They knew nothing of death in those days

Icebergs at Ilulissat

I went to Greenland on one of my travel junkets for the FT. I was, as the paper says, mesmerised. Partly (a lot) by the massive icebergs, but also (a lot) because I got very caught up reading Inuit folk stories by the light of the midnight sun. Knud Rasmussen, half-Dane, half-Greenlander, collected the stories on his epic Arctic travels in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and I found a 1921 English translation of the stories online. Below is a doozy, about the origins of light, life and death in the high North. Got to love the Inuit rendering of the Garden of Eden: “Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them?

THE COMING OF MEN, A LONG, LONG WHILE AGO

OUR forefathers have told us much of the coming of earth, and of men, and it was a long, long while ago. Those who lived long before our day, they did not know how to store their words in little black marks, as you do; they could only tell stories. And they told of many things, and therefore we are not without knowledge of these things, which we have heard told many and many a time, since we were little children. Old women do not to waste their words idly, and we believe what they say. Old age does not lie.

A long, long time ago, when the earth was to be made, it fell down from the sky. Earth, hills and stones, all fell down from the sky, and thus the earth was made.

And then, when the earth was made, came men.

It is said that they came forth out of the earth. Little children came out of the earth. They came forth from among the willow bushes, all covered with willow leaves. And there they lay among the little bushes: lay and kicked, for they could not even crawl. And they got their food from the earth.

Then there is something about a man and a woman, but what of them? It is not clearly known. When did they find each other, and when had they grown up? I do not know. But the woman sewed, and made children’s clothes, and wandered forth. And she found little children, and dressed them in the clothes, and brought them home.

And in this way men grew to be many.

And being now so many, they desired to have dogs. So a man went out with a dog leash in his hand, and began to stamp on the ground, crying “Hok—hok—hok!” Then the dogs came hurrying out from the hummocks, and shook themselves violently, for their coats were full of sand. Thus men found dogs.

But then children began to be born, and men grew to be very many on the earth. They knew nothing of death in those days, a long, long time ago, and grew to be very old. At last they could not walk, but went blind, and could not lie down.

Neither did they know the sun, but lived in the dark. No day ever dawned. Only inside their houses was there ever light, and they burned water in their lamps, for in those days water would burn.

But these men who did not know how to die, they grew to be too many, and crowded the earth. And then there came a mighty flood from the sea. Many were drowned, and men grew fewer. We can still see marks of that great flood, on the high hill-tops, where mussel shells may often be found.

And now that men had begun to be fewer, two old women began to speak thus:

“Better to be without day, if thus we may be without death,” said the one.

“No; let us have both light and death,” said the other.

And when the old woman had spoken these words, it was as she had wished. Light came, and death.

It is said, that when the first man died, others covered up the body with stones. But the body came back again, not knowing rightly bow to die. It stuck out its head from the bench, and tried to get up. But an old woman thrust it back, and said:

“We have much to carry, and our sledges are small.”

For they were about to set out on a hunting journey. And so the dead one was forced to go back to the mound of stones.

And now, after men had got light on their earth, they were able to go on journeys, and to hunt, and no longer needed to eat of the earth. And with death came also the sun, moon and stars.

For when men die, they go up into the sky and become brightly shining things there.

My story is here.

Escape into Aintree

AintreeI’ve been working on an article about the Grand National for Grantland, which involved spending a few days up at Aintree earlier this month. I stayed at a cheap hotel by the docks and was woken up each night by senseless shouting in the corridors, the bleary hysterical voices of people who been drinking and gambling and gambling and drinking until they had come to a stop, at 4am, faced with a closed door and some intractable problem. Anyway. When I arrived at Aintree each day around lunchtime, it was my pleasure, my escape, to get out into the middle of the track, which is an ignored netherland of coaches, roads, a golf course, and traffic lights with buttons raised for the convenience of people on horseback. I got chapped in the wind and the sun and saw some wonderful things:

“I walked out in the middle of the course. One of the unchanging things about Aintree is its preposterous size. The populated part of the course is still clustered around a single corner of Lynn’s triangle, and the northeasterly wind quickly scattered the drone of the Tannoy. Out in this strange, inland territory there were ponds, bits of gorse and scrub that have been here since Sefton’s day, and men wearing bibs that said “Horse Catcher.” I was out there at 3:40 p.m. for the Fox Hunters’ Chase, one of two races run over a single circuit of the National fences days before the big race on Saturday. The Fox Hunters’ is for amateur and younger riders (one of Lord Daresbury’s sons was competing), and I went and stood by The Chair, the largest jump on the course. It looked like it had been built to hold back a river. It was the first time I had ever seen a Grand National fence jumped at close quarters, and as the 24 horses approached — the 96 hooves, the 12 tons of muscle and bone — I felt a shuddering sense of time and ground shortening. Then they cleared it. Actually, they smote it.”

Here is the article.

AHAP#5: Hearing live music (which you know and love)

GoldbergVariationsBassLine

I don’t listen to enough live music, but who does? (People who have to listen to live music for their jobs probably hear far too much and hate it. And I don’t think I would want to hear from those who have it Goldilocks-style, just right, booking their tickets months in advance, congratulations). And of the tiny amount of live music that I do go and see / hear, it’s even rarer that it is the real core material, the songs closest to the heart. I can think of only one or two experiences of that kind, and they have been almost as unsettling as straightforwardly enjoyable. I couldn’t really believe what was happening when Dylan began to bark out “Desolation Row” in his gondolier’s hat and minimal moustache. “At midnight all the agents / And the superhuman crew / Come out and round up everyone / That knows more than they do.” You? Genius? Here? In Brixton? It didn’t quite compute.

So I just don’t think I had many cultural or emotional references when we booked to go and see the Goldberg Variations (above) at King’s Place last month. Incidentally, what is even the right verb here? Do you listen to live music, see it, hear it, or just go to it? I know that you hear evensong, and I can see how classical music might fall into that usage, but I am not sure that you hear Bach. You certainly don’t see it / him or “go”. Who is travelling towards who? (On balance, I think you probably listen to Bach. You try to hear. You hope to hear). Anyway, we really didn’t think very much about the whole deal. We looked at the listings for Bach Unwrapped. Got excited. Clicked on the Goldberg Variations dates. Love Goldberg Variations. Listen to Goldberg Variations a lot. In the car. In the flat. Got nephew a book for Christmas purely because the title was a pun on the Goldberg Variations. Also got nephew the Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould 1955). Nephew two months old. Never too young for Goldberg Variations. Anyway, we got tickets in the front row, went about our business, occasionally said things like, “Can’t believe we going to Bach this week” and turned up a few minutes before it began.

If you haven’t been to King’s Place, it’s a bit like being inserted into the chamber of some large, as-yet-uninvented wooden instrument. We sat down, everyone was older than us, and then Miki Skuta, the pianist, appeared through a doorway onto the stage. In pictures, Mikuláš Škuta (Slovakian) looks like the knowledgeable virtuoso that he is. His website says it: “All-out gifted artist”. But that night he looked heavy, concerned, lugubrious; like a border guard about to begin a shift. I could hear his shoes on the polished stage. I was struck, panicked almost, by the intimacy: not just because of our proximity to Skuta, the sense of missing nothing, but because of the sudden preciousness of what he was about to pick up, and plunge into, and pull apart, and fill us with.

It’s still hard to figure out, almost three weeks later, why those first few notes, those utterly familiar clamber-up, clamber-down phrases, managed to be so shocking. P and I both looked away. Something hurt. It was as if Skuta was operating on a relative. We needed to be there. It needed to be fine. But there was an agony too. I think it has to do with sharing. Until that moment, I had only ever heard the Goldberg Variations on my own (mostly on my own) or with P. Like most of the Bach that I know, I find it intensely interior music. It gets in me immediately. The notes are like thoughts and there is such a pleasing simultaneous complexity and pattern that I find myself hooked up to something that feels like a larger and stronger mind: carried away and brought closer to myself at the same time. Going to Bach. Coming to Bach. Whatever it is, it turned out to be very surprising that Skuta was daring to play these notes, to interpose himself in the middle of this very private event. And not just Skuta, but the whole room – all these people with their cloth shopping bags and closed eyes. It is very childish but I had not realised that these were not my variations.

They were, of course, if they were anybody’s in that wood-wound room, Skuta’s variations. As he played (hands crossing over themselves, fingers spiderous) it began to occur to me – but only in the smallest way – what kind of a relationship that Skuta must have formed with the music. I don’t know how many notes there are in the Goldberg Variations, there must be thousands, but there was not a question of him being able to remember them. They had, over the years, in the unheated halls, on Slovakian public transport, in his sleep, become his thoughts as well. And while I did not agree with every single one of Skuta’s expressions – sometimes his playing was just a shade too technical, a micro-inch too precise for how I imagine the music (which, after all, is just the Glenn Gould version) – I had to confront the idea of an entirely different level of association, of inhabitance, of knowledge. I was listening to the Goldberg Variations, but I was also witnessing Skuta and his life with them.

And existing, somehow, in all of this was Bach. That was almost the most surprising element of the night – and also the most ethereal, so I didn’t quite grasp it: where did he fit into all of this? If the first thought that humbled me, amid the pleasure, was that there were, in fact, other people in London equally excited and equally moved by the idea of listening to the Goldberg Variations on a Thursday night in January and I would have to share Bach with them. And the second thought was that a Slovakian maestro called Miki Skuta had been playing the piano for more than 40 years before being able to offer a fully-wrought interpretation of this work. Then the third was about the mind that came up with these variations in the first place.

This is still far too large for me to get my head around. It would be like explaining the Milky Way, or Japan. But one very obvious, and new, thing did occur to me, watching Skuta, hearing Bach, was quite what an exhibition this music was. Until I saw those fingers, those hands, those shoes, I think my experience, my pleasure in the Goldberg Variations, had been in their construction – in the filigree, the pattern-making – but now I realised there was also the drama of their execution. This music was physical as much as it was intellectual and emotional, and there just aren’t that many people that can play it. This was something to make you gasp. Whatever else he was thinking in 1741, Johannes Sebastian, with his “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals”, was out to blow some tiny minds.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

In Dagestan

Image

I went on a secret mission to Dagestan and was amazed by the almost martial tradition of hospitality. It was almost difficult to interview people, because they were so agitated by the possibility that you might not be being sufficiently well looked after. An old wrestling champion of the USSR called Magomed Magomedov, who had hands like mechanics’ tools, just couldn’t settle. When did we arrive? Where were we staying? Would we really not visit Gimry, where Imam Shamil made his famous leap (eight metres at least!) over the Russian soldiers that had surrounded him? Who was our host? All of these details before we could talk. When, finally, Magomed became convinced we were safe as guests in his land, he became calmer and we talked. We talked for almost an hour and when we rose I was amazed to find I was taller than he was. I made the mistake of pointing this out. “You are taller,” said Magomed, agreeing straightaway, “but I am higher.” Point made.

Rousfeti and Eleni

Earlier this year I tried to write a book about the human experience of the European financial crisis. It didn’t work out. But my mind was turned back to the subject this weekend by a fine story in the International Herald Tribune about the crazy difficulties of selling off Greece’s state-owned assets and then talking to a friend today who spent last week in Spain on business. “Grim,” she said. Here is part of the chapter I wrote about Greece and some its social specificities around capitalism and a girl called Eleni:

“After a couple of days in Greece, I began to pay attention to customs and traits that no one thought were outrageous but were suspected nonetheless of being part of the economic edifice that had brought the country to where it was. This is what people talk about when they talk about Greek culture, and the Greek way of life. It constitutes an approach to living that ranges from the way that the entire property market works – there is an acknowledged, tax-dodging difference of about 30 per cent between what Greeks call the “objective” (false) and the “commercial” (true) value of their houses – to the way that people I met insisted on asking me round for dinner, or offering me wine at lunch. If we could not talk over food, then cups of coffee or frappés would always be magicked up from somewhere. If I was in an office – or once, a hospital – these would normally appear on a tray carried by a liveried waiter from a nearby café. I never saw money change hands. This was the world often denoted by the word rousfeti – literally, “spoils” – favours, gifts of patronage, a socialised way of doing business that extends from the most awful political corruption to the way that everyone in Greece gets their jobs.

One afternoon in Peristeri, a large working class neighbourhood in western Athens, I met a young woman who explained how an office position in a nearby municipality was arranged for her through rousfeti. It was an election year, a customary period for the trading and swapping of favours, and her boyfriend’s father – in exchange for roistering twenty votes for the local Pasok [socialist party] mayor – was offered a back-office job for the girl who might turn out to be his daughter in law. “‘The month goes in, the month goes out, and you get your money.’ That’s what they said,” said Eleni. “I remember it like it was now. It was so easy and simple.” To the anger of her boyfriend’s family – and the amazement of her own – she turned the job down. She did not know why, but she had decided that she wanted to make her own way in the world. Five years later, Eleni worked as a secretary in a shoe company, and was supporting the rest of her family as they prepared to close down her father’s autoglass repair shop. He had worked as a mechanic since he was fourteen years old. She wore t-shirt that said: “While I breathe, I hope.”

“People in Greece disagree about the origins of rousfeti. Some blame the Ottomans, of course. (The word has Turkish roots). But most people acknowledge that it is basically the remnant of a face-to-face, village culture, built around the family and bonds of friendship. It is as obviously incompatible with 21st century capitalism as it is a logical defence against it, an injection of blood and emotion in order to control things that are not supposed to be controlled. Since the economy began to unravel in 2009, rousfeti has been the virus that Greeks have blamed loudly for the sickness of their country and the vaccine that they have quietly searched for to help them survive it: a measure of protection in their jobs, support from their friends and relatives. It stands for human weakness and human strength at the same time, and it shows its different qualities according to your predicament.

“Over lunch one day in Athens I talked about this troublesome dose of humanness with a young Greek photographer called Eirini Vourloumis. Eirini’s father is an economist who used to run OTE, Greece’s national telephone company. He oversaw the company’s transformation from a loss-making state-owned rousfeti machine to a privately-run, salvageable enterprise 30 per cent owned by Germans. Naturally, he was pilloried for it, another Greek traitor. Eirini shook her head thinking about the screams and thunder her father went through to achieve what would be regarded as a rational business project in any western European country. “He almost went to prison,” she said. “It was like the mafia.” Partly as a result, Eirini had decided to try and capture this state of mind in her own work, when she came back to Greece to start documenting the economic crisis in 2010. She had started taking pictures of public buildings and offices, seeking out the markers of behaviour that make Greeks different, more resistant to the impersonal norms of markets and rules that have ended up governing other places. And in describing these signs – a huge, ultraviolet altar to Jesus in the office of an Athens police detective; a large fish-tank, backed with an image of a leaping cat, in the city’s fraud department – Eirini could not help smiling at the humour, the individuality, the imprint of personality on system which they characterised. Her favourite, she said, was a portrait of Che Guevara that she came across hanging in the ministry of development. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Nowhere else is this possible,’” she said.”

I got an email this afternoon from the talented young Greek journalist, Nikolia Apostolou, who introduced me to Eleni (“While I breathe, I hope”) and helped me during my reporting. “How’s the book going?” She wrote. “Eleni was asking me. She just got fired from her job.”

AHAP#4: Spotting a celebrity

Location: the small courtyard of a black-painted Georgian house in Hastings that has been converted by a chef-cum-photographer into a restaurant-cum-shop, “Hendy’s Homestore”.

We step into the small courtyard – B, D and I. It is small. There are three longish tables, intended to be shared by shopper-cum-eaters. There are perhaps another ten people in this space, eating or serving the tables. As soon as we step in, we all get the same animal whiff of celebrity. Someone is known here. Someone known is here. The air – it is threatening to rain – is specifically, minutely, charged with known-ness. We don’t know who it is at first: which person among the ten (unlikely to be the waiters, though) and which celebrity they are.

I never really know. (In that I have never heard of Jeremy Lee when B finally, assisted by Google Image and holding up his phone discreetly, conclusively verifies that yes, indeed, gesturing, grandly, camply, lordly, a television chef is among us). All I know for now is that there is one here, among the clean barbour-wearing, perfectly unshaved, prosperous-looking Hastings day-trippers. They’re all doing fine, eating mackerel and crab and wondering about the rain. They can all buy a ninety quid broom off Alastair Hendy after their mint teas. That’s fine. But which one of them is it? I want to know, and I want to get a good look at them.

What constitutes the pleasure of spotting a celebrity? We know it exists: there is a discernible thrill in coming back from a wedding somewhere and saying, as a friend in the pub did last night, “Oh, and Kiera was on the plane.” My mother and sister sat next to Hans Blix on a flight to Stockholm when he was at the peak of his pop-culture, non-WMD-finding powers and still talk about it. There is the mild tingle while the “spot” is in progress. You don’t quite want to tear yourself away until Jon Snow has picked up his coat from the cloakroom at Tate Modern. But it is not immediately obvious where our pleasure lies. Almost invariably, a spotted celebrity is not doing anything interesting, or revealing the presumed talent that made them a celebrity in the first place. They are, as we know from the thin-papered magazines, normally buying a coffee from Caffe Nero or “heading out for brunch” or “piling on the pounds”. (Jeremy Lee was eating, then shopping). It reminds me a bit of seeing animals on safari. They are there. They are, in all the wonderful senses, them. But they are, 100 per cent of the time, eating, staring, sleeping or walking.

Also again, there are millions of celebrities these days. That is part of the reason why celebrity spotting has become an activity in itself. “Id like to see just any fmailiar faces,” says phil222 on this depressing TripAdvisor forum offering advice on seeing slebs in London. We see celebrities all the time. Even ones which we have never heard of, especially ones we have have never heard of. And yet, even then, even in the process of confirming that Jeremy Lee – a finalist in the second series of “Great British Menu” (2007) – is in our midst, we get a kick. Not a huge kick, admittedly, but something real, nonetheless. What is it?

I think, almost by definition, part of the pleasure of celebrity spotting is that it is a surprise. There is the simple joy of something unexpected, and not awful, happening. We went out for lunch. We didn’t go out to have lunch and see a basically unknown (but not completely unknown, the telling difference of our times) television chef. “Oh god, is that…?” “Don’t turn around but…” These are the phrases that accompany a celebrity spotting, and they are exciting just to say. In fact, it is much more fun to be the one saying them because then you are likely to be the one who has done the “spot” and to then reap the prestige for doing so. The importance of the element of surprise in celebrity spotting – the shocking us out of whatever we had expected from our Saturday* – is made clear when we compare the feelings of the average spot to occasions when we have seen celebrities we have prepared, normally paid money, to see. There is often pleasure, sure, but then it is almost always bound up in their performance, their talent, their professional personality. It is not at all the same. I saw Amy Winehouse twice in her life. Once at a gig, when it was memorable to hear her sing. Another time, a few years earlier, when she was younger, fleshier, barely known, beautiful and foul at the same time, magnetising a pub in Camden just by standing near the door. I know which encounter I remember more. Although nothing in my celebrity spotting miscellany so far has come close to the time when, sitting upstairs in another pub, this time on Charlotte Street on a quiet afternoon, I noticed the only other person in the room was Kate Moss, curled up on a velvet sofa like a fox waiting for the dark.

I think the true pleasure in celebrity spotting is that it is a validation of our own experience. Because what are they to us, really? They are these half-real phantoms, existing partly in our world and partly in another, imaginary world, where everything is much easier, and more felicitous, and which we see most of the time framed in a screen, or the pages of a magazine. When we see a celebrity in our world, it is a sign that our lives are straying close to theirs. Not that we will join their world, but the two worlds – theirs is of course fictional – are bending together and that we are doing something right in making the choices that we have. It is an affirmation. It lends us purpose. My mother and sister were right to go to Stockholm. My friend was right to kiss the girl at the wedding and miss his plane and catch the later one. We were right to go out to lunch in Hastings. I was right to be in the pub on Charlotte Street. In a funny way, the sudden interdiction of celebrity – and all its unreality – lights up the colour and the vividness of the reality that we are making for ourselves.

* Literally as I wrote the word Saturday, I wondered whether the vast majority of celebrity spotting, as in 95%, must happen on the weekend. They are out and about, we are out and about. It also reinforces the likelihood that the slebs are doing something just as boring as ourselves.

AHAP (An Honest Appraisal of Pleasure) is a series that examines activities in our lives that are billed as pleasurable, and attempts to give an honest and thorough assessment of whether they actually are.

Gore Vidal and the death of obituaries

I realised, while reading The New York Timesextremely good obituary of Gore Vidal, that I have stopped reading newspapers. I still read magazines; I still read the news; I am still saving up for an iPad; but I have stopped reading the news-papers. I’ll buy one every now and again, but it’s so rare now that I can’t pretend that I am a paper buyer. It must have happened during the last year. I probably held out longer than most. I am a journalist, for pete’s sake.

I knew it for sure while I was digesting Vidal’s wonderful life because I realised that I had not read an obituary for a long time – months, probably. Obituaries are among the first thing I turn to in a physical paper. They are a convenient length – a tube stop or two – normally well written, and, unlike the news most of the time, provide such a natural weight and form of information. There must be something inherently absorbable about the story of a human life. We are attuned to take it in. There is nothing quite like it: the uncoiling of love (or its significant absence), the way they came to learn about the world and, almost always in the case of the obituarised, some satisfying portion of success. You very rarely come across a obituary with nothing remotely admirable in it, and usually it is the absolute opposite. Here is an all-time favourite: Tickets please, Werner Heubeck.

Obituaries also say something about community. They are survivors from the 19th century template of what a newspaper, and a nation, should be. The selection from the waves of passing dead reflects the standards, the aspirations, the interests that bind living readers. British newspapers have their distinct tastes: The Guardian‘s apparently inexhaustible hunger (really?) for minor jazz musicians and recording artists (JD Smith, the finest session alto-saxophonist in late 1960s Louisville, he once shared a cab with Count Basie) vs The Daily Telegraph, with the “last Telegraph Services obituarist to have served in the Second World War” (my grandfather).

Dead Vidal made me think more carefully than normal about obituaries because they have also been a way for me to discover writers. I know the death of any artist revitalises interest in their work, but I am also talking about coming across writers for the very first time about a week after they died. I remember reading the obituary of Sybille Bedford and deciding to read her books, and George Psychoundakis (more of a runner than a writer, to be fair). For the better known and who are in the always-accumulating queue, like Ryszard Kapuściński (in 2007) and Vidal last week, their death has acted as a quiet signal, an end to excuses, a move to the front, and then I have begun to read and to become immediately and irrationally sad for the writer I never knew and only now know because they are dead. I have that now with Vidal after “Coached by Camelot” (so fine) and I am sure the feeling will grow. But without obituaries, without news-papers, how will I find the rest, the quieter passers? What is the digital answer; what is our digital mourning?