Friday, 26 May 2017

Lessons in Comprehension

I had forgotten these poems by Philip Hodgins. They are bleakly cheering. He was a great poet.

"You're moving fast and yet you're going nowhere."

Two months ago I didn't understand those words;  having spent the last weeks of my brother's life in the hospital with him, I do.

Ignorance is bliss.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Battery Factory Blessing

"Right", the husband said, "your radio needs a new battery. I think it's time we went to the Battery Factory again."

I could tell what he was hoping to do, but it was a risky strategy. He was hoping to cheer me up, and he was right - this outing might do the trick, but only if things at the Battery Factory had remained unchanged.  As it had been some years since we'd visited, that seemed unlikely.

But it was worth a try - and better than sitting at home moping. So I climbed into the car beside the husband and off we went to Fyshwick, the original and the best when it comes to Canberra's light industrial zones.

On the way, we passed the river flats where they cultivate lawn that can be laid ready-grown in bare new gardens. The person in charge thinks he has a sense of humour and regularly puts up signs that are punny rather than funny. His latest, I noticed, read thus: "Putin some seed today and very soon it will be coming up Trumps." This is the first topical one I've seen from him; although never what you'd call a fan, I think I liked it better before he decided to add in a side order of international politics.

The car turned off the river road and onto the Battery Factory street. I felt nervous. The husband parked. I suggested I might just stay in the car.

"Don't be ridiculous", the husband said. I got out and trudged up the bitumen slope to the glass-fronted showroom, the husband leading the way, radio under his arms.

Disappointment. We were greeted by two unfamiliar men. They told us the battery the radio needed was no longer available. But then, through the door that led into the showroom, I glimpsed the figure we had been hoping to see. It was Robert, the man who I think runs the Battery Factory, a man of such good temper and genuine helpfulness that it is worthwhile finding any possible reason to visit the Battery Factory just for the pleasure of doing business with him.

Unfortunately, Robert was busy. He was helping another customer. That customer would not want to let him go, I was certain - you never do want to end a conversation with Robert.  And we were supposed to be getting back to my mother; we hadn't got hours and hours to spend.

"Robert?" said one of the two who were convinced that there was nothing to be done for us or our radio, "Yeah, he might think of something, I guess. When he's finished, we could ask him."

We all stood around, watching the conversation in the showroom take its course. Then Robert farewelled his customer and came over to join us.

He looked very slightly older than last time I'd seen him, there was a little more grey in his hair, but he hadn't changed, not really - his face was as kind as ever, his expression as reassuring. "Now how can I help you?" he asked, and we felt that he genuinely wanted to know.

All four of us clustered round him with the radio, like kindergarten children clamouring for the attention of their favourite teacher. We interrupted each other, eager to explain about how the radio was an old one and we didn't think the battery that was designed for it was available any more.

Robert listened to us calmly and then took the radio and looked it over. He explained that his men were right, the battery we'd used for it was no longer available, but we didn't need to worry because, with a little bit of soldering, we could solve the problem and still have a radio that worked like new.

I was on the point of telling Robert that it didn't really matter whether the radio ever worked again - the point of our outing had merely been to benefit from his presence. Luckily, my telephone rang and I went outside before I went too far.

I didn't see Robert again after that, but that didn't matter. He was there and I'd seen him and he'd restored my belief that people can be good and kind and nice, (something that had faltered considerably after the death of my brother, due to various encounters surrounding funeral arrangements et cetera that I will not go into here).

As I wound up my telephone conversation, the husband appeared with my radio. Apparently, Robert had got out a soldering iron, found a bit of suitable wire and a new battery connection and converted the radio to a new type of battery, without any thought of being paid.

All of which is by way of saying that, if you live in Canberra and you feel in need of your spirits being raised, pop out to the Battery Factory in Fyshwick and talk to Robert. It is always a trip worth taking. And if you are part of Robert's family, you are very lucky indeed.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Vrij Lopen

To cheer me up, my husband is making me breakfast. I thought he was making toast but then I saw that he was eating a slice of bread and butter and vegemite. I asked if the toaster wasn't working and he explained that it was fine but that, while waiting for it to do its job, he thought he'd indulge in a bit of nostalgia. It turns out he got vegemite sandwiches in his lunchbox every single school day of his youth.

"There was a chap who'd come back from Europe", he tells me, "I don't know if his family was with Foreign Affairs, or what they were, but I remember envying him and admiring his family's sophistication because he sometimes got triangles of Vache Qui Rit as well."

How things have changed. I remember a childcare worker confiding that the contents of the lunch boxes I prepared were some of the healthiest she'd ever seen. I had an idea such things were being scrutinised and my impression was that my children would be treated with more respect if the authorities approved of what I gave them. The fact that there was nothing at all among the provisions I supplied that they actually wanted to eat was completely beside the point.

Oh dear, now the vegemite sandwich boy has started criticising my shopping choices. What he objects to is this picture on the box of free range eggs I bought:

He says I should have explained I wanted eggs from free range chickens.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

My Brother, My Friend

On 11 May, my brother died. Although I do not normally make speeches, I felt I owed it to him - and to my mother - to pay tribute to him at his funeral a couple of days ago. Since then, some people have asked for a copy of what I said, and so I am putting the text here for those who want it. If you don't feel like reading such a long thing, the gist is that I loved my brother enormously and will always miss him. He was a wonderfully generous brother and human being and, by great good fortune, he met a woman called Mary Ellen Field who matched his generosity with an abundance of her own.

"I'd like to start by apologising. This will not be a very good eulogy, when compared to our family's usual standards. The problem is that up until now Mark Colvin has been our eulogiser-in-chief, and he set a very high bar. For both our father and our stepfather, he did the job brilliantly, evoking each of them with a vividness that almost made you believe they were still among us. How nice it would be if I could do the same for him.

For those who don't know, by the way, I am Mark Colvin's sister. This does mean that, on the subject of Mark Colvin, I can at least claim to be that much derided thing, an expert. My mother would be the greatest expert on him here today - or indeed anywhere on the planet. My cousins, Jamie and Belinda, who, to our great joy, have flown out from England to be with us to farewell Mark, were both born before me, so they might be able to argue that they also have the edge. However, despite missing out on his first four years, as the next sister in line to him, I reckon I did have quite a lot of experience of Mark Colvin - although possibly not the Mark Colvin who has been celebrated in the media since his death.

Yes, I am his sister. And apparently there is a thing called sibling rivalry. Well I wouldn't know. It is said, I admit, that Marko expressed initial disappointment that I wasn't a boy – the story goes that while being read a Christmas story the evening after my birth, (I was born near Christmas) he piped up each time the male pronoun was used, saying, “Him, not her - they laid him in a manger”, “He, not she – he was wrapped in swaddling clothes” etc (I mentioned this to someone in Marko's hospital room the other day and Marko smiled gently, commenting, “Ah, family stories, aren't they always the best')?  In any case, if there was any truth to the story, the whole thing took place before I was aware of anything much, and by the time I was noticing stuff, Marko seems to have decided that we were going to be friends forever. We have been ever since.

Our relationship consisted almost exclusively of laughing together, sharing stupid jokes, a love of Molesworth, EL Wisty, Shelley Berman, New Yorker cartoons, deriving amusement from the tormenting of parents and grandparents – in this regard, there was one recurrent idiocy that we shared with our cousins Jamie and Belinda, with whom we spent such a lot of time as children. It involved insisting to our grandmother that the man who took the parking fees in the car park at Winchester - a sensationally unattractive person who always wore a very grubby raincoat and was therefore known to us as “the mackintosh man” - was desperately in love with her; this for some reason was something that totally maddened granny, which of course gave us all great joy. 

However, our absolute all time favourite torment routine, something we never really abandoned even in adulthood, was teasing our mother with a rendition of a Fairy Liquid advertisement ubiquitous in our childhoods; “Mummy”, one of us would say, in a sickly voice, “Mummy”, the other would chime in, repeating this tag team repetition, until finally our mother could stand it no more and would reply, reluctantly, often impatiently, presumably having resigned herself to the fact that we were never going to give up. “Yes?” she would say, and after a lot of giggling, we would ask her, “Mummy why are your hands so soft”, breaking immediately afterwards into a saccharine rendition of one of the most saccharine jingles ever penned, which I will spare you. 

We also made up routines for long car journeys, dialogues between characters we invented randomly. For some reason, the pair we reverted to most frequently were Nigel and Daphne, a couple of what would now be called Sloanes who loved nothing better than discussing their social calendars. I have no idea why we found this so amusing but it passed the time extremely well. “Nigel, are you going to Lady Northumberland's ball next week?” “Daphne, I'd love to, but I'm going to the Hambledon Hunt Hunt Ball that evening and I simply can't get out of it.” 

I realise as I remember these things that one of the worst aspects of losing my brother is not being able to have the opportunity to make him laugh again. How I would love to tell him about Mary Ellen Field having received not one but two letters of condolence following his death - charming, kind, beautifully written letters, both of them from convicted phone hackers serving time in one or other of Her Majesty's jails. He would have laughed and laughed at that, as he would if he'd heard about how one of his closest friends told herself she must pull herself together and get out of the house the day after his death. She had barely gone through the gate when the local real estate agent greeted her, unleashing a downpour of tears, most of which landed on the unsuspecting woman's shoulder.  “A real estate agent, of all people,” his friend said afterwards. Yes, Mark would have found the idea of blubbing on a real estate agent wonderfully absurd. 

But actually there was more to our relationship than laughter – there was also huge generosity, although I'm ashamed to say it was always from him to me. After a brief hiccup when he was so battered by his experience at prep school that his affection for me was replaced almost exclusively by the response “Stick a beetroot in your cakehole” if I ever attempted to speak to him, I was amazed one morning as we were walking down Victoria Street in London, near Westminster School, the place that restored him after his five horrible years at Summerfields. All of a sudden, Mark vanished, and before I could work out where he'd gone he reappeared, emerging from a sweet-shop doorway. He handed me a small white paper bag containing a quarter of sherbet lemons. He'd decided he'd give me a present, just out of the blue, for no reason, simply because he felt like doing it. 

There were many other similar occasions, but another that especially stays with me was an afternoon when he returned to our house at 68 Limerston Street and handed me a brand new book. It was the first ever Paddington Bear novel, when Peggy Fortnum was his illustrator. “I thought this looked as if it might be something you'd like", he told me. It was astonishingly thoughtful and perfectly chosen. I am still grateful for the hours of pleasure he gave me with that unprovoked gesture, as I went on to read and enjoy every one of those early Paddington books. 

Marko's generosity continued beyond our childhood - and so did my disgraceful bludging. It is astonishing to remember but there was a time when Sydney had not yet become a place full of hipster cafes, and if you wanted brunch on Saturday you had the choice of a milk bar or fending for yourself. This was the early seventies. I was 17 or 18, working as a motorbike courier, Marko was living in Coogee and I think possibly already at Double Jay or possibly still a cadet. Anyway, on the first morning of each weekend he used to buy a steak and a tin of mushrooms and cook the steak and then add the mushrooms to the pan. By some coincidence, I would usually drop in at around the same time and rather wearily he would share what he had intended to be a meal for one. 

Three or four years later, in London, when he was working at the ABC bureau there and I was being paid almost nothing to work for various now defunct magazines, I would sometimes go up to see him at the office they had in Portland Place.  He and I and basically everyone else in the rest of the office would head out to a restaurant run by a young Greek Cypriot. Lunch would go on for hours and usually end with complementary Metaxas all round. Much food was eaten, much rubbish was spoken and there was a nice sense of Australian good cheer. 

On those occasions, as I remember it – and admittedly the Metaxas were not brilliant for one's memory - Mark always shouted me, and always refused to accept repayment. In the same period, I let slip that I needed carpet but couldn't afford it. To my astonishment – when you don't have much money, it is always astounding to learn that anyone else has any to spare -  Marko immediately told me not to be ridiculous and gave me 250 quid.

If I wanted to self justify of course I could point out that money was not something my brother cared about. In fact I have rarely met anyone so little interested in material wealth as Mark. If you want proof of how little stuff mattered to him, you only have to look at his arrival to live permanently in Australia. Somehow- and even this I cannot quite credit, but perhaps my stepmother or some other relative did it for him – he managed to organise himself enough to get his belongings, including a rather lovely desk that had belonged to his grandfather,  packed up professionally and shipped over to Sydney. After that, however, his attention drifted. Despite nagging from his parents and various other members of the family – or perhaps because of the nagging: after all I do remember my mother having a conversation with him after he'd had a motorbike accident wherein she said, 'Well I hope you will give up riding the motorbike now”, to which he replied, 'Well I was going to until you said that” -  he never, ever managed to pick the things up from the wharf; really and truly never; in the end they were seized and used toward payment of the wharf fees he'd accrued.  I genuinely don't think he cared at all about that happening. 

But it wasn't only with money that Marko was generous; he was equally generous with those more precious commodities, his time and his knowledge. My cousin Belinda often tells the story of how, just before his finals at Oxford, she was bemoaning to him her lack of education. Despite the fact that he had so much else on his mind, Marko still found time to draw up a reading list for Belinda – she has said ever since that what he did for her that day was actually supply her with the education school never had. My daughter Lucy talks about his patience with young people. When you were with him, she says, there was never a sense that he was looking over his shoulder wishing for someone more interesting. Many people at the ABC have told me that he was extremely unusual in his openness, helpfulness, generosity and lack of any guarded competitiveness. I think actually that had he not been a journalist, he would have made a great teacher and certainly he told Mary Ellen Field that one of the things he loved best about her gift of an extra four years of life was the opportunity it gave him to mentor younger colleagues. And, since we are mentioning her, I would just like to highlight her gift and point out that she was the one and only person who matched my brother's generosity with an abundance of her own.

Marko's generosity, his total lack of hesitation about sharing what he had, was something I still admire greatly, not just because I benefited from it. It is a quality encountered very rarely and it was just a small part of a larger element in Marko's character – a trait that never left him and would be unexpected in anyone but particularly in a man of Marko's profession. It was innocence, or at least a kind of innocence - an unshakeable expectation of decency, of fair play, of loyalty in others, a tendency not to suspect low motives. As I say, this quality never completely left him and it was a great part of his charm and loveableness. However, it did make him very vulnerable to hurt.

Perhaps the best illustration of this gentle unworldliness is the story my mother tells about the first children's party she took Marko to. Marko was not a shy child. He went into the party perfectly happily, and before long my mother saw a small girl approach him. They seemed to get on, although the girl, to mum's way of thinking, looked like she was coming on a bit strong. All the same they appeared happy. Mum took her eye off proceedings. The next thing she knew, Marko was hurtling towards her, an expression of complete shock on his face. He looked at mum and then back at the girl, who had remained where he'd left her on the other side of the room. 

“That girl bit me,” he told my mother. He was clearly horrified. Before she could think what she was saying, my mother added to his horror by saying “Well, darling, go and bite her back”. 

Needless to say, Mark didn't. He was never aggressive or violent. However, he could be disappointed – and woe betide the person who disappointed him and thought they could still retain his friendship. If Marko put his trust in you or gave you his friendship and you betrayed it, perhaps because he himself was so loyal and such a good friend, he found it well nigh impossible to forgive the hurt he felt as a result. Mind you when that happened, when he did give up on someone, he didn't resort to histrionics. He didn't shout or scream or throw things. In fact, the only sign that he could no longer stand the sight of you was a dawning sense of being locked out from his affection, an intimidating withdrawal of his attention and interest. 

But even then, I was so glad to discover last week, things weren't completely irredeemable, provided you were truly sorry for the hurt you'd caused. After years of wounded silence from Marko, one of our closest relatives apologised unreservedly for something that Marko thought he'd said to him. "I love you" was Marko's immediate reply. Our relative flew over from London and they were together when Marko died.

But enough of this cloying stuff. It is also important to remember that Marko was hugely interesting company. That is why, as well as the laughs and the steak and tinned mushrooms, I will miss so much the endlessly varied conversations we had. During one of our very last, he said to me, “You and I always had so much in common” and that is true. However, once again I was the beneficiary, as Marko's brain was so enormous and so stocked with knowledge, whereas, except on very rare occasions, I was merely the interested looker on.  On any topic worth discussing he had such a rich reserve of information and reference stored away inside his head. In the last two or three days of his life alone, despite his being very, very ill, we managed to have some great discussions about among other things Taming of the Shrew and whether it is actually a sexist work - we agreed that it isn't, that it is actually all about love; Les Murray's poetry, most particularly Dog Fox Field; the rich language of observed nature that emerges again and again in Shakespeare's writing, (complete with quotations straight from memory – by Marko, naturally, not me); Memling, Van Eyk and the so-called Northern Primitives and how the only reason we tend to hear more of Michelangelo and da Vinci is that Vasari's writings pushed them to the fore; and Thomas Hardy, who my brother to the very end refused to agree contains traces of humour. 

And speaking of humour, I did manage to get one last chuckle out of him. It was very late in the piece, when he was well aware that death was not far away. If I had any doubt about that I would not have mentioned the plans being made to mark his passing. However, he knew and I knew, and so I told him I'd heard that the ABC had a strategy in place for the day of his death that was equal to that devised by the British government in the event of the death of the Queen Mother. He looked - unsurprisingly, given his utter modesty about his own significance - astonished and also gratified, in a I-must-stifle-any-tiny-scrap-of-incipient-vanity kind of way. To help in this regard, I told him that I was going to nip out immediately and look for a suitably flowery hat for him to wear from now on. He laughed, relieved that he had been rescued from the dangers of a plunge into full blown self-importance.

That was so typical. My brother was never a seeker of limelight, never a big noter. When filming, he abhorred noddies and appeared as little as humanly possible in the footage he shot. He must have known at some level that he was much loved by many, but it never made him self-important. While, like anyone he would have been gratified by the tributes that have been paid to him since his death, he would have been amazed as well. I doubt that he would have thought he deserved them. 

Speaking of tributes, I was looking through Mark's papers the other day and found something he'd written for the family of  Bahram William Dehqani-Tafti, his interpreter in Iran. Bahram was assassinated on 6 May, 1980. His death horrified Marko. His tribute to Bahram reads as follows:

"You get to know people faster in a war zone: during the three days he spent with us in Kurdistan, Bahram revealed many of his qualities: he was courageous, extremely level-headed, and at the same time sensitive to the people surrounding him. He had an enquiring mind without being inquisitive; but one of the things which struck me most forcibly was his ability to look at a problem from all directions.”

Mum felt that those words could just as well have been written about Marko himself. 

In the instant after my brother died. out of nowhere a memory from our childhood leapt into my head. It was from the very early 1960s, we were in Victoria, in a car driving along a remote and empty road. Marko and I were in the back, playing up as usual. Eventually my parents ran out of patience. They stopped the car. "If you don't behave" they told us, "we will put you out on the side of the road and leave you". 

My brother immediately grabbed the door handle, opened the door and leapt out. He began walking. I didn't see my parents' faces because I was so shocked myself. What would happen to him? Would we ever see him again? He was striding away ahead of us. He had called our parents' bluff.

My father started the car again and drove after Marko. Then ensued a ridiculous reversal of roles whereby my parents were reduced to creeping along in first gear beside their son's walking figure, begging him to get back into the car.

It was an odd thing to think of at that moment but I like to believe it was a metaphor. Marko has leapt out of the car we're all travelling in, he has shown us that what we think we are afraid of is not actually anything to be frightened of. He is striding off down the road."

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.