Saturday, 3 December 2016

Battered Penguins (and others of that ilk) - Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Fatal Shore, a History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 by Robert Hughes, is a revelation, even for those of us who were educated in Australia and taught some Australian history. It is a book that leaves you awed by the propensity for cruelty that humankind displayed in the establishment of Australia.

In his Introduction, Hughes contends that:

What the convict system bequeathed to later Australian generations was not the sturdy, skeptical independence on which, with gradually waning justification, we pride ourselves, but an intense concern with social and political respectability.

I think he is right in this - and in the earliest incarnations of  Barry Humphries's Edna Everage, this is what was originally being made fun of.  Hughes's tale also helps explain why Australia as a nation appears less perturbed than some others by the idea of sending away groups we see as aliens to be processed on distant islands. From the beginning, this policy has been practised on us, with Norfolk Island the most infamous example of its implementation.

In his book, Hughes describes vividly the cruelty of the 18th century, not only in Australia but also in England. He tells of “the crush of jostling voyeurs” at Tyburn, the unspeakable conditions in the hulks, the blood lust and lack of humanity that developed among those who had power over prisoners, which led to unspeakable floggings for offences such as “Having turnips” or “Talking in Church”.

He also introduces the characters of influence during the various phases of Australia's penal history, although sadly his refusal to admire anyone wholeheartedly becomes a little irritating. Macquarie and Alexander Maconochie, both figures who did much worth applauding, cannot escape jibes about priggishness and self-righteousness.

Similarly, Hughes's account of what happened to Australia’s indigenous peoples is over-egged and prone to assertions unsupported by footnotes that might provide evidence of their truth. Included among these is the startling statement that Australian Aborigines “killed the infants they could not carry”. I've never heard of this practice before and I'd want to see some proof, beyond Mr Hughes's word, that it ever happened. Similarly, the contention that the possibility of converting Australian Aborigines to Christianity and farming was “an idea loathed and resisted by every white, no matter what his class” is hard to swallow - if every white  genuinely loathed and resisted the idea, who came up with it in the first place?

But never mind - the book’s depth of research is generally extraordinary. It is also wonderfully written. This phrase, for instance, has an echo of The Tempest within it:

The space around it, [Australia], the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.”

In dreadful circumstances, what is more, Hughes can occasionally be funny. An example is the wry comment he makes on a report that 50 or 60 cases of sodomy occurred each day on Norfolk Island:

Since the total convict population of Norfolk Island at the time was about 600, this argues an impressive priapic energy on the prisoners’ part, perhaps caused by the sea air.” 

Thanks to Hughes's work, I am now able to conjure in my imagination some notion of the original figures whose names are already familiar from street names and titles of institutions - for instance, Bent Street in Sydney, which I’d always assumed was named for its shape, turns out to be named after an early legal man, while the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra is named after a rather inspiring visionary, who hoped to reform penal services and, at least for a time, relieved the utterly hellish lives of the unfortunates on Norfolk Island.

Hughes argues that the national psyche is still shaped by our penal origins:

Would Australians have done anything differently if their country had not been settled as the jail of infinite space? Certainly they would. They would have remembered more of their own history. The obsessive cultural enterprise of Australians a hundred years ago was to forget it entirely, to sublimate it, to drive it down into unconsulted recesses. This affected all Australian culture, from political rhetoric to the perception of space, of landscape itself. Space, in America, had always been optimistic; the more of it you faced, the freer you were - “Go West, young man!” in Australian terms, to go west was to die, and space itself was the jail. The flowering of Australian nature as a cultural emblem, whether in poetry or in painting, could not occur until the stereotype of the “melancholy bush,” born in convict perceptions of Nature-as-prison, had been expunged. A favourite trope of journalism and verse at the time of the Australian Centennial, in 1888, was that of the nation as a young vigorous person gazing into the rising sun, turning his or her back on the dark crouching shadows of the past.”

but he concludes, surprisingly, by saluting the penal system with which Australia was founded - or at least saluting the tokens left by those who suffered under its harsh disciplines:

To ask what Australia would have been without convicts is existentially meaningless. They built it - if by “it” one means European material culture there - and their mute traces are everywhere: in the peckings and scoops of iron chisels on the sandstone cuttings of Sydney, hewn with such terrible effort by the work gangs; in the fine springing of one bridge at Berrima in New South Wales, and the earnest, slightly bizrre figures carved on the face of another at Ross in Tasmania; in the zigzags of the Blue Mountain road, where traffic now rolls above the long-buried, rusted chains of the dead, less obviously, in the fruitful pastures that were once primaeval gum forest.

I remember a few years ago hearing a young Australian comedian's routine about how she had been born and brought up in Bondi. Every morning, she got up and looked out of her window and thought, "Wow, if this is the prison, what must England be like? It must be paradise on earth." The punchline was her arrival at Heathrow.

That little joke might not appear exceptionally funny, viewed from an English point of view, but to have reached the current situation - where the place to which the dregs of British society were banished is now a place that many in the United Kingdom would give a lot to be allowed to live permanently - does have a certain comedy to it, especially if you are lucky enough to be born Australian. What Hughes's book shows is that, in addition to being amusing, this result is also downright astonishing. Emerging from such fiercely cruel origins to become a thriving, middle ranking nation is little short of miraculous. While Australia's early story lacks the romanticism of, for example, the founding myths of the United States, the creation of the modern nation of Australia -  (for all its faults; I don't claim it is perfect, any more than any human society is) - from the blood-soaked violence detailed by Hughes is an achievement both surprising and fairly wonderful.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Beaten to It

There is a slightly tiresome habit forming out there in the world. It is the habit of characterising 2016 as some kind of year of horrors surpassing all others. On BBC radio this morning, an announcer even said about the death of Fidel Castro, "2016 has struck again."*

Anyway, reading Penelope Fitzgerald's book called The Knox Brothers while eating my breakfast, I came across this paragraph about the editor of Punch in 1933:

"Sometimes, sitting in El Vino's with a friend of long standing, Johnny Morton, "Beachcomber", [whose work was immensely funny, for those who have never experienced him] of the Express, Eddie would agree that humour had had its day, because the state of the world was such that nothing was too absurd or too unpleasant to come true."

Does that sound at all familiar? What price 2016 now?

Mind you, I suppose pointing out that 1933 was also a bad year is hardly blowing the "2016 = dreadful" concept completely out of the water.

What remains then to cling onto in times of adversity?  Well, humour, of course, particularly a sense of the absurd. Actually that is pretty much all that keeps me going in the last analysis. While there is breath in my body for one last gale of laughter, I will insist that it has not yet had its day.

*and on that note, if you haven't already,  look up #trudeaueulogy on Twitter.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Unable to Resist

I promised myself I would say nothing at all about politics and the result of the American presidential election, but now I give in. The reason I didn't want to say anything is that I know nothing really. In addition, there is barely anything on the Internet about any other topic at the moment, and I am beginning to find it gets me down.

The reason it gets me down is that, much as I want to wait and see before making judgments, I can't help worrying about the apparent lack of interest or belief in anything but making deals that the president elect has manifested up until now - and thus his election is rather sobering/worrying, since the main function of a head of state should not be to amass large profits for himself. He doesn't seem enormously stable either.

Of course, I may be completely misjudging the man, but, based on the evidence I've been exposed to - and, yes, who knows, possibly it is all skewed and slanted - he doesn't come across as a very sensitive, nuanced person. Or at least not sensitive, except about himself.

Anyway a couple of things happened that made me decide to break my promise to myself. The first was I came across a passage that seemed oddly apposite. Some will say that it is not and the parallel with Trump that I think I see in Tom Buchanan is false, since Tom Buchanan is from the established New York upper class rich, whereas Trump is from new money. Also, Tom Buchanan is a fleshy, violent bully who has no integrity, emotional or moral, so that is nothing like Trump either, is it?

On the point of social difference, I would argue that all new world wealth is new money and the idea of a new world aristocracy is absurd, and therefore on that level the analogy works just fine.

So let's hurtle on to the passage in question - but before I get to that, let me just add that I do fully recognise that another flaw in my analogy is that things were not as perfect in the world before Trump as they appear to be in the scene Fitzgerald describes here just before Buchanan enters and sucks the joy out of everything:

"The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor."

The great F Scott Fitzgerald, ladies and gentleman, what an absolute genius. How in heaven's name did he end up poor - and how in heaven's name did that truly wonderful novel Tender is the Night not become an instant and overwhelming success? That is an even bigger mystery than the question of how Trump won, which, of course, has been a preoccupation of many since 9 November.

And actually I must admit that, leaving aside the fact that anything is possible in a world where such a great work of art could be overlooked and underlining the lack of delight I feel about what has happened, I do think it is not impossible to make out one or two possible wisps of sort of almost reasons for the result.

I noticed one of these scraps of possibility - just a tatter of something that may have gone a little way to creating the outcome - while I was  watching Hillary Clinton give her concession speech. It was when she got to the bit where she was encouraging her younger supporters not to become too disheartened to continue political work, that I thought perhaps I'd discovered a clue to what went wrong for her.

The thing she said that immediately struck me was this:

"Never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it."

She had missed something, I thought, and perhaps everyone who shares her beliefs had done the same throughout the campaign. The thing I thought she had missed was an acknowledgment that "what is right" is not a given; different groups have different views about what "what is right" actually means. Therefore, it seemed to me that what she ought to have said was this:

Never stop believing that fighting for what YOU THINK is right is worth it."

The addition of those two words would have kept one important element at the forefront - the recognition that not everyone believes what you believe and you need to engage with them and PERSUADE them.

But perhaps I am biased because of the weird ways of the little bubble in which I live, a place where, as I have mentioned, I have to entertain often and nowadays - a very new development - etiquette requires that I ask people whether there is anything they might prefer not to eat. Manners, as I understood them once, meant that a guest would always reply with, "Why no, just give me whatever you are eating; it is so kind of you to offer me your hospitality at all", but this is no longer the case. Everyone seems to believe these days that they should fight for what is right for their digestion. Worse still, a recent experience, when it was stipulated by a prospective guest that, should I be including any fish on my menu, I must ensure that said fish be sustainably sourced, suggests that someone has taken Mrs Clinton's words to heart and brought them to my table and a fight between me and my guests about what we believe is right is about to be undertaken.

Much more of this sort of stuff, and I might begin to feel almost sour enough to vote for Trump myself.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Pedalling Dreams

My favourite joke is one made by the comedian Bob Monkhouse. "They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian", he tells his audience: "They're not laughing now."

This week I have had occasion to remember that joke because I too have been laughed at. Yes. Imagine. Me.

I have been laughed at because I have had what I consider a brilliant idea that I believe will solve three of the great public policy challenges of our time. No less! Those are, in no particular order, obesity, energy supply and climate change.

Nothing important then.

Yes, it is true. You have found me out at last: I masquerade as ZMKC, but really my name is Anne Elk, (Miss):

Anyway, leaving my earlier theoretical failings aside, my current idea is a good one, I believe.

It came to me, my idea, in case you are interested, when I was at a train station in London and I saw some people at a table pedalling energetically in order to keep the electricity going that was playing some music. I'd already seen a photograph some months before of a projected idea for a bus full of gym bicycles that people can ride on their commute to work, (which had struck me as a pretty daft idea, but no more than gyms themselves, where people will often take time off the treadmill of work to go on an actual treadmill, surrounded by others, who have made much the same choice). Just before I saw the table pedallers, I'd read a) an article about unemployment, b) an article about obesity and c) an article about how difficult it is to create energy if we give up coal.

Well, of course, you're ahead of me, I'm sure. Or are you? Perhaps, like everyone else I've suggested this idea to this week, you are not ahead of me but pouring scorn on me from a great height instead. Why though? No-one can tell me. They just reply with vague statements about my idea being absurd and ridiculous and impractical.

Oh sorry, I should explain what my idea actually is so that you can judge for yourself/have a very good chuckle.

My idea is that we employ people to ride stationary bicycles for five or six hours a day, thus giving them jobs and ensuring they are unlikely to put on weight. There will be shifts so that people are riding the bikes constantly on a twenty-four cycle, (geddit?) and the bicycles will be connected to the grid, generating energy.

My impression is that probably the largest objection to this proposal as far as most of the people I've run it past are concerned is that they regard the idea of asking people to ride bikes to create energy as demeaning, but my impression is that most jobs these days are pretty demeaning. These cycling jobs would be contributing to society in a valuable manner, the people doing them would be paid and they would also be taking care of their long term health. I think it is more demeaning to work in a call centre. But what do I know? After all I spent several months of my life as a cycle courier in Sydney and seriously considered making a career of it. I certainly enjoyed that period of my life enormously more than the horrible year I spent as a fast-streamed graduate in the civil service - remembering that experience reminds me that I must update my earlier post on scenarios that I believe could fill the role of hell.

Aaargh. I have been suppressing recollections of that civil service interlude for decades, but now all the bad memories are flooding painfully back. Offices; carpet tiles; discussion papers; meetings. Meetings, meetings, oh, the long, dull, seemingly endless meetings. If anything is demeaning, surely meetings are - achingly, unendurably so.

In fact, I submit that the tedium of meetings amounts to utter degradation of the human soul, whereas haring about on a bicycle delivering things or staying in one place pedalling, chatting to your neighbour, generating energy and getting paid to do what you might otherwise pay to do in a gym is empowering, (in the latter case, literally)

Of course, there may be some technical difficulties still to be overcome in the area of electricity generation and storage, but, if they can be overcome - and I bet they can, if they haven't been already - what exactly is so bad about my plan? And please don't all shout, "EVERYTHING!"

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Battered Penguins - A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

If Evelyn Waugh had opened A Handful of Dust with the first line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, he would have been quite justified, for Waugh's story is definitely and truly one of the saddest ever told - and not only sad, but funny and brilliantly written. In fact, while it cannot be the very best novel I have ever read, because there is no such individual category, it is certainly among the group of equal place getters in that field.

When the novel opens, Tony Last and his wife Brenda, the book's central figures, are living quietly - alas, a little too quietly for Brenda’s taste - in the 19th century “Gothic-style” Garden of Eden that is Hetton Abbey, the Last family seat. Their small son John lives there with them and thinks of nothing except his pony and the tales told him by Ben, the newly promoted “stud groom” - these revolve mostly around a strawberry roan called Thunderclap who “killed two riders and won the local point-to-point four years running” and Peppermint, the mule, “who had drunk the company’s rum ration, near Wipers in 1917.”

Into the Hetton Abbey idyll a viper soon intrudes. Tony, who asks very little of life beyond a few muffins to “make the English winter endurable” is reduced to misery - and then handed a truly terrible fate. What happens to young John is beyond awful - and brilliantly foreshadowed within the first pages. Brenda sails on, shallow, neither happy nor unhappy, simply passing from frivolity to frivolity.

Surveying the final wreckage, I wondered how Waugh managed to retain my attention while telling a story whose trajectory is so unremittingly downward. I am inclined to be a cowardly reader, putting down books that promise no happy ending. But the fact that I not only stayed with A Handful of Dust to the bitter end but read on compulsively is just one indication of Waugh’s genius.

In this book, as elsewhere, Waugh's characters are vivid, mercilessly drawn and extraordinarily believable. I am aware that I have a tendency to run on with over-enthusiastic quoting so I will stick with just one example of brilliantly observed characterisation, picked at random:

“He ate in a ruthless manner, champing his food (it was his habit, often, without noticing it, to consume things that others usually left on their plates, the heads and tails of whiting, whole mouthfuls of chicken bone, peach stones and apple cores, cheese rinds and the fibrous parts of the artichoke)"

and one incident, the arrival for the weekend of a glamorous "denationalised, rich" American at Hetton Abbey, which seems to me to be a first portent of the way in which new money and celebrity would eventually eclipse the older way of life of the English upper class, (somehow Madonna in her English lady-of-the-manor phase comes to mind):

"She arrived by air on Monday afternoon. It was the first time that a guest had come in this fashion and the household was appreciably excited. Under Jock's direction the boiler man and one of the gardeners pegged out a dust sheet in the park to mark a landing for her and lit a bonfire of damp leaves to show the direction of the wind. The five trunks arrived in the ordinary way by train, with an elderly, irreproachable maid. She brought her own sheets with her in one of the trunks; they were neither silk nor coloured, without lace or ornament of any kind, except small, plain monograms."

I found the book beautiful, witty, poignant - and ferociously convincing about how helpless is innocence in a fallen world and how everything will only end in tragedy - or, rather in tragi-comedy, for the sadness of the story is offset by the wry tone of the narration, which somehow keeps an awareness of the cruel absurdity of humanity's self-involvement always present in the reader's mind.

Like so much by Waugh, (possibly the major exception is Brideshead Revisited, which lacks the fierce bite of most of his novels, in my opinion), A Handful of Dust is a masterpiece.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Shakespearean Weight Watching

Continuing through Shakespeare's collected plays, I found myself knee-deep in the gore of Titus Andronicus. Thento my surprise, after the cruel absurdity of a four-way quarrel about who was keenest to lop off his hand - and surely no play exists anywhere that displays anything like such a keen interest in hands as this one - Shakespeare, through Titus (who, having won the argument, is now minus one hand) provides what may be the world's first crash diet plan:

"So, so, now sit, and look you eat no more
Than will preserve just so much strength in us
As will revenge these bitter woes of ours."

While not very tempting, it does beat the banquet served up at the very end of the play, about which the less said the better, beyond, "Ugh".

And yet, unpleasant as this play is, glimpsed through the ever rising pile of corpses and hacked off of limbs are numerous charming traces of the natural world - possibly the element that I love best in Shakespeare:

"O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute"

"When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad ..."

"Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry"

"the burning tapers of the sky"

" sanguine, shallow-hearted boys,
Ye white-limed walls, ye alehouse painted signs,
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean,
Can never turn the swan's black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood"

"Why, so, brave lords, when we do join in league
I am a lamb; but if you brave the Moor,
The chafèd boar, the mountain lioness,
The ocean swells not so as Aaron storms."

"'Wheak, Wheak' - so cries a pig preparèd to the spit."

"I see thou wilt not trust the air
With secrets."

" swift as swallow flies ...
I'll make you feed on berries and on roots
And fat on curds and whey, and suck the goat,
And cabin in a cave ..."

"These tidings nip me, and I hang the head,
As flowers with frost, or grass beat down with storms."

"Is the sun dimmed, that gnats do fly in it?
The eagle suffers little birds to sing,
And is not careful what they mean thereby,
Knowing that with the shadow of his wings
He can at pleasure stint their melody."

"I will enchant the old Andronicus
With words more sweet and yet more dangerous
Than baits to fish or honey-stalks to sheep
Whenas the one is wounded with the bait,
The other rotted with delicious feed."

"We'll follow where thou lead'st
Like stinging bees on hottest summer's day
Led by their master to the flowered fields"

"But where the bull and cow are both milk-white
They never do beget a coal-black calf."

"I ... laughed so heartily
That both mine eyes were rainy like to his"

"Make poor men's cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and haystacks in the night"

"I am Revenge, sent from th'infernal kingdom
To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind"

"There's not a hollow cave or lurking place,
No vast obscurity or misty vale ..."

"And then I'll come and be thy Waggoner
And whirl along with thee about the globe,
Provide two proper palfreys, black as jet ..."

"You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome,
By uproars severed, as a flight of fowl
Scattered by winds and high tempestuous gusts,
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf"

The play also, for good or ill, has what might be seen as the first ever variant of the Maximilian joke ("F*#!* Maximilian", "I do", "So do I")  in the film Cabaret:

"Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother
Aaron: Villain, I have done your mother."

That is from Act 4, Scene 2, in which Aaron's speeches on his own child and on skin colour are, for me, among the best things in the play - narrowly followed, if you can take the violence, by Marcus's speech on finding his niece minus tongue and hands, plus Titus's grief stricken moments in Act 3, Scene 2.

Titus is surely the forerunner of poor Lear, Aaron a blend of Iago and Caliban. Tamora is incomparably vile. The way in which race is dealt with - that is to say, the play's, by today's standards, racism - seems shocking, which demonstrates that progress has been made.

Sunday, 30 October 2016


It struck me, as I bent to do up my shoelaces for the fifteenth time yesterday, that it is rather odd, in the 21st century, that we continue to insist on strapping our shoes onto our feet with lengths of string. Of course, the problem I have at the moment is that the string my new laces are made of is quite unsuitable - not fit for purpose, as they say these days in nauseating circles. It is slippery where it should be incapable of sliding even the tiniest bit.

These are new laces. The old ones snapped, and then I tried to make do with their short remains, and then they snapped too, and so I had to buy new ones. Unfortunately, I assumed that lengths of string sold as shoe laces would not be made of material that undoes itself every few steps.

Not that I am advocating the other extreme, as embodied by the suede laces with which one rather beautiful pair of shoes in my cupboard arrived. Those laces are so non-slip that they will barely budge enough to let me slip my foot into the shoes to which they have been attached. Once I have at last coaxed them to loosen themselves to the bare minimum possible to allow ingress of my toes - plus the feet that come with them - these laces are equally difficult to tighten enough to give said toes and feet a sense of being safely encased.

The funny thing is that we don't actually need laces at all anymore. We could be using velcro or that amazing technology that is all the go on the ski slopes, where boots are moulded exactly to your foot. What sentimental attachment is it that keeps us sticking with string fastenings? Is it just that, having mastered the task as small children of tying our own shoelaces, we can't bear letting all that infant effort go to waste?

Or is it the fact that laces provide such a useful sociological tool when visiting unfamiliar places?  There are certainly people I know of - well actually one person - who use a shoelace related measure when travelling - vis. an undone shoelace - to work out what kind of a society they find themselves in.

The idea is to see what distance you can walk down a street in any locality before it is pointed out to you that you ought to do up your shoelace. Research to date suggests that it is in Vienna that the shortest distance can be covered before some concerned - or bossy, depending on your perspective - passerby draws your attention to the inadequate performance of one or other of your laces, which they report severely is slithering about at ground level, neglecting its central duty, which is to tie your footwear firmly to your feet.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Stuff and Nonsense

I haven't a lot of time at the moment but that doesn't mean I don't still have the odd idle moment in which my mind goes wandering

For instance, driving past some cooling towers the other day, I found myself wondering about the people in the houses spread out near their base. I suppose living in a world that uses nuclear power requires a certain faith in authority but to live so close to that kind of power plant must indicate a greater trust in human administrative abilities - or perhaps in fate - than I could muster. Or perhaps it is just a sign of deeply felt stoicism, if stoicism is defined as an indifference to what life doles out. Or could it be that there are people who actually see a beauty in these places? I did have a Russian teacher who was always trying to whip up interest in weekend outings to hydro electric stations and nuclear projects.

Somehow - I really don't know how; maybe my memory turned to Soviet bloc industrial towns and how filthy they were (there was one we used to drive through somewhere in the Balkans that was completely orange; whatever it was that belched out of the factory chimneys there, it coated every surface in a strange tangerine dust) - my thoughts meandered on to land on the subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It occurred to me that of all the countries that were part of that empire at the start of the First World War, the only one that did not spend a time under Communist rule was Austria. But is that true? And if it is, why did Austria miss out - or perhaps more importantly why did every single one of the others succumb? The weakened state of formerly colonised countries? Does that apply really in that least aggressively colonial of all empires? Too great a faith that the thing would never fall apart leading to false security? This is probably a question upon which many great minds have spent a lifetime, and still no certain answer has been discovered. I suppose ultimately it was just a matter of how far to the east you were as the Soviets swept westward. Lucky old Austria.

My husband meanwhile has decided to get his head around the War of the Austrian Succession. He may be some time.

Another day, and in a completely different context, (the result of overhearing two young women discussing a young man they knew), I found myself wondering where the new word, "buff" comes from. The girls agreed that their acquaintance was "well buff". It seems to me that that is not a phrase that would have meant anything to anyone even five years ago. It still doesn't mean an awful lot to me.

Finally, as I peddled through a thirty-five minute bout of interval training, it occurred to me that you move through time in a different way when exercising. A more painful way essentially - and sweaty, bleurgh. But VERY GOOD FOR YOU, yes, yes.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Not Looking on the Bright Side

At Anecdotal Evidence on Monday, Patrick Kurp suggested that a hatred of  beauty has become the defining quality of our time. I  don't know about a hatred of beauty but I have certainly noticed an inability to create beauty in the contemporary western world. It is a worrying development. Without realising it, at some point we seem to have agreed that, in exchange for receiving the keys to technological progress, we would renounce our skills and cease our labours in the most truly remarkable realm of human activity - the creation of beauty.

We could not, even if we wanted to, build anything as intricate and rich with human ingenuity and skill as a medieval cathedral now. We can no longer paint or sculpt as we once could, (do not get me started on contemporary figurative sculpture - each time I go to London and have to pass that thing [which I think is supposed to be a pair of lovers parting] that towers above Eurostar passengers arriving at King's Cross station, I shudder at its awfulness).

We cannot compose truly beautiful music any more. Our novels almost invariably run out of steam thirty pages before they end, if they ever get going in the first place. Our plays - well, can you name a play of lasting value written in the last ten years?

I'm not as familiar with the field of poetry, so perhaps in that arena there is hope - oh yes, there's Les Murray. Poor man, must he be left with the task of creating beauty all by himself in Bunyah? No, there are others. Mark Doty, John Burnside.

I'm sure there are manymore . But still - how can poets alone keep the whole thing going. And besides, can a civilisation that has all but lost the ability to create beauty still call itself a civilisation?

Are we finished? Sometimes I think we are.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


I went to Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory the other evening. It confirmed me in my suspicion that Tom Stoppard is an essayist pretending to be a dramatist. It was pretty heavy going, despite the best efforts of all concerned.

The trouble is Stoppard never makes the slightest effort to engage the audience emotionally on any level. Instead, he tries to educate us. In my view, theatre's first duty is to engage and, once it has done that, it might be able to provoke some thought from the audience. Stoppard prefers to provide us with a potted history of Dadaism and a summary of Lenin's efforts to return Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, (at moments I began to worry that we'd have to sit a test at the end), combined with a bit of philosophical banter and some dreadfully feeble attempts at jokes.

Mind you, there were some very thought-provoking bits in the script - they would have made interesting essays. Here are the ones that I found particularly arresting, but I contend they would have more impact in a written medium - they race past so fast in the theatre, you hardly notice them, let alone get a chance to grapple with the ideas within them, and the actors speaking them are mere mouthpieces for different sides of an intellectual argument, rather than dramatic figures of any kind:


"Henry Carr (the main character - he is a genuine figure, who lived in Zurich and took part in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest put on by James Joyce): My dear Tristan, to be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. To be an artist in Zurich, in 1917, implies a degree of self -absorption that would have glazed over the eyes of Narcissus ...And besides I couldn't be an artist anywhere - I can do none of the things by which is meant Art.

Tzara (a Romanian who was among the founders of Dada): Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat.

Carr: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.

Tzara: I see I have made myself clear.

Carr: Then you are not actually an artist at all?

Tzara: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.

Carr: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly ... Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly. In fact, it is frowned upon. Nowadays, a flyer never leaves the ground and wouldn't know how. I see, says my somewhat baffled interlocutor, so when you say you can fly you are using the word in a purely private sense. I see I have made myself clear, I say. Then, says this chap in some relief, you cannot actually fly after all? On the contrary, I say, I have just told you I can. Don't you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean; but I do not accept it.

Tzara: Why not? You do exactly the same thing with words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom, king and country, brave little Belgium, saucy little Serbia -

Carr: You are insulting my comrades-in-arms, many of whom died on the field of honour-

Tzara: -and honour - all the traditional sophistries for waging wars of expansion and self-interest, set to patriotic hymns. Music is corrupted, language conscripted. Words are taken to stand for their opposites. That is why anti-art is the art of our time.

Carr: The nerve of it. Wars are fought to make the world safe for artists. It is never quite put in those terms but it is a useful way of grasping what civilised ideals are all about. The easiest way of knowing whether good has triumphed over evil is to examine the freedom of the artist. The ingratitude of artists, indeed their hostility, not to mention the loss of nerve and failure of talent which accounts for 'modern art', merely demonstrate the freedom of the artist to be ungrateful, hostile, self-centred and talentless, for which freedom I went to war.

Tzara: Wars are fought for oil wells and coaling stations; for control of the Dardanelles or the Suez Canal; for colonial pickings to buy cheap in and conquered markets to sell dear in. War is capitalism with the gloves off and many who go to war know it but they go to war because they don't want to be a hero. It takes courage to sit down and be counted. But how much better to live bravely in Switzerland than to die cravenly in France ..."


"Joyce, addressing Tzara, who has just been explaining Dada: You are an over-excited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond your natural gifts. This is not discreditable. Neither does it make you an artist. An artist is the magician put among men to gratify - capriciously - their urge for immortality. The temples are built and brought down around him, continuously and contiguously, from Troy to the fields of Flanders. If there is any meaning in any of it, it is in what survives as art, yes even in the celebration of tyrants, yes even in the celebration of nonentities ...I would strongly advise you to try and acquire some genius and if possible some subtlety before the season is quite over."


"Cecily: In an age when the difference between prince and peasant was thought to be in the stars ... art was naturally an affirmation for the one and a consolation to the other; but we live in an age when the social order is seen to be the work of material forces and we have been given an entirely new kind of responsibility, the responsibility of changing society.

Carr: No, no, no, no, no - my dear girl! - art doesn't change society, it is merely changed by it ... Marx got it wrong. He got it wrong for good reasons but he got it wrong just the same. By bad luck he encountered the capitalist system at its most deceptive period. The industrial revolution had crowded the people into slums and enslaved them in factories, but it had not yet begun to bring them the benefits of an industrialised society. Marx drew the lesson that the wealth of the capitalist had been stolen from the worker in the form of unpaid labour. He thought that was how the whole thing worked. That false premise was itself added to a false assumption. Marx assumed that people would behave according to their class. But they didn't. In all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons, the classes moved closer together instead of further apart. The critical moment never came. It receded. The tide must have turned at about the time when Das Kapital after eighteen years of hard labour was finally coming off the press ..."

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Trip Advisor Again

My husband is allowed to unchain himself from his desk for a long weekend near the end of October and it turns out that his dream of escape is to go and stay somewhere near Hadrian's Wall.

No, I don't know why either. I suggested Lyon and Dijon, but his heart is set on cold and wind, (although I hope no lice in his tunic):

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky. 

WH Auden, Roman Wall Blues

(Or perhaps it was Kipling's soldier's mention of the Wall that got him thinking about it; while shorter on detail, it expresses a fonder perspective:

The Roman Centurion's Song

(Roman Occupation of Britain, A.D. 300)

LEGATE, I had the news last night - my cohort ordered home
By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I've marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I've served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid - my wife - my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze -
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June's long-lighted days?

You'll follow widening Rhodanus till vine and olive lean
Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
To Arelate's triple gate; but let me linger on,
Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You'll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
Where, blue as any peacock's neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You'll go where laurel crowns are won, but -will you e'er forget
The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain's sake - at any task you will -
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears - My cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind - the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!                               )

Anyway, whatever the inspiration, the inevitable trawl through Trip Advisor has been the initial step in planning this glamorous mini-break.

How I love Trip Advisor.  Actually love isn't the word. In fact, in many ways I hate it - but it exercises a strange fascination.

The obsessions it reveals are not only surprising but intriguing. Until I started using it, I had no idea that people could get really, really worked up about sausages, for example, or about not being offered seven different kinds of bread at breakfast. I didn't know it was possible to write four and a half paragraphs about the fact that a waiter didn't smile - or that he smiled too much, ("he smiled at breakfast").

I didn't know that some people, while ostensibly on holiday, relaxing, are prepared to get down on their knees with their cameras in order to take pictures of horrid things they spot behind lavatories and under double beds. Or that they would use up their precious free time taking hazy photographs of the junction between carpet and skirting board, where staining or grime or fungus or swarms of insects have captured their fevered imagination. Sadly, few of them have cameras of great quality, so all I can ever see when I peer at the snaps they've laboured over is a brownish, beigish blur.

You do wonder whether all this energy couldn't be put to better use. Then again, provoking mild amusement is a reasonably worthwhile purpose, even if it isn't the original intention.

It crosses my mind now that I might be able to create some kind of installation using nothing but photographs of shower grouting posted by members of Trip Advisor. There are so many I would argue that they constitute a genre. Surely pictures of shamefully stained bits of bathroom tiling could be seen as an expression of a larger phenomenon, of something more profound?

I suppose for a lot of people writing angry reviews on Trip Advisor is a free form of therapy. As they enragedly upload their visual evidence of everything they were infuriated by, I wonder if they feel a strange calm begin to descend.

As others may not find the subject quite as fascinating as I do, I've resolved to be restrained. I'm only including in this post my two absolute favourite discoveries from my latest visit to Trip Advisor.

1. My first selection is a long review that chronicles the disgusted fury of a couple who go out to a gastropub for dinner and are offered a drink at the bar while they wait for their table. Those bastards. How dare they offer us a drink at a bar in a pub. UNBELIEVABLE.  Don't they know that "we always order our bottles of wine at the table and we always have a bottle of wine each,", which is why "we refused to order at the bar - it is just a way of getting you to spend more."

Leaving aside the disarming honesty of saying that "we always have a bottle of wine each", why didn't they just ask if they could order their bottle each at the bar, rather than steaming in passive-agressive fury, grinding their teeth and plotting their vengeance via Trip Advisor later? Instead, they had a horrible evening and worked themselves up into a complete frenzy about almost everything, concluding the review with possibly the most damning thing I have ever seen anyone write about a restaurant:

"The best part of the meal was the chocolate they gave us after we had paid our bill."

If I ran that place and read that sentence, I would lie down and weep, I think.

2. My second selection is a photograph that I find so odd and mysterious - and faintly reminiscent of pictures I've seen of Alfred Hitchcock - that I want to print it and put it on my wall:

Who is that man? Does he live in that bathroom? Is he hoping no-one will notice him? Is he not in the room at all, but only in the mirror? Has someone trapped him or hypnotised him, so that he stands there like a primary school boy being chastised by a very fierce teacher, arms stiff at his sides, not looking anywhere and certainly not at the camera?

And what about those odd white bishop-hat-shaped things on the radiator? Are we actually interrupting some ritual?

What is going on in that bathroom? I can't sleep - I have to know.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Theory and Practice of Frenchness

The tiny son of a friend of mine started at a French speaking school a few weeks ago. His reaction has been to stand with his back to the wall in playground or classroom and shout at anyone who comes near him, "Parle anglais!"

What a sensible boy, I thought, after No. 1, seeing this little dog on my walk this morning:

and, No.2, wondering what the word for "frisky" might be in French and then, No. 3, looking it up.

When I read the dictionary entry, it brought to mind my entire stock of vulgar Anglo French jokes, (poor taste alert, stop reading now, if you are easily offended by references to bizarre sexual practices). The first is about a man whose wife dies in France while he is in England; after crossing the Channel to attend her funeral, he realises he hasn't brought a hat, so he goes into a department store and asks if they have any black hats as he needs one because his wife has died. Sadly, he uses the noun "capot" instead of "chapeau" and so the shop assistant's response to his request for "un capot noir, parce que ma femme est morte" is to say, "L'angleterre, what a nation of style and finesse", (as if any French person has ever, ever said that, or anything like it - far more common is the conversation we overheard at Waterloo on the weekend between French speakers and Dutch about whether the English or the Australians are bigger pigs, [ it went on at a high emotional intensity and for quite some time; as a dual national, I realised I was doubly appalling; I thought about pointing this out to the people in question as I left, but sadly as usual in such situations I simply didn't have the nerve).

The second joke (or "joke") is about a woman who finds there is no mattress in her hotel room in France and so requests one at the front desk as she says she cannot sleep without one. Unfortunately, she uses the noun "matelot" instead of "matelas", provoking the receptionist to cry, "Ah, l'angleterre, quelle nation maritime", or something along those lines.

Anyway, when I read No. 3 under the entry for "frisky" in my Oxford French-English dictionary, as well as remembering these so-called jokes, I thought, "Ah, what a limited, unsubtle language French is compared to English", although on reflection is there much subtlety in saying, "I'm feeling frisky" if what you mean is what the French say in No. 3 (shall I sheer off here into a discussion of the relative merits of bluntness over euphemism? No, I think I won't today - or possibly ever):

But let's forget all this disgusting smut. My actual favourite joke about Anglos and French people is this one:

An American & a Frenchman have been working for months on a project & have finally come up with a plan. They are about to sign off on it but the Frenchman still looks worried, so the American asks him if he still has concerns. "Well", the Frenchman says, "I am a bit worried - I mean I can see that the strategy works in practice. But does it work in theory?"

Sunday, 2 October 2016

A Moaning Spree

I am getting more and more upset at the way the people who write the news use the word "spree". When someone goes on the rampage with a gun, killing innocent strangers, that is not a "spree". A spree should cause  no pain and involve no firearms. A spree does not include the shedding of blood.

Friday, 30 September 2016


I am sad and sorry as my links have all disappeared. I have no idea what has happened to them. Half the point of them was not losing links to things I like. I will have to slowly build them up again. I know there was First Known When Lost and Anecdotal Evidence and 20011 and Elberry and Jessica Lambert so I can put those back tomorrow but there were all sorts of others I was looking forward to delving into properly when I got a moment and they are gone, all gone. Has this happened to anyone else? I wonder if I tried to overload the thing. Perhaps there is a limit. Dratted electronics. I might go back to the scroll:

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Bill's Best Bits

With the dull earnestness of the dogged self-improver, I am plodding my way through the works of W Shakespeare. Actually, I'm not really plodding; in fact. I'm really enjoying it. 

And at last, The Taming of the Shrew makes sense to me. It isn't a horrible story of a woman being cowed by a man; it is a story of a member of a family who, after years of being routinely denied affection and overlooked, out of preference for her favoured sister, is full of anger, which is almost always in my experience a product of hurt:

  My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall I will be free
Even to the uttermost as I please in words

she declares, before being won over by someone who, loon though he may be, calls her "my honey love", a thing no-one has ever come near to doing before; someone who pays her attention that is not merely irritated but actually kind and admiring; someone who asks her:

What stars do spangle heaven with such beauty
As those two eyes become that heavenly face?

and calls her, "fair lovely maid", caring enough about her to offer her tender protection, which surely no-one has ever offered her up to this point, (and yes, I know I appear to be ignoring the "Thou knowst not gold's effect" line, but actually I'm just looking at the thing from Kate's point of view - that is, I am seeing Petruccio as he behaves towards Kate, regardless of whether his hidden motives are mercenary or not):

She is my house,
My household-stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare …
Fear not, sweet wench. They shall not touch thee, Kate

and someone who, to her initial amazement, offers her a lifelong devoted partnership and is prepared to be "one that cares for her", something no one else in her experience has done.

Thus the taming is not taming in the sense of mastering and bullying into shape but in the sense of teaching how to love and overcoming the object's belief in her own innate unlovability.

Since these revelations, I have moved on to Henry VI Part Two, (or, as my edition of the Complete Works, the 1988 Oxford University edition, prefers to call it, 'The First Part of the Contention'), which I have just finished reading.

The so-called history plays usually leave me confused, when I see them at the theatre. They involve comings and goings of large groups of fighting men and it is hard to follow the who and the why. However, reading this one has been marvellous. Whatever the who and the why, there are so many clumps of beautifully composed words in the text that it is a pleasure and delight to make one's way through it.

I like the image conjured up by the idea of someone being "Mailed up in shame", and I love the use of the word "tickle" in this pair of lines:

the state of Normandy
Stands on a tickle point now

The words "naughty" and "blab" are both appealing, probably because they no longer resonate in quite the way they did in Shakespeare's time:

Beaufort’s red sparkling eyes blab his heart’s malice
— Act 3, Scene 1, 

A sort of naughty persons, lewdly bent
— Act 2, Scene 1, 

The brilliant choice of the one small word "spurs" in this phrase conjures up the image of the fury embodied, dashing through a stormy forest, wrapped in a cloak, on a racing steed:

her fury needs no spurs
— Act 2, Scene 1, 

Better still, the play contains so many beautifully observed references to the natural world and glimpses of everyday life as it was at the time the playwright lived, each marvellously used to highlight some aspect of the play's action and its characters' psychology:

And as the butcher takes away the calf,
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strains,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse,
Even so remorseless have they born him hence;
And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do naught but wail her darling’s loss;
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester’s case

Now ‘tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o'ergrow the garden,
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry
— Act 3, Scene 1

Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep
— Act 3, Scene 1

The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb.
— Act 3, Scene 1

Thus are my blossoms blasted in the bud
And caterpillars eat my leaves away.
— Act 3, Scene 1 

Faster than springtime showers comes thought on thought
— Act 3, Scene 2

My brain, more busy than the labouring spider,
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies
— Act 3, Scene 1 

Gloucester’s show
Beguiles him as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow snares relenting passengers,
Or as the snake rolled in a flow'ring bank
With shining chequered slough doth sting a child
That for the beauty thinks it excellent.
— Act 3, Scene 1 

And thinks he that the chirping of a wren,
By crying comfort from a hollow breast
Can chase away the first-conceived sound?
Hide not they poison with such sugared words
— Act 3 Scene 2 

The splitting rocks cow'red in the sinking sands
And would not dash me with their ragged sides
— Act 3, Scene 2 

The commons, like an angry hive of bees
That want their leader, scatter up and down
— Act 3, Scene 2

Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh,
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect ‘twas he that made the slaughter?
Who finds the partridge in the puttock’s nest
But may imagine how the bird was dead
Although the kite soar with unbloodied beak?
Even so suspicious is this tragedy.
— Act 3, Scene 2 

Thy mother took into her blameful bed
Some stern untutored churl, and noble stock
Was graffed with crabtree slip, whose fruit thou art,
And never of the Nevilles’ noble race.
— Act 3, Scene 2 

these dread curses, like the sun ‘gainst glass,
Or like an overcharged gun, recoil
And turn the force of them upon thyself.
— Act 3, Scene 2

Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
   And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold
So cares and joys abound as seasons fleet.

pale as primrose with blood-drinking sighs
— Act 3, Scene 2 

Naturally, there are many superb turns of phrase:

Small curs are not regarded when they grin
Act 3, Scene 1 

For it is known we were but hollow friends
— Act 3, Scene 2

Who among us does not have the odd "hollow friend" - or isn't one?

There are also passages that are horribly pertinent to our own age:

these days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand
Act 3, Scene 1, 

and there is a great deal of passion, violence and several fairly good Shakespearian insults:

Upon thy eyeballs murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty to fright the world.
Look not upon me, for thine eyes are wounding
Act 3, Scene 2

Fain would I go to chafe his paly lips
With twenty thousand kisses, and to drain
Upon his face an ocean of salt tears,
To tell my love unto his dumb, deaf trunk,
And with my fingers feel his hand unfeeling.
But all in vain are these mean obsequies
Act 3, Scene 2

See how the blood is settled in his face.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost
Of ashy semblance, meagre, pale, and bloodless,
Being all descended to the labouring heart;
Who, in the conflict that it holds with death,
Attracts the same for aidance ‘gainst the enemy;
Which, with the heart, there cools, and ne'er returneth
To blush and beautify the cheek again.
But see, his face is black and full of blood;
His eyeballs further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair upreared; his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad displayed, as one that grasped
And tugged for life and was by strength subdued.
Look on the sheets. His hair, you see, is sticking;
His well-proportioned beard made rough and rugged
Like to the summer’s corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murdered here.
The least of all these signs were probable.
Act 3, Scene 2

(I would be surprised if these observations are not medically accurate)’s a vengeful sword, rusted with ease
That shall be scoured in his rancorous heart
That slanders me with murder’s crimson badge.
Act 3, Scene 2,

send thy soul to hell,
Pernicious blood-sucker of sleeping men!
Act 3, Scene 2, 

lean-faced envy in her loathsome cave.
Act 3, Scene 2, 

Poison be their drink!
Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!
Their sweetest shade a grove of cypress trees!
Their chiefest prospect murd'ring basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ stings!
Their music frightful as the serpent’s hiss,
And boding screch-owls make the consort full!
All the foul terrors in dark-seated hell -
Act 3, Scene 2

Furthermore, the play has the intriguing character of Margaret, wife of Henry VI. She is a very nasty woman, and it was therefore exciting to come upon a painting of her in the Louvre, where I went for the day on Sunday, since it was the first carfree day Paris has tried. It wasn't a terribly well-enforced carfree experience, (the Belgians do it better), but still it was a great deal nicer to walk about the streets than it is in Paris on any normal day. 

So here she is: Margaret d'Anjou, painted in around 1470 by someone in the Pays Bas du Sud, and now hanging in the Louvre:
Not a person to mess with as I think the next play I am about to embark on will prove - although I believe she will get her comeuppance there as well, leaving that thoughtful faced head severed horridly from that well-decorated neck. That is how things were once done.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Too Precious

I have always assumed that the whole point of both the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games is to inspire. What other possible effect is meant to be created by the spectacle of athletes who have dedicated themselves to being among the best in their fields - with all the self-denial that inevitably entails - competing one against another?

Given this is what I've always imagined, I was naturally fairly astounded to read this piece of advice from an Australian organisation serving people with disabilities:

I really admired Stella Young but I don't think she was right when she made that comment - or she is being quoted out of context. Furthermore, in answer to the question about whether I'd use the word if an athlete didn't have a disability, yes, I would. Olympic and Paralympic athletes are equally inspirational and share so much in their efforts to become exactly that.

Each has to overcome pain and temptation and failing motivation and so forth, in order to emerge as a sportsman, (by which, sigh, I also mean sportswoman, just as The Ascent of Man is the story of all humankind), of extraordinary excellence. Every four years when the two sets of games come round, I watch and am briefly inspired to try to redouble my efforts to keep at least vaguely fit. And, if I am slightly more inspired by Paralympians than by Olympians, it is not because I am being patronising but simply because to date I have read nothing to suggest that any of them are drug cheats, which sadly cannot be said for all players in the Olympics themselves.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Funny Man

If you found the seashells sketch I put on here a while ago amusing, then you might like to hear more from its creator, John Finnemore. People who spend their lives making others laugh deserve our gratitude. I think he does it better than most right now.

Sunday, 18 September 2016


From time to time, spinning along in a car down some highway or other, I have noticed gliders in the sky. Sometimes they are being hauled upwards by small planes to which they are attached like water-skiers behind speed boats. Sometimes they are untethered, simply doing what their name implies.

I've never met anyone who has been in a glider. At least, I've never consciously met anyone who has. I suppose someone I've talked to may have been up in one and I simply did not ask the right question. On the other hand, I rather think that anyone who is keen on gliding would talk about it without any prompting. It is an activity that looks as if it requires such a lot of effort to get involved in that only those who are preoccupied with little else take part.

I wonder what makes someone decide to launch themselves in a capsule by themselves high above the earth? A difficult home life, possibly, except that there are easier solutions to that conundrum. There is a story I love by a Soviet writer called Vasili Aksyonov in which a character falls in love with flying in aeroplanes. At one point he quotes a child's song that goes like this: "Pilots sit in the sky as their aeroplanes fly and look down on the earth from on high". Perhaps that is the sensation people who get into gliders are looking for. That story, however, is about someone who loves machinery, engines, the new technology, (of the beloved Communist state, if you choose to read that implication, which I don't, as I think Aksyonov was far from being a propagandist) and I doubt that is part of the attraction of gliding, (the Aksyonov story is called Halfway to the Moon, by the way, and you can read an English translation of it here).

In fact, I think I read somewhere that a great delight of gliding is the peacefulness of the experience - which is a result of the craft having no engine at all and being extremely low tech and consequently making no sound. Personally I doubt I would find the peace and quiet that results delightful. My problem would be an overwhelming fear that the lack of sound was the result of the lack of an engine and the lack of an engine implied the lack of any means of defying the forces of gravity.

Although clearly gliders do not drop straight out of the sky, otherwise the glimpses one gets of them from motorways would be extremely brief and equally horrifying, rather than simply puzzlimg. Presumably the little planes are made of balsa wood or something of similarly limited weight. And yet they must be quite sturdy, as surely balsa wood would disintegrate on impact with the ground at the point of landing.

Or maybe it would unless it was glided (glid?) skilfully. Perhaps that is the pleasure of the activity - the delight in doing something well. But that raises the question of how, at least in the past, before the advent of machines that mimic reality, one learned to glide well. Perhaps it was simply a Darwinian survival of the fittest thing.

One reason I've always been intrigued by gliders is that as a child I read a story that until now I thought was about gliding. Looking at it again all these years later, I see that it isn't at all; it's about a monoplane, which I must have confused with a glider. All the same, I still rather like it. It's called The Horror of the Heights and it's by Arthur Conan-Doyle. It has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes but possibly hints at Conan-Doyle's preoccupation with spiritualism. I recommend it as a curiosity. You can read it here.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Battered Penguins - Huntingtower by John Buchan

Huntingtower is a story whose central character is not Buchan's more famous creation, Richard Hannay, but the slightly more complex, far less dashing figure of Dickson McCunn.

The novel is set in Scotland just after the First World War. Dickson McCunn has just retired from thirty-five years in charge of a large shop in Glasgow and decides to set off on a walking holiday in the highlands of Scotland. Puzzlingly, Buchan provides him with a wife, who is not accompanying him, as she likes to holiday at something called a "hydropathic", a place McCunn loathes. A moment of regret allows the reader to discover that "Once he and his wife had had similar likings, but they had taken different roads since their child died." This unsettling fact remains entirely in the background, a faint hint of something rather sad, beneath what is essentially a highly romantic adventure story.

McCunn soon finds himself "pitchforked out of ... that old happy world ... the cosy inn, the Compleat Angler, the Chavender or Chub" and instead drawn into a complicated but exciting plot involving a Russian princess and some terrible baddies. He, together with the urchins known as the Gorbals Die-Hards and a couple of others, eventually saves the day, needless to say.

It is all very enjoyable escapism and wonderfully unselfconscious in the display of prejudices and attitudes that would probably not pass muster were the manuscript to appear in a publisher's office today - to pluck one example out, this piece of dialogue should suffice:"I think you are worse than a coward. I think you are a cad." There is evidence of insight into character - "Now it is an odd trait of certain mild people that a suspicion of threat, a hint of bullying will rouse some unsuspected obstinacy deep down in their souls" - and understanding of humanity in general - "civilisation anywhere is a very thin crust". There is quite a lot of good food, which I've recorded elsewhere on this blog. There are some rather good sayings - someone is described as a "Bit hairy about the heels" and on a stormy day someone observes, "the wind's enough to take the wings off a seagull".

The Gorbals Die Hards "those gallant little boys", are a wonderful invention, that "ring of small shockheads ... so tiny, so poor, so pitifully handicapped and yet so bold in their meagreness", The repudiation of the fear Dickson has that he is too old to act is very comforting for older readers and the verse he sustains himself with:

What's a man's age? He must hurry more, that's all;
Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold:
When we mind labour, then only, we're too old - 
What age had Methusalem when he begat Saul?

is worth keeping in mind, at least the first two lines anyway.

Similarly the contention that what makes Dickson so terrific is that he is "what they call the middle class ... the stuff which above all others makes a great people ... [that] will endure when aristocracies and proletariats crumble" is very satisfying if you too are middle class - and few who read and enjoy Buchan will be anything else.

But perhaps what turns the book from merely enjoyable to great is this passage:

"...he glanced towards the just-vacated chair. 'Australian,' he said.
'How d'you know?'
'Can't mistake them. There's nothing else so lean and fine produced on the globe today. I was next door to them at Pozieres and saw them fight. Lord! Such men! Now and then you had a freak, but most looked like Phoebus Apollo.'

Such wisdom, such truth. Did I say this was a rollicking adventure story? I was wrong - it is a magnificent work of literature, natch.