Thursday, 22 July 2021

Normally Madame

If you haven't much time, here is a summary of this post, from Matt, the Telegraph newspaper’s excellent cartoonist:

If you have time, read on to learn exactly how right that couple are.

A few pretty things in church of no fame in a village few have heard of in Italy, examples of the treasures scattered across Europe that none of us have been able to admire for over a year.

I used to deal with a man in Brussels who, whenever I asked him a question, would invariably preface his answer with the phrase, "Normally, Madame". On occasion, in fact, his answer would consist only of those two words. 

During lockdown I thought of that man quite often, remembering his simple phrase. I wondered when it would regain any meaning in reality and, in darker moments, whether anything would ever go normally again.

Then on 23 June, to my amazement, normality did return - at least it did in Hungary. No masks, no vaccine checkers, everything open to full capacity, no two-metre distances, just the return of common sense. And then, wonder of wonders, the European Union got its act together and set up a Europe-wide vaccination certificate. As soon as we received ours, we packed our bags and headed back into the world. 

At this point, I should pause and give credit to my husband. I am always capable of persuading myself that I may not want what I actually want, that I am misguided and will be disappointed or disturbed if I achieve my goals.  If it weren't for my husband's boundless optimism, energy and general positive can-do approach, we'd probably still be at home. In his un-neurotic wake, I set off, braced for disillusion, convinced I would decide that travel was meaningless and idle self-indulgence and I'd only been wanting to do it because I wasn't allowed.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. 

Being out in the world is invigorating. Seeing strangers is stimulating. Going to new places is exciting and inspiring and a reminder of how wonderful existence is - including the dear old mass of individuals that together make up the human race.

In Austria, the crowded cheerfulness - gemutlichkeit they call it - of a gasthaus in the evening, a plate of schnitzel with a gemischte salat beside it and the cheerful waiter in lederhosen sweeping down with a viertel of gruner veltliner and a bottle of mineral water. 

Waitress in dirndl

Man in lederhosen (not, so far as I know, a waiter, I have to admit)

Laughter and talk and amiability surrounds you, the delight of being together made all the more intense by the unspoken knowledge that a huge truck just smashed through the wall of existence and, although they've patched things back together, who knows when the next one will come crashing in.

Europe's landscapes are so wonderful

Forget that. Get over the trauma and shock, we tell ourselves. We are back in the world again, hurray.

Then Italy, and a succession of crowded agro-turistico inns that our friends who live in the hills above Lake Como introduce us to. 

Again so glorious to be surrounded by people, this time all talking nineteen to the dozen in that beautiful language, which, when heard collectively, sounds like the chatter of a marvellous flock of birds. And the playful expostulations of men in bars down by the lakeside, stories unfolding within the age-old linguistic road map of alternating "allora"s and "peró"s. 

Having once hated crowds, now the excitement of being in company is so great that it is almost like being drunk.
Waiting for the ferry to go from Katerina Island, a lovely swimming spot, to Rovinj in Croatia

And then Croatia and the bellowing that I'd forgotten was the South Slav standard mode of discourse among males over 40. 

Rovinj, Croatia

And everywhere along the way people of all sizes and shapes - Lycra clad outdoor enthusiasts dashing by on high-tech bicycles, optimists carrying surfboards to stretches of water that, at least to an Australian, promise no surf. 

And as I write this, at a motorway service station, a huge bear of a man in shorts and straining tee-shirt sits down at a table near me and is joined by his equally enormous partner, she in flowing rhinestone-trimmed black chiffon. She shrugs a fake Chanel handbag from her shoulder and opens it and draws out a packet of cigarettes. They light up and smoke with the kind of uninhibited pleasure I haven't seen anyone give to that activity in decades. The pair seem so companionable and apparently utterly untroubled by the risk they are putting themselves through thanks to  their "filthy habit" and their huge corpulence. Yes, I know I shouldn't, but I love them very much indeed for ignoring all the world's attempts to panic them. 

They become for this moment my unlikely heroes - and perhaps it is precisely this that makes the authorities so eager to keep us all inside. Travel is subversive - sights like these might infect others with a similar nonchalance, and then our masters would lose all control. 

I don't propose to suddenly start smoking or over-eating, but I do plan to do my very best to remember this couple’s foolish bravado. With them in mind, I’ll encourage myself to wriggle out of the panic-stoking grasp of the doom sayers. Better to live properly, than to cower at home in what, if Laura Dodsworth's State of Fear is to be believed, is largely a manufactured dread.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Bathos is a Beautiful Thing

I was in a place called Skofja Loka in Slovenia the other day. I'd been there once before and forgotten about it, which is surprising as it is an immensely pretty little town. I found it especially endearing this time as, when I asked the waiter in the cafe where we had lunch whether it was compulsory to wear a mask, he said, "No", and then when my husband asked whether compulsory mask wearing indoors had been abolished recently, as it has in Austria and Hungary, the waiter said, "Oh, it hasn't been abolished yet; we just think it's stupid so we don't." 

Free thinking, so rare these days, so wonderful.

Anyway, in the central square of Skofja Loka, the Slovene government has set up a number of placards highlighting Slovenian crafts and craftspeople - (or should that be, in modern parlance, "celebrating")?

As I like making things, I was immediately drawn to the placards, (despite the fact that they were really an eyesore, plonked down on a succession of heavy metal poles in a way that interrupted the view of an almost unchanged set of antique buildings with a glimpse of distant meadow beyond). 

Displayed were the photographs and what I suppose might be termed "personal statements" of: a blacksmith; a felter; a bookbinder; a patchwork maker; and quite a few lacemakers. Several of them had some pretty grand claims to make about their activities and the products thereof. 

Then there was this woman, (see picture), who pointed out that those of us who spin our own wool and then knit it are rare beings. The combination of recognising a fellow spinner and knitter and being designated as something that is rare was very exciting to me. I had never thought of either spinning or knitting as occupations that one would do anything other than not admit to practising, yet here was someone willing to admit pride in the activity and also, I then saw, willing to venture a definition of its significance. 

What would it be, what would I discover was the essence of these combined hobbies of mine - hobbies that until now I had thought were essentially embarrassments? 

Would she point to a perceived marriage between the earthy, animal nature of sheep rearing and the uniquely human technological achievement that is knitting, (who first picked up a pair of pointed sticks and began the linking of twine to more twine to make a garment via what we now call knitting, and what inspired them to invent such a complex pastime - two questions that I suppose will never be adequately answered).

Or would she assert that spinning and knitting created an intimate bond between man and the animal world? Or that they led to a deep understanding of the intense energy of the seasons - the shearing in the spring, the spinning in the autumn, the knitting in the winter creating a oneness with the rhythms of time and an awareness of its passing?

I read on, and let out a shout of laughter. The essence of being both spinner and knitter it turned out is "being able to make slippers that warm small and large feet." A statement of great bathos, as are almost all statements involving feet, those absurd (but wonderfully useful) appendages - but also a statement of much greater truth than any of the ones I had dreamt up.


Monday, 12 July 2021

Monarchic Transition

For a long time, I’ve been hoping that, at the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Australia would remain a constitutional monarchy but change from the UK’s Royal Family to that of Denmark, on the grounds that the Crown Princess of Denmark is an Australian citizen - or was before her marriage.

That still left Britain with the problem of having the current UK Queen’s son as King. He and his oldest son have no understanding of their roles and spend masses of time gabbling about “issues” - mental health, the environment, all things green - making themselves unsuitable for the entirely neutral role of monarch (& don’t get me started on the younger one).

But now I have a solution for Britain too: Charles, as a divorced man, cannot any longer be included in the succession, as the job includes being Defender of the Faith (which is to say the church). Thus he is out - and I trust that means that his children are also, since the marriage they are a result of was dissolved, (I suspect in fact this bit is where things get tricky but in that case I would say William must relinquish his rights as he has too clearly declared his politics, having chosen to appear at Davos, for pity’s sake, as well as regularly berating his future subjects on their poor environmental behaviour) . 

My idea is based on an understanding of succession that sees the crown pass to the current queen’s second male heir. Yes, I admit, on the face of it that might appear less than ideal. But remember we live in a time of gender fluidity - in fact, go further; embrace that new state of affairs.

For you see, when it comes to the British monarchy, the doctrine of transgenderism can be supremely restorative. All it takes is for Princess Anne to declare that she identifies as male and is therefore second in line to the throne and all will be well. King Anne will be a hugely capable successor to her mother and Britain will be able to look forward to another decade or two of wise, unpoliticised regal leadership.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

A Passage to Lockdown

A friend sent me this link to a story I’d never heard of by EM Forster. It is set in a world where humanity has surrendered to science and technology and accepted that life is better and safer when lived cut off from other human beings, alone in cells that are well-provisioned with electronic communication and entertainment, taken care of by the Machine. 

It is a world where “people never touched one another - the custom had become obsolete.”

One character makes a break for it and experiences the outdoors, briefly. “I had got back the sense of space and a man cannot rest then,” he tells his mother, once he is back inside, safe under the control of the protective Machine again.

I don’t generally enjoy science fiction of this kind, where no explanation is given for how the usual way of life - as experienced, with minor adjustments, through all of history - has been swept away and replaced with whatever brand of weirdness the writer would have me believe has taken its place. But after the last two years I don't feel so strongly about the need for some kind of back story. I've had to recognise how easily and quickly everything can alter, and how little anyone really seems to mind. 

At a certain point in the story, quite a radical change is made by the Machine. “The development was accepted quietly”, Forster tells us. Once I would have scoffed and insisted to myself that this was poor psychology. Now I know better.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Relevance Deprivation Syndrome

Probably two or three times a day since Matt Hancock, then UK Secretary of State for Health, resigned, a phrase coined by a former Australian politician has floated into my mind. "Relevance deprivation syndrome" is the phrase, and its coiner was one Gareth Evans, about whom I will tell you nothing, as he is a person best forgotten, (something he discovered after leaving parliament, leading him to come up with the phrase.)

Imagine the unappetising Hancock - before his resignation he was ubiquitous, he had power, he was unignorable. Every minute of his day was busy, (and those that weren't were spent doing things that excited him, as witnessed by the bit of CCTV that caused his downfall.)

Now he wakes up and finds no messages on his telephone, no schedule unrolling before him, no demands and pleadings, no bowings, no scrapes. There's just him and his new lady love and no-one else wanting to speak to him. No driver, no appointments, no one remotely interested in his views or ideas. 

Although I call myself a Christian, I am not a very good one, because what I think, when I think of Mr Hancock and his relevance deprivation syndrome is: ha ha ha ha ha.