Monday, March 28, 2005

BOOK: Annette Hope, "A Caledonian Feast"

Annette Hope: A Caledonian Feast. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2002. 184195375X. xv + 318 pp.

Buying this book seemed somehow a natural thing to do. Some years ago I had read Scott's Waverley, and there first heard of the two famous medieval Scottish narrative poems, The Bruce and The Wallace. Since I am fond of epic poetry, this excited my curiosity and I eventually noticed that an affordable paperback edition of The Bruce is available as part of the Canongate Classics series from Canongate Books (since then, they also published The Wallace). The series also contains a number of other interesting books by Scottish authors, and soon a considerable “to buy” list formed itself in my mind. A Caledonian Feast was perhaps not near the very top of the list, but it was high enough that last year, when Canongate's web site offered a fantastic 50% discount on most of their Classics titles, I bought it in addition to about ten other books from that series. After all, why not? It's a book about food in Scotland; I am somewhat interested in Scotland, and certainly very interested in food, and if the book is being offered at half the price surely it would be silly not to buy it.

And yet, as soon as I started reading it, it dawned on me that it has perhaps been a long time since I had bought, and read, anything quite so outré. For most of the books I buy and read, if somebody sees me reading them and asks what the book is about, I can usually provide at least a moderately reasonable answer; it's a novel about this or that, it's a book of poems, it's the biography of So-and-So, it's about the history of such-and-such a period or country, etc. Even if the person who asked the question is not an avid reader or a fan of that subject, he or she can understand that it is a subject that someone might conceivably be interested in, and that it is not too bizarre to find someone actually reading a book on that subject. But as soon as I had been asked about the Caledonian Feast, what was I supposed to say? “Well, it's a book about the history of food in Scotland.” As soon as I had said it, it was clear to me how utterly absurd this sounds. What a supremely out-of-the-way topic! What's next? The history of bowhunting techniques in Inner Mongolia? A practical guide to the restoration of antique banana straighteners? And sure enough, although none of the people who asked me about the book explicitly suggested any of these things, it was clear from their reactions that they must have been thinking along these lines: Why on earth would anybody be interested in something like that? How could anybody even come across such a topic, let alone find a book about it, let alone buy it and read it? And in truth I couldn't provide a good answer to such questions. I had to mumble something about the book having been offered at such a discount that I just couldn't turn it down.

Not that I regret having bought and read the book, of course. It's just that never before, I think, has a book seemed so natural for me to buy and read and yet so outlandish when I had to describe and explain to others what it was about. And never before have I been quite so explicitly aware of the fact that from our point of view, Scotland is (quite reasonably) an extremely obscure part of the world. It is, after all, only a small and remote part of the UK, a country with which we never had much to do, and of which we are therefore only dimly aware; we are thus very reasonably even less aware of its individual components, such as Scotland. The only thing we know about Scotland is that its inhabitants have a stereotypical reputation for stinginess. Surely if I threw a dart into a map of the world and read the name of the region or province which had been hit by it, the result could hardly be significantly more obscure than Scotland. Surely it wouldn't occur to anybody to think about Scotland, much less read a book about the history of its food. And I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that; I think it is all quite reasonable. There is not much more reason to be interested in Scotland than there is to be interested in Inner Mongolia, and surely nobody (well, hardly anybody, in this country at any rate) is interested in Inner Mongolia. It's just that I have never really thought about this before, and I find it somehow interesting now.

(Yes, yes. I know. Shame on me for using Inner Mongolia here as some kind of stereotypical nobody-ever-heard-of-it backwater kind of place. Feel free to think of whatever stereotypical boondocks you prefer instead.)

Anyway, to say a few words about the book itself. It's a very nice book, readable, informative, full of interesting facts and amusing anecdotes. It discusses the history of various aspects of food from the middle ages down to the present time, and is based on many different sources, including well-known authors such as Dr. Johnson or Walter Scott, old memoirs and cook-books, writings of various early experts on and improvers of agriculture, as well as modern academic studies. Each chapter deals with a different topic: hunting, fishing, farming, livestock, fruit and vegetables, the history of meals, culinary influence of other countries, and the food of Scots who emigrated abroad. Below are some bits of information that I found particularly interesting.

Scotland used to be covered by forests, which were slowly cut down by people. However, the rich landowners didn't want to be deprived of their game, which led to the first steps to preserve some of the forests and the animals in them, even in cases where they were damaging their tentants' crops (pp. 1-5). Game was the only source of fresh meat during much of the year (p. 9).

This is how the ripeness of grouse used to be judged: “If they could hear maggots moving in it, it was declared fit to eat.” (P. 24.) So much about fresh meat, I guess.

For many centuries, most of the fishing around Scotland was done by the Dutch, who were much better organized (p. 39).

It's interesting how the price and popularity of some kinds of food may vary with time. Oysters were very plentiful and cheap in the 18th century (p. 57). As for crustaceans, “they were regarded simply as a nuisance by Scottish fishermen” until the 1960s, when the British tourists returning from Italy brought the concept of lobsters as a delicacy (p. 60). Artichokes used to be much more common in the previous centuries than now (pp. 183-4).

A certain kind of herrings are “so plump and succulent that they are nicknamed ‘Glasgow Magistrates’” (p. 63).

Until the 17th century, fields used to be divided among farmers based on a system known as “runrig”, where efforts were taken to give each farmer both some good and some poor land, and redistribute it every few years to minimize any injustice (pp. 80-81). Alas, this wonderful system was eventually abandoned as being too inefficient. When will humankind learn that efficiency and quality of life are quite, quite incompatible?

Students and apprentices brought a bag of oatmeal from home; “Meal Monday, that day in January when classes in universities were suspended so that students might return home and replenish their meal bags, was abolished as an anachronism only in the late 1950s” (p. 87).

In the 18th century, a Sir John Sinclair promoted sheep-farming to alleviate the poverty of the peasants, but the result was that landlords took up sheep-farming themselves, evicting their tenants and causing even greater poverty (p. 126-7).

A wonderful, touching praise of a leg of mutton by a 19th-century judge, Lord Cockburn; “It left its savour on the palate, like the savour of a good deed on the heart” (p. 127).

“When meal began to run short in spring, cattle were bled and their blood was boiled into cakes” (p. 128). Unsurprisingly, the animals ended up being so weak that they couldn't stand up on their own.

Often, improvements in agriculture were first promoted by educated and wealthy people, while the poor farmers resisted them. However, sometimes the reason is simply that they were too exhausted by their ordinary farming work to be able to spend extra time on e.g. gardening (p. 176). Potatoes also took time to establish themselves, despite many good qualities (pp. 95-7). Nonetheless production of fruit and vegetables improved a lot in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, Scotland is “the largest exporter of raspberries within the European Union” (p. 181); but the cultivation of many kinds of vegetables is being abandoned due to economic and structural factors (pp. 182-3).

The very interesting Chapter Six shows how the meals changed over time. For example, dinner may have been eaten as early as eleven or noon during some periods (pp. 201, 212), and as late as five or six o'clock during others (p. 222). In the 18th century many people rose very early; “Lawyers were consulted at four or five in the morning” (p. 202). Early dinners meant that supper was a very important meal, and during the age of Enlightenment the supper was often the occasion for intellectual discussions (p. 220). The Scottish breakfast is somewhat legendary due to the writings of Dr. Johnson, Scott, and a number of 19th-century travellers, but before the 18th century breakfasts were really quite modest affairs (pp. 199, 202, 205). As an alternative to supper, a curious meal known as “high tea” became popular in the late 19th and in the first half of the 20th century (p. 225).

The diet of the poor remained very insufficient as late as the early 20th century; during the first world war, only a third of the conscripts were found fit for military service (pp. 207-8). I think it's very important to remember things like this whenever you hear somebody praising the olden days. Sure, our time is miserable in all sorts of ways, but for the majority of people, going back a hundred or even just fifty years would make things only much worse, not better.

A recipe for gingerbread ends with this remark: “Best if not eaten for three days — but I know few who have proved this” (p. 243).

Chapter Seven, about foreign influence on Scottish cuisine, is also very interesting. Vikings introduced a greater awareness of the sea as a source of food (p. 249). In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was much trade with the Dutch, leading also to some culinary influence (p. 250). English influence grew in the 18th century, after the union of England and Scotland (p. 251). Tea also became popular in that period (p. 252). Italians brought ice-cream in the late 19th, and Asians brought all sorts of exotic dishes in the 20th century (pp. 255-6). French influence was the strongest and most lasting of all, however (p. 257).

At the end of each chapter there are also a few recipes for dishes somehow related to the topic of that chapter. Since I don't do much cooking myself, I read these recipes as somewhat of a curiosity. One could say that recipes are a (non-literary) genre of their own, a peculiar subspecies of technical language with its own terminology, usages, expressions, even jargon. Of much of this terminology, and indeed of the objects and processess to which the terminology refers, I have only a vague understanding; so that, although I can't say that I learned anything meaningful from reading these recipes, I nevertheless found them charming reading; recipes as a genre remind me somewhat of alchemy, equally full of mysterious processess described with terse and to me fairly opaque terminology. It's a fairly different language from the sort that I am used to reading; this is why it fascinated me. Of course, I'm sure that a person who knows more about cooking would also appreciate these recipes for their contents, and might get many interesting ideas from them. I for one cannot bring myself to really appreciate the details of these recipes, although I respect the effort that was undoubtedly required to discover them. For example, suppose that you are interesting in baking some kind of cake. There are several dozen possible ingredients for the dough (a number of different kinds of flour, sugar, fats, dairy substances, eggs, etc.), of which each particular recipe selects but a handful. There are thousands, perhaps millions (perhaps gazillions!) of possible combinations, but only a comparably small subset are really used in actual recipes. And once you have selected a set of ingredients, you have to mix them in the correct proportions. You need half a pound of A, half a pound of B, a 1/4 pound of C, a tablespoon of D, half a tablespoon of E, and 1/3 of a pint of F. Again there are millions of ways of choosing these proportions, and whoever discovered the recipe somehow had to alight upon the correct one. Now what I am wondering is: how did they discover the correct set of ingredients, and having done that how did they discover the correct set of proportions? There are too many possibilities to do it all by brute force. Even doing just local optimization (adding or subtracting one ingredient at a time, or increasing or decreasing the amount of one ingredient at a time) would probably require too many steps, especially since each step of optimization requires one to actually use up the ingredients and prepare and eat the dish in question. No, it can't have been done that way. Apparently the people who invented these recipes, who were undoubtedly cooks and housewives with decades of experience behind them, have a good (perhaps an intuitive) understanding of the processes going on in the preparation of food, and are able to use this knowledge to select a good combination and proportions of ingredients fairly quickly, after trying and discarding perhaps only a handful, at most a few dozen, rather than thousands or millions, of less successful or tasty combinations. It would be great if the cookbooks taught these principles, the true fruits of decades-long experience, rather than merely providing recipes which one can follow like a robot but without really understanding what one is doing. But perhaps they do; I'm after all not in a position to comment on this, as I never read the preliminary matter in the cookbooks (where things like this would presumably be explained). Such an explanation of the background of cooking would also have to open the reader's eye to an understanding of the little but presumably important differences between the recipes. For example, in this book there are a number of recipes for various kinds of cake. Obviously each of them contains some kind of flour, some water, perhaps some butter or some other fatty substance, perhaps some milk or water; this is what they all have in common. But the details are different in each case; for example, there seem to be a myriad of different kinds of flour, made of half a dozen different kinds of grain, and to make things more interesting two kinds of flour are sometimes mixed together in the same recipe. A naive reader such as myself wonders: what if I used flour of type A instead of flour of type B in this recipe? And in general, how does the influence of type-A flour differ from that of type-B? And must I really know all this for twenty different types of flour? How important are these little details really? I guess they must be at least somewhat important, because if one disregarded them, one would use the same ingredients every time and one would end up with one kind of cake instead of twenty different kinds of cake. But by simply reading the lists of ingredients in the various recipes, I found it impossible to really visualize the differences and gain an understanding and appreciation for them. I guess this is simply because of my lack of experience in these matters, for many of the ingredients (different kinds of flour, for example) are to me mere names only, with no first-hand experience associated to them in my mind. One doesn't really gain any information from reading about things of which one has so little experience. I have a similar problem with names of birds, plants, insects, and many other kinds of living beings; for example, I know that robins, starlings, nightingales, etc. are birds, but that is really the only thing I know about them. Their names are mere words to me, any of them might be substituted for any other and it wouldn't really make a difference to me (except for the fact that the different species have different literary associations). (This is not merely a language problem, but a genuine ignorance of the things signified by the words in question. I wouldn't be any better off if the robins, starlings, and nightingales were replaced by taščice, škorci in slavčki.) Nevertheless I am glad that this book contained all these recipes; I rarely read recipes, so seeing them in this book provided a rare and welcome glimpse of a genre that is largely new to me.

All in all, I think this is a great book for anyone interested in Scotland and/or food. The history of food in Scotland may sound like an obscure topic, but in this case it made for a very interesting and readable book.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Some thoughts on Tamara by M. Yu. Lermontov

This is one of my favourite poems altogether, perhaps second only to Shelley's ode To a Skylark. I was re-reading it again a few days ago, and the thought struck me how it is really an eminently typical example of a romantic ballad. It's really got it all: mountainous scenery, a raging river (if it were written in English, surely at least one mention of “crags” and “cataracts” would be inevitable; maybe it's a result of their travelling too much through Switzerland and north Italy, but sometimes I can't help feeling that Byron and Shelley couldn't manage without crags and cataracts for more than a few pages at a time), a touch of exoticism (it is set in the Caucasus, and a eunuch is mentioned at some point), hot wild sex, a femme fatale, a murder, and emotional confusion with a curious feeling of yearning at the end. And it's got that sombre amphibrachic metre that makes many ballads (to me at least) so much more enjoyable than most other poetry.

Some links: the Russian original; a somewhat dull English translation, showing that complete contempt of the original metre that is so typical of translations of poetry into English (why is it that the English have such good poets, but such miserable translators?); a nice German translation. I myself read it in the beautiful Slovenian translation by Mile Klopčič (Izbrano delo Mihaila Jurjeviča Lermontova, Ljubljana, DZS 1961).

Lermontov also wrote much other romantic poetry, which is also highly recommended. With his short novel, A Hero of Our Time, I had mixed experiences. When I first had to read it in the second year of secondary school, it took me about two weeks to plod through it and although I didn't exactly hate it, reading it was nonetheless an effort. Returning to re-read it some four or five years later, I read it in two delightful evenings and enjoyed it immensely. Everything in its time, I guess.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

BOOK: Diana Mosley, "A Life of Contrasts"

Diana Mosley: A Life of Contrasts. (First ed.: 1977.) Gibson Square Books, 2003. 190393320X. 280 pp.

The Mitford family is another thing of which I first read in David Cannadine's Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, who paints a fascinating picture of the Mitfords as an example of the various ways in which the aristocracy responded to the inexorable process of decline of their class (ch. 11, sec. iv). Diana was perhaps one of the more notorious of the Mitford sisters. She maried Oswald Mosley, the founder of British Fascism, and remained for ever a supporter of his political opinions and efforts. Also notorious was her friendship with Hitler and some other persons from his circle (e.g. Magda Goebbels). Seeing her presentation of these opinions and acquaintanceships is surely one of the main points of interest in this autobiography.

The other thing is that she was a member of the upper classes, the sort of people who apparently spend most of their time visiting each other, having dinners and saying clever things. Thus she met a large number of well-known people, and an even larger number of not-quite-so-well-known ones, and the book contains many anecdotes, amusing bits of conversation, and so on; I rather enjoyed this, though I can imagine that some readers might eventually get annoyed by the constant name-dropping, especially since many people are mentioned without being properly introduced, as if it was simply obvious who they are. There seems to be something slightly snobbish in this; merely being a titled aristocrat and/or a minor literary personage does not in general suffice to make a person's name really well-known to the public; I guess that even in 1977, when this autobiography was first published, many of the names were obvious only to a relatively limited subset of readers, i.e. those who were familiar with the kind of social circles that Diana usually moved in (and perhaps the avid readers of tabloids :-)). Naturally, I am not in the least familiar with them, nor would I particularly care to be, so I often found myself wishing that some kind editor had produced footnotes explaining who this or that person was. Fortunately one's ability to follow the narrative is not really impaired by simply ignoring most of these names; I was vaguely familiar with some of them from various books which I had read previously; as for one or two that appear more often, I looked them up in Wikipedia. (A rather more annoying characteristic of the book was her tendency to occasionally include French sentences without translation; German ones, by contrast, are always accompanied by a translation. Apparently she assumes that everyone speaks French, or if he doesn't he must be an illiterate boor not worth bothering about.)

It was in the passages dealing with Mosley, fascism, and Nazi Germany that I most wished for some sort of editorial commentary; one imagines that many details in these passages may be somewhat biased or slanted, but it's hard to tell exactly which and how. This is where a good editor could be really extremely helpful. For example, she says that Mosley's New Party evolved into a fascist movement, complete with black shirts and paramilitary formations, mainly to be able to defend themselves against violent opponents who formerly often interrupted Mosley's public meetings (ch. 10, p. 93). Perhaps it's quite true, perhaps not, but I really have no way of knowing other than by reading more books on this subject, which I'm not sure if I really want to do.

In 1933, Diana and her sister Unity attended the Parteitag in Nuremberg, a four-day celebration organized by the Nazis soon after their seizure of power. “The gigantic parades went without a hitch” (ch. 11, p. 103), and yet in the next paragraph she complains that the English newspapers portrayed the event as militaristic. How can gigantic parades not be militaristic? People do not spontaneously form neat rows and march back and forth for no obvious reason; they have to be herded and drilled and coerced to do it, and the spirit that animates such an undertaking is the very essence of militarism: regimenting people into rigid formations and ordering them about.

Chapters 12 and 15 contain several interesting observations about Hitler, based on her conversations with him. Apparently he was quite a civil and polite person in such situations, quite unlike the way in which he was portrayed by many writings in the Allied countries not only during but also after the war. Again some impartial editor's comments would be welcome here, but I am inclined to believe her, for there is after all no reason that a person should be unable to behave politely in his personal life even though he is responsible for the murder of millions of people. After all, Hitler wouldn't be the only such case; there were plenty of “desk murderers” in Nazi Germany, and no doubt a few specimens of this group could also be found in many other totalitarian countries, or indeed in any large buraucratic institution which, as a whole, performs acts of great evil.

Chapter 12 also contains several observations in which well-known persons such as Churchill and Lloyd George express approval of at least some aspects of Hitler and his policies (p. 118). On the one hand there is of course nothing wrong with admitting that a regime such as Hitler's may also have had its good sides, although at the same time one surely has to agree that whatever these good sides were, they become utterly insignificant when compared to its negative aspects; there does therefore appear to be not much use in e.g. praising Hitler for the economic recovery of Germany in the first years after his seizure of power, if at the same time we are prepared to condemn him for having plunged much of the world into war and ruin, into genocide and assorted wide-scale slaughter. And besides, I vaguely recall having read or heard somewhere that Germany's economic recovery in the first years of Hitler's regime was not really sustainable, but had to result in war sooner or later, or return into a state of depression. What is more, even if Hitler's regime genuinely brought about a recovery of the German economy, surely other countries eventually also recovered without having to install such a horrible dictatorship. Anyway, this is another point where an editor's comments would be useful.

At the end of the same chapter there are also some comparisons of the sort that is very popular among all kinds of opponents of communism, whether they hail from the far right (as in this case) or from a more traditional free-market capitalist point of view: all these people enjoy condemning communism by pointing out that the likes of Stalin and Mao are responsible for more deaths than Hitler and other right-wing dictatorships. This argument is sometimes used simply to condemn communism, and sometimes to conflate left- and right-wing totalitarianism as somehow equally bad and use this as an excuse to condemn them both (often in favour of something which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a free-market fundamentalism which is hardly much better than the totalitarian systems previously condemned). I still doubt if, proportionally to the size of the populations they dealt with (China and the Soviet Union are after all much larger than Germany, as well as much more populous), Mao and Stalin genuinely killed more people than Hitler. But even if that were the case, it has to be said that at least communism is based on a positive ideal, an ideal genuinely worth striving towards: that of equality and a fair division of labour as well as the fruits thereof, enabling everyone to live a life of peace, happiness, and repose. In contrast to that, the main goals of nazism have been from the outset negative: they relished Social Darwinism, a ruthless struggle in all walks of life, the extermination or enslavement and exploitation of other nations and territories, a hierarchical society with dictatorship on all levels (the “Führer principle”); theirs was a system which utterly disregarded the individuals and their quality of life, treating them merely as so many cogwheels whose sole role is to keep the mechanism that is the nation going. Nazism was unable to conceive of any ideal or goal other than survival of the fittest, and the Nazi leaders hoped that they and their nation would turn out to be the fittest. What would such a system achieve? Russell's very reasonable criticism of Plato's utopian Republic (another notoriously totalitarian state) applies equally well here: “the answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its ridigity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved.” (History of Western Philosophy, ch. xiv). Communism strived towards ideals infinitely loftier and more desirable than that; and although it is true that it has been sadly derailed, and that it descended into misery and tyranny almost everywhere where it has been seriously tried, yet we must admit that at least it strove towards the correct goals. All that was missing was a way to prevent the power-hungry bureaucrats and dictator wannabes from redirecting the communist efforts towards their own selfish ends. Nevertheless genuine communism remains an ideal supremely worth striving towards, and if we lose sight of it and become completely immersed merely in the day-to-day efforts of survival, economic competition and the pointless technological progress of today, humankind cannot achieve any genuine progress towards a state of happiness and a life free of care, upheaval, and exploitation. It is impossible to expect such progress from a system based, such as e.g. the free-market capitalism of today, entirely on the vilest and basest human instincts: greed, selfishness, and the desire to dominate over others. (P.S. A nice essay on the communism-vs-fascism debate: Sobotna priloga, 12. feb. 2005, str. 8-9.)

At the end of ch. 13 (pp. 124-5) there are some interesting comments about the Saarland plebiscite of 1935. A vast majority of the population voted to unite with Germany, even though they knew that Hitler's regime had been in power there for the last two years. Apparently much of this support was genuine rather than a result of coercion or manipulation, as has been claimed by some English newspapers at the time. This may well be true; it is, after all, well known that, by and large, Hitler had wide support among the German people all the time up to the point when the war started to turn against them. Nevertheless I hope I'll learn more about the Saarland plebiscite at some point; it would be fascinating to see just how exactly did the people feel about Hitler's regime at that time (apparently they must have seen it in a largely positive light, otherwise they wouldn't have voted to join Germany). Still I can't quite agree with the reasoning on p. 124, which seems to regard the fact that the German people genuinely supported Hitler as some kind of mitigating factor, as something which speaks in his favour. Surely a person as fond of undemocratic systems as she was should have realized that sometimes, frankly speaking, the people just don't know what's in their best interest, and the fact that a people support their ruler doesn't at all mean that the ruler isn't doing horrible things, or that he shouldn't have been done away with at the earliest opportunity, or that he isn't leading their country to ruin. No, the people's support for the dictator doesn't exonerate him; it only means that the people must to some extent share the guilt of his crimes.

The end of ch. 13 also contains some examples of the sort of rather unsavoury reasoning that perhaps contributed the most to allowing the horrors of regimes such as Hitler's to take place. “As to the Jews [...] most Germans probably hoped they would remove themselves to some other part of the globe. World Jewry with its immense wealth could find the money, and England and France with the resources of their vast empires could find the living space, it was imagined.” In the end, apparently, it's all the Jews' fault anyway: their protests against the treatment of Jews in Germany “hardened the hearts of the many Germans who were well-disposed towards them. The anti-Jewish laws were passed in Germany in the thirties with the object of inducing the Jews of leaving the country.” This is perhaps one of the most disagreeable passages of the entire book. Here we have the belief that, if the majority population of some country takes it into their heads to get rid of a certain minority, it's perfectly acceptable to do so; it's quite OK to start persecuting this minority in the hope that they will eventually get tired of the maltreatment and emigrate; it's quite OK to expect other countries and the minority's compatriots to accommodate the expelled population and bear the financial costs of the whole operation. This bizarre disregard for the fact that nations are not faceless monoliths, but consist of individual people with their individual fates, lives, opinions, homes, and aspirations, is truly shocking. Did it never occur to her that it is simply wrong to force someone to leave his home and emigrate, even though he has done nothing wrong and his family may have lived in the same spot for ages? And to start oppressing and persecuting him if he refuses to leave? And to expect other countries and other people, who have no personal connection with him, to make room for him and cover the costs of his move, and to blame them for his demise if they refuse to do it and our persecution of him ends in his death? Elsewhere in the book she describes how unhappy she and her husband were when they were imprisoned for some time during the war, and later not allowed to live in London for some time, even though they had committed no crimes; and yet here she proposes that large numbers of people should be required not merely to move a few miles away or avoid a certain part of the country for a while, but to emigrate to a completely different part of the world, to countries with which they have no connection, and leave behind everything to which they had hitherto been accustomed, merely because the majority population of their country has adopted an irrational desire for their removal. This lack of empathy is truly astounding. It recurs in ch. 16, p. 143: plebiscites “were probably the only way whereby war could have been avoided, and where ethnic groups were mixed the losing group should have been offered rich inducements to move into its own mother country. Those who refused would do so with their eyes open.” This last sentence is particularly shocking. Once again it seems OK to tell people to get the hell out or put up with persecution. As for the “rich inducements”, surely there are many examples in history showing that such promises generally come to nothing. It must be said in her defense, however, that this concept of expulsion and exchange of populations was still considered a reasonable thing in the period not only between the wars but also immediately after the second world war. Still, from a present-day point of view, surely one must agree that the only acceptable approach is to let people live where they are and in the way they want to, rather than force them to choose between emigration and assimilation (or worse).

In ch. 15, pp. 135-6, there are some very disparaging comments about Czechoslovakia; it was “an invention of the peace treaties incorporating not only Czechs and Slovaks, who detested one another, but also a large German-speaking minority, chunks of Hungary and an area where the majority of the inhabitants were Poles. The fact that this rickety country fell apart was no more surprising than that trouble came in Northern Ireland from similar causes”. It's certainly true that Czechoslovakia was only formed at the end of the first world war and its borders were in many ways a result of wheeling and dealing at the Versailles peace conference (where the Czechs and Slovaks were quite good at lobbying, and were, unlike e.g. Hungary or Austria, treated by the entente powers as allies rather than as defeated enemies); however, many borders in central and eastern Europe were notoriously difficult to determine, and it would be impossible to satisfy everyone. See e.g. Margaret Macmillan's Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, which cites many examples. The population of some area might consist of such a mixture of two nations as couldn't be nicely separated by a border; one nation may predominate in the cities and the other in the countryside, for example; or giving some territory to the country whose nation predominates in it might have deprived some other country of some vital traffic connection, some strategically important area or some economic resources without which it couldn't be viable. Giving the Sudetenland to Germany instead to Czecholovakia would make the latter impossible to defend (as of course both sides well knew). Philip St. C. Walton-Kerr's 1939 book Gestapo shows the efforts of the German secret agents to stir up discontent among the German minority in the Sudetenland. They also encouraged the aspirations of the Slovaks; although these had pressed for more autonomy before, it was only after the weakening of the Prague government at Munich that the disintegration of Czechoslovakia seemed possible. Even so, their declaration of independence and subsequent request for German military “protection” were directly a result of German instructions and pressure (Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis, ch. 4, sec. iii). In short, were it not for the meddling of its neighbours, chiefly Germany, this “rickety country” might have kept going for many more years.

In ch. 16, p. 144 Poland receives a scarcely better treatment. She mentions Lloyd George's disapproval of the Versailles “arrangement which divided Germany and put millions of Germans into Polish frontiers”. But what else could be done? There were also many Poles within German frontiers, which doesn't seem to bother her. The areas given to Poland were predominantly Polish; and without dividing Germany, Poland could not have had access to the sea, which would have made it economically unviable (or completely dependent upon Germany).

In the years before the war, Oswald Mosley (as well as Diana) supported the notion that Britain should arm but try to stay out of any wars unless its empire was directly threatened (ch. 15, p. 136; ch. 16, pp. 144, 147). “Win or lose it [war] was bound to diminish not only England and France and Germany, but Europe itself.” (P. 144.) This is in a way true; had Britain and France not been exhausted by the war, their colonial empires might have kept on going for longer than they had. But in the long term the colonies would have gained independence anyway (once the colonized nations awake and start clamouring for independence, there would be no way for a Britain or a France to hold them back, except perhaps by instituting a regime of brutal tyranny not much better than the one introduced by the Nazis in their occupied territories in eastern Europe); and besides, how can we defend imperialism and the exploitation of colonies merely for the sake of Europe and its countries being more powerful than otherwise? Besides, it's doubtful if avoiding war would have helped anyway. If two countries are equally well developed but one is larger and more populous, it will be stronger both economically and militarily, perhaps culturally as well, and it will have a better position to develop more quickly in the future. Thus it happened in the late 19th century that German economy overtook Britain's in many ways, and there wasn't a whole lot that Britain could do about it, since it simply had much fewer people than Germany at the time. Likewise in the mid-20th century, even if the European countries had avoided war, they would likely still be eclipsed by the power of the United States and the Soviet Union. The largely undeveloped colonies wouldn't have been of any use to them in this struggle either.

And besides, I cannot quite understand the reasoning behind this policy of Mosley's to advocate avoiding war until Britain is directly threatened. If Britain and France didn't get involved in the war, it would be over in a few weeks, Hitler would take his half of Poland and spend the next year or so consolidating his position; by then all of central and eastern Europe would consist of territories either under his direct control, or under that of his satellites. Of course Germany's appetites would not be satisfied by this; he might turn to some of the smaller countries in western or nothern Europe then, or perhaps attack France (should Britain still stand aside?); or perhaps he would feel strong enough to attack the Soviet Union, and he might just have succeeded (we see how close he came even though part of his forces were busy elsewhere and the Soviet Union had some help from its allies). Germany would then annex large parts of the Soviet Union, perhaps as far as the Urals, and would finally be in a position to become a world-class superpower (cf. Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, ch. 7, “Other People's Wars”). By then, Britain and France would be quite insignificant compared to Germany, and their opinions would be irrelevant. Sure, Hitler had promised to respect the integrity of the British Empire; but if he now decided to break his promise, as he had broken so many others before, Britain would be in no position to object. No, 1939 was in fact high time to start a major war against Hitler; if it had been started a couple of years earlier things would have been much easier, and if it had been started later (or not at all) things could have turned truly disastrous.

Chapter 17 is interesting and deals with her and Mosley's experiences in prison, where they were kept for several years during the war under a wartime regulation which allowed people to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial if they were suspected of being potentially disloyal. Apparently the British authorities were convinced that Mosley and his supporters could work for German interests or form a kind of fifth column, although Mosley explicitly called on his supporters to fight against Germany in the case of an invasion (ch. 16, p. 152; ch. 31, pp. 256-6). I personally think that important civil liberties such as the right to a fair trial and the right to criticize one's government should not be suspended during wartime; in fact they should be defended particularly carefully during wartime, for wars are always a period when militaristic thinking and its accompanying tendency towards oppression and tyranny grow in influence. Besides, if things were as described in this book, it seems that the British government really did not have a good enough reason to imprison Mosley (let alone his wife!) as a potentially disloyal subject, let alone keep him imprisoned for such a long period (several years). I guess that at some point it would be good to try to find some book about Mosley and his fascist party from some more impartial source.

She seems to be mildly critical of the Nuremberg trials, and suggests that “the Allies should [...] have thrown in a few war-crimes of their own, in order to make the whole thing seem more like even-handed justice and less an isolated act of vengeance” (ch. 18, p. 186). I think this is a very reasonable idea; the way that war crimes are defined nowadays, it's practically impossible to conduct a war without committing at least a few war crimes. Even if (as nobody doubts) the Allies had commited very few compared to what had been done by Germany, they could not be completely disregarded by a truly impartial war trimes court. I must admit that I personally am somewhat uncomfortable with the whole concept of war crimes; above all, since there is no higher power to enforce a prohibition of war crimes evenly, such a prohibition would inevitably be ignored by the stronger countries and only used by them as a tool with which to twist the hands of weaker ones. One that I find especially absurd is the notion of “a crime against peace”, whereby merely starting a war is by itself already considered a war crime. Surely, if a nation has decided that the continuation of peace under the present conditions looks less enticing than the prospect of war (perhaps a short one, to be followed perhaps by marked improvements in their situation), it will go to war. To consider this a crime is to suggest that any peace, no matter how unacceptable to one of the parties involved, is better than any war; a claim which, to me at least, seems highly problematic.

In ch. 19, p. 187 there is an interesting anecdote about how the young Goethe was on friendly terms with the French officers who had occupied his home city of Frankfurt during the Seven Years' War, and how this didn't seem to outrage anyone much at the time, whereas nowadays analogous behaviour would probably have been branded as vile collaboration. I often feel that warfare of the 18th and early 19th century seems somehow remarkably civilized and orderly to us nowadays; the soldiers meet on the battlefield, nearly arrayed in long lines, shoot at each other for a few hours, then call a truce and march out to collect their dead, and so on. The civilian population often seems to have been not much affected. I wonder how much truth there is in this view; probably not very much, wars have always been exceedingly nasty affairs, although it is possible that the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the concept of total war in the 20th (not to mention the technological progress) have made wars even more horrible than they used to be.

From various passages in the later chapters, it seems that several post-war British governments made efforts to prevent Mosley from appearing on television or trying to continue his political career, and even from leaving the country (by refusing to issue passports to him and Diana); pp. 187, 193, 200-1. If this is true, it seems an exceedingly silly course of action. Surely he had so few supporters by this time that there would be no harm in letting him be. At the same time it often seems that Diana's complaints about the government are just an expression of patrician arrogance against those who are primarily interested in the common people; she refers to “the myriad trivial annoyances inseparable from life in England under a Labour governmen” (ch. 20, p. 200; and see also ch. 23, p. 215).

After the war, Mosley starting advocating the idea of a united Europe (ch. 20, p. 201). However, for a while, Britain still hoped to remain a great power in its own right, and Mosley's ideas were therefore unpopular (ch. 23, p. 218). He also opposed immigration into Britain, particularly of coloured people (ch. 24, pp. 228-230); he was much criticized for this, although he “had always insisted that the immigrants must be decently treated once they are in the country”. I guess the reason is that if one publicly advocates that no more immigrants should come, but the ones already here should be treated decently, this is a distinction much too subtle to be understood by the white working-class louts that are the most likely supporters of such a politician. They will see in his message simply a confirmation that the coloured immigrants are undesirable scum, and an encouragement to not only oppose further immigration but also to persecute the immigrants already in the country.

And this passage from p. 230 shows again the same pernicious line of thinking that we saw previously applied to the Jews: “If this problem is ever to be solved it will have to be in a European context, because if their countries of origin are to be induced to receive the immigrants back the inducement will have to be the only one that counts: economic and financial”. Hasn't she learned anything from the second world war? Here we have again this horrible notion that people should be encouraged or induced to move from one country to another, and that distant other countries should be willing to accept them merely because this happens to suit the prejudice of a part of the people of the country in which these immigrants presently live. Naturally enough, if a person emigrated from some poor third-world country and, after much hard work and effort, managed to start his life anew in Britain, he or she will not be interested to move back to his poor native land; he might be induced, if his native country were instantly made as prosperous as Britain (instantly, and not in twenty years' time, when our immigrant will have children who will have no other homeland than Britain), which is impossible. No positive inducement which Britain could realistically be expected to offer could persuade such immigrants to return. Any inducement would therefore have to adopt the form of threats, of persecution, and of economic hand-twisting of the countries which would be expected to receive the returning immigrants. All of this is quite unacceptable and it's somewhat sad that the Mosleys didn't realize this. And besides, their dire warnings about coloured immigration and its consequences for race relations don't seem to have come true; the different races seem to be getting along remarkably well in present-day Britain, perhaps better than in many other countries.

Ch. 26 is a nice comparison of Churchill and Hitler, who apparently “had more in common with one another than perhaps either would have been prepared to admit” (p. 236).

There are some candid admissions of the fact that babies, particularly new-born ones, are ugly (ch. 2, p. 19). I'm terribly glad to finally see somebody who agrees with me in this aspect, and who, unlike me, has the courage to express this opinion in public. Apparently Lytton Strachey had a similar aversion to babies; ch. 8, p. 83.

On the dislike of schools and their “zoo-like smell”; ch. 4, p. 42.

When she got married for the first time (to Bryan Guinness), her mother-in-law was fascinated by Diana's cooking skills, namely her ability to fry eggs: “I've never heard of such a thing, it's too clever!&rduo; (Ch. 7, p. 65.) As they say: you can't make this shit up. If there exists a hall of fame for the best instances of aristocrats turning into their own caricatures, this one should be right at the top next to Marie Antoinette's advice to eat cake if you can't afford bread.

An example of “the grand luxe” from the belle époque: “A carpet of fresh blossoms on her bathroom floor, renewed twice a day” (“her” being Ida Rubinstein, a famous dancer; ch. 10, p. 100).

Apparently the movies of the 1930s were characterized by a “sugary and embarrassing sentimentality”, which she (and many of her friends) hated just as much as the violence of the movies of the 1970s; ch. 12, p. 112.

Another unpopular opinion in which I agree with her is the understanding of suicide. “To that small extent man must be the master of his fate. He did not ask to be born; if his life becomes too tragic or unbearable he has the right to die.” (Ch. 16, p. 151.)

There are many nice rants against “development” which ruins formerly beautiful places and spoils their pristine beauty; piles of concrete that pass for tourist infrastructure on the beaches, huge skyscrapers ruin the skyline of a nice old city such as Paris, industry and pollution threaten Venice, etc.; pp. 72, 90, 213, 249-250. “Commercialism and crowds are more destructive than bombs”, p. 250. I quite agree with that. The only redeeming characteristic of technological progress is that it makes us more comfortable; otherwise it just makes our world uglier and uglier.

There are also some instances of rather sillier conservatism: “Twenty years ago the posts within Europe were dependable” (ch. 23, p. 220) — isn't this the typical old person's complaint of how everything is going to the dogs?

All in all, although this book contains several passages that one cannot help disagreeing with (as has been discussed above), it was a very pleasant read and a great wellspring of amusing anecdotes and reminiscences. On the other hand, from a purely biographical point of view, it has to be admitted that it may be better to refer to some other book if one is interested primarily in a more detailed and probably also more even-handed biographical treatment of Diana Mosley's life; but this is hardly unreasonable, as this book is after all an autobiography. Some time ago, I read Anne de Courcy's biography of Diana (Diana Mosley, 2003), which contains more biographical detail, and The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, which is a sort of joint biography of the whole Mitford family. They were both quite pleasant to read; however, little by little I am beginning to notice more and more overlap between all these Mitford-related books, which is of course natural since they speak about the same subject, the lives of the same people; but slowly I think I am getting saturated with the subject, and I'm not sure if I will be reading any more Mitford-related books in the near future. Incidentally, many of Nancy Mitford's novels also contain thinly veiled anecdotes from the life of her sisters and herself; they generally make for delightfully hilarious reading.

Some links to a few newspaper articles about Diana: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.

Count Ugolino in Dante's Inferno, canto xxxiii, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Over the last few months, I have managed to lose a reasonable amount of weight, going from approx. 102 kg to approx. 88. I have been following the advice in John Walker's book The Hacker's Diet, which despite the title is a collection of really commonsense advice from which anyone may benefit. Although many of his ideas seem kind of obvious after you have read them, it is nevertheless very good that you had the opportunity to see them explicitly. (“Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him.” The Picture of Dorian Gray ch. 10.) And it's based on his personal experiences, too; you can see on page after page that it was really written by a person who has been through it all.

What I appreciate about Walker's book is that it says, in a very plain and forthright way, that to lose weight you must, on average and over a period of time, obtain fewer calories with your food than you consume for your bodily activity. This is all; everything else is just technical detail. In particular, this means that, at least as far as losing weight is concerned, you need not resort to eating different kinds of food than you have hitherto been accustomed to. This is one of the things that used to deter me from dieting; a “diet” is usually taken to mean something that upsets one's whole eating habits, introducing strange new kinds of food into one's life, usually things with horrid ingredients and undoubtedly equally horrid taste; it makes the whole thing far from appealing, and generally upsets one's life and habits in unacceptably many ways. Instead of doing this, a possible alternative is to stick to the food you have always been eating, just eat less of it. This is exactly what I'm doing now. As it turns out, although I have been overweight practically all my life, my weight has been stable for many years, which suggests that I wasn't really eating much more than my body needed. Only a moderate reduction in the amount of food I eat was therefore necessary to make me start losing weight. I used to eat two meals: breakfast and dinner. Now I gave up breakfast, as well as ice-cream after dinner.

I also took up a bit of exercise. I run from one end of the house to another for about half an hour in the morning, and I stopped changing buses when I go to work, which means that I have to walk about half an hour to get to work. I even do some sit-ups and push-ups every day. I've read somewhere that when losing weight, your body attempts to dismantle muscles first and fat afterwards, so unless you take exercise you will end up not only slim but completely emaciated. Besides, exercise also consumes some calories, though unfortunately not very many.

Frankly, I am a little disappointed with my progress in exercise. I still find push-ups fairly hard to do; the exercise doesn't seem to be making my arms any stronger. I had better success with the sit-ups, where I was originally completely exhausted after thirty, and now, a few months later, I can do twice as many in much less time. Well, I guess that these things take time. Maybe eventually the push-ups will start feeling easier too.

Incidentally, I've often read that one's body emits some addictive chemical during exercise, which makes people feel a kind of happiness after e.g. running for some time, and which makes them feel a physical need to repeat the exercise day after day. Well, I must say that I haven't experienced anything of that sort so far. Even after half an hour of running, and sometimes in fact I run for nearly an entire hour, but even after that I don't feel anything remotely resembling pleasure or happiness. Maybe I run too slowly? Or does the happiness-inducing chemical only start appearing after a longer period of time? Either way, right now I'm just about ready to start calling it all a big lie. Don't be in a hurry to ditch your dealer's phone number, folks. Thinking of getting high on running? You might want to think again.

Life is not important. Only calories are important.


One thing which made it somewhat easier for me to start this dieting process is that my life sucks anyway. If I start dieting, it will suck a bit more, but so what? It's not like it really makes a big difference anyway. Of course, this argument could also be turned around: if food is one of the few remaining pleasures in one's life, then the loss of it will be all the more keenly felt. But it hasn't really been so bad in my case.

Every day, I die a little more inside.

Hammer, Ghastly's Ghastly Comic, 19 Dec 2004

Fortunately, this dieting business isn't quite so difficult and tiresome as I feared it would be. During the day I chew on dried wild cherries and the occassional bite of dark chocolate to ward off the feelings of hunger. Then when dinner comes, I stuff myself with tomato salad which makes one feel full without providing too many calories. In fact this is the most inconvenient aspect of dieting for me: I'm just not the sort of person who would be used to eating small amounts of food. I like to eat quickly, I like to take big bites and gulp them down half-chewed, I get a genuinely physical pleasure in stuffing myself with food to the point when it starts to hurt (it can be an agony when dealing with those huge restaurant meals, but it's a pleasant sort of agony). None of this seems really possible if you are dieting. Your portions tend to be smaller and you try to make them last because you know it will be some time before you have a decent meal again. How I wish that some food existed which I could stuff myself with, without getting too many calories in the process. Oh, and it should taste reasonably well, too. In fact I'm not too picky when it comes to taste. I can't really tell the difference in taste between skimmed and non-skimmed milk, for example, or between low-fat and ordinary yoghurt (but in the latter case, I was disappointed to see that there was also almost no difference in calories!). I'm happy to drink fruit juice diluted with water to almost homeopathic proportions. However, I still wish that all this food processing and chemical industry discovered some way of making food taste good without all these annoying calories. Diet Coke is a case in point. It tastes the same as plain Coke (well, almost the same, to me at least), but while plain Coke has a huge amount of calories, Diet Coke has practically none. Apparently they managed to take out all the sugar or whatever calorie-bearing substances Coke contained, and substitute some chemical substances with the same taste but almost no calories. Why isn't this done for food as well? Just think of the potential! Zero-calorie bread, zero-calorie potatoes, etc. It would be a gold mine. I'm really disappointed that the big business hasn't taken up this opportunity yet, especially with the large numbers of people getting obsessed with dieting nowadays. Until somebody discovers something of this sort, I'll have to keep on stuffing myself with tomatoes and nibbling on my measly portions of real food in great frustration.

Incidentally, this discussion of portion sizes brings me to another pet peeve I have with many proposed diets. They suggest that you have five or even more “meals” per day. Meals my ass. As is plain to anybody, five meals a day would probably give you about twice as many calories as you need, so the “meals” they propose are nothing remotely resembling meals at all. They are mere travesties of meals. For these people, an apple and a cup of low-fat yoghurt constitute a meal. What rot! Of course this is not a meal. It is not even the semblance of a meal. It is not even a dessert. It is not even an appetizer. It is plain and simply nothing at all. Yoghurt should be eaten with plenty of honey, which hardly makes it suitable for dieting. As for apples, apples are food for rabbits. The same goes for most vegetables. Alas, it's mighty hard to diet on an attitude like that.

Another tangential point: some books, such as this one, suggest that some people manage to eat well and yet remain slim because they tend to eat good-quality food, from fresh ingredients etc., and eat slowly and with pleasure, which consequently enables them to eat less and to stop before they have had too much and got too many calories. It's a charming theory, but I don't quite see how I could incorporate it into my eating habits. Even supposing that genuinely good food is readily available (it in fact is, by my own humble standards), why would one want to eat just a moderate amount of it? Surely, if it is really good, it makes even more sense to eat lots of it than if it weren't so good; surely, merely because you enjoy eating it, this is by itself no reason to eat slowly, or to stop when you have merely had enough rather than only when you are full to the point of agony. No, I'm afraid this approach wouldn't work for me. It's so frustrating, so tantalizing, to have to nibble like a mouse while there is still enough food on your plate to suffice for a few big bites! Unfortunately, I haven't yet seen any books or web pages with advice on how to get used to eating slowly and in moderate quantities.

His neighbour's fatness makes the envious lean.

Horace's Epistle 1.2,
translated by John Conington

Alas, how wrong Horace was here! I am pathologically envious, even by the standards of my own people. If there had been any literal truth to Horace's claim, I would be so thin as to be practically nonexistent. No, I'm afraid that nowadays, when high-calorie food is cheap, plentiful, and readily available (at least in industrialized countries), having something (such as envy) gnaw on you is more likely to make you gnaw on something in turn, usually on something with way too many calories for your own good. :-)

Fatmouse takes umbrage at the sight of your small torso and weak flaccid limbs.


Now that I'm getting a bit slimmer myself (though I'm still fat; I'll probably have to lose at least another ten kilos), I'm beginning to wonder whether indeed being slim has any advantages whatsoever. Walker's book that I mentioned at the beginning of this post contains some very sensible warnings about this, saying that one shouldn't expect one's new thinness to bring about miraculous changes in one's life. In fact, the only thing that can be said for slimness is that, on average, it's probably slightly healthier for you than being fat. That's about it. Expecting anything else is too unreliable and is bound to set one up for a disappointment. For example, one shouldn't expect one's self-esteem to improve, or expect to be able to interact with people more successfully, or to seem more attractive or more popular. And it is all quite true; I already clearly feel that my practically non-existing sense of self-esteem cannot be helped or improved by any change in appearance, whether brought about by a loss of weight or by anything else. Sometimes I think that losing some weight has helped my ridiculously hunched and stooping posture somewhat; there's less fat on my stomach pulling it down, so it's a bit easier to walk a bit more upright. But I find that, even if (perhaps with a bit of effort) I straighten my back and walk upright, my neck remains bent and my look downcast. This is surely caused by the above-mentioned lack of self-esteem, and cannot be helped by loss of weight. It's like the fable of the sheep who put on a tiger's skin but still froze with fear when it met a wolf.

But anyway, to go back to my previous point: now that I'm becoming a bit slimmer myself, I'm wondering whether (apart from the above-mentioned issues of health) there is anything really attractive or desirable about being slim. It turns out that one can be slim and yet be ugly, just like one can e.g. be young and yet be ugly. Of course these things are obvious, but sometimes one isn't quite clearly aware of all the obvious things. Nowadays there exists a fair amount of obsession about being slim; many people not only try to be slim but actually are, and many of them actually visit fitness studios and torture themselves on the implements available there to develop their muscles. And I can't help wondering: all these men, slim, muscular, posture perfectly upright, are they really that handsome? Is this what I want to look like? And I can't help feeling that the answer is in the negative. A few days ago I saw, in the most recent issue of the National Geographic, a photograph of a bunch of Colombian prisoners. Most seemed to lack shirts and had, of course, perfect chests with all the requisite muscles and not an ounce of excess fat. Of course: it's a poor country, with no excess of food, and the people do a lot of physical work, so they can't help being slim and muscular. But does this make them handsome and attractive? Hell no. Sure, it's true that having potbellies wouldn't exactly improve the guys on that picture, but neither did their lack of potbellies make them into ideals of appearance that one might aspire to. In short — and this may be due to my self-esteem problems, which make anything seem worthless as soon as it seems to be genuinely within my reach — although being slim and muscular seems to be mighty popular these days, and people are going to great trouble to become such, I cannot help wondering whether this is genuinely desirable; whether it is a goal genuinely worth aspiring to. All of those people — even though they are slim and muscular, many of them are still idiots, many are shallow (yes, yes, I know; so am I; except that they are merely shallow idiots, whereas I am a fat shallow idiot), many of them still aren't managing to do anything else than merely to somehow get along with their lives; by and large most of them are probably hardly people whom it would be reasonable to envy, and perhaps hardly people whom it would be reasonable to emulate. Yes, they are slim; so what? They still have to go to work every day, waste their time in pointless drudgery just like most other people, they still have to waste their time on solving all the life's petty problems. I just can't see how being slim could be all that much of a help in that. Therefore, I just can't see why being slim would be genuinely desirable (apart from the point of view of health). I see these slim, muscular people with an upright posture, people who spend five hours a week in the gym, and I ask myself whether I want to become one of them, and the answer is, again and again, no thanks.

In fact, sometimes I almost feel something similar to the sentiment of the Fatmouse quote above. Slim people — the really slim ones, especially if they have a slight build to boot — seem somehow puny and measly. Having been fat all my life, I almost couldn't help taking some sort of pleasure, almost some sort of pride, in my fatness. I was somehow glad that there was so much of me. Sometimes when I see a really slim person, with not an ounce of excess fat, wearing a tight-fitting shirt, I really almost feel kind of offended that this weakling (although I do of course realize that in reality, any reasonably fit slim person is of course much stronger than me), this fly dares to share a planet with me! Although I never had a fetish for fat people, I occasionally couldn't help feeling something resembling a delight when seeing, for example, a bunch of really fat Pacific Islanders. And deep down, I still agree strongly with that quote from Spartacus: “You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?”

Well, anyway, I guess it's high time to finish this meandering post. I hope that I'll manage to stay on my diet until I lose some 10 or so more kilograms and finally get rid of the obvious pillows of fat that are still attached to my stomach and thighs. After that, I hope that I'll manage to keep on doing the same amount of exercise that I do now, which means that I'd be able to eat quite a bit more than now and yet have a stable weight. How I wish that I could stuff myself full to the point of agony on a regular basis...

BOOKS: James Fox, "White Mischief", and Errol Trzebinski, "The Life and Death of Lord Erroll"

James Fox: White Mischief. (First ed.: 1982.) Vintage, 1988. 009976671X. xii + 299 pp.

Errol Trzebinski: The Life and Death of Lord Erroll. London: Fourth Estate, 2000, 2001. 1857028945. xvii + 375 pp.

I first heard of the Lord Erroll a few years ago while reading David Cannadine's Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (ch. 9, sec. iv). Although many British settlers in Kenya between the two world wars were serious farmers, there were among them also a number of rather decadent members of the British upper classes. Many of them had already lost much of their wealth and reputation at home, and now came to Kenya where a dissolute and aristocratic lifestyle was more affordable. It was still possible to lord it over lower-class Africans who knew their place in a way that was becoming difficult or impossible in Britain at the time: they “sought to re-create a stable, rural, hierarchical, aristocratic world, which had already disappeared in modern, industrialized, democratic Britain” (Cannadine; cf. also Fox pp. 4, 20). Their centre was the Wanjohi valley in Kenya, which consequently became somewhat notorious and was known under the epithet “Happy Valley”.

In 1941, Joss Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll, one of the central figures of the Happy Valley set, was found murdered in mysterious circumstances in his car near Nairobi. Erroll had been known as a womanizer, and had recently begun an affair with Diana Broughton, wife of Sir Jock Broughton, another white settler in Kenya. Sir Broughton was therefore suspected of having murdered Erroll out of jealousy, and was in fact tried at Nairobi, but was found not guilty as his defence was able to demonstrate that the bullets found at the crime scene did not match any of the guns known to have been in Broughton's possession. Although the murder attracted a lot of public attention and speculation, no further steps were taken by the officials to find the murderer or explain what exactly had happened. Part of the reason for the continuing fascination of the murder is that it epitomized in a way the end of an era (Fox p. 2, Trzebinski p. 305); war followed, and after it the life of the Kenyan white settlers could never quite return to its previous louche and carefree state.

Decadent patricians, colonialism in its terminal stage — no wonder that I was fascinated by Cannadine's short sketch of the Happy Valley set. But it was really very short, a mere two or three pages (Erroll's murder is not mentioned at all, for instance), so I was very glad when I found that two whole books have been published on the subject, one by Fox approx. twenty years ago and another much more recently by Trzebinski. I read them in the same order in which they were written, i.e. Fox's book first and Trzebinski's afterwards, which I think turned out to be a good idea.

There may be spoilers beyond this point.

Fox's book consists of two parts. The first part starts with a series of brief sketches presenting the Happy Valley and its principal characters, with much emphasis on their life of partying, drinking and adultery. It then describes the days just before the murder in some more detail, and concludes with an account of the trial and acquittal of Jock Broughton. The second part of the book tells the story of how Fox and the well-known writer Cyril Connolly tried to investigate this murder mystery in the 60s and 70s. Apparently Connolly's interest in the case was almost obsessive, and he and Fox spent an immense amount of effort trying to gather more information and analyze it, trying to find and interview people who might throw a light on the case, etc. Their conclusion is that Broughton was the murderer after all, and he admitted as much on several occasions before his suicide in 1942 (pp. 229, 231, 283). There is a very handy “Cast of Characters” on pp. 289-293, but even so it was rather easy for me to get lost amidst the large number of people, events, and other details related to the case. Nevertheless this is a nice and very readable book.

Trzebinski's book starts with some criticism of Fox, who is said to have placed too much emphasis on presenting the decadent aspects of the white settlers in Kenya (pp. xv-xvii). Trzebinski's book instead presents a more thorough biography of Lord Erroll, and explores the possibility that he was murdered for reasons of politics rather than jealousy. Thus the book starts by describing Erroll's childhood and youth, his education; his father encouraged him to follow in his footsteps and take up a career in diplomacy, but Joss had to give it up after marrying a divorced woman (p. 59); they then moved to Kenya to take up farming. There they were eventually joined by some old friends and a few new ones, with whom they formed the nucleus of the Happy Valley set. Joss spent a lot of effort on various community- and sports-related pursuits, such as setting up a yacht club (p. 97), and on the management of his estate at Oserian (p. 105). He eventually became involved in local politics, becoming a member of the “legislative council” in which the opinions of the white settlers often clashed with those of the London-appointed administration which governed Kenya at the time. For a short time he was interested in British fascism (Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists, had been an old friend of his), which at the time seemed to be mainly about ultra-loyalism to the British crown and protectionism in international trade (pp. 115-7, 127). Erroll also made some efforts to promote the fascist cause in Kenya; however, his involvement with fascism ended in 1936, partly because of the growing violence and anti-semitism of the British fascist movement, and partly because Mosley and his supporters started advocating the return of Germany's former colonies, including Tanganyika (Erroll and many other Kenyans strongly opposed this as it would have placed Kenya in a difficult position between German Tanganyika on the south and Italian Abyssinia on the north) (p. 131). He continued to play an active role in Kenyan politics; as the threat of war grew, he worked hard to prepare Kenya for the mobilization of its resources, becoming “deputy director for manpower” (p. 160). His photographic memory proved to be of much use in this (p. 168). The story then turns to the relations between Jock Broughton, his wife Diana, and Joss; and on the days leading to the murder (ch.  9). Chapter 10 tells in brief of the police investigation, the trial of Broughton, and his and Diana's subsequent fate. The police showed a surprising degree of carelessness in the investigation and the gathering of evidence (pp. 223-5). The trial attracted a lot of attention, causing people to forget Erroll's political career and remember him chiefly as an adulterer and philanderer (p. 228). Chapter 11 then presents the big scoop: the Sallyport papers, compiled by a former intelligence officer named Tony Trafford, show that Erroll was in fact murdered by a branch of the secret service known as the Special Operations Executive (p. 242). The investigation and trial of Broughton was really just a ruse, and in fact Broughton himself was also involved with the secret service (p. 281). The reasons for the assassination of Erroll (pp. 293, 303) aren't entirely clear (partly owing to the destruction of evidence, p. 304), but it seems that, due to his contacts in high places, he knew of the efforts made in certain circles, during the first year of the war, towards making peace with Germany (and a possible alliance directed against the Soviet Union). If this knowledge had reached the public, the consequences for the reputations of the people involved would have been disastrous, which caused them to organize Erroll's death.

These two books complement each other very nicely and I am quite glad that I read both of them (though if I had to read just one, Trzebinski's would probably be a better choice). They are both pleasant and entertaining reading. Fox has more emphasis on the decadent life of the Happy Valley set, as well as a helpful Cast of Characters at the end of the book, without which it would be even easier to lose one's way among the many people involved. The trial of Broughton is also presented in much more detail by Fox than by Trzebinski. On the other hand, Trzebinski has a lot of information about Erroll's younger years and his political career in Kenya, of which Fox has very little (pp. 46, 48). And of course, Trzebinski has all the above-mentioned details about the involvement of the secret services, whereas Fox explains the murder as having been committed by Broughton out of jealousy. Fox has a more detailed presentation of his and Connolly's quest to investigate the case, which includes many interesting bits about the subsequent life and fate of various people connected with the case. On the whole, Trzebinski paints a much more balanced picture of Erroll, showing also his good characteristics and his efforts in community life and politics, whereas in Fox he comes across as more of an aimless hedonist. Another advantage of Trzebinski's book is that is has a bibliography and it pays a lot more attention to footnoting and citing her sources than Fox does.


  • Out of Africa and Letters from Africa: 1914-1931 by Karen Blixen, who also lived in Kenya during the same period and in fact knew some of the protagonists of the Lord Erroll story (Fox p. 43). A suburb of Nairobi is named Karen after her (Fox p. 73).
  • Vertical Land, Duckworth, 1928; portraits of the Happy Valley characters by Frédéric de Janzé, a neighbour of Lord Erroll and his wife Idina in Kenya in the 1920s (Fox pp. 32-3).

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Stark raving mad

From James Shreeve's article Beyond the Brain in the most recent issue of the National Geographic magazine (p. 28):

[...] hypergraphia, a manic disorder characterized by an irrepressible urge to write [...] The hypergraphic patient's compulsion to write all the time is not, alas, accompanied by any increase in talent. The diatribes of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, (or the verbal pablum of some Internet blogs) are typical output.

Pablum was a new word to me, and the phrase verbal pablum sounds very nice. If you think of some of the blogs out there, you almost cannot help agreeing with him. Or go to and visit some of the sites listed there as illucid. One thing I dislike a bit about the above quote is that it reeks a little of the practice, popular among all sorts of unsavoury regimes, of discrediting one's opponents by declaring them mad. Still, it's a neat quote, and the article as a whole is also quite nice.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

BOOK: David Thomson, "The People of the Sea"

David Thomson: The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Seal-Folk. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2001. 1841951072. xx + 229 pp.

Apparently, many legends concerning the seals used to exist among the Celtic inhabitants of the north and west of Scotland and Ireland. Thomson writes about his travels through those areas in the mid-20th century, about the people he met, and records the conversations he had with them, in which they told him many stories about the seals.

What makes the book particularly fascinating, I guess, is that it provides a glimpse into an older way of life which has passed away only relatively recently (in historic terms), practically within living memory. (When I say "way of life", I mean it not only in the material sense but also as a way of seeing the world and one's place in it, as one's reactions and attitudes to the things and events around one.) If you read a book about something that took place 300 or 1000 or even more years ago, you can't help feeling that those people were in a way total strangers to you; their history may be interesting, but it seems somehow unrelated to us and to our present time. It's different with the people about whom, and about whose folklore, Thomson writes in this book. Although the old rural way of life, with its poverty, physical harshness and strong ties to nature is now irrevocably a thing of the past — the farmers are now effectivelly small businessmen with college degrees, and the main characteristic of their barns and stables is their almost clinical sterility and the sort of mechanized efficiency that would traditionally have been associated with factories rather than with agriculture — yet the old way has not yet slipped completely into history. It is still within living memory; one can still have grandparents who, in their youth, drove the cattle to pastures and went everywhere barefoot for most of the year. The old rustic world is gone, firmly beyond the reach of a younger person such as myself, but the fact that people whom one knows or knew at first hand, who are still alive or at least used to be until fairly recently, still remember those times and experienced them in their youth, makes this old world appear to be not quite so distant; it is out of reach, but only tantalizingly so: out of reach, but not by much. One cannot hope to really understand the world and lives of the people who lived three hundred or a thousand years ago; but this world, which has only passed away within living memory, one feels to be close enough that it might be worth trying to understand, and that makes a book such as this one, with its glimpses of this vanished world, so fascinating. Thomson's travels took place fifty or more years ago, when much that is now quite gone was still present (if on its last legs), and much that is now almost forgotten was still remembered.

One aspect of the book which particularly delighted me were the conversations with the inhabitants of the areas which Thomson visited. Thomson retained many traces of their style of conversation and their dialect in the discussions he quoted, which makes for some wonderful reading. It gave their words a curious, old-worldly quality (maybe this impression is not entirely inappropriate; Heaney mentions on p. xiv that the scene on pp. 32-3 reminded him of a passage from Homer); it took much effort for me to resist imagining the speakers as stereotypical peasants seated around a heavy wooden table, fire crackling in the fireplace, the men stroking their beards and pronouncing their sentences slowly and deliberately, with much thinking and pausing before each sentence. It's just a silly stereotype, of course, but the dialectual conversations in the book often evoked it for me, which made them even more fun to read. To illustrate this, here's an example from p. 86; some men were lost at sea, and after a few days were given up for dead, and a wake held for them: "'It's a terrible thing,' said a slow voice somewhere, 'to be at a wake and no corpse.'   'Five of them gone and no corpse,' said the man in the corner." Is this not the very stereotype of slow-witted peasantry, and isn't it quite delightful to read?

The Canongate edition of the book also has a preface by Seamus Heaney; I haven't read much by Heaney, but from what I did read I have the impression that this preface is quite typical of his style. It is marked by the rich, somewhat uncommon vocabulary of a poet. Heaney's enthusiasm for the rugged northern things is apparent in every sentence. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if he doesn't go too far; he sees the book as "an elegy for certain salvific elements which 'progress' and modernity were bound to destroy". I guess I must show myself to be an insensitive clod once again, but I just can't see what is salvific about a harsh life of poverty, backbreaking work, lack of medical care, running water, etc., etc. Maybe the problem is that, since I am not religious, the whole notion of salvation is quite foreign to me. Of course I fully agree that progress has its negative aspects as well — in fact I hate and oppose most of what passes as progress nowadays more than a large majority of people — but at the same time it would surely be silly to put progress into scare-quotes and pretend that it is all just a sham. Nor do the people with whom Thomson spoke reject progress; on the contrary, whenever conversation turns to it, it turns out that they are happy about whatever improvements have already taken place in their lives, and are looking forward to more progress in the future.

Heaney also mentions "the benignity and essential justice" of the relations between people and the seals (p. xiv). I don't quite see what he means by that. In the book, there are one or two people who think it bad to kill seals (p. 47, 71, 83), but they are vastly outnumbered by seal-killers; on the other hand we don't see any legends about seals going on manhunting expeditions. The former fact demonstrates a lack of benignity, the latter a lack of justice. In my opinion, if we want to find a benign and "noble-savage" type of attitude towards wildlife, we shouldn't look for it among settled agriculturalist populations; we must go farther back to genuine hunter-gatherers. They may be the people who apologise to the animal before they kill it, and explain to it that they are only doing it for the food. The farmers and herders, by and large, have no such scruples; they don't usually think of themselves any longer as a part of nature, but as its masters; they are the ones who divide all animals and plants into useful or harmful; they are usually the practical people who don't see why an animal should be left to live if there is no very obvious benefit to be had from its continued existence, and especially if there is some possible benefit to be had from its premature death. (Incidentally, fans of that well-worn graphic pun, "I ♣ baby seals", need look no further than pages 67 and 92 of this book, although strictly speaking the club is used in neither of these cases; it's a mattock in one case and an oar in the other.)

Nevertheless the preface is interesting, and contains a very nice definition of a poet, by Wordsworth, and a discussion thereof.

I was sometimes slightly unhappy with the fact that the book is not arranged as a sequence of stories, but as a sequence of chapters without titles; it follows Thomson on his travels and conversations, sometimes coming to the same place or visiting the same person more than once, etc. In a way this is of course interesting and means that the book contains not only stories about seals but also shows something of the people who told the stories and of their way of life; as I mentioned above, I think this to be one of the great positive aspects of the book. But this also means that it requires somewhat more careful reading if one doesn't want to lose one's way. And if one wanted later to return to some particular story or legend, there's no easy way to do it, except to leaf through the book and try to read a few words here and there to see if one might notice what one is looking for. Here are pointers to some interesting passages: "The seals were the people o' the sea", p. 154; a female seal nurses a human baby, p. 107; a seal lets a hurried traveller ride on its back, p. 121; wounded seals healed by the very same people who had hurt them, pp. 18, 195; a woman mates with a seal (temporarily changed into a man), pp. 151-2 (the children, of course, have webbed hands, p. 147); seals take off their skins to turn into people, and a man hides one of the skins, thereby preventing a seal-woman from turning back into a seal, and marries her, p. 166-9, 175, 179, 191. An Irish princess mates with not a seal but an otter, p. 52. The curious sounds and melodies made by the seals, p. 75, 221-3. Some curiously human-like characteristics of the seals; their eyes, the ability to weep; they kiss each other, pp. 137, 142-3, 171. "The notion that seals and fairies are somehow connected" (p. 228), pp. 67, 84, 133, 169, 174-5, 180. A pet seal, p. 104. Orkneymen in the London police force, p. 145. "'It was the will of God, Michael, and she made a beautiful corpse.'" (P. 101.) "'Well now, the seal and the mermaid are both mammalians, you must understand.'" (P. 105.) "'A knife is a very good object to throw at a mermaid.'" (P. 175.) On not helping drowning people: "What the sea will take, the sea must take — that's what my father would say", p. 201. The fate of the Irish language, p. 42. Apparently, the Irish words for "South" and "good" are the same, p. 76.

On p. 133, the talk turns to "trows, the little people": "there's no doubt the little people were in Shetland at one time", which the speaker backs up with a reference to excavations at Jarlshof! I almost can't help feeling sad that this easy transition between fact and fiction, between history and myth, is no longer open to us. Or is it? After all, I've yet to see a single newspaper article about Homo floresiensis that fails to mention hobbits. We may not believe in the existence of hobbits, but we are still delighted to see that something somewhat similar to them in at least one aspect, i.e. in size, may once have truly existed.

Two enemies of king Cormac getting ready to attack him exhibit an amazing sense of fair-play: "'We must give the king time to get his soldiers ready.' [...] 'Let it be a month from to-day then. [...] I'll send word to him.'" (P. 57.) Later in the same tale there is a mention of a school that both boys and girls went to (p. 60). I am impressed by the idea of coeducation having been practiced in the Middle ages. I don't know if it really was, or the tale acquired this detail in more recent times.

King Conn kills a storyteller every morning, somewhat like in the Arabian Nights, p. 62.

On the belief in old legends: "'On the mainland they wouldn't believe them.' 'No.' 'Not even the old people?' 'Very few of them would. But they believe in lots of other things, just as strange.'" (P. 172.) How very true this is! How many very weird things people still believe in! Truly we have no reason to think that folklore is dead; its contents may have changed, but its character is the same as ever. It consists either of falsehoods more comfortable than the truth, or of made-up things (with us neither knowing nor caring if they are true or false) more comfortable than ignorance.

Thomson's very reasonable attitude to the legends: "I don't think of the stories that way — as lies or truth. I like to hear them; that's all." (P. 171.) Perhaps this points to the reason why much folklore is eventually forgotten by the people whose ancestors used to maintain it for centuries, unless it is written down in time by collectors of folklore? The people used to think of the legends as truth; eventually, due to progress, they cease to do so, but then start thinking of them as lies, falsehoods, mere incorrect claims, instead of as things which one may enjoy hearing even though one doesn't believe in them; and consequently they don't think of them as something worth maintaining, just as one who has discovered that he was mistaken in a particular belief will now gladly abandon it for a more correct one if he has the opportunity, and won't think the old belief worth keeping in mind. It's a great pity, I think, that people only start treasuring their folklore after most of it is firmly gone and only a few scraps remain, preserved in old books. It's a good thing that books like Thomson's preserve at least something of it.