Archive for September, 2003

in which i take the chip on my shoulder out for a pleasant walk

It is possible that we have been travelling for too long. Last night I dreamed I was pushing an airport trolley loaded with our luggage around Matthew and Kathryn’s wedding, which was for some reason taking place in Las Vegas.

In the waking world, we went to Cambridge for a look at Harvard. It felt necessary, since we’d been in the other Cambridge on Saturday without making it out to see the colleges or, indeed, anything other than Donna’s excellent compost heap.

Rach Honnery said: “Look, you can get Claire a onesie with ‘Harvard University’ written on it!”

I said: “Can you get one with ‘Actually, Mum and Dad believe that state-funded education is a really good idea’ on it instead?”

“I’m sure you can somewhere. This is Cambridge, after all,” said Michael, “but probably not here.”

We walked through the gardens. Harvard’s lovely, especially in the slanty amber light of sunset, and the students are all about nine years old with impossibly clear skin. I remember when I was young I fretted and fretted about my looks, and someone told me that young people are always beautful just by virtue of being young, and I thought that was tosh, but it wasn’t, they really are.

“There’s a gate up there with ‘Enter here and grow in wisdom’ written above it,” said Michael.

“I guess ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ would’ve been a bit glum.”

“You’ll need to get a scholarship if you want to come back,” Rach warned Patrick.

“UC Berkeley’s an excellent school, and so cheap,” I told the children.

“Nah, Patrick’s going to be an Oxford boy,” said Rach. “He’ll win a scholarship and drink yard-long beers, like Bob Hawke.”

Patrick belched, in a very creditable imitation of Bob Hawke.

“These are all residential buildings,” said Michael. “The library’s over there. I used to know various statistics, so pretend I remember them, and have told you.”

“Cool. Where do they inject the sense of entitlement?”

“I think it’s a pre-condition of entry.”

“Do we turn right or left here?” asked Rach.

“Right, of course…”

the godfather

We’re in the Giraffe restaurant in Marylebone. Claire is playing charmingly with Grant and her balloon, when something suddenly annoys her and she cries.

R: Quick, give her some moral guidance.

G: Don’t cry. People will think you’re weak and take advantage of you.


We’re at Michael and Rachel’s beautiful apartment in Arlington, which seems mind-bogglingly huge after our microstudio in Bayswater. Claire is raiding Patrick’s toy cache with exclamations of approval. Jeremy and Michael are comparing notes on their respective free software projects, both wearing khaki shorts and black t-shirts and sitting like mirror-image bookends on the sofa.


I’ve found the book my heart has been yearning after lo these many years: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. Because I’m essentially pig-ignorant I came to it without any prejudices (I actually picked up a copy at the Palace of the Legion of Honor bookstore because I’d been having a very interesting conversation with nj and Morrisa about the nature of Western identity, and it seemed vaguely topical).

If I’d realized that Barzun, with Lionel Trilling, was the presiding genius behind the hallowed culture program at Columbia University, I’d probably have been too snarly and chip-on-my-shouldery and resentful to read the thing. As it was, it went into the backpack because Volume Two of the Janet Browne Darwin is still in hardback and too heavy to carry on the flight to Amsterdam. My life is gloriously punctuated with such happy accidents. The book is pure distilled essence of curmudgeonly humanity, with an embedded bibliography I’ll probably be able to immerse myself in for the next year or two. It’ll be just like taking a Western Culture class at Columbia only with no fees and no exams, woot!

His perspective on the stuff I know reasonably well – say, Shakespeare and Josephine Tey and the Tudor lie and Swift and Bach and the rise of the novel and Fielding and the Regency and Romanticism and Dickens and Dorothy Sayers (and this is no credit to me, by the way, but all to my good teachers and fabulous high school librarian) – is extremely accurate and illuminating, which makes me trust him as a Dante’s-Virgil-ish guide through the savage vastnesses where my above-mentioned pig-ignorance is profound – Montaigne and Pascal and Hume and Locke and Hegel and Kant and the French revolution and Beaumarchais and Berlioz and the Transcendentalists and well, the rest of the Western canon. Cough.

It is, in short, a brilliantly generous book in the sense that I was banging on about the other day; it invites you in. He’s explicitly in favour of short strong words and transparency and intellectual rigor and common sense, as opposed to obscurantist jargon and the rarefied blather of the academy. Remember how I said that when my reading is on the right track it throws up all sorts of serendipitous coincidences? Barzun quotes that exact same essay of Hazlitt’s on Shakespeare. (Oh, and Alex and I, all unknowing, read A Problem From Hell at exactly the same time.)

these islands

In Dublin, the sun shone and we ate like kings. Alex was sleek and happy, like a well-fed cat. In London, too, the weather is delightful, and we have had four scrumptious meals in three days. You expect good scones with clotted cream, but I had a delicious caprese salad on Sunday night. What’s going on? This isn’t Europe, it’s topsy-turvy-world.

Claire hoots with joy that toys as irresistible as autumn leaves actually grow on trees.

as promised

Restaurant Gilles Goujon at the Auberge du Vieux Puits – inn of the old well.

Amuse-bouche of cherry tomato, cheese and watermelon, which was a bit odd, actually. More than redeemed by the melon balls with proscuitto, port granita and rockmelon mousse that followed: the mousse especially was fresh, airy essence of rockmelon, like eating a melony cloud.

Then crayfish tails with fennel sorbet drowned in a bouillon. The soup melted the sorbet into a delicious green foam.

Then a slab of perfectly seared tuna.

Then two of the best lamb chops I have ever tasted, and I have eaten a great deal of tasty lamb.

Five cheeses beyond words, especially the feathery chevres.

Citruses with a scoop of ambrosial creme fraiche sorbet.

The petits-fours: a tiny strawberry and cream, like a ruby set in platinum; tart raspberry tart; buttery creme brulee; a shot-glass full of coconut cream with passionfruit puree as an exclamation mark.

Jeremy and I have been discussing whether it was actually as good as French Laundry, or merely of the same order. I believe more research is necessary.

The old well was in the foyer, with glass tiles so you could walk over the top of the water. Claire found this delightfully hoot-worthy. She flirted shamelessly and charmed every table, and at one point was abducted to the kitchen, where doting cooks fed her pink marshmallows.

Other things that contribute to my current mood of quiet glee: seeing Alex’s wonderful one-man show Entertainment, meeting his fiancee Ioanna and hanging out in their kitchen drinking and telling idiotic jokes till four in the morning, with Claire snoozing peacefully on my lap.

checking in

Last night I dreamed I updated Yatima. It’s a great improvement on dreams about encountering the abyss in my local supermarket.

We’ve had a succession of glorious September days, the sun and sky glowing, Claire playing industriously under the avenue of pines between Les Oliviers and the vineyards. Tough life. Last night we had an extraordinary meal, which I shall blog as soon as I’ve more than a tenuous dialup connection.

Tonight: Toulouse. Tomorrow: Dublin.

pressure of work

“I had someone IM’ing me from the Oracle keynote, saying ‘Please let me die!'”

“Headline: ‘Journalist gnaws off own arm in bid to escape vendor briefing.'”

“No, a good journalist would gnaw off someone else’s arm.”

amiable misanthropy

I had a very ordinary day yesterday, and by ordinary I mean bad. I dreamed I was at Cala, our local supermarket, buying a large bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, when I caught sight of a couple of people we used to know. What is it with the supermarkets? I woke in tears and spent the rest of the day under a cloud. Grief, like evil, is very boring.

I’m halfway through the second volume of Janet Browne’s Darwin biography. It’s a masterpiece, as witty and engaging as a novel yet far broader in scope. A weird effect: when I read books I think are just very good, I sometimes get resentful and jealous that I didn’t write them. When I read books I think are truly wonderful, like this, and Pride and Prejudice and Mating and A Suitable Boy and A Peace to End All Peace, I get inspired. Why?

It reminds me of that wonderful Hazlitt essay on Hamlet: “Shakespear had more magnanimity than any other poet… he is the most amiable of misanthropes.” Magnanimity – what a choice word! From the Latin magna animus, great-spirited, big-souled, Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” the Apostle Mark’s “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Hamlet and Shylock and Beatrice and Benedick and Cordelia and Lear are all just fragments of Shakespeare’s immensely complicated inner self.

Maybe it’s not that my favourite books happen to be generous, but that the quality of generosity is a prerequisite for becoming one of my favourite books. We tell (or co-opt) stories to explain ourselves to ourselves and other people. The best stories encompass multiple points of view and invite explanations in return: Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. The worst stories characterize Armenians or Jews or Cambodian intellectuals or Bosnian Muslims or Hutus or Tutsis or Palestinians or Israelis as cockroaches.

Culture and genocide come from the same place, one based on courage, the other on fear. When I grow up I would like to be very brave, and to write magnanimous books, and not to have any more bad dreams.


“I always think Charlotte Lucas must have been in love with Lizzy. How else could she stand living with Mr Collins? I get the sense that there was no real outlet for her passion at all, that she could never afford to indulge the dream of a great love.”

“Poor Charlotte. The most tragic figure in all of Austen.”

“I like to imagine that she fed Mr Collins rich food so he would die young and leave her a wealthy widow. And she could have a young companion.”

“Yes! She could live at Longbourn and take Mary Bennet for her lover…”

it takes all sorts

The drive up I80 wasn’t very pleasant, so we stopped overnight at the Peppermill in Reno. Our room looked like the set of a porn film, all turqoise and lavender velour, chrome and mirrors, with low lighting and a shiny black jacuzzi. Claire loved it. As we were leaving, Jeremy saw a woman gesture towards the video poker machines and say, with great joy: “It’s my birthday and this is my favourite place!”

We exchanged wry glances. Mind you, she probably finds our favourite place equally insane. It was hot, it was dusty and the altitude always makes me queasy and miserable for the first few hours, but Black Rock City still makes my heart glad.

If nothing else, it’s very funny. Moby Dick chases the Spanish galleon La Contessa across the dry lake bed. Reverent participants hold ceremonies in the sacred center of a giant pissoir. Paul C went to the portapotties and was surprised by an orderly queue. “Where did this order come from?” he demanded.

“From chaos!” someone replied, quick as a whip.

Paul became despondent: “Chaos is breaking down,” he said.

We imagined the effects of reverse entropy, works of art rising from the flames, seventeen resurrected Men striding across the desert towards Gerlach.

For some reason, my happiest moment is invariably at dusk on Friday: last year’s insanely overdone sunset, space junk falling over DJ Christ Superstar, the cocktail party at Spiral Oasis the first year we went. This year, ten Moonbasers carried our 28-foot bamboo dome, festooned with LEDs, out onto the playa, as my brother’s iPod played the Underground Lovers: Is this your idea, is this your idea of a holiday?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is.