Friday, 28 May 2021

The Big Question

 I remember decades ago seeing a cartoon of a couple arriving at or leaving a party. The man in the picture is small, unimposing & wearing spectacles & a dinner jacket, the woman is a Bianca Castefiore type. She is shown talking to her hostess while getting into or out of a sumptuous mink coat. “Oh yes,” she is saying, “I deal with the all the small questions - what car we buy, should I get a new fur coat - but I leave all the big questions to him - should China join the United Nations, that kind of thing.”

For me, the biggestof big questions is what luxury you would choose if you were invited onto Desert Island Discs & arrived at the point where they asked you that question. The other day a guest on the programme was absolutely inspired & asked for a whole Vienna café (I bags Braunerhof). I seem to remember some years ago that Nicholas Parsons of Just a Minute fame very practically requested a supply of drinkable water, which was dull but wise. However, while reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk, I have just come across the only truly intelligent solution to the problem, provided by a character called Greta:

Mind you, I'd make sure the plane came equipped with a pilot as well.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

No More Ferrero Rocher

I think I've been gone from the world of diplomacy long enough now to be able to make some comments about it, without upsetting anyone still inside it. 

What I mainly want to say is this: diplomats are not inherently glamorous. What is often forgotten is that diplomats are basically civil servants, albeit civil servants with expense accounts. They do throw parties paid for by the taxpayers of their countries. They are also lucky enough to have all sorts of things in their private lives paid for by the taxpayers of their countries. But they are still just civil servants. Sadly though, very often the parties and the perks and the national days and the trays of champagne do go to their heads. 

A love of luxury is one of the signs that this may be happening. By luxury, I don't mean a love of having time and space in abundance, which is my idea of luxury. I mean a love of expensive restaurants and clothes and handbags, a love of things that, although not necessarily valuable, cost an enormous amount. This is the new kind of luxury, where price and value have been divorced. 

Luxury has,  of course, always been costly, but until quite recently the cost arose from the fact that what was being paid for was of rare and exceptional quality. For instance, I should imagine that Grinling Gibbons's -

carvings were expensive, but they were also breathtakingly beautiful (and, if you haven't seen the programme in the video above, please stop reading now, and watch it instead; it is a wonderful thing, made by the BBC, when it still made things properly.*) 

Once upon a time, the things that were called luxuries were given that designation because they were extraordinary examples of artistry and skill. Their price resulted from their quality; it was not what made them luxurious. Luxuries were recognisably special - and it was because of their specialness that they were expensive.

Somehow or other, that's all now changed. Too many of us - certainly many I met in the diplomatic world, loaded with the newfound wealth of 'allowances' - have been tricked into believing that things that are of only adequate quality can be luxuries, provided they come from a very famous company and cost a great deal.

Branding is the key to success in this field of endeavour. Cattle are branded because they look so alike that their owners need to tell which ones are theirs and the same is now true of luxuries. People pay huge sums of money for items that are not unique, that are in fact made in multiples in factories. These items can only be recognised as luxurious by the fact that they bear a logo from a corporation that has somehow managed to persuade consumers that their product has, because it comes from them and costs a fortune, some indefinable magical aspect that makes it special, (even though without the manufacturer's mark it would be impossible to spot its value). Somehow the price itself has become the sought-after quality.

This strange fact was understood too late by British whisky makers selling their product to Japan. On noticing that their sales were growing among Japanese customers, the British manufacturers decided to try to persuade the Japanese government to remove the high tariffs that made their product so expensive for Japanese consumers. They succeeded, the tariffs were removed and the absurdly high price of British whisky in Japan dropped to really quite affordable. Sales fell to almost zero. The whisky hadn't changed in any way. It tasted exactly the same as it had always done. It looked the same too. It was in every respect the same whisky that people had been buying increasing eagerly, but reducing its cost had removed the perception people had that it was a luxury. It turned out that it was only this one aspect that customers really liked.

How did this begin? Is it because we have run out of creativity? Are there no modern equivalents of Grinling Gibbons, no truly exquisite luxuries being made any more? Or is it some change in our psychology that makes us less interested in beauty and more interested in being admired for being able to pay huge sums? These are the things I wondered when I used to go to the restaurants sought out by luxury loving diplomats - charmless places with interiors so dull that they reminded me of airports, places where the staff fawned without sincerity, responding to requests for advice with recommendations of wines that had price tags no-one who genuinely cared about you would even think of suggesting,  places where your food was 'styled', which means that it was as likely to arrive in a bowl as on a flat plate surface, even when it was the kind of thing that needed to be cut up rather than spooned out *. 

I still occasionally encounter people who like such places and I still don't get their appeal. The meals are rarely very memorable - and even more rarely served with any generosity* - so where is the pleasure? Does it rest in being able to say that you went there, imagining that people will admire you for having enough money to pay the resulting huge bills?

Surely not. Who admires people merely for being extravagant? When and why did that become a thing? If I were to splash out lots of money, I would want to be rewarding real skill or talent, and I would expect to receive something astonishing and recognisably unique in return. I'd be like Paul Gallico's Mrs Harris when she goes to Paris in pursuit of the possession of one thing that is extraordinary, one thing in her life that no one else will ever have in duplicate. 

I think this is the aspect of diplomatic life I miss least (inasmuch as I miss any of it, which, to be honest, I don't): being surrounded by nice people who have fallen for false luxury, people who have been duped into believing factory-made goods - bought from corporations in which what craftsmanship exists has all been poured into the creation of the brand - are worth their price tag. There is a pathos in observing people spend their money on things that they wrongly believe are special, unable to see that they are being cunningly conned. There is a poignance in realising that the concept of 'special', of 'luxury' has been corporatised, like almost everything else.

But of course that pathos is not limited to delusional diplomats. And the aspects of diplomatic life that I don't miss are not limited to the buying habits of others in that world. It is hard to believe for anyone struggling without them, but something else I am thrilled by is being liberated from having household staff - servants, if you will. I don't think I can even begin to explain that without coming across as supremely ungrateful. Another time, maybe. 


*Surely there is an irony, or a poignance at the very least, in the fact that the ability to make beautiful and skilful programmes about people who made things beautifully and skilfully has since been lost.

* Is this to give customers a sense of challenge, or just to provide amusement for the staff? 

* Cue Woody Allen's aunts at a restaurant: Aunt A: The food here is so dreadful; Aunt B: Yes, and the servings are so small.

Saturday, 22 May 2021


On my way back from buying peonies from a woman* with dyed hair* & a face that looks as if someone squashed it into an already overstuffed trunk for at least a quarter of a century, (not totally unlike my own, in other words), I saw a wedding party.  They came out of the church nextdoor to us and arranged themselves on the steps to be photographed. I cried. 

Everyone looked so absolutely joyous - the fine, darkhaired bride, her striking face suggesting a strong, intelligent personality, was, to use the cliche, radiant; her cleancut, slim new husband appeared dazed but more or less thrilled; the groom's mother, short and rather drably dressed, was transformed by a grin that went very nearly literarily from ear to ear; the slightly crumpled bride's father was equally brimming with happiness. And behind them masses of friends and relations of all ages, all seemingly equally delighted.

It is the Whitsun weekend (pünkösd in Hungarian), & so I naturally thought of The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, as I stood across the street, admiring the scene on the church steps with tears in my eyes (even when rain began, the group's spirits were not dampened; if you could collect happiness for later use, there were vast quantities of it floating about in that moment):

The Whitsun Weddings

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense   
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence   
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept   
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.   
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and   
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;   
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped   
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass   
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth   
Until the next town, new and nondescript,   
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys   
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls   
I took for porters larking with the mails,   
And went on reading. Once we started, though,   
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls   
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,   
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant   
More promptly out next time, more curiously,   
And saw it all again in different terms:   
The fathers with broad belts under their suits   
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;   
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,   
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,   
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.   
    Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed   
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days   
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define   
Just what it saw departing: children frowned   
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared   
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.   
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast   
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died, 
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,   
And someone running up to bowl—and none   
Thought of the others they would never meet   
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.   
I thought of London spread out in the sun,   
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across   
    Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss   
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail   
Travelling coincidence; and what it held   
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power   
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.


*She appears only on a Saturday & only in peony season. It occurred to me today that, given she brings several hundred bunches each time, she must have a sea of peonies covering perhaps half an acre wherever it is that she lives.

*While this woman has shown great restraint & chosen only to restore what I assume was her original black hair with more black, many women above a certain age in Hungary decide that a sort of purply or beetroot shade of red is the way to go. When I have seen this hair colour on the head of someone bobbing through the crowds in Oxford Street, London or standing amongst the hordes taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain, each has turned out to be a citizen of Magyarország. It is puzzling, as differences in taste usually are.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Literary Meals - an Occasional Series: Burgess’s Recipe for Irish Stew

I came across Anthony Burgess’s recipe for Irish stew on, guess where? Yes, Twitter (that bearded loon who runs it really ought to pay me for all the positive publicity I give that silly application or platform or whatever you’re supposed to call it).

Anyway, it was irresistible, especially as it contains traces of Graham Greene. Here it is (personally I wouldn’t get too worked up about trimming all the fat off; instead cook it days in advance and then cool it - the fat will rise to the top and form a disk that can be removed and thrown away. I would also cook lots of green cabbage in the stew, thus eliminating the need to cook an additional dish of red cabbage as Burgess recommends. And ugh, eurgh, no to the oyster or kidney topping, unless you must live the full Burgess experience. And when he says season well, do go heavy on the black pepper):

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Reading - The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

Last year I read a very long book called The Civil War, in an attempt to understand that period of British history. What I did understand by the end is why it is not a period covered often on the school curriculum. It is messy and complicated and hard to parcel into neat conclusions. 

After I finished it, I remembered that as a child I had enjoyed a book about Cavaliers by Rosemary Sutcliff. I still had my copy of the book so I dug it out and discovered it is in fact about Sir Thomas Fairfax who took Cromwell's side. More particularly it is about his wife Anne. 

The book is The Rider of the White Horse, and I was delighted to find it entirely entrancing on a second reading. Sutcliff writes vivid and beautiful descriptions and creates living characters the reader is engaged by. I was struck by the fact that two fairly major characters are disabled but that there is nothing at all propagandistic in Sutcliff's portrayal of them. I then discovered that she herself was disabled and in a way that made it all the more admirable that she hadn't felt the need to crudely hammer home any messages about the disabled person's plight.

Sutcliff is far too good a writer for that. Her story is moving and exciting, her evocation of landscape and of interiors is marvellous and, although the book was published as part of the Peacock series, and thus intended for younger readers, she never writes down or patronises her readers in any way. I really enjoyed it and missed it when I came to the end.

Friday, 14 May 2021

RJ Unstead Goes Travelling

Having a mind that finds abstract concepts hard to grasp, my attempts to learn about history have usually met with failure. The only things I have learnt until now about what happened in the past are the facts I learned from RJ Unstead, who provided masses of details about clothes and food and housing, which were the things that helped me understand and remember what happened when. 

The one drawback about that was that Unstead's great work, Looking at History, only covered the history of Britain. How was I going to remember what happened in the rest of the world?

Then it came to me: whenever I saw a commemorative statue or plaque, I would try to find out who the person concerned was. My trivial brain would learn fact through personal story. 

And so I have started - and I have created a blog to record all my discoveries. It will start with statues and commemorative things in Budapest, but I hope we might be allowed to travel one day and I will then try to add the same sorts of posts concerning people who have been commemorated further afield. At the end of each post I will endeavour to include a mapshot, giving an indication of where the thing I'm writing about can be found. 

Here is the first post in the series.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Joys of Twitter - an Occasional Series

The re-elected Mayor of London, having complained for some time that the London transport system is penniless, announced on Twitter yesterday that he was thrilled with the new signs he had commissioned from David Hockney. They will replace the ones in the Piccadilly Circus tube station, and Mr Khan is proud that he is ushering in this change:

To my great joy, instantly Twitter users reacted - and not one single response was positive. That restored my faith in the possibility that most people are not idiots. Better still, a great many of the replies were very funny. Some, of course, were bitter:

This was my absolute favourite:

But there were many others that also brought cheer, either because they were funny or because they were wise and upset. They made me glad to know I am not alone in believing it is totally wrongheaded to fiddle with the superbly elegant design of the standard enamel tube signs (like all the very best design, it is something so good that you don't notice it has been designed; the thought of design or a designer behind it doesn't come into your head, because it is so exactly right that it seems to have always existed)

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

What Happened

An incredibly kind friend decided some weeks ago that he was going to hack his way through the bureaucratic undergrowth & get me enrolled in the Hungarian system so that if I should need to consult my local doctor that would be allowed. I did try to discourage him - having been born with two nationalities, I am acutely aware that civil servants regard me as a dangerous aberrrant & do all they can to block access to any & everything for me. 

He is, I think, now beginning to regret his decision to get this task underway.

Anyway, rummaging in the filing cabinet for some document that might help him, I came across one of my favourite New Yorker cartoons. If the man in it is taken to be the world last January, it sums up what was about to happen very nicely:

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Reading - Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark and Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

By chance, just after finishing reading a novel by Muriel Spark and one by Iris Murdoch, I came across a review of two of their novels by John Updike in the first issue of the New Yorker in 1975. 

As so often, Updike had interesting things to say.

First of all, I was heartened to see that my experience of Iris Murdoch's novels - that they leave no lasting impression, despite being well-imagined - was something Updike also experienced. He remarked that her characterisation and story telling is:

"so vivid & impressive ... endowed with all the substance her remarkable powers of imagination & introspection could fabricate" 

and yet his impressions of what he had read:

"do not last. Miss Murdoch is less Shakespeare than Prospero, holding us enchanted as long as we stay on her island, then the insubstantial pageant fades.”

I'm not certain that his identification of Murdoch's main theme is correct or more a reflection of his own obsessions:

"Her theme is "erotic love is never still.” In some of her novels the shifts of allegiance and attraction wrought by the inexhaustible, tempestuous force of erotic love approach the mechanical and unintentionally comic; a kind of square dance passingly links every character to every other. And, as in a mystery novel the murderer can be spotted because he is the least likely candidate, so the Murdochian hero or heroine can be counted upon to love, at last, and truly, the most repulsive figure of the opposite."

Updike's observations on the two novelists and their place in the literary order are perceptive, and I particularly like his observation about the legacy they contain from Shakespeare:

"They constitute a class by themselves—both so intelligent and fluent, so quizzical and knowing, both such resourceful mixes of feminine clairvoyance and masculine generalship, both such makers. Miss Murdoch, true, is copious and explanatory where Mrs. Spark is curt and oblique; she can hardly turn around in fewer than a hundred thousand words where the other can't bring herself to exceed novella length; she is wistfully theistic rather than flatly so, and concerned with goodness instead of with faith. The two of them together reappropriate for their generation Shakespeare's legacy of dark comedy, of deceptions and enchantmеntѕ, оf shuddering contrivances, of deep personal forces held trembling in a skein of sociable truces."

I like especially the understanding exhibited by the phrase "concerned with goodness instead of with faith"

Here are my more pedestrian comments on the particular novels I read by the two women:

Territorial Rights is set in Venice, and Muriel Spark moves her characters around that city as if they were chess pieces. They inhabit the usual Spark quasi-surreal atmosphere and coincidences abound. Everybody is absurd, no one is virtuous. A recurring Sparkian element, the possibility that reality is a novel written by an unseen hand, is once again hinted at. An easy read that I suspect is not quite as clever as Spark thought it was. 

Under the Net is an amusing, baffling book with some lyrical moments and quite a few laughs. It is narrated by a cheerful, fairly  aimless soul, and I suspect the meandering story is some sort of everyman parable of life's amiable meaninglessness. Or maybe it is just a meandering story. It is quite engaging and faintly intriguing while you are reading it, but it washes over you and is forgotten in a trice. Perhaps prophetically, it contains a piece of anti-Semitism uttered by a character called Lefty. 

The book is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, which probably provides a big clue to whatever was the author's intention.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

We Need Nordahl Now

I’ve been reading a memoir by Graham Greene in which he recalls a Norwegian friend called Nordahl. The description he gives of him includes this passage:

“There were always arguments where Nordahl was, and never a trace of anger. He was the only man I have ever met with whom it was possible to disagree profoundly both on religion and politics and yet feel all the time the sense of goodwill and an open mind. He not only had goodwill himself, but he admitted goodwill in his opponent - he more than admitted it, he assumed it. In fact he had charity - of greater value than the gold of the National Bank, and to me he certainly brought a measure of hope in 1931, carrying it like a glass of akvavit down the muddy lane in Chipping Campden.”

"He not only had goodwill himself, but he admitted goodwill in his opponent" - how welcome a few more people like that would be in this new cantankerous age.

Reading - The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy

This book looks at the phenomenon of rich young American women marrying English peers, something that became a frequent occurrence in the period between about 1870 and 1905. Anne de Courcy has a wonderful eye for interesting details and brings to life an era of huge wealth, rigid formality and intense social competitiveness. She supplies a massive amount of intriguing detail about clothing, servants, food and behaviour. The book is in many ways a companion guide to the world of Edith Wharton's novels. There are too many intriguing little bits of information in the text to quote them all here so I will confine myself to three at random:

1. Charles Dickens had a bathroom installed in 1851 and took a shower every morning, but he was practically alone in this - most people made do with a daily sponge bath, and the upper classes regarded plumbing as horribly middle class.

2. In the 19th century the coat hangar had not been invented.

3. At Newport, Rhode Island, all society women tried to protect their skin from the sun's rays with hats or veils or both, but some "of the more dashing women would wear something even stronger: a mask made of fine chamois leather, often with embroidered lips and eyes".

A truly entertaining, informative book.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Reading - The Pike by Lucy Hughes Hallett

Having read many good reviews, I was looking forward to this book. In it Lucy Hughes-Hallett tells the story of Gabriele d'Annunzio and attempts to make the case that he was not merely the most vivid expression of the wild times in which he lived but a person without whom the theatrical aspects of Mussolini's Fascist Italy might never have been realised. However, very early on Hughes Hallett herself has to admit that the extent of d'Annunzio's political influence is very much a matter of dispute. Once this admission is made, (page 64 in my edition), tramping through the next 600 pages grew wearisome for me. The fact that "we know in enormous detail what d'Annunzio did in bed" and Hughes-Hallett provides much of that detail did not help, since I am not a voyeur. Hughes-Hallett attempts to hold our attention by acknowledging that there is quite a lot to disapprove of in d'Annunzio and then asserting that "disapproval is not an interesting response." Well no, but revulsion is not a pleasant feeling, yet the fact remains that the reaction of the reader to most of d'Annunzio's behaviour is likely to be revulsion, which makes it a long, revolting read.

The problem Hughes-Hallett faces in trying to portray d'Annunzio is that you really had to be there. He was clearly hypnotic in person, in possession of an extraordinary charisma when addressing a crowd. Sadly charisma is not something that can be resurrected through descriptions after the event. Therefore one is left with the fact that, as Hughes-Hallett says, "he was one of the cleverest of men, but also one of the least empathetic. He was as ruthless and selfish as a baby", (why does Boris Johnson keep leaping into my mind, I wonder). Without being mesmerised by witnessing his personal magnetism, the things he does - binding his eyes as he approached the border when returning to Italy, "lest the first sight of his homeland be too emotional", for example - seem frankly ludicrous. 

One aspect of d'Annunzio that is faintly interesting in the context of today's politics is the fact that he was clearly a populist - "Instead of looking up the social scale and the political hierarchy, seeking endorsement from the ruling class, he looked to the people, turning popularity into power". However, those who came after him were also populists - and I was not convinced by this book that their populism was due to d'Annunzio's influence. Populism appears at times of dissatisfaction and upheaval and the period between the first and second world wars in Europe was a period of dissatisfaction and upheaval. 

Ultimately, for me the book was pointless, beyond the discovery that Pirandello was at best an appeaser of the Fascists, which was very disappointing. I was not convinced that politically d'Annunzio was more than an extremely eccentric egoist whose showmanship was directed at nothing other than his own self-aggrandisement and grew from the mood of the times rather than influencing them. I was not interested in his sexual exploits. Inasmuch as I might be interested in him as an artist - and James Joyce seems to have admired him, declaring that he was "the only European writer after Flaubert to carry the novel into new territory" - then the place to start must surely be his actual writing, not his biography.