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Monday 20 July 2020

Review - Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day (5*)

What a delightful book this is, both funny and sad, a story of an obsessively fastidious butler and unrequited love. I saw the 1993 Anthony Hopkins / Emma Thompson film when it came out but suspect the book will leave a much stronger impression.

Mr. James Stevens, an ageing, nineteen-fifties, top class, old fashioned English butler, embarks on a solitary motoring trip to the West Country, giving space to reflect upon his role in personal and public events during his lifetime. He recalls gatherings of na├»ve Nazi sympathisers and anecdotes of “great” butlers who could deal with tigers in the dining room without alarming the guests.

The first-person narrative is highly formal in keeping with the character, but it flows easily with both hilarious and heartbreaking effect. In thinking about the question of ‘what is a “great” butler?’, it occurs to him there is a dimension he has not fully considered. The way he says it is typical of his voice throughout the novel:
“I have never in all these years thought of the matter in quite this way; but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly. I have also, no doubt, been prompted to think along such lines by the small event that occurred an hour or so ago – which has, I admit, unsettled me somewhat.” (p123)
which leads to quirky diversions about the surprising new perspective and the recent and significant “small event” which begins when he runs out of petrol on a remote road.

Stevens is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, unable to see he has spent a lifetime turning himself into a robot: stiff, formal, handling unexpected events with aplomb but taking little notice of personal social cues. One thinks of Sheldon Cooper in the The Big Bang Theory. You want to hand him an Asperger questionnaire.  

Gradually, the mask peels away. Woven into the fabric of his reminiscences is a touching story of unrequited love. Memories of Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper, flood back during the journey, the real purpose of which is to visit her in the unspoken hope she will return. It becomes clear she would have married him had he only been able to set aside his mechanistic self-deception. Instead she had married someone else and moved away over two decades earlier. He begins to see the different path his life might have taken.

At the end, after leaving Miss Kenton, he meets a jovial man on the seafront at Weymouth and tells him about his career.
“… look mate, … if you ask me, your attitude’s all wrong, see? Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed … you’ve got to keep looking forward. … You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.” (p256)
One hopes he can take the advice to be more positive and make the best of what remains of the day.
“After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” (p256)
A warning for a memoir writer if ever there was one, although I believe my own motivation is celebration rather than regret.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Saturday 18 July 2020

Twelve Bar Blues

In 1965, Paul McCartney awoke with a lovely melody in his head. He hurried to the piano so as not to forget it, and came up with these words:
Scrambled eggs,
Oh my baby how I love your legs,
Not as much as I like scrambled eggs,
We should eat some scrambled eggs.
Like many dabblers with musical instruments, I too occasionally wake up with a tune in my head. Sometimes they might even be original. And sometimes there are words. Out of the fertile depths of my own imagination have emerged such timeless classics as: Sitting In Bed With A Cold, I Can’t Sing Very Well and She Was Only A Chartered Accountant’s Daughter. I contend they are every bit as good as Scrambled Eggs. If only Paul McCartney had left things as they were I might have been up there with the greatest songwriters in the world. Unfortunately he had to spoil it by waking up another morning with a completely new title and set of lyrics for his tune: Yesterday.

I am probably going to get into trouble for this, but I woke up one morning with a fully formed set of twelve-bar blues lyrics in my head. The idea seems so obvious it cannot be original, yet there appears to be nothing like it on the internet. Gender stereotyping it certainly is, possibly sexist as well, but if it is offensive then please re-educate me. Otherwise, could someone tell me where it came from? It is not autobiographical.

[hackneyed riff to begin:]

I’m in a house full of women, a house full of women and me
I’m in a house full of women, a house full of women and me
There’s her mother, my woman, three daughters, the maid and me 
[hackneyed riff]

I’m in a house full of women, where do you think that puts me?
I’m in a house full of women, a house with a hierarchy
There’s her mother, my woman, three daughters, the maid, the dog and me
[spoken: “don’t even beat the dog”]

Went down to the pub
Came home to my bed
The lights were out
The door was locked
Now I’m sleepin’ in the shed

I’m in a house full of women, a house where I always lose
I’m in a house full of women, a house where I don’t get to chose  
Can’t leave the seat up, drink whisky, smoke, fart, swear or play the blues.
[hackneyed end riff]

Thursday 16 July 2020

July Hedgehogs

Following on from earlier posts of videos from the night camera, the hedgehogs have now returned. They are going into the home-made feeding box to eat the hedgehog biscuits which the mice have not found yet. One hedgehog is so fat it has a bit of a squeeze to get in. Here is a quick two-minute compilation of clips from the first half of July.

I don’t plan to post any more of these unless the camera picks up something really noteworthy, but here is a list of links to the previous compilations of videos and photographs.

Easter (12th April 2020)
Night Cats (5th May 2020)
Hedgehog Update (8th May 2020)
Snail Bogeys (12th June 2020)
More from the Night Camera (20th June 2020)

Friday 10 July 2020

Cinema Paradiso

The death this week of Ennio Morricone prompted us to watch Cinema Paradiso again for the seventh or eighth time. Some dismiss it as sentimental claptrap but it isn’t, even though it makes me both laugh and cry. It is so good you hardly notice it is in Italian with subtitles.

It has been described as a love letter to the cinema. The plot is deceptively straightforward: Salvatore Di Vita, a wealthy, successful, middle aged film director, hears that Alfredo, a father-figure from his childhood, has died. His thoughts drift back to growing up just after the Second World War in Giancaldo, a small Sicilian town where Alfredo is the projectionist at the local cinema. Alfredo allows eight-year-old Salvatore to watch films from the projection booth and teaches him to operate the projector. Their roles then are partly reversed when Alfredo is blinded in an accident. Later, as a teenager, Salvatore falls in love with the classy Elena but they lose touch when he goes off for military service. Afterwards, Alfredo tells him to get away to follow his dreams, never to come back and not to write. Salvatore leaves to become a filmmaker.

It is far more than a simple coming-of-age story. It is as if Salvatore’s memories become our own. It parallels the lives of the boomer generation. For me, post-war Sicily has echoes in the ‘bomb buildings’, the piles of rubble that lined the streets of nineteen-fifties urban England. Giancaldo is like Catholic Belgium in 1965, glimpsed through faces attending church and cinema where, with language taken away, I had to watch and understand gestures and expressions. In fact, in both looks and passions, the teenage Salvatore is uncannily like my Belgian language-exchange pen-friend. You feel the passage of time, not just from child to young adult but at the end where forgotten faces, older and wiser, reappear at Alfredo’s funeral. In real life we now even call them Cinema Paradiso moments.

One of the characters in the audience at the Paradiso cinema knows the films so well he mouths along with the dialogue. That is me with Cinema Paradiso. I am Alfredo, a true sage, a man without pretension, entirely at home in his own skin. “I choose my friends for their looks, my enemies for their intelligence”. Except I can’t do it in Italian. 
Alfredo: You have to go away for a long time... many years... before you can come back and find your people. … Right now you're blinder than I am.

Salvatore: Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?

Alfredo: No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it’s all me. Life isn’t like in the movies. Life... is much harder. … Get out of here! Go back to Rome. You’re young and the world is yours. I don’t want to hear you talk any more. I want to hear others talking about you. Don’t come back. Don’t think about us. Don’t look back. Don’t write. Don’t give in to nostalgia. Forget us all. If you do and you come back, don’t come see me. I won’t let you in my house. Understand? … Whatever you end up doing, love it. The way you loved the projection booth when you were a little squirt.
And underlying it all is Ennio and Andrea Morricone’s haunting, lilting score. Beautiful.

I watched the international version which runs for 124 minutes. There is also a fifty minutes longer “director’s cut” in which the middle-aged Salvatore goes in search of and finds Elena. Reviews say it is not as good but I’d still like to see it. The director is Guiseppe Tornatore. 

There are several other versions of the trailer on YouTube, some with an irritating voiceover giving the false impression that it is indeed sentimental claptrap.

Sunday 5 July 2020

Bike Gadget

Bicycles waiting at railway gates

In the town where I went to school, the roads belonged to bicycles. Everyone had one and nearly everyone used them. Four times a day, when the women rode to and from the clothing factory, or the children to and from school, or the men to and from the railways, docks and shipyard, they packed the roads three and four abreast. With no room to overtake, motor vehicles had to crawl along at bicycle speed. When the railway gates closed, cars, vans, lorries, buses, and even motor cycles had to wait patiently behind hoards of pedal cyclists who zig-zagged to the front of the queue. Who needed a motor car when you could ride everywhere on level roads for free? Pancake country. 

My brother had a speedometer on his bike. On windy days he could get up to 30. Pretty good with the heavy steel frames and Sturmey Archer three-speeds we had then. One day he rode up and down the street trying to go too fast through a police radar trap. They just laughed at him.

These last few sunny ‘lockdown’ weeks have seen me back on my bike more than in a long time. It is hilly where we live now, which has always put me off, but I’m getting used to it. I’ve worked out routes where the slopes are not too bad, and when they are I am not ashamed to stop for breath or even to get off and push. I keep my brakes on down hills and will need new brake blocks soon. I don’t care about the high-speed prats whizzing past on their carbon-fibre, disc-braked, thousand-pound machines as if only miles matter, or the bolt upright electric pootlers pedalling leisurely uphill with smug faces. Do your own thing! It doesn’t matter what they think. I am enjoying the clean air and quiet country lanes, all straight from the shed door. Glide like a bird with the wind in your feathers and sun on your wings. 

As John Denver said: Country roads take me home to the place I belong, West Yorkshire …  Here are a few pictures (click to enlarge):

White Ley Bank towards Fulstone, Yorkshire Fulstone, Yorkshire

Upper Snowgate Head, Yorkshire From Upper Snowgate Head towards New Mill, Yorkshire

Towards Browns Knoll, Thurstonland, Yorkshire Halstead Lane, Thurstonland, Yorkshire

Stones Wood, Shepley, Yorkshire Towards Row Gate, Shepley, Yorkshire

Now, after all these years, I’ve got a speedometer too, not an analogue one with a ‘speedo cable’ like my brother’s in the sixties, but a “bicycle computer”. It works by timing the rotations of a tiny magnet fixed to one of the spokes. It has to be set up for the correct wheel size, but once that’s done then speed, distance and other details are all there at the touch of a button. The other day I did 7.04 miles in 47.31 minutes (excluding stops) at an average speed of 8.9 mph, reaching a top speed of 19.4 m.p.h. and burning 114 calories. It is not a good idea to fiddle with the display too much while riding.

Cateye "bicycle computer"

My brother would have gone straight out and bought a better one. I wish he was still around to do so.

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Uncle Jimmy

(New month old post) First posted 28th June, 2015. 1,600 words)

The life of an intersex man born in the 1890s

My mother always said it would have been better if Uncle Jimmy had been brought up as a girl. When I was older, she added: “You see, he didn’t develop properly when he was a little boy.” She also said: “His sister was completely the other way round.” 

Uncle Jimmy was not really an uncle or indeed any relative at all. He attached himself to the family just before the First World War when he crossed the Pennines to take a job in the local branch of the clothing and furniture retailer where my grandfather worked. As Jimmy had nowhere to stay, my grandfather took him home and asked whether they could put him up for a time. Jimmy soon found his own accommodation and later, perhaps surprisingly, a wife, but he remained a close friend of the family for the rest of his life. He appears in no end of our family photographs: a surrogate uncle.

“A jolly little fat man with a high voice,” is how my brother remembered him, “Uncle Jimmy Dustbin,” not his real name but a pretty good homonym. He had been slightly built in his youth. His army attestation papers show he was five feet two inches tall (157 centimetres) with just a 31 inch chest (79 centimetres). He must have suffered terribly at the hands of childhood bullies and may have left his native Cheshire to begin life afresh where nobody knew him.

He tried to join up for war service six times but was rejected because of poor physique. After being accepted at the seventh attempt, he found himself passed rapidly from regiment to regiment like a bad penny. He first joined the York and Lancasters, but on mobilization was transferred back into the army reserve to grow and gain strength. He was mobilized again eight months later but within another six months had been transferred to the Yorkshire Regiment. He managed three months there before being compulsorily transferred to the 5th (Cyclist) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. This was part of the Army Cycle Corps used for coastal defence work inside the United Kingdom. His situation seems to have improved for a while because he qualified as a signaller, but within a year his difficulties had returned and he was transferred to the West Yorkshire Regiment. A month later he was judged physically unfit for war service, permanently discharged, issued with an overcoat and sent home. Jimmy’s war was thus based in such far flung locations as Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hartlepool and Aldershot. At no time did he see service in France.

Jimmy married while still in the army. He was almost twenty-five and his wife, let’s call her Beatrice, almost twenty-seven. They remained together for forty-seven years until she died. For some years they looked after one of Beatrice’s nephews but were unable to have children of their own. What Beatrice expected is not entirely clear, although she did once say to my grandmother she had little idea of what was supposed to happen on wedding nights, and remained just as mystified afterwards because nothing did. She seemed content to have settled for a marriage of crafts, hobbies and companionship.

Jimmy and Beatrice became grocers. Beatrice’s widowed mother had a corner shop in one of the town’s dense grid of terraced streets, so Jimmy moved in to help with the shop and eventually became the nominal owner. Beatrice did most of the work as Jimmy always found plenty of other things to occupy him. He became a churchwarden along with my grandfather, and a Sunday School teacher. He collected glassware and was a natty dresser, but his greatest joy was motoring. He advertised his services as an express courier and hence became one of the first in town with a private telephone and private motor car.

1922 Bullnose Morris
Uncle Jimmy with his 1922 Bullnose’ Morris on an outing to Bridlington in 1928.
In the car (right to left) are my father (in cap), his sister (in bonnet) and Jimmys wife’s nephew.

His first car was a 1922 ‘Bullnose’ Morris. My father said that whenever his own family took their annual week’s holiday, in those days always to one of the Yorkshire coastal resorts, Jimmy would arrive in his car to join them for a day. On other occasions he would take my father and his sister on trips to the coast. They had a clear memory of one happy outing when they drove under the arched bridge between Bridlington and Filey where the railway embankment crosses the road, when Jimmy jokingly forbade them to shout as they passed through, which of course they did, their high spirited voices echoing back to them in the open-topped car. On another occasion he took my aunt for a ride in an aeroplane at Speeton airfield.

At Speeton Airfield

In later years, after my grandparents had died, Jimmy and Beatrice became surrogate grandparents, especially to my cousins. In fact they remember Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Beatrice by far the more clearly. They spent hours reading, singing, playing games and looking after them. Beatrice shared her jigsaw puzzles and taught them to crochet. Jimmy was the only one with the patience to feed to my elder cousin her breakfast in the way she wanted, one cornflake at a time, even though he was supposed to be at work in his shop. My uncle described him, in bemused admiration, as the only man he knew who had managed to get through life without working.

Eventually Jimmy and Beatrice retired from the grocers shop and moved for around fifteen years to a large house in a green and leafy part of town overlooking the river, but after Beatrice died Jimmy moved back to the same terraced street they had lived in previously, and was very lonely and unhappy. It was by then the nineteen-sixties. Society was changing and the street had lost its sense of community. Jimmy was a frequent visitor both to our house and my cousins’, arriving in his car, always a Morris. He showed a lifelong loyalty to the Morris marque.

Jimmy lived to eighty-one. During his last illness, unable to eat, he turned to my aunt for help and she told him she thought he should be in hospital. “All right,” he said, “but let’s have a cig first. We’ll have one of yours.” It was his last one. My aunt, a nurse, looked after him during his final days, and in dealing with his most intimate needs was disturbed to observe just how incompletely developed he was, “more female than male” she later confided.

Again, we were spared the details but some years ago, thirty five years after his death, I looked at Jimmy’s army service record in an online genealogy resource. It included Army Form B, 178A, Medical Report on a Soldier Boarded Prior to Discharge or Transfer to Class W, W(T), P or P(T), of the Reserve. Across the various sections of the form I was dismayed to read:

Feminism. Undesirability of retaining with hommes militesque. Congenital. Poor physique from infancy and puberty. Pain with equipment. Tastes and habits male. Married 12 months, no children. Enlarged breasts, female type. Poor general physique. R. testicle incompletely descended. Penis abnormally short. Embryonic pocket in scrotal line. Voice female. Was rejected 6 times on grounds of physique and accepted the 7th time. Discharge as permanently unfit.

And what of his sister, a back-slapping sporty woman who my mother said should have been brought up a boy. She also married but after several years her husband was granted an annulment. She then became a champion ladies golfer who represented her county. It was said she astonished other golfers by driving consistently long distances from the men’s tees. She spent her life organising competitions and golfing associations, and was still playing in veterans’ tournaments at the age of seventy. Did she have a similar congenital condition? We can now easily see that there were four other siblings who survived into adulthood. What about them? They seem to have produced few children and grandchildren.

Today, abnormal sexual development is much better understood than when Jimmy and his sister were born in the eighteen-nineties. For example, research into sex hormones did not make any real progress until the nineteen-thirties. The various conditions are now handled sympathetically and have a range of treatments. How very different from when Jimmy and his sister were young. What desperately miserable and lonely episodes they must have endured. Yet to us, Uncle Jimmy always seemed happy and jovial. He was kind and thoughtful, very much loved. I think we must have given him something of the family life he would never otherwise have had.

There was one last thing we could do for him. It was saddening to see his medical record on public display. Although British Army First World War service and pension records, if they survive, are now accessible through online genealogical resources, medical records are usually confidential. We wrote to the National Archives at Kew to ask whether it was possible, on the grounds of respect and decency, to remove the medical report from the online resource, to which they agreed. Genuine researchers can still go to Kew, look up the microfiche copy of his army service record, and find Army Form B178A included, but in the online version it is no longer there.*

In wanting to tell Jimmy’s sad and touching story, albeit with names changed, and in quoting from the form, I hope I am not indulging in the kind of prurience we want to avert.

* Unfortunately, since the original post, other genealogical resource providers have been permitted to scan the documents and it is now visible on several sites.