Monday, 14 November 2011

Battered Penguins XIV

For reasons even I no longer understand, (if I ever did), I once spent a weekend alone in a hotel in Chartres, with nothing except an old school satchel and a copy of Bertrand Russell's autobiography. In the decades since, I've sometimes remembered this interlude and wondered if a more creative mind than mine might have fashioned it into an award-winning, if depressing, (can't have one without the other, from what I can tell), short story. Sadly, after reading Martin Amis's comments recently, I had concluded that I am probably already almost too old to attempt to do the fashioning myself.

But now, thanks to my erstwhile Chartres companion, I've realised that I do, in fact, still have plenty of time to get cracking on dreary tales about my lost weekend and other similarly baffling episodes in my past. Bertrand Russell, it turns out, took up short story writing only after his eightieth birthday. The resulting volume does not overwhelm the reader with amazement at his talent, but it is not unentertaining.

The title story essentially describes in fictional form the truth that Charles Dickens so succinctly set out for his friend Miss Coutts: "All people ... are in a certain sense imaginative; and, if their imaginations are not filled with good things, they will choke them, for themselves, with bad ones."

The second story, although fairly silly, contains a truth I recognise, spoken by a middle-aged woman to a male visitor, after she has asked what has brought him to call on her: "Do not pretend that it is my charms", she tells him. "The day for such pretence is past. For ten years it would have been true; for another ten I should have believed it. Now it is neither true nor do I believe it."

The fourth and fifth stories (particularly the latter) are frankly idiotic, although they rattle along quite nicely while one is reading them.

The illustrations, by Asgeir Scott are charming:

 As a curiosity, the book is worth a read. Other than that, on the whole it is not.


  1. Hmm, Marty Amis. His dad wrote possibly his best novel (The Old Devils) when he was in his mid-60s, and Bert Russell himself wrote loads of great stuff in old age. It's always seemed to me that Martin Amis must be somehow genetically related to Julie Birchill - trenchancy is everything and stuff the rest. A weekend alone in a hotel in Chartres sound rather delightful, though.

  2. I wish I'd taken something else to read though, Gadj. I thought Lucky Jim was his best novel, until I tried to read it again. I never read the book but only saw the telly version of Old Devils, which I enjoyed a lot. I think Amis is tame compared to Burchill who reminds me of someone I was at boarding school with who was said to have had a dalliance with Prince Charles - and did score an invitation to his first wedding, so perhaps there was some a lot of black eyeliner at all times, even though she was only 15 and we were at boarding school in rural New South Wales. I just re-read one of your old blogposts (headscarves) and thought what a loss you are to the blogosphere.

  3. insert this phrase into above comment wherever you think appropriate: 'thing in it. She wore'

  4. That is really very kind of you. Ah, yes, I get that sentence now - though it kind of worked already in a stream-of-conciousness sort of a way!