Friday, 18 April 2014

The Getting of Wisdom

Yes, it has been a while since I last posted and I do understand that I ought really to have called home or at least left a message explaining that I was all right and wouldn't be away for long. 

But I'm back now, and anyway I couldn't have foreseen that I would be gone for so much time. Thus, while apologising profusely, I feel I must also point out one thing - it wasn't my fault, (yes, you're right, this is a very modern apology, the kind where sorry is never actually said and blame is left unshouldered).

The thing is though, I blame the universities. Well, I blame one university in particular - the one whose graduation ceremony I've been attending ever since I was last here.

Oh yes, I hear you say, but didn't it occur to you that the thing might be a bit lengthy, when you read the instructions? After all, friends and relatives were required to seat themselves nine days in advance.

That was a bad sign, I grant you, and perhaps I should have taken it as a portent - but then it is so easy to be wise after the event.

How those days did drag too, despite - or in the end because of - the incessant playing of Bach pieces by the university's students (whether all of them were actually students of music is a question better left unasked). And if you think the pageant that eventually followed made it all worthwhile, I'm afraid you are very much mistaken.

Watching horde upon horde of Australia's eager young people stumble across a stage to receive degrees in subjects that probably fit them for nothing very much becomes surprisingly uninteresting after the first forty-eight hours or so.

If it was bad for us though, it was clearly taking an even greater toll on the poor woman clad in heavily embroidered robes, (I suspect they'd been designed with the robes of the office bearers of ancient institutions of learning in Britain in mind; if only the brevity of ceremony offered by bastions such as Cambridge University had been equally keenly emulated), who had to greet each graduand, (ooh, I am so glad I have a subscription to the OED), and present them with their pieces of paper.

As I watched her birdlike hand being enveloped in the sturdy grip of yet another hearty young Australian, I found myself thinking about EL Wisty who I think suggested some kind of electronic hand that could wave for the queen as she passed through the streets in coach or car, (and was rewarded for his efforts with a demonstration of a 'nit-poker' - a jam-covered sponge attached to a lengthy piece of stick). Surely some similar device, (to the waving thing, not the nitpoker, [although, come to think of it, it might be amusing to produce the latter for the occasional graduate, just to introduce an antic element and, let's face it, vary the routine]) should be invented for vice-chancellors whose job demands they undergo thousands of handshakes at the end of each year's studies?

Of course, nothing is without positives. Eventually, when I realised we really were in it for the long haul, I turned my mind to trying to conjure up ways to pass the time, given that I had nothing to read or to listen to. As others may one day find themselves in a similar predicament, let me set out here the things that got me through:

1. Counting the things in the room that may have been transported by sea to get here - or whose constituent materials may have. I doubt if there was anything there that hadn't arrived that way - just as it is virtually impossible to find anything in any shop that is actually Australian-made, (which makes all the getting of wisdom we were gathered to honour even more worryingly dubious in its usefulness - will anyone here actually be doing anything apart from shopping before too long?);

2. Counting the things in the room that may not have been made in China, (this activity grew pretty naturally from the one above). Sadly, there was only one thing I could be fairly certain had not arrived from China and that was the piano, as it was a Kawai, (which I think meant it came from Japan, although I stand ready to be corrected);

3. Trying to work out the male to female ratio among the soon-to-be graduates by counting them up on your fingers, (having not brought a pencil or paper). Amazingly, during the ceremony I attended the gender divide seemed almost perfectly even, although I have no idea whether this was thanks to luck or good planning.

4. Trying to imagine what the individual parents of each almost-graduate might look like, based on the odd mix of features combined in the faces of their sons or daughters.

5. Marvelling at how exceptionally rare is the thing we call beauty.

6.Trying to imagine how those sections of the audience that decided to raise great whoops and wolf whistles for certain graduates could be so insensitive as to not recognise that this behaviour made those who didn't receive similar yells and shrieks look - and probably feel - a bit unloved.

7. Trying to imagine what those newly fledged graduates who chose to raise their degrees in the air and execute a pumping motion, as if they'd just won a boxing match, thought they were doing.

8. Wondering whether the girls who had chosen to dress in very revealing low-cut, extremely short-skirted dresses regretted that decision, especially when they went on to strap things onto their feet that made footbinding look like a benign activity. So many of them appeared to think that a visit to a night club and a graduation ceremony were the same thing,(and I bet they all called themselves feminists, despite their compulsion to plaster themselves with make up and spend fortunes on having astounding and probably quite time-consuming things done to their hair - the movie Best in Show kept springing to mind). While they had spent large sums of money and time to get themselves ready, the boys all sauntered out having made no effort whatsoever - in most cases not even bothering to polish their shoes or brush their hair. Inequality is sometimes self-perpetuated, it appears.

9. Learning the new word 'humblebrag' from overheard whispered conversations around me, as the keynote speaker told us how he'd made no effort whatsoever but somehow ended up at Oxford (no, not Brookes, Oxford University, since you ask, [at least, I'm assuming - but then that's what Oxford Brookes graduates always hope is exactly what you'll do, I guess]), and how one of his colleagues had been teaching in an adjacent classroom and asked him at the end of their respective classes, 'How do you manage to make your students laugh so happily and with so much engagement, all the time?' and ... - but you get the gist

10. Finally resorting to the age-old game beloved of all children whose parents, (mine weren't like this, but I have friends who've kindly passed on the information), insisted on weekly churchgoing - no, not pew licking; the one where you get through a dull sermon or speech by trying to spot words beginning with each consecutive letter of the alphabet as they come up, (try it next time you're stuck listening to something long and dull. It really does pass the time more quickly, provided no-one expects you to answers question about what you've heard afterwards)..

11. Trying to translate the speeches into a foreign language - related to this is the game of trying to name objects around you in a room in languages you've tried to learn, (warning, this can be depressing, if you thought until that moment that you were actually reasonably fluent).

12. Wondering if any food or drink would be offered at the end of the almost interminable ritual - none was, on this occasion, which was at least a good result as far as my predictive powers are concerned.

Anyway, it's over now. I'm home. I'm safe, althought I am left wondering what it is in the human psyche that craves these strange ceremonies - or, indeed, ceremonies in general - what odd kind of need for symbolic moments exist in our souls that make these stylised occasions so necessary.

(Warning: exaggeration  may have been used in the preparation of this blog post.)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Mysteries - a Continuing Series

I suppose it's a symptom of living in Canberra that my attention keeps returning to what people put on the backs of their cars. After all the city's designers appear to be have been quite uninhibited by concerns about traffic minimisation. Thus, most of us who live in Canberra are condemned to spending plenty of time behind the driving wheel, staring at our fellow citizens and wondering about the things they choose to decorate their vehicles with.

Oh not more bumper stickers - no, not more bumper stickers. Today's puzzling phenomenon never appears on bumpers but always on back windows, usually those of station wagons (estate cars for English readers, I gather).

I've been noticing it for about a year now, I think, although possibly it's been there longer and I've been slow on the uptake. I don't know whether it's confined to Australia, whether we imported it from somewhere else, or whether it's a worldwide craze, in which case someone is making a great deal of money from it:

What I'm talking about is stick figure families. They're multiplying, they're hideous and, I realise, after noticing the individual stickers for sale in a newsagent in town, they're really quite expensive. Each time I see one of these dull little groupings, I feel alienated. I mean why on earth would anyone pay good money for something that is so ugly and unoriginal?

Once again, I'm confused by my fellow human beings and by life in general. As a contestant on the Great British Sewing Bee (my current all time favourite television programme) said, after sewing her skirt inside out to her bodice, 'I think I'll go and drown in a bucket of gin."

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mysteries of the World - Architecture

Sometimes walking in Melbourne, you are confronted by the results of decisions that make no sense. You turn a corner and you see something like this:

You turn another and you see something like this:
It's hard enough to imagine why anyone thought buildings like the tower blocks would ever provide people with housing they'd be happy in, but positioning them so that the one variety is visible, right there, practically beside the other, seems especially baffling. When you walk out those magnificent town hall front doors and see a high-rise monster looming nearby, it's hard not to think that the architect of the high-rise was consciously taunting that other style, product of the stuffy values of the past:

 The pictures above are not of an isolated example of architectural madness, I should point out. Here's another - in a suburb hard by the city's centre, former burghers built this magnificent thing:
It is still surrounded by domestic architecture whose scale and the way it is laid out must give those who live in it the sense of being in a kind of urban village:

But later planners seemed unable to see the beauty of this scale and style of building. Once again they happily constructed towers. In Austerity Britain, David Kynaston quotes the City Architect of Coventry praising the policy of tower block building in 1949, on the grounds that 'people do not seem prepared to devote enough time' to gardens; the local paper went further, stating that people 'do not deserve' gardens. Perhaps similarly haughty attitudes prevailed in the minds of the planners in Melbourne at the time the various councils decided to grace their elegant streets with buildings like the loitering tower shown here:

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Department of Misguided Business Names

Somewhere in Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry makes a reference to foreigners' love for punning in English. Although I can't put my finger on it now, I was extremely glad when I read it, as it proved that I am not the only person who has noticed this odd phenomenon. The impulse to pun leads non-native-English speakers into making decisions English speakers themselves would never make about business names. I've already posted about some of them. Here are a couple more, the first from Chinatown in Melbourne:
the second from Dubai - Labels or Love, what can it mean; is it a play on labour of love, I wonder - even if it is, it's still meaningless, surely:

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Three Cheers for William Webb Ellis

I got rather interested a little while ago  in public schools in England and their effects. While reading The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of her father and his brothers, I've come across another variation on the theme:

'In 1896 ... Eddie, ["Evoe" Knox, editor of Punch from 1932 to 1948], won his scholarship to Rugby. Thomas French [his grandfather] had been there in the days of Arnold, although he had been quite unmoved by the great Doctor, whose teaching was "not the Gospel as he had been accustomed to receive it." The headmaster was now Mr HA James, known as The Bodger. In comparison with Eton it was a rougher, more countrified, more eccentric, more rigidly classical, less elegant and sentimental establishment. There were the usual bewildering regulations, much more binding than the official rules; only certain boys, the "swells", could wear white straw hats, all first-year boys must answer to a call of "fag" and run to see what the "swell" required, it was a crime to walk with your hands in your pockets until your fourth year, one hand was allowed in the third year, and so forth, proscriptions being multiplied, as in all primitive societies. The younger boys got up at five forty-five and took turns in the cold baths. Eddie, who was in School House, could consider himself lucky to get a "den" at the end of his first year, overlooking the seventeen acres of the famous Close.

Divinity was taught by The Bodger himself, a short, squarish man with a luxuriant beard, concealing the absence of a tie. "Dr James walked up and down," as Eddie remembered him; "if it was the Upper Bench, round and round, because it was a turret room. He walked like a Red Indian, placing one foot in front of the other. He kept a small, private notebook, in which he put favourable remarks about a boy, but a quotation from the Lays of Ancient Rome would gain at least five marks a go." This was fortunate for the Knoxes, reared since nursery days on the Lays. The finest scholar on the staff, however, was Robert Whitelaw, Rupert Brooke's godfather, who taught classics to the Twenty, the form below the Upper VIth. He is described as looking like a bird of prey, and was unable to correct examinations without listening to the music of a barrel organ, which he hired to play underneath his window ...

Undoubtedly Rugby could claim to "harden". The boys worked an eleven-hour day with two hours for prep ... prefects punished by making a wrongdoer run past an open door three times while they aimed a kick at him. Ribs got broken that way. At breakfast, rolls flew through the air and butter was flicked onto the ceiling, to fall, when the icy atmosphere had thawed out, onto the masters' heads. There was a strong faction in favour of the Boers during the South African war, and strikes against the horrible food; to counter them, Dr James was obliged to eat a plateful, in furious indignation, in front of the whole school, but then furious indignation was his usual attitude. All the notices he put up ended with the words, THIS MUST STOP. 

... Eddie liked Rugby well enough and accepted its routine, though he particularly enjoyed the moments when it was interrupted. One midday a boy threw a squash ball which exactly struck the hands of the great clock that set the time for the whole school, and stopped it. Masters and boys, drawing their watches out of their pockets as they hurried across the yard, to compare the false with the true, were thrown into utter confusion. It turned out that the boy, who confessed at once, had been practising the shot for two years. The Bodger called this "un-English". Eddie did not agree. The patient, self-contained, self-imposed pursuit of an entirely personal solution seemed to him most characteristically English.'

Thursday, 13 March 2014

True Tantalization

Years ago, I programmed the video recorder to tape an episode of Midsomer Murders. When I came to watch the tape, I found that I'd somehow managed to cut off the ending of the programme. As a result I had no idea who'd done it - the Midsomer murder in question, that is.

What I realised next was that I didn't care either. The resolution of the crime wasn't the point. It was the things along the way - the pretty villages, the ladies on old-fashioned bicycles with wicker baskets, the cozy pubs with baskets of flowers hanging outside their windows - that I watched the programme for*.

Guided by my children, I've moved on from Midsomer Murders now, most recently to True DetectiveTrue Detective is set in an utterly different landscape to that of Midsomer, a place where nothing is cozy, no-one attaches wicker baskets to anything and the only reference to flowers, (in the final episode), is difficult to interpret but almost certainly very peculiar indeed.

For the last seven weeks, the makers of the series have been intent on building up a sense of mystery and menace. In contrast to my experience watching Midsomer Murders, while watching True Detective I've wanted more and more to get to the heart of the mystery, to find out what the hell has been going on. With each new episode, I've grown more tantalized. While driving or cleaning or cooking or walking, I've turned possible solutions over in my mind.

I did something similar as a child one Christmas morning, when I woke before dawn and saw a cluster of packages waiting at the end of my bed. I knew I wasn't allowed to unwrap them until everyone else was awake as well as me, and so I whiled away the next few hours unwrapping each one in my head instead.

Of course, when the time came to unwrap the packages in the light of day, with my hands rather than merely my vivid imagination,the objects inside the brightly coloured paper could not live up to my fantasies of what they might be. As each one was revealed, all I felt was mild disappointment. I knew I should be grateful for everything I'd been given, but nothing in reality could possibly match the shiny things I'd dreamt up in my mind.

Which brings me to the finale of True Detective: lots of people are peeved by the supposed cop out that they see in the conclusion. I'm not though. In this one aspect, True Detective resembles Midsomer Murders for me. It was almost inevitable that the ending was not going to match the anticipation. It didn't, and I'm not sure I ever expected it would. What lurks in the dark very rarely retains its horror when brought out of the shadows. All the same, while I might feel a biit disappointed by the slight descent into schmaltz that True Detective allowed itself,  my overriding feeling towards the makers of the programme is gratitude for the fun I had along the way.

Life is usually at its most interesting when it is at its most tantalizing. The prize can often look better at a distance than it does when you have it in your hands. Initial infatuation may be the most exciting part of a romantic relationship, (not the best part, but the most exciting). Expectations are generally hard - if not impossible - to live up to. Anticipation is an underrated pleasure. Is this what Robert Louis Stevenson meant with his travelling hopefully remark - that the journey, not the destination, is often the most fun?**.


* After living in the UK fairly recently and observing remarkably little in the country's life that still resembles the Midsomer Murders milieu, it has crossed my mind that the whole Midsomer Murders phenomenon may have been created precisely to maintain the illusion, (for the British, whose daily reality tends more to Tesco superstores; overcrowded motorways; grubby, packed, inefficient public transport; and bureaucracies who delight in finding rules that mean they can say no, than to rural idylls), that England is still a green and pleasant, (if somewhat violent - in a genteel kind of way), land.

**My oldest daughter, who has just endured delays of 6 hours, (Brunei) and 12 hours, (Dubai), might answer that question with an emphatic, 'No'.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Not So Fluffy

Silly me. I really ought to have known better - nothing is ever what it seems and nobody is ever quite as nice as we would like to believe, including the Dalai Lama.

Here, John Safran, Australia's eternal balloon burster, (using balloons, of course, as metaphors for delusions in this instance), reminds the world that His Holiness, contrary to my naive ravings a few days ago, is not really the cuddly, gorgeous lovely-one of my wishful thinking:

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

I Blame the Smiling Spy

The link between events in Crimea and George Blake's story is tenuous, I know. All the same, the story itself is so intriguing on so many levels that I can't resist repeating it one more time. My excuse is that it is possible to argue - rather shakily, admittedly - that had Blake not done what he did, the Soviet Union might have collapsed earlier. In that case, Putin, an ex-KGB officer, would not be with us now - or at least, if he were with us, he would not view the world through the prism of an ex-KGB officer:

I've just listened for the third time to an Archive Hour programme that the BBC first broadcast in August 2009. It was made by Tom Bower and based on an interview he conducted with George Blake, former British intelligence officer and traitor, some twenty years ago.

What a puzzling figure Blake was (or rather is – he is still alive, in Moscow, I believe). He was born on Armistice Day in 1922 and named after George V. Although his parents were not British born, his father had British citizenship – which meant that George did too, even though he was brought up mainly in Holland and did not set foot in Britain until he was 18. His eventual arrival in the UK arose from a need to escape the Nazis, as he’d been a fighter in the resistance in Holland while still a very young man. Once in Britain, he joined the navy and, without at first realising what was happening, found himself recruited into the secret service. Posted to Korea, he was taken prisoner during the Korean War. It was in this period, under circumstances no-one is certain of, that he became a double agent, going on to betray hundreds of people, before eventually being caught, imprisoned, escaping with the help of some 'peace activists' who regarded his long prison sentence as inhumane and ending up eventually in Moscow.

Central to the enigma of George Blake is whether he was blackmailed into being a double agent, after confessing to his role in the Secret Service while in captivity – something he determinedly denies – or whether he chose his pathway of his own free will. The interview does not establish which of these two versions is the truth but it provides such an intriguing insight into the compromises and complex accommodations a traitor must make with himself that I have transcribed a lot of it here, in case anyone else might be interested to read it.

Bower begins by asking Blake what it was like to practice deception.

‘I didn’t know I was capable of that sort of thing,’ Blake replies.

‘Of that sort of deception?’ Bower asks.

‘Yes, I didn’t know I was capable of it. But apparently I was. I thought about it later, of course; I have thought about it as a result of our many conversations – I must be able to divorce my personal relations from the work I’m doing,’ Blake tells him.

Bower presses him then, trying to probe his conscience, revealing in the process how with half truths and bent logic Blake manages to hide from himself the magnitude of what he’s done.

‘Crudely put, you’re a perfect liar,’ Bower half asks, half states.

‘If you call that lying, yes, I think I was a deceiver.’

‘You’re a professional deceiver – a master of deception.’

‘Certainly, I can do it. I’m surprised myself that I can do it. But I couldn’t do it, you see, for personal reasons.’

‘You mean you can be dishonest in a cause, but not in personal relationships?’


‘But surely that can’t be true, because you lied to Midmon,’ (a Frenchman [whose name I think I’ve misspelt] with whom Blake was imprisoned in Korea; he regarded Blake as a friend and explains during the programme that for him that is the worst thing – that Blake betrayed not only his country but his friends), ‘you lied to all your friends.’

‘I didn’t lie to him,’ says Blake, ‘I simply didn’t tell him anything.’

‘You didn’t tell your wife either.’

‘Well, of course I didn’t tell my wife.’

‘Well, that’s deception on personal terms, if you don’t tell somebody.’

‘Well, that is deception on personal terms - but I did it in her own interest.’

‘And in your own interest as well.’

‘No - in the interest of the cause.’

‘That’s playing with words.’


‘Because you don’t want to admit that you do lie to people who you love and who you live with.’

‘But I had no choice. How could I have told them?’

‘That’s true,’ Bower concedes, ‘but then you can’t surely make the distinction that you’re not deceptive to human beings and only deceptive in professional relations or in bribery. I mean you lie to people you love.’

‘If I have to do it for a higher purpose,’ Blake answers, ‘but not for personal reasons. Not to pursue my own personal interest.’

Bower proceeds then to the nuts and bolts of what Blake did, and Blake begins to come alive in a way he hasn’t earlier in the interview. He sounds at times like an eager boy scout in this section, wriggling in his chair with self-satisfaction, reporting his activities as if presenting his tally of bob-a-jobs achieved.

‘How much material did you hand over in that period [while at the MI6 Berlin Station]?', Bower asks him.

‘That I cannot tell you.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because it is so much.’

‘So much? You don’t even know how much you handed over?’

‘No, I don’t. I don’t. I have no idea.’

‘What - you mean you were just like a hoover - you sucked it up?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘And turned it over. And fooled MI6 pretty well. And, besides all the documents, you gave away the identity of every agent?

‘Every agent, yes.’

‘Every agent who was operating on behalf of MI6?


‘How many was that?’

‘I can’t say, but it must have been, I don’t know, maybe 500 to 600.’



‘You betrayed 500 to 600 agents?’

‘Maybe. In that order, maybe – I don’t know how many.’

At this point Bower raises the subject of an East German defector who - almost certainly thanks to information from Blake - was kidnapped from a ‘safe house’ in Britain and taken back to East Germany, where he was probably tortured and killed. Blake’s replies to Bower’s questions about this episode are either naïve or show a capacity for the most extraordinary self-deception:

‘All I can say is that I had nothing to do with that,’ Blake insists, ‘because, if I had, if he – I mean, I would have known - I agree with you that in many cases I don’t know the names, but I think that in this case, being such a prominent figure, I would have known.’

‘But let’s say you would have been responsible. Would that matter?’

‘Well, it would matter, because the story is that he was executed.’

‘When you did those betrayals, did you consider that it was possible one of those who you’d betrayed might be executed in punishment?’

‘Well, I had been assured that that wouldn’t be the case.’

‘By whom?’

‘By the people with whom I had been in contact.’

‘The KGB?’


‘And did you believe them?’


‘And when did you ask them that?

‘Well, when the time came for me to produce the information.’

‘And you actually said to them “What’ll happen to these people?”’

‘Yes. Yes. I said to them, “I’ll only give you this information if you can assure me that these people will not be executed – will not be …” – yes.’

‘The KGB isn’t renowned for treating people with kid gloves.’

‘Well - I know that, but I - that was the only thing that I could do, and I had to accept that. And I now believe that they kept their word.’

‘They wouldn’t want to tell you contrary, would they?’

‘They wouldn’t want to tell me the contrary, but I have no reason to believe that they told me a lie.’

‘Your critics would say that that suits you very well.’

‘Well, maybe it does, but that doesn’t – it can still be true, even if it suits me.’

Bower moves on to ask about the circumstances of Blake’s unmasking in 1959. The details Blake proceeds to reveal about his capture and interrogation are strange, amateurish and somehow uniquely English. Blake’s intense desire not to be seen as a victim, a desire which led to his own defeat as a double agent, is curious and possibly the one really human trait he displays during the whole interview.

‘I reported to Broadway,’ Blake explains, (Broadway, by St James’s tube, was at the time MI6 headquarters) ‘and I was met by Harry Shergold,’ (Shergold was an MI6 officer who was expert on Soviet affairs.) ‘He said to me, “Well, there are certain questions we want to discuss with you about your work in Berlin.”’ The two men then crossed St James’s Park together to a room in Carlton Gardens. It was there that Blake was cross-examined.

At first, Blake tells Bower, he thought everything seemed manageable. Only after lunch did things begin to change.

‘In the afternoon they came what I would say nearer the bone,’ he says, ‘and they mentioned a document which I had photographed in Berlin and passed on to the Soviets … I said, “I have no idea.”’

‘What was your feeling at that time?’ Bower asks.

‘Well, I was feeling that they were onto something, that they wouldn’t ask me these questions if there wasn’t a strong suspicion in their mind. But still I continued to pretend I didn’t know any more than they did. And then, towards the end of the day, they began accusing me ... I thought I could still save myself … Then I was allowed to go home. The next day I went back. The interrogation continued, and it went on throughout the day.’

‘Where was it leading?’

‘It wasn’t leading anywhere really.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, because they kept on saying, “We know you’re a Soviet spy,” and I kept on saying “I am not.”’

‘And what was your reaction during that day?’

Well, it was one of tension, obviously - when you are being accused of such a serious matter.’

‘Especially if it’s true.’

‘And you know it’s true - then you’re not in a very happy state. But I hoped that I’d be able to somehow get out of it.’

‘It was on the third day that Shergold dramatically changed his technique?’

‘Yes. Shortly after lunch they went onto another tack, and that, of course, proved to be very successful, from their point of view. Because what they said then was, "Well, all right you keep on saying that you’re not a Soviet spy, but we know you’re a Soviet spy, but we can understand why you’re a Soviet spy. It’s not your fault,” or words to that effect. “You were tortured in Korea and you were made to confess that you were an SIS officer, and you were then subsequently blackmailed and you just had to go on supplying information.” And, when they said that, something happened to me, which even today I may find it difficult to account for - and it certainly goes against all logic of self-preservation and the way people should behave in those sorts of situations - but my reaction - and it was a sort of gut reaction – was, “Oh no: I have not been tortured, I have not been blackmailed; I went to the Soviet intelligence service myself. I established contact with them, and I offered them my services of my own free will.”

‘You were confessing?’

‘And that amounted to a confession.’

‘What was the look on their faces?’

‘Of great amazement. And then, of course, I explained to them in great detail why I had taken that decision, why I had done so, in much the same way as I told you. I mean that was the confession. That was really the end of the matter. Then it was 6 o’clock, and it was time to go home.’

‘You’ve just confessed to being a spy, and it was time to go home?’

‘And it was time to go home – well, it was six o’clock.’

‘No thought even the next day of making a bolt for it?’

‘No, because I thought that was pretty hopeless.’


‘Well, where would I go to?’

‘You could have hidden out somewhere until you –‘

‘No, no, no, that’s not real. No, no, no, I didn’t believe in that.’

The looks of great amazement Blake describes were almost certainly real– according to Bower the confession really had been unexpected, as other double agents, such as Philby and Blunt, only confessed after extracting a guarantee that there would be no prosecution.

Bower says, however, that MI6’s 'bittersweet compensation' was Blake’s willingness to expand his confession. This he did, with several MI6 agents present, over the course of a weekend in the country. Blake’s account of the events of those few days include some of the oddest revelations of the interview:

‘Harry Shergold had a cottage, and there we were very kindly welcomed by his wife and his mother-in-law.’

‘What were you doing?’

‘Well, what we did was we talked a lot. We went for walks. The atmosphere was quite extraordinary, because it was rather like an ordinary weekend among friends. And I remember one very extraordinary afternoon really - when you come to think of it in the circumstances that here I was, a confessed spy. I was in the kitchen with the old grandmother making pancakes, because I was quite good at making pancakes and, when it was suggested that we should eat pancakes that evening, I offered to make them.’

‘And what was their reaction?’

‘Well, just normal: “Thank you, that would be very nice.”’

Only the English, surely, would balance their way politely through a weekend with someone who had betrayed them, going for walks and eating meals together as if all was well.

Finally, Bower invites Blake to look back and survey the life he’s led.

‘Any regrets about your life?’

‘No, none whatsoever.’

‘Most people have regrets though.’

‘Well, I haven’t.’

‘Why are you so self-righteous?’

‘I’m not self-righteous. Everything that happened in my life was meant to happen and there was no other possibility. And I want to remind you of the words of St Paul, who says that the potter uses the clay to form vessels, some to honour and some to dishonour, and it is not for the clay to ask the potter why he does it. And that is my outlook on life: I have been formed in this way, and it is not for me to ask why - and I would say that I have been an unusual vessel in that I have been fashioned both to shame and to honour.’

So the accommodation Blake makes with himself in the end is to argue that there is no such thing as human responsibility – that what is meant to happen does happen and there was never another possible outcome: we are but clay formed by a potter (and how odd for a lifelong Communist to use St Paul’s words to justify his actions.) He does refer to ‘shame’, but he blames it on the potter rather than himself - and he gives no indication of where in his life he thinks it lies.

Perhaps then the last word should go to Charles Wheeler, the journalist, who worked with Blake very early on in Blake’s career (before he had become a double agent.) Like Kenneth de Courcy, Blake’s very Etonian sounding fellow prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs, who says that Blake ‘had a very engaging manner’ and ‘was a very good listener … [he was] one of the most popular prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, without a doubt,’ Wheeler recognises that Blake was likeable. ‘He was a curious person', he tells Bower, 'he was very charming. People liked him.' Wheeler pauses for a moment. ‘He smiled a lot.' he continues, 'He smiled rather too much. He smiled at breakfast.’

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Power of the Word

In an interesting interview with Hanif Kureishi on  Radio Three's Arts and Ideas programme, Philip Dodd, who has an annoying voice but is admirably determined, tries to pin Kureishi down about what he believes in:

'So there is only language?' he asks Kureishi. 

'Fraid so, mate, yeah,' Kureishi replies 

'So when a bomb goes off, nobody is killed; it's just a way of talking about people being killed?'

'No, I didn't say that, no, that wouldn't be the case at all. But the way we would think about that, the value of a person's life - if there was a bomb went off and it killed Hitler, for instance, there would be a different view on that to if it killed, let's say, an innocent child.'

'So it's all relative?' 

'Well, it's all in language is what we want to say, and that's what's interesting about human life – how malleable it is, not how stonelike, let's say, it is.' Kureishi answers, somewhat mystifyingly.

Dodd unable to leave it alone,goes on to ask, 'So you're not going to die, other than the way you think about dying?' and then half answers himself by adding, 'Your body's getting older. There's nothing we can do about it. Language won't do anything for us.'

'Oh it will,' Kureishi assures him. 'It's the only thing that cures us. It's the only thing that has any meaning. It's the only thing that lasts.'

'So architecture doesn't last, painting doesn't last?' Dodd responds. 'Come on, all these things last. There is always a danger, I've noticed with you recently, that the only fundamental belief you have is in language.'

'I think that's because I'm British,' Kureishi tells him then. 'I was thinking the other day about this: I was somewhere or other and someone was asking me – they were talking about British national identity and I was thinking, well, what is it, is it the Queen, is it the Beatles, is it that? And I thought - well, I thought about Chaucer, I thought about Shakespeare, I thought about the English language, I thought about poetry, and I thought that's what I think about when I think about Britain, actually, it's the writing that's come out of these islands, and the writers and actually the history of the imagination of Britain, actually.'

And up to that point I'd been willing to go along with Kureishi, happy to entertain the view that perhaps language might truly be the fundamental thing to believe in. But, to assert that Britain's national identity resides in its literature, you must surely believe that the majority of the nation's citizens take a keen interest in - or at least are aware of - this heritage of theirs, supposedly so central to their being. 

Sadly, the evidence for this is not that easy to find. Leaving aside the impression left by groups of young Britons on cross channel ferries or stag and hen weekends in Budapest, (national identity and mannerless inebriation would be closely associated on the evidence available there), a trip to Bournemouth a year or two ago comes to mind. 

I was interested to go there because of the town's connection with Thomas Hardy. Such naivety - I feel embarrassed just thinking about it. Admittedly, we did eventually find a graffitied story board that mentioned the writer. It stood amid litter and no-one glanced at it as they barged their way back to the multi-storey carpark, bags groaning with tat from the usual assortment of high street chain stores. 

I suppose I once put a similar kind of faith to that Kureishi has put into Britain and its language and literature as an expression of its national identity into Russia and the Russians. My faith was, in parallel with his, based on my love of the Russian language, plus Russia's writers and its wonderful literature.

While I will never regret having read Pushkin in Russian, or Tolstoy or Chekhov, or even Aksenov - (although, and this is a confession I should probably keep to myself, so appalling is it, I never could warm to Turgenev, shame, shame, shame) - the events of the past few days, (and indeed the behaviour of Russia and Russians as I've observed them ever since 1989), have revealed how utterly hollow is any belief that language and literature have anything to do with Russian national identity. 

Language or tanks? Which to believe in? A faith in language, a belief that somehow literature influences anything, is thoroughly undermined by what is happening under Putin. It doesn't matter how good your turn of phrase is, there is no way to view what is happening as anything but wretched and way beyond the influence of anything as civilised as language. Language has been trumped by Putin's resort to primitive brute force. Auden, alas, had it right, not Kureishi

Of Goulash and Gappiness

For some reason, (vaguely related to learning Russian, but I can't remember how exactly), words beginning with 'h' are often pronounced with a 'g' in our family. That will, I hope (gope?) give a clue to the heading of this post, (a feeble excuse for giving into the temptation to alliterate).

The post itself is about the Dalai Lama, who came to Budapest once when I was there. One of my friends was doing something at the Central European University, where he was staying, and was to some extent responsible for taking care of him.

After he'd gone, it suddenly struck her that the student dining room, staffed by Hungarian cooks, whose approach to cooking generally leans toward the meaty end of the spectrum,  might not have been able to supply His Holiness with the nuts and vegetables that she understood were his staples. When she asked if he'd been all right, she was told cheerily, 'He was fine, he just ate lots of goulash like everyone else. He even had second helpings. He said he loved it'

That is good manners.

But I don't know why I'm surprised. Everything I've ever read about the Dalai Lama suggests he is a bit of an angel - I suppose it goes with the job - and this charming article only adds to the mounting evidence on that score.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Could Be Lovely

When I was looking for a place to buy in Budapest, a friend came to stay with me, and I made her join me as I went from address to address, trying to find what I wanted. Eventually I abandoned the project while she was with me, because her heart wasn't in it. Each time, I'd find something I regarded as a gem, I'd turn to her and see her unhappy expression.

She couldn't understand what the hell I was doing. All these tumbledown places looked squalid and careworn and grubby to her. To be polite she used the same phrase over and over again in response to my enthusiasm. 'It could be lovely', she would say, without any conviction. 'It could be lovely, I suppose.'

She was right, of course, although she didn't know it. Most of the places we saw were totally CBL, as we came to call it - the whole point of the project was to find something in precisely that state of possibility. For some reason, what particularly appealed to me was the thought of restoring something miserably delapidated to something like its former glory.

After my friend left, I eventually found exactly the thing I wanted. It had a hole in the ceiling, where the snow had been so heavy that the roof had crashed in, and a number of other similar bruises and blemishes, but they were all fixable, and now it's lovely - and the proportions of the rooms are enough to ensure you can never feel sad (16 foot ceilings, each room 30 square metres, no sense of being pressed into a box in that place).

Unfortunately, I only have a small amount of money and even less time, so I can't do anything about all the many, many neglected old buildings all over the various Eastern European countries that were once more or less reluctant members of the Soviet bloc. Perhaps though there are other people who don't know such places exist but just need me to tell them they are there, waiting for someone to recognise their could-be-loveliness.

I hope that's the case, because a friend has just told me that a house I visited a year or two ago in Western Romania is for sale, with all its land, its very own church, a wondrous greenhouse and the family graveyard, for a mere one hundred and fifty thousand Euros.It is in a landscape of such peace and beauty it would be impossible to be anything other than calm and happy there. As an added bonus, if you're a fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor, he visited the house when he was staying with friends nearby - he mentions it in Between the Woods and the Water

Look at these pictures and tell me you couldn't imagine turning the place back into an enchanted Grand Meaulnes kind of place (get in touch with me if you really are interested, and I'll put you in touch with my friend, who knows how to go about putting in an offer):

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Well What Is It

The title of this post comes from the Duchess of Devonshire - not that I'm namedropping; I've never met her, (and, speaking of namedropping, this week I heard Giles Brandreth on Just a Minute on BBC Radio 4 say, 'Even the Dalai Llama has said to me that I've got to stop namedropping', which I thought was funny).

The Duchess of Devonshire used the phrase, 'Well, what is it?' in a letter to Patrick Leigh Fermor about bureaucratese, (you can read the passage here - in fact I recommend you do, because she is a very funny woman). I've borrowed it because I want to write about the NT Live film of Coriolanus, which was performed at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

Is it a film or is it a play? I don't know, so I've posted what I want to say about it on my blog about the films I see as well as the one about the plays I see. It's a film of a play so - no, I'm not going to get into one of those White Knight-Haddock's Eyes digressions.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Something I Heard

As a reader, I am a coward and a cheat. That is, if I'm reading a novel and a character I like is under threat or the whodunnit element becomes too dominant, I skip madly, either to make sure things turn out all right, (and, if they appear not to do so, I abandon the book), or to find out which of the suspects is the culprit. To overcome this bad habit of mine, I have taken out a subscription to Audible and now I listen to recordings of certain kinds of books.

My reasoning is that it is pretty well impossible to skip forward in a book, and anyway the desire to do so is less overpowering than it is when you're reading it yourself. After all, the effort of listening is virtually non-existent, compared to the effort of reading; listening can be done while making the bed, weeding the garden or hanging out the washing. Rather than eating up valuable time, which you might be spending doing something dull but pressing, listening allows you to do the dull but pressing things and hardly notice how dull they actually are.

Thus far, I've only listened to unabridged books, and usually the ones I've chosen have been detective stories. I started quite respectably with The Moonstone and The Woman in White and progressed through Edmund Crispin and Margery Allingham, (both of whom are so good I really prefer reading them, whereas Wilkie Collins is enough of a windbag that I might well have lost patience had it been me turning the actual pages), to Inspector Wexford et al.

From time to time though I've departed from my life of crime to try out things I know I would never stick with, if I encountered them on the printed page. Robert Bolano's 2666 was the last of this sort that I had a go at, and I'm ashamed to admit that even on audio I couldn't actually listen to every word of that long, briliant, but not terribly involving book. In fact, for some time Bolano deterred me from further experimentation. Crossing Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace off my list of future listens, I turned back for some months to unmitigated frivolity. Then a week or two ago I pulled myself together and decided to make another attempt to listen to something I was fairly certain I would never have the patience to get through, if I were reading it with my eyes rather than my ears.

The book I chose was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I've finished it now, and I am full of admiration. While the book has been described as Dickensian, presumably because of its size, its array of characters, its occasionally barely believable plot developments, as well as the many twists of fortune the main character is forced to submit to, it is Dostoevsky's The Idiot that is referred to regularly in the text. Since the vision of the world offered by The Goldfinch tends less towards a Dickensian sense of the comedy of human endeavour and more towards a Dostoevskian apocalyptic bleakness, this may be a better parallel to make.

Stretches of the book also read, (if that's the word to use, in the context), like Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, (which is possibly not entirely at odds with being Dostoevskian). Others have the nightmarish quality of some sort of amalgam of Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouac, (the latter mainly comes to mind because of the vast quantities of drugs that are from time to time consumed). Tartt also plays with Walter Benjamin's concept of 'aura' regarding works of art, in amongst numerous other themes.

What particularly endeared the book to me was the character of Boris, a Ukrainian who befriends the narrator when the two of them are in their teens. Perhaps it was merely the talent of the reader on the mp3 I listened to, but Boris was so vivid to me that, two days after finishing the last chunk of the book's audio, I am still missing his company.

In conclusion, I salute Donna Tartt's ambition in creating this wonderful, vivid entertainment. As the late Pete Seeger said, 'Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple'. While The Goldfinch is admirably complex in its plotting and the richness of its cast, (and I suspect Tartt thinks it's pretty complex in its conclusions about existence and reality, although I'm not convinced the whole thing is quite as deep as she hopes - there is a slightly soppy romanticism to some of the character's final pronouncements, and I suppose in this Dickens once again comes to mind), the book is simple in its old-fashioned form. As anyone who has ever tried to write fiction will know, writing in a form like that of The Goldfinch - essentially that of a sprawling Victorian novel, a modern David Copperfield - which strikes the modern eye as simple and unsophisticated, because apparently unknowing, is actually a great deal more difficult than writing something that deploys all the tricks of the post-modern novel.

There is no such thing as the perfect novel. A novel has to be messy and baggy, if it is to qualify as a novel.  It goes without saying, therefore, that The Goldfinch isn't a perfect novel. However, it is bold and fun and clever and vivid. Despite the odd inevitable flaw in the narrative, as a whole it is rewarding and really, really good.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Waiting for Telstra

There's an old joke from Communist Eastern Europe about a man who goes to buy a Trabant or Lada, (depending on which country you were in), car. The year is, say, 1984, and the salesman tells the man the car will be delivered in 1988. 'When?' asks the customer. 'October', the salesman tells him. 'When in October?' asks the customer. 'The tenth', replies the salesman.  'When on the tenth?' asks the customer. 'Why are you asking?' asks the salesman. 'Oh it's just that they're delivering the washing machine in the morning.'

That's what happens when you have monopolies. And Telstra, at least in rural Australia, is pretty much a monopoly - certainly all the people I know who live in the country don't dare use another supplier, because Telstra owns the lines and so, if anything goes wrong, they rely on Telstra to fix it, and, if they're not a Telstra customer, they have the impression that they're unlikely to get much help.

Which is how it came to pass that my mother and I spent yesterday waiting for Telstra. She'd received a telephone message last week bringing her the news that a Telstra technician would be coming amongst us some time between eight and twelve on Thursday, the twentieth, and I'd been drafted in, due to her touching, if misplaced, faith in my ability to speak tech.

By ten past twelve, it became clear that things were not going according to plan, and so we rang the number we'd been given by Telstra. A nice young woman in the Philippines commiserated with us and explained that the technicians might be running late,  (really? I wish I'd thought of that), but that there was absolutely no way that she or anyone else could contact them. She said she'd ring us back in an hour, to see if they'd arrived.

She didn't.

As we couldn't ring back the nice young woman in the Philippines, because cunningly she hadn't supplied either her name or a direct number, we decided to try the pleasant fellow who'd signed my mother up for the thing the technicians were coming out to fix up. We got through to him quite easily and he was as pleasant as when we'd first met him, but, just as his colleague in the Philippines had done already, he explained that it was completely impossible to contact the technicians to find out what might be going on.

The day dragged on. Nobody came. Eventually at four thirty the girl from the Philippines who'd said she'd ring hours earlier telephoned to tell us that 'due to the pressure of heavy workload' the technicians would not be coming to mum's place at all and that my mother would now have to make a new appointment. The day she proposed for the new appointment turned out to be the day to which my mother had rescheduled her appointment with the dentist - the one she was supposed to have yesterday, except that she thought that Telstra was coming. When my mother explained this, the girl said she'd ring back.

She didn't.

My main question at the end of all this is: how can it be that a company that is in the business of telecommunications is totally unable to communicate with its staff - namely, the uncontactable technicians - and how come those technicians are unable to telephone the people they are supposed to be visiting to tell them what is going on? Not only do we live in a world of mobile telephones and internet access - Telstra is the company that supplies these things. Isn't there something very wrong with the way it runs its own organisation, if, while going about the business of supplying telecommunications to its customers it is unable to use those same telecommunications to keep in touch with the people who work within it?

Perhaps the people at Telstra think all their customers are telepathic. We're not - that's why we need them to supply us with Internet and land lines and mobile telephones. And we're not asking for miracles, simply efficiency, something that all the advances in telecommunication should make easier. To put it simply: Telstra, why don't you just give your technicians mobile phones?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Doggedly Strange

I bought a year's subscription to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary just before Christmas, (it was on special), and it's providing me with hours of fun.

The thing I think I like best about it is looking up etymology. For instance, I wondered about the word 'dog', which, when you think about it, bears no similarity to any word referring to the kind of animals that 'dog' describes in any other European language. Where did 'dog' come from? Well, it turns out nobody knows.

The same is true of 'girl' and 'boy' and 'bird', all of which are also unlike words denoting similar things in other European languages.

More interestingly still, (stifle those yawns up the back there), 'dog' belongs to a whole group of words of unknown provenance - in this context, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary invite readers to compare 'frog', 'hog', 'stag', and 'pig', as well as the Old English words 'sugga' (see Haysugge - hedge sparrow) and 'wicga' (earwig?) and even, possibly, 'teg' (a sheep in its second year [should a sheep manage to survive beyond its second year, is there a word for that, I wonder - but I digress]).

This may not be your idea of fun, of course, but I haven't time to worry about that - I'm in too much of a hurry to get back to the dictionary site where I'm hoping I'll discover more about 'fun' itself - the word that is and where exactly it hails from

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Eamonn to That

In the Guardian, while writing about George Orwell's posthumously published essay on his days at prep school, Sam Leith confesses to being an old Etonian and presents a version of how an Etonian's character is formed that is rather different from the one mentioned here the other day:
"... its forms and hierarchies were easily internalised. I attribute to my education not only an uncountable number of advantages and privileges, but some of the characteristics I find least attractive in myself. I have a craven teacher-pleasing tendency: a deference to authority and a desire to excel within parameters established by others rather than to challenge those parameters. I am a more conventional – sometimes timid – thinker than I would like.
One aspect of that school's setup – the prefect system – still seems to me a stroke of ideological genius: an object lesson in co-option. There, as in St Cyprian's and any comparable institution, "virtue consisted in winning": the strong and beautiful attracted hero-worship. So the apex prefect body, "Pop", is self-elective: the most popular boys – ie those most in a position to lead others astray – are also the most thoroughly bought and sold.
Their special privilege is to peacock about in coloured waistcoats – and for this, they will dutifully and without pay perform tedious prison-trusty duties such as spending hours in the rain on Windsor bridge preventing younger boys sneaking to the pub. What is cleverest is that they wear the price at which they've been bought – shiny buttons and a swatch of brightly coloured cloth – on their chests.
We can certainly see about us those – need we mention names? – to whom politics seems to be the continuation of private school by other means. For those forever striving to regain the intoxication of having been a gilded god at 18, a cabinet post shines as the equivalent of election to Pop, and the prime ministerial job as the ultimate combination of head boy and victor ludorum.
At the same time there is a strong tradition of public schools acting on certain temperaments to produce absolutely the opposite: rebels whose anti-establishment zeal seems to have been fired by exposure to the rituals of that establishment at an early age. From Shelley (Eton) to Paul Foot (Shrewsbury), Tam Dalyell (Eton) to Tony Benn (Westminster), many prominent figures on the left have been public schoolboys.
"A school could be conducive to that, if you have a certain kind of mind, because it is a sort of oppressive dictatorship in miniature," says Karl Marx's biographer and Private Eye stalwart Francis Wheen. "Some of us found it so oppressive that we rebelled against it. I hated Harrow so much that I ran away when I was 16 and left a note for my parents saying: 'I've gone to join the Alternative Society' and scampered off to London and lived in a squat. It's fair to say in my case that my politics was formed in reaction to Harrow."
Talking about the current schisms in the Socialist Workers party, Wheen points out that the party's leader Alex Callinicos, grandson of the 2nd Lord Acton, was educated at a top private school and another senior leader, Charlie Kimber, is the Old Etonian son of a baronet. Also prominent in the brouhaha has been Dave Renton, an Old Etonian barrister related to a former Tory chief whip: "It sometimes reads like a conversation between Old Rugbeians and Old Etonians about the main British Trotskyist party. It's quite bizarre."
There is a popular school of thought, indeed, that holds that the treachery of the Cambridge spy ring was a reaction against their public school educations – an idea explored psychologically in (Old Wykehamist) Julian Mitchell's fine 1981 play Another CountryLindsay Anderson's film If …, meanwhile, dramatised the idea of the public school rebel as a sort of violent dream."
There is one aspect of Leith's analysis that I am unconvinced by and that is his belief that his deference to authority and unwillingness to challenge parameters is due to his education. To the extent that I am any kind of thinker at all, I am, like Leith, "a more conventional - sometimes timid - thinker than I would like". Sadly though, I believe that tendency is something one is born with; it is ingrained in one's essential character, rather than something one is taught. I wonder if others feel the same. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Words and Phrases, a Continuing Series

All right, I admit it, I can mount no reasonable argument to support my objections to the particular bit of usage I'm concerned with in this blogpost, beyond the fact that I hate being told what to do, particularly by strangers, combined, perhaps, with the feeling that a variety of uninformed assumptions are being made about what I might actually want from life by the utterer of this modern greeting.

But let's get to the point: if you say this to me, I begin to rather hate you; each time I hear or read this exhortation, I loathe it slightly more; the idea that I exist in an age in which such things are considered normal appals me. In short, whenever anyone utters the word, 'Enjoy!', as they present me with something - whether it be food, a drink, something to read, a person they've introduced me to, a seat at the theatre, et cetera et cetera - every tiny skerrick of enjoyment is instantly and completely drained from that moment of my life.

Perhaps what most irritates me about 'Enjoy!' is its implication that the person who says it has the right to grant me any kind of permission, that they have any sort of authority over me. Give me my dinner or whatever it is you are employed to do. Do it efficiently, and I will appreciate your skill. Telling me I must take pleasure from whatever it is you're giving me is bossy and annoying and almost certain to banish whatever small pleasure I might otherwise have gained from the event

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Ma Oie

The Duchess of Devonshire's observations about wild geese reminded me of Mark Doty's exceptionally beautiful poem called 'Migratory':

Migratory by Mark Doty

Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
seventeen wild geese arrowed the ashen blue
over the Wal-mart and the Blockbuster Video,

and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion--not in the parking lot,
the tallowy circles just appearing,

the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil. Their eyes
held me there, the unfailing gaze

of those who know how to fly in formation,
wing-tip to wing-tip, safe, fearless.
And the convex glamour of their eyes carried

the parking lot, the wet field
troubled with muffler shops
and stoplights, the arc of highway

and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
with its failing barn...The wind
a few hundred feet above the grass

erases the mechanical noises, everything;
nothing but their breathing
and the perfect rowing of the pinions,

and then, out of that long, percussive pour
toward what they are most certain of,
comes their--question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria--as delivered
by something too compelled in its passage
to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length
of me until I am involved in their flight,
the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
needing nothing...Only animals
make me believe in God now

--so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
But I wasn’t with them,

as they headed toward Acushnet
and New Bedford, of course I wasn’t,
though I was not exactly in the parking lot

either, with the cars nudged in and out
of their slots, each taking the place another
had abandoned, so that no space, no desire

would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing
--is that what that sound is for?--

I seemed to be nowhere at all

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Better Late Than Never

I ought to have said so before, but in August there was something on The Dabbler blog that I wrote about a book by the Duchess of Devonshire. I was reminded of it because I have been reading her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The Duchess likes to pretend she is awfully dim, but she's actually tremendously clever, as the following excerpts from her letters attest. Some of them are about the years when her husband was somehow involved with the Department of Trade and they had to entertain civil servants and foreign dignitaries.

I have experienced similar evenings to those she describes in her letters of 8th December 1960 and 12th February 1985. She is actually almost too brilliantly accurate - the memories came flooding back rather more vividly than I really would have liked:

17th November, 1960

"I'd never seen or heard wild geese before. Have you ever? A fantastic noise, like a lot of women at a cocktail party in the sky, tumbling over each other for the best place in the air."

8th December, 1960

" ... we've had the first small taste of official entertaining ... It's a new world and a rum one. The Ceylons (ie Ceylon High Commissioner to London, plus wife), live in a plain house in Addison Road, never an ornament to be seen, but many chairs placed about the room like those lounges where television interviews take place. No fire, not even electric, but bright lights and central heating.
     Very well then. I thought it would be Andrew and me and some Ceylonese people. Not at all. It was for grandees like Ld. Home, Ld. Mountbatten, Mrs Pandit, Ld. Soulbury, laced with a few gloomy faces like Mr and Mrs Creech Jones and various anonymous but high up civil servants.
     I was lucky and sat by Ld. Home. He is sweet and looks like an amiable goat, but does not smell or anything. Lady Home is one of those large English county ladies with a loud voice, but comforting because of their unchangingness, usually to be seen and heard on saints' days at Eton. She wore an electric blue dress of strange shape and nameless stuff and huge dirty diamonds on a huge clean bosom.
     Ld. Mountbatten shouted about the bag at Six-Mile Bottom to me across the table and scarcely addressed a word to the lady in a sari whose dinner it was. When the pudding loomed - jelly - he said very crossly to the hired waiter, 'What on earth's all this?' It makes one despair of the behaviour of some hopeless English people.
     When we'd all stuck it till eleven, Ld. Home was very polite and said to the hostess, 'I'm afraid we must very reluctantly tear ourselves away.' I thought that was better.

6th December, 1963

     We went to Washington for his [JFK's] funeral. Oh, it was strange. The Americans aren't suited to tragedy. They like everything to be great!

12th February, 1985

     What would Lady Redesdale [the duchess's mother] say, asking a lot of people to dinner who I've never met. No women except me, and when you've eaten a bit someone taps on a glass and says now we'll hear what you all think and everyone (except me, of course, too stupid) shouts out a lot of tosh about dollars and exchange rates and employment and unemployment and some of them talk in that new language which is incomprehensible but it is FASCINATING, a new world to me as you can imagine. (A paper belched out by their offices about some huge scheme said something was a revolving evergreen facility. Well, what is it?)

18th February, 1986

     The trouble is I'm starting a new book. I can't think of anything else but I can't do it, so the result is NOTHING. Nothing done which ought to be done and everything left undone.
     The first sentence is very trying, you'll admit. Famous Authors (that fraudulent thing in America which explains how to be one) says write 'the' on a bit of paper (well what else could it be on) and then put down some more words. I ask you. Then I thought, 'Well', as all interviewees on the wireless begin. No good. And 'like' and 'it came to pass.' No good either. So I looked at a few ghoul vols., no help. I think it will be 'if', like Kipling, but the nub of the ensuing sentence is Dutch to nearly everyone, not to you because you know everything and not to my editor (R Garnett) because he knows everything, but to ninety-nine per cent of the fools who read books.' [she was writing a book about the Chatsworth Estate, which she did in the end manage to finish and a quick look at Amazon reveals she finally chose this sentence as her starting point:

"In Bess of Hardwick's day there was no parkland to the west of the river."]

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Great Things

Oh lord, get me onto a subject and I'm like a broken record. Yes, I know. It is true. Nevertheless, I'm not yet quite ready to leave the subject of whether being a banker or a civil engineer or a teacher is a better route to achieving great things.

Yesterday, I watched the latest episode of the BBC's Tough Young Teachers series, and this moment in it struck me as evidence that, whatever the merits of those other professions, being a teacher is definitely one route to achieving 'great things':

Friday, 31 January 2014

Words and Phrases - a Continuing Series

John Finnemore says it better than I ever could: