Friday, 10 September 2021

The Theatre of Other People

I went to the theatre again, (!!!!). I was staying in Kent and my younger daughter and I took a train from Tunbridge Wells up to London. The play I went to see was called Bach and Sons and if you want to know what I thought about it, I wrote about it here

On the train home, I witnessed a slice of the other kind of theatre that I missed during the months of lockdown - the theatre of other people. 

On the seat opposite me was a worn woman in her mid thirties with blonde hair growing out at the roots. She spent the whole journey on her telephone. Her voice was what used to be described as Sloane, and, after explaining that her work has said that from October she has to come in two days a week and so she has made sure to arrange things so that hers are the days when they often go straight to drinks and don't do any work (!?!), she settled down to listening to the person at the other end of the line, who I gathered was called Laura. 

I made this deduction, because the woman opposite me spent the rest of the journey saying the same thing, over and over and over and over again, and it was this: 

"Oh my god, Laura."

"Oh my god, Laura, oh my god, Laura, oh my god, Laura, oh my god." 

It was quite soothing after a bit. 

It was the bass line, or the counterpoint, to the bellowing - I think it’s called banter now? - of a group of young men across the aisle. 

In my childhood, the majority of male English youth had somehow been made to understand that in packs they can be frightening to women, that their loud boasting can sound alarmingly like aggressive shouting, that guffawing about degrading drunken episodes and tales about having been, (almost constantly for the last few days apparently), on the turps, as they described it, are unpleasant to hear and should not be proudly broadcast at top volume in a train carriage full of strangers, especially female strangers. 

But we are all equal now, thank you, feminism. Women don’t need to be respected, nor their sensibilities spared.

“There's nothing worse than when you get to a restaurant and you're so pissed you're not hungry,” boomed one, adding with a mixture of romance and chivalry, (hem hem), “It was worth it later though, because she was, like, gagging for it.”

Fnarr, fnarr. 

He isn’t going to call her again, by the way, because she’s well-annoying.

Then one of them began to tell a story of something that had happened that had made him angry - and clearly was still making him angry. It concerned a woman who had had the audacity to suggest that he and his mate Mikey ought not to be playing on the equipment in a children's playground. 

The man telling this story was tall. He had an air of arrogant, barely controlled irritability. In other words, he was like many, many young English men just now. 

I was impressed at the bravery of the woman in his story. I am very scared of violence and scuttle away from the merest hint of it; I am much too cowardly to confront a potentially violent man. 

The furious scorn he expressed as he told his story alarmed me. This young man was still in a state of affronted rage days after the incident. This is how his story went:

'When we were in Cardiff, there was this playground, and there was a climbing frame in it that wasn't that high. We, like, started to climb it, and I said to Mikey, "I'll race you to the top".

And then there's this woman that's there with a kid, and she goes, "You do realise this is for kids", and Mikie goes, like, "We're big kids anyway, so let it be", and she starts getting vexed and says, "No, I won't let it be. You could hurt my son", and we're, like, "What?" and she's, like, "My son - you could fall on him and then what?", and we're, like, "Yeah but we didn't", and she was, like, "Yeah, but you shouldn't go on it, because it's for kids", and we were, like, "Where does it say that it's forbidden for adults to go on it?", and we're literally, like, "What - like, what are you on about?", and she starts screaming at us, and I burst out laughing. 

I'm literally, like, crying with laughter, and I literally went, like, "Get your nose out of our business," and her son's standing there, like, "Mum, stop, please, stop." I mean, realistically, like, teach your kids not to go under someone who's climbing, and then they won't get hurt. She just started to go off, when all she had to say to her son was, "Don't go under anyone climbing, and then you won't get hurt."'

This still makes me seethe, days afterwards. The entitlement, the refusal to admit he was in the wrong, the lack of respect, the rudeness, the insistence that everything should be arranged exactly as this man wanted it, the lack of courtesy or empathy or thoughtfulness or kindness. 

What are we coming to?

A little further away sat two young men and a stunningly beautiful, unsmiling girl whose face was made up so exquisitely that she looked like a Kabuki actor or a china doll. They all remained silent throughout the journey, except when the girl made an effort and, raising her very heavily lashed eyelids, asked, "Shall we order some Nando's when we get back?" When she received no response, she tried again: "What about a little dinner?" she suggested, "It would be nice to do a little dinner. Shall we go out for a little dinner?" There was no reply. 

Anomie seems to be spreading as fast as any virus in our decadent, post-Christian world, and there seems to be no obvious vaccine, since Christian virtues seem to be despised by the majority of young people. 

Still, I suppose we haven't yet reached the depths that this video seems to suggest are being plumbed in Philadelphia. When I first looked at the clip, I thought I was watching some kind of theatrical performance, and I'm still uncertain if it's real. I hope it isn't.  

Saturday, 4 September 2021

I Went to the Theatre!

Is there anything more I need to say? Is this not a miracle after so many months in which theatres were out-of-bounds? Even I, eschewer of noisy punctuation, believe an exclamation mark is justified.

And how was it? It was grand, as they say in Ireland, where I have spent quite a bit of time lately (more of that anon). I admit that there is one good thing about having your rights taken away from you, being curtailed in your activities by government fiat - and that is getting them back. 

My word, you value things, once you've missed them for a bit. 

The play was Oleanna by David Mamet. The production I saw started its life in Bath and is now at the Arts Theatre in London. If you want to know more about it, I've written a post about it here. If you just want to know whether it's any good and worth going to, the two actors are magificent, the director has approached the text with great intelligence; in other words, I believe it is. 

Friday, 20 August 2021

On Architecture, Ego, Romanticism versus Reality, and Barely Contained Despair

Partly to see our children, partly just because we feel we must stay in perpetual movement while our masters allow us - (who knows what the pesky, power grabbing halfwits will come up with in the way of rights-depriving rules by autumn [for me at least, a major consequence of this whole two years of panic/pandemic is an urgent awareness that at any time and at extremely short notice we may find that our movements are arbitrarily restricted and that therefore hay must be made while the sun shines* {footnote no.1}]) - we have been travelling a lot lately. I've already gushed about the excitement of our first burst of travel since travel was fairly thoroughly stopped for unimportant people some two years ago. 

What I forgot to say was how interesting our travels have been, how seeing the world gets the mind bouncing with questions and ideas.

For instance, in Rovinj, I kept looking at the architecture and wondering how, given that it was individually unremarkable, it managed collectively to be lovely. Here is the town seen from the water:

No single building here is "making a statement". None seeks to stand out from its neighbours. No gigantic ego has gone to the drawing board and thought to themselves, "I'm going to make people notice me by building something that draws attention to itself, even if only because it jars visually with everything around it and its scale makes people feel insignificant. I'm going to build it from mass produced slabs that allow no other individual to express their craftsmanship, using metals that scar the earth in the process of their extraction and plastics that pollute the air in their manufacture* {footnote no. 2}.

The same was true of much of Udine, an Italian city we stopped in before reaching Rovinj - and where it wasn't true there, I blame the fact that the poor sods had an earthquake in the 1970s, in the aftermath of which no doubt they had egotistical architects queuing up round the block with their cement trucks and container loads of steel-framed mirrored glass facading. 

It is also true of the old centres of many, many European towns where so often there is no one building that is especially striking but the collective result is harmonious and very pleasant to see. 

Of course, some people would say that Rovinj has been ruined by tourism, but I doubt it could have been protected from the ravages of modern architects had it not been so hugely attractive in its untouched form for tourists. Furthermore, having been to the town almost thirty years ago, when there was no tourism to speak of, I have to admit that tourism has actually, somehow, made it more attractive. Indeed, when we got home and pulled out the photograph album and looked at the pictures we had taken of Rovinj on our first visit all those years ago, we saw that we had actually been in many of the same streets and squares as we were this time, but although the infrastructure was the same, they were drab, lacking in the liveliness that people bring with them. 

Although wherever you look on the waterfront now they are flogging all sorts of tawdry rubbish, I have to admit it all feels much more fun. Mind you, according to a waiter, the influx of people only lasts for a few months, during which, according to him, the town's population swells from 8,000 to 80,000 (apparently this year they haven't yet reached those levels, which surprised us as it seemed quite crowded - "Yes", he explained, "but in a normal year, the walk beside the water isn't just packed; it's so packed that there are actually people falling into the sea." )

And now we come to romanticism - mine, idiotic, what a surprise. In the winter months, the waiter told us, the place is empty, deserted, nothing is open, no one does anything. "You're all inside doing on-line university courses?" I asked, imagining the residents of Rovinj becoming experts on Aristotle and the Wars of the Roses. "No", he said, "Netflix. Just Netflix, Netflix, Netflix." 

I mentioned despair too, didn't I? Well that was in Udine. On our last night, we wandered into a sweet restaurant in a side street, with a large garden out the back. There were quite a lot of people already there enjoying themselves - most fascinating among them a group of eight beautifully groomed young women who were celebrating a birthday. They had persuaded three young men to join them, but those young men hadn't bothered to make half the effort the girls had in dressing themselves and trying to look splendid, nor did they find it necessary to engage in conversation with anyone but their fellow males. While the girls pouted and posed, draping around each other lovingly as they snapped selfies that might have been suitable had they been setting up an online brothel and needing to tout themselves, the men stood about looking sheepish. 

Anyway, the fellow who ran the restaurant was brilliant at his job and the food was delicious and the wine good and not ferociously marked up. At the end of the evening, we chatted with him, asking how long he thought the compulsory masks indoors rule would last in Italy, and how things were going. His face crumpled as he spoke of how hard things had been and how hard they were continuing to be. The tables in that garden had seemed remarkably far apart but of course we hadn't realised that they were compulsorily two and a half metres from each other, which meant a third of his custom had vanished - and of course there had been no custom at all for months and months and months. When he talked of the day's news, which had included a warning from the government of possible reimposition of lockdown in September or October, it was clear that for him this would mean total despair. 

When I first read about the virus, when a doctor friend started sending me messages warning me that something really bad was coming, I remember staying up late reading reports that showed frightening scenes in China and later in hospitals in Northern Italy. I now think of myself back then as extremely naive. I genuinely believed that we were all in imminent danger of dropping like flies in the street and that the world had to be urgently shut down. I regret being so foolish. Perhaps there was back then an argument for a brief period of curtailment of some activity until the risk the virus posed was understood. But very rapidly it became clear that the risk, while it definitely existed, did not justify the level of reaction that governments imposed. 

Too bad. At a time when everywhere in the West we have the most unimpressive second-rate people in living memory serving as our representatives, those representatives decided that they would take over our lives. They decided that we could not be trusted. Instead of giving us responsibility, providing us with information and trusting each of us to assess our own risk and the risk we posed to others so that we could make up our own minds about how to behave decently, they began imposing rules and then, having discovered how much they enjoyed the exercise of power, they added more and then yet more {*Footnote no. 3}. In the blink of an eye, they began whisking away rights that I never imagined for an instant they would dream of tampering with{*Footnote no. 4}. Without asking, they sacrificed so much, in an attempt to stop an illness that has a horrible outcome in a very small percentage of people. They ignored other physical illnesses and quite unnecessarily deprived the young of education and everyone of social interaction - as if life is worth living when we are isolated beings. Furthermore, if Laura Dodsworth is to be believed, they used some undemocratic psychological methods to keep the bulk of the populace so frightened that they did not object. 

I hang my head in shame at my own frightened stupidity at the start. I now think that in our response to this new form of coronavirus we have made a mistake that will loom as large in our history as the decision to wreck Europe by launching the 1914-18 war. It was sparked by fear and I now recognise that, although in a very different context, Roosevelt was absolutely right in his inauguration speech when he said: "Let me assert my firm belief that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyses."

It is too late, the damage has been done now - but for the sake of everyone, including that nice restaurant owner in Udine and all those in a similar position, barely surviving mentally or economically, we must not allow any more lockdowns or other extreme and, (the data strongly indicates), unsuccessful measures. We have to take back freedom, even if it means mass civil disobedience. We have exceptionally poor leaders in almost every country in the western world, and we are at a really dangerous moment. None of us wants to be a robot polisher.


Footnote no. 1 - As I am writing this in Ireland where the sun appears to scarcely ever shine, (which suits me, to be honest), this is on every level a metaphorical remark. 

Footnote no. 2 - Incidentally, which fat bastard had the bright idea of going round Ireland persuading people to remove their old window frames and replace them not with nice new wooden ones precisely like those originally there but with plastic coated metal ones that probably are made in China and, yes, are so practical because they last forever, but a.) deprive skilled people of the pleasure of making nice windows; b.) blight the landscape - surely beauty counts for something; and c.) make buildings look as if someone has gone around and poked out their eyes.

Footnote no. 3 - I will still never understand how it could have been justifiable in Britain to allow care home workers to go into care homes to work provided they were tested three times a week but the same regular testing regime was not extended to any care home resident's spouse or closest relative or friend;  if it was okay for the workers to come in under that testing regime, how could it possibly not have been just as okay for a resident's visitor to submit to that testing regime and also come in? And don't get me started on funerals. Or women giving birth alone.

Footnote no. 4 - In the United Kingdom, I suspect that also at play was an impulse from somewhere or someone (or possibly - surely not - quite a number of people?) to make several quid - Exhibit A: PCR test costs.

Friday, 6 August 2021

A Genius for Disappointing

My husband decided to look at the concert of three Mozart symphonies that was played in the Albert Hall this week, and broadcast by the BBC. The performance was splendid but the British nation's broadcaster decided that at the interval it was time for their daily "hot topic" - in this case, 'is there such a thing as "genius", that is: are there really people who are superlatively brilliant in their areas of activity, leaving most of us in the also-ran category, or is "genius" just a white male construct?' 

Leaving aside the ridiculous claim made by one of the participants in the discussion that Beethoven wasn't as much of a genius as Mozart, (at least she acknowledged that genius is a thing), the BBC had the temerity to argue that David Bowie and Prince were generally considered to be geniuses - (if, of course, one accepts the term at all) - on a par with Mozart. The presenter also appeared to despise the idea that there might be such a thing as "the divine" from which inspiration for works of genius may emanate. I would suggest to him that our inability to create works of beauty since the majority decided to ditch a belief in the divine rather argues that there might be something up there after all. 

The whole "hot topic" event made me feel, yet again, intensely disappointed by the government broadcaster - and also enraged by them. The discussion was confected nonsense; the first and second parts of the concert clearly demonstrated that genius exists and that Mozart was a genius. If anyone else is capable of creating music that is so beautiful that it gives the impression of having arrived from a better place, they are unarguably a genius. In other words, if anyone reading this can match Mozart's achievement, I unhesitatingly award them the same title. Otherwise, no, forget it - equality of achievement is not something we can engineer, any more than equality of looks.

No doubt someone will decide it is against copyright to have this video up here, in which case - or anyway, once I have enough time, I will transcribe the bilge that is spoken in the course of this vapid insult to viewers.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

The CIA Canoe Pool

This morning I came across this document, which I very much hope is authentic, as it is one of the loveliest pieces of writing I have read in years.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Normally Madame

If you haven't much time, here is a summary of this post, from Matt, the Telegraph newspaper’s excellent cartoonist:

If you have time, read on to learn exactly how right that couple are.

A few pretty things in church of no fame in a village few have heard of in Italy, examples of the treasures scattered across Europe that none of us have been able to admire for over a year.

I used to deal with a man in Brussels who, whenever I asked him a question, would invariably preface his answer with the phrase, "Normally, Madame". On occasion, in fact, his answer would consist only of those two words. 

During lockdown I thought of that man quite often, remembering his simple phrase. I wondered when it would regain any meaning in reality and, in darker moments, whether anything would ever go normally again.

Then on 23 June, to my amazement, normality did return - at least it did in Hungary. No masks, no vaccine checkers, everything open to full capacity, no two-metre distances, just the return of common sense. And then, wonder of wonders, the European Union got its act together and set up a Europe-wide vaccination certificate. As soon as we received ours, we packed our bags and headed back into the world. 

At this point, I should pause and give credit to my husband. I am always capable of persuading myself that I may not want what I actually want, that I am misguided and will be disappointed or disturbed if I achieve my goals.  If it weren't for my husband's boundless optimism, energy and general positive can-do approach, we'd probably still be at home. In his un-neurotic wake, I set off, braced for disillusion, convinced I would decide that travel was meaningless and idle self-indulgence and I'd only been wanting to do it because I wasn't allowed.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. 

Being out in the world is invigorating. Seeing strangers is stimulating. Going to new places is exciting and inspiring and a reminder of how wonderful existence is - including the dear old mass of individuals that together make up the human race.

In Austria, the crowded cheerfulness - gemutlichkeit they call it - of a gasthaus in the evening, a plate of schnitzel with a gemischte salat beside it and the cheerful waiter in lederhosen sweeping down with a viertel of gruner veltliner and a bottle of mineral water. 

Waitress in dirndl

Man in lederhosen (not, so far as I know, a waiter, I have to admit)

Laughter and talk and amiability surrounds you, the delight of being together made all the more intense by the unspoken knowledge that a huge truck just smashed through the wall of existence and, although they've patched things back together, who knows when the next one will come crashing in.

Europe's landscapes are so wonderful

Forget that. Get over the trauma and shock, we tell ourselves. We are back in the world again, hurray.

Then Italy, and a succession of crowded agro-turistico inns that our friends who live in the hills above Lake Como introduce us to. 

Again so glorious to be surrounded by people, this time all talking nineteen to the dozen in that beautiful language, which, when heard collectively, sounds like the chatter of a marvellous flock of birds. And the playful expostulations of men in bars down by the lakeside, stories unfolding within the age-old linguistic road map of alternating "allora"s and "peró"s. 

Having once hated crowds, now the excitement of being in company is so great that it is almost like being drunk.
Waiting for the ferry to go from Katerina Island, a lovely swimming spot, to Rovinj in Croatia

And then Croatia and the bellowing that I'd forgotten was the South Slav standard mode of discourse among males over 40. 

Rovinj, Croatia

And everywhere along the way people of all sizes and shapes - Lycra clad outdoor enthusiasts dashing by on high-tech bicycles, optimists carrying surfboards to stretches of water that, at least to an Australian, promise no surf. 

And as I write this, at a motorway service station, a huge bear of a man in shorts and straining tee-shirt sits down at a table near me and is joined by his equally enormous partner, she in flowing rhinestone-trimmed black chiffon. She shrugs a fake Chanel handbag from her shoulder and opens it and draws out a packet of cigarettes. They light up and smoke with the kind of uninhibited pleasure I haven't seen anyone give to that activity in decades. The pair seem so companionable and apparently utterly untroubled by the risk they are putting themselves through thanks to  their "filthy habit" and their huge corpulence. Yes, I know I shouldn't, but I love them very much indeed for ignoring all the world's attempts to panic them. 

They become for this moment my unlikely heroes - and perhaps it is precisely this that makes the authorities so eager to keep us all inside. Travel is subversive - sights like these might infect others with a similar nonchalance, and then our masters would lose all control. 

I don't propose to suddenly start smoking or over-eating, but I do plan to do my very best to remember this couple’s foolish bravado. With them in mind, I’ll encourage myself to wriggle out of the panic-stoking grasp of the doom sayers. Better to live properly, than to cower at home in what, if Laura Dodsworth's State of Fear is to be believed, is largely a manufactured dread.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Bathos is a Beautiful Thing

I was in a place called Skofja Loka in Slovenia the other day. I'd been there once before and forgotten about it, which is surprising as it is an immensely pretty little town. I found it especially endearing this time as, when I asked the waiter in the cafe where we had lunch whether it was compulsory to wear a mask, he said, "No", and then when my husband asked whether compulsory mask wearing indoors had been abolished recently, as it has in Austria and Hungary, the waiter said, "Oh, it hasn't been abolished yet; we just think it's stupid so we don't." 

Free thinking, so rare these days, so wonderful.

Anyway, in the central square of Skofja Loka, the Slovene government has set up a number of placards highlighting Slovenian crafts and craftspeople - (or should that be, in modern parlance, "celebrating")?

As I like making things, I was immediately drawn to the placards, (despite the fact that they were really an eyesore, plonked down on a succession of heavy metal poles in a way that interrupted the view of an almost unchanged set of antique buildings with a glimpse of distant meadow beyond). 

Displayed were the photographs and what I suppose might be termed "personal statements" of: a blacksmith; a felter; a bookbinder; a patchwork maker; and quite a few lacemakers. Several of them had some pretty grand claims to make about their activities and the products thereof. 

Then there was this woman, (see picture), who pointed out that those of us who spin our own wool and then knit it are rare beings. The combination of recognising a fellow spinner and knitter and being designated as something that is rare was very exciting to me. I had never thought of either spinning or knitting as occupations that one would do anything other than not admit to practising, yet here was someone willing to admit pride in the activity and also, I then saw, willing to venture a definition of its significance. 

What would it be, what would I discover was the essence of these combined hobbies of mine - hobbies that until now I had thought were essentially embarrassments? 

Would she point to a perceived marriage between the earthy, animal nature of sheep rearing and the uniquely human technological achievement that is knitting, (who first picked up a pair of pointed sticks and began the linking of twine to more twine to make a garment via what we now call knitting, and what inspired them to invent such a complex pastime - two questions that I suppose will never be adequately answered).

Or would she assert that spinning and knitting created an intimate bond between man and the animal world? Or that they led to a deep understanding of the intense energy of the seasons - the shearing in the spring, the spinning in the autumn, the knitting in the winter creating a oneness with the rhythms of time and an awareness of its passing?

I read on, and let out a shout of laughter. The essence of being both spinner and knitter it turned out is "being able to make slippers that warm small and large feet." A statement of great bathos, as are almost all statements involving feet, those absurd (but wonderfully useful) appendages - but also a statement of much greater truth than any of the ones I had dreamt up.