Sunday, 23 July 2017

It wasn’t that long ago.....

My grandchildren accept modern technology as if it has always been with us.  Why shouldn’t they, it is what they have always known.  They are bemused by stories of life without television, computers and mobile phones.  Television came late to South Africa – in 1976 - so not only did I grow up without it but our children started off without it too. 

Somehow the leap from no television to more channels than one can count isn’t as extraordinary as what has happened to personal communication.

Living in Johannesburg we had direct dialling – no going through an operator as you had to in the country.  Direct dialling was however only within the city – to call another city we had to go through the long-distance operator.

When we first lived in London, calls between our family and us were rare.  Not only did you have to book them 48 hours in advance but the cost was prohibitive. Around 1967/8 I was earning £15.00 a week (before tax) and the cost of a telephone call was £1.00 a minute for a maximum of three minutes. That was a pretty good salary then. To put that into context, on a salary today of £300 a week (pretty much minimum wage) the relative cost would be £20 a minute. In emergencies you could get a call through in two hours as I found out when my mother called me to say that my father had died. 

Being able to call someone and see them “through the phone” was science fiction and for some reason we made the assumption that you would have to answer the phone even if you were in a state of undress.   Leap forwards to the present and I can speak to anyone anywhere for free through FaceTime, Skype etc and can see them as well and I don’t have to answer if I don’t want to and they can’t see me unless I do. Sophisticated conference calls take this to a new level which I can’t quite grasp.

I take for granted that I can call friends and family far afield instantly and if it is the middle of the night for them, can send an email to be responded to when they wake up. 

I remember in the 1980s when the tech industry was first working on voice recognition, it was slow and inaccurate and you wondered if they would ever get it to work.  Now I can ask “Alexa” to convert ounces into millilitres, tell me what is on my shopping list, switch to any radio station, give me a news update, the weather forecast for anywhere in the world and “read” a book to me.  No effort no thought, now normal. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

I love it when a day comes together *

I am very fortunate and generally life treats me well, sometimes very well as in yesterday.  First thing in the morning I saw the first peony in bloom in my garden – favourite flower and the season is all too short.  First happy

Met a school friend of my sister’s – I am in London, my sister in California and said friend visiting from Johannesburg. We haven’t seen each other in many decades and had a lovely lunch catching up on all the concerts, operas, ballets and plays we have seen over the years – such similar tastes and the great performers of the past including Fonteyn and Nureyev, Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and of the present – Terfel, Kaufmann, Hvorostovsky etc.  Second happy ✔

We went on to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum – the exhibition was busy and the museum even busier – loads of children which is really encouraging. I recommend the exhibition, which covers the last 30 years of his life, 70 – 90.  He said that he had never done anything worthwhile until he was 70.  We all know the ‘wave’ but the flowers are stunning and the figures so expressive. Third happy ✔

The West End is jammed most of the time and particularly at the moment but I managed to avoid it. Walked a bit and took a bus to near the Barbican.  If I hadn’t I would have missed the Polish family with father and young son with matching half shaved haircuts and the son falling asleep on his father’s lap; the woman who pushed her push chair onto the bus, undid the straps from behind and said to her toddler – “Right we are going up!” and lifted him to her shoulder – he laughed, she laughed and we all laughed! Fourth happy ✔

Met Number One Husband for early dinner and then onto the Barbican to hear Dame Mitsuko Uchida play Beethoven’s Concerto No 3 to rapturous applause (these immigrants, they come over here and bring all their talent!) followed by Bruckner Symphony No 9 Sir Bernard Haitink conducting – another immigrant! Fifth happy ✔

Hokusai did some of his best work after the age of 70 – Haitink is now 88 – where great talent exists age is irrelevant.

I know this is really trivial – but we walked to the Underground Station and the first train to arrive was ours, we found seats and when we left the station car park the traffic light turned green as we approached it.  I love it when a day comes together.

* With (not really) apologies to The “A” team

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

What defines a terrorist?

Smarter people than me have debated this, including the cliché – “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”.  For me a terrorist creates terror and that is the objective and the targets are civilians – children not excluded!

I have thought long and hard about posting this.  I initially wrote it to get it out of my mind onto paper but, whatever has happened, we are coming up to an election so here it is. 

What happened in Manchester on May 22 was a vile and inexcusable act. I listened helplessly to the radio on and off through the night.  As I posted on Facebook on the morning of the 23rd: “within moments of the attack in Manchester people were connecting on twitter asking about where to donate blood, nurses visiting the city were offering their services to local hospitals, taxi drivers were taking people home for free, local hotels were looking after young people on their own and residents were offering overnight accommodation. That's because there are many good people around us. We need to somehow hold onto that.”

The party leaders suspended campaigning for the general election and have each come out with appropriate statements.  However, I find myself enraged with Jeremy Corbyn (not for the first time). Without mentioning terrorism, which I could ignore, he said,   "it was an appalling act of violence against people and must be totally and unreservedly condemned". I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that.

Where was he and what did he say in 1996 when the IRA bombed Manchester injuring 200 people or about any of the other IRA terrorist attacks?  He may now say “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”  What did he say then? 

And in 2001 when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 civilians including 7 children and a pregnant woman and wounded 130 at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. What did he say then? The terrorist was thought to be wearing a belt containing explosives, nails, nuts and bolts as did the device in Manchester.

I watched his cringe making appearance before the Select Committee on anti-Semitism: his inability to say that he opposed anti-Semitism without adding “and all other forms of racism” was weasily. The sham report on anti-Semitism in the party is something else!

The most important thing about the reaction to the horror in Manchester is not what the politicians say but how the emergency services responded and the actions of hundreds of “ordinary” people – it doesn’t bring back the lives of those who died or help those who will continue to suffer the loss of limbs and other severe injuries but it shows a common, undiscriminating humanity – Mr Corbyn’s humanity is selective.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

This is the book that put me through all the emotions from A to Z and then some.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands is an incredible book: it received rave reviews, it is still on the best-seller list and won the Baillie Gifford prize for non fiction. If you want to read the most eloquent of the reviews, google The Oxford Culture Review East West Street - for some reason the link won’t work.

It was published over a year ago but I have only just read it.  I knew I would read it but I couldn’t bring myself to.  If that sounds a bit pathetic – this is why.

I was born and grew up in South Africa after the Second World War. My father had volunteered for the Army – there was no conscription and it was a toss-up whether the South African government would support the Allies or the Axis.  He was a surgeon, newly married in 1940 and felt that it was his duty, especially as they knew whatever was happening in Germany was bad for the Jews – the full horrors were not apparent. He spoke little about his military service although I did know that he served on a British Hospital ship the “AMRA” and they went in behind the troop ships after various landings and the wounded were ferried back – they operated continuously with ten minute breaks. In the days when speed counted, he was very quick and accurate.

We move onto the 1950s.  By then the horror of the concentration camps had emerged, the Nuremberg trials had taken place and the phrases “Crimes against Humanity” and “Genocide” were appearing.  My childhood was spent rather in a bubble but my teenage years were haunted by what I learned. Our families had left Poland and Lithuania for the UK, USA and South Africa before the beginning of the 20th Century so our immediate family was not directly affected but many that we knew were. As the stories came out it was like a miasma that hung over us – far away as we were. Of course there were documentaries and  “The Diary of a Young Girl” also known as “The Diary of Anne Frank”. How potent to read that at a similar age to the girl who wrote it. And it wasn’t just the non-fiction – such as William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” but the fiction and films – Leon Uris “Exodus” and “Mila 18”.

I find world events and the swirling political maelstrom very troubling at the moment so fiction is my distraction.  I am very visual when I read and live the books so I am a little resistant to reading non-fiction about the horrors of Nazi Germany and WW2 these days.  That is why I delayed reading East West Street.  Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.  It has all the excitement and tension of my favourite genre – crime fiction:  this is not to trivialise it, the pulling apart of the threads and weaving together of patches of information is totally absorbing. The personalities and the challenges of the individuals leap out of the page into your head; the research involved was extraordinary. The tension between “Crime against Humanity” and “Genocide” continues to this day.

If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Reading is everything to me

I could read before I went to school and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read or when I wasn’t reading. Although I prefer to read a printed book I was a very early adopter of the Kindle because it meant that I could take as many books with me wherever I went and could add books almost wherever I was.

As a child I loved book series. Our school was a bit snobby about certain books but my parents took a very liberal view – they didn’t really care what I read whether it was a “good” book or not - apart from a few examples below, but then those books were banned in South Africa anyway so were contraband!  I happily worked my way through Enid Blyton – Famous Five, Secret Seven, The Faraway Treethankfully Noddy passed me by.  Somehow I missed Mallory Towers but progressed through Sue Barton (nurse) and Cherry Ames (nurse and mystery) although I think I gave up halfway through the latter. The Hardy Boys followed and by then I had read almost everything in the children’s section of our local library in Johannesburg and at the age of 12 received permission to borrow books from the adult section: being South Africa there were no inappropriate books in the library!

Other authors I read addictively were Agatha Christie, Somerset Maugham and of course, Conan Doyle.

My father subscribed to a number of magazines for his waiting room (he was a surgeon) and my sister and I each chose one which we could read first – thus Girl’s Crystal and School Friend entered our lives.  Through one of these I corresponded with a pen friend in Stoke-on-Trent who was bewildered by the fact that we had two cars and I was amazed that the family not only didn’t have a car but had never travelled more than thirty miles from their home.  In South Africa you would think nothing of driving that distance to a party.

My mother chose various American magazines – Redbook, Good Housekeeping and McCalls – Betsy McCall paper dolls were printed in most issues. You could cut out the printed dolls that we would stick on cardboard and clothing that had little tabs so that you could fold them around the doll. 

Of course he subscribed to the Reader’s Digest – what medical waiting room was without a few dog-eared copies - as well as the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. My parents read a lot as well and I was recently browsing this website Publishers Weekly list of bestselling novels in the 1950s and found that I had read most of them – although my mother hid Peyton Place and Lolita in her sweater drawer so my reading of those was limited to sitting on the floor of her dressing room when my parents were out and reading until I heard the car when I scooted back to bed. There were some rather torrid historical romances in that category too.

For many years my favourite book was Jane Eyre.  I read it first when I was about twelve and have reread it every few years since then discovering different things every time.  I certainly wasn’t conscious of the sexual tension that appears through the book when I first read it and it never struck me as odd or even sinister that the book ended with the macho Mr Rochester made weak and blind and under the control of the seemingly restrained Jane.......but I am being too simplistic.

I read non-fiction and in fiction, everything apart from fantasy, horror and most science fiction.  In very recent years I have tended to read mostly crime fiction, especially what are now called “police procedurals”.  Again I delight in finding a new author who has written a series. I remember when P D James’ first book was serialised on TV I was just about to go into hospital and Number One Husband went out and bought me all the books she had written – apart from the surgery – what bliss!!

I finally cracked War and Peace.  I downloaded the audio book and about halfway through I was engaged enough to stop the audio book and read the book although I am still hazy on who is who.  

Apart from reading for work I don’t read much non-fiction any more with a few exceptions and I will write about one of them next time – Dorothy Parker is alleged to have said of a performance by Katharine Hepburn, “let’s all go to see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotions from A to B!”

This book put me through all the emotions from A to Z and back again. 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

What’s real? Slogans/headlines/clichés rule the world

Trump is going to make America great again - compared to when? How do you define 'great'?  He's going to build a wall, deport millions of people - the list of the bold direct statements is long and there was no explanation of how this was going to be achieved. The first big failure was on replacing the Affordable Health Care Act aka ObamaCare but - the President tweeted – “ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE.”  I think he meant implode.... 

Brexit means Brexit (No one knows what that means). The Prime Minister is going to negotiate a Brexit deal that is good for everyone.  Well that's a load of rubbish.  Every single person?  There are going to be groups who will not benefit, don't know who they are but it just isn't logical that it will be all good for everyone.

I am not even sure what I think any more, I have all these words shouting at me in my head.

I am almost at a point when I can only believe what I see - and you know how unreliable eyewitnesses are. After the dreadful terrorist attack in London last week a woman wearing a headscarf was photographed walking past the wounded with her hand to her face apparently looking at her phone – interpreted as uncaring.  She was vilified on social media until she came forward. She had offered help but there were many people helping at this point so she was contacting her family to say that she was OK and the photographer confirmed that she was very upset – which can be clearly seen when you look closer at her face.  She then helped someone go to Waterloo station and went home. We see what our prejudices tell us to see.

On the weekend I had lunch with friends - we laughed a lot and argued some - that was real.  Last night I went to the Barbican to hear Joshua Bell play – he was amazing – that was real.