Sunday 30 May 2010


I've been elephant hunting again and have brought back some more trophies from Elephant Parade, London 2010...

If you're going in search of this engaging quarry, then the first thing you need is a map.

And, by the way, there's even an map-covered elephant....

Mapped (1)

They can be found in the vicinity of many notable monuments, such as Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square...

Red Elephant & Nelson's Column

Tower Bridge and the offices of the London Assembly and the Mayor of London...

Shiny Patterns (1)

Outside the Royal Opera House...


And the Indian Embassy...

Visa Line

The more of these creatures I track down the more I look for the unusual such as this elephant covered with fish-eye windows...

City in the Elephant (Outside)

...that allow one to look in and see a city inside the elephant that is, itself, crowded with elephants!

City in the Elephant (Inside 4)

Part of the fun of the Elephant Parade is watching how people respond to the creatures: snuggling up to them...

Schmoozing (1)

Making formal genuflections...


Or just ignoring them...

"What Elephant?"

Elephant Boy

You can find out more about this art-event-cum-fund-raising project by visiting Elephant Family; and you can see the newly extended Sibley herd (just a few of the 250 currently inhabiting our city) on my Elephant Parade flickr Album.

Saturday 29 May 2010


Lost Property

Anyone seen the vicar lately?

Thursday 27 May 2010


Thirteen years ago, I contributed to a column in the Daily Express called 'Turning Point', which posited the question, "What would the world have been like if something that was invented hadn't been invented?"

I thought it might be fun to reprint one or two of these pieces on this blog from time to time and to start -- and to mark the recent DVD release of the Guy Ritchie film, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law, here's my 'Turning Point' article from May 1997, in which I asked...

What if Arthur Conan Doyle had not created
his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes?

The fact that millions of people every year write to 221b Baker Street, London, seeking the advice of Mr Sherlock Homes, private consulting detective, is testimony to the creative powers of Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who (with a little help from Dr John H Watson) chronicled Holmes' celebrated career.

Doyle, a doctor with literary aspirations, was initially grateful that the popular success of the Sherlock Holmes stories enabled him to devote time to his 'serious' writings. Later, he dismissed Holmes as belonging to 'a lower stratum of literary achievement', and did his best to be rid of the ace detective - going so far as to hurl him to a supposed watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls.

Responding to public demand, however, Doyle reluctantly resurrected Holmes, but even if he had not, we should still have remembered the man who once observed that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

But, what if Sherlock Holmes had never been brought into existence?

That, as Holmes would say, is quite a three-pipe problem but we know his methods and we need only apply them.

Detective fiction would obviously have been saved half a century of emulating Holmes' style and another fifty years of trying to throw off the cape, cast aside the deerstalker and jettison the magnifying-glass, the pipe, the violin, the dressing-gown, the cocaine bottle and the rest of the Holmesian paraphernalia. And detectives would have been spared the anxiety of having to look out for facts with Zen-like significance, such as a dog that does not bark in the night.

Scotland Yard would undoubtedly have had a higher rate of unsolved crime; the Reichenbach Falls would merely be a minor Swiss beauty-spot and London would be robbed of Sherlock Holmes pubs and Mrs Hudson's dining rooms. The famous Baker Street would be just another thoroughfare without any shops selling souvenir plates, paperweights, mugs and toby-jugs; chess sets, book-ends, key-rings and lollipops as well as the usual ties, tea-towels and T-shirts; everything, in fact, from Sherlockian nesting Russian-dolls to detective Teddy Bears.

Since, as Holmes remarked, little things are infinitely the most important; we should not forget that we would have been denied hundreds of stage, film, TV and radio versions of the adventures.

We would never have seen those beak-nosed portrayals by Basil Rathbone (left); those coldly cadaverous performances by Peter Cushing; the wild-eyed fanaticism represented by Jeremy Brett, dancing on the very edge of madness; [or, we can now add, Robert Downey Jnr's shaggily decadent occupant of No 221B]. And what of all those other films about the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Young Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother or Basil, the Great Mouse Detective?

Unwrite the fifty-six short stories and four novels about Holmes and so much mystery, intrigue and exoticism would have been lost to us: no sinister Man with the Twisted Lip, no Veiled Lodger or Solitary Cyclist; no Sussex Vampire, no speckled snake slithering down the phony bell-rope and definitely no gigantic hound stalking the mist-shrouded moors.

Above all, society would have been boringly free of all those terrorists, anarchists and arch-villains: no Professor Moriarty to be dubbed 'The Napoleon of Crime'; no Irene Adler to be known by the sobriquet, 'The Woman'; and no menacing organisations sending out envelopes containing - "Good heavens, Holmes!" - five orange pips!

To deduce that the world would have been infinitely poorer for the absence of Mr Sherlock Holmes is, as the great man himself would have said, "Elementary!"

Tuesday 25 May 2010



I've always loved ventriloquist from my first radio-listening days which were dominated by Educating Archie with Archie Andrews and Peter Brough to my earliest TV-watching days when I fell under the spell of the Lenny the Lion and his wrangler, Terry Hall.

Ray Alan, who died yesterday aged 79, was one of the all time great masters of ventriloquism who endeared himself to adult audiences with his ever-so-slightly-inebriated companion Lord Charles who would repeatedly dismiss Alan as a "silly ass!" I saw them perform in the flesh (and veneer) at a Magic Circle banquet and they were a class act.

Alan also delighted young audiences with a cheeky schoolboy and cute duck duo called Titch and Quackers and with a magic-performing feline in a fez named Ali Cat.

There can be no better example of the ventriloquial art that this routine from the Bob Monkhouse Show in which Ray Alan demonstrates how to do it, while Lord Charles does the precisely the opposite! Pure genius!

Asked once what was the secret of good ventriloquism, Ray Alan replied: "Cractice!"

Monday 24 May 2010



Sadly, I never met Martin Gardner who died on Saturday at the age of 94, but he has been a literary hero of mine for 50 years ever since I first read The Annotated Alice in which he told me so much about Lewis Carroll, his two Alice books and the poem The Hunting of the Snark that he began what has been my life-long fascination with the creator of Wonderland.

Gardner shared several interests with Charles Dodgson and his Carrollian doppelgänger: mathematics, logic, linguistics, puzzles, paradoxes, philosophy, theology and magic.

And again and again, both men's lives and works have intersected with my own life in a series of what I like to think of a 'eccentric circles' - including (despite being a numeric dunce) a fascination with the power and potency of numbers.

This little film, from the television series The Nature of Things, celebrates the life of this extraordinary man. Even if you've never heard of Martin Gardner before, I hope you'll be pleased to have learned his name by the time you've finished watching this fascinating insight into the thoughts of a man whose career was devoted to seeking and sharing insights into the mysteries of life...

Sunday 23 May 2010



Today is what used to be called Whitsunday and tomorrow would have been Whit Monday, if they hadn't nicked that holiday, back in 1970, and traded it in for what is now the Bank Holiday Monday at the end of the month.

So, what is Whitsun? Well, its the English name for the Christian festival otherwise called Pentecost and held on the seventh Sunday after Easter to mark the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles with a rushing wind and tongues of living fire.

The first mention of the word 'Whitsun' in English is, apparently, to be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1067, where it appears as ‘hwitan sunnan daeg’. The derivation of the word has been much debated, but is generally thought that 'whit' is a contraction of 'white' (rather than anything to do with 'wit') and refers to a popularity for holding adult baptisms on that day which traditionally required those being admitted into the church to wear white.

It became a popular convention for folk to wear new clothes on Whit Sunday and the religious observation of the day was coupled with all kinds of secular merrymaking beginning in the Middle Ages with morris dancing (involving representations of our recent blog-friends Robin of Sherwood, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck), outings, picnics, fětes and fairs to which were later added a range of sporting events on the Monday.

One curious superstition was that any child born on Whit Sunday was doomed either to kill or be killed. Such a fate could, however, be averted by holding a mock funeral for the child -- or, alternatively, by squashing an insect in the child's hand.

Not then a good day on which to be born and most certainly not a good day on which to be a bug!

A good day, however, for this blog to clock up the following interesting number of hits!!

Image: Detail of stained glass window in the former St Mary's-at-Lambeth, London, now home of The Garden Museum by Brian Sibley © 2010, uploaded via my flickr Photostream.

Friday 21 May 2010


While checking out some stuff about Robin Hood - honestly, officer! - I 'Googled' Mel Brook's 1993 send-up, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and stumbled across the website, an on-line 'Hosiery Fashion Magazine for Men', which is chiefly devoted to promoting the wearing of what are referred to as 'mantyhose' - or pantyhose for men.

Their mission statement, answers the self-posed question, "Why do many men do wear pantyhose as a regular clothing item", as follows:

Why? Because there's nothing gender-specific in this garment. It was worn mostly by women during the last fifty years - but it doesn't mean it for ladies only. Since it's not designed to fit any female organs, it's a unisex clothing item by function, just like trousers, gloves or glasses.

OK, so how come I've never seen any in M&S Menswear Department alongside the usual ties, socks and Y-fronts? Well, probably because they aren't there --- yet!

But there are, I find, plenty of stockists (or, perhaps I should say, 'tightists') on-line including the German company Collanto who issue the following rallying-cry on their British Homepage:

Free yourself from ancient opinions !
Be man enough and explore new worlds
to get the feeling of wearing real men’s pantyhose and tights !
That piece of clothing is no longer for women only.
We have got the tights for real men !

Real men should, without delay, check out their range of Strumphosen fur den Menn that includes products named 'Filip', 'Adam' and rather reassuringly, 'Fred'!

Going back to the site, I'll leave you to fully explore the extensive content. There's so much there...

You'll find useful hints on how to put on your man-tights (in 8 easy steps, starting from position one, right); and, when you've done that, you can enjoy such True Confessions-type articles as 'Ladies, Does Your Guy Wear Pantyhose?' which begins...

"Sarah was shocked to discover a pair of pantyhose in her husband Jeff’s sock drawer. Her alarm turned to puzzlement when she noticed something very unusual about them. They had a fly opening in front. When she confronted him, Jeff reluctantly acknowledged that they were his, and he’d been wearing them because of nagging pain in his legs at the end of his shift as a short order cook..."

...Despite a side-bar link to 'Macho-Mantyhose', I'm not convinced that this is a trend that is going to be taken up without, if you'll pardon the pun, running into quite a few snags along the way!

Meanwhile, back in the Greenwood...

Thursday 20 May 2010


Animator, Andy Latham asked in a comment to my post on Daffy Duck in Sherwood Forest whether I'd ever met the great Chuck Jones, the legendary animator and director of Robin Hood Daffy and dozens of other Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies and Loony Tunes cartoons, including such revered classics of such seven-minute masterpieces of the genre that is the short cartoon as Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening and What's Opera, Doc?

As I told Andy, I did have an encounter with the mighty Chuck when - at least twenty years ago, now - I hosted a Guardian Lecture with him at London's National Film Theatre. The event coincided with his coming to Britain to create a huge mural of Warner Brothers characters for the wall of the Museum of the Moving Image that (along with the museum itself) is, alas, long gone.

It was, I recall, a slightly nerve-wracking experience: as Chuck was maliciously playful and took some delight in seeing his interviewer discomforted.

We got off to a decidedly rocky start when I referred to the fact that he had studied (as had many of the great Disney animators) at the Chouinard Art Institute, founded in Los Angeles in 1921 by Mrs Nelbert Chouinard.

Having never heard Mrs C's name pronounced aloud, I said Choo-i-nard and Chuck immediately corrected my ignorance: "We say, Choonard!" he said, as if it was one of those English-American words the pronunciation of which differs depending what side of the Atlantic you're on.

Somewhat unsettled, I blundered on until, for some reason, the subject of kangaroos came up and Chuck, getting momentarily muddled, referred to the animal as a Wallaboo. I instantly countered with: "We say, Wallaby!"

He fixed me with a Wile E Coyote stare, chuckled and said, "You say Choo-i-nard, I say Wallaboo, let's call the whole thing off!" After which the interview went swimmingly!

At dinner, after the lecture, he drew this little thank you note in my autograph book...

Chuck Jones - "BEEP, BEEP!"

And here's a Chuck Jones film that may be new to you. Entitled The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics it was based on the book by Norton Juster (the author The Phantom Tollbooth, which Jones also directed on film) and has narration by Robert Morley. Utterly charming, it's hardly surprising that it won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short in 1965...

By the way, this is as good a place as any to mention that I have just started a new blog devoted to things that are - as it's title indicates - DECIDEDLY DISNEY. I hope those of you with an interest in Uncle Walt and Disney animation will pop over for a visit it now and again...

Tuesday 18 May 2010


"The camera can be the most deadly weapon
since the assassin's bullet.
Or it can be the lotion of the heart.

- Norman Parkinson, CBE (1913-1990)

One of the all-time great photographers of the twentieth century, Norman Parkinson revolutionised fashion photography through his work in Vogue and Queen as well as producing sensational photographic portraits. A major retrospective exhibition showcasing (and selling) original prints by Parkinson opens tomorrow at Chris Beetles Ltd.

Here are few of the many pictures that caught my eye and - as any amateur photographer will understand - made me sigh with envy and admiration!

To begin, here's Parkinson's wife, Wenda, in a Hardy Amies suit, photographed near Rotten Row, Hyde Park Corner, London, in 1951: an example of the photographer's ground-breaking decision to take fashion photography out of the staid surroundings of the studio and into the real world...

And, once there, Parkinson frequently located his exquisitely dressed, perfectly elegant models amongst the real people of drab, post-War, austerity Britain.

Here's Wenda once more, this time in a photograph that reveals the sense of fun that Parkinson brought to so many of his pictures. Dressed in a hand-knit cashmere twinset (so obviously from the '50s!) Wenda sits alongside a regular in the Public Bar of Hobnails Inn, Little Washbourne, as if a game of shove-ha'penny was as natural to her as croquet...

This photograph, from 1949, featuring 'The New Look' was taken under the portico of the National Gallery looking towards Trafalgar Square and is a stunning composition, not just for its use of black-and-white and shades of grey but for the sense of 'narrative' that is a part of so many of Parkinson's pictures: the women aren't just modelling clothes, they are engaged in a conversation and we are witnessing an instant in an unfolding story...

Next, not - as you might be forgiven for thinking, an Ascot photo - but a DRINKA PINTA MILKA DAY advertisement for Britain's Milk Marketing Board, dating from round 1958. Cool and funny: genius!

"I like to make people look as good as they'd like to look,
and with luck, a shade better."

Parkinson was a great celebrity portraitist and here's one of his most famous: The Beatles, taken at the Hotel President, Russell Square, London, in 1963. The image became iconic, but what informed the Fab Four's upward-looking eye-line?

Taken the same year, another 'sixties pop-idol, Cliff Richard. Evasively enigmatic, what is he thinking?

And, among other portraits, Henry Moore with one of his sculptural groups in Battersea Park, London, in 1958 - the artist almost crowded out of the picture by his art, but note the skill with which the photographer has defined that profile...

Film director, John Huston, caught on set at Elstree Studios in 1955, during the filming of Moby Dick...

Margot Fonteyn, in the rehearsal room, 1959...

And an ironic portrait of Tom Lehrer (also 1959) captioned "You're not eating..." inspired by the lyrics to one of Lehrer's best-known songs, 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park'...

Finally, three of my top Parkinson shots - simple, witty, evocative:

First, an oyster (with pearl) that here becomes almost a surreal Dali-Buñuel eye...

Secondly, Wenda and Ostriches in South Africa in 1951. As the bird she was riding galloped of with his wife clinging to its back, Parkinson - intent upon getting shots - yelled "More profile, Wenda! More profile!"

And, from 1960, New York, New York, a shot-from-ground-level photo of a couple running along East River Drive that is filled with excitement, energy and pure joie de vivere...

"The only thing that gets in the way of a really good photograph,
is the camera."

The exhibition remains on show until 12 June. Chris Beetles Gallery is at 8 & 10 Ryder Street, St James's, London, SW1Y 6QB and opening hours are 10:00-17:30, Monday - Saturday.

There is an excellent, fully illustrated 129 page colour/b&w catalogue with essays and background information available, price £10 (+p&p) which can also be viewed as an on-line pdf.

All images: © The Norman Parkinson Archive

Sunday 16 May 2010


On my first day of blogging in May 2007, I wrote about the visit to London of The Sultan's Elephant, four years on, the capital is once again in the thrall of elephant power with Elephant Parade, London 2010.

Dumbo, you may recall, had inebriated dreams of "pink elephants on parade". Last weekend in Green Park - wide awake and and stone cold sober - we encountered elephants of all colours, shades and hues.

Here are a few favourites...

Flower Power

Elephant coming...




Bi-Polar (1)

All Behind
No sign of that colour which used to be designated on cotton reels in my Mum's needlework basket as 'Elephant Grey'!!

And the elephants in Green Park are just a few of the 250 brightly painted life-size baby elephants located all over central London this summer as part of a three month event to focus public attention on the urgent crisis faced by the endangered Asian elephant.

Each decorated by a different artist or celebrity, the elephants will be found in parks, at street corner and around (and in) well-known buildings. Running from May to July 2010, this is London’s biggest outdoor art event on record and aims to raise £2 million for the Asian elephant and benefit 20 UK conservation charities.

The artworks themselves will be sold by auction and you can buy your own minature replicas on line or at Selfridges, 80 Regent St, 36 Carnaby St and Greenwich Central Market.

You'll find more about this imaginative project by visiting Elephant Family; and you can see the whole of my herd (just a few of the 250 currently inhabiting our city) on my Elephant Parade flickr Album.

Saturday 15 May 2010


The real problem with the new Robin Hood is that if you are going to jettison all the familiar trappings that have attached themselves to this ancient legend over centuries, then you need something pretty potent to put in their place. Messrs Scott and Crowe simply did the former without having the latter.

However, still on the subject of the ever-(Lincoln)-green movie career of Master Robin, here's one of my favourite cinematic takes on the outlaw of Sherwood Forest: the 1958 Warner Brothers 'Merrie Melodies' cartoon, Robin Hood Daffy, animated by the great Chuck Jones...

Friday 14 May 2010


Tonight on the Radio 2 Arts Show (around 10:30 pm), I'll be talking with Claudia Winkleman about 100 years of Robin Hood on film and reviewing the latest exploits of everybody's favourite outlaw as portrayed by the gladiator from Down Under: Russell Crowe...

Like King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes, every generation acquires its own Robin Hood: Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Richard Todd, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner or their small screen counterparts like Richard Greene (right) who, in ITV's The Adventures of Robin Hood between 1955-1960, started my obsession with men in tights!

With a band of outlaws who included Archie Duncan as Little John, Alexander Guage as Friar Tuck and Bernadette O'Farrell (and later Patricia Driscoll) as Maid Marian and with cameos from such later-film-and-TV-stars as Robert Shaw, Patrick Troughton, Jane Asher, Leo McKern, Joan Sims, Paul Eddington, Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Brambell, Greene swashbuckled his way through 145 episodes of wrong-righting and derring-do.

The theme song was on every kid's lips, mine included...

Those 30-minute black-and-white adventures so fired my imagination (and those of my contemporaries) that Robin Hood became our chief playtime game at primary school which, since I was then living in what was comparative countryside, meant that we played it among the trees, bushes and undergrowth of the un-walled, un-gated school grounds. Those were the days...

I have to admit that I was instrumental in organising these games: devising scenarios and designating roles and it tells you a lot about me that I cast myself not as Robin Hood but as the Sheriff of Nottingham!

With my school mac thrown over my shoulders and buttoned under the chin to form a cloak, I modelled my portrayal on that of Alan Wheatley who played Richard Greene's nemesis with a cold, softly-spoken sneering menace that also had about it, I now realise, more than a touch of theatrical camp!

My prize possessions, aged 6, were my collection of Robin Hood sweet cigarette cards and my first Robin Hood Annual. Although the latter was long ago lost (when my late mother purged my annuals and gave them to a cousin) I can still turn the pages in my mind's-eye.

As for my set of plastic Robin Hood figures collected from packets of Kellogg's cereal (and equally thoughtlessly disposed of), they were so precious that when, a year or two back, a set turned up in a book-dealer's catalogue, I simply had to buy them...

Robin Hood and Co
I can't help wondering of Russell's Robin will remain in the memories of a generation in the same way as did my man in Lincoln Greene?

If you miss my chat about the various Robins in the 'hood, you can catch it again for a week on the BBC's i-player.

Image of Robin Hood figurines © Brian Sibley 2010, uploaded from my flickr Photostream.