Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Wonder Week 3

My early week was spent wondering about Tim Hunt and whether we couldn't all just have jeered at him for being an idiot, rather than insisting he lose his job. What I wondered about most was whether insisting that he did lose his job sends the message that we women are all a bit pathetic and easily hurt and can't just use scorn in situations of this sort, because we don't feel strong enough. At the same time, I also wondered whether Boris Johnson wasn't possibly the very last person in the entire universe that I needed to be told by that Tim Hunt should be reinstated.

Later in the week I went on to wonder about feminism and how it fits with the very easy way in which women jeer at the likes of Ann Widdecombe and Sophie Mirabella, both female politicians, both conservatives, both probably not particularly likeable - but probably only as dislikeable as countless of their male colleagues. There is something about a woman who is conservative and doesn't care about making herself attractive to the opposite sex - or who cannot manage to, I don't know which - that seems to make other women, usually of the other political persuasion, think that it is all right to sneer at them in a much nastier way than they sneer at anyone else on the political stage. It always disgusted me the way that Widdecombe was sniggered at, simply because she didn't conform to the idea of a 'liberated woman'. Sometimes I think women police themselves far more harshly than men have ever policed them (us).

This thread of wondering was somewhat muddied or tangled or whatever by a hearing of the beginning of the News Quiz on Radio 4, As the panellists threw around Michael Gove's name with the abandon of those who have never considered that anyone might disagree with them, I began to wonder whether I'd got the whole women against women thing wrong. The venom and spite with which Michael Gove is routinely discussed is as intense as anything directed at unattractive women who dare to be confident. One thing I became certain of was that the day the News Quiz devotes a tenth of the energy it devotes to hating Gove to making fun of Putin is the day I will listen to the programme again, (although, unless I endure it each week to see if it has changed its ways, I wonder how I'll ever know). Actually, even if they didn't worry about Putin but just went back to being absurdly hilarious, rather than treating each episode like a ghastly party-political half hour of point scoring, I'd be really pleased. Those happy days when Alan Coren would go off on an extended reminisce about dancing classes conducted by an ex-Army sergeant, how I miss them.

I also listened to Start the Week, on which Grayson Perry claimed that being an artist allows you to escape Britain's class system. I wondered if that meant that Australians are kinds of artists (con-artists [geddit, con, eh, eh, eh?]?) as many Australians claim that the British find them/us troublingly difficult to classify.

The reason I listened to so much radio is that I was on a long car journey and, at the instigation of my husband, I also endured Desert Island Discs. I can't really bear it now that Kirsty Young is the hostess, as she is one of those broadcasters who have wet voices on radio - not wet in the Fotherington-Thomas sense, but in the sense tht you hear the wetness of the inside of their mouths as they speak. It makes me squirm. But not as much as Stephen Fry himself did, (and heavens to Betsy, someone's just told me, it is NOT HIS FIRST GO on the show). He chose good music, but I wonder if I was the only person who thought he managed to pull off an entire hour, (or however long it was - it seemed close to eternity to me), of full-on, world-class humble brag. Sickening, I found it. Even thinking about it makes me feel queasy.

Finally, I listened to endless Archers episodes. I am beyond wondering how various characters ended up in the situations they have ended up in - nothing used to happen in the Archers and that was the whole point; not any more; it's like Eastenders with added mooing. What I did wonder though is whether I am the only person in the world who always thinks of Edwina Currie when the Lilian character comes on.

I also, separately, wondered whether Peter Hitchens is the United Kingdom's answer to Gerard Henderson - or whether Gerard Henderson is Australia's answer to Peter Hitchens. They are both certainly intensely serious, well-meaning blokes who I suspect were bullied as children and thus whenever anyone teases them a bit they get terribly hurt and stiff and prickly. It's sad, because people then think they're not 'good sports', (although I wonder if that isn't just a term used when people want to condone their own needling of others who are sensitive - but, if I think that, I suppose I should agree that Tim Hunt should have lost his job. Oh it is all so tricky).

This led me on to wondering whether there are merely a dozen templates and everyone is really an answer to one of them, like my great friend years ago, who had four sisters and when you saw them all together, you saw how they were all really cut from the same basic outline, with tiny variations. They weren't identical, but they were like those paper chain dolls one used to cut out as a child. It wasn't that they were like their parents either. They weren't, although their mother was also one of five sisters, and they too were all like paper chain dolls, different but clearly cut from the same shape.

And then I remembered that wonderful play I saw at the Old Vic, Dancing at Lughnasa, which starred various Cusack sisters. I wondered if anyone else remembered it. It was marvellous. It was one of the best evenings I've ever spent.

So I find myself, as last week, thinking about past theatrical experiences. I wonder if theatre is my favourite thing in the world.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Another Slice of Cake

A while ago I covered the wonders of cake making competitions in my home town's agricultural show. I think I forgot to mention at the time that a young woman, newly arrived in the nearby town of Yass, enquired about entering the sponge cake competition in that town's show. The comment she got in reply? "You're either very good or very brave".

Anyway, as I've never been brave or good  enough to enter such things, I have no idea whether Alice Thomas Ellis is right when she comments thus in her book Gallimaufry:

"Cake making held an inordinately important place in the cookery of the time [the writer's childhood] and there were competitions at local shows and garden parties for the finest Victoria Sponge or the lightest scone. There still are cake competitions at church bazaars, agricultural fairs, et cetera, but they have a faintly anachronistic air and I don't think passions run so high as they once did."

The intensity of imaginative effort, however misguided, displayed in the entries in Canberra Show's Gallipoli themed cakes competition suggests there may be more life left in the old dog than Ellis thought, even if is a very odd kind of life indeed:







Sunday, 21 June 2015

Biedermeier Exhibition - National Gallery of Slovakia

Our guide book had promised that the gallery in Bratislava held a Caravaggio, plus examples of the work of one or two other big hitters of the gallery world. I didn't find them, but some sort of renovation is going on, which may have been the reason, (or my incompetence, equally likely).

Anyway, on an upper floor I did find an exhibition about the Biedermeier movement, which I've never really understood. Although I still don't really, despite going round the whole exhibition, I'd recommend going along yourself, should you happen to be in Bratislava with an hour or two to spare.

I think the thesis the curators are putting forward is that Biedermeier emerged at a time when the home became more important and the way it was furnished became a more important expression of individuality - and family and being comfortable all together in the house also became more important. 

I'm not convinced that I've got that quite right, but anyway they also seemed to be putting forward some kind of argument that all of this led to more portraiture. Unfortunately, the portraits weren't particularly interesting, except perhaps this one, but only because of the dog:
Painted by Josef Ziegler, it is a portrait of Elisabeth Erdody, who may be related to Count Erdody, of whom there is a terrific photograph in Zagreb. In it, he is doing his party trick, which is leaping over a park bench. I have a copy at home and I'll dig it out when I get home and put it into a post here, provided I remember.
I'm guessing that, if I've got the feeling-more-comfortable-at-home-and-becoming-more-cosy-as-families argument right, this painting of a family that is part of the exhibition shows them in the before rather than post Beidermeier stage:
It makes me think of Kantor's Dead Class, which I saw at the Adelaide Festival about a hundred years ago and is still one of the best things I've ever seen at the theatre.

I liked some of the pictures of town and street scenes, again sometimes partly on account of the dogs included:

 Sadly, Bratislava has lost the peaceful look of these scenes and the park from which the picture was painted is now overbuilt with hideous blocks of flats. The city has been sadly unlucky in its recent planners.

A couple of the pictures I liked because they were scenes that I know (the Stephansplatz and the Praterallee in Vienna), plus I thought my mother might be interested in the way the horses and carriages were put together, harness-wise, (and there were some dogs included as a bonus, at least in the one of the Stephansplatz):




The exhibition also provides tantalising glimpses of a couple of private sketchbooks, together with the rest of the images in the books being shown on an Ipad within the glass museum case, (the images are on a perpetual loop, and I think it would be extremely nice if the museum could put these images onto its website as well, as they are really wonderful, giving you a sense that you are seeing into the domestic lives of the families they belonged to):

I liked the rather naive, (both in style and name), "Gala Performance of the Police and Firemen of Banska Stiavnica and Banska Bela, 1846":









There was also a case of German 19th century greetings cards. They were actually described as a "Set of cards with congratulations, 1820-1840", but I'm not sure congratulations were exactly what they were all wishing. A lot of them were designed to move if you tugged at a little cardboard tab. It's remarkable they've survived in such good condition:








This one I find especially baffling










I cant make much sense of this one




The exhibition runs for several months at the National Gallery of Slovakia. I wouldn't have missed it. It is really well put together and enjoyable.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wonder Week 2

This week the things I wondered about included:

1. Whether the slightly chubby T-shirted teenage boy walking down my local shopping street on Saturday afternoon was trying to impress his very pretty female companion when he leaned his head close to hers and burped very loudly in her ear. Or was it just nervous misplaced energy? My advice is that it is very unlikely to be a winning gambit, should any would-be swains happen to be reading this blog.

2. Whether I'm the only person in the world who much prefers this hawk wearer to this one:



who appeared in the hateful "How to Spend it" magazine, (objectionable on both moral grounds - don't spend it give it away; and financial ones - don't spend it, invest it, you loons).

3. Whether Maryon Stewart, who, as a result of her daughter dying after taking something called a 'legal high' , has campaigned for a blanket prohibition of all dangerous substances, understands that prohibition doesn't work.

'No-one should be allowed to sell substances that can harm mental wellbeing or rob people of their lives', she is quoted as saying, and she seems to have succeeded in persuading the British government she is right, (except when it comes to the substances that can have that effect that are already legal and creating employment and revenue for a number of people).

I think she is utterly misguided - and so is the prohibition of all substances, however harmful, (no, scratch that, I do draw the line at radioactive material, but I'm not sure that that is ever going to find a recreational use). The money and effort spent on trying to prevent people getting their hands on various substances should be spent instead on education - and more education and yet more education.

The aim - which is no-one abusing themselves with drugs or anything else - will never be reached. Humanity has a perverse desire - that is to say some members of humanity - to go to hell in a handcart, (in this context, I remember two little girls who visited my family in the country one afternoon; my stepfather looked on as they rushed to an electric fence time and again to touch it and get the horrid jolt it gave them; 'If they're like this now', he remarked, 'what sorts of thrills will they be needing by the time they're teenagers?') - and trying to prevent them will not work.

There are always going to be people who take pleasure in abusing themselves. There will also be some people who think it might be fun and harmless to experiment - and they are the ones who can be reached and prevented from endangering themselves with money redirected towards education. This has been demonstrated - at least in Australia - by the way in which smoking has been reduced so that now only a fraction of the population make the decision to keep puffing away.

Ultimately, mad though it seems to make the decision to keep smoking - or to do anything that endangers oneself - each of us has our own life and we must be allowed to take responsibility for making our own decisions. The one and only thing the government and the rest of us can and should do is ensure that our choices are made from a thoroughly informed position.

The alternative - prohibition and the criminalisation of people who make bad choices - damages society, creating opportunities for organised crime. Where there are crime syndicates, there is always corruption, and corruption is the root of all the world's problems. That is to say, if you look at any country that is not working well, that is in need of aid, that is provoking quantities of its citizens to seek refugee status elsewhere, I guarantee you will find that the country lacks good governance.

And, to go back to the frantic but misguided efforts of Maryon Stewart, a genuinely sad, grieving mother, for whom I have nothing but sympathy, her crusade shows no understanding of human behaviour and is therefore genuinely pointless. If I didn't believe that before, I became absolutely one hundred per cent convinced of it when I went to the Ikea in Bristol the other day.

This was not because a trip to Ikea is likely to make anyone end up thinking that almost any enterprise is hopeless - not at all; I'm rather fond of Ikea (mind you, I'm not the one in the family who does battle with the Allen keys and Delphic instructions). No, it was what I saw in the carpark as Iwewere leaving that made me realise that, no matter how much we try to take care of everyone, to save each individual from his or her self, there will always be ways that people will find to damage themselves and there will always be those who are hellbent on doing dangerous things.

It was while watching some young men on roller blades do the most terrifying stunts down the concrete stairs in the Bristol Ikea carpark, (stunts that made you wince and grimace with horror, so close did they come to breaking every bone in their bodies), that I came to this conclusion. They were having such fun and being so unbelievably reckless that it was actually unpleasant to watch. I was glad when we drove away, so that I didn't have to see the next crazy leap, the one that would probably end in a skull smashing, brain spilling disaster.

Unless we propose abolishing all concrete stairs, all rollerblades, anything on which anyone could possibly be reckless, the enterprise Mrs Stewart is advocating - the protection by government of all people from all forms of  devil -may-care, idiotic-behaviour-created harm - is doomed.