Blessay 17: The Best Meal in the Worst Place

Last week two British schoolboys were arrested for stealing objects from Auschwitz-Birkenau. They took pieces of broken glass, spoons, clothes, buttons and a comb. This was on the site of block 5 where Nazi guards once stored prisoners confiscated belongings. In Resnais’s Night and Fog, probably the definitive documentary on the camps, the narrator calmly says, ‘All was saved even the bones. From the bones fertiliser – at least they tried.’ It’s unlikely that anyone would still find bones. There are no souvenirs, of any sort, to be ever had and they serve no healthy function.

The insensitivity of those schoolboys made me recall my own visit to Auschwitz in 1980. I had lunch in the Auschwitz museum cafeteria. It was stodgy meat balls and potato served on a white plate on a formica covered table. The morning had been spent looking at what the Nazis had collected – human hair, teeth, spectacles and suitcases. The exhibits evoked a pathos and horror that caused my stomach, not to roll from nausea, but groan with a desperate hunger. I needed food to restore life to me again after staring at the belongings of the dead. A waitress collected the dirty plates. My eye caught the remains of a chicken leg dangling on a tray for her food trolley. It was transformed into a skinny human arm twitching in cold gravy. Shocked I spilt the coffee I was drinking. The waitress looked at me, sighed and then scraped peas and mashed carrot onto the chicken. An emaciated arm shook of the waste. The trolley moved away. I dabbed water on my coffee stain, stood up and walked out.

It was a brilliantly sunny October day. I walked the few miles to Birkenau. Before visiting Poland, I thought concentration camps were built in remote spots far away from the public gaze. Either side of the road leading to the railway line, of the death camp, were attractive cottages and large farms. Normal country life carrying on as people where routinely exterminated. Over the gate is the notorious inscription Arbeit Macht Frei – ‘Work will set you free.'( In my German/English dictionary the multiple meanings of macht assault you – ‘might, power, force, strength and authority.’ ) I knelt down and stared up at the sign. It looked as if those words, in that portion of the world, were indelibly written across a cloudless sky.

There were no museum labels, signs or a guide. I wondered amongst row upon row of huts. I entered one and switched on the light. The wooden bunks were hard and dry, scrubbed clean long ago. A few drawings and photographs were hanging on the walls. The low-wattage of the light bulb gave everything a clinging gloom. Yet even with floresecent lighting gloom would flourish in the hut. I returned to the warm sunshine.

The creaking door of another hut was being blown by a wind. I couldn’t close it properly. It’s latch was damaged. Was that recent? For a moment I felt that the Birkenau evacuation had not been thirty-five years ago, but a mere fortnight. Everything looked sinister and accusative, as if only temporarily abandoned.

At the crematorium, I found the lair of the monster. Several visitors were placing their hands into the mouth of an oven. One woman kept rapidly doing it as if there was a ghost of a chance that she might be burnt. She moved away. I approached and stared into the rusting hole. It devoured my attention for too long. I sensed an impatient new visitor behind me.  The fire went out.

The gas chamber wall looked like a urinal wall. As in the huts, names had been scratched here. The longer you stared at them the more they meshed into an image of barbed wire. I heard many people screaming in my head and smelt the damp horror of the place. You didn’t want to linger.

When people use the word Auschwitz they only think of the death camp, not the town of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) near by. It’s a place as normal as the farms and cottages. Then it had a restaurant called Teatr (Theatre). Before catching the last train back to Kraków I dined there. Of all the meals that I ate in restaurants, during my month in Poland, this was the best. A good bigos, sausages, rye bread, pancakes in home-made jam and well brewed iced beer. If the museum lunch had been the filling in of some moral void, then my Teatr supper felt like a reinstatement of goodness. It may sound grotesquely absurd but food comforted me in a place where civilisation had once collapsed. Though on the Kraków train I fell asleep and dreamt badly.


Blessay 16: Unfunny People

Agelast = person with no sense of humour
Misogelast = a hater of humour
Hypergelast = one who is always laughing.

Until I’d read Rabelais and George Meredith I had been unaware of these terms to describe the mental states of probably quite odd people. I have come across people in these categories. Their ‘difficulty’ with humour and acknowledging a comedic side was almost akin to them having no interest in music (though I would sooner have people around me who were stone deaf to the power of music, so long as they could laugh at themselves and share the humour of the group.)

If you are a combination of Agelast and Misogelast then you are living in a misanthropic hell, for others round you, and probably enjoy your grumpy world. As for the Hyperglast, is he or she in some deluded private heaven or suffers from a nervous disorder?

Here are two real enemies of humour I’ve met where any other good qualities they had, or tried to have, didn’t make up the difference. These encounters happened in the mid to late seventies when I was a student and later as a graduate.

My neighbour, a woman, in her late thirties, was bothered by the noise that my large typewriter (an old 1930’s model) made. She said she could hear it through the wall as she was meditating. The walls of the rooms, in that old Victorian property, were substantially thick. Yet I agreed to meet up and discuss the ‘problem.’ On entering her flat she stood, unlit cigarette in hand, posing impervious, yet ripe to be angry, against the fire-place. A one bar electric fire barely heated the room. She made no move to greet me. Simply expected me to walk the long trail to her. I did, struggling with my very heavy typewriter (she wanted to see the noisy offender.) It was placed at her feet. This caused her to move to one side and reveal a newspaper cutting cellotaped to the shelf over the fireplace. It wafted a little. I edged nearer. The clipping was an article on Uganda and a photograph of a diseased ridden child. She stared at the huge offending typewriter keys. She lit her cigarette. “I see what you mean about size.Is there no way you can muffle the sound?’ she asked. ‘Only if I typed in bed with the duvet over me. But then there’d be no room for my girlfriend!’ That didn’t go down well. She blew out smoke and suggested. ‘Have you thought of a new portable manual? They are quieter.’ That was true I thought. ‘This was cheaper. Bought it in a junk shop. Of course an electric would be better. I love the way the carriage moves back by itself, quite sexy.’ ‘An electric?’ she coughed. My humorous strategy wasn’t working. ‘Could we agree on a typing time when I’m out, or cooking?’ she asked. We agreed. This produced strained smiles.’ Thank you. You know of course that after work my mind is on other…important work.’ She looked at the African child clipping, then back at me. ‘Good evening, Mr.Price.’I almost strained myself lifting up the machine. She didn’t open the door for me.

It was the week-end and the matron was away. I was a volunteer working at a residential care home for the elderly. My role was so provide activities that were mentally stimulating. The Valium dosed residents were consigned to large upright chairs, intense over-heating (even on Summer days) and subjected to daytime television. The matron encouraged me to organise afternoons of painting, drawing, story telling, communal singing or an ‘old memories hour.’ But the assistant-matron disapproved. It was the laughter that startled her. A chuckle, guffaw or a shriek (so minimal as to come at the end of the session,just prior to the Valium wearing off and the next dosage) disturbed her. She employed a care assistant to spy on me. For her laughter and high spirits led to disorder.

Her name was June. She had short dark hair. Always wore a grey two piece suit with grey high heels. Large dark glasses were locked to her unsmiling oval face. She looked like a woman who was born, and nurtured, in the padding of a timeless power suit. ‘I think we should call it a day, don’t you? They’re being over stimulated and will not digest their tea!’ June’s head shook making her large grey ear-rings quiver. ‘They’re always having bloody tea. Is that the only stimulant they deserve?’ Before I could protest further two more of her aides were removing residents into the dining room next door.

On the days the cheerful matron was in, June simmered in the shadows of the office. I never once heard her laugh, saw her smile or say anything positive. Of course she was an efficient controller of the weak, who received a cold pleasure from her good works. I never saw her strike out at anyone (at least when I and the matron were present) but mentally she did it, blow after blow, with her sadistic looking presence. Maybe inwardly she was always laughing at the plight of those she could only partly control.

‘For if agelasts tend to see sacrilege in every joke, it’s because every joke is a sacrilege..There is an irreconcilable incompatibility between the comical and the sacred, and we can only ask where the sacred begins and ends.’

The Curtains – Milan Kundera

My two agelasts had a view of the sacred that bordered on a repulsive ‘holier than thou’ view of things. Except they themselves where never holy, nor was I. They were creepy and unfunny; supporting some skewed worthy cause, where jokes were forbidden as they hurt their pride. And my Liverpool bred defence mechanism was humour. Humour engendered from a city hurt quite a lot in the past. Keeping me alert to ‘offend’ such unfunny people.

Blessay 15: The Poles and their Hamlet

ELEGY OF FORTINBRAS by Zbigniew Herbert

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as a defenseless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
There will be no candles no singing only canon-fuses and
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses
drums drums I know nothing exquisite
those will be my manoeuveres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you
had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on
and that water, these words what can they do what can they
do prince

(translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

How could a poet make such piercing observations of Hamlet – by way of Fortinbras? Then shake them up, in the modern post-war world, to make it all explode inside my head? It must have had something to do with my vicarious, teenage Polish experiences. For in the sixties, I was excited by Wajda’s great war film trilogy. And especially its final film Ashes and Diamonds (1958) The great actor Zbiegniew Cybulski, dying from his machine gun wounds, caught inside those whiter than white sheets was a tragic, heroic and thrilling image. He hovered over my reading of Herbert’s poem as a parallel elegy for another anti-hero, destroyed prince and court-resistance fighter.

I wonder if Shakespeare’s Hamlet came to represent, for that fifties/early sixties young generation of Poles, a symbol of reaction against Communist repression? The Polish critic Jan Kott certainly influenced an RSC production where Hamlet is a Polish student who upsets the authorities by going abroad to study. And Wojiech Has’s film How to be Loved (1963) stars Zbiegniew Cybulski as the young actor, who attacks a Nazi collaborator, and is then hidden in the flat of a female actor during most of the war. Just before his incarceration, he was in rehearsals for Hamlet with his helper, then cast as Ophelia.

Yet Hamlet doesn’t take the central stage in Herbert’s magnificent poem but Fortinbras, the anti-intellectual soldier guy, now restoring order, taking over the show, creating a new regime. Fortinbras is clearing up Hamlet’s mess – all those deaths boy, all those deaths! Yet he’s still able to talk with the prince ‘man to man.’ He describes the positioning of Hamlet’s body on the stone (especially his hands) as being ‘fallen nests’ and speaks of Hamlet’s knight feet in their ‘soft slippers’. It’s as if Fortinbras is saying what did you actually achieve Hamlet, with all your thinking [‘crystal notions’] as you strode about in your material, probably bourgeois self-indulgent, princely comfort? For him Hamlet was too ethereal and out of touch with the reality of ‘human clay’.

Fortinbras is a soldier and man of action. Hamlet wasn’t. Now Fortinbras has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit. Inferring that Hamlet merely took his own hurt head by the neck: to shake its rightly suspicious contents, so as to eventually cause multiple deaths at court. Whereas the brutally pragmatic Fortinbras is a bureaucrat and communist apparatchik, who will immediately commence working on a sewage project, Denmark’s prostitution problem and a reform of its prisons. Alive Hamlet remarked that Denmark was a prison. Fortinbras almost scornfully reminds the dead Hamlet of that fact by lumping prisons with waste and sexual exploitation

‘The rest is not silence but belongs to me’ is a wonderfully ironic line suggestive of Fortinbras & Co’s banal and mechanistic world order – an authority that will assert its un-silenced power over any sign of ‘self indulgent’, questioning individualism. Yet there is an envy about Hamlet. The troubled prince will effortlessly slip into legend, become iconic and be immortalized. Unlike Fortinbras who will not receive such honours. Fortinbras’s life will never make him a candidate for a great tragic play where he’s rapidly propelled into a fixed celebrity – a distant star in the heavens. For Fortinbras understands that he and Prince Hamlet exist in very different and polarized worlds.
’ We live on archipelagos and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince.’

Zbiegniev Herbert’s Elegy of Fortinbras is a finely compressed reflection on acting and being, bureaucratic mindset versus mental exploration, power structures, class, fame, envy, and the resolute, if clunky approach of the honest ‘philistine’ over the disturbingly free man. It resonates with the Poland of the 1950/60’s and can be adapted, like Hamlet, to any time and any set of conditions. It’s full of ambiguity, lyricism and a deeply felt skepticism. An impassioned shout. A making sense of things, when reason has been sorely tested. A great poem for the Poles, their identity and for all of us.

Blessay 14: The Perfect Waiter

My experience of waiters has been neither good nor bad. For most of the time a waiter, has been, for me, a necessary but indifferent presence. Their functionality mattered much more than character or style. So long as the dishes came, the drink was poured and I didn’t have to wait too long to catch a waiter’s eye, in order to pay the bill, then I was content.

Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is famous for employing the role of the waiter to illustrate bad faith. He describes a servile waiter of the Paris left bank of the 1950’s. One whose movement ‘is quick and formal, a little too precise, a little too rapid.’ A person merely play-acting the role of bring a waiter. Such was the power of Sartre’s philosophy that it remained in my head as a lazy stereotype. There has always been a level in which I felt all waiters were existentially inauthentic. That is until last week in Spain.

On the Costa Brava I discovered ‘the perfect waiter.’ He works in a small restaurant in the Tossa de mar on the Costa Brava. I don’t know his name but I’ll call him Luis.

The restaurant had a Greek taverna feel. Simple, white washed walls, checkered-clothed tables, wooden chairs, a ceiling fan and a varnished bookcase holding bottles of wine. When I entered the only person present was a woman in her early seventies. She was seated right up against the bar. Biro in hand and flicking through the pages of a puzzle magazine. It looked as if she’d just finished her starter. She was undoubtedly a local. Like her I waited for the appearance of the waiter. It was like waiting for the actors to appear on stage.

I stared at the wine bottle arrangement. Every bottle was the same labelled red wine. Three by three by three. Dozens of them with red, green and gold foiled tops. An overhead light made the foil shine and the bottles glint. Set against their case, the wine looked proud and self-contained. A clean arrangement of good taste: hidden for a moment, by my waiter approaching me with the menu.

At first I barely registered him. Chose a set menu, and to drink a quarter carafe of white wine. Luis picked up my menu and simply said ‘perfect.’ His perfectly warm Spanish-English pronunciation was captivating. ‘Pur-fect’ His tone made me look at him. No irony, condescension or insult on his smiling face. Luis was satisfied with my choice. The cat sounding ‘Pur-fect’ encapsulated my choice and echoed inside, causing me to smile like he as smiling now. It might have been the wrong word because his English was too basic. But I was no tourist pedant. Only a charmed and hungry man.

A Russian salad arrived with a bowl of bread. Luis carefully placed it down, and encouraged me to ‘enjoy.’ His eyes unconditionally twinkled. I thanked him and he left. It wasn’t the greatest of salads but good enough. As I ate I watched Luis chatting to the puzzle woman. They were obviously old friends.

Washing down the salad with wine, I waited for the main course. It arrived exactly timed – as my gastric juices were coordinated with his waiter duties. A Catalan sausage, french fries and vegetables lay on the plate. ‘Enjoy’ was again a natural response, not a tired order. I did enjoy.

‘And for dessert we have yogurt, caramel and strawberry ice-cream.’ I went for the ice-cream and received another ‘Pur-fect.’ Again no patronization but congratulation. All was finished off with a coffee, a scented hand-towel and the bill. I left him a two euro tip and said goodbye.

I came back over three more evenings. The waiter, puzzle woman and myself were joined by an elderly Scots couple who had been visiting Tossa de mar every June for the past thirteen years. From where I sat I could watch Luis on stage with his customers.

During the hours of 7 – 8 no one else turned up. We talked. The puzzle woman had left Hungary in 1956 to come to Spain, and eventually Tossa where she managed a hotel. And I learnt from the Scotsman that he’d once worked for ICI, had gone blind in middle age and married his carer. And she spoke with the Scots confidence of a carer / wife who’d always make sure that Luis gave her husband ample french fries with his salad and Coca-Cola.

Luis joked, smiled and looked invitingly at me to join the group. This waiter had no privileged regulars. The warmth of his service was egalitarian.

At the end of my third visit Luis gave me a small glass of a non-alcoholic, herbal drink. It was made by him and tasted very good. I urged him to manufacture it. The Scottish woman issued a friendly No and ugh! to the drink idea. This was all part of a friendly ritual between Luis and his customers. You could tell he delighted in being an intuitive orchestrater. Luis kindly served and we responded. He was the instrumentista and we the instruments, waiting on each other’s response.

‘For people become waiters and heroes not by having either the fixed causal properties of objects or the functional attributes of tools, but by understanding themselves, and being understood, in socially conditioned ways as free, embodied agents.’

Taylor Carman, a contributor to A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism

That’s a very neat riposte to the Sartrean bad faith of waiters not being themselves. Whilst Luis himself would simply shrug his shoulders and authentically ask us to ‘enjoy!’


Blessay 13: Prufrock, Anxiety and Bad Weather

I turned on the radio to hear Alan Yentob introduce a programme on T.S.Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.’ It was written 100 years ago and is regarded as one of the great poems of Modernism. Jeremy Irons delivered a masterly reading. So good that all of Yentob’s selected commentators felt a bit redundant. Why paraphrase Prufrock and talk of Eliot’s early literary life, when Irons performance begins to ‘explain’ so much? The actor’s tone, inflection, phrasing and musical ear were in perfect pitch with Eliot’s dense, yet immediate language. We were also given a few seconds of Eliot’s own reading of Prufrock. Eliot is dry, detached, even formally reticent, and quite wonderful. I own a recording done by Alec Guinness that occasionally drops into affectation, especially when he says ‘That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.’ But I love Guinness as well.

However a useful contributor to the programme remarked that Eliot often said of the critics’ interpretations of his work ‘That is not it at all’. I think a real ‘terror’ of being misunderstood pursued Eliot throughout his life. And probably not only over the ‘mug’s game’ business of writing poetry. But trying to get things right with his emotionally distraught first wife Viviene.

The nervousness and indecision of Prufrock seems too have got into my own system today. I woke up to the grey weight of the weather. Clouds and strong winds. It’s a brooding, sullen early June day. The summer is repressed. Its would-be sunny face smothered by a rough gloved fist that will not let go.

I have to print out a boarding pass from the user unfriendly website of Ryan Air. The printer stops. Then starts and prints out two. I discover the return flight pass can’t be done (for no charge unallocated seats) until a week before its departure. Meaning I can’t print it out till next Monday, a few hours before leaving to catch the train for Luton airport, and then on to Spain.

This isn’t of course real suffering, but an excuse for a moan. One of those Elioton ‘revisions’ before the taking of a cup of tea. At twenty-two Eliot was not just writing of his sexual uncertainty, anxiety and acute self-consciousness at how fragmented life felt to him, when pushed into the persona of the middle-aged Prufrock. I think he was talking about being hyper self-conscious. How a frightening fussiness and need to take control can take you over if you feel you are not projecting the right self-image.

(It doesn’t matter about the other half of the boarding pass. You will get it done. Don’t worry. No one is laughing at you. You are not drowning with the mermaids, yet.)

I re-play Jeremy Irons on the BBC I player. Lovely to hear such a thoughtful actor. He shuffles, as if he wants to suddenly cough and clear his throat of the mental stress of enacting Prufrock. I imagine Irons before entering the studio. Deliberately eating a peach to mess up his shirt, rolling up his jeans, and scratching any signs of balding. Putting himself in the groove for such a nervy love song.

Blessay 12: I Need to Fly or 2½ Days in Tashkent

This piece on Tashkent has been hanging round for years. I can’t decide if its a prose poem, essay, travel writing or notes for a screenplay. Misadventures are important in life. In 1990 my Asian trip was detoured and I was thrown into a country that I never thought I’d visit.

My Icarus wings and Icarus hopes are packed in the baggage hold. The plane has broken down en route, London – Prague – Kabul – Delhi. Stranded in a strange land. I’m trapped in a Tashkent hotel lobby. Cracked walls. Work dust. Bag of cement. A pile of Russian bricks. Buzzing fly. Glut of guests forming a queue. Dejected faces. Hotel clerk barking, atonal. ‘In Hotel Moscow you do not answer back!’ My room has holes in the walls. Black and white TV. Chopin piano competition. A polonaise competes with the whistling wind. Radiator gasping. Dirty windows. Room overlooking wide streets, where Tashkentians shuffle through an icy mush.

My stomach rumbles for lunch. Descent in the lift. Small framed men in badly cut suits. Wearing pork pie hats and clutching videos. In wall to wall mirrors they chatter and multiply. Lift hits the ground. Some exit for the games room – a nylon jacket sprawl over the pool tables. Or their grubby hands are pressed onto pin-ball machines. Then unjacketed, they enter a blue lit room beating out a desperate cabaret.

I head for the restaurant. Slavic arms of muscular women. Ladling a soup that drowns the sad carrot in your bowl. Dropping in chunks of bread with a rind called cheese. Carrot begins to chase the onion in my stomach. I fly to the hotel exit and greet an Afghan army officer. He escorts me to a beaten up car, then battered taxi. Grand opening of cash box. My five pound note gleefully swapped for roubles. We drive to the street market. Kilo of earthy apples. Tea. Cakes. Grinning boy with samovar.

Back at the hotel a bald sniffing man stands by the games room. Tashkent airport rep. Bereft of a plane. ‘Heavy snow in Kabul. No flying today.’ He weeps, blowing his nose with a batik handkerchief. Russian hotel clerk covers her face, to ward off any Soviet satellite germs. The lift is broken. I climb the stairs, now more absent of stair rods. A mysterious turd has been left by my door.

Party raging till 3am. Banging of many doors. A knocking hits my room. I open the door. Prostitute waving a pair of peacock feather fans. Then she reveals a multi-coloured condom. ‘Very Good. Tashkent girl. Cheap. Cheap’ No germ aids! If I could only steal her fans. Construct some flimsy wings. Or blow the condom into a balloon. Fly out of the room, away from her flesh, far from this noise, into the cold night sky.

Another day at the market. Kara Kelpecs, Asian Uzbeks, Mongols and Chinese. Explosion of hustling faces. A peep at a mosque. A peep at a broken pavement, just before I trip. Hurt and gazing at a department store window. Wanting to buy a silk cushion cover. No manager today. No key for the window. No sale. More earthy apples, plus free badges of Lenin, fail to compensate.

Silence tonight. The condom girl sleeps very sound. After breakfast the rep returns shaking his hips. Almost dancing. Waving a fax. ‘The snow has melted. We can Kabul!’

Small airport. Fractured steps. Entrance reeking of urine. Broken flight indicator boards. A huge stopped clock. Two plate glass doors. One shattered. Baggage piled up into an ugly hill. Customs declaration forms. No English copy. I guess at the Russian and always write NO. Bored soldiers. Sleepy drilled bureaucrats with eyes that never shut. Perestroika. Glasnost. Remember those words? No time for lunch. The military unblocks us. I sit on a freezing plane. Two unexplained hours of not taking off.

Oh give me back my freedom. Find me an Indian sun. Let me chose, by myself, how to fly once again. Unpack my suitcase, remove my Icarus wings, unpack my reason. Unleash me onto the runway. Strap on the wax frame and feathers. Lift me off from this ‘in transit’ wreckage. ‘Let’s Delhi! Let’s Delhi! Let’s Delhi!’