Saturday, 19 July 2014

Ignoring the Razzle

There are perennials in life - the melancholy of Sunday afternoons, particularly London ones, described by Dickens so well, for instance, plus the absurd pleasure of the lead up to Christmas in Europe - despite all the hype and commericalism, I still find it a season that it's impossible not to enjoy.

Another is the feeling, as Saturday evening approaches, that you really ought to be going out on the razzle, which I think means getting plastered, ideally, or, failing that, at the very least squealing in a crowd, dancing and tottering about the streets at all hours. What it does not mean, anyway, is staying at home, with your nose stuck in a book.

Yet week after week Saturday night fever bypasses our household, and each time it does I feel more of a failure. Take tonight as an example: the only sound is the logs settling in the fire and the tapping of this keyboard. The youngster among us has her nose stuck in a poetry book, the husband is poring over ancient family documents and I, until I turned this thing on, have been reading Les Murray's Collected Poems, (what him, again?)

And that's really what's prompted me to come here and write something - a line of his I just read seemed thought provoking enough to be worth sharing. It's from a poem called Driving to the Adelaide Festival 1976 via the Murray Valley Highway, (page 136 here - and don't miss The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, which follows it), a wonderful title, I think.

The poem is great - most of Murray's are - and the line that particularly struck me is:

"Romance is a vine that survives in the ruins of skill"

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Widespread Pointlessness

I noticed yesterday that the people at The Dabbler had generously reposted something I wrote about the pleasure of pointless activity. This morning, coincidentally, walking home from Mount Ainslie, I came upon a crowd of people, dressed in clanking armour and medieval costumes, setting up heraldic banners and pretty tents, the ladies swishing about in long dresses and wimples, (or were they snoods?), some wearing crowns, others draped in cloaks with ermine-like trimming.

When a woman who was giving a very good impression of being a sixteenth-century serving wench came sweeping out of the Scouts Hall nearby, bearing a tray of thoroughly twenty-first century looking cup cakes, I stopped her (or, to get into the ye olde spirit, perhaps I should say I hailed - or possibly accosted? - her) and asked what was going on.

It turns out that I was witnessing the start of a big tournament being put on by the Canberra branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The Society has 70,000 members world wide, the wench told me, and they get together to play at being in pre-seventeenth-century Europe, (except when it comes to cup cakes). "The only thing we ask", she said, "is that you try as best you can to wear something that looks sort of sixteenth century-ish".

I doubt I have ever seen anything so authentically pointless; it cheered me up enormously. There were a hundred or so people there and they all seemed to be having a great deal of fun.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

True or False

I just came across this description of foopball by Gary Lineker (no, I don't know who he is either - I found it in a list of funny things people have said, including Julie Burchill's comment about Camille Paglia - "the 'g'is silent, which is the only thing about her that is"):

"Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans win."

Will he be proved correct in the World Cup, I wonder. It certainly seems more likely today than yesterday, but I'd appreciate informed advice, (not including any references to the offside rule, thanks), about whether to put money on it, (yeah, yeah, I know about the evils of gambling, but it does add interest to life from time to time.)

Friday, 4 July 2014

If Only

One of the recurring experiences of my life has been an alienated sense of envy whenever I see anyone going to the fridge, getting out the milk carton, pouring themselves a glass from it and chugging the stuff down with evident enjoyment.

Actually, envy's not quite the word - the sensation is more one of standing on the wrong side of a window, watching some activity inside in which you are unable to join, (which reminds me, somewhat irrelevantly, that when I was really little I would sometimes see people standing outside television shops, staring through the windows at the images - still black and white; by the time colour arrived most people seemed to have managed to at least get themselves a rental set, or possibly television shops no longer existed - broadcast on the various display screens inside. They, of course, were at an even greater remove than the one dividing me from milk drinkers, separated by not only the shop window but the screens themselves from what they were watching. [Why I'm telling you about this I hardly know, except that it's always exciting when you remember something you haven't thought about for years]).

Anyway, enough with the digressions. The main thing I want to explain is that, unlike almost everyone else in the universe, I hate milk, and I wish I didn't. If I possibly could, I'd be downing gallons of the stuff, sharing in the considerable pleasure the drink quite clearly provides for the rest of the human race. The trouble is though that every time I taste milk I am overcome with nausea. I find it extremely disgusting - and, worse still, it's not just about milk that I feel out of step with the rest of mankind. There are so many many things that others love and I can't be doing with. The latest of them is the film Calvary, which has received universally positive reviews, but has left me, once again, on the outside, with my nose pressed longingly, (if a nose can be pressed longingly) up against the glass.

If you're interested in my contrarily negative observations, I wrote about what I thought of Calvary here. If anyone else feels the same way as I do about the film, please feel free to comment. It would be nice to imagine one or two others out here on the pavement with me, peering through the Rediffusion window at the soundless pictures flickering away within.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Getting Involved

Years ago, one hot July day in Vienna we - me, plus husband, kids and ageing relatives - straggled sweatily through the sweltering Lainzer Tiergarten, (not many people seem to realise that, if you want guaranteed sun and heat, Vienna and Budapest are ideal summer destinations - with Budapest coming out best of the two, because of the city's numerous beautiful thermal pools for cooling off), to one of the houses the Empress-consort commonly known as Sisi used to hide from her husband in.

At my husband's suggestion, we were going to see an exhibition in the Hermes Villa. The exhibition was called something like 'Beethoven's Hair Clippings' or possibly 'Chopin's Toothpick'. Actually, it may have had some subtler name, something that referred obliquely to the various displays and the one thing that connected them - which was the fact that they were all detritus, (nail clippings, cigarette butts, sneezed-in handkerchieves, plus, of course, the aforementioned bits of hair and toothpick, [my husband now tells me he thinks it was Schubert's toothpick - if only I'd known, I'd have looked at it more closely, hem hem]), carelessly scattered in the wake of famous men, (and yes, as I remember it, the exhibits were almost exclusively the droppings of the male sex [men, eh?])

Anyway, I found the thing unforgettably intriguing. What odd combination of foresight and nuttiness could have led anyone to preserve these objects? Surely plaque-coated toothpicks and snot-encrusted handkerchieves lack significance regardless of their provenance? Was it possible that by virtue of the plaque having once clung to Schubert's molars and the snot having originally emerged from Karl Marx's horrible hairy nose, (sorry, I know I'm being too subjective, but in the immortally damning phrase of someone in my family, Karl Marx is 'not one of my favourite people' - leaving aside the political consequences of his theories, read Francis Wheen's book on him, and I'm sure you will begin to dislike him on a personal level too).

The only experience of my own that seemed even faintly analogous was the impulse that gripped me as a small child one dusty afternoon, stuck in a traffic jam on the road that ran along the edge of Runnymede. Staring out at the rather unexciting stretch of grassland, I made the decision to return in adulthood and walk over the whole of it, putting my feet one in front of the other, heel and toe meeting exactly, each and every time, until I had made absolutely certain that I had stepped on every single inch of the place. At that point, I'd be sure I'd stood exactly where King John had stood when forced to sign the Magna Carta. It seemed a way of directly touching the past, creating some kind of bond with major historical figures. I have to admit I haven't yet carried out my plan - laziness, in this as in so much else, seems to have intervened, (or sanity).

Anyway, today I went to the shoemender, and while I was there I think I glimpsed a new way of looking at the celebrity-rubbish-preservation phenomenon. The shoemender I go to, like many shoemenders in Canberra, hails originally from Greece. Thus, rather unsurprisingly, this morning he was feeling pretty proud. As not merely a Canberran but a Canberra Greek he was thrilled by the astonishing win notched up last night by Canberra's Nick Kyrgios against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

But, he explained, there was something more, something that gave him a very special and particular involvement in the Kyrgios victory. As it turns out, the Kyrgios family are among the shoemender's customers. In fact, not long ago they brought in a bag for the man to mend. And, lo and behold, when Kyrgios emerged onto Centre Court yesterday afternoon (UK time),  what was Kyrgios carrying? Yes, you guessed it, the very same bag my Greek shoemending friend had worked on. Of course, he went wild with excitement. 'I looked at it,' he told me, 'and I thought, "I know that bag - that's the bag I worked on. That bag is there on Centre Court with Nick, because of me."'

Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Gulf of Words

It's funny how language, an instrument designed to bring us closer together, can sometimes do the opposite instead. For instance, today in the supermarket I overheard a conversation that made me feel profoundly alone.

The conversation was between two women I didn't know. They greeted each other but were both in a hurry. One said she'd give the other a bell, (already a chill feeling of isolation began to fold itself around me, as that particular turn of phrase struck my ears - especially as it was accompanied by the gesture that involves holding a hand up to your face to, supposedly, resemble a telephone receiver being picked up). Yes, said the other, lets grab a coffee, (not a coffee, a cup of coffee, I refrained from interrupting them to point out),  when the kids are at pre-school. We can have a really good chinwag then.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh, euuuuuuuuuuuw.

She said, 'CHINWAG'!

Yet, so far as I could see, no-one else  in the shop had so much as flinched in the face of this horrible occurrence. Furthermore, time had not stopped. Not even one thunderbolt had come crashing through the striplit ceiling to strike the speaker down either.

Which was when it was - not for the first time, of course, (but most of the time I'm in denial) - borne in on me that I'm all by myself in a world where those I thought were my fellows remain calm in the face of dreadful words like 'chinwag'. Not one other person was shuddering or writhing or terrifying small children by gurning with horror as the frightful word echoed round the shelves of dry-goods and pre-dinner snacks.

 No-one understands me. No-one. I bet you don't either. I bet you're saying right at this moment, 'Oh Zed, aren't you getting a tad over-excited?'

To which I say, 'Tad'? Please, call the ambulance. Now I've really been pushed too far.'.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Lost Time

I have many things to blog about - none of them important or possibly even interesting - but no time. To add to my lack of time - and my sense of futility; why bother when so many people have written so many far better things about almost everything already - I have discovered a site where, if you have a spare 145 hours and 18 minutes, you can hear Marcel Proust's great work read beautifully in French. It is wonderful, and it can be found here.

And really, why write anything, post-Proust?

(Yes, the answer is, of course, because it is a way of working out what you think - and it's fun. All the same, it does require time.)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Let the One With the Zimmer Frame In

Tearing up newspapers to make a fire yesterday evening - and incidentally what is it going to cost after the death of newspapers to get a fire going? I mean just how many ipads and tablets can a household afford and how easy are they to scrunchle up as a bedding for kindling anyway?- I noticed an item that should breathe new life into the whole vampire literary genre:

 A series in which blood lusting baby boomers roam the urban landscape, preying on youth, should appeal to an enormous market of readers. If I weren't so squeamish, I'd try my hand at it myself, (the writing, not the marauding, I mean).

Wednesday, 4 June 2014


I don't know what it was about The Good Life that made it popular even amongst those of us who were rather difficult, pretending-to-be-anti-establishment teenagers at the time it was shown - although I suspect that, in the case of my male contemporaries, there may have been a strong element of fondness (is that the right word?) for Felicity Kendal.

In addition though, judging by this tiny excerpt from the show, there was a considerable element of beautifully executed slapstick in the mix:

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Things I Liked This Week

I am stupidly busy and probably will be until November and so my post on Percy Grainger - sorry, Mahlerman - remains confined to the muddle of my computer in which, somewhere, there are some photographs of the museum in his - Percy Grainger's, that is, not Mahlerman's - honour.

In the meantime, I would like to note the things that I've enjoyed as I've hurried through this last week:

1. A telly series set on Shetland called, what a surprise, Shetland. In one episode, a female police officer, commenting, in a charming Scottish accent, on the very austere living arrangements of a suspect or murder victim - (can't remember which, or wasn't paying enough attention - these sorts of programmes are only really background noise as I pound away on a stationary bicycle doing something horrible but supposedly very good for one's health called Lifesprints, [known more informally in my mind as 'torture']) - amused me by saying:

"Even the Spartans liked to have a few wee doilies around the place."

2. A telly series called Vera, set in England somewhere north of London and featuring a stout, (obviously doesn't do Lifesprints), female detective who calls almost everyone pet. In the one I saw a murder victim's last meal was revealed to have been "chips with curry sauce washed down with a bottle of red wine". This led to a brief but horrifying glimpse of my own total lack of sophistication as my mind, before I could stop it, allowed itself to think that the meal sounded like a very a tempting combination, possibly even a candidate for that night's evening meal.

3. A radio programme in which the British Labour politician Alan Johnson talked about the book that changed his life.

4. A review in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik of two books, one that seeks to argue that some words are utterly untranslatable - looking mainly at French, German and Italian, I think, but also glancing at Romanian - and one that seeks to debunk the idea that the structure of the language in which you are operating has an influence on how you think and what you think. Gopnik says an example given for the argument that language does influence what is thought is the title of EP Thompson's book, "The Making of the English Working Class", which becomes in French "The Formation of the English Working Class". Gopnik sees no difference between these, although I would argue that the emphasis in the French title falls more on the finished condition than on the process.

Anyway, Gopnik goes on to talk about Orwell and his views on lucidity and morality in this context and comes up with a paragraph that somehow made me laugh - and, finding little enough to laugh at in the world, I do like to share that which I find:

If lucid writing is the sign of a moral state, it's the moral state of hard work, keener effort, acquired craft - a desire to communicate rather than intimidate, to have fun with a fellow-mind rather than bully a disciple. Sane and shapely sentences are good because they're sane and shapely.There's no guarantee that they'll contain the truth: lots of sane and shapely sentence makers have had silly ideas. But, like sane and shapely people and homes, they are nice to have around to look at.

5. Finally, having discovered that I will be leaving Canberra soon, (hence, in part, the stupid busyness), I was told of perhaps the most brilliant comment ever made about the place. Supposedly, this remark about Australia's capital was made in a speech by a departing ambassador from Romania:

"Canberra - you cry when you arrive; you cry when you leave."

Luckily for me, I will only be going for a few years. It's an awfully nice place to come home to and, despite all my gripes and moans and the idiocy of its actually having its own government, forsooth, (what is the population - certainly not more than 300,000 people), it's actually one of the nicest places I've ever lived. On the other hand, I could be suffering from a geographical form of Stockholm syndrome.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

On a Tangent

Following my recent diversion into the world of towelling, my memory was jogged about a trip I made to the Percy Grainger museum in Melbourne - all will eventually become clear on that connection, for those who don't immediately see the link. Anyway, I was going to do a post about that weird and wonderful place - indeed, I think I might start a whole series of posts on mad museums.

In the interim though, the Australian federal government brought down its budget and a lot of people have been complaining about various measures that are contained within it.

One measure that was canvassed on last night's television current affairs programme was the intention to restrict unemployment payments to those under thirty years of age, increasing the requirement for that sector of the population to either accept work or enrol in education. In the interests of greater understanding of the issues involved, I thought others might like to hear the views of this representative of the demographic:

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Getting Better All the Time

Living in a society beset by a cult of youth, I take comfort in towels. By which I do not mean that I wrap myself in them or cry into them - I merely note them and feel happy.

For who can deny that towels are pretty awful when young? Certainly at our house no-one wants to go near brand-new towels. We all run screaming from them when they first appear in the bathroom. Even later we hardly tolerate them - they're too coarse, too dry, too unabsorbent. Sometimes, to start with, they actually possess a texture that borders almost on repellent, while even the best of them are pretty unloveable until they've been washed at least a hundred times.

But all of them - even the borderline repellent - improve as time passes. After a few years knocking about the place they begin, gradually, to acquire attractive qualities. And it is age that is the vital factor, the thing that endows them with value. Indeed, the one we all fight over, the one that is the most alluring of all the towels in our household, is the one that still bears my nametape, together with the name of the house I was put in at boarding school, which means it must be no less than thirty to forty years old.

Just reaching its prime, in fact - and towel years need to be double and a halfed, or possibly even tripled, to find the equivalent age for humans. That  means I'm really still a baby, barely starting to reveal my true qualities.

As I say, I take comfort in towels.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Going Straight

Yesterday I tried to describe the ploughing record attempt I went to. Last night on the local television news the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Canberra's Anna Morissseau, (Morisot?) did a much better job than me. Her report is a beautifully edited piece, with lovely interviews and wonderful panoramic shots (her team did have the advantage of a crane from which to film, I must point out). Morisot should go far:

Sunday, 4 May 2014

We Plough the Fields

Today I went to see an attempt to break the world record for the greatest number of heavy horses ploughing in one field. I'm not sure if the world record was broken, but I was certainly impressed.

 Impressed is actually the wrong word - for some reason I can't explain, I found myself strangely moved. There was something beautiful about the sight of these huge gentle horses moving across the landscape with heavily wrapped up - the event was held on the coldest day in ages, on top of a windswept hill near Yass - people in tow. I think it was partly the element of time travel, the sense that one was looking back into a quieter past, where man and beast worked together, rather than man and truck or man and motorbike.
The other thing that made the whole thing so touching was the size of the crowd. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there, mostly country people, that tribe that is part of the legend we tell ourselves about being Australian but which few of us actually belong to. I don't think many of them would ever utter the word 'pamper' or give a great deal of thought to their appearance -  maybe they see the pointlessness of competing with the beauty of the natural world around them or, more likely, they don't have the time or the money.

The uniform of choice seemed to be a drizabone in this weather, but it had to be a thoroughly battered and muddied model. The faces were weatherbeaten, the conversation ran to sheep prices, rainfall and upcoming cattle sales.

This evening some amongst this morning's ploughing enthusiasts may be settling down to entertainment from an intriguing sub-section of the moving picture industry, a genre unknown to me until today:

Stall selling "Farming DVDs"

Friday, 2 May 2014

Like Ian Messiter

At the end of each episode of Just a Minute Nicholas Parsons expresses his gratitude to the person who thought up the idea of the game which makes the show. Such a display of good manners is fairly remarkable nowadays, which is probably why I notice whenever I hear him doing it.

Anyway, I've had a couple of ideas for television programmes and I will tell you about them in a minute. If someone manages to use them, all I ask in exchange for the kernel of the dea is a similar kind of tribute to the one Parsons gives Messiter so regularly.

My first idea might be called Riveting Unreadables. It would be a programme in which people who have come to fame as writers but are actually interesting talkers rather than writers are given a show to chat amongst themselves. The kinds of people I'm thinking about are Will Self, whose books are impenetrable to me but who usually provides entertainment when someone asks him a question and Lionel Shriver who seems to delight in choosing subjects of such unbearable despair and misery that one would only choose to read one of her fictions as a form of penance. Despite this, I could listen to her talk about almost anything - the quality of her voice appeals to me and her intellect has a nice mocking quality, plus she somehow manages to be witty and intelligent without ever seeming to need to whine about being a woman or  aboutbeing ignored because she's a woman or any of that.

 I'm sure there are dozens more writers who could fall into this category - riveting to listen to, rather dull to read. Whatever credibility I might once have had would be destroyed if I were to suggest that James Joyce might fit well in the format, if it weren't for the fact that he is dead. Which is why I won't  suggest it, (because of the credibility issue, not the dead question).

My second idea comes from an experience I had some years ago when one relative was graduating from Cambridge and another rather arty, vague relative turned up in jeans and sneakers and a hooded rain jacket. I had the faint sense that possibly a Cambridge graduation might be one of middle England's big occasions, but thought possibly casual clothes would be okay, given that it was a university after all and the thing was about learning, not fashion. However, when we arrived at the Senate House to queue to go into the hall where the ceremony was to take place, even the slightly dreamy relative noticed that possibly her outfit wasn't quite what it should be. With fifteen minutes in hand, we exited the queue and dashed from stall to stall of the market in the central square by the Senate House. Back with time to spare, just under fifty quid shelled out, we'd managed to assemble a set of clothes (plus "accessories") that suited the occasion and its wearer.

My idea, arising from this incident, is of course to send out people to different market towns and give them fifty pounds and fifteen minutes and get them to try to equip themselves for a wedding or a funeral, a job interview or a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It's Ready Steady Cook but with clothing. The important thing I forgot to mention is that these forays should be filmed. It wouldn't be much of a television show otherwise.

Let me know if any of this is useful. If a programme is made from either of these ideas of mine, I probably won't watch it as I don't care for reality television much - but I'd still like to know.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Forget the Shrill Squabbling

Auden in his farewell to Yeats said that poetry changes nothing. Peter Cook, asked to comment on the power of satire, talked of all those wonderfully brave and edgy satiric cabarets in Berlin and how brilliantly they had arrested the rise of Hitler. In the same vein,  Stefan Zweig in his The World of Yesterday describes how he and his fellow students in pre-First World War Vienna remained oblivious to the events that were soon to destroy their peaceful playgrounds:

"We ... however, wholly absorbed in our literary ambitions, noticed little of the ... dangerous changes in our native land; our eyes were bent entirely on books and pictures. We took not the slightest interest in political and social problems; what did all this shrill squabbling mean in our lives? The city was in a state of agitation at election time; we went to the libraries. The masses rose up; we wrote and discussed poetry. We failed to see the writing on the wall in letters of fire. Like King Belshazzar before us, we dined on the delicious dishes of the arts and never looked apprehensively ahead. Only decades later, when the roof and walls of the building fell in on us, did we realise that the foundations had been undermined long before, and the downfall of individual freedom in Europe had begun with the new century."

This inability or refusal to notice the storm clouds beyond our own immediate existences - whether those clouds represent war or cataclysm of some other kind or, that last great unavoidable, our own eventual deaths - is an underlying theme of Wes Anderson's new film, Grand Hotel Budapest.  Fortunately, the idea, like the pastries from Mendl's that keep popping up throughout the film, is presented in such a light and colourful manner that it does not make one sad.

Anderson claims Grand Budapest Hotel was at least in part inspired by Zweig, and certainly there are elements in The World of Yesterday that do seem to be echoed in the film. For instance, the borderline surreal atmosphere of much of the film is matched by the genuine absurdities Zweig notices in real life:

"By a strange caprice of the Belgian army, its machine guns were transported on little carts with dogs harnessed to them."

Similarly, while Zweig was at least aware of the immanence of war, unlike the film's characters, the account he gives of his train journey back to Austria from Ostend in July 1914 bears comparison with the train journeys made by Monsieur Gustave and Zero:

"... halfway to Herbesthal, the first German station, the train suddenly stopped in the middle of the countryside. We crowded to the corridor windows. What had happened? And then, in the darkness, I saw freight train after freight train coming the other way towards us, with open trucks covered by tarpaulins under which I thought I saw the menacing shapes of cannon. My heart missed a beat. This must be the vanguard of the German army. But perhaps, I consoled myself, it was just a safety precaution, merely the threat of mobilisation, not mobilisation itself. There is always a strong desire to go on hoping in an hour of danger. Finally the signal came, the line was clear, and the train moved on and came into Herbesthal station. I jumped down the steps from the carriage to find a newspaper and make enquiries. But the station was occupied by soldiers. When I tried to go into the waiting room a stern, white-bearded official was standing in front of the closed door, keeping people out - no-one was allowed in the station buildings, he said. However, I had already heard the faint clink and clatter of swords, and the hard sound of rifle butts grounded on the floor behind the carefully curtained glass panes in the door. There was no doubt about it, this monstrous thing was in progress..."

I loved the Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps it is the manner of Zweig's death - or rather the odd circumstance of his having committed suicide with his much younger female companion, (I blame him for taking her with him, when of course it may have been her choice and she in fact who instigated the whole thing) - that makes me less than enthusiastic about him. However, if he managed to inspire such a sparkling charming movie, for me his legacy is greater than it was before

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Battered Penguins - Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis

Simon Leys begins the foreword to his book Other People's Thoughts by quoting Oscar Wilde:

 "'Most people are other people,' Oscar Wilde remarked, 'their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation ...'"

As so often Wilde here articulates succinctly what other people - in this case Nigel Dennis - take an eternity - in Dennis's case a lengthy novel - to try to make clear.

In Cards of Identity Dennis tells the story of the Identity Club, whose members take over a large house in the country; persuade, (somewhat implausibly), various locals that they are not who they think they are but actually the club's domestic staff; hold a conference at which they read papers to each other about imagined identities they have studied; and finally persuade the locals/domestic staff to dress up and put on a cod-Shakespeare play, called The Prince of Antioch,  during the performance of which the club's President is murdered by the other members.

The novel could not be described as emotionally satisfying. Given that none of the characters are fixed or permanent - that is the whole point:; identity is a frail thing - it would be hard to really allow any individual to achieve enough depth for the reader to care about them. All the same, the book is cleverly written - the Shakespeare play that makes up its last part is, from my very limited knowledge, a fairly good bit of parody - and often very funny, my particular favourite section being the paper given by Dr Bitterling and devoted to the story of a Co-Warden of the Badgeries.

The Co-Warden of the Badgeries, it transpires, is an ancient position which involves no involvement with badgers, beyond 'a token badger' which is 'a stuffed one of course.' It is only ever taken out 'on the death of the Lord Royal' or for the annual ritual of Easing the Badger, when the thing is inserted into a symbolic den and eased out with the official emblem, a symbolical gold spade. At the funeral of the Lord Royal, the badger is placed on a trolley and dragged through the streets on silken ropes. Everything to do with the role is either 'token, symbolical, or emblematical' and its importance is precisely because it is ritual rather than based in reality. As the paper explains:

'When you've got a grip on something that really exists and is comprehensible, you don't have to bother with symbols. But once the reality begins to fade, the symbol is needed to recapture it. If all barristers had brains, there would be no need for wigs. Our rituals exist to reassure people that no serious defects are possible ... Like old churches, [the Badgeries], are nostalgic, photogenic and give a sense of security to those who hurry past them.'

Perhaps this appealed to me in the light of my recent experience with pageant and my puzzlement in the face of it.

WH Auden praised Cards of Identity, (at least I think he did - his exact phrase was, "I have read no novel in the last fifteen years with greater pleasure or admiration", which is a statement that only qualifies as praise if the other books he read during that time were any good). I admired it for creating an attractively sinister atmosphere reminiscent of early (Emma Peel era) Avengers programme. It is also interesting for the traces it bears of life in post-war Britain - despite its veneer of fantasy, it is actually something of a period piece in this regard. However, its central thrust - the author's attempts to play around with the question of identity - struck me as a bit confused.

While Dennis may have been striving for some greater complexity, ultimately the whole thing boils down to Shakespeare's famous observation that 'all the world's a play' - or, to quote The Prince of Antioch, 'tis all a play for our improvement'. Dennis seems to think he is being sophisticated and profound but, to paraphrase - as he is so fond of doing - Shakespeare, Cards of Identity ends up being much ado about nothing very much. On the other hand I wouldn't have missed the Badgeries, which are worthy of Peter Cook and EL Wisty's dreams of having his own Royal Newtkeeper. 

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