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Moomins Unmasked (The True Deceiver)

Ash Wednesday, 17th February, clear skies, mouse ice, 9 shoots of native daffodils now, and a frog vertical in the weeds, seeming to look up from under the ice in the little new pool. Alive or dead? Can't tell until the sun warms it. Christmas reading feature, final entry

There are two women. One is young and harsh and good with figures. The other is an old, sweet-natured, unworldly artist. Both are outsiders in a small Nordic community: the old woman isolated by status in her big house, the young woman isolated by nature, and by her ambivalent status as the community's fixer; she solves minor business problems, but her solutions make people uneasy. There's a dog, controlled but untamed companion; there's the harsh girl's simple-minded brother. There are other characters, serving to illustrate the central problem. The young woman wants something from the old woman. Basically, she wants a share of the old woman's wealth, but the catch is that she cannot bear to ask for the money, to earn the money, or to deserve the money. Her self-esteem requires her to ask nothing of the world, she has to take. But she has to take by what she considers fair means, and that means (it turns out) by besting the old woman in mind games.

The clueless old woman paints pictures of the forest floor. Her ability to concentrate on the finest detail of what's going on in the living world, right under everyone's feet,is her obsession. Somehow, a population of cute rabbits, rabbits with flowery fur, invaded this passionate life's work. The flowery rabbits irritate her, but they have made her famous. She's plagued by floods of letters from little children, which she tries to take seriously, and floods of international business proposals: which she does not take seriously. She lets herself be cheated, because she isn't interested in figures and she doesn't care.

If you are a Moomin fan, and since this is Tove Jansson talking, you will get the picture. You loved The Summer House, you loved A Winter Book; you may find this one a little disquieting. You may find yourself thinking, hang on, I don't know if I want to know this. . .

The whole action of the novel is contained by the dark, icy snowlit months of a Nordic winter, during which the calculating young woman strips the old artist of her elective naivety about business and other matters, and the old artist strips the calculating young woman of her pride and her self-containment. It's a gripping introverts' adventure, I can't explain how such petty drama and unsparing candour can be so attractive. Like, let me see, Cranford distilled to a fiery strength, but with the cosy warmth and light surgically removed. I think it's the old artist who turns out to be the stronger (did you guess?) but you must make up your own mind.

Spoiler warning, don't get too attached to the flowery rabbits. But if you didn't know already that the Moomins are really people, showing the very peculiar, almost chilling, characteristics that quite ordinary people display (Nordic or not; when you look close, with an unsparing eye); then I can't help you.

Digital Future

Tuesday 16th February, much milder. A grey, damp, breezy morning, a charm of goldfinches squabbling

Here's something I've been waiting to post. Gill Spraggs analysis and investigation of the Google Book Settlement (spoiler warning: she's not in favour of those Do No Evil lads' approach to the Digital Future) now has a blog and a mailing list

If you're a writer and you think you've opted out but you've had no confirmation you can check your name on the lawyers' list of no-thanks responders:

Look carefully, the name order is a bit weird

In the genre world, Ursula Le Guin is also being very active.

Now what? Just saying no is easy enough, if you have an ounce of bloody-mindedness in you, and what writer does not, you can easily skip through the Do No Evil team's obstacle course. Thinking of another way, and putting it into practice, especially supposing you are not incredibly rich and powerful: that's the challenge.

Candlemas: the morning news

Tuesday 2nd February, still raining. Candlemas did not dawn bright and clear.

Not likely to be any Fair Maids of February in my garden, either. Only two of my new native daffodils (responsibly sourced) are showing above ground, the rest of the narcissi not very far advanced either.

We interrupt this belated review of Christmas and New Year books with some other essential reading, just to show I'm not entirely cut off from the world.

PW on Macmillan vs Amazon

Gill Spraggs on the GBS

My agents, David Higham Associates, are pursuing this issue strongly too. Also from Gill Spraggs, this morning, in my Inbox, a call to arms. I'll post you the URL if I get one.

& here's two entries from Common Dream

Peace Prize President's War Budget

Afghan geological resources worth trillions

Now I can't think of a single other thing to do at this desk, so I'll have to do some work.

Stravinsky (Stephen Walsh) postscript:

Tuesday 2nd February, no frost, grey rain.

For completism.

I read the second tome of Stephen Walsh's Stravinsky biography (Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934–1971) in December when I had the flu. The massiveness of the book was a friend to me, when the misery of flu was making time pass very slowly, and I'll remember it fondly for that reason.

Whoever said (commenting on my first Stravinsky post), that biographies of artists/musicians are a bit of a pitfall she was dead right, but I'm always curious, it's the History of Ideas student in me. On the whole, I learned a little about Modernism, both brands, and that was interesting (and thanks for the Penderecky tip greywyvern, but I'm not really a convert. I'll dip in and out of Modernism, same as Jazz, but it's not for me). Stravinsky himself becomes more human as he gets older, sheds first the Enfant Terrible and then the HardNosed Marketplace Artist persona. He said, in the end "All artists are carried on the shoulder of tradition", (and went on to reference the St Christopher and the Christ Child legend, which kind of positions Stravinsky as the Christ, ha!; but never mind). He refused, withering the suggestion with scorn, to "interview" Shostakovich, when he visited the USA. "What's the point in talking to him? He is not free!", which shows more sense than other expats tactlessly trying to get the man to denounce the Soviet State.

I listened to a lot of Stravinsky, liked some of it very much (probably, apart from The Rite Of Spring, the least-Stravinskyish works: couldn't get on with the Sacred music at all), & the biography gave me the entry, because I'm the slave of words. But every biographer has a thesis, of course they do or it wouldn't be a book it'd be a list of dates. In Ian MacDonald's dramatic "secret dissident" reading of Shostakovich's career, it's about Soviet history and music-politics and relates directly to the music. Stephen Walsh's big idea is the unmasking of a third party: not Stravinsky, for all his faults, but Robert Craft, Stravinsky's amanuensis, companion, secretary, substitute son. Stravinsky, a "bad, hard-hearted father", who demanded his children's devotion and treated them like chattels, got his come-uppance when he fell into the clutches of a "son", maybe neither bad nor hard-hearted, who worked the old man into the ground, alienated him from his (first) family and treated him like property. . . You can't call this inadmissable, because nobody disputes that Craft did take over Stravinsky's papers. He controlled the composer's post-mortem reputation. If he suppressed, edited, deleted, "interpreted" anything he didn't like, that's got to be fascinating, also very annoying, for any biographer who comes after, and detects the traces. I'm not sure it's all that fascinating for someone trying to place the composer in his times. But you can read Craft's immensely detailed refutation here, if you're really interested.

Madame de Staël

Monday 1st February, bright clear day, fading now: hard frost, dead calm

Name a world-famous female UK artist, working now, who is also an outspoken and highly influential political figure. Doesn't have to be a novelist or essayist, can be anything: film-maker, painter, musician.

No, you can't have Tracy Emin. Complaining that you have to pay too much tax when you earn a lot of money doesn't count as a political opinion.

You're struggling, right? Maybe they manage these things much better in France, and if I were not so insular & ignorant, I could name a half-dozen arts-celebrity salonistas who make or break all the State's policies. But even if it were so, it's not the point: first because she has to be famous outside her own country, and second because she has to be a public figure in her own right, an independent voice, not a female power-behind-the-throne. I think we need to go further afield -ironically, to countries where the inequality of women's rights is far more openly acknowledged. Nawal El Saadawi ; Arundhati Roy
They'll do, though they don't operate on the same scale (realtively) as De Staël.

Why did she pretty much vanish from the halls of political fame? It could be because she was incapable of changing her mind.

When Napoleon stopped being the darling of the intellectual liberals, and ran a police state at home, while parcelling out Europe as his family's private fief, it wasn't a change of plan or a change of heart (at least I don't think so). It was more that the intellectuals and artists of the world, such as Beethoven, had been seeing what they wanted to see. In France most of them went on doing just that. Men in public life, or who wanted to be in public life, reverted instantly to the Ancien Regime mindset. You've got to have a position at Court. As you may remember, there were draconian laws in the Ancien Regime, forbidding anyone remotely "noble" from earning a living, but that was only part of it. You didn't have to be greedy for money, you only had to be greedy for influence, for visibility, for power-to-do-good even. In post-Revolutionary France everyone who was anyone, from the hardest of hard Left Jacobins to devout unreconstructed Royalists, started scrabbling for positions in Napoleon's Government. My old friend Francois de Chateaubriand among them (tho' he did resign when D'Enghien was assassinated, and he did it before he knew how his colleagues were going to jump). It was shameless, it was horrible. Germaine De Staël was disgusted & she refused to kowtow. She said destiny was not morality, and she would stick with morality. She ended up in exile, banished from France, her writing suppressed, her new books pulped. She knew she was ruining her children's lives, as they would never get a decent job. She had good reason to fear for her life, but she never surrendered.

Mind you, she didn't have a lot of choice, when it came to public office. The French Revolution had played out (for women) as several others have done since; cf Iran 1979. They womaned the barricades, they ran political clubs, they had impasssioned speeches made in defence of their talents, their rights. They ended up explicitly restricted to the domestic sphere by the Constitution, 1791, long before Napoleon got going.

But she could have been a salonista. Napoleon would have loved her to be his salonista. She wouldn't do it. She didn't change her mind because, like Albert Camus, she met one of those moments (Camus was speaking of fascism) when one has to decide, do two and two make four? Or do they not? She decided not to agree that two and two makes whatever the Emperor says it makes.

Now, why the full body scanner image at the head of this post? (The comments on the page at Jaunted are the most interesting part). It's about visibility. If you want to be a public figure, then you have to be visible, cost what it costs. In our day, that means, just for instance, you have to accept the War on Terror security lines, though you know it's appalling. You cannot say, this is too much, because you can't afford not to step on the plane. Where would, oh, I don't know, Jeremy Paxman be, or Stephen Fry, or any of our modern-day "intelligentsia" of the media, if they said: No, actually, I won't stand for this. . . You might be notorious for a week or so, but you wouldn't stay a public figure for long.

History isn't written by the victors, it's written by the writers (or film-makers, or journalists, or artists, or musicians). But mainly by the ones who are ready to do whatever it takes, swallow whatever they have to swallow; to stay in the picture.

"Gwyneth Jones" free book downloads

Monday January 18th, a mild damp misty morning; birdsong

Just a brief post, to point out that the three Bold As Love novels I've re-edited and Spirit are now available permanently on this site, see under "Webpage Links". And remember, if you download one of my pdf books it is yours to keep , just as if you'd bought print and paper. I can't delete it from your kindle access, I can't decide I don't like chapter five or that I should make the ending more upbeat, dip into your text and change it.

I was quite interested in the kindle idea, until I found out about the breaking and entering aspect. Tuh. People are such sheep!

NB, should you be in Brighton tomorrow and free at lunchtime, you could come along to the Chapel Royal, North St., where Gabriel is playing a recital. Here's the details. The Bach is the Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor from Book I

Spirit Or The Princess of Bois Dormant: Free Online

Wednesday 13th January, after dark, snow on the roofs, can't tell if it's freezing out there, I'm going to try and take the train to Manchester tomorrow:should be fine, wish me luck.

Holiday reading interrupted for a special announcement, it's the New Year, and as promised the full text of Spirit has returned, download here, free online. Soon I'll get all the online books on sidebar links on this new blog. If you want a word file not the pdf, just ask.

So Google are pulling out of China. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but what a blow. How abandoned all those people must feel.

Madame de Stael:#1

Wednesday 13th January, Fresh snow in the night and snow falling all morning, but the air is warmer and the snow is melting now, twilight gathering, the skies still low and unbroken grey. Finally, the winter holiday reading feature.

Corinne, or Italy, May 1807, Madame De Stael.
Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, daughter of Jacques Necker, Louis XVI's Finance Minister, the man who (amazingly) became the hero of the first phase, the hopeful bit, of the French Revolution. Madame De Stael (she married the Swedish Ambassador when she was twenty); "French Revolutionary Activist and Theorist of European Romanticism", "The most influential woman in Europe. . . the the Spirit of Eighty Nine in person. How come I've never read anything by her before now, given my views and the fascination that period has for me? Because she was a woman? Guilty. I'm not immune, I'm afraid nobody is, to our immemorial cultural assumption that the men are more interesting, whatever the field of endeavour. Because, owing to her being a woman, "her fame has not survived"? I'm not so sure. How many of you out there are well up on her great rival, Francois Eugene Rene De Chateaubriand, the other highly influential French writer and politico of those times? I think there was something else deeply wrong with Germaine De Stael, of which more later. . .

Over Christmas, and partly while felled by flu, I read a fragment called "Ten Years Of Exile", which is interesting but fragmentary, and her second novel Corinne, Or Italy. I should now formally warn against spoilers (stupid concept, really). You're duly warned. Corinne is the story of a young Scottish, or English, De Stael thinks the terms are interchangeable, nobleman called Oswald (a name that sounded different at the time, I can only think cf Harold), who takes a trip to Italy to nurse his great grief after the death of his father. He's the strong, sensitive, vulnerable yet hunky type, given to modest heroism between bouts of spitting blood. He encounters Corinne, on a day when she's being crowned for her poetry, in a kind of Ancient Roman Triumph. He's deeply smitten with this beautiful, talented, independent woman, who is a public figure, just about as famous as God, though never in an an arrogant way. He follows her to Rome and they begin an intense courtship, based on sight-seeing trips. Corinne shows Oswald Italy, and at the same time shows him herself. At least one of their sightseeing trips breaks the bounds of even free and easy Italian convention, but Corinne doesn't care, as she's convinced that though he hasn't declared himself, Oswald must intend to marry her. Finally, he explains that if he marries her, and he might not, she's going to have to give up her public life. He loves her talents, but as her husband he'd expect them to be reserved exclusively for his private consumption. They have a big emotional scene, Oswald returns to England. He's meant to be making up his mind who he'll choose, between Corinne and the modest, insipid young girl his dead father had picked out for him. Instead he meets the girl, who is actually Corinne's half-sister, and falls for her. Corinne finds out, is devastated, and does the noble thing. Oswald finds out, too late, that Corinne had found out, is devastated, realises Corinne is really the love of his life. . . Young girl finds out she's usurped her sister, is devastated... Etc, etc, repeat until at least one of the principals succumbs to early tragic demise.

I'm sure you recognise the formula, because it's still going strong, and the first English versions are still widely read: Mr Rochester, Heathcliff were only a couple of decades in the future. The Moody Romantic Hero, the Passionate Woman who is a match for him, optional Suitable Girl in a supporting role; plus the vital armchair tourism element. What makes Corinne different (viewed just as Napoleonic chic-lit) is that she's interrogating the hide off that Romantic Hero, as popular then as now, and his moods, and his egotistical vaccillation between lovers, and his tormented soul. De Stael sets Oswald up as the acme of "sensitive" masculine cool, and then shows how he thinks only of himself, and destroys the lives of any poor woman who loves him. This is an interesting concept to start with. Plus, the armchair tourism is exceptional. De Stael knows a huge amount about Ancient and Modern Italian sites, history, customs, landscapes. She's also done all the travel, and uses her own experiences with skill and relish. This book would make you want to take ship at once for that vanished Italy, preferably crossing the perilous passes of the Alps at night, and in a snowstorm. Note the fever-haunted desolation of the Campagna, where nothing grows and you risk your life in spending a night there. Nobody gets bitten by insects in the marshy wilderness, but that's probably good-taste censorship. Nothing too disgusting is recounted about bedbugs, fleas or awful latrines in inns of passage either.

The actual fiction element is the weakest feature, as De Stael is an eighteenth century writer who tends to speeches rather than dialogue, and set pieces rather than narrative drive. Famously, she dismissed Jane Austen, on the other side of the divide, as "vulgar". The political element, surprising in a romantic novel, is unmistakeable. Corinne is the Anti-Napoleon. She's the Queen of Peace, Mistress of the feminine-coded arts. Champion of liberty, equality, amitié, (thanks to greywyvern, you are right I was just being lazy); plus another one, which Mme De Stael has just invented, diversity. In real life, at the time when this book came out, "Italy" was just a bundle of political interests, arranged around some battlefields where Napoleon had recently triumphed. De Stael invents a nation, and presents her concept of self-determined nationhood in opposition to the monolithic, police state European Empire Napoleon had just invented, thus cruelly betraying all his intellectual and artist admirers, not to mention the people, and the Revolution.

The sad thing is, they say (her biographers say) that she thought Napoleon would admire her new book, even that he'd see the lesson in it, and be grateful. Writers get the strangest ideas, especially if their position is oppositional, and they're so used to robust criticism they assume their opponents must be cool about it too. Big mistake when you're dealing with a vain, ruthless self-made Emperor who doesn't like women to have an intellect anyway. The novel was a huge success with the public, Napoleon was furious, and set out to destroy De Stael.

More later. I'm going to have to stop. Ginger has a new trick. When she is really not going to be ignored anymore, she gets behind my keyboard, puts her nose under it, and tries to shove it off the desk. Makes me laugh so much, she almost scuu ddde

Winter Holiday #

Monday January 11th, snow eroding from roofs and pavements, still freezing; thick low skies

Correction. There aren't any actual hippies in Dhalgren. Your hippie is, or was originally, a hard-core radical political animal, with all that implies in range from idiot, corrupt freeloader to dedicated selfless visionary. In Dhalgren there's only a "commune" of clueless flower-children getting back to nature in the park. They have several hapless projects (weaving, washing their own clothes) and are held up to derision for same, but the "coffee out of the beans" reference really comes from Philip Marsden's Polish Travel/Memoir The Bronski House, it's the report of a former Polish aristocrat, looking back long afterwards to the days when she was young and her world collapsed around her ears. The day when the servants were gone, and the family were left staring at these small, hard brown objects, with literally no idea how to transform them into that rich, comforting dark liquid which always used to appear in a silver pot. . . The connection being about people who are completely unaware that they are helpless parasistes on a mightily unfair system. Come to think of it, I also reccomend The Spirit Wrestlers, Marsden's Russian book, same kind of deep cultural exploration in form of travelogue.

Yesterday, blizzards having failed to materialise, Peter and I took the bus out to Stanmer Park. A whole lot of people were tobogganning on the east slopes, we went for a walk in the woods instead and I'm glad we took the road less travelled. Our last snow was freezing as it fell, and there wasn't enough wind to drift but enough to drive it gently: every tree, every branch, every twig was burdened with white, flags and plumes, and the woods went on and on, everything familiar looking different, we went round and round, up along the ridge, managed to lose ourselves at least once: meanwhile discussing quite seriously whether we should take a shovel, rugs, a torch, water and food in the car, when we made our daring expedition north. Maybe the mediafolk are right, and what looks like a harmless winter day is just trying to fool us. . . These woods, esp the part that used to be Stanmer Great Wood, are nearly all young growth, dated by the hurricane of 87, which flattened nearly everything. Every so often a fragment of the old great beech vistas survives.

We decided against the blankets and thermos. Those mediafolk are insane. Now Gabriel is back in London, and the Winter Holidays are over.

Since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

For me, by Houseman's reckoning, that figure should now be twenty. All the more reason to waste nothing.

Winter Holiday

Friday January 8th, hard frost, snow roofs, snow-skies; light-suffused grey with a gilt hem.

This morning both cats refused, categorically to go outside. I ejected Milo, squalling, Ginger protesting: Ginger bounced straight back in again, but she went out for a while of her own accord later. The reason for this cruelty? Well, they have a litter tray each and Milo is using his (but he wees in the bath, which is all right as long as you know. . .) Ginger is not using hers, which makes us uneasy. Either that little cat is constipated back up to her neck, or we are going to find evil withered little offerings somewhere very cunning and obscure. Last night, after two episodes of Wire 4 and watching Gabriel beat the half-way fortress of the 2D Wi Mario, Peter and I spent at least half an hour searching for Dhalgren, which I clearly remembered leaving on the sofa in plain sight, about 7pm when I decided to listen to Stravinsky and work on my Alpine jigsaw instead... Today I found it, behind the leg of the low table we use for eating on all but the most formal occasions, pushed back into the window alcove,looking exactly like a chunk of wood, not a book. I'm getting there, I'll have finished it by the end of the day. A lot of things I don't remember, a lot of longeurs (polite term for boring bits) I found equally tiresome the first time round. Why does this book deserve Masterworks status? Google hits. Can't argue with Google hits, and I won't, they are the stuff of the SF-Establishment. My job is to analyse, and to give (no, this is my pleasure) a historical perspective. I was about ten years old when the autobigraphical events on which this book is based actually happened, but when they're supposed to have happened, believe me I was there. Casting a cold eye. "Middle class" kids (middle class means something different in my country, nb), born and bred parasites who do not have the faintest idea how to get the coffee out of the beans, pshaw, and think it is cool to ape the behaviour of the helpless and the lost. . .

Anyway, I have listened to the news, and found out where our doorstep milk has gone. Into the slurry pit, every pint of it, reports a dairy farmer from Partridge Green, sounding absolutely gutted. Have watched the bluetits on the buddelia seeds, hopefullywatched our uneaten suet ball (birds are not used to finding shop-food in our garden, for obvious reasons). Have listened to Gabriel practicing the Appassionata downstairs, have coloured-in my Shrinkles stegosaurus (she still looks angry, probably because the text says she has an "unusually small brain", which of course is why I say "she"), have eaten Christmas cake.

In 1963 (it says here, on the bbc site) the temperature didn't rise above freezing for two months. Schools did NOT close, and there was no such thing as central heating, so people had coal fires or just got cold. I remember the fires, twisting the papers and clearing the ash (training that would come in d***ed useful later in life), the tobogganing, once by moonlight, and one particular icon, a broken egg that remained intact under the ice, swimming in the fragments of its shell, on Wilson Rd, right until March.

Books and composers stack up, I mean to post about my Winter Holiday reading soon.

I thought I wouldn't ever want to watch the Wire again, after majestic Stringer Bell, evil and noble, got his just desserts. But I find I do.

Intercalary Days

Monday 4th January, clear skies, hard frost.

Intercalary days. . . It's still officially Christmas in this house, where we keep the oldstyle festive season, so the decorations are still up, the one we call the Chinese Foil Lantern shedding its traditional glittering pattern over the ceiling for Ginger to admire, as I eat my working-day marmite toast. Writing the intro for the Gollancz Masterworks new edition of The Time Machine will occupy me this week, that and re-reading Dhalgren. (I once had a book up for inclusion in the Masterworks list myself, but it didn't come to anything, ah well). Male black cap poking around in the sycamore, our charm of goldfinches on Linda and Ron's feeders as usual, the one red camellia flower that opened just before Christmas succumbed to bruising, is there any kind of winter weather these winter blooming beauties like? Anyway, thank you Diana I am pretty much better now. I'd have liked a month's gentle convalescence in an Alpine spa of some kind, but overeating madly seems to have done the trick okay.

In fine weather, the sky in January is the bluest you ever see it in England.

Felled By Flu-like Symptoms

Friday 18th December, in snowlight

Felled by flu-like symptoms I've been living in a dreamworld, walled in fog, feverish painful doze alternating with feverish painful wakefulness (usually in the middle of the night), only eased by mechanically passing my eyes over the blurred pages of The Second Exile (Vol II of Stephen Walsh's monumental Stravinsky biog). Peter, intrigued, checked out my symptoms on NHS direct and found me well-qualified for a Tamiflu voucher, wanted to know if he should print one out and collect the elixir from the chemists?


Leavemealone, stupidgovernment medicine boundtoberubbish...

Diagnosis by clueless lay person multiple choice, for God's sake. Give me a workstation that can tell the amateur how to take a cheek swab, process the swab and deliver the results to robodoc... then maybe I'll listen.

Hey, I'm a PC and I invented that!

I've never suffered from seasickness but by reports this particular flu is similar. Your actual symptoms are trivial and fairly harmless (fever, sore throat, cough, aches) but the effect is such pure misery, so you know there's not much wrong but you sincerely want to die.

Meanwhile, Copenhagen seems to be foundering, just as predicted months ago. The Flood Countries rescue deal sorely hampered by the absence of Ax Preston, and the presence of National Governments.It's been strange for me (though I missed most of the actual action) to track Copenhagen, thinking of the same conference as staged, fictionally, in Amsterdam in Castles Made Of Sand. I note that in the years 1999-2000 (when CMOS was written) I:

a) Had no idea that climate change would take hold so fast
b) Was convinced that civil unrest would be the first result of the building global disaster, and that the economic growth model had to be shattered before anything could be achieved.

I could still be right. Certainly Africa already presents a horrible model on those very lines. I'm sure of one thing (but this is hardly news). The Business as Usual model cannot do a thing to halt the devastation. What's happened this week proves the ridiculous futility. Gordon Brown approves the third runway at Heathrow with one hand, while with the other he supports trenchant (ha) emission cuts. . .

Ginger comes to visit, checks me out: sometimes she gives me a bit of a wash and curls up on the pillow, whereupon she smacks me if I invade her space. Milo flees, terrified by a coughing fit. The last time I had flu was 2005, the end of January and Frank was still alive, I remember his warm, comforting weight against my side. When Frank felt affectionate, he leaned on you.

The last think I remember before the flu took over was Richard Strauss's Salome on the tv, arguing with Peter who would not believe the libretto was by Oscar Wilde. Please. I think I know Oscar Wilde, says I. Listen to her, how daft, John the Baptist's body white as snow etc etc, he's been living in the desert wearing a bit of camelskin. No he has not, says Peter, he's been in incommunicado detention bottom of that tin-roofed well-sort-of-thing for months.

Oh, okay. . .

Something's wrong with my comments again. I'll try to fix it when better. Meanwhile, Beth, yes, it was Hard Times. . . Yes, I did watch the Ballets Russes and we're going to see them re-enacted live on the Big Screen at the Dukes for our Christmas treat next week. Convalescent today, and the snow is falling on Brighton. We love the snow, because of the light.

Light A Candle on the 12th?

Another clear blue sky morning, no frost

Squirrels romping in the bare branches, the colony of goldfinch scolding around the feeders in Linda and Ron's acacia, but apparently the "unsettled weather" =rain, wind, depressingly high temperatures, is still roaming around, will be back over Brighton by midday. A big weekend for us has just passed, Gabriel playing the Grieg piano concerto with the BYO at St Andrews Moulescoomb, it's a thirties church, rather handsome, and equiped with a small, elderly and not in great condition grand piano. It did its best and thankfully did not fly apart, though it was touch and go at moments. The boy done good. If you missed this fabulous occasion, there's a reprise at the big BYO concert in February in Hove Town Hall.

Monday morning I look at the BBC news, thinking as the little green squares fill up, what would be good news? Can I imagine any good news? Yes, there is good news: Copenhagen makes the top headline. . . Wow. Of course it was back to the hundredth of OUR BRAVE BOYS dying in Afghanistan and the proposed new runway at Gatwick, by the afternoon. The sight of a coffin with a flag over it does very odd things to a lot of people. Eventually (so I've heard) they change their minds, stop feeling all warm and excited and start asking why, but why am I immune right now?

How I do keep banging on!

So, anyway, here's a link for you:

Still working on the new version of Gypsys & excited because Thursday is a big day for me.

Haven't started reading Stravinsky Part II yet, but we've signed up for the live transmission of the Paris ballet reproducing early Ballets Russes, at the Dukes on 22nd. Our Christmas outing.

Winter Sky

Tuesday December 1st. Clear morning, a touch of hoar frost on the grass.

A clear night, last night, and the night drop in temperature we miss so much. I saw Orion through the landing window, one of my winter pleasures, for the first time in weeks. Sadly, it's not going to last.

Bad news for me, my machine is misbehaving. It passed out twice yesterday afternoon, and various scans revealed nothing I could fix. It's over ten years old, so does not owe me anything. So, my Santa list may need changing. . .

Stravinsky, Five Star Composer

cooler, grey skies, after a very rainy and windy weekend. I was wrong, no real change yet.

I made up my mind to find out about C20th music, because Gabriel was playing from Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, he brought the Ashkenazy recording home and I found I liked them very much. Ravel should have been next in this occasional series, but my blog was down, and now I've moved on to the Sacred Monster, whose music I only knew of through childhood exposure (ballet was unavoidably big when I was a child) to the nice ballets, Petrushka and The Firebird. And the dinosaurs, of course. So now I'm reading Stephen Walsh's two-part biography (Part I A Creative Spring) & I've been here before. I am late in the day, this is Stravinsky debunked: the new official version: Stravinsky's own version and his apostle's version, corrected by recourse to the evidence. Only unlike "Shostakovich, secret voice of suffering Russia, speaker in code, closet dissident?" Igor Stravinsky does not come out with rep repaired and his face cleaned. Hm. Stravinsky was born near Petersburg, to an urbanised gentry family, and like Shostakovich a crucial couple of decades later, brought up in that unhygenic, West-facing city of culture. His father was a (regionally) famous opera singer, bass baritone, specialising in character parts, a selfish patriarch with a nasty temper, his mother the long-suffering helpmate of a great artist, who sank into that role and never said boo; the children had a bit of a thin time. A pattern that was to be repeated. Definitely not an infant prodigy (but his father would have stepped over him like a ruck in the carpet if he'd been a young Mozart, Walsh rather thinks), he didn't really get started in music until he was past twenty. But he could sight-read, and if you're born being able to sight-read, if you can read music in full sentences instead of having to spell out the words letter by letter, without training: that means you can compose.

So, anyway, his father hustled for him and he became a protege of Rimsky-Korsakov, who was then a professor at the Petersburg Conservatoire and a decent sort of bloke, not only supported the students over their actions in the 1905 rehearsal for a revolution, he put his job on the line for them. Petersburg music was in ferment, along with the politics: Russianism, mythicism, feuds, cliques, Fiveists versus World of Art-ists, everybody denouncing everybody else as cr*p and savagely supporting their own teams. Young Igor plunged with enthusiasm into the nest of vipers, in which he was to spend his creative life, and took to it like a duck to water. In 1909 he secured, by tangled and bewildering means, a commission from Diaghilev to write the music for a scenario called The Firebird, and the rest is history. He left Russia very early (in terms of the revolution). His first great ballets were all premiered in Paris, a city he immediately recognised as the centre of his world. He spent the Great War living in Geneva (a very early attempt at producing The Soldier's Tale in Switzerland fell victim to the Spanish flu in 1918); the subsequent decades, while becoming a fantastically significant figure in Modern music, he was riccocheting between the A-list Paris art & culture world (an affair with Coco Chanel, a big love-hate thing going on with Cocteau) where he kept his long-term mistress; various rented summer dachas for the family in Switzerland, Nice and the Savoie; and punishing concert tours of the USA, England & continental Europe.

It took me a while to get into this immensely detailed account of a life, because what it recounts is so intricately muddled and so emotionally cold: but in the end I was fascinated. The feuding and the name-dropping is fairly irrisistible. What about the bloke himself? It's no secret that Stravinsky was not a very nice person: that he was, by all accounts even his own, whorish, rapacious and treacherous in art and in business. But did his flaws go beyond the normal chequered record? The most ordinary people become monsters, if subjected to a regime of fame and fortune, we've proved that pretty conclusively with our own celebrity culture. Okay, Igor was an awful, grasping person to do business with, but he did have a clueless extended emigree family to support. Okay, he kept a mistress for show and a wife at home, and expected them to accept the situation: but after all, he married young, probably repented at leisure and he didn't dump the mother of his children (not in volume one, anyway). Okay, he was routinely anti-semitic, routinely callous about sinister developments in European politics. The same could be said for many "A-listers" of the twenties and thirties. They're beating jews to death in Berlin, yeah, yeah, not my concern. The mark is going to hell: does that mean no more concert dates? MY GOD, how evil, how could they do this to mee??? But it can't be denied that Stravinsky was one of those (along with Coco Chanel by the way) who served the cause of Fascism above and beyond the call of airhead self-obsessed idiocy. There was the grovelling to Mussonlini: that wasn't just a cynical whore's reflex, it extended to his private papers. There was the I Love Nazis Clean Bill of Health document he eagerly signed, in support of Germany's regime.

But what about the composer? Wagner in Modernist drag? That gives you a good idea of his ideology and his innate conservatism, but it doesn't describe the music. I don't feel like dismissing Stravinsky as a hollow faker, Damien Hirst style (horrible thought, considering Stravinsky's status), but I did start to wonder, is this bloke, with his passion for mechanical reproduction; for special effects; for any means of making "his music" that devalues the role of the instrumentalist, conductor or vocalist, the Norman Cook of Modernism? I heard Fat Boy Slim, at the height of his fame, describe himself as a producer of music, rather than a creative artist, and maybe that's Stravinsky too. He never went back to Russia, and the Russians said this was because audiences at home would have spotted at once how much of his stuff was stolen from the living and the dead (on the other hand, prophet without honour in his own country won't accept a concert date that might turn out to be a one way ticket to Labour Camp: I won't shoot him for that.) He was the impure face of Modernism, he took up the pure "Modernism" of the opposing school when it suited him: like a magpie, like a fashionista. He re-created, re-made, transformed, stuff that existed already and that was his art: that was his thing.

In the eighteenth century the composer belonged to someone, was on the staff at the Archbishopric or whatever. In the nineteenth century (post Beethoven) composing became institutionalised, you belonged by the Musical Estabishment, the Academy, the Conservatoire. Stravinsky, predictably enough, belongs to the market. He sells himself, puffs himself and reinvents himself like a fashion line, always producing something new, so that the public will have to buy it and he can go on eating. Couture fashion, of course. This was still high culture, and though Stravinsky spent years working from hand to mouth, it was always champagne poverty, he knew where he belonged: where he and his luxury goods had to belong, to survive.

So, I'm sceptical, and so far the listening I've done hasn't dented my scepticism. It's a little like my aquaintance with The Grateful Dead. You watch Anthem To Beauty, and these guys talk up a storm, get you all excited about their musical vision. But then, as a corrective, you remind yourself what it was actually like being trapped under their feedback towers, or you dig out Aoxomoxoa. The instrumental music I've been listening to is nothing like the Sacre Du Printemps; or Wagner. It's perfectly listenable, unaggressive, just doesn't command my attention, and I'm used to reserving my top admiration for art that commands my attention whether I understand it or not. . . (Sacre du Printemps passes that test NB). Yet I get glimpses in the biography of a different Stravinsky. He knew what he was doing, say the instrumentalists he worked with; say the conductors. You look at what he's written, and it shouldn't work, and he's never written for the violin (trumpet, wind, whatever), so he's asking the impossible, but then you try it and does work, and its amazing. I find instrumentalists convincing (although, erm, god help them if they said anything negative and it got back to Igor)

His own instrument was the piano. His technique was not great, but eventually he got himself up to speed, in his own style, an emotionless and mechanically precise style. This may have been his genius, or possibly Stravinsky without much feeling to express, making a virtue of necessity.

More later. My problem now is that a lot of those dance Masterpieces of Modernism haven't had a very good time in repertoire. Of course I took up this topic just in time to miss the ENO Rite of Spring, & can you get it on DVD? Not hardly.