Gotham Diary:
Baron von Moron
October 2016 II


10. 11, 13 and 14 October

Monday 10th

For years, I had nothing to do with puzzles in the Times. I had done all the usual show-off stuff — the Middleton acrostics, the daily crosswords not only in ink but in order, moving from upper left to lower right — and eventually I got tired of it. New puzzles came along, but without appeal; I can still ask: what is Sudoku? (I’ve gone over the rules for Spelling Bee several times, but I still haven’t got a clue how to play it.) One new puzzle, however, has caught my fancy: Split Decisions. The pairs of words in Split Decisions share all but two letters, and only those two sets of divergent letters are given. By “letters,” I mean “letters in the same position.” As an example, here’s the last pair that I worked out: nether and nester. Both words share a ‘t,’ but not in the same position. What took so long was the wrong answer that I had come up with for a pair of words beginning in ba and mo respectively. Solving another pair gave me the third letter, r. The shared last letter of this pair would be the first letter of the words with th and st in the middle. The best I could think of was bares and mores. (Later, when I was stumped, Kathleen proposed barns and morns, interesting but no difference.) The s was a stumper. While sister and system came quickly to mind, it became ever more oppressively likely that there is no word in English into which sxthxx can be resolved. That’s when I set bares and mores aside and worked through the alphabet. When I got to n, I looked back at the ba and mo pair and nearly choked at the aptness. MORON! And not only that, but a moron who carries on as though he were a baron!

In true baronial fashion, I solved the entire puzzle without writing anything down. I kept it all in my head. I did not permit myself those little marginal jottings, much as I really wanted to print sxxalid and sxxared, which certainly would have helped me find squalid and squared much faster than I did. At the same time, I experienced at least one direct-line-from-God solution. Without my having solved any of the adjacent pairs, it came to me, just like that, that xxxmoxx and xxxssxx were chamois and chassis.

Baron von Moron is too good to be true, so we shall have no Progress this week. I hope I haven’t ruined the puzzle for anyone.


Last week, I neglected to mention Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe’s sequel to Man at the Helm. What has Nina Stibbe been doing all these years? Thirty-odd years ago, she was the au pair in the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, now the editor (and bankroller) of the London Review of Books. Wilmers had two little boys, and somehow they survived Nina’s tender loving care. They’ve long since grown up. What  did Nina do between then and now? — now being the publication, two years ago, of Love, Nina, a collection of the letters that she wrote to her sister from the Wilmers house in Gloucester Crescent. Whatever, she is now a lady writer. Last year, we had Man at the Helm, which I found a tad too depressing, because the narrative arc took the heroine from a shabby but grand old pile to a small house in a council estate. That’s where she’s still living, in Paradise Lodge, but this time the story is about her, not her Sixties-warped mother. The book is very funny, and I’ve hated having read it. I want to be still reading it. Why did it have to end?

Stibbe has held on to the voice of Love, Nina. I don’t know how long she’ll be able to go on doing this, as presumably Lizzie Vogel will grow up some day and put her adorable goofiness behind her — but maybe not; one can hope. Lizzie’s voice is really the whole point of the book. Anyone could cook up the escapades at a shambolic nursing home — the more I read about English schools and nursing homes, the more appalled I am by the English willingness to entrust institutions to amateurs — but they’d be little more than not-so-funny comic pratfalls if it weren’t for Lizzie’s fine-grained adolescent judgment, which is also the texture of the novel. To render the following snippet comprehensible, I think it’s enough to say that Sister Saleem, who is also Lizzie’s boss, is a woman of color.

I was thrilled one day when the talk turned to facial features and Sister Saleem said I had nice eyes. Having nice eyes, she said, was a great thing and could make up for awful defects.

“If you have pretty eyes,” she said, “you can get away with a flat behind or hairy arms or even spots — but having not very nice eyes is a curse.”

We all discussed this and agreed, the worst kind of eyes being dead eyes which don’t sparkle. The deadest I knew of were Nurse Hilary’s, which looked like fish’s eyes, or Miss Pitt’s — who looked like she’d poisoned you but you didn’t know it yet. The nicest eyes were almond-shaped, but not like Sister Saleem’s which, although almost-shaped, had purple skin all around — which my sister said was the colour of a man’s resting genitals, but not in front of her. (193)

But not in front of her. To take pains to tell us the obvious — Lizzie and her older sister did not compare Sister Saleem’s eyes to a man’s private parts in conversation with Sister Saleem herself — is of course to raise the hilarious spectre of having done so. It’s a way of making trouble without getting into trouble. If it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, perhaps in an outburst that causes those nearby to turn their heads in your direction, then Paradise Lodge is not for you; rather, you are unworthy of it. It is not hard to see Jane Austen in the background, smiling the smile of someone who can reduce others to giggles but who never giggles herself.

The climax that I remember has nothing to do with the revelations and peripeties that wreathe the happy ending. It even occurs in the first half of the book. It oughtn’t to be funny at all, and, now I think of it, it isn’t funny, only I remember it as sidesplitting. Lizzie is trying to get her favorite inmate, a very stout Miss Mills, from the toilet to her bed, something that she ought not to attempt single-handed. But it is late at night, and her colleague, the air-headed Miranda, is too busy inscribing a birthday card to her boyfriend, in “bubble writing,” to hear the summoning bell. Miss Mills warns Lizzie not to try, but Lizzie can’t just leave the old lady on the commode. The upshot is that Lizzie just fails to get Miss Mills back into bed. The heavy woman slides off and falls on her, pinning her to the floor. This horrible moment lasts for quite a while, and, when Miranda finally does show up, Lizzie believes that Miss Mills shouldn’t be moved until an ambulance arrives, and so the moment continues for quite a while longer. To pass the time, Miranda keeps up a chatter.

After some time, the talk got less interesting. I mean, no one could keep it up forever and soon Miranda was dredging up stuff about her family. The time her mother tired to kill her father with a Flymo and once, when her father had accidentally unplugged the deep freeze, she’d called him a “bandit,” which made me rock with laughter, and that had hurt Miss Mills, and that made me cry. Miranda carried on, though, like a hero. About her sister, Melody, my ex-best friend who’d gone manly in puberty, as previously mentioned, and thanked God for punk arriving so that she could join in with fashion and feel she belonged without trying to look girly. (104)

As previously mentioned.

Lizzie has signed up for part-time work at Paradise Lodge, but full-time suits her better, because she hates school. Lizzie hates school so much that she risks being dropped from the ‘O’ Level program. This alarms everyone else far more than it does Lizzie, so Lizzie’s attempts to be a better student consist of little more than plausible roguery. In a comic reversal, school and its drudgery are the reality from which Lizzie finds uplifting escape in caring for the incontinent elderly. The precariousness of her academic situation is an overdue bill that shadows the entire novel, right up to the last line. The other thread is Lizzie’s imaginary romance with Miranda’s boyfriend, Mike Yu. Mike’s family runs the local Chinese restaurant, and the boy is a paragon. When he tells Lizzie that she must take ‘O’ Level courses, she almost buckles down. But even her dreams are fickle.

It wasn’t Mike’s fault but I started to hate him. I was fed up with being in love and feeling so on edge all the time. I tried to tell myself I was kicking out at him because I was feeling low about various things. But it wasn’t that — that only happened in an actual relationship.

It was that he started to seem too good-looking. I felt shallow for loving his beauty and felt inferior and not worthy. It was like the time my mother had driven us to Dorset to join a family holiday and it had been an embarrassing misunderstanding and we’d sat in the beach car park having a cheese cob while our mother summoned the strength to drive all the way home again. Even from the car, the beach had seemed too beautiful for us and we hadn’t been welcome and I longed for the muddy ruts of a Leicestershire field or the messy verges of the motorway. It was all we deserved.

Plus I’d begun to feel furtive and sleazy at my deviousness. My manipulating Miranda into divulging personal things about him, running into the drive just to say hello and look as if I were on the brink of weeping. And my betrayal of Mr Simmons in return for getting back into the ‘O’ Level group — which had been very much under Mike’s influence.

I imagined married life and having to see his face all the time and how its niceness would soon become sickly, like winning by cheating or eating too much pudding. Like when I’d begged for another slice of strudel and cream and Granny Benson had finally agreed and made me eat every last flake until I was sick.

Why did I love him anyway? Probably just because Miranda had paraded him and his love for her. She’d worn his love like a new mohair jumper and we’d all wanted its softness. It was probably nothing to do with his being so good-looking, so good and philosophical. (233-4)

What I’m hoping is that Lizzie will still talk like this when she finally goes to university.


Tuesday 11th

There is a piece in today’s Times about how hard it would be for someone with Donald Trump’s stated views (about women and such) to get a job with a Fortune 500 company. Once upon a time, this might have made somebody stop and think, Gee, maybe Trump isn’t such a great presidential candidate after all. I don’t know what impact the newspaper’s editors expect it to have now. Trump himself would seize the bull by the horns and declare that we’ve got to change the rules at big companies and stop all this political correctness. His supporters would cheer him. Surely everyone knows this by now. Surely everyone knows that Trump stands, like an unreconstructed Mad Man, for a return to the social facts of the 1950s, and that this is what his supporters think they long for. All they want, really, is to stop having to pretend that people who aren’t straight white males are just as good as those who are. Like the child pointing at the emperor’s new clothes, they want to acknowledge the obvious: people who look funny aren’t really American. It’s very simple.

What the rest of us have to ask is, Why? Why is this nostalgic dream still so powerful? And we have to come up with solid answers, because, as more than a few commentators have observed, Trump himself may go away but his supporters won’t, and eventually they will find a more effective candidate.


Whether it was in San Francisco or upon our return, I had one of those moments. For years, years, I’ve been grappling with what I’ve called “my élite problem.” This boiled down to the search for a better word (than “élite”) for a class to which everybody claims not to belong. The lumber in my head must have shifted — perhaps it was turbulence — because, in the moment that I’m talking about, it was suddenly obvious that “the élite” consists of the professional classes and its clients. For the most part, the clients are just rich people. They have the power that goes with money. There’s little more to say about them.

There is a lot to say about professionals, however. The professions are, above all, social constructs. Their skills reflect established standards. There are different ways in which professional credentials are attained, but every profession that I can think of makes an overt claim that its members strive to uphold certain public virtues: honesty most of all, but also the well-being of the body politic. (If you can think of an exception, please let me know.) Some professions police themselves privately, while others are state-sanctioned, but it really doesn’t matter: professions are unlike criminal gangs or commercial monopolies in that they harbor no objectives that are contrary to the general good. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to be. Professionals, in the course of doing what they do, are supposed to safeguard the rules — rules against fraud, certainly, but also against injustice.

I think it’s pretty clear that the public claim on professional probity has been allowed to fade. It is one thing for an attorney to advise a rich client about taxes; it is quite another for a lawyer to participate in the drafting of legislation that will favor the rich. Do I sound utopian? I don’t think so. What I think I sound like is somebody who can no longer reconcile professional standards with free-market physics. The whole point of professional standards is to regulate market physics, much like the governor on a steam engine. Many of our professional codes were first developed in an era that was more than a little traumatized by exploding boilers, and regulation is an almost universal raison d’être.

It is because professionals have neglected their public responsibilities as a matter of course since at least the Reagan Administration that so many Americans want to sweep away “the élites.” It is because professionals have turned their backs on those without the money to pay their fees that the “basket of deplorables” is overflowing. Too many professionals don’t give a damn about ordinary people, and too many ordinary people know it.

Donald Trump’s supporters aren’t asking a lot. They just want an élite that looks like them, or at least like Don Draper. They just want to go back to that. They’re wrong, of course, to think that old-timey prosperity will make a comeback if the right-looking people are in charge, but that’s just one of the many things that we’ve neglected to teach them in words that they can understand and accept.

If you want a sense of just how bad things are, consider the sense of public accountability that is current among the members of our newest profession, the coder entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.


Thursday 14th

My instinctive reaction to the news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature was to applaud, but it’s going to take a day or two to say why. Good for him, I thought — but I’ve never been a fan, not remotely, and in fact I can think of no popular figure of the Sixties who was more irritating to me at a subcutaneous level. That people voluntarily subject themselves to his humorlessly earnest, unmusically hoarse exhortations has always surprised me. Now, of course, his work has settled into the kind of cultural monumentality that works very well as a wallpaper of synecdoche: the sound of a few bars sets a very clear tone, rich in implications, very quickly. Nevertheless, I can’t think of an American whom I’d rather see win.

As a truly international prize, not limited to work in any one language, the Nobel cannot be a genuinely literary award, because literature, to the extent that it explores and extends the language in which it is written, cannot be translated. Translators have several options, but the rendering of original nuance in another language is not one of them. It is not always the case that something inimitable about the original is lost, either: the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe gain enormously by translation into French, so much so that Poe might be accused of having tried to write French using English words. (I’ve often thought that Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, albeit in Norwegian, with an ear for likely Anglophone outcomes.) The Nobel’s juries understandably fall back on the aspect of books that can be translated: the message. Heaven knows, Bob Dylan is a messenger.

So is Svetlana Alexievich, last year’s winner. Her Secondary Time, which I’m sipping in small doses, is a tremendously important book, because it humanizes the lives of Communist academics and administrators to an astonishing degree, and, with them, the Communist project itself. And yet Alexievich’s contributions to the text of this book are small and instrumental, placing the transcriptions of extended interviews in context. She is not, from any literary standpoint, the author of her own book. She inspired, edited, and produced it, but the words are not hers. Most of her readers, moreover, will not have been able to read Secondary Time in Russian. The attenuation of language into message is just about total: there is no literature left to speak of.

I’d be happier if the Nobel Prize for Literature had a name that better described what it is and must necessarily be: the gong for “a book containing a message.” The need for such a term has emerged because of a peculiar development. Originally, all written texts were messages most of all. So were most early books. Even the Aldine editions of classics were intended as messages of a sort, bringing a new world of readers information about old wisdom. But most new books eventually went stale and lost readers, and still do. A very few did and do not, Shakespeare’s Sonnets for example. We are drawn to these poems not by their message, which all of know perfectly well beforehand, but for their language, which can be incredibly rich precisely because the message is familiar. The Sonnets are bottomlessly literary; they are also, inexpungeably, expressions of the English language that remain intelligible four centuries after their composition — because we keep reading them. The long and the short of it is that Shakespeare’s Sonnets would never deserve the Nobel Prize.


Friday 15th

I’m sure that I heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” before I saw the LP jacket of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for the first time, but it can’t have been long. Somebody had the album at boarding school. For me, the photograph was a total turn-off: a scruffy kid being held by a pretty girl (who was probably a model, I thought, although in fact she wasn’t), walking on a slushy street in a neighborhood dominated by fire-escapes (signalling poverty). If you’d wanted to get me to buy the record on the strength of jacket art alone, you’d have used one of Hayashida Teruyoshi’s photographs from Take Ivy. Nevertheless, I remember acknowledging that the Freewheelin’ jacket was very cool. I was getting used to the fact that there were a lot of very cool things that didn’t appeal to me at all, and that might never appeal to me; and I was discovering that any regrets that I might have about this discrepancy were insincere. I would take me over cool any day. My response to Bob Dylan’s first album has not changed, except that the whole thing is now very quaint.

My other problem with Dylan was that I didn’t need him to tell me that the misadventure in Vietnam was an atrocious mistake. I don’t know how I knew that it was; perhaps life in Bronxville had sensitized me to humbug. Perhaps it was the photographs of the Ngo Dinh clan that seemed designed — insanely, to me — to present them as Kennedys, a look that underlined their Las Vegas qualities. I was also very impressed by the self-immolating monks and nuns. Had the United States openly invaded Vietnam in order to crush a Communist régime, I might have gone along with it, but the mealymouthed talk of “supporting” an allegedly democratic government in an impoverished jungle was as openly bogus as the Donation of Constantine. (Not that I knew of this interesting document at the time.)

Writing about the Jersey shore in Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen refers to the children of affluence whose lives were so very different from his as “rah-rahs.” I disliked rah-rahs, too, even though my fashion sense was rah-rah to a T. It would be wrong, though, to say that I adhered to a conservative aesthetic. I just put on the same clothes that I’d always worn. It did not occur to me that sartorial eccentricity could amount to political protest, and what I saw in armies of jeans-clad youth was simply an undesirable uprising of vagabonds and hobos. When people I knew began looking like hobos, all I saw was carelessness.

That’s all I heard in Bob Dylan’s songs, too. Perhaps it would be better to say that I found them rude and insolent. I have never been comfortable with casual rudeness. For me, being rude is being very, very hostile. It is a kind of anger that has been compressed into a slap of dismissal, and social life cannot withstand very much of it. It is true that Dylan channeled his rudeness into performance art, inviting his audience to ventilate by singing along. But the lowering effect on public discourse was dramatic, and ever since the late Sixties, American life has been conducted in a fug of thoughtless generalities, as if semi-articulate expressions of good will would do the trick. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that civic discourse in this country has never been altogether sound.

Listening to Springsteen, I hear a young man in pain, with just enough lyricism to keep whining at bay. (And sometimes, as in “Brilliant Disguise,” with a flush of lyricism that amounts to plain beauty.) Sometimes, Springsteen’s updated Chatterton sounds self-pitying, but he is never what Dylan so often is: a scold. Unlike Springsteen, Dylan doesn’t present himself as the jerk, the failure. The jerk is somebody else. I can’t identify with that. The jerk is usually me.

Bon week-end à tous!