Saturday, 24 December 2016

Family and Friends

It is Christmas and family and friends are filling the house. Sitting at a screen and meandering into the ether is out of the question for a time.

But speaking of family, here is a picture I saw the other day in a Budapest junkshop:

The groom looks quite happy but no-one else does and the woman in front of him - possibly his mother? - seems to have got herself up for a major state funeral, while the couple at the far left appear to think they are facing a firing squad, rather than a camera.

If your family gets you down this Christmas - or if you are without family - a brief glance at this photograph may be a useful reminder that, actually, things could be considerably worse.

Similarly, if you find yourself feeling solitary and far from friends, you might want to peer at this group of chums.  There may be worse things than being alone - a lot of these people look merely boring but the man in the white suit and the man behind him look frankly mad, while the two in the boaters appear to be planning to pick someone's pocket, (the man in glasses next to one of them seems to be in the process of doing so to one of his neighbours):
To all those who visit this blog, regularly or rarely, I would like to wish you a very happy Christmas and a marvellous new year.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Self Centred

These days there are lots of things I do and lots of things I think of doing that are conceptually so recent that they don't exist in linguistic terms.  For example, I may suddenly be reminded of someone I used to know and have lost touch with and then I have an impulse to look them up on the Internet to find out what has become of them.

The word for the impulse I know already: it is "nosiness'. The action of actually looking them up in this context has not yet been granted a special label - it is just one among the many things that fall under the "idly Googling" umbrella, I suppose.

In this situation - and many others of a similar nature, where I am attempting to describe a situation that would not have existed even quite recently - I find myself thinking, "There must be a word for that."

Perversely, given that I often think there must be words for things that I don't know words for, when people use words that do already exist for things but that I don't know, I absolutely loathe it.

The worst offender in this regard, in my experience, is Will Self, especially when he is talking on the radio or television. On such occasions, he deliberately uses words that no-one else ever utters out loud. For instance, on Radio 4 the other evening, banging on about something or other, he used the word "exogamous". I have never ever come across "exogamous" before.

I don't think I object because I am ashamed of my own ignorance, so what exactly is my problem? Surely, if a word is in existence, it is our duty to ensure that it is used? What else can it possibly be there for, if not for use in communication? And the great strength of the English language is supposed to be its rich flexibility, its enormous capacity, its ability to be the linguistic equivalent of an avoska, an ever expanding string bag, (yes, the astonishing hypocrisy of complaining about those who use obscure English words while throwing in even more obscure words from Russian - not at all lost on me).

Perhaps my objection arises from an underlying belief in a sort of jeans and T-shirt core wardrobe vocabulary, made up of words for talking and general every day use. Words like 'exogamous', on the other hand, are reserved for Sunday best and gala occasions - academic writing and other equally high-flown usage, excluded from the spoken language, kept purely for text.

Looked at that way, it occurs to me that what Will Self may be indulging in is really a kind of attempt at lexical punk. When he throws words from one register of the language into street talk, Self may be linguistically pairing laddered stockings and ragged denim with a Savile Row dinner jacket and an antique silk top hat.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Happier Times

Years ago, when I used to take my children to the Christmas markets in Vienna, I wrote a short story that was set in the market that is held each year in front of the Rathaus there. That was before trucks became weapons. Looking at the story now, it seems hopelessly naive.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Under Age

To my surprise, when I had small children, I discovered I loved having them around. This was a great relief, as I'd never really aspired to the condition of parenthood and had been worried beforehand that it might not be my cup of tea. But perhaps that was precisely why I did love that whole chunk of my life so much - I had no great expectations about it, which meant no visions of sugar plums waiting to be firmly dashed.

Strangely though, even though I did love my children when they were tiny, I don't miss them at all, now that they have grown up.

I realised this when I was on a train recently and two small children flashed past my seat.* They were yipping and laughing, slightly breathlessly, each trying to reach wherever they were going before the other.

Their excitement had a brightness. It was as if two radiant sparks of energy had just flashed through the carriage. I was reminded suddenly of the days when I shared my life with equally vivid beings.

As quickly as they had appeared, the two unknown children vanished. They were like comets, appearing out of nowhere and then gone in a flash.

But comets are silent. Small children are never - or only rarely - silent, (and if they are, you should probably be worried as it generally means they are up to something that is quite possibly dangerous). So, although they were out of sight, their voices trailed behind them.

There was more laughter and then a yell of protest, followed by a thud.  I thought it might be the sound of the littler of the two tripping - or being tripped - and falling onto the hard ridges of the corridor floor.

Whatever it was, it heralded one of those incredibly speedy changes in the emotional weather that is the major reason I don't miss small children living in my house. For the next ten minutes, from the direction the two children had been dashing, there came a succession of enormous, wildly unhappy wails.

Pets are less tiring.

But that's not really it. Really, I suppose, unless you are incredibly patient, when it comes to having children, once or twice is probably enough.

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*Incidentally, why are chairs in trains and theatres and planes and so forth always called seats? Is a seat a fixed object, whereas a chair can be shifted about?



Sunday, 18 December 2016

Modern Certainties I

Now that it is nearly Christmas, one certainty of modern life forces its way, temporarily, to the front of the crowd. Every time I open my email inbox, I am reminded of it. Clicking my way through the drifts of messages that have blizzarded in from all the businesses I have ever spent two bob with, my absolute faith in this nugget of truth is justified over and over again

This certainty, this "truth universally acknowledged", is a simple one: namely, any email headed "The perfect Christmas gift idea" will contain nothing of the sort.


Friday, 16 December 2016

Clock Watching

I mentioned the other day that I'd had to replace my beloved 1920s watch, because it went mad. I also admitted that even before it went mad, it wasn't entirely accurate. My relationship with it used to remind me of Gabriel Oak's relationship with his pocket watch, described by Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd:

"Mr. Oak carried about him, by way of watch,- what may be called a small silver clock; in other words, it was a watch as to shape and intention, and a small clock as to size. This instrument being several years older than Oak's grandfather, had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all. The smaller of its hands, too, occasionally slipped round on the pivot, and thus, though the minutes were told with precision, nobody could be quite certain of the hour they belonged to. The stopping peculiarity of his watch Oak remedied by thumps and shakes, and he escaped any evil consequences from the other two defects by constant comparisons with and observations of the sun and stars, and by pressing his face close to the glass of his neighbours' windows, till he could discern the hour marked by the green-faced timekeepers within. It may be mentioned that Oak's fob being difficult of access, by reason of its somewhat high situation in the waistband of his trousers (which also lay at a remote height under his waistcoat), the watch was as a necessity pulled out by throwing the body to one side, compressing the mouth and face to a mere mass of ruddy flesh on account of the exertion, and drawing up the watch by its chain, like a bucket from a well."

The difference, of course, was that, where Gabriel Oak checked the sun and stars (or, hilariously - who says Hardy wasn't a comic writer - "by pressing his face close to the glass of his neighbours' windows"), if my watch started behaving erratically, I checked my mobile phone.

Meanwhile, George has supplied me with a fascinating link that explains why my Soviet watch is not quite as rubbish as everything else that came out of that benighted so-called system - it turns out Soviet watchmaking was entirely indebted to British expertise.

Cue hearty singing of Rule Britannia and God Save the Monarch Appropriate to the Era in Question.

Lost - Please Call

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have taken a picture of it - my favourite painting that is. It is gone now and I doubt I will ever see it again. This snap is all I have left:


Sadly, it doesn't even begin to do the picture justice. It had a mystery about it. Its subject was extremely simple - just a table, set ready for a meal. There was a kind of moonlit sheen on the plates that was almost supernatural. The scene might have suggested a Marie Celeste scenario, except that it radiated quietness and calm.

It was strangely soothing.

I use the past tense, because I doubt the painting even exists now. The last time I saw it was on a black and white Blair-Witch-Project-style-recording. This was extracted from the machine that was thoughtfully supplied by my husband's company in order to give us front-seat viewing of any robberies from the house that comes with my husband's job. Sadly, the company didn't choose to also provide security to deter possible robberies. When we first arrived, it was explained to me that there was no need, as a man two doors down the street employs guards and, obviously, they'd be sure to look out for us as well.

Needless to say, the night we were robbed those guards were not looking out for us as well. Why on earth would they be?

So my last sight of my favourite painting is of it being carried out of the house and over the back fence by a man with a stocking over his face. 

The painting was very light, as it was unframed - people often told us we should frame it but we didn't think it needed one. It was oil on canvas and we never knew who painted it, or when it was painted (probably late 19th or early 20th century, but that is only a guess.)

Because of its unframed, unsigned, unclassifiable condition, I suspect that the man with the stocking face will have found that none of the people he tried to offload it on wanted our beloved painting. That assumes it even survived the rough way he was holding it as he scrambled over the back fence. 

Even if he didn't tear the canvas in his getaway, I fear the painting probably got ripped, angrily and deliberately, by the burglar, furious that he couldn't get a decent - or perhaps any - price for it, as it was such an unknown quantity. 

I think of this lovely thing lying among potato peelings and tea leaves and catfood cans in some heap of rubbish somewhere in Belgium, the rain falling on what is left of its charm. What a waste, an object that gave so much pleasure wrecked for no purpose. 

I miss it like a friend.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Winding Me Up

Until recently the watch I used was a very pretty thing I bought on EBay for $AUD30. It was made in  the early part of the twentieth century and did not keep perfect time - but good enough, until recently, when it decided to go quite mad. Sometimes it ticked as if it was trying to win an Olympic ticking race. Other times, it stopped and would not go at all for hours.

When I am next at home in Canberra, I will take it to the man there who understands it. I hope he will be able counsel it back into a more stable frame of mind.

In the meantime, I've bought a watch from a market stall in Budapest. This is it:
It is a watch made in the Soviet Union, when it still was the Soviet Union. Yes, that circle of dots is made up of pink "jewels", very Barbie. The brand is Nyeva. It was probably made in the 1960s. It is a wind-it-yourself watch, as I only like that kind - why buy something that leaves you at the mercy of battery makers and battery installers for the rest of your or its life? That is my logic.

There is a problem with my new watch, however. It is a huge problem, for me. It is a problem that is throwing me into psychological turmoil, eroding the foundations of my entire world view.

The problem with my new watch is a simple, but to me utterly unexpected one. The problem is that my new watch is, thus far at least, keeping perfect time.

How can this be? How is it possible that something produced at least 50 years ago, in the Soviet Union, can actually be any good? If this watch works, was I wrong to think the old Soviet system was not only despotic and cruel - nothing is going to shake my conviction on that score - but also (and as a result) inefficient, incapable of producing anything at all that could be relied on to work?

In my experience nothing and no-one in the Soviet Union did their job efficiently, except the KGB. The place reeked of a compound odour, made up of aviation fluid, the tobacco (so-called tobacco - I think it was quite often tea or shredded blankets) they put in papirosi and cabbage, cooked in greasy water. Almost everything was grubby and smudged and puddingy, and what wasn't - classical music, ballet - was so exquisite it only high-lighted the poverty of the rest.

But maybe this watch wasn't manufactured for local consumption. Perhaps it was part of an export drive to begin with, made for customers who actually might complain if something didn't work. As opposed to those who were lucky if they could actually buy anything at all and, according to the old joke, had to ask, when they ordered a refrigerator and were told that it would arrive a decade hence, "When exactly?", "Probably October", "But when in October exactly?", "Well, let's say 16th October", "Morning or evening?", "Morning or evening? Why do you want to know - we're talking about ten years away?", "Because they're delivering the new washing machine in the morning."

Oh look, is that the time? Well, my Nyeva says it is, in which case, I must fly.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Gill Diet

I was so sorry to read of the death of AA Gill. Some people in my family say that I shouldn't be sorry, because of the baboon incident, which was vile, I agree. However, who among us has not made dire mistakes and done cruel things that we then choose to forget about or justify to ourselves?

Cast not the first stone, and all that.

My feeling is that the man spread more joy than sorrow. Sure he gave offence - but is offence really the most appalling thing in the world? These days, some people genuinely seem to believe that it is, but I don't.

So I'm grateful AA Gill existed and sad that he is gone. Apart from feeling natural sympathy for his family, purely selfishly I would like to be able to go on reading new articles by him. There are so many things that he wrote that made me laugh an extraordinary amount. I wish there were going to be more.

Anyway, looking at some recordings of him talking, I have discovered that, like me, Gill also devised a diet. It is, of course, a far, far better diet than my one, (virtually any diet would be). Here it is, transcribed from a talk a few years ago, given somewhere in London, (I think):

"Diets are nonsense. What you need are manners. We are taught far too much about what we eat and not anything like enough about how we eat. The rules are:

Never eat standing up;
Never drink from a cup that you are going to throw away;
Never eat from a plate that goes straight into the bin;
Always eat sitting at a table;
Always eat with a knife and fork;
Always eat off pottery or china;
Never eat at a desk;
Never eat in front of a screen;
Eat three times a day and no more;
Never eat in the street;
Never eat out of a packet."






Monday, 12 December 2016

Wurst-based Weight Loss

With Christmas coming, the pages of women's magazines are, as usual, divided between recipes for rich dishes and instructions on how to lose weight - presumably, so that you can fit into your party dress and go out and eat those same rich dishes, or very similar ones, at your friends' houses.

While I am of no use when it comes to advice on the food preparation end of things, when it comes to weight loss, you need look no further than this blog.

I have worked out a sure-fire weight loss method.  Not only is it sure-fire; it is also astonishingly simple. It is slightly similar, I suppose, to the 5:2 fasting system, but demands none of the feeling-extremely-hungry-every-two-or-three-days that that method requires.  So far as I know, my weight-loss method is a discovery that no-one else has ever come up with. It could make me very rich, of course, but, in the spirit of Christmas, I am sharing it here at absolutely no charge. Because I'm just that kind of generous person, don't you know. (Plus can you imagine how boring writing an entire diet book would actually be?)

I call my great discovery the Hungarian Bratwurst Diet. I came upon it quite by chance a mere four days ago, following a visit to one of Budapest's Christmas markets.

At said Christmas market, I was given a large and shiny grilled sausage, plus mustard, two gherkins and a white bread roll.

I looked at the sausage, which wasn't just large but actually probably one foot (that is, thirty centimetres) long, and thought, "I'm not going to manage this; I'll have to put half of it inside that white bread roll so that I can carry it home."

But, oddly enough, when I looked a minute or two later, it turned out that I had in fact eaten the entire sausage in the twinkling of an eye, plus the gherkins and the mustard, but not the bread roll as I've never been wildly excited about bread, to be honest - it is this lack of interest in bread, I finally realised recently, that makes me a non-fan of sandwiches, but that's another (admittedly fairly dull) story.

The sausage was absolutely delicious. It was also astonishingly filling.

Although, oddly, I didn't feel full at the time that I ate it or immediately afterwards. The sensation crept up on me about an hour and a half later, becoming really noticeable only after I'd gone to the shop and bought food for that night's dinner and the next couple of days.

It was only then - when I'd paid and stepped outside with my basket of groceries - that I realised that I really wasn't at all hungry any longer. I then continued not to be hungry for another thirty-six hours.

During that thirty-six hours, while completely without hunger, I did regain a skill I had lost since the age of seven. I became once again brilliant - I might even say virtuosic - at burping. I even reacquainted my astonishing but until then longlost ability to burp the theme tune to Z Cars.

Sadly, this skill was somewhat underappreciated when I was seven, and it appears to be even more underappreciated to this day. I think the problem is other people's jealousy.

Anyway, for your delectation, here it is, my wonder diet, completely free. As they say, "enjoy":

Monday - One grilled Hungarian bratwurst, two gherkins, one tablespoon of mustard;
Tuesday and Wednesday - nothing
Thursday - One grilled Hungarian bratwurst, two gherkins, one tablespoon of mustard;
Friday and Saturday - nothing;
Repeat until desired weight reached.

As you can see, this diet does not require specialist equipment or cluttering up your kitchen shelves with odd ingredients. Although I suppose the availability of grilled Hungarian bratwurst outside the Christmas markets of Budapest might pose some problems.

Funnily enough, that is where I might be able to help you. In fact, should you face difficulties in sourcing Hungarian bratwurst, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Oh curses, you have found me out.  I thought I was so cunning. Yes, all right, I admit it . My plan is to monopolise the Hungarian bratwurst supply chain and become a sausage millionaire.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Battered Penguins (and others of that ilk) - Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes


The Fatal Shore, a History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 by Robert Hughes, is a revelation, even for those of us who were educated in Australia and taught some Australian history. It is a book that leaves you awed by the propensity for cruelty that humankind displayed in the establishment of Australia.

In his Introduction, Hughes contends that:

What the convict system bequeathed to later Australian generations was not the sturdy, skeptical independence on which, with gradually waning justification, we pride ourselves, but an intense concern with social and political respectability.

I think he is right in this - and in the earliest incarnations of  Barry Humphries's Edna Everage, this is what was originally being made fun of.  Hughes's tale also helps explain why Australia as a nation appears less perturbed than some others by the idea of sending away groups we see as aliens to be processed on distant islands. From the beginning, this policy has been practised on us, with Norfolk Island the most infamous example of its implementation.

In his book, Hughes describes vividly the cruelty of the 18th century, not only in Australia but also in England. He tells of “the crush of jostling voyeurs” at Tyburn, the unspeakable conditions in the hulks, the blood lust and lack of humanity that developed among those who had power over prisoners, which led to unspeakable floggings for offences such as “Having turnips” or “Talking in Church”.

He also introduces the characters of influence during the various phases of Australia's penal history, although sadly his refusal to admire anyone wholeheartedly becomes a little irritating. Macquarie and Alexander Maconochie, both figures who did much worth applauding, cannot escape jibes about priggishness and self-righteousness.

Similarly, Hughes's account of what happened to Australia’s indigenous peoples is over-egged and prone to assertions unsupported by footnotes that might provide evidence of their truth. Included among these is the startling statement that Australian Aborigines “killed the infants they could not carry”. I've never heard of this practice before and I'd want to see some proof, beyond Mr Hughes's word, that it ever happened. Similarly, the contention that the possibility of converting Australian Aborigines to Christianity and farming was “an idea loathed and resisted by every white, no matter what his class” is hard to swallow - if every white  genuinely loathed and resisted the idea, who came up with it in the first place?

But never mind - the book’s depth of research is generally extraordinary. It is also wonderfully written. This phrase, for instance, has an echo of The Tempest within it:

The space around it, [Australia], the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.”

In dreadful circumstances, what is more, Hughes can occasionally be funny. An example is the wry comment he makes on a report that 50 or 60 cases of sodomy occurred each day on Norfolk Island:

Since the total convict population of Norfolk Island at the time was about 600, this argues an impressive priapic energy on the prisoners’ part, perhaps caused by the sea air.” 

Thanks to Hughes's work, I am now able to conjure in my imagination some notion of the original figures whose names are already familiar from street names and titles of institutions - for instance, Bent Street in Sydney, which I’d always assumed was named for its shape, turns out to be named after an early legal man, while the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra is named after a rather inspiring visionary, who hoped to reform penal services and, at least for a time, relieved the utterly hellish lives of the unfortunates on Norfolk Island.

Hughes argues that the national psyche is still shaped by our penal origins:

Would Australians have done anything differently if their country had not been settled as the jail of infinite space? Certainly they would. They would have remembered more of their own history. The obsessive cultural enterprise of Australians a hundred years ago was to forget it entirely, to sublimate it, to drive it down into unconsulted recesses. This affected all Australian culture, from political rhetoric to the perception of space, of landscape itself. Space, in America, had always been optimistic; the more of it you faced, the freer you were - “Go West, young man!” in Australian terms, to go west was to die, and space itself was the jail. The flowering of Australian nature as a cultural emblem, whether in poetry or in painting, could not occur until the stereotype of the “melancholy bush,” born in convict perceptions of Nature-as-prison, had been expunged. A favourite trope of journalism and verse at the time of the Australian Centennial, in 1888, was that of the nation as a young vigorous person gazing into the rising sun, turning his or her back on the dark crouching shadows of the past.”

but he concludes, surprisingly, by saluting the penal system with which Australia was founded - or at least saluting the tokens left by those who suffered under its harsh disciplines:

To ask what Australia would have been without convicts is existentially meaningless. They built it - if by “it” one means European material culture there - and their mute traces are everywhere: in the peckings and scoops of iron chisels on the sandstone cuttings of Sydney, hewn with such terrible effort by the work gangs; in the fine springing of one bridge at Berrima in New South Wales, and the earnest, slightly bizrre figures carved on the face of another at Ross in Tasmania; in the zigzags of the Blue Mountain road, where traffic now rolls above the long-buried, rusted chains of the dead, less obviously, in the fruitful pastures that were once primaeval gum forest.

I remember a few years ago hearing a young Australian comedian's routine about how she had been born and brought up in Bondi. Every morning, she got up and looked out of her window and thought, "Wow, if this is the prison, what must England be like? It must be paradise on earth." The punchline was her arrival at Heathrow.

That little joke might not appear exceptionally funny, viewed from an English point of view, but to have reached the current situation - where the place to which the dregs of British society were banished is now a place that many in the United Kingdom would give a lot to be allowed to live permanently - does have a certain comedy to it, especially if you are lucky enough to be born Australian. What Hughes's book shows is that, in addition to being amusing, this result is also downright astonishing. Emerging from such fiercely cruel origins to become a thriving, middle ranking nation is little short of miraculous. While Australia's early story lacks the romanticism of, for example, the founding myths of the United States, the creation of the modern nation of Australia -  (for all its faults; I don't claim it is perfect, any more than any human society is) - from the blood-soaked violence detailed by Hughes is an achievement both surprising and fairly wonderful.