Killing Fields

It is November and the landscapes are almost post-apocalyptic, shrouded in blue-grey fog, the fields damp and fallow. Yesterday, we took the dogs on a route that skirts a large forest. I like this walk because one often sees roe deer. It being the weekend, however, the huntsmen were out in fluorescent orange gilets, so that they could be seen by each other, and firing high calibre weapons, clearly targeting deer and wild boar. Their presence makes even the dogs nervous and their weapons are not innocuous. A stray bullet could kill. Also, they notoriously drink heavily in the morning and at lunchtimes, making accidents more likely to happen.

Towards the end of the walk we stopped to chat with a 90-year-old gentleman at the gate of his house. Monsieur Rossignol, it turned out, was born and brought up in our hamlet, so we could exchange a lot of information about what it was and what it had become. The main thing was that back then, in the 1930s when he was a little boy, it had been five independent farms and my house he seemed to recall had been the stables. He had fond memories of harvesting the corn by hand. Over the decades, the smallholdings closed one by one, giving way to large prairie farms, the destruction of copses and hedgerow, and increasing mechanisation. Today the tractors and combine harvesters that crisscross the fields are navigated automatically by GPS as they plough or reap.

In particular, Monsieur Rossignol bewailed the advent of potent pesticides, notably glysophate, and its entry into the food chain. As we know, the jury is out on whether glysophate is carcinogenic for farm workers who handle it and possibly for consumers of treated crops. Most of the people I know in the farming world here are convinced that it is. One farmer told me they had a worker who regularly sprayed glysophates on the fields and wore no mask or gloves, rolling his cigarettes right next to the operational sprays. He died of cancer at the age of 49. Or was it the smoking?

The use of glysophate is of course hotly debated at the moment but some of the repercussions of this chemical revolution are self-evident. It is a herbicide that kills all plants except for the crops it is protecting which have been genetically modified to resist its effects. This means monocultures, dependence on the agro-chemical industries that produce both the pesticides and the genetically modified crops, and the virtual disappearance of wild species of plants. The fields are big lunar plains now, and the roadsides boast very few wild flowers. This, combined with the obliteration of woodland, copses and hedgerow has a colossal impact on the wildlife.

Monsieur Rossignol looked out bleakly across the field in front of his house. “Thirty or forty years ago,” he said, “there was wild game everywhere you looked here. Rabbits, hares, pheasants, grouse, quails, guinea fowl. Today – almost nothing.” The insect populations have also been exterminated, creating an increasingly desolate eco-system. The plight of the bees is only the most publicised. 

And of course, what the farmers don’t kill, the hunters will. They are, after all, often the same people. The farmers I know are not proud of their use of pesticides. One of them, whom I’ve known for 43 years, once said to me “If you knew exactly what we put on these fields it would horrify you.” However, they defend their hunting rights aggressively and to the hilt. Why do you kill little animals? “Tradition!”

This afternoon I took Marlowe on his second walk of the day and at a certain point we passed four huntsmen, without dogs, positioning themselves strategically at the four corners of a thicket, clearly waiting to flush something out. I put Marlowe on his lead but he’d already taken an aversion to them, barking manically. When we’d gone past a giant haystack and they were almost out of sight I let him off the lead again. No sooner had I done so than a huge wild boar thundered past us, terrified for its life. The hunters couldn’t take aim and shoot because we would have been in their line of fire, which was considerate of them. Instead, they piled angrily into a white van and tore off in pursuit, racing past us. 

I watched as the wild boar stumbled into a ditch, climbed out, and headed for a spinney near a little hamlet. The van drew up, lights flashing, nearby. And for the remaining half hour of our walk I listened out for gunfire. None came. Presumably the wild boar had eluded them. 

In general these days, my dog walks involve avoiding hunters and tractors spraying pesticides that the wind can blow in our faces. It is all of course murder and desolation. Take the rich biodiversity of a relatively unspoilt nature and transform it into barrenness and aridity. Nothing is left untouched by the joyless industrialisation of modern life, and all for the sake of unnaturally high yields and money. Then, in the few havens of peace that wild animals can find, they are mercilessly stalked and killed.

It was very sad indeed listening to Monsieur Rossignol remembering the good old days and the abundance of fauna. Clearly it was another world.

What’s in my bag?

Empty your bag and I will tell you who you are…

In the 1980s a French sociologist set his students a homework project. It was for each of them to examine the contents of 10 people’s bin bags. A French photographer, Pascal Rostain, heard about this and thought it was rather a good idea. On a trip to photograph Serge Gainsbourg, he helped himself to Gainsbourg’s bin bags on the way out. It was, as one might expect, a snapshot of Gainsbourg himself – full of empty Ricard bottles and packets of Gitanes cigarettes. Rosin and his partner, Bruno Mouron, took the project one step further, filching the bin bags of the famous, spreading the contents out on the studio floor and photographing them. 

Paris Match suggested they go to Hollywood, and they did. Studying garbage collection schedules, they lurked outside the homes of famous film stars and pinched their trash – Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Taylor, whoever – and took the bin bags back to Paris to photograph. Obviously, this practice is a gross intrusion on privacy – but, on the other hand, this is stuff that people didn’t want, that they were throwing away! Where was the harm? It does however raise certain ethical questions. What do you do if you find empty Viagra packets, or – as happened with Larry King’s garbage – used incontinence pads?

Their photographs enjoyed a brief vogue, then something called “Garbology” emerged. This is the academic discipline of studying modern refuse as a form of archeology. It is the case, after all, that archeologists sometimes come across the garbage of ancient civilisations and can learn a lot from studying it. And of course we are huge producers of rubbish. You may have read recently about plastic in the oceans and in particular a floating mass of plastic in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas. Also, plastic has been found in the guts of marine creatures who live at the greatest depths of the oceans. For some reason, I am appalled by the fact that tea bags of all things contain plastic, and will shortly be making the transition back to leaf tea.

Being of the generation that remembers a time before the wholesale invasion of plastic, I find it extraordinary how suddenly omnipresent plastic has become in the world. After all, we used to do things correctly – our milk bottles, and fizzy drink bottles, were recycled, our meat and fish came wrapped in paper… and now! I live not far from a municipal landfill dump, on the outskirts of one of the prettiest villages in Touraine, and see the daily incursions of garbage trucks. If the wind is in a particular direction, I can smell it too. And as I write this I suddenly recall a little rural village near Tangiers in Morocco where there was no garbage collection and everywhere you looked were black plastic bags, littering the ground, flying through the air, the approach to garbage disposal in that village being to throw it out of the window. It was apocalyptic.

Garbology is also now a euphemistic term for waste management, and refuse workers in some countries are “garbologists”. It is also as a term for corporate espionage or law enforcement, when real rubbish bins – or the virtual computer’s trash can – can provide useful information.

Just recently, the bin-bag examination trip has taken a new twist, a twist in which the owner of the bag not only agrees – but volunteers – to reveal their bag’s contents. We are talking here not about the things people throw away but the things they would never throw away. This is the “What’s in my bag?” or “EDC” vogue. EDC is an acronym that means “Every Day Carry”. Basically, this involves opening up your “man bag” – or, for women, the handbag – and showing people what you carry around with you wherever you go. The forum for these revelations is YouTube. 

 I have to admit that it is quite fascinating. There are men who commute to work in New York and carry emergency blankets, tourniquets, face masks, sophisticated multi-tools, water purification tablets – you name it. In other words, accident or emergency kit or wilderness survival kit. Others have handguns, knives, tasers and pepper sprays. There is very often huge pride in having “the best” – for example, the best Leatherman Juice S2 multi-tool, or the best miniature flashlight money can buy. The word “tactical” crops up rather a lot, as if these individuals were in the war-torn Middle East or the Sahara desert rather than sitting in Starbucks in Manhattan.

The whole “man bag” phenomenon requires a comment on its own. If you look back at old photographs from the early 20th century, men do a lot of things that we no longer do. They wear hats, for one thing, and ties, and carry full-length umbrellas. But they do not often have man bags. Many of the American “What’s in my bag?” videos reveal that carrying a man bag can still be a sensitive matter. In other words, it looks “gay”. French men used to carry little leather purses with a shoulder strap which definitely looked like ladies’ handbags, but this vogue has also disappeared. In America, the answer to not looking gay is to buy a manly man bag, and the dominant brand is Nutsac. These are waxed canvas bags with leather trimmings, a bit like the British Barbour huntsman bags, and they cost a fortune. In the UK, it would be a bag from the excellent Troop London manufacturer.

My father would go nowhere without his bag, an unostentatious black nylon affair. In it there would be tissues, an umbrella, his notebook, and I can’t remember what else. I recall taking him to the barber’s in France and when the barber wanted to take his bag and hang it up in a cloakroom, Dad refused and insisted on it staying by his side.

I also use a bag, and in part I think this goes back to my days in the scouts and on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and the wish to “be prepared”, to use the scouts’ motto. If someone cuts themselves, you’re there – a sticking plaster! If someone’s trouser or skirt button pops off, you have a safety pin. If the cops stop you in the car, you have all your papers. And so on. 

I have two bags (see photo above), one urban – a Fred Perry black bag with cream piping, a style that was extremely popular some 10 years ago – and a canvas army-surplus bag which I found for 5 euros in a vide grenier and which is ideal for rural parts. When I walk the dog, I have my camera in it and a Contigo flask of tea. I also have a Troop London rucksack and a couple of traditional cycling musette bags which are essential for bike rides, being incredibly lightweight.

The Fred Perry bag is the “full kit” version, and I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have no intention of disclosing what I carry in it, except to say “a lot”. A total in fact of over 40 items. And yet it weighs next to nothing. A corollary of being a bag man is that you’re interested in miniaturisation. The smallest and lightest of everything. The Muji stores, in this respect, are Aladdin’s Caves of small portable items. But why, after getting this far, am I being so cagey? One reason that I cannot reveal the contents, apart from quite simply not wanting to, because it’s none of your business, is that they include magic tricks, and the Magic Circle would not thank me for giving the game away.

Be that as it may, go to YouTube and search for “What’s in my bag?” or “My EDC” and you’ll find the curious individuals who delight in letting the cat – and everything else – out of the bag.

 

A Van and a Plan…

The 2015 British film, The Lady in the Van, is the story of the writer Alan Bennett’s relationship with an elderly lady who lived in a Bedford van on his Camden Town driveway at his invitation for 15 years until her death. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings and the old lady by the consummate actress Maggie Smith. The film explores the mixed reactions of the middle-class residents of that street and Bennett’s burgeoning curiosity about the educated past of the cantankerous old biddy. Part of the fascination of the film is seeing just how someone can live half their life in a van. How do they wash, sleep, go to the toilet? What ploys do they use to make the most of such a minimal space? Is it safe? Can it be comfortable? And so on.

The idea of living in a van has a certain vagabond romanticism about it. Not a camper van, mind you, or even a caravan, or even a VW Dormobile – but a van. You live rent free and you can rev up and move on whenever you please, waking up to a new view whenever you want, and human encounters may well be more direct, as people express an interest in your maverick life-choice. Like the people who choose to cycle round the world with a minimum of gear, or other knights of the road.

The freedom of the open road first appealed to me when I saw the 1973 Granada TV adaptation of Howard Spring’s Shabby Tiger, the story of a millionaire’s son in 1930s Manchester who leaves home to become an artist, embracing a life of bohemian freedom, poverty and hardship. The lead role is played by John Nolan and I recall that he wears a rather fabulous green corduroy jacket – creating a mental bridge with one of my favourite books at the time, Adrian Bell’s Corduroy, a volume of autobiography in which the writer ups sticks from London to become an East Anglian farmer. The book is a cornerstone of the pre-war Back to the Land movement.

As teenagers, my friends and I would be off youth-hosteling or camping at weekends or in school holidays, walking many miles with heavy rucksacks on our backs and, I recall, singing “Heart of the Country” from Paul McCartney’s Ram album at the top of our voices. One of our favourite destinations was Tanner’s Hatch youth hostel, on the edge of the Polesden Lacey estate near Box Hill. The youth hostel was a real ramshackle cottage, every first weekend of the month would be an improvised folk festival, and we’d help the manager, Ian, with tasks like wood-chopping and pond dredging – pulling out Victorian ginger beer bottles and bits of old earthenware. This was our rural freedom, our “on the road”, which we grabbed at every available opportunity.

I’m also reminded of a French couple I met a few years back who were crossing the whole of France diagonally, from Brittany to the Italian frontier, on horseback, having mapped a route that was entirely on footpaths and bridleways. Their journey was to take them several months and they lived simply and happily in a little two-person tent.

But to return to vans, and plans…

Badgers Bike Squad has hit the road several times with the gifted musician and fixed-gear cyclist Kimwei McCarthy, who is also consequently an honorary Badger. Kimwei returned from France to the UK where she now manages to perform her duties as a university lecturer while, at the same time, living in and out of a van which she shares with her cat, her guitar and her bike. She describes herself as a “digital nomad” and blogs and vlogs on the ups and downs of this experience on Facebook and a dedicated site, Symphony for Happiness. Kimwei’s ongoing record of this life is fascinating, with its voluntary minimalism and everyday survival stratagems.

She teaches by Skype and in an Exeter college and occasionally “docks” at friends’ homes when the going gets too tough. She argues that she lives totally rent-free and that minimalism gives her more free time. So far she’s lived this life for nine months. No water tap, no fridge, no fold-out bed. “Why would you want to replicate a house in a van?”

Quod erat demonstrandum…

Kimwei is a modern wandering minstrel, a traveller, an “odd hippy in the corporate world”. You can follow her blog here. A YouTube version is on the way, and here is Kimwei explaining minimal packing for the nomad lifestyle on video. And below are a couple of pictures of her van.

(Curiously, in The Lady in the Van, the Maggie Smith character also paints her Bedford van – initially grey, as in the above photo – exactly the same shade of yellow!)

 

Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible

It’s early on Sunday morning, and I have nothing in particular to say, so I’d decided not to write a blog post today, but then I thought: hold on – does having nothing to say stop the BBC, the Daily Mail, The Guardian, Le Figaro or even our nearest and dearest from saying nothing all the same? Indeed, “making something out of nothing” is, one might say, not only the principal line of business for the world media, but also the paramount vocation of humankind. It is our bread and butter, both of which have to be made before we can butter our bread, know which side it is buttered and then watch helplessly as it falls on the buttered side, in accordance with universal by-laws and municipal regulations. 

There is the old Latin tag, ex nihilo nihil fit – “Nothing comes from nothing” or, in King Lear’s formulation, “Nothing will come of nothing” – yet the very existence of the universe would seem to contradict this pronouncement since before the Big Bang there was nothing, except possibly the infinitely dense “singularity” that then popped into the enormous bag of popcorn of the cosmos.  It’s a bit like Parkinson’s Law: things expand to fit the space allotted, so that probably includes nothing which, in the process of expansion, becomes something or other.  I hope I’m not getting too technical? Whether that cosmic popcorn is sweet or salty is a question of personal seasoning.

One legitimate alternative to making something out of nothing is making a mountain out of a molehill. This is normally decried as a foolish activity akin to blowing something out of all proportion but surely this comes down precisely to a question of proportion or scale. To a mole, after all,  a molehill is a mountain, or even to a gardener whose pristine lawn is being mined by these otherwise inoffensive creatures. 

As I was saying, it’s early on Sunday morning – 6.30 am, to be precise, since I am “up with the bark”, woken by a giant slobbering lick from Marlowe the dog, followed by me trying not to think about what he was licking just before. The sun has not yet come up and my plans for the day could fit inside a proton and still leave room for an echo. 

The other day, a childhood friend who has given up coffee because of high blood pressure sent me – all the way from Surbiton, and at considerable postal expense – his virtually unused La Pavoni Europiccola Italian coffee machine. For those in the know, this is the king – the best manual coffee machine in the world. Unfortunately, you need a PhD in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics to operate it.

After poring over several hours of mutually contradictory YouTube tutorials, for the first time this morning the “group head” did not explode in my face and the brew was good, though possibly wasted on me alone. It had a kick like a bionic mule on benzedrine. I think I should give it to God because, on the Day of Judgement, he could wake the dead with it. 

Anyway, I’ve understood how to make an espresso. The next step is cappuccino, but I’ll have to sign up for the Open University degree course first.

Today’s next micro-decision is where to walk the dog. 

There are several alternatives. The nearest is straight out of the house and into the open fields, otherwise known as The North by Northwest Walk. While on this walk a week ago, I was actually buzzed by a microlight aircraft, much as in the Hitchcock film. It was only my neighbour Olivier, though, out for an aerial spin (I have “eye in the sky” neighbours like that). Another neighbour and veteran dog-walker has likened this particular plateau landscape to Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting, Christina’s World, minus Christina alas. The Terence Malick film Days of Heaven also comes to mind. 

An alternative route is around the hamlet, a circuit that can vary in size – I have eight variants, three quadrilateral, one pentagonal and four polygonal – and be undertaken on foot or mountain bike. If the latter, I use the Trixie dog harness on the road sections of the walk (see previous blog posts on this invaluable contraption and on the art of “dog joring”).

But this morning I will break with tradition and drive Marlowe down to the village for the start of a new walk, and this for a quite specific reason: on Sunday mornings, the boulangerie is open and I can buy bread and croissants to accompany another cup of high-octane La Pavoni coffee. What to do with the rest of the day, is for the moment, largely beyond my ken.

Talking of coffee, it occurs to me that writing this blog and watching the coffee cup fill have something in common, though inversely. The coffee cup fills with black liquid from the bottom up. The screen fills with black characters from the top down. I have, in short, made something out of nothing. I shall call this the La Pavoni Europiccola Espresso blogging technique, for want of a better name, or indeed for want of anything further to say whatsoever. However, given the fact that nobody reads this blog, my conscience is clear, for I have wasted nobody’s time but my own.

In space, as they say, no-one can hear you scream.

 

Grand Illusions

Last night, Loches played host to an illusionist show that was rather out of the ordinary. Husband and wife team, Grego and Cécile, along with their assistants, were on stage for the very first time. And the show was highly professional. My wife only noticed one little slip-up in a rope trick, but I missed it – and I’m no stranger to magic, albeit table magic, and no stranger to bungled tricks either, à la Tommy Cooper. 

The illusionist couple live and work locally, many of their colleagues were in the packed house at the Espace Agnès Sorel, and there was a jovial neighbourly atmosphere to the whole event. Adults, incidentally, far outnumbered children in the audience. For a first performance, their investment in costly stage props was staggering, unless – which seems unlikely – they made them themselves. There must have been tens of thousands of euros’ worth of stage gear, from boxes and cages to tables and a fake washing machine that fell out of the sky to an extraordinary steampunk number at the end, when Grego and Cécile in different Tardis-like flashing boxes exchanged places in the blink of an eye. Throughout it all, Grego and Cécile acted with warmth, enthusiasm, verve and astonishing skill. 

 I found myself wondering: do they practise this stuff in the kitchen, or in the living room, at home? How did they get the gear here? Certainly not in the boot of the car! Do they also have a gigantic pantechnicon parked outside?

There were illusions of all sorts: a levitating silver ball that obeyed the commands of Grego, a complex trick using two piles of numbered cubes, rope tricks, and a very convincing levitating woman routine. Our little friend Emma was there with her grandparents, Jonathan and Tricia, and it was her ninth birthday: to her delight, she was called up on stage to assist with a rope trick.

By far the greater number of illusions involved a lady in a box. Cécile was handcuffed and chained into one box from which she mysteriously disappeared. She was locked in another that was then set fire to, and of course she survived. She was stuffed into a wicker basket that was then lanced with terrifying looking sabres. When she lost a game of noughts and crosses, she was put into another box and enormous butcher’s blades were shoved in, apparently slicing her like salami. She was put onto an operating table, strapped head and foot with leather – the straps being held taut by two male members of the audience – boxed up, and then sliced in half. There seemed to be no end to the ingenious and murderous torments to which she was subjected.

I began to ask myself serious questions. Why is it always the scantily clad woman who is put in the box and carved, segmented, incinerated or skewered? Well it’s true – it’s never the man! On top of that, it’s his wife. Could it be that in this age of political correctness – when in some countries it’s now a crime to wolf-whistle at a passing woman – this medieval if highly theatricalised misogyny is the last bastion of a certain kind of otherwise taboo male fantasy? And yet, to all outward appearances, it’s a family show! One of the culminating numbers was when, accompanied by a kind of grim reaper figure, she was impaled on a spike on the top of a skull-topped tombstone and spun round like a top. Was I imagining it, or was the truly hearty applause coming from the husbands in the audience?

There was, however, one inadvertently scary moment. In the Tardis body-exchange number, a hooded, masked figure came in with a trolley of gas canisters and an enormous blast gun which he turned on the audience, sending a plume of dry ice smoke into the auditorium. In the light of certain mass shootings in concert halls, cinemas and music festivals, where the crepitation of gunfire was initially taken for fireworks, this was definitely not a good idea…

Be that as it may, a great time was had by one and all. And I could hardly finish this blog post without an illusionist joke, could I?

“What’s your father’s profession?” asked the teacher on the first day of the school year. “He’s a magician, miss,” said the new boy. “How interesting! What’s his favourite trick?” “He saws people in half.” “Gosh. Do you have any brothers and sisters?” “Yes miss, one half brother and two half sisters.”

The Ministry of Appropriateness

I know one cannot condone offensive – or even just plain “bad” – behaviour, but is it just me or does anyone else think there’s something vaguely “inappropriate” about accusing the New York comedian Louis CK of “inappropriate behaviour”? Louis CK has made a living standing up on stage or in front of cameras telling people about how inappropriate his behaviour is in real life, and often lamenting it, or at least the romantic consequences. The more inappropriate he is, the more they applaud and the more airtime he gets. It’s a perfect case of “But I told you so…”. In other words, is nothing unsacred?

So what next? Will we be asking President Trump to be politically correct – or even grammatically correct? God forbid. Here is an extract from his recent speech in South Korea: “Together, our nations remind the world of the boundless potential of societies that choose freedom over tyranny, and who set the free. And we will free, and we will sacrifice, and we will hope, and we will make things beautiful, especially the aspirations of your people.”

With a bit of luck, nobody understood what he was saying anyway, least of all himself, and as one report has suggested it probably sounded better in the original Russian.

But back to the question of appropriateness… 

The word “appropriate” means “suitable or proper in the circumstances” and, in this sense, dates from the early 15th century, stemming from the Latin “appropriatus”, the past participle of “appropriare” (“to make one’s own”, hence the English verb “to appropriate”). The problem is, who decides what is appropriate or not? There is an open-and-shut case here for creating a Ministry of Appropriateness, along with a dedicated Appropriateness Police, then we’d really know where we were.

I have a vague recollection of someone saying something inappropriate to me in a pub about 25 years ago. When I remember who it was, and what they said, I think I’ll sue them. And while we’re on the subject, how long is it going to be – in the inappropriateness stakes – before a man sues a woman? (This reminds me of an old Monty Python sketch, which it would be totally inappropriate to repeat here.)

In the meantime, when every film and series has been scrapped because someone who acted in it behaved or spoke inappropriately, when Netflix and HBO and Amazon have all collapsed like Ozymandias into the lone and level desert sands and the screens have gone blank and the loudspeakers emit only white noise, what are we going to do with our spare time?

Walk the dog, I suppose, which is what I should have been doing in the first place instead of writing this.

My personal wake-up call for the new age? “Appropriate a Life!”

England, My England…

If Britain needed to take a good long look at itself in a non-distorting mirror, there is no time like the present, as the colossally boneheaded Brexit behemoth lumbers forward, the government is sundered by divisions, represented by a Foreign Secretary who is an international laughing-stock and mired in pathetic contemporary and historical sex scandals and other mind-numbingly dreary shenanigans. In the words of W. B. Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In my view, one of the sharpest mirrors of what it is to be English today can be found in two hugely – and rightly – popular books, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (1996) and its sequel, The Road to Little Dribbling (2015). 

Bryson is of course a well-known and wide-ranging American writer who after many years in England – and with an English wife and family – has recently taken British nationality and is a lover of (nearly) all things English. In the 1940s, it took a Hungarian – George Mikes – to capture the essence of English eccentricity in his witty little book, How to be an Alien, but Bryson goes deeper, taking insight into national character in his own droll and quietly diagnostic direction.

In both books, his observations emerge naturally from travels, encounters and experiences – though the latter were, of course, undertaken precisely to generate such observations – and they add up to a panoptic snapshot of British society, from north to south and west to east, that it’s hard to quibble with. One reads him with a constant smile, recognising the veracity of his impressions. In many ways, though he denies it, he has mutated into an ex officio Englishman, with a wry and at times cranky sense of humour that few Americans could lay claim to. 

At one point in The Road to Little Dribbling, he describes himself as both an expatriate and a patriot of an adoptive country that no longer exists, and I found myself nodding vigorously. One should read both books in order of composition and publication, because the 20-year gap between the two is undoubtedly a watershed period, and his observations constitute a wonderful bellwether of societal change. His approach is microcosmic. He is a devotee of minutiae, a connoisseur of the banal.

Just over a year ago, he said in an Independent article, that the British have become “more greedy and selfish”, like the US – less orderly, less well-behaved – and described the Brexit referendum as “a completely emotional event, not an intellectual one” that reflected the kind of Euroscepticism that plagued the construction of the Channel Tunnel and emanates from “an irrational feeling of losing a sense of being an island and separate.” He considers that the world is making it harder to be an immigrant, and in the background one senses his own nervousness at being an immigrant in the UK, however well-accepted he is. Indeed, the closing pages of The Road to Little Dribbling are a passionate defence of “good” immigration policies. 

Bryson is also a great lover and defender of the British countryside, and the unique cultural wealth of England. The English, who love to reflect narcissistically on their national identity, are naturally drawn to him, and he is more reliable – because essentially an outsider – than, say, Jeremy Paxman in The English: A Portrait of a People (1998). He is certainly funnier and more self-deprecating than preachy, pompous Paxman…

I would also encourage the French and other Europeans who are somewhat nonplussed by the odd goings on in that right little, tight little island next door, to spend some time in Bryson’s inimitable and good-humoured company – the earlier book is translated into French as the bizarrely titled Des Cornflakes dans le porridge – or, one step beyond, set out to explore and experience the people and place, as he did.

He is no less perceptive about his own country of origin in books like The Lost Continent:Travels in Small-Town America and Made in America, and in Little Dribbling one constantly senses the relief he feels at escaping the mind-numbing monoculture of redneck America for the whimsical oddness and variety of English life, and the fragile hope that the English will continue to cherish the marvels that they have inherited and all too often take for granted. When he sees those singular achievements cavalierly bulldozed through sheer insensitivity and brainlessness, the pain of irretrievable loss is tangible.

The Perfect Uselessness of Diary Writing

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 10.01.27It seems that at Somerset House in London there is a current exhibition called Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants. It showcases a selection from the 7.500 diaries donated to the Great Diary Project, set up in 2007, to “provide a permanent home for unwanted diaries of any kind”. The diaries are housed at the Bishopsgate Institute of East London.

A similar initiative has been up and running in France since 1992. L’Association pour l’autobiographie et le patrimoine autobiographique (APA) accepts personal writings – memoirs, diaries, personal narratives, autobiographical fictions, and so on – which can either be consulted openly by the public or kept secret for a period of 50 years. Clearly such a venture constitutes an enormous resource in terms of social history, whatever the quality or inherent interest of what people put down on paper.

I have kept a diary pretty much all my life, though I’m not quite sure why I do it. It serves no purpose other than a daily act of introspection, a clearing-house for anything that is going through my head. It is a way of allowing that day to leave its mark. It is also a mechanical act of writing that oils the wheels of the mind for more purposeful writing later in the day. But purposelessness is part of the perfect charm of diary writing. I never re-read the diaries, nobody else reads them – or nobody else is supposed to read them – and I have no ambitions for them whatsoever. Whatever else it is, a “diary” or a “journal” are inextricably and etymologically anchored in the notion of “a day” in the chronicler’s life.

I used to be acquainted with a minor poet whose diaries are bought as and when they are produced by an American library for quite substantial sums of money. How can anyone write a diary in all honesty when the notebooks are conveyor-belted into a minor hall of pending fame so instantaneously, and for instant financial gratification? The whole notion of a diary, as one’s thoughts shared with oneself, is lost. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were originally titled in Greek Ta eis heauton, “To himself”. This feature is what, to me, distinguishes the diary from a blog such as this (mine or Marlowe’s).

One of the most extraordinary diaries I’ve ever read is the Journal of a Disappointed Man by W. N. P. Barbellion (1889-1919). Barbellion was a naturalist at the British Museum’s Department of Natural History in London and he kept his journal from the age of 13 to his death at 30. In 1915 he learnt that he had multiple sclerosis and had five years to live. From that point on, the intensity, urgency and explosive frustration of the diary drives it forward with incredible spurts of dark energy. Its candour is very unBritish and many people have remarked how Barbellion is as close as one gets to Kafka. It is a unique record of a unique, and short, life, written by someone burning with intelligence and emotion.

Here is a sample:

“I have revelled in my littleness and irresponsibility. It has relieved me of the harassing desire to live, I feel content to live dangerously, indifferent to my fate; I have discovered I am a fly, that we are all flies, that nothing matters. It’s a great load off my life, for I don’t mind being such a micro-organism—to me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe—such a great universe, so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible—and eternal, so that come what may to my “Soul,” my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part—I shall still have some sort of a finger in the Pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me—but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.” 

For Barbellion, as for many others, he is his diary. It is what he knows he will become, and towards the end he realised that he was destined for publication. As he says, “A book is a Person and not a Thing.” Journal of a Disappointed Man is at one end of the spectrum, though its cosmic exasperation is not to everyone’s taste.

At the other?

From the Great Diary Project, one Frank Wycliffe writing on 28 February 1972: “I think my uncertainty of whether to go to the hairdressers’ has been solved. I have decided not to, but wait and see what things are like in another month’s time.”

For verily, we are creatures great and small…

W. N. P. Barbellion

W. N. P. Barbellion

 

Marlowe’s Blog Part 4 – In which I contemplate the sweet felicity of otium ruris and an uneventful life

P1140148 copySince my frenzied flight from the château with Havane and my return to the quiet, ordered world of Les Hirondelles, I have had ample time to reflect upon my lot and conclude that my new life is in fact my redemption, for to have continued thus would have been to fling myself – and indeed my beloved mother – into the very jaws of death. Accordingly, chastised by experience, I have ceased chasing the cats and do not attempt to snaffle their food, and Master has been most attentive to my spiritual wellbeing and development.

True, yesterday Mistress found a pool of yellow liquid in the utility room, but am I to blame for the indiscretions of the little white pooch, Alec? When he heard about it, Master laughed and said “When it rains in Paris, there are poodles in the street!” To cut a long – and no doubt “shaggy dog” – story short, the calm day-to-day life here has been a great solace to me and, the more I ponder this, the more I realise that providence has indeed taken me under her wing, offering me a second chance in life.

At dawn, Master feeds me, Alec and the 11 cats. This he likens to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, for the 11 cats are fed from the contents of but one tin. Master then takes me out, either both on foot, or me accompanying him on his bicycle. Yesterday, this excursion was abruptly curtailed because ahead of us was a farmer spraying poison on his field and Master chose to double back rather than inhale this invisible contagion. Master seemed most put out by this, and indeed it defies belief that these humans should adulterate their own sustenance purely for pecuniary gain, as Master tried to explain to me. He assured me that my own dry food or “kibble” was of the highest quality, and that under no circumstances – even in direst poverty – would he feed me otherwise. 

Following our morning walk, Master cycles on his own before engaging upon his own intellectual pursuits. In the interval before our afternoon walk, the day is also mine to do as I please, and most often this means study in Master’s library. I read in a serendipitous fashion, for life is too short to tackle every magnum opus that global civilisation has produced, but this approach has afforded agreeable surprises. The other day, for example, I came across the following quotation which made me prick up my ears: “It is better to lie on the naked ground and be at ease, than to have a golden coach and a rich table and be worried.” 

Master informed me that he believed these were the words of a great philosopher known as Epicurus, or one of his followers, and that other fine classical minds had expatiated on the merits of a life of leisure devoted to the development of the mind and spirit, including Cicero, Catullus and Petrarch. When I mentioned that I would like to read these wise men in their original tongue, Master said he would teach me a little “dog Latin”, an expression which caused him some merriment, though I am at a loss to say why. 

He apprised me of  the key idea of “otium”, which in Latin signifies the artistically valuable use of leisure time, as opposed to “negotium”, the time-consuming business of the day-to-day world from which it is desirable to retire. In particular, “otium ruris” signifies “rural leisure”, namely the spiritual benefits of rustic country life, as lauded by Horace, Virgil and Seneca. This last seemed most appropriate to my own condition, and helped me comprehend that there was more to life than running around like a psychotic fiend, drawn on by nothing more than the olfactory track of some insignificant wildfowl that, despite my most exhaustive and exhausting efforts, I would never manage to catch even under the most propitious of circumstances.

When I shared these reflections with Master, he picked two more modern books from his bookshelf for me to read: Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, and Petit traité de désinvolture by Denis Grozdanovitch, a philosopher whom Master warmly recommends and with whom he has had long personal discussions when they met over three days in Nice. 

The “otium ruris”, then, is my natural element, and has been since my emergence into this strange and wondrous world. My knowledge of the town is limited. On one occasion, Master took me to a village fair and, when I mention this, he slaps his hand to his forehead and exclaims – to my shame – “Never again!”, recalling that I pulled on the lead to left and to right, almost dislocating his shoulder, for my senses were maddened by the omnium gatherum of odours, from sugar-coated peanuts to crepes, from barbecued meat to the inevitable micturated lampposts, not to mention the presence of other – more or less well-behaved – canines, which drove me to distraction. “Oh that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.”

My recent reading of Plato has helped me view my inner turmoil in the cold light of day. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato describes the soul as a charioteer, and the chariot is drawn by two winged horses, a white one which represents rationality and the moral impulse, and a black one that represents irrational passions, appetites or concupiscence. The charioteer must stop the horses pulling in different ways, directing them instead along the path of enlightenment.

That indeed is the path I have chosen, and that indeed is my plight. How well I can steer my chariot only time will tell, though this chronicle will serve as my record of what  – I daresay – will prove to be a prodigious and possibly forlorn endeavour…

Coincidences in a Dovetailed World

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 08.55.39The other day, my wife and I were at Stansted airport with some time to kill before our flight to Tours. We were looking round a perfume store. The sales lady was a friendly middle-aged lady, and I happened to mention that I needed to go online to order a pair of roller skates, a comment that the saleslady overheard. The conversation then continued thus:

Saleslady: What kind of roller skates, inline or quad?

Me: Quad.

Saleslady: I sold over two hundred pairs of quad roller skates two weeks ago.

Me: I’m sorry?

 Saleslady: This is a new job. Before this, I was the manageress of a roller skating rink in Tenerife and it had to be closed down.

We then talked about the relative merits of quad and inline roller skates, the kind of wrist, elbow and knee protection required, and so on. But clearly this was some coincidence, unless the woman was a spontaneous fantasist – though her obvious knowledge of the sport would not support this hypothesis. Apart from anything else, if I hadn’t uttered the words “roller skates” the conversation would never have happened.
 
I have personally experienced several other extraordinary coincidences of this type, including a series with my daughter Lizzie when she was young, all of which revolved around the number three. Here are the stories.
 
The Three Bikes
 
Lizzie, her godfather Dunstan and I were out cycling in Touraine one summer. Lizzie was about 8 or 9. We pretended that our rickety old bikes were horses. Dunstan’s was a big black horse, mine was a big brown horse, and Lizzie’s was a small white pony. This conversation was the source of much hilarity, at least for Lizzie! We arrived in Reignac, put down our bikes and sprawled on the grass beside the river Indre. After a while, I noticed something on the opposite bank of the river. Sheltering from the bright sunlight under a large oak tree were three horses, a big black one, a big brown one, and a small white pony. To add to the eeriness, they were all stock-still and staring in our direction.
 
The Three Nicknames
 
Lizzie was around the same age when we were in Amsterdam for one New Year with a friend. We popped into a bar to get out of the snow and the cold and had three drinks, each of which had a cardboard beer mat. Lizzie had a pen and started writing on the mats, then she shuffled them and made us pick out a different one. She had written little animal nicknames for us on the mats. Lizzie was a Lizard, Adrian was a Pelican, and the friend was a Little Ballerina. She continued playing with the cards as we walked out into the street, entering the area of the Keizersgracht where there are a lot of antique shops. We stopped at one and looked in the window. As ever with these shops there were many objects, but amongst them was a statuette of a pelican, another statuette of a ballerina (Degas-style) and a brooch in the form of a lizard.
 
Three Girls With Violin Cases
 
Lizzie’s scoliosis, when detected, needed treatment. In particular, she had to have a plastic corset made to correct the distortion in her spine, to be worn day and night. The chief maker of these highly technical corsets is the Espace Ortho Scoliose, 1 rue Jacques Coeur near the Place de la Bastille. At the time she needed fitting for one, we were in the country, in Touraine, and had to take the train to Paris. We drove up to Saint Pierre des Corps and waited on the platform. Curiously, standing beside us were three teenage girls, each carrying a violin case. We got on the train, and the three girls sat diagonally opposite us. At one point, one of them even exchanged a smile with Lizzie. When we arrived at Montparnasse Station, we went into the bowels of the Metro and took a train across south-eastern Paris to the Place de la Bastille, then walked to the scoliosis centre. As we entered, sitting in the waiting room were the three girls, each with their violin case. I couldn’t help blurting, “But you were in the train with us!” One of them remembered us and they smiled at the coincidence. They must have taken the previous metro train to be there before us. And one of them was also coming for a corset fitting, accompanied by her two friends. The violins were never explained.
 
G. K. Chesterton described coincidences as “spiritual puns”. 
 
I am sure most of us can come up with similar tales, more or less surprising. I like the one about the 19th-century French poet Emile Deschamps which also involves the number three.
 
In his memoirs he tells how as a boy he was introduced to plum pudding by an acquaintance named Monsieur de Fortgibu. Ten years later, Deschamps saw plum pudding on a restaurant menu and remembered having enjoyed it. The waiter informed him that, unfortunately, the last piece of plum pudding had just been ordered by the gentleman in the corner – who turned out to be M. de Fortgibu. A number of years later, Deschamps, now in his 40s, was at a dinner party and learned that the dessert was plum pudding. He regaled the assembled company with his unusual experiences with the dessert and joked that the only thing missing this evening was M. de Fortgibu. Just at that moment, the door swung open and in walked that very gentleman. In his senility, he had wandered through the wrong door by mistake.
 
“Three times in my life I have encountered plum pudding, and three times I have seen Monsieur de Fortgibu,” Deschamps exclaimed.
© 2017 Adrian Mathews