Saturday, 24 June 2017

Something I Read - Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies is the third novel Lauren Groff has had published. I was a bit dubious when I saw that the author of Girl on a Train had supplied the main enthusiastic quote on the cover but I decided to give it a try regardless. I'd enjoyed the audio book of Arcadia, after all, even if I might never have actually completed it if I'd been reading it (that is one of the interesting things about audio - you can put up with a lot more from a book when you are not actually making the effort to drag your eye across those weird little spidery black shapes on the page, but instead getting through it while driving or cleaning the bathroom or ironing).

Well Fates and Furies turned out to be a hundred times better than Girl on a Train. Lauren Groff is a much better writer than the normal best seller hack, avoiding annoyingly repetitive prose or cliched phrases or any of the dull pedestrian tropes that are the meat of chick lit and so forth. All the same, for my taste, she is overly fond of the lyrical. Here is an example of the kind of thing I mean:

...nearly everyone began grinning back, so that on this spangled early evening with the sun shining through the windows in gold streams and the treetops rustling in the wind and the streets full of congregating relieved people, Lotto sparked upwellings of inexplicable glee in dozens of chests, lightening the already buoyant mood of the room in one swift wave. 

That said, Groff has a rich imagination and, although she chooses to set the entire action of the book in the same kind of absurdly privileged territory inhabited by the characters in A Little Life and despite the fact that her two main characters are preposterous, she does have the ability to draw you in and entertain you and keep you moving along with the plot - which has a clever mirrored kind of structure so that the end and the beginning in a peculiar way almost meet.

On the down side, she is quite solemn. Mind you, what the book lacks in humour - I only noticed one joke and it was not a new or terribly funny one:

'You're a pathological truth teller,' Lotto once said to her, and she laughed and conceded that she was. She wasn't sure just then if she was telling the truth or if she was lying - 

it certainly makes up for with masses of sex, which probably sells better.

While I'm griping I should point out that there is a rather large chunk of the book where the author appears to be exorcising her desire to be a playwright and I found that a bit tedious.  In addition - and more importantly for me -  while Groff is an imaginative writer and a reasonable, if rather gushing, stylist, I did not feel that the book had any wisdom to impart. I do recognise that it is refreshingly ambitious and sprawling when compared to the preciousness of Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes, but at the end I had not gained a new perspective on existence or understanding of the human species. Maybe I ask too much - as I take Middlemarch and Anna Karenina as my benchmarks, inevitably I am often disappointed. And I know some might say that Dickens, who I love, also created more than his fair share of preposterous characters, not to mention gush. However, he also had the ability to show things in an entirely new light and to be extremely funny, (the Veneerings' dinner party springs to mind as just one example). I should point out that Groff does attempt to give her novel a bit of intellectual credibility by larding it with references to classical Greek texts, from which I assume we are supposed to draw parallels. However, this seemed to me to be a superficial attempt at burnishing something that doesn't have much depth, rather than a genuinely successful deepening of the work.

All the same, as I think I mentioned, the novel was entertaining and enjoyable, what I suppose might be called "a good read".  However, I think it will turn out to be almost completely forgettable, like many good reads. It lacked any real resonance for me, I was never persuaded to care about the main characters or to see that they mattered in any way - or even really existed. Oddly, the reason I didn't really believe they existed may also have been the reason they were entertaining - their family backgrounds and lives were ludicrously dramatic. Just as when in the past I have got drawn into soap operas, I didn't believe the events for a minute but did find them grotesquely fascinating, so I didn't believe anything about the novel but I went along, cheerfully, for the ride.

Sadly, as with soap operas, I emerged unenriched. But how solemn of me to demand enrichment. Groff is clever and imaginative and energetic and better than a lot of others in her chosen field.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


I once wrote a post about how no apartment should ever be built without a balcony. It turns out that Heath Robinson invented a solution called a deckcheyrie for flats that were not provided with a balcony to begin with. For some reason, his picture of the contraption is not included in my copy of How to Live in a Flat. This is what he offers there instead - not as complex or colourful but still an outdoor option:

The article in The Spectator that accompanies the picture of the deckcheyrie is worth a read.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Ties that Bind

Driving near Ypres yesterday, we listened to a podcast from Intelligence Squared. It was called "Europe on the Edge". One of the speakers was Professor Paul Collier, who I think advocates a new approach to helping refugees - namely, giving incentives to businesses to move to areas bordering countries from which large numbers of refugees are fleeing, creating jobs there so that the people who are refugees do not need to deal with people smugglers and all the dangers that that entails, nor to go miles from their own homelands to seek a living, losing any sense of belonging, forsaking the familiar et cetera.

Under his plan, Professor Collier(1) believes refugees can be given the opportunity to set up productive lives near to where they come from, avoiding the culture shock that both they and the receiving communities tend to experience when they move out of their own sphere. In addition, when and if things improve in the places that the refugees have fled from, they are able return to their own homes without much disruption.

Anyway, on the podcast Professor Collier started to talk about community and a shared sense of responsibility. He argued that a willingness to help others depends on shared identity, citing studies and polls to support his proposition. In amongst all this, he made some remarks about the middle classes and the recent tendency he says he has identified among them to walk away from community responsibility. These remarks struck me as providing an interesting perspective on the story I told about my uncle yesterday and on the circumstances that may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower being badly maintained due to penny pinching.

Here is what the professor said:

"I'll just focus on the English working class - I think the English working class now is more or less where it has always been. I think what has walked is the English middle class, which has decided that it doesn't really want to be English. It has walked away from a shared identity with ordinary people. I think this is particularly pronounced in London, I'm afraid. I grew up in Sheffield. I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by Scots. Left, right and across the road, all Scots - and it never occurred to any of us that we were not the same identity. They were Scottish and I was English but we were all British, we'd just fought a war together. And because of that there was a strong willingness on the part of the fortunate to redistribute to the less fortunate - because there was a shared identity. And I think that that has gradually corroded.

Here is an uncomfortable piece of statistical evidence: across Europe, the higher the proportion of immigrants in the population, the lower the willingness of those above median income to make tax transfers below median income ... what that means is that people below median income, ordinary people, have a perfectly rational reason to fear that immigration will weaken the sense of shared bonds and that the middle class will just run off and go and do its own thing."

Reading this now, I see that it could be seen as completely racist. It certainly does seem to suggest  diversity is not the unadulterated good it is usually thought to be. Statistics, of course, are just statistics, and the experience of Australia seems to undermine the argument that a society cannot cohere if it is made up of many different migrants. Perhaps the situation is different in new world countries or perhaps the very closely managed - some would say cruelly and unkindly managed - approach to immigration in Australia has prevented a sense of cultural alienation. I don't know. I am though fascinated by the way Western society seems to be changing and becoming generally more turbulent and polarised and every time I read or hear a theory, I like to try to think about it with an open mind. And I recognise above all that, since the financial crisis and the absence of any punitive action against those who caused it, the social contract has been seriously damaged and nobody seems to address that.

1. I haven't read his work, but I have the impression that his arguments run roughly along those lines, although it is more than possible I've got the whole thing completely wrong.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

How to Be Rich

Since the Grenfell Tower inferno, I've been thinking a lot about my favourite uncle. This may seem odd, given that he was a wealthy landowner, a man whose father had been a brilliant stockbroker and also a brilliant art collector - the family owned a Pissarro, a Manet, a Sickert and various other marvellous paintings, all bought at a time when their creators were just starting out. The house these paintings were kept in was a sprawling Victorian mansion, set on a hill and surrounded by beautifully planted parkland. After the death of his older brother in the Second World War, all this had come to my uncle, making him a very rich man.

But as far as my uncle was concerned wealth brought with it responsibilities. He did not loll about in luxury, spurning the community in which he lived. Instead, he was involved in everything to do with his local village, serving in a variety of unpaid roles on committees, school boards and as a church warden. He was deeply concerned about the countryside and its preservation, particularly the disappearance of hedgerows. He provided houses for each of the people who worked for him. He threw parties that enlivened the social life of the area. He was generous and open and interested in the little world in which he lived.

So when he noticed in about 1980 that house prices in the village were rising enormously because people from London were buying houses there and commuting daily to the city, he didn't just shrug his shoulders and mutter something about market forces. Instead, he became worried about the children of the villagers who could no longer afford to live in what was their home.  "Something should be done", he thought - or rather, "I should do something". He turned the problem over in his mind and before long he came up with an idea. He went to the council and made a proposal. The council called a meeting at which the proposal was to be put.

It seemed such a good idea - not to mention generous. My uncle was offering to give to the village a large - and very valuable - field. It was in a perfect position, just across from the village post office. It would be an ideal place to build community housing so that the village's new generation would no longer be driven out by rising costs.

I was staying when the council meeting took place. My uncle had explained what was happening to me and he set off down the drive in an enthusiastic frame of mind. He was looking forward to discussing exactly what sorts of dwellings would be best suited to the setting and how many buildings it might be possible to provide.

An hour and a half later my uncle returned, a changed man. The meeting had been the best attended of any in the village's recent history. There was barely a person from among the village's new population who had not made the time to come along. But the reason for the high turn out was not enthusiasm for the project. In fact, my uncle's offer was rejected outright. The people who had gathered in the village hall that evening regarded it as an absolutely outrageous proposition and turned it down point blank. It would have been legitimate to want to know about the design of the buildings and to seek assurances that they would be in keeping with the rest of the village but the problem did not lie with details of that kind. It was the principle the newcomers baulked at. Community housing would bring down the value of their homes and there was no way in the world that they were going to be having that.

Perhaps the rot had set in earlier than that meeting. I do remember that, a year or so before, my uncle's junior gardener had married and my uncle had built a house for the couple, but instead of being pleased the gardener's new wife had regarded this as patronising, since the house was nowhere near as big as my uncle's own. I thought she was just a difficult woman, but she may have been a harbinger of a change in attitudes. The more likely explanation though, I think, was the shift from Macmillan's brand of Toryism to Thatcher's, in which the concept of the triple bottom line was swept away and replaced by the idea that the only important thing was the right of the individual to elbow their way ahead, with no thought for kindness or taking others into account.

It is unfashionable now to suggest that a system that includes the rich as anything other than hated rapacious monsters can ever be a good thing. However, I suspect that the cliche about the poor always being with us can as easily be refashioned to apply to the rich. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is an argument that would take far too long to go into; what I do believe though is that, while the rich remain among us, we need to recreate in them - and in all of us, to some extent - that instinctive sense of duty and responsibility to others that was, until the night of his rejection at the local village council meeting, a dominant part of my uncle's approach to life. If noblesse oblige was still a flourishing concept, I doubt that the disaster at Grenfell Tower - caused, we are led to believe, by lack of care and penny pinching on the part of a very rich council - would ever have happened. If a greater sense of care and responsibility for the people we live amongst can replace narrow self-interest as a central value in modern society we may help to prevent similar horrors from occurring in the future. Surely it's worth a try.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Australian Problems

I was in England last week and on three occasions found myself obliged to step into long grass - see pictures, (each of which I took as a delaying device and an attempt to steady my nerves before taking the plunge). While my UK companions waded in unflinchingly, without a trace of hesitation, I had to steel myself. Try as I might, I could not entirely suppress my fear that there would be snakes hidden somewhere within the lush growth. I wonder if anyone else from Australia has the same problem when far from home?

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Walking from Grantchester to Cambridge on the weekend, I saw a little boy with large, boxy spectacles, a pudding bowl haircut and a sweetly impish face. He was sitting on a bench, swinging his legs. There was a man beside him, smoking a cigarette and looking faintly uncomfortable.

As I drew near, the boy turned to the man.

"So why did you marry her?" he asked.

The man's eyes met mine for an instant and then he looked away.

"Because she was your mother," he said, eventually.

The boy looked thoughtful, maybe even puzzled. I didn't blame him. It wasn't much of an answer.

But, when you think about it, it wasn't an easy question, particularly if, as I suspect, the boy's father was no longer married to the boy's mother. "Because I loved her"?, "Because I thought I loved her"?

"Do you want an ice cream?" might have been the best answer, I reckon. But that speaks volumes about my cowardly approach to parenting.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Words and Music

There was a session devoted to my brother at the Sydney Writers' Festival the other day. The organisers asked if I'd be part of it; I couldn't but I sent this along:

"A few details you might like, to round the picture people have of Marko:

1. he noticed clothes (there are a couple of outfits I'm particularly fond of because he admired them - "I do like that jacket, sis"; "Oh that dress is lovely" - quite unusual in a man) but he also had some sweetly old-fashioned ideas about them. A senior ABC person gave an address to staff the other day & Marko told me he was very shocked she was only wearing a cardigan: "She should have worn a good suit"; he was staying with us in Vienna and on the day he was leaving he came downstairs in a smart jacket and tie. When my husband asked him what had made him dress so smartly, he explained that he would be crossing a border and he thought you should always dress smartly when crossing borders. He is probably right, but it seemed somehow endearing.

The other thing to note is that he was interested in all things cultural, not just so-called "high culture". While he might not go so far as my daughter's friend who, at the end of an English literature degree at Cambridge, said "Well that was all very interesting but I still haven't read anything I've enjoyed as much as the Harry Potter series", he did like Harry Potter and much else besides. An illustration of this was a rather ludicrous scene not long before he died where he insisted I look up the Wikipedia synopsis of the final episode of the current series of a BBC thriller series called Line of Duty and read it to him, as he wouldn't have time to watch the episode now. As nurses and doctors milled around checking drip lines and blood pressure and asking him to scale his pain etc, I read this complicated thing out to him, with my mother beside me, the pair of us interrupting the flow with questions - "What, so Roz is a baddy?", "Oh yes, a real baddy"; "So she tampered with the jumper?", "Yes, she smeared DNA on it".

Another illustration came from a young cousin writing to say how sorry he was to hear of Marko's death - "I remember very clearly Marko coming to the Old Rectory when I was 14 or 15 and being surprised how much interest he had in us and in the music we were into; he had an eclectic taste, which we shared and 20 years later I still have some of his music on my hard drive."

I have so many stories I could tell you. He was so loveable

Interestingly, I've just been talking to the mother of that young cousin and she tells me that he had given the bowdlerised version of his experience of Marko, who actually had a more profound influence on him than he had described. While talking to our young cousin about a piece of music they both enjoyed listening to, my brother said, "Those lyrics - have you listened closely to them? They are so brilliant", and with that small comment Mark made his younger relative realise that he had always been too stoned to even notice that there were any lyrics. Since that day, that whole extra dimension of the songs he listens to has been opened up for him.

A win for my bro and his love of language. He would have been very pleased to hear that extra bit of the story.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Once More with Flemish

in the interests of cultural equality, I present the Flemish approach to confirmation cards, which looks to be as daft as that of the French speaking population:

Totally off subject, would this be a good Christmas present for that person you can never think of a present for:

Or perhaps not?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Mixed Messages

In Europe, it is the season of the first communion. For card companies, this is one more opportunity to make a spot of dough. There are whole stands at the newsagent's devoted to first communion cards now. Whether they deliver the kind of message first communioners might be expecting, I really do not know:

My favourite - what has a googly eyed puppy in a pink ribbed cup got to do with initiation into the faith?

No idea what a light sabre has to do with Christianity

A snowman with a carrot for a nose welcomes you to the church family

Or a giraffe in a casquette

Congratulations, you are now super cool

The giraffe theme must have a significance that, as a non-Catholic, I don't know about - I'm sure giraffes were never mentioned in the bits of the Bible we were told about at Church of England school

I think this is the Disney version of Tinkerbell, in which case is the message, "Congrats on your first communion, but hey dude, do you actually believe in fairies?"

I suppose at least the idea of goodness and the idea of something beyond the earthly is being referred to here

Is this one intended for a boy or a girl - is it saying, "you're a hot chick now" or "you can now officially pull hot chicks"?
A cool dude, riding in the clouds
Now you can become a hot rod car driver? Or you'll receive an animated car as a free gift, along with eternal life?
Coming home late at night you see a lot of girls dressed like this by the side of the Bois de la Cambre end of Avenue Louise in Brussels, admittedly generally sans balloons
Noise cancelling headphones so you never ever have to listen to the priest droning on again?

This is the closest any of them get to spirituality, but even it is more sort of new-wave-hippy-whale-song in its drift than anything specifically to do with the Christian religion

I am mystified, but, as I believe religion's role is to acknowledge and bow down before mystery, perhaps that is exactly as it should be. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

What if I Don't Want To?

As I was leaving a shop this morning, a charity mugger yelled out that I'd dropped something . I glanced back, but could see nothing there.

"Your smile", he explained, sketching an upward curve in front of his face.

I stared at him, hoping to emulate Paddington Bear and one of his hard stares.

"Come on", the young man persisted, "why aren't you smiling?"

I have always hated this kind of hectoring nonsense, the cries of "Cheer up, it may never happen" that greet you if you appear in public looking less than ecstatic.

"Because my brother just died", I said.

The look on his face helped me understand at last what is meant by a silver lining. In fact, if I hadn't exercised great restraint, it might even have made me smile.

Saturday, 27 May 2017


In the aftermath of a death, all sorts of relatives and individuals who regard themselves as having had central roles in the life of the deceased emerge to stake their claims. After my experience of these kinds of interventions in the time since my brother's death, I am left with a question I have not yet found an answer for: can you battle a monster without becoming a monster yourself?

Friday, 26 May 2017

Lessons in Comprehension

I had forgotten these poems by Philip Hodgins. They are bleakly cheering. He was a great poet.

"You're moving fast and yet you're going nowhere."

Two months ago I didn't understand those words;  having spent the last weeks of my brother's life in the hospital with him, I do.

Ignorance is bliss.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Battery Factory Blessing

"Right", the husband said, "your radio needs a new battery. I think it's time we went to the Battery Factory again."

I could tell what he was hoping to do, but it was a risky strategy. He was hoping to cheer me up, and he was right - this outing might do the trick, but only if things at the Battery Factory had remained unchanged.  As it had been some years since we'd visited, that seemed unlikely.

But it was worth a try - and better than sitting at home moping. So I climbed into the car beside the husband and off we went to Fyshwick, the original and the best when it comes to Canberra's light industrial zones.

On the way, we passed the river flats where they cultivate lawn that can be laid ready-grown in bare new gardens. The person in charge thinks he has a sense of humour and regularly puts up signs that are punny rather than funny. His latest, I noticed, read thus: "Putin some seed today and very soon it will be coming up Trumps." This is the first topical one I've seen from him; although never what you'd call a fan, I think I liked it better before he decided to add in a side order of international politics.

The car turned off the river road and onto the Battery Factory street. I felt nervous. The husband parked. I suggested I might just stay in the car.

"Don't be ridiculous", the husband said. I got out and trudged up the bitumen slope to the glass-fronted showroom, the husband leading the way, radio under his arms.

Disappointment. We were greeted by two unfamiliar men. They told us the battery the radio needed was no longer available. But then, through the door that led into the showroom, I glimpsed the figure we had been hoping to see. It was Robert, the man who I think runs the Battery Factory, a man of such good temper and genuine helpfulness that it is worthwhile finding any possible reason to visit the Battery Factory just for the pleasure of doing business with him.

Unfortunately, Robert was busy. He was helping another customer. That customer would not want to let him go, I was certain - you never do want to end a conversation with Robert.  And we were supposed to be getting back to my mother; we hadn't got hours and hours to spend.

"Robert?" said one of the two who were convinced that there was nothing to be done for us or our radio, "Yeah, he might think of something, I guess. When he's finished, we could ask him."

We all stood around, watching the conversation in the showroom take its course. Then Robert farewelled his customer and came over to join us.

He looked very slightly older than last time I'd seen him, there was a little more grey in his hair, but he hadn't changed, not really - his face was as kind as ever, his expression as reassuring. "Now how can I help you?" he asked, and we felt that he genuinely wanted to know.

All four of us clustered round him with the radio, like kindergarten children clamouring for the attention of their favourite teacher. We interrupted each other, eager to explain about how the radio was an old one and we didn't think the battery that was designed for it was available any more.

Robert listened to us calmly and then took the radio and looked it over. He explained that his men were right, the battery we'd used for it was no longer available, but we didn't need to worry because, with a little bit of soldering, we could solve the problem and still have a radio that worked like new.

I was on the point of telling Robert that it didn't really matter whether the radio ever worked again - the point of our outing had merely been to benefit from his presence. Luckily, my telephone rang and I went outside before I went too far.

I didn't see Robert again after that, but that didn't matter. He was there and I'd seen him and he'd restored my belief that people can be good and kind and nice, (something that had faltered considerably after the death of my brother, due to various encounters surrounding funeral arrangements et cetera that I will not go into here).

As I wound up my telephone conversation, the husband appeared with my radio. Apparently, Robert had got out a soldering iron, found a bit of suitable wire and a new battery connection and converted the radio to a new type of battery, without any thought of being paid.

All of which is by way of saying that, if you live in Canberra and you feel in need of your spirits being raised, pop out to the Battery Factory in Fyshwick and talk to Robert. It is always a trip worth taking. And if you are part of Robert's family, you are very lucky indeed.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Vrij Lopen

To cheer me up, my husband is making me breakfast. I thought he was making toast but then I saw that he was eating a slice of bread and butter and vegemite. I asked if the toaster wasn't working and he explained that it was fine but that, while waiting for it to do its job, he thought he'd indulge in a bit of nostalgia. It turns out he got vegemite sandwiches in his lunchbox every single school day of his youth.

"There was a chap who'd come back from Europe", he tells me, "I don't know if his family was with Foreign Affairs, or what they were, but I remember envying him and admiring his family's sophistication because he sometimes got triangles of Vache Qui Rit as well."

How things have changed. I remember a childcare worker confiding that the contents of the lunch boxes I prepared were some of the healthiest she'd ever seen. I had an idea such things were being scrutinised and my impression was that my children would be treated with more respect if the authorities approved of what I gave them. The fact that there was nothing at all among the provisions I supplied that they actually wanted to eat was completely beside the point.

Oh dear, now the vegemite sandwich boy has started criticising my shopping choices. What he objects to is this picture on the box of free range eggs I bought:

He says I should have explained I wanted eggs from free range chickens.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

My Brother, My Friend

On 11 May, my brother died. Although I do not normally make speeches, I felt I owed it to him - and to my mother - to pay tribute to him at his funeral a couple of days ago. Since then, some people have asked for a copy of what I said, and so I am putting the text here for those who want it. If you don't feel like reading such a long thing, the gist is that I loved my brother enormously and will always miss him. He was a wonderfully generous brother and human being and, by great good fortune, he met a woman called Mary Ellen Field who matched his generosity with an abundance of her own.

"I'd like to start by apologising. This will not be a very good eulogy, when compared to our family's usual standards. The problem is that up until now Mark Colvin has been our eulogiser-in-chief, and he set a very high bar. For both our father and our stepfather, he did the job brilliantly, evoking each of them with a vividness that almost made you believe they were still among us. How nice it would be if I could do the same for him.

For those who don't know, by the way, I am Mark Colvin's sister. This does mean that, on the subject of Mark Colvin, I can at least claim to be that much derided thing, an expert. My mother would be the greatest expert on him here today - or indeed anywhere on the planet. My cousins, Jamie and Belinda, who, to our great joy, have flown out from England to be with us to farewell Mark, were both born before me, so they might be able to argue that they also have the edge. However, despite missing out on his first four years, as the next sister in line to him, I reckon I did have quite a lot of experience of Mark Colvin - although possibly not the Mark Colvin who has been celebrated in the media since his death.

Yes, I am his sister. And apparently there is a thing called sibling rivalry. Well I wouldn't know. It is said, I admit, that Marko expressed initial disappointment that I wasn't a boy – the story goes that while being read a Christmas story the evening after my birth, (I was born near Christmas) he piped up each time the male pronoun was used, saying, “Him, not her - they laid him in a manger”, “He, not she – he was wrapped in swaddling clothes” etc (I mentioned this to someone in Marko's hospital room the other day and Marko smiled gently, commenting, “Ah, family stories, aren't they always the best')?  In any case, if there was any truth to the story, the whole thing took place before I was aware of anything much, and by the time I was noticing stuff, Marko seems to have decided that we were going to be friends forever. We have been ever since.

Our relationship consisted almost exclusively of laughing together, sharing stupid jokes, a love of Molesworth, EL Wisty, Shelley Berman, New Yorker cartoons, deriving amusement from the tormenting of parents and grandparents – in this regard, there was one recurrent idiocy that we shared with our cousins Jamie and Belinda, with whom we spent such a lot of time as children. It involved insisting to our grandmother that the man who took the parking fees in the car park at Winchester - a sensationally unattractive person who always wore a very grubby raincoat and was therefore known to us as “the mackintosh man” - was desperately in love with her; this for some reason was something that totally maddened granny, which of course gave us all great joy. 

However, our absolute all time favourite torment routine, something we never really abandoned even in adulthood, was teasing our mother with a rendition of a Fairy Liquid advertisement ubiquitous in our childhoods; “Mummy”, one of us would say, in a sickly voice, “Mummy”, the other would chime in, repeating this tag team repetition, until finally our mother could stand it no more and would reply, reluctantly, often impatiently, presumably having resigned herself to the fact that we were never going to give up. “Yes?” she would say, and after a lot of giggling, we would ask her, “Mummy why are your hands so soft”, breaking immediately afterwards into a saccharine rendition of one of the most saccharine jingles ever penned, which I will spare you. 

We also made up routines for long car journeys, dialogues between characters we invented randomly. For some reason, the pair we reverted to most frequently were Nigel and Daphne, a couple of what would now be called Sloanes who loved nothing better than discussing their social calendars. I have no idea why we found this so amusing but it passed the time extremely well. “Nigel, are you going to Lady Northumberland's ball next week?” “Daphne, I'd love to, but I'm going to the Hambledon Hunt Hunt Ball that evening and I simply can't get out of it.” 

I realise as I remember these things that one of the worst aspects of losing my brother is not being able to have the opportunity to make him laugh again. How I would love to tell him about Mary Ellen Field having received not one but two letters of condolence following his death - charming, kind, beautifully written letters, both of them from convicted phone hackers serving time in one or other of Her Majesty's jails. He would have laughed and laughed at that, as he would if he'd heard about how one of his closest friends told herself she must pull herself together and get out of the house the day after his death. She had barely gone through the gate when the local real estate agent greeted her, unleashing a downpour of tears, most of which landed on the unsuspecting woman's shoulder.  “A real estate agent, of all people,” his friend said afterwards. Yes, Mark would have found the idea of blubbing on a real estate agent wonderfully absurd. 

But actually there was more to our relationship than laughter – there was also huge generosity, although I'm ashamed to say it was always from him to me. After a brief hiccup when he was so battered by his experience at prep school that his affection for me was replaced almost exclusively by the response “Stick a beetroot in your cakehole” if I ever attempted to speak to him, I was amazed one morning as we were walking down Victoria Street in London, near Westminster School, the place that restored him after his five horrible years at Summerfields. All of a sudden, Mark vanished, and before I could work out where he'd gone he reappeared, emerging from a sweet-shop doorway. He handed me a small white paper bag containing a quarter of sherbet lemons. He'd decided he'd give me a present, just out of the blue, for no reason, simply because he felt like doing it. 

There were many other similar occasions, but another that especially stays with me was an afternoon when he returned to our house at 68 Limerston Street and handed me a brand new book. It was the first ever Paddington Bear novel, when Peggy Fortnum was his illustrator. “I thought this looked as if it might be something you'd like", he told me. It was astonishingly thoughtful and perfectly chosen. I am still grateful for the hours of pleasure he gave me with that unprovoked gesture, as I went on to read and enjoy every one of those early Paddington books. 

Marko's generosity continued beyond our childhood - and so did my disgraceful bludging. It is astonishing to remember but there was a time when Sydney had not yet become a place full of hipster cafes, and if you wanted brunch on Saturday you had the choice of a milk bar or fending for yourself. This was the early seventies. I was 17 or 18, working as a motorbike courier, Marko was living in Coogee and I think possibly already at Double Jay or possibly still a cadet. Anyway, on the first morning of each weekend he used to buy a steak and a tin of mushrooms and cook the steak and then add the mushrooms to the pan. By some coincidence, I would usually drop in at around the same time and rather wearily he would share what he had intended to be a meal for one. 

Three or four years later, in London, when he was working at the ABC bureau there and I was being paid almost nothing to work for various now defunct magazines, I would sometimes go up to see him at the office they had in Portland Place.  He and I and basically everyone else in the rest of the office would head out to a restaurant run by a young Greek Cypriot. Lunch would go on for hours and usually end with complementary Metaxas all round. Much food was eaten, much rubbish was spoken and there was a nice sense of Australian good cheer. 

On those occasions, as I remember it – and admittedly the Metaxas were not brilliant for one's memory - Mark always shouted me, and always refused to accept repayment. In the same period, I let slip that I needed carpet but couldn't afford it. To my astonishment – when you don't have much money, it is always astounding to learn that anyone else has any to spare -  Marko immediately told me not to be ridiculous and gave me 250 quid.

If I wanted to self justify of course I could point out that money was not something my brother cared about. In fact I have rarely met anyone so little interested in material wealth as Mark. If you want proof of how little stuff mattered to him, you only have to look at his arrival to live permanently in Australia. Somehow- and even this I cannot quite credit, but perhaps my stepmother or some other relative did it for him – he managed to organise himself enough to get his belongings, including a rather lovely desk that had belonged to his grandfather,  packed up professionally and shipped over to Sydney. After that, however, his attention drifted. Despite nagging from his parents and various other members of the family – or perhaps because of the nagging: after all I do remember my mother having a conversation with him after he'd had a motorbike accident wherein she said, 'Well I hope you will give up riding the motorbike now”, to which he replied, 'Well I was going to until you said that” -  he never, ever managed to pick the things up from the wharf; really and truly never; in the end they were seized and used toward payment of the wharf fees he'd accrued.  I genuinely don't think he cared at all about that happening. 

But it wasn't only with money that Marko was generous; he was equally generous with those more precious commodities, his time and his knowledge. My cousin Belinda often tells the story of how, just before his finals at Oxford, she was bemoaning to him her lack of education. Despite the fact that he had so much else on his mind, Marko still found time to draw up a reading list for Belinda – she has said ever since that what he did for her that day was actually supply her with the education school never had. My daughter Lucy talks about his patience with young people. When you were with him, she says, there was never a sense that he was looking over his shoulder wishing for someone more interesting. Many people at the ABC have told me that he was extremely unusual in his openness, helpfulness, generosity and lack of any guarded competitiveness. I think actually that had he not been a journalist, he would have made a great teacher and certainly he told Mary Ellen Field that one of the things he loved best about her gift of an extra four years of life was the opportunity it gave him to mentor younger colleagues. And, since we are mentioning her, I would just like to highlight her gift and point out that she was the one and only person who matched my brother's generosity with an abundance of her own.

Marko's generosity, his total lack of hesitation about sharing what he had, was something I still admire greatly, not just because I benefited from it. It is a quality encountered very rarely and it was just a small part of a larger element in Marko's character – a trait that never left him and would be unexpected in anyone but particularly in a man of Marko's profession. It was innocence, or at least a kind of innocence - an unshakeable expectation of decency, of fair play, of loyalty in others, a tendency not to suspect low motives. As I say, this quality never completely left him and it was a great part of his charm and loveableness. However, it did make him very vulnerable to hurt.

Perhaps the best illustration of this gentle unworldliness is the story my mother tells about the first children's party she took Marko to. Marko was not a shy child. He went into the party perfectly happily, and before long my mother saw a small girl approach him. They seemed to get on, although the girl, to mum's way of thinking, looked like she was coming on a bit strong. All the same they appeared happy. Mum took her eye off proceedings. The next thing she knew, Marko was hurtling towards her, an expression of complete shock on his face. He looked at mum and then back at the girl, who had remained where he'd left her on the other side of the room. 

“That girl bit me,” he told my mother. He was clearly horrified. Before she could think what she was saying, my mother added to his horror by saying “Well, darling, go and bite her back”. 

Needless to say, Mark didn't. He was never aggressive or violent. However, he could be disappointed – and woe betide the person who disappointed him and thought they could still retain his friendship. If Marko put his trust in you or gave you his friendship and you betrayed it, perhaps because he himself was so loyal and such a good friend, he found it well nigh impossible to forgive the hurt he felt as a result. Mind you when that happened, when he did give up on someone, he didn't resort to histrionics. He didn't shout or scream or throw things. In fact, the only sign that he could no longer stand the sight of you was a dawning sense of being locked out from his affection, an intimidating withdrawal of his attention and interest. 

But even then, I was so glad to discover last week, things weren't completely irredeemable, provided you were truly sorry for the hurt you'd caused. After years of wounded silence from Marko, one of our closest relatives apologised unreservedly for something that Marko thought he'd said to him. "I love you" was Marko's immediate reply. Our relative flew over from London and they were together when Marko died.

But enough of this cloying stuff. It is also important to remember that Marko was hugely interesting company. That is why, as well as the laughs and the steak and tinned mushrooms, I will miss so much the endlessly varied conversations we had. During one of our very last, he said to me, “You and I always had so much in common” and that is true. However, once again I was the beneficiary, as Marko's brain was so enormous and so stocked with knowledge, whereas, except on very rare occasions, I was merely the interested looker on.  On any topic worth discussing he had such a rich reserve of information and reference stored away inside his head. In the last two or three days of his life alone, despite his being very, very ill, we managed to have some great discussions about among other things Taming of the Shrew and whether it is actually a sexist work - we agreed that it isn't, that it is actually all about love; Les Murray's poetry, most particularly Dog Fox Field; the rich language of observed nature that emerges again and again in Shakespeare's writing, (complete with quotations straight from memory – by Marko, naturally, not me); Memling, Van Eyk and the so-called Northern Primitives and how the only reason we tend to hear more of Michelangelo and da Vinci is that Vasari's writings pushed them to the fore; and Thomas Hardy, who my brother to the very end refused to agree contains traces of humour. 

And speaking of humour, I did manage to get one last chuckle out of him. It was very late in the piece, when he was well aware that death was not far away. If I had any doubt about that I would not have mentioned the plans being made to mark his passing. However, he knew and I knew, and so I told him I'd heard that the ABC had a strategy in place for the day of his death that was equal to that devised by the British government in the event of the death of the Queen Mother. He looked - unsurprisingly, given his utter modesty about his own significance - astonished and also gratified, in a I-must-stifle-any-tiny-scrap-of-incipient-vanity kind of way. To help in this regard, I told him that I was going to nip out immediately and look for a suitably flowery hat for him to wear from now on. He laughed, relieved that he had been rescued from the dangers of a plunge into full blown self-importance.

That was so typical. My brother was never a seeker of limelight, never a big noter. When filming, he abhorred noddies and appeared as little as humanly possible in the footage he shot. He must have known at some level that he was much loved by many, but it never made him self-important. While, like anyone he would have been gratified by the tributes that have been paid to him since his death, he would have been amazed as well. I doubt that he would have thought he deserved them. 

Speaking of tributes, I was looking through Mark's papers the other day and found something he'd written for the family of  Bahram William Dehqani-Tafti, his interpreter in Iran. Bahram was assassinated on 6 May, 1980. His death horrified Marko. His tribute to Bahram reads as follows:

"You get to know people faster in a war zone: during the three days he spent with us in Kurdistan, Bahram revealed many of his qualities: he was courageous, extremely level-headed, and at the same time sensitive to the people surrounding him. He had an enquiring mind without being inquisitive; but one of the things which struck me most forcibly was his ability to look at a problem from all directions.”

Mum felt that those words could just as well have been written about Marko himself. 

In the instant after my brother died. out of nowhere a memory from our childhood leapt into my head. It was from the very early 1960s, we were in Victoria, in a car driving along a remote and empty road. Marko and I were in the back, playing up as usual. Eventually my parents ran out of patience. They stopped the car. "If you don't behave" they told us, "we will put you out on the side of the road and leave you". 

My brother immediately grabbed the door handle, opened the door and leapt out. He began walking. I didn't see my parents' faces because I was so shocked myself. What would happen to him? Would we ever see him again? He was striding away ahead of us. He had called our parents' bluff.

My father started the car again and drove after Marko. Then ensued a ridiculous reversal of roles whereby my parents were reduced to creeping along in first gear beside their son's walking figure, begging him to get back into the car.

It was an odd thing to think of at that moment but I like to believe it was a metaphor. Marko has leapt out of the car we're all travelling in, he has shown us that what we think we are afraid of is not actually anything to be frightened of. He is striding off down the road."

Saturday, 8 April 2017

I Read That - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

On a radio programme I listened to recently about the old days of BBC comedy, a contributor mentioned that, after listening to something he'd produced, David Hatch, controller of comedy, called him into his office and said, angrily: "You used the word 'urine' on that programme we broadcast yesterday. Never be so vulgar again - I do not want urine coming out of my radio."

Oh David Hatch please come back and rescue us.  When it comes to vulgarity, things are getting worse and worse.

Take To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an example. This novel is in many ways intriguing and enjoyable. It is told in the first person by a neurotic dentist (his father killed himself, leading to his repetitive desire to join other people's families - usually those of his girlfriends). At the start of the book, he discovers that his name is being used on the Internet by someone who is proselytising for a lost tribe called the Amalekites, who worship a God who appeared to them in order to tell them that they must never believe in him unconditionally and their main duty was to doubt, (their major religious holiday is The Feast of the Paradox):

"And Safek gathered us anew, and we sojourned with him in the land of Israel. And we had no city to give us name; neither had we king to appoint us captains, to make of us instruments of war; neither had we laws to follow, save one. Behold, make thine heart hallowed by doubt; for God, if God, only God may know. And we followed Safek, and were not consumed."

This Amalek doctrine that Ferris has dreamed up is very diverting and there are many other entertaining and thought-provoking aspects to the book, including a great set piece about people who rub hand cream into their hands regularly, reflections on the Internet and our constant attention to it, via what he cleverly terms our "me-machines", (plus of course our inability to control this thing that we have created as demonstrated by the way in which his identity is taken and used), and a wonderfully written section about the difficulty of getting absorbed in work but the pleasure, if you persist through the phase of being distracted, in becoming absorbed.

My problem, however, is one I am encountering more and more - the book is too vulgar. For the same reason, I've just had to return to Audible their recording of The Girl Before by JP Delaney, which I'd imagined might be a diverting lightweight thriller for the driving I'm doing a lot of at the moment, but which turned out to be basically pornography, in which the author seems to assume women like very, very bossy, utterly humourless men, (wrong - most women like funny, kind men above all else; kindness on its own is no good but kind and funny is the Holy Grail). Before that I picked a detective novel by Rennie Airth, set in the 1920s. It turned out to be riddled with "she took his member in her hand and stroked the tender skin, backwards and forw..." (you get the picture) gratuitous scenes.

Thus, with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the narrator feels the need to tell us that he masturbated in a cupboard, even though it really doesn't further any aspect of the plot or build his character to new heights of believability. Worse still, he insists on describing the way he feels when he truly falls in love as being "cunt gripped". Sadly, he does not fall in love - or as he prefers to say become "cunt gripped" - just once. It happens a lot and the phrase pops up (stop sniggering at the back) again and again and again.

You can call me Mrs Bowdler, but I don't care - just keep urine from coming out of my radio and remove the word "cunt" from the pages of my books (oh yes, and lay off the masturbation and the details of who is touching which sexual organs and whether any of those organs might be getting hard, firm or moist). If someone can give me an argument that justifies their inclusion on the grounds of an improved artwork, I'll be amazed. Meanwhile, I'm driving up to Sydney with Thomas Hardy and Far From the Madding Crowd for company. Thus far, it has been funnier than I'd expected and tremendously vivid, without the mention of a single drop of urine or any other bodily fluid. Strong emotions are felt, some of a sexual nature, but the reader is not asked to create a sequence of explicit images in their head. Why has that approach been put aside by publishers or writers? Do most people enjoy the things I loathe? Answers welcome, preferably in a plain brown envelope.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Character Test

Many people think that being good means helping the poor, the sick, the infirm. These are all worthy things to do but, in my experience, the true test of goodness is how long you can tolerate a person who bores you. Maybe I am alone in this but, when trapped in the company of someone who exercises no editorial control on the tide of inconsequential reminiscence they let loose each time they speak, I find it hard to behave nicely. My thoughts turn to escape plans and, while I try to ensure that I do not bruise my wordy companion's feelings, my abrupt departure and my fairly unlikely excuses probably do not fill them with confidence or joy.

And then there are meetings. And speeches. Lord, speeches, how I hate them.

If I am not alone in my inability to endure boredom, there may be an opportunity for a technical minded person - if someone could invent an absolutely minute device that could be hidden inside the ear and could broadcast interesting podcasts and comedy programmes to the wearer, I think there might be a large market waiting. Imagine the joy of sitting through a team meeting or a distant relative's monologue, nodding and smiling, calm, unstressed, all the time secretly entertained by a tiny voice that nobody else can hear.

While on the subject of improvements to modern life, why don't we bury sll those ugly industrial areas that surround most cities - those long stretches of warehouses and panelbeaters and even shopping malls and so forth? Most of them appear to be more or less windowless, so why not build them underground?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Just Read - Stephen King, On Writing

Having watched me grapple for several years with a non-fiction project that may turn out to get the better of me, a member of my family decided I needed some help. So for Christmas she bought me On Writing by Stephen King.

I imagine that all of Stephen King's work is easy to read and that this is one of the secrets of his success.  Certainly this book is. It is clear and sensible. It doesn't flash across the firmament but it is interesting, (although the parts about King's personal life interested me less than they might interest readers who are King fans; on the other hand, I was very impressed by his devotion to his wife).

Nothing he says about writing is particularly new but these are the points that struck me as more worth remembering than most:

"You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself."

"The scariest moment is just before you start."

"You should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day."

King himself aims for two thousand words a day and he confesses that:

"On some days those ten pages come easily; I'm up and out doing errands by eleven thirty in the morning ... More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day's work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I'm still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2000 words."

He explains that:

"Once I start work on a project, I don't stop - and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind - they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale's narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best - always, always, always - when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer."

He also quotes advice he received form a mentor called John Gould:

"When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."

To this King adds, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open".

My absolute favourite bit of the book is the one that reminds the reader that, when a writer is alone at their desk with the door closed, they can do whatever they like, they can be as boring or as strange as they please and they have absolutely nothing to lose, (except some time, I suppose):

"I don't believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it's reasonably reader-friendly ... And now that I've waved that caution flag ... let me reiterate that it's all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn't that an intoxicating thought? Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."

Okay, so now I must get back to the octopus - I mean non-fiction project.

I may be some time.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Small Pleasures

In free commuter papers there are often columns where members of the public can submit their declarations of love for strangers they have glimpsed during their daily rush to or from work. Awww. Sweet.

Not really, when you think about it. More just a way to fill inches of newsprint at almost no cost.

Or, as it turns out, a way for someone fantastically bored by their work to make life very slightly more fun.

That was what one of these columns became for an Irishman who calls himself Shocko. He admitted his disgraceful behaviour on Twitter recently, (coming clean only three years after the event, which I suppose is better late than never).

Here is the entry he claims as his first entirely fictional but accepted entry in the Metro newspaper in London:

"Girl in Bring Back Hanging T-Shirt" - how on earth did they fall for it?
More followed:

Having succeeded with "Bearded man who used discarded burger cartons as castanets" as a name tag, (not to mention, "Shy guy with shin pads, a hurdle and 200+ tennis balls" [that hurdle is a stroke of genius]), your man decided to branch out into the good deeds column, (where more inches are filled for free, with accounts of good deeds supposedly witnessed on London streets):

As our hero observes, the good deeds section gave him the opportunity to conjure up some scenes so charming I'm sorry they didn't actually occur:

Finally, the great day dawned when Shocko managed to get items published in the good deeds column and the commuter crush one - two items on one day, hurray:

But this, it turned out, was the zenith. After that, although few more submissions slipped through, his glory days were behind him:

Rejections came thicker and faster; perhaps they had twigged somehow - Shocko speculates they'd noticed these things turned up always from the same IP address:

There was one final twist in the tale, when an unknown person managed to get a crush item published that concerned Shocko himself - the inventor of good deeds and crushes became the object of someone else's game. After considerable effort Shocko managed to discover who was responsible for turning the tables, but for that story you will need to go over to Twitter and look at the tweets of @shockproofbeats for mid December last year. If you do, you will also learn of his subsequent adventures with Nutella, which led to his being featured in no less a publication than the Daily Mail, (yes, wow).

But before you do speed across to Twitter, I'd like to point out the moral of the story (a recurring one on this blog), which is that Twitter doesn't have to be a cesspit; it can instead be a place of light-hearted frivolity. If only someone clever would come up with a way to let that cheerful part of Twitter - the idiotic fooling around bit - completely slice itself off from the "I Hate Trump", 'I'm Real Donald Trump", 'Well I Really Hate You", "Well I'm Going to Build a Wall", "Yeah, Well I Hate You Anyway" end of things, Twitter would become a force for almost unadulterated good.  But I suppose it won't happen - as in every other area of life I imagine that on Twitter somehow there is no separating the delightful from the dross.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Mysteries - an Occasional Series

I bought a clear shockproof protector for my telephone screen today. I'd already had the screen replaced once, and I know so many people who walk about with telephones that have cracked screens that it seemed a good idea, especially for someone who is as inclined to trip over and drop things as I am.

Afterwards, as I was sticking the thing onto my telephone, it did occur to me that it might be more convenient, if less lucrative for the telephone manufacturer, if they simply made the screens shockproof to begin with.

Is the fact that they don't really a mystery though? It depends how cynical you are, I suppose.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Battered Penguin - Time After Time by Molly Keane

Yes, all right, it isn't a Penguin but it is a paperback and, better still, it is awfully good. The story concerns four ageing brothers and sisters who live in a large, decaying house in Ireland in the mid to late 20th century. As we are informed early on:

"Money was the hopeless problem".

Each of the four is imagined with great accuracy and Molly Keane takes pains to portray the fading splendour in which they live - with emphasis on the fading: "the old breath of human dinners and dogs' dinners, chickens' and pigs' dinners too, combined with cats' earths and dogs' favourite urinals, all clung to the air like grey hairs in a comb" - and the ways in which each manages to find interest in their quiet forgotten lives. While one makes "tweed pictures", (something I've never heard of before but which sounds quite awful), another is devoted to preserving the shreds of her beauty, a third to producing food from the estate and being involved with horses, while Jasper, the oldest, takes pleasure in cooking in the quite revoltingly dirty kitchen and in being in the place where he grew up:

"On his way back to the kitchen Jasper stopped for a minute on the turn of the staircase where, from the high, floor-length window, he saw a swan rise through the ribbons of mist lying along the river. There is ecstasy in a swan's flying: in the neck leaning lasciviously on the air, the body stretched behind the shouting wings. He watched while his swan took her short flight and dropped back through the mists to the water, her landing lost to his sight. It was as much as Jasper asked of ny emotional moment: to be and to cease. He was never one for squandering emotion. He had saved and pinched and scraped on it in so many directions that, finally, there was very little left to squander."

What a beautiful description and how brilliant that Keane manages to widen our understanding of Jasper through painting this scene.

There are one or two secondary characters, notably the frightful Lady Alys who exercises that particular kind of polite cruelty that the British upper classes seem to love so much:

"She had soft, well-taught manners, through which she was as quick to destroy as to please."

When May, one of the sisters, has the opportunity to take revenge on Lady Alys by smashing a piece of Meissen, she doesn't for "small beautiful objects were, to May, far more important than the breakage of her own self-respect and confidence." A fascinating insight into her personality and an interesting approach to life.

Having set the scene and conjured up the characters brilliantly, a dangerous visitor from the past is introduced into the story, but not before the reader has grown fond of the characters already there, `9in the way one might be fond of family members; that is, while recognising their myriad faults).


It appears that all are now plunging towards doom and disaster but, delightfully, things, while not suddenly turning out brilliant, do not end up as badly as one might expect. I appreciated this as much as I did the superb observational skill of the writer and the extraordinarily vivid way in which she created the world of her novel.

A really excellent book about a group of people who could easily be overlooked and considered boring but who turn out to be fascinating and entirely human. I loved it.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

I Heard That - Arcadia by Lauren Groff

While some might argue that Arcadia is a bit lush and really quite sentimental, (as a lover of Charles Dickens, I'm obviously more than prepared to overlook sentimentality), those criticisms should not overshadow the gifts Lauren Groff displays in this book.  Her story concerns Bit, the first child born in a commune called Arcadia, which is set up in the 1970s by a group of idealistic young Americans, headed by a guru figure who, like most guru figures, turns out to be a careless egoist.

Groff traces Bit's story from childhood to middle age and in the process conjures up a huge cast of characters in a landscape that comes to life vividly in the reader/listener's mind. It becomes clear that, although most of the commune's founders act from the best of intentions, motivated by idealism and goodwill, good intentions are not enough and parents, however well-intentioned, may harm their children through their own idealism. All the same, Groff's tale does not set out to moralise but simply recounts the events as they happen. It is I suppose fiction as a slice of life.

Eventually, the commune collapses and many of Bit's contemporaries spin out into the wider world in various states of damage. Bit too must make his way beyond the confines of the landscape where he has grown up and his existence thereafter is defined to some extent by a yearning for that earlier way of life.

People come and go, some age and die, others vanish, a new generation is born. Nothing astonishing happens and yet the novel is never boring. It is the engrossing depth of Groff's imagined world - in particular, the rich variety of characters she has invented - that holds the attention. It is a mark of her achievement that I find myself missing the company of the people her novel introduced me to, now that I have finished the book

Friday, 24 February 2017

Petrified Pussycat Blues

My new internet pastime is looking at antique auctions, which a site called Invaluable brings me from all over the world. I restrict myself to sales in Europe but even with that geographical limitation I  am overwhelmed with choice. There are not enough hours in the day for me to manage to scroll through all the catalogues available, let alone keep track of the rare gems I most want to bid on. Which is why the sale date for these two gems entirely slipped my memory. Presumably some other lucky customer bore them away as spoils:

Astonishingly, if you look closely, you will see that, even before the sale started, the cat had four bids and a price of £150 (English pounds at that)!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Much to Forgive

Having belatedly realised that Evelyn Waugh is a great writer, I am reading his diaries edited by Michael Davie. Unfortunately, Mr Davie has done a rather eccentric job, sometimes providing no footnote to identify a figure who appears again and again over months, years or even decades, sometimes providing detailed notes for people who only pop up once, in passing.

I have no criticism of  the notes themselves, which are usually v amusing, e.g this one, identifying  an unnamed fellow guest at a dinner Waugh goes to:

"Captain Hyde-Upward; it was his custom to polish and clean out his pipe while standing naked at his bedroom window."

Anyway, in hunting about in the index for information about those who are left unfootnoted, I discovered that Evelyn's older brother, Alec Waugh, invented, in April, 1924, the cocktail party, to fill the gap in London social life between 5.30 and 7.00.

Shame on him, I say, while simultaneously wondering how diplomats managed before that.