Thursday, 26 May 2016

Neapolitan Green

In these days of carbon trading schemes and plastic bag bans, one aspect of modern apartment design  strikes me as odd.  I've been in quite a few of the new blocks of "units" being built in the inner areas of our cities and the same thing has been missing in  every single one.

Without  exception, in these "cutting edge" new dwellings, there is nowhere provided to hang out the washing. The designers may point out that there is always a place where you can put a tumble dryer - but, of course, tumble dryers drive up energy use.

I suppose if you were an  extremely generous person, you might interpret the equally universal failure in these places to provide somewhere to store a vacuum cleaner as a clumsy attempt to offset the electricity now used in clothes drying by making it impossible to electronically clean up the floor.

But you would have to be extremely generous.

The sensible way round this environmental dilemma would be to string your wet sheets and clothing off the balcony. But when I suggested this to an apartment dweller recently, I was told the body corporate wouldn't be having it - and a good thing too!

"This is not Naples, you know", I was informed.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Great and the Good

What a blunder I have made - deciding to read Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour Trilogy and Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time cycle simultaneously

Both deal with much the same class of people and both describe events in a similar era. Had I read one and then, several years later, embarked upon the other, I might never have realised that one of them is merely good, while the other is a great work of art, written by someone who was exceptionally perceptive about humanity.

I wonder if anyone else thinks the same and, if so, whether they agree about which is the great work and which the merely good. Mind you, the one that is not great is, to quote, possibly, (there is some argument about whether he actually said it about himself), Somerset Maugham, "in the top rank of the second-rate".

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Trust No One

A now retired but once senior Australian official is in the newspapers today, whinging that during the Cold War he was investigated as a possible double agent, even though he'd gone out of his way to gather material for our intelligence services.  What a betrayal, he complains, but I think he is wrong. The fact that he makes his complaint just a few days before the 81st anniversary of the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean should highlight why I disagree with him.

Since that fiasco, all Western intelligence services must surely have learned that you can trust absolutely no-one. The subsequent defection of Kim Philby and George Blake would only have reinforced that point. In other words, it was not an insult that this man was investigated; it was a precaution. He suffered no consequences as a result, because nothing was found to suggest he was dong anything wrong. So what is the problem? The world of espionage is not run along the lines of normal life. If you enter it, you must know that anything might happen.

Going back to the subject of defectors, the question of who was a worse person, Blake or Philby, is probably impossible to answer. Philby gets more publicity though so, for the benefit of anyone who would like to know about Blake, in order to make up their own mind, here is a post I wrote about that extremely wicked man.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Battered "Penguins"* -'The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

I read somewhere that The Plot Against America by Philip Roth was the book I needed to read to understand the Trump phenomenon. It concerns an alternative reality in which Charles Lindbergh won the US Presidency and attempted to make an alliance with Nazi Germany.

The parallels with Trump didn't leap out at me, as it turned out. Lindbergh in his appearance, as described by Roth, seemed to me to have more in common with Barack Obama - "The lean, tall, handsome hero, a lithe athletic-looking man", "boyish", "at once youthful and gravely mature". Some might also argue that the foreign policy Roth gives Lindbergh - 'We will join no warring party anywhere on this globe" - also has parallels with Obama's way of looking at the world. In addition, the manner of Lindbergh's nomination - the Republican Party picks him "by acclamation" at their convention - is the polar opposite of the  way in which Trump appears to have gained the Republican nomination this year.

Not that the book is any the less good for that. It is both exciting as an adventure in alternative history and very perceptive about human beings. I found it unputdownable, and it reminded me what an extraordinarily good writer Roth is. He is brilliant at creating characters - I especially love the narrator's father and I also think there never was a better portrait of a sad lonely child than that of Seldon, nor a more poignant dialogue than the telephone conversation he has with the narrator and the narrator's mother, ("Hey, you know, I don't have any friends in school"). In addition, his writing style is impeccably unornamented - if he ever had any "darlings", he strangled them long ago, and the resulting prose demonstrates what a very good policy that is.

Another of Roth's great strengths is that, despite presenting very serious material, he retains a strong sense of the absurd. Perhaps the best example of this is the way that he has the narrator, even when surrounded by the worst dangers of his life, preoccupied by worries about his aunt's lavatory arrangements.

The narrator is, by the way, a child - or at least at the time of the events that he recounts he was one. He is the youngest in a family, which is Jewish. The rise in the significance of that ethnic quality is conveyed most clearly through the narrator's own experience:

"I realised ... my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes - my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn't known."

This is the realisation forced on so many in Europe during the real events of the Second World War - people who thought they were Austrians or French or whatever came to the unpleasant understanding that all along many of their neighbours had thought they were only and always Jews.

In the course of the book, the boy's brother becomes a cog in the Lindbergh propaganda machine, while his cousin, who is like a son in the family, goes to Canada, in order to join up and fight the Nazis. When he returns, maimed and angry, it falls to the narrator to become his "carer". The relationship between the cousin and his younger helper is unflinchingly imagined and portrayed with great wisdom.  While the situation of the younger boy helping the older may suggest something out of Louisa M Alcott, Roth never sentimentalises nor simplifies life's complexity. There are no saints or heroes in his world - that view of things is what leads to idolatry and figures like Lindbergh. In fact, Roth shows us that even the persecuted are capable of careless cruelty. Horrible as the apparatus constructed to oppress people of Jewish origin in America is, this does not stop the narrator himself from impulsively using that apparatus to rid himself of an annoying playmate.

The only bit of the book that does not work, in my view, is the part of the section titled Bad Days in which, in place of the narrator, we are given paragraph after paragraph supposedly drawn from the Archives of Newark's Newsreel Theatre. I haven't a solution to offer for how to restructure the book to remove this and I really don't feel I should quibble over a small flaw in a very good book.  Roth succeeds in creating a fully convincing scenario in which American isolationists and Nazi-sympathisers gain the upper hand. He evokes the banality and terror that might arise from such a turn of events and creates a vivid and sympathetic collection of characters whose fates  matter to the reader. I highly recommend tne novel.

*In this case not actually a Penguin, but a Vintage paperback

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Not to Be Missed

Last night a Frenchman told me that the only books he ever rereads are the ones about "Blondings". He declared them the greatest books ever written and, while I would say that Molesworth just edges into the lead for me, I agree that his nominations are up there with the very best, (assuming of course that we were actually talking about the series of Wodehouse books involving Lord Emsworth and his beloved pig).

Strangely, in the wider world, light hearted fiction is rarely recognised as a really great cultural achievement. Comedy is not deemed properly "intellectual", and therefore amusing writers never ever win the Nobel prize.  That is why it surprised me particularly that someone French should so appreciate the form - French culture leans more to solemnity, in my experience, with humour, when it occurs, tending more to the sharply satiric end of the spectrum, rather than the whimsical, fond look at human foibles approach, (although there was, of course, Clochemerle).

But perhaps this was an unusual Frenchman. After all, he also said he thought my husband's joke about an American and a French diplomat who are working together on a plan of some kind was very funny - in the joke, after a long night of discussion the two diplomats at last come up with a fully formed strategy. The American thinks their work is finished, but the Frenchman still seems worried about something.

"What's the problem", the American asks the Frenchman.

The Frenchman furrows his brow and sucks his teeth.

"Hmm", he says, "I can see the plan works in practice - but does it work in theory?"

Anyway, I think there is nothing cleverer than being amusing, provided it is not at anyone else's expense. And, in that context, I am deeply in awe of Kenneth Williams as he narrates Cold Comfort Farm, enhancing his material with a performance of sheer genius.

If you want to hear him, the recordings are still available - although not indefinitely -?on the BBC Radio4Extra website. As someone who has never more than quite liked the Cold Comfort Farm book, (as opposed to the first television adaptation, which featured Alistair Sim being his usual marvellous self), I am particularly glad to have listened to Williams's reading as he does that thing that the very best narrators do - he highlights the best aspects of the text he is reading, revealing  just how truly brilliant it really is.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Muffled Meaning

When we first arrived in Belgium, I had grand plans to learn Dutch. Then I sat beside a diplomat from one of the Baltic states at dinner one evening. He was talking about the EU and Brexit and the general grumblings of some of the member states about Brussels and its edicts, (very little else is ever talked about in Brussels diplomatic circles, needless to say; the state of current cinema, the difficulty of combating snails organically in the vegetable patch, the decline in the quality of New Yorker short stories, all these topics run well behind EU related issues as conversational gambits, despite my best efforts).

What the diplomat told me was that he thought one of the problems that was causing difficulty for the EU was the organisation's habit, whenever it found itself getting into difficulties in one area, of going off and starting to insert itself into a new area of the lives of the member countries, rather than plunging deeper into the area it was already not dealing with and sorting things out there.

"I'm in danger of doing exactly the same with languages", I thought, as he laid out this theory for me. If I continued with Dutch, I'd probably get worse at some other language and I'd end up capable of getting by only on an extremely superficial level, without mastering Dutch - or any other language -particularly well.

I stopped trying to learn Dutch the very next morning. One thing I did not want to do was resemble the European Union in any of its aspects. Therefore, until I knew the word for the lesser-crested blue-wing wood duck in at least three languages that I'd already had a go at, I was not going to try to pick up any new ones, (languages, that is - I never try to pick up wood duck).

I'm glad I made that decision. Not so much because I'm proud of not being able to speak Dutch in the parts of Belgium where Dutch is spoken - and, by the way, I have learned the Dutch phrase for "Do you speak English?", just in case you think I simply bowl into shops and restaurants yelling in my own tongue, impolitely. Many people do, but not me. Oh no. I bowl into places, ask that question and then start yelling in my own tongue, which is far less annoying, I'm sure.

Anyway, the main reason I'm glad I've stopped learning Dutch is that it means I am still able to enjoy looking at the language from the outside and amusing myself by imagining I've stepped back into the times of Chaucer. I find the result oddly charming.

To give you an example, here is the sign over the local do-it-yourself shop:

Then there is the name for spreadable cheese:
Smear cheese, just what I feel like.

Finally, my absolute favourite, the phrase to denote free range chickens:

I love the thought of all those chickens saying cheerio, were off out loping. I like the idea generally of loping, not walking. I wonder why we decided we would walk, rather than lope? When I ask questions like that, people tell me I ought to have studied linguistics, but I suspect that there are no answers really to explain how these things happen. It's like the deplorable way"stepped foot in" has begun to dominate over the earlier and, in my opinion, far better, "set foot in" as the accepted phrase. Or how "disinterested" has come to encompass "uninterested", (do not get me started), or how "reach out" has begun to seem normal rather than entirely emetic.

Language, curiously, considering it is a tool made by humanity, gathers momentum and ends up having a mysterious life of its own.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

What's the Story

Lots of people are predicting the death of newspapers. The digital world is killing them, these people say.

I very much hope newspapers will survive. I love them - and reading them online is a far less satisfying experience than settling down to thoroughly disorganise a neatly folded heap of newsprint, the challenge being to see how many surfaces of any room can end up covered by the various sections, pages muddled and flapping everywhere.

Mind you, while that is my shameful form of paper reading pleasure, my awed admiration is reserved for those who have perfected the exactly opposite newspaper handling skill to my own. Such fine human beings are rare nowadays, if they have not already vanished completely. I used to glimpse them on commuter trains when I'd accompany my father to town sometimes. He was among their number, I should add, (with pride).

The ability these Titans had perfected was managing to read the broadsheet papers while sitting in a very crowded train compartment - without ever impinging on anyone else's space at all. It was just one of the small elements that made for a kinder, more civilised way of life, where the aim was to cause others the minimum of inconvenience, (with which behaviour came the accompanying hope - not its entire motivation, mind you - that you would receive the same consideration in return).

But enough of this nostalgia. I didn't come on here to wallow in regret for the past. No, I came on here to enunciate my latest theory which is that, if newspapers do disappear, it won't be because of the Internet; it will be because they don't do what they should do. They don't explain what's going on.

I blame the editors. They want to sell newspapers, but they are going completely the wrong way about it. They are labouring under the misconception that what will sell newspapers are narratives of conflict. They have convinced themselves that what the newspaper reading public want is biff and baff and rage and anger.

Well not this newspaper reader. I want information. I want to be equipped to understand why people are angry. I want the facts behind the facts.

That is to say, I want to know what caused this drama that is being reported daily. In the reporting about the dispute between the UK's junior doctors and the UK government, for instance, I would like to find somewhere a clear explanation of what at its most basic it's all about.

Instead, week after week, the newspapers tell their readers about how a doctors' leader has proclaimed that they will never give in and how a government minister has insisted that, in their turn, they will never give in either. On the front pages, photographs of doctors marching grimly are displayed, alternating with those of politicians looking determined as they stalk in and out of Downing Street. We are shown every skirmish as it happens, but what we are never told is what exactly is at stake.

Where is the clear, straightforward outline of the issues, explaining precisely what the doctors' current working conditions are, what the government is proposing, how the two systems differ, why the doctors object and why the government is suggesting the changes? It is not in any of the papers I've been looking at. All I've found is reporting about the degrees of grievance and intransigence of each of the combatants, bulletins about the emotions each side feels and the threats each has made against the other. How am I supposed to judge whether any of this is justified when I've never been told what the fundamental arguments underlying the whole thing are?

If I want drama, I go to the theatre - and once upon a time, if I wanted to understand the world, I picked up a newspaper.

So perhaps I should really have started by saying that I used to love newspapers but I'm beginning to go off them because they seem to have become confused about what their function really is. Maybe it was the advent of photographs that started the rot. Anyway, instead of articulating the various dilemmas that are faced by governments and citizens, it seems to me that those running newspapers have decided to convert every issue into Eastenders style drama. Instead of providing the facts, they present us with scenes - of conflict or comedy - played out on the stage that they've decided their pages really are.

In short, I'm furious because I think that, before telling us who is most furious every morning, it is the duty of reporters to tells us why exactly anyone is furious at all.