Monday, 28 June 2010

The Party Machine

Once upon a time, the Australian Labor (there is a reason for the idiot mispelling, but not a very good one) Party produced vivid interesting politicians who possessed all the characteristics normally found in human beings. There was Gough Whitlam, vain but hugely charming, (especially when set beside his grim opponent Malcolm [I'm always right, I hate other people and I have no manners - and absolutely no sense of humour] Fraser). There was Paul Keating, who had the gift of the gab to the power of ten. There was Bob Hawke, who made me squirm but was nonetheless a proper personality. And there it ended. The ALP offered us no more actual people. By then they'd started playing with their new machine.

There are varying opinions about where the machine came from. Some say Graham Richardson picked it up in some dodgy deal - second prize in a meat raffle, possibly. Whatever its provenance, whoever was responsible, the machine's first products rolled off the assembly line and into parliament somewhere in the 1990s, (or possibly a little before [there are those who think Kim Beazley may have been a very early prototype {listen closely to his parliamentary speeches - none of them actually make sense, plus he gives the impression that he does not walk but rolls around on little wheels of the kind they put on the bottom of armchairs (well, he gives that impression to me anyway) }])*

There were quite a few problems to solve to begin with. A fair bit of tinkering had to be done. If you listen to Martin Ferguson, you can get a sense of the difficulties the party had getting the machine to make speech sound right. His brother Laurie enunciated more clearly, but sense was the thing they had to struggle with there (spend ten minutes with any of his sentences and you will realise that they are all utterly devoid of meaning [Hansard editors, {who have a very particular approach to judging politicians, based not on policies or the views they espouse but on whether they speak clearly and slowly} need double their normal allotment of time to inject any kind of coherence into Laurie's speeches on the page]).

At last though, after wrestling with the levers and oiling the cogs, fiddling with the settings and recalibrating the speeds, the ALP felt they had hit the ultimate jackpot. Finally the Ruddbot - brand name courtesy of the brilliant Annabel Crabb - was unveiled. They gave him a trial run in diplomacy and a second outing in the Queensland state government and then he was inserted onto the federal political stage.

All went swimmingly. The Ruddbot could walk and talk and soon (surprisingly?) he enchanted the Australian people. His rise was swift and, before anyone could entirely believe it, he had become the country's latest Prime Minister. For a couple of years, there was nothing but joy at the party's Sussex Street headquarters. But then things started to go wrong.

And, in all honesty, there had been signs from the beginning. Even in the Queensland days, swearing and temper had been causing problems with the Ruddbot. It was a question of overheating, according to the mechanics - but they had no doubt they could sort things out quite soon. As it turned out, sadly, they were wrong. The difficulties escalated - stubbornness and almost constant anger became part of the picture. By last week it was apparent that the project had gone hopelessly awry. Then, once it was realised that spare parts were unavailable, it became clear there was only one thing left to do - scrap the whole project and move on to model G (most distressingly, only too late was it discovered that some mischievous bastard had activated the button [similar to the one the bereaved mother activates on David in the film Artificial Intelligence] that actually made the Ruddbot feel [blub, blub, blub]).

Model G, it turns out, is (to use an archaism dragged back into the light of day by Barnaby Joyce - in whom there is not a hint of artificial intelligence [and no, sorry to disappoint you, I am not going to continue with the too obvious punchline; you can complete the sentence for yourself, if you choose to]) a 'chick'! Well sort of: certainly whoever was in charge of the machine the day she was manufactured must have been an ornithologist or twitcher - her face clearly displays features borrowed from some kind of fierce sharp-beaked bird.

More importantly though, Model G, like the Ruddbot, can walk and talk. Better still, no-one has yet pressed her emotion release button - or the one marked dress sense (and can anyone really consider voting for a Prime Minister who chooses to appear in public in a garment like the one she was wearing yesterday?) Without a qualm, therefore, she stepped over her predecessor's corpse. Displaying total equanimity, she banished him from her frontbench.

And, apart from her gender, Model G comes with one other amazing new feature. It is her ability to laugh at will. I am sure this added extra, once perfected, will contribute a valuable, almost human dimension to our shiny new leader. At present though her mouth makes the movements, her throat makes the noise, but nothing happens to her eyes (part of the problem, of course, is that the designer should have been thinking about teddy bears rather than thrushes or eaglehawks when he conceived them). Gurgle, she goes, smile, open lips, gurgle, gurgle; meanwhile her icy stare remains unchanged. It is definitely a drawback, but is it insurmountable? Can Australia really fall in love with those glittering gimlet eyes?

*To the person who complained that I have too many parentheses here: they represent the layers of flesh on Mr Beazley's portly form.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Being There

I first heard of Gaudi in a drafty art room in a boarding school for girls just outside Mittagong in New South Wales. I was 12 and the black and white photographs of undulating apartment facades and knobble-surfaced spires seemed unusual and mysterious, unlike anything I'd ever seen before - and very unlike the Sydney building causing sensations among my schoolfriends at the time: Australia Square (ugh) by Harry Seidler (ugh) (it was already some years old by then, but it still seemed to excite them [no, I don't know why either]).

Gaudi was inspired by nature, our teacher told us, his style was sensuous and curving and entirely original. His buildings were not revealed properly by mere photography; only by seeing them in situ could you get a full understanding of what he had achieved.

When she said that, I thought, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' I didn't think, 'Whatever', because I wasn't (in this or anything else) extremely ahead of my time. Instead, I thought whatever we used to think before we were given the great 'Whatever' to think (what was it? How hard it is to remember things, once they've been superseded.)

So it is only now, decades later, having finally come to Barcelona and been given the opportunity to visit those buildings of Gaudi's, that I at last understand the truth of what my teacher said. Standing in front of the Sagrada Famiglia, wandering through the Park Guell, gazing up at both Gaudi buildings on the Passeig de Gracia (and the one on Caller des Carolines as well) I remember her words and realise that all those years ago she was completely right.

You see, you really can't imagine these buildings unless you see them. No picture prepares you for the sight of them looming above you against a bright blue Spanish sky. Photography is such an odd medium anyway, transforming extremely beautiful people (oh yes, me, of course) into puddings and producing from people who are plain as pikestaffs images of beings who look like gods. And in just the same manner it's worked its alchemy on Gaudi's buildings, distorting them, changing the way they seem. It is only when they are there before you that their impact really hits you. It is only then that you appreciate the spectacular intensity of their ugliness and really comprehend exactly how hideous and vile they truly are.

If I told you that the people who love Gaudi probably also adore cacti, would that give you a sense of the problem at all? If I mentioned that most of his vertical lines seem to have been inspired directly by that most ghastly of all Victorian artefacts, the elephant's leg umbrella stand, would that be helpful? If I said that the horrible spectacle that is the facade of the Sagrada Famiglia includes: stone that's made to look as if it is dripping, (forming in the process shapes like dreadful rotting teeth); twee little conical tiled roof towers; chimneys tortured into twisted shapes; angry fish faces poking out at odd points; carved scenes from the Bible that could have emerged from a cardboard box containing the cheapest trashiest Chinese-made nativity scene available at Mad Barry's (does he still exist?) while simultaneously looking vaguely as if they'd been conceived by Murillo and El Greco in an as yet unknown collaboration (combining saccharine with distortion); and little red and yellow fans (mosaic or ceramic?) at the top of the towers, which remind me of these (all very well in their place, but on top of a Catholic cathedral?) would that convey some idea of the horror (Mr Kurtz, the horror [excuse me, that just slipped out])? If I mentioned that, when I heard a tour guide explain that 'Everything on that front, Gaudi did entirely himself, with his own hands,' I thought, 'Well now we know who to blame,' does that make any of it more understandable? If I add that Park Guell reminded me of Canberra, because, like that fine city, it is the landscape architecture and not the actual architecture that make it reasonably pleasant (apart from my house and neighbourhood, which are lovely), will that add any insight into the whole thing?

Possibly not. Possibly my teacher hit the nail completely on the head. You do have to be there. You do have to undergo the frightful business of seeing these things in all their dreadful splendour. Only then will you be able to accept the likelihood that Gaudi had some kind of early trauma involving a large and undulant intestinal worm (yes, I guess that's 'nature', just like my teacher said) - a trauma he spent the rest of his life trying to work through via every horizontal line in the buildings he made (and sensuous is surely quite the wrong word - there is something really irksomely ungrown-up about Gaudi's buildings, a retreat into baby talk rather than a bold step towards anything adult). Only by standing on the pavement looking at them can you grope towards an understanding that at some point he may also have had such a fierce geometry teacher (possibly the terrifying Miss Cowie, who I encountered in my alarming years at the frighteningly high-powered school I attended in Hammersmith before my escape to sun and freedom in Australia) that ever afterwards any kind of line approaching any form of straightness triggered panic attacks.

And, to be honest, if you do make the journey, it will be worth it, for there will be hard won lessons you will learn from the adventure. Here are some of mine:
1)Whimsy and elegance never go together
2) Originality alone can be over-prized
3) Orwell (who it turns out didn't like Gaudi at all) was always right

And, best of all, if you take the metro to the Sagrada Famiglia, you will make the discovery that two stops further down the line is a station called Clot - home, I presume, to many former inmates of St Custard's. That alone is worth the journey surely - the tantalising possibility that Peason and Grabber are just a ten minute ride away.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Making Your Own Entertainment

Who needs telly, who needs theatre, who needs cinema, who needs sport? Not us - we've got Australian politics.

Is there ever a dull moment? Certainly not now. First female prime minister in seven hours time? First Welsh born prime minister in seven hours time? First prime minister with a voice like a corn-crake in seven hours time? Oh to be in Canberra now that a spill's there.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Good News for Modern Man

Sitting having breakfast - espresso and something covered in sugar and filled with custard (called a ciuccio, the barman told me, ['muy bueno' he said, as if congratulating me on having selected a particularly fine wine]) - in the Placa de Saint Agusti Vell, watching people go by, I realised something had changed since I was last on holiday in the summer in Europe. No-one was wearing Crocs.

Where have they all gone? For a year or two it was forbidden to set foot on a pavement anywhere on the Continent unless shod in those hideous excrescences (now there's a word I've saved up for best). They must be somewhere - they never wear out (apparently that was the flaw in the business plan for the company). Perhaps there is a huge foot-shaped landfill somewhere, heaped with stinking perforated plastic clogs. Anyway, who cares. I'm going to open a bottle of Rioja and raise a toast to the ebbing of that collective madness. Change it seems is sometimes a good thing. That's something I'm very inclined to forget.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

City Size

My three favourite cities are Vienna, Budapest and - new to the list - Barcelona. Vienna's current population is 1.7 million. Budapest's current population is 1.7 million and Barcelona's current population is 1.5 million. Is there a connection between their size and their appeal? While many other factors have to be taken into account - the beauty of the architecture in each place, the fascination of their histories, the attractiveness of their cafes and eating places - I think there is.

While each one is big enough to have all the excitement of a proper city, none has reached the stage of London, where the teeming rush of people is almost impossible to comprehend. Just how madly overrun London is became clear to me when I had to go to the Vodafone shop in Victoria Station one day last year. While I was waiting to be served, I couldn't help noticing what a lot of people were visible on the other side of the shop's glass wall, rushing to and from trains in the station's main hall. I remarked on this to the bloke behind the counter when it was my turn. 'More than a million people go past us every day,' he told me.

That is too many people for anyone to deal with. I know this instinctively, but it is also 'scientifically proven' (except that, infuriatingly, I cannot remember by whom [I read a long article about psychological research that demonstrated unequivocally that the minds of human beings are not designed to deal with registering more than a certain number of their fellows in any given day, but I cannot for the life of me remember where - presumably the human mind or at least my mind is not designed to read more than a certain amount of research data without forgetting all its relevant details {I bet someone's done a study showing that as well}]). If humans do have to live amongst too many people, things start to go haywire, apparently. Here in Barcelona, no-one seems to go haywire - just out for another meal, which is what I'm going to do now.

Friday, 18 June 2010

In Barcelona I Have Been Mostly Eating

I arrived in Barcelona this morning and after checking into my hotel (big thanks to Nurse Myra) and going round to my daughter's house, we ambled through the unfailingly interesting streets to the main market, which is abundance made real - forget the horn of plenty and head for the boqueria.

We got chairs at the counter at my daughter's favourite place and we had:

a plate of grilled sardines, scattered with fresh herbs and lemon;
a plate of clams, with garlic and parsley and oil;
a plate of grilled peppers;
a plate of tiny octupuses (octopi, if you like - polpo if you're Spanish I think [certainly if you're Italian]) cooked with lemon and herbs.
All the things were served quickly, simply, really fresh, extremely delicious and hardly costing anything. Nothing swank about the place, but food that couldn't be faulted.

Then we went to Granja M. Viader, just before it closed for siesta and I had melindros - sponge fingers which I dipped into what was essentially melted chocolate with a great huge splodge of cream on top. This is turning into a great eating - I mean outing (to misquote Best Friends for Frances). Now I am resting before we go out to eat some more. Hurray for Barcelona.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A Diplomatic Incident

When I was young and had to travel through China to visit my father in Mongolia, it was agreed that it was too dangerous a journey for a girl to go on by herself. It was therefore decided that I would time my train trips to coincide with Queen's Messenger runs to Ulan Bator, so that they could keep an eye on me. The Queen's Messengers already had numerous diplomatic bags to guard so I don't suppose they relished the task of taking care of me as well. They did it though and sometimes they were really nice about it. One pair I've always remembered, (ex-East Africa civil servants, I think), because they were particularly congenial and at the end of the trip they presented me with a hilarious fantasy they'd written about what happened (or might have) the night we took the train from Peking to Ulan Bator. Their starting point was the fact that, as I was leaving their compartment to go to bed, I knocked over and broke a Chinese railway owned thermos, which upset the train guard a great deal. From this unexciting beginning, the messengers, who had to stay up all night, guarding the diplomatic bags in their compartment, wove a complex chain of events. This is what they wrote:

Minor Incident
I have the honour to refer to regulation 17 (1) a of the Diplomatic Service Regulations, Para 4 of the Handbook, 27th Edition, and to apprise you of an incident, though relatively of minimal import, which occurred on the night of 15/16th February, 1973. My colleague and I were assigned to QM journeys 25 and 26 respectively and at that time were travelling on the sector Peking - Ulan Bator on the International train.

By an unfortunate combination of circumstances, untoward happenings disrupted our journey and we have not yet completed the sector.

At the time in question my colleague and I were entertaining a lady in compartment 3, carriage no. 4, when, at approximately 20.00 hours, a thermos flask, property of the railway authorities, was unfortunately kicked over and burst, strewing broken glass over the Chinese pile carpet. During the sudden evacuation of the compartment, an ashtray, full of burning cigarette ends, was knocked off the table and its contents fell onto the bed. A small conflagration resulted and some diplomatic bags caught fire.

This spread to some gas cylinders in the next and adjoining compartment. They exploded, blowing out both sides of the coach and damaging a passing signal box. It is our considered view that we could have extinguished the fire, but for the fact that the lights fused, causing a certain amount of panic. The train conductor had entered the compartment and, wearing no shoes, regretfully cut his feet into ribbons. As you can well imagine, it became necessary to suspend all firefighting operations so that some medical treatment could be sought. The external temperature was some 42 degrees C below and , in the ensuing melee, many passengers, then in their night attire, leapt into the evening air. Thereafter there was a slight degree of confusion, because it so happened that the leap to safety coincided with the passing of the up goods bogey eight train, with the result of what might best be described as a 'carve up'. A further complication was evident as the driver of our train had most inadvisedly stopped the train over a bridge some 80 metres over a ravine. It was to be expected that burning embers from the train (by now blazing well) should fall on the bridge - mainly constructed of creosote impregnated wood. Luckily, although the bridge - or most of it - fell away, the train remained suspended across the chasm - somewhat precariously.

Troops eventually arrived and, as a result of our report to them, they continued their investigations among the survivors. It is not for me to fathom the inscrutable workings of providence, but the result of the investigation led to the seizure of a Sikh traveller, who was taken away, there being few or no living witnesses to this small incident.

My colleague and I feel duty bound to make mention of this occurrence as it is possible that some representation could be forthcoming from the 19 countries whose nationals were affected. At the same time and though we cannot put a value on the 11 new luxury coaches destroyed, we do feel responsible for the damage to one thermos flask which could not be repaired and therefore make formal application for reimbursement of TKs.4. to defray the cost of a new one, at the rate of exchange pertaining at 20.12 hours on 15/2/71.

Ourt personal losses were naturally considerable. As far as I can remember the following was destroyed:

30 suits
41 shirts
10 1/2 pairs Lobb shoes
17 bottles whisky (40 oz)
24 bottles gin (40 oz)
1 toothbrush (some bristles missing)
4 gold watches
Cash 483.51p

and for my colleague:

36 suits (Savile Row)
1 vest (old)
1 set false teeth (National Health)
3 Sterodent tablets (part used)
1 roll toilet paper (FCO issue)
3 gas cylinders
18 shirts
7 ties
1 spoon
1/2 bottle angosturas
28 bottles vodka
17 large jade vases
Cash - 4328 American dollars
4 sets of ladies' underwear

There may follow an amendment to this list as some further items may yet come to mind. I feel sure you will appreciate we are still suffering from slight shock.

We have excluded from our list 4 crates of mixed mineral water which exploded - decimating one complete rescue gang - numbering some 40 souls of nationality unknown, but if you agree that this is a justifiable claim against public expenditure we would welcome your confirmation.

Our present circumstances are not by any stretch of the imagination comfortable and we would take this opportunity to indent, with your approval, for two stenographers, preferably young enough to stand the rigours of these vicissitudes, and an adequate supply of writing paper and carbon.

We would also be grateful if our wives could be advised and, as this is a delicate matter, respectfully suggest that your approach to them be couched in suitable terms, as we were expected home some 17 months ago.

We are assuming that our annual leave for 1971, 1972 and 1973 will accumulate and subsistence be held to our credit.

Of necessity we have confined this report to the briefest possible limits but are available to supply any further detail should you require it and send herewith sufficient copies for other departments. We imagine you may wish to consult the PM, the EEC, Treasury, the Attorney General, the United Nations, the International Court of the Hague and the Society of Civil Servants.

We are sirs,
most respectfully
Your obedient servants.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Self Discovery

Life is a journey and travel is an education and travelling alone teaches you about yourself. Et cetera. It's a week now since I set off by myself from home and reluctantly I have to admit the cliches contain some truth. I have learnt something about myself, if not everything about myself (not sure I could deal with that - delusion is an essential part of sanity, surely). What I've discovered is just one thing - one big, unavoidable, shameful truth. It's a fact that's been hidden from me for decades, thanks to my husband's competence. Without him as a companion, I've had to face the reality though: no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot read maps.

And I'm no better with directions. I can't understand the jargon - words like 'west' and 'north' and 'left' and 'right'. I don't carry a compass (perhaps I should - is it eccentric to be without one?) and I get stuck wondering whether they mean left if you're facing a building or left when looking away. I stand in lanes, cow parsley (sorry, 'Queen Anne's Lace') bursting into flower around me, staring down at my bits of paper, my brain scrambling as I try to make sense of where I'm supposed to be (it feels as if things are getting in the kind of mess inside my skull that we see towards the end of this clip.) I frown, my expression is the one my dog used to have when she was trying very hard to understand what I was telling her. I whimper a little. I begin to shake. Tearing at my hair, I fall to the ground and then I start to weep. Actually that last bit's not true - yet.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Goodbye Tupperware

You try to ignore bad news stories - or at least I do (descended from a long and illustrious line of ostriches on my paternal grandfather's side [hem hem]). 'I'm not thinking about that,' I tell myself as some horrible image appears on the telly, 'it's too awful.' And I imagine I've been successful, that I've stuffed the information out of sight, suppressed any memory of the latest ghastly thing. Fantasy, of course - it's never really gone. It's just been shoved into the background, stashed away in the shadows. Most of the time I'm not aware of it. That doesn't matter. It still lingers, niggling away beneath the other rubbishy activity that passes for thinking in what - for want of a better word - I like to call my mind.

Which is why, the day before yesterday, in the middle of Henry IV Part 1 at the Globe (and I don't care if people say it's corny and touristy, I love that place [despite the terrible tabarded army of jobs-worths who act as ushers and take enormous pleasure in trying to spoil each performance for as many people as they possibly can {perhaps they've got some game going or get rewarded for being annoying - one spent 15 minutes right behind me very slowly and noisily rolling up her cellophane plastic mac during a particularly crucial part of the play, rustle, rustle, rustle, rustle, rustle , rustle, aaaaaaaargh}]) when Roger Allam (as always, he is brilliant - although the rest of the production is a bit patchy and the interpretation of Hotspur is downright odd) as Falstaff took a small horn container from his leather bag, removed the horn lid and began eating the contents with a horn spoon, I felt a sudden sense of relief.

'All those hoofs and horns we're wasting,' I thought, 'they could be put to such good use - horn water bottles, horn yoghurt pots, horn lunch boxes, the possibilities are endless. No more plastic, so no need for half the oil we use. Which means we won't have to drill in the oceans any more so there won't be accidents and I won't have to try not to think about all those poor oil-clogged birds I thought I'd managed to suppress. And the unemployed could be given nice satisfying jobs fashioning all the horn receptacles and we meat eaters would be able to sneer at vegetarians as despoilers of the planet, with their refusal to help provide a supply of horn resulting in the need for more and more petro-chemical intensive plastics.'

Such a visionary, Shakespeare - and, what is more, obviously the world's first Green.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Animal Kingdom

The award winning film Animal Kingdom opens with a sequence intercutting detailed close-ups of a mass-produced copper-coated bas relief of lions, hanging in a suburban interior, with black and white CCTV stills of an armed robbery. The images are accompanied by hauntingly ominous music, composed by Antony Partos. They may be clues; they are certainly all we are getting. Once the action gets under way, no concessions are made to our lack of knowledge about the characters we are being introduced to. Not for us an Attenborough voiceover to guide us through the strange new habitat we are being shown. We are simply plunged in, forced to make judgements based on what we see and hear, without commentary or expository dialogue to fill things in.

The film is set in suburban Melbourne - with one excursion to a property near Bendigo - and centres on Josh, a seventeen-year-old who is forced to leave his mother's flat and start life afresh with his grandmother and his uncles, the Cody brothers. Josh, it quickly becomes clear, has fallen among thieves (or possibly been thrown to the lions). The Cody brothers inhabit a world that alternates unsettlingly between mayhem and death and backyard barbecues and suburban Chinese meals. They are criminals and thugs. They have no books, no aspirations, no interests other than the conflict they are engaged in with the Victorian police. Televisions flicker away in the corners of their kitchens and loungerooms: the images they display may distract the characters, diluting their understanding of reality, but they bring no awareness of life outside the bubble of violence and crime in which they live - nor, in the case of Josh's girlfriend and her family, do they give any warning that the Cody's world exists and may impinge on theirs. The Cody brothers are beasts, Melbourne is their territory and the story of the film is about how Josh finds his place within the shifting power alliances of his new herd.

Not unexpectedly, given the activities and outlook of its main characters, the film is fairly grim. This is not to say there aren't laughs - there are plenty, not least: 1) the scene in which Weaver complains about how difficult it is to find the positive in a particular situation; 2) the moment when, after it is agreed that a meeting must be held in a place where no-one any of the characters know would ever go, you see the chosen venue; and 3) the wonderful conversation between Pope and Barry about investing on the stockmarket. The acting too is brilliant. Ben Mendelsohn in particular is mesmerising as Pope, whom he portrays as a strange, wild, prowling psychopath, somehow even managing to transform his eyes into those of a mad kelpie at times (can this really be the same actor we saw as a sweet ingenue in Spotswood and nice young Eddie in Mullet?) Jackie Weaver is also breathtaking.

And yet, and yet. The film is gripping but there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the fact that the people it attempts to portray are the kinds of people who would never be part of its audience. This gives the enterprise a slight sense of a trip to the zoo - it becomes an opportunity for the middle class to press their noses against the glass and peer at the underclass in awe and wonder. There are also a couple of dud psychological notes in the plot - the behaviour of one or two characters (notably Nicole, Josh's girlfriend and her parents) is pushed beyond the plausible to serve the theme of unavoidable and all-enveloping rampant animal power. For me, the film's authenticity was momentarily undermined by these little tin-eared flaws.

Nevertheless, although perhaps it is not quite as clever as it it thinks it is, the film is utterly absorbing and the way that it plays its cards close to its chest works particularly well in our understanding of Josh. We form our judgment of him based purely on what he says and does. As a result, his behaviour as the film progresses often surprises us. Only later, looking back over the initial scenes, is it possible to recognise that there were hints strewn about that might have made it easier to predict what he does later on. This is a film you turn over in your mind for days after you've seen it. Despite the minor quibbles I have about the plot, the movie's ability to linger in the mind is a testament to its strength and power.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

What Was Lost

Although it is not immediately obvious (there are no signs for it and the exhibition is stuck up the back of the building in a room that is really a wide corridor that leads to the cafeteria - 'turn left past the Ladies', as the person at the information desk instructed me) a small number of the pictures of London buildings taken between 1875 and 1886 for the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London (SPROL) are on display at the Royal Academy.

The society first came into being when it was realised that a coaching inn called the Oxford Arms was about to be demolished. The pictures of the Oxford Arms in the RA's exhibition include a wonderful shot taken from the inn's courtyard, showing the upper floors and roof of the building, with the dome of St Paul's rising behind it. SPROL's Honorary Secretary, Alfred Marks, who seems to be considered something of a joke by the exhibition organisers, (they argue that he had a tendency to claim fairly tenuous links between buildings and well-known writers et cetera), described the Oxford Arms courtyard thus: 'Despite the confusion, the dirt, and the decay, he who stands in the yard of this ancient Inn may get an excellent idea of what it was like in the days of its prosperity.' This passage expresses pretty well SPROL's main motivation - if they could not halt progress and the demolition of old buildings, they could at least record what was there and try to capture something of the way the world felt in earlier times.

And, judging by this collection, they did their job well. The pictures chosen by the academy show a city whose scale is entirely different to the London we know today. Apart from St Paul's, the buildings are generally no more than three or four stories at the most and many have a ramshackle feel - this is a world before the time of machine precision. The streets and buildings seem often to have grown up higgledy piggledy and the impression the images create is of a city that was an endlessly intriguing maze, its fabric wood and wattle and daub, not glass and steel.

As often though it is in the details that the past really reveals itself. The quaint buildings are charming but we cannot see what went on inside them or discover how the people who lived there were different from us. It is here that the shopkeepers' signs and displays, captured by chance rather than deliberately, come into their own. The buildings - the focus of SPROL's interest - are often beautiful and intriguing, but they remain remote from our experience. The incidental advertising affixed to their exteriors allow insights into the lives led within their walls, helping provide Marks' 'excellent idea of what it was like.'

Very different, one would have to conclude. The advertisement for an Orphan Working School for Infants on the first floor of one building tells us that - as does (less distressingly) the sign for John Javens, manufacturer of grocers' canisters (grocers' what?). The lovely crammed shop window of an establishment called Mead and Deverell displays items related to Archery, Cricket, Rocking Horses and Perambulators (such an unlikely range of goods would never survive a modern day business plan). Next door, to the left, EC Wood appears to be thriving as a sales outlet for telescopes and opera glasses while, to the right, S Mordan and Sons provides Iron Doors (by appointment to the royal household no less). Now not only would the buildings that housed these enterprises be gone, there would be Boots and Top Shop and a fried chicken outlet in the shop spaces that had replaced them. No-one would be manufacturing anything much; it would all be coming in from China. But then again, no-one would be setting orphans to work in the upstairs office space either. They'd probably be doing it in China though, if they could find enough orphans.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Not Quite True

Watching the news while I was on the plane yesterday, I saw several reports about the recent shootings in Cumbria - the 'cabbie rampage' as some news outlets have begun to call it. Among them was the following statement from a reporter on the ground: 'I am standing in the idyllic little holiday village of Boot, a long-time favourite of families and walkers. Sadly, its carefree atmosphere has been shattered, possibly forever, by the tragic events of the last few days.'

No, sorry. The murders in Cumbria were shocking, appalling and horrible - that is undeniable and a heavy enough reality to absorb. There is no need whatsoever to add to the burden of dreadfulness by making things up. The loss of many lives is clearly tragic. Boot's reported loss of carefree innocence is not. In the circumstances, such a thing would be too trivial to worry about, even if it were true. The important point though is that it is not. As far as Boot is concerned, there has been no loss of anything. Boot never was a carefree place. Boot was, is and always will be a depressing, dismal dump.

Believe me, I know. I spent the worst summer of my life in Boot. It was not long after my parents had finally divorced and the first holiday my father had attempted with us on our own. He had rented a cottage on the recommendation of a colleague, who had told him that not only was the fishing good but the food was superb. We drove from London in a Hillman Imp, which, as everyone knows was a lousy car for anyone (apologies to any Hillman Imp enthusiasts [do they exist?]) - but particularly for a man as tall as my father (his knee hit the indicator every two or three minutes, causing traffic behind us to become maddened by the incessant and increasingly insane signalling).

It was a long journey, and we were tired when we arrived. Our first impression of the tiny main street (actually it is the only street - and it leads nowhere) was that we'd arrived at the most dismal place on earth. Exhaustion, we told ourselves, was the cause of our dismay, but as the days went by things did not improve. There was, we soon realised, a cheerlessness about Boot that was something you could very nearly see and touch - a permanent mist of grim dreariness that pervaded everything.

The 'cottage' where we were to stay didn't help, of course. It was a tiny, very dark, two-up, two-down in the middle of a terrace of similar dwellings. The furniture it contained (and 'contained' is the right word, for the place felt more like a storehouse than somewhere anyone had arranged things in to make a nice living space) was all ugly, heavy and far too large for the tiny rooms. Electricity and heating (and we did need heating - it was August in the Lake District after all) was supplied by meter and as we were always running out of two shilling bits and the village shop had a strict (some might say cussed) policy of not giving out change, we spent a lot of time peering at each other in the dim flicker of candles or my father's Dupont lighter , an object whose elegant (if somewhat flashy) aspirations served only to highlight the dispiriting dinginess of our new surroundings.

To top it all, I, for some reason, had brought absolutely nothing to read. In the end, I turned to the cupboards and drawers of the little place, which were all lined with old pages from the Women's Realm. These provided stories of suburban romance that would not in ordinary circumstances have been of tremendous interest to a 9-year-old. However, I had nothing else and so quickly became glued. As with everything else that holiday though, my strategy led quickly to disappointment, for none of the pages were in any kind of sequence and, by a cruel trick of fate, not one drawer contained an ending to any of the tales. That is why to this day I still wonder about trainee nurse Kate and her dog and whether they ever hooked up with the mysterious but attractive man whom Kate met fleetingly on the common - and about lonely librarian Helen and whether she ended up marrying (or indeed even conversing with) the boy she saw each day at the bus stop.

Was the fishing any good? I can't say. I know that we went to a river every morning and that hours were spent by father and son, casting and waiting, while I sat on a tree-stump reading my sheaf of cast-off bits of Women's Realm. I don't ever remember a fish being caught. My father did once manage to catch my brother when hurling out his line. Instead of hitting the water, his hook plunged right through the flesh between thumb and forefinger on my brother's right hand. My father reacted with an uncharacteristic display of Edwardian outrage when my brother quite naturally let out a loud yell of pain. 'No son of mine should ever admit to pain', he shouted, an outburst that must surely have been the product of frustration after so many wasted, fish-free hours. In this scene I like to think I played a plucky role, leaping from my stump and tackling my father's shocking behaviour, but memory often has a way of gilding one's own actions.

If our mornings were a bit dull, our afternoons were drearier. In those days, I should point out, walking and trekking and rambling were not things people did in the way they do now - some unusual souls tackled big hikes, but mostly that kind of activity was regarded as rather hearty and eccentric. So, although Boot is, apparently, the gateway to Skafell Pike, I wasn't aware of that fact during our stay. And, even if we had been outdoors types, my father was in the grip of one of his periodic bouts of hypochondria - centring, on this occasion, on his digestive system - so instead of going anywhere we stayed at 'home' and listened to him groan.

Perhaps it was the food that did it - it turned out to be unspeakable (far worse even than school). It was provided in the upstairs dining-room of the pub across the road from our cottage, but after a day or two of being faced with dishes that played variations on the colour khaki and always arrived cold and covered by a slick of something that looked very like the stuff filling the Gulf of Mexico at the the moment, we gave up going. There was an alternative - the one and only edible item offered for sale by the village shop. It was a locally-made substance called Kendall's Mint Cake and, according to its wrapper it was exceptionally nutritious. How lucky it was, since we ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day until we were released - I mean, until it was time to go home. At least my brother and I did. My father ate nothing. Progressively more convinced that his days were numbered, he would sit on the front step in the weak afternoon sunshine, holding his head, sighing, very close to tears. My brother and I, clutching our slabs of Kendall's, would sit on each side of him, munching steadily, trying, always unsuccessfully, to think of something that might cheer him up.

I should point out that I am not being heartless about my father's sufferings - he really was all right. When the 'holiday' was over and we returned down south, he consulted a number of Harley Street specialists and not one of them could find anything wrong at all. Eventually, dispirited and still deep in the clutches of his symptoms, he stepped out of yet another great man's consulting rooms and into a nearby pub. 'You look rough, guv' the landlord informed him, by way of greeting. Once again my father unfurled his tale of woe. The landlord listened and then reached behind him for a packet of tablets. 'These should fix you up' he said, 'they're made in Switzerland and they worked wonders for me.' And they did - my father took one that day and never had to take another. He had to have them in the house though. That was all that mattered. If he didn't have them in the bathroom cupboard, the wracking pains returned.

In the decades since that trip with my father, I've often wondered if Boot's lack of charms had become exaggerated in my mind. That is why, when we were doing the Coast-to-Coast walk a couple of years ago, I took a detour just to take a look. They'd whitewashed some of the buildings and hung a few baskets of geraniums from the municipal gallows - sorry, sorry, I mean lamp posts - but these feeble gestures only seemed to emphasise the little town's miserable air. Standing there, remembering that awful summer, it finally dawned on me though - that colleague, that recommendation, it can't really have been an error of judgment. It was suddenly so clear - my brother and I were the innocent victims of some complex act of workplace revenge.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Jamie Grant

I don't know anything much about Jamie Grant, except that he is Australian and I like his poems. Most of them are pretty long, but here are a couple of amusing little ones. As someone who told an oral examiner that I washed up only the forks at home (when asked what I did to help my mother round the house, [all other kitchen implements escaped me for a moment and I didn't know the word 'vaisselle', although it is now etched on my memory]), I identify with the second one in particular:

The Surrealist Poem
My daughter composed her first surrealist poem
when I was unknotting her hair with a comb
and had paused, exasperated by a tangle,
to observe: 'Your hair is like a jungle.'
'Your hair is like an icecream parlour, Dad.'
was her instant reply; she proceeded to add:
'Jock's hair is like a pirate ship, and Emily's
hair is like a hospital.' 'And Mummy's?'
I prompted. 'Would it be a telephone or a fairy?'
'No!' the young poet concluded 'Hers is like a library.'

Mon Pere est Mort
For an oral exam, when aged thirteen
my father was asked questions in French
by a visiting professor in trench-
coat and gold-rimmed spectacles, who was lean

with the thin, pursed lips of an enemy
interrogator. He pressed my father
to say what his father's metier
was - an awkward question, for how many

schoolboys know the French for 'Real Estate
Agent'? Adopting a tragic expression
my father just replied, 'Mon pere est mort.'

The professor blushed to commiserate.
When the results of the examination
were known, my father had the highest score.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Wrinkle Treatment

Shall I tell you what I did last night? I did not get drunk, I did not spend the evening trawling the flesh pots of my local suburb (partly because there are none), I did not enrol in Beginners' Lithuanian classes: I ironed. And I have to admit it's something I don't mind doing (I'd even go so far as to say I like it, if I didn't think that everyone I know would immediately come over with basketsful of the stuff for me to do - 'Well, you did say you liked it; in fact, you put it in writing.')

So I won't go that far. But I will admit that, of all the endless round of futile tasks that come under the heading 'housework', ironing is my favourite (followed by shoe-polishing - and can you believe it, someone I know does ALL the other household chores in her house in exchange for her husband doing the shoe-cleaning? She says she hates shoe-cleaning. She says she actually prefers cleaning the bathroom to shoe-cleaning - that is madness in anyone's book, surely [the bathroom! I mean to say {I think that actually merits one of my allowance of four exclamation marks for the year}])

But what is it about ironing that I find so (relatively - mustn't get carried away here) satisfactory? Early exposure to Mrs Tiggywinkle may be partly to blame. That 'nice hot singey smell', described so well by Beatrix Potter, seeped into my soul before I knew what was happening. And the efficient competence Mrs Tiggywinkle displayed as she took Lucy's pinny and 'ironed it, and goffered it, and shook out the frills' was always going to dazzle me, because I am the sort of person who never was and never will be described as efficient or competent by anyone in connection with any physical task of any kind [I think you always particularly admire the things you can't achieve yourself.])

But it's not just B. Potter that made me find ironing appealing. There's also the fact that, of all the domestic chores, ironing is the only one that doesn't involve:

1) moving from place to place or picking things up (as dusting does);
2) stretching or craning (as cleaning cobwebs from the ceiling and hanging out washing does);
3) crawling about on your hands and knees (as cleaning under the bed or doing the skirting boards does);
4) getting wet and making bleach spots all over your clothing (as cleaning the bathrooms does).
Ironing doesn't involve making any noise either (unlike vacuuming) and this means that you can woolgather or listen to the radio while you do it, (and listening to the radio is just about my all time favourite pastime). Ironing, in short, is what Helen Garner, who is great on the domestic and actually has a scene in her novel The Children's Bach in which one character gives another an iron as a present, ('They came in carrying things: a bunch of flowers, a tin of anzacs, a parcel in brown paper which Mrs Fox handed to Athena. She began to unwrap it. The stickytape popped.
'It's an iron,' said Athena.
She pulled the cardboard and the packing off it and took hold of the pale plastic handle. The cord was brown, flecked with blue, and was tightly wound in a rubber band...
Athena held the iron at arm's length, raised it and lowered it as if to test its weight. 'It's a very good iron,' she said.
'I love to see the creases in their little pyjama pants,' said Mrs Fox.
Dexter took the iron. 'It's so light!' he said. 'How could you make things flat with that? Irons should be heavy.'
The women looked at each other. Athena folded the brown paper and put it away in a drawer.') describes as one of those 'straightforward tasks of love and order that I could perform with ease'(although I have to admit that she is actually describing sheet changing when she uses that phrase [in The Spare Room]).

And there is one other important thing about ironing that makes me find it attractive: it is the kind of work I understand. It has a visible outcome, a tangible effect, it produces solid - if fleeting - results that you can stand back and look at. In my professional life (what a laughable phrase in connection with the muddle of things I've done to earn a living), the jobs where I've had to help produce something you can actually see - a magazine you can hold in your hand at the end of the month, for example, rather than just a set of recommendations or a policy guideline - have always been the ones I've found the most satisfying. I know this is the sign of a feeble non-abstract mind, the kind of thing Descartes ranked as second-rate, but there it is. I am literal minded. And because I am literal-minded, I felt, reaching the end of the long night and looking at the stack of smooth sheets and pillowcases and the line of uncreased shirts I had created from the towering pile of crumpled cloth I'd faced at the outset, an absurd sense of achievement. I knew what I'd done was entirely ephemeral, but it didn't matter - I could see the evidence of my work. It was a visible result of what I'd been up to. I liked that.

(And, if you want more on the subject, [surely not - I don't suppose anyone wanted anything on it at all in the first place] a friend has just told me there's a nice poem about ironing’s special joys

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Hairy Man

Heaven knows who he is, but you can't say he's not drawn beautifully.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Offer - Chester drawers

The Vision Thing

It was a friend's birthday on Saturday and there was a big dinner to celebrate. Conversation turned - as more and more often it does these days - to the irritations of middle-aged decay. I was agreeing with several others that deteriorating eyesight is a complete pain and really annoying and totally vexing and how now, on top of all the hours in our lives that we've already wasted looking for keys, there's the added problem of the equally many and dull hours spent looking for glasses - or the risk of instant dementia if you take the plunge and get a string to hang them round your neck. Gloom was about to overwhelm the table, when someone said, 'It doesn't annoy me; it just makes me think how lucky I was to have such amazing eyesight for so many years.'

I was astonished. It had never occurred to me to think like that. It was a perspective I'd never seen things from before. It was an entirely new way of looking at things. It was a revelation.

Writing it down now, of course, I realise my friend's comment doesn't look all that original and perceptive. In fact, set down on the virtual page, it just seems trite.Yet the man who said it isn't a Pollyanna-goody-two-shoes type of person and he wasn't speaking smugly or with a kind of eye-glinting missionary zeal. He just genuinely thought that.

It's no good though - I can already hear the cynical sucking of teeth, the sniggering, the embarrassed throat-clearing up the back of the room. Well, in the face of such mulish opposition, all I can do is repeat the parting words of my headmistress at boarding school, after she'd hauled me into her office to tell me that if I didn't change my appalling - but unspecified - ways, I would be expelled. 'Do you know what I'm talking about?' she asked at the end of a long and - I won't deny it - not entirely uncritical lecture. 'No,' I said, with absolute truthfulness. 'That just shows how self-centred and egotistical you are. You can go now.'

And I did - I never was one to do anything at all but quake in the face of authority, obeying instructions with a meekness that has rarely been surpassed. That is why I, personally, think the whole incident was really a case of mistaken identity - she probably just got muddled and forgot she was in fact intending to make me head girl. Actually, maybe not. Whatever the case, I still maintain there was no justice in the incident. I mean surely, if there is someone in your charge who does allow absurdist despair to get in the way of team spirit occasionally (just occasionally) it should not be chastisement you offer but sympathy - or, at the very least, medication (and incidentally when did we stop taking medicine and start taking medication?)

Oh no, I can't start down that road, I haven't time to spend the entire day bemoaning the loss of English as we know it; I've got an overseas trip to organise (and, on that note, if anyone knows of good places to stay in Barcelona, all suggestions will be gratefully accepted - cool, [as in temperature] ideally; quiet a real plus).