At a dinner table this evening we were talking about the importance of lists, but in a very specific context. Another guest had, like me, recently become an ‘orphan’ (that is, his sole surviving parent had passed away) and he had had to empty out the house and sort through his parents’ belongings. The value or significance of many of the objects was obvious or easy to establish – furniture, paintings, books. But there were others – photographs with unidentified people, for example – that would forever remain a mystery. I recounted that my sole surviving maternal aunt has started to draw up lists of objects and belongings of significance so as to help her children once she has passed away. Following her example, and with an attic full of objects inherited from my late parents, I have started to do something similar, indicating to my children what they might like to hold onto (and why) and what I felt obliged to hold onto but they can safely chuck away, if they wish. We segued onto objects with unexpected value – first editions of modern literature being a good example. And then the (Belgian) friend beside me told a little story. Her parents were in the habit of renting a summer villa in Le Coq. One summer, when she was eight years old, the villa next door was rented by a certain Georges Prosper Remi, better known as Hergé. Remi was invited to their villa when the family celebrated my friend’s ninth birthday. As a present, he gave her a complete set of Christmas greetings cards, each signed by the artist, and each featuring Tin Tin and Milou (Snowy). A few years later, the friend decided that it would be quite a novelty to send her friends Tin Tin and Milou Christmas cards, and so she sent them all off. Today, that complete, signed set would be worth a lot of money.
The dog was giving us a walk early this morning when, on an earthbank in a sunken lane, we came across the fellows in the picture. At first we weren’t sure, but a quick check on the internet told us we had stumbled on a late growth of morels. There were lots of them, into the bargain (and they made a delicious dish, braised with shallots and white wine). We got to playing the Noma game, which is to say what else could we find by foraging around to provide a complete meal? We had soon rustled up a hearty dinner as follows: nettle soup for starters (plenty of nettles about at the moment); morels for the main dish, accompanied by wild carrots and a dandelion leaf and wild sorrel salad, with wild strawberries for dessert, and all washed down with a dandelion and burdock cordial. I suppose the point is that we get brainwashed into believing that we can only obtain food by handing over money and receiving something wrapped up in return. We stumbled across the morels by chance (and, by-the-way, they would have been worth a tidy sum if we had sold them) but we will be more alert to the possibilities around us from now on. Indeed, it would probably do us all good to forage a little more and to shop a little less.
The hares out at Berthem have provided us with much amusement this spring. A group of three of them are pretty much inseparable (they seem to have got the boxing out of the way now) and we see the three companions every time we take this particular path. Sometimes, they come very close. One of the hares once pelted around a path and skidded to a halt a few feet away from me on a lane before making his getaway. I suspect that they recognise our dog, who is now quite an old gentleman. (He made what I would describe as a symbolic run after one of the three today.) Soon, the crops in the fields will have grown too high for the dog (and us) to see them anymore. In the meantime, though, they seem to plot surprises and ambushes, bursting out in front of the dog and then bounding away in separate directions, leaving him uncertain as to which he should follow. Johnny Morris, or his modern day equivalent, would have a field day putting voices to their antics.
This evening I read Niall Ferguson’s collection of 2012 Reith Lectures, published under the title The Great Degeneration How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. By coincidence, Ferguson is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment. Present embarrassments not withstanding, I once heard him at Harvard, where he is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History, and found his analyses authoritatively incisive and lucid (his previous published works speak for themselves). When I saw a review of this book, I thought ‘what a great title and fascinating sub-title!’ The blurb is great as well. Symptoms of the West’s decline, long prophesied, are all about us, but what exactly is wrong? Ferguson argues that the four pillars of West European and North American societies – representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society – are deteriorating. We have broken our unwritten pact with future generations, burdening them with debt. We over-regulate our markets. ‘The rule of law has metamorphosed into the rule of lawyers.’ And ‘civil society has degenerated into uncivil society.’ (It was this last observation that brought me to the book.) In fact, this book might almost have better been entitled The Great Disappointment. There are some interesting arguments, but they frequently seem to lapse into polemics and frequently they are, well, arguable (as for example, when he argues that the social media undermine traditional associative life in our societies). I suspect it was the lecture format and the need to stay accessible to a radio audience that led Ferguson to adopt a more discursive style. For a quick read and some thought-provoking arguments, this book is very good, but I just wished he’d saved that brilliant title for one of his deeper and more academic works. Perhaps it’s in the pipeline?
It was Open Doors Day in the European Union’s institutions all day today and once again the European Economic and Social Committee threw its doors open and welcomed European citizens into its Jacques Delors headquarters building – the house of organised civil society. Our new President, Henri Malosse, made a rousing speech to the volunteers – members and officials – before the doors opened at ten o’clock and then they were away! It was a beautiful day and so, understandably, visitor numbers were down compared to last year. On the other hand, the atmosphere was as good, if not better. In addition to our standard favourites – music, the computer quiz, the photo booth, send a postcard and children’s corner – this year the Committee offered a gameshow and zumba sessions. The last was infectious good fun. But there is also a pedagogic side to these occasions and our volunteer members were out in force, accompanying our guests and explaining to them how the Committee ensures that the voice of organised civil society is heard in the EU’s policy processes. All too soon, it seemed, it was six o’clock and the day was over. As we volunteers gathered for a celebratory glass afterwards, in the company of our new Vice-President for Communication, Jane Morrice, we had a satisfying sense of a job well done. It was genuinely a team effort but this post would not be complete without a complimentary mention of the excellent coordination work of our Super Fabi. Well done, everybody!
To Louvain-la-Neuve this evening, to the central library, for the vernissage of a friend’s latest book. Birds are never far away from Véronique Wautier’s poetry, and the title of her latest collection, Là où sont les oiseaux, would seem to confirm that tradition. Interestingly, it is a literal translation of an inscription to be found on the gateway at the entrance to a Japanese shintoist shrine. This is, writes Wautier in an introductory text, ‘belle comme un poème, car là où se posent les oiseaux il n’y a plus ni sacré ni profane, juste leur réconciliation.’ As with her previous collection, Le jour aux ignorants, Wautier’s poetry is accompanied by a set of illustrations, this time by Pierre Mainguet. The words and the images marry well. Above all, Wautier has the poets’ gift of producing striking and original imagery out of familiar words in unfamiliar circumstances, and this collection is rich in them. For example; the ‘muzzle of a book’ (la gueule du livre), ‘winter and his fist’ (l’hiver et son poing), ‘dark light’ (la lumière sera noire) and ‘shipwrecked trees’ (des arbres naufragés).
To Wiels this afternoon to see the work of two artists; the American, Tauba Auerbach, and the German, Thomas Bayrle. The title of the Auerbach exhibition, Tetrachromat, refers to a theory that there may be a small percentage of people – for genetic reasons, only women – who have a fourth type of colour receptor on their retinas. The tetrachromat would have an extra variable modulating red, green and blue wavelengths, and would therefore see distinctions between colours that appear the same to the trichromat. I love the idea, but I found it difficult to see what this possibility had to do with the works on show, which mainly consisted of Auerbach’s fold paintings and weave works. Both involve trompe l’oeil effects, which linked up well with the Escher-like effects of many of Thomas Bayrle’s works on display (huge patterns composed from a multitude of tiny, identical patterns). Bayrle was born in 1937 and his work is far more conscious of the post-war periods he has lived through, with tacit commentary on the Wirtschaftswunder and the iconographies of communism, capitalism, fascism, mass production and propaganda. Auerbach’s work, which seeks to ‘collapse traditional distinctions between image, dimensionality and content’ is less political and far more esoteric but the two exhibitions go well together.
You know you have reached old-fartdom when you are invited to a rock concert by your N° 1 sprog and insist on turning up early for the warm-up act (she blames it on too much opera- and classical music-going where, it is true, the doors close on the hour at the dot). Nevertheless, this was a memorable evening in a most enjoyable setting, the vk venue, in deepest, most vibrant Molenbeek. The warm-up act, garage band Mozes and the Firstborn, happily warmed us up and we occasionally caught a glimpse of a face under all that hair. And then on to the main act, indie rockband, The Walkmen, and since we had arrived so early, we were right up close to the stage, which was fun. They played most of the tracks off of their Lisbon album and many more besides, including The Rat. The Walkmen have a very distinctive sound which is down in no small part to the voice of their vocalist, Hamilton Leithauser, but it’s perhaps only when you are up close, as we were, that you can see how much effort he puts into achieving his effects and also, therefore, how much strain he seems to be putting his voice under. In between tracks he explained that this was a long tour (they began in Stockholm in March and will end in Leeds on Saturday) but it didn’t show in his, or his fellow bandsmen’s delivery and they gave an excellent performance. Indeed, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Thanks, E!
At the writers’ workshop this evening I proudly showed off my latest acquisition, which is a 1947 novel, Devil by the Tail, by one Langston Moffett. Who might he be? No less than the son of prolific American journalist, playwright and author Cleveland Moffett (1863-1926), and the father of Cleve Moffett, an active member of our workshop. Can writing run in a family? Based on the example of the Moffetts, you’d have to say that it can, for Cleve also writes wittily and beautifully (and, happily, this evening submitted the last chapter of his current work in progress). Cleve’s father had a battle with the bottle and Devil by the Tail was, he insists, largely autobiographical. The blurb certainly makes it sound like an ‘Under Several Volcanoes‘; ‘This novel is the portrait of likeable, immature Gordon Sullivan who tried to escape the stark gray ugliness of sobriety through the dreams and refuges provided by alcohol. It is the story of his musings, adventures, futilities, and truly Gargantuan benders in Mexico, Europe, America and Canada on his long flight from the devil which he had by the tail.’ I can’t wait to read it! Langston Moffett was also a collected artist. I have not been able to establish whether this cover illustration was by him but it is certainly a pretty cover.
The Czech Republic has a wonderful tradition, dating from the nineteenth century, of taking its old trees very seriously (see this link, for example). There is a national list and the bigger and older trees are venerated. Things are done differently elsewhere. I was saddened to read in my Sunday newspaper that the Pontfadog oak – having been at least 1,200 years old and therefore the oldest tree in Wales, the third largest in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe – blew over last weekend in a gale. Since the oak had lost its heartwood it was impossible to tell exactly how old the tree was. But the youngest it could have been was 1,181 years, and the oldest was a staggering 1,628 years. In other words, the oak was seeded some time between AD 367 and AD 814, long before most English cathedrals were built. For a large part of its life the oak was a working tree, pollarded to produce building- and firewood. It put on six inches of growth just last year but once it had fallen the locals realised it had lost all of its main roots and was probably only still standing because of its sheer weight (in 1880 six men sat around a table inside it!). Beyond sadness at its demise I suppose my point is that it could (should?) have been better protected. A plan was drawn up by the Ancient Tree Forum. A six thousand signature-strong petition was addressed to the Welsh Assembly. But the money couldn’t be found. To the end, it was never fenced off or protected. And now it is no more.