Sunday, 30 May 2021

Beckett in Folkestone; Form on 4

 Yesterday on Radio 4, I caught a few minutes of an interview with that fine actress Harriet Walter. My ears pricked up when she mentioned the name of Samuel Beckett, and I gathered that she is involved with a Folkestone Book Festival production inspired by Beckett's two-week sojourn in that South coast resort. This was something I didn't know about (though I should have done, having ploughed through Deirdre Bair's exhaustive biography years ago). In 1961 Beckett had decided to put his affairs in order by marrying his long-time partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and making her the heir to his literary property. As most of his business affairs were based in the UK, he would have to reside there for two weeks before the marriage could go ahead. His publisher, John Calder, suggested that he stay in a quiet South coast resort, handy for France and ideal for lying low.   
  So Beckett and his trusty Citroen 2CV ('Two Nags') flew over from Le Touquet to Lydd airport, from where Beckett drove to the (then) genteel resort of Folkestone and booked in to the small Hotel Bristol (since demolished) on the Leas, the elegant clifftop promenade designed by Decimus Burton. He signed the register as Barclay (his middle name) to avoid attention, and spent his time working on his play Happy Days and drinking Guinness in dreary backstreet pubs. After a while Suzanne joined him and they took some drives into the Kentish countryside (the names of two Kent villages, Ash and Snodland, find their way into Happy Days). They were married at Folkestone registry office, with two witnesses signing the register – E. Pugsley and J. Bond, presumably passersby or registry staff. Then it was back to Paris, from where Beckett summed things up in a letter – 'Thank God that is over.' 

Later on Radio 4, I was pleasantly surprised (not something I often say about anything on Radio 4) to happen on a series called On Form – about poetic form! Not a subject one readily associates with Radio 4 poetry programmes, which tend towards shapeless free expression or slamming rap-style couplets. Here was a handy little guide to the sonnet and its history, with nods to Petrarch, Thomas Wyatt and Shakespeare (the latter two represented by specimen sonnets). Sadly the programme fell apart somewhat when we came to sample sonnets being written today by poets who are supposedly in thrall to the form. Alas, their works sounded more like chopped-up prose than formal sonnets – but never mind. Surely it is a good, perhaps even hopeful, thing that Radio 4 is running a series on poetic form. As one of the participants said, form is 'more about freedom than it is about constraint'. Indeed it is.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Fischer-Dieskau

 Today would have been the 96th birthday of the great lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so it's as good an excuse as any for a little Schubert-Fischer-Dieskau-Gerald Moore magic. 
This is the achingly beautiful 'Im Adendrot' (at sunset). Listening to it, it's hard to believe that Fischer-Dieskau was, for most of his career, a smoker. It doesn't seem to have affected either his glorious voice or his longevity: he died just shy of his 87th birthday, though by then he had given up smoking. 'I smoked for 35 years,' he said, 'and then stopped in a single day.' 



Thursday, 27 May 2021

At Last!

 At last – sunshine and blue skies, after three weeks and more of relentlessly cold, wet and dismal weather.
And at last – the swifts are back in force. Circling overhead this morning, performing their graceful evolutions, were more than a dozen of these amazing birds. I was never so glad to see them – and to hear that joyous scream that is the sound of summer. Phew – they came back, after all.
(This photograph – not mine – seems to have caught a pair of swifts mating, which they do, as they do everything else, in mid-air.)

Monday, 24 May 2021

Pigeons

Browsing in my collected Larkin the other day, I came across this short, simple and rather lovely little poem about pigeons –

'On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west
Blown across each sunk head and settled feather.
Huddling round the warm stack suits them best,
Till winter daylight weakens, and they grow
Hardly defined against the brickwork. Soon,
Light from a small intense lopsided moon
Shows them, black as their shadows, sleeping so.'


It was written at Christmas 1995, when Larkin and his mother were staying in a hotel in Grantham.  This Lincolnshire town was the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, and is the site of St Wulfram's church, which boasts a steeple so tall and beautiful that Ruskin is supposed to have swooned when he first saw it. However, the thought of Christmas in a Grantham hotel, then or now, does not set the pulses racing. Larkin clearly spent a good deal of that Christmas staring bleakly out of the window – which at least gave him one good poem.
Writing to his mother the following September, he discusses two recent radio programmes about him, one of them focusing on his life in Hull –

'The Hull programme was all right but I thought the poems were read badly. The one about Pigeons was written at Grantham when we were there at Christmas — they were on a roof opposite the hotel and I watched them through the short afternoons as we sat in the lounge. Do you remember them? I expect not. You were asleep most of the time.'

In the poem, Larkin writes tenderly of the pigeons, as he often does of animals and birds. Pigeons make another memorable appearance in his novel A Girl in Winter, at an emotional turning point, just after Katherine, the troubled young woman at the centre of the story, has a kind of epiphany, feeling her frozen heart suddenly thawed by compassion, and glimpsing the possibility of happiness. She and Miss Green, the library colleague she is reluctantly escorting home, are sitting, huddled against the cold, on a bench in the centre of a dreary northern town –

 'Through the light mist she [Katherine] could see the ornamental front of the Town Hall under the flat shield of the sky, dark and ledged with snow. But all the white-grey patches were not snow, for as she watched they revealed themselves as pigeons, a score of them launching off into the air and hanging with a great clapping of wings. Then the whole flight dropped, rose over the intervening trees across the traffic, and landed on a stretch of snow not fifteen yards from where the two of them sat, coming up as if they expected to be fed.'

In poetry, pigeons have their finest hour in the glorious closing image of Wallace Stevens' 'Sunday Morning' –

'We live in an old chaos of the sun, 
Or old dependency of day and night, 
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, 
Of that wide water, inescapable. 
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; 
And, in the isolation of the sky, 
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make 
Ambiguous undulations as they sink, 
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.'

To descend from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, there is a poem by one James Henry titled simply 'Pigeons' –

'By what mistake were pigeons made so happy,
So plump and fat and sleek and well content,
So little with the affairs of others meddling,
So little meddled with? say, a collared dog,
And hard worked ox, and horse still harder worked,
And caged canary, why, uncribbed, unmaimed,
Unworked and of its will lord absolute,
The pigeon sole has free board and free quarters,
Till at its throat the knife, and pigeon pie
Must smoke ere noon upon the parson’s table;
Say, if ye can; I cannot, for the life o’ me;
But, wheresoe’er I go, I find it so;
The pigeon of all things that walk or fly
Or swim or creep, the best cared-for and happiest;
Ornament ever fresh and ever fair
Of castle and of cottage, palace roof
And village street, alike, and stubble field,
And every eye and volute of the minster;
Philosopher’s and poet’s and my own
Envy and admiration, theme and riddle;
Emblem and hieroglyphic of the third
Integral unit of the Trinity;
Not even by pagan set to heavier task
Than draw the cart of Venus; since the deluge
Never once asked to carry in the bill,
And by the telegraph and penny-post
Released for ever from all charge of letters.'

Henry is right about the sleek, well fed apparent contentment of wood pigeons at least, if not of town pigeons, whose lives seem harder. I like 'every eye and volute of the minster', but there is not much to commend about this cheery little poem, though its awkward, busy gait might be taken for a poetical representation of a pigeon's walk.
James Henry was an Irish physician who devoted most of his life to the obsessive study of Virgil, and published a good deal of verse at his own expense, all of which sank without trace. He was entirely forgotten until Christopher Ricks rediscovered him while researching his New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, and subsequently edited a small selection of Henry's verse for the Lilliput Press. At his best he is said to be reminiscent of another free-thinking Victorian maverick, Arthur Hugh Clough, and at his worst of William McGonagall – which is quite a range. He also published much prose, mostly on Virgilian matters, but including A Letter to the Members of the Temperance Society, in which he warns of the danger of substituting tea and coffee for spirituous liquors, and proposes a diet from which both of these dangerous liquids are excluded. Sound medical advice if ever I heard it. 

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Heady Days

 These are heady days: on Friday, we took the grandchildren to a favourite café (where a very fine pistachio cake is available), then on to another at a little distance, and finally to yet a third, where the children took an early dinner. And at every café, we were able to enter, with minimal (or no) Covid-related fuss, sit down at a table, and eat and drink. And it was a joy.
What has happened to us over the past months that this once entirely normal and taken-for-granted amenity of daily life should seem like a rare treat, a privilege, a gift? From whom? In whose gift is this simple, basic freedom?  What have we been reduced to? Enough questions.  I wasn't asking any at the time; I was just enjoying it. It's been a long while.
And, as it this wasn't enough excitement, yesterday the lot of us (including son and daughter-in-law) were at it again, having lunch at one of our local pubs. As this was the first weekend since the Great Easing (sounds like a village in Somerset) we were expecting the place to be heaving – but far from it. The bar (where we ate) was barely a quarter full, and the restaurant maybe half full. It seems that many people are hesitant about resuming anything too much like normal life. That's the trouble with inducing a general state of fear in the population – it's very hard to get people out of it. Just as it's very hard for governments, bureaucracies and The Science to give up their control over so many aspects of our lives. 
Meanwhile, the 'Indian variant' has proved a disappointment to those who were hoping it would justify postponing the Even Greater Easing we are promised for June. No doubt they are now busy seeing what else they can come up with to keep us all in our places, and give them longer in the driving seat before they resume the nonentity status that was rightly theirs before all this came along. 




Friday, 21 May 2021

Pope's Eloisa

 Born on this day in 1688 was Alexander Pope, perhaps our most brilliant satirical poet, and often the cruellest. I guess he is little read these days outside the academy, and it is too easy to think of him merely as a dazzlingly effective cold-blooded killer in verse. There was much more to him than that, including an ability to write from the heart, albeit never in his own voice. His 'Eloisa to Abelard' is a heart-rending evocation of hopeless love – a subject with which the dwarfish and deformed Pope was probably painfully familiar. The tragic story of Heloise and Abelard also inspired a fine novel by Helen Waddell. These are the closing stanzas of Pope's poem –

May one kind grave unite each hapless name,
And graft my love immortal on thy fame!
Then, ages hence, when all my woes are o'er,
When this rebellious heart shall beat no more;
If ever chance two wand'ring lovers brings
To Paraclete's white walls and silver springs,
O'er the pale marble shall they join their heads,
And drink the falling tears each other sheds;
Then sadly say, with mutual pity mov'd,
"Oh may we never love as these have lov'd!"

From the full choir when loud Hosannas rise,
And swell the pomp of dreadful sacrifice,
Amid that scene if some relenting eye
Glance on the stone where our cold relics lie,
Devotion's self shall steal a thought from Heav'n,
One human tear shall drop and be forgiv'n.
And sure, if fate some future bard shall join
In sad similitude of griefs to mine,
Condemn'd whole years in absence to deplore,
And image charms he must behold no more;
Such if there be, who loves so long, so well;
Let him our sad, our tender story tell;
The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost;
He best can paint 'em, who shall feel 'em most.


Follow this link to read the whole thing...
https://poets.org/poem/eloisa-abelard

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Sandy, Fenella, Parvula

At the risk of turning this blog into some kind of gay almanac, I must just mark the anniversary of Sandy Wilson, born on this day in 1924. Wilson, the doyen of British stage musical writers in the Fifties and Sixties, is best known for The Boy Friend, a kind of affectionate and tuneful parody of the Twenties musical, but he also wrote several musicals adapted from novels: His Monkey Wife (from a novel by John Collier), The Clapham Wonder (from Barbara Comyns's The Vet's Daughter) –  and, most improbably, Valmouth (from Ronald Firbank's novel of the same name). I have never seen this – indeed I have never knowingly been present at any production of a stage musical – and knew little of it, until I did a little light research, and discovered that it had not been the commercial flop I'd assumed it to be (in keeping with its source material), but had done pretty well when it was premiered in 1958, had been revived from time to time, released as a soundtrack album, and even adapted for radio. What's more, it was Valmouth that made a star of the vampish, husky-voiced Fenella Fielding – just as the Broadway production of The Boy Friend had made a star of the 19-year-old Julie Andrews. Fenella played the fun-loving widow Lady Parvula de Panzoust in Valmouth (that's her above in character). If you're curious, you can follow the link below to hear her singing one of the songs from the show, in her inimitable (but much imitated) manner. Froth, of course, but cleverly written and artfully performed...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DEceb5HVP8


Tuesday, 18 May 2021

'I was so thrilled I attempted to mount my television'

 'I was so thrilled I attempted to mount my television.' 
Who said that? The answer, surprisingly, is the Conservative politician Norman St John-Stevas, or rather Baron St John of Fawsley, who was born on this day in 1929. (I cannot find any context for this quotation – had he just seen himself on television? – but it appears to be his best-remembered utterance.)
Lord St John is perhaps passing from public memory now, but in his day he was one of the most colourful ornaments of the political, social and cultural scene. Though much about him was quite conventional – brilliant legal brain, president of both the Cambridge and the Oxford Union, journalist and academic, editor of Bagehot, government minister under Margaret Thatcher, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, Master of Emmanuel – much was decidedly, er, different. He even constructed his own origin myth, claiming that his father was an engineer and company director called Stephen Stevas, whereas in fact he was a hotel owner of Greek origin called Spyro. Norman was of course gay – no one could ever have mistaken him for a red-blooded heterosexual – and he was as camp as a row of tents; indeed, during his tenure at Emmanuel, the college was referred to disparagingly as 'Mein Camp'. The dandified Stevas wore purple (a colour he sometimes referred to as 'crushed cardinal') at every opportunity, wrote all his personal letters in purple ink (on House of Lords notepaper after his elevation), proffered his hand in papal fashion, and affected to lapse into Latin and to be unable to pronounce modern words. He worshipped the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Pius IX, sometimes wearing a cassock that had supposedly belonged to that ultraconservative Pope. That a figure who might have stepped out of a Ronald Firbank novel could rise so high in politics seems hard to believe now – he was blithely indiscreet, and the potential for scandal must have been vast – but as everyone says, lamenting the dulness of today's politicians, there used to be 'characters' in those days. Compared to today's public sphere, terrorised by social media and subject to 24-hour journalistic scrutiny, it was a safe world, where people could get away with things that now would bring their careers crashing to the ground.  They don't make them like Norman St John-Stevas any more – or rather they probably do, but they steer clear of the world of politics.
I saw him once in his later years, swanning along outside the National Gallery. His ripe claret complexion was something to behold – he looked as if he might burst at any moment.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

Swifts – Victims of Lockdown?

 My unexpectedly early first sighting of swifts has been followed by, er... nothing very much. Since then I've seen the odd one here, two there, occasionally three, but none of them showing any signs of settling down. It's now mid-May and there's no sign of the swifts that live on our road returning. I'm hoping it's just that the unseasonably cool weather is deterring them, but wondering if there might be another, more worrying factor.
  In the first lockdown one of the things people round here found to do was loft conversion. At times it seemed that every other house had the scaffolding and tarps up and the conversion gangs at work. Then it died down again – only to return as Lockdown 3.0 draws to an end (maybe). Some of these conversions must have destroyed or covered over swifts' nesting sites under the eaves of houses – and, if not, the changed appearance of the houses, and the continuing commotion of building work, might be enough in themselves to deter the swifts. Birds are remarkably sensitive to the slightest change in their immediate surroundings, as anyone who's put up a new bird feeder or moved an old one will know – it can take birds weeks to get used to the new arrangements. Could all this loft conversion activity mean the end of swifts on our road? I devoutly hope not. My eyes still scan the skies every morning and evening, hoping for signs of a return...

Meanwhile, the lockdown continues to reap its human harvest. This morning I discovered that our excellent local picture framer has been driven into despairing insolvency, after 36 years, by the destructive impact of lockdown after lockdown. There is nothing left of this once thriving business but a quietly anguished message in the window. Another victim of lockdown, another loss to the community. 
  And now, as we contemplate the heady prospect of being 'allowed' (allowed!) to eat and drink indoors in pubs and restaurants from Monday, the forces of The Science (with zero-covid nutters now in the ascendant) are mustering to ensure that this dangerous notion of restoring a few of our confiscated freedoms doesn't go any further. The so-called Indian variant is their current pretext – and this despite the lack of any evidence that it is likely to do significant harm in a largely vaccinated population where (according to the ONS) some 70 percent of the population now have antibodies. If the 'government' continues to be led by these people, there is no prospect of the lifting of restrictions promised for June happening on schedule, if at all. So long as The Science is running the show, we're on the road to nowhere. Or rather to ruin. What will happen when we get the next seasonal flu epidemic? Or, perish the thought, when the Chinese, having learnt the lessons of Covid, unleash their next virus on us?




Help?

This morning I was startled to discover (via email) that 'Blogger' has deleted four of my posts – quite recent ones – for violating 'community guidelines'. Uh oh, I thought – have I offended against the Woke ethos? Is it all over for Nigeness? No – apparently I've violated Blogger's Malware and Viruses Policy. How might I have done that? And what can I do to avoid offending again? Any ideas? Has this happened to any of you out there? 

Friday, 14 May 2021

Vernal good cheer

 Ah, you might think, glancing at this, he's put up another of those late Manet flower paintings he loves so much. The impression won't last beyond the first glance, as this is clearly not the work of the master. I picked it up this morning in a charity shop (so good to have them open again), recognising it as a copy of one of those glorious Manets that I do indeed love so much. It's not even a particularly good copy – there are plenty of faults, and at least one extraneous mark on the canvas – but it's a spirited attempt, boldly painted, and full of vernal good cheer. It catches something of the spirit of Manet's original, if not its technical brilliance. I couldn't resist it, especially as it was priced at a mere eight pounds. I shall get it framed and find somewhere to hang it.
The painting it copies is this one...

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

'He became a land'

 The Barn Owl above was painted by Edward Lear, who was born on this day in 1812, the 20th of 21 children (and the youngest to survive). As well as being a brilliant painter of birds – especially parrots, which seemed to have a special appeal to him – Lear was also an accomplished landscapist, a musician and composer, and of course an author, most famously of the great nonsense poems.  
Nothing better captures the essence of this strange, troubled man than Auden's brilliant biographical sonnet – 

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat

Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

A Good Portent

 To judge by the number of online sources offering to interpret them, I am not alone in having butterfly dreams. They can mean, it seems, all manner of things, most of them, as you'd expect, good. My butterfly dreams differ from most, perhaps, in being highly specific. Last night, for example, I dreamt I was strolling on a not very promising patch of marginal downland when I looked down and saw a pair of Grizzled Skippers. Delighted, I pointed them out to a passerby, who seemed unimpressed – understandable, I suppose, as these tiny, moth-like creatures are not what you'd call spectacular. Their beauty is quiet, understated and small-scale; you need to look closely to appreciate it. 
Anyway, taking this dream as a good portent, I set out this morning for a spot where I had seen several Grizzled Skippers last year. The weather had turned suddenly warm, with intermittent sunshine, but I was not too hopeful as a strong wind was blowing, apparently from two quarters at once, and wind is bad news for small butterflies. There were Brimstones flying in abundance, with a fair number of Orange Tips, Peacocks and the odd Speckled Wood. And then, as I drew near the patch of downland that was my target, suddenly at my feet was a single Grizzled Skipper, on the path, with its little wings spread. As it was showing no inclination to brave the wind and fly away, I was able to spend several minutes admiring its subtle, spangled beauty. The promise of the dream was fulfilled, even though that single specimen was to be the only one I saw today.   

Heinrich Kühn

 More and more I find myself looking at old photographs (or rather digital images thereof) on the internet. I generally find these images more satisfying than modern photographs, I think because of their imprecision and blur, and their painterly quality – by which I mean, the sense they give that have been 'painted with light', that they are conscious creations, they are not just passively reflecting back an accurate image of external reality. And they can be painterly in a more literal sense too. Yesterday I came across this arresting autochrome photograph from 1915, by the Austrian-German photographic pioneer Heinrich Kühn...

Something about it – the coloration, the steep perspective, the bisecting shadow – reminded me of this painting by Felix Vallotton, The Ball...


Still more painterly, in the sense of looking like a painting, is this autochrome photograph of Kühn's...

And here is another wonderfully soft-toned, soft-outlined Kühn photograph –  
Kühn, I gather, used the gum bichromate process, which allowed for a lot of creative manipulation and adjustment, and he was consciously trying to make photographs that resembled other kinds of art prints. He and his artistic colleagues wanted to make stylised photographs as an element of the gesamtknustwerk, the 'ideal work of art' that the Viennese Secessionists aimed to create. Well, he certainly made some very beautiful pictures.

Friday, 7 May 2021

The Maias

Having been laid low – or semi-laid semi-low – by a painful mystery ailment affecting what can only be described as my left groin, I've been spending more time than usual on the sofa. So I thought it was a good opportunity to take on a heroic reading project, something comparable to last year's The Betrothed.  
  For some years I've been reading and enjoying the novels of the great (and still too little known) Portuguese writer Eça de Queiros, but I had never got round to the one widely regarded as his greatest achievement – The Maias, all 633 pages of it (in my Carcanet edition). It looks forbidding – a great brick of a book – but, as always with this author, it is wonderfully easy to read. Eça is a fine no-nonsense storyteller, but it is his distinctive tone that makes his work so attractive – endlessly ironic but sympathetic, ever alert to human folly and to the comedy and pathos of the human condition, always proceeding with a light tread, never getting heavily 'serious', still less telling the reader what to think. He is, if you like, at the very opposite end of the authorial spectrum from Dickens – though there is something strangely English about him, or at least something that makes his works particularly appealing to English readers.
  Eça conceived The Maias while working at the Portuguese consulate in Newcastle on Tyne, and wrote most of it while living in Bristol (and it's striking how many of his characters spend time in other countries, especially England, though Portugal, in particular Lisbon, is always the focus). The novel traces the history of an aristocratic family against the background of the 19th-century decline of the Portuguese monarchy – and of Portugal itself – but it is in no way a political novel: it is about people (and places), not Ideas. According to Wikipedia, Os Maias is a compulsory text for year 11 students in Portugal; their 15-year-olds must be a good deal more literate than ours. And it was even made into a soap-opera style drama series by a Brazilian TV network – clearly this novel is in the Portuguese cultural bloodstream.
  I'm only about a tenth of the way into The Maias so far, but already I am completely hooked. I'm going to enjoy this...

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

They're Back!

 In keeping with long-standing Nigeness tradition, I must report that today, to my surprise and delight, I saw two swifts flying over my son's garden. The surprise was because it's quite an early sighting, after a dismal April, and it was a very windy and decidedly cool day – which is probably why the swifts were flying low, feeding on insects avoiding the worst of the wind. And delight because, well, they're swifts, and they're here! Summer cannot be far behind.
(The photo isn't mine by the way: I think it's by Patrick Barkham, whose wonderful book The Butterfly Isles I enjoyed rereading recently.)

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Random Jottings

Talking of Chekhov, this photograph of the author with his wife, the actress Olga Knipper (who lived to the age of 90, dying in 1959), has always struck me as one of the most engaging pictures of any writer. Relaxed, open and genial, and clearly happy in his wife's company, Chekhov has none of the usual affectations of an author posing for a photograph: the pensive, soulful look, the chin resting on an elegant hand, the profile shown to best advantage, the calculated advertisement of 'artistic' character. Chekhov was too busy writing – and practising medicine and staging his plays and working for prison reform and supporting his demanding family – to bother about 'being a writer'. 


Meanwhile I'm being targeted again by clerical outfitters, whose latest offerings include a fine preaching scarf and preaching bands, and a 'black grosgrain cincture with falls'. Tempting though all this is, I fancy there is, alas, rather more to being a cleric than dressing up. Ronald Firbank was said to have been so impressed by the uniform of the Pope's Swiss Guard that he considered applying to join it. I don't think that would have gone very well...

I see the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation – sorry, HSBC – has yet another fatuous slogan: 'Welcome to the New Normal', with 'Normal' crossed out and replaced with 'Different' – 'Welcome to the New Different'. Hmm. I guess it's no worse than 'We are not an island. We are part of something bigger' – a particularly unfortunate slogan these days for a Hongkong-based company. 


Saturday, 1 May 2021

'I always come out of the theatre more conservative than I went in'

 (Re)reading Chekhov's 'A Dreary Story' – one of his very best, I think – I was amused to come across this passage, which I had forgotten. The narrator, a distinguished – and dying – medical professor, airs his views on theatre: 


'I don't think the theatre's any better now than it was thirty or forty years ago. I still can't find a glass of clean water in corridors or foyer. Attendants still fine me twenty kopeks for my coat, though there's nothing discreditable about wearing warm clothes in winter ... The men still go to the bar in the intervals and drink spirits. Where there's no progress in small things, it would be idle to seek it in matters of substance. When an actor, swathed from head to foot in theatrical traditions and preconceptions, tries to declaim a simple, straightforward soliloquy like 'To be or not to be' in a manner anything but simple, and somehow inevitably attended with hissings and convulsions of his entire frame, when he tries to convince me at all costs that Chatsky* – who spends so much time talking to fools and falls in love with a foolish girl – is a highly intelligent man, and that Woe from Wit isn't a boring play, then the stage seems to exhale that same ritual tedium which used to bore me forty years ago when they regaled me with bellowings and breast-beatings in the classical manner. And I always come out of the theatre more conservative than I went in.
  You may convince the sentimental, gullible rabble that the theatre as at present constituted is a school, but that lure won't work on anyone who knows what a school really is ... the theatre can only be a form of entertainment under present conditions. Yet this entertainment costs too much for us to continue enjoying it. It deprives the country of thousands of  healthy, able young men and women who might have become good doctors, husbandmen, schoolmistresses and officers, had they not devoted themselves to the stage. It deprives the public of the evening hours, which are best for intellectual work and friendly converse – not to mention the waste of money, and the moral damage to the theatre-goer who sees murder, adultery or slander improperly handled on the stage.'


  Well, I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but in general terms I share Nicolas Stepanovich's lively aversion to theatre – and I wonder how much of the above Chekhov himself might have agreed with. As it is, his plays are among the very few that might – given the right production, etc – tempt even me to endure the dismal experience of attending a theatre. 


* Chatsky is the protagonist in Woe for Wit, a classical verse comedy of 1823 by Alexander Griboyedov.