Saturday, 24 September 2016

Too Precious

I have always assumed that the whole point of both the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games is to inspire. What other possible effect is meant to be created by the spectacle of athletes who have dedicated themselves to being among the best in their fields - with all the self-denial that inevitably entails - competing one against another?

Given this is what I've always imagined, I was naturally fairly astounded to read this piece of advice from an Australian organisation serving people with disabilities:

I really admired Stella Young but I don't think she was right when she made that comment - or she is being quoted out of context. Furthermore, in answer to the question about whether I'd use the word if an athlete didn't have a disability, yes, I would. Olympic and Paralympic athletes are equally inspirational and share so much in their efforts to become exactly that.

Each has to overcome pain and temptation and failing motivation and so forth, in order to emerge as a sportsman, (by which, sigh, I also mean sportswoman, just as The Ascent of Man is the story of all humankind), of extraordinary excellence. Every four years when the two sets of games come round, I watch and am briefly inspired to try to redouble my efforts to keep at least vaguely fit. And, if I am slightly more inspired by Paralympians than by Olympians, it is not because I am being patronising but simply because to date I have read nothing to suggest that any of them are drug cheats, which sadly cannot be said for all players in the Olympics themselves.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Funny Man

If you found the seashells sketch I put on here a while ago amusing, then you might like to hear more from its creator, John Finnemore. People who spend their lives making others laugh deserve our gratitude. I think he does it better than most right now.

Sunday, 18 September 2016


From time to time, spinning along in a car down some highway or other, I have noticed gliders in the sky. Sometimes they are being hauled upwards by small planes to which they are attached like water-skiers behind speed boats. Sometimes they are untethered, simply doing what their name implies.

I've never met anyone who has been in a glider. At least, I've never consciously met anyone who has. I suppose someone I've talked to may have been up in one and I simply did not ask the right question. On the other hand, I rather think that anyone who is keen on gliding would talk about it without any prompting. It is an activity that looks as if it requires such a lot of effort to get involved in that only those who are preoccupied with little else take part.

I wonder what makes someone decide to launch themselves in a capsule by themselves high above the earth? A difficult home life, possibly, except that there are easier solutions to that conundrum. There is a story I love by a Soviet writer called Vasili Aksyonov in which a character falls in love with flying in aeroplanes. At one point he quotes a child's song that goes like this: "Pilots sit in the sky as their aeroplanes fly and look down on the earth from on high". Perhaps that is the sensation people who get into gliders are looking for. That story, however, is about someone who loves machinery, engines, the new technology, (of the beloved Communist state, if you choose to read that implication, which I don't, as I think Aksyonov was far from being a propagandist) and I doubt that is part of the attraction of gliding, (the Aksyonov story is called Halfway to the Moon, by the way, and you can read an English translation of it here).

In fact, I think I read somewhere that a great delight of gliding is the peacefulness of the experience - which is a result of the craft having no engine at all and being extremely low tech and consequently making no sound. Personally I doubt I would find the peace and quiet that results delightful. My problem would be an overwhelming fear that the lack of sound was the result of the lack of an engine and the lack of an engine implied the lack of any means of defying the forces of gravity.

Although clearly gliders do not drop straight out of the sky, otherwise the glimpses one gets of them from motorways would be extremely brief and equally horrifying, rather than simply puzzlimg. Presumably the little planes are made of balsa wood or something of similarly limited weight. And yet they must be quite sturdy, as surely balsa wood would disintegrate on impact with the ground at the point of landing.

Or maybe it would unless it was glided (glid?) skilfully. Perhaps that is the pleasure of the activity - the delight in doing something well. But that raises the question of how, at least in the past, before the advent of machines that mimic reality, one learned to glide well. Perhaps it was simply a Darwinian survival of the fittest thing.

One reason I've always been intrigued by gliders is that as a child I read a story that until now I thought was about gliding. Looking at it again all these years later, I see that it isn't at all; it's about a monoplane, which I must have confused with a glider. All the same, I still rather like it. It's called The Horror of the Heights and it's by Arthur Conan-Doyle. It has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes but possibly hints at Conan-Doyle's preoccupation with spiritualism. I recommend it as a curiosity. You can read it here.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Battered Penguins - Huntingtower by John Buchan

Huntingtower is a story whose central character is not Buchan's more famous creation, Richard Hannay, but the slightly more complex, far less dashing figure of Dickson McCunn.

The novel is set in Scotland just after the First World War. Dickson McCunn has just retired from thirty-five years in charge of a large shop in Glasgow and decides to set off on a walking holiday in the highlands of Scotland. Puzzlingly, Buchan provides him with a wife, who is not accompanying him, as she likes to holiday at something called a "hydropathic", a place McCunn loathes. A moment of regret allows the reader to discover that "Once he and his wife had had similar likings, but they had taken different roads since their child died." This unsettling fact remains entirely in the background, a faint hint of something rather sad, beneath what is essentially a highly romantic adventure story.

McCunn soon finds himself "pitchforked out of ... that old happy world ... the cosy inn, the Compleat Angler, the Chavender or Chub" and instead drawn into a complicated but exciting plot involving a Russian princess and some terrible baddies. He, together with the urchins known as the Gorbals Die-Hards and a couple of others, eventually saves the day, needless to say.

It is all very enjoyable escapism and wonderfully unselfconscious in the display of prejudices and attitudes that would probably not pass muster were the manuscript to appear in a publisher's office today - to pluck one example out, this piece of dialogue should suffice:"I think you are worse than a coward. I think you are a cad." There is evidence of insight into character - "Now it is an odd trait of certain mild people that a suspicion of threat, a hint of bullying will rouse some unsuspected obstinacy deep down in their souls" - and understanding of humanity in general - "civilisation anywhere is a very thin crust". There is quite a lot of good food, which I've recorded elsewhere on this blog. There are some rather good sayings - someone is described as a "Bit hairy about the heels" and on a stormy day someone observes, "the wind's enough to take the wings off a seagull".

The Gorbals Die Hards "those gallant little boys", are a wonderful invention, that "ring of small shockheads ... so tiny, so poor, so pitifully handicapped and yet so bold in their meagreness", The repudiation of the fear Dickson has that he is too old to act is very comforting for older readers and the verse he sustains himself with:

What's a man's age? He must hurry more, that's all;
Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold:
When we mind labour, then only, we're too old - 
What age had Methusalem when he begat Saul?

is worth keeping in mind, at least the first two lines anyway.

Similarly the contention that what makes Dickson so terrific is that he is "what they call the middle class ... the stuff which above all others makes a great people ... [that] will endure when aristocracies and proletariats crumble" is very satisfying if you too are middle class - and few who read and enjoy Buchan will be anything else.

But perhaps what turns the book from merely enjoyable to great is this passage:

"...he glanced towards the just-vacated chair. 'Australian,' he said.
'How d'you know?'
'Can't mistake them. There's nothing else so lean and fine produced on the globe today. I was next door to them at Pozieres and saw them fight. Lord! Such men! Now and then you had a freak, but most looked like Phoebus Apollo.'

Such wisdom, such truth. Did I say this was a rollicking adventure story? I was wrong - it is a magnificent work of literature, natch.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Channeling Blanche Dubois

Having woken one morning recently to discover we had been robbed while we slept - actually it took us two hours to realise, as we kept persuading ourselves that there must be another reason for that window having been left open and that cushion torn, that computer not being where we'd left it, that painting no longer hanging where it belonged, (or indeed anywhere at all in the entire house), et cetera - I was feeling a little bruised.

In a way one of the things that made me feel particularly bruised was the realisation that, having finally accepted that we had been burgled, I was actually, at least on one level, faintly relieved. There has been so much shocking news popping up so often lately that a mere break-in seemed almost small beer, compared to other worse possibilities that I discovered were lurking in the back of my mind.

All in all, the event was not cheering and so, when, shortly after the break-in, someone mentioned something about how we will all soon be watching the collapse of Western civilisation, my instinct was to nod, gloomily. If people can break in while you're in bed and take your stuff, where will it all end, I thought. The enemies are everywhere. No one can be trusted. Threats lie behind every bush.

Luckily though, the next thing that happened was my car broke down.

Mind you, I didn't immediately realise I'd had a stroke of luck when I stuck the key in the ignition at a motorway petrol station in Hampshire and discovered that the engine would not turn over. There was no cheery yell of "Hurray" issuing from my lips. On the other hand, having already put up with my house being turned over by strangers, I didn't feel enormously upset either.

I was fairly sure it would turn out to be a problem with the battery, so I began approaching total strangers to see if any of them had jump leads. None did, but that didn't matter. They all reacted sympathetically and were astonishingly eager to help. A man with a vanload of coffins began burrowing away in various cupboards behind his driving seat. A young fellow with a battery pack, on his way back from a festival of some kind, had a go, apologetically, as, just as he'd said, it had been used to charge too many mobile telephones over the weekend and was as flat as my own battery. Eventually, the Filipino who ran the service station discovered a set of leads on a shelf somewhere at the back of the shop. He came out and told me that, as they were terribly expensive, he was going to open them for me and use them and then put them back in the packet again. It turned out they were five pounds ninety nine, but he wouldn't hear of me shelling out.

So amid much cheeriness and general helpfulness, I got going again. I drove into Fleet and stopped at Ravenscroft Motors, which I'd discovered from Google Maps was the closest car mender to where I was.

Everything in there was frantic. Mandy on the front desk was fielding about eight telephone calls a minute, but she still found time for me. The boss came out and I explained my situation. They studied the worksheet and agreed they were incredibly busy. That didn't seem to matter. There was no, "Sorry, can't help" in their tone, just a sense of, "Now, how do we manage this logistically." It was amazing. They were naturally kind. It didn't occur to them that I'd bowled in, unasked, unannounced and rudely expecting them to disrupt their schedule. They simply saw me as someone they needed to assist.

And soon they worked out how to do it. They sent out James. James was probably in his late twenties and the kind of young man that, if you had daughters, you'd like them to find to look after them for the rest of their lives. He was friendly and helpful and had the whole thing diagnosed and sorted within ten minutes. He betrayed no hint that I was a nuisance. The only problem was they didn't have my kind of battery in stock. He told me this with the worried look of someone who has experienced the odd unpleasant customer. Would I mind waiting? How long, I wondered, my heart sinking as I imagined a night at the Premier Inn I'd spotted on the way into town. "I'm afraid it could be an hour", he said apologetically.

An hour! The whole thing was fixed in a single hour. Everyone at the petrol station and at the mechanics behaved as though I hadn't irritated them with my interruption to their busy lives in any way - at the petrol station, I almost had the glimmer of an impression that I'd provided an interesting interlude, (but that's crazy, surely). Furthermore, I got the opportunity to post something in Fleet Post Office and have quite a good cup of coffee, listening to a small girl who'd just finished her first ever day at school explain to her father about who everybody agrees (after one day) is by far the best teacher in the world.

Civilisation may not after all be on the brink of collapse, if there are still so many people prepared to put themselves out for a stranger. I don't want it to happen again any time soon - especially as I've just paid for a replacement - but that flat battery actually cheered me up.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016


When I was a child, I was given a book called Trovato. It was written and illustrated by someone who called herself simply Bettina, which I thought peculiar. I've just looked her up and discovered she was an Austrian, driven out by the Nazis.

I did not much like the way she drew faces, and I found the story her book told disturbing on many levels. It concerned an old single lady, which I found worrying in itself, as she appeared to have no real friends or relatives. I always find the possibility of loneliness disturbing. Then there was the event that triggered the story - an earthquake in Italy. That was really worrying. Surely earthquakes never happened in Europe, I thought.

Alas, Bettina was right on that score. I pulled out the book, following the Umbrian earthquake. It is an odd little tale, but, if you overlook the faces, strangely attractive, I think. Perhaps it is simply that it has been with me for such a long time. Anyway, here it is, (if you want to read the text clearly double click on each picture, if on a tablet, or click once on a computer, and it should come up in its own screen, with much better resolution):

I think Eliza is probably my favourite character in the book.