Yesterday, I had an account of the memorial service for John Gross, the late literary critic, and all-around intellectual star. Actually, “account” is not the right word: I jotted some notes on that service. Jot some more notes today, about London? These’ll be mainly light. I figure we can go back to the gore and awfulness of the world in a later column.
At lunch one day, we were talking about the upcoming royal wedding: Prince William to Kate Middleton. And this led to some memories of Diana, William’s mother. Paul Johnson knew her — tutored her, chiefly in history, I believe (and royal history). He said she described herself as “thick as two planks.” Frankly, I think anyone who would describe herself that way, probably isn’t. Then Paul said this: She had beautiful handwriting (as her letters to him attest). And she was the most “intuitive” person he ever met — ever. She could read a person instantly, and bond with that person.
In the last couple of days, I have read his Brief Lives, sketches of the good and the great he has known. Diana is included. The book, published last year, starts out with a superb essay on biography — on biography itself, as it has developed through time. And then we have about 200 brief lives, in alphabetical order, starting with Adenauer and ending with Woodrow Wyatt, a journalist, publisher, and politician. The book is a joy of a read — Johnsonian all the way.
He says he refrained from writing about living people, a lot of them. (He writes about some who are with us still — Tony Blair, for one.) My hope is, he does sketches of the now living, and puts them aside, for future publication. Maybe he already has.
Johnson’s production is unslowed. His book about Socrates comes out in the fall. Following that will be a book about Darwin. And, guess what? He will be a guest on National Review’s French cruise, in May. We are a lucky mag.
‐Better give you some links: Brief Lives is available from the American Amazon in a Kindle version, here. You can get it from the British Amazon as a flesh-and-blood book (so to speak): here. London Journal Part I? Here.
‐In Part I, I knocked the BBC, that perfectly knockable network, or swindle, or monopoly, or whatever it is. But let me say this for it: Many of its correspondents and personalities are — how shall we say? Not favored by nature. Unlikely to appear in People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue. I like that. A lot of these men and women look like character actors; look like normal — very normal — people. They wouldn’t be allowed within a thousand miles of American television (meaning, the newscasts).
Good for the BBC. Have I ever written that before? I doubt it . . .
‐I watched a fair amount of television concerning Libya: the beginning of the Libyan war, or action, or whatever we should call it. The assumption — on the part of everyone — was that Iraq was a Very Bad Thing, and must not be repeated. This was an axiom planted deep. There was the clear smell of shame concerning Iraq — again, on the part of everyone: anchorman, correspondent, politician, guest analyst.
My view, as you may know, is much different: I think the British should be proud of their role in Iraq, proud of what the coalition has done for a country, a region, and us all. No one wants a repeat of Iraq: the length, the casualties, the difficulties. But to consign that effort to a realm of shame and disgrace is bizarre, both morally and geopolitically.
‐Paul Johnson made a point that others have made, for several decades, but that bears repeating: The fact that Qaddafi is partly a clown — a cross-dressing, makeup-wearing fool — has obscured the fact that he is one of the cruelest, most malevolent, most murderous men alive.
Also, you don’t hold absolute power for more than 40 years without, at a minimum, a dictatorial canniness.
‐Was in a cab. Cabbie asked me where I was from. Told him. I said, “Are you a Londoner, sir?” He said, “Through and through.” I learned that he is a watcher of Fox News. He wanted to ask me about American politics — the 2012 presidential race, for example. He knows plenty himself about American politics.
After a while, he said, “Can I ask you something? Does Sarah Palin have nice legs? I’ve only seen her from the top up.” I told him.
He later said, “Can I ask you something else — strictly off the record? Strictly off the record, now.” This, I should tell you, was before the start of the Libyan action. “The fact that we British won’t go in and help the Libyans — does that have to do with the oil companies? The oil companies not wanting to spoil relations with Qaddafi?”
He seemed very uncomfortable with the possibility of it — pained by it.
‐In a London taxi, you can not only cross your legs: You can practically do calisthenics. In a New York taxi, you may be reading your BlackBerry up against your nose.
‐Walking about London, I noticed that there were no trash cans — very few. You can walk for what seems like miles before you can throw something away. And — there is virtually no litter. In New York, there is a trash can every few yards, and the place is a dump.
I mentioned the paucity of London trash cans to a friend. She said, “That happened because of the IRA: fewer places to put bombs in.”
‐Walking about Bolton Gardens, I felt exceptionally safe: because I knew that principled, tough-minded, effective policies were in place . . .
(Memo to readers unfamiliar with the American foreign-policy set: The above is a reference, or allusion, to John R. Bolton, “Truest Reaganaut,” as a memento he once received put it.)
‐It’s getting hard to ask people on the street for directions. Why? Because they’re on the phone, or listening to music. Not many pedestrians are ungadgeted.
‐It was good to see Buckingham Palace spiffed up — shiny, gleaming. (I’m talking about the outside; I was not invited in.) Such a site ought to be kept gleaming, always. Years ago, I noticed that the Lincoln Memorial was very run down: in shabby condition. The letters on the walls were “bleeding,” if you know what I mean. I thought that was terrible: What are tax dollars for, if not to keep the Lincoln Memorial in shape? (Yes, there are defenses to pay for. Please just allow me some rhetoric.) On a return visit, a couple of years later, I was relieved to see that the memorial was in excellent shape. If the federal government can do anything: Let it maintain the Lincoln Memorial, and win wars.
‐Popped into St Martin-in-the-Fields. Heard a bit of a choir rehearsal. A huge, and hugely fat, bum, with an enormous head, was slumped in a pew, sleeping it off. Looked straight out of Hogarth.
‐Shall we have a little language? The variety of voices in Britain — the variety of Englishes — is wonderful. You can hardly believe that all these people come from the same country, speaking in those various ways.
You can hear a bouquet of British voices in Flare Path, the Terence Rattigan play now packing them into the Haymarket theater. What a moving play this is, and what a moving production Trevor Nunn has directed. It just kills you. If there are dry eyes in the house, those must be very hard-boiled eyes indeed.
Some have complained that the play has a happy ending (or happy endings, really). I say, let 999 plays have unhappy endings. But can’t the thousandth end happily? Can’t life sometimes be right? Is that so unrealistic? I don’t think so.
‐Walking through Kensington Gardens, you should hear five varieties of British English and five foreign languages — that’s in the first ten minutes or so. As you continue, you will add.
‐On the BBC, a correspondent standing in front of Qaddafi’s compound said “ginormous.” This is a blending of “gigantic” and “enormous.” She said it as though it were a normal, mainstream word. Is it?
‐British speech can be wonderfully direct — same with the signage. I’m thinking of a sign in Holland Park, in front of a kind of sandbox: “Dog Toilet.”
‐An Englishman said to me, “That’s for definite” — his version of “That’s for sure.”
‐A friend told me of an expression that the queen has used. Warning of a tricky stairway to navigate, Her Majesty said, “Careful, or you’ll come a purler” — i.e., take a tumble.
‐An ATM, wondering if you want a receipt, asks, “Would you like an advice slip?”
‐Bravo to Caffè Nero, a chain in London — for putting the accent, and the right accent, on the “e” in “Caffè.” That’s how you do it all’italiana. Most establishments, calling themselves a “caffè,” skip the accent. “Café,” in English-speaking lands, you can do with or without.
‐At John Gross’s memorial service, Martin Amis explained how John had taught him not to begin consecutive paragraphs with the same word. There’s no hard-and-fast rule. But “good writers don’t,” John told Amis, as reported by the latter. And Amis has never done it again.
I used to think the same — but don’t anymore. I think you should begin a paragraph with the natural word. And if that word is the same one that began the previous paragraph, so be it. Basically, I think you should always, in all circumstances, write the natural word. Worry about repetition will drive you to the funny farm — will prevent you from writing at all.
That said, I’m loath to begin three consecutive paragraphs with the same word! (That’s in real writing, I mean. In breezy lil’ web columns, all bets are off.)
‐You may remember something I said about John shortly after he died — in this Impromptus. More than once, he said to me, “It’s amazing how you can write about concerts and not keep using the word ‘perform’ or ‘performance.’ You have so many ways of saying those things.” While writing my “New York Chronicle” for the February New Criterion, I was conscious of using the words “perform” and “performance” a lot — more than usual. I was going to e-mail John to tell him so. It was in that period that we learned of his death.
I’m sure I’ll never overuse “perform” and its cousins without thinking of him!