Saturday, 21 January 2017

Something I Read - 2017 - No. 1 - Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn

The secondhand bookshop near me in Brussels is much better than a bookshop for my purposes, because it has more the atmosphere of a library than a bookshop and, as with libraries, the collection of books you find there is wider and more varied than in the average contemporary high street bookshop - perhaps because it is selected without any reference to marketing drives. I suppose that some might argue that secondhand books are by definition rejected books but, given Brussels's shifting population, it is often the case that entire book collections - including not just loathed volumes but old favourites - are simply unloaded when someone moves on.

Anyway, my first choice from the shop this year was Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, a novel that some reports claim is barely a novel and really a thinly disguised autobiography, in which case, poor Edward St Aubyn.

Whatever it is, reading Never Mind makes you live more vividly, if that makes sense. There is a kind of hyper-realism about some of the descriptions that made me feel as if time had been distilled and I was staring into a clear, pure drop of someone's experience with a magnifying glass in my hand:

"She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth."

Yes, as this example suggests, much of the distorted sense of reality may arise from the obsessive or addictive or troubled nature of the personality being described. But never mind, (ha ha). The person in question, by the way, is a woman who has been so completely subjugated by her husband that she is too afraid to go and comfort her own child if her husband forbids her to. The only place she feels safe is "her car [which] was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist."

The merciless clarity the narrator applies to his characters is matched by superb precision. The central figure, David, is drawn with the kind of unflattering truthfulness that he himself would have to applaud:

"His face was astonishingly handsome. Its faultlessness was its only flaw; it was the blueprint of a face and had an uninhabited feeling to it ... he wore an inattentive expression, until he spotted another person's vulnerability. Then the look in his eyes hardened like a flexed muscle."

I suppose one could argue that there is little room left there for the reader to draw his own conclusions about whether David is a delightful human being, but why should a writer of fiction leave the reader entirely to his own devices in making judgments about the characters he has created?

What story there is revolves around the unequal battle between Patrick, David's small son, and David. The events we are told of are unspeakable and unflinchingly portrayed. Particularly admirably, Patrick is not presented as an angelic creature, standing, small and alone, against the incarnation of evil. Patrick is flawed and David is not entirely - although very nearly entirely - without redemptive qualities.

While the material of the book is almost unbearable, it is also funny - as when one figure is described as having "the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling poultry" and two characters are shown at the end of a plane journey, starting "to clank their way down a flight of metal steps, caught between the air crew who pretended to be sorry at their departure and the ground crew who pretended to be pleased by their arrival" - and full of astonishing insight about human weakness and cruelty. The prose is so perfect that, despite the unpleasantness of most of the characters and the utterly shocking nature of some of the events, I read the whole thing in one go and will happily read the next volumes in the series, should anyone choose to take them down the Chaussée de Waterloo and flog them to Pêle Mêle.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

At the Theatre

The other day we went to the National Theatre and saw Amadeus. Did you know that the National Theatre has a Five Year Equality Action Plan - yes, I too thought that five-year plans had gone out with Stalin, but apparently not.

Silly me. I also thought that what they were supposed to be doing over there on the South Bank was making theatre, but it turns out that they are busy with the important task of "celebrating" the nation, most specifically "the diversity of the nation in terms of ... ethnicity, disability, sexuality and class."
They are also frantically "trying to shift perceptions."

Good for them, the arrogant busybodies. Why can't they just put on plays?

I'm glad to say they failed totally in their mission to shift any of my perceptions. I went in thinking Amadeus is a good play and I came out with the same view. What is more, I discovered that it cannot be made boring, no matter how hard anyone tries.

I wrote about the performance we saw here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

For the Best

It is funny how you can go for years - indeed decades - without noticing the oddness of familiar things. Or, to be absolutely precise, it is funny how I can. 

To give you an example, today a friend told me that someone else, a person I don't know, is very "self-contained".  

"Self-contained" is a phrase I've encountered regularly for decades, but only this afternoon did its oddness strike me. 

I mean, imagine if you met someone who wasn't self-contained. 

Just think of the mess. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Narrow Minded Beastliness

Yesterday, we went to the Royal Acadrmy in London to look at the exhibition of pictures by James Ensor. His pictures are very odd and interesting and one day soon I must go down to Ostend again and do a blog post about Ensor and his home town.

But for now I don't want to talk about Ensor and his paintings but about something that was happening at the exhibition when we visited. Normally, the Royal Academy is a rather sedate place so it was surprising to hear, as we went into the exhibition, a lot of incoherent howls and squeaks and shouts coming from the room containing the centrepiece of the show, which is this:

It is a painting by Ensor called Intrigue.

We went into the room containing the picture, where the hubbub continued. The end of the room where the painting hangs was full of people in wheelchairs and their companions. The people in the wheelchairs were not looking at the painting, partly because they were probably the most severely disabled people I have ever seen - in one case, very, very nearly unrecognisable as a person - and appeared to be lost in their own humming and yipping and growling realities, partly because they - or their carers - were being encouraged by a presumably well-meaning man with a singsong voice and a camera to crowd together, "closer, closer", for a group portrait in front of this strange work. He did try to engage them with the piece, "some things are smooth and some are not, some are bright and some are not", but not one of the wheelchair bound glanced in the picture's direction, or appeared capable of that kind of attention.

I knew I should admire the dedication of all the able-bodied who had brought about what must have been a real logistical miracle so that all those wheelchair-bound individuals could be gathered there but instead, being a narrow minded, conservative old bigot, I could not suppress doubts. Was the outing really of any significance to those it had apparently been designed for? Is it a dreadful thing to wonder if they were really capable of understanding any element of what was happening to
them yesterday morning? Was it possibly even a bit confusing and exhausting? Or was the aim perhaps simply to remind comfortable middle-class stuffy souls like me that exceptionally damaged human beings are born and some people have to carry the burden of their care and we ought to never forget that?

Either way, the choice of artwork provided for the outing seemed either absolutely apposite or in very very poor taste..

Sunday, 8 January 2017


I went to the cinema again the other day and I saw a Romanian film by the man who made Beyond the Hills, a film I liked very much. While this one was not quite as visually rich, I still thought it very good and I wrote about it here.s

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Battered Penguins - Decline and Fall

I think I must have at last grown up as I have reached a stage where I really cannot get enough of Evelyn Waugh's faintly surreal and very comical world, with its cast of grotesque yet troublingly familiar characters.

Decline and Fall is my latest venture into that world. It is the story of Peter Pennyfeather, who falls prey to a thinly disguised Bullingdon Club and is unfairly sent down from Oxford as a result. I should point out that, as Waugh is at pains to explain, we are not meant to care too much about Pennyfeather as "the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

Mind you, there is no one else much to care about in the novel. But there are lots of people to laugh at.

There is Grimes who is always getting "in the soup", (except in Ireland, as, at least in his experience, "You can't get into the soup in Ireland, do what you like") and who finds schoolmastering a challenge because, as he explains, it is "very hard for a man with a wig to keep order."

There is Mr Prendergast who thinks far too much and totally unproductively - "It has been the tragedy of my life that whenever I start thinking about any quite simple subject, I invariably feel myself confronted by some flat contradiction" - who claims to have an aunt "whose cat used to put its paw up to its mouth when it yawned" and who was a vicar until, "for no reason at all, my Doubts began ...not ... the ordinary sort of Doubt ... I couldn't understand why God had made the world at all."

There is Lord Circumference from who I suspect the writers of the Vicar of Dibley stole the verger's mother's conversational gambit. Whereas the Dibley character says, "Did you? Did you? You did, did you?", or 'Was it? Was it? It was, was it?", Lord Circumference says, "Do you think that? Do you think that? Do you?"

There is Pennyfeather's friend Potts, who reveals himself in letters to Pennyfeather as totally lacking in commonsense and a dreadful, earnest theoriser about and interferer in things of which he knows nothing:

"There is a most interesting article in the Educational Review", he writes while Pennyfeather is teaching, "on the new methods that are being tried at the Innesborough High School to induce co-ordination of the senses. They put small objects into the children's mouths and make them draw the shapes in red chalk. Have you tried this with your boys?"

Sadly, he is exactly the kind of person who ends up running the world and leads to revolts against elites at times such as now.

There is the usual amoral, fun woman one always finds in a Waugh novel. This time she is called Margot Beste-Chetwynde:

"Mrs Beste-Chetwynde - two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Budapest."

I always have the impression that Waugh understands that such people are worthless and probably will hurt him but that that does not even slightly diminish their attraction for him.

Perhaps the nicest character in the novel is Mrs Beste-Chetwynde's son, a small boy whom Pennyfeather is supposed to teach to play the organ, despite the fact that Pennyfeather does not play the organ himself. When told of a forthcoming marriage, the young Beste-Chetwynde remarks: "I don't suppose that their children will be terribly attractive." Sadly, by the end of the novel, he appears to be heading for a life of dissolution. Could he be Waugh's imagining of the child that Sebastian Flyte once was?

Thanks to young Beste-Chetwynde, Pennyfeather is taken up by Mrs Beste-Chetwynde and has quite a jolly time of it, before ending up in prison, partly thanks to her, partly thanks to the busybodying of Potts and his ilk. Luckily, Pennyfeather finds prison "exhilirating ... never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals or clothes, to have no anxiety ever about what kind of impression he was making, in fact, to be free". As Waugh points out this is unsurprising as "anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison." In addition, while Pennyfeather is inside, Waugh is able to have some fun satirising the prison governor and his idiotic theories for reform, (Waugh clearly had very little time for theories.)

When Pennyfeather does eventually come out, he meets up with the most enigmatic figure in the book, Professor Silenus, who has "eyes like slim fish in an aquarium." We have already encountered him in his role as Margo Beste-Chetwynde's architect. She, having inherited an ancient house that people loved to visit because it was totally unmodernised and thus allowed them to experience the life of three hundred years earlier and then go home for a hot bath, knocks the whole thing down and replaces it with something featureless and horribly modern, designed by Silenus, who believes "the perfect building must be a factory", (he first attracts Margot Beste Chetwynde's attention thanks to "the rejected design for a chewing-gum factory which had been reproduced in a progressive Hungarian quarterly").

Despite his many, many faults, Silenus ends up appearing to be the wisest figure in the book. In the closing pages he explains to Pennyfeather that life is like a funfair ride but not everyone needs to actually get on the ride at all. "It doesn't suit everyone", he explains, because there are in fact two classes of people, those who are "static", and those who are "dynamic". The former should stay out of the hurly-burly and rest content with watching from the stalls. As if to underline this argument, the book itself then spins round full circle, closing with Pennyfeather thrown from the whirligig and set back on the quiet path he was pursuing before the book began. I don't envy him his wild journey but, thanks to Waugh's dry wit and brilliant comic sense, I very much enjoyed the story it made.