Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Sage of Ainslie

Sitting in the Paragon Cafe the other day, on the way to Sydney, I finished my rather tiny bowl of soup and began eyeing off my husband's toasted sandwiches. Without a word spoken by me, the noble man to whom the sandwiches belonged - yes, the same one who brought you Australia v Britain - handed me one of the three triangles remaining on his plate of ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches (it would have been too much to ask to expect him to offer any of the toasted chicken variety, since there was only one of those left). 'It is a truth universally acknowledged,' he said as he did so, 'that a woman in possession of a husband will always under-order and then pinch bits from her husband's plate.'

While his memory of Austen's wording may not have been entirely accurate, the substance of his statement was undeniable. A brief glance around the restaurant proved that. On all sides, women were sneaking chips off the plates of their menfolk and even holding out their plates like begging bowls, hoping to be given, 'just a tiny taste', 'a sliver of the corner, just so I can see what it's like'.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Lonely as a Cloud

It is late afternoon at the Chelsea Froebel School. Outside the window, the playground is no longer visible. Darkness and fog have together swallowed it. We don't notice. We are singing. We stand in four lines on one side of the big downstairs classroom, facing Mrs Godley's back. She is at the piano, her hands galloping over the keys. We belt out the last notes of our song and she smashes her fingers down to produce the crashing final chords.

There is a moment of quiet and then she swings round to look at us. My heart sinks. I can guess what is coming. 'Marvellous,' she cries - unlike any choir mistress I ever encounter afterwards, she believes in the power of encouragement - 'magnficent effort - you all deserve a reward.'

And already I know what that reward will be. It will be the same thing it always is. It will be the chance to choose a song ourselves.

'"The Bird-catcher's Song"', I mutter, 'or "Down Yonder Green Valley"?' But it is no good. With one voice the rest of the school roars out its decision, not one soul dissenting, except for me.

My so-called best friend, Susan Fisher, gives me a triumphant grin as Mrs Godley turns back to her instrument - for being best friends doesn't mean you actually like each other and, since she not only pinched my pet rubber, (doesn't everybody have one?), whose name was Ariel, because that was what was printed across its front, but also attacked the poor thing with a compass in an attempt to remove the incriminating lettering, we do actually hate each other, (although, of course, looking back now, I see how trivial and petty such concerns were, hem, hem, hem, hem - what me, hold grudges?)

The decision is unanimous. The consensus is overwhelming. It is also completely baffling. As my companions launch into the opening lines of their beloved ditty, I experience for the first time the true loneliness of being human. "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" they belt out with gusto. Why do they like it? "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" Why don't I? "What shall we do with the drunken sailor earl-ay in the morning?"

And on they go, roaring out ever nastier suggestions for the handling of the inebriated mariner - "Put him in the bilge and make him drink it", "Beat him with a stick until his back is bleeding", "Put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him" - their relish increasing with each new ghastly idea .

I am seven years old and, surrounded by my classmates, I feel as solitary as perhaps I ever will.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Words and Phrases that Make Me Laugh

We have been having a new roof put on our house. The man who is doing it enjoys his job and can talk for ages about what he's doing each day. He's almost finished now though, as he told my husband this morning. 'Yeah mate, it'll be good for you to have closure', he said. Where did he pick up that word 'closure'? It seems to me to come straight from the world of therapy, but he doesn't seem at all the kind of person to have done any therapy. Perhaps, though, he just means 'closure', as in the hole in the roof will finally be closed?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Flowers Please

Following the death on Tuesday of Margaret Olley, (who was among other things a great supporter of the wonderful National Art School - one of the few art schools left, as she pointed out, where you don't spend four days a week talking about making art and only a day actually making it), the Australian printed a picture of her by Jeffrey Smart. What surprised me about the painting, given that it seemed to be in many ways a realistic one, (the Margaret Olley figure is certainly recognisably Margaret Olley), was the complete lack of any sign of crowds:

According to the caption, Smart made it as short a time ago as 1994 - yet last month, when I was in there, the Louvre was like Victoria Station:

Possibly Smart's is a portrait of a dream, rather than of the way things are. Speaking of such things, if my loopy belief in after-life get-togethers, (which I mentioned the other day), is not purely chimeric, the party up there just got better, with Olley's arrival. She and Lucian Freud would probably see eye to eye about most things to do with painting; being a supporter of the monarchists in Australia, she'd have little objection, presumably, to Otto von Hapsburg; and no-one, surely, has ever not got on with Leigh-Fermor. And, now that she's dead, I imagine she can allow herself the odd drink or five.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Mad Penguin Men

When I got the damaged copy of Black Plumes that I talked about yesterday, I also picked up another Margery Allingham that had managed to hang on to its cover. Surprisingly, instead of leaving the paper blank, or covering it with quotes from reviews or information about the author, Penguin used the extra space for revenue raising via the medium of ads:

I wonder why this practice disappeared. Maybe, given the problems the book industry is now facing, it might be worth bringing it back into use.

It would be important of course to match products to book content, if the advertisements were to be really effective. The example that springs to mind immediately is Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Surely the narrator's opening statement -

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet ... I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can" 

- represents a perfect opportunity for a drug company. A well-placed picture on the inside cover - a happy couple, walking arm in arm through rolling country  - plus a large letter caption would work wonders, I imagine:

"No need to waste half your life on the high seas - just take Zoloft!"

There must be so many other possibilities. All suggestions welcomed.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Battered Penguins IX

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham - so battered that the front cover is missing

Margery Allingham is the creator of Albert Campion, the only fictional detective of whom I'm really fond. It was because of him that I chose Black Plumes to read. However, when I reached page 139 of the book and he still hadn't appeared, it crossed my mind that he might not be going to. It also dawned on me that his absence didn't bother me. It turns out it's not Campion I love; it's Allingham herself.

For Allingham is a chatty, companionable author. All the way through her novels, she is there at your side, sharing wry jokes and wise insights about life in general - "jealousy, that most degrading of emotions", "the erstwhile rose garden looked small and dirty, as such air shafts do in the city," -  and the particular tale she has to tell. She is witty - for instance, she describes a restaurant as "pleasant without being in any way good", (I've been to plenty of those), and has one of her characters explain to another, who feels self-conscious at a night club, "Don't worry, there's not a soul in this room who can spare a second to recognise anyone but themselves".

She is also very good at conjuring vivid visual tableaux - in Black Plumes perhaps the greatest example of these is the funeral from which the title is derived - whose central element is nostalgia. A fondness for the disciplines of the recent past, 'the awe-inspiring commonsense behind the absurdities of that great social code of the day before yesterday', is an essential part of Allingham's work.

Most importantly, of course, for a writer of detective fiction, Allingham tells a good story, and Black Plumes contains one of her better plots. Of course, if you don't share Allingham's passion for an earlier, more elegant era or for larger than life characters who, at least in my imagination, talk like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, ("It occurred to Francis that she was going to cry; the discovery appalled her and she rose to her feet, choking"), you will probably find her books unendurable. I, however, love being plunged into Allingham's comfortable imaginary world, which is why I found Black Plumes - and all the other books I've read by her - amusing, intelligent and highly diverting.  If you want to spend a rainy afternoon reading in front of the fire, Black Plumes could be the book for you.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Goulburn Chums

Some people are rude about Goulburn, but there are friendly faces in the streets there:

Actually, 'friendly' might be gilding the lily - there are faces.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Another Exile

John Burns in an article entitled "Rude Britannia"  in the New York Times describes an experience I recognise all too well - believing a place you love exists in your absence, only to find on your return that it has vanished.

Among the paragraphs I particularly identified with were these:

"Over the course of a meal together last week, three of my fellow countrymen who have lived for years abroad ticked off some of the things that have troubled them about life back at home: policemen behaving with an arrogance and indifference unremembered from childhood days; top-level soccer players earning astronomical salaries behaving like cheap thugs, on and off the field; multi-million-dollar performers on television and radio, including the BBC, resorting to coarse language, and, on at least one occasion in recent memory, bullying and taunting an aging comic actor for their trifling amusement; gangs of feral youths prowling center-city areas menacingly after dark; and a beer culture among the nation’s youth that has made public drunkenness a scourge.
The list is long, and its deepest causes not simple to discern. Some, perhaps, lie in what has otherwise been hugely beneficial. The end of Britain’s empire in the 1950s and 1960s, coupled with the gradual erosion of once-rigid class divides, have cast the country loose from the old anchors, and left many people in a restless search for new certainties, new sources of identity and pride. The collapse of standards in the public education system, once among the world’s best, have precipitated an epidemic of antisocial behavior among urban youth. The decline of manufacturing industries has fostered soaring unemployment and, among many, a lifelong welfare dependency.

Three decades after Margaret Thatcher took office on a crusade to resurrect traditional standards, there are many signs that she may have been a blip on an otherwise descending trajectory. While Mr. Cameron has taken up many of her themes — along with Mr. Miliband, though he, as the Labour leader, would be loathe to admit it — a man who had a season in Downing Street over the past year as one of Mr. Cameron’s advisers surveyed the turmoil of the News of the World scandal and offered a revealing conclusion. Britain, he said, resembled more than anything, a “post-communist society” — unhinged from the old verities, and not yet in sight of anything enduring to replace them. It made for a disheartening verdict on a deeply discouraging week"

Why I Don't Inhale

What was I saying?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Almost Canonised

At the end of an interview between Romana Koval and Harold Bloom on ABC Radio National last week, Harold Bloom recited a poem by John Manifold. He went on to say that Manifold was a fine poet, although not a great one, and also that he was a Communist. Neither of these things seemed to diminish Bloom's enthusiasm for John Manifold. The poem he read was this one, which, he commented, showed evidence of AE Housman's influence:

For Sixth Platoon, 308th I. T.C. 
   One morning in spring 
   We marched from Devizes 
   All shapes and all sizes 
   Like beads on a string, 
   But yet with a swing 
   We trod the bluemetal 
   And full of high fettle 
   We started to sing. 
   She ran down the stair 
   A twelve-year-old darling 
   And laughing and calling 
   She fussed her bright hair; 
   Then silent to stare 
   At the men flowing past her--There 
   were all she could master 
   Adoring her there. 
   It's seldom I'll see 
   A sweeter or prettier; 
   I doubt we'll forget her 
   In two years or three, 
   And lucky he'll be 
   She takes for a lover 
   While we are far over 
   The treacherous sea.

Meanwhile, on this day in 1916, my grandfather, John Manifold's uncle, was about to discover just how nasty things could get on the Western Front.

Friday, 22 July 2011

We Shall Not See Their Like

I reread Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water while I was in Hungary recently and was struck anew by his mastery of description. Here he is, returning after 20 years to a valley he thinks he has forgotten:

'...forgotten landmarks kept recurring until I would begin to remember a stretch of flag-leaves, an islet with a clump of willows, a spinney, an oak tree struck by lightning or a solitary chapel a minute or two before they actually reappeared; for suddenly, with an obliging loop of the river, there they were, drowned twenty years deep but surfacing one by one in a chain of rescued visions like lost property restored.'

Here, after meeting an isolated group of people who are descendants of the original Ottoman invaders, he reflects on the remnants of Ottoman influence in Europe, the:

'victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground.'

Feeling rather bereft when the book came to an end, I borrowed my mother's copy of In Tearing Haste, a collection of letters Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire wrote to each other. These took me into a past world, the England my father was devoted to, where no-one ever grizzled or indulged in self-pity. You did not talk about your troubles; you tried your best instead to entertain.

The tone of the letters is consistently understated and generally very wry. It is understood one has feelings, but one doesn't want to be a bore about them.

Oddly, as one reads further into the book and, realises, despite their best efforts, that the two of them are clearly getting older and wearier, it is the Beckett line, 'I can't go on, I'll go on,' that increasingly comes to mind. It is that kind of determined bravado to soldier through the best and the worst of times that they both display.

After a spell in hospital, for instance, the Duchess doesn't write about her aches and pains, but merely says:

'I've had such a rackety time. I ended up in hosp with 'a turn' viz. not quite a stroke'.

Similarly, Paddy doesn't reveal much about his feelings. He takes old-age apparently uncomplainingly, spending his time in a way that I hope we may have an opportunity to emulate one day:
"Joan and I sit by the fire - plenty of logs from the olive harvest - while I read aloud from Carry On Jeeves"

After his wife's death, his sadness is only allowed to appear in parentheses - no exposing raw nerves for him:

"I must go and dole out some 'Whiskas' and 'Kit-E-Kat' to the still slumbering clowder, all piebald and skewbald in amusing patterns. They miss Joan bitterly (they are not the only ones)."

The closest the Duchess ever gets to solemnity is in her letter about her sister's death and funeral service, which is practically a Betjeman prose poem:

'It is so odd to have lost someone who was always there. The childhood cry of the seventh, straggling to keep up on stubby legs, of WAIT FOR ME, lives with me. She couldn't.

Now for Swinbrook. The much licked pews [the Mitfords passed the time by licking the pews during childhood services in this church], the unbearable memories of the olden days, the Post Office reached by donkey cart, the two-penny bars & acid drops, the village idiot, the blacksmith's shop, Nanny's fabric gloves clutched in the back of the Daimler just before I was sick. Oh well'.

What I am hoping, of course, is that, once the Murdoch toxins have at last been removed from Britain and the orgies of self-revelation they sponsored have been swept away, the whole country will return to its former persona and become once again its heroic, hilarious self.

I should add, having just heard that Lucian Freud has died, that the Duchess of Devonshire described him in a letter to Leigh-Fermor too:

"I had lunch with Lu Freud the other day. What an extraordinary man, he is exactly the same as he was when 25 & now he's 80, bounding upstairs, darting down the street. Painting away like billy-o & a huge exhib going all over the place to mark his 80th birthday. He's got a grand house in Kensington Church St with a garden planted in 0 but bamboo so you think you're in an endless forest."

I have a batty theory that people who die around the same time end up together in the after-life's ante-room. As a result I have a vision of Freud and Leigh-Fermor, who died only recently, happily ensconced as I write this, together with Otto von Hapsburg. I bet they're having fun.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Shut Up, I'm Reading

A while back, I was feeling sad, because I thought I was the only person in the world who didn't want to go out to literary festivals and listen to writers talking about themselves. I was beginning to imagine that it was eccentric to prefer to stay at home, reading their work instead.

I feel a bit better since I read this remark, made by Margaret Attwood:

"Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté."

The analogy is not perfect, but the central point appeals to me.

A Feast of Hateful Words and Phrases

I have been trying to 'think positive' lately, hence the lack of 'words-and-phrases-I-hate type posts. For those who want to be reminded of just how badly the English language is being treated in the meantime, this is a very good link.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

You See Him Here, You See Him There

I came across this interesting article on the invaluable Books Inq blog. I read it just after hearing on the radio that Harper Collins is part of the Murdoch empire. While I believe Random House is the biggest of all English language publishers, I imagine Harper Collins could give it a run for its money - and it is certainly big enough, I'd have thought, to exert considerable influence on the way that publishing is run.

Which was why, when I came to the phrase 'commercially-driven literary culture' in the article, I found myself wondering if it was possible to make a connection: could it be that book publishing, like so much else in Britain, has become entangled in the Murdoch tentacles? Has this area of British life also been corrupted by Murdoch greed? Has Murdoch's drive for financial success at all costs transformed the world of British writing? It's not impossible. It might provide an explanation for the dullness of the current literary world in Britain, compared to those in, for instance, Germany and France.

Woof Three Times if You're Fond of Auden

On my walk this morning, I got talking to a woman. With the woman was a dog. The woman said the dog's name was Sappho. Was the woman's choice of name an attempt to tell me something, I wondered. If so, was it related to her taste in poetry or to her preference for women? A grinning golden retriever seemed an odd medium for either message. What would Marshall McLuhan think?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

And Speaking of Age

The cult of youth received a blow with the news of Rebekah Brooks's downfall. It is worth remembering that she was the youngest ever editor of a major British newspaper - and look what happened. Yah boo sucks, youth culters. It's time to show some respect to your elders and betters and stop pretending you know it all. Whatever else age brings, the knowledge that one never knows nearly enough is certainly a big part of the package.

Age of Distraction

If, as I do, you believe that, under the influence of the Murdoch press, a preoccupation with the superficial has developed in the last decades in Britain, then ultimately you have to ask yourself what it has done to the country's politics.

Looking at the country's two most recent elected leaders - Blair and Cameron - and comparing them to failed aspirants for the job - Gordon Brown, William Hague, Michael Howard - and also to successful candidates from the time before the rise of Murdoch glitter - Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, even the rather drab early version of M. Thatcher - it is not impossible to conclude that the voting public have been gulled into believing that looking bright and shiny on the TV screen is a leader's most vital skill.

I thought of this yesterday, when William Hague's face appeared briefly on our television screen. I suspect Hague is more intelligent, more principled, more deeply read than Cameron ever will be. Once upon a time, he would probably have been a successful leader. Now though, the public obsession with celebrity and glamour seems to rule out a person with a somewhat lacklustre image like his.

For Hague does not possess the vigilant charm of a Blair or Cameron, nor does he have Cameron's slightly spivvy knack of looking brand new, as if freshly unwrapped from a cellophane bag each morning. Personally, I distrust the kind of smooth plausibility that both Blair and Cameron project but, thanks to the spread of Murdoch's brand of surface-focussed journalism, the majority of people have been persuaded that glossiness matters. An appetite for men of substance as been replaced with a taste for figures stuffed with nothing but PR.

While we're on the subject of Cameron, incidentally, I did like Simon Hoggart's anecdote in the Spectator about an encounter between the UK Prime Minister and the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, who persistently draws Cameron with a condom over his head. Cameron taxed Bell about this annoying - at least for him - habit. Bell said he wasn't planning to remove the condom. Cameron, visibly irritated apparently, left the conversation with these parting words: 'You know, it is possible to push a condom too far.'

Monday, 18 July 2011

Happy Birthday

Apparently today would be Christina Stead's birthday. Stead was a very great writer and her books are too little read in this country, or anywhere for that matter. For Love Alone and The Man who Loved Children are both tremendous and utterly original, even if they do have, as she says, 'what are called errors'. I don't know why my children were offered such flimsy examples of Australian literature to study in the schoolroom, when they could have been plunging into works like these.

No Sex Please

I was happily reading a mildly interesting article by Adam Gopnik about learning to draw the other day (it was published in the 27 June issue of the New Yorker). He had some reasonably interesting things to say about the process, and the paragraphs were flying by, when suddenly he came out with this:

"I'd hoped the drawing would be an experience of resistance and sudden yielding, like the first time you make love, where first it's strange and then it's great, and afterward always the same."

This abrupt change of gears to the extremely intimate threw me completely. When I decided to read the essay I never expected to be faced with Mr Gopnik - to whom I have never been introduced, or, indeed, even clapped eyes on - removing his underwear and encountering first 'resistance' and then 'sudden yielding'. The images these sentences introduced into my head were distracting and they added nothing to the main thrust, if I may use that word, of the essay's argument (such as it was). Perhaps others are less prudish in these matters. Maybe these details add to the appeal of the article for a majority of readers, but 'gratuitous' was the word that sprang to mind for me.


Sunday, 17 July 2011

The View from Here

A view has never been at the top of my list of priorities when choosing somewhere to live. While I'm certainly going to be sad if the mooted plans to demolish the building across from my apartment in Budapest go ahead and I lose my vista of uneven roof tiles, it wasn't that vista that made me choose the flat to begin with.

But I know a view is important to plenty of people. In fact, a number of my friends like nothing more than to show me theirs - and, as a result, I've often stood looking out through their various windows, pretending to have my breath taken away by distant mountains, panoramic landscapes or cross-sections of medieval cities. I'm aware that, for many people, what they see from the rooms they live in affects how they feel about the place in which they spend their days.

I have to admit though that, until today, I didn't really understand the satisfaction a good view gives. Then I read these lines of Auden's:

'...though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy
there is no forgetting that one was.'

I instantly agreed with Auden about happiness enduring in the memory, yet it seemed to me he could have gone further in what he said. Not only is happiness almost always remembered; it is frequently the actual remembering itself that first makes you aware that you felt the emotion.

At least, that's the way it's been for me on too many occasions - letting some forgettable worry  (did I lock the front door, did I leave the stove on?) dominate my attention, I haven't noticed the pleasure I feel. Only later, recalling the moment, I've recognised that I was happy. Peering through the window of memory, I've been thrilled by the distant view.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Stop the Bagging

After yesterday's post, showing old promotional material for Canberra, I've had a few hurt conversations with fellow members of the ACT gulag. 'Why are you such a knocker, Z', they say, 'why can't you just stop bagging Canberra? It's a lovely place to live, so easy and beautiful, why would you want to complain?'

Well, it isn't the setting, which is undeniably beautiful, (and, yes, it is great to be able to walk into the bush within 10 minutes and, while I couldn't quite call it great, given that, when you reach it, there is not much there, it is convenient to be able to walk 15 minutes in the other direction and be in the centre of town).

However, a glance at the notices, each and every one of them published by the ridiculous local government (which, even though it presides over a population of only 360,000 people, is, I gather, proposing to spend $490 million to construct an extra building to house all the teeming hordes of people it needs to work in its tin-pot parliament, which has the grand title of ACT Legislative Assembly, complete with Hansard et cetera), at my local library, gives a pretty good indication of 'what's not to like':

 1) Do they imagine I'm going to save them all up for Christmas and press them, 'gift-wrapped',  into a close relative's hand?

2) 'Open them during the day and close them at night'? Thanks for that, I might have got it the wrong way round. I mean really - those of us who can afford curtains don't need this advice; those who are still struggling with too large a mortgage will have to continue with the current tacked up blanket arrangement - only now they'll probably feel guilty about it as well.

3) Thanks, mum, for reminding me, because I'm just an infantile moron:

4) I think the sign reading 40 should be an adequate lesson, plus all the other signs all around schools, plus the fact you are taught about this when you learn to drive, but probably the ACT Government, if only it had a bit more of our money, would like to force us all onto a one-day training programme on this as well (interesting that the poster, which reads, 'School's back', is on display, even though it is in fact the school holidays here right now).

5) Since when did women become some kind of semi-disabled minority who need special grants before they can manage fronting up to the local supermarket and saying, 'I've been at home for a while with the kids, but is there any possibility of a job?'

6) So you are already late for a meeting, you rush into a cafe to buy a cup of coffee quickly and you're supposed to be like some boy scout, with mug in hand, or alternatively an eco-warrior, stopping in the middle of your already frenzied life to argue the merits of polystyrene over paper. Do these people have any idea what it is like trying to work, look after children et cetera et cetera?

7) Are you telling me that you've made it more complicated, that there are odd new little rules you've brought in to add to my anxiety? Are you implying I'd hurl all my children into the boot, if you didn't remind me about the booster seat? I'm insulted now (actually I was already)

(and when you say, 'children must stay in a restraint until the age of 7 years', have you ever tried getting them into bed still strapped into their booster seat? It's not as easy as it sounds.)

8) What, there's nowhere in my life that you won't intrude? I don't want a home water audit, free or not - and what am I supposed to do when I've got it anyway? Worry about the fact that I can't actually afford to instal the correct equipment - or that my landlord's not interested. Look, please, just go away.

9) Oh, and the best for last - this to me is clearly well-meant, but has anyone really thought it through? I mean, as a result of this decision, instead of reusing each plastic bag, (most of which are very flimsy these days and claim to be made from recycled bags themselves and also to be biodegradable, although I have no idea how true this is), first to cover left overs in the fridge and then to line the rubbish bin, I will for the first time in my life be buying clingfilm and rubbish bags; in other words I will be paying to buy plastic products that I will only use once, whereas before I was reusing the bags I got at the shop several times.
To add to the madness, plastic bags will still be available at the supermarket, if you want to pay for them; however, they will be much more durable, long-lasting - and therefore less degradable - ones:
I know that I am scatter brained enough to continue to forget to bring my own bags to the shop and so I will end up buying these ones, thus generating the production dozens of bags of a  far more environmentally damaging variety than the old ones, all in the name of what?

And one last whinge - what does it cost to produce all these absurd directives? People write them, they have meetings about them, designers do mock-ups, more meetings, recommendations, approvals, quotes from printers, large quantities of paper, on and on it goes.

Friday, 15 July 2011


Reading an interview with Margaret Drabble in the Telegraph, (thank you Frank Wilson), I came across this remark of hers about her sister, AS Byatt, known to the family as Sue:

“Sue always wanted to write" she tells the interviewer,  "I didn’t want to. I just happened to write a novel when I was pregnant and had nothing to do."

Well, well. Now I think I understand their feud.

Why I Came to Canberra

Yes, I admit it. It was mainly Ian - shy or not, who could resist that lovely blonde hair (and there were rumours he'd soon be a Clerk Class 11).

What I find specially baffling about these pictures is that I know from the text that I must have been here then - there's a mention of Woden Plaza and I can remember the excitement (yes, it was a big event - we went from school in the lunch hour, just to have a look) of its opening. Yet, I don't recall people looking quite as ludicrous as this mob. Perhaps they were all locked up in their offices, while by that time I led my life almost exclusively in the enchanted glades of the ANU.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Hollow Man

As I said yesterday, I feel sorry for Rupert Murdoch, despite his reputation and the deeds done on his behalf. His addiction to wealth and power is something to be pitied, I think. It seems to me that it is a result of his being a one-dimensional man.

I came to this conclusion after listening to TM Fitzgerald talking about working with Murdoch in the early days of the Australian. Fitzgerald recalled how, whenever he turned to the arts section of the paper, Murdoch's expression would grow puzzled and sad. Scratching his head, he would  stare down at the columns of writing. What was it that made people interested in novels and plays and music? He was baffled, but he was also eager to learn how he could join in the fun.

But it wasn't explainable. Somehow some connection was missing. The pleasures of the arts were closed to Rupert Murdoch, according to Fitzgerald. Which might not have mattered, had he not recognised the problem and regretted that it was so.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Well You've Got to Really, Haven't You

It is virtually impossible at the moment not to have formed some view on the Murdoch press scandal, even if it's only that you wish it would go away.

Mr R Murdoch, Mr J Murdoch and several other Murdoch name bearers almost certainly are adherents of the 'please go away' view of things and, to begin with, I was too. I thought at first that the story was just one of those storms in a tea cup, where journalists get terribly excited about issues that are just about other journalists and not of much concern to people outside the journalist tribe.

Of course, my view has changed now - fuelled by various recent revelations, but also by the performance of Paul McMullan, the News of the World's former features editor, on this clip on You Tube:

"What better source of getting to the truth is there than listening to someone's messages?" I mean really. McMullan's pathetic defence of the carryings on at his paper rests on a grasping, envious argument about it being legitimate to expose every detail of the lives of people, if they are rich or have more than one house or sometimes 'parade' down red carpets.

As I listened to McMullan spout his  pernicious nonsense, I was reminded of the aspects of public life in Britain that seemed to me to be new and horrid, when I returned there for a few years in 2006 - a collective meanness, a tendency to jeering and sneering and a fondness for witnessing humiliation were among those.

I had thought that one of the causes of those changes might have been the British public's profound disappointment when, after being whipped into a frenzy of romantic excitement, they discovered that the 1982 wedding between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer had not been the fairytale they'd been told it was but, largely, a fraud. Now I began to see that, even if fertile ground was provided by the public disillusion that resulted from that event, it was only because certain (Murdochean) forces decided to exploit that disillusion for their own ends that attitudes in Britain had descended as far as they had. Now those forces were being exposed at last, I realised. And that began to give me hope.

For it does seem to me that a great deal of the tawdry vulgarisation of British life - where lack of talent and skill is worshipped so much that it is rewarded by wealth and fame (why do those weird little characters, Ant and Dec, whose role I've never quite fathomed, spring automatically to mind at this point, along with the woman who wears pink, loves horses and has enormous breasts, [actually a gargoyle parade of others is now making its way through my head, but I won't name all the grotesques who have been thrust into my consciousness by Murdoch and his gang {and they are lodged there, even though I've never bought one of their filthy papers}]) - arose originally from News Corporation's ferocious obsession with feeding the public appetite for gossip and spectacle and disgrace.

If therefore News Corporation is exposed as having been engaged in foul behaviour in order to do that, perhaps the public, recoiling in horror and disgust at the means by which their swill has been fetched for them, will lose its appetite for this kind of distraction at last.The former readers of the News of the World may glance at themselves for a moment after this and ask themselves why they actually want this stuff - and, indeed, this way of life. Then, hurray, we may return to the England of duty and honour and restraint that I remember from childhood. But possibly I'm being a little too optimistic.

(And tomorrow, if you're interested, I'll tell you why I've felt sorry for Mr Rupert Murdoch for the last 20 years - and I still do.)

Monday, 11 July 2011

Annoying Aspects of the Modern World II

Who was the mug who decided we didn't need video machines any more? I'd only just worked out how to programme ours and it was snatched away, made redundant by the great god digital. But what has replaced it? Is there anyone, anywhere, who has successfully worked out how to programme a DVD recorder so that, if there's something on that they want to see at a time that doesn't suit, they can be certain they'll be able to watch it some time later? We can't even get ours to play half the time, unless we pull out the plug from the socket and stick it in again - it just displays the word 'Root', until we do. And as for having a portable television - that's a lost dream. Unattached to an aerial, the only thing broadcast in our house is a blizzard filled with the energetic hissing of ghosts.

The End of the Affair

At last, a response has appeared to February's romantic statement. Sadly, it takes a somewhat more jaded approach to matters of the heart:

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Erky Perk

I've never been a huge fan of Rupert Brooke and his poetry. In fact, if I read the one about the Vicarage at Grantchester, my face involuntarily takes on the expression of someone eating lemons:

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

(Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)
Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
                            'Du lieber Gott!'
Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten.
ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird's drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.
God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told) . . .
Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

My reaction is probably just a result of whatever literary fashion I grew up with - or maybe it's due to my revoltingly frivolous attitude to life. I imagine it is also that taint of frivolity that makes me find the Grantchester village memorial mildly amusing:

It's the idea of delicate, golden Rupert forced to share the limelight with someone not a million miles from good old Joe Bloggs.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Speaking of Bags

In a review of an exhibition of Australian bits and pieces at the British Museum, Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books reveals that he has 'always cherished the [rather silly, in my view] theory that the handbag, the artefact that freed human beings from the limitations of eating food where they found it, was crucial to our development as social beings'. I should have thought a box or a bucket might have done the trick equally well and the choice of the word 'handbag', rather than just 'bag', seems wilful, with its echoes of Lady Bracknell.

All the same, what he does go on to say, quite interestingly, is that 'there were special baskets made to carry the dried bones of a dead child or even to store a baby's umbilical cord, baskets lined with beeswax to hold honey, baskets to catch fish or to hold needles and thread' in 19th century Tasmania.

As someone who devotes at least 2.7% of each day to mental self-chastisement for her dreadful hording habits, I found that information very comforting. Even I have never felt the impulse to store a baby's umbilical cord.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

In the Bag

My stepfather was married to someone else before he married my mother. Sadly, his first wife died. The family were living abroad when this happened and so my stepfather had to travel home with two small children on his own.

The whole experience must have been very miserable but, typically, my stepfather managed to extract some humour from the trip. The story he told about it went like this.

On his arrival back in Sydney, the airport authorities took pity on him, a lone man with a baby and a toddler, and rushed him through passport control, customs and quarantine, ahead of the rest of the passengers on his plane. As they whisked him along, my stepfather was vaguely aware of a sharp-elbowed bloke behind him, who had managed to get himself swept up in his wake. When my stepfather stopped to have his passport checked, the man behind him did too. When my stepfather stopped for the quarantine people to look into his suitcase, the man behind him did too. When my stepfather handed over his customs form, the man behind him did too. When my stepfather walked out of the airport earlier than almost all the others, the man behind him had already vanished into the bright Sydney spring morning.

It was only when my stepfather got home and unzipped his Qantas airline bag to unload the baby's journey's worth of dirty nappies (we are talking about the 1960s, before disposables had appeared), that he realised that a mistake had occurred. For inside, he did not find a heap of dirty nappies; instead, he found a heap of shiny, colourfully-wrapped presents. He remembered then that, just for a second, as he and the pushy individual had stood side-by-side, their bags had also stood side-by-side together, on the floor beneath the customs table. The next moment though, while my stepfather was till grappling with pushchairs and dolls and milk bottles and  a weeping toddler, the other fellow had snatched up his belongings and whisked off into the arrivals hall, ahead of my stepfather at last.

And then my stepfather realised that, possibly at the exact same moment, as he stood staring down at the pile of enticing gifts contained in the bag he'd been left with, that other stranger was somewhere else in the city, opening the Qantas bag that he'd been in such a rush to make off with. Even now, perhaps, he was plunging his hand into the dark interior, ready to lift out the first surprise it contained with a triumphant flourish. In his mind's eye, my stepfather pictured the scene, the man's nearest and dearest all there, clustered round him, bright eyed and expectant, eagerly awaiting the dazzling booty he'd brought back for them from abroad.

I thought of this incident on my last night in Budapest when I was sitting in a rather touristy restaurant, waiting for a friend. I was listening to two American girls who were at the next table. They were both young, each with very long straight hair, unblemished skin and the air of those who have no idea that youth and good looks are not possessions that last forever. Like many foreigners in Hungary, they were talking loudly, apparently under the misapprehension that, because the local language was incomprehensible to them, theirs must be equally impenetrable to everyone around them.

'I told him I used to be that person,' one of them announced and she placed both her hands on the table, way off to her left. 'Now though, I'm this person', she said then, lifting her hands and placing them way off to the right, 'and that's why it's not the same any more.' 'What did he say?' her friend asked, tossing her hair back and sucking on the straw in her cocktail, her eyes on her companion's face all the time. 'He said, 'Are you saying you don't love me any more?' The girl who was speaking tossed her hair back in turn. 'And I said, "No - you shouldn't take it so personally."' Her friend raised an eyebrow and carried on drinking. 'I said - I told him, "I think you've got so much to offer,"' the first girl continued, 'it's just maybe what you've got to offer is more what that person I was then needs, rather than what the person I am now really wants.'

It was then the image of that Qantas case full of nappies and the guy trying to pass it off as a bag full of presents came back into my mind. It struck me suddenly that my stepfather had been wrong. The man's loved ones would not have been standing around full of hope and interest as he opened the bag wide. They'd have been reeling back immediately, as soon as the zip started moving. Because there's no disguising some things - it doesn't matter what kind of bag you put them in or which words you use to wrap them up with: as soon as you undo the zip or open your mouth to speak, their rank odour is unmissable. It's just unavoidably there.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Sad News

Otto von Hapsburg has died. From his obituary, I especially liked these bits:

'...he was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the monarchy’s Magyar subjects when his father was crowned in Budapest as the new King of Hungary. The official photograph shows the young boy, dressed in ermine and velvet with a great white feather in his cap, sitting between his parents in their ornate coronation robes.’

‘The [Hapbsburg] rescuer now was not a family member but a British Army officer — Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Strutt, dispatched on the personal authority of King George V with orders to escort the beleaguered Austrian emperor and his family to safety. This Strutt accomplished in some style, reassembling their royal train for the journey into Switzerland on March 25 1919. Otto never forgot the experience. Whenever he heard in later life complaints about British indifference to the Habsburgs’ fate he would reply: “Yes, but there was always Strutt.” ‘

I wonder why there’s a bust of him in Paks (a rather dismal town my husband tells me we once visited, only because Hungary’s only nuclear power station is there [a Ukrainian and a Pole we knew were always keen to picnic near nuclear facilities, make of that what you will]). Maybe it's because the sensible people of Paks recognised that the Austro-Hungarian empire, all things considered, was probably as good as it gets - some might go even further (eg my husband) and say that the fifty years under that empire before the First World War was one of the most civilised periods of human history. And I probably wouldn't argue with him. In terms of glorious cafes and opera houses per square foot, it has no rivals.

What does surprise me is the fact that Hapsburg's obituarists missed the opportunity to tell the hackneyed story about him, in which a colleague asked him whether he'd seen the Austria-Hungary football match and he replied, predictably, 'No, who were we playing?'

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Yesterday - or the day before, or even the day before that (jet lag makes me confused) - I bought the Australian newspaper and found, slipped within its pages, one of the most loathsome magazines I've ever come across. The name of the magazine (to quote the White Knight) was Wish:
Wish had taken upon itself the task of compiling a best dressed list for 2011:
Number one on the list was Sarah Murdoch, who doesn't dress badly. However, to describe her thus:
is really a bit rich. For 'sophisticated media and fashion power player' I think many readers would substitute 'attractive woman who married extremely wealthy son of Rupert Murdoch, thus ensuring prominent media position despite almost unforgiveable televised gaffe'.

However, to be fair, Sarah Murdoch does at least dress reasonably well, as I said. Below her in the list, things go to pieces on the aesthetic front, I reckon:

If there are really only ten men better dressed than No. 11 and only three women better dressed than No. 4, this, it seems to me, is not a vintage year.

But tastes differ, of course. Surely though few would disagree that this next paragraph is a load of unspeakable twaddle:
And when the magazine tries to persuade us that this person, who has a really extremely idiotic hairstyle and an apparent inability to do up his shoes:

is, as they put it, 'a man with innate style':
and that this person is 'starkly stylish' (a slightly overweight, bald man in a jumper, black jeans and some gym shoes?):

I begin to wonder if I am inhabiting the same world as my fellow human beings.

Turning the pages I discover as well that, in Milan (where style permeates the streets, apparently):
(and, incidentally,' there's more to style than being fashion forward', which is lucky for me, since I have no idea what 'being fashion forward' means):
Armani's new collection is turning heads. Although the clothes are not elegant it is not surprising this is happening. Just look at this weird outfit:
and these extraordinarily frightful trousers:

I think the odd head might turn even in places not permeated by style, eg Queanbeyan or even sophisticated Civic, Canberra, if a gent appeared as nattily decked out as that.

I am then confronted with a further sickening effort to con me into believing my own life is not good enough - this attempt to undermine confidence seems to me to be the major thrust of modern marketing. It is clear that I should be investing my energy in trying to 'hightail' it to places of great exclusivity:

where I could meet pert little chaps like this:

and discover the secret places that  'only the cool people know about':

I wish magazines like Wish didn't exist - or at least that they weren't given away without any warning to innocent readers like me (although I suspect they have to be given away as no-one would willingly buy this garbage) and I'm glad I found a terrible typo in this edition. The staff at Wish may think they're the kings of style, but they have no grasp for detail, as you will see here (although is it possible it's not a typo but some kind of hip joke? Oh dear - see how these things erode commonsense?)