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 squeeze 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 lies on her bed smoking, watching an Italian film about French musketeers for some reason dubbed into German on her computer. During pauses rethreading the sewing machine when the cotton keeps breaking, I keep an eye on the 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 seven days, a host of tiny flowers have sprung up from the track. Stepping over 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) because they personally hated Margaret Thatcher is still very worrying. It now emerges, surprise surprise, that sinking the Belgrano ship in the war started by Argentina was not a 'war crime'. 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 outdoorsy young Zsuzsi plus her friend
Csenge are with Robin in his car.
It takes Robin about two solid minutes of driving slowly along the lane through
puddles because two barky black dogs 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.
Mark Griffith, site administrator /
markgriffith at yahoo.com