Thursday, 29 August 2013

The discretion of trees

‘The discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in his book The Wild Places. We’ve moved into a new building at work, and there is an inner garden with about two dozen trees, some of the younger ones with plaques commemorating people who have died. My favourite, and definitely the most venerable, is a London plane you can see from the window of the staff common room. From its height and trunk size, I’d guess it’s over a hundred years old.

This London plane may have lost its sense of direction and fetched up in the wrong city but it is at least a city tree, and we are in the heart of the city here. Its rubbery leaves repel urban grime and pollution, and it is tough enough to flourish even in paved-over soil. Our London plane looks solid, stoical, happy for us to live alongside it, perhaps a little irritated by our noisy egotism but far too polite to mention it. In his book The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, Richard Mabey argues that our relationship with trees is a model for how we should relate to the natural world as a whole, a relationship based on neighbourliness and undemanding reciprocity rather than ownership or coercion. The way we breathe the exhalations of trees, without either the trees or us being aware of it, is, he suggests, ‘a true unconscious communion’.

A lot of the other trees are limes, with great nests of leaves snaking round their trunks. I think I may pass on Mabey's suggestion, in his book Flora Britannica, that the young leaves of limes 'make refreshing sandwich fillings'. But it's nice being around the solid trunks of trees while undergoing the self-absorbing and nerve-shredding experience of having a new book out - which may, involve, at any point, someone saying that it wasn't worth pulping all those trees so they could have it in their hands. Or they may just ignore it, which is saying the same thing in a kinder, but somehow crueller, way. But I think I’m going to enjoy being around trees, and am looking forward to autumn.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The bright box in the corner

I had a couple of TV-related pieces out this week. This was in last Saturday’s Guardian:

And this piece, on the history of the TV critic, was in today’s Financial Times:

Dennis Potter, whose career as Daily Herald TV critic I briefly mention in the FT piece, carried on writing about television throughout the 1960s and 1970s, mostly for the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. Unusually for a TV critic, he often mentioned his immediate surroundings while watching TV and talked freely about how it affected his analysis of what was on. ‘The bright box in the corner of the room can turn itself within minutes into a hell-hole,’ he wrote in November 1974 after the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham. ‘There, where the dancers cavort and pop singers clean their teeth with the microphone, where lewd comedians snigger and magical detergents remove impossible stains, there, inches above the carpet, is a chopped, edited, summarised version of a few of the terrors and miseries and endless conflicts which afflict our kind … We can look down and see the world boiling, and then we can go and put the cat out.’ At the height of the IMF crisis in October 1976, he wrote: ‘I do not think I have ever felt quite so low-spirited as I did on Monday night when reduced to watching Panorama in a hotel room in London while cold rain splattered on the smeared glazing which separated my few cubic inches of stale air from the dirty and darkened streets of what is now apparently the capital city of the damned.’  

Potter’s psoriatic illness made notetaking a great strain and involved a lot of enforced TV watching while bed-ridden. ‘The television set along the next corridor was almost permanently clamped to the commercial channel,’ he wrote of one hospital stay in March 1975, ‘the switch presided over by an amiably bronchitic master of ceremonies who between rattling coughs pronounced at suitable intervals that it was all shit.’

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The picture swam out of nothing

This week Profile sent me a couple of advance copies of Armchair Nation, which is out on 5 September. Too late to include it in the book, but I came across this nice description of a TV watcher in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1964 novel The Soul of Kindness:

'He sat down opposite it, waiting for it to warm up, his hands clasped across his stomach, his face wearing a patient expression. That nuisance cat Flore had given him came to rub against his legs but he pushed it aside. He was all ready to pass judgment. The picture suddenly swam out of nothing, following the sound. A quiz programme. Two rows of people facing one another. A pompous, schoool-masterly man asking the question. Those answers that Percy knew he spoke out loudly and promptly; when he was at a loss, he pretended (as if he were not alone) that he had not quite caught the question, or was too busy blowing his nose to make his reply, or had to go to help himself to whisky.’

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Peeing on the fire

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (I already read and enjoyed one of his previous books, A Room of My Own, about building his own Walden-style log cabin in his back garden in Connecticut.) Barbecues are often dismissed as pieces of alpha-male theatre but Pollan uses the arguments of the anthropologist Richard Wrangham – that cooking with fire is what made us human and lifted us out of our animal existence – to suggest that barbecues are ‘ceremonial acts of remembering — who we are, where we came from, how nature works’. He is such a light, witty, elegant writer. Here he is skewering Freud and turning him over on the barbie until he’s nicely done:

‘Freud traces the control of fire to the fateful moment when man – and by “man” in this case he really means man – first overcame the urge to extinguish whatever fires he chanced upon by peeing on them. For countless millennia this urge apparently proved irresistible, much to the detriment of civilization, the rise of which awaited its repression … The course of human history shifted on the fateful day when it dawned on some fellow possessed of an unusual degree of self-control that he didn’t have to pee on the fire, and could instead preserve the flames and put them to some good use: keeping himself warm, say, or cooking his dinner. Freud believed this advance, like so much else of value in civilization, owed to the unique human ability to govern, or repress, the inner drives and urges before which other animals are powerless. (Not that we have many reports of animals putting out fires with their urine.) For him, the control of self is the precondition for the control of fire and, in turn, for the civilization that that discovery made possible … In all the time I’ve now spent with pit masters, whiling away the hours before the smoldering logs, I’ve never once brought up Freud’s fire theory. I’m just not sure how well it would go over.’