Friday, 19 July 2019

Having a Dog

I read the other day that one of the many objections that people have to President Trump is that he doesn't have a dog:



I wasn't aware that having a dog made you a better person, but I do sometimes wonder if my pleasure in not having one is due to my not being genuinely - or even slightly? - good.

I have had dogs. When I was a child I had a boxer called Friday. She was the only dog I ever had an uncomplicated relationship with. I loved her and that was it. I didn't feel guilty about her or think that she needed more from me than I could give her. She didn't follow me around or try to get in between me and anyone else in the family. She seemed to be perfectly content.

But since then the dogs we have had have always been needy - and I seem to have always been the target of their complicated emotional demands. First there was Bertie, a beautiful and clever border collie who never grew tired. Apart from indefatigability, he was a charming fellow, entirely gentle unless you stopped the car and opened up the back door, exposing the area where he was sitting. Then he would become frightened and aggressive, proving that dogs do have strong memories - for Bertie had been found tied up by the side of the road and it appeared that no amount of time was ever going to erase the memory of how'd he'd ended up there.

I imagine the poor creature leaping willingly from the back of his owner's station wagon, wondering what exactly was going on when he had his lead put on and the end of it slipped over a wooden marker fixed at the curb - and then watching as his master got back into the car and drove away without him. How long did he wait, how long was it before he understood that no one was coming back?

After Bertie came a bearded collie but (inadvertently) we ran her over - (it was quite unspeakable - killing their beloved pet is one of the worst things a parent can do to their young children, I freely admit [and it was entirely my fault]) - before the relationship really got going.

Then Millie came to live with us. Millie was gorgeous, despite being what a young Finnish friend of ours referred to as 'a mixed up muddled up' dog, (that is, a mongrel). We found Millie in a Budapest dogs' home. She was the only dog there that wasn't barking, which was a big plus, as well as being the first sign that she was, as she proved later time and again, a very wise, (although, we also discovered, rather wily) hound.

Millie was part basset, part pointer, with a few other bits thrown is as well. She had been born into the household of a family of fishermen apparently, and although she'd only been young when they'd chucked her out, I don't think she ever forgot her early life. Unbelievably, (but truly), even years after Millie arrived in Australia, she would wake from the deepest sleep if we played Hungarian gypsy music and, ears pricked, would look around, apparently expecting to see something or someone from her past.

But my favourite memory of Millie is a couple of hours after she arrived to live with us. I'd taken a chicken out of the fridge and put it on the benchtop. Then I'd gone off to pick some herbs to cook it with. Returning, I saw Millie speeding out of the kitchen, an entire chicken dangling from the side of her mouth - she'd got hold of one of its legs, so it was hanging at exactly the angle Andy Capp allowed his cigarette to droop from the corner of his mouth. Just as I saw Millie, she spied me. For an instant we looked into each other's eyes. Should she drop the thing or run, is what I believe she was hastily asking herself. Run, she decided and made a headlong dash down the stairs. I'd left the back door open and Millie shot through it, along with the chicken. The two of them plunged into the undergrowth at the end of the garden and it was Millie alone who emerged some time later, looking rather stouter than when she went in.

We ate macaroni cheese for dinner that night.

Millie is long gone, and Bertie - and, of course, Friday, the boxer dog. And now we live in a flat at the top of a building with ninety-six stairs and no lift. We have no dog here - and it's not only because I don't want to go up and down those stairs several times each day that I am glad (although I am glad for that reason too, because I can imagine becoming as deluded as one of our neighbours who used to carry her very stout pet in a shoulder bag up and down the stairs, on the grounds that its legs were too short to manage the task itself).

But the bigger issue for me is that, apart from that first dog, Friday, I have always found the love of a dog so intense that it has felt like a burden. I have been overwhelmed by such devotion being directed at me. I don't think I've done anything to deserve it and it causes me anxiety - as does the situation of having my every action closely watched.

In our old house, this was a particular problem as most of the rooms had French windows that looked out onto the veranda and back garden, which was where the dogs spent the greater part of their time. It was difficult to pass unnoticed, however carefully you tiptoed, and moving about freely, in a normal way, was impossible, unless you were prepared to cause excitement that rapidly turned to huge disappointment.

I would creep out of my study to go to make a cup of coffee. The dogs would be out there, apparently sleeping deeply, not a care in the world. But the first creak of a floorboard, the first faint glimpse of a movement and, however quietly and lightly I trod, they would spring into total consciousness. Some sixth sense seemed always to communicate that I was on the move.

Then would come the sound of claws scrambling on wood and suddenly a four legged creature would be standing at the window staring, ready for action, eyes following your progress, trying extremely hard - and usually over-optimistically - to gauge the likelihood of an imminent walk or a meal or at the very least a pat. I didn't like the fact that on most occasions disappointment - or only the minimal reward of a pat - was all they received.

As I say, I don't find it very relaxing to live with all that observation, nor to be considered quite that important. For a dog, you are god and your actions, although mysterious, are - being the actions of god - hugely important. I am not ready to be god. I find the task overwhelming.

 But perhaps, after all, that makes me a very good person - at least if this, apparently genuinely serious tweet (???!?)  is anything to go by. If this tweeter is to be believed, in fact, I'm rather marvellous and extremely woke:



Wednesday, 17 July 2019

A Bad Sign

Today I read an article in The Times by Anne McElvoy. It was about Ursula von der Leyen, who will replace Jean Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.  The bit that really made my heart sink was when McElvoy states:

“Von der Leyen has relentless self belief.”

In my experience, that is always a very bad sign.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Lately

My (failed lately) plan is to write blog posts regularly, not because I flatter myself that the world is crying out to read them but because I like the way writing them clarifies things for me. Writing, for me, is the best way to think. Only after you've set down a few scrappy sentences do you see, reading back through them, how muddy your thinking is  - and how lazy. No, not "you", of course - me, is what I actually mean.

But then, working your (my) way through the strings of words, teasing out whatever real idea there may be within them, you discover what you actually saw and thought and believed, as you wandered the world or read a book or watched the telly or a play.

That takes time though and there are always other things to do instead - brain work is, for me, always to be avoided, if possible. I think this is mainly because it is so anti-social. Once I do start writing anything with any concentration, I find myself so absorbed that I don't want any kind of demand or interruption from anyone else. I think that must be what is meant by being "deep in thought". An artist I know says she has realised that she too procrastinates because she wants to avoid the invevitable withdrawal that comes with trying to solve tricky problems to do with how she wants a work to look.

Anyway, since I don't suppose I will necessarily ever get around to writing about them as fully as I'd wished to, here are:

a) some of the books I've especially liked lately

Something for the Pain and The Plains by Gerald Murnane

Murnane comes from roughly the same part of Australia that my mother comes from. He has never left Australia and apparently scarcely never left the state of Victoria. This in itself makes him attractive to me - having travelled, not always entirely willingly, since I was a very small child, I have a secret belief that those who never leave a small piece of territory know more and are wiser than those of us who have roamed widely. But perhaps I am merely comparing Hedgehog knowledge with Fox knowledge

Murnane's dreamlike novel The Plains concerns a region - "the true extent [of which] had never been agreed on" - that is somehow beyond Australia, but encircled by it, a region that our narrator believes only he can interpret. His mission is to be accepted by the masters of this region, the plainsmen - whose main preoccupation is "their lifelong task of shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth" and  whose apparent arrogance "was no more than their reluctance to recognise any common ground between themselves and others ... the very opposite ... of the common urge among Australians of those days to emphasise whatever they seemed to share with other cultures". The book reminds me of Peter Carey's short story Report on the Shadow Industry - 




5.
My own feelings about the shadows are ambivalent, to say the least. For here I have manufactured one more: elusive, unsatisfactory, hinting at greater beauties and more profound mysteries that exist somewhere before the beginning and somewhere after the end.



I actually read Something for the Pain, Murnane's autobiography, before reading The Plains. Although nonfiction it is scarcely less dreamlike and it turns out that Murnane shares with the plainsmen a fascination with colour. Having begun to train as a priest, Murnane loses his Catholic belief and replaces it with a complex faith of his own making, centred around the coloured silks worn by jockeys.  The book is wonderfully odd. Murnane writes beautifully and, as far as one can tell, exceptionally unselfconsciously, untroubled apparently by thoughts of fame and fortune. Without striving for it, he turns out to be one of the most original writers alive.


My Cousin Rachel and The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

I found My Cousin Rachel very exciting to begin with but then got bored, having not been supplied a solution to the mystery and feeling that there was not enough other substance in the novel. I preferred The Scapegoat, because the depiction of what it is like to live in peacetime side by side with people who did not behave entirely honourably, gave the narrative interest beyond the mere drive of plot. But both are well written novels with great descriptions of setting and a wonderfully imagined array of characters. du Maurier was a rare, great storyteller.

The Party by Elizabeth Day

I don't know why I got this. It is a small thriller with a sad situation at its heart. I didn't like it. The characters lacked depth. If you read it very quickly, it isn't terrible though, mainly depressing.

All Out War by Tim Shipman

This tells the story of the Brexit campaign and is very entertaining and interesting.


Jackdaw Cake: An Autobiography by Norman Lewis

While Lewis's life is most interesting when he is very young and therefore I enjoyed the early parts best because they are so particularly funny, the whole book is amusing and very good. He is an excellent writer.

Lewis's childhood is spent partly in Enfield, where he comes home one day and "found that my father had become a Spiritualist medium" and partly in his grandfather's house in Wales, (during his entire childhood his grandfather never addresses a word to him), together with his aunts, Polly, who suffers very badly from epilepsy and regularly falls into the fire; Annie, who loves dressing up, to his embarrassment once he starts school, sometimes as Queen Mary, sometimes as a female cossack, sometimes as a Spanish dancer; and Li, who cries almost constantly - as well as an "old grey parrot [that] crawled over the furniture making .. farting noises, and a number of tall clocks [that] ticked the wrong time",  plus the game cocks his grandfather bred, the best of which was "fed on chopped up fillet steak, barley sugar, aniseed, ginger, rhubarb and yeast mixed with 'cock bread' made from oatmeal and eggs to which a little cinnamon was added".

In that house, Lewis tells us:

 "the choice of reading material [was] Victorian novels that were too old for me, or a manuscript copy of a work by one of my forebears who had kept an eye-witness account at the beginning of the last century of all the numerous public hangings of condemned men from the boughs of the great oaks still standing at Llangunnor, across the river."

Even an attempt at something as ordinary as a picnic unfolds in an unstraightforward way:

"We were menaced by an aggressive cow that had strayed down to the beach, and when we presented a dog with the remnants of our stale sandwiches, it went off and returned with the gift of the decayed corpse of a large seabird, and could not be driven away."

It is hardly surprising when Lewis remarks: "above all I was anxious not to be associated in any way with eccentric behaviour."

Despite this impulse, Lewis marries into a fairly eccentric Sicilian family - I particularly like his description of his father-in-law as being "dressed always as if attending at an important funeral"

With the arrival of war, Lewis joins the armed forces and is sent to:

"Winchester, where the training was by the NCOs of the Grenadier Guards; [it] was the shrine and museum of ceremonial marching, and the commanding officer in those days, ‘Mad John’ Rankin, prided himself on the fact that one form, invented by Frederick the Great, was practised nowhere else." According to Lewis, "the only instruction we received was in lecturing ‘other ranks’ on security. ‘It’s a good thing to get off on the right foot and put them at their ease,’ the officer said. ‘You’ll find it helps to address them as “you fuckers”.’

Soon he finds himself under the orders of Sergeant-Major Fitch. "This man", Lewis writes, "was strangely obsessed with coal, for which he had come to develop an affection while working in the cinema [looking after the boiler there], and he always begged us when we went out to patrol the docks to take a haversack in which we could smuggle out a few ‘cobs’ from the various deposits in the dock area. He kept his treasure stacked in glistening black pyramids and ziggurats in his back garden."

Intriguingly, Lewis mentions a colleague in the military who surely must have been part of Louis de Berniere's inspiration for aspects of Captain Corelli's Mandolin:

"He was a PhD and had been a lecturer in Hellenic Studies at Aberystwyth University, and with the outbreak of the communist revolt in Greece and the consequent rush to find Greek speakers, his name had been unearthed in the files. Hopper spoke only the classical version of the language, and knew little of the happenings in the country after its eclipse by Rome in the first century ad. Needless to say, by the time he reached Europe on his way to Athens, the emergency had been at an end for some two months."

I could go on but I'm supposed to be making this snappy. There is much more in the book and in Naples '44 which I read after it - a more famous piece of his oeuvre, but not as entertaining. To briefly sum up, I love Lewis's unsentimental sense of human absurdity, and although he never seems quite a wholehearted participant, more a bemused observer, he never conveys any sense of superiority. Jackdaw Cake does reveal that the setting he gave to one of my favourite books is really Guatemala, which he considered "the most beautiful country in the world".
     
The Standing Chandelier: A Novella by Lionel Shriver

I enjoyed this - I think Lionel Shriver is becoming a better and better writer of fiction and I loved The Mandibles a year or two ago. My favourite quote from The Standing Chandelier, about the main character is this one:

" it had taken her some years to understand that she’d had such trouble settling on a career because she didn’t want one."

The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk

I had read no Rachel Cusk until I came across the Outline Trilogy, which I loved. Cusk fashions the three books almost entirely from the narratives of those she meets, which she reports more or less verbatim (although probably none of them existed at all and the entire thing is made up).  More recently I've been reading A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, in which a narrator tells the story, as he imagines it, of his friend's love affair. As I read that book the other day, I suddenly saw a parallel between it and Cusk's trilogy, and it came to me that what both writers are doing is demonstrating that each individual imagines that their versions of what they see people around them doing is reality but really it is only their own fictional version of what they imagine to be others' reality. None of us know anything except about our own selves (if even that?) but we imagine we do and make up our own stories about everyone else, stories we believe are real. Rachel Cusk affects to merely pass on the stories she is told. Salter claims to be telling his friend's story, but it is actually very much the story he imagines and may be nothing like what happened. Both of them are reverting back to openly being story tellers, rather than effacing the author from their fiction - they are making it clear that this is a story being told by the writer, rather than striving for the illusion that this little world they have conjured up on the page is real, existing outside of the storytelling framework.

But there may still be a realist's sleight of hand at work. Under the guise of relating true stories of what happened to her - or rather to her main character to whom she has given a name other than her own - is Cusk actually creating fiction that strives for the illusion of reality as much as that of the realists did? That is, if what she is relating is actually entirely made up, then hers is really just a new form of realism. Thus, we believe as we read the trilogy that Cusk is not writing fiction but reporting what really happened but, if none of it is true, if actually it is all not reportage but entirely imagined out of thin air, then she turns out to be the greatest producer of realist illusion of all.

In short, she may not have been told any of what she relates, and in that case, while apparently entirely drawn from life and not at all from imagination, these books are an enormous act of fiction, with as vast an array of entirely imaginary characters as any Tolstoy or Dickens novel. And anyway, as everything is filtered through the narrator, the characters, even if drawn from direct experience, do all become fictional because they are only her interpretation of themselves, just one reality among many - including their own, possibly very different one.  Certainly, under the guise of random reporting, Cusk manages to examine and rexamine a number of themes and ideas in these books, as well as playing with the whole idea of fiction.

I've also now read by her: Arlington Park, my least favourite thus far; The Country Life, which is very funny; In the Fold, which is also funny and insightful; The Temporary, which I wasn't enormously fond of; and The Bradshaw Variations, which for reasons I don't understand I can't remember anything about - possibly my e-reader has got it wrong in telling me that I've finished it.


Love & Fame by Susie Boyt

I found this book, I'm sorry to say, a little annoying, mainly because of the main character, but there are good bits in it. Here are a few, and I do recognise that they are some of them fairly domestic and middle-class, relating to folded linen and cups of tea, but then I am too:

"He genuinely loved his enemies, and not just to annoy them either, like normal people."

"It was lucky, she thought, that childhood occurred at the beginning of life. If it took place later on, no one would be able to stand it."

"Sometimes right at the very edge of what you could bear were the best things."

"A cup of tea can be almost voluptuous at times."

"It doesn’t make sense. People we love dying. It’s an appalling idea. What a flaw in the system."
         
"A silver tankard of prawns, their tails hooked over the lip of the cup like louche chorus girls."

"You do not see the world as it is, you do not even see it as you are, you see it as you were"

"They had passed a beautiful bright blue and white 1910 clapboard house with a wrap-around porch on an architectural tour. ‘What’s that house there?’ he asked the guide. It was actually the sort of building the bold new architecture was designed to replace – so that was him told – but the blue house kept popping into his mind. It was solid and it was perfect and through the windows you could make out large square rooms and old wooden floors"

"Linen is very soothing. When you see it all folded up at home in the cupboard"

"being too tired to peel a sticker from a granny smith so you just eat through it anyway"
           
"Perhaps you just can’t hide anything any more in the world"

"Why would someone who was going to end their life go out and buy a new computer?’ ‘Maybe setting it up was so frustrating it pushed him over the edge!’"

"‘Do you think some people feel humiliation more easily than others?’"

"Like airports,’ Eve said, ‘what they do to the time.'"

Hare Sitting Up by Michael Innes

This should really be a Battered Penguin but I don't have anything to say about it, except that it wasn't the best Appleby novel I've read but I like Appleby novels, even not very good ones.

This Great Calamity by Christine Kinealy

This book about the Irish famine is extremely well researched, makes you furious at the callous way the British government behaved, but is an exceptionally dull read.

Pure by Andrew Miller

I enjoyed this. Andrew Miller is a good writer, but there was something bloodless and thin about the novel - I never really understood why he had written it. There are beautifully imagined scenes but I didn't come away feeling I was different or wiser really. I do believe you need to read books at the right time and perhaps I didn't read this at the right time.

It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun

James Lasdun is a good writer with a fairly nasty imagination. These are well crafted rather old-fashioned short stories. Entertaining and skilful

The Joys of Travel by Thomas Swick

A nice set of essays about travel. Swick is a good solid travel writer.

The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman

What was the point of publishing this book? It was baggy and shapeless and rather sentimental. It just slowly meandered to no end in particular. Annoying.

Resolution  by AN Wilson

Brilliant, absolutely loved it, everyone should read it.

Loving by Henry Green

I didn't get the Henry Green bug and found this very very hard going. Proud to have finished it but not sure why I should be. Again perhaps I encountered it at the wrong time?

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Although the ending is wet and the trip to the Hague somehow silly, I really liked this book. O'Brien is a strangely enchanting writer.

Wilful Disregard by Lena Anderson

Unsparing account of a dreadful case of female obsession, leading to said female to lose all dignity. Very sad.

I also read The Divided Mind, Healing Back Pain - the mind-body Connection, The Mindbody Prescription by John Sarno and loved them all and totally believed his theory about suppressed anger expressing itself through other means, regardless of whether or not it has been clinically trialled or not. Sarno comes across as a kind, good, thoughtful physician, but I quite understands that others will disagree.

I am also making my way through the Grand Hotel Budapest  which is a book about the making of the film of the same name. I am really fond of that film and I love reading about it.

Meanwhile, through all this time, the Brexit madness as churned on, which is partly why I've been reading - to ignore that other ghastly shrieking muddle. Last night I tried to watch AF Neil's interviews with Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson and was baffled and alienated afterwards to find that they were considered to be brilliant interviews. The issue of fox hunting was somehow raised recently by Hunt apparently - although I bet, like the "do or die" quote supposedly uttered by Johnson, it was actually thrown up by a journalist and the politician simply had to respond, thus cementing themselves in ways they never intended - anyway the only hunting allowed in Britain at the moment seems to be the hue and cry of the media. Instead of asking questions of interest and waiting for answers, they hector and bully, they lay traps for gotchas and they are just ruder than anyone should be - and this is considered great journalism. For example, how can this question from Neil to Johnson be useful, in the sense of providing the public with any intuition about what policies might be pursued if Johnson becomes Prime Minister:

"Someone who's worked for you, who knows you well, says you're all flaws and no character. The British people will face huge and unprecedented risk with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, won't they"

That isn't a question - essentially Neil is hurling an anonymous insult at his interviewee and expecting what? That Johnson says, "You're right. I'm awful". Or could it be that he just wants the squeals of joy he hopes to elicit from his admiring journalistic colleagues - "Ooo look at Andy, being butch and showing no respect, that's how we do it these days, spit on the lot of them, while never being prepared ourselves to take on these hellish jobs".

And to Hunt, Neil sneered that his business wasn't as big as those founded by people like Steve Jobs, because, once again, why should you show any respect for anyone who wants to be a member of parliament, even if you, the interviewer, have never set up a company or created new jobs for anyone - or indeed ever tried to do anything constructive, preferring to go into what is no longer a studio but an arena and attempt to tear and rip away any tattered vestiges of respect the public might hope to retain toward their elected representatives. Imagine if journalists subjected themselves to these kinds of experiences. But the media like to remain firmly in the pack, hunting, not hunted, politicians and anyone at all who tries to do anything positive their natural prey. It's actually both sickening and hugely corrosive for democracy and decent government - you have to be prepared to be hounded if you decide to go into any form of public life - not merely questioned, but spoken to with unbridled viciousness, as if you deserve it just for daring to try. It's called bullyng and political interviewers have become the entitled, arrogant bullies of our age. I really hate it.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Battered Penguins - The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes



Having bought four large bookshelves and had one wall of an entire room lined with more shelves and having filled all of these, it was agreed that we would buy no more books. Which was why I was surprised, on a rainy day in a coastal town in England, that my husband suggested we shelter in a secondhand bookshop. It turned out that he had spotted an old map in a window that he liked the look of. I meanwhile picked up The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes, and began to read:

'Only the steady creaking of a flight of swans disturbed the silence, labouring low overhead with outstretched necks towards the sea.

It was a warm, wet, windless afternoon with a soft feathery feeling in the air: rain, yet so fine it could scarcely fall but rather floated. It clung to everything it touched; the rushes in the deep choked ditches of the sea-marsh were bowed down with it, the small black cattle looked cobwebbed with it, their horns jewelled with it. Curiously stumpy too these cattle looked, the whole herd sunk nearly to the knees in a soft patch.

This sea-marsh stretched for miles. Seaward, a greyish merging into sky had altogether rubbed out the line of dunes which bounded it that way: inland, another and darker blurred greyness was all you could see of the solid Welsh hills. But nearby loomed a solitary gate, where the path crossed a footbridge and humped over the big dyke; and here in a sodden tangle of brambles the scent of a fox hung, too heavy today to rise or dissipate.

The gate clicked sharply and shed its cascade as two men passed through. Both were heavily loaded in oilskins. The elder and more tattered one carried two shotguns, negligently, and a brace of golden plover were tied to the bit of old rope he wore knotted round his middle: glimpses of a sharp-featured weather-beaten face showed from within his bonneted souwester but mouth and even chin were hidden in a long weeping moustache. The younger man was springy and tall and well built and carried over his shoulder the body of a dead child. Her thin muddy legs dangled against his chest, her head and arms hung down his back; and at his heels walked a black dog - disciplined, saturated and eager.'

What an opening. Beautifully written, with such a surprise at its conclusion. I broke the no-new-books rules and bought The Fox in the Attic. I probably would have even without that opening, as an earlier book that I read by Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica, fascinatingly original and strange.

Sadly, I ended up being disappointed by The Fox in the Attic. It seemed to me to be a number of unfinished novels, with several lectures thrown in for good measure. Because it wasn't just one of these things - or, in the case of the lectures, because they were there at all - it ended up being unsatisfactory, at least for me. But I still acknowledge that Hughes is a brilliant, interesting and original writer.

The main character of The Fox in the Attic is the man who is carrying the dead child in that opening scene. His name is Augustine and, following the opening scene, we are introduced to him in his own home - a house he has inherited only because his cousin is dead, lost at Ypres. By means of this inheritance explanation, one of the book's subjects - its main subject, really  - the condition of Europe after the first world war, is inserted.

Augustine has grown up in wartime and "No one had warned him he might after all find himself with his life to live out: with sixty years still to spend, perhaps, instead of the bare six months he thought was all he had in his pocket. Peace was a condition unknown to him and scarcely imaginable. The whole real-seeming world in which he had grown to manhood had melted round him".

When I say, "following the opening scene", by the way, I don't mean "directly following the opening scene". Instead, what happens immediately after that opening is that Hughes whisks us to a banquet in Augustine's local town, where we are treated to one of the book's best passages - a really vivid stream of consciousness passage delivered from inside the increasingly inebriated mind of the local coroner, Dr Brinley. Given how well we get to know Dr Brinley during the course of this, it is surprising that after this section we never see him in the book again.

But this glimpsing of characters as if from the window of a speeding train is something we have to get used to. We go on to meet Augustine's niece Polly at some length; his sister Mary; some of the characters who work in her household; and, extremely briefly, her husband, Gilbert a "Man of Principle" (in the same way that countries that have Democratic in their titles are almost certainly anything but, we are led to believe that Gilbert is, in fact, far from principled). He is also a Liberal (I think) politician, (Toryism versus Liberalism is another minor theme).  While at Mary's, we could easily be lulled into thinking that we are about to enjoy a story about a big country household and the interconnections between upstairs and downstairs, the relationships and arguments and possible love affairs that take place in that small community. No such luck.

Instead, we are whisked away with Augustine to Germany. There we are introduced to one-legged Otto, a veteran from the losing side in WWI. We are treated to his memories of coming back from the conflict, but then we switch to the author explaining for pages about the first world war and what their defeat at the end of it had done to the German psyche - page upon page of this sort of stuff (this is among the best bits):

"In 1914, then, there was something of an emotional void in England: and into it war-patriotism poured like Noah's Flood. For the invasion of Belgium seemed once again to present an issue in the almost-forgotten terms of right and wrong - always incomparably the most powerful motive of human conduct that history has to show. Thus the day Belgium was invaded every caged Ego in England could at last burst its false Cartesian bonds and go mafficking off into its long-abandoned penumbral regions towards boundaries new-drawn."

When this section ends at last, we meet Lothar, who of course we grow interested by, especially as he seems to represent the rising generation of young Germans yearning to prove themselves. But once again we are not destined to get to know him properly. As we were with the servants in England, we are treated to only a glimpse of Lothar and then another fleeting sighting, when he appears again for a moment, as part of plot twist that seems to have no point

But look, now a castle in Germany is being wonderfully evoked, with all its occupants included, (as I read this section, I kept thinking of the castle in which the family featured in the BBC's excellent radio series RatLine lived). And now we switch to Munich and the Ludendorff uprising, which is wonderfully vividly told - Hughes is a magnificent writer, if poor at structuring a novel, at least in this case. And following that little history lesson, we lurch back to the castle, in time to witness a girl become suddenly blind.

We stay at the castle for quite some time, accompanying Augustine, who falls in love with the blind girl. Meanwhile, a German intent on killing Augustine kills himself instead.  We go back to England and a character called Nellie, who is having a rough time, partly due to the misplaced kindness of Augustine's sister. We return to Augustine, who finishes his trip as mystified by this foreign culture he has been exposed to as he was to begin with, (such supposedly mind-broadening exchanges are often futile - a cousin of mine, sent to France, climbed the aeroplane steps muttering, "Why do I have to go to bloody abroad" and then, according to his host family, spent his entire time lying under his bed, listening to cricket on his transistor radio).

Augustine is not quite so unwilling to engage as my cousin was but in the end we find him giving in to bafflement. "These Germans", he thinks to himself, " ... all this passion for politics ... all these millions of sinister similar man-grown evergreen trees". He decides that Germany never seemed quite real to him. I presume the author intends the reader to draw the conclusion that it was this kind of failure of comprehension that led to the next war.

Perhaps, if you wanted to, you might argue that a careering sleigh ride that is described at the heart of the book is emblematic of the instability of the historic period in which the book is set and that the novel's lurching plot mirrors both the sleigh ride and the lurches of the period where, at least in Germany, everyone was:

"somehow, some way, riding the Great Inflation. Thus, in their manner they reminded one rather of skaters caught far out too late in a thaw, who know their only but desperate hope lies in speed. The ice is steaming in the sun and there can be no turning back. They hear anguished cries behind them but they lower their heads with muffled ears, they flail with their arms and thrust ever more desperately with their legs in their efforts to skate ever faster still on the slushy, cracking, sinking ice"

You could argue that, but it doesn't necessarily assuage the frustration of the reader of The Fox in the Attic. Maybe I should press on and read the second volume in what I think may in the end have been an unfinished trilogy. It might be worth it for Hughes's gift of description. On the other hand, if there are more lengthy passages of the "Primitive man is conscious that the true boundary of his self is no tight little stockade round one lonely perceiving 'I' detached wholly from its setting ... Selfhood is not wholly curtailed within the 'I' ... That primitive truth about selfhood we battle against at our peril ...the depleted voltages must cry out for a re-charge and dichotomies new..." I find myself profoundly uninclined. And after all I do now have a no-new-books rule - yes, on this occasion I think I will choose to observe it and therefore to say no Volume 2.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Nourished, Soothed and Refreshed

Once upon a time, you would need to eat a meal, talk to someone you trusted and maybe have a swim in a cold and dangerous sea, to achieve these states of mind and body. Now you can just go into the bathroom:



Friday, 14 June 2019

The Public

In The Strange Death of Liberal England, Dangerfield observes that:

"'The public', of course, is a brittle expression which, the moment one examines it, offers to break into numberless fragments

I am grateful to him for making this point as, ever since I read it, I have been alert to the use of "the public" and find myself distrusting any document that contains it, as it is an indication that the writer lacks clarity in his or her thinking. 

Therefore, while lots of people I know have been impressed by this piece, for my part, having encountered "the public" being invoked in the very first paragraph, to quote Count Jenő Teleki, (one of Patrick Leigh Fermor's hosts in Between the Woods and the Water), "I ha'e ma doubts" 


Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Meals in Books - Flemton Banquet in The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

I read Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes recently. I hope I will get around to writing about it soon. To use a food analogy, since this is a post about food in the book, it was a curate's egg.

Near the beginning of the book, there is a village banquet though, which sounds okay; certainly there is no lack of food, even though some of it - most particularly those jugs of custard - doesn't sound entirely enticing:

"Already ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys, legs and shoulders of mutton, loins of pork, sirloins of beef, sucking-pigs - there was far more provender than the Wreckers ever could have cooked alone, and according to custom it had been farmed out among all the private ovens in the place.

Now, with all these and with huge home-cured hams boiled in cider as well, with pans of sausages, apple-pies, shudderng jellies in purple and yellow, castellated blancmanges, bedroom jugs of congealed Bird's custard, buckets of boiled potatoes, basins of cabbage - every matron of Flemton was gathered in the Wreckers big kitchen and full of jollity"

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Annunciations - National Gallery, London

Perhaps because I am female and have on occasion been surprised to discover that I am to have a baby, I love paintings of the annunciation to the Virgin of Christ's coming arrival and always look for them in any gallery I go to. Recently in London at the National Gallery I spotted two that were new to me:

 This is by the Master of Liesborn, the gallery's caption tells us, active in the second half of the 15th century. It was probably painted somewhere between 1470 and 1480. The caption continues thus: "In a comfortably furnished room, the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear God's son, Jesus Christ. The scene is framed by an arch on which perch the statues of Old Testament prophets. This is one of several scenes of the life of Christ from the Liesborn Altarpiece. (Oil on oak)
For me, the Virgin's expression is a bit uncomplicated in this depiction. However, I love the minute details - the cushions, each with its own design, the patterned flooring, the carved wood of the bench, the stained glass of the window, and the glimpses of the calm world beyond the windows.

This one is by Poussin, painted in 1657. The gallery's wall caption tells us: "The Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that, through the medium of the Holy Spirit, she will bear the son of God. The Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, hovers over Mary as she joyfully accepts the message (Luke i: 26-38) According to the inscription, the work was painted during the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII".


I am resistant to this painting. I dislike the angel. I am intrigued by Mary - although at first I thought she had been portrayed as simply accepting the news gratefully, looking closer I see that it is possible to see awe and some shock in her expression. Her drapery is beautifully painted, as is her hand and her touchingly bare feet. All the same, it will not become one of my favourites. Poussin always leaves me with little impression of his humanity, although no one could argue that he didn't know what he was doing with paint.


Friday, 7 June 2019

Learning Foreign Languages

I wrote a post some time ago about how much I like to learn languages, while never expecting to master any of them - how, in fact, that is part of the pleasure. Like learning a craft, when you try to learn another language, you are embarking on a task - or taking up a hobby - in which your skill cannot ever be entirely perfected. Even in one’s native language, there are unexplored areas, and this is doubly so with a language you set out to learn after acquiring your own. You therefore have a rich source of mental activity ahead of you for as long as you live.

Another pleasurable aspect of language learning, particularly in a time of uncertainty and relativism, is the immutability of much of the material you study. You meet a word you have never seen before and you search a dictionary for its meaning. You find it, and that’s it. You don’t have to argue about whether the word might actually mean something quite different, whether the source of your information is a fake news outlet (although I do admit there is a whole other post to be written about politics and dictionaries - we have a whole shelf of Croatian-English dictionaries, given to us as presents by Croatian diplomats since the break up of Yugoslavia; each volume is  rich with newly discovered vocabulary that differentiates the Croatian language definitively from the Serbian one) or feel any doubts at all about the information before you. This word in this language conveys what you mean in your language when you use that word. Learn this word and you can express that concept, no ifs or ands or buts.

But what I like better than all this about language learning is finding out about tiny, puzzling variations in perspective that are embedded in each nation’s language. Thus, for example, while we English speakers (apart from some Scots), think, when telling the time, about the past - referring back to the hour that has just been when we say “ten past one” or “five thirty”, those who speak Hungarian tell the time with their eyes firmly on the future. Their one fifteen is actually a quarter of the way to two o’clock; their half past five, becomes half the way to six.

Of course, having said I like the fixed certainties involved in  learning another language, I’m now contradicting myself, since what I love about this aspect of the activity is its mysterious quality. How are one’s attitudes affected by such tiny variations in the way we think about time and other elements of existence? Are we all seeing the same world, regardless of the language that we speak?

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A Columnist's Farewell

Sorting through some papers the other day, I found the final regular column Susie Boyt wrote for the Financial Times, in which as a farewell gesture she endeavoured to provide a list of life-truths, if that is the right word, (or right hyphenated term).

I remember that I kept a copy of the column because I felt sad that she was quitting. As it happens, I think that she has come back, writing the column on an occasional basis, but at the time it seemed we were seeing the last of her whimsical imagination, and I felt sad. My sadness led me to go out and buy a novel she had written - with the idea of filling the gap left by the missing column - and, as a result, I  discovered, disappointingly, that Boyt's talent is bettered suited to being a columnist than a novelist. Never mind. Although my respect for her was slightly diminished by that experience, Boyt still seems to me to be a spirit that one wants to be fond of rather than not.

Certainly, in the set of life truths she supplied in that, as it turned out, not quite final FT column, there are many things that I agree with and others that at least provoke a bit of thought.

Here is the list, without any comment from me on which are, to my mind the most endearing or the most intriguing points she makes:


Things that are hard have more of life at their heart than things that are easy.

The future must prove better and happier than the past.

All feelings, however painful, are to be prized.

Glamour is a moral stance.

Loss, its memory and its anticipation, lies at the heart of the human experience.

If you have a thin skin all aspects of life cost more and have more value.

The world is crueller and more wonderful than anyone ever says.

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you're needed, for the call could come at any time.

There are worse things in life than being taken for a ride.

Grief is no real match for the human heart, which is an infinitely resourceful organ (she adds - I really hope that one is true)


I am grateful to Susie Boyt for this list and for the pleasure her columns have given me


Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A Mirror Written Cake

Yesterday we went over the river and up the hill to Budapest's Castle District to look at an exhibition of photographs we'd seen a poster for. The exhibition displays part of a project called Fortepan.

Fortepan is a vast archive of photographs that started as a collection made by Miklos Tamasi and Akos Szepessy, two friends, who from the 1990s onwards bought discarded pictures in jumble sales and gathered them up from the street throw-outs that happen in each Budapest district twice a year. When they put what they had online in 2010, other people joined in, adding their own photographs. The archive is enormous and fascinating and you can find it here.

The exhibition from the archive is beautifully curated so, if you are in Budapest, I recommend going to see it - it is on until 25 August. Even though all the photographs on display can be found on-line, the way they are presented in the exhibition adds resonance and depth to the experience of looking at them. Having forked out an absurdly large sum of money recently to see the exhibition of Martin Parr's pictures at London's National Portrait Gallery, I was struck by how this haunting collection of amateur snaps manages to ask many of the questions he asks with his photography and to highlight many of his themes, but without what I felt was his slight arrogance and mild contempt for humanity. Because of the mixed fortunes of the Hungarian nation during the last century or so, the pictures also tell a very remarkable and poignant story, showing hardship and resilience and a lot of sadness.

There were two particularly striking sections of the exhibition that it would be especially hard to replicate by looking through the digital archive. I will therefore try to give an idea of them here.

The first was a set of displays called something like Twin Pictures (that wasn't exactly its name, but I can't recall the precise title). In this section, you saw a photograph that appeared to be hanging by itself on the wall, but you then realised there was a small handle in the middle of the bottom of the photograph's frame. When you lifted this, you discovered the photograph you'd been looking at was actually mounted on a hinged board. When you raised the board, another photograph of the same subject but taken at a different moment was revealed hanging underneath.

Some of the twinned pictures were dreadful, highlighting the effects of war and revolution:


This one, for instance, shows the Castle District seen from a balcony, probably on the lower slopes of the Gellert Hill, in 1943.


This one shows the same scene from the same vantage point in 1946. Incidentally, both are from the collection of Carl Lutz, who was Swiss vice consul to Hungary during the Second World War and saved tens of thousands of people's lives, an extraordinary and very courageous man, who thought nothing of plunging into the icy Danube to rescue someone the Arrow Cross were trying to murder and then - still drenched, in freezing weather and soaked clothes - taking on the German authorities who were allowing the attempted murder to take place. You don't meet many like him on the ordinary diplomatic circuit

This picture shows Kossuth Lajos street in 1954, during a May Day parade:

This shows the same scene during the 1956 uprising. Both can be found in much more vivid detail at the Fortepan site. Search for the first by entering the number 129449; for the second, enter 129465.


More cheerful was this pair, in the background of which you can see the building where the Fortepan exhibition is being held:




In this sequence, I though there was something very touching about the character of the person in both photographs: in the second we see she has grown up but has not lost a certain innocent openness in the process:


The other section that I thought had been brilliantly conceived by the curators was one in which they chose to display the letters they had received from members of the public who had come upon a picture they recognised in the archive. The letters are very touching; their writers are so thrilled to have a little glimpse back into their past and to see people they were fond of who are no longer around.


In response to this next picture, someone wrote to the archive: "Fortepan is a wonderful thing.  I suddenly came across the old family shop with our old family home. It was my great-grandmother Mrs Izso Gotzler (Debora Neumann) who founded the corsetry shop in Ujpest. After the war her daughter took over the business, because Debora never returned from Auschwitz. By the time I was born, the shop had closed and Manyoka (Margit) had gone into retirement: there were few memories of the house. Then I happened to open the Fortepan site and there was the shop wth Manyoka on the signboard."

Imagine having to write about a relative, "Debora never returned from Auschwitz". 



In response to this picture, another person wrote: "The smiling face of our father, who died 25 years ago, can be seen in some of the pictures. He is one of the goalkeepers and can be seen squatting in the middle of this shot. The picture must have been taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s at the playing field belonging to the Motorcycle and Machine Factory on Fehervari Street. I was born in 1970 and I have a clear but fleeting memory of my father waving at me from behind the fence."


This one similarly brought back a lost relative for someone: "I discovered my grandmother in a 1959 photograph on your website. Sadly, she passed away in 2010, and I was over the moon to see her again in this way. I've been living abroad for a long time and so this is a true delight for me."



This, meanwhile, brought back a memory of a schoolfriend: "The picture of schoolchildren on bicycles was made around 1960 in Ujpest. A group of schoolchildren were taking part in a road traffic course. Perhaps this explains the new bicycles. I discovered in the middle of the picture Otto Lecz, a dear classmate of mine from high school. Sadly he passed away some years ago. We both attended the prestigious Konyves Kalman High School between 1960 and 1964. To the archive's creators, best wishes for 2018 from Mexico, where I have been living for 45 years."



I have always wondered why we take photographs, what the point is of trying to capture moments that we are not experiencing because we are taking photographs to try to capture them. However, confronted with these photographs, en masse, I have begun to wonder about my reservations. Looking at the pictures in this enormous collection, time and human life take on a slightly different aspect. Although the individual photographs often seem insignificant, (except, as is obvious from the letters above, to those for whom they have a special meaning), seen as a group they acquire a mysterious resonance. In some strange way, they seem to be collectively expressing something about time. What exactly that something is, I'm not sure; what I am certain of though is that the Fortepan site is one of the best ways I've found in years of consuming hours and hours.


(I should explain that the title of this post refers to my mind's insistence on thinking of Fortepan as Panforte, which is, of course, a Sienese cake)

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Night Thoughts

The things I've been fretting about when I wake at three in the morning:

Death, of course, that goes without saying

Pride - can it be true that there have been marches in favour of pride going on for years, and I've never noticed? Why the abbreviation from Gay Pride? Can celebrating pride, pure and simple, without adjectival distinction, ever be anything but, at least smug and at worst callous?

Whether a society in which a young man can grow up thinking it is reasonable to try to punish someone he believes has sold him the wrong goods by throwing sulphuric acid at him is redeemable - especially when that young man, having allowed that acid to burn someone totally unconnected with him, does nothing and, when that same person dies and he is sentenced for her manslaughter, his reaction contains no discernible trace of empathy

Why interesting films it might be worth leaving the house to watch now seem so rare.

Whether, on narrow pavements, those of us who walk very fast should feel that those who walk slowly should hurry up, or whether we should instead be grateful for the opportunity to slow down (I do remember a relative asking me, "Why do you walk so unnecessarily fast?")

Whether dust is really god's way of protecting the furniture or whether perhaps I am just deluding myself.

Whether peonies - bought as tight buds at the local market but over the last few days opening bit by bit - are the prettiest flowers of all:





Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Limitations of Logic

We live in a flat that can only be reached by climbing ninety-six stairs. This means that it is difficult for many of our friends to visit us - they are too old to manage the climb, or, due to accident or illness, too weak in lung or limb.

I have a very good logical solution to this, which would mean they could visit easily. My solution is to employ some strong young men - they could be attractive too, if this would be helpful - to carry frail guests up the staircase. There is no shortage of hail and hearty males available - they happily run up and down the stairs with new fridges and bits of furniture when we buy them. The availability of the means of transport is not a problem at all.

But somehow, even though this is a rational, logical solution to a problem, it will not do. Illogical though it most definitely is, I know no one who is prepared to be carried anywhere, upstairs, downstairs or along flat ground. There is a loss of dignity involved that makes it better simply to refuse to attempt the ascent to flats on high floors if the only means of transport is a fireman's lift. I understand this although I cannot explain it in rational terms.

Similarly, the way I reacted the other day to what was, logically, a perfect question for starting a conversation, defied good sense.  It was at a social gathering to which I'd been invited as my husband's wife - that is to say, it was his achievements that had resulted in our attendance, not my own, meagre as they are.

At this event, a very high-powered woman involved in Washington politics found herself stuck next to me and decided to try to make conversation. After exchanging names and our reasons for being at the party, she sallied forth boldly with the question, "What are your interests?"

Again, just as logic dictates that hiring men to carry my more infirm guests upstairs makes sense, the clever woman's question was, logically, excellent. If you want to get to know someone, it's obvious - ask them about themselves, ask them for the information you need. It's a straightforward approach. It seems so reasonable - the data is lacking, so ask for it.

Yet it isn't, because, once again, it turns out that human beings are not always straightforward - at least I'm not. The very idea of being put on the spot and asked, bluntly, to talk about myself, appalled me. Leaving aside the fact that I was told repeatedly throughout my childhood never to be pushy,  on what basis would I reveal myself to a stranger? When you meet people, in my reality at least, you need to meander about conversationally, talking about neutral things, until you have established that your perspectives are vaguely similar and you can more or less trust each other enough to discuss the important things in life. Until I'm sure of the temperament of an interlocutor, my aim is to deflect personal questions - and not only out of an instinct for self-preservation, but also from a desire not to come across as a self-obsessed bore.

Mind you, in my case my interests are so abnormal that my reaction is actually probably not really all that illogical anyway, when you come down to it. I realised this when, too shocked to think of an alternative strategy, I endeavoured to answer the Washington woman honestly. I heard myself saying, "Handspinning alpaca wool, making patchworks out of my husband's old shirts, listening to The Archers", and I saw her eyes glaze with boredom (or was it horror?) at almost the speed of light.  And I hadn't even got on to the comparative grammar systems of Slavic, Romance and Finno-Ugric languages or the merits of Gregg shorthand in comparison to Pitman's, the mysterious quality of the paintings of the Northern Primitives and the difficulty of choosing between van Eyk and van der Weyden, the wonders of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and ...

Conversation, I realised at that moment, needs to proceed irrationally, each participant a diver in deep, dark water, groping for handholds in the uncertain gloom. Hurling a sensible question into the mix has the effect of a harpoon plunging into a rockpool, sending everyone scuttling back into their respective crevices and holes.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Modern Manners

Planning to make a stock, I ask for chicken carcasses at the butcher’s counter in a Bristol supermarket. “We aren’t allowed to sell bones”, they tell me, “you’ll need a butcher’s shop for that.”

I could ask who made this new mad rule and why it was agreed to, but instead I ask if there is a butcher’s shop nearby. They don’t know, and so I plunge out of the place, so fed up with this new pointless complication that I don’t notice that I’m leaving by a different doorway from the one by which I entered.

I find myself on a street full of marvellous sandstone buildings and wonder, as I always do when I see streets like this in Bristol, (and there are plenty): how to reconcile the loveliness of much of Bristol’s architecture with the fact that much of it was probably paid for out of money made through the ownership of slaves. And from there, as usual, my mind passes to the question of how people could even for a moment think it was okay to “own” other human beings - couldn’t they still have made money by offering people work in another country, paying them reasonably there and not behaving monstrously? Profits still could have been made, surely, but not at the awful expense of others?

Impossible questions - and no sign of a butcher’s shop. So I approach a young woman who is placing a folding chalkboard on the pavement.

“Sorry to bother you” I say, “but could you tell me if there’s a butcher’s shop nearby?”

Her expression changes from wary friendliness to what appears to be a mixture of shock and anger. I am taken aback when she turns and walks off, leaving me alone with her billboard.

Which reads, I now notice, “Vegan food, this way”.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Battered Penguins - Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings

Visiting Petworth House last month, I found a box of books for sale for almost nothing. Most of them were worth less than nothing but there were four clad in the old green and white Penguin covers that designated mystery novels once upon a time. They were all by Macdonald Hastings who, according to the back covers of the books, was one of the founders of Country Life magazine and, at the time the books were published, married to Anne Scott-James, who was a familiar voice on radio in my childhood. He also, I later learned, was the father of Max Hastings, journalist, historian and hater of  Boris Johnson

This week I read the first of the four and enjoyed it very much. The Cork of the title is Montague Cork, general manager of the Anchor Accident Insurance Company in the City of London. Clearly, the phenomenon of insurance men investigating incidents that their companies might have to cough up for was well accepted in the early to mid twentieth century, as Ronald Knox also established a series of novels with a main character, Miles Bredon, who works for the Indescribable Insurance company as an investigator targeting fraud.

Unlike Bredon, who is an investigator first and foremost, Mr Cork is new to investigating and is more usually to be found in his office. However, his instinct, something that he believes is "the secret ... of such success that he had had, the success that the company had had", tells him that there is something odd about a particular claim and, as he explains to another character, although the amount involved is a drop in the ocean for his company, for the sake of integrity - "This great City of London you're in now has become what it is for many reasons, but the first of them is honest dealing. That is what we are so anxious to preserve." - he sets out to discover more. This leads to Richard Hannayesque adventures in Scotland and eventual resolution, followed by a treatise on salmon, for good measure.

If you enjoy wonderfully old-fashioned attitudes, good writing - I liked, for example: 1. the way a villain's change of expression is described thus: "the smile slowly smeared over his face again"; 2. the conjuring up of a certain kind of Highland hotel interior decoration, probably now extinct: "He opened the door and looked out into the hall, lined with stags' antlers, coloured fishing prints, and a collection of unspeakable brass pots arranged on carved teak furniture which Mr Mackenzie, or Mr Mackenzie's father, had brought back with him from India years before"; and 3. this description of landscape: "In the grey light of early morning, the flooded burns glittered like burnished copper. The fronds of bracken, lining the banks, were sticky and heavy with rain. The peat hags were swollen like leeches with blood-red water. The storm, drawing all the bright colours out of the hills, had washed the landscape till it was all drab sepias, live greens and the reds of rotting vegetation. The silver birches, fighting for a living among the outcrop rock, bent and creaked in the wind like rows of dead men on a gibbet" - then Cork on the Water may be for you. 

Although essentially a light read, the story does raise questions about vengeance and is also interesting on the effects of war on those who live through it. As Mr Cork points out to Robert, his young associate, the villain of the piece, Gabriel Daggers, has been produced by the experience of war. "Daggers, like you too, Robert, was one of the products of a world war", he tells Robert, adding, "In you, war confirmed your good qualities. In Daggers, it had the opposite effect. He found out that he was more courageous, more ruthless, more cunning in battle than the men around him. He rejoiced in the dangers of war and the lawlessness of it."

The book is also extremely vivid when it comes to accounts of fishing, demonstrating that the sport is not a dull one, even if, to an observer watching fishermen waiting patiently on a river bank, it may appear to be. As Mr Cork observes, "If I didn't get excited, I wouldn't come fishing". Reading Hastings's descriptions of the struggle between man and hooked fish, I couldn't help wondering, as I often have, why it is that so much fuss is made about fox hunting, but the suffering of fish at the hands of sportsmen seems to affect the tender-hearted much less severely. My theory is that it is because fish don't bleed.

Hastings conjures up a number of believable, if slightly caricatured, figures to people his tale. My favourite in many ways is the person with whom the book begins and ends, Lt-Col. Adrian de Crecy Johnson (Rtd). It is he who provides the book's Appendix, which contains a great deal of information about salmon and is delivered with hilarious bombast. "It is characteristic of the cult of the mediocre, which is such a regrettable feature of our times...", he insists, before going into some specifics about the study of fish scales. What I found particularly appealing in this section was the Lt-Col's characterisation of cabillaud, the damp, dull fish that seemed to be ubiquitous on the dinner tables of Belgium when I lived there.  Cabillaud, or cod is, he declares "almost inedible." I wholeheartedly agree.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

We All Lack All Conviction

Observing the events in the House of Commons over the past week or so, I find it hard to believe that anyone will vote for any party in any British election with anything approaching conviction any more.

While thinking about this, I came across an interesting review of Faber's reissue of The Selected Poetry of Christopher Logue. The piece contained this poem by Logue; it amused me; it also made me wonder whether such a poem could be written now. Nothing is straightforward any more, not politics, especially party politics, not humour - and least of all humour when mixed with politics.

I Shall Vote Labour 
I shall vote Labour because
God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour to protect
the sacred institution of The Family.
I shall vote Labour because
I am a dog.
I shall vote Labour because
upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because
I am on a diet.
I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
somebody else will:
AND
I shall vote Labour because if one person does it
everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because
there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because I am
a hopeless drug addict.
I shall vote Labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because Labour will build
more maximum security prisons.
I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
I shall vote Labour because
the Queen’s stamp collection is the best in the world.
I shall vote Labour because
deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.

If you want to read more about Logue and be quite amused, this article is not a bad place to start. "I'll crush you with my Daimler" indeed.

Funny Things

Here are a couple of things that have amused me this week.

I don't know whether to believe all the items included in the first, although I want to:


As a long time intermittent listener to BBC Radio 4's The Archers - (each episode occupies just the correct amount of time in which to do the washing up and requires just exactly the amount of attention - practically none - I want to give to it, while also thinking, or half-thinking about other things) - I don't think there has ever been a moment when I wouldn't have found it perfectly acceptable to hear that the entire cast of the show had been hurled down a disused mineshaft, especially if the child character of Henry had been the first one to go:
Which is not to say I dislike the programme. Or rather, I do dislike it, but it is familiar and the strange thing is that the familiar can often be almost as pleasant as something one actively loves, (is that Stockholm syndrome?) Furthermore, a great advantage of The Archers is that, if all else fails and you hit a conversational brick wall, provided the other person you are talking to also listens to the programme, you will always have that to share.

Provided they don't like Henry.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Battered Penguins - The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

Although I’ve known about Daphne du Maurier all my life, until I found two of her novels in a secondhand bookshop in Hawes, North Yorkshire, a few weeks back I had not read anything by her.

The two novels I found in Hawes were My Cousin Rachel, which was the first one I tried. In it, I admired above all the opening page, plus: 1. du Maurier’s descriptions of Cornish landscape; and 2. the ingenious way in which the first and last lines of the book are absolutely exactly the same - that is one of the cleverest tricks I've ever seen in a novel.

All the same, for my taste the plot was too melodramatic and things became a bit repetitive - did she/didn't she, was she/wasn't she?  Page followed page and this dilemma kept being reiterated. In the end I got fed up. The drive to know what was going to happen won out over my enjoyment of the journey, and I flicked on through the pages to the end of the book and the plot resolution that I found there. I have to admit that I am a very impatient reader and in the end, despite du Maurier's best efforts, I got rather bored. Mea culpa.

The Scapegoat suited me much better. For a start the situation was a much more interesting one - rather than a reworking of the myth of the woman devil/angel, this book concerns the story of two men of identical appearance who meet by chance and swap lives with each other. To make this appear not only believable but entirely feasible is no easy task but du Maurier manages it brilliantly. She also displays much greater inventiveness than she does in My Cousin Rachel, as in The Scapegoat she creates not only a whole array of vivid characters but an entire world, in a setting that was not, as My Cousin Rachel's setting was, intimately familiar to her.  The plot also is a great deal more complex than that of My Cousin Rachel. It contains not just one but a number of different threads that each need resolution. I was gripped by the story for almost all of the novel, and I came away with huge admiration for du Maurier's imaginative powers and storytelling gift - both traits that I think may be underestimated at the moment and possibly a bit out of fashion in the world of literary fiction.

Of course, some might say that du Maurier's work is not literary fiction, but she writes so well, with such a grasp of language and such excellent descriptive ability that I don't think it would be fair to class her with writers of hackneyed potboilers just because she sets out to be entertaining. I think she deserves enormous respect for the rare skill she has for conjuring whole imaginary casts of people and grounding them in believable, vividly portrayed places that she has entirely made up.

When I said that the two lookalikes swap lives with each other, I should have explained that, in fact, one is forced into this by the other, who leaves him no choice. Having got extremely drunk with his French doppelganger, Jean, English John wakes up in the morning to find the Frenchman has scarpered, taking all his belongings. People appear in the hotel room where he has been sleeping and they all expect John to be their Jean. Before he knows it John has been forced into the position of taking over the other man's life.

This other man turns out to be a count, head of what is, at the time John comes into the role,  a dysfunctional family. Over the course of the following days, plodding English John uses his native commonsense and decency to set all to rights and by the end of the novel, thanks to him, everyone in the chateau is on the path to peace and happiness. What happens next I cannot tell without giving the plot away.

I suppose if one wanted to see it, there might be a Brexit parallel to be found in all this, or at least a comforting impression that solid old England, represented by John, could sort out Johnny foreigner’s mess. While the political situation right now appears to be pretty much a mirror image of this situation, England in a shambles and Johnny foreigner triumphant, the salient point (she said desperately) is the mirror element. Mirror images are at the heart of the book and things are not always what they seem on the surface. As the introduction to my edition points out, in her examination of what happens when two beings who are outwardly identical swap places, “what du Maurier does so brilliantly is to shows us that identity (mistaken or not) is largely based on what others want or expect of us, what they project on us”. If only the EU understood that they should have wanted dear old Blighty to run the show, everything would have been all right.

Shut up, Zoe, no one wants to think about Brexit - and, indeed, it was to escape the whole subject that you picked up these novels in the first place.

I should add that, despite my initial assertion that this book is very different from My Cousin Rachel, like that book it is concerned with the possibility of duality in a central character. That is to say, just as the reader is never certain whether Rachel is a much maligned person or unspeakably wicked, so in John and Jean, we can, if we wish see a devil and a saint. However, du Maurier's tale in the end suggests that each individual contains both possibilities and even when someone's motives are devilish - as Jean's may be, in tricking John into taking over his life - the results can be entirely for the good - in this case, the effect is that John learns how to love. When he realises that this has happened, John asks another character,"What do I do with love?" The answer he receives is, for my money, the best line in the book:  "You give it away."

I think it is all too easy to dismiss du Maurier because she produced plot-driven novels and did not give a great deal of attention, so far as I can see, to style (I'm not suggesting her writing is bad, just that, for her, style is not the central thing). On the evidence of these books, it seems to me that she was a born storyteller with a rare gift for creating in the reader’s mind vivid imaginary worlds, crowded with apparently real people. That is a great deal harder than it looks and for du Maurier I have nothing but respect and admiration.