Friday, June 26, 2009


The news media goes into overkill mode when faced with a story like the death of Michael Jackson. Editors evidently imagine that it’s impossible for them to run too much stuff about the deceased, especially if they can make use of that well tried and much loved soubriquet “the troubled star”. Jackson allows that in spades, of course. Given the gravity of some of the allegations that have surrounded him, it is thought appropriate to haul in the weightiest commentators to cover this aspect of his life. And out come the other superstars to make utterances quite as banal, hyperbolic, tacky and indeed incoherent as the maunderings of the fans, both on mic and on line, which are now considered an essential part of the mix.

from BBC website

This morning’s Guardian carried a front-page think-cum-reminisce piece to which I couldn’t resist emailing a rejoinder: “According to Richard Williams, Michael Jackson had a ‘terminal vibrato’ and was ‘terminally sentimental’. That’s what killed him then, right?” I know they won’t publish that. But even a distinguished scribe like Williams can fall into cliché under pressure of deadlines. That’s the trouble with news: they want it considered but they want it yesterday.

Commentators and fans alike – the one influencing the other and it’s chicken and egg -– have been drawing parallels with the deaths of Kennedy, Diana, Elvis. A better comparison, I suggest, is with Judy Garland, the fortieth anniversary of whose death Jackson survived by just three days. Both were child stars, ruthlessly exploited by their respective businesses. Both were vastly popular at their peak and attracted especially devoted (some might say demented) followers. Both were insecure in their sexuality and about their appearance, both of which they tried to adapt. Both were at their most dynamic when seen live, as the greatest performers always are. Both ran into colossal financial difficulties and could not keep their personal lives on track. Both became addicted to prescription drugs, which destroyed their health and certainly contributed to their deaths, Garland’s at three years younger than Jackson.

I don’t know if I think Jackson was very smart. Too unworldly ever to have a very shrewd take on things, I figure. I particularly think of his absurd, wide-eyed remark when he and Lisa Marie Presley met the press some three months into their mind-boggling marriage: “And they said it wouldn’t last!” Well, children, it lasted about two years, which, out here in the real world, is called “not lasting”.
from website

Garland, on the other hand, had a brilliant brain. There’s an extant recording of a television interview she gave to Jack Paar that sets you back on your heels at the quickness and astuteness of her responses to the hackneyed probings of conventional showbiz. She doesn’t miss a nuance or an undertone and her answers are detailed, unconventional and lickety-spit. It’s a stunning turn. If the whole thing was scripted and rehearsed (often true in those days as more often true now than you want to think), she carries it off with complete conviction.

Next week, I’m going to a gig by Neil Sedaka. He’s never been a star to rival Jackson and it’s certainly never been at all hip to like him, as I have done for fifty years – Sedaka had his first hit the year Jackson was born. Even so, he wrote the best-selling song (in the UK) so far this millennium: none other than (Is This the Way to) Amarillo?

There are aspects of his shtik that I’m not keen on: those Liberace/Richard Clayderman touches of classique pretension, for instance. But Sedaka always had an exquisite singing voice, surprisingly little worn at 70, and with his writing partner Howard Greenfield (who died of Aids more than twenty years ago) composed a string of numbers that were, one after another, simply perfectly crafted pop songs. I’m sure there’ll be some dedicated fans there: women in their 60s and 70s still with beehive hair-dos. I suspect there’ll be much less of a gay contingent than you would get at a Jackson concert or (overwhelmingly) at a Garland show but I can live with that.

When Sedaka goes, especially if it’s not for two or three more decades, he perhaps won’t even make the news bulletins (though he certainly should; Gene Pitney did). And for those of us who liked him, that will actually be a mercy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


“Going somewhere nice this year?” barbers and other occasional acquaintances are apt to ask as summer gets into its stride.

I mean to return to “going somewhere” but for a moment permit me to dilate upon occasional conversations. Many quite like, even relish such time-passing. Not me. Being obliged to discuss immigration with a cab driver is, as far as I am concerned, the seventh circle of hell. Trapped in the barber’s chair, I find myself hoping that a light snooze will quickly overtake me or that I can dissemble one so that the transaction may be completed to the sound merely of clacking scissors and whirring clippers.

At my local barbers, there are two women who do a tolerable job with my hair and whom I have, over the years, sufficiently trained to meet my social needs. One is happy to be quiet. The first few times, she essayed: “Got the day off work?” How far do I need to feel required to voyage into an account of my working situation before she wishes she hadn’t asked? Do I really care whether she knows what my arrangements are? The other crimper is livelier but she is perfectly happy to swap anecdotes about dogs (or rather my dog tales for her grandchildren vignettes), even though most of both contributions are somewhat dog-eared. At least she does me the kindness of remembering that one of our dogs is a Great Dane.

There are two chaps there who cut hair too (including the new proprietor – needless to say a lot newer than either of the women because no barber is going to hand on his business to a woman) and I wouldn’t object to either of them looking after me, save that their only conversational topic is the one that bores me almost as much as reality television: football.

Going somewhere nice this year? Well, no we’re not. And thanks so much for asking because it reminds me that we haven’t actually “been away” since spring 2006 when we did a swing around the moors, the peaks, the dales and the lakes (not necessarily in that order) as a sort of honeymoon after our civil partnership ceremony. And it’s four-and-a-quarter years since we were abroad anywhere.

Are we extremely atypical? We are both at home all day most days. I have occasional forays to London, Oxford, Bath, Cheltenham, Bristol. David’s outings are even fewer and almost never more than a single over-night. I keep urging him to take off in the car for a week or ten days and he blows hot and cold about the idea but doesn’t take the plunge. I ponder setting off on a succession of buses (with my free pass) in the autumn and seeing where I get to. But we never talk of having a real holiday.

The first problem is the fact that we have the dogs. I always say that dogs are a much larger responsibility than children. When there was just the Dane, we took him two or three times to Landmark Trust properties and, although he found it a bit perplexing, he liked new scents and walks and soon settled. As he’s got older, he cleaves to the familiarity of home and is fussed by going further than our field. Twenty minutes away from base and he’s more than ready to retreat. We never took both of them to stay in a strange property though we have left them both with trusted house sitters. But now that the younger one is a special needs dog, taking them anywhere new is fraught with difficulty and imposing Tati’s medication and supervision regime on anyone else seems a lot to ask. Then of course house sitters add substantially to the cost of the holiday.

That’s the other thing. Like most people, we’ve been pulling in our horns lately. Provisions and utilities and … um … books and CDs are necessities. Jetting or even driving somewhere unfamiliar with no guarantee that you’ll have a good time seems a less sensible way to spend dwindling capital. On the other hand, we have numbers of friends in much more parlous financial straits than us who determinedly continue to take three or four foreign trips a year. I’m a little bemused by this but then none of them has such a comfortable and restorative place to spend every day as we do.

Am I rationalising in some way? My grandparents’ generation thought going to London was about as exotic an experience as the world had to offer. (Having said that, though, I remember the extraordinary adventure of my maternal grandmother, Fanny Allsop from Belper in Derbyshire, who, before she was married, got a job as personal assistant to Mrs John Jacob Astor when that lady was divorcing her legendary husband. Fanny accompanied Mrs Astor across the Atlantic on the Olympic just a hundred years ago and lived with her in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria. Mr Astor later perished on the Olympic’s sister ship, the Titanic). None of my other three grandparents, I think, ever strayed beyond these shores.

To my parents’ generation, “abroad” was still an almost unimaginable place. However, World War II took my father to Europe – he was in the D-Day landings and eventually got as far as Italy – and so the mystique began to dissipate. As a child, I was taken by my mother for a day in Paris and then a fortnight in Switzerland. Dad stayed home grumbling but he never wanted to go anywhere anyway. Our family never did anything unless Mum initiated it, organised it and oversaw it. Dad was a stay-at-home, only really happy in familiar surroundings, much like Fargo our Great Dane. He liked to quote that line from the World War I trenches: “If I knew a better ‘ole, I’d go to it”. Though we had seaside holidays in Britain, we never went abroad as a family. After I left home, Mum had a trip to Kenya with friends, Dad went to a bierfest in Germany (dragged there by friends) and the two of them once holidayed, most unexpectedly, in Tunisia. But that was it.

I have been considerably more relaxed about travel than either of my parents but it is not a compulsion or even a requirement for me. Of the places I have yet to visit, I would be sorry if I thought I would never get to Vienna or St Petersburg, the Amazon or Yosemite. And I would be positively distraught to learn that I had already enjoyed my last trip to New York or Rome, the Caribbean or the Far East.

I am not wholly persuaded that travel broadens the mind. My most-travelled friend (former friend nowadays) may be the most closed-minded person I ever knew (which is how he comes to be a former friend). And, as Sammy Cahn wrote: “It’s very nice to go travellin’/ But it’s so much nicer, yes it’s so much nicer to come home”.

By the by, that line I used as the title for this posting: it comes from Arthur Daley. It wasn’t written by Leon Griffiths or any other of the regular writers on Minder. George Cole’s son dreamt up the line and Cole paid him £5 for it and deployed it in an episode. I know this because, much to my surprise, I found myself acting as script executive for one series of Minder nearly twenty years ago. But that’s a story for another occasion …

Monday, June 08, 2009


As the smoke begins to clear after days on end of noise and confusion, stifling heat but precious little light, Gordon Brown has come through his backbenchers’ meeting and remains in Downing Street, horribly bloodied but remarkably unbowed. If the media are to be believed, this has been June’s only important story and yet there doesn’t need to be a general election until next May. A sense of proportion appears conspicuous by its absence from this saga.

If a week is a long time in politics – probably the only entirely true thing that Harold Wilson ever said – then eleven months is an eternity. The political climate and the electoral context will be different by next May, perhaps markedly different. None of us can know what the intervening months will bring. Few of us had any inkling a month ago that the overriding media story about politics through the second half of May would concern MPs’ expenses. Events, dear boy, events will occur and balances will shift. Although psephologists love to project the results of one completed election onto another still to be held, the exercise is wholly idle. The next election will be held in an unpredictable future.

The commentariat decided long ago that the Tories would win a general election in 2009 or 2010 and this conclusion brooks no discussion. Shorter memories than mine ignore that Labour was supposed to win the general election of 1992; even on the night, the BBC “called” it for them. Sir Robert Worcester of MORI, no less, “called” the 2004 US election for John Kerry after the polls closed and we went to bed happy that Bush was out. The Tories won the European elections handsomely in 2004 but lost the general election in 2005. Politics does not stand still, even overnight.

The media’s obsession with individual politicians – Westminster’s equivalent of celebrities – rather than policies seriously distorts the way that the electorate understands what is at stake in elections. I would like to have heard or read some debate on European issues ahead of the Euro-elections and some more on local issues ahead of the council elections but the media have neither time nor space for such matters, being swallowed up by speculation and the mad joy of crisis coverage.

Reporters will object that they are only reflecting the perfervid atmosphere in Westminster but this is disingenuous. Parliamentarians conduct a great deal of debate and evolve a great deal of policy that is never covered at all or only covered en passant in the media. Correspondents are much more interested in plotters and loudmouths in the Westminster village than mature, steady and reliable members who are, as the prime minister likes to put it, “getting on with the job”. And politicians are by nature liable to be attention-seekers. Those whose off-the-record gossip or on-the-record outspokenness makes them favourites of the media will inevitably enjoy the limelight. But they are not necessarily any more representative than the random vox pops that now pass for public comment on television news bulletins.

What’s more, politicians are inevitably influenced by the media. When headlines and broadcast packages are whipping up a frenzy, it is hardly surprising if MPs let it get to them. The frantic pace of the rumour mill is bound to turn heads but you take it seriously at your peril. The so-called “sources” that are credited with so much Westminster gossip are impossible for the reader or viewer to judge precisely because their opinions are unattributed. Given that there is no identifiable source, what is to stop the reporter making it up?

That the media are obsessed with who is up and who down rather than anything more substantial is simply demonstrated. Here are June’s successive main headlines from The Guardian and The Observer in the editions that reach us in the west country: “Brown insists he won’t step down as election rout looms” (June 1st); “Beleaguered Darling faces reshuffle axe” (2nd); “Labour’s day of resignation” (3rd); “Brown hangs on, for now” (4th); “The smooth assassin” (refers to James Purnell, 5th); “Bloodied Brown vows: ‘I will not walk away’” (6th); “Labour fears EU poll disaster will spark fresh crisis for PM” (7th); “Judgment day for Brown” (8th).

It’s noticeable how little in these headlines is genuine news and how much idle – and sometimes plain wrong, like the Darling line – speculation. It is hardly to be wondered at if a prime minister turns away from such febrile stuff and ignores it altogether – at which point, of course, the gossipmongers will say he is in denial.

I do not deny that Brown is a highly political animal with a taste for plots and black propaganda and low cunning. Of all the resignation statements to come out of this saga, the one that is perhaps most damaging for thoughtful observers is that of Jane Kennedy today, saying that she was repelled by the negative briefing and attempts to destabilize that emanate from Downing Street. The Damian McBride affair confirms that there is substance to this charge.

The prime minister would do well to rise above this game. One of his strengths has been that he is not Blair in the sense that he is not a snake oil salesman devoted to spin and gesture politics, something that also handily distinguished him from Cameron. But lately he has allowed himself to be persuaded to make some gestures that sit on him so awkwardly. It’s not merely the rictus smile on You Tube. It’s also the wholly unpersuasive pretence of being concerned about Jade Goody and Susan Boyle. Brown should leave this kind of thing to the more simpering breed of populist.

Meanwhile, the daily issue is: can he survive? Absurd question. Of course he can. He doesn’t, as far as we are aware, suffer from a terminal illness. He is relatively young and evidently has enormous reservoirs of resilience. So then: will he survive? Time will tell. Why bother with predictions no more well-founded than punts on the Grand National?

But look at the next general election from another perspective. If Labour does lose, no one will be able to account it a shock. Indeed, it will need to be a defeat of much greater resonance than those we have seen for the pundits to make much of it. From a moderately bloody defeat, Labour will recover and renew itself.

But if Labour wins it will be one of the greatest reversals of fortune in modern politics. The European elections have inured us to the unprecedented so we ought to understand that something extreme could happen again. Who is to say that David Cameron’s luck will not turn soon? He has set off on a course that could do his party great damage in his decision to ally himself with a rogues’ gallery of right wing and neo-fascist groupings in the European parliament. What will he do if the two new BNP MEPs apply to join?

For the Conservatives to lose the next election would be much more disastrous for them than it would be for Labour. It would mark a fourth defeat running and taint Cameron as the fifth failed leader in succession. And it would be against the most propitious set of circumstances an opposition party has faced at least since 1997. The challenger will not have the government quite so on the ropes as this for a long time to come. No wonder they are baying continuously for an election now. They may already sense that things could get better for Labour. To use the inflated language of contemporary political coverage, if the Tories lost they would be “finished”: the party would implode and there would need to be a realignment on the right. With the BNP and UKIP dug in at the European parliament, here would be a truly dangerous situation. Perhaps for all our sakes we should hope that Labour does indeed lose the next election.

Meanwhile a summer break lies ahead. The hysteria will wane. The government may get good news on the economic front. Mandelson might be persuaded from his reckless determination to sell off parts of the Royal Mail. The new cabinet could prove to be less ham-fisted than the last one. James Purnell, Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint will soon disappear from the public memory whereas moats and gardening expenses may linger longer. And things will happen. As far as Gordon Brown is concerned, there is still everything to play for, especially if he can steer the public’s attention towards policy where, it should note, there is still a resounding vacuum in the Tory’s programme for government. As the BBC's Nick Robinson is apt to observe, though more with an eye on prolonging the supposed “leadership crisis”, it’s not over yet.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


The prefects are moving in on illegal downloaders. Research revealed by something called the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property calculates that some 4.73bn (yes, billion) items are ripped off each year by illicit filesharers in Britain, let alone the rest of the world. For its part, the International Federation of the Phonograph Industry reckons that for every paid-for download to a British computer, there are six items that are stashed in collections without payment. These statistics, by the way, were stolen from an on-line article in The Guardian. As I have been buying the paper since before most of its New Media correspondents were born, I feel that I have already paid handsomely to make use of this info.

As one who certainly wishes to protect his own intellectual property rights, I don’t for a moment condone naked piracy. At the same time, I daily download material without paying for it and I do so with no compunction whatsoever. Permit me to explain.

I have never sought to watch a movie on-line or in any other circumstance on my iMac because I doubt that my screen (even at 17 x 11 inches) or my sound system will do it justice. I have picked up a couple of torrented episodes of American television drama serials that, for one reason or another, I missed on transmission but, believe me, that isn’t denying anybody any income because I am not about to buy the DVD of the whole of, say, season four of The West Wing just to bag one episode. In fact, if there had been no other way of accessing the missed episode, I would have been more likely to give up on the whole enterprise.

But I do download a lot of music. In the last year or two, I have certainly taken many more copies off filesharers’ sites than the “songs” (as they call each track) that I have paid for on iTunes or, lately, Amazon. Downloading is not anyway my preferred manner of collecting music. I will never love any recording medium the way that I – and those of my generation – loved vinyl but, even with the lack of tactile pleasure and vastly reduced user-friendliness of so-called jewel-cases and their booklets as opposed to album sleeves, I am reconciled to CDs (though I was a very late convert). And I will go out and buy CDs far sooner than download them, paid for or not.

But the music retail trade is in full retreat. It’s of course a chicken-and-egg situation but the fact is that I find it easier and easier to find what I want on-line and harder and harder in shops. Last Tuesday, I asked after classical CDs in the central Bristol branch of HMV and was told that they were to be found as “a sub-section of Easy Listening”. How grotesquely shaming. Mind, as the meagre selection on offer appeared to be dominated by the likes of Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and violin-scraping glam group Bond, it was perhaps not an inappropriate arrangement.

HMV originally built its business on selling recordings of classical music. When I first shopped at HMV in the 1960s – what was then its sole outlet, situated on the south side of Oxford Street – classical LPs were what greeted you as you entered the store on the ground floor. “Pop” and other vulgar stuff was relegated to the basement. In their day, I bet HMV made more relative income from the sale of 78s of Richard Tauber, Kathleen Ferrier or Dame Myra Hess than they ever have from CDs by Girls Aloud, Sonic Youth and Eminem.

There are now two branches of HMV on Oxford Street – both of them on the north side – and each does actually carry a very useful if (necessarily) not all that comprehensive range of both recent and standard-repertoire recordings, though not of course on the ground floor. I never leave either branch with fewer than a dozen purchases. London also boasts the legendary Harold Moores Records on Great Marlborough Street (where I rarely find what I’m looking for but discover all manner of other treasures while looking), the specialist Opera Shop on St Martin’s Lane and, in a different part of the forest, the fabulous Dress Circle on Upper St Martin’s Lane. The Virgin stores (which became Zavvi), that often had good selections for those who didn’t just want pop/pap, are gone now.

Down our way, we are pretty lucky with Bath Compact Discs and the timeless Duck, Son & Pinker, also in Bath; Sounds Good in Cheltenham; and Blackwells Music Shop in Oxford. But the internet has really opened up the retail of CDs and indeed LPs for the discriminating, largely because local storage is not an issue if your business is mail order or commercial downloading. These days, on-line shopping has made deleted recordings available in greater profusion than ever before.

And this brings me back to the matter of “pirated” acquisitions. While I am a steady purchaser of current recordings as mp3 downloads from iTunes – and I never dream of seeking free access to new or recent releases – the music I download for nothing is, in the first place, very largely by people (composers, songwriters, arrangers, performers) who are dead, frequently quite a long while dead. I am not denying residuals to these artists and if I am denying income to their descendants and other exploiters of their back catalogues (reissuers, repackagers) then I cannot feel badly about it.

Next, even among those artists who are alive, the examples of their work that I am most apt to download are long deleted. The only way I am likely to encounter this material otherwise is through high-priced specialist dealers or via the serendipity of charity and other junk-type shops. Either way, none of the profit is going to anyone associated with making the music. For the customer, getting what one wants by such means is considerably more of a lottery than is finding a like-minded filesharer on the net and gratefully copying the collection that he – let’s face it, it is always a ‘he’ – uploads to his blog. For the sites I am accessing without money changing hands are those set up by enthusiasts who take pleasure in sharing their interests. And there are hundreds of them.

Now I could go to, for instance, the incomparable Footlight Records store in New York City and spend a fortune on well-preserved long-players of show scores and standards singers but, again, only the store would make any money from it, not the songwriters or performers or musicians. And while I will assuredly always visit the store when I am in Manhattan, I wasn’t there yesterday when I was able, without leaving my study, to download for free a Dinah Washington 10-inch LP that the store might – or of course might not – have had in stock for (you can be sure) a pretty fancy price.

And here’s the crucial point. I am downloading the stuff because I can. It’s a resource that I am availing myself of. Take this treasure trove away and it will benefit the music industry nothing. Because it is there and for free, I am, on the one hand, filling a few gaps in my huge and ancient collection, from Scherchen conducting Mahler or Eleanor Steber singing Samuel Barber to long-deleted LPs of the likes of Lee Wiley and Moondog. On the other hand and much more significantly, I am greatly expanding my knowledge of areas of music on which I have previously had a much slenderer grasp – for example, jazz and blues – as well as widening my view of areas that hitherto I have always cherished – classical music, show tunes and standards. Thanks to the uploading enthusiasts, I have increased my store of stylists of the past, from Mabel Mercer to Johnny Mercer, by way of Carmen McRae, Gordon MacRae, Connee Boswell, Eve Boswell, Judy Holliday, Billie Holiday and all the rest. I have further investigated the music of Bernard Herrmann and Woody Herman, Bill Evans and Gil Evans and so on.

Now, I would never have bought these things, either because finding them would be too much trouble, too fraught with disappointment – imagine rushing home with a precious vinyl recording of Pablo Casals, say, or Luisa Tetrazzini and finding the surface noise was intolerable – or because I knew too little about the work and/or artist and would be reluctant to spend money on spec. I don’t mind a bit downloading for nothing and then investigating an artist whose work I am not familiar with – recently, for instance, Cannonball Adderley, Jane Froman, Charlie Patton – but I’m never going to hand over folding money for them, sight unseen.

So what I’m saying is this: the downloads that I am taking for free are having no effect whatsoever on the economy of the music business. Indeed, by widening the compass of my interests, this “illicit” activity is making it more, not less, likely that I will expand the number and scope of items on my shopping list. So the authorities should beware of jumping to the conclusion that by shutting down the filesharing market they would be righting a wrong. As with most issues, it just isn’t as easy as that. Unless of course the Department of Culture can ensure that CDs at competitive prices by, say, Blind Willie McTell, Sylvia Syms, Lotte Lehmann and Ellis Larkins will be generally available in perpetuity, it seems to me that it would be better all round if that true free market – the internet – were left alone.

Monday, June 01, 2009

A WORD from the WISE

The recent death of the writer and editor Anne Scott-James at 96 brought back vivid memories of one of the delights of my adolescence. My Word! was a panel game broadcast on the Home Service and its subject was words. Devised by Edward J Mason and Tony Shryane (who also dreamt up The Archers), it was, needless to say, literate and non-condescending, as indeed was most wireless output in those kinder times. It also had a theme tune, written by the great Vivien Ellis, that was a true call to arms with its first fifteen notes being persistently sounded thirds.

When I first “listened in” (as we used to say) to My Word!, the regular teams were Frank Muir and Dilys Powell against Denis Norden and Nancy Spain. Scott-James joined when Spain died. Muir and Norden were then the eminences grises of broadcast comedy, having penned the imperishable radio sitcom Take It from Here and the raucous prep school comedy for television, Whack-O!, which starred ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards. Dilys Powell was the very doyenne of film critics, reviewing for The Sunday Times for nearly forty years and living, like Scott-James, into her nineties. Scott-James was less known to me aside from the programme, working as she then did for The Daily Mail.

The regular chairman of the quiz, at least in my time, was Jack Longland. Sir Jack, as he became, was an educationalist by profession and the sometime intrusion of a stuffed shirt into his manner rather illustrated the teaching cliché of the time. I remember one occasion when Longland carefully explained some reference, ending his discourse with the – no doubt rhetorical – question “d’you see?” “Yes, Jack” replied Norden with exquisitely understated waspishness. “I see”.

As a burgeoning wordsmith, I found the whole thrust of the quiz utterly absorbing. But the climax of the programme, in which the women took an unavoidable back seat, was the delightful indulgence of the taste for whimsy that Muir and Norden shared. At the start of the programme, Longland would announce a pair of sayings, quotes or other variety of construct that, at the end, would be subjected to an elaborately cod explanation of its derivation by the respective comedy writers. The pleasant fiction was maintained that the clever chaps would dream up these monologues during the course of the quiz.

One such that stays with me was “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Scott-James having identified it as a line from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, Norden then launched into his own account. This involved a disquisition upon the unreliability of seasonal underwear and the need for applying animal skin to the nether regions, thus leading to Shelley’s indispensable advice: “if winter coms can spring, be fur behind”. The use of the term ‘coms’ – popular shorthand for the pre-central-heating one-piece woollen undergarment known as ‘combinations’ – unerringly dates the yarn.

For myself, I always favoured Norden’s fantasies, perhaps because Longland outrageously favoured Frank Muir: “by the extent and volume of your applause, Frank Muir wins that round and he and Dilys Powell win the contest”. Anybody not partisan could hear that the response of the studio audience showed no such regular favour.

Norden is now the only survivor of the programme. A friend who works in advertising says that he was the most charming, affable and punctilious person to work with. I always rather deplored Norden’s voice-overs, largely on grounds of the products he chose to support. I always hoped to meet him – never have – so that I could point out that I would be unable to accept an invitation to dine chez Norden for fear of being served Wimpyburgers washed down with Hirondelle.

By contrast, I would gladly have eaten anything at the table of Anne Scott-James who, after all, was an early commissioner of the columns of Elizabeth David. And I expect that I would have enjoyed fierce arguments with her husband (they divorced in the early 1960s) Macdonald Hastings who, though very right wing, was certainly charming and interesting if I recall accurately his regular reports for the BBC nightly magazine Tonight. Sir Max Hastings is their son.


A parting note on this year’s magical May that ended yesterday. I happened to be using the binoculars in the garden that morning when I noticed a little face inside the entrance to the nesting box up in the ash. It was a nuthatch fledgling. He kept popping his head out, then withdrawing, sometimes disappearing but then returning to his vantage point. Suddenly he leaned right out of the box and then toppled in an ungainly fashion onto the perch strategically placed at right angles to the entrance. He tottered there a moment or two and then launched himself recklessly at the trunk opposite, landing safely, recovering from his sense of shock and then, with increasing confidence, hopping up the tree in the manner so characteristic of his species. After a few moments, I lost track of him among the leaves. No other face appeared at the nestbox entrance, at least not in the next few minutes. I don’t know whether nuthatches raise a single chick or whether he was the last to venture forth. But I felt that I had witnessed a sublime moment of nature’s everyday evolution. I hope he (or she) chooses to nest in our garden next year and bless us with the next nuthatch generation.

Nuthatch by Jiri Bohdal on Naturfoto website