Remembering The Gasworks, a West London institution

In which Luke Honey of The Greasy Spoon revisits a West London institution redolent of the swinging sixties…

Hands up who remembers The Gasworks? Twenty odd years ago, I started my glamorous career in the so-called Art World – as a porter at a well-known auctioneers to be found in the grotty fag-end of The King’s Road, London; humping antique brown furniture from lorry to saleroom, and stacking shabby Victorian paintings against the brick walls of the warehouse. A favourite after-work refuge was The Gasworks restaurant (a last gasp of the myth that was Swinging London), in that no man’s land between Chelsea and Fulham- a former haunt of Princess Margaret, the Rolling Stones and, if the internet is to be believed, Noel Gallagher.

Where on earth do I begin? This was a London institution, where eccentricity became a creed. Outside, it looked a bit like a private house, with its green painted stucco, latticed windows of stained glass, garish window boxes, and niches filled with ponderous busts and Neo-Classical statues. The proprietors were- how can I put this politely?- different. Shells (Cheryl?) of Wagnerian proportion, fag in mouth and forthright opinion, ruled over her kitchen, offering a choice of rack of lamb (some lover-ly lamb, dearie?) or duck ‘all orange’. Jacks (her husband) was a thin, dapper man with a trimmed grey beard and silk stockings. Rumour had it that he had previously held some sort of vague career in the antiques business. He liked to join you for an after dinner cigar- this had more than a whiff of Reggie and Ronnie about it.

The dining room was reminiscent of an Edward Gorey illustration or a Pinewood set from that early 70’s meisterwerk, “The Legend of Hell House”. Here was the perfect place to lie on a chaise longue, sip a gin and tonic and admire the Victorian bric-a brac: pornographic chess sets, oil paintings of dubious antiquity and provenance, heavy gilt frames, doubtful portraits in the manner of Greuze, and wall-mounted taxidermy; all set off by a long, polished mahogany dining table, high-back ‘Jacobethan’ chairs and a massive chandelier.

Choice was not a word in The Gasworks’ vocabulary: champignons en croute (a nice bit of tinned mushroom poised daintily on a slice of toasted Sunblest) or avocado pear; rack (‘racked’ being the operative word) of lamb or assassinated duck; some sort of gateaux horror topped with UHT cream from a spray-on aerosol. Indeed, The Gasworks seemed to be almost obsessed with the trend setting avocado: their seemingly endless supply was stacked up high in the corridor which led to the bogs, which, in turn were lined to the ceiling with amusing nineteenth century erotica.

I held my 30th birthday party there (I was less interested in food, then), and as that night finished in the wee wee hours (Jack locked the front door at midnight) and the alcohol flowed, my memory is decidedly hazy. Pearl, the long-suffering waiter, rather sweetly made me a little chocolate cake with the word ‘Love’ piped on the top in very shaky handwriting.

If they approved of you for some reason (as a wannabe auctioneer, I was in ‘the biz’, Guv), everything was just dandy. If they didn’t (and this could change on a daily basis, as when my brother in law had a bit of mutton bone pointed directly at him, and told that he was ‘evil’), you couldn’t even get past the oak studded door. An earnest European couple in immaculate Loden coats, enticed, no doubt, by the cosy Englishness of the bow windowed exterior and the enchanting prospect of avocado vinaigrette, had the door slammed in their faces and were told to ‘get lorst, and don’t even think of comin’ back!’.

But a few months ago I did go back. From the outside, everything looked the same: Jack’s black Rolls-Royce corniche (fitted with darkened glass and vanity numberplates) was still parked opposite, and the house looked immaculate. But most ominously, the menu had been taken down. We threw gravel at the upstairs windows, but the net curtains remained firmly closed, and we didn’t even get a twitch. Sadly, it looks like Jacks and Shells are no longer plying their trade. I do hope they haven’t gone to the great gasworks in the sky, and are enjoying their retirement. That fast changing corner of SW6 won’t be the same without them. Even without the duck.

Classical Music’s One Hit Wonders

August is the month when we run a few repeats on The Dabbler, before normal service resumes in September. However, so rich and vast are our archives now that it’s no bad thing to give some of the oldies another airing. As a Bank Holiday treat, here’s Mahlerman’s piece about the one hit wonders of classical music…

Half-listening to Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red I remembered his entry in the Irish Rich List as north of £30 Million a few years ago. From there my mind drifted across the landscape of once-only hits from Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue to, a personal soft-spot, Who let the Dogs Out by Baha Men; where are they now, I wonder? Modern popular music is littered with the Tainted Love that we embrace so readily and discard as quickly, but cast your mind back to the early part of the last century and you will discover a more resonant and enduring affection among the ‘big hits’ and the miasma that often surrounds them.

Today, almost 80 years after his death, Gustavus Theodore von Holst still cuts a lonely and somewhat baffling figure. His enormous musical gifts, and his willingness to share them through his teaching (at Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith), mask a painfully shy man who, nevertheless, found a mysterious poetry in most of his works, and even in parts of his ‘greatest hit’, The Planets. He was far too fine a musician not to realize why the piece was instantly popular – a popularity that has grown over the years unchecked – but it distressed him that the Suite came to dominate his musical life, casting other compositions into the shadows where, largely, they have remained. The Hymn of Jesus and Egdon Heath are wheeled out occasionally, and brass bands (and listeners) love his Moorside Suite. Here, almost out of character, is the lushly romantic A Song of the Night (1905) for violin and orchestra, composed when he was just 30.

Gerry Dorsey aka Engelbert Humperdinck featured in Lazy Sunday a few weeks ago, following his limp effort in the Eurovision. Amazingly, if the real EH had lived another 15 years, the two could have met – a spooky thought. The shadow of Richard Wagner fell across the early life of Humperdinck, who met the great man in Naples, and helped with the preparation of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1881. His fame today, and since the opera was presented in 1893, rest exclusively on the magical (and sinister) fairy-tale Hansel und Gretel. This adorable masterpiece delights learned musicians and children (8 is about the right age) in equal measure, and is unalloyed joy from beginning to end. Here, with the influence of Wagner uppermost, the exquisite beauty of first act’s final pages.

Extreme diffidence, coupled with a nervous susceptibility to the influence of other musicians (Wagner again, but also Debussy) led Paul Dukas to seriously underrate his own creative gift – to the point where he rejected more of his compositions than he published, judging them unworthy of the high standards he set for himself. L’Apprenti Sorcier is a slight but undoubted masterpiece and, with a little help from Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski, it continues to delight children and big people with its brilliant soundpicture (see Lazy Sunday two weeks ago) from Goethe’s 1797 poem. His sombre and mysterious opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is perhaps the best example of this composer’s noble imagination, also on display here in his ballet music La Peri (1912), a fairy creature from Persian mythology, descended from fallen angels who cannot re-enter paradise until he, or she, has done penance.

Though blind from the age of three, during the dozen or so years that Joaquin Rodrigo spent in Paris, he studied with Paul Dukas (above), Olivier Messiaen and Manuel de Falla. His oeuvre is dominated, of course, by the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and small orchestra, which made his name in 1939. His almost exact contemporary was the great Andalucian guitarist Andres Segovia who, single-handedly, brought the instrument out of the museum and the world of flamenco, and into the concert-halls of the world. The smoothly colourful Hispanicism of Aranjuez is replaced in the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre by a more classical restraint. Requested by Segovia in 1954 (the guitarist is the ‘gentilhombre’ of the title), it deserves to be heard more often than almost never. Here, the dedicatee plays the last movement Canario, a wonderful syncopated 6/8 dance, to the manner born. Listen for the imitative bird calls in the last few bars.

Sylvia Plath’s Tomato Soup Cake (and other baking exploits)

plath tomato soup cake

In the autumn Jonathan Law will be returning with a major new series on a remarkable family of eccentrics. In the meantime, here’s a rerun of his take on the underexplored literary topic of ‘Cake imagery in the writings of Sylvia Plath’…

On a damp afternoon one May, enraged cake-obsessive ‘ianf’ posted a plea for more serious treatment of his favourite subject:

You seem to be stuck forever in some make-believe land where Humanity’s Primary Dessert, Cakes, DO NOT MATTER. Yet nothing could be further from the truth – which I’ll now expertly demonstrate by piling literary logick upon more literary logick—until you can’t take this anymo.

As part of his argument – which is far too complex and nuanced to be summarized here – Ian alluded to the baking exploits of the poet Sylvia Plath, and in particular her Tomato Soup Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (sounds disgusting but apparently delicious).

‘Cake Imagery in the Writings of Sylvia Plath’ is an underexplored literary topic but one that I am happy to broach here in the hope of placating Ian – and happy to pass on gratis to anyone casting about for that elusive PhD subject. Indeed, the failure to address this area of Plath’s sensibility seems quite puzzling, given the numerous references to cakes in her Journals and the wholly characteristic intensity she brings to descriptions of baking, frosting, and (of course) eating the things. Could it be that the subject of Plath and baking has been avoided out of a misplaced delicacy, because it sounds like some awful joke? (In case you’re not there yet, and to avoid circling the issue for the rest of this post: oven.)

As any reader of the unexpurgated Journals will know, cakes good, bad, and indigestible formed a major part of Plath’s daily experience – as was the case, no doubt, for millions of stay-at-home wives in those pre-feminist days of the 1950s and 60s. The poet was not only a keen baker but something of a connoisseur – a stern critic, too, when occasion demanded. Here, for example, are a moist handful of references from the last journal to survive, the one written in Devon (cream tea country) in early 1962:

a handsome fruit cake, with one quarter cut out … Green and red and brown fruit studded the bottom of the yellow slab sides, and it rose to a browned crown …

a big tea laid, scones, cream, cherry jelly; a chocolate cake with rich dark frosting …

a plate of absolutely indigestible “Black Walnut flavored” cupcakes from a Betty Crocker mix Mrs. Tyrer had dug out of her closet …

But there’s a lot more to it than this Keatsian responsiveness to the tastes and textures of our cake-crumb world. If Plath knew all about the Joy of Cakes, she was also aware of the dark side – the obsessive, immersive nature of the baker’s craft, the loaded associations with femininity and home-making, the trauma and shame of a bake gone bad. The earliest of her diaries, written at Smith College in 1951, contains this harrowing account of layer-cake disaster:

I headed back to the kitchen, where my layer cakes reposed. I couldn’t figure out how to turn them over so that the plates would hold the two cakes. I put the plates upside down on top of the layers as they sat on the rack and turned the racks over so that the plates would turn out rightside up … Lack of foresight was revealed when the heavy rack, turned over on top of the cakes, crushed deeply into them and crumbled large pieces from the edge. I had not made enough frosting to spread over the side of the cake to conceal the messy uneven edges, so I cut three pieces of the worst-looking part … They crumbled into little shapeless brown masses on the plates. So I hid them in a cupboard in order that no one would see them.

And then there is this sinister observation from the Plath-Hughes household in 1959 – an imagist poem in itself, as well as an omen suggesting more than culinary doom:

The chicken, raw, wrapped in paper in the icebox, dropped a drop of blood on my pristine white cheesecake.

***

More substantially, baking and kitchen-work figure in two ideas for short stories that Plath worked on in 1957-58 but never managed to complete. The lighter of these is a “modern pot & kettle story” called ‘Changeabout in Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen’:

Shiny modern gadgets are overspecialized – long to do others’ tasks. Toaster, iron, waffle-maker, refrigerator, egg beater, electric fry-pan, blender. One midnight fairies or equivalent grant wish to change-about. Iron wants to make waffles … refrigerator tired of foods, decides to freeze clothes, toaster tired of toast, wants to bake fancy cake. Egg beater dizzy with whirring around decides to iron ruffly white blouse. Roasting spit wants to bake cookies. Dish-washer wants to cook. Disturbance caused by jealousy, return gladly after whirlwind experiment to doing best of own job.

If this sounds like a deeply conservative message – stick to what you know, you ‘tired’ toasters and dizzy egg-beaters! – a similar moral emerges from ‘The Day of the Twenty-four Cakes’, a tale of threatened yet victorious domesticity sketched out by Plath in July 1957:

THE DAY OF THE TWENTY-FOUR CAKES … woman at end of rope with husband, children: lost sense of order in universe, all meaningless, loss of hopes: quarrel with husband: loose ends, bills, problems, dead end. Wavering between running away or committing suicide: stayed by need to create an order: slowly, methodically begins to bake cakes, one each hour, calls store for eggs, etc. from midnight to midnight. Husband comes home: new understanding. She can go on making order in her limited way: beautiful cakes: can’t bear to leave them.

In her later development of the story, the wife (Ellen) is on the point of leaving her husband (Jock), who seems to be having an affair:

Compelled to leave something for children: their favorite cakes: starts baking. By compulsion, feels the need to keep on, orders four dozen eggs, confectioners sugar, measures out vanilla, baking powder: sense of order, neatness, creativeness. Born homemaker, sense of dignity, richness: knowledge that she’s what Jock really needs and wants. Trusts him to see it, too … Jock comes home, walks into kitchen: she is vital, flushed from baking, at peace with herself. Knows she will stick with him, and that he has truly come back to her. The last train to the city: she is dressed: just putting frosting on cupcakes.

Although this was written in the happiest days of the Plath-Hughes marriage, hindsight gives it a poignant edge; indeed, the denouement seems like a kind of wishful thinking before the event – in Sylvia’s case, there could be no “new understanding” through eggs, sugar, and baking powder, however manically deployed. ‘The Twenty-four Cakes’ is no great loss to literature, perhaps – but there’s something haunting in the compulsive nature of Ellen’s domesticity, her existential need to “go on making order in her limited way”. Plath seems both like and unlike the wife in the story: a kindred spirit in her craving for “order, neatness, creativeness” – and her need to please her husband – but unlike in having wider outlets for these urges. She could make cakes with the best of them, but she could also do the poems. A few days after writing this story sketch, Plath confided blissfully to her diary:

I feel good with my husband: I like his warmth and his bigness and his being-there and his making and his jokes and stories … and how he shows his gladness for what I cook him and joy for when I make something, a poem or a cake, and how he is troubled when I am unhappy and wants to do anything so I can fight out my soul-battles …

The equation cake = poem seems odd but on second thoughts is rather apt; in its combination of airiness and density a good cake is a lot like a decent poem, and no doubt vice versa.

That her fiercely undomesticated art might arise from the same impulse to order as her domestic goddess act is a paradox that Plath sometimes seemed to recognize. At other times, of course, household duties could feel like a dead weight choking any more adventurous form of creativity. In that same summer of 1957, after a day devoted to baking a pie, Plath worried that she was becoming:

too happily stodgily practical: instead of … writing – I go make an apple pie, or study the Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.

But this feeling seems to have been the exception, not the rule. Even in the inspired desperate days that saw the writing of the Ariel poems, Plath carefully noted her baking routines in her daily calendar; this is how we know that she dug out her comforting tomato soup cake recipe on the day that she wrote Death & Co and that she made a lemon pudding cake – from that same Joy of Cooking – a few hours after releasing Lady Lazarus into the world.

Yes, baking is an art, like everything else. She did it exceptionally well. She did so it felt like hell. She did it so it felt real. I guess you could say she’d a call.

(OK, Ian?)

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.

The Hobyahs

Commenting on Frank Key’s bedtime story about the glib hatter,  Adelephant recommended the story of The Hobyahs as suitable follow-up reading matter. This remarkable folk story was collected in Joseph Jacobs’ 1890 work ‘English Fairy Tales’. I offer no analysis or comment – it really does speak for itself…

Once there was an old man and woman and a little girl, and they all lived in a house made of hempstalks. Now the old man had a little dog named Turpie; and one night the Hobyahs came and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” But little dog Turpie barked so that the Hobyahs ran off; and the old man said, “Little dog Turpie barks so that I cannot sleep nor slumber, and if I live till morning I will cut off his tail.” So in the morning the old man cut off little dog Turpie’s tail.

The next night the Hobyahs came again, and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” But little dog Turpie barked so that the Hobyahs ran off; and the old man said, “Little dog Turpie barks so that I cannot sleep nor slumber, and if I live till morning I will cut off one of his legs.” So in the morning the old man cut off one of little dog Turpie’s legs.

The next night the Hobyahs came again, and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” But little dog Turpie barked so that the Hobyahs ran off; and the old man said, “Little dog Turpie barks so that I cannot sleep nor slumber, and if I live till morning I will cut off another of his legs.” So in the morning the old man cut off another of little dog Turpie’s legs.

The next night the Hobyahs came again, and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” But little dog Turpie barked so that the Hobyahs ran off; and the old man said, “Little dog Turpie barks so that I cannot sleep nor slumber, and if I live till morning I will cut off another of his legs.” So in the morning the old man cut off another of little dog Turpie’s legs.

The next night the Hobyahs came again, and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” But little dog Turpie barked so that the Hobyahs ran off; and the old man said, “Little dog Turpie barks so that I cannot sleep nor slumber, and if I live till morning I will cut off another of his legs.” So in the morning the old man cut off another of little dog Turpie’s legs.

The next night the Hobyahs came again, and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” But little dog Turpie barked so that the Hobyahs ran off; and the old man said, “Little dog Turpie barks so that I cannot sleep nor slumber, and if I live till morning I will cut off little dog Turpie’s head.” So in the morning the old man cut off little dog Turpie’s head.

The next night the Hobyahs came again, and said, “Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” And when the Hobyahs found that little dog Turpie’s head was off they tore down the hempstalks, ate up the old man and woman, and carried the little girl off in a bag.

And when the Hobyahs came to their home they hung up the bag with the little girl in it, and every Hobyah knocked on the top of the bag and said, “Look me! look me!” And then they went to sleep until the next night, for the Hobyahs slept in the daytime.

The little girl cried a great deal, and a man with a big dog came that way and heard her crying. When he asked her how she came there and she told him, he put the dog in the bag and took the little girl to his home.

The next night the Hobyahs took down the bag and knocked on the top of it, and said “Look me! look me!” and when they opened the bag–the big dog jumped out and ate them all up; so there are no Hobyahs now.

FIN.

The Musgrave Collection, Eastbourne

Should you want to visit the coast but stay indoors out of the sunshine why not take a trip to a seaside museum? Anne Ward, author of the Nothing to See Here blog and book, offers a suggestion.

The Musgrave Collection in Eastbourne is a true one-off, just like its owner, 94 year old George Musgrave. Who is this man and why does he have his own museum, you say? Well, it’s a long story.

To start at the very beginning, the first exhibit is dedicated to The Dad I Never Knew – George’s father who died in WWI when George was only two years old. Next, fast forward to the 1950s with display cases full of plastic moulds, scenery and miniscule model figures that George designed for commercial toy manufacturers in the 50s and 60s. The “Swoppets” that he designed for Herald Miniatures are fabulous things – tiny cowboys and Indians run amok along the shelves, so animated in appearance that I bet they come alive at night and continue their battles. The original models, painstakingly created from wire and Plasticine show that this is a man with a creative mind, a steady hand and an eye for detail.

Diorama

After this, in a bit of a curatorial non-sequitur, are miscellaneous paintings of people, animals and Patcham Windmill near Brighton where George lived and exhibited until it was subject to a compulsory purchase order. Next, stretching right to the back of the gallery are forty paintings of St Paul – a personal project that took up decades of his life and many research trips to the Middle East and beyond.

I wasn’t even halfway round at this point but already had the measure of the Musgrave Collection – expect the unexpected. Round the next corner there it was – some portraits of famous figures like Michael Grade and Roy Castle and an amazingly detailed, very clever diorama illustrating the four seasons, beside some display cases showing the history of communication and an impressive collection of Roman coins. As a final piece de resistance, his “Speck of Dust” painting (top), completed at the age of 91 shows the whole history of his colourful life in one go. Even here there are more surprises like his invention of the single yellow line, Olympic swim training and teaching in Africa. It’s a life that has spanned genres, continents and centuries. Blimey.

Michael Grade

The grandest exhibit, missing on the day I visited is the artist himself, who appears in the museum a few days each week to give visitors a guided tour (although after seeing his work I felt like I knew him already). At 94 he is still active and a new painting created especially for the Eastbourne Festival is proudly on show.

There are grander museums in the world (almost all of them, in fact) but what The Musgrave Collection lacks in big name artefacts, air-conditioned galleries and interactive exhibits it makes up for in sheer charm and chutzpah. The man-hours that went into this are staggering. If every 94 year-old made a museum of their life I imagine it would be pretty interesting but few could match George Musgrave for imagination and determination. He’s got his own 15 minutes of fame here. If there is ever a rating scale for Nothing-To-See-Here-ness it will be called the Musgrave in his honour.

A Short History of Useful Idiots

Daniel Kalder examines the phenomenon of otherwise intelligent people falling head-over-heels for murderous tyrants…

Mussolini: you might think he was just a blustering fool in a fez, but once upon a time many people took him very seriously. I remember my shock when, aged 15 or so, I learned from my history teacher that Churchill had spoken approvingly of the black shirts in the 1920s. This week however I was reading a biography of the first Fascist and learned that Winston was not alone. Franklin Roosevelt praised the Italian dictator as a gentleman; Chiang Kai-shek asked for a signed photograph; and even Gandhi (yes lovely, non-violent, vegetable-munching Gandhi) described him as the “Savior of Italy.” Hmm. That’ll be the guy who let his soldiers use live Ethiopians for target practice and ended his political career shipping Jews to Hitler for extermination? All right then!

The phenomenon of intelligent people saying stupid things about tyrants is a constant of 20th century history. The USSR under Stalin is a Klondike of intellectual embarrassment and/or mendacity, ranging from the reporting of Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize Winner who defended Stalin’s show trials and denied the Ukrainian famine, to the bumptious witterings of George Bernard Shaw (top) who in 1932 declared (as millions were starving) that reports of a famine in the USSR were “nonsense.” How did he know? “I have never eaten as well as during my trip to the Soviet Union.”

It was Lenin who first identified the genus of Western intellectual known as “the useful idiot,” but it was Stalin who showed how incredibly easy it was to seduce them: a free holiday, dinner, a little flattery and wa-hey- the knickers are off! But then Stalin died, the USSR became much less violent and the useful idiots lost interest.

Searching for a new utopia, many pinned their hopes on revolutionary Cuba, where a bearded mega-bore named Fidel Castro was in the process of transforming a corrupt satellite of America into a corrupt satellite of the USSR, even poorer and less free than before. Like Papa Joe, Fidel knew how to flatter and soon he had the likes of Picasso, Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag (“the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression”) eating out of his palm. My favorite Castro quote comes from Abbie Hoffman, a justly forgotten 60s radical bed-wetter who compared Castro to… well, read for yourself:

Fidel sits on the side of a tank rumbling into Havana on New Year’s Day… girls throw flowers at the tank and rush to tug playfully at this black beard. He laughs joyously and pinches a few rumps. .. He is like a mighty penis coming to life, and when he is tall and straight, the crowd immediately is transformed.

Ahem. Then there was Castro’s pal, Wee Ernie Guevara, a totalitarian loon who praised Mao, invaded the Congo and died in Bolivia after attempting to inspire revolution among people he knew nothing about. Sartre declared him “the most complete human being of our age.”

Speaking of Mao, he had his celebrity admirers, too. In 1973, Shirley MacLaine, who was very good in The Apartment with Jack Lemmon, went on a tour of some Potemkin villages in China and wrote a glowing report afterwards. She was especially approving of the absence of advertising billboards, and the general atmosphere of calm which left her feeling “serene.” She never thought that perhaps China was quiet because 60 million people had just been murdered and everyone was very, very scared. Mao was a big hit among 60s students and one of his erstwhile fanboys, Jose Manuel Barroso, is today president of the European Commission.

But Mao and Castro weren’t the only totalitarian despots considered groovy in the 60s and 70s. Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent Black Panther leader, declared that while America was a hell-hole of oppression, North Korea under Kim Il-sung was the best place in the world. In the run up to the Iranian revolution, Michel Foucault, a Frenchman, paid several visits to Iran and later praised the “political spirituality” of the Ayatollah Khomeini who, given the chance, would have had him executed for his homosexuality.

And so on, and so on. These days, it’s not quite as bad though I hear Hitler has his fans in the Middle East and Hollywood morons, inspired by 60s nostalgia, still show up in Cuba from time to time. But it’s hard to find the pure strain of tyrant admiration, though for a while I was fascinated by a blog entitled Reflections on the Ruhnama, written by “Steve from Wisconsin” who apparently took at face value all the gibberish the deceased Turkmen tyrant Saparmurat Niyazov had scrawled with a colored crayon in his notorious book.

Maybe it has something to do with the loss of religious faith. You know, these intellectuals no longer believe in paradise, so they project their yearning for redemption onto some exotic place, then climb through the wardrobe of their imaginations and emerge in magical lands governed by wise talking lions. Yes, I like that, though surely vanity also comes into it. It pleases certain intellectuals to adopt counter-intuitive positions, believing it gives them “depth” and “sophistication.” And thus clever people are often the easiest to fool.

(RIA Novosti previously published a version of this post).

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

The Pleasure of Pointlessness

This is one of the editors’ favourite ever Dabbles. ZMKC recalls an early experience of being too creative for a ‘creativity-first’ school, and explains how it has influenced her career as a blogger…

When I was about nine I began exchanging letters with a girl called Paula who was in the year above me at my funny little Froebel school. I don’t know what Froebel theory is, but as it was practised there creativity was the key to everything. We wrote stories, we painted, we made glove puppets, we clay modelled. We had a nature table to which a boy called John Belgrave, who claimed to own the whole of Belgravia, once contributed a dead mole and another time a perfectly ordinary looking rock which he claimed was a meteorite he had caught with his bare hands, and a set of Cuisenaire rods - but that was as close as we got to maths or science.

I can no longer remember how the letters started. I don’t know whose idea it was – I don’t remember talking about it or agreeing to give it a go. All I remember is that we wrote as if we were a pair of businessmen, and the letters were taken up entirely with arrangements to have meals together or discussions about the meals we’d had the last time we’d met. ‘Dear Dewsbury-Briggs,’ I would write (we settled, without any discussion, on the use of surnames, possibly because we both had brothers who went to boarding schools and had learnt from them that this was how things were done) ‘I’ve been away investigating sales possibilities in the South of France but am back in London for a week or two. Wondering if you feel like lunch some time – we could go to the Poule au Pot, although I gather the duck is not what it was, so perhaps my club – Tuesday, 12.30, if you’re free?’ and she would write back to me in similar vein. The whole thing gave us a lot of stupid amusement.

And then one day one of the teachers discovered our correspondence. We were each asked to explain ourselves. Why were we doing this? Neither of us had the faintest idea. Distrustful of such mysterious behaviour, the powers that be made it clear that we had to stop. And so, feeling rather ashamed, we did.

I’d forgotten about this episode until the other day when someone asked me why I blogged. Those absurd letters came back to me and I realised that the empty space that they’d left – the one marked ‘pointless fun’ – has at last been filled: by blogging. Like my letters to the imaginary Dewsbury-Briggs, my blog posts do not bring me any money or get me any closer to getting a certificate or a better job. They are just a way of doing one of the best things of all in life, one of the things we’re not really supposed to do (especially once adult) – being idiotic and mucking around.

A rum do in Cognac

Rural French Chateau

Crumbling châteaux and closet gay Counts – here’s Gaw’s terrific tale of some strange lodgings he took whilst playing rugby in South-West France….

Being a professional sportsman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s actually very boring. Training isn’t mentally stimulating and professional sportsmen tend not to be that interesting; they’re usually straight up and down.

I was playing rugby in the south of France and I was bored enough to put an advert offering English conversation classes in the local newspaper. This was twenty years ago, so before mobiles, and I gave the phone number of one of the two restaurants in the town where I could, and invariably did, eat on the club’s tab. I duly got a call.

The caller wanted me to be tutor to a young lad. But there was a condition: I would have to live with the family out of town. I declined – I didn’t want to be out of the way; it was tedious enough to be stuck with not much to do in town, let alone out in the country. But the person (it didn’t seem to be the father) persisted and I agreed to go out to have lunch with them to discuss things. I was to be picked up from the restaurant the next day.

Midday and a Range Rover screeched to a halt outside. A youngish man in a crumpled Hawaiian shirt, waving around a pack of Marlboro reds, swayed in asking for me. He seemed drunk. I left with him anyway, jumping in the car. I soon had confirmation he was drunk. Swerving at high speed through the town we bumped the kerb regularly, mounted the pavement a couple of times and clipped the side of a tunnel as we passed under railway tracks. However, we were soon on the open road, speeding northwards towards Cognac. After a dozen kilometres or so we turned off, then a couple of kilometres later swept through cracked stone pillars onto a track.

On our left was a substantial, stone-built stable block. The track turned into a drive as it swung around through a screen of trees and into parkland dotted with ancient and majestic elms. Ahead, on the right, was a chateau, sitting in green lawns and with an apron of yellow gravel across its front. It was story-book standard, pale stucco, with round, cone-topped towers at either end, a moat and a drawbridge. To my delight, a huge Irish wolfhound padded out to meet us as we crunched to a halt, overtaken by a plume of dust.

At lunch I met the family and learnt a little about their life and business. They were brandy andpineau producers: we were in a prime area, near Cognac, and the fields surrounding the chateau were full of vines.

The count was tanned, greying hair swept back and with rather vulpine features. He laughed readily, twitching his nose as he did so, a fox savouring the immediate prospect of chickens. His wife was white, pasty, thin, with black-grey circles around her eyes. She shook like a leaf.

There were four children, all quite delightful. The eldest was a girl of about twelve, as I say, quite delightful except she insisted on calling me ce truc-là (‘that thingy over there’). I was to be tutor to the next child, a nice boy of ten or so. A tomboyish girl was next oldest; she had somewhat oriental features and straight, black hair. The youngest was another boy, a toddler.

The youngish man who’d picked me up was presented as a friend of the family. A young man, Pascal – about my age, that is twenty or so – had served lunch. He was cook and factotum, and rather camp.

After lunch, the count took me into his study. I naturally accepted his offer of the job – how could I resist? – albeit after what was an awkward interview. I inferred that one of his objectives was to receive confirmation that I wasn’t homosexual; I had wanted to confirm the details of how I was going to be paid, how much would be taken out for bed and board. But, embarrassed, we both shied away from pursuing our questions, resorting to dismissive jocularities. He was uncomfortable broaching the subject of sex and I was uncomfortable quizzing him on money.

At the end, he assured me we’d get on tremendously as he was practically British himself: his name was a corruption of a Scottish one, passed down from the founder of his line, a Scottish nobleman who’d made his fortune fighting for the French Crown as a mercenary in the Hundred Years War.

I moved in straight away. As you can imagine it was a fascinating experience. You could swim in the moat, glassily green and freezing cold on the hottest days. The entire upper story of the chateau had been abandoned; drapes covering antique furniture, the odd bit of ormolu showing; cobwebs hanging off bookshelves containing the shrouded spines of hundreds of gilt- and leather-covered books; windows shuttered.

Visits to family friends in the locality revealed the parlous state of other seemingly unreconstructed gentlefolk: one family in a neighbouring village appeared to live entirely in the kitchen and parlour of their chateau – a multitude of filthy children wrestled with dogs under the table – the rest of the place abandoned to dereliction.

Not that my particular family of French aristocrats was without peculiarities. A mother who appeared in the throes of a terrible nervous breakdown, a child who looked part-Japanese, an almost in-house family friend who, whilst amiable, appeared to be dangerously drunk most of the time. I’d tried to get to the bottom of things but the only person who I felt I could ask was Pascal, the cook and factotum. Whilst friendly he was utterly discreet, to his credit.

Days passed lazily, the only structure – when I wasn’t training or playing in town – being provided by daily English conversation classes (mostly comical) followed by a kick around with a rugby ball in the grounds. After a few weeks of this douceur I was due to leave: my young charge, a genuinely pleasant and bright boy who I’d miss, was off to boarding school.

The day before my departure, Pascal asked me to join him in the kitchen. Everyone else was out. With a look of relish and something of a flourish he announced he was going to reveal everything.

The count and his wife were first cousins. He’d wanted to make what would have been a dangerously consanguineous marriage, in part, to keep the family assets entire; she’d had profound misgivings mostly because she was very religious and wary of running up against the Church’s proscriptions. She did acquiesce, but there followed a lengthy battle to arrange the relevant permissions. Eventually, the wedding arrived, as had the children and with little problem. The only concern had been the oriental-looking child, whose features were ascribed by Pascal to inbreeding.

However, a few months ago this carefully constructed household had fallen apart. The countess had discovered the count was gay. He’d been cruising via his recently installed Minitel, the French precursor to the internet, and she’d discovered his messages. Worse, his closest partner – the young drunk – had been diagnosed with AIDS, and was being supported by the count, whose prospects were uncertain. Pascal himself was gay and had met the count at a gay nightclub.

The cumulative effect of these revelations (except the last: she didn’t know about Pascal and it was important that she didn’t) had tipped the countess, an already fragile – and possibly guilt-wracked – personality, into a depressive crisis. After weeks of agonised argument, she’d decided that their eldest boy shouldn’t spend another day in the house with his father. She intended to send him to boarding school. But the boy wouldn’t be able to go until term started later in the autumn. Given this, she felt she had no choice other than to move out with the children during the interim.

The count was desperate for her to stay, but she wouldn’t accept any entreaties or assurances. So when his young friend stumbled across my advert in the local paper, he made a proposal. If he could arrange for a decent young man – a rugby player, so absolutely guaranteed to be heterosexual – to stay with them until the start of term as the eldest boy’s English tutor, would the countess relent? It turned out that, yes, she would. The Range Rover had duly weaved its way into town to pick me up.

The following day, my leaving day, the count asked me to go down to the stable-block to pick up the money he owed me (I hadn’t been paid a penny at that point – I hadn’t needed it). I’d never been down there before and was not at all sure as to why I’d been asked.

The stables were handsome and extensive and, once in the yard, it became obvious they’d been converted to offices. I climbed stone steps up to a first-floor door. Inside, there were sage-green carpets, natural oak fittings, contemporary furniture, glass internal walls: a tastefully and expensively furnished modern office. Telexes whirred. The count greeted me, nickle-and-dimed me (centime‘d me?), shook my hand and wished me adieu, vulpine grin in place. Back in England some time later, I saw his brandy sitting prominently on the shelves of the local Waitrose. All very rum.

How to be Happy

Radio 4 reporter Becky Milligan ponders the secret of happiness…

The question is: what makes you happy? What makes you laugh so hard you’re sick on the floor? Are you happier than sadder? Or so-so, on cruise control, or just below par? And what makes you cry, sob into your sandwiches, howl into a feather pillow to muffle your anguish. What does it for you?

The other day I was on the 87 bus sitting on the upper deck admiring the long blue sky and sparkly clean Thames, Parliament in full glorious view as we steamed over Vauxhall Bridge. I made my way down those vertical stairs and the bus suddenly lurched to the right, tossing me to the left. Through no fault of my own I found myself kneeling on the floor beside a smart young man with my face planted in his groin. I stayed down there a second too long, longer than was decent. But the shock of it, I couldn’t move, and for a brief moment it was really rather comfortable and warm down there. Eventually I stood up and brushed myself down muttering an apology. But his and the other passengers faces neither smiled nor frowned. Oh, the humiliation of it, the cruelty of it, embarrassment multiplied a trillion times by the po-faces. I would have cried. But I smiled instead. The best jokes are at our own expense aren’t they? The best humour sparked by our own foolishness. The biggest laughs prompted by own absurd behaviour. Our own misery is the funniest thing sometimes. It can lift the spirits.

It was a recent interview I did with the guru of happiness, Professor Martin Seligman, that prompted me thinking about all of this. That and an email from Professor Richard Layard, the happiness Tsar, in which he wrote that David Cameron’s well-being survey was to be published imminently and perhaps I might like to report on the results. I was overcome by a dreadful gloom.

Afterwards striding along back passages at the House of Commons with a colleague on our way to some summer party I contemplated the well-being debate. Lost, we whisked up flights of stairs and down again, moved along dark corridors reaching one locked door after another. I struck up conversation to pass the time.

“It’s a load of old baloney, isn’t this happiness thingy. Why should we all want to be happy all of the time?”

My companion pulled up abruptly. “Why? Why? Because it’s the key to a healthier economy and increased production,” he said, “There is research, you know, which shows it.”

I immediately agreed with him. Perhaps investing in our national mood is worth it, because we are worth it and it brings in big returns on the investment. But I have a few nagging doubts about the survey. I can’t understand how measuring well-being (all those numbers and graphs and long words and complicated syntax, not easy to absorb unless you have a degree in psychology) might be of use. A survey is a survey, it’s hardly a cure. What if we discover that we’re pretty downbeat, that we have an impressive bad-being rate? That wouldn’t do much for our collective mental state, or maybe it would. And if, when we’re happier, our economy improves why doesn’t the Government take the short cut and put Prozac in the water. It’s a thought. Would lobotomies have the desired effect? We could drift around in a vague haze of nothingness and become benignly highly productive. Oh, it’s all so confusing.

Earlier in the week I had enjoyed a lecture presented by Dr Martin Seligman in one of the commons committee rooms. Fourteen I think. He bounced off the walls telling the packed room that he wasn’t, actually, that much interested in happiness anymore nor well-being for that matter. It was now about “Flourishing”. That’s it, flourishing. We must flourish and this can be “learned.” I won’t bore you with the technical detail he put up on his projector. But the general overall point was that it is worth flourishing and worth pursuing. I wondered how I might learn the tools to do this. One clue might be found in the book A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor. He writes about a French monastery in which he is staying. At first he describes his misery of being trapped in his monk cell but slowly his mood improves.

The desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo: after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment.

And without the stimulus came an “energy and limpid freshness”.

That is a state of mind worth pursuing isn’t it? That is flourishing. It reminded me of an article I had read about happiness in which the author had brought to the reader’s attention a paragraph from The Lord of the Flies, when Henry, one of the characters, wanders to the water’s edge and sees small “transparencies” swimming around in the water.

This was fascinating to Henry. He poked about with a bit of stick, that itself was wave-worn and whitened and a vagrant, and tried to control the motions of the scavengers . . . He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things.

I recognise this. It’s the beauty of happiness, it happens by accident. It happens when we aren’t thinking about it at all, when we’re distracted, when we’re forgetful, when we live in cloud cuckoo land, when we’re absorbed in something else. We cannot force it. When you force it, it ends in tears. Happiness is an ideal which should be approached and captured by indirect methods, as though you are looking at something out of the corner of your eye. If you want to look at the sun observe its reflection in a puddle.

Recently I was in a bit of a mood when my children shouted at me to come and have a look at something “AmaZing”. I found them in the kitchen bent double over a black line of ants marching diagonally across the tiled floor. They began to count them, “We can’t keep track,” they wailed and started over. I began to wonder why the ants were travelling in single file, rather than a crowd, where were they going? Ahh, they were disappearing behind the cooker. I was occupied, engrossed, wondering whether it was possible for a creature so small to think, were their brains bigger than mine relatively speaking. I hardly noticed my small girls boiling the kettle and carefully pouring the steaming liquid on top of the black busy specs.

“What on earth are you doing girls? I thought you were pacifists,” I cried.

“Oh NO, not about ants, mummy we must kill them,” this made me laugh. “It’s unfortunate but a necessity,” my youngest said. She burst into evil giggles and I laughed some more, my bad mood long gone.

So it might be interesting to take a look at the well-being survey. And after digesting it, remember, so I am told, that we don’t laugh because we are happy, but are happy because we laugh. And sometimes ants are all it takes. Or falling over on a bus.

How the future looked in 1939

Barendina Smedley stumbles across a less reported view of a momentous year…

A few days ago, a battered copy of the Studio Year Book turned up here. The date on the much-sellotaped cover was 1939.

To move beyond that cover is to embark upon what feels like an act of low-cost, high-speed, deluxe time travel. Here, set out in elegantly austere spreads, mostly monochrome but punctuated here and there with assertive, rather oddly-faded and hence surreal colour, is much of the best and the worst of the late 1930s, viewed through the equivocal lense of domestic architecture, design and decoration.

On one hand, there is all the usual planning, illustrated ‘schemes’ complete with floorplans and diagrams, functionalism, aspirations towards social engineering, and progress apparently marketed as an end in itself. But then on the other hand, there is style, wit, eclecticism, variety and complexity, a desire to balance comfort with fun, utility continuously undermined by the assertion of individual taste.

Inside the front cover is an advertisement. Under the banner ‘Brighten your Home’ the reader is first tempted by the promise of abundant illustrations, then promised ‘In addition to the illustrations there will be news from the world’s art centres and a comprehensive review of the applied arts and handicrafts and new contributions to gracious living and cultivated taste.’ The price of an annual subscription is ’28s. Inland, 30s. Abroad’.

There is also the appearance of optimism — and not only in those ‘before and after’ sequences, where the architectural données and heirlooms of the past are assimilated into that frail and heartbreaking thing, the thoroughly cutting-edge style concept, either.

For where the act of time travel breaks down is precisely the point at which the present-day reader tries to reconstruct what those architects, designers, editors, copywriters, photographers, typographers and advertising men could possibly have been thinking. Even allowing for rather long lead-times, did the people who put the Studio Yearbook 1939 together really imagine that this brave new world of modernist bungalows, rational kitchen schemes, unvarnished oak, plate glass and aluminium detail was going to last out the next few months, let alone the next few years?

For the Studio Yearbook 1939 portrays — perhaps ‘invokes’ or ‘aspires towards’ might be a better way to put it — a peaceable kingdom of forward-looking visual and material culture. It isn’t as if national boundaries vanish here. On the contrary, locally-inflected style is feted as gaily as modernist internationalism. ‘Re-orientation in the German House’ does not look exactly like ‘Houses in California’, any more than ‘The Modern House in Italy’ is identical to ‘Modern Houses in Central Europe’ — although it must be said that the overall tone is less one of declamatory speech-making than friendly if somewhat competitive conversation.

No, the oddity here is the apparent thoroughness with which these carefully-concocted modernist spaces have been insulated against wars and rumours of wars. If, two thousand years hence, the Studio Yearbook were all historians had by way of source material for 1939, they would be justified in regarding that year as one of notable stability, material prosperity, international cooperation and geopolitical civility. ‘Gracious living and cultivated taste,’ as that advertisement puts it, really does seem to be the order of the day. Whereas the start of a hugely destructive near-global conflict doesn’t seem likely at all.

And that, I suppose, is the real problem with time travel. Here in 2011, it’s surely impossible to turn the pages of the Studio Yearbook 1939 without wondering what happened to all those immaculate white carpets, plate-glass windows, dining tables elaborately set for leisure and indulgence, imaginative kitchen appliances, eggshell-thin porcelain stamped with whimsical motifs, cocktail counters, vitrious mosaic-murals — or indeed, as far as that goes, without speculating what happened to the men and women who designed, produced or documented them.

How, though, did it seem in 1939? Try though we might, look though we must, in the end we simply cannot quite make our way into those pictured rooms — those carefully-choreographed spaces — perpetually unpeopled, still, silent, balanced with something that might be either utter idiocy or perhaps a certain magnificence on what we, at least, now know to be the edge of the abyss.