Literature as consolation

November 22, 2014

When I started the last post but one on this blog I’d meant to write about books.

All literature is consolation.

I believed for a moment that was an original thought of mine — after all, it’s about time — but in fact it’s something said by Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as he makes the point that history is written after the fact. Even if it’s representative of euphoria, by the time it’s written the euphoria is over. By extension you might say it’s written by losers. If they were winners they’d be out there doing it, but they’re not so they’re in here writing about it.

When a couple of months ago a meme reached me on Facebook asking me to name ten books that had ‘stayed’ with me (retch), I listed ten favourite titles off the top of my head, the predictable Middlemarch, which I had just reread, Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice. If I had disregarded the accompanying instruction not to give the formulation of the list too much thought (thought, of course, being the enemy of the list), I might have ended up with something more interesting. What if I’d made a list of the books that had consoled me over the years?

Treehorn

As a little boy, I didn’t have much need of consolation. Mostly, I was happy. Children find comfort in familiarity, hence the bedtime plea to have Owl Babies for the ten thousandth time. There were fictional worlds I certainly did love and feel at home in: A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood; the unobtrusively Jewish milieu of Florence Parry Heide’s three offbeat books about the little boy Treehorn and his friend Moshie, with illustrations by Edward Gorey; the half real, half invented world of The BFG, which mixed places I knew couldn’t exist with places I knew did, though London felt as tantalisingly out of reach as Giant Country.

And yet still I worried about things. I worried about a fire breaking out on the landing in the middle of the night, which would have blocked my path downstairs to safety. I worried too about growing up and having to do National Service. (This was the time of the Gulf War.) If I’d known how to put my fears into words I could have been reassured about the abolition of conscription, but I didn’t, so I suffered in silence. Perhaps this explains my devotion to Peanuts, with its children (and animals) trying to cope with the challenges of a life they aren’t prepared for. I remember particularly Linus having to prepare a Bible reading for the Christmas pageant, something I empathised with. For recitation at school I had to learn

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

I didn’t understand all the words, and I still can’t parse ‘As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky’.

I think I also had a crush on Woodstock.

Woodstock

When I was a teenager I turned to books for some kind of validation of my sexuality. Not that I ever agonised about being other — I always thought it was perfectly natural to feel as I felt — but I wanted to explore authors who might turn out to be kindred spirits. I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice when I was fourteen, which I loved. (Had I seen Visconti’s film first? Possibly.) I think Edmund White may have been next, though the chronology is confused in my mind. White bemoans the fact that Death in Venice was the only ‘gay’ book he had access to. He thought it painted a grim picture of homosexuality, whereas I fell in love with the idea of the contemplation of beauty. Meanwhile, White’s writing pointed to a life of empty promiscuity, which didn’t appeal to me then and still doesn’t. (A neat demonstration of the fundamental difference between me and White: when he read Death in Venice at the same age as I did, he imagined himself as Tadzio, a boy with a power over older men; I automatically identified with Aschenbach, a man in the thrall of beauty, the pursuer but not the pursued. White was an instigator, I a mere observer.) James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was another important book to me at that time, especially the episode early on describing the narrator’s intense affair with another boy. I wish now that my reading had been less earnest. If I’d known about Armistead Maupin or David Sedaris, maybe I’d have had more fun.

Giovanni's Room

When I was fifteen I did a week’s work experience at a local independent bookshop. I suspected my boss of harbouring unpleasant right-wing views — he was a Rotarian and looked like General Pinochet — but at the end of a week of making window displays and drinking repulsive cups of tea made with Coffee-Mate he said I could choose £20 worth of books to take home, a generous gesture. One of the books I chose was Stephen Fry’s memoir Moab is My Washpot, just out in paperback. Ron made some quip about Fry being an ex-offender, but acquiesced to my selection.

More than any other book, Moab broadened the scope of my reading. The books Fry read became the books I read. He turned me on to forgotten men like T.C. Worsley and Angus Stewart and Michael Campbell (whose Lord Dismiss Us became a favourite novel of mine). I graduated much later to Henry de Montherlant. But more vital than the bibliography he provided was the story he told of his own adolescence, which mirrored my own in ways that made me feel I’d found not merely a friend but a confidant, odd though that sounds. I didn’t need to talk to him or write to him, as I knew innately that he understood me. I’m not as devout a Fryphile as I once was, but I will be eternally grateful to him for having written that book.

Nowadays when I turn to books for consolation it is invariably because of some emotional turmoil. My friend the Argumentative Old Git occasionally writes of his resistance to the idea of books as escapism, and I feel similarly, that the best literature is not a refuge from life but an exploration of it, that may help us to understand the world and ourselves more deeply. Nonetheless, when I want to escape something that’s plaguing me there are writers I turn to. Increasingly P.G. Wodehouse is the first I think of. I sometimes wish I knew what the alchemy was that makes his books so magical to me, but I imagine that to understand it would be to dissolve it. There’s something very comforting about reading a writer whose very presence is benevolent. That’s the case with Wodehouse and Maupin and Sedaris, and Anthony Trollope and Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Morris. The pianist and music writer Susan Tomes is another. A digression sideways to end with, the opening of an essay from her latest book, Sleeping in Temples:

A few years ago I became intrigued by the number of people coming up to me after concerts and telling me that listening to the music had helped them to feel better. Sometimes they were quite specific. They mentioned having felt unwell at work, feeling unsure if they ought to go to the concert or just go straight home instead and rest. They said that they took their seats in a pessimistic frame of mind, were drawn in by the music, caught up by the interaction between the musicians, somehow soothed by the effect of the music and gradually realised that the horrible headache had gone, the fatigue had lifted, that they were no longer feeling so down about whatever it was that had been on their minds.

Funny thing, art. Certain government ministers may wish to take note.

Kidnapped Christmas Cards

November 19, 2014

Christmas is barely a month away, and yesterday I bought my Christmas cards. I worked with Christmas cards in my gap year, as chronicled elsewhere, but my interest in the Christmas card goes back to infancy. Discovered recently, a playlet I wrote aged about six or seven. Tragically it was never staged. My transcription below the original playscript has amended some unorthodox capitalisation of letters. When Robert says he has made 28,000,00 Christmas cards I think we are meant to infer that he is prone to exaggeration, not that he is resourceful.

Kidnapped Christmas Cards, c. 1990 - 1

Kidnapped Christmas Cards, c. 1990 - 2

Kidnapped Christmas Cards, c. 1990 - 3

Kidnapped Christmas Cards, c. 1990 - 4

Kidnapped Christmas Cards, c. 1990 - 5

Kidnapped Christmas Cards, c. 1990 - 6

A play presents

KIDNAPPED CHRISTMAS CARDS

Actors are:
robber
two children

Robert I’ve been making Christmas cards

Jennifer So have I

Robber I’d like to rob some great people

Jennifer How many Christmas cards have you made Robert

Robert 28,000,00

Jennifer Lets go to bed now it’s after 9.00

[Robber creeps up very quietly]

Robber Now I can steal their Christmas cards.

Robert [upstairs] I can hear footsteps downstairs. Do you think it’s mum back from her meeting.

Jennifer No! of course I don’t

Robert I’ll go downstairs to see.

Jennifer I don’t think you’d better, Robert

Robert I’m not frightened of anything. [boasts Robert] [continues] even if it’s a 5000 foot high bear. I can handle absolutely anything.

Jennifer Thats what you think

Robert Lets not get into an argue. I’ll go on down anyway I want a glass of water, and I’ll see who is downstairs as well. [Robert shouts upstairs to Jennifer] The person is a … ROBBER!

Jennifer Oh no … oh no!

Robert … and he’s robbed our Christmas C-A-R-d-S

THE END

Either/or

November 5, 2014

I was six years old when I came out. Though not the habitual reader of dictionaries that schoolmates later liked to imagine me, I happened to be reading a dictionary at the time. My eye alighted on a word in the H section and I announced to my mother that I was a homosexual. I think she was taken aback somewhat, not having anticipated the necessity of having that conversation with me for at least another year or so. Still, I was gay and I was tired of living a lie, so why waste time?

Though the word was new to me, the feeling wasn’t, entirely. A male who is attracted to other males, it said. All of my friends were indeed boys. I had invited girls to my birthday parties, but more out of a spirit of egalitarianism than because I had wanted to spend time with them, let alone talk to them, a terrifying prospect. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where you didn’t have to talk to girls, I probably fantasised. Now, I found to my great joy, such a world existed, and its name was Homosexuality.

To her credit, my mother didn’t blinch (this is a word of A.A. Milne’s, but it feels appropriate here as it would have been in my vocabulary at the time). She did suggest, I’m sure for my own sake, that perhaps I ought not to repeat my proclamation to other people, but I sensed innately that she respected my lifestyle choice.

Me, aged 6

When I was fifteen or so I came out again. There was a boy at school. I think I told two people, possibly three, none of whom considered the fact sufficiently newsworthy to inform anyone else of it. I have a memory of mentioning it to my friend Richard as we walked from one lesson to another, and of his acceptance being so low-key that it was almost exhilarating.

I was quite happy not fitting in, not that anyone would have known one way or the other. I now wonder whether I wasn’t deliberately (if unconsciously) trying to fit out. Certainly there were no other ways in which I failed to conform, other than skiving the occasional PE lesson to go and write music. It was nice to think that something marked me out, even though the mark didn’t show.

By the time I decided that maybe girls weren’t so bad after all, I didn’t feel it was much worth going halfway back in. I had so little to show for it. As Alan Bennett is reputed to have said when asked about his own sexuality, that’s like asking a man in the middle of the desert whether he prefers Perrier or Malvern water. The brands of water vary according to whom you ask, but the sense remains: a little of each, not really enough of either.

Some years ago I came to the conclusion that I didn’t like labels, at least not for sexuality. It would be so convenient to be able to say that everyone fits into one of three boxes, wouldn’t it, and so dull; but the idea that anything, certainly anything to do with life, is black and white, is a myth. There are as many sexualities as there are people that have existed. If anyone asked what I call my own sexuality I’d probably tell them that I still haven’t made my mind up, and that’s OK. What does it matter what we call things?

A fact and a theory

October 24, 2014

Fact: the Polish word for nightmare is koszmar, a direct borrowing of the French word cauchemar. The idea of Franco-Polish linguistic exchange is an unusual one. It’s quite common for words of local colour to make the journey from one language to another. It’s not surprising, for instance, that the French have borrowed the word goulache from Hungarian, and similarly the Poles talk of brioszka and bagietka; but nightmare? I wonder how the word came to be adopted into Polish, given the unrelatedness of the two languages.

Scream

Theory: there is a higher incidence of deaths from heart attack in the circus community than in the world at large.

1. Medical professionals advise that people performing CPR on anyone suffering cardiac arrest should sing in their head a song with a tempo of around 100-120 bpm, to facilitate the maintenance of a steady and appropriate pulse.

2. Popularly recommended songs for this purpose include Stayin’ Alive, the Archers theme, and Nellie the Elephant.

3. Although Nellie the Elephant is generally regarded as a happy and upbeat song, circus people consider it a sad song because it relates the departure of one of their number. As a result, circus people sing the song at a slower tempo (and sometimes in a minor key).

4. When called upon to perform CPR, circus people perform chest compressions at a correspondingly slower rate, which is less effective in combatting heart attack.

5. Therefore people suffering heart attacks while at the circus have a lower chance of survival.

It would be good to see some statistics on this.

Baby Elephant


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