Friday, 14 May 2021

RJ Unstead Goes Travelling

Having a mind that finds abstract concepts hard to grasp, my attempts to learn about history have usually met with failure. The only things I have learnt until now about what happened in the past are the facts I learned from RJ Unstead, who provided masses of details about clothes and food and housing, which were the things that helped me understand and remember what happened when. 

The one drawback about that was that Unstead's great work, Looking at History, only covered the history of Britain. How was I going to remember what happened in the rest of the world?

Then it came to me: whenever I saw a commemorative statue or plaque, I would try to find out who the person concerned was. My trivial brain would learn fact through personal story. 

And so I have started - and I have created a blog to record all my discoveries. It will start with statues and commemorative things in Budapest, but I hope we might be allowed to travel one day and I will then try to add the same sorts of posts concerning people who have been commemorated further afield. At the end of each post I will endeavour to include a mapshot, giving an indication of where the thing I'm writing about can be found. 

Here is the first post in the series.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Joys of Twitter - an Occasional Series

The re-elected Mayor of London, having complained for some time that the London transport system is penniless, announced on Twitter yesterday that he was thrilled with the new signs he had commissioned from David Hockney. They will replace the ones in the Piccadilly Circus tube station, and Mr Khan is proud that he is ushering in this change:

To my great joy, instantly Twitter users reacted - and not one single response was positive. That restored my faith in the possibility that most people are not idiots. Better still, a great many of the replies were very funny. Some, of course, were bitter:

This was my absolute favourite:

But there were many others that also brought cheer, either because they were funny or because they were wise and upset. They made me glad to know I am not alone in believing it is totally wrongheaded to fiddle with the superbly elegant design of the standard enamel tube signs (like all the very best design, it is something so good that you don't notice it has been designed; the thought of design or a designer behind it doesn't come into your head, because it is so exactly right that it seems to have always existed)

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

What Happened

An incredibly kind friend decided some weeks ago that he was going to hack his way through the bureaucratic undergrowth & get me enrolled in the Hungarian system so that if I should need to consult my local doctor that would be allowed. I did try to discourage him - having been born with two nationalities, I am acutely aware that civil servants regard me as a dangerous aberrrant & do all they can to block access to any & everything for me. 

He is, I think, now beginning to regret his decision to get this task underway.

Anyway, rummaging in the filing cabinet for some document that might help him, I came across one of my favourite New Yorker cartoons. If the man in it is taken to be the world last January, it sums up what was about to happen very nicely:

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Reading - Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark and Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

By chance, just after finishing reading a novel by Muriel Spark and one by Iris Murdoch, I came across a review of two of their novels by John Updike in the first issue of the New Yorker in 1975. 

As so often, Updike had interesting things to say.

First of all, I was heartened to see that my experience of Iris Murdoch's novels - that they leave no lasting impression, despite being well-imagined - was something Updike also experienced. He remarked that her characterisation and story telling is:

"so vivid & impressive ... endowed with all the substance her remarkable powers of imagination & introspection could fabricate" 

and yet his impressions of what he had read:

"do not last. Miss Murdoch is less Shakespeare than Prospero, holding us enchanted as long as we stay on her island, then the insubstantial pageant fades.”

I'm not certain that his identification of Murdoch's main theme is correct or more a reflection of his own obsessions:

"Her theme is "erotic love is never still.” In some of her novels the shifts of allegiance and attraction wrought by the inexhaustible, tempestuous force of erotic love approach the mechanical and unintentionally comic; a kind of square dance passingly links every character to every other. And, as in a mystery novel the murderer can be spotted because he is the least likely candidate, so the Murdochian hero or heroine can be counted upon to love, at last, and truly, the most repulsive figure of the opposite."

Updike's observations on the two novelists and their place in the literary order are perceptive, and I particularly like his observation about the legacy they contain from Shakespeare:

"They constitute a class by themselves—both so intelligent and fluent, so quizzical and knowing, both such resourceful mixes of feminine clairvoyance and masculine generalship, both such makers. Miss Murdoch, true, is copious and explanatory where Mrs. Spark is curt and oblique; she can hardly turn around in fewer than a hundred thousand words where the other can't bring herself to exceed novella length; she is wistfully theistic rather than flatly so, and concerned with goodness instead of with faith. The two of them together reappropriate for their generation Shakespeare's legacy of dark comedy, of deceptions and enchantmеntѕ, оf shuddering contrivances, of deep personal forces held trembling in a skein of sociable truces."

I like especially the understanding exhibited by the phrase "concerned with goodness instead of with faith"

Here are my more pedestrian comments on the particular novels I read by the two women:

Territorial Rights is set in Venice, and Muriel Spark moves her characters around that city as if they were chess pieces. They inhabit the usual Spark quasi-surreal atmosphere and coincidences abound. Everybody is absurd, no one is virtuous. A recurring Sparkian element, the possibility that reality is a novel written by an unseen hand, is once again hinted at. An easy read that I suspect is not quite as clever as Spark thought it was. 

Under the Net is an amusing, baffling book with some lyrical moments and quite a few laughs. It is narrated by a cheerful, fairly  aimless soul, and I suspect the meandering story is some sort of everyman parable of life's amiable meaninglessness. Or maybe it is just a meandering story. It is quite engaging and faintly intriguing while you are reading it, but it washes over you and is forgotten in a trice. Perhaps prophetically, it contains a piece of anti-Semitism uttered by a character called Lefty. 

The book is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, which probably provides a big clue to whatever was the author's intention.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

We Need Nordahl Now

I’ve been reading a memoir by Graham Greene in which he recalls a Norwegian friend called Nordahl. The description he gives of him includes this passage:

“There were always arguments where Nordahl was, and never a trace of anger. He was the only man I have ever met with whom it was possible to disagree profoundly both on religion and politics and yet feel all the time the sense of goodwill and an open mind. He not only had goodwill himself, but he admitted goodwill in his opponent - he more than admitted it, he assumed it. In fact he had charity - of greater value than the gold of the National Bank, and to me he certainly brought a measure of hope in 1931, carrying it like a glass of akvavit down the muddy lane in Chipping Campden.”

"He not only had goodwill himself, but he admitted goodwill in his opponent" - how welcome a few more people like that would be in this new cantankerous age.

Reading - The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy

This book looks at the phenomenon of rich young American women marrying English peers, something that became a frequent occurrence in the period between about 1870 and 1905. Anne de Courcy has a wonderful eye for interesting details and brings to life an era of huge wealth, rigid formality and intense social competitiveness. She supplies a massive amount of intriguing detail about clothing, servants, food and behaviour. The book is in many ways a companion guide to the world of Edith Wharton's novels. There are too many intriguing little bits of information in the text to quote them all here so I will confine myself to three at random:

1. Charles Dickens had a bathroom installed in 1851 and took a shower every morning, but he was practically alone in this - most people made do with a daily sponge bath, and the upper classes regarded plumbing as horribly middle class.

2. In the 19th century the coat hangar had not been invented.

3. At Newport, Rhode Island, all society women tried to protect their skin from the sun's rays with hats or veils or both, but some "of the more dashing women would wear something even stronger: a mask made of fine chamois leather, often with embroidered lips and eyes".

A truly entertaining, informative book.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Reading - The Pike by Lucy Hughes Hallett

Having read many good reviews, I was looking forward to this book. In it Lucy Hughes-Hallett tells the story of Gabriele d'Annunzio and attempts to make the case that he was not merely the most vivid expression of the wild times in which he lived but a person without whom the theatrical aspects of Mussolini's Fascist Italy might never have been realised. However, very early on Hughes Hallett herself has to admit that the extent of d'Annunzio's political influence is very much a matter of dispute. Once this admission is made, (page 64 in my edition), tramping through the next 600 pages grew wearisome for me. The fact that "we know in enormous detail what d'Annunzio did in bed" and Hughes-Hallett provides much of that detail did not help, since I am not a voyeur. Hughes-Hallett attempts to hold our attention by acknowledging that there is quite a lot to disapprove of in d'Annunzio and then asserting that "disapproval is not an interesting response." Well no, but revulsion is not a pleasant feeling, yet the fact remains that the reaction of the reader to most of d'Annunzio's behaviour is likely to be revulsion, which makes it a long, revolting read.

The problem Hughes-Hallett faces in trying to portray d'Annunzio is that you really had to be there. He was clearly hypnotic in person, in possession of an extraordinary charisma when addressing a crowd. Sadly charisma is not something that can be resurrected through descriptions after the event. Therefore one is left with the fact that, as Hughes-Hallett says, "he was one of the cleverest of men, but also one of the least empathetic. He was as ruthless and selfish as a baby", (why does Boris Johnson keep leaping into my mind, I wonder). Without being mesmerised by witnessing his personal magnetism, the things he does - binding his eyes as he approached the border when returning to Italy, "lest the first sight of his homeland be too emotional", for example - seem frankly ludicrous. 

One aspect of d'Annunzio that is faintly interesting in the context of today's politics is the fact that he was clearly a populist - "Instead of looking up the social scale and the political hierarchy, seeking endorsement from the ruling class, he looked to the people, turning popularity into power". However, those who came after him were also populists - and I was not convinced by this book that their populism was due to d'Annunzio's influence. Populism appears at times of dissatisfaction and upheaval and the period between the first and second world wars in Europe was a period of dissatisfaction and upheaval. 

Ultimately, for me the book was pointless, beyond the discovery that Pirandello was at best an appeaser of the Fascists, which was very disappointing. I was not convinced that politically d'Annunzio was more than an extremely eccentric egoist whose showmanship was directed at nothing other than his own self-aggrandisement and grew from the mood of the times rather than influencing them. I was not interested in his sexual exploits. Inasmuch as I might be interested in him as an artist - and James Joyce seems to have admired him, declaring that he was "the only European writer after Flaubert to carry the novel into new territory" - then the place to start must surely be his actual writing, not his biography.