Wednesday 31 July 2013

Tommy again

Five more minutes with the great Tommy Cooper.

"Tonight I'm going to express my feelings by speaking to you through my trumpet"

It's all good - and the real gem is the duck trick. I wept with laughter - really wept - when I saw this for the first time. Perhaps my overseas readers - you know who you are - will have no idea who Tommy Cooper was, but I want to avoid the assumption that I'm addressing an audience of hypothetical sceptics and am quite sure that if you read this blog even occasionally you're likely to enjoy this five-minute clip as much as I do. It's a  deceptively calculated performance. Look at the way he slumps slightly at the end of the final trick, as the curtain is pulled back to reveal, climactically, that nothing at all has happened. There's a heartbeat pause before he continues, as hope dies. Watch the full five minutes here.

The company that supplied Cooper's props - including the duck - is still trading, and has a subterranean store near Charing Cross station. It's called Davenports. Their print catalogue is one of my favourite bedside books. Have a look here.

Clip © London Weekend Television

Monday 29 July 2013

How to write a good story

A hand-written poster by a class of seven year olds at our local primary school lists the following essential components - accurately transcribed below - of a good story. Who knew? Tittle and dialog are the hardest things to get right.







          words instead of said



          con pound words


          problem resilution





Thursday 25 July 2013

Favourite snatches (10)

'That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct.'

From Tony Blair's memoirs. Why is this a favourite snatch? 

It serves to remind us that a man's prose is a reflection of his character. There are just 43 words, five of which are 'me' and four 'I'. That's about 20% of the lexical total, which is high by any political standard.

See how it looks with appropriate emphasis (or what linguists call 'contrastive stress'):

'That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct.'

"Devoured" is beyond parody. And shouldn't "my instinct" be "its instinct"? What a horrible tosser.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Jimmy James and company

This goes back a long time - the great Jimmy james performing his 'Lion in a Box' sketch, back in the days of regional broadcasting, in this case Tyne Tees Television in (I guess) the early 1960s. But the act originated long before, and seems almost Victorian in its cruel whimsy. 

James looks quite remarkably like W. H. Auden - so much so that I wonder whether he shared Auden's rare condition, Guillain–Barré syndrome, which causes lugubrious, heavily creased facial features

The two stooges are the magnificently-named Hutton Conyers (on the left in the clip) and Eli Woods (right, then appearing under his stage name of Bretton Woods). The marvellously strange Woods - who has always mesmerised me - was born John Casey, and known to his friends as Jack. He's one of the minor treasures of English variety.

Here it is: five minutes of spellbinding surrealism, and some elegant smoking gestures too. The only known recording of Lion in a box

Monday 22 July 2013

A cure for insomnia

Restless? Mind racing? Can't get to sleep? Try listing authors, alphabetically, who are best known by their initials. Once you get to Z start again at A. Extra points if you know what the initials stand for.

A. A. Milne (scores double)

B. Traven

C. S. Lewis

D. H. Lawrence

E. Nesbit

F. Scott Fitzgerald

G. K. Chesterton

H. H. Munro

I. P. Knightly (the incontinent novelist - a schoolboy joke). Say I. A. Richards?

J. B. Priestley

K. D. Laing

L. P. Hartley

M. R. James

N. F. Simpson

O. Henry

P. G. Wodehouse

Q. D. Leavis

R. S. Thomas

S. E. Hinton

T. S. Eliot

U. A. Fanthorpe

V. S. Pritchett

W. H. Auden

X. Trapnel (admittedly a fictitious writer, but can't think of any other)

Y. (Getting drowsy . . .)

Z z z z z z z z z.

Works for me.

Saturday 20 July 2013

On double-barrelled names

The name of Kia Abdullah appeared in my January blog Gertrude Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.. It rang a faint bell so I looked her up. She is the author of two novels: Life, Love and Assimilation (2006) and Child's Play (2009), and we'll come to the second of these shortly. You may remember that she was at the centre of ferocious criticism in July 2011 for tweeting her  callous reaction to the news that three young British students (Max Boomgaarden-Cook, 20, Bruno Melling-Firth and Conrad Quashie, both 19) had been killed in a coach crash in Thailand. This is what she tweeted:

               'Is it really awful that I don't feel any sympathy for anyone killed on a gap year?' 

Gap years didn't exist in my day (and I realise that using the phrase 'in my day' disqualifies its user from venting any opinion on the subject). But my understanding is that a gap year combines travel to places which I'd never heard about as a teenager with some kind of CV-boosting altruistic works, such as teaching English or helping out in a hospice or digging culverts. So I'm not sure what prompted Abdullah's scorn. Perhaps the fact that she, coming from a modest background, did not enjoy what she regards as a middle-class extravagance?

Then she added: 

                'I actually smiled when I saw that they had double-barrelled surnames. Sociopath?' 

Mneh. Not a sociopath. Just a thoughtless, unreflecting airhead. She was widely condemned by fellow tweeters and by the media and I imagine she still wakes up in a cold sweat from time to time at the thought of what she did, and how the family and friends of those unfortunate young men must have felt. 

Her take on the matter was not only offensive to most people but also (for a novelist, who should have an understanding of such things) dispiritingly ignorant - she failed entirely to take into account that double-barrelled names are as much a product of feminism and the parental desire to preserve both family surnames within a partnership or marriage as they are about top-hatted toffs forging dynastic alliances. Society has changed, or at least the manner of naming children. One in 50 Britons now has a hyphenated name, compared with one in 50,000 in 1901. I can't claim any statistical support for my view - no doubt as shallow and thoughtless as Abdullah's, if less hurtful - that convicted thugs and felons are these days as likely to have double-barrelled names as double-barrelled shotguns. 

The three young men who died in Thailand were, as it happens (and not that it makes the slightest difference to anyone apart from the Abdullahs of this world) all state-educated. Their ill-fated trip to Thailand was their first time abroad. 

It's tempting to make assumptions about Kia Abdullah's background, education and character on the strength of her name. I shan't, because I'm not like her. But I am going to make assumptions about her on the strength of her writing. Here's the blurb (presumably penned by the author) from her second published novel :

     25-year-old Allegra Ashe has an adoring boyfriend, a loving family and thriving career, 

     but a disturbing job offer from an alluring stranger threatens to shatter her seemingly 
     perfect life. She becomes entangled with Vokoban, a classified government unit that 
     tests the limits of the law in trying to catch society's worst offenders: paedophiles. 
     Allegra's life spirals out of control and we find ourselves voyeurs in a perverse world of 
     lust, danger, deceit and revenge. A tale of twisted sexuality and tortured morality, 
     Child's Play places a telescope into the darkest recesses of the human mind and invites     
     the reader to take a look.

Abdullah's reverse invocation of Vladimir Nabokov signals the sullen limit of her wit and invention,  She's a really lousy writer. If the prospect of a telescope placed into 'the darkest recesses of the human mind' is appealing, or even feasible, you may be tempted to splash out on her meretricious dribble, but you can save your money and stoke your schadenfreude by going online to enjoy the comments posted by her disgruntled readers on Amazon. They're eloquent enough to damage far solider talents than hers, although I suspect she's still twittering away contentedly about her life, her work, and whatever passes for her thoughts. She probably has another novel on the go.

But enough already. Am I being mean-spirited? 

Friday 19 July 2013

What twitter meant

Here's something I'm keen to share with you - that "twitter" was 1950s slang for menstruation.

My source is the 1957 novel Fowlers End, by Gerald Kersh. On page 210 of my edition (Valancourt Books, 2013) the narrator, Dan Laverack, has the following exchange with his girlfriend, June. She explains to him that she is not, as previously thought, pregnant. Dan asks her how she can be so sure:

"I'm trying to make you understand it was the little birdies that go tweet-tweet-tweet," she said.
"This I do not understand."
"Well, if you want me to put it in plain English, I was squiffy, and twittered." And when I still failed to grasp her meaning, she said, "Wait a minute," and got out What Every Girl Should Know, turned the pages until she found the item she wanted, which she marked for me with a delicate pink thumbnail. Feminine euphemisms never fail to amuse and astonish me; women will employ the vilest vulgarisms and the most sickeningly elusive argot rather than the clear scientific term. June Whistler was simply menstruating.

I can find no other evidence that twitter/twittering carried such a meaning (although Kersh employs the term several times on subsequent pages, at one point having Dan call June, affectionately, a 'twitterer').

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Chic Murray

The bone-dry and enigmatic Scottish comic Chic Murray tells his famous 'lady with a long nose' story. It's a brilliant routine, honed to perfection, without a wasted syllable. I'm afraid this, the only recording I could find, has distracting interruptions from celebrity fans (which may be a technical necessity to cover flaws or gaps in the original). Still - it's a valuable record of a great performer. Click here. Three minutes well spent.

By the way, it was Chic Murray who coined this bare-faced but irresistible compliment: "I don't know how old you are madam; but whatever your age is, you don't look it!" I wish I had the nerve - or the charm - to get away with it.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

On television

Will Gompertz is the BBC's Arts Editor.

I don't need a television licence because I haven't got a television. One reason I haven't got a television is that men like Gompertz make the kind of programmes they do. They tend to be in thrall to two (very moot) assumptions: that the viewer (a) knows nothing whatever about the subject and is therefore likely to be ignorant about everything else, or (b) may know something but is labouring under some misunderstanding that Gompertz or his peers can breezily correct. The latter usually involves debunking critical orthodoxies of the past (especially those assigning objective value to the work in question) and proposing the view that art is for everyone!

This is nonsense. Art, whatever form it takes, is never for for everyone, but should always, always be for anyone (see blogs passim). Likewise darts or nipple piercing or mountaineering or stamp collecting - they're not for everyone, but there should be no barriers to access for people who aim to find fulfilment in these fields. It strikes me as odd that cricket - a far more complex activity than any of the arts and subject to near-blanket coverage by all media - is never really 'popularised' by telly personalities who feel they can make it accessible to non-specialist viewers by (for instance) explaining the basic rules occasionally.

Another reason I haven't got a television is that I don't like watching television, which has become increasingly fidgety and incoherent in its form and content, and has too many unlikeable people flapping their arms around to communicate enthusiasm for whatever it is they're supposed to be presenting. Enthusiasm, rather then hard-won lightly-worn knowledge eloquently passed on is these days the only currency in circulation. Gompertz and his ilk are happy to see themselves as village explainers, convinced that simplification and popularisation are two sides of the same beneficial coin. Their approach is unflaggingly chirpy and flippant and they appear to lack any capacity for reverence. I have a particular aversion to the kind of television personalities (who may be personalities but rarely have a personality) who intrude themselves between the viewer and the subject. You know the sort of thing I mean: 'In Widdecombe's Isherwood the feisty ex-minister has just three weeks to drop a dress size and discover why leading gay writer Christopher Isherwood left England for America in 1939.' Gawd help us.

So I listen a lot to the radio, where Gompertz pops up occasionally to report on some happening in the arts. Recently, for instance, with a Today programme piece on the reopening, after a costly ten-year refurbishment, of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. 

Gompertz is not a shallow, foolish and uncultivated man but this is how, for reasons best known to himself and his producers, he chooses to present himself to BBC audiences. He is a stranger to seriousness, which he mistakenly confuses with solemnity. The arts, and coverage of the arts, needs more of the former, and none of the latter. Bring back the rostrum camera (in the able hands of the great Ken Morse) and the well-modulated voiceover artist delivering a thoughtful script - not the breathless, off-the-cuff stuff delivered by a talking head gesticulating (annoyingly) in front of whatever it is we're invited to admire. Let's rediscover stillness, the ability to contemplate. Television arts documentaries (indeed, documentaries in general) used to be slower and have more impact, as the viewer had time to think about the subject and the programme makers were aiming higher.

Gompertz recently published a book about modern art and made a short film to promote it. It's here:

Monday 15 July 2013

On gaffes

Here's a radio gaffe from November 2012 featuring Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs. 

He's just delivered his Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and is asked by the presenter Evan Davies about the escalating conflict in the Gaza Strip. Sachs doesn't realise he's still live on air. Then he does, and changes tack. Listen here 

Sachs is a distinguished public figure and a very honourable man, although his breathily intimate 'round midnight' broadcasting voice has never much appealed to me. I'd like him to expand the unguarded comment he makes into an extended analysis, rather than rehearsing the usual default-setting homilies that make up Thought for the Day. The contrast between what he says publicly and what he thinks privately is, of course, revealing, and (to be fair) he is admirably unflustered when he realises that he's been caught out. The opposite is unimaginable - that a politician (say) having delivered some concrete statement about the conflict in Iraq then makes an unguarded and heartfelt remark about the real value of prayer.

I wish this happened more often. It's always useful to know what our religious and political leaders really think.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Cute, zany, interesting

I'm currently reading Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting by Sianne Ngai, in which the author offers a challenge to the long-established aesthetic categories of the sublime and the beautiful - terms that traditionally implied a degree of historic continuity, of discrimination based on cultivated taste and exposure to the best in music, drama, poetry etc.

The author argues - not unpersuasively - that the existing categories are no longer fit for purpose and proposes three new aesthetic terms which respond to consumption (the cute), circulation (the interesting) and production and labour (the zany). 

Now bear with, as the young folk say, bear with, because this is where it gets interesting. The categories are, Ngai admits, self-evidently trivial and focus on the powerlessness of the object(s) under consideration. For Ngai it is this very powerlessness that is of critical interest. 

The following comes from Robert Eaglestone's review of the book in the TLS (12 April 2013):

The cute appears to be an aesthetic of powerlessness. (The "Hello Kitty" character, popular with little girls, does not even have a mouth.) Cute things appeal to us for "protection and care" and because of this, Ngai argues, with a crafty reading of Marx, the cute is the very essence of the commodity, which "lacks the power to resist man". Yet, in this way, the cute gets its revenge, because in seeming "to want us and only us for its mommy", the cute commodity is able to make large demands of us. This also explains the ambivalence that such items - bears, bath sponges, Hello Kitty itself - arouse. We want to possess them and, recognizing the power of this appeal, destroy them at the same time, as we realize, inchoately, perhaps, that the cute is at the heart of the all-powerful commodification of the world. This is why the cute turns out to be more complex when artists investigate it.

Complex perhaps, although I can't say that the kind of cuteness "investigated" in the work of, say, Jeff Koons holds much interest for me. The sublime and the beautiful are still to be experienced, of course, although the conditions of late capitalism certainly favour the cute.

Friday 12 July 2013

Get a Grip

Here's a thing.

This is a raven named Grip, who once belonged to Charles Dickens. When the bird died in 1841 Dickens had him stuffed and mounted and when the author died he (the raven) was sold at auction to an American collector and is now on display in the Philadelphia Library Rare Books Department. It's unlikely that any other bird contributed more to literature - not even Flaubert's parrot. Dickens mentions Grip by name in Barnaby Rudge, a novel I haven't read and one which has been avoided by film and television producers. I think the problem lies not just with the un-Dickensian subject matter - the anti-papal riots of 1780 - but also with the eponymous hero, who has few engaging traits and is rather marginal to the story. But Grip was also known to Edgar Allan Poe (and no prizes for guessing what poem the bird prompted).

You can read more about him in an excellent article here on a fascinating website dedicated to all things Corvidian:

Speaking of ravens I'm reminded of the Mad Hatter's riddle: "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"

The Hatter doesn't know the answer, which vexes poor Alice. Lewis Carroll was deluged with letters from young and old demanding an answer until he finally went into print with a number of possible responses, of which my favourite is "Because both begins with 'b'"

Thursday 11 July 2013

Aphrodite at the Waterhole

Here's a wonderful clip from The Rebel (1961), from a screenplay by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and starring the lad himself, Tony Hancock. His character is much the same as that created by his writers for the radio series Hancock's Half Hour - vain, pretentious and doggedly aspirational. He has no doubts about his artistic genius and longs to live in Paris. His landlady - the matchless Irene Handel - is unimpressed ("It's violent and puerile! It's all a load of miskerlaneous rubbish!").

The paintings seen on the walls in Hancock's studio, including the marvellous Ducks in Flight, are by Alistair Grant (1925-1997), a Royal College of Art professor. He had his work cut out in producing images that would pass muster as bad but could also convince an audience that critics - at least French critics - would find something in them to value.

Hancock Self-portrait from The Rebel by Alistair Grant

Hancock's ghastly monumental sculpture - Aphrodite at the Waterhole (or "That great ugly thing here" according to his landlady) has something in common with Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's wonderful Red Stone Dancer (below), which can be seen in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Red Stone Dancer (c.1913)

Anthony Aloysius Hancock Aphrodite at the Waterhole (c.1961)

The only other serious painter to have his work featured in a British comedy was John Bratby, who provided the images attributed to Gully Jimson (the maverick artist played by Alec Guinness) in The Horse's Mouth,  an under-rated 1958 film based on Joyce Carey's equally under-rated 1944 novel.

Bratby is also under-rated. It was his painting (below) that prompted the art critic David Sylvester to coin the term "kitchen sink", initially applied to Bratby's downbeat realism but soon taken up to refer to almost everything of interest happening in 1950s film, television and theatre.

John Bratby (1928-1992) Kitchen Sink 

Bratby's work was rather eclipsed by the arrival of razzmatazz pop art, but his stuff is looking good these days.

Images © The Estate of Alistair Grant; Kettle's Yard, Cambridge/The Estate of Henre Gaudier Brzeska; The Estate of John Bratby. I'm not sure who has copyright on these film still - so let me know. I assume it's fair use in the context?

Monday 8 July 2013

The Imperfect Martini

We're having a heatwave, and thoughts turn to drink

I can't stand those urbane lifestyle articles on mixing the Perfect Martini. He who would valiant be needs to know the proper way to make the Imperfect Martini, one that will work in the field, under fire, and in rough and ready environments such as the average suburban kitchen.

It has to be gin for a start, and never ever vodka, unless no gin is available, in which case vodka is fine. But when it's gin it has to be serious gin. Not the oily slick of Gordon's ghastly product, but the bracing naval yo-ho-ho of Plymouth (47% proof). Chilled glasses - chilled everything if possible - but no ice (it dilutes the liquor).  The glass should look something like this, but jam jars (see below) will do in a pinch.

On the vexed question of vermouth I think it's less a question of proportion than whether one should actually use the stuff at all. It's a disgusting concoction when drunk alone (which is interesting, when you come to think about it - the gin (or vodka) is what makes vermouth tolerable, if not palatable.)  Three great men have influenced my own thinking on the matter. Noël Coward suggested that the ideal martini should be made by "filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy"; Winston Churchill was reported to whisper the word 'vermouth' to a freshly poured glass and (best of all) Luis Buñuel held up his gin glass next to a bottle of vermouth, allowing a beam of sunlight to pass through. Comparing this technique to the Immaculate Conception got him into deep water with the Spanish Church. 

I tend to use vermouth sparingly if at all, and still have an unfinished bottle I bought for francs in the days before the Euro made the continent so humdrum. I generally use five (5) measures of gin to one (1) of dry vermouth, unless I'm enjoying the spectral companionship of darling Noël, in which case vague gestures toward southern Europe predominate.

I admit that I favour the double olive approach - one green, one black, the latter in memory of Sherwood Anderson (surely the only writer to be killed by a toothpick). But a twist of lemon, while nowhere near as filling, is unarguably more stylish and there's nothing pointed to lodge in your peritoneum.

So - Plymouth gin (chilled), vermouth (if you insist, also chilled) in the measure 5:1. No ice. Olives if you're hungry. There.

W. H. Auden, who mixed his concussive martinis in flower vases and served them at 6pm on the dot in grubby jam jars, insisted that the only place to get a decent martini in England was in the unremarkable Leicestershire market town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch (no doubt his belief was prompted by the proximity of a nearby American aerodrome). There's a whole other blog to be blogged about Auden and booze. Here's a link to a very good piece by Rosie Schaap on the poet's drinking habits. Cheers!

Sunday 7 July 2013

On dark wealth

Here's a link to a very good New Statesman piece by the reliably astringent Brian Appleyard In the Shadow of Dark Wealth. It dates back to February this year and I came across it while researching a piece on what I call (with a nod to Ian Nairn) Plutopia - those parts of London, like Knightsbridge and the Bishop's Avenue in Finchley, which are inhabited for part of each year by the super-rich. Not just the Russian oligarchs and Arabic playboys (who attract and seem to enjoy the most publicity) but the lower-key, colossally wealthy bankers and entrepreneurs who have a base here. Appleyard is very good on what amounts to a recent phenomenon - the rise of what he calls dark wealth.

Saturday 6 July 2013

David Cameron reads Moby-Dick

I'm not making this up. Cameron reading Chapter 30 of Melville's masterpiece, part of the otherwise laudable Moby Dick Big Read project. What next? Berlusconi reads Dante?

Click here for the Prime Minister's rendering.

Incidentally - has any other work of literature inspired so many (mostly very good) illustrations? Go to Google images, enter Moby Dick (the hyphen is optional) and see for yourself.

Friday 5 July 2013

Favourite snatches (9)

I don't much like dogs and their doggy ways. I'm not a dog person. Their owners often strike me as sociopaths, so I suppose I'm not a dog person person either. Here's a favourite snatch from Ulysses in which Joyce (who was very afraid of dogs) captures a particular canine called Tatters, running along the beach as seen by Stephen Dedalus. It's a wonderful piece of writing. Has any animal ever been better caught in prose?

A woman and a man. I see her skirties. Pinned up, I bet.

Their dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing on
all sides. Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made
off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a
lowskimming gull. The man's shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He
turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks. On a
field tenney a buck, trippant, proper, unattired. At the lacefringe of
the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His
snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented
towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking,
plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves.

Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping,
soused their bags and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped
running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again
reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as
they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf's tongue redpanting from
his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a
calf's gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked
round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffling rapidly like
a dog all over the dead dog's bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes
on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies
poor dogsbody's body.

--Tatters! Out of that, you mongrel!

The cry brought him skulking back to his master and a blunt bootless
kick sent him unscathed across a spit of sand, crouched in flight. He
slunk back in a curve. Doesn't see me. Along by the edge of the mole he
lolloped, dawdled, smelt a rock and from under a cocked hindleg pissed
against it. He trotted forward and, lifting again his hindleg, pissed
quick short at an unsmelt rock. The simple pleasures of the poor. His
hindpaws then scattered the sand: then his forepaws dabbled and delved.
Something he buried there, his grandmother. He rooted in the sand,
dabbling, delving and stopped to listen to the air, scraped up the sand
again with a fury of his claws, soon ceasing, a pard, a panther, got in
spousebreach, vulturing the dead.

© The Estate of James Joyce (although surely copyright has lapsed by now?)

Thursday 4 July 2013


Great interest and excitement surrounds the 75th anniversary (yesterday) of the record-breaking run by the streamlined locomotive Mallard on 3 July 1938, on the East Coast Main Line south of Grantham (Thatcher's birthplace - she was 13 at the time). The top speed was a mind-boggling 126 mph (203 km/h). This record still stands and will never be broken.


To mark the anniversary the six remaining A4 class engines (of the original 35) have been assembled at the National Railway Museum in York: Mallard, Bittern, Sir Nigel Gresley (named after the designer), Union of South Africa and, from the United States and Canada,  Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada, restored to the striking garter blue livery of the London and North Eastern Railway. 

Trainspotting in the 1930s was, I suppose, a seriously cool thing to do - the trains were worth spotting, with locomotives such as Mallard the equivalent of todays's Formula 1 racing cars, cutting edge technologies. Trainspotters were clued-up connoisseurs, fiercely loyal in their regional allegiance to one or another of the 'Big Four' private companies who together ran the pre-nationalised system - the Southern, the Great Western, the London Midland and Scottish and, home to Mallard, the LNER.

I was, by the way, baffled by a tendency for journalists reporting the NRM celebration to write something like: "the Mallard and its sisters . . .". Surely that should be 'her sisters'? It may be supposed that some quivering sensibilities are offended by locomotives being thus 'feminised', yet 'sisters' remains unchallenged. Why anyone should object to such machines - elegant, powerful, charismatic - being described by a female pronoun is beyond me. Diesel engines, on the other hand, strike me as totally blokeish - noisy, functional, malodorous and unreliable.

It isn't merely nostalgia to see these majestic pre-war locomotives as a crowning achievement of our engineering past. They are by any objective measure among the most beautiful mechanical objects ever created. 

For my earlier blog about the Marxist interpretation of streamlining click here.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Maria Miller again

Writing in The Guardian newspaper recently, Culture Secretary Maria Miller, the lacklustre minister in charge of the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, said this:
Arts and culture are the lifeblood of this country. We are the nation of Shakespeare, Milton and Elgar. However, listening to some people you might be forgiven for thinking that arts and culture in this country are about to breathe their last; that tumbleweed is blowing down the aisles of our theatres and through our museums; and that the barbarians are at the gates. There are even those who peddle nonsense that the Department for Media, Culture and Sport is set to be abolished.
The Cockburn Rule clearly applies here, so we can expect to see the end of the Department soon (or as Maria Miller would probably put it: 'in the very near future')

Maria Miller is not telling the truth when she says cuts in funding are a manageable 5%. The Science Museum Group consists of the flagship South Kensington establishment, the magnificent National Railway Museum in York, the Museum of Science and Technology in Manchester and the Media Museum in Bradford, which together attract more than five million visitors each year. Funding has been cut by 25% over recent years and one of the Northern museums is likely to close unless funding is maintained.  Of these, the NRM in York is the biggest and the best - and I mean the best in the world. You can add your name to an e-petition calling for its retention as a free-to-enter national asset here.

Back to Maria Miller. It's terribly easy to knock her gormless and cliché-rich prose style, which is no reason not to. Attacking what she sees as the negativity of arts organisers who are complaining about cuts in funding she concludes:

It would be laughable if it weren't so dispiriting for all those who work in the arts, and the millions – of which I am one – who regularly enjoy them.
So, is she really one of the millions who regularly enjoys 'all those who work in the arts'? That's what I call a bunga bunga party.

This just in - Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has just cut DMCS budget by 7 per cent.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Who is Owen Ketherry?

Starting in the 1980s, The New Yorker magazine began responding to readers' letters under the name "Owen Ketherry," supposedly because the responses were the product of many editors. I found this out only today, when I Googled the name of Ketherry to find out more about the author (as I thought) of the following letter, sent to Mary Lutyens and included by John Julius Norwich in one of his excellent commonplace anthologies.

The New Yorker had corrected Samuel Butler's "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all", believing it to be a misquotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam ("never to have loved at all"). Mary Lutyens contacted them to point out their error, and the memorable reply went as follows:

October 29, 1987

Dear Mrs Lutyens,

Thank you for your note, and for reading our pages so attentively. It is always a pleasure to hear from a well-informed reader although in this case the pleasure is bittersweet.

You are, of course, quite right about the quotation from Samuel Butler. We do pride ourselves on accuracy, but you know what pride goeth before. The methods we take to avoid mistakes are unusually thorough, but not, as you see, foolproof.

It is particularly mortifying to have made an accusation of error which is itself erroneous.  It is the kind of mistake that can only be made in presumptuousness. We are chagrined, we are contrite and we are genuinely grateful to you for correcting us.

Sincerely yours,

Owen Ketthery

PS: We cannot answer your question about the number of readers who spotted the error, because their letters are still pouring in every day.