Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Wenn ein Löwe sprechen könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen

The 30th of September seems, throughout the Christian Era, to have been a favourite day for things to happen. I’m too busy just now to write about all four of the ‘30th of September Events’ I’ve picked out: here’s just one, the first on my list:

On the 30th of September 430 (that’s A.D.)(Duh, if you think about it) St Jerome died. Jerome translated the bible into the Latin version that came to be known as the Vulgate. He is the patron saint of translators. There is a wonderful painting of him by, I think, one of the Bellinis: it shows him sitting outside his cave in the desert, raising a didactic finger as he reads to an attentive lion who sits before him with one paw raised as he gazes devotedly at his teacher. Actually, I’ll just do an internet search for it; it must surely be out there. I’ll put it here if I find it. (The expression ‘One picture is worth a thousand words’ springs to mind. Luckily — no, not luckily, but thanks to people like Jerome — we can have both.)

Monday, 29 September 2014


In that post about lightning I said that if you rub electrons off a cloud it will acquire a huge negative electric charge. But electrons are negatively charged particles. So if you rub them off something, it acquires of course a positive charge, not a negative one. Sorry about that. Lightning results either way.


A reader of this blog — Jane, in fact: the only person who frequently comments on the contents and asks questions — has asked me how lightning ‘works’ as it were; what it is, what causes it, whether it’s a sufficient threat to homeland security for president Obama to order limited military intervention, etc.

On the assumption that there are other readers who don’t quite understand thunderstorms, and on the further less plausible assumption that they would like me to tell them, that they wouldn’t prefer to remain in their usual complacent state of bovine ignorance, here goes:

You probably know that lightning is electricity. A huge electric spark. Now normal household electricity has a voltage — a pressure — of about 220 volts, (half that in parts of America; homeland security again I expect) and it can, if you’re not careful, kill you. It takes a pressure of 30,000 volts to jump a one centimetre gap. So you can imagine — well no; you probably can’t — just how huge an electric spark a flash of lightning from cloud to ground (or vice-versa — some people insist it travels that way, but really it makes no difference) — must be. Any electric spark makes a noise, and a lightning flash makes the huge noise called thunder.

But how does it happen? Well, you may have noticed, when pulling off a jumper in a darkened room, some tiny little sparks and a crackling noise, especially if the jumper is made of an artificial fibre. The jumper is getting electrically charged by the friction of being pulled off. An electric charge is a surplus, or a shortage, of electrons: when you rub something, you quite literally rub electrons off its molecules. But things don’t like being electrically charged; they want to have the right number of electrons (which are negatively charged) to balance the positive charge of the molecules’ nuclei. Rub enough electrons off, and the tension created will be enough that something has to give: electrons will jump off the nearest large object (preferably one large enough not to ‘notice’, as it were, that it too now has too few electrons) to balance things out.

If you have a cat you can demonstrate this amusingly (for you, perhaps not so very funnily for the cat) by stroking it vigorously with one hand while holding a knuckle of the other hand close to, but not touching, its nose. With any luck, a tiny spark will jump between knuckle and nose. (It doesn’t really hurt the cat, just surprises it.) (I admit I haven’t tried this myself, but that’s because I don’t like cats and avoid touching the creatures.)

So: as a cloud moves through the upper atmosphere, electrons get rubbed off it. Lots and lots of electrons: enough, eventually, to give it such a huge negative charge that lightning flashes between cloud and ground to balance things out. It usually takes a rather jagged or forked route because electricity will always travel by the easiest route, and different parts of the atmosphere are more or less easy for it to travel through, according to their dampness or the presence of dust particles.

Sheet lightning as opposed to forked? Sheet lightning is just the normal forked sort happening far enough away that rather than seeing it directly, one sees it reflected from intervening clouds, often just above the horizon.

Got that? Here’s a pretty picture of lightning:

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Accident My Foot

Or indeed any other appendage. I crashed my motorbike when I was a student. (Well, I crashed it many times, but that time I did so quite spectacularly, in Tottenham Court Road, and had to go to Casualty at the Middlesex: the impact had smashed the thin bones behind my right eye-ball.) The hospital sent me home later that night, and the next day I went to the Student Health Centre at University College, where the doctor checked that all was well. He happened to be, as well as a G.P., a well-known psychoanalyst, and he said ‘The important thing is to find out why you had the accident.’

‘What do you mean? There’s no why in the sense of motive; it was an accident.’

‘Nonsense. No such thing as an accident.’

Well I was studying philosophy at the time, so used to believing six impossible things if not before breakfast then at least before coffee, which I had in the excellent basement café at Dillon’s bookshop. (I wonder if it’s still there?) Over coffee I thought about what the shrink had said, and realized he was, at least this time, right: I won’t go into details, but the ‘accident’ had certain important advantages for me. Ever since, I have had the Freudian habit of looking for hidden, unconscious motives behind accidents, my own and others’.

A young friend of mine is under a lot of pressure just now at school: she has been told that outside school hours she must do at least five hours reading a day, and she is exhausted. She came home the other day tired and with a headache, and rang me to say she simply wouldn’t be able to come, as usual, to play the piano. Furthermore she was due to have another of the school’s far too frequent ‘tests’ on Monday and wasn’t looking forward to it.

That night it rained, and when she went out the next morning, crossing the gang-plank from the back door of her house to the road, (don’t ask), she slipped and fell. She was badly shocked by the fall, but the only actual physical injury was — to the thumb of her right hand. For some days she will not be able to write.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

English as She is Writ

When one looks at a language from outside one notices the sheer oddity of some of its words, and especially its idioms. One can’t really do this if one only has one language; one can’t ‘get outside’ it because our very thoughts are linguistic. Even our unconscious, if we are to believe Freud as re-interpreted by Lacan, is linguistic. But if one knows a second language well enough to think and even dream in it, then the strangeness of one’s first language is thrown into relief.

I am reading the Harry Potter books with a Greek girl; ostensibly to help with her English but mainly for our pleasure. She already knows enough to pick up many of Ms Rowling’s grammatical infelicities, but there’s a lot I have to explain. Magical terms, for instance. After I had spent some minutes explaining what a troll is, with much reference to bridges, the Billy Goats Gruff, and Norwegian Folklore, Anastasia fluttered her eyelashes and said ‘But surely there are no such things?’ and I had to remind her we were in Hogwarts. Specifically, in the girl’s toilets where Hermione was being terrorised by said troll, so a little later I had to explain, in Greek, what a Bogey is. I was interested to note that the word(?) ‘Eurrgh!’ is, it seems, international.

Greeks find it hilarious that the English say it’s raining ‘Cats and Dogs’. It is one of the few examples of Greeks being closer to reality than the English that they say it’s raining ‘Chair-legs’. All languages have strange idioms of course, but I hope I won’t have occasion to explain the difference between a ‘Dog’s Breakfast’ as in ‘You’ve made a right dog’s breakfast of that’ and a ‘Dog’s Dinner’ as in ‘She was done up like a dog’s dinner’.

Here are some dogs waiting for me to get their dinner:

Friday, 26 September 2014


A neighbour has erected the following delightful item in his garden:

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Not only is mine bigger than yours, it has more style.

I hadn’t exactly forgotten that you people out there like to see pictures in my blog posts; it’s just that I didn’t have any pictures relevant to the things I’ve written about in the last few days. (Not that I’ve ever before let that stop me putting in a silly picture.) Anyway, here you are:


Now. Which would you rather have, a Kindle containing the texts of 100 favourite books, or the 100 favourite books in old-fashioned codex form? I think if one collected a sufficient number of answers to that question, one would find a relation between answer and age. (It’s called a ‘statistically significant correlation’). I would most certainly prefer the books, even if I were going away somewhere and luggage was limited.

Oh the picture? Well it’s not entirely irrelevant to the above. It shows a Hammarlund SP-600 Radio Receiver, sadly now defunct. (It would take about a year’s full-time work, with the use of such things as signal generators and oscilloscopes, and access to a large range of vintage electronic components, to get it running properly again.) The little thing on top? A Sony ICF-SW07 Radio Receiver. It does almost exactly the same thing as the Hammarlund. If only the Hammarlund were working, in fact even though it isn’t, I know which I’d rather have.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Power in the Hands of Fools

There are few things more terrifying than ignorance and stupidity in positions of power. John Kerry, an American Secretary of State, has just said

Terrorism — extremism — does not have a place in the building of a civilized society.

His remark was broadcast in several consecutive VOA news bulletins, so must have been heard by others in positions of power all over the world, but not a single one has come forward to say that this Kerry person is talking rubbish.

Whatever one’s ideas about historical development, however badly one was taught history at school, one thing is perfectly clear to all but an idiot: terrorism, extremism, ruthless violence have been instrumental in the building of every civilized society that has ever existed, including of course the United States of America.


On the related subject of Clowns in the House of Lords, I am glad to report that there has been a large increase in demand in bookshops for the works of Hilary Mantel. Well done, Lord Bell.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Demented Clown in House of Lords

Only one? Unlike most socialists, I am not in favour of the abolition of the House of Lords. As well as the clowns it contains many intelligent and even wise people, and has often sent back hasty ill-conceived legislation for changes.

The clowns must of course be allowed, indeed encouraged, to have their say; we all need a good laugh, but they must be firmly sat upon when they become a distressing and possibly dangerous nuisance, as has just happened with the hitherto mercifully unheard-of (and one hopes soon to be forgotten again) Lord Bell. I have just received the following message from English PEN, of which I am a member:


English PEN defends Hilary Mantel


English PEN is concerned that a member of the House of Lords has called for Booker Prize-winning author and PEN member Hilary Mantel to be investigated by police over the publication of her story 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983'.

Lord Bell's call for the police to investigate Mantel for writing a work of fiction is disproportionate and wholly inappropriate. The fact that Ms Mantel's story has caused offence is not a matter for the police: authors are free to shock or challenge their readership by depicting extraordinary events or extreme acts.

'If depicting a murder in literature were equivalent to inciting murder, then Lord Bell's colleagues Lord Dobbs, Baroness James and Baroness Rendell would all need to be investigated by the police too,' said Robert Sharp, Head of Campaigns at English PEN. 'It is most disturbing when politicians and commentators in a democracy start calling for censorship on the grounds of offence or bad taste. Not only does it undermine the right to freedom of expression in the UK, it sends a very poor signal to politicians in authoritarian regimes who sue, threaten and sometimes kill writers and journalists for satirising or criticising the political class.'

Mantel's story is a tightly constructed take on the politics of the 1980s and how issues such as social class, and the conflict in Northern Ireland, still permeate British society. It considers questions of political violence, by both dissidents and by the state, which is a subject that Mantel explored in her two Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. It is unfortunate that those condemning Mantel do not appear to recognise these important themes in her short story.

Monday, 22 September 2014

‘Boots on the Ground’

Politicians are almost by definition bonkers, but the madness of president Osama (or whatever he’s called) of America has now reached what doctors call the ‘florid’ stage. As the sectarian violence and killings in Iraq provoked by America’s earlier invasion of the country is continuing, he proposes to put matters right by sending 5,000, or is it 50,000, more American soldiers there.

Since the fact seems to have been forgotten or glossed over, I should remind not just the idiot president but others that the basic job of soldiers is to be violent and kill people. But these soldiers will, it seems, be different: they will not wear boots. Or their boots will not be allowed to touch the ground. Or something.

As children, we used to play a game in which you had to get all the way round a room without putting your feet (booted or otherwise) on the floor. If the plan is that the American soldiers in Iraq will just be playing children’s games, it must surely be a good thing. They won’t, of course, be needing to take any weapons with them. And the president has indeed several times talked of his ‘Game Plan’ for Iraq.

Let us hope this marks a radical change in American Foreign Policy, which to date has been to beat the shit out of anyone who wants to lead other than the American Way of Life.

Here, the girls show the troops how to play:

Friday, 19 September 2014


Until Thatcher noticed she didn’t need them and so decided none of us could have them, there were things called telegrams in England. Young people used to the internet and mobile ’phones may not know what a telegram is:

The telegram service meant you could send a message very quickly — usually an hour or two — to anyone in the country, and neither sender nor recipient had to have a telephone or a computer. The sender went to the nearest telegram office — usually a desk in the Post Office — and wrote his message on a form, or perhaps dictated it to a clerk behind the counter. The text was then encoded — not in fact in Morse code but a code specially invented for the purpose — and sent by wire (some people called telegrams ‘wires’) to the Post Office nearest the intended recipient. There it was printed out on a length of paper tape, which was cut up and stuck to a form very like that on which the sender had first written his text.

Next, a ‘Telegram Boy’ — a teenager riding a red BSA Bantam motorcycle; it was a much-coveted job — rode out to wherever the recipient lived and delivered it.

Traditionally — in England anyway — the telegram brought bad news. For many families the only telegram they ever got was the official one in wartime, telling them their son or father or husband had been killed. The arrival of a telegram was a moment of dramatic suspense, featuring in many popular West End plays. Not any more: I think the United Kingdom must be the only ‘civilized’ country in the world with no telegram service. Thank you Mrs T., for that and so much else.

A feature of the telegram was that the sender paid by the word. A ‘word’ was any series of letters of the alphabet with no spaces. So parsimony invented ‘Telegram-ese’: compound words made up for the occasion. The following example is an exchange between Evelyn Waugh and the English newspaper which had sent him to Abyssinia to report on the war there:

            WHY UNNEWS

            UNNEWS GOOD NEWS

            UNNEWS UNJOB


Here is a 1957 Photograph of a telegram boy:

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Aloni

Today, another issue from the archives. I think if you click on the image you can magnify it.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Primitive? Civilized?

I was walking alone in remote rural Bangla Desh one day (as one does, you know.) It was hot — well it’s nearly always hot — and I had brought nothing with me, not even a bottle of water. But I knew that, as always in rural Bangla Desh, even though one has not seen or heard a soul for hours, every clump of trees I passed concealed at least one bamboo-roofed mud hut where a family lived. So instead of skirting the next spinney I went between the trees, and sure enough there was a house, with a woman crouched outside; I think she was sieving or grinding some grain. She looked up as I approached and scurried indoors: strangers, especially white ones, were rare, and besides Bangla Desh is mostly Muslim and women hide when men approach.

A boy of about fourteen, probably her son, came out and looked at me inquiringly. I hadn’t even learnt the Bengali word for ‘Water’, but he soon understood. He picked up a machete, put it between his teeth, and ran — literally ran — up the trunk of a very tall coconut palm. A green coconut crashed to the ground and he ran down again. Holding the coconut in one hand he used the machete to chop off its top and handed me the deep bowl he had made of the coconut. It held about half a litre of cool clear water and I drank it all, knowing I would not find purer drinking water anywhere in the world.

Everywhere in Europe, of course, clean water comes out of the tap, doesn’t it? Well not quite. It’s often not all that clean, and this hilltop village in the Aegean still doesn’t have permanent running water. When it does run, most people use it only for washing and perhaps cooking; they buy mineral water in plastic bottles to drink.

There’s permanent running water down in the harbour town, but people are so wasteful — hosing down their yards and their cars — that the water-table from which it is pumped has dropped so far that what comes out of the tap is pretty well sea-water and quite undrinkable.

These are Bengali hailstones, somewhat melted and smaller than when they fell becuse of course we had to wait until the storm was over and it was hot again before we could collect a few.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Mysterious Craft of Novel-Writing

Readers of fiction like to try and identify the ‘real’ people and places on which they imagine the characters and places of a novel are based. There is a whole sub-genre of writing engaged in this game: one can find ‘authoritative’ texts ‘proving’ that the characters in Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ are ‘really’ Baron so-and-so and the Duchess of such-and-such, and it is after all crashingly obvious that the novel’s narrator Marcel is Marcel Proust himself. Many editions of Thomas Hardy’s novels include a map of ‘Wessex’, with the real and the fictional place-names in different typefaces. This genre reaches its zenith or perhaps nadir in G. Livingston Lowes’s fascinatingly ingenious ‘The Road to Xanadu’, which purports to relate almost every word in Coleridge’s poetry to people, places and events in the poet’s life.

Critics, and especially ‘Creative Writers’ themselves, discourage this: they turn up their noses, say it is very vulgar and that the writer’s art is something much more mysterious than a mere narrative of real but disguised people, places and events.

Really? I’ve just started reading Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’. Philip, who is I suppose going to be the novel’s hero, is taken away from London as a child to stay with relatives in the seaside town of ‘Blackstable’, sixty miles from London. When he is old enough, he is sent to the ‘King’s School’, in the shadow of the cathedral in the nearby city of ‘Tercanbury’. All this in the first twenty-five pages.

I come from South-East Kent. Just round the coast from where I was born, sixty miles from London, is the seaside town of Whitstable. Not far off is the city of Canterbury, with its King’s School in the shadow of the cathedral. Come off it, Mr Maugham: pull the other one; it’s got bells on.

                Yes, I know it's irrelevant, but I also know you like pictures.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Alleged Discoveries, Misleading Titles

On the 15th of September 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin. That is to say, he noticed that penicillium mould killed bacteria.

If you forget an orange in the fruit bowl for so long that it starts to grow green mould on its surface, you will notice a smell like a hospital corridor. This is the smell of penicillium mould. Greek women have known for centuries, perhaps aeons, that if you put some of this mould on a wound that has turned septic, it will get better. No-one gave them a Nobel Prize for this.


Here and there about this village, outside foreigners’ houses, one finds boxes of left-behind holiday reading in various languages, mostly English and German. There is a pot for money and a sign saying, usually, one euro per book. Which is a bit steep for old paperback novels, usually trashy airport literature, but the money goes to a local charity that looks after cats, dogs, donkeys, mules, horses, and for all I know goats and hedgehogs too.

I always have a quick look; you never know. Just the other day I found a copy of ‘The Red and the Black’. ‘Good,’ I thought, ‘I’ve never read Stendhal’s great novel, and here it is in English translation.’ I pulled it out and was disconcerted to see a cover photograph of a Neanderthal in sports gear punching the air. Turned out the thing was a history of some football team.

Legally I am free to call my book, whatever it is, ‘Anna Karenina’ or ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or, God help us, ‘Harry Chamber and the Potter of Secrets’. There is in fact no copyright in book titles. Perhaps there should be.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Baffling Business of the Bald-Headed Rat

There have been fewer rats hereabouts in the last couple of years. Or rather, one doesn’t hear or see many. Probably there are still more than one would like to imagine, but they are hiding more carefully and perhaps aware that Ellie, the dog who now lives with me, is a skilled and determined rat-catcher.

But a couple of years ago I used to hear them scampering about on my roof at night. There were passion fruit and grapes growing to shade the skylight, so whatever else they were eating they were getting plenty of vitamin C. I had to make something Heath-Robinson out of chicken wire and bits of wood before I dared leave the skylight open at night. (If you’ve once had a rat plop through the skylight onto the bed as you’re sleeping, you’re going to make very sure it never happens again.)

The most common type of rat-trap here is the Ξυλόγατο, the ‘wooden cat’: a wire cage on a wooden base, with a spring-loaded door which slams shut if anything (including your hand when setting it) gets inside and touches the bait. Incidentally cheese is not a very good bait unless it’s a smelly one. A fish-head is better, and, unexpectedly, tomato is best of all.

So I set the trap on the roof, and sure enough late at night I heard ‘Scurry – scurry… Bang! …’ followed by a few seconds shocked silence. Then there was some frantic crashing about as the rat realized he was trapped and jumped about in panic and rage.

By morning when I went up to check he had calmed down and was cowering in the cage, looking at me fearfully. ‘Well it’s not your fault you’re a rat’ I thought, and made the nimby-ish decision to deport rather than kill him. I took him, still in the trap, several miles away, and released him not far from one of the heaps of rubbish local people like to leave in beauty-spots. I had had time to observe the rat quite closely as he stared at me fearfully from his caged perch on the handlebars, and I’d noticed a curious bald patch on his forehead.

Returned home with the empty trap, I set it up on the roof again — there might be more.

Sure enough, in the night I heard ‘Scurry – scurry… Bang!… boing, boing, crash’, and in the morning I climbed up on the roof to fetch the new … Oh. No. Surely not. It had a bald patch on its forehead. Homing pigeons, yes, but … Or could it have followed a scent? No, we went by motorbike … A family of bald-headed rats?

I had an idea. I found an aerosol tin of red paint and managed, against its indignant protests, to get a bright stripe down one side of the rat, and a lot of paint in a lot of other places. Then I deported the rat, but to a more distant place in the other direction.

Next day, another rat. Another bald-headed rat in fact. But no red stripe. Had it worn off on the way ‘home’? I examined it as closely as its terrified jumping up and down would allow. No trace of red. Just the very marked bald patch.

I sat and pondered. Eventually the rat, calmed by my lack of action, settled down and resumed its routine escape efforts: butting repeatedly at the trapdoor with its forehead …

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Taxman Cometh

Actually two women this time, it seems. Suddenly waiters and café proprietors with whom one has always had a somewhat informal relation are apologetically bringing little till-receipts with one’s coffee or whisky: telephone calls run up and down the streets; ‘Now they’re having dinner at Nina’s’, ‘Now they’ve gone over the road for a coffee’, ‘They seem to be coming this way.’ Some places decide suddenly that this is a good time to close for a day or two’s rest.

Now of course Greece needs all the taxes it can get, and I think most decent people would be happy (well, not ecstatic, but willing) to pay them if they could believe that the money would go to the health or education of the people. But things have changed little since Byzantine times: everybody knows that in fact the money goes to fill the already-bursting wallets of the people in between the tax-payer and the Government Ministries, so tax avoidance and even evasion (the distinction is becoming more and more difficult to maintain, as big companies like Amazon find ingenious ways to exploit the gap between what is legal and what is right) is normal among even the most public-spirited.

Usually everybody knows when strangers with tax-person-like briefcases are on the way; someone on the ferry will ring someone in the island. But there are still a lot of foreign visitors here, so this time they arrived without anyone’s noticing, and they went straight from the boat to a seafront restaurant run by a friend of mine. There they ‘discovered’ (they had in fact been tipped off by a jealous less-successful restaurant owner) that two of the employees didn’t have all the right papers for working in a restaurant. So the proprietor must pay a fine of €10,000 per employee-without-the-right-papers. They ‘generously’ overlooked the second employee, but 10,000 euros is surely the entire summer’s profits. Since the bureaucracy is also Byzantine it is almost impossible for any establishment to be entirely, strictly, within the law, and of course these inspectors get brownie points (and probably a back-hander) if they catch anyone out.

Not very encouraging for the recovery of the Greek economy.  
This is not a picture of the tax ladies.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Shocking Ornithological Ignorance

A reliable source (well, Renée up the road) informs me that the birds I heard (but didn’t see) over my skylight the other morning were not after all Golden Orioles, but Bee-Eaters. I hope they don’t eat too many bees while they’re here as supplies from Dimitri (A.K.A. Honey Boy) have been short this year, owing to a lack of rain and consequent shortage of wild flowers. (Dimitri never resorts, like some other bee-keepers, to putting sugar in the hive to feed his bees.)

Here is a picture of a couple of Bee-Eaters, one of them apparently about to eat a bee:

Thursday, 11 September 2014

' Nine — Eleven'

Confusingly for those of us who speak English rather than American, the phrase refers not to the ninth of November, but to the eleventh of September, and more specifically to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York.

For some of us however, September the eleventh was already an anniversary, and of a far worse crime: the American overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, and the installation of a puppet dictator and torturer, whom Margaret Thatcher later invited to tea. (Surely cruel and unusual punishment.)

Among the many victims, direct and indirect, of America's action in Chile was the poet Pablo Neruda. Here is a review of mine, previously published in the London Magazine in 2005:


Pablo Neruda


Memoirs, translated by Hardie St.Martin, Souvenir Press.

Notes from Isla Negra, translated by Alastair Reid, Souvenir Press.
‘A Passion for Life’ by Adam Feinstein,Bloomsbury.


Augustus John’s painting is said to have improved following a bang on the head, and Anthony Burgess stopped dithering and started writing when a doctor told him he had only a few months to live. Rather more subtly and intricately, John Livingston Lowes’s fascinating ‘The Road to Xanadu’ purports to establish almost line-by-line, day-by-day connections between Coleridge’s poetry and personal circumstances. In general, however, the drawing of conclusions about artists’ work from their lives is a solecism as vulgar as Proust’s habit of dunking fairy-cakes in his tea: Swinburne and T.S. Eliot wrote poetry to shock, or shift the course of literature, but led dull lives; the opposite might be said of, say, Lord Byron or Robert Service.

Yeats wrote of choosing between ‘Perfection of the life or of the work’, but Pablo Neruda would not have understood the distinction: his many books are the vast adventure story of his life, wars, travels, politics, and of course loves. Loves both general and particular, from ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ in 1924 to ‘Selected Failings’ half a century later. Nevertheless, critics and school teachers always want to divide things into periods and subjects. Bearing in mind that this is an exegetical convenience and implies no fragmentation in the actual work, one can divide Neruda’s poetry into pre- and post- ‘España en el corazón’: with the writing of this sequence, and then the collection ‘Canto General’, Neruda affirmed the left-wing political commitment of his life and his poetry.

One might therefore expect Neruda’s poetry to contain  exhortatory nonsense of the ‘Forward with the struggle, comrades’ type. In fact, such stuff is produced either by opportunist poetasters taking advantage of current fashion, or good poets who, while sympathizing with socialism or a liberation movement, are not so politically committed as to have integrated their sympathies fully into their poetry. It would be interesting to show Auden’s ‘Spain’ and Neruda’s ‘Explico algunas cosas’ (‘I’m explaining a few things’) to someone who knew neither the poems nor the poets and ask which came from the life-long communist and which from the temporary left-wing sympathizer. At a first reading, the Auden seems the more militantly political, but later one realizes that he has, as it were, put poetry in abeyance for the duration — ‘But today the struggle’ — whereas Neruda has made poetry out of it, as he did with everything in his life. The blurb on Feinstein’s biography suggests that it contains an examination of Neruda’s support of even the Stalinist version of communism, but all we get on the subject is the occasional snide remark. By his own account Neruda was in fact deeply troubled by the horror stories coming out of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and certainly there is a moral problem here that merits careful analysis. However, it is odd that poets with left-wing beliefs are expected to justify them, whereas one rarely hears complaints in the other direction — how disturbed are critics by, say, Robert Frost’s very public support of an American president responsible for the dropping of burning petrol on Vietnamese children? Yet Frost’s fine, demotic poetry too was of a piece with his life and beliefs.

The collection ‘Memorial de Isla Negra’, given here in a parallel-text version, was written just before Neruda’s sixtieth birthday, at his house in Isla Negra — actually an isolated coastal area — to which he had returned after years of travel. Originally published in five separate volumes, it is quite simply an autobiography in a hundred-odd poems: poems that are, like all his work, straightforward, fresh, intensely felt, and immediately readable and enjoyable both by the sophisticatedly literary and those who would rather not let it be widely known that they have ever opened a book of verse since leaving school. Indeed, were such poetry to be offered to schoolchildren it is likely that many more of them would admit to liking the stuff.

Everybody knows, of course, that poetry is untranslatable. This is because it typically uses words not just for their ‘meanings’ but also for their sounds, their resonances and suggestions, their textures, even their shapes on the page: all the things, in fact, that aren’t in bi-lingual dictionaries. There are, however, poets — and very good ones too  — who stick more closely to common meanings; whose musicality is not achieved at meaning’s expense. Often they are read and enjoyed by people who find the ‘other kind’ baffling. Cavafy is one such poet. Neruda is another; even his exuberant bursts of Surrealism rely more on meaning than sound. Such poets survive translation; Neruda thrives on it: the reader who knows no Spanish can be confident that, in reading Alastair Reid’s fine translations, he is reading Neruda.

It is not as disenchanting as one might expect to read Neruda’s own prose memoirs — also reprinted by Souvenir Press in this centenary year — in conjunction or alternation with Adam Feinstein’s Ellmann-sized biography from Bloomsbury. A suspension of disbelief is involved in reading a translation — one wants at least to pretend one is reading an original — and the practice of reprinting American translations rather than commissioning English ones can make this wince-inducing. The English reader is sometimes brought up painfully short by, say, ‘He was one hell of a guy’ in Hardie St Martin’s version of the Memoirs. Do American readers have similar difficulties with English-English versions? Probably not; American publishers either get new translations done, or painstakingly alter the English ones, even chopping the ‘u’ out of ‘colour’.

This aside, the memoirs are a delight; a ‘Rattling good yarn’ or rather a series of them: the literary groupie who asks every writer he meets for permission to leap over his grave; an antiphonal speech by Neruda and Lorca from opposite ends of a banqueting hall; the escape to Argentina on horseback through the Andes, followed by illegal entry to Europe on another writer’s borrowed passport; the threat by an indignant democrat to arrive with scissors at the Nobel Prize ceremony and snip off Neruda’s elitist coat-tails ‘and other appendages’,  and always and everywhere, Pablo delighting the populace and getting up the noses of governments. Some of the stories, such as the one in which uniforms from Franco’s side in the Civil War are boiled up to make paper on which to print Neruda’s poems, seem incredible, so one turns for confirmation or correction to Feinstein’s fat authoritative-looking tome.

Early on, Feinstein tells us that the Memoirs are ‘not to be entirely trusted’, but we find that not only are the outrageous stories confirmed, if sometimes in versions slightly less flattering than the originals — Neruda seems not to have been a modest man; he had after all plenty to be immodest about — but new ones are told, often for the first time in print. Feinstein includes things that Neruda himself chose not to mention, such as the social awkwardness of his first wife, who in effect made Pablo choose between herself and his friends. In the end he chose his friends and found a new wife. Other episodes too might make those given to judgement describe the biography as ‘Revealing’ and the Memoirs as ‘Self-serving’, but if someone were to make a study of the differences between biographies and autobiographies — no doubt it has already been the subject of a Ph.D. thesis or two — one suspects that Neruda would come out as more honest than most. And surely even a cynical biographer — which Feinstein is not — would have to admire the man who, almost single-handed and against petty-minded obstructions worthy of the Home Office, Chartered a ship (of sorts) and arranged the transport of 2,000 Civil War refugees from Spain to Chile.

The most unnecessary part of Feinstein’s book is his pop-psychology analysis of the poetry; fortunately there is not much of this. His strength is meticulous recording of the facts and dates, which, with a generous wodge of photographs, and an index, notes and bibliography that add more than sixty pages to the 400-odd of the main text, make this the sort of biography one calls ‘definitive’. Useful for the specialist, but as for the rest of us — who needs it, when we have the great celebration of the Memoirs?

Both books take us right up to the awful end in a shattered land: on September the eleventh 1973, the tanks of an American funded military gang rolled into Santiago. President Allende — a socialist with a human face if ever there were one — died later that day, and his friend Pablo Neruda ten days later. Only a few days before the coup, a friend of mine — just a young boy at the time — was helping his electrician father with work at the house next door to Neruda’s, and they went to peer over the fence. Deathly ill as he was, with his typical human openness Neruda came to chat with them.  Pinochet’s sole, and hideous, contribution to humanity and letters was to turn ‘disappear’ into a transitive verb for at least 6,000 people. Neruda’s is immeasurable. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez puts it on the cover of the Memoirs, ‘The greatest poet of the twentieth century — in any language.’

Simon Darragh.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Golden Oriole

Now that the oafs who used to shoot them have got computer games instead to occupy their tiny minds, the bird population here in this little island, both indigenous and migratory, is increasing. What I don’t know of ornithology would fill a library, but even I have noticed that we are on a migration route; that it is in fact a handy place for birds to take a few days rest after (in Spring) or before (in Autumn) the long haul across the Mediterranean. I have even learnt to recognize a few kinds, both aurally and visually. This morning I was woken, not as usual by the temporary visitor next door who comes out on his balcony to make endless loud ’phone calls, but by the rarer and more beautiful chirps of a small flock of Golden Orioles flying past, somewhere near the open skylight over my bed. Here’s what a Golden Oriole looks like:

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Pretty Pictures for Simple People

I'm finding this a little difficult to absorb, though heaven knows seventy years' experience should have taught me one can't overestimate the sheer triviality of most people's minds. I have looked carefully at the viewing figures for my blog posts for some time now, during most of which I tried to see correlations and patterns - what attracted people, what repelled them? I tried hard to resist one conclusion, but it is now inescapable: people will look at this blog if it contains a picture - any picture - and not if it doesn't. I hope soon to continue to write intelligently here, but just now I can't be bothered. Here you are then:
 All right? Happy now?

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Wreck of the Deutschland

That is the title of a long poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, born in 1844, with whom the rest of poetry has still not caught up. (Quite how to avoid ending that sentence with a preposition I’m not sure.) In one of Anthony Burgess’s novels there’s a film director who, with typical Hollywood crassness, wants to make a film of the Wreck of the Deutschland, but of course the poem is no more ‘about’ a shipwreck than Moby-Dick is ‘about’ a big fish. (Melville himself has a chapter in the complete version in which he ‘proves’, to his satisfaction if not ours, that a whale is a fish.)

I have several editions of Hopkins’s poems, and just now I’m reading – at the rate of a verse a day; it’s a very demanding poem of 35 8-line verses – that very poem, in a very elegant quarter-leather-bound slip-cased Folio Society edition. Now the penultimate line of verse eight is:

To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet —

(Almost all — he would have said all — Hopkins’s poetry is markedly Christian.)
And Hopkins, even more than most poets, was one of those who would spend all morning putting in a semi-colon and all afternoon taking it out again; like all good poets he cared deeply about such ‘minor details’.

I have always had a low opinion of copy editors — once an American editor of a poem of mine that mentioned the Cossacks marching down the Odessa steps in Eisenstein’s film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ printed it with the surreal ‘Cassocks’ marching down the steps — and that opinion has just dropped further. One might expect better of the Folio Society, but no, that line is printed:

To hero of Cavalry, Christ,’s feet —

The idea of Christ in armour on a horse, leading Christian soldiers into battle like Joan of Arc, is perhaps one that might have appealed to Hopkins. But it’s not what he wrote, and doesn’t appear like that in any other edition I have ever seen. Shame on you, Folio Society, and shame on all copy editors.



Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Camera Obscura

There is a camera obscura in Edinburgh, up near the castle, and there’s one in Bristol, near the Clifton Suspension Bridge. There are lots more, in various places, but those are the two I’ve visited. I’ve been asked to explain how the camera obscura works, and I hope to do so without having to use ‘Camera Obscura’ in the plural.

The Camera Obscura was invented, or discovered, probably by accident, long before lenses and telescopes or indeed cameras in the modern English sense. Somehow I suspect the ancient Egyptians would have been the first to make one deliberately. ‘Camera Obscura’ translates simply as ‘Dark Room’, and someone noticed that if there’s just a chink in the wall of a really dark room, you can see, projected onto the wall opposite the chink, an inverted image of the world outside. (Assuming of course it’s light out there.)(Duh.)

Having seen some of Michael Faraday’s diagrams I no longer feel so ashamed of my own. The diagram below may or may not clarify matters. I have added a diagram of the pinhole camera, which works the same way. You can actually take a real photograph with a pinhole camera, just by putting a piece of photographic film where the tracing-paper would go.


In a modern (that is to say, post-Galilean) camera obscura, the chink in the wall is replaced by a lens up on the roof, facing out horizontally and movable by a long handle from the room itself. There’s a prism or mirror behind the lens, so the image is projected down to a horizontal, preferably slightly dished, screen below, round which spectators can gawp without getting in the way of the beam.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

More Weasel Words

I wrote the othere day about the English nursery rhyme 'Pop Goes the Weasel'. My friend Jane (about the only person to comment on this blog) writes the following from England:


I have a book called Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack and it also has 'weasel' meaning coat (weasel and stoat) According to him an earlier possible meaning is to do with immigrant textile workers. A spinner's weasel was a mechanical thread-measuring device shaped like a spoked wheel, which made a popping sound when the required length of thread had been reached. The last verse (which I'd never heard before) includes 'A penny for a ball of thread, Another for a needle'. 


The third verse (which I do remember) is

Every night when I go out,

The monkey's on the table.

Take a stick and knock it off,

Pop goes the weasel.


A monkey is apparently a Victorian sailors' term for a glazed tankard and 'knocking off a stick' meant to drink alcohol. As a child I predictably felt sorry for the poor monkey being pushed off the table. I assumed it was something to do with organ grinders. 


I (Simon) should add something about possible confusion of weasels and stoats: the weasel is weasily distinguished from the stoat, which is stoatally different.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Job Security

In the bar yesterday evening here in Greece, someone pointed out that the official figure for unemployment is now 23%. Hard to say quite what that means — who is counted and who not — but it’s high.

‘People who’re not out at work have more time to think,’ he said. ‘Also, they can pay more attention to their feelings. Consequently there’s an increase in depression, and so an increase in suicide.’ (Indeed, suicide rates in Greece have increased enormously during the ‘crisis’.) He went on to suggest that the job of gravedigger — already a secure one; people will continue to die whatever happens — was therefore now still more attractive. He had even gone so far as to check the current rates of pay, perhaps by consulting the local gravedigger, a jolly cheerful chap like his predecessor, and also fond of the odd beer or six. Though pay is not high, it’s enough for a modestly comfortable life, he thought.

Who was this person in the bar, this cold, calculating cynic? Well, I admit to a slight deception: ‘He’ should have been ‘She’ throughout. It was a healthy, cheerful, but unusually intelligent 14-year-old schoolgirl.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Pop Goes the Weasel

Half a pound of tuppeny rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
That’s the way the money goes,
‘Pop!’ Goes the weasel.

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle…

People under a certain (no, actually a very uncertain) age are likely, if they don’t just dismiss the words of the nursery rhyme as ‘mere’ nonsense, to find one or two words and phrases in this one a touch mysterious.

To pop something is to pawn it. Even ‘Pawn’ may be mysterious to many now: the pawnbroker, whose traditional sign was three big gold balls hanging outside the shop (yes there are lots of jokes about that) would offer some small sum of money for the things one took to him, and give one a ticket; a special sort of receipt. When one’s financial circumstances improved one could go back, present the ticket, and pay the money back, with of course an interest charge. There was a time-limit after which the ticket was no longer valid and the pawned item could be displayed in the shop window for anybody to buy.

But to pawn a weasel? Well, weasel is probably a corruption of ‘Whistle’, which is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘Suit’. (Whistle and Flute: Suit.) Very often the man’s best suit, worn only on special occasions such as weddings and funerals. was a working-class family’s most valuable possession.

As for the Eagle, it was, or perhaps still is, a pub near the Islington end of the City Road in London.

Got that? I am full of such highly useful information. Some of it is even true.
Here is a picture of a weasel. It may look cute but actually they're vicious beasts.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Further Exploits of Uncle Tony

In his teens Tony would often go by train in the evening to nearby towns to hear a concert. (This was in the days when England had a functioning rail network and it was possible to travel to most places by train without first consulting one’s bank manager and booking a month in advance.) One evening, following the concert, he found he had an hour or two to wait before his train home. Young and daring man, far from home, alone in a strange town of an evening? He picked up one of the ‘working ladies’ who frequented the area around the station and they went to her place.

As she was getting undressed he noticed a few sores in various parts of her body, but a young man does not back out at that stage and matters were duly — er — consummated. But as he left he began to worry; might he have caught something ghastly?

Arriving, still a little early, at the station, he went to the canteen. ‘Two large mugs of very hot tea, please.’ One mug he reserved for drinking, but with the other he concealed himself behind the lift-shaft (that’s what he told me; I didn’t ask why he didn’t just go to a cubicle in the gents) and, taking a deep breath, lowered his entire wedding tackle into the scalding tea, paying special attention to under the foreskin and the folds of the scrotum.

He escaped infection, but a few days later the entire outer layer of skin came away from his scrotum in a sort of purse. I didn’t ask if he had preserved this intriguing item.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Uncle Tony

My uncle Tony — ‘Uncle Pickle’ as many of my friends called him — died a month or two ago at an advanced age. I was — am — very fond of Tony, and not just because it is largely through his generosity that I am able to spend so much of my time in Greece, where among other things I am at last learning to play the piano.

Tony was born into a working-class family in Hull, Yorkshire, and — but — developed a passion for ‘serious’ music. He wanted to have piano lessons but his family couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t — perhaps there was a bit of ‘No soon o’ maan’s goin’ ter ponce abaht playin’ no pianner’) afford it. So, northerners being notorious for their love of pickles, Tony bought a sack of onions, a barrel of vinegar, and some jam-jars, and sold pickled onions from door to door to pay for his lessons.

They were very good pickled onions. Demand increased, he got a barrow, later a truck, then a factory — The Humber Pickle Company — and eventually became director of a big food ‘empire’, all the time retaining his passion for music. Sometimes one would hear an orchestral concert on Radio 3 and the announcer would say after the closing applause ‘That concert was sponsored by Hazlewood Foods’ — Uncle Tony.

His life was, as they say, not without incident. Often hair-raising, often hilarious. He would tell me about these incidents, even the most scurrilous: he didn’t give a damn what people thought of him; was never afraid of seeming as fool; a sure sign that he was no fool. I hope to relate some of these incidents in future posts.


By the way, it was on this day in 1666 that the Great Fire of London started,
in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane. Uncle Tony had nothing to do with it.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Real History

At school, history lessons consisted of a recital of dates of kings, queens, and battles, which one was supposed to remember. Remembering these dates was knowledge of history.
I found this very boring, could not see the point of it, and was therefore 'bad' at history. I was left with a prejudice against anything that could be called a 'history book'.
Interesting things have happened in the past, though; it's just we rarely got to hear of them in our school history lessons. So as to get some idea of the chronology of the events I consider interesting, I have for a year or so made a note of any dates I come across, and I put them in my little chart. As it gets bigger, from time to time I pin it up over my desk. Here's how it looks at the moment:

Chaucer busy writing the Canterbury Tales; Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’ published.
Fall of Constantinople.
Caxton sets up his press in Westminster.
Spain takes Granada from Moors. Columbus sets sail.
Shrove Tuesday. Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities.
Tyndale’s New Testament printed in Köln.
6th July Thomas More beheaded in London for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of Church (over the Pope) in England.
Tyndale burnt in Holland, after bungled strangulation, for just about the opposite reasons for the killing of More.
Birth of Shakespeare
Mercator’s Projection.
Death of Elizabeth, accession of James.
Gunpowder plot. First performances of Macbeth and Lear.
King James Bible.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Galileo’s ‘Dialogue on the two world systems’ and trial.
Ottoman forces reach the gates of Vienna.
Outbreak of English Civil War. Death of Galileo, birth of Newton.
First Edition of Paradise Lost. (Second in 1674.)
In December in St Paul’s Churchyard William Blake meets Thomas Paine and warns him not to go home as the police are after him. Paine goes to Dover and crosses to France.
France invades Switzerland, thereby losing the vestigial sympathy of radicals such as Coleridge.
First Edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Humphry Davy joins Royal Institution.
October. Nelson wins at Trafalgar, ending threat of Napoleonic invasion.
25th of March; nominal start of Greek war of Independence.
Publication of de Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’.
Birth of Freud.
Madame Bovary, Les Fleurs du Mal.
Publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.
American Civil War starts.
Publication of Freud’s Traumdeutung.
Ulysses, The Waste Land, Duiniser Elegien, Sonette an Orpheus, Das Schloss. The Smyrna Disaster.
French defeated at Dien Bien Phu; Geneva accords partition Vietnam.