Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

Grand Tour #9 – Czech Republic. Closely Observed Trains / Bohumil Hrabal

April 29, 2017

The best known work of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is probably his short novel of 1965 Closely Observed Trains (sometimes Closely Watched Trains, Ostře sledované vlaky in the original Czech) – best known probably because of Jiří Menzel’s acclaimed film adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. I’ve been meaning to watch the film for about 20 years, but haven’t got around to it yet. The book, though, I have read, in the translation by Edith Pargeter, herself best known for writing medieval murder mysteries under the name of Ellis Peters.

It’s a blackly comic portrait of life at a rural railway station in early 1945, told from the perspective of young Miloš, a graduate trainee railwayman who returns to work after three months’ sick leave following a suicide attempt. The other main players are the blustering station-master Lánský, more interested in his pigeons than his work (‘They pecked at his cheeks, but so tenderly, as though they’d been his little children’), and the dispatcher Hubička, who is in trouble with the authorities for stamping the bottom of his inamorata Virginia with official railway stamps. Bureaucracy and sex, it’s a lethal combination. It made me think of Gavin Ewart’s silly poem about office life.

Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.

The presence of lively Hubička, the embodiment of sexual freedom, seems to promise adventure for Miloš, whose suicide attempt was the result of what David Nobbs would have described as an amorous disappointment. The sex comedy is quite broad, the most farcical scene involving Miloš forcing himself on Lánský’s wife, who protests she’s going through ‘the change’. There are hints that she might have liked to accept him otherwise, Lánský himself not being a great proponent of sex. ‘The curse of this erotic century!’ he fulminates. ‘Everything’s saturated with sex, nothing but sex and erotic stimulants!’ (Of course, this may be a front.)

Hrabal’s comic writing has a great economy. Lánský is a case in point, his character distilled into small descriptions. From this alone you can tell what kind of man he is.

He combed his hair carefully so as to smooth it from the left side over his bald patch to the right side, and again from his right ear over the bald patch to the left side. But sometimes when he walked out on to the open platform without due care, and there was a wind blowing, it blew the strands apart, and stood both wings of his hair on end like a Gothic arch.

See also what might be my favourite sentence of the book.

‘Sit down,’ he invited me, and as he rose from his table a leaf of the palm laid itself on his head.

But despite the comic interludes and daydreams, I felt that the predominant tone of the book was one of pity. In his unpreparedness for the brutalities of war, Miloš might be any one of us, and the brutalities are not ignored. The book opens with a German plane crashing. While the locals steal the wings for metal, Miloš goes to inspect the fuselage, finding the body of the pilot. Trains arrive carrying people wounded by the bombing of nearby Dresden. There are bombing raids, dead horses, cattle rotting alive, and gutted train carriages streaked with blood. I didn’t think of The Catcher in the Rye often, but this passage where Miloš remembers his stay in hospital shows a sense of pity at the fragility of human beings that he shares with Holden Caulfield.

I was sad that day, because lying next to me was a fifteen-year-old girl. She’d found in the cupboard a present her parents had bought for her, it was a pair of felt boots, and she couldn’t resist putting them on and going off to Prague in them, but there among the rocks by Satalice this train she was in collided with another passenger train, and the seats were rammed together in such a way that the girl’s feet were crushed. When she came out of the anaesthetic she was all the time crying: Put my boots in the cupboard, please, my boots …

Even amid the pity and tragedy, there is beauty. There is a spellbinding description of Miloš returning home from hospital to discover that the frost has been so hard that the rooks and crows in the wood near his house have frozen on the branches in their sleep.

I stamped the sole of my shoe against the trunk of a tree, that time, and out of the boughs and branches showered hoar-frost and dead birds; several of them brushed my shoulders, but they were so light that it was only as if an empty beret had fallen on me.

The chief of the mail train that carries the wounded of Dresden utters the phrase that becomes the motto of the book: ‘Sollten Sie am Arsch zu Hause sitzen.’ (‘You should have sat at home on your arse.’) As a portrait of the futility of war, it’s a minor entry in the literary canon, but a poignant one. As a comparison I’d recommend Josef Škvorecký’s less farcical novel The Cowards, which I wrote about several years ago here.

Diary excerpts 7

February 26, 2017

4 January
Looking at old home videos I realise I peaked physically at New Year 1998. But I’m better now than I was at ten, which is a consolation.

13 January
Glimpsed through a window on Hertford Street: a middle-aged couple watching Up Pompeii in stony-faced silence.

30 January
M’s idea, several years ago, of an 11-year-old maths prodigy coming up to Cambridge and leaving with a third because he spends all his time with Footlights seems to me as brilliant now as it did then.

8 February
Wandering past the gift shop on the corner of Rose Crescent, I spot the same Mr Bean coaster set that’s been there for several years. Thinking of Mr Bean coasters as status symbol. Who would own such a thing? Someone who loves Mr Bean, perhaps. Thinking of the universal appeal of Mr Bean, given the absence of any language barrier, and the jarring notion of a family in Ethiopia, say, using their set of Mr Bean coasters (which isn’t after all so unlikely, given the work of Comic Relief). In a gift shop on King’s Parade, a Queen figurine and a Mr Bean figurine side by side. Perhaps Mr Bean would be one of the, say, ten most globally recognised British people. I can certainly think of several less desirable candidates.

8 March
We’re all so full of unacknowledged prejudices, aren’t we. I just walked past a pigeon in Webb’s and called it a fat fucker for no reason.

pigeon

21 March
Message just received on my voicemail: ‘I’m really sorry, I called your number by mistake and I think I might have sworn, which wasn’t intentional, so please accept my apologies.’

24 March
I like to think of Lemsip as the proprietary name of a generic drink called lemon sip.

13 April
Awoke today to hear myself singing ‘Was ist Silvia?’ What a lovely voice I’ve got, I thought. Turned out to be Fischer-Dieskau.

Diary excerpts 6 — walking to work edition

November 30, 2016

7 January
Chalked on the back of a lorry in Trinity Street: HAPPY XMAS MUMMY

17 March
Seen on the way to work today: a builder singing ‘Cowabunga’ to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus, and a cyclist wearing a baseball cap with horns attached.

12 April
Woman dragging her heels in front of me this morning. When I got to where she’d been dawdling, I saw why – a female blackbird hopping about on a wheelie bin. Just the most beautiful of birds. I didn’t care for blackbirds as a boy, I liked the showy ones, kingfishers and peacocks, even pigeons with their shiny feathers.

pigeon-at-st-pauls

13 May
On the way to work this morning: a father bending down to kiss his 10-year-old son as they walked to St Luke’s. A swan with a titanic wingspan flapping under Magdalene Bridge. Boulez on a bike. Daniel Zeichner. A male blackbird alighting on the King’s Parade wall, flapping his wings and stomping his tail and tweeting vociferously. I wanted to put him in a little box.

18 September
Senses simultaneously heightened and blurred by slight drunkenness last night. Waking up with my voice a fifth lower because of the beer, singing along with songs down the octave as I got dressed, humming pedal D’s on ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ as I walked to work.

22 September
A few days ago I walked past a dead pigeon on the pavement at the bottom of the road. I didn’t stop to inspect it, but it appeared to have died peacefully, albeit surrounded by its own droppings. Now the body is gone, but the droppings remain. Can a bird shit itself to death, I find myself wondering.

29 September
Listened to the first movement of Brahms 2 (Harnoncourt) as I walked to work through the teeming rain. A realisation later that Brahms is my great hero, maybe my greatest hero, for that piece as much as for anything else. It’s remarkable.

3 November
It’s not every day you get leered at on the way to work by a ponytailed man carrying a banana in a threatening manner. Just some days.

Liebster Award – part 4 of 4

December 9, 2013

I hope you’re following this. Mel set me some questions and now I’m answering them.

1) Why did you start blogging?

Hubris. I’ve used message boards for ten years, and found myself thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to have a corner of the internet to call my own. What fanciful schemes I entertained in those days, imagining a new audience hanging on my every word. Sheer folly. If this blog hasn’t been a failure in every respect, I can’t pretend it’s not stagnating, this sudden spurt of daily posts notwithstanding. Of course, now I have other creative outlets. Look at World of Brine, still crawling along after a year and a bit. Really, look at it; nobody else does.

2) You’re going on an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to a far flung part of the planet. Where would you go? And what would be the one luxury item you would pack in your rucksack?

My own Wanderlust, such as it is, is vaguely approximate to that of a snail. Sometimes I feel daring enough to venture as far as the bottom of the garden, but all things considered I’d rather stay in my shell, and have you considered the likelihood of dog attack? But if there is a far-flung place I would like to visit, it is probably Japan. I’ve fallen in love with aspects of Japanese culture from watching the films of people like Yasujiro Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, and I like drinking sake. I’d have to bring something appropriately Japanese with me. A book by Mishima? Too depressing. A shamisen? No, I can pick one up when I’m there. But it occurs to me that my generic MP3 player was probably assembled there, or at least made from Japanese components, and it would certainly keep me company during the journey.

3) If you lived in the same parallel universe as Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, what animal would your daemon be? Or, put another way, what settled form would you hope it would adopt, and why?

I think I’m as close to a hedgehog as one can get without actually being one. That said, I was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig – the Water Pig, to be precise. Wikipedia:

Being its natural element, those born in the year of the Water Pig are said to show the extremes of being a Pig. They can be very emotional, deep, nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic, imaginative and intuitive; however, they can also be cold, moody, jealous, sentimental, sensitive, escapistic and irrational.

So everything, then.

4) If you had the chance to step into a painting, and to spend a magical hour wandering its world, which painting would you choose? Maybe it would be Constable’s Hay Wain? Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Or, perhaps you’d like to join in with Edvard Munch’s Scream?? Or – much more light-heartedly – maybe you’d prefer to go trip-trapping over Monet’s bridge? The possibilities are endless. It’s your choice…

I haven’t thought about it in depth, but the first thing that springs to mind is Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’. I hope that’s not too much of a cliché, but I’m sure it must be. I don’t even like snow that much, so don’t ask me to rationalise my choice.

Hunters in the Snow

5) The Doctor has invited you to time travel with him on board the Tardis. Which period in history would you most like to visit and why?

I think turn-of-the-century London. I’d hang out around Baker Street hoping for a glimpse of the great man.

6) If Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Will Shakespeare were alive today and were regular tweeters, I’d definitely be persuaded to join Twitter! Is there anyone from pre-internet days who, if they were alive today, you would love to see dazzle us daily with tweets of sheer brilliance and delight? Or are you glad they never had to suffer the tyranny of 140 characters?

I love Twitter, for what it is, but for anyone with an ambition to write proper sentences it’s hard not to see it as a corset. I suppose Hemingway would cope OK, but I doubt I’d follow him.

7) Which three books and three pieces of music would you take with you to a desert island?

Books – Middlemarch, Bleak House and Pale Fire. A good mix there. Do I get the Bible and Shakespeare too? I’d like them there. As for music, I’ve assembled annual Desert Island Discs lists meticulously for the past five years, incorrigibly pathetic specimen of humanity that I am, and the choice is impossibly difficult. But let’s choose three incontrovertible masterpieces: Purcell’s Fantasia, Z731 (I’d have the version by the David Munrow Recorder Consort), Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, and, in case I wanted to jump about a bit, this pair of jigs from James Morrison and John McKenna, recorded in New York in February 1929:

8) Out of all the species of wild animals or birds you have yet to see, which one would you most like to encounter?

A bittern (not a stuffed one).

Little Bittern

9) Which of the following would most closely correspond to your natural habitat?

a) Out on the moors with Heathcliff.

b) In the Forest with Robin Hood.

c) Out at sea with Long John Silver.

d) Cosy by the fireside with a Pickwickian gathering of genial folk, sharing a bottle of your favourite tipple.

e) The bookish calm of a country house study – in mutual retreat with Mr Bennet.

f) Striding across the meadows with Elizabeth Bennet, a healthy glow in your cheeks and mud caking your boots.

g) In the Attic with Jo from Little Women, scribbling stories and dreaming of adventure.

h) Absorbed in the life of the city streets – in the company of a fictional detective of your choice.

i) Roaming Manderley – and the windswept Cornish cliffs – with the second Mrs de Winter.

j) Wandering alongside William and Dorothy Wordsworth, pacing out poetical rhythms on the Cumbrian fells, and waxing lyrical about wild daffodils.

k) In a cave with Gollum.

l) Hey, Mel – I’m an incredibly complicated human being – a mix of all the above holds true. It depends on my mood…

m) I wouldn’t be seen dead with any of them – Bah! Humbug!

Of that lot I’d fit in best with Mr Bennet, if he could bear my company. I’d quite like the clothes too.

10) Where would you rather live and why:

Toad Hall

Bag End

Green Knowe

Little House on the Prairie

Green Gables

Kirrin Island

221B Baker Street

Well, Toad Hall excepted, the only one I really know anything about is Baker Street. Throw in the Hundred Acre Wood and we’d be in business.

11) If you had to go on a long journey with a fictional character, who would you choose? And what form of transport would you take – ship, hot air balloon, train, canal boat, motorbike, bicycle, gondola, skateboard, horse drawn gypsy caravan? Space ship?

Always the train. I’m not a trainspotter, but I love travelling by train. So a long train journey taking in lots of rural stations off the beaten track in all corners of the UK, in the company of, well, whom? There are lots of literary characters I love – Hanno Buddenbrook, Sergeant George, Charlie Brown, Piglet, Bertie Wooster – but I don’t know if they’d be good travelling companions. Racking my brains for people who are like me, I’m afraid the closest I have come is Adrian Mole. Perhaps that’s just because we both inhabit modern Britain. I desperately hope so.