Monday, 23 May 2016

The Great and the Good

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Trust No One

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 May 2016

Not to Be Missed

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

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

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

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

The Frenchman furrows his brow and sucks his teeth.

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

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

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

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Muffled Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What's the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Cheering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No Dyssing

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Virtuous Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Battered Penguins - V by Thomas Pynchon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Unfair

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 April 2016

Please Beleaf Me

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mud Larks

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cultural Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to me with a delighted smile.

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Too Fluid

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

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

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

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

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

I Heard That - London Fields by Martin Amis

Phew.

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

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

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

Sadly, things didn't work out that way.

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

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

Because, you see, for me nothing did.

Really, I mean it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Battered Penguins - The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes




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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 4 April 2016

Now That We Need Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 April 2016

With All Your Might

This week I read in the paper about a minor celebrity who had died. As usual, we were told that this had happened after a long "battle" against some hateful disease.

The regular use of fighting words in the context of death after a long illness always makes me uncomfortable. It implies that it is dishonourable to feel weak and tired when you are ill. You should be raising banners and actively wielding cudgels, it suggests, at a time when you are at your most feeble.

I prefer the phrase I saw used about someone in the Telegraph obituary column a couple of weeks ago. The person in question, we were informed, had died:

"... after a long illness, bravely borne."


Saturday, 2 April 2016

Not That Again

I went to see Son of Saul the other day. Some people express the view that enough is enough and the whole subject of the Holocaust has been dealt with plenty of times already and it is extremely tiresome that there are those who continue to bang on about it. For me, on the contrary, it seems that the more I learn about it the more I feel the need to find out. I suppose what I really want to find out is how European civilisation came to a point where such things could be contemplated - and not merely contemplated but carried out enthusiastically!

How did anyone even think up the idea of annihilating a race? And then what gave them the temerity to think that it would be all right to suggest such a thing out loud? And finally what drove many to agree and to participate with gusto in the appalling process?

And within the big questions are the smaller ones: were those who drew up plans for the machinery of killing - the Schreibtischmörderer, as Theodor Adorno apparently called them - morally better or worse than those who operated that machinery; were the Jews who were chosen by the Germans to work in the concentration camp zonder commandoes, plundering the clothes of the dead, removing their gold fillings et cetera, victims or culpable? On this second question, I agree with Joshua Cohen who, in a fascinating review of The Wall by HG Adler, (from which I also gleaned that Adorno term) in the London Review of Books, 3 March. 2016, writes:

"... being forced to participate in another's death while waiting for your own was victimisation at its most perverse."

In his review Cohen also details an incident at Theresienstadt that I knew nothing about before - or at least had completely forgotten about (it is largely drawn from WG Sebald's Austerlitz, which I did read a long time ago, but have clearly since forgotten) :

"In the summer of 1944, with Denmark protesting against the deportation of its Jews to Theresienstadt, Germany capitulated to diplomatic pressure and allowed the International Red Cross to visit the camp to prove that no exterminations were being carried out on site. The Reich Security Main Office, sniffing a PR opportunity, ordered the Gestapo to implement Operation Beautification (Verschönerungsaktion) which would transform the camp temporarily into a picture-postcard hamlet.


Sebald describes it accurately in Austerlitz, because he relied on Adler’s account. ‘It was decided,’ Sebald writes, ‘to organise the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up programme: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over one thousand rosebushes were planted.’ Food rations were increased; new clothes – not just uniforms – were sewn. Conditions in the barracks improved, especially after seven thousand prisoners were dispatched to Auschwitz a month before the inspectors’ arrival. Dr Paul Eppstein, president of the Judenrat, was appointed mayor for the day, and tasked with leading the Red Cross contingent on a tour; Brundibár, a subversive children’s opera whose villain resembled Hitler, was performed; a football game was played, and there was a show trial in which Jewish lawyers, judges and jurors tried another inmate for ‘theft’. The Red Cross report, made public only in 1992, might as well have been ghostwritten by the Reich: ‘The SS police gives the Jews the freedom to organise their administration as they see fit.’ A later propaganda film presented the camp as a spa town for the Jewish elite, which explains Adler’s name for it in The Journey: Ruhenthal means ‘Valley of Rest’. The novel depicts it as a sanatorium with an identity problem: sometimes the Jews are the patients and the Nazis are the benevolent physicians pursuing their ‘cure’; at other times the Nazis are ‘the diseased’, armed lunatics bent on eradicating their Jewish caretakers."
From what I can tell from the Cohen review, Adorno and Adler were at odds over the usefulness of portraying the Holocaust in fictional or poetic form. It seems to me that any means that communicates to large numbers of people both the reality and the horror of the events in the various German concentration camps cannot be criticised. It is important that we never again become complacent about our own capacity for brutality. In this context, I recommend Son of Saul - it is not at all enjoyable but it is powerfully instructive and moving.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Ways of Remembering

On my way to New Bond Street the other day, I couldn't resist wading through the traffic to have a look at Hyde Park Corner and the various memorials that stand there. Each time I do this, I wonder if it is really beyond the wit of transport planners to redirect the cars and trucks that form an almost constant cordon round the Corner's little island of grass. If they shoved the whole lot underground, the place would become properly accessible to people, while also giving the wonderful house at No. 1 London the room to breathe that it deserves:

I have to say that no matter how many times I look at it I find the design of the memorial to the machine guns corps intriguing. Did they fight naked? It seems unlikely:




The New Zealand monument is less baffling, even if does look like a slightly demented fencer has knocked off for lunch or, having set up the posts, gone into town to get the fencing wire to link them with:


Part of the problem is obviously that these monuments are all grouped in the same spot as possibly the greatest war memorial ever designed, the Royal Artillery memorial, with 'Here was a royal fellowship of death' inscribed around its base and the tragic figures made by Charles Jagger, grouped around it:

Recumbent Artilleryman










Shell Carrier









The one that comes off worst in this encounter, sadly, is the Australian memorial, which was summed up all too accurately recently by the sculptor Michael Sandle in an interview on Radio 3. This is what he had to say about it:

"The Australian Memorial looks like a pissoir in an upmarket hotel designed by a 12-year-old girl"



I'm afraid I find it hard to argue with that, although I do wonder why Sandle feels the need to specify the imaginary perpetrator's gender - would it make things better if it had been conceived by a 12-year-old boy?

(I found this article about the Jagger memorial interesting, by the way)

Sunday, 27 March 2016

An Act of Vast Inattention

After bemoaning the ugliness of most things erected after about 1940, I took refuge in one of Michael Innes's agreeable Inspector Appleby novels. This one is called The Secret Vanguard and in it Innes shows Appleby reflecting as critically as me on the progress of architecture.

As the novel was published in 1940, I may need to push back my date for acceptability of buildings - or review my whole belief and accept that buildings I find hideous will eventually, like each season's fashions, grow on me. Perhaps all that I - and Mr Innes/Inspector Appleby before me - am/are suffering from is shock of the new.

On the other hand, judging by how rapidly modern buildings deteriorate, are torn down and replaced by equally unloveable, usually even taller ones, perhaps I'll never have the chance to get beyond the shock phase.

Here is the passage that struck me. In it, Appleby takes a taxi from Trafalgar Square to a library somewhere in Bloomsbury:

"In five minutes the taxi, much as if it had been a contraption in a scientific romance, deposited him at the threshold of the eighteenth century. Strange how these severe facades satisfied the mind. Or rather not strange; nothing subtle or inspired was involved - nothing more, probably, than observance of the law of golden section. Strange rather that, as if by some act of vast inattention, people had just ceased to build that way."

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Eggs Are Out

By chance, I have begun to read Charlotte Bronte's Shirley on the evening of Good Friday. To my surprise, the second paragraph of her first chapter draws an analogy between what the book will be like and the kind of meal that ought to be eaten on Good Friday. In the process, Bronte provides a detailed description of the meal that is required.

As I love almost nothing more than descriptions of meals in fiction, I am copying Bronte's passage here, so that anyone who wishes can follow Bronte's instructions as they prepare their dinner tonight:

It is not positively affirmed that you shall not have a taste of the exciting, perhaps towards the middle and close of the meal, but it is resolved that the first dish set upon the table shall be one that a Catholic—ay, even an Anglo-Catholic—might eat on Good Friday in Passion Week: it shall be cold lentils and vinegar without oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs, and no roast lamb.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Getting Better All the Time?

I never took a photograph until a year or two ago, but, now that I've started, I'm at it all the time. Everywhere I go, I'm on the look out for Instagram possibilities. The world for me these days is just a series of brightly coloured squares.

But this afternoon, in pursuit of my new happy-snappy hobby, a rather awful thought came into my mind.

I was standing on a bridge in a pretty Belgian town called Durbuy when it happened. I had just gazed through the viewfinder, hoping to frame an attractive shot, but, as so often happens, I'd realised it wasn't going to be possible. And the reason it wasn't going to be possible was the same one it always is. The problem was that the scene contained too many traces of post-1950s human activity.

It should have been simply lovely. After all there was the river, which was flowing and sparkling and generally being an exceptionally nice stretch of moving water. And lining the river there were willow trees whose weeping boughs had that smudged glow that is not quite a colour, that has no form and yet, for all its intangibility, is the clearest of all indications that spring is just around the corner. In addition to these natural attractions, there were ancient stone buildings and a church with a pretty steeple.

All the major elements that might have made up my picture were attractive, but they were undermined by small but unignorable flaws.

The first was  a large plastic sack full of some kind of agricultural chemical, which someone had dumped on the riverbank. I suppose, if I'd been really keen, I could have gone down and dragged that out of view. But then there was the ugly stretch of municipal fencing that appeared to have been put up the day before yesterday, presumably in response to some EU directive about protecting people from moving water and the possibility of  their falling into same. And running alongside that was a carefully placed row of concrete edging bricks that it probably took several committee meetings and a number of discussion papers to come up with, plus the labour of a dozen or so men to lay so neatly along the upper edge of the riverbank. Plus, of course, there were the bright green plastic rubbish bins fixed to several of the willow trees and, in every possible spare space, the rows and rows of cars.

If I were original, if I had a genius's vision, I might see the beauty in bright green plastic and, as it was a car that brought me to Durbuy, I really ought to have appreciated the sight of massed automobiles.

Stupidly though,  I remain romantically attached to the handmade (not merely notionally; I make a lot of things by hand myself, I should point out). As a result I find myself wondering whether we humans still contribute to the beauty of our surroundings or whether we only detract from it these days.

I've  tried to think of one example where we've improved an old town with our erections. The Sydney Opera House has been suggested as one possibility but it has got location on its side - and I've never been convinced that it's a really resolved design anyway (its base has always bothered me).

Besides, I'm really thinking about domestic architecture, the fabric of the towns we live in. Will any housing cluster today be as attractive to visitors of five or six centuries in the future as, say, Lavenham is to us today?


Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Tricked You

Over at Hats and Rabbits, Chris has come up with the most wonderful scenario. He no longer has faith in it, but I shall cling to the dream regardless. Chris's scenario is that Donald Trump is playing a huge practical joke on the American public and very soon - any day now, (please) - he's going to turn round and say:

"Look how far you let me push you, American people, to support the most negative and insensitive views! Look how you let me appeal to your reptilian brain instincts! Let this be a lesson to you: Don't let fear and hate drive your decisions. I am officially dropping out of the presidential race. It has all been an act. How could it have been anything else? Just don't forget how you almost voted for a guy who was clearly running a campaign that alluded to Hitleresque ideas..."





Not So Tired After All

Has London changed or is it me? When I lived there, I let it defeat me. Mind you, I lived just off Victoria Street and, passing through that area the other day, I realised that it might defeat me again, if I were given a second chance - the density of pedestrian traffic is bad enough, but the fact that all the pedestrians in the area are in a great and unrelenting hurry is, over even a quite short space of time, rather dispiriting. No-one has patience for hesitation, no-one is prepared to give an inch of pavement away.

These days though, as a visitor, I enjoy a walk through London, so when I was there last week I went for a wander. This is what I saw.

I walked up through the park and onto Piccadilly. Then I passed the old In & Out Club and was, as usual, puzzled to see it standing unused and empty. The poor old place is looking even more delapidated than it was some years ago when I last peered through the railings. What is the point of leaving it to rot? Someone very rich from a far away country owns it, I believe. I wish he would either make use of it or let it go. It is looking very miserable at the moment:


Even though I thought I was fairly familiar with this part of London, it can still spring surprises, especially if you glance upwards. Despite having walked up St James's Street and onto Piccadilly a hundred times, until the other day I'd never registered the rather imposing figure at the top of the building on the corner:



For a while in my youth, I used to work near Mount Street. A great many things have changed in that area - including the sign at the entrance of the gardens, which seems to be ageing into a thoroughly grumpy billboard. It would be easier and quicker to simply list the one or two things that are permitted in the gardens - but perhaps nothing beyond breathing and scuttling fairly briskly through the place is in fact allowed:


Not that it really matters, since from Mount Street it is only a short walk to a much bigger and better park, if you can brave the traffic in Park Lane or the n'er do wells in the tunnel underneath.

Once again, near the entrance to the park I discovered something I'd never noticed before - this sign telling passers by that Her Majesty, (it's only just occurred to me, but it must be rather good to be called "Her/Your Majesty"; excellent for one's confidence, don't you think?), the Queen planted a little grove of silver birches in this plot in 1977. 1977! And they're still tiny. Gardening must be very much a game of patience in the British Isles:
Wandering on, I arrived in Belgravia and was just going past this building:


when I noticed a plaque I'd walked past many times without paying any attention. As I am now a temporary resident of Belgium, it suddenly seemed enormously interesting - moving even:


Sadly, I have to reveal that my walk wasn't all exciting discoveries - it also had its fair share of disappointments. My favourite haberdasher's has somehow turned into a branch of Pret a Manger and several other equally well-established businesses seem to have been swallowed up by more food outlets for office workers. I wonder if these are the only kind of business that breaks even in London at the moment.

The worst blow of all was the disappearance of Allen's, my favourite butcher in the world. It was a place where good food was understood and valued, where you could buy meat that was not killed yesterday and, most fantastically, where, if you went in a week or two before Christmas and looked up, the ceiling appeared to have been completely replaced by a dense mass of feathers - actually, closely packed turkeys, suspended and awaiting their turn on the Christmas table. I doubt I'll ever see anything like it again:


The French government subsidises small quirky shops, I've been told. It certainly has much more varied high streets than Great Britain does generally. But the British population doesn't seem greatly moved by the march of chain shops and the erosion of individuality in the retail sector, (an exception being Totnes, where I went later in the week; cheeringly, the inhabitants of that town seem to have fought off the Zara-Next-Accessorize-BootstheChemist-M&S-Costa blandness that characterises so many midsized rural towns).  

After London, I got on the train and headed for Devon. I was still sad about the loss of Allen's and the various other shops I'd always assumed would be there forever, but the British countryside looked so lovely, I couldn't stay sad for long. I was reminded, when I glimpsed some allotments on the edge of one or other town we passed through, that I am truly a hybrid, half-Australian/half-English: that is to say, I have always rather wanted an allotment, which is something no Australian I have ever met can even begin to understand. Because I am also Australian I can see how allotments represent an English embrace of small horizons and expectations that is anathema to Australian optimism, but as an English person, I cannot quite rid myself of pinched perspectives and dismally unambitious dreams.




Saturday, 5 March 2016

Miserable Clarity

I've been wondering about the strange extremes that seem to have captured the imaginations of the American voting class. I'm not wondering any more, because I went to see The Big Short. It is such a good film, but it also makes sickeningly clear that cynicism and distrust of the elites that run government and financial markets is the only response anyone could sensibly have in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis. Trump and Sanders are the children of sub-prime and CDOs.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Miaowing Up the Wrong Tree

The other day I mentioned the confusion so many of the Europeans I meet feel when they contemplate the ways of their British colleagues. Reading Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy this morning, I was struck by a passage, which dramatises the situation. A young Romanian woman called Sophie has just listened to a group of English speakers telling a joke, and finds it confusing; she proceeds to tell a Romanian joke to illustrate what humour is about so far as she is concerned:

'"Then I do not understand. Why is it funny?"

"Why," Inchcape blandly asked, "is anything funny?"

The answer did not satisfy Sophie. She said with some asperity, "That is an English joke, eh? Here in Romania we have jokes, too. We ask, 'What is the difference between a kitten and a bar of soap?' I think they are silly, such jokes."

"Well, what is the difference?" Guy asked.

Sophie gave him an irritated look and would not answer. He set about persuading her until at last she whispered in a petulant little voice: "If you put a kitten to the foot of a tree, it will climb up."'



Thursday, 3 March 2016

Now I Understand

After what turned out to be a slightly wan experience looking at the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire's things spread out for auction, I picked up the latest issue of the London Review of Books and began to read an article on the subject of borders. In it was this quote from Georges Perec who, it seems to me, goes some way to explaining my reaction to what was on view. Sotheby's was trying to slide the domestic into the public and the result was jarring:

"The private, the domestic (a space overfilled with my possessions: my bed, my carpet, my table, my typewriter, my books, my odd copies of the Nouvelle Revue francaise); on the other side, other people, the world, the public, politics. You can't simply let yourself slide from one into the other, can't pass from one to the other, neither in one direction nor in the other. You have to have the password, have to cross the threshold, have to show your credentials, have to communicate ... with the world outside."

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Left the Building

I loved the character that emerged from everything the Duchess of Devonshire wrote and so, when I saw that Sotheby's was auctioning her belongings, I decided I'd go along and have a look.

There is a logical flaw at the heart of that sentence isn't there? However charming someone's writing - or indeed personality - may be, what on earth has that got to do with their things?

I didn't think it through until now though. As a result, I set off for Sotheby's cheerfully. When I went in to their New Bond Street building, I was actually quite excited, but, instead of enjoying myself, as I wandered around I began to feel faintly miserable. I looked at everything, but none of it gave me pleasure. I certainly didn't feel any sudden urge to bid on any of the lots up for auction. In fact, by the end of my visit, I was rather glad to leave.

It wasn't that the auctioneers hadn't made a good effort. They'd plastered the staircase wall leading to the rooms where the Duchess's things were displayed with an attractive photograph of the Duchess's house - a very pretty stone ex-vicarage, pictured on a sunny day with flowers in full bloom. They'd set up a series of rooms to look as though they were actually the Duchess's dining room, bedroom, kitchen et cetera. But somehow the whole thing was dismal.

I think it was the fact that the illusion they were trying to create remained very clearly an illusion. We were in a windowless shop space and there was no getting away from that fact. Despite the very best efforts of the organisers, the rooms they'd set up so carefully owed a great deal more to Ikea in concept than to a time-worn interior that a particularly engaging person lived in.

Worse still, once the idea of Ikea had seeded itself, you couldn't help noticing that the furniture - which in its own milieu would have looked exactly right - here in a showroom revealed itself as a bit battered, chipped in places and generally bearing the inevitable marks of use.

Many of the smaller things didn't even have the virtue of being old and originally well-crafted from good materials. Like most of us, the Duchess gathered up all sorts of odds and ends that appealed to her for reasons not always to do with aesthetics - after all, her house wasn't a show room or a museum, just a place where somebody lived. The fact that things that amused her or had sentimental value were really rather ghastly if you did not share those same sentimental attachments to them meant that they ended up looking frankly a bit tawdry in this impersonal setting.

I should have known of course. Stuff is just stuff, regardless of who it belongs to. Stupidly, I'd imagined that some vestige of the Duchess's personality would have lingered with the objects with which she surrounded herself. Instead, seeing them all laid out there - for sale to the highest bidder -made it chillingly clear that she was very definitely no longer here among us. She had, like her beloved Elvis, left the building and, without her magnetism to enliven them, the things that she treasured had reverted to being just things.
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Monday, 29 February 2016

Cross Cultural Studies

In Brussels at the moment, I keep meeting people - well-meaning Swedes and earnest Germans, cheerful Italians and concerned Luxembourgeois - who express themselves surprised, a little hurt and above all mystified by the British and their apparent lack of total infatuation with "the project" (that is, the whole set of bureaucratic contraptions that are the engine of the Brussels economy - and contribute fairly generously to that of Strasbourg as well).

Generally speaking, when these kinds of foreigners find the inhabitants of the British Isles puzzling, they turn for guidance to a book called Watching the English, by Kate Fox.  However, if any of them asks me for a good handbook to Anglo-Saxon attitudes, I recommend Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater instead. Apart from anything else, it is so much more amusing than Watching the English. Actually it is one of my very favourite books.

To give just one example of what it offers, here, in a mere two or three paragraphs, while explaining the use of the phrase "old chap", Bywater provides so much insight into the English (British?  Oh lord, let's not even think about plunging into that) character:

"Chap, Old

An oddity, Old Chap; a curiously English construction, suggesting intimacy without actually suggesting intimacy. You can see why the English would need such an honorific.

To call a man 'old chap' was shorthand for what would otherwise take far too long to express. But we can try. What it, at least in part, meant was:

'What I am about to say presumes upon our acquaintance to the extent that to address you as Mister whatever-it-is would be unbecomingly stuffy. Yet I do not wish to embarrass you with a self-conscious use of your first name. The matter that I am about to raise also temporarily (it may even be permanently, but I do not want to assume that) obliterates any fine gradations of rank or differences in income between us, yet although I am addressing you as what might, to Johnny Foreigner, appear to be an equal, I am nevertheless retaining the upper hand in the conversation which is to follow. I am probably going to give you some advice, which you may find unpalatable; alternatively, I may be about to make light of something which you find serious to the point of being unbearable; or it may be that I am about to give you bad news and my old-chappery is an indication that, while I am obviously sympathetic to your plight, I most certainly do not feel your pain, and I would be frightfully obliged if you could at least give the impression of not feeling it either, or we may face the possibility of embarrassment."

I suppose it is worth pointing out, in case anyone is in any doubt, that embarrassment is an English person's very greatest fear.

Anyway, Bywater goes on to bemoan the decline of "old chap" in common usage, thus:

"How the hell can we say that, now that 'old chap' has been forever lost? We can't. And so we don't. Instead we go in for all sorts of un-Englishness - first names, sharing, emotional honesty, hugging, stuff bordering on intimacy - and then we wonder why Johnny Foreigner no longer looks up to us and the world is going to hell. Bad show. Blame the women. And that dashed Viennese fellow, said everyone wanted to have a pop at his mother, you know the fellow, trick cyclist, jabber jabber, dreams, cigars, face dropped off, won't do, old chap; won't do at all. Thin end of the wedge. Do you know what I think, old chap ... hello? Hello? Are you there? Hello ...?"

Battered Penguins - One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

I enjoyed this short book which tells the story of Cecily, a young woman whose mother has died and who, partly as a consequence, partly because she is growing up and the closeknit friendships of youth are beginning to dissolve, finds herself feeling increasingly alone.

Cecily is studying for university exams. The text she is studying is Morte d'Arthur by Malory. I have never read it, but I suspect it may tell of a quest and thus mirror the quest of Cecily to try to find an explanation for her mother's behaviour towards her in the months before she - the mother - died

The story is set in Sydney and there are many passages in the book that made me homesick for that lovely city. For instance, at one point Crcily is carried pillion on a motorcycle up one of those steep streets around Coogee:

"...he roared up in an absolutely straight and glorious burst, while alongside us raced an exploding strip of sun and ocean and green or rocky headland."

As well as bringing back that milieu vividly to my mind's eye, this kind of description reminds me somehow of Helen Garner's style. One might call it Australian heightened realism - except it isn't really the style that is heightened; the truth is the experience of being in Australia - something to do with the height of the sky, the size and emptiness of the country and, more than anything, the light - is itself heightened. Life there is more vivid than elsewhere, brighter, sharper - or so it seems to me ( and in answer to potential objections about excessive nationalism, I should point out that, while I miss this aspect of life often, it isn't necessarily an absolute positive; living in a heightened, brighter reality can be rather wearing after all).

I also enjoyed purely Australian touches such as describing someone as having "little hands curled over, like a kangaroo."

Actually, hands are something of a preoccupation with Cecily. As well as those kangaroo like ones,  she observes those of her Aunt Gail, (a brilliantly sketched monster of self-centredness, a person who imagines herself more successful than she really is at disguising her true nature beneath a veneer of charm):

"I look at the helpless white hands on the big wheel, at the rings on her pointed fingers."

and those of her cousin, applying hand cream, (I love this description):

"I watch Hilary's slender little hands lovingly administer to each other."

Whether this has anything to do with the identification of "high handedness" as an important force in Cecily's mother later in the story, I don't really know.

The story itself is slight. Cecily does attain her quest's object, to some extent. What holds the attention though is not the plot so much as the characterisation - most particularly Cecily, who won my affection almost instantly. - and the small vignettes along the way, such as the little scene between the surfers Shane and John, which is entirely incidental but peculiarly touching.

I remain puzzled by the role of Wil, Cecily's boyfriend, in the book. He is much admired (by Aunt Gail and the world in general), but unempathetic, not obviously imaginative or, really, sympathetic in any way that I could see.  Cecily never betrays a critical thought about him, but does have an increasingly long list of things that she has decided not to tell him. "I foresee no end to the things I won't tell Wil", she declares at the end of the book, although apparently this is not a concern to her. Her mother has stipulated in her will that Cecily can only come into part of her inheritance if she marries, which, naturally, complicates their relationship.

At one point, struck by grief suddenly, Cecily tells us:

"I want to stop under a tree and cry out that this time last year I had so much, and ask why I have been left with so little. But I can't do this, not to Wil, not only because it would be insulting, but because it would make me see myself, reflected in the mirror of Wil's principles, as disgracefully self-indulgent in view of the various deprivations around me, to say nothing of the sorrow, terror, famine, and the clash of ignorant armies in the terrible world outside. Will wants to live his life in full consciousness of that world, he genuinely does, and so would I perhaps, but whatever I do, my concerns remain narrow, and I often forget all about it."

Someone who thinks it is possible to subjugate grief about your own individual loss by remembering the misery suffered by anonymous crowds in far off countries is a clod, in my view. In any case, Wil's casual announcement that Cecily can no longer come grape picking with him and that he will be leaving her alone over the summer suggests to me that before long he will be sliding out of this relationship permanently.

It is a great achievement on the part of Anderson that she has made me believe in these characters so much that I am prepared to speculate on their future actions beyond the confines of the book in this manner - Wil, of course, won't be doing anything, because Will doesn't actually exist.  An even greater achievement is the way in which, by including tantalising glimpses of Cecily's mother, allowing her to appear very briefly and then vanish before we are ready to let her go, she creates in us a similar longing to that which burdens Cecily. The nterlude in which she talks to her father also, for me at least, very delicately and beautifully portrays the absolutely unique bond that is the one between a father and a daughter. If there is any kind of conclusion, perhaps it is contained in Cecily's father's observation during this conversation that, "You'll never know the simple verbal truth. Yet you may arrive at an answer", and in Cecily's subsequent statement, "Casually but completely, I put my trust in time."