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Friday, January 22, 2010

Gliding lightly

I'll be on BBC Radio 4's 'Start the Week' on Monday 25 January, with Will Self, Steve Jones and Charles Hazlewood.  Already nail-chompingly excited. If I carry on like this all weekend, by Monday morning I will have nibbled all the way up my arms, round my collarbones and back to my teeth.  But I love this sort of thing: the talk, the elation, the chance to blither about Montaigne.

"Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener." - Montaigne, "Of Experience".

"We must glide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface." - Montaigne, "Of Vanity".

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kate McGarrigle and boar tusks

I was sad to hear that the folk singer Kate McGarrigle died yesterday.

But I have to pause there. The huge loss of life in the Haitian earthquake is much sadder.  It has horrified and haunted me.  How can I write about the death of one person, honoured by the world and surrounded by her family, when hundreds of thousands may have died and are still dying in rubble? 

But writing about Haiti doesn't feel possible; it would be an exercise in vanity. Perhaps writing about Kate McGarrigle is too.  It's not really her I'm writing about though.  It's the other things that come back to me when I hear her name, or the mellifluous, twangy music of her and her sister Anna. 

Oddly enough, for a pair of Canadian singer-songwriters, those things are: breadfruit trees, mangoes, hibiscus flowers, coral reefs, hideous axe murders, tropical diseases and boar tusks through human noses. 

There's a simple reason for that: I first heard Kate and Anna McGarrigle in Papua New Guinea.  My parents were living there; in my late teens I went out to spend Christmases and summers with them.  Among their records, rapidly accumulating layers of mould in the humid heat, were two McGarrigle albums: 'Dancer With Bruised Knees' and 'French Record'.  We all loved them, and, in the absence of TV, listened to them of an evening, blasting them out into the Melanesian night until they became a family tradition. 

After the fungus finally warped and consumed the vinyl, I didn't hear 'French Record' (my favourite) again until I came across a CD about three years ago.  It was great to hear it all again: those poised, wry ballads about lonely folk walking along Canadian streets when it's thirty below, or a servant called Perrine who locks her lover in a big bin to hide him, but forgets him there so that he's only discovered six weeks later when he's been nibbled to death by rats.

I guess it's not really Kate McGarrigle I feel this sad-yet-pleasurable mood about; it's my own past - the pleasure of suffusing oneself with nostalgia for a few moments.

"Let the years drag me along if they will, but backward.  As long as my eyes can discern that lovely season now expired, I turn them in that direction at intervals."  - Montaigne, "On some verses of Virgil"

And Montaigne adds a neat quotation from Martial:
"Our lives are two
If we can relish our past life anew."

I've been busy with Montaigne lately.  Haven't yet gathered up the resulting links, but here's one to a radio discussion I took part in last week, on the BBC World Service's 'Forum' programme.  The other guests were the charming historian of science, Hasok Chang, and the novelist E. L. Doctorow: his new novel 'Homer and Langley' is gripping, funny, profound and thought-provoking.

Friday, January 15, 2010


My head is still whirling from the excitement of the launch party last night.  I will refrain from putting up lots of communal party pics, but here I am 1. looking as if Montaigne is about to throw his cat into my arms from a great height

2. looking declamatory:

and 3. just looking tickled pink:

Thank you, everyone!

I do love a party.

"My nature is suited to communication and revelation. I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship." - Montaigne, "Of 3 kinds of association".

"Relaxation and affability, it seems to me, are marvellously honourable." - Montaigne, "Of Experience".

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Good Ship Montaigne sets sail today

Publication day for How to Live!  
Off it scuds, sails high and flags a-flutter, full of hope...

"And if no one reads me, have I wasted my time, entertaining myself for so many idle hours with such useful and agreeable thoughts?"

- Montaigne, "Of giving the lie."

Friday, January 8, 2010

Montaigne and the snow

This is always such a strange and exciting time, when the book you've been working on for half a decade is finally about to come out. A few reviews appear; you dread them, you slaver over them, you get more and more nervous of what might come next.  And you are invited to write all sorts of odd things. 

I am really pleased this time to be writing something for London's Big Issue - not out yet (well I only just finished writing it this afternoon).  It's a little fellow, at 360 words, but it gave me a lot of fun.  The starting point was: what might Montaigne do for us if we could make him king for a day? 

In the writing of it, the idea changed somewhat, since Montaigne would never have done anything as ostentatious as letting himself be crowned king. One of his best-known remarks is, "on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rump". Still, it made a great starting point for wondering what he would think of our world in general if he could see it.

Before I could get on to anything more significant (poverty, war, eco-catastrophe), the first thing that came to my mind was the snow currently covering so much of the northern hemisphere.

First off, I think Montaigne would have been amused by the fuss we are making of this snow, at least in my own country. Britain is not accustomed to this, so it has gone into full melodrama mode. Montaigne was never melodramatic.

At the same time, he would have been surprised that so many people around the world were able to know about each other’s snow simultaneously, and even to see it photographed from space. Sceptic though he was about technology, I think Montaigne would have been excited to see these beautiful extraterrestrial views.

Excited - but not astounded. He and his contemporaries were familiar with the idea of the earth seen from space, not in practice but in principle. They read ancient writers who imagined such things all the time. The protagonist of Cicero's Dream of Scipio was whisked up beyond the stars to enjoy a view of distant earth. One of Montaigne’s favourites, Seneca, urged his followers to visualise great stretches of space, as well as of time. And the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (whom, unfortunately, Montaigne didn’t read) wondered in his notebook what it would be like to be “raised up to the heavens” and to “look down upon human affairs in all their motley diversity”.

For these writers, the idea was not just to provoke a sense of wonder, still less to indulge scientific curiosity or foretell the weather. It was to remind themselves that, however insurmountable their personal problems seemed, they would look very small on a cosmic scale. Each of us is just a speck in the landscape, and it all passes soon enough, so we may as well relax.

I don’t think many of us feel so comforted by this exhilharating perspective, when we see satellite photos today. Perhaps familiarity has just killed the trick: we have seen so many images like this before. But there may be some magic left, after all.  I did feel something almost verging on comfort, when I saw today’s image of Britain neatly covered in snow.

Some of the pleasure comes from the picture’s sheer beauty, but it also moves me to think that this same snow that lies outside my door, slushy and inconvenient and anything but cosmic, can look so shared from the perspective of space.  Our country has been scattered with this snow elegantly and uniformly, as if by a giant fist with a sugar-dusting sieve. Not just this country, but this continent, and this hemisphere. We are small enough to be powdered up and patted down, with casual ease.

So, if I go outside now, slip in the slush and land on my bum with an undignified flop, at least I can take these two comforting thoughts from Montaigne and his predecessors:

1. I am an insignificant speck of human powder in a beautiful landscape.

2. Yet, no matter where I land, it will be very definitely on my own rump.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Go with the flow

Wrote about Montaigne, New Year's Resolutions, and going with the flow in the Independent on New Year's Day.  It's quite a personal piece and, sure enough, I haven't made any resolutions this year.  It's one of those years that seems to call for some very different spirit anyway.

Now, though, the flow is taking me back to a hectic week of work!  But it's all getting exciting - How to Live is being published a week on Thursday, and there is lots to do.

A new decade dawns, sunny and frosty, at least in London, where I look up through my attic window this morning into a taut blue sky.