Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Price Of Shoddy (cont.) with another rather lengthy preamble. And the latest on Hollande: nothing at all. Then a little bit on diaries v blogging (and if it doesn’t make too much sense, blame the several glasses of wine I have supped writing this entry)

I promised in my last entry to continue it, and I shall try to outline the link between me, my life attendance at the OS, the ‘middle class’ and Gilbert and Sullivan.

I didn’t speak any German when I started at Die Steubenschule, but I understood if very well, as our mother always spoke to us in German from the off. So German has never sounded like a ‘foreign language’ to me as do French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Serb, Iranian, Arabic and all the other tongues you will get to here if you walk the few short yards from where I work in Kensington High Street (West London) to, say Robert Dyas at the other end. I think because I understood it (though I was nine and a half and so much of it, especially the convoluted concepts the Germans just love coming up with) will have passed me by) I picked it up rather quickly as children do and as my younger brother and sister picked up French several years later. More to the point I also soaked up German culture, German ways of thinking.

I remember that in order to learn German more quickly, I would read Kasperle books. Kasperle was a character who got up to mischief and his escapades were recorded in stories. Later, I read Karl May who, although he didn’t visit the United States until he had grown rich and famous, wrote volume upon volume of Wild West stories based on a German who went there and was known as Old Shatterhand and was big friends with an Indian chief called Winnetou. (Karl May was in his way a quite extraordinary man, and his life and work is worth a blog entry of its own.) I doubt whether young Germans between the ages of seven and 13 read Karl May anymore, but for at least two generations he, his stories and his characters were an intricate part of their early lives. So what has this got to do with the OS, the ‘middle class’ and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Well here’s the thing (©Siobhan of Perfect Curve in TwentyTwelve and more recently W1A): when I arrived at the Oratory in early September 1963 (one of just two ‘new boys’ who hadn’t gone to prep school), I had no idea who Gilbert and Sullivan were. I had never heard of Father Brown, G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc (and an OS old boy), the Just So stories, Kim, Rudyard Kipling, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales and the rest, all an intricate part of the early years of a certain kind of middle class child (in our case Roman Catholic middle class boys) as Karl May was of that of a young German lad. And I felt totally out of it, and in a way have felt totally out of it ever since.

We – that is the others but not me – were expected to be totally au fait with the songs and lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. Snippets and lines would be thrown into conversation (as would snippets from other writers). I wasn’t. And I felt it keenly. I felt like a complete outsider. And because I felt it keenly, I rather took – I’m ashamed to admit – against many aspects of the kind of cultural references I was expected to understand but didn’t.

Then, more recently – far more recently – for this reason and that I have come to understand the writings of W.S. Gilbert more (Arthur Sullivan only provided the music, whereas Gilbert didn’t just write the libretto and lyrics, but took on direction, costume design and pretty much every other job involved in staging the comic operas.

Gilbert was a perfectionist: he had a vision of what he wanted and wanted to get it right. Ironically, and it is an irony which would not have been lost on Gilbert, the adoption of the comic operas he and Sullivan produced into the canon of British middle class life is, in a sense, completely opposed to what motivated Gilbert. Gilbert was a satirist, and in his lyrics he lampooned and sent up the attitudes he saw all around him. And as people don’t like being laughed at, especially the kind of self-important people Gilbert was laughing at, he sometimes got into trouble.

To this day I am unfamiliar with Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. I like their tunes, or at least the few I know, but to this day hearing someone rave about them and repeat how ‘marvellous they are’ immediately recalls my homesickness, unhappiness and feeling out of the loop, so much the German fish out of English waters of my early years at the Oratory.

I once heard some of Gilbert’s short stories read on Radio 4, and it was perhaps then that I realised there was rather more to him and his work than just being just another of the totems a certain kind of British middle class values. (I say ‘a certain kind of British middle class because, to be frank – and I have said so before – there is not one British middle class, but several and, more to the point, although they might get on quite well in public, in private, when amongst their own, they want nothing to do with the others. To say that often they dislike the other ‘middle classes’ intently would be no exaggeration. It is a peculiarly British failing, but one which must be acknowledged. Sorry, but there it is.)

The other night, a friend I drink with when I take a break in my trek homewards on a Wednesday night from civilized Kensington to the wilds of North Cornwall at the Brewers Arms, South Petherton, was trying to recall certain Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics. We – he, an avowed left-winger with a grudging admiration for the anti-EU rhetoric of Nigel Farage and UKIP, not an avowed left-winger (in fact, an avowed independent who dislikes ideologies of any stripe) and with no particular enthusiasm for Mr Farage and is gang of golf-playing gin-swiggers – were talking about education in Britain and the perpetual problem that one the one hand it seems obvious to encourage skills, particularly academic ability and on the other so many folk were in the past condemned to a life of drudgery because on one given afternoon they did not perform and failed their 11-plus.

These days, of course, we have comprehensive schools, and, in my view, a good thing they are, too. But further up the academic ladder, at what some called ‘tertiary education’ but what you and I know as ‘going to university and getting a degree’ the situation in Britain has, in our view, gone rather awry.

It was then Paul, for that is his name, tried to recall the lyrics of a certain song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. I published the lyrics of the whole song yesterday, but here are the relevant lines:

When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

The dilemma is, of course – and it is reflected in the dilemma at the heart of the debate as to whether private education is morally acceptable or not, in that it is generally believed that having a private education brings you certain advantages – can you really have too much of a ‘good thing’? I can already think of several points which could be made here, but I shan’t make them, for the sake of brevity. But let me repeat:

When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

As they say in those tawdry and, at the end of the day fundamentally trivial and thoroughly pointless debates they have on the late-night radio: think about it.

. . .

I mentioned in my last post that I was rather puzzled by the intense interest my post about the shaggin history of one Francois Hollande found and the amount of attention it received. So, always willing to live up to the motto of this ’ere blog (Ever Keen To Please – and not, as some suspect, No Joke Too Weak To Be Included) I have been frantically been googling ‘Hollande’, ‘shagging’ and ‘does he have a big willy’ for the past few minutes, but can come up with nothing about the man except that he recently re-shuffled his Cabinet, has appointed his old squeeze (and mother of his several children) Seglene Royale as his Minister for the Environment to that new Cabinet and held its first meeting. Well – and please don’t blame me – as excting news and inflammatory revelation goes that particular snippet is still-born, as in ‘who give a fuck’.

Various Radio 4 commentaries have heard these past few months all agree that France Is In The Shit and economically going to hell in a handcart rather faster than others – Angela Merkel, for one – would like. Hollande has had exactly zilch to say about the situation in the Ukraines, Egypt, Syria or North Cornwall. Not quite the statesman I’m sure he would like to be. The trouble with a blog such as this is that sooner or later you paint yourself into a corner.

. . .

Years ago I used to keep a ‘diary’. In fact, it was more than that. It was also what I later came to understand as a commonplace book, something in which you write down quotes you had come across and which you like and wanted to remember; or pieces of prose you wanted to record because they struck you at the time as particularly interesting, wise or otherwise memorable.

I say ‘at the time’ because what in the past I might once have thought ‘wise’ and an ‘insight’ almost always became, later one, once my skin began to sag and I began to prefer nights in to nights out, as pretty banal and obvious. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they were necessarily banal and obvious. What is obvious to an old fart might not at all be obvious to a young fart. It is always far to easy to write off our youthful idealism once we have become tired and resourceless.

The ‘diary’, which I shall now refer to as my diary (without the ‘ironic’ quote marks) was written in A4 hardback ledgers. I still have them, although I have never once bothered to read them. But that was also the point: not only have I never bothered to read them and never intended to read them, so absolutely no one else will read them. For why should they? But that complete privacy meant I could let my hair down and say and record things and thoughts I cannot do here. This is public.

This is read by at least three people I know, one of whom (my sister) who knows me well. Can I really dare to write things which are so personal or which might reflect on me in such as way that she would think badly of me? Of course not. Most people who happen across these scribblings have

Me (in a mellow mood)

no idea who I am and care even less. If some refer to this blog regularly, for whatever reason, they might have some kind of notion as to my character, but as none of use, at the end of the day, really knows anyone else in his or her entirety, surely that doesn’t matter. But it does.

But by going public and using Google’s blogger facilities and posting these scribblings and ramblings online, I have chosen to go public and must thust edit myself. I could, of course, start another utterly anonymous blog, but what would be the point of posting online – for the attention of the world, or why else post online – what I want to keep quiet. Use an alias, I hear you say. Well, no. Why not? Because. It’s strikes me as too much of the cowards way out. Just as a traitor is never completely trusted by those he serves by his betrayals, so publishing anonymously strikes me as a no-no. Just a thought.

The reason I don’t go back to ‘writing a diary’ (it was written by hand) is simply that I find typing 10,000 times easier than writing. My and begins to hurt even after a few lines. So there you have it: you get the story, but not the full story.



  1. BMc: Arriving at the OS in 1960, I was totally unaware of any of the books you mention or the culture they represented at the time – though Belloc (being an Old Boy, and assuredly bullied for being ‘foreign’) was lauded as an author but was never actually read. However, as an 8 year old at Ladycross (prep school) we were read The Hobbit and CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. But I had read Emil & the Detectives (Erich Kästner) and was enthusiastic about Richmal Crompton’s anarchic William. Later, the Classics master (something of a martinet) read us Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and some of Saki’s clever short stories. The English master read us Buchan’s Greenmantle which hinges on a Muslim uprising in 1915 or so …

    So are we the same class? Well, we both ‘belong’ to the same class – as sociologists/outsiders would group us; the trouble is that all classes are very tribal, which leads to the infinitely subtle aggregations of ‘People Like US’ or (everyone else) ‘people not like us.’ I have an Edwardian weakness for bad puns; so remain nonplussed.

    1. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe, as is often the case, I am unwittingly revealing more about myself in my comments about others than I am about others.

    2. BMc: Surely the whole point of your elegant, well-informed and touch-typed blogs is that they cannot fail to be highly personal. It’s an unwitting way of finding out what your mind is thinking about almost anything and I’m pleased that you publish. If you mention your perception of the OS in the 1960’s, it has you as a detached, better-educated (for your age) foreign observer of that place and that time. By the mid-60’s, the place had rapidly changed out of all recognition …