Monday, 28 February 2011

Wouldn't You Know It

It's always the way isn't it? You go looking for something and they've completely run out. At the Asian supermarket today, they had lots of this:

But where was the unpleasant pickle? None available. Couldn't be had for love nor money. Typical. Just typical.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The End of the World is Nigh

Having already noted the emergence of dog related decadence, I was horrified to see these in the weekend paper:

For some time now, Brit, over at Think of England, has been a lone voice raised against the dangers of cup cakes, but even his direst predictions did not include this.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Freecycle - a Life in Books

OFFER: I have the following books on offer - happy to separate:

Walk Off Weight
Think Thin, Be Thin
Bronte's Story - a personal battle with anorexia

Explaining Endometriosis
Care for Your Puppy
Civilizing Your Puppy
Mixed Blessings by Deborah Lee

What to Expect When Expecting
Yes, You Can Afford to Raise a Family
Making Sense of Super
Staying Mum- the First Year

Friday, 25 February 2011

We'll All Be Rooned

What kind of a nation are we turning into? It appears that our youth, as well as newcomers to our shores, are no longer tough enough to deal with full-strength vegemite:

I don't mind admitting that our national foodstuff is pretty disgusting, but that is what has made us the proud nation that we are. Learning to pretend to love something that tastes just a tiny bit like poison has forged each and every one of us in a salty fire. And, if we are to retain any sense of dignity, we need to take drastic measures now. In my view, applicants for citizenship should be turned down immediately, unless they can eat five rounds of hot-buttered Tip Top smeared with full-strength Vegemite without gagging. Hard times call for stern measures: the 'Australian identity' is under threat.

High Praise

There's a man I see each morning when I go walking. He has a big brown dog that runs free when no-one's around. As soon as someone appears though, the man gets out a lead and clips it onto the dog's collar.  He was bending down to do this today when he saw that it was me. He let go of the collar then and allowed the dog to run towards me. 'He likes you,' he said, as the dog bounded up and gave me a licking. 'He doesn't like many people, but he does like you.'

I felt ridiculously pleased by this. I regarded it as one of the best compliments I could be given. I can't respect anyone who treats a dog - or any animal - badly and, by the same token, I'm very proud if I earn the respect of a discriminating hound.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Words and Phrases that Make Me Tear My Hair Out

'Appropriate' and 'inappropriate', when used by politicians. Obviously, both words have a place, (or, if you prefer, are at times and in certain contexts 'appropriate') but I think quite often they are used to stifle an interesting conversation - 'I'm afraid I don't think it's appropriate for you to ask me that,' comes the reply to a difficult question; 'it's quite inappropriate of you to bring that up.'

'Appropriate' to whom? 'Inappropriate' to what? To you and your agenda? It might be quite appropriate to me and what I want to find out. It might be appropriate to the needs of the citizens you represent to know about things you consider it inappropriate for us to ask about. Quite often, I think, when 'inappropriate' is used, it might better be replaced by 'impertinent'.

'Appropriate' has to relate to a collective understanding, a set of shared values (it is not appropriate, for instance, to attend church with no clothes on - or, to put it another way, everyone who generally goes to church has agreed that there are norms of behaviour when at church that include wearing clothes). If a journalist asks a question and you don't like it, who is being appropriate? The journalist, seeking information on behalf of the people who have elected a politician, or the politician who seeks to keep that information hidden from electors? All too often these days 'appropriate' is just another weasel word.

Pointless Fun


Tuesday, 22 February 2011

You Only Think You're Hot

In the paper a couple of days ago there was a story about a school library, built at great expense by the government, that is unusable on very hot days. The obvious thing to do, you would think, would be to put a cooling system into the building, but rules are rules and so that can't be done - even though it gets up to 40 degrees inside the library, making it impossible for the children at the school to work in it. That doesn't matter, because, according to a piece of paper belonging to the Department of Education, the school shouldn't get that hot, even if it actually does.

It is as if the clerks, on the one hand, and the teachers and parents, on the other, are talking two different languages. It is as if the clerks have forgotten that the people they are dealing with are their fellow citizens - and also, ultimately, their masters. It is the kind of thing that I liked to kid myself didn't happen in this country. It is that good old phenomenon, 'bureaucracy gone mad':

I imagine the school principal poring over the map, (sent, I would lay large bets, by someone working in an office that is beautifully air-conditioned). Sweat drips from his forehead, but, according to the map, he isn't actually hot.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Freecycle - Three-Legged Race with Babe in Swaddling Clothes

Offer - Size 4 Sweater for Holy Family Sports.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In the streets around our house, good neighbourliness is nearing its annual zenith - the backyard vegetable crops have reached what politicians like to describe as 'the top of their game'. We are showering each other daily with 'nature's bounty'. Most of us do this by sneaking over and leaving things on unmanned doorsteps, thus avoiding the possibility of having our offerings turned down. Shockingly, those of us in possession of small, hard-to-refuse children have resorted to using them as veg mules, without a single qualm.

Until recently, beans and zucchini (or, if you prefer, courgettes) were dominating proceedings, but in the last couple of days cucumbers have shouldered their way to the fore. I have managed to rid myself of fifteen this morning, but there are still a dozen sunning themselves in my back garden, with many more on the way.

Which is why, in search of something new to do with the things (other than engage in hand-to-hand combat - the longer ones make quite good rapiers), I pulled down  Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. As you might expect, she offers plenty of cucumber recipes. Unfortunately, few of them demand more than half of one cucumber, which makes for a fairly labour intensive solution to the glut.

Never mind - as always, Grigson provides interesting and amusing reading. Tiberius, she tells us, loved cucumbers so much that he wanted to have them served every single day. To service his appetite, 'the imperial cucumbers were raised in beds mounted on wheels. Like hospital patients they were rolled out into the sun. When the day turned chilly, they were moved back under frames glazed with transparent stone.'

It's a lovely image, the recumbent vegetables being rolled about like invalids. And who could have predicted that one day I might wish for the resurrection of poor old Tiberius? But enough of this - I have to go. I can hear next door's seven-year-old knocking at the door.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

A Town Like Alice Revisited

Ages ago I wrote a post about A Town Like Alice. To my surprise, when I read the novel I discovered that it's not about Alice Springs, as I'd always imagined it would be. Instead, it turned out to be about a character who aspires to create a town as good as Alice Springs - and eventually succeeds in doing so. How sadly ironic that aspiration seems, when you read this beautifully written but dreadful article. The phrase in it that most disgusts me, I think, is the one describing the approach the police are taking to the shocking problems in the town: "Crisis management through image burnishing and press release, the modern way."

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Spreading Joy with a Stencil

This appeared overnight at the local shops:

I am convinced it was my husband who put it there, for me. Every other female I know is equally convinced it was their husband or boyfriend who put it there, for them.

That is what I call an excellent bit of graffiti.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Time Capsule

The other day I mentioned a visit to a town on an Austrian lake. The name of the town was Pertisau and the lake was called Aachensee. Despite the fact that the tourism business was booming there, one hotel right beside the lake stood empty - and had done for decades. The hotel appeared to have been very suddenly abandoned - through the windows we could see furniture and crockery and linen, all left as if someone had just popped out to the shops.

Locals explained to us that there had been a battle about inheritance between various relatives who thought they had a claim to the hotel - which, apparently, was the inspiration for a series of novels about a chalet school. When that dispute was resolved, the losers transferred their attention to the trees that had grown up between the hotel and the lake in the meantime. They decided to take legal action to block the victors from removing the trees and reestablishing the hotel's 'million dollar view'. And so nothing changed, while the various parties fought each other in the courts in Vienna.

After so many years, ceilings and floors were beginning to look a bit rickety and we were not brave enough to go inside. Someone else was less easily deterred though, and he has created this wonderful flickr stream, showing the hotel's interior, complete with all sorts of objects left behind from the 1940s. There is something eerie about these pictures, as if one is looking straight into the past.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Other Views

Unlike me, (as discussed yesterday), there are some people who are quite good with a camera. Here is one who has used the thing very entertainingly. Here is another who has used it slightly more questionably (although not uninterestingly.) This person demonstrates on her slightly misleadingly titled blog that she also has a knack with the things.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Picture This

For years, I held out against getting a camera. I had not yet forgotten my efforts with a schoolfriend's instamatic, despite the incident happening many years ago.

Like most adolescents, my friend was self-obsessed. I was too, of course, but I didn't have a camera. She did - and she also had a rather bossy nature. As a result, I found myself pressed into service as visual Boswell to her teenage Dr Johnson.

Sadly, the results didn't turn out quite as she wanted - 'My knee? Why did you do a close-up of my knee?' 'I didn't mean to,' 'Hmm - I suppose you didn't plan this shot of my nose in profile with the bus stop waste-basket and a tramp with his flies undone looming in the background either?'

The experience confirmed what I already suspected - I did not have the artistic gift. In fact, as a photographer, I was completely incompetent, unable to capture a scene squarely, let alone compose it in a way that could be called anything other than odd. As for producing something that could possibly be described as flattering, my ability would never, ever stretch to that. I decided taking pictures was something I should not (because I could not) do.

But what about when your children were born? And what about birthdays and Christmases? In the past, when I mentioned my no-click policy, these were the questions I was usually asked. And I suppose it is sad not to have those kinds of pictures. On the other hand, you can overdo it. For instance, a family I know, (let's just say I'm related to them by marriage), records almost everything that happens to them by taking pictures - to such an extent that I sometimes wonder if they're replacing experiencing events with taking photographs of themselves experiencing them instead.

I am pretty convinced, in fact, that reality gets warped through those relatives' use of the camera: as soon as someone brings one out, everyone else in the family instantly poses, contorting their faces into special, unnatural, 'I'm being photographed', grins. The results to me do not look like any moment that actually happened - they are more like those odd things called tableaux that I've seen in old photograph albums: highly planned scenes, usually based on a theme or mythical subject, involving costumes and careful positioning and often taking an entire weekend to produce.

Anyway, to get back to me, (at last - what subject could possibly be more interesting?), in the end I found myself in possession of a camera, by default. It came as part of a telephone that Vodafone gave me, in exchange for my blood, sweat and tears for a minimum of three years (well, something along those lines). I didn't use it, to begin with. To be honest, I didn't actually realise it was there. And, even after I discovered it, I still remained wary. It was only when it occurred to me that a camera could be a kind of note taker that I suddenly got interested. I saw at last that the thing wasn't just for snapping pretty shots; it could also be used to capture information.

I had this revelation while looking at this sign:

I noticed it on a wall in a street near where I lived in London. The only way to store the thing so I could show it to other people and prove I hadn't imagined it was, I realised, to take a photograph of it. However, it would be a record, not an artwork. It wouldn't have to be artistic; it wouldn't have to be well-composed - all I needed was to make sure it was clear and, preferably, reasonably straight.

I didn't take another picture for quite a while after that one. Even so, the rot had clearly already set in. When I saw this sign, I didn't even make a conscious decision. Before I could think about it, I'd snapped it as well:

Again it wasn't a picture, as such, that I was looking to capture - merely a record of the dreary building and the odd romantic aspiration of its name.

And since then it's been all downhill for me and my camera. A day doesn't go past when I don't snap something. In fact, I whip the thing out at the drop of a hat, taking pictures of any bit of information I see that I can't be sure I'll remember, as well as capturing badly written bits of the newspaper and sticking them up on my other blog (

So, although I still can't take good pictures, I've become an enormous camera fan. It is an absolutely brilliant notebook, a recorder of information, museum captions and even entire volumes of prose. When I use my camera for that purpose, my anxieties about artistry can go out of the window. Smaller than a block of paper, it acts as an electronic jotter. I love it for that.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Battered Penguins III

I am already breaking my own rules with this one - Randolph Stow's The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Yes, it is a Penguin with big lettering and a shiny cover, the kind of thing I said I wasn't interested in. In its defence, I think the first paperback edition was of the more muted variety and therefore the copy I have is only masquerading in a shiny cover. More importantly though, it is really good.

The novel is set in Western Australia during and just after the Second World War. It is mainly told from the point of view of Rob, a small boy, who idolises his older cousin Rick, (whose story the book also deals with, although he is only the secondary focus of the novel). While Rob stays at home, Rick joins the army, is sent to Malaya, where he is captured by the Japanese, and eventually returns home, altered permanently by his experiences.

In case anyone gets the wrong impression from that summary, I should point out that The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is not an exciting action book about soldiers and war. It takes place almost entirely in rural Western Australia and really not a great deal happens. However, this does not mean for a moment that the book is boring. It isn't at all; it is extremely beautiful, psychologically accurate - here is the boy's reaction to his father, who he hasn't seen for years: 'The boy rather liked the look of his father, who was tall and had a face like the King. Watching him from a distance, he decided that his father was probably a nice man. But they kissed one another with great reserve, and had nothing to say' -  evocative and, not least, often very funny - 'Aunt Kay was always darning men's socks ... She went about the Maplestead clan soliciting men's socks to darn, and when she was not darning socks she was knitting socks, or picking grass-seeds out of socks, or asking for news of the sock situation in outlying parts of the family.' The novel is such a good piece of writing, in fact, that I plan to recommend it to everyone I meet - I may go even further and press it on strangers, my eyes glinting with evangelical fervour.

What makes the book so good is first and foremost the power of Stow's description of the world in which the boy lives. Stow is extraordinarily observant and manages to create a sense of space and time and heat and even smell. It is pointless to quote particular instances that demonstrate his skill - the entire book is imbued with a sense of Western Australia; we see it, we feel it, we breathe it, we are there. And there with us is the boy, Rob. We watch him growing up and discovering life and the world in a time of war.

The main concern of the book - and of the boy who is its central character - is time. The boy first becomes aware of time at a very young age: 'He counted up to sixty and thought: That is a minute. Then he thought: It will never be that minute again. It will never be today again. Never. He would not, in all his life, make another discovery so shattering. He thought now: I am six years and two weeks old. I will never be that old again.' As his understanding of time increases, the idea of it is harnessed to the image of the merry-go-round that we first encounter in the title: 'The boy's life had no progression, his days led nowhere. He woke in the morning in his room, and at night he slept: the wheel turning full circle, the merry-go-round of his life revolving ... The boy's life had no progression, his days led nowhere. It was summer, and he did not go to school. His life was the sea, the merry-go-round and the swings.' Later, contemplating an ancient handprint made by an Aboriginal child on a rock, the boy gets a glimpse of time on an even larger scale: 'Time and change had removed this child from his country, and his world was not one world, but had in it camps of the dispossessed.'

The handprint on the rock does not only raise questions about time and the relationship between the boy's people, incomers, and the original dwellers of the land. It also introduces the theme of Australia itself, 'sandy, makeshift, innocent'. As he grows, the boy builds 'in his mind a vision of Australia, brave and sad, which was both what soldiers went away to die for and the mood in which they died. Deep inside him he yearned towards Australia: but he did not expect ever to go there.'

It is through language, another preoccupation of the novel, that the boy gains this sweetly absurd understanding of Australia, and language gets its grip on him at an early age: 'Words possessed his mind, a meaningless magic.' Although he quickly grasps that language can be used to play tricks - "Above one of the windows opening on the drive at Sandalwood were characters scratched in the plaster. 'What's that, Aunt Mary?' asked the boy, pointing. ... 'That's Chinese writing.' 'Who wrote it?' 'The Chinamen who built the house.' ...'What does it mean?' 'We hope it means: 'Good luck to this house' ...he ...laughed 'Funny if it means: "Mr Maplestead is mad,' he said' - he is not immune to it. Via the poems his mother reads to him at night: '...poems about Australia, about sad farewells at the slip-rail and death in the far dry distance, where the pelican builds its nest ... Australia formed itself for the boy: bare, melancholy, littered with gallant bones.' Soon he discovers that there are others who use different words to build different myths of their country. When Rick gives the boy his version of their country - 'I reckon you could define Australia as an Anglo-Celtic vacuum in the South Seas', the boy protests, 'Gee, you're rude about Australia,' to which Rick replies, 'I don't mean it. It was a good country to be a child in. It's a childish country.'

But Australia and what it means is not something that can be nailed down and settled once and for all - things change, points of view alter and, as Rick says, 'Families and countries are biological accidents.'  Ultimately, the boy realises, time is the one overarching force in life - 'Time was like a river in flood' - and, within that flood, existence is not one thing; each of us has our own separate reality: 'The world the boy had believed in did not, after all, exist. The world and the clan and Australia had been a myth of his mind and he had been, all the time, an individual.'

Rick leaves and the boy is left behind. Once again the merry-go-round motif returns, bringing the book full circle: 'Over Rick's head a rusty windmill whirled and whirled. He thought of a windmill that had become a merry-go-round in a back yard, a merry-go-round that had been a substitute for another, now ruined merry-go-round, which had been itself a crude promise of another merry-go-round most perilously rooted in the sea.'

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is a wonderful novel. Stow was a very great writer. Why he is not praised in Australia as often and as loudly as some of his contemporaries have been, I do not know - perhaps we never forgave him for choosing to live away from home.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Freecycle - What a Difference a Consonant Makes

"OFFER - Muslim wraps" [perfect for those cold Middle Eastern evenings, presumably]
"OFFER - Paining and decorating instructional video: Short, very British" [I say, old chap, what a nice pattern of bruises, you have]
"OFFER - White leather ottomum - super comfy, great to play the Wii or put your feet on" [no, no, no, you should never put your feet on your mum]

Sunday, 13 February 2011

I Must Stress This

My friend Polly is on her way to China now, on a mission to improve the English of the people who live in a town somewhere near Shanghai. Before she left, she told me about how, when we listen to English being spoken, the most important thing for comprehension is not the sounds themselves but the stress that is put on them. Upholding my family's long tradition, (according to my cousin's husband who says it's the only reply any of us ever gives to anything), I said, 'I know.'

And, in fact, I did know, for just the day before I'd been listening to a review of a new French film. Because of a very faint change in the presenter's emphasis, I'd come away with the impression that the film was about a woman, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who was married to a witch doctor in the South of France. It sounded quite an intriguing premise and certainly nothing like anything I'd heard of before - and, as it turned out, nothing like the actual film, which was in fact about a woman married to a rich doctor in the South of France.

But, Polly, beware -  stress, it seems, is not as helpful to foreigners as to native speakers when they are trying to make sense of things. Judging by the conversation about Radio Four I had with a Hungarian woman some years ago, sounds still matter. 'But what about this Desert Island Desks they all talk about,' she asked me, 'why is it so popular? Why does people talking about their favourite bits of office furniture make good listening?'

Good travels, Polly - we are already looking forward to your safe return.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Free to Remain Ignorant

This little clip, despite the very intrusive and quite unnecessary music track added beneath its commentary, is really fascinating. It leaves so many questions unanswered. There is reference made to 'the fight to preserve [these people's] way of life', and the researcher talks about how, 'It's important for humanity for these people to exist,' and how 'they remind us it's possible to live a different way of life', as if they are not autonomous individuals but merely there to serve as an educational tool for us. The attitude of those in the aeroplane is the attitude of benevolent aliens rather than humans looking at fellow human beings. 'They're the last free people on earth,' the researcher tells us, and yet they're not going to be given the choice to change, should they want to. Having too much choice imposes its own burdens, but do we have the right to deny others choice?

Going All Tabloid

Thanks to Hotmail, we are kept up to date with all the really important news stories - via its entry page. This morning, surveying the lead headlines, my husband remarked, 'Of all the unlikely things to happen, this Warne-Hurley relationship is the one I don't believe I could ever have foreseen.'

After thinking about it for a bit - not an entirely pleasant experience - I realised it probably wasn't that unpredictable. There were signs for those who were looking - from her, if not from him. Exhibit A would have to be those safety pins - they really weren't very classy. The truth is, we may be looking at Tacky meets Tacky, rather than the Lady and the Tramp.

(And, of course, the truly interesting question is what is behind the human fascination for who is having it off with whom,  a phenomenon, Hotmail is now telling me, that Hurley and Warne may have been not only aware of but exploiting in this venture, which, it now appears, may have been a publicity stunt rather than a true romance. Which still makes it a case of Tacky meets Tacky in my book.)

Friday, 11 February 2011

A Dreadful Confession

Okay here goes: I don't always finish reading novels. Sometimes, (shuffles feet, tries not to look shifty), I get sick of them. Occasionally (well, quite often actually), I read a hundred pages and then I give them up. Am I alone in this appalling habit? In my neighbourhood, it seems to be viewed as some kind of disgusting social crime, (mostly by people who don't actually begin reading novels, let alone get as far as finishing them - which reminds me of my friend's husband who announced he'd never set foot in a church again if women priests were ordained, when he hasn't actually set foot in a church for thirty years even as things stand.) Anyway, my argument is that life's too short to waste reading rubbish.

And I should explain that I don't take the decision to abandon a novel lightly - it's not done on a mere caprice. I don't give up suddenly, hurling the book across the room, narrowly missing passing cats or husbands. It's a much slower process. First, I start having doubts, but I try to plough on. Then, if things don't improve (and they usually don't), I find I can't resist the temptation to riffle a little further forward, to see if the part I'm in is going to get better or at least finish quite quickly. If I decide it isn't, I riffle a bit further still. Then, if it seems to me that the whole thing is simply getting worse as each new page succeeds the one before it, I give up. It is only at that point that I go to the last page, read it, and then make my way back through the body of the novel, skimming odd passages, until I've worked out the general drift of what I was going to find out, if I'd bothered to continue, and checking that nothing exciting happens and that no spaceship suddenly lands in the middle of Christmas Dinner, bringing green visitors from Mars.

And, in my defence, I should point out I've never done it with a decent novel. That is to say, I've never done it with novels written more than a hundred years ago. This is not a policy I've formulated; it's just the truth. Novels written more than a hundred years ago don't betray their readers - or, to be accurate, novels that have stood the test of time and are still available after a hundred years don't betray their readers. Most importantly, novels written more than a hundred years ago - at least all the ones I've come across - don't leave their readers adrift in an amoral universe, in the company of characters who are all equally contemptible, irredeemable and hideously flawed (now what can I be thinking of here?). Writers more than a hundred years ago seem, on the whole, to have understood a basic but fairly important point: a reader has to have a reason to keep on reading. Reading is not like breathing; it's a choice and there are other books to be chosen and other things to do.

And, most importantly, and contrary to much of the current advice from those who purport to teach 'creative writing', having a plot is not enough to keep a reader reading. Plot is what Agatha Christie was good at - and if there is one single writer more than any other who set me on the road to the sin of not finishing books, Agatha Christie is that writer. While she does persuade me to want to know who has done it, she has never convinced me that any of her characters is worth caring about or indeed that they actually exist. She is all plot, and she props plot up with stock figures - the military man, the maid servant, the damaged young artist back from the war - and no insight into the human predicament at all.

Mind you, a writer whose only insight into the human predicament is that no-one in the affluent Western world - which, in their view, is horrid anyway, because the cult of individualism is no longer tempered by any kind of moral structure - is anything more than a collection of self-serving impulses and Freudian reactions, (still can't imagine who I'm referring to) makes it very hard for the reader to sit up night after night, holding his 500-page product and dragging their eyes over those funny little black squiggles that are commonly known as words.

And writing a spectacularly brilliant opening isn't going to improve things, if, after the first sixty pages, your prose sputters out with the disappointing hopelessness of those Catherine wheels that fail each Bonfire Night after a moment or two of dazzling fire.  The promise that is created by a captivating opening only makes the reader's dismay and disillusion greater when the whole structure grinds to a dreary halt. It is no good creating a showy first section that flares up brightly, if it turns out that the brightness you've conjured is just the kind of empty brightness you get when you make a fire from scrunched up paper. If there is no real substance behind the inferno, if the whole thing doesn't keep going, the reader experiences a real sense of let down. A book like Freedom, (just to pick a completely random example) begins in a blaze of splendid writing but the flames from that blaze subside all too rapidly, revealing that there is nothing solid at their heart. This creates enormous disappointment in readers. And disappointed readers soon become angry readers, distrustful readers and ultimately, like me, impatient readers who lose heart when a book seems to be drifting and slip into bad habits, abandoning more and more novels before they reach their end.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

I Wouldn't Start from Here

I remember driving from Belgrade to Sofia in the late summer of 1985. Our journey took us through miles of countryside - cornfields, grassland, occasionally groups of men in flat caps and women in colourful knotted scarves, digging and hacking at heavy looking soil. From time to time, a few dwellings would appear, plonked down on each side of the road too incoherently to justify the word 'village'. There was usually a half-built, mortar-smeared mansion among them, black plastic flapping in its exposed concrete rooms. These unfinished projects usually belonged to absent workers, away in Austria or Germany earning the money to complete the next stage of their dreams.

It all felt so remote from what we take to be the real world, the supposed centre of things, the place where whatever it is (that mysterious thing, 'it' - 'Where it's all at') was happening. I remember looking at the people that lived in those places - especially the young ones - and wondering how much where you are born shapes what you expect from life, whether your aspirations are limited by the horizons that you have grown up with.

Looking at this sequence on the English Russia blog, I was reminded of that time and those questions. It's easy to think that, with the advent of the Internet and speedy communications, et cetera, et cetera, Europe at least (and I mean geographical Europe, which I think includes Russia and the countries of the former Yugoslavia) has become a place where everyone has a relatively similar experience and starts from the same kind of basic position. These pictures suggest that there are still places where life must feel quite unconnected from the mainstream, where people quite probably feel abandoned, as if there is an impassable barrier between them and the glittering streamlined 21st-century European world that is really so little distance away.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Words and Phrases that Make Me Feel Stupid

These days, there is always some new buzz word lurking in the shadows, waiting to make me feel ignorant and dumb. Although possibly it has been current for centuries, at least from my point of view it will be something that is unheard of one day and then, without warning, starts popping up everywhere - in newspapers, on the lips of commentators, in other people's blogs. What is especially curious is the fact that everyone else seems to understand it instantly, even though its meaning remains hidden from me. Is it replacing some more familiar piece of vocabulary, I wonder, or is it giving expression to something we have never been able to say before? I have absolutely no idea.

'Trope' and 'meme' are the latest words to affect me in this way. Out of nowhere, from the dark armpit of some hairy academic, they have risen up and seized the linguistic centre stage. Whenever I encounter them, I am left feeling baffled. It is an odd sensation, as if I am suddenly a foreigner, unable to make sense of  my own native tongue.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Home Comforts

During another sort-out of my collection of pointless cuttings, I found this paragraph from a gushing Observer  travel article:

I think the bit in there that I especially love is the 'perhaps' - it sits in that sentence like an eager labrador, its ears pricked, panting, full of hopeless, unfounded optimism and misplaced goodwill.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Harwood's Literary Hoax

Until yesterday, I hadn't realised that Gwen Harwood had perpetrated a hoax almost as successful as the famous Ern Malley one - this is an interesting account of both incidents. Apparently, when Harwood was unmasked as the perpetrator of her own poetic trick, what annoyed her most was the way she was described by the newspapers as a 'housewife', rather than a poet.

I have never thought of her as anything but a poet, although I would have to admit that the poems of hers I am especially fond of often deal with subjects that could be said to be drawn from a housewifely kind of realm. This one is a good example:

Cups by Gwen Harwood

They know us by our lips. They know the proverb
About the space between us. Many slip
They are older than their flashy friends, the glasses
They hold cold water first, are named in scripture

Most are gregarious. You'll often see them
nestled in snowy flocks on trestle tables
or perched on trolleys. Quite a few stay married
for life in their own home to the same saucer

and some are virgin brides of quietness
in a parlour cupboard, wearing gold and roses.
Handleless, chipped, some live on in the flour bin,
some with the poisons in the potting shed.

Shattered, they lie in flowerpot, flowerbed, fowlyard,
Fine earth in earth, they wait for resurrection.
Restored, unbreakable, they'll meet our lips
on some bright morning filled with loving kindness.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Words and Phrases that Make Someone Else Grind Their Teeth

The writer of this week's Diary column in the Spectator is on a mission against the word 'journey' (at least in all but its original context):

I think she is right.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Discreet Charms of the German Speaking World

I was thinking the other day about an Austrian lake where we stopped a couple of summers ago, during the years we lived in London. We'd been there once before, but the village we'd visited had grown since then. Dozens of hotels had sprung up, all built in the same Alpine style, all offering the usual nonsense of that part of the world - lymph-drainage sessions and bio-nourritur, trachten clothing, some kind of therapy involving hot stones. And every available surface in all of the new establishments - just like the old ones -  was littered with pointless 'decorative' objects that were either covered in cross-stitch banalities or made from woven corn. Winsomeness abounded - even our doonas were folded each morning into the shape of hearts:

(I didn't think you'd believe me, without visual evidence.)

On the first morning of our stay, we walked all down one side of the lake, along a narrow stony track that became quite steep in places and where some butterflies we'd never seen before kept landing on our older daughter each time she tried to photograph anything. After a couple of hours, we reached a place where a ferry stopped. There was a building where you could buy lunch beside the ferry stop and, of course, it was swarming with people.

Anyway, we found a table and got ourselves some lunch and ate it and the thing that struck me was the thing that always strikes me in that part of the world - how, despite the same kind of crowding you get at any seaside resort on a sunny day, there was still a level of civilisation that the inhabitants of the British Isles in particular seem to be finding it harder and harder to achieve in similar situations.

One of the reasons for this was that no compromise had been made about the crockery - no-one had decided that it would be quite all right to serve food from polystyrene or paper. This attitude had extended to the furniture. All the tables were made of wood. Formica was unheard of there. In fact, the whole building was wooden, and, although only built in the last five years, it made no attempt to look modern, (while at the same time not being self-consciously old-fashioned). It was simply put together with a 'this is how we've always done it because it works' matter-of-factness. It wasn't shouting about itself into the surrounding landscape; it was just being there, something some architects I've met seem to think is almost a sin. A building should be making a statement, according to them - and that statement can't be, 'I like the way things are'.

Perhaps as a result of all this - being given decent things to eat from and a pleasant place to sit  - the people around us all displayed remarkably good manners. There wasn't a sense that grabbing the best table and yelling across the room to your mates to come and join you was fine. No-one was so noisy that it was impossible to ignore them. No-one appeared to be drunk. There were no tattoos on view either, although that must have been a mere fluke - the tattoo has spread everywhere surely.

It is still unfashionable to like the German-speaking world, and there is so much about it that is deeply unfashionable (not least the cross stitch and the woven wheat objects). Even so, I have a deep, if slightly bemused, affection for it. I find myself looking back on interludes like that lunch on a wooden terrace beside a wooden building next to a lake as not exciting or cutting edge but exceptionally pleasant and civilised - qualities you usually have to pay for, if you can find them at all, in many English speaking countries.

And, having lived in Austria for several years, I do know that life there is not unadulterated heaven. There is a trade-off for the things I regard as positives: you have to put up with the prevailing civic expectation for 'correctness', which at times you find being explained to you in quite an uninhibited, even aggressive, manner, especially if you are trying to do anything with small children. All the same, the German speaking world - or rather Germany and Central Europe, (and, while I recognise Central Europe contains many non-German speaking countries,  I would argue that they can be included because they retain the influence of a German-speaking culture, absorbed during their time as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) - has still got something that we have at least temporarily mislaid. Or perhaps it is that they lack something - our mania for change for its own sake.

Which is why I do catch myself sometimes thinking about that other world of Germany and Central Europe and wondering  if we/the (I was born a dual national) British have allowed too many compromises to be made in the name of convenience and progress and,  if we have, when, how and, most importantly, given that I don't think any of us have really  benefited, why?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Thoughts on Laundry and Nationhood

One advantage of Australia over the United Kingdom, in my experience (although, in light of the recent 'flood events', as the media insists on calling them, it is possibly not really the moment to notice this) is the speed with which you can get your washing dry - and the lovely smell it has when it's spent a day out in the sunshine. Even that stuff you forgot about that's been sitting in the washing machine since last Tuesday (oh, that's just me, is it - no-one else is that incompetent? I feared as much) and is starting to smell like boils (all right, how I imagine boils might smell - accuracy is everything, I agree) comes out fresh and odourless after a day in the Australian sun.

But before this transforms into some kind of nightmarish advertisement, featuring me grinning maniacally, wearing a frilly sprigged pinafore and holding up a box of all new Omo, I will hand over to Rosemary Dobson. Rather than noticing international differences, she spots the universality of washing in her poem called Folding the Sheets:

Folding the Sheets

You and I will fold the sheets
Advancing towards each other
From Burma, from Lapland,

From India, where the sheets have been washed in the river
and pounded upon stones:
Together we will match the corners.

From China, where women on either side of the river
Have washed their pale cloth in the White Stone Shallows
'Under the shining moon'

We meet as though in the formal steps of a dance
to fold the sheets together, put them to air
In wind, in sun, over bushes, or by the fire.

We stretch and pull from one side, and then the other -
Your turn. Now mine.
We fold them and put them away until they are needed

A wish for all people when they lie down to sleep-
Smooth linen, cool cotton, the fragrance and stir of herbs
and the faint but perceptible scent of sweet, clear water.

(From the sequence, 'Daily Living', published in Collected Poems, 1991)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Have I Lost My Sense of Humour

Although I'm fond of dogs, I still find this repellent:

'Organic wok-tossed salmon pasta with a doggie cappuccino' - am I channelling one of my grimmer Church of Scotland forebears (I'm not actually sure that I had any, by the way) or is this just wrong, wrong, wrong?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Hot and Filthy

One of the big advantages of living in Australia is that in most parts of the country it is hot and sunny for quite a lot of the year. I don't particularly like being very hot but what I do like is the fact that, to counteract the heat outside, you have to draw the curtains and keep the house in semi-darkness. This has the excellent effect of making it very hard to see dust or, in fact, any dirt to speak of. Thus, housework can be put off indefinitely during the warmer months. (This post, of course, should really be grouped with this and this and this.)