The great antiwar and antitotalitarian Leningrad Symphony

Shostakovich is one of my favourite composers along with Bach, Schubert, and Mahler. I listen to Bach several times a week, Schubert most weeks, and Shostakovich and Mahler less often. It’s partly for the simple reason that Shostakovich and Mahler are more associated with symphonies, which are better heard live than listened to at home; but it’s more to do with emotionality: the emotion is most constrained in Bach and wide open with Shostakovich and Mahler. And perhaps the most emotional of Shostakovich’s symphonies is his 7th, the Leningrad, written during the second world war in Leningrad when the Germans were besieging the city. I listened this morning to the discussion of which is the best recording, and it was obvious to me from the beginning that it would be the version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the most “theatrical” of the conductors, a man who revels in emotion. (I’m listening to this version as I type this blog.)

The symphony was finished when Shostakovich was in Samara and performed for the first time in that city in March 1942. The score was smuggled through to Leningrad, which was besieged from September 1941 to January 1944 with millions dying, and performed in August 1942 on the day Hitler had planned a banquet to celebrate capturing the city. The Russian general ordered a major bombardment of the Germans to silence their guns for the performance. The audience wept when they heard the symphony.

The score was also put onto microfilm and taken to the West via Tehran. The first performance in the West was in London in June 1942, conducted by Henry Wood during the Blitz. It was broadcast by the BBC, and ironically cut short so as not to delay the 9 O’Clock News. Toscanini conducted it in New York in July 1942, and, according to this morning’s discussion, Shostakovich didn’t like that version, too Italianate and romantic. The critic Virgil Thomson disparaged the work: “It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.”

The broader public did not agree, and the symphony was played across the Soviet Union and 62 times in the United States in the 1942–43 season. People in the Soviet Union, Britain, and the US saw it as a symbol of resistance, resilience, and opposition to fascism. It’s an open question how much it was as much in opposition to Stalin as Hitler. The famous “invasion theme” of the 1st movement is derived from a tune in The Merry Widow, which was a favourite of Hitler’s, and a theme from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work that Stalin walked out of and for which the composer was denounced. The invasion theme is 22-bar, snare-drum-led ostinato that is repeated 12 times becoming steadily louder. As they said on the radio this morning, the uninhibited Bernstein version make you think of panzers invading.

The symphony is now seen as antiwar and antitotalitarian.

I visited Leningrad, as it was then in 1981, and went to the huge Leningrad Cemetery, where half a million victims of the siege are buried. I remember the photographs on the graves, a Russian custom, and that music was playing. I didn’t know the Leningrad Symphony then, but Wikipedia tells me that the symphony is regularly played at the cemetery.

I have heard the symphony played at the Proms (not by Bernstein), and my emotions and even my body were shaken to the core. I remember particularly “the invasion theme,” but also the sad middle movements, which are, the broadcasters said this morning, the most Mahlerian of all Shostakovich’s pieces.

I would like to hear the symphony live again before I die and must look out for a performance.

How to start the day

I was searching for what I might have written about Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and I found this blog I posted in the BMJ in 2012, nearly 10 years ago.  I realise that I have now been able to follow my advice for a decade: what a privilege?

It is a bold and foolish person who advises others how to live, but I can’t resist a little advice. I’m not going to tell you how to be smarter, sexier, stronger, or richer (as I have no idea) but rather how to start the day.

My advice is simple: 90 minutes reading good books. I prescribe 45 minutes of fiction, 30 minutes of non-fiction, and 15 minutes of poetry. The fiction must be deep, deal with issues that matter (death, love, relationships), and have excellent style. Remember that, as Martin Amies says, “the truth is in the ficton.” You might follow the advice of a young doctor friend and avoid books written in the past 30 years. His argument is that there are far too many books to read and time is the best way of sorting the good from the bad. The non-fiction should also ideally be well written—because excellent style will get your brain started in the right way—and should take you to new places, perhaps in history, another person’s life, or to the far end of the universe. The poetry—and remember that most poetry is bad, so be careful—will give you a rhythm for the day.

Other ways to start the day are prayer, meditation, and yoga, and I always enjoy being in Muslim countries where a day of learning starts with sung verses from the Koran. Reading, I believe, achieves the same end as these alternative methods, particularly as you are still and silent. You are, I suppose, filling your brain rather than emptying it, which sounds bourgeois and consumerist. But you are—if reading correctly—filling you brain with excellent mental nutrition.

Ideally the 90 minutes of reading is topped off with 30 minutes of running, preferably beside the sea—but I must confess that I usually skip this; and the sea is rarely possible living in South London.

We are all familiar with “he must have got out of the wrong side of bed this morning,” and the way we start the day is crucial for the whole day. The reading sets us up beautifully to cope with the inanities, rush, trivia, silly demands, and ugliness that will inevitably occur during even the best of days.

You must make your own choices on what to read (although I am willing to prescribe), but let me illustrate my general advice with my start this morning. I began with 30 pages of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, specifically one of the furious and barely intelligible arguments between Semprini and Naptha and then a detailed account of the death of one of the characters. I learn that when dying “Even the most manly men succumb to credulous, oblivious self-deception; the process is as natural as melancholy when the process of deterioration approaches its fatal end.” A momento mori is highly refreshing in the early morning. (Ideally you wouldn’t read in translation but in the original language, but I’m too stupid.)

Then to 16th century Venice, an excellent place to start the day, to read of Titian painting Sacred and Profane Love, one of the greatest pictures of the Italian renaissance. What might the picture mean? Nobody knows or will ever know, which is wonderful, but Sheila Hale believes it to be the painterly equivalent of a poem written for a wedding, an important Venetian custom.

And to poetry. Stevie Smith’s Away Melancholy.

The ant is busy

He carrieth his meat,

All things hurry

To be eaten or eat.

Away, melancholy.

Man, too, hurries

Eats, couples, buries,

He is an animal also

With a hey ho melancholy,

Away with it, let it go.

You might go further and like my friend, Ant (a man not the insect above), learn some verses by heart. Ant learns poems every morning as he shaves.

For the couple, especially the single parent, who must get children out of bed, dress and feed them, send them to school, and then run for the crowded tube, my advice will be unrealistic hogwash. And I haven’t started each day in such a privileged way throughout my life, but think on this: might you do better to miss News at 10, go to bed at 9.30, wake at 5.30 (that’s eight hours) and read for at least 30 minutes?

The two inseparable sides of German culture: the light and the dark

I don’t speak any German, but German culture is enormously important to me, particularly the music of Bach, Hayden, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, the writing of Mann, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, and the paintings of Durer, Cranach, Grunewald, and the Expressionists. Many great “British” artists are German, including Handel, Holbein, and Lucian Freud. Goethe I’ve never quite got because I think that you must know German to appreciate him fully.

But it’s impossible not to be aware of the dark side of Germany, and Colm Tóibín in The Magician, his exquisite novel about the life of Thomas Mann, summarises a speech that Mann made in America about the two sides of German culture. I quote it below, but as a prelude I quote another sentence from the book, one showing how even the most educated British get German culture wrong:

“He [Mann] listened patiently to Erika’s [his daughter] account of the Nuremberg trials and how the English prosecutor had believed that he was quoting from Goethe when the quotes were, in fact, from her father’s novel about Goethe.”

“What he wished to say was, he thought, perhaps too complex to matter in this time of simple polarities. He was insisting that all Germans were to blame; he wished to argue that German culture and the German language contained the seeds of the Nazis, but they also contained the seeds of a new democracy that could be brought into being now, a fully German democracy. For his example, he went to Martin Luther as an incarnation of the German spirit, an exponent of freedom who was also a set of opposites in which each element contained its own undoing. Luther was rational, but his speech could be intemperate. He was a reformer, but his response to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 was insane. He had in him all the fury and foolishness that inspired the Nazis, but he also contained a willingness to change, to see reason, to want the sort of progress that might inspire a new Germany.

Luther contained extremes, he wrote, but also healing dualities; the German people were made in his image. Anyone who believed otherwise knew nothing of the country and its history.”

Tóibín also makes reference to how the Nazis tried to capture Nietzsche, Wagner, and other great Germans:, “Fascism became less about greed or hatred or power once Bertram [an intellectual and Mann’s publisher who supported the Nazis] could call down the support of various dead philosophers and use fancy phrases about Germany, its heritage, its culture, its destiny.”

As I assemble this blog, I’m listening to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, a sad and beautiful piece of music that Strauss write to express his gloom about the end of the Nazi dream. Mann despised people like Strauss who went along with the Nazis, and I’m reminded how Emile Nolde, a painter I admire joined the Nazis but also had his work declared degenerate by them.

Every culture, like every person, must have its light and dark side, and it’s certainly true of Britain, which celebrates Shakespeare but invented concentration camps. It is perhaps, however, especially true of German culture, which produced the highest thought and most beautiful music but also the lowest point that humanity has sunk too.

Paris: the final day

Sunday morning is, depending on your taste, splendidly or eerily empty as I walk through the streets to the Place Vendôme, surely one of the chicest squares in Paris. After leaving the square I wander, become lost. I’m reminded of how I loved to be lost in Venice, not knowing exactly where I was going and eventually not knowing which was North or South but knowing that I could never be that lost—and that I would be surprised afresh when I recognised somewhere I knew.

This joy in being lost gave me the idea that I would like to do what I did in Venice, live here in Paris for two months, writing in the morning, exploring the city in the afternoon, and either cooking for myself or eating out in the evening. This time Chicken could come with me, and I speak more French (un petit peu) than I do Italian (effectively none). (A month later I look for places. It would cost me about £2000 a month.)

After breakfast we meander down the Rue de Rivoli towards the Louvre. Chicken wants to see the glass pyramid over the museum. I’ve visited the museum since the pyramid was built, but Chicken hasn’t, showing how long it has been since she was last in Paris. The square with the pyramid is impressive and filled with tourists, but the pools of water surrounding the pyramid are far from impressive: they are empty, dirty, and scarred.

We drink a coffee and watch the world go by on a lovely sunny morning, the true Paris experience. Perhaps I should be reading a French newspaper or a book of Rimbaud poems. We amble back towards the hotel, but on the way we are bold enough to enter Vivienne Westwood’s shop. These fashion shops are terrifying with their beautiful assistants looking at you suspiciously and racks of clothes without prices that you know cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds. You must enter with a swagger and an arrogance, especially if one glance tells the beautiful assistants tells you that know nothing about fashion and care even less. (Actually, I am interested in fashion, although not for myself.) We find it amusing to contrast this swanky shop with the disheveled old woman we see cycling through Clapham with her dog in her basket (the great Vivienne herself, who lives a 100 yards from where we live).

From now on it’s all downhill. With great effort we have completed all the forms we need to complete to travel back to Britain. We take the Metro to the Gare du Nord and go through French immigration. They don’t look at Chicken’s form at all and only glance at mine. What do they care if we are infected with covid? We are leaving the country. We don’t go through any British immigration, making me think that we will have to queue for ages at St Pancras—in fact we walk straight out of the station when we arrive in London an hour late. We do have to have a PCR test within two days, and, as we expected, it’s negative. Somebody might ring to check that we have actually had a test, but nobody does. Maybe Britain’s borders are not so secure.

Paris day three: an enchanting dawn and Le Marais

After reading more Proust, I rise and walk into the Paris dawn. I’m determined to leave the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the arrondissement of the bourgeoise, and walk into the Faubourg St Germain, the arrondissement of the aristocrats, where they built their palaces. I cross the Place de la Concorde and then the Pont de la Concorde. The dawn is spectacular. I look east over the river and see towers, including those of Notre Dame.

Paris could be accused of grandiosity, but somehow it carries it off, perhaps because the narrow streets filled with bars, bakers, perfumers, florists, and tabacs are never far away. I pass the Assemblée Nationale, once the palace of the Bourbons. I wiggle through busy streets and suddenly I’m in front of Invalides, which contains the tomb of Napoleon and is where brother Brian picked up a girlfriend he called La Lapin when he taught in Paris.

I walk back across Pont Alexandre III past the Palais Royale, which is being restored and is currently a giant advertisement for Chanel. I stumble on a statue of Winston Churchill. He has an avenue in Paris named after him, one down, I’d say, from Franklin D Roosevelt, who has a Metro Station named after him. De Gaulle has an airport. There is no De Gaulle street or tube station in London: he has only a blue plaque and a statue. (I write this a few weeks after my visit when relationships between the UK and France are at a low point after our boorish prime minister posted on Twitter a stupid letter making impossible demands on the French: he was interested in headlines not a solution to the problem of desperate people crossing the channel in tiny boats.)

As I walk in the thin park beside the Champs-Elysée I realise that this is where Marcel came to play with Gilberte in the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. I’m delighted to discover that the park includes Allée Marcel-Proust. I pass the American Embassy, which has big queues and guards with machine guns. I don’t know what people are queuing for, perhaps its visa as the US begins to allow visitors.

Over a fine breakfast Chicken teaches me to do things to pictures on my phone that I never knew I could do.

After breakfast we take Metro Line 1 to St Paul and walk into the Le Marais, which was once the Jewish quarter in Paris and still has many Kosher restaurants. Le Marais is busy and filled with interesting people and shops. We drink a coffee in a Jewish café where the waitress is the opposite of the offhand, almost rude waiters who are familiar in Paris. After sitting for a while in a small park we walked into the grandeur of the Place Des Vosges, which we visited in the 70s when Brian lived in Paris. It’s gone more upmarket and has many galleries under its ancient arches. Lin was excited to discover a gallery with the paintings of Magi Puig, a Spanish painter she admires. I too was taken by the paintings, some of mysterious alleys and doorways, offering who knows what illicit pleasures, and a clever one that showed people on a hot beach as just a thin line of colour. The gallery owner gave Chicken a free catalogue and told her that Puig is a man not a woman, as Chicken had imagined.

After an exciting encounter with one of the electric toilets that have replaced the famous and exposing pissoirs of Paris we took the Metro back to the hotel. In the evening we took the Metro to the Rive Gauche, walked past the impressively grim medical school, and ate in a bistrot supposedly frequented by Camus and Sartre. The food was good but not outstanding.

Paris: arrival, delight, and discovery

Going to Paris has been made more difficult because of Brexit and Covid, but it’s still as exciting as ever. I find it thrilling that after two hours in a train you are in city that is as foreign as Shanghai and has a beauty, culture, and coherence very different from London. France, although so close to Britain, is more “foreign” than Italy, Spain, or Germany and much more so than the Netherlands or the Nordic countries. Its “foreignness” is part of its appeal.

It’s dark when we leave London just after 7. They no longer announce when we enter the tunnel, and I have to guess that we have entered France, our first time abroad since we returned from Mexico in December 2019, when I see a scattering of lights and enough time has passed for us to be through the tunnel. We are in coach 1 and have a long walk to get out of the station into the taxi queue. We are near the back and must wait at least 20 minutes for the taxi. It’s raining as we speed through the streets that are uniquely Parisian, passing the Opera and the back of the Ritz from where Princess Diana left for her death in a Parisian underpass, an unglamorous end.

Although it’s now after 11, I feel I must take a walk through Paris. I find that we are right beside Place de la Concorde, and I can see the Eiffel Tower lit behind Concord’s obelisk. I pass cafes that are closing and what I take to be Chanel’s headquarters. The next day I realise that Chanel is everywhere and that we are in Proust’s Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the bourgeoise contrast to the aristocratic Faubourg St Germain, which is south of the river. This arrondissement is filled with fashion shops and perfumers. How can any city, even Paris, support so many perfumers? Perhaps the profit margins are so high that a shop need sell only a few bottles a day.

I wake late in the morning (after 8 French time), read some Proust, and take off for another walk while Chicken sleeps. The streets are busy with people hurrying to work. Watching others go to work is one of life’s pleasures for me, not that I objected to working. Soon I find myself in Place Vendôme, a particularly elegant space with the tall column copying Trajan’s to tell of Napoleon’s triumphs. Napoleon may be lying dead in the Invalides, but no living person has the influence on France and Paris that Napoleon still exerts. Only de Gaulle, who is also dead, can begin to rival him. I don’t think that Britain has equivalents to either Napoleon or de Gaulle: Cromwell never conquered Europe and leaves little legacy; Churchill’s achievements were restricted to the war; and the Duke of Wellington, who shared a mistress with Napoleon, may have defeated him at Waterloo but had little of his intelligence and influence. Perhaps Britain has a character that would never allow such a powerful leader.

From the Place Vendôme I walk to the Madeleine and then down the Rue Royale back to the Place de Concorde. I pass Maxim’s, the expensive restaurant where Orwell worked as a skivvy and spat in the soup.

After a sumptuous breakfast we make for the Musée D’Orsay, which I later learn from Trip Adviser is the top-rated place to visit in Paris, ahead of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. I can see why. The building, an inspired reconstruction of a railway station, is remarkable and the collection includes hundreds of works of art, almost none of which disappoint. I contrast it with the vast, ugly building of the Geneva gallery that included hundreds of pictures, none of which were worth a second look.

As I read my book about Proust’s great work, I realise that the Musée D’Orsay represents the same time as Proust’s novel, La Belle Époque, which began after the crushing defeat of the French army by the Prussians and ended with the slaughter of the First World War. The death and horror of the wars that ringed La Belle Époque gave it a special creative energy. Paris was the centre of the artistic, literary, musical, fashionable, and gastronomic worlds as well as being alive with entrepreneurship and sex.

My “discovery” of the day was the sculpture of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. I didn’t know his work, but I was enchanted by it. As I stood face to face with Alexander Dumas I marvelled at Carpeaux’s capacity to create life from stone and thought of how the Count of Monte Cristo smoked cannabis and made love with a statue who came to life. Maybe Carpeaux gave that idea to Dumas. Carpeaux also loved complexity and created vast sculptures that are beautifully displayed in the museum. He was not the sculptor of a man saving two women and two babies from a crocodile, but he might well have been the inspiration.

I was amused by a room filled with naked women, most of them painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. I thought of the poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? and wondered if such a room would be acceptable in more woke New York or London. But I luxuriated in the room as I did in Bougereau’s pictures and in front of his painting of Equality Before Death. The title might simply mean that we are all equal in that death comes to us all or a revolutionary call for equality before death. I think it’s the former.

Before we went for lunch an amuse bouche was provided by a graphic but romantic painting of a beheading.

After lunch in the magnificent restaurant behind the great clock of the station, we continued our tour while heavy rain beat on the windows. Looking out we could hardly see the other side of the Seine. Death cropped up again in Monet’s painting of his wife, who died of pelvic cancer aged 32 (or was it TB or a botched abortion),and in Marlene Dumas’s picture of the dead Baudelaire. Her blurb mentioned Roland Barthes The Death of the Author, which I was inspired to track down and read. Barthes writes that “to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth [of the supremacy of the author]: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Perhaps Dumas thinks the same about the artist.

We finally left the museum at about 4.30 after five hours and began a slow walk along the Seine to Bofinger, a restaurant near the Bastille recommended to us. We passed the scarred but still resplendent Notre Dame and walked down the middle of the Ile St Louis, crossing the two branches of the Seine. Our booking was for 6.30, and the restaurant was almost empty when we entered. The huge bouquet in the middle of the restaurant and the mirrors on the wall gave it the feel of a Renoir painting. As it was an Alsatian restaurant I opted for the choucroute Alsacienne, which proved to be chunks of pork and bacon in sauerkraut. Chicken is disgusted by the memory of the dish weeks later, but I devoured it.

We caught the Metro back and marvelled at its cuteness, cleanliness, and how everybody, even the most alienated, wore masks.

An anti-psychiatry novel: “To escape despair, don’t kill yourself; kill your Self.”

Case Study is a novel about psychiatry and particularly the anti-psychiatry that was the vogue in the 60s and 70s, a reaction to the barbarity of lobotomies, mass drugging, and ECT. A few years ago I read Macrae Burnet’s book His Bloody Project, a powerful book about a murder in 19th century rural Scotland. As you read the book you felt it was “real,” that you were reading about a real murder. Macrae Burnet achieved that effect by creating a whole lot of documents that seemed authentic.

He tries to do the same in Case Study but doesn’t succeed so well. You know that it’s a novel, one that is enjoyable and easily read—but perhaps ultimately silly.

The central character is an anti-psychiatrist. He writes two books that become cult books: Kill Your Self and Untherapy. Kill Your Self borrows and mangles an idea from Kierkegaardthat “the self, …consists of a dialogue between two competing versions of the self: one that is present-in-the-moment; and one that is seen as persisting over time and, by virtue of this, regarded as being ‘true.’ The present-in-the-moment self is subjugated by the persisting-over-time Self. The latter is thus set up as a kind of tyrant, preventing individuals from fully engaging with the experience of the outside world and causing feelings of guilt and inauthenticity.”

This is all clever—but vaguely believable—nonsense, and the anti-psychiatrist’s central proposition is that “To escape despair, don’t kill yourself; kill your Self.”

“The route to liberation is to accept that we are bundles of personae […] To elevate one of these personae above the others is to create a bogus hierarchy that is the origin of what is termed ‘mental illness’. In this regard, those we brand schizophrenic are, in reality, the vanguardistas of a new way of being.”

The idea that the insane are the truly sane was a very 60s idea.

We must celebrate all the selves that live inside us—and even invent other selves—and this is what both central characters do. The anti-psychiatrist does it several times but ultimately fails to find a self that “works.” But as a young man in France he had some taste of success: “To be in another country, speaking another language, was to be another person, and in being another person I felt for the first time that I was myself.” Another self worked for a while: “He declared himself to be ‘an untherapist’: his task was to convince people that they did not need therapy; his mission was to bring down the ‘jerry-built edifice’ of psychiatry.” He was a success in this self but couldn’t sustain it.

The patient, in contrast, consciously invents a new self, a worldy, good-looking, wise-cracking woman who replaces her timid, dowdy self. This new self takes charge, and there are internal conversations between the old and the new selves in what felt to me a parody of schizophrenia. But the new self is a success and replaces the old self, who effectively “dies.” She has, as the anti-psychiatrist recommended, killed the old. unsatisfactory self.

One thing I enjoyed in the book was a cynical account of psychotherapy. A friend described to me last week the essence of psychotherapy: a person who listens to you and to whom you can say anything but who is unconditionally on your side, even when the therapist challenges you and makes uncomfortable observations. Whatever their theory of mind might be is irrelevant. All that matters is the listening, being unconditionally on the client’s side, and the patient feeling able to say anything. That the client pays is probably also important.

The anti-psychiatrist has a similar view. After describing what brings many people to a therapist, he describes therapy:

“ ‘If I learned anything,’ he writes, ‘it was that no matter how much material comfort you throw at a human being, we will always find something to be miserable about. We are programmed for dissatisfaction. We always want more. More furniture, more gadgets, more sex, more love. We covet what the other guy has, just as the other guy covets what we have. This is the driver to perpetual discontent.’

The work of the psychotherapist (‘so-called’) was the easiest in the world. ‘I never had a single visitor who did not, on some level, understand his own problems. All that was required was to listen and watch, then put my observations to the individual in question: to give voice to what he already knew. A simple process, and yet, time and again, I was told of my perceptiveness, of how I understood. All I did was listen. When a visitor arrives believing you are some kind of guru, your thoughts are already invested with profundity. As a therapist, you are thanked for saying things that would earn a guy in a bar a punch on the jaw. And when someone is paying you five guineas an hour, your words have been pre-consecrated. Psychotherapy is nothing more than a transaction, a confidence trick, in both senses.’

I took a few other quotes:

Despite what certain theories would have us believe, there is no universal formula to which human behaviour conforms. As individuals we are buffeted by a set of circumstances unique to each of us. We are the sum of these circumstances and our reactions to them.

‘Through the acquisition of stuff the Bells had so effectively subsumed their existential and sexual frustrations, they did not even know they were spiritually dead: they were the happiest people I ever met.’

The default in life is to go on.

Read “Remembrances of Things Past” because it’s funny

When I finished reading Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust for the second time I wrote a blog on six reasons for reading Proust.  Now having finished Within a Budding Grove I have a seventh reason, which may be the best reason of all: Remembrances of Things Past is primarily a comic novel. There is humour on almost every page, and many of the short stories inserted into the massive work are funny stories of human absurdity. The characters who are most alive— Aunt Léonie, Françoise, Robert de Saint-Loup, Madame Verdurin, Baron de Charlus, and Bloch—are comic characters. The humour is more subtle than laugh-out-loud, but all the funnier for that once you have tuned in.

Proust—perhaps like all great artists—is more an observer of life and its absurdities than a participant. He describes how he comes alive when alone:

“I did not feel when I was with him and talked to him — and no doubt it would have been the same with everyone else — any of that happiness which it was, on the other hand, possible for me to experience when I was by myself. For alone, at times, I felt surging from the depths of my being one or other of those impressions which gave me a delicious sense of comfort. But as soon as I was with some one else, when I began to talk to a friend, my mind at once ‘turned about,’ it was towards the listener and not myself that it directed its thoughts, and when they followed this outward course they brought me no pleasure.”

I’m no artist, but, despite all my business, I am more an observer of life than a participant. Life becomes tolerable by keeping a certain distance from it. I felt this most vividly when chairing the board of icddr,b in Bangladesh. The meetings were interminable, filled with both tedium, craziness, drama, and characters whom Proust would have enjoyed. Why on earth did I fly 5000 miles 12 times to participate in such madness? Because being more observer than participant it was fascinating and amusing. If I’d been closer I’d have been undone.

As usual, I’ve taken many quotes from the book, and the first four are tips on living that help me and, I hope, you.

Tips for living well

I try to understand everything and I take care to condemn nothing.

We are all of us obliged, if we are to make reality endurable, to nurse a few little follies in ourselves.

We ought never speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.


When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within us. It radiates towards the beloved object, finds in her a surface which arrests it, forcing it to return to its starting-point, and it is this shock of the repercussion of our own affection which we call the other’s regard for ourselves, and which pleases us more then than on its outward journey because we do not recognise it as having originated in ourselves.

I had already lost Gilberte, and loved her more than ever, and could feel all that she was to me better than in the previous year when, spending all my afternoons in her company, or as many as I chose, I believed that no peril threatened our friendship,—

When I succumbed to the attraction of a strange face, when it was with the help of some other girl that I hoped to discover gothic cathedrals, the palaces and gardens of Italy, I said to myself sadly that this love of ours, in so far as it is love for one particular creature, is not perhaps a very real thing, since if the association of pleasant or unpleasant trains of thought can attach it for a time to a woman so as to make us believe that it has been inspired by her, in a necessary sequence of effect to cause, yet when we detach ourselves, deliberately or unconsciously, from those associations, this love, as though it were indeed a spontaneous thing and sprang from ourselves alone, will revive in order to bestow itself on another woman.

Thus it is, calling a halt, her eyes sparkling beneath her polo-cap, that I see her again to-day, outlined against the screen which the sea spreads out behind her, and separated from me by a transparent, azure space, the interval of time that has elapsed since then, a first impression, faint and fine in my memory, desired, pursued, then forgotten, then found again, of a face which I have many times since projected upon the cloud of the past to be able to say to myself, of a girl who was actually in my room: “It is she!”

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorrow, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be — and this is, perhaps, more than any person can be, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxiously to embrace — the risk of an impossibility.

When we are in love with a woman we simply project into her a state of our own soul, that the important thing is, therefore, not the worth of the woman but the depth of the state; and that the emotions which a young girl of no kind of distinction arouses in us can enable us to bring to the surface of our consciousness some of the most intimate parts of our being, more personal, more remote, more essential than would be reached by the pleasure that we derive from the conversation of a great man or even from the admiring contemplation of his work.


What a person recalls to us most vividly is precisely what we had forgotten, because it was of no importance, and had therefore left in full possession of its strength. That is why the better part of our memory exists outside ourselves, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source can make us weep again.

What we call remembering a person consist really in forgetting him.

The joy of being on a sleeper

I found nothing to distress me in the night which followed; this was because I had not to spend it in a room the somnolence of which would have kept me awake; I was surrounded by the soothing activity of all those movements of the train which kept me company, offered to stay and converse with me if I could not sleep, lulled me with their sounds which I wedded — as I had often wedded the chime of the Combray bells — now to one rhythm, now to another (hearing as the whim took me first four level and equivalent semi-quavers, then one semi-quaver furiously dashing against a crotchet); they neutralised the centrifugal force of my insomnia by exercising upon it a contrary pressure which kept me in equilibrium and on which my immobility and presently my drowsiness felt themselves to be borne with the same sense of refreshment that I should have had, had I been resting under the protecting vigilance of powerful forces, on the breast of nature and of life, had I been able for a moment to incarnate myself in a fish that sleeps in the sea, driven unheeding by the currents and the tides, or in an eagle outstretched upon the air, with no support but the storm.

Kindness is the commonest thing in the world

Undoubtedly, it is not common sense that is “the commonest thing in the world”; but human kindness. In the most distant, the most desolate ends of the earth, we marvel to see it blossom of its own accord, as in a remote valley a poppy like the poppies in the world beyond, poppies which it has never seen as it has never known aught but the wind that, now and again, stirring the folds of its scarlet cloak, disturbs its solitude. Even if this human kindness, paralysed by self-interest, is not exercised, it exists none the less, and whenever any inconstant egoist does not restrain its action, when, for example, he is reading a novel or a newspaper, it will bud, blossom, grow, even in the heart of him who, cold-blooded in real life, has retained a tender heart, as a lover of fiction, for the weak, the righteous and the persecuted.

On art

One feels unmistakably, when one sees side by side ten portraits of different people painted by Elstir, that they are all, first and foremost, Elstirs.

We hear what e want to hear not what the person is saying

That our words are, as a general rule, filled, by the person to whom we address them, with a meaning which that person derives from her own substance, a meaning widely different from that which we had put into the same words when we uttered them, is a fact which the daily round of life is perpetually demonstrating.


Their love — and consequently their fear — of the crowd is one of the most powerful motives in all men, whether they seek to please other people or to astonish them, or to show them that they despise them.

A person is never like a straight highway, but surprises us with the strange, unavoidable windings of his course through life,

The human face is indeed, like the face of the God of some Oriental theogony, a whole cluster of faces, crowded together but on different surfaces so that one does not see them all at once.

The soldier is convinced that a certain interval of time, capable of being indefinitely prolonged, will be allowed him before the bullet finds him, the thief before he is taken, men in general before they have to die. That is the amulet which preserves people — and sometimes peoples — not from danger but from the fear of danger, in reality from the belief in danger, which in certain cases allows them to brave it without their actually needing to be brave.

COP26 diary: Health at last get its big day (well, hour)

Today is my last day at COP26, and I’m full of admiration for those people who stick out the whole two weeks. I’d go crazy. But today is a special day, it’s science day—and health has been squeezed into the programme. Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Sajid Javid, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, are expected to attend a one-hour session on health.

We, the health people, are excited that our day has come, and we start queuing for seats some 40 minutes before the session is to begin. We have the satchel brought by cycling health professionals from Geneva to Glasgow and a cardboard poster summarising the healthy prescription letter. The hope of being able to present both to Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, is fading, but Espinosa is second choice. We are to be granted two minutes at the beginning to be photographed with Espinosa. As I’m the only person available who did any of the cycling (and I did only one day) it’s my job to be grab Espinosa and be photographed with her. (It proved impossible to get any of the people who cycled all the way from London to Glasgow into the Blue Zone, and I’m only here because the Royal College of Psychiatrists had a spare space and kindly gave it to me.)

While in the queue we discuss breast feeding, a discussion sparked by the observation that there are no babies—and almost no children—at COP26. Both the women I’m taking with have experience of breast feeding, but we agree that it is becoming more difficult to breast feed in public, perhaps explaining the lack of babies at COP26.

At last, the doors open, and we look for somebody to be photographed with. Unfortunately—but not surprisingly—neither Espinosa nor Javid are going to make the meeting, but we spot Gordon Brown, former prime minister and “the man who saved the world after the 2008 financial crash.” I was at Edinburgh University with Brown and knew him because he edited the student newspaper when I edited the medical school magazine—and both were published from the same office. I saunter up to him and say “You probably don’t remember me, but…” (My wife tells me later this was bad manners as such an introduction makes it impossible for the victims to do anything but pretend they remember you.) Brown, who must have the phrase said to him all the time, rises to the occasion and says with a big smile and says “Of course, and you’ve gone onto greater things…” This is, I suspect, a standard response.

As we are photographed, I explain to Brown about the cycle, the satchel, and the healthy prescription, and I read out to him some of the words written on the satchel by patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital: “Humans are the only creatures on the Earth that will cut down a tree, turn it into paper, then write “save the trees” on it”; and “Climate change affects everyone and with such great authority and status under your belt I’m sure you could do something about it.” Brown suggests that I read out some of these messages during the meeting. (It was a strictly choreographed meeting, and I had no chance, although I kept hoping that Brown might suggest to the chair that I read the messages. He didn’t.)

We also manage a photo with Humza Yousaf, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care. A Glasgow member of the Scottish parliament, he has to sit in the audience while two UK ministers feature on stage. I can imagine that he wasn’t entirely content.

The show gets underway, facilitated by Maria Neira, the WHO director of environment, climate change and health, whom I think of as the leader of us “health people who care about climate change.” She’s a marvelous facilitator who makes people laugh and feel good and destroys the pomposity that can suck the life out of meetings. The meeting started with a video made by the Global Climate and Health Alliance that features health workers describing the problems they were seeing from climate change and making a prescription: “I prescribe healthy air as a right for all children,” says Mark Hayden, one of the main organisers of the Ride for Their Lives and an intensive care physician at Great Ormond Street Hospital. He also says: “I have seen children die because of the air quality of our streets.”

Neira introduces Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s ambassador and permanent representative to United Nations, and Rachel Levine, a four-star admiral and United States assistant secretary for health. They, one from a country that is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases and one from a country gravely threatened by climate change, stand side by side and read out that “a group of 50 countries have committed to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems.” I’m not sure exactly what that commits countries to, but the full list is here: Prasad later told us that in the Pacific more people are dying from climate  change than from any other cause, including Covid. Levine said the US health system currently accounts for a quarter of all global emissions from health systems and pledged that the system would reach net-zero.

The US health system comprises many different organisations, many of them in the private sector, which must make it more difficult for the whole system to reach net zero. Indeed, all these countries will need a detailed plan, investment, and people if the grand promises are to become reality.

Neira reappeared and handed over to Wendy Morton, a minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office. (I’d never heard of her, and when I reflect on all the junior ministers who have come and gone in the 50 years I’ve been paying attention to government I realise that they are people with little power, most of whom leave no mark whatever.) Morton conducted a panel discussion with seven people, some of whom read their answers to scripted questions.

Brown was by far the best speaker, emphasising that if rich countries do not transfer at least $100 billion a year to poorer countries vulnerable to climate change then the aim of keeping global increases to blow 1.5C will not be achieved. He reminded the audience that that promise had been made in Copenhagen in 2009 but had never been fully met. He drew a parallel with the failure of rich countries to provide sufficient amounts of Covid vaccine to poorer countries.

The transfer of funds is best thought of not as aid or charity but as reparation, compensation for abuse and damage. It’s the rich countries that industrialised early that have caused the problem of climate change, and the rich countries have become rich in part by exploiting poorer countries: Britain is estimated to have “stolen” $45 trillion from India and benefited greatly from the slave trade.

$100 billion might seem like a lot of money, but it’s less than the annual cost of the NHS and trivial when you consider that global GDP is $80 trillion.

After the panel discussion Gillian Keegan, minister of state for care at the Department of Health and Social Care, described how NHS England had a plan to each net zero and had reached its first-year target and announced that the National Institute for Health Research had a fund of £20 million for research into climate change and health.

After the session we scrambled for another photograph with the satchel and healthy prescription board and managed to get one that included many of the assembled dignitaries. We then chatted with a minister of the Egyptian government, the hosts of COP27, and he promised a full day for health at the next COP.

In my final session at COP26 I was part of a panel that told the story of how we had worked together to try and raise the voice of health professionals in discussions about climate change. I told the story of the editorial published in over 220 health journals, and others described the healthy prescription letter, the WHO report, and the Ride for Their Lives.

There was a feeling that we had made progress, but we still have a long way to go. The final document from COP26 contains the word “health” only once and doesn’t mention health systems: “Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties [that is, countries] should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.” A lot of ideas are collapsed into one Proustian sentence, which Greta Thunberg might well call “blah, blah, blah.”

“In the beginning was the Word,” as the Bible says, but words without actions are useless.

As I travelled on the train back to London I tried to make sense of what I had just experienced. Perhaps the way to think COP is of a system, even a machine, that is trying to drive the world’s people to do what they must do to keep the planet inhabitable. At the centre of a series of concentric circles are the people at the negotiating table trying to reach an agreement that all 197 countries can support. I didn’t see any of those people. Outside of them is an army of government staff with rich countries having hundreds and poor countries a handful. These supporting staff are among the thousands of people in the Blue Zone, who include lobbyists, academics, campaigners, business people, media, and many others. This group tries to influence the negotiators, and outside the COP altogether are the hundreds of thousands of people marching in the street, who are also trying to influence the negotiators.

Considering that the conference itself has a substantial carbon footprint, is it all necessary? Is it the best we can do? That the world is in such a sorry state after 25 previous COPs suggests that they are not very effective, but where would we be if there were no COPs at all? As climate change is a global problem, countries (or parties) have to come together to negotiate, but I’m not convinced that the circles outside the negotiators and their staff are necessary. I can’t see that I would be justified in flying to Egypt for COP27, and it’s a long cycle from Clapham to Sharm El-Sheikh. It is, according to Google, 3038.2 miles and would take 936 hours to walk. I’ll contribute online.

Have I, I wonder as the train approaches London, been a minuscule part of a 21st century equivalent of the Versailles Peace Conference, which promised much but gave rise to the Second World War?

Days later I read these words by the poet R S Thomas:

I look forward to the peace

conferences of the future

When lies, hidden behind speeches,

shall have their smiles blown away

by the dove’s wings, fanning in silence.

And then I read this poem of Thomas’s. I think of it as a post-COP poem.


Because we cannot be clever and honest

and are inventors of things more intricate

than the snowflake—Lord have mercy.

Because we are full of pride

in our humility, and because we believe

in our disbelief—Lord have mercy.

Because we will protect ourselves

from ourselves to the point

of destroying ourselves—Lord have mercy.

And because on the slope to perfection,

when we should be half-way up,

we are half-way down—Lord have mercy.

COP26 diary: at last, a dinner

My only commitments of today are a meeting with an Indian friend and a dinner, but I become involved in the determination of the “health people” in the blue zone at COP26, perhaps 50-100 of us, to get Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, to receive the healthy prescription letter signed by health organisations representing 46 million health workers and brought from Geneva to Glasgow by cycling health workers.

Sharma, I imagine, must be in a bunker somewhere in the innermost and most well-guarded sanctum of COP26. I doubt he’s eating a healthy diet, sleeping well, or exercising. He’s more likely presiding over a disaster than a triumph and besieged by messages from people demanding the earth, the oceans, and the stars. It seems unlikely that he has actively rebuffed us, more likely no message of ours has ever reached him.

I suggest a strategy of getting Tory MPs to talk to him as they will have more influence than any other group. Unfortunately, nobody knows any Tory MPs. My next suggestion is to get college presidents to write to him, and we put this into action. My third option is to resort to the media, but this is the nuclear option and likely to be counterproductive.

Generally, things are not going well at COP26. The commitment to $100 billion from rich to poor countries is not being met and is not enough anyway. Low-income countries feel betrayed. Current NDC [Nationally Determined Contrubutions] will not keep us below a 2C increase let alone 1.5C. Lobbyists for fossil fuel companies are the single biggest contingent.

The narrative of everything being awful but then coming right is not only the story of global negotiations and sports tournaments but also most literature and fairy stories and so I’m not despondent yet. We must keep pushing. 

After the daily plotting meeting of the health lobbyists, (Are we lobbyists? We don’t think of ourselves that way, but I suppose we are. We are at least on the side if the angels, but maybe the fossil fuel lobbyists think so too.) I tour the pavilions. It’s a tour of the world: Turkey, Colombia, Ghana, Bangladesh, the Benelux countries, Saudi Arabia, and so on. The European Union seems to have the biggest pavilion but is mostly closed, confirming the anxieties of Brexiteers. The US pavilion seems modest. There are no Chinese or Russian pavilions, nor a British one.

The “geography” of COP26 is complex. The blue zone has been “handed over” to the United Nations, but its host is the UK government. Despite this being Glasgow, the Scottish government has a backroom role, although I understand that it set the Covid rules for the conference, which seems sensible and reasonable in that hospitals in Scotland will have to respond to any outbreak.

I travel into central Glasgow to meet a friend of the Public Health Foundation of India and learn more about the many attacks it has experienced from government and anti-vaxxers from both the political left and right. (Later I heard a Nigerian speak admiringly of how policy makers in high income countries listen to health campaigners and are interested in evidence. A British public health person pointed out that it wasn’t all rosy in Britain by any means, but I think it right that craziness has less purchase in the UK than many other countries, although as I write the sentence I’m not sure.)

To a dinner for health leaders attending COP26 at the Royal Glasgow College of Physicians and Surgeons. Parveen Kumar, a central and much-loved figure in British and global medicine, talked of the seriousness of the threat to health from climate change and praised medical students for the actions they have been taking to counter climate changes. Nick Watts, chief sustainability officer for NHS England and a veteran of 14 COPs, remembered when he was one of only two health people at a COP and said that an age of concerted action on climate change and health is now beginning.

Sonia Roschnik, once the head of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit and now with Healthcare Without Harm, earned a round of applause when she talked about how we need to support low-income countries to create net-zero health systems. Malawi is one of the first countries to declare that it will make its health system net-zero, but compared with health systems in high income countries it must have negligible emissions of greenhouse gases. The trick for Malawi is surely not to try and build the high-carbon, expensive, complex, hospital-and-specialist-dominated, and ultimately unsustainable sickness systems of high income countries but a true health system that is community-led and concentrates on public health, health promotion, prevention, and primary care. Colleagues from low and middle in countries and I once tried to think of how currently underdeveloped health systems could avoid copying the health systems of high-income countries and create something better.  I fear, however, that the culture of modern medicine leads us to unsustainable excess just as our economies lead us to overconsumption and high emissions of greenhouse gases.