Friday, 11 June 2021

Long Time No C

I had no idea Edward de Bono was still alive until I saw his obituary in the Times just now. Until I read it, I knew very little about him, beyond the fact that he existed.

It turns out he was half Irish and half Maltese, a doctor and the person who introduced "lateral thinking" into the language. As a home sewer - (no, I don't mean the underground kind; a person who sews is what I mean - the word 'seamstress' strikes me as suggesting too much competence to be applied to me) - perhaps the detail in the obituary that I am most in awe of is the passing reference to de Bono's colourful self-made ties. The obituarist mentions these in such an offhand way that I have to assume they do not realise that making a tie that actually looks okay is a tricky thing, requiring quite a bit of skill.

Aside from that, I thought the obituary contained two other details that made it worth a commemorative blogpost. Here they are:

1. Edward de Bono suggested 'to the Foreign Office [that they] ship large quantities of Marmite to Israel. De Bono explained that both Arabs & Israelis suffered a zinc deficiency due to consuming unleavened bread. Marmite might thus offer a partial remedy to the Middle East problem.'

In my experience, Marmite is not a great unifier. However, it might have had the effect of reorganising the opposing parties along new lines.

2.  'Every morning he rose before 6am to type his latest thoughts on an Adler typewriter. So frequently was he heard bashing the keys that his son Charles, when asked at the age of ten what his father did, replied: “He’s a typist.”'

The permanent secretary of some government department suffered a similar fate on a visit to Japan, when an interpreter introduced him as the department's constant typist.

Under the obituary, there are various comments, including little puzzles of de Bono's that people have remembered. There is the one that represents the title of this post - 'Entury' - and there is this one - 9547653821S13735784A79073F9654E74574T2957387Y6375487 - which I probably don't need to provide the solution to (that said, I only got it because the commenter did provide the solution, so don't hesitate to ask if you can't be bothered doing puzzles [I'm not a keen puzzler myself] but would like to know.)

Monday, 7 June 2021

A Les Murray Poem I Particularly Like

 Poetry and Religion

Les Murray

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds—
crested pigeon, rosella parrot—
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Friday, 28 May 2021

The Big Question

 I remember decades ago seeing a cartoon of a couple arriving at or leaving a party. The man in the picture is small, unimposing & wearing spectacles & a dinner jacket, the woman is a Bianca Castefiore type. She is shown talking to her hostess while getting into or out of a sumptuous mink coat. “Oh yes,” she is saying, “I deal with the all the small questions - what car we buy, should I get a new fur coat - but I leave all the big questions to him - should China join the United Nations, that kind of thing.”

For me, the biggestof big questions is what luxury you would choose if you were invited onto Desert Island Discs & arrived at the point where they asked you that question. The other day a guest on the programme was absolutely inspired & asked for a whole Vienna café (I bags Braunerhof). I seem to remember some years ago that Nicholas Parsons of Just a Minute fame very practically requested a supply of drinkable water, which was dull but wise. However, while reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk, I have just come across the only truly intelligent solution to the problem, provided by a character called Greta:

Mind you, I'd make sure the plane came equipped with a pilot as well.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

No More Ferrero Rocher

I think I've been gone from the world of diplomacy long enough now to be able to make some comments about it, without upsetting anyone still inside it. 

What I mainly want to say is this: diplomats are not inherently glamorous. What is often forgotten is that diplomats are basically civil servants, albeit civil servants with expense accounts. They do throw parties paid for by the taxpayers of their countries. They are also lucky enough to have all sorts of things in their private lives paid for by the taxpayers of their countries. But they are still just civil servants. Sadly though, very often the parties and the perks and the national days and the trays of champagne do go to their heads. 

A love of luxury is one of the signs that this may be happening. By luxury, I don't mean a love of having time and space in abundance, which is my idea of luxury. I mean a love of expensive restaurants and clothes and handbags, a love of things that, although not necessarily valuable, cost an enormous amount. This is the new kind of luxury, where price and value have been divorced. 

Luxury has,  of course, always been costly, but until quite recently the cost arose from the fact that what was being paid for was of rare and exceptional quality. For instance, I should imagine that Grinling Gibbons's -

carvings were expensive, but they were also breathtakingly beautiful (and, if you haven't seen the programme in the video above, please stop reading now, and watch it instead; it is a wonderful thing, made by the BBC, when it still made things properly.*) 

Once upon a time, the things that were called luxuries were given that designation because they were extraordinary examples of artistry and skill. Their price resulted from their quality; it was not what made them luxurious. Luxuries were recognisably special - and it was because of their specialness that they were expensive.

Somehow or other, that's all now changed. Too many of us - certainly many I met in the diplomatic world, loaded with the newfound wealth of 'allowances' - have been tricked into believing that things that are of only adequate quality can be luxuries, provided they come from a very famous company and cost a great deal.

Branding is the key to success in this field of endeavour. Cattle are branded because they look so alike that their owners need to tell which ones are theirs and the same is now true of luxuries. People pay huge sums of money for items that are not unique, that are in fact made in multiples in factories. These items can only be recognised as luxurious by the fact that they bear a logo from a corporation that has somehow managed to persuade consumers that their product has, because it comes from them and costs a fortune, some indefinable magical aspect that makes it special, (even though without the manufacturer's mark it would be impossible to spot its value). Somehow the price itself has become the sought-after quality.

This strange fact was understood too late by British whisky makers selling their product to Japan. On noticing that their sales were growing among Japanese customers, the British manufacturers decided to try to persuade the Japanese government to remove the high tariffs that made their product so expensive for Japanese consumers. They succeeded, the tariffs were removed and the absurdly high price of British whisky in Japan dropped to really quite affordable. Sales fell to almost zero. The whisky hadn't changed in any way. It tasted exactly the same as it had always done. It looked the same too. It was in every respect the same whisky that people had been buying increasing eagerly, but reducing its cost had removed the perception people had that it was a luxury. It turned out that it was only this one aspect that customers really liked.

How did this begin? Is it because we have run out of creativity? Are there no modern equivalents of Grinling Gibbons, no truly exquisite luxuries being made any more? Or is it some change in our psychology that makes us less interested in beauty and more interested in being admired for being able to pay huge sums? These are the things I wondered when I used to go to the restaurants sought out by luxury loving diplomats - charmless places with interiors so dull that they reminded me of airports, places where the staff fawned without sincerity, responding to requests for advice with recommendations of wines that had price tags no-one who genuinely cared about you would even think of suggesting,  places where your food was 'styled', which means that it was as likely to arrive in a bowl as on a flat plate surface, even when it was the kind of thing that needed to be cut up rather than spooned out *. 

I still occasionally encounter people who like such places and I still don't get their appeal. The meals are rarely very memorable - and even more rarely served with any generosity* - so where is the pleasure? Does it rest in being able to say that you went there, imagining that people will admire you for having enough money to pay the resulting huge bills?

Surely not. Who admires people merely for being extravagant? When and why did that become a thing? If I were to splash out lots of money, I would want to be rewarding real skill or talent, and I would expect to receive something astonishing and recognisably unique in return. I'd be like Paul Gallico's Mrs Harris when she goes to Paris in pursuit of the possession of one thing that is extraordinary, one thing in her life that no one else will ever have in duplicate. 

I think this is the aspect of diplomatic life I miss least (inasmuch as I miss any of it, which, to be honest, I don't): being surrounded by nice people who have fallen for false luxury, people who have been duped into believing factory-made goods - bought from corporations in which what craftsmanship exists has all been poured into the creation of the brand - are worth their price tag. There is a pathos in observing people spend their money on things that they wrongly believe are special, unable to see that they are being cunningly conned. There is a poignance in realising that the concept of 'special', of 'luxury' has been corporatised, like almost everything else.

But of course that pathos is not limited to delusional diplomats. And the aspects of diplomatic life that I don't miss are not limited to the buying habits of others in that world. It is hard to believe for anyone struggling without them, but something else I am thrilled by is being liberated from having household staff - servants, if you will. I don't think I can even begin to explain that without coming across as supremely ungrateful. Another time, maybe. 


*Surely there is an irony, or a poignance at the very least, in the fact that the ability to make beautiful and skilful programmes about people who made things beautifully and skilfully has since been lost.

* Is this to give customers a sense of challenge, or just to provide amusement for the staff? 

* Cue Woody Allen's aunts at a restaurant: Aunt A: The food here is so dreadful; Aunt B: Yes, and the servings are so small.

Saturday, 22 May 2021


On my way back from buying peonies from a woman* with dyed hair* & a face that looks as if someone squashed it into an already overstuffed trunk for at least a quarter of a century, (not totally unlike my own, in other words), I saw a wedding party.  They came out of the church nextdoor to us and arranged themselves on the steps to be photographed. I cried. 

Everyone looked so absolutely joyous - the fine, darkhaired bride, her striking face suggesting a strong, intelligent personality, was, to use the cliche, radiant; her cleancut, slim new husband appeared dazed but more or less thrilled; the groom's mother, short and rather drably dressed, was transformed by a grin that went very nearly literarily from ear to ear; the slightly crumpled bride's father was equally brimming with happiness. And behind them masses of friends and relations of all ages, all seemingly equally delighted.

It is the Whitsun weekend (pünkösd in Hungarian), & so I naturally thought of The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, as I stood across the street, admiring the scene on the church steps with tears in my eyes (even when rain began, the group's spirits were not dampened; if you could collect happiness for later use, there were vast quantities of it floating about in that moment):

The Whitsun Weddings

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense   
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence   
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept   
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.   
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and   
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;   
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped   
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass   
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth   
Until the next town, new and nondescript,   
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys   
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls   
I took for porters larking with the mails,   
And went on reading. Once we started, though,   
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls   
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,   
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant   
More promptly out next time, more curiously,   
And saw it all again in different terms:   
The fathers with broad belts under their suits   
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;   
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,   
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,   
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.   
    Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed   
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days   
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define   
Just what it saw departing: children frowned   
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared   
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.   
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast   
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died, 
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,   
And someone running up to bowl—and none   
Thought of the others they would never meet   
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.   
I thought of London spread out in the sun,   
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across   
    Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss   
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail   
Travelling coincidence; and what it held   
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power   
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.


*She appears only on a Saturday & only in peony season. It occurred to me today that, given she brings several hundred bunches each time, she must have a sea of peonies covering perhaps half an acre wherever it is that she lives.

*While this woman has shown great restraint & chosen only to restore what I assume was her original black hair with more black, many women above a certain age in Hungary decide that a sort of purply or beetroot shade of red is the way to go. When I have seen this hair colour on the head of someone bobbing through the crowds in Oxford Street, London or standing amongst the hordes taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain, each has turned out to be a citizen of Magyarország. It is puzzling, as differences in taste usually are.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Literary Meals - an Occasional Series: Burgess’s Recipe for Irish Stew

I came across Anthony Burgess’s recipe for Irish stew on, guess where? Yes, Twitter (that bearded loon who runs it really ought to pay me for all the positive publicity I give that silly application or platform or whatever you’re supposed to call it).

Anyway, it was irresistible, especially as it contains traces of Graham Greene. Here it is (personally I wouldn’t get too worked up about trimming all the fat off; instead cook it days in advance and then cool it - the fat will rise to the top and form a disk that can be removed and thrown away. I would also cook lots of green cabbage in the stew, thus eliminating the need to cook an additional dish of red cabbage as Burgess recommends. And ugh, eurgh, no to the oyster or kidney topping, unless you must live the full Burgess experience. And when he says season well, do go heavy on the black pepper):

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Reading - The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

Last year I read a very long book called The Civil War, in an attempt to understand that period of British history. What I did understand by the end is why it is not a period covered often on the school curriculum. It is messy and complicated and hard to parcel into neat conclusions. 

After I finished it, I remembered that as a child I had enjoyed a book about Cavaliers by Rosemary Sutcliff. I still had my copy of the book so I dug it out and discovered it is in fact about Sir Thomas Fairfax who took Cromwell's side. More particularly it is about his wife Anne. 

The book is The Rider of the White Horse, and I was delighted to find it entirely entrancing on a second reading. Sutcliff writes vivid and beautiful descriptions and creates living characters the reader is engaged by. I was struck by the fact that two fairly major characters are disabled but that there is nothing at all propagandistic in Sutcliff's portrayal of them. I then discovered that she herself was disabled and in a way that made it all the more admirable that she hadn't felt the need to crudely hammer home any messages about the disabled person's plight.

Sutcliff is far too good a writer for that. Her story is moving and exciting, her evocation of landscape and of interiors is marvellous and, although the book was published as part of the Peacock series, and thus intended for younger readers, she never writes down or patronises her readers in any way. I really enjoyed it and missed it when I came to the end.