Saturday, March 22, 2014

A dry martini can't be faked

  In recent postings, it has been my     pleasure to cite extracts from two 
  great peers of the dry martini, 
  Lord Dacre of Glanton and Dame 
  Edith Sitwell. An odious aspect of     this conduct has been brought to       mind by the ministry of my own          interior, on the principle that one     doesn't tamper with a classic.

  An unassailable postulate, so far
  as postulates go. The tampering, if
  that is what it was, would have had
  to be perpetrated by illustration,
  so obviously remote from context, as
  to act, rather, to insulate text. 
  Still, our self-collarings are the     strictest. I respect their delight.

They are people, such as our-
selves, to whom the gift of
language and its countless 
expressive uses was a life-
long joy. It naturally does
strike us as unfair, to adapt
their texts as cartoons for
our illustrative captions.
This, however, is not what
I did, in exploiting Sit-
reference to Swift's mer-
curial temperament, and
Trevor-Roper's pure hilar-
on devotions. If I must
make it more plain that I
cherish their genius for 
the lark in their dry, dead-
pan demeanor, I would only 
wring graffiti from their
martini, to no good end.

   But there is a fraudulent mode, 
   a collapse of reflection which
   we have begun to see again,
   in the operations of demagogu-
   ery in publications on Crimea.
   The worst, we haven't yet seen;
   but George F. Will's misapprop-
   riation of Timothy Snyder's
   ine in Ukraine, revived the
   terrorism with only ersatz
   crusts of reason. To dress
   that grotesquely partisan ser-
   mon with one of Mr Faulkner's
   masterstrokes of sentiment, on-
   ly underscored its shabbiness.
   We are born free of this fault,
   and see quite through its ghosts.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A guinea a week was ample board in 1714

Meanwhile, Dean Swift, 
angry with the political 
folly of his friends .., 
and in a fit of dudgeon 
because he had failed to 
obtain the post of histor-iographer to Queen Anne, 
had become the paying 
guest of a country cler-gyman, thirty miles from Binfield, and there re-
venged himself on the 
world in general by bor-
ing himself into a state 
of mulish muteness; since 
for days together he would 
refuse to speak.


  He lived the simple life, 
  and paid the country clergyman 
  (who must have found him an
  unaccountable guest) a guinea 
  a week for his board.

The life at the vicarage does not 
seem to have held many excitements, 
apart from the Dean's behaviour, 
which could not be relied upon, and 
which contained many possibilities; 
but Swift seems to have revelled in 
his self-inflicted boredom, for he 
told Vanessa in a letter (after ex-
plaining that he liked his reverend 
host very well): 

"Mr Geree is such a melancholy, thoughtful man, partly from nature and partly from solitude, that I shall soon catch the spleen from him. His wife has been this month twenty miles off at her father's, and will not return within these ten days, and perhaps the house will be worse when she comes."

Edith Sitwell
Alexander Pope
Penguin Books, 1948©

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A gentleman and his Psalter

  In our wintry, Lenten season
  we know better than to feign
  to evade Thursday's destined
  lamentations altogether, and
  take such succour as one may
  in the manuscripts of virtue
  from the great and the good.

  Who knew, that the consecrat-
  in' rhythms of a flourishing
  Friday night were bound into
  the songbook of an Everyman?

I read in Bayle that the pious bishop Aldhelm
used to cool and overcome his appetites by
standing up to his neck in a pond at night.
But his appetites do not seem to have been
particularly formidable, since he also (I
learn from the same source) took naked vir-
gins into his bed, and then exasperated the
Devil, and perhaps also the virgins (for, as
Bayle observes, it's unlikely that they took
the risk without being ready for the eventu-
alities), by singing Psalms rather than con-
tinuing the process.

And I understand also that the Empress Agnes, widow of Henry II, enquired of St Peter Damiani by an intermed-iary bishop whether it was lawful for a man, when in the act of copu-lation, to sing a Psalm; and received an affirm-ative answer, based on the statement of St Paul in I Timothy, that God may be praised in all places.

Hugh Trevor-Roper
  HM Secret Intelligence Service
  Regius Professor of Modern History
The Wartime Journals
April, 1942
Richard Davenport-Hines
I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd, 2012©

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An ill-bred divorce

Russia's seizure of the Crimean
peninsula is a revanchist move
by an incurably degenerate em-
pire; but Russia has the power
to do it, and not least because
it conforms with local tastes.

It is simply the case, that the
jingoists in this country are
greatly more responsible for an
adventure they hadn't the power
to stop, the wit to foreseee, or
the judgment to avoid, than the
hapless wisp we elected on the
silly pretense of curing them
with compromises. The triumphal-
ist idiots of the Right eventu-
ally must answer for the delu-
sion which they, alone, inhabit,
that the Cold War ended in any-
thing other than a divorce.

These events need explanation
to those we raise hopefully to
avoid their repetition. There
is no other excuse for public
comment on them, but mischief. 

There are times in the history of man
when the elements of civilisation are
so adjusted that their relations form
naturally and effortlessly of a consis-
tent pattern, and a perfect unity seems
to enclose the whole; but these are
short times, of rare and distant occur-
rence, like the brief flowering of a
centenarian aloe. The elements change,
and their relations cannot be preserved.

The Palladian front cracks, the plas-
terwork peels, and the wild foxglove
and the rosebay seed in the inter-
stices; the trim lawn is overgrown,
the topiary yews thrust out shapeless
limbs, the fluted sundial sinks awry
on its pedestal, and where then are 
the classical world and the essential

For it is of the relations of elements
not of elements themselves, that intel-
lectual worlds are constructed.

And yet a classical relationship is 
the final justification of a whole
world, the brief moment of its per-
fection, when the moving elements 
(and if they live, they must move)
stand to each other at last in per-
fect symmetry.

The pattern cannot be frozen; the 
elements must move on, and the sym-
metry is lost; but it may be regain-
ed with other elements. And perhaps
our new world, the world of Marx and
Freud and Einstein, that seems now so
harsh and disorderly, will one day as-
sume such a classical harmony before
it too crumbles, against a pink sunset,
into romantic ruins.

  H.M. Secret Intelligence Service
The Wartime Diaries
  April, 1945
Richard Davenport-Hines
I.B. Tauris & Company, Ltd, 2012©


Monday, March 17, 2014

Burnishing days

Mr Ramsay could climb the rope just with
his hands. It was a wee bit like showing
off. I would love to have done it. He 
had his legs straight together at one side 
and sloping out. The rope went through his
wrists and his hands different, just like
his wrists jutting out. How did he do it?
He did not show us how. He just walked back
to his seat and looked at his book. Boys
were talking about it in the changing room.
Ye needed strong muscles to climb that way.
Mr Ramsay's arms were like that. I tried to
do it but it was right enough how yer arms
were no strong enough. But maybe I was fast-

The best thing was the swimming.
Except it was Monday morning, so
after ye got it ye had all the 
whole week to come and ye were going to be at school, it was just agony.
In the scheme I was a good swimmer and a fast racer with Mitch and the  boys. But here at school I was slow, I was no even a real swimmer. It was just like I was starting. Boys done it different. No them all but just
some, posh ones. Donald Shields especially. He was just the best racer ever. He done the butter-fly. I never seen anybody do it except on television. I tried it, I could not. I only done four strokes then that was that. But Donald shields just done it. We all were looking. Oh that is smashing. Oh jees oh he is great ..

                 Monday morning and it was all 
                 to come, all just horribleness. 
                 People talked on the bus but I 
                 did not, just looked out the win-
                 dow. My pals were at their own 
                 school. Here I did not have any 
                 pals. I did not care. I did not 
                 want any. One day I would not be 


  So Kieron was a Pape's
  name. I did not care. I
  did not care about my name.
  If people said Kieron and
  gave a wee look, well that
  was just them. One was one,
  then the other one. That was
  just me, that was what I           thought.

James Kelman's books are controversial
among critics and judges, who sometimes
award them a Man Booker or a Whitbread
Prize, and sometimes a good sharp chop
at The Guardian. On St Patrick's Day, I
don't think about that. I think about
Jonathan Swift's merry essay against dis-
establishing Christianity, on the ground
that it wouldn't do any good. What I mean
is, the empire has a language of such per-
fection for disintegration, it can achieve
all the separation any heart could crave.
It isn't its hegemony that rankles. 

Jonathan Swift
An Argument Against
  Abolishing Christianity
A Tale of a Tub
  and other Satires
Kathleen Williams
op. cit.

James Kelman
Kieron Smith, boy
Hamish Hamilton, 2008©