Sunday, 29 December 2013

Des O'Connor in a Santa hat

I did this piece about Christmas TV for last week's New Statesman.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, kitsch Christmas television seemed as timeless a tradition as wassailing. But it seems I was part of the first generation to be so blessed. Browsing the TV listings for Christmas 1963, 50 years ago, I am amazed how unfestive they look. Alongside a few familiar staples like Billy Smart’s Circus and Christmas Night with the Stars, there are run-of-the-mill episodes of Z Cars, University Challenge and Emergency – Ward 10. On Christmas Eve, ITV did not even bother to start until mid-afternoon, and by Boxing Day the schedules were almost back to normal.

Then, in 1969, a miraculous birth brought joy to the world: the first Christmas double issues of the Radio Times and the TV Times. Their separate covers – the Radio Times a tasteful montage of ribbons, wintry scenes and carol singers, the TV Times Des O’Connor in a Santa hat – seemed to encapsulate the cultural differences between the BBC and ITV. But they each inaugurated an era of three-channel colour TV in which every sitcom or quiz show would have its own Christmas special and the cathode-ray tube would fizz with fake snow and winter woollies for a fortnight.

The moment from this halcyon era that has entered folk memory is 8.55pm on the evening of 25 December 1977, when 28.5 million people are alleged to have arranged themselves in front of a TV to watch The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show - and this despite the fact that theirs was always the least Christmassy show in the schedules, with barely a slither of tinsel in sight. What no one now remembers is that ITV’s Christmas programmes in 1977 were so unappetising that, when the schedules had been announced a few weeks earlier, several advertising agencies complained that they would have no audience for their commercials. On Christmas night, ITV showed Sale of the Century, Stars on Christmas Day (a special edition of Stars on Sunday with ITV personalities singing carols) and the film Young Winston. To have detained half the nation for an hour and ten minutes with this on the other side was not, perhaps, such a historic achievement.

It was, in fact, a recurring motif throughout the 1970s that Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas show was not as good as last year’s. The 1977 show was not one of their best. Starting with a lame skit on “Starkers and Krutch,” it finished not with that triumphant “There is nothing like a dame” number from South Pacific, but an oddly flat scene with Elton John playing piano in an empty studio while Eric and Ernie, dressed in drag as cleaners, looked on. Les Dawson, interviewed by the Daily Express a few days later, felt that “the ending didn’t quite come off”. The DJ John Peel found them “extravagantly unfunny” and thought “their best work in several years was the current television commercial for Texaco”.

But even if Morecambe and Wise were never as funny as they used to be, it is touching to learn how much neurotic care went into their Christmas shows. Their writer, Eddie Braben, took five weeks to write each one, working 16 hour days including weekends, driving himself close to a breakdown. Morecambe was such a perfectionist that, when he watched the show with his family on Christmas night, he would cough strategically to distract them from any slight fluffs left in the edit.

It is customary to mourn the lost capacity of TV to create these shared moments that seem to matter so much to both performer and audience. Christmas TV, meant to be watched ritualistically en famille, especially inspires such lamentations. The announcement of the BBC’s Christmas schedules this year produced the usual complaints about its falling back on tired formats like Open All Hours and Strictly Come Dancing. But as the recent Channel 4 series Gogglebox suggested, many viewers still turn on the set in search of familiar rituals they can enjoy together. Despite all those predictions at the start of the digital era about the imminent demise of “linear viewing,” we are not all deserting the living-room set to watch Netflix on our iPads.  

The media historians Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz once compared the mass viewing of television to the seder, the Jewish ritual marking the start of Passover. Jews celebrate the seder in their own homes with their extended family, and yet these millions of synchronised, homebound microevents assume the existence of a symbolic centre, a sense that the Jewish diaspora is celebrating together at the same time. Dayan and Katz saw television, at its great collective moments, as a similar kind of “festive viewing,” a powerful social chemistry bonding society together.

You might think this too heavy a responsibility for the Christmas Day edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys to bear. But TV’s defining quality remains that it can be viewed by lots of people simultaneously. And since it is an undemanding form of togetherness that asks little of those who sign up to it other than that they are all watching Doctor Who or Downton Abbey, it can create a sense of commonality among people who have little else in common. This attachment to the communal nature of watching TV has survived a post-Thatcherite market logic which prefers to see us as individual, rational consumers. In fact, I have a vision of the diasporic television community of fifty years hence, assembled in twenty million living rooms from Lerwick to St Helier. Everyone is flicking through the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, with its time-honoured small-display ads for walk-in baths and garden sheds at the back, looking for something familiar to watch.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Skating away

In her book Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski writes:

'My feet haven't retained the memory of skating, but then it isn't a natural experience for feet to be constrained in an unbending boot from sole to ankle and raised on a quarter inch of steel blade so that they never actually touch the ground. Feet don't skate, but they experience skating. You sense the solidity of the ice through the blade in a way that is quite different from being on any other hard surface. Concrete doesn't feel as ungiving and absolute as ice. You slide over its surface, but there is no engaging with it, no sense, as you get even with concrete, certainly with rock and paving stones, of surface texture, of tiny undulations, of there being earth beneath. Rink ice is a solid block, whose depth you sense as you slick across its surface, as a swimmer senses the fathoms beneath them buoying them up. But the sea moves, engages with the body of the swimmer, while the ice is enigmatic, separate from the skater.

And yet, to skate is magical, as you find yourself coasting free and frictionless. The clear distinction between yourself and the ice you are on strengthens the sensation of your own body and its capacity both for control and for letting appropriate things happen. And for all the perception of physical mastery, skating is still strange and dreamlike. Dreams of flying are the nearest you get to the feeling of being on the ice.' (pp. 15-16)

Nowadays every British town and city seems to have at least one open-air ice rink at Christmas time. With the addition of fairy lights, and in a spectacular location like the Brighton Pavilion or Winchester Cathedral, these can be quite magical, although the ice rink in Liverpool One is a pretty unenchanted affair.

The town-centre Christmas ice rink seems to have entirely replaced the phenomenon of wild skating. According to Sue Clifford and Angela King, in their wonderful book England in Particular, it was common until recently to skate on the lakes and tarns of the Lake District. In his Guardian Country Diary, A. Harry Griffin described how in 1929 the railways ran excursions from London and other cities to the 'Lakeland ice carnival', where 'there seemed as many people on and around the "toe" of Windermere as on a busy summer's day in Blackpool'. In one memorable edition of the ITV regional programme About Anglia in January 1963, in the coldest winter of the century, the presenter Eric Joice presented the programme from Wroxham Broad in Norfolk, sitting at a desk perched on the frozen water while reporters skated round him under the arc lights. But Clifford and King report that 'since the 1950s land drainage schemes have meant that many of the safe places for skating – flood meadows – are no longer available'.

I like the idea of skating, but I won't be doing any of it this Christmas, as the only time I have tried it felt as unnatural an experience as Diski describes it, and I never got to the coasting free and frictionless stage because I kept being stuck in the falling over stage. But like Joni Mitchell, I sometimes wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Anyway, a Merry Christmas to anyone who reads this blog, whether you have a river to skate away on or not.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The happy bubble of television

It’s a shame Morrissey’s autobiography came out after Armchair Nation because there is quite a lot in it about young Morrissey the TV watcher. He has an infallible memory for long-forgotten shows from the 1960s like Torchy the Battery Boy, The Time Tunnel, Champion the Wonder Horse, Mr Pastry’s Pet Shop and Fireball XL5. And he has a nice turn of phrase. In Miss World, ‘all of England places their bets on the beauty of young women whose full human potential is limited to one frozen expression’. And this is him on what television, in an age before videotape, meant to his youthful self:

‘The happy bubble of television shows me the earth and its fragile moments of fantasy, and I, with all the petulance of the pipe dream, am allowed to engage … Television is the only place where we banish ourselves from the community of the living, and where the superficial provides more virtue than the actual. We watch in order to find ecstasy, for at last we can survive in someone else. Our conclusions are our own, yet the landscape is infinite … Television flickers and fleets, and must be watched closely lest what you see is never seen again. Whatever you see you will never forget.’

Saturday, 26 October 2013

So much confetti

‘If God were as poetic as Whistler once wished,’ Alistair Cooke wrote, ‘and if He had devised a solar system that lighted parts of the globe only at the seasons that showed His best handiwork, the rest of the world would be dark in October while New England enjoyed its hour, just as England would light up for the few magic weeks in late March and early April for its incomparable spring.’ The New England fall and the English spring were, according to Cooke, ‘the unique earthly expression of two moods of the human spirit’. Maybe, but English autumns aren’t too shifty either – not in the Champions League like New England, perhaps, but definitely vying for a UEFA cup place.

The American literature professor Jay Parini has written that academic life is renewed with the fall of autumn leaves, ‘shredding the previous year's failures and tossing them out of the window like so much confetti’. These days it isn’t quite true, because our semesters begin well before the sunlight fades and the leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll.

But now the garden at the back of our building is a shrivelled wet blanket of yellow and brown, and thankfully no one seems to be in a hurry to sweep it away. Nowadays, falling leaves tend to be seen as a mere nuisance, from those ‘leaves on the line’ that harass the modern rail commuter to the back-garden tree litter that is supposed to be swept away by those new high-powered leaf blowers.

This is surely part of a more general recoil from the tangible and the real. According to a survey from the Woodland Trust this summer, eight out of ten people in Britain are now unable to identify an ash leaf, and only half can recognise the nation’s most celebrated tree, the oak.

We should reacquaint ourselves with falling leaves, and the sweet little melancholy annual death that is autumn. And by ‘we’, I really mean ‘me’. ‘Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?’ as Thoreau writes in Walden. ‘Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?’

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The power of the painted face

I did a piece on the painted portait for last week's Guardian:
Oliver Cromwell famously said that he wanted his portrait to include “all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me”. Nowadays we have little choice in the matter. We live in an era in which our photographic likenesses circulate ever more freely in the form of webcam images, profile pictures and mobile phone snapshots, and they cannot all be flattering.

You would think that, in this era of instantly available avatars of ourselves, something as analogue as a painted portrait would have little purchase. But all this week, viewers on The One Show are voting on which public figure should be the subject of a “People’s Portrait” in the National Portrait Gallery. And last week there was much interest in the artist Grahame Hurd-Wood, who aims to paint a portrait of every person in his home city of St Davids. He thinks it will take him at least another five years to reproduce all 1800 residents – a task that could be done with a camera in a day.

The painted portrait has outlived most of its original purposes. Before photography, it was the main way of preserving someone’s image beyond their own lifetime. It was also largely the preserve of the rich and well-connected, a way of announcing wealth, status and ancestral lineage. None of these advantages applies in the new age of the “selfie”, the self-portrait taken with front-facing phone camera.

But a painted portrait can still be extraordinarily compelling. For it can show us that we are not, as Shakespeare wrote and most of us think we are, the lords and owners of our faces. Before allowing ourselves to be photographed, we subconsciously flinch and arrange our features in such a way as to give a poor sense of how we usually look. The artist Graham Sutherland once said that “only those totally without physical vanity, educated in painting, or with exceptionally good manners, can disguise their feelings of shock or even revulsion when they are confronted for the first time with a reasonably truthful painted image of themselves”. Anyone who has been horrified at encountering their glum, ill-prepared countenance unexpectedly in a shop window will know what he means.

Just as a selfie is only one version of the self – for most people do not view us completely face-on, grinning inanely, at arm’s length – a painted portrait is a reinvention of another person. Many portrait painters make the head bigger than it really is, because it is what we notice first in others. The eyes may be enlarged for the same reason, while the ears, which most of us barely register unless they are especially protuberant, are usually an afterthought. A portrait painter is trying to capture a person’s ineffable essence rather than a mirror image. As Picasso said of his portrait of Gertrude Stein, “everybody says that she does not look like it, but that does not make any difference. She will.”

No one, after all, has just one face; it changes constantly according to such variables as angle of view, mood, lighting and the ageing process. Compared to those of other species, human faces are very different from each other, and, since we have more separate muscles in our faces than any other animal, uniquely expressive. And yet every human face, for all that it is as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint, also seems fundamentally familiar. In old paintings, it is always the face – rather than the historically distancing aspects of hairstyle, costume and decor - which conveys the sense that the person portrayed is someone recognisable who could step out of the painting into the present.

I still recall my shock at first seeing the face of Tollund Man, the mummified body discovered in a Danish peat bog in 1950 - a mild, unremarkable face you might just as easily have come across attached to a stranger on the bus. The selfie has become ubiquitous not because we live in an unusually narcissistic age, but because we first connect with other human beings through their faces. And that is also why a painted portrait has the power to move us still.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The discretion of trees

‘The discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in his book The Wild Places. We’ve moved into a new building at work, and there is an inner garden with about two dozen trees, some of the younger ones with plaques commemorating people who have died. My favourite, and definitely the most venerable, is a London plane you can see from the window of the staff common room. From its height and trunk size, I’d guess it’s over a hundred years old.

This London plane may have lost its sense of direction and fetched up in the wrong city but it is at least a city tree, and we are in the heart of the city here. Its rubbery leaves repel urban grime and pollution, and it is tough enough to flourish even in paved-over soil. Our London plane looks solid, stoical, happy for us to live alongside it, perhaps a little irritated by our noisy egotism but far too polite to mention it. In his book The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, Richard Mabey argues that our relationship with trees is a model for how we should relate to the natural world as a whole, a relationship based on neighbourliness and undemanding reciprocity rather than ownership or coercion. The way we breathe the exhalations of trees, without either the trees or us being aware of it, is, he suggests, ‘a true unconscious communion’.

A lot of the other trees are limes, with great nests of leaves snaking round their trunks. I think I may pass on Mabey's suggestion, in his book Flora Britannica, that the young leaves of limes 'make refreshing sandwich fillings'. But it's nice being around the solid trunks of trees while undergoing the self-absorbing and nerve-shredding experience of having a new book out - which may, involve, at any point, someone saying that it wasn't worth pulping all those trees so they could have it in their hands. Or they may just ignore it, which is saying the same thing in a kinder, but somehow crueller, way. But I think I’m going to enjoy being around trees, and am looking forward to autumn.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Peeing on the fire

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (I already read and enjoyed one of his previous books, A Room of My Own, about building his own Walden-style log cabin in his back garden in Connecticut.) Barbecues are often dismissed as pieces of alpha-male theatre but Pollan uses the arguments of the anthropologist Richard Wrangham – that cooking with fire is what made us human and lifted us out of our animal existence – to suggest that barbecues are ‘ceremonial acts of remembering — who we are, where we came from, how nature works’. He is such a light, witty, elegant writer. Here he is skewering Freud and turning him over on the barbie until he’s nicely done:

‘Freud traces the control of fire to the fateful moment when man – and by “man” in this case he really means man – first overcame the urge to extinguish whatever fires he chanced upon by peeing on them. For countless millennia this urge apparently proved irresistible, much to the detriment of civilization, the rise of which awaited its repression … The course of human history shifted on the fateful day when it dawned on some fellow possessed of an unusual degree of self-control that he didn’t have to pee on the fire, and could instead preserve the flames and put them to some good use: keeping himself warm, say, or cooking his dinner. Freud believed this advance, like so much else of value in civilization, owed to the unique human ability to govern, or repress, the inner drives and urges before which other animals are powerless. (Not that we have many reports of animals putting out fires with their urine.) For him, the control of self is the precondition for the control of fire and, in turn, for the civilization that that discovery made possible … In all the time I’ve now spent with pit masters, whiling away the hours before the smoldering logs, I’ve never once brought up Freud’s fire theory. I’m just not sure how well it would go over.’

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Vox populi

Last Thursday I delivered the Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture at King’s College, London, on ‘Vox Populi?: The Recorded Voice and Twentieth-Century British History.’ It told the story of voice-recording technologies from gramophone records onwards, focusing in particular on the anthropologists, oral historians and dialect scholars – people like the Scottish poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, the radio producer Charles Parker and the linguist Stanley Ellis - who travelled round the country in the 1950s and 1960s recording voices on the new portable tape recorders.

In the course of writing the lecture I became a bit of a connoisseur of great radio voices: John Arlott’s Test Match special burr, so evocative of English summers past; the beautifully sonorous Richard Burton as First Voice in Under Milk Wood (a voice trained by its owner's mentor, Philip Burton, by taking him up into the Welsh hills and making him shout across the valleys); the dying fall at the end of Garrison Keillor’s sentences as he recounts the news from Lake Wobegon; Charlotte Green reading the Shipping Forecast, making you glad you’re not anywhere near Rockall tonight.

The miniaturisation and democratisation of voice-recording technology over the course of the last century means that we have largely forgotten what a strange and quasi-magical thing it is to preserve someone’s voice. A voice has a signature as distinctive as a fingerprint and a recording of it is a uniquely intimate encounter with that person. Since a voice is essentially just an exhaled breath, a series of vibrations of air produced by different parts of the body from the abdomen to the lips, a recording of it can convey the sense of being alive at a moment in time and space perhaps better than any other historical evidence. Recordings of voices remind us that their owners are not just textual traces but were once breathing bodies, trying, just like us, to make themselves heard.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Before Hardy had written a word

This week’s Radio Times has a piece by me called ‘The day that changed television forever’ about the televising of the coronation, which took place 60 years ago on Sunday. It being a special Coronation-themed issue, I’m sandwiched between an interview with David Dimbleby and a recipe for Mary Berry’s Coronation Cake.

It’s a little reflected-upon fact that quite a lot of the people who watched television in those earliest days would have grown up in the late nineteenth century. What on earth did these late Victorians make of this new idiot’s lantern? Ronald Blythe’s grandmother, born in 1860 ‘before Hardy had written a word’, lived long enough ‘to glimpse our first television set, a sturdy affair with the lines of a fruit machine’. Arthur Perry, born in 1869, simply took the television set for granted: ‘He never said, “Isn’t it amazing!” or “It’s a miracle!” and in his eighties, he used to sit in front of the telly and grumble about the rotten programmes. “It’s about time they got some new stuff on,” he’d say.’ Arthur Perry was the father of Jimmy Perry, the co-writer of Dad’s Army, and this quote is taken from the latter’s memoir, Stupid Boy.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

A beneficent incubus

Today is the centenary of Richard Dimbleby’s birth. (The anniversary is being commemorated with this new stamp from the Royal Mail.) And on 2 June it will be 60 years since his famous television broadcast of the coronation. (So he was only just 40 when he did it – he sounds older.) Dimbleby’s style – mellifluous, paternalistic, reassuring – is often seen as symbolic of an era of broadcasting that is lost forever, for good and ill. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, an anxious mother rang the editor of Panorama, Paul Fox. ‘There’s only one thing I want Richard Dimbleby to do,’ she said. ‘I want him to tell me if it’s safe for my daughter to go to school tomorrow.’

Actually, there were some critical voices even while Dimbleby was in his prime. In 1956, the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra wrote that he ‘shimmers in his own unction … he swells in a glycerine respect for his subject that makes the Royal Family look like an advertisement for an immensely costly hair tonic … platitudes coming hushed, honeyed from their author, standing at waistcoated attention’.

Anthony Burgess complained of ‘those periodical Dimbleby Ubiquity Weeks’ characterised by ‘a surfect of omnicompetence mingled with upper-middle-class decency and articulacy, bulkily incarnated – an excessive dispensation of Better Self, a beneficent incubus that, lying so heavily on the chest, is bound to act like a nightmare … The Dimbleby lineaments comprise quiet decency, literacy without intellectuality, staidness untempered by quirkiness, above all an aura of utter integrity. These are rare qualities, and we have to pay heavily to get them. We have to yield our right to what makes life worth living and television viewable – namely, the unpredictable, the lunatic, the indiscreet, the inefficient.’

It’s true that about the nearest Dimbleby came to controversy was when he was told off by his bosses for mentioning his tailor on air. And it’s true that he was a Burkean conservative who liked the gentle changing of the seasons and the continuities of English traditions. His experience at Belsen, where he had delivered an unforgettable radio report as the BBC’s war correspondent, had persuaded him of the value of tradition as a way of ensuring that barbarism would never again triumph over civilisation. His coronation commentary wasn’t oleaginous, nor was it even hushed as Cassandra claimed; but its reverence was implicit.

But Dimbleby was also an absolutely wonderful broadcaster. The rhetorical flourish with which he matched words to pictures, an adaptation of the older techniques of radio to the new medium, has not been equalled since. And if you don’t believe me, listen to his masterly commentary on Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965:

Friday, 10 May 2013

Nature abhors a vacuum

On his morning walk from High Holborn to Fleet Street in 1947, in the rubble stretching from Farringdon Road to Fetter Lane, the young journalist Kenneth Allsop spotted a pair of kestrels - ‘like a lean pair of Che Guevara’s jungle guerrillas prowling through Harrods’, he wrote later. In 1949 he published Adventure Lit their Star (1949), a fictionalised piece of nature writing based on his own experiences as a wounded RAF pilot watching the previously rare little ringed plover in the gravel pits and sewage farms near Staines, Middlesex. Allsop was a pioneer in the new field of of urban ecology.

At the end of the 1960s Allsop, by then a star writer and TV presenter on the BBC show Tonight, wrote an article for the Sunday Times about wildlife thriving in the last remaining bombsites and scrubland in the centre of London. Allsop’s theme was the usefulness of the human-made landscape as a makeshift natural habitat. ‘How willing nature is to forgive the insults of man,’ he wrote, noting the absence of snobbishness with which kestrels nested on both the Savoy hotel and the Poplar gasometers. ‘How magnanimously she responds and pumps back life, like blood into dead tissue, once the environment is cleansed.’ At the height of his TV fame, in the mid-1960s, Allsop had moved from London to an old millhouse near Powerstock, Dorset where he wrote a regular column for the Daily Mail about his life there, collected as In the Country (1972). This part of the world was more remote than it is now:

‘BBC2 cannot penetrate our valley fastness. Colour has never been glimpsed. BBC1 comes in blurrily through a blizzard of static. On our regional commercial station we see, scratchily, ads for car marts far down the coast and scenes shot in smart candle-lit restaurants frequented by the beau monde of Plymouth. French programmes jabber dominantly on our screen, and there are occult images which are said to float in from Madrid. I am thinking of demanding my licence fee back from the government and declaring a TV UDI.’

Allsop’s style - describing a badger’s bottom as ‘waggling like an old boy in baggy trousers’, a starling as ‘a winged hippy with self-grown furbelows’, greenhouses as ‘bottling summer like Schiaparelli does scent’ and rats as scrabbling through his compost heap ‘like bargain hunters at a rummage stall’ – was unashamedly anthropocentric and uninfected by the quaintness or purple prose that afflicted much country writing before him. Allsop also made a BBC documentary, The Wildlife of New York, complete with stick insects crawling up Harley Davidsons and cockroaches congregating in the wiring behind telephone receivers. ‘Nature cannot abide a vacuum,’ he wrote in In the Country. ‘With an exactitude far more intricate and discriminating than our wonder dating-service computers … every niche is filled.’

Given the wonderful aliveness of the book, it is hard to believe that Allsop ended his own life a year after it was published.

You can watch Richard Mabey talking about Allsop here:

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Do not go to the ant

More on bugs. One of the best pieces about insects I’ve read is the ‘Contemplation upon Ants’ from John Stewart Collis’s wonderful The Worm Forgives the Plough (written during the war but not published until 1973), inspired by ploughing a field with a large number of ant-hills:

‘When I did pause, sometimes, to consider what I was doing on that field I could not fail to feel the enormity of my act. The shining blade crashed down through the centre of a city built up with skill and labour; the inhabitants were thrown into confusion; then another flash and crash of the blade, and another, till bits of the home were flying through the air … My power of destruction over this ant-world was really prodigious, as if a giant with legs the height of Snowdon and arms as long as the Sussex Downs were to throw London away in an hour or so.’

There then follows a little essay on the parallels that have been made between ants and men – their rigid hierarchies, waging of wars, keeping of slaves etc. - which concludes that these parallels are not, in fact, that useful:

‘Consciousness is the miracle of man. That is his whole significance, and the meaning of his imperfection, and his promise. Because it has broken in, because he does not possess it, then it will evolve in him as it has already done, it will go on evolving; this burden of apartness and semi-understanding which he often feels too heavy to bear, will be lifted; he will attain a higher state of consciousness and enter again into the unity that he has lost. He should not turn to the animals for directions. He should not go to the ant. He should fix his gaze steadily upon this human gift that makes him unique, and see in it, and the evolution of it, the key to all his set-backs and the meaning of all his suffering.’

But my favourite insect-contemplation piece is probably Virginia Woolf’s ‘The death of the moth’. One day in 1941, while she was reading in her study, Woolf spotted a moth fluttering frantically against a window pane, putting its body and soul into the effort and eventually dying of exhaustion. ‘Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body,’ she wrote. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life, and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life … One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.’

Woolf’s essay is a lovely meditation on the fragility of existence and the way that life counts for nothing but itself. But I have always wondered why she didn’t just open the window and let the moth out.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A timeless love story

I wrote this for Saturday's Guardian:

“I like insects for their stupidity,” wrote the American author Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. “I hope we seem as endearingly stupid to God – bumbling down into lamps, running half-wit across the floor, banging for days at the hinge of an open door.” Even those of us who like insects, such as Dillard and myself, have to admit they don’t do themselves any favours. They are, with a few exceptions, irrefutably ugly and they do seem pretty stupid - or perhaps it is just that, since they live out their lives in near silence, they never make the point of their bumbling behaviour clear to us.

A new series of events at London’s Wellcome Collection, titled “Who’s the Pest?”, aims to make us look anew at these disparaged but actually quite indispensable creatures, who pollinate our flowers, turn waste matter into fertile soil and, if we could just get over a bit of cultural conditioning that makes the thought of eating them revolting, are the most reliable and sustainable protein source on the planet. The Welcome Collection’s programme of events includes “a gastronomic evening of insect appreciation” at which insect canapés will be served. The whole series aims to explore the “entwined, co-dependent and timeless love story between humans and insects”.

Love story may be pushing it a bit. In human imaginings, insects have mainly been used as a metaphor for futility and insignificance. “God in his wisdom invented the fly,” wrote Ogden Nash, “and then forgot to tell us why.” The insects of the Australian jungle on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, eaten in bushtucker trials or dumped en masse on ex-soap stars and celebrity chefs, suffer an extreme version of this centuries-long condescension and revulsion.

It is true we have always reserved a grudging respect for the Hymenoptera, the insects like bees and ants that build elaborate nests and form social groups. Ever since Plato, who admired the way ants could lead such complex social existences without need of the philosophical meaning-making that he considered a condition of human life, we have been fascinated by the tiny, self-contained universes these insects create. Virgil looked inside a beehive and saw a little model of Roman society, “the marvellous spectacle of a tiny world and great-hearted leaders”. But this respect for the efficient hierarchies of ants and bees has usually been accompanied by a feeling that there is something alien and soulless about their overly structured lives. “Still we live meanly, like ants,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “Our life is frittered away by detail.”

There are, however, signs that we are learning to pay more attention to insects, as more of us recognise that without them, the world’s ecosystems would collapse. This growing awareness is partly thanks to the charity Buglife, which has just begun a project to create “living roofs”, transforming the tops of urban buildings into wildflower meadows to provide havens for insects. A recent series on BBC4, Alien Nation, was devoted entirely to the insect world. It included a jaw-dropping programme, Planet Ant, which recreated a million-strong colony of leafcutter ants at the Glasgow Science Centre, in specially designed tunnels that allowed cameras to see inside. Within weeks, the colony had built a whole working metropolis, with everything from ant crèches to ant graveyards. Ants do not live quite as meanly as Thoreau thought. The study of the application of ant behaviour to human society – so-called ant-colony optimisation – is a growing field, used to work out things like traffic flow, the efficient delivery of goods and the positioning of emergency exits in buildings.

We are starting to realise that insects are pivotal to our lives, not something to be noticed only irritatedly as we squirt them with fly spray or swot them away. Our ignorance and dismissal of them is part of the universal human urge to step over the things commonest and closest to us, to ignore the unglamorous and ubiquitous in favour of the rare and beautiful. It says more about us than it does about them.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

An address to politicians

I found this ‘address to politicians’ in the third issue of the underground magazine, Oz, dated May 1967:

‘First to you who are currently successful: you who made it mouthing phony, ill-written, unutterably boring, lying, arse-licking speeches. Lend an unctuous ear – it may prove expedient.

And you out of office need not look so pious. Sincerity, sensitivity or honesty did not cost you election. Had you possessed any of these qualities you would never have stood. Only the scum of a society could bother to fashion a career so ruthlessly opportunist, so intellectually parasitic, so spiritually unrewarding.

Platitudes. This indignation doesn’t bruise your egotism, this rage prompts no self-assessment, nor costs you votes. Philosophers, poets, authors, dramatists, artists and tele-pundits have interminably exposed the vileness of your methods, the sordidness of your ambitions. The masses, whom you despise, hold your profession beneath contempt.

And still you survive.

You think that Parliament is the greatest institution in the world. Parliament! Parliament: bloated with fat, pompous, dying alcoholics who babble on with: here, here, honourable member, procedural motions, precious amendments, last ditch filibustering … Parliament: the gulch parting promise from achievement.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.’ – Primo Levi, If This Is A Man

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Figures shimmering with vitality

My favourite television viewer discovered in the course of writing Armchair Nation was George Mackay Brown, the reclusive Orcadian poet and writer who rarely left the islands (or, in fact, his Stromness council flat, except to go to the pub). When Orkney finally got television from the Meldrum transmitter through a sea of static in the mid-1950s, he railed against it as a dark avatar of all that was corrupt about the modern world, but he gradually relented, acquiring a rented black and white ‘stone age’ set, then a colour one, and finally – in the 1970s and 1980s – becoming a virtual addict. He often used his weekly column in the Orcadian newpaper to talk about the programmes he had seen.

Watching Scotland disintegrate in the 1978 world cup in front of a colour TV, he wondered: ‘Is there something strange and perverse in the Scottish character that allows the brimming cup to fall and shatter on a stone?’ He became a fan of the snooker, and marvelled at how a new pair of glasses had transformed watching the sport: ‘Figures shimmering with vitality, with intent vibrant faces, were striking balls of amazing solidity and vivid colours’. He also grew to like the daily quiz show Countdown: ‘Letters is my trade, and so I ought to be good at the word-making, but my mind goes numb and after a few seconds I give up … strangely enough, I can do the numbers better.’

He never missed the science programmes on BBC2. After one Horizon programme, Hello, Universe!, broadcast in March 1981, he wrote this:

‘An astonishing thing transpired. Even supposing our message got through to a very distant planet, its journey there would take 40,000 years. The planet’s reply would take a further 40,000 years. At the end of that time we of 1981 would long have been kirkyard dust, and the earth itself perhaps a cinder … Sitting lonely, late at night, in a council house in Orkney – as one shuts off the TV and, beyond the window, the innumerable star-systems wheel – one realises that one is not lonely at all. However isolated, in a croft above the seashore or on a hillside, we are involved with homo sapiens, we live on a teeming ant-hill of a planet, between skulls and seeds.’ 

Brown’s newspaper column had such a distinctive voice – a mixture of lyricism, naivety, misanthropy and good-heartedness – that when I finally reached the end of them (the last appeared just a few weeks before his death in April 1996) it felt like saying goodbye to a friend.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

A warm fog of acceptable feeling

A thought for Valentine’s Day …

‘That’s how sentimentality works, replacing particularity with a warm fog of acceptable feeling, the difficult exact stuff of individual character with the vagueness of convention. Sentimental assertions are always a form of detachment; they confront the acute, terrible awareness of individual pain, the sharp particularity of loss or the fierce individuality of passion with the dulling, “universal” certainty of platitude …

The oversweetened surface of the sentimental exists in order to protect its maker, as well as the audience, from anger. At the beautiful image refusing to hold, at the tenderness we bring to the objects of the world – our eagerness to love, make home, build connection, trust the other – how all of that’s so readily swept away. Sentimental images of children and of animals, soppy representations of love - they are fuelled, in truth, by their opposites, by a terrible human rage that nothing stays. The greeting card verse, the airbrushed rainbow, the sweet puppy face on the fleecy pink sweatshirt – these images do not honour the world as it is, in its complexity and individuality, but distort things in apparent service of a warm embrace … in this way, the sentimental represents a rage against individuality, the singular, the irreplaceable.’

Mark Doty, Dog Years (London: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 13-15.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Are you all sitting comfity-bold?

When Kingsley Amis taught at University College, Swansea in the 1950s, the college principal, J.S. Fulton, was such a stickler for academic protocol that he once objected to a professor and a lecturer appearing together on the same radio programme. This, he said, was like mixing officers and men.

One of the more positive aspects of what A.H. Halsey called ‘the Decline of Donnish Dominion’ is that those days are gone, thank god. But the word ‘professor’ still has an odd purchase in the cultural imagination. These thoughts are occasioned by having to do my inaugural professorial lecture last week: an odd, nineteenth century ritual which has somehow survived into the 21st century.

The first professor I knew about was Professor Yaffle, the woodpecker in the stop-frame animation series Bagpuss. Oliver Postgate modelled him on two figures he knew in his childhood: his uncle, the historian G.D.H. Cole and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His reedy voice and condescendingly benign manner made him a professor out of central casting. I have never met a professor remotely like him.

There was a time when, presumably because the title still had a lot of cachet before donnish dominion declined, there were lots of fake professors. There was the comedian ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards, who went round in a gown and mortar board; Max Wall’s character Professor Wallofski, who is said to have influenced John Cleese’s Minister for Silly Walks; and Professor Léon Cortez, a cockney comedian who translated the works of Shakespeare into rhyming slang.

But my favourite was Professor Stanley Unwin, who (like a few other professors before and since), employed a language that bore a tantalisingly close relationship to English. When his children were young, he began inventing special ‘fairly stories’ for them at bedtime. ‘Are you all sitting comfity-bold, two-square on your botties?’ he would ask them. ‘Then I'll begin. Once a-ponny tight-o . . .’ He would then launch into a well-known story, liberally festooned with gibberish but always somehow recognisable: ‘Goldyloppers trittly-how in the early mordy, and she falloped down the steps. Oh unfortunate for the cracking of the eggers and the sheebs and buttery fullfalollop and graze the knee-clappers. So she had a vaslubrious, rub it on and a quick healy huff and that was that.’ Professor Unwin could try his hand at most genres, including sports commentating: ‘There’s a great gathering round one goal mode as the net is folloped flat: what a clean groyle there as they kicking it on the bocus and the mable … all these people doing a very fine suffery in the cause of sport.’

I am tempted to say that Professor Unwin made a great deal more sense than some actual professors I have known. But I won’t, because one of the things I have come to hate is the low-level, low-intensity hostility to academic life in public discourse over the last few decades. Nowadays ‘professor’ is often employed with a sneer to point to the supposed disconnection of academics from the ‘real’ world. And the only extant fake professor I can think of is the rap artist Professor Green, although I can’t claim to be familiar with his work.

Anyway, everyone was so nice after my lecture that I decided this nineteenth-century ritual wasn’t quite so odd after all. Which just goes to show that I really don’t know what I think about anything. But then that’s only to be expected, when I am now officially an absent-minded professor.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Welsh words for rain

bwrw – to rain
glawio – raining
dafnu – spotting
pigo – spotting
glaw mân – drizzle
gwlithlaw – drizzle
brasfrwrw – big spaced drops
sgrympian – short sharp shower
cawodi – showering
arllwys – pouring
tollti – pouring
dymchwel – pulling down
brylymu – pouring very quickly
llifo – flooding
towlud – throwing
taflu – throwing
hegar law – fierce rain
lluwchlaw – sheets of rain
chwipio bwrw – whiplash rain
pistyllio – fountain rain
piso – pissing down
curlaw – beating rain
tywallt – absolutely bucketing
stido – thrashing down
tresio – maximum intensity
Mae hi’n brwr hen wragedd a ffyn – It’s raining old women and sticks

From Sue Clifford and Angela King (ed.), Local Distinctiveness: Place, Particularity and Identity (London: Common Ground, 1993), p. 19.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Nothing much happened today

Michael Powell of Chetham’s Library in Manchester kindly wrote to tell me about the diaries they have recently acquired of the landowning Leech family of Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyne. This collection of over 200 diaries starts with Thomas Leech (1790-1863) who used diary-keeping as a way of teaching his children about family history, and ends with Pauline Leech, who died in 1994. Her more than 50 diaries begin in 1929 and include some about her time at Bletchley Park in the war (although they don’t mention codebreaking, which you weren’t even allowed to write about in a diary).

There are a couple of websites devoted to the Leech diaries:

One of the Leech diaries, supposedly kept by ‘Miss Hermione Humber’, was actually written between 1927 and 1935 by Ernest Leech. The Hermione Humber was his car and in the diary he made a complete record of all the journeys the family made in it, including speedometer readings, petrol station stops, minor bumps, services and repairs. ‘One of the things I like about diaries is the way that the writers feel the need to report boredom or ennui,’ Michael writes. ‘Looking through the Leech collection I would guess that the single most common entry is “Nothing much happened today”.’

That’s still more loquacious than the entry in Louis XVI’s diary for 14 July 1789, which comprises one word: ‘Rien’.

I think my favourite diarist at the moment is Walter Musto, who lived in East Moseley, Surrey and was a civil servant in the General Stores Department of the Crown Agents for the Colonies at Millbank. He kept a diary during the war which was published a few years ago under the title The War and Uncle Walter. Here is an example of his style, which one might call Pooterish if that were not too ungenerous a word for someone so generous in his interests:

‘Noses are queer things … Again this morning, in the train from Vauxhall, a whole row of noses obtruded themselves upon my attention. Anatomically the same, they offer the same infinite variety of form as do feet, ears, even potatoes. Without a good supply of noses, the handkerchief industry must perish – Manchester and Belfast would be on half-time. The beauty business would go into mourning, distillers would languish and barley-growing cease. Vineyards would no longer inspire the muse. Without a natural support for spectacles, the manufacturers would cease to exist.’