Friday, 29 November 2019

All the freedom that loneliness brings

Quartet in Autumn (Plume) Quartet in Autumn traces the lives and thoughts of four office workers in London over the course of about a year, as they approach retirement. Written in 1977, Barbara Pym had herself reached the age of her protagonists and she paints a bleak picture of how the over 60s are viewed by those who are younger.

Marcia was "ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement." Her colleagues "shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks." Janice, her social worker was patronising, and her neighbour Priscilla sanctimoniously believed "the poor souls just long for somebody to talk to."

However, one can't help but feel that Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman must take some responsibility for their own loneliness, which seems to be the result of a genteel English middle-class politeness and aversion to prying. There are plenty of opportunities for each of the characters to get to know each other better and yet they choose to remain aloof.

Pym's Excellent Women is funnier, although there are moments of humour, for instance in Letty's interaction with David the country cleric. The Sweet Dove Died is more acerbic in its treatment of an aging woman, but Quartet in Autumn most deftly captures the reality of pensioners' expectations of life in old age, with "all the freedom that loneliness brings," especially for those like Letty, who owned "no photographs, not even of her friend Marjorie or of her old home, her parents, a cat or a dog."

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

They won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown

The Past is Myself & The Road Ahead Omnibus: When I Was a German, 1934-1945
'You may think that Germans are political idiots [-] and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Such was the opinion of many in Germany in the early 1930s, including Peter Bielenberg, the lawyer husband of Christabel, an English woman who took German citizenship following her marriage. The Past Is My Life is based on diaries she kept while living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, through to the end of WW2.

In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, with "only two other National Socialists with him in his Cabinet," there was a belief "that he was well hemmed-in" by the respectable, old-school elite politicians of the Weimar Republic. However, "the whole process of what was called 'co-ordination' was over and done with" within five months. Hitler became Germany's dictator.

How could the political situation change so fast? Bielenberg's memoir is not a historian's analysis, but shows how a shared feeling of being betrayed at the end of WW1 fed into the propaganda that was used to justify military aggression. Her viewpoint is privileged, not that of the working-class, yet it provides plenty of insight into living in the Third Reich as an opponent of the regime. What particularly comes across is how exhausting it was to be constantly on guard against making a thoughtless comment, and the need to be wary of every new acquaintance.

Peter Bielenberg's description of Hitler as a clown should sound a warning bell in 2019. One should be wary of buffoonery and deceit, neither of which are impediments to reaching the highest position of Government.