Tuesday, 23 September 2014

On the Way

Somewhere in this blog, (but finding anything in here is a bit like trying to find something in my desk drawer - "Che casino", as Italians would - or at least when I lived there in the '70s they would - say), there is a post about how being on a long plane journey has one great advantage: it provides the opportunity to read, uninterrupted, and therefore to catch up with all sorts of interesting things.

Unfortunately, since Singapore Airlines began offering as 'inflight entertainment' incredible numbers of films and telly shows and operas, (although the Salzburg Festival Magic Flute they were showing was, despite beautiful singing and, of course, among the most indescribably lovely music ever written, so incredibly drearily staged that at least it wasn't a temptation), the opportunity to read undistracted has been somewhat undermined. I'm ashamed to say that, after a few hours I put down my book and fell, mysteriously, under the spell of House of Cards.

(In my defence, I should add that, after a few hours more, I also fell back out from under that spell. The trouble was the programme makers went for melodrama, which was fine - but then they went a longish way too far. As my suspension of disbelief evaporated, I was left with nothing, since none of the characters had depth enough to hold my interest. The wife was deeply mysterious to the point of being baffling and her husband, plus the girl called Zoe, were one-dimensional and thus unengagingly meaningless, because not really believable.)

Anyway, before I disappeared down that televisual dead end, I did manage to get through an article on Muriel Spark, one of my favourite writers. One aspect of the article that I found particularly interesting was the section on her conversion to Catholicism. She ascribed her conversion to Cardinal Newman - his reasoning, she claimed:

"is so pure that it is revolutionary in form."

Becoming a Catholic, according to Spark, was:

"an important step ... because from that time I began to see life as a whole, rather than as a series of disconnected happenings."

In the article, she was also quoted on the subject of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, (which the writer of the article claimed was her favourite novel). Spark said it exhibited:

"something of a tremendous value to the Christian imagination, a sacramental view of life which is nothing more than a balanced regard for matter and spirit."

I shall try to bear this in mind as I continue listening to the audio of the work - I have to confess I do often find myself growing very impatient with the thing, plus its author, but I should clearly see things in a different light.

I also made my way through the 21 June 2012 issue of the London Review of Books. I am growing more and more convinced that, like other great magazines, (the New Yorker comes to mind, although I'm not sure it's all that great any more, sadly), the London Review of Books is better after being cellared, (and, for that matter, is the London Review great? It certainly gets a lot wrong politically, I reckon - but I digress, as usual).

In the 21 June 2012 LRB,  there was a very good review by Jenny Diski of Downton Abbey, the new Upstairs Downstairs and a couple of novels dealing with the same 'great houses, great families' kinds of story lines. My favourite bit was when she described Alistair Cooke in his incarnation as host of Masterpiece Theatre at PBS:

"Alistair Cooke can be seen in an old TV clip, thanks to the bottomless well that is YouTube, carefully cross-legged, wearing a blazer, a discreetly silver-striped black tie on a pearl grey shirt, and what can only be called slacks. He sits on a high-backed black leather and polished mahogany library chair. Behind him to his right, hung on flocked wallpaper, is an ornately framed landscape painting winking 'old master', on the other side an overarching potted palm, between them a window hung with heavy, draped velvet curtains, and beneath his elegantly shod feet ... a fine oriental carpet ... 'Good evening', he says, in his immaculately trimmed mid-Atlantic accent, so reassuring that you wonder if perhaps he is going to sound the nuclear alert."

There was also one of those reviews that introduces you to a character or subject that are in equal part fascinating and repellent, so that the review performs a great service, in allowing you glimpses of something intriguing, without forcing you to plunge right into the full vat of the thing.

The vat - or subject - in question is a poet I'd never heard of called Peter Redgrove, who I think was probably a genius but hopelessly warped in what I suspect may be a particularly English way. I'm glad to have been informed of his existence but also extremely pleased that I haven't ever had to go beyond that superficial knowledge level.

Due, perhaps, to a rather strait-laced father and an insufficiently strait-laced mother, Peter Redgrove ended up associating 'mud with eroticism' and developing something called 'the Game', which involved rolling in or bathing in mud and various other substances, (and that, the writer hints, was the least of it). A poem Redgrove wrote celebrating his marriage and family is apparently "filled with wildly energetic dark spatterings, slime-slides, sprays and haemorrhages". In a prose poem called Mr Waterman, a speaker tells a doctor of his fears that his garden pond is going to commit adultery with his wife:

"I invited it in as a lodger, bedding it up in the old bathroom. At first I thought I would have to run canvas troughs up the stairs so it could get to its room without soaking the carpet, and I removed the flap from the letter-box so it would be free to come and go, but it soon learned to keep its form quite well, and get about in macintosh and goloshes [sic], opening doors with gloved fingers."

Passing strange stuff, which I'm glad I know exists but I wouldn't want too much more of.

Following that, came an article reviewing a book about opium, Opium: Reality's Dark Dream. This interested me, because pain relief and its regulation interests me. Perhaps because a few people have abused various drugs - they always have and they always will - there is a growing wowser element in the medical profession. Many vocal doctors seem to be bent on deciding for their patients how much pain relief they may have, convinced that none of us are capable of determining that for ourselves.

Someone in my family had several vertebrae destroyed, leading to appalling pain and the supply of oxycontin and endone, together with the instructions that she would probably have to take them forever. At a certain point, my relative decided for herself that she did not want to continue to be zombified with these drugs and weaned herself off them entirely independently. She knew when she needed their help and when she didn't and was quite capable of making her own mind up about what she took and for how long. I would hate to think that some bossy doctor would ever have presumed to take that autonomy of choice away from her - either denying her the medicine when she needed it or forcing her to take it when she'd realised she'd had enough.

Anyway, one thing that I discovered from the review of the opium book was that things are not progressing in this regard so much as regressing - the writer of the book, Thomas Dormandy, the reviewer tells us:

"writes powerfully, as he has elsewhere, of Cicely Saunders's struggle to establish palliative care for the dying, from whom opiates were commonly withheld on the grounds that they are addictive"

The review also ends with a wonderfully resonant quote from Walter Benjamin. The reviewer claims that Dormandy's book "suggests that in the modern era we have also become addicted to what Walter Benjamin called 'that most terrible drug - ourselves - which we take in solitude'."

If all that is a bit too depressing, let me finish with a quote from an article on Martin Amis by Adam Mars-Jones. It seemed to me that Mars-Jones levered this into his piece somewhat, but then again who wouldn't? It's the only full transcript I've ever seen of probably the greatest of all the Monty Python sketches:

"- There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in the middle of the road.
- Cardboard box?
- Aye.
- You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at six o'clock, clean the newspaper, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day week in week out for sixpence a week. And when we got home, our dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
- Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, work twenty hours a day at mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
- Well of course we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox in the middle of the night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had to eat half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
- Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing, 'Hallelujah'."

Oh, and, given I can't find anything in here, I'm not sure if I've already put this in another post, but it is one of my favourite pictures, and it swam to the surface of my papers as I was packing before leaving home:

It's Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, taken in 1923.


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