Friday, 20 August 2021

On Architecture, Ego, Romanticism versus Reality, and Barely Contained Despair

Partly to see our children, partly just because we feel we must stay in perpetual movement while our masters allow us - (who knows what the pesky, power grabbing halfwits will come up with in the way of rights-depriving rules by autumn [for me at least, a major consequence of this whole two years of panic/pandemic is an urgent awareness that at any time and at extremely short notice we may find that our movements are arbitrarily restricted and that therefore hay must be made while the sun shines* {footnote no.1}]) - we have been travelling a lot lately. I've already gushed about the excitement of our first burst of travel since travel was fairly thoroughly stopped for unimportant people some two years ago. 

What I forgot to say was how interesting our travels have been, how seeing the world gets the mind bouncing with questions and ideas.

For instance, in Rovinj, I kept looking at the architecture and wondering how, given that it was individually unremarkable, it managed collectively to be lovely. Here is the town seen from the water:

No single building here is "making a statement". None seeks to stand out from its neighbours. No gigantic ego has gone to the drawing board and thought to themselves, "I'm going to make people notice me by building something that draws attention to itself, even if only because it jars visually with everything around it and its scale makes people feel insignificant. I'm going to build it from mass produced slabs that allow no other individual to express their craftsmanship, using metals that scar the earth in the process of their extraction and plastics that pollute the air in their manufacture* {footnote no. 2}.

The same was true of much of Udine, an Italian city we stopped in before reaching Rovinj - and where it wasn't true there, I blame the fact that the poor sods had an earthquake in the 1970s, in the aftermath of which no doubt they had egotistical architects queuing up round the block with their cement trucks and container loads of steel-framed mirrored glass facading. 

It is also true of the old centres of many, many European towns where so often there is no one building that is especially striking but the collective result is harmonious and very pleasant to see. 

Of course, some people would say that Rovinj has been ruined by tourism, but I doubt it could have been protected from the ravages of modern architects had it not been so hugely attractive in its untouched form for tourists. Furthermore, having been to the town almost thirty years ago, when there was no tourism to speak of, I have to admit that tourism has actually, somehow, made it more attractive. Indeed, when we got home and pulled out the photograph album and looked at the pictures we had taken of Rovinj on our first visit all those years ago, we saw that we had actually been in many of the same streets and squares as we were this time, but although the infrastructure was the same, they were drab, lacking in the liveliness that people bring with them. 

Although wherever you look on the waterfront now they are flogging all sorts of tawdry rubbish, I have to admit it all feels much more fun. Mind you, according to a waiter, the influx of people only lasts for a few months, during which, according to him, the town's population swells from 8,000 to 80,000 (apparently this year they haven't yet reached those levels, which surprised us as it seemed quite crowded - "Yes", he explained, "but in a normal year, the walk beside the water isn't just packed; it's so packed that there are actually people falling into the sea." )

And now we come to romanticism - mine, idiotic, what a surprise. In the winter months, the waiter told us, the place is empty, deserted, nothing is open, no one does anything. "You're all inside doing on-line university courses?" I asked, imagining the residents of Rovinj becoming experts on Aristotle and the Wars of the Roses. "No", he said, "Netflix. Just Netflix, Netflix, Netflix." 

I mentioned despair too, didn't I? Well that was in Udine. On our last night, we wandered into a sweet restaurant in a side street, with a large garden out the back. There were quite a lot of people already there enjoying themselves - most fascinating among them a group of eight beautifully groomed young women who were celebrating a birthday. They had persuaded three young men to join them, but those young men hadn't bothered to make half the effort the girls had in dressing themselves and trying to look splendid, nor did they find it necessary to engage in conversation with anyone but their fellow males. While the girls pouted and posed, draping around each other lovingly as they snapped selfies that might have been suitable had they been setting up an online brothel and needing to tout themselves, the men stood about looking sheepish. 

Anyway, the fellow who ran the restaurant was brilliant at his job and the food was delicious and the wine good and not ferociously marked up. At the end of the evening, we chatted with him, asking how long he thought the compulsory masks indoors rule would last in Italy, and how things were going. His face crumpled as he spoke of how hard things had been and how hard they were continuing to be. The tables in that garden had seemed remarkably far apart but of course we hadn't realised that they were compulsorily two and a half metres from each other, which meant a third of his custom had vanished - and of course there had been no custom at all for months and months and months. When he talked of the day's news, which had included a warning from the government of possible reimposition of lockdown in September or October, it was clear that for him this would mean total despair. 

When I first read about the virus, when a doctor friend started sending me messages warning me that something really bad was coming, I remember staying up late reading reports that showed frightening scenes in China and later in hospitals in Northern Italy. I now think of myself back then as extremely naive. I genuinely believed that we were all in imminent danger of dropping like flies in the street and that the world had to be urgently shut down. I regret being so foolish. Perhaps there was back then an argument for a brief period of curtailment of some activity until the risk the virus posed was understood. But very rapidly it became clear that the risk, while it definitely existed, did not justify the level of reaction that governments imposed. 

Too bad. At a time when everywhere in the West we have the most unimpressive second-rate people in living memory serving as our representatives, those representatives decided that they would take over our lives. They decided that we could not be trusted. Instead of giving us responsibility, providing us with information and trusting each of us to assess our own risk and the risk we posed to others so that we could make up our own minds about how to behave decently, they began imposing rules and then, having discovered how much they enjoyed the exercise of power, they added more and then yet more {*Footnote no. 3}. In the blink of an eye, they began whisking away rights that I never imagined for an instant they would dream of tampering with{*Footnote no. 4}. Without asking, they sacrificed so much, in an attempt to stop an illness that has a horrible outcome in a very small percentage of people. They ignored other physical illnesses and quite unnecessarily deprived the young of education and everyone of social interaction - as if life is worth living when we are isolated beings. Furthermore, if Laura Dodsworth is to be believed, they used some undemocratic psychological methods to keep the bulk of the populace so frightened that they did not object. 

I hang my head in shame at my own frightened stupidity at the start. I now think that in our response to this new form of coronavirus we have made a mistake that will loom as large in our history as the decision to wreck Europe by launching the 1914-18 war. It was sparked by fear and I now recognise that, although in a very different context, Roosevelt was absolutely right in his inauguration speech when he said: "Let me assert my firm belief that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyses."

It is too late, the damage has been done now - but for the sake of everyone, including that nice restaurant owner in Udine and all those in a similar position, barely surviving mentally or economically, we must not allow any more lockdowns or other extreme and, (the data strongly indicates), unsuccessful measures. We have to take back freedom, even if it means mass civil disobedience. We have exceptionally poor leaders in almost every country in the western world, and we are at a really dangerous moment. None of us wants to be a robot polisher.


Footnote no. 1 - As I am writing this in Ireland where the sun appears to scarcely ever shine, (which suits me, to be honest), this is on every level a metaphorical remark. 

Footnote no. 2 - Incidentally, which fat bastard had the bright idea of going round Ireland persuading people to remove their old window frames and replace them not with nice new wooden ones precisely like those originally there but with plastic coated metal ones that probably are made in China and, yes, are so practical because they last forever, but a.) deprive skilled people of the pleasure of making nice windows; b.) blight the landscape - surely beauty counts for something; and c.) make buildings look as if someone has gone around and poked out their eyes.

Footnote no. 3 - I will still never understand how it could have been justifiable in Britain to allow care home workers to go into care homes to work provided they were tested three times a week but the same regular testing regime was not extended to any care home resident's spouse or closest relative or friend;  if it was okay for the workers to come in under that testing regime, how could it possibly not have been just as okay for a resident's visitor to submit to that testing regime and also come in? And don't get me started on funerals. Or women giving birth alone.

Footnote no. 4 - In the United Kingdom, I suspect that also at play was an impulse from somewhere or someone (or possibly - surely not - quite a number of people?) to make several quid - Exhibit A: PCR test costs.

Friday, 6 August 2021

A Genius for Disappointing

My husband decided to look at the concert of three Mozart symphonies that was played in the Albert Hall this week, and broadcast by the BBC. The performance was splendid but the British nation's broadcaster decided that at the interval it was time for their daily "hot topic" - in this case, 'is there such a thing as "genius", that is: are there really people who are superlatively brilliant in their areas of activity, leaving most of us in the also-ran category, or is "genius" just a white male construct?' 

Leaving aside the ridiculous claim made by one of the participants in the discussion that Beethoven wasn't as much of a genius as Mozart, (at least she acknowledged that genius is a thing), the BBC had the temerity to argue that David Bowie and Prince were generally considered to be geniuses - (if, of course, one accepts the term at all) - on a par with Mozart. The presenter also appeared to despise the idea that there might be such a thing as "the divine" from which inspiration for works of genius may emanate. I would suggest to him that our inability to create works of beauty since the majority decided to ditch a belief in the divine rather argues that there might be something up there after all. 

The whole "hot topic" event made me feel, yet again, intensely disappointed by the government broadcaster - and also enraged by them. The discussion was confected nonsense; the first and second parts of the concert clearly demonstrated that genius exists and that Mozart was a genius. If anyone else is capable of creating music that is so beautiful that it gives the impression of having arrived from a better place, they are unarguably a genius. In other words, if anyone reading this can match Mozart's achievement, I unhesitatingly award them the same title. Otherwise, no, forget it - equality of achievement is not something we can engineer, any more than equality of looks.

No doubt someone will decide it is against copyright to have this video up here, in which case - or anyway, once I have enough time, I will transcribe the bilge that is spoken in the course of this vapid insult to viewers.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

The CIA Canoe Pool

This morning I came across this document, which I very much hope is authentic, as it is one of the loveliest pieces of writing I have read in years.