Sunday, 21 May 2023

Words and Phrases - an Occasional Series

 In the London Review of Books, Jo Moran writes:

"Relatable [is] a word I have been trying to get students to stop writing in their essays for at least a decade. Again and again, they commend a text, character or theme for being relatable, meaning 'easy to relate to'. Relatable to what? I gruffly write in the margin. The word seems to demand that literature should always mirror our own lives, instead of illuminating the strangeness of other lives."

Related to Moran's observations (although not at all relatable) is this piece pointing out that while Leonard Bernstein had to defend himself from fierce criticism when, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he allowed Schiller's Ode to Joy to be performed with the word "joy" replaced by the word "freedom", now in America the impulse to make stuffy old works by Beethoven, Schiller et al "relatable" is depressingly routine and any amount of fiddling with text is allowed to pass without an eyebrow raised.

Here Heather MacDonald, the author of the article in the link, articulates the case against relatability very well:

"In revising works to match contemporary sensibilities, we diminish, not expand, our human possibilities. No one would write Schiller’s Ode to Joy today. That is precisely why it should be performed intact. Its elevated rhetoric belongs to a lost aesthetic universe of romantic idealism, classical allusion, and exacting formal craft. It speaks to a now-alien way of being in the world that we can nevertheless dimly sense through close engagement with its language."

I pray we will emerge from the strange times we are living through and regain our senses - most particularly our understanding of and ability to appreciate (and possibly even create?) beauty.

Friday, 19 May 2023

Reading: The Lampitt Papers by AN Wilson

I am bereft at bedtime, having had the five-volume Lampitt Papers as my bedtime treat for some weeks.

The series of novels is told in the first person by a character who loses his parents to a bomb in world war two and goes to live with his father's brother, Uncle Roy, who is a vicar, but whose real religion is the family of his very dear friend Sargie Lampitt. 

The books conjure up an earlier England. They contain many perceptive insights about love, writing, infatuation, unquenchable low-level grief, the desire for success, the forms of English snobbery, Catholicism and the mystery of existence, among many other things. The volumes are packed with entertaining, vivid characters and reaching the end of the series I found it a wrench to have to leave them all. 

Instead of sharing every well-turned description and enlightening aperçu I found in the series of novels, which would make an idiotically long blogpost, I will limit myself to quoting just one passage - a conversation between Sargie Lampitt and his niece about a misconceived trip Sargie made to Venice with his brother; it makes me laugh a lot:

' "We had a jaunt to Venice. Not a very happy one. The place is bloody depressing - ever been there? And we stayed at an absolutely godforsaken hotel."

"You should have stayed at one of the grand ones like the Gritti." Anne spoke with the authority of one who had written undergraduate essays on Titian, Tintoretto, Ruskin.

"Gritti! That's the place. God Almighty! My room overlooked this dreary sludge of water..."

"The Grand Canal", said Anne 

"I hate looking at water from a bedroom" '

To sum up, if you want a roman fleuve evocative of middle-class English life and the literary world of London from the 1960s to the 1990s (with a murder mystery thrown in), you will enjoy the richly imagined world of The Lampitt Papers. My only caveat would be the pages devoted to the poetry of a character called Rice Robey, most of which I skipped.

Monday, 15 May 2023

Meals in Fiction - Incline Our Hearts by AN Wilson

I  have just finished reading a series of five novels by AN Wilson collectively called The Lampitt Chronicles. I will probably write a blog post about them under "Reading", but in the meantime I would like to include in the occasional series of posts on literary meals on this blog a meal in the very first volume of the series, Incline Our Hearts. The meal takes place in France in a house at the seaside called Les Mouettes where the protagonist stays as a youth, in order to improve his French. He describes the house thus:

"Les Mouettes had been a family home. A turreted, granite affair, it would have been hard to classify architecturally. Is there such a thing as Seaside Gothic Celtic Twilight Revival?"

The meal goes like this:

"This was a series of dishes done to such perfection that one was half aware, even while eating it, that the memory of the meal would remain for ever. Almost all experience is instantaneously forgettable. Most of what we do remember is only fixed in our minds by chance. For another person to place something in our consciousness deliberately, so that we never forget it, that is art. Thérèse as a cook [had it]. The meal began with a spinach soufflé which was like a thing of nature, a puffy light green crust sprouting from its bowl like a bush coming to leaf. And then there was raie au beurre noire, the freshest strands of succulent skate as white as snow amid the black butter and the little, dark green capers: once again, one felt that the food was for the first time in its natural habitat: a naked mermaid was suggested, sitting in seaweed. And then there were pieces of roast beef, pink and tender, served with pommes dauphinoises. And then there were haricots verts from the garden, served separately when we had all finished our meat. And then there was a fresh, very oily, green salad with which to eat the Camembert. And then, to crown it all, omelettes soufflées aux liqueurs, frothing, bubbling in their great buttery pans."

I could have done without the mermaid analogy, plus the italicised French, and I would have preferred Brie de Meaux to Camembert, but all the same.

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Reading: Scott-King's Modern Europe, by Evelyn Waugh

I first realised that Evelyn Waugh had written a book called Scott-King's Modern Europe when I was reading a book about Waugh by Malcolm Bradbury. What Bradbury does not mention but I suspect, now that I have read Scott-King's Modern Europe, is that Rates of Exchange owes its inspiration at least in part to the 1947 book by Waugh.

You can find Scott-King's Europe on Internet Archive. It is only available on hourly loan but it can be read in one hour if you are not interrupted and in two hours even if you are. It is the story of a classics master who long ago made a translation of an obscure poet and is consequently invited on what would now be called a freebee to a country called Neutralia, which is holding a celebration of the poet.

Bradbury claims the book was written by Waugh after a visit to Spain. To me the country Scott-Rigby is taken to seemed stranger and more remote than Spain could ever feel to a visitor from England. In any case, Waugh is, as always in my view, unable to put a word out of place and full of perceptive melancholy humour and wisdom. No one is a hero, everyone is scrabbling to live in some sort of reasonable comfort, life is consistently absurd and strange. The business of travel - the waiting rooms and so forth - are horrible, people are mysterious, surprising and absurd, confused surrender is the only useful attitude in face of the onrushing tide of life's events.

I suspect someone could rig up a proposal for an academic thesis on books about innocents abroad, which could include Rates of Exchange, Scott-King's Modern Europe and the scariest I've yet found of the genre - Metropole (or in Hungarian Epepe) by Ferenc Karinthy. If one wanted to, it also wouldn't be impossible to argue that the story of Scott-King's Modern Europe has some similarity to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - in both, the main characters are swept from their daily lives to a strange world quite outside their experience and then returned to their normal existences, with no one in their original world being any the wiser. 

Incidentally, Evelyn Waugh wrote Scott-King's Modern Europe in the same place he wrote Brideshead Revisited, a house that Country Life claims is "one of the most beautiful houses in Gloucestershire". It was sold in an auction last year. It looks really lovely, but I wouldn't like to be in charge of cleaning it. The skirting boards alone would take half a lifetime, surely.

Monday, 8 May 2023

Reading: Not Zero,How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won't Even Save the Planet) by Ross Clark

I read Ross Clark's satirical novel The Denial a while back. Set in a Net Zero Britain where those who are appointed "Climate Influencers" can jet about, while the rest of the population can't travel or keep warm or obtain meat unless they somehow manage to accumulate enough credits to be allowed a morsel, it seemed pure fantasy once but increasingly I find myself wondering if it is prophecy.

The book by Clark I am now reading is factual, but addressing the same subject - climate change and the policies of the UK government to tackle it. 

Clark explains that China produces 33 per cent of global emissions and its leader did not even turn up to Boris Johnson's Glasgow COP26 gathering, that the US, another huge contributor to pollution, did not sign the conference's final pledge and that, while 77 countries did sign, they only did so because the commitment to lowering emissions by a certain date was hedged by the clause "or as soon as possible thereafter". Despite this, the Tory government is hellbent on bringing into beinv rapid and extreme Net Zero measures.

"There are two wings to the Net Zero movement", Clark goes on to explain. "The first argues that the only route to salvation is for us all to reduce our living standards, to abandon consumerism, or even to do away with capitalism for good. This is the wing represented, at the extreme end, by Extinction Rebellion. 

The second argues that technology will save us, without us having to make great sacrifices; indeed, it often asserts that, far from costing us, the Net Zero target will end up enriching us, by unleashing a rush of wealth-creating innovation that otherwise would not have taken place. The market, somehow, will provide. This is, broadly, the position of Britain's Conservative government. 

Both these wings have lost touch with reality - the first because it overstates climate science and because it fails to grasp that people, the poor especially, are not going to accept being made poorer, going vegan or giving up the car commute for a morning cycle ride. These might be pleasant enough options for the well-off, but the poor are not going to be prepared to shiver or go hungry in the name of carbon emissions. 

And they really would shiver and go hungry. If you want to reach Net Zero over the next few years through the curtailment of lifestyles, you're not going to achieve it without returning society to a pre-industrial level of subsistence.

But the second school of thought is equally naive in expecting technology magically to allow us to achieve Net Zero emissions without any reduction in our living standards. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth century and all subsequent advances that have transformed human societies have been based on one thing above all others: a source of cheap, concentrated energy, whether that be coal, oil or nuclear. To expect the same level of wealth in an economy based on far less dense forms of energy, such as wind and solar, which appears to be the current expectation of the UK and other European governments, is not realistic. 

To expect to be  able to achieve Net Zero without a serious cost to the economy is no more than Panglossian optimism. It would require multiple forms of new technology that either have not yet been invented or have yet to be proven on a commercial scale - and it would require all this to be achieved in less than thirty years time. 

Whenever you make these points however they tend to be batted away with the generalised assertion, without any evidence to support it, that the costs of acting are much less than the costs of not acting, if indeed you are not  dismissed as a 'climate denier'."

Clark also mentions that it was Boris Johnson who presided over the Glasgow conference and who was exceptionally determined to impose Net Zero policies rapidly on the United Kingdom. Given that the Boris Johnson voters believed they were electing was the one who, only a few years earlier, claimed the fear of man-made climate change was without foundation, it is unsurprising Jonhson's party (now headed by Rishi Sunak, but still pursuing the same goals) was rejected at the latest local elections in Britain.

The volte-face the Conservative Party has executed on climate and a number of other issues is a betrayal and also means that its successful candidates at the last election were essentially guilty of false advertising. There was an old joke about the US Democrats and Republicans being indistinguishable. That is no longer the case in America but instead is true of Britain two main political parties. There is nothing at all that I can see that distinguishes the UK Labour Party from the Conservatives and, as someone called Pete North on Twitter observed this morning:

"The lesson the Tory campaign machine will learn from their losses this week, and all subsequent losses, is that they need to soften their rhetoric on immigration and step up Net Zero. It is a walking corpse of a party. It cannot be fixed."

Sunday, 7 May 2023

Excuse His French

 While walking this morning I listened to an Unherd podcast devoted to Iain McGilchrist, whose book The Master and the Emissary I am making rather heavy weather of - if I'm honest I listened in the hope that I might be able to glean the essence of the argument after an hour and save myself the trouble of the actual reading; but, no.

Anyway, as I sometimes think I spend too many of my waking hours trying to unsubscribe from mailing lists, I was amused by a reference McGilchrist made to this story - which, be warned, contains bad language

Saturday, 6 May 2023

An Amusing Bit of Minor Snark

I do the cooking in our house and, to make it more interesting, I like to read recipes and even try them out. One of my favourite places for finding new things to cook is the New York Times cooking section, which, surprisingly, given the bulk of NYT content these days, has not yet excluded all recipes that aren't vegan.

Leaving aside the desire for ideas for new things to cook, something that appeals to me about the NYT recipe section is the comments other readers leave beneath the paper's recipe suggestions. These usually involve advice on how to adjust recipes to make them, in each commenter's opinion, better. 

There must be other people who find this second-guessing amusing I realised, when, looking through the comments beneath this recipe:

I found this wonderful spoof of the typical helpful reader contributions:

The phrase "rave reviews all round" is typical of the genre.