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“The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it”

George Orwell


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Musical Appreciation

Summer may be many things, but it is never quiet. Windows are recklessly opened at the first sign of warmth, and the inhabitants of suburbia start to live outdoors. Unfortunately, the modern concept of “living” necessarily includes background music. Decades of Hollywood movies have done their insidious work. Nobody feels truly alive unless they can hear their music playing.

It was a sad day for the human race when the first electric amplifier was attached to a gramophone in the 1920s. Before that, music was a private pleasure. Immediately afterwards, it became a public nuisance. As I was driving through the strip malls of Long Island the other day I saw a sign: “Outdoor Speaker Sale.” Now it seems to me that outdoor speakers should be subject to the same kinds of controls as handguns and dangerous drugs. If people are allowed to buy them, they will inevitably use them – and there goes the peace of the entire neighborhood.

Outdoor music is becoming a major environmental hazard. There’s nothing wrong with it in principle, for example, if the New York Philharmonic chooses to hold an outdoor concert, as they do every year, it’s a wonderful experience because the audience wants to be there. But when the teenagers next door crank up their vile music in the middle of a quiet afternoon, that’s not fine. We don’t want to hear it. That’s putting it mildly. We feel homicidal after the first few bars.

I don’t want to sound like a musical snob, but by choice, I listen to a rather narrow range: classical and early modern, and some jazz. In summer, my listening inevitably becomes very much more eclectic. Romantic ballads from the 60s drift over from the house at the back, and other musical treats come crashing in from all directions. You name it, I’ve heard it this summer: fifty-seven more or less identical varieties of Rock, plus Rap, Bluegrass, Country, Folk, R & B, Soul, Hip Hop,New Age, Reggae, Salsa, Garage, House, Outhouse, and many other sounds that are or should be nameless.

Whatever the critics may say, there is such a thing as good and bad popular music. I’ve lived through the evolution of pop all the way from Bill Haley and his Comets, and a lot of the recent stuff is awful by any standards. It began with rock but really took off with the Punk bands of the ‘70s. At that point, some diabolical convergence occurred between the natural rebelliousness of youth culture and the urgent desire of recording companies to make a lot of money. The trouble with this kind of cycle is that there’s no end to it. As each generation of parents becomes harder and harder to shock, the record companies and their ephemeral bands have to work harder and harder to make their music nasty enough. The children of the current generation of teenagers will listen to their parents’ music, and say: “All that schmaltzy stuff about death and pornography, that’s for old people.” They will look around for something worse, and believe me, they will find it.

Music must change and evolve, of course. Beethoven shocked the traditionalists of his day, as he intended. But although annoying the old folks is very satisfying, it shouldn’t be the only justification for new music. Yet this is what seems to have happened. Commercial pop music is caught in an accelerating downward cycle of musical styles that are developed for no other reason than to capture younger and younger audiences and allow the kids to shock their parents with packaged explosions of obscenity, violence, and rage.

Thank goodness for headphones, which young people now wear all the time, perhaps even in bed. The use of headphones almost makes me doubt my own theory. If loud and obnoxious music is intended to shock the oldies, headphones subvert the intention completely. Nobody, however old and conservative, can be shocked by something they can’t hear. Yet it can scarcely be possible that teenagers actually like the music they are hearing. This would suggest a total collapse of civilization and sanity.

Not all youth-oriented music is nasty, of course, and not all nasty music is modern pop. Some serious 20th-century composers produced some very painful noises indeed. This made me think that if I can’t win this battle, then at least I can fight back.

My musical education is being widened, whether I like it or not. The least I can do is return the compliment. I found a pair of old but powerful speakers in the basement that will serve for use outdoors. I also found, at an incredible bargain price, a four-CD set of the works of the German serialist composer Karl Stockhausen. When I’m out of the house these will blanket the whole neighborhood with intellectually challenging avant-garde music for hours. I hope the neighbors get the hint. I hope they notice the difference.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Things are Against Us

Do you ever get the impression that your life is a perpetual struggle against inanimate objects? The French have a phrase for it: “Les choses sont contre nous,” meaning that things are against us.

Consider a typical day of persecution by things. It begins with the alarm clock, one of the nastiest things ever invented, then continues with coffee that is always too hot or too cold, a healthy cereal that tastes like cardboard and probably is cardboard, a morning newspaper that is too big and awkward to read at the table, and in which every interesting story on the front page is continued on page ninety-four. You know the routine. Things have the upper hand over us even before we get out of the front door, where we probably discover that the car battery is dead, and the garbage can has been ransacked by raccoons. When and if we get to work after battling against the hydra-headed monster called traffic, we sit down in front of a computer which, after the alarm clock, is just about the most hostile mechanism ever conceived by the human mind. Nobody is to blame for all this. Like Frankenstein, we create our own monsters.

When I got my first computer in the eighties I started off on the wrong foot, thinking that it was nothing but a useful tool. It took me a while to realize that I had become the tool of the machine, and the computer, like a jealous god, was using me. It is astonishing how much of my day, and probably yours too, is spent serving the whims and needs of one or several computers.

We are in dark territory here. The living world and the world of things are closer together than we like to think. Deep in our superstitious minds we know this. One of the most ancient forms of religion is animism, in which familiar objects, plants and creatures are inhabited by spirits of their own – the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the rock, and so on. People living close to nature made no rigorous distinctions between animal and human, living and dead. The whole world seemed alive and meaningful to them. They worshipped significant places or living things, or avoided them as taboo. They crept terrified through the forest, where every plant and creature might be actively hostile, just as we creep through the jungle of our gadgets, machines and devices, worrying what they might do to us next.

We know, at some level of consciousness, that things have a life of their own. We get angry at our dysfunctional possessions, as if they cared. What is so curious and paradoxical is that we love those things too. Some people seem to worship their portable electronic devices as if their smartphones are inhabited by some benevolent spirit. I am sorry to tell them that this is not the case.

I blame evolution. Like all the other creatures on earth, we must confront the physical world, and tame it if we can. This intimate struggle between people and things is a personal and dangerous relationship, with winners and losers. The first humanoids to stand upright banged their heads against the roof of the cave. Five million years later we have suburban homes with cathedral ceilings. That was a victory, that was progress, but we daren’t relax for a second. Sooner or later the things we create will take over our lives. The French, for once, are right: things are against us.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Between Two Cultures

Those of us who never had a proper education in science are reminded of our ignorance every time we switch on a computer, or a microwave, or even a light bulb. It might as well be magic, but it’s not, and we have no more idea how these tricks are performed than we understand the flying broomsticks in Harry Potter. It is humiliating, and dangerous, because science is behind just about everything we use and depend on. Satellites spin in the sky above our heads, we get miraculous drugs from the local pharmacy, and make calls on phones that don’t seem to be connected to anything, and we don’t understand how any of it works.

The British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote about this in 1959 in a famous book called The Two Cultures. The two cultures were science and art, and Snow was alarmed at how little they understood about each other. Nothing has changed since 1959. In fact, science has run so far ahead of scientific illiterates like me that we can only gape at it like the Pilgrim Fathers confronted by a video game.

I was painfully reminded of this by reading a memoir by the scientist and controversialist Richard Dawkins about his lifetime of research in biology. He writes well and most of his arguments can be followed by the scientifically retarded, but the underlying knowledge of things like phenotypes and genotypes, memes and genes, arthromorphs and biomorphs is simply not in my brain, so that his descriptions of research sound as much like mysticism or alchemy as the products of reason and logic. So, I must trust Professor Dawkins, and I do more or less. But if I trust him, without being able to explain why, I might trust anybody with any theory about reality. That’s what’s so dangerous. The more a few scientifically educated people know, and the less the rest of us know, the more science begins to look like some sort of elite conspiracy. Ignorance breeds fear, and into the empty space comes every dumb idea and idiotic belief that has ever entered into the mind of man – and believe me that’s a long list.

Science doesn’t leave much room for the opinions and beliefs we cherish. We love to have pointless arguments about the best basketball team or religion or political party or TV show, because it is fun to argue and we can always consider ourselves right. My opinion is as good as yours. But when it comes, say, to finding the elusive infinitely small particles that may be the basic building blocks of the universe, my opinion is definitely not as good as yours, and totally worthless compared to the opinion of a physicist. My idea would be to get a large magnifying glass. Their idea was to build enormous machines, like the Hadron Collider outside Geneva. Guess whose method is most likely to succeed.

Of course, science can’t do everything: it can’t tell us the right word to use in a poem or explain Beethoven’s late quartets. There are different things to know, and different ways of knowing. But we need a better balance, more people like Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer who was also a research chemist, or indeed Richard Dawkins himself, a biologist with a wide-ranging knowledge of the arts.

We aren’t all smart enough to be scientists, but it is important that we understand how and why science works, and magic doesn’t. Even I know what a scientific proof should look like: observation, classification, experiment, repetition, comparison and so on. That’s how we know that our knowledge is knowledge. If you don’t believe that, you might believe anything.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Spring Song

Spring in the suburbs is a total audio-visual experience. From my window, I can see the signals that nature thoughtfully provides for anyone without a calendar. The daffodils are out, the first tiny leaves are sprouting on the trees, the Grackles are decimating the bird feeders, and a neighbor who believes herself to be unseen is gathering up handfuls of brush and sneakily tossing them over the fence into the next yard.

The sound effects of spring are turned up full volume. The men of the neighborhood, released into the outdoors by warmer weather, have rediscovered their machines. Nothing makes the suburban male feel happier or more masculine than the roar and stink of a two-cycle engine. Almost any kind of machine will do: a chainsaw, a leaf blower, a drill, a saw, a mower, a pump, or simply an engine. One of our neighbors keeps a small gas engine on top of a box in his yard. It’s not connected to anything, and has no apparent purpose except to make a hellish noise, and send a haze of oily blue smoke drifting over the daffodils.

White contractor’s trucks flit around the suburban streets, like skirmishers ahead of an invading army. Spring brings on the urge to make home improvements, to paint and fix and extend the family home so that it more closely fits the ideal homes illustrated in all those catalogs and magazines. Already we’re seeing the landscaping services, the pool services, the air conditioning services, the exterminator services, and all the other specialists whose mission is to make suburban life a more or less perfect experience. No heat shall touch us, no weed shall grow, no insect shall bite, no plastic siding shall offend our eyes with streaks of dirt. This is it: Nirvana.

What saves us from going totally crazy in this Disney-ish environment is that not everyone plays the game. If you walk around your local streets you will find little patches of anarchy, suburban plots where no contractor or lawn care person has set foot, lo these many years. There are three quite near our house – not abandoned or derelict, but homes belonging to people who have declared war on suburban conventions.

My favorite is a 1950s ranch that the owner decided to turn into a palace, or perhaps a castle. He added a random mixture of rooms and turrets, slapped on to the original building at odd angles, and lost heart halfway through the building process. The resulting half-finished structure looks like the result of a bombing. The yard is completely bare, apart from some large trees that were felled two years ago, and just left lying there in the dirt.

Not far away is a classic older house in high Victorian style, disheveled, dark, and sinister, that could have been designed for the Addams Family. I’ve never actually seen Morticia, Gomez, and Uncle Fester, but I know they’re in there. After dark, when all the surrounding houses are lit up like Christmas trees, dim lights flicker behind the windows of the Addams house like will-o’-the-wisps.

Just down the street, there’s a cottage that I call the Little house in the Prairie, surrounded by high grass and weeds that soar half way up to the middle of the first-floor windows, defying the cardinal rule of suburban life: cut the grass.

The inhabitants of these eccentric houses aren’t poor. New and expensive cars decorate their overgrown driveways. I don’t think they’re lazy either. They are striking a blow for individualism and against conformity. Their houses are a challenge to Home Depot and all that it represents. They will make it through the spring unchanged, and unimproved. I hope to do the same.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Dangerous Planet

Earth Day arrives this week, so what should we do? Back in the 1970s, when Earth Day began, the answer was fairly simple: plant a tree, raise consciousness, promote cleaner air and water. It was a ritual of purification and celebration, a day for us to show how concerned we were about the deterioration of our environment, and our (perhaps naïve) determination to put things right.

Now it’s more daunting. Global warming is a mega problem. A few hybrids and windmills won’t solve it, let alone devious evasions like carbon credits. We need to change completely how we live – no more long distance flying, no more pointless short car trips, no more thermostats set to our perfect comfort zone three hundred and sixty-five days a year. The penalty for failing to change these habits, so we’re told, will be a new and more comprehensive version of Noah’s flood, with Long Island one of the first places to go under.

This is definitely something worth worrying about. But are we really going to change how we live? I should give up my car, become a vegetarian, and live in a tent but I won’t. I should reduce my carbon footprint, but that’s harder than reducing my waistline. The habits of a lifetime don’t change so easily. As the water rises I guarantee that we’ll see the first amphibious SUV’s splashing down the street towards the Mall, gulping gas at fifty dollars a gallon.

Global warming must take its place in the hierarchy of human problems and, given a choice of problems, we will always prefer the ones that cause the least personal inconvenience. So why worry about global warming when the cosmos itself is such a dangerous place? Here we are, zipping through infinite space on a ball of dirt so small that even the most intelligent aliens have never noticed it. Every day astronomers report exploding stars and the annihilation of whole galaxies in unimaginable collisions. The Andromeda Galaxy is headed our way at eighty-seven miles a second, and killer comets and asteroids are coming at us like paintballs from all directions, at about twenty-six thousand miles an hour. We are threatened by giant cosmic clouds of poison dust, and super-magnetic neutron stars and the latest speculation by scientists is that a rogue “bubble universe” made of phantom energy could appear out of nowhere and gobble up the earth quicker than Washington gobbles up our tax dollars. Then there’s the giant Hadron Collider in Geneva, which could create an uncontrollable black hole that would swallow the planet in a matter of seconds, if the bubble universe and poison clouds don’t get us first.

All this is rather disturbing, but at least it puts the anxiety about global warming in proper perspective, somewhere between cholesterol and the credit crunch. There’s nothing to be done about vast cosmic threats like exploding galaxies, so we can worry about them, as it were, free of charge. There’s no need to make any changes in the way we live.

But global warming and climate change are not at all like science fiction. They seem to demand dramatic action – but what? Remember the slogan coined by Friends of the Earth: “Think globally, act locally”? It set me thinking about that sly fox Voltaire. In his comic masterpiece Candide Voltaire created a character who suffered every conceivable disaster and never quite gave up his optimism. But at the very end of the book, Candide concluded that the world was a madhouse, and there was nothing to be done except act locally. “We must cultivate our garden,” he declared, meaning we must just get on with it and do what we can where we are.

It’s not exactly a rousing slogan, but it’s probably all that most of us individually can do on Earth day: plant a tree, or maybe some rice, buy a recyclable shopping bag, get the old bicycle out, cultivate our gardens – just do what we can.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Nostalgia Industry

For ten years the television series Downton Abbey was the flagship carrier of international nostalgia. Then it ended, to great lamentation among its hundred and twenty million worldwide viewers. Now it’s coming back, and fans are gripped by a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia at the thought of seeing it all over again. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon. New or recycled historical series had already begun to fill the gap, including classics like Upstairs Downstairs, and pastiches like Dickensian. In Britain, the production of decorative nostalgia is a kind of cottage industry. They must have warehouses full of eighteenth and nineteenth-century costumes.

I have nothing at all against Downton Abbey. It is a superior soap opera, beautifully produced, and a work of art in its own way. I watched a few episodes of the first series, and quite enjoyed it. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe in it. My grandmother worked as a maid in one of those great houses at the turn of the nineteenth century, and her stories about it were more like Dickens than Downton. It was a cruel world and a hard life.

Nostalgia never has much to do with reality. While enjoying these colorful tales we know full well that the past was very much like the present, only worse. But the idea of a Golden Age is endlessly seductive. Two thousand years ago the Greeks and the Romans looked back with nostalgia to the Age of Heroes. Five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, Europeans looked back to the Golden Age of the Greeks and Romans, and so it goes. Every nation has its own tales of a glorious past that never really existed. History is a bottomless source of inspiring but unlikely plots, as Shakespeare knew very well. England in the fourteenth century was captivated by ancient and fantastic tales about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. America has its myths of cowboys in the Wild West, although some seem to find the Puritans of New England more appealing. The followers of the Islamic State believe that the tenth century was pretty much ideal.

If we are going to visit the past at all, fiction is the way to do it. In fiction, the chaos of life is put into proper narrative order. It makes sense, which it never did at the time. But serious history books are hard work, and the best place to experience the reality of the fantasy is on television where we can admire the architecture and the costumes and not get too bogged down in the messy details.

Not all fictional portrayals of the past are warm and fuzzy, of course. Many of them revel in the sheer horror of it, and I haven’t seen an optimistic film about the future since Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” If Hollywood is to be believed, the future will be all about apocalypses, barbarism, screaming teenagers, and giant armored vehicles racing across devastated landscapes. If that future ever comes, we will be remembered as the Golden Age.

Who wouldn’t prefer gentle dramas from an imagined past, like Downton Abbey? The series author, Lord Fellowes, seems to be a nice chap. I do hope that he will give his new fairy tale an old-fashioned happy ending.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Vacation Dreams

Spring would normally be a busy time for the travel industry, but not this year. The vacations of 2019 have almost faded from memory, and we can hardly wait. A few advertisements are just beginning to hint at how the golden weeks of summer can be enjoyed, at a price. Right now, when we so much want to get away, almost any price seems worth paying.

Vacations are as much a matter of personal taste as food or music. One person’s perfect getaway is another’s worst nightmare. So the huge vacation market is roughly divided between packages that offer comfortable and familiar experiences and those that promote getaways that are new and challenging – between relaxation on the one hand and stimulation on the other. There is also a large intermediate category of trips like European river cruises, that promise travel on calm waters, with a boat full of people just like ourselves, familiar food and comfortable surroundings, gliding at a safe distance through an exotic landscape full of foreigners, some of whom may be persuaded to pose for souvenir photographs. This is obviously the best of both worlds.

Actually, I’d rather like to take one of those river cruises, they sound so relaxing. But they also seem a bit tame, and I feel that I’m not being adventurous enough in my old age. There are so many parts of the world I haven’t seen, and the travel industry has been there ahead of me, preparing for me as it were. Every exotic locale has been exploited to the maximum. No island is too isolated, no culture is too peculiar, no activity is too bizarre to be promoted by the tourist industry as a unique travel experience. There is not a remote tribe or an endangered species that doesn’t have its own group of tourists, cameras poised to record the moment. The exotic has become the mundane – bungee jumping in the Sahara, surfing in Antarctica. When everyone it seems has walked on the Great Wall of China or herded wild guinea pigs in Peru, it is very hard to find something different on a small planet.

Vacations are escape attempts. Their purpose is to convince us at all costs – and the costs are often huge – that we really have left the routine world and that this is not just more of the same. Hence the market for so-called adventure holidays keeps on growing, although it’s actually nothing new. Forty years ago when I had a lot of hair and an enviable suntan I worked for an adventure holiday outfit based in London. My job was to be a driver and guide for small groups of intrepid, and sometimes marginally insane tourists who wanted to see the real Greece, the real Turkey, the real Russia, or the real Morocco. If “real” means dirty, desolate, and totally lacking in amenities we certainly delivered on that promise. The “adventures” consisted mainly in surviving or even recognizing the food, trying to sleep in our collapsing tents, and being driven by a “guide” – namely myself – who had no sense of direction and bad eyesight. Nobody ever booked a second trip with that company.

But there is no true escape without a little effort. A vacation should include excitement, discomfort, uncertainty and risk. It’s exactly what we need to take us out of this claustrophobic pandemic world. Or, perhaps more precisely, it’s what you need. I’ve already been there, and done that.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Going to the Shops

Most of us I think remember bits and pieces from our childhood, but not the whole thing. One of the bits I remember is a ritual I shared with my mother three or four times a week. It was called “Going to the shops.”

“Going to the shops.” was not the same as shopping. Shopping was entertainment, and I never learned to do it properly. But going to the shops was serious.

London at that time was more like a series of villages. Every district had its own main street, and most of the residents bought their food and other necessities there, walking from shop to shop because very few of us had a car. This ritual has stayed in my memory when so many other things have been forgotten, and I can remember those morning walks virtually shop by shop.

The first place we encountered after turning on to the main street was the best: Mr. Pask’s bicycle shop, a dark cave of a place smelling of oil and rubber and full of infinitely desirable machines. There was a repair shop in the back, forbidden to customers. I had read in a book that the Wright Brothers had discovered the secret of flight in a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and I always wondered what Mr. Pask was doing in his hidden workshop. My friends and I favored the theory that he was working on a pedal-powered helicopter.

Next to the bicycle shop was a candy shop that sold loose candy from big glass jars and fizzy drinks in bright colors – disgusting but always worth a visit. And then some rather boring establishments, a butcher, a baker, a fish shop, and a grocer, each with its own rich odor, and where we always had to wait. Then there was a photographer whose place was almost as full of interesting sights and smells as the bicycle shop, a general electrical store, a wool shop much patronized by my mother, a shop that sold everything including army surplus items, fresh eggs, and radio sets, an old-fashioned hardware store, a shoe repair shop full of antique machinery and warm leather smells and finally a newsagent’s shop that was an exploding cornucopia of brightly colored magazines and comics.

Small businesses like these are losing or have lost the battle against the big box supermarkets on the edge of town. Now everyone wants one-stop shopping. What I used to do with my mother in those distant days was more like ten stop shopping, and it was certainly not efficient. But we used no fuel, created no pollution, and got a whole lot of exercise.

You can still find old-fashioned shopping streets in some small towns. Along the main street of our nearest town in France, in spite of all the boutiques selling overpriced clothes and tourist items, the shadow of the old, practical main street is still visible. There is the hardware store, the photographer, the electrical store, the wool shop, numerous food and wine shops, pharmacies, newsagents, a peculiar place that sells only knives, dog leashes, and walking sticks, a laundry, a small bookstore, and even bicycle and shoe repair shops tucked away on a side street – everything we could ever need, if we hadn’t learned to need so much.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Plumbing the Depths

There is no emergency like a water emergency. When the plumbing fails, we panic. It brings out our most primitive fears. We inevitably think about Noah’s flood and the final deluge. When water runs out of control indoors we have the worst kind of domestic crisis.

The typical suburban house provides plenty of opportunities to panic. Basements flood, cesspools collapse, valves, pipes, and faucets disintegrate without warning, and drains block up for no reason at all. For those accustomed to French plumbing, this is business as usual. But, in America, our whole lives depend on the assumption that plumbing should be perfect. In Manhattan, people who suffer from bad plumbing simply call the janitor and go straight to their therapist. Here in the suburbs, we must take responsibility for our own plumbing disasters.

Plumbers are a suburban aristocracy, like firefighters. They are heroic, almost mythical figures, with their elusive habits and their vast estates in the Hamptons. People whisper the names of favored plumbers like those of elite cosmetic surgeons or particularly successful brokers.

We used to have an excellent plumber called Joe, which is the perfect name for a plumber. Joe always arrived promptly in his ancient truck, which leaked oil all over the driveway. We assumed that the Mercedes stayed discreetly in his garage at home. He tackled the latest catastrophe with a skeptical air of one who had seen it all before, and indeed had waded in it all before. According to Joe, there were only two kinds of plumbing emergencies: water that appears in the wrong place at the wrong time, or water that refuses to go away. Water is the plumber’s enemy – nasty, slippery stuff with that alarming tendency to find its own level that we learned about in science class at school. I never quite understood how water knows what its level should be. But, in our house, it is always about three inches above the floor of the basement.

Joe’s diagnostic skills were reassuring. Like a physician, he began with a standard catechism of questions:

“When did the trouble start?”
“Did you notice any symptoms before that?”
“Have you heard any gurgling sounds right here?”
“Have your bathroom habits changed lately?”

Being slightly deaf, he ignored the answers and headed straight for the basement carrying what seemed to be his only tool – a huge wrench which also served as a hammer, a crowbar, and a kind of conducting baton to accompany his lectures on hydraulics, pressure, gravity, and the inadvisability of flushing major household appliances down the toilet. When the job was done he would invariably apologize profusely for the bill

Joe retired and went to his reward in Florida or on the French Riviera, and it has been hard to replace him. Big companies have overwhelmed the independent plumber, much as they have the swept independent family doctors into health care corporations. The plumbing companies are efficient. They send a big shiny truck full of equipment, and what is now called a “technician” with an iPad full of instructions and a cell phone to call the chief plumber back at headquarters if things go wrong. These technicians speak more politely than Joe ever did, but they seem to have a kind of script to follow. “I am Sebastian, and I will be your plumber today.” They have an annoying tendency to recommend new repairs, new spare parts, and new equipment. Joe would always fix the old worn out stuff somehow, like the traditional family doctor. Instead of a heart bypass, a few rubber washers or an aspirin would do the job. And there’s another thing. I’ve noticed that the brave new water management technicians of the brave new twenty-first century
never, ever, apologize for the bill.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Read it Out Loud

The habit of reading aloud to children is slowly fading away. Busy parents prefer to settle their little darlings down with the TV or a video. As the beneficiary of countless hours of reading aloud by my parents, this seems like a shame to me. Not only was it a very warm and companionable thing, but it made me see my parents as magical storytellers, so I have admired storytellers ever since. My father was a particularly good reader, having a resonant voice, good timing, and a gift for imitation. The family myth is that, at a very young age, I learned all my favorite stories by heart, so they could never get away with skipping a page, or even a single line.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was normal for literate families to read aloud to each other, just as it was normal for them to play music together. Now the mass media have made those sociable habits largely redundant. Most of us, if called upon to read from Shakespeare, or even from the morning paper, will make a sad mess of it. We don’t have the skills that come from having the habit.

Yet how reassuring it is to hear a familiar voice beginning a familiar story. The voice draws us in, as plain print does not. We can lift our eyes from the printed page, the smallest distraction is enough to break its spell. But a voice holds our attention.

“The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.”

That’s the opening of Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows ,the story of a mole, a water rat, a toad and their friends in the English countryside. I loved that book as a child, and knew every word. Now I want it to go on, to hear how Mole abandoned his spring cleaning and burrowed up into the sunshine and met the water rat, and all about their adventures. But I want someone else to read it to me, I want to hear it.

Familiar opening lines draw us in like a magnet.

“Old Marley was dead to begin with, there was no doubt whatsoever about that.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’”

“Call me Ishmael.”

Most book addicts will recognize all those openings without difficulty, and that’s the point. They stand for the whole unfolding story, the story that we know already and we want to hear again, like a child at bedtime.

So for some real old-fashioned entirely free home entertainment this season of isolation, choose a good story, preferably a mystery or a ghost story, gather your audience, and read it out loud.

Copyright: David Bouchier