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Happy 110th Birthday John Betjeman. Remembering “Archibald”.

Archibald

Betjeman.  Not just a popular poet, but the man who had to be a nation’s Alan Bennett for decades before Alan Bennett was old enough.  And yes he wrote about Anglican prayers, and insensitive architectural developments and playing tennis with Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.  But he also wrote one of the most terrifying poems of the twentieth century.

The bear who sits above my bed
A doleful bear he is to see;
From out his drooping pear-shaped head
His woollen eyes look into me.
He has no mouth, but seems to say:
‘They’ll burn you on the Judgement Day.’

Those woollen eyes, the things they’ve seen;
Those flannel ears, the things they’ve heard—
Among horse-chestnut fans of green
The fluting on an April bird,
And quarrelling downstairs until
Doors slammed at Thirty One West Hill.

The dreaded evening keyhole scratch
Announcing some return below,
The nursery landing’s lifted latch,
The punishment to undergo:
Still I could smooth those half-moon ears
And wet that forehead with my tears.

Whatever rush to catch a train,
Whatever joy there was to share
Of sounding sea-board, rainbowed rain,
Or seaweed-scented Cornish air,
Sharing the laughs, you still were there,
You ugly, unrepentant bear.

When nine, I hid you in a loft
And dared not let you share my bed;
My father would have thought me soft,
Or so, at least, my mother said.
She only then our secret knew,
And thus my guilty passion grew.

The bear who sits above my bed
More agèd now is he to see:
His woollen eyes have thinner thread,
But still he seems to say to me,
In double-doom notes, like a knell:
‘You’re half a century nearer Hell.’

Self-pity shrouds me in a mist,
And drowns me in my self-esteem.
The freckled faces I have kissed
Float by me in a guilty dream.
The only constant, sitting there,
Patient and hairless, is a bear.

And if an analyst one day
Of school of Adler, Jung, or Freud
Should take this agèd bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
Its draughty darkness could but be
Eternity, Eternity.

I find this poem as powerfully fatalistic as “Aubade” by Betjeman’s friend – the unchurchgoing author of “Church Going” – Philip Larkin.

We all of us need someone or some thing to cling to.  This Teddy Bear is a continuing yet aging reminder of this clinginess, this desperate yearning for comfort and for unconditional love.  Yet the bear is accusatory, not because the bear has life and opinions, but because the expectation of unconditional love in a teddy bear (and not just in a teddy bear) is not to be gratified.  The bear cannot mean what the boy and the man and the man-boy wants the bear to mean.

These simple tetrameter stanzas close with couplets of devastating finality.  The final line, which consists of just two words looks as though it is unfinished.  It isn’t.

If a teddy bear really is a source of comfort it is also a witness.  If it really is an intimate, then its intimate knowledge is terrifying.  Even as an inert fraying collection of cloth and fur, the range of experiences it has organised is the stuff of nightmares.

A grown man should not have to depend on a teddy bear for comfort.  But the long, life-defining habits of dependency are such that no life without this bear is now conceivable.  This is one of the best poems about addiction ever written – a poem about identity and damnation.

 

Yes Prime Minister

scarfe

Anthony Jay, one of the co-authors of Yes Minister died a couple of days ago.  Which got me thinking.

Structurally, the series owed a lot to “Jeeves and Wooster”, as Jim Hacker’s ill thought out schemes are continually revised to the point of reversal by someone who is supposed to be his “servant”.  A “civil” servant, Appleby is outwardly deferential, someone who is not supposed to have any policy of their own and who is only supposed to advise on implementation, but who exhibits a rigid opposition to any break of precedent or disruption of the status quo.

The series was co-authored by a right wing and left wing writer.  Jay was the right wing writer.  As a consequence of this rather developed and self conscious sense of “balance” it was never made clear where on a political spectrum Jim Hacker belonged.  The series scrupulously avoided ever mentioning the names of political parties.  Even Hacker’s ministry was deliciously tautological.  The Ministry for Administrative Affairs.  The Ministry for Being a Ministry.   I generally preferred Yes Minister to Yes Prime Minister for the fairly simple reason that Yes Minister was not required to make as much stuff up.  The ministerial shenanigans dramatised were rarely the stuff of earthshaking international significance.  You could sort of believe that Jim Hacker actually existed, that he was one of those duller cabinet members whose name nobody could really remember.

With Yes Prime Minister on the other hand, you knew you were part of an alternate reality  – one in which major political events had worked out differently from the world we actually lived in.  As a stand alone episode, however, the very first Yes Prime Minister still resonates, because it treats the illogic of nuclear deterrence with such unsparing rigour.  The detailed insanity of making an actual threat to push the button is worked out until it is revealed that it is not national defence but a habit of national prestige which supposedly necessitates the purchase of Trident – “the nuclear missile that Harrods would sell you” – according to Sir Humphrey.

But it was always troubling quite how much Thatcher liked the show – to the point of pretty much forcing Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne to perform a sketch in character to her own design.  From Thatcher’s point of view, as someone who regarded the “statusquoism” of the civil service mandarism as supportive of pre-existing mixed economy welfarism, the show stood as a satire on the sort of people she felt were standing in her way.  When someone as humourless as Thatcher liked Yes Minister, someone who lacked the kind of sociability that forms the preconditioning grammar that makes any viable comedy possible – liked Yes Minister – you always wondered what it meant when you yourself liked it.  I suppose she must have made a political decision that the programme was “on her side” – at which point it must be funny, because anything that was on her side must be successful – just as anyone who disagreed with her was placed beyond the pale of human sympathy.

Yet Yes Minister will survive.  The best shows survive their more unsavoury fans because they are well timed and make sense on their own terms.  The dialogue that built the relationship between the consummate talents of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorn retains a paradoxical political authority not because (like traditionally righteous satire) it speaks truth to power – but because it tells the truth about the lies that power speaks to itself.

 

Sleeping on the Plane

hotel jumbo

Certain things you just have to say “yes” to, if you’re going to say “yes” to life at all.

Like driving out to a tiny recording studio in Kilbeggan to record spoken work links for a concept album based on Tommy Wiseau’s notorious 2005 film  – The Room.

Like looking at two similar prices for accommodation at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport – one, a normal looking hotel and the other a converted Jumbo Jet on a piece of waste ground close to the airport itself.

Yes.  I said “Yes” to life.  I said “Yes” to “JumboStay”.

I will go out on a limb here and say that I’ve just had the best night’s sleep on a plane ever. But I would have been very disappointed had it been otherwise.

The JumboStay hotel offers minimal space, amenities and modcons which are offset by its overwhelming anecdotal value.  I would not recommend this accommodation to stroppy supermodels, large families, Canadians (or any other claustrophobic ethnicities) or people who absolutely need reliable broadband.  Furthermore, I was (needless to say), about 400 years older than any of the other guests (passengers?) on the plane.

I was given a room called the “Wheelhouse” – only accessible from the exterior of the plane.  This “house” consists of exactly that space that the wheels retract into when an aircraft is in flight.  In any number of movies (or cartoons) you see characters who somehow manage to grab the legs of the airplane wheels just as the plane is careering down the runway and who are thereby given a free plane ride.   I’ve read (and I sincerely believe) that in the singularly unlikely event of anybody actually being able to perform this stunt, the chances of very grisly death soon afterwards are close to 100%.  If the wheel mechanism does not actually crush you to death, you will freeze to death en route.

Me?  I slept like a baby.

I had a toilet and a sink to myself but no shower.  The remainder of the space consisted of a bed (or bunk) accessible by a steel ladder with about eighteen inches of space above my head and a TV nailed to the wall opposite.  I felt snug as a bug in a rug.

This is, however, the sort of thing you’re supposed to do when you’re 19 however.  It’s not really a hotel for grown ups.  However, one thing that my middle age has brought me is a cascading scrolled list of things I really should have done when I was 19 were I not too busy being lazy, grumpy and self absorbed.   But everyone should sleep at the JumboStay at least once.  But ideally you should go when you’re 19, surrounded by other 19 year olds, laughing continuously.

Today I fly to London Gatwick, and from thence immediately to Pisa where I’ll get the train to Florence.  If I look tired and people express any kind of concern I’ll be able to say, with hand on heart “I’m OK.  I slept on the plane.”

As Far North as I’ve ever been

swedish rainbow

Just before we reached our final destination, I saw the best defined rainbow I’ve ever seen in my life.  And given that I’ve lived twenty years in Ireland – that’s some accomplishment.  Thank you Sweden.

This picture is not that rainbow.  This just a file photo of a rainbow in Sweden.  I don’t take pictures really, because it’s not a skill I really possess, and I respect those who really do possess it.  The real rainbow was better than the rainbow in the picture, but the picture of the real rainbow that I would have taken would not have looked as nice as this more professional picture of a lesser rainbow.

The rainbow itself formed the culmination of one of the longer train journeys I can remember, from Göthenburg to Falun – changing at Örebro.   And the journey from start to finish was all about mountains and umlauts and lakes, oh my – mountains and umlauts and lakes.  At Falun, we discovered that we are staying in what seems to be an off season ski lodge.  The view outside the window is dominated by an almighty ski jump which looks rather ominous in green summer weather.  In fact it looks more like some kind of very invasive and threatening mining operation (indeed, copper mining was for many years, the defining principle and purpose of Falun).   But this is in fact a ski jump:

Falun_lugnet_skijump_1

Again, this is not my photo.  But yes it looks like that.

Even the hotel has a ski-jumpy shape built into its design.

Scandic-Lugnet-Exterior-Facade-Exterior001

I will not be ski jumping this morning, but walking with the boy and meditating.   One thing this trip will have done for us is to reassess our sense of North.  We might just have flown further north than this on our way to Canada, but we’ve never trod on ground this far north.  Neither have most Canadians.  And although this is “Northern Sweden” from the point of view of where most Swedes live, it’s still only about half way up a rather large country.

And I remember Alexander Pope’s lines from Essay on Man

Ask where’s the North? at York, ’tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland, at the Orcades; and there,
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where:
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he!
Ev’n those who dwell beneath its very zone,
Or never feel the rage, or never own;
What happier natures shrink at with affright,
The hard inhabitant contends is right.

 

Pope is using “North” as a metaphor for vice, a way of saying that relativism ensures that everybody flatters their own vices by means of comparison.   I should say that I’m not getting any sense of accelerating vice, only a sense that “North” has just been pushed a bit further “North”.  As my limited and parochial experience gradually advances – so “North” retreats just a bit.

.

A Strange Land Where I Don’t Have A Funny Name.

gothenburg

I just happen to occupy the extreme left hand side of a version of my family tree based on a patrilineal system of surnames.  This arbitrary phenomenon doesn’t qualify me for anything of course (although apparently there are a handful of bizarre countries left where a version of this phenomenon might qualify me to be head of state).  But it means that I’ve been carrying a Swedish surname despite the fact that my remote patrilineal ancestors left Sweden in the eighteenth-century.

Of course, what with my being a human and all, I have an ancestral connection to any number of countries across the world.  But I wondered, as the plane started to circle and descend, if some version of the hereditary principle would actually kick in, if I would start to feel I “belonged” here in any primal sense.

If (so far) I feel that I “know” Sweden, then it’s because the place seems to be full of versions of positive stereotypes with which we’re all familiar.  There really do seem to be lakes and forests and umlauts for as far the eye can see.    I like lakes and forests and umlauts.  I always knew there’d be lakes and forests and umlauts, so there’s a pleasant confirmation of the Sweden that long existed in my mind’s eye.  In the hotel room, the boy gets to sleep in a bunkbed which folds out from a drawer in the wall.  Some assembly required.  Another stereotype, cheerfully acknowledged.

And then there’s the fact that the people are so friendly.  You smile at them and they smile back.  When we told the hotel receptionist that we were traveling up to Borlänge tomorrow (i.e. today) she was a bit taken aback.  She looked like we should be expecting direwolves and white walkers.  This was innate compassion at work I think.  But then she was practical and smily again.  But I don’t think it’s my surname that is getting me any special treatment.  The help and courtesy I’ve received  merely reflects a prevalent Swedish view of how humans should treat other humans.

There are nearly ten million people in Sweden, which makes it a statistical certainty that some of them are horrible.  But we’ve yet to meet those.  As we take our train trip north today, we will meet more Swedes and experience more help and courtesy.

And the best thing is, in future years, my supposed bond with Sweden will longer depend on an absurdly thin genetic inheritance and will depend entirely upon the fact that I (at least) once actually went there.

All Along the Telegraph. A Bob Dylan Tribute Volume from the 1980s

dylaN

While visiting my mother’s house, I found a copy of this, which I must have purchased as a teenager.  Co-edited by established music writer Michael Gray and dedicated Dylan obsessive John Bauldie, this is a deliciously eclectic collection of minutiae and serious scholarship.  It sports misheard lyrics, off the cuff quotes, sleeve notes together with Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Ricks.

John Bauldie, I’ve since discovered, was a fascinating character who ran his Dylan Fanzine, The Telegraph, out of his house in Romford, persistently claiming that Bob Dylan read it himself on a regular basis.  Bauldie died young, following the crash of an ill advised and ill piloted visit to his other great obsession in life – Bolton Wanderers.

The book gives a fair sense of the flavour of The Telegraph, and when I am old friendless, I will devote myself perhaps to collecting every issue of this, or some such other magazine.  The book collects comments on Dylan by the likes of John Berryman and Philip Larkin, investigates the controversy over his ill-timed Live Aid comments, as well as describing the experience of filming Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

The book sports a preface by England fast bowler Bob Willis, which perhaps the supreme editorial coup of the project.  Bob Willis, of course, added Dylan as a middle name by deed poll back in the mid sixties.  And of course, Bob Dylan Willis repeats his assertion that seeing Dylan perform live and close up was more exciting than taking all those Australian wickets at Headingly back in  1981.

Above all, finding this dusty book from my teenage years restored – not my sense of the sublime and the ridiculous – that has never been more acute than it is right now – but rather the memory of a time when I didn’t know the difference (and neither I suspect did John Bauldie.  When I was a teenage Dylan fan, there was no such thing as Dylan trivia, because nothing was trivial.   Perhaps that’s the key to teenage existence – a kind of high seriousness thinly disguised as cynicism and a hypersensitive determination to regard everything as desperately important every minute of the day.

That’s an exhausting mode of being, and I’m well out of it, but decades after the event, I’m allowed to miss it a bit.

 

Ambient Olympics

olympic golf

I’ve discovered or perhaps belatedly recognised something rather odd about myself.  If I see five interlocking rings in the corner of a television screen, I will watch golf.

Every four years, we give up the idea of televisual choice.  The Olympics are on, so we watch the Olympics, or at least have them on in the background.  We expose ourselves to sports which could never conceivably engage us in any other circumstances.  Shooting.  Field Hockey.  It’s not a non stop thrill ride, but it’s a sort of education and when it’s not an education it’s a sort of ritualised background noise.

I will miss the Olympics when they’re gone, even though I will make not the slightest effort to keep up with the sports which have surprisingly engaged me.  Of course, new sports will be introduced for Tokyo 2020 – sports which will probably be chosen for their speed and violence.  I predict Jousting, Rollerball and Murmillo versus Retarius.  But who is to say what constitutes excitement?  If you’re a Viennese aristocrat, then Dressage is a supersonic cyberpunk adrenaline rush.

I will miss the Olympics because the end of the Olympics forces me to make my own choices again, to detach myself from the global consensus that the Olympics are on and I should watch them, and retreat into the tiny world of customised reality.    I will watch what I want to watch rather than what I feel I ought to watch.

Social media help the Olympics no end.  Those occasions where everyone is watching the same thing are comparatively rare but are invaluable from the point of view of creating memes and (on a very good day)  jokes.  Olympics are of course, corrupt, expensive, ruinous – maybe even impoverishing – but they do make the world a slightly smaller place.

Or do we become bigger?

The Green Green Grass of Home. (When exactly?)

Tom+Jones+Green+Green+Grass+Of+Home+521755

When are you finally home, after a long trip?

Is it when you first glimpse a familiar landmark from a plane window?

Is it when the wheels of the plane touch tarmac?

Is it when the door of the plane opens and you start breathing air that hasn’t been carried with you from thousands of miles away?

Is it when you sniff real air, rather than just airport air?

Is it when you spot the first actual human that you know walking the streets of the town where you live?

Is it when you open your own front door?

Is it when the last of your bags is inside?

Is it when you go through your accumulated mail and relax discovering that none of it contains a court summons?

Is it when your digestive system starts to adapt to the time zone you actually live in?

Is it when you start going to bed and getting up in the morning at roughly the same time as the people who live either side of you?

Or is it when the airline finally locates the bag they lost which contains your most precious and expensive purchases and gets their act together enough to send it back to you?

I’m not home yet.

Citizenship Envy

flags

When I look at all those people waving flags and cheering, no matter which people and which flags, I can’t help but feel a bit of envy for all those people who are citizens of somewhere, who can unambiguously get behind what they know to be “their” team.

As someone for whom “citizenship” is aspirational rather than assumed, you experience an aching fascination and curiosity for the meaning of the term.

This does not mean that I don’t have any relationship with any of the flags on display.  I have an incomplete relationship with several of them and indeed the truncated quality of these relationships confers a kind of self-conscious urgency upon them.  Even the flag of a nation that won’t last much longer, and doesn’t deserve to, stirs a strange sense of commitment in me.  Just because I don’t have political rights, doesn’t mean I don’t have political commitments.  In the same way that those people who are in a troubled relationship think long and hard about that relationship.

I’m working hard on the whole citizenship thing.  Feeling stateless is achingly interesting and I’m intellectually obligated to exploit the oddities of my position, even if this position is the result of a fairly reprehensibly irresponsible back story.  I have no right to whinge.  I made certain choices.  But as a semi-permanent foreigner, I probably think (achingly) more about citizenship and nationalism than I ever would if I enjoyed (or assumed) full voting citizenship rights of anywhere at all.

But this ache still needs to be treated.  I have a responsibility to stop being a foreigner and exercise a different kind of civic skills set.   And again and again I return to Edmund Burke on “tolerance”, the sublime notion that you have a bond with people who are passionately different from you not because of some bland over-arching communalities but because the very passion of their difference echoes the passion of your difference.  The more you love your flag, the more you should be able to understand how others love theirs.

This hasn’t always worked in practice but it’s clearly the way to go.

Reign of Terror: No Time Meddling Please

conradbrunstrom

drwho

Interesting to watch a very classic historical episode.in which no messing with history is permitted, or even, perhaps, possible. When the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan visit France in the high summer of 1794, they have one objective and one objective only – to get back to the Tardis without being decapitated.

Reign of Terror (1964) remains very watchable , despite missing a couple of episodes which are replaced by animations. The set design, costumes, script, music and acting are all up to snuff, demonstrating that the essentially theatrical frame of reference that prevailed at the BBC during the 60s and 70s could have very satisfying results.

The limited nature of the stakes involved is interesting from a later perspective.  Not only does The Doctor feel that it would be wrong to influence the course of the French Revolution and its aftermath (getting a little ahead of itself, the drama shows…

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