Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lost generation

If I comment I'll spoil it.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I often get the impression, reading some of our national newspapers, that there is no art outside the confines of the M25. This is, of course, the purest nonsense. Our provincial galleries are more than just repositories for the local second-rate and Victorian pot-boilers: there is some seriously good stuff out there.

Nipping into Manchester Art Gallery I had a look at the current featured exhibitions (both very good, just a few weeks left to catch them) and then had a wander round the permanent exhibitions. It's a varied collection, though I tend to spend most of my time ogling the Valettes or else mooching round the Gallery of Craft and Design. This is a bad habit as this means that I tend to forget just how good some of the other works are. Much to my shame it was only by the purest chance that I happened to stop and pay proper attention to:

Balaclava by Elizabeth Thompson Balaclava, by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (1876)

The central figure was modelled by W.H. Pennington, an actor who had taken part in this action. Other veterans were also consulted and used as models.

The portrayal of the soldiers was controversial as it depicted the psychological effects of war rather than some martial glory. This is no triumphal set: it is a gathering of comrades after trauma and tragedy. Most of the main figures reek of exhaustion and concern for the well-being of their fellows coming back from the field. The depth of the detail is staggering: figures who would be background fillers or mere bodies in the wings are real people with pain, shock and worry in their eyes. You can almost feel the agonies of fatigue and injury, the body language showing this much more graphically than do the bloodstains and tears.

Pennington's pose itself is astonishing. He stands and stares you in the eyes but is completely out of it: eyes blank, slack-jawed and with his bloodstained sword held limply as if the merest irrelevance.

This painting is immensely moving seen in real life. I'd been stood standing, gobsmacked for a good ten minutes when an old chap next to me observed:

"That's a very powerful picture. Even the birds in the sky over the battlefield look shell-shocked."

And damn me, he was right.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bedtime stories

Tex Avery, Scott Bradley and Fred Quimby. One of the great combinations.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Another nice day in the garden. I reek of wild garlic: I've been chopping down a climbing rose which I underplanted with Ramsons. It's a not unpleasant smell. Mind you, this is a single male household.

hardy geraniums The hardy geraniums and euphorbias are full of buds, promising a good display in the next week or two. In the sunny parts of the garden (and throughout what should be a paved walkway) G. macrorrhizum and G. oxonianum have seeded and spread their way with gay abandon. The former's a tatty-looking evergreen with smelly leaves; tough as old boots and smothered in bright magenta flowers all summer and well into autumn. The latter is just erupting soft green leaves; in a few weeks' time they'll be a sea of silvery-pink flowers. I've rather lost track of things in the shady part of the garden. I started off by planting a few of the mourning cranesbills (G.phaeum). I followed on with a couple of wood cranesbills (G. sylvestris), some white alba and a job lot of the "Splish Splash" meadow cranesbills. They all have a tendency to be overly-friendly with each other and I've now got a mixture of mongrel seedlings under the trees, all rather pretty in shades of purple, mauve and white. The star of the show is just showing itself in the sunniest part of the garden by the living room window. Geranium palmatium has big, lime green glossy leaves and spends the summer throwing up huge clouds of big magenta flowers, sometimes four or five foot high.

While I'm doing all this there's a flurry of activity in the garden. The starlings are dead busy feeding young and come in twice a day to fill themselves up at the fat feeders. So intent are they that they're not fussed that I'm an arm's length from them thoughout. No sooner have they gone than a pair of long-tailed tits turned up; they don't give a monkeys anyhow so I spent a delightful five minutes watching them up close before they decided to go and look for greenfly in the roses.

The one disappointing note is that I've spotted another couple of casualties of winter. One of the brooms has snuffed it comepletely. Next to that I've got a good-sized Olearia, which I know is only semi-hardy. It's formed a natural standard, forking for the first time about four feet up the trunk; one fork's apparently dead and gone. The other half looks perky enough: shiny grey-green, holly-like leaves and quite a few small buds forming. In a couple of months this will be covered in small, silvery-grey daisies, which is a pleasing sight on a warm day surrounded by geraniums and marjoram. Fingers crossed.

Ooh... ooh... five baby figs (figlings?) on the tree on the patio. Hope I get more than just the one this year!

Postscript: no, the bastards cut them down


Visiting the parents for to cadge a cup of tea and a read of the paper I was suprised when my mother burst into raucous laughter. It turns out that she's reading the sex advice page in the Sunday Mirror.

"There's this letter here, it says: 'I have been endowed with a large manhood. This not the advantage that most men would think. When they see it, women look at it wide-eyed and ask where on earth I think I'm putting that.'"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Good evening boys

The great Will Hay died sixty years ago today. By way of a tribute...

People will throw things at me for this one

It was Joan Bakewell's 76th birthday the other day. A couple of days earlier she was being interviewed on BBC News 24 in her "Champion of the Elderly" rôle. Nothing in the adolescent fumblings of middle-aged manhood prepares you for the day that you fancy a 76-year-old woman. I'm not saying it's a bad thing (as it happens, I'd argue I was showing ineffable good taste), it's just a surprise when the realisation dawns.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I'm quite enjoying the garden at the moment, despite the hard work involved in keeping it within the confines of the three dimensions available to us. The trees are full of blossom: the damson's just going over, the pear's in full flood, the cherry will be open this week and the rowans are a mass of buds. The bulbs have been pretty good this year, though I've not seen any sign of the cottage tulips so I guess the damp summer and tulip fire have done for them at last, which is a shame. The small species tulips have been game and the daffs and narcissi have been a picture.

I'm not sure where the wrens are nesting, though I suspect it's somewhere in the brambles by the railway line. I scarcely ever see them but each dawn is heralded by a titanic blast of song so I know they're out there. The robins investigated the boxes I've put out but have elected to nest behind next door's garage again. I don't know how the male does it, he's up all night singing and spends all day bouncing round the garden like a particularly feisty Jack Russell terrier. The blue tits and great tits are obviously nesting nearby, judging by the frenzied activity in treetops. They're joined by the spadgers, which seem to be even thinner on the ground this year, which is an immense worry. I like sparrows, they're characterful and comfortable. A couple of years ago I put up a terraced nest box for them which they've pretty much ignored. The occupants to date have been a pair of great tits and a wood mouse.

And I'm particularly enjoying the starlings this year. One of them sounds familiar - this is the second year running we've had one that includes a perfect impersonation of a curlew in its song. New this year is the one that includes really good imitations of other songbirds including phrases of goldfinch, chaffinch, meadow pipit and blackcap. This latter is good enough for the railway station blackcap to come over here to see off the opposition.

A nice sunny day. Happy Easter everyone.

An address from the Vatican

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

We don't do requests

Wakey wakey!

You'd have thought they could afford an entire piano.

You have to admire any man who can start a grand piano medley with "I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts."

And of course...

How they ever got away with it...

Role modelling

A conversation with my father:

"Do you like my new shirt?"

"Err... yes, very nice."

"I like the colour. The only problem is that it buttons up on the wrong side."

"It's a lady's blouse."

"Aye, I know."

"Is there something you want to tell me?"

"It's really comfortable, too."

It's true: you do get to an age where you don't give a shit any more and just go with the comfort.

Monday, April 06, 2009


With all the knocking about they're doing round here I'm having to go the long way round to get home some nights: they've closed a couple of roads for to build new houses and whatnot. It's an opportunity to have a nosey at some different gardens as I walk along. Most are pretty nondescript but every so often something catches my eye. One garden is decked out in shingle and birch logs and planted up with sorrel and delphiniums (where did that combination come from?) Another is so densely planted with Berberis that you still smell of honey two blocks down. With all due deference to The Topiary Cow, I cannot for the life of me condone the topiarising of a Camelia. The poor thing is awash with flower now, lush and pink and glossy, but the overall effect is to look cramped and bodged and hurt. I should feel the same about the two Forsythias a few doors further along: they've been trimmed into perfect children's lollipop trees but they actually look quite splendid, like big Belisha beacons slowly turning emerald green as the leaves unfurl. Very nice.

Note to the cyclists of mature years who cut me up as I was walking across the crossing on St. Ann's Street

Wearing a smog mask does not confer upon you the rights and privileges of the Lone Ranger.

"No Entry" signs include you, too, you tossers.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


It's not bad at the moment. A couple of people have pointed out that I'm more upbeat lately and I have to admit it's true. I feel OK about myself.

I'm catching up with much-neglected chores about the house and garden and the garden in particular is providing much positive feedback. If the blossom is anything to go by I should have plenty of fruit this autumn (a few more bumblebees wouldn't go amiss, but I'm trying my best to cater for them). The air is thick with the tree heather's peculiarly-nice combination of aniseed and honey; I have an Erica capensis which would be about six foot high if I didn't keep trimming the straggly bits off. Actually, it would be six foot high anyway if it hadn't fallen over in its second year, which makes for a nice thick bush of it. This time of year it's one white mass of flowers. Gold-laced polyanthus, which I'd written off as dead and gone last year have reappeared in between the wallflowers and valerians and a small knot of leaves in the front border look suspiciously like the day lily that never happened last year.

Ah, but this is superficial stuff. Why so upbeat? I'm not in love - thank God! - so we can't blame Spring fever. Work is as awful as ever, if not slightly worse than usual (the good news there is that I appear to have mentally detached myself from the sinking ship).

The truth of the matter is that I've had a small epiphany. For years I've been beating myself up for not shaping up and putting together That First Novel. I have character sketches, written chapters, outlines and inlines but no First Novel. And nor will there ever be. I'm actually not a novelist. Some of you are, or are working hard to become one, and good on you, seriously. I'm not. I can write sequential short stories, but that's an entirely other thing and you aren't allowed to bodge them together into huge, rambling inconsequentialities until you've won a few prizes for entirely unreadable but critically-acclaimed Literature. I can write features and stories for tiny tots and training manuals and copy for press releases and people even pay me to do it.

I'm a jobbing essayist, not a novelist. I'm OK with that.


Quick, quick, before they get stolen by ruffians! Ellis is doing moustaches!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Thursday, April 02, 2009


We appear to be having a vogue for candid photography this week.

I dearly wish I could find a recording of this online for you. The great man's delivery is possibly best described as being like a delirious foghorn with a sore throat.

Only Billy Bennett could claim that Gladys Cooper was Crippen's niece!