Hemingway describes how you can live a rich, fulfilled live in three days

Mario Vargas Llosa thinks Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls his worst novel, but I, like millions of others, thought it magnificent. Vargas Llosa mocks that Hemingway compared sex with the earth moving, a dreadful cliché. But Vargas Llosa fails to acknowledge that Hemingway was probably the first to make the comparison that became a cliché. It wasn’t a cliché when Hemingway used it, and I think that he avoided that familiar trap for a writer: writing terribly about sex.

Although there are glances backwards in time, the action in For Whom the Bell Tolls, takes place over three days. During the Spanish Civil War an American volunteer arrives in a mountainous area of Spain to blow up a bridge. He must recruit local guerrillas to help him, and much of the novel comprises his wonderful conversations with those guerrillas, particularly a woman Pilar. Hemingway writes highly-engaging dialogue. One of the group he meet is a young woman who has been raped. They fall in love instantly but believably.

We know from early in the novel that the American will die, and a key message of the book is that you can live a rich, fulfilled live in three days:

“I suppose it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years; granted that your life has been full up to the time that the seventy hours start and that you have reached a certain age.”

“So if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it. Now, ahora, maintenant, heute. Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.”

This is perhaps an absurdly romantic message, but I think it has truth. Certainly, there are people who live long lives that are barren, unfulfilled, lonely, and even wasted. The idea that you can live a wonderful life in a short time might perhaps be a comfort to those who have offspring who have died young. It consoles me too in my fear that climate change will make the lives of our grandchildren tough if not impossible.

The novel includes an account of a brutal episode in a particularly brutal war when the republicans of a village rounded up the fascists in the village and beat them to death one after another before throwing them over a cliff. Something like what Hemingway describes happened in Ronda, a town we have visited that has a great ravine in the middle. The account captures the special brutality of a civil war where people take out old scores on people they know but hate. May of the republicans doing the killing drink heavily and are wildly drunk by the time the orgy of violence ends. The account is an outstanding piece of writing and easily stands on its own. We don’t have it described in detail, but we know that the fascists were equally brutal when they recaptured the village.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was published in October 1940 as the Second World War intensified, and the novel—like A Farwell to Arms—is perhaps primarily an anti-war novel:

“In this war are many foolish things,” Agustín said. “In this war there is an idiocy without bounds.”

“Those men are not fascists. I call them so, but they are not. They are poor men as we are. They should never be fighting against us and I do not like to think of the killing.”

“In him, too, was despair from the sorrow that soldiers turn to hatred in order that they may continue to be soldiers.”

I don’t think that my father, who was at the Battle of El Alamein, ever read Hemingway, although my mother did, but he would have shared Hemingway’s belief. Those who have seen war close-up do everything they can to avoid more war.

I took many quotes from this great novel.

War

To worry was as bad as to be afraid. It simply made things more difficult.

“In this war are many foolish things,” Agustín said. “In this war there is an idiocy without bounds.”

“To make war all you need is intelligence. But to win you need talent and material.”

The need for a truth and reconciliation commission

I think that after the war there will have to be some great penance done for the killing. If we no longer have religion after the war then I think there must be some form of civic penance organized that all may be cleansed from the killing or else we will never have a true and human basis for living. The killing is necessary, I know, but still the doing of it is very bad for a man and I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all.

70 hours to live a life

Not a lifetime, not to live together, not to have what people were always supposed to have, not at all. One night that is past, once one afternoon, one night to come; maybe. No, sir. Not time, not happiness, not fun, not children, not a house, not a bathroom, not a clean pair of pajamas, not the morning paper, not to wake up together, not to wake and know she’s there and that you’re not alone. No. None of that.

And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving some one. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it. What you have with Maria, whether it lasts just through today and a part of tomorrow, or whether it lasts for a long life is the most important thing that can happen to a human being. There will always be people who say it does not exist because they cannot have it. But I tell you it is true and that you have it and that you are lucky even if you die tomorrow.

Sex

They were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.

When you were drunk or when you committed either fornication or adultery you recognized your own personal fallibility of that so mutable substitute for the apostles’ creed, the party line.

Writing

But my guess is you will get rid of all that by writing about it, he said. Once you write it down it is all gone. It will be a good book if you can write it.

He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly, and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple.

The trouble with being rich

The old man was right. The horses made him rich and as soon as he was rich he wanted to enjoy life. Pretty soon he’ll feel bad because he can’t join the Jockey Club,

The birth of existentialism

“Yet you have killed.”

“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”

“By whom?”

“Who knows? Since we do not have God here any more, neither His Son nor the Holy Ghost, who forgives? I do not know.”

“You have not God any more?”

“No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God, never would He have permitted what I have seen with my eyes. Let them have God.”

“They claim Him.”

“Clearly I miss Him, having been brought up in religion. But now a man must be responsible to himself.”

“Every one needs to talk to some one,” the woman said. “Before we had religion and other nonsense. Now for everyone there should be someone to whom one can speak frankly, for all the valor that one could have one becomes very alone.”

Telling the time

“Can you tell time?”

“Why not? Twelve o’clock mid-day. Hunger. Twelve o’clock midnight. Sleep. Six o’clock in the morning, hunger. Six o’clock at night, drunk. With luck. Ten o’clock at night——”

Drunkenness

“But since I have had experiences which demonstrate that drunkenness is the same in my country. It is ugly and brutal.”

“Of all men the drunkard is the foulest. The thief when he is not stealing is like another. The extortioner does not practise in the home. The murderer when he is at home can wash his hands. But the drunkard stinks and vomits in his own bed and dissolves his organs in alcohol.”

Observations

“The gypsies believe the bear to be a brother to man because he has the same body beneath his hide, because he drinks beer, because he enjoys music and because he likes to dance.”

Prison is nothing. Prison only makes hatred. That all our enemies should learn.”

“You are not smart. You are brave. You are loyal. You have decision. You have intuition. Much decision and much heart. But you are not smart.”

The pine tree makes a forest of boredom. Thou hast never known a forest of beech, nor of oak, nor of chestnut. Those are forests. In such forests each tree differs and there is character and beauty. A forest of pine trees is boredom.

“For what are we born if not to aid one another? And to listen and say nothing is a cold enough aid.”

“He can have thee,” Pilar said and ran her finger around the lobe of the girl’s ear. “But I am very jealous.”

“But Pilar,” Maria said. “It was thee explained to me there was nothing like that between us.”

“There is always something like that,” the woman said. “There is always something like something that there should not be.”

Few people will ever talk to thee truly and no women.

“You are a very hard woman,” he told her. “No,” Pilar said. “But so simple I am very complicated.”

“That is what kills the worm that haunts us.”

“Even here one man can make a bureaucracy with his mouth.”

French, the language of diplomacy. Spanish, the language of bureaucracy.

He told it from the beginning and in order with the wonderful memory of those who cannot read or write.

What’s it like to be demented?

Having watched our mother lose her memory over a dozen years to the point where she doesn’t know who we are, my brothers and I wonder what goes on in her head. What’s it like being demented? We can never know until we are demented, and how useful will an answer be then? The best insight I have had into understanding what it is like to be demented is from watching The Father, a film directed and cowritten by Florian Zeller and starring Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for his performance.

We see father from both inside and outside. At the beginning his daughter has come to see him because yet again he has got rid of his carer. She tries to explain to him that he needs somebody to care for him or else…. We all know what the “or else” is, he will have to go into a home. Father refuses to accept that he needs anybody to care for him. The beginning is thus familiar. The daughter also tells him that she has fallen in love and is going to live in Paris—and won’t be able to see him often.

In the next scene father walks into his living room to see a strange man sitting there. “What are you doing here? Get out of my flat.” The man answer that he lives here, and we, the audience, become confused. We know that father lives on his own. Then we learn that the man is the daughter’s husband, but we thought that she was going to live in Paris with a man that she’d just met. How can she have a husband? Father tells the man that he has bad news for him, that his wife is going to live in Paris with another man. The stranger doesn’t think so. Then the daughter arrives, played by another actress but of a similar build and with a similar short haircut. I couldn’t understand who this woman was, but Chicken immediately recognised that this was the daughter. I was confused.

I reflect how my mother knew who I was until a few years ago but then became ever less sure. She has introduced me to others as her father.

In another scene the daughter’s husband is played by another actor, and this husband tells father that he is “getting on our tits” and gives him a shove, a taste of elder abuse.

The daughter tries another carer, a young woman very used to demented people. Father performs for her, telling her he was a dancer and demonstrating his ability to dance. I’ve seen this confabulation in our mother many times. She’s also disinhibited.

The final scene is in a nursing home, a palatial one, and the nurse who cares for father is nothing short of loving. Few of us will have such care.

The film gives us insight into what it might like to be demented as we the audience become steadily more confused over who is who and whether stories are true or imagined. Wonderful to watch and beautifully acted, the film provides some answer to the impossible question of what it is like to be demented.

Writing an obituary of and with the living

For some reason I’ve remembered this blog I wrote about working with a friend to write his obituary. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2015/02/23/richard-smith-writing-an-obituary-of-the-living/  It was an interesting and enjoyable experience that was not at all morbid.

Just as I think everybody should have a living will, a plan for their funeral, and clear instructions on whether you want to be buried or cremated, so I advise thinking about your obituary or even obituaries. If you are a doctor you can be sure to get one in The BMJ so long as somebody writes one, but you might fancy trying for the newspapers. You might write it yourself, but many publications are sniffy about self-written obituaries. So you might do better to get somebody to write one for you, and that’s why Sir Anthony Grabham rang me.

Sir Anthony, who’s obituary you can read here, https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h502 was a general surgeon, chairman of the council of the BMA, and the holder of many other posts. I knew him through the committee of the BMA that oversaw the BMJ Publishing Group, and for some 10 years he was chairman of the committee (and the board it changed into) while I was the editor of The BMJ and chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group. We worked well together and liked each other, although we were very different: him being a polished master of the establishment, whereas I’m a “loose cannon,” to put it mildly.

We left The BMJ together more than 10 years ago, and I hadn’t seen Tony for probably eight years. So I was pleased, and, I must confess, flattered when he rang and asked me to write his obituary. Always proper, he had rung Fiona Godlee, the editor of The BMJ, to ask if it would be alright if he asked me. She said yes.

When he rang he told me that he had cancer and expected to be dead in four weeks. We chatted, caught up, reconnected, and laughed a lot. I said I would visit him to get his story. I went within days, frightened otherwise that I might not get to see him.

He looked very much his old self when I saw him, still handsome and well presented. He was, however, frail, and a nurse came to change his dressing during my visit. We talked for some two hours, with much pleasure on both sides. I started by asking him about what he saw as the climaxes of his career, great political battles of 40 years ago, from before I knew him. I greatly enjoyed his stories, and he enjoyed reliving them. Again there was much to laugh at. He told me things that he didn’t want included, usually because they could be damaging to people still living or the families of those dead. I respected all of his requests and never thought of not doing so, although I recognised that in some ways this compromised my “journalistic integrity” (an oxymoron to many).

Indeed, I was conscious that I was not operating as a journalist or historian pursuing the “truth” whatever the cost. I was being gently used. Tony (as I’ve always called him) didn’t ask me to show him what I wrote, but he had perhaps calculated that I would. I knew that I would and said so early on, perhaps even on our first phone call.

But we both knew that an obituary that was one triumph after another (sadly the standard BMJ obituary in my day) would be neither interesting nor credible. And, ironically, it’s easier to say negative things about the still living with their and their family’s consent than it is about the recently dead. If you read the obituary you’ll perhaps agree that there is more negative material than in the standard BMJ obituary, although the overall tone is very positive. For example, Tony described himself as a “middle of the road surgeon,” not a brilliant one, Barbara Castle, a secretary of state for health, thought him greedy and arrogant, and Henry Miller, a famous neurologist, said he was “useless” for failing to fully examine a patient.

I recorded our conversation, but I wrote the obituary from my notes and memory. I liked that I didn’t have to worry about length—because The BMJ will post obituaries of any length on thebmj.com. I emailed some old colleagues of Tony asking for stories that I told them would be unattributed. I also did a small amount of research, including reading William Osler’s essay Aequanimitas, Tony’s favourite reading. It provided useful insights.

I put together the obituary from this material, but mostly I used what he had told me. I posted it to him (he didn’t use email), saying he could make any changes, deletions, additions that he wanted. He rang me back quickly and had few changes but did have some additions. He disputed the factual accuracy of some of what others had told me, and so we took these out. Again there was much laughter and no tears.

Most obituaries are written from what others say rather than what the dead person has said, and perhaps this might seem like the difference between autobiographies, which are fiction in that we have all developed a story of our lives, and biographies, which in the best cases are deeply researched and objective in a way that autobiographies cannot be. But with obituaries there is no time for deep research, and the stories told by others may be just as fanciful, possibly more so, than the stories people tell about themselves.

Tony and I had interesting debates over whether he was ruthless and vain. Ruthless is a word often used about him, and he concedes that there was at least one time when he was undoubtedly ruthless. He wasn’t sure, however, that it was a personality trait. I said that I thought that being ruthless was not a bad thing. There are times when ruthlessness is needed, particularly by leaders like Tony, and it can be a fault not to possess it. It didn’t mean, I said, that you were ruthless every day, you were ruthless only when it was needed, which might be just once or twice in a lifetime. Tony was unconvinced, but it stayed in.

The idea of him being vain arose from a story about him that he insisted was untrue. As I had no other evidence of him being vain, I took it out, although he joked “I suppose the very fact that we are debating it may mean than I am vain.”

I got an editorial colleague who knew Tony well to prepare an 850 word version for the paper version of The BMJ. I shared that too with Tony, and we made some minor revisions. The BMJ’s press officer contacted the obituary editors of the TimesDaily Telegraph, and Independent. Tony was most keen to be in the Times because it was “his paper” and he dates from the days when The Times was undoubtedly the paper of the establishment. He wanted to be in the Daily Telegraph “because it’s the paper most doctors read,” and, although he described himself as “a bit of a leftie,” he didn’t care about the Guardian, perhaps because they wrote a critical editorial about a controversial speech he made.

The Times was willing to take a 1500 word version of the long BMJ obituary, and we found other old colleagues who were editors to write obituaries for the Daily Telegraph and Independent. One of them shared the piece with Tony, the other didn’t. I thought that a good thing as it would mean that at least one was written in the more usual way.

One anxiety was that with all these obituaries floating around one publication might make the mistake of publishing the obituary before Tony died. Luckily nobody did. I found the whole experience thoroughly enjoyable and I’m grateful to Tony for giving me the opportunity. I’m not, however, planning to make a career out of writing obituaries of the not yet dead, although I possibly could.

Competing interest. As the blog says, RS and Sir Anthony Grabham worked together for some 10 years and were fond of each other. RS was not paid for the obituary, and this blog was not shared with Grabham before he died, although it was shared with his family.

Prayer for the start of a meeting

Though I might mistrust you

And may not understand your jargon

I will start with trusting you

Will listen carefully without interruption

To what you say

Will agree on definitions

Will question carefully when I don’t understand

And will answer fully all questions you ask me.

We will seek understanding, agreement

And if necessary, compromise.

We will be respectful and polite

But also frank.

Portrait Of Sad Business Team

What is a life worth?

“What is a life worth?” is a question that nobody can answer and should perhaps remain unanswered. But there are circumstances in which it is in everybody’s interest to give an answer, not an answer in poetic words or any words but an answer in pounds and pence or dollars and cents. One of those circumstances was after the deaths at 9/11, and the film Worth, which we watched two nights ago, gave a dramatically strong account of how a group of lawyers went about answering the question for the 3000 people who died at 9/11.

It could have been left to the courts to answer the question. Those who lost loved ones could have sued the airlines or some other party, but that process would have taken years, the parties with the best lawyers (the airlines) would have done best, much of the money would have gone to lawyers, and there could have been serious damage to the whole US economy. It made much more sense to set up a fund and distribute the money, but who would want to lead the fund (be the master, in legal jargon) and answer the question to the bereaved of what their loved ones’ lives were worth in dollars and cents?

The lawyer, Kenneth Feinberg (played utterly convincingly by Michael Keaton), stepped forward, seeing running the fund as a public duty. Wisely he asked to do the job without payment: better to answer an unanswerable question without payment rather than for profit.

For Feinberg the job was simple: you did the maths, devised a formula for the worth of each life, set a time limit (two years), got people to sign up, and then divided up the money. The formula would do the work. It wasn’t for him and his team to negotiate, or everybody would be negotiating. It wasn’t for them to deal with grief. That was somebody else’s job. “We are not psychiatrists,” said Feinberg.

The big challenge was to get 80% to sign up, foregoing their right to take legal action. If 80% could not be reached then the fund collapsed, and everybody would have to go to law. A time limit was essential, or else people would keep hanging on, hoping for more.

How to set the formula? The film understandably didn’t dwell on the detail, but we understood that it was a combination of earning potential and number of dependents. Why not just divide the money by the number of dead and ascribe the same value to each life? For the religious all lives are precious: only God can decide who will live and die and the worth of a life. But the 80% target would not be reached if the relatives of the many CEOs and lawyers killed were going to get the same as cleaners and janitors.

A defining scene in the film is when Feinberg tries to explain the process and formula to the bereaved relatives. For him it’s simple, and he quickly loses the audience, especially when he says, “that’s not the game,” a very unfortunate word. “Are you saying that the deaths of those we loved is a game?” He is saved by Charles Wolf (played attractively but not convincingly by Stanley Tucci), who urges the audience to be civil but also describes himself as Feinberg’s severest critic. Wolf ran a campaign Fix the Fund on behalf of the bereaved and managed to have the fund modified—for example, to include those who were damaged by having to work in the dust and asbestos that swirled around after the collapse of the buildings.

Feinberg and Wolf are after the same thing: fair and rapid compensation for that which cannot be compensated. The difference is that Feinberg sees it as a technical process, whereas Wolf recognises that it’s about feelings, stories, relationships, and memories. Many people are more concerned to share their stories and have them recorded than they are to receive money. After a “dark night of the soul,” Feinberg realises his mistake, and he and his staff aim to meet and listen to everybody.

The film cannot tell 3000 stories, but it has some powerful stories told directly to the camera. I imagine that these were real stories told by actors, but they could have been told by the bereaved themselves. One was the story of a wife who sat for four days beside her husband with 90% burns, only to learn that it was not him at all.

Two stories were picked as illustrating the complexities. One was of a woman who greatly loved her firefighter husband who died: “we had so many plans and dreams.” They had three sons. A lawyer contacts the Feinberg team to say that he is representing the mistress of the firefighter and their two daughters. Do the lawyers dare tell the wife of this other family? Feinberg thinks they must and does it himself. The wife, of course, knew but had never confronted her husband. She said how her husband had always wanted daughters and was anxious that his daughters should get compensation.

The other story was of a gay man who had lost his partner. The dead partner’s parents, his heirs, refused to accept that that their son was gay and in a relationship that was in effect (but not law) a marriage. Only if the parents consented would the living partner get any compensation. Feinberg’s team tried to persuade them but failed. The partner got nothing.

These stories were, I suspect, composites of “real” stories.

The jeopardy in the film came from whether Feinberg’s team could reach the 80% target. A few weeks even days out it seemed unlikely—despite Feinberg having said from the beginning that there would be a rush at the end. There was a rush at the end because Wolf put his support behind Feinberg, Feinberg refused to do a deal with a lawyer representing a rich group, and the deadline loomed. In the end 97% signed up.

As I reflected on the film, I thought that I too was capable like Feinberg of thinking a process technical when in fact it depends on feelings, stories, relationships, and memories. Perhaps many of us make the same mistake. Perhaps it’s common in hospitals when people are dying. What is a life worth as it ends?

A compelling testament to human stupidity with the odd fleck of wisdom

These quotes all come from the start of Thomas Meaney’s article in the London Review of Books on the war in Afghanistan, Like Ordering Pizza. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n17/thomas-meaney/like-ordering-pizza

Your cause is right and God is on your side!

Zbigniew Brzezinski, US national security adviser, to the Afghan mujahedin, 3 February 1980

I have benefited so greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan that it would have been impossible for me to gain such a benefit from any other chance, and this cannot be measured by tens of years but rather more than that.

Osama bin Laden, March 1997

Once, the Kabul Zoo housed ninety varieties of animals and got a thousand visitors a day, but in the era of fighting that followed the fall of the Soviets and then of Najibullah, the people stayed away, and the animals found themselves in a place more dangerous than any forest or jungle. For ten days, the elephant ran in circles, screaming, until shrapnel toppled her and she died. As the shelling went back and forth, the tigers and llamas, the ostriches, the elephant, were carried away to paradise. The aviary was ruptured and the birds flew free into the heavens from which the rockets rained.

Denis Johnson, 1 April 1997

Let’s step back a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute. And think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.

US Representative Barbara Lee, 14 September 2001

This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient. I’m going to be patient.

President George W. Bush, 17 September 2001

The Taliban regime already belongs to history.

Jürgen Habermas, December 2001

I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld, 8 September 2003

I will venture a prediction. The Taliban/al-Qaida riffraff, as we know them, will never come back to power.

Christopher Hitchens, November 2004

The markets for defence and related advanced technology systems for 2005 and beyond will continue to be affected by the global war on terrorism, through the continued need for military missions and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the related fiscal consequences of war.

Lockheed Martin Annual Report, 1 March 2005

Well, it was a just war in the beginning.

Michael Walzer, 3 December 2009

Rambo in Afghanistan. A screening of Rambo III at the Duck and Cover. Wear a headband for $1 off drinks.

Email chain invitation, US compound, Kabul, 2010

Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanising the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German and other European women could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe towards the ISAF mission.

CIA Analysis Report, 11 March 2010

The overthrow of the Taliban was the ennobling corollary of a security policy; it was collateral humanitarianism.

Leon Wieseltier, 24 October 2010

Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school. Education isn’t possible as long as the drones circle overhead.

Zubair Rehman, 13-year-old Pakistani student, 29 October 2013

I think his legacy in terms of his country will be a strong one.

US Ambassador James B. Cunningham on Hamid Karzai, 23 September 2014

While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures.

President Barack Obama, 15 October 2015

When [Afghans] leave, they break the social contract. This is an existential choice. Countries do not survive with their best attempting to flee. So I have no sympathy.

President Ashraf Ghani, 31 March 2016

He reads books on the transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe, on the Central Asian enlightenment of a thousand years ago, on modern warfare, on the history of Afghanistan’s rivers.

George Packer on Ashraf Ghani, 4 July 2016

It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture.

Senior NSC official, 16 September 2016

We’re getting along very, very well with the Taliban.

President Donald Trump, 10 September 2020

This is manifestly not Saigon.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, 15 August 2021

Laura and I, along with the team at the Bush Centre, stand ready as Americans to lend our support and assistance in this time of need. Let us all resolve to be united in saving lives and praying for the people of Afghanistan.

George W. Bush, 16 August 2021

The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence, and with a plan that is credible and realistic.

Tony Blair, 21 August 2021

My first talk to a physically-present audience in 20 months: is this the future or the past?

My brother is a stand-up comedian and needs regular performances before a live, physically-present audience as others need bread. It’s not easy to be funny on Zoom without any audience reaction, but he’s tried. It’s a huge relief to him that he can now make live, physically-present audiences laugh. My need was less desperate, but I’ve much enjoyed my first talk today for 20 months to a live, physically-present performance– even though it was to about 20 people in a room that could have held 200.

(I’m now going to drop this clunky phrase “live, physically-present audience” and use simply “live audience.” I am aware that Zoom audiences are often live in that they are listening as you talk, but you can never be sure. They might all be dead but with their computers left on, or they may have simply gone for a run.)

My talk was in Birmingham at 9.30, and I live in London, which is about 125 miles away. The conference organisers would have paid for me to stay the night in Birmingham, but I opted for an early train. I had to shave, find trousers, a shirt, and respectable shoes and get up at 5.30 to catch the tube to catch a train. I’d had to book the train in advance, print out my tickets and my Covid pass, and download my ticket to get into the conference into my IPhone wallet, a first for me. None of this, I reflected, would have been necessary if I was doing the talk on Zoom.

I arrived in Birmingham at 8.11, and an old memory of the city allowed me to find my way to wal to the conference centre. Birmingham, an unfashionable city, was looking good with its Victorian grandeur complemented rather than shocked by the city’s many new buildings. The streets were busy but not packed. I thought of article I read yesterday about a historian walking through a completely deserted London in the early days of the pandemic: his main point was that cities are resilient.

The conference centre was not busy. I checked my PowerPoint in the media centre, waited a while, and then went to the room where I was speaking about 15 minutes before our session began. Only the chair and one other speaker were there. I introduced myself to both and then learnt about horse surgery from the chair, a horse surgeon, ( you can operate on them either with the horse standing up or on an operating table, the trickiest moment is when they come round from the anaesthetic because their instinct to bolt) and about waste from the track-and-trace and vaccination programmes from the woman in charge (all that packaging is unavoidable). I might have learnt these things on Zoom but probably not. The reason for these people being there was that this was a session on sustainability in veterinary practice at a conference of the British Equine Veterinary Association.

When we kicked off the atmosphere was not buzzing. The 20 people sat many rows back. The first talk had been recorded. It was a highly competent, well organised talk filled with information, perhaps a little too much. We saw the woman’s slides and a small picture of her head beside the slides. I found that it was hard to pay attention. She was too quiet at the beginning and had to be turned up.

I came next and felt liberated to be standing up, free to move and wave my arms, and talking to a live audience—albeit a scattered few. I started with a not very good joke: “Those of you watching online should know that I’m speaking to a packed hall full of excitement.” The scattered audience smiled and perhaps even tittered. There was some engagement. I carried on, much more animated than is possible talking to a screen and seeing no one. I was glad I came.

The next speaker did her talk live but onscreen. Again, it wasn’t easy to keep listening, whereas I know it would have been if I was sitting at home listening to her through my computer. The last speaker was also present, and it was much easier to listen to and engage with her talk.

The Q and A was the best bit of the session, particularly when a man leapt up and told us that he had technology that could compost the body of a horse in a few weeks. I couldn’t resist him asking if he could do the same for humans and whether I could sign up. He said that he was always asked that question and that the technology could do humans as well as animals but wasn’t yet available for humans. The waste woman told me that the best I could hope for was alkaline hydrolysis, and I said that was already in my will. The interaction was lively, but I suspect that it didn’t work well for anybody watching onscreen (if anybody was); and the waste woman answered a question on behalf of the woman who’d been live but onscreen, only for us to discover that she was still present but couldn’t be heard.

My main conclusion from my experience is that I look forward to being able to talk to live audiences but that much thought is needed to make blended meetings work well. Currently, it’s better for everybody to be present or everybody to be onscreen.

Competing interest: RS wasn’t paid to give his talk but will have his expenses paid for his standard class train ticket if he gets round to making the claim, which he probably won’t.

Making soup with 2-year-old Thirza

Perhaps because her father is a chef, Thirza, our 2-year-old granddaughter who calls herself Tony, likes to cook. I knew that we were going to be looking after her this morning, and I saved ingredients to make soup with her.

Thirza is a determined, adventurous risk-taker with a philosophical turn of mind that is shown in her slow and considered responses to questions and challenges. She was much flatter than normal when she arrived this morning because she has hand, foot, and mouth disease, which is common in children and nothing at all to do with the foot and mouth disease of cattle. But when I asked her if she wanted to make soup she agreed at once.

The essence of cooking with a child is that you must give them as much as possible to do but obviously not put them at risk of burning or cutting themselves. She stood on a stool beside me at the kitchen bench and we put chairs behind and beside her so that she couldn’t fall. I started by peeling the onions and asking her to put the discarded skins into the food recycling bin. She did so with speed and enthusiasm.  I asked her as well what these things were, and she knew.  But she didn’t know garlic, but I got her to say the word. Once I’d chopped the onions she put them into a saucepan. She began to rub her eyes, and Granny thought I was overdoing it—but there were only two onions.

I then chopped broccoli and greens, again asking her to put the waste into the food recycling bin and the chopped vegetables into a bowl, which I then poured into the soup that was now beginning to boil. After I’d washed the spinach, I took handfuls to the board and asked Thirza to put them into the bowl. I told her that I was making “frog pond soup,” which is what I call it. I asked if she liked frogs in soup. She said no and was neither surprised nor amused.

By now I’d chopped all my ingredients, but Thirza was keen to continue. She’d brightened up considerably during the cooking. As with many of us and certainly me, working is good for taking our minds off our woes. We needed to continue, and I retrieved discarded vegetables and fruit from the recycling, chopped them, and asked Thirza to put them into a saucepan. This time she was able to stir the soup that consisted mostly of chopped grapefruit skins and broccoli stalks. I gave her salt and pepper to add to her soup and was only just able to stop her pouring a whole bottle of celery salt into her soup.

For Thirza it was the process, the search, the pursuit not the product that mattered. She had no interest in either my soup, which was acceptable, or her own, which would anyway have been inedible.

How long before she will be cooking for me?

The magical, magical writing of Hemingway

Watching Ken Burns’s documentary on the life of Hemingway made me want to read his books again, and I realised that I had never read two of his best-known books: A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. (He had a gift for titles, one of the hardest parts of writing.) Now, I have, and both books are magical. They are magical in that just as with a magician you don’t know how Hemingway does it—how is it that he creates such spells with such simple language? If I knew, I too could be “king of the fiction racket,” as Hemingway described himself (in something like those words).

I fear that in a woke age, Hemingway may be despised by many. His image, created in many ways by himself, is of the macho, heavy drinking, womanising big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman. But, of course, he’s much more complicated than that. Much of his writing is deeply tender, and, although he had four wives, I think that he genuinely loved them all. Perhaps more remarkable is that they loved him, but you can see in his writing how lovable he must have been, even though he was often violent, abusive, and drunk.

A Farewell to Arms might be summarised as a love story and a condemnation of war. War, love, and death are Hemingway’s great themes, and what could be better? You are aware all the time in his writing of the briefness of life and the proximity of death: “send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”

One of the bits of the book that sticks most vividly in my mind is his description of when the narrator becomes a hero through being blow up.

Did you do any heroic act?”

“No,” I said. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

Later:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it…. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

There are many other passages condemning war:

Listen. There is nothing as bad as war. We in the auto-ambulance cannot even realize at all how bad it is. When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them the war is made.”

 “I know it is bad but we must finish it.”

“It doesn’t finish. There is no finish to a war.”

One leg was gone and the other was held by tendons and part of the trouser and the stump twitched and jerked as though it were not connected. He bit his arm and moaned, “Oh mama mia, mama Mia,” then, “Dio te salve, Maria. Dio te salve, Maria. Oh Jesus shoot me Christ shoot me mama mia mama Mia oh purest lovely Mary shoot me. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Oh Jesus lovely Mary stop it. Oh oh oh oh,” then choking, “Mama mama mia.” Then he was quiet, biting his arm, the stump of his leg twitching.

One of the best things about Hemingway’s writing, which I had forgotten, is the dialogue. It’s not believable dialogue, but it’s deeply engaging, as in the best plays.

“You do. What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.”

“I don’t love.”

“You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy.”

“I’m happy. I’ve always been happy.”

“It is another thing. You cannot know about it unless you have it.”

 “Well,” I said. “If I ever get it I will tell you.”

His writing also contains many short stories—often very short—embedded in the longer text. Importantly they add to the novel, not divert you from it.

“Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first toward the centre where the fire was; then turned back and ran toward the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.”

Here are other quotes I took from the novel. Rich pickings.

Love

Maybe she would pretend that I was her boy that was killed and we would go in the front door and the porter would take off his cap and I would stop at the concierge’s desk and ask for the key and she would stand by the elevator and then we would get in the elevator and it would go up very slowly clicking at all the floors and then our floor and the boy would open the door and stand there and she would step out and I would step out and we would walk down the hall and I would put the key in the door and open it and go in and then take down the telephone and ask them to send a bottle of capri bianca in a silver bucket full of ice and you would hear the ice against the pail coming down the coridor and the boy would knock and I would say leave it outside the door please. Because we would not wear any clothes because it was so hot and the window open and the swallows flying over the roofs of the houses and when it was dark afterward and you went to the window very small bats hunting over the houses and close down over the trees and we would drink the capri and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet and the whole night and we would both love each other all night in the hot night in Milan. That was how it ought to be.

When I saw her I was in love with her. Everything turned over inside of me.

Death

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.

Old age

“It is the body that is old. Sometimes I am afraid I will break off a finger as one breaks a stick of chalk. And the spirit is no older and not much wiser.”

“You are wise.”

“No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” “Perhaps that is wisdom.”

“It is a very unattractive wisdom.”

Other quotes

You are really an Italian. All fire and smoke and nothing inside.

Before he came back three doctors came into the room. I have noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another’s company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. These were three such doctors.

Life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.

I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist.

A bewitching long poem from a dying man

Clive James, the lovable Australian wit, came to be embarrassed by how long it took him to die. After being diagnosed with emphysema and kidney failure in 2010, aged 71, he announced in 2012 that he had β-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia and that it “had beaten him” and he was “near the end.” But he didn’t die until November 2019 after being given an experimental treatment in 2015. But his prolonged dying gave him time to write a book-length poem, The River in the Sky, which I’ve found a joy to read and plan to read again very soon.

The poem is a reflection on James’s life and is filled with things he loves, particularly opera and jazz, ballet, poems, cricket, and places in Australia. Death runs through the whole poem, but in a practical, unsentimental, even affectionate way:

I have known and moved

To the rhythm of incipient oblivion

My every poem, every song, a requiem.

Lying here so ill my memories

Are stoked with countless deaths.

Both he and we, the readers, take pleasure in his memories.

My nets of recollection shine

Like the tree-tops of Kokoda

Late at night

The phosphorescent outlines

Assemble, interpenetrate

The set of interweaving murmurations

My mind is now becoming.

I’m not dying more than anybody approaching dying is dying, but my mind too is becoming a “set of interweaving murmurations.” I wonder often, as does my brother, whether my mind will collapse, as has that of our mother, into a heap of broken murmurations. We wonder often what goes on in the mind of our once sharp but now demented mother, and we will never know—or we won’t know until a point where we can no longer share what we know.

One of the themes of The River in the Sky is the unknowability of life and its meaning:

Life, the long plunge into doubt.

The whole world, if you wait long enough

Is full of falling.

But no, there is no journey,

There never was a journey,

There is just a multiform

Rearrangement and displacement

Around the epicentres

Of all you ever knew

In the gradual tornado

By which you ceases to know it

The Sphinx is a test that we must all fail

Because she sets no riddle.

But there is much to bring joy:

What is lost the mind replaces

Anything entirely lovely

We want to hear again next week

And life might simply fail to be that long

Even for you

Thank God and every other god there is

That time is an aesthete

Who strips the colours from the Parthenon

It’s a sufficient destiny

To make the right remark

At exactly the right time:

A poem might be more than that

But it is never less.

I’ve enjoyed other collections of poetry by James and especially his collection of poems by others that he loved. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2021/03/26/6539/  I’ve also read some of his essays about poetry, and I know that he favours formal poetic structures. But this long poem has no formal structure. It’s jottings, fond memories, brief accounts, and, I think, all the better for it. It does, of course, have the essentials of rhythm and beautifully arranged phrases, although inevitably some clunky moments. Oddly, it reminded me of The Wasteland in that it roars along and is full of quotations and references you don’t get, many of which you couldn’t get unless you knew Sydney in the 40s and 50s. That didn’t bother me. I did sometimes look up the references and listen to the music he praised, and that gave me joy. Try, for instance, the Flower Duet sing by Anna Netrebko & Elīna Garanča. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrm59zqCKEU

One of the best bits of the poem, which I read to Lin and will if I have the time and energy copy out and share, is James’s account of dancing the tango In Buenos Aires with a blind woman who was the best of the dancers on a “flagstone forecourt…that swept down to the river Plate.” It took courage to ask her to dance and James was….

Careful to tell her that I looked like Errol Flynn,

So she need not fear she was ill-matched.

Next time I read the poem I may go slowly and look up all the references, and then I will read it again, revelling in it, and without looking up anything.