Sunday, 28 September 2014

But Wait, There's More

Scrabbling about in here, I found another post with funny bits from the then Duchess of Devonshire, who died a couple of days ago, to my chagrin. The post is here. I should warn those of a sensitive nature that it involves pew licking.

(As well, thanks to the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog, I discovered an interview the duchess did with Jenny Murray on BBC Radio Four some years ago. When asked about happiness she says:

"I think happiness is a thing invented by the media. You can be very content without being consciously happy the whole time. I think contentment is a great thing to look for and to aim at. All this talk of happiness - of course it happens in your lifetime, luckily for me very often, but it's not a constant thing ....."

When asked what she thinks, as a 90-year-old, the next decade holds for her, she replies,

"Well, I suppose I'll die - that' ll be one thing that's going to happen, but what it will be followed by, I don't know.")

Saturday, 27 September 2014

I Knew It Was Here Somewhere

The day before yesterday I mentioned that I thought I'd included some of the best bits of letters between the then Duchess of Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor somewhere here. I had and eventually I found the post. It's here and much of what she said evokes a laugh, which is never a bad thing surely.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Who Will I Look Up to Now

I am so sad that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, former 'Mitford girl', has died. She seemed to me to represent everything that was best about a certain kind of English person. If I could emulate even a fraction of her commonsense, wit and good manners, I'd be happy. She was the product of an age that viewed self-obsession dimly. I wish that at least that aspect of the era would return.

For years, I kept a little article about her from a colour supplement, but good old DHL, (yes, I do still hate them), managed to lose it. It had all sorts of interesting bits of information about her, plus photographs, both of her and her collection of Elvis memorabilia. It's gone now though, so, as some kind of rather measly tribute to her, I am reposting a review I wrote a while ago of her book about her life. The review was posted on The Dabbler blog - but today that site seems to be not working - so rather than linking I'll paste the text in here instead.

Somewhere in this blog I think there may also be some quite amusing bits from her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor. I'll go away and look for them and maybe find the link - if it exists - and put it up tomorrow. Meanwhile, try to get hold of Wait for Me - I was glued, my dear fellow. In fact, I think she wrote other books so I might go off and cheer myself up by buying some of them as well.

1p Review of Wait for Me

Wait for Me, the autobiography of Deborah Devonshire, is worth at least 1p for its first section alone. This part of the book – an account of the author’s childhood surrounded by a Wodehousian collection of relatives, most notably her father, (who it transpires was not only unintentionally hilarious but also, during WWI, quite incredibly brave), and hangers on, (including a governess who spent school hours teaching her charges how to gamble at cards), is so funny you cannot read it in a room with other people, because you are liable either to drive those around you completely crazy with your shouts of uncontrollable laughter or irritate them dreadfully by being unable to resist reading bits of the thing out loud.

Once the author leaves home and we see less of her father, who I still cannot quite believe worked for a time at The Lady, the laughs, although never entirely absent, do grow thinner. All the same, the book does not lose its charm or interest, as the sheer absurd hilarity of the author’s anecdotes about her family is replaced by well-described, often comic memories of life in the upper classes after the war – which, thanks to rationing, does not sound all that much more pleasant than life for any other section of society at the time:

"Mr Thacker [the butcher] let me help him cut up the meat in the back room and get a few scraps for the dogs. Tongue was offal and therefore not rationed. ‘Any chance of a tongue?’ I would ask. ‘You’re thirty-sixth on the list,’ was always the answer … One day a wounded soldier repatriated from Italy brought home a lemon. Such a luxury had not been seen for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell – proceeds to the Red Cross."

As time goes on the Duchess gets to know a number of famous people, including JFK and Hitler, Evelyn Waugh, Givenchy, Osbert Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Nancy Astor – who she overheard saying, when “a dreary educationalist from the Midwest was droning on and on … "That’s very interestin … but I’m not interested" - as well as many who are less well-known but equally intriguing, - the Howards, for instance, whose father "had a glass eye and used to surprise people by tapping it with a fork at meals". She recounts amusing stories about all of them, and also devotes space to her famous sisters, about whom she is admirably loyal.

While two of those sisters, Nancy and Jessica, have already given us fairly vivid accounts of their father, (about whom it is impossible ever to hear too much), in Wait for Me we are also provided with a clearer picture of the Mitford girls’ mother, who, we discover, enjoyed belting out tunes on the piano from The Daily Express Community Song Book and once, in answer to the question of how old she was, replied "Nineteen …no, sorry, seventy-three", a response anyone over the age of forty-five – or, indeed, nineteen - can probably sympathise with.

Given the fact that the Duchess endured some of life’s bitterest blows – the stillbirth and neo-natal death of several children – this book could easily have become a misery memoir. However, its author is made of sterner stuff. Describing situations where most of us would claim to be heartbroken, she restricts herself to the wonderfully understated phrase, "I minded terribly". Rather than pouring out her heart, she does her best to see the humour in most situations, as well as trying to give us a picture of the England in which she grew up – and the pre-chain store London in which she 'came out' (in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase):

"A coat and skirt from Mr Nissen, tailor of Conduit Street – a major item, but one that lasted, cost 8½ guineas. We were never without Madame Rita's hats. Our hairdresser, Phyllis Earle in Dover Street (reached by a number 9 bus, getting off at the Ritz), charged 3/6 for a wash and set. My shoes, which came from Dolcis in Oxford Street, were cheap and decent to look at but painful after a few nights of round and round the dance floor. Muv gave me some of her elbow length evening gloves made of doeskin, so gleaming white and smart they set off the dullest dress. They had to be cleaned each time they were worn and were posted to a firm in Scotland, so famous that 'Pullars of Perth' on the printed labels was enough of an address."

While even the talented Duchess cannot extract much entertainment from her involvement with a company called Tarmac, she has such a brilliant eye for the interesting or amusing detail that it is only in this episode – mercifully brief – that her writing slightly flags. She claims not have read a book in her life, but she certainly knows how to write a good one. Her tastes are occasionally surprising – she is a keen Elvis fan – but her character is charming and it is a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages reading the story of her life

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

On the Way

Somewhere in this blog, (but finding anything in here is a bit like trying to find something in my desk drawer - "Che casino", as Italians would - or at least when I lived there in the '70s they would - say), there is a post about how being on a long plane journey has one great advantage: it provides the opportunity to read, uninterrupted, and therefore to catch up with all sorts of interesting things.

Unfortunately, since Singapore Airlines began offering as 'inflight entertainment' incredible numbers of films and telly shows and operas, (although the Salzburg Festival Magic Flute they were showing was, despite beautiful singing and, of course, among the most indescribably lovely music ever written, so incredibly drearily staged that at least it wasn't a temptation), the opportunity to read undistracted has been somewhat undermined. I'm ashamed to say that, after a few hours I put down my book and fell, mysteriously, under the spell of House of Cards.

(In my defence, I should add that, after a few hours more, I also fell back out from under that spell. The trouble was the programme makers went for melodrama, which was fine - but then they went a longish way too far. As my suspension of disbelief evaporated, I was left with nothing, since none of the characters had depth enough to hold my interest. The wife was deeply mysterious to the point of being baffling and her husband, plus the girl called Zoe, were one-dimensional and thus unengagingly meaningless, because not really believable.)

Anyway, before I disappeared down that televisual dead end, I did manage to get through an article on Muriel Spark, one of my favourite writers. One aspect of the article that I found particularly interesting was the section on her conversion to Catholicism. She ascribed her conversion to Cardinal Newman - his reasoning, she claimed:

"is so pure that it is revolutionary in form."

Becoming a Catholic, according to Spark, was:

"an important step ... because from that time I began to see life as a whole, rather than as a series of disconnected happenings."

In the article, she was also quoted on the subject of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, (which the writer of the article claimed was her favourite novel). Spark said it exhibited:

"something of a tremendous value to the Christian imagination, a sacramental view of life which is nothing more than a balanced regard for matter and spirit."

I shall try to bear this in mind as I continue listening to the audio of the work - I have to confess I do often find myself growing very impatient with the thing, plus its author, but I should clearly see things in a different light.

I also made my way through the 21 June 2012 issue of the London Review of Books. I am growing more and more convinced that, like other great magazines, (the New Yorker comes to mind, although I'm not sure it's all that great any more, sadly), the London Review of Books is better after being cellared, (and, for that matter, is the London Review great? It certainly gets a lot wrong politically, I reckon - but I digress, as usual).

In the 21 June 2012 LRB,  there was a very good review by Jenny Diski of Downton Abbey, the new Upstairs Downstairs and a couple of novels dealing with the same 'great houses, great families' kinds of story lines. My favourite bit was when she described Alistair Cooke in his incarnation as host of Masterpiece Theatre at PBS:

"Alistair Cooke can be seen in an old TV clip, thanks to the bottomless well that is YouTube, carefully cross-legged, wearing a blazer, a discreetly silver-striped black tie on a pearl grey shirt, and what can only be called slacks. He sits on a high-backed black leather and polished mahogany library chair. Behind him to his right, hung on flocked wallpaper, is an ornately framed landscape painting winking 'old master', on the other side an overarching potted palm, between them a window hung with heavy, draped velvet curtains, and beneath his elegantly shod feet ... a fine oriental carpet ... 'Good evening', he says, in his immaculately trimmed mid-Atlantic accent, so reassuring that you wonder if perhaps he is going to sound the nuclear alert."

There was also one of those reviews that introduces you to a character or subject that are in equal part fascinating and repellent, so that the review performs a great service, in allowing you glimpses of something intriguing, without forcing you to plunge right into the full vat of the thing.

The vat - or subject - in question is a poet I'd never heard of called Peter Redgrove, who I think was probably a genius but hopelessly warped in what I suspect may be a particularly English way. I'm glad to have been informed of his existence but also extremely pleased that I haven't ever had to go beyond that superficial knowledge level.

Due, perhaps, to a rather strait-laced father and an insufficiently strait-laced mother, Peter Redgrove ended up associating 'mud with eroticism' and developing something called 'the Game', which involved rolling in or bathing in mud and various other substances, (and that, the writer hints, was the least of it). A poem Redgrove wrote celebrating his marriage and family is apparently "filled with wildly energetic dark spatterings, slime-slides, sprays and haemorrhages". In a prose poem called Mr Waterman, a speaker tells a doctor of his fears that his garden pond is going to commit adultery with his wife:

"I invited it in as a lodger, bedding it up in the old bathroom. At first I thought I would have to run canvas troughs up the stairs so it could get to its room without soaking the carpet, and I removed the flap from the letter-box so it would be free to come and go, but it soon learned to keep its form quite well, and get about in macintosh and goloshes [sic], opening doors with gloved fingers."

Passing strange stuff, which I'm glad I know exists but I wouldn't want too much more of.

Following that, came an article reviewing a book about opium, Opium: Reality's Dark Dream. This interested me, because pain relief and its regulation interests me. Perhaps because a few people have abused various drugs - they always have and they always will - there is a growing wowser element in the medical profession. Many vocal doctors seem to be bent on deciding for their patients how much pain relief they may have, convinced that none of us are capable of determining that for ourselves.

Someone in my family had several vertebrae destroyed, leading to appalling pain and the supply of oxycontin and endone, together with the instructions that she would probably have to take them forever. At a certain point, my relative decided for herself that she did not want to continue to be zombified with these drugs and weaned herself off them entirely independently. She knew when she needed their help and when she didn't and was quite capable of making her own mind up about what she took and for how long. I would hate to think that some bossy doctor would ever have presumed to take that autonomy of choice away from her - either denying her the medicine when she needed it or forcing her to take it when she'd realised she'd had enough.

Anyway, one thing that I discovered from the review of the opium book was that things are not progressing in this regard so much as regressing - the writer of the book, Thomas Dormandy, the reviewer tells us:

"writes powerfully, as he has elsewhere, of Cicely Saunders's struggle to establish palliative care for the dying, from whom opiates were commonly withheld on the grounds that they are addictive"

The review also ends with a wonderfully resonant quote from Walter Benjamin. The reviewer claims that Dormandy's book "suggests that in the modern era we have also become addicted to what Walter Benjamin called 'that most terrible drug - ourselves - which we take in solitude'."

If all that is a bit too depressing, let me finish with a quote from an article on Martin Amis by Adam Mars-Jones. It seemed to me that Mars-Jones levered this into his piece somewhat, but then again who wouldn't? It's the only full transcript I've ever seen of probably the greatest of all the Monty Python sketches:

"- There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in the middle of the road.
- Cardboard box?
- Aye.
- You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at six o'clock, clean the newspaper, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day week in week out for sixpence a week. And when we got home, our dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
- Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, work twenty hours a day at mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
- Well of course we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox in the middle of the night, and lick the road clean with our tongues. We had to eat half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked 24 hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
- Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing, 'Hallelujah'."

Oh, and, given I can't find anything in here, I'm not sure if I've already put this in another post, but it is one of my favourite pictures, and it swam to the surface of my papers as I was packing before leaving home:

It's Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, taken in 1923.


Monday, 15 September 2014

No More Home Among the Gum Trees

Should anyone have missed me, (and I don't for a moment want to suggest I'm assuming anyone did), I've been moving, in a rather stately fashion, from one side of the world to the other.

But now, at last, my bags are unpacked and I can relax - at least until my boxes arrive.

Or at least those boxes that we didn't consign to DHL, which have arrived, although much later than they were supposed to and severely damaged. My guess is that someone managed to drop them somewhere between here and Australia and they then furtively repacked them, hoping nobody would notice that some of the things originally in the boxes had gone completely missing and others had been severely damaged in transit.

Well, DHL - we did notice, and we hate you very much indeed now. In fact, I may well dedicate my life to deterring others from using your useless services.

But enough of obsessional vendettas. Let me tell you some of the things I've seen en route to my home.

First, I stopped in Sydney and slept a night at the Intercontinental Hotel, from whence I set out to dine with my brother and to which I staggered home some hours later, having consumed a great deal of that wine Australia does so well - Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thus, to atone for my self-poisoning, I tottered up to the gym the next morning. And it just so happens that the gym in the Intercontinental is situated right next to a swish private dining room - which young hotel managers in training were scurrying around getting ready for that day's big event:

I'm not even going to mention the misspelling of squad - what I thought telling was the fact that the KFC HR squad had no intention of rewarding themselves for their services to their great company by noshing on a bucket of the finger lickin' good stuff.

Now perhaps I'm wrong but it seems to me that, if you're in the food business, it's a worry if you don't actually choose the food you're selling when you sit down for a slap up meal yourself. Frankly, in the circumstances, if you don't put your money where your mouth is but you expect other people to - if you don't actually want to reward yourself at a celebration meal by eating what you're flogging - then what you're flogging is a very, very, very dead horse.

That's how it strikes me, but KFC sales figures probably tell a different story and prove me utterly and completely wrong.

Anyway, enough of the speculation about things of which I know virtually nothing - it was off to the airport and up and away after that, and, following a brief stay in Singapore, which I hope is not a vision of what the whole world will be like in the future - oh please not, oh please not; and I feel just the same only more so about Dubai - plus one or two other dawdlings, we eventually arrived at our new home.

Which is pretty nice really, if you really have to be not allowed to live in Ainslie, ACT, for a few years, which it seems I do.

We haven't been here long - only two days, in fact - but one thing I've noticed already is that our new neighbour has intriguing taste in garden ornaments:

Thus far, the major problem I'm having to wrestle with is the mother of all so-called first world problems. We now share our lives with someone who can cook absolutely brilliantly, including lovely cakey/biscuity kinds of things:
For the first time in my life, I think I'm actually going to have to join a gym.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


I know. I know. I know. Yes, from September 2013 to now is eleven, not ten years. Which doesn't make it any the sadder.

I blame my first maths teacher at big school, Miss Cowie, (cowie by name, cowie by nature), who was absolutely ruthless and terrifying and the most unbelievable snob to boot. 'Well we all know about Leslie and her North London ways', I remember her declaring, leaving Leslie withered and me, a South London child, mystified. To this day, (while never doubting for one moment that, in Miss Cowie's view, they were beyond the pale), I wonder what exactly North London ways were/are and whether perhaps, unwittingly, I too now exhibit some of them, perish the thort.

Really though, I should blame the Chelsea Froebel School, a realm where mathematics consisted of rote learning of times tables, many happy hours with the beautiful but ultimately unenlightening Cuisenaire rods, interpolated with the very rare days when the inspector came round. On those occasions, glass vessels of all sizes would be produced, newspaper would be spread out on all the tables and we would spend a wildly fun time splashing each other while pretending to penetrate the mysteries of the gill measurement, (now there was a useful way to spend one's time; how often I've had recourse to my familiarity with one-third of a gill glass jars; indeed, one might even ask where I would be today without such a solid foundation in the science of liquid volume; on the other hand, one might not.