The Old Un’s Notes
Clive James – writer, poet, critic… and rock star? Well, not quite, but, for the past 50 years, he’s been quietly composing songs with his musical partner, Pete Atkin. They’ve written 200 tracks, admired by fans from Kenny Everett to Stephen Fry. And now a new book, Loose Canon by Ian Shircore, tells the James & Atkin story. It’s published on 4th October.
The songs assume a poignant cast in the light of James’s five-year struggle with leukaemia. Here is an extract from Me to Thank, their farewell song to commemorate the end of their long collaboration. The words are by James, who turns 79 in October, and the music is by Atkin.
I’ve got to where it’s hard to find the tears so you can weep. I’ve got to where the step up
to the carpet is too steep. I’ve got to where, apart
from air, There’s nothing in the tank. And I like to think that I had
time to thank. But I’ve got me to thank… I should have spoken to
you clearly, And now the chance is nearly Gone, and I pay dearly.
A melancholy lament – and one that will echo with many of the Old Un’s contemporaries.
Sad news reaches the Old Un of the death of another poet, Alexander Shihwarg, at the great age of 95. Born in Russia, educated in China, Shihwarg fought in the British Army in the Second World War and was imprisoned by the Japanese.
His last poetry collection, Mirror Mirror was published only this year. He was much admired by Jilly Cooper.
She tells the Old Un, ‘He was very much a spirit of the King’s Road in the Sixties and Seventies, and was a dear man.
‘The war poems and the love poems and the poems about himself are all touching, and I adore the Christine Keeler one.’
This was the poem Shihwarg wrote on Keeler’s death last December at the age of 75. Seen in the King’s Road – RIP Christine Keeler
The lonely figure carrying
cat litter was once a beauty icon
all aglitter, that Lewis Morley captured
in a second, with consequences greater
than he reckoned.
But beauty, that deserts both
tart and empress, tiptoed away from our
ill-fated temptress. Fair game for media and
politician, her story only ran for
But you who gloat over her
loss, remember, she had her sun-kissed
moments in December. And personally I find there’s
nothing sinister in pleasuring a sex-deprived
Fans of the great F Scott Fitzgerald are in luck. You can now stay in his old two-storey, clapboard house in Montgomery, Alabama – available on Airbnb from around £120 per night.
Fitzgerald House, built in 1910, was home to Fitzgerald, wife Zelda Sayre and daughter Scottie from 1931 to 1932. Zelda had just been released from various French and Swiss sanatoriums when they stayed there.
Zelda was born in Montgomery in 1900, the youngest child of Alabama
Supreme Court justice Anthony Dickson Sayre.
Minnesota-born Scott was a young army lieutenant stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan. The couple met over afternoon tea at the Winter Palace mansion, close to the family’s house at 6 Pleasant Avenue, now a car park. The seven-room house contains some of Zelda’s sketches and paintings as well as his Princeton honorary diploma and Esquire magazines, featuring Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories. He wrote them largely to pay for his wife’s frequent hospitalisations and treatment. This year is the 100th anniversary of their meeting and 7th September the centenary of the day Fitzgerald declared in a letter he had fallen in love with her.
Not long after their time at the Alabama house, their lives began to fall apart. Fitzgerald died in 1940 in Hollywood, aged only 44.
Zelda died 70 years ago, aged 47, in a fire at Highland Hospital in North Carolina, trapped in a room where she was about to receive electroshock therapy.
Tragic lives – but never dull ones. The Montgomery Fitzgerald Museum curator, Sara Powell, says of Zelda, ‘As she describes one of her characters – she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.’
The surprise summer bestseller has been The Pebbles on the Beach by Clarence Ellis. Originally published in 1954, the book has been republished by Faber, to great acclaim from pebble-spotters, old and new.
Ellis was an intriguing
figure. Born in 1889, he fought in the First World War before working in adult education. His first love, though, was the astounding array of pebbles on British beaches. Apart from this, little is known about Ellis’s life. Any readers who know more, do enlighten the Old Un.
The Old Un is keenly looking forward to the 52nd Biennial Meeting of German historians in Münster at the end of September.
He’s particularly enthralled by the thought of the talk by the German academic Martin Jehne, of Technische Universität Dresden. Jehne will be lecturing about the extreme Latin insults by Roman politicians and poets that put our rudest statesmen in the shade.
To avoid red faces at Oldie Towers, I think it’s best to leave the Roman poet Martial’s insult to his enemy Vacerra in Latin. Prurient readers can see a translation at the end of the Old Un’s notes. Those of a sensitive disposition, look away.
‘ Et delator es et calumniator, et fraudator es et negotiator, et fellator es et lanistra, miror quare non habeas, Vacerra, nummos.’
Even non-latinists get the picture, I’m sure.
As well as being rude, the Romans could also be very funny. Here’s a Roman gag that’s so good that it was ripped off both by Sigmund Freud and Iris Murdoch, in The Sea, the Sea. It was first told by Valerius Maximus, the 1st-century Roman writer:
‘A Roman governor of Sicily met an ordinary resident in the province who was his spitting image. The
governor was amazed at the likeness, since his father had never been to the province. “But my father went to Rome,” the lookalike pointed out.’
Calling all war babies! In December 1939, the War Office requisitioned Brocket Hall, the splendid Palladian pile in Hertfordshire, as an Escape Maternity Hospital for mothers in the East End, for fear they might be bombed out of their homes in the Blitz.
A total of 8,333 Brocket Babes were born at the hall between 1939 and 1949. The Lord Melbourne Suite – named after the Victorian Prime Minister who lived at Brocket – was the delivery room. The Prince Regent Suite was the recovery room; and the Silver Rooms were the baby ward.
Brocket Hall is now a hotel and the hoteliers are keen to build up a complete record of the Brocket Babes.
So far, 1,045 of them, from 38 countries, have come forward, with around 350 of them from the UK.
In order to encourage more Brocket Babes to identify themselves, the hotel is kindly offering all Oldie readers – not just Brocket Babes – a special 30 per cent discount off the published room rate. Just quote The Oldie when booking.
The hotel is also offering a prize – this time open just to Brocket Babes – including a night in one of the rooms in Melbourne Lodge, named after the Prime Minister, with dinner and a round of golf included.
The prize will go to a winner drawn from those Brocket Babes who correctly answer this question:
Lord Melbourne was Queen Victoria’s first prime minister. How many prime ministers – in all – served during her reign, and were there more or fewer than the number who have served so far under Elizabeth II?
Any Brocket Babes – or readers keen to take advantage of the reader offer – should email email@example.com to take part.
A reader, William Wood, has got in touch with the Old Un to say how much he enjoys our Small Delights feature (see page 69) – not least because he has just published a collection called 100 Little Pleasures.
Among life’s minor compensations, he includes: Not Having a Headache; Finishing a Swim; A Land Rover; and Doing Nothing.
All reminders that, in this vale of tears, the little things mean a lot.
Here is a translation of Martial’s insult in Latin from page 7:
‘You’re an informer and a gossip, a fraudster and conman, a c***sucker and a nasty piece of work. Given all that, Vacerra, I’m amazed you’ve got no money.’
‘This one was built by slaves from Scandinavia’
‘Simon has a wonderful nose for wine’
Stones hit: Lizardite pebbles, raw and polished, Cornwall
‘Is there a Mrs Mutant Space Creature?’
‘Run along and press play’