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A rather joyful day of letter-posting, recipe-reading, and household whatsitness. Yesterday very cheering early afternoon interlude of black coffee and bacon sarnis with Jeremy W. Word of the week so far is: wettability.
*1 image from , with thanks
NY Times carries a breathless article about a "rediscovered" supposedly visionary text from the late 1940s by inventor of the word 'cybernetic', Norbert Wiener. Turns out to be the same platitudes on robots & automation dozens of others were saying at the time and several decades earlier. Nothing prophetic.
Ekman's guide to reading liars looks handy.
On the topic of liars, drive back to Budapest slightly marred by 'customer-service' glove puppets on a toll road.
Anywhere outside here, the crickets are loud every day & night now. Funny how what sounds like a bustling mass of insects is often just 3 or 4 of them. Inside the sun-warmed studio one or two mosquitoes or one bumble fly zizzing and tonking against a window pane seem loud for a different reason. Finish, with a lot of help from a dictionary, 'Comme Faire Les Fromages' by Suzanne Fonteneau. Very humbling, since it rubbed in just how many huge gaps there are in my French vocabulary. Herbs, basic kitchen words like 'basin', 'muslin', 'ladle', 'whisk', the list just goes on and on. A nice sensible text with the usual French clarity when it comes to instructions. Making pretty much any cheese ever devised requires a cool cellar, judging by this book.
Early evening a distraught Zsuzsa & Juci return from helping out at Rita's stables. One of the horse owners had unwittingly fed another horse there, called Emo:ke, some kind of green plant stuff. Within hours it had swollen up in the horse's stomach (apparently they cannot vomit) and the creature was lying on its side in agony under a hot sun. Zsuzsa and her friend Juci struggled to keep it standing up and walking around as Emo:ke's owner, a vet, raced back across the country to deal with his mare. It seems there was an hour or so of the two girls literally flogging the dying animal, forcing it back on its feet again and again so it might live. Later at the house I ask Juci what happened, and standing in Zsuzsa's bedroom doorway with her back to me, she tells me in a couple of short sentences about the afternoon, adding, "Emo:ke is such a big, strong, beautiful horse" - then her voice breaks and she shuts the door.
Sunday. Getting things done in the studio while Robin outside keeps telling his new sheep not to eat leaves off his fruit trees. One of the better house mixes.
Teach Ben. Catch early afternoon train to Robin's place in the countryside in hot sun. In the inter-city carriage to Kecskemet seated with some likely lads. Letty, Zsuzsi, and another riding friend, Anna, kindly pick me up from Lakitelek station. Constantine joins us soon after in the next village, with Robin pointing out from the car as we drive by the street where the antiques dealer Lajos hanged himself a year or so ago. Constantine heartily recommends documentary research done by Oliver Stone, available both as TV series & book, 'The Untold History of the United States'. Doubtless more actual material in the book as usual.
Probably safe by now to print the rather intense dream text below, some time having passed since December 2nd. Coast seems clear for all that left-wing lower case too.
raspberry bruise mouth and
a cool grey glance of
owl-shaped soul ;
a blur at the edge of still
makes its hole in the air
of the almost moment where
you feel quiet how the stand
of frosted trees watches
through its wall of chill.
2 thoughts beat as 1 :
a soft quick fall
light loop of the waist
catching a rising heart
ripple in the ring
like a spasm of wings ;
or a pause in the breath,
not stealth or faith,
but wait with the silver leaf
and hang weightless
in the minute of thick full
pluming skirt of dark ;
link fingers, quiver of warmth,
the kiss surprises a whole
remembered animal alive.
Bit of script-reading in the evening at Daniel's flat. For a possible staging of a fragment of this play. Here is a worrying article about Nigeria, Africa's biggest country. Their government plans to a) make biometrically-backed ID cards compulsory for all Nigeria's people, and b) to link these cards to financial accounts with Mastercard while removing all legal validity from any other kind of money. Governments hate non-electronic cash, of course. Citizens can hide old-fashioned cash from the state, spend it as they please, and live their lives largely unsupervised. No wonder the technology behind money so urgently needs to be "developed" and "improved".
A rare song/video that mocks men, women, and pop music, all at once. As the lady so rightly says "You always came back for more." And if that cheered you up too much, then try this instead. Or even this.
Meant to see this film when it came out. Impressive yet understated trailer.
Silent Tuesday. Robin's housekeeper Marika drops me off at the Lakitelek railway station with lots of time before my train. A new girl in the station bar cheerfully serves me a sinister-looking red and yellow pizza. My train for the first leg of the journey back to the capital appears to be a kidnapped Austrian Railways carriage, astray at least 200 miles outside its homeland. Plump rural Hungarians sit in doubtful quiet at intervals down the eerily modern hypertrain. On the next train from Kecskemet to Budapest, a very sunny, gregarious blonde tot is being helped by its mother to walk up and down the length of the carriage. In the Dutch classification of toddlers definitely still a peuter and not yet a kleuter, she & I exchange greetings and do some waving at each other. The little one is delighted to find if she tilts her head to the left she can make my head tilt to the left too, and if to the right then my head must also tilt the same way. Much gurgling laughter at this excellent game.
Quiet Monday. Finish a late-1980s book in Robin's library, 'Dictionary of the Khazars' by Milorad Pavic, translated from Serbo-Croat into English by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric. My God this is dreadful. Pavic, not his translator. A novel in the cunning post-modern guise of a dictionary in three parts (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) about a Dark Ages nation, the Khazars, this is gimmicky enough to be published in two slightly different editions that only disagree by one paragraph (the male edition and the female edition). The feeling this gives is of reading an enormously tedious hoax. A big joke at their expense that most critics are simply too obtuse (or too estranged from the enjoyment of reading books) to see. Individual sentences are sometimes beautiful, even haunting, but even ten pages of this becomes hard work to read through. What readers who believe they enjoy this text really enjoy, as with so many other borderline-unreadable pieces of experimental 20th-century writing, is the idea of it, the sheer cleverness and oddness of it. The very format of the book, a set of made-up lexicon/encyclopaedia entries which loop in and out of common themes, is calculated to win over people who read a book to look interesting rather than because the book itself interests them. The book circles around the Khazar Polemic (a fabled debating contest at some point in the 9th or 10th century AD where a Central Asian khan invited three learned men, a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, to try to convert him and his kingdom to one of their faiths). I recall my old teacher Len Rix mentioning another book about the Khazars (alleged in that account to be a Central Asian people who converted en masse to Judaism) by Arthur Koestler, and that book I'd still like to read, despite its detractors. Pavic's text drew me in because individual snatches of it are lovely prose and they baffle & challenge the reader, as they are meant to. But after a few pages the absence of any real pattern or set of characters making sense of the conceit becomes horribly clear. Stubbornly I waded on, hoping it would come right somehow, but it didn't. Trying to be part Eco / part Escher, the fake-poetic self-referential drivel just wibbles on and on. It's like listening to a chatbot locked in Borges parody mode, or eating entire boxes of dried dates at Christmas, each date promising much, only to feel ill. Phrases like "He wore a face as dark as bread" or "His teeth held a perfect picture of my bones" are slotted into every page, as if by algorithm. We have passages like "In that battle, in which he carried sand, feathers, and a bucket as his weapons, Brankovich was wounded in the leg; after that he took a black horse, the sultan of all horses, which neighed in its sleep and was also a warlock. The lame Brankovich would go off into heavenly battle riding the soul of his horse transformed into straw. They also say that in Constantinople he confessed and admitted to being a warlock, after which he ceased being one, and the cattle in Transylvania no longer walked backwards when he passed by the pens..." and hundreds of pages of them. Magical women whose breasts give black milk, people invading each other's dreams, someone with two thumbs on both hands, people eating the letters of their own names, a city where the shadows stay long after the buildings are razed, people exchanging weeks of their lives or ageing backwards, random odd things on every page, whatever blah blah blah, but none of it actually fitting together or building anything. Any child being read to would hear the false note in this straight away. Once you pick up Pavic's cynicism (check
photos if you don't believe me), what seems enchanting in very small bites in a bookshop becomes sick-making. Defenders will say the novel is about the act of reading, about forgetting and remembering, about the making of history from fragments, about magical thinking, about something or other very impressive and worthwhile-sounding. Perhaps it is all of those things. But since teaching literary appreciation became an industry at the end of the 19th century there have also been shrewd shysters who work out exactly how to outfox the critics. Writers who make a 'classic' text academics or conversationalists can advance their career or reputation by discussing, even if no-one else actually reads it. This is the trick Pavic has pulled off. Effectively this is a very upmarket version of a Dan Brown book, a novel where a clever plot or intriguing central concept hides the lack of either storytelling or writing talent. In Pavic's case storytelling is the gap: 'Dictionary of the Khazars' has individual sentences which are well-written, attractive prose. But although it proclaims itself a puzzle text, no normal reader will care enough about the puzzle to try to solve it, and they are quite right not to care. Real readers will sense the author's smug smirk behind every paragraph.
Sunday. Go with Zsuzsi & Kasper into housekeeper Marika's house to look at the new kittens in their box on the sewing-machine worktop. While Marika has coughing fits, Farmville clucks and moos to itself on her computer, and four dogs bustle around our legs. (The two large white furry Komondors, Lexi the fox terrier, and Marika's limping black and white dog Cso:pi.) In their box, the two tiny kittens (only born Friday) huddle together up against their mother Shelby, Marika's cat. One kitten looks exactly like a miniature Pom Pom (the father) in black and white, the other looks exactly like a miniature Shelby in mainly white with brown and black markings.
Talking of the Life Force, here's Choo Jackson chasing his own tail.
Saturday train into countryside. Zsuzsi & Juci kindly drive out to meet me at Lakitelek. Later on Zsuzsi brings Csenge back for dinner. The 3 of us read Tarot spreads, eat pasta, drink fizzy red wine.
Someone somewhere is very cross with their philosophy supervisor, and has made dozens (hundreds?) of images of 'Scumbag Analytic Philosopher'. 3 or 4 of them are quite funny for anyone who's met the type: "Claims he doesn't understand..." and "The Limits of 'My' Language...", for example.
Hot Friday in Budapest. Coco Chanel was a Nazi agent? Ex-CNN reporter claims, "I received orders to manipulate news on Syria & Iran."
While waiting for Letty to find me at the sun-baked tram stop island, Plimsoll-Designer Jeremy scoots by on a scooter in dense traffic. We say hello as the traffic jam jostles past. Second meeting in 3 days and about 3 years.
Thursday. Finish an intriguing late-20th-century exhibition guide from Jarrow, South Shields, among Robin's books called 'The Art of the Invisible', probably another trace of the invisible Mike from that part of England. A worthwhile read, it is a bit more than a catalogue - just over fifty short pages of text and fifty pages of illustrations. The theme is carefully argued: that occultism (and specifically the occult revival of the late 19th century) were vital ingredients for the arrival of 20th-century abstract art and modernism in general. (I'd like to read more about the overnight conversion of Annie Besant from hostile rationalist sceptic to not only joining Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society but actually taking over its leadership in 1891: sounds like some sort of battle of charismas.) The text builds up carefully, from the Fox sisters and their creation of the table-tapping craze, the seance fad, Madame Blavatsky, the involvement of Yeats in ritual magic in London, and the slightly different path of Rudolf Steiner, all creating a crowded supernaturalist scene by the 1890s. There is no pushy rush forward to show all this becoming modern art, but rather Alf Corlett and Vince Rea detail a social milieu. By the time Kandinksky and Piet Mondrian are discussed, both deeply involved with occultist ideas and societies, the claim is convincing. The book's point is that 20th-century abstract art was, like abstract art in several other religious traditions, an explicitly transcendental effort to reach behind appearances to an underlying non-material reality. Modernist abstract painting started as freeform western mandalas, Corlett and Rea argue. The 1920s and 30s Bauhaus takeover of 20th-century modernism, and its embrace of the machine age, a mission to rediscover aesthetic beauty and social ideals in alliance with the factory era rather than against it, has hidden from us the roots of modern art in the anti-factory, anti-materialist movements of the 19th century. Although one or two later modernists also emerged from this largely forgotten tradition (abstract artist Brian Clarke's teenage training as a medium in the spiritualist churches of 1950s Lancashire leaps to mind), 19th-century occultism now looks as far from mainstream modernism as can be imagined. From where we sit now, the 1890s 'Occult Revival' appears to us in retrospect naive and distinctly batty.
Wednesday. Now possible to download a weapon from the internet. 3D printer builds a working gun out of that spray-on resin they use. Only the firing pin is metal. Meanwhile, an article about the various allegations against the late politician known by Italians as 'The Old Fox', Andreotti. This, his obituary, concentrates on the various times he was tried and acquitted for consorting with Mafiosi.
As I step into a small sleepy post office not far from Oktogon to post a complaint letter to a taxi firm, Robin's London mod friend Jeremy the Plimsoll Designer says hello. He is chatting to a man about a motorbike propped up against a wall outside the post office. First time I have seen him since perhaps 2010 or 2009, I think.
Return to Budapest. Here is a slightly silly map. Nonetheless, quite striking. Most of the world's Buddhists, the world's Hindus, and the world's Muslims are inside that circle. And so is the world's most sparsely populated country - though a bit naughty to call Mongolia that just because Greenland's not a sovereign state.
Still at Robin's proto-farm in the countryside. Exotic dark-haired sheep stroll past the windows. My second cold bath of the sudden summer today. A thunderstorm of distant drum-roll rumbling comes at night. I finish Robin's copy of On Secret Service East of Constantinople'. Stirring tales of derring do in the second Great Game - this time to defend the northern stretches of British India from pre-First-World-War Prussian plotting while German engineers toiled to build the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway across the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. Resourceful polyglot adventurers lurking in mountain villages show that T.E. Lawrence was only one of dozens of that brave type. As the author Peter Hopkirk describes them: "the last of that generation of men who once played the Great Game for King, Kaiser, Sultan, and Tsar east of Constantinople." The book clarifies just how much damage the reckless Turkish leader Enver caused, and how supremely irresponsible & foolish Kaiser Wilhelm was to reignite violent Islam as a weapon against Britain and Russia. Ultimately Wilhelm succeeded in fatally wounding both the British Empire and Tsarist Russia (though at the cost of a terrible German defeat). In many respects the dark results of Prussian expansionism from the 1890s to 1918 reach more deeply into the present than the more visible and better-remembered Nazi German war of the 1940s. Wilhelm helped tempt the Ottomans into their final collapse thereby destabilising the Arab world. He also embittered the end of British rule in India (which led to India breaking up, creating Pakistan and Bangladesh) an end which might have happened peacefully a couple of decades later than it did. Finally the Kaiser indirectly and directly (by shipping in Lenin on the so-called 'sealed train') brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia (without the Russian revolution Communist China might never have happened). Just for the dreadful mistake of creating the Soviet Union, perhaps the First World War deserves to have its old title of The Great War returned to it. The modern states of Kemalist Turkey, Israel, all the Arab states, India & Pakistan, all the Balkan states, nations like the Czechs and Slovaks and Hungarians (even Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo), today's divided Cyprus, the last two Iraq wars, of course today's Russia and the ex-Soviet states - vast swathes of the political map are all really consequences of the First World War (rather than the Second) and the various fast and slow-burning fuses it lit.
May 5th; More sewing on Marika's electric machine. I am starting to get the knack of not letting the thread snap.
Finally get round to combing through a very short 50-page booklet I've had in my stuff for several years (since the late 1990s, in fact) The Energy Risk Management Glossary', copyright the slightly ominously-named 'Financial Engineering Ltd. London'. With handy little graphs, it breezes through the duller and more colourful energy derivative terms in a set of short alphabetically listed articles. Always good to revise which way round
backwardation work, for those of us woefully inclined to mix them up, and cheering little nuggets about
daisy chains, and
volatility smiles bring some relief. I know one isn't supposed to actually read glossaries, but sometimes it's a useful revision short cut. Both sour crude and sweet crude entries mention the presence of sulphur as below 1 per cent, which is a bit confusing, since going above 1/2 per cent is usually seen as the deciding point for crude oil sourness.
Saturday afternoon train out to the Great Plain, as Hungarians romantically call it. Sunshine, heat, the usual string of small villages and tiny branch-line railway stations. Hidden out there in the sheer flatness, they dot the track out to Lakitelek, where both Zsuzsi & Letty arrive by car to kindly pick me up in an interlude from a daytime party at their friend Juci's. All seems reasonably normal in Robin's absence.
Weather now hot. As a girl said to me in the lift last week, no chance of a spring now. Straight out of winter into summer. I meet Jacqueline at a delightful cafe in Buda, post a copy of the book to India, and have my first proper cold bath in months. Like an intravenous injection of caffeine.
Yesterday evening Robin & I drove back to Budapest at night, sleeping barely three hours at my flat before a sullen & dishonest taxi driver turns up at 4.30am to take Robin to the airport so he can fly west on his working holiday. In the evening a lead-grey sky looms over the number-1 tram route on my way to teach the two girls Anna and Zita. A dramatic hailstorm with lightning occurs at the girls' house, pieces of ice bigger than coffee beans bouncing off the roof for about ten minutes. Zita (Zizi) tells me that "Dubai is always overdoing stuff" and asks me what the real secret of life is. I let the cat out of the bag, people. I told her.
Finish a short text of Robin's, rich in images, A Concise History of Photography' by Helmut Gernsheim. This is a 1986 3rd edition, and not too much was added to the previous editions of 1965 and 1971. In feel it still reads very much as a book by the man the writer was in the mid-1960s. The early camera obscura devices are described well in a wonderful starting section, and the first half century from the 1830s to the 1880s is the most enjoyable part of the book. Gernsheim is very thorough throughout, crediting many photographic pioneers, being careful to cover as many countries, styles, and activities as he can (so not leaving out the early days of tourist photography, explaining how photographers earned their living, mentioning the slow uptake of photos by newspapers, many other interesting points). On page 75 he has a sudden outbreak of irritation while describing a late-19th-century fad for posed photographic montages of historic or mythical scenes. These, he writes, gave "results that are often comically suggestive of amateur theatricals."... "produced the worst kind of Victorian trash"... "their achievment hardly went beyond mediocre anecdotal pictures", were a "misguided effort to explore the realm of fancy..." and so on. Again and again he emphasises the importance of being true to photography, not trying to recreate some sort of painting. Those trashy Victorian montages (and silly efforts to create Impressionist-style blurred photoraphs on rough paper) failed to see what photography was, as a medium in itself. Yet soon, in the 20th-century section, we have abstract photography (looking a lot like recreations of abstract painting), surrealistic photography, in fact a host of oddly derivative-looking styles of art photography, written of with approval. Pierre Cordier's Chimigrammes (some of which do look like something original to photography) make an odd ending to this stimulating but surprisingly dated book.
Recent weblog entries
Who can translate the next 300 words into
me and there will be revelry.
Languages dying out each week
We do - otherlanguages.org is gradually building a reference resource for over five thousand linguistic minorities and stateless languages worldwide.
Thousands of unique language communities are becoming extinct. Out of the world's five to six thousand languages, we hardly know what we're losing, what literatures, philosophies, ways of thinking, are disappearing right now.
We may soon regret the extinction of thousands of entire linguistic cultures even more than we regret the needless extinction of many animals and plants.
The planet is increasingly dominated by a handful of major-language monocultures like Mandarin
Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Indonesian, Urdu, Spanish, Portuguese,
English, Swahili, Russian, Cantonese Chinese, Japanese, Bengali - all
beautiful and fascinating
But so are the 5,000 others.
These are groups of people?
Linguistic minorities are communities of ordinary people whose native tongue is not their country's main official language. Swedish
speakers in Finland, French speakers in
Canada, Hungarian speakers
in Slovakia - and hundreds more - are linguistic minorities.
And totally stateless languages are the native languages of some of the world's most intriguing, little-known, cultures. Like the Lapps inside the Arctic Circle, the Sards
in Sardinia, Ainus in Japan. Cherokee in the US, Scots
Gaelic in Britain, Friesian in the
Netherlands, Zulu in South Africa.
There are only a couple of hundred recognised sovereign states and
territories, so more than 5,000 languages are the native tongues of
linguistically stateless people.
could I help?
You don't need to learn an endangered
language - any more than go to live in the rainforest to help slow its
A good start is to just tell friends
about websites like this.
Broader public interest makes it easier
for linguists to raise
funds and organise people to learn these
languages while there's
That's right. There
are people who love
languages and are happy to learn them on
behalf of the rest of us, but they need support,
just like zoologists, botanists, or historians.
Fewer languages still
sounds good to
meDepends what you think languages are for. They're not just a tool for business. We never said you should learn three or four thousand rare languages - or even one. And which ones we make children learn in school, or whether we should force children to learn languages at all, is another question.
Typical scene in a European city;
Chances are, folk here speak some sort of foreign
A century ago - before we understood
ecology, and when we cared less about wilderness, most educated
people would have laughed at the idea of worrying about plants or
animals going extinct. Now we understand how important species diversity
is for our own futures, we are more humble, and more worried.
In the same way, linguistic triumphalism by English-speakers who hated studying foreign grammar at school is dangerously ignorant as well as arrogant. Few of us know what we are losing, week by week.
How many people realise these languages have scientific value?
You can think of these languages across the planet as beautiful cathedrals or
precious archeological sites we are watching being destroyed. That
should be motive enough.
But these five thousand languages may
also hold clues to the structure of the human mind. Subtle
differences and similarities
between languages are helping
archeologists and anthropologists to
understand what happened in the hundreds
of centuries of human
history before written history. And
that is one of our best
chances of understanding how human brains
developed over the thousands of centuries leading up to that.
Wireless radio can be a great comfort to those unable
to leave the
textbooks in which they live *6
Study of the mind and study of language
go hand in hand these days. The world's most marginal languages
are actually precious jigsaw pieces from an overall picture of
who we are and how our species thinks and evolves. Every tiny
language adds another brightly-coloured clue to this academic
Yet researchers have hardly started sifting through this
tantalising evidence, and language extinction is washing it away right in
front of us.
And worst of all, most people have no idea that there is this
fantastic profusion of cultures across our world, let alone that
they are in danger of extinction. Even just more people learning that
there are still five thousand living languages in the world today (most
of us would answer five hundred or fifty) is already a huge help.
We English-speakers hardly notice English - it's like air for us.
But every other language is also an atmosphere for an entire cultural world,
and each of these worlds
has people whose home it is. Each language
encapsulates a unique
way of talking and thinking about life.
Just try some time in a
foreign prison, being forced to cope in
another language, and you'll
realise how much your own language is your
identity. That's true for
Minority languages are a
issue?One of the most basic.
Dozens of millions of people worldwide
suffer persecution from
national governments for speaking their
mother tongue - in their own
Many 'ethnic' feuds puzzling to
outsiders had as their basis an attempt to destroy a linguistic community.
Would the Northern Ireland dispute be quite so bitter if we
English had not so nearly stamped out the Irish Gaelic language, for
example? Almost nowhere in the world does a language community as
small as the few thousand Rheto-Romanic speakers - the fourth
official language of Switzerland - get the protection of a national
government. Next time you see some Swiss Francs, check both sides of the
But outside exceptional countries like
Switzerland or the Netherlands, speakers of non-official
languages have a much less protected experience.
Speakers of minority languages are
often seen as a threat by both
the governments and the other residents of
the countries where they
were born, grew up, and try to live
They experience discrimination in the
job and education markets
of their homelands, often having no choice
but to pursue education
in the major language of the host state
a deliberate government
policy usually aimed at gradually
absorbing them into the majority
culture of that country.
Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, of course *7
Most governments are privately gleeful
each time another small
separate culture within their borders is
snuffed out by a dwindling
population or a deliberately centralising
The United Nations is no help. It is an
association of a couple
of hundred sovereign states based on
exclusive control of territory,
almost all of them anxious to smother any
distinct group or
tradition that in any way might blur or
smudge the hard-won borders
around those pieces of territory.
The usual approach by sovereign states
is to deny their
linguistic minorities even exist.
Mark Griffith, site administrator /
up to top of page
*2 "Al-Araby" in written
*3 "What?" in American Sign
Language; image from , with thanks
*4 "Big" in written
(read more); image from , with
*5 image from , with
*6 image from , with
*7 image from
'B?ume', with thanks to
Bruno P. Kramer,
and Franckh-Kosmos Verlag
Finish reading a much-recommended book, 'Weapons of Mass Instruction' by John Taylor Gatto. This is a crie de coeur by a New York teacher of several decades' experience who not only argues (like many other educational reformers) that schools are harmful institutions, but that they are intended to be that way. He claims to uncover evidence in late-19th-century and early-20th-century educational and psychology proposals and manifestos that the American government-funded school system was designed from the outset to stultify and pacify successive generations of Americans. The perpetrators were a kind of corporate elite (partly connected to the Rockefellers and other magnates of the 1890s) concerned to instil nationwide consumption and passive thinking. Ex-students would lap up fashions and trends created by their large firms. This was to take the place of the self-taught, self-reliant, small-town spirit Gatto identifies with the 19th-century US. Gatto is an English teacher, not a historian by training, and it shows - but this is nonetheless a startling and vigorously argued thesis. Sad to say, he (or editors wishing to make his book sell more copies) cannot celebrate American ingenuity without constantly attacking Britain and Germany. Gatto seems unaware that 19th-century America was not some astonishing paradise of inventive ingenuity, but a developing industrial economy falling some way behind Britain and other European countries although doing respectably well. Edison did not invent the lightbulb - several inventors in several countries did - Edison just used lawyers to put the other inventors out of business ...an example Gatto might want to reflect on. Photography, to take another area of invention, developed in several countries, notably France and England, not the miraculous back country of ingenious, self-organising, small-town Americans Gatto keeps referring to. Even by 1900 the US (with twice Britain's population) had 99 photographic societies against over 260 in just Britain. Likewise, the pneumatic tyre was developed in 5 or 6 countries (equally heavier-than-air flight, motor cars, radio, moving pictures). Rather than the wonder of industrial creativity it saw itself as in retrospect by 1950, the US was a respectable competitor drawing level with France or Germany by World War One, only with a bigger population and far more natural resources within its borders.
This matters because Gatto is rather obsessed with the successes of a handful of early Americans (like the British-descended Americans Franklin and Washington) achieving many things as young teenagers, seemingly unaware that every European country was also like this in the 18th and 19th centuries, full of inspiring people doing remarkable things aged 12, 13, 14, 15. Compulsory state schooling supplanting self-reliant, self-educating characters of the centuries before the 20th is an international story, not some special European blight imported to stifle the great self-awakening of Gatto's vigorous young New Worlders. This crudely nationalistic image Gatto has of the British enemy (always such an important foil to the American myth of self-creation) extends to contrasting Alfred Russell Wallace (a Briton of humble origins, Gatto emphasises, almost a social rebel) with the other British discoverer of evolution, Darwin - for Gatto an oppressive Establishment figure. Gatto describes Darwin as firstly a theologian, unaware that he was studying botany already at university, even if he chose to graduate in theology so as to have a church living to pay for his life as a natural historian. Gatto is also unaware that Wallace was a good friend of Darwin, that Darwin financially helped Wallace to recover from his business misfortunes, and that despite his poor origins Wallace was still able to travel widely across the world trading in plant and animal samples. The two men were much less different in social background and politics than Gatto imagines, and in fact it was the nobly-born anarchist Prince Kropotkin of Russia who wrote even more passionately and at most length of the role of co-operation and symbiosis in evolution of species ...a figure Gatto might be uncomfortable including in his republic of business-driven self-made lads.
This is sad because the book's central idea - that mass IQ-style testing and American syllabus design were deliberately designed to create a passive and pliant public - is a very striking claim, and he produces some evidence to make this believable. Gatto is brave and clear in asserting that truants who skip school are often the most dynamic people, and that television, and after it the internet, has been enormously harmful to children's ability to discover the real world. He is obviously a lively and stimulating teacher, and his core claim deserves close attention.
By day Robin is making good progress with a painting for Ab. I manage to restitch my striped secondhand shirt once Marika shows me how to use her cantankerous sewing machine. Unlike mother's, which was mechanical, this is electric but still a tad temperamental. Robin and I are crowded into her small bedroom in Marika's house next to Robin's. As I struggle with practice-stitching some scraps of cloth first, Robin is finding his body is covered with ticks from our walk in his forest and has his shirt off, picking them out of his back. Meanwhile, surrounded by dogs (the huge new Komondor bitch Do:mo:r takes up almost the whole available floor) Marika reclines on her bed smoking, watching an Italian film about the French musketeers for some reason dubbed into German on her computer. During pauses rethreading the sewing machine when the cotton keeps breaking, I have an eye on the Musketeers film, and Robin's memory of it involving Zeppelin airships turns out to be a slightly overblown scene with a large Montgolfier-style balloon, so not out of period after all.
Big Time Gets Bigger - Lee Smolin, a Canadian physicist, argues time-arrow-independent physics equations are misleading so time is real after all; and some geneticists rather archly argue that life predates earth by using Moore's equation from the integrated-circuit industry. A bit back-of-envelope, but interesting.
Abstract Expressionism was secretly funded & promoted by the CIA? (Might explain how it rose to not-really-deserved prominence so quickly.) Real purpose of Iraq War came to be cutting down oil supplies? An American living abroad tries to tell his countrymen that they are not really as special as they are told.
Jeremy & his wife find me in the nearby shopping centre. Since I just bustled in there and sat straight down on a seating pod to use the free WiFi I failed to notice that all down the mall there are live mannequins in roughly every second shop window as some sort of promotion. Dressed fairly normally in skirts and jackets on sale in the shops concerned (though of course they are all long-legged and in heels), they wave at passers-by. Jeremy's Hungarian wife points out that the lingerie shop has no girl in the window, while Jeremy expresses conventional British thoughts about what a tedious thing it must be standing there (they seem to be rotating in 15-minute shifts to rest their legs) being stared at by strangers. From what I see, however, it looks as if the shapely lasses are hugely enjoying showing their figures off in front of shoppers. The shopping crowd is itself oddly rich just today in more slim, strutting maidens than usual, probably checking out the competition and comparing themselves to the girls in the windows. The live clothes horses do that little miniature wave at each group passing, hand held palm up while fingers wiggle randomly. Quite a lot of spontaneous-looking laughing, smiling, and giggling from the mannequins (this in a nation where the prettiest shop assistants routinely scowl the entire day) suggests this is not the most unwelcome chore they have ever had unloaded onto them.
Take a sun-filled mid-afternoon train out to Kecskemet, and during the trip I use a safety pin to unpick all the stitching from the button side of a 2nd-hand shirt I bought for a pound the other day. Finish unpicking the seam by the town of Nagko:ro:s, about ten minutes before getting out at Kecskemet. In our 8-person compartment I'm one of 5 males. None us is wearing a watch. There is an older woman and two girls around 20 - all three females are wearing watches. Oddly, the most up-to-date-looking girl, glossy sun-browned skin, sporty clothing, a music-player with white leads into her ears, has the most ostentatiously wrist-watchy watch of all three of them.
Robin picks me up by car, bringing news of the old ram. Seems that after it knocked down Marika, and Robin had it taken back in favour of a new quieter male, that dealer resold this angry/playful ram to another farm. Once there the ram butted a man in the back and now the man is paralysed from the waist down. Indignant Marika fully vindicated. Sad to say, Csaba Of The Stapled Head doesn't come well out of the dangerous-ram-trading story.
Going through some business-studies material with one 18-year-old student today at a sunny cafe, she laughs while telling me how a male biology teacher yesterday made a joke in front of a couple of them in school. Two female students had just rushed out of the class shrieking and laughing, and there is a Hungarian saying about it being spring and the blossoms are opening. He casually remarked that it was spring so girls' thighs were opening. Chuckles all round - this being Continental Europe, it was taken offhandedly as a down-to-earth joke about those two girls. I shudder to think what would happen to a male teacher in any English-speaking or Nordic country who was rash enough to make a remark like that in front of (or about) students. Immediate end of teaching career at the very least, perhaps something worse. Meanwhile, here is a map of how many times French people kiss each other when greeting. 5 kisses in Corsica (left right left right left?) sounds slightly gangstery, if they don't mind me saying that. They probably do mind.
The wild-sounding-but-probably-accurate brokers-on-cocaine theory is gaining ground.
Bullet's equally serious investors-on-antidepressants theory in our essay collection is also good and deserves more of a hearing. Apparently most economists ("big thinkers") still cannot explain the crash - so no surprise there. Their thinking might not be that big after all. And via Constantine, interesting short talk from a man on how grassland turns into desert. To sum up, he says we are totally wrong to think livestock create deserts. In fact huge herds of sheep or cattle revive semi-desert and turn it back into grassland. He claims if we rescued half the world's arid something-or-other land this way, global carbon-dioxide concentrations would return to mid-Victorian levels. Worth hearing out.
On the train back to Budapest - more precisely on a tram in Budapest afterwards - I finish a 1989 book of Robin's, or maybe his long-vanished Berlin friend Mike - about German architecture in the 1920s and 30s. 'Architects of Fortune' (subtitled 'Mies van der Rohe and the Third Reich') by Elaine Hochman, is a closely told history of a fascinating aesthetic power struggle. She finally gives us the punchline as the first sentence of the Afterword on page 311: "But for Hitler's interest in architecture, Albert Speer believed, modernism .... would have developed as the 'official' style of National Socialism." This astonishing thought takes some getting used to. Had the International Style been officially endorsed as the Nazi Party's own architecture, the modernism of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright would have had a much greater struggle to become the official building style of our time. Pretty much anything liked by Nazism (with the possible exception of motorways) became utterly taboo for half a century afterwards. Yet because Mies loathed the idea of going into exile he and others tried hard to marry their belief in modernism with the arrival of Nazi government. Hochman's carefully researched history of the personal struggles of Mies van der Rohe to keep designing and working in Germany shows just how close the Nazis came to adopting architectural functionalism, the glamorous new 'rationalist' style of plate glass, steel girder, and cement slab, as their own house architecture. This would have been much less surprising than it might seem now. Mussolini for example immediately saw the link between his own movement and avant-garde art, and gave Fascist government support in the 1920s to the Italian Futurists. Weidemann and the Nazi students' association contained many fervent supporters of the architecture of the flat roof and the see-through wall. Even Joseph Goebbels sometimes gave support to Mies, although Goebbels was much too shrewd a politician to put his personal taste before that of Hitler for long. Under his directorship, Mies allowed the Bauhaus to become increasingly dominated by nationalistic, pro-Nazi students in his strenuous efforts to keep the design school open. Although the easy-going aristocratic Walter Gropius founded it, he had handed over leadership to the stubborn, steely Mies so as to have the Bauhaus led by someone who could fight its corner against the dozens of bureaucrats who kept attacking it for over a decade. Mies resisted until 1937 demands he resign his membership of the Prussian Academy of Arts, one of the honours he valued most. He refused several offers of jobs in the United States before finally accepting and emigrating to the US at the last minute. There he stayed, helping in the 1940s and 50s to make his brand of clinically minimalist modernism into the aesthetic ideal for all American office blocks. Hochman (a striking and cheerful-looking woman in her author photo) says she was indebted to conversations with both Albert Speer and Philip Johnson. I didn't remember Mies's trade fair exhibit made up of two walls built out of polished coal bricks plus a third wall made of rock salt. Nor had I realised quite how involved Johnson was in the 1930s. He seems one of the few architects not weighed down by the mood of intense seriousness & dark passion that surrounded Mies and Germany between the wars: '"Nazis, schmazis," said Philip Johnson, "Mies would have built for anyone."' Or "the first rule of architecture is to get the job!" In all the sympathetic understanding of Mies and his high ideals about architectural transformation of society, it is easy to overlook just how dictatorial, even totalitarian, modernist architecture was and still is. Much of this is underlined by just how personally authoritarian and uncompromising Mies van der Rohe was in his (frankly speaking fanatical) architectural beliefs. Even Hochman, appreciating his chilly aesthetic perfectionism, is slightly stunned by the coldness of Mies towards his wife and daughters, not estranged from him but still left behind in wartime Germany. When they were finally able to join him in the US after World War II and turned up at his architectural office, no-one there knew who they were because the great man had never mentioned that he had a family. Flat-roofed petrol stations still look the way Mies designed his first few, their jutting horizontal planes slicing across landscapes, literally undercutting or amputating the pitched roofs of any vernacular buildings they squat near. The insistence on erasing all links to the past, removing all signs of recognisable human-scale craftsmanship, the fetish of factory-style materials looking as undecorated as possible ...all these qualities chime perfectly with the messianic claims of early-20th-century police states like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany to be remaking society in a dazzlingly new scientific/industrial mould.
Had the gemutlich, volk-sentimental wing of National Socialism not won that closely-fought debate, we would see the link between oppressive architecture and oppressive politics much more clearly than we do.
Ten days of glorious sun in Hungary, after so many false starts to spring, has sent the women into a bit of a tizzy. Today a slightly ragged but friendly woman of about 30 sitting next to me on a bus makes a persistent effort over about 15 minutes to persuade me to take her out for a drink this evening. Last week another girl introduced herself to me in a bar and we chatted for an hour. I'd love to think it's me, but a safer diagnosis is Sudden Warm Weather Shock. Late afternoon today, perhaps half an hour before dusk, I get off the number 1 tram at the terminus to teach two students I only go to see on Tuesdays. The tram stops about three carriage-lengths short of the platform for some technical reason, and lets us out onto the tracks. There, in just seven days, a host of tiny flowers have sprung up from the track. Stepping over the big chunky rails with their mirror-polished upper strips, I see crowds of wire-thin green stems rising almost invisibly out of dry earth littered with railway-type pebbles. The miniature blooms float luminous over the rails like yellow punctuation.
The livestock in Robin's garden seem calm. I meet the new 'guy sheep' - in fact cannot tell the ram apart from his ewes without Marika pointing him out to me. He has no horns, but three of the ewes have dramatic twirly horns. Constantine also talked on the train the night before last about trading conditions on the DAX. Or no - it was in the car when Zsuszi was driving us along darkened roads through small dusty villages.
Warm and dry on the Great Plain. I remember an extraordinary white cloud hanging in a hot blue sky over Kecskemet railway station on my way out to see Robin last weekend. The cloud was alone, perfectly painted in full, crisp fluffiness, and utterly motionless. Was oddly reminded of the hyper-Constable cloudscapes that often decorated covers of 1960s science-fiction paperbacks almost like this one. The sky might have been an unusual colour, there might have been three moons or two suns, the vegetation eccentric-looking, the mountains strangely pointy, and the distant city crystalline and toy-like. The sky might even have contained a sort of hovering mass of ironmongery, not quite spaceship, not quite floating city. But the clouds would be exemplary and completely classical, doubtless to pull the whole picture into the realm of the imaginable.
Meet Robin off plane at Terminal 2. We wait on the platform of the train station (at Terminal 1, a 15-minute bus ride away, helpfully completed after years of work just in time for the closing of Terminal 1) in dark but warmth, for the train to The Plain. Joyful shouts from Constantine at a train window tell us our service has pulled in. In our compartment Constantine tells me about new research and accounts of the McCarthyite hearings during the Cold War. Perhaps the "black list" of suspected communist sympathisers in American film studios in Hollywood was actually justified, rather than unambiguously evil (the consensus taught to us over the last seventy years). Constantine recommends these four books on the debate:
four. Zsuzsi, who drives now, picks us up from Kecskemet station and chauffeurs us into the flat, open country of the Alfold by night.
Proper warm weather now. Sunshine every day for over a week now. Here is a disappointing, overrated article on experiments in inducing religious feelings in psychology subjects by artful use of electromagnetic fields. You know a journalist is struggling when he starts describing the furniture.
Photographer discovers the ooo-eriness of Morris Men and their ilk.
Calderdale Council's works department confirms today by e-mail (my first from them) it is threatening an auction sale of my house because I haven't paid for their work removing a supposedly dangerous coping stone they didn't contact me to say they were doing in December. Something odd about the whole thing. * thinks... *
Robin, just yesterday, buys a couple more sheep (of the distinctively Hungarian
Racka breed) and swaps the over-excited
housekeeper-bowling ram for a quieter one. He has wanted to have poultry and
livestock at the house for over ten years, and now at last he's able to pursue his smallholding dream. Today we drive up to Budapest - he to fly to Britain with Bela, returning to school after Easter break. As we pull away from the house, young master Sperling cranes his neck round looking out of the car, disappointed. "I wanted to see the new guy sheep," Bela says as we approach the gates on the way out. Once on the road driving to town, Robin, slightly out of the blue, recommends I become "more of a sorceror," not something my friends suggest every day.
Monday. Either Anti-Garden-Market Mark or Zdravko finds this set of pictures:
Life on the Moon as Imagined in the 1830s. The full set of lithographs is here. The pictures are wonderfully Italian & Victorian. In one, exploring
earthlings in top hats bespy with gallant interest how lepido-ladies slumber in giant lunar blossoms.
Sunday. I mend my trousers in Robin's sunny sitting room while he dozes on the other sofa. Yesterday arrived to news his house now has 4 or 5 sheep. Robin's cook & housekeeper Marika had her pride and person bruised two days ago: she was butted from behind and knocked over by the boisterous ram, doubtless defending the honour of his harem of ewes. On another front, I'd love to try
Saturday. Take train to the countryside for more tutoring of young master Sperling. The last part of the journey in warm sun has my third train turn into one of those relaxed little buses pretending to be a train. Its yellow curtains are drawn to keep the half-empty interior shaded.
Recent news of the death of another long-retired politician makes this story interesting to revisit. British left-wingers' passionate defence for 30 years now of a fascistic Argentinian dictatorship (versus their rage at Britain accepting help in that war from the also dictatorial but milder regime in Chile) purely because they personally hated Margaret Thatcher is still very worrying. It now emerges, surprise surprise, that sinking the Belgrano ship during the war started by Argentina was not a 'war crime' at all. Salient points: 1) it being outside the exclusion zone was irrelevant since that zone was clearly declared to affect neutral shipping only, 2) Argentinian officers admit easily changeable switches of direction by the ship were a tactic to evade attack, 3) the Belgrano was a genuine danger to British forces after all, and 4) the captain of the sunken ship himself called the British attack on his vessel a legitimate act of war.
Friday. Another memory from Monday this week was motoring across the sunlit Great Plain with Robin at the wheel on a two-lane road. We glimpse a distant ripple of movement far right, resolving into a line of four young deer at full sprint approaching our road at right angles. In the oncoming lane is a lorry and as the gap between our vehicle and the truck closes rapidly the young deer seem set on crossing the road right here at full belt. With no hesitation, they flicker into the shrinking gap and bound across the two lanes in front of us, 1, 2, 3, 4, in around a second and a half. Another second later we and the lorry close the space like a pair of scissors but the deer or does are already deep into the field on our left, still running like the wind. It really seemed they were playing with the danger, testing themselves, running as we only run in our dreams.
Instead we walk fast in cities and stroll in the country. For whatever reason.
So caught up in breaking news of spring, forgot about the fashion designer's murder.
On Monday morning read with Robin and his two sons that Tamas Kiraly ('Thomas King') was found beaten to death on Sunday in his Budapest flat. Robin muttered something about Kiraly being a nasty piece of work quite good at making enemies. I only recall going to one of his fashion shows, several years ago. I'd misremembered that Kiraly had put Robin into a magazine spread, but rather it was Hungarian fashion photographer Peter Richweisz who had Robin model as the young Aleister Crowley in a style shoot. Typical image in that magazine editorial was Robin slouched into a wheelchair in an Englishly tweedy trance, flanked by a pair of nubile topless girls with oil lamps, presumably pagan priestesses in some rite of The Old Religion. Whereas it was Kiraly who took Robin to the nightclub where he met his future wife of many years Georgina, suddenly dead 3 months ago. Kiraly liked to shock, perhaps seeing himself as an East European Jean-Paul Gaultier. It was in the company of one of Kiraly's mannequins that I first met Scott the Filmmaker at a party.
Finish a fine book of Richard L.'s, 'The Awakening of Europe' by Philippe Wolff (translated from French by Anne Carter). This covers the intellectual period from Charlemagne around 800 AD to the 1150s, just after the death of Abelard. Wolff does this by building the book around three lifetimes, the Yorkshire/Northumbrian Alcuin who helped put Charlemagne's cultural and educational reforms into action, and two Frenchmen as we would now call them - Gerbert flourishing around 1000 AD, and Abelard, who almost single-handedly turned Paris into the intellectual centre of scholastic thought around 1100 AD. Wolff is careful to not exaggerate the intellectual achievements of the three men (a fascinating table on page 186 shows the cumbersome but effective method for long division Gerbert popularised), but around these three scholars a very effective picture of other figures over that three and a half centuries emerges - the period in which the earliest Christian universities took shape and began work. Wolff stresses how early in the day English thinkers (Adelard of Bath, followed by Robert Grosseteste at Oxford, paving the way for Roger Bacon) took an interest in natural science. Already by the end of the 11th century England was deviating from the Continental stress on philosophy and dialectical theology. Pedro Alfonso it seems brought Islamic and Aristotelian interest in directly observing nature from Spain and on visits to England in 1090 and 1110 probably first got Adelard of Bath excited about astronomy and science.
Franc whisks me out for an evening of revelry at a corner bar where both
Anti-Market-Garden Mark and Krisztina from behind the bar feel in need of
suggestions from the Tarot pack. Franc's spreads and the single spread Krisztina
draws are all extraordinary.
Robin drives Kasper, Bela, and me into Kecskemet, after we find
a curious story from yesterday on the internet. My train carriage back to Budapest
is virtually deserted: four passengers, dotted among 120+ seats. Gorgeous sun.
Spring might really be here. Scientific American says that
men who do more housework have less sex. How can this be? All shameless lies, surely!
Still in the countryside. Sunday. Getting to the bottom of some of young Bela's
uncertainties about arithmetic, which is quite satisfying. One evening last
week, Wednesday or Thursday, had the odd experience of bumping into
Peter The Filmmaker in the
shopping centre. What made it odd was that around 9pm-ish, I suddenly felt I was about to bump into someone. So deliberately loitered to make this possible, doing a U-turn to walk past a cafe (empty) in case the person I was to meet was in there. It was around 3 minutes between the feeling I was going to chance on an acquaintance and therefore ought to hang around - and the arrival of Peter. He had to rush and we chatted while walking back down the mall.
Early dusk join Marika in the garden and take over from Zsuzsi the strangely
satisfying mediaeval, or perhaps timeless, task of pruning dead wood off
fruit trees and making uniform bundles of sticks for firewood. Marika takes
charge of tying up each bundle with white cord. Later with Robin join Marika
in her house to play with the 50 young chicks (25 in each of 2 boxes) she has
been keeping warm until they are big &
healthy enough for her to clip their wings and let them outside.
competition continues apace.
Oddly restful three-train trip down to the village of Tiszaug as the day fades, to
stay with Robin again and remeet young Bela. Passing Nyarlo:rinc, I notice for the
first time that the stationmaster there keeps both geese and chickens in a small
fenced garden next to the station. The 'fencing' is made of those strange panels
of concrete moulded with vertical slots in them, so it is not really a fence, and
not really a wall. On the last train, I say hello to the
former Tiszaug stationmistress lady from a decade ago,
who since the sad closing of the little local station now commutes each day
to Kecskemet to do her replacement job for the railways. She and I get off the
last train at the now-locked-up Tiszaug mini-station. It's surrounded by a flat
area of mud, wet scrubby grass, some potholed asphalt and a bunch of
unambitious-looking trees. Elegant and outdoorsy young Zsuzsi plus her friend
Csenge are waiting with Robin in his car.
It takes Robin about two solid minutes of driving slowly along the lane through
puddles to avoid two barky black dogs which keep running in front of the car wheels
every time he tries to speed up. Finally he can pull clear of them
without squashing one.
This must have been a Thursday. Tutor Ben in Buda. We chat about
alternative histories, such as
Moorcock in general,
'The Alteration', and
'The Man in The High Castle'.
Aggressively relaxed Wednesday. Pleasant train ride yesterday
back to Budapest sitting opposite a girl in stripy top, earphone-secured
bubble, leggings with horizontal slits cut in them, a big bushy tail hanging from
her belt (with giant metal star as buckle), plus tons of rings and bangles. The
highlight was her sitting cross-legged and leaning forward yogafically so as to
dangle her head and striking red hair into the gap between our knees. Spring must
have arrived then. Returning to today, This Fine Day Of Pause, read another book of
Signs' by Sasha Fenton is a late-1980s
text about astrology, explaining to me something I had not really grasped before,
that the moon sign is claimed to govern the innermost level of personality.
A book of its time, adults of four signs at least are congratulated for allowing
children their dignity, and adults of five signs are warned that women of that house
might need to express themselves through a career rather than "conventional"
marriages. That aside, interesting stuff, quite well outlined, although
phase diagram on page 185 gets the phases (or the arrows) wrong. Here they are
the right way round. To be fair to
some of the bits seeming thin on helpful detail or slightly confusing, the
book is meant to be read in a trilogy with her other two books, one on sun signs
and one on rising signs.
Finish an intriguing book of Robin's in the early hours, then take train north back
up to Budapest. The book is cheerily called
All Over', is a hardback
without dust jacket published in London in 1949, and is by someone rejoicing in
the name of Cornelia Otis Skinner. A never-glued Ex Libris dedication loose inside
the middle pages show it was a gift to Robin's mother from someone he does not
remember, and the contents are a set of light-hearted articles by a very Anglophile
New York woman living on Long Island who must have been well known as an actress or
singer, since a couple of articles refer to her stage act and the fun times she has
had touring the United States performing in small odd towns. The humour is very
gentle, and completely devoid of the angry, wisecracking bite (usually
with some ideological or sectarian animus behind it) most humour has at the
moment. Each article is accompanied by
that I recognise - certainly the period, maybe even the individual caricaturist -
from the 1955 Pick of Punch my mother had.
Cornelia is clearly affluent and feels no urge to apologise or cringe to her
readers on the subject. Nannies and cooks are a normal part of life for her, and
one senses her readers themselves either have nannies and cooks too, or wish they
did and feel no resentment or political suspicion of those luckier women who
do. She complains amusingly about the dullness and awkwardness of horse shows, the
discomfort of shooting ducks or learning to skate, and the strange hopelessness of
trying to dress like fashionable women in London. The self-deprecating humour
belongs to someone who has been brought up to uncomplainingly take part in various
group activities sporting well-off people ought to. The whole thing is almost
British and boarding-school in tone. Society London is still the pole
star, the point of reference, if not the actual centre, for her and the people
these articles were aimed at. She was writing, after all, at a time when the
self-conscious elevation of baseball as the all-American sport (to replace cricket,
played in all small American towns up into the 1890s) was still within
living memory. She is not a great writer - she probably got the column or regular
string of magazine pieces on the strength of her performing fame (the book calls
itself an omnibus of her writing but is strangely silent as to where the articles
first appeared) - but the tone of voice is likeable and refreshing. She is funny
about constellation bores who know the stars in the skies (and in another piece
about her own sadly unsuccessful efforts to stay a course learning star maps), and
catches sharply the way husbands behave when operating technical equipment for a
helpless woman with a mixture of fake gallantry and bossiness (in this case the
radio). Even though she jokes about her ignorance and incapability in a range of
subjects she is well educated and can expect her readers to spot a handful of
references ("untangling the Laocoon", the "chorus of Oedipus Rex"...) only those
considered very well-read would know today. She laughs at her own efforts to learn
languages (a very good piece about struggling with Russian captures the absurdity
of language textbooks perfectly) yet seems to be rather good at them. But the best
part is seeing what has changed and what has not. She grumbles exactly the way I do
about the impracticality of tethered tea bags, surprising me. I had no idea they
existed in 1940s America - my memory (probably wrong) is that tea bags on strings
with little cardboard tags only really started to appear in large
numbers in Britain in the 1980s - so a 40-year retail fashion lag? Perhaps. Her
critique of provincial hotel breakfast rooms in the 1940s sounded oddly like some
hotel restaurants in Eastern Europe I experienced in the 1990s. She is writing - as a
theatrical performer - at a time when the impact of television has hardly begun and
at least in her social world, there is really no sense that even cinema is yet a
threat to the custom of regular theatre-going. She has no difficulty sympathising
with men who have to put up with women's irrationality and odd behaviour,
especially during pregnancy, and she is acute on the way women bully other women.
A piece about an uncomfortable foray into yoga could easily be from a magazine
published twenty, or even forty, years later. Yet most people now, even at her
income level, have never seen a bond, and her article about inspecting the meagre
contents of her bank safe deposit box is memorable. She relates how grand the
feeling of being shown into the vault area of the bank is, and then how,
embarrassed, she feels the need to stay half an hour in the little private room
where she opens her box, to hide from the bank staff how little it contains. As
she fills in the forms to get 13 dollars 33 cents interest on one of her bonds
"....Next comes 'Name of Bond.' For a number of years I used
to try to answer this question by describing the bond with replies like 'Green
bond' or 'Yellow bond with a locomotive coming at you head on,' but I've been told
that's not enough." I can imagine many magazine readers and
editors saying that articles
like these would be "not enough" to deserve to be published in 2013. I
suspect that's because whatever else she might have been, Skinner wouldn't be
chippy enough or smart-alec enough for today.
Easter Monday. Quiet day on the Great Plain with Robin & children. Decades ago a
cat burglar wrote from prison to The Daily Telegraph praising their coverage of
crime and expressing the rather touching hope that they might print an obituary for him one day. Courteously, they remembered and a week or so ago did exactly that: Peter Scott, thief. As he said later with some regret, "I gave all my money to head waiters and tarts." In the sense it was his money.
Meanwhile, among the physicists, the interesting debates of the last few decades trying to make information into a physical entity and to see the universe as a cellular automaton are summed up - more or less comprehensibly - in this article.
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