Friday, 31 July 2015

It's the Way You Tell Them

The other day I was irritated by a book John Gray wrote, in which - among other things - he endeavoured to demonstrate that he and Mauthner and Beckett and someone else I've forgotten were all in agreement that language is not a reason to feel superior to other creatures.

I suppose if John Gray had made his point with the elegance of Les Murray in his poem The Meaning of Existence, I might have been more receptive. Here it is:

The Meaning of Existence, by Les Murray

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind

From the collection called Poems the Size of Photographs  published in 2002

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


No movies for months and suddenly two in a week. This weekend there was Woman in Gold and last week there was Far From the Madding Crowd.

I was doubtful about Far From the Madding Crowd, because the earlier version meant a great deal to me. Not because I especially liked it, but because I had a friend who did.

Her name was Katherine, and we used to take the bus to school together. On the way, she would describe Far From the Madding Crowd to me in great detail. This never grew boring, because Katherine didn't know how to be boring. She must also have been pretty good at description, because when I eventually saw the film for myself everything appeared precisely as I expected. It felt exactly as if I was seeing it for the second or third time.

The BBC showed the old version recently, and we looked at it after going to see the new one. I can't think why I didn't notice how peculiar Julie Christie seems as Bathsheba. Possibly my attention was focussed elsewhere, as Katherine's main interest was Terence Stamp, who played Troy in the film.

In fact, more vivid even than the film in my memory is the occasion when Katherine and I looked down from the top of the bus and saw Terence Stamp emerge from a shop on the King's Road and get into a mini. Ah the sixties.

Katherine died aged 49, thanks to NHS doctors imagining that people her age don't get the disease that killed her, despite all her symptoms pointing clearly in one direction. When I asked my own doctor in Australia about her treatment, while circumspect, the doctor did admit that she would never, ever let a patient with anaemia go away without investigating very thoroughly. Very often there is a benign reason for the condition, but it is very important to find out what it is. If this piece of information helps anyone avoid what happened to my friend, I'll be glad.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Never Having to Say You're Sorry

I used to live in Vienna. It is probably the most beautiful liveable city I have ever been in. The buildings are magnificent, the cafes are like completely democratic St James's Street clubs, the public transport is marvellous, everything is gorgeous.

And yet, there is the question of the Viennese. Not all Viennese, of course not, but some Viennese, some attitudes, some things that are allowed to take place with impunity.

Let me give you just one example, which I found hair raising and I still can hardly credit, except that I know that it really did happen.

In the late 1990s, some friends were living in a pretty house in a leafy suburb. Next to their house was a little school for disabled children. Beyond that, was the house of a couple who clearly had a lot of money - Vienna is a bit of a "If you've got it, show it" kind of place, so, if people have money, you do tend to know it. The couple who lived in that house parked their gleaming Porsche outside each evening and dressed immaculately, in the glossy, (even slightly brassy), style of many wealthy Viennese.

The school seemed to be a very good school and, as demand for its services grew, it needed to expand. It applied to the local council to be allowed to use the garden - which was surrounded by a hedge and therefore reasonably private - in front of its building as an extra play area at lunch time for its wards.

When the Porsche owners heard about this, they were horrified. They tried to enlist our friends' support. Our friends would not assist them, but the Porsche owners found others in the street more than willing to go along with their protests.

Together, a band of them took a case to court, arguing that having disabled children arriving and leaving, morning and evening, was bad enough; if they were to be allowed to play at the front of the building as well, this would affect the street's house prices.

The astounding thing, we thought, was that anyone would even conceive of such an outrageously uncompassionate argument. Even more astonishing was the fact that they were prepared to express it, without shame.

But the biggest shock was still to come. The court upheld the Porsche-owners' objections and forced the school to seek alternative premises, somewhere where they would not threaten the potential investment gains of law abiding citizens.

Perhaps it was the memory of this experience that made me less critical of the film called Woman in Gold than the professional critics. Many of them argued that the movie's portrayal of the Austrian authorities trying to retain possession of a painting stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family was not very nuanced. I enjoyed the film and, while I do, of course, know very decent people who live in Vienna, I fear that the authorities, even though they do come across at times as caricatures, were probably just like that in real life.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Selective Lingustics

I've been living in Belgium for some months now and, like anyone who spends any time here, have become aware that a low-level tension exists between the users of the two main languages, French and Dutch, (or Flemish, if you prefer). To be strictly accurate, this tension comes mainly from one side of the linguistic barrier. It is the Dutch/Flemish speakers who resent the French speakers, quite often, while the French speakers seem to give no thought to the issue - and, in general, to make no effort to speak Dutch, hence the problem, I suspect.

In response to this state of affairs, my first thought was to try to learn Dutch. Apart from wanting to be polite, I do also enjoy learning languages. The Dutch language - so far as I've got with it, which is not far at all - has turned out to be particularly intriguing. For me, as a native English speaker, it seems curiously Chaucerian, with all sorts of vaguely familiar English words embedded inside it. Of course, this characterisation of the language as similar to something we've moved on from, containing fossilised bits of our own, by implication, more advanced tongue, must surely strike a native Dutch speaker as rather arrogant. If my perspective were different, if I were a native Dutch speaker, I expect I'd have a very different opinion about which is the living, breathing, streamlined 20th century language and which the one with bits of dead stuff tucked away in its linguistic stores.

However, I am an English speaker, and from that perspective it does seem interesting that, while, for instance, we still use the word 'lope', but only to denote a very particular kind of walking, in Dutch loping IS walking. In other words, if you want to say that you are walking in Dutch, you say you are loping. I've no idea what you say, if you want to say you are loping. Such nuances await me, away in the distance, down the path of future study.

What I don't  know is whether I will ever get far enough down that path to discover them. The reason for this is that I've begun to wonder whether rushing off and starting to learn a new language might be a bit silly and ultimately unproductive. Instead of trying to achieve what will only ever be a superficial knowledge of Dutch, might I not be better employed concentrating my efforts on the languages I've already studied relatively seriously but have since neglected? Instead of continuing with Dutch should I get back on track with the ones I used to know moderately well and consider getting by in the Dutch speaking parts of the country with the one universally useful phrase that I have now learnt in the language that they speak there?

The phrase in question, by the way, is not the one someone in my family makes a point of learning in the language of whatever country he is about to visit: "Another beer please; (actually, this person always learns not one, but two phrases that he regards as indispensable, the other being "My friend will pay"). In fact, my  Dutch phrase is not even a phrase, as such; it is a question. It is "Do you speak English?" and since I've mastered it, (not very hard, I grant you), I've taken to using it whenever I go into a shop or a restaurant in the Dutch speaking parts of the country.

The response I've received, I have to admit, has been surprising. My assumption was that I would just be going through the niceties, demonstrating good manners, avoiding doing what so many English speakers abroad tend to do - that is, launching into their own language wherever they are, in the belief that everyone in the world understands it and is more than happy to speak it at the drop of a hat. I imagined the invariable response would be, "Yes, we do, of course", and from that point on we would all natter away in English. Not a bit of it. Instead, to my astonishment, many of the people I've asked have told me that they don't speak English, but volunteered the fact that they do speak the taboo language i.e. French.

So then we've nattered away in French and everyone's appeared to be quite happy - even though, if I went in and started speaking French straight away, they'd almost certainly refuse to admit they speak it. Indeed, someone I know who was coming through from Paris the other day, asked a cyclist at the traffic lights in a town in Flanders if he could give them directions. My acquaintance spoke in French and the cyclist claimed he understood nothing and made it clear that he did not want to speak to them.

Rather miffed, the Parisians drove off, still wondering where they were going. To their surprise, when they reached the next traffic light, they noticed the same cyclist frantically pedalling up behind them. When he reached them, he tapped on the glass, making frantic gestures of apology. The driver from Paris wound down his window and greeted the cyclist, who, in perfect French, explained that he hadn't seen their French number plates when they'd asked his advice and had assumed that they were French Belgians. All smiles, he proceeded to provide the information they wanted.

So it looks as if I can continue just using French and not really bother to learn more Flemish, provided I remember to always light my small candle at the altar of linguistic difference. Acknowledgment of difference appears to dissolve the difference, which is convenient but confusing. Perhaps it was out of this odd psychological situation that the idea of double Dutch first arose.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

A Sixth Week of Wonders

This week I wondered if, no matter how nice a particular boss might be, some people are unable to see past the structure the position of "boss" implies. Those people remain obstructive and resentful, not necessarily because they dislike the individual but because they dislike the position the individual fills. Which makes things very tricky.

I then wondered why, when inevitably in any endeavour there always ends up being someone who gives the orders or at the very least coordinates the collective will, it is so appealing to smash up what are seen as elitist structures. Elitism is as ineradicable as couch grass, if you define elitism as a structure where some people have more power than others.

And, in any case, power structures can evolve, without violence, so why ever resort to violence to achieve ideological aims? If you look first at Austria and then at the countries to its east, it is fairly easy to see which approach achieves better outcomes - the non-violent one.

Post-war in both Austria and, for example, Romania, there was a class of landowning gentry. In Romania unspeakable cruelties were practised on the landowners, their estates were smashed, and so forth and now the country has an immense task ahead in rebuilding its economy - not to mention its civil society, to use Vaclav Havel's term. In Austria none of that class-targeted violence occurred. Yet in neither Austria nor Romania do the landowning gentry still dominate; the result was the same in both places, politically. So what was the point of all that brutality?

Then I saw this on and I wondered how some people actually become bosses.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What Roth Wrote

While Stefan Zweig seems to be today's preferred chronicler of the pre-1914 Habsburg world,  Joseph Roth is more up my street. In John Gray's The Silence of Animals,  this piece by Roth from a novella called The Emperor's Tomb is quoted. In light of what came later, the sleepy reliability of the world Roth evokes, a dull but comfortable order, presided over by the benignly earnest Franz Josef -

- seems very attractive.

"All little stations in all little provincial towns looked alike in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Small and painted yellow, they were like lazy cats lying in the snow in winter and in the summer, protected by the glass roof over the platform, and watched by the black double eagle on its yellow background. The porter was the same everywhere, in Sipolje as in Zlotogrod, his paunch stuffed into his inoffensive dark blue uniform, and across his chest the black belt into which was tucked his bell, whose prescribed treble peal announced the departure of a train. In Zlotogrod, too, as in Sipolje, there hung above the station-master's office, on the platform, the black iron contraption out of which, miraculously, sounded the distant silvery ringing of the telephone, delicate and enchanting signals from other worlds, which made one wonder why they took refuge in such small but weighty lodging. On Zlotogrod station, as in Sipolje, the porter saluted the coming in of the train and its going out, and his salute was a kind of military blessing."

Of course, human contrariness dictates that such peace always provokes restlessness in some citizens, which I suppose is why we'll never have peace on earth.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

John Gray – The Silence of Animals, On Progress & Other Myths

I am so glad I read John Gray's The Silence of Animals. If I hadn't, I might never have discovered the chilling Conrad short story An Outpost of Progress, nor Ford Madox Ford's The Soul of London, nor Simenon's serious, non-Maigret works. I might never have known about Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb, nor learnt of Meister Eckhart, let alone Fritz Mauthner, (who influenced both Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett – Beckett apparently liked to read his notes on Mauthner out aloud to James Joyce, which suggest to me that Joyce really was a very kind and patient friend).

Without Gray's book I'd never have discovered the source of Orwell's 2+2=5 formula, (Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons), nor learnt of the existence of The Peregrine by JA Baker, which sounds as if it is a precursor to the currently much discussed H is for Hawk. I'd also have remained ignorant of Llewelyn Powys, (who produced the rather lovely phrase, “beyond the margin of our own scant moment”), not to mention the almost equally baffling Robinson Jeffers who, Gray tells us, “reworked Greek drama, intimating that tragedy goes with being human and yet there is something beyond tragedy … Instead of thinking of the universe as emanating from God, he saw the universe as a purposeless purpose – but one that still had to be worshipped.”

Without Gray's book I'd never have encountered Alexander Herzen either, most particularly his writings on John Stuart Mill. Gray quotes Herzen describing Mill as someone “horrified by the constant deterioration of personalities, taste and style, by the inanity of men's interests and their absence of vigour”, a person who saw “clearly that everything is becoming shallow, commonplace, shoddy, trite, more 'respectable', perhaps, but more banal ...” and exhorted “his contemporaries [to]: 'Stop! Think again! [demanding] Do you know where you are going? Look, your soul is ebbing away!”

Reading Herzen's words, I realised that, just as the author of H is for Hawk is following a well-worn literary path, so Theodore Dalrymple is part of a tradition, joining a long line of writers who feel a missionary zeal to point out the foolishness of their fellow humans.

Sadly, in his own way, Gray is another. Thus, instead of merely producing a very interesting anthology, Gray harnesses all his reading to a purpose. That purpose is an attack on what he terms the “modern myth of progress” and a demonstration that all existence is meaningless chaos and everything humans tell themselves, including all of science, is a comforting myth, because everything is “composed of symbols”.

My first problem with all of this is that I believe Gray is setting up a straw man. “The myth of progress is the chief consolation of modern humankind”, he tells us, without providing any evidence for his assertion. Had he been writing before the outbreak of the First World War, I admit that his statement would have been unarguable. Faith in progress at that time was intense. However, following that war, and the one that came after it - plus the various horrors that filled so much of the twentieth century – the belief that we are moving consistently onwards and upwards has pretty much been snuffed out. Most of us now are horribly aware of our capacity for barbarism rather than for progress – and we receive daily reminders of this, should we occasionally forget.

But Gray is not one to let facts get in his way for a moment. He also does not appear to feel the need to define his terms – at no point in the book does he bother to explain what he means by “progress”. Instead, having based the book on an unsupported generalisation, he proceeds to pepper his text with countless more. “Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege”, he tells us, adding, “When truth is at odds with meaning, meaning wins”. “No-one in polite society dares speak of instincts today”, he declares, without providing any evidence, (and my experience provides plenty to the contrary). 

“At bottom the world itself is will, a field of energy that finds expression as bodily desire”, he insists, adding, “If we know anything from the history of science, it is that the most severely tested theories still contain errors”, (so how is it exactly that aeroplanes fly and medicines cure diseases? Surely both these achievements depend upon severely tested scientific theories?).

I could go on – there are so many examples of unsupported generalisations in the book. Suffice to say, a lot of Gray's thesis rests on assertions about a body of people called 'they' who are passing “their lives in a state of hopeful turmoil”, thinking that “their minds … are built on the model of the cosmos”, having interminable conversations about “humans evolving”, exalting nature and using the “myth of progress” to lift their spirits “like cheap music”.

Given that Gray's argument is clearly so flimsy, it is legitimate to ask why it is worth wasting any time or thought on either the book or Gray himself. My answer is that, for all Gray's incoherence and confusion, (*see note 1 below), he has become remarkably prominent and influential recently. In fact, it seems to me that the mantle of chief advocate of bleakness in our culture has passed from the shoulders of Richard Dawkins to John Gray, and Gray, being far more charming than Dawkins, is likely to be much more persuasive in the role.

In his frequent radio appearances, Gray never sounds rude or aggressive, let alone obviously contemptuous, (mind you, his self-satisfied elitism does peek through in The Silence of Animals sometimes, together with his conviction that, unless publicly successful, a person cannot feel fulfilled * see note 2 below). Thus, even though Gray's vision is infinitely bleaker than Dawkins's – what Gray is determined to persuade us of is that everywhere and always we are all engaged in a collective illusion about everything – if his views are not questioned, I suspect he will successfully convert large numbers of vulnerable people to his miserable view of existence.

Gray would probably respond to this criticism by saying that his is not a bleak message, that he is merely pointing out a) that none of us will ever be able to know certain things and b) that meaning is an invention we need in order to comfort ourselves in our ignorance. While at moments he seems to be edging towards a mystic or Gnostic viewpoint, as when he writes, “Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value, but this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves”, ultimately he baulks at the humility that is central to a belief that there might exist anything beyond what we are capable of understanding. “Science and myth are alike in being makeshifts that humans erect as shelters from a world they cannot know”, he explains, adding, “An anxious attachment to belief is the chief weakness of the Western mind”, (once again making a statement of opinion rather than an evidence-based argument).

Similarly, Gray feels impelled to attack Christianity, describing it as “a life-denying religion”, which, given that the central tenet of the faith is love, seems an extremely unfair characterisation. He goes on to drag out JG Ballard, making much of Ballard's insight that everything is a stage set that may vanish quite suddenly. While this is unarguable, it has always seemed to me that Ballard's apercu is actually no different to the one offered by Shelley in Ozymandias, except that Ballard's reaction is to believe in nothing, whereas Shelley hints at the possibility that,while the achievements of man may be puny, the universe itself is vast and mysterious and deserves a bit of awe. But Gray doesn't do awe.

Perhaps it is because of this that Gray chooses to ignore huge and important areas of human activity, notably music and the visual arts. If he were to acknowledge that some humans have been capable of extraordinary achievements, he would have to admire them. He would also have to forsake his simplistic thesis. “Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science,” he argues. Were he to mention the achievements of, say, Beethoven, this statement would collapse and Gray would have to concede that things are much more complex than he insists. The actuality is that, while many humans may only exist at the same level as their fellow animals, (and some of us, possibly, do not even reach that level of evolution), there have always been a few who have transcended the capacity of our fellow creatures. But, to acknowledge that, while many humans are capable of terrible things, a few are capable of the sublime would be to dismantle the very foundations of the book.

Most disappointingly, Gray ignores the biggest, most difficult question, the one that hangs behind everything he says: “What is existence and where did it come from?” While admitting that we do not understand the universe, his arrogant conclusion is that our lack of understanding indicates it is meaningless. Unlike Gray, I am sure of nothing, so I can't come back at him with an array of bombastic statements. All I can do is repeat Descartes's famous question: “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?”


*Note 1: To pick just a few examples of Gray's incoherence: in the course of one page, he refers to the fact that the core of Christianity is a recognition of human imperfectibility and in the following paragraph he argues that Romanticism's view of humans as transcendent is a spillover from Christianity; in a section on Weimar economics, he argues that hyperinflation brought unreality to Germany, when in fact what German citizens were confronted with as their currency became worthless was the reality that money is actually an illusion; using language, he argues that language is not superior to the various noises made by animals and does not put humans on a higher plain than other living creatures, which brings into question the act of writing a book – and indeed brings into question the validity of books themselves, I'd have thought.

*Note 2.: Gray tells us on page 110 of the book: “Looking for your true self invites unending disappointment. If you have no special potential, the cost of trying to bring your inner nature to fruition will be a painfully misspent existence. Even if you have unusual talent, it will only bring fulfilment if others also value it. Few human beings are as unhappy as those who have a gift that no one wants.”

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Fifth Week of Wonders

I spent some of the week, as usual, struggling against the rising tide of London Review of Books issues. It's a pleasant struggle, but time consuming. Therefore, I wondered if others, having long since been forced to give up this particular struggle, might be amused by the letter sent in by someone in response to an article by Marina Warner about the bureaucratisation of the life of a university academic. The letter quoted in full another letter - ooh, framing device - sent in 1965 by an Italian historian called Arnaldo Momigliano to his head of department at University College London. The head of department had asked him to account for how he used his time and this is what he replied:

"Dear Cobban

In my Continental timetable of 24 hours a day I divide my day as follows:

(I understand that dreaming is now equivalent to thinking)>

2 hours' pure sleep
1 hour's sleep cum dreams about administration
2 hours' sleep cum dreams about research
1 hour's sleep cum dreaming about teaching
1/2 hour of pure eating
1 hour of eating cum research = reading
1 hour of eating cum colleagues & talking about teaching and research
1/2 hour of pure walk
1/2 hour of walk cum research (= thinking)
12 1/2 hours of research cum preparation (= reading, writing, or even thinking)
1 formal hour teaching without thinking
1 formal hour administration without thinking
24 hours

Yours ever
Arnaldo Momigliano.

The letter that contained this letter was sent by someone from the National University of Ireland and published in the LRB of 22 January, 2015.

Another letter that caught my eye was from the same issue and written by Emma Tristram (Fisher), who lives in West Sussex. It reminded me a) how easy it is to be glibly snide and forget that careless throwaway comments can hurt and b) how much more effective a gentle response to insult is than an aggressive one:

"I love Alan Bennett, of course, always read him with pleasure, and am in addition glad to find he watches the Tour de France for the topography, as I used to do when a single mother with a fractious baby. But I am sorry that he dismisses my grandfather with a single word - 'the dreadful Geoffrey Fisher' - without saying why. I try to interpret his tale as meaning just that Geoffrey Fisher would have been a far worse ex-archbishop of Canterbury than Rowan Williams to have witnessing one's own sermon. That may be so. But still that unspecified 'dreadful' rankles. The further clause, 'who when I was young was for years synonymous with the office' doesn't explain it. Was his dreadfulness so well known and all-encompassing that no reason needs to be given?"

(In the original draft of this blog post, I typed, "doesn't expain it", which also seemed to make good sense in the context - possibly better sense, in fact)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Function of Dreams

There is a theory that maybe dreams are your brain washing through all the information it's received during the day. That has never quite made sense to me as, rather than seeing the stuff of the preceding day in my dreams, I find that things from way back in my childhood suddenly appear there, even though I haven't seen them since and have indeed imagined I'd forgotten them. So I have remained puzzled about what purpose dreams fulfil.

Until this morning, that is, when I woke with a sense of dread, having persuaded myself, through the medium of dream, that I had to join my husband and everyone from where he works on a cruise that starts in Helsinki the day after tomorrow and lasts until 30th September.

I was utterly convinced that this was going to happen and I was filled with scurrying worried thoughts about:

1. How to get to Helsinki, as I had booked nothing;
2. What to pack;
3. How, as a fully-paid up introvert who after more than an hour of mass social interaction per day, (absolute maximum), I was possibly going to manage. Could I do what I used to do at boarding school - that is, sit in a cupboard on my full laundry bag, with a torch, a book and a bag of boiled sweets? What if I was sprung? I looked pretty silly doing that at 15; at my age I might look certifiable.

And then I realised that none of this was going to happen, that there was to be no cruise. The relief was enormous. The knowledge that I don't have to go anywhere filled me with joy - and it still does. The day has become suddenly marvellous.

Perhaps that is the function of dreams.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Putting Away Childish Things

One of my daughters was just telling me about a conversation she had with a friend recently. They were reminiscing and her friend told her how on her first day at high school the boy next to her looked round the place in a confused way. There were no swings, no climbing frame, no see-saws. Instead, of a playground there was just a place with benches and a couple of dustbins and a water fountain.

"What are we going to do at lunch?" he asked.

He got no answer. What could the answer be, after all? Bitch? Become a teenager? Eat? (Pray, love? Is that what that book's about?)

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes. Playgrounds. Why aren't we allowed to have them after the age of 12? Playing is a perfectly harmless, enjoyable thing. Why do we have to stop it? Plus all the other things you have to stop if you want to prove you're grown up - colouring in springs to mind. I used to rather enjoy a bit of soothing colouring, but then it vanished, along with swings and monkey bars. I suppose these things weren't dignified but is being dignified really that important?

The same probably goes for afternoon naps, but I rather miss those too, (I hated them when they were available; they bored me, whereas now I'd really appreciate them, which is perverse, I guess, but not as perverse as depriving you of rest at a time in your life when you'd actually benefit). And, instead of those excruciating away days so many of us are subjected to by our employers, why can't we have swimming carnivals like we did when we were younger? Bunting everywhere, cheering and splashing, sun on the water, that is genuine team building.

Do you miss anything you used to do in childhood that is no longer allowed once you enter the adult world?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Bad Trip

As we had to go to Warsaw the other day, we decided to drive there from Brussels, where we live at the moment, and visit Marienbad and Carlsbad on the way.

We reached Marienbad in the early evening and, after setting up base camp in a faded old establishment on a slope to one side of the town, we made our way down, among huge, leafy trees, past wedding cake houses, to the centre, to find a place to eat.

It quickly became apparent that we had strayed into a realm somewhere just outside of time as we know it.

Most visitors to Marienbad seem quite happy with this state of affairs, contenting themselves with the very simple entertainments on offer - 1950s rather than 21st century sorts of things, mainly:
For the more racy, admittedly there is the odd place where you can feel as modern as the early 1960s:

Each evening, before any dancing of any sort begins, however, crowds hurry through the dusk towards a concrete edged pond with a very ugly fountain contraption in its centre - I suspect it was generously contributed by the pre-1989 regime.

The swarming hordes gather around this hideous object and wait, watching it do nothing, in reverent silence. The scene struck me as faintly creepy the first time I saw it, (uneasy memories of The Stoning stirred in the back of my mind).

It wasn't as bad as Shirley Jackson's horrid vision though. All that happened was that at a given moment, the fountain burst into life and a rather scratchy record began to play over a rather poor quality sound system:

Not only did everyone watch the graceless sploshing of the fountain and never glance at the pretty building right next to it, they actually burst into applause once the whole thing was over:

Just think about that - they were clapping two pre-programmed machines.

Ah well. Just one more thing that makes me wonder if I'm actually an alien, while those I think of as my fellow humans are not in fact my fellows at all.

By the way, to describe Marienbad as a town is probably misleading - it is actually a park which someone has scattered with enormous old hotels. The hotels offer all the usual alarming kinds of treatments, involving mud and gas and heaven knows what else that are par for the course at spas across Central and Eastern Europe:
Anyone fancy a nice injection of gas?

Needless to say, cowards that we are, we tried none of them, choosing instead to stroll about, wishing that the First World War had never happened and the sedate way of life that Marienbad was part of had never been smashed.

Our fellow visitors - mostly elderly, (Marienbad is one of the few places in the world where I still feel very young), and tending toward white shoes, white trousers and brilliantly coloured tops as their fashion statements, (see first video for the kind of thing I mean), when they were not being slathered in mud, or worse, or dancing gracefully despite their enormous stomachs, walked about very slowly and stopped regularly for a little something at one or other of Marienbad's cafes.

Once upon a time though, if the town's museum is to be believed, Marienbad's visitors were rather more illustrious. They included Kafka:



Strauss, (the waltz one I think):


Albert Schweizer (plus organ, as always - I wonder if children are told about Schweizer these days; he seemed to be mentioned constantly when I was young, although this is the first picture I've ever seen of him - until this point, I'd always had a vague idea of a beard and a pith helmet, but apparently not [although wasn't he disgraced or unrehabilitated, if that is a word, at some point, and consequently condemned as a paternalistic racist or something?])

plus plenty of others of equal or greater note.

Perhaps the two patrons the town is most proud of are Goethe and King Edward VII. Both stayed at the Weimar Hotel, which has fallen on hard times but is still fairly splendid in a battered kind of way:

Goethe interests me more than the King, especially as he is supposed to have had a sad, Death in Venice type of final infatuation while in Marienbad, which may have led to him proposing to this lovely girl:

Her name was Ulrike and she came from here:

Ulrike never married, and this is her in later life:

I suspect there is a poignant story attached to this episode. Unfortunately, at the Marienbad Museum they have misguidedly allowed someone to tell it through the medium of Spitting Image figures:

Goethe presents his compliments
A lovelorn Goethe takes to his bed (note chamber pot detail - no Romantic tidying for this artist)
Whoever was responsible for these unattractive objects, (I've spared you the full set), also decided to apply the same technique to Edward VII and Franz Josef, portraying them together, each with their feet in chamber pots, ( a theme is developing):

If anything, in this case the artist has flattered Edward, who does not generally come out looking quite that benign:

A couple of menus from the time provide an idea of why perhaps cures were needed in the first place:

One also begins to understand why Edward was, to put it politely, somewhat on the portly side of the spectrum:

Whether his wife - whose picture in the museum displays a slightly Diana-ish wounded quality in her expression - did not accompany him to Marienbad each year because she wanted a break from sharing a bed with that bulky stomach:

or whether because of the presence there of his 'friend', whose picture is also displayed, without comment:

I could not possibly say. However, I do like the inverted commas in this headline from the Sketch:

I can't decide which bit of Marienbad I liked best. There was the colonnade, with its own bandstand, where a not terribly brilliant orchestra made up for lack of skill with great enthusiasm, as they worked their way through various things by Smetana, observed by what I suspect may be the most exotic creature to have appeared in Marienbad for a very long time:

Actually I'm not sure anyone can look genuinely Bohemian in the vicinity of a push chair, but I'm told he's a well-known conductor
The only drawback to the colonnade was the adjacent fountain. Apart from that it was so lovely, in fact, that I appear to have deleted all my photographs of it.

Another contender for favourite Marienbad feature would have to be the numerous beautiful trees. It is never easy to capture the glory of large trees in a photograph, but here's a huge and lovely copper beech, to give you a vague idea:

Then there was its abundance of 19th century buildings, replete with decorative faces:

You didn't really think I'd be content with Pinterest and Tumblr and be able to resist slipping a few stone faces back into this blog, did you?

I love the folly of places called Paradise - there is one just back from Apollo Bay on the Victorian coast that particularly appeals to me as it is bleak enough to have comprehesively smashed the dreams of whichever optomist gave it its grandiose name 

Ultimately, I suppose what beat all Marienbad's other attractions for me though was the best art nouveau domestic building I've ever seen, (as a bit of a balcony fetishist, I have to say: that balcony is a world beater):