Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The world`s gone bonkers. Financial meltdown, rain lashing my window, bills mounting up, Saints struggling, cricket season finished, Strictly Come Dancing back on tv - no wonder we are turning into a nation of depressives.
But, in less than an hour, I shall once more place myself in the caring hands of my stylist, Chris of Larkfield, for my regular five-weekly folicle makeover.
And what a pleasure it is. Now, I`m sure Chris doesn`t see it the same way as I do. She, after all, has to stand all day snipping away, bringing out the usual suspects which form the basis of our regular conversation and no doubt wishing she was somewhere else doing something different.
For me though, I go in and report, sit down and get asked how I would like it this time - a temptation to which I find difficult to respond without infringing some local byelaw. The fact is, I don`t mind what she does, for I am content to just sit there and let her long, slender, forgiving fingers work their magic over my comatose head. I swear I will nod off one day and awake to find I have been spiked up with lashings of VO5.
I really don`t care though, just so long as I can keep going to what is a haven of refuge from a mad world. In fact, I have already asked Chris if, when the day comes that I am completely bald and should have no further need of her attentions, can I just turn up for a stroke anyway? Well, I only asked.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Like millions of others, I was genuinely sorry to learn of the passing of Paul Newman. Now, I`m not one for sentimental obituaries and it`s certainly not my place or intention to write one here - countless others will be doing that. But I have long admired Newman for what he was - an actor of towering talent but also a humanitarian gentleman, devoted to his family, his causes and his profession. Truly, he leaves us with, quite literally, an enviable reputation.

Again like others, I first came to value his performances when I saw `Butch Cassidy` and I was enthralled by George Roy Hill`s brilliant direction of the talent at his disposal - Newman, Redford, Katherine Ross. I can`t say I`ve seen every film Newman ever made, but I`ve seen enough to appreciate his talent.

Critics will debate his best work, with `Cool Hand Luke` among the front runners already, but for me the one I most enjoyed was Sydney Pollack`s 1981 film, `Absence of Malice,` in which Newman played Michael John Gallagher, an innocent abroad plagued by injudicious reporting by the Miami Herald to the extent that he is forced to overcome the forces of commerce and bureaucracy maliciously railing against him.

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I suppose, in the totality of Newman`s work, `Absence of Malice` might be overlooked by the more commercially successful films he made, but that would be to overlook too the quiet, determined, understated compulsion of the character he portrayed. It received three nominations for Academy awards, but didn`t get any, despite the screenplay being written by Kurt Luedtke, who went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for `Out of Africa.`

After 83 years, Paul Newman has left us with a legacy that we can still admire and enjoy for years to come. It`s difficult - and now impossible anyway - to say `thank you` in any way that sounds even remotely adequate.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

It`s a small world. You may know that I spent most of my boyhood years in the village of Hythe on the western shore of Southampton Water, but that I now live in a village in mid-Kent, about 120 miles from Hythe.
Our local postman here in deepest Kent, Ray, also comes originally from Hythe and today he delivered a package through my letter box which came as a genuine surprise and a rare treat.
Early on in the life of these pages - click on `labels` at the bottom of this post - I recounted the story of my best friend from those schooldays in Hythe - Billy Scammell - who, as William Scammell went on to become an admired poet, critic, editor, reviewer and biographer. Sadly, Bill passed away too young back in 2000, when he was just 61. Like me and like Ray, Bill left Hythe in his teenage years to find his own way in life and he lived for many years in the Lake District, where his widow, Jan, still lives today.
Bill had a number of volumes of his own poetry published, along with editing collections of works by Ted Hughes and others and also producing a biography of Keith Douglas, the World War One poet. Last month, a collection of Bill`s critical essays and reviews was published under the title of `Nightwatch` which included commentaries on major writers - Hughes, Heaney and Larkin - as well as more general thoughts on the state of contemporary poetry.
And today,the unexpected package which Ray delivered turned out to be a copy of a just published volume of Bill`s poems, edited by Christopher Pilling and entitled `Inside Story.` It contains at least 100 of Bill`s poems all carefully selected from his previously published works and reflecting Bill`s development as a poet over the years, his journeys through the world, through time and through experience.
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Willian Neil (Billy) Scammell
I will, like all his other works, enjoy it immensely and, as I do so, I will look back on our schooldays together in the same classrooms at Hythe Primary School and Hardley Secondary (we were both Hardley educated) and the times we spent together playing along the Solent shoreline, combing the beach for treasures thrown overboard from the great liners drifting in and out of Southampton.
But for me, perhaps the `nicest` thing about `Inside Story` is the fact that on the flyleaf of the book`s smart cover there is a picture of the plaque erected in Bill`s memory, along with the notation which reads, "This plaque is mounted on the wall of 13 Alexandra Road, Hythe, Southampton as a lasting tribute to the memory of the author. It was erected by members of the local poetry group at the instigation of an old school friend....in 2005 with assistance from the Arts Council England." I leave you to guess who that `old school friend` might have been.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Yes, folks, the three ring circus of the Political Party Conference season is in full swing.
It may have started a while ago with furtive gatherings of the `minor` parties - the Greens, the assorted Nationalists, the Monster Raving Loonies and the Flat Earth Society - but I confess that they must have passed me by.
No, the first of the main performers in the main ring were the Liberal Democrats who met last week in Bournemouth (good choice.) Their conference seemed to go off fairly quietly and was subject to rather restrained coverage by `the media.` No great surprises, no earth shattering promises although there was another vague whisper to `prepare for government,` a la David Steel all those years ago. Not much to say about it really - the LibDems just got on with it and seemed content to be left in relative peace. The feeling was entirely mutual.
This week we have had the governing Labour Party meeting in Manchester (a long walk from the beach.) The turmoil of the last week or so in the financial world and the rumblings about Gordon Brown`s position as Prime Minister and Party Leader overshadowed any idea that there might have been any great policy surprises. Yes, there were some promises yesterday about free prescriptions for cancer patients which was welcome and some other ideas about free internet access and other stuff, but the media attention seemed to be focussed on Brown` performance and the rather sinister, adolescent, self-advancing posturing of David ("Me, me, please, Miss") Miliband.
I feel a bit sorry for Brown, for it cannot be healthy to be so beleagured, especially by upstart novices like Miliband. Between them they begin to resemble Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and I`m not sure it`s good for them, the Labour Party or, more importantly, the rest of us.
And so on to next week`s Conservative Party gathering in, of all places, Birmingham. I don`t know why the conferences are held in the order they are. I would have thought that, a bit like party political broadcasts before an election, the party in government went last. But no. As a result, the Conservatives have the advantage of sitting back and listening to the rest of them and are thus able to respond to what`s been said in Manchester and elsewhere. I suspect there will be no great policy surprises, no earth shattering promises but there might be a more audible whisper to `prepare for government` - they`re all at it.
The real stuff of politics
The converted will be preached to yet again, the dewey-eyed will stand to applaud their leaders once more, the media will indulge in yet another deluge of coverage and opinion, while the rest of us just get on with our lives and breathe a sigh of relief that the three ring circus has left town for another year. And be left to worry about the price of gas, electricity, petrol, bread, milk, marmite and Tunnock`s Tea Cakes - the real stuff of politics -none of which will have been touched on by anyone in the conference halls of the last month. Send in the clowns? Don`t worry, they`re here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

This particular journey began for me on 29th April, 1946, when my Dad first took me to The Dell to see Southampton beat Derby County 4-2. I wasn`t far short of my seventh birthday.
The journey came to an end yesterday - 20th September 2008 - when I went to St. Mary`s Stadium to see Southampton draw 0-0 with Barnsley. A couple of months ago I had my 69th birthday.
Throughout all those years, I have followed the fortunes of the Saints. I haven`t always been able to be there in person but since I retired I have been a regular season ticket holder as well as a shareholder in the company which owns the club. I was brought up as part of the Saints community, with its ingrained family values, its sense of belonging and a kind of covenant between the club and its faithful followers. The club has had its ups and downs - FA Cup win in 1976, finishing second only to Liverpool in the old First Division, FA Cup Final in 2003.....but also the heartache of relegation after 27 years in the top flight and all the consequences of that fateful event.
But yesterday I had had enough. Enough of the poor standard of football; enough of being taken for granted by the avaricious, self-serving chancers on the board who have little or no regard for the long, proud history and traditions of the club; enough of paying far too much in terms of money, time and physical and emotional effort for so little reward; and enough of the patronising, glib, lame duck excuses issued by the club`s spin machine to explain how we have come from a secure Premiership position to the brink of oblivion in so short a space of time.
So I`ve decided that`s that. Enough is enough. I`m not doing it any more. And last night, having sat through 95 minutes of stultifying boredom and driven 250 miles, I was glad to be home. My overriding emotion was not one of anger or frustration or even sadness at what has become of my club, but rather I sensed a feeling of relief that I may at last have reached the end of that particular journey. Au revoir, SFC. The song is ended but the memories linger on.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

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Touching again on my `art` theme for this week, I have been much taken by the reports today that to see good works of art - especially paintings - not only helps to relieve stress but also can actually reduce any levels of physical pain one might be suffering.

Apart from artists like David Inshaw, I have long admired the work of local Kent artist Rowland Hilder. Years and years ago, when I was leaving a job in Maidstone to seek my fortune (which I didn`t) in the stockbroker belt of Surrey, I was asked what I might like for a leaving present. I chose a framed print of one of Rowland Hilder`s scenes of Kent. Like Inshaw, Hilder`s work, such as the one shown above, does not pretend to say anything other than `look and enjoy.` And there`s no doubt that one can get lost in the landscape, the atmosphere, the peace and tranquility of works like this.
Rowland Hilder was born in 1905 in Great Neck, Long Island of English parents. When he was 10, the family moved permanently back to England so his father could do his patriotic duty and join the forces fighting in World War 1. The family settled with Rowland`s grandparents in the small Kent village of Birling - a mile or so from where I live - which Rowland described as "miles from anywhere. Even the people in the next village of Ryarsh were considered foreigners."
After his father returned safely from the war, the family moved to New Cross in south east London and Rowland`s skill at drawing eventually saw him admitted to nearby Goldsmiths College where, in later life, he was to become the college`s Professor of Drawing.
although Hilder also produced work depicting other parts of Britain, he is perhaps best remembered for his scenes of the landscapes and seasons of his adopted county of Kent, such as this one:-

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Now, paintings like these may not be `masterpieces` in the accepted meaning of the word, but they do exactly what it says on the tin - `look and enjoy.`

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Damien Hirst`s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, pictured above, was originally commissioned by Charles Saatchi in 1991 at a cost of £50,000. In 1994, it was sold to New York hedge fund manager Steve Cohen for about £5million. I don`t like it much and it seems the formaldehyde is already going murky and will cost a six-figure sum to put right.
Yesterday was the first of two days of sales of Hirst`s work at Sotheby`s and the total sale value was over £70million, which on a day when the world`s stock markets were in freefall says much about the price of things and their value. I guess if Cohen falls on hard times he can always try and sell it.

I don`t like `modern art.` I quite admire the experimental nature of some of it and the statements made by Hirst, Emin, Whitehorn and the rest. But to pretend they represent real art doesn`t wash with me. A lot of it is pretentious, ugly, temporary and overpriced.

Now here, in my humble opinion, is what `modern art` should look like:-

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David Inshaw was a founder member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, which was formed "in opposition to the scholarly nature of contemporary art which believed that paintings were only really valid if they addressed social questions. Our aims are the continuation of a certain kind of English painting. We admire Samuel Palmer, Stanley Spencer, Thomas Hardy, Elgar, cricket, the English landscape and the Pre-Raphaelites."
They`re talking my language. For me at least, Inshaw`s painting of the cricket match at Little Bredy in Dorset represents what I look for in art. It may be `simple,` it may not challenge, but when I`m gazing wistfully at my walls, I`m pretty sure I would rather be confronted by Inshaw`s work than anything more `modern,` as it paints a thousand words more than Hirst`s ever could .

Sunday, September 14, 2008


After yesterday`s televised defeat at the home of Queens Park Rangers, Southampton are back in the relegation zone following four defeats in their first five games of the new season. It seems strange, but there is a measure of comfort about that.

For the last few seasons, we have grown used to the constant struggle of surviving in the second tier of English football, to the extent that it now seems `out of place` for us to be anywhere else than in the lower echelons of the league.

Injuries to key players and bizarre team selection saw a very young team, with nine players aged 22 or under, take the field at Loftus Road, home of probably the world`s richest club. The game itself was fairly representative of Saints` fortunes so far this season. A goal needlessly conceded after just 37 seconds; the sending off of 19-years old debutant Oliver Lancashire for a mistimed tackle; a quite stunning equaliser by Adam Lallana only for the home team to take the lead again with a blatantly offside `goal`; the loss of influential midfielder Lee Holmes with a medial ligament injury likely to keep him out for some months; and the 10 men finally running out of legs in the last quarter of the game.

A `spirited performance` nonetheless, according to Saints` Dutch coach Jan Poortvliet, who seems to have two claims to fame - one being a member of the Dutch World Cup Final team that lost to Argentina in 1978 and the other being nutmegged by Archie Gemmell before he scored for Scotland in the same tournament. But it`s clear that youthful endeavour and spirited performances are insufficient in the face of the twin problems of inexperience and near insolvency.

The gap is getting wider. It`s bad enough in the Premiership, where the only hope for success seems to be via the uncertain medium of foreign billionaires, but it`s far, far worse in the lower reaches of the game. Saints are fighting a losing financial battle and can only hope to survive if they continue to sell their best players - Walcott, Bale, Baird, Kenwyne Jones, Crouch and a whole lot more make for a sad litany of inevitable departures. And the pick of our current crop of talented youngsters look likely to be sold off in the January transfer window. Already League One is calling. Things will get worse before they get better, which is something I`ve been saying for the last four years.

So what to do? Well, the club has been in my veins since I saw my first game at The Dell in 1946 and I have no intention of selling my soul or my meagre shareholding even though the price has plummetted. The gap between the footballing haves and have nots, between the princes and the paupers, the rich and the poor, continues to widen. But it`s a gap which has brought with it a final acceptance of mediocrity, the banishment of any remaining expectation and a curious comfort zone all of its own.


Our recent week in a hilltop Cornish cottage was spent in defiance of the unseasonal weather, with strong winds and rain being most prominent. No surprise then that we spent the evenings having quiet nights in watching the television. That of itself was an experience, for the tv set was best described as `idiosyncratic.` After a couple of days, the Freeview box packed up and we were left with a choice between BBC and ITV.
However, I was able to keep abreast of the two compelling events of that week - the Republican Party National Covention in Minneapolis and the final day of the transfer window. And what depressing viewing they both made. I know the Democratic Party had a convention which was just as painful to watch and it always strikes me that the razzamataz, the banners, the screaming, the tears-in-the-eyes adulation of those on the platform from those on the floor and the set-piece, scripted preaching to the converted is no way to go about selecting potentially the next leader of the western world.

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The whole thing about the American presidential selection process reminds me of Mahatma Ghandi, who was once asked what he thought of Western civilisation. He replied that he thought it would be a good idea.

So on to the equally gripping last day of the transfer window. Right through the day, all evening and up to midnight there were reports coming in about which player was being transferred where. Naturally enough, most of the attention fell on the activity surrounding Premier League clubs and the fate of some of the world`s most talented players. Was Berbatov going to Manchester United or Chelsea or even Real Madrid? But the rabbit out of the hat was the transfer of Brazilian star Robinho from Real to Manchester City.

What made it so fascinating was that Robinho seemed blissfully unaware of where the £35million which changed hands would be taking him. He was fairly confident of ending up at Chelsea - and so were Chelsea - and so he looked genuinely shocked to find himself at Manchester City. Truly, the cattle barons are in complete control of the market.

Back home, our own political party conference season is upon us once more. The goings on within the Labour Party, which seems more concerned with their own internal squabbles than running the country, might add some additional spice to their conference in Manchester. It wouldn`t surprise me at all to find at the end of it that Robinho has been voted in as Leader of the Labour Party. And far from being surprised, Ghandi would probably have been expecting it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

I have been very impressed with the Large Hadron Collider, which was switched on last Wednesday to start protons on their 16 mile journey beneath bits of France and Switzerland. The whole project is a truly impressive piece of engineering design and construction, along with the physics that goes with it. It seems the LHC might be able to reproduce the conditions that prevailed one billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, which leads to the question as to whether it will ever be possible - never mind sensible - to try and go that final, tantallising billionth of a second and reproduce the start of everything from scratch.
I`m pretty sure we won`t be able to go there, since however far the boundary might be pushed back, then - like the search for absolute zero - there is likely always to be something preventing that final step being reached. You see, when it comes to LHCs, I am forced to conclude that God`s will always be bigger than anything we can ever produce. Comforting thought?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Well, a bit. Yesterday I once again denounced the England football team as a bunch of overpaid poseurs who could hardly bring themselves to don the shirt with the three lions on. So what do they do? They go away to Zagreb and stuff Croatia 4-1 with an apparently thoroughly professional performance. Well done - I apologise for doubting you, but to be fair last night was an all too rare occurrence.

It seems last night`s star performer was Theo Walcott, who scored a hat trick and finally consigned David Beckham to the out tray of international football . Now, whilst I am always impressed by sporting excellence, I am often disappointed when it comes to sporting `personality.` Just witness the contrast between the sporting prowess of Andy Murray and the surly Caledonian mumblings of his interviews. In Walcott`s case, things are different. He is possessed of a remarkable talent but also an engaging personality. At 19, with all the riches and fame that has already come his way, he still retains a genuine boyish charm and modesty which makes him a pleasure to watch both on and off the field of play.

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Theo doing it for the Saints

Walcott, of course, was nurtured from the age of 11 by the Southampton FC Academy and I saw him burst onto the stage with a string of stunning performances for the Saints which led to his departure to Arsenal for a fee which now seems like the bargain of the century. I am so pleased for him that he has now seemingly come of age on the international scene but a corner of my heart still weeps that he might still have been thrilling the audience at St. Mary`s had it not been for our relegation from the Premiership and the subsequent mismanagement of the club by a succession of undistinguished managers and directors.

Never mind, maybe Theo will make watching future England performances less of a trial and more of a pleasure.......and give me less cause to eat this morning`s humble pie. (I did enjoy `Lost in Austen` though.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

There`s a great deal of fuss today about the fact that followers of the England football team will be unable to watch their team perform on television this evening against Croatia in Zagreb. Diehard supporters are up in arms about it, MPs are grumbling and it wouldn`t surprise me if there are not questions in the House when Parliament resumes after its `summer break` in....October?

Unless you are one of the three million subscribers to Setanta Sports TV, you will sadly be denied the chance to see your heroes in action (maybe that should be `inaction.`) As for me, I would like to thank Setanta for providing such a happy release from what promises to be yet another instantly forgettable `performance` by the overpaid poseurs who can be bothered to wear the three lions. Instead, I will look forward to the next episode of `Lost in Austen,` for which I am truly grateful.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

In recent years, as I approach my three score years and ten, I have noticed a tendancy to become more aware of the location of public conveniences. Now, my bodily functions seem by and large to be in reasonable working order, but it is a comfort, when setting out on any journey, to know the whereabouts of these `facilities`.....just in case.

But what is even more rewarding is the discovery of new ones and so, over recent years, I have cast a critical eye over conveniences I have visited and taken to awarding virtual prizes to those I find have provided the most agreeable visit. And so, last week, the facilities of Cornwall came under close scrutiny. However, our restricted range - due to a combination of weather and Henry`s indisposition - meant that the number of occasions when facilities were actually visited, sometimes in times of need and at other times out of curiosity, was quite small.

Those at places such as Mevagissey and Cadgwith were adequate, even possessed of a certain rustic charm. Some places, such as St. Anthony Head, had no facilities at all, which brought on a problem you weren`t really aware of until the absence of facilities brought it into one`s consciousness. But I am able to award two `prizes,` one in the public sector and one operated privately. The public sector prize went to Camelford, whose conveniences are tucked away in a newish looking car park behind the main A39 and were a model of cleanliness and design, quite probably because they are primarily there for local people, rather than passing public convenience critics.

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But the overall prize goes to those at Portholland. Now, Portholland is a very quiet, off-the-beaten-track coastal hamlet tucked away down a narrow lane off the road from Gorran Haven to Veryan. The conveniences are located in the car park and their design is evidence that they were originally provided by the local district council, which might be Restormel Borough Council? However, it seems clear that the remoteness of the village and the relatively small number of visitors convinced the district council that the continued operation of the conveniences - even on a seasonal basis - did not represent value for money for the local taxpayer. But a knight in shining armour has come to the rescue and kept the service going on a private, voluntary basis.

And so, when you enter the door, you are greeted by a large vase of freshly cut flowers and the facilities themselves are spotlessly clean and come with soap, hot water and efficient dryers. Mrs. Snopper reports that the `ladies` is equally impressive. We were both encouraged to put 50p in the box, which bore the notice that the service was run voluntarily by some thoughtful and dedicated Portholland resident and that any contribution would be welcome in order to keep the service going.
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In Snopper`s burgeoning `Guide to the Loos of England,` Portholland has now overtaken Dulverton on Exmoor as the most welcome, charming and by far the most propitious bladder-related experience so far.


You know the old saying - that sometimes it`s better to travel than to arrive. Well, in the last week, I`ve done my share of travelling. A week ago today, we travelled the 280 miles from home to Portmellon in Cornwall and yesterday we travelled the 343 miles coming home the pretty way, via the A39 Atlantic Highway, a pitstop in Camelford and a longer stop in Appledore in Devon before joining assorted motorways to carry us home again.

Whilst we were in Cornwall, we managed to visit one or two places we hadn`t visited before, one of which was the church of St. Just in Roseland (pictured above.) I had seen pictures of it before and seen it featured in TV programmes about Cornwall but none of them prepared me for what I discovered there. A glorious setting, deep in a sheltered valley overlooking St. Just Creek, the 13th century church is surrounded by quite the most well cared for churchyard it is possible to imagine - all winding pathways, sub-tropical plants, tinkling streams and manicured lawns. And all this captured by a silence, a quiet which is almost reverential, as if nature itself knows how special a place this really is. It was a privilege to make the visit there and an occasion when it truly was better to arrive than to travel.
As to the rest of the week, the weather did us no favours, but at least the forecasts were accurate in their promise of high winds and heavy rain, all of which were visited upon us. None more so than the overnight storm, which produced the waves breaking over Portmellon harbour, captured in this picture taken yesterday morning and posted on the BBC website.
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You can see now why we decided to cut short our `holiday` and make a day of coming home the pretty way. It was nice to go travelling, but - St. Just in Roseland excepted - so much nicer to come home.