Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Glad Possession

As I explored the streets of Brussels - or one area of it anyway - yesterday afternoon, I listened to a podcast of Start the Week. It ended with Russell Brand claiming that:

"The important question is which political organisation cares that there are five families in Britain that have as much wealth collectively as the twelve million poorest people in Britain? Who is it that speaks for those people? What democratic recourse do those people have? What can they do - and, if the system cannot help them, then we need a revolution."

Having lived in several countries in Europe where the result of Brand's odd illogical kind of, for want of a better term, 'reasoning' was decades of repression, plus terrible environmental and cultural vandalism (and no systems have been so good at destroying the environment as socialist ones, no matter how many Erin Brockovitch type movies try to argue that capitalism is the great enemy of clean and green), I found this little clarion call pretty disturbing.

Clearly, Brand - like so many before him - proceeds from the belief that equality is both achievable and desirable in human society. I think equality is impossible - and, given this, whether it is desirable is not really something worth having an opinion on. The poor are always with us, as Jesus observed. By implication, the rich are too. The real question to ask about the existence of the rich is: is it necessarily a bad thing?

What actually is wrong with five families in Britain having as much wealth collectively as the country's twelve million poorest - provided they are not actually taking that money directly out of the pockets of the poorest?Is the very fact of being rich a sin? Leaving aside the fact that most of the world's great artistic treasures were only made because the wealthy commissioned them - for example, would we have Haydn's music if the Esterhazys hadn't been on hand to pay for him? - is there anything intrinsically wrong with owning stuff? Must we assume that the five rich families Brand is getting so worked up about never generate any kind of business or employment, pay no taxes, provide no opportunities, generate zero economic activity, give absolutely nothing away? If in fact they do all these things but still remain wealthy, must we tear them down anyway, just because we aren't as rich as they are? Is that sensible? Is that just? Or is that just jealousy?

And what about the twelve million poorest inhabitants of the nation - are they actually poor or simply poorer than others, (and bear in mind that inevitably someone always will be at the bottom of the heap)? Is their poverty - if it is poverty as such, rather than mere relative poverty - a direct result of the five wealthiest families' wealth accretion or are the two things separate? Are the twelve million poorest inhabitants of the nation lacking for food, education, health care, housing or are they merely fed up because they are not extremely rich too? Would the destruction of the wealth of the five richest families do anything to ameliorate the situation of the poorest families? Or would it simply be a case of pandering to jealousy?

When Brand talks about democratic recourse, I ask myself what he means, (particularly as he is talking about a nation that is already a democracy). Does he mean that no-one should be wealthy, that everything should be spread out evenly between all members of a population? Possibly he does, and if so, for the first time ever, I find myself wishing the Soviet Union still existed - purely because a single visit of only a few days almost invariably enlightened those people too naive, (or dim?), to understand that attempts to create equality in human societies end up creating hell on earth.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Bumbling About in Brussels

After talking to a slightly spivvy insurance broker and getting some sort of stamp that is the key to being able to drive in Brussels, I stumbled out into the crisp autumn afternoon and wandered about in streets I'd never been in before, eventually reaching home as it grew dark. On the way, I took some pictures, which I put on instagram, where you can find them under zedmkc, or you can follow my Twitter stream - @zmkc - and see where I went there.

I found a statue of a dog, and some very nice brickwork, and a memorial to a reasonably decent Hungarian politician, (a gentle intellectual who was naive about government?), a Volga for sale, and some new wave Belgian Gonks (infinitely more charming than the originals).

Monday, 27 October 2014

An Everyday Story of Chaucer's Folk

We just turned on the television and caught a fiery moment in a Flemish soap opera.

"Mak wat you will," shouted a character, before exiting the scene and slamming the door behind him. The credits rolled. Meanwhile, visions danced in our heads.

Visions of Neighbours conducted entirely in Chaucerian English. Eastenders in the language of the Canterbury Tales. Now all we need is the funding and a willing television channel. What fun it will be. How people will love it.

They will love it, won't they?

What's that you're shouting?

"Mak wat you will"?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Laugh or Cry

I was reading a copy of the Saturday 25 October Daily Telegraph when I came upon an article headed "Mind Your French, They're Getting So Stressed-Out Across the Channel". It was purportedly by a person called Bernard Richards, an emeritus professor at Brasenose. It detailed Professor Richards's disgust at the way the French are, apparently, stretching out their syllables in an 'obscene' way, making 'a language which always tended towards preciosity and pretentiousness sound even more precious and pretentious'. This new trend is exacerbated, the article claims, by a 'tendency towards list and catalogue in dialogue rather than constructing proper sentences'. 'The French invented impressionism', the professor comments about this supposed change in conversational style, 'and the chickens are coming home to roost.'

Apparently it is French (and the French?) that is/are the problem.  'There is a sort of matter-of-factness and terseness about the two-syllable English words with the stress on the first vowel, which resists affected and precious pronunciation', Professor Richards explains, whereas, 'The French have a fatal attraction for self-indulgence'. About this latest outbreak of Gallic ghastliness, he says it is 'frightfully camp, not to say kitschy. And it explains why many Englishmen, not only Edward Heath and Elton John, speak French with such emphatically English intonations.' And here was me thinking it was just because the English are completely feeble about learning foreign languages.

At first I assumed the article was a joke, a kind of manufactured piece of Captain Mannering huffiness, to accompany the misguided remake of Dad's Army. I looked up Professor Richards though and he seems not to be invented. If you want to read his marvellous outburst of Little Englishness, here it is:

Friday, 24 October 2014

Sinister Tranquillity

I lead a quiet life, (I live in Brussels - there is no alternative, plus I come from Canberra, say no more, [I even miss it]). Thus my big outing to the Frieze Art Fair and - for me the infinitely preferable - Frieze Masters in London last weekend was an unaccustomed excitement which has left me full of thoughts and impressions even five days later.

One of the booths I looked around at Frieze Masters was run by a rather terrifying New Yorker who styled himself Jack Kilgore. The name itself is faintly alarming but he also had a challenging kind of manner, a way of looking you full in the face, not necessarily with a friendly expression, as if daring you to admit you couldn't afford his paintings.

Of course, it was probably mostly bravado. A booth at the fair must cost rather a lot of money and Jack would surely have been as worried as all the other dealers who didn't appear to be making many sales. It was odd how one or two seemed to be doing all the business and the others remained red-dotless, their eyes sweeping the passers-by ever more fitfully as they riffled through their mental account sheets and tried not to let the horror make itself visible, except for the odd twitch of a cheek muscle and the intermittent mopping of brows.

One thing that impressed me about Kilgore's approach to business was that he provided plenty of interesting information about each of the works on sale. I told him this and he stopped prowling for a moment to look me up and down.  'Well, thank you', he said and then resumed his prowling. His tone implied that he deserved nothing less but on the other hand he wished this dreary middle-aged woman would shove off. He glanced wistfully at the Russian babe who was tottering blindly past, the heels on her thigh length leather boots so high she required the support of an elderly but eager looking man.

I could have told Jack that Russian babes prefer baubles to masterworks, but instead I told him I liked this painting and asked him if he'd ever seen White Ribbon by Michael Haneke, because the painting reminded me of it. "No, I haven't", he told me, with complete lack of interest. Then, as if suddenly remembering his manners - or possibly remembering that money doesn't always come in shiny packages, he asked if it was a film set somewhere full of sun and light. I said, 'No.'.
In case you're interested, (for some reason, since the Duchess of Devonshire died, every time I hear the words 'interested' or 'interesting', I remember her story about overhearing Nancy Astor at dinner say to someone, 'Well that's very interestin', but I'm not interested'), the painting is called Mainlandschaft: Landscape with a Horseman on the Main River. It is by Hans Thoma who, according to Jack's wall-tag, was a major personality in German painting at the end of the 19th century. He studied in Karlsruhe and then Dusseldorf, where he worked with Otto Scholderer, (never heard of him either). Through Scholderer he met Courbet, whose paintings had a profund influence on him. His portraiture was also influenced by Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and Lucas Cranach. His career developed between Munich, Dusseldorf and Florence and he can be counted among the "Romans from Germany" who drew from the Italian Renaissance to create a style that would form the origins of symbolism.

That's quite an education good old Jack Kilgore gave me, (actually he could be a character in a Fitzgerald novel, now I come to think of it - yes, he'd fit in perfectly on the beach at Antibes in Tender is the Night). Jack's wall-tag went on to talk about the quality of light in the painting and its serenity. In an interesting case of having one's view of things coloured by another work of art, I couldn't see any of that. For me, the little village you can see in the field across the river seems to be crouching silently, just as picturesque as the one in White Ribbon, clutching just as dreadful secrets and hidden cruelties to itself.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The History of Art According to David Nicholls

I think I have mentioned before - ooh look, so I have, you can witness me gushing right here - that I think One Day by David Nicholls is a really good book. Sadly, books that are amusing and entertaining are often overlooked when it comes to recognition by the world of letters, yet they can be as full of insight as less digestible works.

Anyway, having loved One Day, it was fairly inevitable that I'd buy Us by the same author as soon as it came out. I got it the other day when I was in London and I'm reading it and enjoying it now. Although I think choosing to tell the story from a first person point of view does mean the novel is somewhat more claustrophobic than One Day it is still a work of wit that subtly demonstrates - well I'll leave that for another time, (when I've actually read the thing from cover to cover).

The thing is, I've just got to a bit that I think is quite relevant, given that this blog has gone all arty just lately. It's Chapter 39 of the book, (Us, by David Nicholls, published just now by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN  9780340896990 and five pounds off at Waterstone's already), and it's called a brief history of art:

"Cave paintings. Clay then bronze statues. Then for about 1,400 years, people painted nothing except bold but rudimentary pictures of either the Virgin Mary and Child or the Crucifixion. Some bright spark realised that things in the distance looked smaller and the pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Crucifixion improved hugely. Suddenly everyone was very good at hands and facial expression and now the statues were in marble. Fat cherubs started appearing, while elsewhere there was a craze for domestic interiors and women standing by windows doing needlework. Dead pheasants and bunches of grapes and lots of detail. Cherubs disappeared and instead there were fanciful, idealised landscapes, then portraits of aristocrats on horseback, then huge canvasses of battles and shipwrecks. Then it was back to women lying on sofas or getting out of the bath, murkier this time, less detailed, then a great many wine bottles and apples, then ballet dancers. Paintings developed a certain splodginess - critical term - so that they barely resembled what they were meant to be. Someone signed a urinal, and it all went mad. Neat squares of primary colour were followed by great blocks of emulsion, then soup cans, then someone picked up a video camera, someone else poured concrete, and the whole thing became hopelessly fractured into a kind of confusing, anything-goes free for all."

He forgot about Greek and Roman sculpture and all those flowers I've been so fond of the last couple of days, but I think in general terms he nails it quite well, given he's only given himself a paragraph - especially the concrete (I kept passing some increasingly forlorn looking people at the main Frieze art fair, who apeared to be attempting to flog battered petrol cans which had funnels stuck into them, each of the funnels having been filled with cement)

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Hello Flowers

My father reckoned the dish restaurants call Moules Marinières is always a bargain. You get two dishes - the juice the mussels come in, a kind of a soup, and the mussels themselves, the more substantial main course - for the price of one.

Thus, whenever I see a collector's cabinet painting, I always think of Moules Marinières and of my dad sitting across a table in some restaurant or other, explaining this theory, one of his many random shots at equipping me for independent life.

To me the collector's cabinet genre falls into exactly the same category as Moules Marinières, because the paintings within it also provide the buyer with more than one picture, also for the price of one:

Adriaen van Stalbempt (& associates) 1580 - Antwerp - 1662
Dealer - De Jonckheere

And it's not just pictures. As you can see there are musical instruments, and knick knacks - knick knacks galore:
But I didn't promise knick knacks. I promised flora and fauna. So here's some flora:
Balthasar van der Ast, Middelburg 1593/4 - 1657 Delft
A Still Life of Tulips and Other Flowers in a Ceramic Vase
Dealer - Johnny van Haeften

And here's some more, this time with some (mostly dead) fauna:

That one is a pair with the next one, which teems with fauna:

Both are painted on copper. I realise now that I must have liked the second a lot better than the first, judging by the number of pictures I took of it. That is possibly because the living creatures in it were portrayed as still living. Both pictures are by Pieter Snijers and once again the dealer is Johnny van Haeften, who seems to have rather cornered the market in flower paintings.

By the way, I realised after I'd posted my dog pictures yesterday that I'd missed one. It's from a painting of a Dutch church interior. This picture - and all its ilk (there are quite a few Dutch church interior paintings knocking around the world, I've noticed) - reminds me of the first time I was ever asked to pay to go into a church. It was in Haarlem in the Netherlands in about 1990.

Sadly, since then just about every great church in Europe seems to have decided that it's all right to make visitors pay. Ely Cathedral has even erected an appalling glass wall thing that completely ruins the visual flow of the interior; never mind - the important thing is that it stops anyone from getting inside merely to pray without paying, (and presumably dogs aren't allowed to roam about ever, not even if they do cough up fifteen quid for the privilege):
Hendrick Cornelisz. van Vliet - 1611/12 - Delft - 1675
The Interior of a Gothic Church with Figures by a Pulpit and an Open Grave, Oil on Panel

What's that you say about paid admission? It's called progress is it? Hmmm.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Animal Crackers

I promised some pictures from Frieze Masters, and today I thought I'd start with some dogs.

Here are some from a painting by Adam Albrecht, called Retour de la Chasse, from 1828, (I was going to save the horses up for later, but you can't really include a picture about hunting and pretend there aren't any horses, can you):

I like this kind of house - a style that is very Germanic, it seems to me - why did they build like that and the English didn't?

If you want to look at that picture in greater detail (although less true colour) or, indeed, if you want to buy it, you can go to this address to find out more.

Meanwhile, here is a more modern dog, painted by Mr L Freud, (I always call him that because I can never remember if he's Lucian or Lucien):
I seem incapable of getting a frame square in my camera lens

Going back into the past, (although, irritatingly I've forgotten just how far back - possibly 12th century [or could it be 5th century - how the hell did I manage to delete the details?]), here is a rather scary hound:

Then there's a funny little fluff bucket whose main function seems to be to comfort poor sad looking Lady Mary Fielding, painted by Daniel Mytens in the early 17th century:

There was the afghan hound that belonged to Picasso - it occurs to me that there's a novel to be written from that dog's point of view, one of those awfully clever, almost unbearably boring novels that people other than me seem so surprisingly fond of. Perhaps I should write it, woof, woof, woof:
plus this long-suffering canine soul, pictured in an early 17th century Collector's Cabinet painting by Adriaen van Stalbempt:

Finally, there was the weird photographic semi-recreation by some Japanese person of the great Velasquez painting in the Prado, with the addition of two viewers in costume, (so hilarious, hem hem); the dog was the only faintly appealing bit of it, I thought:

Tomorrow, I may move on to the rest of the animal kingdom plus, possibly, some flora to go with the fauna.

Monday, 20 October 2014

So Much to Tell You

I went to London on the weekend and I went to Frieze Art Fair. I didn't stay their long. I'm not that interested in huge pink disposable nappies or tents that have been stretched out and nailed to the walls:

And, ye gods, that was by no means the worst of it.

Anyway, I scurried away to Frieze Masters, which meant a stroll through one of London's prettiest parks (but why do they ban bicycles?)

I've been putting the pictures I took of some of the lovely things I saw at Frieze Masters on instagram (zedmkc is my instagram name), but as time goes by I'll try to make some posts of them here too, because then you can really explore the pictures in a way you can't on instagram.

In the meantime, here is my photograph of one picture that I didn't really like but that reminded me of the absolutely wonderful story, Father's Last Escape, by Bruno Schultz, which you can hear read aloud here:

It is actually, I must admit quite an interesting painting in its own right, if you read the dealer's blurb about it:
But that's Frieze Masters for you - full of fascinating things you'll probably never see again.

Friday, 17 October 2014

A White Day-Star of Squinch

Wonderful Anecdotal Evidence has a great post about Les Murray today. It includes a link to an interview with Murray, and that interview is followed by this poem, which I hadn't consciously read before.

I often get more from an individual poem that I come across somewhere than I do from reading a collection. It's probably just a matter of poor attention - I also often find that reading just a scrap of something that I find hard going but interesting is the best way to get the most out of it, if that is at all clear.

I rather think it isn't, so I'll shut up and get out of the way of the lovely poem:

"Last World Before the Stars

These day that we’re apart
are like standing on Pluto
there in the no-time of thought,

bijou world the area of West Australia
contra-rotating farthest out
with its three moons and little mountains,

looking off the short horizon,
the Sun a white daystar of squinch
glazing the ground like frozen twilight,

no life, no company, no nearness,
never a memory or a joke
no pinned packet of dearness

just months gone in afternoon sleep
 and cripple-hikes with beeping monitors."

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Listening to Proust - Part Two

I reckon there may be people out there who are thinking to themselves, 'Ooh yes, she said she was going to listen to the whole of Proust but she's failed; she's fallen at the first hurdle; ha, could have told her'. And I say, 'Thank God for them', given that possibly the one thing that may keep me going is pure stubbornness and a desire to prove them wrong.

Because, yes, I have to admit it: I do find Marcel somewhat tiresome.

The thing is, he'll say something rather lovely, eg this:

"Combray de loin, à dix lieues à la ronde, vu du chemin de fer quand nous y arrivions la dernière semaine avant Pâques, ce n'était qu'une église résumant la ville, la représentant, parlant d'elle et pour elle aux lointains ..."

"Seen from afar Combray, the town, is represented by its church"

I like that and it articulates something I've often thought without being able to put it into words, (if that makes any sense - didn't Alan Bennett have an anecdote about his mother looking across a valley at a field on the other side and saying, "Alan, Alan, what are those white fluffy things over there? I know what they are but I can't think of their names", to which Bennett added a wry comment about how his mother in one sentence had demolished the entire theory of some philosopher, [although which one it was I now can't remember and thus I in my turn may be demolishing the entire theory of some other poor philosopher ]).

But forgive the digression - as I was saying, Proust's observation articulates something that has often struck me, in an inarticulate hazy kind of way. It is quite true that, when you are driving through Europe, the steeples you see from afar do seem to stand as representatives for each settlement you pass or approach - and, by the way, (oh lord, she's off again, wandering from the point, [if you think this is bad you should try talking to me in person - unbelievable, like listening to verbal spaghetti, basically]), is it true that the reason for there being so many steeples dotting the landscape in the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire is that the Emperor who was around in the time of Mozart, (Joseph of one or other number, he of the plain funerals and unmarked graves legislation?), decreed that no-one should ever be outside of walking distance to a church?

Okay, back to the topic ie Proust and no more of this nonsense, I promise you. He - Proust - is also brilliant on the secrets uncovered by smell:

"...mille odeurs qu'y dégagent les vertus, la sagesse, les habitudes, toute une vie secrète, invisible, surabondante et morale que l'atmosphère y tient en suspens"

"the countless odours springing from their own special virtues, wisdom, habits, a whole secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral, which their atmosphere holds in solution"

But my argument with him is not that he lacks insight generally speaking - no-one could possibly argue that. He is replete with insight - except in one area. When it comes to his readers' patience, I think he has a major perception gap. The obstacle - for this reader (listener) - rests in this simple problem: Proust does bang on.

For instance, had I been writing the book, I'd have left it there on the subject of smell and what it is redolent of - but, oh no, not Proust. He carries on and on for another very long paragraph:

"odeurs naturelles encore, certes, et couleur du temps comme celles de la campagne voisine, mais déjà casanières, humaines et renfermées, gelée exquise industrieuse et limpide de tous les fruits de l'année qui ont quitté le verger pour l'armoire; saisonnières, mais mobilières et domestiques, corrigeant le piquant de la gelée blanche par la douceur du pain chaud, oisives et ponctuelles comme une horloge de village, flâneuses et rangées, insoucieuses et prévoyantes, lingères, matinales, dévotes, heureuses d'une paix qui n'apporte qu'un surcroît d'anxiété et d'un prosaïsme qui sert de grand réservoir de poésie à celui qui la traverse sans y avoir vécu.L'air y était saturé de la fine fleur d'un silence si nourricier, si succulent que je ne m'y avançais qu'avec une sorte de gourmandise ..."

"...smells natural enough indeed, and coloured by circumstances as are those of the neighbouring countryside, but already humanised, domesticated, confined, an exquisite, skilful, limpid jelly, blending all the fruits of the season which have left the orchard for the store-room, smells changing with the year, but plenishing, domestic smells, which compensate for the sharpness of hoar frost with the sweet savour of warm bread, smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving smells, pious smells; rejoicing in a peace which brings only an increase of anxiety, and in a prosiness which serves as a deep source of poetry to the stranger who passes through their midst without having lived amongst them. The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment..."

Enough already. I get the picture mate, put a sock in it - oh no, I said sock, he'll be off again on the subject of sock smells and then probably sock textures. With Proust, sharp, brief insights all too often become empurpled in a nauseating way, especially when he starts using words like 'succulent' and 'appetising' and suggesting the fire bakes the smells into a crusty pastry, ugh, ugh, ugh.

No English person could write that and get away with it - well maybe Will Self, but even he would inject some humour into the thing - and receive a sidelong swipe from Private Eye for his sins.

Once again, I like the idea of an incredibly slow destructive invisible force, acting like time on the church step:

"...comme si le doux effleurement des mantes des paysannes entrant à l'église et de leurs doigts timides prenant de l'eau bénite, pouvait, répété pendant des siècles, acquérir une force destructive, infléchir la pierre et l'entailler de sillons comme en trace la roue des carrioles dans la borne contre laquelle elle bute tous les jours."

"just as if the gentle grazing touch of the cloaks of peasant-women going into the church, and of their fingers dipping into the water, had managed by agelong repetition to acquire a destructive force, to impress itself on the stone, to carve ruts in it like those made by cart-wheels upon stone gate-posts against which they are driven every day."

- but once again Proust over-describes and becomes sentimental - or, to be more charitable, he reveals himself as very much more sensitive and attuned to aesthetic transports than I.

This means that I find his evocation of his childish experience of the interior of the local Combray church nauseatingly rich. I wonder if this is just me being intolerant or whether it is me being Anglo Saxon.

But I plough on. And, interestingly, in the midst of my fidgeting and mild irritation, I come across a reference elsewhere to James Joyce, in which he is reported to have suggested that Henry James influenced Proust. This reignites my interest, as I love Henry James, despite all the criticisms of him and jibes about how he wrote as if he were wrestling with a dead language, (which always, for some reason, brings to mind the scene in the film of Women in Love in which the two main male characters fight on the hearth rug in Gerald's house one night).

Furthermore, just as I feel almost overwhelmingly impatient with Along Swann's Way, I meet up with a friend just back from East Timor. We talk about coming up against poverty and how we forget about it in our affluent bubble world and all of a sudden the bit from near the beginning of the book comes back to me, and I recognise how much wisdom there is in the text, for all its longeurs (and what's make us decide some words can only be expressed in French, par le chemin?):

"Je faisais ce que nous fasions tous, une fois que nous sommes grands, quand il y a devant nous des souffrances et des injustices: je ne voulais pas les voir..."

"I did what  we all do once we are adult and come face to face with suffering and injustice; I preferred not to see them"

And is it possible that Proust, like Will Self, does occasionally try to inject humour into his writing, if you only look hard enough. In the scene when his aunt is overheard talking to herself - "qui causait toute seule a mi-voix" - could it be that he is amusing himself by using her as a representative of what he might be doing with his own writing. I'd very much like to think that Proust could make the odd joke at his own expense.

Also, possibly this is something well-known - or possibly it is a preposterous suggestion that only an English speaker could come up with - but listening to the text I am struck by the homophony between the name Swann and the word 'soin' in French. Is there some reference here to the 'soin' the writer is taking in observing life's tiniest moments. Could Along Swann's Way be retitled Along the Banks of Time With Care?

Questions, questions. A piece of writing that raises so many questions cannot be all bad.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Carry On Doctor

If there's a recurring theme lately in films, as I suggested yesterday, then there also appears to be another different one in novels I've been reading. Or if not a theme, a particular kind of leading man who keeps popping up - well, perhaps "keeps popping up" is a bit of an exaggeration, (what me, exaggerate?). What I'm really saying then is that I've been reading two novels lately and in both the central figures have been medical professionals.

Okay, that is hardly a movement, but it struck me as a little odd. (Mumbles, feels slightly idiotic, but gosh, I've started now so I'd better plough on).

The first novel is a pretty vile, yet strangely gripping piece of work by the Dutch author Herman Koch. It is called Summer House With Swimming Pool and it is told in the first person by a really nasty doctor. To begin with it is unputdownable and at some points really funny. Towards the end I became so weary of the narrator's company that I slightly lost the thread of the thing and I don't think I really understand what actually happened. Never mind - along the way I was intrigued by the narrator's claim about the Netherlands and home birth:

'We're as rich as Saudi Arabia, as Kuwait, as Qatar ... but ...we, we general practitioners, convince ... that home-birthing is safe ... the risk of babies dying, of babies suffering brain damage ... is simply factored into the equation ... once in a great while an article appears ... [that shows] infant mortality in the Netherlands is the highest in all of Europe and indeed the Western world. But no one has ever acted on these figures.'

Is this true fact - in which case, shouldn't something be done? - or is it just supposed to demonstrate the jaded nature of the character who is writing?

Certainly, much as I love the theatre, I have had some bad nights there and thus couldn't help identifying with the same narrator's hilarious comments on being in an audience:

"Something happens to time during a play. Something I've never quite been able to put my finger on. It doesn't stand still, time, no: it coagulates."

Most particularly I recognise truth in what he says about the way that Shakespeare is often battered by arrogant directors:

"It was the first time I'd been invited to a Shakespeare production. I'd already seen about ten of his plays. A version of The Taming of the Shrew in which all the male roles were played by women; the Merchant of Venice with the actors in nappies and the actresses wearing rubbish bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads; Hamlet with an all-Down's-Syndrome cast, wind machines and a (dead) goose that was decapitated on stage, King Lear with Zimbabwean orphans and ex-junkies; Romeo and Juliet in the never-completed tunnel of a subway line, with concentration camp photos projected on the walls, down which sewage trickled; Macbeth in which all the female roles were played by naked men - the only clothing they wore was a thong between their buttocks, with handcuffs and weights hanging form their nipples, performing against a soundtrack consisting of artillery barrages, Radiohead songs and poems by Radovan Karadzic. Besides the fact that you didn't dare to look at how the handcuffs and weights were attached to (or through) the nipples, the problem once again was a matter of how slowly the time passed. I can remember delays at airports that must have lasted half a day, easily, but which were over ten times as quickly as any of those plays."

Finally, the book reinforces my worst fears of doctors, when the narrator explains, on behalf of all his coleagues that:

'that's how we look at people ... as the temporary inhabitants of a body that, without periodic maintenance, could simply break down."

Of course not all doctors are cynical enough to say things like this:

"I knew from experience that...the sooner you laugh during a conversation with a woman, the better. They're not used to it, women, to making people laugh. They think they're not funny. They're right, usually."

Meanwhile, Joshua Ferris's new novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has as its main character a dentist. Perhaps reflecting the fact that dentists are somehow not as intriguing and shamanlike as doctors (at least not in my psychological universe) the book is not actually as grippingly horridly interesting as Koch's, although it may actually be the better of the two in the long run. Certainly there is a conversation in it between the main character and his practice manager that contains the best circular argument I've ever come across and one I wholeheartedly endorse:

"Why be superstitious at all is what I'm asking"
"Because it's bad luck not to be superstitious"

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Faith in Film

Is it just me or have all the best films recently been set in closed religious communities? There was Of Gods and Men, a wonderful film. Then there was Beyond the Hills, equally wonderful. And now we have Ida, which I've written about here.

Perhaps it is the contrast between the way we live currently and the aspirations of those who choose a religious life that makes monasteries and nunneries such interesting settings. Unspoken questions rise up from stories concerning people who have made choices so radically different from those we are encouraged to think of as normal, people who have such different goals from those we are taught we ought to have.

Anyway, I went to see Ida and I enjoyed it far more than I enjoyed Gone Girl. I thought that, if Thomas Hardy had made films instead of writing novels, Ida is the kind of film he might have made.

I'm sure Gone Girl will make far more money than Ida but that, sadly, is life.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Never Like Too Much

I wondered yesterday if I was a hard-hearted soul for pitying a mother's loss rather than the loss of life of her child, (if a baby penguin can be classed as a child - is 'child' purely applicable to humans? Discuss). I've since rationalised myself into believing that I was just taking the Ben Jonson view - ie that it's misery for a parent to lose a child, but for the child itself, death means they have 'so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage':

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Within what is a truly beautiful and very moving poem, the phrase 'Rest in soft peace' has always particularly touched me.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Object of Pity

Last night we turned on the telly and watched a documentary about penguins, until it became too dreadful to watch. On the way to switch-off, the programme induced a few doubts in my mind about the notion of 'survival of the fitness', which, as I understand it, says that animals able to adapt, via the fact that they are born with genetic mutations that help them stay alive in tricky environments, go on to evolve their own species into newer stronger variations, while those born from lines that don't have those genetic mutations die off eventually.

What I found myself wondering was this: if that's worked for giraffes with long necks, why hasn't it worked for penguins with extra powerful, aerodynamic kinds of wings? Or, to turn it round the other way, how come, if penguins have to run the gauntlet of sea lions to get food for their chicks, none of them have developed their wings beyond desperately sad little flapping appendages into useful things that might actually lift them off the ground, beyond the reach of the snapping teeth of their horrible blubbery foes.

Of course, this probably merely demonstrates that I don't understand the theory behind the idea of 'survival of the fitness'.

I certainly don't like witnessing it in action, especially when reassuring David Attenborough's voice is replaced by the Scottish actor who played Dr Who for a while. I don't mind him, but he's not comforting.

What eventually made us turn off was a scene that appeared to be heartbreaking - although I am aware this could simply have been a trick played on us by the film's editor. On a stretch of ice lay a very stiff, very dead penguin chick. In the distance a burly figure could be seen shuffling about, apparently looking for something. Of course, the burly figure was the chick's mother and eventually she found her dead child. When she did, she showed all the outward signs of real grief and it was this that was too much for us.

But what I realised afterwards was that it was not the fact of the chick's death that had aroused my sympathy. Seeing the little frozen corpse lying on the tundra - if tundra's what it was, (geography's never been my strong point, and that is probably the biggest understatement I have ever made), - was only as sad as seeing road kill, (which is sad, but I'm sorry to say that I have got used to it.) What was unbearably poignant was the mother's reaction. It was the mother I felt sympathy for. Is this because I am a mother, or is it normal? Looking back, I feel a bit hardhearted that I didn't really mind much about the death of the chick itself.

Incidentally, should you be looking for a more rounded, thoughtful discussion about sympathy and empathy, there's a fascinating debate on the subject raging at the Boston Review

Saturday, 11 October 2014

New Cliches

I remember ages ago watching Steve McQueen in something or other and realising that I'd seen similar scenes in many movies over the years. He was in a carpark at a supermarket and he was carrying a brown paperbag in the crook of his arm.

For a longish period, films regularly featured characters elbowing their way out of stores and into front doors, full brown paperbags clutched to their chest. There were scenes where they dumped their paperbags on benchtops, there were scenes where they gratefully unloaded them onto backseats. There were scenes when they accidentally dropped them and consequently met other characters.

And then the brown paperbags disappeared.

I assumed that in America plastic bags with handles had replaced them and somehow there wasn't quite the panache to be had from the look of a polythene sack dangling at knee level from a hero's fist.

Anyway, watching Gone Girl yesterday (follow this link for more about that), I realised that a new visual cliche has taken the brown paper bag's place. It's the take-away coffee cup. I can't think why I haven't noticed it earlier. It pops up several times in the film - and it's ubiquitous I suddenly realised in telly programmes from the US, especially cop shows.

It's funny though, because it only works visually. Whereas a cigarette long ago used to be a good prop on screen and also in writing - "she took a drag on her cigarette before speaking. 'I don't know', she murmured, knocking the ash onto the carpet as she spoke ..." - surely a takeaway coffee cup could never be used to pad out a written scene.

(Incidentally, since we mentioned - oh, all right, I mentioned - car parks, should you want to read a really beautiful poem set in a car park, there is one here.)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Not Just the Pink Stuff

Apart from peculiar menswear, Singapore seems a peculiarly bland - not to mention oppressively humid - place these days. We used to go up on a train from Kuala Lumpur when I was tiny, and I have memories of a more vivid place. 

Most of the areas that have been left low-rise are now, like tourist areas the world over, infested with eating establishments that advertise their wares with badly coloured photographs.

Mind you, there have been some lovely restorations - notably the huge Fullerton Hotel. The whole precinct it sits nearby is also beautiful, with many solid old colonial buildings, although most, including the Fullerton, have been stripped of much character inside - and anyway the space this little enclave takes up is minimal.

All in all, I found it hard not to think of the joke about the banker and the fisherman when reading this:

But I only know the place slightly, having never been there except in transit. Like everywhere, I'm sure it reveals more riches to those who care to look more closely. Even in the space of this last brief visit, I spotted one or two little signs of strangeness. Here is an example:

Here's another (it's a women's clothes shop, not a stockist of incontinence goods):

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Worn Out

In our house there is a tendency to only absorb the medical news stories that suit our already calcified bad habits - notable among these is the idea that red wine is good for you, (and forget the detail about moderation). Similarly, we have a habit of clasping to our hearts phrases that we pick up from PR or fashion or somewhere and twist to our own foul ends.

Among these, 'shabby chic' has been embraced for so long chez nous that, when casting a glance over our decor, the second word in the phrase ought to be struck out completely, were we being honest.

But we aren't - not about our rugs, at any rate. About our clothes we are slightly more circumspect. Which is why my husband found himself in search of new suits recently. He ended up buying some very nice ones from a man called Henry in Jermyn Street. He and Henry got very matey. Which was a pity as I'd spotted some lovely alternatives for him, in Collins Street, Melbourne, (and yes, I promise, these are clothes meant for men):

and in Singapore, where towelling rules and pink, apparently, is the new black:

I'm so disappointed to have missed the opportunity to redefine my beloved's image. But it's too late now - the suits he got off Henry should see him through another decade. And what likelihood is there that those nice shorts and matching donkey's ears or the pink towelling ensemble will still be available then?

Actually, probably quite a high likelihood come to think of it - who else is going to buy them, (although there was a man I used to work for who wore such extraordinary get-ups that I thought he must be the tailors' of Canberra's delight - "Quick, quick, Barry, there's that man again: go out the back and fetch those green and yellow striped three pieces I bought when I was drunk at the Trade Fair in Brisbane in 1964; I'm sure he'll take them")?

Apart from him though, what is the market for these things? Can the makers really be serious or are these just the latest in the centuries old game of Emperor's New Clothes?