What We Did on our Holidays

We went to the south of Portugal, as for the last two years, to stay with our friends Rob and Ines. As last time we drove down so that Bella the dog could accompany us. She won’t fly. We decided to do it properly this time and take four weeks.

We took the Tunnel and stopped the first night out at a chateau in the Loire valley. It looked like a birthday cake and the grounds around it were covered with improbable technicolour flowers so that one expected to see Bambi lurking shyly at the end of a path through the forest. We were so taken up with the general splendour that we booked dinner in the main restaurant. We thought that we might try the degustation menu.

“We will attend with the dog,” we said.

Mais, non. The dog is excluded. Desolé.”

“But you are French. The French like very much les chiens, and particularly les chiennes.”

“We love, assuredly. But it is the Americans. Desolé.”

We negotiated a compromise. We sat degusting at a French window giving onto the balcony. Bella sat companionably just outside, soaking up the evening sunlight. The waiter brought her water and delicious titbits. The Americans sat at the other tables in their crisp cotton trousers and their hair pieces. They still snarled.

The less said about Valladolid, the second stop, the better.

When we got to Portugal and to Rob and Ines’ quinta, the sun shone down mercilessly. Why anyone would expect mercy from a celestial body billions of miles away is a mystery, but even so it was notable by its absence. The better half took Bella surfing in the sea. There are massive and relentless Atlantic breakers there. Bella had worked out a few tricks in her mind in the twelve months since last year. People stopped to watch. ‘It is Swims Like Seals,’ they would say. ‘Her reputation precedes her.’ Ines filmed her. I stayed out of the sun writing the great Alablague novel. Rob attended to war games involving General David Lunch and his army of thrice-dried figs; he has abandoned for the time being his ambition of covering the outside of his quinta with Native American art. In the evenings we would eat delicious food, often involving just-caught fish from the market at Olhão, and drink immoderately. We had a splendid time. Much of it you can see on Facebook, if you know how.

It was time to go. By way of a change we had decided to drive to Bilbao and get a boat to Portsmouth. We broke the journey at Porto, and stayed there for a couple of days in a rented apartment in the Old Town, much of which is medieval. Porto is a magic city, ramshackle, romantic and dangerous. The sides of the Douro, the river that runs through it, are improbably high, so that as you sit at some café trams rumble past high above you. They eat delicious cod – bacalhau – there, and of course there is the port.

After dinner we set out to explore the Old Town. We took a path that involved climbing a thousand steps. At the end I fancied a rest, but we were faced by a youth with a cosh: no one else was in sight.

“Nice dog,” he said meaningfully.

“She bites,” the better half said – in demotic Portuguese.


He let us through. Again, Bella’s reputation had preceded her.

In Bilbao we stayed at a businessmen’s hotel. They scurried about with their Alexei Sayle suits and their wheely suitcases, talking into their mobile phones, saying things like, ‘It’s a very tight time-frame for delivery.’ Goodness, I thought, I remember all that nonsense.

Because it was Bilbao we went to see the Guggenheim Museum, the metal-encased construction by Frank Geary with art inside, which has apparently inspired the regeneration of that part of the city: Bilbao by and large is faceless and industrial.

The building is flashy and nice in a look-at-me-Mummy way. Inside it is very impressive, with curvy walls and walkways high above you. I think that they have decided that painting is dead, because there are not a lot of straight walls that one might hang anything traditional on. They had some ten enormous Serra constructions, which were marvellous but perhaps seven too many. There was a large show of the usual stuff from Basquiat, and Jeff Koons had just closed and was being removed in large vans. So much for Basque culture.

There are two boats from Bilbao. One is small and you can take your dog in your cabin and the other is big, has stabilisers, and the dog goes in a kennel. Of course we chose the small one, which bobbed around like a cork. A man said to me, ‘I’m a truck driver, and I do this run all the time, but you can certainly feel the swell tonight.’

(The ship is so small that one is forced to hob-nob with passengers who are in trade.)

Anyway the wind dropped and the next morning it was like a millpond – whatever that is. However, just as we were passing the extremities of the Breton peninsula there was an incident. We were required to attend at the lifeboats. Unfortunately there was not enough room for us all, so pets, Italians (something to do with an EU opt-out) and staff below the grade of Assistant Purser had to swim. It was heart-breaking to see them bobbing around in the water, giving, in the case of the pets and Italians, little cries; the staff, to whom it had been explained that being required to swim was part of their terms of employment, behaved with admirable dignity. We were all right. I placed Bella beneath my t-shirt; ‘Make way for the fat man,’ they said. Moreover, the better half placed our three passports under her t-shirt, so when we were rescued we were able to proceed on our way home without let or hindrance.

Corbyn Really

I have never met Jeremy Corbyn, but the better half did, a year or so back. She was representing a development company, which had bought a derelict building in the London Borough of Islington, for which a planning permission had been granted. They wanted to develop it as medium-value flats. The original planning permission ran out and the Council took the opportunity to list the derelict building as of historical value. The company made a new application and were summoned to a meeting with the Council. They were told that Jeremy Corbyn, who is the local MP, wanted to attend the meeting.

The company’s representatives introduced the scheme. There was a shortage, they said, in the Borough of housing for the non-wealthy middle class: teachers, nurses and so on; the scheme would alleviate this. The better half introduced the company. She said that it was English and it would pay its taxes and fulfil all its other social duties; its funders were Russians, one was an Israeli citizen, but they were not oligarchs; they were hard-working businessmen who wanted to do business in England.

Jeremy Corbyn brushed this aside. “No,” he said. “If you are Russians you are oligarchs. And you owe us.”

He made it clear that he considered all developers and all Russians as leeches on society. He airily dismissed any suggestion that the development might improve life in the area. Developers never improved anything, because they were evil.

When a developer applies for planning permission that would otherwise be unacceptable, the Council may grant permission if the developer gives some value back to the community. When Jeremy Corbyn said that the company ‘owed us’, he meant, among other things, cash; in this case the Council wanted an unusually substantial payment of cash per flat. They also wanted two of the nine proposed flats for free. And there were some bits and pieces with the pavement that the Council would like fixed. If this shopping list were committed to – and this is the extraordinary bit – the derelict building’s historical value, currently a bar to any planning permission, would magically evaporate.

The Russian investors were surprised when they were told this. They had wanted to do business in England rather than Russia, because in England, as they understood things, the rule of law prevailed, unlike Russia, where what mattered was the whims of the local political gangsters and of course who provided the fattest brown envelopes.

The meeting ended with a commitment to meet again in three weeks, to give the developer time to consider the new demands. As it turned out, Jeremy Corbyn had a new cause and was much too busy to meet. So, apparently, were the representatives of the Council.

After the meeting the Council called. They said that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to establish that what he had said was off the record. Of course, if you want to put remarks off the record you do so before and not after you make them.

Jeremy Corbyn then wrote a letter (which I haven’t seen). The derelict property had once been a stationmaster’s house, with a booking hall attached. The railway company had sold it because there was no longer a stationmaster who needed housing, and the booking hall had become unnecessary when they invented ticket machines and then Oyster cards. Nevertheless the fruit of his further thought was this: It would be lovely if the house were in single occupancy as it had been when the stationmaster lived there: in other words another two-million-pound house in a borough crying out for affordable housing. And he wanted to see hard-working families once again buying their tickets in a resuscitated booking hall. One can imagine Thomas the Tank Engine mugging cheerily in the corner of this comfy vision.

So far, the derelict building is housing neither the rich, the poor nor the middle class of Islington. It is still empty.

Several things can be deduced from this vignette, which have a bearing on Jeremy Corbyn’s present aspirations.

1 He has scant regard for the law. This was a technical matter for the Council to deal with in accordance with planning law. He might be the local MP, but it was none of his business, and it should not have been made a pretext for grandstanding.
2 He is a racist. Saying that all Russians are oligarchs who ‘owe us’ is racist. It may not be very racist. Indeed, many people consider that Russians, like Americans, are exempt for the normal rules. I mention it because of the persistent stories of his anti-Semitism.
3 His attitude to small business is confrontational.
4 He is a slave to cliché. Presented with a Russian (hiss!) developer (hiss!), all capacity for thought deserted him.
5 He doesn’t listen because he knows best.
6 He is a sentimental old thing.
7 He is not very bright.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents in the leadership contest are unappealing. One is not yet up to the job, one is deeply creepy and will say anything to get a vote, and the other is dull. You can see that in comparison he might seem like a human being. A picture has grown up of him as honest, down-to-earth, capable, a bit old-fashioned but in the best way: as the NHS is old-fashioned. There was an amusing piece recently imagining what a pub would be like if he were the landlord.

The Left likes to attack straw villains. You can see it every day in the Guardian online. There might be a story in which people act not particularly well nor particularly badly; that will not have been the point of the story, but the comments underneath will quickly descend into shrill little cries of generalised hate. (You can see the equivalent on the Right in the Telegraph, of course, and here the shrill little cries are often deeply malign.) Here we have the Left building up a straw hero. Jeremy Corbyn may well be a nice man, he may have twinkly eyes, but he does not have the virtues that are being thrust upon him. If he were asked to organise a Shadow Cabinet, let alone a country, the interests of us all would undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of a grand gesture, a nice big red cliché.

If Jeremy Corbyn were the landlord of a pub, there would be no beer.

Jeremy Corbyn and Ways with Sevilles

I was about to post a piece concerning Jeremy Corbyn when the doorbell rang. On the doorstep were three well-built men in trenchcoats. I invited them in and offered them each a cup of green tea. The former offer they accepted but the latter they disdained. Their leader indicated that publication of my piece would be looked on unfavourably. How they’d found it goodness knows: something to do with Google I suppose.

“Looked on unfavourably who by?” I said.


What about free speech, I asked.

“We don’t prioritise free speech.”

I tried a different tack.

“I do say that he has twinkling eyes,” I said.

“Jeremy’s eyes do not twinkle. They are stern but kindly.”

“Just like Uncle Joe.”

“Mr Alablague,” said the leader, “there is an easy way of dealing with this and there is a hard way. Which is it to be?

The other two goons were fingering my soft furnishings in a menacing way. One of them moved to a painting and started to pick at the surface with a grubby finger nail – one of ten. I am no coward, but I do value my soft furnishings, and so does the better half.

“All right.”

The leader grunted and left the house. The others followed him. As they did so one of them said, “Why does he call him ‘Uncle Jer’?”


“The enemy of the people. What does he call him Uncle Jer?”

The leader turned through ninety degrees and hit him on the ear.

We live in perilous times and there is always a risk of causing offence. That is the last thing that I would want to do, even if there were no goon-linked risk to my soft furnishings. I looked through the curtains to make sure that they had gone. Sure enough they all got onto their bicycles and peddled off, no doubt to correct Error wherever else it had arisen. Bicycles: in the Eighties they would have been in a Mondeo. Today’s goons would be healthier as a result. The Blairist Terror had not been without all benefit.

I wondered what I might innocently write about and settled on marmalade.

When I was a child there was a brief time in the year when my mother would buy great quantities of oranges and boil them on the Aga so as to produce our year’s supply of marmalade. There was no Frank Cooper for us. Marmalade was compulsory at breakfast, so a year’s supply was a lot. Mysteriously she referred to them not as oranges but as ‘sevilles’. Inevitably I linked this with my father’s otherwise inexplicable habit of shouting:

Let us bang these dogs of Seville
The children of the Devil!

Sometimes instead of shouting this he would sing it. The words are taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long poem The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet and my father was also familiar with its musical setting by the composer Stanford. This became one of my favourite poems: top five I’d say: beats Keats & Shelly into a cocked hat. Once, years later, I entertained my fellows on a Southern Region train, held outside Waterloo for fifty minutes in the rush hour, to a recitation of the work, assisted by two friends, who handled the oratio recta.

Years more later I encountered Seville itself, accent on the second syllable and one of the most magical places in the World, and a year after that our satnav failed on its by-pass, which was less magical. Indeed, it nearly resulted in a fatality, when the better half decided that it was all my fault.

But marmalade, as I say, was an essential part of my childhood diet.

Recently it has become more, in two respects.

The first was a sort of double whammy. We went to St John’s, my favourite restaurant. It was St John’s Bread & Wine, in Spitalfields, because the main restaurant in Smithfield was fully booked. They had Marmalade Ice-cream. I almost didn’t have it, because of course I was full. Thank goodness I did. It immediately became one of my best-loved dishes: top five I’d say.

I say that it was a double whammy. I went to St John a few times thereafter and it was not on the menu. Maybe it had been a one-off, I thought, to dispose of unwanted sevilles. Then one day it was available in the guise of Marmalade and Brown Bread Ice Cream. Words at this point fail me.

The second was on the occasion of my birthday. My eldest daughter presented me (among other gifts of a more sturdily artistic nature) with a small bottle. It was of Marmalade Gin. This is made by Slamseys of Braintree, in Essex. They infuse their gin with Seville oranges and it is enormously delicious. You wouldn’t dilute it with tonic or even ice:it is best taken neat, in tiny intense sips when no one else is looking. It is like a perfect breakfast without the stress of the day to look forward to.

It’s not available in supermarkets, but you can buy it online.

I sat back daydreaming of marmalade and how it has enriched my life. My inbox pinged officiously. Heavens, it was the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. What had I typed now that was inappropriate? Was it the Seville by-pass? Is that racist? I can take it out if you like.

No, it was more emollient. Reference to Uncle Jer’s twinkly eyes was not after all black-listed, so long as they were also referred to as stern but kindly. And – this was stressed – the sternness and kindliness were to be prioritised.

The email ended with the hope that they had been of assistance, and there was a picture, in colour, of Himself in his cap. There was nothing however about my piece, which I suppose is still embargoed. I am grateful in a way. If he does come to power it would be a shame to have anything incriminating on the record.

Hail, Sturgeonia!

We are staying in the People’s Republic of Sturgeonia. We meant to enter through Berwick-on-Tweed, with its bridges celebrated in art, but apparently the A1 was shut; the satnav took us through deserted valleys and past uninterested sheep and lonely peaks. It was so deserted that I wondered whether we would spot the Border; there are no machine gun posts yet. In fact there was a cairn, with ‘Scotland’ on it and a boy vomiting against the side. He was vomiting on the Scottish side. I don’t know if it was a gesture – for all I know the other side of the cairn says ‘England’. We did not investigate but drove on towards Edinburgh and arrived at midnight.

Edinburgh strives bravely to please the tourist but its heart is not in it. We had booked a self-catering flat. It was the meanest bit of space that I have encountered since I was in New York and people there would boast of similarly exiguous and cabbage-smelling accommodation. In each case the excuse was location, and indeed we could look out of the barred windows onto at least one murder site from the novels of Ian Rankin. On the table was the book of rules. After perfunctorily welcoming us to the great city in which we were privileged to be resting our heads, it told us at length what we were not permitted to do. ‘PENALTY: £100’, it would say, or, in one case, ‘PENALTY: £500’. That I think that was for spilling Irn Bru on the carpet.

Bella, the dog, needed to relieve herself before retiring. She has a foible about this: she will only do it on grass, unless she is in Portugal. Portugal is an exception as there is very little grass there. It is like Buddhists being allowed to eat meat in Tibet. There is grass in Edinburgh but it is locked up at night. We wandered the streets looking for a blade or two on which she could deposit one of her small and elegant effusions. It was all put away behind iron railings. She became embarrassed. Finally we broke into the National Gallery and found a patch there: in the grounds, obviously, not inside, in front of the Reverend whatever skating, or any of their other masterpieces.

Edinburgh is the subject of an interesting social experiment. The aim is that fifty per cent of the population should be traffic wardens. If you look around you, you will see that they are well on the way to achieving this exciting target. Furthermore, there is a new law to the effect that it is an offence to block the view between a traffic warden and any car in which the warden might reasonably be considered to be taking a professional interest. As a result the roads are occupied by the much-admired new trams and by Americans in kilts trudging glumly up to the Castle, while the pavements are full of traffic wardens, preening themselves and lovely in yellow.

On we drove, past the wonderful Forth rail bridge and the site of yet another road bridge in the process of being built, and onto the A9. This is the road that takes you out of the Central Belt north from Perth and on as far as you want: even as far as John O’Groats. The A9 is a difficult road. It has two lanes for most of its length and you get stuck behind lorries and caravans. The radio signal goes and Radio 4 turns to white noise. There is money for another road bridge for the Central Belt, but not for communications in the Highlands.

The view of the Cairngorms is stupendous – or was. These days it is difficult to see the Cairngorms as the roadside is littered with official signs. These announce enterprising new traffic-calming projects, remind you of the speed limit and inform you that policemen are operating in unmarked cars. (Operating? On whom?) There are endless speed cameras.

And now we are in the Highlands and there is a problem with rubbish. I wish that there was an agreed standard about what could be put into which bin. There are two bins. There is a sign on one of them that tells you that various things are not welcome, and another sign to the effect that if you put the wrong things in the wrong bin they won’t take them away: on a second offence they would throw it all through your bedroom window with a foul cry. We put the bottles (there had been family merriment) in the bin that did not say that bottles were forbidden. Half an hour later the neighbour deposited the bottles back on our doorstep with a note. It was in capitals and underlined, like the anonymous notes that one gets accusing one of sodomising the vicar’s cat. It was to the effect that bottles were not welcome at all. They were to be taken to the supermarket.

I resisted the temptation to shove them, open end dripping, through the neighbour’s bedroom window with a foul cry. This was wise, as half an hour later she set out up the hill with a wheelbarrow containing, I am fairly certain, her murdered lover. Certainly she trudged glumly back with wheelbarrow empty and the lover has not been seen since. What might I have seen if I had looked in!

Instead, we drove with the bottles the twelve-mile trip to the supermarket and back, thus solving climate change at a stroke.

I am sitting with the sun setting over the western mountains. (I am writing but not posting, as there is no broadband.) There is little human between us and Canada. The landscape is immense. It ruminates as it settles into the night. Otherwise it is absolutely silent. I hope that they let us continue to come here. I love it and it feels like home. And I hope that they grow out of their current mood of institutional bossiness.

All My School Reports

It turns out that my mother kept all my school reports. I’m sure that I didn’t see them at the time. Those from my primary school are dutiful and of little interest. They detail my pleasing and early literacy and my enthusiasm for making things out of old eggshells, which is what we did in those days, finger paints still being rationed. What I mainly remember of my primary school is the enormous girls. Boys were taken out and sent to their prep schools at the age of eight but girls by and large were considered not to merit an expensive education and stayed till they could be shipped off to a state school or dodgy convent at the age of twelve, so the playground was at the mercy of these giants. There was only one boy I remember who stayed until he was twelve. He was called Oliver. He was an honorary girl.

The reports for my secondary school are too agonised to make easy reading. They are conscientious, often going on to a second piece of paper. They document with increasing desperation my total inability to write Greek poetry that looked as if an ancient Greek person had written it. My teachers had very high standards. There was no question of all must win prizes. They railed against my habit of playing the saxophone when I could have been learning Latin vocabulary. There is an enormous sigh of relief when I finally achieve a place at one of the Universities, albeit Oxford and not (thank God) Cambridge, for which I had been intended.

There is more pleasure in my prep school reports, when nothing really mattered. They detail my career from the age of eight to thirteen. These were undoubtedly the most miserable five years of my life. My parents didn’t want to send me off to boarding school at that age (thank God, again), but the school that they chose was a boarding school and I was one of only a handful of day-boys. No one is treated worse than a day boy at a boarding school. Maybe it is different now, when children at these institutions are encouraged to go home for weekends, but that is how it was then. Day boys were thought of as having access to the treats of the outside world, such as chips, and out of envy they were bullied. Even if they weren’t bullied they missed all the social life of the school which took place after the end of Games, mid-afternoon, when I was collected and went home.

And Games themselves were a nightmare: endless Rugby matches of being thrown about in the mud and sat on; boxing, the worst, standing there in front of a crowd of assorted ill-wishers and hoping to achieve a state of Zen mindlessness at least until the end of the round, while another boy, more inclined to play the game, drew blood all about my eyes and nose and one of the masters shouted, ‘Blood! I want to see more blood!’.

I had a group of friends who conceived a tactic for procuring some of the treats of the outside world. The manual work of running the school was consigned to a group of men who were of orc-like intelligence and foreign. I worked the foreign aspect out when one of them, called Reg, shambled up to me in a corridor one day fingering his penis and muttered confidentially, ‘Saucisse’. I realised at once that he was either French or had a background in catering. It was this Reg to whom my friends offered a deal: hand jobs for sweets. I was allowed to share in the Smarties, which were less highly valued than some others: but only Smarties, since they and not I had had to manhandle the man’s sticky but, they said, surprisingly firm member. They took this obligation strictly in turns, regardless of Reg’s own preferences.

This was not the point of view from which I was assessed in the termly reports. My attempts at sport, for example:

Swimming: Cannot swim.
Hockey: Jumps well.
Games: His appearances on the sports field have provided him with the necessary exercise and others with a great deal of humour
Rugger: Played in the end-of-term matches much to his consternation and astonishment

But it was work that mattered, and here I had a fundamental problem. I made a flying start at the school expressing myself, as I tend still to do, with a pencil. But when I was nine it was decided that I would have to use a pen instead. That meant a dip pen, a nib on the end of a stick dipped into an ink bottle. I never mastered the art of conveying the ink onto the page in the form of words to the exclusion of blots. This meant that I was:

Appallingly untidy.

One of my teachers thought that he discerned literary ability in me. He encouraged me to write and I shall always be grateful to him. This was clever of him because the official archetype of imagination at the school, as in my senior school later, was a florid affair involving adjectives and feelings, and not what I was best at. But it was one of his colleagues, another English master, whose reports I cherish more now:

He is sparing of effort.
He veils flashes of intelligence under a bashful nonchalance which the unimaginative might take for laziness.
His imagination is a poor limping thing…


Quiet endeavours below the blots

They took trouble with reports in those days. Mr Marshall, English teacher whose precepts I have entirely forgotten, cricketing umpire endlessly innovative with the LBW rule (which I suspect he never mastered), Mr Marshall with the languid manner, the refusal to take seriously anything since the War except his Austin Healey, Mr Marshall, dead now I believe these many years: with my poor limping imagination and the dogged remains of my long-term memory I salute you.

You Couldn’t Make It Up

Whilst telling the truth is important when other people are relying on you to do so, it has always seemed to me to amount to a failure of imagination when they aren’t. Keen followers of this blog will have spotted that some of the scenes are not true. There is, for instance, no such person in real life as Aubergine Small, the immense but benign deaf-mute who from time to time helps me and my friends when we are in the soup. He comes partly from my head but mainly he’s stolen from Ben Hur. Amy mocks Augustus Sly, my amanuensis, for thinking that she is a metaphor, but who knows which of them is right?

I have always been attracted to people who reinvent themselves. There are the women in history who impersonated men and joined the all-male armed forces, remaining undetected in spite of communal sleeping and washing. Then there are the people who made new identities for themselves, or maintained more than one identity at once, such as the Victorian men who had two households – both of apparent respectability, each ignorant of the other – and scuttled between them on Christmas Day. In at least one instance this has happened in my time, and to people that I know.

And then there’s Kim, Calamity Jane and Nurse Betty.

Often this was purely deceitful, or at any rate tactical, but in many cases the people in question were not motivated by gain or personal advancement but, for private reasons and in the argot of today, ‘identified as’ something that they weren’t. And this brings us to Ms Rachel Dolezal.

Ms Dolezal, as I understand it, was born of white parents and brought up alongside black step-siblings. She identified strongly with black people, who she thought were treated badly in the United States, and she became active in racial politics through the NAACP. So far, as everyone would agree, so good. But she took it a step further. She maintained that she was herself black, and took steps to look as if she were. She laid claim to a slice of the victimhood points earned by being part of a racial minority. When her parents appeared on television to say that she was, in fact, white, she said that this was beside the point because she ‘identified as’ black.

That seems to me to be entirely understandable, and I can imagine circumstances in which it might have been admirable. The problem is the messy interaction of the personal and the political. As the story has unravelled in view of the entire World, the emphasis has been on her ‘personal issues’, and she has appeared to be mad. That has not done any favours for the political cause that she has championed.

It is a complex thing to bring off, at all levels. One thinks of Philip Roth’s unreadably smug novel, The Human Stain, where the same thing happens in reverse – a black man claims to be white – and we are nagged with the philosophical implications over nearly four hundred pages. She has failed to bring it off, and every further bit of jargon that she offers on television (the whole drama has been performed on television) the worse it gets. If we hadn’t got ourselves to a point where it is unacceptable to talk about race except in pieties, it might have been easier.

However much the whole thing has turned to shit, however, one cannot help thinking that deep down, if she wanted to be black, why shouldn’t she?

And that in turn brings us to the far less attractive story of Ms Emma Sulkowicz. Ms Sulkowicz, also an American, said that she had been raped by a man called Nungesser. She attempted to get him hounded out of her university. It then turned out that he hadn’t raped her at all: the whole thing was a fiction. Ms Sulkowicz’s response was, if I understand it right, that she identified as having been raped, so that her vindictive actions against Mr Nungesser were justified irrespective of the facts. In order to support her argument, she then made a short film of herself having sex with a tubby actor with a pixilated head. She said that this was Art and she challenged its viewers not to ‘objectify’ her as she heaved away.

It is currently rather fashionable to ‘identify’ with being raped whilst remaining untouched. One of the more hysterical pieces about the transsexual Ms Caitlyn Jenner (I forget the name of the writer but it was an American woman) was to the effect that Ms Jenner was not entitled to any part of the aggregate share of victimhood allowed to women – and God knows there is only so much victimhood to go round; it is an increasingly crowded market – for a number of reasons: including menstruation of course and also that, unlike Ms Jenner, the writer customarily walked down the street (one in New York, I believe) thinking that she might be raped.

In other words, being entitled to the considerable share of victimhood available for victims of rape has nothing to do with actually being violated, so long as you feel violated. That in turn explains the strange idea advanced by some that, unlike all other crimes, no rape is worse than another: all rapes are the same because they all partake of the same Platonic ideal irrespective of the harm done. And now, you don’t even need an actual rape at all. Identify as having been raped and you can get the victimhood points just the same.

Do I object to Ms Sulkowicz’s identifying as having been raped? Of course not, if it amuses her. But she should leave Mr Nungesser alone, and probably avoid making pornographic films without proper training. And whereas it has been a prudent rule since all this silliness started to avoid sex with Americans, there should now be a new one:

Don’t Even Think About Sex With Americans.

Making Things Up About Uncles

There are various stories of my family’s history in Cornwall. There are of course also stories about my paternal family’s history: almost none from our centuries in Barbados but thick and fast when we get to London in the 1870s (my great uncle’s alleged fraud and imprisonment and the national campaign for his release – but that’s another story). There are my mother’s relations in Devon who slaughtered each other on a remote farm because one of them fell in love and it was necessary to keep the blood pure. All these stories with the exception of the last, about which the facts, though gruesome, are clear and documented in a book (Earth to Earth), are the subject of endless family debate, but since I have just come back from Cornwall, it’s the stories of my family’s history in Cornwall that I am particularly concerned with now. Here is one.

My great uncle, or probably an uncle more remote in time than a mere great uncle, was a sea-faring man. Ancestors get promoted with every generation, so he was a Captain. His name is forgotten.

He may or may not be the same sea-faring man as the one whose name people have also forgotten and who sailed to Mauritius and came back with a Mauritian bride, to the annoyance of the Royal Navy, who thought it would be only proper to return her to Mauritius toot sweet. He and she were the parents of my much-loved Auntie Rene.

Actually there is some doubt on that story too. At the end of her life my mother insisted that the sea-faring man whose name everyone has forgotten met the mother of my Auntie Rene not in Mauritius but St Helena. I think that this must be wrong. There are no native people in St Helena: only temporary clerks and possibly penguins. Furthermore Auntie Rene had the features of someone from the Indian Ocean, not the South Atlantic.

Anyway, the first – the principal – sea-faring uncle fell overboard. This would have been during the Nineteenth Century and I think that he must have fallen from a sailing ship, because if it had been steam he would have been caught up in the screw and killed, wouldn’t he? He didn’t die. He was involuntarily keel-hauled. He went down below the keel and right up the other side, scraping his skin on barnacles as he went, whereupon he was rescued by his shipmates. He survived but unsurprisingly he lost his nerve: he couldn’t bring himself to go to sea again.

The Royal Navy found him a berth within their purview that didn’t involve his sailing any more. He became a Coast Guard. He had a Coast Guard’s hut on the cliffs above Polruan, from which he would gaze. If he saw a ship in trouble or a bank of fog he would communicate this fact to the authorities by pigeon, or, probably by that stage, telegraph. If not, he would just stare at the great waters on which he would never again journey: never in this life anyway.

He died, full of the honours that the Coast Guard service reserves for its best, but it was never enough: he’d thought that an admiralship was there for the taking, and in his lonely hut he’d had long enough to brood. (I’m making that bit up.)

In due course (the story goes) communications between ship, shore and weatherman improved. (They were weather men in those days; female weather-casters had not come onto the scene.) As a result the coast guard hut above Polruan was no longer needed. It fell into disrepair and many years later was leased by Daphne du Maurier, who would go there to write her books in peace and possibly fulfil her Sapphic assignations. I must be careful what I say here. My family never actually speculated that Ms du Maurier used the hut for her Sapphic assignations, because no one yet knew about them. The ground-breaking biography, the name of which I forget, was still to be written. I made that bit up too.

I added a literary note of my own. In Rose Macaulay’s novel Crew Train the heroine, who is in Cornwall in a town not unlike Polruan, escapes her dreary and over-literary companions and makes a refuge for herself in a hut on the cliffs. Clearly, I thought when I read the book, Ms Macaulay didn’t make that up; she got it from Ms du Maurier, possibly at a novelists’ soirée; it’s my uncle’s hut, doubly celebrated in literature.

Anyway, I said to the better half when we visited Polruan that we should climb up to the cliff top where we might find a ruined hut. And so we did and we found not a ruin but a fully-operational Coast Guard unit, with aerials. This surprised me considerably. There was a ruin, but it was a church from the Sixteenth Century or something, and they are two a penny down there. There was a nice man in uniform, who was not immediately engaged in scrutinising sinking ships or ominous cloud formations and was happy to talk to us. I told him the story, though not getting as far as the Rose Macaulay bit, which depends of course on the reliability of the Daphne du Maurier bit.

Oh no, he said. Not at all. This hut and the huts that came before have always been Coast Guard huts. Our eternal vigilance demands it. Better telecommunications: pfui! It’s never been decommissioned, not since it was first built, centuries ago. Daphne du Maurier used to write her books in a house that she rented down by the Bodinnick Ferry, the ferry across the river below.

So where does that leave us? My uncle and his coast-guarding are probably true, and it’s entirely possible that he did go under a ship. But the connection with famous people is just my family’s fantasy. It’s all too easy to do.


The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.

Apostrophising a Turd

Have you noticed how real things eventually turn into musicals? Billy Elliot started life as an indictment of the cruelty and small-mindedness of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain and is now a musical. The last musical that I actually attended was also a Billy, decades ago. It had started life as Billy Liar, a lovely sad film about dashed hopes and chances not grasped. The young Michael Crawford was mugging for all he was worth, which was less in those days. I remember his apostrophising a turd, (‘Sink, you bugger!’), which my Aunty Sheila, with whom I saw the performance, thought de trop. (Actually the last musical I saw, I now remember, was Salad Days, because my godson was performing in it. Thankfully, Salad Days has absolutely no dark antecedents at all – and no turds.) Now we have Made in Dagenham, the struggle for sexual equality in the workplace rendered in song, dance and nostalgic frocks.

Not to mention Carmen on Ice.

It leads you to wonder, as you make your way through life, how your immediate experience might in twenty years’ time be rendered on the Shaftesbury Avenue stage. (I say ‘make your way through life’, although most of the time in my experience life happens to you whether you are making your way through it or not. In principle I like the positive approach taken by the weather-casters who are always ‘heading into Tuesday’ – though when Tuesday arrives one often wishes it hadn’t.)

This thought occurred to me the other day. I had been invited to a preview of a sale to be held by one of the great auction houses. It was of Russian art. Most of my fellow invitees seemed to come either from Russia or the countries formerly nestling contentedly in the Soviet bosom which Mr Putin now WANTS BACK. Most of them were women and they were beautifully made up and dressed – if possibly intimidatingly so, given that it was quite early in the morning. One of them – she was most attractive, in perhaps her early thirties and with extremely large earrings – kept giving me a meaningful look. I was intrigued. Then I noticed that she was giving the same meaningful look to everyone else and indeed to the exhibits. It must have been the first time that some of the dour representations in oils of endless birch forests had been subjected to such a look. But there it was: her face was immutable. The placidity with which she and her fellows drifted around the rooms (or ‘the Rooms’, as they are called in the great auction houses), their extreme elegance and the mask-like beauty of their features suggested a dance – a masque in fact. I thought back to the way Cecil Beaton had dressed My Fair Lady, even more decades ago than Billy, when I was a child and taken for a treat. It was towards the end of that musical’s very long run and it looked, frankly, tatty. But when Beaton’s frocks were new they might have merited comparison with these glorious creatures.

I thought about their husbands. They were much too busy to attend the preview but would no doubt, on the recommendation of their wives and with suggestions from their consultants as to desirable lots and cunning bargains, be at the sale itself. They would be less elegant. Their uniform was newly laundered Levis, open-necked white shirts and blazers. They would hold paddles and thrust them into the air with their stocky little arms. They did not recall Cecil Beaton. They did however suggest a dance. I imagined them stomping round the stage in Indian file. They are chanting sotto voce:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and

The last word is shouted and they all wave their paddles in the air; then sotto voce again for the reprise.

There are the makings of something really positive here. I’ll ask Christies to provide some seed money. Maybe Michael Crawford could be tempted out of his gilded retirement to shout ‘Sink, you bugger!’ at a piece by Chris Ofili.

But to go back to my original point, what on earth do Fabergé and icons have in common, except their lowest common denominator as trophies?

Anyway, I was taking the dog for her walk in West Ham Park the other day and thinking of this. I may even have been muttering under my breath:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and

People do mutter there. It’s all right. Though I should probably have avoided shouting out the ‘ICONS!’ bit at the end. That did raise eyebrows. However, something more noteworthy was taking place and it involved the tai chi man – and music too. For most of last week when sunset came there have been the most ominous sounds and lurid flashes coming from over the Park. Then suddenly they stopped. The next day I inspected the landing strip. It had been erased. All that remained were some scorch marks. The tai chi man had seen off the hordes of Hell.

No one had actually said anything about this. No one was admitting anything. But there as I went past was the tai chi man, surrounded by children. He was not en pointe but standing naturally, with a demeanour of quiet pride. As before, he had one trouser leg rolled up and from time to time a toddler, with its mother’s encouragement, would totter forward to touch his wounded shin, to partake of the virtue that was in him. Someone started to sing and the children took up the refrain. It was Jonathan Richman’s immortal anthem Ice Cream Man, but with new words.

Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
We know so well
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Beating down the Gates of Hell
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Hear my plea
Going to do the same for me!

The men don’t know, I reflected, but the little girls [and of course boys] understand.

The Table

When my father was demobbed after the end of the War my parents married. They bought a house and furnished it. Some of the furniture was from one side or other of the family and some my parents bought in antique shops or sales; but some was new. One of the new items was a dining table. It had been made in accordance with Utility standards. The top was (as I recall) veneered.

I was born a couple of years later. As a small child I did not like the dining table. I took the pessimistic view then – and I have rarely had occasion to change it since – that the main function of veneer is to come adrift – not, I believe, that on this article it did. Maybe it wasn’t veneered. But it was flimsy and a rather down-at-heel mahogany colour.

About 1965 – fifty years ago – my parents moved house. My father thought that it was time for a new dining table. When the first table had been bought there was nothing to be found from Europe, where in the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of Nazism furniture was not a priority, and the good stuff made in England was exclusively for export. There were no such limitations in the early 60s, but, as with food, if you wanted the best you had to look for it. My father discovered that in Denmark they were making stylish, simple but sturdy furniture and from the photographs he liked the look of it. He decided to buy a Danish table. There was no internet then, but there were public libraries and in his lunch hour he identified the table that he wanted and sent a letter placing an order, using an airmail stamp, because we were not then in the European Union.

He was notified that the table had arrived by ship. He drove to St Katherine’s Dock, which was then still a dock, paid the Customs duty, because we were not then in the European Union, and drove home with his purchase. I was away at school but my sister and my mother assisted in this adventure.

When I came home I didn’t like this table either. This was for completely different reasons. I was then in my teens and I despised my parents’ taste in absolutely everything. At this distance I’m not sure what I would have preferred. Ten years later it would have been something made of hairy stripped pine, but that was yet to come. I remember that we all then hated the architecture of my school, which now seems ravishingly mid-Victorian Gothic, so it wouldn’t have been the desire for decoration. Probably I was just being bloody-minded.

Actually my father went overboard with 60s design. My bedroom for example was orange and black. The living room, where the new table stood, had one wall papered. The design was bold and abstract. My father was delighted with the effect until about a month after finishing the papering. He said to me, ‘Do you see that big purple mass? I’ve just noticed that it’s a fat female opera singer. She’s singing. You can see her tonsils.’

He never really liked it again, and I wish that he hadn’t pointed out the opera singer to me, because nor did I. I might never have noticed. And, being wallpaper, the tonsils repeated every few feet.

Early in the 70s my father died. My mother moved house, and ten years or so ago moved again, taking the table with her. It sat in her home in Yorkshire, perpetually covered with a table cloth. On very special occasions, when the family was there in force, the extensions were pulled out. They were a more pristine colour than the main section of the table. By now it had become Mid-Century and rather fashionable, but in my mother’s house it was surrounded by furniture and other bits and pieces in a miscellany of styles and it didn’t look fashionable.

And the sad thing is that one has one’s taste influenced by articles on design and trendy shops in places like Clerkenwell and Stoke Newington, and I realised that I liked it after all, quite apart from the respect due to age, and I would give it an affectionate pat when staying there.

In March my mother died. After the obsequies there has been the melancholy business of disposing of the goods and chattels around the family: the immensely distinguished dinner set that no one would actually give house room to; the modern sofas, DFS’s finest, newish, destined for landfill. One thing that quite a lot of people competed for was a brass owl; it has mysterious and inexplicable innards but a certain presence and a history going back to our childhood. No one else wanted the table, to my surprise, so I have it. Fortuitously the table that we had recently bought had cracked, in the manner remarked upon by the Lady of Shallot, from side to side and has been returned to its manufacturers, so there is room for this one. Last night we assembled it. The better half applied hot soapy water to it, as is her way with things she encounters. It is the same as tom cats pissing on them, a way of taking ownership – but much more hygienic.

It looks very stylish in our living room. At each end there are my Eighteenth-Century Chinese yoke chairs: something my father never aspired to. Tables bear the traces of family histories. I know one (inherited by one fine painter from another and then bequeathed to a third) that has a large gash where one member of the second painter’s household went for another with a kitchen knife. Ours has had a more bourgeois life. There are traces of spilt wine, ghosts of tea cups, small gouges where scissors slipped when Christmas presents were being wrapped. I hope that they will not all disappear under the better half’s soapy water.