Saturday, October 21, 2006

Past Three of the Clock . . .

on a decidedly cold and frosty morning.

(More reactions to E.M.Forster's, Howards End.)

Whether I can legitimately reduce it to the Findus Fish Provencal, the cheap Hungarian Merlot or the absurdity of life I do not know - but all three might have contributed to the waking in the early hours, the reading of a chapter of this infuriating book and the igniting of a brain that refuses to lie down and die.

Another meal.

Two little asides - one concerning a clergyman with the expressed opinion, "Their Emperor wants war; let him have it."

The other concerning the rich man's socialist - a construction to be knocked down easily - and other people's socialists, more robust.

In a book published in 1910, four years before the First World War and seven before the Russian Revolution?

The Kaiser (easy) and Lenin (harder)?

And off my brain went.

Forster is writing about a society he doesn't like, characters he has little sympathy for (although great empathy with) and beliefs he thinks groundless.

The authorial persona (whoops, bit of fish - or the calcified accretions of too much education?), the voice Forster adopts to tell the story, is distinctive: It worries some as too smarmy, too arrogant, too distanced - but I think it is a self defence mechanism.

Edwardian England - rich, prosperous and wealthy; Empire ridden, and undergoing a construction boom (incidentally, much better building work than the late Victorians - The suburbs still stand, Victorian terraces, Jerry built, foundation thin, fall quickly): An England smug and doubtful at the same time, enduring 'a peace', and predicting a war; rushing off for holidays in the country, but building ever higher in the cities where the money is made.

Rich men in their clubs, and at their dining tables, demonising a socialism they don't actually understand whilst Lenin and the revolutionaries sit in smoke filled, London cellars, around clothless tables, and plot the downfall of the capitalist (or the socialist's capitalist?) dictatorships.

At another table, poor old Edward Forster, pen in hand, trying to make some sense of it all.

He is no free spirit - he can't shoot off two barrels at the lot of them: He's a Humanist - and that carries a concern for all humanity - he has to care for his characters, all of them, irrespective of how muddle headed, cut throat, or plane daft.

So he tells his story with a, "One may as well . . .” The regal, distancing, 'One'.

If you force me to tell you . . . and a sigh.

Yes, I dislike the people in this story, but I am going to be as fair to them as I can be - but don't make the mistake of thinking I am like them.

My genuine thoughts and beliefs will be hidden away in the tale, but you'll have to search for them in the negatives of what is said and what is done. They’ll pop up in the half-formed asides of passer-bys and minor characters. The tragedy of the human situation will be delivered with a smile - you can get away with saying anything, if you smile when you say it.

If I sound condescending and smug, that's not a problem - after all, some of the characters you are defending against my condescension are just the same - so why defend them?

Dickens was lucky, he was dealing with a Victorian World, cruel, exploitative, crude - we are much more enlightened now, much more civilised, and we are spiralling ever downwards into the chaos of war and revolution.

Six of the clock, the church bell is banging away (yep, Saturday morning!) and I need a shower.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Muck with Pride

(Howard's End)

So, what's wrong with Manchester?

Less patrimonially aware may think I am nit-picking, but 'us Mancuniuns' wear our muck with pride!

Within the space of a couple of chapters Mr Forster mentions the Northern Metropolis in terms ambiguous at best.

The first is during the concert at Queens Hall of the Beethoven 5th Symphony.

Manchester's Free Trade Hall is no longer with us - but it was built out of civic pride for the use of the civics of Manchester.

Acoustically it was a disaster. Forster is right in that - and how quickly he sums it up - the brass sound racing ahead of the rest of the orchestra in some seats. I must admit I have sat uncomfortable through a performance that was all over the place, only to read in the Manchester Guardian the next morning what a great performance it was - initially I put it down to my ignorance - until one performance I changed seats with someone in the middle of a symphony and discovered the incredible change in sound sitting next to myself can make.

But so what? Why mention it during a performance in London? What is the man up to?

Then, a slight but insistent mention of the stagnating population numbers of the city of my birth - which I take to be true, although my own family experience denies to my very loins the assertion (my father, born 1913, was one of 13; my mother - better class of working - born the same year, one of three).

And, guilding the rotting lily with the proverb, 'What Manchester does today, London does tomorrow' our authorial persona, through one his characters reading a Sunday paper, goes on to suggest by 1960 the whole national population will have stopped expanding (strange to write this on the day the USA is expecting the birth of its 300 millionth citizen - in fact at 11.46 GMT - we are still fascinated by the numbers).

There is some purpose to all this I am sure.

Is it London snobbery predicting the end of the human race as a response to the sins of the industrial heartbeat of the Empire?

Or could it be the rose pink glasses viewing the outdated and moribund as value filled traditions standing squarely against a tide of brass and soot expanding on the far horizon?

Further reading needed and further posts expected in the event of another unwarranted attack.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Train Stations

In Howard's End there is an interesting comment about train stations

Forster takes us beyond the physical into our perceptions of the world: The great train stations are repositories of latent placeness!

Paddington has Cornwall within it; Euston Scotland. The World has become smaller: The world has become multi-dimensional.

And that strikes a very big chord with me. Much of my life has been spent on Continental Europe - and there the stations maintain this feeling. Most of my travelling is still, Victorian style, done on trains.

Moscow's Kiev station has a Ukrainian feel - and it is not just the wall mosaics and superficial decorations (although they do capture something) it is the people who swarm around it, the beggars, the business men. The early communist enthusiasm for celebrating regional cultural differences has stamped the whole rail transport network of Moscow with an individuality hard to find anywhere else in the world.

Pick your station in Budapest carefully - will it take you back West ? Or South into the Germanic, Austo- (semi-) Hungarian world? Or East into Balkan and Carpathian, once (and culturally, still) Turkish-dominated parts?

I think it is hard now to visualise in multi-ethnic England just how distinctive some of the regions of Eastern Europe are - how a combination of skin colour, nose shape, hair colour, neck length, choice of clothing, swagger of the hips, intangible but there features, mix to say where a person is from even before they open their mouth and pour out one of the many languages of the area. Which beer are they drinking - from a can or a bottle? Or is it wine? Or plum brandy? Maybe you will be wrong with an individual - but not often; get a group together, even if they are not with each other, and that subconscious placeness surrounds you: You might not know the place: You know there is a place though.

An airport doesn't have it. Nor does a motorway service station. Local bus stations are too local and international bus stations too international.

My most frequently used station, 'Timisoara North' in Romania, built at the hight of the Austro-Hungarian Industrial Expansion maintains this placeness.

Once the Orient Express stopped here on its way from Belgrade to Bucharest and further on into Bulgaria and ultimately Istanbul - and you still, sitting waiting for one of the few international trains that now pass though to move off, get the excitement of dangerous journeys.

Or is it the slower train taking the southern route - over the mountains the Romans fought the Dacians in and along the Danube - just in time for lunch in the resteraunt car as you pass the place Trajan bridged this mightiest of European rivers?

Maybe it is a local train - you'll catch it at a different platform, and so the character of the journey changes with the people. Don't be suprissed to find tired workmen sleeping off a night of drinking lying across the wooden benches of the second class carriages - for many of these subsidised trains are essential to people who can't afford petrol, let alone the car - and many trains don't bother with first class compartments.

Even in England something is left of this great cosmopolitanism.

Despite the 'upgrade' to Manchester Picadilly, I still feel when I enter it I am off to the hills of Derbyshire - to 'Buxton' the great Spa Town: or Blackpool, both from the Oxford Road side line. You have to cross the bridge and choose your side of the platform.

The central platforms drive an arrow of conciousness South.

How wonderful of E.M.Forster to grasp this and capture it is words.

Why did he do it though?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Wise Men (and Women)

The Noble Peace Prize for 2006 has just been announced and, much to my surprise, I am quite impressed by the choice.

Instead of the "big name" negotiators and actors, (nearly all of whom have contributed in some way to peace in this world) the name of a man and an institution most people in the world would not have heard of, and many people in the world have a lot to be grateful to, popped up.

If prevention is better than cure, then Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank have done far more for world peace than countless conflict resolvers. By providing a way of raising living standards and increasing 'happiness', especially amongst women; by giving people the chance for dignity and independence (from the state as much as of the state); and by fitting the solution to the needs of the individual rather than the masses, micro-credit has already done more for peace within the human race than sanctions and food-aid ever will.

There is little in this world I consider truly wise - but for once, an institution has managed to show wisdom and hinted at a path worth following, a path leading to lasting peace - a means to livelihood, freedom and happiness.

Well done those men (and, especially, women)!