Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Mousetrap

I did it! I went to The Mousetrap again, for the second time in... erm... let me see... nearly 60 years. I wanted to see what I made of it after all that time, book- ending my theatre-going life to date. I went with my cousin Mary, who is a little older than me and we ate, not at The Ivy celeb canteen next door, but at Jamie Oliver's Italian just across the road in St Martin's Lane. Mary used to work as an illustrator before she was married and we walked past the place of her employment, the now-defunct mildly saucy 'Men Only' magazine from Charing Cross station where I had met her train. She has since become a very good painter, of landscapes and flowers, her work often used by card manufacturers. We had mackerel since you ask - absolutely delicious - then I had three different flavours of ice cream with two different sorts of topping, and Mary had panacotta topped with seasonal berries. Well, the meal was great. The difficulty with reviewing the play is that one is honour bound not to reveal who dunnit. The action is set in a country house in mid winter, and the characters keep mentioning how cold it is. The theatre was cold, too. It is incredibly cold in London, and forecast to get colder still. We, the audience in our sixties and seventies, huddled under our coats as realistic snow fell outside the window on set and the husband of the young couple who have just opened a recently-inherited house to paying guests trots on and off with baskets of logs to keep the flickering fire going in the enormous medieval hearth. There are frequent period references: to ration books, war service in the army, the 'black market' - in Swiss watches - ! Fancy: once upon a time it was illegal to trade in them in the UK. Characters live in private hotels and guest houses, unable to afford to stay in their own home. Menus (a frequent subject of conversation in the play, reflecting the importance of getting anything to eat in those truly austere post -WWII days) sound like the sort of food I remember was standard at home in the 1950's, when the play is presumably set - shepherd's pie, baked apple and custard. This is no boutique hotel. The script and the acting are of more or less the same adequate standard, - but then, when I first saw it I was only 10 or 11 years of age, and - crucially - , this time round, I knew in advance who dunnit, so there was only curiosity as to how it would play out rather than suspense. Today is to be spent with my sister, another artist, at David Hockney then Rules (our father's favourite restaurant, reputed to be the first in London) and a matinee performance of One Man Two Guv'nors with James Corden, then, in the evening - if my energy holds out - Putin at Pushkin House. No, not the man himself: a preview screening of the third in the current TV series about the man and his regime made by Angus Roxburgh, and a discussion with the production team.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Buchan, Barrie, Buncle

Broughton has John Buchan, Kirkcudbright - J.M Barrie. Moffat has Ossian, a glancing blow from Burns and D.E.Stevenson. Plans are afoot for Moffat Book Events to build on the D.E.S. connection, by presenting a rehearsed reading of a version for the theatre of Miss Buncle's Book.

I have opened the first of the 26 boxes of books retrieved from storage on Friday Jan 27th, but did not take any out yet. Instead, I played for time by starting a list of categories for my library: novels; history; biography, poetry, plays, politics, economics etc. I could spin out the whole process by trying to remember where, when and why I bought each book. One of the books on the top layer of the box I opened was a bright yellow paperback of Les Liaisons Dangeureuses, the sort of French book where you had to cut the pages. I probably bought it after seeing the 1959 film by Roger Vadim set in contemporary France with a star-studded cast headed by Jeanne Moreau, Gerard Philipe, and Annette Vadim, and Jean-Louis Trintingant - later to hit the heights with Anouk Aimee in 'Un Homme et Une Femme' in a supporting role. Trintingnant in later life was memorable as the judge in the third film of the Kristow Kieslowski's trilogy 'Three Colours: Blue,White and Red. Gerard Philipe, the greatest classical French actor of his generation, died eight weeks after the film of Les Liaisons was released. I have made inquiries of the firm that makes the 'speaking benches' for the National Trust to make one that plays Gerard Philipe reciting 'Heureux qui, comme Ulysse' to go with the pavement in my garden engraved with the poem which, suitably for Moffat, celebrates the Golden Fleece.

Sunday, 29 January 2012


I watched the film The Ghost on TV yesterday evening, and found it as good, if not better, than when I first saw it. It is beautiful as well as neatly gripping, the spare, bleak buildings and wintery landscape mirroring the narrative, adapted from the novel by Robert Harris. All the plot twists are credible, as are the characters (well cast) and the underlying premise: that a UK Prime Minister's policy decisions - always in favour of what the US wished - were down to his wife having been recruited at university by the CIA.

Trailers for another ghost movie soon to be released, The Woman in Black, are also airing on TV, starring Daniel Radcliffe, the erstwhile Harry Potter.

Lastly, I am progressing through The Snow Child, which also has an element of the magical and inexplicable. On page 300 there is a sentence which has connotations in English of which the author may be unaware: 'He had shot her fox'. To shoot someone's fox, a metaphor taken from the hunting field, in parliamentary, legal or City of London terms means to thwart a ploy, snatch the advantage , deprive someone of their quarry.

Arthur Ransome

The epigram or quotation at the beginning of Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, set in 1920, is from Arthur Ransome's version of the old Russian folk tale Snegurochka:
'Wife, let us go into the yard behind and make a little snow girl; and perhaps she will come alive and be a little daughter to us.'
'Husband' says the old woman, 'There's no knowing what may be. Let us go into the yard and make a little snow girl'.
Later in the book, Ivey has her protagonist Mabel write to her sister in Philadelphia asking her to send a book of Russian fairy tales that had belonged to their father, a professor of literature at the university of Pennsylvania. In the letter accompanying the book, Mabel's sister explains that the request had come in the nick of time because 'a student from the university, a Mr Arthur Ransome', had been picking through their father's book collection; he was studying Russian folk tales, had told her the story of Snegurochka.
I sort of stubbed my toe on this. I checked in Wikipedia and saw that Arthur Ransome, now mainly famous as the author of Swallows and Amazons, did not go to university for more than a year, and that was in England. (Incidentally, he had had the same room at Rugby school as Lewis Carroll aka Charles Dodgson, the subject of Friday Jan 27th's MBE blog) He knew Russian because he went to Russia in 1913 to study Russian folklore, and in 1914 published 21 Russian folk tales under the title Old Peter's Russian Tales, stayed on as a newspaper correspondent, witnessed the revolution, met the leaders Lenin and Trotsky, and later married Lenin's secretary after divorcing his English wife. There is no mention in the Wikipedia entry of his having visited America, in 1920 0r any other year, in pursuit of knowledge about 'fairy tales of the far north'. In The Snow Child, Mabel's sister describes how she practically had to prise the book from Ransome's ('the young man's) hands - by this time, Ransome was a man of 36 and had already published his version of Russian fairy tales in English seven years before.
I am still enjoying Ivey's novel, though - I am on Chapter 24 and there are still plenty of adventures ahead for Jack, Mabel, their neighbours George and Esther and the mysterious 'snow child' Faina.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Thought for the Day

I have started to read Eowyn Ivey's (sic - have I been mis-spelling it 'Iwey' all along?) The Snow Child. I am delighted to confirm that it is both extremely well written and a gripping story. I am on page 104, about to start on Chapter 13. Ivey fulfills V S Naipaul's self-imposed criterion of always writing about more than one thing. This doesn't mean that Ivey has written a leadenly obvious fable, nudging us irritatingly in the ribs nodding and winking and tapping the side of her nose but that she has succeeded in writing convincingly both about a middle-aged couple struggling with life in Alaska and about much more than that: about ...well you can read it yourselves and then we can discuss.

The free online service The Writer's Almanac reminds that today is the birthday of the comic novelist David Lodge, born in suburban London, England (1935), to a traditional Catholic family. His early novel, The Picturegoers (1960), is about a Catholic family in South London who take in a university student as a lodger. Other early novels draw on Lodge's own life: Ginger, You're Barmy (1962) about compulsory service in the British military, and The British Museum is Falling Down (1970) about a Catholic graduate student working on his thesis.

It's the birthday of novelist Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in a village in France (1873). She's the author of more than 50 novels, including Gigi (1944), which was made into a movie. She died in 1954 at 81 years old, the first woman in the history of France to be given a state funeral -- 6,000 people filed by her casket and covered it in flowers.
Collette said, "Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it."

Friday, 27 January 2012

A True Story

I went into the information office in Dumfries yesterday and asked the person behind the desk, absorbed in something on her computer screen, where I could find the poems on windows in the town that form part of this year's Burns celebrations. She said she had never heard of the poems on windows scheme. She suggested I try the Burns Centre. 'It's on the other side of the river' she said, gesturing vaguely in the air. There was a tear-off pad of maps on the counter, and I asked her to show me where the Burns Centre was on the map. As I turned to leave, my hand on the door, she shouted after me: 'You could try The Coach and Horses next door'.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Through the Looking Glass

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Six years later, he published its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). Not many people (eg me until today) know that the only time Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) went abroad was on a two-month trip to Russia July-Sept 1867. The journal Carroll/Dodgson wrote recording his experiences in Russia was only published in 1935. I have ordered a copy from Amazon, and will let you know what he did there. Lewis Carroll was born in Daresbury, Cheshire (1832). He was gifted at mathematics, went to Oxford, graduated with first class honours, and stayed at his college, Christ Church, as a teacher for the rest of his life. Uniquely, for a university tutor at the time, he was excused ordination. He didn't really like teaching. But it earned him a living, and he thought of it as a temporary endeavour while he worked on becoming famous as an artist. Carroll wrote poems and short stories, and took photographs, and then one day in 1856, he took three little girls, Ina, Edith, and Alice on a boating trip down the river, and told them the story that became Alice.

Talking of wonderful worlds removed from reality, I commend resistance to the payment of any bonus to Stephen Hester at RBS and an article by a senior economist formerly at the IMF Europe’s Debt Crisis Is Still Likely to End Badly: Simon Johnson - Bloomberg

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

An evening with Christopher Hampton

British playwright Christopher Hampton, was born on this day in Faial in the Azores archipelago (1946). His father was an engineer for Cable and Wireless and got sent all over the world. His parents were interested in sports and social events. Hampton said, "I was the odd one out in the family, this small boy with thick glasses who read all the time." He went to Oxford, studied modern languages -- and wrote a play, When Did You Last See My Mother? Which was performed at Oxford and made its way to the West End, and at the age of 20, Hampton was the youngest playwright ever to have a play produced on the West End.
He continued to write plays, including the comedy The Philanthropist when he was 23. Hampton said: "I had a conversation with my agent Peggy Ramsay after The Philanthropist. She said, 'You've got a choice: You can write the same play over and over for the next 30 years, and you'll probably get even better at it, or you can decide to do something completely different every time.' So I said, 'As a matter of fact, I have started writing a play about the extermination of the Brazilian Indians in the 1960s.' And she said, 'Well, that'll do it, dear.'"
He wrote the movie Dangerous Liaisons and co-wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Sunset Boulevard, adapted Chekhov's The Seagull for the stage, wrote the screenplay for the film Atonement (2007), adapted from Ian McEwan's novel; and translated several plays by French playwright Yasmina Reza, including 'Art ' (1994)and God of Carnage (2006).

I spent an evening with Hampton and a visiting Russian playwright Mikhail (Misha) Roshchin at Hampton's Tales From Hollywood when it was playing at London's National Theatre in 1984. Hampton's play relies on witty dialogue which made it a difficult evening for Misha who spoke no English. Every time he asked me what someone on stage had stage a theatregoer behind us said'SShhh' loudly, so eventually we went and stood at the back where we could whisper without causing offence. Roshchin's visit was marked by a spectacular feat of acting by my former husband, a diplomat who had never trodden the boards: he and Roshchin arrived at a dinner party packed with theatrical and other celebrities and managed to pass themselves off as the other (being unknown to all but their hostess, Caroline Blakiston).

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Strange Bedfellows

As any fule no, today is the birthday of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns. He was born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He was the son of a poor tenant farmer and brought up to work in the fields. When he was 15, he fell in love with a farm-laborer named Nelly, and wrote his first poem for her: "O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass." Burns tried to make a living as a farmer, but he wasn't very good at it and became a tax collector. At one point, as the result of a tangled love life, he determined to leave Scotland and emigrate to Jamaica. He postponed his departure at the eleventh hour when his first book of poems Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect proved an instant critical and financial success. Burns dropped all his plans for Jamaica and moved to Edinburgh where he was lionised. He soon tired of metropolitan life and re-settled in Dumfries, where he died aged 40, possibly as the indirect result of having had a rotten tooth removed, which released a fatal infection into his bloodstream. He became one of the most beloved poets in Scotland if not the world, celebrated every year at Burns Suppers where the menu is always haggis with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), and his Address to the Haggis, the Immortal Memory etc are all part of a hallowed ritual.

It is also the birthday of W. Somerset Maugham, born in Paris (1874). His father was in Paris as a lawyer for the British Embassy. When Maugham was eight years old, his mother died from tuberculosis. His father died of cancer two years later. The boy was sent back to England into the care of a cold and distant uncle, a vicar. Maugham was miserable at his school. He said later: "I wasn't even likeable as a boy. I was withdrawn and unhappy, and rejected most overtures of sympathy over my stuttering and shyness." Maugham became a doctor and practiced in the London slums. He was particularly moved by the women he encountered in the hospital, where he delivered babies; and he was shocked by his fellow doctors' callous approach to the poor." He wrote: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief; I saw the dark lines that despair drew on a face; I saw courage and steadfastness. I saw faith shine in the eyes of those who trusted in what I could only think was an illusion and I saw the gallantry that made a man greet the prognosis of death with an ironic joke because he was too proud to let those about him see the terror of his soul."
When he was 23, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, about a working-class 18-year-old named Liza who has an affair with a 40-year-old married man named Jim, a father of nine. Jim's wife beats up Liza, who is pregnant, and who miscarries, and dies. The novel was a big success, and Maugham made enough money to quit medicine and become a full-time writer. For many years, he made his living as a playwright, but eventually he became one of the most popular novelists in Britain. His novels include Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razor's Edge (1944).
Somerset Maugham said, "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."

It is the birthday of yet a third world class author: Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London (1882) author of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). She also wrote a book called A Room of One's Own (1929), based on lectures she gave at the women's colleges of Cambridge in which she said, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
Woolf herself wrote in her house in Bloomsbury in a downstairs storage room, which had been a billiard room. A room with a cold stone floor and a skylight, packed with hundreds of books, a bed, an old wicker chair, where she wrote for three hours every morning, using a wooden board for a table, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
At her summer house in Sussex, she wrote in a remodeled shed, with big windows, with views of the woods and hills. She sat in a chair and put a small tabletop on a cushion on her lap, and wrote on that. In A Room of One's Own, she wrote: "So when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life."
On this day in 1915, she wrote in her diary that her husband Leonard gave her a green purse and a book and took her to the movies. They had tea and decided to buy a printing press and get a bulldog.

Creative Places

Congratulations to Wigtown and Creetown on being named 'Creative Places' by Creative Scotland.

Moffat is also a creative place, so much so that it probably doesn't need an award (although awards are nice). Where would Moffat put an award of this sort?In the absence of a mayor's parlour, maybe a space could be found on the counter at Grieve's the newsagents in the High St.

A propos: there will be a distinguished Russian visitor in Moffat Feb 20-25, Dr Ekaterina Genieva, director of the Rudomino State Library in Moscow.

I have memories of Dr Ekaterina Genieva - ‘Katya’ - going back nearly 30 years. She had come to Britain with two other star Russian students of English language and literature some years before I met her, as a guest of the now defunct Great Britain-USSR Association which I had joined in 1962. I came to know both her companions too, in later years. One of them, the magnificent Georgy (pronounced Gay-org –ee) Andzhaparidze, became a publisher. He was introduced to John le Carre (David Cornwell) in the course of le Carre’s researches for his The Russia House. George – as he was known to his Engish-speaking friends - had a cameo role, playing himself, in the movie of The Russia House starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery. While the highly extrovert and excitable George was compering the premier at a cinema in Moscow, he slipped and fell from the stage sustaining fatal injuries.

Katya was someone I visited every time I was in Moscow from 1983 onwards. She was a senior librarian at VGBIL the State Library for Foreign Literature, housed in a vast building in central Moscow with tentacles extending the length and breadth of the Soviet empire. Under various idiosyncratic Russian rulers, including Andropov, she got on quietly with being a librarian. In her flat there was a ‘holy corner’ with icons and photographs of her various spiritual mentors. She would speak of Father Alexander Men, her parish priest at the church of Novaya Derevnya (New Village) where she had a dacha. We often spent weekends at the dacha, in winter and summer but I did not meet Fr Alexander until just before Easter in 1990.

My elder daughter Abi had been living with Katya and her family while studying voice at the Moscow Conservatoire. Abi met Fr Alexander, and went to his many public lectures and decided to be baptized at Easter. Several months later, Fr Alexander was killed with a blow to his head from a sharp instrument ,widely believed to have been a sapper’s spade of the sort issued to the Soviet Special Forces, wielded expertly from behind him, while his attention was focused on something being shown to him that had required him to open his briefcase and take out his spectacles – in other words, a two-man professional job. Shortly after the murder, two young men, were reported to have boarded the ‘elektrichka’ suburban train Moscow-bound. They have never been traced.

After the murder, Dr Donald Smith of the Church of Scotland’s Scottish Story-Telling Centre had the brilliant idea of commissioning a play from myself and Moscow theatre director Mark Rozovsky to dramatise the story for a western secular audience at the Edinburgh Festival . Our chaplain at the British Embassy, Chad Coussmaker, suggested that we base the play on T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Donald came out with me for the premiere of the play entitled ‘Murder in the Cathedral: A Russian Rehearsal’ at Mark’s theatre ‘At The Nikitsky Gates’. Donald and I flew in and were immediately informed that we were going to be part of a VIP delegation on a visit to Rostov on Don, a town on the southern borders of Russia in Cossack territory. Surprised but unable to resist, we flew to Rostov where Donald distinguished himself by singing a Scottish ballad at a reception on a replica of Peter the Great’s warship which is moored there.

On our return to Moscow, we saw the play, which was most effective and moving. Ironically, or perhaps aptly in light of Fr Alexander’s own ethnic origins, the Theatre at the Nikitsky Gates is predominantly a Jewish theatre, and the company tours their repertoire for the Russian-speaking Jewish diaspora in cities through the USA.

Sadly, the play cannot be performed in Britain because T S Eliot’s widow Valerie forbids any adaptations of his work.

After the death of her friend and mentor, Katya threw herself into work , using the library’s facilities to print pro-democratic bulletins in the tumultuous days of the fall of Communism. The printing works of the library were housed in the church of SS Cosma and Damian, now restored as a fully-functioning place of worship, pictured in a recent Facebook posting by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist. Katya became the director of her library, where she offered space to the BBC and many foreign cultural organisations and ran George Soros’s Open Society organization in Russia, supporting free speech and economic liberalism along the lines described by Friedrich von Hayek in The Road To Serfdom.

I owe Katya more than I can say: for making it possible on many visits over the years for me not only to see a great panorama of Russian places outside the two great cities of St Petersburg and Moscow from Archangel to Jaroslavl, Kolomna to Rostov on Don, but also to participate in a family life; for hosting the British Book Trust’s Children’s Books of the Year Exhibition and giving it a great send-off (by the British Ambassador Brian Fall) before the two identical sets of books went off to tour round Russia; for organizing a tour for me, my agent Rosemary Sandberg and my publisher at Piccadilly Books; but above all for making it possible for me to meet Fr Alexander a few fateful months before he was assassinated.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Keeping Up with the Jones's

Today is the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862) The Joneses were wealthy New York society -- that's where the expression "Keeping up with the Joneses" comes from. They were alarmed by their little girl, who was precocious; she taught herself to read, and wrote her first novel on brown wrapping paper when she was 11 years old. When Wharton was 14, she wrote her second novel, called Fast and Loose, a parody of British romances. When she was 18, five of her poems were published anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly. But then, at the age of 18, she stopped writing for almost 10 years. Instead, she lived the life of a rich young lady -- first as a debutante; then as a young wife, married to Teddy Wharton, a wealthy man who had almost nothing in common with her.
She loved motorcars, especially fast ones, she loved dogs -- especially small dogs -- she liked to knit, she was passionate about design and she loathed the Victorian style she had grown up with: cluttered, dark, heavy drapes and fancy upholstered furniture. And she loved to write.
In 1905, she published The House of Mirth, the story of the socialite Lily Bart, raised as a proper young woman, without any job skills, and so after her parents' death, her only hope is to marry a rich man. She can't bring herself to marry someone she doesn't love, and because of this she ends up friendless and poor. It's a tragic story, and it was the best-selling book of the year.
Edith Wharton went on to write more popular novels, including Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920).

It was on this day in 1848 that the California Gold Rush began. The carpenter and wheelwright James Marshall was leading a crew to build a saw mill for a man named John Sutter, who owned nearly 50,000 acres along the Sacramento River and wanted to start a logging operation there. It was a cold, clear morning. The night before, Marshall had diverted the river so he could put in the saw mill and on this morning, he found gold flecks where the water had been. John Sutter asked the workers to keep their discovery a secret so that he could continue with his sawmill -- but the story came out in the March 15th issue of The Californian out of San Francisco. And on August 19th, The New York Herald reported that there was gold in California. And gold prospectors headed for California. The population of California was about 150,000 Indians and about 14,000 non-Indians. Twelve years later, more than 300,000 people had migrated to California, and fewer than 30,000 Indians remained.
Mark Twain headed to California in 1861, and spent some time prospecting in Angels' Camp, trying to make his fortune, but he didn't find anything in the way of gold. He did, however, hear a man tell a story about a frog and how they filled him with buckshot so he couldn't jump, and so he lost his owner a bet. That story was "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," the story that made Mark Twain famous.
(entries courtesy of the online The Writer's Almanac)

Belated birthday wishes

Tina Fox and I walked along Beechgrove yesterday delivering invitations to take part in MBE's Open Gardens event. Jonquils - tiny dwarf daffodils - were out, yellow crocus, hamamelis mollis (wintersweet), polyanthus, viburnum, and, outside one house in the gravel by the south-facing wall, some fascinating small, spindly, black flowers that I did not recognise. In interviews about his new exhibition, David Hockney has mentioned the extraordinary thrill to be experienced by watching spring arrive in Britain. This year promises to be a corker. Having said that, I see that it has just started to snow outside.

Belated birthday wishes of yesterday (courtesy of The Writers Almanac) to French writer Stendhal, born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble, France (1783), a psychological novelist more interested in his characters' inner lives than in descriptions of them or their surroundings.
Stendhal graduated from public school in his little town of Grenoble, went to Paris, got a job with Napoleon's War Ministry and worked his way up, living all over Europe and falling in love with women along the way. In Milan, in his late teens, he fell in love with Angela Pietragrua, a 23-year-old woman who was the mistress of one of his superior officers. He later turned her into the character of Gina Pietranera in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839).
He later fell in love with Matilde Viscontini Dembowski, the wife of a Polish general, who was smart, beautiful, and totally unattainable. When she went on a vacation, Stendhal followed her across Italy, trying to disguise himself in green glasses, loitering around the park where she walked, getting himself invitations to the same parties she would be at, and growing jealous every time she flirted with another man. She let him come sit in her parlor and talk to her, but nothing more; she limited his visits to once every two weeks, which nearly drove him crazy.
Stendhal never managed to change Matilde's mind, but he used all the emotion of his unrequited love to write the book On Love (1822). In it he details the seven stages of falling in love, from admiration to pleasure to doubt to what he calls "crystallization." He wrote: "Indeed, half -- the most beautiful half -- of life is hidden from one who has not loved passionately."

It was also the birthday yesterday of Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, born in Castries, Saint Lucia (1930). He grew up reading British poets like William Wordsworth, John Milton, and Andrew Marvell. Walcott got a scholarship to study in Jamaica. From there, he studied theater in the United States, and then went back to the Caribbean and founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop. He taught at Boston University, and became good friends with Robert Lowell, whom he had first met when Lowell and his family visited Trinidad. In 1990 Walcott published his epic poem Omeros, a re-telling of Homer's Odyssey set on St. Lucia.
In 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. His most recent book of poetry is White Egrets (2010).
He said: "I come from a place that likes grandeur; it likes large gestures; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style. [...] I grew up in a place in which if you learned poetry, you shouted it out. Boys would scream it out and perform it and flourish it. If you wanted to approximate that thunder or that power of speech, it couldn't be done by a little modest voice in which you muttered something to someone else. I come out of that society of the huge gesture. And literature is like that."


On Saturday, Kirsteen Davidson gave a wonderful private recital at her house in Moffat, of works for piano by two contemporary living composers, Max Richter maxrichtermusic.com and Vroni Holzmann www.vronionline.net. The evening was by way of a warmup for two concerts Kirsteen is giving to larger audiences in bigger venues, and all three are in aid of her cousin Donald Macleod. Don, former editor of the Guardian Education Supplement, and at the time Communications Officer for the Russell Group of universities, was cycling to work in May 2010 when he was in collision with a speeding police car. The case is still going through the courts, but it can be said that it was the sort of accident that makes one very aware of one's blessings. Don was left severely brain-damaged, and had to move from the NHS neurological unit where he was receiving treatment into a nursing home. The fund Kirsteen and his family and friends are raising cash for will enable him to be looked after at home in Edinburgh where his eldest son lives with his family. Donations to:http://www.doit4don.com/

Sunday, 22 January 2012


Three people this week have drawn my attention to the future of the book, two of them predicting - or observing - the imminent demise of reading on paper (newspapers, books). One was an old friend, in an email more or less as a throwaway. The second was a more public figure, Tyler Brule, in his column in today's Financial Times. Screened out and isolated deplores the absence of anyone reading a newspaper in a coffee shop he was in in Venice Beach, California. Everyone was crouched over their MacBook Air. Also, Brule deplored the lack of any local bookshop (other than a specialist spiritual one), kiosk or used book seller in the neighbourhood. The significance of the newspaper is that it bestows - rightly or wrongly - an identity on the reader. I was summonsed recently to jury service, and my doctor observed wryly that the quickest way of getting myself discharged would be to walk into court carrying a copy of the Daily Telegraph (as it happens, this extreme measure was unnecessary, my precarious health and distant address were sufficient). The third person to remark on the future of the book to me this week was my sister, who is working on a family history. I suggested that a website would be the most appropriate medium for this, for reasons of convenience and accessibility, whereupon she replied that she likes books and that she will see to it that the history will appear in a book, website or no website.

A Sign

It's a sign!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

My orchid

Well, I cannot deny that I am inordinately proud of the small bell-shaped purple-pink flower (pictured below left) I have coaxed out of this tiny pot plant someone left in my flat at Christmas time in 2009. It was in full flower; gradually all the flowers died and fell off, but the leaves remained green. I brought it to Milburn House where it lives on my kitchen windowsill upstairs and - voila - it has flowered again. Benign neglect is the key, not watering, not repotting ( see my blog Wild Excitement Dec 5 2011, when the sleeping beauty awoke and put out a tiny shoot). The picture seen in the background(and above right) is a brilliant collage that my sister Jennifer Gough-Cooper, a guest at our forthcoming Moffat Book Event www.moffatbookevents.co.uk Beyond the Garden Gate, made with all the sweet papers, bus tickets and theatre tickets from a visit we made together to Moscow in 2001. Between the picture and the pot plant is a bright raspberry- coloured dish with a handpainted floral panel from Gardner's, the pre-revolutionary imperial porcelain factory near Moscow.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Banks etc

I just signed the online petition to stop the execs at RBS from paying themselves 'bonuses'. During my lifetime, the reputation for reliability of every cornerstone of British life has crumbled: the police; members of Parliament; the City. I hope this is not just rose-tinted spectacles. The bank I knew as a child in Swanley, Kent was Martin's, which was swallowed up by Barclay's in 1969. The staff in Martin's were quiet, deferential, and polite - qualities now largely scorned. My father- in- law was a banker of that generation, who had joined as an office boy and rose through the ranks to be regional manager of Lloyd's in Salisbury. My father obtained a loan for his first housing development (two bungalows in Dartford) by walking into a branch of Lloyd's with some careful calculations on the back of an envelope. In those days, the manager of a branch was responsible for lending. It was the manager's job to know who his (yes, it was always a bloke)customers were, not in a bad way, but as a member of a community. That gave him latitude. There was a genuine relationship with customers. I have been nurturing a theory that Agatha Christie's phenomenal (60 years unbroken run at the same theatre this year) The Mousetrap foreshadowed the downfall of another of our national institutions - I can't be more explicit in case I spoil the shocking denouement: if you've seen it you will know why, and if you haven't then do go and see it.

Another example of how times have changed: a couple of years ago, my mother's GP - a woman - retired. My mother, already in her 90's, decided to send her some flowers, so asked at the surgery for the woman's home address, and it was explained that they could not divulge it because of data protection. The issue here is that thirty or forty years ago, my mother would have known where her GP lived; the GP might have had her consulting rooms in her house, and they would almost certainly have socialised. In this respect, rural Scotland has not changed as much as England.

Today was the day in 1952 that William Shawn took over from Harold Ross as editor of The New Yorker. One of the funniest books I have ever read is Brendan Gill's memoir Here At The New Yorker, including the foibles of Harold Ross, eccentric and irascible founder of the magazine who once scribbled on the margin of a review 'Was Moby Dick the man or the whale?'. The cartoons are legendary - one of the books I am most looking forward to retrieving from store in a month or so is a collection my brother gave me for Christmas one year. Shawn took the magazine into a more serious phase. William's son, Wallace wrote and starred in one of my favourite films My Dinner With Andre - a quintessential New York movie, just two men talking about the meaning of life in a restaurant.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Cranking Up

2012 is cranking up. Yesterday was a 22 hour day. Halfway through, at 1.30pm, Tina Fox and I set out in a blizzard, to start delivering invitations to householders around Moffat to take part in our Moffat Book Events Open Gardens day, part of Beyond the Garden Gate May 26/27. I love walking round Moffat, for the houses, the gardens, the wrought iron gates, the trees. Tina pointed out a delicate tropical creeper in two hedges, apparently surviving the cold climate - it has little brilliant red flowers in summer; I will track down its name for a later posting. We admired a bank of snowdrops by Sidmount Cottage, forsythia, viburnum and daphne. We have decided at the 11th hour to apply to Dumfries & Galloway Council for a share of the limited funds available for specific projects, so last night I was tweaking the draft sent by Marilyn our MBE Project Manager. A press release also went out in the evening from Sarah Mathieson announcing our September MBE event, inspired by Alexander Men www.alexandermenconference.com whose birthday (and Elvis Presley's) it would have been today. I booked myself a cruise up the coast of Norway in April. Hotel rooms have been booked for our speakers in May, and our VIP Russian visitor to Moffat Feb 20-25. Anyone who would like to meet Ekaterina Genieva, director of the Rudomino State Library www.libfl.ru/about/vgbil2006-eng.pdf please let me know. She will be in Moffat getting to know the town and progressing preparations for the international conference mentioned above. In the evening, I watched the first of four BBCTV programmes on Putin's Russia by Angus Roxburgh, which made me suddenly long to be there, listening to the beautiful language. I see that my standup comedian daughter Abi www.abiroberts.com experienced the same emotion - she must be the only Russian-speaking standup on the circuit, and appealed yesterday evening on Facebook for any comedy club owner in Moscow or St Petersburg to get in touch. She includes in her repertoire arcane cross-cultural feats such as performing in West Side Story in Russian (she studied voice at the Moscow Conservatoire) and can do Susan Boyle in Russian.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Roget as in Thesaurus

I am indebted to the online The Writer's Almanac for this birthday tribute to a remarkable man:

Today is the birthday of physician and philologist Peter Mark Roget, born in London in 1779. He was a physician, trained at the University of Edinburgh, and he helped to found the University of London as well as a medical school at the University of Manchester. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, served as its secretary for over 20 years, and invented a slide rule that was widely used until the invention of the pocket calculator. He was interested in optics, and published a paper in 1824 called "Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel Seen Through Vertical Apertures." He was the first to notice something called "persistence of vision" -- the illusion of movement when looking at a series of still photographs in rapid succession -- which formed the basis for future motion picture technology.
But we remember Roget for his thesaurus -- which is the Greek word for "treasury" -- a little project he started in his retirement. It took 12 years to complete, but Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition has been in print continuously since its publication in 1852.

The Writer's Almanac cannot be blamed for not knowing that there was no such thing in Roget's time as the University of London. I suspect that Roget was one of the heroic non-conformists who, along with Jeremy Bentham, got together to start University College London, my alma mater, which - unlike the other old universities at the time - admitted women and did not require students to belong to the Church of England. UCL joined up at a far later date with other colleges to form the University of London. The reference to 'persistence' in the psychology of vision reminded me that at a meeting yesterday I suddenly remembered the psychological term 'learned helplessness', a very useful concept. I was tired, sitting passively and making fewer contributions than is my wont. It came to me that I was experiencing the thrill of 'helplessness' - in other words, letting other people do things rather than feeling I had to do them myself. A whole British generation has grown up experiencing this dangerously attractive sensation, an unintended side effect or byproduct of the welfare state.

Eowyn Iwey's The Snow Child

Great news yesterday: Eowyn Iwey will come to Moffat on Feb 18 2012 at 5pm to talk about her predicted (including by Oprah Winfrey) best-selling The Snow Child, set in 1920's Alaska. Described as 'mystical and magical', the book was inspired by a Russian fairy tale about a child made of snow - snegurochka - that comes to life. The book's publication date has been brought forward so that copies will be available by the time Eowyn gets to the UK. I can't wait to read it. The fact that it is set in hard times reminds me of the narrative of Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I which I re-read recently after an interval of 50 years. Until I re-read it, I had forgotten that it is a brave take on an extremely tough experience, MacDonald's early married days (the marriage failed, but that doesn't come into the book), carving out a farm inland from the northwest Pacific coast. I had to look up the spelling of 'MacDonald' - Scottish surnames and first names for that matter are a minefield and people really mind (well, why shouldn't they) whether they spell it Alistair, Alasdair, Alisdair etc or Mcdonald, MacDonald etc. The excellent online journal, the Scottish Review, has been publicising the mis-spelling of some of the poets' names eg Hugh McDiarmid,on a plaque outside the famous pub in Rose St, Edinburgh where they used to gather. Worse still, a quotation carved in stone on the Scottish Parliament attributed to McDiarmid is actually by someone else, quoted by McDiarmid. Spelling is one thing, pronunciation another. How does one pronounce 'Eowyn'? Time will tell. I was saddled before I married Mr Roberts with an unpronounceable double-barreled surname 'Gough-Cooper' which also requires a decision: to hyphenate or not to hyphenate? Some people pronounced it 'Guff' some 'Goff'. On a visit to a prospective prep school, my father who was tall and distinguished-looking could not understand why he was being treated with the deference and general bowing and scraping usually reserved for royalty, until it transpired that the person showing him round had thought he was Duff Cooper, at that time our ambassador to Paris and married to Lady Diana, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world at the time. For readers of a recent MBE posting: she was known as 'Lady Diana Cooper' (nee Manners) because she was the daughter of a duke or an earl, Rutland I think.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Margin Call

Yesterday I saw Margin Call, a film about the 2008 financial crash (ongoing) starring Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey. There is one very good joke in this gripping, uneven, oddly-cast film which is the scene where one of the main protagonists is revealed to be a rocket scientist in circumstances where someone could easily have said 'It's not rocket science'. But, of course, the complexity of the formulae and computer models concocted in the back rooms of banks in those heady days of sliced and diced derivatives were - if not rocket science - then certainly way beyond the understanding of the traders and salesmen sitting at their computer screens and selling them all around the world. My main objection to the film is that the (presumably) American producers decided to cast Englishmen to play the two nastiest, coldest villains, thereby implying that it is us Brits who drove the vehicle off the road rather than US mortgage-mincers. Jeremy Irons is laughably improbable playing the head man of the fictional firm seen flogging off its whole rotten stock of useless financial instruments. What lets Irons down is a) his wispy artistic-length hair, whereas we all know that bankers have short backs and sides, or are bald and b) his annoying squidgy mouth which is rubbery where it should be letter-box-like; a metal trap. Paul Bettany, the other cynical dastardly Englishman is very well cast indeed, entirely believable as an ex-pat high-ranking executive in the doomed firm, a type I recognised, in fact remarkably similar to a friend who joined Goldman Sachs forty years ago. The rocket scientist-turned cooker-up of mathematical models is played by a pair of quite improbably thick, threaded black eyebrows, like caterpillars, which have landed on the face of an actor called Zachary Quinto. If there were an Oscar category for eyebrows, these would walk it. The maddening thing about this film is that it could have been brilliant. But it is gripping - not least because we still don't know how it's all going to come out, like a WWII film made before the Allies got to Berlin.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Text For Today

My text for today is: get the small things right and the rest will follow. Reading the papers yesterday, I noticed the Scots term gallus used as a noun instead of an adjective. Claire Rendlesham, once the editor of Vogue magazine was Lady Rendlesham, because she was married to a man called Lord Rendlesham but never 'Lady Claire Rendlesham' (as in one newspaper review of a film about Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey in the 1960's), because that would have meant that she was the daughter of an Earl, a 'lady' in her own right. An obituary referred to someone as having graduated from 'University College, London' - whereas UCL, my alma mater, does not have a comma between 'College' and 'London', any more than I have between Elizabeth and Roberts. Distinctions like these matter, because getting things like that wrong means sloppy thinking, lack of attention to detail.

There has been a very good full moon, waning now, but still spectacular. I woke last night to a view of it between the branches of the birch trees that grow by the Birnock Water outside my bedroom window. My curtains have gone away to be fitted with blackout lining because they are made (by Ikea) of a semi-transparent fabric. I love them, but they do not keep out the light and I am hoping to test a theory that one sleeps better in the pitch dark.

I am gripped by the emerging details of the wreck of the Costa cruise liner, uncannily mirroring certain aspects of the sinking, other than the iconic final vertical plunge and that the fact that the Costa collision was with a fixed rock not a floating iceberg, of The Titanic. Both vessels were 'state of the art' for their time; there is one theory that a failure of hi-tech steering and navigation aids, caused by an electrical fault, account for the Costa being three miles off course. But then, for three miles - how many minutes? - the captain must have known that the ship was drifting helplessly towards rocks? Meanwhile, the merrymakers dined, and the band played on, as in 1912. One is also drawn to a comparison with the impending fate of the euro, and with it, the financial system that appears so stable. The Queen, whose Jubilee we celebrate this year, is supposed to have asked 'Why did no-one see it coming?' The answer is: failure to look, failure to see, to be literally or metaphorically on deck, on watch. Make sure where your lifebelt is.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Ursula Vaughan Williams

I watched a programme last night on BBCTV4, on Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams, in which his widow , and second wife, Ursula, appeared. She looked wonderful aged 90, with short spiky hair and wearing a pink blouse. She was over 40 years younger than Ralph, therefore in a sense analogous in that respect to Amanda, the young PR girl who has just married Bryan Ferry. I had dinner with Ursula in her house where she moved after Ralph's death, in a crescent in NW1 known for the close proximity of various writers. We were joined by Victor (V.S)Pritchett the incomparable short story writer and critic, and, at one memorable point in the meal, by Alan Bennett's cat from next door. During dinner, I mentioned that my elder daughter Abi had just taken her A-levels and we were looking for somewhere to go in Italy to mark the event. Ursula immediately suggested Lucca, Puccini's home town. Abi and I went some weeks later, and it was indeed wonderful, a high point being the moment we walked under an upstairs open window of Puccini's house, with his music pouring out.I want to apologise publicly here and now to my younger daughter Elly for the debacle that took place a couple of years later at the end of her A-levels. She had been studying Spanish, and had been to Spain, as had I many years previously. We went to Madrid in April and I had forgotten how cold it was likely to be - this was nearly 25 years ago, before internet weather forecasts, and I was vaguely remembering how warm it had been in Lucca at more or less the same time of year. We arrived without proper winter coats or any really warm clothes, and it snowed. The accommodation I had booked was horrendous, a bleak shared attic room. - I think I was experiencing some kind of financial crisis. In any case, for some reason - I had either forgotten my debit card or at that time, debit cards didn't work in Spanish banks - we had virtually no cash. We took refuge from the cold in a cinema which was showing one of Woody Allen's most unsettling dramas, Crimes and Misdemeanours - unsettling, because the criminal literally gets away with murder. The film aroused suspicions in my mind, not laid to rest to this very day, about a disappearance in my own family circle some years before.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Mitchell

On Thursday (Jan 12) I went on a tour of the Mitchell Library, celebrating its 100th year on its present site in Glasgow. I went on the X74 coach from Moffat, and en route learned the answer to something that has been puzzling me for some years: what is the enormous unmarked encampment of sheds to the left going north on the A74(M), just north and west of exit 12, the A70 to Strathaven. The coach driver said that the consensus is that they are bonded warehouses. Unmarked lorries go to and fro. My fellow passengers at the front of the bus agreed that it was Dr Who, or perhaps James Bond(ed) territory. The Mitchell library (for further details see below) is a monument to private enterprise and Victorian philanthropy. The benefactor, Stephen Mitchell, was a tobacco merchant. I can't claim that the tour was a barrel of laughs. In two rooms, including one containing a rare books collection donated by another benefactor in custom-made elaborately carved wooden bookcases topped with the donor's coat of arms, the clocks had stopped. The Burns room, full of bibliographic rarities and display cases of dreadful commemorative plates reminded me of a neglected Soviet-era institute. We were a sizeable group, all authors, who nevertheless did not exchange a single word as we filed round. Not for the first time, I wondered what will become of 'the book', indeed 'the newspaper'. The modern (1960's) extension has a nice bright cafe, The Herald, and a very busy open space with dozens of desktop computers for internet users which was packed when I sat down for a belated lunch at 2.30pm - just before lunch service closed. After lunch, I found a helpful librarian on level 4 who fetched a reference book for me to discover the dedication of the pre-Reformation church in Moffat, of which one ruined gable end still stands in the graveyard: it was St Mary's. I love Glasgow, whence my forefathers on my mother's side set out to seek their fortunes - well to be tenant farmers for Tate and Lyle - in Kent. As a result, I am a staunch Unionist.

According to Wikipedia:

The library was established with a bequest from Stephen Mitchell, a wealthy tobacco manufacturer, whose company, Stephen Mitchell & Son, would become one of the constituent members of the Imperial Tobacco Company. It contains the largest public reference library in Europe, with 1,213,000 volumes. While composed mainly of reference material it also has a substantial lending facility which began in 2005. The original North Street building with its distinctive copper dome surmounted a bronze statue by Thomas Clapperton, entitled Literature, often referred to as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, opened in 1911. The architectural competition for the library's design took place in 1906 and was won by William. B. Whitie. The Edwardian Baroque building is protected as a category B listed building.[1]

The vast majority of the library's collection however is housed in the Extension Building, which was built between 1972 and 1980. Located to the west of the original building. It was originally known as the St Andrew's Halls, which were designed by James Sellars and opened in 1877. It was Glasgow's pre-eminent venue for concerts and meetings at the time. It had a massive and striking classical facade and included a Grand Hall which could hold 4,500 people, and a large ballroom. The building was however gutted by fire in 1962, although the facade survived and was later incorporated into the extension of the Mitchell Library.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A botanist's birthday

Happy birthday to William Curtis (11 January 1746 – 7 July 1799), English botanist and entomologist, who was born at Alton, Hampshire.

Curtis began as an apothecary, before turning his attention to botany and other natural history. The publications he prepared effectively reached a wider audience than early works on the subject had intended.[1] At the age of 25 he produced Instructions for collecting and preserving insects; particularly moths and butterflies.[2]

Curtis was demonstrator of plants and Praefectus Horti at the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1771 to 1777. He established his own London Botanic Garden at Lambeth in 1779, moving to Brompton in 1789. He published Flora Londinensis (6 volumes, 1777–1798), a pioneering work in that it devoted itself to urban nature. Financial success was not found, but he went on the publish The Botanical Magazine in 1787, a work that would also feature hand coloured plates by artists such as James Sowerby, Sydenham Edwards, and William Kilburn.

Curtis was to gain wealth from the ventures into publishing, short sales on Londinensis were offset by over 3,000 copies of the magazine. Curtis said they had each brought 'pudding or praise'.

The genus Curtisia is named in his honour. His publication was continued as the esteemed botanical publication, Curtis's Botanical Magazine. The noted natural history illustrators, James Sowerby and Sydenham Edwards both found a start with the eminent magazine.

NB Our next Moffat Book Event has a garden theme: Beyond the Garden Gate - see www.moffatbookevents.co.uk for further details.

Curtis is commemorated in a stained glass window at St. Mary's Church, Battersea, as many of his samples were collected from the churchyard there.[3] (with acknowledgements to Wikipedia)

Monday, 9 January 2012

Walking in the Woods

The visionary picture here (right) is by Julia Reitlinger a Russian artist who lived in Paris and studied under Maurice Denis in the 1920's. It is of her 'spiritual father' and mentor, the Russian Orthodox theologist Fr Sergei Bulgakov walking in woods near Paris.

Yesterday, I booked a ticket to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy when I go south in Feb. There was an exceptionally good preview of his new landscapes and trees quite unexpectedly on this week's BBCTV 'Countryfile' from East Yorkshire. Hockney now lives and paints near Bridlington, in the gently rolling Yorkshire wolds.

I am waging a campaign to deter historians and bloggers from using anachronistic terms such as 'Scotland' and 'Wales' to describe geographical locations before those countries had defined geopolitical borders, ditto using 'Welsh' for the language we all - our forefathers - spoke in these islands before 'English' developed following successive invasions (Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman) invasions. The last British kingdom, Strathclyde, flourished well into the 1100's. The excuse used by the offending author in the most recent case said that if she used the correct term 'British', or 'Brythonic' people might think she was being nationalistic. Where did this absurd political correctness originate? It must be stopped, for all the reasons George Orwell gives in various of his essays such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Weaselly language breeds weaselly thinking, and inspired his Animal Farm and the Big Brother double speak in 1984.

Yesterday Jan 9 2012 Marilyn Elliott represented Moffat Book Events www.moffatbookevents.co.uk at a meeting in Annan to discuss how the arts in our region will be funded and supported following the demise of the council-funded Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association. The short answer seems to be that projects are to be funded on a case by case basis, with more volunteer involvement at every stage. More after our meeting today at the Moffat and District Initiative office, to which all are cordially invited - particularly if you have ideas for fund raising.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The King

I am indebted to the online Writers Almanac for the following entry:
Today is the birthday of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935). His first stage performance came in 1945, when he was 10 years old. He sang "Old Shep" at a talent contest, and came in fifth, winning five dollars' worth of ride tickets for the Mississippi-Alabama fair. The following year, he wanted a bicycle, but his parents were too poor to buy one. His mother, Gladys, talked him into accepting a substitute gift: a guitar, which cost $12.95 at the Tupelo Hardware Company.
The family moved to Memphis when Presley was 13, and he grew up in public housing and listening to Memphis R&B. These, along with Tennessee country music that he heard on the radio, were his musical roots. When he was 18, working as a truck driver, he wanted to give his mom a gift, so he stopped by the Memphis Recording Service, where you could record your own songs for a small fee. He had $4, and with that money he was able to record two songs: "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." The Memphis Recording Service was also the home of Sun Records, and Elvis caught the attention of owner Sam Phillips, who called the young truck driver back in to see what other songs he knew.

I have sent in my entry for the Burns tribute - sheets of transparent paper with poems inspired by Burns, to be placed on windows at strategic locations round Dumfries. It is a poem I wrote 20 years ago, inspired by Burns' 'We twa hae paddled in the burn':

The pale moth, Autumn, flutters at my windowpane;
Time is the sea that roars between us.
All the words said, all the books read
Fluff merely in the corner of a dusty room.

Close is the conifer, the cone, the cobweb
Real the rustle of pheasant in the grass.
Quick scent of fox, lichen on grey rocks,
A hare illumined by the evening sun.

Friday, 6 January 2012


It's the birthday of novelist and nonfiction author Nicholson Baker, born in New York City (1957). He grew up in Rochester and went to an experimental "School Without Walls," where students studied only what interested them, didn't receive grades, and typed up their own transcripts. "At the time I thought: Give me structure!" he told The New York Times. "I yearned for a more traditional school. But now I think it was the best thing. I learned what it was like to be incredibly bored." His wonderful first novel, The Mezzanine (1988), is an account of one man's random thoughts as he rides an escalator up to the mezzanine level of his office building on his lunch hour.

I subscribed this morning to a new blog focused on Govan, heart of the vanished British kingdom of Strathclyde. The Russian word for 'harbour' is 'gavan', and I have asked the author of the blog, Tim Clarkson, whether the two words might be connected. I recommend Tim's The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland

There is an exciting possibility that Eowyn Ivey, Alaska-based author of the predicted best seller 'The Snow Child' (featured in this blog on Dec 22) will visit Moffat on Feb 18 while she is in the UK to promote her book.

I finished Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen last night. It is a real page turner, but I suspect that Hollywood will have changed the rather downbeat ending in the forthcoming movie opening in the UK on March 9 2012 - you can see a trailer on www.imdb.com/title/tt1441952/

Thanks to The Commonty for passing
on an excellent article by Jan Patience, first published in The Herald, about Glasgow Dadaist George Wyllie
Exactly 90 years ago today, George Ralston Wyllie was born in Shettleston, Glasgow; the first of Andrew and Harriet Wyllie's two sons.

It would another 50 or so years before Ralston, as he was known, became the maverick bunnet-wearing artist called George Wyllie, who would dangle a Straw Locomotive from the Finnieston Crane and launch a Paper Boat on a global journey from the Clyde via New York and back to Scotland for an ignominious end.
George Wyllie - 'Straw Locomotive' Glasgow 1990
Wyllie's Straw Loco and Paper Boat both had a profound influence on all who saw them. Recently, the actor Alan Cumming, who lived in the city at the time, said: "It [The Straw Locomotive] was an act of whimsy, bravado and passion that connected on an emotional level with the Scottish people. It changed my view of what art could be."
Following Martin Boyce's Turner Prize win at the beginning of this month, there has been much chattering in the art world about how Glasgow has managed to produce so many leading contemporary artists.
David Harding led the Environmental Art course at Glasgow School of Art from the late 1980s until the late 1990s, which hot-housed figures such as Turner Prize winners Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce. He is in no doubt Wyllie exerted a profound influence on his former students' approach to making art.
"George's risk-taking and commitment were the things that exerted influence," he says. "I brought George in to the department to work for a wonderful week around 1986 with the year group of which Douglas Gordon, Louise Scullion, Roddy Buchanan, Ross Sinclair, Craig Richardson were a part.
"At the beginning of it, George came in and asked if anyone had a book. A book was produced. Then he asked one person to open it and another to find a page in the middle. The next person was to pick out a line in the middle of the book. Then someone had to find the middle two words in that line. The words were 'and I' and that became the theme of the week, which concluded with a big dance in the art school to raise money for our student trip to New York.
"One of the students made a Berlin Wall out of cardboard boxes. At the dance, George jumped up to it and wrote 'and I' in huge letters on it. Recently, at a gathering at Martin Boyce's, I asked one or two of the artists there if George had influenced them and the answer was a resounding 'yes', especially with the Straw Locomotive and The Paper Boat."
Wyllie now lives in a care home for ex-mariners in Greenock. The sound of heavy engineering formed the backdrop to his early life and forged the man he would become.
His father was a rate fixer for a machine-tool engineering company on the Clyde while his mother was a housewife with a talent for drawing, painting, music and dance, who later ran her own business.
In 1922, the family moved to the Craigton district of Glasgow. Wyllie, "disadvantaged by a happy childhood", recalls making the best bogies or carts in town, spending hours constructing Meccano cranes and model airplanes and being taught by his mother how to draw, paint, and play the ukelele.
Harriet also taught her boys to dance and in the late 1930s, Wyllie and his younger brother, Banks, had a brush with fame when they were winners on a popular radio talent show, Carroll Levis and His Discoveries, which drew in 20 million listeners.
Somehow, it seems entirely appropriate that George Wyllie, given the Dadaist approach he took to all his art in later life, used to dance unseen for millions of listeners.
He started his working life as an office boy in the docks, which led to an engineering apprenticeship, then he joined the Royal Navy. His war ended with a visit to Hiroshima two months after the H-Bomb was dropped there in 1945.
Back home, and married to his lifetime soul-and-help-mate, Daphne, he became a customs officer, maintaining his link with all things maritime and forging the mantra, "Be suspicious', a line he later used to great effect in his memorable play, A Day Down A Goldmine, which ran in various guises throughout the 1980s. John Bett, Russell Hunter and Bill Paterson all starred with Wyllie in this multi-media spectacle, which took a sideways swipe at the absurdities of the global monetarist system.
By the end of the 1980s, a sixtysomething Wyllie, who had started his career as an artist in his 40s, was making grown men weep by torching his Straw Locomotive in a disused engineering works in Springburn in a Viking funeral for Glasgow's past glories.
In 1990, the writer Naomi Mitchison launched his flagship of the Origami Line, The Paper Boat, on the Clyde as thousands looked on. It was eventually seen by millions as it went on its journey from Glasgow to Liverpool, London and New York. When it sailed into New York and berthed under the shadow of the mighty World Financial Center, it even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

George Wyllie
Although George Wyllie has been creating thoughtful work during the last two decades, there is now a generational gap in terms of his audience. Next year under the banner title The Whysman Festival, his family and friends hope to change this by mounting a series of exhibitions and events, with the overall aim of promoting and protecting his legacy.
The Whysman Festival will include the first retrospective of Wyllie's work in his home city, to be hosted by Glasgow Life at The Mitchell at the end of 2012. Wyllie's old friend, filmmaker Murray Grigor, who has just issued a DVD version of the 1990 Channel 4 film he made about Wyllie, The Why?sMan, thinks it is about time.
"The Straw Loco was as much a potent symbol of the city's industrial decline as a promise of Glasgow's reawakening in the arts. 'The context is half the work,' as the great conceptual artist John Latham once said. Yet no gallery or museum thought it worth preserving Wyllie's internationally acclaimed requiem for Glasgow's lost engineering prowess."
George Wyllie At 90, The Whysman Festival throughout 2012

Hello again

Hello again ! I hope you enjoyed the 12 days of Christmas, which end today. I celebrated by going out and buying myself Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a deliciously tart antidote to all that tinsel and Christmas pud, soon to be released as a movie starring Ewan Macgregor. Part of the joke is the character of the protagonist, who is mildly autistic or more precisely suffers from Aspergers, the so-called 'successful autists' syndrome. He is in a long line of kindred literary invention which includes Adrian Mole,The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and the current BBCR4 series A Short Gentleman about a barrister called Robert Purcell. Over the festive season, my mother (aged 94) gave me an eye-opening book about the financial crisis Freefall by Joseph Stiglitz. It is not the newest account of where we are at, but has some truly shocking detail about the behaviour of some banks, notably Goldman Sachs. Once more one has to ask: why did no-one go to jail? (Do I hear hollow laughter?)
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;.. Shakespeare King Lear Act IV scene VI).
I did not give my sister a book, but a rather postmodern literary artefact viz a 'corsage' made out of a book. An enterprising pair who call themselves Nellie and Elsie www.nellieandelsie.com make wonderfully original decorative accessories off the peg using for raw material and inspiration classics such as Jane Austen and Alice in Wonderland.
Finally: get well soon wishes to Roger 'Why Am I Still Here' Lewis who is in hospital with pancreatitis. And last of all: does anyone else think that Stephen Hawking's version of how the world began (basically: one minute there was nothing, then there was something) a colossal cop-out?