Dissipating the gloom of the New Year

Dissipating the gloom of the New Year
Posted by Ralph Jacobowitz

The weather may be dreary, cold and rainy, but there are some things I‘ve enjoyed recently and I thought I’d share two of them. They’ve helped dissipate the gloom of the New Year.

Every New Year the London Review of Books publishes excerpts from the previous year’s diary of Alan Bennett. Below is the entirety of the published entry for 8 April. I enjoy the LRB. I urge you to subscribe so you can enjoy all of the diary they published.

The morning spent paying bills: British Gas (and electricity), Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, Camden Council, Craven District Council and Mr Redhead the coal merchant in Ingleton. Many of the bills are overdue, about which I am unrepentant. The only one I pay promptly and with no feeling of resentment is Mr Redhead’s

It wasn’t always so. Before the public utilities were privatised one paid bills more readily, not just because they were considerably cheaper, which of course they were, but because one had little sense of being exploited. Now as I pay my water bills for instance, I think of their overpaid executives and the shareholders to whom the profits go and I know, despite the assurances of all such companies, that they are charging what they know they can get away with. Competition has not meant better service nor has it brought down prices, with some corporate behaviour close to sharp practice. British Gas, for instance, regularly omits to send me a first bill but only a reminder, which has no details about consumption. When challenged they say this may be because bills have been sent online. But how can this be when we have no computer? If one telephones and manages eventually to get through one is dealt with by someone always charming and even-tempered (and often Scots) who promises to look into it. But when in due course the bill comes again it is still with no details and coupled with threats of court action. So whereas once upon a time I paid my bills as Auden said a gentleman should, as soon as they were submitted, these days I put them off, paying sometimes only at the third or fourth time of asking or when I am assured (rhetorically, I know) that the bailiffs are about to call. I am no crusader but I wish there was a consumers’ organisation which could co-ordinate individual resistance to these companies, setting up non or late payment on such a scale that it would put a dent in the dividends of the shareholders and the salaries of the executives concerned.

This was written a few hours before I learned of Lady Thatcher’s death and it’s an appropriate epitaph.

Also in the current LRB (vol 36, no 1, 9 January 2014) is an article by James Meek: “Where will we live?: The Housing Disaster”. It’s important, scary reading.

I’m reading Georges Perec’s, La Disparition in Gilbert Adair’s translation: A Void. Georges Perec died in the early 80s. His major work is La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual).  If I had to choose a favourite work of fiction, it would be his Life.

A Void is a tour de force. The entire novel is a lipogram—writing which omits a single letter or group of letters. La Disparition contains not a single letter E. Amazingly Adair duplicates this feat in his translation. It’s a sly detective novel with lots of literary allusions, parodies, games and great fun to read. Anton Vowl disappears and other characters, who start to search for him, begin to die.

To give you an idea of it below is a sample, from Anton’s diary, where he has copied ‘six familiar madrigals … without any annotations, any marginalia at all’.

On His Glaucoma


Whilst I do think on how my world is bound,

                  Now half my days, by this unwinking night,

                  My solitary gift, for want of sight,

                  Lain fallow, though within my soul abound

Urgings to laud th’Almighty, and propound

                  My own account, that God my faith not slight,

                  Doth God day-labour claim, proscribing light,

                  I ask; but calming spirits, to confound

Such murmurings, affirm, God doth not dun

                  Man for his work or his own gifts, who will

                  But kiss his chains, is dutiful, his gait

Is kingly. Thousands to his bidding run

                  And post on land and bounding main and hill:

                  Your duty do who only stand and wait


As well as literature and language, Ralph is pretty nifty when it comes to looking after your property too. More about him is on his profile page.

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