Archive for June, 2012

One Hundred Years Too Soon
June 2012

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

¶ James Baldwin’s letter to his fifteen year-old nephew (also James Baldwin) no longer seems as bitter as it might have done when written; the shock of Baldwin’s message has completely worn away, and we are left with the simple truth of what he says, which is, alas, still with us — check out “stop and frisk” on Google if you have doubts. (Letters of Note)

I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.

¶ Proof that the legal system is seriously broken is offered in a series of entries at Popehat concerning a preposterous lawsuit against The Oatmeal. (Thanks, Megan!)

See, a legal threat like the one Charles Carreon sent — “shut up, delete your criticism of my client, give me $20,000, or I’ll file a federal lawsuit against you” — is unquestionably a form of bullying. It’s a form that’s endorsed by our broken legal system. Charles Carreon doesn’t have to speak the subtext, any more than the local lout has to tell the corner bodega-owner that “protection money” means “pay of we’ll trash your shop.” The message is plain to anyone who is at all familiar with the system, whether by experience or by cultural messages. What Charles Carreon’s letter conveyed was this: “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the right. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the wrong. It doesn’t matter that my client makes money off of traffic generated from its troglodytic users scraping content, and looks the other way with a smirk. It just doesn’t matter. Right often doesn’t prevail in our legal system. When it does, it is often ruinously expensive and unpleasant to secure. And on the way I will humiliate you, delve into private irrelevancies, harass your business associates and family, disrupt your sleep, stomp on your peace of mind, and consume huge precious swaths of your life. And, because the system is so bad at redressing frivolous lawsuits, I’ll get away with it even if I lose — which I won’t for years. Yield — stand and deliver — or suffer.”

Our system privileges Charles Carreon to issue that threat, rather than jailing or flogging him for it.

¶ No less screwed-up, in our view, is the idea that creative work posted on the Internet ought to be available without charge. Maria Bustillos and David Lowery (author of the “Letter to Emily“) discuss the possibility that legal arguments advanced by Lawrence Lessig and others have no foundation in the realities of excellence. (The Awl)

What this really is, is a simple political issue: a labor issue. It should be possible for a working musician to support a household without having to tour twelve months out of the year, just like it should be possible to live modestly on minimum wage (which it ain’t). But because “art” and “artists” are seen in our world less as craftsmen, and more like these special magical unicorns who are “compelled” to “make art” and can live on air, we are taking our eyes off the ball. Let’s agree on the obvious, and figure out how we can all be paid fairly for our work.

¶ Ian Hacking’s introduction to a new edition of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm-shifting book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, appears at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Hacking notes that Kuhn was hostile to the development of “science studies,” a field of which his book more than any other factor caused explosive expansion. At issue, it seems, was truthiness. “Kuhn cannot take seriously that “there is some one full, objective, true account of nature.” Does this mean that he does not take truth seriously? Not at all.” ¶ Maria Popova’s appreciation of WIB Beveridge’s 1957 guide to The Art of Scientific Investigation suggests that this book ought to be as well-known as Kuhn’s. Beveridge certainly seems to have had an advance line on the Cognitive Revolution. (Brain Pickings)

It is not possible deliberately to create ideas or to control their creation. When a difficulty stimulates the mind, suggested solutions just automatically spring into the consciousness. The variety and quality of the suggestions are functions of how well prepared our mind is by past experience and education pertinent to the particular problem. What we can do deliberately is to prepare our minds in this way, voluntarily direct our thoughts to a certain problem, hold attention on that problem and appraise the various suggestions thrown up by the subconscious mind.


¶ Money — the problem with money — will always be with us. The worst of it is that, if money is not an end in itself (it can’t be), where should the pressure to acquire it let up? Robert Skidelsky and his son, Edward Skidelsky, explore the question in an essay, “In Praise of Leisure,” adapted from a forthcoming book. They find authority in that old fun-seeker, Bertrand Russell. (Chron Higher Ed; via Brainiac) 

We cannot expect a society trained in the servile and mechanical uses of time to become one of free men overnight. But we should not doubt that the task is, in principle, possible. Bertrand Russell, in an essay written just two years after Keynes’s effort—a further illustration of the stimulating effects of economic crisis—put the point with his usual clarity:

“It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the 24. Insofar as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. … The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.”

¶ We can only imagine what Tyler Cowen, with the collapse of public trust at the forefront of his thinking, would make of the Skidelskys’ musings. “Politicians do not have enough trust that voters will reward them for being courageous, if that is the right word, and voters do not have enough trust that the political act is in fact one of courage.” (Marginal Revolution) ¶ Tyler’s observations make it difficult to see how to implement the spending program that Brad DeLong and Barry Eichengreen recommend urgently in their introduction to a new edition of Charles Kindleberger’s The World in Depression 1929-1939 (1973). ¶ It’s probably too late, anyway, suggests Michael Pettis, who asks “Will Globalization Go Bankrupt” at the thrillingly-titled site, Credit Writedowns. “The “Greenspan put” was once again exercised and the market bailed out, but as Hyman Minsky would probably have pointed out had he been alive, this would only ensure that the crisis, when it eventually came, would be worse.” ¶ We’re all going to hell in a handbasket, anyway, argues Chris Hayes in a new book, Twilight of the Elites, excerpted at The Nation. Oligarchy is inevitable!

Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

¶ So now we know why zombies are so big right now. But, argues Kristin Rawls at AlterNet (via The Millions),

It’s not zombies we have to fear. It’s the pervasiveness of the belief that extreme disparity is the natural state of things. It’s alarming that these attitudes persist without question or analysis amid media circuses that offer nothing but spectacle.

Zombies promise certain doom that we cannot possibly defeat. The promise of impending self-destruction, by contrast, offers us a shred of agency – that is, the slight possibility that we can fix this. And however small or unsatisfying this reminder may be, we can at least remember that we have a little more hope than, say, the characters who appear in “The Walking Dead.”

¶ Not so fast with the badmouthing of “media circuses”! The Wire star Wendell Pierce is using his ill-gotten (?) gains to irrigate food deserts in his native New Orleans. (GOOD)


¶ The most moving aspect of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s collective interview with a handful of Trappist monks is the preoccupation with sin as an everyday, low-grade distraction from what’s important. It is quite as though these men have set up in a Colonial Williamsburg of the mind, one which catechism-defined souls still fall away from God. (The Awl). ¶ Richard Ford finds that, in Canada — the country, not his new novel — he feels released from “this fierce sense of American exigence.” (Guardian; via The Millions) ¶ At The Age of Uncertainty, Steerforth is careful to point out that, having grown up at Richmond, he is not a true Londoner. (We had the same feeling about growing up in Westchester.) But he highly recommends Craig Taylor’s collection of interviews with 200 Londoners.

¶ Felix Salmon goes straight to the heart of what’s useful about blogging (and what’s not) in his appraisal of the Jonah Lehrer kerfuffle. As Felix points out, you can be charged with plagiarizing yourself — repeating yourself is, in certain contexts (scientific ones, especially) tantamount to misrepresenting what you’re saying as new. So, instead of offering fascinating (but occasionally repetitive) magazine articles in blog format, Jonah ought to use Frontal Cortex as a notebook, for sketching ideas, noting links, and responding to commentary. Hard to put into practise, but a beacon to steer toward. ¶ In another vein altogether, Brian Platzer decides to put Imagine to the test, and faute de mieux pursues creativity with the aid of Dewar’s, and also with Red Bull and No-Doze, all in an attempt to resolve his desire to move to California. “My wife hugged me and called me an idiot in the way I liked.” I guess they’re staying in New York. (The Rumpus) ¶ Not surprisingly, David Edwards finds the atmosphere at a monastery/resort near Bordeaux more conducive to creativity. Who wouldn’t? Reading about “Le Laboratoire: a place where ideas could be born, evolve, and be “exhibited” to the public for feedback” had us reaching for the plonck. (GOOD)

¶ Satoshi Kanazawa believes that “less intelligent people are better at doing most things.” We hate to say it, but this sounds like a perfectly Japanese idea, as does the notion that extra intelligence is associated with other kinds of deviance. “Intelligent people are more likely to be nocturnal because humans are designed to wake up when the sun comes up and go to sleep when the sun goes down.” (Prospero; via Arts Journal) ¶ Is Felix Salmon saying something of the same when he cautions against the use of models as weak but plausible as the Gaussian copula? Probably not; possibly the very opposite. “Every bank has graybeards who love to talk about how tools like Gaussian copula functions or value-at-risk are massively inadequate. Those graybeards get a lot of lip-service.” ¶ One thing seems settled: male morality takes a nosedive when masculine appearances are at stake. “Nonetheless, these findings suggest that if ethical standards are a significant factor in your choice of financial advisors or real estate agents, it may be safer to go with Bernadette than with Bernie.” (Scientific American; via 3 Quarks Daily)

¶ Doubtless because we’re reading nothing but English fiction these days, and not recent English fiction at that, there appeared very little of interest on the books front during June. Culpa nostra. There was Tim Parks’s incredibly interesting “Found in Translation,” at the NYRB, about the extent to which Anglophone (especially American) fiction is consumed in translation by European readers with a strong background in English. (via Paperpools) ¶ At the Guardian, Greg Dyer manages to put a lid on the snark for a review of Jonathan Franzen’s new collection, Farther Away:

Franzen doesn’t engage with Tolstoy and Flaubert because he figures (I figure) that they can look after themselves. He prefers to deploy his power as a lobbyist, “a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer”. (In the case of Munro, Franzen seems somewhat to overstate the extent of her underappreciation.) No binoculars are needed to see the overlap between this kind of literary activism and his dedication to bird-watching and protection (the subject of the two longest pieces in the book). He’s pledged to the protection of endangered species of writers whose books are rarely but eagerly sighted in secondhand shops.

¶ And, at The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell brings out the tender subtext of How to Sharpen Pencils: “The idea of a broken pencil tip bringing into focus all the unhappiness of a person’s life is, on one level, a richly comic one, but on another level—and particularly when you realize that Rees started writing this book in the aftermath of the breakup of his marriage—it’s a quietly poignant one.” (via 3 Quarks Daily) 

¶ Jim Emerson’s Scanners is one of the best sites going for criticism of any kind — for the purpose and practise of criticism. Mention has already been made of his lord-‘a’-mercy response to a “discussion” of film criticism between two Times staffers. Other great June entries included his respects for Andrew Sarris (noteworthy for generous quotes from the late critic) and a “non-review” of Moonrise Kingdom that changed our mind about going. (“Friendships are shared fantasies, conspiracies of affection and loyalties and imagination. So is love. And marriage. And family. And a scout troop. And a profession.”)

¶ Ela Bittencourt wraps up her remarks on Cindy Sherman with a compelling observation. (The House Next Door)

Finally, there’s the importance of the masks themselves; on film, but also in life, we are what we make ourselves out to be. The mask isn’t arbitrary. Through her many guises, Sherman demands that we look at it not as a wanton distraction or whimsy, or solely as a social convention, but as essence, asking how each particular mask is constructed, and what function it serves. In an inversion of the common understanding of the term, Sherman’s masks expose rather than conceal.

¶ The former V X Sterne is back at Outer Life, now nameless as well as anonymous. He is also wife-less, and, if we’re very lucky, we’ll get to see him build his new life insight by insight. “I fear that much of my life is, indeed, a lowest common denominator life, as so much of what I do is automatic and easy, most likely because I race through life so fast there’s no time to think.” That’s healthy fear to have. ¶ Jim Behrle concludes that there must be a God because, frankly, the world is just too weird to have happened by accident. ” Tapestries don’t lie, people! And there are lots of dragons on all kinds of tapestries. So dragons existed!” (The Awl) ¶ R P Bentall proposes to classify happness as a psychiatric disorder. “More importantly, the argument that happiness be excluded from future classifications of mental disorder merely on the grounds that it is not negatively valued carries the implication that value judgments should determine our approacah to psychiatric classification. Such a suggestion is clearly inimical to the spirit of psychopathology considered as a natural science.” (Journal of Medical Ethics; via Discover) ¶ The Awl has been running a series of pieces under the heading “Bad Influences.” We particularly liked Josh Fruhlinger’s contribution, “Giving Bad Advice to Kings.” ¶ We had great fun reading Brent Cox’s totally unscientific survey of bridesmaids and their dresses. “As for wearing it again, I would fish clothes from a foetid river before wearing that dress again.” (The Awl)

Have a Look: ¶ Seymour Chwast: Get Dressed @ Brain Pickings.  ¶ Elizabeth in Pantone. (via The Millions) ¶ 10 Best Decorative Arts History Books @ Design Sponge. ¶ Scout in the Keys: Vizcaya and the Dry Tortugas. (Scouting NY)

Noted: A new address for Mnémoglyphes. ¶ Susan Cheever @ Days of Yore. ¶ Postcards and Borges’s “Aleph.” (The Millions). ¶ Ted Wilsonreviews Facebook; runs for President. (The Rumpus) ¶ The Queen’s English Society gives up. (Guardian; via Arts Journal) ¶ June faves @ Brain Pickings: What makes the I Ching different; What is art? ¶ Bill Murray on avocados. (Esquire; via

Friday Commonplace:
29 June 2012

Friday, June 29th, 2012

The other day or so ago, Kathleen and I were laughing about PT Barnum’s famous bamboozlement, “This Way to the Egress.” Unsuspecting patrons would follow the arrow, only to find that they had left via the exits, and would have to pay anew to re-enter.  We were wondering just how obscure the word “egress” was at the time. I decided to have a look at the OED and, what d’you know, but “egress” must have been something of a shibboleth in the Nineteenth Century, when every educated Anglophone read Paradise Lost, at least far enough to encounter Satan’s great exhortation in Book II.

O Progeny of Heav’n, Empyreal Thrones,
With reason hath deep silence and demurr
Seis’d us, though undismaid: long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light;
Our prison strong, this huge convex of Fire,
Outrageous to devour, immures us round
Ninefold, and gates of burning Adamant
Barr’d over us prohibit all egress. (ii, 437)
This past, if any pass, the void profound
Of unessential Night receives him next
Wide gaping, and with utter loss of being…

The word, while never common, cannot have been unknown. The fact that Satan, hero of the epic, utters it is all I need to know to conclude that Barnum could expect to have legal opinion entirely on his side. Ignorance of Milton is no excuse!


From “Spry Old Character,” by Elizabeth Taylor (1953).

Later, the wind drove gusts of fair-music up the hill. Miss Arbuthnot complained; but Harry could not hear it. Missing so much that the others heard was an added worry to him lately, for to lose hearing as well would finish him as a person, and leave him at the mercy of his own thoughts, which had always bored him. His tongue did his thinking for hiim: other people’s talk struck words from him like a light from a match; his phrases were quick and ready-made and soon forgotten, but he feared a silence and they filled it.

I was struck by the idea of finding one’s own thoughts boring. And yet who am I to sniff, who carry something to read wherever I go?


From Colm Tóibín’s review of three books about Thomas Mann, collected in Love in a Dark Time (p 118).

Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Anthony Heibut’s Hamlet. They are dull and worthy and useful perhaps, and they repeat the same facts and the same narrative. Their desire for Mann to be a better person is almost comic. Heilbut has clearly been to Wittenberg, he can be brilliantly perceptive about Mann’s books, he can put on an antic disposition, he can lose himself in long soliloquies about Mann’s sexuality and his work…

…Prater then adds in parenthesis: “The supreme egoism here is as remarkable as the blinkered application to his work.” Mann is sixty-four, his whole world has been destroyed. He has the reaction any normal writer might have during a crisis: he wants to get on with his work; and like everyone else, he is worried about what the war will mean for him. Prater seems to want him to join the Red Cross and spend his morning helping old ladies cross the street rather than working on Lotte in Weimar.

Gotham Diary:
28 June 2012

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Taking a walk after lunch the other day, I was arrested by a forgotten but instantly familiar sight: a truck painted orange and emblazoned with the Auer’s logo. Not surprisingly, the truck was parked along Gracie Square (the last block of East 84th Street, between East End Avenue and the East River); the firm speicalizes in upscale moving.

Two houses down Hathaway Road from our first house in Bronxville (Eastchester really), in a much prettier little house (Nº 23, if you want to stroll along in street view; we were at 29), lived the Auers, Mr and Mrs, an elderly couple. I would guess that Mr Auer was the founder, or co-founder, of what is still the family business; by 1955, when we moved to Hathaway Road, he was retired, and the moving company was run by his son — I am also surmising. I so surmise because of the occasional appearance of the Auers’ grandson, known as GJ. I suppose GJ came to spend the odd week with his grandparents, perhaps because his parents still lived in the city — probably not far from where I’ve been living all this time. GJ was a bit older than I was, and taller and leaner, as I remember, and very lively; and I remember getting into trouble for doing something with him. I was about eight years old at the time, and the world of forbidden things was immense, but doing anything at all with GJ would probably have been enough. The Auers were “from the city.” This was not a class problem but a “ways” problem. Our ways were not their ways.

My mother’s fear and loathing of New York was one of the differences between us that I never understood while she was alive. That’s to say that I didn’t see it. When she complained about the city, I imagined that, if whatever she was complaining about were fixed, then she would stop complaining and start enjoying the place, because how could you not? She could not. Her childhood was spent in Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago comparable to Bronxville in many superficial ways, but ultimately quite incomparable because of the difference, not really measurable to my mind, between Chicago and New York. You hear a lot of talk about New York versus LA (or you used to do), but LA is just another Long Island sprawl populated by thinning ranks of overlooked locals by the vacationers from New York. New York and Chicago are the American antitheses, or would be, if New York were really American. Chicago is really American.

My mother eventually found happiness in Houston. Even then, I didn’t see her fear and loathing of New York for what it was. I was confused by her readiness to jump on one of the company planes at the drop of a hat for a jaunt to the Big Apple. I didn’t understand that she liked going because what she liked even better was coming back, and coming back loaded with goodies. Kron’s chocolate — that was a big deal for a while. Tortellini were another. My mother had a dish of them at Barbetta (natch) and “found out” where to buy them “wholesale.” I wasn’t paying a lot of attention by this time, so I can’t say from memory how many dozens of boxes she flew down to Houston, but I’m sure that the number was exaggerated.

My mother loved visiting New York. But she hated living anywhere near it.


My father, I think, was indifferent to New York. It didn’t bother him. He was where he was. Until he felt that his game was falling apart, he liked best being on a golf course. I didn’t understand this, either, but that’s another matter. My father’s fears and loathings remained unknown to me. He seemed naturally confident always — a fine Midwestern bluff. There was one exception, in the last years at the Hathaway Road house, when as part of his job he began to have to address the security analysts on an annual basis. Did what I just say mean anything to you? It sounds Egyptian even to me. Security analysts? Who were they? How to describe them in today’s terms? I must ask Fossil Darling. In any case, I expect that my father was addressing the New York Society of Security Analysts (they seem to be CFAs now). Not a natural public speaker, at least in his own mind, my father rehearsed his speeches by delivering them into a microphone attached to a cassette recorder (new at the time, and “cheap.”) He stood at the tall dresser in his bedroom and pretended that it was a lectern.

My memory of these rehearsals is corrupt and contradictory. Did I ever try to listen to one of the speeches all the way through? If I did, I wasn’t allowed to do it again — or would I have wanted to? I had no idea what my father was talking about, except that in some extremely obscure way he was making a sales pitch. He was touting the stock of the company for which he worked — but of course I wouldn’t have known to put it that way then. But it was the one time that I actually watched my father work. So this was what he did! Well, it was something. Everything else that he did was done in an office in the city, to which he was not unhappy about commuting every day, invisible and impalpable.

(He was very fond of telling a story about his father-in-law, who, after the War, decided to cut down on commuting time and get to work earlier by moving into the city. He took at an apartment in Sutton Place shortly before I was adopted. After two years or so, he gave it up and moved back to Bronxville. It turned out that he was spending the commuting time by sleeping late and lounging over breakfast. I don’t think that he cared for the city much, either. I think that my father liked this story because it cautioned him against suggesting anything of the same to my mother.)

I remember asking my father what a sinking fund was. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and it still isn’t.   

Gotham Diary:
27 June 2012

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012


We don’t have the word. In French, formation can mean “training.” Déformation professionelle is therefore a clever description of the ways in which a profession, especially an inward-looking one, can warp an exponent’s outlook. I’ve been inspired to take the idea a step further, to suggest that an élite can fall into the trap of mis-training its cadets, going in as it were. Instead of teaching them what they’ll need to know, it teaches them — something else. Something like Latin, Greek, and rugby. That the thesis behind Kwasi Kwarteng’s intriguing examination of six colonial muddles, Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern Age. Even today, Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan and Nigeria all bear the unhealed wounds of imperial interference and mismanagement (the sixth case, Hong Kong, makes a wickedly ironic contrast). Another thing that they have in common is the overwhelmingly public-school background of the Englishmen responsible. Kwarteng is not wrong to see a connection.

Instead of developing an overarching imperial policy and making sure that it was implemented, Whitehall relied on the holders of a narrowly-defined set of credentials to run the Empire. Anyone capable of surviving the rigors of the great public schools and of earning a decent degree at Oxford or Cambridge — and especially anyone who could add to these achievements the glory of a “blue” — was deemed the best candidate for an administrative position, and administrators were vested with vast discretion. Kwarteng talks of “individualism,” and that may be appropriate in a British context, but, as an American, what I see is widespread uniformity of outlook coupled with a rather naive faith in “initiative.” To complete an education that was at least as demanding athletically (and socially, as in “team spirit”) as it was academically was regarded as proof of all-purpose good judgment. And why not? The British Empire did not include England itself. Nor did it include the Anglophone Dominions that were established in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with a view to avoiding further mutinies on the American model. The British Empire included only lands inhabited by human beings thought to be ineffably inferior to the cream of civilized manhood skimmed from England’s venerable schools. Anyone from that class of gentleman was surely entitled to govern the rest of the world.

The frequent reversals in local policy that Kwarteng laments — the most ruinous, probably, was effected in Sudan, where a “Southern Policy” was reversed after sixteen years of thorough implementation — resulted not from an excess of individuality in imperial staff but from the accidents of personal outlook (which may be what Kwarteng means by “individuality”). One man might be attracted to Islam, and another hate it; neither disposition would be the result of their studiedly aloof schooling. Such differences appear to have been regarded almost as hobbies, as innocent and inconsequential eccentricities. But such was the power vested in imperial administrators that slight irregularities in the overall uniformity of their background could produce sharp contrasts. In Hong Kong, a governor capable of speaking several dialects of Chinese was succeeded by one who could manage no more than “the easy parts of a newspaper.” Any genuine individualists, it seems to me, would have been weeded out in the vetting process.  

Kwarteng’s conclusion about Hong Kong encapsulates the whole book.

Hong Kong’s history goes to the heart of the nature of the British Empire. In reversion to China under a regime of “benign authoritarianism,” the term Chris Patten used to describe British rule, shows a remarkable continuity. Hierarchy, defence, government by elite administrators, united by education in the same institutions, in largely the same subjects, were all features of British imperial rule which were also characteritic of officials in imperial China. The story of Hong Kong also confirms the enormous power wielded by colonial governors. If Sir Mark Young had been succeeded by administrators who shared his vision, the history of Hong Kong might well have been very different. Lastly, Hong Kong showed, in many ways, how changes in Britain were not reflected by changes in the wider empire. Patten was a child of the liberal 1960s and blindly believed a version of his country’s history that presented the British Empire as an enlightened liberal force, spreading democracy and freedom to the furthese shores of the earth. Margaret Thatcher had grown up through the Second World War, listening to, and believing, Churchill’s late Victorian rhetoric that invoked Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” imagery; she genuinely shared the Whiggish notion that British history, with its Magna Carta and Glorious Revolution, was the story of the development of “freedom” and liberal democratic ideas of government. So far as this idea was true for Britain, it did not apply to any real extent to the administration of the British Empire, which was always a wholly different political organization from Britain itself. The British Empire had nothing to do with liberal democracy and, particularly in Hong Kong, was administered along lines closer to the ideals of Confucius than to the vivid, impssioned rhetoric of Sir Winston Churchill, or even Shakespeare.

I harp on “individualism” not because I disagree with Kwarteng’s thesis — I don’t — but because I believe that there are lessons in Ghosts of Empire that Americans need to learn, and that “individualism” will get in the way of the learning. Not only does a preponderance of leading business executives share advanced degrees from a handful of elite institutions, but the training provided by these schools is itself blinkered by elitism — by the conviction that their faculties know best what they ought to teach. As a result, few professors at our great law and business schools have anything like the practical experience that we insist upon for doctors and engineers. (Many of the former, I would venture, have never spent any significant time outside the academy.)

We learned long ago, from A Jewel in the Crown, that the Empire provided an exalted way of life to Englishmen and -women of unremarkable middle-class backgrounds. Kwasi Kwarteng shows that it also provided an outlet for their autocratic impulses. Perhaps the empire came to be seen as a perversion of British life precisely because it filtered out upstarts and grandees from the sceptered isle.



Gotham Diary:
On Blogging
26 June 2012

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Last week, Felix Salmon published an essay about the Jonah Lehrer kerfuffle — which I haven’t followed. This gist of it seems to be that Jonah is “guilty” of (self-) plagiarism, by virtue of repeating himself at The Frontal Cortex. Felix’s suggestion is to treat the blog, whether as author or as reader, as a notebook. It ought to record the blogger’s thoughts on his reading; it ought to link to online material wherever possible, and it ought to engage with comments and blog entries elsewhere that its entries have inspired.

Wonderful advice, and, oh! how I’m going to try to follow it. But I already know how difficult it is. How difficult, that is, to override the impulse to compose — to think of — entries as essays, or, at a minimum, as carefully-written letters to attentive correspondents. I’d like nothing better than to pile up my daily observations on this and that, but the effort of making them coherent to myself a week later would paralyze me with unrealistic obligations.

As to linking and following comments, this is far from convenient, even at this stage of the blogging project. Perhaps it is difficult for me, because of my age and the self-conscious nature of my endeavors here. (Not that they feel self-conscious to me.) I can imagine a number of technological advances that are unaccountably not being made, but then it’s very likely that I’m a market of one. I was thinking, over the weekend, how handy it would be to dictate into my smartphone throughout the day. When I sat down to prepare an entry, the words would meet me on the screen, already laid out more or less comprehensibly, and a little light editing would finish them for blogging purposes. (A podcast might also be generated as a byproduct, again automatically.) This would spare my writing energy, the time that I spend composing sentences and paragraphs and, yes, essays for the Web site writing that I never seem to get round to. It is maddening that this facility is not to hand.

Nevertheless, I shall renew the effort.


One problem that I have never solved is the matter of when a daily entry ought to be written. At the moment, I am writing entries the day before publication, so that I can begin the day without any distracting urgency. It also allows me to add to the entry as the day goes on, before anyone has seen the whole; it is only at the weekends that I’m willing to ask readers to look at an entry a second or third time, to see if I’ve added anything (how conceited this sounds!). What I do on the weekends is an uneasy, but to date the most agreeable, compromise between my desire to present fresh material every day and my need to have a life, especially on weekends.


I seem to be reading a dozen books all at once. Out of the blue, madly seeking a slim volume that I might carry along to babysitting the other night, I grabbed the latest edition of E H Carr’s very important 1961 lectures, What Is History? I’ve had the book for a few years now, on the recommendation of I forget whom; I feel awfully stupid for not having read it sooner. In the first two lectures, Carr deals with the problem of “historical facts” — what are they? — and sensibly concludes that they are facts that have become interesting to historians.

The layman imagines, as indeed the early nineteenth-historians believed, that the historian unearths facts from archives, more or less as a matter of looking things up, but anyone with a real interest in the subject knows that this is barely the beginning. One of the most curious books in my library is Eleanor Shipley Duckett’s Death and Life in the Tenth Century (Ann Arbor; 1967, 1988), a very readable account of the pivotal century in European history. Readable, yes; reliable, no. Duckett simply copies out monastic annals, and takes every document at face value. As a convenient account of the surviving writings of the time, Death and Life is probably invaluable, but it is not what we mean by history. I should venture that the number of historical facts pertaining to Europe in the Tenth Century is frightfully small.

As an example of the larval historical fact, Carr mentions the demise in 1850 of a ginger-bread vendor, kicked to death by a mob, at a place called Stalybridge. This event has, Carr notes, been picked up and examined by a colleague, Kitson Clark. Whether or not it becomes a historical fact is entirely a matter of other historians’ agreeing with Clark that it is noteworthy. (On the strength of the Wikipedia entry for Stalybridge — later swallowed up by Manchester — it appears not to have done so, for what that’s worth.)

The second lecture, “Society and the Individual,” thrashes out conundrums that are still being thrashed out today — one wonders what is keeping them alive. Like “nature” versus “nurture,” the distinction between society and the individual is profoundly bogus; there are no individuals acting apart from and outside society, and there are no inchoate “vast, impersonal forces” driving society. Anonymous, perhaps, but not impersonal. Is it difficult for many people to bear these fatally simple-sounding dichotomies in the reciprocity that makes sense of them?

Carr is a very good writer, and must have been an entertaining speaker. The odd thing about his little book is that we still need it.


In the late afternoon, three boxes of books arrived, almost all of them from across the sea. Many were purchased at the instigation of Diana Athill, so let’s blame her. How else would I have heard of Timothy Mo, whose An Insular Possession promises to be a good read about Hong Kong. Gitta Sereny I mentioned yesterday; today she appeared. Also, Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, which I mean to read in light of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction. Kathleen had asked for some one-volume histories of England, and I seem to have covered the range; last week, the Oxford History of Britain, edited by Kenneth Morgan, arrived in its imposing thickness (the British do thick paperbacks so much better than we do), while, today, Simon Jenkins’s very pretty (and pretty insubstantial A Short History of England came in. You might think that I’d have had a good history of England on the shelves, but I was much too cool for that; I required volumes on reigns and epochs. The Oxford is a collection of ten chapters, each written by a different historian, running from 55 BC to the present. Until a few minutes ago, I was lost in Paul Langford’s discussion of Walpole.

Also, and this from Alibris, Robert Liddell’s The Last Enchantments.

Gotham Diary:
In the News
25 June 2012

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Is it me, or is it the newspaper? Some days — most days — there’s nothing much worth reading; the headlines and lead sentences serve to reinforce my awareness of issues and personalities, but provoke no commentary. Every once in a while, though, the Times seems to burst with good stories. Now I think of it, this is most likely to happen on a Sunday.

There were five good pieces in yesterday’s Times. There was the Gitta Sereny obituary, more interesting than it might have been, perhaps, because I was just reading Diana Athill’s memoir of working with Sereny on the publication of her first big book, Into That Darkness, about the conscience of a Holocaust functionary. In the final paragraphs, Sereny’s “secret” — the power that enabled her to stare into “that darkness” — was revealed.

“I know this is difficult to believe, but I’m really, in the old sense of the word, quite a gay person,” she told the newspaper The Scotsman in 2000. “I’m very optimistic. About the world. About people. I believe the majority of people are good.”

Though Ms. Sereny chose to spend her professional life steeped in evil, she said that her calling had little effect on her own temperament.

I’ve got a copy of Into That Darkness on order. 

Then there was Ken Johnson’s essay on LeRoy Neiman. Why, or in what way, was Neiman a “bad artist”? What does that mean? And how come the art world has no widely-respected figures comparable to Wes Anderson in film and Richard Ford in literature? Johnson puts his finger on it: “But there was nothing in his work to upset the couch potato’s televisual worldview.” But why is it important for fine artists to disturb viewers? Contemporary art has a commitment to discomfort that I expect will be seen as somewhat perverse by future generations, much like the Mannerist penchant for masculine bodies with notional female breasts. I don’t care much for LeRoy Neiman’s subject matter, but (much to my shame) I consistently found his pictures exhilarating.   


The long story about Sandy Springs, Georgia, couldn’t have been more timely — for me. I’ve made an almost everyday habit of querying the business organizations around me and asking, why can’t they be not-for-profit? In what way do investors improve the way a given operation runs? Well, they’re the source of cash, obviously, but what do they contribute beyond that? Not much that I can see. A one-time grant might serve just as well. The grant might come from the government, or it might come from a philanthropist, but, either way, the undertaking — an apartment house, a movie theatre, a dry-cleaner, a grocery store — could thereupon go about its business without any distractions from its core objectives of providing services at prices that brought in sustaining revenues. There would be no need to grow. The original grant might be repaid over time, like bond debt, and then retired forever.

The same goes for many “governmental” functions, and the Sandy Springs story underlines the other improvement that I have in mind, which is that business operations — especially those the provide fundamental services such as power and water supply and waste disposal — ought to be run by people who have been educated to run them. The outfits that provide Sandy Springs with its outsourced services may or may not be any good at what they’re doing; I’m not as willing as Georgians are to trust the free market to maintain quality. I don’t like those pesky investors lurking in the background, with their itch to maximize profits. And I don’t know anything about the people who are doing the work. How have they been trained? The more I consider the matter, the more clearly I see the enormously stabilizing insitution most hated by modern economics: the guild. The more attractive price-fixing becomes.

In any case, you can see that I did not draw the usual conclusions from the Sandy Springs story.


I even read Thomas Friedman’s column, something that I never do. “The Rise of Popularism” is, for the most part, the usual huffenpuff about abstractions. Friedman doesn’t even run with the story that ought to have popped out at him when he typed the words, “generational shift.” That’s probably because, as one of the Baby Boomers whose wastrel ways he decries, he doesn’t care to consider generational shifts that might succeed him. Instead of lamenting the absence of truth-telling leaders in his own generation, he ought to have exhorted those who have grown up with all the new modcons, those who have never known a world without keyboards, screens, and touchpads, to consider the practical merits of candor and honesty in a deeply connected world.


Finally: Tek Young Lin, a highly-esteemed, retired English teacher and cross-country coach at Horace Mann, about whom “whispers” arose in the wake of the newspaper’s recent account of long-ago sexual predation at the school. “In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong,” Mr Lin now remarks. Breathtaking, no? No denial, no regret. It appears that Mr Lin never forced himself on any student (whatever that means), and that while at least one student may have been scarred by his preliminary advances, no one who consented to have sex with him (if we can allow that to be said for the moment) regretted it. These factors purify the object lesson, because even without the abuse of power that’s surely the most revolting feature of sexual predation, Mr Lin’s conduct remains objectionable.

“In those days,” of course, any kind of homosexual contact was very wrong indeed, by most accounts. It can only have seemed otherwise in the elite atmosphere that Mr Lin breathed — an atmosphere that would shortly bring about a revolution in our judgments about other people’s carnality. A great many things that were forbidden then are tolerated now, and not just tolerated, but formally overlooked, as of no account. But one taboo has taken clear and definite shape, as if drawing into itself all the power shed by abandoned proscriptions. That is the ban on pedophile sex, a ban that takes on an even sharper point where those charged with the upbringing of children violate it.

Tek Young Lin is no longer one of those so charaged; he has been retired for over twenty-five years. It seems that he won’t be prosecuted for his “indiscretions,” and I’m comfortable with that, because the gift of Mr Lin’s story is the insight that it gives into the nature of history itself, and of how things change. What he did was never all right, but the nature of its being not all right has changed. The only thing that would have improved the irony of the story would have been Mr Lin’s teaching history.

Weekend Note:
22-24 June 2012

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Kathleen flew out to Chicago yesterday, for a firm outing, so I decided to have a spa day. The spa was in the bedroom and the rejuvenating device was the DVD player. I watched the last episode of Lewis, Season Six, and then The International, Tom Tykwer’s action thriller about banking. The spa treatment didn’t begin, though, until I went down to collect the mail, and picked up a box from Amazuke: videos featuring British comedienne Miranda Hart.

I hadn’t heard of Miranda until last week, when the head nurse at the Infusion Therapy Unit told me about her. Back at home, checking things out online, I discovered that Patricia Hodge is in the Miranda show, and that clinched it. I’ve adored Patricia Hodge ever since I saw Betrayal, with Jeremy Irons, even though the movie is now much too sad for me to bear watching. I ordered a couple of things, and some of them arrived yesterday. I had not planned to waste the entire day on videos, but mining a new vein of British humour could hardly be dismissed as “waste.” I ended up laughing my head off.

Miranda is an extremely traditional sitcom; I want to call it venerable. It’s got all the staples — irritating mother, pathetic dreams of glory, even more pathetic humiliations, drag (improbably but quite amusingly), and breathtaking rudeness. I’m probably leaving a few things out; my point is that Miranda is funny not because it’s completely new and different but because, like a great performance of a Haydn string quartet, it makes everything new. It is, above all, physical comedy, to a degree rarely seen in connection with a comedy character’s boarding-school background and decayed RP. Miranda Hart is a big girl, I suppose you’d say; not that tall really, but in no way petite, and biggest in the shoulders and bust. Being “feminine” does not come naturally to her onscreen avatar. Although she would never run for fun, she rather likes the idea of galloping. If she brings Jennifer Saunders and AbFab to mind, that’s because she is every bit as bold; but it would have to be pointed out that she is an Eddie Monsoon on the receiving end of life, not the dishing.

Imagine a woman built like Julia Child (and with Child’s verve for sharing secrets in front of the camera — “You’re alone in the kitchen! No one will ever know!”) inspirited by Carol Burnett. Like Carol Burnett, Miranda Hart establishes a warm and vital connection with her audience, whom she frankly addresses throughout the show. (In one episode, she tells a silly joke to her friends, and gets no response; then she tells is to someone else, ditto; and finally she turns to the camera and gives it a third try. “Nothing here, either! Most rude,” she huffs, turning back to the action.) Never has “complicity” been so deliciously exploited: watching the show, you become part of it, all the more when Miranda gets cosy with you and then says, “The pleasure’s all yours, ha ha.”

The basic setup is that Miranda is a young woman of county — well, Surrey — background whose mother (Patricia Hodge) is desperate to make something admirable out of her. Failing matrimony, Mummy would at least like her daughter to have an enviable job; instead of which, Miranda has invested an inheritance in a novelty shop, where you can buy chocolate willies and so forth. Miranda is too much a Hooray Henry herself to run a business; for that she has the blonde and very small Steve (Sarah Hadland). What Miranda wants to do with her time is scheme to attract her friend Gary (Tom Ellis), an unbelievably single piece of masculine attractiveness who runs the café next door. Mr Ellis is almost as pretty as Adrian Grenier, but he is so convincing as a decent bloke that you know that his looks mean nothing to him. After a couple of episodes, actually, I began to worry that the actor resents being exploited, in rather the same way that Marilyn Monroe did. The edge of discomfort in Miranda is not wide, but it scimitar-lengthy. 

I wanted to make a spa day of it and get to bed really early, but the cliffhanger at the end of Miranda Season One made that impossible: I had to know if Gary would stay in Hong Kong (and leave the show). As I watched the first two episodes of Season Two, my impression that the show gets funnier as it goes along was confirmed. “Such fun!” alone… I was in bed, lights out, at 10:30.


In the course of preparing this month’s Beachcombing entry — yes, there will be one; it will turn up at the end of the month; I’m experimenting with planning the page as a whole — I struggled to digest a very long entry at Jim Emerson’s Scanners. I put it that way because the entry consists of snips from a discussion, at the Times site, between A O Scott, who reviews film for the newspaper, and David Carr, a media guru, together with Emerson’s commentary, which is rabidly anti-Carr. I’m completely sympathetic (with Emerson), but it’s tricky to negotiate the squabble, especially as Emerson seems determined to fault Carr for faults in rhetorical logic. The cannon is a little to big for the target, but, as I say, I understand Emerson’s frustration. When are people going to understand the point of criticism?

In the discussion, at least as I breezed through it (multiple times, if that’s not a contradiction), Carr sees Scott as a godlike figure who is equipped with “a big box of lightning bolts,” meaning that Scott can shoot down and destroy any movie that he doesn’t like. This is a ridiculous position, as Scott is first to point out, but I am not going to get into the merits of the argument on either side. I encourage you to read the entry at some quiet time when you’re sure that you can let everything else drop for fifteen or twenty minutes. (Three-cornered arguments, no matter how lucid, are hard to follow.) As a regular follower of Scanners, I expect to come across most of Emerson’s points in future entries, and I shall try to feature them more coherently here. For the moment (it’s the weekend!), I want only to make a point that Emerson never gets quite round to clarifying, although I’d love to hear his argument with it: the authority of the film critic rests not in his or her superior understanding of “cinema” or of anything else, but only in the ability to convey a personal impression with clarity and interest.

In this the film critic is just another kind of good writer, not a specialist in movies. There is no such thing as an “objective” evaluation of a movie, even if there are some common mistakes that good films consistently avoid and that “bad” films don’t. (Emerson is fairly clear about this.) What makes Jim Emerson a great film critic right now is his urgency about the personality of movie reviews. The critic ought above all to make his or her personality known to the reader, because it’s from that that the reader will learn whether to expect satisfaction from the movie under review. As an example, it suffices for me to thank Manohla Dargis for her eloquent dislike of movies that I’ve enjoyed very much; when I make a beeline to see a film for which she has declared her contempt in the Times, I don’t feel that I’m right and that she’s wrong; her feeling differently about the picture does not enhance my pleasure. But it may confirm my sense, in advance, that this is a movie that I’m going to like, precisely because she doesn’t like it in the way that she doesn’t like it. Sometimes — I ought to specify (but it’s the weekend) — Dargis dislikes a picture in a way that I’m pretty sure that I’ll share, and I don’t go. That’s the easy part. It’s when she likes a movie that I’ve expected to like: then I’m flummoxed. But that’s my problem, and not the fault of Manohla Dargis!

I’ve been thinking about criticism a lot, in the wake of Nicola Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, because negative reviews really got to Taylor, to a degree for which good ones couldn’t compensate, and in the end I’m not sure what purpose they served beyond the reviewer’s very momentary thrill at playing with the thunderbolts (literary critics, unlike their brethren in the dark, really do shoot them). Taylor’s bad reviews, at least as summarized by Beauman, are an anthology of stupidity. Now that Taylor and her critics have been dead for well over a quarter century, the fact that some of them couldn’t think of anything nice to say about her work leads to precisely nothing more than that: it is just so much stairway leading to blind walls. Much to be preferred is the red carpet that the critic cordons off with complete (and as-ostentatious-as-you-like) silence. The only thing to say about junk, if that’s what you think a novel or a movie is no better than, is nothing. Explicit criticism ought to be positive and constructive, except in those rare cases (Manohla Daris and Anthony Lane) where the writing not only bears down on the work but bears out the writer’s character. Which is Jim Emerson’s point: the best critics are great because they write so ably about themselves.


Miranda note: I’ve now watched all of both seasons. Let’s not forget Michel Serrault among the influences! There’s an awful lot of Cage aux folles in the psychiatrist episode! In which the best thing, though, is the audience reaction to Miranda’s little fantasy of Gary’s popping in and proposing. Not since the Beatles have I heard such screaming!


In her biography of the writer, Nicola Beauman opines, as I think I’ve mentioned, that Elizabeth Taylor was better at short stories than at novels. She strikes a note of impatience with The Sleeping Beauty, for example, feeling that it would have made five or six really great stories instead of just one novel. I don’t intend to agree with this judgment unless the stories, which I’ve just begun reading, really make the novels look bad as they are. Not inferior to the stories — stories and novels are not comparable — but bad as novels, something I don’t expect to conclude.

At the beginning of the Virago collection of the stories — prefaced by Joanna Kingham, Taylor’s daughter, but invisibly edited (there is no sourcing: we’re not told which collections the stories come from, nor the dates of publication in The New Yorker or elsewhere); quite shocking! — stands “Hester Lilly,” Taylor’s novella-length story. To my mind, it is definitely and easily a very long short story, and not a novella. (We’ll see why I think that.) “Hester Lilly” is about marriage. The title character is the orphaned poor relation of a headmaster whose wife is what we would call a narcissist. Robert, the headmaster, invites Hester to take a post as his secretary, over the covert (but transparent) objections of his jealous wife, Muriel.

Until now she had contested his decision to bring Hester into their home, incredulous that she could not have her own way. She had laid about his with every weapon she could find — cool scorn, sweet reasonableness, little girl tears.

Hester is indeed in love with Robert, but it is an affection based on their correspondence prior to her arrival, and it dissipates fairly rapidly in the strain of everyday life. Perhaps it would be better to say that it is transformed into a sense of security; initially afraid of the wildnerness surrounding the school (Hester has not spent time in the country before), she is encouraged to venture into the night, thus beginning a string of adventures that culminates in her marriage to a shy biology teacher who is drawn to her not only by her youth but by a sort of fraternal pity. Along the way, she will encounter a witch-like virago (!) who tempts her to return to the unthreatening but pointless existence from which Robert has rescued her. As to Hester herself, “Hester Lilly” is something of a fairy tale, complete with happy ending.

What gives “Hester Lilly” its thoroughly grown-up strength is the other marriage, the one that Hester seems intended, at first, to destroy. This is shown to be a marriage that has already died, and the showing is what interests Taylor most. Fearing Hester’s threat, Muriel misbehaves in ways that make her husband’s disgust and detachment obvious to her. If we were to look for a fairy-tale angle here, we might say that Hester is a mirror in which Muriel finally sees her own ugliness.

“I cannot make him come to me,” she thought in a panic. “I cannot get my own way.” She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate hiim; but at last wished only to conend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

Such insight was unavailable to Muriel before Hester came to stay.

I want to call attention to the feature that immediately distinguishes “Hester Lilly” from Taylor’s novels. It begins with a situation and not with a scene. In her novels, Taylor introduces herself as a metteur en scène, and takes her time about providing the backgrounds of her characters. In “Hester Lilly,” Taylor takes her time about setting the story at a boys’ preparatory school. There is really no scene at all, just the three characters, Muriel, Hester, and Robert. Hester’s letters are the only prop. The first strong description is of Hester’s outfit.

Hester, in clothes which astonished by their improvisation — the wedding of out-grown school uniform with the adult, gloomy wardrobe of her dead mother — looke jaunty, defiant and absurd. Every garment was grown out of or not grown into.

(“Wedding” is especially artful, as we’ll see when the story ends in preparations for Hester’s wedding.) At no point does Taylor describe the house, formerly the seat of an ancient family (tagged, appropiately, as “Despenser”); the architectural aspect of the atmosphere — so prominent, even to the point of literal deadliness, in Palladian — doesn’t interest her here, despite the length of the story. I’m going to bear that contrast in mind as I make my way through this great delicious book.


Mikael HÃ¥fström’s Shanghai arrived the other day, and I watched it at the first opportunity. What had kept a 2010 Weinstein Company production starring John Cusack, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, and Chow Yun-Fat, set in Shanghai (unlike the more recent movie of the same name) in 1941, out of American theatres? Why wasn’t the video for sale, even? The movie itself offered no clues. It may not be the best movie ever, but it’s very competent when it isn’t actually exciting (which is often), and if the noir element feels a bit shopworn, the actors’ verve is ample compensation. The supporting cast is strong, too: Franka Potente, David Morse, Hugh Bonneville, Nicholas Rowe and Wolf Kahler all stand out, as do a number of Asian actors whom I might have recognized if I followed Mr Chow’s films as religiously as one might.

The mystery at the heart of the story is a McGuffin of which Hitchcock would have been proud: it’s nothing less than the massing of the Japanese fleet from which the attack on Pearl Harbor will be launched. The Americans in the story are of course unaware of this, and it turns out that the hero’s friend who is killed at the beginning of the story wasn’t murdered for that reason, even though he may have been on to the secret. Between the action on the screen and the catastrophe that everyone in the audience sees looming ahead lies a thicket of romance, betrayal, and political resistance that has nothing to do with American inter

Gotham Diary:
21 June 2012

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

A package in the mail the other day brought Season 6 of Lewis. Also: Endeavour (the Origins of Inspector Morse). The first and the last — the latest, anyway — but no middle. I never imagined that there would be as many as twenty-three episodes of Lewis, but I’m delighted that it has caught on. For all the echoes of Morse, it’s a different show, partly because it reflects changes in society. Young people are less innocent but more vulnerable. Old people tend to behave better, as if grateful to have been allowed to stay alive. And there is none of Morse’s explosiveness. Kevin Whately’s Lewis is not a haunted man. He is a much better boss that Morse was, and his fights with his boss (Rebecca Front) are reasonable, not hormonal. Some may sense a loss from the excitement of John Thaw’s presence. I’m more intrigued by the durability of narrative.  

 “Endeavour,” it will be recalled, was Inspector Morse’s never-mentioned-except-once Christian name, given to him by his Quaker mother. Women were always asking him what his name was and he was always too shy of being ridiculous to reveal it. Endeavour tells the story of how a disaffected young detective, stationed in some back-of-beyond hell-hole, comes into his own when he is detached to a murder investigation in Oxford. It is 1965 or so. I ought to be able to say just exactly when, but I can’t, precisely because I lived through all of that, pop music and Viet Nam, and I was bored to death by it.  What a cheesy time! The only good-looking thing in all of Endeavour (thing, that is;  Flora Montgomery was lovely) was the Jaguar driving by Morse’s sympa temporary boss, Fred Thursday.

Thursday is played by Roger Allam, whom I always recognize but can never place. I rather lazily decided that I’d seen him one of the Jane Tennison mysteries with Helen Mirren. Not too far wrong: the character whom Ms Mirren was playing when Mr Allam addressed her as ‘ma’am’ was in fact Her Majesty the Queen. (He was her press secretary.) Way back in 1997, Mr Allam appeared in one of the last episodes of Morse, “Death Is Now My Neighbour.” Born in 1953, he still looked young in 1997. He has a magnificent, almost singing voice, although of course the role of DI Thursday doesn’t call for much of that.

The young Morse is played by Shaun Evans. You may remember him from Being Julia, in which he played the callow American opportunist, Tom, the boy who has a rejuventing affair with the great actress played, greatly, by Annette Bening. Among many other things that he rejuvenates is her capacity for nuclear humiliation — one of the grandest finales of any movie ever. Mr Evans is a lot leaner now, and not at all puppyish. He brought to Morse a rangy, unleashed air that, if it never brought John Thaw directly to mind (Thaw was Morse), was never a discredit to the late actor’s work. At the end, Friday asks Morse where he wants to be in twenty years, and Morse, driving the Jaguar, adjusts the rear-view mirror. I burst into tears at what he saw, but I was well primed by a story that skillfully wove Morse’s well-known passions (opera, crosswords) together  with his ambivalence about the University and his aversion to police routine.


M le Neveu is in town. We haven’t seen him in a long time. (He has been working in Frankfurt and in Montreal.) It’s hard to believe that eleven years have passed since he embarked on his advanced degrees at Columbia! (But it was even harder for him to imagine my holding him in my arms, when he was just a few weeks old, way back in 1979.) He came for dinner on Sunday night, and yesterday afternoon he and I had an open-ended, all-afternoon lunch. I can’t believed that I lived to write about it! I do miss having him around. Who else would make me sit up straight by calling me (as he once did, at the dinner table, at the climax of a heated discussion) “a radical and a fool”?

Gotham Diary:
20 June 2012

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The other night, waiting for dinner, I embarked on a reading of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction by opening her 1935 novel, A House and Its Head. This has recently been republished, with an afterword by Francine Prose, by NYRB. I wanted to start with something that I hadn’t read before, not that I’ve read very much. I’d like to rediscover her, if that’s possible, in light of Elizabeth Taylor’s enthusiasm.

I made my way through the first chapter without two much effort. We are introduced to the Edgeworths, in a fashion that strikes me (in my limited knowledge) as typical of Compton-Burnett, at the beginning of a meal, in this case breakfast on Christmas Day, 1885. Duncan is the irritating paterfamilias; I can’t tell yet how much of a tyrant he is, even if he does toss someone’s present, a book whose atheistical subject-matter offends him, onto the fire. Ellen, vaguely, is his wife. Two daughters, each on the other side of twenty, are Nance and Sibyl. Nance demonstrates a certain outspokenness. Their cousin, Grant, is their father’s heir, so far as the estate’s entail go; I believe that he is something of a reprobate.

It is not until the second chapter (which I didn’t finish) that we meet the butler, a woman called Bethia. Her position is explained in a paragraph of one sentence: “The family income had lessened with the depression of the land, and the house was run on women servants.” Bethia’s appearance is preceded by a plethora of new characters, who gather outside the church after morning service. i think that I’m going to need a diagram. There is Oscar, the (unbelieving) vicar, his mother, Gretchen Jeckyll (did ICB know Gertrude Jeckyll?), his sister, Cassandra, who is still governess to the Edgeworth girls and who still lives in their house, although she must have spirited out for the holiday in order to miss breakfast in the first chapter. There is the local doctor, Fabian Smollett, and his “cousin and wife,” Florence. Then there’s the Burtenshaw contingent: Alexander, his daughter, Rosamund (a provider of religious tracts), and his niece, Beatrice Fellowes, who is “more generally seen as cousin to his daughter.” Finally, Mr and Mrs Bode, and their children Almeric and Dulcia. Almeric and Dulcia! What is Compton-Burnett thinking? You have to work out who everyone is — I wouldn’t swear to it that Florence is the doctor’s wife — and in the end the novelist’s descriptions of each new face have melted into a puddle of not very helpful terms. Take Rosamund’s “high, set colour.” What’s that supposed to mean?

And the things they all say: platitudes and commonplaces with razor-sharp frankness.

Dulcia entered this room in a hearty manner.

“We are fortunate to have something to fill up Christmas afternoon. It is an occasion which seems to partake of the nature of an anticlimax. We know it will anyhow not do that today.”

“I believe we have offered ourselves,” muttered Almeric.

You must be fiendishly attentive. If you miss “this room” and read it as “the room” instead, you’ll miss that the scene has changed from the dining room to the schoolroom, and you’ll wonder why Duncan, who shortly before Dulcia’s arrival (in the schoolroom) made a trenchant remark, is suddenly complaining, from the next room, about the noise being made by the young people.

It all reads like A rebours, as reconceived by Edward Gorey in The Curious Sofa.

I read on through the fourth chapter. Nothing happens; Ellen dies. That’s one of Compton-Burnett’s tricks, to make non-events of things like death. It seems that Ellen has been wasting away, and that no one in the family has noticed. (Duncan’s disregard for Ellen is marked from the very beginning.) I suppose that you imperceivably waste away in 1885; certainly nobody expects Dr Smollett to do much of anything, beyond officiating, as if death were a ritual to be overseen by a medical man instead of a priest. Duncan is ghastly, grudging his wife her illness and then simpering with self-condolence. (He will remarry soon, doubtless with a view to displacing Grant as his heir — and solipsistically unaware of running the risk that Grant might displace him.) The other thing that happens, sort of, is the round of Miss Fellowes’s proselytizing visits. The tedium of these occasions is amply demonstrated without, however, burdening the reader with much in the way of Miss Fellowes’s actual message.

That’s another one of Compton-Burnett’s tricks: she conjures the densely dull atmosphere of late-Victorian gentility, not, as you might expect, out of an excess of verbiage, but rather from its opposite, an insufficiency of supply. It is our straining to follow her exiguous clues to the narrative that makes us feel as oppressed as her characters. That’s the essence of her sly modernism, set entirely as it is in the puce twilight of a century that was tired of its own ambition. You’re both alienated from her people, and unable to escape them.

Of course, you could always put the book down, but for another trick: even without a pulse, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction is electrifying.



Gotham Diary:
19 June 2012

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Over the weekend, I read two very strong passages that collided with high impact. The first comes from early in Gillian Flynn’s, Gone Girl, a novel about a very unfortunate marriage. Nick, the husband, has come home, the previous day, to find his house in disarray and his wife unaccountably absent. By page 72, where the following passage appears, it is clear that Nick is no innocent babe, but then it’s also pretty clear that his wife isn’t, or wasn’t, either.

For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child’s boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense, blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A fucking commercial. You know the awful singsong of the blasé: Seeeen it. I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The second experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies; we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.

This is what I was thinking about, yesterday, when I wrote about the degrading effect of television commercials. It isn’t just advertising, it’s the overwhelming power of modern media generally. I agree with Nick that it’s at least arguable that abuse of the visual cortex has sapped our humanity somewhat. I would go further, to my favorite conundrum, which is that reading, a subversion of vision, has precisely the opposite effect upon the imagination. And Diana Athill would be right there, with her memory of visiting Trinidad & Tobago.

That whole holiday was a joy, not only because it was my introduction to the beauties of tropical seas, shores, and forests, but because I knew the place so well. Of course I had always been aware of how well V S Naipaul and Michael Anthony wrote, but until I had stepped off an aeroplane into the world they were writing about I had not quite understood what good writing can do. There were many moments, walking down a street in Port of Spain, or driving a bumpy road between walls of sugar cane or under coconut palms, when I experienced an uncanny twinger of coming home, which made the whole thing greatly more interesting and moving than even the finest ordinary sightseeing can be.

This reminded me of my walks in Amsterdam last month. As usual when walking, I looked mostly at the pavement. Every now and then, I paused and looked around or ahead. It wasn’t terribly important; like Athill, I wasn’t sightseeing. I can’t point to a specific source of literary inspiration corresponding to Naipaul’s writing about Trinidad, but the atmosphere was clearly charged with the aftermath of words read and savored. I did have a moment that might have seemed to pop out of Nick’s catalogue of disappointments, my “Munt moment,” when I stand on a bridge over the Binnen Amstel and survey the scene that was displayed in a jigsaw puzzle that I worked on years ago. My Amsterdam cliché. I’d have to agree that the puzzle’s image is sharper and clearer, but it leaves out a lot of interesting noise that you have to be there to hear. How did you get there? Where are you headed? Those are just two of countless invisible details of the actual view.

Reading makes us think that we’re seeing things that aren’t there, but that’s not what’s happening. We’re not seeing anything; we’re assembling bits and pieces of images from our memory banks in an attempt to make sense of the words. And when we’ve made sense of the words, we’ve created new memories, thatched out of the words and what old memories they’ve prompted. It feels effortless to the experienced reader, but it is brain work all the same. It’s because of that work that the “real thing,” when we finally encounter it, will seem all the richer for the preparation. For writing tells us something that raw images never can: what it is like to live in a place. Images tend, if anything, to pre-empt that experience. All experience.

So I would say to the Nick Dunne’s of the world: turn off the TV and stop watching clips on the Internet. Cut back, anyway. And give reading a try. Reading about the Mona Lisa or the Pyramids will probably restore some of the freshness. Put your eyes to a better use.

Just two weeks ago, within the space of five days, I sat in a taxi that turned from Houston Street onto the Bowery. In the late afternoon light, the Empire State Building rose up in all of its simple but solid elegance, almost too good to be true, in the windshield. It wasn’t as if I’d never seen it before; it was that I was seeing it now.



Gotham Diary:
Just Go
18 June 2012

Monday, June 18th, 2012

For a Monday, the Times was downright exhilarating. Mind you, the news wasn’t all good. There’s an item right on the front-page fold that touches bottom for political cynicism, but I’ll come back to that. The real fun is on the last page. Now, I am far too old to respond to anything published on the Op-Ed page with even a flutter of hope, but I felt a puff of something very like hope when I read Bill Keller’s challenge to Cardinal Dolan: grant generous severance packages to nuns who must in good conscience leave the fold of Peter. Keller’s langauge is, as always, polite, but his proposition is brawling.

Thankfully, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has offered us one possible remedy for this problem. As Laurie Goodstein documented in The Times recently, when he was archbishop of Milwaukee Dolan authorized payments of up to $20,000 to predator priests if they agreed to leave the clergy without resisting. He described this as “an act of charity.” Bill Donohue calls it “a severance package.”

I suggest that any long-serving nun who has come to find church teachings incompatible with her conscience should be offered a generous severance. We could call these acts of charity “Dolan Grants.” Surely a church that offers a lifeline to men who brought disgrace on the institution can offer a living stipend to women who brought it honor at great sacrifice.

The Cardinal’s almost certain disregard for such a scheme will only serve to underline the point of Keller’s piece.

Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go. Bill Donohue will hold the door for you.

As I say, I can’t hope that an Op-Ed piece will make any difference. But how wonderful it would be if Catholic readers took it to heart, and stopped complaining about an institution that can never be fixed, only abandoned. The priests and their acolytes have no intention of letting go, so they must be left behind. How significant they might remain is not really the question; the question is, how to participate in a just Church. Bill Keller is right: progressive Catholics can’t have their cake (Peter’s rock) and eat it, too. They’d have to break it first, and they haven’t the leverage for that operation. Let them stop whining. Let them stop fanning false hopes. Let them leave.


The cynical business appears in Peter Baker’s story about the problems of campaigning on foreign-affairs issues (which couldn’t interest American’s less at the moment) in a time of superpower shrinkage. Baker gets an expert on the phone.

“Both candidates have to pretend that the U.S. presidency is far more influential over events than it really is,” said Stephen D. Biddle, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. The obvious example is the European economic situation, which has profound implications for the American economy but is largely out of American hands.

“But to admit this is to look weak or to seem to evade responsibility,” Mr. Biddle said. “So both candidates tacitly agree to pretend that their policies are capable of righting the American economy while their opponent’s would sink it, when the reality is that both are in thrall to foreigners’ choices to a degree that neither would acknowledge.”

In other words: democracy for dummies? No. Democracy for people who have listened to too much advertising. Democracy for people who are used to hearing a tone — all’s right with the world — even when they don’t believe a word they’re hearing. Who shows up to hear Mitt Romney portray Barack Obama as a weakling? People who want to hear him say it, that’s who. People who need reassurance that someone is out there trying to make them feel good. That’s what advertising does, really. How bad can the world be if every other television spot features a low-slung automobile, hugging with its quiet roar a curvy road in the middle of nowhere? That you’re not in the market for cars, or couldn’t afford the one in the ad — that’s not the point, in the end. As long as major manufacturers spend wads of money on commercials (making them as well as broadcasting them), there’s nothing to worry about.

It’s the same thing in politics. As long as both sides “tacitly agree to pretend,” nobody has to worry about the sharp flying objects of genuine political upset. The only genuine issue in this year’s campaign is the constitution of the federal courts, which, should the Republicans regain the White House, will continue its slide into Gilded-Age obstructionism. How I wish I had the wherewithal to underwrite a political ad so beautifully crafted that it would mobilize Americans to vote to save the courts. It would be a dreadfully cynical step, but I’d stoop. Just the once.

Weekend Note:
16-17 June 2012

Saturday, June 16th, 2012


The timer has been set for twenty minutes. That’s how long I have to write. When the twenty minutes are up, I will go into the bedroom and play the first episode of Season 6 of Lewis, which Kathleen and I are dying to see. Me especially; Kathleen is simply dying. She was up until four, revising a document, on Thursday morning, and then she stayed up till all hours last night reading Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

There has been so much on my mind today that I won’t begin to get it down; this is the tragedy of Saturdays, when many things occur to me while I tidy the apartment. (Tidying your home at a regular time is perhaps the most effective psychotherapy I’ve experienced.) For example: it occurred to me that the fact that I couldn’t put down a single one of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, going straight from the one to the next until there simply weren’t any more, is not really very valuable as a statement of literary criticism. What it means is that the Time Was Right. Well, glory be for that, but I’ll have to make the case for her fiction on other grounds.

Making dinner, I watched Sid Caesar skits. Are they funny to me because I remember when they were new? They’re actually much funnier now than they were when I first saw them again, about ten years ago. I certainly didn’t understand them when I saw them as a kid, which wasn’t when they were new; I was too little. But to say (in lieu of “Sure, I’ll do that if you like”) “I would be most hermetically sealed to do so” or “I would be hydraulically lifted to do so” is funnier now than it ever was. Not to mention that Caesar and the writers understood the relationship between jazz and drugs all the better for, being writers, not being allowed to do drugs.

The Remicade is like a can of Popeye’s spinach. It doesn’t act quite so quickly, but all day, and especially into the evening, I’ve felt this wonderful restoration of self: I’m me again! As though I’d been a deflated balloon (not a bad image). There’s nothing in the least bit extraordinary about the way I feel, nothing keen or cool. I just feel good to be alive and “normal.” For the first time in about ten days. Which might raise existential questions, but I’m in my ninth year of Remicade infusions: this is an old story.

Seven minutes. I didn’t mean to talk about Remicade at all. Reading Diana Athill, thinking about Elizabeth Taylor. (Two trains that seem not to have crossed, although they must have done.) Shopping at PriceWise (the discount non-pharmaceutical “drugstore”) for Basis soap, Gristedes for fundamentals (dark chocolate M&Ms for Kathleen, bananas for me, and a small bottle of Clorox for the sink), and Fairway for dinner, more precisely the halo of dinner: I reheated last week’s bolognese. D’you know what? It tasted better when it was fresh. These meat sauces are often said to be better as leftovers, but in the case of my ragù, I don’t think so. Every Italian would agree.

Three minutes. One of my dearest friends thought that Lewis would be a flop. She’d never liked Kevin Whately’s character, and couldn’t understand anyone’s putting up with a detective who wasn’t an Oxford man. I don’t believe that she’d seen the show; she wasn’t aware of the magic of Laurence Fox’s character’s Cambridge theology background. I must ask her, when she gets back from her summer trip to perfidious Albion, if she’s seen the show yet. The sixth season has just come out on DVD (in Britain), and it won’t be long before there are as many Lewises as there are Morses. Speaking of Morse, I also have in my quiver a show called Endeavor. And you were wondering what Morse’s first name was.

Time. Aggravation Boulevard! Hadn’t seen it since The Artist! I was right! But no: Time.


There is only one difficulty about writing on weekends: I’d much rather be in a room, reading, with Kathleen, engaged in our sport of mutual interruption (the aim of which is to be informative without being irritating — pretty tricky for two attentive readers). I’ve been enjoying Stet no one, and wondering why it took me so long to climb aboard the Diana Athill bus for a very jolly ride. Other than that, all of a sudden, I don’t know what I’m reading.

This is partly because I put a lot of books away yesterday, shelving my TBR pile instead of stacking it. I’m reading two related books about empire and its consequences, Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire and John Barr’s A Line in the Sand. While I wouldn’t say that I’m stalled in the middle of either, that’s only because I have forced myself to read chapters here and there. I am not very interested, at the moment, in distant places. And I do mean at the moment. It won’t last.

My disorientation about reading matter is also attributable to the aftermath of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I finished yesterday morning after breakfast in a blaze of focus. It’s a very successful page-turner — ever more exciting as it approaches its brilliantly unstable conclusion (all I could think of was that Wallenda boy falling off his rope but surviving intact — inconceivable in real life). The first half of Gone Girl is too long; the author, who certainly knows her Jennifer Egan (as becomes instantly apparent in the opening page of the book’s second part), ought to work a little harder at compression and elision. In the long term, it’s a better idea to write for readers than otherwise, and to assume that readers bring a great deal of useful autofill to the reading process. It’s the people who don’t read who want confirmation of their surmises, and, in the long run, they have nothing to do with literary success. (Although of course they’re the ones who sell best-sellers, by recommending the kind of thing that they like to their friends.) Gone Girl could stand a bit of boiling down.

I recommend the book highly, though, and not only as a marvel of suspense, which it certainly is. I found in the novel’s diptych of narratives a very timely portrait, not so much of a bad marriage, as of a vainglorious romanticism. There is a self-consciousness about the relationship between Nick and Amy that is too artisanal to be sustained. The healthy one of the two of them gives up, and flails in the failure of love (this is established right away), while the other one contemplates Frankenmarriage. Hipsters everywhere ought to know this story, for their own safety and protection! I ope that I haven’t said to much (except that Sandra Bullock would win an Oscar).


Maureen Dowd asks if “with formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us, has our sense of right and wrong grown more malleable?” The question is occasioned by Mike McQueary’s testimony in the Jerry Sandusky trial. How could Mr McQueary not have known, Ms Dowd asks, the right thing to do when he saw his colleague abusing a boy in the showers?

He said he felt too “shocked, flustered, frantic” to do anything, adding defensively: “It’s been well publicized that I didn’t stop it. I physically did not remove the young boy from the shower or punch Jerry out.”

He told Paterno the next morning and went along with the mild reining in of Sandusky, who continued his deviant ways.

Put on administrative leave, McQueary has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the school. (He was promoted to receivers coach and recruiting coordinator three years after the incident.) “Frankly,” he said, “I don’t think I did anything wrong to lose that job.”

Dowd thinks that things are getting worse, but I take Mr McQueary’s indignation about losing his job as a sign that things are getting better, not worse. I don’t understand why Maureen Dowd, of all people (given her concern about priestly pedophilia), hasn’t learned that it is only recently that individual men and women — victims, for the most part — have refused to go along with the patriarchal toleration of coercive sexual deviance. It is not permissible for two men to love one another, but it’s all right for a powerful man to gratify his lust in any way that he can. We only now live in a world that urges victims not to accept the humiliation that accompanies involuntary sexual activity of any kind. I hope that we’ll arrive sooner rather than later at a stage in which mutual love validates every kind of sexuality.

Those hallowed institutions and icons were always pretty hollow. We’ve needed new ones for a long time, but we’re not going to get them by trying to reform the old ones.

Gotham Diary:
15 June 2012

Friday, June 15th, 2012

The other day, a copy of Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, arrived, and I have been wallowing — there is no other word — in the pleasure of reading it. How glad I am to have read all the novels, because they light up one by one behind the narrative. Taylor insisted that she made everything up but in fact she made up very little; almost everything in the novels appears to have been taken from life. Some people, such as her close friend Maud Eaton, were put to (very different) use in two novels, neither character particularly recognizable in the other.

The great question, of course, is why it has taken so long for Taylor to achieve the eminence that now seems fairly assured. A partial answer is that she stayed outside the literary world. She lived what looked like an upper-middle-class county life in Buckinghamshire, the wife of a prosperous businessman, raising two children and cooking meals. With defiant resolution, she undertook to unite the career of the writer with that of the homemaker. Even she herself thought that the experiment was crazy; a league of women writers living conventionally irregular lives in London rose up to denigrate her, to dismiss her as a writer for women’s magazines. (Everyone is a writer for women’s magazines.) In the end, she did not find a solution to the problem (which at one point Beauman calls reconciling modernism with “the woman’s novel”), but she wrote up the experiment, faithfully and fascinatingly, in book after book. Regular readers of this site ought to have no difficulty understanding why I find Elizabeth Taylor so compelling an artist.

Beauman’s praise for A Game of Hide and Seek, Taylor’s fifth novel, is so great that deprecates all the others by comparison, and precipitates Beauman’s conclusion — unstated so far — that Taylor was better at short stories than at novels. Since I haven’t read the stories, I can’t have an opinion; I can afford to be patient, because the stories are all coming out in one big book at the end of the month.


At the barbershop this morning, the radio — Pandora, Spotify, whatever — was set to play Greatest Classical Hits. When I took the chair, someone was playing Chopin’s best-known Nocturne (the second one), and then we had the “Meditation” from Thais, also nicely played. Then the bottom dropped out, with a shrill and mawkish adaptation of the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria.” Yikes, it was awful! Then a strange sequence of two bits from the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, separated by a mindless pause. Only a half-witted computer would have selected the next item in the sequence: the opening of Carmina Burana. This was followed by the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. I was gone before it ended. Lord ‘a’ mercy.

Every now and then I pick up a thick box of CDs to peruse the contents of some bargain-priced compilation of greatest hits. Or someone sends me a link, thinking that I might round out my collection without spending much money. It is rare that a so-called “Greatest Hit” would make my list of greatest hits, especially in excerpted form: it is utterly barbarous to listen to monumental finales such as the one to Beethoven’s Ninth without having heard the work that precedes it. (This is not to say that there are not symphonic movements that meaningfully stand alone. But the ones that do never seem to make the Great Hits cut.) I conclude that the “Greatest Hits” aesthetic, aside from being a contradiction in terms, takes shape in the minds of people who don’t know and don’t care much about serious music; what they’re after is the hookiness of pop. Hits are only rarely longer than the typical pop song, and for the matter of that they tend toward the songlike — see the Nocturne, the “Meditation,” and the “Ave Maria” above.

While this was going on, another patron, about my age although possibly older (who can tell at this point; we all fall apart at such wildly different speeds) was nattering on about baseball games in a way that betrayed a preoccupation with winning. A Yankees fan, he joked a fair amount about the treachery of his grandsons, who favor the Mets. The jokes were phrased in terms of fear and trembling: when their team was losing, for example, the grandsons “went into hiding.” It was all very good-natured chit-chat, and I’m sure that the gentleman had no conception of the unconscious but relentless violence or the pathological obsession with competition that, for any attentive mind, poisoned his description of relations with young men whom he must in fact treasure. Why would anyone want to talk like that? Why is so much of what men have to say so utterly unconsidered?

Gotham Diary:
14 June 2012

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

From the pit of my lassitude I roused myself yesterday afternoon, to transact some overdue business. Renewing our Orpheus subscription, for one thing. (Ouch-makingly pricey.) And then, a call to renowned gastroenterologist Dr P* M*, for a slightly overdue you-know-what in July. (Cue the NuLytely infomercial!) Now all I need to worry about is the dentist. I really can’t talk about the dentist; legal issues might arise. The dentist himself is a perfect gent, but his technician — I think she hates me. She certainly makes me more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been during a routine cleaning. So I keep putting off going, and my inquiries about other dentists don’t go very far, because mine could hardly be much more convenient. Kathleen’s dentist, for example, is in Rockefeller Center.

Of course I immediately felt that I was to be commended for these bureaucratic exertions. Encore du champagne! I mean, I did put a lot of work into putting them off for so long. That was some arduous procrastination!


Because we dine on the late side, I’m not only ravenous at the end of the afternoon but obliged to do something about it. Every now and then I try to find a “healthy” snack, something that fills me up a bit without raising the cholesterol or salt levels. I should say at the outset that Fruit Doesn’t Work. Not by itself, anyway. So when I stopped in at Fairway after lunch yesterday, I looked over the bags of “mix,” as in “trail mix.” I bought a “health mix” that consists largely of soy nuts. And a small tub of Siggi’s plain yoghurt. I have always been mad for plain yoghurt, probably because I started eating it when the idea of swallowing housepaint would have been appealingly naughty. The sheer chalkiness is wonderful — medicinal, if in an entirely different way from Laphroaig.

And Siggi’s is the best yoghurt that I’ve ever eaten. If it were any thicker, you’d have to cut it with a knife. (It’s as thick and heavy as buttercream — but fat-free, of course.) I think that I shall stir a smidgeon of the health mix into it. Soy nuts are very small, aren’t they? (I’d never seen one.) Very easy to drop on the floor. Together with a dozen delicious red cherries, the snack was agreeable and sustaining. It’s what a truly health-conscious person would have for lunch.


The bad news about the layoffs at the Times-Picayune, following so fast on the bad news about printing cutbacks, has made me wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to get it over with and stop newspapers altogether. I’ve been so demoralized by the Times that I’ve wanted to crawl back into bed. The stories that weren’t downright dismaying — sexual predation on the Scout app; Maureen Dowd’s report from the Sandusky trial — make me feel old. Or rather, they make me feel that I don’t want to play at being young anymore. Too much work!  Being old is fine; it’s feeling out of it that rankles, and the Times has taken to rewarding my years of faithful attention by rubbing my nose in out-of-it-ness.

I took refuge in Philip en de anderen, the first novel of Cees Nooteboom. I can’t really read the text fluently, but I can make out a lot more than I thought I could; my French was almost this bad ten years ago. But even when I can make out the words, the meaning eludes me.

Ik was toen nog erg klein en ik kon niet bij de bel. Op de deur bonzen of met de brievenbus klepperen, soals ik anders altijd deed, durfde ik hier niet. Ten einde raad ben ik toen maar rond het huis gelopen. Mijn oom Alexander zat in een manke crapaud van verschoten paars pluche, met drie gelige antimakassars, en hij was inderdaad de vreemdste man die ik ooit geziet had.

I was very short at the time and I couldn’t reach the bell. To bang on the door or clap the letter box, as I would do anywhere else, I didn’t dare here. At my wits’ end, I walked around the house. My uncle Alexander sat in a lame squat armchair upholstered in faded purple plush, with three yellowing antimacassars, and he was indeed the strangest man I’d ever seen.

There’s something about the walking around the house that I must be getting wrong. Is Alexander sitting outside? And why would an armchair be “lame” (or “limping”)? I had to look up crapaud in Robert, where I found that it is indeed used with fauteuil to mean “squat armchair.” It’s all rather dream-like. I can’t find a copy of the English translation published in 1988, but I did find it in French at Alibris. Until it arrives, I’ll content myself with Nescio, who, after all, is said to be the “most beloved” Dutch writer, and whose stories I have in their fine NYRB trasnlation.

I’m this close to re-reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.

Gotham Diary:
13 June 2012

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

This was probably not the best time to be reading about Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association broadcaster who has forged opposition to same-sex rights into the sharpest brand in the evangelical attempt to institute an American theocracy. I’m feeling wobbly enough as it is, and panic attacks are not helpful. That’s my first reaction to people like Fischer: panic. Monsters of wrong-headed self-assurance, they seem designed to prove the ancients right about the impracticability of democracy. I can only echo Fischer’s charge about President Obama, “who, I believe, despises this nation.” I certainly despise this nation, insofar as it endows Fischer’s organization with tax-free status and allows him to argue, on the airwaves (which are allotted in public trust), that, for example, First Amendment rights are available only to Christians and that men are superior to women. His ideas are ridiculous or treasonous or both — so why am I reading about him in The New Yorker? 

Having worked in radio myself, I am not surprised by the pile-up of talk celebrities with checkered pasts in other lines of work. Fischer, according to Jane Mayer’s profile, has consistently strained his relations with the organizations that employed him by insisting upon male supremacy. He simply refuses to subject himself to the authority of a woman. In this, he accords with most pious observers of the Abrahamic strictures. I panic because I grew up in a time when such piety was marginalized (as I believe it ought to be). This isn’t the place to consider how and why that changed, but of course it did change, and now there is only one reason for progressive optimism: opinion polls that align rigorous conservatism with age. Eventually, according to this prospect, the supporters of Bryan Fischer and others like him will die off. I should like to rest my hopes for the future on more positive developments than mass-mortality.

The nation seems divided between people who want to be left alone to do their thing, and who are willing to leave others alone to do theirs, on the one hand, and zealots who wish to impose Iron Age laws on everyone. The division is very far from equal, but the people who want to be left alone, are, ipso facto, unmotivated to take public action. Many of them are too busy following interesting HBO series to pay attention to the Fischers at work in the land. (Everyone who tells me how much “fun” Downton Abbey is seems bemused and wishful, as if things would be better if we could all live like that.) The hipsters who pipe up at The Millions and The Rumpus are preoccupied by job prospects, naturally, but I sense that, like sharp young people everywhere, they’re disinclined to engage with people who have invested in deeply uncool policies. Fischer’s evangelicals think there’s a war on, that the country is about to burn — and they’ll be happy to light the match. Who is going to stop them?

One thing that isn’t going to stop them is the passage of laws that they don’t like, laws permitting a fully equal distribution of civil rights among all citizens. That is only going to encourage them. Passing rightful laws is not enough. It is the beginning of the progressive project, not the climax. What follows the laws is the behavior that, over time, makes the laws unnecessary. But if no one is paying attention to good behavior, what then?   


Happily, the antidote to my panic attack, the intellectual Xanax, as it were, lay close to hand: Stuard Firestein’s Ignorance: How It Drives Science.  Science, as it has developed over the past four hundred years, begins with a proposition of general ignorance: nothing is known unless it has been tried. To put this even more sharply: nothing is really known until it has been disproven. We know that there is no such thing as phlogiston. What we know about oxygen is subject to further refinement. We may know all that we need to know about oxygen for the time being, but we don’t know everything about it, and we probably never will. Which is grand, because, as Firestein explains, scientists “don’t get bogged down in the factual swamp because they don’t care all that much for facts. It’s not that they discount or ignore them, but rather that they don’t see them as an end in themselves. They don’t stop at the facts; they begin there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out.”

Bryan Fischer and people who regard him as an intelligent speaker clearly have an opposed view of knowledge. They believe that everything worth knowing was handed down to us long ago, in a book inspired by God. It’s a very attractive idea, and, because the Bible is actually a complilation of mutually inconsistent texts written over a long time and from changing points of view, its complications keep happily puzzled minds busy. It is no wonder that fundamentalist Christians try to discredit what I’ve just called Science, because Science insists on a complete disavowal of the Bible as a compendium of facts. There is, in fact, not one single fact in all of Scripture. That is the point, you might say; it is a work of faith. But the Bryan Fischers of this world want more than faith. They want knowledge. And they are right to discredit Science in this pursuit, for all that Science can give us, truly, is, as Stuart Firestein argues, Ignorance.

It’s because we don’t know right from wrong that we have worked out a number of conventions, most of them backed at one time or another by supernatural claims. In fact, it takes nothing but the modern imagination to understand that murder is wrong, and that no one occupies a position of inherent authority. It would be convenient if these conventions yielded compelling exceptions, but they don’t, ever. Murder is always and everywhere wrong. No one human being — and certainly no gang of human beings — has the right to take the life of another. (I believe that the complete denial of personal liberty known as modern incarceration is almost always wrong, too; prisons, I hope, will one day be seen as no less wicked than the machines of torture. But perhaps the world is not ready for that convention.) Most of our convetions are trivial, involving nothing more obscure nor less arbitrary than which side of the road to drive on. They change and improve along with our understanding. No divinity gave us a road map at the beginning of our journey, and nobody’s talk of one ought to impede our halting progress in reforming and recreating conventions that more closely answer our needs — one of which, certainly, is to live in a world without certainty. It’s precisely for that reason that the electric power must always spring on when summoned, and the water flow from the faucet. These sophisticated simplicities are the price of our everyday agnosticism, a negative capability, as Keats put it, to live with our very limited knowledge of the world. Those without the capability will have to find happiness in caves.  

Gotham Diary:
12 June 2012

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Scouting through a short pile of books on Saturday, I came across one that I’d forgotten about, Colm Tóibín’s collection of essays about the family lives of writers, New Ways to Kill Your Mother. The title is taken from that of the essay on JM Synge.

If a writer were in the business of murdering his family, then the Synges, with their sense of an exalted and lost heritage and a strict adherence to religious doctrine added to dullness, would have been a godsend.

I am not sure that I understand this, especially given Synge’s extended periods of living at home (in the latter part of his short life, ill with lymphoma). I felt a bit unsteady with most of the pieces in the first half of the book, which is dedicated to Irish writers (Yeats, Synge, Beckett; Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry, and Roddy Doyle); I was on surer ground in the second half, headed “Elsewhere,” where the writers are mostly gay (Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, and James Baldwin). Although of Irish extraction, I find the Emerald Isle a very mysterious place on both sides of the border between north and south. I have some idea of what Irishness is made up of, but I don’t know how the bits interrelate. I can’t imagine what being Irish and Protestant must be like, but at the same time I know that I have no idea of what, until recently, it was like to be Irish and Catholic.

Even when I didn’t quite grasp Tóibín’s talk of murder, though, I was tremendously entertained by his trademark atore of magisterially sifted gossip.      

The story begins in Geneva where, it is said, Borges Senior asked his son, then aged nineteen, if he had ever slept with a woman. When Borges said no, his father arranged “to help the youth negotiate the usual rites of passage to manhood,” as Williamson puts it, by giving him the address of a brothel and telling him that “a woman would be waiting there” at an appointed time. It was, of course, a disaster. Borges Juniior was shocked at the idea that he was sharing a woman with his father. Afterwards, according to Williamson, the adolescent Borges was taken to see a doctor who recommended a change of climate and fresh air and exercise. Williamson’s footnote for this points us to page 50 of María Esther Vázquez’s Borges: Esplendor y Derrota (1996). Vázquez had known Borges well, but this is no excuse for her account of the aftermath of his visit to the brothel. “He had such a terrible crisis that he cried for three successive days; he did not eat nor sleep….he only cried.” She goes on: “With the stoicism of a monk, this healthy young man seemed to give up the necessities of the body to find in literature the only source of satisfaction and enjoyment.”

Even had Vázquez written that Borges cried for merely two days and then rose on the third, I would not believe a word of it.

Does it get better than that, tittle-tattle about artists’ lives? I don’t think so. The joke about rising on the third day is too priceless. The essays on Borges and Cheever especially are replete with a kind of affable, smiling cattiness that is enormously pleasurable.        

Each half of the new book responds to an element of Tóibín’s makeup, but neither to all of him, and only a few of the writers are (or, rather, were) happy about any of it — about being Irish or gay. What everybody shares is marginality, and this interests Tóibín quite as much as family life. Some of the Irish writers, such as Samuel Beckett, were doubly marginal, because they felt a need to escape the conditions of Irish life, thus putting them at a distance from their own families, and no more at peace with them than the run of gay writers from “elsewhere.” And then there’s religion, which generally plays a larger role in the lives of people from the margins of Western culture, troublingly so for writers. But there is no system at work here. There is arguably, a general truth that covers most of Tóibín’s subjects:

What Lorca was doing became for Borges and his friends in Argentina, as it would for writers in every country on the periphery, a working-out of a serious dilemma: whether to adopt a full European Modernist identity or to describe Argentina (or Trinidad or Ireland) in all its colour and exotic variety to the world.

Marginality — writing “on the periphery” — is quite comfortably an aspect of family life. A variation that’s often added to the story is lost grandeur. We’re reminded that John Cheever was “a snob”; indeed, Cheever’s rough detachment from the world around him was so thoroughgoing his that writing was his only reliable connection to other people. Tennessee Williams, in an adjacent essay, comes across as much more “well-adjusted,” which is surprising.

Something else than many of the writers share is fatherlessness of one kind or another. Yeats, for example, supported his father — who kept his distance by living in New York City. Cheever’s father simply failed. Most of Tóibín’s subjects lost their fathers the normal way, to early death. Some of the writers, such as Borges, resolved to outstrip their fathers. Others ran from their mothers. Kathleen Synge and Leonor Borges are two of the memorable moms who managed, remarkably, not to be murdered by their creative sons. Of Edwina Williams, we’re told in a parenthesis that “The mother in [Glass Menagerie] was, according to Williams’s younger brother, so accurately based on their mother that she could have sued.” Few of Tóibín’s writers became fathers themselves, and of them, neither Thomas Mann nor John Cheever could be hailed as a successful parent.

Cheever’s relationship with his children was very close, and mostly difficult, partly because he had nothing much to do all day except lounge around looking at them in a state of half-inebriation and total dissatisfaction. Towards the end of his life, he told colleagues that once, after a row with his wife, he woke to find a message written in lipstick by his daughter on the bathroom mirror: “Dere daddy, don’t leave us.” When it was pointed out that such a scene occurs in his story, “The Chimera,” with the same misspelling, Cheever replied: “Everything I write is autobiographical.” But this was not so. Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography and another in wishful or dreamy thinking. His daughter later denied that the scene took place. “I know how to spell,” Susan Cheever said, “and I think what we wanted was for him to leave us. One thing about my father was he was always there, you could not get rid of him. He worked at home, he ate at home, he drank at home. So ‘don’t leave us’? That was never the fear.”

This anecdote, with its wonderful “lounging around,” goes to the heart of Tóibín’s take on Cheever, which is that he was a sentimental liar about things until he “straightened out” and wrote his best piece of sustained fiction, the overtly queer Falconer.  

New Ways is headed by a wonderful essay that I remember gobbling up when it appeared in the London Review of Books. I believe that it had another title there, something involving aunts. Now it’s called “Jane Austen, Henry James, and the Death of the Mother.” It’s a beautiful meditation on Persuasion, and the derelictions of Lady Bertram and Aunt Norris, that trails nicely into Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, and the pervasvie motherlessness shared by so many daughters in Henry James’s novels. As such it makes an elegant counterpoise to the book’s focus on the problem of manliness, which leads Tóibín finally to consideration of “the American Confusion”: “the shame, the lack of pride sons in a society moving onewards and upwards felt at their fathers.”

As a sort of bonus, Tóibín tosses in an intriguing compare-and-contrast piece featuring James Baldwin and Barack Obama. After quoting a passage from Dreams of My Father set in Kenya, Tóibín writes, “This passage displays the differences between Baldwin’s sensibility and that of Obama. Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don’t need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted.” That passage embodies the wisdom of a writer who has quietly established himself as a major man of letters. 

Gotham Diary:
11 June 2012

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Well, I’m up bright and early this morning! That doesn’t comport with diagnosis of Remicade run-out. It’s a bother talking about this (reluctantly rather than coherently), but I seem to have been experiencing some sort of physiological disorder that has gotten in the way of my work here, and I don’t like leaving the disturbance entirely unexplained.

I realized the other day that it is summer once again, and that I promised myself last year that I would “take the summer off,” or at least lighten the work load. It seems that I’d already done so: where’s this month’s Beachcombing entry? The strange fact is that I haven’t encountered anything worth linking to. This is clearly a reflection of my abnormally detached state of mind, but I do feel that the sites that I follow are settled into rutted pathways from which nothing new can really be seen. Not that I claim to be different.

Over the weekend, I think it was, Thomas Friedman bloviated on the inadequacy of Facebook and Twitter as substitutes for political action. (I didn’t read the column; I never read Thomas Friedman anymore. But Kathleen read the remark aloud.) The astuteness of this observation is exceeded only by its fatuousness. I think that everyone is aware that liking something on Facebook or posting a link at Twitter isn’t going to change anything. I’m not sure that anybody wants to change anything. Everyone would like a good job, and everyone would like to owe less. The rabid idealists among us would like everyone to have a good a job and to owe less. I don’t see a call for change in that, but an order for more-of-same. Once everybody has a job and owes less, then we can start worrying about making the world a better place.

Such is life in an age utterly devoid of capable leadership.


The movie that Ray Soleil ended up seeing on Friday — well, we wanted to see Shanghai, a cool-sounding movie, set in Shanghai “on the eve of Pearl Harbor,” starring John Cuasck and Gong Li and made, according to IMDb, in 2010. What happened? And why was Shanghai opening in one Manhattan theatre only? I wonder if it ever did open. We gave up after fifteen minutes, having arrived in plenty of time only to be told that the showing had been canceled — a status that was almost immediately changed to “working on it.” I was in no mood to be standing on street corners waiting for shambolic cinema exhibitors to do their job. As it happened, I was carrying the Arts section of the Times — which, it turned out, contained no mention of Shanghai. Too good to be true, I suppose. We decided to go uptown (back uptown in my case; and did I mention that I’d gotten my act together for a ten-o’clock showing?) to see Bel Ami, a picture with two directors.

I could make sharp and nasty use of the “two directors” aspect of Bel Ami, wagging that it would explain the very different levels of competence exhibited by the three ladies in the cast, on the one hand, and the jeune premier, on the other. But I don’t have do anything of the kind. I can simply paraphrase a speech delivered by Uma Thurman, in the role of Madeleine Forestier, to Robert Pattinson, in the title role. “I tried to teach you how to think, how to write, how to be a man of substance, but your emptiness surpasses anything I’ve ever seen.” Ray leaned over to me, when she was done, and whispered, “She’s talking about his acting.” It was never clear, in this opulent romance set in Belle Époque Paris, what sort of monster Mr Pattinson was supposed to be playing. His canines remain his strong suit, but the only blood in Bel Ami is coughed up by a consumptive. 

Robert Pattinson does have a great face for the movies. In one scene, he slowly descends a staircase after having been humiliated. You may not feel particularly sorry about the humiliation — who does this jerk think he is, after all? — but you will probably be riveted by the sense of menace submerged behind his impassive face. It’s almost enough to make you forget wondering if Bel Ami is supposed to be about revenge, or if it’s just a lot of sumptuous twaddle with boffo performances by Ms Thurman, Christina Ricci, and Kristin Scott Thomas. (Also Colm Meany.) Almost, but not quite. What were they thinking — those two directors? 

Weekend Note:
Santa and His Elf
10 June 2012

Sunday, June 10th, 2012


There’s not much to report, because I’m feeling the ebbing of Remicade more than I usually do, possibly because humid weather intensifies the impact of the recurring, low-grade arthritis. I recognize the principal symptom: everything is an effort. It’s like a hangover without the headache or the queasiness. The less said, the better.

Yesterday was rather worse. It was all I could do tidy the apartment as usual. I did make a nice potato salad, a sort of fusion affair, adding chopped boiled eggs and caraway seeds to an otherwise French vinaigrette. I wasn’t sure that the cornichons and the eggs would hit it off, but they did. Kathleen had seconds.

The night before, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil came for dinner. Ray was already here, actually; we had gone to the movies, had lunch, and then run some errands. Fossil had a very hard day; a neighbor’s dog, whom he had taken on long weekend walks in Central Park and grown very attached to, was found to be suffering far worse cancer than anticipated, and put down. We made an early evening of it, which ended in gales of laughter.

I was telling Kathleen and Fossil about something that happened a week or so ago, about which Ray had said something very funny at lunch. On the earlier occasion, he and I were waiting for a table at Demarchelier, sitting at the bar. In walked Kathleen Turner, the actress. I refrained from turning to see for myself, because it was enough to hear her distinctive low voice. This reminded me — I tell Ray — of another actress’s very low voice, but I couldn’t think of her name; she was in Kind Hearts and Coronets. I took my Kindle Fire and my Mi-Fi card out of my shoulder bag and had a lookat IMDb. It was Joan Greenwood. “Joan Greenwood,” I said, at normal volume, instantly wishing that I’d whispered.

On Friday, at lunch (at the Hi-Life), I was rattling on about having annoyed Ms Turner. (If there’s one thing I know about divas, it’s that they prefer other divas to go unmentioned in their presence. All comparisons are odious.) Ray could see the self-importance lurking behind my moaning, and he decided to nip it. “Relax,” he said. “She probably went home and called up a friend and said, ‘I’ve just seen Santa and his elf’.” That shut me up. But when I repeated it later, after dinner, all four of us fell into fits, except for Ray, of course, who is too modest to laugh at his own zingers. 

Gotham Diary:
Sitters, cont’d
8 June 2012

Friday, June 8th, 2012

The weather was so lovely, yesterday morning, that I was tempted to trot down to the Shake Shack for an early lunch. I had planned to stay in and get a lot of paperwork done, but by 11:15 I’d taken care of the first and most important item of business, and my spirits tended outwards.

The problem was, I had nothing flat to read. I was caught up on the litloids, and more or less completely put off The New Yorker by the double science-fiction issue. Books are an ordeal to read at the Shake Shack; there’s nothing to weight down the pages. And then of course there’s the occasional mess. So I had a bright idea: I’d stop next door at Barnes & Noble and pick up an unusual periodical. (I’d stop in at the CD department as well, to find something suitably odd for my Spanish Songbook playlist.) Bingo.

But by the time I’d picked up a copy of Port, the new British magazine about which I can remember reading something, but not what, and dawdled over CDs (selecting a box of Schumann chamber music, a disc of Debussy and Ravel from the Seoul Philharmonic, under Myung-Whun Chung, and a Simone Dinnerstein recital), the Shake Shack had gotten very crowded. Getting a table and holding onto it would be tricky. It was at this moment that I realized that I’d forgotten to bring a napkin. The only way to keep the mess “occasional” at the Shake Shack is to bring along a stout cloth napkin.

What to do? Tough it out at the Shake Shack? How about heading to the Seahorse Tavern, for one of their very different burgers? Virtue prevailed: I stopped in at Fairway, where I had to get a loaf of raisin bread anyway, and picked up a Cobb salad. I came home and read the next chapter of Kwasi Kwarteng’s examination of six imperial muddles, The Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World. Having staggered through Iraq, Kashmir, and Burma, I’ve arrived at Sudan. Together with the fifth section, on Nigeria, these are all accounts of modern hotspots that might be more stable if it hadn’t been for the Union Jack.

If the little thwartation at the Shake Shack had occurred on any day earlier this week, I’d have run home panting and weeping. I don’t understand why, but I’ve been rather a mess this week. Monday was awful, and Tuesday wasn’t too much better, until I fetched Will and forgot about myself with him. On Wednesday, I coped evenly enough, but I still felt tired and inane. I spent much of the afternoon and evening piling things up to deal with yesterday. Kathleen and I did have a nice little dinner of veal chop with steamed potatoes and corn on the cob.


One of the week’s many site-related disorders was yesterday’s somewhat truncated entry. I dashed off the final sentences before heading to the dermatologist’s office, and somehow thought, when I came back home, that I’d finished the piece. Perhaps I had. There was no more to say about Randy Paar. We never did meet, which I regret only because it would have been amusing to talk about Ra-Ra — although maybe not. I’m genuinely grieved to learn of her death, which seems untimely or accidental. It appears that she lived in Greenwich; that’s why she was on a platform at Grand Central at eight in the morning, on her way to work presumably. She fell, off the platform and onto the track, and was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where she died a few days later. Is that what happens if you’re in an accident at Grand Central Terminal? Next stop: Bellevue? It makes one shudder.

Miss Nelson retired while I was still in school, and moved back to Portland. I stayed in touch with her; I still have, I hope, some of her carefully-written letters. At some point, someone wrote to tell me that she had died. I have no idea how old she was, but she was certainly beyond middle age. Nelsy could be dreary; a medical humorist would have taken no time to pronounce her melancholic. Her face was fixed in a worried frown. You’d have thought that she’d have been naturally drawn to the Bach organ fugues that I was asked not to play when she was in the house, but no. I was fond of her anyway. I wasn’t fond of Ms Rogers. She had a nasty edge, and she was also the first older person in my life who believed that the world is going to the dogs. I thought that it was just her idiosyncrasy at the time, but the power of her disagreeableness has checked my own inclination in this direction, now that I am at least as old as she was when she couldn’t hide the disappointment of having to spend an evening with my sister and me, instead of with Randy Paar.

Gotham Diary:
7 June 2012

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

When my sister and I were very little, we were watched over, on our parents’ nights out, by a lovely girl called, I think, Betty Dwinnell. She was connected somehow to the drycleaners along Palmer Road. She was sweet and pretty, as I recall, and of course she got married and that was that. The rest of our childhood, with few vacations, was overseen by a pair of dragons, Miss Nelson and Mrs Rogers. Or, as we called them, Nelsy and Ra-Ra.

They were not really dragons, but they were certainly the alternative, in unmarried womanhood, to Betty Dwinnell. I’m not entirely sure, at this remove, about Ra-Ra’s “Mrs” — whether that’s how she was known and whether it was meant honorifically. We were told that she had driven amubulances during the First World War. Although Ra-Ra was not seen to drive in our day, this wartime career did not seem implausible. She had lived in the city, too, in Manhattan, and, like everyone who has lived in Manhattan and left it for somewhere else (no matter how close by), she declared that it had become too dangerous for honest people to live in. I didn’t doubt it, because for a very long time, all I saw of Manhattan was Hell’s Kitchen, as it then really was, through which we would drive on the way to parking garages near the theatres.

Also, like dragons, Ra-Ra and Nelsy never worked together. Heavens, the thought! Nothing really unattractive was ever said, but I certainly learned that saying something admiring about Nelsy was an invitation  to be looked at as an idiot by Ra-Ra.

The third thing that these ladies had in common — and it was probably the most dragonish thing of all — was that each of them babysat for one other household, a household containing a child or children that each vastly preferred to my sister and me, as neither tired of telling us. In Nelsy’s case, the other household had been broken up: the parents had been killed in a plane crash. (This was in 1955, and I remember my mother rather strangely waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me the awful news. She and the Clearys had been very good friends, and no one we knew had ever been killed in a crash. For years, my parents flew separately whenever they were traveling together.) The children so beloved of Nelsy went to live with cousins in Ohio, where they effectively grew up. Nelsy tried to stay in contact with Maury, but he was really too young, when the awful thing happened, to remember her across a great distance. Nelsy’s gifts, a few of them at least rather too expensive for her budget, had to be put to a stop. I was sure that Nelsy, good-hearted soul that she was, would have sealed us in a barrel and sent us over Niagara Falls if doing so would have reunited her with little  Maury.

As for Ra-Ra, her other charge was Randy Paar, whose obituary in the Times I was shocked to read yesterday.  


If Nelsy’s regrets about the Cleary children were necessarily mournful, as if they, too, had been killed, Ra-Ra’s reports about Randy Paar could have served Jane Austen as drafts for Aunt Norris. The difference was that we never actually saw Randy. I don’t think that either of us met her once. We lived in a very small village, but it was a village inhabited exclusively by ambitious professional people, and there was enough density for several circles to fail to overlap. My family was part of the business-executive crowd that played golf and bridge at Siwanoy. One heard that a few more artistic people still lived in Bronxville. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, for example (although by the time I find out what that really meant — who Brendan Gill was — my Bronxville days were long over.) Durward Kirby, Garry Moore’s sidekick, lived around the corner. Jack Paar, whom I don’t think I ever saw live on television, lived in a little red house on Studio Lane, in one of the village’s more Alpine recesses. It was out of the way, oddly situated below street level, and, aside from being red, it had nothing remarkable about it except its owner, who was in any case a mysterious name to children.

Thanks to Ra-Ra, Randy Paar was my first paragon. She was everything that a child ought to be — obedient, diligent, sweet-natured and cute. In addition, she was possessed of a wisdom beyond her years, and routinely turned up her nose at foolish pastimes. (There’s no need to specify, as everything that my sister and I wanted to do was foolish.) In Ra-Ra’s hagiology, Randy was all the more a princess for having no yothful companions; other children did not figure in Ra-Ra’s updates. Randy Paar appeared to spend her life, very happily, among adults. I didn’t understand much about life, but the picture that Ra-Ra painted of an irreverent media prince (going by “Jack,” professionally, was iconoclastic enough; see “Durward Kirby,” above) and his clever handmaid daughter was so luridly exotic that I was never inspired to compete.

My parents didn’t know, and never mentioned, the Paars. Not even Ra-Ra mentioned Mrs Paar. I was free to believe that she was making it all up.


It would seem, from the sequel, that she wasn’t. Randy went off to Harvard and NYU Law, and seems to have done very well as a corporate litigator with actual courtroom victories. Her field, it is true, was hardly sensational: she represented businesses against insurers who weren’t sufficiently recompensatory.