Gotham Diary:
The Bentley
January 2018 (II)

9, 10 and 12 January

Tuesday 9th

Ageing is not for sissies, they say. But it’s the sort of thing that gets said only the morning after, when conditions have returned normal, leaving behind nothing worse than an intensified recognition that “normal” is always inching toward death.

On Sunday morning, I awoke feeling warm enough under the covers, but disturbed by the menace of a chill. I ought, I thought, to pull another blanket over me, or perhaps just the luxurious beach towel that Kathleen and I call “the mink,” because it brings instant warmth. But I wanted to stay under the covers, so I did nothing — nothing, that is, but dwell on the impending chill, which in a little while became real enough. The occasional shiver soon gave way nonstop shaking in my arms and shoulders. Kathleen can sleep through anything, and even my mewling and whining on top of the seismics did not disturb her, so, after half an hour, I had to cry out to wake her. She covered me with more blankets, but the shivering went on unabated. Eventually, I had to go to the bathroom, where, overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability, I incidentally discovered that there was nothing wrong with my GI tract. Nor did I have a fever. Back in bed, still possessd by an upper-body tarantella, I ventured, through chattering teeth, the diagnosis that I was suffering from an anxiety attack. Kathleen had a pill for that and she gave me one. Whether it was the right pill or not, I stopped shaking almost immediately. I felt awful for the rest of day, largely from the wear and tear of all that involuntary rock ‘n’ roll, but it was clear that nothing would have happened if I hadn’t been such a sissy to begin with.

I managed to “get through Christmas.” I really did enjoy it. But I am in terrible shape and must do something about it. Just to cheer me up à la Bronx, my blood pressure, taken during this afternoon’s quarterly visit to the rheumatologist, was 124/80. Smoke and mirrors! I told the nurse that if she would come back in fifteen minutes, I could guarantee 164/105, but she didn’t take me up on it.


For some reason, a novel called Lunch With Elizabeth David, by Roger Williams (Little, Brown; 1999) has been shelved high up the living room amidst a clutch of poetry books, instead of with the novels. So I see it whenever I am sitting with Kathleen before or after dinner. Had it been with the novels, I’d probably have given it away by now, for I remember not liking it very much. I appear to have ordered it from Amazon in the UK at the tail end of an Elizabeth David craze. I can’t find either book right now, but in the mid-Nineties two biographies of the famous British food writer appeared almost simultaneously (one of them by Artemis Cooper [née Diana, after her grandmother]), and I read them back to back. Instead of going on to read David herself, however, I followed other tangents. Most memorably, I read South Wind, which I’d never heard of, by Norman Douglas, whom ditto. I disliked it rather a lot; it struck me as a sort of Lucia without the fun. There were too many maxims and too much poetical prose. Then, along came Williams’ novel, with a big, big part for Douglas and not much for David.

Before the biographies, I had been awakened to Elizabeth David by a feature in The World of Interiors devoted to the kitchens in her Chelsea house, the contents of which were about to be auctioned (the kitchens and the auction figure in Lunch almost as surrogates for David herself). Yes, two kitchens, one for summer and one for winter. The kitchens were aggressively retro, with nothing more advanced than a four-burner cooker and not an electric appliance in sight. In later years, David was said to sit at one end of an enormous kitchen table — from an old stately home, probably — and occasionally check on whatever was cooking in the oven, without having to leave her seat, or, for that matter, to put down her wineglass. Unhappy in love throughout her life — she was too good for the men who attracted her, and not attracted to good men — David drank herself, not into an early grave exactly (she made it into her eighties), but into a premature seclusion from the world that was dictated by the erosion of her charms and the deterioration of her mobility.

Eventually, I got round to reading her, and, on the page, she is eternal, the match of any writer in any field. She is one of the lasting literary feminists, women who persuade any sensible reader of the balanced equality of the sexes simply by being as interesting as any man. She had the genius to write about food like a gourmand, hitherto an exclusively masculine specialty, and only where absolutely necessary as a cook in a kitchen. She was totally guyish in the ostentatious display of a not-entirely-honest thesis that everything culinary is really easy-peasy, no sweat, once you understand it correctly. She and Julia Child had nothing but ingredients in common and, wisely, they never met. David’s recipe for veal scallops cauchoise (apples, Calvados, and cream) is indeed, as she insists, the only interesting thing that can be done with this particular cut of meat. (Wienerschnitzel works much better with chicken.) At the same time, I utterly disagree with her contempt for gadgets. An uncoordinated doofus with a knife, I need all the help I can get. Nevertheless, I read her screed against garlic presses with glee just the same.

Shirley Hazzard wrote a lovely little book about Douglas and his crowd in her memoir, Greene on Capri. Greene was an unlikely friend of Douglas, I’d have thought, but no, there was some concord of bells in their alternative modernisms. Douglas wanted to be a pagan, Greene a Christian. In Capri, they could be lapsed, and let the environment supply the baroque and the classical as needed. Hazzard features an important member of the cercle whom Williams omits, the formidable Dottoressa (lady doctor, need I say? but doctor of what?). I forget everything about this doughty Italian woman but her title, which I faintly recall to have been medical. I foresee a spell of truffle-hunting in my shelves.

Roger Williams’s novel — I’ll tell you later, in connection with another book, why I chose to re-read it now — is really rather good, if you’re willing to let him treat the lady of his title, as so many great playwrights have done, as a tantalizing offstage presence. She does appear, and not just once, but the book is “about” her only to the extent that it is about enjoying the great simple pleasures. And what would those be? In Chapter 5, Douglas and his young charge run into an inn-full of Italian emigrants to America, Pittsburgh mostly, who have returned to Apulia for the St Michael festival. Whatever their status in their newfound land, they are lords of the earth back in Italy, and they can’t imagine why anybody stays.

Douglas smiled. “How right you are. There is no fucking money here. And that is why I like it.”

The man looked at Douglas’s twinkling eyes for a moment, wondering if they were patronizing him. Then he laughed and clapped Douglas on the back. “More wine for this Mister,” he shouted, and he put his face close. “Of course you like it,” he said, “because in the land without lire the man with a soldo is king.” (80)

And there you have it: why a world of easy sophistication vanished in the era of Postwar prosperity. It costs a lot of money, relatively speaking, to make veal cauchoise nowadays. Even a good Granny Smith apple isn’t cheap.


Wednesday 10th

Oprah, Don’t Do It,” ran the headline of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times. If I had all day, I’d wonder (as Frank Bruni did in his Op-Ed column today) how long the Oprah bubble is going to float, and how we will remember it when it pops. The most interesting thing about it right now is the enormous personal authority that Ms Winfrey brings to her intersection of the political and media worlds, which might possibly pierce the former with the latter’s new insistence on the integrity of women. And her (black) life is one that matters as much as anybody’s.

Williams’s piece looked to be, like so many recent Op-Ed entries, obvious, jejune, and unnecessary. And it was, but I’m glad that I read it, because it clarified the muddle of blue-state politics down to one muddled word, and that word is “serious.” It is time to get serious about what this word means in politics, by insisting that it signify not an attitude but a platform. Mr Williams:

I am not immune to Oprah’s charms, but President Winfrey is a terrible idea. It also underscores the extent to which Trumpism — the kowtowing to celebrity and ratings, the repudiation of experience and expertise — has infected our civic life. The ideal post-Trump politician will, at the very least, be a deeply serious figure with a strong record of public service behind her. It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act.

Hmm: at the very least, be a deeply serious figure… Serious about what? Serious about what, exactly? Experience and expertise sound great, but what kind of experience and expertise are we looking for in a president? Here we can at least point to presidents who have accrued political experience and expertise in statehouses, as governors, and if I were re-writing the Constitution, no one but state governors could be elected Chief Executive. “Serious,” in contrast, doesn’t seem to mean much. A frown? A deliberative air? As I say, it can’t be a mere attitude. What are the qualities of the serious politician? And to what extent do we forgive that politician for taking his or her career seriously? These are two very serious questions raised by the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was nothing if not deeply serious.

Oprah Winfrey’s appearance on the political scene is exciting because she brings a proven gift for leadership into the discussion. Seriousness is no substitute for leadership. Seriousness is helpless, as we have seen, when confronted with leadership’s evil twin, demagoguery. And yet how exactly does leadership distinguish itself from demagoguery? Der Führer means “the leader”; how do we institutionalize, as every liberal democracy must, and yet none has yet done, protections that prevent embryo Hitlers from posing as leaders? This problem has not been solved, which is probably why Williams doesn’t talk about leadership. Twentieth-century nightmares have left everyone uneasy with leaders, so that aside from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, we have done without leadership in this country, settling instead for uneasy blends of seriousness and charm. I’m pretty sure that President Winfrey would have a self-improvement Program for every American man, woman and child that many would follow and that most would admire. But we’d be lucky to have her. Nothing in our political culture that could take credit for producing, or even nourishing her.

I hope that the Oprah bubble floats long enough for it to teach us to be more specific about what we’re looking for.


Friday 12th

A word or two about Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

First of all, why?

Because Craig Brown wrote it. We do not follow Craig Brown in America, perhaps because his humor is so deeply embedded in an ear for the varieties of spoken English that he is a virtual philologist. We do not speak English in America; we speak American, a mongrel patois. The British are not fond of mongrels. Britons seem devoted to breeding, horses or sheep or petunias or even swedes — er, turnips. The “class system” is the inevitable application of this passion for distinction to human beings, as manifested not only by accents but by manners of speaking. (It would be “such fun!” to hear the Queen talk about “our Charlie.”) For me, the philosophical question is whether English can be spoken by someone who is not invested in the class system. Craig Brown gives proof that one can listen with the coolest dispassion.

Brown is a mimic, a parodist. He listens closely, and then repeats with interesting, vaguely dissonant variations. He imagines an alternative universe in which Margaret Rose was born first, before Elizabeth, and he gives us a Christmas Message from Margaret I, dated 1977. It is not the highlight of the book, but I can imagine that English readers, few of whom can have been alive before the tap of royal bromide was turned on (by George V), must experience a frisson of dismay mixed with transgressive glee at Margaret’s closing:

And with this in mind, I’ll wish you all a very happy Christmas, not because I really want to, but because I suppose I must. (397)

It is difficult to imagine the reign of Margaret I stretching all the way to 1977. Second, where do I get that idea? I refer you to Brown’s sixty-eighth glimpse, which raises but does not explore the whole curious business of British royal-watching. He doesn’t even mention that they don’t go in for such things elsewhere, even where crowned heads still nod. I believe that the highly ambivalent pastime of following the doings of Princess Michael of Kent and the rest is itself rooted in the English language, in its peculiarly sophisticated strains of mockery, by which I mean sophisticated ways of being crude. I was thinking about a lewd joke involving Princess Margaret and an automobile that I’d otherwise forgotten, but that’s why God invented Google, so here it is, if you dare. I’m not saying that the joke wouldn’t occur, or wouldn’t work, in another language, but the funny bit is not really the chauffeur’s remark but the setup, which is the dainty confessions of the the Queen and Lady Di to the Queen Mother, after their encounter with the highwayman. It is very funny, somehow, to imagine these particular ladies speaking of “private places.” You almost expect the punchline.

It’s the sort of sordid sexual caricature that doomed Marie Antoinette and Alexandra. In Britain, though, it has no political bite whatsoever, even when told by a republican who feel that the Firm is a waste of money. Something about the House of Windsor, interacting with something about the Twentieth Century — perhaps Wallis Simpson was the catalyst — precipitated an enormous volume of impudent and irreverent commentary, all of it written down somewhere, mostly in newspapers, about the Royal Family. A corpus of nicknames and euphemisms was developed over the generations, complete with contributions by the Royal Family itself (“the Firm,” for example). Instead of alienating the monarch and her family from her subjects, it has bound them together in a ritual disrepect — calling the Queen “Brenda,” and so forth — that drains pomposity from the ritual pomp. It is a sleight-of-hand show in which everybody knows, or thinks he knows, how it’s done.

From an early age, and quite openly once her sister was crowned, Margaret behaved like an in-house Wallis: naughty, impatient, fun-seeking, faux-bohemian. Margaret ought to have been a lollipop of a girl who professed to like everything. Instead, she dropped her middle name. She discovered that it was much funnier to say that she hated everything, whether she meant it or not, simply to overthrow the expectation. It was beyond her intellectual reach to make truly interesting comments, so she had to settle for the shock of being rude.

It’s an emblem of the enigma of Margaret — was she imaginative or dim? — that she seems to have regarded herself as more royal than her sister because, while they were both daughters of a king, only Margaret had a queen for a sister, too. There is something compelling, if hare-brained, about this conclusion.

That is why everybody knows that Margaret would have made a botch of the monarchy, and perhaps even brought it to an end.

Third, speechless. If you have doubts about the pleasures of Ma’am Darling, I suggest that you find a copy in a quiet bookshop, retire to a quiet corner, and see if you can keep it quiet while you read Glimpse Nº 70 (294)

Bon week-end à tous!