Friday, April 17, 2015

If there were ever a good argument for not living too long, it might well be William Somerset Maugham

My reading for the next few months seems to be settled. Amazon’s Buy With 1-Click facility is lethal: a brief second’s enthusiasm for a book or a CD can ensure that within days you have books and CDs coming out of your arse, though I am pleased to say I haven’t yet regretted a single purchase, though I do have quite a few books still to be read.

The most recent arrivals from Amazon are four volumes of Somerset Maugham short stories, the biography of the man by Selina Hastings and, most recently - obviously courtesy of Buy With 1-Click one of his novel’s, The Magician. I had previously bought The Painted Veil after watching the film with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, but I never finished it.

At the time I thought the writing rather flat and that although Maugham undoubtedly had a gift for dialogue - a greater gift than many writers I’ve so far read - other facets of his novel writing weren’t on par and seemed merely to serve the purpose of getting the story and the reader from one piece of
dialogue to another. Perhaps he was a better short story writer than novelist. So far I’ve read only six or seven of his many stories, and it does seem to me that his style is more suited to short fiction than novels (although The Painted Veil is so far the only one of his novels I’ve attempted).

Earlier today, I read on someone’s else blog his prose style described as ‘simplistic’ (although whether the writer in fact meant merely ‘simple’ or indeed wanted to call it ‘simplistic’ I don’t know, as all too often people do upgrade ‘simple’ to ‘simplistic’, obviously oblivious to the fact that they mean rather different things). His style most certainly straightforward, too straightforward for many these days when we are said to now to have become so accustomed to ‘modern’ writing and ‘experimentation’ that and ordinary, unadorned, straightforward style is regarded as a little second-rate. Perhaps.

But even though the style is in no way astounding, it is effective, and it is, perhaps, because that style is so unassuming and doesn’t draw attention to itself that his observations and depiction of character are so telling. And they do contain some real gems, of which, in my view, this is one. It is from one of his Malay stories, The Back Of Beyond:

Oh, my dear boy, one mustn’t expect gratitude. It’s a thing that no one has a right to. After all, you do good because it gives you pleasure. It’s the purest form of happiness there is. To expect thanks for it is really asking too much. If you get it, well, it’s like a bonus on shares on which you have already received a dividend; it’s grand, but you mustn’t look upon it as your due.’

I haven’t yet started the Selina Hastings biography yet, but I did hear an adaptation of it for Radio 4’s Book Of The Week, and it mentioned a certain irony about Maugham. Oddly, and because he was a big name in the early to middle part of the 20th century but went on to live well into late 80s, he was something of a curio in his latter years, apparently a wizened, unpleasant old man living in the South of France.(I have previously blogged about him here and here.)

He was nicknamed The Lizard, because many thought he looked like one in his dotage, and his vast body of work, though still respected and bought, was regarded as a tad old hat and from an earlier
age by more ‘modern’ writers and the literary parasites who make their living commenting on and deciding these things.

He, who once regarded himself as three-quarters heterosexual and a quarter ‘queer’ - his description - but later revised that and said it was the other way around - had also gained an unenviable reputation as being a louche old lecher in whose company no good-looking young man was safe (though many, admittedly, didn’t want to be safe and were quite happy to trade sexual favours for a place at the great, and rich’ man’s table in the South of France).

All in all he doesn’t sound to pleasant. And yet, according to Hastings, he could be extraordinarily kind and generous. Are both - being a gay old lecher and being kind - mutually exclusive, you might now be asking. Well, of course, not. My point is that being regarded as rather passé in the last two decades of his life - and quite possibly rather gaga - and having been encouraged by his unscrupulous lover, one Alan Searle, to disinherit his daughter and make him, Searle, his sole heir, he did not, as we say, have a very good press at all. But that, it would seem, is a shame in that his undoubted good qualities were and are simply overlooked.

I am here merely repeating what I remember of the radio version of Hastings’ biography (and which I described here in an earlier entry), and I look forward to reading the book proper. But it does seem to me that there was a good deal more to Maugham than we now seem to accept, especially if the above quotation is anything to go by. Because it does strike very much as Maugham dropping the writer’s pose and speaking from his heart.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ruthenia? Where’s that then? Well, it’s not in North Cornwall, but apparently TASS insists the persecuted locals would very much like it to be a part of Mother Russia. Closer to home, the Daily Express has another savvy piece of health advice and how we might still save ourselves from diabetes

The clocks have gone back, the evenings are drawing out and so it is back to my Sunday evening routine of going to the Scarsdale for a drink and a smoke. It’s not warm, it never really gets particularly warm in Britain, especially not now at the beginning of April. But it’s warm enough for my fingers not to lock up with frostbite while I type. And I thought I might add yet another entry to this blog.

As usual when I start an entry, I take a look at the ‘stats’ which tell me which posts have recently been read and who is reading them. And that has brought up something quite curious: this week, my blog has had 131 visitors from the United States and 60 from the United Kingdom. Fair enough, but what is puzzling is that it has also had 65 visitors from Russia (I was about to write the USSR – I wonder why?) and 33 from Ukrained (which I am now careful not to call The Ukraine as I understand it is something of an insult).

What, I ask myself, can interest any Russian or Ukrainian reading this blog? Admittedly, I have written several entries about Putin, Peter Pomerantsov’s book, Ukraine, Crimea and related topics, but I am the first to record that I have absolutely nothing original to report or write about, and that what I do write about is more or less stuff I have read elsewhere and reproduced, perhaps adding my not to informed observations. But they keep coming. Why. Do the folk coming here do the rounds of many blogs? Surely they must, and there are a great deal to choose from. And as I am interested, I would very much appreciate any Russian or Ukrainian visitor to email me and tell me what brought them here (and perhaps add a little about themselves).

. . .

Coincidentally, I came across a report in The Economist which piqued my interest. It is about the ‘Ruthenes’ in Transcarpathia. And, yes, I did have to consulte a map to find out where the hell Transcarpathia. Sorry, but perhaps you have to do the same when I mention North Cornwall. Nor had I before heard of the Ruthenes, but it seems they are an established ethnic Slavic group which has lived in Transcarpathia – mainly in Ukraine, but also in Poland and Slovakia.

That area of Ukaine is also home to a few hundred thousands ethnic Hungarians, and it was about a report by the Russian news agency TASS the The Economist was writing. It said that TASS had publicised supposed Ruthenian ethnic tensions, and so far, so unsurprising. What was surprising is that, according to The Economist, TASS’s report is complete fiction, that whatever problems the region does has, ethinic tensions is not one of them. So why did TASS make them up (if, as I am obliged to do, you believe The Economist rather than TASS)?

Well, given Ukraine’s past and present troubles, the answer might not be that difficult to suggest. When Russia made its grab for Crimea, it also cited tensions between Russians and Ukrainians as a reason to move in. In fact, according to Russia it didn’t actually move in at all: ethnic Russians made the first move, but the upshot is that Crimea is now once again a part of Russia. Something similar happened in Eastern Ukraine where some folk – I stress some – felt they wanted to be part of Russia than Ukraine and started shooting to make their point.

The obvious question, one which undoubtedly The Economist is posing is: are the Russians not trying to do the same in Transcarpathia? The second strand to the TASS report was that local ethnic

No, that isn’t North Cornwall, but
apparently TASS would like it to be

Hungarians, though with Ukrainian nationality, ‘are also unhappy’, and that Hungary’s, in my view very unsavoury Viktor Orban (my judgment is based on the many unsavoury things he has done and said – he is, for example, stressingly anti-semitic) of the ruling Fiedesz party, who seems never to miss a trick when it comes to misechief-making - is doing the same. (The Economist piece adds that Orban is one of the few friends Vlad the Lad Putin has in among the EU members, which to my mind figures.)

In fact Orban is said to have called for autonomy for Hungarian Ukrainians. Worse, Hungary’s Jobbik party, by far to the right of Orban’s gang, has called a resolution of ‘the situation of the Transcarpathian Hungarians’. It isn’t looking good. I suppose the first question to ask is why did TASS publicise its report in the first place? Answers, please, from anyone with an idea, but not on the ususal postcard but as an email to me.

PS It doesn’t, of course, help that Ruthenia, as the area is known, sounds horribly like Ruritania to my cloth ears. 

. . .

The thing about the Scarsdale here in leafy Kensington is that were a foreigner to sit here and eavesdrop on the clientele in the hope of improving their English, they would be very disappointed. I’ve been sitting here for almost 90 minutes and only one other group out here in the ‘smoking area’ is speaking English. French, yes, German, yes, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, certainly, but no English. What would they think of it all at The Old Inn in St Breward (where I live) and where a great many folk are well on their way to speaking quite good English?

. . .

I commented in a recent post on the unnerving drive our press in Britain have for ensuring everything, but everything, they print is true. Doubters would be astounded at the lengths Fleet Street (the old collective name for our national papers) goes to in order to ensure that every fact is checked, checked and checked again before it is allowed in its pages.

There’s the story (perhaps apocryphal, but it certainly has the ring of truth, knowing as I do the sheer bloodyminded dedication of generations of hacks and hackesses to print the truth, all of the truth and nothing but the truth) that a well-known writer commissioned to write an Easter homily was told he could not refer to ‘God’ in his piece as there was no way the paper could establish whether God actually existed. Sounds daft, of course, but that is what real professionalism is.

And speaking of professionalism, here is the front page splash of last Thursday’s Daily Express with the lowdown on that awful, awful disease diabetes and one of the ways we can try to avoid developing it. I understand that when they got wind of it, Sky TV, the BBC, Channel Four, ITV and CBeebies even resorted to the High Court and applied for an injunction to stop publication, but to no avail: in the tradition which makes me so proud to be just one more who follows our calling the Express invoked the time-honoured principle of ‘Publish and be damned’.

Here is that front page.

You have been warned. Turn it off!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Britain’s coming election — the wiseacres are weighing in, so why shouldn’t this wiseacre weigh in, too, to announce: they’re all wrong about everything! As for that Terry Pratchett, he ensured I got one of my many, many bollockings

The first part of this - rather long entry - was written before the ‘leaders’ debate’ on TV last night. I didn’t watch it as I could see no point in spending two hours listening to seven stooges mouthing the platitudes they think their supporters would want to hear. Come May 7 I shall be voting – or not - in my 11th general election.

It will not actually be the 11th of which I was aware – the first was in 1963 when Britain was doing well enough economically to venture another term of Labour. Broadly – very broadly – Britain votes Labour when things are going well, people feel their pockets are full and life is sweet; and then they vote in the Tories again (the ‘Tory bastards’, according to some, but I am well beyond the age of taking all such slurs, whether aimed left, right or centre in the slightest bit seriously – if you don’t sooner or later work out for yourself that life is just a tad more complex and nuanced than such barroom gibes allow, God help you) when they feel the pinch.

As a general rule – again, I stress a general rule, Labour fuck it up, Tories clean up the mess afterwards. Or put another way, the Tories create an efficient working economy, then Labour come in and fritter it all away. But it is worth also recording that while Labour are fucking it up, those with rather less to rub together than you are I, tend to do a little better; and while the Tories are repairing the damage, those at the bottom of the pile are re-acquainted with what misery is and just how awful misery can be. It is usually at their expense that ‘the economy is repaired’. And, of course, a great many shysters take every opportunity to make hay while all the repairing is going on.

That last observations might make me sound like some unreconstructed pinko. Or, if you like, my claim that as a rule Labour fuck it up again marks me down as an unreconstructed reactionary. Well, I like to think I’m neither, but I do like to call a spade a bloody shovel, and sadly the
Tweedledum/Tweedledee routine is the way things are stacked. In 1963 at the first election of which I became aware Labour were elected after, in the buzzphrase used by the incoming Prime Minister Harold Wilson (left), ‘13 years of Tory misrule’. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ were getting underway, Britain was loosening up, young chaps were slightly growing their hair and it was the years of the coming of age of young folk who couldn’t actually remember the war. That was important: if you were born up to around 1938/9, you might still, in the Sixties, have distant memories of ‘the war’, ‘dad not being around’ and general deprivation. For those born in the years after, your first memories would probably have been of the years after the war. By 1963 these young were in the late teens and early twenties, hormones were raging as only hormones can range and none of them was in a mood dutifully to take the high road to Dullsville, a place which had been such a comfort to their parents once the war years had ended. I became aware of the 1963 election because my father - ‘Der Spion’ of previous blog entries and man by then of increasingly right-wing views - mournfully declared one night and, I now know in retrospect, more than just a little theatrically, ‘this country will be Communist within six months’.

Well, it wasn’t. In fact, and as I found out five years later when as a very wet-behind-the ears public school boy I washed up at Dundee University, for many idealistic young folk Labour weren’t red enough. No, sirree! But by the time I was released from school and ventured forth into grown-up land to grow my hair, find out what this ‘pot’ thing was and, most crucially, lose my cherry, it was 1968, the year of ‘student revolution’ - remember when students were still idealistic? By then perfectly middle-class chaps and chappesses were affecting a kitchen-sink, working-class accent to prove their credentials (while, perfectly working-class chaps and chappesses who didn’t manage to crash out of their ‘class’ by virtue of acting and taking fashion photographs were encouraged to carry on watching their Ps and Qs when in the company of their ‘betters’.

. . .

Since then elections have had the usual mixed result - Labour in, Labour out, Tories in, Tories out - and the fortunes of the country have risen and fallen and changed for the better or worse much like the weather. In fact, it might be worth the time of some smartarse PhD student to make an in-depth study of how the economic health of a country correlates to its weather patterns over several decades, because the weather seems to have as much or as little bearing on the matter as whoever is in government.

This year, we are told, promises to be different. This year is the year ‘when the voter no longer trusts their politicians’. This year ‘the voter is more informed’. This year ‘will see an upset’. Oh, yeah? Why? Well, this year, in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) seems well on its way to ousting Labour as ‘the party of conscience’; further south in England the anti-EU UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) seems - or seemed - to be well in reach of making dangerous inroads

By jiminy if you want jam tomorrow,
you’ll get jam tomorrow — I promise!

into the Tory vote; the Greens are - or were - claiming more and more support, and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, who are never afraid of making mischief, have declared that in the event of a ‘hung’ parliament (one in which no party gains an overall majority in the House of Commons) says it is prepared to do a deal with anyone - even Labour! Well! What a state of affairs! Plenty to waffle about there!

Given this mixed bag (tonight on TV seven political parties are holding a ‘debate’ - fun for someone, no doubt, but I will make damn sure I have something else to do) it is ‘pretty certain’ no party will have an overall majority - i.e. neither Labour nor the Conservatives will - and the incoming government will most certainly, once the dust has settled by some kind of coalition.

Actually, it isn’t even that simple: Labour has been forced to deny that it would be prepared to form a government with SNP and - I hope I’ve got this right - UKIP have unequivocally declared that it will not form a coalition with anyone who has even a hint of foreign blood (except, of course, for those neo-British Asian carpetbaggers who are UKIP members and living proof that UKIP ‘isn’t racist’. To be honest, Labour had no choice but to rule out a coalition with the SNP given that all the political wiseacres are predicting that its vote in Scotland will be wiped out by the nationalist and that the number of seats it has in Hibernia will be reduced from 756 to 3.5. But will Labour be wiped out? Possibly. Possibly not.

The Liberal Democrats, we are told, will also be decimated, being reduced from their current 54 seats to their - more usual - 11/12 (15 in a good year. Incidentally, the Lib Dems, then just the Liberals when it all happened, are the only party we know of which in modern times had a leader who took out a murder contract on a former lover).

The Tories, those same wiseacres assure us, will feel the wrath of the shire little Englanders who are fed up to the back teeth with them for ‘deserting Conservative values’ - last year they brought in legislation to all homosexual couples to marry, which didn’t go down at all well, not least with Conversative-identifying gays and lesbians up and down the land - and ‘sucking up to Brussels, and will desert en masse to UKIP. Or, of course, not.

Me, I don’t think any of that will happen. I think the whole ‘we’re going to shake up the whole system ‘cos you really can’t trust any politician’ election will turn out to be a damp squib. Under the circumstances I think the Tories will, much to everyone’s surprise, scrape home and get a small overall majority, Labour will lose some seats to the SNP, but not as many as the wiseacres predict, so the SNP will not, as expected, be in the position to call the shots, and Labour won’t look as bloody daft as the fear they might. I think that because the SNP is becoming rather smug lately and already its eminence grise Alex Salmond, who recently retired as party leader, is somewhat at odds with his successor, Nicola Sturgeon - it’s always difficult to take second place when you have been top dog for so long - it will not do quite as well as it hopes to; UKIP are oddly and suprisingly peaking well before the event; and I suspect there will be the usual rush to ‘safety’ - the Tories.

One thing I think the wiseacres will get right is that after their high-flying of recent years, gaining a number of seats they could once only dream of, the Lib Dems will crash and burn and be reduced to those seats on the out fringes of Scotland and the far South-West which don’t really matter to anyone. But see what happens. Mystic Meg has spoken.

PS This might sum it all up well:

Britannia between Death and the Doctors
. . .

The world no doubt weeped deep and bitter tears over the recent death of one Sir Terry Pratchett, comic fantasy novelist of these lands. I didn’t, because his schtick of whimsical bollocks has never appealed to me. For example, everyone raves, but raves, about The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but I don’t get it one little bit. And that isn’t even a pose adopted to be different. I really don’t get it. But back to Sir Terry.

Sir Terry once, when he was still Terry, unknighted, unknown and not at all rich, dropped me in it. At the beginning of the Eighties I left the Birmingham Evening Mail and took a job as a sub-editor on ‘Power News’, the in-house staff newspaper of the ‘Central Electricity Generating Board’ (CEGB). I was seduced by the money - my salary went up by 30 per cent, from £8,500 to just over £11,000 - and didn’t know at the time just how extraordinarily dull life is on a staff newspaper. That taught me a very valuable lesson: never do anything just for the money. The paper came out monthly and preparing it every month involved as much work as was done daily on the Evening Mail. It was excruciatingly boring. There really was very, very little to do.

The reason we were paid so well was that as the national electricity generating board, the CEGB was at the heart of a vital industry and no government dare allow any of its employees even to consider strike action. And the best way to buy them off was, to use Nye Bevan’s phrase about buying off the possibly troublesome consultant doctors when the National Health Service was being set up, to stuff their mouths with gold. Admittedly the paper had only five staff - the editor, his deputy and three of us sub-editors - but we were staff and so were equally well rewarded. The paper had eight editions and I was allocated the Midlands and South-West editions, which meant that I liaised with the area’s press officer who provided copy and laid out and subbed the my two editions.

Within hours of starting my job there, I realised that working there would no be plain sailing, though there was little chance we would be overoworked. On the Mail you would be promised copy on something or other and it could turn up between ten minutes and 3o minutes later. On Power News you would be promised copy ‘next week’ sometime. Until then - well, there was all too often quite literally nothing at all to do.

The CEGB worked flexitime and we clocked in very morning and out every night. We could clock in at any time between 7.3o in the morning and 6 at night. Naturally, there being so bloody little to do and work being so ineffably (I suppose I should say ‘effably’ - geddit?) boring, I took to turning up as late as possible and fucking off as early as possible.

The trouble was that as we were contracted to work a certain number of hours every month, towards the end of the month I was always ‘short’ and so had to start turning up at 7.30 in the morning and staying till 6 at night and being thoroughly bored for far longer every day. The company was based in Shirley, Solihull, and I lived just a short few miles away in the Maypole (the area was named after a huge pub there, since demolished) in the south of Kings Heath, Birmingham, so is it any wonder I drove home most lunchtimes for a cup of tea and a joint? No, it isn’t.

In addition to the very generous wages we were paid, we also got an extremely generous mileage allowance, so the number was to arrange whatever trips we could to ‘our areas’ simply to run up mileage and make a mint in expenses. For example, the paper was printed at Goodhead Press in Bicester, near Banbury, and we three subs and the deputy editor would spend a two days there every month reading proofs etc. The deputy editor lived in Cheltenham, but we subs all lived in the Birmingham conurbation area, and it would have been simple to arrange to meet up and go in one car - simple, but then none of us would have been able to coin it in expenses, so we all went in our own cars.

When I joined, one of my trips out was to meet the press officer of the South-West region in Bristol, and this was on Terry Pratchett. The press officer for the Midlands region was in the office next door, so sadly there was no huge sum in mileage to be claimed by seeing him. Terry was a year and a bit older than me, but we were both in our early thirties. He was already bald but in that young man way some men lose their hair very early on so their baldness doesn’t make them look old. The hat he always affected later as a well-known novelist would, I suspect, have been suggested by his publisher’s PR department to hide the baldness a little but also to give him some kind of ‘brand’ trademark, and if that was the case they certainly succeeded.

Terry and I were different types, from different molds. I thought him at the time something of a company man, a bit of a geek, the kind you wouldn’t be surprised had a wank every night playing his electric train set. I’ve never read one of his novels but I have gathered what they are about and it is no surprise.

In a way, while still working and before he took up writing full-time, he was born to be a press officer, and this hack doesn’t mean that much of a complimentary way. But he seemed decent enough at the first of our two meetings, though what he made of me I really don’t know. He was already writing on the side, but was not yet well-known and had only had two or three novels published by some small outfit.

About a year later (I was only with Power News for about 18 months, and couldn’t get out fast enough) we carried a story about how ‘the CEGB’s press officer in the South-West region has signed a big book deal with a bigger publisher and although he didn’t leave the CEGB until a few years later, that was the beginning of his career. I said Terry ‘dropped me in it’, though I’m sure it wasn’t malicious. It’s just that we lived on different planets. It happened like this.

Around that time one of the smaller old-fashioned power generating plants the CEGB owned was in Mary Tavy on the edge of Dartmoor in West Devon. It celebrated its 50th birthday in 1982, so there was a lunch for staff, retired and current. Terry, as the local press officer went along, of course, as did I, although there was no reason at all for me to go except to cream up in mileage expenses on the 396-mile round trip - I can’t remember the mileage rate, but if it was, say, 20p a mile, that trip

A good lunch

would have made me £80, a very respectable sum in 1982. (Christ, was I really ever that bloody venal? Yes, I believe I was.) There was also the lunch and I am one of those chaps - not at all fat, mark you, that must be established - who really can’t resist a free lunch. I can’t remember what we had for lunch, though I’m sure it was good and it went on for some time and, pertinently, the wine flowed very freely. And where there’s a free flow of reasonable wine you’ll always find me with an empty glass handy.

I didn’t get roaring drunk, that I can assure you, dear reader, but I most certainly didn’t stint myself, either. And that was it really, until the following week when I was called to the editor’s office to face him (he was called Dick someone or other, who drove an Austin Princess - well, someone had to - and preferred living in ‘new towns’ - again, someone has to) and his deputy (John Shaw a nice chap who was very heavily into rugby and highly suspicious of me - often arriving back at work after lunch quite obviously stoned wouldn’t have helped). They asked about ‘my behaviour’ at the Mary Tavy lunch and had been told ‘I had drunk quite a good deal’.

Well, yes to the second claim, but I really can’t at all remember doing anything out of order and pride myself on being quite polite when, as occasionally they do, needs must. In fact, I was rather baffled by what amounted to a bollocking because I didn’t feel I had done anything amiss. And for some reason it was only many years later that it dawned on me that Terry, later Sir Terry, Pratchett, was the source of the editor and his deputy’s ‘concern’. Had I attended that lunch working for and on behalf of a regular newspaper, any ‘behaviour’ I might have exhibited would never have merited comment. But it wasn’t bad, honest.