Posts Tagged ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’

Seeing stupid people happy

March 30, 2017

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

This from an amusingly oddball Q&A with Slavoj Žižek. Whether or not we subscribe to Žižek’s personal brand of Eeyoreish misanthropy (and I confess I don’t, though the thought of Žižek being miserable is certainly a pleasing one), I expect most of us have felt depressed at seeing stupid people happy, whether we realise it or not.

It’s often a symptom of their not sharing our tastes. How, we ask ourselves, can they find joy in something so self-evidently wrong? ‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,’ says Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t know precisely what Emma is getting at here, but as an Austen heroine she may be alluding to the harpsichord vs fortepiano question. A debate as old as time.

Horses for courses, I suppose. We all know people who spend their time collecting figurines of cats sleeping on pianos, say, or pursuing a career in recruitment, and we don’t call them out on it because it’s not worth ruining the friendship for. They may have had similar thoughts about our increasing dependence on alcohol. But there comes a time when one has to put one’s foot down, and putting one’s foot down usually involves Disney (as it does now).

I happened some time ago upon a quotation of more than usually revolting sentimentality. It was this:

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you.

I’m very sorry for having made you vomit, as you will find you just did. I left the ellipses in place because the dramatic pauses they imply are particularly emetic, but even without them this paragraph would constitute probably the most loathsome violation of the Roman alphabet in the history of recorded time.

But enough vituperation. There is a time to spout invective and a time to take action and kill someone, and this is obviously the latter. Who has perpetrated this monstrosity? Step forward, A.A. Milne! Or at least that’s what the internet says.

Look at this. It’s a catalogue of saccharine platitudes, but I’m going to keep quoting it, so if you read further you have only yourself to blame.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Ready for this?

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

I mean, Milne’s not exactly Raymond Chandler, but the Pooh books are a fuck of a lot more hard-nosed than this steaming pile of horseshit. Anyway, it’s not Milne, as anyone with half a brain can tell. It’s Disney, or Disney-lite. I can’t trace the source of every spurious Pooh quotation on the internet, but it’s clear enough where the rot started. Milne himself isn’t blameless, but he couldn’t have anticipated the full horror of what would follow when in 1930 he sold merchandising rights to the USA.

The problem is that as the originator of the character in print, every Pooh emission is attributed by default to Milne, and not to whatever faceless corporation reckons (wrongly) that the Hundred Acre Wood’s bee-botherer-in-chief would even think anything as sappy as ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, let alone say it out loud; and because of the way the internet works, one error being duplicated in a second and endlessly reduplicated thereafter, the fake A.A. Milne quotation is now ubiquitous. I manage to avoid them most of the time, but sometimes an otherwise benign website posts you a bookmark like this one, as happened a few days ago, and the black heffalump descends.

(This is a perverted rewrite of a comment made by Christopher Robin at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, the episode in which he and Pooh say goodbye. It’s one of the most moving scenes in English literature. It loses something here.)

Pooh Bear has been despoiled by the Disnetic infantilisation of the senses, and the common perception of him now is of an emotionally incontinent brainstormer of fridge magnet slogans. It gives credence to Dorothy Parker’s disingenuous broadside on the books (‘And it is that word “hummy”, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up’). I hate that Dorothy Parker piece, but it now seems prophetic.

Comrades, we can fight back! Every time someone wrongly attributes a quotation to A.A. Milne on Twitter, inform them politely that they’re an idiot and then block them so they can’t reply. Reread the books, or listen to Alan Bennett reading them. And if you’ve never seen them before, make time for these brilliant Russian cartoons, respectful of the source material in a way that I can only imagine Disney never is.

The 1947 Club: The Path to the Spiders’ Nests / Italo Calvino

October 12, 2016

What a difference a pair of glasses makes. Philip Larkin and Italo Calvino shared a lifespan, born barely a year apart, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, and dying within three months of one another in 1985. That’s commitment. Larkin read English at Oxford, while Calvino studied agriculture at Turin and Florence, but when their countries came calling Larkin’s duff eyesight got him out of National Service, whereas Calvino joined the Resistance. It was Calvino’s wartime experience that formed the basis of his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno), which I read in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation, revised by Martin McLaughlin.

the-path-to-the-spiders-nests

Calvino’s protagonist is Pin, a boy of indeterminate age (I’d have put him at about 12 or 13; other sources – OK, Italian Wikipedia – say 10). He has had a difficult life. His parents are dead and he now lives with his older sister who works as a prostitute. He spends his time in bars, cracking jokes and singing sexy songs he doesn’t really understand in the company of much older people. He’s full of pugnacity and bravado.

All Pin talks about is men and women in bed, or men murdered or put in prison, stories picked up from grown-ups, fables they tell among themselves.

Pin is desperate to be taken seriously by the regulars at the bar, and so when one of them dares him to steal the gun of Frick, the German sailor who is his sister’s most frequent visitor, he sees the chance of acceptance. Having stolen the gun, his first instinct is to play around with it (‘Your money or your life!’), but then he marvels at the power it gives him, the power he wants so badly.

Pin cannot resist the temptation any more and points the pistol against his temple; it makes his head swim. On it moves, until it touches the skin and he can feel the coldness of the steel. Suppose he put his finger on the trigger now? No, it’s better to press the mouth of the barrel against the top of his cheek bone, until it hurts, and feel the circle of steel with its empty centre where the bullets come from. Perhaps if he suddenly pulls the gun away from his temple, the suction of the air will make a shot go off; no, it doesn’t go off. Now he can put the barrel into his mouth and feel its taste against his tongue. Then, the most frightening of all, put it up to his eyes and look right into it, down the dark barrel which seems deep as a well. Once Pin saw a boy who had shot himself in the eye with a hunting-gun being taken off to hospital; his face was half-covered by a great splodge of blood, and the other half with little black spots from the gunpowder.

He hides the gun in a secret place he knows on the riverbank where some spiders have built their nests. This place, known only to Pin, acquires a symbolic significance. Throughout the book he looks for someone he can trust enough to share the secret of its location, someone who will understand its beauty.

***

At times I struggled with this book, not with the words (the translation reads very well) but with maintaining an interest in it. It’s partly the result of an ingrained apathy to war stories. Some years ago I exchanged my copy of A Farewell to Arms for a not very good ballpoint pen as part of a Rag Week swap thing. You were supposed to keep swapping and eventually end up with something incalculably more valuable than what you started with. I was happy enough with the pen.

People draw comparisons between this book and Italian neorealist cinema. Calvino, like Rossellini or De Sica, takes as his protagonists the downtrodden, the people uncared for by those in power, the people with no ability to help themselves. It’s admirable, if not always a great deal of fun. A late chapter introduces two new characters, the philosophical Kim and the practical Ferriera, apparently solely so they can have a polemical conversation about the motivations of Resistance men. It feels clumsy, and perhaps the older Calvino would have omitted it.

The theme of how easily people can be bought when they’re desperate recurs throughout: the group of partisans Pin eventually joins is betrayed by a renegade who defects to the enemy; Pin’s sister ends up consorting with the SS; even Pin himself considers joining the Fascist Black Brigade. More than once I thought of Louis Malle’s masterpiece Lacombe Lucien, whose antihero Lucien joins the Nazis when he is rebuffed by the local Resistance forces; more than anything else he wants to belong, even if it means turning his back on his own people. Pin, like Lucien, is bored of waiting for something to happen to him.

The effect of the indifference of the people around him is to make Pin’s mischievousness, which might otherwise be tiresome, amiable. When the sailor Frick arrives for an assignation with Pin’s sister, Pin informs him that she’s in hospital being treated for VD. His repartee is spontaneous and often amusing.

‘If you want to, you can get into the Black Brigade too,’ the militiaman says to Pin.

‘If I want to, I can get into that cow of a grandmother of yours,’ Pin replies readily.

Pin’s smart mouth is the catalyst for his departure from the Resistance. When the rest of the detachment goes off to fight a battle, he is left behind with the leader, Dritto, and Giglia, the wife of the cook, Mancino. Pin appears more interested in whether Dritto and Giglia will fuck than in watching the fighting, and when the others return he jokes about Mancino being a cuckold and is chased out.

The final chapter is the most beautiful. One last time Pin takes the path to the spiders’ nests. He walks past places where he should be playing, but has no appetite for play: the war has hardened him. When he reaches the spiders’ nests, he finds the place changed and the gun no longer there. It’s been so long since he visited. He’s at an impasse, unable to go back or forward, when Cousin (Cugino), a member of Dritto’s detachment, arrives unexpectedly. Might Cousin be the friend Pin has been looking for, the person who will understand the secret of the spiders’ nests?

This book is sometimes talked of as a coming-of-age novel, but it seems to me the opposite is true. Pin has spent a long time trying to be a grown-up in a world that has no place for children, and his incipient friendship with Cousin seems to signal a return to childhood innocence. Pin’s interest in sex throughout the book is vicarious: he understands it as something that obsesses the grown-ups who surround him, and as the means by which his sister makes her living, but is not interested in it for himself. When Cousin embarrassedly asks Pin if he can meet his sister, Pin is deflated: if, like everyone else, Cousin is only interested in sex, their friendship cannot bloom; but Cousin returns to him having changed his mind, and they walk off together, hand in hand, like Pooh and Piglet.

‘Can you remember your mother, then?’ asks Pin.

‘Yes, she died when I was fifteen,’ says Cousin.

‘Was she nice?’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘she was nice.’

‘Mine was nice too,’ says Pin.

‘What a lot of fireflies,’ says Cousin.

‘If you look at them really closely, the fireflies,’ says Pin, ‘they’re filthy creatures too, all reddish in colour.’

‘Yes,’ says Cousin, ‘but seen from this distance they’re beautiful.’

And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.

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?

In memoriam Philip Ledger (1937-2012)

November 19, 2012

Sad news came this morning of the death of Philip Ledger at the age of 74. He preceded Stephen Cleobury as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, a post he held from 1974 to 1982, and his carols and arrangements are still sung every year both at King’s and much further afield. I went to evensong at King’s this evening, and he was remembered in the service. A Ledger introit was sung by King’s Voices, and I suspect the beautiful final responses may have been his too.

It’s doubly sad to lose both Ledger and his frequent recital partner Robert Tear in the space of barely a year and a half. I have written before, I think, of my love for Tear and Ledger’s recordings of Harold Fraser-Simson’s settings of the hums of Winnie-the-Pooh. Our LP of Three Cheers for Pooh! got worn out in my childhood. Tear and Ledger are a delightful double-act in these songs, warm and witty. The recordings aren’t out on CD at the moment, I think, but you can sample them here, and there is even a link to a zip file of the whole album on that page, not of course that I condone bootlegs. You can more easily get hold of their performances of the songs of e.g. Benjamin Britten and Madeleine Dring, which are really quite as memorable.

Goodbye, and thank you.