Friday, 20 September 2013

The Life, the Heart, the Elephant

In his 1967 novel, Towards the End of the Morning, Michael Frayn describes the house-hunting strategy (hopelessly optimistic, as it turns out) of John and Jannie Dyson:

They decided to find a cheap Georgian or Regency house in some down-at-heel district near the centre. However depressed the district, if it was Georgian or Regency and reasonably central, it would soon be colonized by the middles classes. In this way they would secure an attractive and potentially fashionable house in the heart of London, at a price they could afford; be given credit by their friends for going to live among the working classes; acquire very shortly congenial middle-class neighbours of a similarly adventurous and intellectual outlook; and see their investment undergo a satisfactory and reassuring rise in value in the process

In the end they settle for a Victorian house in an unfashionable district, which remains, to their disappointment, stubbornly ungentrified. 

Kingsley Amis takes a sharper crack at the self-congratulatory attitudes of the Dyson class in his 1971 novel, Girl, 20, when his narrator, Douglas Yandell, visits Islington:

I had been rather expecting to find the streets deserted, the buildings uninhabited, having been quite recently told by a left-wing bassoonist friend and his left-wing harpist wife that they were among the first people to have moved into the area. 

It was in Islington that my parents began their married life and had their first five children (I came along later). But they left in the 50s before it was smartened up. Forty years on, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made their alleged pact in an Islington restaurant to take turns at being Prime Minister, Islington was already well established as a yuppie enclave. The descendants of Amis’s left-wing musicians had shifted their attention to Notting Hill and the East End.

Among ‘down-at-heel districts’ near the heart of London, our own neighbourhood, the Elephant and Castle, has been relatively neglected by the colonizing middle classes. In contrast with Islington, where old buildings cluster around a village green, the heart of our neighbourhood is a frenetic figure-of-eight road junction, and a shopping centre whose main floor, both inside and out, is at a subterranean level to allow convenient access through concrete underpasses. This probably looked stylish in an architecture’s drawing in 1960. Now its Bladerunner grimness is redeemed only by the people who inhabit it – market traders, shoppers, commuters, mothers with pushchairs, old people sitting on the bench outside the hardware shop as though this really was a village green – as cheerfully diverse a crowd as you could hope to meet anywhere on the planet.

In the immediate vicinity, the kind of terraced housing the Dysons were looking at is in short supply. This was always an ill-favoured area. In Shakespeare’s day, the suburbs south of the river had more than their share of prisons, brothels and slums, and were a natural home for the disreputable theatre business, beyond the puritanical jurisdiction of the City of London.  In George Gissing’s 1894 novel, In the Year of the Jubilee, Nancy Lord is overwhelmed by the place. ‘It was a district unfamiliar to her, and repulsive. By the Elephant and Castle she stood watching the tumultuous traffic which whirls and roars at this confluence of six highways.’

After the war, an extensive area of Victorian back-to-back housing, of the kind that now – damp-proofed and fixed up with indoor plumbing – would change hands for upward of half a million, was marked for slum clearance. The houses were demolished in the 60s to make way for the massive council blocks of the Heygate estate. The nearby Pullens estate, an area of tenement flats named after their enterprising Victorian builder, narrowly escaped demolition in the 70s and is now a local landmark, with its cobbled yards leading to purpose-built workshops that are still rented by the council to jewellery makers, potters, photographers, architects, web-designers and other creative types.

With terraced housing now out of the reach of most first-time London buyers – even reasonably affluent professionals – the new trend is for apartment-living. Recent private developments, each with its allocation of social and affordable housing, have filled industrial spaces on either side of the railway line that runs southward from Elephant and Castle station. Not far away, our own new building stands on the site of the Victorian workhouse that was, some believe, Charlie Chaplin’s childhood home.

Such developments offer rich pickings, for the developers themselves and for global investors seeking trouble-free rentable units. The 22 acres of the Heygate estate, whose unfashionably Corbusian buildings have been allowed to fall into neglect, has proved irresistibly attractive. And in the current political climate, which favours economic brutalism over the architectural kind, requirements for affordable homes are being squeezed. After a war of attrition between Southwark Council and the remaining lease-holders, the whole estate is ready for demolition. Like Islington before it, the Elephant and Castle seems destined to go up in the world.

And as in Islington, there will be winners and losers. The winners in Islington included existing home-owners who lived through a boom in house prices, those who had the good luck to move in early, and the estate agents who rode the wave. Losers included the renting class, people living in bedsits and boarding houses who had to make other arrangements when their private landlords sold to owner-occupiers. The story at the Elephant is more stark: a community of 3,000 people broken up, council tenants dispersed to outlying areas, lease-holders bought out, some with compulsory purchase orders, at prices equivalent to a one-third down-payment on a new apartment on the same site.

Southwark council looks like a loser too, having spent almost as much money emptying the flats as it got for the land. Truth also loses out. Along the way, Heygate acquired an undeserved reputation for crime, partly because, in its neglected condition, it became a popular location for TV series, including Luther and Top Boy, and for films such as Harry Brown. After filming there, Michael Caine called for its demolition, describing it as a place where children ‘grew into animals’. The crime figures for the estate, which were, in fact, relatively low, suggest that he was mistaking fiction for reality.

Winners include the developers, a global corporation based in Australia, who have no investment in the social fabric of the neighbourhood, only in its property values. The change to Islington was made up of thousands of private decisions. Here the whole thing is being managed on a monolithic scale and proclaimed on hoardings and banners like a new gospel.

Change is here.
Transformation starts now.
Be a part of it.
The Life. The Heart. The Elephant

Kingsley Amis generally reserved his scorn for left-wing pieties, but I like to think these exhortations from the Church of Capitalism would have provoked him to comic paroxysms of rage. 

So where do we stand, Leni and I? Are we, like the Dysons, roughing it in the hope of future profit? Hardly. Our motive for living here is probably typical of most home buyers: we found the best compromise we could between location and living space, and settled for what we could afford. And what are our hopes for the neighbourhood? Mainly this: that the developers don’t go bankrupt before they’ve finished the job and that, for as long as there’s profit in it, they take good care of the goose that’s laying their golden egg. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Syria – special case or old compulsion?

One of the challenges for the recovering alcoholic, I assume, is to resist the special circumstance, the one-off occasion. It’s my daughter’s wedding, my best friend died, my wife just gave birth. Surely one drink will be okay. I’m entitled to that at least. In fact, it would unconscionable not to toast her future happiness, not to see the old boy off, not to wet the baby’s head. It won’t be like last time, I promise. No more benders. This time I’ll know when to stop.

I think of this whenever I see America gearing up for another war. Just one little drink. One little surgically targeted strike. It won’t be like Iraq – which wasn’t going to be like Vietnam. This time it’s different.

And it is different. For one thing, the internal political scene in America has changed radically since the invasion of Iraq. Then there was Bush and his cabal of hawks, for whom the non-Islamist world was divided into the willing and the weasels. Now there’s Obama with his professorial tendency to mull things over and seek consensus. Bush had the Democrats backed into a corner and, in Blair, had a sidekick with the messianic self-belief and the political authority to drag Britain unwillingly into war. Obama won’t be helped by our own faltering coalition government and faces such visceral opposition from many in the Republican party that their desire to humiliate him might yet trump every other consideration.

And the external prompt is different. Saddam Hussein was a horrible tyrant, but his infamous attack on the Kurds with poison gas was already old news, and one could legitimately ask, why the sudden urgency? Assad’s chemical weapons attack is part of an unfolding humanitarian disaster. Bush’s audacious ambition for Iraq was to overthrow the regime and build a democracy in its place. Obama promises a highly curtailed aerial action – no boots, as they say, on the ground, and no decisive interference in the civil war.

Different and yet strangely the same. First in the tendency for reasons to proliferate: we must punish Assad, we must send a message to Iran, we must prevent chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists….

Secondly, in the way these multiplying reasons circle round to create a new meta-reason: America can’t be seen to back down. Which is another way of saying that once the President has officially raised the question of whether to attack, the only possible answer is yes. In America they don’t call this saving face – the sort of private concern that afflicts elderly Chinese leaders – but maintaining US credibility, a phrase which elevates pride to a level of strategic importance.

Thirdly, in that very claim of difference: this time it’s special – but isn’t it always? And one effect of that emphasis on the uniqueness of this case is to keep everyone myopically focused, once again, on the ad hoc question – to go in or not to go in – and to distract from any analysis of principles: on what grounds may one country legitimately launch a one-sided attack on another, and is the USA alone entitled to take such unilateral action? And I know it’s a long time ago now but should America have been punished for napalm and agent orange, and in what form, and by whom, and would that have helped?  

And what about approaching the question from the other end? American leaders are concerned about tyranny and human suffering. They have these billions to spend. So how might they spend them most effectively – in offering additional help to refugees, for example, or in boosting global programmes of education and healthcare? Or to a man with a cruise missile must everything look like a target?

What’s happening in Syria is horrific. The handwashing of the isolationist right, in America or Britain, is not attractive. Liberal handwringing isn’t much to look at either. But it isn’t really about how we look or how we feel. It isn’t really about us at all. A century of meddling in the Middle East might encourage us to take the long view and hold back from one more violent intervention. Because a desire to fix something doesn’t equate to a power to fix it.

As the American commentator Chris Hayes has put it, the enthusiasts for war present us with a syllogism: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done. The logic is not very convincing.  

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Singing in Lithuanian? It's all Greek to me

My eye was caught recently by a headline in the Daily Mail: UK pupils of 8 forced to sing in Lithuanian [Thursday 11 July 2013]. Apparently parents have petitioned the Cambridgeshire primary school after their children came home in tears ‘because they were being forced to learn songs in Lithuanian and Polish.’ Naturally I thought of my own primary school days when I was forced to sing in Latin. I was forced to do a lot of other things too – run around a muddy field shivering in rugby shorts, learn large chunks of the catechism, eat liver and onions. When it came to classes, I was so mentally absent that most of what we studied might as well have been in Lithuanian.

In education, as in most things, I have liberal inclinations. I wouldn’t go as far as Summerhill School in Suffolk, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neil, where children are free to attend classes or not as they choose and where, in the words of their website, ‘you can play all day if you want to’.  For eight-year-olds some element of compulsion might be necessary, though I tend to be in favour, where possible, of inducing children to learn by making it interesting, rather than forcing them, whatever form that forcing may take. This may sound idealistic, but it’s an ideal based on experience, first as a disaffected pupil, irrationally resistant to fear-based forms of compulsion, and later as a teacher.

The Daily Mail takes a surprisingly progressive line on this Lithuanian singing question, seeming to support the rights of eight-year-olds to opt out of uncongenial school activities. The word ‘force’ seems somewhat strident, hysterical even, in this context. Had I refused to sing in Latin at the age of eight, play rugby, or eat liver and onions, I might have incurred the ultimate sanction of corporal punishment, which is now happily against the law.  

Over the centuries, children have been forced to sing in languages not their own, under threat of even greater penalties. No doubt some of my own Irish ancestors were forced to sing in English. I don’t know how education was conducted in Eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century, but I suppose it’s possible that my wife’s grandparents were forced to sing in Lithuanian and Polish (paternal and maternal respectively) rather than in the Yiddish of their homes. In this context, the Cambridgeshire children haven't much to complain about.

On the question of compulsion and how children are to be encouraged to tackle difficult tasks, the Mail story has nothing to say. Neither does it shed any light on the question of what, exactly, our children should be learning, though this is a question of topical concern in the light of Michael Gove’s radical shake-up of the National Curriculum. Since the British government decided to involve itself in setting the curriculum twenty-five years ago, modern languages have been argued over – from what age, to what level, by what means, and for what purpose should they be taught?

When I was a teacher in Wales, for a while there was debate over which language should be offered in addition to French, Spanish and Russian. Should it be German, the language of Goethe and our largest European competitor, or Welsh, the ancestral language of a sizeable proportion of our students? Ancient Greek was constantly under threat, mainly from the encroachments on the timetable of newer forms of learning, such as Information Technology. When I taught in California, French seemed to have higher status in the school than Spanish, though Spanish was clearly the more useful locally and internationally.  In such choices, utility confronts culture, and the meaning of culture itself is disputed.

Should we be learning the language of our ancestors, of our neighbours, of our trading partners, of our enemies, of our nannies and construction workers, or the ones with the best books? And if learning languages is principally about mental development, does the choice matter that much anyway?

The Mail isn’t really interested in any of these questions. As usual, it has smellier fish to fry. This is, of course, a story about immigration. As the article reports, ‘The area has a large population of East Europeans and a third of the school’s pupils are from migrant families’. As a comment on education it exhibits the same kind of thoughtless ignorance that David Cameron revealed when he casually sneered at Indian dance as a form of physical exercise.

In the end it’s just another jab at ‘political correctness’. That tired old phrase isn’t used in the report, but you never have to look far in the Mail to find it. It’s there on the same page, in fact, in a story about a ‘bonny baby contest’ in the Wiltshire town of Devizes that has been cancelled by the carnival organisers as ‘unfair to the children deemed less than bonny’. Political correctness gone mad!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Why T.S. Eliot didn't write poems about buses

‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.’ Margaret Thatcher was quoted in a parliamentary debate as having said this, but she probably never did. It’s an old line, more convincingly attributed to Loelia Ponsonby, who married the second Duke of Westminster in 1930 with Winston Churchill as best man, who may have borrowed it from the Old Etonian poet Brian Howard, pal of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Toffs, all of them, who didn’t travel on buses much and so missed out on one of life’s great pleasures. Margaret Thatcher had many faults, but that kind of snobbery wasn’t one of them.

For getting about in London the tube is attractive because of its speed, because of the clarity of the diagrammatic map (for which we have to thank Harry Beck, the London Underground employee who designed it in 1931) and because you never have to wait for a train in a downpour. The bus, in contrast, is an acquired taste. The open platforms that until recent years let passengers jump on and off wherever they liked, dodging through traffic to and from the pavement if they were brave enough, have largely disappeared. Now we have what some call prison buses, because you’re trapped between stops even if the bus is stuck in gridlock. But catching buses remains an active sport and, at times, a health-and-safety nightmare. As for the route maps, they look like nasty accidents with spaghetti.

On the other hand, buses are half the price and reach those less favoured regions that are off the underground network. And the internet has made it easy to research the routes. Once you’ve found one going your way, the bus has two huge advantages over the tube. The stop is where it says it is – no traipsing through subterranean passages – and you can enjoy the view. At their best, buses can be magic.

Coming back from Norfolk last week, we found a magic bus, with the help of a smartphone, that took us from right outside Liverpool Street Station to the end of our road. Among other interesting sights, we passed the church of St Mary Woolnoth, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early eighteenth century. I knew of it, but wasn’t aware of having seen it before, though I must have ridden under these streets hundreds of times on the Northern Line. As we turned along King William Street it wasn’t just the church that began ringing bells. I realised we were about to cross the Thames on London Bridge, and I remembered where I’d first come across this route, though in the other direction:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

By chance, I was travelling with a book by John Carey called The Intellectuals and the Masses, which had just put those lines from Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land in a fresh context for me. The argument of Carey’s book is that intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s were disdainful – and, deep down, terrified – of the encroaching 'masses', particularly the kind of ‘semi-educated’ clerical workers who had been taught to read and write but were incapable, it was assumed, of a true appreciation of literature or art, and were meanwhile destroying the English countryside with their demand for suburban housing. The crowd of dead people observed by Eliot would have been crossing the Thames from South London to work in the City.

‘Largely through Eliot’s influence,’ Carey writes, ‘the assumption that most people are dead became, by the 1930s, a standard item in the repertoire of any self-respecting intellectual.’ They were mainly toffs, of course – Eliot himself, a middle-class American who was reinventing himself as an English gent, Virginia Woolf, who envisaged ‘the Man in the street’ as ‘a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff’, and E.M. Forster, who, in Howard’s End, is sympathetic to the struggles of the clerk Leonard Bast to better himself by reading and trying to listen to Beethoven, but describes him, even so, as having a ‘cramped little mind’, says that he plays the piano ‘badly and vulgarly’, and has him finally crushed to death under a bookcase.

Not bus enthusiasts, most of those early twentieth century intellectuals, though an attentive reading of this passage from The Four Quartets suggests that Eliot may have lowered himself as far as the tube. He seems not to have enjoyed the experience:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight…
Nor darkness to purify the soul…
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained, time-ridden faces…
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time…

Friday, 24 May 2013

The profound shallowness of The Great Gatsby

I’m still not sure what to make of The Great Gatsby, though I must have read it half a dozen times over the years for different reasons. It’s hard not to be distracted by the noise. For such a delicate thing it seems to be burdened with an awful lot of cultural clutter. Is it, for example, the Great American Novel? I’m not sure what kind of beast that would be, but if the phrase suggests anything other than a great novel that happens to be written by an American, I suppose it must be some sort of national epic. 

It seems to me that to fit that definition a novel would need a wider social range. I get that there’s a distinction between Old Money and New Money in The Great Gatsby, but No Money doesn’t get much of a look-in. The narrator Nick Carraway isn’t in the Tom Buchanan class, with the spare cash to transport a stable full of polo ponies at a whim, but he’s able to support himself in New York while he learns the bond business: “Everybody I knew was in the bond business,” he explains. “All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep school for me.”

Nick is ironic at his own expense here, as he generally is about Tom and Daisy and the rest of moneyed class.  But that ironic tone is itself a mark of privilege, a style of slightly bored detachment that he shares effortlessly with other members of his narrow social set.

So if not the Great American Novel, is it at least a novel about the American Dream? Well it’s certainly about an American who has a dream. But it’s a peculiarly impractical dream that’s obsessively resistant to forward motion. Gatsby, in case you’ve forgotten, has made himself wealthy by unscrupulous means and bought himself a mansion, which he has thrown open to the whole of New York’s high society, all for the purpose of attracting Daisy, who once rejected him because he was poor. 

The only representative of that class of Americans who work hard in the pursuit of prosperity – or “happiness” as the Declaration of Independence has it – is the utterly hapless George Wilson, husband of Tom Buchanan’s mistress. Wilson struggles to run a garage, a business enterprise in which neither Fitzgerald, nor his narrator Nick Carraway, show any interest. Wilson and the other inhabitants of the “valley of ashes” that lies between Manhattan and New York’s Long Island suburbs are described as “ash-grey men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” They hardly register as people, let alone as individuals with their own dreams and aspirations.

The other candidate for American Dreamhood is Gatsby’s mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim. Wolfsheim is definitely a self-made man and, judging by his accent, an immigrant, which makes him a representative of the old world’s huddled masses, who have been drawn over the centuries to make a new life in America. But Wolfsheim is also a gangster who wears cufflinks made from human molars, a grotesque, shadowy figure who needs Gatsby – “an Oggsford man”—to put a semi-legitimate face on his crooked deals.  Fitzgerald is uncomfortably complicit in this and other stereotypes accepted by the privileged insiders.

Of course Fitzgerald can see that his rich characters are indifferent to the lives of the working people on whom they depend. How else could he construct a sentence as brilliantly pointed as this: “There was machine in [Gatsby’s] kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.”

But Fitzgerald is no more interested in the Butler than Gatsby is. Work is not his subject. He’s fascinated by wealth, not by the pursuit of wealth, and certainly not by its creation. Class in The Great Gatsby is a static condition and to rise socially seems to depend on a kind of fraud. I think this is why I find references to the novel’s American-ness so unhelpful.

I’m more conscious of its European connections and, behind that , its archetypal resonance. I think of Great Expectations. Gatsby is a cousin to Pip, with Wolfsheim as his Magwitch, the criminal who has made him a gentleman. Pip too harbours the delusion that his social rise will allow him to win the beautiful rich girl who rejected him in his impoverished youth.

In his obsession with the past, Gatsby is related more distantly to Dumas’ Edmond Dantès, who escapes from wrongful imprisonment, acquires fabulous wealth and returns as the Count of Monte Cristo to haunt the lives of those who have injured him, including the beautiful Mercédès, now married to his enemy.

Gatsby’s story is a variation on Wuthering Heights, another tale of an impoverished and low-born lover who is rejected in favour of an aristocratic rival, but returns a wealthy man to brood in his desolate house, across the moor from where his soul-mate endures a life of decorous boredom.

It’s also a version of Beauty and the Beast, with Gatsby’s house as the enchanted castle. And it’s the story of Tam Lin, who lures Janet to his magic forest and then instructs her how she can liberate him from his captivity by pulling him from his horse as he rides with the fairies on Halloween, holding him while he shifts through many fearful shapes, until finally he will appear in his own person as a naked knight.

My guess is that for most people who love The Great Gatsby what they love is Fitzgerald’s ability to capture such a sense of enchantment. And when they talk about his style they mean his ability to spin one outrageously sumptuous sentence after another and most times get away with it. He’s a poet of the fleeting beauty of youth, a master of the melancholy cadence, always more than half in love with the life of careless indulgence that is the object of his satire. He exposes all that’s frivolous about the flapper generation, but it’s when he’s describing their frivolity that he’s at his most characteristically seductive:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor. Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.

Nick Carraway says of Gatsby that “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him.” Out of such gestures as this sketch of Daisy’s youthful life, in all its fragility and yearning, is constructed the gorgeousness of Fitzgerald’s novel. 

Footnote: For a bright and elegantly written review of Baz Luhrmann’s film, see the website of friend and colleague Claire Dyer, who liked it much more than me. A fan of the book, Claire confesses to reading it through rose-tinted spectacles, but doesn’t say whether she wore red and blue ones to see the film.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Wandering the back streets of Budapest

Leni has a few days’ work in Budapest and I’m joining her because the hotel room is paid for and so why not? I’m glad to be in a city I don’t know and get a brief glimpse of an unfamiliar culture. 

But I’m an awkward tourist. I’m too conscious of the futility of gawping at the approved novelties. If there’s snobbery in this, it’s the kind E.M. Forster pokes fun at in Adele and Mrs Moore searching for “the real India”.

There’s another kind of snobbery, of which I’m not guilty, that expresses itself in a desire to preserve high art for those with sufficient knowledge and refinement to appreciate it (I once heard it suggested that tourist visas to Venice should be issued only to those who pass a test). I’m afraid I’d too often fall on the wrong side of that divide and am, in any case, suspicious of the class distinctions we’re sometimes encouraged to impose on culture. 

I'm inclined to think that one man’s schlock is another man’s objet d’art, and it’s all subject to commodification anyway in the kind of tourist route that leads you from ticket booth, to museum, to gift shop, to café serving typical local dishes and accepting euros.

As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to submit with better grace to the role of tourist. But I’m happiest when I have a project. For Leni, visiting the Jewish quarter is definitely a project. All four of her grandparents migrated from Eastern Europe. There's some interesting vagueness about where from exactly – they were Yiddish speaking Jews who had left the old country behind and the hardship of life in the ghetto or the shtetl – but they all came from somewhere in Lithunia, Poland or Hungary.

Leni is pleased to discover that in Budapest more evidence of that old world survives than in Warsaw or Vilnius, including the Great Synogogue, the largest in Europe. Bombed by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party shortly before WWII, and later by the Allies, it’s been extensively restored, partly with funding from Estée Lauder (born Josephine Esther Mentzer).

Its troubles aren’t over, however. In 2012 the Jobbik party burnt an Israeli flag outside, thereby crossing the line between demonstrating against the policies of a foreign government and intimidating a local minority. As a Hungarian friend succinctly explains: far right parties in Western Europe are anti-Muslim; in Eastern Europe they’re anti-Semitic (a deceptively symmetrical formulation that perhaps raises more questions than it answers).

Visiting the Great Synagogue is top of Leni’s to-do list, but so far we’ve failed to get inside. Our first attempt was on Sunday morning and the queue was round the block. We checked the guide book for opening times and decided to return on a weekday.

We were back first thing this morning but found it shut. A young security guard in a black baseball cap said it was closed for two days. We crossed the street and ordered some breakfast. Then I went back to speak to the guard again. You’re closed to tourists, I said, but what about worshippers? He gave me a challenging look and said, “What festival is this?” I certainly hadn’t mugged up for a quiz on the Jewish calendar. I’m not Jewish, I told him, but my wife is. “Six o’clock” he said. “You’re wife only. No bag, no camera.”

I’d considered using the word pilgrim. It would have been more accurate. Leni has no intention of worshipping a patriarchal and sectarian god, but is legitimately responding to an impulse to stand where her ancestors may once have stood. But I was afraid the word might sound too Christian for my purpose. I needn’t have worried. Wikipedia informs me that Shavuot, which falls this week (according to the kind of arcane calculation that determines such movable feasts), is one of three Jewish festivals of pilgrimage, when in ancient times Jews were expected to travel to the temple in Jerusalem. 

I also discover that it’s associated with the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the eating of cheese blintzes. If I’d taken the trouble to learn this in advance I might have offered a cheese blintz to the guard.

Denied entrance for the time being, we explored the backstreets, paused outside the forbidding façade of the orthodox synagogue, and then turning down the narrow Rumbach Sebestyen Street found a third synagogue, derelict and neglected, where we were free to wander for three-quarters of an hour with two or three other visitors. Who knows, we probably had an experience that was, in its own way, more culturally rich, spiritually engaging and authentically atavistic than the one we’d planned. And we didn’t have to pass a test to get in.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Vicious but not very funny

In 1965, Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) began to make their weekly appearance on the BBC radio comedy show Round the Horne.  In whatever role they were inserted into the narrative, they always announced themselves with the same mincing line: "Ooh ‘ello! I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy!"

The brilliance of the script (by Barry Took and Marty Feldman) was its ability to smuggle outrageous references past the BBC censors and into the consciousness of those who had ears to hear. When the pair turned up as lawyers, Julian said, "We've got a criminal practice that takes up most of our time". On another occasion, Sandy spoke of Julian’s piano-playing as “a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright".

These were subversive jokes. Private homosexual acts were still punishable by imprisonment. Most gay men had no choice but to stay in the closet. Did Julian and Sandy promote a stereotype? Of course. But a camp manner and a language of sexually charged double-entendres was the only style in which a gay identity could be made visible, or (for the radio audience) audible. Portrayals of gay life were either outrageously comic or suicidally grim. Normal was not yet an option.

Now a crack team of writers and actors are, for some reason, recycling a dismal version of the same old stuff – gay with all the gaiety knocked out of it. In Vicious, a new ITV sitcom, revered classical actors Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi play a couple who have been living together for 48 years, which means they must have met the year Julian and Sandy made their first appearance. Coincidence? Probably. But if we imagine them as Julian and Sandy grown old, they’ve also grown mean. Judging from the first episode, they’ve sunk into a state of mutual loathing and are reduced to addressing each other in carping put-downs.

In this case, context is all. Julian and Sandy were a force for progress. They were part of the cultural climate that made it possible for the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 to decriminalise homosexual acts in private. Who was offended by Round the Horne? Daily Mail readers, perhaps. Half a century later, I find myself harrumphing at the telly – screaming queen jokes just aren’t that amusing any more – while the Daily Mail declares the new show “an instant classic”.

I don't blame the actors. Actors have to work and must make the most of the script they're given. The writers are Mark Ravenshill, a respected playwright, and Gary Janetti, who was executive producer of Will and Grace. Both of them are gay, so I have to assume they know what they’re doing. I don’t.