Monday, 24 December 2018

Presents 3 - No Longer Needed

If you have lived somewhere where there are shortages or rampant inflation, you tend to get into the habit of buying things when you see them, usually getting multiples and hoarding, in case you never see them in the shops again. It is a neurotic impulse that is hard to break when you are back in a land of plenty, and for me it led on to a decades-long habit of buying presents throughout the year, in often absurdly early preparation (think January sales early) for Christmas. If I saw something lovely that I considered would be perfect for someone for whom I thought I would need a Christmas present later, I'd buy it and put it away, regardless of the date.

Not any more.

I've learned my lesson. Through sad experience, it has at last dawned on me that storing up things for the future is fairly pointless if that future never actually arrives.

The thing is, you lose touch with people sometimes. You move to a new place and somehow the bonds of friendship do not survive the added element of distance. Or you simply run out of things to say to each other. Or your friend's husband decides you are insufficiently woke and your friend decides it is easier to let things slide.

More jarringly, you are outright dropped, as in the startling case of my stepmother. I still have the book I bought for her that I thought would make a perfect Christmas present in 2008. It sits on an upper shelf, along with a few other presents, forlornly waiting to thrill recipients who will never appear. Unfortunately, between that book’s purchase and Advent, my stepmother mysteriously cut me out of her life. Even when my brother died, she did not bother to get in touch. He was her stepson, but apparently, despite our best efforts, we had inspired in her no longlasting affection.

And, speaking of my brother, that leads me to the saddest element of all that relates to presents - the impulse to buy things for someone who is no longer here to receive. The realisation that you have found the thing that would give most pleasure to someone that you love but that you cannot give it to them and they cannot receive it - that is one of the devastating ways that grief ambushes you.

It is just one element of the slowly growing awareness that missing someone is not a thing that passes, not a stage that you go through and emerge from eventually, unscathed. Missing someone, you finally recognise, is permanent. You don’t get over it; you only learn how to live with it. You make a space in your life, and it is filled by an absence. Although there is nothing there, it feels like a boulder, a huge dark heavy object always by your side.

And on that cheery note, a very happy Christmas to everyone and best wishes and great hopes for a peaceful, generous and kind world in the new year.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Presents - Part 2 - False Friends

Some people call presents "gifts". I probably used to. But then I moved to Vienna and encountered the German language. Now, I never give anyone gifts.

My aversion to gifts is the result of my first attempt to buy one in a German speaking environment. It was not long before Christmas and a friend of mine back in Australia had given birth to a little boy. I decided that the Christmas market in front of the Rathaus in Vienna would be a perfect place to buy a present for the baby. I was hoping to find a cuddly toy he could have in his cot with him, or a wooden wheeled object he could, when a little older, roll about the kitchen floor.

But I was stumped. While there were lots and lots of lovely things for sale, each time I looked closer I found they bore labels on which were written the words "Nicht Giftig". Was it an Austrian law or a local custom that prevented these things from being presented as gifts, I wondered. I had been told years before that the Scots believe you should never give a knife as a present but why on earth would you prohibit people from providing children with teddies and wooden trains?

It must be the European Union, I decided, health and safety and the fact that all these things were handmade and so hadn't had an inspector check that they wouldn't choke a child or cause them harm. And while I disapproved of such measures and loved the idea of giving something that the child receiving it wouldn't find seven identical examples of lying under the tree, I didn't want my friend's child's dath on my conscience.

So I left the Christmas market and went to a department store, which was full of factorymade things. Like most shopping these days, it was pretty dispiriting as nothing there possessed beauty or had been made with a craftsman's skill. On the other hand, most things, having been made in China, had packaging printed in English, including messages about being safe for infants.

It was only after Christmas that I enrolled in German language lessons. Too late I discovered what "giftig" really meant.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Battered Penguins - The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield*

I discovered The Strange Death of Liberal England via another blog and decided to read it as I had just finished The Great Calamity, about famine in Ireland, which left me with the surprised impression that it was the Liberal Party and not the Conservative Party, as I had ignorantly imagined, that behaved with such astonishing lack of compassion during the terrible period of the potato blight.

However, the Irish famine is outside the time frame Dangerfield chose for his chronicle of Liberal England's strange death. His tale begins some decades later, in the early twentieth century. It covers the years just before the First World War.

Dangerfield's thesis is that our view of the years before 1914 as a time of glorious, innocent perfection is completely and utterly wrong. What he sets out to demonstrate is that, rather than the First World War shattering a beautiful, ordered calm, the conflict actually came along just in time to prevent chaos - precipitated partly by Suffragettism, partly by unionism and partly by the question of Irish Home Rule - from engulfing Great Britain. "The great General Strike of 1914, forestalled by some bullets at Sarajevo, has slipped away into the limbo of unfinished arguments" Dangerfield tells us, adding that there might have been a civil war in Britain, but "these events have expired, unborn in the enormous womb of history."

Dangerfield nominates the year 1910 as his starting point, because it is "a landmark in English history, which stands out against a peculiar background of flame". He goes on to explain that his book "is not a record of personalities but of events", but he is deluded in this statement, as his book provides exactly the opposite of what he claims. As a result, while I remain fairly confused about the sequence of events Dangerfield attempts to chronicle, particularly those relating to Irish Home Rule, I have emerged from his book extremely grateful for the new and wonderfully vivid portraits he provides of the personalities of the time.

In fact, Dangerfield's perceptive and witty descriptions of personalities are what make this book so good. For instance, who could not laugh at Dangerfield's characterisation of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as:

"an elderly and rich Presbyterian whose three passions in life were his wife, the French nation, and his collection of walking sticks"

or his summing up of Lloyd George as:

"less a Liberal than a Welshman on the loose"

Thanks to Dangerfield, Asquith, who has been a familiar name to me all my life, is now a living figure in my mind. Dangerfield describes him as:

"a man extravagantly moderate … moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive", a man who "had the sort of character which is so often found in the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford and Cambridge - that is to say, he was almost completely lacking in imagination or enthusiasm",  a man with "a bland and weary face, in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a standstill", who displayed "a certain lack of ardour, which often comes upon men who have given their youth to the Bar".

Mr Arthur James Balfour, one time Prime Minister and Conservative Leader, is another statesman who is now vivid in my imagination, thanks to Dangerfield - who through his conjuring of Balfour's character, (which in tone reminds me of Dickens's wonderful skewering of the Veneerings and their ilk in Our Mutual Friend), also summons up a whole, vanished milieu:

" ... Balfour, politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school: in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead. In Westminster, being a member of the Cecil family, he was at least assured of a hearing.

He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at its lowest ebb: he pursued his speculations with the same earnestness and skill which he gave to golf, tennis, and the arrangement of dinner parties. He loved music, never got up till late in the morning, nor had ever been known to read a newspaper. He doubted everything on principle, but had never thought enough of life to distrust it. He was attractive, easy, and, as the years grew on him, fearless.

In his youth he had been known as 'pretty Fanny'; and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull: it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a skull's special property of hollow mockery its eternal memento mori - which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.

Nobody had expected much of him when he first entered Parliament; but he had developed such a sinewy and subtle dialectic, such a knowledge of Parliamentary tricks such a display of every quality except passion and leadership, as delighted his friends and not infrequently confounded his enemies".

Mr FE Smith, a close friend of Churchill, leaps from the page with similar clarity and brightness:

"He was tall, dark, slender and a little over-dressed. His eyes and hair were lustrous; the first from nature, the second from too much oil. His mouth had always a slightly contemptuous droop, his voice was a beautiful drawl. He had acquired, not diligently, but with too much ease, the airs of a fox-hunting man who could swear elegantly in Greek. Many people loved him, most distrusted him, some despised him, and he despised almost everybody".

Partly thanks to a visit to Marienbad in 2015 , I was already familiar with Edward VII's appearance, but I will be forever in debt to Dangerfield for explaining how that king appeared to his subjects and what his appeal was, given how different from our own very popular monarch his character was:

"Edward VII represented, in a concentrated shape, those bourgeois kings whose florid forms and rather dubious escapades were all the industrialised world had left of an ancient diviniity: his people saw in him the personification of something nameless, genial and phallic, the living excuse for their own little sins. ...He was never tyrannical, he was never loud, or ill-mannered; he was just comfortably disreputable.”

Dangerfield's book was written well before the Second World War, and so the man who was later to become the greatest leader of the twentieth century is seen from a less reverent perspective than our own. Dangerfield describes Churchill as "a man of strange inconsistencies", with a "chequered career", a man who "pursued the limelight as wholeheartedly as any man in England". Amidst this to us – or at least me - rather shocking irreverence, however, he does concede that it was Churchill, not Lloyd George who introduced unemployment insurance having "with characteristic clairvoyance [foreseen] its necessity when he was still President of the Board of Trade". Perhaps in that reference to 'characteristic clairvoyance', Dangerfield is unwittingly conceding that there is something special about the man he is describing and therefore showing himself at least partly prescient about the capacities that Churchill would later display.

When writing about collectives, Dangerfield demonstrates a similarly witty acuity to that he employs in resurrecting long forgotten individuals. For instance, he describes the House of Lords as "a horde of hereditary nobodies, possessed with a gentlemanly anxiety to do the wrong thing" and sums up the English gentleman as: "a species of creature which often behaves in a dutiful and disinterested fashion, but is also capable of more eccentricity than all the gentlemen in Europe combined".

In a remark that may have relevance to Great Britain and its reasons for wanting to leave the EU, Dangerfield observes that: "Free Trade had been an article of British faith - whether Liberal or Conservative" adding with a refreshing honesty about  his fellow countrymen, their motivations and their illusions about themselves, "To Englishmen ... it represented that combination of the ideal and the profitable which is peculiarly English."

The clarity and humour of Dangerfield's writing was reason enough for me to keep reading, but what makes the book especially intriguing just at the moment is the fact that the political period it covers seems to have been as chaotic as the times the United Kingdom is passing through now. The first hint of this comes in the introduction, when Paul Johnson refers to the consequences of the Lords' revolt in 1909, explaining that:

"it opened a period of relentless political warfare, in which the normal courtesies of parliamentary life were abandoned and London society split into two hostile camps".

It is hard not to think of the current state of Remainer/Brexit polarisation in London today, while reading this sentence.

Further on in the text, Dangerfield's description of the 1910 election sounds very like the last one conducted by Mrs May, as does its result:

"After a month of very dull electioneering, the country went to the polls in small numbers and recorded a lethargic opinion. As a result, the Liberals were so reduced, and the Conservatives so swollen, as to be almost equal in numbers: the Irish and Labour parties held the balance of power"

Meanwhile, in Dangerfield's summing up of the motivations of those defending the rights of the House of Lords, there are glimmers of the romantic impulse at the heart of many people's decision to choose Brexit:

"This venerable House of Lords was not simply a constitutional relic of the grat landed fortunes; it was also a fetish it meant the ideally paternal responsibility of the noble few. And though this meaning was quite irrelevant to the twentieth century, yet those who tried to preserve it were not merely idle men or arrogant men. They saw the passing of certain values which at their best were very high and at their very worst were very human; they did not realise that life consists in change, that nothing can stand still, that today's shrines are only fit for tomorrow's cattle. Clinging to the realities of the past, they prepared to defend their dead cause to the finish"

Additionally, when Dangerfield talks of "the familiar, serene incompetence of the Cabinet in 1914" I defy anyone not to think of the UK Cabinet of today

Lastly, it is impossible to read about the conference opened by the King on 21 July, 1914 in Buckingham Palace, whose vital question was "should Ulster be excluded simply for a period of years, or should it be excluded forever", without recognising that some things never change.

Dangerfield's decision to conclude the book with a close look at Rupert Brooke, who he characterises as emblematic of the pre-war period, seems something of an anti-climax, but he does mount a good argument that Brooke's vision of "the England where the Grantchester church clock stood at ten to three, where there was Beauty and Certainty and Quiet" was escapist and entirely unconnected with reality. Whether the current yearning of a large part of Britain's population to escape the European Union is fuelled by a dream of a similar Britain, it is hard to know. If it is, then disappointment beckons, if Dangerfield is right in his belief that the Brookean vision is and always was an illusion, for, if that is the case, it will presumably turn out to be an illusion in the future as well.

Someone I met shortly after beginning to read The Strange Death of Liberal England described the work as "a masterpiece of directionless irony", While I think it is a bit of a masterpiece, I would quibble with the idea that it is ironic – sardonic is the word that more accurately captures its tone. And, while on the whole Dangerfield seems perceptive and his judgments accurate, thus far in the current crisis one claim he makes, namely:

it is the genius of the English people always to raise up an appropriate man to suit every crisis"

seems thus far to be being proved extremely and utterly wrong. Let us hope that in the fullness of time that will change and, ideally without the outbreak of a third world war, catastrophe in the British Isles will yet be averted. 
*  I am once again stretching the boundaries of this series's name - the book I read is a paperback, but published by Paladin rather than Penguin. But never mind, "same diff" as people sometimes say.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Presents - Part 1 - Receiving

I love presents, getting them and giving them, although in my experience, when on the receiving side of the equation, they are usually at their best before you know exactly what they are.

I was about six when I first realised this, on a long ago Christmas morning. It was still dark when I woke, but even through the gloom I could make out a package resting at the end of my bed that hadn't been there the evening before.

I knew I had to wait until at least one other member of the family was up before touching the package, and so I lay staring at it for what seemed like hours. The sun rose, and as the pale dawn light began seeping through the window, I was able to make out the package's outline more and more clearly. To pass the time, I tried to imagine what it might contain.

I came up with fifteen or twenty possibilities before my brother burst in and we were able to start tearing paper and showing each other the things that the paper had concealed.  We each had been left, ( by someone who, despite the fact that I am a fairly credulous personality, I do not remember ever thinking was anyone other than our parents), stockings stuffed with many small things, so it took a while before I got round to the mysterious parcel.

When at last I did get to it and ripped off its wrapping, I discovered an object I hadn't even thought of lying inside.

It was a Russian nesting doll. It was made of wood, and brightly painted, and I kept it for many years. Strangely enough though, now that I remember it, I realise that I haven’t seen it in a long, long while. I don't remember throwing it away but it may have got lost on a move between one posting and another. Or perhaps at some stage I handed it on as a present to someone else's child.

If I did, I wonder what the recipient thought of it. I have to admit that when I first saw it I felt mildly disappointed, even though it was much better than most of the things I'd imagined that I was going to receive. It says much about the respect I had for the adults in my life that I had pretty much decided that what the package contained was either a blue and white china jar (my father was mad about blue and white porcelain) or a colourful enamel flower pot, (my mother loved gardening).

I didn't look forward to either of these objects - what six year old would? However, until I knew finally and definitely what exactly my present was, even if it might be one of the to-me-at-least unexciting possibilities that I had conjured up in my mind's eye, there was an oddly pleasurable uncertainty to be enjoyed.

But now I was faced with reality - this colourful nest of Russian ladies - and, in its presence, every other possibility vanished into thin air. Reality had taken the place of imagination, and it offered a narrowing of perspective. Just as it is deflating, however much you want to know "whodunnit", to arrive at a mystery story's conclusion, as the resolution can somehow never be as satisfying as the shadowy, half-formed speculations that lurk in your mind while the puzzle remains unresolved, so the sudden disappearance of all those other imaginary presents left me feeling less as if I had been given something and more as if I'd had countless unknown objects snatched away.