Tuesday, 27 November 2001

Civilisation & The Railway Children

Listening to:

Mozart, The Magic Flute.

Just read:

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation.

The book of a TV series? Is this the sort of thing a high-brow publication such as mine should deign to consider? Well, it does date from over 30 years ago. In those days, TV series, particularly if made by the BBC, were serious, fine, morally upstanding affairs with real intellectual weight and grit. Not like the trash we get today, of course. Kenneth Clark was also the father of a famous Tory MP who fancied Margaret Thatcher, so I’m sure that makes all the difference.

Regardless, I liked this book. It’s a slightly odd survey of European art since the Dark Ages. In the first few chapters, Clark insists that he’s not interested in Art, because it’s quite possible to create Art without being civilised. Instead, he wants to track the progress of civilisation. This is a somewhat unusual slant, and I don’t think he really thinks the ideas through properly. However, they make for some interesting interludes.

Clark is also quite happy to make broad statements of a contentious nature without really backing them up. At one point he says something like the great tragedy of Germany is that it never developed its own clear prose style. This sort of thing is perfect for after-dinner debate, and it certainly makes you sit up and take notice. I found it stimulating, but I can imagine others finding it very irritating. I was willing to ‘cut him some slack’ for being a reactionary Tory because he wrote well, and also because he says lots of sensible things too.

The book concentrates on the visual arts and architecture. When it briefly digresses to sing the praises of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven it illustrates what I found with jazz in On the road; it’s nearly impossible to write about music and really convey the experience that listening to it would elicit. (The TV show would have at least been able to play samples of the music.)

Clark finishes his detailed coverage at the end of the 19th century, and writes just a little about the 20th century and how it might score in terms of civilisation.

E. Nesbit, The railway children.

I read E. Nesbit’s books a lot as a child, and enjoyed them all. They’re appealing stories, written without condescension and a nice ear for children’s dialogue and thought processes. The Edwardian setting didn’t put me off at all; rather, I enjoyed the exotic-ness of the horses, carts, gas-lights and servants. I think I liked the books that featured magic and/or time travel the most (books such as Five children and It and The story of the amulet), so I don’t have any real memory of reading The railway children. Coming to it again as a Much Older Person, I found it to be an impressive mix of charm and emotional oomph. It has a happy ending, and everything turns out well within the book’s various sub-plots, but you would have to be a cynic with a heart of stone not to be moved by the emotional climaxes of the story.

Interestingly, Harry Potter also gets most of its emotional oomph from the “lost parent(s)” theme. I guess it’s a safe staple for children’s literature.

To read next:

Granta 68: Love stories.