Sunday, 29 May 2016


Purple is a singular colour, and a spectrum: purple, violet, mauve, lilac, plum even crimson and darkest pink are all somehow relatives. But purple carries the strongest connotative meanings that distinguish it from the rest of the rainbow. 

Purple is the colour of elegance, of velvet robes trimmed in ermine, regal and refined. It is the colour of Edwardian drawing rooms, of Art Nouveau, Klimt, Beardsley and the Mackintoshes. At the same time it has more threatening overtones, of the gathering storm, of thunderclaps and lightning striking, of bruising, funerals and depression. 

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were very fond of it. Henry VIII privatised it, forbidding any other citizen to wear the colour except himself. The dye can be derived from the mucous glands of the sea-snail, which is handy. 

Purple sits between blue and red on the colour wheel. It is the V (for Violet) in ROYGBIV. When light passes through a prism it is the most refracted colour 
(with thanks to Pink Floyd).

It is not a colour for all seasons or purposes: of the 192 nations who have national flags only 3 feature purple in any amount or detail, compared to red which figures in 75% of them.

Purple regularly becomes fashionable.  It was popular in fin de siècle décor, furnishing and formal dress, through to the 1920s. It had a strong revival in the 60s when Biba and Mary Quant dressed most of Chelsea and Kensington in the colour, and it is getting another lease of life now.

In the early 70s and some men wore purple velvet baker's boy caps and crushed velvet flares: they were known as 'wallies'. Some students wore purple shoes, often dyed bowling shoes that they had stolen from the bowling alley: they were called 'Art Students'.

But of course it is Mother Nature who has always provided us with the most prolific range of abundant purpleness:

Bottom right are ladybirds, not Photoshopped, but from somewhere exotic which I didn't note down at the time and now can't find. Nothing changes.

Wiki tells us that : "in literary criticism purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself."  Heaven forfend that The Sunday items should ever sink to this.

On the other hand, a purple patch means "a run of success or good luck" A football team might have a purple patch that lasted all season, drawing plaudits from even the most curmudgeonly pundits and then fall at the last hurdle, for no apparent reason. Its supporters might well be purplexed.



My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style. Maya Angelou

with thanks for this wisdom to Ray Henry, Bermondsey boy, Military Policeman, football hooligan, plumber, antique dealer and constant friend, who lives by these words.

Saturday, 21 May 2016


My sister's house stands on a corner in Chiswick. One day, many years ago, when my parents were due to visit, she glanced out of a side window about a quarter of an hour before their ETA, only to see them sitting in their car, drinking Nescafe out of a thermos. Think about this scenario:

1)  They were 15 minutes early: they had allowed far too much time for a relatively short journey
2)  Rather than ring the bell early, they sat in the car, having tried to disguise their presence by parking round the corner
3)  They had anticipated this situation by preparing a thermos of coffee to take with them
4)  This may well have become a familiar strategy.  Perhaps they always did this whenever they
      visited people.
5)   An observer might say that these behaviours betrayed a concern for punctuality that bordered on  the obsessional.

I was brought up by these people with their genes, in their behavioural environment. How could I possibly escape this fate?  Otis Redding sang "They call me Mr Pitiful".  Well, they call me Mr Punctual. Heredity accounts for much of our behaviour; it would not surprise me to find that a powerful electron microscope could conjure a picture of my chromosomes each regularly consulting miniature Rolexes on their tiny wrists. Naturally I have been late sometimes: I can remember at least two occasions in the last 60-odd years...

Notice that this creates a context which is steeped in the psychpathology of earliness. It won't last. I am just trying to sound reasonable, and not the Grumpy Old Man who soon emerges. Earliness is not a crime. It may reveal a slightly anal obsessiveness with exactitude, but it is harmless, other than in making late people feel a little guilty. Above all it is altruistic, inspired by not making the other person hanging around waiting for you.

We have arrangements to meet people or deadlines to meet, constantly: from dental appointments to assignations with lovers, play-group parties to television interviews, lectures to attend to, dinner with old friends, and many more. We mostly live in towns and cities, and so urban life constantly disrupts our plans: buses are late, trouble on the Tube, rush-hour traffic, road-works, nowhere to park, getting lost, no change for a meter etc. All of these are real, legitimate reasons for lateness (or good excuses) and even though we can try and anticipate and allow for them, we won't always get it right, so we will be late. Understood.

However, there is another category of late-reasons, usually beginning with the word 'I': I just wanted to finish something before I left, I just had to pop into the supermarket for some food, I just bumped into so-and-so who I haven't seen in 10 years, I just realised I'd come out without money and had to queue for the ATM.  They tend to involve reasons why the person's terribly busy life makes it impossible to cram everything in, all before they meet you, when actually most of them could be done afterwards. I comes before You in their alphabet.

The important thing to say is that there is a huge difference between lateness and constant lateness. Any reasonable person accepts that sometimes people will be late for good, unavoidable reasons. And that is inevitable and acceptable. No question. It is when you realise that someone is almost always late, that it is an habitual pattern of their behaviour, that it takes on a different aspect.  (No, DS, you are in a different category where even your outrageous inability to be on time - except by accident- is a small price to pay for your great friendship).  Constant lateness is not a coincidence it is a kind of personality trait: I'm a free and easy kind of person, relaxed and easy to get on with, not too rule-bound, if I fancy popping into a shop on the way then I will, anyway people exaggerate these journeys all the time, there's plenty of time, what's the hurry?   One hurry is that it's February, cold and wet, and your friend is standing around getting cold and wet, and wondering if you are going to come at all. Beyond that there is a kind of self-indulgence: that the task that you want to finish off before you leave is your self-oriented choice (you could do it later) but you don't,  you finish it now, at his expense. It is in effect a kind of exploitation of his goodwill. It is slightly irritating once but then follows a geometric curve as more repetitions accrue. Most belated people are recidivists who occasionally make it on time, when they remember and feel a pang of conscience in time to be punctual. Some you just have to accept as having a not-at-all interesting eccentricity, which you have to accept, or sacrifice the friendship to a degree.

But would it not benefit everyone if the late people tried to change?
People would think better of them. Instead of being thought of as having a child-like inability to organise themselves, plan, allow for contingencies, they would be seen to operate efficiently in the modern world and connect with others effectively. Being 'timely' or even early, is considerate, in making a slight sacrifice of your time to ensure that the other person does not waste theirs; getting people's different time-frames to meet and interlock is part of the glue of social interaction. It makes society work and run smoothly. Also you can catch worms.

"If you see a man opening a car door for a woman, it means one of two things: it's either a new woman or a new car! "

It is fascinating that this quote has been attributed to two separate people: Prince, and Prince Philip. But which is the originator and which the plagiarist? Surely Prince nicked it off Prince Philip, given the rather old-fashioned and sexist tone. The idea of Prince following the Duke on Twitter is bizarrely satisfying. The only other interpretation that makes sense is that they both thought it up independently, which is quite plausible when you think how fundamentally similar they are in their interests, values and lifestyle. There is even a slight visual similarity if you screw your eyes up and view their photos in poor lighting conditions:

My elder daughter's first real boyfriend was a very nice lad called Daniel Kafka. Noting the surname my reflex reaction was to say, innocently and half in jest, "No relation, I suppose?" He looked slightly embarrassed and said "Actually Franz Kafka was my great uncle....".  I was duly chastened. Daniel's father is a very well-respected car designer, who designed the Audi TT, easily recognisable from these early drawings in his sketchbook which Dan recently unearthed:

Prince Harry                              James Hewitt

Q: How many other redheads in the Royal Family? 
(not counting Harry or Sarah Ferguson, stupid)  
A:   Err.. .......none? 

Gary Lineker on HGNFY:  "of course there are lots of people who don't seem to want to be in Europe:  I saw eleven of them this week playing for Liverpool".


Saturday, 14 May 2016


…the good seed on the land. Following the parable, I have been scattering the (grass) seed on stony ground,  and it turns out that just walking up and down, scattering seed by hand in a wide arc is very satisfying. When the careers master said that I might have a future in broadcasting he probably meant this, rather than the BBC. However, these pebbles are encased in the most dense, adhesive, cohesive, clinging, quicksand-like clay I’ve ever seen. And it seems to go to unfathomable depths. A local amateur historian told me why. Beyond the bottom of the garden is a Victorian railway cutting which scythed through the northern part of Willesden, then open country, yet to be blighted by the unimaginable horrors of Neasden. Being Victorians they were a bit short of JCBs, and skip-lorries to carry the displaced clay away, so they dumped it in my garden (to be). In 1911, along came the builders (as did, my father, and the Titanic, briefly) to build my house. By then the clay was lightly dusted with a layer of topsoil from all the surrounding vegetation, so they probably just chucked down a few handfuls of grass seed and went off for a pint of porter. Wind the tape on, to three weeks ago, and I have decided to give the ‘lawn’ its first mow of the year. Except that over the winter it has been colonised by an army of daisies and dandelions. A sprinkling of daisies on a lawn can look very nice, but three quarters of the surface area is a sprinkling too far. I don’t object to dandelions either: in their place, but that place is in the hooch-like dandelion and burdock wine my distant rural relatives used to brew in Wiltshire. Legend has it that they used to pour it over their corn flakes, too.

I digress. The invasion was so sudden and complete that it seemed entirely possible that they would spread indoors and strangle us in our beds, so I was determined to expel this expeditionary force and dig up every single plant, condemning myself to four days of digging, bending, lifting, sifting, and filling up heavy duty plastic rubble sacks: five of them, full to the brim and immovable because of the earth which had come along for the ride. It was this digging which exposed the clay, and the reason for the garden having been so unproductive over the 10 years I’ve been there. Not that I’ve been the most assiduous or ambitious Gardener. We tried to cultivate a vegetable patch one year, planting 5 or 6 different kinds in a decent-sized plot. The net yield was twenty potatoes. Everything else died, likely of malnutrition.

At one point I hit a very hard layer of stone seemingly set in some kind of rough concrete. I attacked it with an SDS drill to try and break it up, but was disturbed to find that the drill bit broke through something into 'fresh air.' What could it be? A chamber underground? Treasure trove that would finally buy me the Aston Martin? More likely the roof of an air-raid shelter? Quite plausible. Then the possibility that it might contain people occurred to me. This put a bit of a damper on my curiosity, because they were unlikely to be alive, 70 years on, and it would be gruesome. Maybe there was someone who’d kept themselves alive on grubs and stuff, and who didn’t know the War was over, like that Japanese soldier they found in the jungle? Or maybe – and here I could really hear the tabloid cash registers ringing – maybe I had stumbled on the last resting place of Lord Lucan, who had ridden there on Shergar?

I did have a proper gardening period: for 25 years we rented a cottage in Shropshire (see FESS, p. 147) which had an enclosed garden (dry stone walled) and the most extraordinary soil I’ve ever seen: rich, dark, moist, crumbly soil, in which you could grow anything. Digging was a pleasure, not a pain. I learnt quite a bit about gardening, and really got into it, something which I never would have anticipated as a younger person. Later I had a flat in Finsbury Park with a big terrace. I bought a lemon tree for it, and it looked quite nice but the real pleasure it gave me was that every time someone asked me what it was, I could  say "a lemon tree, my dear Watson". It's pathetic really, but I'm sure it comes as no surprise. I even picked up some Garden Latin, so that now I can tell you that despite the clay of rural Willesden, the azalea and ceanothus are showing off as usual (see below) the hebe has survived my chainsaw massacre (I get confused between pruning and felling) and thankfully, the chlamydia seems to be dying back. But thanks to Willesden’s near-tropical biosphere, the Clementine tree has produced its usual spectacular crop...

I’ve lived in NW London for 17 years and yet, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve never visited the Temple until this week. It’s the same old problem: London is so overstocked with things to do, that the permanent attractions are taken for granted and not prioritised, set aside for when this or that transient experience is no longer available (which is never), and so postponed indefinitely.

I expected something rather beautiful, but what I found was something exquisite. Mere superlatives do not get close to describing this experience and they devalue through repetition. The hand-carved wood and sculpted marble bespeak almost unimaginable levels of virtuosity, devotion, perseverance and commitment through literally millions of man-hours of dedicated work. Standing looking at a marble ceiling, so intricate that it was hard to imagine it being conceived at the level of a plan, let alone executed in three dimension, by chipping it out of marble. The very finest art and craft and the sheer enormity of the surface area carved or chiselled with intricate design is breath-taking, literally. I felt overwhelmed, almost as though I needed to vent emotion through tears. I think perhaps it takes the experience of working with wood, however crudely, to fully appreciate the sheer complicated brilliance of the carving skills, to have the pronounced reaction that I did.

The building is a feast of visual delights, to be enjoyed in the quiet, peaceful and contemplative atmosphere that the builders and the community have created in this unlikely, grubby location. Please treat yourself to this experience, it is almost unique. Ironically, a few hundred metres away from the Mandir is another temple, the IKEA shrine to bargain consumerism. What could be more of a contrast, the spiritual and the material divided only by the North Circular road. By their temples shall ye know them.

                                                    JAMIE VARDY        OLD MAN STEPTOE