Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Charlie and Judy and Ernest and Ivy

By way of light relief after the rigours of Molloy, I've been reading Roger Lewis's hugely enjoyable biography of Carry On regular Charles Hawtrey, a creature of unbounded gaiety and joie de vivre whose life somehow slid towards a sad and dismal end (in that strange coastal town, Deal). Lewis's footnotes alone are worth the cover price – e.g. this one on Kenneth Connor:

'What a pain in the arse he is. The only person I know who can abide Connor's going-to-pieces, swallowing-hard, nervous-wreck act is Jonathan Coe, who wrote an entire novel on the subject, What a Carve-Up! (1994). His The House of Sleep (1997) was filled with allusions to Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street set for which at Pinewood was used for exterior views of the Hawtrey character's boarding house in [Carry On at Your] Convenience. I await Coe's homage to The Shoes of the Fisherman, no doubt to be called Kiss My Ring!'

(In a later footnote, Lewis claims that Coe 'used to play the piano in a Lesbian pub called the Purple Passage in Welwyn Garden City'.)
  Hawtrey's stage career flourished in the age of the light revue, at which he excelled, particularly enjoying the ample opportunities for dressing up in female clothing – which he wore extraordinarily well – and even delivering the chanteuses' songs. A happy consequence of this was the show-stopping debut in wartime London of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, sung by Judy Campbell (Jane Birkin's mother) in the revue New Faces. Lewis quotes her memories of the occasion:

''Charlie was so good at my songs, I said, "Have them." He was much funnier than I'd have been, and he grabbed them. So he did the Vivandière's song, which was meant to be mine ("Vivandière, with a bottle of brandy on my derrière"); and that's how they got to give me Eric Maschwitz's "Nightingale" instead, which stopped the show in a most extraordinary way. You see – it was the early years of the war, when we thought we were losing. There was this incredible atmosphere of danger and uncertainty – and of excitement. The air raids were on. The show was constantly interrupted by bombs falling. The cast and the audience would sometimes be marooned in the theatre until two in the morning. We'd invite them up on the stage to dance with us. It's funny – up in the night sky, Hitler's bombers; down below, Charlie Hawtrey, with that beady face and huge specs, in a dress.'

  Among the names of the actors Hawtrey worked with at this time was one that rang a bell – Ernest Thesiger, with whom he performed in cod operettas and comedy sketches, often in drag. Was this the Ernest Thesiger who was for decades a stalwart friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett? It was indeed he, the man of whom Beverley Nichols declared that 'Nothing is more terrifying to me than the sight of Ernest Thesiger sitting under the lamplight doing his embriodery'. He was a keen and expert embroiderer who plied a very skilled needle – and there was indeed something oddly sinister about him, as became apparent when he played Dr Pretorius in his friend James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.
  Like Hawtrey, Ernest Thesiger (definitely not to be confused with his kinsman, the explorer Wilfred) was, in E.F. Benson's phrase, a 'not obtrusively masculine sort of person'. It was he who, on returning from the trenches of Flanders and being asked how it had been, made the immortal reply, 'My dear, the noise! And the people!' (Well, many say it was Thesiger, and it certainly sounds like him.)  Even in the trenches (whence he was sent home lightly wounded) he continued to ply his needle, as he would later do backstage and on set, and, in companionable silence, with Queen Mary herself. In 1941, he published a book titled Adventures in Embroidery (he also published an autobiography in which he oddly fails to mention his marriage or his wife – who was, in a common enough arrangement, the sister of a very special male friend).
  It's a shame Thesiger never secured Hawtrey an entrée to Ivy's exalted circle. They could have been joined by Charlie's fellow Carry On regular Joan Sims, who lived just round the corner, opposite T.S. Eliot. What a dinner party that might have been. Ivy might even have cracked open a second bottle of Cydrax.

Monday, 19 March 2018


Sutton, the unlovely town a couple of miles from the demiparadise I call home, is blessed with many tall buildings and a thriving population of feral pigeons. For this reason, it has proved attractive in recent years to peregrine falcons, to whom a tall building is as good as a cliff and feral pigeons are so many flying lunchpacks. A pair has nested annually on one of the town's office blocks, and last year reared a brood of six, but, despite my best efforts, I hadn't once seen a Sutton peregrine until today.
 As I turned into a bitterly cold wind tunnel of a street, just off the High Street, I looked up and saw something rather impressive flying overhead – a kestrel, I thought at first, but no, the shape was wrong. Could it be? It was – a peregrine falcon, which, as I watched it,  rose elegantly to the top of a very tall and hideous apartment block, where it was joined by a second peregrine. I stood for some while, braced against the biting wind, and watched as the pair of them gracefully rode the thermals (there can't have been much thermal about them today) eddying around their urban cliff face. It was a joyous and beautiful sight, the more so for being so entirely unexpected. Maybe next time I'll see one stooping on a feral pigeon – that would be something to see.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Molloy Again

Having just finished reading Beckett's Molloy again, I realise that it's now 50 years since I first read it. In 1968, when I was just finishing school, I was aware of Waiting for Godot – I could hardly not be – but knew nothing of Beckett's other writings. Then, one fateful day, I was browsing the shelves of my local branch library when I spotted a muddy blue library-bound volume the spine of which was lettered 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I took it home and was instantly drawn in, reading through it enthralled, from that famous opening –
'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...'
to the equally famous ending –
'Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.'
  From then on, I read every Beckett text I could get my hands on, and, 50 years on, my admiration for Beckett has never dwindled (unlike my admiration for many others I was reading at this time). I guess I must have read Molloy five or six times now, and every time something new comes to the surface. A passage that brought me up short this time was this, in Part I:

'I who had loved the image of old Geulincx, dead young, who left me free, on the black boat of Ulysses, to crawl towards the East, along the deck. That is a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit. And from the poop, poring upon the wave, a sadly rejoicing slave, I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.'

Geulincx rang a faint bell. He was, I (re?)discovered, a 17th-century philosopher much influenced by Descartes, and Beckett's imagery here derives partly from Dante's account of the doomed second voyage of Ulysses, and partly from an image in which Geulincx delineates the extent of human freedom. In Beckett's annotations to Geulincx's Ethics he paraphrased it thus:

'Just as a ship carrying a passenger with all speed towards the West in no way prevents the passenger from walking towards the East, so the will of God, carrying all things, impelling all things with inexorable force, in no way prevents us from resisting his will (as much as is in our power) with complete freedom.'

It's easy enough to see why this idea of freedom-in-slavery should have appealed to Beckett and fed into his fiction, populated as it is with sadly rejoicing slaves, all too aware that their freedom is simply that of walking the short walk from prow to stern of the boat that is bearing them inexorably onward in the opposite direction. It is indeed 'a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit'. It might even be taken for a reasonable image of life itself, or rather living itself, carried on in the face of the certainty that we will all die. It feels like freedom, and that seems good enough.

Friday, 16 March 2018


My butterfly year began among the Monarchs, Coppers and Yellow Admirals of Wellington – but that doesn't really count. Back in Blighty, it has felt like a long, long wait – it always does – but at last it's begun, the butterfly year proper: today I saw my first. Two bright male Brimstones were roving the ivy-clad railway embankment. Spring is on its way at last – though not before the Beast from the East comes roaring in again at the weekend...
March 16th is quite late for my first butterfly: last year my first sighting was a month earlier, and by this date I'd seen four species. In 2016 it was much the same as this year (March 14th) and in 2014 a week earlier, but 2015 began with the glorious surprise of a Red Admiral in Kensington on February 18th. Now that the 2018 season is under way, I'm hoping for the best year ever. I always am.

Clegg Oozes Passion in Tate Britain

I've just remembered something else from my recent visit to Tate Britain. On sale in the bookshop were copies of Nick Clegg's How to Stop Brexit ('oozes passion on every page' – Politics). What on earth was this doing in an art gallery bookshop? Presumably it was stocked on the assumption that everyone who is interested in the arts and likely to visit a gallery is anti-Brexit and would feel that little bit better just to see such a title on display.
  On Desert Island Discs this week, John Gray – yes, John Gray! On Desert Island Discs! – talked briefly about the consensus view in Academe that Brexiteers are (at best) nostalgic for a lost imperial past. 'For me,' Gray declared, 'the past is the European Project.'
  For me too, which was one of the reasons I was pro-Brexit, and one of the reasons I remain totally astonished that such a clapped-out relic of postwar thinking as the EU should be embraced so fervently by Young People. And indeed by the kind of trendies who visit Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

All Too Freudian, All Too Baconian

The other day I dropped in on the All Too Human exhibition at Tate Britain, an exhibition subtitled Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. It certainly lives up to the first part of the subtitle, treating us to Bacon and Freud in quantity. As I take little pleasure in the works of either – so ugly, so grotesque, whatever their technical merits or 'importance' – this was for me the weak point of the exhibition (though I did enjoy Freud's uncharacteristically tender little portrait of his mother, and I rather like Bacon's Dog). So I was hoping for better things from the 'Century of Painting Life' (whatever that means).
 It turned out to be an odd selection of pictures and artists linked, for the most part, by nothing very much apart from being broadly figurative. As if in recognition of this incoherence, the curators make strenuous efforts to construct a connective thesis where it might have been more useful to provide a little more basic information about the artists and works concerned.
 The first room contains a few works by Sickert, Spencer, Bomberg (including a fine self-portrait) and, for some reason, Soutine. The second plunges us into Bacon (with a link to Giacometti), and the third is devoted to F.N. Souza, whose works look to me uncomfortably like the kind of garish Sixties kitsch that turns up in charity shops. The next room brings in William Coldstream and the Slade, and includes a couple of paintings I wouldn't have minded taking home: an early still life (with Delft jar) by Euan Uglow [right], and an orange tree (in a pot) by Coldstream himself.
After this, Bomberg reappears, along with some of his pupils, including Auerbach, Kossoff and Dorothy Mead (of whom I'd have liked to see more). A room full of glutinously impasted paintings of London scenes by Kossoff and Auerbach is followed by more Freud, including several of his huge and revolting nudes – and then comes another room of Bacons, but which time I was wondering if I was going to find anything in this exhibition to lift my spirits.
 The answer came in the following room, which contained just three paintings by Michael Andrews and three by R.B. Kitaj, each of which gave me more aesthetic pleasure than the whole of the rest of the exhibition. Andrews is represented by two large group portraits (more evocations than representations) taken from Soho life – The Colony Room and The Deer Park – and by Melanie and Me Swimming [below], a painting that transforms a holiday snap into a potent and touching image of human frailty, of the preciousness and precariousness of life and love.  Of the Kitajs, it was a joy to see To Live In Peace (The Singers) [above], especially on a cold grey March day, and to let the eye wander over the densely packed, richly coloured surfaces of The Wedding and Cecil Court (The Refugees), the centre of London's second-hand book trade viewed through the prism of Jewish history and yiddish theatre. Both Andrews and Kitaj are artists whose work is due a proper reappraisal – a joint retrospective would be a good thing. I'd certainly go and see it.
 All Too Human is rounded off by a room full of Paula Rego – easy to admire, hard to enjoy, impossible to live with – and a room of works by younger artists in the figurative tradition, as if to demonstrate that, despite everything, it's still going strong.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Monarch of Mirth

Sad news today that Ken Dodd, our greatest comedian, has died. He reached a good age, was active till very near the end, and even got round to making an honest woman of his partner of 40 years just before he died (let's hope she doesn't inherit any tax bills).
 Dodd was perhaps the last of the comedians who honed their craft in the music halls, and he was always first and foremost a stage comedian, with a quite astonishing gift for working an audience. I saw him in action once and I've never experienced anything like it. You might start with all kinds of reservations, you might even wonder what you're doing there – but within minutes you and everybody else in the audience will be eating out of his hand, and within not many more minutes you will be laughing as you've never laughed before at a stage comedian. Dodd could reduce any audience to helpless, weeping laughter – and it was a mystery how he did it. He didn't tell many jokes as such, and much of his material was on the corny side – it was, emphatically, the way he told them, and the extraordinary atmosphere of happiness and mirth he generated. His shows went on for hours, with bizarre musical interludes and singalongs, but you didn't care; for the time he was on the stage, all was well with the world. His comedy was a classic case of 'You had to be there', and I'm very glad that, on one occasion, I was. We'll certainly never see his like again.
 This link should take you to Dodd doing his vent act...