Thursday, 29 January 2015

Only the Best

My father used to tell me about a man he knew who collected Chinese porcelain. My father also collected Chinese porcelain but his means, or lack thereof, meant he was operating in a less exalted sphere.

The man he knew, according to my father, was at such a stratospheric level of both knowledge and ownership that, when he went to live in Peking, (as it was still then called), he decided, upon being offered the opportunity to acquire a particular piece of china, to sell his entire collection and replace it with that piece alone. Apparently, that single object exemplified the totality of everything my father's acquaintance admired in his favoured area of Chinese porcelain.

From then on, if you visited him, you would encounter no decorative item whatsoever, other than that one piece of china. Everything else, every vase and bowl, every dish and bottle, had been sacrificed. They had been distractions from the true perfection of that solitary thing.

I was reminded of this mythic tale the other afternoon when I was at my mother's house at teatime. She brought out a very good fruit cake that was clearly not shop bought. I guessed that her neighbour and friend, who is a famously good baker, had made it and given it to her. When I asked my mother if it was Sue who'd made it, she misheard me and thought I'd asked if she'd made the thing.

'No,' she said, 'Sue made it.' I answered that of course I hadn't been asking if my mother had made it, because I knew perfectly well that she does not make cakes.

'I made one for your christening,' she responded, slightly nettled. 'It was absolutely superb. It was a truly perfect cake.'

'That was quite a long time ago,' I pointed out. She then remembered that it had in fact been for my older brother's christening, which meant that this unique creative outburst had occurred even further back in the mists of time than I had originally thought.

'It was a most extraordinarily good cake though. I was exceptionally proud of it,' mum persisted.

Which set me once again pondering, as I had when my father had told me about the man with his one piece of china. Is one absolutely superlative creation worth more than thousands of perfectly good ones? In strict aesthetic terms, I suppose so, but on a day to day basis, where cake is involved, I'm not so sure.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Foreign Muck

I enjoy trying to learn other people's languages. This is partly because I like the task itself and partly because I have a half-formed idea that, if I learn a language really well, I will step through an unseen doorway and enter a different existence, somewhere where no-one ever has to go to a supermarket and everyone is amusing and the food is delicious and all anyone wants to do is talk about books, these interesting conversations being only occasionally interrupted by a unanimous decision to roar off in an overcrowded car to some exciting little theatre where a strangely intriguing experimental play is being performed. After the performance, dinner - cheap but wonderful - will be eaten in the quiet cobbled square of an ancient town, lots of people will be absolutely hilarious and no-one will be mean about anyone else.

I am aware that this is not actually going to happen, (although there was a short period of my life in Siena where things came fairly close to this fantasy - but I knew it was only temporary). However, in a different way a knowledge of foreign languages has led me into other worlds, unknown to the English speaker. That is to say, it has led me into a world of foreign writers, of fiction that, certainly at the moment, seems to me to be richer, more original and more various than that being published in the English-speaking world.

So, as a kind of public service, (hem hem, really just as an aide memoire for me, but why not at least pretend to be altruistic), I've decided to try to make a record here of any foreign books I read. After all, most of them will probably never be translated into English and thus many English speakers might never know about them. I've decided to call posts of this type, 'Foreign Muck', so this is the first in a series. Since I'm living in Belgium but barely know any Flemish, the foreign language books available to me for the foreseeable future are mainly going to be in French.

The first I've read this year (okay, I started it last year, but I finished it on New Year's Day, so I'm counting it as part of this year's total) is called L'Ordinateur du Paradis by Benoit Duteurtre. I've read nothing at all about it. I've no idea if it's been a critical success. When I picked it up in a bookshop, I was intrigued by the opening page, told in the first person by someone who has just died and now finds himself at a kind of passport check before admission to his own after life. On the strength of that, I bought it and took it home.

As it turns out, the book actually has two strands. The first is the one I encountered in the bookshop - the firsthand account of what happens to a nameless narrator who has just died. The second is the story of Simon, a senior figure ('rapporteur' however that might be translated) at the Commission for Public Liberties in Paris, whose life spirals downwards following the release onto the internet, (and the internet, or its effect on life, is a major element of Simon's part of the book), of a recording of a mildly politically incorrect, off-the-record remark he makes before an interview.

When we first encounter Simon, he is on his way to give a talk at a university in a provincial town. He is feeling entirely self-satisfied as he settles into his first-class seat on the train. Soon though the irritations of modernity begin to spoil things for him. First there is the 'litany of announcements' from a woman who introduces herself as Manon, (difficult to know whether we should draw any link with Manon Lescaut or whether Manon is a perfectly ordinary French name that does not carry a special significance), first in French and then all over again in English, about not smoking or getting off the train while it is moving, about remembering to label your luggage for reasons of security, reminders about where the train is going and what the name of the train company is, rounded out with assurances that passengers can consult the announcer at any time, more a priest than a mere train company employee, Simon thinks to himself. Then follows a similarly long and noisy rigmarole from Kevin, the train's 'steward', who invites the passengers to 'discover' the buffet car.

When Simon does try to do as Kevin asks, he finds that there is a long, slow-moving queue, with Kevin trying to operate credit card machines, microwaves et cetera. Simon remembers with fondness the dining cars of his youth. 'Despite his best efforts to live with the times, he kept seeing the past surging up towards him full of the scent of nostalgia,' we are told.  He blames his fellow passengers, businessmen, 'dreadful capitalists who have caused the current state of affairs by reducing costs in order to increase profits.'

At the end of his journey, walking through the town where he is to give his lecture, Simon looks around. 'He had a vague memory of this regional capital with its italianate edifices, its baroque churches and its lost squares. A decade on, it seemed somehow to have changed. Was it just that the buildings had all been cleaned? Glancing up at them, he saw the same pretty facades, the same carved shutters, the same wrought iron balconies that had always been there, but everything seemed bleached and cleaned right down to the bone. At street level, the provincial shops he recalled being there had vanished, replaced by a stretch of signs you could find in London, Barcelona or Tokyo: Zara, H&M, Esprit, Nike, Gap, Solaris. Brand-named clothes, bags and glasses had taken over the entire central area and Simon no longer had the sense that he was gazing at a provincial town so much as an open-air shopping mall."

The book, it seems to me, is pretending to be a satire, while really it is a work of nostalgia by someone fed up with the modern world and its endless prohibitions. The blandness that globalisation has brought with it is highlighted and the action of Simon's life takes place against a background clamour from every interest group under the sun. Feminists may feel that Simon - or the author - is anti-feminist, but I think that misses the point. Simon or the author is merely anti '-ist' and also anti everything that homogenises existence, that makes it harder for eccentricity and individuality to thrive.

Poor Simon. His son goes to a lycee renamed after John Lennon. His boss will only talk to him when they are surrounded by speakers blasting out heavy metal, as it is only when the music is going that he is certain no-one can recod his comments. One weekend towards the end of the book, as he tries to make his way through Paris in his car, he comes up against a metal barrier bearing the slogan, 'Sunday, car-free day', guarded by two municipal workers wearing T-shirts with the words, 'On Sunday, let's smile' blazoned across them:

"Behind them, the street was dense with people. Pedestrians, people with push chairs, people on bikes, people on scooters, people on skateboards and people in wheelchairs covered the road and the pavements. They were walking and gliding and telephoning as they passed by shops selling a variety of monotonous merchandise ... made in Asia and branded with English names. The bigger shops were occupied by better known brands, inviting passers by to wear Ray-Ban sunglasses and Nike caps, Gap T-shirts, Zara suits and Adidas shoes ... Simon felt ... that he was not walking in a city but in an open air hypermarket. A few global firms owned the central areas of the town now. The pavements had become nothing more than a succession of acronyms - always the same, from one town to the other. Above the big shopping streets, the turrets of an old palace glistened in the sun, but the newly cleaned and renovated building had something artificial about it. At the next crossroads, the Belle Maree fishmonger, with its fishing motif mosaics, now housed a smartphone boutique. The 1950s cinema now sheltered a gym. The square's little grocer's shop, its facade intact, had been transformed into a shop selling essential oils. The old world was all around him, but only as a stage set for an entirely new one. And Simon, in this street of shams realised that he too was an old character, lost in a foreign crowd ... trudging along in an army of robots, an alien member of the throng."


The parallel story of the nameless dead character, (who may in fact be Simon, since he dies toward the end of the book, falling off a step ladder while reaching for his copy of Candide to check the exact wording of Pangloss's "best of all possible worlds" catchphrase), at first seems to provide an equally bleak perspective. After a rather caustic interview at a kind of customs/passport control counter - an interview that is conducted, to his horror, in English, and that includes the ominous information that his occasional denial of climate change has been noted - the man is allowed through into a place that resembles an airport, where the dead await their despatch to the after-life. It turns out that even here there are privileges for those who know how to get them. He sees celebrities he recognises and despises from his former life given the privilege of entry into exclusive "lounges" and then conveyed speedily and without inconvenience toward paradise. He meanwhile must hang about, without any such delights.

Eventually, in fact, he is given the bad news that he will not be going to paradise. He is mortified, but, it turns out all is well. Pangloss was right after all. The book ends with the unnamed character's departure for hell and his description of what he finds there:

"Having reached the threshold, I cast a last look back at the world I was leaving. Then I took a deep breath and opened Door 23. I marched straight ahead toward the gulf of fire, blood and tears that awaited me.

Imagine my surprise when I found behind the door an old station platform like those of my childhood, beside which stood a dark green train in need of a lick of paint. Everything seemed calm and the woman I'd seen go through Door 23, screaming, just before me, was sitting quietly on a bench, awaiting the train's departure.

Was I really in hell? Or was it just that this was where we had to wait for the next shuttle to the shadows - just as the others were waiting, back there, in the embarkation rooms for the next flight to paradise?

To my astonishment, I noticed a ticket inspector of a kind that I thought had disappeared. He didn't wear one of those brightly coloured uniforms that the train companies provide these days. He didn't have an electronic gadget for reading credit cards either. No, dressed in a dark jacket, topped by a cap with a star on it, the only equipment he carried was a simple hole-puncher.

I went up to him.

"Excuse me", I said.

He didn't reply, "good morning", in a reproachful tone, but turned smartly towards me.

"At your service!" he said.

"Is this the train that goes to hell?"

He looked at me with a slightly vexed expression.

 "Yes, that's it. All the planes are kept for the rich of paradise. All these old trains are for the damned of the earth!"

"I like these just as much," I told him."What time do we leave?"

"At twelve minutes past six. There are no special flights here, you know, no charters, no reserved trains. The time tables haven't changed since the beginning of time."

I thought briefly about the train companies' incessant reforms, which created endless new timetables, new prices and new procedures.

"Really - has nothing changed at all?" I asked

He looked at me with a mildly irritated expression, as if I did not want to understand what a frightful destination awaited me.

"No, Sir," he said, 'here, you are in hell and nothing ever changes. Change, movement, novelty, all that is kept for paradise. Here we never talk of transport rationalisation."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't be naive. You can see for yourself that the train is old and tired, standing at an almost deserted platform. In paradise they follow the logic of the market, they optimise profitability and cut any fat from the system. All their flights are jam-packed. Hell, on the other hand, condemns us to live according to archaic laws, without freedom or competition. Hell is to paradise what prehistory is to modernity..."  ...

The train left at 6.12, as expected. It rattled along for hours through an appalling landscape - or at least one that I suppose would have been appalling in the eyes of God, of Lucifer and of the people organising the whole set-up.

You couldn't see any motorways there or carparks. The fields weren't vast ranches, but poor little plots of land separated by paths and wooded slopes. The first town we stopped at didn't have any mall or commercial centre, only old buildings to which were affixed the shop signs of small commercial concerns.

When I felt a bit hungry, halfway through the journey, I didn't find a queue at the self service, where I'd gone to try to get some kind of takeaway meal. No, I entered an antique restaurant car, where I was seated at a table with a table cloth and someone took my order. All this seemed to have escaped the decades of progress. Such was the ancient world to which I had been sent for the punishment of my sins.

I won't inflict on the reader a detailed description of the horrors and tortures I've endured as a result ... In hell ...neither tobacco or alcohol are forbidden, nor any of the other substances that might turn man from the straight and narrow. In the evening, all we damned get together, packing ourselves into smoky cellars that are inaccessible to the disabled, where musicians play until almost dawn. Later on, lacking any respect for dietary propriety, we wait for the sunrise before settling down in front of copious meals. After all, in this world it is possible to intoxicate oneself indefinitely without dying a second time - and that is something that spreads the dreadfully unhealthy - and, indeed, diabolic idea that pleasure is innocuous.

The streets of hell are dangerous. Cyclists and pedestrians wear neither safety helmets nor fluorescent vests. Food is not frozen or wrapped in plastic. Sometimes a man even says to a woman a few words that might seduce her, without the woman immediately deciding to sue.

And the kingdom of Beelzebub also recalls the Tower of Babel ... English here is no help to anyone. Each encounter demands a patient attempt to understand ...

But that is not the worst at all. Far more terrible in this damned world is the fact that daily life seems to have escaped from the fundamental principles of the modern economy ... People live from day to day, doing what they feel like, scarcely aware of the interests of society. They've all given up on productivity gains in favour of dedicating themselves to eternal and joyous sin."

I started this post by saying that I'd always hoped learning foreign languages would introduce me to a perfect world, just around the corner, beyond mastery of the pluperfect subjunctive, (is there such a thing? I'm not certain), and the correct word for the lesser blue-crested grebe. Judging by L'Ordinateur du Paradis, it is not another language that I need to work on, if I want to find a more congenial existence; it is just a question of ensuring that I commit plenty of sin.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Baffled as Usual

As has happened many times before - all right, I admit, it's more or less my perpetual condition - when the world fell prey to another outbreak of moral certainty recently, I found myself feeling peculiar and alone. This time it was the "Je Suis Charlie" wildfire, which left me thinking, "I'm not brave enough to be Charlie - how can I possibly lay claim to that mantle?"

What made the phenomenon even more confusing was that, almost immediately after it, there was yet another of those small explosions of public outrage that I think are what pass for debate these days. This time the issue was The Sun "newspaper"'s decision - if it was a decision - to remove their popular ladies-with-no-tops-on feature.

It turns out that there are people who have dedicated their lives to abolishing this feature. There's some kind of institute that's been established entirely to achieve this aim. And, as well as one of that organisation's representatives, a British member of parliament appeared on the television, asking angrily why women should have to see these dreadful, offensive pictures.

Which was a really stupid question because, of course, no woman does have to see these pictures, if she doesn't want to, just as no Muslim has to look at Charlie Hebdo, unless that's what he wishes to do. In addition, as far as I know, no woman has ever been forced to have her picture taken with her top off, in this context. Certainly, no-one has ever required me to either look at one of the Sun's notorious pictures or to appear in one - or even suggested I might like to, (not that I'm complaining).

The irony did not appear to occur to anyone else, yet surely there is an irony here. On the one hand, every bien pensant in the Western world is plastering themselves in "Je suis Charlie" placards, advocating the right to say and publish anything you like. On the other, many of those same people are determined to ban something, to block publication of images that offend their sensibilities, which are also not everyone's.

This is not a suggestion that I admire The Sun or its topless lady feature. It's just a way of saying that I'm with Voltaire (despite the fact that I found Candide unspeakably boring).

So, cliched though it is, here's what I'd have put on my, admittedly rather long, placard, if I'd gone to a Charlie Hebdo demo:

"Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, Charlie, ni avec ce que vous montrez, Soleil de Londres, mais je me battrai jusqu'à la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire et de le montrer."

I might also have added, "The only mature response to provocation is not to be provoked."

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Secret Knitting Patterns

Under the sofa, where I was searching for a knitting needle - they have a sock-like urge to split up - I found a piece of paper with my writing on it. This is what it said:

The illness is catching
Reach deadlock
Under authority
To be continued

I was baffled. Had I tried to write some kind of poetry at some time in the past? Why didn't I remember? Could there be a phenomenon similar to sleepwalking involving the writing of bad poetry?

I put the piece of paper on the table and went on looking for the errant knitting needle. It wasn't there, but right up the back I spotted another piece of paper, also with my writing on it.

I pulled it out and studied it.

It all came back to me. This second piece of paper was covered in words in German, the counterparts of the English words on the first piece. They were both part of my lifetime attempt to scale the German language. My plan was to write down words I'd had to look up in any passage I read, write down their English meanings on separate sheets, hide the original lists and try to write down the German words from memory. It was part an ambitious long ago New Year's Resolution.

Proof, if further proof were needed, that New Year's resolutions are silly. And that I'm a hopeless housekeeper.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015


I was at the fine arts museum in Brussels the other day, sitting in the room full of Brueghels, looking at one of them. A man came in, stood in front of one of the canvases, lifted his camera, took a photograph of it, swivelled towards the next, took a picture of that one, and continued on, right round the room, until he'd captured an image of every painting there. It took him less than a minute.

I felt sad. He hadn't actually seen any of the pictures. He certainly hadn't looked at them. He'd collected them, like stamps, without enjoying them. But then my daughter showed me this video and I realised I might be telling myself the wrong narrative.

The man had probably been there dozens of times before. He probably knew and loved those paintings. He probably had an invalid relative who was bedridden and unable to ever leave the house, let alone visit a museum. He was probably photographing the pictures in the museum in order to take them home to share with her.

So he wasn't being glib and silly after all; he was being kind and good. He wasn't wasting an opportunity; he was sharing his experience.

I felt much better after I'd thought of this story. Who knows whether it was the man's true story. It was a story I liked. It made me feel happier. And it could be true. It could, possibly, be true.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Small Victories

Catching up on my friend Mark Griffith's account of his life in Hungary, I come to a point where he finds a power socket that actually works on a Magyar train. "Exult in the small victories", he says.

Synchronicity, I think. Not astounding synchronicity, but synchronicity nevertheless, for yesterday I discovered, after exploring one of Brussels's many-roomed, piled-high-with-potential-hidden-treasures antique shops, that I no longer had my hat. As it was a Mongolian cashmere hat and I am extremely sentimental about all things Mongolian, I retraced my steps along the pavement and back into the Brussels curiosity shop I'd just visited.

There was a hat just like mine on the desk where the proprietor was sitting. I grabbed it up with a cry of delight, cut short when the proprietor pointed out, quite kindly, that the hat was actually his. I then went off hunting through the labyrinth and eventually found my hat, lying on the brick floor of the farthest room in the basement.

As I came out, I said to the shop owner that it was almost more pleasurable to have lost the hat and found it again than never to have lost it.

"Ah oui", he replied, with recognition, "c'est une petite joie."

The little joys of life, that's what makes each day a better or worse one. Of course, Kurt Vonnegut knew this years ago and explained it better than I will ever be able to. But was it because he was an English speaker that he couldn't label what he was talking about a "joy"?  And is it an indication of the weakness of the French language, that "joie" is the applicable word - a noun that has to act as a portmanteau to cover a range of emotions, which we in English might wish to grade more carefully with a wider range of more nuanced labels - or rather a sign of how stiff we English speakers are, unable to bring ourselves to talk about anything as fulsome as "joy", unless we are almost outside ourselves with overwhelming feeling?

Some might say that a word that expresses such intensity should be reserved only for the absolute pinnacle of all possible happier moments, but, as always with deferred pleasures, one has to ask oneself: what if those moments never come? Will the denial have been worth it? Might it not have been pleasanter to perceive joy in small things, rather than waiting for the Everest moment? I think so, which, if I weren't so lacking in dark eyes and hair and so forth, might lead me to suspect that my veins flowed with a drop or two of Latin blood. But no, I am merely a Latin trapped in an Anglo-Saxon/Viking (with perhaps a splash of Celt) framework. Thus, exuberance battles ever against restraint.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

By George

The other day I mentioned a vague idea for how to outfox the bossy woman at the Magritte Museum, and, lo and behold, kind George from 20011 provided a detailed plan of action. Here it is, the cunning strategy of a genius:

"There must be a French equivalent to the OED or the Grimm brothers' massive dictionary of German. You could arrive with a retinue, for preference all dressed alike, each bearing a volume or two, and trailing you at a respectful distance. Upon finding a word to look up, you would raise an index card with the letters of the appropriate volume. The bearer would scuttle forward, drop to one knee, and open the volume to the place needed. The drawback that I see is expense--admission for your retinue, and the cost of the dictionary. Perhaps you could manage both with a simple two-volume set. Something like the compact edition of the OED would let you get by with two bearers (or one very strong one), and would offer the chance for some dramatic flourishing of a magnifying glass. You could signal the bearers with one or two fingers thrust aloft."

I'm off in search of index cards - and bearers. See you soon.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Problem With the Surreal

The other day I went to the Magritte Museum. It was better than I expected, especially the earlier rooms, where there were lots of written works by Magritte on display.

Unfortunately though, I am not a native French speaker and there wasn't much in the way of translated labelling. I therefore got out my telephone, which has a French-English dictionary on it, in order to look up some words.

No sooner had I done so than I felt a tap - more of a sharp prod actually; quite painful, in fact - on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw an angry woman's face glowering at me.

'Pas de téléphone,' she barked. I tried to explain that I was merely consulting a dictionary, not taking a photograph or telephoning anyone. She raised her right arm and pointed to the exit, repeating her prohibition. I closed my telephone and put it away. Suddenly, the displays became much less interesting.

A room further on, another unsuspecting museum patron's telephone began - oh heavens, have mercy upon her - very quietly to ring. The poor innocent pulled it out and answered it. As if from nowhere, the same museum employee materialised. As she had done with me, once again she raised her arm and pointed. Presumably because she had heard the offending individual, (scumbag, shudderingly uncivilised gutter trash, in her eyes?), uttering words in English, this time she snarled just one word: 'Out!'

It was almost a pantomime, I realise, looking back on it, an elaborate Magrittian piece of surrealism, a parody of strictness - or possibly, (less interesting, but more likely, sadly), it was the real thing.

Whichever it was, my plan now is to indulge in my own slightly Barry Humphries-esque prank* and return to the museum, carrying the most enormous French-English dictionary I can find, preferably one that is so large it can only fit in a wheelbarrow. I will stagger about with it and consult it elaborately, explaining, if asked, that I have to, since I can't consult my tiny, discreet electronic one.

Will I get the same steely stare and raised arm treatment, I wonder, or will the woman laugh and admit the whole thing is a game?

* "The Dadaist pranks and performances Humphries mounted in Melbourne were experiments in anarchy and visual satire which have become part of Australian folklore. One famous exhibit entitled "Pus In Boots" consisted of a pair of Wellington boots filled with custard. He was also legendary for his notorious "sick bag" prank. This involved carrying a tin of condensed soup onto an aircraft, which he would then surreptitiously empty into an air-sickness bag. At an appropriate juncture, he would pretend to vomit loudly and violently into the bag and then, to the horror of the passengers and crew, he would proceed to eat the contents. Such stunts were the early manifestations of a lifelong interest in the bizarre, discomfiting and subversive."

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Moaning All

What better way to start the year than with a few moans.

Firstly, why do shopping lists always vanish by the time you reach the shop? Or is it just me?

Secondly, who started this thing of doing dribble scribbles with sauces on plates in restaurants (and what's going on with plate shapes - what was wrong with round, why do we have to have square and oval and everything in between?)?

Thirdly, once started, why did so many other restauranteurs decide that dribble scribbles were a good idea?

And finally, why, when every other area of computering is advancing in leaps and bounds, is the bit called printers stuck firmly in the extremely annoying time warp where everything is still complicated and frustrating and in need of a nursemaid, if you don't want to find a ream of paper squodged up in an unappealing, half-chewed mangle in the horrible machine's vile maw?

It's 2015 and I want answers.