Summer reading again. Last summer I got through the first two volumes of Clive James’s ‘Unreliable Memoirs’. I have just finished the third volume, May Week Was in June, covering his period at Cambridge University. In the preface he admits that he hadn’t initially thought of writing beyond the first two volumes. Just occasionally, the commercial imperative shows through; we learn twice, for example, that the chalky blue of a spring sky ‘matched the sundials of Caius’. But May Week Was in June is as rich in wonderful aphorisms and chuckle-enducing one-liners as its predecessors. James went up as what in Oxbridge parlance would be called a ‘mature’ student, meaning he was a little bit older than his fellow undergraduates. He clearly fully exploited this tactical advantage. Among his contemporaries, the young and fiercely impressive Germaine Greer plays a star role and future Monty Python, Eric Idle, is clearly destined for greatness. There are evocative cameo portraits of Florence and Venice in the 1960s – I almost fell out of my chair when he described Florence’s Trattoria Anita – a wonderfully down-at-heel place where I must have eaten most Friday evenings for three years in the 1980s – and there was an uncomfortably familiar ring to his descriptions of Oxbridge undergraduates trying too hard. He is excellent on why even the failures (think of Shelley) never escape Oxbridge’s grip. ‘Where else in the world,’ he laments as he seems finally about to leave the university, ‘would I ever fit in except here, where I had never felt the least urge to fit in?’ It is cheerfully conceited stuff, but the critic is disarmed in anticipation by his cheerful and frank admission to the crime.
Today being grey and overcast, we visited two historic, strategically located defensive points at the northern end of the Lago di Como. The first, il Forte di Fuentes, was built in 1603 by a Milan-based Spanish Duke and mostly destroyed in 1796 by Napoleon as a peaceful gesture to the Grissons. The second, the First World War Forte Montecchio, is located on a hill just alongside the first. Both stand at the mouth of the Adda, the main river feeding the Lago di Como, and overlook two valleys, the Valtellina and the Valchiavenna, and both were built in anticipation of invading forces descending down either valley towards the Po Plain. However, uulike Fuentes, the Forte Montecchio is largely intact. Indeed, a stupendous example of Italian military architecture, it is the best preserved fort of its kind still standing in Italy. It probably owes this to the facts that, though a key structure in the ‘Cadorna line’, it never saw true action but was nevertheless maintained in some sort of military usage until 1981. Now, a jovial and erudite guide shows visitors around the Fort. It was built in one year and was obsolete by the end of the next. This was because it was built with massive walls to withstand cannon attacks but with relatively thin roofs that would not have been able to withstand attacks from Austrian howitzers and mortars. In any case, the expected Austro-Hungarian invasion never came. Interestingly, the Fort’s four cannons (perfectly preserved to this day) were designed primarily not to fire on any advancing force but, rather, to destroy bridges, railway lines and canals – a case of deliberate friendly fire. The place is wonderfully atmospheric – down to stencilled Mussolini-era mottos (‘courage is a habit!’) – and would surely be a great film set. A small but well-illustrated guide, by Stefano Cassinelli, is available from Guide Macchione, for ‘White War’ enthusiasts and is well worth its cover price.
Like our counterparts in the other EU institutions, no doubt, Gerhard Stahl, SG of the Committee of the Regions, and I did a quick remote check on our e-mails this morning to make sure that all was well, only to discover this was decidedly not the case. We are putting out the statement below, available only in French for the time being. Thank goodness this happened on a Saturday night in August! I shudder to think what might have happened if it had occurred at any other time in any other period. (The European Parliament, it will be recalled, had a similar lucky escape with the ceiling of its Strasbourg hemicycle. We seem to share the same lucky star!)
Dans la nuit de samedi à dimanche, le 7 août 2010, une partie du faux plafond qui isole les espaces Atrium 5 et Atrium 6 dans le bâtiment Jacques Delors s’est effondrée pour une raison inconnue. L’incident s’étant produit en dehors des horaires de travail, les secrétaires généraux du Comité économique et social (CESE) et du Comité des Régions (CdR) soulignent qu’il n’y a que des dégâts matériels à déplorer. Pour faire toute la lumière sur l’incident, les deux Comités ont informé et saisi le propriétaire et garant de la construction, le bâtiment étant toujours couvert par la garantie de 10 ans en matière de travaux de construction. Le secrétaire général du CdR, Gerhard Stahl, souligne : ” Malgré leur importance, cet incident n’a heureusement causé que des dégâts matériels, puisqu’il s’est produit pendant la fin de semaine. A partir de maintenant, les atria des 5e et 6e étages seront inaccessibles pour une période indéterminée. Nous procédons également à la révision de tout espace comportant des faux plafonds similaires à celui qui s’est montré défaillant”. Le secrétaire général du CESE, Martin Westlake, ajoute : “A ce stade, la raison de l’incident n’est pas encore claire, mais les parties compétentes, y compris le propriétaire du bâtiment, ont été informées et les actions nécessaires ont été demandées par les deux Comités. Tout est mis en œuvre pour que les travaux de réparation démarrent dès que possible.” Par précaution, l’accès à l’espace sinistré a été interdit jusqu’à nouvel ordre. Des agents de sécurité veillent au respect de ces consignes. Les atria 5 et 6 du bâtiment Jacques Delors qui abrite le CESE et le CdR ne sont pas occupés en permanence, mais servent périodiquement d’espace d’exposition et de réception pour les deux Comités. L’Atrium 5 est aussi un espace de passage pour le personnel entre les bâtiments Jacques Delors et Bertha Von Suttner.
Summer reading time again. First down is True Tales of American Life, edited and introduced by Paul Auster (with grateful thanks to Paul C for the gift). I am a great fan of Auster’s fiction though, as readers of this blog will know, I think he has gone off the boil a little with his last few novels. When I first saw True Tales I thought ‘what a brilliant commercial project!’ Basically, through a radio programme slot, Auster encouraged his listeners to send in their own (true, short) stories. Of the four thousand-odd pieces submitted to what became the National Story Project, Auster selected 179 and these, edited by him and a team of helpers, became the published compilation. Each author is personally mentioned, of course, so the book was guaranteed considerable sales (relations, friends…). However, by the time I had got a short way into the book I had banished such cynical thoughts. The trademark of Auster’s fiction is coincidence rendered meaningful by subsequent events, and the best of the stories in the book out-Auster Auster in this regard. Scientists, psychologists, mathematicians and statisticians would doubtless have explanations for all of the apparently inexplicable coincidences and premonitions recounted by Auster’s contributors, but that is not the point. For, in telling their stories, these Americans tell us all about themselves and their land. Take, for example, this fragment: ‘A branch line of the Milwaukee Railroad ran from Sioux Falls through Vienna and Naples and on up to Bristol…’ Take any map of the US and Europe is all over it. It’s as though somebody plucked up all the names of European towns and cities, chucked in a few indigenous Indian names for good luck, then shook everything up and cast them randomly over the map. Some of the contributors were just one generation away from the immigrants who had first toiled to render so many inhospitable parts of the land habitable. If I had to choose one story from this book it would be South Dakota, submitted by Nancy Peavy, which recounts the mysterious disappearance of a local rich girl from a small German-Danish agricultural community on the South Dakota plains. Fields in that region had to lie fallow for many years, and the mystery was only finally resolved when such a field was at last put to the plough and her remains, together with those of an aborted foetus, were found; the victims of a botched job by a back street abortionist. If I have one quibble, it is with the title. It should have been True Tales of American Lives.