Ugly and Silent, Like an Elf, the Secret of the Street

… so, from a rather wet Lord’s, it’s back to the studio – where we have some topical satire for you from G.K. Chesterton. 

(I suspect this is only accidentally topical.  For Fleet Street read Wapping.)


When I Came Back To Fleet Street

When I came back to Fleet Street,
Through a sunset nook at night,
And saw the old Green Dragon
With the windows all alight,
And hailed the old Green Dragon
And the Cock I used to know,
Where all good fellows were my friends
A little while ago;

I had been long in meadows,
And the trees took hold of me,
And the still towns in the beech-woods,
Where men were meant to be.
But old things held; the laughter,
The long unnatural night,
And all the truth they talk in hell,
And all the lies they write.

For I came back to Fleet Street,
And not in peace I came;
A cloven pride was in my heart,
And half my love was shame.
I came to fight in fairy-tale,
Whose end shall no man know–
To fight the old Green Dragon
Until the Cock shall crow!

Under the broad bright windows
Of men I serve no more,
The groaning of the old great wheels
Thickened to a throttled roar;
All buried things broke upward;
And peered from its retreat,
Ugly and silent, like an elf,
The secret of the street.

They did not break the padlocks,
Or clear the wall away.
The men in debt that drank of old
Still drink in debt to-day;
Chained to the rich by ruin,
Cheerful in chains, as then
When old unbroken Pickwick walked
Among the broken men.

Still he that dreams and rambles
Through his own elfin air,
Knows that the street’s a prison,
Knows that the gates are there:
Still he that scorns or struggles
Sees, frightful and afar.
All that they leave of rebels
Rot high on Temple Bar.

All that I loved and hated,
All that I shunned and knew,
Clears in broad battle lightning,
Where they, and I, and you,
Run high the barricade that breaks
The barriers of the street,
And shout to them that shrink within,
The Prisoners of the Fleet.


Ugly and Silent, Like an Elf, the Secret of the Street

Geoffrey Boycott and Patricia Hodge : Separated at Birth?

I’m sure that those of you who listen to Test Match Special will have become used, over the years, to Geoffrey Boycott’s habit of prefixing almost any technical term with the phrase “what I call“.  I think he began by using it to refer to some catchphrase of his own (e.g. “The Corridor of Uncertainty”), but it seems to have developed into a kind of obsessive verbal tic, so that he finds himself saying things like “What I call the bowler is handing what I call his sweater to what I call the umpire”.

This also finds its way into print, as in this example from the Telegraph –

I also think India’s batsmen must target Tillakaratne Dilshan’s gentle off spinners and the same goes for Rangana Herath, the left-arm spinner, because you just can’t allow what I call two ordinary bowlers to tie you down.”

and this (from Pak Passion) – he’s talking about Shoiab Akhtar –

 “It’s a gift to be able to bowl fast, genuinely what I call really fast.”

But I realised, listening to his commentary on the last Test Match, that he seems to have retired the phrase, and replaced it with “what we call“.  Now perhaps someone at the BBC might have suggested that he was beginning to sound a little – what I call – egocentric – or perhaps someone has pointed out another resemblance …

Gilbert and George on the Sofa

Highlight of this evening’s viewing, I thought, was The One Show.  I have a soft spot for this programme, if only because, if it’s on when I walk  through the door, I know I’m home roughly on time.  But it does also seem to be in the hands of someone prone to counterintuitive decisions.  For instance, it employs Phil Tufnell as a roving Arts Correspondent.  It has suprisingly erudite historical features presented, often, by Giles Brandreth (turning down the buffoonery level to about 3).  When their star presenters left they replaced them with lookalikes.

This evening’s show featured a report on the last outbreak of rabies in Great Britain (in Camberley in 1969) and one on the history of royal memorabilia, but the stars of the show – the ones sitting on the sofa –  were Gilbert and George.  To make them feel welcome the presenters (one of them, for some reason, Alexander Armstrong) had dressed up in G&G-style suits and ties.  What do I think about Gilbert and George?  I really don’t know.  If asked, I open and close my mouth like a recently-landed fish, because I struggle to have any strong feelings about them at all.  I suppose I quite like them, but more as a pair of harmless English eccentrics than artists.

I do remember visiting Tate Modern when G&G were having a major retrospective, wondering whether it was worth a tenner and deciding to settle for the modest selection of their work that was available for free.  That did, though, include this – an early work, entitled Gordon’s Gets Us Drunk (I have tried to embed this, but it seems to involve signing your life away … the link should work, though) – which I’ve always quite liked.  I suspect it was inspired by the character in Kingsley Amis’s “I Like It Here” who fantasises about selling beer with the slogan “Gets You Drunk” .  It does have the merit of embodying a literal truth.


Another Chance to See … Her Majesty the Queen

In case any of you didn’t manage to catch the Queen’s broadcast this afternoon, I thought you might appreciate the chance to watch the first of her televised broadcasts, from 1957.

I was planning (as is my wont) to provide some facetious commentary on this, but – watching it back – I find it strangely moving, if only because of her obvious sincerity and the relief on her face when she reaches the end of it without fluffing her lines.  As you will see, it predates the invention of the autocue. 

Compare the Meerkats : Alexander Orlov and Felix Dzerzhinsky

I have been doing quite a lot of reading about the Spanish Civil War recently, and I’ve found a name cropping up that I realised rang a bell.  For instance –

“Most ominous of all was the arrival of Alexander Orlov … the NKVD officer who was to take charge of the secret police”, “The secret police were taken over by Orlov and his NKVD agents … and it soon became the communists’ most feared weapon”*

Orlov is, of course, known to us now as the loveable meerkat who has won our hearts with his appearances on the telly and is set to become one of our best-selling authors, with his recent autobiography


We have grown used to powerful Russians exerting influence over important areas of our national life – Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Alexander Lebedev at the Standard and Independent – but this seems a step too far.  I was thinking of exposing this pesky herspetid as a KGB agent, when I realised that the Sun newspaper (ever vigilant) had beaten me to it –  The real life Alexander Orlov.

But I wonder if there is previous evidence of meerkat infliltration of the Soviet secret police?  I have always been curious about the strange appearance of  “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, the much-feared founder of the Cheka (the foreunners of the NKVD, KGB etc.).  The slender, elongated body –  the beady, close-set eyes – that tufty little chin beard.  That smile.  (I note in passing, incidentally, that Dzerzhinsky’s wife was one Zofia Muszkat.  Too close to be above suspicion, I think.) 

Simples, Bourgeois revisionist cockroach!


*From Antony Beever’s The Spanish Civil War (Cassell, 1982)

Nigella Lawson Omnibus

Baffling expression of the day.  A football reporter on Final Score – “their defence was safer than a Nigella Lawson omnibus” ( I could have sworn that’s what he said.)


  1. Gratuitous surrealism?
  2. Prosaic explanation.  If you happen to know someone who likes Nigella’s show, then an omnibus edition on DVD would be a safe choice for a Christmas present.
  3. Some kind of Platonic school bus – driven by Nigella, laughing saucily, licking her lips and handing out delicious home-made chocolate brownies at the point of entry?

All very puzzling.


Save the Strays! (with Celia Hammond)

I have to report that – during my brief stay in Spain – I saw no sign of what George Orwell* (amongst others, e.g. the Sun newspaper) regarded as a national characteristic – cruelty to animals.

I kept a close eye on the tower of the local church, but not once did I see a donkey, a cat – not even a vole being thrown off it.  What I did see was a colony of what I suppose are feral cats, who live on the belvedere.  There must be thirty or so of them, and they seem to live symbiotically with the local population.  Presumably the owners of the cafes and bars feed them scraps, and there are still a few fisherman who might allow them a fish head or two.  The tourists like them and I imagine they keep the mice down.  As you will see, they look fairly sleek.



In England, of course, we don’t really have feral cats, though – if the newspapers are to be believed – we do have feral children.  (On the other hand I have just been watching a rather depressing documentary on BBC2 about various cat rescuers – including the one-time model Celia Hammond.  It  is a bit of an eye-opener (available here on i-player)). 

Here, by the way, is Celia Hammond, before the cats took over –

Celia Hammond

 * in his essay England Your England.

Tales of the Riverbank

There has been some fascinating stuff on this year’s Springwatch, but nothing, I think, that quite compares with this extraordinary footage of riverside animals (presumably feral pets, as they include a hamster and a guinea pig) using powertools and talking to each other in a variety of regional accents.

(I was about to say that this was my favourite programme when I was a small child, but I think this must be a later remake, as it is not only in colour but also more fast-paced and hi-tech.  In the version I remember the animals basically just used to amble around a bit and have a little chat.  Top entertainment!)

Cable, Osborne and Darling : the verdict

I did manage to catch a bit of last night’s debate between the three Chancellors.  I think it was quite shrewd to time it so that it overlapped with Eastenders.  A fair percentage of viewers will have switched over – “I suppose we ought to hear what they’ve got to say” – half way through the debate and, by contrast with the appalling display of ill-temper and shouting on  BBC1, the 3Cs must have seemed like the epitome of sweet reason.

So, here’s my verdict –

George Osborne – nice chap, but about as well qualified to be Chancellor of the Exchequer as I am (i.e. not at all).

Alistair Darling – can’t improve on Michael White’s description (from the Guardian) – “looking … as if he’d lost his car keys but knew he’d find them.”

Vince Cable – reminds me of that period in the seventies when Brian Clough used to appear on the TV on expert panels and in interviews explaining exactly where the current incumbent as England football manager was going wrong and what he would do instead.  A nation would say from their sofas, settees and armchairs – “He really ought to be the Manager, you know.  Of course, they’ll never give him the chance …”

Foolish things : Eric Maschwitz and Bryan Ferry

March already – a windy month, traditionally, and one that will, for many of us, call to mind the lines “The winds of March that made my heart a dancer”, from the song I’m about to play for you tonight – These Foolish Things.  I wouldn’t say that my heart is exactly a dancer at the moment, but I can feel some of the old flippancy creeping back into my bones with the early morning light.

The lyricist here is Eric MaschwitzMaschwitz led a varied and in many ways enviable life.  He was a near contemporary at Repton School of Christopher Isherwood, Edward Upward and Michael Ramsey (the future Archbishop of Canterbury) ;  it has been suggested that Ramsey was the original inspiration for the lyrics, but the majority view is that it was the actress Anna May Wong, whom he had encountered during a brief spell in Hollywood. 

Anna May Wong

Pausing briefly to marry Hermione Gingold, write the screenplay for “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and maintain a relationship with Judy Campbell (the mother of Jane Birkin), for whom he is thought to have written his other biggest hit “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square“, he went on to  work for  MI5 and the SOE during the war and concluded  his career as head of Light Entertainment at both the BBC and the infant ITV.  He also wrote for George Formby – though it’s unlikely that Formby inspired any songs in quite the same way as Wong and Campbell.

Almost anyone who is anyone in the world of popular song has had a go at this over the years – Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald – oddly – James Brown, and even the 13 year old Poppies fan Faryl Smith.  The first version I ever heard, though, and still, in the way of these things, my favourite is this, by Bryan Ferry from 1974. 

Ferry is probably better known to the younger generation as the father of the notorious Shropshire fox-murderer Otis, but I was a great fan of his back in the day.  The clip is, I think, from the Lulu Show and I should warn viewers of a nervous disposition that it contains scenes that could never be shown on TV today and would, indeed lead to Ferry being hauled off by the Peelers, thus inadvertently establishing a family tradition.  Does he whip his kecks off half way through?  Insert the word Motherfucker into the lyrics for emphasis?  Both perfectly acceptable these days, of course – but no.  You’ll just have to wait and see.

I remember, incidentally, one of my supervisors at University playing this song (on a gramophone rather than a piano unfortunately) to illustrate T.S. Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative.  I think you can see what he meant.  

There is an interesting piece, by the way, to be written about how so many of the things that we think of as being typical of the seventies were actually revivals of styles from the twenties and thirties …

Well why don’t you write it then, lazybones? – (Reader’s voice).  All in good time, dear boy, all in good time.