Thursday, 22 December 2011

A year's reading - on the road and off it

One of the great things about travelling is that, deprived of the meretricious attractions of the internet, I get to catch up with my reading. It can be slightly random, depending on what I manage to find in second-hand bookshops - India gave me the chance to read children's versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Henry James, Eric Clapton's autobiography, and JG Farrell's marvellous Siege of Krishnapur.

I can heartily recommend reading children's versions of myths as a first stop in a new culture. If I'd started off reading Valmiki, I suspect I would have got bogged down - children's books on the other hand give you the broad outlines of the story. Easy reading, too, for Indian trains, in those couple of hours between sunset and being ready for sleep, when you want satisfyingly big print for the dim lighting, and simple narrative for ease of brain.

Henry James. Wonderful. Long meandering sinuous sentences. Perceptions, misconceptions, cross-purposes. The tragedy of life lived as a misunderstanding. I read my copy of his various stories three or four times, finding something new each time; a word that had seemed innocuous on first reading would sparkle away balefully on second reading, with maleficent or sardonic purpose.

JG Farrell. What a find! The Siege of Krishnapur is a compulsive novel, richly comic despite its bleak subject - there's a lovely scene in which the young raja wants the Englishman Fleury to admire his scientific outlook, while Fleury is more struck by the 'oriental' weirdness that he can't quite explain... Throughout the whole novel, the political and sociological ideas of the Collector and his bete noire the Magistrate are discussed, and yet neither is able to cope with the scale of the historical events actually occurring. And the one thing that he gets absolutely right about India is the huge boredom of the plains landscape - the dusty, muddy, nothingness of the great flat land.

The Siege of Krishnapur is similar to The French Lieutenant's Woman in its range of references - Victorian culture, political philosophy, history. But it seems so very much more readable. And Fowles never had that wicked sense of humour.

From my perusal of Indian secondhand bookshops in tourist destinations, I note that many travellers read travel books about the destination while they're there. I'm not sure that's always worthwhile. Do I want to see Dalrymple's Delhi, Mark Tullow's Great Trunk Road? (It intrigues me that no one ever writes about Kochi or Bangalore - perhaps not picturesque enough, and yet Kochi is such a marvellous city. Never mind the tourist bits, Ernakulam is the most amazing mix of Gulf-Arab, American, Indian, and Christian culture. Where else can you eat shish tawuk and shawarma and then go to a Carnatic music gig with electric guitar and German jazzers, and end the day with whisky chasers?)

I found Chetan Bhagat more interesting than any of the more touted Indian writers. He helped me understand the world of the thirty-something Indian professional, and and the regional differences between north and south. And it was a laugh reading his books. Some days, you can't ask for more.

Meanwhile 'back at the ranch' I re-read Spenser's Faerie Queene and Dante's Divina commedia. Spenser intrigues me, not so much for the allegory nor for the political aspects of his work, but for what I find almost a prefiguring of space opera - a feeling of the universe as dynamic, oozing and seeping and pathless. It comes through very strongly when he talks about the sea, and in the dream-landscapes he creates; and there's a brutality in his tales of hostages and robbery that seems gritty, at odds with the pseudo-chivalric allegorical superstructure. It's very different from what I saw in it when I first read it twenty years ago.

Dante surprised me with his verbal invention and his ripe vein of scatology and swearing. My Italian is good enough to know when the parallel translation takes refuge in euphemism. Dante's Inferno is a marvellous verbal invention - he coins the language afresh as he goes, both in curses and in imagery. And he gives the spirits real life; Ulysses may be cast into darkness, yet his lines about the need to pursue knowledge -

Fatti non fosti a viver come bruti

Ma per seguire virtute e conoscenza -

have the ring of a real truth about them. I think also what I love about Dante is the sheer size of his ambition; his subject is the whole of history, the whole of literature, the whole world on its axis, the creation of an entire mythos and a whole new language.

I also had a mammoth Terry Pratchett slugfest as a result of acting in Wyrd Sisters. I didn't quite manage to finish every one, but I got pretty close. Thank the great A'tuin, Mr Pratchett's infirmities haven't stopped him producing a new work this year, which I really ought to get my hands on. Some of my friends are a bit sniffy about Pratchett, but his best novels are capable of being read on several levels - as a journalist I particularly loved The Truth, full of good in-jokes but also asking questions about what exactly the media is there for. The only thing missing is a phone tapping inquiry...

This year, I'm reading Gibbon and Proust - two very big tomes indeed. I can already tell you that Proust is often extremely funny - like Waiting for Godot - something you're rarely told. Tante Leonie with her self-importance and hypochondria is a comic masterpiece; her maid Françoise cursing at the chicken she's trying to kill would make horribly true stand-up. And since we live an hour or so's drive from Illiers-Combray, I'm going to treat myself to a trip to Combray and Guermantes (Villebon) when I finish the whole seven volumes.

As for travel writers: I've read very little this year, preferring to do the travelling rather than read about it. But I enjoyed Graham Coster's A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, a book about long distance trucks and truckers; not a classic, but a gently quirky and satisfying story. And I also read William Dalrymple's Nine Lives; a work in which he has the tact to remain in the background, letting each of the religious figures in the book tell their own tales of India and their faith. Strangely haunting.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The missing gene

Somehow I just can't get to love Paris.

I can love individual things about Paris. The beehives in the Jardin du Luxembourg, for instance. (Les ruches; they sound so much more interesting in French - you can almost hear the bees' wings rustling.) The little streets around Saint Gervais Saint Protais where medieval Paris seems so close. The Hotel de Cluny with its turrets and coats of arms; the luminous elegance of the Sainte Chapelle; the creamy stone and plane trees of the Ile Saint Louis glowing on an autumn afternoon.

But there are just so many things I don't get about Paris. And as a city, it feels very oppressive to me; it resists intimacy. Compare St James's Park with the Tuileries. In St James's, you have only to click your tongue and squirrels will flock to you, sitting expectantly, their tails shivering gently, their bright button eyes looking for food. There are the ludicruous pelicans, fat and oafish out of the water, piss-elegant galleons when they're in it.  From nowhere in the park can you see the whole of it; there are hidden islands, drifts of daffodils that appear and disappear as you walk past, tiny tracks you can take that don't go where you expect.

In the Tuileries, there are some stunted pollards, and a few lawns, a pond with two lonely drunken nymphs balancing for three centuries already on one foot, without ever quite falling over, and there's expanse upon expense of firm, gravelly dirt. It's like a big petanque court with sculptures and a water feature. No squirrels, no pelicans; a single crow sat motionless in a tree, so black he looked more like a gap where the universe had ceased to exist, a piece of dark matter.

There are the great boulevards of Baron Haussmann, with their tall cliffs of apartments. Consider the porte cochère, the double-height, narrow gateway leading to the yards of these great slabs of building, for the coaches to get through. We don't have them in London; instead, we have the charming institution of the mews, the small cottage and stable streets behind the great houses, a sort of parallel London.

And there's Louis XIV, a man who, it seems to me, had a sort of inverse Midas touch for art; he took great art and made it interior decor. Paris is full of buildings like the Louvre, which is big, but not very interesting. The Champs Elysées, the Place de la Concorde, are equally, big without really being impressive - so big that your eye gets lost, so big that the lampstands and statues seem stranded in space, as if the flooding Seine had washed them up and then retreated, leaving them stuck there.

The Madeleine really sums up what I don't get about Paris. The outside is fine, Greek-temple style, nicely posed so that the Madeleine and the Chambre des Députés on the other side of the Seine balance each other along a great axis. But inside, three shallow, saucer-like domes admit light through dim grey glass skylights, floating incompetently above the classical grid of the side walls. It's got no life at all; it's as if someone had got three square chapels and pushed them together. Even the statuary seems flaccid.

Even the front door makes you unwelcome; bronze panels of the ten Commandments, each one starting NON... NON.... NON.... the word tolling like a bell. Don't do this, don't do that - don't come in here, you are a sinner. (I seem to remember Jesus stating just two commandments, which were positive commandments, about love - but then sometimes I wonder when the Church is going to catch up with Jesus.) And it's interesting that these Biblically validated prohibitions were followed by the twentieth century version; NO mobile phones, NO food, NO shorts. In vain did I look anywhere for the word 'bienvenu'...

(If you want a welcome, go to the other end of the church, where the way opens into the basement. You can eat there for about eight euros, and make a donation too - the Madeleine does follow Jesus in one very practical way, feeding the hungry. Loaves and fishes are things the French know a great deal about, after all.)

I keep reading about Paris the City of Light, the romantic city, the city of love. But Paris as I experience it is Paris the City of Blag, the City of Empire, the City of Bling. It's a city where humanity has always come second to PR, and intimacy has been ditched in favour of the Big Statement. It's the city where the Sun King threw cats into the bonfire for Midsummer's Day, where Haussmann bulldozed his way through, where the Empire thrived on borrowed money and snobbery. It's a city that makes me very uncomfortable indeed.


Monday, 5 December 2011


Some things you remember from childhood so clearly. Others fade with time. Some things stay with you for ever, but you can't remember their names. I remember a gorgeous illustrated book about a family living in a lighthouse on the north-east coast of America, full of icy blue sea and wild cranberries; I've completely forgotten the title, but that for me is what Maine should be (if I ever go there, will it be different?)

I-Spy books though remain a readily identifiable part of my childhood. I'm slightly perturbed that they've been relaunched - I rather liked the venerable distance that I'd established.

What was the attraction of the I-Spy books? I don't think I ever actually completed one or sent one off to Big Chief I-Spy for my Indian feather. But the books did something no other books did; they made you read the book and then go back and look at the world differently. (I know, that's supposed to be what great art does. I-Spy isn't great art; but it still showed me that a book is something that isn't escapism, that doesn't just get read and then put back on a shelf - that a book is a way of looking at the world. Evehalf-decent book is a pair of binoculars.)

And like another favourite format of mine, the Shire paperbacks, the I-Spy book was just big enough, and not too big. There was just enough in it to set you off, and enough for it to seem complete - but it wasn't daunting to a youngster.

Then there was also the enjoyable fiction of the secret codes, the secret words, OD HUNATINGO, the wig-wam, the badges. All my love I've rather loved in-jokes, romans à clef; when I was at Cambridge I made an eighteenth-century pastiche notice for my door stating that 'the honble Scholler is not now receiving' (in retrospect that feels rather childish, if well executed). A meretricious pleasure, I suppose, given that way we so often use shibboleths to exclude (by class, by race, by politics)...  but it got into my blood early on.

And I-Spy explained some marvellous secrets. It actually told you what the track signs on British railways meant; something that continues to fascinate me to this day (almost as much as the 'ghost stations' of the London Underground).

I suppose the Red Indian concept wouldn't work any more. I don't remember an I-Spy book of Native Americans... But there was an English fascination with the American native; I read all of Grey Owl's books as a child, too, never realising that Grey Owl of the Canadian wilderness was actually an Englishman. (Though not a fake; he married an Ojibway woman and lived with the Ojibway people, and his concern for the environment was real, too.)

So no wonder I remember the I-Spy books. Well, even if there's no Big Chief I-Spy, and even if writing away to Hawkeye has now been replaced by getting a downloadable certificate, I'm glad they're being given to another generation of children. But I think I may not want to see the new books myself. Let's keep my memories undisturbed.

The charm of the pavilion

Some of my favourite buildings in England are tollhouses, gatehouses to country estates, pavilions. They have a certain charm that you rarely find in larger buildings - the same miniature charm that you find, for example, in the tiny hedgehog-prickly chapel of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa,  or the chantry chapels in Winchester cathedral, or the wonderful reliquary of Saint Taurin in Evreux, a Gothic cathedral magically shrunk and ripened into gold.

By an accident of preservation, sometimes the gatehouses are all that remain of once great houses. At Layer Marney, in Essex, the tall, parapet-decked gatehouse is practically all that remains of the Marneys' plans for a country palace, together with a single range of the projected great courtyard.

I think what I love with these buildings is that despite their small size (though at eighty feet tall, Layer Marney can't really be described as small) the full resources of monumental architecture are used on them. In fact the architectural content outweighs their size; they are disproportionately stylish, sometimes indeed they are all style and nothing but style. At one end of the spectrum it becomes quite difficult to separate the ornate gatehouse from the pure folly - a building like the Rushton Lodge that is, in effect, more symbol than building.

So you have, for instance, gate cottages which boast pediments - an assertion not just of Classical values but also of a certain importance. This is no gatehouse but a temple, a Parthenon, a monument. And it's no coincidence that so many of these tiny buildings are severely geometrical - square, circular, triangular, octagonal. Their small size makes the geometry possible (no upper storey requiring a staircase to be accommodated, and only one room deep), and it makes it noticeable.

And then, one of my other great loves in architecture is the centralised building - the great polygon of Aachen's palatine chapel, the huge dome of Haghia Sophia (a cunning blend of basilican and centralised plan), the rotating arcades of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. These gatehouses and tollhouses replicate that, but in miniature - often quite knowingly contrasting the pretension of their form with the modesty of their proportions.

I thought when I started writing this that such things were of the past. Nowadays, I thought, we're too functional, too practical, too penny-pinching. And then I thought of some of the marvellous toll booths I've seen on French motorways (in among some tediously pedestrian ones); the oversailing twisted leaf canopy on the péage before the Millau bridge, for instance.