Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

New Year’s Eve 2012. A couple more good reads

December 31, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Twonnet 16


Season of nuts and pinot noir;

Only the scraps remain.

Half-burnt the candles and next year

Presses like uncorked champagne.

Oh dear. But come on, it’s just the sort of day for putting on a kilt, standing on your head and saying, “How’s that for a Christmas Cracker!” Besides, it’s exactly 140 characters with spaces according to my Word-count. Definitely worth a tweet.

In the last few days we’ve been to Lavenham and Cambridge via Bury to catch up with Lucy and her lot. We’ve tried the taster lunch menu at Tuddenham Mill on the way home We’ve re-stocked the fridge after a chilly Sunday turn round Chorleywood Common and a slightly warmer trolley round Waitrose. So it’s still thoroughly jolly and work-free; three inches fatter and a stranger to the gym.

I’ve finished “Carte Blanche” and am left amazed by and full of admiration for the sheer endeavour of the thing. Apparently, Deaver amassed 3000 pages of research notes for character and plot points, having read and seen everything available in the Bond genre and mugged up on international espionage and terrorist-schemes. After six months he produced a resume of 130 pages before knuckling down for three months to write the novel that his fans and dyed-in-the-wool Bond fans were surely half-expecting to be as disappointing as all the other attempts to take up where Fleming left off. Well, this is easily the best of the bunch.

Tim Gautreaux is a writer hitherto unknown to me and Ann, but we stumbled across a recording of his novel “The Missing” at our local library and have been listening to it in the car while zigzagging around the country on family visits. Thank God for libraries and serendipity; it’s wonderful – a moral journey to put you in mind of Conrad that’s as full of interesting characters as a story by Dickens. It transports you to the fractured worlds of northern France with a bunch of US soldiers who discover that they’ve just missed the war but that the immediate aftermath is almost as crazy and dangerous; and of dirt-poor and barely civilized people scraping a living along the rivers and among the hills of Louisiana and Arkansas. The plot meanders with never a dull moment and with plenty of surprises that leave you thinking about the limits of moral obligation, loyalty and love; about revenge and justice.

Incidentally, this man can see the funny side of what’s also devastating and he has the best line in similes I’ve come across for years.

Dec 27 More Books

December 31, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

In this drizzly No-man’s-land between Boxing Day and New Year, away from home and without the distraction of the internet, I’ve been taking a moment to reflect on my Christmas reading and here I am still harping on translations. I read “New Finnish Grammar” with admiration for the minds that conceived it and translated it (Diego Marani and Judith Landry, respectively) but with the muted satisfaction of the not-quite-enquiring-enough. This is High Seriousness, the speculation of a brilliant linguist into the working of a mind emptied of memory and identity, rummaging about for both in a strange war-torn land and a new language. It was compelling enough to pull me through to the end but left me feeling as I sometimes did as a student after a particularly taxing lecture on Anglo-Saxon – hence the schoolboy facetiousness of my Tweet which, had I had the space, I should have liked to entitle “Book Club” because I bet Jim Naughtie and Mariella Frostrupp read Marani. I was hoping it might be a twonnet, but it breaks several rules, dammit.

“200 pages & none of them funny”

“Like hitting yourself with a hammer”

We have been reading Diego Marani –

His prize-winner, New Finnish Grammar.

I’m saving “The Hare with Amber Eyes” (from Lucy) for later and the preface promises a treat. But it’s time to move on to the sherry trifle, provided by Jeffrey Deaver. “Carte Blanche” is no mere bonne bouche as millions of his fans will know already, but what you get from him – admittedly without much chewing – is a classy confection of suspense, thrills and twists and a sense of an ingenious mind at work. Not only has he done his homework on 007 but he’s brought him into the 21st century and he’s better than Fleming at plotting. For me (not yet half-way through) there’s not quite the satisfaction of “Praying for Sleep” or “Garden of Beasts” but only because he’s constrained by a tradition and genre not-quite-his-own.

I’ve always enjoyed Telegraph obits but I hadn’t appreciated how much I owe to Hugh Massingbird for the pleasure they bring. Reading his among a collection of 365 in “Thinker Failure Soldier Jailer” (a well-aimed brick of a book from my m-in-law) reveals all about his penchant for derring-do, oddballs, jokes and ironic understatement. And without him, we would never have had this riveting collection that includes my favourite-so-far: on the redoubtable Barbara Cartland, she of the eyes, (according to Clive James) like two crows crashed-landed in the snow.

Dec 26 Under a Blue Long Melford Sky

December 31, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Along the river by Liston Lane

Up to the copse and back again.

Church no lovelier under the sun –

Boxing-Day Boxing-Day Boxing-Day

Boxing-Day Boxing-Day Boxing-Day run.

Dec 24 Under the Covers

December 24, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

A recent Turkish edition of “Little Wolf: Forest Detective” sits on the coffee table, along with “Erwin und die Wilden Drei”, which is the German manifestation of “More Meerkat Madness”.

Whether or not either is any good, I have no idea. When it comes to foreign editions, you have to allow the translator to find his or her own voice and hope that it hits the spot with readers in his or her language. In 1996, pre-Euro days, the Italian translation of “Little Wolf’s Book of Badness” won me a prize of five million lire. To get five million of anything sounded pretty exciting to me when I was earning a teacher’s salary, so whatever Antonio Faeti did to give the small brute an Italian spin, I owe him blessings and felicitations and the hope that he got a few bob out of it, too.

Looking at the latest cover for the new Italian edition of Piccoli Lupi reminds me: I must show it to Harper Collins to remind them that it is possible to give it an older look. At the moment, the English edition is marketed for readers too young to cope with what is a pretty sophisticated epistolary novel … No, it IS, honestly. Have a read of it yourself.

I reckon that the latest English edition cover appeals to, say, six or seven year-olds and consequently, charming as it is, tends to discourage nine or ten year olds from wanting to be seen reading it. What do you think?


Dec 23 An Education

December 24, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

My abiding memories of our pre-Christmas clan-gathering in Wimborne will not be of squinting at other people’s tail-lights through the spray to and from London, but of the fascination of my grandchildren for Nosy Crow’s app of Cinderella, of their enthusiasm for cutting out pastry stars and spooning mincemeat into pale, dimpled, asymmetric craters of raw puff pastry; of their spot-on singing word-for- word of the lyrics to Matilda in the car on the way to the pub for lunch; and of their spontaneous cheek-to-cheek tango, followed by a demonstrations of a playground flashmob games: Whoop-Woop-woop! Oppa! Gagnam style.
And who would have thought that there would be time only for one mince pie and a quick cuppa before most people felt compelled to leave the party. Strictly called.

Dec 20 Parking War

December 21, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Good news today regarding the meerkat picture book with Harper Collin. Ditto of the Ladybird imprints of some Harry Books for absolute beginner-readers, and the possibility of a promotional deal with a national newspaper. That reminds me: I was greeted near the sprouts in M and S today by a stranger who had seen a full-page article in The Harrow Observer about some of my Christmas books and the stamps based on The Christmas Bear. Blimey. Fame at last.

Had a rather unsettling encounter in the car park, though. There I was, signalling to get into a space that was about to be vacated by another car. I waited a bit. Another car overtook me and stopped just beyond the space-to-be. Nobody could move now, but we all waited patiently while the doors on the new arrival opened, apparently to decant three old ladies. The doors closed again. The driver (male, pensionable) had just spotted the car that was trying to move. He decided that this would be an ideal space for him to back into. The passengers got out and told me to get out of the way. One of them turned out to be not just an ordinary oldie but a 30-something woman who was not quite right in the head and hideously disfigured. She was steered towards me like a gorgon doubling as a riot policeman’s shield.

“My sister’s just told you! We’re going in there,” says the steerer, even more threateningly, pushing her poor bewildered weapon (Is she a child or a younger sister?) closer to me as I step out of my seat to explain. I put my case as calmly as I can – that I have been signalling my intention to move into this space since before her car turned up. Even now, her driver isn’t signalling. There is something of a Mexican stand-off and other cars begin to beep impatiently behind us. “Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself,” says the woman, imperiously waving her driver away and stamping self-righteously towards the store with her fellow-passengers.

I wasn’t proud of myself, but on the other hand, I wasn’t going to be bullied or blackmailed either.

The waiting car left. I replaced it. I felt terrible.

It was a horribly un-Christmassy space to be in.

Dec 19th Not Dying but Buffering

December 21, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

The Trip to the Hong Kong Festival in March is off. I can’t face going all that way Cattle Class and they can’t afford to upgrade me. Pity, but there we are.

Although I’ve never actually plummeted in a lift between the tenth and first floor without the support of a cable, I’m pretty sure I know how it feels since the day before yesterday my ailing laptop inexplicably and apparently fatally, froze.

At that point I recalled that

A. I had never got round to backing anything up properly.
B. There was a heck of a lot of stuff in there that I need badly.

Recalling the bill for £300 I got last time that scruffy geezer with the perspiration problem came round to sort out a computer, I was naturally in despair. Then I remembered a very nice chap who advertises in the parish mag of our place in deepest Herefordshire. He had popped over from Powys once and fixed up my old pc. Tracking down his number was a killer. OK, it wasn’t quite like being stuck down a crevasse with one arm crushed by a boulder and only a blunt penknife between you and certain death by starvation; but close.

Anyway Jim – Jim Rogers actually – was instantly re-assuring. He got me to download a little bit of software – and had a rootle about in my insides for about an hour and a half. At that point a blunt penknife began to feel strangely appealing. But Jim was unphased and took the time to talk me out of my back-up phobia.

And then he spake unto me saying: Take up thy emails and work.

And lo, he asked of me neither my arm nor my leg.

To avoid accusations of my stalking him, I am presently in the process of establishing a small cult for the worship of St Jim.

Dec 16th Our Umpteenth, the Christmas Concert and a Bennett Double Bill

December 17, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Up at 08.15 hours. Not bad considering I didn’t hit the sack until about 01.30 last night after our drinks-party. It is our 45th (our Umpteenth, apparently) wedding anniversary and I’m surprised – after yesterday’s exertions – to be feeling chipper enough to put my bow tie round my naked neck and perform a few Chippendale moves in my underpants, an impulse that is greeted with only muted enthusiasm by my still-recumbent darling. Still, I reward her with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in bed.

Yesterday’s Christmas Concert was a triumph, particularly for Bernard, our organist. During our afternoon rehearsal the Harrow School organ behaved as badly as any young oik from the Remove, refusing to remain silent even when Sir was talking. For long periods one of its larger pipes urged the other 4,500 to mutiny by grumbling loudly and with enough vibration to stir the tea in a soprano’s thermos. Bernard’s response was magnificent. Patiently, he humoured the beast and kept it on a loose rein throughout the afternoon, though occasionally he would run through the repertoire of warning looks and twists of the mouth that we chaps have come to know so well in term-time sectional-rehearsals.

Bass’s eye-view of the auditorium and conductor’s podium, this time unobscured by the dreaded column


I never got round to collecting a programme, so I have no idea of the composer or the name of the piece with which Bernard hit back at that infernal brute. Only those who saw him pulling on his cowboy boots and lacing up a pair of sharp-roweled spurs could have guessed at the larruping that organ was going to get. There wasn’t a key that didn’t feel the whip of his glissandos or the jabs of two bunches of formidable fives. No stop went un-pulled, no pedal unpunished. In the end, there was no jutty, frieze or coign of vantage in the entire Burgesian edifice of Speech Room that did not tremble. The applause was thunderous. At last that thing had got just what it deserved. Its whining attempt at defiance in the closing moments of our Lorna’s plangent Hawaiian arrangement of Silent Night was treated by one and all with the contempt it deserved. We all simply ignored it.

Inviting along a school choir was a brilliant idea, the Canons High students bringing a freshness and youthful snap to the occasion and encouraging a wider, livelier audience than I can remember. The invited Reader was positively Dickensian in its drive and gusto. The Brass Ensemble brought their customary sparkle and wit. Hilary was at her best, astonishing everyone by hitting a note that none of the rest of us could have managed without a pair of steps. The choir, as it always does, rose magnificently to the occasion, even remembering (and in doing so bringing a certain radiance to Simon’s already serene countenance) to shorten the “egg-shell-sees” at the end of the first chorus of Ding-Dong Merrily.

My particular musical favourites on the night were Lully, Lulla, Lullay with its stirring and dramatic blend of voices and Bob Chilcott’s The Shepherds Sing, a piece that supports the music of George Herbert’s words with great tenderness and feeling. Bernard’s piano accompaniment to it shivered with icy stars and secretly I wished that the trumpet – restrained though it was – could have been heard only at a great distance, perhaps from the War Memorial Room.

Our anniversary treat was to go out for lunch and thence to the National to see Alan Bennett’s double-bill, Hymns and Cocktail Sticks. We were running a bit late so were delighted to stumble upon the pop-up restaurants outside the Festival Hall. Problem solved. A Mediterranean Lamb Wrap for Ann and a free-range cheeseburger for Yrs Truly. Dee-lish.



We were nervous about the Bennett after “People”, which we didn’t enjoy at all, but this enthralling. Just for a second, when Alex Jennings glides silently on disguised as Alan Bennett to blend with the music from the string quartet that is soulfully conjuring up the playwright’s inability quite to enjoy himself, you fear that he might simply be about to impersonate the great man. But no; he inhabits him, comfortably and affectionately, and we’re off with him on to territory that is remarkable by being at once familiar and new; we’re rootling about in AB’s boyhood in Leeds, weighing the questions of whether he had one at all, whether what he writes about is the stuff of art; whether it’s heartless of writers to lay bare the private lives of their loved ones.

His recollection of secretly looking inside his father’s fiddle case to reveal the instrument like a just- opened horse-chestnut; a kiss planted on a silly nurse’s cheek by a senile mother whose devastated son stands by, unkissed, unrecognised: moments like these were everybody’s secrets revealed and shared, for which everybody in a packed Lyttleton Theatre was, you could feel, deeply appreciative.

Dec 14 Spot of my Youth

December 14, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Wake, exhausted by last night’s extra rehearsal for Harrow Choral’s Christmas Celebration in Harrow School Speech Room.

I have Margate on my mind. Am moved to verse, if not to poetry:

Rough Guide’s World Number 7.

No more the angry spot on England’s parson’s-nose.

Margate! Acclaimed at last our country’s seaside rose!

I consider reversing the lines but don’t want to leave the parson’s nose as the last word on the subject of a place for which I have a great deal of affection.

At 8.15 I’m on the phone to fix a visit to a little school in the New Forest in February.

Waste a bit of time of the blog. Then back to my genius hamster-hero.

December 13 I Thinky I’ll Shrinky

December 14, 2012 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Up betimes and at the Shrinky Kid story when the phone goes. It’s the lady from the Hong Kong Lit Fest. Thirty years ago I would have cycled to Hong Kong if I’d received an invitation to attend I March and I can hardly believe that I am expressing reservations about the package she is offering now. She is charming but the offer as it stands sounds a bit Rough Guide and March is always a busy time for me. So we’re both going to think about it. Last time I attended the HK Fest, I was able to spend time with two heroes: Seamus Heaney; and Doris Pilkington, the remarkable woman who followed the rabbit-proof fence on foot with her little sister across of the middle of Australia in the 1930s, so desperate were they to re-join their Aboriginal mum from whom they had been snatched by government officials. It would be hard to top that experience.

The story is typed up, tweaked and attached to an email by lunch time.

My friend Philip sends me a cutting from the Mail, informing me that Margate has been declared by The Rough Guide to be seventh in a selection of Must-visit places in THE WORLD. Having lived next door to it in Westbrook for most of my youth, I am a little surprised. But it’s got the Turner Gallery… and Tracy Emin, and the Shell Grotto, and the sands and the ghost of TS Eliot with his trousers rolled up. Come ON!