Sunday, 27 November 2016

Beaten to It

There is a slightly tiresome habit forming out there in the world. It is the habit of characterising 2016 as some kind of year of horrors surpassing all others. On BBC radio this morning, an announcer even said about the death of Fidel Castro, "2016 has struck again."*

Anyway, reading Penelope Fitzgerald's book called The Knox Brothers while eating my breakfast, I came across this paragraph about the editor of Punch in 1933:

"Sometimes, sitting in El Vino's with a friend of long standing, Johnny Morton, "Beachcomber", [whose work was immensely funny, for those who have never experienced him] of the Express, Eddie would agree that humour had had its day, because the state of the world was such that nothing was too absurd or too unpleasant to come true."

Does that sound at all familiar? What price 2016 now?

Mind you, I suppose pointing out that 1933 was also a bad year is hardly blowing the "2016 = dreadful" concept completely out of the water.

What remains then to cling onto in times of adversity?  Well, humour, of course, particularly a sense of the absurd. Actually that is pretty much all that keeps me going in the last analysis. While there is breath in my body for one last gale of laughter, I will insist that it has not yet had its day.

*and on that note, if you haven't already,  look up #trudeaueulogy on Twitter.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Unable to Resist

I promised myself I would say nothing at all about politics and the result of the American presidential election, but now I give in. The reason I didn't want to say anything is that I know nothing really. In addition, there is barely anything on the Internet about any other topic at the moment, and I am beginning to find it gets me down.

The reason it gets me down is that, much as I want to wait and see before making judgments, I can't help worrying about the apparent lack of interest or belief in anything but making deals that the president elect has manifested up until now - and thus his election is rather sobering/worrying, since the main function of a head of state should not be to amass large profits for himself. He doesn't seem enormously stable either.

Of course, I may be completely misjudging the man, but, based on the evidence I've been exposed to - and, yes, who knows, possibly it is all skewed and slanted - he doesn't come across as a very sensitive, nuanced person. Or at least not sensitive, except about himself.

Anyway a couple of things happened that made me decide to break my promise to myself. The first was I came across a passage that seemed oddly apposite. Some will say that it is not and the parallel with Trump that I think I see in Tom Buchanan is false, since Tom Buchanan is from the established New York upper class rich, whereas Trump is from new money. Also, Tom Buchanan is a fleshy, violent bully who has no integrity, emotional or moral, so that is nothing like Trump either, is it?

On the point of social difference, I would argue that all new world wealth is new money and the idea of a new world aristocracy is absurd, and therefore on that level the analogy works just fine.

So let's hurtle on to the passage in question - but before I get to that, let me just add that I do fully recognise that another flaw in my analogy is that things were not as perfect in the world before Trump as they appear to be in the scene Fitzgerald describes here just before Buchanan enters and sucks the joy out of everything:

"The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor."

The great F Scott Fitzgerald, ladies and gentleman, what an absolute genius. How in heaven's name did he end up poor - and how in heaven's name did that truly wonderful novel Tender is the Night not become an instant and overwhelming success? That is an even bigger mystery than the question of how Trump won, which, of course, has been a preoccupation of many since 9 November.

And actually I must admit that, leaving aside the fact that anything is possible in a world where such a great work of art could be overlooked and underlining the lack of delight I feel about what has happened, I do think it is not impossible to make out one or two possible wisps of sort of almost reasons for the result.

I noticed one of these scraps of possibility - just a tatter of something that may have gone a little way to creating the outcome - while I was  watching Hillary Clinton give her concession speech. It was when she got to the bit where she was encouraging her younger supporters not to become too disheartened to continue political work, that I thought perhaps I'd discovered a clue to what went wrong for her.

The thing she said that immediately struck me was this:

"Never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it."

She had missed something, I thought, and perhaps everyone who shares her beliefs had done the same throughout the campaign. The thing I thought she had missed was an acknowledgment that "what is right" is not a given; different groups have different views about what "what is right" actually means. Therefore, it seemed to me that what she ought to have said was this:

Never stop believing that fighting for what YOU THINK is right is worth it."

The addition of those two words would have kept one important element at the forefront - the recognition that not everyone believes what you believe and you need to engage with them and PERSUADE them.

But perhaps I am biased because of the weird ways of the little bubble in which I live, a place where, as I have mentioned, I have to entertain often and nowadays - a very new development - etiquette requires that I ask people whether there is anything they might prefer not to eat. Manners, as I understood them once, meant that a guest would always reply with, "Why no, just give me whatever you are eating; it is so kind of you to offer me your hospitality at all", but this is no longer the case. Everyone seems to believe these days that they should fight for what is right for their digestion. Worse still, a recent experience, when it was stipulated by a prospective guest that, should I be including any fish on my menu, I must ensure that said fish be sustainably sourced, suggests that someone has taken Mrs Clinton's words to heart and brought them to my table and a fight between me and my guests about what we believe is right is about to be undertaken.

Much more of this sort of stuff, and I might begin to feel almost sour enough to vote for Trump myself.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Pedalling Dreams

My favourite joke is one made by the comedian Bob Monkhouse. "They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian", he tells his audience: "They're not laughing now."

This week I have had occasion to remember that joke because I too have been laughed at. Yes. Imagine. Me.

I have been laughed at because I have had what I consider a brilliant idea that I believe will solve three of the great public policy challenges of our time. No less! Those are, in no particular order, obesity, energy supply and climate change.

Nothing important then.

Yes, it is true. You have found me out at last: I masquerade as ZMKC, but really my name is Anne Elk, (Miss):

Anyway, leaving my earlier theoretical failings aside, my current idea is a good one, I believe.

It came to me, my idea, in case you are interested, when I was at a train station in London and I saw some people at a table pedalling energetically in order to keep the electricity going that was playing some music. I'd already seen a photograph some months before of a projected idea for a bus full of gym bicycles that people can ride on their commute to work, (which had struck me as a pretty daft idea, but no more than gyms themselves, where people will often take time off the treadmill of work to go on an actual treadmill, surrounded by others, who have made much the same choice). Just before I saw the table pedallers, I'd read a) an article about unemployment, b) an article about obesity and c) an article about how difficult it is to create energy if we give up coal.

Well, of course, you're ahead of me, I'm sure. Or are you? Perhaps, like everyone else I've suggested this idea to this week, you are not ahead of me but pouring scorn on me from a great height instead. Why though? No-one can tell me. They just reply with vague statements about my idea being absurd and ridiculous and impractical.

Oh sorry, I should explain what my idea actually is so that you can judge for yourself/have a very good chuckle.

My idea is that we employ people to ride stationary bicycles for five or six hours a day, thus giving them jobs and ensuring they are unlikely to put on weight. There will be shifts so that people are riding the bikes constantly on a twenty-four cycle, (geddit?) and the bicycles will be connected to the grid, generating energy.

My impression is that probably the largest objection to this proposal as far as most of the people I've run it past are concerned is that they regard the idea of asking people to ride bikes to create energy as demeaning, but my impression is that most jobs these days are pretty demeaning. These cycling jobs would be contributing to society in a valuable manner, the people doing them would be paid and they would also be taking care of their long term health. I think it is more demeaning to work in a call centre. But what do I know? After all I spent several months of my life as a cycle courier in Sydney and seriously considered making a career of it. I certainly enjoyed that period of my life enormously more than the horrible year I spent as a fast-streamed graduate in the civil service - remembering that experience reminds me that I must update my earlier post on scenarios that I believe could fill the role of hell.

Aaargh. I have been suppressing recollections of that civil service interlude for decades, but now all the bad memories are flooding painfully back. Offices; carpet tiles; discussion papers; meetings. Meetings, meetings, oh, the long, dull, seemingly endless meetings. If anything is demeaning, surely meetings are - achingly, unendurably so.

In fact, I submit that the tedium of meetings amounts to utter degradation of the human soul, whereas haring about on a bicycle delivering things or staying in one place pedalling, chatting to your neighbour, generating energy and getting paid to do what you might otherwise pay to do in a gym is empowering, (in the latter case, literally)

Of course, there may be some technical difficulties still to be overcome in the area of electricity generation and storage, but, if they can be overcome - and I bet they can, if they haven't been already - what exactly is so bad about my plan? And please don't all shout, "EVERYTHING!"

Friday, 11 November 2016

Battered Penguins - A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

If Evelyn Waugh had opened A Handful of Dust with the first line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, he would have been quite justified, for Waugh's story is definitely and truly one of the saddest ever told - and not only sad, but funny and brilliantly written. In fact, while it cannot be the very best novel I have ever read, because there is no such individual category, it is certainly among the group of equal place getters in that field.

When the novel opens, Tony Last and his wife Brenda, the book's central figures, are living quietly - alas, a little too quietly for Brenda’s taste - in the 19th century “Gothic-style” Garden of Eden that is Hetton Abbey, the Last family seat. Their small son John lives there with them and thinks of nothing except his pony and the tales told him by Ben, the newly promoted “stud groom” - these revolve mostly around a strawberry roan called Thunderclap who “killed two riders and won the local point-to-point four years running” and Peppermint, the mule, “who had drunk the company’s rum ration, near Wipers in 1917.”

Into the Hetton Abbey idyll a viper soon intrudes. Tony, who asks very little of life beyond a few muffins to “make the English winter endurable” is reduced to misery - and then handed a truly terrible fate. What happens to young John is beyond awful - and brilliantly foreshadowed within the first pages. Brenda sails on, shallow, neither happy nor unhappy, simply passing from frivolity to frivolity.

Surveying the final wreckage, I wondered how Waugh managed to retain my attention while telling a story whose trajectory is so unremittingly downward. I am inclined to be a cowardly reader, putting down books that promise no happy ending. But the fact that I not only stayed with A Handful of Dust to the bitter end but read on compulsively is just one indication of Waugh’s genius.

In this book, as elsewhere, Waugh's characters are vivid, mercilessly drawn and extraordinarily believable. I am aware that I have a tendency to run on with over-enthusiastic quoting so I will stick with just one example of brilliantly observed characterisation, picked at random:

“He ate in a ruthless manner, champing his food (it was his habit, often, without noticing it, to consume things that others usually left on their plates, the heads and tails of whiting, whole mouthfuls of chicken bone, peach stones and apple cores, cheese rinds and the fibrous parts of the artichoke)"

and one incident, the arrival for the weekend of a glamorous "denationalised, rich" American at Hetton Abbey, which seems to me to be a first portent of the way in which new money and celebrity would eventually eclipse the older way of life of the English upper class, (somehow Madonna in her English lady-of-the-manor phase comes to mind):

"She arrived by air on Monday afternoon. It was the first time that a guest had come in this fashion and the household was appreciably excited. Under Jock's direction the boiler man and one of the gardeners pegged out a dust sheet in the park to mark a landing for her and lit a bonfire of damp leaves to show the direction of the wind. The five trunks arrived in the ordinary way by train, with an elderly, irreproachable maid. She brought her own sheets with her in one of the trunks; they were neither silk nor coloured, without lace or ornament of any kind, except small, plain monograms."

I found the book beautiful, witty, poignant - and ferociously convincing about how helpless is innocence in a fallen world and how everything will only end in tragedy - or, rather in tragi-comedy, for the sadness of the story is offset by the wry tone of the narration, which somehow keeps an awareness of the cruel absurdity of humanity's self-involvement always present in the reader's mind.

Like so much by Waugh, (possibly the major exception is Brideshead Revisited, which lacks the fierce bite of most of his novels, in my opinion), A Handful of Dust is a masterpiece.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Shakespearean Weight Watching

Continuing through Shakespeare's collected plays, I found myself knee-deep in the gore of Titus Andronicus. Thento my surprise, after the cruel absurdity of a four-way quarrel about who was keenest to lop off his hand - and surely no play exists anywhere that displays anything like such a keen interest in hands as this one - Shakespeare, through Titus (who, having won the argument, is now minus one hand) provides what may be the world's first crash diet plan:

"So, so, now sit, and look you eat no more
Than will preserve just so much strength in us
As will revenge these bitter woes of ours."

While not very tempting, it does beat the banquet served up at the very end of the play, about which the less said the better, beyond, "Ugh".

And yet, unpleasant as this play is, glimpsed through the ever rising pile of corpses and hacked off of limbs are numerous charming traces of the natural world - possibly the element that I love best in Shakespeare:

"O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute"

"When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad ..."

"Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry"

"the burning tapers of the sky"

" sanguine, shallow-hearted boys,
Ye white-limed walls, ye alehouse painted signs,
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean,
Can never turn the swan's black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood"

"Why, so, brave lords, when we do join in league
I am a lamb; but if you brave the Moor,
The chafèd boar, the mountain lioness,
The ocean swells not so as Aaron storms."

"'Wheak, Wheak' - so cries a pig preparèd to the spit."

"I see thou wilt not trust the air
With secrets."

" swift as swallow flies ...
I'll make you feed on berries and on roots
And fat on curds and whey, and suck the goat,
And cabin in a cave ..."

"These tidings nip me, and I hang the head,
As flowers with frost, or grass beat down with storms."

"Is the sun dimmed, that gnats do fly in it?
The eagle suffers little birds to sing,
And is not careful what they mean thereby,
Knowing that with the shadow of his wings
He can at pleasure stint their melody."

"I will enchant the old Andronicus
With words more sweet and yet more dangerous
Than baits to fish or honey-stalks to sheep
Whenas the one is wounded with the bait,
The other rotted with delicious feed."

"We'll follow where thou lead'st
Like stinging bees on hottest summer's day
Led by their master to the flowered fields"

"But where the bull and cow are both milk-white
They never do beget a coal-black calf."

"I ... laughed so heartily
That both mine eyes were rainy like to his"

"Make poor men's cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and haystacks in the night"

"I am Revenge, sent from th'infernal kingdom
To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind"

"There's not a hollow cave or lurking place,
No vast obscurity or misty vale ..."

"And then I'll come and be thy Waggoner
And whirl along with thee about the globe,
Provide two proper palfreys, black as jet ..."

"You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome,
By uproars severed, as a flight of fowl
Scattered by winds and high tempestuous gusts,
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf"

The play also, for good or ill, has what might be seen as the first ever variant of the Maximilian joke ("F*#!* Maximilian", "I do", "So do I")  in the film Cabaret:

"Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother
Aaron: Villain, I have done your mother."

That is from Act 4, Scene 2, in which Aaron's speeches on his own child and on skin colour are, for me, among the best things in the play - narrowly followed, if you can take the violence, by Marcus's speech on finding his niece minus tongue and hands, plus Titus's grief stricken moments in Act 3, Scene 2.

Titus is surely the forerunner of poor Lear, Aaron a blend of Iago and Caliban. Tamora is incomparably vile. The way in which race is dealt with - that is to say, the play's, by today's standards, racism - seems shocking, which demonstrates that progress has been made.