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Lillabullero is desperately trying to catch up …

As one who found that news photo of the Prime Minister’s weirdly angular curtseying to Prince William in June one of the most cringeworthy and humiliating of recent times in a highly competitive field (she’s only 26 years older than him, just for starters) obviously I’m going to be cheering along with Tom Bower‘s hatchet job on the man Private Eye calls Brian, Rebel Prince: the power, passion and defiance of Prince Charles (Collins, 2018).   Bower claims to being a monarchist who fears that Charles will do for the institution, while I feel that the continuance of the monarchy is a human rights issue, not least for the damage it does to the poor bleeders born into it; not to mention the privilege, expense and general cheek of it all.

Never mind the disputed claim that made headlines about taking along his own toilet seat with him on his travels (or rather his staff doing so), a lot of the well documented evidence here, much gained from interviews from those close to the action, including ex-employees, may well take your breath away.  The book only covers the last 20 years and has five interweaving themes:

  • The long haul post-Diana’s death PR job to re-establish the deeply unpopular Charles with the public and soften them up for the prospect of Queen Camilla
  • His personality, extravagant lifestyle and sense of entitlement.  Six houses, full travelling entourage, private planes, billionaire’s yachts.  Don’t get me started.  Plus: “Loyalty was always a one-way street.”
  • His bonkers ideas – lecturing the BMA on where science has got it wrong! – and attempts to gain them wider favour, involving  establishing a series of wastefully administered charities, mostly funded by billionaires vying for places at the banquet table, writing to Prime Ministers etc.
  • The Paul Burrell affair: a rat of the first order, his prosecution for purloining Diana’s stuff was dramatically dropped in court, after months of assiduous work by detectives, when the Queen suddenly ‘remembered’ a conversation in a car two years earlier, and of course she couldn’t be put in the witness stand; he was threatening to reveal third person court gossip about Charles which no sane person would credit, and which half the world – though not us in the UK, because of an injunction – had heard anyway.

I could go on, but here are some favourite quotes.  How’s this for cynical PR early on in the rehabilitation game (and of course the papers lapped it up):

… photographers were summoned to the reception at Somerset House for five hundred guests to celebrate the National Osteoporosis Society, chaired by Camilla. The charity’s trustees could never have anticipated the enormous interest, but the media had been tipped off by the usual reliable source that Charles and Camilla would greet each other with a kiss.

And here’s a rarity – something good you can say about Tony Blair, who

had been spared Charles’s pained response to his letter which started ‘Dear Prince Charles’ and was signed ‘Yours ever, Tony.’ [A flunky] called Downing Street to stipulate that in future Charles wanted Blair’s letters to start ‘Sir’ and to end ‘Your obedient servant.’  The Prime Minister’s private secretary replied that he refused to ask his master to change his style.

Oh yes, and here the future king is at his fêted Poundbury village project in his (!) Duchy of Cornwell:

Charles was introduced to the owners of a new two-bedroomed house. ‘I have always stuck to the principle,’ he told the couple, ‘that I would not let anyone build a house here that I could not personally live in.’ The occupant of six grand houses did not intend any irony.

Enough!  If you want a good laugh in between bouts of incredulity and outrage (or ‘fury’ as the tabloids would have it), Bower’s book is a good read.

Waiting for Doggo

I took Mark B. MillsWaiting for Doggo (Headline Review, 2014) home from the library by mistake.  A friend has been trying to convert me to the pleasures of Magnus Mills and I thought I’d picked up two of the his books.  Still, though I don’t do cute animal stuff, I liked the title and it made for a pleasing diversion.  Chapter One is an apologetic Dear John letter to Daniel, who would have made a perfect part for the younger Hugh Grant, well before he became Jeremy Thorpe:

And I’m sorry about Doggo.  That’s totally my fault.  God knows what I was thinking.  What was I thinking?  that he would make a difference, even heal us.  You’ll hate that word, like you hate it when I talk about journeys and energies and, yes, angels.
      The thing is, I DO believe in them. And you don’t.  Is this what this is really about?  Maybe.  I used to love your polite tolerance, the sceptical smile in your eyes, but now it pisses me off.  It looks cynical and superior to me now, like you think you have all the answers.  Well you don’t.  Who does?

This had me chortling, and so it continued.  Doggo – at least part-MacGuffin – is the ugliest dog in the world; they hadn’t even got round to naming before she left.  Plot-wise he gets into places and works a certain alchemy therein by spuriously getting away with being described and excused as an emotional support dog.  (Mind, many moons ago, when I was working for Camden Libraries, the Chief Cataloguer – remember them? – used to have this big shaggy thing, never a bother, under her desk all day long; I don’t think anyone was prepared to call her bluff).

Anyway, Daniel, a decent bloke, is a vague would-be-writer who has ended up at Indology, a trendy new advertising agency.  What goes on there is a rich variety of office intrigue, politics and romance shenanigans, all set against a rich satirical look at the industry in general.  Pièce de résistance is the competition between creative teams in the agency for the pitch to give to a client, a French car maker launching a supremely ugly car.  I’m not saying whether “The hatchback of Notre-Dame” is adopted, but I laughed out loud.  All in all great fun, and as it says on the cover, life-affirming … in a cosy but not quite cloying sort of way.  I never got round to reading the Magnus Mills.

The return of the Vinyl Detective

Victory Disc (Titan Books, 2018) is the third in Andrew Cartmel‘s splendid The Vinyl Detective comic crime series and I zipped through it just like the others, which have been extensively and positively reviewed here at Lillabullero, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it, carrying on, as it does, all the fun, thrills, spills and inventiveness of its predecessors.

Our narrator is the eponymous Vinyl Detective and the established crew are all in evidence.  Much loving bickering with his sardonically witty American girlfriend Nevada – in many ways developing into the star of the show – their tolerated mate Tinkler, a grammarian and valve amp and vinyl equipment obsessive, and the cats Fanny and Turk, to name the major players.  It’s full of music, and we get cooking tips too.

This time the VD has become the Shellac Shamus.  The discs he’s been engaged to find are ultra-rare recordings of the Flare Path Orchestra, the British equivalent of the Glen Miller Band, along with collecting memorabilia and contemporaries’ memories of its leader, the late Lucky Honeyland, bomber skipper and postwar successful children’s writer.  Who turns out not to be the ‘decent chap’ he appears to have been; Lucky for an unsuspected reason.  There’s a miscarriage of justice to be uncovered too, discussion of the role of saturation bombing in wartime, and many interesting characters to meet on the way to a nicely wrought climax at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Let me give you a joyful flavour of the language and dialogue: how does the notion of ‘high end cat biscuits’ grab you?  Or ‘frizzy, toffee-coloured hair that hung around her face in untidy waves’ described as ‘a Pre-Raphaelite mess‘?  Ok, maybe a bit specific in its target audience, but some more hair for you consideration: ‘It had been cut in a deliberately nerdy manner, as though he was a member of a 1960s pop band that had wrongly considered itself ironic‘.

I give you, in closing this segment: a post-fight de-briefing, a discussion about light orchestral music, and a clarification:

“We shouldn’t joke about it really.”
“Yes, you should,” said Tinkler. “It’s not every day you get to address a neo-fascist with a breeze block.  As a matter of fact, I think that entitles you to another large glass of red wine.” [Nevada specifies the bottle].

“It’s a slippery slope,” I said. “And awaiting at the bottom is Mantovani.”
He laughed. “Mantovani had his moments, you know. Fucking brilliant use of strings.”

“What is adultery?” said Tinkler. […]
“It’s shagging someone you’re not married to,” said Nevada succinctly. “And if you tell me it should be ‘someone to whom you’re not married’, Tinkler, I shall break a plate over your head.”

To the river

Olivia Laing‘s To the river: a journey beneath the surface (Canongate, 2011) was June’s Book Group book (well I said I needed to catch up) and though I wasn’t able to attend I gather reactions were mixed one way or another on three continuums: get over yourself, get on with it, and … but it had its moments.

In the spring of 2009 I became caught up in one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that sustains us seems destined to collapse. I lost a job by accident, and then, through sheer carelessness, I lost the man I loved.

He moved back to his native Yorkshire, in case you’re interested, but of this we hear little more (though he bought her a vacuum cleaner for Xmas once).  A hydrophile, she decides to walk unaccompanied, as near as she can, the course of the River Ouse in Sussex, a river she knew quite well, from its source to the sea.  Therapy or career move?  We are not told if she had a book contract before or after she succeeded.  The Sussex Ouse is the river Virginia Woolf drowned herself in, so for me at least – Woolf called Ulysses pornography and thought D.H.Lawrence common – it did not augur well.

As a physical journey it’s not without interest.  Just actually finding the source is fascinating, for starters.  We get a lot of naming on flora and fauna in atmospheric descriptions of specific moments, that take a lot for granted in trying to see what she sees, but some of the brushes with humankind, in pub gardens etc. work nicely almost as wild life observation.  It’s a relief to reach the sea, and the last stretch is fascinating in looking at the changes the river has seen.

The psychogeography drags a bit, a lot, I suspect, book-sourced after the event, though I suppose it depends on what you’re interested in.  Simon de Montfort – nah, but fascinating that the finder of a significant early iguanodon find and the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax lived round the corner from one another a century apart in Lewes.  She goes for a couple of dips in the chalky waters, but shares with us the thought that:

It was in a wallow like this that Iris Murdoch and John Bayley began their courtship, or perhaps more accurately consummated it, for the first swim is not dissimilar to the first time a couple spend the night in bed.

To the river was seemingly well received in on the higher-brow book review pages, but it felt to me like it was struggling for a profundity more wished for than delivered.  And every time I contemplate that title – and I bet it’s happening to some of you too – I hear Al Green.  So, to save you some time, here he is:

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… but public transport can’t exactly be said to take the strain.

We decide to make use of our bus passes.  A theoretical journey of less than two miles, it takes an age to get in to Lowestoft and, seated in traffic, we see the next bus we need (an hourly service) on its way out.  On alighting, the racket from seagulls on the neighbouring church tower is deafening:

Later, on another building, we see them nesting on top of the anti-seagull wire defences.  This may be some sort of strategy because the birds are relatively scarce on the best bit of extensive beach  where the beach huts are, away from the town centre.  But I jump ahead of myself.

There are three 99 buses an hour, but two of them only do a shorter round trip to somewhere on the way to where we want to go.  Boarding one of the latter, we ask to make sure, and are told we want the one that leaves at ten minutes past the hour.  We waste some time wandering around a bit in the town.  What we are not told is that the one we want is a double-decker.  So we trustingly get on the single-decker that duly leaves at ten past the hour.  It takes nearly half an hour to reach the suburbs of Lowestoft, which is not a large town.

This may be a good point at which to introduce the guide book we have borrowed from the library.  Laurence Mitchell‘s Suffolk (Bradt, 2014) is an entertaining and droll companion, one of Bradt’s Slow Travel series.  Lowestoft – pronounced ‘Loos-toff’ by the locals, he tells us – gets barely two pages, kicking off with “Lowestoft has probably seen better days“; he makes great play of the town making great play of its being the most easterly point in the British Isles.

Anyway, back on the bus we realise that the scenery (an out-of-town shopping facility, actually) is beginning to look familiar.  This bus may have left at 10 minutes past the hour, but only because it was running massively late due to the log-jammed traffic (for which we could see no cause other than, well, traffic; somebody should do something).  We cut our losses and get off at Lowestoft’s sea-front; another day for Southwold, then.

On the front, obviously, an ice cream is called for.  The combination of intense mid-day heat and stiff sea-breeze makes this something of a sticky – though admittedly seagull free – adventure and we are in dire need of hand-washing facilities.  These are not easy to find, and when we do find the toilets in Kensington Gardens – a pleasant little oasis, flowers, grass, pond etc – they are equipped with those all-in-one machines: in theory you stick your hands in and soap comes, water comes, hot air finishes the job and you remove your hands, fresh, clean and dry.  Out of action in both the men’s and women’s; I don’t think I have ever seen one of these working anywhere.

Buses back to Oulton Broad are scarce at the best of times so we decide to sample the train, which, only being a little unfair, is approaching heritage status.  Hourly timetable, so a dash to the station.  Here it’s probably worth mentioning that Lowestoft seems to be making a bid for the Guinness Book of Records in the category of longest wait for pedestrians between pressing the button at lights to cross the road and the lights changing; it becomes a topic of conversation as crowds build.  We make it with a couple of minutes to spare.  There are two trains sitting in the station (one for Ipswich, one for Norwich – useful for  a rainy day, if we ever get another one)  and in my hurry I manage to fail totally in my reading of the display board, and we sit in the one and watch the other pull out.

As it happens this works to our advantage, because the walk from Oulton Broad South Station (as opposed to North) takes us back through Nicholas Everitt Park, location of Lowestoft Museum, where we had every intention of going anyway.  A word about the splendid Nicholas Everitt Park: every town should have one, a good old-fashioned park, with plenty of grass, flower beds, practically an arboretum of tree varieties, a bandstand, a pond with fornicating mongrel ducks, a bowling green (delicious to sit the other side of the hedge and hear the bowlers’ commentary as the ends progressed), a big well equipped playground, a choice of cafés … and a slightly quirky museum in a Grade II late-seventeenth century building (but later for that).  This is what rich people used to give back to their communities, as opposed to competing among themselves over luxury yachts and abodes, private planes et al.  Thank you Nicholas Everitt, round the world adventurer and spy, among other things – and philanthropist – for this park in 1929.

There’s a lot stuffed into the volunteer-staffed Museum.  Fossils, Roman remains, porcelain (a big deal here in the eighteenth century, apparently), the fishing industry (also big, more, but not too, recently) and a lot else.  Much taken by a cabinet full of Stacey & Evelyn Fincham’s miniature scenes, full of detail and wit – those newspapers are not much bigger than a big thumbnail.   Their website can give a fuller picture (www.lowestoftmuseum.org/).

Knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteering, becomes a bit of a theme over our Suffolk days.  One of the most attractive and flourishing features of English life.  As opposed to the sights and sounds of the youth (and older) emerging from the pub down the round from where we stayed after England’s defeat by Belgium in the group stage of the World Cup.  Minor vandalism and the out-of-tune strains of “I’m England till I die” fading into the night almost enough to make one wish for the early failure of Saint Gareth Southgate’s praiseworthy band of brothers.  Gawd help us if we’d made the Final.

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An often overlooked argument for republicanism is the human rights one.  As the future King George VI says of his younger brother at the close of Stephen Poliakoff‘s epic tear-jerker The lost prince, ‘He was the only one of us who was able to be himself.’  You might well say: OK, but who is? – “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?” as Mr Dylan asked (most mysteriously) in his Ballad in Plain D – but here’s Harry – His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales to you (yea right! doubtless sez my Welsh-speaking friend Caz) – Harry, just lately, who was born to it, no escape: Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so …

The lost Prince (2003) is a lovely piece of work, powerful, intensely personal, its central narrative delivered within a broad historical sweep.  Born 1905, the sixth and last son of George V, Prince ‘Johnnie’ suffered from epilepsy and had a learning disability.  He is portrayed here as an innocent, a happy open soul.  In a brilliant set-piece he witnesses a grand state banquet, and elsewhere he watches his uncles – Tsar Alexander! Kaiser Wilhelm! – at play.  Sheltered from public view on the Sandringham estate, and spared a royal grooming, enjoying simple pleasures, he is lovingly cared for by ‘Lalla’, a nanny, played by Gina McKee; her grief at his death in 1919 is a heartbreaker.

Let us consider, then, the life of Princess Margaret, in the light of Philip Larkin’s This be the verse – you know, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” – when your mum and dad just happen to be King and Queen of England (and the rest), and they think they’re doing it for the good of the nation, which may render that first half of the second line a bit of a problem.

I can imagine Poliakoff wondering briefly about Princess Margaret as a potential subject – her life certainly reflects the changing zeitgeist – but quickly dismissing the notion because no matter how much you can sympathise with her situation, she seems not to allow any room for the melancholy that sings, as well as that most of the supporting cast make you feel like reaching for a gun.  And he doesn’t do exotic locations anyway.

Ma’am Darling

Craig Brown‘s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses if Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is not a conventional biography; the humour of this master parodist and satirist – a regular in Private Eye – runs deep.  Ma’am darling‘s 99 glimpses skip about the timeline a bit, include fictional what-if interventions (like the horrific Hello article describing the family home of her and Jeremy Thorpe as a married couple – of which more later), goes off at various illuminating tangents, and one glimpse even emerges from a dream the author had.  He tellingly maps her position in the indexes – who she appears between – of the published diaries of the great, not so great, and the good etc; the question, “Why is she in all these diaries and memoirs? What is she doing there?” is the book’s starting point, ranging thereafter from the young Margaret asking of her father, Papa, do you sing, “God Save My Gracious Me”?’ to John Julius Norwich’s I have never known an unhappier woman’ after her death, becoming, among other things along the way, “the world’s most difficult guest“.

Apart from it being an easy source of republican evidence, I got hold of Ma’am Darling from the public library because I was still intrigued by the memory of something I was told by a young man who had just spent the summer before going up to uni putting in time in the offices of either Black Dwarf or Red Mole (radical socialist news-sheets of the time, Tariq Ali was involved), that they had been visited one day by Princess Margaret on the arm of another Marxist celeb of the period.  No confirmation here of anything like that, but there’s still plenty to engage in her bohemian Swinging Sixties period, or at least that was new to me:

Love thwarted

The story goes that she was not allowed to marry her first love, war hero Group Captain Townsend, a divorced commoner.  Not that much of a pleb, mind – he’d been equerry to King George VI since 1944 among other duties in the inner workings of the royal household.  Nevertheless, the Peter Townsend affair served as an early litmus paper of attitude -, the hypocrisies, the taking of sides – to an emerging post-war social shift concerning modernity, class, divorce and the place of religion that continues to this day.  The press cuttings make fascinating reading:

The romance became public at the Queen’s coronation on 2 June 1953, when Princess Margaret was spotted picking fluff of the Group captain’s lapel. It was hardly Last Tango in Paris, but in those days interpersonal fluff-picking was a suggestive business. The next morning it was mentioned in the New York papers, but the British press remained silent for another eleven days. The People then printed the headline ‘They Must Deny it NOW!’

Get that ‘must deny’!  Before she was 25 years old Margaret could not marry without the consent of the Queen, who happened to be her older sister.  (It’s hard not surrender to a surfeit of exclamation marks).  Once 25 she would be able to marry who she liked.  As that time approached she became the object of fever-pitched attention: “COME ON MARGARET!’ ran the Daily Mirror headline, imploring her to ‘please make up your mind!’”  And then:

On 1 October the new prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden (himself on his second marriage), informed the Princess that it was the view of the cabinet that if she decided to go ahead with the marriage, she would have to renounce her royal rights, and forego her income.

Craig Brown pretty much concludes that would have been, for her, too great a sacrifice, the burning of a bridge too far.

Marries a commoner anyway

Or at least Old Etonian photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones.  ‘Priceless Margarine and Bony Armstrove’ as John Lennon called them in his In His Own Write.  Swinging Sixties London, (dinner) partying with a couple of Rolling Stones and “the barefoot Sandie Shaw” among others.  An awkward moment with a blue movie at the Tynans’ with Harold Pinter & wife, the day rescued by Peter Cook providing “commentary as if for a Cadbury’s Milk Tray advert“.  Did she embrace the egalitarianism of the times?  Rather not.  This from a footnote (Craig Brown gives great footnote):

Beyond her family, her old dresser, Ruby Gordon, was the only person allowed to call her ‘Margaret’. Her insistence on being addressed as ‘Ma’am’, ‘Madam’ and ‘Your Royal Highness’, even by old friends and lovers, is a thread that runs through the life of the Princess. There was always an element of Hyacinth Bucket about her, a tendency to keep her high horse tethered for use at all times, even in the company of old friends. Clearly, the Princess felt that being called ‘Margaret’ involved crossing an invisible line which heavy petting did not.

 She becomes a walking contradiction, regardless of the social circle she finds herself in.  Lady Gladwyn, wife of the Paris ambassador at the time diarises: ‘Princess Margaret seems to fall between two stools. She wishes to convey that she is very much the Princess, but at the same time she is not prepared to stick to the rules if they bore or annoy her, such as being polite to people.’   The character of Ma’am Ca’amp emerges, says Brown: “Ma’am Ca’amp enjoys inverting expectations: to those expecting grace, it presents hauteur; to those expecting empathy, it delivers distance. To those in need of tradition, it offers modernity. To those in need of modernity, it offers tradition.”

The Best Man

But before we leave their unhappy marriage, how about the man the man who wasn’t allowed to be Bony Armstrove’s Best Man in 1960?  Vetoed by MI5, no less, I give you (this really was news to me, and it makes me feel ancient) Tony’s Old Etonian contemporary and pal: Jeremy Thorpe, later leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976.  He’d got the thumbs down from the security forces simply because he was gay (as it wasn’t called in those days).  Younger readers might want to check him out as a real sort-of-tragedy of his times from an obituary: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/04/jeremy-thorpe.  In 1979 he was tried at the Old Bailey on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder, the case involving blackmail over a past liaison.  Produced in evidence was a postcard he’d sent, on the announcement of the royal engagement, to an ex-lover, : What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other’.

The problem with royal biographers

No guilt in taking pleasure from a well wrought insult:

Given time, neurologists may well establish a firm connection between mental illness and the writing of books about the Royal family. But which comes first? Are mad men driven to write about royalty. Or does writing about royalty drive men mad?

Brown continues, “The authors of royal books divide into fawners and psychos” and gives some extraordinary examples of grown men and women fawning over unremarkable; “In other instances, royal biographers are beset by split personalities, their inner sycophant battling with their inner psychopath“.   There is a particular problem, though:

Biography is at the mercy of information, and information about the Royal family is seldom there when you want it. Or rather, there is a wealth of information, but most of it is window-dressing: the shop itself is shut, visible only through the front window, its private offices firmly under lock and key.

Well this is the first of its ilk I’ve ever read, but it won’t be the last.  There’ a ‘controversial’ new book about Prince Charles out soon – Tom Bower’s Rebel prince – that I’m quite looking forward to.  I’ll admit there’s an element of schadenfreude in this – Charles was born the same year as me and I was never given an Aston Martin DB6 for my twenty-first birthday – but then I was never bullied into marrying someone I didn’t love either, which takes us back to the argument about human rights and republicanism.

The problem with biography

John Bindon, criminal and sometime actor – he played himself pretty much, it is said, in the powerful Nic Roeg movie Performance (the one with Mick Jagger, tripping, morphing into a gangster) – spent a lot of time on the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique, a wealthy hangout where Margaret also spent a lot of time with lover Roddy Llewellyn after her divorce.  There he had a notorious party piece:

Such vastly different accounts of such a comparatively minor detail in the history of the twentieth century might lead some to question the very nature of biography. If no-one – not even those who witnessed it – can agree on John Bindon’s party piece, then what on earth can they agree on? Bindon is, after all, a pretty recent figure, having passed away in 1993 … His stunt was witnessed by so many people on so many occasions that it might be said to have been his calling card. Yet no one can agree on exactly what it was.

Craig Brown offers eight different versions of the specifics of his trick, involving his reportedly legendary erect penis and the balancing on or hanging from of between three to ten half pint glasses (and/or a small sherry schooner).  “Will we ever get to the bottom of what happened between John Bindon and Princess Margaret in the mid-1970s on the island of Mustique?” he asks.  No, he says, but there is a photo suggesting their social paths crossed. 

Hell of an epitaph

I enjoyed Ma’am Darling immensely, both as social document and for its sometimes cruel knockabout humour.  Of course it’s not just about the cards you’re dealt with, rather how you play them, but in the end an element of compassion has to creep in regardless – the old society-is-to-blame” schtick.  Brown speculates about nature-versus-nurture and extrapolates from a fact of a life:

… had Margaret been born first – would Margaret have become the dutiful monarch, and Elizabeth the wayward bossyboots? Or would Queen Margaret I have been a chain-smoking, high-camp, acid-tongued, slugabed monarch, leaving her younger sister, HRH the Princess Elizabeth, in her tweed skirts and her sensible shoes, to pick up the pieces?  […] How odd to emerge from the womb fourth in line, to go up a notch at the age of six, up another notch that same year, and then to find yourself hurtling down, down, down to fourth place at the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, fifth at the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, then downhill all the way, overtaken by a non-stop stream of riff-raff – Prince Andrew and Prince Edward … and the rest of them, down, down, down, until by the time of your death you have plummeted to number eleven, behind Zara Phillips … Not many women have to face the fact that their careers peaked at the age of six, or to live with the prospect of losing their place in the pecking order to a succession of new-born babies, and to face demotion every few years thereafter. Small wonder, then, if Princess Margaret felt short-changed by life.

Also mentioned in despatches

Ma’am Darling is full of little details, asides, incidentals, walk-on parts:

  • when news of her affair with Roddy Llewellyn, the aforementioned lover on Mustique, broke, a public ‘tuttathon’ ensued, “… each action sparking yet another reaction from politicians, columnists and readers: tut-tuts followed by more tut-tuts at the tut-tuts“.  Poor young Roddy is a creature from a comic novel: “the put-upon anti-hero of a picaresque novel, wide-eyed and feckless, sheepish and gallivanting, opportunist and victim, was finding more and more offers strewn across his path, each promising something for nothing, or if not for nothing, then for not very much …”  He recorded and released a pop album with great fanfare, which “… in a fortnight, only thirteen copies had sold at London’s largest record store, HMV“.  Which is reassuring, really.
  • the beautiful young Princess Margaret was a figure of obsession for some surprising people: like Picasso, or novelist John Fowles, who might have had her in mind when writing The collector; fans of Peter Sellers best look away as his wife (only Britt Eklund) “grew nauseated by the vast sums her husband spent on sucking up to the Snowdons” and Margaret in particular.
  • There are a couple of claimant sons banging about demanding DNA tests et al.
  • Once in Rotherhithe they could play at being a groovy young couple, smoking (Gauloises for Tony, Chesterfields for M) and frying sausages and drinking and having a high old-time“.  Ah yes, I remember them well; beat Park Drive or No.6 every time).
  • Oh, and fans of the subtle and telling use of the footnote will find many asterisks to delight them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note the duct-tape running repairs on Leadbessie. Photo © DRQ

Blues

American bluesman Kent DuChaine was back in town a couple of weeks or so ago, and the full house in York House had a grand time of it.  A bit of a legend locally for performances in the White Horse and the Fox & Hounds, this was his first visit to Stony Stratford in 10 years, and many in the audience were feeling nostalgic.  Only a decade here myself, this was the first time I’d caught him.

Armed only with ‘Leadbessie’, his trusty 85 year old National Steel Guitar (owned for a couple of years shy of half its life), he charmed a full house with tales from his musical – he’s played with or been on the bill with most of the post-war blues legends – and personal life, (his ‘four and a half wives’), and some immaculate playing. 

I had been expecting something more raucous, but was not disappointed.  Here was a pre-Chicago blues, with Robert Johnson a major influence; indeed, he told us about his getting Johnny Shines, self-appointed apprentice to Johnson way back when, performing again.  With a flourishing right hand – the ups and downs caught in the lights – putting in a more mileage than your average guitarist, he delivered two sweet sets consisting of both standards and originals, vocals a lot more a caress than a holler.  He finished with immaculate takes on St James Infirmary and a redeemingly sad Trouble in mind, for him the greatest blues song of them all.

Here’s the man’s website: http://www.kentduchaine.com/

Dues

I’ll be honest, this section is called ‘Dues’ for purely rhyming purposes, though there is a case to be made that the numerous denizens of the novel in question have well and truly paid some dues by the time it’s finished.

Title page!

I thought it was time I read Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman‘s Good omens: the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch (1990).  I’m glad I did.  It’s brilliant.  Normally I take the odd note as I’m reading a book, marking my card for bon mots, decent one-liners and passages of note for potential use here at Lillabullero.  They abound, on pretty much every page; I didn’t even start.

Brief scenario:  Agnes Nutter wrote a book of prophecies in the early days of print media; it was the only one that actually got things right, but was remaindered, having missed the commercial boat, and now there’s only one left.  It predicts the coming of the Antichrist and the apocalypse is, it says, immanent at the time the book is set.  Which is contemporary to when it was written, when cars still had cassette players; there’s a running joke involving Queen’s Greatest Hits in such machines.  There’s been a three-way baby swap eleven years previous, so confusion as to where the young Antichrist is to be found; turns out to be Tadfield, an English village in the Cotswolds.

Aziraphale and Crowley, the long-standing representatives of, respectively, heaven and hell on Earth, have established a modus operandi over the centuries and have come to realise any conclusion to their conflict would do one of them out of a job and both out of a pleasant enough existence; they’ve gone native to some extent.  Crowley has long realised he doesn’t have to do much – just the odd nudge – for humankind to do their worst on their own anyway (though he’s particularly proud of the M25); they are both contemptuous of the Satanists.  Aziraphale runs a rare bookshop in Soho, Crowley is a bit of a dude.  They combine forces to try and avert what’s coming.  That’s just two of an enormous cast that includes a Witchfinder Sergeant, the actual Antichrist, a bit charismatic but as innocent as his pals, a teenage girl called Anathema, and many, many more.

One of my favourite bits involves the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse, ‘Hell’s Angels’ spelt out on the back of their leathers with diamond-encrusted lettering; oh, and by the way, Pestilence was replaced by Pollution after the invention of penicillin.  On their way to Tadfield they meet up in a biker café, where their credentials are challenged by the resident biker gang, “What chapter are you?”  Comes the response: “Revelations” from one of them, followed up by a verse and line reference from another.

The whole book is chock full of stuff like that.  Scatter-gun humour, most of it sticking – irony, slapstick, wit and wisdom, it’s all there, driven by this crazy narrative of the threat of the coming apocalypse.  I wasn’t keen on the way that Adam (aka the Antichrist) and his pals are made to talk at first  – a bit cod-childish like that godawful Haribou TV ad where rugby players or tossers at a management meeting talk with the dubbed voice of children – but on the whole the misses don’t get in the way.   The anti-climax (oops, spoiler alert, but you know, the world doesn’t end, obviously) are beautifully delivered.

And fans of the footnote are in for a treat.  Sitting where I am, here in MK, I feel duty bound to repeat this classic, that has proved its worth over time:

*Note for Americans and other aliens.  Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.

Another at random: *It is possibly worth mentioning at this point that Mr Young thought that paparazzi was a kind of Italian linoleum.

Post-2006 editions boast delightful short pieces by each author about the other and a Q&A about who did what and how it was written; some passages neither of them can remember writing.  Gaiman makes the point that when they were writing it they hadn’t yet become the big names they were to become; it was just a couple of mates mucking about.

Views; or why you can trust Alison Graham

… or at least as far as drama goes.  These classic put-downs from the last three weeks of Radio Times:

Girlfriends  ITV: Wed 7th Feb 2018
Kay Mellor’s bizarre low farce ends with a futile attempt at black comedy. But first there are the usual shocks and jarring plot developments thrown around like mud pies.  […]

Aided by laborious flashbacks, we find out what happened on the cruise ship when the husband vanished, before the three come up with a plan that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It ends with what amounts to a plea for a second series but ITV, please, ignore it.

Trauma  ITV: Wed 14th Feb 2018 (3rd of 3)
[…]  By the end of the final episode of Mike Bartlett’s thriller you might be left with the unsatisfactory feeling, “What was the point of all that?”

Marcella ITV: Mon 19th Feb 2018
Two years after the first series, tormented DS Marcella returns for another eight episodes of roaringly bonkers London noir. As the capital’s high-rises pierce hard sunsets, Marcella is called to a murder scene. A builder has found a human ear, which leads to the discovery of a desiccated body surrounded by toys in a wall cavity.

Of course, Marcella – and her son – knew the victim, whose mum blames both of them for her boy’s murder. So clearly Marcella’s the right person to be part of the murder squad. (No she isn’t.)

The hysterical soundtrack screams warnings of horrors around every corner. Angry tattooed bald men snarl, a young man is strapped to a gurney as an unseen hand fondles medical instruments, paedophiles prowl and trains (there are always trains in crime dramas) shriek as they mimic Marcella’s deranged despair. Honestly? It’s hilarious.

You know what not to watch!  Take a bow again, Alison Graham.  Though she does have dodgy taste in comedy.

A courgette flower … just because. ©DRQ

& Clues

… of a cryptic crossword kind.  I won’t say I’m an addict but we usually have a go at the Guardian Cryptic most days.  Here are a brief selection of clues that have particularly tickled my fancy and saved over the years.  For me the best clues can be good puns, zen koans,  bad puns, a celebration of the intricacies of the English language, some really neat word magic, the whole gamut from Wow! to Doh! or just good fun.  They deserve to be enjoyed beyond grid.

Good place here I guess, also, to bid a fond farewell to Rufus, the usual setter of the Guardian Monday cryptic, not just because his were easier than the rest, but also because of his wit.

I think the clues I’ve selected are really neat; the setter is credited first.  You can find the solutions and explanations under another photo saying Roll on summer.  Have fun:

from Philistine: Satchmo’s gripe? (7,8) 
Rufus: Records where St Joan kept bees? (8) 
Boatman: Every other neat clue (9) 
Rufus: Well-used footwear? (4) 
Brummie: Philosophy causing communist to swap sides (6)  
Rufus: A full one should give you a capital start (4) 
Imogen: Frank, a father who feels he’s a woman? (11) 
Rufus: Useless advice! (9) 
Boatman: Tedious “nu” clue (8) 
Rufus: Blimey! Alec capsized the boat (7) 

Roll on summer  ©DRQ. used here purely to create a buffer between the clues and the solutions.

 

 

from Philistine: Satchmo’s gripe? (7,8) Stomach disorder (disorder=anagram of Satchmo)
Rufus: Records where St Joan kept bees? (8) Archives (Joan of Arc+where bees are kept)
Boatman: Every other neat clue (9) Alternate (Really neat: the order of the letters of ‘neat’ altered!)
Rufus: Well-used footwear? (4) Pump (You use a pump to get water from the well)
Brummie: Philosophy causing communist to swap sides (6)  Taoism (Swap the T & M around …)
Rufus: A full one should give you a capital start (4) Stop (Capital letter after a full stop)
Imogen: Frank, a father who feels he’s a woman? (11) Transparent (synonym of Open, constructed from a trans parent!)
Rufus: Useless advice! (9) Economise (Use less)
Boatman: Tedious “nu” clue (8) Unvaried (ie. the letters n&u varied (also a dig at people who use nu for new?))
Rufus: Blimey! Alec capsized the boat (7) Coracle (Cor! + Alec ‘capsized’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Well … some of it is down to slothdom and procrastination, and some of it is down to events and body stuff, but the blog Lillabullero hereby makes a furious try (that’s furious as in quick rather than anger) at catching up:

La Belle Sauvage

Hugely exciting, I was swept along by the perilous escape by boat that gives it its title, at the core of La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling, 2017).  Left me both soaring and floundering as to what to read next, like … bring on the second volume of The Book of Dust – right NOW! – please Philip Pullman.

Like its predecessor His dark materials trilogy, this one is full of ideas and charm – and good advice for teens – as the battle of the good guys against the bastards in the parallel universe land of Brytain is played out.  Pullman gets to champion public libraries again too.

I’d forgotten about the totemic daemons on everyone’s shoulders or thereabouts, and how until their ‘owners’ grow up they are changelings, a fascinating notion.  Here Lyra and Pantalaimon are only 6 months old, but we are assured the new trilogy is an ‘equel’ – more than a prequel.

It may be over 500 pages long, but it’s an easy read with a lot of dialogue to drive it along, and it is, after all, a children’s book, but it easily transcends that (unlike Potter).  It boasts a generous cast of characters of all shades, one of whom, Hannah Relf, is a librarian, and some lovely nod and a wink asides:

Hannah ate her sandwich slowly … and reading a book. It was nothing to do with work; it was a thriller, of the sort she liked, with a mysterious death, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, and a haughty and beautiful heroine whose function was to fall in love with the saturnine but witty hero.

Nothing like the resourceful 11-year-old Malcolm and the feisty 15-year-old Alice at the heart of La Belle Sauvage, then.

The shock of the fall

I liked the fiction of Nathan Filer‘s  The shock of the fall (Harper Collins, 2013) being a neat pile of writings and documents left for someone to find in the vacated, due for demolition, building that had recently housed Day Care Centre in which the writings’ author and subject had begun a road to recovery (probably).

19-year old Matthew Holmes’ journey – I won’t go into specifics, but they are not without interest – through a troubled childhood into a schizophrenic breakdown, leading to hospitalisation and then out into care in the community, is presented typographically as a mix of pages tapped out on an old typewriter or printed out at the Centre (with the odd bit of concrete poetry), interleaved with increasingly concerned hand-written letters from his social worker, and a friend’s drawings.  He describes himself at one stage as being “hunched over a typewriter, staining paper with family secrets“, while in the printouts he will comment to and on whoever’s looking over his shoulder at the PC; there are a lot of nice touches and self-deprecation like that in his voice).

I have to say that though I’m a fan of slow reveal narratives this one struck me as a bit too slow, and repetitive with it.  Nevertheless, and even through a certain reek of the university Creative Writing Department about it (the mirroring of two key events in particular), in the end I was moved by Matthew’s tale, and his Nanny Noo’s faith.  A broader appreciation of The shock of the fall grew after a Book Group meeting in which someone with experience both as a mental health worker and client bravely put things in the book in context with their experience.  Book Groups can be a splendid things!

But I really wanted to be an anthropologist

I turned out to be an illustrator, but I really wanted to be ...” is how Margaux Motin kicks off this collection (Self Made Hero, 2012; translated Edward Gauvin) from her French language cartoon blog.  I had a great time with it.  Her reflections on motherhood with two demanding children and a trimly stubbled partner run a gamut from ennui (she draws a great bored face) through to girlish delight, taking in a (sorry to be repeat myself) self-deprecatory love of life, a touch of filth and a lot of finely detailed shoes.

On the right here there’s an extract from the page headed ‘A few things you should know about me’.  There’s an adept use of colour, used in a variety of ways.  Despite the consistency of line, as I turned the pages there was no danger of being over familiar with a sameness of style and approach.

Experience the sheer joy of this double-page spread and know that it’s only half way through, with a punchline to come:

Mentioned in despatches:

These I was at, and another day might have got a lot more attention, in particular the splendid Kara (energetic Russian influenced folk from all over, strong vocals, accordion, the wonderful sound of the low notes of the hammered dulcimer – here’s their website) and Five Men Not Called Matt (of whom there are more than 5, and not all men, lustily shantying and more, with subtle support from a solo Roddy Clenaghan), both at York House.  Tim Buckley ably kept the Scribal show on the road in November (where we had the first helping of Richard Frost’s new epic in progress), and there must have been a Vaultage in there somewhere.  Stony Tracks, a local Desert Island Discs derivative, was launched in some style.  Shame to miss the lantern parade and Stony Christmas lights turn on, but needs musted.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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… to be part of the mass singing along to Like a rolling stone at the 2017 Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention, upstairs in the Dome of the Boston pub in Tufnell Park?  Pretty good!  A surprise sprung on us (and maybe the rest of the band) by Dave Clarke (no, not that one) towards the end of the proceedings.  Little bit of sacrilege does no-one any harm (Eh, Geoff?).

Earlier that same day …

So many people at Euston Station, even midday on a Sunday and the trains mostly running on time.  Down onto the Northern Line to Archway where the Archway Tavern (home of the pub interior featured on Muswell Hillbillies) is out of commission for the time being, but after road remodelling no longer perilously (for pedestrians) sited on its own traffic island; there’s a swish purpose-built cycle lane to the left of the photo.

Has that Guinness clock advert really been there since the Millennium?

And it’s up Highgate Hill on a clear day (past Dick Whittington’s cat, who appears to be eating the paintwork, or trying to escape) on my annual nostalgic stroll (except I had to miss last year, due to a debilitating cold).

I lived in Highgate – nearer the tube station than the Village – when I first moved to London, but spent many a contented hour taking in the pleasures of Waterlow Park, which then boasted an active aviary, and giving Karl Marx a nod in the adjoining cemetery (inscribed on the tomb: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”), though that bit is no longer open entry.

And so into a very green – the luxuriant grass at least – Waterlow Park.  One year I saw that tree garlanded and a wedding celebration taking place, the married couple dancing in full wedding garb under its bows.  This year the only voices I heard were speaking in foreign tongues.  I’m not complaining; well, I suppose I am – what is wrong with all the natives, eschewing this lovely park on a bright bracing sunny day?

On the way down, on my way out, some remaining leaves for my autumn almanac.  Out onto Chester Road and down the hill to the Boston.  Breaking the habit of a lifetime, I actually pay to check in my coat at the cloakroom; it gets steamy.  Old style real life fandom (if you ignore all those phones recording stuff).  Guinness at £4.90 a pint.  A fiver next year?  I blame Brexit.  This year, with a bow to the demographic, there was more seating – arranged concert style – available (that I don’t use; found a decent column to lean on).

The first North London hosted annual Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention I went to was actually held upstairs in the Archway Tavern, in 1998.  It was a pretty relaxed occasion, there were lots of tables and a chance to chat and meet up with people one had only known till then in the glory – pre-FB – days of Kinks Preservation Society mailing list; first ‘Hi’ to Olga and the two Geoffs.  It stayed there for another three years, until the owners turned the venue into a flash failed disco or night club – whatever.  A new venue was found in the function room of the Boston Arms, one tube stop down, getting so well attended and crowded that for the last few years it has moved upstairs into their Dome venue, with the advantages of a decent stage and sound setup but a bit of a falling off of a sense of community.

The 1998 ticket proudly boasts “with Mick, Nobby, The Baptist [the Muswell Hillbillies veterans] and Dave Clarke (subject to availability)”, the next year’s has them as the Kast Off Kinks; years again later a fan poll would dismiss the suggestion to lose an F.  In those early days it was a pleasingly ramshackle affair, the band agreeing on a list of songs and practising solo up until the day but still working up an emotional storm.  As the years have gone by most of the others who had served (there have been two basic bands) were regularly incorporated into the set, including two of the  backing singers from the Preservation tours.  Of those still alive (most, in fact) only  – somewhat disappointingly – Dave Davies has not been involved.  Dave Clarke ably stands in for the brothers Davies single-handedly; you can find out more about him (including a lengthy mid-career spell in the Royal Navy!) and much else at the Kast Off’s website: http://kastoffkinks.co.uk/

These days the Kast Off Kinks are a working band.  Their website lists a total of 63 other gigs for this year, with 54 already announced for next year.  Nobby (John Dalton) announced his retirement about 5 years ago but still features regularly on bass when Jim Rodford isn’t off with Argent or the Zombies, while Bob Henrit will sometimes dep for original drummer Mick Avory.  The excellent Ian Gibbons is the featured keyboards man (it’s been a while, I think, since The Baptist (John Gosling) was active).  Dave Clarke is ever-present.  They were all involved at some stage on Sunday, still seemingly enjoying one another’s company.  Vocals a bit more shared than they used to be, or was that just more of Ian.  They may be a more polished and rehearsed outfit these days, but there is thankfully still room for a bit of mayhem.

Percussivating organ sounds

Three sets, 41 songs (thanks Olga for the listing), with mutating bassmen and drummers (bit like watching Doctor Who regenerate).  Naturally plenty of the favourites, community singing to the usuals and almost every word of Shangri-La; God’s children too given its due.  Some songs moving towards their own KOK interpretations.  Have to say a jauntily throwaway Muswell Hillbilly disturbed me.  Apparently the very first outing for I’m not like everybody else (mass singing, d’accord).  Some nice train-like embellishments  from Dave’s guitar on Last of the steam powered trains.  Some outstanding keyboard work from Ian throughout: I’ve noted swirling organ on See my friends.  a rousing Better things.  The aforementioned majestic Like a rolling stone.  A joyous rousing Louie Louie with some exciting percussive work from Ian in Hammond organ mode, an epic Long Tall Sally.  Great playing all round.  And goodnight (or at least good evening – it’s an afternoon gig).

Oh yes, and somewhere in there, Ray Davies makes an appearance, in good voice for – this year – a whole You really got me, and graciously praising and thanking the Kinks Fans Kollektiv, who on Friday and Saturday nights had graced two pubs with their Kinks tributes.  It was good to meet again with Dave Emlen, proprietor of the long-running – practically from the birth of the Web! – Kinda Kinks website.  And, of course there was the traditional Dedicated follower of fashion vocal from Mick Avory, the gold lame jacket shed for a superhero themed number.  There’s a bootleg Kinks instrumental – basically a blues shuffle – goes by the title Mick Avory’s underpants.  There was a guaranteed pair of Mick Avory’s shorts (cries of ‘Shame’) on offer in the auction, went for a tidy sum.  As did  the other wares in same.  The whole shindig supports the Childhood Leukemia charity.  Bill Orton and the Official Kinks Fan Club committee are to be thanked once more for their sterling efforts (a currency that has not been devalued).

So many people at Euston again.  Home again in time for Blue Planet.  Thanks to other Geoff for directing me to this, for which I am grateful – as maybe you, dear reader, will be too:

 

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Street sign in Helston

Last week in June, two days of can’t grumble, two drizzling days of miserable, two days of mostly pissing down.  Everyone saying how awful the previous week’s heatwave had been.  And I believe them.  Got seagulled in St Ives.  Pastie and sea bream in batter safely ingested, but despite the warnings with each purchase, carelessly pointing mid-consumption with cream tea flavoured ice cream in hand … whoosh, serviette and all, taken from behind.

To the museums! 

St Ives Museum a fascinating old-fashioned warren, a vaguely themed jumble of stuff, maritime, domestic, occupational.  Strictly no photos, I’m afraid, but amid the posters, portraits, ceramics, bad paintings, models, tools, flags, and myriad artefacts of the local populace:

  • a pair of boots modelled from bread and paper by an Italian POW at St Erith camp
  • a collection of ancient typewriters
  • dolls sculpted by fishermen from broken oars
  • a naval lieutenant’s cocked hat and its metal carrying case
  • a collection of policemen’s helmets and handcuffs
  • an Acme British ribbed glass washboard, perfect for skiffle
  • a steam operated printing press that unfortunately hasn’t steamed for many a year
  • a lamp hanging from the ceiling salvaged from the French crabber George le Bail, that was “accidentally run down and sunk at anchor in St Ives Bay” 11 March 1953
  • a display and video about the John Knill Ceremony Bequest of 1767: every 5 years, involving the mayor, vicar and customs officer in procession on St James Day with 10 girls aged under 10 dressed in white to dance  around his unfilled pyramid tomb to a fiddler’s accompaniment (fiddler’s fee originally £1, these days £25).  Plus the singing of the Old Hundredth psalm (“All people that on earth do dwell”) and a charitable handout to the needy.  A splendid old English custom still observed.  More at: http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/john-knill-ceremony/
  • an original poster of George III’s time asking for volunteers to become “Royal tars of Old England”

The Helston Folk Museum was more of the same, if a bit more focussed, but with a charm of its own.  It has the advantage of being sited on an incline, so it’s a slow walk up the long market-style aisle to an open area full of bigger agricultural stuff and a mezzanine of old shop fronts, and then back down again on the other side, with cases full of more stuff down the centre.  Among the joys:

  • documentation and photos of Helston’s first car
  • a collection showing the changing shape of police batons
  • bone miniature binoculars: “A souvenir of Margate”
  • a miniature dice with case “made from the tooth of a lion”

Helston was free entry but people would have happily paid an entrance fee; St Ives was £3 but well worth it for a refreshing anything is valid clutter.  Both were refreshingly free of IT flash and any obvious need to educate.  Chastening to see the stuff of one’s youth and later displayed in a museum.

A surprise, then to find The Art of Kuriology exhibition – now ended – in the art gallery space at the back of the Helston Museum.  As the rubric says, curiosities indeed – a roomful of them slightly adrift in time and space from the Folk Museum it was showing in.  Click on the illustrations to enlarge them.  And the centre piece, scenes from a science fiction disaster movie … or an imaginary future … a wheel bad dream?

Click on the image for explanation

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