Saturday, 29 October 2016


It struck me, as I bent to do up my shoelaces for the fifteenth time yesterday, that it is rather odd, in the 21st century, that we continue to insist on strapping our shoes onto our feet with lengths of string. Of course, the problem I have at the moment is that the string my new laces are made of is quite unsuitable - not fit for purpose, as they say these days in nauseating circles. It is slippery where it should be incapable of sliding even the tiniest bit.

These are new laces. The old ones snapped, and then I tried to make do with their short remains, and then they snapped too, and so I had to buy new ones. Unfortunately, I assumed that lengths of string sold as shoe laces would not be made of material that undoes itself every few steps.

Not that I am advocating the other extreme, as embodied by the suede laces with which one rather beautiful pair of shoes in my cupboard arrived. Those laces are so non-slip that they will barely budge enough to let me slip my foot into the shoes to which they have been attached. Once I have at last coaxed them to loosen themselves to the bare minimum possible to allow ingress of my toes - plus the feet that come with them - these laces are equally difficult to tighten enough to give said toes and feet a sense of being safely encased.

The funny thing is that we don't actually need laces at all anymore. We could be using velcro or that amazing technology that is all the go on the ski slopes, where boots are moulded exactly to your foot. What sentimental attachment is it that keeps us sticking with string fastenings? Is it just that, having mastered the task as small children of tying our own shoelaces, we can't bear letting all that infant effort go to waste?

Or is it the fact that laces provide such a useful sociological tool when visiting unfamiliar places?  There are certainly people I know of - well actually one person - who use a shoelace related measure when travelling - vis. an undone shoelace - to work out what kind of a society they find themselves in.

The idea is to see what distance you can walk down a street in any locality before it is pointed out to you that you ought to do up your shoelace. Research to date suggests that it is in Vienna that the shortest distance can be covered before some concerned - or bossy, depending on your perspective - passerby draws your attention to the inadequate performance of one or other of your laces, which they report severely is slithering about at ground level, neglecting its central duty, which is to tie your footwear firmly to your feet.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Stuff and Nonsense

I haven't a lot of time at the moment but that doesn't mean I don't still have the odd idle moment in which my mind goes wandering

For instance, driving past some cooling towers the other day, I found myself wondering about the people in the houses spread out near their base. I suppose living in a world that uses nuclear power requires a certain faith in authority but to live so close to that kind of power plant must indicate a greater trust in human administrative abilities - or perhaps in fate - than I could muster. Or perhaps it is just a sign of deeply felt stoicism, if stoicism is defined as an indifference to what life doles out. Or could it be that there are people who actually see a beauty in these places? I did have a Russian teacher who was always trying to whip up interest in weekend outings to hydro electric stations and nuclear projects.

Somehow - I really don't know how; maybe my memory turned to Soviet bloc industrial towns and how filthy they were (there was one we used to drive through somewhere in the Balkans that was completely orange; whatever it was that belched out of the factory chimneys there, it coated every surface in a strange tangerine dust) - my thoughts meandered on to land on the subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It occurred to me that of all the countries that were part of that empire at the start of the First World War, the only one that did not spend a time under Communist rule was Austria. But is that true? And if it is, why did Austria miss out - or perhaps more importantly why did every single one of the others succumb? The weakened state of formerly colonised countries? Does that apply really in that least aggressively colonial of all empires? Too great a faith that the thing would never fall apart leading to false security? This is probably a question upon which many great minds have spent a lifetime, and still no certain answer has been discovered. I suppose ultimately it was just a matter of how far to the east you were as the Soviets swept westward. Lucky old Austria.

My husband meanwhile has decided to get his head around the War of the Austrian Succession. He may be some time.

Another day, and in a completely different context, (the result of overhearing two young women discussing a young man they knew), I found myself wondering where the new word, "buff" comes from. The girls agreed that their acquaintance was "well buff". It seems to me that that is not a phrase that would have meant anything to anyone even five years ago. It still doesn't mean an awful lot to me.

Finally, as I peddled through a thirty-five minute bout of interval training, it occurred to me that you move through time in a different way when exercising. A more painful way essentially - and sweaty, bleurgh. But VERY GOOD FOR YOU, yes, yes.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Not Looking on the Bright Side

At Anecdotal Evidence on Monday, Patrick Kurp suggested that a hatred of  beauty has become the defining quality of our time. I  don't know about a hatred of beauty but I have certainly noticed an inability to create beauty in the contemporary western world. It is a worrying development. Without realising it, at some point we seem to have agreed that, in exchange for receiving the keys to technological progress, we would renounce our skills and cease our labours in the most truly remarkable realm of human activity - the creation of beauty.

We could not, even if we wanted to, build anything as intricate and rich with human ingenuity and skill as a medieval cathedral now. We can no longer paint or sculpt as we once could, (do not get me started on contemporary figurative sculpture - each time I go to London and have to pass that thing [which I think is supposed to be a pair of lovers parting] that towers above Eurostar passengers arriving at King's Cross station, I shudder at its awfulness).

We cannot compose truly beautiful music any more. Our novels almost invariably run out of steam thirty pages before they end, if they ever get going in the first place. Our plays - well, can you name a play of lasting value written in the last ten years?

I'm not as familiar with the field of poetry, so perhaps in that arena there is hope - oh yes, there's Les Murray. Poor man, must he be left with the task of creating beauty all by himself in Bunyah? No, there are others. Mark Doty, John Burnside.

I'm sure there are manymore . But still - how can poets alone keep the whole thing going. And besides, can a civilisation that has all but lost the ability to create beauty still call itself a civilisation?

Are we finished? Sometimes I think we are.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


I went to Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory the other evening. It confirmed me in my suspicion that Tom Stoppard is an essayist pretending to be a dramatist. It was pretty heavy going, despite the best efforts of all concerned.

The trouble is Stoppard never makes the slightest effort to engage the audience emotionally on any level. Instead, he tries to educate us. In my view, theatre's first duty is to engage and, once it has done that, it might be able to provoke some thought from the audience. Stoppard prefers to provide us with a potted history of Dadaism and a summary of Lenin's efforts to return Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, (at moments I began to worry that we'd have to sit a test at the end), combined with a bit of philosophical banter and some dreadfully feeble attempts at jokes.

Mind you, there were some very thought-provoking bits in the script - they would have made interesting essays. Here are the ones that I found particularly arresting, but I contend they would have more impact in a written medium - they race past so fast in the theatre, you hardly notice them, let alone get a chance to grapple with the ideas within them, and the actors speaking them are mere mouthpieces for different sides of an intellectual argument, rather than dramatic figures of any kind:


"Henry Carr (the main character - he is a genuine figure, who lived in Zurich and took part in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest put on by James Joyce): My dear Tristan, to be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. To be an artist in Zurich, in 1917, implies a degree of self -absorption that would have glazed over the eyes of Narcissus ...And besides I couldn't be an artist anywhere - I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.

Tzara (a Romanian who was among the founders of Dada): Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat.

Carr: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.

Tzara: I see I have made myself clear.

Carr: Then you are not actually an artist at all?

Tzara: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.

Carr: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly ... Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn't know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don't you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

Tzara: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom, king and country, brave little Belgium, saucy little Serbia -

Carr: You are insulting my comrades-in-arms, many of whom died on the field of honour-

Tzara: -and honour - all the traditional sophistries for waging wars of expansion and self-interest, set to patriotic hymns. Music is corrupted, language conscripted. Words are taken to stand for their opposites. That is why anti-art is the art of our time.

Carr: The nerve of it. Wars are fought to make the world safe for artists. It is never quite put in those terms but it is a useful way of grasping what civilised ideals are all about. The easiest way of knowing whether good has triumphed over evil is to examine the freedom of the artist. The ingratitude of artists, indeed their hostility, not to mention the loss of nerve and failure of talent which accounts for 'modern art', merely demonstrate the freedom of the artist to be ungrateful, hostile, self-centred and talentless, for which freedom I went to war.

Tzara: Wars are fought for oil wells and coaling stations; for control of the Dardanelles or the Suez Canal; for colonial pickings to buy cheap in and conquered markets to sell dear in. War is capitalism with the gloves off and many who go to war know it but they go to war because they don't want to be a hero. It takes courage to sit down and be counted. But how much better to live bravely in Switzerland than to die cravenly in France ..."


"Joyce, addressing Tzara, who has just been explaining Dada: You are an over-excited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond your natural gifts. This is not discreditable. Neither does it make you an artist. An artist is the magician put among men to gratify - capriciously - their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities ...I would strongly advise you to try and acquire some genius and if possible some subtlety before the season is quite over."


"Cecily: In an age when the difference between prince and peasant was thought to be in the stars ... art was naturally an affirmation for the one and a consolation to the other; but we live in an age when the social order is seen to be the work of material forces and we have been given an entirely new kind of responsibility, the responsibility of changing society.

Carr: No, no, no, no, no - my dear girl! - art doesn't change society, it is merely changed by it ... Marx got it wrong. He got it wrong for good reasons but he got it wrong just the same. By bad luck he encountered the capitalist system at its most deceptive period. The industrial revolution had crowded the people into slums and enslaved them in factories, but it had not yet begun to bring them the benefits of an industrialised society. Marx drew the lesson that the wealth of the capitalist had been stolen from the worker in the form of unpaid labour. He thought that was how the whole thing worked. That false premise was itself added to a false assumption. Marx assumed that people would behave according to their class. But they didn't. In all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons, the classes moved closer together instead of further apart. The critical moment never came. It receded. The tide must have turned at about the time when Das Kapital after eighteen years of hard labour was finally coming off the press ..."

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Trip Advisor Again

My husband is allowed to unchain himself from his desk for a long weekend near the end of October and it turns out that his dream of escape is to go and stay somewhere near Hadrian's Wall.

No, I don't know why either. I suggested Lyon and Dijon, but his heart is set on cold and wind, (although I hope no lice in his tunic):

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky. 

WH Auden, Roman Wall Blues

(Or perhaps it was Kipling's soldier's mention of the Wall that got him thinking about it; while shorter on detail, it expresses a fonder perspective:

The Roman Centurion's Song

(Roman Occupation of Britain, A.D. 300)

LEGATE, I had the news last night - my cohort ordered home
By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I've marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I've served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid - my wife - my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze -
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June's long-lighted days?

You'll follow widening Rhodanus till vine and olive lean
Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
To Arelate's triple gate; but let me linger on,
Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You'll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
Where, blue as any peacock's neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You'll go where laurel crowns are won, but -will you e'er forget
The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain's sake - at any task you will -
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears - My cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind - the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!                               )

Anyway, whatever the inspiration, the inevitable trawl through Trip Advisor has been the initial step in planning this glamorous mini-break.

How I love Trip Advisor.  Actually love isn't the word. In fact, in many ways I hate it - but it exercises a strange fascination.

The obsessions it reveals are not only surprising but intriguing. Until I started using it, I had no idea that people could get really, really worked up about sausages, for example, or about not being offered seven different kinds of bread at breakfast. I didn't know it was possible to write four and a half paragraphs about the fact that a waiter didn't smile - or that he smiled too much, ("he smiled at breakfast").

I didn't know that some people, while ostensibly on holiday, relaxing, are prepared to get down on their knees with their cameras in order to take pictures of horrid things they spot behind lavatories and under double beds. Or that they would use up their precious free time taking hazy photographs of the junction between carpet and skirting board, where staining or grime or fungus or swarms of insects have captured their fevered imagination. Sadly, few of them have cameras of great quality, so all I can ever see when I peer at the snaps they've laboured over is a brownish, beigish blur.

You do wonder whether all this energy couldn't be put to better use. Then again, provoking mild amusement is a reasonably worthwhile purpose, even if it isn't the original intention.

It crosses my mind now that I might be able to create some kind of installation using nothing but photographs of shower grouting posted by members of Trip Advisor. There are so many I would argue that they constitute a genre. Surely pictures of shamefully stained bits of bathroom tiling could be seen as an expression of a larger phenomenon, of something more profound?

I suppose for a lot of people writing angry reviews on Trip Advisor is a free form of therapy. As they enragedly upload their visual evidence of everything they were infuriated by, I wonder if they feel a strange calm begin to descend.

As others may not find the subject quite as fascinating as I do, I've resolved to be restrained. I'm only including in this post my two absolute favourite discoveries from my latest visit to Trip Advisor.

1. My first selection is a long review that chronicles the disgusted fury of a couple who go out to a gastropub for dinner and are offered a drink at the bar while they wait for their table. Those bastards. How dare they offer us a drink at a bar in a pub. UNBELIEVABLE.  Don't they know that "we always order our bottles of wine at the table and we always have a bottle of wine each,", which is why "we refused to order at the bar - it is just a way of getting you to spend more."

Leaving aside the disarming honesty of saying that "we always have a bottle of wine each", why didn't they just ask if they could order their bottle each at the bar, rather than steaming in passive-agressive fury, grinding their teeth and plotting their vengeance via Trip Advisor later? Instead, they had a horrible evening and worked themselves up into a complete frenzy about almost everything, concluding the review with possibly the most damning thing I have ever seen anyone write about a restaurant:

"The best part of the meal was the chocolate they gave us after we had paid our bill."

If I ran that place and read that sentence, I would lie down and weep, I think.

2. My second selection is a photograph that I find so odd and mysterious - and faintly reminiscent of pictures I've seen of Alfred Hitchcock - that I want to print it and put it on my wall:

Who is that man? Does he live in that bathroom? Is he hoping no-one will notice him? Is he not in the room at all, but only in the mirror? Has someone trapped him or hypnotised him, so that he stands there like a primary school boy being chastised by a very fierce teacher, arms stiff at his sides, not looking anywhere and certainly not at the camera?

And what about those odd white bishop-hat-shaped things on the radiator? Are we actually interrupting some ritual?

What is going on in that bathroom? I can't sleep - I have to know.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Theory and Practice of Frenchness

The tiny son of a friend of mine started at a French speaking school a few weeks ago. His reaction has been to stand with his back to the wall in playground or classroom and shout at anyone who comes near him, "Parle anglais!"

What a sensible boy, I thought, after No. 1, seeing this little dog on my walk this morning:

and, No.2, wondering what the word for "frisky" might be in French and then, No. 3, looking it up.

When I read the dictionary entry, it brought to mind my entire stock of vulgar Anglo French jokes, (poor taste alert, stop reading now, if you are easily offended by references to bizarre sexual practices). The first is about a man whose wife dies in France while he is in England; after crossing the Channel to attend her funeral, he realises he hasn't brought a hat, so he goes into a department store and asks if they have any black hats as he needs one because his wife has died. Sadly, he uses the noun "capot" instead of "chapeau" and so the shop assistant's response to his request for "un capot noir, parce que ma femme est morte" is to say, "L'angleterre, what a nation of style and finesse", (as if any French person has ever, ever said that, or anything like it - far more common is the conversation we overheard at Waterloo on the weekend between French speakers and Dutch about whether the English or the Australians are bigger pigs, [ it went on at a high emotional intensity and for quite some time; as a dual national, I realised I was doubly appalling; I thought about pointing this out to the people in question as I left, but sadly as usual in such situations I simply didn't have the nerve).

The second joke (or "joke") is about a woman who finds there is no mattress in her hotel room in France and so requests one at the front desk as she says she cannot sleep without one. Unfortunately, she uses the noun "matelot" instead of "matelas", provoking the receptionist to cry, "Ah, l'angleterre, quelle nation maritime", or something along those lines.

Anyway, when I read No. 3 under the entry for "frisky" in my Oxford French-English dictionary, as well as remembering these so-called jokes, I thought, "Ah, what a limited, unsubtle language French is compared to English", although on reflection is there much subtlety in saying, "I'm feeling frisky" if what you mean is what the French say in No. 3 (shall I sheer off here into a discussion of the relative merits of bluntness over euphemism? No, I think I won't today - or possibly ever):

But let's forget all this disgusting smut. My actual favourite joke about Anglos and French people is this one:

An American & a Frenchman have been working for months on a project & have finally come up with a plan. They are about to sign off on it but the Frenchman still looks worried, so the American asks him if he still has concerns. "Well", the Frenchman says, "I am a bit worried - I mean I can see that the strategy works in practice. But does it work in theory?"

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Moaning Spree

I am getting more and more upset at the way the people who write the news use the word "spree". When someone goes on the rampage with a gun, killing innocent strangers, that is not a "spree". A spree should cause  no pain and involve no firearms. A spree does not include the shedding of blood.