Saturday, 31 October 2020

Better than Chess

Although the holidays of my childhood were entirely taken up with rounders, kick-the-can, Happy Families, Monopoly, knucklebones, jacks, charades, pelmanism, Happy Families and so forth, as an adult I have rather taken against games. Perhaps it was the experience of an Easter in Cornwall where one of my English cousins appointed himself banker for every Monopoly tournament and won each and every one - that is, until he made a slip and one of us, belatedly eagle-eyed, discovered that he had brought with him to Cornwall all the money from the Monopoly set his family had at home. 

This is how he did it: we always sat on the floor to play, and that holiday the criminal among us insisted on only ever sitting right at the corner of the rug that was closest to the window. The reason, we eventually discovered, was that under that particular corner he had hidden his horde of extra money.

It may have been that shocking experience that did it, I don't know - whatever the reason, until recently games of all kinds had been banished from my life. However, a couple of weeks ago things changed completely. Against my will, we began playing a new game that has only recently been invented. It is called COVID Christmas borders. It is addictive, and is probably the most difficult game I have ever tried. 

The aim of the game is to reunite families living in different parts of the world, so that they can spend Christmas together. Let me say at the outset that anyone thinking of trying this with Australian relatives should simply give up now. Getting a flight to Australia is, if not impossible, extremely nearly impossible, and, in the unlikely event that you do manage to get one, you have to go into two weeks' quarantine when you get to the other end. 

And I don't mean quarantine as it is practised in much of the world - that is, you can land, travel to where you live or are planning to stay and then stay there, without supervision. No, in Australia, the army meet you off the plane, transport you to a hotel, where you go into a room and don't come out at all for fourteen days. That means no walk around the building, no exercise in the gym, no stroll down to the lift and back, nothing. Best of all, you pay handsomely for the privilege.

And should you decide to meet up with someone who is in Australia now and feels like a little trip to somewhere else, forget that too. Australians have to ask their government for permission to leave the country, and that permission is usually denied.

In Europe, things are, if not less strict, certainly more fluid. It is this fluidity that drew us into the game. 

Our original plan for Christmas was that we would spend it in our flat in Budapest, with our daughters, who would come to stay with us from where they live in Britain.  But on 1 September, Hungary closed its borders to those without citizenship or residency. 

Move 1, Us: Well, we thought, if the girls can't come here, then we will go to England. We will hire a house and we can all stay in it and explore somewhere new. We then spent hours poring over Air BnB properties in remote bits of Scotland, and even on islands off the coast. 

Move 1, the Authorities: The Scottish government announced that anyone from overseas would have to quarantine for 14 days. 

A good move. We were stymied for a day or two. 

Move 2, Us: We remembered Pembrokeshire in Wales. We had loved the walks on the coast near St David's. Cue more poring over Air BnB but this time in a westerly direction. 

Move 2, the Authorities: The Welsh government banned non-essential travel into its area. Would they see getting together with our children as essential travel? While it is to us, they might disagree.

Move 3, 4, and 5, Us: Well, what about Italy? Yes, lovely idea. Lichtenstein looks good. Greece? At first all looks rosy.

Move 3,4 and 5, the Authorities: An announcement that masks have to be worn at all times is made in Italy and, then, oops, the country's taken off the British safe list, along with Lichtenstein. A closer reading of Greek government guidance reveals that if officials there feel like it, they may make you quarantine, and it is impossible to tell who this will happen to and who will be spared.

Move 6, Us: Never mind, we'll all meet up in upper Bavaria. We love Bavaria. And, oh look, what a gorgeous house, right next to an enchanting village, masses of wonderful walks, pick the kids up in Munich, no quarantine for them when they get back to Britain, perfect.

Move 6, the Authorities: Germany introduces quarantine for people coming from Hungary and people coming from Britain. 

Very clever. 

Move 7, Us: We refuse to admit that it's checkmate. We will not be beaten, (we think, or hope). We will go back to plan A, but instead of Scotland, we will find a place somewhere else, a part of England that hasn't been much affected, and we will rent it for two weeks before Christmas and quarantine there. Nice places are available wherever we look, close to moorland and walks and generally ideal.

Move 7, the Authorities: Germany closes all hotels and France goes into lockdown and so, given that we were planning to drive to Britain via these countries, we will now have to plough on through day and night without any rest. On top of that, Britain appears to be on the brink of going into countrywide total lockdown, so we won't be able to meet up with anyone else, including our children, even if we manage to get there.

Move 8, Us: I don't think we are quite beaten. The Canary Islands are our latest wizard wheeze, but, to be truthful, we aren't pinning our hopes on them. Or, indeed, feeling very excited by the prospect. 

In any case, regardless of what happens, I realise that above all we have been the unwitting victims of an educational toy, a mad and complicated activity with a perpetually shifting set of rules that has taught us  we cannot always plan everything - or anything - in advance, that, even though it's almost Christmas and we've had all the time since last Christmas to get ourselves organised, we cannot, after all, control events. Sometimes everyone has to sit patiently and wait and see. 

(And yes, of course I understand that all the rules we were playing against were not really designed to teach us anything, even if they did in fact end up giving us this valuable lesson. And, yes, I know that, paradoxically, what they are meant to do is precisely the thing they forced us to learn is impossible - to control events. Still, having absorbed so extremely well the inadvertent lesson of the game we've been playing, I do have to ask whether the rules are actually useful for their intended purpose? Is there anybody who can demonstrate that the various newly introduced measures are truly controlling anything? Or is it possible that events are, indeed, uncontrollable - that, whatever happens, the virus will sweep Europe, either slowly, with lockdowns, or swiftly, without, but inevitably, one way or the other, it will sweep? And, if it is indeed inevitable, is it truly necessary to precede it with successive new waves of panic measures, that deprive so many people of so many rights and freedoms? Did anyone ask to be ruled by doctors? Has anyone in authority checked that we are all prepared to give up so much for dubious, unproved outcomes? Are there guarantees that the terrible pain being inflicted across our societies is going to be truly beneficial - or will the result be only a deferral of illness, with the addition of monstrous social and economic pain?)

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Land Deal by Gerald Murnane

I love Gerald Murnane. The first thing I read by him was his own memoir, Something for the Pain, in which he tells the story of his life largely through a description of his beautiful semi-religious worship of racing colours. I then moved on to The Plains, which is a jewel-like fable that gently mocks the pretensions of those who come from the Western District of Victoria. 

Everything Murnane writes has a mysterious element. His perspective is marvellously eccentric. It also seems to me that a stream of underlying amusement runs along beneath the surface solemnity of his work.

If you want to see if you like Murnane's writing, here is a link to Land Deal, a story I love by him. It reminds me a little of the story about dreams in Peter Carey's collection The Fat Man in History but Land Deal is richer. Murnane's work always seems more complex and interesting than that of his more famous fellow Australian colleague.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Battered Penguins - The Dresden Green by Nicolas Freeling

As you can see this is a particularly battered specimen. It arrived in this condition, I should add, I didn't start tearing at it out of rage or irritation. Far from it - while at first I rather fought against having to spend time with the central character, I really liked both him and the book in the end. 

The central character is called Louis Schweitzer and he does seem a very cold fish to start with. However the author, Nicolas Freeling, quietly guides the reader to an understanding of Louis. You grow to like him as you watch him develop through the course of the book's events. He opens up, a little reluctantly, after years of merely existing, of going through "the chores he had trained himself to for many years", numbed by loss. 

The book is on one level a thriller, and on another a meditation on the bombing of Dresden and what it means. In his foreword, the author denies that he regards the bombing as unforgivable, and yet it seemed to me that every page of the novel was imbued with a sense of that act's depravity, and a feeling that Europe will consequently never be the same.

Above all, what makes this book good is the quality of the writing and the intelligence of the author, both of which are unexpected in a volume that presents itself, first and foremost, as a work of light entertainment

As I am rather hungry just at the moment, I will start with a relatively banal element - a nice description of a meal, (something I am always pleased to find when reading). This one is really a picnic, which the main character buys for himself:

"He pushed off exhilarated, stopped at the dairy on the corner for a piece of cheese, celery remoulade salad. Bread next door, mineral water, cold roast beef, two big gherkins: ready for the day."

Yum, (that should of course be celeriac, not celery but never mind.)

There is another meal that is far less appetising, but may provide useful advice in an emergency:

"He had two of that morning's rolls and two hard-boiled eggs, and three glasses of white wine. After that he had no wish to eat, no remnants of shock, (nothing like hard-boiled eggs for shock)."

One thing that makes the book so pleasing is the intelligence of the writer. He is rather good at conjuring up scenes and people with few words:

"a big warm room like a colossal jewel-box, bursting with a subdued glitter."

"He had a rapid easy way of getting out of autos like the gunslinger in a western sliding off his horse."

As someone who had some paintings stolen and misses them almost as much as I miss those among my friends and relations who are now dead, I loved this passage:

"A picture, even if stolen or looted, even if paid for by the blood of hundreds, pays back its price. It continues to instruct, to elevate, to unite, to construct."

The author's main characters are translators, and it was nice to discover that he seems to understand what the task of translation involves:

"That was what Louis liked about Mr Tsara - at all times he had a flair for the simple, the direct, the unpretentious. His phrases escaped from the silken cocoons of diplomacy and flew like butterflies. He was very easy and very difficult to translate, and hated being translated by anybody but Louis. Last week after an interminable discussion about oilbearing seeds he had remarked, ' We sound like a pack of suburban budgerigar breeders.' It had come out in English as 'smalltown pigeon fanciers'." 

Given its Dresden theme, the book is suffused with melancholy and disillusion about humanity and its activities, but the writing is good enough that this doesn't depress. I liked this disillusioned passage about international politics:

"Governments are all the same, naturally. The English had been discouraged by the Americans thinking it immoral for people to have colonies. The Americans, poor chaps, had been discouraged by the Russians not behaving like gentlemen about Berlin. The French, discouraged by everybody, were now being discouraging to everybody right back - enjoying it, what was more. As for Germans, nothing ever discourages them, not even their own history."

The author's sense of the fallen nature of European civilisation post Dresden is always in the background and always expressed beautifully. Contemplating the decay visible in the stone of an ancient statue, the main character, (or the author), observes:

"It is all like that, the stone, everywhere, in every town - the Gothic traceries crumbling cobwebs of foulness, the Renaissance columns bashed as though by armies of puritan image breakers, the frescoes and bas-reliefs smeared away to dirty shadows...We know vaguely, of course, that this is done by the famous acids of the air - vaguely we know that it is factory chimneys, auto exhausts, and so on, that turn our stone into dirty snow, just the way rough cider erodes the teeth. Just one of those little prices we pay for our progress, like the fish floating belly up, like the oil on our beaches, like the lemons painted with diphenyl to discourage penicillin."

The book, which feels as though it was written much closer to the end of the second world war, so much do the events of the war hover over it, was actually written in 1966, deep in the Cold War. An interesting exchange takes place between characters about the reunification of Germany, which one interlocutor advocates but the other does not:

"Your reunited German nation, free of all military burdens, possessing once more an unequalled energy and resources, would frighten all the corrupt and incompetent occident into creeping underground. You move the Bonn government into Berlin, and whether or not it possesses a tank or a plane, in a year it has total political and economic hegemony", argues the figure who is against reunification.

"I don't see why", replies the one in favour, "You maintain all the American, French and British bases on their present West-German soil. You stipulate that all costs are born by Germany alone - that takes care of the military burden angle. Economic hegemony? - you once allow the whole of Europe to unite and England balances the eastern provinces. The whole weeping sepsis ceases to exist."


But my absolute favourite bit of the book I have saved for last. One character mentions that the place where he works has a Kafkaesque atmosphere and the person he is talking to has never heard of Kafka. This is the first character's response:

"Czech writer, not much good, thought highly of because he's good at the facelessness of bureaucracy. People in his books spend their lives wandering around mysterious huge buildings full of corridors where people bustle about with papers all day, where nothing ever gets done, where everything is meaningless, where there's no answer to anything. Lends his name to dream worlds - helplessness, unreality, incomprehension, doubletalk."

Those three words "not much good" are a liberation if, like me, you have never really enjoyed reading Kafka.

So all in all an exciting, absorbing, well-written tale, with an equivocal ending. I prefer to be a Pangloss but the author is so good that I was forced by the end to admit that ours may not be the best of all possible worlds. 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Tragedy Can Be Banal

One member of my family chose to study English literature at Oxford. Another member of my family, even though she loved the Oxonian in our family very deeply, rejected his advice to apply to Oxford and chose instead to apply to study English literature at Cambridge. Her reason for doing so was that the Cambridge course included a tragedy paper. 

This week, when it was revealed that the Premier of New South Wales - a very competent, well-respected woman whose private life has always been assumed to barely exist - had had a secret love affair with a person who perhaps, if one wanted to be exceptionally kind, one might describe as a rapscallion, I finally understood why Cambridge, with its attempt to make sense of tragedy, was the wisest choice.

Tragedies, I realised, are accounts of us at our most human, flawed and foolish, when we'd been aiming for grandeur. 

Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW premier in question, has been humiliated in open court. My heart goes out to her. One misjudgment in the midst of so much order and a carefully constructed life explodes. Regardless of whether she retains her position as premier, she has lost her dignity. 


Wednesday, 14 October 2020


This is just a tiny moan about a new cliché that sets my teeth on edge. It is much loved by UK public health scientists but I’ve also heard it used in quite marginal video casts about polling for the US presidential election & I expect it will soon be turning up elsewhere.

My objection to be honest is based on nothing. I can’t mount a sensible argument, beyond resistance to linguistic change, for my hatred of this new usage.

So really this post is more than anything simply to ask whether I am all alone in my hostility to this phrase, or at least to its use in circumstances outside the kitchen:

“baked in”


“The rising COVID cases are baked in. I’m sorry to say that deaths are already BAKED IN.” A scientist called Van Tam said that yesterday. Of course, for an Australian brought up on Tim Tams, an impression of his absurdity was already “baked in”. Aaargh. I’ve just understood why I’m so hostile to “baked in” - because I recognise how revoltingly easily it could slip in to my vocabulary, replacing genuine thought.


Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Rules or Responsibility

I don't think it was wise for any government to begin with the bravery of Sweden when confronting an unknown virus. However, now the virus is understood more, is it possible we need leaders who are prepared to take us back to normal life. Rather than piling on rules, is it time leaders led by sharing responsibility, by spelling out the truth, which is a) that we have a lurking enemy that isn't going to disappear and against which we may never have a vaccine, b) that there are groups who are vulnerable and for them death from this illness is a danger and c) that therefore each individual will be equipped with all the information and advice that the government can muster to allow them to assess the risk they might face. 

If an at-risk individual chooses to shelter, they should be free to do so and the government should support them. If, on the other hand, (as many older people seem to), an individual wants to run the risks that come with seeing their children and grandchildren, having decided that a life lived without the pleasures of family and community is not a life they feel is worth living, then that must also be allowed, even though it might lead to the deaths of some of those concerned. 

Government's role is not to lay down rules but to provide information so that each individual can make an informed choice. This is understood when it comes to tobacco and alcohol, both seriously dangerous to human health. In their use of those substances, individuals decide what level of danger they are prepared to take on, and the same should apply when it comes to risk from an illness that is not going away.  

Our politicians need to be brave, explaining that, while this will pass and we will get through it,  pain and death is unavoidable. It is the right of each individual to make a judgment about what peril they are prepared to put up with, and it is the role of government to ensure that each of us is well enough informed to make that judgment. As to the health service, it is not a religion. The government needs to equip it well, not to shield it because it is worried that it isn't well enough equipped. 

I do understand that the virus is highly infectious, in a way that alcohol and tobacco are not, but, as I say, each individual, with proper information provided by government, can make the decision to stay out of harm's way - and the government can concentrate its efforts on providing assistance to them to do that. The option must be there for the vulnerable to avoid crowded restaurants, buses and theatres, but the option for those who are not vulnerable - (or who decide that they don't mind running a considerable risk) - to continue life as usual must also be provided. Aside from anything else, if the path of never-ending blanket lockdown is followed, there will be no money to fund a health service of any kind, and then where will we be? But more importantly, a society made of people who make their own informed choices is a mature society, whereas a society where people are told what they must do and obey because they are punished when they are naughty is one in which we are infantilised and ruled without respect. 

Monday, 12 October 2020

Another Washing Themed Thing Poem

I've been most upset since my husband told me that the Queen has never had a shower in her life. I don't know how he knows this, but he always seems to be right about everything so I think he probably is about this too. He also told me ages ago that in something he read the writer said that quite often standing under the shower in the morning he would realise that this was probably going to be the very best moment of his entire day. 

Anyway, I then remembered that one of my favourite Les Murray poems is called Shower, (I hadn't thought of it until now, but perhaps Murray was a thing poet, like Ponge) and in the spirit of encouraging yet more washing, hands and otherwise, in this virus infested world, I give it to you here: 

Shower by Les Murray

From the metal poppy 
this good blast of trance 
arriving as shock, private cloudburst blazing down, 
worst in a boarding-house greased tub, or a barrack with competitions, 
best in a stall, this enveloping passion of Australians: 
tropics that sweat for you, torrent that braces with its heat, 
inflames you with its chill, action sauna, inverse bidet, 
sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river, 
reminding all your fluids, streaming off your points, awakening 
the tacky soap to blossom and ripe autumn, releasing the squeezed gardens, 
smoky valet smoothing your impalpable overnight pyjamas off, 
pillar you can step through, force-field absolving love's efforts, 
nicest yard of the jogging track, speeding aeroplane minutely 
steered with two controls, or trimmed with a knurled wheel. 
Some people like to still this energy and lie in it, 
stirring circles with their pleasure in it, but my delight's that toga 
worn on either or both shoulders, fluted drapery, silk whispering to the tiles, 
with its spiralling, frothy hem continuous round the gurgle-hole' 
this ecstatic partner, dreamy to dance in slow embrace with 
after factory-floor rock, or even to meet as Lot's abstracted 
merciful wife on a rusty ship in dog latitudes, 
sweetest dressing of the day in the dusty bush, this persistent, 
time-capsule of unwinding, this nimble straight well-wisher. 
Only in England is its name an unkind word; 
only in Europe is it enjoyed by telephone

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Seventy Six Trombones

On a recent Saturday we decided to go to Budapest's flea market. You never know what you will find there. On this visit, musical instruments were to the fore 

as well as large brass parakeets, ancient pedal cars, and inevitably the empress Sisi in various guises, but never radiantly happy

The market provided a lesson in the evanescence of technology with this stand where once prized sewing machine bases have become neglected and recycled as a makeshift stall

There were also strange pieces of erstwhile, to me at least, unknown technology, such as this, which the stall holder explained was a kit for making cigars (he made a lot of gestures, but I still don't really understand how it works):

I don't want this old television, but if I were a prop mistress needing to set the scene for a Cold War eastern European apartment interior, it would be the first thing I would choose. It on its own conjures a time and a place, the smell of papirosi and wet felt boots and diesel that was so much of that time

I imagine this could add to the atmosphere, if I had extra funds, a fine hero worker, supporting his comrades, marching ever towards tomorrow's Communist dawn:
Whenever I'm at the flea market, I see old things of little obvious interest to any Hungarian, and I always start to wonder how they ended up here:

but then I'm distracted by other things that are so ugly, my thoughts turn to wondering how anyone could have conceived them:

This third one, I should point out is hideous (I think) but very, very valuable - I heard the stallholder name a four figure euro price for it (not that the inquirer bought it):

Then there is the sadness of once treasured photographs, recording moments that were important to someone once, but that now exist in a state of meaningless anonymity:

Since being robbed a couple of years ago, I've been missing various paintings, including one of a domestic interior empty of people. We bought that picture in Budapest, and browsing around at the flea market I began to realise that the empty interior may be a Hungarian speciality. But none of the ones on offer quite filled the hole left by the one we lost:

I usually get bored long before my husband so then I start to play a variation of a game I used to play with the magazine called Country Life when I was young. I would go through the opening pages of that publication and tell myself that I had to buy one of the houses on offer for sale on any page, no matter if I hated them all - the game was to choose which was the least awful, or, if there were several I could imagine living in, which I liked the most. At the flea market, I do the same with stalls, trying to decide which would be the least awful choice (or the best) from among their wares.

Which would you choose from among these? The collection of plates or the smoking man or the leaded glass panel? 

At this stall the choice was simpler - a still life, a Hitler bottle stopper or a grubby plush toy:

This was a tricky choice - a very heavy commemorative ashtray in the shape of a stetson, associated with some long ago iron company or something similar; a sampler some poor soul probably sweated over night and day, a miniature of a person who seemed to never have seen the sun or a landscape with a rather miserable looking factory in the background:

Then there was a decision about whether you could bear to live with three old black clad women or three hideous cats or a mother and two children who appear to be part of that unsettling film called The Others:

The weird thing about this game is that you begin to accept that you might buy all sorts of things you don't really want. Thus I became stupidly fascinated by some old guns, because the metalwork on them was the only thing worth looking at one one stall - and the pictures of hounds and prey were in fact rather lovely, which I probably wouldn't have noticed had I not been playing my silly game:

In a similar way, in contemplating them as things I could possibly buy - and indeed might have to, according to the rules of the game - whereas I would normally have dismissed these figurines (probably from the 1960s, possibly some kind of Hungarian phenomenon that has its afficionadoes?) out of hand, I became oddly drawn to their awfulness and could imagine myself getting an absolute passion for them and collecting the lot - I suppose this is what is meant by the phrase "an acquired taste":

I spent a lot of time trying to work out what this was a picture of. I began by thinking it was the Opera House, on Andrassy utca in Budapest:

but then, peering more closely, I saw that it was labelled "Lenin körut":

Then, with the help of my ever well informed husband, it dawned on me that what I was looking at was the theatre on Blaha Luiza tér that was scandalously ripped down by the Communists in 1965, for no reason except that they could. Complete vandalism, just as you would expect from the followers of those two swine, Marx and Lenin.

While I'd been sifting through all this rubbish, my husband had dug out a bottle labelled 1940, "nur für die Deutsche Wehrmacht", Chateau Pichon, Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande:

We weren't quite convinced that it was genuine (did they really put the alcohol percentage on labels in those days?) but when we got home and looked up the Comtesse de Lalande we discovered a fascinating story, in which a countess was forced to hand over her estate to the Germans, who made wine for themselves using her grapes and equipment during the war. Before leaving, she had dragged a heavy piece of furniture over the door to the cellar, but the commandant discovered what she had done and called her back to protest. She assumed he would kill her but he said that he felt insulted, that they were not barbarians and that none of his officers would touch a bottle from her collection. I'm afraid that I would have made the same assumption as she did. It was all very well trying to argue you were gentlemen while working for a regime headed by Hitler. Leaving aside all the other atrocities committed by Nazis, the photograph in this article does not suggest that the officer in question was reliable even on the question of not helping themselves to vineyard produce. 

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Incidental Achievement

The other day I read about a woman who is trying to challenge the rules that allow a London club to have an all-male membership. Leaving aside how annoying it would be if she won for all the wives of current club members - (at present, those women can rest assured that their husbands are bellowing at other men, as they toss down drinks in the club rooms, untempted by high achieving unattached females prowling the premises in search of suitable partners) - it seems somehow pathetic to insist like this. Although maybe it is just that this particular person has taken the policy of Groucho I-would-never-want-to-belong-to-a-club-that-would-have-me-as-a-member Marx a little too much to heart.

As far as I'm concerned, the correct way for women to break down barriers is to do it incidentally, without actually trying or even particularly wanting to. The kind of thing I have in mind is perfectly illustrated by the following anecdote, contained within a description of Nicolas Coleridge’s grandfather, in a memoir by the younger Coleridge called The Glossy Years:

His chief loves were racing, golf and unconditional support of the Conservative Party. He spent much time drinking pink gins at the Carlton Club in St James’s and it was here that, from time to time, family dinners would take place. We would all assemble in the lobby, in our suits and ties, and then would follow the ceremony of ‘going upstairs’. Female visitors, in those days, were not allowed to walk up the sweeping club staircase, but had to use a lift. So my grandmother, mother, aunt and so on would be ushered into a coffin-sized lift, while the men strode up the staircase, under the portraits of former Tory Prime Ministers, to meet the lift at the top of the staircase. This ‘no ladies on the stairs’ rule persisted until Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, and thus an honorary member of the Carlton Club. At this point, it was quietly dropped, since no one dared explain it to her.