Wednesday, 18 May 2022

England's Green

Until a few weeks ago, I hadn't spent time in England in the spring for decades. Now I am, staying mostly in Bristol, and I find that every day I am astonished, delighted, entranced, enraptured, insert further gushing adjectives, by England's trees.  It is their foliage mainly that captures me, the sheer lushness of their leafy greenness, bursting out wherever I look:






and of course I am thrilled by flowering hawthorn:


and awestruck by the magnificence of copper beeches:
This one stands at the entrance to St Andrew's Park, Bristol.
This one is on a street corner in Clifton. Here is a little clip of it being gently swayed by a breeze:




Today, I took the train from Bristol, up to London, and then back again, and I spent almost the whole of the two journeys gazing out the window, admiring trees. While in London I did yet more tree worshipping during my walk from Westminster Cathedral back to Paddington Station via Hyde Park (for those who don't know, there is a bit of Hyde Park up near Bayswater Road that the park authorities deliberately leave untended; it feels like a wild meadow when you walk through it and is one of the nicest places I know of in London, especially at this time of year).

On my travels today and over the weeks since I've been here, I've wished for the ability to express how I feel about the beauty of England's trees. This afternoon, on the train journey back to Bristol, when the train went through a long tunnel, I turned to the book I'd brought with me, and I found that way back in 1845 John Clare had articulated a great deal of what I would have liked to, and he had done it extraordinarily well:

All Nature Has a Feeling by John Clare

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There's nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal is its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.




Monday, 16 May 2022

Literary Meals - A Continuing Series: "The Ukraine" by Artem Chapeye, a short story in The New Yorker

There is a lot to eat in The Ukraine, a vivid short story published in the New Yorker in April this year. Reading it this morning in Bristol, the story's multiple references to food make me homesick for the other end of Europe, where I usually spend a lot of my time. 

This reaction is partly because I am greedy and partly because the dishes that are mostly available these days in that more eastern region of Europe are, despite the best efforts of globalisation, generally the dishes that have been traditionally part of the lives of the people who live there - dishes that often do not seem right when served in other settings than their homelands. 

People talk about the "flavour of a place",  intending to refer to more than simply what one eats, but if there are things you've only ever eaten in one region - karagorgeva snicla, for instance, in Serbia; bableves, in Hungary - then those things become part of the more general local flavour and the thought of them makes you nostalgic not just for the thing itself but for the place you ate it in. 

To an extent this is even true of Austria - which means, given how prosperous Austria is, that the habit of sticking with tradition in the kitchen must be a function of demand as much as supply. Rather than plunging themselves into world cuisine as we have done in the English-speaking world, (or at least in Bristol and in Australia), in Austria and the countries eastwards (even in Germany, come to that), if the dishes you usually encounter when you go out for a meal are anything to go by, people are happy with things as they have always been. 

And even in the former Communist-led countries of central and eastern Europe, although they remain less wealthy, food availability is no longer subject to the same level of seasonality that I recall from the eighties. I lived in Belgrade then and I remember how each autumn, in what were known then as the "peasant markets" but I suppose would now be called "farmers' markets", black grapes would suddenly appear in extraordinary abundance. Although they often looked identical, to the uneducated shopper, the market people could tell you about the minute variations in flavour and texture between each type. 

Back then, tomatoes, something I regard as a staple, would completely vanish each year, around the same time the grapes appeared, and none would be seen again for many months. At the start of May 1986, I am ashamed to admit I found their return to the markets so exciting that, when I was told that Chernobyl had happened and I ought to take my small child out of the area immediately, my idiotic reaction was to feel aghast because I had just bought tomatoes for the first time since the year before - my vision of a weekend lunch on our sunny balcony with a tomato salad seemed far more urgent than the prospect of avoiding a spot of nuclear radiation. Recently, when I met a Hungarian woman who told me she had missed the 1956 window of opportunity to escape the country because she had wanted to finish helping her mother to bottle her tomato crop first, I was comforted that someone else had priorities as muddled as mine . 

These days, at least in Budapest, grapes and tomatoes are available all year round, flown in from Holland or South Africa or who knows where. But, if you buy from the market stallholders who come in from the country to sell their garden produce, you still get a sense of the seasons coming and going. Asparagus, blackberries, peonies, (no, I don't eat them, but they also appear only briefly, in season), all are annual, fleeting pleasures.

Most importantly, what you get, when you exchange constant availability of everything you could possibly want for seasonality, is flavour - such flavour. Perhaps that is why I respond with such delight to this meal description from the New Yorker story; simple though it is, I am imagining that all the ingredients in it have been brought in from a local small holding and that therefore each item is more delicious than anything, however skilfully presented, from any of Sydney's latest restaurants of note:

"We had a meal there—for less than a dollar, if you add it up—of mashed potatoes with a sun of butter melted in the center of the plate, pork chops fried to a crisp, and homemade sour-cherry juice in tumblers."

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Five Years On

Today it is five years since my brother died. At the time, my younger daughter wrote a short memoir of him for Louise Adler at Melbourne University Press. Since then the management at the press has changed and it seems that the memoir has been taken down from the MUP site. Here it is, for anyone who would like to read it:



Memories of My Uncle

Lucinda Higgie

There’s a W.H. Auden poem about grief that my uncle, Mark Colvin, loved. It isn’t ‘Stop All the Clocks’, the one in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He liked that one, but because Auden wrote the poem about the death of a dictator, it annoyed him when it was played straight.
No, the poem that my uncle liked was ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, in which Auden seems to be meditating on Bruegel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. Icarus only takes up a few centimetres of this painting. In fact, all we can see is Icarus’s foot, which is about to sink into the water. No extravagant displays of grief are demanded. Nobody even seems to have noticed that anything is amiss. The world goes on, oblivious and indifferent to the death that means everything to those who mourn it. Auden interprets Brueghel’s artwork as an accurate portrayal of the nature of grief.
Perhaps the poem was particularly memorable for Marko because he had been stationed for several years in Brussels, the city where the painting hangs. Perhaps, as the years went by and his ailments increased, he came to recognise the truth in Auden’s contention. And perhaps, in the work that he did as a journalist, he found a way of redressing the balance, of ensuring that at least a few of the Icarus-like falls that happen all over the world on a daily basis might get the attention they deserve from those who are ‘just walking dully along’.
What I’m sure he never imagined was that his own death would be met by anything other than the public apathy that Auden describes in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Yet, within an hour of his passing, my uncle’s name was being flashed across television screens all across Australia and reports of his demise were being included in news bulletins on the radio and online as well. As a result, neither my sister nor I—we both live in England—learnt of our uncle’s death from family. Instead, we woke up to texts from friends who’d never met him but who had learned of his death from the rolling coverage. Instead of absorbing the information and digesting it from an individual perspective, by the time I left for work that day I had already read half a dozen articles about my uncle’s life, including an obituary. I had seen dozens of tweets from people who had never met him but already missed him like a friend. I had watched a beautifully edited montage of my uncle’s work put together by the ABC and saw that my uncle had not just been a member of our family but also a national treasure.
How wonderful it was to know how loved he was. Although press coverage is often construed as an invasion of privacy, the aftermath of his death has had a surreal element of camaraderie to it. It is in this spirit—my sneaking suspicion that there are people beyond my close family who might get comfort from hearing more about Mark Colvin—that I am recording some memories, which I hope will help to fill in a bit more of the picture of the kind and loveable person we have all lost.

One

There is a little film that Marko made of us children—his sons Nicolas and William and my sister Anna and me—when we visited some English cousins in Devon in the summer of 1992 or 1993. I was about three at the time, and in the film Marko interviews me about the plane flight we have just taken over from Australia, on which I’d drunk what I called ‘Coco Cola’. While he is asking me about this, I suddenly break off the interview to try to go into a tent with the older cousins, am promptly kicked out and then spend a lot of time running around a field completely in my own world. Looking back at that footage, I am struck by the way Marko always managed to make me feel as though my thoughts and ideas were worth listening to, even when I was tiny and not particularly articulate. One of the things I most appreciated about him, then and later, was that when you were with him, there was never a sense that he was looking over your shoulder, wishing for someone more interesting to come along.
Marko would never belittle or patronise me. During my school years, he would eagerly read stories I had submitted for English, completely engaging with my writing and with what I was trying to achieve. One year, I chose to go in a particularly grisly direction for a crime fiction assignment and had the character of the young child, murder her mother at the behest of a vengeful father. As part of the evidence, I wrote a diary from the child’s perspective, dropping hints to the reader about what had actually happened. When Marko let out a gasp at the end and told me that the twist had caught him by surprise, I was thrilled. He never talked down to me when I was a kid. I remember in 2003 sitting in a pub in The Rocks with him when he fixed me with that intense gaze he got when he particularly cared about something and told me the story of the Battle of Trafalgar. Being taken seriously by him, being engaged with as an equal, meant such a lot in those gawky adolescent years when I didn’t like myself very much.
And it wasn’t only a question of your ideas making you worth your salt with Uncle Marko. Just as importantly, he took your feelings seriously as well. Gaslighting is a term that has been in the media a lot over the last couple of years and it describes the act of writing off the validity of a person’s observations, emotions and overall perspective, so that they themselves begin to doubt their own worth. It is a tactic that manipulators and abusers use. I wish there was an easy antonym (fire extinguishing?) for this phenomenon; certainly a conversation with my uncle Marko when you were upset always had the opposite effect of gaslighting.
A phone call between him and me one afternoon in early 2013 illustrates what I mean. I was in that unsettled, in-between phase where university is over and the path ahead is still indistinct. I had made an ill-fated move to Sydney to study post-grad law. I “was moping aimlessly down a street in Newtown on my second evening there when Marko called to see how I was getting on. You could never fool Marko for long and after trying to put a brave face on things, I started to cry and blurted out how lonely and lost I truly was. I felt like such a twit; I had just moved to a beautiful, exciting city, yet I was utterly miserable. His response could not have been more kind-hearted. Without platitudes or bossiness, he helped me to see that it would all be all right and to picture the good future of which I had completely lost sight. He was such an excellent listener. That is one reason he was such a brilliant interviewer, I suspect. It was also part of what made him a wonderful friend. It never felt like he was just waiting for you to finish speaking so that he could say something, or half-listening to you while thinking about what his next comment would be.

Two

In 1998, a decade before the advent of Twitter, I sent my uncle Marko an email. I had just turned nine and my parents, my sister and I were six months into a posting in Budapest. I told him about our recent trip to Poland and then admonished him for forgetting my birthday, typing out about fifteen lines of ‘snap snap grrr.’ I mean that quite literally, it took me another four years to learn how to copy and paste.
That email didn’t reach Marko at first. Instead, I received a reply from an American Mark Colvin about a week later. ‘I’m very sorry I missed your birthday,’ he wrote, ‘but I didn’t know it was happening because I don’t know who you are.’ I remember Mum and her brother laughing like drains as she read this down the telephone to him in Australia.

“That first failed attempt to communicate electronically was redressed eventually. Not only did we successfully exchange emails, we became Facebook friends. Later, Marko withdrew from Facebook, incensed by their policies on privacy and various other things, but in 2007, when my dad was working in London and our family had been living there for about a year, he sent me a long message, having learned that I was hoping to study—‘read’ as some people in England like to put it—English literature and had been visiting university campuses, trying to decide where I should apply.
The message he sent me was long and thoughtful and, most importantly for me, never suggested for a moment that I shouldn’t set my sights as high as he had done:

Dear Lucy 
Thank you for being my friend on Facebook. As you can see, my page is rather dominated by literary bits and pieces. This is because, like you at exactly the same age, I loved reading novels and poetry. I’ve never lost that love, and have always been incredibly grateful for the chance to go to Oxford to study English. The thing about the Oxford course is that, in my time—and I don’t believe it’s changed that radically—it chose to treat English in a historical fashion, so that the student follows the story of both the language and the literature from their origins. So you start with learning some Anglo-Saxon—don’t worry about it; for someone like you who has studied German, it’s a doddle. In the process, you gain access to some extraordinary pieces of work: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl and The Dream of the Rood. These are not properly accessible at all in modern English because the form, alliterative verse, just doesn’t work in translation. The other reason, and it’s a good one, for learning Anglo-Saxon is that it is the basic building block of present-day English. Once you have got through the Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, who wrote in Middle English, is easy. Again, Chaucer is available in translation, and Coghill’s Penguin translation is really very good, but it doesn’t compare to reading the original.
In every way, of course, the course lets you understand how each development in English, the language and the literature, is a building on the past—or sometimes a demolition of it and starting again. You will come to understand, for instance, how we came to have standardised spelling because of the English Civil War, and the printers’ abandonment of the old rules whereby each line on the page had to be exactly the same length. This had meant almost random spelling to shorten and lengthen words to make the lines fit. In the Civil War, with vast numbers of new pamphlets being printed every day, they just chucked away that rule and started using the same spelling for a word every time.
And so it goes on, through the centuries, with the result that an Oxford English degree is almost a history degree as well.
When I wrote to him to tell him I’d decided to apply to Cambridge rather than Oxford, he might initially have been a bit disappointed. ‘Cambridge is BLOODY cold,’ he had written in a previous email, ‘and it’s only a university town with no other industry, whereas Oxford has always had lots of other industry, so Cambridge is, in a way, more like, say, Canberra.
All the same, on the grey January morning in 2008 when I learnt that I had received a place on the English course at Jesus College, Cambridge, after my mum and dad, Marko was the first person I wanted to tell.
More recently, reading Marko’s book Light and Shadow, I found a passage where he pinpoints the moment he realises he wants to study English Literature at university and I felt a shock of recognition. His experience came after a lesson on a short poem “called ‘The Sick Rose’, one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The discussion, Marko writes, ‘opened the poem out, appropriately enough, like a flower’ as well as having ‘opened up every great poem [he] read from then on.’ For me the epiphany came through the poems of Tony Harrison, who wrote sonnets about his working-class parents in Leeds, his classical education at Leeds Grammar and his attempt to reconcile the two worlds he had come to straddle. Reading Harrison—most particularly ‘V’, his long poem about returning home to tend his parents’ graves, which have been vandalised by disaffected youths who, he realises, so easily could have been him—my eyes were opened to how form and subject matter could balance and counterbalance one another. Sitting in a classroom in London, as my uncle had decades earlier, I suddenly got the point of poetry. I ended up writing both my university dissertations on poets. One was on Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Marko was a bit sceptical about—‘What is all that accented stuff about, Lucy?’  The second was on Les Murray. A few years ago, when Marko travelled to Bunyah to interview Murray, he brought me back a present—it was a copy of Murray’s latest book, On Bunyah, which had been autographed and inscribed, ‘To Lucy and the grace of Cambridge.’
While I remember many discussions about Murray—conversations about his poems ‘Animal Nativity’ and ‘Dog Fox Field’ one Christmas spring to mind particularly—and about other literary topics, the very first conversation about books that I can remember having with Marko was about Harry Potter. When I heard that my uncle had been visiting William’s primary school to read Harry Potter to the class, I wanted to know how he’d done all the voices. I particularly remember his Professor Flitwick, which was eager, staccato and very, very high pitched, but all the ones he did were so good that it’s hard to choose between them.
“Marko didn’t go quite as far as my friend who, towards the end of our degree, said, ‘I’ve read lots of Shakespeare and Milton and medieval literature now, and it was pretty good, but nothing has given me as much enjoyment as Harry Potter.’ Still, I was delighted that my clever uncle was not a snob and admired the books too. It was an enthusiasm I loved sharing with him and each time I finished a book in the series, I would ring him so that we could talk together about what I’d just read. One conversation comes to mind as an elucidation of his ability to gently suggest a new perspective. I was about nine and we were talking about Prisoner of Azkaban. I told him how annoyed I was that Harry had been distracted from pursuing the Golden Snitch during a Quidditch match because he’d taken a shine to the Ravenclaw Seeker Cho Chang. Why did the series have to introduce boring lovey-dovey stuff when adventure was so much more fun? I remember Uncle Marko replying with a gentle question about whether it didn’t perhaps make sense for characters to become interested in romance as they grew up?
Like most good children’s books, the Harry Potter stories deepen as you grow up, and it is oddly comforting, now that my uncle is no longer here, to realise that the series for which we shared an affection is, at its centre, all about death and grief. In the very first book, Harry comes across the Mirror of Erised, an enchanted mirror that shows the beholder their deepest desire; he looks into it and sees the family he has never had the opportunity to meet. J.K. Rowling explained in an interview, ‘The Mirror of Erised is absolutely entirely drawn from my own experience of losing a parent. “Five minutes, just please God give me five more minutes.” But it would never be long enough, that was the point of Chapter 10, you know.’
When I read that with no significant experience of loss, I thought it was an interesting idea. Now it speaks to me with new force. What I wouldn’t do for more “time with Marko. Five more minutes to drive to the Balmain lookout in that car full of detritus with Chops, the gentle boxer dog, on the backseat. Five more minutes to laugh at a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch or David Attenborough’s footage of a sneaky, thieving penguin.
When I feel like that, there is a moment in the third instalment of the series that has helped me to begin to make peace with the loss of my uncle. In that volume, Harry thinks that he has seen his father again, despite knowing that this is impossible. He is ashamed of his wishful thinking. ‘It was stupid, thinking it was him,’ he mutters, ‘I mean, I knew he was dead.’ Here’s how Rowling has Dumbledore respond:
‘You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.’

Three

When my uncle died, mum got an email from our cousin Jasper in England. He hadn’t seen much of Marko but he’d always remembered him because of a visit he made to their house when Jasper was fourteen. ‘I remember very clearly … being surprised how much interest he had in us even though we were young,’ Jasper wrote. That was one of the things I also valued about my uncle—he valued young people. When we were just kids, he was happy to lark about with us at the drop of a hat. He threw himself into the spirit of things and joined in the fun, as if he were still ten himself. One example is the trip we made to the now defunct Fox Studios in Sydney, back in 1999 or 2000. We boarded an enormous fibre-glass boat for a ride called The Titanic Experience. At the point when we all had to make a dash for the life rafts, Marko lifted me clean into the air and shouted ‘I’m all she’s got!’ at the top of his lungs.
A decade or more later, when I went up to Sydney with my friend Teresa for a concert, Uncle Marko kindly let us both stay. Despite the age difference between them, my uncle went out of his way to make my friend feel at home—and soon found that they had a point of connection, as her family came from a village he had been to while filming a story on the ‘Ndrangheta mafia. He later kindly dug out his footage from the archive and sent it to Teresa so that her mother could watch it and see shots from her childhood home. Teresa was not used to being around big dogs and, difficult as this is to imagine if you have met Chops, she was nervous of him. Marko picked up on this without it even being stated and, rather than being impatient as some people would be at what they might regard as a silly fear, he showed Teresa how to put out her hand to Chops’ muzzle so that they got used to each other.
It was times like these that I often found myself thinking that, had Uncle Marko not become a journalist, he would have made a wonderful teacher. He was so patient and enjoyed explaining things that fascinated him and discussing them with you. I don’t know why, but it also seemed to me that he always retained something of his younger self into adulthood, a trace of the small boy he had once been. As a result, I regularly recall—even see—my uncle in my work as a school teacher now. The boys I teach are bright, as he was, and they are kind and funny, as he was too. The school at which I teach is less than a kilometre from Westminster School, where Marko was a pupil between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. He was happy there. Unfortunately the school that my uncle attended before that was not a nurturing place at all. He describes his experience there in detail in his book, Light and Shadow, and summarised it in an interview with Richard Fidler quite simply: ‘I went to prison for five years.’
Now that I have read my uncle’s account of his time at prep school, I find that I think of him as I watch the sweet, enthusiastic little boys that I teach—boys who rush up in the playground to tell me about the book they are enjoying or to show me a magic trick they have learnt or to ask whether I’ve finished marking their homework. When he was exactly the same age as the boys in my care, my uncle was physically, emotionally and, in my view—because Marko learnt about God from the same people who tormented him—spiritually abused by the adults who were meant to look after him. It horrifies me. While I cannot undo what happened to my uncle, I can do my utmost to make sure that the children I teach feel safe, happy and valued. I can ensure that they are never made to feel the way my uncle was made to feel.

Four

Mary-Ellen Field’s gift of a kidney to my uncle freed him from dialysis and gave him four more years of life. It was, as my uncle said in the Four Corners documentary about the process, ‘the most gracious gift you could have’. I could not be more grateful to her, especially as it was during those years that, for the first time since I was sixteen, my uncle and I were living in the same country, giving me the chance to see him more regularly than I ever had before.
Some of the best memories—and how miserable that they are just memories now, not part of a tradition that will include future events as well—are the most ordinary ones. When I came to stay, we would often drive around Rozelle to pick up various things he needed. He would park the car in a disabled spot and I would dash out to get kangaroo mince for Chops, or chocolate éclairs for the two of us, or a prescription from the chemist, or, if we were driving to granny’s that day, a lemon tart for her. Many of the businesses recognised Uncle Marko as a regular. A couple of greengrocers gave us both cups of freshly squeezed blood orange juice when they saw Marko. ‘This is for Mark, isn’t it?’ the pharmacist would ask when I said I was picking up a prescription for my uncle. She gave a fond smile when I said it was.
I felt completely relaxed with my uncle Marko. There was absolutely no need at all to put on a performance, to sing for your supper. I have a wonderful picture of one of the many moments when Chops decided to try to be my lapdog, despite the fact that he is the size of a foal. In it, Marko is laughing in the chair by the TV. Another lovely memory is another simple one—having come back from “a trip to Byron Bay, I stayed over with Marko. Lying on the sofa in Rozelle, I watched the first few episodes of Rita with him on Netflix. He cooked a delicious roast, with duck fat potatoes, and together we drank goblets of wine while laughing at the ridiculous scenarios thrown together in the Danish show about a teacher.
Whenever I stayed with Uncle Marko, I would wake up before him, find Chops’ leash—or dear old Jumbles’ before she departed this life—and we’d jog together towards Callan Park. My usual excuses about exercise evaporated, replaced by a memory of his comment to me once as he was making his slow and painful way from one room to another: ‘Never take your health for granted, Lucy.’
Of course, one of the reasons that that made such an impression is that it was very unusual for my uncle to refer to the state of his health. The phrase ‘he never complained’ is a tenacious cliché when it comes to talking about people who suffer from chronic illness, as if mentioning that you are suffering even once completely eradicates your claim to sympathy. Nevertheless, it was extraordinary how much he had to bear and how little he mentioned it. Mum used to say that she had come to realise that on his best days Marko probably felt the way we do when we have the flu. However, he didn’t dwell on it and rarely even called attention to it. I wonder now whether he just thought—perhaps correctly—that most of us simply wouldn’t be able to properly understand. Or that it was just too boring to talk about.
As far as I know, Marko was only starstruck to the point of speechlessness once. It was when he met Adam Buxton, the English comedian whose show with his friend Joe Cornish was a favourite with him and with my family. One of its many catch cries was the phrase ‘Love you, bye’, with which Buxton would sign off at the end of each show, the words spoken very quickly, as if he were already rushing away from the person he was farewelling. Marko and I would always end our telephone conversations with that same phrase—or at least I would forget and sign off automatically with ‘love you lots, bye’, and then my uncle would reply in the silly voice of the podcast, ‘Love you, bye!’ We would laugh and talk for another ten minutes after that before going through the ritual again.
I miss those telephone calls. I wish we could ring each other one last time.
Goodbye, Uncle Marko. I loved you and I miss you so much already.
‘Love you, bye.’


Friday, 29 April 2022

Recent Reading - Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I was attracted to Station Eleven because it is a story about what happens when a new and extremely lethal virus arrives in the world; I hoped it might give me a better understanding of what happened to us all over the last two years. 

The novel was published in 2014 and the virus it imagines kills 99 per cent of those it comes in contact with. The action switches back and forth from not long before the pandemic hits to the aftermath, describing what existence is like for those who still remain. 

Given that St John Mandel's fictional virus is so extremely deadly, I ended up feeling that the contemporary parallel the book reflects most clearly is not actually the events following the appearance of COVID19 but the situation now, as we move mostly blithely through what may be the last days before an outbreak, large or small, of nuclear warfare.

Station Eleven is one of the most entertaining contemporary works of fiction that I have read in ages. It is very intricately constructed, (possibly a little too much so, slightly straining the reader's credulity occasionally). Even though until the very end there isn't a really urgent plot line, it kept me glued. I don't think it is the kind of novel that leaves you wiser at the end, or provides an insight into humanity or existence, but it is exceptionally imaginative, clever and compulsive. I enjoyed every page and, unlike so many novels, it didn't peter out towards the end.

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

They Don't Make Them Like That Any More

Being at heart a trivial person, I read with great interest an article in yesterday's Telegraph about a book on the Royal Family that has just been published. 

Although trivial, I am not persistent. If gossip is put in front of me, I lap it up, but I don't go out of my way to find it (well, I did once - when living in Vienna, learning German, I bought a very downmarket magazine that published a transcript of a conversation Prince Charles had on the telephone with Camilla Parker-Bowles; I told myself I did this purely in order to practise my German; I certainly ended up happy that I had read the ghastly exchange through the filter of a foreign language; even with the slight muffling of meaning that comes from having to look up lots of words while reading, it was a pretty sordid exchange that still makes me wince when I think of it).

Anyway, I haven't followed Windsor family business assiduously enough to have been aware that a person called "Porchie" (Lord Porchester to those who did not know him) had at one stage been a very close friend of the Queen.

As soon as I learned of his existence, however, I wanted to get a look at him, and so I began combing the internet for his image. In about 25 seconds I came upon this picture, taken by Robert Jackson. The man on the left, walking beside the Queen is "Porchie". He looks adorable.


But whether or not he looked adorable no longer interested me because I had become riveted by the picture itself. Looking at it, I saw the world I was born into and I realised that every vestige of it has been swept away.

The things that make me nostalgic about the scene are myriad but probably right at the very top of the list is the utter lack of commercialisation visible anywhere and the complete nonchalance of the other racegoers about the fact that the Queen is only feet away.

What happened to women like the one in the hat seen here striding forward? She has either just seen her horse win and is off to collect her winnings, or she is going to find her husband to command him to hand over another 10 bob. For what it's worth, I think he is called Reggie, and I imagine he may be hiding, downing a stiff gin and enjoying a break from that masterful personality with whom he has signed up to a lifetime of marriage.

And what became of all the women like the one glimpsed side-on behind the determined strider? She has a strong resemblance to Edna Everage in her original Moonee Ponds iteration

And there is another of her ilk in the left-hand corner of this part of the picture.

No one is fat, everyone is dressed well. They all have proper shoes on - that alone is extremely rare now. I know this for a fact, because I have lately developed the habit of counting the number of people I see when I go out who are not wearing factory-made sports shoes - and the numbers are invariably close to zero.

Are things better in our new era? Or simply different? Is my sadness at losing the circumstances of life one can see a bit of in this picture simply due to the fact that what I see here is the world of my childhood and I liked that world simply because being a child is a time that, at least in retrospect, seems rather less exhausting than being an adult?

I do have a distrust of change and what is claimed to be progress, but I think that distrust is not unreasonable. I believe that a time when people made shoes with craftsmanship rather than industrial machinery and plastic extrusions was not only more stylish but more pleasant for those engaged in the shoemaking - and this applied more generally.  Whatever the economics of smallscale manufacturing, I am convinced the social good of working in a skilled job, making or mending things, was considerable. Being apprenticed to learn a trade meant becoming a person who had mastered something. Leaving school now, the closest most young people will come to a job where they feel they are slowly learning a trade is getting a barista certificate. 

Of course back then it was virtually impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in Britain. Eating out was also not much done. By today's standards, things were frightfully dull and boring. All the same, I sometimes I wonder if things haven't now become a bit too exciting. I feel that I am bombarded with distracting novelty to the extent that novelty has become faintly addictive. Slow and steady activities like reading, thinking, maybe even making something seem, by contrast, to take too long.

By the way, can you guess when the picture was taken? I couldn't. I assumed it must have been about 1960 or '61, but a picture from the same day is labelled as being taken on 30th September 1969. Astonishing to realise that even then the old ways hadn't been entirely swept away.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Recent Reading

In the beautiful old police station in Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia, there is a secondhand bookshop that takes up five or six rooms and is a bit of a treasure trove. 

On a rainy day recently, I dropped in and bought the three books in this picture:


The first I read was the Graham Greene. Greene described the book as a "frivolity". In the first half of the story you are on tenterhooks that poverty will result in disaster and in the second half you are led to almost believe that wealth, at least for some people, can have its own devastating consequences. I enjoyed the book. If you are fond of Graham Greene, you probably will as well.

After Loser Takes All I read the Penelope Lively. It is set in London, partly in a 'now' that is a three or four decades ago and partly in the Blitz. The parallel storylines didn't quite work for me - tricky fictional structures like this often distract me when reading, which is probably a symptom of my lack of sophistication. 

In the more modern part of the story, (such as it is), the main character is an architect called Mark who spent his childhood looking at buildings and trying to make out how they were put together. He drives about London seeing it as a jigsaw of time. His musings are quite beguiling and full of ideas but I didn't really feel any great interest in this character or any of the others, (and I point blank did not accept that the really ruthless villain portrayed in its pages bore any resemblance to anyone real - not that I didn't believe in his wickedness but that I didn't believe in his stupid behaviour towards the main character). 

In the book, Lively chooses to shift from present tense to past tense and then back to present tense, with no real reason, which I found annoying. It also seemed to me that she had tried, unsuccessfully, to shove an essay into a fictional framework. One striking thing about the novel though is the pre 9/11 innocence of the contents, particularly noticeable in the descriptions of tower blocks being constructed - there is absolutely no hint in the text that they might be turned into targets. 

Overall, I found City of the Mind entertaining to begin with, but rather tedious after a while - not incompetent but too carefully wrought and confected. The essence of the problem for me was that I didn't care at all about the main character. It is hard to know in such circumstances whether that is the writer or the reader's fault.

Finally, I read the Michael Innes. Published in 1941, it tells the story of Inspector Appleby being shipwrecked and having to solve a murder on an island. By contemporary standards the book's language is very racist, in the sense that the white characters and the black characters are intensely aware of the other's colour. Being black isn't considered a bad thing by most of the characters, but it is considered a notable thing - those who are black are seen as 'other' in a way that is no longer encouraged. If the reader can leave that aside, the book is fun, as Innes's Appleby fables usually (although not always) are. 

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Friday, 25 March 2022

Wimmin’s History

In case anyone doesn’t know (I didn’t until I looked it up just now) “wimmin” is a plural spelling of women created by feminists to avoid having “-men” in the word. How Alice Thomas Ellis would have felt about that is probably clear from her reply to the question:

“What is the most important event in women’s history?”

 Appropriately for today, 25 March where I am, this was Ellis’s reply:

“The Annunciation.”

(Here are a couple of passages from Ellis’s novel Pillars of Gold that particularly amuse me:

In the first, the book's main character is assaulted by absurd [but, to me, not completely unfamiliar] media-induced anxieties as she tries to decide what is the best thing to do with some courgettes (zucchini to Australians) she is cooking for her daughter:

"... if she immersed them in water, their vitamin C content would dissipate. She could cook them now and reheat them, but that, she believed, would be deleterious to their nutritional value: it would perhaps be best to entrap them, with their vitamins and trace minerals, in a china bowl enveloped in clingfilm in the coolness of the fridge, taking care that the film did not touch them lest some cancer-inducing chemical should migrate from the one to the other.
Next she considered the potatoes: in the past she had always cooked them in their skins, but recently it had been suggested that potato skins, if not carcinogenic, were yet harmful to the system, perforating the bowel or preventing it from absorbing the vital vitamins. She scraped them carefully and put them in a steel pan ... Scarlet had thrown away all her old aluminium pans since she had learned that they might cause Alzheimer's disease ... The chicken, which she next drew from the fridge, had, so the label proclaimed, ranged freely over a district of France before being hygienically and humanely slaughtered and packed. It somehow gave the impression that the fowl had led such a delightful and pleasurable existence that it was a positive act of virtue to eat it."

In the second, the trials of this woman continue, as she tries to engage with her teenage daughter:

"Do I look all right?" asked Scarlet. She was wearing what she considered to be an ageless garment - a hip-length coat of black watered taffeta; the shoulders were rather too narrow and too sharply defined to be precisely fashionable, but the material was of most superior quality. Underneath this she wore black cotton trousers - ideally these should have been made of silk, but she felt sure no one would notice.
"You look wonderful," said Camille without raising her eyes from the television set. She had eaten her supper" [which included the pristine courgettes, I think] "and was beginning to feel hungry again.
'No, really,' said Scarlet.
Camille fell to her knees from the sofa and gave her mother's leg a patronizing pat. 'You've got a sweet little face,' she said. Scarlet, though not reassured by her words, was touched by her gesture until she saw that Camille was merely reaching for the crisp packet and had patted her in passing.
'Do these shoes go with these trousers?' she asked.
'Yes,' said Camille, her fingers deep in the crispbag.
'You didn't look,' said Scarlet. 'Are they too old-fashioned?'
'No,' said Camille. Scarlet gave up. Only a few years before, Camille had been acutely conerned about her mother's appearance, sometimes refusing to be seen with her in public, but now it seemed that she no longer minded: she had expropriated from Scarlet's wardrobe those few articles that she felt would suit herself and had thereafter left her mother to her own devices. It gave Scarlet the impression that she had grown very old and from now on might just as well go round in her shroud.")