Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Forget the Shrill Squabbling

Auden in his farewell to Yeats said that poetry changes nothing. Peter Cook, asked to comment on the power of satire, talked of all those wonderfully brave and edgy satiric cabarets in Berlin and how brilliantly they had arrested the rise of Hitler. In the same vein,  Stefan Zweig in his The World of Yesterday describes how he and his fellow students in pre-First World War Vienna remained oblivious to the events that were soon to destroy their peaceful playgrounds:

"We ... however, wholly absorbed in our literary ambitions, noticed little of the ... dangerous changes in our native land; our eyes were bent entirely on books and pictures. We took not the slightest interest in political and social problems; what did all this shrill squabbling mean in our lives? The city was in a state of agitation at election time; we went to the libraries. The masses rose up; we wrote and discussed poetry. We failed to see the writing on the wall in letters of fire. Like King Belshazzar before us, we dined on the delicious dishes of the arts and never looked apprehensively ahead. Only decades later, when the roof and walls of the building fell in on us, did we realise that the foundations had been undermined long before, and the downfall of individual freedom in Europe had begun with the new century."

This inability or refusal to notice the storm clouds beyond our own immediate existences - whether those clouds represent war or cataclysm of some other kind or, that last great unavoidable, our own eventual deaths - is an underlying theme of Wes Anderson's new film, Grand Hotel Budapest.  Fortunately, the idea, like the pastries from Mendl's that keep popping up throughout the film, is presented in such a light and colourful manner that it does not make one sad.

Anderson claims Grand Budapest Hotel was at least in part inspired by Zweig, and certainly there are elements in The World of Yesterday that do seem to be echoed in the film. For instance, the borderline surreal atmosphere of much of the film is matched by the genuine absurdities Zweig notices in real life:

"By a strange caprice of the Belgian army, its machine guns were transported on little carts with dogs harnessed to them."

Similarly, while Zweig was at least aware of the immanence of war, unlike the film's characters, the account he gives of his train journey back to Austria from Ostend in July 1914 bears comparison with the train journeys made by Monsieur Gustave and Zero:

"... halfway to Herbesthal, the first German station, the train suddenly stopped in the middle of the countryside. We crowded to the corridor windows. What had happened? And then, in the darkness, I saw freight train after freight train coming the other way towards us, with open trucks covered by tarpaulins under which I thought I saw the menacing shapes of cannon. My heart missed a beat. This must be the vanguard of the German army. But perhaps, I consoled myself, it was just a safety precaution, merely the threat of mobilisation, not mobilisation itself. There is always a strong desire to go on hoping in an hour of danger. Finally the signal came, the line was clear, and the train moved on and came into Herbesthal station. I jumped down the steps from the carriage to find a newspaper and make enquiries. But the station was occupied by soldiers. When I tried to go into the waiting room a stern, white-bearded official was standing in front of the closed door, keeping people out - no-one was allowed in the station buildings, he said. However, I had already heard the faint clink and clatter of swords, and the hard sound of rifle butts grounded on the floor behind the carefully curtained glass panes in the door. There was no doubt about it, this monstrous thing was in progress..."

I loved the Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps it is the manner of Zweig's death - or rather the odd circumstance of his having committed suicide with his much younger female companion, (I blame him for taking her with him, when of course it may have been her choice and she in fact who instigated the whole thing) - that makes me less than enthusiastic about him. However, if he managed to inspire such a sparkling charming movie, for me his legacy is greater than it was before

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Battered Penguins - Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis

Simon Leys begins the foreword to his book Other People's Thoughts by quoting Oscar Wilde:

 "'Most people are other people,' Oscar Wilde remarked, 'their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation ...'"

As so often Wilde here articulates succinctly what other people - in this case Nigel Dennis - take an eternity - in Dennis's case a lengthy novel - to try to make clear.

In Cards of Identity Dennis tells the story of the Identity Club, whose members take over a large house in the country; persuade, (somewhat implausibly), various locals that they are not who they think they are but actually the club's domestic staff; hold a conference at which they read papers to each other about imagined identities they have studied; and finally persuade the locals/domestic staff to dress up and put on a cod-Shakespeare play, called The Prince of Antioch,  during the performance of which the club's President is murdered by the other members.

The novel could not be described as emotionally satisfying. Given that none of the characters are fixed or permanent - that is the whole point:; identity is a frail thing - it would be hard to really allow any individual to achieve enough depth for the reader to care about them. All the same, the book is cleverly written - the Shakespeare play that makes up its last part is, from my very limited knowledge, a fairly good bit of parody - and often very funny, my particular favourite section being the paper given by Dr Bitterling and devoted to the story of a Co-Warden of the Badgeries.

The Co-Warden of the Badgeries, it transpires, is an ancient position which involves no involvement with badgers, beyond 'a token badger' which is 'a stuffed one of course.' It is only ever taken out 'on the death of the Lord Royal' or for the annual ritual of Easing the Badger, when the thing is inserted into a symbolic den and eased out with the official emblem, a symbolical gold spade. At the funeral of the Lord Royal, the badger is placed on a trolley and dragged through the streets on silken ropes. Everything to do with the role is either 'token, symbolical, or emblematical' and its importance is precisely because it is ritual rather than based in reality. As the paper explains:

'When you've got a grip on something that really exists and is comprehensible, you don't have to bother with symbols. But once the reality begins to fade, the symbol is needed to recapture it. If all barristers had brains, there would be no need for wigs. Our rituals exist to reassure people that no serious defects are possible ... Like old churches, [the Badgeries], are nostalgic, photogenic and give a sense of security to those who hurry past them.'

Perhaps this appealed to me in the light of my recent experience with pageant and my puzzlement in the face of it.

WH Auden praised Cards of Identity, (at least I think he did - his exact phrase was, "I have read no novel in the last fifteen years with greater pleasure or admiration", which is a statement that only qualifies as praise if the other books he read during that time were any good). I admired it for creating an attractively sinister atmosphere reminiscent of early (Emma Peel era) Avengers programme. It is also interesting for the traces it bears of life in post-war Britain - despite its veneer of fantasy, it is actually something of a period piece in this regard. However, its central thrust - the author's attempts to play around with the question of identity - struck me as a bit confused.

While Dennis may have been striving for some greater complexity, ultimately the whole thing boils down to Shakespeare's famous observation that 'all the world's a play' - or, to quote The Prince of Antioch, 'tis all a play for our improvement'. Dennis seems to think he is being sophisticated and profound but, to paraphrase - as he is so fond of doing - Shakespeare, Cards of Identity ends up being much ado about nothing very much. On the other hand I wouldn't have missed the Badgeries, which are worthy of Peter Cook and EL Wisty's dreams of having his own Royal Newtkeeper. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Getting of Wisdom

Yes, it has been a while since I last posted and I do understand that I ought really to have called home or at least left a message explaining that I was all right and wouldn't be away for long. 

But I'm back now, and anyway I couldn't have foreseen that I would be gone for so much time. Thus, while apologising profusely, I feel I must also point out one thing - it wasn't my fault, (yes, you're right, this is a very modern apology, the kind where sorry is never actually said and blame is left unshouldered).

The thing is though, I blame the universities. Well, I blame one university in particular - the one whose graduation ceremony I've been attending ever since I was last here.

Oh yes, I hear you say, but didn't it occur to you that the thing might be a bit lengthy, when you read the instructions? After all, friends and relatives were required to seat themselves nine days in advance.

That was a bad sign, I grant you, and perhaps I should have taken it as a portent - but then it is so easy to be wise after the event.

How those days did drag too, despite - or in the end because of - the incessant playing of Bach pieces by the university's students (whether all of them were actually students of music is a question better left unasked). And if you think the pageant that eventually followed made it all worthwhile, I'm afraid you are very much mistaken.

Watching horde upon horde of Australia's eager young people stumble across a stage to receive degrees in subjects that probably fit them for nothing very much becomes surprisingly uninteresting after the first forty-eight hours or so.

If it was bad for us though, it was clearly taking an even greater toll on the poor woman clad in heavily embroidered robes, (I suspect they'd been designed with the robes of the office bearers of ancient institutions of learning in Britain in mind; if only the brevity of ceremony offered by bastions such as Cambridge University had been equally keenly emulated), who had to greet each graduand, (ooh, I am so glad I have a subscription to the OED), and present them with their pieces of paper.

As I watched her birdlike hand being enveloped in the sturdy grip of yet another hearty young Australian, I found myself thinking about EL Wisty who I think suggested some kind of electronic hand that could wave for the queen as she passed through the streets in coach or car, (and was rewarded for his efforts with a demonstration of a 'nit-poker' - a jam-covered sponge attached to a lengthy piece of stick). Surely some similar device, (to the waving thing, not the nitpoker, [although, come to think of it, it might be amusing to produce the latter for the occasional graduate, just to introduce an antic element and, let's face it, vary the routine]) should be invented for vice-chancellors whose job demands they undergo thousands of handshakes at the end of each year's studies?

Of course, nothing is without positives. Eventually, when I realised we really were in it for the long haul, I turned my mind to trying to conjure up ways to pass the time, given that I had nothing to read or to listen to. As others may one day find themselves in a similar predicament, let me set out here the things that got me through:

1. Counting the things in the room that may have been transported by sea to get here - or whose constituent materials may have. I doubt if there was anything there that hadn't arrived that way - just as it is virtually impossible to find anything in any shop that is actually Australian-made, (which makes all the getting of wisdom we were gathered to honour even more worryingly dubious in its usefulness - will anyone here actually be doing anything apart from shopping before too long?);

2. Counting the things in the room that may not have been made in China, (this activity grew pretty naturally from the one above). Sadly, there was only one thing I could be fairly certain had not arrived from China and that was the piano, as it was a Kawai, (which I think meant it came from Japan, although I stand ready to be corrected);

3. Trying to work out the male to female ratio among the soon-to-be graduates by counting them up on your fingers, (having not brought a pencil or paper). Amazingly, during the ceremony I attended the gender divide seemed almost perfectly even, although I have no idea whether this was thanks to luck or good planning.

4. Trying to imagine what the individual parents of each almost-graduate might look like, based on the odd mix of features combined in the faces of their sons or daughters.

5. Marvelling at how exceptionally rare is the thing we call beauty.

6.Trying to imagine how those sections of the audience that decided to raise great whoops and wolf whistles for certain graduates could be so insensitive as to not recognise that this behaviour made those who didn't receive similar yells and shrieks look - and probably feel - a bit unloved.

7. Trying to imagine what those newly fledged graduates who chose to raise their degrees in the air and execute a pumping motion, as if they'd just won a boxing match, thought they were doing.

8. Wondering whether the girls who had chosen to dress in very revealing low-cut, extremely short-skirted dresses regretted that decision, especially when they went on to strap things onto their feet that made footbinding look like a benign activity. So many of them appeared to think that a visit to a night club and a graduation ceremony were the same thing,(and I bet they all called themselves feminists, despite their compulsion to plaster themselves with make up and spend fortunes on having astounding and probably quite time-consuming things done to their hair - the movie Best in Show kept springing to mind). While they had spent large sums of money and time to get themselves ready, the boys all sauntered out having made no effort whatsoever - in most cases not even bothering to polish their shoes or brush their hair. Inequality is sometimes self-perpetuated, it appears.

9. Learning the new word 'humblebrag' from overheard whispered conversations around me, as the keynote speaker told us how he'd made no effort whatsoever but somehow ended up at Oxford (no, not Brookes, Oxford University, since you ask, [at least, I'm assuming - but then that's what Oxford Brookes graduates always hope is exactly what you'll do, I guess]), and how one of his colleagues had been teaching in an adjacent classroom and asked him at the end of their respective classes, 'How do you manage to make your students laugh so happily and with so much engagement, all the time?' and ... - but you get the gist

10. Finally resorting to the age-old game beloved of all children whose parents, (mine weren't like this, but I have friends who've kindly passed on the information), insisted on weekly churchgoing - no, not pew licking; the one where you get through a dull sermon or speech by trying to spot words beginning with each consecutive letter of the alphabet as they come up, (try it next time you're stuck listening to something long and dull. It really does pass the time more quickly, provided no-one expects you to answers question about what you've heard afterwards)..

11. Trying to translate the speeches into a foreign language - related to this is the game of trying to name objects around you in a room in languages you've tried to learn, (warning, this can be depressing, if you thought until that moment that you were actually reasonably fluent).

12. Wondering if any food or drink would be offered at the end of the almost interminable ritual - none was, on this occasion, which was at least a good result as far as my predictive powers are concerned.

Anyway, it's over now. I'm home. I'm safe, althought I am left wondering what it is in the human psyche that craves these strange ceremonies - or, indeed, ceremonies in general - what odd kind of need for symbolic moments exist in our souls that make these stylised occasions so necessary.

(Warning: exaggeration  may have been used in the preparation of this blog post.)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Mysteries - a Continuing Series

I suppose it's a symptom of living in Canberra that my attention keeps returning to what people put on the backs of their cars. After all the city's designers appear to be have been quite uninhibited by concerns about traffic minimisation. Thus, most of us who live in Canberra are condemned to spending plenty of time behind the driving wheel, staring at our fellow citizens and wondering about the things they choose to decorate their vehicles with.

Oh not more bumper stickers - no, not more bumper stickers. Today's puzzling phenomenon never appears on bumpers but always on back windows, usually those of station wagons (estate cars for English readers, I gather).

I've been noticing it for about a year now, I think, although possibly it's been there longer and I've been slow on the uptake. I don't know whether it's confined to Australia, whether we imported it from somewhere else, or whether it's a worldwide craze, in which case someone is making a great deal of money from it:

What I'm talking about is stick figure families. They're multiplying, they're hideous and, I realise, after noticing the individual stickers for sale in a newsagent in town, they're really quite expensive. Each time I see one of these dull little groupings, I feel alienated. I mean why on earth would anyone pay good money for something that is so ugly and unoriginal?

Once again, I'm confused by my fellow human beings and by life in general. As a contestant on the Great British Sewing Bee (my current all time favourite television programme) said, after sewing her skirt inside out to her bodice, 'I think I'll go and drown in a bucket of gin."