Monday, 2 March 2015

Pooling Around

The other day, I achieved an ambition and went to Boy Charlton Pool. This morning I was reading a collection of Helen Garner's writing, and found this lovely essay on Fitzroy Baths and the man who took care of them for many years, (and possibly still does?)

As Garner says, "There is no leveller like a public swimming-pool

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Neglected Tom

I have so many things to show you from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but not much time. My conscience has been nagging at me though, since I finished my last post on the gallery without including any of Tom Roberts's pictures.  I have been feeling especially guilty about this because one of the ones I wanted to include is a painting I've spent years thinking was by Arthur Streeton. Most unfair.

The picture in question is this one, Holiday Sketch at Coogee:
 It is Coogee Bay. Not as we know it, I need hardly add. My brother used to live in Coogee, with a bunch of reprobates. I used to go round on Saturday around lunchtime and find him cooking rump steak and mushrooms from a tin, which was a surprisingly delicious combination. We have all grown far too sophisticated for tinned mushrooms now;  those were the days of our innocence.

This painting is similarly a glimpse of Sydney's lost innocence, I think. I can never decide whether it is better now - after all, you can get good coffee and don't have to bring a picnic of sandwiches that inevitably get gritty with sand - or not - the traffic, oh, the flaming traffic.

My mother was shocked when we walked down Coogee Bay Road a year or two ago. It is just one long stretch of cafes, all of them full of people. 'What do all these people do?' she wondered, 'Why are they all here? How do they earn a living?' I have no idea. Perhaps they are all rich. Perhaps they are all deeply in debt.
 Anyway, in case you're interested, the label tells us that Tom Roberts was actually born in England (a Pom, I never knew, the man who gave us some of the images we think of as most Australian!) in 1856, came to Australia in 1869, spent 1903 to 1923 in England, and died at Kallista, Victoria in 1931 (interesting that the label writers at the gallery use 'England', rather than 'United Kingdom').
 Roberts met the artist Charles Conder in 1888 and the two painted together at Coogee Beach, apparently. Conder was younger than Roberts and he followed Roberts to Melbourne to join Roberts and Streeton at their artists' camp at Heidelberg.

This painting, we are told, is 'an early testament to Roberts's plein-air impressionist technique, which evokes the sun's glare on the bright blue sea, the white sand, dry grass and spindly sea-side vegetation'. I don't know about you, but I think I understood that before I read it, although I may not have articulated it, to be fair.
This next lovely thing is called The Camp, Sirius Cove. Roberts painted it in 1899 and, if the label writer is to be believed, he 'depicts his former painting haunt as an idyllic memory, albeit with a photographically sharp focus. It is flawlessly constructed and crisply executed to recall the brightly sunlit scene. Although the artists' camp is long gone, Roberts's view of the headland is still recognisable today, close to the present site of Taronga Park Zoo.'
 The gallery does of course also have two more famous Roberts pictures, the one in the shearing shed (that's the one I think particularly evokes a sense of real Australianness - after all it inspired a very fine chain of petrol stations, in the Mittagong branch of which I first encountered that other now neglected Australian classic, the T-bone steak) and the one of a highway robbery. They have been reproduced so often that I've almost become sick of them so, if you want to see them, you'll have to come to Australia and visit the NSW gallery yourself.

If you can't manage that though, I do have more pictures I want to show you, from other parts of the gallery's collection. But they will have to wait for another day as, once again, time is against me.

To be continued.

Monday, 23 February 2015

They Let the Right One In

Prizes are rarely won by deserving winners, but amazingly the Oscar committee got it right with this year's award to Ida as Best Foreign Film. In his acceptance speech the film's director said it was a film about the need for silence, withdrawal from the world and contemplation. This is what I thought of it.

Sadly, after that Oscar award, things got a bit strange. I mean Birdman was amusing, but it was no Grand Budapest Hotel.  I suppose it appealed to the Oscar voters' egoes though, as it is all about how dreadful it is to be an actor. I would have given Edward Norton best supporting actor for his role in Birdman and his role in Grand Budapest Hotel and I'd have given best supporting actress to the daughter in Birdman - and then I would have given Grand Budapest Hotel best design, best director and best movie.

But I am not an academy member, just a cinema goer. Birdman is good up to a point, but Grand Budapest Hotel will charm viewers for generations.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Perennial Pleasure

I never fail to enjoy a trip to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Usually I approach it through the Domain, (the name always makes me think vaguely of Le Grand Meaulnes [is that the most pretentious thing anyone has ever said? Nevertheless, it's true - and, if you haven't read Le Grand Meaulnes, you are lucky to have such a charming, evocative book to look forward to]).

But sometimes I arrive via this exit from the Botanic Gardens:

beside which stands probably the best situated house in the whole of Sydney:
The gallery is, I assume, pure Sydney sandstone:
That is just the lefthand wing.

In the front hall, there is beautiful old terrazzo (I think that's what it's called) flooring, (unfortunately partly obliterated with a fairly ugly sculpture by that Angel of the North bloke - Gormley? Gormless, in this case, possibly [hilarious, aren't I? No, pathetic]):

and a lovely buttoned leather seat:
I usually begin by looking at the earliest Australian pictures they have, starting with John Glover:

This one is called Natives on the Ouse River and was painted in Van Diemen's land in 1838. The label explains that John Glover was already an established artist in Britain when he emigrated, aged 64, and also tells us that this, 'one of his most subjective works' was 'informed by European notions of an Antipodean Arcadia'. The image, apparently, stands in marked contrast to the actual condition of the local people, who were subject to dispossession and violence at the hands of the colonists. The details of the painting are charming - I wonder if Glover witnessed some last dying remnants of an earlier way of life; surely the whole thing did not come from his imagination. I love the difficulty he had in depicting gum trees too - he makes them look like sea creatures more than plants:

This one, the label says, is called Patterdale Farm and was painted in 1840. It is John Glover's place at Mills Plains in northern Tasmania, named after the town at the foot of Ullswater in the Lake District, close to where his home, Blowick Farm, stood (presumably his home in England). It appears that the painting reveals the painter's distinctive technique, whereby colour is applied in transparent veils, with diluted layers of oil (it is oil on canvas, should have mentioned that earlier) delicately brushed over a cream white ground.

High up on a wall I also spotted a Eugene von Guerard I'd never seen before, of the Grampians, where we went sometimes as kids and where I think my mother went often as a child, (during the war, petrol permitting, she tells me - which means they didn't go during the war):
It is called Mount Abrupt, the Grampians and was painted in 1856. For some reason the curators are surprisingly silent in their label of this von Guerard, but that doesn't matter because he painted some pictures for my family so I happen to know that he was born in Vienna and spent about fifteen years in Australia, many of those in Victoria, painting pictures for people down there. He died in London - he also spent quite a lot of time in Germany before coming to Australia, according to the label.

After Glover come Streeton and Roberts. I am fond of this painting of Redfern Station by Arthur Streeton, even though it is not like his usual subjects i.e. it doesn't include the vivid blue skies that are a part of so many of his paintings:
The label at the gallery tells us this about the painting: It is called The Railway Station, Redfern and was painted in 1893. Someone called Lady Denison very kindly gave it to the gallery as a present in 1942. (I'm afraid I might not have been so generous). It shows the Old Redfern Station, on Devonshire Street, just south of where Sydney's Central Station is now located. It was painted three years after Streeton first visited Sydney. It falls within the tradition of tonal paintings of wet urban scenes which existed alongside the nationalistic evocations of sunlight and heat in Australian painting in this period (I haven't seen any others, but one must believe the experts). His choice of a modern railway subject and his evocative approach show the influence of French and British impressionism, as well as the decorative, assymmetrical design and flattened picture plane of Japanese woodcuts. So now you know.

Here are some details of the painting - it will probably amaze some overseas readers to learn that it is possible to have a day when the sun doesn't shine in Sydney (not something the tourist board ever tells you):

Some more typical Streetons followed. This one is called From my Camp (Sirius Cove) and the label tells us was painted from a corner of the beach at Little Sirius Cove at Mosman Bay, the site of an idyllic artists' painting camp known as Curlew Camp, where Streeton stayed with Tom Roberts leading what the label writer considers 'a bohemian lifestyle ... under canvas shelters [don't most of us call those tents?] and commuting to the city by boat.' The label also includes a direct quote from Streeton himself written in 1890:

"Sydney is an artists' city - glorious - Roberts & I go to Mossman's Bay [sic] & pull through the lazy green water, & then lunch under the shade in the open air, eggs, meat, cheese & 2 big bottles of claret grown in Australia. The little Bay seemed all asleep & so very peaceful"

Those were certainly the days - and quite frankly two big bottles of claret between just two of us would have meant I'd have been all asleep, but then I am neither a man nor a painter.

This one is called 'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide' and was painted in 1890 at the Eaglemont Homestead near Heidelberg in Victoria, when Streeton was only 22 years old. The scene presents an idealised vision of the Yarra River with the spires of Doncaster in the middle distance and the Dandenongs beyond. The title is from Wordsworth's sonnet 'Conclusion, from a poem cycle called The River Duddon. There is then some guff about Romantic expressions of mortality, which I can supply in a plain brown paper envelope to anyone who really wants it:
Blimey this uploading lark takes ages. I had planned to romp through everything I saw at the gallery but the dinner's burning. Tom Roberts and many other things will have to wait for another afternoon when I have a bit of spare time. Probably a good thing - what did my father always say about never filling a plate too full. Perhaps the same is true of a blog post. This should be enough for one blog meal in anybody's language, surely.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Australian Crawl

I have always been fond of outdoor public swimming pools. Not those awful, glassed-in, chlorine-reeking places that you find in the British isles, but proper outdoor ones that come into their own in the warm months, providing an oasis in the middle of crowded city suburbs, where parents and children, old and young, can mingle in sparkling water or lie semi-comatose after a swim.

They are egalitarian places in the best possible way. That is, they are not intended to be so - there is no agenda beyond relaxation, escape from heat and having fun - and yet somehow, wet and stripped of almost all their clothing, few people are able to retain even a shred of pomposity. In the water, barriers between people vanish. Stretched out in the sunlight after a few Olympic lengths, petty exasperations seem to evaporate along with the moisture on your skin.

I suppose it's not surprising I feel this way about pools. My earliest memories are of going to one in Kuala Lumpur. We only had school in the mornings and so we spent each afternoon beside a local pool. I can remember the triumph of finally managing to swim the width of the thing. I remember the horror of blood unfurling like some strange bright ribbon into the water when my brother slipped on the steps and sliced open his chin. Although I cannot remember doing so, there are photographs to prove that what I did most of all at that pool was spend hours on the edge, telling anyone who was listening that I was going to dive, posing rigidly, arms stretched, hands pointed in front of me, deetermination written all over my face. I never once did dive, apparently, chickening out and jumping at the last minute every single time.

Later there was a pool I used to go to just outside Siena and another at the end of the 34 tram route in Vienna - there each time you lifted your face from the water to breathe, the scent of delicious sausages sizzling at the poolside snack bar would tempt you to stop for a quick bite. In Budapest, of course, there was (and still is) a variety of options, some of them - the Szechenyi baths spring to mind here - open even in the depths of winter, making it possible to sit outdoors in thermal waters, surrounded by baroque splendour,  (playing chess, if you wish, as they have floating chessboards),  while the snow falls round you.

Sadly my love of public pools is not shared by everyone in my family. In fact, when my  husband and I first met each other, our relationship almost foundered when I suggested we go to an outdoor thermal pool near Moscow (this was in the 1970s, I should add, when hygiene and various other things were not at the top of the list of Russian priorities - are they now, I wonder?). The word horror does not adequately cover the expression on my future husband's face at the prospect. Which is why that place remains on my to do list, as did, until last week, the Boy Charlton swimming pool on the shores of Wooloomooloo bay (the link is worth following, because the story of the pool and Andrew "Boy" Charlton gives a wonderful sense of Australia in an earlier time).

Tree by entrance to Boy Charlton Pool
I should point out that the Boy Charlton pool could never be confused with anything in Moscow, even if that something is now in a gleaming, revamped state. The Boy Charlton pool is the antithesis of grimness and light deprivation. The Boy Charlton pool, which lies in the Domain, just behind the Art Gallery of New South Wales is bright and sparkling and cheerful. It is unofficious, uncluttered, uncrowded. It has no canned music or bossy announcements, it is litter free and hedonistic. Despite the fact that it is right opposite a naval dockyard, it has a breezy optimistic atmosphere that precludes everything but pleasure and fun. Like all good swimming pools, it brings out the playful and relaxed qualities of its visitors.
Looking back towards Potts Point as you go down the stairs leading to Boy Charlton Pool
After I'd got over my initial excitement at actually being there at last, after I'd negotiated the mysteries of the locker system and after I'd worn myself out with length swimming, I found a spot on the shaded tiers of wooden benches beside the water and sat down to relax. A dark boy who looked a bit like Nick Kyrgios swam a race in the lane nearest to me against a rather chubby blond friend. The Kyrgios lookalike beat his friend easily and yelled out gleefully, 'I won, I won'. He caught my eye and grinned, 'You saw', he called, grinning, 'I beat him by miles didn't I?' 'He wasn't really trying', I told him, and he laughed and splashed water in his friend's face.

Later when the pair were leaving, the Kyrgios boy caught my eye again and smiled broadly. 'Sorry if I was too loud. I'm like that. I try not to be', he called, reminding me of a cheerful puppy.
The shaded paddling pool with Olympic pool beyond
Meanwhile, the entire time I was there, two young men on my left were talking and giggling and exchanging gossip.

"It was fantastic", one told the other about some party, "they had, like, a Spanish guitarist, and he was, like, on a rock, and there were, like, beach umbrellas and everyone was, like, hanging out." I think Spanish guitar music on a beach with everyone hanging out (a phrase I've never quite penetrated the exact meaning of) might be one of my various ideas of hell, but, as they say, 'Hey'.

"Can you put some sun cream on my back?" the other asked at the end of this recital. The partygoer happily did so and then, when he'd finished, he headed off for a swim.

It's hard to tell these days as lots of boys do seem to have a slightly gay affect, but nevertheless I had the impression these two were probably gay and possibly flirting. Which is why, when the one who'd been to the party came back from swimming and the other, who'd been lying sunning himself and watching the other through one squinting eye, said to him,  'Gosh, I didn't have you down for a breast stroker', the comment struck me as very funny.

For anyone who doesn't know what breast stroke is, here is John Betjeman demonstrating how it's done:

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A Break From the Tent

Paul Keating reportedly said that, if you were Australian and didn't live in Sydney, you were just camping. I wouldn't have the strength to live in Sydney, so I've set up a bit of tarpaulin in Canberra. But I agree with Keating that Sydney is wonderful - I know of few other places quite so wonderful, in fact, if you feel like a bit of excitement for a day or two.

Since that was exactly what I did feel like, the day before yesterday I got on the train that goes from Canberra to Central Station. What is more, I bought a meat pie on the train, thus overcoming a thirty-year long phobia, the result of an incident on a train taking me back to boarding school in Mittagong, when I also bought a meat pie. On that occasion, what I found inside the meat pie was a sea of writhing maggots. No horror film I've ever been to has managed to rival that sight for stomach churning ghastliness. Especially as I'd already taken a bite.

Anyway, the train was great this time, including the meat pie, both on the way there and on the way back, (although on the way back I didn't have a meat pie, as I'd already had one for lunch - but you probably weren't particularly interested to hear that, were you?)

I would like to point out that whoever does the hiring at NSW Trainlink deserves a medal. I've rarely travelled on any public transport where all the employees have been quite so friendly, helpful, cheerful and generally all round nice. Plus the carriages were clean - are you listening, all you British railway operators??? Also there weren't endless announcements, unlike some places I could mention, (yes, I do mean trains in the United Kingdom), plus it cost just $39.00, without endless fare permutations and restrictions and other stuff designed to make you decide to call the whole thing off and just drive instead.

From Central Station I walked up to the other end of the city to the place I was staying, passing all sorts of interesting sights - all especially exciting for a person from possibly the only capital city in the world that is genuinely provincial and without metropolitan flash or dash.

I enjoyed seeing old details on buildings, things that people hardly notice, I suspect, as they hurry past - this frieze near Central Station, for example:

plus the doors and coat of arms of the Law Courts (as well as a little gargoyle holding up the year it was built that I'd never noticed before):

I found the lost-in-a-crowd big city indifference thrilling to witness, briefly:
I got to where I was staying in time to have a shower and then I was out again, round the corner to the Wharf Theatre, one of my favourite places in the world.

Getting to the Wharf Theatre meant walking around Circular Quay, past the ferry terminals and then the Museum of Modern Art and enchanting Cadman's Cottage, past all the former storehouses, where ships unloaded their cargo - now turned into restaurants that look out at the Opera House - and then under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

When you get under the bridge, you can easily begin to think that, with enough time and a strong enough spanner, you could probably knock up your own Sydney Harbour Bridge, if you had plenty of nuts and bolts:

(I don't know what that umbrella and thermos were doing there, but they help give a sense of scale):

But then you look out at its span - (and can you see that gaudy Luna Park face with its sinister grin, over there on the other side of the water?) - and you realise that that wouldn't actually be possible:
And so you plod on, trying to ignore that blot on the landscape at the end there, Blues Point Tower, a place of tantalising hopelessness, its inhabitants condemned to look out at water but never to stand on a balcony and really enjoy it:
Instead, you cheer yourself up with nice things like this old letterbox:
and at last you arrive at the Wharf itself, where you have, extremely dashingly, since you never drink coffee after midday normally, a cup of absolutely superbly made coffee and think, not for the first time, that there are few places in the world quite so civilised and aren't you lucky to be a citizen of this wonderful country, (Australians all let us rejoice .... [but for heaven's sake don't mention the later verses]):
And then you go into the theatre - or rather, (enough of this ridiculous poncey second-person nonsense): and then I went into the theatre. The play I was seeing was a revival of Andrew Bovell's first staged work, a comedy called After Dinner. It is set in a pub bistro in the 1970s and has a cast of five characters, three women and two men.

I hope I will get round to writing about it on the blog where I promised myself I would write about the plays I see, (as I have since broken that promise to myself several times, only time will tell).

The main thing I will say about it now is that it was exceptionally funny. Its funniness, what is more, included the most amazing moment I've ever experienced in a theatre.

The play had reached a point where the two male characters were loosening up and admitting their sexual inadequacies to each other. One, having revealed that he didn't have a very large penis, added, "But people say women don't notice size."

There was a tiny pause, no more than an instant; but, in that instant, a single throaty laugh from what sounded like a very mature and experienced woman, (not sure how one can judge these things merely from a laugh, but I believe sometimes - including on this occasion - you can), echoed out into the packed and silent theatre. It was a laugh that said, 'Yeah, right, pull the other one, whatever makes you happy", et cetera. It was a laugh that said a very great deal, all of it shattering not only the illusions of the character but the illusions, I suspect, of most of the males in the audience.

And suddenly the entire theatre was roaring with laughter. And I don't just mean the audience. The actors were equally overcome by mirth. It was wonderful. I read somewhere that a minute of laughter is as restorative as half an hour's sleep. Well, hundreds of people got the equivalent of half a good night's sleep that evening, thanks to that woman's outburst.

In the interval, I might say, I bought a glass of wine, and looked out at the water, and even the Blues Point Tower didn't look quite that bad:

Stay tuned for more excitement in coming posts - including a visit to the NSW art gallery and the fulfilment of a decades long dream, (plus, if I'm feeling particularly treacherous, the unsung verses of our national anthem).

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Inching Forward

The reason I'm reading a book about Siegmund Warburg is that I'm trying to research someone else who was peripherally involved with him. This research is part of a big project I've been loitering around the foothills of for far too long.

I know so many people who are such epitomes of positive thinking and productive work habits, but I am not one of them. In fact, just thinking about them makes me feel even more daunted and feeble than I was feeling already.

Each morning, I wake up and the first thing that comes into my mind is the enormous task I've insanely decided to set myself - and worse still that I've assured other people who want me to do it that I will complete.

The project doesn't emerge in my mind in an abstract way; it looms quite solidly. In fact, contemplating it, I feel exactly as I did on the two occasions I visited the place we now call Uluru. There it was, this enormous great rock rising out of the desert, absolutely vast, completely strange, utterly unscaleable.

Luckily, unlike my project, no-one - least of all the local indigenous people - wants you to scale Uluru. Being a cowardly sort, when I was there I was only too happy to obey their wishes. Instead of climbing the thing, I walked all the way around the bottom, once in a clockwise direction, on the following occasion in an anti-clockwise direction. And that's exactly what I do with my project, almost every single day.

But in the last week or two I must admit I have occasionally sidled in the direction of the lower foothills of my mountain, although I must admit I've only done it briefly. Still, I've almost managed to knock out a few inadequate paragraphs, which I suppose is some kind of a start.

Or it would be, if it weren't for the fact that fairly quickly I've yet again found myself overcome by a deep sense of inadequacy about the whole (doomed?) enterprise.

My friends and relations insist that the key is to devise plans and to draw up structures, but for some reason doing that only makes things worse. For me, it's more a question of hurling the contents of my knitting drawer - a tangled mass of horribly muddled wool remnants - at the page and then very tentatively drawing a strand out here and another over there. Slowly I begin to rearrange them into a vague semblance of order, but as I tug at one strand, I find another strays from its place. Or else, I reveal another tangle just beneath the apparent new order, a tangle that may not be eradicated without using a pair of scissors. But valuable stuff might be lost in that process. What a horrible, untidy mess.

The whole experience leads me to wonder whether these gentlemen weren't right after all; I blame my parents for forcing an education upon me and causing this resultant nightmare:

Monday, 2 February 2015

Hear Your Own Prayer

I'm reading a book about Siegmund Warburg, written by Niall Ferguson. In it he describes Warburg's mother, Lucie Warburg, and quotes from Warburg's own memories of her:

Warburg, explaining his mother's approach to religion, wrote:

"In her view, the most important thing in religious things was to believe in a great power above the earthly world and to remain in constant contact with this." 

Ferguson picks up the story thus:

"Significantly, the principal function of prayer, in her eyes, was to foster self-criticism. Up until he was thirteen, she prayed with Siegmund every night before he went to sleep, telling him on the eve of his bar mitzvah:

'From now on, my dear boy, you must pray alone in the evening, and you must always ask yourself before you pray what mistakes you have made during the preceding day, or what you could have done better. If a whole number of mistakes or omissions do not at once occur to you, then you must look deeper into yourself, until you have attained the necessary self-knowledge. We all make many mistakes every day, and the most important thing is to be critical of your own mistakes in the most unsparing way. That is the only way to arrive at honest prayer.'"

While some might find it a rather austere way to approach life, it seems to me there is a bracing wisdom to what Lucie Warburg advised. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Only the Best

My father used to tell me about a man he knew who collected Chinese porcelain. My father also collected Chinese porcelain but his means, or lack thereof, meant he was operating in a less exalted sphere.

The man he knew, according to my father, was at such a stratospheric level of both knowledge and ownership that, when he went to live in Peking, (as it was still then called), he decided, upon being offered the opportunity to acquire a particular piece of china, to sell his entire collection and replace it with that piece alone. Apparently, that single object exemplified the totality of everything my father's acquaintance admired in his favoured area of Chinese porcelain.

From then on, if you visited him, you would encounter no decorative item whatsoever, other than that one piece of china. Everything else, every vase and bowl, every dish and bottle, had been sacrificed. They had been distractions from the true perfection of that solitary thing.

I was reminded of this mythic tale the other afternoon when I was at my mother's house at teatime. She brought out a very good fruit cake that was clearly not shop bought. I guessed that her neighbour and friend, who is a famously good baker, had made it and given it to her. When I asked my mother if it was Sue who'd made it, she misheard me and thought I'd asked if she'd made the thing.

'No,' she said, 'Sue made it.' I answered that of course I hadn't been asking if my mother had made it, because I knew perfectly well that she does not make cakes.

'I made one for your christening,' she responded, slightly nettled. 'It was absolutely superb. It was a truly perfect cake.'

'That was quite a long time ago,' I pointed out. She then remembered that it had in fact been for my older brother's christening, which meant that this unique creative outburst had occurred even further back in the mists of time than I had originally thought.

'It was a most extraordinarily good cake though. I was exceptionally proud of it,' mum persisted.

Which set me once again pondering, as I had when my father had told me about the man with his one piece of china. Is one absolutely superlative creation worth more than thousands of perfectly good ones? In strict aesthetic terms, I suppose so, but on a day to day basis, where cake is involved, I'm not so sure.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Foreign Muck

I enjoy trying to learn other people's languages. This is partly because I like the task itself and partly because I have a half-formed idea that, if I learn a language really well, I will step through an unseen doorway and enter a different existence, somewhere where no-one ever has to go to a supermarket and everyone is amusing and the food is delicious and all anyone wants to do is talk about books, these interesting conversations being only occasionally interrupted by a unanimous decision to roar off in an overcrowded car to some exciting little theatre where a strangely intriguing experimental play is being performed. After the performance, dinner - cheap but wonderful - will be eaten in the quiet cobbled square of an ancient town, lots of people will be absolutely hilarious and no-one will be mean about anyone else.

I am aware that this is not actually going to happen, (although there was a short period of my life in Siena where things came fairly close to this fantasy - but I knew it was only temporary). However, in a different way a knowledge of foreign languages has led me into other worlds, unknown to the English speaker. That is to say, it has led me into a world of foreign writers, of fiction that, certainly at the moment, seems to me to be richer, more original and more various than that being published in the English-speaking world.

So, as a kind of public service, (hem hem, really just as an aide memoire for me, but why not at least pretend to be altruistic), I've decided to try to make a record here of any foreign books I read. After all, most of them will probably never be translated into English and thus many English speakers might never know about them. I've decided to call posts of this type, 'Foreign Muck', so this is the first in a series. Since I'm living in Belgium but barely know any Flemish, the foreign language books available to me for the foreseeable future are mainly going to be in French.

The first I've read this year (okay, I started it last year, but I finished it on New Year's Day, so I'm counting it as part of this year's total) is called L'Ordinateur du Paradis by Benoit Duteurtre. I've read nothing at all about it. I've no idea if it's been a critical success. When I picked it up in a bookshop, I was intrigued by the opening page, told in the first person by someone who has just died and now finds himself at a kind of passport check before admission to his own after life. On the strength of that, I bought it and took it home.

As it turns out, the book actually has two strands. The first is the one I encountered in the bookshop - the firsthand account of what happens to a nameless narrator who has just died. The second is the story of Simon, a senior figure ('rapporteur' however that might be translated) at the Commission for Public Liberties in Paris, whose life spirals downwards following the release onto the internet, (and the internet, or its effect on life, is a major element of Simon's part of the book), of a recording of a mildly politically incorrect, off-the-record remark he makes before an interview.

When we first encounter Simon, he is on his way to give a talk at a university in a provincial town. He is feeling entirely self-satisfied as he settles into his first-class seat on the train. Soon though the irritations of modernity begin to spoil things for him. First there is the 'litany of announcements' from a woman who introduces herself as Manon, (difficult to know whether we should draw any link with Manon Lescaut or whether Manon is a perfectly ordinary French name that does not carry a special significance), first in French and then all over again in English, about not smoking or getting off the train while it is moving, about remembering to label your luggage for reasons of security, reminders about where the train is going and what the name of the train company is, rounded out with assurances that passengers can consult the announcer at any time, more a priest than a mere train company employee, Simon thinks to himself. Then follows a similarly long and noisy rigmarole from Kevin, the train's 'steward', who invites the passengers to 'discover' the buffet car.

When Simon does try to do as Kevin asks, he finds that there is a long, slow-moving queue, with Kevin trying to operate credit card machines, microwaves et cetera. Simon remembers with fondness the dining cars of his youth. 'Despite his best efforts to live with the times, he kept seeing the past surging up towards him full of the scent of nostalgia,' we are told.  He blames his fellow passengers, businessmen, 'dreadful capitalists who have caused the current state of affairs by reducing costs in order to increase profits.'

At the end of his journey, walking through the town where he is to give his lecture, Simon looks around. 'He had a vague memory of this regional capital with its italianate edifices, its baroque churches and its lost squares. A decade on, it seemed somehow to have changed. Was it just that the buildings had all been cleaned? Glancing up at them, he saw the same pretty facades, the same carved shutters, the same wrought iron balconies that had always been there, but everything seemed bleached and cleaned right down to the bone. At street level, the provincial shops he recalled being there had vanished, replaced by a stretch of signs you could find in London, Barcelona or Tokyo: Zara, H&M, Esprit, Nike, Gap, Solaris. Brand-named clothes, bags and glasses had taken over the entire central area and Simon no longer had the sense that he was gazing at a provincial town so much as an open-air shopping mall."

The book, it seems to me, is pretending to be a satire, while really it is a work of nostalgia by someone fed up with the modern world and its endless prohibitions. The blandness that globalisation has brought with it is highlighted and the action of Simon's life takes place against a background clamour from every interest group under the sun. Feminists may feel that Simon - or the author - is anti-feminist, but I think that misses the point. Simon or the author is merely anti '-ist' and also anti everything that homogenises existence, that makes it harder for eccentricity and individuality to thrive.

Poor Simon. His son goes to a lycee renamed after John Lennon. His boss will only talk to him when they are surrounded by speakers blasting out heavy metal, as it is only when the music is going that he is certain no-one can recod his comments. One weekend towards the end of the book, as he tries to make his way through Paris in his car, he comes up against a metal barrier bearing the slogan, 'Sunday, car-free day', guarded by two municipal workers wearing T-shirts with the words, 'On Sunday, let's smile' blazoned across them:

"Behind them, the street was dense with people. Pedestrians, people with push chairs, people on bikes, people on scooters, people on skateboards and people in wheelchairs covered the road and the pavements. They were walking and gliding and telephoning as they passed by shops selling a variety of monotonous merchandise ... made in Asia and branded with English names. The bigger shops were occupied by better known brands, inviting passers by to wear Ray-Ban sunglasses and Nike caps, Gap T-shirts, Zara suits and Adidas shoes ... Simon felt ... that he was not walking in a city but in an open air hypermarket. A few global firms owned the central areas of the town now. The pavements had become nothing more than a succession of acronyms - always the same, from one town to the other. Above the big shopping streets, the turrets of an old palace glistened in the sun, but the newly cleaned and renovated building had something artificial about it. At the next crossroads, the Belle Maree fishmonger, with its fishing motif mosaics, now housed a smartphone boutique. The 1950s cinema now sheltered a gym. The square's little grocer's shop, its facade intact, had been transformed into a shop selling essential oils. The old world was all around him, but only as a stage set for an entirely new one. And Simon, in this street of shams realised that he too was an old character, lost in a foreign crowd ... trudging along in an army of robots, an alien member of the throng."


The parallel story of the nameless dead character, (who may in fact be Simon, since he dies toward the end of the book, falling off a step ladder while reaching for his copy of Candide to check the exact wording of Pangloss's "best of all possible worlds" catchphrase), at first seems to provide an equally bleak perspective. After a rather caustic interview at a kind of customs/passport control counter - an interview that is conducted, to his horror, in English, and that includes the ominous information that his occasional denial of climate change has been noted - the man is allowed through into a place that resembles an airport, where the dead await their despatch to the after-life. It turns out that even here there are privileges for those who know how to get them. He sees celebrities he recognises and despises from his former life given the privilege of entry into exclusive "lounges" and then conveyed speedily and without inconvenience toward paradise. He meanwhile must hang about, without any such delights.

Eventually, in fact, he is given the bad news that he will not be going to paradise. He is mortified, but, it turns out all is well. Pangloss was right after all. The book ends with the unnamed character's departure for hell and his description of what he finds there:

"Having reached the threshold, I cast a last look back at the world I was leaving. Then I took a deep breath and opened Door 23. I marched straight ahead toward the gulf of fire, blood and tears that awaited me.

Imagine my surprise when I found behind the door an old station platform like those of my childhood, beside which stood a dark green train in need of a lick of paint. Everything seemed calm and the woman I'd seen go through Door 23, screaming, just before me, was sitting quietly on a bench, awaiting the train's departure.

Was I really in hell? Or was it just that this was where we had to wait for the next shuttle to the shadows - just as the others were waiting, back there, in the embarkation rooms for the next flight to paradise?

To my astonishment, I noticed a ticket inspector of a kind that I thought had disappeared. He didn't wear one of those brightly coloured uniforms that the train companies provide these days. He didn't have an electronic gadget for reading credit cards either. No, dressed in a dark jacket, topped by a cap with a star on it, the only equipment he carried was a simple hole-puncher.

I went up to him.

"Excuse me", I said.

He didn't reply, "good morning", in a reproachful tone, but turned smartly towards me.

"At your service!" he said.

"Is this the train that goes to hell?"

He looked at me with a slightly vexed expression.

 "Yes, that's it. All the planes are kept for the rich of paradise. All these old trains are for the damned of the earth!"

"I like these just as much," I told him."What time do we leave?"

"At twelve minutes past six. There are no special flights here, you know, no charters, no reserved trains. The time tables haven't changed since the beginning of time."

I thought briefly about the train companies' incessant reforms, which created endless new timetables, new prices and new procedures.

"Really - has nothing changed at all?" I asked

He looked at me with a mildly irritated expression, as if I did not want to understand what a frightful destination awaited me.

"No, Sir," he said, 'here, you are in hell and nothing ever changes. Change, movement, novelty, all that is kept for paradise. Here we never talk of transport rationalisation."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't be naive. You can see for yourself that the train is old and tired, standing at an almost deserted platform. In paradise they follow the logic of the market, they optimise profitability and cut any fat from the system. All their flights are jam-packed. Hell, on the other hand, condemns us to live according to archaic laws, without freedom or competition. Hell is to paradise what prehistory is to modernity..."  ...

The train left at 6.12, as expected. It rattled along for hours through an appalling landscape - or at least one that I suppose would have been appalling in the eyes of God, of Lucifer and of the people organising the whole set-up.

You couldn't see any motorways there or carparks. The fields weren't vast ranches, but poor little plots of land separated by paths and wooded slopes. The first town we stopped at didn't have any mall or commercial centre, only old buildings to which were affixed the shop signs of small commercial concerns.

When I felt a bit hungry, halfway through the journey, I didn't find a queue at the self service, where I'd gone to try to get some kind of takeaway meal. No, I entered an antique restaurant car, where I was seated at a table with a table cloth and someone took my order. All this seemed to have escaped the decades of progress. Such was the ancient world to which I had been sent for the punishment of my sins.

I won't inflict on the reader a detailed description of the horrors and tortures I've endured as a result ... In hell ...neither tobacco or alcohol are forbidden, nor any of the other substances that might turn man from the straight and narrow. In the evening, all we damned get together, packing ourselves into smoky cellars that are inaccessible to the disabled, where musicians play until almost dawn. Later on, lacking any respect for dietary propriety, we wait for the sunrise before settling down in front of copious meals. After all, in this world it is possible to intoxicate oneself indefinitely without dying a second time - and that is something that spreads the dreadfully unhealthy - and, indeed, diabolic idea that pleasure is innocuous.

The streets of hell are dangerous. Cyclists and pedestrians wear neither safety helmets nor fluorescent vests. Food is not frozen or wrapped in plastic. Sometimes a man even says to a woman a few words that might seduce her, without the woman immediately deciding to sue.

And the kingdom of Beelzebub also recalls the Tower of Babel ... English here is no help to anyone. Each encounter demands a patient attempt to understand ...

But that is not the worst at all. Far more terrible in this damned world is the fact that daily life seems to have escaped from the fundamental principles of the modern economy ... People live from day to day, doing what they feel like, scarcely aware of the interests of society. They've all given up on productivity gains in favour of dedicating themselves to eternal and joyous sin."

I started this post by saying that I'd always hoped learning foreign languages would introduce me to a perfect world, just around the corner, beyond mastery of the pluperfect subjunctive, (is there such a thing? I'm not certain), and the correct word for the lesser blue-crested grebe. Judging by L'Ordinateur du Paradis, it is not another language that I need to work on, if I want to find a more congenial existence; it is just a question of ensuring that I commit plenty of sin.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Baffled as Usual

As has happened many times before - all right, I admit, it's more or less my perpetual condition - when the world fell prey to another outbreak of moral certainty recently, I found myself feeling peculiar and alone. This time it was the "Je Suis Charlie" wildfire, which left me thinking, "I'm not brave enough to be Charlie - how can I possibly lay claim to that mantle?"

What made the phenomenon even more confusing was that, almost immediately after it, there was yet another of those small explosions of public outrage that I think are what pass for debate these days. This time the issue was The Sun "newspaper"'s decision - if it was a decision - to remove their popular ladies-with-no-tops-on feature.

It turns out that there are people who have dedicated their lives to abolishing this feature. There's some kind of institute that's been established entirely to achieve this aim. And, as well as one of that organisation's representatives, a British member of parliament appeared on the television, asking angrily why women should have to see these dreadful, offensive pictures.

Which was a really stupid question because, of course, no woman does have to see these pictures, if she doesn't want to, just as no Muslim has to look at Charlie Hebdo, unless that's what he wishes to do. In addition, as far as I know, no woman has ever been forced to have her picture taken with her top off, in this context. Certainly, no-one has ever required me to either look at one of the Sun's notorious pictures or to appear in one - or even suggested I might like to, (not that I'm complaining).

The irony did not appear to occur to anyone else, yet surely there is an irony here. On the one hand, every bien pensant in the Western world is plastering themselves in "Je suis Charlie" placards, advocating the right to say and publish anything you like. On the other, many of those same people are determined to ban something, to block publication of images that offend their sensibilities, which are also not everyone's.

This is not a suggestion that I admire The Sun or its topless lady feature. It's just a way of saying that I'm with Voltaire (despite the fact that I found Candide unspeakably boring).

So, cliched though it is, here's what I'd have put on my, admittedly rather long, placard, if I'd gone to a Charlie Hebdo demo:

"Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, Charlie, ni avec ce que vous montrez, Soleil de Londres, mais je me battrai jusqu'à la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire et de le montrer."

I might also have added, "The only mature response to provocation is not to be provoked."

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Secret Knitting Patterns

Under the sofa, where I was searching for a knitting needle - they have a sock-like urge to split up - I found a piece of paper with my writing on it. This is what it said:

The illness is catching
Reach deadlock
Under authority
To be continued

I was baffled. Had I tried to write some kind of poetry at some time in the past? Why didn't I remember? Could there be a phenomenon similar to sleepwalking involving the writing of bad poetry?

I put the piece of paper on the table and went on looking for the errant knitting needle. It wasn't there, but right up the back I spotted another piece of paper, also with my writing on it.

I pulled it out and studied it.

It all came back to me. This second piece of paper was covered in words in German, the counterparts of the English words on the first piece. They were both part of my lifetime attempt to scale the German language. My plan was to write down words I'd had to look up in any passage I read, write down their English meanings on separate sheets, hide the original lists and try to write down the German words from memory. It was part an ambitious long ago New Year's Resolution.

Proof, if further proof were needed, that New Year's resolutions are silly. And that I'm a hopeless housekeeper.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015


I was at the fine arts museum in Brussels the other day, sitting in the room full of Brueghels, looking at one of them. A man came in, stood in front of one of the canvases, lifted his camera, took a photograph of it, swivelled towards the next, took a picture of that one, and continued on, right round the room, until he'd captured an image of every painting there. It took him less than a minute.

I felt sad. He hadn't actually seen any of the pictures. He certainly hadn't looked at them. He'd collected them, like stamps, without enjoying them. But then my daughter showed me this video and I realised I might be telling myself the wrong narrative.

The man had probably been there dozens of times before. He probably knew and loved those paintings. He probably had an invalid relative who was bedridden and unable to ever leave the house, let alone visit a museum. He was probably photographing the pictures in the museum in order to take them home to share with her.

So he wasn't being glib and silly after all; he was being kind and good. He wasn't wasting an opportunity; he was sharing his experience.

I felt much better after I'd thought of this story. Who knows whether it was the man's true story. It was a story I liked. It made me feel happier. And it could be true. It could, possibly, be true.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Small Victories

Catching up on my friend Mark Griffith's account of his life in Hungary, I come to a point where he finds a power socket that actually works on a Magyar train. "Exult in the small victories", he says.

Synchronicity, I think. Not astounding synchronicity, but synchronicity nevertheless, for yesterday I discovered, after exploring one of Brussels's many-roomed, piled-high-with-potential-hidden-treasures antique shops, that I no longer had my hat. As it was a Mongolian cashmere hat and I am extremely sentimental about all things Mongolian, I retraced my steps along the pavement and back into the Brussels curiosity shop I'd just visited.

There was a hat just like mine on the desk where the proprietor was sitting. I grabbed it up with a cry of delight, cut short when the proprietor pointed out, quite kindly, that the hat was actually his. I then went off hunting through the labyrinth and eventually found my hat, lying on the brick floor of the farthest room in the basement.

As I came out, I said to the shop owner that it was almost more pleasurable to have lost the hat and found it again than never to have lost it.

"Ah oui", he replied, with recognition, "c'est une petite joie."

The little joys of life, that's what makes each day a better or worse one. Of course, Kurt Vonnegut knew this years ago and explained it better than I will ever be able to. But was it because he was an English speaker that he couldn't label what he was talking about a "joy"?  And is it an indication of the weakness of the French language, that "joie" is the applicable word - a noun that has to act as a portmanteau to cover a range of emotions, which we in English might wish to grade more carefully with a wider range of more nuanced labels - or rather a sign of how stiff we English speakers are, unable to bring ourselves to talk about anything as fulsome as "joy", unless we are almost outside ourselves with overwhelming feeling?

Some might say that a word that expresses such intensity should be reserved only for the absolute pinnacle of all possible happier moments, but, as always with deferred pleasures, one has to ask oneself: what if those moments never come? Will the denial have been worth it? Might it not have been pleasanter to perceive joy in small things, rather than waiting for the Everest moment? I think so, which, if I weren't so lacking in dark eyes and hair and so forth, might lead me to suspect that my veins flowed with a drop or two of Latin blood. But no, I am merely a Latin trapped in an Anglo-Saxon/Viking (with perhaps a splash of Celt) framework. Thus, exuberance battles ever against restraint.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

By George

The other day I mentioned a vague idea for how to outfox the bossy woman at the Magritte Museum, and, lo and behold, kind George from 20011 provided a detailed plan of action. Here it is, the cunning strategy of a genius:

"There must be a French equivalent to the OED or the Grimm brothers' massive dictionary of German. You could arrive with a retinue, for preference all dressed alike, each bearing a volume or two, and trailing you at a respectful distance. Upon finding a word to look up, you would raise an index card with the letters of the appropriate volume. The bearer would scuttle forward, drop to one knee, and open the volume to the place needed. The drawback that I see is expense--admission for your retinue, and the cost of the dictionary. Perhaps you could manage both with a simple two-volume set. Something like the compact edition of the OED would let you get by with two bearers (or one very strong one), and would offer the chance for some dramatic flourishing of a magnifying glass. You could signal the bearers with one or two fingers thrust aloft."

I'm off in search of index cards - and bearers. See you soon.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Problem With the Surreal

The other day I, plus one of my dearly beloved daughters, went to the Magritte Museum. It was better than I expected, especially the earlier rooms, where there were lots of written works by Magritte on display.

Unfortunately though, I am not a native French speaker and there wasn't much in the way of translated labels. I therefore got out my telephone, which has a French-English dictionary on it, in order to look up some words.

No sooner had I done so than I felt a tap - more of a sharp prod actually; quite painful, in fact - on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw an angry woman's face glowering at me.

'Pas de téléphone,' she barked. I tried to explain that I was merely consulting a dictionary, not taking a photograph or telephoning anyone. She raised her right arm and pointed to the exit, repeating her prohibition. I closed my telephone and put it away. Suddenly, the displays became much less interesting.

A room further on another unsuspecting museum patron's telephone began - oh heavens, have mercy upon her - very quietly to ring. The poor innocent pulled it out and answered it. As if from nowhere, the same museum employee materialised. She raised her arm and pointed. Presumably because she had heard the offending individual, (scumbag, shudderingly uncivilised gutter trash, in her eyes?), uttering words in English, this time she snarled just one word: 'Out!'

It was almost a pantomime, I realise, looking back on it, an elaborate Magrittian piece of surrealism, a parody of strictness - or possibly, (less interesting, but more likely, sadly), it was the real thing.

Whichever it was, my plan now is to indulge in my own slightly Barry Humphries-esque prank* and return to the museum, carrying the most enormous French-English dictionary I can find, preferably one that is so large it can only fit in a wheelbarrow. I will stagger about with it and consult it elaborately, explaining, if asked, that I have to, since I can't consult my tiny, discreet electronic one.

Will I get the same steely stare and raised arm treatment, I wonder, or will the woman laugh and admit the whole thing is a game?

* "The Dadaist pranks and performances Humphries mounted in Melbourne were experiments in anarchy and visual satire which have become part of Australian folklore. One famous exhibit entitled "Pus In Boots" consisted of a pair of Wellington boots filled with custard. He was also legendary for his notorious "sick bag" prank. This involved carrying a tin of condensed soup onto an aircraft, which he would then surreptitiously empty into an air-sickness bag. At an appropriate juncture, he would pretend to vomit loudly and violently into the bag and then, to the horror of the passengers and crew, he would proceed to eat the contents. Such stunts were the early manifestations of a lifelong interest in the bizarre, discomfiting and subversive."

Friday, 2 January 2015

Moaning All

What better way to start the year than with a few moans.

Firstly, why do shopping lists always vanish by the time you reach the shop? Or is it just me?

Secondly, who started this thing of doing dribble scribbles with sauces on plates in restaurants (and what's going on with plate shapes - what was wrong with round, why do we have to have square and oval and everything in between?)?

Thirdly, once started, why did so many other restauranteurs decide that dribble scribbles were a good idea?

And finally, why, when every other area of computering is advancing in leaps and bounds, is the bit called printers stuck firmly in the extremely annoying time warp where everything is still complicated and frustrating and in need of a nursemaid, if you don't want to find a ream of paper squodged up in an unappealing, half-chewed mangle in the horrible machine's vile maw?

It's 2015 and I want answers.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014


Hello, dear blog, I am sorry I have neglected you of late. I have thought of you quite often. I have pretended that lack of time has prevented me from visiting you, but actually I've been beset by a feeling that the whole business of blogging involves a rather despicable element of look-at-me performance.

But, on further reflection, it occurs to me that performance does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. Provided you do not start writing merely in the hope of pleasing, it may even be a force for good. Knowing someone might read what I am writing prods me into trying a bit harder than I might have in the pre-blog days. Back then I would scribble my half-formed thoughts on the back of old envelopes and in the margins of bus tickets. I never actually did anything with these scrawls. They were never destined for any actual reader - not even myself, given that I could rarely read my own writing a week later.

So it's actually laziness that has caused the days of silence here, if I'm absolutely honest. It is so much easier, after all, to have a vague idea and then to do nothing with it. Trying to work out what you really think by writing is dreadfully hard work, (wah, I have to think; it makes my head hurt). But it is worth it, because in the end it is a kind of play and by the finish I've usually ended up having fun and, occasionally, I've even come to understand things better.

Thus I have decided, reluctantly, with some hesitation, (groan, moan, whinge), to arise from my torpor. Not quite yet though, whimper - not till the New Year at least, (please, please, just a tiny bit longer to wallow in lovely sloth). Then, (no, not exactly at the stroke of midnight, but sometime soon after - keep it vague Z, don't get carried away with mad promises), I will return to this blog with renewed energy. I will dig out all those bus tickets, I will squint at them closely and I may be able to work out what I wrote on one in twenty and, among those, I might find one in twenty that will reward further thought. These I will pursue with a dogged vigour, (can vigour be dogged? I shall soon, I suppose find out), filling 2015 with my ravings.

You have been warned.

(It should be noted, in the interests of accuracy and not creating either fear in the community or false expectations, that I have never kept a New Year's resolution in my life).

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Home, the Night

I would like to wish anyone who arrives here an immensely happy Christmas and New Year. To mark the season a poem that makes me homesick, by either Les Murray or Geoffrey Lehmann or both.

And let it not be forgotten - if you manage to eat twelve mince pies between Christmas and New Year, you will get twelve months of good fortune. Honest, (or is that just a myth spread over the centuries by tailors, eager for a January spent being paid to let out clothing?)

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Mulling It Over

Christmas parties, I'd almost forgotten about them. Most particularly the hazards of mulled wine. So delicious, so innocuous - it's in a cup, not a glass, so how can it be alcohol?

Pah. I've been here before, (around about this time last year, as it happens), but it turns out that I'm no better than a goldfish, doomed to swim round and round my bowl, forgetting everything I learnt on the last circuit I made.

Which is perhaps why this little bit from Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times Weekend,, 6 to 7 December, 2014, caught my eye today:

'In Kiev ... I met a taxi driver. (I know it is a terrible cliche for journalists to quote taxidrivers, and I was once advised by a colleague to refer to any cabbie I quoted as a "small-business man". But I'll be honest, he was a taxi driver.) The two of us spent so long together that by the end of the day we were discussing the existence of God. As well as being a skilled linguist, my driver turned out to be an original theologian.

As he put it: "I like to keep fish. My fish think they understand their world. They are battling for control of their fish tank. But what they do not know is that standing outside the tank is Me. I like my fish. But if something more important comes along, I will go away and let them die – and buy some more fish when I come back. It is like that with God. We are battling for control of our world, and he is watching us. But I think he is running several universes and our world is just one of them. We have to hope he does not lose interest in us."

I was about to get him to expand on this intriguing line of thought, when we arrived at the airport.'

Friday, 19 December 2014

Fly or Dye

I don't know why I had never heard of Lord Berners until today. I think it is probably my brother's fault as I bet he's known all about him for years and chosen never to breathe a word to me. If not him, I bet my half-brother has been hording the knowledge silently for quite some time.

In any case, discovering the man's existence has brought me some amusement on a grey windy morning in Brussels. In the spirit of Christmas, I am therefore reproducing here Wikipedia's account of his life, (despite its including the tedious cliché "exploring his sexuality" [it's the verb "exploring" that seems to me so silly]), so that someone else might be able to get the odd laugh from it as well:

Baron Berners

Lord Berners (18 September 1883 to 19 April 1950), also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt was a British composer of classical music, painter and aesthete. He is usually referred to as Lord Berners. He was born at Apley Hall, Shropshire, in 1883
His father, a naval officer, was rarely home. He was raised by a grandmother who was extremely religious and self-righteous, and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. His mother ignored his musical interests and instead focused on developing his masculinity, a trait Berners found to be inherently unnatural.
The eccentricities Berners displayed started early in life. Once, upon hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, the young Gerald promptly decided that by throwing his mother's dog out the window, he could teach it to fly. The dog was unharmed, though the act earned Berners a beating.
After devising several inappropriate booby traps, Berners was sent off to a boarding school in Cheam at the age of nine. It was here that he would first explore his homosexuality; for a short time, he was romantically involved with an older student. The relationship was abruptly ended after Berners vomited on the other boy.
After he left prep school, Gerald continued his education at Eton College. Later, in his autobiographies, Berners would reflect on his experiences at Eton, claiming that he had learned nothing while there, and that the school was more concerned with shaping the young men's characters than supplying them with an education.
As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer. He appears in many books and biographies of the period, notably portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.[2] He was a friend of the Mitford family and close to Diana Guinness.
Berners was notorious for his eccentricity,[3] dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point entertaining Penelope Betjeman's horse to tea. There were paper flowers in the garden and the interior of the house was adorned with joke books and joke notices, such as "Mangling Done Here". As visitor Patrick Leigh Fermor recalled:
"No dogs admitted" at the top of the stairs and "Prepare to meet thy God" painted inside a wardrobe. When people complimented him on his delicious peaches he would say "Yes, they are ham-fed". And he used to put Woolworth pearl necklaces round his dogs' necks [Berners had a dalmatian, Heber Percy the retriever, Pansy Lamb] and when a guest, rather perturbed, ran up saying "Fido has lost his necklace", G said, "Oh dear, I'll have to get another out of the safe."[3]
His Rolls-Royce automobile contained a small clavichord keyboard which could be stored beneath the front seat. Near his house he had a 100-foot viewing tower constructed, Faringdon Folly, a notice at the entrance reading: "Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk".[4] Berners also drove around his estate wearing a pig's-head mask to frighten the locals.[5][6]

He died in 1950 at Faringdon House, bequeathing his estate to his companion Robert ('Mad Boy') Heber Percy, who lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.
His epitaph on his gravestone reads:
"Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
But, Praise the Lord!
He seldom was bored".


Berners' musical works included Trois morceauxFantasie espagnole (1919), Fugue in C minor (1924), and several ballets, including The Triumph of Neptune (1926) (based on a story by Sacheverell Sitwell) and Luna Park (1930). In his period at the British embassy in Rome during World War I he composed avant-garde piano music and several song cycles and later ballets and film scores, notably the 1947 feature Nicholas Nickleby.
His friends included the composers Constant Lambert and William Walton and he worked with Frederick Ashton. Walton dedicated Belshazzar's Feast to Berners, and Lambert arranged a Caprice péruvien for orchestra, from Lord Berners' opera Le carrosse du St Sacrement.
Berners himself once said that he would have been a better composer if he had accepted fewer lunch invitations. But English composer Gavin Bryers, quoted in Peter Dickinson’s biography of Berners, disagrees saying: "If he had spent more time on his music he could have become a duller composer".[7] Dinah Birch, reviewing The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, a biography of Berners written by his granddaughter, Sofka Zinovieff, concurs saying: "Had he committed himself to composition as his life's work, perhaps his legacy would have been more substantial. But his music might have been less innovative, for its amateur quality - 'amateur in the best sense', as Stravinsky insisted - is inseparable from its distinctive flair".[8]


Berners wrote four autobiographical works and some novels, mostly of a humorous nature. All were published and some went into translations. His autobiographies First Childhood(1934), A Distant Prospect(1945), Resenlieu and Dresden are both witty and affectionate.
Berners obtained some notoriety for his roman à clef The Girls of Radcliff Hall (punning on the name of the famous lesbian writer), initially published privately under the pseudonym "Adela Quebec",[3][9][10] in which he depicts himself and his circle of friends, such as Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, as members of a girls school. This frivolous satire, which was privately published and distributed, had a modish success in the 1930s. The original edition is rare; rumour has it that Beaton was responsible for gathering most of the already scarce copies of the book and destroying them.[11] However, the book was reprinted in 2000.
His other novels, including Romance of a NoseCount Omega and The Camel are a mixture of whimsy and gentle satire.



  • 1936 – The Camel
  • 1937 – The Girls of Radcliff Hall
  • 1941 – Far From the Madding War
  • 1941 – Count Omega
  • 1941 – Percy Wallingford and Mr. Pidger
  • 1941 – The Romance of a Nose
[See Collected Tales and Fantasies, New York, 1999]


  • 1934 – First Childhood
  • 1945 – A Distant Prospect
The Chateau de Resenlieu (2000); Dresden (2008)

See alsoEdit


  1. Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson at the National Portrait Gallery
  2. Birch, Dinah (11 October 2014). "Composer, novelist, poet, painter and hedonistic host – the real Lord Merlin and his glamorous, desperate world". The Guardian (London).
  3. Mark Amory, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric, London, 1998 ISBN 978-0-7126-6578-0
  4. Wilkes, Roger. "Cultured country house". Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  5. Thompson, Damian (20 September 2008). "Review: Lord Berners by Peter Dickinson"Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 14 October 2014.
  6. Birch, Dinah (11 October 2014). "Composer, novelist, poet, painter and hedonistic host – the real Lord Merlin and his glamorous, desperate world". The Guardian (London).
  7. Thompson, Damian (20 September 2008). "Review: Lord Berners by Peter Dickinson"Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 14 October 2014.
  8. Birch, Dinah (11 October 2014). "Composer, novelist, poet, painter and hedonistic host – the real Lord Merlin and his glamorous, desperate world". The Guardian (London).
  9. Bryony Jones, The music of Lord Berners (1883–1950): the versatile peer, Ashgate Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7546-0852-2, pp.9,101,143
  10. Beverly Lyon Clark, Regendering the school story: sassy sissies and tattling tomboys, Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0-415-92891-5, p.143
  11. Florence Tamagne, History of Homosexuality in Europe, 1919–1939, Algora Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-87586-356-6, p.124
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Raymond Robert Tyrwhitt-Wilson
Baron Berners
Succeeded by
Vera Ruby Williams