Tuesday, 26 February 2013

George Orwell

Here's the thing.  On Sunday, I was out walking with my dear friend of 27 years - we met at Mothers and Toddlers when we each had just the one baby under one year old.  We've shared a huge number of experiences since - the second baby, the passing of our parents, the trials of living with middle-aged husbands, and now we are both contemplating retirement and what activities we will take up.

DF told me that her husband (already retired) has started running a chess club at the primary school which all of our children attended.

I was interested in this, and asked to hear more.  His most recent session focussed round bringing in a game he had actually played himself at the age of 16, for the primary school kids to look at and follow.  Apparently, they were mesmerised, and all asked him to photocopy the sheet of paper on which he had noted down the moves, and then autograph it for each of them!

This of course reflected very well on all parties - the good manners and enthusiasm of the children, the energy and imagination of the leader of the club.

We both laughed, uproariously and irreverently, however, at the fact that her husband had kept this relic for nearly 50 years.  It is entirely in character, as "extraordinarily retentive" would be a polite description of him.

I said, confident that I was remembering correctly, "I don't have a single thing in my possession that I owned when I was 16, not an item of clothing, a memento, an old toy - nothing!"

It turns out that I was wrong, and what would the item be but a book, of course!

Recently Radio 4 ran a series of programmes called "The Real George Orwell."

It was an excellent mini-series, comprising some dramatic renderings of actual stories by Orwell, such as "1984" which to my surprise had never been put on radio before.  Then there was an adaptation of "Homage to Catalonia", this being an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, with commentary as to how this shaped his cynical views of Communism which later emerged in "Animal Farm" and "1984". 

A further strand was a short reading of an essay each morning, and then there was an imagined re-construction of his relationship with his first wife.  All in all, meaty nuggets and plenty to choose from.

I missed all the essays, as the morning "Book of the Week" slot is at a time when I am always busy, either working in the house or out of it.

Yesterday, I was searching in one of my "very-seldom used" bookcases (I have several categories of book-case scattered around the house) for a copy of the first book I ever borrowed from a library (this, I hope, will be the subject of a later post).  The book has been in my actual possession a few years: I got it from a charity shop and the price inside the cover is marked "5p".

Next to it was a Penguin paperback copy of "Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell. "Oh, good," I thought, "I'll take that downstairs and add it to my meal-time reading pile". I thought it would be good to refresh my memories of the really outstanding standard of Orwell's essay-writing .

I opened the (now fragile, browning) pages and looked to see if I had bought this book as new, or from a second-hand shop.  In the flyleaf was my maiden name, in childish handwriting, black fountain pen ink, and the date, "2nd Feb 1970".   I was in the sixth form, studying A-Level English, at the time, and must have bought this as background reading, for the set text "1984".

At that date, I was 16 years old.  Wow!  Wrong, then, but wrong in a good way. And the writing, (I've slotted it straight to the top of the meal-time reading pile), is just as strong, refreshing, clear and original as it seemed 43 years ago. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Arthur Miller

Now, I have a love-hate relationship with Arthur Miller.  First, "Death of a Salesman" - it said just about everything there was to say about growing up in the world as a post-war baby boomer.  I first saw the play as a teenager, a very impressionable age. This work is a master-class in dramatic form, and never loses its power to move me to tears.

Then, as the years go by, realising that he was a misogynistic and arrogant man, a bundle of self-obsession and entitlement.  Realising that he married Marilyn Monroe because he could, because he wanted to own that beautiful dream, come home to it every night (in his own words), until he found out he had got a wounded bird on his hands, a fragile thing which he couldn't handle at all.  Utterly unable to offer the support an insatiably needy creature demanded.

Then going back to the genius Arthur Miller again, who simply expressed, apparently  with effortless clarity, a lifetime of being  an American.  (Although it was, of course, hard and dedicated workmanship that lay behind the flow of words).

And the MacCarthy witchhunts, which inspired that awfully depressing play "The Crucible" which I had to study at GCE O-level.  Again crafted to a particular and predictable conclusion, Thomas Hardy -esque in the inevitability of the hammer blows of fate which mount up to a tragedy.

Last week,  after hearing a dramatisation of the relationship between AM and his director Elia Kazan, on Radio 4's afternoon play slot, I took out of the library the playscript of  "After the Fall".  This, written by AM  and first directed by EK, "takes place entirely in the mind of Quentin" - it is thus the voice of the author.  All three of his wives appear in the play, as does his relationship with Elia Kazan.

You first think - the ego!  To write a play all about himself and taking place all inside his mind!  But then you have to respect his ability to read into the minds of women.  Particularly his first wife, who has left no lasting memory in the minds of the public, and therefore might appear as  a nobody, unlike his second, Marilyn Monroe, and his third, who outlived him and bore two children, one of whom is married to Daniel Day-Lewis.

As a first wife myself, (albeit still in situ, after more than thirty years), I could identify with a lot of what this  first wife character complained about.  Her complaints seemed entirely reasonable to me.

And here is how the errant and rebellious husband reacted to her complaints - his aide-memoire of things he could do better on:

"Know all, admit nothing, shave closely, remember birthdays, open car doors, pursue her not with truth but with attention."    

He's got it all there, and I have had issues with my husband on every one of those points. 

Of course, being a genius, he felt no need to take his own advice, but went out there and did exactly what he wanted (owned the blonde of the century).

Of course, being ordinary mortals, we ourselves at BB house could add to the list : "accept that your wife knows best on everything to do with the household, particularly kitchen management"  - but that's too mundane for AM (although the whereabouts of the household phone list did appear as a dialogue several lines long).

Probably AM  speaks for most of the husbands of the Western world.  That's genius.