Tuesday 30 April 2013


Here's something new to me, which has apparently been in circulation for some time and is, indeed, 'an internet sensation'. It's an end-of-terrace house in the Swansea suburb of Port Tennant that looks slightly like Hitler:

                                                              Hitler (left) and haus (right)

For an even more amazing lookalike see here.

Monday 29 April 2013


Many years ago Playboy magazine used to publish essays and fiction by (among others) John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov. This, the owner Hugh Hefner believed, gave his monthly organ a cultural legitimacy that made his readers feel less embarrassed when splashing out (as it were) on the publication.

Likewise I manage to persuade myself that the Daily Mail website is among the best places to find traditional photojournalism, notwithstanding the newspaper's status as the house journal of Little England bigots. Anyway, the website recently published some images by the German photographer Michael Wolf which form part of a project he calls 'Architecture of Density'. Here, avoiding the Mail's coverage entirely, is a direct link to his website and his astonishing photographs of Hong Kong apartment buildings:

Sunday 28 April 2013

George Jones

Here's my favourite song by the great Country and Western star George Jones, who died yesterday. If, as some wag once wrote, such music is jazz for poor white trash, George Jones is the genre's Duke Ellington. Never Been So Weary is sardonic, sentimental, truthful and with a tune that will stay with you all day. Turn up the volume. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZzuBlGbGFU

Saturday 27 April 2013

The Devil is a Woman

Here's the fine scottish actress Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles in a production of Marlowe's Dr Faustus, currently running at the Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre.

Image © Glasgow Citizens' Theatre

What wonderful casting! I've been a huge admirer of hers since she appeared as Lucy McGinty, Don Henderson's droll sidekick in the 1980s television drama Bulman. That was over thirty years ago and she seems barely to have aged a day since. She's a marvellous actress, always thoughtful and always a good listener She's often described as 'steely' and I suppose this is because, as a strong, intelligent and independent woman she tends to play strong, intelligent, independent women. She is always and clearly herself and in life (one gets the impression) doesn't suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. She has a naturally dramatic look, and knows how to use bright red lipstick. 

We once fell into conversation one afternoon outside the National Film Theatre after a screening of Raoul Walsh's White Heat. This would be over twenty-five years ago and I expect, what with her busy career and everything, she may quite possibly have forgotten our brief encounter by now. I've also forgotten what we talked about (although we shared an admiration for Cagney's acting), but I can clearly remember her voice, which was very attractive. Film producers who favour Keira Knightley or Gwyneth Paltrow are unlikely to form a rowdy queue but unlike gurning Keira and peaky Gwyneth she can act her socks off. She has a marvellous way of looking utterly haggard and woebegone, then suddenly blazing back into life. She's done some very good theatre over the years - House of Bernardo Alba, Shakespeare and so on, not to mention lots of telly, from cop dramas to comedy, none of which I've seen. Not much in the way of films - was she ever in a Harry Potter? She'd make a terrific witch. She's keeping afloat, I think. I just wish she'd work more in London theatres.

Despite a degree of fame (not the same thing as celebrity) she maintains a Garbo-like privacy. I know very little about her and she keeps a low profile on the internet. Her private life is refreshingly low-key or possibly non-existent and, in an age of trashy and talentless celebs, that's very classy. She's a hard working and (I imagine) essentially good person. I'd be interested to see what she makes of Mephistopheles - not a role traditionally played by women, although I seem to remember that Shelley Winters played Lucifer in a 1970s horror film. Redmond's casting offers many intriguing opportunities - not least for the costume designer, who, it seems, has ransacked my dreams for ideas:

Thursday 25 April 2013

Sporting greats

Swansea, 1968, and a cricket match between the counties of Glamorgan and Nottinghamshire, the latter team captained by the great West Indian all-rounder Garfield Sobers. Television cameras were present as Sobers hit each of the six consecutive balls delivered in an over out of the ground, scoring the maximum possible number of runs for an over - 36. It's a thrill to watch:


I mention this because there are reports today that his record was equalled yesterday by Lancashire's Jordan Clark during a Championship Second XI game against Yorkshire. Clark is the first English player to do this - and only the fifth in history. 

The equivalent might be scoring consecutive holes-in-one during a game of golf. This feat was easily and repeatedly achieved by the late Kim Jong Il, the beloved leader of North Korea who, in 1994, scored 11 holes-in-one during his first ever round, coming in 38 under par. This naturally remains a world record and, in case you're sceptically tempted to scoff, his brilliant display was witnessed by seventeen bodyguards. 

Archive footage © British Broadcasting Corporation / Hulton Getty Picture Library

Tuesday 23 April 2013

On private parts

An endless source of amusement and instruction is W. H. Auden's commonplace book, A Certain World (London, Faber and Faber, 1971). On page 269 he lists some euphemistic terms for the genitals:


Bald-headed hermit
Dr. Johnson
Silent (one eyed) Flute
Gosse's Neck
Hampton Wick


Ace of Spades
Front-Attic (or Front Garden)
Fumbler's Hall
Garden gate
Goldfinch's Nest
Jacob's Ladder
Leather Lane
Lobster Pot
Mother of St. Patrick
Milliner's Shop
Jack Nasty-Face
Receipt of Custom
Hans Carvel's Ring
Sportman's Gap

Many of these have an eighteenth century feel and most are now, alas, obsolete. Only 'Hampton Wick' - rhyming slang for prick and usually shortened to Hampton or Hamptons - is still in circulation (at least in the chortling context of Carry On films).

In 1989 a young Toby Litt (not yet an acclaimed novelist) contributed an excellent article to The Auden Society Newsletter about the poet's appearances in the Oxford English Dictionary (of which there are over 700). Here's an extract:

Among Auden's more notable citations are: the first pejorative use of "queer", the first printed use of "ponce" to designate an effeminate homosexual, of "toilet-humour", of "agent" in the sense of a secret agent or spy, of "dedicated" to mean a person "single-minded in loyalty to his beliefs or in his artistic or personal integrity", of "shagged" meaning "weary, exhausted", and of "stud" for a person "displaying masculine sexual characteristics". Further curiosities are the first printed appearance in English of the surrealist term "objet trouvé" and the first printed use of "What's yours?" as an invitation given by the person buying the next round of drinks.

Toby Litt

You can find Toby Litt's article here http://audensociety.org/04newsletter.html#P25_2800

Auden was also, according to Edward Mendelson in his introduction to The Prolific and the Devourer,  the first person to use the word 'apolitical' in print. Where would we be without him?

Extract from A Certain World © The Estate of W. H. Auden

Sunday 21 April 2013

Oi Yoi Yoi

More about a favourite artist, Roger Hilton, prompted by Friday's blog about David Brown, who was a close friend of his.

In 2008 I remarked to a friend, the art historian and critic Andrew Lambirth, that the logo for the Beijing Olympic Games seemed to owe something to Hilton's painting Oi Yoi Yoi. I was less than half-serious, and therefore surprised to read, in Andrew's excellent catalogue essay for a 2009 Hilton show at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, that there may have been more to my off-hand comment than I thought.

Roger Hilton Oi Yoi Yoi (1963)

Beijing Olympics logo (2008)

The Beijing logo of a running figure (above) was designed by Guo Chunning, and is a stylised calligraphic rendition of the Chinese character 京 (pronounced jīng, meaning 'capital', from the name of the host city). The logo represents both a dancing figure and a runner crossing the finishing line. It's not just the shape, and the way the limbs seem to extend beyond the frame, but the abstract blocks of red that serve to outline the figure which reminded me of Hilton's painting. Andrew suggested in his essay that Hilton may indeed have had a Chinese ideogram in mind when he created the original painting - his wide-ranging interest in other cultures would support such a view.

Oi Yoi Yoi is a really great picture, and makes me happy whenever I look at it or think about it. It's all about life. Hilton said the subject was 'my wife dancing on a verandah, we were having a quarrel. She was nude and angry at the time and she was dancing up and down shouting 'oi yoi yoi''.  This was on the balcony of their remote French home, and the pair had been guzzling rum. What Hilton didn't include in the picture, apparently because he didn't notice it at the time, was that the local fire brigade were tackling a blaze in a field nearby.

Hilton made a second version that year (below) which is every bit as good. I'm not sure which one I like best. The title of the first is better. The second image is more bouncy, and especially the breast.

Dancing Woman (1963)

Hilton, à propos, pioneered the admirable practice of drawing nudes in motion by encouraging Rose, his wife, to walk around as he sketched her. Good work!

Images © The Estate of Roger Hilton; Tate Gallery

Friday 19 April 2013

On North Korea

A link to the website of the Korean Central News Agency:


You could do worse than spend ten minutes here, to see how things are done in this dud state. Toby Lichtig has written brilliantly about the strident, weirdly boneless language deployed by the party hacks (see his piece on the TLS blog, which I've linked to my own) and I'll shortly be posting something about the language used by American fundamentalist religious cults, which has many overlaps with the sinister hysterical balls propagated on the KCNA site.

Auden nailed it when he wrote of an intellectual regime under which 'what is not forbidden is compulsory'.


Here's a taster of KCNA coverage (added after the original blog) from 18th April:

Participants in Art Festival Visit Museum of Weapons and Equipment of KPA
Pyongyang, April 18 (KCNA) -- The participants in the Third April Spring People's Art Festival visited the Museum of Weapons and Equipment of the Korean People's Army (KPA) on Thursday.

They looked round various rooms and outdoor exhibition places, being briefed on the fact that the museum was splendidly built under the energetic leadership of the dear respected Kim Jong Un.

They went round strategic rockets and various kinds of weapons and combat and technical equipment in the museum.

Sounds like a hell of a day.

Boom boom cluster

To Southampton City Art Gallery earlier this week to see the collection of paintings bequeathed by my late friend David Brown.

Portrait of Dr David Brown by Maggi Hambling (1986)

I shall certainly write more about David in a later blog and the only reason I haven't done so already, and at length, is because I still find it hard to accept the fact that he died in 2002, aged 76.

I knew him for the last four years of his life. We were introduced by a mutual friend from Japan, Kayoko Murumatsu,  and it's fair to say we hit it off. I shall never forget the many ramshackle six-hour lunches held in his kitchen (huge quantities of smoked salmon and gallons of wine), the wonderful talk, his (initially) disconcerting narcolepsy, the calculated disorder of the household, the lovely Flo (a neighbour who 'did' for Dr Brown, many years his senior and a lifeline) and, of course, his breathtaking collection of British art.

We met perhaps two dozen times - always for lunch at his home, with one exception, which I shall write about elsewhere. Those epic boozy lunches tended to peter out in the late afternoon, although sometimes merging into a riotous supper. Usually unable to go the distance I would weave unsteadily down Killyon Road to catch my bus home. The last thing one saw on leaving what he called his 'grotty palazzo' was an early Gilbert & George postcard sculpture entitled 'Heaven help a sailor on a night like this', created from comic images of inebriated seamen. It was an apt send-off.

At first we talked about everything except art. That came later. He was fond of my son Edwin (then aged three), and quite unruffled when Eddie accidentally smashed some valuable piece of heirloom china. 'Can't be helped,' he shrugged, and opened another bottle. He was a brilliant, spell-binding host as his many devoted friends will gratefully remember. I recall one of his disarmingly simple aphorisms: 'Art is complex because life is complex'. He talked of his approach as a curator, hanging pictures to create what he called 'a boom boom cluster', in which two adjacent works together create an effect on the responsive viewer. His whole house was one colossal boom boom cluster, with constant visual detonations to amaze and delight the fortunate visitor who was trusted to wander freely around the cluttered rooms, revelling in the unlabelled treasures. Perhaps his greatest achievement was a superb monograph (written, I believe, one marathon sitting) about the St Ives School of painters - Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson and the illustrious rest. My inscribed copy - given to me late in a particularly hectic and hilarious and convivial lunch - is a treasured possession. I still have some other books of his, and am especially fond of the complete Lyttleton Hart-Davis letters. The three tatty paperback volumes are kipper brown from cigarette smoke, and bits of dry tobacco spill from the seams, accumulated over many of his kitchen re-readings.

He was profoundly and quite unselfconsciously eccentric. Once a year until quite late in life he road a powerful motorcycle around London in a ritual attempt to see all the city's Rembrandts in a day. He would not remove his crash helmet until his final destination, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London, where he would unwrap and eat a pork pie. He tended to carry victuals in his hat. He had a photographic memory and could arrange a hypothetical exhibition in almost any major gallery in the land in his head (if that inelegant phrase makes sense). He knew, he said, 'all the spaces, all the walls.' He looked like Bacchus (or Silenus - he would know the difference) and savoured the bitter wormwood flavour of Fernet Branca, enjoying my spluttering disgust at my first and last taste. At the time I got to know him he lived and worked and slept much of the time at the western end of his huge kitchen table, which was piled with (it seemed) every catalogue of every current exhibition in Europe, and I mean piled - it seemed to me to ceiling height. One day I arrived to find that he had installed a very large and very expensive television set - his first, he said - positioned at one end of that kitchen table, turned on but with the sound down, which I suspect was a permanent arrangement until a few weeks later, when it mysteriously disappeared. The set came with a video player and I once took a copy of Listen to Britain, the wartime documentary short by Humphrey Jennings which he had, to my surprise never seen, He watched it intently, and at the end said, with tears in his eyes: 'he doesn't waste a single frame', which was acute.

His life was not without tragedy, but I shan't talk about that here. A sensitive obituary (which I presume was written by his close friend Martin Brunt) appeared in the Daily Telegraph and you can find it online if you want to read it. His funeral was a hoot. An old friend of his, an eminent art historian, recalled that DB divided the world into 'friends and fuckers', and looking around the crowded chapel added: "I can see many of those friends here today (pause) and one or two fuckers'. .We knew who we were.

But back to Southampton. David Brown had a superb collection of over 40 Roger Hilton works and it was a pleasure to see some of them again, in the excellent company of the curator Tim Clayton. We spent an hour together in the gallery's basement - a wonder show of pictures, some familiar but others entirely new to me. Best of all was the astonishing hammerhead nude, last seen propped on the mantelpiece of his guest bedroom in Wandsworth.

This nude anticipates Hilton's masterpiece Oi Yoi Yoi, which I'll blog about tomorrow.

Brown had befriended the Hiltons (in the 1960s I think) and kept them afloat during a particularly difficult period in their life. Roger (suffering from peripheral neuritis and bed-ridden), his wife Rose and their two sons were living in a tiny cottage in the remote Cornish village of Botallack, some miles from St. Ives. Hilton's last works were a series of astonishing gouaches, using the humblest materials - poster paint and butcher's paper - produced in extremis. Painted at night (when he could work for only a few minutes at a time) as his body failed, they are not all successful but the best of them, which is to say most of them, are dazzling in their energy and invention.  

Roger died in David's arms in 1975. David died in 2002 following a heart attack at the foot of the staircase in the grotty palazzo. The staircase was closely hung with dozens of Hilton gouaches behind dusty, fly-blown glass. Elephants, lions, tigers, crocodiles. 'My menagerie,' growled Brown, approvingly, on my first awestruck tour. I like to think that these were the last things he saw.

The large, gloomy and rather dilapidated house had many hundreds of wonderful pictures, most of them stacked on the floor facing the walls in upstairs rooms. The gloom was necessary to protect fragile drawings and gouaches from light damage, but it also brought a mildly sacred air to our meetings, and to my encounters with his collection. His bedroom was spartan, with a simple camp bed (army-issue by the look of it, and clearly dating from his African days), a metal table and little else, apart from a small gem-like oil which I think was either a Bomberg or  a Gertler. He had a couple of mouth-watering Sol le Witts, a huge number of Ian Hamilton Finlays (one of the largest collections in private hands - the two men remained cordial enemies for decades) and a portrait by Maggi Hambling (above, top) which he kept in its bubble wrap. The Hiltons, though, were what knocked me sideways - most of them are now in the British Museum. He also had some terrific pictures by Wyndham Lewis. I soon realised that  artworks labelled Private Collection I'd admired over the years in exhibitions and catalogues were, in many cases, his.  

I had planned to see him later in the week he died, with a belated birthday gift. It was a new recording of  Janáček's Káťa Kabanová, which I still have, intact in its cellophane wrapper. I really wish he hadn't died. His is one of the voices I  miss most, growling eloquently about politics, religion, economics and even, sometimes, art.

Here's the obituary: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1397479/David-Brown.html

David Brown. Doc Brown. A good man, and a good friend, and much missed.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Thoughts on Thatcher

Casting around for some interesting thoughts about Margaret Thatcher, who has died, and whose body is being cremated later today, I found this letter in The Independent from Dr. Sean Gabb, Director of the Libertarian Alliance. It's a largely dispassionate summary of a remarkable political career but offers (I think) an alternative to Tory obsequies and the sour miserabilism of the Left. The Independent gave Gabb's letter the headline Savage look at the Thatcher legacy. The version below comes from the LA website, which can be found here: http://libertarianalliance.wordpress.com/author/seangabb/ 


Savage look at the Thatcher legacy. 

Much will be said over the next few weeks about the “achievements” of Margaret Thatcher. These will probably divide between Daily Mailish eulogies and Guardianesque whines. My view is that she was a bad thing for Britain.

She started the transformation of this country into a politically correct police state. Her government behaved with an almost gloating disregard for constitutional norms. She brought in money-laundering laws that have now been extended to a general supervision over our financial dealings. She relaxed the conditions for searches and seizure by the police. She increased the numbers and powers of the police. She weakened trial by jury. She gave executive agencies the power to fine and punish without due process. She began the first steps towards total criminalisation of gun possession.

She did not cut government spending. Instead, she allowed the conversion of local government and the lower administration into a system of sinecures for the Enemy Class. She gave central government powers of supervision and control useful to a future politically correct government. Her encouragement of enterprise never amounted to more than a liking for big business corporatism. Genuine enterprise was progressively heaped with taxes and regulations that made it hard to do business.

Big business, on the other hand, was showered with praise and legal indulgences.

Indeed, her privatisation policies were less about introducing competition and choice into public services than in turning public monopolies into corporate monsters pampered by the state with subsidies and favourable regulations, corporate monsters that were expected in return to lavish financial rewards on the political class.

She hardly cut taxes. She ruthlessly pushed the speed of European integration. Her militaristic foreign policy and slavish obedience to Washington mostly worked against the interests of this country.

The one war she fought that might have some justification was only necessary because her own colleagues had effectively told the Argentine government to invade the Falkland Islands.

Before her, trade unions were run by working-class people who used the strike and violence to achieve their ends. She ensured that the unions were taken over by the usual Enemy Class graduates.

Forget Margaret Thatcher as some hero of our Movement. She was, at best, the midwife of the New Labour Revolution. She did not just make the world safe for New Labour – she created New Labour. Without her precedents and her general transformation of our laws and institutions, Tony Blair presiding as Prime Minister would have been impossible.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

On Robert Wyatt

In September 1974 Robert Wyatt appeared on BBC Television's Top of the Pops, performing Neil Diamond's perfect pop song 'I'm a Believer'.

Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5ivg0cDBgo

Wyatt had fallen drunkenly from a fourth floor window in Maida Vale the previous summer and had been paralysed from the waist down. A producer reportedly objected to the singer appearing in a wheelchair on the grounds that such a spectacle 'was not suitable for family viewing'. There was a hoo-hah and Wyatt won. (On the cover of that week's New Musical Express the whole band appeared in wheelchairs.)

It's an intriguing clip. The teenagers herded into the studio bop self-consciously while Wyatt sways his way gently through the song. He has the loveliest voice, although he doesn't so much perform the song as admit it. I was fifteen years old at the time and missed the performance on telly but heard the single on the radio and have been a fan ever since. He never fails to surprise and delight.

Looking for the clip I came across this on Wikipedia: The verb "Wyatting" has appeared in some blogs and music magazines to describe the practice of playing weird tracks on a pub jukebox to annoy the other pub goers. Wyatt was quoted in The Guardian as saying "I think it's really funny" and "I'm very honoured at the idea of becoming a verb." However, when asked if he would ever try it himself, he said: "I don't really like disconcerting people, but even when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway."

Thoughts of Robert Wyatt are prompted by the recent online campaign, following the death of Margaret Thatcher, to boost the song 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead' from The Wizard of Oz to a number one spot in the charts. This appears to have been achieved, to the fury of Daily Mail hacks, but if there is one song from the Thatcher era that really nails the horror and folly of the Falklands War, and the howling bellicosity of ministers and the Tory media at the time, it's the heart-breaking Shipbuilding, written in 1982 by Elvis Costello and gently sung by RW.

Sunday 14 April 2013

On Henry Green

In a 1958 interview in The Paris Review, Henry Green described the inspiration for his great 1945 novel Loving. It's stuck with me since I first read it. "I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: 'Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.' I saw the book in a flash."

Part of the appeal of Green is that he's a low-output writer - ten novels produced over thirty years of which Living, Loving and Party Going are solid modernist masterpieces. I'm re-reading Party Going (1939) and struck again by how brilliantly economical he is with his sparing detail. The setting throughout is a hotel room overlooking a fog-bound railway terminus, in which a group of privileged travellers kill time waiting for a train. It begins thus:

Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.

Omitting the articles which should logically appear as the first and fifth words is slightly shocking - to achieve such dislocating strangeness with so slight a means. Green does this all the time, and makes the familiar new and unsettling. Party Going is entirely static - there's little in the way of plot but one is  absorbed by the momentous sense of nothing happening, in what the French call temps morts. Outside the upholstered comfort of the railway hotel thousands are gathered on the dark concourse, where life goes on, teemingly, all the time.

A painting called The Arrival of the Jarrow Marchers in London, Viewed from an Interior by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale would make a perfect cover illustration for Party Going. It hangs, or used to hang, in East London's Geffreye Museum and I wonder whether Green saw it before starting work on Party Going and may even, as was the case with Loving, have seen the whole novel in a flash.

The Arrival of the Jarrow Marchers in London, Viewed from an Interior (1936)
© The Geffrye Museum

The painting represents a very particular moment in history - the arrival in London on October 31 1936 of 200 marchers from the depressed town of Jarrow to present a petition to parliament calling for action to create employment and end poverty in the town. The 300-mile Jarrow March is fondly remembered by those on the left in British politics although (and this tends to be conveniently unremembered) the Labour Party of the day opposed it, and the Trades Union Congress advised its members not to help the marchers.

The Jarrow Marchers enjoyed widespread popular support from the public despite campaigns by the press barons Beaverbrook and Rothermere to portray them as Bolshevik subversives and worse. But I'm getting a long way from Henry Green. What's my point? I'm writing this blog on a warm April Sunday morning and to the sound of church bells, which prompted the choice of Green as a subject about half an hour ago. This led to thoughts of the 1930s and looking around today's Britain there's a growing sense of déjà vu that began with last summer's Olympic boondoggle. Thoughts of the Berlin Olympiad in 1936 were never far off, and since then we have undergone precipitous economic decline, cuts to essential public services, increasing poverty and social division accompanied by the rise of an ugly plutocracy - sleazy billionaire oligarchs now seem to have the freedom of London. I hate to finish on a gloomy note - but you'll remember how the thirties ended up.

Friday 12 April 2013

Ineluctable cock-up

'A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery,' wrote James Joyce, modestly. He might have added that if you're looking for an epic balls-up, bankers are a corresponding portal.

The unattractive object below is one of 10,000 commemorative coins minted (in Germany) for the Central Bank of Ireland and released yesterday. It depicts a trepanned, cyclopean, pointy-chinned Joyce and, in the kind of lettering usually seen on the covers of chick lit paperbacks, the first two sentences from Chapter 3 of Ulysses

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things that I am here to read.

© Royal Bank of Ireland

The launch, held in University College Dublin (Joyce's alma mater), was hastily followed by a red-faced press release, part of which reads:

The Central Bank acknowledges that the text on the Joyce coin does not correspond to the precise text as it appears in Ulysses (an additional word “that” has been added to the second sentence). While the error is regretted, it should be noted that the coin is an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation.

You'll admire the gormless evasive wriggle implicit in the use of the passive voice 'the error is regretted' and 'it should be noted'. I'm keen to learn, perhaps from the chump who wrote that balls, how a misquotation can be flourished as an 'artistic interpretation' as opposed to 'a literal representation' (by which I suppose is meant 'an accurate transcription of the original text'). They want it both ways, these bankers - to have the prestige-by-association of Joyce, a notoriously 'difficult' writer that otherwise literate people are unashamed to admit never reading, as though this were evidence of their own robust common sense, and (at the same time) arrogantly to assert that he is grist to their aesthetic mill, subordinate to the sanctioned 'interpretation' of a boorish commercial concern.

The coin's designer, who is probably having a bad week, is called Mary Gregoriy (and that is how she spells her name, which is mildly annoying).

The passage from which the two sentences have been artistically interpreted renders the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus as he walks alone along Sandymount Strand, his mind calmly racing. What in Erin's name it has to do with coinage is anyone's guess:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.

Let's agree that it's an odd choice of text. Joyce's writings offer plenty of quotable money-related zingers so one wonders who settled on this one, and how. No blame can be possibly attached to the artist. who clearly can't have chosen the original quotation because, as she admits on her blog (http://marygregoriysculptor.blogspot.co.uk):

                  'I have not really read a book for such a long time - too busy at the mo.' 

So perhaps a committee of Irish plutocrats with literary leanings met over lunch, or several lunches, to wrangle learnedly over a shortlist submitted by a cohort of respected Joyce scholars and high-minded numismatists. Or their spouses, at some convivial book club? Their children? Mates in the pub with blindfold and pin? Having settled, perhaps arbitrarily, on the sentences for Gregoriy to render in her squiggly 'hair writing' did nobody check, and then sign off, the final version? Wasn't there a preliminary drawing? Did no memos circulate? No emails between artist and client and mint? If some official responsible for signing it off did sign it off - shouldn't they get a symbolic bollocking? (I'm a firm believer in blame culture, especially in the financial sector.)

Nobody, however, is likely to care enough to apportion or accept blame, and I expect everybody at the bank is privately congratulating themselves over the enormous amount of coverage the error is likely to receive and, in a misguided access of optimism, the boom in sales of the coin under advisement. But they are wrong - who in their right mind and with the slightest interest in Joyce would want to own this pisspoor and preposterous ten euro coin costing, quite incredibly, forty-six euros? You'd have to be a banker. The total issue has been valued by the Irish Central Bank at €4,600,000, although the face value is fixed at €50,000. There's an artistic interpretation for you. Purchases are limited to three per customer, so get there early and form an orderly queue.

If the modernist intellectuals at Central Bank need an alternative Ulysses quotation for a replacement coin they could do worse than choose what is among the most beautiful sentences ever written. It describes the sky over Dublin on the night of 16th June 1904 as seen by Leopold Bloom, in the back garden of his house at 7 Eccles Street:

                             The heaventree of stars hung with humid night blue fruit.

Even an Irish banker couldn't make a hash of that. 

Thursday 11 April 2013

Hemingway has lunch

It was at the Brasserie Lipp, Boulevard Saint-Germain, as recorded in A Moveable Feast (1964), published posthumously: 

The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes à l'huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes à l'huile were gone I ordered another serving of cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce. I mopped up all the oil and all of the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to loose its coldness and finished it and ordered a demi ...

I went there twenty years ago to do the same thing. They famously don't take reservations (except, reportedly, from the President himself) so one has to queue for some time, even on a quiet day. As I waited self-consciously in line I saw, at what I immediately recognised as not only the best table in the Lipp but the best table in Paris, or possibly in the world, Charlotte Rampling wearing a crisp white shirt and smoking a cigarette, attentively surrounded by a the sort of men who would prompt an apolitical observer to join the Communist Party. 

Ushered to a remote table in a gloomy back room I diligently ordering the cold beer, the pommes à l'huile and a single serving of Hemingway's heavy sausage (it's a pricey joint). The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink, the pommes à l'huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. The expensive cervelas was barely edible. But I was a few yards from la Rampling, and that was good  enough.

Extract from A Moveable Feast © The Estate of Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Spoon jar jar spoon

Watch Tommy Cooper.

He had the figure of a lofty guardsman gone to seed, oilslick hair, a lantern jaw and a beery voice that was little more than a mild growl. His catch-phrase 'Just like that' was uttered like a phlegmy cough - "Djuzzlaitha!" He was elegant in evening dress, shambolic in a suit and nobody looked better in a fez. He could make an audience collapse by doing nothing at all, brilliantly. He's the incarnation of Ed Wynn's elegant dictum: 'A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny.' Tommy Cooper was a comic, and a comedian, and a great magician. The thought of him makes me smile.

Many of his props were obtained from Davenports, a dimly-lit wonder-store in a dank subway near Charing Cross Station, and a place I love to visit. What he did with these off-the-peg props was magisterially incompetent - he lacked, elaborately, the smooth attributes that make merely capable magicians a bore, yet his technical skill as a conjuror was dazzling. I never saw him perform live, but his low-budget front-of-curtain television routines are as close to a live performance as can be - and they remain live, chaos in aspic. Dear old Tommy Cooper!

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Centenary blog

This is my hundredth blog, prompting thoughts of the past.  I have no idea who wrote this heartless music hall song, or when, but it's long been a favourite of mine:

A mother was bathin' her baby one night
The youngest of ten, a poor little mite.
The mother was fat and the baby was fin,
T'was nawt but a skellington wrapped up in skin.

The mother turned round for the soap from the rack,
She weren't gone a minute, but when she got back
Her baby had gone, and in anguish she cried:
"Oh, where is my baby?", and the angels replied:

"Your baby has gorn dahn the plug'ole,
Your baby has gorn dahn the plug.
The poor little thing was so skinny and thin
He shoulda been bathed in a jug.

Your baby is perfik'ly happy,
He won't need no bathin' no more.
He's workin' his way through the sewers
Not lost, just gone on before."

I couldn't find a recorded version so here's the next best thing: Albert Chevalier singing (rather mournfully) 'Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road'. Noël Coward painstakingly taught Marlene Dietrich this song, and she made a bizarre recording which can easily be found on the internet.


Chevalier (1861 - 1923) invented the 'coster' song, the most most popular of which was My Old Dutch (written by his brother Charles Ingle) about an old man's long and happy marriage ' We've bin togevvah nah fer fortee years...'.

Albert Chevalier

The title is Cockney rhyming slang: Duchess of Fife / wife. In real life Albert Chevalier's wife was Florrie, the daughter of music hall star George Leybourne, who was better known as 'Champagne Charlie.' Chevalier and Leybourne share a grave - and gravestone - in the wild and wonderful Abney Park Cemetery in North London. Walking around this huge site one summer's day I remember coming across their elaborate 19th century memorial and spending much of the afternoon alternatively humming and singing to myself, the style of a lion comique:

Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne Charlie is my name
There's no drink as good as fizz, fizz, fizz
I'll drink every drop there is, is, is
All round town it is the same
By Pop! Pop! Pop! I rose to fame
I'm the idol of the barmaids
Champagne Charlie is my name.

Stanley Holloway played Leybourne in the very first Ealing Studios comedy in 1944:

This is the kind of film that regularly cropped up on television on Sunday afternoons when I was a child, and which is hardly seen at all anywhere now. This is a shame, as a continuity is lost and songs which were once part of everyone's cultural luggage have been forgotten within a generation. One also wonders what films grandparents and grandchildren today watch together with equal pleasure.

But back to music hall songs.  The choruses, at least, lodge stubbornly in the memory in a way that more recent popular music fails to do:

As I walk along the Bois de Bologne
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
"He must be a Millionaire."
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

If nothing else they provide one of the infinite number of keys to Finegans Wake, for which I suppose we must be grateful.

Monday 8 April 2013

Happy birthday

Today is the birthday of the gifted stage designer Laura Hopkins, and here's her new website

Happy birthday, Laura.

Friday 5 April 2013

Signifficant other

In yesterday's blog I mentioned the series of four books written by Geoffrey Willans, with illustrations by Ronald Searle. It's a pleasure simply to type out the titles - Down with Skool! A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and their Parents (1953), How to be Topp: A Guide to Sukcess for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Kno about Space (1954), Whizz for Atomms: A Guide to Survival in the 20th Century for Fellow Pupils, their Doting Maters, Pompous Paters and Any Others who are Interested (1956) and finally, after Willans's early death at 47 (chiz chiz chiz), Back in the Jug Agane (1959).

I shan't bang on about the abiding excellence of these four vivid despatches from the frontline of the ramshackle prep school St. Custards, or attempt to defend them from their witless, poe-faced detractors. Kevin Jackson (a real fan) has written very well indeed about the subject here:


Jackson says that Searle is to Willans what Tenniel is to Lewis Carrol - in both cases the pictures enrich the the books to an extraordinary degree. Searle is especially good at institutional seediness: St. Custards is a sour wilderness of littered corridors, flyblown gothic traceries, inkstained blotch and impoverished, cobwebby, down-at-heel masters.

Pausing only to yell yar boo sucks at J. K. Rowling for appropriating without acknowledgement the name of Hogwarts from How to be Topp, let me share a couple of favourite passages, the first between the books' narrator Nigel Molesworth ('the goriller of 3b and curse of St. Custards') and the loutish schoolmaster GRIMES (always capitalised). The subject is holiday reading matter:

'What hav you read, molesworth?

gulp gulp a rat in a trap.

'Proust, sir.'

'Come agane?'

'Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan's way.

'Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?'

'The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages - '

'SILENCE' thunder GRIMES. There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.'

There's a whole world in that last sentence, as in Auden's 'like the ham in a temperance hotel'. Elsewhere the following peerless dialogue occurs during a football (or 'foopball') match:

'Wot is yore opinion of colin wilson, the new philosopher?' sa fotherington-tomas, hanging by his weedy heels from the crossbar.

'Advanced, forthright, signifficant,' i repli, kicking off the mud from my footer boots . . .

That 'signifficant' gets a laugh from me every time. I'm afraid that since reading this I've never been able to see Colin Wilson (a very big name in the 1950s, on the strength of his precociously 'forthright' first book, The Outsider) in a serious light - Molesworth's curt summation efficiently demolished any future claim Wilson may have had on my attention. Needless to say when I first read the passages I hadn't a clue who Proust was, or Wilson, but something in me responded wholly to Molesworth's tone - caustic, world-weary and shrewd beyond his years. The books are erudite, subversive, wildly inventive (much of what happens takes place in dreams) and savagely satirical. Molesworth sees things clearly for what they are, and is not impressed. The four books are also impressively consistent - there isn't a dud episode and the inimitable tone never lapses. One can read them in any order (and it's only now I realise that what I've always supposed to be the the last book is, in fact, the second - the order in which one first reads them tends to stick).

One minor detail has puzzled me for years - the odd references by Molesworth to something called radio malt (never capitalised), so I looked it up. This is taken from the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

Radio Malt was an early to mid-20th century brand of malt extract preparation that followed the Minadex trend. Produced by British Drug Houses, it contained Vitamin A, aneurine hydrochloride, riboflavin, and calciferol. The contents were sickly sweet, with a consistency between molasses and treacle. 

It was available in the UK by the mid-1920s and assessed as a treatment for rickets. It was apparently often used in English boarding schools as a supplement to a very basic diet, and especially popular after the Second World War to give skinny undernourished children extra bulk. As any fule kno.

Extracts © Picador / The Estates of Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans

Thursday 4 April 2013

On Jennings

Young readers today have Harry Potter and Hogwarts. We had Jennings and Linbury Court. 

Written by Anthony Buckeridge (1912-2004), this was a series of twenty-five books about the goings-on at a minor prep school and the escapades of the eponymous hero and his bespectacled chum Darbishire. I was about ten when I read my first (Jennings' Little Hut) and it was by far the funniest book I had ever read, and so were the others. Buckeridge is a very funny writer indeed - the schoolboy's P. G. Wodehouse. Schoolboy humour is regularly derided as being - well what, exactly? Puerile? I should hope so. It was only the discovery of the anarchic, sarcastic and iconoclastic schoolboy Nigel Molesworth in four brilliant brilliant books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle that displaced Jennings in my capricious affections. Jennings was a bit of a rascal but Molesworth was every beak's worst nightmare. Molesworth formed me.

Jennings had classmates called Venables, Atkinson, Temple and Bromwich. Do any schools today continue the tradition of addressing pupils only by their family name? Surely not. It was this imposed formality that prompted, by way of a welcome side-effect, the ingenious invention of distinctive nicknames. Venables, for instance, was actually Charles A. Temple Venables, so his initials were C.A.T., which obviously became Dog, which was naturally lengthened to Dogsbody then inevitably shortened to Bod. Bod Venables. This made me laugh like Billy-O.

In the nearby village there was a shop which sported a memorable sign:

         Home-made Cakes and Bicycles Repaired

This is where our chums went for jam doughnuts and bottles of fizzy lemonade. In one episode Jennings and Darbishire had tell the proprietor, known mysteriously as Chas. and never Charles, that the problem with their bike was that 'the black back brake block's broken'. But they couldn't say that, because nobody can. 'My bike's black back brake block's broken'. This is still very funny, I think. I also relished Buckeridge's elaborate profanities ('Fossilised fishhooks!') and the volcanic rages of 'Old Wilkie', aka Mr. Wilkins, Jennings' choleric form master.

My own high school (a pretentious grammar dedicated to the production of mid-echelon public servants) was  inevitably a disappointment, although it was an entirely male sodality, we all addressed one another by our surnames and we did have to study Latin. It was a very pale imitation of Linbury Court and although we had our fair share of eccentric (indeed 'troubled') masters and corporal punishment and unchallenged traditions (centred around the house system - Sparta! Athens! Tuscany! Troy!) there was a complete lack of the anarchic energy and generously rebellious spirit incarnated by Jennings and company. We had to wear bottle-green uniforms, including little caps. 

What prompts this blog? Walking along Hornsey High Street in North London this morning I saw a modern-day equivalent to the Buckeridge shop sign:

         Milk Shakes and Eyebrow Threading

 Floreat Jennings!

Tuesday 2 April 2013

My home town (2)

My thanks and a tip o'the hat to the architect Peter Richards who read an earlier blog on my home town, Southend-on-Sea.

I signed off that blog with a picture of the Civic Centre's modernist fountain and he got in touch to tell me:

I and my architect colleague Alan Hardy persuaded the council to commission Willian (Bill) Mitchell to design the civic fountain. He also designed a reworking of the coat of arms which stands over the mayor's chair in the council chamber. We also commissioned the bronze door to the west face (per mare per ecclesiam)

There was also, he tells me, specially designed wallpaper in the council chamber based on the coat of arms and designed by another colleague, Tony Miller. The enormous bronze doors are marvellous, in friendly 'Macmillan Nurses' lettering, as I recall. They must weigh a ton and be worth a small fortune - I hope they haven't been nicked by metal thieves and melted down. The whole site harks back to a now remote era of municipal pride and a bracingly spendthrift approach to civic architecture. Never such confidence again.

Here's another image of the fountain in its time-warp 1970s setting. The years have been kind to the main Civic Centre block in the background, which is beginning to look quite stylish and Centre-Pointy, although the adjacent technical college has been closed for years and is a mess. [Note - now demolished and replaced with some truly stomach-turning apartment blocks.]

The fountain's sculptor Bill Mitchell (born 1925 and happily still with us) has a marvellous CV, including a spell working for Mohammad al-Fayed. I hand't realised that he was also responsible for the monumental figures in Salford known as The Minut Men which share with the Southend fountain a Mayan or Incan quality. This look had a lot of contemporary appeal; I'm reminded of a now-defunct chain of cheap, dimly-lit restaurants called The Golden Egg (there was one in the town) which had turquoise ceramic wall decorations designed to evoke a night out in Machu Picchu.

Bill Mitchell fountain

I don't know whether the Southend fountain has been listed. It should be. There's a wonderful piece on Mitchell here, including newsreel footage on the artist at work and links to other sites:

It was Peter Richards who designed the two attractive red and blue kiosks in the High Street which were perfectly in tune with the festival spirit of a seaside town, and brought a jolly whiff of slap 'n' tickle to the shopping centre. One was (and I hope still is) a fruitmongers; the other an ice cream parlour. You can see them both in this picture taken in (I guess) the early 1980s:

Jolly kiosks

I could find only one picture (below) of the labyrinthine arcades that were once a much-loved feature of the town centre and a magnet for this infant flâneur. I recall sacks of Bonio dog biscuits piled in the dusty gloom, a newsagents smelling of ink and coconut mushrooms, a toyshop full of shiny enamel'd Dinky and Matchbox model cars, and an artists' materials shop run by man with a goatee, Lawrie Matthews. There were articulated wooden figures in its brightly-lit window. The arcades were very lovely: scruffy, shadowy and aromatic. But were all swept away by the aggressively undistinguished Hammerson shopping centre development in the late 1970s. 

The whole pitiful Southend fiasco doesn't feature on the sleek Hammerson website, although there's no shortage of plug-ugly malls with preposterous names still being perpetrated by this venal and rapacious firm in the luckless suburbs and the Centrale (Croydon) can stand for them all. A curse on Lewis Hammerson, the company's founder, his heirs and beneficiaries, his architects and builders. By their company website shall ye know them:

Our strategy is to deliver industry leading shareholder returns by maximising income from our retail properties and development pipeline. We develop or acquire to create compelling retail properties in successful locations.

I could hardly have said it better myself. 'Development pipeline' is perfect although 'Industry leading shareholder returns' is rather coy. They mean mind-boggling profits, we can assume. I loathe everything about the Hammerson Group: their bumptious prose and clobberingly horrible legacy. They  built the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, still going strong, or strongish, in its dingy North Circular way. The gormless windblown rain-stained inelegant poorly-detailed lump they imposed in place of the charming arcades of my home town was, within a few years of opening, so bleak and run down that ITV used it as the setting for a 1978 dystopian television drama about juvenile delinquents called City Sugar, by a young writer calle Stephen Poliakoff. 

Southend arcades

Hammerson development
Paradoxically the image I found which most immediately brought back the pre-Hammerson town of my childhood is this charming painting. I have no idea who the artist is and can;'t find any copyright
holder (so do let me know if you know who it is). It looks to me like it might be a jigsaw design.

Only a fadeograph of a yestern scene

This view, looking north, shows the railway bridge carrying trains to Fenchurch Street in the City of London. Beneath it on the right was a cavernous open-fronted fishmongers which gave the shadowy space a sub-marine atmosphere, the pavement permanently wet with melted ice. Most shops had faded awnings offering shelter for shoppers come rain or shine -  an Edwardian hangover, like the large number of functional public clocks (few back then owned watches) and urinals (which all seem to have disappeared, although we don't seem to be peeing any less). There were relatively few private motor cars (so there was no need for car parks) and the town's well-maintained fleet of double-decker buses had an attractive blue and cream livery and looked like something from a children's book.

The large building in the background with a green copper dome is (now was) the Odeon cinema, the largest in the town. On the left is a branch of Garons (the local equivalent to a Lyons' Corner House) and the two-tone lorry outside is owned by the then-nationalised British Railways. On the right a second, larger Garons (the Starbucks of the mid-century Thames delta).

This is not a nostalgic blog - the town at the time represented in this image was for me as a child a now-town, not a then-town, and seemed perfectly modern. But let me at least stick up for half a dozen things that were certainly better then:

signage, and especially hand-painted signage. No plastic, no generic franchises, no modish logos, no acrylic banners;

- a variety of small, locally-based family-run businesses (before the coming of Tesco and their filthy ilk);

- a bustling mixed retail environment, not a botox'd, barren precinct without traffic or evening visitors;

- civic utility in the form of public transport, meals on wheels (remember that?), mobile libraries and other services run by an elected Borough Council;

- an architectural coherence and proportion, in a largely low-rise Victorian and Edwardian townscape;

- as I recall, some nice sticky-carpet pubs catering for all ages (not the garish hangouts of today).

But I suppose I am being nostalgic, if not actually sentimental. The last time I walked up the High Street from Central Station all the good shops had closed down and what was left were dispiriting hangers-on, all clearly failing. There was no bustle, no sense of being at the centre of things. Much had been permanently lost, much of which we never much appreciated at the time. The townscape has become cruder, brasher, harsher. The surviving businesses are almost all franchises - coffee outlets, fast food places, mobile phone stores and stuff like that. These all seemed to me to be struggling. I expect it's the same everywhere. In time the only sustainable activities in any high street will be nail shops, coffee franchises and topless bars - everything else can be had on the internet.