Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Past Presents

When I noticed this little clip on Twitter, memories of past Christmas presents from my father came rushing back. Although, like me, generally tending toward the cloth-eared end of the spectrum, he would occasionally become possessed by brief but intense enthusiasms for some genre of music or other.  If Christmas happened to be in the offing at such moments, his choice of presents would then reflect whatever happened to be his latest craze.

Which is why one year I found myself unwrapping a quantity of long-playing records featuring traditional singing from Mongolia, while another year, unexpectedly,  I received a selection  of the best bagpipe music money could buy.

“Bagpipes”, my maternal grandmother observed, “best heard over several hills.”

In a non-musical mood, my father also posted me a birthday present from Hanoi where he was stationed. The city had been being bombed fairly heavily and so I ought not to have been surprised when I untied the ribbon and tore off the paper to find an old box lined with cotton wool on which he had arranged several pieces of shrapnel that he’d collected from his verandah.

I was too young to understand what a thoughtful gift this was, given that the alternatives available to him in wartime north Vietnam were nothing or nothing - and even a few bits of carefully chosen shrapnel are better than nothing. At the time, it was pointed out to me that it was the thought that counted, which only led to me wondering at length what exactly the thought behind this odd gift  might be

Sunday, 29 December 2019

A Budapest Guest

At Budapest’s Fine Arts Museum at the moment there is a visiting exhibition that I looked round quickly this afternoon. It was packed with people, and so I will go back again when the Christmas and New Year crowds have abated.

But even during a cursory visit several pictures caught my eye. They included: this - for its decorative borders, amusing cherubs and splendid dog; and this - the person I went with asserted all such flower paintings are boringly the same, but I think some, this one included, are wonderful; apart from anything else, as well as flowers, you get a bumble bee, a grasshopper and an exquisite mouse; and this - which really needs to be seen in reality, as the glow and liveliness that Rubens creates on the canvas somehow does not  get conveyed by photographs; and this - mainly because I wanted to look at it properly but couldn’t over the heads of others, as I would like to see if it is really as oddly modern looking for a 17th century painting as it appeared from the glimpse I had; and this - as with the Rubens, the reproduction does not do it justice; and this - partly for the dogs annoying each other in the bottom left hand corner, partly for the feeling that all the pictures in the room in which this one is hung are less paintings than windows into the past; and this - which is tiny and very beautifully painted. There was also an image from the Prado that I didn’t get the name of; it looked like surrealism but was made in the 1600s.

I shall go back quite soon and find out more.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Battered Penguins: The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin's books are far-fetched - some might even say silly - but I find them charming. Rather than explaining the details of this particular one, I will simply tell you that it is similar in tone and milieu to others in his series about Gervase Fen - university setting, arty types, outdated views on male-female relationships, no diversity and an unlikely plot. If the others amuse you, this one probably will too, ( a cursory glance at information about Crispin on the internet suggests that it may actually be the very first of his books about Fen).

Needless to say, I do like the books in the series, partly because they are the ideal kind of thing to read when you have jetlag and don't want anything tiresomely thought-provoking and partly because in passages like the following Crispin conjures up absurd scenes that make me laugh:

"The 'Aston Arms' was none of your brightly-painted, up-and-coming hostelries. It exuded so strongly an atmosphere of the past that drinkers living were spiritually cowed and jostled by the shades of drinkers long dead and gone. Every suggestion of improvement or modernisation was grimly resisted by the management, which consisted of a large, ancient man manifestly disintegrating at a great rate into his component chemical elements. An elaborate ritual, the abandonment of which was anathema, presided over the ordering and consumption of drinks; a strict social hierarchy was maintained; irregular visitors were unwelcome, and regular customers, particularly the acting profession, were treated with a mild pervasive contempt. The only salient feature of the small, rather shabby public bar was an enormous nude parrot, which had early contracted the habit of pecking out all its feathers, and which now, with the exception of the ruff and head, which it could not reach, presented a dismal and ludicrous grey, scraggy body to the gaze. It had been given to the proprietor of the 'Aston Arms' in a fit of lachrymose gratitude by a visiting German professor, and was in the habit of reciting a lyric of Heine, which feat, however, it could only be induced to perform by the careful repetition of two lines from the beginning of Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un Faune, this appearing to start some appropriate train of suggestion in its mind. This aptitude aroused the deepest suspicions in such soldiery as frequented the 'Aston Arms', equalled only by their suspicion of those of their countrymen who were capable of similar or greater achievements in the same direction;it was employed by the proprietor to warn customers of the imminence of closing-time, and the raucous tones of Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin were the normal prelude to more forcible means of ejection." 

I think being able to make people laugh is a talent that is under-rated and much harder than producing solemn works of art. I would not go so far as to suggest that Crispin ought to have been given the Nobel Prize for Literature but I am certainly grateful he gave us the volumes he did.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Twitter Treasure

From time to time, I post something here in praise of Twitter, which is a form of 'social media' that has a fairly bad name. It is often characterised as a cesspit of insult and extreme politics but, as in actual life, it depends who you talk to, (in Twitter terms, that means who you follow). If you steer away from politics, you can find all sorts of interesting accounts that lead you to things you would never otherwise come across.

My example for today is a tweet by @MsJeanRhys, a Twitter account that tweets quotations from the work of Jean Rhys. A couple of days ago, @MsJeanRhys tweeted a link to a copy of an article Jean Rhys wrote for the Times about growing old. It was published on 21st May, 1975, when Rhys was 84. She died one week short of four years later, on 14 May 1979. According to @MsJeanRhys, the article has never been republished since, even though it is very well worth reading.

I am reproducing it here for those who, despite my evangelising, still cannot bring themselves to dip their toes in the wide Twitter sea:

Whatever became of old Mrs Pearce? - Novelist Jean Rhys contributes this week's guest column in our International Women's Year series

In one of Aldous Huxley's stories a Mr Hutton remarks that whenever he hears the word 'cynical' he longs to say 'Bow wow'. Every time I hear the remark, 'she thinks she's young' (for it's nearly always 'she'), I feel like saying 'Bow wow wow'. For to think you're young when you're old is an impossibility. Old people are constantly reminded, every day, every hour, almost every minute, that they are old; only a lunatic wouldn't be convinced.

But age seldom arrives smoothly or quickly. It's more often a succession of jerks. After the first, you slowly recover. You 'learn to live with the consequences'. Then comes another and another. At last you realise that you'll never feel perfectly well again, never be able to move easily, or see or hear well.

You don't realise that you will die soon, because while you are still alive this is inconceivable. But the knowledge is there, unconscious, hidden, suppressed. Willingly or not, you think, 'Will I ever see another summer, another spring, ever do this, that or the other again?'

People meet all this differently. Some yield without a struggle, even exaggeratedly. Some try to ignore it. Some fight it.

The first is, of course, the easiest, but has its dangers. When it becomes impossible to ignore age, you can still fight it. Battle has its excitements, its plans, stratagems, defeats. Also its victories. It's a matter of character, temperament and circumstances. Why not allow the old, whenever possible, to follow their bent without interference, malice or ridicule? Why must everyone be forced into this legendary uncomfortable bed - the right size for all - for the tall have had their limbs lopped and the short have been racked and stretched to fit? The tiresome old will soon be quiet enough.

Now for the compensations. For there are compensations of age. The first is that time alters. I don't know how else to put it. As a rule it gallops: scarcely is it Monday before it's Thursday, scarcely Thursday before it's Sunday and another week has gone. It's May, then August, then October and winter again. But other days, instead of flashing by, seem to stretch so that 12 hours becomes an enormous, an infinite time.

For instance, I (for now it must be I) wake very early; at the time of year I am writing this it is still dark. I used to keep a book handy, put the light on and read, but now that I've decided to save my eyes I get up instead, and, without looking at myself, stumble along the passage, switching lights on as I go. Then I am filling the kettle, taking the blue cup off its hook (careful now, don't drop it), getting a saucer, spoon, sugar. From then on its routine.

After tea and cigarettes, it gets lighter and I am happier. Perhaps the real deep feeling is of joy, even triumph, that one has survived the night. Once more darkness has been conquered and, however dreary, day will soon be here. Of course you could die during the day, but it's not likely, not even possible, is it? This year, next year, sometime again becomes never.

The first motor bicycle passes, the sun rises - cold and watery, perhaps, but sun. It is then that time stretches, time that you're free to spend exactly as you wish. You can eat what you like when you like, drink what you like when you like, or not at all, for no reproving warning glance forces you to drink out of defiance. You can spend a couple of hours dressing or slop around, not bothering to dress at all, reading passages from King Solomon's Mines or Lady Audley's Secret. Or wander about in what passes for a garden. There's time for everything. The intoxicating feeling of freedom repays you a thousand times for any loneliness you may have endured.

And while I am on the subject, loneliness is not the worst thing by any means. Some old people are lonely. But a great many others live in dread of being argued with, persuaded or even forced to do something which they know will be catastrophic.

Old people, especially women living alone, are very vulnerable. Some are protected by money (up to a point), some by friends or relatives, (perhaps, perhaps). But some are not. And the older and frailer they grow the weaker their position, the greater their dread of being interfered with. I don't know whether the story of the old lady who hid the fact that she'd broken her leg for two weeks is true. She so feared the sort of help that wold be flung at her. I for one believe it.

'What's become of old Mrs Pearce', you wonder. She usually passes my window on her daily walk and I haven't seen her for some time. You're told that Mrs Pearce is now perfectly happy in an old people's home. 'Perfectly happy, they're so kind.' You remember uneasily that the last time you saw Mrs P. she said that more than anything else she dreaded being sent to an old persons' home. 'I keep very clear of them', she'd said. 'Don't let them in the house if I can help it.' But when I half-heartedly suggest visiting her it seems she's going through a difficult phase. She keeps saying she wants to go home and won't eat or talk of anything else.

'Why not let her go home then?' I say. 'She's quite able to look after herself.''

'Not now', I'm told.

Perhaps not after six weeks of worry and anxiety, longing for her usual chair, her favourite cup, and wondering who will put out milk for the hedgehog which is almost a pet. Soon Mrs Pearce isn't mentioned any more and that's enough of Mrs Pearce.

The sad thing is that a fierce desire for independence and freedom can exist with the longing for companionship or help. It generally does. It's a difficult problem which euthanasia would solve. The trouble is that human nature being what it is euthanasia wouldn't be voluntary for long. Nor would it stop at old people.

Two more compensations. The first is that old people, like children, can live in the present. A fine day, feeling almost well, some small pleasure, and they forget everything else. Perhaps only old people and children can do this. Or should I say, some old people, some children.

The other compensation is the calm that often comes with age. If you've often tried in the past to put yourself to sleep by repeating, 'nothing matters, nothing matters at all', it's a relief when few things really do matter any longer. This indifference or calm, whatever you like to call it, is like a cave at the back of your mind where you can retire and be alone and safe. The outside world is very far away. If you sometimes long for a fierce dog to guard your cave, that's only on bad days. Perhaps tomorrow will be a good day.