Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I'm On the Plane

Or at least I was. And that meant I had time to read the London Review of Books. Only one issue on this occasion, as I also did a bit of sleeping and watched Frances HaBefore Midnight and La Cage Dorée, as well as bits of various other films, all of which seemed fairly rubbishy, (Elysium took the cake on that score).

Still, what I did read in the London Review of Books was interesting. There was an article about Nijinsky and how he lived in Budapest, (hey, that's where I'm going [where I am now, in fact]) and how his last performance went like this:

"An audience of about two hundred had gathered. Nijinsky spent the first half an hour sitting staring at them. The pianist began playing some Chopin. Romola [Nijinsky's Hungarian wife] encouraged him to dance. 'I am not a machine,' he replied and Romola ran out of the room. When she returned, he was dancing. After a brief pause, he laid a velvet cross on the floor and stood at its crosspoint with arms outstretched. He then proceeded to dance the First World War."

That must have been quite an evening.

There was an article about a film called Upstream Colour, which involved people who have grubs introduced into them, so that they can be seen traveling about under their skin, pigs, into whose bodies the grubs are subsequently introduced and Thoreau's Walden, which the people, once they've rid themselves of the grubs, read to each other, while diving for stones. Apparently, it's a very good film.

There was an article about Gabrielle d'Annunzio, who I think one could safely describe as one hell of a character. The two bits of the article that particularly caught my attention were these:

1.  "...d'Annunzio was an insistently amorous presence at his lovers' sickbeds. 'Your beauty is spiritualised by illness,' he told Elvira Fraternali. 'I think that when you are dead you will reach the supreme light of beauty.'"

Not the most encouraging way to speak to an invalid, I'd have thought.

2. "In his last years d'Annunzio grew shrunken and bandy-legged, living a frugal and contemplative life interspersed with cocaine fuelled sex with a tubercular Milanese prostitute chauffeured up from her lodgings above a trattoria on the lakeside."

I think that, by that standard, we all live frugal and contemplative lives - in fact, mine is a great deal more frugal and contemplative than that, as it happens.

Finally, there was a review of Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge. It sounds v good and the quotation I particularly liked from it was this one, in which a character characterises the internet as a:

"magical convenience that now creeps like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time."

Yes, well - on that note, I shall turn away from this screen and go out into the great city that lies outside my window.

Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

There's Still Time

At least if you live in the Northern hemisphere there is - I've just been given Schottenfreude, and I think it might be the perfect solution for all those increasingly despairing souls tramping the malls of non-German speaking Europe looking for a present for someone difficult.

Schottenfreude is a list of supposedly German words, complete with literary and scholarly examples of their usage, (including detailed page references et cetera) - but the examples are all from English works. I don't know why it's funny - something innately ludicrous about the German language, despite its beauty, combined with a spurious scholarly tone perhaps - plus the ingenuity of the words, all, or almost all, entirely manufactured by the author, I assume.

Here are some examples:

1. Schlagerschmeicherlei - Enjoying emotionally manipulative mass culture, despite knowing you are being manipulated
Ref. The insight that entertainment is manufactured to be manipulative seems neither to negate its effect nor to diminish its polarity. In c, 1944, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno named such manufacture the "culture industry" (Kulturindustrie);  a few years later, George Orwell dubbed its product "parole feed":

"Here we're produced rubbishy newspapers, containing ...."

2.Sommerferienewigkeitsgefuhl - Childhood sensation that the summer holidays will last forever.
Ref. The great epigrammist Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) urged the teachers of Rome to ....

3. Ludwigssyndrom - Discovering an indecipherable note in your own handwriting
Ref. Jerome K Jerome wrote ....Tolstoy relied ....

4.Stuhlgangsgenuss - Private enjoyment of your own unsavoury bodily functions
Ref. This subject is explored by William Miller in his fascinating book ...

5. Ausbremungsangst.
Ref: In her tautologically titled memoir, the Duchess of York advised her readers to "watch for FOMO - Fear of Missing Out" - and warned "This will make you go down wrong paths". Immanuel Kant made this related comment on how different character temperaments behave in society:

"The sanguineous person goes where he is not invited; the choleric one does not go where he is not invited in accordance with propriety ...."

Monday, 23 December 2013

A Theological Discussion

This morning my neighbours were up unusually early, hacking at the concrete that is their back garden, (a futile activity they indulge in frequently, purely because the racket it creates makes them feel alive, I suspect), and bellowing at each other about holiday pay and how unfair it is that you can't get it for Christmas if you're unemployed.

One of them - revealing unexpected evidence of something resembling a conscience - pointed out that he didn't believe in anything anyway so maybe he shouldn't be paid for something to do with religion in any case.

This revelation seemed to give his companion pause.

"Don't you believe in anything?" he asked him eventually, after a few more feeble attempts to strike through the cement at his feet with a garden fork.

"Well I don't know it's true," the one with the conscience replied, "so I can't believe."*

"So you're a black and white man", his friend said, "prove it, or it doesn't exist?"

"Yeah, I am. If you can't prove it, I don't believe it."

 "You can't know for certain though", the other observed, "but you can still have faith."

* add in expletives every third word, to get the true flavour of this conversation.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Just the Facts

I like it when a writer manages to skewer someone's pretension without doing anything more than reporting exactly what they do and say. Thus, in an article about some actress, Tad Friend in the New Yorker manages to demolish a gallery worker, without a word of criticism:

'After her breakfast/dinner, she headed off to Gavin Brown's Enterprise, a nearby gallery that had opened its doors just for her. "Hi, Thor," she said to the tall assistant who greeted her.
   "It's 'Tor,'" he said. "The 'h' is silent."
   "Right, no hammer."
   He showed her around an installation by Martin Creed, a Scottish artist who, Thor said, "always works within a set of confines or deliberate restrictions." Indeed, Creed's pyramid of nearly three thousand cinder blocks was restricted by the height of the ceiling ...
   ... Thor pointed out some bloblike portraits Creed had made when his restriction was that he couldn't look at the canvas. Then Thor took out his iPhone and showed a similar portrait that Creed had made of him. "I like to think I have nice lips, and he got that," Thor said, referring to a red paisley shape in the middle of his quasi-face. Eve pointed to another no-look portrait on the wall, which featured an identical paisley shape in pink: "But this portrait has nice lips, too - maybe lips are just his forte." Then, softening her demurral, she murmured, "Martin is good with lips."'

Friday, 20 December 2013

Nobody's Perfect

I'm surprised when I read rude references to Terry Eagleton, which I do from time to time. It's true, he does appear to be a Marxist, but I think perhaps he only is because he knows it's annoying. The reason I think this is because he writes so well and so intelligently - and, better still, often quite amusingly.

For instance, in a review of a book about Thomas Aquinas in the 5 December edition of the London Review of Books he manages a wonderful aside. Explaining Aquinas's view of God, this is what he says:

"God is not in Aquinas's view some kind of being, principle, entity or individual who could be reckoned up with other such entities. He is not even some kind of person, in the sense that Piers Morgan is arguably a person."

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Even Commoner III

Denis Wright is gone and, perhaps because I never met him, I still haven't grasped that I really won't receive cheery tweets or emails from him ever again, (and what a tribute to him it is that his messages were invariably cheery, even in the midst of dire health crises).

It is a strange new development that it is now possible to miss someone you never met - strange, perhaps,  but also good. It proves that the Internet is not an instrument of alienation, as so many waffling articles claim, but quite the opposite: something that can bring together people who would never have known each other otherwise, allowing those, like Denis in his later months, who cannot physically go out into the world to go out into it with words.

Actually, that is what I call genuine progress.

Anyway, it was Denis who suggested occasional posts of commonplaces, and this one in the series is dedicated to him:

Silliness is always funny. Terry Jones

Give me motorway cafes over MTV any day of the week. Will Self, an interview with The Idler, 1993

That easy democratic affability that is the mark of all true aristocrats. Angela Carter, The Kitchen Child

...some minds are stronger and apter to mark the differences of things, others to mark their resemblances. Francis Bacon, The New Organon

I have from time to time lost my money and my dignity, Hercule, but I have never lost my taste. Countess Vera Rossakoff to Poirot in ITV's The Labours of Hercules

Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another's point of view. Reverend Devlin in The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (which starts so well and then dribbles out into very little, I felt) - and note how similar that sentiment is to Penelope Fitzgerald's here.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Descent into Slobbery IV

At various times in my life, I have managed to postpone actually getting new curtains or upholstery by pinning to the tattered remains of my current drapery or upholstery samples of materials I might be thinking about choosing to replace the tatters.

Thanks to my little offcuts, rather than being horrified by the decrepitude of my furnishings, visitors have decided I am simply in the process of refurbishing. And eventually - but only after a decade or so - I am.

Now I have come up with an even more wizard wheeze, based on very similar principles. I have discovered that if I place a bottle of furniture polish and a rag on the dining room table or somewhere in the sitting room or, better still, if I park the vacuum cleaner somewhere visible - ideally, somewhere it is so in the way that it cannot be overlooked - I can buy myself several extra days of indolence on the home front.

This strategy makes it apparent that I am onto the problem. I'm about to get cracking. There may be dust piled up on everything, there may be stuff all over the carpet. It doesn't matter. There is a rag. There is a bottle of polish. There is a vacuum cleaner. Things are on the move.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

You Might Think That, Mattie

Some time ago, I noticed that bumper stickers weren't what they used to be (what is though?) More recently, on an errand to one of Canberra's many charmless suburbs, I found myself stuck behind this one for a longish period:
Am I? Are you? Is life? Are the Andes? Isn't it rude to ask personal questions?

Sunday, 15 December 2013


When we lived in Central Europe, we always took the children to the Christmas markets that would spring up just around now in front of churches or in town squares. Their wooden stalls offered colourful decorations and heart-shaped biscuits, children's toys and traditional pottery. Others sold mulled wine, hot sausages, deep fried, garlicky dough and huge salty pretzels.

These markets are very pretty places. Despite that, for me they are also very faintly menacing. Where do they come from? Where do they vanish to at the end of the season? They sparkle and glitter, but they are mysterious. One day when I was thinking about them, I wrote this.

Friday, 13 December 2013

It's Not About the Money

By dint of what used to be called coincidence, but I think is now called synchronicity, Steerforth was also struck by Jeanette Winterson on Any Questions on Radio 4. He focussed more on the demagoguery side of things and, in that context, found a man from Burnley who had a thing or two to say. You can hear it here.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Flim Flam

I listened to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, and it seemed to me that, despite indulging in quite a lot of demagoguery, Jeannette Winterson did identify a problem we have in the English-speaking world, when she asked, "When are we going to dignify ordinary life again?" We are dazzled by celebrity and quick money and flashy behaviour; we give too little respect to the well- led ordinary life:

At the other end of the spectrum, I was pretty shocked by the vox pop I heard from the streets of Brixton on the morning after Nelson Mandela died. A woman proudly told the reporter that she'd telephoned her employers to tell them that she couldn't possibly come in that day, as she was too upset.

Probably the first event of this kind that made any impact on me was the death of Winston Churchill (not often you'll see a naval officer engaged in ballet). I'm ashamed to say it, (although I was very young), but I'd never heard of him until then. The sense of sadness - mixed with a pride that the country had produced such a person - was intense.

It was unusually cold and foggy but day and night for three days people filed past his body, lying in state in Westminster Hall. There were no cellophane wrapped flowers or heart scrawled cards or teddy bears. I doubt anyone rang work to say they were too overcome to come in. Yet there was real emotion.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

More Unfairness

On the telly they keep saying it's the festive season, by which the Australian Broadcasting Corporation seems to mean it's the season to run old episodes of QI on an almost continuous loop. To really get myself in the Christmas mood, I chose instead to watch a documentary about the people who were killed and secretly buried by the IRA.

The reporter, Darragh Macintyre, gave us detailed accounts of many sad stories, all of which Gerry Adams insisted he had no hand in, (and how thoughtful of that nice Mr Martin McGuinness, incidentally, to go all that way to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, from whom he clearly learnt so much about non-violence).

Perhaps the saddest and most utterly unfair and pointless of them all was the story of Jean McConville and her children, victims of bigotry from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland and never given a skerrick of justice or compassion from anyone, so far as one can tell, least of all the church.

This bit of the documentary is especially poignant. It shows one of Jean McConville's many children, now an adult. All of them were left as orphans and sent off to separate institutions, simply because the IRA decided, for absolutely no reason at all, to abduct and murder their mother:

The stories of the disappeared are among the things that worry me about the compromises that resulted in a peace where the likes of McGuinness and Adams have ended up in positions of power. I know the fighting ended, but there is the question of justice. Without justice for innocent victims of violence, surely violence can be said to have won.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Not Fair

Not fair, not fair, not fair. It was the catchcry of my childhood. And always the same reply - life's not fair, darling.

Today more proof of that repeated piece of wisdom: Denis Wright died at 5.10 p.m. Australian Eastern time. I have never encountered anyone who faced down unfair fate with such resourcefulness and such determination to remain part of life. He was an inspiration.

My thoughts go out to his family.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Signs of Something

A second trip to Sydney in one week took me to a different hotel, which made no concessions to Russian tea drinkers. Who exactly they were catering to with their mysterious lavatory hieroglyphics, I do not wish to speculate:

Should anyone know what was being offered or why, please don't tell me. I want to forget the whole thing.

We drove back to Canberra this time and stopped off in Mittagong, where I went to boarding school many years ago. I hadn't really noticed before that Mittagong has some quite nice buildings:

Sadly, no matter how lovely a building, if its neighbours are ugly, its own loveliness is unlikely to shine through.

I was intrigued by an establishment in Mittagong that offered what I thought was just the bare minimum of what you might expect from a food provider:

I suppose much depends upon how you define 'healthy'. When combined with 'fresh', I tend to think it means, 'won't give you food poisoning', but in another sense I suppose various fast food behemoths wouldn't be able to make the claim of 'healthy' - that is, if you were looking more to the long term.

I was even more intrigued by the undertaker in Moss Vale who makes this thought-provoking claim:
What kinds of compromise are possible, I wonder, my mind boggling all the rest of the way home.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Signs of the Times 1

As a child of the Cold War, I am still surprised to find evidence that it is over and that Russians are as free to travel as anyone else. The tea supplied in the hotel I stayed in in Sydney overnight would not have looked like this once upon a time:

Friday, 22 November 2013

Too Many Idiots

Each week in Private Eye the genius Craig Brown writes a diary in the voice of someone else. This week he is Tony Benn. I particularly liked this bit of it, although I wish the Elders didn't sound quite so possible:


On breakfast television again, to state my deeply-felt objections to the way politics is being increasingly overshadowed by the pernicious world of celebrity. Peter Andre joins in the discussion and agrees with me. He's quite clearly a highly intelligent man. We then all join in a more general conversation with some useful contributions from the semi finalists from last year's X-Factor, who are fascinated by what I have to say about the West Midlands co-operative moement in the late 1920s.

In the afternoon, Richard Branson phones to say that Peter Gabriel is organising a meeting of the Elders, which he'd like me to attend. "Mandela's going, Carter's going, Oprah Winfrey's going and so's Annie Lennox," he tells me, "and we're hoping King Hussein of Jordan will come with the Duchess of York and Russell Brand."

So all told, it's a pretty serious line-up, and not just one of these awful new celebrity affairs. I met the Duchess of York last February at a discussion group hosted by Eddie Izzard, and she struck me as a very serious young woman, bright as a button.'

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Even Commoner II

Another commonplace posting, as pioneered by @deniswright

"There are two ways of getting home; one of them is to stay there."
GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

"Think of an idea and then force yourself to write it."
Agatha Christie's Ariadne Oliver, complaining that she is supposed to give a one-hour talk on writing and doesn't know how to fill the remaining 59 minutes, once she's stated the above.

"It's what they're always about: selling teenage virginity for cash and crenellations. The most astute deconstruction of every plot nuance and character trait in the Austen ... novel can be found in Noel Edmonds's Deal or No Deal?"
AA Gill on Sense and Sensibility

Marianne Moore: "To me theatre is the most pleasant, in fact my favourite, form of recreation."
Interviewer: " Do you go often?"
Marianne Moore: "No. Never."
From an interview with the poet Marianne Moore in Paris Review.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Gabbled and Garbled

The Comedy of Errors is full of watery references- or perhaps 'overflowing with' would be the more accurate phrase. The hinging event that sets off all the rest of the play's action occurs on "the always wind-obeying deep" and from then on the characters' thoughts seem to turn constantly toward the sea and things fluid.

Almost as soon as he appears, one of the main characters tells us:

"I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop".

Shortly afterwards another describes men as:

"Lords of the wide world and wild watery seas", 

and goes on to admonish the person she thinks is her husband in similarly aquatic terms:

"Ah! do not tear away thyself from me,
For know, my love, as easy may'st thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again ..."

Her interlocutor also has a head full of oceanic thoughts. He addresses the object of his affection thus:

O! train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears:
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote:
Spread o'er the silver waves they golden hairs...
...Love, being light, be drowned if she sink."

and resolves to "stop mine ears against the mermaid's song".

Even in the most slapstick comic sections, Noah's flood and Spanish armadas are invoked. The fluidity of identity that is the crux of the plot is echoed time and time again in this way.

Not that you'd ever have noticed, had you gone to the Bell Shakespeare's recent production of The Comedy of Errors. Nor would you have picked up any of the phrases from the script that have now passed into the language - "he must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil"; "neither rhyme nor reason" - nor the really beautiful lines - "Far from her nest, the lapwing cries away"; "...moody and dull melancholy/Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair" - nor the prefiguring, in this speech: "A wretched soul, bruised with adversity/We bid be quiet when we hear it cry; But were we burden'd with like weight of pain/As much or more we should ourselves complain", of a theme taken up in Much Ado About Nothing ("'t is all men's office to speak patience/To those that wring under the laid of sorrow") and in this speech , "Are you a god? would you create me new?", of Miranda in The Tempest, ("O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world"). Instead of playing the characters straight, so that the audience might feel for them, even as they laughed, the actors played them as unappealing idiots and, perhaps because this was an embarrassing way to perform, they played them at a garbled gabble, so that it was virtually impossible to pick up even scraps of the actual words.

I hate being so critical. After all, the Bell Shakespeare Company is such a good, admirable and worthy idea. The trouble is that so often in practice its productions fall short of the ideal. Usually, they are at least entertaining - although, for me in this particular case, even entertainment wasn't achieved - but as yet I have never seen a Bell performance that really demonstrates the important thing about Shakespeare, which is, as far as I'm concerned at least, his use of language. Instead, often - and particularly in this case - the Bell company seems to be intent on trying to beguile the audience with bells and whistles and props and sight gags, as if they are somehow embarrassed of the beauty and insight of the plays themselves. For more detail on this particular production, go here.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Kate Trumps Mary

The 9 November issue of The Week contains this quote from Matthew Parris, writing, supposedly, in The New Statesman (?!?):

"Playfulness is what makes us human. Doing pointless, purposeless things, just for fun. Doing things for the sheer devilment of it. Being silly for the sake of being silly. Larking around. Taking pleasure in activities that do not advantage us and have nothing to do with our survival. These are the highest signs of intelligence. It is when a creature, having met and surmounted all the practical needs that face him, decides to dance that we know we are in the presence of a human. It is when a creature, having successfully performed all necessary functions, starts to play the fool, just for the hell of it, that we know he is not a robot."

In this context, I give you Kate Middleton, (as was):
What a sport, what delight she takes in just larking around.

I'm sorry to say that, after watching that footage, my earlier belief that, following the departure of Australia's current queen, we should petition the Danish royal family to take over as our monarchs, has evaporated. I love Princess Mary of Denmark, but Kate knows how to be silly - and, for me, that makes her worth a great deal.

And, while we're on the subject of silliness, I also love Adam Buxton's song in honour of Prince William's marriage to Kate:
Oh, now I am sad. Until I looked at that again, I'd forgotten how much I missed Adam and Joe. Will we ever hear them again? Will we ever have another chance to be part of the Black Squadron?

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Franz Ferdinand's last lunch reminded me of the most haunting museum exhibit I have ever seen. It is in Vienna's Military History Museum - commonly known as the Arsenal - in a room that contains no labelling or storyboards and offers no audio guide.

The room's windows are hung with plain sheer curtains, each with a two-inch black border. Besides some paintings, the only things in the room are the car in which Franz Ferdinand was travelling when he was killed in Sarajevo and the clothes that he was wearing at the time.

There is something both jaunty and eerie about the car. With its roof folded back and its deep, generous seats, it suggests country outings and picnics in meadows. But the bullet holes along its side tell a different story, as does the one other exhibit, Franz Ferdinand's torn and blood stained tunic, which lies in a glass case nearby.

Describing it now, I worry that the whole thing sounds a bit voyeuristic. It isn't - or for me it isn't. Instead, it feels as if you are as close as you will ever come to being witness to the moment that Europe's history changed forever - so close, in fact, that you feel you ought to be able to step forward and prevent it, altering the course of events, avoiding the subsequent war and its terrible consequences. The air in that room is full of yearning.

(Here is a link to a picture of the uniform - I had forgotten both the deathbed and the shoes. The shoes strike me as particularly forlorn, perhaps partly because I've never forgotten a case heaped with the shoes of victims in the Auschwitz Museum [and, without the assassination at Sarajevo, would Auschwitz ever have happened?].)

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

To avoid wasted expenditure, whether on partridges, pear trees or other equally pointless presents, I am now given instructions by some members of my family when Christmas begins to loom. Or requests I suppose they are really - anyway, the latest request/instruction I've been issued is for Danubia by Simon Winder. Having looked at the review, the book has won my approval, due to the fact that it includes a detailed description of a meal, because I do love descriptions of meals.

And what a meal this one is: nothing less than the lunch Archduke Franz Ferdinand ate before he was shot dead by Gavrilo Princip:

"consommé en tasse, oeufs à la gelée, fruits au beurre, boeuf bouillé, poulets à la Villeroy Ritz, compôte and, fittingly [a bit below the belt, this wise crack, surely?], bombe à la reine."

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

View From the Playground

I went into Parliament House this morning, just as a primary school group was coming out. Before I could get away, I found myself surrounded by excited ten-year-old girls, all competing with each other about who had had the most extraordinary visit.

"I saw Tony Abbott", one boasted, (or complained, depending upon your viewpoint).

"I saw Kevin Rudd", another countered.

"I saw Julia Gillard", a third shrieked, in an effort to top the other claimants.

"No, you didn't", they responded, "you couldn't have - she's not allowed to come here now."

"Isn't she?" stammered the third one, "I thought she was Prime Minister of Australia."

"Not any more", the one who claimed to have seen Tony Abbott told her. "She had such a horrible voice that no-one could stand it, so they told her she couldn't come back again."

"Yes", piped up the Kevin Rudd spotter, "she had to leave because everyone really, really hated her voice. It just really annoyed them."

So could it be that her downfall wasn't all about misogynism or Kevin Rudd's grim determination to make a comeback? Maybe all Julia Gillard needed was to find a latter day Lionel Logue.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Blast From the Past

I think it's generally believed that so-called political correctness is a very recent thing. The term is fairly new, but I'm not sure the phenomenon it describes is. For ages, I've been searching for a particular piece of comedy that was already old when I first heard it as a child but that seems to be making fun of something very like political correctness. Today, my brother found it for me in the blink of an eye (that's what brothers are for). Here it is:

For those who don't know that sketch already, they probably remember Stan Freberg from this sketch, which I also love:

Friday, 8 November 2013

Thank You Internet

I took on a project recently that has kept me away from the Internet and left me no time to visit my favourite blogs for a while. However, even when I have almost no time, there is one blog I always make sure I look at. It belongs to someone I regard as a friend, someone who I admire and respect and who often makes me laugh, someone who has demonstrated to me better than anyone just how powerful language really is.

That blog is called My Unwelcome Stranger and it is written by Denis Wright. I haven't been reading it right since its very beginning, but I understand that Denis started the blog when he was first diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain tumour. His original intention was to leave some written recollections for his children's pleasure, I think. As always seems to happen with blogs and original intentions, the thing has blossomed into all sorts of areas since then and Denis has written countless posts on all manner of things, always entertainingly and with insight.

In fact, Denis is such a good writer that it takes some time to realise that he is writing against great difficulties. Although he never complains, I have gradually begun to understand - although I still can't quite believe it - that, in spite of the cheerful fluency of the prose on the web page, Denis is not tapping his pieces out with ease and speed. The words are there but his hands are not particularly willing. In fact, as far as I can tell nowadays only one of his hands is compliant in any sense and even then it is fairly recalcitrant.

And this is why Denis seems to me a lesson in the power of language - and of sheer human strength. Where others would have sunk into despair as their options for communication dwindled, Denis has dodged and woven (weaved?), finding new avenues for remaining a bright and shining member of the world of people. An unwelcome stranger has invaded him, but he has refused to let that stranger defeat his impulse to enjoy life.

Few people would be capable of Denis's dauntless persistence, (and I have no doubt that he wouldn't either, were it not for the support of his wife, Tracey, and his stepson, Christian). I feel so lucky to have met him, albeit digitally, and to have enjoyed his many wonderful posts - even in his latest, which is a description of what he thinks will be his last visit to his oncologist, he cannot resist a bit of wry self-deprecating humour: "He’s good at his job. I regard him as one of the best," he tells us, before adding, "Not that I've got all that much experience in ranking oncologists" - and Tweets (you can find him on Twitter here: @deniswright )

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Tales From the Not Too Distant Past - a Station Hotel in Scotland

Memory is so puzzling - or at least mine is. First there is its method of selection. It is as if a very poor photographer, perhaps a small child or, more probably, an idiot, (ie me, or some aspect of me), were handling a very cheap instamatic.

Instead of what I think are called the 'money shots'* - eg, at a birthday party, the image of the person who is celebrating the birthday blowing out their candles - my memory might choose a corner of the room where I've noticed a chair with a small piece of braid peeling from one corner, standing beside a table on which there is an abandoned plate bearing a piece of half-eaten quiche, a smeared fork and a crumpled paper napkin.

Second, there is the way it releases a memory from its cache at unexpected moments. Thus, I was wandering about yesterday evening, inspecting my vegetable garden, when out of the blue I thought of the hors d'oeuvre, (hors d'oeuvres?), trolley in what I think was the Glasgow Station Hotel, which I last saw in about 1964.

We were on our way to Scotland. My parents had not long been divorced and our father was taking my brother and me away for the summer, possibly on our first holiday without both parents. Our destination was a house that had been rented by a group of his friends, all with children, way up at the northern most tip of Scotland, (although not actually John O'Groats), where wonderful trout fishing was to be had.

Of that holiday, I have a few quite vivid memories - being given Club or Penguin chocolate biscuits in my packed lunch, an unheard of treat, as my mother, wisely, if somewhat austerely, barely ever included anything involving sugar in our diet; watching through the window as a goat ate a petticoat off the line of the house nextdoor; being taught how to make a fly for fishing, (I particularly remember this, because it was so amazing that any adult would take the time to bother with me, the youngest of all the people in the party - in those days, at least in my experience, no-one felt the faintest need to engage the interest of the young in any way. In fact, I was told more than once that Pascal had been locked in an attic with nothing but a set of keys and a lot of dust and had, using only these materials, worked out the whole of mathematics, the implication being that demanding more than Pascal had been offered was evidence of my shocking frivolity - oddly, I've never been able to find any trace of this Pascal story in the years since then).

However, the memory that came to me yesterday was not of the holiday itself but of a stage upon the journey. The interlude that I remember is reasonably vivid, but everything immediately before and after it is gone now. This gives it a slightly dreamlike feeling. It is a single bright event, surrounded by shadows, a flash of old cine film, the jerky images flickering up between lengths of damaged footage, scratchy, fleeting and dimly lit.

Presumably we'd made the train journey to Glasgow - or Inverness, or Edinburgh? Presumably we'd set out from London in the afternoon? I have absolutely no recollection of that, nor of whether we stayed the night in the station hotel or merely ate there while waiting for a train to take us onwards, (although I have a slight idea the latter may have been the case - but, if so, where did we sleep? Surely the journey on from Glasgow, Inverness or Edinburgh couldn't have involved a whole night's travel?)

But enough. What's important is what I do remember - the hors d'oeuvre trolley, as I've already mentioned. I was only small, but it made an impression.

We were sitting at a table that was covered in starched white linen and shining cutlery, in a high-ceilinged, gilded dining room, its plush tasselled curtains and deep carpets providing a kind of underwater sense of insulation, not a scrap of plastic anywhere in sight. A waiter approached with a gleaming trolley. There was the faint sound of gently vibrating china as he rolled it through the room.

When he'd drawn the trolley up beside our table, he went round to the side and began to pull glass oblong dishes from its interior, offering each one to us. There was asparagus, there was egg mayonnaise, there were herrings in oil, there was smoked salmon, there were tomatoes in dressing, there was that odd thing the British used to call Russian salad, there may have been pate and a fish mousse of some kind, possibly cucumber salad - or perhaps that was the mousse, and maybe there was even something involving olives.

There was such variety and there were so many colours. It seemed to me the most wonderful thing I'd ever come across, especially when my father explained that you could choose more than one thing and the waiter would put a bit of all the things you chose onto your plate.

I suspect it's completely a thing of the past, the hors d'oeuvre trolley, but I'm glad I remembered it. It's been replaced, I suppose, by yum cha and meze, but what both of those alternatives lack is the sense of occasion that came with the grand dining room and the courteous waiter and the sparkling trolley.

The surprising thing is that it can't have been terribly expensive, because my father was constantly worrying about money and would not have chosen anywhere that cost a lot, (an afternoon at Battersea Funfair appeared to have thrown his finances out for weeks, which gives you an idea of how badly off he was - or possibly indicates that Battersea Funfair was an extraordinary rip-off, which was what he implied at the time). 

A place of that station hotel's splendour would these days be not only swankily self-conscious but hugely, absurdly, frighteningly expensive, so that, even if they had an hors d'oeuvre trolley, as they steered it toward you, rather than excitement, all you would probably feel would be dread about just how much it was all going to cost.

*Ah innocence: I have been alerted by kind, concerned George, (his 20011 blog had already confirmed his erudition, but I had no idea quite the breadth of his reading and learning), has directed me to the Urban Dictionary's definition of 'money shot'. No, if you don't already, you really don't want to know - however, if you're brave, it's here. [And I'd have to say that, haphazard though my memory is, those are sights I would not have forgotten, had I ever had the misfortune to come upon them - but I lead a very sheltered life].

Friday, 1 November 2013

Ain't Misbehavin'

If the 'expert' on The World Today is to be believed parents need to start working on their children's mental health before birth, (possibly not merely before their children's birth, but before their own too, who knows), if they really want to do a good job. After all, not obeying rules and generally being difficult is no longer bad behaviour; it's a mental illness called 'conduct disorder':

I think I may be in the early stages of another mental illness - it's called disgusted-by-the-contemporary-world disorder. I'm not sure if there's a cure.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Words and Phrases, a Continuing Series

Listening to an episode of BBC Radio Three's Arts and Ideas that dealt with an exhibition of George Grosz's work, I was struck by the use of the phrase 'sex industry', in the context of the Weimar Berlin:

I think the phrase tries to make a pretty sordid set of situations sound organised and rational, as if somewhere all the time there'd been a CEO and a board, who'd worked out marketing strategies and presided over promotion rounds and appeal tribunals. It also seems to me to be priggish and euphemistic. The buying and selling of sexual favours is not a branch of the manufacturing sector, even if it does demand hard work from its participants

Thursday, 24 October 2013

More Harris

In the book on Ockers that I mentioned the other day, Max Harris claims that ockerdom originated elsewhere but around the time he was writing (1974) it spread to Sydney, ruining what he describes as the 'Sydney style', which was 'a delicate balance between sparkling waters and a relaxed suburbia'. His explanation of what followed makes me laugh, particularly as one of those he describes as 'loutish pubescents' was probably my brother, then a fledgling reporter given to hurling 'questions at startled public figures' whenever they let him out with a microphone:

"It [Sydney] fell, alas, the easiest of victims to the hepatitic infection of ockerdom. The easy manners have converted to churlish assertiveness. The colourful Australian vernacular has become Strine stereotype. The instinctive egalitarianism has become ignorantly complacent dogmatism. The casual clothing now gives the impression of a ghastly cane-cutter's convention in a poor man's Florida. The media era, once characterised by the iconoclastic Australianism of a Michael Charlton and a Bob Raymond, is now characterised by loutish pubescents throwing embarrassingly inept questions at startled public figures - from Gough Whitlam to visiting pop stars and thespians. Gaucheries are good enough because a gauche public has come to expect the pleasures of uneducated impertinence."

It was probably also the era of Norman Gunston. I wonder if Mr Harris laughed at his antics:
(For some reason the you tube link doesn't seem to be embedding so here it is: 

Silly Max Harris, if he didn't.  Taking pleasure in the absurd isn't the same thing as being a philistine. Solemnity isn't wisdom; at least I don't think it is.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

When Melbourne Was Marvellous

I took my mother to a funeral in Victoria this week. The person who'd died had made a scrapbook of cuttings from the social pages of Melbourne newspapers - yes, they actually had such things, slavish with adoration of Clyde girls and people from the Western District - from the days when she and my mother were young.

Flicking through the book, my mother said it was like walking among ghosts. To me, it was like being allowed inside the walls of Blandings Castle. If the dates didn't give the lie to the theory, I'd argue, based on the evidence of what I saw in that scrapbook, that Wodehouse never wrote fiction at all. Rather than using his imagination, my theory would go that he based everything he wrote on his experiences during a hitherto unrecorded trip to pre-war Melbourne.

There he discovered the prototypes for his ranks of formidable aunts:

as well as templates for the legions of terrifying eligible girls, waiting to ensnare young Bertie Wooster and those of his ilk:

While sheep were the farm animal of choice in Victoria, it wouldn't have been a great leap for Wodehouse to convert that Victorian obsession into the reverence shown for pigs by some of the inhabitants at Blandings:

As for Woosterish types, Melbourne was simply teeming with them, my dear fellow:

Mind you, I also found evidence for the existence of a real Barry McKenzie (who else could that possibly be on the left?)
My thoughts on the topic of Wodehousian and Humphriesesque inspiration were interrupted at this point by an exclamation from my mother.

'Oh look, there's Tighty Fogarty - he was such a good dancer,' she cried.

'Why was he called Tighty?' I asked, peering at the picture she was pointing at.

'Oh darling, you know, he was rather fond of a drink', she said. 'But you've no idea how marvellous it was when you found a good dancer.'

She stared at Tighty for another long moment.

'Mind you', she added, 'the night he got so tight he ate the flowers from the vase on the table, I did wonder whether he wasn't perhaps taking things a little too far.'

(History doesn't relate whether Tighty's friend Streak was unusually fond of bacon or of taking her clothes off in public, let alone what the hell is going on in this photograph:)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Words and Phrases, a Continuing Series

The redoubtable @boeufblogginon has reminded me of another horrible modern phrase: "talk to the hand". Where did it come from, what does it mean and why does it make me almost as annoyed as the sound of plastic bags being rustled, (particularly in cinemas)?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Max Wouldn't Like It

After yesterday's post about Max Harris and his many complaints about creeping decadence etcetera, I listened to an episode of John Finnemore's "Souvenir Programme" from BBC Radio 4. This sketch from the programme, which makes fun of the passion for making things 'relevant' for today's schoolchildren, would probably drive Max Harris into a new frenzy:

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Progressive Education

In 1974, Maximus Books published a collection of essays written by Max Harris. It was called "Ockers: Essays on the Bad Old New Australia", and it gives the impression of having been written one Saturday afternoon after Harris had built up a considerable head of exasperated steam about what he describes as "idiot egalitarianism".

In the book, Harris rages against philistinism in Australia. I suppose the furious tone of his prose is not altogether surprising; that is, everything he wrote after 1943 probably needs to be viewed through the filter of his experience with Ern Malley, which, I suspect, left him ever afterwards feeling a little wounded - and what, after all, is anger, if not an expression of hurt?

Anyway, the thesis Harris puts forward in Ockers is this: Gough Whitlam and his government; Paul Hogan; Barry Humphries; Philip Adams; and one or two others caused "a backward shift to uneducated attitudes" in Australia and the "resurgence of that ill-educated, dogmatic, incoherent and arrogant psychological phenomenon - the Australian ocker". One of my uncles used to occasionally exclaim with feeling, "The trouble with this country is the buggers won't work"; Harris's argument struck me as being on just about exactly that level of sophistication.

All the same, when I came across this paragraph, it resonated with me, perhaps because I was sent to a Froebel school as a child and longed instead to be at the nearby Lycee, where they had homework and were challenged and seemed to be gaining an enviable competence in a number of areas, whereas the only thing I was becoming highly skilled at, (apart from music and movement), was papier mache modelling, (mind you, we did once make a half lifesize dapple-grey horse):

"The theory of progressivist education has been that learning occurs through exploiting hedonistic impulses in the young. That is, targets, tests, examinations, homework, compulsory and coercive acquisition of skills like spelling, handwriting, simple arithmetic, etc. are bad. They symbolise education as an oppressive and authoritarian process. No doubt. But the opposite philosophy leaves young adults with a firm conviction that life can be shambled through as a non-stop dedication to aimless hedonism."

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Even Commoner I

My grate Twitter friend @deniswright launched his first commonplace posting on an unsuspecting world yesterday. Inspired by his example, I grabbed the small book in which I occasionally write down quotations I like from things I'm reading or listening to and decided I would follow in his wake.

Here are the first few quotations in my book, reflecting mainly the fact that, when I began, I appear to have been mostly reading Our Mutual Friend, (which I loved):

"...no rent in the leaden canopy of its sky".
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

 "A grey dirty withered evening in London city has not a hopeful aspect. The closed warehouses and offices have an air of death about them and the national dread of colour has an air of mourning."
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

"Boots and Brewer flutter like moths around that yellow wax candle - guttering down and with some hint of a winding sheet in it - Lady Tippins."
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

 "What did they, the Americans, really know about such parts of the world, the layer upon layer of savagery that made them up?"
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil, (which is set in Afghanistan [and which has a particularly fine cover for its Indian edition])

 "We live the present blindfolded and really see only with hindsight."
Man I heard on the radio, writing to his son, who had committed suicide.

"the quiet outpouring of refined details."
John Updike pinpointing what he finds attractive about living in an old house.

"The incompetent servant, by whomsoever employed, is always against his employer."
Charels Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

"Mr Boffin's acquaintance with the names and situations of foreign lands being limited in extent and somewhat confused in quality, he shaped his next question on an elastic model."
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (I know I wrote this one down because it exactly reflects my predicament re geog.)

"this impervious grubby immensity".
Murray Bail describing London in The Pages

"The inevitable self-consciousness which waylays a man, as soon as he has been freed from some bonds, whether ethical or economical."
John Betjeman, Ghastly Good Taste

 "The difference between loving men as a result of first loving God, and learning to love God through a growing love of men, may not at first sight appear profound."
John Betjeman, Ghastly Good Taste

"Men's buildings very clearly reflect their mental outlook and their social life."
John Betjeman, Ghastly Good Taste

Lippi and Donatello, "both composed uncanny but completely composed worlds behind their protagonists."
Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy

 "It is very difficult to get a notion of what it was to be a person of a certain kind at a certain time and place ... It is here that pictorial style is helpful."
Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy

 "The secret of happiness - insensitivity"
Tennessee Williams

"Liquid ... is fanatically committed to leakage and loss"
Roger-Pol Droit How Are Things

 "Mmm, very nice."
Woman at Tate Modern, turning away from Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova's "Model for the Capitalist Fortress for the Mass Spectacle of the Struggle and Victory of the Soviets"

Beware, this is just the beginning; I have many, many more.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Words and Phrases - a Continuing Series

I wonder if languages other than English are as susceptible to sudden passions for new usages as English is. I know French has its little fads and ever-changing new slang; I remember years ago a French tutor at ANU coming back after visiting her homeland for the first time in ages and telling us disgustedly how her young relatives would finish a discussion about arranging a social event or meeting with the word, 'D'ac', which was short for 'D'accord' - 'Okay', (or 'Okay?', in some circumstances, I suppose).

Anyway, this tendency in English seems to be ever-increasing. The only good thing about it is that, almost as quickly as the new fads appear, they vanish. But, while they're here, they are so exremely annoying. Just at the moment the ones that are really setting my teeth on edge are:

1. 'Back in the day'
2. 'What's not to like'
3. 'Smarts'

Three is the one that's completely maddening me, to be honest, as it seems to be filling what wasn't a gap. 'She has the smarts to manage the job', I presume means 'She's capable enough to manage the job', so why create this new way of saying it that vaguely suggests she's got a skin complaint?

PS In the department of why didn't I think of it, @ClintonDucas has suggested that other horror, 'no-brainer', which conjures such vivid and unpleasant images and is somehow so coarse, dismissive and impatient that I have to admit it's the worst of the current crop.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Melbourne Faces

In case I gave the impression the other day that all Melbourne's buildings are faceless, I thought I'd better upload some evidence to show that that is not the case. It must be said, however, that the faces you do see on Melbourne's buildings tend somewhat towards the uniform, (bar the kangaroo, of course). At some stage in the nineteenth century, it appears that a rather plain, fat-faced woman cornered the market in decorative-faces-for-the-outside-of-your-house modelling, together with her friend, a depressed - or possibly angry - man with a fairly impressive beard, (provided you are impressed by beards, which, I have to admit, I'm not):

Someone appears to have had a pet lion that they lent out for stucco work too:

Supposedly we're the only country that eats its coat of arms (or at least the animals on it - for others, it might prove more difficult; sourcing unicorn is getting harder and harder, my dear)

This fellow graces the Trades Hall in Melbourne. He has wonderfully scary eyes, I think. Sadly, it was after dark when I spotted him, so there wasn't enough light to be able to tell if they were glass or painted, (and, speaking of glass eyes, my husband still has nightmares about his grandfather's friend who, having survived WWII, returned with a glass eye and a large cavity in his head - to entertain small boys, he'd slip out the eye and put it into the cavity and then bend forward and drop the eye from the cavity into said small boy's hand; yes, we are a damaged generation):

I cannot believe they are going to desecrate the Windsor and no-one can stop it. Is there really no way to prevent it: