Wednesday 3 April 2024

Restricted Vision

I was on a train from Paddington at commuter time. Everyone was preoccupied. Even walking up the platform to board, most people had their heads bent over their telephones. In the carriage some passengers began conversations about management, using ugly neologisms. Others flipped open laptops and frowned their way home, columns of figures and dense many stranded graphs filling their screens and possibly their minds. 

As we left London behind and entered open countryside I saw through the window the most beautiful sunset. I realised not one single person in the carriage other than me was looking out the window. Locked in a world filtered by earbuds and headphones, bent over their devices, their whole visual focus on those little lighted rectangles, they were missing reality. 

I thought for a moment of trying to alert them to the wonder outside: "Look! It's amazing! The colours, the glorious transcience (or transient glory?)" But I didn't want to be arrested or certified. 

I thought of the poem Adlestrop. I suppose such a poem is unlikely to be written any more.

Tuesday 2 April 2024


When my children were very little and we'd been living in a non-English-speaking country for a while, we went back home to Australia. Our littlest called to her sister in extreme excitement when the telly was switched on:

"Come quickly, come quickly, they're speaking English!" she cried. 

I understand how she felt, in the sense that it is exciting, when you've been in a country where you are forever trying to learn the local language but never quite succeeding, to take a break and be surrounded by people you can understand. 

For instance, in a cafe I overheard a young woman at the table beside mine say, "I loved him." My ears pricked up, eager to hear a long romantic epic.

"In that BBC series", she went on.


Sunday 31 March 2024

A Matter of Taste

Given that I loved it when Vic Reeves used to say "Uvavu", it may seem surprising that I have come to the realisation that anyone who uses the word "umami" is unworthy of attention. 

But it's intention that matters. Although the two words sound the same, one was uttered to provoke laughter while the other is used to show off, I reckon. 

After all, the English speaking world managed to talk about food for the best part of 2000 years without this addition to our vocabulary. Sure, as we became more familiar with the cuisines of South East Asia, so the word snuck in. But now it's used in almost any and every context. I even saw a reference to umami in relation to Yorkshire pudding and gravy recently. 

That's when it really came home to me that umami is just an extremely pretentious way of saying savoury. What does it add to the language except bafflement and a sense of them - the fancy pants foodies who write things like this:

- and us, the people who just eat stuff? In other words, it increases alienation, which is why I think it must go.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Reading 2024 - various

For a project I am occasionally working on, I've read, exceptionally slowly, with endless recourse to a dictionary, A Princess Remembers, the memoir of Eugénie Odescalchi, who was married to Baron Béla Lipthay.

Wedding picture of Baron Bela Lipthay and Princess Eugenie Odescalchi

The princess and her family endured a great deal of hardship in the early part of the twentieth century, but - possibly because she was exceptionally sweet-natured and a devout Catholic or possibly because her memoir was published before the fall of Communism - there is not a breath of complaint in the text of the book.

Anthony Wilding with Bela Lipthay and his brother, when Wilding lived with the family as tutor

For the same project, I read a book by Anthony Wilding and a book about Anthony Wilding. Both books can be found at Internet archive. The link to the biography is here. The link to the book by Wilding is here 

Each of these books gives glimpses of the world just before the First World War. Each glimpse deepens my sense that it was at the outbreak of that conflict that everything went horribly wrong. 

Wilding, by the way, was a New Zealander who won Wimbledon four times, and is considered by some the world's first tennis superstar. I suspect that no tennis superstar of today would ask his friend to send the following books to give him some light reading matter while staying at the Lipthays in 1907:

Robbery Under Arms
Browning's Poems
The Four Georges by Thackeray
Horace Walpole's Letters
Southey's Life of Nelson 
Romeo and Juliet
Carlyle's Sartor Resartus
Earl of Chatham Macaulay
Clive Macaulay
Silas Marner George Eliot 

For my own pleasure, I read AN Wilson's How Can We Know.  I really liked it, particularly Wilson's understanding of the encounter between the rich young man and Jesus. When the rich young man goes away, after being told to sell his possessions, Wilson says that it is not Jesus but the young man who executes judgment on himself. Had the young man fallen "at the feet of Jesus and [said], 'I cannot rid my heart of its love of earthly possession. Help me to do so'", Wilson argues, that would have been fine. Instead, he chooses to walk away. "By implication, he denies not his ability to follow Christ, but Christ himself."

There are also many other good things in the books, as well as some bits I found confusing. The thing I was probably most grateful to discover was this passage quoted by Wilson from Jeremy Taylor who he identifies as a 17th century divine:

"Is it not enough for me to believe the words of Christ, saying, This is my body? And cannot I take it thankfully, and believe it heartily, and confess it joyfully; but I must pry into the secret and examine it by the rules of Aristotle and Porphyry and find out the nature and the indiscernible philosophy of the manner of its change and torment my own brains, and distract my heart, and torment my Brethren, and lose my charity, and hazard the loss of all the benefits intended to me, by the Holy Body; because I break those few words into more questions than the holy bread is into particles to be eaten?"

Saturday 2 March 2024

Reading 2024: The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha

 On the opening page of The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (a baseball reference), we meet Sam Waxworth, a "young man from the provinces" newly arrived in New York. In the book's first line he asks this question:

"What makes a life - self or circumstance?"

Perhaps in part the novel is an attempt to answer the question.

Sam is a data-cruncher who has been invited to write for an established New York magazine. The year is 2009 and Sam feels he has "an opportunity at greatness" "in a place worthy of his ambitions". He believes in aggregation - "the combination of observations" (these, please note, are purely data observations) - and he wants "to test his ideas against the world".

We watch as he uses data to find himself a flat, and presumably we are supposed to be amused that Sam thinks himself brilliant for finding somewhere available and affordable that everyone else has mysteriously overlooked. The fact that the building houses a poultry warehouse, crammed with smelly caged birds might be what has put off others less addicted to data, but Sam seems oblivious.

Strolling the city, Waxworth notices a charismatic street preacher who is forecasting the world's end on 1 November. Waxworth, who has "spent a good deal of his life thinking about forecasting" makes the preacher the focus of his first piece.

Menwhile Eddie, a young veteran recently returned from Afghanistan, son of a formerly prominent, now cancelled, columnist, also encounters the preacher, saves him when he is attacked, and moves in to his apartment to take care of him. 

Eddie's father, Frank Doyle, is to be the focus of a long Waxworth piece. Sam plans a hatchet job but over the course of a baseball game in Doyle's company finds that he likes him and ends up being caught up in the charm of Doyle family life.

Frank Doyle is quite unlike Sam, all emotion, no precision. "Not everything that happens can be saved in a database", he tells Sam. In the area of baseball, his great passion, he believes that some elements that affect a game cannot be defined in words.

Sam has a wife who is not joining him in New York immediately. The effect Frank Doyle's daughter Margo has on Sam when he meets her may be one of those things in wider life that cannot be put into statistical terms, let alone words. 

Margo has adored her father until very recently when the behaviours that got him cancelled also led to her own disillusion with him. "Her father had taught her that engaging seriously with ideas was one of life's great pleasures". Until the moment of disillusion "she has spent so much of her life wanting to impress her father that, now she no longer cares, she doesn't know what to do."

Margo and Sam fall into a habit of wandering the city talking about poetry and looking at paintings. Margo tries to explain that poems aren't riddles, that Sam can't treat them as puzzles from which to extract a solution. 

Meanwhile Margo's mother has come unstuck because of the financial crisis, which is tricky given that Frank is no longer on anyone's pay roll. Frank's fall from grace it becomes clear was precipitated by alcoholism, and as a result he is unaware of any problems outside of his pretty immediate orbit. His son Eddie becomes ever more enmeshed with his preacher friend, and his best friend from school, a gay scholarship boy who has made a enormous fortune at a hedge fund, decides to help Mrs Doyle, a decision that leads in the end to his downfall and hers. 

Sam's wife meanwhile arrives in New York and quickly realises that something is going on between Margo and Sam, (although in a way not much is as Sam, as Margo observes, is not so much in control of his passions as actually almost devoid of them). 

Everyone hurtles forward on their own trajectories toward a brilliantly plotted finale and, despite the raw ingredients that I've set out possibly sounding not wildly interesting, over 500 pages flash by enormously enjoyably and in a manner that conjures a particular time and place with great vividness.

This is not a novel that plays with form. It is that far more entertaining and infinitely trickier thing - an old-fashioned story set in a richly imagined world with a sprawl of characters, a novel that captures the mood and atmosphere of a particular moment while creating a tangle of endearing characters and plot lines. I was not bored once. The mother and the school friend were, to my mind, weak points in the structure - that is, I was not persuaded that the author saw them as characters of interest rather than pawns to be shifted about to assist plot and add the right amount of diversity - but overall this is a hugely entertaining book with a lovely elegiac ending. Few people can or do write this way any more. I am glad that Beha does. 

Sunday 11 February 2024

Reading 2024: Money from Holme by Michael Innes

Some people do the Wordle puzzle to keep their minds agile. The writer known as both J.I.M Stewart and Michael Innes seems to have written novels with the same end in mind. He was astonishingly prolific. 

Money from Holme is set in the art world of London. It is only 171 pages long. Those pages contain a cleverly plotted tale about an unprepossessing man who thinks he can take advantage of an artist but ends up in a farce. As the story treats the politics of a fictitious African country as risible - 

"First, there was a Fascist revulsion. Then there was a Communist revulsion. And after that there was the revulsion of the Moderate Democrats. That was the worst"

- it probably wouldn't be allowed to be published now. Additionally, much fun is had with the muddled English of a London gallery owner of probably Central European origin, which is a racism of sorts, I suppose, if you're in the market for taking offence at racism. 

The novel is frivolous and amusing and contains a reference to those "rotten chaps in Whitehall" and so I enjoyed it. It is definitely not a must-read for the improvement of one's soul but it may give some people an hour or two of mild pleasure. 

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Words and Phrases, an Occasional Series

My husband tells me that he has discovered the most dominant element of my personality - namely, I don't like change. As he has had the dubious privilege of spending his life with me pretty much continuously since the day of Brezhnev's death - also known as the day we first met - I think he probably has as good a perspective on the topic as anyone. This dislike of change - if I accept it exists (and actually I do) - may explain why I get het up about new bits of language that suddenly appear and begin infesting every journalistic piece I read.

Which brings me to today's gripe - a new (at least to me) coinage that makes me feel queasy each time I see it:

"meet cute".

It's round the wrong way, it makes no sense, it is maddening. Maybe only because it's new? I don't know. I just think it's disgusting.