Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Speaking of Theory

Yesterday when I was wondering why public housing became so awful for such a long time, I posited the hypothesis that it might be a problem of architects designing according to theory rather than according to instinct and an understanding of beauty.

Afterwards I remembered a faintly related story that someone told me in Brussels, to illustrate the way, he claimed, that many French people tend to think. In the story, there were two officials, an American and a Frenchman. They had worked for months on some tremendously complex project. There had been many, many difficulties to overcome, but finally they had managed to solve every one of them. The whole thing was finished, and the American was opening a bottle of wine to celebrate.  

As he handed a glass to his French colleague, the American looked hard at him and said, "Something's the matter - it's all resolved, but you still seem worried? What's the problem."

The Frenchman sighed and ran his hand through his hair, before replying. "Well", he said, "I have to admit I do have one worry."

The American raised his eyebrows. "What? What is it? I was so certain we'd sorted everything out."

The Frenchman looked down at the plans and sighed again. "My concern is that, while I can see our plan will work in practice", he said at last,"I still can't help asking: "Will it work in theory?'

This letter, published in the Telegraph today, highlights a parallel dichotomy: this one exists between frontline doctors and public health specialists, and is about how the two groups look at risk in different ways:

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Too Good for the Likes of Them

I was listening to an interview with the journalist Simon Heffer the other day, (Note No. 1), in which Heffer describes a visit to his cousin Eric Heffer in Liverpool in the 1990s. "He drove me around the bits of Liverpool where those nasty 1960s tower blocks had been demolished", Simon Heffer explains, "and the Militant Tendency council had built really nice, sort of modern Coronation Street style, back-to-back housing - and I said, 'I say, these are rather good, aren't they', and Eric said, 'Yeah, they are, they're much too good for the workers - the problem is, with these, that the tenants are now buying them ... That wasn't the plan at all!'"

The week before hearing that I'd been on a couple of walks in Budapest and happened upon some really beautifully made social housing from earlier times. One example was on the way to the Railway Museum, (about which more another day). This set of housing was built in 1911 for railway workers. Sadly it was damaged in the war and afterwards the copper covered spires that were part of it originally were never restored - but you can see a photograph of it in its original glory here (there is a great deal more detail about it here - but in Hungarian - including the name of the architect and an explanation of the significance of the decorative motifs, which have something to do with train engineering, but I couldn't quite understand what exactly, as the deficiencies in my understanding of Hungarian and the deficiencies in my understanding of engineering came together to mystify me at that point):

The second big housing project we came upon was in the course of a weekend in which a hundred Budapest buildings that are not normally open to be visited were opened to the public. It was surprising to find that, on a busy ring road, once you went through the front door of a building, you could step into a quiet courtyard that felt as if it were far from the city and traffic and trams and crowds:

It was wonderful to go into the beautiful secession building around the corner from us, (although I managed to be the only person who went there that day who didn't notice that if you pointed your camera skyward you would see that the outline the building made against the sky was butterfly shaped, explaining why it is known as Pillángó (Butterfly) House - luckily, my husband didnt miss this detail, and so you can get a glimpse on his Instagram account):

About a mile or two from where we live was another place that was open. Like the first example in this post, this too was built for railway workers, at roughly the same time. It is called the Colony, and is like a little town within the city. At its centre is a building that I thought was the place where the railway workers spent their days, working on rolling stock. However, we were told it was an enormous laundry. I've since read that it was a huge "House of Culture", although possibly it was only that in a later, Communist era iteration. Either in it or near to it, in the fabled "old days" there was a fairly "hard core" night time establishment called, slightly ominously, The Black Hole:

Both these housing developments seemed to me to have many thoughtful and "unnecessary", (that is, not purely utilitarian), attractive touches. One is supposed to believe that in the past there was a greater tendency to oppress the masses and that we are more enlightened now about how we take care of the less well off. Perhaps Eric Heffer revealed the truth - that authorities decided the accommodation they provided shouldn't be too nice or everyone would be clamouring for it. Possibly. My theory though is that everything became about theory. Instead of designing with instinct and common sense, architects began to design according to theories. People ever since have had to live with the results.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Poem for Our Moment

I took against Seamus Heaney before I'd ever read a poem of his. The reason I took against him was because of a story told to me by someone I knew who somehow discovered his poems and became enthralled by them before he became famous. She decided to write a Ph D about him. I remember that happening, and I remember her subsequent excitement when, in reply to her tentative letter, asking Heaney a few questions, he wrote back, suggesting that she come to stay for a couple of weeks. She couldn't believe that he was willing to give her such an amazing opportunity. She said she would love to and set about making arrangements. Shortly afterwards, she travelled all the way from Australia to the remote place in Ireland where the poet lived. 

When at last she got there, (after tramping across swamp and bog, falling into mudholes, nearly drowning, climbing mountains in Irish mist? - perhaps these details are my imagination providing baroque flourishes), she told me that she was greeted enthusiastically by Heaney and his wife who were already waiting beside the door with two suitcases. They introduced her to their children, showed her where the kitchen was, gave her instructions about how to feed the animals and got in their car and disappeared down the track. 

She may have been an unreliable narrator. 

Nevertheless, after that I couldn't enjoy Heaney's poems, when I eventually found some of them.

But I wanted to and so, when I spotted an article that purported to be about a man who used to hate Heaney's work but now loves it, I immediately began to read. I hoped to cure myself of what must, surely, be blind prejudice and unlock the poetic pleasure that I felt I was missing out on.

As yet I haven't finished the article as about a page or two in, its author mentions Francis Ponge. Until I read this reference, I'd never heard of the poet of objects, but once I discovered him, I became fascinated. And when I came across his poem called "Savon ("Soap"), I thought I would put it on this blog; given that we are all supposed to have taken up hand washing with gusto, filling the bulk of our spare time with activities involving hot water and soap, it seemed to be a poem meant for now. 
To my surprise, however, I haven't found an English translation on the internet. I love having a go at translation and so, after the original French text, I've included a rough translation. It isn't artistic but almost entirely literal; doing it made me realise a) that having gendered pronouns can be rather beautiful and can't be rendered in English (in the French, soap becomes a stone and stone takes "she" and b) that translating poetry is a mug's game (I knew this already really).


Si je m'en frotte les mains, le savon écume, jubile ...
Plus il les rend complaisantes, souples,
liantes, ductiles, plus il bave, plus
sa rage devient volumineuse et nacrée…
Pierre magique !
Plus il forme avec l’air et l’eau
des grappes explosives de raisins

L’eau, l’air et le savon
se chevauchent, jouent
à saute-mouton, forment des
combinaisons moins chimiques que
physiques, gymnastiques, acrobatiques…
Rhétoriques ?

Le savon a beaucoup à dire. Qu’il le dise avec volubilité, enthousiasme. Quand il a fini de le dire, il n’existe plus.

Une sorte de pierre, mais qui ne se laisse pas rouler par la nature : elle vous glisse entre les doigts et fond à vue d’oeil plutôt que d’être roulée par les eaux.

Le jeu consiste justement alors à la maintenir entre vos doigts et l’y agacer avec la dose d’eau convenable, afin d’obtenir d’elle une réaction volumineuse et nacrée…

Qu’on l’y laisse séjourner, au contraire, elle y meurt de confusion.

Une sorte de pierre, mais (oui ! une-sorte-de-pierre-mais) qui ne se laisse pas tripoter unilatéralement par les forces de la nature : elle leur glisse entre les doigts, y fond à vue d’oeil.

Elle fond à vue d’oeil, plutôt que de se laisser rouler par les eaux.

Il n’est, dans la nature rien de comparable au savon. Point de galet (palet), de pierre aussi glissante, et dont la réaction entre vos doigts, si vous avez réussi à l’y maintenir en l’agaçant avec la dose d’eau convenable, soit une bave aussi volumineuse et nacrée, consiste en tant de grappes de pléthoriques bulles.

Les raisins creux, les raisins parfumés du savon.


Il gobe l’air, gobe l’eau tout autour de vos doigts.

Bien qu’il repose d’abord, inerte et amorphe dans une soucoupe, le pouvoir est aux mains du savon de rendre consentantes, complaisantes les nôtres à se servir de l’eau, à abuser de l’eau dans ses moindres détails.

Et nous glissons ainsi des mots aux significations, avec une ivresse lucide, ou plutôt une effervescence, une irisée quoique lucide ébullition à froid, d’où nous sortons d’ailleurs les mains plus pures qu’avant le commencement de cet exercice.

Le savon est une sorte de pierre, mais pas naturelle : sensible, susceptible, compliquée.

Elle a une sorte de dignité particulière.

Loin de prendre plaisir (ou du moins de passer son temps) à se faire rouler par les forces de la nature, elle leur glisse entre les doigts ; y fond à vue d’oeil, plutôt que de se laisser rouler unilatéralement par les eaux.


If I rub my hands with soap, it foams with joy ...
It makes my hands obliging - soft 
and pliant and flexible - the more that it froths and the more
its pearly passion swells ...
Magical stone!
For its next trick, with air and water
it forms explosive clusters of scented grapes [that image doesn't work somehow in English]

Water, air and soap
muddle together, play
leap frog, mix
in ways that are not synthetic
so much as physical, gymnastic, acrobatic ...

Soap does have a lot to say. May it say it volubly, enthusiastically. When it has finished speaking, it no longer exists.

A kind of stone, but not one that lets itself be pushed around by nature: rather than let itself be rolled about by torrents of water, it slips through your fingers and melts away beneath your gaze.

The game is to keep it in your grasp and provoke it with the correct amount of water, so as to obtain from it a voluminous, pearly reaction...

If one were to let it rest, on the other hand, it would die of confusion,

A sort of stone but, (yes! a-sort-of-stone-but), one that doesn't allow itself to be groped unilaterally by the forces of nature: she slips through their fingers and melts away under their gaze.

It melts away under one's gaze rather than let itself be rolled about by the waters.

There is nothing in nature that is anything like soap. Not a pebble or a puck, no stone anywhere near as slippery, nothing that reacts in the same way between your fingers, if you have managed to keep it there while irritating it with the right amount of water, nothing that produces such a volume of pearly froth, such clusters of enormous bubbles

Hollow grapes, scented soapy grapes.


It sucks up air, it sucks up water all around your fingers.

Although at first it lies in a saucer, inert and amorphous, soap has the power in its hands to use water, to abuse water in its finest detail, in order to make our hands consensual and complacent.

And thus we slide words about to try to catch its slippery meaning - a lucid drunkenness or rather an effervescence, a kind of clear iridescence or icy fever? Well, whatever else, when we pull our hands out from it, they are purer than they were at the start of the exercise.

Soap is a kind of stone but not a natural one: it is sensitive, susceptible, complicated.

Soap has a kind of dignity that is all its own.

Far from taking pleasure (or at least passing its time) in allowing itself to be rolled about by the forces of nature, soap slips between its fingers; rather than letting itself to be rolled about unilaterally by the waters, it melts away beneath the eye.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Did Auden Give Them the Idea?

Reading The Dyer’s Hand by WH Auden yesterday, I came across a passage in which Auden talks about different kinds of literary criticism. The bit that arrested my attention was Auden's description of what he calls  "the critic’s critic". In it, Auden seems to accurately predict the rise of a now dominant approach to literature in academic circles these days, an approach that treats "a work of art by somebody else" as the critic's "own discovered document".  Writing in 1956, did Auden spot an already emerging trend, or did someone later, reading what he said, decide it might be a way to entirely subvert the study of beautiful things?:

"The critic's critic ... on the surface ... appears to idolise the poet about whom he is writing; but his critical analysis of his idol's work is so much more complicated and difficult than the work itself as to deprive someone who has not yet read it of all wish to do so. He, too, one suspects, has a secret grievance. He finds it unfortunate and regrettable that before there can be criticism there has to be a poem to criticise. For him a poem is not a work of art by somebody else; it is his own discovered document."

Friday, 25 September 2020

All Tip and No Iceberg

 In 2013 I listened to a couple of talks given by Boris Johnson at the Melbourne Writers' Festival and came to the conclusion that he was very entertaining but lacked any substance - and, having pocketed a fee to talk about a topic he then didn't talk about, not a man of huge integrity, to boot.

Since then he has become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then fallen ill with the latest form of coronavirus, and recovered (as the majority of its victims do, we now know). Whether because of his basic lack of substance or as a result of his illness, he is no longer even entertaining. In fact, I am beginning to find his appearances excruciating - a politician rarely aims to evoke feelings of embarrassment and pity in the public he is addressing, but those are the emotions Boris Johnson now evokes in me.*  

I used to feel like this for the poor souls on the receiving end when Paul Keating was in the Australian parliament, skewering his opponents. Intriguingly, I realise that many of Keating's comments are applicable to Johnson today. For example, watching Johnson's performances in Question Time against the utterly uncharismatic shapeshifter, Keir Starmer, Keating's comment on an attack by John Hewson, (shadow treasurer at the time), comes instantly to mind:

"It was like being flogged with a warm lettuce."

Keating also observed of another opponent, "He's got the political morals of an alley cat", which is something many people have implied about the UK Prime Minister for a long time, (and the statement is also often made about him with the adjective "political" removed). 

Then there are these examples in the Keating speech in which he compared various of his opponents to different varieties of fireworks - at this point they strike me as uncomfortably applicable to the Johnson of today:

1. "I don't know if any of you remember the flower pot, but that was the one that always promised a dazzling performance. You'd light it up and it had multicolours, and it did a show for you, but often when you lit it up it went ffffft, you know, a bit of a spark ... there was always a bit of a show, and then there'd be a bit more, and a bit more, then, finally it fell away to nothing."

2.  "The Catherine Wheel - we used to nail them to the fence and they'd take off, spreadeagle the kids, burn the dog, run up a tree and then fizzle out going round in circles."

Some of Keating's comments on Andrew Peacock, (who was often leader of the opposition but never Prime Minister, and rumoured to be immensely vain), seem to fit Johnson equally well at present:

"All feathers and no meat", "a gutless spiv", "a soufflé" who makes speeches "with all the sincerity of a Mississippi gambler", "a squalid opportunist", a man whose party "ought to put him down like a faithful old dog because he is no use to it and of no use to the nation." 

In the end though Keating's verdict on Peter Costello, (Australia's long time Treasurer and a man who often tried feebly to be Keating, verbally, on the floor of the parliament but was always a pale imitation) most accurately clarifies the disappointing figure that Johnson as supposedly Conservative Prime Minister has turned out to be:

"All tip and no iceberg."


* (Johnson also is beginning to make me feel angry, as he has turned into the most frightful authoritarian nanny - vis yesterday, when announcing increased police numbers, he did not say that they would be used to help citizens who at the moment are ignored due to lack of resources when they experience theft; no, according to Johnson the new officers will be used to "enforce our rules to fight coronavirus and ensure people observe social distancing.")

Thursday, 24 September 2020

On the Other Hand

 Having been appalled by the Glenda Slagg quality of a contemporary columnist at the Times yesterday, today I am in awe of Allister Heath at the Telegraph whose column describing the flaws in UK coronavirus policy - (much of which is relevant to policy being followed in other countries as well today) - is so good I'm including it below. For those who haven't time, I've put my two favourite bits at the start:


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The Brightest and the Best

 I have been for ages under the impression that if I were young now and tried to get any of the fairly ordinary employment I managed to obtain in my own youth I wouldn't stand a chance. Only the brightest and the best can make it now - and they are far more numerous than they were in my day; it was only their scarcity that allowed me to stand a chance very occasionally back then. Today only the truly brilliant, the uber witty, the dazzlingly sparkling can make it. The mediocre need not bother even to apply.

But then I open the Times newspaper and come upon a columnist called Hilary Rose, spouting breathtakingly uninteresting piffle and I wonder:

Getting a column was always fiercely competitive and the best columnists were wonderfully well paid. You turned to their page with excitement, knowing you would be enlightened and entertained. Could it be that, while things have become very competitive, all the rules of the competition have changed?

Monday, 21 September 2020

Selfies in Words

For a long time, I've been vaguely aware of the proposition that a human being who is sad has to make their way through seven stages of grief. I don't know what those stages are but, as the realisation dawns that a decision like where I spend Christmas and who with is not going to be made by me but by a collection of very poor quality politicians and their equally second rate bureaucrats, (fuelled by a good dose of blind panic), I am definitely feeling more miserable than I've felt for a long time. I don't know where exactly I am on the road of seven but what worries me is that, while I have felt the most terrible sadness whenever anyone I have loved has died, that sadness has always been felt against a backdrop of basic optimism, whereas now cheerful optimism is draining away, along with hope.

To fight against a mood that might be thinking about turning into despair, I grasp at anything I see that seems faintly amusing. One of those things is the silly ways some people describe themselves on their Twitter profiles. Some people choose to present themselves rather seriously, including me, but others go for a degree of absurdity, and it is these generous souls that I like best. In case anyone else needs cheering up, I will from now on collect the ones among these that I find particularly funny and from time to time I will put them here, for those who want a moment's amusement.

I will start with a single but rather brilliant account tag. I can't even remember who it belongs to, but it is short and simple and it makes me laugh: 

"I'm slimmer than I look". 

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Don't Touch It, Don't Look At It

There is a woman who is married to a man who did something in David Cameron's government. To amuse herself, she kept a diary of all the social gatherings she and the husband enjoyed with the various politicians and hangers on of the time. Or possibly she did it to enrich herself, since she has now published the diaries.

Whatever her original motives, excerpts from the diaries are popping up in British newspapers and probably will soon reach papers in Australia, America and other parts of the world.

Having made the mistake of reading a few paragraphs of the excerpts, I feel it is my duty to tell anyone as easily nauseated as I am to try to avoid doing the same. Personally, I think any paper containing such excerpts ought to have been sold with a free sick bag as an insert.

If you find though that, for whatever reason, you cannot entirely avoid these diaries, please, I beg you, take heed of this piece of advice: if, while reading a bit of the book or even a review of it, you catch sight a few lines ahead of the word "pheromones", stop at once, go no further. There are things once read that can't be forgotten, no matter how much you wish they could be, and that passage is one of them. Using a useful but very little known rating system, the Jim Dixon Nause Index, that passage scores 999,000, at the very least.

To put my advice in a single sentence, I must turn to one of the lodestones of English literature, Stanley and Rhoda by Patricia Wells:

The title of perhaps the best Stanley and Rhoda tale, particularly its second half, tells you what I want to tell you better than I ever could: