Monday, 29 September 2014

But Wait, There's More

Scrabbling about in here, I found another post with funny bits from the then Duchess of Devonshire, who died a couple of days ago, to my chagrin. The post is here. I should warn those of a sensitive nature that it involves pew licking.

(As well, thanks to the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog, I discovered an interview the duchess did with Jenny Murray on BBC Radio Four some years ago. When asked about happiness she says:

"I think happiness is a thing invented by the media. You can be very content without being consciously happy the whole time. I think contentment is a great thing to look for and to aim at. All this talk of happiness - of course it happens in your lifetime, luckily for me very often, but it's not a constant thing ....."

When asked what she thinks, as a 90-year-old, the next decade holds for her, she replies,

"Well, I suppose I'll die - that' ll be one thing that's going to happen, but what it will be followed by, I don't know.")

Saturday, 27 September 2014

I Knew It Was Here Somewhere

The day before yesterday I mentioned that I thought I'd included some of the best bits of letters between the then Duchess of Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor somewhere here. I had and eventually I found the post. It's here and much of what she said evokes a laugh, which is never a bad thing surely.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Who Will I Look Up to Now

I am so sad that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, former 'Mitford girl', has died. She seemed to me to represent everything that was best about a certain kind of English person. If I could emulate even a fraction of her commonsense, wit and good manners, I'd be happy. She was the product of an age that viewed self-obsession dimly. I wish that at least that aspect of the era would return.

For years, I kept a little article about her from a colour supplement, but good old DHL, (yes, I do still hate them), managed to lose it. It had all sorts of interesting bits of information about her, plus photographs, both of her and her collection of Elvis memorabilia. It's gone now though, so, as some kind of rather measly tribute to her, I am reposting a review I wrote a while ago of her book about her life. The review was posted on The Dabbler blog - but today that site seems to be not working - so rather than linking I'll paste the text in here instead.

Somewhere in this blog I think there may also be some quite amusing bits from her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor. I'll go away and look for them and maybe find the link - if it exists - and put it up tomorrow. Meanwhile, try to get hold of Wait for Me - I was glued, my dear fellow. In fact, I think she wrote other books so I might go off and cheer myself up by buying some of them as well.

1p Review of Wait for Me

Wait for Me, the autobiography of Deborah Devonshire, is worth at least 1p for its first section alone. This part of the book – an account of the author’s childhood surrounded by a Wodehousian collection of relatives, most notably her father, (who it transpires was not only unintentionally hilarious but also, during WWI, quite incredibly brave), and hangers on, (including a governess who spent school hours teaching her charges how to gamble at cards), is so funny you cannot read it in a room with other people, because you are liable either to drive those around you completely crazy with your shouts of uncontrollable laughter or irritate them dreadfully by being unable to resist reading bits of the thing out loud.

Once the author leaves home and we see less of her father, who I still cannot quite believe worked for a time at The Lady, the laughs, although never entirely absent, do grow thinner. All the same, the book does not lose its charm or interest, as the sheer absurd hilarity of the author’s anecdotes about her family is replaced by well-described, often comic memories of life in the upper classes after the war – which, thanks to rationing, does not sound all that much more pleasant than life for any other section of society at the time:

"Mr Thacker [the butcher] let me help him cut up the meat in the back room and get a few scraps for the dogs. Tongue was offal and therefore not rationed. ‘Any chance of a tongue?’ I would ask. ‘You’re thirty-sixth on the list,’ was always the answer … One day a wounded soldier repatriated from Italy brought home a lemon. Such a luxury had not been seen for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell – proceeds to the Red Cross."

As time goes on the Duchess gets to know a number of famous people, including JFK and Hitler, Evelyn Waugh, Givenchy, Osbert Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Nancy Astor – who she overheard saying, when “a dreary educationalist from the Midwest was droning on and on … "That’s very interestin … but I’m not interested" - as well as many who are less well-known but equally intriguing, - the Howards, for instance, whose father "had a glass eye and used to surprise people by tapping it with a fork at meals". She recounts amusing stories about all of them, and also devotes space to her famous sisters, about whom she is admirably loyal.

While two of those sisters, Nancy and Jessica, have already given us fairly vivid accounts of their father, (about whom it is impossible ever to hear too much), in Wait for Me we are also provided with a clearer picture of the Mitford girls’ mother, who, we discover, enjoyed belting out tunes on the piano from The Daily Express Community Song Book and once, in answer to the question of how old she was, replied "Nineteen …no, sorry, seventy-three", a response anyone over the age of forty-five – or, indeed, nineteen - can probably sympathise with.

Given the fact that the Duchess endured some of life’s bitterest blows – the stillbirth and neo-natal death of several children – this book could easily have become a misery memoir. However, its author is made of sterner stuff. Describing situations where most of us would claim to be heartbroken, she restricts herself to the wonderfully understated phrase, "I minded terribly". Rather than pouring out her heart, she does her best to see the humour in most situations, as well as trying to give us a picture of the England in which she grew up – and the pre-chain store London in which she 'came out' (in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase):

"A coat and skirt from Mr Nissen, tailor of Conduit Street – a major item, but one that lasted, cost 8½ guineas. We were never without Madame Rita's hats. Our hairdresser, Phyllis Earle in Dover Street (reached by a number 9 bus, getting off at the Ritz), charged 3/6 for a wash and set. My shoes, which came from Dolcis in Oxford Street, were cheap and decent to look at but painful after a few nights of round and round the dance floor. Muv gave me some of her elbow length evening gloves made of doeskin, so gleaming white and smart they set off the dullest dress. They had to be cleaned each time they were worn and were posted to a firm in Scotland, so famous that 'Pullars of Perth' on the printed labels was enough of an address."

While even the talented Duchess cannot extract much entertainment from her involvement with a company called Tarmac, she has such a brilliant eye for the interesting or amusing detail that it is only in this episode – mercifully brief – that her writing slightly flags. She claims not have read a book in her life, but she certainly knows how to write a good one. Her tastes are occasionally surprising – she is a keen Elvis fan – but her character is charming and it is a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages reading the story of her life

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

On the Way

Somewhere in this blog, (but finding anything in here is a bit like trying to find something in my desk drawer - "Che casino", as Italians would - or at least when I lived there in the '70s they would - say), there is a post about how being on a long plane journey has one great advantage: it provides the opportunity to read, uninterrupted, and therefore to catch up with all sorts of interesting things.

Unfortunately, since Singapore Airlines began offering as 'inflight entertainment' incredible numbers of films and telly shows and operas, (although the Salzburg Festival Magic Flute they were showing was, despite beautiful singing and, of course, among the most indescribably lovely music ever written, so incredibly drearily staged that at least it wasn't a temptation), the opportunity to read undistracted has been somewhat undermined. I'm ashamed to say that, after a few hours I put down my book and fell, mysteriously, under the spell of House of Cards.

(In my defence, I should add that, after a few hours more, I also fell back out from under that spell. The trouble was the programme makers went for melodrama, which was fine - but then they went a longish way too far. As my suspension of disbelief evaporated, I was left with nothing, since none of the characters had depth enough to hold my interest. The wife was deeply mysterious to the point of being baffling and her husband, plus the girl called Zoe, were one-dimensional and thus unengagingly meaningless, because not really believable.)

Anyway, before I disappeared down that televisual dead end, I did manage to get through an article on Muriel Spark, one of my favourite writers. One aspect of the article that I found particularly interesting was the section on her conversion to Catholicism. She ascribed her conversion to Cardinal Newman - his reasoning, she claimed:

"is so pure that it is revolutionary in form."

Becoming a Catholic, according to Spark, was:

"an important step ... because from that time I began to see life as a whole, rather than as a series of disconnected happenings."

In the article, she was also quoted on the subject of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, (which the writer of the article claimed was her favourite novel). Spark said it exhibited:

"something of a tremendous value to the Christian imagination, a sacramental view of life which is nothing more than a balanced regard for matter and spirit."

I shall try to bear this in mind as I continue listening to the audio of the work - I have to confess I do often find myself growing very impatient with the thing, plus its author, but I should clearly see things in a different light.

I also made my way through the 21 June 2012 issue of the London Review of Books. I am growing more and more convinced that, like other great magazines, (the New Yorker comes to mind, although I'm not sure it's all that great any more, sadly), the London Review of Books is better after being cellared, (and, for that matter, is the London Review great? It certainly gets a lot wrong politically, I reckon - but I digress, as usual).

In the 21 June 2012 LRB,  there was a very good review by Jenny Diski of Downton Abbey, the new Upstairs Downstairs and a couple of novels dealing with the same 'great houses, great families' kinds of story lines. My favourite bit was when she described Alistair Cooke in his incarnation as host of Masterpiece Theatre at PBS:

"Alistair Cooke can be seen in an old TV clip, thanks to the bottomless well that is YouTube, carefully cross-legged, wearing a blazer, a discreetly silver-striped black tie on a pearl grey shirt, and what can only be called slacks. He sits on a high-backed black leather and polished mahogany library chair. Behind him to his right, hung on flocked wallpaper, is an ornately framed landscape painting winking 'old master', on the other side an overarching potted palm, between them a window hung with heavy, draped velvet curtains, and beneath his elegantly shod feet ... a fine oriental carpet ... 'Good evening', he says, in his immaculately trimmed mid-Atlantic accent, so reassuring that you wonder if perhaps he is going to sound the nuclear alert."

There was also one of those reviews that introduces you to a character or subject that are in equal part fascinating and repellent, so that the review performs a great service, in allowing you glimpses of something intriguing, without forcing you to plunge right into the full vat of the thing.

The vat - or subject - in question is a poet I'd never heard of called Peter Redgrove, who I think was probably a genius but hopelessly warped in what I suspect may be a particularly English way. I'm glad to have been informed of his existence but also extremely pleased that I haven't ever had to go beyond that superficial knowledge level.

Due, perhaps, to a rather strait-laced father and an insufficiently strait-laced mother, Peter Redgrove ended up associating 'mud with eroticism' and developing something called 'the Game', which involved rolling in or bathing in mud and various other substances, (and that, the writer hints, was the least of it). A poem Redgrove wrote celebrating his marriage and family is apparently "filled with wildly energetic dark spatterings, slime-slides, sprays and haemorrhages". In a prose poem called Mr Waterman, a speaker tells a doctor of his fears that his garden pond is going to commit adultery with his wife:

"I invited it in as a lodger, bedding it up in the old bathroom. At first I thought I would have to run canvas troughs up the stairs so it could get to its room without soaking the carpet, and I removed the flap from the letter-box so it would be free to come and go, but it soon learned to keep its form quite well, and get about in macintosh and goloshes [sic], opening doors with gloved fingers."

Passing strange stuff, which I'm glad I know exists but I wouldn't want too much more of.

Following that, came an article reviewing a book about opium, Opium: Reality's Dark Dream. This interested me, because pain relief and its regulation interests me. Perhaps because a few people have abused various drugs - they always have and they always will - there is a growing wowser element in the medical profession. Many vocal doctors seem to be bent on deciding for their patients how much pain relief they may have, convinced that none of us are capable of determining that for ourselves.

Someone in my family had several vertebrae destroyed, leading to appalling pain and the supply of oxycontin and endone, together with the instructions that she would probably have to take them forever. At a certain point, my relative decided for herself that she did not want to continue to be zombified with these drugs and weaned herself off them entirely independently. She knew when she needed their help and when she didn't and was quite capable of making her own mind up about what she took and for how long. I would hate to think that some bossy doctor would ever have presumed to take that autonomy of choice away from her - either denying her the medicine when she needed it or forcing her to take it when she'd realised she'd had enough.

Anyway, one thing that I discovered from the review of the opium book was that things are not progressing in this regard so much as regressing - the writer of the book, Thomas Dormandy, the reviewer tells us:

"writes powerfully, as he has elsewhere, of Cicely Saunders's struggle to establish palliative care for the dying, from whom opiates were commonly withheld on the grounds that they are addictive"

The review also ends with a wonderfully resonant quote from Walter Benjamin. The reviewer claims that Dormandy's book "suggests that in the modern era we have also become addicted to what Walter Benjamin called 'that most terrible drug - ourselves - which we take in solitude'."

If all that is a bit too depressing, let me finish with a quote from an article on Martin Amis by Adam Mars-Jones. It seemed to me that Mars-Jones levered this into his piece somewhat, but then again who wouldn't? It's the only full transcript I've ever seen of probably the greatest of all the Monty Python sketches:

"- There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in the middle of the road.
- Cardboard box?
- Aye.
- You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at six o'clock, clean the newspaper, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day week in week out for sixpence a week. And when we got home, our dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
- Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, work twenty hours a day at mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
- Well of course we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox in the middle of the night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had to eat half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
- Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing, 'Hallelujah'."

Oh, and, given I can't find anything in here, I'm not sure if I've already put this in another post, but it is one of my favourite pictures, and it swam to the surface of my papers as I was packing before leaving home:

It's Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, taken in 1923.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

No More Home Among the Gum Trees

Should anyone have missed me, (and I don't for a moment want to suggest I'm assuming anyone did), I've been moving, in a rather stately fashion, from one side of the world to the other.

But now, at last, my bags are unpacked and I can relax - at least until my boxes arrive.

Or at least those boxes that we didn't consign to DHL, which have arrived, although much later than they were supposed to and severely damaged. My guess is that someone managed to drop them somewhere between here and Australia and they then furtively repacked them, hoping nobody would notice that some of the things originally in the boxes had gone completely missing and others had been severely damaged in transit.

Well, DHL - we did notice, and we hate you very much indeed now. In fact, I may well dedicate my life to deterring others from using your useless services.

But enough of obsessional vendettas. Let me tell you some of the things I've seen en route to my home.

First, I stopped in Sydney and slept a night at the Intercontinental Hotel, from whence I set out to dine with my brother and to which I staggered home some hours later, having consumed a great deal of that wine Australia does so well - Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thus, to atone for my self-poisoning, I tottered up to the gym the next morning. And it just so happens that the gym in the Intercontinental is situated right next to a swish private dining room - which young hotel managers in training were scurrying around getting ready for that day's big event:

I'm not even going to mention the misspelling of squad - what I thought telling was the fact that the KFC HR squad had no intention of rewarding themselves for their services to their great company by noshing on a bucket of the finger lickin' good stuff.

Now perhaps I'm wrong but it seems to me that, if you're in the food business, it's a worry if you don't actually choose the food you're selling when you sit down for a slap up meal yourself. Frankly, in the circumstances, if you don't put your money where your mouth is but you expect other people to - if you don't actually want to reward yourself at a celebration meal by eating what you're flogging - then what you're flogging is a very, very, very dead horse.

That's how it strikes me, but KFC sales figures probably tell a different story and prove me utterly and completely wrong.

Anyway, enough of the speculation about things of which I know virtually nothing - it was off to the airport and up and away after that, and, following a brief stay in Singapore, which I hope is not a vision of what the whole world will be like in the future - oh please not, oh please not; and I feel just the same only more so about Dubai - plus one or two other dawdlings, we eventually arrived at our new home.

Which is pretty nice really, if you really have to be not allowed to live in Ainslie, ACT, for a few years, which it seems I do.

We haven't been here long - only two days, in fact - but one thing I've noticed already is that our new neighbour has intriguing taste in garden ornaments:

Thus far, the major problem I'm having to wrestle with is the mother of all so-called first world problems. We now share our lives with someone who can cook absolutely brilliantly, including lovely cakey/biscuity kinds of things:
For the first time in my life, I think I'm actually going to have to join a gym.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


I know. I know. I know. Yes, from September 2013 to now is eleven, not ten years. Which doesn't make it any the sadder.

I blame my first maths teacher at big school, Miss Cowie, (cowie by name, cowie by nature), who was absolutely ruthless and terrifying and the most unbelievable snob to boot. 'Well we all know about Leslie and her North London ways', I remember her declaring, leaving Leslie withered and me, a South London child, mystified. To this day, (while never doubting for one moment that, in Miss Cowie's view, they were beyond the pale), I wonder what exactly North London ways were/are and whether perhaps, unwittingly, I too now exhibit some of them, perish the thort.

Really though, I should blame the Chelsea Froebel School, a realm where mathematics consisted of rote learning of times tables, many happy hours with the beautiful but ultimately unenlightening Cuisenaire rods, interpolated with the very rare days when the inspector came round. On those occasions, glass vessels of all sizes would be produced, newspaper would be spread out on all the tables and we would spend a wildly fun time splashing each other while pretending to penetrate the mysteries of the gill measurement, (now there was a useful way to spend one's time; how often I've had recourse to my familiarity with one-third of a gill glass jars; indeed, one might even ask where I would be today without such a solid foundation in the science of liquid volume; on the other hand, one might not.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

She Loved Talk

I've mentioned my best friend before, but I feel she needs further commemoration. She was a better friend to me than I ever was to her: perhaps because I'm an introvert or, more likely, if I'm honest, simply lazy, sometimes my energy flagged when she wanted to talk, and I will regret that forever.

Anyway, in two days time it will be ten years since she died. Although it is not entirely accurate in some of its details, this obituary captures something of her vivid personality. I will never understand why the brightest, most vital personalities are often the ones to be snuffed out first. 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Me and Sunny Jim

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pure English

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

To the Daily Telegraph

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

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

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

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

Andrew McBride, London

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

What About Towelling Hats

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

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

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

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

as well as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

That Ineluctable Binary

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

Friday, 15 August 2014

Not Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Story So Far - Proust Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Ear, Ear

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Ignoring the Razzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Widespread Pointlessness

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 5 July 2014

True or False

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

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

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

Friday, 4 July 2014

If Only

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Getting Involved

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Gulf of Words

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

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

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh, euuuuuuuuuuuw.

She said, 'CHINWAG'!

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 June 2014

Lost Time

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

And really, why write anything, post-Proust?

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

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Let the One With the Zimmer Frame In

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

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

Wednesday, 4 June 2014


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

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

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Things I Liked This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 May 2014

On a Tangent

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Getting Better All the Time

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

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

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

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

As I say, I take comfort in towels.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Going Straight

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

Sunday, 4 May 2014

We Plough the Fields

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

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

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

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

Stall selling "Farming DVDs"

Friday, 2 May 2014

Like Ian Messiter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Forget the Shrill Squabbling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Battered Penguins - Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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