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.

Read More