Archive for August, 2012

Gotham Diary:
31 August 2012

Friday, August 31st, 2012

From the time I left the house to pick up Kathleen at the ferry until the moment, almost two hours later, when we sat down to dinner, I was what we call a cranky-puss. I was angry at the air, for one thing. It seemed that the afternoon’s breezy cool and dry weather — so cool and dry that I had closed a few of the sliding-glass doors and turned off the ceiling fans — had been replaced by a warm, wet mat. Hauling the wagon back to the house made me quite sticky. Although I was delighted to be with Kathleen, I couldn’t stop myself from complaining. At the stove, preparing a nice, thick ham steak, with baked potatoes and asparagus, I was stupd, shutting off the burner that I needed while the other one blazed away. It didn’t help that, by the time we sat down, I had not been up so late in well over a week. When the dishes were washed and I could go to bed, it was past midnight. That fact alone was depressing. As a sort of bedtime present, the Internet connection failed. (Not to worry; I had my MiFi card — but, still.) 

Something about Bob Spitzs’ account of Julia Child’s last years hung over me: aches and pains. For a few weeks (all right, over a month), my right knee has been giving me a good deal of pain, and when I get back to town I am going to have to have it looked at. My two weeks on the beach have not restored me to the (imaginary only) energetic outlook that I was hoping for. Julia Child was 36 years older than I, and did most of her suffering in her late eighties and early nineties. I am a mere 64. But then, she took care of herself, and had a naturally robust constitution. (She played college basketball, remember.) I like to bloviate about the advantages of age and wisdom, but those very boons were unavailable to me last night.

So I’m doubly glad to be done with Dearie. First, it was not an agreeable read, not my sort of book at all. (“That was twice as much as what people were accustomed to paying for a cookbook, and there was competition up the wazoo. [!!] That season, cookbooks were ridiculously plentiful.” What’s ridiculously plentiful is Bob Spitz’s “carload upon carload” of bedizened cliché.) Second, it was a book about physical decline. Paul Child appears to have begun falling apart the moment Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared, and it would take him thirty years more to disappear. Julia was a stout campaigner who clearly fed on audience response, as all entertainers do. Never a fan of her work in television (never a fan of anybody’s), I had taught myself to regard Julia Child as an important writer on the subject of food, and the dictator (if not the actual writer) of a delightful memoir about being an American in Paris. I didn’t know that she was a regular on David Letterman’s show, much less on Good Morning America. (Who watches such shows, and where on earth do they find the time?)

Through Norah Eprhon’s wonderful movie, Julie and Julia, there ran an important question, and it was wisely answered. The answer was, “It doesn’t matter.” The question was, “Would this strange but lovable woman love me back?” We naturally want the objects of our admiration to value their admirers as more than mere admirers, and we’re generally spared the discovery that they can’t be. Along comes a book like Dearie, and, instead of the portrait of an unquestionably remarkable woman whose life was exemplary in the most serious way, I was obliged to spend time backstage with a performer with whom I had nothing to talk about. Where is Plutarch? 



Gotham Diary:
30 August 2012

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Two things about my walks on the beach:

Going to the beach, I head down the length of Schooner Walk, climb the boardwalk that humps the dune, and plod straight through the dry sand to shoreline. (It’s the shortest distance of dry sand.) Then I turn ninety degrees, facing west, and walk down to Lonelyville. On my return, I look for my own footprints in the dry sand. They’re always there to be found. The imprint of my size 14 Speedo beach slipper is a standout. I follow the footsteps back to the dune, half as a game, half because it’s easier than pausing to look where I’m going, which my immobile neck would oblige me to do.

Every day, at some point on the westward leg of the walk, a song bubbles into consciousness, and it is always the same song, the one at the end of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I don’t know why this happens. I know the song very well, but it is not what I would call a favorite. Maybe it is becoming one. As music, it is deliberately, if superficially, naive. Much the same could be said of my walks on the beach. 


After dinner, I played some curiosities. The bricklayer segment of Gerard Hoffnung’s Oxford Union Speech. And two music-hall songs that Julie Andrews recorded back when I was in college, “Burlington Bertie From Bow” and “Waiting at the Church.” The first song has a tune, sort of, but it is not meant to be sung, except here and there — a job that Ms Andrews ironically makes the most of. (I really must see Star! one of these days.) The second is a confection of cockney cheek that I always have to listen to a second time.

There was I,
Waiting at the church
Waiting at the church
Waiting at the church
When I found
he’d left me in the lurch —
Lor’, how it did upset me!

All at once,
he sent me round a note —
Here’s the bloomin’ note —
This is what he wrote:
“I can’t
Get away
To marry you today;
My wife
Won’t let me”!


In the middle of the night, I woke up to find the room flooded with moonlight. (That can’t happen at the apartment in town, where we only get to see the moon rise.) Later, when I woke, the night was dark again. I went to the door leading to the deck. The moon had not quite disappeared; it was dallying at the horizon, looking more like the sun than I’ve ever seen it do.

Kathleen is coming out tonight — to stay until the end of our lease in two weeks — and tomorrow the rest of our Labor Day house party will arrive, beginning at lunchtime. I hope to have finished with Dearie by then. There is a much better book to be written about the surprising career of Julia Child. Among other things, launching it was Paul Child’s singular achievement; for, apart from Julia, his promise went unfulfilled. Madeleine Kamman, who was both, complained that Julia Child was neither French nor a chef, but the irony is that nobody would have watched a show starring an actual chef from actual France. (Nor would anyone have dreamed of making explicit reference to the program’s roots in la cuisine bourgeoise — “bourgeois” was a dirty word among progressive-minded people, and conservatives pretended that they’d never heard it.)

Between 1947 and 1961, Julia Child worked like a dynamo, first to transform herself from someone who couldn’t boil water into an accomplished home cook — a veritable cuisinière bourgeoise — and second to transform an unwieldy and imprecise bundle of recipes into Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It might be said that she could not have worked any harder. But she was also very lucky. First, of course, she had met her husband, a man on a budget who liked to eat well. Second, she met Simone Beck, one of the compilers of the bundle of recipes. Third, she met, via the post, Avis DeVoto, who championed her project and brought it not just to Knopf but to the right people at Knopf. Fourth, Mastering was published at a moment when the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, was broadcasting the message that Americans ought to be more attractive, and Julia Child was just the sort of educated but not particularly pretty or graceful woman to show how this could be done — whilst having a good time. The better you know the story, the less inevitable and more miraculous it gets.

Meanwhile, I’ll have to make do with Bob Spitz and his pop eloquence. I don’t think that I shall ever forget one of his epithets for Simca Beck — the “Norman nonpareil.” It’s so magnificently awful!   


I’ve just spent twenty minutes trying to find a particularly glitz-laden paragraph from Dearie, sadly or not, as the case may be, in vain. I wanted something to cushion an unpleasant observation: Bob Spitz almost made me dislike his subject. He admires Julia Child’s unabating drive, but his portrait presents a cranky attention-hound who tended to resolve conflicts between friendship and self-advancement in favor of the latter. She was, no doubt, more her father’s daughter than she might have liked to think, but I hope that she was not really so callous as she appears in these pages. The instances that I would cite are all fairly minor, but an impression develops of willed heartlessness. It’s tricky, of course, because Child was a pioneering woman, with all the inconsistencies of an effective pioneer, with strong if unconscious roots in the world that, for the most part, she left behind. These inconsistencies are like cards in a deck; they can be arranged or they can be scattered. Spitz’s strictly linear narrative tends to scatter them, making them obtrusive. For example — and I’m only going to mention it — Child’s unthinking homophobia, which se questioned only after the death, of AIDS, of her lawyer, whom she had always regarded as a “he-man.” As a woman, of course, Child was expected to be “nice,” which she wasn’t — she was, in many ways, much better than “nice.” One must make the effort at times to judge her insistent assertiveness as one would judge it in a man, and not as an unwomanly failing.


Gotham Diary:
29 August 2012

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

My walk on the beach yesterday was arduous enough: the tide was high, and the waves broke onto a slope. I had to walk along the ridge just above, where the sand was not quite so densely packed as makes for easy ambling. Then, nearing my turnaround point at the edge of Lonelyville, I encountered a swarm of small flies. They made a misery of much of the return home.

The smart thing would have been to drift into the surf for a while, and that’s what I’d have done if I’d been able. But I haven’t forgotten the terror of last year’s tumble. If I am knocked over, I cannot get up. Just last week, a wave of greater strength and volume than foreseen knocked me just enough to heighten my caution. So I was condemned to splash a bit in waves that barely covered my slippers, and to put my hat to tail’s use. This afternoon, I shall carry a small bottle of repellent.

When I got home, my brother-in-law informed me that ants had gotten into the doughnuts.  


Orley Farm is an old friend: that is how I am reading it, because I don’t know what kind of novel it is. Trollope seems to be, deliberately, an anti-novelist. It is not that he interrrupts every now and then with personal views, although of course he does that quite often. It is, rather, that he stage-manages the plot according to the principles of a rigorous morality that allows for very little actual development. Only his unformed young men — the rat-catching Peregrine Orme, in this case — are permitted to stumble into danger. But they are always rescued in the end, just as wickedness is always punished. There is a Biblical accounting going on at the back of the operation. What saves it from fustian is Trollope’s writing, which makes his characters interesting and amusing, an even tragic. Lady Mason is a good woman who has done a terrible thing — a very terrible thing in the eyes of all propertied Englishmen, no matter what the cause. We want her to “get away with it,” but the forgery of a codicil is a black sin that, if it can be forgiven, cannot be overlooked and not quashed.

(The difference between Trollope and Jane Austen, who also adheres to a rigorous morality, is that Austen’s novels are largely concerned with the personal discovery of right and wrong — the rights and wrongs of advanced civil intercourse. There is nothing in Trollope to compare with Emma’s sublimely humiliating recognition that she has played the part of an interfering old maid. There could be no Emma in Trollope; his heroines are all good girls, like Jane Bennett.)

Anyway, I have just passed the grand scene in which Mr Furnival reconsiders his old client’s virtue. Lady Mason has just been to see him (aware that it is irregular to visit barristers without the company of solicitors), and she has all but convinced him, simply by confessing her great uneasiness, that the trial twenty years past, at the end of which she was awarded Orley Farm, was a miscarriage of justice. “If there had been a fraud, if there had been a forgery, it had been so clever as to merit protection!” So muses Mr Furnival, with the sort of shocking impropriety that Gilbert and Sullivan could make funny. Mr Furnival, however, has already been marked as a dubious number himself. He has all but abandoned the wife who comforted him through the lean early years of his practice, and he has fathered a daughter who may — we wouldn’t be quite sure, if we hadn’t read so much Trollope — be too clever by half. The admiration of Mr Furnival for Lady Mason is therefore unwholesome even before the lady lifts her veil in his chambers.


I’ve just read Ryan van Meter’s lovely memoir, If You Knew Then What I Know Now. I don’t know how I missed it — it came out last year — but miss it I did, until I read something about it yesterday at The Rumpus. Two minutes later, it was on my Kindle. I was interested to read it because I, too, am working on a memoir that touches on growing up in a place of strong defaults, where the expectations that cascade from perceived identity are rigid and unspoken, not to be thought about.

Van Meter grew up in Missouri — “rural,” it says, but not too far from St Louis — and started being called “faggot” in the fourth grade. That would have been about 1986, a few years before growing up gay, at least in the more cosmopolitan parts of the country, would begin to be less problematic. By 1986, being gay was certainly not the big deal that it had been until recently, but growing up gay was still undesirable. His story captures a moment in time that, one can only hope, will pass completely. One of the reasons why The Family Stone has become my favorite Christmas movie is that I’m so roused by the backward confrontation at the dinner table in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s character asks, with genuine doubt, how anyone could wish her child to be gay, and the Family Stone gathers in storm clouds gathers round and expels her. I hope that everybody’s watching that triumph of family love. Being gay, growing up gay, whatever — it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Van Meter grew up marinated in shame, and sexuality was the least (or at least the last) of it. The older son of two athletes, he was scrawny and not good at sports. If anybody but his grandmother had known about his wearing a dress that his aunt had worn as a girl, he would have been seen to be a sissy. There are rare sissies who, with great courage, insist upon the right to be as flaunting as they want to be, but Ryan Van Meter belonged to self-hating norm. He tried to be like the regular boys whom he saw every day at school, only dimly aware that, because they were motivated by desires that he did not share, he would never be like them.

His tale of childhood wretchedness is a classic, but there’s another tale that seems, in retrospect, just as much a classic, except that I’ve never read anything like it. That is the account of the breakup, after eight years, of his life with his first boyfriend. “Account” is very much the word. “Things I Will Want to Tell you on Our First Date, but Won’t” is a string of relative clauses addressed to all the men who just might be his next date.

That I hate when I tell people we were together for eight years and now we’re not, and they put their hand on my shoulder and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” as if somebody died. That sometimes it feels like somebody died. That even my therapist said, “What you need to do is mourn the loss, to give yourself permission to grieve for the relationship.” That months later, I was teaching a poem about death and grief to a room full of nineteen-year-olds, and I asked, “So how to we bring an end to mourning?” and one of my students said, “Eat lunch.” That I think this kid should be my therapist. That I never say the word “dumped.” That I always say it was my ex’s decision.

That if he hadn’t broken up with me, I would have stayed with him forever.

God, that’s heartbreaking! Shattering, really. Is it the worst that can happen in life? It can be.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now is beautifully written, but one would expect no less from a writer with Van Meter’s credentials. What’s remarkable is the book’s kindness. Little Ryan’s character put him in a somewhat adversarial relationship with everyone around him, including his parents, but his parents, especially, come off as good people. Even Ryan’s younger brother, Garrett, who grows up to fill the expectations that his parents had for a manly first-born, emerges as a likeable chap. There is not a single bitter word about the ex. Is this Midwestern niceness to be credited? Van Meter persuades me that it is. That makes his book a true work of art. 

Gotham Diary:
28 August 2012

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

After days of sunny weather, clear and otherwise, low, wet clouds have spread over the sky. It makes for a change — a pleasant change from yesterday, certainly, which was hot and still. What seemed to be a dark grey mass over the city to the west has dissolved into torrents of rain, sheets of which drape the sliding-glass doors. Kevin and I had quite a time of it, yesterday, closing all the skylights. With my immobile neck, I could not stand close enough to hold the hook and still see the ring into which it fit; I was effectively blind. Kevin managed the job, but he couldn’t see very well, either. It took both of us to get one of the skylights closed. I knew, on Sunday, that I ought to ask Megan, who had opened them during the sunny weather, to cool the house, to close them, but I didn’t have the heart.

Out on the deck, the beach ball that I bought for Will at Dinosaur Hill, printed to be a globe, blows about, rolling in dejection.  


I got to bed early last night and was treated to richly transgressive dreams. Wouldn’t it be nice, every night, to be naughty in dreams and to awake in all innocence? The main thing about my dreams was that I was young in all of them. That was quite naughty enough.


I’m working my way through Bob Spitz’s biography of Julia Child, Dearie. I’m about a third of the way through, and Julia is in her late thirties. She has enrolled at the Cordon Bleu and is fighting her entertainingly recaptured battles with Mme Brassart. The connection with Simone Beck that would catalyze her career still lies in the future. As she is still very much an apprentice cook, the idea of writing any cookbook, much less the magisterial one that would make her justly famous, has not crossed her mind.

Julia Child was a late bloomer in part because she was not expected to bloom at all. She was expected to marry and to mother, and that’s what she expected for herself as well. Her great height interfered with this program, because it severely reduced the stock of interested men. One of the Los Angeles Chandlers proposed to her twice, before and after the War, but she did not love him and she had no intention of acting desperately. She would probably never have gotten to know Paul Child if it hadn’t been for the collegiate atmosphere of the Allied intelligence operation that brought them together in Kandy, Chongqing, and Kunming, where, over the course of two years, they discovered that they both liked to eat well. Paul already knew this about himself, of course; ten years older than Julia, he was a master of life’s higher pleasures (by which phrase I do not exclude sex). But it was teaching Julia how to appreciate the cuisine of Yunnan and Sichuan that drew him to her.

There is a wider lesson to be taken from this life. Julia Child was always a bright woman, but she was never academically eager. She did well enough to get “acceptable” grades, dipping below even that standard during one of her years at Smith. She loved interesting people, but it turned out that she didn’t really know any, because her privileged life in Pasadena (and in New York as well, during her sojourn in the mid-Thirties) more or less completely excluded them. It was the war effort, which scrambled brilliant people from different backgrounds together, that ushered her into real life. Now she was eager. Now she could not learn fast enough. Her eyes were opened even before she met Paul; while crossing the Pacific on the SS Mariposa, she got to know people who would never belong to a “country-club set.”

These people were a world apart — they were informed on the issues of the day, on the arts, on culture, on a far deeper level than the parochial planes of Julia’s usual acquaintances. Julia had never taken an interest in such business before, but everything they said, and the way they looked at things, fascinated her. These people stimulated something in her brain that none of the private schools or elite colleges had been able to do do. Julia had developed as someone who took an interest in the life of the mind, but in a social setting as opposed to an academic setting. Someone droning on about the indigenous sects of India in front of a blackboard set her to daydreaming; but around a table and over navy grub — that was an altogether different story! It was all in the presentation. There was no getting around the fact that Julia was a social animal.

If well-informed, intellectually-active Americans are almost as rare as hens’ teeth, it’s because our teachers and professors have, in their benighted way, seen to it.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child is not easy to read. Correction: it is not easy to put up with. There are solecisms that ought to trigger suicides among the staff at Knopf — the following phrase appears on page 6: As a young coed at Smith College… There are cake-and-eat-it passages that, for example, present Julia’s wartime life in China as both an exhausting grind and a round of cocktail parties. Sometimes these are compressed into phrases of nonsensical jocularity: “carloads upon carloads of the bare essentials.” And there is a lot of froth. Here are the Child twins, Paul and Charlie, in wartime Washington:

[Paul] and Charlie thrived in DC, where a community of intellectuals and artists drew strength from their common refugee status. It seemed the whole of academia was involved in some aspect of the war, along with the leading cultural luminaries: writers, journalists, filmmakers, painters, broadcasters, publishers, a melting pot of the clever and the articulate. These were people eager to talk, eager to rub shoulders and exchange ideas outside the confines of their war work. There wasn’t a night when the Child brothers weren’t engaged in some intense social interaction — a dinner party or embassy soirée, a mixer, a full-on intellectual conversation. And the conversation was meaty and well-cooked. One entry in Paul’s Washington journal provides an example of the nightly dialogue: “This highlights the ideas we were discussing the other night…[how] context and relationship are what create moral structure.” [sic] A bit highfalutin perhaps, but Paul feasted on this kind of chin fare.

Chin fare! Even if this were true, even if the Childs were out every single night, up to their eyeballs in meaty conversations and intense social interactions, the passage is still too obviously exaggerated to be informative. The pile-up of “luminaries” is pornographic, as is the catalogue of soirées and mixers. And, as for “highfalutin” — it wouldn’t be my word for that journal entry. There is a great deal of this sort of thing in Dearie.

There is also a somewhat wrong-headed inclination to sieze upon instances of gross behavior. Here is a sentence that I could have lived without, and one I’m sure that Mrs Child would not have been happy to see in print: “Mary Case encountered Julia, shitfaced, prowling the Hubbard Hall corridor on her hands and knees.” It is utter nonsense to claim that such tittle-tattle “casts light” on the biographer’s subject. It’s not that I wish to have Child’s earthiness expunged altogether. Peeking ahead, I came across a very wicked but also very funny anecdote about making “cock monsieur” on Good Morning America. (Go to a bookstore and turn to the top of page 429.)


The sky is clearing, but the ball is still rolling. What kind of a day are we in for?


But Julia keeps me going.

Gotham Diary:
New Ones
27 August 2012

Monday, August 27th, 2012

It is very quiet here, this morning. My brother-in-law, Kevin, is still asleep. Kathleen left about an hour ago, while Megan, Ryan, and Will made their way back to the city early last night. Kevin and I will have the place to ourselves until Friday, when our Labor Day crowd will begin to show up.

I don’t feel much like working. The air is still, and so am I. Yesterday, while his parents went for a swim on their own, Will fell asleep in my arms. That hadn’t happened in two years, and, two years ago, he was a considerably smaller child. I savored the ordeal as long as I could, and then laid him on the bed with a fresh bottle of milk. He did not protest. That bit of quiet time aside, he spent the day in whirling dervish mode. I expect that he is very happy to be back with his friends in day care, although we’re all a bit apprehensive about his realizing that his best friend has graduated to pre-school.


Over the weekend, I finished The Blush, Elizabeth Taylor’s second short-story collection (1958). As with her novels, I couldn’t stop; I was like Will, asking for “More.” The omnibus is never going to be out of reach; I look forward — again, as with her novels — to re-reading Taylor’s stories.

Almost everything in The Blush is beguiling, but one story stands out for a complexity that is more than simply narrative. “In a Different Light” builds up a dramatic heft as it covers its considerable length (eighteen pages in the Virago edition), but seems to take a furious pleasure in smashing the unities of time, place, and action. The central character is not immediately identifiable as such, and her translation from a Greek island to suburban London seems almost improper, as though Taylor were making a mistake by keeping the story going. She’s not, of course, for it is only in London that the Greek currents of tragedy and comedy can begin to flow. That’s where the characters come from; that is where they must experience their crises, however small-scaled.

Jane and Barbara are middle-aged sisters. For some time, Jane has been living on a Greek island with her husband, who has just died. That is why Barbara has come out to see her — to try to persuade her to come home to England. Jane, however, has gone native, and almost everything she says is colored with austere fatality. When they encounter an unattached Englishman at the post office, he is tipped into Jane’s critical maw.

Jane and Barbara, at lunch, discussed him — Jane, with an almost Greek sharpness of curiosity and detachment, her sister thought. It was very mcuh like the way she was eating her artichoke — the deft stripping away of leaves, the certainty of the hidden heart being there for the reaching. Licking oil from her fingers, Jane said, “So his wife writes to tell him about the rain. Complainingly, I dare say. He thinks he is glad to get her letters, but he is gladder to put them out of his mind.”

“This you know,” said Barbara.

“This I know. And he also thinks he is glad to be in Greece. He has to be. I expect he has waited twenty years or more to come here and how can he afford, now that he’s here, to dwell on his sunburn and his blistered feet and mosquito bites? I bet he gets frightful diarrhoea, too, poor old thing.”

Jane does know. It is the tragicomedy of everyday life, Taylor’s impalpably insistent theme. Roland, the Englishman, turns out to be an architect; his wife, Iris, prefers to spend her holidays in Buxton —Iris, Buxton: dramatic foreshadowing. Who can think of irises in Buxton while roasting in the Mediterranean sun? (“Iris,” remember, is the Greek for “dawn.”) The sisters spend a lot of time with Roland during the following days, and then one day Barbara and Roland climb the mountain to the convent, where they both take naps in the sun. There is nothing romantic about this episode. In the singular and poignant passage that takes us into Roland’s confidence, it is acknowledged that he “was not greatly drawn to either” sister. He leaves a day later, and “as they turned away,” Jane strikes another oracular note.

“You may be invited once to Hampstead, then you’ll have to ask them back, and you’ll wish you hadn’t to — and Leonard will, even more. ‘My friend I met in Greece’,” she said mockingly. “After that, you’ll send Christmas cards for a year or two — especially if you can find any with a Greek flavour, which I should think would be unlikely.”

What’s most interesting about this story is not the degree to which Jane’s prediction proves to be correct, but rather the weight in Barbara’s mind, after she has met Iris (who turns out to be as dreadful as anyone who prefers Buxton to Greece must be), of the mystery of our relations with each other. As I say, there is nothing overtly romantic about her time with Roland, but we are not told that she wasn’t drawn to him. Roland’s choice of helpmeet makes Barbara happier in her happy marriage, but there is no getting round the unsettling queerness of things. This is what Taylor underscores with her prettily ironic ending. Barbara and Leonard are laughing (about Iris), and their children, Robert and Serena, are made very happy by the sound.

Hearing it, they thought they would be good forever, so that it would never stop. The world then became a settled, a serence place to be in.

One can well imagine Jane’s riposte.

I’d like to go back to that singular paragraph about Roland, which is a bit too long to quote in full; and, in any case, I want to hold up a detail that I might have missed if I hadn’t just read F R Lucas’s book on style, in which the best part of a long chapter, “The Harmony of Prose,” is devoted to scannings of striking literary passages, ancient and modern. I don’t want to attempt a summary of Lucas’s highly cautionary remarks about the judicious introjection of meter into prose, but I can say that they have made me a somewhat more appreciative reader. When I came upon the following reflection of Roland’s, it stopped me dead and insisted upon being copied into my notebook.

Dreams had come true, but merely to give birth to others.

If you insert a break at the comma, you have two lines of verse, and sweet lines they are. The thought is certainly wise enough to merit the polish: giving birth to new dreams is what dreams’ coming true is all about, as we discover on those rare occasions of dreams’ actually coming true.  

Gotham Diary:
25 August 2012

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Without ado, Megan and I were joined by our spouses last night as they stepped off the same ferry. Kathleen’s brother, Kevin, stepped off as well. We made our way back through the town, stopping here and there for this and that (croissants, ice cream, and, it goes without saying, milk). We did not stay up long, once we had returned to the house.

Waiting outside Whitney’s Pantry at some point, I overheard one young man say to another, “We introduced them a long time ago, back in twenty-ten.” The idea that 2010 could be described as distant raised a quiet smile, but the “twenty-ten” lodged in my forebrain like a pebble. I realized that I’ve been saying “two thousand ten, two thousand eleven, two thousand twelve” — when was this going to stop? After all, I don’t say “a thousand sixty-six.” 

In other developments, I’m enjoying have a phone again. Of course, it doesn’t do much, yet. I’ve got to set everything up again. Saturday afternoon is probably not the optimal time for such a project, but I’m not letting that stop me.


I picked up Elizabeth Taylor’s stories yeterday, and began reading the collection entitled The Blush. Good as the stories in the first collection are, those in the second are uniformly superior, if only by a perceptible hair. They are longer, as well. I can understand why some critics (such as biographer Nicola Beauman) prefer the stories to the novels, although for my part I shouldn’t want to do without either. Some stories, such “The Rose, the Mauve, the White — a lovely sketch of three young girls going to their first dance (“At last they opened the door and thundered along the passage to their bedroom where they began to make the kind of untidiness they had left behind them in the bathroom.”) — would fit quite well as an episode in one of the novels (although not in any of the novels that Taylor actually wrote). A story such as “Hare Park” — the adventures of a duke’s young son on the day that his ancestral home is first opened to the paying public — might be the beginning of a very droll novel. But then there are stories like “A Troubled State of Mind” — two school friends must sort out the mess that results when one of them marries the other’s widowed father — that could not possibly be extended; they play with being too long as it is. There is also, in the second collection, an experiment with ghosts (ghosts from the future, it turns out), “Poor Girl,” that suggests the influence of Henry James narratives and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s narrative style. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is drolly prefigured in “Perhaps a Family Failing.” I find that I can’t stop reading them. And I can’t stop thinking how completely they would have gone over my head if I’d read as a young man.

Will has just returned from the town with his parents, and is insisting that we all shush, lest we frighten the family of deer just beyond the back deck. If only that were likely. Every time I walk to the beach, a foraging best pauses to follow my progress, not the least alarmed. It is I who am alarmed (of deer ticks), I who dread being followed home. These animals are not shy.

Gotham Diary:
24 August 2012

Friday, August 24th, 2012

The air is heavy and still. It would be unpleasant if we were not so close to the ocean. I spent the morning reading in my bedroom, sitting on a rocker that I dragged in from the deck and planted as nearly beneath the ceiling fan as the bed allowed. I finished, finally, F R Lucas’s Style: The Art of Writing Well, a book that I am going to keep close by for frequent re-readings. It would be easy to dismiss Lucas as a mid-century don with dead white males on the brain (I was wrong about his not mentioning Jane Austen, but in fact he does not cite her for style), his grasp of the classical style is every bit as sure as such a grasp must be.

However, from the beginning of recorded time some temperaments seem born to prefer Dionysus, others Apollo. Men have never long agreed how drunk they liked art or literature to be. Most critical quarrel are about nothing else. For myself, I have come passionately to prefer sense to sensibility, and even cynics (if one must have either) to rhapsodiests and rapturists. To argue which gives more artistic pleasure is futile (though nothing seems able to stop men arguing about it). I can only suggest that humanity seems throughout its history to have suffered far worse from mental intoxications and fantaticisms that from any rare excess of sober reason. Both the Apolline and Dionysiac tribes have produced memorable writers; but the bad writer of the Apolline type can seldom become anything worse than a bore, whereas the bad writer in the Dionysiac style may prove a mere maniac, disseminating mania. In short, though the pleasure-values of literature are outside argument, its influence-values seem to me in favour of balance and restraint. One cannot destroy Dionysus (as Pentheus found to his cost). And Dionysus has his gifts. But there are other powers better to trust that he.

There you have it: lucid, supple, confident, and unobtrusively pleasant. And one other thing, that it would not have occurred to Lucas to strive for: unquestionably adult.

When I put Lucas down, I picked up Orley Farm, mindful that Lucas dismisses Trollope’s style as “undistinguished.” Can that be the right word for so distinct a voice? Lucas is certainly not above the views of Sir Peregrine Orme about genlemen, and Trollope’s prose betrays not just legal training but an interest in the legal view of things, which he often presents in with a dry jocularity that a connoisseur of style might find somewhat subfusc. It nevertheless appeals to me. I loved reading Trollope for years — until his peculiar ideas about a heroine’s love life became disagreeably insistent (indeed, I’m reading Orley Farm because Lady Mason, although “not intended to be the heroine,” is such a formidable central character) — and my own legal training made me even more appreciative. If you ask me, it’s Dickens whose writing is undistinguished: lurid, sentimental, and cheap.

Orley Farm comes as a great relief after Ivo Stourton’s mordant little masterpiece. The Book Lover’s Tale belongs on the shelf with Lolita, though perhaps not in the adjacent slot. The novel is narrated by a stylish and cultured man who steadily, one might almost say remorselessly, reveals himself to be a vacant narcissist of psychopathic heedlessness. His moral character would not be out of place in the darker novels of Ruth Rendell. But Stourton has risen to the unforgiving challenge of allowing an unattractive antihero to tell his own story in his own voice, while gripping the reader’s interest and, even, sympathy. Matt de Voy presents himself in stately periods that — drolly and hideously by turns — plausibly betray his second-rate mind as well as his ethical nullity. As he talks (and he’s a charmer), you look over his shoulder and see what his self-absorbtion prevents him from seeing. There is a strong recollection of the Eighteenth Century, of the ancien régime, in Matt’s impassioned determination to seduce a client’s wife; there were times when I wondered if I was reading Clarissa (a novel that I have not, in fact, read). The prose, very distinguished by Lucasian standards, is clear and varied; although never fussy, it steers clear of slang.

Claudia Swanson, the target of Matt’s amorous campaign is a lovely woman; I couldn’t help thinking of Michelle Williams’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe: smart, but damaged by beauty. At the end, it is she who apologizes to him — for restoring to her the use of her first-rate mind. I cannot recommend the book too highly, and I hope that the American edition, when it appears, will be more effectively promoted than Stourton’s first novel, The Night Climbers, which really ought to have been a smash hit.   

Three chapters of Orley Farm a day: that’s my plan.

Gotham Diary:
23 August 2012

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Yesterday was a very good day. I worked in the morning, ran an errand after lunch, and read all afternoon. I took my walk on the beach. At least, I suppose that this was all to the good. In the evening, all it took was one glass of wine to send me into a Zone of Zonk. I was physically present, but something less than fully responsive. Megan made a pizza for Will that promised to be a big success, but the idea behind it was that it would be utterly normal, like a worm on a hook. “Let’s not make a big deal about it, okay?” she said in an aside to me, quite reasonably not wanting to heighten Will’s expectations. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “Doesn’t that look great!” I was on AutoStupid. Happily, the pizza was utterly normal, and Will ate quite a bit of it. Else the dog house for me.

It was true, as Megan charged, that my mind was elsewhere. I had written a passage or two for Inventory and made a few notes, nothing great but not bad for the second day. Then I had read Lucas on Style. What a formidable book! I wish that I had never used the word “formidable” before, so that I could use it now with force. It is really the only word for Style. Lucas’s tone is somewhere between gravely genial and unabashedly omniscient; you get glimpses of this manner in the nicer dons who show up (and have a way of dying) in Inspector Morse. The gentleman wouldn’t dream of making you uncomfortable, but everything about him highlights your puniness. The trenches in World War I, Bletchley Park in World War II, a Works of Webster (writer of The Duchess of Malfi), and an intimate familiarity with poets and writers ancient and modern, displayed throughout a long career at Cambridge. I am not sure that Lucas’s relations with women were all they might be — he married three times, and he never mentions (much less quotes) Jane Austen in Style — but even so I am a goth by comparison, a barbarian at the gate.

All I could think of on my walk by the sea — aside from “The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea” (Arnold) — was the stupidity of not having learned Latin and Greek in school. (How clever I thought I was. Now I wonder if I will ever really understand poetry, or how to write at all.) And then all I could think of was the paltriness of my morning’s work. The walk left my body in an agreeably ruddy glow, but my mind was a sunk ship.


Just had my final paragraphs deleted by this idiotic program, which I should so like to replace, but there is nobody to advise me how. I’m talking about WordPress, which to my mind is little better than Gmail, which I should never use as a word processor. It’s almost enough (it quite often is, once a month or so) to make me think of giving up blogging — or, worse, of going back to MovableType.

I was going to say something about Ivo Stourton’s new novel, The Book Lover’s Tale, which was so exciting that I cut my walk on the beach a little short in order to finish it. But I’ll say nothing for the moment, because, gee, what I already wrote got deleted by the moronic software (and it is moronic, and I must leave it behind, no matter the cost). I also said something about how marvelous Will was after dinner. He watched a movie on his iPad and let me have a long talk with his mom about Stuff; to use a cant word, I almost felt that he was enabling us. But it was all good.

The first week of vacation is almost over, and I have sailed through so many stress tests that I’m beginning to think that I may just relax. Which would be terrible!

Gotham Diary:
22 August 2012

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Last night, Will was in no mood for dinner. Well, like anyone his age, he’s never in the mood for dinner, but last night he was in no mood for Megan’s dinner. He wanted his mom to leave the table and watch Finding Nemo with him.  (I worry, unreasonably, that Bruce the Shark is becoming a role model.) There was a moment of whimper and negotiation. Will agreed to wait until Megan finished her dinner. He pretended to graze on chocolate-covered raisins, but he was watching her dining progress like a hawk. When he decided that she had had enough to eat, he got down from his chair and walked into the kitchen, where we heard him rooting around among some pots on a shelf. Presently he reappeared, bearing an enameled cast iron pot that, while quite small, was heavy for him. It was the sort of vessel that I think of as European, probably because I never saw one as a child. With a lid, and a mildly conical cylinder for its handle, the pot is more decorative than useful; it says “casserole” and comfort, but you had better not believe it. This appeal may have been why Will singled it out. Having placed the pot on the table, he immediately slipped his hand into his mother’s and prepared to lead her away. “Thank you, Will,” I said. “Now that you’ve brought me this lovely pot, I won’t miss Mommy when you make her leave me all alone. This is the perfect substitute.” Megan couldn’t help laughing. “That may be the thinking,” she allowed.


On the beach yesterday, I thought about how much time I used to waste doing what other people said was interesting. This was largely a matter of pursuing la vie de Bohème, and of course it was in no small part a reaction to my proper bourgeois upbringing. (I may even have sensed that it was a time-honored reaction, taken, for hundreds of years, by men and women were brought up as I was but who also liked to read and write.) I indulged a lot of self-consciously louche behavior and endured uncountable hangovers. I sat up late because that was what you were supposed to do. (Also, I had a sleeping problem; but staying up late was not any kind of solution.) I was not what I would now call attractive. I did meet some lovely people, but the circumstances were often too embarrassing (in retrospect) to overlook. Good old days? I don’t think so.

On the plus side, my rebelliousness lead me to learn how to cook. By and large, though, rebellion took me nowhere very interesting. I hoped that taking drugs would make my casual lifestyle interesting, and by that I mean that I actually hoped for enlightenment from drugs, which was probably a belief to which only an early viewer of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color could have subscribed.

I was serious about my job at the radio station, although that was a form of rebellion in itself, because the pay was so low. I did learn that, whatever the genuine economic explanations for artistic impecuniousness might be, here’s one that isn’t: it is roaringly philistine to assert that artists are only paying the price of doing something that they love. There is no reason why doing something that you love ought to entail financial nonentity, and I’ve known plenty of business people over the years who have been handsomely remunerated for doing what they love. I was doing work, at the radio station, that ought to have allowed me to support a family, and not on a shoestring.

Rebellion can take a long time to undo. In law school, I tended to concentrate on the massive structural inequities of American jurisprudence. I didn’t get worked up about them. (I was still rebelling from the idea of getting worked up about anything.) But I learned to see how abstract notions of “democracy” can be made to support a society that is more unequal than its human constituents. (I may earn more than you do because I’m smarter than you are, but I’m not four hundred times smarter than you are.) I became convinced that the phrase about “adding to the whole number of free persons” “three fifths of all other persons,” in Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution is the Founders’ original sin — an open wound that has not yet healed, and that may never heal.

I am still pretty rebellious, but only where it matters: reading and writing.    

Gotham Diary:
21 August 2012

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Posting an entry at noon — what depravity! I’ve spent the entire morning in a shaded rocking chair, reading Galbraith on the Great Crash. It is one of the most compulsively readable books that I have ever had the pleasure to devour. In the introduction, Galbraith writes of the pleasure that it gave him to write it. “[W]hen I left it with the publisher, I felt that I was saying goodbye to a close and valued companion.” The mordant ironies and understatements that grace almost every page go a long way to dispersing the gloom of the matter at hand.

We are having a very lazy day, by design. Megan decided to try out the market’s online delivery service, so we won’t have to go into the town. Not that I’d mind — I was thinking of going in to fetch a pizza for dinner — but taking the day off is very pleasant. I will take my walk at four-thirty, of course, because that is why I am here: the sea is my spa. I set out yesterday with jangled spirits, and was at first disheartened by the failure of the surf to work its magic immediately. By the time I reached the edge of Lonelyville, though, I could feel my elements righting themselves, rocked gently into place by the monotonous but infinitely varied sound of breaking waves and sweeping water. I didn’t have a single interesting idea, but nor did I expect to; before my mind can turn to good purpose, I have to work off the static and smooth the circuits.

As often happens, I gave two books a chance yesterday, and ended up sticking with Galbraith. The other was Ivo Stourton’s new novel, The Book Lover’s Tale. Stourton’s The Night Climbers was a delightful read a few years ago (I ought to link to what I wrote about it, but I’m taking the day off), and its successor is no less chewy.

Cambridge is a terrible place to begin a romance of this sort, since it allows for the temporary suspension of material concerns and the corresponding elevation of the importance of character. It is supremely easy to sit with a rich and beautiful girl in a spacious thirteenth-century room on a medieval cloister, with the many bells of the city ringing out in the afternoon and a black-tie party to attend in the evening, to take her by the hands and to confess that you have no money, that you are not likely to have any money, at least not at first, and that therefore you can only offer her a life of relative privation. It is equally easy for her, looking at an honest and handsome boy in the golden light of the afternoon that penetrates the ancient stained glass of the lead-latticed windows, to believe the best of herself, to look him in the eye and to say in pure hope and truth that the privations will be as nothing so long as they face them together, before the two of them embrace, make love and head off to a heavily subsidized ball. This insulation from financial circumstances amplifies the hopefulness of youth to the point of distortion. It allows a woman to believe she has paid the price for her beloved, whilst really he is the great lie of our age, an article purchased on credit.

The novel begins with the narrator in a cell, speaking, it would seem, to his solicitor. “But is he a murderer?” asks the copy on the back of the book. You’ve more or less got to go on, just to find out who’s dead. Prose of Stourton’s calibre eliminates any and all resistance.

August Diary:
20 August 2012

Monday, August 20th, 2012

The first thing to say about this August Diary is that it will run right through half of September.

When I came out to fix a spot of breakfast this morning, Megan came to tell me that we had run out of milk after all. So I gobbled my egg and toast and headed off for Whitney’s Pantry, where I saw to the day’s marketing than anticipated. The food has been put away, the dishwasher has been emptied, and I’m doing a small load of laundry. A morning routine seems to have taken shape.

The freight boat, carrying two boxes for me and a bicycle for Will, pulls in at 12:30, more or less. I’ll be there. I can’t wait to unpack the rest of my stuff, including tea and a teapot. Whether we’ll have lunch in town has yet to be decided. At four, I’ll take an hourlong walk along the beach. By then, I hope to have really begun to calm down.


Moving from the South Sea Bubble to the Great Crash of 1929, I’ve put down Malcolm Balen and picked up John Kenneth Galbraith. In the Foreword to the 1975 edition of the book, Galbraith sets forth what I consider the most basic law of men, money, and markets:

As a protection against financial illusion or insanity, memory is far better than law. When the memory of the 1929 disaster failed, law and regulation no longer sufficed. For protecting peole from the cupidity of others and their own, history is highly utilitarian. It sustains memory and memory serves the same purpose as the SEC and, on the record, is far more effective.

(Which is not to say that the re-enactment of Glass-Steagall wouldn’t be a great idea.) Tony Judt made much the same point in Postwar; sacrifices and safety-nets that seemed to do no more than meet the minimal requirements of a humane civilization became, for later generations that didn’t remember the carnage, merely expensive.

Why do most people seem to find history boring? I’ve never understood that. I’ve certainly read history books that might have been livelier, but on the whole I would nominate history as the field in which the best nonfiction writing is done. As a rule, the more serious the historian, the better the writing.

The hard work of learning history is done at the beginning — perhaps that’s the problem. When, as a child, you are required to wake up to the distances of historical time — thousands of years, crowded with events — the desire to remain asleep is intense, and most people succeed. Facts and dates are memorized for examination purposes and then forgotten. Unfortunately, a society is only as strong as its sense of history, and it is for that reason that I am pessimistic about the United States. Too many people have an unnecessary ideological resistance to the very idea of “collective memory,” which is what history in everyday life amounts to. (Worse, there is a great deal of lying about the past, indulged by the more reactionary Supreme Court justices and others who ought to know better.) At a minimum, we need leaders who, no matter what they say, really do know what has happened in the past, and not just at election time. We need an élite.

The old aristocratic order in Europe, however glittering it was two or three hundred years ago, had its origins in protection rackets that no one would have described as, literally, aristocratic. The terms were self-servingly applied to the inheritors of feudal power nearly a thousand years afterward. I often wish that we could give the concept another go, without reference to the counts and dukes of yore. But I wouldn’t know where to begin.   

August Weekend:
Guillaume le Conquérant
18-19 August 2012

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony.

We’re here, and, amazingly, at 10:15, we’re all still awake. There has been a diaper emergency. Ryan has sped off to the town to see what can be bought. Meanwhile, Will is, incredibly, operational. And so am I, even more incredibly, given the little list of Things That I Forgot, the only significant lapse being the cable that connects the camera to the computer — a lapse that Ryan redressed with magic from his own backpack.

Kathleen is reading Green Eggs and Ham to Will while Megan has a moment of regroupment. We are all incredibly content. Ryan agreed with me: it’s as though the time between now and our last time here had been shoved into a closet. Not forgotten, but so not real.

There’s a loft, over the bedroom where Megan and Ryan will stay (a bed with a tester!). Will has decided that the loft is “his house.” His parents are wonderfully game.


I did have an amazing day: everything went as it ought. Once we were established in the house, I set out for food and booze, and decided to separate the missions. So I went out for booze, and then I went out for food. My head was an airport. It will take a day or two to settle down into the mode of being still, not traveling.  

Meanwhile, Will, who will be here for a week, is having the highest of holidays. All of us are convinced that he is the one important person in the room.


If Saturday was the day of arrival, Sunday has been the day of settling in — cooking, dishwashing, and laundry. All pursued with such enthusiasm that my cell phone got laundered along with the towels. My fault exlusively. I realized what I’d done shortly after the point of no return. I’ve resolved myself to a few days without a phone. I haven’t had a fit. But I’m shaken and disturbed.

The governing idea of a month by the sea — and, by the way, we have yet to walk down the lane to the ocean — is simplicity, the toughest of all standards for anyone not obliged by need and lack of options to observe it. If deprivation is a human condition characterized by preoccupation with the things that are lacked, where does simplicity shift from boon to burden? 

My brain is still an airport, and at the same time a plane seeking to land. s


This morning (Sunday), I finished a dandy little book by Malcolm Balen, A Very English Deceit. It’s a brisk account of the South Sea Bubble that exploded in England in 1720, later in the same year that a similar plutomania blew up in France. (Confusingly, the Banque de France and the Mississippi Company, headquartered in Paris’s rue Quincampoix, were the brainchildren of Scotsman John Law, a fugitive from English justice after the death of a romantic rival in an impetuous duel. Law did not return to England until the 1740s, after the fall of Walpole, when he was able to purchase a pardon for £10,000. Just to keep one’s head spinning, Law is buried at San Moisè, in Venice.) The episode takes its name from the South Sea Company, set up in 1711, by Tory leader Robert Harley, as a trading operation that would challenge the domination of existing Whig institutions, the Bank of England and the East India Company. Nine years later, and now just as Whig as they, the South Sea Company stepped forward with an ingenious scheme for eliminating the staggering national debt. Balen explains this scheme lucidly, and he also explains how something so hare-brained ever attained Parliamentary imprimatur. In other words, he tells a tale for our times, of corrrupt government toleration, and even encouragement, of fraudulent finance.

Edward Pearce’s book about the Walpole ministry made me realize that I had to find a book that focused on the South Sea Bubble itself, in order to organize the litter of information deposited by histories to which the catastrophe was incidental. (Charles Mackay’s well-known 1841 retelling is long on drama but short on mechanics.) Subtitled “The South Sea Bubble and the World’s First Great Financial Scandal,” Balen’s book was occasioned, as it were, by the dotcom bust of 2001. The author, a journalist with sometime berths at ITV and the BBC, acknowledges his debt to John Carswell’s 1993 study of the Bubble, which he clearly has no intention of superseding. A Very English Deceit is not really history; it’s reportage of the highest Vanity Fair quality. Which is precisely what one wants in a case like this. As an accounting of the actions and intentions of individual men — real history — Balen’s book is arguably second-rate. Having read a number of books, just in the past year, about English politics in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, I must say that I find Balen’s characterizations of the leading players, from George I to Robert Knight (and, when you know who Robert Knight was, you know what the scandal was all about), are either crude or cursory. Balen’s ball, however, is not the individual players but the game itself, and Balen shines as a financial sportscaster. The following passage, depicting the very crest-into-crash of the wave, gives a good idea of Balen’s comfortably engaging style.

Despite the gullibility of the investors and the apparent success of the share launch, however, Blunt was facing a severe cash-flow problem. Without an even faster inflow of money, there simply wasn’t enough cash … to support the share price, and if the share price could not be supported then the illusion he had created for the last six months would be shattered. Accordingly, he found a way of demonstrating his supposed confidence in the Company’s future. On 30 August he persuaded the Court of Directors to vote for an absurdly generous Christmas dividend of 30 per cent, accompanied by the astonishing promise that the annual dividend for a decade would be 50 per cent. The offer of such an extraordinary dividend was an attempt, though far too late in the day, to persuade investors to keep their money in the Comapny for the long term, rather than indulging in the short-termism that had marked the attitude of shareholders in the other bubbles. But to be in a position to pay such amounts, its shareholders could calculate, the Company would have to make at least a £15 million profit each year.

The effect was not as Blunt had intended. It was as if someone had thrown a bucketful of cold water over the investors, who had so blindly followed his charismatic financial leadership. They stood blinking and disbelieving at what they saw before them: a company whose trading prospects had been nonexistent in the past, and would be nonexistent in the future; a company whose proposed dividend implied such extraordinary annual profits that anyone with any sense could now see that it simply could not trade on the multimillion-pound scale which the offer to shareholders suggested; a commpany which was, quite nakedly, a machine for making a profit out of debt reclamation, and not a trading company at all; a company which still had a third of the national debt to sell, and whose chances of doing so were receding by the hour. “Sir,” wrote a sceptical correspondent to one newspaper, “South Sea is very sick, a premium of 50 per cent has been applied as a cordial for revival, but it won’t do; the old woman droops still.”

More intriguing, for me, than the familiar ride of boom and bust is the wonder of Walpole’s cunning transmutation of national disaster into the longest, as well as the first, premiership in British history. Walpole stage-managed the short-term resolution of the shock in such a way that the power structure that he intended to control was not itself damaged; this meant shielding a number of Very Important People, not exluding His Britannic Majesty. It meant making sure that the British government’s official call for the extradition of Robert Knight was diplomatically flouted by officials of the Holy Roman Empire; as keeper of the “little green book,” Knight was like the accountant who exposed Al Capone as a tax cheat, only, in this case, with the government in the gangster’s seat. Walpole decided which malefactors got to walk and which were pilloried and subjected to clawback. (One South Sea functionary was left with only £31, which seems a bit heartless.) And the irony of it was that Walpole’s position as Mr Clean owed entirely to his personal banker’s sensible refusal to follow Walpole’s instructions to pour money into South Sea at the peak. It is difficult to think of other opportunists on the scale of Sir Robert Walpole. Even Balen, who regards almost everyone in his book as some kind of knave (Earl Stanhope excepted), cannot avoid sounding impressed. “Walpole had protected King and country, preserved the Whig hegemony, and had made himself the indissoluble element that bound all three together.” You can’t think of studying politics without him.  

Gotham Diary:
16 August 2012

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Separation anxiety: this morning, Ray Soleil and I carried the four dining chairs downstairs and out the service entrance onto 87th Street. The upholsterer’s van appeared presently, and the chairs were carried away. Although the material in which the seats are covered is in fine shape, the underlying upholstery has given way, so that you fear that you are going to fall right through the frame when you sit down. While I’m out on Fire Island, the chairs will be repaired and returned — it makes great sense. But the combination of losing the chairs while preparing to go away for an entire month left me feeling somewhat stateless.


Among the many books that I ordered a while back, a few have begun to stream in, and one of the first is singularly interesting just as a book, for it is the first that I have ever held, much less owned, that was published in India (Aleph Books, New Delhi 2012). It is a novel, Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto, and I’ve read more than half of it already. It tells the story, played for rueful comedy, of an Anglophone family of Goans living in Mumbai. At the heart of the tale is the mother’s very serious bipolar disorder, which defies medication. But what fascinates me is the language, which is fluent but slightly foreign. Without ever being lost, I’m aware of missing nuances here and there, usages that have sprung up in a community that’s physically remote from other English-speaking groups, and therefore as distinctive as Cockney or country. And the pages are edged in black.


In the early afternoon, Megan and Will came uptown, and we met at Carl Schurz Park. It was interesting to watch Will’s interactions with the other children, who were, of course, complete strangers. There were occasional difficulties, but no violence and no tears. I was entertained by a ballet of sorts involving a little girl, her mother, and Will’s collection of small cars. While Will was playing with two of his cars, the girl approached and expressed an  interest in sharing one of them. Will did not reciprocate, but moved to bar from his little parking lot: “My cars.” When Megan suggested that Will be nicer, he reached for a third car and offered it to the girl, but it was too little, too late, and the girl walked away brusquely. This earned her a gentle reprimand from her mother, who now entered the scene and, not knowing the circumstances, thanked Will for being so generous. It was all so unfair!

For the record, I ought to note that I had my first complete telephone conversation with Will yesterday. He said hello and told me that he was at his house. I said that I was at my house, and, having just heard what he’d been up to earlier this week, asked him if he’d see the sea lions (no, the seals), the penguins (no response), and the dinosaurs (yes!). At this point, Will decided that he’d had enough, and he said “bye.” I said that I loved him, and he said that he loved me, and we both said “bye.” Then his mother came back on the line. It was all quite competent.

Gotham Diary:
Intermission, cont’d further
15 August 2012

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Having solved the shipping problem that has been eating away at my vitals for three weeks, I feel well enough to write a proper entry, complete with picture, but I think I’ll just keep my head down in case the well-being goes gossamer. What shipping problem, you ask? See how nice I am, that I don’t bore you with all my troubles? This one was particularly odious, in that I brought my full reserves of obstinacy to not dealing with it. I have only myself to spank.

(However, nota bene: I have solved the shipping problem prospectively only. No further boxes will languish at the Bay Shore branch of the Post Office in the wake of the one that I sent to an address where, it turns out, boxes from the Post Office are not accepted! (Fire Island Ferries deals only with UPS and FedEx.) As for the one that, I hope, will be returned in due course to us here in New York, it was a test, containing nothing very valuable.


Now, back to F L Lucas’s Style: On the Art of Writing Well, originally published in 1955. A formidable book! I wish I could remember how I heard of it. (That I hadn’t heard of it until just this summer is what’s really remarkable.) Never having spent much time with Strunk & White, I can’t say how very different Lucas is, but he’s certainly more comprehensive (longer and deeper)  than they are, and he values what used to be called Continental literature at a level wildly beyond the stretch of American popularity. Lucas extols the classical virtues of clarity and brevity and variety, but it was only for the second edition of Style that this Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, could be persuaded to footnote his copious extracts from foreign letters, chiefly French, with translations. The first edition, cannot have struck any reader as clear, brief, or varied (the examples being incomprehensible to the monophone).  

In the new Harriman House reprint of Style, a somewhat rebarbative studio photograph of the author serves as the frontispiece; you can see it here. Looking at it makes me feel that I have just spent hours in a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I cannot quite reconcile it with Lucas’s chapter on “Good Humour and Gaiety.” And yet…

The practical conclusion? That must remain, I think, a question of temperament and of tact. There are some people with as little gift for gaiety as Milton’s elephant trying to amuse Adam and Eve by twisting its “lithe proboscis” — or as Milton himself. Heaven forbid that I should tempt any such into the quicksands of facetiousness. Better I should be taken by the neck and cast into the Cam.

It’s the right time for me to be reading this book, though. Writing intelligibly has never been more important to me. I fear that I don’t. I’m afraid that I chatter in a donnish patois all my own, composed like a bird’s nest of the most miscellaneous straws. As a sort of compensation, I have come to share Lucas’s dislike of everyday contractions, especially ‘s, which can stand for either is or has, an ambiguity that poses no difficulty to the native speaker but that may well, given the other demands of my way of writing, add an unnecessary burden to friends from other tongues. At the same time, I can’t quite bring myself to say “I am afraid” instead.

And then there is the future to consider. How much of today’s writing will be comprehensible a century from now? I should prefer most of mine to be. I am particularly worried by the sporting verbs that permeate vernacular English today, almost everywhere it is spoken. How long will “step up to the plate” mean anything? Sometimes I find myself using terms that I don’t really understand myself, such as “full court press.” I have looked into this phrase several times, but I rest assured that its meaning is a sealed book to anyone lacking an interest in basketball.

Finally, there is Lucas’s concern for “the purity of English.” It sounds awful to talk about the purity of anything, but there’s no other way to describe a problem that presses ever more heavily on my mind. It would be better to talk of the strength of the language, perhaps, because that’s what’s lost when standards are lowered in order to make an enormous intake of new speakers feel comfortable. This is no merely contemporary matter; what I have in mind is the vast immigration that made Germans the most numerous ancestors of today’s white population. Its impact remains undigested. Also: the thorough dissemination of Yiddish throughout American humor. To the extent that these influences add to the language’s flexibility and expressiveness, they are most welcome. To the extent that they replace its native structures (“graduate college”; “shop Bloomingdale’s”), they are even more noxious than the affectations of French and Latin that have troubled the English now and then in the past, worse for seizing the minds of the uneducated. We have always counted on the uneducated to remind us of our roots; it is in counterpoise to the oaken tenacity of unlettered speech that English has incorporated ways of thinking and of speaking from almost every culture with which it has come into contact. Ironically, the pigheaded Midcountry ban on bilingualism threatens the degradation of English as much as any other factor. We would all speak better English if we had to speak a little Spanish.  

Gotham Diary:
Intermission, cont’d
15 August 2012

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

The humidity is flattening. Aside from my trip to the hospital for a Remicade infusion, I spent yesterday in bed. A good deal of reading got done, and even some thinking. But I am not really here. I have checked out.

Takeaway from a front-page article in yesterday’s Times:

In fact, the Germany economy sometimes resembles one big Mittelstand company: it is built for stability more than growth. Debt is bad, prudence a higher virtue than profit.

What a concept! In today’s paper, Maureen Dowd reminds us that, according to the author herself, “Ayn” rhymes with “swine.” I wish that Ayn Rand were here, to repudiate the new veep candidate and champion crockmeister.

Gotham Diary:
13 August 2012

Monday, August 13th, 2012

What, no picture?

It’s not just the crazy week that I’ve got ahead of me, but, even more, the distraction of having hit upon the appropriate structure for a long-term project that I’ve been doodling about for the past year: I’m going to ease up on contributions here. Once I get out to Fire Island, with plenty of new things to photograph,  I’ll resume normal posting.

Right now, though, I’ve got to read Ryan Lizza’s piece about Paul Ryan in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I saw in the Times today that Ryan is, or was, an avid Ayn Rand fan. As far as I’m concerned,  this makes him the equivalent of a Scientologist.

And then I’ve got to shop for dinner — for eight!

Weekend Note:
Sitting on Ready
11-12 August 2012

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

The week ended on a nice note: the blood test that I took on Friday morning came back “normal,” giving the green light, in the late afternoon, to Tuesday’s Remicade infusion. I did not fret overmuch about the alternative outcome, but I did go to the movies simply to divert my attention. Otherwise, I don’t think that I’d have seen The Campaign in the theatre. But it was the only thing showing up here, and the time was right, so I went and laughed. The best thing about the whole movie is the “Dermot Mulroney” joke at the end. The next-best thing is the name borne by the wicked jillionaire brothers who plot to buy elections: Motch. Rhymes with… 

Packages in the mail this week: two Library of America volumes that I’m not going to specify because it’s embarrassing that I didn’t them already, and Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You. Kirsten Potter reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, unabridged. My Beautiful Laundrette (DVD). Graham Hodge’s Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver. And a new, “big” London A-Z, complete with Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on a page that’s tacked on at the end. Also new: I didn’t realize that Belgravia and Kensington are not included in the congestion-charging zone.


The thing about the blood test was my platelet count.

Have I mentioned the cucumber salad that I developed earlier this summer? It is simplicity itself — if you have the special mystery ingredient on hand. This is one of those New York specials, a no-work, I-hate-to-cook showpiece that depends on a bottled concoction that’s probably hard to find outside big cities. This one comes from a Belgian manufacturer called Belbery, and the product is Fresh Lime Vinegar. (“Belbery” is somewhat easy to overlook on the label; what you won’t miss is “Royal Collection”.) Even if you don’t want to make my cucumber salad, I urge you to find a bottle of this stuff, because it gives new lease — summer’s lease, certainly — to salad dressings. Because it is slightly viscous, it has the feel of oil without the heft. In my cucumber salad, there is no oil at all.

All you need, beside the Fresh Lime Vinegar is a radish or two, a peeled seedless (hydroponic) cucumber, a box grater and a bowl. Slice the cucumber into the bowl, using the grater’s mandoline blade. Then grate the radish. Stir to combine. I know when I’ve got the combination right when the blend of pink and green becomes a sort of Chinese-New- Year-goes-Newport. Then toss with a dollop of Fresh Lime Vinegar and twists of salt and pepper. Voilà.

Because there is no oil, this salad is a welcome accompaniment to cheese dishes.


Ordinarily, I’d have scheduled my next Remicade infusion for the middle of September — within a day or so of coming back from Fire Island. And that was the rub. My régime of widely-spaced infusions entails the risk (but not the certainty) of feeling rather low for five to ten days at the end of the interval. I did not want to risk feeling low for the last five or ten days of vacation, especially since the very last days would involve packing up to go home. So I decided to “go regular” for a change, and go in for the infusion before vacation. (Eight weeks is the normal interval.) Rescheduling the infusion was a bit of a hassle, but it got taken care of, and I went in on Friday morning for the pre-infusion checkup. That’s when the platelets came up.

I’ve been reading Tom Scocca for a few years, first at The Awl, then on his own site, and then, less often, at Slate. When I saw that he had a book coming out about Beijing’s ambitious plans for hosting the 2008 Olympics, I ordered it immediately, and, when it came, I opened it up immediately. I’m finding Welcome to Beijing to be wonderfully entertaining, but I am reminded on every page that I would probably not get along in Scocca’s company. This is not at all unpleasant, however. No get-togethers are in the offing, and I’m free to appreciate his sensibility without worrying about his judging mine. That’s it, you see: I’m pretty sure that he would not think much of me. Put it this way: I can share his sense of humor, but I don’t think that he would share mine. He is not a giggler like me. He is not tickled by the foolishness of human vanity and aspiration. I won’t try to characterize what his reponse is, but I’ll just say that “tickled” doesn’t describe it. I’m afraid that my giggling might strike him as heartless or lightheaded. Perhaps it is.

And then of course there is sport, which Scocca is interested in. I must say that there has been very little of it in the book. We’ll see how that continues, but for the moment I’m impressed by his treatment of athletic performance as beside the point: Welcome to Beijing is a book about showing off, not earning gold medals.

In any case, Tom Scocca writes like a god: strong and clear but replete. Like Edward St Aubyn, he registers Evelyn Waugh’s shock at the baroque insanity of things, but with the gravitas and imperturbability of Hemingway. You get the feeling that he could kick as hard as H L Mencken, but you don’t feel that his never quite doing so is a shortcoming. Somewhere in the background, I suspect, is a passion for Mark Twain. 


Kathleen was more worried about the platelet count interfering with my infusion than I was, although I didn’t find this out until later, after I’d received the go-ahead from the doctor’s office. She did “a little research” after I called her to report the morning’s uncertainty, and she concluded, as my internist had already done, that Remicade often causes platelet counts to drop. Indeed, my platelet count took a plunge right after my first infusion, in 2004. But the rheumatologist didn’t have the pre-infusion blood tests. His concern, two months ago after the last infusion, was a relatively small drop in the count, a fraction of the 2004 fall-off. So I took the blood test to my internist in early July, and he showed me the bigger picture. He advised me to monitor any bleeding, checking to see whether it was taking longer to stop. I give myself a good kitchen cut at least once every two months. Blood loss does not appear to have increased. I didn’t give the platelet count another thought until Friday. Uh-oh. But, in the end, as I said at the top, o-kay.

A staggering treat: having finished up the tidying on Saturday and relaxed for a few hours with Tom Scocca’s book about positive thinking in China, I came into the blue room to dress for dinner — we were going out. I clicked onto a cocktail hour playlist that I’ve been developing, and what d’you suppose came on? Morton Gould’s wicked deconstruction of “Limehouse Blues,” a chart that opens with a nosegay of Charlie-Chan clichés. I had to listen to it five times before I could bring myself to leave.


Because of the need to stay infection-free before a Remicade infusion, I didn’t see Will over the weekend.

But I did finish Tom Scocca’s book; and then, I finished Edward Pearce’s book about Sir Robert Walpole, not a biography really but a study of the first Prime Ministership, if that’s the word. Pearce is full of fun, with donnish references to everything from The Mikado to The Pickwick Papers. (Like everyone else who writes about British history these days, he refers to, if he doesn’t actually cite, 1066 and All That.) Then Kathleen and I went out to dinner and I spilled the beans about my writing project, which was conceived last summer but which underwent an amazingly creative buckle just this past week, in time for me to go out into the desert (Fire Island) and work on it some more. I made a list, this morning, of topics that I wanted to be sure to include, but it was only when I added a fifth item to the list that I realized that I had the titles of my chapters.

I told Kathleen about it only because I was worried that she’d find me preoccupied, thinking about something that I wasn’t talking about. Now I have to work a bit harder, against that bit of sharing.

Sport turned out to be the only explanation for the treatment of his enemies by Sir Robert Walpole. Edward Pearce and biographer J H Plumb wrote of a “coarsening of the fibers,” but no one as sensitive to the nuance of Parliamentary debate as Walpole was could be fairly dismised as “coarse.” Coarse people aren’t capable or Walpole’s command of sane discourse. Pearce is happy to call Walpole a “hater,” but I think that that’s wrong. Walpole was a good old boy who believed, as good old boys do, that a defeated opponent ought to be destroyed. No mercy. Mercy is an obscenity for these people. Dispassionately, à la Machiavel, you destroy your opponents simply because they have put themselves in the way of being destroyed by you. There is nothing coarse about the destruction. In short, I feel that there is much to be learned, still, from Walpole’s amazing ministery.

Friday Commonplace:
10 August 2012

Friday, August 10th, 2012

From just about the last page of The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker, by Janet Groth:

Did that make me a victim? Or a beneficiary? It seems to me a two-way street. When the Newspaper Guild reps looked up my salary record ($80 a week to start and $163 to finish), they were incensed, and much was said about the way the magazine was exploiting me. However, as I look back on the eight trips to Europe the magazine underwrote (by way of lengthy vacations in the summer, two of which stretched to eight weeks away or more, four of them with pay); my twelve years of graduate school; ten years of expensive psychoanalysis with a top Manhattan analyst (if the magazine chose to exploit my passive dependency, they paid handsomely to rid me of it); coverage of my desk to permit a Thursday-Friday trip up to Poughkeepsie to teach a course at Vassar; as well as the many intangibles that came to me in the way of invitations to share the cultural, social, and literary life of the city, and, by extension, the wider world, it is not clear to me who was exploiting whom.


From Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future, by Tom Scocca:

And with only a few exceptions, they were Chinese. High-minded Westerners tend to think of tourism — swarming, grasping tourism — as a vice we carry with us. It is a mobile gravitational force surrounding white people, warping the pure and genuine local culture into a caricature of itself.

But there was no place for Western anxiety or guilt at Badaling. All the available room, psychological and otherwise, was filled by Chinese people — Chinese vendors selling Chinese-made kitsch to Chinese sightseers, all bundled in their clear blue Chinese ponchos. The Great Wall undulated along the ridgeline, softly framed by the mists, and an unbroken mass of blue ponchos undulated right with it, along the top, up and down the wet stone course, and steeply up again, toward the clouds. It could have been a scroll paiting.


From “The Prodigal,” by Elizabeth Bishop:

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten, the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.


From The Great Man: Sir Robert Walpole: Scoundrel, Genius and Britian’s First Prime Minister, by Edward Pearce:

Walpole’s best judgment would be directed to avoiding the futilities of war. But representing sense as cowardice is an easy tactic, most wars being popular before they happen.

Gotham Diary:
Sweep Me to Sleep
9 August 2012

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Glancing through the feeds yesterday, I came across a piece by David Thomson on Marilyn Monroe and another on used bookstores by Jeremiah Moss. (Both were noticed at 3 Quarks Daily.) And I thought: Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Or, at least, find some new feeds. There is really nothing to be said about Marilyn Monroe. The very idea of thinking about Marilyn Monroe (as distinct from responding to her onscreen persona) is, simply, fatuous. It is true, as Thomson says, that nobody knows what Monroe’s story really was, or how and why it came to an end. Does that make her fascinating? Not to me. It’s arguable that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her, but what can’t be denied is that she found sustained effort tedious, and was not inclined to work when she was bored. But what am I doing here, talking about Marilyn Monroe? Stop at once! And, as for used bookstores! Not only is there nothing to say about used bookstores, but there is hardly anything to say about books. Here are two things that you can say about books: they’re usually easy to read, and they pile up whether you read them or not. Every library in the world contains too many books, and every library is incomplete. Scylla, meet Charybdis. I’ll just get out of the way… 

I guess it’s August. Did Rilke write about August?


De fil en aiguille — Marilyn Monroe > Michelle Williams > Eddie Redmayne — I watched The Other Boleyn Girl. On the surface, it’s a dreadful movie. The costumes are hideously confused, for one thing, treating the fashions of a good fifty year period as mutually contemporary, and the sets are little better; as production values go, it’s not much of an advance beyond Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers for Warner Brothers. The dialogue is truly preposterous, because it has to make plain to today’s (clueless) audiences what winks and nods would have expressed at a time when it was foolish to be explicit and straightforward. The dramatic situations are strictly soap opera.

And yet — why did I want to watch it? Why did I sit through it? The actors have a lot to do with it. Eric Bana no more resembles Henry VIII than I do — no, come to think of it, I look a great deal more like Henry VIII than he does. It cannot be said that Mr Bana looks comfortable in all those Joan Crawford shoulder pads and cocktail waitress skirts. But he’s fun. Mark Rylance is great fun, a complete toady — you want to step on him. David Morrissey’s Norfolk is a lout, possessed of less brain than he boasts, but a surfeit of King James talk withal. He’s not fun, exactly, but it is funny that he dresses as though for the court of Henry VII, complete with Christopher Columbus’ bouncy hair. Kristin Scott Thomas gives good value; whatever they paid her to impersonate Elizabeth Howard, Lady Boleyn, she earned every penny. Most of all though, the movie belongs to Ana Torrent, who plays Catherine of Aragon. Every time I watch The Other Boleyn Girl, I make a resolution to see this amazing actress in other movies. So far, nothing has come of it, but just you wait. When she says, “Where is my wise husband?”, something clicks, and you realize that all Spaniards are natural monarchs.

What about Scarlett and Natalie, you’re asking. They’re fun, too. They have wildly different English accents; Ms Johansson sounds like a governess at Chatsworth, while Ms Portman suggests a party girl who has spent a lot of time on translantic steamships. It’s fun to hear both of them say, especially to one another, “my sistah.” The worst thing about the movie is that it never manages to present them as serious romantic rivals in the fine tradition of Bette Davis and Mary Astor. As Miranda might put it, there is no “sweep.”

Also: Call the Midwife has taken onscreen childbirth to new levels of interest and satisfaction. If all you’re going to do is moan and scream, we’d rather take it as read into the record.

I’ll stop there. It’s a terrible movie. It’s not a train wreck; it’s just bad. But it’s still one of my favorites. You can’t say that any of the historical personages has been seriously misrepesentented in an unfavorable way. Almost all of them — the real people — were just as ambitious and just as short-sighted. (Catherine was just as grand.) What’s wrong is what’s usually wrong with historical dramas: the characters are disfigured by the attempt to beam them up into contemporary parlance. It’s fun to see modern young actresses with little or no classical training and closets full of blue jeans attempt to put them over.


A brilliant conspiracy theory occurred to me yesterday. Actually, it’s not much of a conspiracy theory, because if it were true it would be the work of one man, acting alone. Well, perhaps not acting alone in the strictest sense, but then this guy is so powerful that he can tell people what to do without waiting for their cooperation. My conspiracy theory is this: The Second Avenue subway is being paid for, at least on a short-term cash basis, by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His gift to New York.

I have no idea where this idea comes from — which just shows that I’m on to something. The last time I looked, the new T line was priced at $4.5 billion. I don’t know if the mayor is rich enough to foot the bill, but, once you start thinking about it, you realize that there are lots of billionaires out there with that kind of money. Maybe not a hundred, but more than just Henry Ford and John D Rockefeller. Let’s hit them up!

Anyway, you heard it here first. People complain about how hard the mayor has made it to drive through Midtown (bravo!), and the projected ban on supersized sodas has almost everyone nattering about the nanny state. They say, “Thank God Bloomberg will be gone soon.” I say, “Not so fast.”   



Have you seen The Prince and the Showgirl? Recently? It’s a bad movie, too, but not my kind of bad movie. When Olivier is off, he’s unwatchable, and all his prince does is make you wish that Henry Higgins would make an entrance and unmask him as Zoltan Karpathy. As for Marilyn Monroe, she’s great when she’s alone with the camera, which is not exactly what I call “acting.” Face to face with another actor, she behaves like a producer’s niece, someone who has been given a part in order to make a mogul happy — think Miss Casswell. And who has been told, “Just act naturally, sweetie” — a Betty Boop who’s dying to take off her foundation garments. Everything about Monroe suggests sleep. If only the film were in black and white, you might just be able to nod off. 

Gotham Diary:
8 August 2012

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

The other night, Kathleen went out to dinner with a former client whom she liked, and although I was nicely invited to join, I decided to stay home and watch Miranda, as much of the show as I could. I made it through eleven of the twelve episodes, and to justify this indulgence, I kept a pad and pencil handy for writing down the rococo words with which Tillie, Miranda’s old schoolmate (played by Sally Phillips), ornaments her banal announcements. Here is a short selection.

Marvelisimus (which Miranda expands to “Marvelissimussolini”)

“Tomarzipan” is a variant of “tomorrow,” in case you’re stumped. How many of these constructions did the scriptwriters invent? At one point, Tillie says “Johnny Cashingtons” for “money,” but she seems to expect Miranda to know what she’s talking about. Tillie throws in a lot of actual Italian, and seems to speak French quite fluently; she appears to want her English to be equally incomprehensible to natives. 

At one point, another schoolfriend, Stinky, declares that the sushi on offer looks “edible von guzzlebuckets.” Did I hear that properly?

Another verbal thread that runs through Miranda is Miranda’s fascination with words that catch her fancy: “Clutch, now there’s a good word.” “Thrust” is another favorite. In the eleventh episode, a pas de trois for Miranda, her mother, Penny (Patricia Hodge), and a psychiatrist (Mark Heap), Miranda fills out a slow moment with ruminations on “moist,” which is “the queen of words,” and “plinth,” which is the king. “Imagine a moist plinth,” she ventures. That might be difficult, but it is not difficult to imagine imagining a moist plinth, because by this stage of the show you have spent a lot of time in the rolling parkland of Miranda’s girlish mind, well preserved into her thirties the crushing boredom and sparkling trauma of school.

The most exciting spiel in Miranda, from a language standpoint, is Penny’s unwavering determination to be either insincere or meaningless, but impatient either way. For Penny, happiness is being enviable. That’s what she wants for her daughter, and the desire embodies a kind of love that underrides the superficial cruelty of her breathtaking put-downs. (At a funeral, she tells Miranda, “I didn’t want you here. I was going to tell everyone you’re in prison. It’s less embarrassing than having to admit that you’re still single.”) Penny’s refusal to be nice for niceness’s sake — a refusal that Ms Hodge makes persuasive — is what carries that eleventh episode, devoted entirely to a “family romance” conducted within the walls of a psychiatrist’s office. While Miranda is a constant, Penny ranges abruptly between being her ally and her opponent, her loving mother and her wicked stepmother.

Penny is given several bracing verbal tics. First, her way of saying goodbye, “Such fun!” Every possible change in sense is rung on this phrase, and at at least one point Penny infuses it with a death-camp grimness. Then there is “What I call…”, which I’ve written about before. Nobody would notice this usage except an irritated child; it’s Miranda’s pedantic inability to let the phrase go that’s funny. (“I think we all call it ‘Monte Carlo’.”) Then there’s “Your father…” A sentence beginning with these two words is guaranteed to divulge sexual caprice laced with marital discord. (“Your father and I have decided that Thursday is Naughty Knitting Night.”) We don’t see dad until the very last episode, when he turns out to be the deadest-panned Tom Conti, of all people, worrying over slush turning to black ice and creating —chorus! — “an absolute deathtrap.” Mr Conti’s great moment comes when, costumed as a fez-capped, camel-riding magus (one of the Three Kings, presumably), he tells Miranda, in tones pregnant with Foreign Office understatement, “I don’t feel excited — yet.” There is absolutely nothing about this gent to suggest the untrammeled licentiousness that his wife gleefully shouts from the housetops.


That’s part of the point, though: the mystery of parental sexuality is the final puzzle to be solved before the attainment of adulthood. We solve it by recognizing that possibility can be incomprehensible; our inability to conjure something doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen. Miranda takes place — all twelve episodes — upon this verge. Miranda is a big girl in more ways than one. The actress Miranda Hart works a formidable magic in presenting a woman with only one step to go, almost there. The character Miranda is good-hearted but lazy, dreamy, and discouraged. She is still very much an adolescent; it’s as if her inability to grow up has boiled up inside her and made her so big. I say this as praise for the actress’s ability to put her body to dramatic use. She is an extraordinary comedienne in Miranda, pouring everything that could be learned not just from British comedy but from Carol Burnett, La Cage aux folles, and even Julia Child’s French chef into a sitcom coded with all the best subroutines. She establishes the same audience rapport that made Eric Morecambe, Jack Benny, and Lucille Ball into household gods. But Ms Hart can also be sublime, as her portrayal of Chummie in Call the Midwife demonstrates.

There is no call for sublimity in Miranda — although “moist plinth” reveals a groping for it. Miranda is a comedy about being not sublime, about growing up, about working at being a better person. That’s why it’s unofficial anthem is Heather Small’s “Proud,” imitated in every episode by Miranda’s sidekick, Stevie (Sarah Hadland). Stevie manages to sing the refrain of “Proud” — “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” — without conveying any sense of the actual song, which is finally played as the outro to the sixth episode, which concludes the first of the two seasons. I hadn’t known the song before, but when I downloaded it the other night and listened to it about fifteen times in a row, I thought how beautiful it would be as the soundtrack for a montage of clips of Chummie from Call the Midwife. Chummie, unlike Miranda, hears the song itself.

Hart has observed that she wrote the Miranda pilot with a view to creating a dream job: her show would be everything that she wanted it to be. Not so much to the extent that she succeeded in realizing her dream, but to the extent that she sold it the BBC and got two seasons out of them, I suspect that the dream was, in the moment of realization, already outgrown.