Thursday, 26 November 2009

Bird news

The leaves have now all fallen or been blown off the vine, exposing the bunches of useless grapes, which the blackbirds have just discovered. Oh, but those grapes will ferment won't they? So I might have a garden full of drunk birds by Christmas.

As I went down the Close to the car this morning, a pheasant wandered past. That's not meant to happen in town centres, is it? Still, the foxes will have got him by now I expect.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Surprise your local carol-singing group!

I found this in an old book of "Popular Verse" (fill in the other twelve verses for yourself):

"The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule day
Three stalks o' merry corn, three merry maids a-dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting,
An Arabian baboon,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was grey,
Three plovers, three partridges,
A papingo-aye:
Who learns my carol and carries it away?"

Who indeed?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Robert Browning

"That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive."

Opening lines don't come much better than that, do they? Most novelists would submit to torture for it. The questions tumble over themselves - who is the Duke speaking to? why is he showing his guest this rather morbid depiction? why is she not alive? What's he up to? In the next fifty four rhyming couplets, he manages not to answer any of these directly - the Duke is, you infer, playing a deep game here - but by the end, by God, this warped personage has revealed far more than he intended of himself, and you wind up thinking: 'No, Count's emissary! Don't let his daughter do it!'

Browning has been classified as the master, not to say inventor, of the 'dramatic monologue', and certainly his yarns rattle along. (Read him on rats in the Pied Piper of Hamelin.) But there's a lot more to him than just that, obviously. A couple more opening lines:

"My first thought was, he lied in every word, that hoary cripple ..." (Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came)
"I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave! You need not clap your torches to my face." (Fra Lippo Lippi)

Characterisation! In those few words, you already know a lot about the person: in the first case a driven obsessive on an increasingly surreal quest, against all odds and advice, for an ill-defined and probably futile goal; and in the second a devious, querulous artist whose aim it is to subvert the medieval doctrine that art must depict the spiritual, not the physical - and thereby spark the revolution in thought that was the Renaissance and so most of what came after ...

But perhaps most importantly, he paints in words. At its best, you can almost read this stuff with your eyes closed. Listen:

"All that I know of a certain star is, it can throw (like the angled spar) now a dart of red, now a dart of blue;"

And finally, of course, he's funny, sometimes self-deprecatingly - the next line of that is "Till my friends have said they would fain see, too, my star that dartles the red and the blue!"

Gosh, that was a fan letter wasn't it?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Bonfire night

My best ever firework display was the Southbourne Prep School bonfire night in 1951, when I was nine years old. The fireworks were laid out ready on trestle tables on the playing field in front of the school, to be set off, one by one, by the assembled masters after the bonfire had been lit. Boys and parents were lined up on the touchline, ready to go 'ooh' and 'aahh'.

It might have been a stray spark from the fire, or a master's dropped match or fag-end - for whatever cause suddenly the whole lot started to go off, all at once. At first we thought this was part of the show, but then the masters began to run away ... Adult decisions or panic reactions must have taken place, but there was really no choice but to let it run its course. It lasted about ten minutes, and it was spectacular. Rockets flew off horizontally, Catherine wheels span away into the sky, firecrackers leapt around like liberated venomous insects ...

I was enthralled by the undeniable beauty of this unintended display. But the real reason I now think of this as 'best ever' is that it awoke in me, for the first time in my life, a sense of gleeful anarchy, a realisation that the worlds of controlled order and wild chaos are sometimes separated by no more than a random spark. That perverse exhilaration has never entirely died down, and I hope it never will.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

"Selling off the bank branches"

Any clues as to what this diktat from the EU (strangely unchallenged so far by the likes of UKIP) is supposed to mean in practice?

Look at your average "bank branch". It consists of a) some premises which are effectively a retail outlet, rather like M&S or Vodafone; b) some local employees manning the above; and c) a bunch of customers' accounts which have been grouped together, largely for historical reasons to do with obsolete technology relating to cheque clearing, under an identification code known, amusingly archaically, as a 'sort code'. All these branches use exactly the same centralised computer systems, distributed networks, and front-of-house presentation and product range. So what, exactly, will be up for sale?

Well, it could be the the premises - but where I live in Reading, empty retail sites are currently as cheap and available as oven chips, so not much of a deal there. The staff? Nah. So that leaves the business - the customers. But hang on. Does the EU really believe that these are also an "asset" which can in some way be sold off willy-nilly to Virgin or Tesco along with the bricks and mortar?

Given that I will under no circumstances accept the enforced transferal of my banking business away from my current preferred supplier to the likes of Tesco, I would presumably have to go to Newbury or Glasgow or somewhere if I wanted to chat face-to-face with my bank. Meanwhile, a new customer in Reading will have, at best, the same number of local choices of bank as he does now, just different ones. How exactly does this increase competition?

Finally, coming at the question from a slightly different though intrinsically related angle, I've heard a lot of talk about the need to break up certain banks because they're "too big to be allowed to fail". Personally, I'm very pleased that my bank was too big to be allowed to fail - I'd have lost a lot of money otherwise.