Saturday, 31 May 2014

UKIP, we make sure you don’t wake up

The assorted xenophobes, racists, and Daily Mail readers who blustered ‘We’re not going to be ruled by a bunch of overpaid bureaucrats in Brussels’ are no doubt a touch bewildered to find that the people they voted for have thereby become — a bunch of overpaid bureaucrats in Brussels.

But enough about a tedious and depressing subject. Actually I wanted today to talk about Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K 511, but if I am to get any piano practice in before teacher comes this afternoon, merely talking about music will have to wait. Tomorrow perhaps.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Googols of Complaints

It is typical of Google that its very name was born of an ignorant mistake: not knowing how to spell ‘Googol’, and not bothering to look in a dictionary, the founders called it ‘Google’.

Google made ‘Google Earth’, which in many places allows one to zoom in closely enough to see, say, what make of car someone has in their drive. Far from taking account of the fact that many people consider this sort of thing an invasion of privacy, they then sent cars equipped with large cameras on their roofs to photograph people’s houses, in sufficient resolution to allow the identification of anyone who happened to be in the street, and made the results available to all with ‘Google Street View’. Next, it scanned and made available on the internet thousands of books, then fluttered its eyelids in innocence when informed that there were such things as intellectual property and copyright. Following prolonged litigation, instead of removing these works from the internet, they made it incumbent on copyright owners to go through a long and complex procedure to request individual removal.

Further litigation tells Google it has no right to provide internet links enabling anyone to find personal information, or indeed disinformation, which people may not wish to be made public. Again, instead of at once removing these links, Google has merely made it possible for people to request the removal, one by one, of any links they may find. I know, from occasionally Googling my own name, that even I, who am not at all well-known, have hundreds of link-containing entries on the internet, made without my permission by other people, including no doubt Google.

What can we do about this abuse? Not a lot it seems. Google is a large and powerful organization and is certainly found useful by the National Security Agency, the American state spying organization recently exposed by Edward Snowden, who has had his passport revoked and been branded a traitor and coward by the very people who proclaim America to be the ‘Land of the Free’. Google, for all its usefulness, has become, in collusion with the NSA, the world’s greatest threat to privacy and, ultimately, freedom.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Shrink to fit

I have been looking again at Ritchie Robertson’s hatchet job on Freud, thinly disguised as an introduction to the new edition of the ‘Dora’ case history.

Robertson points out with acerbity some of Freud’s many shortcomings as a psychoanalyst, and concludes that ‘The vast edifice of psychoanalysis rests on the flimsiest of foundations.’ Maybe; so does Winchester Cathedral. But here he has, like many others, confused psychoanalysis as a therapeutic technique with psychoanalysis as a psychological theory. The fact (if it is one) that the really rather strange and insecure Doctor Freud of Vienna was not a good analyst does not have any bearing on the genius Freud’s brilliant invention or discovery of psychoanalysis. And the metaphor, no doubt carefully chosen, of a building with foundations is inappropriate.

Some time in the 1950s a Velocette Venom Clubman 500 cc overhead valve single-cylinder motorcycle broke the 24 hour record at the Monthlery track in France. That is to say, it completed 2,400 miles and a bit in 24 hours. This magnificent machine — I once had an identical model — could be considered the ultimate development to date of the funny little Daimler-Benz motorised hobby-horse of 1885. Nobody talked of flimsy foundations.

Psychoanalysis too developed. An important part — indeed always regarded as essential — of every psychoanalyst’s training is being himself psychoanalysed. Every psychoanalyst has had a training analysis with a senior colleague. Every psychoanalyst except one. One has to start somewhere.

If you prefer a more organic analogy, does anyone sneer at an oak tree because it grew from an acorn?

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Dora, a Case of Hysteria

Among the books beside my bed — this one just added for, believe it or not, light relief from heavier reading — is Anthea Bell’s new translation of ‘A Case of Hysteria’, known as the Dora case. The eighteen-year old Dora (not her real name) was brought to Freud by her father after she had threatened suicide, and Freud did his best to convince her that her desperate unhappiness was due to her internal, mental, state, rather than to her quite ghastly family circumstances.

Half this new edition is taken up with ‘Critical apparatus’ — notes, bibliography etc., and a long introduction by Ritchie Robertson. This last is very negatively critical: not of Bell’s translation but of Freud. Like most criticisms of Freud it is like a school physics teacher’s criticisms of Einstein; a fly buzzing round the head of a lion. And it does what nearly all criticisms of Freud do: berates him for not knowing in the early twentieth century what we know, or think we know, in the early twenty-first. It should qualify for hatchet job of the year.

But there are things wrong with the translation itself: Anthea Bell seems to have toned down, perhaps for the easily upset present-day reader, many of the things Freud said. Some passages seem to be quite missing — if I remember properly from my reading of an older version — or at least somehow skated over. The established technical terms of psychoanalysis are often  not used, or are used incorrectly.

Anthea Bell is a very fine translator indeed, and not only from German: I once attended a workshop she gave on the translation of the Asterix books. If anyone had thought ‘Oh, mere comic books; just changing the speech bubbles’ they had several thinks coming. And for general German prose literature she is excellent.

Great writings in other languages — and Freud, whatever his other faults and virtues, was a fine prose stylist — are thought by many, including myself, to need a new English translation every generation. Unfortunately two of the greatest foreign writers of the early twentieth century — Proust and Freud — have not been well served by their new translators. The recent editions of what I shall continue to call ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, and of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, are bad.

I hope this new edition of the Dora story will attract new readers to Freud: even with the introduction and notes it’s no longer than a short novel and it’s got a very attractive well-chosen cover. (Nowadays these are the things that count.) I hope too that they won’t judge all Freud’s written work — about two feet of shelf space — by this one, nor be put off by the pygmy-to-giant gibes of the introduction.  Congratulations to Anthea Bell, but for those with a deeper interest in psychoanalysis and its founder, the best English translations of Freud are still the ones by James Strachey in the Standard Edition.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est

A fairly exact translation would be ‘There is no arguing about (matters of) taste’. But that of course is just what there’s a lot of: people argue about matters of taste until the cows come home, and carry on until morning milking.

A common English version is ‘There’s no accounting for taste’. Well, not quite none: the combined efforts of Freud, Ernst Gombrich, and Richard Hoggart could probably account for, even predict, a person’s taste(s), given enough information about his or her social background, education, etc.

It would be closer to the truth to say that there is no justifying a person’s taste. We don’t know much about art but we know what we like. Fair enough, but this has led many people who are so open-minded their brains have dropped out to say that there can be no objective aesthetic judgements: that one cannot (should not, must not) say that this work of art is ‘better’ than that one: it is just ‘different’.

Bullshit. Rubbish. Enough of this politically correct pseudo-liberal egalitarian nonsense. We may not be able to say why or how — that’s something people with better minds than yours or even mine have argued about for centuries, probably millennia — but in the arts some things are of course better than others. (Not ‘nicer’ or ‘more enjoyable’; better). Here are a few absolute truths:

The novels of George Eliot are better than those of Jeffrey Archer.

The St Matthew Passion is better than ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.

The Parthenon is better than the Athens Metropolitan Cathedral.

Glen Grant is better than Johnny Walker.

Michelangelo’s ‘Dying Slave’ is better than Bernini’s ‘Agony of St Teresa’.

Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Armand Roulin’ is better than Tretchikoff’s Green Woman.

T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is better than Kipling’s  ‘If…’

Monday, 26 May 2014

No Blog Today

Once again I am out of sympathy with the other human inhabitants of the planet, so today I shall not be casting any pearls before them.
But here's my great-grandmother's sweetshop in Dover.

Sunday, 25 May 2014



There was a 6.3 Richter earthquake late yesterday morning. The epicentre was some way east of this little Aegean island and there was no damage or casualty here beyond the spilling of coffee by a few freaked-out people. However I understand the roof of Lemnos airport collapsed, which won't help tourism.

A few years ago there was a smaller one, but with its epicentre right here. That evening a friend of mine was having dinner outside a taverna with one of the tour reps. The tour rep was nominally off duty, but I suppose, like doctors and priests, tour reps are never really off duty, and their dinner was interrupted by a worried tourist who wanted to know how often earthquakes happened here and how severe they were. Before the young lady rep could make a diplomatic reply, my irritated friend, who if I know him had by then reached a delicate stage in inveigling her into going back to his place after dinner, said ‘Well, we have big earthquakes and we have little earthquakes; it all depends how much you pay for your holiday.’

Saturday, 24 May 2014

‘The Furnace’ by Rose Macaulay

Novelists get understandably cross when readers make the naïve mistake of identifying them with their characters. There are however some cases where it’s justified: everyone (well, everyone who’s read, or claims to have read, ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ or its excellent English translation by Scott Moncrieff ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or even the bad new English translation called ‘In Search of Lost Time’) knows that ‘Marcel’ is Marcel Proust himself.

The protagonists of Graham Greene’s novels are not really Graham Greene, but except in some of the books he called ‘Entertainments’ they are nearly all tormented by the conflict between the things they want to do — often quite natural things, not reprehensible by normal humane standards — and the demands of a strict externally imposed moral code; that of the Roman Catholic Church. I think it’s fair to assume that Greene himself had the same problem.

As did Rose Macaulay. Indeed this torture must be common to all who try to reconcile intelligent independent thought with Roman Catholicism. Macaulay is now best known, perhaps only known, for ‘The Towers of Trebizond’, which starts hilariously with the loan of a camel, contains a surreal episode in which a dog is taught to drive a car, and ends tragically. I have just read her much earlier novel ‘The Furnace’ which, although in a very different setting, shares the moral preoccupations of ‘Trebizond’. Perhaps unfairly — I simply can’t find any other of her books — I’m assuming that whatever came between these two is more of much the same.

The big difference between Greene and Macaulay might be described — forgive the strained metaphor — in terms of cookery. In Greene’s novels, the ‘want’ bits and the ‘must’ bits are cooked together into a stew that even those moral degenerates who rely on their own consciences rather than the Pope’s — protestants, atheists, humanists, nothing-in-particular-ists — find tasty and nourishing.

Macaulay in contrast hasn’t bothered with the cooking: she’s just given us the ingredients. What’s worse, she’s given them to us in the wrong order: first the cloying sweetness of people enjoying themselves  in frankly silly ways, then the very nearly inedible lump of raw meat of the come-uppance.

That said, I did enjoy ‘The Furnace’. The moral conflict is crude, but the incompatibilities of character and class Macaulay uses to present that conflict are subtly, allusively, handled. If you can’t find a print copy you can download it, without charge, from Project Gutenberg.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Hands Free

Not so long ago if you saw someone apparently talking to himself in the street you thought ‘Oh, poor fellow: he’s schizophrenic, and talking to the voices that torment him.’ Nowadays however he’s likely to be using a ‘Hands free’ (hands in fact usually firmly imprisoned in pockets) mobile phone, and one thinks instead ‘Oh, poor fellow: he’s utterly boring and talentless, but desperately wants people to think he’s more important than they are, so he insolently affects to ignore the fact that he’s in a public place.’

As I live a sheltered life I haven’t yet got used to seeing these ghastly devices and their ghastlier users. They remind me of something we used years ago in the theatre: the radio mike. Specially useful for shows in which an actor had to move about a lot, perhaps dance, while singing a song, the radio mike had a tiny microphone, to be clipped to a collar or lapel, connected to a transmitter the size of an old clunky mobile phone which would be tucked somewhere out of sight in the actor’s costume. Radio mikes were expensive delicate devices needing careful adjustment, so they were usually looked after by a stage technician and only fitted to the actor just before she went on.

That happened to be my job on a show at the New Theatre Oxford, whose auditorium is so vast even Chaliapin or Caruso would have had difficulty projecting his voice to the upper galleries. On the first night I was waiting in the darkened wings with the radio mike, ready to fit it to Joyce Blair. (Sister of the more famous Lionel). I had worked with her before, but when she came up to me dressed only in fishnet tights and a leotard I hesitated: how was I to manage the embarrassingly intimate job of ‘fitting’ the transmitter into such an exiguous costume? ‘Just put it in my hand Simon,’ she whispered throatily, ‘And I’ll see to the rest.’ Then, after a professionally timed pause, ‘I bet that’s the best offer you’ve had all evening.’

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Aloni

Today, another issue from the archives of the 'Aloni', the English language newssheet I used to publish in this little island.


Although inserted in what the blog system calls 'X-large', readers may find the print too small for comfortable reading. Try clicking it; you may then be able to enlarge it.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

‘The Voice Of (which) America.’


I won’t sledge-hammer readers with interpretations of yesterday’s little wolf and dog story; that version was, after all, written for ten-year-olds.

The United States government is currently enthusiastically sacrificing its people’s freedoms at the altar of a dubious security, and is encouraging its puppets such as the United Kingdom to do the same. The more intelligent of America’s politicians, especially the early ones, the ones who can fairly be called ‘Statesmen’, have warned against this time and time again. The warnings have not been ignored exactly: rather, the unease they provoke in many Americans has been repressed: God forbid that an American should have doubts, but one doesn’t need much psychology to detect the desperation in all this singing about the ‘Land of the Free’.


The relentless philistine populism, the dashing through boring stuff like wars to get to the important football results, have made it pointless to listen to BBC World Service for ‘News’. Deutsche Welle’s English service is best, but failing that, (the signal is often weak now), Voice of America is good: the pro-American bias is so unsubtle you can almost correct it just by tilting your head, (to the left of course), and the above-mentioned desperation gives many items a straight-faced unconscious humour. Today listeners were told ‘Hurricane predictions are often criticised, especially when they are wrong.’

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Freedom versus Security

Here is a page from 'My Language', the series of books used in Greek schools until a few years ago for teaching Greek:
The story tells of a lean and hugry wolf who comes down to the town and meets a happy healthy dog, who tells him he lives with humans, who look after him well, feeding him every day. He kindly invites the wolf to come and stay and share in this largesse. The wolf notices the collar and lead, thinks a moment, and says 'Better free and hungry than full and tied up,' and goes back up into the mountains.
I have a special reason for posting this just now; I may explain it in a further post.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Electile Dysfunction

Today’s anniversaries are the birth of Ho Chi Minh and the death of Lawrence of Arabia.



Yesterday here in Greece was the day of local elections for Mayor and Councillors. In small places like this island, local elections have little to do with party politics and everything to do with whom one knows, and what one knows about them.

Here there were three candidates, each with his team of a dozen or so prospective councillors. (There has never yet been a female mayor here, though there have been women councillors.) A (no names, no pack-drill) is the incumbent. B is someone who was mayor before, two or three terms ago. C is pretty much unknown.

Many foreigners have now registered to vote in local elections, so each of the candidates arranged public meetings, to be held in English because few of the anglophones have made much effort, even after thirty years here, to learn much more than the Greek words for ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Beer’. (Actually Albanian is probably the majority foreign language here, but as usual Albanians were left, as it were, in parentheses.)

A speaks English well. B bravely wrote his own speech in — er — English: it had a Joycean quality but full marks for trying. C used interpreters.

Soon after sunset, when polls closed, I was as usual installed in my favourite bar with a whisky. There were only three or four of us there, but mobile phones kept beeping and other people kept popping in briefly to bring news from the count: witnesses of the count, and probably the counters themselves, were making no doubt unauthorised calls to let us know how things were going. There was of course much heated discussion, with people declaring their intention to pack their bags and move to the mainland if so-and-so got in. I suggested in vain that we should sit calmly and await the final result: with only about 1,400 voters it should come before midnight. Around eleven things were still uncertain and I went home, leaving instructions that the bar-owner should phone me, no matter how late, with the result.

Such as it was, it came just before midnight: A, the incumbent, who had been well in the lead, had nevertheless not got the 50% plus one needed for a clear win. C had the least votes. There will be a run-off next Sunday between A and B; C must drop out. ‘It’s a dangerous situation,’ said the bar-owner.

Much, probably all, will turn on to whom, if anyone, the C-voters will give their support. At his meeting I had asked C if he had made any agreement or recommendation, and if so what, should this happen. He had not understood, or perhaps had affected not to understand, and was I think a touch disconcerted when I repeated the question in Greek. He quickly recovered, smiled and said ‘Oh no: votes for me are votes for me and not for anyone else.’

We shall see. Voters have a week to change or make up their minds. I remember once, when Alastair Cooke of ‘Letter from America’ was talking about an imminent American Presidential election, he said that a lady had written in to say ‘Instead of speculating on the possible outcome, wouldn’t it be better to wait until afterwards and tell us what it was?’

Sunday, 18 May 2014

English as she is spoke

A young Greek friend of mine is learning English at school. She also goes to evening classes, and once a week she comes to me and we read an English book aloud together; she one page and I the next. (I nearly said ‘Me the next’ — more of that in a moment.) Just now we are reading the first book of the Harry Potter series, and we find that an hour is barely enough to do one chapter, so progress with the story is slow. But there are lots of new words for her: she was not familiar with the English vocabulary of wizardry and witchcraft, nor indeed with the casual demotic speech of both wizard and muggle folk. Just recently we came across the well-known English suffix ‘-ish’, as in ‘I’ll see you at five-ish’ or ‘This white silk scarf has gone a bit yellow-ish’ or ‘I’m feeling a trifle peckish’. (Though is that last a proper example? If one were feeling a touch more than peckish, would one be feeling ‘Peck’?) There is no Greek equivalent to this so it was difficult (ish) to explain, but once she had got the idea she listened out for it in the speech of the many English people around here, and gleefully reported instances.

Then there are the words for noises: ‘Bang!’ and ‘Wham!’ and ‘Zap!’ are of course something different in Greek. Or those for animal noises: in Greek dogs don’t go ‘Ruff, ruff!’ nor sheep ‘Baa!’.

More formally, English has lost many of its inflections, so that to many English  people who can speak their language (more or less) correctly, words like ‘Nominative’, ‘Accusative’, ‘Genitive’ mean little or nothing. But they are still there in Greek. For instance, Greeks are baffled by the English way of saying ‘It’s Me!’ when the person on whose door one is knocking says ‘Who is it?’ (Well, so am I a touch: of course  it’s ‘me’; who else could it be?) They point out that it should be, grammatically, ‘It is I’. Hard to know what to say. They are right of course. ‘But it’s just not what we say; it’s right but it sounds oddly pompous.’

In general, teaching English to a foreigner, however informally, has brought it home to me (Now there’s a funny expression) that it is only when one looks at one’s own language from outside as it were, through the eyes and ears of a foreigner, that one sees (and hears) what a strange language English is.  

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Chai-Wallahs, Pianists, Prime Ministers

BBC World Service is currently excited by the fact that a ‘Humble tea-seller’ has ‘risen’ to be Prime Minister of India. It is not clear how they know him to have been a humble tea-seller; in Varanasi (Benares) once I met a rather proud tea-seller who taught me the Hindi word for ‘Bun’. (It is ‘Bun’). Perhaps the BBC thinks chai-wallahs are by definition humble.

Personally I should be more impressed were I to hear of a Prime Minister who had resigned to take up the honest job of tea-seller. I am reminded of the two Frenchmen discussing the career of the great pianist Paderewski: one said ‘Did you know he later became Prime Minister of Poland?’  the other replied ‘Quelle chute!’.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Here is a picture of the church of Ayios Athanasios; reputedly the oldest in the little Greek island of Alonnisos:
And here is a picture of its Eastern end:

Note the bulge in the wall to accomodate the niche in the sanctuary; a characteristic feature of the older Greek Orthodox churches. Not also how the archaic simplicity of the scene has been enhanced by the tasteful addition of a public telephone, installed two days ago. 

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Gambler's Fallacy

Something in yesterday’s piece about scientific method made me think of what is known as the ‘Gambler’s Fallacy’. Recently I read Dostoevsky’s novel ‘The Gambler’ in English translation. It wasn’t clear who made the translation or when, but it seemed to me bad. But how would I know? I don’t know any Russian: perhaps it was a good and faithful translation of a badly written original. We know the book — much shorter than usual for Dostoevsky — was written under pressure and in a hurry, to comply with a publisher’s draconian contractual demands. (That sort of thing is why we need the Society of Authors, but I digress.)

Anyway, the story concerns a gambler. (Duh.) His favoured game is roulette, and it soon becomes clear that he believes the gambler’s fallacy. Over and over again he says to himself things like ’37 has come up three times this evening already, so I won’t bet on it: it’s had more than its share, so the chances of its coming up again before tomorrow are reduced.’

But it’s only in an infinitely long run of wheel-spins that the numbers would be evenly shared. And infinity is not ‘a very big number’, it’s something quite different from any imaginable number. There is no reason at all why 37 should not come up every time until kingdom come, though no doubt if it did people might wonder if the wheel were like the one in ‘Casablanca’. (You know, the bit where Humphrey Bogart saves an innocent young girl from a fate worse than death by arranging for her boyfriend to win enough for exit visas.)

I just digressed again I fear. Let’s be clear about this: in matters of chance, such as the spin of a properly balanced roulette wheel, previous outcomes have nothing to tell us about the next outcome. I don’t know how many numbers there are on a roulette wheel and it doesn’t matter: let’s say 54 just for the sake of argument. Then the chances of any one number coming up on the next spin are one in 54, and it makes not the slightest difference whether that one number has come up time and again all evening, or not come up for weeks: the chance remains one in 54.

Dostoevsky was a gambler: ‘The Gambler’ is surely autobiographical. Like his protagonist, Dostoevsky probably believed the gambler’s fallacy. Surprising? He was of course an educated well-read man. But gambling, like erotic love, is a passion, and when one is in the throes of passion (what exactly is a ‘Throe’?) one is not reasonable. A reasonable gambler would be, and have, as much fun as a reasonable lover.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Scientists have proved that …

Oh no they haven’t. Not according to one model or theory, widely held among philosophers of science, of what science is all about.

Most of the time scientists do ‘Ordinary science’: tests and analyses in line with well-established investigatory norms. But the great ground-breaking scientists are on a par with the poets, composers and painters: their work is creative and speculative. Such a scientist might, for instance, come up with the wild idea that when a piece of wood burns, and a piece of iron rusts, what is happening, for all the apparent dissimilarity, is in some sense one and the same: after all, the wood won’t burn and the iron won’t rust if there is no air. Could it be that the wood and the iron are reacting to or with, perhaps combining with, something in the air? ‘But if that were so,’ he says to himself, ‘Then it would follow that…’ and this is where the hard work that follows, in science as in the (other) arts, on the original inspiration or epiphany really starts: the scientist devises an experiment to see if the ‘It would follow that…’ really does follow.

If it does, then if he’s a good scientist his self-congratulation will be short-lived. He will try the experiment again and perhaps get colleagues to try it: maybe it was chance, or wishful thinking nudging his elbow as he added some reagent. And he will devise further experiments to test further implications of his great over-arching, explanatory, or at least comprehensively descriptive idea.

The important thing to note is that none of these experiments will, or will even be intended to, ‘prove’ or even ‘confirm’ his theory: their results may be consistent with his theory, but the intention of the experiments is actually to try and punch a big hole in it.

Let us assume — and it has often happened — that none of these hole-punching attempts succeed. The theory, as people carelessly say, ‘Stands the test of time.’ After decades or centuries people come to accept it as fact, though actually it never achieves that status: it remains no more than a working hypothesis.

The implication of this model of the scientific enterprise is paradoxical, indeed many find it deeply disturbing: there are (in fact) no scientific facts.

So the next time you hear ‘Scientists have proved that…’  do remember to shout, like a child at a pantomime, ‘OH NO THEY HAVEN’T!’

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

In the present political climate, Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

What with Russia annexing Ukrania piecemeal, so-called Muslims abducting schoolgirls, the UN reporting that torture is as prevalent as ever, and the British electorate (the white bit anyway) openly declaring its ugly xenophobia, now seems a good time to tell you my easy recipe for Seville orange marmalade. Actually I should have told you earlier as, here at least, the Seville orange season is coming to an end.

First steal some Seville oranges. (Easy in Greece as most Greeks consider them useless and inedible, and let them rot and fall off the trees.) Weigh them, entire as they are, and make a note of the total weight. Cut them up into little pieces — thin slivers or fat chunks, according to how you like your marmalade — and tip them — peel, flesh, pith, juice, pips and all — into a plenty big enough pan. Add just a little water — just enough to stop it burning — burning is the bugbear in marmalade making — and put it on the gas or electric ring. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, then reduce the heat and keep cooking (and stirring!) until the pieces of skin are at least partially softened, or al dente, or however you like it. (Scoop a bit out and try it if you can stand the bitterness).

Take the pan off the heat and add the same weight of sugar as the original weight of the oranges. (You made a note, remember?) Ordinary white granulated sugar, don’t be fooled into buying ‘special preserving sugar’ or whatnot. Now go away and do something else for a while; until tomorrow if you like.

When you come back, it is important to have all the utensils you need ready to hand, as if you turn your back on cooking marmalade for a second it will stick to the bottom of the pan, burn, and be ruined with a vile acrid taste. So ignore visitors, ringing telephones etc. You will need: a wooden chopping board, such as the one you used for cutting up the oranges. Your wooden spoon. Enough jars, with tightly fitting lids. A dinner plate. A ladle, preferably one with a little spouty bit. A thick cloth. A teaspoon. Take the lids off the jars and put them in a row so as to get the right lid on the right jar later. Put the jars in a corresponding row on the wooden chopping-board. (This latter is to lessen the possibly glass-cracking thermal shock when you ladle in the hot marmalade.) .

Now relight the gas and bring the mix to the boil, stirring continuously with your wooden spoon. When it’s boiling turn the heat down, and use the teaspoon to take a drop or two out of the pan and put it on the plate. Leave this drop a minute or two to cool, (Don’t stop stirring the pan), then tilt the plate. If the drop runs down, you need to boil the mix some more. Keep doing this test until the drop stays where it is or only slides down very slowly. The marmalade is now ready, but keep stirring, and at the same time (some dexterity needed) use the ladle to scoop out just a little marmalade and try to get it into one of the jars. Then a little scoop into the next jar and so on. Fill the jars slowly, going along the row one by one and then back again, and not completely filling one jar and then the next, (thermal shock, remember.) when a jar is fullish, grasp it firmly with the cloth (it will be very hot) and screw the lid on quickly, so as to create a partial vacuum as it cools, so the marmalade will keep until opening and not go mouldy. As the pan approaches emptiness turn the heat off.

When all the jars are full and their lids on, put pan and ladle and wooden spoon and plate and teaspoon in the sink to soak. Leave the full jars on the wooden board for a couple of hours to cool; then you can wash their outsides as you will inevitably have dribbled some marmalade down the sides.

Note that this marmalade contains all the orange including the pips. They are quite edible and part of the ‘real marmalade experience’. It is a myth, perpetuated by old-fashioned prep-school matrons, that eating orange pips causes appendicitis.

It is an unsolved mystery of marmalade making that one kilo of oranges plus one kilo of sugar does not, in spite of there being very little evaporation, equate to two kilos of marmalade, in fact it comes out to little more than one kilo.    

Monday, 12 May 2014

Dover Beach

Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold;
probably written in about 1851 or 2.


The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.




I was born near Dover and grew up there, so Arnold’s great poem has special resonance for me. Irreverently, I imagine him standing, late at night, on the balcony of their first floor front room at the White Cliffs Hotel, watching and listening as the sea breaks on the shingle, smoking a last cigarette (Matthew, not the sea), racking his brains for the next line and his wife calling from their cozy double bed ‘Come on in Matty, you’ll catch your death out there.’

Great poem? It has become a much-anthologized classic, but largely because of its historical importance, marking the crisis (and for once that’s the right word) in Christianity caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution: intelligent, educated Christians such as Arnold were having to admit its cogency, and it was difficult — many felt impossible — to reconcile evolutionary theory with Christian doctrine. The problem is explained fascinatingly in Dennis Potter’s television work ‘Where Adam Stood’.

But I’m not so sure it’s a great poem, for all that I love it. True, ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ is magnificent, and ‘ignorant armies clash by night’ is at least memorable, which is important in poetry. But the transition ‘The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full’ is clumsy, and there is something strained and desperate (though perhaps that’s the point) about the last verse’s appeal ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another’.

Still and all. Wish I could write something that good.

Oh, look: for all that I know it almost by heart, I’ve just read it again, slowly and carefully. Yes, it’s great.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Crossing Borders

I was talking last night with someone who was for 28 years a magistrate in England. ‘People need Borders’ he said. He started with the example of a child who has to be stopped from throwing (or has to learn not to throw) his dinner on the floor, but he thinks adults need such borders too. (I hope and believe I’m not misrepresenting his views.)

I agree with him. Freedom is as heady a drug as LSD, and more of it than one can handle — or, which comes to the same thing, the removal of too many borders — can make one very ill. It gives one existential angst, which may sound airy-fairy but is in fact something everyone suffers from time to time, though they may not know that name for it: it’s that desperate bewilderment, that panicky feeling of ‘I don’t know where I am’, or it’s like being in a lift and the cable snaps.

The question is — A question is — what sort of borders, and who sets them? He thinks the borders are legal: cross them, and the authorities will punish you. I think they’re moral: cross them, and you will be in a state of sin. (You don’t have to be religious to experience, even if you don’t understand, the state of sin.) Quite probably the original basis of many legal systems is a set of moral imperatives, but in practice the legal and the moral all too often conflict: one must choose between doing what one believes to be right and what someone else says is legal. I hope I would always choose the former.

To look at it another way: I think that if, in a moment of rage, I ‘see red’ and hit someone, then that is certainly not justifiable, but it is human, understandable, and forgivable. But if I hit someone (or imprison him) because I say he has done wrong and I am punishing him for it, that is inhuman and unforgivable. If I have understood him properly, my magistrate friend believes almost exactly the opposite.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Quiz about conversation

Discovering, perhaps here and now, that ‘Meretricious’ means ‘Tarty’, do you make a point from now on of saying ‘Meretricious’ when you mean ‘Tarty’? Or do you rather think ‘Well that’s a relief’ and forget ‘Meretricious’ and just say ‘Tarty’?

Do you talk to people about the things you believe interest them? Or do you, rather, talk to them about the things that interest you? And if in fact to the latter, do you nevertheless believe you belong to the former class? Do you, perhaps, think that if something interests you, then it jolly well ought to interest others?

If you discover something the news of which is likely to distress someone, do you rush to tell them about it? And is that with a) sorrow, or b) glee? (The latter is known as ‘Schadenfreude’. (This is (of course) a German word.))

Do you like to tell people, with details of each dish and its price and how good it was, all about a restaurant meal you have eaten?

When having a conversation with someone in the street, do you keep looking over their shoulders, hoping to catch sight of someone more amusing? Are you, in fact, paying no attention to what they’re saying, but merely waiting for a gap so that you can say what you want to say?

Further to the last paragraph, when you’re talking to someone, and you finish what you wanted to say, do you at once say ‘And…’ (or ‘Und…’ or ‘Και…’) so as to give yourself a moment in which to hastily think of something else to say, thus forestalling the disaster of the other person’s starting to talk?

In short, do you regard conversation as an exchange of news and views, or as an opportunity to massage your ego?

Answers by e-mail please. Be honest.

Thursday, 8 May 2014


Readers over 30 years old may be surprised to hear that ‘Awesome’ (pronounced ‘Ossum’) as a term of approval is still (or is it perhaps again?) in use among young people. I was in England recently for my mother’s funeral (It’s all right: she was well into her nineties, had Alzheimer’s and needed full-time care; she would not have wished to live long in that state) and afterwards we had an unusually large number of family members, including my three teenage nephews, at my elder sister’s house for dinner. So I made an enormous prawn and mushroom curry. This the nephews duly declared ‘Ossum’. I was oddly flattered: it is not often that young people praise old ones, and  in young person’s vernacular to boot.

Sorry about the shortness and triviality of today’s very late post: I have been feeling very much under the weather lately, and this has been compounded by people first treating me badly and then being blithely indifferent to what they have done or even making it clear that they think it all my fault. A common enough occurrence in the summer season here and I hope soon to get over it and resume what passes for normal blog service.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Plenty of Bach from Gardiner, not enough bytes from D.G.

John Eliot Gardiner, The conductor, (though that’s about as adequate as saying ‘Martin Luther King, the priest’) has written a huge book about Bach called, delightfully, ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’. I’m thinking of getting it, even though there’s no room here for more books. (It’s my dream to buy one day a house big enough to hold all my books.)

Here is a little bit I specially liked from Nicholas Kenyon’s review in the TLS:

Notable anniversaries today are the birth of Brahms, the birth of Tchaikovsky,
and the sinking of the Lusitania.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Freud Breakfast

On this day in 1856 Sigmund Freud was born. People either like, even revere, Freud, or dislike and even denigrate him and his works. The latter have usually not read much of what he wrote, and often have grotesque Daily Mail-ish ideas about him. True, in the English Standard Edition, translated mostly by John Strachey, (brother of Lytton), Freud’s works run to some two dozen fat volumes. Those who have not read him might like to try his ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, first published in 1900. (Well, some say it was 1899.) They will be in for a treat: it is one of the most rich, entertaining and witty books ever written.

In June 1938 — only just in time — Freud was packing his bags in Vienna ready to go to England, (in those days England often welcomed foreigners fleeing persecution) when two burly SS officers turned up and stood over him as he read the paper they had brought with them: a declaration that he had not been ill-treated by the Nazis. Having no choice he signed it, but rightly reckoning that they were too thick to understand irony he added ‘I heartily recommend the SS to everybody’. Freud died in London just over a year later as the Second World War was starting.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Of Mice And Men

Scientists in America have found that when fed the blood of young mice, aged mice start behaving more youthfully. In particular, they regain the ability to learn new things quickly.
The scientists have 'explained' (that is to say, they have given an insulting over-simplification to journalists) that 'something in the young mice's blood "turns on" the learning connections in the old mice's brains.' Apparently they are now going to try the same thing with humans.
I am, at the age of 69, learning to play the piano; I find that I learn much more slowly than people 50 or 60 years younger. Perhaps, in future, my younger visitors could bring a jug and scalpel with them?

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Mozart Schmozart

Last night in the snack bar I was discussing Mozart with a lady (as one does, you know) and I said something I like quoting — I can’t remember who first said it — ‘Mozart is too easy for children and too difficult for grown-ups.’  My fellow piano pupil Anastasia — just fourteen, but a far better pianist than I shall ever be, though she, her mother, and even her teacher won’t believe me when I say it — will, I hope, be playing Mozart soon, and she will approach him with directness and simplicity — ‘Oh, that’s nice — what do the notes say — let’s play them’, and she will do it beautifully. The depth of the music will in some way affect her playing, but not consciously. But when I go to play the same piece, I shall be conscious of fifty years of listening to it played by the great pianists: I shall approach it with fear and trembling; my fingers will all turn to thumbs and I shall make a mess of it. Sometimes it’s better not to know.

This superficial simplicity of Mozart has led even as fine a musician as Frank Zappa to say ‘I don’t know why people bother to listen to Mozart any more — he’s so predictable.’ Sure, if you’ve heard an individual Mozart piece once and then later you hear it again, you will say ‘Yes of course; that’s how it goes on.’ But if you were hearing, say, even the simplest movement from a Mozart piano sonata for the first time, and pressed the pause button or asked the pianist to stop for a moment while you thought what might come next, you wouldn’t be able to guess. Equally surely, when you then pressed ‘play’ or asked the pianist to continue, you would say ‘Oh, of course; how could it have been anything else?’ That isn’t predictability: it’s the inevitability of perfection.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Pomes Penyeach

That's actually the title of James Joyce's one published poetry collection, but it also fairly accurately represents how much I have earned from my poetry.

This little verse is from my book ‘Foreign Correspondence’. ‘Butty’ has several meanings, of which the best-known is a sandwich, or just a slice of bread and butter. It can also mean friend or mate, someone one works with, especially in coal-mining. A Butty Boat is a canal narrow-boat with neither engine nor horse, towed behind another (that does have an engine or horse (duh)). The Bull’s Bridge Layby is one of many such places in the English canal network — the word ‘layby’ long predates its use in the road system — where the canal widens almost to a lake, in which boats could wait their turn to pass through a lock. The Grand Junction was part of the canal network, later absorbed into the Grand Union.

Friday, 2 May 2014


I have nothing special to write about today, so am reminded of an exchange of telegrams between Evelyn Waugh and the English newspaper that had sent him to Ethiopia to cover a war. At least in England telegrams no longer exist, so I should say that the sender paid by word, which led to the invention of lots of portmanteau words. The exchange went like this:

Why Unnews?

Unnews good news.

Unnews Unjob.

Upstick job asswise.

Oh, one bit of sort of news: the specialist jazz record label Blue Note, founded by two German emigrants to America, has survived the many efforts of ‘businessmen’ to destroy it and is now 75 years old. Its first records, back in 1939, were of the Boogie-Woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.  

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Another Good Man Gone: I.M. Bob Hoskins.

The actor Bob Hoskins has died. He was only 71. He gave up acting a couple of years ago when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s; death was said to be from ‘Complications following pneumonia.’

Many will remember him best for his roles in several of Dennis Potter’s television works. Any actor favoured by Dennis Potter is likely to be good, and probably an interesting person too. Hoskins was perhaps a touch typecast: he always seemed to be playing the slightly-disreputable-simple-cockney-with-a-heart-of-gold. Even when he played an out-and-out villain, as in ‘The Long Good Friday’, the values of sympathy, warmth, humour and general decency typical of the best of those who have led un-sheltered lives were evident: there is a bit in that very dark film where the Hoskins character remarks of a colleague whose body is being taken away in an ice-cream van ‘That’s not very nice, is it? Goin’ aht like a Raspberry Ripple.’

I knew him during the extended rehearsals, production week, and first (and last) run of a dire musical called ‘Songbook’. Actors spend much more time offstage, drinking tea and chatting in the Green Room, than on, and he was much like the characters he played: there was, as they used to say, no ‘Side’ to him. He will be missed, both in and out of the theatre.