Dabbler Country – A Gneiss View

Ian Vince writes the regular Strange Days column in The Daily Telegraph and is the author of the highly recommended new book The Lie of the Land. He is also the founder of the British Landscape Club.

It was a bright day in early winter, the sun was shining and a substantial fall of fresh snow lay pristine under an arching blue sky. I stepped off the train at Lairg, midway along the line to Wick in the far north of Scotland and wondered whether the postbus would be in the station car park or somewhere between there and Lochinver, lodged up to its headlights in snow.

So I counted myself lucky to be greeted by Donald and his postbus. The morning collection was, by his account, a little hairy but he got through in the end and by the early afternoon, with a slight thaw under way, we were soon heading off on the final forty miles of my journey to the top left hand corner of Scotland.

I was on a simple expedition, to find Britain’s oldest landscape, and I could not have picked a better day for it. Everything assumes a mantle of unfamiliarity in the snow and as a newcomer, with every twist and turn of the road already a new experience for me, the layer of snow added a sense of an approaching surprise, an imminent unveiling, never resolved in its entirety. It also made everything seem quiet, tucked up, quiescent and still; the absolute antithesis of its own creation – Continue reading

Round Blogworld Quiz #2: The Solution

Yesterday Nige posed the second Round Blogworld Quiz question, namely:

Can you link a theologian and a political philosopher with a singer called Harry, a poetically named DCI, and Updike’s doughty legumes?

And the answer is…. Comic strips!. Well done to Adelephant, Worm and anyone else who got some or all of them but was too shy to post a comment (you musn’t be, you know)!

The theologian and the political philosopher are John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, hence Calvin and Hobbes. Indeed, the cartoonist Bill Watterson named his characters after the famous thinkers.


The singer called Harry is, sneakily, female: Debbie Harry, aka Blondie. The Blondie comic strip was born in 1930 and is still running today.

Debbie Harry is still running today too. Here she is with the song I rate as Blondie’s greatest (amongst a good number of great songs)…

Continuing the theme of pneumatic blondes, in Prime Suspect Helen Mirren played the ‘poetically named’ Jane Tennison [sic].

Jane was a naughty comic strip in the Daily Mirror, running from 1932 to 1959, but at its peak as a morale-boosting bit of sauce for the troops in the Second World War. Attempts were made to introduce the series into the US market in 1945, but Jane’s continual wardrobe malfunctions proved too racy for American tastes.

The model for Jane was one Chrystabel Leighton-Porter, whom Churchill described as ‘Britain’s secret weapon’.

Finally, in The Coup, John Updike describes the groundnut as ‘the doughty legume’ ( once read, never forgotten, says Nige). Groundnuts are also known as… Peanuts.

Palm de Brass

I wasted about 100 minutes of my sleeping time the other night to watch an execrable film called Irina Palm.  It starred Marianne Faithfull and I enjoy her singing, but her idea of acting is to be catatonic with slow, vague reactions.  The screen play was dire – the story of a grandmother living a respectable life in an English village who goes and works in a Soho sex shop to earn money so her dying grandson can be taken to Melbourne for life-saving treatment.   Under the name of Irina Palm she becomes a success at wanking blokes through a hole in the wall.  The tough foreign sex club owner falls for her, but her son discovers what she’s been up to, as do her posh village friends and there are a few highly stagy explosions – “Don‘t call me a whore“.  All the acting was dreadful, the dialogue unbelievably bad – “You look nice when you smile” – the characters of the posh ladies in the village and the gossips in the village shop sub-sub-Archers stereotypes and the sex jokes  laboured eg the condition called “penis elbow“ which assembly line wanking can bring on.   It was evidently meant to be a dark comedy, but it wasn’t dark, nor funny.  I thought this must be some odd B movie Faithfull had made by mistake but looking it up on Wikipedia I find it has won nominations for awards.

  • Nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Movie at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival
  • Miki Manojlovic is nominated for Best European Actor of 2007 by European Film Academy for his role in Irina Palm
  • Marianne Faithfull received a Best Actress nomination for her role in the European Film Awards, but Helen Mirren won in that category for The Queen.

I suppose it was the glum grey European look and off-beat sex that shout “art house movie”  that got it the Berlin nomination.  I was watching it in staggered astonishment that a film could be that bad and still get released.

The Dabbler’s Round Blogworld Quiz #2

Right, Dabblers, time to get your thinking caps on, as Nige sets another fiendish Round Blogworld Quiz (see the first one here and its solution here).
Ripped off from Based on Radio 4’s long-running Round Britain Quiz, the idea is to find the link between these cryptic clues. A point for each item you get, and a cream bun if you get them all.  (Brit would like to point out that he got all but one, but only after a clue…)

Here’s the question then:

Can you link a theologian and a political philosopher with a singer called Harry, a poetically named DCI, and Updike’s doughty legumes?

Clues will be given if nobody gets it, and the solution will appear tomorrow afternoon.

Faux-tography: Shadow Catchers at the V&A

How do you make photos without a camera? Well, at the heart of Shadow Catchers – the V&A’s beautifully-presented show of camera-less photography – is a video in which the five featured artists explain how.

They variously call their works ‘photograms’, ‘luminograms’ and ‘chemigrams’, but essentially the idea is to create images on photographic paper, either through casting shadows, capturing light or chemically treating the paper’s surface.

The very existence of this video implicitly illustrates the principal handicap faced by this exhibition: that any art form needing to explain its processes and techniques in order justify its existence and enable you to appreciate its works is problematic. Do we look at these as not-quite-paintings or as not-quite-photographs?

In fairness, the video also addresses the problem explicitly, when the ‘chemigrammist’ Pierre Cordier* says:

I put some distance between myself and the notion of photography, hoping to be welcomed within the world of painting, because in fact I am neither a painter nor a photographer, but a bit of both. But the painting world couldn’t care less about this photographer, Cordier.

To use a good witticism, which Monsieur Degas said of Nadar, ‘Oh you’re just a faux-artiste, a faux-painter, a faux-tograph!’

So what do these works do that painting can’t do with more beauty and personality, or that a camera can’t do with more veracity and impact? My answer, based on the exhibits, is: ‘mostly, not much’. The majority of the works are a bit ‘so-what?’ and diminished by the pretentious explanatory captions. Gazing at Garry Fabian Miller’s The Night Cell (top) I found myself thinking more of an intriguing blogpost sent to me by  illustrator (and Dabbler reader) Richard Chadwick, in which he ponders the problems of displaying glazed paintings. The looming reflections of the gallery-goers in the glass were more interesting than the picture itself.

There are two striking works. Floris Neusüss’ Be Right Back (above) consists of a real chair on top of a shadow of a now-absent sitter. It is one of those instant-impact installation pieces of the sort that Saatchi usually snaps up. Cleverly titled, too – the subject hasn’t ‘been right back’ for a quarter of a century now, so we can’t help but think of abandonment, bereavement and whatnot. But like all instant-impact installation pieces (and unlike the subtler, layered pleasures of great paintings), once you’ve experienced the impact, that’s the end of that.

By far the best work on show is Fabian Miller’s Petworth Window 13 February 2000 (below). This is one artwork definitely enhanced by the photographic process –possessing an eerie, death’s-door luminosity which would be difficult to recreate in paint. Aliens, dreams, lights at the end of life’s tunnel will probably all come to mind.

Otherwise, is the faux-tography worth the visit? Depends how much you value a fiver, really. The V&A itself is always worth a trip, of course: the café is a marvel; the shop is a terrific place to buy Christmas pressies for women; and, being a place of inbetweeny things that fit neither into a conventional museum nor a normal art gallery, the V&A would seem to be a perfect showcase for camera-less photography. The unfortunate thing for this show – and I suppose for most temporary exhibitions –  is that the Raphael cartoons, the countless sculptures and all the other age-old glories of the V&A permanent exhibits must inevitably put Shadow Catchers in the, ahem, shade.

*At first I took the video to contain a remarkable pair of rarities: a Frenchman who didn’t take himself too seriously, and an Australian who did. Alas the ‘Frenchman’ Cordier turned out to be Belgian, but the Aussie ‘daguerreotypist’ Adam Fuss managed to come out with one of the most unintentionally-amusing bits of artistic self-analysis I’ve heard for a while: “Bringing images, manifesting images, that bringing out and externalising has been therapeutic for me. Healing. You don’t create, you die. You know, you’re not creative, you die. It’s just about survival really.”
 I am ashamed (by which, of course, I mean proud) to admit that I was unable to stifle a loud guffaw.

Lazy Sunday Afternoon – Sunday Balearica

It’s horribly cold out there this morning so I thought I would try and warm your cockles up a bit with a mix of music that explores the classic sound of the Ibizan summer. This Lazy Sunday selection veers drunkenly off the beaten track and into the previously uncharted waters of Chris Rea, but please bear with me as I promise you some warm sunshine sounds!

Whilst people have been listening to calming music forever, it’s only in the last 20 years that ‘chilling’ has become an officially sanctioned activity. Many people don’t even realise that the inoffensive ‘chillout’ music that has become the soundtrack to every insurance commercial and naff high street bar was originally a far more lively part of the soundtrack of Ibiza. The proper Ibiza of hedonistic eurotrash wearing white billowy clothes and dancing around in open air clubs in the 1980’s. Balearic music is actually a fairly mongrel genre, as there’s no real defining sound or style  – it’s just about the ‘vibe’. In fact, almost anything could be called Balearic, as long as the person listening to it can somehow associate the sound with a nebulous feeling that it might sound great whilst off one’s nut and dancing in the sunshine. However, despite the lack of an agreed style, there are tunes that have come to be regarded as classics of the ‘genre’, of which here are a select few: Continue reading

RetroProgressive – Bestial style for winter?

Big furry ears make me happy. It might work for you too. Can you imagine the winter high street bustling with creatures? Foxes, badgers, the odd Minotaur, not to mention all the beasts you can’t name. Could hats change the world?

Asks Lewes based felt-maker and performance artist, Barbara Keal.

Here are some of her designs:

Could this be part of a retro-regressive trend?  As we turn ourselves into animals, dogs are getting their own London restaurant. Soon we’ll all be back sharing primordial-style long houses with our livestock.

And who is responsible for this curious clothing time warp? Antler wearers have included fashion leader, Lady Gaga, and other well-heeled looking, neatly dressed types.

The recent cold weather may be partially to blame. And, of course, at Christmas anything is acceptable.

Will you be tempted to unleash your inner beast?

Row Z – Poms and Convicts

As the Ashes get underway with the first Test in Brisbane, here are some selected quotes illustrating the rich history of Anglo-Aussie cricket relations…

Us on them

“The aim of English cricket, is in fact, mainly to beat Australians.”
Jim Laker in his autobiography, 1960

“The Australian temper is at bottom grim. It is though the sun has dried up his nature.”
Sir Neville Cardus

“I’ve not travelled 6,000 miles to make friends. I’m here to win the Ashes.”
Douglas Jardine, 1932-33 Ashes – creator of the Bodyline tactic, which the Aussies are still whingeing about to this day.

“All Australians are an uneducated and unruly mob.”
Douglas Jardine to Australian wicketkeeper Stork Hendry during the Bodyline series, 1932-33.

“I’m very proud, very proud of my heritage – and, unlike Mr Keating, I do have one.”
Ian Botham before the 1992 World Cup final in Melbourne. Botham left a banquet after an entertainer made fun of the Queen. The Australian prime minister, Keating, accused him of being “precious”

“Not bad for the worst team ever to leave England.”
Mike Gatting on winning the 1986 Ashes, after facing the usual suggestions about his team’s weakness

Them on us

“Don’t give the bastard a drink- let him die of thirst.”
England captain Douglas Jardine’s favourite piece of barracking from the crowd in Sydney during the 1932-1933 Bodyline series#

“I’ll bowl you a f***ing piano, you Pommie poof, let’s see if you can play that.”
Merv Hughes to Michael Atherton, 1989 Ashes

“Bailey, I wish you were a statue and I was a pigeon.”
Heckle from the Sydney crowd, MCC’s 1954/55 tour to Australia

“Tufnell! Can I borrow your brain? I’m building an idiot.”
Australian barracker addressing England’s Phil Tufnell 1994-95

“I dunno. Maybe it’s that tally-ho lads attitude. You know, there’ll always be an England, all that Empire crap they dish out. But I could never cop Poms.”
Jeff Thomson, Australian fast bowler, 1987

“McCague will go down in Test cricket history as the rat who joined the sinking ship.”
Daily Telegraph Mirror in Sydney on Martin McCague’s 1993 selection for England against Australia, where he grew up

“What do you think this is, a f****** tea party? No you can’t have a f****** glass of water. You can f****** wait like the rest of us.”
Australian captain Allan Border to England batsman Robin Smith, Trent Bridge Test, 1989

“I think I was saying 3-0 or 4-0 about 12 months ago, thinking there might be a bit of rain around. But with the weather as it is at the moment, I have to say 5-0.”
Glenn McGrath makes his 2005 Ashes series prediction (England won 3-1)

…And showing that Aussie stereotypes are generally accurate:

“I acted as pacemaker on the first leg – from Melbourne to Honolulu – then others helped out on the last two stretches as I enjoyed a good sleep. When we got to London, Graeme Wood and I were fresh enough to help him off the plane. The man needed some help after 45 cans!”
Dennis Lillee describes Rodney Marsh’s attempt at the Australian beer drinking record during the f light from Australia to England for the 1985 Ashes

“In my day 58 beers between London and Sydney would have virtually classified you as a teetotaller.”
Ian Chappell, former Australian captain, informed that David Boon drank 58 beers on the flight to England, 1989. Boon claimed to be scared of flying

“G’day, howya going?”
Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee addressing the Queen at Lord’s, 1972

Key’s Cupboard : Chrononhotonthologos

Key's Cupboard

For many years I believed that the most startling opening line in theatre was Pa Ubu’s “Merdre!” in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. But no! What could better this:

Aldiborontiphoscophornio! Where left you Chrononhotonthologos?

These are the opening words of Henry Carey’s Chrononhotonthologos, spoken by Rigdum-Funnidos. The play is not unlike Ubu Roi, in that the title character is a greedy, bad-tempered and violent king. (It would have been a great role for Robert Coates.) The final scene leaves the stage littered with corpses – this memorable line will give you some idea:

O horrid! horrible, and horridest horror! Our king! our general! our cook! our doctor! All dead! stone dead! irrevocably dead! O——-h!—— [All groan, a tragedy groan.]

The play also includes a splendid bit of musical direction, which would not be out of place for a programme of improv racket on the world’s finest radio station, Resonance104.4FM:

SCENE—A Bed Chamber. Chrononhotonthologos asleep. [Rough music, Viz. Salt Boxes and Rolling Pins, Grid-Irons and Tongs, Sow-Gelders Horns, Marrow-Bones and Cleavers, c. c.] He wakes.

Henry Carey (c.1687-1743) also wrote, among much else, the words to God Save The King (or Queen). Chrononhotonthologos was so popular in its day that the title entered the language, as a synonym for “furious, violent, demanding, self-centered” (sounds just like Pa Ubu) and appeared in earlier editions of Roget’s Thesaurus, although appears not to have made it into the OED.

You can read the play in full here.

A chance to get to know Ukridge by heart

Mahlerman is supplementing my belated musical education, dispensed via his remarkable Lazy Sunday Afternoon posts, by slipping in the odd piece on cinema. Last Sunday he included the opening scenes from the 1999 French film, Beau Travail. There’s plenty here to pique one’s interest – the theme of male jealousy, the use of Britten’s Billy Budd, the striking desert setting. But what provides a strong hook, for me at least, is that its subject is a group of French Foreign Legionnaires in Djibouti.

The French Foreign Legion has fascinated me since I was a boy (despite, or perhaps because of, the introduction coming through Beau Hunks, the Stan and Ollie version of Beau Geste). I imagine quite a few boys – and girls? – of all ages share this fascination. As Byron Rogers puts it in his autobiography, Me: the Legion ‘sells newspapers’.

I’ve just finished reading Me, having come to it through Rogers’ fine biography of RS Thomas. Rogers’ specialism as a journalist is the collection, polishing and retailing of curious but largely disregarded stories; he brought this talent to bear most notably as a feature writer on the Sunday Telegraph Magazine.

One senses that his autobiography provided an irresistable chance for this professional anecdotalist to relate his favourite stories once more in printed form: he certainly appears to make generous use of his cuttings library. This produces a bit of a rich and sometimes indigestible mix, the anecdotal plums tending to overwhelm the narrative pudding.

But quite a few of the stories really are very good, not least those that come from a series of features on British-based former French Foreign Legionnaires, which Rogers wrote in the ’60s for his employer of the time, the Sheffield Star. These were men who’d served in the ‘old Legion of desert forts’, among them an Englishman from Sheffield, a Pole from London and a Hungarian from Woking.

One learns about the ‘scirrocos screaming out of the Sahara so that if you closed the windows you suffocated; if you left the windows open everything got covered with thin, fine sand'; of how when the Legion was transferred to Vietnam and ‘the ship went through the Suez canal the men were battened below deck like cattle, sergeants standing on deck with revolvers to prevent desertion'; about ‘the mobile brothel provided by the French government, where ten women were expected to service five thousand legionnaires. The ten survived because each charged three francs, the equivalent of twelve days’ pay'; how once the ex-legionnaire from Sheffield, ‘spent six months in a tent with two others. We had the Bible, a copy of the Tatler, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Ukridge to read. We used to pass them round. I know the Bible well, but there was a time when I knew Ukridge by heart’.

Rogers asks the Hungarian ‘about hard men, a term which seemed to come easier to someone whose one experience of violence was being caned by the headmaster of Carmarthen Grammar School, than it did to veterans of the French Foreign Legion’. The response wasn’t what one might expect:

Well if by that you mean someone who scares me, there was such a man…

He was Hungarian also, and in the Legion, where I had known him very slightly. Quiet man. We met again in Budapest during the Uprising in 1956, when the Russians were coming back.

Now this man, he puzzled me, for he had no gun, and he was wearing this old raincoat. Me, I was wearing a steel helmet, I am a great believer in the steel helmet.

And we were in this room when we heard Russian armoured cars, and this man, he walked to the window. I saw him reach in his pocket and he brought out a bottle of something which he flicked into the street below us, just like that, like you throw a cigarette away. After that was darkness.

The blast, it had caught and thrown me, and the steel helmet, that was rammed down, breaking my nose, which is how it looks the way it does. And of course I couldn’t see. When I got the helmet up again there were no Russians alive in the street, and one of the armoured cars, it had been twisted like washing. But the man in the raincoat, he was reaching into his pocket for another bottle. Which is when I realise what it was. For two, three days, I had been with someone carrying litres of nitroglycerine. I think you could call him a hard man.

Incidentally, Me could have appeared in The 1p Book Review. It’s available here and is recommended.