Monday, 20 October 2014

So Much to Tell You

I went to London on the weekend and I went to Frieze Art Fair. I didn't stay their long. I'm not that interested in huge pink disposable nappies or tents that have been stretched out and nailed to the walls:

And, ye gods, that was by no means the worst of it.

Anyway, I scurried away to Frieze Masters, which meant a stroll through one of London's prettiest parks (but why do they ban bicycles?)

I've been putting the pictures I took of some of the lovely things I saw at Frieze Masters on instagram (zedmkc is my instagram name), but as time goes by I'll try to make some posts of them here too, because then you can really explore the pictures in a way you can't on instagram.

In the meantime, here is my photograph of one picture that I didn't really like but that reminded me of the absolutely wonderful story, Father's Last Escape, by Bruno Schultz, which you can hear read aloud here:

It is actually, I must admit quite an interesting painting in its own right, if you read the dealer's blurb about it:
But that's Frieze Masters for you - full of fascinating things you'll probably never see again.

Friday, 17 October 2014

A White Day-Star of Squinch

Wonderful Anecdotal Evidence has a great post about Les Murray today. It includes a link to an interview with Murray, and that interview is followed by this poem, which I hadn't consciously read before.

I often get more from an individual poem that I come across somewhere than I do from reading a collection. It's probably just a matter of poor attention - I also often find that reading just a scrap of something that I find hard going but interesting is the best way to get the most out of it, if that is at all clear.

I rather think it isn't, so I'll shut up and get out of the way of the lovely poem:

"Last World Before the Stars

These day that we’re apart
are like standing on Pluto
there in the no-time of thought,

bijou world the area of West Australia
contra-rotating farthest out
with its three moons and little mountains,

looking off the short horizon,
the Sun a white daystar of squinch
glazing the ground like frozen twilight,

no life, no company, no nearness,
never a memory or a joke
no pinned packet of dearness

just months gone in afternoon sleep
 and cripple-hikes with beeping monitors."

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Listening to Proust - Part Two

I reckon there may be people out there who are thinking to themselves, 'Ooh yes, she said she was going to listen to the whole of Proust but she's failed; she's fallen at the first hurdle; ha, could have told her'. And I say, 'Thank God for them', given that possibly the one thing that may keep me going is pure stubbornness and a desire to prove them wrong.

Because, yes, I have to admit it: I do find Marcel somewhat tiresome.

The thing is, he'll say something rather lovely, eg this:

"Combray de loin, à dix lieues à la ronde, vu du chemin de fer quand nous y arrivions la dernière semaine avant Pâques, ce n'était qu'une église résumant la ville, la représentant, parlant d'elle et pour elle aux lointains ..."

"Seen from afar Combray, the town, is represented by its church"

I like that and it articulates something I've often thought without being able to put it into words, (if that makes any sense - didn't Alan Bennett have an anecdote about his mother looking across a valley at a field on the other side and saying, "Alan, Alan, what are those white fluffy things over there? I know what they are but I can't think of their names", to which Bennett added a wry comment about how his mother in one sentence had demolished the entire theory of some philosopher, [although which one it was I now can't remember and thus I in my turn may be demolishing the entire theory of some other poor philosopher ]).

But forgive the digression - as I was saying, Proust's observation articulates something that has often struck me, in an inarticulate hazy kind of way. It is quite true that, when you are driving through Europe, the steeples you see from afar do seem to stand as representatives for each settlement you pass or approach - and, by the way, (oh lord, she's off again, wandering from the point, [if you think this is bad you should try talking to me in person - unbelievable, like listening to verbal spaghetti, basically]), is it true that the reason for there being so many steeples dotting the landscape in the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire is that the Emperor who was around in the time of Mozart, (Joseph of one or other number, he of the plain funerals and unmarked graves legislation?), decreed that no-one should ever be outside of walking distance to a church?

Okay, back to the topic ie Proust and no more of this nonsense, I promise you. He - Proust - is also brilliant on the secrets uncovered by smell:

"...mille odeurs qu'y dégagent les vertus, la sagesse, les habitudes, toute une vie secrète, invisible, surabondante et morale que l'atmosphère y tient en suspens"

"the countless odours springing from their own special virtues, wisdom, habits, a whole secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral, which their atmosphere holds in solution"

But my argument with him is not that he lacks insight generally speaking - no-one could possibly argue that. He is replete with insight - except in one area. When it comes to his readers' patience, I think he has a major perception gap. The obstacle - for this reader (listener) - rests in this simple problem: Proust does bang on.

For instance, had I been writing the book, I'd have left it there on the subject of smell and what it is redolent of - but, oh no, not Proust. He carries on and on for another very long paragraph:

"odeurs naturelles encore, certes, et couleur du temps comme celles de la campagne voisine, mais déjà casanières, humaines et renfermées, gelée exquise industrieuse et limpide de tous les fruits de l'année qui ont quitté le verger pour l'armoire; saisonnières, mais mobilières et domestiques, corrigeant le piquant de la gelée blanche par la douceur du pain chaud, oisives et ponctuelles comme une horloge de village, flâneuses et rangées, insoucieuses et prévoyantes, lingères, matinales, dévotes, heureuses d'une paix qui n'apporte qu'un surcroît d'anxiété et d'un prosaïsme qui sert de grand réservoir de poésie à celui qui la traverse sans y avoir vécu.L'air y était saturé de la fine fleur d'un silence si nourricier, si succulent que je ne m'y avançais qu'avec une sorte de gourmandise ..."

"...smells natural enough indeed, and coloured by circumstances as are those of the neighbouring countryside, but already humanised, domesticated, confined, an exquisite, skilful, limpid jelly, blending all the fruits of the season which have left the orchard for the store-room, smells changing with the year, but plenishing, domestic smells, which compensate for the sharpness of hoar frost with the sweet savour of warm bread, smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving smells, pious smells; rejoicing in a peace which brings only an increase of anxiety, and in a prosiness which serves as a deep source of poetry to the stranger who passes through their midst without having lived amongst them. The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment..."

Enough already. I get the picture mate, put a sock in it - oh no, I said sock, he'll be off again on the subject of sock smells and then probably sock textures. With Proust, sharp, brief insights all too often become empurpled in a nauseating way, especially when he starts using words like 'succulent' and 'appetising' and suggesting the fire bakes the smells into a crusty pastry, ugh, ugh, ugh.

No English person could write that and get away with it - well maybe Will Self, but even he would inject some humour into the thing - and receive a sidelong swipe from Private Eye for his sins.

Once again, I like the idea of an incredibly slow destructive invisible force, acting like time on the church step:

"...comme si le doux effleurement des mantes des paysannes entrant à l'église et de leurs doigts timides prenant de l'eau bénite, pouvait, répété pendant des siècles, acquérir une force destructive, infléchir la pierre et l'entailler de sillons comme en trace la roue des carrioles dans la borne contre laquelle elle bute tous les jours."

"just as if the gentle grazing touch of the cloaks of peasant-women going into the church, and of their fingers dipping into the water, had managed by agelong repetition to acquire a destructive force, to impress itself on the stone, to carve ruts in it like those made by cart-wheels upon stone gate-posts against which they are driven every day."

- but once again Proust over-describes and becomes sentimental - or, to be more charitable, he reveals himself as very much more sensitive and attuned to aesthetic transports than I.

This means that I find his evocation of his childish experience of the interior of the local Combray church nauseatingly rich. I wonder if this is just me being intolerant or whether it is me being Anglo Saxon.

But I plough on. And, interestingly, in the midst of my fidgeting and mild irritation, I come across a reference elsewhere to James Joyce, in which he is reported to have suggested that Henry James influenced Proust. This reignites my interest, as I love Henry James, despite all the criticisms of him and jibes about how he wrote as if he were wrestling with a dead language, (which always, for some reason, brings to mind the scene in the film of Women in Love in which the two main male characters fight on the hearth rug in Gerald's house one night).

Furthermore, just as I feel almost overwhelmingly impatient with Along Swann's Way, I meet up with a friend just back from East Timor. We talk about coming up against poverty and how we forget about it in our affluent bubble world and all of a sudden the bit from near the beginning of the book comes back to me, and I recognise how much wisdom there is in the text, for all its longeurs (and what's make us decide some words can only be expressed in French, par le chemin?):

"Je faisais ce que nous fasions tous, une fois que nous sommes grands, quand il y a devant nous des souffrances et des injustices: je ne voulais pas les voir..."

"I did what  we all do once we are adult and come face to face with suffering and injustice; I preferred not to see them"

And is it possible that Proust, like Will Self, does occasionally try to inject humour into his writing, if you only look hard enough. In the scene when his aunt is overheard talking to herself - "qui causait toute seule a mi-voix" - could it be that he is amusing himself by using her as a representative of what he might be doing with his own writing. I'd very much like to think that Proust could make the odd joke at his own expense.

Also, possibly this is something well-known - or possibly it is a preposterous suggestion that only an English speaker could come up with - but listening to the text I am struck by the homophony between the name Swann and the word 'soin' in French. Is there some reference here to the 'soin' the writer is taking in observing life's tiniest moments. Could Along Swann's Way be retitled Along the Banks of Time With Care?

Questions, questions. A piece of writing that raises so many questions cannot be all bad.

Carry On Doctor

If there's a recurring theme lately in films, as I suggested yesterday, then there also appears to be another different one in novels I've been reading. Or if not a theme, a particular kind of leading man who keeps popping up - well, perhaps "keeps popping up" is a bit of an exaggeration, (what me, exaggerate?). What I'm really saying then is that I've been reading two novels lately and in both the central figures have been medical professionals.

Okay, that is hardly a movement, but it struck me as a little odd. (Mumbles, feels slightly idiotic, but gosh, I've started now so I'd better plough on).

The first novel is a pretty vile, yet strangely gripping piece of work by the Dutch author Herman Koch. It is called Summer House With Swimming Pool and it is told in the first person by a really nasty doctor. To begin with it is unputdownable and at some points really funny. Towards the end I became so weary of the narrator's company that I slightly lost the thread of the thing and I don't think I really understand what actually happened. Never mind - along the way I was intrigued by the narrator's claim about the Netherlands and home birth:

'We're as rich as Saudi Arabia, as Kuwait, as Qatar ... but ...we, we general practitioners, convince ... that home-birthing is safe ... the risk of babies dying, of babies suffering brain damage ... is simply factored into the equation ... once in a great while an article appears ... [that shows] infant mortality in the Netherlands is the highest in all of Europe and indeed the Western world. But no one has ever acted on these figures.'

Is this true fact - in which case, shouldn't something be done? - or is it just supposed to demonstrate the jaded nature of the character who is writing?

Certainly, much as I love the theatre, I have had some bad nights there and thus couldn't help identifying with the same narrator's hilarious comments on being in an audience:

"Something happens to time during a play. Something I've never quite been able to put my finger on. It doesn't stand still, time, no: it coagulates."

Most particularly I recognise truth in what he says about the way that Shakespeare is often battered by arrogant directors:

"It was the first time I'd been invited to a Shakespeare production. I'd already seen about ten of his plays. A version of The Taming of the Shrew in which all the male roles were played by women; the Merchant of Venice with the actors in nappies and the actresses wearing rubbish bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads; Hamlet with an all-Down's-Syndrome cast, wind machines and a (dead) goose that was decapitated on stage, King Lear with Zimbabwean orphans and ex-junkies; Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos projected on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men - the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging form their nipples, performing against a soundtrack consisting of artillery barrages, Radiohead songs and poems by Radovan Karadzic. Besides the fact that you didn't dare to look at how the handcuffs and weights were attached to (or through) the nipples, the problem once again was a matter of how slowly the time passed. I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays."

Finally, the book reinforces my worst fears of doctors, when the narrator explains, on behalf of all his coleagues that:

'that's how we look at people ... as the temporary inhabitants of a body that, without periodic maintenance, could simply break down."

Of course not all doctors are cynical enough to say things like this:

"I knew from experience that...the sooner you laugh during a conversation with a woman, the better. They're not used to it, women, to making people laugh. They think they're not funny. They're right, usually."

Meanwhile, Joshua Ferris's new novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has as its main character a dentist. Perhaps reflecting the fact that dentists are somehow not as intriguing and shamanlike as doctors (at least not in my psychological universe) the book is not actually as grippingly horridly interesting as Koch's, although it may actually be the better of the two in the long run. Certainly there is a conversation in it between the main character and his practice manager that contains the best circular argument I've ever come across and one I wholeheartedly endorse:

"Why be superstitious at all is what I'm asking"
"Because it's bad luck not to be superstitious"

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Faith in Film

Is it just me or have all the best films recently been set in closed religious communities? There was Of Gods and Men, a wonderful film. Then there was Beyond the Hills, equally wonderful. And now we have Ida, which I've written about here.

Perhaps it is the contrast between the way we live currently and the aspirations of those who choose a religious life that makes monasteries and nunneries such interesting settings. Unspoken questions rise up from stories concerning people who have made choices so radically different from those we are encouraged to think of as normal, people who have such different goals from those we are taught we ought to have.

Anyway, I went to see Ida and I enjoyed it far more than I enjoyed Gone Girl. I thought that, if Thomas Hardy had made films instead of writing novels, Ida is the kind of film he might have made.

I'm sure Gone Girl will make far more money than Ida but that, sadly, is life.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Never Like Too Much

I wondered yesterday if I was a hard-hearted soul for pitying a mother's loss rather than the loss of life of her child, (if a baby penguin can be classed as a child - is 'child' purely applicable to humans? Discuss). I've since rationalised myself into believing that I was just taking the Ben Jonson view - ie that it's misery for a parent to lose a child, but for the child itself, death means they have 'so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage':

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Within what is a truly beautiful and very moving poem, the phrase 'Rest in soft peace' has always particularly touched me.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Object of Pity

Last night we turned on the telly and watched a documentary about penguins, until it became too dreadful to watch. On the way to switch-off, the programme induced a few doubts in my mind about the notion of 'survival of the fitness', which, as I understand it, says that animals able to adapt, via the fact that they are born with genetic mutations that help them stay alive in tricky environments, go on to evolve their own species into newer stronger variations, while those born from lines that don't have those genetic mutations die off eventually.

What I found myself wondering was this: if that's worked for giraffes with long necks, why hasn't it worked for penguins with extra powerful, aerodynamic kinds of wings? Or, to turn it round the other way, how come, if penguins have to run the gauntlet of sea lions to get food for their chicks, none of them have developed their wings beyond desperately sad little flapping appendages into useful things that might actually lift them off the ground, beyond the reach of the snapping teeth of their horrible blubbery foes.

Of course, this probably merely demonstrates that I don't understand the theory behind the idea of 'survival of the fitness'.

I certainly don't like witnessing it in action, especially when reassuring David Attenborough's voice is replaced by the Scottish actor who played Dr Who for a while. I don't mind him, but he's not comforting.

What eventually made us turn off was a scene that appeared to be heartbreaking - although I am aware this could simply have been a trick played on us by the film's editor. On a stretch of ice lay a very stiff, very dead penguin chick. In the distance a burly figure could be seen shuffling about, apparently looking for something. Of course, the burly figure was the chick's mother and eventually she found her dead child. When she did, she showed all the outward signs of real grief and it was this that was too much for us.

But what I realised afterwards was that it was not the fact of the chick's death that had aroused my sympathy. Seeing the little frozen corpse lying on the tundra - if tundra's what it was, (geography's never been my strong point, and that is probably the biggest understatement I have ever made), - was only as sad as seeing road kill, (which is sad, but I'm sorry to say that I have got used to it.) What was unbearably poignant was the mother's reaction. It was the mother I felt sympathy for. Is this because I am a mother, or is it normal? Looking back, I feel a bit hardhearted that I didn't really mind much about the death of the chick itself.

Incidentally, should you be looking for a more rounded, thoughtful discussion about sympathy and empathy, there's a fascinating debate on the subject raging at the Boston Review

Saturday, 11 October 2014

New Cliches

I remember ages ago watching Steve McQueen in something or other and realising that I'd seen similar scenes in many movies over the years. He was in a carpark at a supermarket and he was carrying a brown paperbag in the crook of his arm.

For a longish period, films regularly featured characters elbowing their way out of stores and into front doors, full brown paperbags clutched to their chest. There were scenes where they dumped their paperbags on benchtops, there were scenes where they gratefully unloaded them onto backseats. There were scenes when they accidentally dropped them and consequently met other characters.

And then the brown paperbags disappeared.

I assumed that in America plastic bags with handles had replaced them and somehow there wasn't quite the panache to be had from the look of a polythene sack dangling at knee level from a hero's fist.

Anyway, watching Gone Girl yesterday (follow this link for more about that), I realised that a new visual cliche has taken the brown paper bag's place. It's the take-away coffee cup. I can't think why I haven't noticed it earlier. It pops up several times in the film - and it's ubiquitous I suddenly realised in telly programmes from the US, especially cop shows.

It's funny though, because it only works visually. Whereas a cigarette long ago used to be a good prop on screen and also in writing - "she took a drag on her cigarette before speaking. 'I don't know', she murmured, knocking the ash onto the carpet as she spoke ..." - surely a takeaway coffee cup could never be used to pad out a written scene.

(Incidentally, since we mentioned - oh, all right, I mentioned - car parks, should you want to read a really beautiful poem set in a car park, there is one here.)

Not Just the Pink Stuff

Apart from peculiar menswear, Singapore seems a peculiarly bland - not to mention oppressively humid - place these days. We used to go up on a train from Kuala Lumpur when I was tiny, and I have memories of a more vivid place. 

Most of the areas that have been left low-rise are now, like tourist areas the world over, infested with eating establishments that advertise their wares with badly coloured photographs.

Mind you, there have been some lovely restorations - notably the huge Fullerton Hotel. The whole precinct it sits nearby is also beautiful, with many solid old colonial buildings, although most, including the Fullerton, have been stripped of much character inside - and anyway the space this little enclave takes up is minimal.

All in all, I found it hard not to think of the joke about the banker and the fisherman when reading this:

But I only know the place slightly, having never been there except in transit. Like everywhere, I'm sure it reveals more riches to those who care to look more closely. Even in the space of this last brief visit, I spotted one or two little signs of strangeness. Here is an example:

Here's another (it's a women's clothes shop, not a stockist of incontinence goods):

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Worn Out

In our house there is a tendency to only absorb the medical news stories that suit our already calcified bad habits - notable among these is the idea that red wine is good for you, (and forget the detail about moderation). Similarly, we have a habit of clasping to our hearts phrases that we pick up from PR or fashion or somewhere and twist to our own foul ends.

Among these, 'shabby chic' has been embraced for so long chez nous that, when casting a glance over our decor, the second word in the phrase ought to be struck out completely, were we being honest.

But we aren't - not about our rugs, at any rate. About our clothes we are slightly more circumspect. Which is why my husband found himself in search of new suits recently. He ended up buying some very nice ones from a man called Henry in Jermyn Street. He and Henry got very matey. Which was a pity as I'd spotted some lovely alternatives for him, in Collins Street, Melbourne, (and yes, I promise, these are clothes meant for men):

and in Singapore, where towelling rules and pink, apparently, is the new black:

I'm so disappointed to have missed the opportunity to redefine my beloved's image. But it's too late now - the suits he got off Henry should see him through another decade. And what likelihood is there that those nice shorts and matching donkey's ears or the pink towelling ensemble will still be available then?

Actually, probably quite a high likelihood come to think of it - who else is going to buy them, (although there was a man I used to work for who wore such extraordinary get-ups that I thought he must be the tailors' of Canberra's delight - "Quick, quick, Barry, there's that man again: go out the back and fetch those green and yellow striped three pieces I bought when I was drunk at the Trade Fair in Brisbane in 1964; I'm sure he'll take them")?

Apart from him though, what is the market for these things? Can the makers really be serious or are these just the latest in the centuries old game of Emperor's New Clothes?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

St George's, Ypres

Winston Churchill proposed, after the First World War, to leave Ypres in its wrecked state, as a monument to what had happened. I do recognise that this might not have been a very convenient approach for the residents of Ypres, but I can also see its attractions, provided you are not from Ypres.

As things turned out, the decision was made to rebuild the town instead - and to construct the Menin Gate as a memorial. I'd argue that the Menin Gate is almost dangerously inspiring, whereas the devastation left by the war was anything but. On the other hand, the general view is that it was devastation rather than pomp and glorification that led to the Second World War, so the argument is hardly relevant. 

Nevertheless, it is perhaps because it is not a rebuilding but a new structure, reacting to what had happened and trying to supply some solace to those left behind, that I like St George's more than anywhere else in Ypres. It is a tiny church, designed by the same architect who came up with the Menin Gate. It was built between 1927 and 1929 and was meant to provide a memorial to the dead and a meeting place for their relatives.

Everything in the church - the furniture, the windows, the plaques et cetera - has been given in memory of those who lost their lives in the Great War. A school was attached to the church and paid for by donations from Old Etonians, but the Second World War led to its closure in 1940.  

Thus, only the church remains, often overlooked by visitors. It is wonderfully calm and one of those places from which you feel that your prayers may really be heard, if that makes sense. The hassocks, sewn by countless unknown worthy ladies, (I'm assuming they were mainly ladies), seem particularly touching to me, not to mention the various regimental colours, which an army officer explained to me the other day are meant to be left hanging until they become mere tatters - which is when I think they begin to possess their greatest beauty

If you are intrigued to know who the Artists Rifles were, this link will explain all, I discovered.

For more on the Chinese Labour Corps, go to this link, although I'm left wondering what exactly 'recruitment' entailed, and whether there was anything voluntary about it:
This plaque touched me particularly of course - put up by the precursor to the RSL:
It struck me as a bit of a nerve on the part of the British to create the 'victory title' of 'Earl of Ypres' but at least it led to finding out about the colourful John French:
Such a wonderful poem, it goes without saying (so why am I saying it?):

Should the Queen ever turn up, her hassock awaits her:

It's something about the distance they'd come that makes me especially moved by this memorial:
In the light of everything, as I asked yesterday, is it a good thing that the majority would probably now grudge giving their lives, if the cause were as hard to justify as that of the First World War now appears:
Each time I go to St George's, I'm reminded of Rudyard Kipling's story, 'The Gardener'. I feel sure Helen Turrell stopped by the church on her way to visit Michael's grave.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Not a Yes Or No Question

A few weeks ago, in Australia, my husband met a woman who told him Ypres was her favourite place in the whole world. I've just come back from my second visit to the city, and I'd have to say I find her passion puzzling. Which is not to say it isn't a lovely place. It is. I suppose it's all a question of psychology, and Ypres, while I like it very much, doesn't somehow quite match my own psychology. Possibly that says more about me than about Ypres. Who knows, it might be a very strange place indeed that really sang to me.

Anyway, as I said, this was the second time I'd ever been to Ypres and, wandering about the town, it seemed to me that the place had become a bit more commercial - I'm sure there wasn't an Apple shop three doors down from the Menin Gate last time I was there, or a boutique belting out Lulu hits in the hope of tempting me to dash in and stock up on miniskirts, let alone a place flogging chocolate Tommies helmets, (with filling), surely the most misguided of marketing ideas ever.

While waiting for the 8 p.m Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, I rested for a while on a bench in the town's main square. Soon I found myself sharing it with one of those men who clutch cans of beer, (or something stronger), at all times and are accompanied everywhere by that special kind of mongrel dog that only drug dealers have, the ones that come as puppies ready-equipped with a piece of string for a lead.

Surrounded, as one inevitably is in a town as drenched in World War One as Ypres - (if indeed any other town is in its league in that respect) - by images of the nobility of male sacrifice, I found it hard not to notice how much my new companion's demeanour deviated from that earlier generation's approach to the world. I didn't have long to observe the detail of the differences, however. Having been accosted by a tribal crony, whose grunted conversation seemed to indicate he wanted something urgently, the can-carrying stranger left me, together with his furry friend, (both the canine and the human variety, in fact).

Watching the trio stumbling off across the cobbles, my initial thought was that we'd lost something. What I couldn't decide was whether that might not actually be a good thing. If called upon, there was absolutely no chance whatsoever that a modern fellow like my erstwhile neighbour would even think about stepping up to the plate in the defence of Queen and country. For the slaughter on the Western Front to happen again, the vast mass of the male population would have to possess a strong sense of duty and an unquestioning respect for authority. Despite the emotional appeal of such qualities, could it actually be a sign of progress that many people nowadays regard such things with scorn?

I find it hard to entertain that possibility. It makes the terrible losses in the First World War appear even more poignant. Was the eager rush to enter the military - on both sides - futile and stupid? Were all the lives sacrificed, all the acts of bravery and mateship we have been taught to admire, merely misguided? If so, what is it that so many of us find so admirable and stirring about the conflict? What gives a poem like Anthem for Doomed Youth such a melancholy beauty? Or, perhaps more precisely, what is that makes melancholy so beautiful to us, when it goes hand in hand with what we see as nobility? Is our admiration for self-sacrifice healthy or is it in fact a kind of death cult?

I can't answer any of these questions. I can only say that I am awed by the Menin Gate and the seemingly endless war graves that remind us of those terrible, muddy, pointless days when, as F Scott Fitzgerald put it so chillingly, 'an empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs'. These places remind us of men at their maddest, I suppose, but also at their best in some terrible way.

I can't explain my feelings when I go to places like Ypres. I don't want anything like the First World War to ever happen again and yet I'm horribly moved that people once gave up their lives and petty day-to-day interests to go to serve what they thought was a bigger cause - despite the fact that with the benefit of hindsight it was possibly just a really silly one. I'm strangely touched by the memorials, great ugly things many of them, their heaviness and sheer size some kind of attempt to make sense of the pointless vastness of what had been done and how much was lost:

  This monument to the XLIX West Riding Division stands behind a Commonwealth War Grave near Ypres, which includes a memorial to John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who wrote the beautiful poem that begins, 'In Flanders field the poppies blow',

Possibly my favourite place in Ypres - or anywhere I've been on the Western Front so far is St George's Chapel, which I'll try to write about and show pictures of in the next post I do. For now, here are some images of Langemark, a German graveyard near Ypres in which 44,061 Germans lie, some 7,000 of them unidentified. I heard Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum (I think) on Radio Three the other day, quoting a German historian on the German approach to history. He said that for them history is what must never be allowed to happen again. The Germans, according to this writer (Michael Stormer, possibly?) use history to remind themselves of what went wrong. That was certainly the sombre impression one got from Langemark

Monday, 29 September 2014

But Wait, There's More

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 September 2014

I Knew It Was Here Somewhere

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

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Who Will I Look Up to Now

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

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

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

1p Review of Wait for Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

On the Way

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a Catholic, according to Spark, was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

No More Home Among the Gum Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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