Friday, 3 April 2020

Lockdown Bulletin No. 3

Well here we all still are. Not much wiser about how to get things back to normal - apart from the charmless libertarian Toby Young in the new online magazine The Critic, rather wetly echoed in Australia by Adam Creighton in the Australian. They seem certain that shutdown measures are too extreme. The claim is that there will be just as many deaths caused by unemployment as might be by COVID19 and therefore straight after Easter we should all just go back to the way things were before.

Yes, the suggestion is that in 10 days time, just as - in the United Kingdom at least, I fear - hospitals will be entering exceptionally dark times, everyone should just forget about the chance of getting ill and dying, get up as if nothing is happening and hop on the tube and go back to work. You'll probably be fine, is the argument - well most of you, although it's impossible to say which ones won't be. Toby Young ended his article with the claim that he was actually suffering from the coronavirus infection while writing and was happy to become collateral damage, provided the economy could be put back on track, which I think he thought was a marvellous flourish but of course actually entirely undermined his argument since, if he has actually contracted the illness, he is arguing from a perspective utterly unlike that of the person who has not yet been attacked. That is, he knows that he is either a) going to die, in which case, from his point of view removing all restrictions won't matter or b) going to survive, in which case he will have immunity and will be fine if all restrictions are removed

I'm astonished by the number of otherwise sane people who argue that these proposals need consideration. To me, the suggestion that government should stand idly by while, in very short order large numbers die from a previously unknown disease is ludicrous. Few people have much faith in the political system anyway but, were politicians to shrug and adopt a laissez faire approach to this epidemic, on the grounds that the economy is paramount, what little trust that remains would evaporate. Patience is needed. Within a couple of months I suspect something will be sorted out - my imagination conjures up a tedious and unremitting rigmarole of testing, which will lead to certificates for those who have immunity and return to normal life, limited mixing for those without (complete with yet more admonitions about handwashing) and isolation for those who turn out to be carrying the virus, plus tracing of all those with whom they've been in contact (the tests involved must not be made in China; I'm hoping their manufacture, administration and analysis will provide plenty of jobs for those made unemployed by the current lockdown, they will all pay taxes and everything will be just fine on the finance front [Pollyanna is my middle name, although I do recognise that the people involved in the bureaucracy attached to this system will almost certainly be more obstructive and maddening than I can imagine.])

It's all too hard, it's costing a lot of money and, look, sure some people die, but, guess what, we all die some time, that is what the Toby-Young-and-cohort proposition boils down to. I imagine given half a chance they would argue that the asbestos industry really ought to have kept going as it's such a useful substance and not that many people suffer agonising death as a result of it. Creighton does drag in the tobacco industry, arguing that the Australian government countenances 12,000 deaths per year from smoking. The things you can do with statistics - leaving aside all the other arguments wrapped up in that claim, they don't all die at once, bringing down the hospital system with them, as has happened in Italy and Spain with the influx of people suffering from the extreme version of this new disease.

But I must admit that in Britain the government has done a pretty good job of squandering public faith all by itself, thanks to its breathtakingly incompetent scientific advisers, with their babble about "modelling" and "behavioural science" and apparent lack of any commonsense.. Watching University Challenge the other evening, I saw the look on the face of a spectacled member of the Durham University team when faced with a tricky question, and I thought, yes, I think that was probably, for rather too long a time, the reaction of Sir Patrick Vallance; Professor Whitty; the maddening Dr Jenny Harries - who insisted one day that mass gatherings were safe as houses and, without a hint of an apology, insisted the next time she emerged that none of us should ever see each other again; and Dr Graham Medley, the one who was wishing for "a nice big epidemic" when confronted with the imminent question of what to do about this new virus:

I kept wondering as I saw the group of government science advisors wheeled out on a nightly basis, how so many highly qualified, supposedly clever people could have failed so spectacularly to see that something pretty dreadful was hurtling toward the nation? How could they have not learned anything from the methods being used in Singapore or Taiwan or even South Korea to contain this new, highly infectious threat?

Then I remembered talking to a friend of my mother's, a farmer, who has recently got to know his new neighbour, a smallholder who works as a civil servant in Canberra and knows nothing about being on the land. My mother's friend was late to meet us because he'd been helping out his neighbour who had got himself in a muddle with his livestock. My mother asked her friend what the neighbour was like. "He's clever", he told her, "he's got about five degrees, so he's very clever." My mother's friend paused, "He's so clever he's stupid, I think", he eventually said.

Five degrees, terribly clever - so clever, they're stupid; yes, there's a lot of that about.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Lockdown Bulletin - Cooking Notes

Now that being anywhere near strangers feels as dangerous as hanging about beside a radioactive reactor rod, I'm being very careful with food, using every last scrap of even the most unappetising objects I find skulking in the refridgerator. I don't want to go to the shop again, unless I absolutely have to.

But I'm also trying to cook nice food.

Which calls for some adaptations and compromises.

To give an idea of what I'm talking about, last night I spotted some large, unprepossessing carrots hiding up the back of the vegetable drawer. I think at the time that I bought them the phrase 'social distancing' was one that I had not yet ever heard - yes, that old.

I took them out, remembering a recipe I'd seen in a weekend paper for carrots cooked in ginger. I hunted the recipe down. It called for finger thin baby carrots. Never mind, same diff. It called for ginger infused cider. Well I had some fresh ginger but cider ...

I crawled under the hall table where we keep wine and after a bit I found a small bottle of Tokaji somebody very kindly gave us in 2009 or '10. The cork had begun to crumble. Ideal.

I followed most of the rest of the recipe's instructions, (more or less, honouring it in spirit if not in whatever).  And believe it or not, they were the most delicious carrots either of us have ever eaten. And I'd never have cooked them, if I hadn't been in this peculiar, somewhat anxious situation. Which may mean there are if not silver linings at least shiny tin foil or copper bottomed ones?

The only problem is, having not actually followed a recipe and not having access to a constant supply of small bottles of Tokaji with rotting corks, will I ever be able to make them again?

Monday, 23 March 2020

Holed Up in Hungary - Lockdown Bulletin No. 2

I woke early and thought it might be a good time to go down to the shop as nobody would be there. I was wrong and as I rushed about, heart pounding, fearful that the air was full of flying virus, grabbing paprika flavoured crisps, sour cream, a packet of tea and some eggs, forgetting what I really wanted - wine - all the people around me grew ever more sensationally dangerous, in my mind.

And all the time my face kept begging my hands to touch it. But I'm pleased to report that my hands steadfastly refused. My face was left disappointed. Why the hell is it so demanding?

Back at home, I continued to plough my way through my two Hungarian textbooks. I’ll describe them another day as they are quite amusing, each in their own way. For now, the interesting thing I've noticed is how even the vocabulary you look up while reading articles in other languages will inevitably reflect the nature of the times you’re in. Thus it is only now that I have discovered the words for sneeze; intensive care; and curfew in French, the word for corpse in Italian and the word for recuperation in German. Over the years until now, I've never felt the need for any of these and I'm extremely sorry I do now.

Some people are saying that our heightened awareness of death is giving us all a new pleasure in life. No. Wrong.

On the Twitter and poetry - well sort of poetry - front, here is a refashioned parody of Hungarian Rhapsody, a song by the band called Queen. You have to know the tune to read it with any pleasure. It has a rude bit in it (everything has a rude bit in it these days, sadly), but it is quite clever - and I'm definitely interested in creative things coming from this vile Chinese virus. The writer goes by the Twitter name of @danajaybein:

I've lost my mind.

I wrote Coronavirus Rhapsody:

Is this a sore throat?
Is this just allergies?
Caught in a lockdown
No escape from reality.
Don’t touch your eyes
Just hand sanitize quicklyyyyy

I’m just a poor boy, no job security
Because of easy spread, even though
washed your hands, laying low
I look out the window, the curve doesn’t look flatter to me, to me

mama, just killed a man
i didn’t stay inside in bed
I walked by him, now he’s dead
mama, life was so much fun
but now I’ve caught this unforgiving plague

mama, oooooh
didn’t mean to make them die
if I’m not back to work this time tomorrow
carry on, carry on as if people didn’t matter

too late, my time has come
sends shivers down my spine
body’s aching all the time
goodbye everybody, I’ve got the flu
gotta leave you all behind and face the truth

mama, oooooh
I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I never went out at all

I see a little silhouette of a man
what a douche, what a douche
did he even wash his hands though
security is tightening 
very very frightening me

Gotta lay low (gotta lay low)
Gotta lay low (gotta lay low)
Gotta lay low masturbate
Masturbate O O O O

I’m just a poor boy, facing mortality
spare him his life from this monstrosity
Touch your face, wash your hands, will you wash your hands?
WASH YOUR HANDS! (never, never, never wash your hands oh oh oh oh oh oh oh)
No no no no no
Oh mama mia, mia (mama mia wash your hands!)

COVID-19 has a sickness put aside for me, for me
So you think you can stop me and just shake my hand? 
So you think we can hang out and not break our plans? 
Oh baby, can’t do this with me, baby,
Just gotta stay home, just gotta stay home with my fever

Curving can get flatter
Anyone can see
Curving can get flatter
Curving can get flatter, you’ll see

Just look out your windows….


Saturday, 21 March 2020

Holed Up in Hungary: Lockdown Bulletin No. 1

Well, despite what they’ve been trying to make us believe, this new COVID virus thingy has taught us the truth: sixty is not the new forty, after all. In fact, sixty is the new ninety-seven, for sixty is now the age beyond which you don’t get treated in hospitals - at least not if they are besieged by patients suffering from the effects of the latest iteration of coronavirus. Which they soon will be, everywhere in the Western world.

Thank you, Mr Xi, thank you WHO, run by a notable alumnus of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Good to have international health in the hands of an adherent of a Marxist Leninist organisation.

This pandemic couldn’t be some kind of a deliberate plot, could it?

We will never know. But never mind - as Psalm 39 says:

“Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.”

In Hungary, we’re in shutdown, or lockdown or self-isolation or whatever the new term is. As long as I don’t remember why I rarely go out, I don’t mind, as it’s extremely nice in our flat, but what if it wasn’t? How is it for people cooped up in places they don’t much like?

These are the things I’ve been doing while “social distancing” (so modern - I've always hated modern, except in dentistry):

1. Reading the book I’ve been reading since October, about the English Civil War:

I bought it because at school I was taught nothing about this period in English history and I wanted to understand it. I have by no means finished it but I already think I understand why they don’t teach it much to schoolchildren - the war itself was scrappy and confusing and for long periods inconclusive and the causes of the war were strange religious obsessions and the very poor leadership of King Charles I, who appears to have been pretty imperceptive and indecisive. Furthermore, when he did actually make a decision, he almost invariably made the wrong one. At least that’s my impression so far.

2. Sewing: I hated China’s regime long before this latest proof of what a horror show it is came along. Therefore, I have been making my own clothes for years to avoid supporting the Chinese regime's economy. I haven’t yet succeeded in making my own iPhone, mind you, but I have resisted replacing my super battered one with a shiny new version:

Now I think about it though, (lot of time for thinking these days), I’d be willing to bet that most of the materials I’m using to make my own clothes were woven in China, so I’m probably achieving nothing, other than having unique (slightly peculiar) garments (at least currently [forever?] seen by none).

3. trying to learn Hungarian (I can almost understand a newspaper headline now, sometimes)

4. obsessively checking Twitter, hoping against hope that it will be flooded with joyous Tweets linking to announcements that the whole virus  problem has suddenly been solved and entirely swept away.

On Twitter, (and off), I’ve been reading poetry. Today I came across this one from Cavafy (I chuck down his name here as if I have any real knowledge of who he was - Egyptian? Very actively gay? Enormously romantic view of young male beauty? Above all perceptive):


Deep in fear and in suspicion,
with flustered minds and terrified eyes,
we wear ourselves out figuring how
We might avoid the certain
danger that threatens us so terribly.
And yet we’re mistaken, that’s not it ahead:
the news was wrong
(or we didn’t hear it; or didn’t get it right).
But a disaster that we never imagined
suddenly, shatteringly, breaks upon us,
and unprepared - no time left now - we are swept away

A poem for our times or what?

I also read this story on Twitter. If laughter is the best medicine, I prescribe a read of it, as it made me laugh quite a lot:

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Toxic Sliding

 The other day in London I got caught in the rain on Piccadilly and dashed into Waterstone's until it stopped. On the ground floor of the shop they have a display of new fiction and, reading the labels explaining the new novels available, I began to understand why I don't much like current fiction.

First we were offered "a devastating, darkly comic story of a woman's slide into depression":

Next came "a compelling tale of a woman's slide into madness":

While we stopped sliding after that, the fate of women in fiction continued to be pretty bleak:

More misery for women dominated the next tale:

While we were given a break from horrid things happening to women with the one after that, we were not allowed the company of anyone but terrible people for our reading pleasure:

Of course, if this is all terrific and, like the publishing industry, your idea of a good read is "difficulty" and "toxicity", the next one should fit the bill as well:

 Clearly, publishers would ask me: What's wrong with you, what else do you want to curl up with other than ghastliness really?  I would then feel feeble for wanting something enjoyable - which doesn't mean dumb, I loved Middlemarch, for instance, but I do admit that possibly the greatest example of a novel ever written (which leaves one wondering why most of her others are so BORING) might be too much to ask.

I left the shop puzzled once again by the world of contemporary publishing. Already I'd been baffled that a  novel that is several hundred pages long but made up of a single sentence in which the three words "the fact that" are repeated over and over and over again has been awarded prize after prize, even though it is unreadable for anyone who gets impatient with "the fact that". I'd been similarly confused that the work that won the Booker this year is introduced on Amazon as being "an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn't have a plot".

I went home and read my friend Mark Griffith's blog (or weblog, as he insists on calling it) Other Languages, and there I found the following item, which at least gave me some insight into publishing, if not into whether or not there is a market for the stuff being printed and awarded prizes, or whether many people are buying books they hope they will like but in the end find disappointing and can't finish:

A few helpful remarks from publishers currently looking for fiction. Metaphorosis Books is issuing "a reprint anthology for Vegan science fiction and fantasy stories published in the previous year -- They want stories that happen to be vegan - no meat, no hunting, no horse-riding, no leather." The Were-Traveler wants "weird fiction where the setting is a carnival, theme park, circus or fair/festival. 'Clowns can be part of the story, but they don't have to be.'Hybrid's 'Genderful' is a "furry fiction anthology in two parts which aims to explore how furry and gender interact. They want submissions that explore the implications of non-cisgender life within the context of furry."

One thing I do remember being told by someone who was involved in book production, in the year when Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was a bestseller: "There is a huge difference between a book that is a bestseller and a book that is widely read."

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard's new play, Leopoldstadt is named after the area in Vienna where Jewish people new to the city usually first found residence and also where, I think, the Nazis first of all forced all Jewish children to go to school, regardless of how far away their house was from it, and eventually forced all Jewish people to live.

When the curtain goes up on the play, the audience is met with a scene that, intentionally or not, exactly mirrors the scene at the opening of the ballet The Nutcracker. It is a richly furnished, turn of the century, European sitting room, with an ornate chaise-longue centre stage, a mahogany dining table behind - which alternates with a piano in different scenes, I think, or possibly both are always onstage together (human visual memory, at least mine, is patchy) - and comfortable antique armchairs and side tables at each side.

To the left of the stage is a huge Christmas tree being decorated by the children of the house and their cousins, aided by various adults. It is a cosy scene of family jollity. There is much cheerful conversation in which we learn who everyone is - although you have to be quicker than me to catch all the names and work out how they relate to each other. There is a mathematician and a doctor called Ernst who, despite the name, I somehow got the wrong impression was Egyptian until very late in the play. There is a grandmother and her daughter, who may be married to the mathematician. The owner of the house is I think Hermann who has become a Christian as he has married a beautiful young Austrian Catholic. In case we are in any doubt about what the rest of the characters are, a small boy tries to put a star of David on the top of the tree and it is explained to him that that kind of star isn't used on this kind of tree.

A teenage girl who is visiting Vienna from the Ukraine confesses to her Christian aunt that a young Austrian officer has asked her to meet him tomorrow and she needs a chaperone. The aunt, slightly reluctantly, agrees to go along. The next thing we know the aunt and the Austrian officer are having it off, even though he is ghastly - and even though he was the one who started flirting with the aunt's niece; no explanation is given for his fickleness, beyond the overriding impression that he is an utter cad. In any case, the teenager goes back to the Ukraine, saddened.

What are we to make of the aunt's sudden fall into the arms of the Austrian cad? Nothing about her behaviour before or after suggests she is a philanderer - if that word can be applied to a woman - so what is going on? Is she a secret anti-semite who in her heart of hearts only really fancies Gentiles? Where does this plot twist fit psychologically?

Or are we supposed to ignore individual psychology in this play and accept that a plot development may be simply a useful cog in the machine of revealing anti-semitism? For the horrid Austrian cad then meets the adulterous Christian aunt's husband at a party and treats him with terrific snobbery, on account of his race, and insults the man's wife.  The husband challenges the young man to a duel and the young man has to spell out to him that the army does not allow its soldiers to accept duelling challenges from Jews. Thus, Stoppard establishes that there is institutional anti-semitism in turn of the century Vienna.

Time moves forward and insult is heaped on insult for our poor Jewish family. Tension mounts. There is quite a lot of talk about Dr Karl, which probably most audiences would not understand but I assume refers to Dr Karl Lueger, Mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, who without any doubt used anti-semitism to his own political ends and who some regard as the inspiration for Hitler's anti-semitism. Eventually, the family is reduced to nothing and unimaginable cruelties are wreaked on them. A character supposed to be Tom Stoppard - but only if he were transformed into one of the wetter members of the Drones Club - comes back to Vienna, which he and his mother fled when he was a child. He is put back in touch with the past he has forgotten, which leads to some rather feeble tears of guilt. He asks about what happened to the people he now begins to vaguely remember and a shadowy tableau of that first scene appears. Each individual is named, and when their fate is inquired about the answers that come back are - "Dachau", "Theresienstadt", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz", "Auschwitz" ...

The horror I feel for what happened to families such as Stoppard's imaginary creation is enormous, but unfortunately that does not make this play any less disappointing. A play, particularly a Stoppard play, is not usually simply a history lesson*. What I was hoping for was some kind of dramatic evocation of the strange madness that erupted, an opportunity, via the alchemy of Stoppard's brilliant mix of ideas and penetrating understanding and the magic that is good theatre, to get a new perspective on the dread and terror and wild inhuman viciousness of the time and the strange forces that created evil. But what Stoppard has made is a very old-fashioned family drama in which the characters are one-dimensional - on the one hand, the Jewish family, who are without fault and entirely endearing, because, in order for us to feel bad about what happens to them they need to be absolutely blameless, rather than the usual complicated beings that real humans are, and, on the other the equally shallow baddies - the dastardly adulterous anti-semitic officer who comes across as a pantomime villain, and the Catholic wife ,who is simply mystifying; for one brief scene a raving sex fiend, for the rest characterised only by an eagerness to get all the traditions and practices of her new family right.

Because of this lack of any richness of characterisation, the play becomes a form of agitprop, or at least a form of panto. You feel as you watch that you should be shouting hurrah for the goodies and booing the baddies. What you miss is any attempt to penetrate the complexities of this terrible, strange period in which humans who'd grown up in one of the most civilised cities and civilised regimes that have ever existed - (mention is very briefly made of the Emperor Franz Joseph learning Hebrew and being entirely supportive of the Jewish people, but this glimpse of one of the many contradictory aspects of the situation vanishes in an instant) - transformed into baying monsters who victimised their Jewish neighbours with a brutality that is hard to contemplate.

Sad to say, Leopoldstadt is not brilliant as a piece of transfiguring drama, although perhaps, if you knew nothing at all about what had gone on in Vienna, it might be a place to start to learn the rudimentary facts.* I may have been expecting too much; perhaps it is impossible ever to arrive at any kind of comprehension of the unimaginable events of the period after the Anschluss in Austria; certainly, Leopoldstadt only describes what happened. Maybe, if you don't already know anything about the subject, it may be a place to start.


*Another thing one usually expects from Stoppard is comedy but, there is only one laugh in the play -  a misunderstanding in which a man who introduces himself as a doctor is taken to be the doctor come to perform the ritual circumcision on a baby, when in fact he is a lawyer come with some papers for the head of the house - practically anyone with a university degree tends to call themselves "Herr Doktor" in Vienna. Anyway, the baby's mother, who is pretty reluctant to let her child be tampered with, comes in and asks him if he needs any equipment. She doesn't know that he isn't who she thinks he is, nor that he has just been given a cigar by her father. Therefore, when he tells her that he could find a cigar cutter useful but, if she doesn't have one, it's fine, because he can always bite the end off with her teeth, she runs away screaming.

* If you then want to learn more about what happened to Jewish people living in Vienna, I would recommend a superb memoir called Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare, which deals much more subtly and interestingly with the whole subject.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Soap Bubble

I sometimes wonder what I might have achieved if I hadn't wasted so much of my time thinking about the soap-opera existences of people I do not know - or perhaps that should be "the existences of people I do not know, whose lives I transform into soap opera in my head".

My most recent lapse has been the hours I have spent reading with embarrassing avidity everything that has appeared related to the announcement by Meghan Markle and the person formerly - and strictly speaking still, until April, I think (??) - known as Prince Harry - (and why did his parents choose to give him a shortened name anyway? Is that where his problems started? But I digress) - that they were going to "step back" from the duties that being a member of Britain's royal family entails.

I won't go into my particular take on that ongoing saga. Were I halfway sensible, I know I wouldn't even have a take, let alone allow my mind to be filled with speculative thoughts and theories about the episode and what its effect will be on the couple involved. 

But I am not halfway sensible and I have allowed myself to become intensely preoccupied with this story - and with countless other similar ones that have equally little bearing on my own life, beyond the curiosity they arouse in me. 

Perhaps it is my love of fiction that makes me so interested - the people involved are real, but I can view them as if they were characters in a - not very good - novel. I can speculate about their motives and about human behaviour in general, extrapolating from the tales of foolishness and emotional intemperance I read about them. And perhaps it is this process that Muriel Spark is trying to evoke when she has fiction and reality blurring in Loitering with Intent and other novels (it was a recurring theme or motif for her); perhaps her aim was to demonstrate that each individual's reality is really a fiction composed within their own minds, that no one is to another anything but a fiction.

Be that as it may, my fascination with the soap opera side of other people's lives started a long long time ago. I realised just how long ago recently, when I read in the newspaper, in the context of some kind of television dramatisation of the episode, that the Profumo Affair happened in 1963. Which means that my prurient interest in sensationalism goes all the way back to that year, even though I was only six years old at the time.

My family still lived in a street that ran between the King's Road and the Fulham Road in London then. If you turned left at the Fulham Road end, you very quickly arrived at what was still called St Stephen's Hospital, although it has since been robbed of its saintliness and renamed Chelsea & Westminster. 

My brother and I would pass that hospital regularly on our companionable wanderings around the city, and, despite being so young, in August 1963 I knew that there was something very exciting called the Profumo affair going on and that in St Stephen’s there lay a man called Stephen Ward* who was somehow involved in this Profumo thing and who had tried to kill himself - and I somehow got hold of the idea and have hung onto it ever since that he took deadly nightshade, which particularly fascinated me as there was a patch of deadly nightshade that I saw on walks at the place in the country where we spent our weekends. 

I passed the hospital most of the days that Ward lay there hovering between life and death, (have I got this right - I remember believing he was there for three or four days), and I think it must have been then that this awful taste for the melodramatic took hold of me. For, although it was the sixties already, it was not yet by any means "the Sixties". London, including Chelsea, was not yet swinging or particularly exciting. This strange scandal that was all the grown ups could talk about was a spark of fascinating mystery in a rather dull existence.

Since then there hasn't been a story of romance and drug taking, of high life and misery, of ambition smashed by peccadilloes that hasn’t instantly grabbed my attention and sent me off into days of fervent interest. I was/am capable of the kind of solid concentration when reading about such topics that I only dream of when knuckling down to sensible, constructive endeavours, tasks that need doing and so forth and so on. The truth is feverish fascination with the tawdry and trivial has, since 1963, been one of my  besetting sins.

Although I don't know anyone else who admits to a preoccupation with all this nonsense, I try to comfort myself that there must be others out there who do share my shameful passion, because all the newsprint expended on such subjects cannot be intended only for me.

If I am the lone audience though, I thank all gossip columnists, royal correspondents and other purveyors of pages of nonessential social speculation for their efforts. I consume every word with guilty joy.

*Stephen Ward is or was usually described as a "society osteopath", which always amused me, even as a small child.

Friday, 31 January 2020

A Change for the Better

The last time I was in Parliament Square, I had a very unpleasant experience and so I was a little afraid to go back. But today I did and this is the sight that met my eyes:

It's an improvement.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Battered Penguin - Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent is, like much of Muriel Spark's work, very readable and amusing, despite being complex and not easy to understand.  Extracts from Cardinal Newman and Benvenuto Cellini's memoirs are interwoven through the narrative, which is a novel, although its narrator, a novelist, claims it is an autobiography.

The book opens with the phrase, "One day in the middle of the twentieth century." The narrator, Fleur Talbot, tells us this day "was the last day of a whole chunk of my life, but I didn't know that at the time" ,and explains that she was sitting in an old graveyard which she observes, puzzlingly, "had not yet been demolished", suggesting we are in a world that is not quite our own. She is approached by a policeman who "only wanted to know what I was doing", although "plainly he didn't like to ask", which is confusing - did he ask, or does the narrator simply know that that is what he wants? As the novel progresses, this question becomes less and less easy to answer; the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred; finally, looking back at that opening page, it is hard to know whether the policeman stepped out of fiction and into the reality of Fleur's day or stepped from that reality and into fiction.

In other words a major theme of the novel is an examination of what exactly fiction is. In that context, Spark's narrator tells us a lot about writing and being a writer. "I talk very little" she explains to her new employer, "although I listened a lot", she adds in a kind of aside to us, continuing  "I have always been on the listen-in for ... phrases."

"Contradictions in human character" she goes on " are one of its most consistent notes ... Since the story of my own life is just as much constituted of the secrets of my craft as it is of other events, I might as well remark here that to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory."

It becomes clear as Fleur and her friend discuss the novel she is writing during the period in which this novel (autobiography?) is set that Fleur sees a clear distinction between fictional characters and reality. When her friend declares that one of Fleur's characters is "a personification of evil", Fleur retorts, "Marjorie is only words", adding for our benefit, "I knew I wasn't helping the reader to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think...I wasn't writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder, as indeed they did to myself as I was composing them."  Paradoxically, when Fleur tells her friend that she cannot explain why she is concerned about the activities of certain people in their own real lives until she has written more of her novel - "It's the only way I can come to a conclusion about what's going on ... I have to work it out through my creativity" - she seems to be indicating that for her reality does not really exist until she has written about it.

Adding to the confusion, the characters and events in the novel Fleur is writing increasingly become the characters and events in her own life - in that order: that is, she invents and then the invention comes out of the fiction and into reality. "What is truth", Fleur asks at one point, and the reader - this one anyway - becomes less and less clear what the answer is as the book goes on.

Never mind, there is much rather heartless humour in the novel and many vivid and marvellous characters, above all Lady Edwina, "a tall, thin and extremely aged woman with a glittering appearance, largely conveyed by her many strings of pearls on a black dress and her bright silver hair ... her face cracked with make-up, with a scarlet gash of a smile ... her fingernails, overgrown, so that they curled over the tips like talons ... painted dark red", who uses "the blackmail of her very great age." She will be my role model from now on.

At the very end of the book, Fleur sees that friend with whom she discussed her earlier novel and has "a row with her on the subject of my wriggling out of real life", which I take as a statement about more than Fleur's decision to remain single and childless. There is something as intriguing but also as difficult to fathom as quantum physics here, which cleverer readers may be able to grasp instantly, but I cannot. I don't mind though. Spark has constructed something strange and intricate and often funny. The author - or at least the narrator - is someone who sees that all human activity is, from a divine perspective, mere foolishness. But, if she is godlike in her perspective, she is no Christian kind of god, for she sneers at her fellow humans rather than feeling any obvious affection for them.

The book closes with Fleur leaving her friend's flat and having a faintly transcendental experience:

"I came out into the courtyard exasperated as usual. Some small boys were playing football, and the ball came flying straight towards me. I kicked it with a chance grace, which, if I had studied the affair and tried hard, I never could have done. Away into the air it went, and landed in the small boy's waiting hands. The boy grinned. And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing."

On reading this I felt as I usually do when arriving at the end of a piece of Muriel Spark fiction - no sense of dissatisfaction, as the spectacle has been entertaining, but faintly disturbed, having been made aware, that I am, compared to Spark, sadly, rather dim.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

January Reading - Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner

Having read this review, I came to this book with high hopes. Boy, what a disappointment it turned out to be. Lady Glenconner cannot write for toffee. She is a person who has had quite a life but her account of it has all the excitement and narrative drive of a telephone directory. Understatement and stiff upper lippery is so pronounced in her character that her verdict on her marriage to a serially unfaithful man who regularly erupted into unspeakable rage and occasionally bought elephants on impulse is merely this:

"Apart from his infidelity and his temper, we got on so well."

But perhaps she didn't know there were other kinds of marriage. After all, as she explains, her:

"sister Carey had trouble with her husband ... after a few years, [he] refused to talk directly to her and instead would talk through his Labrador, saying things like 'Tell her to bring the bloody paper over here'."

Furthermore, Lady Glenconner's father in later life believed his wife and the writer's youngest sister "were Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields. At his insistence, they sang songs like 'The Biggest Aspidistra in the World'." As if this were not enough, Lady Glenconner's "father got into a habit of chatting up women on the train to London and inviting them back to Holkham, where he would take them off on the fire engine, encouraging them to ring the bell.'

The book really brought home to me what an extraordinarily good writer the Duchess of Devonshire was. Describing a similar milieu but provided with far fewer eccentrics, the Duchess was able to produce hilarity from the flimsiest of material. Lady Glenconner has much more exciting substance, but her supreme gift is to render everything banal. Take her account of the demise of an acquaintance called Laura Brand, who was, she explains:

"the rather eccentric sister of Lord Hambleden ... [She] always wore sombreros and was always in the sea. ... Laura drowned [when] she and her husband Micky were in Grenada and she went for a swim. Micky was on the beach when all of a sudden her hat floated past, out to sea."

That is the full extent of that story. We move rapidly on to a party, while the hat and the memory drift away.

But then in Lady Glenconner's social circle it seems very little is required to make someone appear wonderfully entertaining. A ritual of the Queen Mother's involving drinking toasts to people is portrayed as the height of wit but isn't, while one of Princess Margaret's entourage, a man called John Harding was, we are told, always welcome, since "the children adored [him] on account of his ability to tear a telephone directory [not often those get mentioned more than once in a blog post] in half." It does seem to me that that particular party trick would pall quite quickly, but not so far as the Glenconner children were concerned, apparently.

Mind you, some of those children went on to rather grisly ends, so perhaps something in their way of life - possibly the forced gaiety expected when witnessing the wanton destruction of telephone directories - did have long term bad effects. Or perhaps their mother's steadfast refusal to do anything but look on the bright side provoked them. Her tone remains constant even when she tells us how one of her sons would go off to rehab clinics packed "with other members of high society", (who she then lists). When her husband suggests disinheriting the boy, she remarks, utterly inconsequentially, "I didn't know what to think, but could quite see where Colin was coming from."

Just as Lady Glenconner seems unable to differentiate between tragedy and daily life, she appears to have absolutely no idea what is funny and what is boring. Thus she mentions in passing, as if she hadn't even noticed it, that the undertakers she dealt with after her husband's death were called Lazarus Funerals, but devotes a whole paragraph to a story with no punchline at all:

"In the late afternoon we [Lady Glenconner and Princess Margaret] would often go and sit in Basil's Bar, watching the sunset, sceptically waiting for the 'green flash' that is supposed to appear on the horizon just after the sun vanishes. Neither of us believed it, yet we always seemed to be distracted by the thought, pausing our conversation to stare at the view, just in case we saw it. We never did but it became a fun habit."

A fun habit! Elsewhere in her narrative we have Princess Margaret trying to beat grey squirrels to death. Another fun habit? Possibly.

In the end, I even began almost to sympathise with Lady Glenconner's monstrous loony husband. A few hundred pages spent in her dull, dull company was bad enough; if one had to spend a lifetime with her, who knows how angry and irrational one might not become.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Past Presents

When I noticed this little clip on Twitter, memories of past Christmas presents from my father came rushing back. Although, like me, generally tending toward the cloth-eared end of the spectrum, he would occasionally become possessed by brief but intense enthusiasms for some genre of music or other.  If Christmas happened to be in the offing at such moments, his choice of presents would then reflect whatever happened to be his latest craze.

Which is why one year I found myself unwrapping a quantity of long-playing records featuring traditional singing from Mongolia, while another year, unexpectedly,  I received a selection  of the best bagpipe music money could buy.

“Bagpipes”, my maternal grandmother observed, “best heard over several hills.”

In a non-musical mood, my father also posted me a birthday present from Hanoi where he was stationed. The city had been being bombed fairly heavily and so I ought not to have been surprised when I untied the ribbon and tore off the paper to find an old box lined with cotton wool on which he had arranged several pieces of shrapnel that he’d collected from his verandah.

I was too young to understand what a thoughtful gift this was, given that the alternatives available to him in wartime north Vietnam were nothing or nothing - and even a few bits of carefully chosen shrapnel are better than nothing. At the time, it was pointed out to me that it was the thought that counted, which only led to me wondering at length what exactly the thought behind this odd gift  might be