Thursday, 24 September 2020

On the Other Hand

 Having been appalled by the Glenda Slagg quality of a contemporary columnist at the Times yesterday, today I am in awe of Allister Heath at the Telegraph whose column describing the flaws in UK coronavirus policy - (much of which is relevant to policy being followed in other countries as well today) - is so good I'm including it below. For those who haven't time, I've put my two favourite bits at the start:


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The Brightest and the Best

 I have been for ages under the impression that if I were young now and tried to get any of the fairly ordinary employment I managed to obtain in my own youth I wouldn't stand a chance. Only the brightest and the best can make it now - and they are far more numerous than they were in my day; it was only their scarcity that allowed me to stand a chance very occasionally back then. Today only the truly brilliant, the uber witty, the dazzlingly sparkling can make it. The mediocre need not bother even to apply.

But then I open the Times newspaper and come upon a columnist called Hilary Rose, spouting breathtakingly uninteresting piffle and I wonder:

Getting a column was always fiercely competitive and the best columnists were wonderfully well paid. You turned to their page with excitement, knowing you would be enlightened and entertained. Could it be that, while things have become very competitive, all the rules of the competition have changed?

Monday, 21 September 2020

Selfies in Words

For a long time, I've been vaguely aware of the proposition that a human being who is sad has to make their way through seven stages of grief. I don't know what those stages are but, as the realisation dawns that a decision like where I spend Christmas and who with is not going to be made by me but by a collection of very poor quality politicians and their equally second rate bureaucrats, (fuelled by a good dose of blind panic), I am definitely feeling more miserable than I've felt for a long time. I don't know where exactly I am on the road of seven but what worries me is that, while I have felt the most terrible sadness whenever anyone I have loved has died, that sadness has always been felt against a backdrop of basic optimism, whereas now cheerful optimism is draining away, along with hope.

To fight against a mood that might be thinking about turning into despair, I grasp at anything I see that seems faintly amusing. One of those things is the silly ways some people describe themselves on their Twitter profiles. Some people choose to present themselves rather seriously, including me, but others go for a degree of absurdity, and it is these generous souls that I like best. In case anyone else needs cheering up, I will from now on collect the ones among these that I find particularly funny and from time to time I will put them here, for those who want a moment's amusement.

I will start with a single but rather brilliant account tag. I can't even remember who it belongs to, but it is short and simple and it makes me laugh: 

"I'm slimmer than I look". 

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Don't Touch It, Don't Look At It

There is a woman who is married to a man who did something in David Cameron's government. To amuse herself, she kept a diary of all the social gatherings she and the husband enjoyed with the various politicians and hangers on of the time. Or possibly she did it to enrich herself, since she has now published the diaries.

Whatever her original motives, excerpts from the diaries are popping up in British newspapers and probably will soon reach papers in Australia, America and other parts of the world.

Having made the mistake of reading a few paragraphs of the excerpts, I feel it is my duty to tell anyone as easily nauseated as I am to try to avoid doing the same. Personally, I think any paper containing such excerpts ought to have been sold with a free sick bag as an insert.

If you find though that, for whatever reason, you cannot entirely avoid these diaries, please, I beg you, take heed of this piece of advice: if, while reading a bit of the book or even a review of it, you catch sight a few lines ahead of the word "pheromones", stop at once, go no further. There are things once read that can't be forgotten, no matter how much you wish they could be, and that passage is one of them. Using a useful but very little known rating system, the Jim Dixon Nause Index, that passage scores 999,000, at the very least.

To put my advice in a single sentence, I must turn to one of the lodestones of English literature, Stanley and Rhoda by Patricia Wells:

The title of perhaps the best Stanley and Rhoda tale, particularly its second half, tells you what I want to tell you better than I ever could:

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Clogging On

 After reading this letter in the Telegraph, I now realise that clogs (see last post) do have a significance - they are part of an ethical warrior's equipment:

Friday, 18 September 2020

More Moaning

On a minor level, what has annoyed me this week has been something that has annoyed me often in the past - namely, the New Yorker house style when dealing with profiles of people. Their edict seems to be that they must always inform the reader about people's white belts and bootcut blue jeans and tailored, pale salmon, silk shirts and softly waving, slightly sunbleached hair. 

While I can appreciate that whoever first thought of it imagined that this would be a good way of bringing a subject to life, it has now become a really annoying verbal tic. 

This week as usual I noticed the device in an article I was reading and as usual I came to a screaming halt. I can't remember who the article was about but when his wife, (or partner?) entered stage left she was described as "a graceful blonde woman in clogs".

While the woman's graceful blondness might give me a clue to the subject of the profile's discernment and alert me to the possibility that he likes women who possess those traits (it might even be intended to imply that he is a typical bloody man, the kind who would never equip himself with any other female appendage than a blond and graceful one), why tell me about the clogs? No man has any say over his wife's footwear, unless he's a brute and beats her into wearing black patent leather high heels with ostrich feather pompoms. 

So what are the clogs there for? Are we being told that he isn't a brute, that, because he doesn't insist she wears other more glamorous shoes but is tolerant of her foibles, he must be a really good guy? Or are we being told that his taste isn't that great because, graceful and blond as she is, she wears clogs? Or that he chose her for the clogs, that he is even more limited in his choice of females than most men, insisting not only on grace and blondness, but also a fondness for the wearing of clogs?  It is so hard to deduce this, since we can't be sure whether he knew she wore clogs when he first got to know her, or whether she concealed her clog wearing from him until it was too late. Or perhaps we are being encouraged to see his tolerance of a clog wearer as a sign of weakness - surely a more discerning man would have divorced her as soon as he heard the things clonking along the corridor on her feet?

Or perhaps is it just another sign of the New Yorker being tedious.

I suppose I should just stop reading the magazine. It is certainly not of my politics, (and the very fact that I know what its politics are is a sign of how far it has fallen). All the same sometimes still it has a wonderful piece of fiction or a really fascinating account of something I didn't even know existed, and so I go on.

And anyway I have much bigger fish to fry in the moaning stakes, namely my rising frustration at the realisation that individual responsibility is being thrown out of the window because of coronavirus.

I should, by the way, make it clear that I am not part of the lobby that says the virus is not dangerous. I understand that it is extremely catching and that, if one is over 60 or a bit tubby or suffering from the famous 'underlying conditions',  there is a reasonable chance that, if caught, in a minority of cases it can result in a very nasty illness and also in death. I don't argue with the idea that it is a very unpleasant thing.

What I do argue with is government passing rules dictating my behaviour and making blanket rules to cover a range of citizens who are facing very different risks. The argument is that, if they don't do this, the young will all get together and catch it off each other, and then infect the old, and everyone will die like flies. As a result of potential fecklessness, we must all be looked after by authority. 

No. I can manage. I will assess each situation and decide whether I am prepared to take the risk it involves. And everyone else I know can do that too - and they want to. In most cases, in fact, we are probably more cautious than is strictly necessary - but by our own choice. 

We are adults, we can make up our own minds. Let us do that. Inform us, and then inform us some more, and then maybe a bit more again - but don't decide for us. 

A sense of individual responsibility is key to a properly functioning nation. Most of us are already making informed decisions about all sorts of things. No one suggests that we cannot balance the risks and make our own decisions about taking to the roads in our cars, in the full knowledge that there is always the chance that someone careless may hit us head on. Similarly, it is up to us to decide whether to drink ourselves silly, regardless of the consequences for our livers. I raise these two particular activities because the number of people who die from either liver disease or traffic accidents is almost exactly the same as the number of people who die from coronavirus, yet no one has closed down the economy and restricted our freedoms to prevent drinking or driving. 

Sadly, Australia and England, my two home countries, have gone bonkers very fast. The rules that have been brought in in each country are extraordinarily restrictive and destructive in lots of different ways - and it is far from clear that they are actually beneficial. Worst of all, what has suddenly become apparent is that there is a large section of the population in each country - possibly the majority? - who like regulations and who enjoy bossing each other about and dobbing each other in. When will it all end, I wonder, and, if it ever does, will we ever get back to true freedom?

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The Care of the Ancients

No, this is not a sermon on old people's homes and virus management, but a slight mangling of language to suggest that the people who came before us took greater care than we do in many areas of life, not least when planning what is now called "the built environment" but was then called buildings - or possibly architecture, if you wanted to be grand.

All sorts of good things flowed from their extra care in their choice of building styles - a lifting of spirits, a feeling that you, a little person on the street, and your feelings, were being taken into account and that there was a desire to please you, to brighten your life and that of your community.

Cost then was not the only consideration when planning a new school or office or hospital, whereas now my impression is that the creativity of an architect must exercise itself entirely within the parameters of cost - any ingenuity must be the result of brilliance plus cost considerations and, if brilliance is expensive, cost considerations always win out.

There is also the problem that we have not thought it important to keep the tradition of skilled craftsmanship alive. For some reason, the idea crept in at some stage that a degree in media studies gave you the right to regard yourself as wiser than a lifetime of quiet taking of pains to create beautiful objects. I have always been baffled by this.

What prompted this line of thought was discovering a lovely school building on the corner of Lehel street and Dózsa György street in the thirteenth district of Budapest. Its architest was Ernö Balázs (Note No. 1) and the designer of the enchanting mosaic friezes that decorate it was Károly Kernstoch. The school started to be built in 1909 but, due to strikes, it was not opened until February 1911. It became a hospital in the first world war and got fairly battered in subsequent conflicts, but it is now fulfilling its original purpose, with a particular emphasis on singing, music and physical training. I can't believe that it doesn't have some positive effect on children to be provided with a building that has been decorated with such care:

Note No. 1 - he was also the architect of this and this and this.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Battered Penguins - The Bachelors by Muriel Spark

I have several secondhand Muriel Spark books, and as I make my way through them I feel persistently confused. I cannot dismiss her, but I don't always enjoy her. In the case of The Bachelors my problems began when I read what a couple of earlier owners wrote on the frontispiece of my copy:

T.L. Jupp's judgment having read the book in April, 1963 was as follows:

'Pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-social, pseudo-humourous. Readable and yet failing any tests for profound literature.'

Someone identifying themselves only as M. P-R added a one-word verdict: 


These comments prejudiced me as I approached the opening page and echoed in my mind as I progressed through the novel. 

The truth is that the book isn't unreadable; all the same, it doesn't make you grab it off the bedside table, excited at the prospect of ploughing on. I think at least for those who are unreceptive or a bit resistant, as I was, it is a book that needs a second reading (Note No. 1), It is only in looking back over it that I have begun dimly to discern something strange and haunting in the book. I can't quite make it out, but it is definitely intriguing - although possibly not so intriguing that I will leap back to reading it again soon, or probably ever, to be quite honest. 

The central difficulty that I have is that Spark doesn't give the impression that she cares about making her readers happy or comfortable, but she does give the impression that she quite likes showing off. She starts from a position of contempt for humanity. If she includes herself in her contempt, she to some extent gives herself a pass for being intelligent enough to recognise everybody else's despicable self-delusion. She may be right to consider herself god-like in her lack of illusion about humanity, but she lacks the Christian god's supposed affection for our species. The fact that she despises everyone is understandable but not terrifically enjoyable. 

The book opens with a chance meeting between two acquaintances. One is Ronald Bridges, a 37-year-old curator who at 23 started to have epileptic fits and who, as a result, was unable to become a priest and feels that he is possessed by a demon and yet at times feels he has become 'a truth-machine, under which his friends took on the aspect of demon-hypocrites'. At one point later in the text, we see him overcome by such 'melancholy and boredom' that he must recite 'to himself as an exercise against it, a passage from the Epistle to the Philippians, which was at present meaningless to his numb mind, in the sense that a coat of paint is meaningless to a window-frame, and yet both colours and preserves it' After coming home from a party, he uses this passage, when, in retrospect the 'party stormed upon him like a play in which the actors had begun to jump off the stage, so that he was no longer simply the witness of a comfortable satire, but was suddenly surrounded by a company of ridiulous demons' Philippians is to him 'a mere charm to ward off the disgust, despair, and brain-burning.'  

The person Ronald runs into is Martin, a barrister of 35 who has a rather pallid relationship with someone called Isabel - Spark is brilliant at describing his ambivalence about her, (Note No. 2). Martin lives with his mother and an old nurse called Carrie who is now his mother's housekeeper. Spark's shrewdness is brilliantly in evidence in her description of Martin's dealings with these two women: 

'He tried to entertain them and to be a good son', she explains, 'They bored him, but when they went away from home he missed the boredom and the feud between them which sometimes broke into it' 

Martin's mother tells him that Carrie, his former nurse, should go into a home, but he insists she remain with them. 

'"You're after that money of hers...", his mother said. He hated her fiercely for her continual robbing him of any better motive. "I'm fond of Carrie," he said. But now his mother had left him wondering if he really meant it.' 

Spark has caught the subtle way in which a parent can undermine an adult child. 

Ronald and Martin talk about the price of frozen peas and shopping in general, until they spot 'a small narrow-built man...thin, with a very pointed, anxious face and nose, and a grey-white lined skin. He would be about fifty-five. He wore a dark blue suit.' This is Patrick Seton, who Martin will soon be prosecuting in the magistrates' court for fraud.

Patrick Seton is a wonderfully creepy character. He is devastatingly amoral - Spark explains, writing about someone's correct suspicion that Patrick intends to kill someone, 'If you could call it an intention, when a man could wander into a crime as if blown like a winged leaf.'

The plot involves séances and a Catholic priest called Father Socket, who says, among other things, 'There is nothing like having a card index in the house. You can always produce a card index. It puts them off their stroke', a gay man called Mike, to whom 'Father Socket cited the classics and André Gide, and although Mike did not actually read them he understood, for the first time in his life that the world contained scriptures to support his homosexuality which, till now had been shifty and creedless.'

As in Graham Greene's The Human Factor the only truly decent figure (Note No. 3) in The Bachelors is a person without guile or subtlety. Her name is Elsie Forrest, a young woman who begins as a devotee of Father Socket - 'To Elsie it was a labour of love typing out his papers on the subjects of the Cabbala, Theosophy, Witchcraft, Spiritualism, and Bacon wrote Shakespeare, besides many other topics', (such a wonderful charlatan's list) - but is shocked out of her hero worship. She has a rather Beckettian tone when she observes of Seton, 'I always said he wasn't much of a man to look at. Thin about the thighs. You can't disguise it', but my favourite Elsie line is the profound yet banal: 'I think it's better to be born. At least you know where you are.'

The book is haunted by faith, whether the faith of the women Patrick seduces, (which is sometimes more fear than anything, just as religious faith can be), the faith of those who attend séances, and the faith of Ronald, who is Catholic. When Spark describes how Ronald is used to hearing over the years from hostesses at the social events he attends the statement 'I'm anti-Catholic' and has 'devised various ways of coping with it, according to his mood and to his idea of the Hostess's intentions', I suspect she is really relating a piece of her own experience. In any case, the passage provides some amusing ways to counter those who do challenge one's faith: 

'If the intelligence seemed to be high and Ronald was in a suitable mood, he replied, "I'm anti-Protestant" - which he was not, but it sometimes served to shock them into a sense of their indiscretion. On one occasion where the woman was a real bitch, he had walked out. Sometimes he said, "Oh, are you? How peculiar." Sometimes he allowed that the woman was merely trying to start up a religious argument and he would then attempt to explain where he stood with his religion. Or again he might say, "Then you've received Catholic instruction?" and, on hearing that this was not so, would comment, "Then how can you be anti- something that you don't know about?" which annoyed them; so that Ronald felt uncharitable.' 

Later, Ronald tells another character, 'As a Catholic I loathe all other Catholics', which made me laugh out loud. In that scene he goes on to say: 'Don't ask me .. how I feel about things as a Catholic. To me, being Catholic is part of my human existence. I don't feel one way as a human being and another as a Catholic.' I think many Catholics would understand that well. 

Although I have not fully understand how, it is fairly clear that Ronald is the lynchpin of the book. It is he who accompanies us through the final paragraphs in which, as elsewhere, if he is not exactly a godlike figure, he is at least the closest person in the book to the supernatural elements of the deity:

'Ronald went home to bed. He slept heavily and woke at midnight, and went out to walk off his demons.

Martin Bowles, Patrick Seton, Socket.

And the others as well, rousing him up: fruitless souls, crumbling tinder, like his own self which did not bear thinking of. But it is all demonology, he thought, and he brought them all to witness, in his old style, one by one before the courts of his mind...He sent these figures away like demons of the air until he could think of them again with indifference or amusement or wonder ... It is all demonology and to do with the creatures of the air, and there are others besides ourselves, he thought, who lie in their beds like happy countries that have no history. Others ferment in prison; some rot, maimed; some lean over the banisters of presbyteries to see if anyone is going to answer the telephone.

He walked round the houses, calculating, to test his memory, the numbers of the bachelors - thirty-eight thousand five hundred streets, and seventeen point one bachelors to a street - lying awake, twisting and murmuring, or agitated with their bedfellows, or breathing in deep repose between their sheets, all over London, the metropolitan city.' 

In this overview, with its remote gaze giving a perspective on humanity as a whole rather than as individuals, there is something strange, although I am ashamed to say I cannot quite understand what exactly. But perhaps it is mystery itself that we are being directed to notice, and it is mystery after all that lies at the heart of existence. 


Note No. 1: When forced to write essays on things that I'd read, I used to wonder how the activity was justifiable; I couldn't see how it benefited anyone. Finally, I realised that the main purpose of writing about a work of literature is to force oneself to examine what one has read in a thoughtful way.  Nostromo by Joseph Conrad was the book that made me understand this. I read it when I was sixteen and thought it was the most boring thing on earth, until I was asked to answer a question on it and had to think about it carefully and was unable to escape the recognition that it was brilliant, complex and wise.

Note No. 2 'He had poured their drinks when she returned with new make-up on her face. He had often felt the only safe course would be to marry her, and he felt this now, with fear, because she did not always attract him, and he was not sure she would accept him. At the times when she stood out for her rights, not crudely, but with all the implicit assumptions, he thought her face too fat and found her thick neck and shoulders repulsive.'

Note No. 3: Colonel Daintry

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Let's Talk About Happy Things

Having moaned myself out for this week, ((or at least for the next day or two), I've reverted to cheerfulness. Something that has made me cheerful is the long walk we did yesterday. We saw many lovely buildings, but for today I will limit myself to the first one we came across.

It stands on Thököly ut in Budapest's XIVth district. Built in 1905, it is a classic example of the style called Hungarian Secession:

While it was a pity that just as I saw it, the lady in charge of such things decided to wheel out the rubbish bins and place them dead centre in front of what had been an uncluttered view, her presence did mean the front door was open and we could go inside. Here is what we found:

Isn't it splendid? Doesn't it make your day? The architect was Istvan Nagy and he built it for the chief inspector of an insurance company. Would you like to see some details of the outside, including the adorable cellar doors with heart shaped perforations? Well, here you are: