Friday, 23 June 2017

Something I Read - Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies is the third novel Lauren Groff has had published. I was a bit dubious when I saw that the author of Girl on a Train had supplied the main enthusiastic quote on the cover but I decided to give it a try regardless. I'd enjoyed the audio book of Arcadia, after all, even if I might never have actually completed it if I'd been reading it (that is one of the interesting things about audio - you can put up with a lot more from a book when you are not actually making the effort to drag your eye across those weird little spidery black shapes on the page, but instead getting through it while driving or cleaning the bathroom or ironing).

Well Fates and Furies turned out to be a hundred times better than Girl on a Train. Lauren Groff is a much better writer than the normal best seller hack, avoiding annoyingly repetitive prose or cliched phrases or any of the dull pedestrian tropes that are the meat of chick lit and so forth. All the same, for my taste, she is overly fond of the lyrical. Here is an example of the kind of thing I mean:

...nearly everyone began grinning back, so that on this spangled early evening with the sun shining through the windows in gold streams and the treetops rustling in the wind and the streets full of congregating relieved people, Lotto sparked upwellings of inexplicable glee in dozens of chests, lightening the already buoyant mood of the room in one swift wave. 

That said, Groff has a rich imagination and, although she chooses to set the entire action of the book in the same kind of absurdly privileged territory inhabited by the characters in A Little Life and despite the fact that her two main characters are preposterous, she does have the ability to draw you in and entertain you and keep you moving along with the plot - which has a clever mirrored kind of structure so that the end and the beginning in a peculiar way almost meet.

On the down side, she is quite solemn. Mind you, what the book lacks in humour - I only noticed one joke and it was not a new or terribly funny one:

'You're a pathological truth teller,' Lotto once said to her, and she laughed and conceded that she was. She wasn't sure just then if she was telling the truth or if she was lying - 

it certainly makes up for with masses of sex, which probably sells better.

While I'm griping I should point out that there is a rather large chunk of the book where the author appears to be exorcising her desire to be a playwright and I found that a bit tedious.  In addition - and more importantly for me -  while Groff is an imaginative writer and a reasonable, if rather gushing, stylist, I did not feel that the book had any wisdom to impart. I do recognise that it is refreshingly ambitious and sprawling when compared to the preciousness of Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes, but at the end I had not gained a new perspective on existence or understanding of the human species. Maybe I ask too much - as I take Middlemarch and Anna Karenina as my benchmarks, inevitably I am often disappointed. And I know some might say that Dickens, who I love, also created more than his fair share of preposterous characters, not to mention gush. However, he also had the ability to show things in an entirely new light and to be extremely funny, (the Veneerings' dinner party springs to mind as just one example). I should point out that Groff does attempt to give her novel a bit of intellectual credibility by larding it with references to classical Greek texts, from which I assume we are supposed to draw parallels. However, this seemed to me to be a superficial attempt at burnishing something that doesn't have much depth, rather than a genuinely successful deepening of the work.

All the same, as I think I mentioned, the novel was entertaining and enjoyable, what I suppose might be called "a good read".  However, I think it will turn out to be almost completely forgettable, like many good reads. It lacked any real resonance for me, I was never persuaded to care about the main characters or to see that they mattered in any way - or even really existed. Oddly, the reason I didn't really believe they existed may also have been the reason they were entertaining - their family backgrounds and lives were ludicrously dramatic. Just as when in the past I have got drawn into soap operas, I didn't believe the events for a minute but did find them grotesquely fascinating, so I didn't believe anything about the novel but I went along, cheerfully, for the ride.

Sadly, as with soap operas, I emerged unenriched. But how solemn of me to demand enrichment. Groff is clever and imaginative and energetic and better than a lot of others in her chosen field.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


I once wrote a post about how no apartment should ever be built without a balcony. It turns out that Heath Robinson invented a solution called a deckcheyrie for flats that were not provided with a balcony to begin with. For some reason, his picture of the contraption is not included in my copy of How to Live in a Flat. This is what he offers there instead - not as complex or colourful but still an outdoor option:

The article in The Spectator that accompanies the picture of the deckcheyrie is worth a read.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Ties that Bind

Driving near Ypres yesterday, we listened to a podcast from Intelligence Squared. It was called "Europe on the Edge". One of the speakers was Professor Paul Collier, who I think advocates a new approach to helping refugees - namely, giving incentives to businesses to move to areas bordering countries from which large numbers of refugees are fleeing, creating jobs there so that the people who are refugees do not need to deal with people smugglers and all the dangers that that entails, nor to go miles from their own homelands to seek a living, losing any sense of belonging, forsaking the familiar et cetera.

Under his plan, Professor Collier(1) believes refugees can be given the opportunity to set up productive lives near to where they come from, avoiding the culture shock that both they and the receiving communities tend to experience when they move out of their own sphere. In addition, when and if things improve in the places that the refugees have fled from, they are able return to their own homes without much disruption.

Anyway, on the podcast Professor Collier started to talk about community and a shared sense of responsibility. He argued that a willingness to help others depends on shared identity, citing studies and polls to support his proposition. In amongst all this, he made some remarks about the middle classes and the recent tendency he says he has identified among them to walk away from community responsibility. These remarks struck me as providing an interesting perspective on the story I told about my uncle yesterday and on the circumstances that may have contributed to the Grenfell Tower being badly maintained due to penny pinching.

Here is what the professor said:

"I'll just focus on the English working class - I think the English working class now is more or less where it has always been. I think what has walked is the English middle class, which has decided that it doesn't really want to be English. It has walked away from a shared identity with ordinary people. I think this is particularly pronounced in London, I'm afraid. I grew up in Sheffield. I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by Scots. Left, right and across the road, all Scots - and it never occurred to any of us that we were not the same identity. They were Scottish and I was English but we were all British, we'd just fought a war together. And because of that there was a strong willingness on the part of the fortunate to redistribute to the less fortunate - because there was a shared identity. And I think that that has gradually corroded.

Here is an uncomfortable piece of statistical evidence: across Europe, the higher the proportion of immigrants in the population, the lower the willingness of those above median income to make tax transfers below median income ... what that means is that people below median income, ordinary people, have a perfectly rational reason to fear that immigration will weaken the sense of shared bonds and that the middle class will just run off and go and do its own thing."

Reading this now, I see that it could be seen as completely racist. It certainly does seem to suggest  diversity is not the unadulterated good it is usually thought to be. Statistics, of course, are just statistics, and the experience of Australia seems to undermine the argument that a society cannot cohere if it is made up of many different migrants. Perhaps the situation is different in new world countries or perhaps the very closely managed - some would say cruelly and unkindly managed - approach to immigration in Australia has prevented a sense of cultural alienation. I don't know. I am though fascinated by the way Western society seems to be changing and becoming generally more turbulent and polarised and every time I read or hear a theory, I like to try to think about it with an open mind. And I recognise above all that, since the financial crisis and the absence of any punitive action against those who caused it, the social contract has been seriously damaged and nobody seems to address that.

1. I haven't read his work, but I have the impression that his arguments run roughly along those lines, although it is more than possible I've got the whole thing completely wrong.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

How to Be Rich

Since the Grenfell Tower inferno, I've been thinking a lot about my favourite uncle. This may seem odd, given that he was a wealthy landowner, a man whose father had been a brilliant stockbroker and also a brilliant art collector - the family owned a Pissarro, a Manet, a Sickert and various other marvellous paintings, all bought at a time when their creators were just starting out. The house these paintings were kept in was a sprawling Victorian mansion, set on a hill and surrounded by beautifully planted parkland. After the death of his older brother in the Second World War, all this had come to my uncle, making him a very rich man.

But as far as my uncle was concerned wealth brought with it responsibilities. He did not loll about in luxury, spurning the community in which he lived. Instead, he was involved in everything to do with his local village, serving in a variety of unpaid roles on committees, school boards and as a church warden. He was deeply concerned about the countryside and its preservation, particularly the disappearance of hedgerows. He provided houses for each of the people who worked for him. He threw parties that enlivened the social life of the area. He was generous and open and interested in the little world in which he lived.

So when he noticed in about 1980 that house prices in the village were rising enormously because people from London were buying houses there and commuting daily to the city, he didn't just shrug his shoulders and mutter something about market forces. Instead, he became worried about the children of the villagers who could no longer afford to live in what was their home.  "Something should be done", he thought - or rather, "I should do something". He turned the problem over in his mind and before long he came up with an idea. He went to the council and made a proposal. The council called a meeting at which the proposal was to be put.

It seemed such a good idea - not to mention generous. My uncle was offering to give to the village a large - and very valuable - field. It was in a perfect position, just across from the village post office. It would be an ideal place to build community housing so that the village's new generation would no longer be driven out by rising costs.

I was staying when the council meeting took place. My uncle had explained what was happening to me and he set off down the drive in an enthusiastic frame of mind. He was looking forward to discussing exactly what sorts of dwellings would be best suited to the setting and how many buildings it might be possible to provide.

An hour and a half later my uncle returned, a changed man. The meeting had been the best attended of any in the village's recent history. There was barely a person from among the village's new population who had not made the time to come along. But the reason for the high turn out was not enthusiasm for the project. In fact, my uncle's offer was rejected outright. The people who had gathered in the village hall that evening regarded it as an absolutely outrageous proposition and turned it down point blank. It would have been legitimate to want to know about the design of the buildings and to seek assurances that they would be in keeping with the rest of the village but the problem did not lie with details of that kind. It was the principle the newcomers baulked at. Community housing would bring down the value of their homes and there was no way in the world that they were going to be having that.

Perhaps the rot had set in earlier than that meeting. I do remember that, a year or so before, my uncle's junior gardener had married and my uncle had built a house for the couple, but instead of being pleased the gardener's new wife had regarded this as patronising, since the house was nowhere near as big as my uncle's own. I thought she was just a difficult woman, but she may have been a harbinger of a change in attitudes. The more likely explanation though, I think, was the shift from Macmillan's brand of Toryism to Thatcher's, in which the concept of the triple bottom line was swept away and replaced by the idea that the only important thing was the right of the individual to elbow their way ahead, with no thought for kindness or taking others into account.

It is unfashionable now to suggest that a system that includes the rich as anything other than hated rapacious monsters can ever be a good thing. However, I suspect that the cliche about the poor always being with us can as easily be refashioned to apply to the rich. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is an argument that would take far too long to go into; what I do believe though is that, while the rich remain among us, we need to recreate in them - and in all of us, to some extent - that instinctive sense of duty and responsibility to others that was, until the night of his rejection at the local village council meeting, a dominant part of my uncle's approach to life. If noblesse oblige was still a flourishing concept, I doubt that the disaster at Grenfell Tower - caused, we are led to believe, by lack of care and penny pinching on the part of a very rich council - would ever have happened. If a greater sense of care and responsibility for the people we live amongst can replace narrow self-interest as a central value in modern society we may help to prevent similar horrors from occurring in the future. Surely it's worth a try.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Australian Problems

I was in England last week and on three occasions found myself obliged to step into long grass - see pictures, (each of which I took as a delaying device and an attempt to steady my nerves before taking the plunge). While my UK companions waded in unflinchingly, without a trace of hesitation, I had to steel myself. Try as I might, I could not entirely suppress my fear that there would be snakes hidden somewhere within the lush growth. I wonder if anyone else from Australia has the same problem when far from home?

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Walking from Grantchester to Cambridge on the weekend, I saw a little boy with large, boxy spectacles, a pudding bowl haircut and a sweetly impish face. He was sitting on a bench, swinging his legs. There was a man beside him, smoking a cigarette and looking faintly uncomfortable.

As I drew near, the boy turned to the man.

"So why did you marry her?" he asked.

The man's eyes met mine for an instant and then he looked away.

"Because she was your mother," he said, eventually.

The boy looked thoughtful, maybe even puzzled. I didn't blame him. It wasn't much of an answer.

But, when you think about it, it wasn't an easy question, particularly if, as I suspect, the boy's father was no longer married to the boy's mother. "Because I loved her"?, "Because I thought I loved her"?

"Do you want an ice cream?" might have been the best answer, I reckon. But that speaks volumes about my cowardly approach to parenting.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Words and Music

There was a session devoted to my brother at the Sydney Writers' Festival the other day. The organisers asked if I'd be part of it; I couldn't but I sent this along:

"A few details you might like, to round the picture people have of Marko:

1. he noticed clothes (there are a couple of outfits I'm particularly fond of because he admired them - "I do like that jacket, sis"; "Oh that dress is lovely" - quite unusual in a man) but he also had some sweetly old-fashioned ideas about them. A senior ABC person gave an address to staff the other day & Marko told me he was very shocked she was only wearing a cardigan: "She should have worn a good suit"; he was staying with us in Vienna and on the day he was leaving he came downstairs in a smart jacket and tie. When my husband asked him what had made him dress so smartly, he explained that he would be crossing a border and he thought you should always dress smartly when crossing borders. He is probably right, but it seemed somehow endearing.

The other thing to note is that he was interested in all things cultural, not just so-called "high culture". While he might not go so far as my daughter's friend who, at the end of an English literature degree at Cambridge, said "Well that was all very interesting but I still haven't read anything I've enjoyed as much as the Harry Potter series", he did like Harry Potter and much else besides. An illustration of this was a rather ludicrous scene not long before he died where he insisted I look up the Wikipedia synopsis of the final episode of the current series of a BBC thriller series called Line of Duty and read it to him, as he wouldn't have time to watch the episode now. As nurses and doctors milled around checking drip lines and blood pressure and asking him to scale his pain etc, I read this complicated thing out to him, with my mother beside me, the pair of us interrupting the flow with questions - "What, so Roz is a baddy?", "Oh yes, a real baddy"; "So she tampered with the jumper?", "Yes, she smeared DNA on it".

Another illustration came from a young cousin writing to say how sorry he was to hear of Marko's death - "I remember very clearly Marko coming to the Old Rectory when I was 14 or 15 and being surprised how much interest he had in us and in the music we were into; he had an eclectic taste, which we shared and 20 years later I still have some of his music on my hard drive."

I have so many stories I could tell you. He was so loveable

Interestingly, I've just been talking to the mother of that young cousin and she tells me that he had given the bowdlerised version of his experience of Marko, who actually had a more profound influence on him than he had described. While talking to our young cousin about a piece of music they both enjoyed listening to, my brother said, "Those lyrics - have you listened closely to them? They are so brilliant", and with that small comment Mark made his younger relative realise that he had always been too stoned to even notice that there were any lyrics. Since that day, that whole extra dimension of the songs he listens to has been opened up for him.

A win for my bro and his love of language. He would have been very pleased to hear that extra bit of the story.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Once More with Flemish

in the interests of cultural equality, I present the Flemish approach to confirmation cards, which looks to be as daft as that of the French speaking population:

Totally off subject, would this be a good Christmas present for that person you can never think of a present for:

Or perhaps not?