William the Fourth by Richmal Crompton

Early last year I came upon the dregs of the library of a very wealth Swiss family. The dispersal of the expensive chattels of the estate, including the better books, was undertaken by one of those auction houses that specialises in the disposal of rich history. But the dregs of the books, as well as other very minor bits ended up in the stock of one of the sellers I frequent at the open air book markets in Geneva. A few of the items, though valueless, had the emblem of the house upon them, which is why I could tell what they were.

Rich or not, this was a family which had loved reading over hundreds of years and here were items from the 1920s to 1970s or thereabouts, reflecting their interest in English literature for young and old. Some of it I bought out of sheer curiosity, authors like Barbara Pym I’d never read, but perhaps I should. William I bought because I adored these books as a kid and haven’t read them since the 1960s.

They had aged well then – this early one was first published in 1924 – and fifty years later again they are still standing up as fresh, fun and elegantly written. Apparently an attempt is being made to rehabilitate Crompton as a writer for adults. I must dip into that: if they are anything like as good as her books for children, they’ll be a pleasure to snort over, taking care not to spill one’s cup of tea while doing that.

Most of the stories are strong – I see one or two complaints on GR that they are repetitive from book to book, but children want that. If they are going to reread the same book over and over, why not stories that are the same but different?

I particularly love the one where a big company opens a sweet shop in the village, undercutting Mr Moss with whom they have always shopped. Come Saturday they take their money to the new shop, get served by a girl who doesn’t care and thinks having to sell to them in h’penny lots is ridiculous. As they walk along chomping on their lollies, they pass Mr Moss’s shop. He is very sad, quite unlike his usual jolly self. He can’t put his prices any lower, but, just like Amazon, the new shop has the financial power to sacrifice short term profits for the long term gains of putting Mr Moss out of business with the cooperation of the locals. He stresses to the boys that they are doing the right thing, of course they have to go to the cheaper shop, but vague ideas appear in the minds of the boys.

William and his gang start realising that it isn’t necessarily good to buy cheapest. They want Mr Moss to be happy. They talk about how when they buy from Mr Moss he cares, he is always interested in what they buy. He welcomes their purchasing a h’penny worth at a time. They are sure, now that they think about it, that his sweets taste better too. But what to do? Start a campaign to make people buy from Mr Moss, but how can they, they have no weight, why would anybody notice?

Ah, but William, as usual has a plan. And as usual, no matter how many plans go awry, his followers fall into the next without a moment’s hesitation. The Duke is going to be in town to open a Sale of Work. When he appears on stage to do that, unbeknownst to him, he has a big sign on his back advertising Mr Moss’s shop. As he wanders around the Sale, the locals summon the Vicar to tell the Duke what’s on his back, a large crowd following him around due to the unlikely sight. Just as the Vicar explains and takes the sign off to show the Duke, William and his cohorts appear, each wearing placards with creative spelling announcing the various benefits of Mr Moss’s sweets.

The Duke can recognise a ringleader when he sees one. He asks for William to be brought to him. William in his tripping over his tongue enthusiastic way explains about Mr Moss and the Amazon-like attempt to close him down and how much they want to help and that nobody would notice them unless, he thought, they could put their sign on an important person who would be decent enough to care.

Well, the Duke’s been to more Sales of Work than he cares to think about and this is the first bright moment he’s had for many an appearance. He tells William and the others that they must discuss this further over ices. The eager captive audience of lads listens to his tales of adventure like big game hunting and together they discuss Red Indians and pirates. Then the Duke, with boys in hand, goes to visit Mr Moss. He buys a pound of sweets for each boy and he makes a standing order for himself of cokernuts. Instantly Mr Moss is known as supplier of  cokernuts to Royalty. The Amazon shop closes down, Mr Moss is reinstated as the place to go to.

And of William?

It was Miss Spence who voiced the prevailing sentiment about William. She did not say it out of affection for William. She had no affection for William.

William chased her cat and her hens, disturbed her rest with his unearthly songs and whistles, broke her windows with his cricket ball, and threw stones over the hedge into her garden pond.

But one day, as she watched William progress along the ditch – William never walked on the road if he could walk in the ditch – dragging his toes in the mud, his hands in his pockets, his head poking forward, his brows frowning, his freckled face stern and determined, his mouth pucked up to make his devastating whistle, his train of boy followers behind him, she said slowly: ‘There’s something about that boy –

In some ways it’s a mystery I’d like these books so much, books about a boy who doesn’t like to read (except the worst books), likes to fight and get dirty and climb trees, all of which I’m happy if I never do in my whole life. But the thing is that William is above all for fairness. Admittedly his attempts in the first story of this book to introduce Bolshevism into his family fail, but his mates are all share and share alike. He loves the life that poor children live around him, he hates the comfort of his bourgeois existence. All this is at some gut feeling level, it isn’t an intellectual pose. But how can one not admire it. Then there is his ingenuity, his inspiring leadership, his creativity and imagination. He’s splendid.

Lately I’ve been trying my hand at Little Nicolas, who is a sort of French equivalent, entertaining, but not a patch on William. Now that I’ve refreshed my memory of this series, I think maybe part of the reason is that William has an additional layer in it. Little Nicolas has small children and adults. William also has his older brother and sister who are substantially his senior, dating and so on. It will not be a surprise to hear that his siblings’ interest in the opposite sex is rather disgusting to him. He simply cannot understand what young men see in his sister Ethel when he knows the truth of how awful she is. Big sisters. Uggh. He could tell them a thing or two.

This reminds me of the time in my life I really feel like William was my model. I went to a large school in Adelaide in my primary years which had an area out the back where boys would park their cars and girls would join them to pash. I doubt it went much further than that, late sixties. My siblings and I, who being oldest was the leader, occasionally had to hang out at school waiting for my mother, a teacher. We would sometimes go out to the back and dance around the cars like a bunch of Red Indians maybe, saying ‘No spooning here’. ‘Kissing banned’. ‘Stop pashing’. And such like. We were highly amused by ourselves and thought we were terribly clever, though I’m not sure we even knew what ‘spooning’ meant. Probably the kids in cars didn’t either, it was already an anachronistic word. The teenagers must have been ropeable, restrained, no doubt, by the knowledge that anything they did to us was to the kids of a senior teacher. We were probably untouchable, luckily for us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if every occasion I was bad as a kid was because of William? I’d never thought of blaming him at the time, but I did find it hard to separate my reading from life, so who knows? Just hoping now that I don’t regress. I wonder how many of them I’ll have to read before that happens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone

I have a friend who’s a rellie of Edith Bone and as a consequence discovered her story which is truly astonishing, every bit of it that we know and no doubt the parts that will continue to unfold as classified documents from MI5 and Soviet counterparts are made more available.

But for now, looking at only her period of isolated imprisonment, I offer this from wiki:

In 1949, Bone was acting as a freelance correspondent in Budapest, affiliated with the London Daily Worker. She was accused of spying for the British government when leaving Hungary, arrested by the State Protection Authority (AVH) and detained in solitary confinement without trial or a prisoner identification number for seven years. During her detention, Bone managed to avoid the mental instability or insanity that typically accompanies isolation. She developed a series of mental exercises, including reviews of geometry, the several languages she knew and vocabulary. She mentally reconstructed the plots of all of the books she had read, made a comprehensive list of all of the characters in Shakespeare she could remember, and made letters out of the dense black bread she was fed; out of these she composed poetry. Perhaps most stunning was the weeks-long effort she put into to removing a very large nail from the iron-hard oak door of her cell. To accomplish this, she slowly removed single threads from towels and wove them into a solid rope with which to work the nail. After weeks of straining effort to get the nail to begin to wiggle and then loosen, she finally got the nail out. She then sharpened it on the concrete floor and used at as a drill to create a small peephole in her cell door so she could finally see out of her cell. She used these projects to keep her mind stimulated, to fill her time with goal-oriented actions, and to keep her sanity during her long period of extreme isolation.

Bone was freed during the last days of the revolutionary Nagy Government in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A student group had seized control of the Budapest political prison where Bone was held, and processed political prisoners for release.

I’m sure it’s true that the Hungarians intended her to die as a result of her privations. Apparently they couldn’t actually kill her directly as it was known she had disappeared, though the British did precious little to get her out. Why doesn’t that surprise me.

There will be more of her incredible life to come. I will end by noting that Aung San Suu Kyi gained her inspiration to survive from reading her book as a teenager.

Edith Bone wrote her own epitaph:

Edith Bone (1889-1975)
On Myself

Here lies the body of Edith Bone.
All her life she lived alone,
Until Death added the final S
And put an end to her loneliness.

Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller

I can’t see that we are ever so good that this play can be missed. At its most obvious it’s about what the Germans and their collaborators did to Jews and other inferior types. But even to extrapolate to present day is an inadequate representation of what it’s about.

It is a discussion of the human condition, its wretchedness, and the capacity of a few to rise above it. The amazing Hora, who did much to see to the shaping of the philosopher Raimond Gaita in Gaita’s younger years, believed that always

…even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved….

Hora and his migrant friends had lived through WWII in Europe. This play, Incident at Vichy, captures one of these moments. An Austrian aristocrat, caught in a roundup meant for not the likes of him, is sitting with Jews and a Gypsy waiting to be interrogated. We know that most, if not all of them, will never be let out. Whilst waiting, they share their various views on the nature of the Germans and whether it is really possible that the things they don’t want to mention are really happening. One says it’s a ridiculous idea, that the Germans would want to kill them. The Germans are rational. Of course they simply want them for labour. No biggie.

The Austrian prince passionately explains what is really happening. How could you be so stupid as to think it is about being rational. These people are nothing and they make themselves something by what they do, by what they believe in. What they are doing, the mass murdering of Jews is a moral principle.

At some point he gives a great speech where he too says the same as Hora. It is a tiny number of people who redeem the rest of us. Unfortunately I don’t have the play, or I’d share it. And then, at the end, and I didn’t see this coming though I should have, he turns out to be that man. He goes in second to last, reappears with a get out of gaol free card and gives it to the waiting French Jew so that he can escape. We assume that the prince will be killed in his place.

And all this made me remember a book I have, a book of little consequence I expect.

Gutmann, Moritz Ritter v.
Konradin der letzte Hohenstaufe: Tragodie in 5 Acten
(Mahr.-Ostrau: Druck und Verlag von Julius Kittl: 1891) Decorated cloth lettered in gilt pp. 87. A play about the short-lived but famous Konradin, this is the Author’s inscribed copy to his cousin Flora.

Gutmann was an extremely wealthy Austrian, Jewish, related to the Rothchilds. He bought and lived in Vöslau castle from 1901. He died in 1934.

To my mind I would have expected this to be a big story in the newspapers and it could be that I have been bad at finding it (thanks to Matt for helping me look for info!) But in Austria things had already been really bad for the Jews for years at the point of his death. Maybe this was why. I assume Vöslau stayed in the family until: ‘In the course of the Aryanization, the castle was acquired in 1940.’ I don’t know if that’s just bad google translate, it doesn’t seem like the most politically correct way of describing that process. In Austrian (German?): ‘Im Zug der Arisierung wurde das Schloss 1940 von der Gemeinde Vöslau erworben.’

At any rate, presumably due to the extreme difficulties already presented by being Jewish in Austria, by the time Gutmann had died, The NY Jewish Daily Bulletin reported, the rest of the family had all become ‘non-Jews’ by marrying non-Jewish people. As we know, they may have thought that was the effect of their marriages, but it certainly wasn’t what the Nazis thought.

I have not yet found out what happened to his relatives past his death.

Going back to Miller, his Austrian prince, a cultured man who abhorred what was happening, in giving his life, seemed to me to be giving it for this other cultured family of whom I can find no lasting trace.

We saw the play at King’s Head Theatre Islington, a rerun after a season at The Finborough. Both fantastic upstairs from pubs theatres, stunning stuff, tickets cheap as chips. I think that this one could easily go wrong. It needs a stellar cast to pull it off, a group of men sitting on a bench waiting for a buzzer to sound. NEXT. The buzzer really should have had a place in the credits, it was horrifying.

I wish this play was seen as eternal rather than issues-driven and therefore relevant today. If it was, it is one of those things, like the books of Raimond Gaita about Romulus, that could influence us in major ways for the better.

If you are reading this and in London it’s on for another couple of days. I was disappointed that the small theatre was only about half full when we went (admittedly a matinee and a ‘nice day for London’) It got a standing ovation from me and that rarely happens.

After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

If you thought that this was obvious, a sequel, cashing in, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This companion to Romulus, My Father is the product of, on the one hand, the needs of the philosopher Gaita to process various ways in which the consequences of this book affected him and on the other, the needs of everybody who read it. Although I complained in my review that Romulus, My Father had been ignored by the world at large, it deeply moved Australia.

So you write a book, a philosophical – because you are a philosopher – account of the life of your truly heroic and brave and encompassing of all the best human virtues, father and his friend. You write of your life in the Australian countryside, where nothing happens except madness and the aftermath of madness. You make the prose sing like a poem, but still, it is just a book about a migrant and other people around him going mad. And it becomes such a thing, that before you know it a movie is being talked about. And eventually is made.

Gaita warns the reader at the start of this book that it is hard to read. To paraphrase the xkcd cartoon ‘Stand back, I’m doing philosophy’. Things could get dangerous. And certainly difficult. At that they do. I put my hard hat on and my brain still got a bit of a battering. Clearly there are, as Gaita himself advises, chapters that need to be reread and rereread as he talks about Romulus, My Father from a relatively formal philosophical viewpoint.

But Gaita wants nothing more than to be there with the reader every step of the way. It might hurt, but I’m holding your hand, see? And much of it is straightforwardly interesting. By a complete coincidence just before I started reading this, I had put about 200 volumes of autobiography/biography on the shelves. I didn’t know why, given that it is not something I ever read. But his discussions of memory and understanding have given me some perspective on that now. Perhaps I will learn something about the process of writing this sort of thing from reading the books I’ve gathered together.

The musings on the nature of memory continue on in a different form. He discusses at length, partly because he has been asked to by his readers, the making of the movie. Very few people will have seen this movie outside Australia, it was a typical Australian triumph, small movie, small budget, big effect if one cared to watch. Some of you will even have heard of the actor who played Romulus because it was The Hulk. The making of the movie was an incredibly painful process for Gaita. Much as he highly praises it, (and certainly I thought it was wonderful, having watched some years before reading the book) it could never be the same as what was in his mind. Worse, though, it changed things. There were many discussions about this, much angst. The film still stays true to the soul of the book and the changes are minor in general, but how each one must have ripped a little of Gaita’s innards apart.

Imagine it is your memory being played with here. You go to the movie and from the moment you start watching your own true memories are being contaminated. It must be so hard. Everybody remembers things others don’t. We are surprised when our friend can’t remember x, he is equally mystified that we have no recollection of y. But sometimes, do you not find, that somebody else’s memory of you becomes more than just his memory, it becomes yours. I’m scared when that happens, it isn’t just adding to you in some way, it’s changing you. How does Gaita see his life now except through those movie scenes?

He talks of poetry. The important of the book being poetic. The movie capturing that. But above all it is this gift of more of his father and his father’s extraordinary friend Hora. If everybody lived like this two great men, the world would be okay.

I have this idea in my head now that Gaita is the antidote to the world as it is travelling at the moment.

Chapter one on Hora:

When I was fourteen and fifteen we often went sailing in the boat he built with my father. He told me stories as we sailed. Usually they were stories of men and women who had been persecuted or ridiculed for their beliefs or who had resisted tyranny. He spoke in a resonant voice that held me spellbound as we sailed our small boat. Sometimes he spoke with hushed tones about the men and women he admired. Always, he said, even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved, sucking hard on his tightly rolled cigarette.

 

 

 

 

Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita

It’s a complete mystery why Gaita’s two Romulus books are so little read. Perhaps if he’d called them #1 and #2, with the hope for people that there would be a #7 and a #34.

I cannot do justice to this book, an elegant but simple, sorrowful but not, self-contained whilst being wide open to the world, recollection of his father. I guess the general unknown of this outside Australia is a spurning of the edge of the world in part. But most problematic is that people only want to read biography of Important People. The Importance can be the way of utter triviality, but it has to be public. Big.

Romulus, however, isn’t Important. He is only important. And apparently that doesn’t cut it. I’m not going to write about the book, I could not possibly do justice to it, a point on which I have brooded over the past months since reading it. So, to resort to vulgarity, it’s a fucking amazing book and anybody who reads it must come out the other end a better person. If enough people read it, at the end the world would be a better world.

Update: 1 February 2017 I return to Gaita thinking if there is something in the world to neutralise that evil we see playing out around the world now, it is surely his works.

The rest I wrote some years before I managed to read the book.

Update: 26 March 2011 walking around London. The Westminster city council has decided that homeless people should find somewhere else to be. So, as well as declaring that the homeless will no longer make the city their home, the Council has told charities that they aren’t allowed to feed the homeless any more. My friend S-L who told me this said that the Council did that to get rid of pigeons, now they are doing it with human beings. Attention Londoners, no feeding the homeless.

Lady Di is quickly forgotten. I don’t they they would have dared do this if she were alive.

————————

Lost on the way to the theatre this evening, a chap stopped to direct us. After we moved on, Henrietta said how nervous she was, the guy was a drug addict. He looked like a perfectly ordinary chap to me, but she insisted. Maybe because I’ve shared my life intimately with drug addicts from time to time, I see them differently. If a drug addict wants to rob you, which was her fear, it is only because society for no good reason cripples these people financially. If drugs were ‘free’ or thereabouts, nobody would be robbed to pay for them. It seems to me a reason to be outraged on their behalf, rather than scared of them.

As we were walking along I talked to her about my experiences on Grey St, St Kilda. It was a street I travelled up and down daily for six months or so while I was living at one end of it, my PO Box at the other. It is a strip full of crazy people, mostly men, and to begin with I felt as nervous as she did. It didn’t take long for me to realise, however, these were human beings. Ordinary human beings. Strange to think that we fear people simply because they are powerless, that we somehow invest power into their powerlessness. Strange to think we are scared of people because they have nothing and live on the street. So, before long, these were people I knew, not in any intimate way, but in that sense you do people you see every day. We’d smile, nod, say hello. I might add that these people were empathetic. They were quite capable of ignoring you if they felt that is what you wanted.

As I’m telling all this to Henrietta, who believes not one word of it, I was regretting not walking along there anymore. I’m now torn between thinking that would be a lovely thing to do, but wishing to stay away from a place that has memories that are sometimes painful to evoke. I seem to be scared of making the trip.

Back from the theatre, I continue something I’ve been doing the last couple of days: reading what I can of Gaita online, having watched the film Romulus, My Father over a couple of nights. I come to this point. The Sacred Heart Mission is in the heart of Grey Street and accounts for the nature of the street’s inhabitants:

In the same week that Romulus, My Father received a literary award, with all the glamour attached to such ceremonies, I read from it at the Sacred Heart Mission, in St. Kilda, reluctantly, for I was aware that people came for lunch, not for literature. At one stage a man, obviously mentally ill, called for me to stop. He raised his head, which he had held in his hands and exclaimed “God is in this book!” Remembering the times I had worked in mental hospitals, I was anxious about what he would say next. “I mean, that it’s filled with love”, he explained. His words moved me deeply. I remembered the day when my father and Vacek visited me at school. That tribute, by a man destitute of all worldly goods and achievements, quite without status or prestige and also quite mad, moved me, gratified me and convinced me of the worth of what I had done more than all the accolades the book has received.

I hope you all now understand that you must see this movie, read this book. And take a walk down Grey St if you can.

Twelve Angry Men

As an afterthought, to my post about CP Snow’s The Affair, into which I brought this play, I think it is worth mentioning something about the maleness of both. Females are involved in none of the overt process of decision making in either work. But nonetheless, there is a striking difference between them. Twelve Angry Men is just that. But The Affair has a strong female presence. The men who have wives are highly influenced by them. It is the women who impel the men to action and it is the women who want justice at any cost. Behind the throne, yes, but more or less in control of it. It would be nice to think that this reflected well upon male academics, but I somehow doubt it’s the case.

I guess Twelve Angry Men had to be called that. Twelve Angry People or An Angry Gender-balanced Jury or An Angry Jury of people representing the entire spectrum of sexuality doesn’t really work – I hope I’m not just being old-fashioned in saying that. Please don’t ban me from your university.

Still, I don’t think I really noticed the maleness of Twelve Angry Men despite the way it was blatantly put forward to me in the title before I’d even bought the tickets, until I watched Amy Schumer’s take on it. These are just two excepts from it and really worth watching. Wonderful cast led by Jeff Goldblum.

and

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Several years ago a neighbour gave me a bag of books, all of which I immediately discarded except this. It sat on my to read shelf for a year or so, until a long haul voyage, even worse, a long haul voyage with flu, was about to happen. Wondering what was possessing me, I put this in my bag. Now or never. Worst case it would find a new home in Australia. Best….

Well, best, it turned out, was amazing. Despite having the flu, despite seats right next to the toilet (really disgusting, just don’t do it), I couldn’t put down this book. It is a fascinating account of Istanbul in the fifties through seventies and worth reading just for that. A small, but topical aside, is the reminder that Islamic terrorism against Westernisation has always existed. It is part of the backdrop of this story. It means physical danger, it means for women, harassment as they try to shake off oppression. It is about the divide that people on social media would have you think is new: urban vs rural, when it has always been there. How could one think otherwise?

There is graphic detail here of simple things like how it was going to the cinema – Pamuk is willing to lavish any number of words to paint his pictures. Minimalist he is not. But extravagantly sitting over all this is the story. The story of how a sexist wealthy Turk in the normal course of affairs thinking that he could have a wife on the one hand and his love on the other, discovers that he can’t. He is split asunder and suffers such pain when he realises his terrible mistake that he is willing to surrender the rest of his life to trying to fix the situation, turn back the clock, and pick his mistress for his wife. She, meanwhile, has married lovelessly, the whole thing is senseless pain and anguish and a knot in your stomach for God knows, hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Our protagonist spends years haunting the life of his true love. He quickly rejects all normal life, the casually wealthy life he had known before. He spends his time curled up, consumed by what he has done, what he remembers of happiness, how to get that back. He will never be careless with life again. He collects things to make his museum of innocence. Little pieces of his love. A strand of hair might be an exhibit. A used teabag, her teabag. I guess to some people this will just sound creepy but to others it won’t. If you have your own museum of innocence, you will slip into his place and feel every bit of his anguish. I have one – not that I knew what it was  until I read the book. But I have a glasses case which has such an exhibit in it. Occasionally I pick it up to put my glasses in it and there it is, forgotten for a while, but with the power to move some part of you inside so that it feels like it could break.

I will not go into the incredible detail of how he inveigles his way into the lives of his true love, her husband, her parents. His patience, his attempts to manipulate things to his advantage, the promises he isn’t going to keep that will turn her just a little his way.

Arrgghhhhhhh. I know this all sounds awful!!! It is awful! But it is also deeply moving and entirely believable and I dare you not to be on his side, barracking for him all the way.

I did give the book away to a friend in Australia, but only because I decided I loved it so much I had to buy a hard cover copy of it. It sits on the shelf and somehow The Museum of Innocence has become a museum of innocence for me.

Five stars.