Sunday, 26 June 2016

A Great Read

Someone cut and pasted the and didn't tell me where it is from so I cannot give it full attribution. It is by AA Gill and, whatever your views about the EU, it is a hugely good read:

Brexit: AA Gill argues for ‘In’
We all know what “getting our country back” means. It’s snorting a line of that most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia
It was the woman on Question Time that really did it for me. She was so familiar. There is someone like her in every queue, every coffee shop, outside every school in every parish council in the country. Middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow, over-made-up, with her National Health face and weatherproof English expression of hurt righteousness, she’s Britannia’s mother-in-law. The camera closed in on her and she shouted: “All I want is my country back. Give me my country back.”
It was a heartfelt cry of real distress and the rest of the audience erupted in sympathetic applause, but I thought: “Back from what? Back from where?”
Wanting the country back is the constant mantra of all the outies. Farage slurs it, Gove insinuates it. Of course I know what they mean. We all know what they mean. They mean back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future, back-to-back, back to bosky hedges and dry stone walls and country lanes and church bells and warm beer and skittles and football rattles and cheery banter and clogs on cobbles. Back to vicars-and-tarts parties and Carry On fart jokes, back to Elgar and fudge and proper weather and herbaceous borders and cars called Morris. Back to victoria sponge and 22 yards to a wicket and 15 hands to a horse and 3ft to a yard and four fingers in a Kit Kat, back to gooseberries not avocados, back to deference and respect, to make do and mend and smiling bravely and biting your lip and suffering in silence and patronising foreigners with pity.
We all know what “getting our country back” means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty. It’s the knowledge that the best of us have been and gone, that nothing we can build will be as lovely as a National Trust Georgian country house, no art will be as good as a Turner, no poem as wonderful as If, no writer a touch on Shakespeare or Dickens, nothing will grow as lovely as a cottage garden, no hero greater than Nelson, no politician better than Churchill, no view more throat-catching than the White Cliffs and that we will never manufacture anything as great as a Rolls-Royce or Flying Scotsman again.
The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday. In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning and pomposity.
And if you think that’s an exaggeration of the Brexit position, then just listen to the language they use: “We are a nation of inventors and entrepreneurs, we want to put the great back in Britain, the great engineers, the great manufacturers.” This is all the expression of a sentimental nostalgia. In the Brexiteer’s mind’s eye is the old Pathé newsreel of Donald Campbell, of John Logie Baird with his television, Barnes Wallis and his bouncing bomb, and Robert Baden-Powell inventing boy scouts in his shed.
All we need, their argument goes, is to be free of the humourless Germans and spoilsport French and all their collective liberalism and reality. There is a concomitant hope that if we manage to back out of Europe, then we’ll get back to the bowler-hatted 1950s and the Commonwealth will hold pageants, fireworks displays and beg to be back in the Queen Empress’s good books again. Then New Zealand will sacrifice a thousand lambs, Ghana will ask if it can go back to being called the Gold Coast and Britain will resume hand-making Land Rovers and top hats and Sheffield plate teapots.
There is a reason that most of the people who want to leave the EU are old while those who want to remain are young: it’s because the young aren’t infected with Bisto nostalgia. They don’t recognise half the stuff I’ve mentioned here. They’ve grown up in the EU and at worst it’s been neutral for them.
The under-thirties want to be part of things, not aloof from them. They’re about being joined-up and counted. I imagine a phrase most outies identify with is “women’s liberation has gone too far”. Everything has gone too far for them, from political correctness — well, that’s gone mad, hasn’t it? — to health and safety and gender-neutral lavatories. Those oldies, they don’t know if they’re coming or going, what with those newfangled mobile phones and kids on Tinder and Grindr. What happened to meeting Miss Joan Hunter Dunn at the tennis club? And don’t get them started on electric hand dryers, or something unrecognised in the bagging area, or Indian call centres , or the impertinent computer asking for a password that has both capitals and little letters and numbers and more than eight digits.
Brexit is the fond belief that Britain is worse now than at some point in the foggy past where we achieved peak Blighty
We listen to the Brexit lot talk about the trade deals they’re going to make with Europe after we leave, and the blithe insouciance that what they’re offering instead of EU membership is a divorce where you can still have sex with your ex. They reckon they can get out of the marriage, keep the house, not pay alimony, take the kids out of school, stop the in-laws going to the doctor, get strict with the visiting rights, but, you know, still get a shag at the weekend and, obviously, see other people on the side.
Really, that’s their best offer? That’s the plan? To swagger into Brussels with Union Jack pants on and say: “ ’Ello luv, you’re looking nice today. Would you like some?”
When the rest of us ask how that’s really going to work, leavers reply, with Terry-Thomas smirks, that “they’re going to still really fancy us, honest, they’re gagging for us. Possibly not Merkel, but the bosses of Mercedes and those French vintners and cheesemakers, they can’t get enough of old John Bull. Of course they’re going to want to go on making the free market with two backs after we’ve got the decree nisi. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Have no doubt, this is a divorce. It’s not just business, it’s not going to be all reason and goodwill. Like all divorces, leaving Europe would be ugly and mean and hurtful, and it would lead to a great deal of poisonous xenophobia and racism, all the niggling personal prejudice that dumped, betrayed and thwarted people are prey to. And the racism and prejudice are, of course, weak points for us. The tortuous renegotiation with lawyers and courts will be bitter and vengeful, because divorces always are and, just in passing, this sovereignty thing we’re supposed to want back so badly, like Frodo’s ring, has nothing to do with you or me. We won’t notice it coming back, because we didn’t notice not having it in the first place.
Nine out of 10 economists say ‘remain in the EU’
You won’t wake up on June 24 and think: “Oh my word, my arthritis has gone! My teeth are suddenly whiter! Magically, I seem to know how to make a soufflé and I’m buff with the power of sovereignty.” This is something only politicians care about; it makes not a jot of difference to you or me if the Supreme Court is a bunch of strangely out-of-touch old gits in wigs in Westminster or a load of strangely out-of-touch old gits without wigs in Luxembourg. What matters is that we have as many judges as possible on the side of personal freedom.
Personally, I see nothing about our legislators in the UK that makes me feel I can confidently give them more power. The more checks and balances politicians have, the better for the rest of us. You can’t have too many wise heads and different opinions. If you’re really worried about red tape, by the way, it’s not just a European problem. We’re perfectly capable of coming up with our own rules and regulations and we have no shortage of jobsworths. Red tape may be annoying, but it is also there to protect your and my family from being lied to, poisoned and cheated.
The first “X” I ever put on a voting slip was to say yes to the EU. The first referendum was when I was 20 years old. This one will be in the week of my 62nd birthday. For nearly all my adult life, there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t been pleased and proud to be part of this great collective. If you ask me for my nationality, the truth is I feel more European than anything else. I am part of this culture, this European civilisation. I can walk into any gallery on our continent and completely understand the images and the stories on the walls. These people are my people and they have been for thousands of years. I can read books on subjects from Ancient Greece to Dark Ages Scandinavia, from Renaissance Italy to 19th-century France, and I don’t need the context or the landscape explained to me. The music of Europe, from its scales and its instruments to its rhythms and religion, is my music. The Renaissance, the rococo, the Romantics, the impressionists, gothic, baroque, neoclassicism, realism, expressionism, futurism, fauvism, cubism, dada, surrealism, postmodernism and kitsch were all European movements and none of them belongs to a single nation.
There is a reason why the Chinese are making fake Italian handbags and the Italians aren’t making fake Chinese ones. This European culture, without question or argument, is the greatest, most inventive, subtle, profound, beautiful and powerful genius that was ever contrived anywhere by anyone and it belongs to us. Just look at my day job — food. The change in food culture and pleasure has been enormous since we joined the EU, and that’s no coincidence. What we eat, the ingredients, the recipes, may come from around the world, but it is the collective to and fro of European interests, expertise and imagination that has made it all so very appetising and exciting.
The restaurant was a European invention, naturally. The first one in Paris was called The London Bridge.
Culture works and grows through the constant warp and weft of creators, producers, consumers, intellectuals and instinctive lovers. You can’t dictate or legislate for it, you can just make a place that encourages it and you can truncate it. You can make it harder and more grudging, you can put up barriers and you can build walls, but why on earth would you? This collective culture, this golden civilisation grown on this continent over thousands of years, has made everything we have and everything we are, why would you not want to be part of it?
I understand that if we leave we don’t have to hand back our library ticket for European civilisation, but why would we even think about it? In fact, the only ones who would are those old, philistine scared gits. Look at them, too frightened to join in."

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Humpty Dumpty

One of my favourite bits in Through the Looking Glass is when Humpty Dumpty tells Alice how he uses words:

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all.'
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'"

I thought of this passage, when I read this blurb on the BBC website, promoting a forthcoming programme:

"Bettany Hughes investigates the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx. Born to an affluent Prussian family, Marx became an angry, idealistic radical, constantly on the run for his political agitating and incendiary writing. In Paris he first formulated his explosive analysis of capitalism and its corrosive effects on human nature. In Brussels he co-authored the Communist Manifesto with Frederick Engels. In London his obsessive theorizing dragged his family into poverty and tragedy. 

Marx's masterpiece Das Capital was largely overlooked in his lifetime, and only 11 people attended his funeral. Yet his ideas would generate one of the most influential, and divisive, ideologies in history. Drawing on expert opinion and new evidence, Bettany reveals the flesh-and-blood man and his groundbreaking ideas."

All well and good, except that the programme is called "Genius" and Marx is being presented as the first example of the species.

No. No. No. The last half century or more endured by those who have lived in countries run along Marxist lines does not provide evidence that Marx can be classified a genius - at least not from where I'm sitting wearing this nice cravat - or is it a belt? - atop this very fine wall*.


*  "What a beautiful belt you've got on!' Alice suddenly remarked.
(They had had quite enough of the subject of age, she thought: and if they really were to take turns in choosing subjects, it was her turn now.) 'At least,' she corrected herself on second thoughts, 'a beautiful cravat, I should have said—no, a belt, I mean—I beg your pardon!' she added in dismay, for Humpty Dumpty looked thoroughly offended, and she began to wish she hadn't chosen that subject. 'If I only knew,' she thought to herself, 'which was neck and which was waist!'
Evidently Humpty Dumpty was very angry, though he said nothing for a minute or two. When he did speak again, it was in a deep growl.
'It is a—most—provoking—thing,' he said at last, 'when a person doesn't know a cravat from a belt!'"


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Wonders

At lunch yesterday someone's meal arrived with chips - not something you'd remark on in Belgium, almost one of those things where you're actually saying the same thing twice, (oxymoron?) There, if a meal didn't arrive with chips, it would be a very remarkable thing.

But I'm in Australia and yesterday only one of the three meals we ordered for lunch arrived with chips. By the end of the meal though not one of us had resisted their allure.  As a result, I began to wonder if anyone has ever in the history of the world since chips were invented been able to sit at a table with a bowl of the things and not eat at least one or two.

(In the same vein, I remember someone who lived in France wondering if a baguette had ever reached anyone's home after purchase, without the end being nibbled off.)

While we were in the restaurant, it started raining pretty heavily. At the end of lunch, going out into the street behind a group of people I did not know, I heard the one at the front observe to their companions that it was 'pissing down', and the next thing I knew I found myself forgetting about chips and wondering instead about when 'it's pouring down' was replaced by 'it's pissing down'. The latter seems to me to be far more the common usage these days, sadly, in my view. But I shall restrain myself from pulling out the soap box and climbing onto it to rant and rave about the sad decline in contemporary taste and manners.

Besides, I had a wider horizon on which to wonder - namely, whether as a species we are too far decayed to be redeemed. It was the dreadful murder of a British MP by a frenzied madman, possibly egged on by things he'd read and seen on the Internet, that prompted this line of gloomy wondering. For a change, the man's rage had not been whipped up by misinterpreters of a religion, so far as I know, but by haters of a different kind.

People have, since the event, been lecturing anyone who'll listen about not using inflammatory language, but it's too late for that, I reckon. Now the Internet exists, with all its wild pockets, that horse has well and truly bolted and there is no stopping the madness. Maybe trying to stay in touch with each other, attempting to lessen isolation between neighbours, might help, even if some of them seem a bit nutty. Easier said than done though, if your neighbours are slightly terrifying.

I felt pretty miserable as I pursued this line of thought. I was in the car by this time and the radio news was on. Some gotcha journalist had dug up the fact that the Prime Minister of Australia, while making an attempt to bridge gulfs between different groups by having a dinner to do with Ramadan at his house, had unwittingly entertained a guest who has in the past advocated violence to homosexuals.

As the guest's name was Shady, it does strike me that someone in the checking process probably ought to have given him a second glance, but it isn't really the most enormously huge deal, in my view. From my perspective, it looked like one of those increasingly regularly whipped up little storms in teacups beloved of journalists these days, the kinds of things that make me wonder whether the media has got muddled and begun to think that provoking outrage is their main role, rather than providing information.

Anyway the journalist asked their snidey little question and the Prime Minister began to answer it and I drove along half listening and feeling sad about the world. And suddenly the Prime Minister started talking about love and how really it is the only thing that matters and that had been the only point of the occasion, to promote love, which really is at the heart of everything and actually the most important thing in all of existence.

And as he spoke, I saw a bus stop on my left, and in it - the bus stops in Canberra are hideous, circular concrete things to look at from the outside but, much as I hate to admit it, really rather cozy when you are inside them - there was a young couple sitting on the curved bench running around the inner wall. They were holding hands and chatting. They looked happy and possibly not without love. The sight of them reminded me that not all humans are frenzied madmen or homophobic preachers or gotcha journalists.

Sadly, since that cheering moment, I have been unable to find any footage of the Prime Minister's odd little outbreak. Until I heard it, I'd been very unsure what I thought of him, but the honesty and lack of spin his words seemed to contain made me wonder if perhaps he is really quite all right and we may be in safe hands, (at least until 2 July, when we hold our election and he might find himself feeling no love from the Australian people).

Mind you, someone I'm very fond of suggests that what he said - as I recounted it - was just motherhood stuff and a frightful load of cliche. She may be correct - but she didn't actually hear it. And maybe I didn't either. Maybe I slipped briefly into a parallel universe or I had a moment of delusion. If so, it was nice while it lasted.

Sadly, that wasn't very long.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Chilling Illogic

One afternoon in 1996, a young man in Tasmania decided to go out and kill total strangers. By the time he had finished, 25 people were dead.

The Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, in the face of heavy opposition from the 'gun lobby', quickly introduced laws to restrict gun ownership. More recently, he wrote this article about that decision and about gun laws in general. It is worth reading in the light of events in the last week or so.

"EARLY in 2008 [my wife] Janette and I were guests of the former president, George H. W. Bush or ''41'', as he is affectionately known, at his Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.  I spoke to a warm and friendly audience of more than 300, who enthusiastically reacted until, in answer to a request to nominate the proudest actions of the Australian Government that I had led for almost 12 years,  I included the national gun control laws enacted after the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996.

Having applauded my references to the liberation of East Timor, leaving Australia debt free, presiding over a large reduction in unemployment and standing beside the US in the global fight against terrorism, there was an audible gasp of amazement at my expressing pride in what Australia had done to limit the use of guns.

I had been given a sharp reminder that, despite the many things we have in common with our American friends, there is a huge cultural divide when it comes to the free availability of firearms.

Just under two weeks ago, my wife and I were in Dallas, Texas, when the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, took place.  The responses of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his presumed Republican opponent, were as predictable as they were disappointing.  While expressing sorrow at such a loss of life, both quickly said that they supported the Second Amendment to the US constitution: long regarded as providing an extensive right for Americans to bear arms.

The Second Amendment, crafted in the immediate post-revolutionary years, is more than 200 years old and was designed to protect the right of local communities to raise and maintain militia for use against external threats (including the newly formed national government!).  It bears no relationship at all to the circumstances of everyday life in America today.  Yet there is a near religious fervour about protecting the right of Americans to have their guns - and plenty of them.

In this respect it is worth noting that the local police claim that James Holmes, the man now formally charged over the Aurora shootings, had in his possession an AR15 assault rifle (similar to one used by Martin Bryant at Port Arthur), a shotgun, two Glock handguns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition.  All had been legally obtained.

Obama and Romney are both highly intelligent, decent men who care deeply about the safety of Americans.  Yet such is the strength of the pro-gun culture in their country that neither felt able to use the Aurora tragedy as a reason to start a serious debate on gun control.

There is more to this than merely the lobbying strength of the National Rifle Association and the proximity of the November presidential election.  It is hard to believe that their reaction would have been any different if the murders in Aurora had taken place immediately after the election of either Obama or Romney.  So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the US, that millions of law-abiding Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one's own weapon is needed for self-protection.  To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.

The murder rate in the US is roughly four times that in each of Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Even the most diehard supporter of guns must concede that America's lax firearms laws are a major part of the explanation for such a disparity.

On April 28 1996, Bryant, using two weapons, killed 35 people in Tasmania.  It was, at that time, the largest number of people who had died in a single series of incidents at the hands of one person.

The national gun control laws delivered by the Howard Government following this tragedy received bipartisan support.  They, nonetheless, caused internal difficulties for some of my then National Party colleagues.  Tim Fischer and John Anderson, then leader and deputy leader of the National Party federally, as well as Rob Borbidge, then National Party premier of Queensland, courageously faced down opponents in their own ranks to support a measure they knew to be in the national interest.  Many believed, in the months that followed, that hostility towards these gun laws played a role in the emergence of Pauline Hanson's One Nation cause.

These national gun laws have proven beneficial.  Research published in 2010 in the American Journal of Law and Economics found that firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 per cent between 1995 and 2006.  There was no offsetting increase in non-firearm-related murders.  Researchers at Harvard University in 2011 revealed that in the 18 years prior to the 1996 Australian laws, there were 13 gun massacres (four or more fatalities) in Australia, resulting in 102 deaths.  There have been none in that category since the Port Arthur laws.

A key component of the 1996 measure, which banned the sale, importation and possession of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, was a national buy-back scheme involving the compulsory forfeiture of newly illegal weapons.  Between 1996 and 1998 more than 700,000 guns were removed and destroyed.  This was one-fifth of Australia's estimated stock of firearms.  The equivalent in the US would have been 40 million guns.  Australia's action remains one of the largest destructions of civilian firearms.

Australia is a safer country as a result of what was done in 1996.  It will be the continuing responsibility of current and future federal and state governments to ensure the effectiveness of those anti-gun laws is never weakened.  The US is a country for which I have much affection.  There are many American traits which we Australians could well emulate to our great benefit.  But when it comes to guns, we have been right to take a radically different path.

John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

But Is It Gluten Free

I am reading a novel by John Buchan called Huntingtower. In its pages, I have just come across a description of a meal that might be straight out of Enid Blyton's Famous Five fantasies.

The two protagonists of Buchan's novel have just persuaded a widow in a village to give them beds for the night and now they are sitting down to a really good tea. I love posting fictional meals, so here is the passage about what exactly the old lady gives them to eat:

"A quarter of an hour later the two travellers, having been introduced to two spotless beds in the loft and having washed luxuriously at the pump in the backyard, were seated in Mrs Morran's kitchen before a meal which fulfilled their wildest dreams. She had been baking that morning, so there were white scones and barley scones, and oaten farles, and russet pancakes. There were three boiled eggs for each of them; there was a segment of an immense currant cake ('a present from my guid brither last Hogmanay'); there was a skim-milk cheese; there were several kinds of jam, and there was a pot of dark-gold heather honey. 'Try hinny and aitcake,' said their hostess. 'My man used to say he never fund onything as guid in a' his days.'"

(We are in Scotland, I should add, for those baffled by the rendering of the widow's accent.)


Sunday, 12 June 2016

I Wouldn't Start from Here

Oh dear. I'd just taken a look at Trump talking and consequently got the US presidential contest straight in my mind - that is, it has to be Hillary was the conclusion I'd come to - when along came Christopher Hitchens and his essay The Case against Hillary Clinton.




Thursday, 9 June 2016

Peak Preaching

I had often seen photographs of Donald Trump. His ludicrous hairstyle was enough to make me think he was unlikely to be the ideal man for the job of President of the United States. Not because I think physical attributes matter, but because I think his decision to brush his hair frontwards so that it looks very peculiar is evidence that he has poor judgment.

Until a couple of days ago though, I had never seen or heard him speak. But, following a Tweeter's instructions, (I am a very obedient sort of person really), I clicked on a video link and actually saw Trump being interviewed. By the end of the clip I was genuinely baffled - and that's how I thought I would remain.

Why is this man so appealing, I wondered. In the interview, he kept repeating himself. He was not coherent. He appeared to have the kind of eyes that might concern you if he were your dog and you had to leave him alone with your children.

As often happens when I'm feeling in a bit of a muddle I decided to take a walk. And while I walked I thought I would take my mind off the disturbing puzzle of Donald Trump's popularity by listening to a podcast. The one I chose was from the London Review of Books. It was a recording of some kind of Edward Said memorial lecture. I don't know why I chose it as the speaker was Naomi Klein and I have never been a big fan of Naomi Klein. Perhaps my choice was a sign of poor judgment. Perhaps if I were a man I might brush my hair frontwards. I suspect we will never know. I hope not.

Anyway, unsurprisingly, given that this has been pretty much her one-note cry since she first came to prominence, Klein's message was essentially that we in the West are greedy and thoughtless and irredeemable. We have never acted from anything but self-interest, we are selfish and destructive and vile.

By the time I got home, I was feeling pretty downcast so I put away my podcast gadget and turned on the telly, hoping for something a bit cheering. A broadcast about the EU referendum in Britain appeared on the screen.

The programme featured, among others, Chris Patten, a Tory who was the last Governor of Hong Kong. In the course of his remarks about people who question the EU as an institution, he referred to their "spittle-flecked ways".

"Spittle-flecked"? I was shocked by the disdain in Patten's tone, the sneering. A snobbish sense of moral and intellectual superiority resonated in every syllable of the phrase.

Don't get me wrong - I am not a Remainian or a Brexiteer.  The EU question, it seems to me, is one where there are good arguments to be made on both sides. But let's leave it aside for the moment, as it wasn't the issue under discussion that attracted my attention when I listened to Patten's comment. What attracted my attention was the way that its tone echoed that of Naomi Klein in the lecture I'd just heard.

I imagine that Patten and Klein are probably not on the same side of politics, but at that moment I realised that they do have one thing in common. They are both elitists. They both belong in the overcrowded ranks of the self-righteous. They are both self-appointed celebrity opinion givers who, whenever they are given an opportunity, indulge their passion for telling others what to do and chastising their less enlightened, ("spittle-flecked") fellow citizens for their unspeakable stupidity. Klein's stock in trade is railing against the environmental, racist and gender-related errors of her fellows, not to mention their unforgivable flippancy in the face of inequality and inter-cultural misunderstanding. Patten appears to be armoured in a self-satisfaction built mainly on a belief that he is much, much cleverer than the riff-raff who make up the bulk of his nation's population.

Anyway, as Patten's contemptuous words boomed out of my telly, I heard the faint clink of a penny dropping in my head. Simultaneously, I was transported back several decades to a classroom in London where, as a six-year-old, I faced my most loathed - until that date, at least - teacher. Her name was Miss Pickard, and she couldn't bear me. I was too excitable, too exuberant, too clumsy, too impulsive and too eager. I was too alive, too untidy, too disorganised and too inclined to act before I thought. Proof of all this, of course, was that I was left-handed.

It was clear to me that Miss Pickard found me irretrievably revolting. Of course, I fully admit that I may have caused this situation myself, as very soon after we had encountered one another for the first time I had decided that she was prim, dull, shrewish, unimaginative and lacking in warmth.

I expected teachers to be enthusiastic and interesting. I didn't mind if they were quite odd, provided they amused me. If they had strict rules, I would obey them, provided they had gained my affection and respect. Miss Pickard did none of these things. Worse still, she loved rules purely for their own sake.

Miss Pickard - at least so it seemed from where I was standing, (and I do understand that when you are only three foot four your perspective may be skewed somewhat) - very much enjoyed imposing restrictions on her charges, even if those restrictions were unnecessary. On top of this, she exhibited no lovable characteristic quirks. Furthermore, she didn't appreciate such things in others. She wasn't intrigued by individuality. The qualities Miss Pickard held dear were neatness, quietness and orderliness. The norm she wanted us to conform to was that of a rule-observing, unquestioning, silent child, with no ink spotted about their uniform and no rips on their clothes or skin from tripping over in their rush to get to the playground. The more we deviated from that norm, the less she appreciated us.

It was very clear to me that I was never going to win Miss Pickard's approval. In those circumstances, my childish reaction was to flout her at every turn.

Could this be what is happening today in politics?  Is there a similarity between my reaction to Miss Pickard and the attitudes of Trump supporters? Are we seeing a spasm of hurt spite, a kind of bloody minded "up yours" to all those prominent disapproving elitists who have set themselves up as the custodians of correctness in our world? Is the Trump phenomenon, (and, as in so many things, Australia, I would like to point out, pioneered the clown politician figure when Mr Clive Palmer became a force to be reckoned with, [ah, patriotic pride]), caused by a rift in society? Are the people who claim to believe most fervently in democracy inflaming their fellow citizens with their keenness to lecture and their unwillingness to listen to large sections of the public whose points of view they regard as beneath contempt?

If the answer is yes, then the only solution is to reestablish communication between the two sectors. For that to happen, the Kleins and the Pattens, the Junckers and the Benedict Cumberbatchs and all the rest of the class of people who appear never to question their own rightness will need to learn to listen as well as to proclaim.

There is an urgency about this too. Because, judging by that interview, Donald Trump is a very frightening prospect indeed.

I hope that doesn't mean that I have crossed over and become one of the preachers I have just railed against. Oh well, let's cheer ourselves up with a bit of Dusty, who was fond of preachers' progeny apparently:






Thursday, 26 May 2016

Neapolitan Green

In these days of carbon trading schemes and plastic bag bans, one aspect of modern apartment design  strikes me as odd.  I've been in quite a few of the new blocks of "units" being built in the inner areas of our cities and the same thing has been missing in  every single one.

Without  exception, in these "cutting edge" new dwellings, there is nowhere provided to hang out the washing. The designers may point out that there is always a place where you can put a tumble dryer - but, of course, tumble dryers drive up energy use.

I suppose if you were an  extremely generous person, you might interpret the equally universal failure in these places to provide somewhere to store a vacuum cleaner as a clumsy attempt to offset the electricity now used in clothes drying by making it impossible to electronically clean up the floor.

But you would have to be extremely generous.

The sensible way round this environmental dilemma would be to string your wet sheets and clothing off the balcony. But when I suggested this to an apartment dweller recently, I was told the body corporate wouldn't be having it - and a good thing too!

"This is not Naples, you know", I was informed.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Great and the Good

What a blunder I have made - deciding to read Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour Trilogy and Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time cycle simultaneously

Both deal with much the same class of people and both describe events in a similar era. Had I read one and then, several years later, embarked upon the other, I might never have realised that one of them is merely good, while the other is a great work of art, written by someone who was exceptionally perceptive about humanity.

I wonder if anyone else thinks the same and, if so, whether they agree about which is the great work and which the merely good. Mind you, the one that is not great is, to quote, possibly, (there is some argument about whether he actually said it about himself), Somerset Maugham, "in the top rank of the second-rate".

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Trust No One

A now retired but once senior Australian official is in the newspapers today, whinging that during the Cold War he was investigated as a possible double agent, even though he'd gone out of his way to gather material for our intelligence services.  What a betrayal, he complains, but I think he is wrong. The fact that he makes his complaint just a few days before the 81st anniversary of the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean should highlight why I disagree with him.

Since that fiasco, all Western intelligence services must surely have learned that you can trust absolutely no-one. The subsequent defection of Kim Philby and George Blake would only have reinforced that point. In other words, it was not an insult that this man was investigated; it was a precaution. He suffered no consequences as a result, because nothing was found to suggest he was dong anything wrong. So what is the problem? The world of espionage is not run along the lines of normal life. If you enter it, you must know that anything might happen.

Going back to the subject of defectors, the question of who was a worse person, Blake or Philby, is probably impossible to answer. Philby gets more publicity though so, for the benefit of anyone who would like to know about Blake, in order to make up their own mind, here is a post I wrote about that extremely wicked man.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Battered "Penguins"* -'The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

I read somewhere that The Plot Against America by Philip Roth was the book I needed to read to understand the Trump phenomenon. It concerns an alternative reality in which Charles Lindbergh won the US Presidency and attempted to make an alliance with Nazi Germany.

The parallels with Trump didn't leap out at me, as it turned out. Lindbergh in his appearance, as described by Roth, seemed to me to have more in common with Barack Obama - "The lean, tall, handsome hero, a lithe athletic-looking man", "boyish", "at once youthful and gravely mature". Some might also argue that the foreign policy Roth gives Lindbergh - 'We will join no warring party anywhere on this globe" - also has parallels with Obama's way of looking at the world. In addition, the manner of Lindbergh's nomination - the Republican Party picks him "by acclamation" at their convention - is the polar opposite of the  way in which Trump appears to have gained the Republican nomination this year.

Not that the book is any the less good for that. It is both exciting as an adventure in alternative history and very perceptive about human beings. I found it unputdownable, and it reminded me what an extraordinarily good writer Roth is. He is brilliant at creating characters - I especially love the narrator's father and I also think there never was a better portrait of a sad lonely child than that of Seldon, nor a more poignant dialogue than the telephone conversation he has with the narrator and the narrator's mother, ("Hey, you know, I don't have any friends in school"). In addition, his writing style is impeccably unornamented - if he ever had any "darlings", he strangled them long ago, and the resulting prose demonstrates what a very good policy that is.

Another of Roth's great strengths is that, despite presenting very serious material, he retains a strong sense of the absurd. Perhaps the best example of this is the way that he has the narrator, even when surrounded by the worst dangers of his life, preoccupied by worries about his aunt's lavatory arrangements.

The narrator is, by the way, a child - or at least at the time of the events that he recounts he was one. He is the youngest in a family, which is Jewish. The rise in the significance of that ethnic quality is conveyed most clearly through the narrator's own experience:

"I realised ... my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes - my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn't known."

This is the realisation forced on so many in Europe during the real events of the Second World War - people who thought they were Austrians or French or whatever came to the unpleasant understanding that all along many of their neighbours had thought they were only and always Jews.

In the course of the book, the boy's brother becomes a cog in the Lindbergh propaganda machine, while his cousin, who is like a son in the family, goes to Canada, in order to join up and fight the Nazis. When he returns, maimed and angry, it falls to the narrator to become his "carer". The relationship between the cousin and his younger helper is unflinchingly imagined and portrayed with great wisdom.  While the situation of the younger boy helping the older may suggest something out of Louisa M Alcott, Roth never sentimentalises nor simplifies life's complexity. There are no saints or heroes in his world - that view of things is what leads to idolatry and figures like Lindbergh. In fact, Roth shows us that even the persecuted are capable of careless cruelty. Horrible as the apparatus constructed to oppress people of Jewish origin in America is, this does not stop the narrator himself from impulsively using that apparatus to rid himself of an annoying playmate.

The only bit of the book that does not work, in my view, is the part of the section titled Bad Days in which, in place of the narrator, we are given paragraph after paragraph supposedly drawn from the Archives of Newark's Newsreel Theatre. I haven't a solution to offer for how to restructure the book to remove this and I really don't feel I should quibble over a small flaw in a very good book.  Roth succeeds in creating a fully convincing scenario in which American isolationists and Nazi-sympathisers gain the upper hand. He evokes the banality and terror that might arise from such a turn of events and creates a vivid and sympathetic collection of characters whose fates  matter to the reader. I highly recommend tne novel.

*In this case not actually a Penguin, but a Vintage paperback

Monday, 9 May 2016

Not to Be Missed

Last night a Frenchman told me that the only books he ever rereads are the ones about "Blondings". He declared them the greatest books ever written and, while I would say that Molesworth just edges into the lead for me, I agree that his nominations are up there with the very best, (assuming of course that we were actually talking about the series of Wodehouse books involving Lord Emsworth and his beloved pig).

Strangely, in the wider world, light hearted fiction is rarely recognised as a really great cultural achievement. Comedy is not deemed properly "intellectual", and therefore amusing writers never ever win the Nobel prize.  That is why it surprised me particularly that someone French should so appreciate the form - French culture leans more to solemnity, in my experience, with humour, when it occurs, tending more to the sharply satiric end of the spectrum, rather than the whimsical, fond look at human foibles approach, (although there was, of course, Clochemerle).

But perhaps this was an unusual Frenchman. After all, he also said he thought my husband's joke about an American and a French diplomat who are working together on a plan of some kind was very funny - in the joke, after a long night of discussion the two diplomats at last come up with a fully formed strategy. The American thinks their work is finished, but the Frenchman still seems worried about something.

"What's the problem", the American asks the Frenchman.

The Frenchman furrows his brow and sucks his teeth.

"Hmm", he says, "I can see the plan works in practice - but does it work in theory?"

Anyway, I think there is nothing cleverer than being amusing, provided it is not at anyone else's expense. And, in that context, I am deeply in awe of Kenneth Williams as he narrates Cold Comfort Farm, enhancing his material with a performance of sheer genius.

If you want to hear him, the recordings are still available - although not indefinitely -?on the BBC Radio4Extra website. As someone who has never more than quite liked the Cold Comfort Farm book, (as opposed to the first television adaptation, which featured Alistair Sim being his usual marvellous self), I am particularly glad to have listened to Williams's reading as he does that thing that the very best narrators do - he highlights the best aspects of the text he is reading, revealing  just how truly brilliant it really is.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Muffled Meaning

When we first arrived in Belgium, I had grand plans to learn Dutch. Then I sat beside a diplomat from one of the Baltic states at dinner one evening. He was talking about the EU and Brexit and the general grumblings of some of the member states about Brussels and its edicts, (very little else is ever talked about in Brussels diplomatic circles, needless to say; the state of current cinema, the difficulty of combating snails organically in the vegetable patch, the decline in the quality of New Yorker short stories, all these topics run well behind EU related issues as conversational gambits, despite my best efforts).

What the diplomat told me was that he thought one of the problems that was causing difficulty for the EU was the organisation's habit, whenever it found itself getting into difficulties in one area, of going off and starting to insert itself into a new area of the lives of the member countries, rather than plunging deeper into the area it was already not dealing with and sorting things out there.

"I'm in danger of doing exactly the same with languages", I thought, as he laid out this theory for me. If I continued with Dutch, I'd probably get worse at some other language and I'd end up capable of getting by only on an extremely superficial level, without mastering Dutch - or any other language -particularly well.

I stopped trying to learn Dutch the very next morning. One thing I did not want to do was resemble the European Union in any of its aspects. Therefore, until I knew the word for the lesser-crested blue-wing wood duck in at least three languages that I'd already had a go at, I was not going to try to pick up any new ones, (languages, that is - I never try to pick up wood duck).

I'm glad I made that decision. Not so much because I'm proud of not being able to speak Dutch in the parts of Belgium where Dutch is spoken - and, by the way, I have learned the Dutch phrase for "Do you speak English?", just in case you think I simply bowl into shops and restaurants yelling in my own tongue, impolitely. Many people do, but not me. Oh no. I bowl into places, ask that question and then start yelling in my own tongue, which is far less annoying, I'm sure.

Anyway, the main reason I'm glad I've stopped learning Dutch is that it means I am still able to enjoy looking at the language from the outside and amusing myself by imagining I've stepped back into the times of Chaucer. I find the result oddly charming.

To give you an example, here is the sign over the local do-it-yourself shop:


Then there is the name for spreadable cheese:
Smear cheese, just what I feel like.

Finally, my absolute favourite, the phrase to denote free range chickens:


I love the thought of all those chickens saying cheerio, were off out loping. I like the idea generally of loping, not walking. I wonder why we decided we would walk, rather than lope? When I ask questions like that, people tell me I ought to have studied linguistics, but I suspect that there are no answers really to explain how these things happen. It's like the deplorable way"stepped foot in" has begun to dominate over the earlier and, in my opinion, far better, "set foot in" as the accepted phrase. Or how "disinterested" has come to encompass "uninterested", (do not get me started), or how "reach out" has begun to seem normal rather than entirely emetic.

Language, curiously, considering it is a tool made by humanity, gathers momentum and ends up having a mysterious life of its own.


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What's the Story

Lots of people are predicting the death of newspapers. The digital world is killing them, these people say.

I very much hope newspapers will survive. I love them - and reading them online is a far less satisfying experience than settling down to thoroughly disorganise a neatly folded heap of newsprint, the challenge being to see how many surfaces of any room can end up covered by the various sections, pages muddled and flapping everywhere.

Mind you, while that is my shameful form of paper reading pleasure, my awed admiration is reserved for those who have perfected the exactly opposite newspaper handling skill to my own. Such fine human beings are rare nowadays, if they have not already vanished completely. I used to glimpse them on commuter trains when I'd accompany my father to town sometimes. He was among their number, I should add, (with pride).

The ability these Titans had perfected was managing to read the broadsheet papers while sitting in a very crowded train compartment - without ever impinging on anyone else's space at all. It was just one of the small elements that made for a kinder, more civilised way of life, where the aim was to cause others the minimum of inconvenience, (with which behaviour came the accompanying hope - not its entire motivation, mind you - that you would receive the same consideration in return).

But enough of this nostalgia. I didn't come on here to wallow in regret for the past. No, I came on here to enunciate my latest theory which is that, if newspapers do disappear, it won't be because of the Internet; it will be because they don't do what they should do. They don't explain what's going on.

I blame the editors. They want to sell newspapers, but they are going completely the wrong way about it. They are labouring under the misconception that what will sell newspapers are narratives of conflict. They have convinced themselves that what the newspaper reading public want is biff and baff and rage and anger.

Well not this newspaper reader. I want information. I want to be equipped to understand why people are angry. I want the facts behind the facts.

That is to say, I want to know what caused this drama that is being reported daily. In the reporting about the dispute between the UK's junior doctors and the UK government, for instance, I would like to find somewhere a clear explanation of what at its most basic it's all about.

Instead, week after week, the newspapers tell their readers about how a doctors' leader has proclaimed that they will never give in and how a government minister has insisted that, in their turn, they will never give in either. On the front pages, photographs of doctors marching grimly are displayed, alternating with those of politicians looking determined as they stalk in and out of Downing Street. We are shown every skirmish as it happens, but what we are never told is what exactly is at stake.

Where is the clear, straightforward outline of the issues, explaining precisely what the doctors' current working conditions are, what the government is proposing, how the two systems differ, why the doctors object and why the government is suggesting the changes? It is not in any of the papers I've been looking at. All I've found is reporting about the degrees of grievance and intransigence of each of the combatants, bulletins about the emotions each side feels and the threats each has made against the other. How am I supposed to judge whether any of this is justified when I've never been told what the fundamental arguments underlying the whole thing are?

If I want drama, I go to the theatre - and once upon a time, if I wanted to understand the world, I picked up a newspaper.

So perhaps I should really have started by saying that I used to love newspapers but I'm beginning to go off them because they seem to have become confused about what their function really is. Maybe it was the advent of photographs that started the rot. Anyway, instead of articulating the various dilemmas that are faced by governments and citizens, it seems to me that those running newspapers have decided to convert every issue into Eastenders style drama. Instead of providing the facts, they present us with scenes - of conflict or comedy - played out on the stage that they've decided their pages really are.

In short, I'm furious because I think that, before telling us who is most furious every morning, it is the duty of reporters to tells us why exactly anyone is furious at all.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Cheering

At the outset, I realise, I should apologise to anyone I have misled - possibly disappointingly, this is not an essay about the activity of cheering, as in shouting in support of a person or cause or to express  pleasure at a sporting team's success or a remarkable performance by a musician.

I am very sorry if that is what you were expecting & I assure you, if you are really keen, that I will at some point in the future have a bash at the subject, if that would cheer you up at all?

Speaking of which - cheering up, that is, (the actual subject of this blog post), - I just have been, by a very minor incident that took place a few minutes ago in the cafe in Canterbury where I am sitting.

The exact spot in the cafe that I have chosen for myself is on the ground floor, near the door, which gives me the opportunity to see all the people who come in & out & hear bits of their conversations. My idea of bliss, Lord knows why, (oh, all right, because I am irredeemably nosey, I admit it).

Anyway as I sat sipping coffee & idly sticky beaking, a small girl came in with her mother. The two of them paused & looked around as they entered, & then the little girl looked up at her mother, an expression of excitement on her face:

"Because we haven't got a bike today, can we go upstairs?" she asked.

 "Yes", said her mother, & the child's face lit up with pleasure. She executed a very small dance of infant joy.

The little girl appeared to be as pleased as I used to feel when we were allowed to go upstairs on the bus & got either that wonderful seat that used to be tucked in at the back near the staircase on the old Routemasters or one of the seats right at the front, under the windows.

I didn't know children could still be content with small pleasures. Perhaps there is still some hope for the world.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No Dyssing

Someone I heard on the radio yesterday claimed he was chastised by a tutor at university for using the word "dystopia". The tutor insisted that the word did not exist,  (even though it is an entry in the OED).

I like the tutor's attitude. His real point was that the correct word in the context of the man's essay was "utopia". The word "utopia" contains within it the inevitable promise of failure; no attempt at building a utopia has ever been successful to date, and therefore there is no need for a separate term to describe the failure that is inherent within the concept.

On the other hand no one has yet tried Auden's utopian plan

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Virtuous Circles

I am not entirely sure whether I've got this right but I'm assuming the phrase "virtuous circle" is an attempt to articulate the phenomenon in which someone goes so far in one direction that they end up meeting themselves coming the other way.

I encountered a perfect example of this while listening to a podcast of the Arts & Ideas programme, broadcast on Radio 3 on 21st April. In it Philip Dodd, (who is really such an astonishingly irritating broadcaster that I usually avoid him), interviews someone who makes the following observations about the recent flow of would-be migrants to Europe:

"What these people - let's call them "radical refugees" - demand is something very precise. They say, 

'I can choose the country I want; I can go there & that state is obliged to take care of me, to provide education & so on & so on, all of that'. 

This, I claim, is sheer madness. And it's avoiding the problem. We have to solve the problems there. Is the solution that all the poor people from the Middle East & then from Africa come to Europe? Then what?

And what about the extremely rich Muslim Arab countries just south of the war zone (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, to name them)? They're taking practically none of the refugees."

These comments sound to me like the kinds of remarks that extreme rightwingers might be expected to make, provided they are prepared for howls of outrage in reply. In polite liberal society they are as acceptable as telling a Brussels bureaucrat you actually think the Brexit camp have a few good points.

The comments were in fact made by the self-described Marxist Slavoj Zizek.

If you can put up with the bleated interpolations of Dodd, the full argument Zizek makes is an interesting listen, (not that he ever gets a chance to fully articulate it, thanks to Dodd's incessant interrupting). You can find it on the BBC Radio 3 Arts & Ideas website. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Battered Penguins - V by Thomas Pynchon


I know quite a lot of people who have read V, but I have not met one who professes to understand it. While Pynchon has a very readable style and the book swings along with gusto and confidence, it never really goes anywhere very much. 

Actually, I should rephrase that slightly - the book in fact goes to lots of places: Malta, Florence, Africa, New York, to name but a few. What it never does is arrive anywhere. Instead, it adopts the approach later taken - with somewhat less verve and energy - by Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Robert Bolano in 2666 .  In those novels, and in V, one narrative gets underway and is then replaced by another and then another, over and over again.

The result is quite vexing, if you are the reader.

But is it a novelistic duty to be comprehensible and not to annoy your reader? And is it possible that Pynchon is doing something deliberate with his interruptions and general lack of coherence? Is this jumbled approach emblematic of the random absurdity of life?

Who knows. Possibly the broken narrative is a deliberate attempt to invoke the mystery of existence - or possibly it is just a sign that the author couldn't think of any good endings.

Mind you, the concluding passage of V does have a poetic beauty - and it seems to hint at the ephemeral, meaningless quality of life. But it also doesn't have much to do with anything that has gone before, (admittedly, it involves sea and water, of which we do see quite a lot as the novel progresses, but the character who appears in the finale is one we have only recently been introduced to).

Does incoherence matter, if it is (moderately) entertaining? Should we sit back and enjoy the sheer variety on offer in the book, without worrying about whether it all makes sense? Pynchon is certainly inventively generous. He conjures up a sojourn in the New York sewers, (including crocodiles), several rollicking naval passages, a recurrent fascination with the world created by Baedeker guides, a sidetrack into the world of Parisian ballet and another, even more vivid, into a nightmarish period in the history of an unnamed African country. Presented with such a feast, I feel a bit ungrateful to have to admit that, rather than revelling in Pynchon's invention, I found myself increasingly appalled.

One reason for this is that as I grow older my tolerance for depictions of male sexual violence toward women is diminishing day by day, particularly when they are presented - as they are in V - as a kind of entertainment, or certainly without any apparent reference to the female perspective. The whole African section of the novel is vile in this regard. It also does not allow a black point of view even for a fraction of an instant to penetrate the text. I hope I'm not becoming absurdly precious and too heavily influenced by the whole "safe space", "trigger warning" movement, but the description of female impalement seemed to be undertaken with a disturbing relish that did not appeal to me. On the other hand, perhaps if you accept from the beginning that the novel is told from an entirely, utterly male viewpoint, a viewpoint that sees women as variations on a template supplied by Jayne Mansfield, (whose impending marriage is bemoaned by one character), you may get on better with the book than I did.

Pynchon does pepper the text with aphorisms, some of which don't stand much consideration, while others may resonate a little. Here are some examples; the second two are better than the first, in my view, but I don't spend much time in bars so it's hard to judge, (the fourth is problematic, I think, and the final one I can't judge at all, or even fully understand):

"... people who prefer to stand at the bar have, universally, an inscrutable look."

"...we suffer from great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in."

"People read what news they wanted to and each accordingly built his own rat house of history's rags and straw."

"Surely, if war has any nobility it is in the rebuilding not the destruction."

"Perhaps British colonialism has produced a new sort of being, a dual man, aimed two ways at once: towards peace and simplicity on the one hand, towards an exhausted intellectual searching on the other."

Pynchon also lards the text with ditties he has made up, and I'm afraid I found them tiresome. Mind yoy, I found the consistently wacky and, presumably, allusive names of his characters even more tiresome. Here are some examples:  Profane; Mafia; Stencil; Howie Surd; Veronica Manganese; Pappy Hod; Fergus Mixolydian; "Roony" Winsome, (who appears in an apartment decorated in what Pynchon describes as "Early Homosexual"); Benny Sfacim; and Dudley Eigenvalue,

Some surprising things that are mentioned in a book written as far back as 1963, include "Gitmo", "jihad" and "Chilean Riesling". Even more surprisingly, the book includes this passage about the Koran:

"The Lord's Angel, Gebrail, dictated the Koran to Mohammed the Lord's Prophet. What a joke if all that holy book were only twenty-three years of listening to the desert. A desert which has no voice. If the Koran was nothing, then Islam was nothing. Then Allah was a story, and his Paradise wishful thinking."

Impossible to prove, but I doubt that would be included in the text if the novel were published for the first time today. Joking about the Koran is not much of a laughing matter any more.

In conclusion, I found the book extremely original and intriguing but not entirely satisfying. Whether for good or bad, I also suspect it was a trailblazer - would David Foster Wallace have produced Infiinite Jest without Pynchon's puzzling precedent? It seems to me there is a line that leads from one to the other.

Possibly the novel is an attempt to portray through fiction the vision of life articulated in the diary of a character called Fausto:

"There is, we are taught, a communion of saints in heaven. So perhaps on earth, also in this Purgatory, a communion: not of gods or heroes, merely men expiating sins they are unaware of, caught somehow all at once within the reaches of a sea uncrossable and guarded by instruments of death."

Possibly; possibly not. While I admire Pynchon's persistence and confidence, I think that a novel cannot be described as entirely successful if, at the end of very nearly five hundred pages, the reader is still asking themselves, "What exactly is this thing all about?"


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Unfair

I have to go to England next week and so I booked a Eurotunnel trip last night. Trudging, metaphorically, through the dreary stages of the booking process - car number plate; caravan or no caravan; "API"; et cetera - I noticed for the first time this:


What about budgies, I thought, what about anacondas (even though I don't actually know what exactly an anaconda is)? Why just dogs, cats and ferrets? Why can't I take my tadpoles, if I want to?

Or can I? Is the discrimination the other way round? Is it that you can take any pet without paying the outrageous extra cost of 25 Euros, but dogs, cats and ferrets, for mysterious reasons, incur that extra charge?

Why charge for animals anyway? So far as I can tell, you can shove thousands of people into your car and pay no extra, but one miserable ferret and you're up for 25 euros. Where's the logic?

Anyway, I'm collecting together a menagerie for next week's trip, and they'll all be on the back seat - just to test the system. There won't be a dog or a cat or a ferret among them - so I'm assuming they'll all be free of charge.

A cockatoo, I thought I'd take, plus a frog and a goldfish - and maybe a walrus. An angora goat, for something fluffy, a sloth or two, (I've always been fond of them), an orang utan, (one of the ones I adopted at Christmas), a goldfinch, (ideally the one from the Mauritshuis, provided I have time between now and then to whip down to The Hague) and maybe a butterfly. That should do it. Any other suggestions gratefully taken onboard (onboard geddit?)

Friday, 15 April 2016

Please Beleaf Me

Although it is still quite cold, the trees in the park behind our house are getting dressed up for summer. Which should bring to mind the Philip Larkin poem with the line about the trees coming into bud, "like something almost being said"

Instead, all I can think of is that Lydia Davis micro-story called Spring Spleen. It goes like this:

"I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly.

Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child."

(For more Lydia Davis, search out the book that Spring Spleen comes from: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-241-96913-7)

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mud Larks

No sooner had I scoffed at beaches made of mud than I was forced to reconsider the errors of my ways. This was done via the medium of film, more particularly the film called A Bigger Splash, which we went to see yesterday and very much enjoyed.

Anyway, having never encountered the concept of a mud beach, I was now confronted with one in full "glorious" technicolor. More particularly, I was confronted with the sight of Tilda Swinton and the new(ish) Belgian film star called Matthias Schoenaerts lying on such a beach and fondly smearing mud over each other.

I have to say I'm still not enthusiastic. It was, quite frankly, an unappetising sight.

But the film is excellent - and the image of a mud covered Swinton sitting bolt upright on her mudflat (sorry, beach) and peering up through muddied eyes at the heavens, wondering what she had done to deserve the blow fate has just dealt her is one of the more comic things in a film that, while essentially serious, is also at times very, very funny indeed.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cultural Difference

Mention of oceans and beaches yesterday reminded me that after going to Berlin the other day, (of which more perhaps in the future), we stopped for a night on the way back to Brussels in a Friesian seaside town called Harlingen.

Harlingen is an absolutely sweet place, full of pretty houses and apparently friendly people. We went to a restaurant that was run beautifully, (no canned music, hurray), and where they gave us the most deliciously fresh fish and oysters and so forth, (perhaps I am creating a false impression in using the word 'gave' - we did have to pay, of course, but not vast sums).

While waiting for one or other course, my husband got into a discussion about the language of the area with a woman who I think was one of the owners of the restaurant.

As a child my husband had picked up somewhere this phrase about the Friesian language: "Good bread and good cheese is good English and good Fries". Was the Friesian language really as close to English as this phrase suggests, he wanted to know.

Not quite as close seemed to be the slightly disappointing conclusion. It would not be enough to move to Harlingen and simply do what I witnessed many adults of my parents' generation, (although not, I hasten to add, my parents themselves), doing whenever they encountered a foreigner who didn't speak English: speak very loudly and slowly in English

My husband, perhaps sensing that they were on the point of exhausting the topic of language similarities or the lack thereof, changed the subject.

Were there any beaches in the Harlingen area, he enquired.

"Yes", the woman told him proudly, "there is one."

"Is it a pebble beach or a sand beach?" I asked.

She turned to me with a delighted smile.

"It is mud," she said, "the beach is mud."

I've been thinking about it ever since. For an Australian, that woman was stretching the definition of  what a beach is. Are we alone in the world in believing, on our extremely large island (or very small continent), that a beach must be made of sand, or, - and this concession is merely to be kind to our mother country - possibly made of countless round stones? I think I'm right in asserting that, if you are Australian, mud is not a permissible substance for inclusion in the category headed "beach" - at least it is not as far as I know, (any Australians who disagree, please set me straight immediately).

Anyway, despite its lack, in my view, of beach possibilities, I still really liked Harlingen. Should you wish to see it for yourself, while staying right where you are, here are some pictures of the dear little place.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Too Fluid

I remember as a child being exhorted to plunge into some bitterly cold ocean or other, by adults who, as they waded in ahead of me, appeared to be rapidly turning blue.

Small though I was, it struck me that there was something odd about the adults' attempts to lure me into the water with them. The phrase "Don't be so wet" - or, to begin with, more kindly, "Don't be so wet, darling" - rang back at me through the icy air.

Get wet to prove you are not wet - even aged five that seemed a puzzling proposal.

I wonder now where that particular notion of wetness, as in feebleness and weakness, came from? And does it still exist? Do people still tell children that "wet" is a state that they ought to avoid? Does the concept exist in other languages or is it something peculiar to Britain? And why was it wet not to get into the ocean but also wet to scream blue murder, as I did, when, having consented to enter a much warmer ocean in quite a different part of the planet, I was attacked by a Portuguese Man o'War jellyfish?

Wetness and weakness - I suppose there is a logic to the entangling of these two concepts, if you take solidity to be a metaphor for toughness. On the other hand, fluid is far from feeble, as any houseowner who has dealt with a flood will tell you. The kind of force that a battering ram can produce is immediately visible, but the strength of wetness, while not instantly noticeable, is greater than you might imagine. Hidden, out of sight, seeping silently beneath foundations, it can destroy as effectively as any solid object - and with a quieter, more insidious power.

I Heard That - London Fields by Martin Amis

Phew.

I have at last reached the end of Audible’s unabridged version of Martin Amis’s London Fields. What an enormous relief.

I resorted to Audible because I have never been able to persist with any of Amis’s novels in their on the page manifestations but was convinced that I ought to have at least one of them under my belt. For most of my adult life, after all, I have been under the misapprehension that Amis is a giant of our culture and one of the late 20th century’s truly gifted writers. Thus, my lack of persistence has seemed to me to be a shameful failure which has left a great gaping void in my cultural experience.

I have filled that void now; I have made my way to the end of the unabridged text of one of Amis’s novels. In the process, I had hoped to become a member of the Amis fan club. I believed that the result of my hours of listening would be that I'd turn into an Amis admirer, able to share the enthusiasm that so many others feel for the great man.

Sadly, things didn't work out that way.

I do of course recognise that Keith Talent is, in theory, a hilarious creation - in the mould, perhaps, of Toby Belch or Falstaff or - well someone. And Marmaduke is too - despite the fact that each time his name rang out from the narrator's mouth all I could think was, “Oh for pity’s sake, not another hyper-exaggeration in prose form of dressing or doing other day-to-day things with a small child; flipping hell, we get it, Martin, get rid of that trowel you’re ladling it all on with, please"

To put it another way, while recognising that each and every character in the novel is a richly comic creation, I was distracted by a nagging question - aren’t things that are richly comic supposed to raise at least the occasional laugh?

Because, you see, for me nothing did.

Really, I mean it.

Or, to adopt for a moment the tiresome approach to prose chosen by Mr Amis, let me spell it out longhand: in the laughter stakes the book achieved a result of exactly zero, so far as I was concerned. That’s the big O I’m talking about. Yes, precisely nil on the scoreboard in the game of mirth provocation. Nada; niente; nichevo; totally, utterly, completely zilch. Not one solitary, damn, miserable, infinitesimal trace of a faint guffaw; not a skerrick; not a sausage. The novel turned out, so far as I was concerned, to be an absolutely, undeniably, appallingly, unspeakably and tiresomely giggle free zone.

Possibly the repetitive, Thesaurus-influenced approach is simply not for me. It makes the whole thing seem so laboured. Using a verbal sledge hammer is an odd way to generate laughter, in my experience. Never trusting the reader enough to allow them to work out for themselves that a joke is being cracked - or is about to be - seems to me a condescending kind of method.

Yet every single time Amis is about to articulate something he considers amusing, he cannot resist flashing textual warning lights and setting off verbal sirens, just in case you might be too thick to pick up that he is on the point of being - or at least trying to be - droll.

It is like being locked in a cupboard with the literary equivalent of that nudge-nudge Monty Python character. Throughout the entire work, he is there, looking over your shoulder or squeezing up beside you, winking and digging you in the metaphorical ribs. It wouldn't surprise me if in the Kindlefire version of the novel blinding neon signs have been inserted around the edges of pages, to alert you  to humour by flashing the words, “JOKE IN PROGRESS” at appropriate points. Amis seems unable to cope with the possibility that you might not recognise exaggeration or grotesquery or whatever effect he intends to blast you with. He becomes the joke teller who laughs at his own punchlines. He revels so in his own originality, doubling up at his own gags, (which you could see coming several miles off), that he leaves no opportunity for you to edge in a faint chuckle of your own.

But I suppose it is all down to stylistic taste. Clearly, one of the points of Amis is his labouring and his exaggeration and his repetition and his baroque heaping on of more and more and yet more verbiage. While these are all elements that I dislike in his writing, I assume that he - along with some of his contemporaries, e.g. Will Self - is in revolt against the Hemingway/Chandler et cetera crisp, streamlined model of prose. In other words he is self aware; he is banging on and on completely deliberately. His repetition laden mode of operation is knowing, rather than the result of an inability to be succinct. The fact that the great steaming pile of verbiage that results does not interest or entertain me is not necessarily a sign that it is bad; it is at least done intentionally, with the aim of not being short, sharp, minimalistically to the point. Therefore, possibly the problem is not that Amis is no good so much as that he is no good for me. That is to say, what I demand from fiction is not what Amis is intending to provide.

It is therefore unfair to condemn Amis’s work, except on the grounds of my own personal taste. Within the scope of Amis’s own private conception of what literature should be, he may well succeed. He may well have achieved that which he planned. Starting from the position that we all share one huge insight and that is that humans are universally idiotic and vile and life is a huge joke played by an indifferent universe, he sets out to create a world where the loathsome, despicable creature called man is systematically stuffing everything up. There is much evidence that this may be a horribly accurate assessment of existence but it is still a very bleak scenario. Reading a novel where the reader is invited simply to stand back and sneer at the antics of his fellow humans is ultimately a dispiriting venture, in my opinion. However, after a discussion with a member of my family who is loving London Fields, I realise that it can give pleasure to others who demand exactly this level of cynicism and despair from a work of fiction.

Which leaves me only able to say that I personally hated the book - and also that I thought it was utterly unoriginal, indeed possibly plagiaristic. That is, in its plot the thing is a straight out steal of Muriel Spark’s The Driving Seat - at least that’s how it appears to  me.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Battered Penguins - The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes




This charming book could be described as Michael Innes's 1940 updating of Buchan's 39 Steps. Set mainly in the Highlands, it features Innes's genial policeman, Appleby, but the protagonist is actually a young woman called Sheila Grant. Quite by chance she gets caught up in trying to foil the plans of a secret vanguard of Nazis , when she overhears a piece of poetry - Innes was really a professor of English at Oxford, so this is entirely appropriate - being muttered on the train to Inverness.

I really enjoyed the book, which had a number of surprisingly exciting twists and turns. I had Innes down for a writer of cosy whodunnits but, while this is definitely reassuringly Golden Age in atmosphere, (gallant men, plucky women  that sort of thing, not a speck of grit or a trace of interesting social mix anywhere in its pages), it is also exciting. I suppose I should point out that I don't get out much, so it doesn't take a great deal to excite me. All the same there were nail biting moments, in my (sheltered) view.

I also very much liked the fact that the central female character was given a good deal of initiative - and even allowed to wield a gun in self-defence. I also enjoyed the evocation of a wonderfully empty, (wonderful for the tourist; rather a drawback for those characters trying to get help as they evade the baddies, of course), rural Scotland - and also  of  a world in which constant self-censorship in the interests of not inflaming minority sensitivities was not yet deemed necessary.  Innes writes beautifully and is capable of comic turns as well as philosophical and pastoral musings. In this regard - that is, the comic - I rather liked the  scene in which Appleby and a cohort of other males have to dress up to look like Women's Institute members  and then find themselves needing to give chase to the Nazis: 

"Gathering up their skirts, they went pelting after him"

The green-minded may be a bit shocked by the wanton use of petrol to set fire to pristine moorland so that our heroes and heroine can make a quick get away, under cover of flame and smoke. Nowadays this kind of environmental vandalism would trigger outrage, but The Secret Vanguard is not at all a nowadays kind of  book. It has a single  purpose: to give  a white English-speaking  middle class reader about an hour and a half of very light diversion. Speaking as a pretty much paradigmatic example of its target audience, I reckon it perfectly fulfils that aim


Monday, 4 April 2016

Now That We Need Them

Yesterday was that rare thing in this part of the world - sunny. And so we decided to go to Antwerp.

We had a look at the glorious train station and then walked down a pedestrian street called Leysstraat.

Leysstraat is lined with highly ornate buildings and almost all of them sport friendly figures or faces on their highly decorated facades. The few buildings in the street that have been built since the war are plain, lacking in craftsmanship and altogether unendearing. They lack individuality and most  of them reminded me of the Budapest Communist Party Headquarters design story, told by Tibor Fischer in Under the Frog (waking up late for his appointment with those commissioning the headquarters, the architect jumps out of bed and straight onto the complex model he has made of his projected building, destroying it instantly; unable to construct an equally elaborate new model in the 10 minutes he has left before the meeting, he grabs a shoebox and presents that, successfully, instead).

Why do we meekly accept the progressive endrearying of our urban environment? Why do we never rise up against the slow but steady tide of lowering standards and expectations and the assumption that prettiness is neither desirable nor affordable?

More basically, why at the precise moment when we created something - the traffic jam - that meant we really needed nice things to look at to distract us from the fact that we were stuck in a morass of fumes and metal, did we decide that utterly plain facades were the way to go?

If you would like to meet some of the stony Leysstraat population, you can find them here.