Monday, March 26, 2007

Oxford links

I'm going to have to buy Isolarion, by the looks of it. I want to read more contemporary fiction, really I do, but I keep being tempted away. Incidentally, any Americans tempted up the Cowley Road by that Bookforum review should bear in mind that "From a penny to a thousand pounds" is a traditional slogan, not anything like an accurate description of the pricing at the Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House: all the (very good) main dishes cost about the same (£8 or so, last time I was there, six years ago). Try to avoid being seated by the speakers and you'll be fine.

Also, while in town: this and this are cryingly envy-making.

Friday, March 23, 2007

London letters 1: Doorstep, Forest Hill

This is the first in what improvident ambition says will be a regular Friday photo series: the aim is to seek out interesting bits of lettering on London streets, with a particular relish for stuff that might otherwise be overlooked, and attempt to provide a little historical background.

Our first exhibit is the doorstep of what's now a Red Cross charity shop at 6 London Road in Forest Hill. I've chosen it because it's a splendid bit of Edwardian flim-flam, and because it has a lesson for the many people currently writing about the Death of the English High Street. The tendency when looking at an old photograph, or leafing through an old street directory, is to assume that businesses you haven't heard of are plucky little independents. Not much danger of that with Sainsbury's, which is still the third-largest supermarket group in Britain. According to the firm's fearsomely detailed if excessively twee virtual museum, this branch would have been part of a large-ish London "high-class provisions" chain when it opened; it's not on their list of branches open by 1900, and there were "more than 100" by 1903. Chains and supermarkets may indeed be throttling our high streets; it really would be nice to have a planning system that did more to encourage varied and independent shops; but multiples have existed for a long time, and writing as if they haven't will make you sound like Peter Ackroyd in London: The Biography surveying the modern Fetter Lane:

In the stretch of Fetter Lane which leads directly out of Fleet Street, with, on the respective corners, a bookshop and a computer supplier, is Clifford's Inn, the oldest Inn of Chancery and once the most important edifice in the street. Rebuilt now, and partitioned into offices and apartments, it is situated beside a modern restaurant, the Cafe Rouge, and opposite a new drinking establishment called the Hogshead.

It's a distinctive style, but unless you can match Ackroyd's torrential erudition - he goes on to link this stretch of road to John Wesley, Tom Paine, Keir Hardie, Dryden, Charles Lamb, Samuel Butler, Lemuel Gulliver, Virginia Woolf and "the only cross-eyed statue in London" - probably not one to copy.

(The statue is of John Wilkes, and went up in 1988: here's the PMSA record and photograph.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Baghdad dawn chorus

There's probably only a couple of days left to download the first episode of the World Service's Eyewitness Iraq (BBC things have a tendency to disappear after seven days, and it's taken me several days to find this one on the website). The programme is a boiling-down of Hugh Sykes's reports from the early days of the conflict, part of the four-year-anniversary ruminations occurring everywhere. What makes it particularly worth listening to, however, is a ten-second edit of 40 minutes of early morning in Baghdad, not long after the Saddam statue came down, with the birdsong and the bangs both intensified to dreamlike levels. It gives an extraordinarily powerful sense of how it might feel to have violence become a constant part of your life's background; one of the most effective pieces of wordless radio I've heard.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The old rules

The following is from "Taboo: what newspapermen can never, never say", by Nicholas Tomalin, published in Punch in 1973 and republished in the posthumous Nicholas Tomalin Reporting two years later. It was probably ceasing to be true by the time it was written, but it may be suggestive about how hard it would be to restore a culture of "positive" commentary:

The final taboo that really irks me is the still lamentably general rule that all newspaper writers must be optimistic. 'Upbeat' is the word used. In a strict sense, an upbeat is of course the unimportant hiccup before the musical bar line; it is the down-beat that makes the important statemen. The word has become peculiarly corrupted to mean some tone of voice that makes readers cheerful, and more liable to buy advertisers' products. It means always looking on the bright side. I consider the effect of this taboo is quite disastrous on the national life. Because every second-rate hack knows he must be 'upbeat', and every advertising slogan is upbeating perpetually, anyone with a spark of intelligence comes to feel happiness is a totally unacceptable, vulgar, lying emotion (...) I am quite incapable of saying how utterly wonderful it is to be going onward and upward with ths great country of ours (even when I feel it), because so many idiots are saying so, so very often and so very insistently.

Probably not intended to damn by faint praise

"The audience had been standing in line for an hour. Only a few of them were dressed as Greek hoplites. They were much better balanced between men and women than I’d expected..." -- Neal Stephenson attends a showing of 300 for the New York Times op-ed page. Via Jenny Davidson, who was convinced.

Film haiku

Now that I finally have a home broadband connection, and I no longer have to keep quiet about them, you can have these: 27 haiku that appeared as the "What's on" film listing in the Nottingham Evening Post, one week in October. I put them through without linebreaks, and no one (readers, unwarned editors) appeared to notice anything odd.

Reject fakes uni,
and then real students turn up.
No reason you should.

Hi, Mr Himmler
- no, of course we're not Jewish.
Well, not in public...

Think Animal Farm
remade as cheery kids' toon.
Our verdict next week.

Conjoined twin punk stars
rock convincing mock doc, but
where's their character?

Pixar motors through
yet another hit cartoon
(yes, that's Paul Newman).

Clive Owen seeks hope
in a grim, childless London.
Stylish Cuaron job.

CLICK (15)
Remote control rules
Adam Sandler's so-called life.
Please, just turn it off.

Cop double-cross finds
Scorsese and Nicholson
true to their talents.

Vile ed Meryl Streep
tempts that nice Anne Hathaway.
Sharp as Savile Row.

Coming-of-age job
in Spanish-language US:
trailers, but no trash.

Sting's lot get own film.
And it's shot by their drummer.
So "inside" is right.

Not the newspaper:
this is coastguard derring-do.
Our verdict next week.

Red Riding Hoodlum
tangles with storybook police force.
But it ain't Shrek.

Mermaid seeks writer,
while M Night Shyamalan
seeks a plot, in vain.

Marlon Wayans poses
as toddler to steal giant gem.
Childish? You don't say...

Strong cast do wonders
in ensemble road movie.
A beauty, for sure.

Jamaican take
on Romeo and Juliet:
reggae v gospel.

Yay Helen Mirren:
she's truly regal in this
Diana death tale.

Junior Bond flops
- but he may grow up better,
if we still let him.

Prequel to remake.
As Hollywood eats itself,
it wants cannibals.

TIDELAND (15) A lost child's strange world
- count on Terry Gilliam
to make it stranger.

Shiny young Tom Cruise
flies off to superstardom.
You had to be there.

Top-class Will Ferrell
stars in racetrack comedy.
Ali G steals it.

J-Lo as lone mum.
Well, at least the story's drab.
Sadly unconvincing.

England's composer
in two rare archival gems
- both old TV shows.

9/11 courage
- and no shortage of bombast -
from Oliver Stone.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The thing about Penge

If you go around telling people you live in Sydenham, as I have had to do these past few weeks, you often enough end up talking about Penge, down the road. Sydenham isn't much of a topic, whereas Penge has a sort of inverse glamour. It may be something to do with Robert Rankin (I'm told) or Rumpole's "Penge bungalow murders", or the name being carried through town on the front of the 176 bus; more likely it's just the comedy of the sound, and the tinge of dull suburbia it now carries. Looking in Russ Willey's Chambers London Gazetteer (which also reminded me about Rumpole) it appears that Penge is "one of the few Celtic place names in London, and suggests the survival of a British contingent after Anglo-Saxon colonisation". The sense of grimly hanging on has hung on: it's now, going by its Chambers entry, the roughest end of a relatively posh borough (Bromley) having had the rough end of the Crystal Palace building boom. This is the magnificently sneery write-up it gets in James Thorne's Handbook to the Environs of London (1876):

Fifty years ago Penge was only spoken of as a common, and the maps show hardly a house upon it (...) Then "the plague of building lighted upon it;" spread more rapidly when Penge Place was taken for the Crystal Palace, Penge Woods was partly absorbed in the palace grounds, and the rest, doubly attractive from its proximity to that popular resort, given over to the builder; and culminated when a Freehold Building Society bought what had been spared of the Common for distribution among its members. Now, Penge is a town in size and population, in appearance a waste of modern tenements, mean, monotonous and wearisome. It has 3 churches, many chapels, schools, hotels, "offices" of all sorts, shops, 4 or 5 rly. stations, and whatever may be looked for in a new suburban rly. town.

I suspect that last sentence is less than half praise.


Slate has decided to provide a high-profile home for Clive James's webcam interviews, which is excellent news, and to launch them with an extravagant editor's appreciation:

Whether we know it or not, one of the chief inspirations for our ongoing efforts to provoke thought and mirth at the same time is none other than this polymathic Australian extrovert. The kind of television coverage Troy Patterson writes in Slate grows almost directly out of the column James wrote for the London Observer beginning in the 1970s. The quick-witted cultural writing to which we aspire owes its tone to James' essays, first collected in The Metropolitan Critic.

That seems a bit much. Clive James was better than anyone before or since at turning the TV review into a blast of highbrow comedy, but he wasn't first with the idea. Bernard Levin, of all people, used to do it in the Manchester Guardian of the 1950s, where the ground was prepared for him by a once-famous tradition of needlessly witty and erudite music-hall reviewing. And although I admire James's reviewing, I can't shake the accusation in Jonathan Raban's For Love and Money that he writes a dialect "as recognisable as Mummerset; at once donnish high-falutin' and come-off-it low slang, it is the received standard accent of the smart English book review".

But Jacob Weisberg is right to wonder why the man is not more prominent in America; he is as widely cultured a good talker as Christopher Hitchens, treading much of the same literary territory, and better at reading closely (as if that matters). I suppose it's to do with the primacy of politics over culture, Hitchens being a political writer deriving status from his cultural hinterland and James a cultural critic aiming for a political edge. And then Hitchens's old socialist-among-liberals schtick would be more of more use to American talk-show bookers than the liberal-among-socialists one that drives most of James's more political stuff. That James's jokes are for laughing at, rather than admiring as sallies of wit, and that he puts so much work into looking laid back, probably do their share of damage too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Revised and updated

"In all of the more than 700 places reviewed within this guide you should be able to get two courses (starter + main or main + dessert), plus half a bottle of house wine (or a couple of beers) plus service (we've assumed ten per cent when it is not automatically added) for no more than £20 per person." -- Time Out Cheap Eats In London, edition three.

"In all of the more than 500 places reviewed within this guide you should be able to get two courses (starter + main or main + dessert), plus half a bottle of house wine (or a couple of beers) plus service (we've assumed ten per cent when it is not automatically added) for no more than £20 per person." -- Time Out Cheap Eats In London, edition four.

Emphases, conveniently enough, in originals.

[Time Out Cheap Eats In London, edition four, 2007. This is the only guidebook I buy every time it comes out, but it has fallen upon evil days. Not only is the new one 50 pages and 200 entries shorter, it has developed a tendency to seek out posh sandwich shops. These will generally let you pick up a sandwich, a banana ("main + dessert") and a can of organic fake Coke ("a couple of soft drinks") for less than £20, but even in London they wouldn't fit most people's definition of "cheap". On the other hand, it's more sensibly organised -- it has all the maps gathered at the back, rather than sprinkled unpredictably through -- and it seems to have somewhat better coverage of outer London, even if it does file its one Forest Hill recommendation under Deptford.]

Your New Yorker links may no longer work...

...but at least the "Not found" message is beautiful. (This joke stolen from a commenter at, via a link emailed from a friend.)

The site has had a mostly handsome redesign; it also inserts cartoons into the text, reproducing the authentic New Yorker experience of pausing in the middle of 10,000 words on female circumcision to smile at a cat saying something Upper East Side. (That joke stolen from another friend the other weekend. It's originality day here.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Presbyterian bean salad

"Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life's problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm. There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel. You'd have thought I'd died. We saved it for lunch." - the Rev John Ames, 76, recovers from a health wobble in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

[Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, 2005. Astonishingly graceful novel in the form of an old pastor's letter to his young son, with a plot that develops so gently that I was a third of the way through before I realised there was going to be one. It ends up gripping. Its pulpit topics - death, love, redemption, forgiveness - are the obvious basis for praise, and you could extract 80 pages of good epigrams from its 280 pages. But it's the convincingness of John Ames's voice, and the solidity of his 1950s Iowa setting, which make the goodness palatable.]

The years of cholera

Sometimes, a book can transform your view of some other book without so much as a direct reference. One of the first things this blog did, back when it still seemed possible that I might finish Macaulay's History of England, was to mock this statement of optimism:

The difference in salubrity between the London of the nineteenth century and the London of the seventeenth century is very far greater than the difference between London in an ordinary year and London in a year of cholera.

Thanks to Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, I now know that I greatly underestimated the chutzpah involved. A "year of cholera" was not some immemorial curse. When Macaulay was born, in 1800, cholera was a disease that England heard of only when it devastated a British garrison in India. While he was studying at Trinity College, it was building a bridge of corpses across Europe. And while he was a new MP fighting for Reform...

In 1831, an outbreak tore through a handful of ships harboured in the river Medway, about thirty miles from London. Cases inland didn't appear until October of that year, in the northeast town of Sunderland, beginning with a William Sproat, the first Englishman to perish of cholera on his home soil. On February 8 of the following year, a Londoner named John James became the first to die in the city. By the outbreak's end, in 1833, the dead in England and Wales would number above 20,000. After that first explosion, the disease flared up every few years, dispathcing a few hundred souls to an early grave, and then go underground again. But the long-term trend was not an encouraging one. The epidemic of 1848-1849 would consume 50,000 lives in England and Wales.

As it happens, 1848-1849 is the period during which the first volumes of the History of England were published. That puts Macaulay's cheerfulness on a whole different level, no?

[The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, 2006. An old-fashioned story of scientific endeavour - empirical good sense and local knowledge, in the form of John Snow studying a Soho cholera outbreak, defeat fifth-hand argument from authority - made into something rather different by the author's determination to tell his tale at every scale from the microbial to the world-historical. His call for a "history of mistakes" (in this case, the mistake is the miasma theory of disease transmission that made cholera so difficult to understand) is somewhat undermined by his breezy and doubt-free way of throwing around currently fashionable ideas; this is not a book for anybody allergic to pat evolutionary psychology. But his confidence in digressing gives The Ghost Map most of its charm.]

Update: Tweaking the labels on this site I realise, somewhat embarrassedly, that I've come across part of this point before, barely a month after reading the Macaulay; I even gave it the same title. Oops. This latest version of the revelation is probably more startling, however; I don't think I previously realised that cholera was arriving for the first time, or how closely its rise could be seen to follow Macaulay's.