Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Grand Tour #27 – United Kingdom. The People of Providence / Tony Parker

December 2, 2017

About half of the books I read must be by British authors, so it was never going to be a struggle to find a book for the UK, but I did want to find something in the spirit of this project, a book with Britishness as its subject somehow. After much deliberation, it came to me suddenly: Tony Parker’s 1983 book The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants, which I bought in 2011 after hearing a radio documentary about the author. Tony Parker (1923-1996) was one of the great oral historians of the last century, and his work focused above all on the voices of marginalised people. His book Life After Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers, made a great impact on me a few years ago, and The People of Providence promised much.

Parker spent a good chunk of the early 1980s interviewing various residents of and visitors to the estate he calls Providence (in fact the Brandon Estate in Southwark, built in 1958 and by the 1980s beginning to be somewhat dilapidated), meeting each interviewee several times. This book consists of 49 of these interviews condensed into monologues, each lasting about six pages in total, the interviewees’ identities tactfully disguised. At the start a passer-by, asked to sum up Providence in a single word, offers the word ‘mixed’. That is indisputably the case: it’s mixed in terms of accommodation (20-storey tower blocks, low-rise flats, prefabs, squats), and in terms of its residents, who are racially diverse, come from all sorts of backgrounds (though predominantly middle- and working-class), and range in age from babies to pensioners. The People of Providence, then, is a study of a place that itself can be viewed as a microcosm of Britain at a particular time.

As a chronicle of social attitudes, it’s fascinating. At the forefront, perhaps unsurprisingly, is race, and it’s interesting that racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be divided broadly along age or class lines. You might expect opposing attitudes from the likes of 12-year-old Ian (‘There are five black boys in our class: they’re just the same as the rest of us, nobody cares if they’re coloured or not, it’s no different from anyone else.’) and 61-year-old Frank (‘Old Enoch was right, you know, when he said we should send them all back home … The thing is that their ways aren’t our ways: they never will be, we’re two completely different sorts of people.’), but more striking are those who buck the trend, such as Trevor, the young father of a baby boy:

‘If he ever came home with a coloured girl and said she was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t let him in the house … I’m not racially prejudiced, but to me it’s downright unnatural for races to mix themselves up, the whole idea’s unnatural. Know what I mean? [Later] In the last couple of weeks when you’ve come round and we’ve been talking, I expect I might have given you the impression I was a bit anti-black. But I don’t hold with the National Front … I don’t mind blacks living here so long as they behave themselves.’

Or ‘senior unretired citizen’ Percy, whose greatest pleasure is going to the cricket at Lord’s with his great-grandson, and is himself a staunch defender of immigrants:

‘There’s still hardly more than a handful of black people in top jobs anywhere in the country: not only them but their children have been exploited and taken advantage of. And this is after twenty-five to thirty years of them being here. I think it’s disgraceful what’s been done to them, I lose my temper.’

The non-white residents tend not to make a fuss about racism. One, Camilla, says she has hardly ever suffered racist abuse, though she thinks it’s a shame that Prince Charles hasn’t taken the opportunity of marrying a black woman rather than Princess Diana: after all, half of his future subjects will be black, and it would have sent out a very positive message that we are all the same. (I hope she’s still alive today.) Her modest dream is that her husband will take her to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps as a Christmas present.

Most of the people of Providence don’t give too much thought to the Royal Family. One teacher calls them parasites and is disappointed that the children in her class don’t feel as strongly as she does; Joan, by contrast, is a devout monarchist:

‘I think the Queen is a really lovely person; I don’t care how much money she’s got, she earns every penny of it. But it never changes her, deep down she’ll always be an ordinary everyday person with a house to run and a family to bring up. You can tell that from her face, when you see her among people; she’s right close to them, and she really cares for her people and what happens to them. I’m sure in elections and things she votes Labour like all the rest of us ordinary people do.’

Other social attitudes: the North-South divide is occasionally mentioned, particularly by Northerners who have moved South and find Londoners unfriendly. The only interviewee who talks about homosexuality is gay man Paul, whose attitude is depressingly typical of the time, progressive up to a point but damning of flamboyant gays and cross-dressers, the ‘freaks’ who by their refusal to assimilate stop straight-acting people like him from being accepted. He’s a relic, but not as much as reactionary Stanley, who talks unironically of ‘dear old England’ and reels off a list of his accomplishments (JP, local councillor, British Rail, ‘well known and respected in the Conservative party in this area’, Masonic Lodge), concluding, ‘There’s surely nothing else that a man could want.’ He was the only person in the book for whom I couldn’t muster up any empathy.

Most of the interviewees confront the question sooner or later of whether they are happy living in Providence, indeed, whether they are happy generally. Many feel settled there and praise the GLC for having given them a home, while some view Providence as a stepping stone to somewhere else, and a few are frankly desperate. One young mother living on the sixteenth floor says she sometimes consoles herself with the thought that if she ever wants to end it all she can simply go out on the balcony and jump off: ‘When I was a kid I used to read in books hell was down under the earth somewhere; but it’s not, it’s up here in the sky.’ The final interview is incomplete, for reasons I won’t go into here, and is one of the most guttingly sad things I’ve ever read. I had to read it twice, and the second time it read completely differently from the first.

In a book this rich it’s hard to choose a favourite character: 12-year-old Ian, perhaps, who’s a bit of a hellraiser, dropping milk bottles and light bulbs off the top of the high-rise flats, but also does odd jobs for the elderly; or kindly teenager Anne Knowles (‘I hope I’ve been a bit of help’); or benevolent sponger Mr Cross, who goes around the houses of old people to keep them company and eat their food; or Arthur Davidson, the community copper of everyone’s dreams; or Mrs Bedford, who wants to be buried with a box of her beloved peppermint creams in case she wakes up and feels lonely. But the one story that touched me most was that of 78-year-old Mr Elliott: ‘Did you say this is all confidential with no way anyone could tell who I was? All right then, I’ll tell you: I vote Conservative. No one else in the world knows that.’ As the interview progresses, it turns out he has a secret deeper even than that:

‘If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer. I never told anyone about it when I was a boy because it’s not the sort of thing you could tell anyone in those days … I’ve never seen a ballet in a theatre, but whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. The music for that one is very beautiful. I don’t know who wrote it or who the story is by – I believe Sylvia Deeds was a lady, perhaps even a princess. She must have been very beautiful for someone to write beautiful music like that about her. When I think about it I’ve got an idea that she was Polish, a Polish lady or something, but I can’t be sure.’

I take ‘Sylvia Deeds’ to be Les Sylphides, though at a push it could be Sylvia by Delibes. Without, I hope, being patronising, I find the innocence of Mr Elliott’s fantasy enormously poignant. He says he’s asked in record shops about getting the music on tape, but no one has been able to help him. (As it is, he has the largest collection of Mario Lanza cassettes in existence.) I wonder if Tony Parker might have been able to track it down for him, given more time. Later he talks of his unsuccessful marriage, many decades earlier. He can’t now remember his wife’s name, but it may have been Cora or Connie. A distillation of the small but precious life of an ordinary person – perhaps one of those who, in George Eliot’s words, rest in unvisited tombs.

It feels a great privilege to be allowed into these people’s lives and homes, and prompts contemplation of the tremendous diversity of humanity, of how little we may know about the lives of those who surround us. A book as engrossing could have been written about any block of flats in the world, only it needed a Tony Parker to do it, someone with the knack of getting people to open up. I don’t imagine a filmed documentary would have been as effective, because the interviewees would have felt inhibited by the camera. As it is, their voices are disarmingly direct. One young married couple thanks Parker at their final appointment, telling him that they will miss him, that talking out loud about things has helped them to get to know one another better, and that it’s something they may carry on doing after he’s gone, making a weekly appointment to talk to each other. I don’t make a habit of forcing books on people, but I do urge you to consider this one.

Advertisements

Grand Tour #17 – Bulgaria. Street Without a Name / Kapka Kassabova

July 24, 2017

I didn’t set myself strict rules for choosing EU books, but I did make a conscious decision to avoid poetry where possible, poetry being (to my mind) the medium least susceptible to translation, and to favour fiction over non-fiction. So it was that I didn’t read a work of non-fiction until book sixteen (Cyprus); book seventeen (Bulgaria) is not merely non-fiction but also my first non-translated book, having been originally written in English, albeit by a Bulgarian writer and on the subject of Bulgaria. And I must admit, if the objective of this project was to understand what life is like in each book’s country of origin, this book has succeeded better than the preceding sixteen. The book is Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova.

Kassabova’s book is in two parts, as suggested by the title, the first a chronicle of her childhood in the Bulgaria of the ’70s and ’80s, the second a travelogue by the adult writer, now an émigrée living in Britain, returning to Bulgaria for more or less the first time since her childhood. Her mission in writing the book is to make Bulgaria personal, not just another ‘country without a face’. I’m certainly guilty of laziness in my own conception of Bulgaria. Dour, tough-tackling footballers, poor Georgi Markov and his poison-tipped umbrella, the lev, and, to a lesser extent, the stotinka.

But amazingly there is more to Bulgaria than this, and Kassabova’s observation of small details is telling right from the off, people-watching at Frankfurt Airport as she waits for her flight to Bulgaria, knowing instinctively from their bearing which passengers are Bulgarians and which aren’t. When they touch down in Sofia, the Bulgarians applaud. ‘Bulgarians know not to take anything for granted,’ she writes.

This is 2006, and Bulgaria is on the verge of joining the EU, though the deal hasn’t been sealed yet. Kassabova’s compatriots are understandably anxious. She takes a train journey.

The old man goes to the toilet and returns at once, scandalized.

‘Have you seen the toilet?’ he cries out in anguish. ‘It has to be seen to be believed. No toilet seat, all rusty, stuff all over, words fail me … How are we going to get into Europe with this toilet? Tell me, how!’

Theory: the state of any society’s public toilets is an indicator of its prosperity. (Not that it’s a watertight theory, as anyone who has visited the gents’ at Cambridge station will verify; the old ones, with their sticky floor and mirror walls, were gross, but it’s taken next to no time for the refurbished ones to go the same way. Please spend more of my tax money sorting this out, government. Though it’s the taxpayer’s fault they’re in such a state, isn’t it; incontinent male commuters. I accidentally went into the ladies’ once and it was like Narnia. Where was I.) When young Kapka’s mother accompanies her father on a work visit to Delft University, she is moved to tears by the cleanliness of the public toilets, and too embarrassed to explain why to her husband’s concerned colleague.

Although Kapka’s childhood appears by and large to be a tolerable one – freedom at home, piano lessons, humourless strictness at her state-controlled school with its attendant shadowy threats – it isn’t until her parents return from Delft that the poverty of her country is borne in on her.

They brought records of Western pop music you couldn’t buy in Bulgaria, like Barry Manilow and a two-record album The Best of the Beatles – finally, twenty years late, my father could listen to his favourite band. A pair of tiny wooden clogs, a gift from my father’s Dutch colleague, which took pride of place in our living-room. A tin of salted, peeled peanuts. We had peanuts, of course, but they were unprocessed and sold on street stalls. Someone in Holland had shelled, peeled and salted these peanuts especially for us. A giant packet of raisins. There were no raisins in Bulgaria, only grapes. Next, an electric blue T-shirt for me with a girl doing aerobics printed on it, and orange trousers with multiple pockets, in which I felt ultra-cool. In fact, wearing these clothes made me feel so obviously Western that I imagined the envious eyes of all Sofia were on me.

Western! To Kapka, even Libya seems a Western dreamland (the atlas confirms it), a place where lavish and exotic presents are brought from. Kapka turns sixteen in the momentous year of 1989 – the Berlin Wall comes down, the Ceaușescus are executed, and the Communist regime in Bulgaria ends. Before too long, she emancipates herself.

The toilets may not have improved in the post-Communist thaw, but how are other things on Kapka’s return? Well, the phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose comes to mind. The arrival of Western accoutrements has not altered the character of the country or its people. Who would have guessed capitalism wasn’t the answer, that moderate monetary prosperity does not automatically translate into happiness.

I, being me, was less interested in the places and people adult Kapka visits than in her own reactions to the remnants of her past. The pang of nostalgia on returning to Plovdiv to find her beloved semolina cake restaurant closed, or to the coastal town of Balchik, scene of idyllic childhood holidays, to find it eroded away, irrevocably changed. The bittersweet experience of returning to a childhood home, something one once thought one’s own property, now modified beyond recognition.

At the end of the book, Kassabova quotes the 19th-century travel writer Felix Kanitz, who observed that a journey through Bulgaria is ‘marked at each turn by the catacombs of disappeared peoples and eras’. That comes across strongly during the travelogue section of Kassabova’s book. She writes apologetically at the start that the portrait she will sketch of modern Bulgaria is ‘almost never flattering’, but it is at any rate honest and sympathetic, and enlightening.

The 1947 Club: Doctor Faustus / Thomas Mann

October 14, 2016

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend was a book I vowed to myself to read at the start of the year, and when the 1947 Club came along and I spotted the publication date of Mann’s book it seemed a pleasingly neat coincidence. I’ve loved Mann since discovering Death in Venice at 14, a book I’ve read more times than probably any other, and given it’s been five years since I was blown away by Buddenbrooks, it was high time to try another. I read the 1997 translation by John E. Woods, then Michael Beddow’s volume on the book in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series.

doktor-faustus

The book, ostensibly a fictional biography of the composer Adrian Leverkühn written by his friend Serenus Zeitblom, is Mann’s reimagining of the Faust myth. Leverkühn, perhaps in a hallucination brought on by syphilis, makes a pact with Satan: he will forfeit his soul in exchange for 24 years of success. Success comes, but at great personal cost. Leverkühn’s story is set against the rise of Fascism in Germany. Beddow:

The relationship between Mann’s novel and the history of Germany is in one sense simple to the point of crudity. Adrian Leverkühn is meant as an allegory of modern Germany.

I’ll get the apologies out of the way at the start: because my own understanding of the book is indeed at the crudest of levels, I will restrict myself to a handful of observations that occurred to me as I read it. This is very much a novel of ideas, and though my musical education enabled me to follow the musical elements (which, as you’d expect, are several), I floundered during the lengthy discussions of philosophy, theology and political theory.

Within the first few pages I was put in mind of a favourite book of mine, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, another fictional biography. Nabokov’s narrator, Charles Kinbote, is an egotist who sees himself represented throughout the work of his subject, the poet John Shade. I was pleased to see Beddow draw the same parallel. Did Nabokov, who detested Mann, intend the Kinbote/Shade relationship to be a travesty of Zeitblom/Leverkühn, he wonders. There are many similarities, and most of Mann’s humour (and he’s not a humourless writer, though next to Nabokov he can seem that way) comes from Zeitblom’s pomposity, enhanced by the occasional hint of passive-aggressiveness. On the subject of names:

Our use of familiar pronouns is rooted in those years, and he must have addressed me by my first name back then too – I can no longer hear it, but it is unthinkable that as a six- or eight-year-old he did not call me Serenus, or simply Seren, just as I called him Adri. It must have been during our early years at school, though the exact moment cannot be determined, when he ceased to grant me that intimacy and, if he addressed me at all, began to use my last name – whereas it would have seemed to me impossibly harsh to reply in like fashion. It was so – though far be it from me for it to appear as if I wished to complain. It simply seemed worth mentioning that I called him Adrian, whereas he, when not evading use of a name entirely, called me Zeitblom.

Mann and Nabokov must both have enjoyed the invention of fictional bodies of work for their creations. Mann also does it with Aschenbach in Death in Venice, devoting several pages of the novella to a description of the writer’s output, establishing his credentials as a man of letters. Zeitblom again:

It was my lot in life to spend many years in intimate proximity with a man of genius, the hero of these pages, to know him from childhood on, to witness his growth, and his fate, and to play a modest supporting role in his work. The libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, Leverkühn’s mischievous youthful composition, comes from me; I was also permitted some influence on the preparation of the texts for both the grotesque opera suite Gesta Romanorum and the oratorio The Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Nabokov goes so far as to present Shade’s poem ‘Pale Fire’ in its entirety as a preface to the analysis/biography. Leverkühn is a composer, and so isn’t accorded this luxury, though Mann describes certain works of his in detail. The violin concerto, untypically romantic, sounded bewitching to me in Zeitblom’s description, like the most beautiful piece ever written, and I wondered if any composer had tried to extrapolate any of the music from the book. Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata too: there are various pieces thought to have inspired it, but has anyone set out to compose the piece in real life? A thought that occurred to me in passing.

Theodor Adorno, scourge of music students throughout the world, advised Mann on the book’s musical content. Some readers equate Leverkühn with Arnold Schoenberg because Mann has Leverkühn invent twelve-tone composition. Schoenberg was a bit put out by this, and Mann was obliged to insert a disclaimer at the end of the book setting the record straight. In fact Leverkühn resembles no single real composer, but in some respects Stravinsky is a closer fit than Schoenberg. Around the time of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), Leverkühn composes a work, Marvels of the Universe, that feels very much its counterpart, and the changeability of his style recalls Stravinsky’s series of chameleon-like self-reinventions.

While Zeitblom’s laughableness is entertaining – the fact that as a student he misses his own lectures to attend Leverkühn’s, so convinced is he that he must observe everything his idol does, already certain that one day he will write this biography; the conviction (like Kinbote’s) that he sees cryptographic messages in the master’s work that no one else does – his political observations make for sober reading, perhaps because his horror of the rise of totalitarianism feels eerily current. There are innumerable passages about art as the antidote to extremism, about the anti-intellectualism of his society, about the ‘anti-humanity’ of the odious iconoclast Chaim Breisacher, misrepresenting Bach and Palestrina as hateful reactionaries who despoiled the glory of monophony, and about the scourge of nationalism, where I felt sharp pangs of recognition as I read. His shame at the moral bankruptcy of his country mirrors what I have sometimes felt about my own in recent months:

Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, had been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world … is it mere hypochondria to tell oneself that all that is German – even German intellect, German thought, the German word – shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt? Is it morbid contrition to ask oneself the question: How can “Germany,” whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind’s concerns?

In these passages, where (perhaps) we see ourselves reflected, this is a viscerally terrifying book, more so than any horror story I’ve read. Books don’t usually scare me, but I was glad to get to the end of this one. It’s brilliant, but profoundly unsettling. Part of the scariness, as my fellow blogger the Argumentative Old Git has observed elsewhere, is that Germany has such a rich cultural history. If Germany could turn to barbarism, what hope for the rest of us? Let us pray that we heed the lessons of history.

Back to the allegory: the political life of Germany in the first part of the twentieth century seems to correspond to Leverkühn’s own. He sells his soul and ends up killing the things he loves and descending into madness. But although the two mirror each other, their stories don’t seem inextricably linked, and the comparisons are not exact. Take Leverkühn’s music. Serialism – a democracy of tones in which no single note of the twelve is superior to any other – is a logical extreme, a dead end. There is nowhere beyond it to go, which is not to say that much great serialist music has not been written. With political extremism, when things are pulled down we have no option but to carry on, and good generally emerges from the wreckage. (I suppose I mean the NHS.) What came after serialism? Minimalism, blankness, emptiness? I think I’ll keep Schoenberg, thank you. The more I compare political with musical extremism, the more I see it can’t be done. For the reader of Doctor Faustus to feel tempted to equate twelve-tone music with Nazism is, I think, to misread the book. I just can’t say exactly why.

Labels

November 19, 2015

For some months I’ve been thinking about the labels we use to define ourselves, prompted partly by this article by Charlie Mitchell, which is perceptive about several things like the reductiveness of labels and, contrarily, the necessity of having words to hang our identities on. You might consider yourself above labels, but if you’re on Twitter (for instance) then there’s a good chance there are several in your 160-character biography alone. Your job, your age, your interests, your gender, your location. We label ourselves to help others build up a picture of us, and for our own sake too.

You’ll be familiar with the sensation of noticing a word for the first time and then seeing it everywhere. That word for me, at the moment, is ‘intersectionality’, which relates to the interaction of overlapping systems of discrimination. One of the central theses of Julia Serano’s brilliant book Whipping Girl is that trans women face discrimination not merely because they’re trans, but because they’re women. Throw in factors like race, class, education, dis/ability, and you have a multiplicity of intersectional permutations.

I’ve been reading what by my standards is an absurd amount of theory this year (approximately two books), and something that becomes apparent is that you can’t understand queer theory, say, without a grounding in gender theory and feminist theory, and probably other theories of oppression too. I struggled with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble because I haven’t read Foucault; but by the same token I’d struggle with Foucault because I haven’t read Nietzsche, for instance. Everything is connected. No person is an island, entire of itself, as John Donne meant to write. Intersectionality.

It wasn’t until I attended a performance of Tribes by Nina Raine a couple of weeks ago that I realised how ubiquitous labelling is in my life. Raine’s play is about a deaf young man, Billy, brought up in a hearing household, who comes to realise that his own family is as cloistered in its way as the ‘deaf community’ that he has avoided all his life. It can be nice to feel included in a tribe, but it can also be oppressive, and not helped by every member being an individual with a different understanding of what should define membership. The problem with so many tribes is the nuance-free ‘them and us’-style tribalism that in time evolves.

No Homers

Watching the play, I started thinking about the semblance of order I try to impose on these blog posts, assigning broad and unsatisfactory categories and then adding narrower tags so that (in theory) someone can click on one and be met with a raft of similar results. We have a thousand tags we could attach to ourselves in a similar manner, if we were only computerised. I don’t often tag myself as a Chelsea fan, or as a sufferer of a chronic illness, because although I would place myself in both demographics, however tentatively, neither feels of primary importance to my being; but I could if I wanted to.

Then, suddenly, came a realisation of the extent to which my daily work, cataloguing, relies on labels. The cataloguer’s greatest friend is the Library of Congress Authorities website. This is a database of names and subject headings expressed in a standardised way to enable matching. Search it yourself. If you know a published author, they will (in theory) have a name entry in the database. Subject headings are the most interesting. A keyword search for ‘librarians’ brings up 2,000+ entries, including the following:

  • Academic librarians–Effect of automation on
  • African American librarians–Kentucky–History–19th century
  • Bisexual librarians–Canada
  • Christian Librarians’ Fellowship
  • Cuban American librarians
  • Detroit Suburban Librarians’ Round Table
  • Gay librarians–United States–Directories
  • Jewish librarians–Lithuania–Vilnius–Biography
  • Librarians–Anecdotes
  • Librarians for Nuclear Arms Control
  • Librarians in motion pictures
  • Louisiana Teen-age Librarians Association. Convention (1989 : Baton Rouge, La.)
  • National Workshop on Effective Management of Polytechnic Library Resources for Polytechnic Librarians in Nigeria
  • Part-time librarians–Germany (East)
  • Transgender librarians
  • Ukrainian Librarians Association of Canada
  • Women librarians–Job satisfaction–India
  • If you’re above a certain age, you’ll have seen this sort of thing in card catalogues; nowadays a bibliographic record online will contain several of these headings as hyperlinks, to facilitate the identification of similar books. A global web of connections.

    At the end of Tribes, following estrangement, comes reconciliation. Dan, the older brother, reaches out to Billy, offering his hand and asking him the sign for LOVE, sign language having been a bone of contention throughout the play. That, I suggest, I hope, is what is behind labelling. Wanting to make a connection, wanting someone else to hold our hand, figuratively or actually. So let’s try not to let our differences set us against other people. Let’s celebrate the differences, acknowledge the humanity we have in common, and unite against our one common enemy: the government.