Some Autodidacts

Four greats who proved that inspiration cannot be taught in music lessons…

It was the gruff Johannes Brahms who said ‘Study Bach – there you will find everything’. But it took the promotion of this great master in the second quarter of the 19th Century by Felix Mendelssohn, and his steady rise from that low point, for us to realize that he sits in very rarified air close to or perhaps at, the very top of the ladder of greatness in musical composition. Stranger still to consider that, as a composer, he was almost entirely self-taught, learning his trade (for that is what it was) by playing, and writing out, the music of others. His almost exact contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann, a lesser talent, never took a composition lesson and yet produced extremely conventional but often beautiful music. Perhaps there was something in the water in 17th Century Germany?

It is probably safe to say that there is not a composer in the almost 300 years since J S Bach who has not, in some way, been influenced by his music. Perhaps none more so than the Brazilian automath Heitor Villa-Lobos. His fascination with Bach takes on a heated Latin excess in his declared belief that the composer is ‘a universal and rich folkloristic source, deeply rooted in the folk music of every country in the world’. Not a view, I imagine, that would be received with much enthusiasm in Germany. The reality, particularly in the idiomatic Bachianas Brasileiras is that he was attempting some sort of union between Bach’s polyphonic and decorative style, and the rhythms and folk melodies of Brazil. Here, a losing candidate for Soundpictures a few weeks ago, the last movement Toccata of Bachianas Brasileiras No 2 (1930), sub titled O trenzinho do caipira, ‘The Little Train of Caipira’.

Jean Cocteau, the theoretician of the French movement Les Six was perhaps better placed than anybody when he described it as ‘the sophistication of the graceful’, and two of its members Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc stayed true to that description when the minor revolution lost its momentum. Probably the first openly gay composer of note, this urbane Parisian sums-up, for many, the gaiety, wit, and melodic charm of the post-Belle Epoque; those that insist that all music must be ‘profound’ need not tarry here. But wait. In 1956, seven years before his death, Poulenc produced his deeply moving second opera Dialogues of the Carmelites – and no scene is more touching than the final promenade of the condemned nuns to the guillotine, chanting Salve regina. And before the blade drops, look out for an old friend of the Dabbler, the French minx Patricia Petibon.

Back in what passed for a summer we visited the unique sound-world of the Bohemian Bohuslav Martinu. Apart from a brief period in Paris under Albert Roussel, this Austro-Hungarian Czech took no composition lessons and, tackling the violin as a young man was, apparently, a hopeless student. This lack of formal training does show throughout his work but he is proof, if proof were needed, that Continue reading

Urban Architecture: Westminster Underground Station

First time visitors to Westminster Underground station may think they have walked onto the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on entering this subterranean cathedral of concrete, steel and chains. But such architectural gems are easily taken for granted on a daily commute. How often do we ignore wondrous feats of engineering and inspirational aesthetic style in favour of getting from A to B as quickly as possible?

Dabbler Diary – Room At The Top

Susan’s post last Saturday, about a new form of space-maximising home, got me thinking about what we could do to improve things without re-modelling the entire place. Here are a few suggestions.

First, double up on dishwashers and dispense entirely with cupboards for your crockery and pots and pans. Rotate it all through your bank of dishwashers – when one is filling up with dirty utensils, another is storing the washed and clean. Saves effort and probably a bit of space.

Second, washing machines. Why do we keep them on the ground floor? If we made room for them upstairs we wouldn’t have to carry our laundry so far. Say goodbye to back-strain!

Following on from the first two suggestions, how about this… now the washing is near where you keep your clothes, you can extend the dishwasher idea to your tumble dryers – and do without chests of drawers. You could have a series of dryers, each containing different sorts of clothing at different stages of drying.

I’m sure there’s even more mileage here – perhaps we should eat off our fridges?


I don’t recognise the picture some – see here – paint of this country. The last couple of Saturdays I’ve cycled along canals through the East End, firstly, from Islington to Tottenham Marshes and then, a week later and with the eldest, down to Limehouse and Canary Wharf. Almost all of it looked fantastic. Beautiful new social housing, wonderful parks, charming waterside pubs – and, of course, lovely waterways, ideal for cycling and walking.

Then yesterday I discovered that the aforementioned eldest – a six-year-old pupil at a socially mixed primary school – is being taught English grammar (for those readers who didn’t benefit from a 20th century British state education, just so you know: this is unheard of). He’s even been talking about the job verbs do. And here’s some words from this week’s spelling test: ‘immediately’, ‘subsequently’, ‘humongous’; pretty tricky for Year Two and, in the last case, the sort of word I would have felt proud to use in an ‘O’ level essay.

There are lots of other reasons to think things are pretty decent right now – socially, if not economically. Crime is down, for instance. But then I’ve realised – after four decades or so of responding to this and that – that I’m temperamentally optimistic and enjoy seeing the good in things. Others, obviously, aren’t and don’t. Take your pick.


I’ve worked out how you can quickly spot those who are unreasonably pessimistic about the state of the nation: if the words ‘crumbling infrastructure’ pass their lips you can stop listening. And most especially if they’re referring to London.

Locally, here in N1, our infrastructural cup overflows: two huge hospitals re-built from the ground up (UCH, The Royal London), two re-modelled Tube and Overground stations (Highbury & Islington and Farringdon) each accommodating new railway lines (the East London Line extension and Crossrail), a new, state-of-the-art football stadium (The Emirates), the sprawling and notorious Packington Estate flattened and being replaced largely by streets and houses, a massively re-developed mainline station (Kings Cross/St Pancras), a refurbished Regents Canal. Not to mention the expensive changes made to the roads, largely for the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians. And all the new playgrounds, tennis courts, all-weather pitches dotted around. Then there’s the tarted-up parks and squares. I could go on… and not even get to that Limpicks legacy over in the east.

I think we should do more to enjoy all this new and shiny stuff. I realise that, being British, it won’t be as satisfying as revelling in the gloom brought on by all the associated debt. But, as those Limpicks showed, an occasional change of pace can be refreshing.


Have you seen this?


I try to ignore politics – or at least try not to care too much about it – as it tends to defeat even my happy disposition. But every so often you see something that makes it clear that even if you’re not fighting the class war, others are. And in this instance it’s not the lot that we middle-class folk have traditionally felt uneasy about.


I’ve been writing this whilst watching a blast from a truly class-bound past, the BBC4 TV adaptation of Room at the Top. But never mind the social climbing: I don’t think I’ve ever peeped at so much shagging in all my life. It’s a bit like Mad Men but oop North and with even more sex. Catch it when you can.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.

The Urban Swan

This week Frank has a chance encounter with an urban swan…

Earlier in the week I caught a sighting of an urban swan. Unusually for me, I happened to have a camera about my person, so I took a snapshot. As you can see, the urban swan differs from the standard common or garden (or river and lake?) swan in that it is far less savage. Far, far less savage. Oh, they may look graceful and elegant as they glide along waterways, but all you need do is look into their eyes, where you will encounter fathomless alien savagery of a kind to give you the collywobbles, if not to run away as fast as you can emitting bloodcurdling screams.

Fortunately for us, the urban swan is eyeless. Indeed, some experts believe it is inanimate. Beware, however, for it can still be dangerous, particularly if picked up from the ground by a passing Bulgarian secret policeman who then daubs the pointy bit of its underside with poison and uses it to poke an expatriate dissident on a bridge. Other than in those circumstances, however, the urban swan is relatively harmless.

I contacted the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, to ask if he has ever dined on urban swan. He is known to have a taste for whooper swans, having removed one from where it had perished on an electrified fence and taken it home to cook and eat. For this he was, quite rightly, cautioned by coppers. I was only able to reach his answerphone, from which there came a hideous caterwauling sound, which I took to be either a recording of Sir Peter’s Eight Songs For A Mad King or possibly another whooper swan being slaughtered in his pantry.


Urban Dictionary: The Folly of Crowds

An encounter with the man behind the web’s ‘go-to lexicon’ leads Jonathon to wonder whether the very nature of dictionary-making is under threat…

Other than in his own adopted third persona, and the occasional reference to Mr Meades who is a friend as well as a minor deity (a fact currently echoed in seemingly every medium) Mr Slang does not drop names. It is time to make an exception. An exception that I would suggest is mitigated by the fact that the name in question – assuming that I assess the Dabbler demographic with reasonable accuracy – will fall with a pretty soft thud. So: I had that Aaron Peckham in the back of my cab the other day. Or to be more precise, I had that Aaron Peckham at the other end of table at a slang conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. Bells unrung? Look him up. No, I’ll tell you; Mr Peckham is the sole progenitor, the one-man originator, the fons et origo of the Urban Dictionary ( The Urban Dictionary, which urges contributors ‘define your world’ and at a rate of 2,000 neologisms  a day has amassed some 6,763,429 definitions (at time of writing) since its founding in 1999, , is currently the Internet’s go-to lexicon. At least in the realm of fresh-minted terminology. It began life as a slang dictionary, slang being a loose synonym of ‘urban’ when it comes to language, but that adjective has been dropped. Journalists, some say of the lazier sort, adore it. It is regularly quoted. It is, unlike products a good nearer Mr Slang’s home, seriously down with the kidz. Indeed it is created by the kidz. Some 6.7 million hits-worth of kidz each and every month even if of every thousand users, only one offers up a new word. How can we not stand in awe.

We do. I do. I stand not just in awe, since as I must have said before, size matters in lexicography, but also at one side – the wrong side, naturally – of a generational abyss. No mere gap but a bottomless pit. If I represent one aspect of slang lexicography, the traditionalists who model themselves on the OED, then Mr Peckham’s legions, the majority of whom are aged 14-25, represent the antithesis. I am looking at the end, they have barely essayed the beginning. Mr P. is a charming young man (he is 31) and he was gratifyingly tolerant of us old folk.  I admire his enterprise. Like many Internet creators he has conjured something substantial where once stood nothing at all. He funds the project through ads, but resists the many dubious supplicants – often politicians or tacky and not so tacky merchandisers – who offer him rewards for turning over UD to their exploitation. He founded the site to stand against what he saw as old people’s hegemony of definition: why should you tell us what we say means? It is a good Sixties conceit, the sort that underpinned the underground press for which I laboured. He maintains his position and thus his credibility. I like his style.

But awe is one thing, intellectual trust is quite another. Credibility is admirable but nebulous: my problems lie in the concrete. If it cannot provide authority, what is left to the dictionary? Spelling is simply not enough. If its definitions cannot offer some form of accuracy, of ‘truth’, then what is their purpose? The dictionary is a tool, the tool should do its job and the job is providing information one can trust. It may err, but it is hoped that these are errors of omission not commission. Like Dragnet’s Joe Friday the lexicographer aims for ‘the facts, just the facts’. New facts, of course, may overturn their predecessors, especially in the sphere of dating, which can always be pushed back a decade or more. Thus the traditional lexicon.

The Urban Dictionary does not, let us be quite blunt, give a Continue reading

John Ferrar Holms – The least productive writer in the English language (part 2)

Jonathan Law continues his look at John Ferrar Holms, the greatest writer never to have actually written anything…

Not much is known of the early life of John Ferrar Holms, the “genius” writer who in a career of some 15 years managed to write almost nothing at all. However, one episode is recorded by his great friend and admirer, the diarist Emily Coleman. When Holms was at prep school in England, he was obliged to write the standard weekly letter home. As his fellow pupils filled a sheet or two with the usual chatter, Holms found himself neurotically unable to write a word: when time was up, he hid his disgrace by slipping the blank sheet into an envelope and putting it in the post. Next week, his nervousness was worse, as he knew he would not get away with the ruse a second time: predictably, his parents received another blank letter. The school was informed and hell was duly paid.


Otherwise, Holms’s early years provide few clues, his background being solidly conventional for his class and era. The son of the governor-general of the United Provinces of India, he was schooled at Rugby, where he excelled as an athlete. Rather than university he chose Sandhurst and, with the advent of World War I, joined an Infantry regiment at the age of just 17. At the Front, Holms made a name for himself with a single rather shocking incident. Having stumbled on four Germans breakfasting under a tree, he took them on single-handed and somehow managed to beat their brains out (with what is not clear). For this Holms was awarded the MC, although it is said that he never spoke of the matter, regarding it as vaguely comic and disreputable.

Having survived the Somme, Holms was captured in the great retreat of March 1918 and spent the rest of the war in prison camps at Karlsruhe and Mainz. At the latter, fellow prisoners included the writers Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s brother) and Hugh Kingsmill – not to mention John Milton Hayes, author and declaimer of The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God. As the men had no duties and books were plentiful, they spent most of their time talking, reading, and writing; Waugh would later refer to his education at the ‘University of Mainz’. It was here that Holms first conceived the ambition of being a writer; less happily, it was here too that he seems to have developed a deep depressive streak – for some years after he is said to have carried a service revolver at all times, just in case the urge became too strong to resist.

At first this writing thing went rather well. Although he planned more works than he ever produced, Holms made the right sort of contacts and in the 1920s his byline began to appear in The Calendar of Modern Letters, a highbrow quarterly often seen as the forerunner of Scrutiny. These pieces include his one completed work of fiction – an apparently excellent short story entitled ‘A Death’ – and a number of reviews notable for their length and severity (Wyndham Lewis gets a roasting and Mrs Dalloway is dismissed as “aesthetically worthless”).

Otherwise these were years of restless travelling: Holms had run off to Europe with a married woman named Dorothy and the couple knocked about in France, Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia. It all seems a bit aimless but Holms could no doubt have claimed to be gathering material. In 1928 this peripatetic existence brought them to the home of Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, in the South of France – and it was here that Holms had his first fateful meeting with Peggy Guggenheim, the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life. After a certain amount of melodrama, Guggenheim left her husband and Holms abandoned Dorothy (whose main emotion seems to have been relief: she told a friend that living with Holms was like being a “governess to a baby”).

This change of partners did nothing to encourage Holms in a more settled way of life, although with Peggy’s millions – she had inherited a fortune when her father went down with the Titanic – things must at least have been more comfortable. Peggy would later write with pardonable exaggeration: “John Holms and I did nothing but Continue reading

In praise of blended whisky

Single malt fans who turn their noses up at blended whiskies are missing out, argues Henry…

When one reads about whisky it is invariably single malts that get all the attention. Whisky writers go into raptures at the latest ultra-peaty monsters from Ardbeg or Laphroaig. Malts like these are drinks that make you go ‘wow!’ or ‘how much?’ when increasingly I want one that makes me go ‘mmmmmm.’ For this one needs a blend.

Blended whiskies are by far the biggest part of the global Scotch whisky market making up 92% of sales. Many famous distilleries were founded specifically to provide whisky for these blends. Nowadays most distilleries are owned by drinks giants in order to provide a consistent supply of whisky for their blends i.e. Strathisla is owned by Chivas Regal and provides the backbone to their whiskies. So without the blends most single malts would not exist. Pioneered by Glenfiddich, single malts were only bottled and marketed separately in the 1960s. Previously the flavours were thought to be too strong to drink on their own.

Many still are. The ultra-peaty monsters that get some enthusiasts so excited are not elegant drinks. They are impressive but are they enjoyable? Many new drinkers go straight onto these bruisers thinking that bold obvious flavours are what whisky is all about. For something a bit more restrained, a bit more, well, moreish, I would suggest that they learn to appreciate a good blend.

The best blends contain a high percentage of quality malts. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. The good ones are of astonishingly high quality containing some old rare malts. Marrying whiskies as disparate as Macallan and Highland Park into a harmonious blend is a difficult business. That is exactly what the master blender does at Famous Grouse – Scotland’s bestselling whisky. The best analogy for Continue reading

Book Review: Going South by Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson

Fed up with the post-Olympics feelgood factor? Sense of national pride making you gag? Good news, here’s why we’re all going to hell in a handcart…

Perhaps to be born English was to have won first prize in the lottery of life, in the 19th Century. In the 21st, it’s more like one of those goldfish you get at the fair, which looks sad and pained and dies on the way home. In Going South, Elliot and Atkinson attempt to flush the dead goldfish down the toilet. The unifying idea is that Britain is now more or less a third world country:

Insist on the United Kingdom’s developed-world status, and the sheer incoherence of public and commercial life – the laughable inconsistencies, the corporate rapacity, the simultaneously intrusive and ineffective security apparatus – appears enraging and inexplicable. Look at Britain as one would a developing nation, and these features appear unremarkable and natural.

The focus is predominantly financial. The book presents an image of more or less relentless decline, but complexly so. They don’t hark back to a golden age; some things have definitely improved in the last century and the pattern of rise or fall is far from straightforward. The book opens by demolishing the idea of pre-war Britain as a colossal superpower; it seems that even a century ago our industry was backwards and sluggish:

In 1896, the United States had slightly higher steel production (just over 5 million tonnes) than the United Kingdom. By 1913, US steel production had increased sixfold to 32 million tonnes, while British steel production had less than doubled to just under 8 million tonnes. Even in industries in which the United Kingdom was the world leader, such as coal, there was a marked reluctance to use more modern methods. Half the coal mined in the United States was extracted using machinery; 92 per cent of the coal from British mines was hacked out of seams by colliers using picks.

Zoom forwards a few decades and we find British industry close to non-existent, the workforce uneducated:

More than 70 per cent of German firms are involved in technological innovation compared with just over 40 per cent in the United Kingdom. Britain’s workers have fewer skills than those in the United States, Germany and France. Just over 20 per cent of workers in Germany and 30 per cent of those in France are classified as low-skilled; in Britain the figure is 60 per cent.

The decline in real physical industry and education is evident. Despite the yearly grade inflation, each generation is notably dumber and crasser than the last. Areas like Sunderland are now a post-industrial Continue reading

Dabbler Diary – Rhymes for Orange

The British class system seems to be all the rage at the moment. I like good period dramas about toffs, which is why I can’t bring myself to watch Downton Abbey. I did enjoy Parade’s End, primarily for the performance of Rebecca Hall, who managed to be alluring yet repulsive, wicked yet pious, hot-blooded yet reptilian, and really inhabited her part as Mrs Tietjens. She is a toff of sorts, but Roman Catholic toff, which is a different class again.

Another good bit of Parade’s End was the army camp intellectual rivalry between Tietjens and the Latin scholar, in which our hero indulges in competitive sonnet-writing. Pleasing that this sort of thing is still happening on The Dabbler – Gaw’s determination to write a limerick incorporating both ‘Hieronymus’ and ”s-Hertogenbosch’ being one of those very important pointless tasks, like finding a rhyme for ‘orange’.


Teachers often joke about how they can tell which of their new batch of pupils will be naughty or nice simply by looking at the names in the register. So a ‘Scot’ or a ‘Lee’ will be trouble, whereas a ‘Benjamin’ or ‘Alexander’ will likely be a wee darling. This is sometimes presented as if there were something mystical attached to the names, but it is quite obviously a class prejudice. Today’s Scots and Lees might be Tylers or Rockys, and they come from poorer, ruder backgrounds than Alexanders.

I mention all this because I noticed that the top British baby names in 2011 were the impeccably middle-class Harry and Oliver for boys, and Amelia and Olivia for girls. Does this indicate that, contra widespread beliefs about chavdom, Britain is in fact a very middle-class place, full of nice children? Either that or the innovation that poorer parents often deem necessary when choosing baby names means their vote is split. But I suspect the first explanation is closer to the truth.


To Ashbourne, an attractive, determinedly middle-class market town in Derbyshire. It has a sloping town square (spoiled by car parking) and a very large number of ye olde pubs. It might have a claim to being ‘the heart of England’. In a prim bakery I bought a handmade Gingerbread Teddy to take home for my daughter.

Possibly I felt such a bourgeois treat would counter-balance last Sunday, when I took her to Netham Park. There was an unexpected temporary funfair, the kind with unsafe-looking rides from the 1980s painted with Freddie Krueger images and barely-recognisable Diana Rosses. Staffed by men with the necessary certificates in surliness and short-changing. I gave my girl a ride on a merry-go-round (she chose, from the bewildering assortment of novelty carriages, a giant rabbit) then bought her a huge, horrible E-number confection on a stick, which kept her occupied as we went around Aldi stocking up on processed Euro cheese and Titan bars. Tietjens would not have approved. (Titan bars, for those of you who would no more set foot in Aldi than call your firstborn ‘Tyler’, are fake Mars bars, only better.)


Netham Park would be good territory for anyone making a study of multiculturalism and recreational sports in the UK. The Caucasians and Afro-Carribeans play football, sometimes with each other. The Pakistanis play cricket. The Somalis arrive with complicated picnics and watch their infants run riot in the playpark. This time, however, I noticed one gobby Somali lad was bossing things on the concrete football court, despite his obesity and lack of skill. This bodes well: perhaps that teenage Alpha Male will be at the forefront of the future integration of what is sadly the most unassimilated immigrant community in the city. Him and Mo Farah.


Three year-olds are natural comedians. This was my daughter in the bath, talking to her Buzz Lightyear face flannel about her new trampoline:

“Yes Buzz, you can go on my trampoline when you’re bigger…. [thoughtful pause]…. And not a flannel.”


Back to toffs. The Duchess of Cambridge, as we now know, has her knockers – many of them in The Guardian’s Comment is Free pages. Two such knockers caught my eye this week: here Jane Martinson bangs on about the ‘hypocrisy’ of the British press in berating foreigners for publishing the topless Kate snaps while also printing Page 3 girls, as if there really was no difference between a paid model and somebody being spied upon in private property; and here Jonathan Jones argues, approvingly, that Kate’s breasts undermine “an unbroken tradition of sacral monarchy going back to the early middle ages” (Jones has lots of hyperlinks in his article to prove his scholarship, so it’s strange that he didn’t know anything about that business in the 17th Century when the ‘unbroken tradition of sacral monarchy’ included lopping the King’s head off and establishing a Republic).

I mention these articles because I worry about Comment is Free, which is overall a Good Thing and of course provides endless fodder for blogging. But from an editorial point of view, if you allow too much complete blather and dross on there, and if the trolls beneath the comment line are consistently much more sensible than the actual writers, then the value of being a ‘Guardian columnist’ must eventually erode to nothing.


Well of course I’ve had a go at writing a limerick made of rhymes for ‘orange’…

A young Oxford student named Orange
Would mispronounce Bollinger ‘Borrenge’,
A champange-swilling swell,
He couldn’t say ‘er’ or ‘ll’,
And he read law at ‘Barriol Correnge’.

Take that, Tietjens!

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.

The Sad Americans

As the autumn leaves fall, here’s Martpol with an injection of musical dejection…

Sometimes Sundays require music that is upbeat and rescues you from the whole work-next-day gloom. But more often for me, they are about the kind of quiet, tender music that can soothe you as much as it breaks your heart. I think this might be the bit of me that used to be religious coming to the forefront; that need for a channel for quiet reflection. There’s as much sad music out there as there is happy, but absorbing melancholy is about more than just choosing a couple of minor chords and feeling sorry for yourself (otherwise I’d be hanging out with the emo kids at the bottom of our street). My sad and beautiful world is shot through with lyrics that are sometimes plaintive, sometimes cryptic, but never melodramatic. They might find their spiritual roots in Bob Dylan’s You’re a Big Girl Now: “Love is so simple, to quote a phrase / You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days”.

Purely by chance, I’ve happened upon four Americans for my injection of dejection (with the exception of a guest star). Although these days there’s a whole sub-genre of folky US singer-songwriters who strum their pain with nothing but a guitar, the backbone of my chosen four is usually a piano or string section. So there’s no better place to start than with Tori Amos, and one of those songs that is endlessly interesting because it never seems to fully reveal itself. This live performance has to be one of the most committed I’ve seen.

Next, the first of two bands that aren’t really bands but a front for a man called Mark’s extensive collection of sorrowful thoughts. Mark Oliver Everett, known as E, has been around for over 20 years, putting out nine albums with his band Eels. For my money he’s one of America’s great underrated songwriters, although admittedly with an underdeveloped self-editing facility: the parent album of this track, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, is one of those  cases of two discs where one would do.

Our second Mark is Mark Linkous, better known as Sparklehorse. One of the great exponents of the lo-fi genre (detuned guitars, scratchy sound quality, radio static etc.), Linkous produced some of the strangest, saddest music of the 1990s and 2000s, before committing suicide in 2010. This is a song directly about Continue reading