Friday, 19 January 2018

Things I Never Knew about Hergé

These is a lovely bookshop called Sotherans on Piccadilly in London. It is an institution, established in 1761, but it is also able to hold its own in the digital age, running one of my very favourite Instagram accounts.

Today on that Sotherans Instagram account, I discovered a whole lot of things I didn’t know about Hergé and Tintin in Tibet. It has always been one of my favourite Tintin books and this background only adds to my interest in it:

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Book 2 - 2018 The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

This book has two parallel threads - the story of the murder of a small boy by a pedophile neighbour - or rather the story of the pedophile himself - and the memoir of the author, who herself was sexually abused by her grandfather. I don't actually know how I came by this book, as its subject matter is not something I would have chosen; I'm guessing it was a present or left behind by someone who had been given it and couldn't face the subject matter. Anyway, despite the unpromising and far from appetising content, the narrative is quite gripping, even though finally not quite a success.

Despite Marzano-Lesnevich's best efforts to persuade us otherwise, there isn't really any strong link connecting the two threads of the book's narrative, beyond the fact that she is involved with both. The thing that sparks her interest in the murder element of the story is that, while training to be a lawyer and believing herself opposed to the death penalty, she comes across the case of the boy's murder and realises that, perhaps because of her own experience as a victim of sexual abuse, her instinctive reaction is that she does want the murderer to be given the death penalty.

She then abandons law school and pursues the story of the murder and the murderer instead. It comes to dominate her attention - and the story of the murderer's conception and life is truly remarkable and at times what I suppose might be called gothic. Placed beside it, the story of the author's family life is less interesting, perhaps partly because the author is unable really to get any insight into the various strange elements of her parents' behaviour, being possibly too close to be able to gain a clear perspective. However, the thing that is conveyed well, even if not entirely intentionally, is the damage sexual abuse causes, the way in which Marzano-Lesnevich is dragging this weighty pain around her, caused by a betrayal of trust at the heart of the family, the place where all children ought to feel safe.

Marzano-Lesnevich writes very well; it is the book's structure that does not work. There are hints early in the book that her family and that of the murderer are directly connected, which meant that I kept expecting some amazing coincidence to be produced - the murderer having been a classmate of hers or her siblings, or having mowed their lawns or been her grandmother's unknown bastard child. This would have justified the braided narrative. It becomes clear eventually that there is no amazing coincidence, that the connection is nothing more than the fact of the author's own abuse and her reaction to the possibility of a death penalty for a pedophilic murderer. She hopes, I suspect, to cast light back and forth between the two elements of the text, producing an insight into the phenomenon of sexual abuse from this juxtaposition. However, by the book's conclusion, sexual abuse remains as mysterious as ever, and her attempts to draw parallels where there are none - or only very tenuous ones - just become laboured.

I'm not sure if I regret reading this book. I feel slightly polluted by having thought about the various pedophilic acts described within its pages, but I suppose one ought not to hide one's eyes from reality. The vignettes Marzano-Lesnevich gives us of the crusading anti-death-penalty lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith are interesting and reinforce my suspicion that he is not without flaws. An examination of the philosophic arguments for and against the death penalty is not really forthcoming in this volume, which I found disappointing. But it was not a dull read and, although this achievement is often underrated, I think it is harder to beguile readers to keep going than many people realise and, if a writer has the gift for it, they should be saluted.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Sell Shells

It turns out that seashells are not such a bad bet after all.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

There Should Be a Word For It

Lest anyone accuse me of only ever wanting to expunge new words from English, I've decided to start an occasional series of posts on words that I think are lacking in our language - and I'd welcome any suggestions from others, if they feel there are inadequacies in the vocabulary of our tongue.

The word that does not spring to mind today is the one that should exist to represent the all too regular, (for me at least), experience of visiting a place and seeing through a shop window a thing that I would really, really like to buy but being unable to because the shop is closed while the owners are off on holiday, or because it's Maria Himmelfahrt or early closing day.

So many treasures I couldn't have are piled up in my memory, more lustrous than they ever would have been if I'd been able to go into the stores where I saw them and pay and carry them off. Perhaps there should be a word for that too - the mind's gift for inflating the value of things it can't have. But perhaps that is covered by "nostalgia" or "longing" or "nostalgic longing" or "covetousness" or "romanticisation" or "idealisation" or "delusion".

Many would say that, however you describe the desire to possess things, that desire itself is just foolish, as possessions mean nothing, (you can't take things with you et cetera, et cetera). Those people though ignore the pleasure of living with things that you think are beautiful, things made long ago by skilled, patient, mostly unsung craftsmen and artists.

In addition, if you follow the logic of the "you-can't-take-it-with-you brigade", where exactly do you end up, because you can't take anything with you, including intangibles like love and learning and success? All human activity, from this perspective, is worthless and futile. While I'll happily agree that human activity, including -or especially- blog writing, is absurd, I don't think that means one shouldn't plunge on absurdly in whichever harmless way we choose.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Things We Might Be Able to Do Without - I

Do we need the word 'functionality'? I believe it is quite new - or perhaps it was just rarely used in my youth, (or I was well sheltered). Possibly - fingers crossed - it is still not in favour, outside  bureaucratic circles. But is that actually much comfort? With the rise of the managers - eurgh, bleurgh, scourge of modern life - bureaucratic circles are spreading ever wider, especially in government towns like the one I half call home.

In this place, which overflows with civil servants, 'functionality' is considered a very acceptable piece of vocabulary.  Passing the pub on the corner, I overhear it uttered in conversation among drinkers. In the aisles of the local supermarket, clerks, meeting each other unexpectedly, prop themselves against the shelving and compare notes on the 'functionality' of their - I suspect often totally unnecessary - schemes.

Does it mean efficiency? Does it mean feasibility? Does it mean anything? Is the problem the functionality of functionality or the functionality of my brain?

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Close in Affection*

We were burgled a year or two ago, and still there are things that we are struck with the loss of; not  the big much-loved objects - the paintings especially - that shocked us immediately with their disappearance, but tiny silly things that had only sentimental value and that it's taken us this long to think of and start to miss.

Since the burglary, my older brother has died, and since his death I've noticed that something similar is happening in connection with my loss of him. It turns out that bereavement is another kind of robbery, except that you have something more precious than objects taken - and, sadly, as time progresses the sense of loss does not get smaller. Instead, you are struck more and more by the many different tiny ways in which your daily life has been diminished and what exactly has been removed.

Grief I now understand as a longing, a perpetual, truly felt "wish-you-were-here". Life continues, of course, you talk and read and eat and generally keep going. But sadness is there, at your shoulder, taking the place of the person who has gone away.

*"We had always been very close in affection" - my brother, writing about his relationship with me in his memoir, Light & Shadow, by Mark Colvin, published by Melbourne University Press

Friday, 5 January 2018

Something Lovely

In an article about why there will be no more series of The Detectorists (something I very much hope is not true), this lovely piece was mentioned. I think it is beautiful.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Book 1 - 2018: Henry Green, Loving

My younger brother once recommended Henry Green ridiculously highly, which is why I chose this book. Not hating it, but not overwhelmed either. Will go into more detail about how it struck me when I have more time, but in the meantime would hugely welcome comments from others who have read the novel.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018


The other day I had to telephone the tax office to find out my tax file number. I spoke to an absolutely exceptionally nice girl called Huong. She gently pointed out to me that I did not file a tax return in 2010 and I should have done. Instantly I became panic stricken. "What will happen to me?" I shrieked at her, "I haven't got any papers from that far back; how will I be able to file anything that will satisfy the tax commissioner?"

"Don't worry", she told me, "we have all the information, here at the tax office; I can call up your details on our computers and give you everything you need in order to fill out your form." She proceeded to do that, and we spent a happy (?) forty-five minutes together running through my various taxable sources of income for the year in question. She supplied me with all the figures and details I needed and then posted me the form the tax office needs me to fill in.

It was only as I was laboriously copying onto the form the information that Huong had kindly provided that it occurred to me to wonder whether this was a sensible use of anybody's time. Providing the tax office with information that I am only in possession of because the tax office has been kind enough to give it to me is a task of such circularity that Escher's Ascending and Descending springs to mind.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


I have thought for a long time that writing is all about decisions - what to include, what to exclude, how to position each word and phrase. Therefore, I reason, people trying to fill jobs that call for "proven decision makers" should certainly consider writers, regardless of whether or not they hold MBAs from Harvard Business School.

While moving house recently, another parallel between writing and real life struck me. I discovered that the best way - at least for me - to approach the dreary business of unpacking was simply to dump in a particular part of the house all the things that more or less belonged in that approximate area. Once that had been done, I could begin to sort out the muddle, to transform the chaos into something approaching order. 

It strikes me that a similar approach to writing projects can be effective. When I faff around, afraid to get started on an assignment, sometimes the only thing that works is simply to dump all the things I think I want to say roughly where I think I want to say them on my piece of paper and then go back and sort them out. While the first draft is then a horrible semi-articulate jumble, it is at least something with which to work. If instead I try to arrange things perfectly from the very beginning, I never get anything finished. I don't know why this is or whether it is just something that happens to me, but it certainly seems to be a pattern that works well in my situation. Does anyone else find the same - that it is necessary to make an untidy heap at the beginning, which can then be sorted through, to create a beautifully orderly room or argument?

Or faintly orderly in my case, in both applications, to be honest.

Incidentally, before I finish, I should like to make clear that I do not approve of any sentence that suggests that anyone should "unpack" an idea. And no, I would not like to unpack my reasons - I just don't.

Monday, 1 January 2018

New Year Puzzle

As it is the first day of a new year, I am feeling more than usually conscious of time. Perhaps that is why, when I heard someone say “back in the day” this morning, I found myself wondering:

1. How far back? Just over the threshold into the recently finished year, the one before this one, or actually a long way back, back in the mists of time?

2. Which day? When you say “the” day, do you mean the day you were born, the day you started school, the day you moved out of home, the day you got married or had a child or got a job, or what?

3. And, while we're at it, "in"? "In the day"? What? Do you mean "during the day" (and here I return to question 2, with renewed bafflement).

Clarity. Meaning. Am I asking for too much? I’m sure I remember that we used to take such  things for granted. Back in the day.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Words Matter

After On Body and Soul, with its scenes of long suffering cattle, waiting to be slaughtered, this poem by Les Murray seems perfect.

The poem and students' reaction to it is mentioned in this interesting article, which, despite its use of the Marxist term "capitalism" (I would substitute "business practices where profit is the solitary motive, rather than the triple bottom- line", but I acknowledge that that is less catchy) makes, among other things,  an excellent argument for the great importance of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be taught how to read, write and think.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Channeling My Inner Mary Whitehouse

The gentle men over at Nigeness have been worrying their baffled way toward some understanding of the behaviour uncovered via Weinstein and #metoo. Their conclusion is that the death of manners is to blame, which may be partly true. Certainly, vulgarity is applauded and even encouraged now, so far as I can see, and vulgarity is the antithesis of good manners.

But, looking specifically at the Weinstein-esque actions that so many people are now describing and abhorring, it strikes me that the forward rush toward crassness over the last 50 or 60 years, especially the depiction in much televisual/film entertainment of sex as a pastime, something without psychological resonance for the participants, may have been one thing that triggered the behaviour that is now beginning to be revealed as widespread.

The American film industry portrays sex more and more graphically, blurring the private and public, suggesting this intimate activity is one more element in the life-as-performance approach we are increasingly encouraged to adopt, rather than a wordless form of communication conducted between two individuals at a psychologically somewhat mysterious, because inarticulate, level. In pursuit of providing us with this particular form of explicit "entertainment", the film so-called "industry" has increasingly required its actors and actresses to possess unusual, possibly unreal, degrees of beauty and fitness. The fact that there is always a supply of actors and actresses willing to slim themselves and dye bits of themselves and do whatever else it takes to comply with those requirements is an indication that there are always lots of people who are willing to accept their own objectification and become complicit in a fraudulent game that makes many feel inadequate. Which is not to say that the various actrines who are now giving us blow-by-blow accounts of how and where and when they have been pawed, by whom et cetera didn't suffer or did deserve their treatment; it is, merely to say that the whole set-up within which they chose to work was at least mildly exploitative already, even if they were not quite bright enough to join the dots.

In this context, one of the many reasons I like Ildiko Enyedi's film On Body and Soul is that it presents another view of sexual love than that thrust upon us by Hollywood. The Hungarian director's tale describes a love between a man and a woman that is both bestial and tenderly romantic. Glamour in this movie is in marvellously short supply. For more, I wrote a brief review and posted it here.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Battered Penguins - The Last Tresillians and A Use of Riches by J.I.M. Stewart

For a long time I have had a couple of novels by an author called J.I.M. Stewart in my bookshelves. I bought them out of interest, because someone in my family used to know Stewart - or at least was taught by him.

Stewart was a don at Oxford - and also, I now discover, a professor of English at the University of Adelaide for many years before joining the English faculty at Oxford. He is best known as Michael Innes, which is the pseudonym he used to write a series of charming whodunnits about a policeman called Appleby, a character who, perhaps unsurprisingly, strikes the reader as rather more a don than a copper.

The books that I have read that were written under Stewart's actual name are novels of ideas, slightly reminiscent of Angus Wilson, (who he refers to at one moment), with a faint element of Aldous Huxley's non-dystopic novels. They are dated now, in the sense that the Britain that they portray is mono-cultural, peopled almost exclusively by characters who are upper middle class - artists, academics, senior civil servants and art experts - with the occasional aristocratic Continental thrown in for a bit of colour. A statement such as this one, which appears in A Use of Riches:

"From late spring to early autumn spans the Englishman's Italy"

would, at the time, it was written, only have been true of a very small proportion of Englishmen. Thus, it reveals the breadth - or lack thereof - of the author's canvas; the majority of the English population in 1957 were not in a position to get to Italy at any time of year.  Similarly, when it is related that a character reflects on an old friend's observation about him that "like all Wykehamists, he regarded virtuous discomfort as the summum bonum achievable by man", there are so many assumptions about what the reader is familiar with that it is hard to know where to begin.

I mention all this utterly without resentment - I find the atmosphere and milieu of the novels very soothing, conjuring up the world of my childhood - and only because reading such a book makes me notice how much has changed. Having a novel with such a narrow social perspective published these days would, I suspect, be out of the question. I suppose the same could be said of Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, but Stewart's books are very nearly contemporary - a mere 50-odd years old - and yet they seem very much to have been written in another era.

The books that I have had for so long and have now got around to reading are A Use of Riches, published in 1957, and The Last Tresilians, published in 1963. Neither was unentertaining. Neither was entirely satisfying. Each, peculiarly, turned on the idea of an artist losing their mind in the later part of their career. More broadly, both were preoccupied with art itself, its function - (at one point a character in crisis goes to see some frescoes by Piero della Francesco, to see whether they were any use to "a London banker in a great state of personal anxiety" and discovers that they aren't) - its meaning, whether producing it allows a personality to transcend the bounds set for non-artists.

The first of the two I read was A Use of Riches. It concerns a couple who are happily married until the wife's first husband turns out not to be dead after all. The first husband is an artist and he has become blind. The second husband, Rupert Craine is profoundly unartistic; this is how we are introduced to him:

"Ruddy and iron grey, clipped and brushed and polished, he might have been a general who had made the common move from commanding regiments to directing companies."

However, he is very intelligent, perceptive and a highly sensitive consumer of beauty, "he possessed a flair that way", although he is a little ashamed of it: "The Medici, he ... thought, were the last bankers not to look absurd when operating at all noticeably on such territory".

The twists and turns of the story are myriad and I won't go into them here as the book, although not entirely resolved is a pleasant read and I don't want to spoil it for anyone. However, I will quote some of the more memorable moments, including that in which Stewart points out that the feeling Craine and his wife feel most strongly after receiving the news of the survival - or resurrection, at least into their lives - of the first husband is "excitement", something Craine distrusts, even though, as Stewart points out:

"It might be called, in either of them, a biologically healthy response to their new situation. When anything firm comes unstuck, when the static turns fluid, when not the sun but a question-mark sails up over the horizon one day then this undertone of excitement, distinguishably pleasurable, even if what one largely faces is calamity, represents simply the wholesome knowledge that one isn't dead, that one has powers to call up and perhaps even quite surprising possibilities to explore."

As well as being an interesting dissection of a feeling, I think this passage reveals the dense and serious tone of Stewart's writing, as strange today as the clipped accent of a newsreel commentator from the 1940s or '50s.

I also enjoyed the distinction Craine makes between musical talent and the talent of a visual artist:

"'You see', Craine went on, 'the ordinary man doesn't, as he moves about, ever hear in Nature something uncommonly like a fugue or a symphony. But he does from time to time see something uncommonly like a picture.'"

and the recognition, already in a way raised in the reference to the Medici, that money and art are more interlinked than most artists care to admit:

"innumerable works of art would never have been executed if rich men had no fondness for possession".

There is a scene reminiscent of Dostoevsky in which a character sees a horse being beaten with a shovel and then later being given a nosebag and left in peace. When it ends the character thinks to himself:

“From beating to beating the creature carried, conceivably, no more than a dim sense that the universe has its unkindly moments. In humans … we call that displaying a good nervous tone. It's how one gets along – more or less ignoring or forgetting until the great shovel is again about one's head and flanks.”

At the time I read it, I had just witnessed someone going through great physical trials and this made a great deal of sense to me.

There is a description of a train journey that reminded me how pleasant travel by rail can be:

"The train was luxurious, and the dinner timed to occupy the greater part of the smooth swift run through darkness to Florence. He ate it conscientiously, and exchanged a few sentences in his careful Italian with an elderly man in the opposite seat. When the train stopped at Picaenza, he could glimpse on the platform people still buffeted by the wind."

The Last Tresilians contains a charming love story, sent awry in part by events in the past. It centres again on an artist, although this one has been dead for some time. I found it more disturbing and less straightforwardly enjoyable than A Use of Riches, because it has sexual elements that I found troubling. However, once again it is intelligently written and full of well imagined characters;  JIM Stewart was very talented in his ability to conjure up characters and also in his descriptive powers. An example of the latter is this imagining of a London apartment, that reminds me vividly of the depressing one I used to go to sometimes with my father to visit my great-aunt Nell:

He "found himself in a cavernous hall. It was compounded of Turkey carpeting, chocolate-coloured paint and massive bronze objects - these last preponderantly human, substantially unclothed, and frozen in gestures which seemed part athletic and part inspirational. From the ceiling there depended a chandelier ..."

I'm glad to think that such places no longer exist.

Similarly striking is the description of a don's view of punting students: "undergraduates in their touching ephemerality."

While I don't think in either book JIM Stewart quite resolves the questions he poses, he does throw up some stimulating ideas - does the assertion put forward by one character that "Good writing is rarely a matter of tenuous differences" have any basis, for example? When he gets onto something he really knows about, such as the inner workings of the minds of dons, he is fascinating, as when he has a character called Littlejohn muse thus:

"Dons are inherently conservative. And, equally, they are inherently Philistine. It is a thing chiefly to be remarked - he added grimly to himself - among some of those who give themselves airs of taste. The speculative intelligence - it comes down to this - is radically inimical to the imaginative and aesthetic. The thing is evident in the current architectural chaos. It has long been evident in those university disciplines that march, willynilly, along with any manifestation of the creative mind. Consider - Littlejohn told himself - the university's senior litterateurs, steeped since childhood in an education conceived precisely as Addison or Johnson conceived education, who so ludicrously back the wrong horses in every department of the contemporary and developing artistic or literary scene."

I am glad to have read both books, I enjoyed the process. I may well seek out other JIM Stewarts, if I find them for under £1. Perhaps not a resounding cry in favour of literary resurrection but not as feeble as it may first appear - I am after all stating that I am happy to spend many more hours in the company of this forgotten novelist. And time, after all, is a precious commodity, especially when one is as ancient as I am.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Stuck Up

I have a pair of earrings that I bought on impulse, which is, by the way, something that I almost never do. I am of the, "Hmm, I think I like that, but I need to think about it" breed of person. Mostly I come back two weeks later and look at the thing I've thought I might like, and then a month after that I visit it again and then, at last, six and a half months after first seeing the object, I wake up gripped by a desperate urge to buy whatever it is.

As you can imagine, this method saves a lot of money, as very few things remain in shops for such a long time - and, indeed, in the case of these earrings I'm going to tell you about, the shop itself - one of those all round knick-knack businesses that sell nothing anyone actually needs, but on the other hand it was on Bong Bong Street, (yes, really), the main street of Bowral, which is a town where people are so wealthy they are no longer in the realm of actual "needs" when out shopping - vanished.

I think my hesitancy about taking the plunge and laying out hard cash in shops arises from a time when I was very young and working in a fairly miserable job in a dole office, while finishing off a degree in Russian at Melbourne University. Perhaps I could say that it arises from a trauma I suffered while doing all of the above? Perhaps.

Anyway, trauma or no, while I was definitely not poverty stricken, I also wasn't paid very much, and I greatly disliked the work that brought in what money I had. Despite this - or maybe because: was unhappiness the motivation; who knows, the human mind is a very strange thing - on my lunch break one day, when I saw a pair of jeans with red piping sewn onto them in a pattern, I bought them immediately.

As I say, I wasn't left poverty stricken; nevertheless, when I took the trousers home and tried them on I immediately realised I'd made a blunder and wasted money that I'd actually earned the hard way. I have no idea what I can have been thinking at the time I bought them as I don't even really like denim - too stiff and heavy - and I certainly don't like wide leg trousers and these were so wide that each leg seemed almost to be competing to see if it could measure the same side to side as from top to bottom. I can only think that somehow I'd allowed myself to be seduced by the scarlet piping pattern that some jolly seamstress had spooled all over the wide blue sea that spread out from knee to ankle on each side.

I never ever wore those trousers, not even in private. I kept them for years though, and every time I glimpsed them at the back of the cupboard I became more reluctant to make a shopping decision quickly. When they finally vanished, victims, I imagine of one of my mother's unauthorised clear-outs, (and thereby hangs a tale), it was too late; they were embedded in my being.  To this day, they still haunt me, despite no longer existing - or at least not existing in my possession. To be truthful, I am shuddering slightly even as I write about them now.

Shakes self. Where was I? Oh yes, the earrings that I bought on impulse. Yes, they became two of my favourite possessions, of all time - and that despite the sneaking suspicion that they are not actually elegant nor fall within the category that includes things that are deemed to be good taste. Somehow this doesn't stop me liking them. I think it is their colour, (could there be a pattern emerging - the red of the piping fooled me and now the blue of the shiny crystal on my earrings beguiles me to forget about elegance and good taste, when generally I am at the vanguard of those two things, hem hem). Loving the earrings as I - rightly or wrongly - do, imagine my sorrow when the other day I trod on one of them and the little gem that hangs from it broke off.

The earrings were cheap, I should point out, but their price was irrelevant. They were cheap, but to me they were invaluable. Therefore, there was no choice: I needed to fix them; I couldn't live without them in my life - or, more accurately, my ears. So today I finally got to a hardware shop and bought some glue to stick metal surfaces together. As soon as I got the stuff home, I got out the broken earring and followed the glue's instructions, trying to refasten the sparkly blue jewel part to the bit that hangs it off my ear. Almost immediately, I struck a problem. It turned out that there was no instant bonding to be expected - the two surfaces needed to be left together, undisturbed over several hours, so that the glue could set and they would be permanently (barring further idiocies on my part) rejoined.

How was I to manage this? Try as I might I couldn't find a way to get the wiry hanging bit of the earring to sit in a position where the gem I was trying to glue back onto it didn't get pushed off to one side or the other.

But years of watching Blue Peter came to the rescue. I may never have managed to create a truly successful Dougal from the Magic Roundabout (an empty Fairy Liquid bottle, plus scraps of wool were the basic ingredients), but at least I absorbed the make do and mend approach. Remembering that this morning I had thrown away a mandarine that was getting a bit inedibly squashy on one side, I retrieved it, took a knife, made a slit, and hey presto, I had a perfect holder for my earring while the glue dried. Just in case the mandarine should roll in any direction, I also retrieved a hard plastic case that had contained some Medjool dates and wedged the fruit securely into one of its sections:

Let no one ever say that watching television is a waste of time.

Monday, 27 November 2017

True Crime

I love the crime fiction of what is called the Golden Age - the books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers especially. Of course, I've always known, vaguely, that they have nothing whatsoever to do with anything that happened or happens in the actual world I live in. I've also been vaguely aware that there are many people now who have a passion for another kind of crime narrative called "True Crime" but until I looked at a couple of BBC documentaries about detectives working in the Manchester police, I didn't realise how sad and complex true crime stories can be.

In the two documentaries that I saw, the Manchester police were working on two cases. The first involved trying to work out who had killed a young homeless man who was found bashed to death in an area underneath some arches in the city. There he and various others of about his age who had somehow lost their way in life and succumbed to idleness, drugs and drink, had established something they thought was a kind of home. None of the people involved seemed irredeemably depraved, just lost and so hopelessly misguided that getting back to anything approaching a stable existence seemed unlikely. They were people's children but, for whatever reason - either never having themselves had stable homes or perhaps just wilfully - they had tumbled out of normal life. Yet they imagined they had established some kind of little tribe or team, a band of brothers (and one sister), until one night violence broke out, pointlessly, senselessly, and one of them was savaged to death by the others.

The second case also involved homeless people but the victim was not homeless, just extremely confused. He was a young student who, for whatever reason, began to try to hang round some drunks who spent their time in an open space in the city centre. The student told the drunks he had started to like wearing women's clothes. Possibly he also came along dressed in women's clothes - this wasn't made absolutely clear.

Anyway one of the drunks became very angry and chased the student away, with threats of violence. The student disappeared for a while but, when he turned up again, the drunk who had chased him away decided to pretend not to mind him and even asked if he could come to his house for a shower. When the student agreed and the two went to the place where he lived, the drunk murdered him. He then gave himself up to the police, explaining that he knew he would do it again and he wanted to be locked up.

This murderer was a wretched soul, but he had the redeeming quality of being able to stand outside himself. He had done a terrible thing but I found it astonishing that he was able to recognise that there was one part of his personality that he couldn't control and, puzzlingly, given the deeply immoral thing he had just done, to make a moral choice to prevent himself from ever doing such a thing again. The film included a poignant sequence in which we saw this man talking to his mother on the telephone, comforting her, telling her that she must always have known this would happen, that he'd always been a wrong 'un, persuading her that he had to be locked up as he didn't want to kill again and knew he couldn't stop himself.

This was so puzzling - a man who was capable of great evil, who had committed an act of great evil, who believed he could not prevent himself from repeating that act, but who also did not want to commit evil. Thus, in the same body, there existed two contradictory impulses, and he was attempting to overcome the evil that was part of him by having himself locked up.

These were not entertaining stories, there was none of the sense you get in Agatha Christie of a perfect world, its calm shattered briefly by violence, but by the end everything mended and made orderly again. This was reality, not escapism, this was the messiness of human beings and our strange nature. These stories were much more intriguing, of course, than the entertainments featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. All the same, an evening on the Orient Express was, on the whole, the more enjoyable experience, while I recognise that all we were being given was a beautiful pantomime.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Pensioned Off I

Until recently, my husband used to disappear for hours and hours and tether himself to a desk in an office where he worked incredibly hard, only being released for a week here and there, when we would dash off somewhere, exhilirated for the first two days but gradually overwhelmed by the knowledge that the days of holiday ahead were becoming fewer and the moment when he had to return and chain himself back to the desk in the office were approaching rapidly.

However, on 6th October, blessed day, my husband became a pensioner. Now we are free to travel with no prospect of an end. While I hope that we will not actually just end up in perpetual motion, for the time being I understand his pleasure in whizzing off in the car, exploring new places, with the knowledge that, should he wish, the trip need never end. No desk, no office, no chain in prospect. This is freedom.

My husband - henceforth, I guess, to be known as the pensioner, thus avoiding absurdly regal "my husband and I" echoes  - is someone more full of curiosity and more meticulous about researching what interests him than anyone I have ever known. He asks questions I never think of, making me feel that I pass through the world with my brain switched off. Our travels are usually dictated by his pursuit of some abstruse line of inquiry that is preoccupying him. This makes things often unusual and varyingly interesting.

To begin this holiday, the newly fledged pensioner chose Bohinj in Slovenia as our destination. We had been there almost twenty years ago and he was a) curious to know whether the place had changed much and b) eager to see the hotel where Agatha Christie once stayed, which he had heard was undergoing renovation.

It turned out that Bohinj as a landscape had not changed and was still very beautiful:

The falls at the end of Bohinj Lake have also remained the same, but the numbers of people climbing up to see them has increased enormously:

The authorities have also fenced everything in since our last visit. In earlier times we were able to sit right by the waterfall itself. Some busybody must have decided this was unsafe - or some idiot must have fallen in and drowned.

On the positive side, this memorial is now unmissable, whereas it never was so prominent in the past, so far as I remember:
It commemorates a visit to the falls by Archduke John of Austria on 15 August 1807. Very little seems to have resulted from this visit other than the erection of this memorial, which commemorates the visit that resulted in the memorial. This somehow reminds me not only of the "My name is Ron Ronson, I live in Wisconsin" ditty in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 but also of the time when it was Harvest Festival at the English Church in Vienna (where we were living - Vienna generally, I mean, not the church specifically) and autumn leaves, apples, pumpkins et cetera had been placed about the church to decorate it in a suitable way.  The wonderful vicar there, Jeremy Peake, asked the children who were present that day why the church was decorated thus and one replied, 'Because it is Harvest Festival.' 'Yes', Jeremy said encouragingly, 'and what do we do at Harvest Festival?' "Decorate the church like this', came the answer.

Sadly, some of our compatriots also felt the need to commemorate their visit to Bohinj:

thus assisting in ruining this rather pretty wooden hut:

I suppose it would be racist to point out that someone called Drago may not have been an Australian for terribly long or have deep cultural roots in our fine nation, and therefore should not be judged as expressing the nation's soul, so I won't.

We walked from the end of the lake where we were staying all the way to the falls and then back along the other side of the lake, where we came upon a war cemetery. A storyboard at the entrance explained that when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, Bohinj became the "immediate rear end" (I think this could have been phrased more elegantly) of the battlefield in the Krn mountain range. The main supply route of the 15th Austro-Hungarian Mountain Brigade ran through Bohinj, (presumably the town, rather than the lake) and the final stage of the military aerial cableway leading to Komna Mountain was at this spot, called Ukanc, where there were several warehouses of military material and many, mostly Russian, prisoners of war. The troops left Bohinj in November 1917, after the Italians retreated to the Piave River but from June 1915 to November 1917 infantry soldiers were buried at Ukanc, particularly after fierce battles in the summer and autumn of 1915. There are 282 graves in the cemetery. Most of those buried there are Hungarian, Polish or Ukrainian, although there are also Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, Romanians, Serbs and Slovenes, as well as 17 Russian, 2 Romanian and 1 Italian prisoners of war, who built military roads, railways, cut wood, carried military supplies, et cetera, and were not given much food, according to the board. As many as 14 graves have been lost or contain two soldiers.

I had no idea until we stumbled upon it that this peaceful place had been the scene of anything remotely warlike, but I was clearly naive:

But let's talk about happy things - in this case, the Slovene approach to design, which is individual and rather sweet. We didn't see any men with circular white faces accompanied by small girls with aerials coming out of their heads nor any children filled with innocent vim, but presumably they appear from time to time:

At our hotel, we were never quite certain which of these meant that the cleaning lady could come into our room and which meant she couldn't:
Psst - clean my room now?
Do you fancy bringing a budgie and a broom in now?

Actually, I've just remembered - we didn't actually start in Bohinj; that was just where we stopped overnight. Our very first stop of all - although only for a few hours - was Siofok, where we visited the birthplace of Emmerich Kalman, creator of numerous operettas, most successfully, in my opinion, The Gypsy Princess. These pictures show rooms in the museum they have made from the house where he was born:

Kalman, like his fellow countryman and fellow operetta composer, Lehar, produced work that Hitler liked. However, while Lehar attempted to compromise with the Nazi regime - (this is from Wikipedia on the subject: Lehár's relationship with the Nazi regime was an uneasy one. He had always used Jewish librettists for his operas and had been part of the cultural milieu in Vienna which included a significant Jewish contingent.[2] Further, although Lehár was Roman Catholic, his wife, Sophie (née Paschkis) had been Jewish before her conversion to Catholicism upon marriage, and this was sufficient to generate hostility towards them personally and towards his work. Hitler enjoyed Lehár's music, and hostility diminished across Germany after Joseph Goebbels' intervention on Lehár's part.[3] In 1938 Mrs. Lehár was given the status of "Ehrenarierin" (honorary Aryan by marriage).[4] Nonetheless, attempts were made at least once to have her deported. The Nazi regime was aware of the uses of Lehár's music for propaganda purposes: concerts of his music were given in occupied Paris in 1941. Even so, Lehár's influence was limited. It is alleged that he tried personally to secure Hitler's guarantee of the safety of one of his librettists, Fritz Löhner-Beda, but he was not able to prevent the murder of Beda in Auschwitz-III.[5]
On 12 January 1939 and 30 April 1940 Lehár had personally received awards by Hitler in Berlin and Vienna, including the Goethe Medal.[6] On Hitler's birthday in 1938 Lehár had given him as a special gift a red Morocco leather volume in commemoration of the 50th performance of The Merry Widow.[7]) )
Kalman did not. Like Lehar's wife, Kalman was offered the status of honorary Aryan but wisely refused it, (such a revolting offer). In the museum, the exhibit that most intrigued me was a newspaper clipping showing a photograph of Kalman and Lehar meeting after the war. There is something about Kalman's expression that suggests a kind of pity and Lehar has a melancholy about him. I wonder what their feelings towards each other were.

Anyway, to return to Bohinj, after the rather miserable discovery of the war cemetery, we continued on and were soon cheered not only by the rather sweet road signs but also by the sight of this church:

As I mentioned, part of the pensioner's aim in revisiting Bohinj was to take a look at a hotel where Agatha Christie once stayed, (and, possibly slightly less significantly, where we once had lunch 30 years ago).

To this end, on the morning of the day following our hike around the lake, we set off in the direction where we remembered the hotel standing. We soon found it but, sadly, it was quite abandoned and appeared to have been for some time, (this is not the first abandoned hotel to turn up on this blog, by the way):

We agreed that the hotel, regrettably, now belonged to a category invented inadvertently by my mother-in-law when she came to stay while we were looking for a flat to buy in Budapest. Her invariable comment as we went from one dauntingly dilapidated place to another was, (in not entirely enthusiastic tones): "Could be lovely". This phrase, shortened to CBL, has passed into our own private dialect.

Sadly, back at our own hotel, we were told the Christie hotel has now been bought and the new owners intend to knock down every part of it except the stone base. They will then rebuild it, making it "nice and modern". The receptionist did not understand why we were shocked by this. "It is made of wood", she said, as if this were a bad thing. "Yes", we said, "it is made of wood", as if this were a good thing. It was obvious that we were never going to find a meeting of minds. Presumably, the renovation will wipe out even the interior of the room where Christie stayed, which until now has been preserved and which you can see if you click on the photographs at the top of the page here. Incidentally, although the hotel is shown on that page as having a price of two million euros, we were told it was sold to the Catholic Church of Slovenia for a mere six hundred thousand. So clearly any potential  investors in that part of the world need to think carefully about offering full price.

Sadly, there are other lovely abandoned hotels in the neighbourhood:

 This one stands empty, facing the kind of modern one that the receptionist and, sadly, I suspect, her fellow locals think has much more style:

Never mind, the evening after we were in Bohinj, we ended up in a small place in Bavaria where they were celebrating the feast of St Leonhard. There was no suggestion that anyone there thought that there should be a shred of out with the old and in with the new anywhere ever; the entire population of the village where we were staying had come out dressed in traditional costume and were intent on getting traditionally plastered while eating hearty traditional food:
Okay, sorry, that was rather long and I do recognise that I have said more than enough for now. I suppose I ought to admit though that, having covered a good deal more territory since St Leonhard's day and got excited by all sorts of things I have seen and done since then, there will almost certainly be more blog entries like this one - Internet age slide nights, essentially. You have been warned.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Budapest Dreaming I

We're on a trip away from Budapest and, although its only been a few days, I'm missing the city already. To help explain why, here is a little post showing the numerous things I saw that I thought lovely or intriguing during a really pretty short walk that I made the day before we left the city.

The walk took me from the city's main market up the bottom end of the famous pedestrian street called Vaci utca to the bank we use, where I had to organise some stuff. I've done that walk lots of times before but, as always, I quickly realised that there is always more to see.

To begin, I deliberately came out on the river side of the market so that I could look up the street to my right and admire this lovely building:

Then I crossed the ring road and walked toward the building I'd been admiring - and then past it and round the corner, noticing for the first time this rather charmingly gormless person on the facade of a dashingly salmon-painted building a little further along the same stretch:

and a lion on another nearby:
 In fact quite a few lions:
Lions can get a bit boring - their sculptors never seem to make as much effort to give them character as they do with the faces of people.

I've walked this stretch so many times but until the other afternoon I'd never noticed all the decorative faces and figures there were to admire:

The best discovery was an adorable sequence of what you might call scenes from childhood stretching across the front of a Serbian church edifice:

A little further on I stopped to admire one of my favourite buildings on that stretch of Vaci utca - I love the eaves especially:

I don't know how I could never have noticed that the next section contains buildings whose decorative features give the Brussels Art Nouveau facades I grew to love a good run for their money:

Before I reached those though, there were a few more traditional decorations I hadn't really taken notice of before, including one building with the kind of peering out of porthole faces that I first saw on an ancient bank in Siena and that I particularly love:

I cannot have walked even a kilometre but there was so much to look at. Budapest is an endlessly visually interesting city - I don't think I've been anywhere that quite rivals it:

Right at the end of my walk, I came upon these two intriguing memorials. This attractive scene seems to be in honour of King Charles XII of Sweden who rested on the spot where it hangs after riding to Budapest from Turkey in the early 18th century - flipping long way to come without any rest earlier:

This one presumably indicates that once a pottery operated on the spot where a rather lavish building now stands. Intriguing. I will have to try to find out more
When your other home is Canberra, a planned city brought into being by bureaucrats in the early 20th century, (and a very lovely place to live, don't imagine I'm criticising, only comparing and contrasting), it is exciting to feel history all around you in the way one does in Budapest. And perhaps after all I am criticising just a little, in the sense that Canberra's architecture is mostly post-1960 and rarely reveals new details to the passer by, in the way Budapest's invariably does.