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.