Friday, January 30, 2009


This will mean little to most readers of this blog, but Bill Frindall died today.

This is genuinely upsetting for me, far more disturbing than it ought to be. This must be because he was, literally, unique.

RIP Bearders.


No, thinking about it, it is upsetting because in my lifetime there has never not been a Bearded Wonder on TMS. I must have assumed he was a permanent fixture, but of course it turns out that nothing is permanent.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


These two should have been English.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The cruellest month

January must be endured.

But I won’t dwell on the trials of the first month of the year: the self-conscious slowness of time; the constant sense of wanting to get January over with so we can get on to the nicer months; the terrible business of writing the wrong year (ie. last year) when you date something and then realising how quickly the decades are disappearing.

Instead, let’s look at the positives. It hasn’t rained much. And there are lots of Christmas puppies about. Because it wasn’t raining yesterday, Mrs Brit and I went to Snuff Mills for a stroll along the wooded valley that cups a short, walkable stretch by the River Avon. It would be picturesque if the water wasn’t so brown. I mean it’s really, revoltingly brown. It looks like the stream that tempted Augustus Gloop to his chocolatey doom in Willy Wonka’s factory, only far less tempting. Gloop would have resisted the Avon without difficulty, I feel.

Anyway there were lots of Christmas puppies about, being walked. Aren’t they lovely? I always think that enthusiastic dogs make life worthwhile. They bring a maudlin tear to the eye as they plod merrily and waggily up to you on their oversized paws for a stroke and a cuddle, wholly trusting and little suspecting that you’re about to produce a shovel from behind your back and give them an almighty thwack on the …of course I jest.

You can choose from several paths at Snuff Mills. We walked west beside the riverbank, and then back east along a higher path, cut about halfway up the valley. It was on the homeward route that we happened upon the remnants of a defunct bench. All that was left of it was the metal frame (the legs and armrests); the wooden slats made for sitting on were all gone.

“Here, have a nice sit down on that,” I said facetiously to Mrs Brit, by way of a small joke.

Mrs Brit paused, looked at it, and then pointed down the valley at another, fully-intact bench directly below. “It’s like the echo of that bench”, she said.

I stared at her in wonder. “What an extraordinarily poetic thought," I said. "I wish I'd thought of that."

She doesn’t come out with them all that often, it must be confessed, but when she does they’re absolute zingers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A stroll up Geoffrey Hill

Via Patrick Kurp I find this interview with English poet Geoffrey Hill. Hill is a very, very serious poet, and this makes him very, very funny. The highlight of the interview is this magnificently Enderby-ish declaration:

The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.

I am reminded of an exchange with Nige on Thought Experiments. Nige accused Simon Armitage of being ‘no poet’, by which he meant: a poet, but not a real one. That is, not a great one. That is, not like Hill. Hill would call Armitage a mediocre poet. Armitage must, by Hill’s definition, be a mediocre poet because he is not completely isolated. Admittedly, Armitage doesn’t exactly sell like JK Rowling, but no doubt he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public.

Poor public.

Nige and Hill fall, I feel, into a category error. ‘Poet’ is not a category akin to ‘footballer’, where Hill is Stevie Gerrard and Armitage is a Sunday League hoofer. ‘Poet’ is more like ‘sportsman’. Armitage is Stevie Gerrard and Hill is a top polo player. It is the fault of neither Hill nor Armitage that lots of people like football while polo is an esoteric sport beloved by a vanishing few.

Do I sneer at Hill? Am I a Reverse Art Snob? Do I think him a fraud? I do not. He is an undoubted poetic genius. But he operates in a world that, for some reason, I find screamingly funny. Not in a nasty, cynical way. It just tickles me; I can't help it.

A reviewer of Enderby once complained: "It would be helpful if Mr Burgess could indicate somewhere whether these poems are meant to be good or bad". Burgess called this "a fine instance of critical paralysis".

Many of the things I love operate in a strange place that sits somewhere between profound seriousness and taking the piss. So many of the artworks that have really sung to me come from this place: Enderby, Ulysses, Mervyn Peake, Bob Dylan, the many novels of J P Donleavy (I read them voraciously, one after the other, in my late teens), the films of Wes Anderson.

This is a good example:

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Is Wallace Stevens trying to be serious or funny? Is it meant to be good or bad? There is no answer. The question is meaningless. Criticism is meaningless; it misses the point. I like this place; I am comfortable here. This is where I think of England.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

NHS poetry

The Muse Nige once again inspires. This, if you can believe such a thing, is a Shakesperian(ish) Sonnet about an NHS ante-natal unit.

Southmead Hospital (Maternity Unit) Sonnet

Forked out three sixty just for the car park,
Make that four 'cos of course the machine
gives no change, then the sarcastic dark-
eyed desk lady, with face the pale green
of the walls in the forlorn waiting room,
Ticks you off, and says sit anywhere.
So we sit in unfathomable gloom,
Even though we’re all glad to be there.
And you think: is this what communism
is like? If Bevan had this chair,
Would Aneurin have an aneurysm:
Look on my works, ye dreamers, and despair?
And yet, all the miracle we need in life:
A safe scan, a saintly NHS midwife.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural poem for Obama

Nige reminds me that it is traditional for a poet to offer something at the inauguration of the new President. Do you know, I'd forgotten all about it, so I've had to hastily put something together for him. Well, here it is.

I call it simply "Barack Obama"...

O Barack Obama
Wiser than the Dalai
Your battle with Hillary
Clinton made for good
Though it went on a bit
Like a story on
A dull episode of Panorama,
Perhaps about the state of
Ecomonics. However, your victory
Pleased Simon Schama
Who is a British
(Possibly left leaning)
O Barack Obama.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Enraged Scotsmen and Black Swans

I’ve just remembered that I promised to explain about the procession of enraged Scotsmen that visit this blog. I expect you’ve been on tenterhooks.

I don’t concern myself with stats for Think of England. This is just as well, since they are pretty feeble in terms of numbers (especially since the long silence of 2007/08), though I’m confident that I have a better class of reader than any other website on the net. God bless you.

Basically I tick along with old friends checking in, and then the occasional Black Swan ratings hit boosts the figures wildly and distorts the average.

When Bryan Appleyard gave my Haircut post a plug in return for blog-sitting Thought Experiments a few months ago, my stats increased by a factor of ten for one day. And when I was doing Thought Experiments, a wholly unexpected link to this post from Andrew Sullivan’s uber-blog added thousands to Bryan’s stats.

However, two of Think of England’s posts are visited much, much more frequently than any of the others. The first is this scanty cut-and-paste thing about the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice. Somebody at the mighty Internet Movie Database included a link to my post, and a steady stream of costume drama fans from the US continue to click on it. I haven’t even seen the film – so in terms of stat prediction that was a classic Black Swan.

But far and away my number one post is a piece of idle, tongue-in-cheek nonsense I bashed out a few years ago about Why the Scottish Hate the English.

It seems that if you put the terms why the Scottish hate the English or similar variations into Google, dear old Think of England pops up right at the top.

And the funny thing is, an awful lot of Scotsmen do seem to do this; at least two per day. Some of them leave comments. These are invariably rather intemperate and foul-mouthed so every now and again I go in and delete them, though I’ve left some of the more intelligible ones.

Very odd, when you think about it. It leaves us with an interesting question: are there a lot of Scotsmen up there who know they really hate the English, but they need to use Google to discover the precise reasons?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

John Mortimer

In 2005 I went to see Mortimer deliver his 'Miscellany' and wrote about it here.

It was good fun, and until I read my own article there I'd completely forgotten the bizarre detail that Deep Purple's Jon Lord accompanied Mortimer on piano.

Anyway, RIP John. You were, above all else, a hoot.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A wasted quip

This is a story about many things. It begins, arbitrarily, at Cribbs Causeway.

Cribbs Causeway is a sprawling Mecca of retail outlets on the edge of Bristol. As a collective it exerts a powerful magnetic force which sucks in consumers from all over the South West so that the individual shops can then go about the business of sucking the money from their wallets. If you’ve driven Devonwards down the M5 you’ll probably have seen the monstrous Asda at Junction 17 that marks Cribbs’s westernmost outpost, though the biggest draw is The Mall, which houses the clothes shops, restaurants and whatnot.

Between Asda and The Mall, in what presumably used to be fields, and before fields forests, lies a godawful confusion of ‘superstores’ joined together by a hellish system of roundabouts, one-way roads and lack of signage. No matter how many times you go there, it is impossible to drive through it without a rising sense of panic. At every turn you doubt yourself (it reminds you of when you first acquired your license and had to go out and about without the reassurance of an instructor; those nasty early steps on the driving road from almost total funk to almost total boredom).

This week I was obliged to fritter away a precious Saturday morning searching for a Halfords which I’ve visited numerous times before. I eventually found it in the gloom. It is always in the gloom because even the sunlight is smart enough to stay the hell away from the Halfords at Cribbs Causeway. Further errands then forced me to visit countless more outsized retailers. This went on for many hours, in panic and gloom. By the end of my tortuous shopping marathon I had lost all sense of time and scale and, driving home, realised that despite visiting a myriad of megastores I had nonetheless failed to buy the simplest Saturday essentials: The Times and something for lunch.

So heading home it was a quick stop at the cornershop for a paper, some bread and a pack of bacon. As I stood at the counter, busily transacting, the bacon slipped from my grasp and onto the floor. A scruffy builder queuing behind kindly stooped to pick it up.

“Ah thank you, you’ve saved my bacon,” I quipped with, I thought, remarkable rapier-like wit. I turned and waited for his peals of appreciative laughter. Alas, it was in vain. He gave me a toothless smile and uttered something in an accent so thick and impenetrable that I couldn’t tell if it was Bristolian or Polish. Not only that, but he had the nerve to look at me with an expectant smirk, as if I should laugh at his quip. Which of course I politely did, despite having no idea what it was.

As I left the shop I muttered darkly about pearls before swine, the idiocy of my fellow man, the isolation of the genius and the tragedy of wasted brilliance.

Later, as Mrs Brit and I strolled through Oldbury Court, I contemplated this terribly sad-looking tree. The Tree of Tristesse. It sits in the same gloom as Halfords at Cribbs Causeway, only here the sun stays away so as not to spoil the melancholy aesthetic.

And in a flash it struck me that, for all I knew, the builder might well have said something far funnier than “you’ve saved my bacon” and his wit was quite wasted on my ignorant ears.

Still, at least we were polite to each other. We soldier on, don't we?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Doherty and Daltrey

This excellent picture, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, shows Albion’s favourite junkie wastrel Pete Doherty welcoming ex-Who frontman Roger Daltrey onto the stage at the Academy in Bristol.

I took it last night at one of the more unusual gigs Mrs Brit and I have patronised (and we’ve seen The Wurzels twice). The charitable circumstances behind this one-off collaboration between Babyshambles and Daltrey are explained here.

It was surprisingly terrific. Babyshambles were unshambolic; they’d obviously rehearsed. Essentially it was a Babyshambles gig with Daltrey (voice still largely intact, for the more guttural tones anyway) popping on in the middle to duet with Doherty for a run of Who classics (from memory it went Legal Matter, Substitute, The Kids are Alright, Magic Bus, and Can’t Explain), then back again for a finale of My Generation.

Daltrey dedicated My Generation to Doherty’s Generation, but in fact most of his fans are a lot younger than him. The crowd was about 50% painfully cool children dressed like Doherty and 30% middle-aged Who fans looking a bit uncomfortable in the Academy’s less-than-salubrious environs. I was part of the 20% in the middle who knew all the Babyshambles and Who songs. Mrs Brit went because she likes Doherty’s voice and finds him an intriguing psychological case study.

What those painfully cool children really are, of course, is tribal. Nothing wrong with that, good on them; I never got the hang of the tribal thing. I loved the Libertines and some of Doherty’s lyrics are wonderful, but I can’t claim to be cool. There was no encore which was odd and disappointing but it did mean that we were home by 11 and I could empty the tumble dryer before bed.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Earth-shattering news

The reason I’m quite cheerful at the moment is that Brit Junior will be entering the world on 24th July (23rd was the previous due date but apparently it’s gone back a day since the scan. This, I suspect, is irrelevant pedantry since the little blighter will doubtless come whenever he/she pleases).

God help us all.

I did consider posting the picture of the three month scan here since it is the best picture in the world, but Mrs Brit vetoed this on the grounds that she wasn’t keen on sharing such intimate imagery with the blogosphere. I argued that only a small band of eccentrics and a procession of enraged Scotsmen* visit this blog but my protests fell on deaf ears.

I expect you can imagine it though – it looks just like every other baby scan picture, only infinitely more interesting.

*I will explain about the Scotsmen next week.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


I'm rather cheerful at the moment so this bleak little piece is incongruous, but I've only just got round to tinkering it into some sort of shape. Driving along the North Devon Link Road after Christmas I passed a horrible car wreck and this is about that. It doesn't rhyme, sorry.


People cannot help themselves.
Half-awake, hurtling in convoy
through Exmoor’s Christmas frosted fields,
A tin toy snuggled against a tree ahead

is a sports car screwed into the base of a tree
in frost-stiffened grass, scrunched Christmas paper,
three constables shuffling against the cold
and a helpless ambulance loading her corpse.

It slows our convoy faster than any appeal to reason
or snooping eye. It cuts to the point.
We rubberneckers drive on just below the limit
and curse oncoming cars for reckless fools.

Too late. A lifetime’s trove of small crimes,
Sins tossed lightly aside, creeps into the car
and up the spine; we are witless skeletons
wrapped in thin weak skin and rags, callous

and riding an outlandish streak of luck
that could at any instant come to a stop.
The ambulance bears a precision bomb,
About to be dropped on one suburban home,

Where the blast will wreck three lives, perhaps four,
Some more will feel the shock waves
with diminishing violence, then it fades
and is forgotten with the rest

in fifteen minutes, back now on the M5
planning New Year. At the junction for Wells
we ease onto the accelerator to overtake.
People cannot help themselves.

Jan 2009

Monday, January 05, 2009

Analyse that

Last night I dreamt that I went to a seminar given by Bob Dylan. It was fairly sparsely attended and consisted of two parts. In the first part Bob signed autographs and in the second part he showed us how to peel the shells from some sort of crayfish (we were each given a bucket of live, writhing, prawny-maggoty things). I was the last in the queue for autographs, and when my turn came Bob took a large, brown hardback book from me and wrote out a complicated algebraic equation on the cover, using a fountain pen. He signed ‘B Dylan’ at the bottom. In ‘real life’ Bob looked younger, smoother and more translucent than he does on television, and I mentioned this to him. “Well, uh huh,” he replied mysteriously, and went to fetch his bucket of crayfish. I forget what happened next.

I have also forgotten many of the pieces of wisdom and advice that were given to me in my childhood. However, one thing I can remember from the first Adrian Mole book was that Adrian’s mother cruelly says to him something like: “Please don’t tell me your dreams. The only thing more tedious than listening to people’s dreams is listening to their problems.”

Terrible really, innit.

Friday, January 02, 2009

My New Year's Resolution... to listen to what the Baked Potato say.

Thank you Baked Potato.