Monday, May 31, 2010

Friday in Rye

The train line from Brighton to Ashford may not be one of the great railway journeys of the world, but it is quietly impressive, passing thorough the South Downs before hugging the coastline between Eastbourne and Hastings. Given the final station, it is definitely better to travel than arrive.

Last Friday I boarded a train to Rye, where I'd arranged to meet an old schoolfriend. I was looking forward to the journey and congratualted myself when I found an empty table seat by the window, but then I was joined by this man:

I'd seen him minutes earlier, sprawled horizontally across a bench. He was in his 60s, with a distinctive leather trilby and a shirt that was unbuttoned down to the navel. If I'd had any sense, I wouldn't have picked the one seat in the carriage where he could assume a similar position.

At first he seemed harmless enough, nodding off within seconds of leaving Lewes. A few people glanced nervously in our direction and I felt slightly superior for not being fazed by my companion. What was their problem? He was just a harmless old drunk, looking for a nice comfy seat.

We arrived at Eastbourne and a speaker announced: "BING BONG. THIS IS EASTBOURNE. WE ARE NOW AT EASTBOURNE. PLEASE CHANGE HERE FOR..." At which point my companion suddenly bolted upright, as if he'd received an electric shock:

"Eastbourne? I want Ashford. There are THOUSANDS in Ashford. Thousands. I don't 'ave to worry. Ah'll be alright. Ah've got money and there's more in Ashford." I couldn't tell who he was talking to, but years of listening to ruddy-faced men who stank of rum had taught to avoid eye contact at all costs.

"D'you smoke?" It was a direct question. I couldn't just ignore him. I remember a man in London asking me the same question years ago and when I explained that I'd just given up, he shouted "I asked for a cigarette, not your fucking life story!"

I said no. He stared for a few seconds and announced "I smoke green weed. Green weed." I barely acknowledged him and returned to my newspaper, hoping that my companion would go back to sleep, but he had other ideas.

On the opposite seats were a teenage girl and boy. The girl had one of the most absurdly posh faces that I've ever seen, with a long nose and small, pouty lips, like a young Penelope Keith. It was a face that said "Cripes, I hear old Squeaky Dawson's been drummed out of the lacrosse team!" It was not the sort of face that would endear itself to my companion. He stared at her.

"I don't like you. I don't like you at all." Now he was becoming a nuisance.

"I don't mind...errr...hmmm...errr...yeah, but paedophiles...PAEDOPHILES! I'd shoot 'em. BANG! With a shotgun. Fuck 'em. Whoops. Sorry. can't say that."

At this point he spat on the seat, narrowly missing me. His eyes closed for a few seconds, then he suddenly leant forward and looked accusingly at me.

"Paaeedddophiles..." He gurgled like Gollum and started to retch. I didn't have a change of clothes, so changing seats was probably the best course of action, but the stubborn part of me refused to move and like an idiot, I subjected myself to a further 20 minutes of madness

Half an hour later, I was in the beer garden of The George in Rye, drinking a pint of Harvey's, getting slowly sunburned. I have know my friend since I was 12 and in some ways we have led parallel lives, growing up as cuckoos in the nests of working class families. Our parents didn't understand how they'd given birth to sons who liked classical music and had an absurd interest in European royalty, but to their credit they encouraged us.

In my friend's case, when he started drawing pictures of violins at the age of five, his parents responded by arranging for him to have music lessons. They weren't pushy, upwardly-mobile parents. Indeed, their idea of a good night out was playing darts at the British Legion, but perhaps they'd had thwarted ambitions in their youth and didn't want to repeat history. My friend ended up being taught by someone who'd trained with Joachim, who was a friend of Brahms.

His parents did everything they could to encourage their son's talent. On a caravan holiday in Hayling Island, the whole family dutifully sat through a live broadcast of Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw, oblivious to the fact that it had nothing to do with the violin repertoire.

My friend began a music degree, but he found his fellow music students too insular. When he met some students from the Yehudi Menuin School who didn't know who the leader of the Labour Party was, he quit and started a BSc in Sociology. When he graduated, my friend stumbled into business publishing and within seven years, he was earning a basic salary of £40,000.

At this point my friend went through a crisis. He'd blagged his way into a job that he had no interest or expertise in and to his surprise, he kept getting promoted. With each promotion, he felt increasingly unreal and was depressed by the ease with which he could pretend to be something he wasn't.

One day, my friend handed in his notice. Next, he sold his flat in Twickenham for £120,000, paid off his mortgage and bought another flat in Kent for £60,000. Since then, he has earned a living by playing the fiddle in bands at folk festivals. He is happy.

For those of us who don't have Grade 8 violin and 50% equity on our property, life can be rather more challenging, but the principal remains the same. Do we risk pursuing happiness at the possible expense of hard-won achievements, or should we be grateful for what we have?

Friday, May 28, 2010

What We've Lost

The Sussex accent is virtually dead. It has been replaced by a fairly nondescript "Estuary" accent that can be heard anywhere within a 60-mile radius of London.

Occasionally I hear a rural burr from some of the older people in town, but it's nothing like this wonderful recording from 1959. Click on the John Nash picture below to visit a page featuring Harry Burgess of Firle:

The British Library's National Sound archive is a wonderful resource, with recordings that include Tennyson, Florence Nightingale and Arthur Conan Doyle. But my favourite part of the archive is a collection of recordings of accents and dialects, arranged by county.

Another favourite of mine is this one from the Isle of Wight. Mrs Sheath has a wonderfully rich voice and if you listen carefully, you can hear a clock gently ticking in the background. As for this accent, it might as well be in another language.

Television, cars and people like me have all helped to erode local identities and sadly, we will never hear a voice like Harry Burgess's again. Thank God someone had the foresight to record these accents just before they disappeared.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

John Nash

I found a book today called Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell, published in 1939, with lithographs by Paul Nash's younger brother, John. These illustrations may not have the visionary genius of Nash Major, but they are an important relic of a movement that included the wonderful Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden.

These artists reclaimed the English countryside from the platitudes of lesser artists and their vision of the pastoral is a more challenging one, imbued with a mysticism that harkens back to William Blake.

On the subject of platitudes, that's enough amateur art criticism from me. Enjoy John Nash:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


On Sunday, in the early hours of the morning, Britain came loose from its moorings and started drifting towards the Mediterranean. I know this is true, because the sea became azure, with barely a wave in sight. Normally, it is a greeny-grey colour, with veins of corporate sewerage and disturbed mudflats, but yesterday I was forced to say the word azure for the first time. Nothing else would do.

My car said that the temperature was 32 degrees, but it is foreign built and seems to have its own microclimate based on continental weather patterns, so that in winter the reading plunges down to minus ten and beyond. I'm sure that it wasn't hotter than 23.

We decided to drive to Birling Gap, a typically pebbly Sussex beach that redeems itself with sand and rockpools at low tide. It was reasonably crowded, but I wasn't bothered. Once, a beach was synonymous with quietude and my idea of bliss was to lie down and listen to the waves, but in the post-children world, my ambitions are broken. If nobody drowns or gets lost, then it's a good day out.

The other people on the beach seemed to be mostly families but there were also quite a few young Eastern Europeans, possibly landlocked, in search of an end to things.

I looked at the other parents. There were many men with tattoos, beer bellies and small breasts, whose feral appearance belied their tenderness with their children. There were also middle-class couples who all wore sunhats and sensible clothes, dishing out fresh fruit for lunch ("Who wants some melon?" "Me, me, me!"). Where did I fit into it all?

When I was planning the trip, I envisaged a montage of happy memories with me in the starring role as the fun dad. But I was rubbish. I complained when my oldest son kicked sand all over me, felt profoundly bored when we were paddling in sea and got frustrated when nobody seemed willing to look at a rock pool for more than two seconds.

I was tired. I'd had a difficult week and although I thought I'd successfully compartmentalised the crappy bits of my life, it was increasingly clear that I hadn't. I decided to go for a walk.

Amazingly, it only took less than a quarter of an hour of scrambling over boulders and wading through rockpools before I was completely alone. You would think that a beach that is in one of the most densely-populated parts of England would be completely packed on this, the first hot weekend of the year, but instead I felt like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes.

I walked eastwards along a wave cut platform. In the distance, Beachy Head lighthouse looked like a child's toy against the huge chalk cliffs. You can barely see it in this picture:

I wanted to keep walking until I reached the lighthouse, but there was something slightly unnerving about being alone on a beach where the tide was coming in. The waves barely made a sound, but like the angels in Doctor Who, every time I turned around they seemed closer. I remained where I was, enjoying the microcosms of the rock pools.

When the tide comes in, the beach disappears and it was disconcerting being completely alone in this transient landscape, as if I was at the end of things. It seemed so strange that there was no evidence of the human world, even though it was less than a mile away. But I was also grateful for the herd instinct that makes most people huddle together, leaving wide open spaces for those of us that need them.

During moments like these, I find it hard not to look back at my life and wonder what I've achieved, but that way madness lies.

I started walking back and was surprised to feel a sense of relief when I saw people again. A group of Russians were picnicking on some huge, limestone boulders that looked as if they had been arranged like seats. Further on, a rather suspicious-looking man in his late 50s sat alone, taking pictures of people on a camera with a very long zoom lens. I watched his camera follow the path of two adolescent girls in bikinis and wondered if I was jumping to conclusions about his motivation.

In the distance, I saw my sons playing a ball game with my wife and her friend. They looked happy and relaxed, with the glow of people who had been outdoors for a few hours. Earlier I'd been wondering what I had achieved in my life.

Here was the answer.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Decision Time for Dedalus

In case you didn't know, the fate of Dedalus Books hangs in the balance.

It would be a great tragedy if Dedalus lost their funding, as we need publishers of this kind more than ever. When Dedalus was formed, 27 years ago, there was no shortage of enlightened publishers that were willing to nuture and develop talented authors, regardless of the immediate financial return.

Sadly, things are very different in today's risk-averse publishing world. It isn't even the obscure, literary novelists who will suffer, but also mainstream writers who have to write several books before they reach their breakthrough novel. Ian Rankin was with Orion for ten years before he started to become a "name".

With a few exceptions, high culture isn't commercial. Nobody expects Radio Three or the Royal Opera House to produce a healthy net profit, but when it comes to the book world there seems to be a blind spot. That's probably because publishers used to be able to subsidise uncommercial books with the revenues from the latest Tom Clancy or Dick Francis. The Arts Council should to recognise that the publishing landscape has changed considerably and that public subsidy is essential for our literary culture.

Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia neatly summed-up the importance of Dedalus:

"Dedalus operates on a shoe-string with one full-time member of staff, yet produces classics of European and world literature, as well as discovering new works of contemporary writing, some of which are destined to be classics of the future. Their outlook is serious yet pleasurable and in this age of throw-away writing, they educate and remind us that good books are a part of what drives a civilised society."

I've copied an email that Dedalus sent to its supporters on Monday. If you want to add your voice to the campaign to restore Arts Council funding, there is an email address at the bottom:

Dear Friend of Dedalus,

Re letter of support

We are in negotiations with Arts Council England (ACE) about reinstatement as a Regular Funded Organisation. A recommendation will be made by Nick McDowell, Director of Literature on 24 May and The Regional Council of ACE will consider this recommendation and our response and take a decision on 29 June 2010. ACE has said it will, as part of this process, consider third party letters of support. As ACE has specifically asked for these testimonials it is clear that they consider them highly relevant and that they might make it easier for ACE to reinstate Dedalus.

We hope that you will consider providing Dedalus with such a letter and will write to or email Nick McDowell. His address is:

Nick McDowell, Director of Literature ACE 2,Pear Tree Court, London, EC1R 0DS email:

Please send us a copy of your letter or email so we can include them in our final submission to The Regional Council.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In Camera

During the last week, I've found these photos hidden inside books:

This enigmatic triptych was (or is it were? Is triptych singular or plural?) neatly tucked away in a large, 1950s pictorial tribute to the Everest expedition - an unlikely book to find them in, but perhaps its size was the deciding factor as the prints are quite large. I really like the first image, but the other two are a bit "A" level Art.

I particularly like the next photo, which looks as if it should be the cover of a Penguin 20th Century Classic:

The combination of the hedgerow, clouds and the strange pattern of the barbed wire make it the perfect image for a book like Undertones of War or Goodbye to All That.

Finally, a wedding:

It all looks perfectly fine, until you zoom in:

On closer inspection, the bridegroom looks like a condemned man, and the bride's family don't seem quite sure either:

I would love to know the story behind this picture.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Location, Location, Location

Every now and then I get fed up with my house. It is charming and quirky, but it's very small and my dreams of having a workshop, keeping chickens and growing vegetables are impossible to fulfill here, so I find myself scanning the property pages for the perfect home. I need lebensraum.

But, as Phil and Kirsty reminded me on last Thursday's episode of Location, Location, Location, unless you're in possession of a small fortune, you face a stark choice between having a nice house in a horrible town or vice versa. Days like today convince me that we made the right decision. This is the view is we walked into town:

We were on our way to an "eco fair", which wasn't full of earnest people with beards and had some really interesting stalls about community projects and energy saving initiatives. I came away with a free low energy light bulb and a water-saving device for the cistern of our loo. I installed the water-saving bag as soon as I got home, but rather ruined things later by accidentally leaving the garden hose on for an hour.

Events like the eco fair are typical of Lewes. The people here seem more concerned with the quality of life rather than the standard of living. In recent years, two large areas of land have become available for purchase and I've no doubt that in many towns, they would have been sold to developers. But not in Lewes.

The first place - 25 acres of disused railway land - has been turned into a stunning nature reserve with marshes and woodland. The second - a large field - was earmarked by the county council as a car park for their staff, but local residents clubbed together and bought the land, making it available for everyone's use.

Why is Lewes the exception rather than the norm? The history of architecture in postwar Britain makes depressing reading and I was interested to see this article in yesterday's Guardian Review about the critic Ian Nairn, who raged against the growth of "subtopia" (one good thing about the recession, according last Monday's Start the Week, is that there will be fewer building projects).

After the eco-fair, we walked down to a district called Southover, to visit a "Medieval Fayre". I normally avoid anything where fair is written as fayre but this was very good and, to my great surprise, I discovered that I had a hiddent talent for archery:

Admittedly, the woman in blue was a very good teacher, but I wasn't expecting to hit the target, let alone get a bullseye. At last, a sport that I'm good at! As soon as I got home, I seached on the internet for local archery clubs and found one in Brighton at a place called St Dunstan's, which I later discovered is for blind people. I had no idea that blind people could do archery. How does that work?

When I got home, I picked up the local paper and had another look at the property pages. We could sell our house and buy something twice the size in the town where I work, but what would be the point if, the moment I opened the front door, my heart sank? In Lewes, I'm surrounded by beautiful countryside and many people who share the same values. Why would I want to leave?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

James Corbett

On paper, the people in my department at work appear to be reasonably well qualified for their jobs: I have years of experience selling books for Waterstone's, Ottakar's and the independent sector, while my staff are English graduates with firsts and upper seconds. We live and breathe books.

But the truth is that we know bugger all about most of the titles that we sell.

Much of the time, we are not selling Eliot (George or T. S.). We are dealing with the bestsellers of the mid-20th century and 90% of the names mean nothing to us. I have never heard of Sidney Horler, Primrose Cumming or Peter Cheyney and yet in their time they were incredibly popular and the title pages bear witness to this, showing that the copy I'm holding is a 17th or 18th impression.

Why are these writers now largely forgotten? The obvious answer is that their novels aren't good enough to stand the test of time. But is that true?

Two weeks ago, I found a very obscure thriller by another writer I'd never heard of: James Corbett (1887-1958). It started promisingly enough:

The dense prose style reminded me of Saramago. Perhaps I was on the verge of rediscovering a lost masterpiece. I continued reading...

Sadly, "Wednesday at Noon" is one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read. It begins conventionally enough, with the mystery of a crime in a locked room, but then Corbett gradually loses the plot and the only truly criminal element in the novel is Corbett's completely implausible denouement, which seems to appear almost as an afterthought on the last couple of pages.

In Corbett's world, the butler did it, but you didn't even know that the murder victim had a butler until page 257. This makes everything else in the narrative a red herring.

In his time, James Corbett was a highly prolific writer of thrillers. Today, his books are out of print and there is almost nothing about him on the internet. I say almost, because he has acquired a cult following among a select band of readers for his remarkable writing style.

Here are a few examples of Corbett's unique talent:
  • Pritchard sat up like a full-blown geranium
  • Amazed inquiry sat on her face
  • It was like looking for an ostrich in a forest of monkeys
  • "I think your philosophy deplorable" Tessa murmured, with a sphinx-like groan
  • He was like a fish in deep water
  • They knew the anticlimax was at hand, and their satisfaction was unbounded
  • "Your steps are feline and catlike"
  • It was a morning gown of blue silk, one that stressed her grace of figure and matched her complexion
I found these examples on this website, which has a very amusing tribute to Corbett's genius.

Now that I've taken the plunge, I intend to read more forgotten writers in the hope that one day, I'll rediscover a writer of genius. Watch this space.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Beyond Boring

There is a point at which things can be so boring that they become interesting again, thanks to the grim fascination they excite. That applies to people too. When I was a student, I had a temporary job as an assistant in a reference library. One of the members of staff was a man in his 50s called Gordon, whose only topic of conversation was the weight restrictions of different bridges in Richmond-upon-Thames.

When I talked (or rather listened) to him, I felt as if I was having an out-of-body experience. Could someone really be talking about something so dull, without even a twinkle in their eye?

I even wondered if the problem was mine. Did I lack a normal, natural curiosity about civil engineering issues? I was very young and still didn't know how the adult world worked, but I soon realised that the reason Gordon frequently talked to me was because everyone else had quietly sneaked out of the staff room within half a minute of his arrival.

In hindsight, Gordon was probably on the autistic spectrum (and not in a good way).

Today, I found a postcard that was so breathtakingly dull, that it made me wonder how it ever came to be printed:

If you ever find yourself in Western Australia, make sure you pop into St Thomas More Catholic Church and Centre in Margaret River. As you can see, clockwise, they have a confessional, kitchen, toilet and showers and a morning Mass chapel.

I would love to know what possessed someone to produce a postcard that included shots of stainless steel kitchen sinks and a bathroom. Perhaps civic pride produces a blinkered perspective.

That would certainly seem to be the case in this postcard of Basingstoke:

When I first saw this picture in the wonderful Phaidon book "Boring Postcards", I thought it was a joke. Who, in their right mind, would produce an official postcard of a town featuring images of scaffolding and hoardings? In one picture, there are hoardings on one side and a sale on the other, recalling the old Osacr Wilde (I think) quote about going from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between.

Presumably, several people saw this card before the print run was approved. I can only assume that Basinstoke is so awful (and apparently it is) that the council officials responsible for this card were inured to the images' ugliness.

The Phaidon book also includes this picturesque view of Exeter Bus Station:

And this enticing view of Solway Firth:

I particularly liked this postcard:

I seem to remember a grim holiday in a "chalet" when I was four-years-old, a few miles away from a nuclear power station. For chalet, read prefab, or gulag - these awful holiday camps were more like open prisons.

However, this is my favourite image by far:

It's a postcard of the place you're buying the postcard of the place you're buying a postcard of the place you're buying a postcard of the place you're buying a postacard...

It's all done with mirrors. Why anyone would want to produce a postcard of the giftshop that sells postcards I don't know. In the hands of a conceptual artist, it could be a very amusing postmodern joke. But in this case, I suspect it's the work of someone who is interested in the weight restrictions of local bridges.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bearded Lady update

In my last post, I casually mentioned a rather striking woman who used to walk around the streets of Richmond wearing a leopardskin coat, bright red lipstick and a bushy black beard. Thanks to Mrs Jones, I now know that this is Brenda, the Bearded Lady of Guildford.

Apparently she is something of a celebrity in the local area.

There is a MySpace tribute page, but far more fascinating is this blog which includes an interview with the enigmatic Brenda.

The more po-faced amongst us might question the ethics of publishing material about people who have "issues", but Brenda is completely unaware of the blogosphere and doesn't seem fazed by the curiosity of others. Rather than view her as a victim, I regard Brenda as one of the great English eccentrics, blissfully indifferent to the social norms of 21st century Britain.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


It was wet yesterday, so I decided to take my family to Rochester. The alternative was an indoor soft-play centre - the sort where several hundred children run around screaming while their parents sit drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

I'm a big fan of drinking coffee and reading newspapers, but my visits to the horribly named "Monkey Bizness" never quite go according to plan and I usually end up having to sit in the soft-play area, trying to dodge a succession of overweight children with poor motor skills. Even worse, while these children's parents are enjoying coffee and croissants, as the one grown-up present, I end up attracting a string of hangers-on.
I remember one occasion when a boy and his two younger sisters decided to adopt me as a surrogate parent and wouldn't leave me alone. "Look at me. I can jump!" said the boy for the ninth time, as he leapt from a 15-inch high cube. I wanted to say "Go away, child. That's boring enough when my own children do it and I love them. I don't love you and I want to read my paper, so shove off ." But instead I just smiled benignly and made encouraging noises.

I must have been with these children for the best part of an hour before their mother finally appeared and when she did, all I received was a suspicious glare that said, "And why are you talking to my children?". Sadly, I hadn't perfected a return glare that could have reminded her that whilst she was enjoying her Daily Mail and latte (which she would have called a lar-tay), I was working as an unpaid childminder, being bored to death by her children.

To add insult to injury, in the seven seconds it took for me to put my belongings in a bag, my youngest son managed to escape from a supposedly baby-proof enclosure and merge into a crowd of 300 people. The ten minutes it took to find him were among the longest in my life.

So that's why soft-play centres are out.

Rochester, on the other hand, has a medieval castle, a very good museum with free entry and lots of hands-on exhibits, plus a cathedral with some fairly spooky cloisters. That might sound terribly worthy, but boredom is good for children.

Given the choice, my sons would always choose to visit a theme park or zoo, but in the slightly more austere surroundings of a ruined castle, they often end up having more fun, using their imaginations rather than being spoon-fed a succession of experiences.

Officially a city, Rochester is, in reality, a tiny enclave of olde England, sandwiched between two towns of unremitting ugliness. Rochester likes to trade on its Charles Dickens connection. Many of the shops, like Pip's Bakery, alude to Dickens and even the local Indian restaurant is called "A Taste of Two Cities", but the Dickensian atmosphere is slightly ruined by the constant roar of traffic thundering to and from neighbouring Chatham.

There is no discernible boundary between Rochester and Chatham from the air, but on the ground it is quite a different matter. One minute you are walking past genteel restaurants and half-timbered houses, the next, you are surrounded by people in hoodies with the tell-tale rodent-like faces of foetal-alcohol syndrome. The sudden change reminded me of the time I unwittingly entered the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

There were some strange shops in Rochester, including a charity shop called "Hospices of Hope" (I thought that hospices were where you went when all hope was lost) and an art gallery, which, in addition to the usual insipid landscapes, had pictures by Banksy for sale:

Are these official Banksys? A few years ago, it would have been a typically subversive gesture of Banksy to place his art alongside paintings of country cottages and sailing ships. Has he completely sold out? On the strength of this encounter, perhaps we can now expect to see limited-edition prints on sale in the Mail on Sunday?

The museum was a success, mainly thanks to an exhibit which allowed my sons to control the local CCTV cameras and spy on the locals. The zoom function had a scarily good resolution, to the point where I felt like a rather unsavoury voyeur. Never again will I confidently perform dance moves from West Side Story in empty car parks.

After the museum we tried to visit the cathedral, but our route was blocked by a military parade. Apparently it was the 150th annivesary of the Kent Cadets and I overheard a steward saying that there were several V.V.I.Ps present. Here they are, applauding the cadets:

I don't know why these people were classified as very very important people, but I was very taken with the moustache of the gentleman in the middle:

Although I prefer to be clean-shaven, I do enjoy facial hair in other people, male or female. I remember a woman in Richmond who, in addition to wearing a striking leopardskin coat and bright red lipstick, sported a fine black beard. As fashion statements go, she made Vivienne Westwood look like Iris Murdoch.

A service of thanksgiving was about to begin and the cadets filed into Rochester Cathedral, watched impassively by this weathered figure:

There was something both very poignant and slightly absurd about the sight of hundreds of teenagers in military uniform, marching past a small group of World War Two veterans into a 900-year-old cathedral. Tradition and continuity. A century ago, it would have been all too easy to feel unmitigated pride and admiration at a sight like this, but that was before the Somme took away people's innocence.

Everyone slept on the drive home - was Rochester that enervating? I listened to a review of David Mitchell's new novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" and was disappointed to hear mostly negative comments. I shall have to wait for John Self to review it. Two of the best books I've read this year were recommended on the Asylum blog and I'm not surprised that John's status as a reviewer has grown to the point where he's now quoted in the Sunday Times.

As we reached Lewes, my wife dutifully said, "Let's thank Dad for a lovely day." I heard muted, half-hearted responses from the back. Later, my oldest son said "It wasn't that interesting. In fact it was quite boring. Next Saturday, please don't try and find any other places to go to, because Rochester was rubbish."

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Paul Nash

Today I took an absurdly convoluted journey to Dulwich, involving two trains and a tram, to see the Paul Nash exhibition. I almost missed it, but fortunately Lucille warned me that it was finishing this Sunday. Given that the last Nash retrospective was apparently over 60 years ago, not going wasn't an option.

The Paul Nash exhibition has been incredibly successfully, both with the critics and public. It's hard to believe that Nash struggled to make a living from his art and lived in genteel poverty, dying at the relatively young age of 57. Why is he so popular today?

In his day, Nash was one of the "moderns" and his surrealist paintings, with their weird juxtapositions of landscapes and objects, wouldn't have been everyone's cup of tea. But today, his paintings seem terribly English, belonging to a pastoral tradition that goes back to Blake and Palmer.

I was really impressed by the exhibition, but it was far too busy and it was an effort to look at any of the paintings without being distracted by other people.

I seemed to be the youngest person there by at least ten years. Hadn't anyone else bunked off work to see some paintings?

All of the usual suspects were there: retired bachelors with bald heads and a profusion of ear hair; earnest-looking members of art appreciation societies; ruddy-faced port drinkers in lambswool sweaters and chinos; women in their 80s with white bobbed hair and piercing eyes.

Fortunately, almost everyone behaved impeccably. Nobody walked in front of me when I was looking at a painting and there were very few people who insisted on leaning forward and inspecting the brush strokes from a distance of six inches.

But there is one sub-group I haven't mentioned. These people are a menace and have plagued me for years. If I had my way, I would only allow them to visit art galleries during specified hours - perhaps between 10.00 and 11.00 on Tuesday mornings.

They travel in pairs. One is a self-appointed art expert and likes to think of herself as a bit of a character, confidently issuing one platitude after another. The other usually nods and hums in agreement. Nobody would dare to start chatting in a concert but no-one seems to bat an eyelid when someone starts talking at full volume in an art gallery.

There were a few chatting pairs, including one woman who was enthusiastically comparing a painting to the movie Inkheart, but luckily this didn't detract from the exhibition:

The exhibition was a curatorial triumph, with twice as many exhibits than I'd expected. It's a great pity that it had to end, as it was far more interesting than the Dulwich Picture Gallery's permanent collection of old masters.

Two hours later, I was back in Lewes. My walk home from the station took me past the gardens of Southover Grange - a Tudor house that was built out of the ruins of a medieval monastry. It was one of the first really warm spring days and the gardens were full of people enjoying the sun after the long winter.

It looked so idyllic, that I decided to make this short film. The quality isn't great and the music, which I wrote and recorded for a play a long time ago, is a bit wobbly,but I hope it captures some of the essence of the gardens:

Sunday, May 02, 2010


After a fairly challenging week of depressing letters from the bank, ill health and bad news at work, I was determined to enjoy my weekend. "I want to go to Hastings." I announced. Everyone groaned, particularly my wife.

What has she got against Hastings? My wife has never been there and yet every time I suggest a family outing to Hastings, the idea is swiftly vetoed. I suspected ignorance rather than simple blind prejudice and this was confirmed when, as we entered the town, my wife exclaimed "Oh, I didn't know it was by by the sea."

I had dragged three people kicking and screaming (literally, in the case of one) to Hastings and as I parked the car, I couldn't help wondering why I'd bothered. But I still had faith that Hastings would work its magic and the moment we got out of the car, I perceived a slow but tangible thaw in the mood.

I have written about Hastings before and yesterday's visit didn't prompt me to revise my opinion. I still noticed an unusually high number of mishapen faces, some of which seemed to be the result of fist fights or car crashes. I also spotted an unusually high number of dog owners.

And where else but Hastings would you find Morris dancers outside a tattoo parlour?

The quirky eccentricity of Hastings is irresistible and after five hours there I had two happy children and a penitent wife. What more could anyone ask for?

But the day wasn't over yet. In the evening, I met another blogger - The Poet Laura-eate - and her friend Terry, who were visiting Lewes for the weekend. Like my recent meeting with Oliver, it was a very enjoyable evening and I only wish that Laura and Terry lived a little nearer, as our two-hour drink at The Lamb went far too quickly. I hope we have a chance to meet again.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Shelf Life of "Popular" Novels

In a catalogue of forthcoming titles for spring 1932, the publisher Stanley Paul lists novels by the following authors:

Granville Squires
Hilary Dupacq
Nora K Strange
Warner Fabian
Monte Barrett
Hamilton Drummond
Edith Nepean
Alan Bendle
Frank Hird
Arthur Meeker
Norman Gortley
Madeleine Munday
Arthur Plummer
Alice Colver
Emilie Loring

A few names ring a faint bell, but are any of them still in print? I couldn't even find photos of these authors on Google images, apart from one of Edith Nepean talking to Marlene Dietrich in 1949.

However, in another catalogue by a more upmarket publisher, at least one in four of the names is familiar to the modern reader, suggesting that good writing endures more than "popular" fiction.

From my own experience, after a year of looking at thousands of old books, the gulf between art and entertainment is even more tangible than I'd thought.