Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mysteries of the World - Architecture

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

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

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








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




Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Department of Misguided Business Names

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

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Three Cheers for William Webb Ellis

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 13 March 2014

True Tantalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


-------------------------------------

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

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

Friday, 7 March 2014

Not So Fluffy

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

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





Wednesday, 5 March 2014

I Blame the Smiling Spy


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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Of that sort of deception?’ Bower asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes.’

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

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

‘You didn’t tell your wife either.’

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

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

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

‘And in your own interest as well.’

‘No - in the interest of the cause.’

‘That’s playing with words.’

‘Why?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That I cannot tell you.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because it is so much.’

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

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

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

‘Yes, that’s right.’

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

‘Every agent, yes.’

‘Every agent who was operating on behalf of MI6?

‘Yes.’

‘How many was that?’

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

‘Agents?’

‘Yes.’

‘You betrayed 500 to 600 agents?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘By whom?’

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

‘The KGB?’

‘Yes.’

‘And did you believe them?’

‘Yes.’

‘And when did you ask them that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where was it leading?’

‘It wasn’t leading anywhere really.’

‘Why not?’

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

‘And what was your reaction during that day?’

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

‘Especially if it’s true.’

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

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

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

‘You were confessing?’

‘And that amounted to a confession.’

‘What was the look on their faces?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Uncivilised?’

‘Well, where would I go to?’

‘You could have hidden out somewhere until you –‘

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

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

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

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

‘What were you doing?’

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

‘And what was their reaction?’

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

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

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

‘Any regrets about your life?’

‘No, none whatsoever.’

‘Most people have regrets though.’

‘Well, I haven’t.’

‘Why are you so self-righteous?’

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

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

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

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Power of the Word

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

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

'Fraid so, mate, yeah,' Kureishi replies 

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

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

'So it's all relative?' 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Goulash and Gappiness

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

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

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

That is good manners.

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