Being honoured

A little while ago a letter arrived, via my agent, telling me I was to be offered an OBE, and did I want it? This came as a total surprise. I still don’t know who to thank for this, or exactly what I’ve done to deserve it. I’ve been industriously turning out plays, children’s books, novels and films for over thirty years now, so maybe it’s a long-service award. It’s a curious feeling, like discovering the Headmaster has been noticing you all along. So should I accept? My late father-in-law, Quentin Bell, a lifelong anti-imperialist, declined his honour. I know, or suspect I know, several distinguished writers who have refused knighthoods. I have always taken the view that the honours system exists for servants of the public, not for egotistical show-offs like writers and actors, who give each other awards on an almost daily basis. But it felt a little churlish to refuse, and the truth is, I didn’t want to refuse. I don’t need to flash it about; so I’m  just saying thank you, and keeping on writing.

After more thought I realise there is a good justification for honouring celebrities from film and stage and so on. It throws a glamorous sparkle over the entire honours system, and that makes the honours more valuable to those who really deserve them, the public servants who toil unnoticed. I’ve no sparkle to spread myself, but the least I can do is support the honours system, in public and private.

PS: A friend assures me that now I have an OBE I’m entitled to have my children christened in St Paul’s Cathedral. None of the three have been christened, so this is very good news…

New films

Just seen ‘Birdman’: it’s a virtuoso exercise in directing by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu. The screenplay too is extraordinary. Every actor in the piece is at the top of their game, most of all Emma Stone. I note that the New Yorker calls it ‘a mighty and churning machine of virtuosity that delivers a work of utterly familiar and unoriginal drama’. Sadly a misconceived or under-conceived ending does let the film down, perhaps even reveals that the film doesn’t in the end know what to say. But my God, what a film! I’m just grateful for so much style, so much energy, so much to provoke thought. Rob Marshall’s ‘Into the Woods’, the Sondheim musical on screen, is also a virtuoso act by a director, and tremendous fun, and is also marred by a last section which leaves me disappointed. This is not Marshall’s fault, of course: it’s Sondheim, reaching for a fourth act to deliver yet another overturning of expectations. Contrast these two fizzers with ‘Selma’, which is a worthy telling of a key episode in the civil rights struggle. An infinitely more important subject, and a far duller film.

Movie watching

I’m both an Oscars voter and a BAFTA voter, so this is the season when I watch a ridiculous number of films in a short space of time. I go to the Picture House in Uckfield, or to industry screenings in London, or sit on our giant sofa with members of my family, and enrage them by predicting the plots as the films unfold; and then when it’s over by pointing out all the ways the film could have been better. I try not to do this, I really do, as I should, given my own fallible record. But so far this does not seem to be a vintage year. I’ve been moved by ‘Boyhood’, (more potent about motherhood than boyhood), mesmerised by ‘Maps to the Stars’, and deeply impressed by Eddie Redmayne’s performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’. I admired the writing in ‘The Imitation Game’ and hope Graham Moore gets the Oscar, though I wish someone had stopped him, or the director, from repeating the ‘deep’ line three times (something like ‘It’s the people you can’t imagine doing anything who do the things you can’t imagine’). So many still to see, but thus far the only perfect film of the year is ‘Paddington’. Don’t be fooled by the child-oriented subject matter: this is an easy one to get wrong, and they got every part of it right. An instant classic.

Dark vision, light blind

I realise this will sound like a fancy metaphor, but it really is a simple fact I’ve observed the last few mornings. I walk to get the paper early, when it’s still dark outside. In fact it isn’t dark – I wonder if it ever is dark – and I can see pretty well. Some glimmer of light from somewhere gives a soft shine to the wet lane ahead, and the shapes of the trees is clear against the sky. It’s a fine time to be out, when all the world is asleep. But then as I round the first bend I am confronted by an outdoor light blazing away on a porch, and suddenly I can see nothing. Its power blinds me. As I come closer, I can see all that falls within its pool of light, but nothing else. It has achieved its goal of lighting up the little region round its own front door, but at the expense of sending the rest of the world into oblivion. Then as I walk on, and the light is behind me, so the world opens up again.

The same thing happens if a car comes driving down the lane towards me. It feels like an act of violence, the attack of the headlights. And the same sensation overwhelms me, that the driver, like the house owner, wants only to see his own immediate way, and nothing else. He has blinkered himself.

So to the fancy metaphor, which I find I can’t resist. All this is so like the way we go through life absorbed in our own affairs, which of course make us anxious and fearful, oblivious to the great otherness that surrounds us and puts our fears into perspective. Turn out the lights, and join the world.

Ebola and me

The current horror stories about Ebola take me back to a project I was asked to write in the days when David Puttman was running Columbia Pictures. Glenn Close, then a big star on the back of ‘Fatal Attraction’, wanted to make a movie set in the Congo, where her father had been a physician. The story Glenn had found was about an outbreak of Ebola that occurred in 1976, deep in the remote heart of the Congo. A group of Belgian missionary nuns refused to evacuate the area, and tended to the sick as best as they could. In the end all were infected and died. A team of scientists from CDC Atlanta flew out to trace the source of the outbreak, in order to stop it spreading. The twist to the true story was that the CDC team discovered the outbreak had been caused by the nuns themselves. They had been running ante-natal clinics, in which they inoculated pregnant mothers; but their sterilisation techniques were faulty, and the needles spread the infection. The nuns, unaware of this, paid with their lives. The outbreak ran its limited course. And everyone relaxed.

The plan was that Glenn would act the lead scientist. I travelled with her on a research trip to CDC Atlanta, to Kinshasa, and to the village where the outbreak had started. Glenn was magnificent: much more than a fine actor, a fine human being. Back home I wrote a draft as planned, with Glenn as the lead scientist. Then Dickie Attenborough’s film about Donald Woods and Steve Biko, ‘Cry Freedom’, came out, and was criticised for telling an African story through the eyes of a white man. The execs at Columbia took fright at making another African-set movie with Americans as heroes, so the decision was made to re-cast Glenn as one of the tragic Belgian nuns. I re-wrote the screenplay accordingly. Then David Puttman’s reign at Columbia came to an end, and as is usual in Hollywood his successors had no interest in promoting a project they had not initiated. Our movie was shelved.

I’ve often told the story as a Hollywood joke: how I had to turn my heroine from a scientist into a nun. It’s not a joke any more.

Walking in the rain

This morning it was raining steadily as I prepared for my early walk. For a moment I hesitated. But then I thought, If I don’t go now, I’ll never go when it’s raining. I need to know just how uncomfortable it really is. So I pulled on my walking boots and my hi-vis jacket, found a waterproof hat, and set off.

It was dark, but there was a sort of grey visibility. The rain fell straight, there was no wind. The lane was running with water. There were no cars. For a while I paid attention to the sound of the rain, which was soothing and interesting. Then I found I was following its rise and fall, the rain not constant in its intensity at all, but coming and going. I became acutely aware of those parts of the lane where overhanging trees provided respite. When at last, still in semi-darkness, I turned onto the village road and met a car, it was a shock. The brilliant headlights, the roaring engine, the great splash as it passed, were like an encounter with a monster. The eyes adjust quickly to pre-dawn light, and car headlights feel like a hostile interrogation designed to disorient.

By the time I got to the village shop my lower trousers were wet,  but the rest of me was dry beneath my coat. I rather hoped the lady in the shop would express admiration at my great daring, venturing forth in such weather, but she passed over my Guardian without comment. I folded it and tucked it into an inside pocket and set off once more. By now the rain was passing. I met a man with an umbrella who told me so much rain had fallen in the night that the Nevill estate in Lewes was flooded. I felt even more daring.

On the return loop the rain stopped entirely. The trees, formerly my friends, now became my enemies. As I passed beneath them, disturbing birds, they rose up, shaking the leaves, sending cascades of water down on me. Slowly the sky was lightening. The effect was powerful. I told myself Noah must have felt something like this when at last the floods began to recede. Of course I’ve walked in the rain before, but always in the city, and with irritation that I should have to suffer. In the country when it rains I get in the car. This was the first time for a long time that I had chosen freely to walk in the rain. Now I felt proud, invigorated. Meeting Virginia for breakfast I was mortified when she said, ‘I see the rain stopped in time for your walk.’ ‘No, it didn’t,’ I hastened to tell her. ‘It rained very hard for most of the way.’ Then, having established my courage, I had to provide my own virtue. ‘But I didn’t mind at all.’

No pasaran!

For some reason nothing makes me quite as angry as being asked to enter a password and finding I don’t know what it is.

I started out in the halcyon dawn of the internet age with one password that I used everywhere, disregarding all advice on best practice. I told myself that I’d rather have my identity stolen than suffer the bewilderment of multiple passwords. But the system has its own way of stopping this. Every time Apple updates its operating systems it seems I have to create a new variant of my password, with ever more kinks and wrinkles. My strategy is to add bits on to the existing password. By now I have about six versions of my password, and I have no idea at all which one applies to iTunes, or my email account, or O2, or Southern Rail, or John Lewis… All demand a password, all work to different rules. The result is that when asked for a password I spend indefinite amounts of time tapping in variants that don’t work, and end up limp and impotent with rage.

My only consolation is that when the online fraudsters tackle me they too will be as baffled as I am. I imagine them gritting their teeth as they go through all the passwords they’ve managed to find that relate to my accounts, only to discover that none of them are quite right, just as I do. Perhaps that’s the object of the exercise. Perhaps some stern but benign deity knows it does us no good to manage everything through computers, and is slowly and deliberately strangling the entire online world.

So the rebel cry goes up, as it has done throughout history, ‘No pasaran!’ – ‘They shall not pass!’

Into the sunrise

My early morning walks continue, and throw up new challenges. As I make my way down the lanes many creatures dash away from me in terror, pigeons clatter out of trees, rabbits burst out of hedgerows, pheasants explode like rockets from the tall maize. It’s all very disconcerting. I feel like some sort of ogre menacing their peaceful existence as I clomp by. But most disconcerting of all is the discovery that there is another human on the lanes, a fellow walker whose route follows mine. I come upon him at the halfway point for me, which is the village, from which he is presumably just setting out. He’s a courteous elderly man with a stick, but not for all that a slow walker. Twice now he’s appeared ahead of me. My own pace, being a little faster, means that I come up behind him like a mugger, and pass him slowly, and then feel his eyes on me for the next half mile. This is of course ridiculous. I should be happy to have company on my road. But I’m not. I feel aggrieved. I feel invaded. I feel the solitude of my early mornings has been compromised. There are cars that pass me, but they don’t count. Cars aren’t people. Another walker, on my route, going in my direction, at almost my pace – that’s crowding me.

Virginia produced the obvious solution: go round the other way. This morning I did this. Setting off just after 6.30 I found that the sun had not yet risen, and I was walking into the sunrise. It was a crisp early morning, the air sharp, my hands chilly, the pre-sunrise sky pale blue, streaked with white cloud. This was a bonus that I had not expected. With each gap in the hedge I got a new glimpse of the brightening sky, until the sun itself appeared. And then so did my fellow walker – but of course, this time he was heading towards me. This was just fine. We passed, greeting each other, and he was gone.

As I looped back down the far side of the circular walk, there he was coming towards me once more. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘take care, you’re going anti-clockwise.’ ‘But I’m walking into the sunrise,’ I said.

Joy ambush

Here’s a puzzle: from time to time I catch some unexpected piece of music on the radio and find myself flooded with joy; I then go out and buy the CD and play it at my leisure, but the the experience isn’t the same. Somehow it’s just less magical. It’s as if as soon as I have it at my command, its value diminishes. Is this yet another instance of that cruel rule that declares we only long for what is out of reach? Or is it more to do with coming upon the moment unprepared, unexpectant, innocent?

In our car we have a system that plays six pre-loaded CDs, which means if the radio music isn’t to my taste I can switch to music I’ve already selected and know I love. But I don’t do this. It seems I’d rather hang on grimly though some piece I don’t enjoy in the hope that I’ll be ambushed by the next piece, and the joy will return.

I remember when I was about 13 buying my first pop single, which was ‘Wonderful Land’ by the Shadows. I played it over and over, and at last tired of it. Then I turned it over, and found a curious number on the other side called ‘Stars fell on Stockton’. It was fresh, it was surprising, I found I liked it better than ‘Wonderful Land’. But of course I tired of that too.

As a result I’ve never built up much of a music library. I go through life waiting for the experience C.S.Lewis called being ‘surprised by joy’. It’s a good phrase, but unfortunately it’s been torpedoed for all of us who know that C.S.Lewis was indeed surprised by joy, in the form of Joy Gresham, the New Yorker who broke down his defences and married him. So I’m proposing ‘joy ambush’.

The habit of walking

Last Friday I began what I intend to be a new habit: walking to the village each morning to get my daily newspaper. I’ve been convinced to attempt this by reading about the many benefits of regular walking, both for body and mind. I’ve been in favour of a daily walk for a long time, but somehow there has never seemed to be a good time of the day to fit it in. Then it occurred to me that the pre-breakfast time, when I sit and drink coffee and listen to the Today programme, was an available slot. Moreover, it’s the time when my brain is waking up, and potentially at its most creative. So why not walk then?

So far, the plan is working. I get up shortly after 6am (a long-time habit, and no hardship), wash and dress, go out to my office (the garage block by the house), make a mug of coffee, and listen to the radio (by then it’s the financial news on the Today programme). Then at about 6.30am I put on trainers and set off up the lanes. Right now, of course, the weather is perfect: the air cool but not chilly, the sun rising over the fields of tall maize. My walk is a circular trip, a little under three miles, and takes me forty minutes. As I walk I think about my current writing project, and listen to the birds, and glimpse the scurrying rabbits, and nod at the odd passing car (most often I can’t see through the windscreen because of reflected light, but the chances are I know the driver, so I nod anyway). At the start of my loop there’s a long rising hill, so by the top of it I’m warm. As I go through the village, most of the houses are dark. The village shop is bright, the paper boy getting ready for his round. I carry my paper in a light nylon rucksack so that my arms are free as I walk. I don’t know why this is necessary, but it is. And so on through the village and back past farms and fields of grazing cows, my brain now buzzing with ideas, down the ever-narrowing lanes, to home.

I arrive warm enough to shed my jacket. By 7.15am I’m having my breakfast and reading the paper. By 7.45am I’m at my desk and at work. My body feels thoroughly awake, as does my brain. So it’s all working as planned.

But will I keep it up?

Two tests await me. One is bad weather: rain and cold and early morning darkness. Once the clocks go back my entire walk will take place in the dark. The other is weakness of will. At present the idea is fresh and exciting, and I’m secretly proud of myself. How will it be when going on walking has no novelty, but causes me mild distress? My great hope is that before that time comes I will have created a habit. I’m a great believer in habits. They deliver me to my desk, and cause me to work hard every day, simply because I’ve been doing the same thing for so long now. Once I establish a habit, it’s easier to repeat the pattern than to break it. For example, long ago, chastised for not cleaning the bath, I forced myself to clean the bath every time I used it. Within a very short time I was unable to leave a bath without cleaning it. But I also have a long history of broken habits, or habits that I have attempted to form and failed. I’ve tried to stop myself having a glass of wine in the early evening, and to stop myself accompanying that glass with some crisps, but every evening my yearning body says, Just this one more time.

It may sound as if I have a puritan drive in me, but I don’t think I have. I’m a great indulger, I like wine with dinner, I love good food. But I’m 66 years old, and I don’t want to grow obese, and I don’t want to become immobile. I want to stay physically  and mentally active for the next thirty years. So I hope to create this habit of walking early every morning, and make it so powerful that it carries me off even as I protest that I don’t want to go.

Four mornings down. We’ll see how far I get.

My eyes wide shut

At an event last night, organised by The Space in Brighton, I shared the platform with Jan Harlan, the veteran producer of Stanley Kubrick’s movies. In conversation over dinner beforehand I told Jan that I thought Kubrick’s last film, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, was terrible. I spoke forcefully about its adolescent immaturity on the subject of sex. Jan was courteous and tolerant, and asked me how long ago I had seen the film. I told him I’d seen it on its release, fifteen years ago. ‘Stanley thought it was his best film,’ said Jan gently. ‘Why don’t you take another look?’

I was at once ashamed of myself. I realised I’d launched into my rubbishing of the film not because I retained any clear notion of its faults, but because I wanted to present myself in a certain light: as one who has passionately held opinions, that he is not afraid to utter. My comments were in fact a pose; I was adopting a pose, not with my body, but with my words. I do have vague memories of thinking ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ was a poor film, but given Kubrick’s achievements in his other work, this, his last film, deserves to be taken more seriously than I was doing. So I will watch it again.

Meanwhile I’m left with the shame. Am I still so immature, so insecure, that when I meet a new person I must perform like a stag at a rut? The artistic merits of the film are irrelevant. I was opinion-barging. I think this is a real fault of mine. How much more graceful it would have been to begin our meeting with happy memories of, say, ‘Barry Lyndon’. I still recall with wonder the scene in which a distant carriage crosses the landscape lit by a shaft of real sunlight that tracks it like a follow-spot. Or the almost-perfect ‘Dr Strangelove’. ‘Or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a film I’ve loved since the day it was released. Then, perhaps, we could have eased into my disappointment with ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and I could have listened, and Jan would have told me why Kubrick thought it was his best film, and I would actually have learned something.

Instead I have to come home, and sit at my keyboard, and learn something else.

The Happy Cafe

Last night I was at an event at the Emporium, a former church in Brighton now converted into a multi-purpose venue. It’s a delightful place, both very big and very welcoming, an unusual combination; a sort of giant living room. It’s also, so a leaflet told me, a ‘happy café’, part of the Happy Café Network. This is new to me.

‘Happy Cafés.’ reads the leaflet, ‘provide a warm welcome for anyone interested in happiness and wellbeing – and encourage them to meet together for a drink and a friendly chat. Happy Cafés also display inspiring and informative material to help people discover new ways to improve their wellbeing and make others happier too. Action for Happiness supporters may also identify themselves by wearing a sticker provided by the café, to help them connect with other likeminded people. Let’s make the world a happier place together.’

Why does this make me want to punch someone in the face? I agree with every word of it. Am I so sorrowed by cynicism, or maybe by irony, that I can’t handle a direct appeal to me to ‘make others happier’? Why am I even now itching to write witty and sneering putdown comments on the campaign and its thumbs-up logo and its smiling poster boy? It’s almost as if I’m ashamed to admit to a desire to be happier myself, and to live in a happier world. Why should this be so?

Part of it is that dreaded concept, ‘cool’. It’s so very uncool to grin at everyone and seek to improve their wellbeing. Cool people don’t smile; they show in their every move that they know the world is a dark place. I, however, am simply too old to be cool. Too old also to behave like a child, and there’s something child-like in this chirpy sharing of happiness. And yet they’re right, surely. If we all behaved more like children, and shed our miserable self-consciousness, and just enjoyed ourselves more openly, wouldn’t that make life more fun? Then I recall that as a child, for some of the time at least, I was tormented by self-doubt and fears of being friendless. So maybe the problem with the Action for Happiness campaign is that we sense it to be unreal. You can’t take ‘action for happiness’. You do what you can to get through the day, and happiness happens by, if you’re lucky.

Begonias and wine

We decided a little while ago to replace the Japanese prints that hang on our stair walls with paintings bought from artist friends, or from shows where the prices are modest, looking not for investment value but for pictures we love. We have six to date, and lots of wall space waiting. Two local artists, Rachel Wyndham and Sasha Turnbull, have a joint selling show in Lewes at present, and we’ve bought lovely paintings by each of them. Rachel has a habit of painting still lives of quinces, which she says makes her a ‘quince tart’. We now have one of them. Sasha’s painting is of begonias.

When I told Sasha what we’d bought, she said that it had been inspired by a painting of begonias by William Nicholson, the painter (and father of Ben Nicholson) who died just after I was born. From time to time I get requests on my website from people who confuse us (“Have you illustrated any other books as well as ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’?”), and have to explain that not only am I not the painter, but we are in no way related. Even so, I feel a connection; and I’m also a very great admirer of his work.

I looked up this painting of begonias by William Nicholson, and found he painted it in 1939, at Bretton Park in Yorkshire, while working on a portrait of Lord Allendale. In a letter to his daughter he recorded that it was painted “with an urge”, during one long overnight session, “after a perfect dinner (O! the wine)!” I love this. It’s a beautiful painting: a glass jar of begonias alongside notebooks, an ink bottle, and red sealing wax, all lit by the glow of an oil lamp. It’s in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

He seems to have been a most loveable man, my namesake. He made artistic virtue, I read, of considered understatement and controlled freedom. I can only aspire to emulate him. I’m already there in one respect: O! the wine!

Things run out

In the converted garage where I work I have my own loo. I bring out loo rolls from the house, usually three at a time, which of course last for a very long time. But not for ever. Yesterday I replenished my supply, and found myself wondering, Should I bring out more than three? Why not six? Or ten? That led to me thinking, How many loo rolls am I going to need for the rest of my life? And it’s not just loo rolls: it’s the reams of paper I use for writing and printing out my work; it’s the toner for my printer; it’s the light bulbs in my lamps; it’s soap, and toothpaste, and shaving foam, and razor blades, and dishwasher tablets, and batteries for my portable radio…

Things run out. All the time, all round me, things are running out. It’s a constant battle to stay ahead of naked need. Why can’t I bulk buy all the non-perishable goods I’ll ever need for the rest of my life, and stack them in our barn, and know for certain that I’ll never be caught short? I’m sixty-six: I’ll give myself another thirty years. That’s 10,958 days, including leap years (I think). Not much more than a hundred boxes of dishwasher tablets, at one a day, in boxes of 100. As for light bulbs, they last a couple of years, so fifteen should do me. If I buy the new LED type, which last six years, I’ll only need five.

Suddenly I’m five light bulbs off the grave. This is not a good way to think. Better to live in the present moment. So I’m on my loo and I realise I’ve failed to replace the loo roll, but at least I’m not dead.

Dickie RIP

Just back from a brief break in France to learn that Dickie Attenborough has died. I worked with him on two films, ‘Shadowlands’ and ‘Grey Owl’, and remember him with unusual affection. Unusual because the film business is hard on friendships. I was never close to Dickie, and can’t claim any intimate knowledge of him, but I remain grateful to him for the way he showed that films can be made, and made superbly, without the customary tantrums, brutalities and deceits. He was courteous, warm-hearted and respectful all the time. It’s hard to explain to those outside the business quite how extraordinary this is. Film making seems of its nature to turn people into monsters. I suppose it’s the combination of power, flattery and insecurity; whatever it is, the cocktail is poisonous. Dickie was immune to the poison. He must have been a deeply driven man, no doubt driven by insecurities, as we all are, but he had his demons under control.

I last saw Dickie in Denville Hall, the actor’s home where he spent his final years. He could no longer talk clearly, and I think didn’t recognise me, but his beaming smile greeted me nonetheless, reminding me of the sheer power of goodwill. The tributes that will now follow his death are well earned. We who work in the industry can best honour his life by following his example, and valuing kindness in our professional dealings with each other.

Righteousness scares me

We saw the Old Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ last night. It’s a superb production, but what struck me most forcibly was how good the play is. I’m hard to please in the theatre, and usually emerge muttering, ‘I didn’t believe any of it.’ This is written in a semi-Biblical 17th century English that should have set my teeth on edge, but I believed every word and every moment. The dramatic structure that Miller has built around the Salem witch trials is masterly. He simply never puts a foot wrong. The greatest tribute I can offer is that it chilled and horrified me, not about Massachusetts two hundred years ago, but about the world today. As the play ground towards its grim climax I wanted to punch the chief prosecutor Danforth in the face until he could no longer speak.

For some reason I dread the power of groups to enforce an ideology on individuals almost more than anything else. This isn’t just about religious orthodoxies, or cults; it’s about any form of pressure that tries to prescribe how I dress or speak or hold opinions. I’m not a rebel at all, so I don’t quite know where this violent reaction comes from. Perhaps from a sense of my own weakness, my own tendency to conform and want to please. Perhaps all too aware of how I, if placed under pressure, would name names, I despise McCarthy’s show trials and I despise Soviet show trials. I reject utterly those intellectuals who argue that we must collude with a lie in order to serve a greater good. This is what leads British judges to condemn innocent men rather than bring the law into disrepute, and what leads the police to close ranks and lie, and what leads the members of any institution to silence whistleblowers, saying, ‘Hide the lesser crime for the greater good.’ There is no greater good.

Righteousness scares me. Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the fighters of the Islamic State have all been convinced of their own righteousness, that they do what they do for the greater good. In this new century, even we, the tolerant West, torture for the greater good. Arthur Miller understood that there is no greater good, only what is good.

The Death of Love

I’m reading a book that I suspect is out of print called ‘Flannelled Fool’ by T.C.Worsley. It’s a memoir of his experiences in the public school system, as a boy at Marlborough and as a very young teacher at an unnamed school that I think must be Wellington. So far we’re in the 1930s, so it’s all very long ago, but even so, I’m taken aback by the strength of my reaction. His account of the athlete-worshipping, bullying, homoerotic hell that was public school then is deeply distressing.

Everyone believes their world is normal, and the masters and schoolboys would be astonished to be told otherwise, but from this distance his account presents a shocking perversion of all that is decent, honourable and loving. Such an adolescence could not fail to damage every boy who passed through it, at a profoundly deep level. And these became the men who governed the country! I know this is unoriginal as a thought, but the sheer vicious nonsense generated by the public school system has never struck me so forcibly before.

I was at a public school (Downside) in the 1960s, and it was heaven compared to Worsley’s schools. I’ve been to the Marlborough and the Wellington of today, both of which are co-ed, enlightened, and caring.  But even so, a trace of the old ideology lingers, like a stubborn smell. These schools sell access to privilege; which means, to advantages not available to the many; so by definition everyone who uses them sees the world as a battleground where there are winners and losers. This is the link with the past. In the 1930s you tolerated being ‘basketed’ and caned and humiliated into conformity because you were gaining access to the elite. The suffering today is less; the goals remain the same.

Of course it’s commonplace to attack public schools for the unearned privilege they pass on, and the unfair advantages they sell. My dismay is at the smashing of human hearts. There are no great revelations in Worsley’s book, but as I read it I tremble for the generations of youths who were given self-confidence in shoddy exchange for the death of love.

The Blue Flower

What a book! ‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald is the most perfect instance of historical imagining I’ve ever read. She enters the world and minds of people in late 18th century Germany so effortlessly that it can’t be called historical writing at all. It’s not my way to admire a writer’s style – I don’t know how to separate the words a writer chooses and the order in which they’re arranged from the thing being said, the insight and truth – form and content seem to me to flow together – which is why I so dislike writers whose style demands a level of admiration their understanding doesn’t merit – but here I’m acutely conscious of a miracle of style. Never obtrusive, never ‘fine writing’: just observations, insights, reflections, images, lightly placed just where they fit, like someone building a dry-stone wall.

As I read I found myself comparing ‘The Blue Flower’ with Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ (Goethe has a walk-on part in Fitzgerald’s novel), much to the detriment of Goethe. Both novels centre on a young man’s romantic obsession with a young woman; but where I found Goethe’s understanding of romantic love to be naive, Fitzgerald maintains a quiet authorial distance from her hero’s projected emotions. Somehow she pulls off the trick of showing sympathy for her hero, and allowing us too be moved by his plight, while never sharing his illusions. Her gaze is deeply unillusioned. The result is tender, wry, sad, and dispassionate. I don’t love this book in the way I love, say, Tolstoy, or to take a better comparison, Chekhov; but I loved reading it, and I admire it, and I wonder greatly about how it was done. How does she know so much detail? How has she been able to transform mere research into a living world?

Penelope Knox, as she was then, was at Somerville with my mother, they were in a sense rivals, and my mother was awarded a higher First. Throughout her life my mother hoped to be a writer, and watched Fitzgerald’s rise to fame with open envy. For this reason, not wanting to hurt my mother more, I never read Fitzgerald’s novels. But my mother died last year, and I’m now free to read her, and to acknowledge that she is a modern master.

Snack Urge

A friend visiting us has described her unsuccessful battle to keep her weight down. She’s not obese, just cuddly, but she is fatter than she wants to be. She has some very thoughtful reasons about why this is so, and why she seems unable to do anything about it. She is in her own words a ‘control freak’, a much-loved GP who runs her work life and family with enormous efficiency. But this is the one part of her life that she can’t control. She grazes on snacks all through the day; longs for a slice of cake with her coffee, and surrenders to the longing; and salivates as she pulls up at a filling station, because she always buys herself a bar of chocolate with the petrol. Filling station indeed. The pleasure she gets from these constant treats is very real, if short-lived. The only times she’s safe from the snack-urge is when she’s working so hard she’s distracted. At home the snacks in the larder are for the children; but her own hand reaches out, as it were unnoticed by her mind, for the biscuit tin. She has become able to snack without knowing that she’s doing it. The snack-urge has taken control of her conscious mind and found the pause button.

Her conclusion, and she speaks as a doctor, is that she has become addicted. Her behaviour is that of an alcoholic or a drug user. She has tried many diets, but been forced to accept that no diet will save her. So what can be done, for her, and for our growing nation of snack abusers?

Her answer is: regulation. Treat sugar-fat snacks like cigarettes. Put them out of reach, in plain packaging, and tax them so heavily the price alone is a deterrent. At present the world is a whorehouse of temptation for the snackaholic. Every shop places quick bites heavy in sugar and fat right where you can scoop them up as you pay your bill. Every fast food outlet offers sugar-fat meals that are easier to get, as cheap or cheaper than eating at home, and far more delicious. The culture of the workplace revolves round cookies, doughnuts, cupcakes. Every railway station lures eyes and taste buds with multiple pastry outlets. How is the poor snack addict to resist? It’s more than the sugar-fat addled brain can endure.

Shut the snacks away in high white cupboards with sliding doors, like the cigarettes in supermarkets. Let consenting adults only ask for their fix in low voices, giving wads of notes in return, before shuffling off to get their high beneath the railway arches. The day will yet come when we’ll pass a sad heap of failed humanity begging on the pavement and will shake our heads and say, ‘Sugar addict.’ We won’t drop a coin in the hat because we’ll know that money only feeds the addiction. Big pharma will come up with sugar-fat substitutes – ‘You won’t believe it’s not pizza!’ A new generation will grow up that has never known temptation, and will look with scorn at the few remaining blubber mountains that tour their schools as living warnings.

One step I believe we should not take. The use of sugar-fat should not be criminalised. Let there be no War on Snacks. Look what happened in the Prohibition era. Look at the disastrous failure of the so-called War on Drugs. Let’s not abandon our housing estates to roaming gangs of violent criminals peddling cookies in plain wrappers, and slipping bags of crisps to dead-eyed teenagers. They’ll adulterate the cake mix, and who knows what they’ll put into the fizzy drinks. So we have to keep this thing in proportion. Don’t panic. After all, there are people we all know who’ve snacked all their lives, and reached a grand old age.

Rich and Mad

My first experience of pornography came at the age of nine. As a day boy at a mostly-boarding prep school I was secretly commissioned by a boarder to buy him a copy of the News of the World, so he could look at the semi-naked women. I couldn’t see the point myself. A few years later, now myself at boarding school, I was allowed to look at a friend’s pack of five black-and-white photographs sent in a plain envelope from Amsterdam. I was overwhelmed.

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