Friday, 10 July 2020

And Another One

Having recently become (not without a degree of reluctance) a Netflix subscriber, I've been watching a much praised four-parter called Unorthodox, about a young girl who escapes a notably repressive Hasidic community in New York and manages to find a new life in Berlin. Shira Haas gives a terrific performance as the girl, Esty (Esther), a role that keeps her most of the time on the brink of tears, and with good reason. The intimate portrait of life in her Orthodox community, complete with Yiddish dialogue, is vivid and often startling (and I hope doesn't give the casual viewer the impression  that all Orthodox communities are like this one). Other elements in the story are less convincing, especially after Esty gets to Berlin and a thriller-style chase plot takes over; it's well enough done, but doesn't bear much examination, or offer much more than any other girl-in-jeopardy scenario. The group of music students she somewhat improbably falls in with are a carefully 'diverse' bunch, barely even sketched in, let alone characterised, and the plotline that leads to her auditioning for a prestigious music school stretches credibility to something near breaking point. However, at the audition, Esty opens her mouth and launches into a song that had been her grandmother's favourite (in another life, in Hungary) – and it's Schubert's 'An Die Musik', and at that point my resistance crumbled. And it crumbled further when she followed it with something better suited to her mezzo-soprano voice, the Jewish wedding song 'Mi Bon Siach'...
For me, 'An Die Musik' sounds best when sung by a baritone, or even a bass-baritone – which gives me sufficient excuse to play yet again Hans Hotter's exquisite rendition:



That's Gerald Moore on the piano. At the end of his farewell concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1967, Moore came out on stage alone and played the piano part of 'An Die Musik'. There can't have been many dry eyes in the house. 

Odds and Ends

There has been some pretty grim weather lately (making up for the glories of the spring), but it was still a surprise to discover that this date, July 10th, is, on average, the wettest day of the year in the UK. It owes this unenviable status to such catastrophic events as the great Somerset flood of 1968, when Bristol and a great swathe of the county endured a mighty downpour (more than five inches in a day) that transformed city streets into rivers, swept away country roads, inundated acres of farmland, and in places put people in fear of their lives. The Cheddar Gorge became a raging torrent, bearing along tons of rock and debris from the cliffs, and the famous caves were flooded for the first time ever.
Nothing like that to report today, happily.


What I can report today is that one of my regular charity shop haunts has reopened its doors (subject to hand sanitising and a degree of social distancing). It was a joy to be scanning its shelves again, and, to celebrate, I bought a rather attractive Artois beer glass and three books: two of the attractive mini-books extracted from the Penguin Classics – The Madness of Cambyses from Herodotus's Histories (tr. Tom Holland) and Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night, or a Discourse on Apparitions – and Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away (FSG Classics paperback), because I've been thinking of rereading it and don't (didn't) have a copy of my own. A welcome return for another element of the old normal, one that I'd been missing more and more as this madness went on.


And here's a curious incident from a couple of days ago. I was walking along a quiet back road beside a local park when I saw that what was clearly a raptor of some kind had made a landing just ahead of me and was intent on devouring something, spreading out its wings to shield its prey and prevent its escape. As I drew closer I saw it was a kestrel  (Hopkins's windhover) and, as several other birds were sounding agitated alarm calls, I assumed it had a fledgling. The kestrel was most reluctant to fly off, and I was almost treading on its tail by the time it took flight. And then I saw what its precious prey was – nothing more than a female stag beetle (smaller, unantlered and less formidable even than the male). I was glad to find that she was still alive and apparently not much the worse for her ordeal, apart from having been turned onto her back. I righted her and left her lumbering away towards a safe space. As I watched her go, I couldn't help feeling that this kestrel, so impressive in the sky and so fearsomely arrayed, had let itself down badly.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Soul of Kindness

Having finished Jenny Uglow's superb The Lunar Men – the second of my lockdown big reads – I felt like something shorter and, yes, fictional. So, with little thought, I took up a book that had been lying around for some months, ever since I picked it up from a charity shop (I hope I can start haunting those again soon; a few seem to be reopening). It was Elizabeth Taylor's The Soul of Kindness, and I took it up with mixed feelings, as I've found some of her works (especially Angel) quite wonderful, and others disappointing. Happily, The Soul of Kindness (published in 1964) did not disappoint. It is essentially a very accomplished and all too believable study of a character who might be seen as a distant descendant of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, but without Emma's redemptive ability to learn. Flora – a tall, blonde and beautiful young woman, whom we first meet on her wedding day –has been all too tenderly reared by a doting mother, who has left her unable to comprehend the harsher realities of life, and unable to survive without the unquestioning adoration of all around her. In return for this adoration, she does her best (as she sees it) to help and encourage her friends to fulfil (as she sees it) their potential, and to be happy (like her). As she is quite lacking in insight, self-knowledge, imagination or empathy, her efforts are at best unhelpful, and at worst disastrous – very seriously so in one case. Even when disaster strikes, however, Flora learns nothing and remains convinced that she is self-evidently, what her devotees continue to believe her to be, 'the soul of kindness'. All this is done most subtly and effortlessly, and it takes a little while to realise just how good this novel is. By the end, though, there is little room for doubt.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Scenes from the New Normal

I went to get my hair cut this morning, and was surprised to find my barbers clad in some kind of quasi-surgical gowns and wearing plastic visors. They seemed, understandably enough, embarrassed by this turn of events, and apologised for all the precautions they were now obliged to inflict on their customers: 'socially distanced' queuing, hand sanitising, supplying name, date, time and contact details on a slip of paper, and wearing a face mask and an absurd single-use plastic cape while being coiffed. The last time I saw them – this pair of splendidly reactionary Greek-Cypriot brothers – they were not unduly concerned about the Covid panic that was just then getting under way. They regarded the whole affair with a jaundiced, weary eye, and were cynically convinced that (a) it was some kind of Chinese racket and (b) someone was making money out of it. I suspect their views have not changed – there was much communication by eye-rolling as the precautions were duly enacted – but if they didn't go through this rigmarole, they wouldn't be allowed to open, even though the chances of getting serious Covid in London now are not much higher than being hit by a falling statue. This, God help us, is the new normal. But at least I got a haircut – and, boy, it felt good to be rid of those lockdown locks.
  I had a rather more dispiriting taste of this new normal the evening before, when, finding that most of the local pubs have now reopened, Mrs N and I decided to drop in on a favourite one (more a bar than a pub) for a drink. That was our first mistake. To get that drink, we had to 'wait to be seated' (though the place was half empty), then discovered that we couldn't be served without registering online and booking a table. I was all for turning on my heel at this point, but Mrs N was of another mind, and I duly toiled over my phone for some while, handing over the relevant information and making an imaginary booking. To be fair, they were quite apologetic about it all, and they did oblige us with a drink and a table while this was going on, but by then it was too late (for me anyway). What is a pub if it's not a 'public house' – a house you can drop in on any time during opening hours and have a drink without further ado? If this is the new normal, I can only hope that these absurd precautions are soon abandoned, de facto if not de jure. Meanwhile, the search is on for a more accessible pub, one where a person can simply drop in for a drink...
  For some reason, the pub incident put me in mind of a comic piece by Myles na gCopaleen, in which he suggests that the licensing authorities open pubs for just one hour a day, between 3 and 4 in the morning. He envisages what would be happening at that hour in the bedrooms of Dublin, as husbands wake, stretch, and say casually to their wives, 'You know, I think I might just drop in for the one'. Or words to that effect: I haven't been able to find the original piece. Anyone...?

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Independence Day?

It's Independence Day in the US – and here in England the Government, or should I say 'The Science', has taken a few tentative steps towards restoring to us some of the fundamental liberties it confiscated three long months ago. And some are calling it 'Independence Day'! One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry. Better, perhaps, to do neither (though the latter is always a possibility) and play a song for Independence Day (the real one) and for our times, perhaps for all times – this one...

Friday, 3 July 2020

Milton Glaser RIP

I missed the news of Milton Glaser's death, a couple of weeks ago on his 91st birthday. A brilliant graphic designer, he was lucky enough to study under Giorgio Morandi in Bologna when he was a young Fulbright scholar. There's a tribute to him here, featuring some of his best-known images. For myself, I loved his covers for the Signet Classics Shakespeare, and I still have several of them on my shelves, even though the contents are now very nearly beyond use. Here are a couple of his Shakespeare designs...

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Gladstone's Library: A Great Good Thing

The US has an abundance of presidential libraries – well, 14 of them at the last count. We in Britain, by contrast, have only one prime ministerial library – but what a library it is. Gladstone's Library, at Hawarden (pronounced Harden) in north Wales, is a unique institution in more ways than one.
  William Ewart Gladstone, a giant of Victorian politics – four times prime minister – was also a considerable scholar* with a very extensive library, which he was determined to leave to the nation and make accessible to all. He began the work in his old age, overseeing the creation of a temporary library building, and trundling some 30,000 volumes from his home (the 18th-century Hawarden Castle) by wheelbarrow, helped only by a valet and one of his daughters. He unpacked the books himself, and classified and shelved them in accordance with his own cataloguing system. His aim in creating this library was 'to bring together books which had no readers with readers who had no books' – and he showed his serious intent by endowing it with £40,000 (in 1895 money). After Gladstone's death, a public appeal raised a further £9,000, which was spent on a dedicated library building, designed in an imposing Gothic style by John Douglas. Most unusually for a library, it included a residential wing, funded by the Gladstone family and opened in 1906.
  The library – which has grown to include more than 250,000 printed items – continues to function as a residential centre, with 26 bedrooms now, a restaurant, a chapel and conference facilities. Visitors can choose for themselves whether to spend their time in study and reflection or to mingle socially. As well as welcoming visitors, the library hosts a year-round programme of events and courses reflecting Gladstone's interests and beliefs, as well as 19th-century literary and political culture in general. A wholly independent charity, Gladstone's Library endeavours to fulfil its founder's ideals by keeping costs to visitors as low as possible, and by offering scholarships and bursaries.
  This institution is, as all would surely agree, a great good thing – and yet, inevitably, its founder's (or rather his father's) association with the triangular slave trade has put it in the firing line of the current culture wars. William Ewart Gladstone is most definitely in the crosshairs of at least some activists, and any memorial to him is potentially vulnerable. In response to recent developments, the library has issued a statement that is commendably measured and well reasoned. Here's the link. You might not agree with every word, but it is good to see an institution rightly and reasonably defending itself rather than rolling over at the first hint of BLM disapproval.

* His three-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) contains some very interesting speculation on how colour was perceived by the Ancient Greeks, but the work as a whole was widely condemned, with Tennyson calling it 'hobby-horsical' and Jowett dismissing it as 'mere nonsense'. Gladstone's view of Homer as 'the greatest chronicler that ever lived' and one of history's three or four greatest poets was not widely shared at the time, though today it would hardly seem eccentric.