Clive James at the Cambridge Literary Festival

November 16th, 2014

Note that the following is from fallible memory. This is not a review – more an attempt to capture what happened as much for my benefit as anyone else’s. If you were there and remember it all quite differently, feel free to tell me. I’ve doubtless missed a lot of detail and jumbled the sequence. I also don’t know James’ own poetry so I’ve only quoted one of his. There were more.

8.30pm, Friday 14th November 2014. The Cambridge Union Chamber.

There was much affectionate applause as he shuffled in. As he silenced the crowd, he recalled the bass Boris Christoff, who basked in audiences’ applause to a famously nauseating degree, physically gathering the adulation to himself with great sweeping arm gestures from the edge of the stage. (Christoff once apparently enjoyed an audience’s ovation so much that, in the middle of a performance of Boris Godunov, he sang the same aria twice, causing many to miss their trains, James said. Much laughter and applause followed, James beckoning like Christoff as it came.) The point was that, like Christoff, he always needed his ego feeding; he was privileged still to be able to get that kick, he said.

Mentally, his acuity was as evident as ever. Physically, he seemed on the ropes. He was slow of movement, sounded hoarse, and was clearly fighting the urge to cough, but it must be stressed that he didn’t actually seem too bad given the state of his health – something that, knowing how much it interested people, he spent a while outlining: he has emphysema (now known as COPD, a name that reminded him of a TV show) and leukaemia (currently in remission). He reflected too on the – to him – inexplicable media interest in his decline. When you talk of expiring by Saturday, he said, it’s slightly embarrassing when Sunday comes around and you’re still here. In fact, he said, he was now in the habit of making final appearances. Much applause at this.

He was happy that his leukaemia mercifully has one redeeming feature: it’s of the non-painful sort. And when it eventually comes to get him – whenever that might be – he won’t know much about it. The emphysema is reward for a lifetime’s enthusiastic smoking (if I remember rightly from his Unreliable Memoirs he used a hubcap as an ashtray and filled it daily), and the doctors at Addenbrooke’s are working immuno-globular marvels. He goes there every three weeks to be treated with his fellow sufferers. “It’s an exclusive club. We sit in silence, reading. When the tea lady comes around it’s a real event.”

There are two ways, he said, to deal with terminal illnesses: you sit and wait to die, or you keep working as if you have all the time in the world. Having always written, he continues to write, although he notes that he writes of death more and more.

Asking that no one took photos (unless he dropped dead on stage, in which case we were more than welcome – he would try to fall in a suitably photogenic attitude), he noted that, in the age of Twitter, pictures could be around the world in seconds, and he regretted not being able to write his own captions. “I want to say I’m having a wonderful time and am perfectly happy.”

Despite his mistrust of modern technology (I remember him once saying on Radio 4 that the computer’s insistence on committing the ephemeral to eternity made it an instrument of the devil), he’s gratified that Twitter has afforded him widespread global recognition for his poetry: a poem about the Japanese maple tree in his garden, recently published in the New Yorker, went viral. He recited it.

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

[Assume applause after all recitations.]

He explained how the state of his health meant he’d never see Australia again, but that it didn’t matter to him because his family were all here and his recollection of his Australian childhood grew more vivid to him every day. He couldn’t remember what happened the day before, but…

Flashback… At school he’d been made to learn poems by rote. “We had to recite four lines at the end of every day or else we wouldn’t be allowed home. Some of my classmates are still there.”

It wasn’t till he was at university in Sydney, however, that he decided he wanted to be a poet. He therefore took the important first step of dressing like one, in open-necked shirt, khaki drills and desert boots. He would then hide in the bushes by the science block and surprise girls by jumping out and declaiming ee cummings:

you shall above all things be glad and young

you shall above all things be glad and young

For if you’re young, whatever life you wear

It will become you; and if you are glad

whatever’s living will yourself become.

Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:

i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man’s

flesh put space on; and his mind take off time

that you should ever think, may god forbid

and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:

for that way knowledge lies, the foetal grave

called progress, and negation’s dead undoom.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance


This method of flirtation was universally unsuccessful. Poetry doesn’t work that way, he noted, advising current undergraduates to choose shorter poems with which to woo girls so that the poor saps would be less humiliated when the targets of their affections walked away. “Painters have the advantage over poets as they can say, ‘In order to truly see your soul I need to see you with your clothes off.’ No poet gets away with that. Lucian Freud was a case in point…”

cummings was wrong in that poem anyway, he said. The greatest of love poets he identified as Auden and Marvell. Recalling Alan Bennett’s famous comment about the lines on Wystan’s face (‘if that’s his face, whatever must his scrotum look like?’) to the delight of the audience, he then recited ‘Lullaby‘:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreaded cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless,

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness find you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.


Magnificent old bugger indeed. It was some time before James found out Auden was gay and that the poem was probably addressed to a trucker or similar bit of rough. Or maybe even MacNeice or Isherwood. (James is fond of MacNeice, thinking him criminally underrated because of his lyricism.) “I wasn’t shocked,” he said of Auden’s homosexuality. “It broadened my mind – and my mind at the time needed broadening.” He later came to meet the poet at Cambridge. Auden’s famously slovenly personal habits were much in evidence: what appeared to be a tie depicting a Jackson Pollock turned out to be a plain, knitted number that bore the accretions of a hundred breakfasts.

The other great love poet? The marvellous Marvell, of course. He recited The Definition of Love, prefacing his performance with the comment that if he stumbled over any lines he might as well drop dead then and there. He stumbled. Happily, he didn’t drop.


My love is of a birth as rare

As ’tis, for object, strange and high ;

It was begotten by Despair,

Upon Impossibility.


Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing,

Where feeble hope could ne’er have flown,

But vainly flapped its tinsel wing.


And yet I quickly might arrive

Where my extended soul is fixed ;

But Fate does iron wedges drive,

And always crowds itself betwixt.


For Fate with jealous eye does see

Two perfect loves, nor lets them close ;

Their union would her ruin be,

And her tyrannic power depose.


And therefore her decrees of steel

Us as the distant poles have placed,

(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),

Not by themselves to be embraced,


Unless the giddy heaven fall,

And earth some new convulsion tear.

And, us to join, the world should all

Be cramp’d into a planisphere.


As lines… as lines…

[Here, James lost his way and had to skip to the next line.]

But ours, so truly parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.


Therefore the love which us doth bind,

But Fate so enviously debars,

Is the conjunction of the mind,

And opposition of the stars.


[Applause, and on to the Q&A.]

Someone asked what he’d choose to recite now if he were to jump from the bushes. (“One of mine!”) Someone asked his favourite place in Cambridge. (Hugh’s bookstall in the market; King’s chapel.) A woman spent five minutes telling everyone about her dyslexia and saying how clever she was. James suggested she read his new book. Then he got up and shuffled out and that was that.

One final flourish that came his way is worth recording. In the middle of one answer he suddenly had a flash of memory and triumphantly recited the lines he’d forgotten earlier:

As lines, so love’s oblique, may well

Themselves in every angle greet :

But ours, so truly parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.

There followed more Christoff-esque applause-grabbing. He looked like he meant it this time.

On being punched

September 4th, 2013

Others may get into brawls and bust-ups late in the evening when, drunk and agitated, all swagger and bravado at the pub and spoiling for a scrap, they growl such time-honoured openers as “Are you looking at my bird?” and “You spilled my pint.” Nothing so conventional for me. I managed to be attacked unprovoked yesterday at 6.45pm near John Lewis, having had a single glass of red wine following a piano recital. A more feebly middle-class situation you couldn’t imagine.

Walking along the south side of Cavendish Square with my wife, discussing whether we should go somewhere for a drink or go straight home, suddenly I feel someone hit me. Entirely taken by surprise, I look to my left and see an angry, bespectacled face grimacing back at me, shouting at me to get out of his way, and then he hits me again. I ask what the hell he thinks he’s doing, my wife shouts at him not to hit me, he hits me again, backing me into a doorway, I, feeling in danger of being trapped, hit him back, he then backs off, my wife shouts at me not to hit him back and steps in, and we all three stand there in an odd sort of Mexican standoff for a while before he aggressively points his finger at me, shouts a bit more that I should watch out, I point out that he’s mad, then he stalks off. This probably takes scarcely a minute from start to finish. While it is happening, several people pass by, others sit outside a nearby pub watching, and a security guard from a nearby building looks on. No one helps.

No great physical damage was done. I have a bruise on my chest from that first strike, and my right wrist is swollen and painful from, I think, him catching me with his watch as I blocked a punch he swung at me, but really I got off lightly. I was, however, rattled by the experience. It was all very odd indeed. In 15 years of living in London, I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it.

Had he perhaps just had a bad day and wanted to take it out on someone, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time? I was entirely unaware of his presence till he punched me in the chest, when he was clearly in some state of agitation, shouting at me. If so, I suppose it was lucky he hadn’t chosen to vent his aggression on someone smaller and less able to defend themselves. He was black and I was white; was it perhaps a racial incident? It seemed unlikely. Beyond occasional shouted abuse in South London where I live, I hadn’t come across that sort of thing before. I just don’t know what to make of it. Maybe I shouldn’t try to find any sense in it at all. It’s just another ordinary little anecdote of everyday life in a big city. Only this one happened to me.

Cultural Constipation v Mental Laxatives

July 6th, 2013

In my mid-thirties, I’m becoming dispirited by the fact that I am increasingly unable to keep up with things. The idea that I might even have been trying to do so will be laughable to many (it’s not as if I have ever harboured serious designs of omniscience), but, well, put it this way: books, music, art, film, television, politics, science, technology, sport, social media, gastronomy, everything: all is information, information, information…

There’s just too much of it, I don’t have the will, inclination, memory or brain power to sift through it all any more, and it’s getting me down. It’s absurd of me, I know. Coleridge is said to have been the last man to have read everything (and he was so opium-addled he didn’t even have the wit to finish his second most famous poem after a minor distraction; if he’d had the internet I doubt he’d have even got beyond In Xanadu in the first place, visitor from Porlock or no visitor from Porlock). No one can reasonably expect to do more than scratch the surface nowadays. Not when there’s so much drek to wade through.

Lazy journalism encourages vapid cultural consumerism by compiling lists of books/films/albums to read/watch/listen to before death (usually 70s sci-fi and prog-rock as far as I can tell, fitting with what the author of the piece enjoyed as an adolescent), as if, as you wheeze your last, your impending demise will somehow be sweetened by the knowledge of having spent so much of your rapidly-diminishing existence engaged in the largely passive activities of reading/watching/listening, but that doesn’t stop us (for which, read me) falling for it and still wanting to keep up.

No, I haven’t watched the last 10 HBO box sets the Guardian recommends; no, I don’t have much of an opinion about the latest civil unrest to hit some country I know I’ll never visit; no, I haven’t read last year’s Booker shortlist; no, I don’t understand the full implications of the new Spending Review; no, I haven’t been to the latest faddish restaurant decried by Giles Coren, nor have I even been to the last (and no, while we’re at it, I don’t particularly want to see a sepia-tinted photograph of your lunch); no, I don’t listen to Radio 1, know who’s in the top ten, nor even care if that’s still a relevant thing anyway; no, good or bad, worthwhile or not, I simply don’t have the ability to dwell on it all any more. I’ve been to the cinema once in the last year, barely go to art galleries any more and Christ knows when I last visited a theatre. I flatter myself that I’m better read than most, but still I find myself woefully ignorant.

And I’m losing my grip on any sense of discernment I may once have had because of the sheer volume of stuff I have to contend with. I can feel myself slowly slipping into the Abyss Of The Old where it is de rigueur to stick with what you know and shun the new simply because it’s just easier that way. I don’t want that. And despite, more by accident than design, having managed to accumulate useless knowledge on a scale that embarrasses and shames me, the Zeitgeist is largely alien to me and I feel increasingly put upon by, out of place in, and hostile to, the modern world. I haven’t seen enough, I haven’t read enough, I haven’t absorbed enough, I haven’t understood enough to feel any sense of contentment. I know I never will, for I am guilty: I have failed in my duties as a 21st century Briton. I can’t even remember half the things I once knew; is there really that much space in my memory for all this inessential new information? I’ve consumed too much for my tiny brain and I’m culturally constipated from a glut of stuff.

I waste hours of my life staring at screens, reading the opinions of people I don’t care about, needlessly refreshing Twitter instead of spending that time more productively reading books I actually want to read, gawping at blogs and journalism in which I have no genuine interest just because I feel I ought to, and that I might otherwise miss out. Is that really what the human experience now amounts to? A Sisyphean assault on Mount Information? I think I must be going about things wrongly.

So the question I ask myself is this: will it matter if I just stop? Will it matter if I just accept I can’t keep up, so I may as well not try, switch off Twitter and Facebook, stop absorbing all this senseless ephemera and try to live in happy isolation, heedless of the bombardment of information from a technologically adept society in which I feel singularly inept? Read what I want, watch what I want, listen to what I want, look at what I want, and to hell with the rest of it? I think it’s time for an experiment of sorts, a temporary tactical retreat from the incessant prattle of the 21st century. My thraldom to my iPhone must cease. I must shun social media sites. I must filter out all the unnecessary crap that blights my life. Whole swathes of modern culture, of experience, the doors to which I’ve only peered around hitherto, I’m now quietly closing, knowing I may never look in again. It may help. It may not. We shall see.

Modernity, get thee behind me. For a while, anyway.

Gastrophaude Rides Again: If I knew you were coming I’d’ve borked a cake

January 16th, 2013

(The latest in an occasional series where I make a snafu of foodstuffs in pursuit of domesticity.)


My mother, as mothers of my mother’s generation tended to, made cakes when I was little, and I’ve happy, hazily-nostalgic recollections of Sunday tea-times in the 80s, sat goggle-eyed on the floor in front of the wooden cabinet containing our cumbersome, geriatric television set, watching BBC1’s worthy, literary, early evening output (The Box Of Delights, Narnia, and the like…), whilst greedily guzzling orange barley water with a slab of something sweet and spongy by my side, as I tried to ignore with growing horror that it was getting closer and closer to bath-time, bedtime, Monday morning misery and school. Sunday treats might include a golden, gooey honey cake, a rich, buttercream-filled chocolate cake or, my particular favourite, a light fruit sponge mottled with the deep purple veins of burst blackcurrants, freshly picked from the overgrown kitchen garden at the back of our house (before my father decided, in a fit of characteristically reforming horticultural zeal, to clear all the fruit trees, bushes and plants, thus ending the days of foraging for good), but I never much cared for coffee and walnut cake. As an adult, though, things are different. Present me with a mug of tea and a slice of that and you’ve made yourself a friend for life. My mother-in-law makes a fine coffee and walnut cake, but, despite my fondness for it, I’d never attempted one myself. So after much hunting around and not finding what I wanted, I decided to cobble together several receipts and see what resulted. Cobbling in these circumstances turns out to be inadvisable.

Average instructions concurred that one should chuck somewhere in the region of 175g of butter and 175g of caster sugar (equal measures seems to be key here) into the food processor and blast until smooth. This is easier said than done when you’ve got the butter fresh from the fridge and it’s solid and unyielding. Far from the two creaming together, what happens is a clod of butter coated in caster sugar chases the rest of the caster sugar round and round the bowl till you intervene and/or give up. (I gave up. The next step was to crack three eggs into it, which I thought would loosen the whole mixture up anyway. Unusually, I was right.) Then whizz in 175g of self-raising flour, a teaspoon of baking powder and 50-75g of walnut pieces. (I just emptied in the remnants of a packet I had in the cupboard. I don’t know how much it was. About 65g at a guess.) Every source I consulted then suggested dissolving a couple of teaspoons of instant coffee in a splash of hot water and dropping that in but I, having just made some proper coffee, thought it’d be better to use espresso, so glugged about a shot of that in instead. Error. Too much liquid. The mixture was now a gloopy sort of paste. No matter, I thought. What can possibly go wrong? Dollop the whole mess into a greased and lined tin, and pop in the oven for 40-50 minutes at somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees and all should be fine, I thought. 45 at 190 then? That seems reasonable enough…

It was this vagueness that was my undoing.

45 minutes later, I wandered back into the kitchen to be confronted by the familiar acrid tang of burning.


I’d King Alfreded it and the bugger was burnt.

It wasn’t entirely charred, though. Perhaps the middle was ok? I hacked it in two.


Hmmm… Not bad, not bad at all. There might indeed be something salvageable within. So I reached for a bread knife and sliced all the edges off, till I was left with two rather sorry-looking, small, square cakes which, to my surprise, actually tasted bloody good even if they looked disastrous.


But tasting good without looking good is no good, as we know. The first bite is with the eye and all that. Thank heavens, then, for icing, which covers all manner of sins. Another splash of espresso, more butter, some icing sugar. (200g and 400g I think it was. Maybe it was 100 and 200. I’m past caring now. There was definitely twice as much of the one as the other, though, and proportion is what counts in cooking. Just ask the Americans.)

And behold! Cake:


More trouble than it’s worth. Next time I’ll just buy one.

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack

November 10th, 2012

I’m disappointed to note that until about an hour ago I hadn’t heard of Robert Liston, the C19th surgeon noted for his impressive speed in the days before anaesthesia, a man who prided himself on his ability to amputate a leg in under two-and-a-half minutes. Now that I do know, I have to share, for he falls under that admirable category “Men Of Whom Tales Are Told”.

He is the only surgeon known to have achieved an impressive 300% mortality in an operation when his patient as well as his assistant, whose fingers were accidentally lopped off during surgery, both died of gangrene after the procedure, and a notable spectator suffered a fatal fear-induced heart attack in theatre, Liston having got too close for comfort with his blade as he was flashing around, presumably trying to beat his personal best. Liston once also accidentally whipped off a patient’s balls with an overenthusiastic swish of his scalpel as he was amputating the man’s leg.

All this from Chapter 1 of Richard Gordon’s Great Medical Disasters.

I begin to understand Sir Launcelot Spratt rather better.

Gastrophaude: The Revenge

October 12th, 2012

In the early years of this century (and, no, you’ll never induce me to use the word ‘noughties’) I lived with a few friends above a bakery in North West London.

“Ah!” You may say. “How charming that must have been. How lovely to be awoken by the smell of freshly-baked bread each morning!”

If you do say that, you’re a fool. It was no such thing.

From the clang of the shop shutters going up at 4am every day when they started on the daily bread, till mid afternoon when they stopped making cakes and pastries, there was a sickly, sweet, all-pervasive reek of dough. And it was horrible. [1] Nevertheless, there is something in me which enjoys the whiff of a freshly-baked loaf. There’s something particularly primal about bread-making, something atavistic. Bread is ancient, every culture has its own breads, there are countless variations of this basic foodstuff, and, I thought, I want a part of that. I’d like to make my own bread. The trouble is, I have discovered that

bread is a pain in the fundament.

I peaked too soon when I started making bread. The first loaf I came up with was quite, quite brilliant, a loaf which could easily be labelled ‘artisanal’ by a pretentious berk with a minor marketing diploma, plopped in a brown paper bag and sold for three quid at a farmers’ market [2]. Easy, I thought. It is indeed a basic foodstuff. I’ll make more of those.

But hell, blast and damnation to it; I was wrong. Every time since that first Platonic ideal of a loaf I’ve made bricks. Bricks and bricks and bricks. I could build a bread privy out of the loaves I’ve made. I mean, look at this one that has just this second emerged from the oven:


It’d make a perfectly serviceable paperweight or doorstop, true, but qua loaf it’s hopeless. I discover that I’ve honed a hitherto unimaginable skill: I make un-leavening bread. Not unleavened bread; unleavening bread. I mean it looks all risen and lovely when I sling it into the oven, but 25 minutes later and… piff-paff-pouf, the blighter is sunken and solid, a great doughy slab.

I’ve bought Dan Lepard’s book. I will try again. I will report back.

Failing that, I’ll build an extension.


[1] Although the smell was horrible, I should hasten to add I’ve no idea about the quality of the bread because, in the two years we were there, we never bought bread from downstairs. It was a ramshackle old building we lived in, with something of the ale-addled, fag-stained taint of Withnail & Marwood’s Camden slum, and we had mice. And if we had mice the bakery had mice too. So did we want to bite into a baguette from downstairs and find half of M. Souris’s dough-encrusted little corpse scraping our teeth? No, we did not. Fittingly, the premises now houses a pet shop. I don’t know if they sell mice.

[2] You know. One of those London farmers’ markets. Near all the farms.


EDIT. I seem to be improving. My toast is better but my outbuildings less impressive. Which is as it should be.

Look at this beauty:


Yeah, I know. Eat your heart out, Paul Hollywood.

Lives of the poets

June 29th, 2012

I saw Roger McGough once in Barnes (where I suppose he must live) and, remembering a short poem he had written about his only being famous enough to cause passing pedestrians to walk into lampposts as they half-recognised his face, thought he’d appreciate the subtle gesture of my feigning a trip as I went past him. Not so. Not even a twitch of a smile. I learned then you can’t rely on a pratfall to convey the message: “I not only recognise you but remember one of your poems.” I bet Brian Patten would have got the joke, though.

Art is not an English thing

June 25th, 2012

I have just looked, unsuccessfully, for this AP Herbert poem online to share with a friend. In the absence of an online version, the only sensible thing seemed to type it up myself from Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of English Verse. I’m not entirely sure how the author of Uncommon Law might have reacted to my doing so, but I think it’s fair enough to offer a copy here as the poem seems unavailable elsewhere and it definitely deserves your attention. I’m happy to remove it or offer a negotiable cow to any affronted copyright holder.

AP Herbert (1890 – 1971)

Lines for a Worthy Person who has drifted by accident into a Chelsea revel

It is a very curious fact
That those who write or paint or act,
Compose or etch,
Or sculp* or sketch,
Or practice things like pottery,
Have not got consciences like us,
Are frankly not monogamous;
Their moral tone is all their own,
Their love-affairs a lottery.
It’s hard to say why writing verse
Should terminate in drink or worse,
Why flutes and harps
And flats and sharps
Should lead to indiscretions;
But if you read the Poets’ Lives
You’ll find the number of their wives
In fact exceeds
The normal needs
Of almost all professions.

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Goodbye, moralitee!
And what my father used to say
Is good enough for me.

Oh, may no little child of mine
Compose or model, draw, design,
And sit at ease
On people’s knees,
With other odious habits!
See what eccentric things they wear,
Observe their odd un-English hair-
The women bald,
The men (so called)
As thickly furred as rabbits!
Not these the kind of people who
Were prominent at Waterloo,
Not this the stock
Which stood the shock
When Kaiser picked his quarrel.
Let Dagoes paint and write and sing,
But Art is not an English thing;
Better be pure
And die obscure
Than famous but immoral!

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Farewell, monogamee!
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.

And shall we let this canker stick
Inside the body politic?
Oh, let us take
Some steps to make
Our messy nation cleaner!
The whole is greater than the part,
We should at once prohibit Art,
Let Music be a felony
And Verse a misdemeanour;
Let long-haired gentlemen who draw
Be segregated by the law,
And every bard
Do six months’ hard
Who lyrically twaddles,
But licences be issued to
A few selected clerics, who
Shall fashion odes
In serious modes
On statutory models.

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Farewell, moralitee!
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.

[*Yes, it says “sculp” rather than “sculpt” in the NOBoELV.]

As a writer he was brahma

May 26th, 2012

To go a bit Ned Sherrin on you, a brief anecdote about Noel Coward. I heard it some years ago, I’ve half forgotten it, but it amuses me enough to want to discover who may have told it / made it up. It sounds like something Kenneth Williams would have trotted out on Aspel & Company circa 1989. It goes something like this:

Coward is at the theatre with a friend, watching a performance of, presumably, one of his own plays, such is his ego. The performance having concluded, the effete dramatist goes backstage to offer congratulations and notes to the cast, the need to piss overwhelming him as he trips down the corridors. He bursts into the nearest dressing room, ignoring the awestruck actress within, and relieves himself urgently and copiously into her sink. Relating the story afterwards, she says, with great admiration,

“You could tell he was a gentleman… he kept the taps running.”

Details, if you have them, please.

Gastrophaude II

October 4th, 2011

Chicken and leek stew/broth, or “stroth”

Serves at least 4. Well, 4 normal-sized people. It’d probably only be enough to serve 2 greedy ones. Or 1 morbidly obese man with a massive appetite, but then only as a snack between deep-fried pizzas. (I hear there is a cookery book of Elvis Presley’s favourite snacks written by his personal chef which will kick your heart to pieces with the force of a four-ton burger just by reading it. Sounds absolutely foul to me. I’m sorely tempted.)

Things it’s handy to have:

Chicken thighs, legs, drumsticks &c. About 5 or 6 of them. (Organic and free range if you can. (Be nice to the chickens: they have a horrible life. They’re far too stupid to realise this, true, and your shopping habits are much more a feeble statement about you and the hypocritical compromise you make between your appetite and your attitude to cruelty, but then you know that already: that’s why you’re not a vegetarian.) If it’s a toss-up between organic and free range then you’re on your own. It’s the ultimate middle-class dilemma and no one’s solved it satisfactorily yet. Sit in Waitrose crying for an hour if you wish: no one will answer your plea.)

Carrots (Organic. You don’t have to worry about veg being free-range, thank heavens, and if they were free-range you’d be worrying for entirely different reasons. (Visions of angry carrots marauding across the hillsides… Actually, why do we always picture hitherto-inanimate objects as marauding angrily when granted movement? They could well turn out to be interested only in rambling or some similarly wholesome, harmless outdoor pursuit. John Wyndham has a lot to answer for.))

Leeks (Ditto.)

Onions (And again.)

Fresh thyme (If you don’t happen to be growing any (and I for one am not at the moment: my mother occasionally turns up at my flat, triumphantly bearing plants she’s gently nurtured from seedlings, only for me to kill them fairly promptly either through neglect or over-zealous kindness), keep some in your freezer for added freshness. Freezers are great for herbs. Plus, there is the added pleasure that when your freezer inevitably turns into one massive block of ice it will at least have pretty green specks throughout. You can imagine they’re slow-moving aliens cut short by an ice floe if you like. I don’t do that sort of thing myself, of course.)

PEARL BARLEY (Wonderful, wonderful PEARL BARLEY gets to be written in uppercase because it’s amazing stuff. I’ll say no more. You know how good it is. PEARL BARLEY. Mmmm…)

Chicken stock (We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we? Perhaps I shouldn’t have written up two chicken recipes on the trot, especially two chicken recipes as similar as this and the risotto, but for all you know I’m just writing these things in thematic order. (I’m not.) Anyway. Like any self-respecting modern man, I keep bags of the proper stuff frozen, pace Mrs. Saatchi, and spend all of my free hours boiling up carcasses with leeks, carrots and onions. Gallons of the bloody stuff I make. Honest. It’s just that, well, stock cubes are easier. Plus, of course, whenever I go shopping I get bored and whenever I get bored I get absent-minded, and so I think I’m running out of cubes when I’m not and end up buying more: my cupboards are absolutely overrun with all the animal and vegetable variants of OXO, Kallo, Knorr, Sainsburgh’s, Cohen’s etc. you can imagine and I’ve got to do something with them all, the Mrs having pooh-poohed my suggestion of chucking them in the bath to provide her with a low-cost fake tan. (Women nowadays don’t really get the concept of thrift, do they? Shame. Shame!))

Probably other stuff I’ve forgotten. It doesn’t matter; it’s not as if anyone’s going to cook from this anyway, is it?


Switch on Radio 4. Listen to Martin Jarvis burble soothingly until such a point that your level of smug relaxation is suitable for the cooking of something warm, hearty, and comforting. Crack open a bottle of Badger’s Fursty Ferret* to help the mood. (*Other beers are available.) Survey kitchen with proprietorial pride etc. Sigh contentedly. Select largest pan, place on stove top or hob, add a generous glug of olive oil. Switch on gas. Singe knuckles again. You do not learn. Wait for pan to heat up.

Add the chicken limbs, skin-side down. They will spit at you. Do not be disheartened. It’s not personal. Keep the heat up. Let them spi- OW, will you STOP that you fu- put lid on pan.

Wait a couple of minutes. Remove lid from pan. Using tongs (not tongues; I cannot stress this strongly enough: tongs, not tongues), prize the sticky chicken flesh from the bottom of the pan and turn them over. The skin ought to be a glistening, mottled brown. Clatter the lid back on and continue to let them brown without spitting hot oil at you. Chop up an onion, a couple of leeks and two or three carrots into hefty chunks. Remove lid from pan, add thyme and onion and a generous grind or ten of black pepper. Put lid back on. Leave for five minutes. Quick gulp of beer. Chuck in the carrot and the leeks. Lid back on. Let them sweat a bit.

When you can bear it no more, stir, and pour in chicken stock (or hot water and a couple of stock cubes ho hum), covering the contents of the pan. Sling in a few handfuls of PEARL BARLEY for good measure. Simmer. Lid on. Notice Radio 4 has stopped Jarvising and is now broadcasting a bleak programme about tragic only twins (no, not like Peter Cook, but those whose genetic duplicates have died). Feel a bit grim. Quickly switch to Radio 3. Sit down at kitchen table with glass of ale and laptop. Start writing this. (Actually, you can probably miss this step out. It depends how slavishly you want to follow my example, really. As a general rule that’s something it’s never worth doing.)

Time passes. Let it. Tick tock…

Check on the pan. Curse roundly. Remember PEARL BARLEY is like rice: it grows. The pan is full of PEARL BARLEY. Panic. Boil kettle. More water, more water!

Crisis averted, lid on again. Heat as low as possible. Leave for a few hours. Chop some parsley, mix that in, serve with crusty bread (or a couple of slices of whatever you’ve got in the cupboard if you’ve neglected to buy any crusty bread) or a few more veg, perhaps a potato or two if you’re really hungry. Big glass of red wine. Eat.