Saturday, 30 August 2008

Beware of Greeks Bearing Medals

I blame the Ancient Greeks who invented competition. If only they had thought of something useful like television the world would not be in the mess it is in now and we would be able to afford drugs that prolong life rather than waste money demonstrating that one man can windsurf longer than the next. Heracles invented the Olympic Games to celebrate having mucked out a stable. When I mucked out my good horse Skipper Jack I used to go for a pint. I wish Heracles had.

Rather in the way that most sports are played in shorts and the ultimate accolade is a school cap, there is a sense of repressed childhood in the excessive use of fireworks in Olympic opening ceremonies; and the prominence given to playing with fire and lighting a bonfire has small boy connotations. Indeed the whole occasion seems to be modelled on a school sports day in a recently co-educational establishment.

I do see the Greeks had time on their hands and wanted to avoid the Agora, in the way the fastidious amongst us avoid Hyde Park Corner. No peace there with that infernal nuisance Socrates and his team of market researchers forever asking perfect strangers questions about the nature of love and other private matters. There was also their unfortunate sexual orientation that urged them to ogle naked men. The sin that in our day, whatever Wilde said, dares to shout its name.

But surely there must have been some Athenian equivalent to that dreadful Trinnie and Susanna who are currently persuading light-headed ladies to expose their anuses on TV?

Parenthetically, I am tired of watching TV adverts for constipated, incontinent ladies who have uncomfortable motions; and I don’t see why a naked backside should be used to advertise tooth paste. I preferred it when women were a mystery. I think they do themselves a grave disservice by admitting they are all bowel bound Dorian Grays until they put on anti-wrinkle paste.

I might add that there is something flaky about a government that tells us competition on the sports field is bad for children and then lavishes largesse on some luckless soul so that they can learn to jump further than anyone else. And does the gold Olympic medal remind anyone else of those tacky medallions which proved that Jim could fix it?

My ancestors were knighted for fighting. Difficult to imagine Sir Elton John or Gielgud fulfilling that criterion.

In my youth the champion cyclist was a very charismatic young man, Reg Harris. He was an amateur who used to train on a cinder track at Fallowfield, a suburb of Manchester, and finance himself with a cycle shop and by endorsing cycles.

There were amateurs like Sydney Wooderson, the four minute miler and the greatest athlete of the day who missed the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney because he was taking his solicitor's exams and could not afford time for two long boat journeys. There was no question which occasion was the most important and, indeed, the most useful to society. Men like that could live fulfilled lives and push the boundaries of sport. Why should billions be spent on the dubious pleasure of pedaling faster, windsurfing, horse riding and spear throwing, proficiency at which latter art has limited potential in an age of guided missiles?

Odd too, is it not, that we limit the number of activities in which it is respectable to excel? We laugh at the idea that in the Twenties we competed in endurance ballroom dancing, pie eating and spotting Lobby Ludd on Blackpool Pier. Are they inherently any sillier than pole vaulting?

We can compete in shooting contests but we must train for the event abroad because shooting is illegal in this country. Can we look forward to dog fighting, bear baiting and cock mains in the enlightened future? Are these activities more cruel than coarse fishing, in which the fish is caught by sticking a hook in its mouth, imprisoned in a state of terror in a keepnet and then released traumatized with a ripped jaw.

Before anyone tells me that these are more humane times, I must point out that banning those cruel sports had nothing to do with humanitarian impulses. The legislation was brought in to prevent the gathering of crowds at a time of great civic unrest.

With a bit of luck I will be dead b y the time of the next Olympics so I won’t have to squirm with embarrassment at the Opening Ceremony when Britain, the country of Kathleen Jenkins, Bryn Terfel, Aled Jones, Sarah Brightman, Lesley Garret, a clutch of world renowned actors, even the bath-chair Beatles; some of the finest orchestras, choirs and military bands and the greatest composers, is represented by a rock singer, a failed England soccer captain and a geriatric guitarist.

Why not a pipe band, a Welsh choir, a Lancashire brass band; a last night at the Proms? Pity about the fox hunting laws. Nothing finer or more English than a parade of foxhounds, bloodhounds and beagles. Though a Concourse d’elegance of British vintage cars and horse drawn carriages, with sporting heroes riding shotgun, would be worth watching.

Or a representation of the Thames with Royal Barges, Handel’s Fireworks Music and appropriate bangers and sparklers? After all, the Mayor of London does descend from George 11, which is all I have against him, apart from his ghastly father.

My own favourite would be the public immolation of Paxman and Wark, with fried.Fry as a extra.


There are raincoats and there is the Burberry, a particular make of raincoat which kept the name of its first maker because Edward VII never asked a servant to bring a raincoat; he always specified his “Burberry”. Perhaps when the dreadful dawn of denim is past and students once again wear clothes, a thesis might be written answering the puzzling question why so many of our clothes – Wellingtons, Raglans and Cardigans – are named after generals. But that is another matter. For the moment I should like to sing the praise of the Burberry, which costs the equivalent of a small mortgage but drapes the wearer in the mantle of romance.

The only time I regretted giving up smoking was when I turned up the collar of my Burberry and, in an instant, became Humphrey Bogart, or better yet Anton Walbrook. Who? Anton Walbrook. And kindly tell me who let those young people in on my blog? I believe it is impossible to have reached maturity and not know that film star who only ever played one role. Whatever the storyline, Walbrook ignored it. He only ever played his improbably accented, deeply romantic self and he was always clad in a spiritual Burberry with the collar turned up and, drifting from the corner of his mouth, a trickle of cigarette smoke which you knew without being told came from a Balkan Sobranie, and almost certainly a BLACK Balkan Sobranie at that.

It is impossible to conjure up Walbrook on the wide screen of memory without him appearing in a Burberry. Unless it be a silk dressing gown. Walbrook only ever took off his Burberry to replace it with a silk dressing gown, which he wore for putting a record of “Dangerous Moonlight” on the gramophone. Dangerous what? Would those young people kindly leave the blog. I cannot talk sensibly to anyone who has never heard of that peerless melody. In my day it had an effect on the Long Haired Bandits surpassed only by a small gin slipped surreptitiously into a glass of cider.

I digress. Even Small Stout Persons of Advancing Years feel dashing, romantic - even, regrettably, foreign – in a Burberry with the collar turned up. Especially when worn with a brown trilby over a navy pinstriped suit. And a silver-grey tie. In such an outfit it is difficult not to sound your ‘w’ s as ‘v’ s and behave in every way like an Austrian aristocrat of reduced means.

As a sartorial corrective, I recommend replacing the Burberry with the plus two or knickerbocker. Nothing can be more British. They are as comforting as Bread and Butter Pudding.

Sunday, 24 August 2008


Making lists is one of the joys of being ancient.

Since I have largely retired from the outside world and the boundaries of my planet are my study and library, I probably don’t qualify; but I have always been a little hurt not to be invited on Desert Island Discs. I spent years making my selection.

In truth I would be happy taking only English composers. My favourites, Delius, Elgar, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Purcell, Tallis would remind me of When It Was England. Conductors like Beecham, and Barbirolli. Kathleen Ferrier at the head of the singers, of course.

Since that would not be allowed - though Moura Lympany once sent me a cassette of her Desert Island programme in which every one of the eight were recordings of her - here are my Desert Island Discs:

1. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi in La Boheme. My guru in musical matters, David Mellor, surprised me by saying Act 3 was his favourite in all opera. I suppose Act 1, which is the most played, was always mine. But listening to it carefully, I see his point. Listening to Mellor is my last luxury. Because the moment the programme is over I buy most of the CDs he has recommended with the money I have saved from not drinking, A few weeks ago I bought both “Butterfly” and “ La Boheme” sung by Tebaldi and I have just bought that archive recording of Rostropovich playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto on that memorable night at the Proms when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. And a hostile audience was converted by his emotional playing, the most beautiful I have ever heard, during which the tears streamed down his face.

2. Madama Butterfly. The problem I always have with this opera is that swine Pinkerton. Absolute sewer. If ever I met him I would dash him to the ground. Come to think of it, Rodolfo’s treatment of Mimi in Boheme leaves a great deal to be desired. And as for that Georgio Germont,.the way he treats poor Violetta is the reason I would have to leave Traviata. on the mainland A favourite opera, but his interference is not to be borne. And his son isn’t much better. There is bad blood in that family, mark my words, and I hope his sister never got married.

3. Du Pre, Elgar, Cello Concerto. The music which started a long love affair with the composer and led to Vaughan Williams and Butterworth and after a long pause Delius. When one thinks of them and Gilbert and Sullivan foreign music pales.

4. Nigel Kennedy, Elgar, Violin Concerto. I have the recording of his debut performance but I would want to take my video of his recent Prom. The playing was masterly but the rapt expression on his face as he played brought tears to the eye.

5. Then I run into trouble. I put down My Old Dutch, September Song and Bring on the Clowns – then I remember the other Sondheims, Merry Widow. Carmina Burana, Fledermaus and Bryn Terfel’s Marriage of Figaro. Or the puppet version of “Magic Flute” I saw in Vienna. Vienna reminds me of Mahler, particularly his fourth symphony.

I am afraid in a review in his early career I called Terfel wooden was his acting but I happily ate my words when I saw Figaro. I would also like to sneak in the Enigma Variations, the music to which I intend to be cremated. But in the end it has to be Mahler, which always seems to be heard for the first time.

6. The Black Bear. That is the march the Pipe Band always played when we were within a mile of the barracks after a route march. I know of no other piece of music which so stiffens the sinews.

7. Walton’s Henry V. All history is here, distilled in fine music.

8. Nutcracker Suite. I have a small collection of Nutcracker DVDs, including Nureyev, and most of them are variations on the original Pepita choreography. My favourite is Peter Wright’s magnificent re-telling.

BOOK (Shakespeare is fine but anything but the Bible. I don’t do fairy stories) This is a problem. I would like to take the Harleian Manuscripts, a collection of documents about Welsh history from ancient times. It includes a Welsh genealogy which traces my ancestry back to a sister of the Virgin Mary, via St David. As ancient Welsh history is, to put it mildly, imaginary, it would provide endless fun.

The essay is my favourite reading. It as near as prose gets to music, the highest art. So an Omnibus of English Essayists - Sterne, Addison, Johnson, Lynd and Lamb - is an alternative if the National Library will not release the Harleian Collection.

I would try to sneak in my favourite novel by my all time favourite writer. the sadly neglected Howard Spring, whose “Fame Is the Spur” is a towering achievement and quite the equal OF ANY OF THE “GREAT” NOVELS.

Mind you, if I were technically literate I would ditch the whole lot, music as well, and take my laptop. Download the books on Gutenberg and the music on any one of many generous donors.

LUXURY My Bedroom, with wardrobe, bathroom and study adjoining.


Fortunately there a few bonny fighters left. My cousin Mary Gregory sent me this gem:

This is a genuine complaint to Devon & Cornwall Police Force from an angry member of the public. ..... Dear Sir/madam/automated telephone answering service,
Having spent the past twenty minutes waiting for someone at Bodmin police station to pick up a telephone, I have decided to abandon the idea and try e-mailing you instead. Perhaps you would be so kind as to pass this message on to your colleagues in Bodmin, by means of smoke signal, carrier pigeon or Ouija board. As I'm writing this e-mail there are eleven failed medical experiments (I think you call them youths) in St Marys Crescent, which is just off St Marys Road in Bodmin. Six of them seem happy enough to play a game which involves kicking a football against an iron gate with the force of a meteorite. This causes an earth shattering CLANG! which rings throughout the entire building. This game is now in its third week and as I am unsure how the scoring system works, I have no idea if it will end any time soon. The remaining five walking abortions are happily rummaging through several bags of rubbish and items of furniture that someone has so thoughtfully dumped beside the wheelie bins. One of them has found a saw and is setting about a discarded chair like a beaver on speed. I fear that it's only a matter of time before they turn their limited attention to the bottle of calor gas that is lying on its side between the two bins. If they could be relied on to only blow their own arms and legs off then I would happily leave them to it. I would even go so far as to lend them the matches. Unfortunately they are far more likely to blow up half the street with them and I've just finished decorating the kitchen. What I suggest is this - after replying to this e-mail with worthless assurances that the matter is being looked into and will be dealt with, why not leave it until the one night of the year (probably bath night) when there are no mutants around then drive up the street in a panda car before doing a three point turn and disappearing again. This will of course serve no other purpose than to remind us what policemen actually look like. I trust that when I take a claw hammer to the skull of one of these throwbacks you'll do me the same courtesy of giving me a four month head start before coming to arrest me. I remain sir, your obedient servant ... --------------------------------------------------------------------- Dear Mr ??????, I have read your e-mail and understand your frustration at the problems caused by youth playing in the area and the problems you have encountered in trying to contact the police. As the Community Beat Officer for your street I would like to extend an offer of discussing the matter fully with you. Should you wish to discuss the matter, please provide contact details (address / telephone number) and when may be suitable. Regards PC ? Community Beat Officer

--------------------------------------------------------------------- Dear PC ? First of all I would like to thank you for the speedy response to my original e-mail. 16 hours and 38 minutes must be a personal record for Bodmin Police station, and rest assured that I will forward these details to Norris McWhirter for inclusion in his next book. Secondly I was delighted to hear that our street has its own community beat officer. May I be the first to congratulate you on your covert skills? In the five or so years I have lived in St Marys Crescent I have never seen you. Do you hide up a tree or have you gone deep undercover and infiltrated the gang itself? Are you the one with the acne and the moustache on his forehead or the one with a chin like a wash hand basin? It's surely only a matter of time before you are headhunted by MI5. Whilst I realise that there may be far more serious crimes taking place in Bodmin, such as smoking in a public place or being Muslim without due care and attention, is it too much to ask for a policeman to explain (using words of no more than two syllables at a time) to these twats that they might want to play their strange football game elsewhere. The pitch on Fairpark Road , or the one at Priory Park are both within spitting distance as is the bottom of the Par Dock. Should you wish to discuss these matters further you should feel free to contact me on xxxxx. If after 25 minutes I have still failed to answer, I'll buy you a large one in the Cat and Fiddle Pub. Regards P.S If you think that this is sarcasm, think yourself lucky that you don't work for the cleansing department, with whom I am also in contact!! > >> > >> > >> > >> > > > >