Nonsense in America

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


Kim was railing against courtroom shenanigans and other ploys designed to change the outcome of the recent election in the United States.

‘It’s nonsense,’ she said, with considerable feeling. ‘It flies in the face of observable fact!’

Dimitri appeared to be in not quite full agreement. ‘The president’s people aren’t denying reality,’ he said. ‘They’re trying to bend it into a different shape.’

Of all the editorial board I think it’s fair to say that Dimitri is the only one whose views and casual observations, taken in a certain way, might sometimes be construed as having faint but discernible traces of Trumpism.

Kim may have reached a similar conclusion, because she replied sharply, ‘Truth is truth, Dimitri! Facts are facts!’

‘But life has a way of undermining truth,’ Dimitri said.

‘Derrida?’ Patrice asked – Patrice has a penchant, common among many of his compatriots, for outré philosophical argument.

‘Perhaps the people will be judged to have lost the government’s confidence. Perhaps the government will have to dissolve the people and elect another,’ I said. It was rather glib, but I wanted to lighten the solemn mood. We were supposed to be discussing a proposed feature on comic verse.

‘I wasn’t thinking about Brecht,’ Dimitri said, ‘or Derrida, for that matter. I was thinking that the President’s systemic renunciation of observable fact has a certain internal consistency. It wouldn’t be out of place if it had been dreamed up by Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.’ At this, he launched into an impromptu and rather spirited recitation: ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.’

‘You’re right!’ Kim said, which I found more than a little surprising. ‘And Giuliani,’ she added, ‘might as well have been quoting from Alice in Wonderland for all the sense he made at that press conference.’

‘The one at the garden centre?’ I asked.

‘No,’ Kim said, ‘The one where his hair dye started to run.’

‘Though some at my aversion smile,’ Patrice said, abandoning the niceties of post-structuralism for the nonsense verse that we had gathered to discuss, ‘I cannot love the crocodile. / Its conduct does not seem to me / Consistent with sincerity.’

‘Or even sanity,’ Kim said. ‘There’s surely a possibility that these people have started to believe their own rhetoric.’

‘No, Kim,’ Rami said. ‘The president isn’t delusional. He is defiant. The crocodile itself no less / Displays, but does not feel, distress, / And with its tears augments the Nile; / The false, amphibious crocodile.’

‘The point being?’ Dimitri asked.

I was glad I wasn’t the only one losing the thread.

‘The point being that if the president really believed he’d won,’ Rami said, ‘his efforts would be less clownish – and he would continue to govern, rather than play golf. It’s surely a case of “displays but does not feel”.’

‘And what can be deduced from this?’ Kim asked.

‘Well,’ Rami said, ‘the trouble with geraniums . . .’

‘Exactly!’ Patrice said, enthusiastic again. ‘They’re much too red!

The resemblance between our meeting and the Mad Hatter’s tea party did not elude me. Yet, as I listened, I did rather wish that I shared my colleagues’ facility to dredge up appropriate lines from long ago.

And the trouble with my toast,’ Kim continued.

Is that it’s far too full of bread,’ Patrice concluded.

‘Not sure I follow.’ It was an admission I felt obliged to make, though it may have sounded a little grumpy.

‘There is no artifice,’ Dimitri explained. ‘At least, I think that’s the point. The president will bow to reality in due course, like a spoiled child after a tantrum.’

‘But he has led millions into a dangerous illusion,’ Kim said.

‘There has always been nonsense,’ Dimitri said. ‘The trick is to render it benign – or to channel it in a positive way. Perhaps the next president will be able to do that.’

On the Ning Nang Nong / Where the Cows go Bong! / and the monkeys all say BOO?’ I asked. Glib again, but it was nonsense I learned as a child and I wanted – perhaps just for the sake of inclusion – to bring it to the table.

‘Precisely,’ Dimitri said.

And, to my surprise, there were expressions of approval from the others too.


A Tangled Web

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


‘Tyranny is a virus,’ Dimitri said. ‘Truth is the antidote. It has to be prescribed and administered.’

‘That’s not entirely encouraging,’ Patrice remarked. He is gloomy over the state of things in Hongkong.

Kim is gloomy over the state of things on the other side of the pond. ‘The lies become bigger,’ she said, ‘as the gap between rhetoric and reality expands.’

‘But the truth will prevail,’ Rami said, with commendable certainty, and then she added, ‘Won’t it?’ Which rather undermined the initial conviction. She continued, however. ‘Disingenuous assertions are confounded by their own logic, eventually. Demagogues are embarrassed by their own inconsistencies.’

What a tangled web we weave,’ I suggested, ‘when first we practise to deceive!’

Kogo Lyubit?’ Dimitri said, perhaps with a tad more panache. ‘Komu Zheverit? Kto ne izmenit nam odin? Kto vsedela, vserechimerit Usluzhlivo na nash arshin.’

Striking though this rendition undoubtedly was, I felt Dimitri might have put something of a linguistic spanner in the dialectical works, but Kim, rather to my surprise, said, ‘I know that one!’

‘Of course you do!’ Dimitri grinned indulgently, and his moustache, it seemed to me, stuck out even further from his cheeks, like the indicators on a vintage motorcar.

‘It’s Onegin,’ Kim said, ‘but I forget which bit.’

Kogo . . . Kto . . . Kto . . . who will judge . . . love . . . measure.’ Patrice sometimes tinkers with language – like a mechanic under one of those ancient automobiles.

Whom to love and trust and treasure,’ Rami said. ‘Who won’t betray us in the end?’

I thought at first that this was a spontaneous (and rather disconcerting) cry from the heart, but then I realized that Rami was quoting – from the very same Onegin. ‘And who will be kind enough to measure / Our words and deeds as we intend?’ she concluded.

‘I am among my own!’ Dimitri said.

‘But, Dimitri, you’re not Russian,’ I said, perhaps a little pedantically, ‘and, for that matter, neither are we.’

‘But we are admirers of Pushkin,’ he replied, to which there was really no argument.

‘I did a production of Onegin in Mombasa years ago,’ Rami said. ‘The Russians were keen at the time to sponsor the Kenyan theatre – and sell helicopters.’

‘The only quote I know from Onegin is the one the movie studio stole for Casablanca,’ I said.

‘Albus,’ Patrice’s tone was unusually severe. ‘That’s too opaque to be sociable.’

‘Of all the gin joints . . .’ I began.

Dimitri took over in the Pushkin original, which – clearly – I couldn’t compete with. He recited the couplet: ‘Zachem vy posetili nas? V glushi zabytogo selen’ya

Why did you come here?’ Rami translated, ‘To this forgotten village in the back of beyond.’

‘Well, it’s not quite Bogart, but the comparison holds,’ Patrice said.

‘Scott and Pushkin,’ Kim said, ‘had a great deal in common.’

‘Scott and Pushkin?’ Rami asked.

‘Albus quoted Scott’s line – what a tangled web,’ Kim said.

‘The hero of that poem is a nasty piece of work,’ I said, ‘He keeps seducing women and casting them aside and then getting other people into trouble. Just like Onegin.’

‘Pushkin was a disciple of Scott,’ Kim continued, ‘but more ruthless. Flawed protagonists are his speciality. The Queen of Spades is all about cheating and the lengths the hero will go in order to win at cards.’

‘He’s exposed in the end, though, ‘Patrice said. ‘That’s the saving grace. The gulf between disingenuous assertion and reality becomes plain for all to see.’

‘I wish it would happen here,’ Kim said.

‘And here,’ Patrice echoed.

‘It might,’ Rami said. ‘Scott’s protagonist gives up the fight in the end, because a sinful heart makes feeble hand’.

‘Didn’t Pushkin say something clever about choices in “our age of infamy”?’ I asked.

‘The choice,’ Dimitri said, ‘is to be a tyrant, a traitor or a prisoner.’

‘Ah,’ Kim said, with a certain relish, ‘when the truth is administered, justice surely follows in its wake.’

‘It’s part of the recovery process,’ Dimitri said.

This was an observation with which no one disagreed.

When Hope and History Rhyme

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Long ago I taught Renaissance poetry at a university where the Principal – having been caught in the very act of pocketing college funds – was invited to step down. To general consternation and annoyance, he declined to do so, preferring instead to squat in his rather luxurious grace-and-favour townhouse. I alluded to this insalubrious slice of academic life during a pause in the weekly editorial meeting.

‘How did they get him to go?’ Dimitri asked.

‘Well . . .’

Before I could continue, he added, ‘In my parts, they would have sent someone round for a serious word, maybe the sort that doesn’t fall entirely short of intimidation.’

‘With us,’ Rami said, ‘there would be conversations.’

‘Conversations?’ Kim asked.

‘Old friends, elders, perhaps even adversaries. There would be a lot of talking. Talking opens the way to seeing new realities.’

‘So, what happened . . . with the Principal?’ Patrice asked, reasserting Dimitri’s focus on the denouement, and swatting aside the same Dimitri’s tendency to digress.

‘They switched off his electricity,’ I said. ’He moved out when he couldn’t have a hot bath.’

‘Humiliating?’ Patrice asked.

‘Undoubtedly, but the college sent a removal van and the whole thing was done early in the morning, as far as I know without fuss.’

The broader conversation – naturally – concerned the present resistance to eviction at a house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

‘Perhaps it wasn’t just that he couldn’t have a hot bath,’ Kim said. ‘Perhaps he only knew the game was up when he saw that the utility company had gone over to the other side.’

‘Who’s in, who’s out,’ Rami said. ‘The changing alchemy of influence – the power to command reduced to no more than the power to annoy.’

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs,’ Kim said, ‘End in a word; such is the breath of kings.’

‘Very apt, Kim!’ Patrice can’t resist an Elizabethan quote.

‘But he will still create problems,’ Dimitri observed, morosely.

‘Problems can be addressed. They can be managed,’ Kim said, ‘but the man himself has been shifted to the side of the stage. What’s done cannot be undone.’

‘I think, deep down, he understands that,’ Rami said. ‘The pictures are revealing. He wears . . . a February face.’

‘He’s tried and failed to portray his opponent’s victory as much ado about nothing,’ I quipped, rather cleverly, I thought.

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness,’ Patrice said, completing the reference to Benedick’s February face, and indicating (witheringly) that I wasn’t the only one who had identified the right play.

‘He has 70 million supporters!’ Dimitri continued not to look on the bright side, ‘That’s a lot of frost and storm and cloudiness!’

‘Well,’ Kim said, ‘we are in danger of focusing on the loser – which is what he would like. Better to speak about the winner. He has been remarkably magnanimous.’

‘They’re all magnanimous when they win.’ This, from Patrice, was, I felt, uncharacteristically cynical.

‘It runs deeper than that,’ Kim said. ‘I believe there’s substance beneath his rhetoric. The President-elect quoted Seamus Heaney when he won the nomination and again just a few days before the vote:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.’

‘I’m not sure even such a resolutely prophetic tone can touch the hearts of that 70 million,’ Dimitri insisted.

‘Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed,’ Rami said, invoking Richard II again. ‘Our doctors say this is no time to bleed.’

‘That was Richard’s own advice to squabbling underlings,’ Dimitri said. ‘They didn’t take much heed.’

‘Nor did he, at least until the very end,’ Patrice said.

‘Conversations,’ Rami repeated, ‘pave the way to new realities.’

‘No doubt,’ Kim said. ‘Kings and College Principals and Presidents – they all eventually bow to the vagaries of fate.’

With this – heads nodding across five computer screens – we returned to the literary business at hand.

Autumn Blues

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Kim’s world, on the shores of Lake Michigan, is already cold. Rami’s, on the coast two and a half thousand miles south of Cadiz, is hot and humid, whatever the season. Although winter comes to Patrice’s island off Hongkong, it’s a shadow of the frigid blanket that descends on China proper. Dimitri’s home in the Balkans, like mine in Madrid, is now infused with the stark light of autumn.

‘It’s not the season,’ Dimitri said. ‘It’s the virus!’ Dimitri has a way of moving from the slightly downbeat to the positively nihilistic in one conversational bound.

We had collectively acknowledged the glum tone of our pre-meeting emails – like a lot of committees, many of our useful exchanges take place in the lead-up and follow-through rather than at the meetings themselves.

‘I have to confess, I’m a little preoccupied with the big event on this side of the pond,’ Kim said. ‘He’ll definitely lose – but what if he doesn’t!’

‘Oh, Kim!’ Rami said, ‘when fools are in office, you often have to look the other way!’

‘Rami, my dear!’ Dimitri remarked with professorial familiarity, ‘if you look the other way for too long, they will come and ask you what you’re looking at!’

I was inclined to agree. I once lived in a country where political dissent was less welcome than reasoned argument at an election rally. But on the cause of our present gloom, I took a different view. ‘It’s not the virus, Dimitri,’ I said, ‘or the election in your parts, Kim. It is most certainly the season.’

‘Mists and mellow fruitfulness,’ Patrice said.

‘Indeed,’ I replied. ‘Flowers in the summer, Fires in the fall! Autumn has that particular congruence of change and melancholy.’

‘Who wrote the last bit?’ Rami asked.

‘I did,’ I said.

‘Albus, you are surely not becoming sentimental.’ Kim has the magisterial knack of conveying conclusive disapproval with a clipped and steady tone.

‘I haven’t been to Ireland,’ Rami said, apropos nothing that sprang immediately to mind. Then she added, ‘but when I was a little girl, my mother recited those lines from Yeats. She used to read me poetry when we travelled to my grandmother’s. I remember looking through the window at dusk and hearing my mother speak about October twilight and a still sky.’

‘The swans,’ Patrice said, ‘that scatter wheeling in great broken rings.’

‘That’s the one!’ Kim said. ‘I agree with Albus. It’s surely the season, and not just the physical season. There are deeper currents – life, longing, that sort of thing. This time of year prompts reflection.’

When did you ever see / So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls / On that small tree,’ I said. ‘That was Clive James musing on transience at the very end of his life. Perhaps there’s a heightened sensibility when we grasp that everything we love will one day vanish.’

Not sentimental, I thought, though certainly a little on the wistful side.

This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong / To love that well which thou must leave ere long,’ Patrice said.

‘Patrice!’ Rami started to laugh. ‘Do you really have that from memory!’

‘He had a misspent youth,’ Dimitri said, ‘all Shelley and no wop bop a loo bop.’

‘A lop bam boom,’ Patrice interjected, it can safely be said, to general astonishment. ‘I dabbled in other things,’ he added dryly.

‘Gentlemen!’ I said, ‘Let’s not allow gloom to descend into flippancy!’

‘Is that another one of your own, Albus?’ Kim asked.

‘Newly minted,’ I said.

‘The season makes you eloquent,’ she said.

‘Not eloquent but pensive,’ I replied. ‘In Spain the leaves are falling on empty streets. It makes me think about the time after the Civil War, when the country was quiet and afraid.’

‘People close their eyes to ugliness,’ Rami said, ‘but the third eye sees the beauty beyond – redemption from dictators and fools, redemption from selfishness and spite.’

‘Bravo, Rami!’ Patrice said. ‘If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?’

‘Ask me in a few days,’ Kim said. ‘When the votes have been counted.’