Sunday, 29 March 2015

Kind Eyes

Having only discovered the existence of Gerald Berners relatively late in life, I am now constantly on the look out for any more information about him. I was therefore pleased to find the other day this account of a meeting with him at Sacheverell Sitwell's house:

"Gerald Berners came to stay alone for several days. He was familiar from a hundred stories told by the Sitwells and everyone else. He had brought with him a gloomily bound book of Herbert Spencer's, called, I think, "Education, Intellectual, Moral and Physical", with a sepia photograph of the author for the frontispiece, and he spent some of his first morning there retouching it in a very skilful way - the trace of a glint in the eye, a knowing lift of the eyebrow, the hint of a missing tooth and a leer, till the smug and sanctimonious eminent Victorian became a mask of crookedness and louche connivance, with a subtle overall air of tipsiness. It was marvellously contrived.

Gerald's manner had a kind of sparkling diffidence. I was struck by how frequently he blinked his eyelids while talking. I had heard lots of stories about him and some of his clever and comic verses. When someone in Rome asked him why he always wore such dark glasses, he said he had to, because his kind eyes meant he had no peace from the beggars".

Friday, 27 March 2015

Going Dutch

The other weekend on a whim we went to Holland (that is the beauty of poor old Brussels - you can go elsewhere so easily). We took the motorway down there and visited the Mauritshuis. On the way back, in a deluded, memories-of-south-coast-of-New-South-Wales-beaches kind of way, we thought we'd drive along the sea. Ha. While we did actually find a most fantastic, broad, fine-sanded stretch, we mostly got views of industrial complexes and rows of uniform, constrained little houses. The beach we found was not quite the wild place we are used to either - there was a carpark at least as big as the beach itself behind it and chip sellers' stalls positioned every ten paces or so.

But I shouldn't criticise. After all, I managed to let my identity card slip from my pocket in the sand dunes and the good old Dutch police found it and posted it back to me the following week. That is service.

And besides, I didn't plan to rabbit on about beaches in this post. I planned to rabbit on about the Mauritshuis, which is marvellous, (barring a strange lapse when someone there decided to let someone else have a go at painting some ceiling decoration in about 1984; just don't look up, if you go).

I took a lot of pictures and I will put most of them on Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest. In this post, I'm just going to include a picture by David Teniers that is in the collection.

I first noticed Teniers's pictures in Munich a few years back. I really like them. Often, they show people wasting time in pubs. Always, they give you a feeling of looking back through time, glimpsing real people leading real lives a few hundred years ago. He piles detail upon detail, until you can almost feel the temperature and smell the food cooking. In fact, in the pub scenes, you almost feel the beginnings of the hang over some of the figures are going to be suffering tomorrow - or are already, hence their visit to the pub, for a hair of the dog. He has a kind of wry affection for the humans he portrays. There is a sense that life is fleeting, but there is no sense that he judges people for frittering it away.

This is called Kitchen Interior. It was painted in 1644.
It has so many small still lives within it - these pieces of blue and white china, for example:

This beautiful fish in a dish:
These lemons and glass objects:
These apples too:

Startlingly, starlings seem to have been on the menu, potentially:
And kingfishers:
It appears that the royal family were not alone in the right to eat swan in the 17th centuryin the Low Lands - or at least it was permissible to have one as a decoration on your table, even if you weren't the Queen:
Oh shock, oh horror, even a dog was allowed in the kitchen:
This lady does not appear to be a servant judging by her clothing, so it is nice of her to indulge in a little light peeling:

Meanwhile, behind her, the hot sweaty work is carried on by unidentified servants:

Amazingly, if you look very, very closely, you find Teniers even added a picture within the picture - this little drawing, which hangs above the fireplace:
For more snaps from the Mauritshuis, look at my Instagram account - zedmkc , or my tumblr account - also zedmkc (it seems to work best on an I-Pad - you can expand the pictures to really see the details).

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Plastic Fantastic

Sometimes I think that Britain is changing, becoming a place where people are at last disentangling themselves from the impeding but very British distraction the rest of the world calls snobbery*, which in my childhood was so pervasive that it was practically a collective mental illness.

I know that sounds a bit extreme but take the case of my next door neighbour's mother-in-law. She could never accept that her son lived in what she considered the socially inferior district covered by the post code SW10. Therefore, for the entire two and a half decades he lived there, she never sent him a letter addressed to anything but SW3, (much classier, in case you hadn't guessed). 

To me at least that behaviour does seem to justify the well-known medical diagnosis, 'stark raving bonkers'. 

Anyway, I had a vague impression that such funny little preoccupations were on the wane. I imagined that no-one made judgments based on silly little details any more.

Then I came across an article about credit cards in this week's Sunday Times and I realised the whole absurd game of "what are your vowel sounds and what school did you go to and do you live in the right post code and who were your parents" is still being played, with the same desperate me sir, pick me sir, elbowing eagerness as it always was. 

The article was headed thus:

To fill up the space below the heading, various so-called celebrities were asked to tell the newspaper's readers what their views were on credit cards.

I'd barely heard of any of the respondents, but that's beside the point really. Several didn't like cards at all and didn't have them; one or two did, but didn't specify which credit card it was that they had. The amazing part wasn't either of these groups; the amazing part  was that among the throng of self-promoters were three who were deluded enough to believe that even a credit card is a sign of class.

First up, (ever desperate to impress) was the pathetic Piers Morgan:

Poor Piers - it's more than sometimes that the joke is on him, I suspect.

Next came a man for whom the word 'wally' must have been invented**, that prancing fool who goes round wrecking people's houses, Mr Thingummybob Llewelyn-Jones:

(Whoops, it turns out it's Llewelyn-Bowen [whatever] [actually, I have to be fair and admit he does very occasionally make a quite interesting radio programme - but in his case I think it's the exception that proves the rule])

Finally there was a surprise entry: Stephen Berkoff, who I might have thought would be cool enough to know better:

(If Berkoff genuinely thinks that Coutts would be any less careless, indifferent and rude than other banks, should he fall on hard times, he's surely deluded; it all reminds me of the late lamented Linda Smith's mockery of people who say they prefer Waitrose to other supermarkets, "Ooh yes, I do like a place that let's me pay just that little bit more for all my shopping" - and while we're on the subject is there any other nation in the world that has class-gradated supermarkets?)

"Well, but it was only a few of them", I hear you cry, "it wasn't everyone." I know, I know, but the question I want an answer to is this one (and answer me honestly, having first considered the question above re supermarkets): 

Is there any other country in the entire universe that could manage to inject class - even if it is only the illusion of class - into one's choice of credit card?

I think the answer is no.

And, while saying that, I should point out what an utter hypocrite I am, for, unable to rid myself of the hideous English taint, I couldn't help noticing that there was one responder who effortlessly - and if class is about anything, it is about being effortless - trumped the entire rest of the field in class terms.

That person was Ranulph Fiennes, whose languid answer indicated, without direct boastful statement, that he is in possession of large tracts of land - always the true class marker, at least when combined with the implication that you are not merely the owner but the instinctively skilled husbander of same, something Fiennes also managed to convey clearly without resorting to outright skiting - and made the pathetic Coutts card wavers look oh so even more ridiculously silly. 

Fiennes thus demonstrated that old money (I've no idea how old the Fiennes family money is but almost any money is older than Piers Morgan's stash, even if he does keep it at Coutts) still sets the rules of the class game, which, when boiled down, can be reduced to one essential : flash will never ever beat dash:
* (not that the rest of the world is entirely immune - snobbery is merely a less all-consuming preoccupation in many other societies). 
** or was that Piers Morgan actually?

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Ear Sore

I have an idea - I've mentioned it before, I admit - that there is a new language growing up around the world, which is English but not as we native English speakers know it.

One striking manifestation of this is businesses selecting names for themselves that they think are puns. Unfortunately, puns made by those who don't really really thoroughly understand the nuances of a language - in a way that is all but impossible for those speaking it as a second tongue - tend to be unsuccessful weird kinds of puns.

I've seen lots of examples in Brussels - but generally speaking I tend to get bored of pointing out the same phenomenon over and over again, plus I haven't seen any that are quite wrongheadedly hilarious and batty enough to go to the effort of making a blog post for.

However, when my husband came home this evening and told me that he had heard a Belgian radio station proudly bellow out its logo on the car radio four times in the short space between his office and our house, I thought it so hilariously awful that I couldn't resist sharing it.

Despite the fact that the adjectival intensifier in question is used in colloquial conversation to an astonishing extent these days, from what I've eavesdropped while in Britain lately, no business run by genuine English speakers would make the mistake of thinking that it is a word that can be glibly chucked about to promote a commercial enterprise. Running an enterprise that sounds as if a bunch of bearded motorbike gang members are in charge is an approach that carries with it some dangers, I'd have thought. Perhaps I move in sheltered circles though - you decide. Here is the slogan (they have taken it, I presume, from the F and the G that are the station's call sign):

Is it misguided or am I out of touch? Or, indeed, hypocritical, given I was only recently promoting that long-forgotten poem, "The Great Australian Adjective".

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Medium of Cake

As well as horses and other farm animals, one element of an agricultural show that I particularly love is the displays of entries in the growing and making sections. There is usually a whole pavilion devoted to these categories. Here one can examine at close range the fleece of many breeds of sheep, as well as a variety of handmade food and homegrown fruit and vegetables.

One of the things that I find intriguing about the exhibits in this area of the show is the methods by which the results of the competitions are arrived at. In most cases, the reasons that allow one entry to gain ascendancy over all its rivals remain entirely mysterious . The entry next to the winner usually looks pretty much as good - at least to the uninitiated eye. What are the high priests of egg judging and tomato grading seeing that I am missing?

Here, for instance, are the winning eggs at Royal Canberra Show this year. While their box was a nicer shade of fawn than the others, the eggs themselves looked pretty much like the eggs on each side of them, eggs that had been passed over for any recommendation - missing out even on that miserable accolade that marks you out as just minimally beyond mediocre, the "Highly Commended" card
 Personally the tomatoes on the right look more enticing to me than the winners, but what do I know?

 Then there are the flowers. These are chrysanthemums, I think - or are they dahlias? If they are chrysanthemums, their growers get a mention somewhere in my first novel. Behind those bright tousled flower heads, there lies a world of envy and desperation, apparently
While I do not wish to sound like Nigel Molesworth's grandmother when she "hound and persekute all shopkeepers" - ("She take you along and you have to listen while she send for the manager. She sa I have dealt here for 30 years why can you not deliver on tuesdays ect while I try to pretend I am not there chiz, also the gorgonzola is not wot it was. Personaly I think no gorgonzola is worth sending for the manager for but it must be diferent I supose when you are 723") - I cannot restrain myself from saying that the Jams, Spreads and Preserves section is definitely not what it used to be.

Only a decade or so ago, you would stand agog, awed by ranks of jars that almost glowed - apricots lurking in amber syrup, plums arranged in deep red depths, each slice placed with such care that the patterns created were equal to those in the mosaics of Samarkand. Mind you, my mother reckoned the same jewel-like jars were entered year after year (the great beauty of preserves is that they do not go off, I suppose, so reuse is an intrinsic danger in competitive circumstances.) Maybe the powers that be finally twigged and rules have been tightened. Anyway, whatever the reason for the change, this is the dismal result:

I will spare you the class called novelty items made from fruit and vegetables - a rabbit made out of a rockmelon narowly beat a monstrous sheep made from a cauliflower an eggplant, grapes and two leeks. No-one should have to see such things. Really.

Instead let's move on to cakes. Once again, the underlying principles guiding the judges eluded me. Why did this win first prize:

while this limped away with HC?
These girls seemed as puzzled as me:
Or perhaps they'd never before realised that cakes did not always have to arrive in cellophane packets, made my unseen hands in factories faraway.

Meanwhile I'm still wondering how this coffee cake rose to the top of a very packed field - (and does anyone else agree that coffee cake is one of the best cakes imaginable, especially the icing?) - when it looks to me to be very heavy and damp:
I suspect a touch of dirty dealing at the crossroads.

I was also amazed to find that there now exists a whole new class, devoted entirely to men. It is called "Man's favourite cake", which I thought indicated that a woman was supposed to bake the recipe that was the favourite of a man in her family. However, it turned out that it was a section in which only men entered - and therefore I assume only they can enter.

Is this a case of discrimination? If so, against whom? Should we women insist on being included in the men's category, or is it merely a sign that the lady judges decided the poor dear males who had suddenly decided to don aprons and get out the sieves and measuring jugs would never stand a chance against their female counterparts?

I'm guessing the latter - no man, it was assumed, could possibly cut the mustard against his sister bakers. I am reminded of the young woman who moved to Yass recently and was thinking of entering the Yass show sponge cake category. When a relative asked how the young woman should go about applying to do this, the show official paused for a moment and then pulled out a form. Handing it over, she observed: "Your grand daughter is either very good or very brave."
Anyway, this man looked like he wasn't satisfied with the standard of the judging, (there's no pleasing some people):

Okay, now we come to the crunch. I may have spared you the novelty animals, but I cannot pass over so easily what must be the most misguided initiative I've ever come across in any field of human endeavour (oh all right, I am, not for the first time, exaggerating, particularly in the context, as we shall see - but only slightly).

This latest example in the long and dismal trail of human error throughout Western history was the baking category introduced at this year's Royal Canberra Show in order to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. For one year only, (I hope), the bakers of Canberra and its surrounding regions were invited to commemorate the First World War through the medium of cake.

They obliged with

a) a cake depicting a particularly black and muddy trench, complete with Tommies:

b): a cake covered in poppies and icing whose colour presumably evokes the glow of endless shelling and fire and as a result suggests to me that it must be borderline poisonous

c) a cake with a digger's hat on the top of it and blackened sides interspersed with grave markers:

d) a khaki cake decorated once again with a grave stone, plus poppies that look worryingly like blood clots:
e) and the winner, another, more skilfully fashioned hat, atop a cake decorated with the figures of weary soldiers plodding across a blackened landscape against a lurid sky:

Helen Garner once remarked that the cake decorating sections at agricultural shows are just a form of showing off, (a criticism that could also be directed towards writing, of course, or almost any field of human activity, if one was feeling mean-spirited, but anyway).

Certainly these cakes - or at least the winner - show astonishing skill. What they do not show is good sense. After all, the main function of cake is to be appetising. Essentially, if any of these settle permanently into the domestic cake repertoire, I will eat my hat - and, of course, if they do, I will probably also eat their hat.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015


While I was home in Australia, I went to a couple of shows. Not shows in theatres; agricultural shows, those wonderful events where people - mainly those from the country - gather to show off their horses, sheep, goats, cattle and any other produce they can muster. Trailing horseboxes or driving huge trucks loaded with animals and gear, they'll often come long distances, down bumpy dirt roads and along highways of varying quality. For a few days, they'll pitch their tents among a muddle of vehicles and buckets, horse rugs and saddles, settling down, completely voluntarily, for a few days of fairly major discomfort. All this to gain, if they're lucky, a long felt or satin ribbon that probably costs $20 at most to make.

But it's one of those instances in human life where the cost of the thing doesn't actually matter, and nor does the effort. For show people, to receive one of those coveted ribbons is a pleasure so pure and wonderful that it is worth more than money.

Mind you, these days a great deal of money is spent on showing - at least in the pony classes. As a result, clothing has become extremely competitive. Being merely neat and tidy is no longer enough, however peripheral your role in things. While it was always the case that in hacking and turnout classes, the most unlikely people, the kinds that never normally got out of a t-shirt and ancient jeans, were prepared to climb into jodhpurs and tweed hacking jackets and fiddle about with stocks, if necessary, now things have got to such a pass that even the people who do the leading have to look as spliffy as if they were spending a day at the races.

If my mother's to be believed, this trend is not new, (is anything?) She has often told me of her loss of innocence in the face of Mammon at Noorat show. Noorat is a small town in western Victoria and, as small children, she and her sisters and brother would take their ponies over and have an excellent time, entering everything and winning some classes, but generally just enjoying themselves and having a go.

Then one year, when she was about 8 or 9 - but she can still remember it vividly - they arrived to find that Noorat show had got serious. Dozens of flash cars with Melbourne numberplates came winding up the narrow road on the show's first morning. Each dragged a float and in each float there was at least one expensive pony, polished to a dazzling brightness, mane and tail plaited professionally. In the front seat of each car was an equally expensively prepared child, in brand new jodhpurs and Harris tweed hacking jacket and shod in the best boots money could buy. There was no more fun and there were no more ribbons for my mother and her siblings. Something had happened; the show had become grimly serious business.

It didn't put my mother off though. She still has horses. She shares them with other people, who drive them in harness. One of them did very well at Gunning. The other was very naughty at Canberra. Both of them are beautiful and, if only I was brave enough to learn the art of driving horses, when the oil runs out I'd be able to turn to them as an alternative means of transport.

While mum was talking with her mates about bits and shafts and some of the other finer points of harness driving, I took some pictures at the second show we went to, the Royal Canberra. Today, I'm including the outdoors ones. Tomorrow I want to talk about the produce pavilion, another part of shows that I especially love.

Looking at some of the little girls in my pictures, I can't help thinking of a Betjeman poem I've always loved. If you want to read it (it is quite funny) you can find it here.