Saturday, 8 April 2017

I Read That - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

On a radio programme I listened to recently about the old days of BBC comedy, a contributor mentioned that, after listening to something he'd produced, David Hatch, controller of comedy, called him into his office and said, angrily: "You used the word 'urine' on that programme we broadcast yesterday. Never be so vulgar again - I do not want urine coming out of my radio."

Oh David Hatch please come back and rescue us.  When it comes to vulgarity, things are getting worse and worse.

Take To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an example. This novel is in many ways intriguing and enjoyable. It is told in the first person by a neurotic dentist (his father killed himself, leading to his repetitive desire to join other people's families - usually those of his girlfriends). At the start of the book, he discovers that his name is being used on the Internet by someone who is proselytising for a lost tribe called the Amalekites, who worship a God who appeared to them in order to tell them that they must never believe in him unconditionally and their main duty was to doubt, (their major religious holiday is The Feast of the Paradox):

"And Safek gathered us anew, and we sojourned with him in the land of Israel. And we had no city to give us name; neither had we king to appoint us captains, to make of us instruments of war; neither had we laws to follow, save one. Behold, make thine heart hallowed by doubt; for God, if God, only God may know. And we followed Safek, and were not consumed."

This Amalek doctrine that Ferris has dreamed up is very diverting and there are many other entertaining and thought-provoking aspects to the book, including a great set piece about people who rub hand cream into their hands regularly, reflections on the Internet and our constant attention to it, via what he cleverly terms our "me-machines", (plus of course our inability to control this thing that we have created as demonstrated by the way in which his identity is taken and used), and a wonderfully written section about the difficulty of getting absorbed in work but the pleasure, if you persist through the phase of being distracted, in becoming absorbed.

My problem, however, is one I am encountering more and more - the book is too vulgar. For the same reason, I've just had to return to Audible their recording of The Girl Before by JP Delaney, which I'd imagined might be a diverting lightweight thriller for the driving I'm doing a lot of at the moment, but which turned out to be basically pornography, in which the author seems to assume women like very, very bossy, utterly humourless men, (wrong - most women like funny, kind men above all else; kindness on its own is no good but kind and funny is the Holy Grail). Before that I picked a detective novel by Rennie Airth, set in the 1920s. It turned out to be riddled with "she took his member in her hand and stroked the tender skin, backwards and forw..." (you get the picture) gratuitous scenes.

Thus, with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the narrator feels the need to tell us that he masturbated in a cupboard, even though it really doesn't further any aspect of the plot or build his character to new heights of believability. Worse still, he insists on describing the way he feels when he truly falls in love as being "cunt gripped". Sadly, he does not fall in love - or as he prefers to say become "cunt gripped" - just once. It happens a lot and the phrase pops up (stop sniggering at the back) again and again and again.

You can call me Mrs Bowdler, but I don't care - just keep urine from coming out of my radio and remove the word "cunt" from the pages of my books (oh yes, and lay off the masturbation and the details of who is touching which sexual organs and whether any of those organs might be getting hard, firm or moist). If someone can give me an argument that justifies their inclusion on the grounds of an improved artwork, I'll be amazed. Meanwhile, I'm driving up to Sydney with Thomas Hardy and Far From the Madding Crowd for company. Thus far, it has been funnier than I'd expected and tremendously vivid, without the mention of a single drop of urine or any other bodily fluid. Strong emotions are felt, some of a sexual nature, but the reader is not asked to create a sequence of explicit images in their head. Why has that approach been put aside by publishers or writers? Do most people enjoy the things I loathe? Answers welcome, preferably in a plain brown envelope.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Character Test

Many people think that being good means helping the poor, the sick, the infirm. These are all worthy things to do but, in my experience, the true test of goodness is how long you can tolerate a person who bores you. Maybe I am alone in this but, when trapped in the company of someone who exercises no editorial control on the tide of inconsequential reminiscence they let loose each time they speak, I find it hard to behave nicely. My thoughts turn to escape plans and, while I try to ensure that I do not bruise my wordy companion's feelings, my abrupt departure and my fairly unlikely excuses probably do not fill them with confidence or joy.

And then there are meetings. And speeches. Lord, speeches, how I hate them.

If I am not alone in my inability to endure boredom, there may be an opportunity for a technical minded person - if someone could invent an absolutely minute device that could be hidden inside the ear and could broadcast interesting podcasts and comedy programmes to the wearer, I think there might be a large market waiting. Imagine the joy of sitting through a team meeting or a distant relative's monologue, nodding and smiling, calm, unstressed, all the time secretly entertained by a tiny voice that nobody else can hear.

While on the subject of improvements to modern life, why don't we bury sll those ugly industrial areas that surround most cities - those long stretches of warehouses and panelbeaters and even shopping malls and so forth? Most of them appear to be more or less windowless, so why not build them underground?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Just Read - Stephen King, On Writing

Having watched me grapple for several years with a non-fiction project that may turn out to get the better of me, a member of my family decided I needed some help. So for Christmas she bought me On Writing by Stephen King.

I imagine that all of Stephen King's work is easy to read and that this is one of the secrets of his success.  Certainly this book is. It is clear and sensible. It doesn't flash across the firmament but it is interesting, (although the parts about King's personal life interested me less than they might interest readers who are King fans; on the other hand, I was very impressed by his devotion to his wife).

Nothing he says about writing is particularly new but these are the points that struck me as more worth remembering than most:

"You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself."

"The scariest moment is just before you start."

"You should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day."

King himself aims for two thousand words a day and he confesses that:

"On some days those ten pages come easily; I'm up and out doing errands by eleven thirty in the morning ... More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day's work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I'm still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2000 words."

He explains that:

"Once I start work on a project, I don't stop - and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind - they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale's narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best - always, always, always - when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer."

He also quotes advice he received form a mentor called John Gould:

"When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."

To this King adds, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open".

My absolute favourite bit of the book is the one that reminds the reader that, when a writer is alone at their desk with the door closed, they can do whatever they like, they can be as boring or as strange as they please and they have absolutely nothing to lose, (except some time, I suppose):

"I don't believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it's reasonably reader-friendly ... And now that I've waved that caution flag ... let me reiterate that it's all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn't that an intoxicating thought? Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."

Okay, so now I must get back to the octopus - I mean non-fiction project.

I may be some time.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Small Pleasures

In free commuter papers there are often columns where members of the public can submit their declarations of love for strangers they have glimpsed during their daily rush to or from work. Awww. Sweet.

Not really, when you think about it. More just a way to fill inches of newsprint at almost no cost.

Or, as it turns out, a way for someone fantastically bored by their work to make life very slightly more fun.

That was what one of these columns became for an Irishman who calls himself Shocko. He admitted his disgraceful behaviour on Twitter recently, (coming clean only three years after the event, which I suppose is better late than never).

Here is the entry he claims as his first entirely fictional but accepted entry in the Metro newspaper in London:

"Girl in Bring Back Hanging T-Shirt" - how on earth did they fall for it?
More followed:

Having succeeded with "Bearded man who used discarded burger cartons as castanets" as a name tag, (not to mention, "Shy guy with shin pads, a hurdle and 200+ tennis balls" [that hurdle is a stroke of genius]), your man decided to branch out into the good deeds column, (where more inches are filled for free, with accounts of good deeds supposedly witnessed on London streets):

As our hero observes, the good deeds section gave him the opportunity to conjure up some scenes so charming I'm sorry they didn't actually occur:

Finally, the great day dawned when Shocko managed to get items published in the good deeds column and the commuter crush one - two items on one day, hurray:

But this, it turned out, was the zenith. After that, although few more submissions slipped through, his glory days were behind him:

Rejections came thicker and faster; perhaps they had twigged somehow - Shocko speculates they'd noticed these things turned up always from the same IP address:

There was one final twist in the tale, when an unknown person managed to get a crush item published that concerned Shocko himself - the inventor of good deeds and crushes became the object of someone else's game. After considerable effort Shocko managed to discover who was responsible for turning the tables, but for that story you will need to go over to Twitter and look at the tweets of @shockproofbeats for mid December last year. If you do, you will also learn of his subsequent adventures with Nutella, which led to his being featured in no less a publication than the Daily Mail, (yes, wow).

But before you do speed across to Twitter, I'd like to point out the moral of the story (a recurring one on this blog), which is that Twitter doesn't have to be a cesspit; it can instead be a place of light-hearted frivolity. If only someone clever would come up with a way to let that cheerful part of Twitter - the idiotic fooling around bit - completely slice itself off from the "I Hate Trump", 'I'm Real Donald Trump", 'Well I Really Hate You", "Well I'm Going to Build a Wall", "Yeah, Well I Hate You Anyway" end of things, Twitter would become a force for almost unadulterated good.  But I suppose it won't happen - as in every other area of life I imagine that on Twitter somehow there is no separating the delightful from the dross.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Mysteries - an Occasional Series

I bought a clear shockproof protector for my telephone screen today. I'd already had the screen replaced once, and I know so many people who walk about with telephones that have cracked screens that it seemed a good idea, especially for someone who is as inclined to trip over and drop things as I am.

Afterwards, as I was sticking the thing onto my telephone, it did occur to me that it might be more convenient, if less lucrative for the telephone manufacturer, if they simply made the screens shockproof to begin with.

Is the fact that they don't really a mystery though? It depends how cynical you are, I suppose.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Battered Penguin - Time After Time by Molly Keane

Yes, all right, it isn't a Penguin but it is a paperback and, better still, it is awfully good. The story concerns four ageing brothers and sisters who live in a large, decaying house in Ireland in the mid to late 20th century. As we are informed early on:

"Money was the hopeless problem".

Each of the four is imagined with great accuracy and Molly Keane takes pains to portray the fading splendour in which they live - with emphasis on the fading: "the old breath of human dinners and dogs' dinners, chickens' and pigs' dinners too, combined with cats' earths and dogs' favourite urinals, all clung to the air like grey hairs in a comb" - and the ways in which each manages to find interest in their quiet forgotten lives. While one makes "tweed pictures", (something I've never heard of before but which sounds quite awful), another is devoted to preserving the shreds of her beauty, a third to producing food from the estate and being involved with horses, while Jasper, the oldest, takes pleasure in cooking in the quite revoltingly dirty kitchen and in being in the place where he grew up:

"On his way back to the kitchen Jasper stopped for a minute on the turn of the staircase where, from the high, floor-length window, he saw a swan rise through the ribbons of mist lying along the river. There is ecstasy in a swan's flying: in the neck leaning lasciviously on the air, the body stretched behind the shouting wings. He watched while his swan took her short flight and dropped back through the mists to the water, her landing lost to his sight. It was as much as Jasper asked of ny emotional moment: to be and to cease. He was never one for squandering emotion. He had saved and pinched and scraped on it in so many directions that, finally, there was very little left to squander."

What a beautiful description and how brilliant that Keane manages to widen our understanding of Jasper through painting this scene.

There are one or two secondary characters, notably the frightful Lady Alys who exercises that particular kind of polite cruelty that the British upper classes seem to love so much:

"She had soft, well-taught manners, through which she was as quick to destroy as to please."

When May, one of the sisters, has the opportunity to take revenge on Lady Alys by smashing a piece of Meissen, she doesn't for "small beautiful objects were, to May, far more important than the breakage of her own self-respect and confidence." A fascinating insight into her personality and an interesting approach to life.

Having set the scene and conjured up the characters brilliantly, a dangerous visitor from the past is introduced into the story, but not before the reader has grown fond of the characters already there, `9in the way one might be fond of family members; that is, while recognising their myriad faults).


It appears that all are now plunging towards doom and disaster but, delightfully, things, while not suddenly turning out brilliant, do not end up as badly as one might expect. I appreciated this as much as I did the superb observational skill of the writer and the extraordinarily vivid way in which she created the world of her novel.

A really excellent book about a group of people who could easily be overlooked and considered boring but who turn out to be fascinating and entirely human. I loved it.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

I Heard That - Arcadia by Lauren Groff

While some might argue that Arcadia is a bit lush and really quite sentimental, (as a lover of Charles Dickens, I'm obviously more than prepared to overlook sentimentality), those criticisms should not overshadow the gifts Lauren Groff displays in this book.  Her story concerns Bit, the first child born in a commune called Arcadia, which is set up in the 1970s by a group of idealistic young Americans, headed by a guru figure who, like most guru figures, turns out to be a careless egoist.

Groff traces Bit's story from childhood to middle age and in the process conjures up a huge cast of characters in a landscape that comes to life vividly in the reader/listener's mind. It becomes clear that, although most of the commune's founders act from the best of intentions, motivated by idealism and goodwill, good intentions are not enough and parents, however well-intentioned, may harm their children through their own idealism. All the same, Groff's tale does not set out to moralise but simply recounts the events as they happen. It is I suppose fiction as a slice of life.

Eventually, the commune collapses and many of Bit's contemporaries spin out into the wider world in various states of damage. Bit too must make his way beyond the confines of the landscape where he has grown up and his existence thereafter is defined to some extent by a yearning for that earlier way of life.

People come and go, some age and die, others vanish, a new generation is born. Nothing astonishing happens and yet the novel is never boring. It is the engrossing depth of Groff's imagined world - in particular, the rich variety of characters she has invented - that holds the attention. It is a mark of her achievement that I find myself missing the company of the people her novel introduced me to, now that I have finished the book

Friday, 24 February 2017

Petrified Pussycat Blues

My new internet pastime is looking at antique auctions, which a site called Invaluable brings me from all over the world. I restrict myself to sales in Europe but even with that geographical limitation I  am overwhelmed with choice. There are not enough hours in the day for me to manage to scroll through all the catalogues available, let alone keep track of the rare gems I most want to bid on. Which is why the sale date for these two gems entirely slipped my memory. Presumably some other lucky customer bore them away as spoils:

Astonishingly, if you look closely, you will see that, even before the sale started, the cat had four bids and a price of £150 (English pounds at that)!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Much to Forgive

Having belatedly realised that Evelyn Waugh is a great writer, I am reading his diaries edited by Michael Davie. Unfortunately, Mr Davie has done a rather eccentric job, sometimes providing no footnote to identify a figure who appears again and again over months, years or even decades, sometimes providing detailed notes for people who only pop up once, in passing.

I have no criticism of  the notes themselves, which are usually v amusing, e.g this one, identifying  an unnamed fellow guest at a dinner Waugh goes to:

"Captain Hyde-Upward; it was his custom to polish and clean out his pipe while standing naked at his bedroom window."

Anyway, in hunting about in the index for information about those who are left unfootnoted, I discovered that Evelyn's older brother, Alec Waugh, invented, in April, 1924, the cocktail party, to fill the gap in London social life between 5.30 and 7.00.

Shame on him, I say, while simultaneously wondering how diplomats managed before that.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Out of Step

I went to see La La Land. I thought it was awful. Apparently I am part of a "backlash" but I had heard nothing but positive things about the film. I was favourably disposed toward it. It just turned out to be ill-conceived, lacking in depth and sparkle and, most of all, musically illiterate. I wonder if anyone else found it unenjoyable?

Anyway I had a moan about it here.

Monday, 13 February 2017


One disadvantage of living in Brussels is you don't get as much opportunity to overhear people saying intriguing things as you do when you are in Britain or Australia. Even if you speak adequate French, the majority of your fellow passengers on the average tram or underground here don't speak a) audibly, (continentals seem curiously inhibited about speaking reasonably loudly in public, damn them), or b) in French, so the chances of your understanding that something astounding is being uttered by your fellow-travellers are really pretty slim.

Meanwhile in the English speaking world, commuters remain, to a large extent, uninhibited about chatting quite loudly wherever they are, especially since the advent of the mobile phone.

Amazingly,  many people don't like this latter development. Angry columns in magazines and letters in the paper argue that those who talk on their telephones in the street et cetera are undermining the fabric of society and should be hounded until they stop. I disagree. I think the people who make this argument are simple killjoys. Some of the most interesting half hours of my life have been spent trying to piece together, from just one side of a conversation, what exactly is going on between the speaker I'm sitting next to on the bus and the person at the other end of the line. I freely admit that this is an indication of how very dull my life is, but surely, given that, it would be cruel of anyone to continue in the fight to deprive me of what little enjoyment I have.

Two bits of overheard conversation that I picked up on a recent trip to London should serve as illustrations of the kinds of things that bring me pleasure, mainly because they are equal parts batty and baffling:

1. A short, not particularly fit looking, 50-ish man in a tracksuit marched out in front of me as I was trying to cross the road just near Gower Street: "I said, 'I've got the best personal trainer in Brighton' and they all just looked at me", he was telling someone, outrage suffusing his tone;

2. A woman of about 40, with short hair that she'd chosen to dye a colour that I used to call maroon but is now more commonly called burgundy, passed by me in an echoing underground corridor. She was going in the opposite direction.

"We've agreed that, if we don't both find anyone else in the next six months, we'll marry each other",  was all I heard her say. It was enough to leave me even now, ten days later, buzzing with questions. Here are a few for starters:

why six months, why not now or in six years; why marry at all, if you don't really want to - do they have to meet the terms of a will; or do both parties actually really want to but neither is prepared to admit it; or is the burgundy haired one the other one's landlady and he needs the accommodation she provides and is buying time, so he can stay there for a bit longer; and, if they do marry, will the arrangement work in the long run - could half-hearted actually be a good way to go, in the sense that no illusions can be destroyed, because both sides have already acknowledged that they are making a compromise; also, under the terms of the agreement - that "if we don't both" clause - what happens if one of them does find someone else and the other doesn't, will the agreement stand, will the one who has found someone have to marry the one who hasn't anyway to avoid a breach of promise suit; and, for that matter, is there even such a thing as a breach of promise suit these days?

Friday, 10 February 2017

Moving to Montana Soon

I met a man the other day who claimed that he has spent the last thirty-two years ripening avocadoes in a warehouse in Lincolnshire. I don't know if he was pulling my leg, but I don't think he was the kind of person who pulls legs. While I probably wouldn't like to spend that amount of my life performing that task, (although I have enjoyed a number of jobs that other people might regard as pretty dull and repetitive, and in fact it was their repetitive nature that most appealed to me), I am glad that someone is doing it, as I like being able to buy ripe avocadoes all year round.

I thought about that man while watching Toni Erdmann, (who is a man who likes pulling legs.)  I felt slightly uncomfortable, as the film seems to indict the work of people who spend their lives in non-creative, corporate occupations. But where would we be if someone wasn't prepared to stand in a warehouse in Lincolnshire ripening avocadoes? How would we manage if someone wasn't prepared to raise crops of dental floss and wax them down in little white boxes, (hey, an opportunity to slip in some of my favourite song lyrics, hurray:

I might be moving to Montana soon
Just to raise me up a crop of dental floss 
Raising it up
Waxing it down
In a little white box
I can sell uptown
By myself 
I wouldn't have no boss,
But I'd be raising my lonely dental floss
Raising my lonely dental floss
Well I just might grow me some bees
But I'd leave the sweet stuff
For somebody else...
but then, on the other hand
I'd keep the wax and melt it down
Pluck some floss and swish it around
I'd have me a crop
And it'd be on top
That's why I'm moving to Montana

Moving to Montana soon
Going be a dental floss tycoon
(yes I am)
Moving to Montana soon
Going to be a dental floss tycoon
I'm plucking the old dental floss
That's growing on the prairie
Plucking the floss.
I plucked all day and all night and all afternoon
I'm riding a small tiny horse
(His name is Might Little)
He's a good horse
Even though he's a bit dinky to strap a big saddle or
Blanket on, anyway
He's a bit dinky to strap a big saddle or
Blanket on. 

Anyway I'm plucking the old dental floss
Even if you think it is a little silly, folks
I don't care if you think it's silly, folks
I don't care if you think it's silly, folks
I'm gonna find me a horse
Just about this big
And ride him all along the border line
With a pair of heavy-duty
Zircon-encrusted tweezers in my hand
Every other wrangler would say
I was mighty grand
By myself I wouldn't
Have no boss
But I'd be raising my lonely dental floss
Raising my lonely dental floss
Raising my lonely dental floss
Well I might ride along the border
With my tweezers gleaming
In the moonlighty night
And then I'd get a cup of coffee
And give my foot a push...
Just me and the pygmy pony
Over the dental floss bush
And then I might just jump back on
And ride like a cowboy
Into the dawn to Montana
Moving to Montana soon


But after a bit I decided that perhaps the indictment is not about the work itself so much as the manner in which it is done, and then I didn't feel uncomfortable at all, because there has emerged during my lifetime the most frightful layer of bogus rubbish that is supposedly something to do with so-called 'management' but usually makes perfectly straightforward enjoyable jobs annoying and more difficult - and anything that attacks that is fine by me.

Take performance appraisal as an example. What a waste of time that is, (unless its real purpose is to reinforce a sense of hierarchy by placing workers regularly in the position of being told what their seniors think of them and thus reminding the workers that they are not powerful enough to reverse the process). And flipping bonding exercises, either in the form of days or even - eek - whole weekends away.  Usually the only bonding that is produced by these is the creation of a mass loathing shared by every employee for the coordinator or motivator or whatever idiot title the person with the butcher's paper has given themselves. Whatever label they go under, they are always creeps and idiots.  I should not forget either the endless, endless meetings explaining what is going on and what new developments are coming up in the organisation and blah de blah de blah. These may be intended to make everyone feel involved but they actually make everyone feel disrespected, since they take you away from urgent tasks and half the time whatever it is you are employed to do isn't changing one iota and whether or not the person at the top is called a CEO or a Change Management Enhancer is utterly irrelevant to what you have been hired to achieve.

The main thing to say though is that I found Toni Erdmann in equal measures puzzling, poignant and hilarious and I recommend it, if you want to see something intriguing, amusing and strange. If you want to read me saying that at even greater length, you can, here.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Snap, Crackle, Pop

I wish I were more tolerant. And, if I must be intolerant, I wish I could be intolerant about important things.

Instead, the thing I am absolutely frantically insanely intolerant about is something that harms absolutely nobody - it is the sound of cellophane wrappers crackling, brown paper bags rustling, crisp packets being delved into and food wrappings in general being undone.

Mostly, this intolerance of mine is inflamed on trains, but sometimes in cinemas and occasionally on buses. The culprit is usually a person just in front of me or just behind me, someone who decides they can't wait until they are sitting at a table before stuffing something edible into their mouths .

I know, I know, they are probably people under the most incredible pressure, running from one job to another, barely able to fit in a moment between dropping off the children at childcare and heading for their very important meeting on forward strategies for the external oversight committee on benchmarking the six-monthly performance appraisal development initiative.

But why are they sitting in the cinema then? Eh? Eh?

The curious thing - other than the fact that I can waste so much emotional energy on being annoyed about such an innocuous and harmless thing - is that someone rustling newsprint doesn't bother me, nor someone flipping through a magazine. It's only the noise of food being unwrapped or retrieved from its mini-sack that drives me to distraction.

I suppose it must be something to do with the ancient prejudice about eating in public that has been passed on to me by my elders and betters:  a winter's afternoon waiting outside Basingstoke station in a Mini with my father springs immediately to mind - two girls walk towards us and my father's face transforms into a mask of horror; "Fruit", he cries, "They're eating fruit. In the street"; you would think they were ... well let's not go into details; you would think they were acting in the most utterly depraved manner imaginable is an adequate summation of what you would think they were doing.

I wonder now if he would have been happier if they'd been eating sausages. Fruit certainly seemed to have struck him as the most unimaginably offensive foodstuff anyone could have chosen in that setting. Could it have been some kind of Eve/apple/Garden of Eden connection he was making? It's hard to imagine; I certainly never took him for a particularly biblical kind of man.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A Time of Healing

I used to like Twitter. Back when a mad tide of antic hilarity would sweep across it and people all over the world would start thinking up titles for silly things such as #egg movies - Inglorious Custards; The Devilled Egg Wears Prada - or #cheesefilms - Caerphilly He Might Hear You; Arsenic and Old Leicester; The Rarebit Proof Fence - or #lessambitiousfilms - Singing in the Drizzle; Instagram of a Lady; Girl with a Temporary Tattoo; The Spy who Quite Liked Me; Stuffed Animal Kingdom - or #awfulfirstdrafts - "Last night I dreamt I went to Manly again"; "May the Victorian Police Force be with you"; "I'm mad as hell and I"m going to take some valium" or #lameclaimstofame - "The President of Nigeria emails me quite often saying he owes me money"; "My house and dog were on the cover of our local telephone directory" or #depressingchildren'sbooks - The Adventures of Tom's Lawyer ; Where the Wild Thongs Are; James and the Giant Leach. 

Politics barely entered this happy playground of frivolous idiocy - and even when it did, as on the occasion that the entire nation of Australia got sick of its Prime Minister's habit of saying, "Folks, I've got to zip", it entered only so that fun could be had, (on that occasion the hashtag was #zipclassics - "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune sometimes has to zip";"The Zip on the Floss" "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13. I've got to zip, thought Winston", "Far from the Madding Zip"; "A Tale of Two Zips"; "Zipper in the Rye" 

Alas, things have changed. Jollity is no longer on the Twitter menu. Since November, in fact, Twitter - or at least the part of it that I look at - has metamorphosed into a roiling, foaming pit of human fury. 

That's really the one thing I can't forgive President Trump for, (and it's not even something he intended) - I can't forgive him for sucking the sense of humour out of almost everyone. 

What is more, I can't really understand how he has done it. After all he is far more a figure of fun than his predecessor could ever hope to be. The truth is Trump is and always will be an entirely comic figure. He is Mr Punch, he is a buffoon, he is the oldest kind of stage idiot. And, yes, of course, I am aware that he has the codes to the nuclear buttons and, as they say now, yada yada yada, but there's not much to be done about that, and anyway Putin is probably about one hundred million times more dangerous than Trump is and has been accruing buckets of power for ages, so why are we suddenly upsetting ourselves with such a level of frankly hysterical violence, when things haven't really changed for the worse at all? 

And even if you do genuinely think that Trump is more dangerous than Putin, which I think just indicates a lack of real knowledge, then I would say to you that now, more than ever, silly games and pointless nittishness are the best approach to the problem. Wasting our time with nonsense is the truly sensible way to react to the prospect of potential worldwide mayhem, given that none of us is in much of a position to do anything constructive to avert it. 

Laughing really is the most enjoyable way to go. 

And besides, Trump is only one guy, even if he does happen to be the President of the United States for the moment. There are countless other people continuing to be dedicated and skilled and doing wonderful things. Let's rejoice at the fact that, for example, Rafael Nadal is back in form - and so is Roger Federer. That is one pretty enormously fantastic leap forward, given that no one seriously believed they would ever be back at the top of their games again. 

Come on, admit it, the tennis played in the last few days of the Australian Open was the most exciting tennis anyone has seen in aeons, if ever.

And if you want another brilliant reason that I absolutely refuse to give in to the pessimists and naysayers and throw my lot in with those who fume that humanity is comprehensively doomed, then look at my mother who, thanks to an extraordinary team of dedicated and patient and infinitely skilled medical people, has survived by-pass surgery despite being considerably older than the odds might allow. 

Scream all you like, vent and rage loudly, while there are people performing life saving acts calmly, intelligently and brilliantly, all is not lost - and Trump can't actually stop that. In fact, he can't stop a lot of things. And it will be entirely our own fault if we decide that, because of him, we can't still go on having fun.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Something I Read - 2017 - No. 1 - Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn

The secondhand bookshop near me in Brussels is much better than a bookshop for my purposes, because it has more the atmosphere of a library than a bookshop and, as with libraries, the collection of books you find there is wider and more varied than in the average contemporary high street bookshop - perhaps because it is selected without any reference to marketing drives. I suppose that some might argue that secondhand books are by definition rejected books but, given Brussels's shifting population, it is often the case that entire book collections - including not just loathed volumes but old favourites - are simply unloaded when someone moves on.

Anyway, my first choice from the shop this year was Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, a novel that some reports claim is barely a novel and really a thinly disguised autobiography, in which case, poor Edward St Aubyn.

Whatever it is, reading Never Mind makes you live more vividly, if that makes sense. There is a kind of hyper-realism about some of the descriptions that made me feel as if time had been distilled and I was staring into a clear, pure drop of someone's experience with a magnifying glass in my hand:

"She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth."

Yes, as this example suggests, much of the distorted sense of reality may arise from the obsessive or addictive or troubled nature of the personality being described. But never mind, (ha ha). The person in question, by the way, is a woman who has been so completely subjugated by her husband that she is too afraid to go and comfort her own child if her husband forbids her to. The only place she feels safe is "her car [which] was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist."

The merciless clarity the narrator applies to his characters is matched by superb precision. The central figure, David, is drawn with the kind of unflattering truthfulness that he himself would have to applaud:

"His face was astonishingly handsome. Its faultlessness was its only flaw; it was the blueprint of a face and had an uninhabited feeling to it ... he wore an inattentive expression, until he spotted another person's vulnerability. Then the look in his eyes hardened like a flexed muscle."

I suppose one could argue that there is little room left there for the reader to draw his own conclusions about whether David is a delightful human being, but why should a writer of fiction leave the reader entirely to his own devices in making judgments about the characters he has created?

What story there is revolves around the unequal battle between Patrick, David's small son, and David. The events we are told of are unspeakable and unflinchingly portrayed. Particularly admirably, Patrick is not presented as an angelic creature, standing, small and alone, against the incarnation of evil. Patrick is flawed and David is not entirely - although very nearly entirely - without redemptive qualities.

While the material of the book is almost unbearable, it is also funny - as when one figure is described as having "the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling poultry" and two characters are shown at the end of a plane journey, starting "to clank their way down a flight of metal steps, caught between the air crew who pretended to be sorry at their departure and the ground crew who pretended to be pleased by their arrival" - and full of astonishing insight about human weakness and cruelty. The prose is so perfect that, despite the unpleasantness of most of the characters and the utterly shocking nature of some of the events, I read the whole thing in one go and will happily read the next volumes in the series, should anyone choose to take them down the Chaussée de Waterloo and flog them to Pêle Mêle.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

At the Theatre

The other day we went to the National Theatre and saw Amadeus. Did you know that the National Theatre has a Five Year Equality Action Plan - yes, I too thought that five-year plans had gone out with Stalin, but apparently not.

Silly me. I also thought that what they were supposed to be doing over there on the South Bank was making theatre, but it turns out that they are busy with the important task of "celebrating" the nation, most specifically "the diversity of the nation in terms of ... ethnicity, disability, sexuality and class."
They are also frantically "trying to shift perceptions."

Good for them, the arrogant busybodies. Why can't they just put on plays?

I'm glad to say they failed totally in their mission to shift any of my perceptions. I went in thinking Amadeus is a good play and I came out with the same view. What is more, I discovered that it cannot be made boring, no matter how hard anyone tries.

I wrote about the performance we saw here.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

For the Best

It is funny how you can go for years - indeed decades - without noticing the oddness of familiar things. Or, to be absolutely precise, it is funny how I can. 

To give you an example, today a friend told me that someone else, a person I don't know, is very "self-contained".  

"Self-contained" is a phrase I've encountered regularly for decades, but only this afternoon did its oddness strike me. 

I mean, imagine if you met someone who wasn't self-contained. 

Just think of the mess. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Narrow Minded Beastliness

Yesterday, we went to the Royal Acadrmy in London to look at the exhibition of pictures by James Ensor. His pictures are very odd and interesting and one day soon I must go down to Ostend again and do a blog post about Ensor and his home town.

But for now I don't want to talk about Ensor and his paintings but about something that was happening at the exhibition when we visited. Normally, the Royal Academy is a rather sedate place so it was surprising to hear, as we went into the exhibition, a lot of incoherent howls and squeaks and shouts coming from the room containing the centrepiece of the show, which is this:

It is a painting by Ensor called Intrigue.

We went into the room containing the picture, where the hubbub continued. The end of the room where the painting hangs was full of people in wheelchairs and their companions. The people in the wheelchairs were not looking at the painting, partly because they were probably the most severely disabled people I have ever seen - in one case, very, very nearly unrecognisable as a person - and appeared to be lost in their own humming and yipping and growling realities, partly because they - or their carers - were being encouraged by a presumably well-meaning man with a singsong voice and a camera to crowd together, "closer, closer", for a group portrait in front of this strange work. He did try to engage them with the piece, "some things are smooth and some are not, some are bright and some are not", but not one of the wheelchair bound glanced in the picture's direction, or appeared capable of that kind of attention.

I knew I should admire the dedication of all the able-bodied who had brought about what must have been a real logistical miracle so that all those wheelchair-bound individuals could be gathered there but instead, being a narrow minded, conservative old bigot, I could not suppress doubts. Was the outing really of any significance to those it had apparently been designed for? Is it a dreadful thing to wonder if they were really capable of understanding any element of what was happening to
them yesterday morning? Was it possibly even a bit confusing and exhausting? Or was the aim perhaps simply to remind comfortable middle-class stuffy souls like me that exceptionally damaged human beings are born and some people have to carry the burden of their care and we ought to never forget that?

Either way, the choice of artwork provided for the outing seemed either absolutely apposite or in very very poor taste..

Monday, 9 January 2017


I went to the cinema again the other day and I saw a Romanian film by the man who made Beyond the Hills, a film I liked very much. While this one was not quite as visually rich, I still thought it very good and I wrote about it here.s

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Battered Penguins - Decline and Fall

I think I must have at last grown up as I have reached a stage where I really cannot get enough of Evelyn Waugh's faintly surreal and very comical world, with its cast of grotesque yet troublingly familiar characters.

Decline and Fall is my latest venture into that world. It is the story of Peter Pennyfeather, who falls prey to a thinly disguised Bullingdon Club and is unfairly sent down from Oxford as a result. I should point out that, as Waugh is at pains to explain, we are not meant to care too much about Pennyfeather as "the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

Mind you, there is no one else much to care about in the novel. But there are lots of people to laugh at.

There is Grimes who is always getting "in the soup", (except in Ireland, as, at least in his experience, "You can't get into the soup in Ireland, do what you like") and who finds schoolmastering a challenge because, as he explains, it is "very hard for a man with a wig to keep order."

There is Mr Prendergast who thinks far too much and totally unproductively - "It has been the tragedy of my life that whenever I start thinking about any quite simple subject, I invariably feel myself confronted by some flat contradiction" - who claims to have an aunt "whose cat used to put its paw up to its mouth when it yawned" and who was a vicar until, "for no reason at all, my Doubts began ...not ... the ordinary sort of Doubt ... I couldn't understand why God had made the world at all."

There is Lord Circumference from who I suspect the writers of the Vicar of Dibley stole the verger's mother's conversational gambit. Whereas the Dibley character says, "Did you? Did you? You did, did you?", or 'Was it? Was it? It was, was it?", Lord Circumference says, "Do you think that? Do you think that? Do you?"

There is Pennyfeather's friend Potts, who reveals himself in letters to Pennyfeather as totally lacking in commonsense and a dreadful, earnest theoriser about and interferer in things of which he knows nothing:

"There is a most interesting article in the Educational Review", he writes while Pennyfeather is teaching, "on the new methods that are being tried at the Innesborough High School to induce co-ordination of the senses. They put small objects into the children's mouths and make them draw the shapes in red chalk. Have you tried this with your boys?"

Sadly, he is exactly the kind of person who ends up running the world and leads to revolts against elites at times such as now.

There is the usual amoral, fun woman one always finds in a Waugh novel. This time she is called Margot Beste-Chetwynde:

"Mrs Beste-Chetwynde - two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Budapest."

I always have the impression that Waugh understands that such people are worthless and probably will hurt him but that that does not even slightly diminish their attraction for him.

Perhaps the nicest character in the novel is Mrs Beste-Chetwynde's son, a small boy whom Pennyfeather is supposed to teach to play the organ, despite the fact that Pennyfeather does not play the organ himself. When told of a forthcoming marriage, the young Beste-Chetwynde remarks: "I don't suppose that their children will be terribly attractive." Sadly, by the end of the novel, he appears to be heading for a life of dissolution. Could he be Waugh's imagining of the child that Sebastian Flyte once was?

Thanks to young Beste-Chetwynde, Pennyfeather is taken up by Mrs Beste-Chetwynde and has quite a jolly time of it, before ending up in prison, partly thanks to her, partly thanks to the busybodying of Potts and his ilk. Luckily, Pennyfeather finds prison "exhilirating ... never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals or clothes, to have no anxiety ever about what kind of impression he was making, in fact, to be free". As Waugh points out this is unsurprising as "anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison." In addition, while Pennyfeather is inside, Waugh is able to have some fun satirising the prison governor and his idiotic theories for reform, (Waugh clearly had very little time for theories.)

When Pennyfeather does eventually come out, he meets up with the most enigmatic figure in the book, Professor Silenus, who has "eyes like slim fish in an aquarium." We have already encountered him in his role as Margo Beste-Chetwynde's architect. She, having inherited an ancient house that people loved to visit because it was totally unmodernised and thus allowed them to experience the life of three hundred years earlier and then go home for a hot bath, knocks the whole thing down and replaces it with something featureless and horribly modern, designed by Silenus, who believes "the perfect building must be a factory", (he first attracts Margot Beste Chetwynde's attention thanks to "the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory which had been reproduced in a progressive Hungarian quarterly").

Despite his many, many faults, Silenus ends up appearing to be the wisest figure in the book. In the closing pages he explains to Pennyfeather that life is like a funfair ride but not everyone needs to actually get on the ride at all. "It doesn't suit everyone", he explains, because there are in fact two classes of people, those who are "static", and those who are "dynamic". The former should stay out of the hurly-burly and rest content with watching from the stalls. As if to underline this argument, the book itself then spins round full circle, closing with Pennyfeather thrown from the whirligig and set back on the quiet path he was pursuing before the book began. I don't envy him his wild journey but, thanks to Waugh's dry wit and brilliant comic sense, I very much enjoyed the story it made.

Sunday, 1 January 2017


Yesterday, I saw Arrival at the local cinema. Here is what I thought.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Family and Friends

It is Christmas and family and friends are filling the house. Sitting at a screen and meandering into the ether is out of the question for a time.

But speaking of family, here is a picture I saw the other day in a Budapest junkshop:

The groom looks quite happy but no-one else does and the woman in front of him - possibly his mother? - seems to have got herself up for a major state funeral, while the couple at the far left appear to think they are facing a firing squad, rather than a camera.

If your family gets you down this Christmas - or if you are without family - a brief glance at this photograph may be a useful reminder that, actually, things could be considerably worse.

Similarly, if you find yourself feeling solitary and far from friends, you might want to peer at this group of chums.  There may be worse things than being alone - a lot of these people look merely boring but the man in the white suit and the man behind him look frankly mad, while the two in the boaters appear to be planning to pick someone's pocket, (the man in glasses next to one of them seems to be in the process of doing so to one of his neighbours):
To all those who visit this blog, regularly or rarely, I would like to wish you a very happy Christmas and a marvellous new year.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Self Centred

These days there are lots of things I do and lots of things I think of doing that are conceptually so recent that they don't exist in linguistic terms.  For example, I may suddenly be reminded of someone I used to know and have lost touch with and then I have an impulse to look them up on the Internet to find out what has become of them.

The word for the impulse I know already: it is "nosiness'. The action of actually looking them up in this context has not yet been granted a special label - it is just one among the many things that fall under the "idly Googling" umbrella, I suppose.

In this situation - and many others of a similar nature, where I am attempting to describe a situation that would not have existed even quite recently - I find myself thinking, "There must be a word for that."

Perversely, given that I often think there must be words for things that I don't know words for, when people use words that do already exist for things but that I don't know, I absolutely loathe it.

The worst offender in this regard, in my experience, is Will Self, especially when he is talking on the radio or television. On such occasions, he deliberately uses words that no-one else ever utters out loud. For instance, on Radio 4 the other evening, banging on about something or other, he used the word "exogamous". I have never ever come across "exogamous" before.

I don't think I object because I am ashamed of my own ignorance, so what exactly is my problem? Surely, if a word is in existence, it is our duty to ensure that it is used? What else can it possibly be there for, if not for use in communication? And the great strength of the English language is supposed to be its rich flexibility, its enormous capacity, its ability to be the linguistic equivalent of an avoska, an ever expanding string bag, (yes, the astonishing hypocrisy of complaining about those who use obscure English words while throwing in even more obscure words from Russian - not at all lost on me).

Perhaps my objection arises from an underlying belief in a sort of jeans and T-shirt core wardrobe vocabulary, made up of words for talking and general every day use. Words like 'exogamous', on the other hand, are reserved for Sunday best and gala occasions - academic writing and other equally high-flown usage, excluded from the spoken language, kept purely for text.

Looked at that way, it occurs to me that what Will Self may be indulging in is really a kind of attempt at lexical punk. When he throws words from one register of the language into street talk, Self may be linguistically pairing laddered stockings and ragged denim with a Savile Row dinner jacket and an antique silk top hat.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Happier Times

Years ago, when I used to take my children to the Christmas markets in Vienna, I wrote a short story that was set in the market that is held each year in front of the Rathaus there. That was before trucks became weapons. Looking at the story now, it seems hopelessly naive.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Under Age

To my surprise, when I had small children, I discovered I loved having them around. This was a great relief, as I'd never really aspired to the condition of parenthood and had been worried beforehand that it might not be my cup of tea. But perhaps that was precisely why I did love that whole chunk of my life so much - I had no great expectations about it, which meant no visions of sugar plums waiting to be firmly dashed.

Strangely though, even though I did love my children when they were tiny, I don't miss them at all, now that they have grown up.

I realised this when I was on a train recently and two small children flashed past my seat.* They were yipping and laughing, slightly breathlessly, each trying to reach wherever they were going before the other.

Their excitement had a brightness. It was as if two radiant sparks of energy had just flashed through the carriage. I was reminded suddenly of the days when I shared my life with equally vivid beings.

As quickly as they had appeared, the two unknown children vanished. They were like comets, appearing out of nowhere and then gone in a flash.

But comets are silent. Small children are never - or only rarely - silent, (and if they are, you should probably be worried as it generally means they are up to something that is quite possibly dangerous). So, although they were out of sight, their voices trailed behind them.

There was more laughter and then a yell of protest, followed by a thud.  I thought it might be the sound of the littler of the two tripping - or being tripped - and falling onto the hard ridges of the corridor floor.

Whatever it was, it heralded one of those incredibly speedy changes in the emotional weather that is the major reason I don't miss small children living in my house. For the next ten minutes, from the direction the two children had been dashing, there came a succession of enormous, wildly unhappy wails.

Pets are less tiring.

But that's not really it. Really, I suppose, unless you are incredibly patient, when it comes to having children, once or twice is probably enough.


*Incidentally, why are chairs in trains and theatres and planes and so forth always called seats? Is a seat a fixed object, whereas a chair can be shifted about?

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Modern Certainties I

Now that it is nearly Christmas, one certainty of modern life forces its way, temporarily, to the front of the crowd. Every time I open my email inbox, I am reminded of it. Clicking my way through the drifts of messages that have blizzarded in from all the businesses I have ever spent two bob with, my absolute faith in this nugget of truth is justified over and over again

This certainty, this "truth universally acknowledged", is a simple one: namely, any email headed "The perfect Christmas gift idea" will contain nothing of the sort.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Clock Watching

I mentioned the other day that I'd had to replace my beloved 1920s watch, because it went mad. I also admitted that even before it went mad, it wasn't entirely accurate. My relationship with it used to remind me of Gabriel Oak's relationship with his pocket watch, described by Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd:

"Mr. Oak carried about him, by way of watch,- what may be called a small silver clock; in other words, it was a watch as to shape and intention, and a small clock as to size. This instrument being several years older than Oak's grandfather, had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all. The smaller of its hands, too, occasionally slipped round on the pivot, and thus, though the minutes were told with precision, nobody could be quite certain of the hour they belonged to. The stopping peculiarity of his watch Oak remedied by thumps and shakes, and he escaped any evil consequences from the other two defects by constant comparisons with and observations of the sun and stars, and by pressing his face close to the glass of his neighbours' windows, till he could discern the hour marked by the green-faced timekeepers within. It may be mentioned that Oak's fob being difficult of access, by reason of its somewhat high situation in the waistband of his trousers (which also lay at a remote height under his waistcoat), the watch was as a necessity pulled out by throwing the body to one side, compressing the mouth and face to a mere mass of ruddy flesh on account of the exertion, and drawing up the watch by its chain, like a bucket from a well."

The difference, of course, was that, where Gabriel Oak checked the sun and stars (or, hilariously - who says Hardy wasn't a comic writer - "by pressing his face close to the glass of his neighbours' windows"), if my watch started behaving erratically, I checked my mobile phone.

Meanwhile, George has supplied me with a fascinating link that explains why my Soviet watch is not quite as rubbish as everything else that came out of that benighted so-called system - it turns out Soviet watchmaking was entirely indebted to British expertise.

Cue hearty singing of Rule Britannia and God Save the Monarch Appropriate to the Era in Question.

Lost - Please Call

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have taken a picture of it - my favourite painting that is. It is gone now and I doubt I will ever see it again. This snap is all I have left:

Sadly, it doesn't even begin to do the picture justice. It had a mystery about it. Its subject was extremely simple - just a table, set ready for a meal. There was a kind of moonlit sheen on the plates that was almost supernatural. The scene might have suggested a Marie Celeste scenario, except that it radiated quietness and calm.

It was strangely soothing.

I use the past tense, because I doubt the painting even exists now. The last time I saw it was on a black and white Blair-Witch-Project-style-recording. This was extracted from the machine that was thoughtfully supplied by my husband's company in order to give us front-seat viewing of any robberies from the house that comes with my husband's job. Sadly, the company didn't choose to also provide security to deter possible robberies. When we first arrived, it was explained to me that there was no need, as a man two doors down the street employs guards and, obviously, they'd be sure to look out for us as well.

Needless to say, the night we were robbed those guards were not looking out for us as well. Why on earth would they be?

So my last sight of my favourite painting is of it being carried out of the house and over the back fence by a man with a stocking over his face. 

The painting was very light, as it was unframed - people often told us we should frame it but we didn't think it needed one. It was oil on canvas and we never knew who painted it, or when it was painted (probably late 19th or early 20th century, but that is only a guess.)

Because of its unframed, unsigned, unclassifiable condition, I suspect that the man with the stocking face will have found that none of the people he tried to offload it on wanted our beloved painting. That assumes it even survived the rough way he was holding it as he scrambled over the back fence. 

Even if he didn't tear the canvas in his getaway, I fear the painting probably got ripped, angrily and deliberately, by the burglar, furious that he couldn't get a decent - or perhaps any - price for it, as it was such an unknown quantity. 

I think of this lovely thing lying among potato peelings and tea leaves and catfood cans in some heap of rubbish somewhere in Belgium, the rain falling on what is left of its charm. What a waste, an object that gave so much pleasure wrecked for no purpose. 

I miss it like a friend.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Winding Me Up

Until recently the watch I used was a very pretty thing I bought on EBay for $AUD30. It was made in  the early part of the twentieth century and did not keep perfect time - but good enough, until recently, when it decided to go quite mad. Sometimes it ticked as if it was trying to win an Olympic ticking race. Other times, it stopped and would not go at all for hours.

When I am next at home in Canberra, I will take it to the man there who understands it. I hope he will be able counsel it back into a more stable frame of mind.

In the meantime, I've bought a watch from a market stall in Budapest. This is it:
It is a watch made in the Soviet Union, when it still was the Soviet Union. Yes, that circle of dots is made up of pink "jewels", very Barbie. The brand is Nyeva. It was probably made in the 1960s. It is a wind-it-yourself watch, as I only like that kind - why buy something that leaves you at the mercy of battery makers and battery installers for the rest of your or its life? That is my logic.

There is a problem with my new watch, however. It is a huge problem, for me. It is a problem that is throwing me into psychological turmoil, eroding the foundations of my entire world view.

The problem with my new watch is a simple, but to me utterly unexpected one. The problem is that my new watch is, thus far at least, keeping perfect time.

How can this be? How is it possible that something produced at least 50 years ago, in the Soviet Union, can actually be any good? If this watch works, was I wrong to think the old Soviet system was not only despotic and cruel - nothing is going to shake my conviction on that score - but also (and as a result) inefficient, incapable of producing anything at all that could be relied on to work?

In my experience nothing and no-one in the Soviet Union did their job efficiently, except the KGB. The place reeked of a compound odour, made up of aviation fluid, the tobacco (so-called tobacco - I think it was quite often tea or shredded blankets) they put in papirosi and cabbage, cooked in greasy water. Almost everything was grubby and smudged and puddingy, and what wasn't - classical music, ballet - was so exquisite it only high-lighted the poverty of the rest.

But maybe this watch wasn't manufactured for local consumption. Perhaps it was part of an export drive to begin with, made for customers who actually might complain if something didn't work. As opposed to those who were lucky if they could actually buy anything at all and, according to the old joke, had to ask, when they ordered a refrigerator and were told that it would arrive a decade hence, "When exactly?", "Probably October", "But when in October exactly?", "Well, let's say 16th October", "Morning or evening?", "Morning or evening? Why do you want to know - we're talking about ten years away?", "Because they're delivering the new washing machine in the morning."

Oh look, is that the time? Well, my Nyeva says it is, in which case, I must fly.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Gill Diet

I was so sorry to read of the death of AA Gill. Some people in my family say that I shouldn't be sorry, because of the baboon incident, which was vile, I agree. However, who among us has not made dire mistakes and done cruel things that we then choose to forget about or justify to ourselves?

Cast not the first stone, and all that.

My feeling is that the man spread more joy than sorrow. Sure he gave offence - but is offence really the most appalling thing in the world? These days, some people genuinely seem to believe that it is, but I don't.

So I'm grateful AA Gill existed and sad that he is gone. Apart from feeling natural sympathy for his family, purely selfishly I would like to be able to go on reading new articles by him. There are so many things that he wrote that made me laugh an extraordinary amount. I wish there were going to be more.

Anyway, looking at some recordings of him talking, I have discovered that, like me, Gill also devised a diet. It is, of course, a far, far better diet than my one, (virtually any diet would be). Here it is, transcribed from a talk a few years ago, given somewhere in London, (I think):

"Diets are nonsense. What you need are manners. We are taught far too much about what we eat and not anything like enough about how we eat. The rules are:

Never eat standing up;
Never drink from a cup that you are going to throw away;
Never eat from a plate that goes straight into the bin;
Always eat sitting at a table;
Always eat with a knife and fork;
Always eat off pottery or china;
Never eat at a desk;
Never eat in front of a screen;
Eat three times a day and no more;
Never eat in the street;
Never eat out of a packet."

Monday, 12 December 2016

Wurst-based Weight Loss

With Christmas coming, the pages of women's magazines are, as usual, divided between recipes for rich dishes and instructions on how to lose weight - presumably, so that you can fit into your party dress and go out and eat those same rich dishes, or very similar ones, at your friends' houses.

While I am of no use when it comes to advice on the food preparation end of things, when it comes to weight loss, you need look no further than this blog.

I have worked out a sure-fire weight loss method.  Not only is it sure-fire; it is also astonishingly simple. It is slightly similar, I suppose, to the 5:2 fasting system, but demands none of the feeling-extremely-hungry-every-two-or-three-days that that method requires.  So far as I know, my weight-loss method is a discovery that no-one else has ever come up with. It could make me very rich, of course, but, in the spirit of Christmas, I am sharing it here at absolutely no charge. Because I'm just that kind of generous person, don't you know. (Plus can you imagine how boring writing an entire diet book would actually be?)

I call my great discovery the Hungarian Bratwurst Diet. I came upon it quite by chance a mere four days ago, following a visit to one of Budapest's Christmas markets.

At said Christmas market, I was given a large and shiny grilled sausage, plus mustard, two gherkins and a white bread roll.

I looked at the sausage, which wasn't just large but actually probably one foot (that is, thirty centimetres) long, and thought, "I'm not going to manage this; I'll have to put half of it inside that white bread roll so that I can carry it home."

But, oddly enough, when I looked a minute or two later, it turned out that I had in fact eaten the entire sausage in the twinkling of an eye, plus the gherkins and the mustard, but not the bread roll as I've never been wildly excited about bread, to be honest - it is this lack of interest in bread, I finally realised recently, that makes me a non-fan of sandwiches, but that's another (admittedly fairly dull) story.

The sausage was absolutely delicious. It was also astonishingly filling.

Although, oddly, I didn't feel full at the time that I ate it or immediately afterwards. The sensation crept up on me about an hour and a half later, becoming really noticeable only after I'd gone to the shop and bought food for that night's dinner and the next couple of days.

It was only then - when I'd paid and stepped outside with my basket of groceries - that I realised that I really wasn't at all hungry any longer. I then continued not to be hungry for another thirty-six hours.

During that thirty-six hours, while completely without hunger, I did regain a skill I had lost since the age of seven. I became once again brilliant - I might even say virtuosic - at burping. I even reacquainted my astonishing but until then longlost ability to burp the theme tune to Z Cars.

Sadly, this skill was somewhat underappreciated when I was seven, and it appears to be even more underappreciated to this day. I think the problem is other people's jealousy.

Anyway, for your delectation, here it is, my wonder diet, completely free. As they say, "enjoy":

Monday - One grilled Hungarian bratwurst, two gherkins, one tablespoon of mustard;
Tuesday and Wednesday - nothing
Thursday - One grilled Hungarian bratwurst, two gherkins, one tablespoon of mustard;
Friday and Saturday - nothing;
Repeat until desired weight reached.

As you can see, this diet does not require specialist equipment or cluttering up your kitchen shelves with odd ingredients. Although I suppose the availability of grilled Hungarian bratwurst outside the Christmas markets of Budapest might pose some problems.

Funnily enough, that is where I might be able to help you. In fact, should you face difficulties in sourcing Hungarian bratwurst, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Oh curses, you have found me out.  I thought I was so cunning. Yes, all right, I admit it . My plan is to monopolise the Hungarian bratwurst supply chain and become a sausage millionaire.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Battered Penguins (and others of that ilk) - Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Fatal Shore, a History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 by Robert Hughes, is a revelation, even for those of us who were educated in Australia and taught some Australian history. It is a book that leaves you awed by the propensity for cruelty that humankind displayed in the establishment of Australia.

In his Introduction, Hughes contends that:

What the convict system bequeathed to later Australian generations was not the sturdy, skeptical independence on which, with gradually waning justification, we pride ourselves, but an intense concern with social and political respectability.

I think he is right in this - and in the earliest incarnations of  Barry Humphries's Edna Everage, this is what was originally being made fun of.  Hughes's tale also helps explain why Australia as a nation appears less perturbed than some others by the idea of sending away groups we see as aliens to be processed on distant islands. From the beginning, this policy has been practised on us, with Norfolk Island the most infamous example of its implementation.

In his book, Hughes describes vividly the cruelty of the 18th century, not only in Australia but also in England. He tells of “the crush of jostling voyeurs” at Tyburn, the unspeakable conditions in the hulks, the blood lust and lack of humanity that developed among those who had power over prisoners, which led to unspeakable floggings for offences such as “Having turnips” or “Talking in Church”.

He also introduces the characters of influence during the various phases of Australia's penal history, although sadly his refusal to admire anyone wholeheartedly becomes a little irritating. Macquarie and Alexander Maconochie, both figures who did much worth applauding, cannot escape jibes about priggishness and self-righteousness.

Similarly, Hughes's account of what happened to Australia’s indigenous peoples is over-egged and prone to assertions unsupported by footnotes that might provide evidence of their truth. Included among these is the startling statement that Australian Aborigines “killed the infants they could not carry”. I've never heard of this practice before and I'd want to see some proof, beyond Mr Hughes's word, that it ever happened. Similarly, the contention that the possibility of converting Australian Aborigines to Christianity and farming was “an idea loathed and resisted by every white, no matter what his class” is hard to swallow - if every white  genuinely loathed and resisted the idea, who came up with it in the first place?

But never mind - the book’s depth of research is generally extraordinary. It is also wonderfully written. This phrase, for instance, has an echo of The Tempest within it:

The space around it, [Australia], the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.”

In dreadful circumstances, what is more, Hughes can occasionally be funny. An example is the wry comment he makes on a report that 50 or 60 cases of sodomy occurred each day on Norfolk Island:

Since the total convict population of Norfolk Island at the time was about 600, this argues an impressive priapic energy on the prisoners’ part, perhaps caused by the sea air.” 

Thanks to Hughes's work, I am now able to conjure in my imagination some notion of the original figures whose names are already familiar from street names and titles of institutions - for instance, Bent Street in Sydney, which I’d always assumed was named for its shape, turns out to be named after an early legal man, while the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra is named after a rather inspiring visionary, who hoped to reform penal services and, at least for a time, relieved the utterly hellish lives of the unfortunates on Norfolk Island.

Hughes argues that the national psyche is still shaped by our penal origins:

Would Australians have done anything differently if their country had not been settled as the jail of infinite space? Certainly they would. They would have remembered more of their own history. The obsessive cultural enterprise of Australians a hundred years ago was to forget it entirely, to sublimate it, to drive it down into unconsulted recesses. This affected all Australian culture, from political rhetoric to the perception of space, of landscape itself. Space, in America, had always been optimistic; the more of it you faced, the freer you were - “Go West, young man!” in Australian terms, to go west was to die, and space itself was the jail. The flowering of Australian nature as a cultural emblem, whether in poetry or in painting, could not occur until the stereotype of the “melancholy bush,” born in convict perceptions of Nature-as-prison, had been expunged. A favourite trope of journalism and verse at the time of the Australian Centennial, in 1888, was that of the nation as a young vigorous person gazing into the rising sun, turning his or her back on the dark crouching shadows of the past.”

but he concludes, surprisingly, by saluting the penal system with which Australia was founded - or at least saluting the tokens left by those who suffered under its harsh disciplines:

To ask what Australia would have been without convicts is existentially meaningless. They built it - if by “it” one means European material culture there - and their mute traces are everywhere: in the peckings and scoops of iron chisels on the sandstone cuttings of Sydney, hewn with such terrible effort by the work gangs; in the fine springing of one bridge at Berrima in New South Wales, and the earnest, slightly bizrre figures carved on the face of another at Ross in Tasmania; in the zigzags of the Blue Mountain road, where traffic now rolls above the long-buried, rusted chains of the dead, less obviously, in the fruitful pastures that were once primaeval gum forest.

I remember a few years ago hearing a young Australian comedian's routine about how she had been born and brought up in Bondi. Every morning, she got up and looked out of her window and thought, "Wow, if this is the prison, what must England be like? It must be paradise on earth." The punchline was her arrival at Heathrow.

That little joke might not appear exceptionally funny, viewed from an English point of view, but to have reached the current situation - where the place to which the dregs of British society were banished is now a place that many in the United Kingdom would give a lot to be allowed to live permanently - does have a certain comedy to it, especially if you are lucky enough to be born Australian. What Hughes's book shows is that, in addition to being amusing, this result is also downright astonishing. Emerging from such fiercely cruel origins to become a thriving, middle ranking nation is little short of miraculous. While Australia's early story lacks the romanticism of, for example, the founding myths of the United States, the creation of the modern nation of Australia -  (for all its faults; I don't claim it is perfect, any more than any human society is) - from the blood-soaked violence detailed by Hughes is an achievement both surprising and fairly wonderful.