Dabbler Diary – The Boy in the Bubble

Speak, memory! It is a late afternoon in late summer in Southsea, and a ten-year old boy is in the hallway on hands and knees refereeing a tight football match between two teams of miscellaneous action figurines. An easy sunlight flows through the window in the kitchen where his father is fiddling with the cassette player. Boba Fett kicks a marble past Evel Knievel to make it 7-6 to England. Then comes a sound.

Jjjarr-je-jjjarrr-jjjjarrr–je jaaarrrrr jjjje jjjjjjaarrrrrrr-jarrrrr-jjjjeee jjjjjaaaaarr.

The sound is of a swirling accordion. (In fact it is a piano accordion played by Forere Motlohelo of Sotho, though of course the boy knows nothing of this.) Round and round it goes. The boy frowns. Ddum! There is a sudden single drum beat atop its own echo, like a gunshot in a well. Then another, Dddum!, then two more, then a tumbling mass of beats and twanging bass guitar and the rhythm is a wagon full of swarthy grinning bandits in bandanas rollicking through a rocky desert, and the boy’s shoulderblades begin to twitch and his head begins to bob. Bow-ba-dow-ba-ba, de-bow de-ba ba-ba, be dow be da daa dee-daa dee-daa. Looking up, he sees his father is likewise twitching and bobbing.

Then sliding in casually on top of this alien exotic groove comes a pale voice which states that ‘it was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road’ in a perfectly relaxed sort of way and in doing so commences a forty-five minute surrealist poem which kicks down some hitherto unknown linguistic door in the boy’s mind, opening up a great new space where words can make not only the whole world but endless weirder worlds beyond, just by the way the words sound when put next to one another. Medicine is magical and magical is art, the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart. And it’s very, very groovy.


Did the scene described above really occur? It feels like it did but memory is tricksy. Chances are it was gradually rather than epiphanically that Paul Simon’s album Graceland came to influence me more than any other cultural item save perhaps Rhymes without Reason by Mervyn Peake.  And while in this self-indulgent self-analytical mode I think too of early blissful reading experiences, when I first experienced true contentment in books: The Wind in the Willows in Lower Remove 1, read aloud in a circle of four so-called ‘advanced’ readers while intermittently gazing out the window at the towering chestnut waving in the wind from outside the school gate; Just William and Professor Branestawm all ploughed through in ‘Library’ lesson, my slender frame wedged into a favourite spot betwixt the legs of a metallic bookshelf; the Susan Cooper series Over Sea, Under Stone which I read, terrified, during a lengthy confinement to the sick bed. But did any of them contain such zip-crack-pop word combos to worm into my unconscious like staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby... Did any of them provoke such puzzling visions as She is physically forgotten but then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys? To this day I cannot survey in suitable awe one of England’s cathedrals with seeing angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity and thinking Amen, allelujah!


Allelujah! San Miguel el Gove enters the lions’ den with a piece in The Guardian lauding the success of free schools and posing the question: why does Ed Miliband (or anyone else) oppose them? In the adjoining comments the moronic inferno predictably rages; masochistically, I have been sifting through it looking for an answer to Gove’s question. What are the arguments against free schools? Filtering out the two default Guardian-reader complaints (these being (1) Gove shouldn’t be allowed to write in Comment is Free, which should be Free only to those whose Comments I agree with; and (2) Tories are literally evil and their actions are motivated by a desire to harm children) I find the central objection is that free schools (and, by extension, academies) are likely to be too good and parents will want to send their children to them. To understand why this is an objection, you must accept this premise: it is better for two children to both attain a base level of mediocrity than for one of them to attain it and the other exceed it. Along with this comes a view of parenting in which mothers and fathers who want to do the best for their children (read books to them, teach them how to count, take them to museums etc), are not ‘good parents’ but ‘the parents with the sharpest elbows.’ And that’s it.

I know a man who even into his forties was a genuine, Soviet-supporting Marxist. He once in all seriousness expressed to me the view that ideally all children should be taken from their parents in infancy and raised by the state. I used to think he was madder even than the average forty-year old Marxist with that one, but on reflection that policy is indeed probably the only practical way you could sustain a society in which nobody was ever allowed to exceed mediocrity; otherwise you’d be forever beating down sharp-elbowed parents like a game of whack-a-mole at the funfair.


Talking of boys in bubbles, the birth of the Princeling George forced people paid to comment on such things to take one of two paths: wild speculation/extrapolation, or conversely, ‘I-really-can’t-understand-what-the-fuss-is-about-is-it-just-me?’-ism. Private Eye’s cover epitomised the latter line with its usual savage satirical wit (ahem): “Woman Has Baby.” But it’s hardly strange that there has been a fuss. This woman’s baby establishes a clear line of succession in the British monarchy for the rest of the century. The issue of royal succession, particularly in periods where there has not been such a clear line, has been somewhat important in shaping British history.


What a curious bird the musical Les Miserables is. A disjointed tale of undeveloped characters sung through in four or five emotionally-manipulative melodies. The film of the musical is stranger still because it contains one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.  Anne Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed a Dream is the real deal, like Sinead O’Connor’s video of Nothing Compares 2 U, only more so. After this incongruous dramatic brilliance she promptly pops her clogs (not really a spoiler as it happens stupidly early) and the film quite collapses, somehow being both too rushed and too slow. But that Anne Hathaway is something else…


Test Match Special fans know that a major part of the cricket commentary’s appeal is the amount of talk that’s not about cricket at all. The BBC’s online text over-by-over coverage isn’t in the same class, but there’s still some good stuff in there. This from yesterday, after bad light stopped play:

Anthony Ainley, the actor who played arch villain The Master in Doctor Who in the 1980s, had the honour of an obituary in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack after he died in 2004. An opening batsman for The Stage and London Theatres CC, he “usually took his cricket teas alone in his car – possibly because, according to one report, he ‘despised cheeses of all kinds’.”


Do you ever worry about the scale of chicken slaughter in the world? Sometimes at Asda, contemplating a pack of six chicken thighs, for example, I think, well that’s three chickens that have laid down their meagre little lives right there… And there are so many packs on the shelves. And so many Asdas in the country. Not to mention Tescos and the rest. Then think of all the KFCs across the globe, dishing out bucketfuls of legs and wings 24/7. And of course we cannot exclude my beloved Nando’s’ role in this unimaginable daily massacre.

Best not to think about it really. I do love chicken thighs. All of which queasy musing gives me an excuse to trot out the anecdote about the best compliment I have ever been paid in my life (feel free to skip if you’ve heard this one before).

It occurred on the island of Crete, in a tiny family-run Taverna close to the grim disco strip of Malia. Its keeper spoke good if eccentric English and he used it to complain at length about my compatriots and their behaviour on holiday. “Why you need get so drunk?” he asked as he brought out our bottle of enjoyably vile retsina. “Why you want get nakt? Why you want take clothes off in street and get nakt?”

I couldn’t honestly answer, and nor could Mrs Brit. We were both fully clothed and had no intention of getting ‘nakt’ in his street. While our starters were preparing he pulled up a chair to continue the theme. “Why you want shout? I not come to your house and SHOOOOOOUT in your street. Why you want do that?” He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and demonstrated, literally, the business of “SHOOOOOOUTing”.

I couldn’t help but agree with his gist, though I did make the observation that his own compatriots were more than happy to take money from mine in return for drunk-making liquors. He conceded the point with good grace.

I ordered up the special, which the Taverna-keeper kindly translated to me as “Chicken chops.” It was a platter of chicken thighs, wings and things cooked in some sort of oregano seasoning and was sublimely delicious. I attacked the plate with carnivorous greed, using fingers and teeth to pick off every last morsel til there was nothing but a heap of gleaming, decimated bones. The keeper took our plates back into the kitchen and then a few minutes later hurried back to deliver it, the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life:

“Sir! My wife, the cook… she ask me to tell you…She say, You really know how to eat chicken!


My daughter C (who turns four this Wednesday – tempus fuggedaboudit!) is a natural dancer. With the Brennan pumping out tunes at random she will stop mid-sentence and, finding a rhythm to her liking, launch into an often wild improvised routine. The other day I Know what I Know from Graceland came on and she instantly got the groove. Her shoulderblades begin to twitch and her head began to bob in a way I recognised. She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party? I said who am I to blow against the wind . As the rest of the family joined her on the dancefloor I could not help but wonder whether these bonkers bouncy words would worm into her subconscious as they did mine. I imagine so: these are, after all, the roots of rhythm. And the
of rhythm


Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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21 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – The Boy in the Bubble

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    August 5, 2013 at 09:24

    My favourite MP Shirley Williams (in the early seventies, as the trade unions sawed through the branch to which we all clung) saved my bacon, bless her flashers mac, the tousled haired lassie had a pragmatic attitude to book larnin’, whilst mangling the English education system she had sent her own kinder to private school, later she went awol and joined the wet lettuce party. Some years later I had the argument “you people always want your kids to be better than ours” thrown at me at a party, what is it about the party that brings into stark relief the intellectual megastars amongst us.

    There is, in the annals of history-as per the maltys, a legendary taverna ‘Captain Gregory’s Fish Restaurant’, down a dusty track, hazy views of the Turkish coast, the smell of hot pine and all that stuff. Capt Gs joint had, beneath the awning, four refrigerators from which the snotty-nosed urchin withdrew the makings for our din-dins, later, as we left junior pointed out the fact that none of the domestic appliances appeared to be connected to the electricity supply.

    • Brit
      August 5, 2013 at 20:38

      There must be a special circle of hell for anti-private school politicians who sneak their own kids into one. Also people who turn down MBEs and whatnot – who do they think they are?

  2. Worm
    August 5, 2013 at 09:32

    Graceland was my formative album too – well, that and Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms – both of which were the albums that every dad bought to play on their new -fangled cd players back in around 1986 when they suddenly dropped in price and everyone rushed out to buy one. We shall never see such shared social experiences again I fear

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      August 5, 2013 at 10:12

      Worm, Dire Straits are making a comeback, or at least three of them are, in some windswept East Yorkshire seaside resort, discounts available for OAPs who may well be in the majority.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      August 5, 2013 at 20:28

      I’m pretty sure that Brothers in Arms was an obligatory purchase with all 1980s CD players, wasn’t it? Damn good album, is it ok to like it again now?

  3. henrygjeffreys@gmail.com'
    August 5, 2013 at 10:18

    Lovely stuff as always, Brit.We’re also chicken crazy in our family. My wife makes a wonderful dish with chicken thighs, red peppers and sherry (or better still marsala) that she calls swarthy chicken. We’re also mad for Nando’s.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      August 5, 2013 at 13:37

      Henry, you and Brit are the first people I have ever come across to profess a preference for chicken thighs. For years I have thought the non-vegetarian world could be divided between those who prefer breasts (a somewhat fussy lot) and those who prefer wings (life of the party). That left me wondering what happens to all the thighs. I’ve even worried about huge and growing secret mounds of rotting thighs hidden away somewhere and destined to provide us with our next doomsday environmental crisis. Thanks to your wife for doing her bit to save the planet. I’m betting the Cretan woman who so admired Brit was tired of throwing out thighs from the plates of fickle tourists.

    • Brit
      August 5, 2013 at 20:32

      I know, it baffles me that thighs are so under-appreciated (and relatively cheap). By far the best bit of the chicken.

    • Brit
      August 5, 2013 at 20:48

      Can I come round yours for swarthy?

  4. Worm
    August 5, 2013 at 11:00

    Every day on my drive back along the M40 at 5.15pm I pass the same chicken lorry carrying its daily cargo of death to meet their maker – from a few weeks of life in a windowless shed via a couple of hours on the lorry wedged in those trays with the wind whipping around them, straight into another windowless shed to be despatched and turned into chicken bits. I actually avert my eyes every time I overtake the lorry as I cant bear to see the little chaps guilelessly heading to their doom. In fact I must admit that it depresses me so much that I have mostly stopped eating any food containing meat, and only eat meat when at friend’s houses. Most days I cook from Yottam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook Plenty.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      August 5, 2013 at 11:07

      Do get a grip, Worm. A miraculous bird. Are you worried that the world is going to hell in a handcart because of famine from overpopulation and climate catastrophe? Enter the chicken.

      Chickens are notoriously lax about filling out their census forms, but there are apparently well over 20 billion of them, up from half that twenty years ago. When Christ enjoined us to go forth and multiply, the chickens must have been listening, or maybe we didn’t realize He was addressing them. Plus the Government of Sweden (what would we do without them?) infoms us that eating more chicken is an antidote to global warming. Thus, Dear Dabblers, whenever you tackle a double plate of wings (I recommend the hot honey-garlic sauce) at your favourite trendy pub, you can pig out like a savage while basking in the satisfaction of knowing that you are at once refuting the neo-Malthusians, saving the planet and providing employment for people who count chickens. I doubt Worm can say the same about his beloved aubergines.

      • Worm
        August 5, 2013 at 11:14

        oh don’t get me wrong, I am not proud of the fact that I have let squeamish sentimentalism take hold. I dont care about killing and eating animals, they are fantastically tasty. I just have gone off the idea of the mass production of animals as a mechanised product for my own personal consumption. I am perfectly happy for everyone else to eat it.

        • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
          August 5, 2013 at 12:11

          Hey, a little sqeamish sentimentalism just proves you are human. With me, it’s bunnies. It doesn’t matter how divine the sauce, I can’t shake the horror of the spectre of feasting on Thumper.

          OTOH, starving children turn me off too.

          • Worm
            August 5, 2013 at 12:28

            well this is it – starving children would give a chicken the respect of eating every last bit of it and enjoy every mouthful. My wooly moral objection is to chickens being killed by the zillion just to go into chicken flavoured foodstuffs like sandwich fillers.

  5. bugbrit2@live.com'
    August 5, 2013 at 14:02

    And Hathaway was a tremendously fun Catwoman when she could dig her way out from under the stiffling weight attempted narrative closrure that was The Dark Knight Rises.

    • Brit
      August 5, 2013 at 20:35

      Very true, Banished. That’s two movies in which Ms Hathaway is by far the best thing. I shall follow her career closely henceforth.

  6. Gaw
    August 5, 2013 at 22:02

    The problem I have with the lefty critique of free schools is that we already have a situation where the sharp-elbowed do well by their kiddies – buying houses close to good schools, researching the heck out of all the options, sending them private, getting them musical scholarships, etc. I can’t see how it’s going to be that much worse with a more diversified set of schools and it probably makes it more likely that the children of the blunt-elbowed will strike it lucky.

  7. bensix@live.co.uk'
    August 6, 2013 at 00:46

    Do you ever worry about the scale of chicken slaughter in the world?

    According to the UN, the livestock population of chickens is a formidable 19 billion. This presumably does not include the hundreds of millions of male chicks who are annihilated each year. (Dying as evidence that vegetarianism tends to be an incoherent concept. But, then, I cannot talk. I am a pescetarian – which I explain to other people as “a miserable compromise”.)

    But it’s hardly strange that there has been a fuss.

    I’m surprised that there has been no mainstream acknowledgement of the obvious inspiration for Prince George’s name. The best character on Seinfeld was George Louis Costanza, who was performed by a thespian named Jason Alexander.

  8. hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
    August 6, 2013 at 16:15

    Aficionados of the lefty critique of Gove & All His Works should keep an eye out for Mary Bousted, leader of the ATL union. Of late she has been complaining repeatedly that her members are expected to teach “knowledge”, and how a “knowledge-rich” curriculum is harmful to children. Clearly this is true in the self-esteem ‘n’ diversity awareness hubs of the state sector.

    Mary Bousted attended a grammar school and has a PhD. Somewhere along the line I suspect someone imparted at least some “knowledge” to her (though not self-knowledge).

  9. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    David Cohen
    August 7, 2013 at 23:12

    Evel shot first.

  10. zmkc@ymail.com'
    August 20, 2013 at 13:16

    Following the birth of Prince George, I have particularly loved seeing the pictures of his mother standing with him in his arms, looking radiant with the knowledge that this is the best thing she’s ever experienced. It is a very old-fashioned image of womanhood and I have the odd sense that it’s the kind of thing we’re not usually allowed to look at, because it might give us all the wrong idea about a woman’s role.

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