A Time of Gifts: Fermour and the memoir

As a form of literature, the memoir has often struck me as an odd. The author assembles a small museum of personal artifacts for the purpose of describing a story. The writing is somewhat feigned: episodes have the ring of fiction, and we must suspend disbelief that life and narrative have intersected so well. What makes the memoir especially perplexing is that, generally speaking, the better the storytelling the less likely we are to stop and question if it really did happen like this. The more extraordinary it sounds, the more likely we are to succumb to its charisma.

• • •

Remain or Leave?

The Brexit referendum is now decided, and the fall-out is now unfurling like a virtual-reality landscape. Nothing can be predicted; nothing is unexpected.

• • •

All Rhodes Lead to Historical Feud

History is not fixed. The point is, it can be re-judged for its faults.
This assertion, and others like it, have been utilised by a group of University of Oxford students known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a campaign to depose the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of a building at Oriel College. Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian business magnate, imperialist and undoubted racist, has fallen out of favour.

• • •

Room With a View: What’s it Worth?

Views of the Alhambra.
I’m in Granada, Spain, taking in views of the Alhambra from my hotel room. The extra supplement we have paid for these views is both easy and hard to justify. Common wisdom knows full well that rooms with a view usually stretch the promise, since what is viewed is more often than not merely glimpsed, obliquely or “only on a clear day”. The phrase partial view is the poorer cousin and should be treat with even more circumspection.
And yet on this occasion, views of the Alhambra are really quite good. I can see the fortress of blocks of the Alcazaba, and part of the palace behind, and the hilltop setting, and even the misty line of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. I’ve taken several photographs, not as views-from-my-room but simply as worthwhile views.
Our hotel view of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Granada as a city has disappointed me a bit. I came here a decade or so ago and all I remember are the jewel-like attributes of the Nasrid Palace inside the Alhambra. What I’ve forgotten is the large sprawling town that surrounds it, seeping inexorably into the broad mountainous plateau on which the city stands. The city is much larger and more lived in than I remember. For the tourist there is no gain in seeing the rows of car dealerships, high-rise apartment blocks, factory buildings, McDonalds outlets, advertisement hoardings, and so on. These things are a blot and a burden – the things that tell us we are in the wrong part of town. We prefer our trinket shops and Flamenco shows, our white-washed buildings and old world atmosphere. Even the touts offering Segway rides up the cobbled streets are a distraction.
Thus, there is something reassuring and yet deeply troubling about these views of the Alhambra. Between the hotel window and the monument I can see nothing but pretty tiled rooftops and a winding street. The view we have paid extra for is not just about what we can see but also what can be edited out. The town is reduced to a single transaction, a line of light between my window and the great building up there. An abstraction.
It is this sort of worry, in my reckoning, that leads some people to want to re-appraise the touristic facets of the general urban swathe. They sense the pathetic aloofness of the tourist who angles his camera lens to cut out all but the most desirable components of the shot, as if to take home pictures of dustbins, car parks, scrub land, building sites, suburbia, etc., would be an embarrassment or a travesty. The same could be said of the tourist who pays extra for a room with a view. Such aloofness is absurd-seeming because it wishes and pretends the earth to be something different to how it is. And yet what is travel but a series of imagined perfections?

• • •

Embarrassed yet? Some naked truths about life drawing classes

For the last six weeks I’ve been going to life drawing classes at a local college. Just as you see in films or on TV, the disrobed figure sits in the centre of a room with a circle of easels surrounding them. Behind the easels, artists drag charcoal blocks or dab Indian ink or smudge oil pastels across the paper, and try as best they can to render a decent likeness of the posed model in front of them.

• • •

The Portmanteau Press

If the latest portmanteau is to be taken seriously – Grexit, a combination of the words Greece and exit referring to the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone (Dear future, has this now happened?) – the squashing of words together now has a foreshadowing aspect. Others have arrived portending further Greek quandaries: Grexodous, Grepicentre, and The Grelephant in the Room.

• • •

What are stories worth: a quick note

I recently read an article by Lincoln Allison titled Are Novels a Waste of Life?. The question of the title explains all. For Allison, it is the sense that time is being wasted that destablises his ability to finish a novel. “Life seems too short for other people’s imaginings,” especially when there are more pressing fact based writing to consume. “Making intelligent young men read the Brontë sisters when they have never even heard of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty might just be the worst idea in the history of education.”
These stark ideas led to me to seek out an alternative position, and by chance I found it that same day on BBC Radio 4 in the guise of a Will Self point of view. (The Power of Fiction)
Self examined the ability of novels to lure us into a belief that a fictional character has time and choice ahead of them. He states that whilst we don’t credit Anna Kerenina any existence beyond the pages of a book, “we certainly do believe that Anna Kerenina believes herself to be a free agent responsible for making decisions that will alter the course of her life” – and yet we only need to turn to the last page of the book to see that her future pathway is resolutely mapped out. It is this aspect of fiction that Self believes we find storytelling so affecting and believe in their self-consciouses so whole heatedly. Why? Because in truth we all suspect that our lives have far less “wriggle room” for contingency and free will than we typically state, and that secretly our lives have a last page that, if we were able to turn to, we could read the denouement of the story we privately entertain has a fixed, predetermined ending.
My own experience of reading fiction has always been tied up with the new possibilities of seeing that I might thereafter consider a choice I could make. Voices speak to us through words; fiction fosters new vantage points.

• • •

A Weimar Woman: Lotte Laserstein

The recent acquisition of Lotte Laserstein’s Evening Over Potsdam (Abend über Potsdam, 1930) by the Berlin National Gallery offers the opportunity for the public to view a painting that is by any measure a masterful depiction of modernist discord and youthful ennui. As a work of art it is prescient and hugely evocative.

• • •

Review of public artwork: “Spring” by Oliver Barratt

Oliver Barratt’s sculpture, Spring, is a bright and fulsome tribute to the influence of water. Its signature is the uninterrupted line, which swirls and undulates in heavy blue ribbons. It attends to a period of history when the healing properties of Leamington’s spa waters were much sought after, and brought great wealth to those who exploited them.

• • •