Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Peter's Hill

The thing about London, as everyone knows, is that nobody talks to anybody or even makes eye contact, right? Yet I never seem to be able to sit for five consecutive minutes in the capital without some character wandering over for a chat. Possibly it’s to do with my face – it might be more guileless than I’d wish.

At Paddington on Friday morning as I tucked into my bacon butty (courtesy of the West Cornwall Pasty Co franchise – a top tip if you arrive in London early and unbreakfasted), a faintly Dickensian-looking chap with a plastic bag and a cowpat hairstyle settled next to me and told me many things about the business of buying train tickets to Slough. And in the evening, as I nursed a hilariously expensive Budvar on Peter’s Hill (St Paul’s bulging to my left, the Millennium Bridge to my right, a swarm of humanity between: ah, Gemütlichkeit), a well-oiled Cockney treated me to a story about his wife’s failed attempts to purchase an electric fire, during the telling of which he suddenly got up and trundled off to the loo, returning three or four minutes later to continue at the exact point – as far as I could tell, to the word - where he left off, as if there had been no interruption. Such encounters seem to happen to me all the time in London: I think the trick – or the trap, depending on your disposition – is to look like you’re not in a hurry.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Dabbler is live

Worm - with no great help from me but a lot from a friendly Croatian genius - has finally defeated Wordpress.

The splendid new Dabbler is now live at http://www.thedabbler.co.uk/

So update your bookmarks and join us over there! You will also need to update any RSS subscriptions you might have.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Foghorns of My Youth

And still continuing matters lavatorial (Ok, last one, this is getting ridiculous - Ed "Ed"? What do you mean "Ed"? You are the Ed - Brit We've been blogging too long - Ed) the ballcock/spindle arrangement in the cistern of our office loo has positioned itself so that it emits a long, low groan upon being operated.

Flushing the chain just now, I listened to its deep cry and was immediately transported, Proust-like, to the Portsmouth of my childhood, where the sad foghorns of the ceaselessly churning ferries would sound across the Solent. I confess my eyes moistened. O! O, the Foghorns of My Youth!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Talking to oneself

Continuing both the studenty and lavatorial themes of last week’s post, at university I briefly shared a flat with the chap who complained about being ‘tied to the toilet’.

It was the cheapest, dingiest, mouldiest basement flat in the western world. There was no central heating and in winter it was so cold that I slept in two jumpers, a dressing-gown and a woolly hat, and even at times resorted to laying towels on top of my sheets, duvets and blankets. There was a shower built in to an alcove under the stairs and the toilet was in a scarcely-converted back porch and therefore so preposterously cold that the innumerable slugs inhabiting it were probably stiff with ice (for all I know).

On the ground floor, above us, lived a man in late middle-age. He was hearing-impaired, though he spoke clearly and was not so deaf that he didn’t once complain that our music was shaking his floorboards (at that time we were heavily into Abbey Road, the second half of which I still regard as the high point of popular music, and for a few weeks we played it every night at terrible volume.) Our upstairs neighbour was a decent enough chap but alternately friendly (issuing indefinite, dateless invitations to come up and share a bottle of red, though he’d need advance warning so he could allow the wine ‘to breathe’) and sullen (which meant that we never felt inclined to accept these invitations).

I suspected he was lonely and going a bit mad. One day I was in the loo and I heard sounds from above of our neighbour in his loo. Gradually it became clear that he was talking aloud to himself while going about his business.

"Oh God, he's talking aloud to himself now," I said, aloud to myself.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I hate the Edinburgh Festival

Well I’ve never actually been to it, so that’s a somewhat absurd claim, but am I the only one whose heart sinks a little every time the Edinburgh Festival comes round to hog every possible spot in the arts and culture media? The more I read the reviews of tiresomely ‘innovative’ Fringe shows and the ‘look-at-me!’ competitive desperation of the stand-up comics, the less is my desire to actually go to the blasted thing. Anyone been? Am I being wildly unfair? Edinburgh itself is nice of course, always worth a visit during the rest of the year.

Celebrity slaughter

There appears to have been some sort of awful A-List massacre this weekend. Arriving at the office this morning I check my inbox to find separate emails from all sorts of strangers with the following subject lines:

Alicia Keys died
Angelina Jolie died
Kanye West died
Tiger Woods died
Miley Cyrus died
Jennifer Lopez died
David Beckham died
Nicole Kidman died

The 21st August 2010 will surely be known henceforth as ‘Black Saturday’.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dabbler latest

Over at The Dabbler (beta) two terrific posts to brighten your weekend - Susan discovers a gloriously anachronistic tailor, and the Yard makes his Dabbler debut with an analysis of a stunning movie still.

We have been working hard on the proper, full-blooded Wordpress version of The Dabbler, and though holiday, illness, technical incompetence and the slings and arrows of et cetera have delayed things somewhat, we hope to launch in the next few days. Stay tuned...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hollywood mugshots

A few more interesting police mugshots over at The Dabbler.

Things you can buy at Chief Trading Post, part 7

A bloody great stork!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Les Oreades

Over at The Dabbler, a snippet from Michael Wharton's A Dubious Codicil, in which he describes a Bouguereau painting as a stupefying work of painstaking bad taste and technical skill.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Soap Suds

Now wash your hands....Over at The Dabbler I post a poem by Louis MacNeice.

Tied to the toilet

I apologise for the scarcity of posts this week, and also for the scatological nature of this one. I have been ill, you see: a stomach bug originating, we suspect, at Brit Jnr’s nursery and passing through the family with a dramatic snowballing of effectiveness. A few interesting nappies for Baby, a day or two of discomfort and appetite loss for Mummy and last, for Daddy, 24 hours of leg-aches, bowel-liquidation and toilet-clutching puke-spasms. I like to think that I have killed the thing by heroically taking its full brunt. Not the worst I’ve ever had (I once had salmonella poisoning and there were moments there where I really would have welcomed death), but it was a nasty sharp one. The type where between the merciful oblivious periods of sleep children’s songs pound remorselessly round your head (Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle, the cat and the fiddle, the Hey diddle diddle the cat and) and memories of incidents from your past are replayed with a vividness bordering on hallucination.

One of these at least caused me bleak laughter in my delirium. An old university pal once declared, unexpectedly, that he was tired of being ‘tied to the toilet’. “It’s like there’s an invisible elastic cord attaching me to the bog, and every day, several times, I have to keep going back to pay it homage.” Well it’s the kind of thing Eng Lit undergraduates do come out with, but I found it funny. We are all slaves to our bodies, nothing like a violent vomit to remind us of that, and so much for free will et cetera. Sorry if you read this while eating your office sarnies.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

P H Emerson

Over at The Dabbler I post on the photographer P H Emerson.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Songs about the postal service

With Gaw off on his hols, I'm on Lazy Sunday duty again on The Dabbler (the full launch of which is so very close now, oh yes). After last week's mad pianists I've gone back to pop and have selected four fine songs about snail mail.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Musical Mugshots

Over at The D I post some remarkable police mugshots.

Four things I have thought this week

1. Willard is right, putting lectures you have attended as qualifications on your CV – a la ‘award-winning activist' Micah White – is an excellent idea. A good tactic for budding actors too. “I have attended plays directed by Trevor Nunn and featuring actors including Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judy Dench, and have watched numerous feature films starring the likes of George Clooney, John Malkovitch and Sean Penn.”

2. More than you’d think, people are happy to be asked to do things, even for no money.

3. “Ducklings” and “piglets” are good names, but “ducklets” and “piglings” would be even better. That one occured to me this morning, very early.

4. There are an awful lot of undescribed cases mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Also, I enjoyed the BBC Sherlock, despite part 2, because it didn’t take itself seriously, had an unusually sharp script, and anything featuring an actor called Benedict Cumberbatch has to have some good in it. Part 3 gave us our money’s worth with a whole seriesful of plots crammed into one episode.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism

Bloody hell, the Guardian’s editors really will let anyone loose on Comment is Free, won’t they? The long-term problem I suppose will be the complete erosion of whatever credibility the name has left.

But in the meantime, somebody called Micah White writes one of the great comic blogposts of recent times, following in the illustrious footsteps of Kingsnorth/Monbiot and Marc Nash.

Clicktivism,” announces White, “is ruining leftist activism.” This is important because “at stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.”

The problem, you see, is that “exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the bottom of political engagement.”Gone”, cries White, “is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal.”

Clictivists are comparable to both McDonalds and Wal-Mart (both of which are, as we all know, worse than Hitler and almost as bad as George W Bush). But White is determined to resist, and ends with a stirring call to arms:

“Against the progressive technocracy of clicktivism, a new breed of activists will arise. In place of measurements and focus groups will be a return to the very thing that marketers most fear: the passionate, ideological and total critique of consumer society. Resuscitating the emancipatory project the left was once known for, these activists will attack the deadening commercialisation of life. And, uniting a global population against the megacorporations who unduly influence our democracies, they will jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution.”

But who is this Micah White, bravely resisting the use of internet campaigns for leftist causes? He’s a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an 'award-winning activist'. You can join his online Fan Brigade here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Catholic families

Over at The Dabbler I post on John Le Carre and the 'permanent and benevolent disorder' of large Roman Catholic households.

I remember that during one pre-Mass lull at a tiny Devon church I dared a fellow altar server - a ginger, outdoorsy lad - to climb a tree in his full cassock. No easy task but he obliged with skill and dexterity. I should write it up sometime; it's only now that I'm beginning to realise how much comic potential there is in childhood memories. Perhaps you've found that too...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flying squirrels, monkeys

Over at The D I reveal important flying squirrel/monkey news.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Lobster Mug

My second work-related visit to America was in 2003, three years after my first. Boston was the destination and this time Mark, my objectionable employer, accompanied me, along with two humourless accountants. We flew Air America – Mark not stooping to Air India when booking for himself – and stayed in one of those US hotels where all the money has been lavished on the lobby, the rooms left to crumble quietly. The mission was the same as in Chicago: to attend a conference and steal ideas from the Yanks. Mark was also scheduled to speak, in the guise of ‘Expert in the British Market’. With some modest script input from me and a great deal of pretend confidence he successfully winged it.

Mark was on good form throughout; American grins and vigorous handshakes and ‘awesomes’ suit him perfectly. He dressed exactly as an American might hope an Englishman to dress – smart yet colourfully odd. He dazzled the women with white but wonky Limey teeth. He made suggestive remarks that might have attracted lawsuits were they not put-downable to English eccentricity. He waltzed the three of us around the dinnertime conference networking sessions and post-session networking dinners with tireless bonhomie. He took us to a proper Boston seafood restaurant and paid. But this was the only time Mark came unstuck; he ordered lobster and it arrived intact and barely dead along with some terrible metal instruments. The dismantling process was traumatic and not helped by the quantity of sauce, but he pulled through in the end and converted it into a Big Joke.

On day three of the conference Mark good-morninged us with a tremendous announcement. Rather than returning to Heathrow, he would be flying on to New York for further networking and theft. The two humourless accountants were scheduled to leave ahead of me anyway, so this meant that suddenly I had two clear days in Boston all to myself; a free holiday. I shook Mark’s hand and waved him and his tyrannical bonhomie off to the airport.

Did I waste my two free days alone in Boston, Massachusetts? Did I hide in my crumbly hotel room reading A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, or lounge about the lavish lobby drinking Sam Adams beer? I did not, despite the temptation. I got out and had a holiday is what I did. I walked to the malls. I took a Trolley tour of Beantown. I went to the theatre to watch the Blue Man Group, who were funny and made excellent use of the music of KLF. In a downtown bar, almost a pub, where I stopped for an early-evening beer an All-American guy explained the rudimentaries of baseball to me as we watched the Red Sox playing Houston on the TV. I had a bash at explaining cricket. He then offered to give me a ticket for the very game that we were watching. “Don’t you want it?” I asked. “I'm good right here. It’s raining. They play all the time. Here you go, you’re in the Bleachers.” “Can I give you the money?” “Nah go on.” Yanks are often like that, which is why I like them so much. I paid for his beer and dashed out to get a taxi for Fenway Park, where I sat in the open-air Bleachers and tried to fathom out the scoreboard until the rain got too much even for me and I snuck over to a covered stand and found a seat amongst chuntering Boston fans whose chant repertoire was much less impressive (“Let’s go Red Sox” and “You suck Astros” both to the same tune being the extent of it) than their ability to consume hot dogs.

Before leaving for the airport I bought a gift for Mark. It was a humorous mug with illustrated instructions on How to Eat a Lobster. Back in England I presented this to him along with a postcard on which I had scribbled Thanks for my free trip to Boston. He seemed taken aback by the gesture. Later his stepson told me that Mark had been much moved by the gift, saying that nobody else he had taken to the States had ever thanked him. But then they were mostly humourless accountants. From then on I was a protégé. My wife and I were invited round for dinner and given random cash gifts for meals out. Then three years later Mark sold the company but continued to work, sort of secretly, for a division that had now become our rivals. I wrote the slightly mean but not really ill-intentioned dig “Good luck in your new job” in his leaving card. Mark took great offence, his stepson later told me. He hasn’t spoken to me since, except for one awkward accidental meeting in a DIY store where his wife rescued things by making a fuss of my baby daughter.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Mad Pianists

Over at the Dabbler, I have a Lazy Sunday Afternoon feature about some of the great, mad pianists.

Talking of which, Brit Jnr fans can see the great One Year-Old playing with her new toy here.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Tempus Fuggedaboutit

Brit Jnr will be one year old tomorrow, if you can believe such a thing. A whole annus mirabilis has passed since that dizzy day when the world began. I forget what the previous world was like, but suspect it had more sleep and less fun in it.

We're having three parties in two days (ridiculous, I know), at the end of which I shall doubtless be plumb tuckered, while Brit Jnr will be as full of beans as ever, the rascal.

Updates will appear on her blog for those in that particular gang.

The mind of the Librarian

Frank Key posts at The D today, with some excellent advice on effective blegging.

Meanwhile, I must point you to this wonderful account of the formative years of a young librarian by fellow Dabbler Nige, which was prompted by a piece prompted by this post.

This, I feel, is exactly the sort of thing that blogs are for.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Bodgett and Scarper

A day of DIY yesterday. I had three duties to perform: paint the living room; re-seal the bath; put up a coat rail.

Simple enough tasks, you say. Yes indeed, but I got a full day’s value out of them, and managed to beat my Personal Best in terms of quantity, variation and inventiveness of cussing.

This being a profanity-free blog I cannot, alas, reproduce the transcript of my day’s DIY here. But, rest assured, it will be anthologised in years to come.

Karl Weschke

Over at The Dabbler (Beta), the (Beta) blog the whole world is talking about, I post on the unusual life and art of Cornish-based ex-Nazi Karl Weschke.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Infinite Sadness of Chief Trading Post

Everything in the above box, or boat, is 50p (that everything consisting of a couple of crumbling candles, an egg thing, some dust and pebbles).

I'm reminded of Tom Waits' melancholy classic Soldier's Things.

Davenports and kettle drums
and swallow tail coats
Table cloths and patent leather shoes
Bathing suits and bowling balls
And clarinets and rings
And all this radio really
needs is a fuse

A tinker, a tailor
A soldier's things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks
And this one is for bravery
And this one is for me
And everything's a dollar
in this box...

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


I note a startling fact about public libraries at The D (as I'm now calling it).

Time and Colour

On Saturday at The Dabbler (no I’m really not turning TofE into a series of plugs for The Dabbler, but blogs are formed from one’s current preoccupations, and The Dabbler happens to be the thing about which I currently preoccupied am) I posted some autochrome colour pics from the very early 1900s.

Malty’s reaction is I’m sure the same of most – “they were more or less us” . The application of colour does have a remarkable effect of bringing the past closer and making strangeness more familiar - or perhaps, black and white has a dramatic distancing effect.

This makes me wonder whether, for Brit Jnr, the 1970s and 1980s will be much ‘closer’ for her than, say, the 1930s or 1940s are for me, simply because she’ll be able to see Michael Jackson videos and whatnot. And the 1920s will be just as distant to her as they are to me. As indeed, the 16th Century, visually accessible through weird portraits, is the same to all of us. Everything before our own living memory happened in a world that we have to take on faith, and colour is much more important than time in determining the degree to which we believe in it.

Font snobs

Over at The Dabbler I post on Font Snobs and the strange condition of Font Paralysis.

Monday, August 02, 2010

For the assiduous clicker

My stats inform me that several assiduous readers clicked on every single one of the links in the Private Pyschedelic Reel post below. That's pretty hardcore; I hope you emerged unscathed.

I will attempt to post this week, but I'm also busy building The Dabbler, which launches properly this month and today, in its nascent format, features a bit of Nige.

"The 1p Book Review" will be a recurring Dabbler feature. If you would like to recommend a book (fiction or non) that can be bought on Amazon for a penny (or a cent?), drop a line, with your choice and justification, to editorial@thedabbler.co.uk