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.