Saturday, 23 August 2014

Me and Sunny Jim

I read somewhere that James Joyce was known to his family as Sunny Jim. I also once went to a hotel in Pula where he had supposedly spent some time. Since Joyce's day, an unnamed but quite possibly demented hotelier had decided to cover the walls in glossy, red, shag-pile carpet, punctuated with huge macrame sculptures, (or maybe that was the decorative order of the place even when Joyce was in residence - I hadn't thought of that before; perhaps the oddness of Finnegan's Wake is at last explained).

When asked which room James Joyce had occupied, the hotel staff were confounded. 'James who?', they asked. One of them produced the hopeful, if not particularly helpful, information that a reporter from Time magazine had stayed a night a few months earlier. Could that have been him? Umm, no.

Anyway, I'm not actually hugely fond of Joyce's books - an encounter with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at too tender an age may have coloured my reactions - but I love his views, (which can be found in a reprint in the New Republic of an article from 1931, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon thanks to that fount of interesting article links, Frank Wilson's Books Inq.) on one of my favourite parts of the world and my absolute all-time favourite empire:

'The state for which he has the highest esteem was the old Hapsburg Empire. "They called it a ramshackle empire,” he says, "I wish there were more such ramshackle empires in the world." What he liked about old Austria was not only the mellowness of life there, but the fact that the state tried to impose so little upon its own or upon other people. It was not warlike, it was not efficient, and its bureaucracy was not strict; it was the country for a peaceful man.'

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pure English

In my last post I mentioned a letter about London clubs that my husband tore out of the UK Daily Telegraph some years ago. It is something that could only have been written for, about and by the English. The study of nuance is what underpins the class system in England, I think. The finely honed skills needed to detect all the subtle differences between each gradation on the social table cannot, I suspect, ever be mastered fully by foreigners - thank heavens:

To the Daily Telegraph

It was charitable of your leader writer to accept Iain Duncan Smith's convoluted justification for his decision to decline membership of the Carlton Club while remaining a member of the all-male Beefsteak. I can't help wondering if there might be a simpler explanation.

Put crudely, membership of the Beefsteak is infinitely harder to obtain - and therefore more desirable - than that of the Carlton. The former is in clubland's Division One; the latter at the bottom of Division Two. Clubs are terrifyingly snobbish places in their relations with one another. No one disputes that Division One is headed by White's, followed by (in no particular order) Brooks's, Pratt's and Boodle's. The ethos of these clubs is that of the threadbare aristocracy and country gentry: the uniform is an exquisitely cut Huntsman suit that has gone shiny at the elbows.

The Beefsteak, like the Garrick, does not quite conform to this stereotype; but it counts as Division One because its members are so distinguished, and the waiting list correspondingly long. Division Two is headed by the Athenaeum, followed by the Travellers, the Carlton and (just) the Reform. It is a world of pomposity, pinstripe suits and business cards heavily inscribed with professional qualifications. Division Three consists of a melancholy tranche of clubs that advertise for members and that, as a result, attract self-selecting bores in bow ties. Anyone who has visited the Oxford and Cambridge, East India or Savile clubs will know what I mean.

By one of those little ironies so typical of the English class sytem, it is these last clubs that tend to make the most noise about clubland. If you hear a claret-faced fogey boasting about "my club", the chances are he is a Division Three man. And Duncan Smith? He may be clever and amiable, but he is also starchy and straitlaced: quintessentially Division Two.

Andrew McBride, London

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

What About Towelling Hats

If Gardeners' Question Time is covertly racist, then what do the dress codes of Pall Mall clubs conceal? The question occurred to me because someone told me recently that, if you are a member of the Australian National University's convocation, you're allowed to stay at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, (sadly the club only belongs to what someone called Andrew McBride described in a letter to the Telegraph some years ago [I'll copy the letter out here tomorrow, or next time I have a moment - it's worth a read] as the "melancholy tranche of clubs that advertise for members".

Having learnt that I am entitled to this privilege, however dismal it might be, I naturally decided to have a look at the club's website. Its startlingly comprehensive dress code made the digital trip worthwhile.

What class terrors and repressed libidinous flutterings were at play as the members of the committee drew up their rules, which include the prohibition of:

Strapless, very flimsy, transparent and very low-cut tops/shirts/blouses
Midriff, crop and bandeau tops (or equivalent)
Mini-skirts
(Oh what is that noise? It sounds a lot like old men panting)

as well as:

Roll- and polo-neck jerseys and pullovers (except for Ladies)
Cargo/combat pants
Ponchos and kaftans
Leggings
Flipflops and casual boots (including hiking shoes and boots, and uggs)
Leisure wear, such as shorts, tracksuits, t-shirts and training shoes (except in the squash courts and changing rooms)
Jodhpur-style trousers  - are jodhpurs themselves all right, do you suppose?
 Leather and suede clothing (except as noted below) - I wonder if this rule extends to leather shoes, given that "plimsolls" are also verboten


Suede, leather and denim skirts, dresses, blouses, and jackets (for either sex), are permitted at any time when the garments are tailored and otherwise indistinguishable from attire considered appropriate, except with regard to fabric. Jackets, coats and other items incorporating distressed, torn, or heavily studded fabrics are not appropriate at any time.

Less stringent standards may be applied to children under 14 years of age than to those aged 14 and above -
as children under 10 are not allowed into the club, this only leaves a window of four years in which to really enjoy the run of the club while wearing distressed denim shorts and trainers.

There is also a surprising fetishisation of carried items in all their glorious variants:

Luggage (including hand-luggage, but excluding small handbags), carrier bags, “outdoor” coats, and umbrellas must be deposited in the lockers, cloakrooms, or at the front desk; they may under no circumstances be brought in to the public spaces of the Club house including the library, or left in the corridors or stairways. Exceptionally, briefcases may be taken to the business centre.

I love the thought of the endless meetings in which every outfit possibility and portable container type was envisioned and described. I shall remain forever puzzled about why an outdoor coat needs to be framed with inverted commas. I note that no attempt has been made to address the question of religious headgear or, indeed, any form of national dress. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

That Ineluctable Binary

I have lots to say and no time to say it, (I heard that loud, unanimous 'Phew', blast all those who sailed in her). However, if only to keep a link to it for my own future pleasure, I cannot resist passing on the fact that King Lear with Sheep was performed recently in Sussex. It is something everyone should be allowed to know. I love things that can be described as bonkers and so I regret very much missing out on this.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Not Bad

A post at First Known When Lost included a poem that I first read thirty or more years ago. Reading it again, I found myself transported back there, (perhaps all this Proust is affecting me more than I'd realised), to the day when I did first encounter it, sitting on an uncomfortable metal and plastic chair in a small room belonging to a professor of English at the Australian National University.

There were several of us in the room, all fresh from school, all - I suspect, although I can only really talk for myself with certainty - rather in awe of the elderly man whose room it was. Each week he spent an hour making it clear that we bored him.

He did this wordlessly, but very efficiently. Using his armoury of barely noticeable gestures and minute changes of expression, he conveyed the weary knowledge that he had seen - or perhaps seen off? - wave upon wave of new students just like us. Year after year they had entered the university, fresh and excited, and passed through his classroom. Not a single one of them had ever ruffled his infinite self-regard. The reason for this, of course, was that they were all, like us, dumb. That was the problem in his view. He didn't need to engage with us to know that we were irremediably superficial.

He, on the other hand, was wise. Which was why it was not his job to engage in an exchange of ideas. That was not the function of a tutorial, apparently. No, the function of a tutorial was to gather us together so that we could sit at his feet and receive the benefit of his wisdom. Whether any of it would remain with us was a different matter. If it didn't, well, at least he'd tried.

Looking back, I'm amazed at my own meekness. I never objected to this state of affairs. I never questioned the proposition that this teacher was our superior and that engaging, discussing, encouraging us to form our ideas into words was not his job. I read what I was supposed to read, I thought about it, I had my own impressions, but I never questioned that the professor was the one with the answers.

Possibly he was, but after the particular day I'm thinking of, I was never certain about him again. We were reading Wordsworth's ballads at the time, and that morning we came to the poem, quoted by First Known When Lost, that begins 'A slumber did my spirit seal'. The professor read it out to us - he loved the sound of his own voice, I realise now; how funny that it's taken me all this time to recognise, or at least to articulate the fact, that vanity was one of his dominant features - and then he looked around the room. Unusually, he invited us to comment on the poem. 'Does anything strike any of you about those lines?' he asked.

One or two brave souls produced their tentative observations. The professor did not reply. Clearly what they'd said was feeble. Then, as if he were a matador flourishing his cape, he made his own pronouncement. 'The striking thing about this poem', he told us, 'the really striking thing, is that it is very, very bad.'

I think his intention was to shock, and he did - at least he shocked me. What shocked me most was that he was clearly enjoying the feeling that he had tricked us. He'd made us think that we should treat the poem seriously when really it was unworthy of our attention.

I have rarely felt so confused - and that confusion has remained with me to this day. After all this man was the scholar. He was the professor. He knew about these things. That meant he must be right. If he said the poem was bad, then it must be.

'It's just doggerel', he insisted, 'it's utterly banal- just look at that final line, "with rocks and stones and trees". That line is quite beyond redemption.'

I looked at it. It was the line that had stood out for me, but I hadn't realised it was terrible. While it certainly lacked lushness - as First Known When Lost points out it relies almost entirely on single syllable words - I thought that lack of lushness was part of what made it odd and interesting, or, at the very least, arresting.

The line had strangeness, it seemed to me, and, in its bald statement of a terrifying fundamental truth, it seemed very modern. The stark image of someone who had once been a living being who had been able to provoke love from another, now rendered inanimate, a thing amongst many, part of the undifferentiated clutter of the earth, the rocks and stones and trees, struck me forcefully. I had thought it was not banal but powerful.

Sadly, ever since, whenever I've read that poem, I've been quite unable to read it unhindered. That professor from all that time ago is still at my shoulder. 'It's dreadful', he whispers, 'it's a really bad poem.' I will never now be able to make a proper judgment about it. His vehemence and the authority I attributed to him has erased my ability to see the poem clearly. With his airy dismissal, that teacher poisoned that poem once and for all for me.

Which means, I suppose, that he did manage to teach me one thing, if only unwittingly. He taught me that unsupported value judgments of the kind he made that day, backed up by nothing but personal opinion, are worse than useless; they can actually be destructive. On that day he took a good poem, ("No, ZMKC, it isn't a good poem, it's a terrible poem" - can you hear him, he's still at it, damn the man), and, in the interest of making himself feel just one skerrick more superior, he vandalised it. It wasn't what I expected from a university and I don't think it's what higher education - or indeed any education - is supposed to be for.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Story So Far - Proust Chapter One

I'm going to live for a while in Belgium and have decided the perfect way to get my conversational skills up to scratch is to listen to the free audio version of Proust that I found recently on the Internet, (plus enrolling in Duolingo's new Dutch course at the same time - no partisanship re Belgian nationalities from me).

I've completed Chapter One of Swann's Way so far and consequently feel well-prepared to regale all my new acquaintance with tales of my - and Proust's - childhood bedtime anxieties. I should be a tremendous social hit, I'm sure.

More worryingly - or perhaps equally worryingly - I've discovered that I am not one hundred per cent in awe of Proust. Rather - and perhaps this is inevitable given the size of the work - from what I've heard so far, the narrative is something of a curate's egg.

Of course, there is so much that is so good. In the first chapter the things that stood out most for me were:

a) the evocation of a traveller setting out in the dark:

"... j'entendais le sifflement des trains qui, plus ou moins éloigné, comme le chant d'un oiseau dans une forêt, relevant les distances, me décrivait l'étendue de la campagne déserte où le voyageur se hâte vers la station prochaine; et le petit chemin qu'il suit va être gravé dans son souvenir par l'excitation qu'il doit à des lieux nouveaux, à des actes inaccoutumés, à la causerie récente et aux adieux sous la lampe étrangère qui le suivent encore dans le silence de la nuit, à la douceur prochaine du retour."

"I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home."

b) the image of a person alone, unwell, in a country inn, thinking the ray of light under the door may be daylight and then realising, with great disappointment, that it is still actually the middle of the night and no comfort will come for hours:

" Bientôt minuit. C'est l'instant où le malade, qui a été obligé de partir en voyage et a dû coucher dans un hôtel inconnu, réveillé par une crise, se réjouit en apercevant sous la porte une raie de jour. Quel bonheur, c'est déjà le matin! Dans un moment les domestiques seront levés, il pourra sonner, on viendra lui porter secours. L'espérance d'être soulagé lui donne du courage pour souffrir. Justement il a cru entendre des pas; les pas se rapprochent, puis s'éloignent. Et la raie de jour qui était sous sa porte a disparu. C'est minuit; on vient d'éteindre le gaz; le dernier domestique est parti et il faudra rester toute la nuit à souffrir sans remède."

"Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help."



c) the comments about the grandmother's choice of artworks - preferring photographs of works of art depicting Venice to mere photographs of Venice et cetera - and generally the details of an old bourgeois household with Bohemian glass nightlights and Siena marble fireplaces is wonderfully evocative:

"En réalité, elle ne se résignait jamais à rien acheter dont on ne pût tirer un profit intellectuel, et surtout celui que nous procurent les belles choses en nous apprenant à chercher notre plaisir ailleurs que dans les satisfactions du bien-être et de la vanité. Même quand elle avait à faire à quelqu'un un cadeau dit utile, quand elle avait à donner un fauteuil, des couverts, une canne, elle les cherchait «anciens», comme si leur longue désuétude ayant effacé leur caractère d'utilité, ils paraissaient plutôt disposés pour nous raconter la vie des hommes d'autrefois que pour servir aux besoins de la nôtre. Elle eût aimé que j'eusse dans ma chambre des photographies des monuments ou des paysages les plus beaux. Mais au moment d'en faire l'emplette, et bien que la chose représentée eût une valeur esthétique, elle trouvait que la vulgarité, l'utilité reprenaient trop vite leur place dans le mode mécanique de représentation, la photographie. Elle essayait de ruser et sinon d'éliminer entièrement la banalité commerciale, du moins de la réduire, d'y substituer pour la plus grande partie de l'art encore, d'y introduire comme plusieurs «épaisseurs» d'art: au lieu de photographies de la Cathédrale de Chartres, des Grandes Eaux de Saint-Cloud, du Vésuve, elle se renseignait auprès de Swann si quelque grand peintre ne les avait pas représentés, et préférait me donner des photographies de la Cathédrale de Chartres par Corot, des Grandes Eaux de Saint-Cloud par Hubert Robert, du Vésuve par Turner, ce qui faisait un degré d'art de plus. Mais si le photographe avait été écarté de la représentation du chef-d'œuvre ou de la nature et remplacé par un grand artiste, il reprenait ses droits pour reproduire cette interprétation même. Arrivée à l'échéance de la vulgarité, ma grand'mère tâchait de la reculer encore. Elle demandait à Swann si l'œuvre n'avait pas été gravée, préférant, quand c'était possible, des gravures anciennes et ayant encore un intérêt au delà d'elles-mêmes, par exemple celles qui représentent un chef-d'œuvre dans un état où nous ne pouvons plus le voir aujourd'hui (comme la gravure de la Cène de Léonard avant sa dégradation, par Morgan). Il faut dire que les résultats de cette manière de comprendre l'art de faire un cadeau ne furent pas toujours très brillants. L'idée que je pris de Venise d'après un dessin du Titien qui est censé avoir pour fond la lagune, était certainement beaucoup moins exacte que celle que m'eussent donnée de simples photographies. On ne pouvait plus faire le compte à la maison, quand ma grand'tante voulait dresser un réquisitoire contre ma grand'mère, des fauteuils offerts par elle à de jeunes fiancés ou à de vieux époux, qui, à la première tentative qu'on avait faite pour s'en servir, s'étaient immédiatement effondrés sous le poids d'un des destinataires. Mais ma grand'mère aurait cru mesquin de trop s'occuper de la solidité d'une boiserie où se distinguaient encore une fleurette, un sourire, quelquefois une belle imagination du passé. Même ce qui dans ces meubles répondait à un besoin, comme c'était d'une façon à laquelle nous ne sommes plus habitués, la charmait comme les vieilles manières de dire où nous voyons une métaphore, effacée, dans notre moderne langage, par l'usure de l'habitude. Or, justement, les romans champêtres de George Sand qu'elle me donnait pour ma fête, étaient pleins ainsi qu'un mobilier ancien, d'expressions tombées en désuétude et redevenues imagées, comme on n'en trouve plus qu'à la campagne. Et ma grand'mère les avait achetés de préférence à d'autres comme elle eût loué plus volontiers une propriété où il y aurait eu un pigeonnier gothique ou quelqu'une de ces vieilles choses qui exercent sur l'esprit une heureuse influence en lui donnant la nostalgie d'impossibles voyages dans le temps."


"The truth was that she could never make up her mind to purchase anything from which no intellectual profit was to be derived, and, above all, that profit which good things bestowed on us by teaching us to seek our pleasures elsewhere than in the barren satisfaction of worldly wealth. Even when she had to make some one a present of the kind called 'useful,' when she had to give an armchair or some table-silver or a walking-stick, she would choose 'antiques,' as though their long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own. She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value of its own, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether their commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to substitute for the bulk of it what was art still, to introduce, as it might be, several 'thicknesses' of art; instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not made pictures of them, and preferred to give me photographs of 'Chartres Cathedral' after Corot, of the 'Fountains of Saint-Cloud' after Hubert Robert, and of 'Vesuvius' after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art. But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly the masterpieces or the beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he resumed his odious position when it came to reproducing the artist's interpretation. Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to postpone the moment of contact still further. She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved, preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as shew us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it to-day, as Morghen's print of the 'Cenacolo' of Leonardo before it was spoiled by restoration. It must be admitted that the results of this method of interpreting the art of making presents were not always happy. The idea which I formed of Venice, from a drawing by Titian which is supposed to have the lagoon in the background, was certainly far less accurate than what I have since derived from ordinary photographs. We could no longer keep count in the family (when my great-aunt tried to frame an indictment of my grandmother) of all the armchairs she had presented to married couples, young and old, which on a first attempt to sit down upon them had at once collapsed beneath the weight of their recipient. But my grandmother would have thought it sordid to concern herself too closely with the solidity of any piece of furniture in which could still be discerned a flourish, a smile, a brave conceit of the past. And even what in such pieces supplied a material need, since it did so in a manner to which we are no longer accustomed, was as charming to her as one of those old forms of speech in which we can still see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by the rough usage of our modern tongue. In precisely the same way the pastoral novels of George Sand, which she was giving me for my birthday, were regular lumber-rooms of antique furniture, full of expressions that have fallen out of use and returned as imagery, such as one finds now only in country dialects. And my grandmother had bought them in preference to other books, just as she would have preferred to take a house that had a gothic dovecot, or some other such piece of antiquity as would have a pleasant effect on the mind, filling it with a nostalgic longing for impossible journeys through the realms of time."

On the other hand the bit about half waking and imagining a woman is possibly there in the bed - "une femme naissait pendant mon sommeil d'une fausse position de ma cuisse" - didn't work for me and reminded me of Auden's comments on dishonesty in writing.

Also, the statement that "un homme qui dort tient en cercle autour de lui le fil des heures, l'ordre des annees et des mondes" seems to me questionable and possibly meaningless.

Finally, the mention of "la narine retive", in the context of waking in the dark, strained me a bit. It is translated as "nostrils sniffing uneasily", but it strikes me as an awkward phrase that seems more applicable to the behaviour of rabbits than humans.

All the same, I stand in awe of the concentration of detail Proust gathers together to represent an individual perception of reality. Has anyone ever paid such attention to being?

When I finish another chapter I will report back on further marvels - and any little infelicities my nitpicking meanspirited nature insists on leaving unignored.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Ear, Ear

I was wondering whether the author of a book I read long, long ago was Belgian, so I decided to look him up on the Internet, (what used I to do with my time I wonder). A whole page came up but without a trace of any author, Belgian or otherwise. Instead, seemingly unlimited numbers of entries about some former male model who bears the same surname swarmed across the screen.

But it was Georges, not Josh, Duhamel I was looking for. And Georges is not Belgian, it turns out, he's French, (not sure about Josh [don't care, either]).

I've only read one of Georges's books - Confession de Minuit - but its premise was so original and batty that I've always retained a fondness for it. It is the story of a fairly unremarkable man who one day, for no particular reason, (to borrow a phrase I heard used by a British Rail announcer to explain why the train I was in had stopped for the best part of an hour just outside Clapham Junction station), finds himself overcome by an urge to touch his boss's ear.

The novel describes the consequences of his giving way to this absurd urge. With one tiny, fleeting gesture he crosses the line between acceptable and terrifying behaviour and, predictably, things do not go very well for him from then on.

The book is wonderfully original and blends silliness and seriousness brilliantly, which is why I think it deserves to be better known than it is. I suppose, if I feel really strongly on the subject, I should go off and learn how to work algorithms so as to manipulate the prominence of Internet entries. Then I'll be able to ensure that Duhamel G will out-Google piffling former catwalker, Duhamel J.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Ignoring the Razzle

There are perennials in life - the melancholy of Sunday afternoons, particularly London ones, described by Dickens so well, for instance, plus the absurd pleasure of the lead up to Christmas in Europe - despite all the hype and commericalism, I still find it a season that it's impossible not to enjoy.

Another is the feeling, as Saturday evening approaches, that you really ought to be going out on the razzle, which I think means getting plastered, ideally, or, failing that, at the very least squealing in a crowd, dancing and tottering about the streets at all hours. What it does not mean, anyway, is staying at home, with your nose stuck in a book.

Yet week after week Saturday night fever bypasses our household, and each time it does I feel more of a failure. Take tonight as an example: the only sound is the logs settling in the fire and the tapping of this keyboard. The youngster among us has her nose stuck in a poetry book, the husband is poring over ancient family documents and I, until I turned this thing on, have been reading Les Murray's Collected Poems, (what him, again?)

And that's really what's prompted me to come here and write something - a line of his I just read seemed thought provoking enough to be worth sharing. It's from a poem called Driving to the Adelaide Festival 1976 via the Murray Valley Highway, (page 136 here - and don't miss The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, which follows it), a wonderful title, I think.

The poem is great - most of Murray's are - and the line that particularly struck me is:

"Romance is a vine that survives in the ruins of skill"

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Widespread Pointlessness

I noticed yesterday that the people at The Dabbler had generously reposted something I wrote about the pleasure of pointless activity. This morning, coincidentally, walking home from Mount Ainslie, I came upon a crowd of people, dressed in clanking armour and medieval costumes, setting up heraldic banners and pretty tents, the ladies swishing about in long dresses and wimples, (or were they snoods?), some wearing crowns, others draped in cloaks with ermine-like trimming.

When a woman who was giving a very good impression of being a sixteenth-century serving wench came sweeping out of the Scouts Hall nearby, bearing a tray of thoroughly twenty-first century looking cup cakes, I stopped her (or, to get into the ye olde spirit, perhaps I should say I hailed - or possibly accosted? - her) and asked what was going on.

It turns out that I was witnessing the start of a big tournament being put on by the Canberra branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The Society has 70,000 members world wide, the wench told me, and they get together to play at being in pre-seventeenth-century Europe, (except when it comes to cup cakes). "The only thing we ask", she said, "is that you try as best you can to wear something that looks sort of sixteenth century-ish".

I doubt I have ever seen anything so authentically pointless; it cheered me up enormously. There were a hundred or so people there and they all seemed to be having a great deal of fun.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

True or False

I just came across this description of foopball by Gary Lineker (no, I don't know who he is either - I found it in a list of funny things people have said, including Julie Burchill's comment about Camille Paglia - "the 'g'is silent, which is the only thing about her that is"):

"Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans win."

Will he be proved correct in the World Cup, I wonder. It certainly seems more likely today than yesterday, but I'd appreciate informed advice, (not including any references to the offside rule, thanks), about whether to put money on it, (yeah, yeah, I know about the evils of gambling, but it does add interest to life from time to time.)

Friday, 4 July 2014

If Only

One of the recurring experiences of my life has been an alienated sense of envy whenever I see anyone going to the fridge, getting out the milk carton, pouring themselves a glass from it and chugging the stuff down with evident enjoyment.

Actually, envy's not quite the word - the sensation is more one of standing on the wrong side of a window, watching some activity inside in which you are unable to join, (which reminds me, somewhat irrelevantly, that when I was really little I would sometimes see people standing outside television shops, staring through the windows at the images - still black and white; by the time colour arrived most people seemed to have managed to at least get themselves a rental set, or possibly television shops no longer existed - broadcast on the various display screens inside. They, of course, were at an even greater remove than the one dividing me from milk drinkers, separated by not only the shop window but the screens themselves from what they were watching. [Why I'm telling you about this I hardly know, except that it's always exciting when you remember something you haven't thought about for years]).

Anyway, enough with the digressions. The main thing I want to explain is that, unlike almost everyone else in the universe, I hate milk, and I wish I didn't. If I possibly could, I'd be downing gallons of the stuff, sharing in the considerable pleasure the drink quite clearly provides for the rest of the human race. The trouble is though that every time I taste milk I am overcome with nausea. I find it extremely disgusting - and, worse still, it's not just about milk that I feel out of step with the rest of mankind. There are so many many things that others love and I can't be doing with. The latest of them is the film Calvary, which has received universally positive reviews, but has left me, once again, on the outside, with my nose pressed longingly, (if a nose can be pressed longingly) up against the glass.

If you're interested in my contrarily negative observations, I wrote about what I thought of Calvary here. If anyone else feels the same way as I do about the film, please feel free to comment. It would be nice to imagine one or two others out here on the pavement with me, peering through the Rediffusion window at the soundless pictures flickering away within.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Getting Involved

Years ago, one hot July day in Vienna we - me, plus husband, kids and ageing relatives - straggled sweatily through the sweltering Lainzer Tiergarten, (not many people seem to realise that, if you want guaranteed sun and heat, Vienna and Budapest are ideal summer destinations - with Budapest coming out best of the two, because of the city's numerous beautiful thermal pools for cooling off), to one of the houses the Empress-consort commonly known as Sisi used to hide from her husband in.

At my husband's suggestion, we were going to see an exhibition in the Hermes Villa. The exhibition was called something like 'Beethoven's Hair Clippings' or possibly 'Chopin's Toothpick'. Actually, it may have had some subtler name, something that referred obliquely to the various displays and the one thing that connected them - which was the fact that they were all detritus, (nail clippings, cigarette butts, sneezed-in handkerchieves, plus, of course, the aforementioned bits of hair and toothpick, [my husband now tells me he thinks it was Schubert's toothpick - if only I'd known, I'd have looked at it more closely, hem hem]), carelessly scattered in the wake of famous men, (and yes, as I remember it, the exhibits were almost exclusively the droppings of the male sex [men, eh?])

Anyway, I found the thing unforgettably intriguing. What odd combination of foresight and nuttiness could have led anyone to preserve these objects? Surely plaque-coated toothpicks and snot-encrusted handkerchieves lack significance regardless of their provenance? Was it possible that by virtue of the plaque having once clung to Schubert's molars and the snot having originally emerged from Karl Marx's horrible hairy nose, (sorry, I know I'm being too subjective, but in the immortally damning phrase of someone in my family, Karl Marx is 'not one of my favourite people' - leaving aside the political consequences of his theories, read Francis Wheen's book on him, and I'm sure you will begin to dislike him on a personal level too).

The only experience of my own that seemed even faintly analogous was the impulse that gripped me as a small child one dusty afternoon, stuck in a traffic jam on the road that ran along the edge of Runnymede. Staring out at the rather unexciting stretch of grassland, I made the decision to return in adulthood and walk over the whole of it, putting my feet one in front of the other, heel and toe meeting exactly, each and every time, until I had made absolutely certain that I had stepped on every single inch of the place. At that point, I'd be sure I'd stood exactly where King John had stood when forced to sign the Magna Carta. It seemed a way of directly touching the past, creating some kind of bond with major historical figures. I have to admit I haven't yet carried out my plan - laziness, in this as in so much else, seems to have intervened, (or sanity).

Anyway, today I went to the shoemender, and while I was there I think I glimpsed a new way of looking at the celebrity-rubbish-preservation phenomenon. The shoemender I go to, like many shoemenders in Canberra, hails originally from Greece. Thus, rather unsurprisingly, this morning he was feeling pretty proud. As not merely a Canberran but a Canberra Greek he was thrilled by the astonishing win notched up last night by Canberra's Nick Kyrgios against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

But, he explained, there was something more, something that gave him a very special and particular involvement in the Kyrgios victory. As it turns out, the Kyrgios family are among the shoemender's customers. In fact, not long ago they brought in a bag for the man to mend. And, lo and behold, when Kyrgios emerged onto Centre Court yesterday afternoon (UK time),  what was Kyrgios carrying? Yes, you guessed it, the very same bag my Greek shoemending friend had worked on. Of course, he went wild with excitement. 'I looked at it,' he told me, 'and I thought, "I know that bag - that's the bag I worked on. That bag is there on Centre Court with Nick, because of me."'


Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Gulf of Words

It's funny how language, an instrument designed to bring us closer together, can sometimes do the opposite instead. For instance, today in the supermarket I overheard a conversation that made me feel profoundly alone.

The conversation was between two women I didn't know. They greeted each other but were both in a hurry. One said she'd give the other a bell, (already a chill feeling of isolation began to fold itself around me, as that particular turn of phrase struck my ears - especially as it was accompanied by the gesture that involves holding a hand up to your face to, supposedly, resemble a telephone receiver being picked up). Yes, said the other, lets grab a coffee, (not a coffee, a cup of coffee, I refrained from interrupting them to point out),  when the kids are at pre-school. We can have a really good chinwag then.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh, euuuuuuuuuuuw.

She said, 'CHINWAG'!


Yet, so far as I could see, no-one else  in the shop had so much as flinched in the face of this horrible occurrence. Furthermore, time had not stopped. Not even one thunderbolt had come crashing through the striplit ceiling to strike the speaker down either.

Which was when it was - not for the first time, of course, (but most of the time I'm in denial) - borne in on me that I'm all by myself in a world where those I thought were my fellows remain calm in the face of dreadful words like 'chinwag'. Not one other person was shuddering or writhing or terrifying small children by gurning with horror as the frightful word echoed round the shelves of dry-goods and pre-dinner snacks.

 No-one understands me. No-one. I bet you don't either. I bet you're saying right at this moment, 'Oh Zed, aren't you getting a tad over-excited?'

To which I say, 'Tad'? Please, call the ambulance. Now I've really been pushed too far.'.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Lost Time

I have many things to blog about - none of them important or possibly even interesting - but no time. To add to my lack of time - and my sense of futility; why bother when so many people have written so many far better things about almost everything already - I have discovered a site where, if you have a spare 145 hours and 18 minutes, you can hear Marcel Proust's great work read beautifully in French. It is wonderful, and it can be found here.

And really, why write anything, post-Proust?

(Yes, the answer is, of course, because it is a way of working out what you think - and it's fun. All the same, it does require time.)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Let the One With the Zimmer Frame In

Tearing up newspapers to make a fire yesterday evening - and incidentally what is it going to cost after the death of newspapers to get a fire going? I mean just how many ipads and tablets can a household afford and how easy are they to scrunchle up as a bedding for kindling anyway?- I noticed an item that should breathe new life into the whole vampire literary genre:



 A series in which blood lusting baby boomers roam the urban landscape, preying on youth, should appeal to an enormous market of readers. If I weren't so squeamish, I'd try my hand at it myself, (the writing, not the marauding, I mean).



Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mudlarks

I don't know what it was about The Good Life that made it popular even amongst those of us who were rather difficult, pretending-to-be-anti-establishment teenagers at the time it was shown - although I suspect that, in the case of my male contemporaries, there may have been a strong element of fondness (is that the right word?) for Felicity Kendal.

In addition though, judging by this tiny excerpt from the show, there was a considerable element of beautifully executed slapstick in the mix:



Sunday, 25 May 2014

Things I Liked This Week

I am stupidly busy and probably will be until November and so my post on Percy Grainger - sorry, Mahlerman - remains confined to the muddle of my computer in which, somewhere, there are some photographs of the museum in his - Percy Grainger's, that is, not Mahlerman's - honour.

In the meantime, I would like to note the things that I've enjoyed as I've hurried through this last week:

1. A telly series set on Shetland called, what a surprise, Shetland. In one episode, a female police officer, commenting, in a charming Scottish accent, on the very austere living arrangements of a suspect or murder victim - (can't remember which, or wasn't paying enough attention - these sorts of programmes are only really background noise as I pound away on a stationary bicycle doing something horrible but supposedly very good for one's health called Lifesprints, [known more informally in my mind as 'torture']) - amused me by saying:

"Even the Spartans liked to have a few wee doilies around the place."

2. A telly series called Vera, set in England somewhere north of London and featuring a stout, (obviously doesn't do Lifesprints), female detective who calls almost everyone pet. In the one I saw a murder victim's last meal was revealed to have been "chips with curry sauce washed down with a bottle of red wine". This led to a brief but horrifying glimpse of my own total lack of sophistication as my mind, before I could stop it, allowed itself to think that the meal sounded like a very a tempting combination, possibly even a candidate for that night's evening meal.

3. A radio programme in which the British Labour politician Alan Johnson talked about the book that changed his life.

4. A review in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik of two books, one that seeks to argue that some words are utterly untranslatable - looking mainly at French, German and Italian, I think, but also glancing at Romanian - and one that seeks to debunk the idea that the structure of the language in which you are operating has an influence on how you think and what you think. Gopnik says an example given for the argument that language does influence what is thought is the title of EP Thompson's book, "The Making of the English Working Class", which becomes in French "The Formation of the English Working Class". Gopnik sees no difference between these, although I would argue that the emphasis in the French title falls more on the finished condition than on the process.

Anyway, Gopnik goes on to talk about Orwell and his views on lucidity and morality in this context and comes up with a paragraph that somehow made me laugh - and, finding little enough to laugh at in the world, I do like to share that which I find:

If lucid writing is the sign of a moral state, it's the moral state of hard work, keener effort, acquired craft - a desire to communicate rather than intimidate, to have fun with a fellow-mind rather than bully a disciple. Sane and shapely sentences are good because they're sane and shapely.There's no guarantee that they'll contain the truth: lots of sane and shapely sentence makers have had silly ideas. But, like sane and shapely people and homes, they are nice to have around to look at.

5. Finally, having discovered that I will be leaving Canberra soon, (hence, in part, the stupid busyness), I was told of perhaps the most brilliant comment ever made about the place. Supposedly, this remark about Australia's capital was made in a speech by a departing ambassador from Romania:

"Canberra - you cry when you arrive; you cry when you leave."

Luckily for me, I will only be going for a few years. It's an awfully nice place to come home to and, despite all my gripes and moans and the idiocy of its actually having its own government, forsooth, (what is the population - certainly not more than 300,000 people), it's actually one of the nicest places I've ever lived. On the other hand, I could be suffering from a geographical form of Stockholm syndrome.




Saturday, 17 May 2014

On a Tangent

Following my recent diversion into the world of towelling, my memory was jogged about a trip I made to the Percy Grainger museum in Melbourne - all will eventually become clear on that connection, for those who don't immediately see the link. Anyway, I was going to do a post about that weird and wonderful place - indeed, I think I might start a whole series of posts on mad museums.

In the interim though, the Australian federal government brought down its budget and a lot of people have been complaining about various measures that are contained within it.

One measure that was canvassed on last night's television current affairs programme was the intention to restrict unemployment payments to those under thirty years of age, increasing the requirement for that sector of the population to either accept work or enrol in education. In the interests of greater understanding of the issues involved, I thought others might like to hear the views of this representative of the demographic:




Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Getting Better All the Time

Living in a society beset by a cult of youth, I take comfort in towels. By which I do not mean that I wrap myself in them or cry into them - I merely note them and feel happy.

For who can deny that towels are pretty awful when young? Certainly at our house no-one wants to go near brand-new towels. We all run screaming from them when they first appear in the bathroom. Even later we hardly tolerate them - they're too coarse, too dry, too unabsorbent. Sometimes, to start with, they actually possess a texture that borders almost on repellent, while even the best of them are pretty unloveable until they've been washed at least a hundred times.

But all of them - even the borderline repellent - improve as time passes. After a few years knocking about the place they begin, gradually, to acquire attractive qualities. And it is age that is the vital factor, the thing that endows them with value. Indeed, the one we all fight over, the one that is the most alluring of all the towels in our household, is the one that still bears my nametape, together with the name of the house I was put in at boarding school, which means it must be no less than thirty to forty years old.

Just reaching its prime, in fact - and towel years need to be double and a halfed, or possibly even tripled, to find the equivalent age for humans. That  means I'm really still a baby, barely starting to reveal my true qualities.

As I say, I take comfort in towels.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Going Straight

Yesterday I tried to describe the ploughing record attempt I went to. Last night on the local television news the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Canberra's Anna Morissseau, (Morisot?) did a much better job than me. Her report is a beautifully edited piece, with lovely interviews and wonderful panoramic shots (her team did have the advantage of a crane from which to film, I must point out). Morisot should go far:






Sunday, 4 May 2014

We Plough the Fields

Today I went to see an attempt to break the world record for the greatest number of heavy horses ploughing in one field. I'm not sure if the world record was broken, but I was certainly impressed.







 Impressed is actually the wrong word - for some reason I can't explain, I found myself strangely moved. There was something beautiful about the sight of these huge gentle horses moving across the landscape with heavily wrapped up - the event was held on the coldest day in ages, on top of a windswept hill near Yass - people in tow. I think it was partly the element of time travel, the sense that one was looking back into a quieter past, where man and beast worked together, rather than man and truck or man and motorbike.
The other thing that made the whole thing so touching was the size of the crowd. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there, mostly country people, that tribe that is part of the legend we tell ourselves about being Australian but which few of us actually belong to. I don't think many of them would ever utter the word 'pamper' or give a great deal of thought to their appearance -  maybe they see the pointlessness of competing with the beauty of the natural world around them or, more likely, they don't have the time or the money.

The uniform of choice seemed to be a drizabone in this weather, but it had to be a thoroughly battered and muddied model. The faces were weatherbeaten, the conversation ran to sheep prices, rainfall and upcoming cattle sales.





This evening some amongst this morning's ploughing enthusiasts may be settling down to entertainment from an intriguing sub-section of the moving picture industry, a genre unknown to me until today:

Stall selling "Farming DVDs"

Friday, 2 May 2014

Like Ian Messiter

At the end of each episode of Just a Minute Nicholas Parsons expresses his gratitude to the person who thought up the idea of the game which makes the show. Such a display of good manners is fairly remarkable nowadays, which is probably why I notice whenever I hear him doing it.

Anyway, I've had a couple of ideas for television programmes and I will tell you about them in a minute. If someone manages to use them, all I ask in exchange for the kernel of the dea is a similar kind of tribute to the one Parsons gives Messiter so regularly.

My first idea might be called Riveting Unreadables. It would be a programme in which people who have come to fame as writers but are actually interesting talkers rather than writers are given a show to chat amongst themselves. The kinds of people I'm thinking about are Will Self, whose books are impenetrable to me but who usually provides entertainment when someone asks him a question and Lionel Shriver who seems to delight in choosing subjects of such unbearable despair and misery that one would only choose to read one of her fictions as a form of penance. Despite this, I could listen to her talk about almost anything - the quality of her voice appeals to me and her intellect has a nice mocking quality, plus she somehow manages to be witty and intelligent without ever seeming to need to whine about being a woman or  aboutbeing ignored because she's a woman or any of that.

 I'm sure there are dozens more writers who could fall into this category - riveting to listen to, rather dull to read. Whatever credibility I might once have had would be destroyed if I were to suggest that James Joyce might fit well in the format, if it weren't for the fact that he is dead. Which is why I won't  suggest it, (because of the credibility issue, not the dead question).

My second idea comes from an experience I had some years ago when one relative was graduating from Cambridge and another rather arty, vague relative turned up in jeans and sneakers and a hooded rain jacket. I had the faint sense that possibly a Cambridge graduation might be one of middle England's big occasions, but thought possibly casual clothes would be okay, given that it was a university after all and the thing was about learning, not fashion. However, when we arrived at the Senate House to queue to go into the hall where the ceremony was to take place, even the slightly dreamy relative noticed that possibly her outfit wasn't quite what it should be. With fifteen minutes in hand, we exited the queue and dashed from stall to stall of the market in the central square by the Senate House. Back with time to spare, just under fifty quid shelled out, we'd managed to assemble a set of clothes (plus "accessories") that suited the occasion and its wearer.

My idea, arising from this incident, is of course to send out people to different market towns and give them fifty pounds and fifteen minutes and get them to try to equip themselves for a wedding or a funeral, a job interview or a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It's Ready Steady Cook but with clothing. The important thing I forgot to mention is that these forays should be filmed. It wouldn't be much of a television show otherwise.

Let me know if any of this is useful. If a programme is made from either of these ideas of mine, I probably won't watch it as I don't care for reality television much - but I'd still like to know.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Forget the Shrill Squabbling

Auden in his farewell to Yeats said that poetry changes nothing. Peter Cook, asked to comment on the power of satire, talked of all those wonderfully brave and edgy satiric cabarets in Berlin and how brilliantly they had arrested the rise of Hitler. In the same vein,  Stefan Zweig in his The World of Yesterday describes how he and his fellow students in pre-First World War Vienna remained oblivious to the events that were soon to destroy their peaceful playgrounds:

"We ... however, wholly absorbed in our literary ambitions, noticed little of the ... dangerous changes in our native land; our eyes were bent entirely on books and pictures. We took not the slightest interest in political and social problems; what did all this shrill squabbling mean in our lives? The city was in a state of agitation at election time; we went to the libraries. The masses rose up; we wrote and discussed poetry. We failed to see the writing on the wall in letters of fire. Like King Belshazzar before us, we dined on the delicious dishes of the arts and never looked apprehensively ahead. Only decades later, when the roof and walls of the building fell in on us, did we realise that the foundations had been undermined long before, and the downfall of individual freedom in Europe had begun with the new century."

This inability or refusal to notice the storm clouds beyond our own immediate existences - whether those clouds represent war or cataclysm of some other kind or, that last great unavoidable, our own eventual deaths - is an underlying theme of Wes Anderson's new film, Grand Hotel Budapest.  Fortunately, the idea, like the pastries from Mendl's that keep popping up throughout the film, is presented in such a light and colourful manner that it does not make one sad.

Anderson claims Grand Budapest Hotel was at least in part inspired by Zweig, and certainly there are elements in The World of Yesterday that do seem to be echoed in the film. For instance, the borderline surreal atmosphere of much of the film is matched by the genuine absurdities Zweig notices in real life:

"By a strange caprice of the Belgian army, its machine guns were transported on little carts with dogs harnessed to them."

Similarly, while Zweig was at least aware of the immanence of war, unlike the film's characters, the account he gives of his train journey back to Austria from Ostend in July 1914 bears comparison with the train journeys made by Monsieur Gustave and Zero:

"... halfway to Herbesthal, the first German station, the train suddenly stopped in the middle of the countryside. We crowded to the corridor windows. What had happened? And then, in the darkness, I saw freight train after freight train coming the other way towards us, with open trucks covered by tarpaulins under which I thought I saw the menacing shapes of cannon. My heart missed a beat. This must be the vanguard of the German army. But perhaps, I consoled myself, it was just a safety precaution, merely the threat of mobilisation, not mobilisation itself. There is always a strong desire to go on hoping in an hour of danger. Finally the signal came, the line was clear, and the train moved on and came into Herbesthal station. I jumped down the steps from the carriage to find a newspaper and make enquiries. But the station was occupied by soldiers. When I tried to go into the waiting room a stern, white-bearded official was standing in front of the closed door, keeping people out - no-one was allowed in the station buildings, he said. However, I had already heard the faint clink and clatter of swords, and the hard sound of rifle butts grounded on the floor behind the carefully curtained glass panes in the door. There was no doubt about it, this monstrous thing was in progress..."

I loved the Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps it is the manner of Zweig's death - or rather the odd circumstance of his having committed suicide with his much younger female companion, (I blame him for taking her with him, when of course it may have been her choice and she in fact who instigated the whole thing) - that makes me less than enthusiastic about him. However, if he managed to inspire such a sparkling charming movie, for me his legacy is greater than it was before

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Battered Penguins - Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis





Simon Leys begins the foreword to his book Other People's Thoughts by quoting Oscar Wilde:

 "'Most people are other people,' Oscar Wilde remarked, 'their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation ...'"

As so often Wilde here articulates succinctly what other people - in this case Nigel Dennis - take an eternity - in Dennis's case a lengthy novel - to try to make clear.

In Cards of Identity Dennis tells the story of the Identity Club, whose members take over a large house in the country; persuade, (somewhat implausibly), various locals that they are not who they think they are but actually the club's domestic staff; hold a conference at which they read papers to each other about imagined identities they have studied; and finally persuade the locals/domestic staff to dress up and put on a cod-Shakespeare play, called The Prince of Antioch,  during the performance of which the club's President is murdered by the other members.

The novel could not be described as emotionally satisfying. Given that none of the characters are fixed or permanent - that is the whole point:; identity is a frail thing - it would be hard to really allow any individual to achieve enough depth for the reader to care about them. All the same, the book is cleverly written - the Shakespeare play that makes up its last part is, from my very limited knowledge, a fairly good bit of parody - and often very funny, my particular favourite section being the paper given by Dr Bitterling and devoted to the story of a Co-Warden of the Badgeries.

The Co-Warden of the Badgeries, it transpires, is an ancient position which involves no involvement with badgers, beyond 'a token badger' which is 'a stuffed one of course.' It is only ever taken out 'on the death of the Lord Royal' or for the annual ritual of Easing the Badger, when the thing is inserted into a symbolic den and eased out with the official emblem, a symbolical gold spade. At the funeral of the Lord Royal, the badger is placed on a trolley and dragged through the streets on silken ropes. Everything to do with the role is either 'token, symbolical, or emblematical' and its importance is precisely because it is ritual rather than based in reality. As the paper explains:

'When you've got a grip on something that really exists and is comprehensible, you don't have to bother with symbols. But once the reality begins to fade, the symbol is needed to recapture it. If all barristers had brains, there would be no need for wigs. Our rituals exist to reassure people that no serious defects are possible ... Like old churches, [the Badgeries], are nostalgic, photogenic and give a sense of security to those who hurry past them.'

Perhaps this appealed to me in the light of my recent experience with pageant and my puzzlement in the face of it.

WH Auden praised Cards of Identity, (at least I think he did - his exact phrase was, "I have read no novel in the last fifteen years with greater pleasure or admiration", which is a statement that only qualifies as praise if the other books he read during that time were any good). I admired it for creating an attractively sinister atmosphere reminiscent of early (Emma Peel era) Avengers programme. It is also interesting for the traces it bears of life in post-war Britain - despite its veneer of fantasy, it is actually something of a period piece in this regard. However, its central thrust - the author's attempts to play around with the question of identity - struck me as a bit confused.

While Dennis may have been striving for some greater complexity, ultimately the whole thing boils down to Shakespeare's famous observation that 'all the world's a play' - or, to quote The Prince of Antioch, 'tis all a play for our improvement'. Dennis seems to think he is being sophisticated and profound but, to paraphrase - as he is so fond of doing - Shakespeare, Cards of Identity ends up being much ado about nothing very much. On the other hand I wouldn't have missed the Badgeries, which are worthy of Peter Cook and EL Wisty's dreams of having his own Royal Newtkeeper. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Getting of Wisdom

Yes, it has been a while since I last posted and I do understand that I ought really to have called home or at least left a message explaining that I was all right and wouldn't be away for long. 

But I'm back now, and anyway I couldn't have foreseen that I would be gone for so much time. Thus, while apologising profusely, I feel I must also point out one thing - it wasn't my fault, (yes, you're right, this is a very modern apology, the kind where sorry is never actually said and blame is left unshouldered).

The thing is though, I blame the universities. Well, I blame one university in particular - the one whose graduation ceremony I've been attending ever since I was last here.

Oh yes, I hear you say, but didn't it occur to you that the thing might be a bit lengthy, when you read the instructions? After all, friends and relatives were required to seat themselves nine days in advance.

That was a bad sign, I grant you, and perhaps I should have taken it as a portent - but then it is so easy to be wise after the event.

How those days did drag too, despite - or in the end because of - the incessant playing of Bach pieces by the university's students (whether all of them were actually students of music is a question better left unasked). And if you think the pageant that eventually followed made it all worthwhile, I'm afraid you are very much mistaken.

Watching horde upon horde of Australia's eager young people stumble across a stage to receive degrees in subjects that probably fit them for nothing very much becomes surprisingly uninteresting after the first forty-eight hours or so.

If it was bad for us though, it was clearly taking an even greater toll on the poor woman clad in heavily embroidered robes, (I suspect they'd been designed with the robes of the office bearers of ancient institutions of learning in Britain in mind; if only the brevity of ceremony offered by bastions such as Cambridge University had been equally keenly emulated), who had to greet each graduand, (ooh, I am so glad I have a subscription to the OED), and present them with their pieces of paper.

As I watched her birdlike hand being enveloped in the sturdy grip of yet another hearty young Australian, I found myself thinking about EL Wisty who I think suggested some kind of electronic hand that could wave for the queen as she passed through the streets in coach or car, (and was rewarded for his efforts with a demonstration of a 'nit-poker' - a jam-covered sponge attached to a lengthy piece of stick). Surely some similar device, (to the waving thing, not the nitpoker, [although, come to think of it, it might be amusing to produce the latter for the occasional graduate, just to introduce an antic element and, let's face it, vary the routine]) should be invented for vice-chancellors whose job demands they undergo thousands of handshakes at the end of each year's studies?

Of course, nothing is without positives. Eventually, when I realised we really were in it for the long haul, I turned my mind to trying to conjure up ways to pass the time, given that I had nothing to read or to listen to. As others may one day find themselves in a similar predicament, let me set out here the things that got me through:

1. Counting the things in the room that may have been transported by sea to get here - or whose constituent materials may have. I doubt if there was anything there that hadn't arrived that way - just as it is virtually impossible to find anything in any shop that is actually Australian-made, (which makes all the getting of wisdom we were gathered to honour even more worryingly dubious in its usefulness - will anyone here actually be doing anything apart from shopping before too long?);

2. Counting the things in the room that may not have been made in China, (this activity grew pretty naturally from the one above). Sadly, there was only one thing I could be fairly certain had not arrived from China and that was the piano, as it was a Kawai, (which I think meant it came from Japan, although I stand ready to be corrected);

3. Trying to work out the male to female ratio among the soon-to-be graduates by counting them up on your fingers, (having not brought a pencil or paper). Amazingly, during the ceremony I attended the gender divide seemed almost perfectly even, although I have no idea whether this was thanks to luck or good planning.

4. Trying to imagine what the individual parents of each almost-graduate might look like, based on the odd mix of features combined in the faces of their sons or daughters.

5. Marvelling at how exceptionally rare is the thing we call beauty.

6.Trying to imagine how those sections of the audience that decided to raise great whoops and wolf whistles for certain graduates could be so insensitive as to not recognise that this behaviour made those who didn't receive similar yells and shrieks look - and probably feel - a bit unloved.

7. Trying to imagine what those newly fledged graduates who chose to raise their degrees in the air and execute a pumping motion, as if they'd just won a boxing match, thought they were doing.

8. Wondering whether the girls who had chosen to dress in very revealing low-cut, extremely short-skirted dresses regretted that decision, especially when they went on to strap things onto their feet that made footbinding look like a benign activity. So many of them appeared to think that a visit to a night club and a graduation ceremony were the same thing,(and I bet they all called themselves feminists, despite their compulsion to plaster themselves with make up and spend fortunes on having astounding and probably quite time-consuming things done to their hair - the movie Best in Show kept springing to mind). While they had spent large sums of money and time to get themselves ready, the boys all sauntered out having made no effort whatsoever - in most cases not even bothering to polish their shoes or brush their hair. Inequality is sometimes self-perpetuated, it appears.

9. Learning the new word 'humblebrag' from overheard whispered conversations around me, as the keynote speaker told us how he'd made no effort whatsoever but somehow ended up at Oxford (no, not Brookes, Oxford University, since you ask, [at least, I'm assuming - but then that's what Oxford Brookes graduates always hope is exactly what you'll do, I guess]), and how one of his colleagues had been teaching in an adjacent classroom and asked him at the end of their respective classes, 'How do you manage to make your students laugh so happily and with so much engagement, all the time?' and ... - but you get the gist

10. Finally resorting to the age-old game beloved of all children whose parents, (mine weren't like this, but I have friends who've kindly passed on the information), insisted on weekly churchgoing - no, not pew licking; the one where you get through a dull sermon or speech by trying to spot words beginning with each consecutive letter of the alphabet as they come up, (try it next time you're stuck listening to something long and dull. It really does pass the time more quickly, provided no-one expects you to answers question about what you've heard afterwards)..

11. Trying to translate the speeches into a foreign language - related to this is the game of trying to name objects around you in a room in languages you've tried to learn, (warning, this can be depressing, if you thought until that moment that you were actually reasonably fluent).

12. Wondering if any food or drink would be offered at the end of the almost interminable ritual - none was, on this occasion, which was at least a good result as far as my predictive powers are concerned.

Anyway, it's over now. I'm home. I'm safe, althought I am left wondering what it is in the human psyche that craves these strange ceremonies - or, indeed, ceremonies in general - what odd kind of need for symbolic moments exist in our souls that make these stylised occasions so necessary.

(Warning: exaggeration  may have been used in the preparation of this blog post.)






Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Mysteries - a Continuing Series

I suppose it's a symptom of living in Canberra that my attention keeps returning to what people put on the backs of their cars. After all the city's designers appear to be have been quite uninhibited by concerns about traffic minimisation. Thus, most of us who live in Canberra are condemned to spending plenty of time behind the driving wheel, staring at our fellow citizens and wondering about the things they choose to decorate their vehicles with.

Oh not more bumper stickers - no, not more bumper stickers. Today's puzzling phenomenon never appears on bumpers but always on back windows, usually those of station wagons (estate cars for English readers, I gather).

I've been noticing it for about a year now, I think, although possibly it's been there longer and I've been slow on the uptake. I don't know whether it's confined to Australia, whether we imported it from somewhere else, or whether it's a worldwide craze, in which case someone is making a great deal of money from it:


What I'm talking about is stick figure families. They're multiplying, they're hideous and, I realise, after noticing the individual stickers for sale in a newsagent in town, they're really quite expensive. Each time I see one of these dull little groupings, I feel alienated. I mean why on earth would anyone pay good money for something that is so ugly and unoriginal?

Once again, I'm confused by my fellow human beings and by life in general. As a contestant on the Great British Sewing Bee (my current all time favourite television programme) said, after sewing her skirt inside out to her bodice, 'I think I'll go and drown in a bucket of gin."




Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mysteries of the World - Architecture

Sometimes walking in Melbourne, you are confronted by the results of decisions that make no sense. You turn a corner and you see something like this:

You turn another and you see something like this:
It's hard enough to imagine why anyone thought buildings like the tower blocks would ever provide people with housing they'd be happy in, but positioning them so that the one variety is visible, right there, practically beside the other, seems especially baffling. When you walk out those magnificent town hall front doors and see a high-rise monster looming nearby, it's hard not to think that the architect of the high-rise was consciously taunting that other style, product of the stuffy values of the past:

 The pictures above are not of an isolated example of architectural madness, I should point out. Here's another - in a suburb hard by the city's centre, former burghers built this magnificent thing:
It is still surrounded by domestic architecture whose scale and the way it is laid out must give those who live in it the sense of being in a kind of urban village:








But later planners seemed unable to see the beauty of this scale and style of building. Once again they happily constructed towers. In Austerity Britain, David Kynaston quotes the City Architect of Coventry praising the policy of tower block building in 1949, on the grounds that 'people do not seem prepared to devote enough time' to gardens; the local paper went further, stating that people 'do not deserve' gardens. Perhaps similarly haughty attitudes prevailed in the minds of the planners in Melbourne at the time the various councils decided to grace their elegant streets with buildings like the loitering tower shown here:




Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Department of Misguided Business Names

Somewhere in Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry makes a reference to foreigners' love for punning in English. Although I can't put my finger on it now, I was extremely glad when I read it, as it proved that I am not the only person who has noticed this odd phenomenon. The impulse to pun leads non-native-English speakers into making decisions English speakers themselves would never make about business names. I've already posted about some of them. Here are a couple more, the first from Chinatown in Melbourne:
the second from Dubai - Labels or Love, what can it mean; is it a play on labour of love, I wonder - even if it is, it's still meaningless, surely:

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Three Cheers for William Webb Ellis

I got rather interested a little while ago  in public schools in England and their effects. While reading The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of her father and his brothers, I've come across another variation on the theme:

'In 1896 ... Eddie, ["Evoe" Knox, editor of Punch from 1932 to 1948], won his scholarship to Rugby. Thomas French [his grandfather] had been there in the days of Arnold, although he had been quite unmoved by the great Doctor, whose teaching was "not the Gospel as he had been accustomed to receive it." The headmaster was now Mr HA James, known as The Bodger. In comparison with Eton it was a rougher, more countrified, more eccentric, more rigidly classical, less elegant and sentimental establishment. There were the usual bewildering regulations, much more binding than the official rules; only certain boys, the "swells", could wear white straw hats, all first-year boys must answer to a call of "fag" and run to see what the "swell" required, it was a crime to walk with your hands in your pockets until your fourth year, one hand was allowed in the third year, and so forth, proscriptions being multiplied, as in all primitive societies. The younger boys got up at five forty-five and took turns in the cold baths. Eddie, who was in School House, could consider himself lucky to get a "den" at the end of his first year, overlooking the seventeen acres of the famous Close.

Divinity was taught by The Bodger himself, a short, squarish man with a luxuriant beard, concealing the absence of a tie. "Dr James walked up and down," as Eddie remembered him; "if it was the Upper Bench, round and round, because it was a turret room. He walked like a Red Indian, placing one foot in front of the other. He kept a small, private notebook, in which he put favourable remarks about a boy, but a quotation from the Lays of Ancient Rome would gain at least five marks a go." This was fortunate for the Knoxes, reared since nursery days on the Lays. The finest scholar on the staff, however, was Robert Whitelaw, Rupert Brooke's godfather, who taught classics to the Twenty, the form below the Upper VIth. He is described as looking like a bird of prey, and was unable to correct examinations without listening to the music of a barrel organ, which he hired to play underneath his window ...

Undoubtedly Rugby could claim to "harden". The boys worked an eleven-hour day with two hours for prep ... prefects punished by making a wrongdoer run past an open door three times while they aimed a kick at him. Ribs got broken that way. At breakfast, rolls flew through the air and butter was flicked onto the ceiling, to fall, when the icy atmosphere had thawed out, onto the masters' heads. There was a strong faction in favour of the Boers during the South African war, and strikes against the horrible food; to counter them, Dr James was obliged to eat a plateful, in furious indignation, in front of the whole school, but then furious indignation was his usual attitude. All the notices he put up ended with the words, THIS MUST STOP. 

... Eddie liked Rugby well enough and accepted its routine, though he particularly enjoyed the moments when it was interrupted. One midday a boy threw a squash ball which exactly struck the hands of the great clock that set the time for the whole school, and stopped it. Masters and boys, drawing their watches out of their pockets as they hurried across the yard, to compare the false with the true, were thrown into utter confusion. It turned out that the boy, who confessed at once, had been practising the shot for two years. The Bodger called this "un-English". Eddie did not agree. The patient, self-contained, self-imposed pursuit of an entirely personal solution seemed to him most characteristically English.'