Saturday, February 27, 2016

Home Alone

It has now been four months since my wife returned to full time work and I became a 'househusband'. Neither of us planned it that way, but as my wife can't drive and the school run is now a 25-mile round trip along country roads, our options were rather limited.

I decided to embrace my role and Googled the term househusband. One of the first things I saw was a link to a Daily Mail article: 'You Can Never Fancy a Man Who Becomes a House Husband.' Apparently, pink marigolds on men are a turn-off, unless you like that sort of thing (there are probably websites).

At first I had trouble adjusting to the sudden change. I was used to being the breadwinner (albeit a very cheap loaf of Kingsmill sliced white) and felt as if I had somehow let the side down. However, I was hardly idle. On an average morning, I took my sons to their schools, popped over to my office to deal with any book orders, did some food shopping, then drove home and began cleaning the house.

I valued my wife's work when she stayed at home, so why did I feel at such a loss? Gender conditioning, I suppose.

In spite of this, I was happy for my wife. She seemed to be doing very well in her new job and came home energised and full of gossip. My anecdotes were rather more mundane: "I cleaned the oven, but I'm not using Mr Muscle again."

Fortunately, I have started to get a more balanced perspective on the situation and accept that even if my current existence is very dull, it is entirely necessary. Those ovens won't clean themselves.

There has also been another change during the last month. My mother has suddenly become very frail and is increasingly dependent on me, both practically and emotionally.

The practical side is easy. I don't mind buying the Werther's Originals or dealing with the bills from Damart, but the emotional support is more challenging, as my mother can be relentlessly morbid to a point where I leave feeling thoroughly depressed. However, I know that when someone is virtually housebound, they need constant visits.

At least I will no longer hear about Vera's leg, which my mother would describe in graphic detail before I pleaded with her to stop. Vera is now in Florida with her daughter, for a long holiday. "She won't be coming back," my mother said, with barely-concealed relish.

Sometimes I can feel my mood sliding. When that happens, unless it's absolutely pissing down outside, I go for a walk. Being in the fresh air, smelling the damp earth and feeling the pale winter sun, clears away the cobwebs and puts everything in perspective. I don't what I'd do if I lived in Neasden. Perhaps I'd go to Ikea and pretend I lived in one of the rooms.

These photos were taken during the last few weeks. I particularly like the one of a hat, which is a lost property item in Berwick Church. There's a story behind that picture.

Monday, February 08, 2016

National Savings

I am a product of the National Savings Bank. My parents both worked at its head office in Kew and after a whirlwind 13-year courtship, they decided to get engaged.

The other day I found some photos of the NSB, taken between the late 1940s and the early 60s, when my parents married and my mother accepted a 'dowry' in lieu of a pension. I told my mother about the pictures but she showed no interest in seeing them. However, she did tell me a few anecdotes.

I learned that the women were all expected to arrive at work wearing white gloves and that if a pair of shoes hadn't been polished properly, a reprimand would follow. In the early 60s, a young man, who had clearly fallen under the malign influence of the Beatles, arrived looking slightly scruffy and was given a stern talking to. The next day he turned up in a top hat and tails.

I also learned more about the notorious serial killer John Christie, who worked in the same department as my father. Apparently, Christie had asked my mother's friend Doris out on a date, but after some deliberation she decided to say no. After Christie's arrest and execution, Doris was haunted by the thought of what could have been.

Serial killers aside, it sounded like a very ordered, regimented world. I had to get my mother to explain the many acronyms she kept mentioning - CAs, COs, HCOs, EOs and HEOs and tried to estimate out how many Clerical Assistants and Clerical Officers there were under under Higher Clerical Officer, before I began to get a sense of how it all worked.

At lunchtime, everyone would file into the huge staff canteen and the CAs, COs, EOs and HCOs would all sit on separate tables, never fraternising with each other. If a newcomer accidentally sat at the wrong table, they would politely put straight and shown where they would be sitting tomorrow.

My mother was given special projects, as she had a particular aptitude for numbers. At one point she uncovered a serious case of internal fraud and reported it, but nobody dared to take action. Frustrated by the inertia of her employers, my mother wrote a 'humorous' poem about it for the staff journal. Every copy was seized and the offending poem was scored out, badly, before the journal was recirculated.

In the early days, the offices were dominated by women that my mother referred to as old biddies. They should have retired, but had kept going while the men were serving in the armed forces. My mother disliked their austere manner and drab clothes and was glad when the office began to fill with younger men.

But not all of the men were fit for work. Some had been irreparably damaged by the War and struggled to get through the working day. One man had been held a prisoner of war by the Japanese and regularly suffered from bouts of malaria, during which he sometimes thought that he was back in the jungle. Another sat alone in the corner, reeking of whisky, looking broken.

Life at the Bank was governed by strict rules and regulations, but it wasn't a completely sterile, joyless environment. It had its own library and organised trips up to town to see the latest ballets, concerts and plays (on one occasion, my father saw my ballet dancing mother-in-law on the stage, blissfully aware that their paths would cross 30 years later).

My parents were both very happy at the bank and regarded it as a huge improvement on the jobs they began they working lives with: an electrician and an assistant in a chemist's. My father even began to think of himself as middle class. My mother never did.

My father would have happily have stayed at the National Savings Bank until retirement, but the Government decided to start moving Civil Service jobs away from London and his job ended up in Glasgow. As none of us would have made very good Glaswegians, my father reluctantly moved to another department and ended up doing something far more enjoyable.

For a generation blighted by two world wars and the poverty of the 1930s, the Civil Service offered an alluring security. If you were working or lower middle class, with no capital or assets to speak of, the job security and attractive pension made it a good career choice.

But what's this? Miss Clutterbuck is outside without her white gloves on! The strumpet. I bet she didn't last long.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time, or The Wrong Trousers

The first decade of the Soviet Union was an extraordinarily creative period, during which the iconoclasm of the avant garde seemed in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Revolution (never mind the fact that Fred at the 37th Tractor Combine just wanted a nice painting of a dacha with roses around the door. Not some geometric nonsense). 

In music, a 19-year-old called Dmitri Shostakovich made a big impression with a new symphony. It was a graduation piece and while Shostakovich's teacher, Glazunov, approved of the nods to Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, he was appalled by the modernism that had crept into his studious young pupil's music.What a racket!

But this was only the beginning. In his next symphony, Shostakovich completely threw off the shackles of the past and filled his score with dense, polytonal passages, factory sirens and a rousing choral finale praising the October Revolution. This was Soviet art; part of a milieu that included Eisenstein, Malevich and Mayakovsky.

But then Stalin happened and everything changed. Now the avant garde were accused of being bourgeois and anti-Soviet. What's the point of a painting if the proletariat can't understand what it means? What use is an opera if it can't be whistled by a factory worker? This decadent, degenerate nonsense had to stop.

Julian Barnes's new novel, The Noise of Time, was published on the 80th anniversary of a notorious newspaper article in Pravda called 'Muddle Instead of Music', written after Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The production was a huge success with the public, but that didn't cut any ice with the Great Leader, who was appalled by what he saw. 

To Stalin and his cronies, both the music and narrative were a disgrace to Soviet art. Where were the folk-inspired melodies extolling the virtues of the latest five-year plan? Why were the authorities portrayed as figures of fun?

'Muddle Instead of Music' named and shamed Shostakovich, accusing him of writing music that was "coarse, primitive and vulgar". The composer was, it claimed, guilty of writing an anti-Soviet opera that tickled "the tastes of the bourgeois." The article reached the following conclusion:

"The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

In a climate in which people were being routinely arrested and executed for the most spurious reasons, the final sentence sounded like a death warrant. Shostakovich, already a nervous man, was utterly terrified.

Shostakovich, looking slightly worried

The Noise of Time takes this incident as its starting point and goes on to examine Shostakovich's troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities and his attempts to appease his masters without completely compromising his integrity as an artist.

As a fan of Shostakovich, I didn't like the idea of Julian Barnes appropriating the facts of the composer's life for a work of fiction. It can seem like a vain conceit to speak on behalf of the dead. It is also an unnecessary one, when they have left behind a body of work that speaks for itself. Still, better Barnesy than Amis.

And to a large extent, Barnes has pulled it off, giving us a narrative that is not only rigorously faithful to the facts, but also to the man himself. If you want to have a sense of what it is like to be an artist in a totalitarian regime, you could do a lot worse than read The Noise of Time.

After the 'Muddle' episode, Shostakovich was now an enemy of of the people and had a packed suitcase ready for the moment the secret police arrived, but the arrest never happened and gradually, the composer realised that he had an opportunity to appease his persecutors. Operas were out - anything involving the written word was a bad idea - so he worked on a new symphony. The result, branded by one journalist "A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism", was a success with both the public and the authorities.

Julian Barnes makes a lot of the 5th Symphony's deliberately banal, crowd-pleasing ending, but fails to mention the tragic slow movement, which had much of the audience in floods of tears because they felt that the music articulated something that nobody dared to utter. This is important, because it shows that Shostakovich's response was more enigmatic and nuanced than the text implies.

In addition to the musical omissions, I also felt that The Noise of Time read more like an essay than a novel and its brevity sometimes made it feel like a Cliff Notes guide to Stalinism. But quibbles aside, I liked the book far more than I thought I would. It succeeds brilliantly at conveying the absurdity and obscenity of Stalinism, but also shows how the thaw under Khrushchev offered a different kind of existential threat.

The narrative was also punctuated with many memorable anecdotes, the most telling of which was the fact that Stalin's guards always kept a spare pair of trousers handy, as so many terrified film directors and artists soiled themselves in the presence of the Man of Steel. Shostakovich witnessed one of these incidents at a film premier, when Stalin's gruff response to a message he'd been handed was misconstrued by the director. Convinced that he was destined for the gulag or the firing squad, the poor man disgraced himself before passing out.

I finished the book full of admiration for Julian Barnes, but I still believe that the best account of the Stalinist period is probably the first movement of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1. Written in 1948 and kept in a drawer until two years after Stalin's death, this dark, brooding music is one of the bleakest things I have ever heard, but it is utterly brilliant: