Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Could Be Lovely

When I was looking for a place to buy in Budapest, a friend came to stay with me, and I made her join me as I went from address to address, trying to find what I wanted. Eventually I abandoned the project while she was with me, because her heart wasn't in it. Each time, I'd find something I regarded as a gem, I'd turn to her and see her unhappy expression.

She couldn't understand what the hell I was doing. All these tumbledown places looked squalid and careworn and grubby to her. To be polite she used the same phrase over and over again in response to my enthusiasm. 'It could be lovely', she would say, without any conviction. 'It could be lovely, I suppose.'

She was right, of course, although she didn't know it. Most of the places we saw were totally CBL, as we came to call it - the whole point of the project was to find something in precisely that state of possibility. For some reason, what particularly appealed to me was the thought of restoring something miserably delapidated to something like its former glory.

After my friend left, I eventually found exactly the thing I wanted. It had a hole in the ceiling, where the snow had been so heavy that the roof had crashed in, and a number of other similar bruises and blemishes, but they were all fixable, and now it's lovely - and the proportions of the rooms are enough to ensure you can never feel sad (16 foot ceilings, each room 30 square metres, no sense of being pressed into a box in that place).

Unfortunately, I only have a small amount of money and even less time, so I can't do anything about all the many, many neglected old buildings all over the various Eastern European countries that were once more or less reluctant members of the Soviet bloc. Perhaps though there are other people who don't know such places exist but just need me to tell them they are there, waiting for someone to recognise their could-be-loveliness.

I hope that's the case, because a friend has just told me that a house I visited a year or two ago in Western Romania is for sale, with all its land, its very own church, a wondrous greenhouse and the family graveyard, for a mere one hundred and fifty thousand Euros.It is in a landscape of such peace and beauty it would be impossible to be anything other than calm and happy there. As an added bonus, if you're a fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor, he visited the house when he was staying with friends nearby - he mentions it in Between the Woods and the Water

Look at these pictures and tell me you couldn't imagine turning the place back into an enchanted Grand Meaulnes kind of place (get in touch with me if you really are interested, and I'll put you in touch with my friend, who knows how to go about putting in an offer):

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Well What Is It

The title of this post comes from the Duchess of Devonshire - not that I'm namedropping; I've never met her, (and, speaking of namedropping, this week I heard Giles Brandreth on Just a Minute on BBC Radio 4 say, 'Even the Dalai Llama has said to me that I've got to stop namedropping', which I thought was funny).

The Duchess of Devonshire used the phrase, 'Well, what is it?' in a letter to Patrick Leigh Fermor about bureaucratese, (you can read the passage here - in fact I recommend you do, because she is a very funny woman). I've borrowed it because I want to write about the NT Live film of Coriolanus, which was performed at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

Is it a film or is it a play? I don't know, so I've posted what I want to say about it on my blog about the films I see as well as the one about the plays I see. It's a film of a play so - no, I'm not going to get into one of those White Knight-Haddock's Eyes digressions.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Something I Heard

As a reader, I am a coward and a cheat. That is, if I'm reading a novel and a character I like is under threat or the whodunnit element becomes too dominant, I skip madly, either to make sure things turn out all right, (and, if they appear not to do so, I abandon the book), or to find out which of the suspects is the culprit. To overcome this bad habit of mine, I have taken out a subscription to Audible and now I listen to recordings of certain kinds of books.

My reasoning is that it is pretty well impossible to skip forward in a book, and anyway the desire to do so is less overpowering than it is when you're reading it yourself. After all, the effort of listening is virtually non-existent, compared to the effort of reading; listening can be done while making the bed, weeding the garden or hanging out the washing. Rather than eating up valuable time, which you might be spending doing something dull but pressing, listening allows you to do the dull but pressing things and hardly notice how dull they actually are.

Thus far, I've only listened to unabridged books, and usually the ones I've chosen have been detective stories. I started quite respectably with The Moonstone and The Woman in White and progressed through Edmund Crispin and Margery Allingham, (both of whom are so good I really prefer reading them, whereas Wilkie Collins is enough of a windbag that I might well have lost patience had it been me turning the actual pages), to Inspector Wexford et al.

From time to time though I've departed from my life of crime to try out things I know I would never stick with, if I encountered them on the printed page. Robert Bolano's 2666 was the last of this sort that I had a go at, and I'm ashamed to admit that even on audio I couldn't actually listen to every word of that long, briliant, but not terribly involving book. In fact, for some time Bolano deterred me from further experimentation. Crossing Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace off my list of future listens, I turned back for some months to unmitigated frivolity. Then a week or two ago I pulled myself together and decided to make another attempt to listen to something I was fairly certain I would never have the patience to get through, if I were reading it with my eyes rather than my ears.

The book I chose was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I've finished it now, and I am full of admiration. While the book has been described as Dickensian, presumably because of its size, its array of characters, its occasionally barely believable plot developments, as well as the many twists of fortune the main character is forced to submit to, it is Dostoevsky's The Idiot that is referred to regularly in the text. Since the vision of the world offered by The Goldfinch tends less towards a Dickensian sense of the comedy of human endeavour and more towards a Dostoevskian apocalyptic bleakness, this may be a better parallel to make.

Stretches of the book also read, (if that's the word to use, in the context), like Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, (which is possibly not entirely at odds with being Dostoevskian). Others have the nightmarish quality of some sort of amalgam of Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouac, (the latter mainly comes to mind because of the vast quantities of drugs that are from time to time consumed). Tartt also plays with Walter Benjamin's concept of 'aura' regarding works of art, in amongst numerous other themes.

What particularly endeared the book to me was the character of Boris, a Ukrainian who befriends the narrator when the two of them are in their teens. Perhaps it was merely the talent of the reader on the mp3 I listened to, but Boris was so vivid to me that, two days after finishing the last chunk of the book's audio, I am still missing his company.

In conclusion, I salute Donna Tartt's ambition in creating this wonderful, vivid entertainment. As the late Pete Seeger said, 'Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple'. While The Goldfinch is admirably complex in its plotting and the richness of its cast, (and I suspect Tartt thinks it's pretty complex in its conclusions about existence and reality, although I'm not convinced the whole thing is quite as deep as she hopes - there is a slightly soppy romanticism to some of the character's final pronouncements, and I suppose in this Dickens once again comes to mind), the book is simple in its old-fashioned form. As anyone who has ever tried to write fiction will know, writing in a form like that of The Goldfinch - essentially that of a sprawling Victorian novel, a modern David Copperfield - which strikes the modern eye as simple and unsophisticated, because apparently unknowing, is actually a great deal more difficult than writing something that deploys all the tricks of the post-modern novel.

There is no such thing as the perfect novel. A novel has to be messy and baggy, if it is to qualify as a novel.  It goes without saying, therefore, that The Goldfinch isn't a perfect novel. However, it is bold and fun and clever and vivid. Despite the odd inevitable flaw in the narrative, as a whole it is rewarding and really, really good.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Waiting for Telstra

There's an old joke from Communist Eastern Europe about a man who goes to buy a Trabant or Lada, (depending on which country you were in), car. The year is, say, 1984, and the salesman tells the man the car will be delivered in 1988. 'When?' asks the customer. 'October', the salesman tells him. 'When in October?' asks the customer. 'The tenth', replies the salesman.  'When on the tenth?' asks the customer. 'Why are you asking?' asks the salesman. 'Oh it's just that they're delivering the washing machine in the morning.'

That's what happens when you have monopolies. And Telstra, at least in rural Australia, is pretty much a monopoly - certainly all the people I know who live in the country don't dare use another supplier, because Telstra owns the lines and so, if anything goes wrong, they rely on Telstra to fix it, and, if they're not a Telstra customer, they have the impression that they're unlikely to get much help.

Which is how it came to pass that my mother and I spent yesterday waiting for Telstra. She'd received a telephone message last week bringing her the news that a Telstra technician would be coming amongst us some time between eight and twelve on Thursday, the twentieth, and I'd been drafted in, due to her touching, if misplaced, faith in my ability to speak tech.

By ten past twelve, it became clear that things were not going according to plan, and so we rang the number we'd been given by Telstra. A nice young woman in the Philippines commiserated with us and explained that the technicians might be running late,  (really? I wish I'd thought of that), but that there was absolutely no way that she or anyone else could contact them. She said she'd ring us back in an hour, to see if they'd arrived.

She didn't.

As we couldn't ring back the nice young woman in the Philippines, because cunningly she hadn't supplied either her name or a direct number, we decided to try the pleasant fellow who'd signed my mother up for the thing the technicians were coming out to fix up. We got through to him quite easily and he was as pleasant as when we'd first met him, but, just as his colleague in the Philippines had done already, he explained that it was completely impossible to contact the technicians to find out what might be going on.

The day dragged on. Nobody came. Eventually at four thirty the girl from the Philippines who'd said she'd ring hours earlier telephoned to tell us that 'due to the pressure of heavy workload' the technicians would not be coming to mum's place at all and that my mother would now have to make a new appointment. The day she proposed for the new appointment turned out to be the day to which my mother had rescheduled her appointment with the dentist - the one she was supposed to have yesterday, except that she thought that Telstra was coming. When my mother explained this, the girl said she'd ring back.

She didn't.

My main question at the end of all this is: how can it be that a company that is in the business of telecommunications is totally unable to communicate with its staff - namely, the uncontactable technicians - and how come those technicians are unable to telephone the people they are supposed to be visiting to tell them what is going on? Not only do we live in a world of mobile telephones and internet access - Telstra is the company that supplies these things. Isn't there something very wrong with the way it runs its own organisation, if, while going about the business of supplying telecommunications to its customers it is unable to use those same telecommunications to keep in touch with the people who work within it?

Perhaps the people at Telstra think all their customers are telepathic. We're not - that's why we need them to supply us with Internet and land lines and mobile telephones. And we're not asking for miracles, simply efficiency, something that all the advances in telecommunication should make easier. To put it simply: Telstra, why don't you just give your technicians mobile phones?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Doggedly Strange

I bought a year's subscription to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary just before Christmas, (it was on special), and it's providing me with hours of fun.

The thing I think I like best about it is looking up etymology. For instance, I wondered about the word 'dog', which, when you think about it, bears no similarity to any word referring to the kind of animals that 'dog' describes in any other European language. Where did 'dog' come from? Well, it turns out nobody knows.

The same is true of 'girl' and 'boy' and 'bird', all of which are also unlike words denoting similar things in other European languages.

More interestingly still, (stifle those yawns up the back there), 'dog' belongs to a whole group of words of unknown provenance - in this context, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary invite readers to compare 'frog', 'hog', 'stag', and 'pig', as well as the Old English words 'sugga' (see Haysugge - hedge sparrow) and 'wicga' (earwig?) and even, possibly, 'teg' (a sheep in its second year [should a sheep manage to survive beyond its second year, is there a word for that, I wonder - but I digress]).

This may not be your idea of fun, of course, but I haven't time to worry about that - I'm in too much of a hurry to get back to the dictionary site where I'm hoping I'll discover more about 'fun' itself - the word that is and where exactly it hails from

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Eamonn to That

In the Guardian, while writing about George Orwell's posthumously published essay on his days at prep school, Sam Leith confesses to being an old Etonian and presents a version of how an Etonian's character is formed that is rather different from the one mentioned here the other day:
"... its forms and hierarchies were easily internalised. I attribute to my education not only an uncountable number of advantages and privileges, but some of the characteristics I find least attractive in myself. I have a craven teacher-pleasing tendency: a deference to authority and a desire to excel within parameters established by others rather than to challenge those parameters. I am a more conventional – sometimes timid – thinker than I would like.
One aspect of that school's setup – the prefect system – still seems to me a stroke of ideological genius: an object lesson in co-option. There, as in St Cyprian's and any comparable institution, "virtue consisted in winning": the strong and beautiful attracted hero-worship. So the apex prefect body, "Pop", is self-elective: the most popular boys – ie those most in a position to lead others astray – are also the most thoroughly bought and sold.
Their special privilege is to peacock about in coloured waistcoats – and for this, they will dutifully and without pay perform tedious prison-trusty duties such as spending hours in the rain on Windsor bridge preventing younger boys sneaking to the pub. What is cleverest is that they wear the price at which they've been bought – shiny buttons and a swatch of brightly coloured cloth – on their chests.
We can certainly see about us those – need we mention names? – to whom politics seems to be the continuation of private school by other means. For those forever striving to regain the intoxication of having been a gilded god at 18, a cabinet post shines as the equivalent of election to Pop, and the prime ministerial job as the ultimate combination of head boy and victor ludorum.
At the same time there is a strong tradition of public schools acting on certain temperaments to produce absolutely the opposite: rebels whose anti-establishment zeal seems to have been fired by exposure to the rituals of that establishment at an early age. From Shelley (Eton) to Paul Foot (Shrewsbury), Tam Dalyell (Eton) to Tony Benn (Westminster), many prominent figures on the left have been public schoolboys.
"A school could be conducive to that, if you have a certain kind of mind, because it is a sort of oppressive dictatorship in miniature," says Karl Marx's biographer and Private Eye stalwart Francis Wheen. "Some of us found it so oppressive that we rebelled against it. I hated Harrow so much that I ran away when I was 16 and left a note for my parents saying: 'I've gone to join the Alternative Society' and scampered off to London and lived in a squat. It's fair to say in my case that my politics was formed in reaction to Harrow."
Talking about the current schisms in the Socialist Workers party, Wheen points out that the party's leader Alex Callinicos, grandson of the 2nd Lord Acton, was educated at a top private school and another senior leader, Charlie Kimber, is the Old Etonian son of a baronet. Also prominent in the brouhaha has been Dave Renton, an Old Etonian barrister related to a former Tory chief whip: "It sometimes reads like a conversation between Old Rugbeians and Old Etonians about the main British Trotskyist party. It's quite bizarre."
There is a popular school of thought, indeed, that holds that the treachery of the Cambridge spy ring was a reaction against their public school educations – an idea explored psychologically in (Old Wykehamist) Julian Mitchell's fine 1981 play Another CountryLindsay Anderson's film If …, meanwhile, dramatised the idea of the public school rebel as a sort of violent dream."
There is one aspect of Leith's analysis that I am unconvinced by and that is his belief that his deference to authority and unwillingness to challenge parameters is due to his education. To the extent that I am any kind of thinker at all, I am, like Leith, "a more conventional - sometimes timid - thinker than I would like". Sadly though, I believe that tendency is something one is born with; it is ingrained in one's essential character, rather than something one is taught. I wonder if others feel the same. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Words and Phrases, a Continuing Series

All right, I admit it, I can mount no reasonable argument to support my objections to the particular bit of usage I'm concerned with in this blogpost, beyond the fact that I hate being told what to do, particularly by strangers, combined, perhaps, with the feeling that a variety of uninformed assumptions are being made about what I might actually want from life by the utterer of this modern greeting.

But let's get to the point: if you say this to me, I begin to rather hate you; each time I hear or read this exhortation, I loathe it slightly more; the idea that I exist in an age in which such things are considered normal appals me. In short, whenever anyone utters the word, 'Enjoy!', as they present me with something - whether it be food, a drink, something to read, a person they've introduced me to, a seat at the theatre, et cetera et cetera - every tiny skerrick of enjoyment is instantly and completely drained from that moment of my life.

Perhaps what most irritates me about 'Enjoy!' is its implication that the person who says it has the right to grant me any kind of permission, that they have any sort of authority over me. Give me my dinner or whatever it is you are employed to do. Do it efficiently, and I will appreciate your skill. Telling me I must take pleasure from whatever it is you're giving me is bossy and annoying and almost certain to banish whatever small pleasure I might otherwise have gained from the event

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Ma Oie

The Duchess of Devonshire's observations about wild geese reminded me of Mark Doty's exceptionally beautiful poem called 'Migratory':

Migratory by Mark Doty

Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
seventeen wild geese arrowed the ashen blue
over the Wal-mart and the Blockbuster Video,

and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion--not in the parking lot,
the tallowy circles just appearing,

the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil. Their eyes
held me there, the unfailing gaze

of those who know how to fly in formation,
wing-tip to wing-tip, safe, fearless.
And the convex glamour of their eyes carried

the parking lot, the wet field
troubled with muffler shops
and stoplights, the arc of highway

and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
with its failing barn...The wind
a few hundred feet above the grass

erases the mechanical noises, everything;
nothing but their breathing
and the perfect rowing of the pinions,

and then, out of that long, percussive pour
toward what they are most certain of,
comes their--question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria--as delivered
by something too compelled in its passage
to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length
of me until I am involved in their flight,
the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
needing nothing...Only animals
make me believe in God now

--so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
But I wasn’t with them,

as they headed toward Acushnet
and New Bedford, of course I wasn’t,
though I was not exactly in the parking lot

either, with the cars nudged in and out
of their slots, each taking the place another
had abandoned, so that no space, no desire

would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing
--is that what that sound is for?--

I seemed to be nowhere at all

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Better Late Than Never

I ought to have said so before, but in August there was something on The Dabbler blog that I wrote about a book by the Duchess of Devonshire. I was reminded of it because I have been reading her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The Duchess likes to pretend she is awfully dim, but she's actually tremendously clever, as the following excerpts from her letters attest. Some of them are about the years when her husband was somehow involved with the Department of Trade and they had to entertain civil servants and foreign dignitaries.

I have experienced similar evenings to those she describes in her letters of 8th December 1960 and 12th February 1985. She is actually almost too brilliantly accurate - the memories came flooding back rather more vividly than I really would have liked:

17th November, 1960

"I'd never seen or heard wild geese before. Have you ever? A fantastic noise, like a lot of women at a cocktail party in the sky, tumbling over each other for the best place in the air."

8th December, 1960

" ... we've had the first small taste of official entertaining ... It's a new world and a rum one. The Ceylons (ie Ceylon High Commissioner to London, plus wife), live in a plain house in Addison Road, never an ornament to be seen, but many chairs placed about the room like those lounges where television interviews take place. No fire, not even electric, but bright lights and central heating.
     Very well then. I thought it would be Andrew and me and some Ceylonese people. Not at all. It was for grandees like Ld. Home, Ld. Mountbatten, Mrs Pandit, Ld. Soulbury, laced with a few gloomy faces like Mr and Mrs Creech Jones and various anonymous but high up civil servants.
     I was lucky and sat by Ld. Home. He is sweet and looks like an amiable goat, but does not smell or anything. Lady Home is one of those large English county ladies with a loud voice, but comforting because of their unchangingness, usually to be seen and heard on saints' days at Eton. She wore an electric blue dress of strange shape and nameless stuff and huge dirty diamonds on a huge clean bosom.
     Ld. Mountbatten shouted about the bag at Six-Mile Bottom to me across the table and scarcely addressed a word to the lady in a sari whose dinner it was. When the pudding loomed - jelly - he said very crossly to the hired waiter, 'What on earth's all this?' It makes one despair of the behaviour of some hopeless English people.
     When we'd all stuck it till eleven, Ld. Home was very polite and said to the hostess, 'I'm afraid we must very reluctantly tear ourselves away.' I thought that was better.

6th December, 1963

     We went to Washington for his [JFK's] funeral. Oh, it was strange. The Americans aren't suited to tragedy. They like everything to be great!

12th February, 1985

     What would Lady Redesdale [the duchess's mother] say, asking a lot of people to dinner who I've never met. No women except me, and when you've eaten a bit someone taps on a glass and says now we'll hear what you all think and everyone (except me, of course, too stupid) shouts out a lot of tosh about dollars and exchange rates and employment and unemployment and some of them talk in that new language which is incomprehensible but it is FASCINATING, a new world to me as you can imagine. (A paper belched out by their offices about some huge scheme said something was a revolving evergreen facility. Well, what is it?)

18th February, 1986

     The trouble is I'm starting a new book. I can't think of anything else but I can't do it, so the result is NOTHING. Nothing done which ought to be done and everything left undone.
     The first sentence is very trying, you'll admit. Famous Authors (that fraudulent thing in America which explains how to be one) says write 'the' on a bit of paper (well what else could it be on) and then put down some more words. I ask you. Then I thought, 'Well', as all interviewees on the wireless begin. No good. And 'like' and 'it came to pass.' No good either. So I looked at a few ghoul vols., no help. I think it will be 'if', like Kipling, but the nub of the ensuing sentence is Dutch to nearly everyone, not to you because you know everything and not to my editor (R Garnett) because he knows everything, but to ninety-nine per cent of the fools who read books.' [she was writing a book about the Chatsworth Estate, which she did in the end manage to finish and a quick look at Amazon reveals she finally chose this sentence as her starting point:

"In Bess of Hardwick's day there was no parkland to the west of the river."]

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Great Things

Oh lord, get me onto a subject and I'm like a broken record. Yes, I know. It is true. Nevertheless, I'm not yet quite ready to leave the subject of whether being a banker or a civil engineer or a teacher is a better route to achieving great things.

Yesterday, I watched the latest episode of the BBC's Tough Young Teachers series, and this moment in it struck me as evidence that, whatever the merits of those other professions, being a teacher is definitely one route to achieving 'great things':