I’ve been deep in Max Beerbohm. I want to recommend him to you, one and all. But he is so impossible to summarize or encapsulate, his qualities so resistant to paraphrase, that all one can is quote him, and then stand back in wonder. Let me just say that he is the most pleasurable writer I have ever read–but I fear to say more in case I reveal my own critical inadequacies.
“He was a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair. He had a thin vague beard–or rather, he had a chin on which a large number of hairs weakly curled and clustered to cover its retreat.”
The birds sing, the butterflies fly, and the reptiles scamper–and that’s just in my garden. Meanwhile the earth turns heavily on its axis.
This morning I had an interesting experience. I was due to speak on a panel for the BBC World Service about animal experimentation, especially on primates, along with four other people. The other panelists were from other parts of the world, including the UK, and so I needed to be at the studio by 8 am, which meant getting up before 6 am. At 7.15 the taxi came for me and drove me through thick traffic into Little Havana. I wasn’t much in the mood for it (though I’ve spoken on animal issues many times in the past). When I arrived at the studio I was greeted by Carlos and it quickly became apparent that this was set up as a music recording studio. I was confronted by a full set of drums, and Carlos was their owner. So we started talking about drumming, me being a drummer too, and before long we were having an animated discussion about music in the Sixties. I mentioned The Beatles’ This Boy as a memorable song, though not well known, and he didn’t know it (despite his extensive knowledge). We agreed to listen to it when the interview was over. So I had that to look forward to. The discussion went on for an hour and a half, with the usual things said and disputed–blah-blah-blah. Then, when it was over, Carlos played This Boy through the studio speakers, paying particular attention to the middle eight, where John Lennon lets rip, ending with that piercing “cry-eye-eye”. We chatted a bit more, agreed to jam together, and then the taxi picked me up for the return home. I thought: Now that was a morning well spent. And maybe the animals will get something out of it too.
Yesterday’s final in Rome between Federer and Djokovic was a fascinating spectacle, not only for the superb tennis but for the psychology of the event. Federer was thoroughly outclassed in two punishing sets. The look on his face at first said, “This guy is a better tennis player than I am”. Then the look deepened to something even more disturbing for the great Federer: “This guy is a better tennis player than I ever was”. Djokovic’s level is so consistently high, and so breathtaking, that it is becoming clear that he is really the best tennis player of all time.
People seem to have some very funny ideas about how two of my books were published by OUP: The Meaning of Disgust and Basic Structures of Reality. After presenting the material of these books in seminars and discussing them with colleagues I sent the completed books to OUP. They then engaged anonymous reviewers, experts in the field, to evaluate the books, three for each book. In each case the reviews were positive and the books accepted. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the procedures employed; they were the same as with my other academic books. A couple of reviews of the books subsequently depicted them as complete rubbish, which is the right of book reviewers, but they went through the appropriate channels. I think it was the book reviewers who got it wrong, not OUP and its referees.
I read a very good article in the most recent NYRB (May 21) about Max Beerbohm, written by Phillip Lopate. I found myself resonating to the Beerbohm sensibility, which I would find hard to summarize. With the miracle of youtube I listened to an old broadcast of his (1956) on BBC radio about London, past and present. Again, I won’t attempt to summarize (and thereby defile): I suggest you listen to it yourself. It is a sensibility we need more of. The accent intrigued me: it made the Queen’s accent seem vulgarly posh. Beerbohm’s accent is beyond posh–in its own realm of vocal perfection. It seems like the voice of civilization itself. He left London at age 37 to move to Rapallo in Italy, where he lived till he died; like a true Englishman he had to live abroad. Shaw called him “the incomparable Max”, which irked him; I prefer “the unclassifiable Max”, because he escapes all stereotypes.
Let me recommend this BBC-PBS series about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. It’s not all pomp, pageantry, and patriotism; it’s about fear, power, and pettiness. Mark Rylance plays Cromwell with wonderful economy, inner life flashing behind still eyes. He is all intelligence and self-control, trying to manage a childish impetuous king, always in peril of death himself. The execution of Anne Boleyn in the sixth episode was truly excruciating, without ever showing the actual beheading: the barbarity, formality, ceremony, spectacle-as a young woman has her head cut off for allegedly cuckolding the king. We have come a long way since then–haven’t we?