Je ne les aime pas, j’en suis bien aise, car si je les aimais, j’en mangerais, et je ne puis pas les souffrir. » 

[Never forget the famous phrase of Prudhomme's: "I don't like it, and I'm glad I don't like it, because if I liked it I'd eat it, and I can't stand it"]

This a template that can, with minimal alteration, apply to almost anything else - football, texting, cultural studies and the Daily Mail. Or anybody, come to that: I don't like the Culture Secretary (whoever he or she happens to be this month, but let's for the sake of argument assume it's a he), and I'm glad I don't like him because if I did I'd have to respect him and I can't stand the unctuous blighter.

Flaubert's Dictionary is among the funniest books ever written, and still makes us laugh today - indeed 'laugh out loud' - because the kind of stupidity he gleefully records hasn't changed at all. He lampoons the pompous and unreflecting assumptions and prejudices of the bourgeoisie (and there are none more lampoonable) to illuminate the thinking (or lack of it) that underlies the complacent, the witless and the gullible - all of us, that is.

Unlike M. Prudhomme I happen to like spinach, which cropped up in Spinach and Ice-cream, a piece I wrote about Eugene O'Neill last year:

The Luxury of Woe (1 of 2)

The Swan and Edgar department store is long gone, the landmark building on the western side of Piccadilly Circus occupied in recent years by a succession of failing, youth-orientated retailers - Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, Zavvi. But in its heyday before the Great War the company supplied the capital with funerary habiliments, or mourning clothes, on a tremendous scale. Mourning the dead was in those days an elaborate business governed by a complex set of sartorial conventions that reflected the nature of the loss - be it parent, child, sibling, distant relation, friend or acquaintance. These finely-calibrated degrees of grief were embodied in a subtly-graded range of appropriate clothing, and the extent to which the Victorian and Edwardian haute bourgeoisie invested emotionally and financially in black crêpe and bombazine is from our modern perspective quite astonishing. Swan and Edgar's lavish catalogues offered collections comprising veils, hats, day and evening-wear, frock-coats and accessories, (including jewellery) and lockets to house the departed's portrait, or hair. Modest black armbands were for the lower orders, for servants, and for men in uniform. 

Formal mourning - not to be confused with grieving - extended for between six months for a sibling and two years for a husband (the first twelve months in virtual purdah), but was open-ended for a dead child and permanent in the case of Queen Victoria's devotion to her dear Albert. Mourning was a public affair, especially when it came to the checks and balances of widowhood. A set of conventions both vestimentary and verbal surrounded the widow: elaborate, precise and now largely forgotten, fading around the middle of the last century. The Great War saw an end to Swan and Edgar's role in the capital's grief - the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire were busy weaving khaki, not funereal crêpe, and there was a colossal glut of mourners.

In Beckett's 1958 play Krapp's Last Tape, Krapp is startled by a recording of his younger self confidently using the word 'viduity'. He has to look it up:

KRAPP: (reading from dictionary). State—or condition of being—or remaining—a widow—or widower. (Looks up. Puzzled.) Being—or remaining? . . . (Pause. He peers again  at dictionary. Reading.) "Deep weeds of viduity" . . . Also of an animal, especially a bird . . . the vidua or weaver bird . . . Black plumage of male . . . (He looks up. With relish.) The vidua bird!"

© Faber and Faber Ltd / The Estate of Samuel Beckett

To be continued . . .

The Luxury of Woe (2 of 2)

Valerie Eliot died on 9th November 2012 at the age of 86, and with her passing we lost a great vidua bird - born too late for bombazine she nevertheless was and remained an exemplary widow, guarding Tom's legacy with polite ferocity and (some said) a whim of iron.

She married T. S. Eliot in 1957 (he was her boss at Faber, and 37 years her senior). They were both by all accounts blissfully happy together throughout the following eight years, Tom dying in 1965. For the next half century Valerie Eliot quietly and conscientiously managed her late husband's estate, making substantial contributions to the scholarship surrounding his work, notably the facsimile text of The Waste Land and three weighty collections of letters. She held out firmly if not always consistently against those wishing to exploit Eliot's work and reputation - researchers, academics and especially biographers regularly found their progress blocked.

She was generous and could afford to be, thanks to the enormous royalties earned by Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical version of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Some critics sniped at her willingness to allow such a thing but the state benefited immeasurably, as did the recipients of her low-key largesse. Eliot himself loved musical theatre and would doubtless have relished the international success of his charming, inconsequential verses. No other Nobel laureate has ever won a Grammy.

Obituaries of Valerie Eliot tended to focus on her husband's disastrous first marriage, then on the contentment of the second and, almost begrudgingly, on her role as keeper of the flame. Valerie became a 50% shareholder in Faber and Faber, where Eliot had built up a distinguished poetry list (no longer what it was, alas, but then neither is poetry). She behaved discreetly and with a clear sense of purpose, remaining throughout five decades of viduity a dignified, low-key cultural figure. Compare, if you dare, the rowdy afterlife of Caitlin Thomas who, if alive today, would be gobbling slugs and snails in the jungle, possibly on television.

The Eliots did not attract much media attention, although there was recently the very odd case of a woman claiming to be not only Eliot's daughter but, more ambitiously, a pair of twin daughters. 48-year-old Alison Reynolds pretended to be both Claire and Chess Eliot, using wigs, stage make-up and costumes to present herself as at least 11 different aliases over the course of a decade, parlaying the fraudulent connection into an intermittently successful career as a theatre producer. She was sentenced to six years in 2011. Chess Eliot? 

An equally unlikely story involved a man who contacted the Faber offices some years ago claiming to be Eliot's  long-lost illegitimate son. It fell to Eliot's successor as poetry editor diplomatically to raise the matter over lunch with Valerie and gently to ask whether Tom might possibly have ever mentioned a possible heir. This she briefly and firmly denied and there the matter rested until a second letter arrived requesting a meeting at the Faber offices. There was a panicky sense of expectation on the day of his planned arrival, but the time passed and nobody turned up. This, in a sense, might be seen as a clincher - such self-denying diffidence being the likely hallmark of any Eliot offspring. Would it have been worth it after all?

Eliot's relict was the best of all literary widows in that she kept an iron grip on the legacy and discouraged shoddy exploitation. She was rather grand in an old-fashioned way, and something of her husband's power and influence as a cultural arbiter and public intellectual had rubbed off on her.  If not a national treasure she was certainly a national asset. Observers wryly noted her physical resemblance in later life to Baroness Thatcher.

There are fewer literary widowers - John Bailey comes to mind as custodian of Iris Murdoch's legacy. Ted Hughes is another, and like Valerie Eliot a discrete and careful guardian, although that doesn't impress the bug-eyed zealots who regularly deface the Heptonstall gravestone of Sylvia Plath-Hughes. The nature of viduity - and its masculine equivalent, which I suppose must be the same word - has changed. Is it partly that widows and widowers are, like orphans, reminders of a social order based on accepted inequalities, self-denial, stoicism and resilience? Valerie Eliot was unique but not alone, preceded by other feisty relicts including Natasha Spender, Sonia Orwell and Jill Balcon (widow of C. Day-Lewis, who campaigned for decades to get her late husband a spot in Poet's Corner). T. S. Eliot's widow was the last of her kind. Mourning became her.

          Press the grape, and let it pour
          Around the board its purple show’r;
          And, while the drops my goblet steep,
          I’ll think in woe the clusters weep.

          Weep on, weep on, my pouting vine!
          Heav’n grant no tears, but tears of wine.
          Weep on; and, as thy sorrows flow,
           I’ll taste the luxury of woe.

                                                        Thomas Moore  Anacreontic

See my Literary Review piece on Eliot's Letters Volume 3 here: