Solar by Ian McEwan

Sunday 25th September   

Brilliant, hilarious and heart-warming – a tour de force.  How does he do it?  How does he pull together his story from such disparate ideas; a dead-beat but brilliant physicist whose personal life is a mess, a murder that never was, global warming, and the world of business and science intertwined?  The man is a genius; unfortunately the genius is also a man.  I just cannot believe the women in this book, they are ridiculous.  And yet I seem to recall he understood women so well in his earlier books, I haven’t read them all but in ‘The innocent’ and ‘Atonement’ his women are all too real.

Believe me, I am no feminist, although you may be thinking I am becoming one after yesterday’s and today’s blogs, but no, I leave all of that to my mother. Women are absolutely the equal to men, especially in the realms of stupidity, and, by and large, have an easy time of it, except maybe for childbirth, something incidentally that most men are secretly jealous of.  Well, look at my family, for example – we have all existed on the largesse of men’s labours and not our own; I did work for several years but I never had to support a wife (husband) and children, my money was my own to spend, not to support others.

Anyway, the point I was making was that the women in McEwan’s book are just so compliant, so willing to have sex at every opportunity with, and I know it is meant to be funny, an increasingly fat and balding short man with bad personal habits.  Unrealistic, no, unbelievable I would say.  And they are all so happy for him to have other lovers, and he acquires women who are just as complacent all over the place.  Does it really happen like this, out there in the real world, the one I have never seemed to be able to break into?  I think not, not really.  This is, at bottom, a middle-aged male erotic fantasy I am afraid.

But I loved so much else about the book.  I always watch Horizon, so I am already a physics junkie, and just love all the stuff about photons and electrons and photovoltaics.  I don’t pretend to understand anything more than a vague idea of it all, but McEwan writes with such confidence that whether his science is real and works or is just made up matters not a whit.

So overall a success, provided you suspend common-sense long enough, which actually may well be the formula for writing a best-seller anyway.

Ways of Seeing

Saturday 24th September   

Memory plays funny tricks, doesn’t it?  I had wanted to write my daily blog about an old series of programmes on BBC2, way back in the early seventies, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it might have been called.  I racked my brains for days, I couldn’t even remember the presenter’s name, and he was more than a presenter, he was an iconic art critic.  Then when I was waiting for a coffee in Raouls, Maida Vale, it suddenly came to me.  Of course, it was Ways of Seeing by John Berger, and I had watched it with Adrian in that wretched flat in Hackney, how could I have forgotten the name.  I scrabbled in my bag for my notebook, but I didn’t have a pen with me, a rare omission.  Then later on the very same day, I couldn’t remember it again, so I resorted to the internet and found it.

The point of the programmes was to make you see Art in a totally different way.  At the time I remember Adrian was more enthusiastic about it than I, he even bought the book, but a couple of years later some of Berger’s comments kept coming to the surface of my mind, especially when I was looking at paintings, so I then bought the book too.  Each programme had a different focus, but it was mostly about understanding the context in which the paintings had originally been painted; and now, as they are viewed in a different time, and mostly in Galleries or in reproduction, we see them totally differently from the way they were intended.  One in particular made me almost jump with realisation.  It was about the female nude; I had obviously seen paintings of nudes on many occasions, and not really thought much about them, except that historically it would seem, plumpness was far more desirable than it is today.  The revelation to me was that the men who had painted these women so many years ago had done so from the male point of view, reflecting male desires and ideas of perfection, hence the abundance of flesh, the obvious lack of bodily hair, and the easy availability of nudity itself, as if the woman was naked for his gratification, for the approval almost of the male viewer.  Women were not, or were very rarely painted for their own sake, or just as being themselves.

This had never struck me before, this idea of ownership, and it still goes on in ‘girlie magazines’ and of course the ubiquitous page three of the tabloids, where girls, almost always in their late teens, are displayed in various stages of undress with ridiculous smiles on their faces, as if their only reason for existing was to titillate men.  Maybe it is; they are well paid for their efforts apparently.

Learning to drive

Friday 23rd September   

I grew up, as you know, with Grandma and my mother, and no car. I later learnt that my father, who was completely absent as I grew up, was a bit of a motoring enthusiast; but his name was hardly mentioned at home, or even that he had liked driving.  I never really considered learning to drive, we lived in London, and had no family, none at least that we wanted to visit, living anywhere that would have encouraged us to buy a car, let alone learn to drive the thing.  Besides it all seemed so expensive, the cost of the lessons, and my mother and I never seemed to have enough money to spend on basic upkeep of the house, so a car was just never considered.

Edward, of course, drove, and would often hire a car for a weekend, or when we visited Italy.  The biggest shock of my life however was my fortieth birthday; we had a little party with about twenty friends invited.  The usual nice presents, a first edition Fay Wheldon, a couple of CDs, and some gloves; I knew that Edward would leave his till last, and I was anticipating some jewellery.  Imagine my surprise when he handed me a small package, and opening it, expecting earrings or maybe a watch, there nestled in a white leather box was a car key.  He led me to the window, and there parked in the street was my very own brand new Fiat Uno.

Well, after much hard work and God knows how many lessons I did pass my test, on the third attempt I might add.  But I had never really wanted a car; I was much too polite to refuse it, and inevitably Edward started borrowing it, and then it just seemed natural that although I had learned to drive, whenever we went anywhere, he would drive.  I did occasionally use it myself, to pick someone up, or for a short trip out of town.  It came in for most use when Edward was poorly and we had to see various specialists, some outside of London.  I sold the car a year ago, I had only used it a few times on my own and there seemed no point in continuing to tax and insure it.

So, I have returned to being a non-driver, though you never know when I might need to become one again, so I am really glad that, despite never intending to, I did learn to drive.

The changing of the guard

Thursday 22nd September   

We are living through a period of history that will be adjudged as of the greatest importance.  For over two thousand years Europe was of pre-eminent importance. Oh, I know that other civilisations were doing things too, but almost all progress was happening here in Europe, and ever since Capitalism really got going it was Europe that led the way, until probably the end of the First World War, when America overtook Britain and became the most powerful country in the world.  And so it seemed it would always be; for most of my life, I, like almost everyone else, couldn’t imagine a world where America wasn’t and never would be again, number one.

But I do believe that that is what is happening.  The world we all grew up in, that safe secure place where what-ever happened, what-ever scrapes and wars we got into, there was always that rock called America, despised as much as admired, to rescue us.  But I fear it is rapidly fading, and we will shortly be entering a new phase of heartless capitalism that will make even the slave traders of two hundred years ago seem like benevolent philanthropists.  Well, maybe not as bad as that, but there is certainly a cruelty in the Chinese psychology, and a love of money that appears to transcend all other concerns.  I don’t mean to be in any way racist, but what people forget is that we, in Europe have this much longer history of slowly growing wealth and a general consensus that poverty is an evil in itself, and I can see that their rise to global dominance and wealth has happened just a tad too quickly for them to have assimilated all our values.

Well, maybe I am wrong, and I genuinely hope that I am, but I somehow feel that I am right.  There was a rather foolish and famous (Japanese I think) historian who said, after the Berlin Wall came down, that we were witnessing the end of History.  You only have to look back to 1911 to see how much has happened, why on earth should not the next hundred years be just as momentous, do you really think human beings have learnt that much wisdom in a century.  And just as Spain had to hand over to France, who in turn lost out to Britain, who were then overtaken by our American friends, the Chinese will rule for a few years before they in their turn are also eclipsed.  It is just the natural order of things; we are simply watching the slow-motion changing of the guards.

London is never finished

Wednesday 21st September   

As I get older I notice more and more that London is never finished, it has actually become one giant building site; what with the Olympics (Westfield and all) and now Crossrail adding to the rapidly frustrating feeling of living in a never-ending treadmill as we continually find new (old actually) sites just ripe for re-development.  One wonders why they (the mysterious planners behind everything) do not simply stop and pause, and ask themselves what they want it to actually look like when it is done; I suspect that even they do not know, they just know they have to constantly keep knocking things down and rebuilding.  And even Oxford Street, the street I used to know so well, feels a stranger to me.  It is being transformed (ripped apart I almost feel) before my very eyes; there is a vast block rising from behind blue hoardings between Bond Street and Marble Arch – the actual site was boarded up so long ago I cannot even remember what used to be there.  This leaves Selfridges, standing opposite, now more than ever resembling a relic from the past, with its’ ornate canopy and gilded clock waving to us from a far more splendid past, as it desperately tries to dream up new schemes to modernise itself, such as all the in-store concessions,(horrid!) and the ploy of having the entire row of front windows identically displaying a single designer perfume, that in all probability will smell just like all the rest, overblown, sickly and instantly forgettable, a bit like Selfridges itself is becoming. It is simply no use trying to get up Oxford Street by bus now, as the behemoth that is Crossrail Bond Street has swallowed up almost all of the road; one wonders if the combination of the internet, the Westfields and the shocking traffic congestion will finally be the death-knell for this beloved shopper’s paradise – or will they simply knock it all down and start again.

I have recently visited an old friend who has bought a flat in dockland, just down by the river on the Isle of Dogs.  She is just opposite Greenwich, where as you know I visited with Adrian and his son Justin on that fateful Saturday afternoon – oh, so many years ago now. I decided to go by tube to Bank, and then the DLR down to Island Gardens.  Although I have been a regular user of the tube and buses I had never before been on the Docklands Light Railway.  It was quite amazing, more like a gentle rollercoaster ride than a railway, and what an innovation – no driver.  We wound our way along the raised track winding between huge blocks of glass curtain walling and over acres of water and I marvelled at the quite incredible architecture.  I felt like Noddy in his little yellow car visiting Toytown; all the steel and glass buildings with funny little triangles and sharp angles or impossible curves, and bright blues and whites and yellows.  But even here, amidst all this modernity, almost a new city in it-self, there were still boarded up sites of grassy wasteland just waiting for the bulldozers and the cranes.

It just amazes me that this project, this city, this town I call my home, this London, is never finished, and never will be.

Singing the blues

Tuesday 20th September   

Despite my repeated and oft-quoted dislike for “pop” music, I am not totally stuck in a time warp musically.  My lifelong passion has, of course, been classical music, especially the piano, but I am not averse to other genres.  I have a CD of Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’, which I simply love, though much ‘Jazz’ leaves me cold; I think it is the honesty of the playing which I love.  And I often tune in to Radio 2 on a Monday evening to catch Paul Jones playing ‘the blues’, well ‘Rhythm and Blues’ he calls it, I just know it as ‘the blues’.   I just love those old black bluesmen, often with just a guitar, singing in their deep rich and sad voices; and no, it quite cheers me up actually.  I know that they are singing about the hardships of their lives, and I am fully aware of the awfulness of slavery and the civil rights movement in America in the fifties and sixties, but I believe there is a thread of hope and human joy in these recordings too.  Who can fail to be moved by Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’, with its’ tragic subject matter, but above all I always hear the hope in her voice too.

I don’t own any ‘blues’ CDs, and actually I cannot remember the last time I bought anything on CD; I listen to the radio now mostly. I can remember the radio, the wireless as it was called then, as a child, and how we would all sit around and listen on Sunday evenings to ‘Sing Something Simple’, (and yes, Grandma would sometimes sing merrily along too) or that one where they read letters out from soldiers serving abroad.  Grandma, of course, controlled our listening; it was clearly understood that I was not to switch on the wireless; that was always Grandma’s job. The wireless set itself was ancient and must have been from the late forties, it was a piece of furniture on its’ own and had a fretwork sunset design over a big cloth covered speaker, and lots of valves which took minutes to warm up.  We foolishly jettisoned this in the late sixties, and got a real Bush transistor radio, which has long gone too. I remember I was always allowed to listen to Uncle Mac on a Saturday morning, with all those songs about teddy bears picnics and puppies in the window, and three billy-goats gruff, but my very favourite was Sparky; how I longed to be Sparky, even though I showed no aptitude for the piano at all.

I have one of those clever little digital radios now with all the stations tuned in, so when the mood takes me I press Programme 2 and listen to and often find myself singing along to the blues, I don’t really know the words, I just sort of vamp-along (as I believe the expression goes).  In my younger days, when I was a bit more serious than I am now, I would never have imagined myself, at sixty-three, glass of red wine in my hand, puddy-tat staring strangely at me, waltzing round the room and happily singing the blues.

Westfield East or Westfield West

Monday 19th September   

Westfield East or Westfield West; I will not rush to visit either I can assure you. I have never been enamoured with shopping malls. They are certainly impressive; our very own cathedrals built for the worship of consumerism, but to my mind they are all so shockingly similar, with their white gleaming walls, marble effect floors, curved stairways and transparent elevators, and the shops all look just the same too.

I much prefer a traditional high street, with its’ organic mix of old and new, a few independent traders along with the familiar names, but even this is fast disappearing nowadays, and most high streets now resemble a bad set of teeth, with boarded up and whitewashed windows and ‘to let’ signs popping up everywhere you look.  A few years back there was a rash of estate agents and building societies springing up all over the place, then we had the invasion of the mobile phone outlets, and now we are left with a few well-known but boring chain-stores, (I mean, who actually shops in Peacocks?), plenty of charity shops and a few disconsolate traders hanging on for dear life and lots of empty shops.

I suppose that this is progress and of course more and more of us are buying things on the internet.  Books and music I can understand; you don’t need to see the latest Julian Barnes to decide to buy it, the name is enough.  But who in their right minds would buy clothes and shoes this way, without trying them on, or feeling the fabric or the cut, but apparently thousands do.  I suppose that this is a modern day continuation of catalogue shopping, something my family never indulged in, thank goodness.

Have you seen the advertisements for Westfield, all those smart thirty-somethings in trendy clothes and looking so smug with their lifestyles, not a person over forty to be seen;  women of my age, although we have plenty of disposable income are quite invisible to the advertisers, unless it is on daytime television, desperately trying to sell us stair-lifts or equity release.  So no, I shall not be rushing out to Westfield East or Westfield West in a hurry.  Maybe I will just wait for Westfield North by North-West to open.

 

The demise of Roman numerals

Sunday 18th September   

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was reading an Anthony Trollope; well I am reading, and re-reading in many cases, the whole collection actually.  I have been a lifelong member of the Folio Society, and collected the complete works years ago, there must be about forty volumes.  I always intended to read them all in the order they were written, but instead have found myself cherry-picking and reading them as the fancy takes me.  The chapters are in Roman numerals, we learnt these as a matter of course at school, and in my little short stories over the years I invariably used them to number my own little chapters. They were in much more common usage a few years ago, but have lately fallen almost completely out of fashion.  I seem to remember that all BBC television programmes used to end with a BBC logo and the year date in Roman numerals, you know MCMXCVIII and so forth.  Almost a secret language I suspect, and they conveniently disguised how old the programme actually was, but I don’t seem to have noticed them at all lately, have they stopped using them completely, or have they been replaced by the universal 1998, perhaps I should watch a bit more carefully.  Books are now almost universal in using standard dates, and hardly anyone numbers their chapters in Roman anymore.

Was our having to learn by rote Roman numerals just another attempt to hold back modernity, or was it all a part of the British Empire’s worship of the two millennia earlier Roman Empire. At school we were taught loads about the Romans and how wonderful they were until 410 a.d., and the Visigoths sacking of Rome, then barbarity and wilderness; a great passed-over void, until the Normans rescued us from obscurity and restored order and stability. History is almost always indistinguishable from propaganda, I have since learnt that far from being a wilderness the ages of the Ancient Britons, and the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons were wonderful years of progress and art and social development.  We were just brainwashed that the Romans were so wonderful, with their central heating, their straight roads and their statues and their complicated numerals.

The onset of autumn

Saturday 17th September   

It is quite amazing really, we all know perfectly well that autumn follows summer, and yet we are so often caught napping, and the early onset of autumn takes us by surprise.  Perhaps it is because there is no clear delineation; no first daffodils of spring; no first cake-icing of frost dusting the ground; there is nothing specific to tell you that autumn is here again.  Perhaps we are all still clinging desperately on to the idea of it still being summer, thinking about the weekends that passed us by, when we should have been out in the sunshine and for some reason we were closeted indoors and missed the rare sighting of the sun. Even I, a few posts ago, was hoping against hope for a last hooray of summer this September.  Well it almost happened, but not quite, and inexorably the seasons are turning, the harvesting is almost over, the fruit is ripening on the trees, if it hasn’t already fallen, and the leaves are beginning to turn through their rainbow of colours once more.  Strange, really, that the act of dying has such a poignant beauty about it.

The long school holidays are over, children returning to their studies, the tubes and buses are even more crowded than usual and now we are on that long helter-skelter slope into Christmas again. But I still love autumn; maybe my favourite season after all.  I particularly love the early mornings when I often get up and take a constitutional in the park, it is still almost dark, and the mist lies in hazy bands in grassy dips until the sun, pale and watery, struggles through the grey layers of clouds and burns it gently away.  In the London parks you can often see squirrels, incredibly tame they are, and totally oblivious to mankind and road traffic, they are perfect adaptors and scamper here and there in the morning sunlight.  Many creatures now seem to survive perfectly well in the city, I often see a rather imposing heron flying onto the lily-pads in an ornamental pond, and there are foxes in most suburban and even inner city gardens these days.  This gives me enormous hope and never fails to lift my spirits, but I do wonder sometimes how they will fare in the winter, how many will survive.  Always enough, it seems, to carry on next year.  So we shouldn’t be sad at summer’s passing, we should look forward to this time of closing up shop, of husbanding our resources, of preparing for the winter to come, we should take comfort from these little signs, these warnings of the onset of autumn.

The Circus

Friday 16th September   

I have only once been to a circus, when I must only have been eight I suppose.  It was on Barnes Common if I recall, and though we only went the once, I used to see the posters every year; it may well have been a birthday treat for me.  I was astounded, I had never seen a circus before, or a zoo, and this was pre-television and I had never been to a cinema either.  Children nowadays are often visibly bored when they first see wild animals in a zoo or a circus; they have seen so many clips on the internet or television of cheetahs chasing down antelope, or rhino’s charging, that the reality of rather mangy, bored and docile-looking animals comes as a disappointment.  I had only seen hefalumps as I used to call them in picture books, Babar the elephant was a favourite of mine, but these were line drawings not even photographs.  The shock, can you imagine the shock at seeing real elephants.  My god, they were huge – I had no idea they would be so big. Frightened as I undoubtedly was, I was fascinated too.  And the horses with their plumes and girls turning somersaults on their backs, the ringmaster in his red coat and top hat, the acrobats on the flying trapeze just flying so effortlessly from swing to swing, and there were seals balancing balls on their snouts, and jugglers throwing Indian clubs high into the big top, and flame-throwers putting lighted rag-covered batons into their mouths, and a knife thrower who burst balloons in a circle around a pretty sequin covered woman, and scariest of all there were clowns, with huge flapping feet, baggy trousers, and red noses and big-big painted grins. For some reason, the clowns scared me the most; no matter how hard they fell over and were whacked with planks they always had these big grins on their faces.  They ran around the raised ring, hurtling towards me, coming from both directions towards me, and I hid my face in Grandma’s big woolly cardy.

The elephants had been huge and lumbered roiling round the ring and lifted their huge flat feet high into the air above my head, the horses galloped inches from my face, and the seals honked and clapped their flippers right near to me, but none of this really scared me.  It was the clowns I was frightened of, and I still don’t like them.  I never find them funny, and of course as I grew older and learnt of the sinister history of the eighteenth century Italian Pierrots, and the Commedia Dell Arte it only confirmed my suspicions that anyone who wants to be a clown must be concealing a rather nasty person underneath.

I have never been to a real circus since, although I have seen the French-Canadian Cirque de Soleil; a nice modern take on an old tradition.