Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Weird Appetites

Today I found myself thinking about something that I've often thought about in the past, but that recent circumstances have given me particular cause to ponder. And that is, how bizarrely specific our appetites and desires and inclinations can be.

When I say "recent circumstances", I mean my own experience, as this has happened to me quite a lot in recent weeks.

The first strange hankering I want to mention concerns the American show The Office. (After Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, which I tend to lump together as one show, this is my favourite television programme. I'm not sure I can even yield the supremacy to Star Trek. I like them in different ways.)

There is one excellent episode of The Office called 'Business Trip'. (The scriptwriters of The Office had a difficult time spinning storylines out of such a restrictive set-up, which was simply the life of a paper merchants and its employees. They often stretched the premise too far into wackiness. But 'Business Trip' is pleasingly simple, and it's hard to believe that it took them five seasons to use the storyline of a business trip.)

The story-line of 'Business Trip' involves Michael Scott (the office manager and central character of the show, played by Steve Carrell) and two other characters (Andy, a preppy salesman who is engaged to one of the office accountants) and Oscar (a gay, Mexican accountant) all going on a business trip to Winnipeg in November. Michael is boyishly excited about the trip, but it doesn't turn out to be very exciting.

(David Wallace, their CEO, mentions at one point that: "It's pretty tough to find somebody who wants to go up to Winnipeg mid-November." The lack of glamour in the business trip and its location is a big theme of the episode. This is part of what I find appealing; as I mentioned a few times previously, I like all things provincial. I don't know if Winnipeg is 'provincial', but you know what I mean.)

The scene that excited me particularly was one involving Andy and Oscar. They visit a local bar, one that is portrayed as being not particularly excitin
g. They get drunk and Oscar starts asking Andy what he can possibly see in his fiancee. Andy mentions that they haven't yet had sex (and in a modern comedy, of course, two engaged people remaining chaste is seen as bizarre-- though Oscar does ask, "Are you guys waiting to be married?" and Andy says: "Honestly, I don't know what we're waiting for!", so at least the concept of premarital chastity is acknowledged). Oscar drunkenly persuades Andy to phone his fiancée and ask her to explain herself, which he does.

It's a reasonably funny scene, and quite a sweet episode. (As Andy says at the end: "I had to go all the way to Canada to get to know a guy who sits twenty feet away from me".) But the point of my story is that, weeks after watching this episode, I suddenly found it coming into my mind over and over again. It was the pub/club/bar atmosphere that excited me. It had been a lon
g time, a record time, since I'd been in any drinking spot.

Then, one evening, on a bus that was passing through the suburb of Phibsborough in Dublin, I looked at a particular pub and thought: "I'd really like to visit a pub, just to be in one." The desire grew and grew, and I hopped off the bus a few stops later, and went looking for a suitable tavern.

But the point is, I couldn't find one. I'd gone too far into the suburbs. There was only one rather sleepy suburban pub, full of regulars-- the kind of pub I would usually prefer. But that scene from The Office had got into my head and I wanted a pub that wasn't sleepy, and that wasn't full of regulars-- something with a bit of animation, just like the pub in the scene, and where there would be a flow of different and new people (not that I intended to talk to any of them).

Eventually, I satisfied my craving by visiting a local hotel lounge. It was on a Saturday morning, but there were lots of people there from the nearby hotel, so it wasn't just regulars.

What I really wanted was to visit a bar in Winnipeg in November, on a business trip.

More recently, I became completely fascinated with the idea of days. Yes, days. It's something I've written about on this blog several times, though I've always struggled to express what I mean exactly. I'm fascinated by the fact that human life is divided into days. I'm fascinated by their texture, their pulse, how they are remembered. I'm always fascinated to hear people talk about particular stretches of their lives ("I spent three days in bed with the curtains closed...I tramped the streets for a week...we spent a month discussing the idea...") The past imperfect thrills me.

So I suddenly wanted to read a good diary. But every diary I contemplated reading seemed to lack what I was looking for. What about the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, the naval secretary who witnessed the Great Fire of London and whose diary is a goldmine of seventeenth century social history, as well as a much-lauded work of art? I'd tried reading it before, and there was a little bit too much bureaucracy and statecraft for my liking. Besides,  it was so old-- I wanted something more recent, so that I could relate to it better. The diary of his contemporary John Evelyn was out for the same reason.

Some of the diaries I came across were first-hand accounts of important moments in history; diaries by senior politicians, for instance. But I didn't want anything so specialised, or so dramatic. I didn't want war, or high politics, or expeditions in far off lands. The craving I felt was for the whole rich tapestry of life; dull days, busy days, sick days, red letter days, dark days, holidays, and every other sort of day. I wanted a diary that had as much of the mundane as the picturesque; more of the mundane, for preference.

So how about The Diary of a Country Parson, by James Woodforde, who died in 1803, and who lived a rather uneventful and routine existence? It's had fans since it was published in 1924. However, I found Woodforde's rather plodding account of dinners and expenditures and other daily incidents to be a bit too plain and lacking in reflection or introspection.

Next I tried the diaries and letters of John Henry Newman. The university where I work, University College Dublin, is the descendant of the Catholic University that John Henry Newman founded (though he only really got it started, before trouble from the Irish bishops forced him to leave). This fact, and the mere fact that it was the first dedicated Catholic university in Ireland, means that we have a huge amount of Newman material in the library, including a complete run of his collected diaries and letters-- over thirty volumes. (Newman kept everything.) I started on the first volume, knowing in my heart that there was no chance I would read them all, but rather taken with the idea of doing so. (I always love the idea of going off the beaten track.)

I managed to keep it up for almost a whole volume. Newman was certainly more stimulating company than the Rev. Woodforde, and lived life at a higher pitch, both intellectually and spiritually. was a bit too high of a pitch. Newman lived a life of heroic dedication, and it's rather exhausting even to read about.

Besides, he wasn't much of a diarist. He jotted down the events of the day, but he didn't expand upon them. The meat of the volume was much more in the letters than the diary, and these were indeed much more of a chronicle of his reactions, anxieties, hopes, impressions, and all the other things we expect from a diary, than was his diary proper. But even here, the obliqueness of the thing became frustrating. I was always pleased to come across a letter to his mother or one of his sisters, where he tended to pour out his heart, but one might just as easily find oneself wading through a long and dry correspondence with some distant acquaintance.

I gave up on diaries for a few days, reading a book about Shakespeare instead, but the hunger overtook me again. And I seemed to have found exactly what I was looking for when I discovered Evelyn Waugh had kept a diary for most of his life. (He destroyed some parts of it, but most of his life is represented.) And even better-- it was much more than just a record of events. He put down his thoughts and ideas and reactions and emotions, too. This seemed like the jackpot. And he was a Catholic, to boot!

But even here, I felt frustrated. It was pretty good as long as he was at public school (for my American readers, this means a private boarding school; they feature heavily in much English writing and many English memoirs of the time, but Waugh was-- as the introduction pointed out-- pretty much the only writer to keep a diary of the experience as it happened.) But then he goes to Oxford-- he destroyed his Oxford diaries, probably because of homosexual experiences recorded in them-- and graduates to a boozy and party-filled young adult life that, despite the presence of many eminent friends, is surprisingly tedious to read about. In fact, the most interesting passages are the ones where he is working as a teacher in a rather obscure school. Too much freedom, I have always noticed, makes everything dull.

I was looking forward to his conversion to Catholicism, which came after his career as a novelist took off, and after the failure of his first marriage (all of these events are missing from the diaries themselves, since he also destroyed this sequence). Unfortunately, when the curtain rises on his successful years, his diary persona becomes blasé and cynical and impersonal (as the volume's editor admits), and the entries are shorter and less heartfelt. I jumped a decade and more, to the end of World War Two; then, when I found him bitterly listing his low opinions of his own children, I gave up on Waugh.

And on diaries, too, at least for the moment. My trawl through them had partly satisfied my hunger, and partly convinced me that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. Perhaps I had been too influenced by fictional diaries, like The Diary of Adrian Mole (a favourite in my early twenties) and The Diary of a Nobody (a perennial favourite, and my candidate for the funniest novel in the English language). Or perhaps I had learned that the diary of a real somebody is less interesting than the diary of a fictional nobody.

My final strange appetite is the most recent, and the mildest. As I was reading that book about Shakespeare that I mentioned, I found myself (not for the first time) becoming infatuated with the title The Winter's Tale. I think it's one of the most evocative titles ever; and perhaps thinking about it at the height of summer (though it's not very summery in Ireland right now) adds to its charm.

I recently offered readers an "e-book" (i.e., Word file) collection of my poetry entitled While The Wind Howls on a Winter's Night. The title comes from this verse:

In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.

I have to admit I'm pretty proud of that line. I quote it now to try to explain what magic I find in the title The Winter's Tale. (Not that it's needed, I'm sure. I mentioned in a recent post a Youtube video of old Irish ads that I was watching over and over. One is for a sherry called A Winter's Tale, and it seemed to be evoking the same kind of idyll.)

I'd already read throu
gh A Winter's Tale not long ago, motivated by the same fascination;  I liked it well enough, being a product of Shakespeare's later mellow and dreamy phase. But I like The Tempest better, for the same reason. All the same, I found myself seeking out another edition of The Winter's Tale, purely for the sake of the title. I would, I told myself, read the introduction at least. By the time I had finished the introduction (thoroughly enjoying it), I was already interested in something else....

Yeats once wrote:

Hands, do what you're bid;

Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

 Should that be my attitude too (though Yeats himself is obviously ambivalent in this poem)? Or should I let these fancies flow freely? One way or the other, I think the mind's tendency to suddenly be attracted to a bizarrely specific idea is quite fascinating.

And more that fascinating; I think that it is very often the seed for works of art and other enterprises. I'm very interested in the creative process, and it's amazing how often a song or a film or a book grows out of one image, one character, or one atmosphere. I also think that a person's philosophy of life very often has such a genesis; something speaks to that person's depths, in such a way that it influences their entire lives, and it can very often be something as madly specific as the things I list here.


  1. Interesting reading about the diaries, especially about your wading through that volume by Newman and the comments on that. Have you ever read Georges Bernanos famous fictional diary of the parish priest in Southern France? Perhaps you would find it boring but in that case it is just a description of a "boring" life that is more or less the whole intention of the story. The Diary of a Nobody was a novelty to me, must look for it sometime!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Thomae. I have never read that fictional diary; was it serialized in The Catholic Herald at one point? I didn't realize it was fictional. I don't actually mind "boring" so much, Diary of a Country Parson just took it to the limit. I think it must mostly appeal to people interested in social history-- how much things cost, what people ate, etc. That is only of incidental interest to me, I am mostly interested in the human drama.

    You should definitely read Diary of a Nobody. It's available online for free, although you may not like reading books online (don't blame you).

  3. It´s definitely fictional, a novel in a diary style, and the "boring" side of it fits very well to the story. I have no idea if it was in The Catholic Herald...