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hicklit

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  1. Who’d have thought that a graveyard could be so much fun. But one of the best free shows in Europe is to be had at the Père Lachaise cemetery in the east of Paris. Whether it be that shrine of the Left, the grim Mur des Fédérés, where the heroic resistance of the Communards came to its final, bloody end; or the scarlet lipstick kisses, lovingly planted by gay pilgrims, that smother Epstein’s monument to Oscar Wilde. Whether it be the grungy little knots of Scandinavian teenagers, self-consciously puffing at their spliffs around the tomb of rock legend Jim Morrison; or the fans, of all ages, who make for the mighty marble slab that marks the last resting place of Edith Piaf - the Little Sparrow (I once threatened the UK All-Comers record for the standing high jump when, paused at this spot in quiet contemplation, I was startled by a young Dutch woman suddenly bursting into a full-throated warbling of ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’). A personal favourite in Père Lachaise is the memorial to a, now, largely forgotten figure. Félix Faure was President of the Republic in the 1890s. Of course, back then, politicians suffered much less public scrutiny of their private lives than they do now and Faure was very much a man of his time. Indeed he was an embodiment of that fin de siècle hedonism (think Les Folies Bergère, think Toulouse Lautrec) that helped make Paris synonymous with all that was louche or forbidden. In a cynical age people expected little in the way of what we now call “conviction” politicians but people could at least say of Faure that he pursued his pleasures with passion. But a dark shadow was cast over the latter stages of his presidency by the bitterly divisive Dreyfus Affair. In an effort, perhaps, to take his mind off affairs of state at this particularly tense time Faure was wont to ‘entertain’ young women in the presidential chambers. Tragedy struck, however, when, in the midst of one of these amorous encounters the statesman’s heart - weakened by years of self-indulgence - gave way. Officials were alerted by the horrified screams of his companion and rushed in to find the stricken President stark naked on the carpet, the suddenness of his demise reflected in the rictus grin that illuminated his features and in – well – other physiological phenomena. It was, so they say, three weeks before they could nail the coffin lid down. Yes, everyone who is anyone is buried in Père Lachaise. It is the place to be seen. From literary giants like Balzac, Molière and Proust (at whose monument admirers are wont to leave a Madeleine biscuit as some sort of votive offering. Having no such sweetmeat to hand I left a Mini Jaffa Cake instead); to painters like Delacroix and Pissarro; to classical musicians like Bizet, Chopin and Poulenc; right through to those modern greats of French cinema, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. You can buy little maps at the entrance to the cemetery detailing where your favourite stiff can be located but I can strongly recommend two English-published guides to Paris as a whole which both contain an entertaining walk around Père Lachaise. The ‘Time Out’ Book of Paris Walks is series of short essays by a number of Paris-loving luminaries (including Michael Palin on his hero Hemingway) detailing strolls around their favourite haunts in the City of Light. Their guide to Père Lachaise is written by the leading British historian of things French, Alistair Horne. Most of the walks in the ‘Time Out’ book have a literary/cultural theme to them. Slightly more prosaic in style but every bit as useful is ‘Walking Paris’ by Gilles Desmons. With clear instructions, excellent maps and suggested walks in every corner of Paris this is an absolutely essential guide for anyone wanting to get to know this wonderful city.
  2. Whilst most travel books tend towards the adventurous or the exotic – with titles like ‘Across the Gobi on a Gnu’ or ‘My Seven Years Among the Sodoffandleaveusalone People of Borneo’ – I’d like to alert everyone to a little tome about a rare jewel right on our own doorstep (assuming you’re reading this in England that is). Yes! Belgium! I must admit that I assumed that I was alone in my own rampant Belgophilia. That it was some foible or eccentricity that was – like, say, a fondness for lemon curd or a soft spot for Showaddywaddy – best kept quiet. So imagine my delight in chancing upon a kindred spirit, a fellow Lover of the Low Countries. The book in question is ‘A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among the Belgians’ by Harry Pearson (Abacus Paperback). You may be familiar with Pearson already – he writes a regular (very funny) column in the Sport section of the Saturday edition of The Guardian. And he brings the same sense of whimsy and delight in the ridiculous to bear in this travelogue. He brilliantly captures the oddities of a country where two distinct linguistic groups live side-by-side – but have virtually nothing to do with each other. He illustrates this by saying that you can be driving along in the French-speaking section of the country merrily ticking-off the kilometres on the road signs as you head for the ancient city of Mons – only to find that when the motorway crosses the boundary into the Flemish-speaking section, ‘Mons’ suddenly becomes ‘Bergen’. And, no, you are not now heading to Norway’s second city – it’s just that there is no linguistic compromise. You are either French-speaking or Flemish-speaking – but not both. (Although, of course, we’re all right – just about everybody speaks English). He also enjoys other Belgian quirks – such as the passion for pooch pandering. As a dog-lover himself he is rather touched by the fact that a lot of poodle parlours are given English names – implying, as it does, a fellow-feeling with Anglo-Saxon animal lovers just across the Channel. However this can sometimes lead to some, erm, unfortunate misunderstandings. He spotted one such emporium proudly emblazoned with the legend: “Dog’s Toilet” and another, somewhat racier-sounding establishment – “Doggy Style”. But Pearson is also at pains to point out the wonderfully civilised nature of much of life in Belgium. Whether it be the artistic genius of a Breughel, a Van Eyck or a Rubens; or the myriad local festivals which thrive across the country; or the national celebration of gastronomy, beer, the good things in life, more beer, even more beer. This delightful, warm-hearted book will make you look again at this wrongly-maligned land and maybe, soon, Harry Pearson and Hicklit will have more people who share their secret. And, yes, I can name ten famous Belgians…
  3. Blimey - didn't know the old boy had written about the Dizzter before. It doesn't seem to appear in the 'By the same author' bit at the front of the book. Mind you, he's written so many over the years he's probably forgotten half the stuff he's done. I can, however, confirm that I was referring to his most recent one (dated 2004) published in hardback by Harper Collins in Chiswick - literary centre of the universe.
  4. The secondary school I went to was so bad it was like some sort of educational black hole: I left it actually knowing less than when I started. It was a cultural desert, a scholastic Romford. So if, like me, you went to a similarly crap establishment you may, also like me, have spent some time in your early twenties desperately trying to catch up with the civilised world by attempting to teach yourself a bit about music, art etc etc. Classical music was less of a problem because you could, of course, try the old ‘Listening To Records’ gambit. The world of music could, as it were, come to you. And fairly cheaply too. There was a label ‘Classics for Pleasure’ which did loads of good LPs of a wide variety of classical repertoire for, when I first started buying them (late 1970s/early 1980s), £1.49 a go. To get of a bit of a grasp of classical buildings I read Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘An Outline of European Architecture’ from which I learnt a lot. Including why, in Rome, (CONTRIVED GAG ALERT #1…CONTRIVED GAG ALERT #1…) there always seems to be repair work going on around the elaborate Bernini fountains and the like while more classical structures are ignored. Hence the expression ‘If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it’. And, for twentieth century stuff, I read the same author’s ‘Pioneers of Modern Design’ which, of course, (CONTRIVED GAG ALERT #2…CONTRIVED GAG ALERT #2…) spawned the hit novelty song ‘Dada Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bauhaus’. And for painting – and what Brian Sewell would call the ‘plarstic’ arts – I devoured the peerless E H Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’. This brilliant book was first published way back in 1950 and, thankfully, has continuously been in print, with suitable revisions and updatings, ever since. It is clearly-written, without being patronising, and beautifully illustrated, without being, in any way, ‘coffee table’. It was clearly a labour of love by a great teacher who wanted to enthuse the general reader and inspire the life-time of pleasure that can be gained from a love of the arts. Gombrich was no stick-in-the-mud either, writing as generously about the modernists as he did about earlier greats. He actually died as recently as 2001 – when he was well into his nineties. A smart move as it turns out: he missed Brit Art.
  5. When the young Benjamin Disraeli, precociously self-assured and outrageously flamboyant, (a sort of nineteenth-century Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen - but without all the unpleasantness), first considered a career in politics one of the resident MPs for the High Wycombe seat he coveted was the Hon Robert John Smith. This was just before the so-called Great Reform Act of 1832, and Smith, the son and heir of local grandee Lord Carrington, served his time as MP while, basically, waiting for his old man to snuff it. Then he could take over the stately pile – Wycombe Hall – and the thousands of rolling Bucks. acres himself and indulge in all the port-quaffing, fox-hunting, vole-irritating habits of his time and class. Except that, on inheriting the title, Smith (now, of course, the new Lord Carrington) began to develop some, well, eccentric, ideas – particularly in the area of his own physiognomy. And such was the fervour with which he proselytised his unusual views that he became known as Glass Bottom Carrington. You see he developed the unshakeable conviction that, as one contemporary wrote, “an honourable part of his person was made of glass, so that he was afraid to sit thereon, and during the whole of his uneventful life, he persistently refused to sit whenever it was possible by any exercise of ingenuity to stand or lie down.” Yes, in spite of the relative ease with which - through even the most basic of diagnostic procedures - one would have supposed such a idée fixe might be dislodged from the mind of even its most stubborn adherent, the barmy aristo remained convinced that he was possessed of a crystalline derrière. A translucent tush. A posterior made by Pilkingtons. An Arse of Glarse. I am indebted (as Cyril Fletcher used to say on ‘That’s Life’) for this information to the consistently brilliant historical biographer, Christopher Hibbert, whose latest book – ‘Disraeli: a personal history’ – I have been reading and greatly enjoying. Hibbert, now eighty, has been a remarkably prolific and consistent writer over the years. Labelled a ‘popular’ historian by the more academic (i.e. unreadable) end of the ever-expanding history market, Hibbert has always emphasised the ‘story’ in ‘history’. His books celebrate the joy of narrative and triumphantly succeed in reminding me why I became interested in history in the first place.
  6. Don't know how often this has happened to people but earlier this year I was reading an absolutely superb novel - 'Industry of Souls' - by a writer new to me, Martin Booth. Wow, I thought as I came towards the end of this gripping tale, I can't wait for this bloke's next one. Taking a short respite from the page-turner I started to peruse the newspaper - and there, on the Guardian Obituary page, it was: Martin Booth, novelist, dies aged 58. The poor chap had keeled-over in mid-novel, as it were. And when I mentioned this to a friend she said that she once had to abandon a book, distraught, when the author, Douglas Adams, sadly passed on when she was half-way through one of his. This got me wondering whether there was some strange, mystic power of life and death that readers can exert over novelists. And, yet, could this force possibly be harnessed for the good of mankind?? And, if it can, should we all start reading Ben Elton's latest??
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