It was not until I got to the Bristol Hotel at Oslo that I worked out that the best way to deal with fatigue and nausea after nearly forty hours travel through the spheres is not to try to force the food down or to keep drinking until you break the ennui barrier – because then you would just be setting up a new kind of pain barrier. The recipe I stumbled on was to have three stiff Scotches and soda – spaced by an easy walk, – and then knock off a giant profiterole with a jug – a jug – of hot chocolate with cream on the side. Get the management to ring you at 8 the next morning, polish off three eggs with the works on you are on your way.
The Bristol Hotel resembles a gentlemen’s clubs in many ways. The main bar and diner are shut over summer, but the club bar is open. It features leathers, lamps, books, and clubbiness. Aspects of the architecture variously remind you of St James, St Petersburg, and Cairo – the Raj, even. And that is as it should be for a city on the edge of Europe. This is certainly my kind of boozer.
Oslo tends to be bland and unimaginative, more like a Stan than, say, Bendigo. It seems to lack confidence. Ibsen said as much when he left Norway. There is not the same street dining, or even as much street coffee consumption. Food and drink are brutally expensive. The open sandwich is of course an art form, but decent wine is hard to get. You don’t see those bottle shops or little newsstands that you find in other European cities. You find it hard to know what country you are in. Only the sea-gulls tell you that you are by the sea. You don’t get those Mediterranean pastels they go in for up north so much in town. Current buildings define the word uninspiring
The town does have redemption. The people are civilised and polite. All the Scandinavians belie their Viking ancestry. There are Gypsy beggars but very little traffic. Unless you are careful, eating and drinking will cost you an arm and a leg. There are attractions for tourists about Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Curiously enough, what caught my attention at the Gallery were two Russian icons, which reminded me of some of our black artists, and a Manet – the author as playwright.
There is an Ibsen museum where a guided tour is mandatory – testament to the hazardous discipline of that remote genius. It is worth doing, to get an idea of the sets of his plays. For a man who wanted to put a torpedo under the ark, and to undress the upper class of their pretensions, he had a remarkably anal attraction to rank and status, and an inclination to much younger women that makes his biographers skittish. There is no doubt that he was a master playwright, a genius at composing dramas. So was Shakespeare, but the explosive force of his poetry sometimes makes us forget that he was the world’s supreme dramatist and entertainer. Could anyone improve on the drama of Richard II and Henry IV Parts I and II? Certainly The Dolls’ House and Hedda Gabler are great dramas that have made an important contribution to the conversation of mankind. But they are mostly confined within one class of one nation at one time, and they are quite without humour.
Stockholm is very different. The best way to get there from Oslo is by train – but watch the taxis at the other end. This is a city that obviously saw itself as power in Europe centuries ago that it is not now. It can be imperious, imperial even, in a way that demure Oslo is not. At times it reminded me of Vienna. And the scourge of summer tourism is even worse. As you walk along tessellated pavements, you seem to hear the sounds of horses trotting – it is just people trailing their cases. They are everywhere.
Some things hit you straight away. You need to be very careful with cab drivers. One crook wanted to charge me $50 for a distance I knew was within two k’s. (I have just booked a fixed price cab for the airport 40 k’s away at $65.) The old architecture is as grand as the new is deflating. There is much more traffic here than in Oslo but nothing like that in major European capitals. I am fascinated by the trouble people take in selecting their beers – women and men. They go to far more trouble than we do with wine and the waiters and waitresses are used to being cross-examined.
I’m damned if I know how Hitler expected to improve on the Vikings genetically, because there are a lot of seriously good looking people here. Yet for some reason, I keep coming across people of all ages with something odd about their gait – even just splayed feet. Well, that may serve me right for descending to types.
The city is favoured by inlets and lakes, great green areas, rock faces, and those hideous monstrosities called cruise ships. If I got herded on to one, I think I would be taking a header before we reached the Baltic.
There are parts that remind you of Berlin, Amsterdam, Melbourne, New York, Hong Kong, and Istanbul. The hop-on hop-off bus here is a good deal because there is a wide are to cover. You could walk around the main parts of Oslo in an hour or so.
I’m staying at Frey’s which is a very personable and quirky hotel, as centrally situated as the Bristol, and with a good bar and restaurant – a man behind the desk said that Oslo was twice the price for food. Last night I bought a bottle of Koonunga Hill at a bottle shop for about what I would pay at the Malmsbury boozer. At the Bristol, an indifferent French red was $20 a glass.
Well, these people are at peace with the world, in ways that would violate the conscience of Ted Cruz, and someone has to pay for it. You can say that for all Scandinavians – they are very easy to deal with.
The highlight of my trip to Scandinavia was my visit to the statue of Jussi Bjorling behind the opera house at Stockholm.
As I waited for the cab to the airport, I spoke to the Night Manager at Frey’s. He says that people in Sweden talk of little except migration and Islam. It has become very clear to me recently that educated people have underestimated the anxiety of those who are not so well off on those subjects. The man from Ghana who drove me from Heathrow to King’s Cross told me that he had voted for Brexit because those bloody migrants had taken his job. He was presumably speaking of white migrants.
The following day, I moved to Cambridge where events led me to post the following.
Cambridge –a big night out
It was like a Breughel painting. A graphic Hades.
The last time I came to Cambridge for one of these summer schools, people were invited to arrive on the Sunday, since courses start at 9 am on Monday, and some bastard forgot to open the bar. There was ill feeling. There was serious ill feeling, and some very rude remarks about the English.
Today, Sunday evening, I was assured by the porter at Selwyn College that the bar would be open at 6 pm. A Presbyterian sense of determinism led me to the off licence to buy some insurance.
Sure enough, as I got near the bar at the appointed time, the porter told me that the bar would not be open tonight. She suggested that I show for dinner at half six. I repaired to my room and consoled myself with the insurance of the bottle shop. I was annoyed. One of the reasons I have gone to Oxford and Cambridge – the choice of tense is not accidental – was to enjoy the company of people who know they have a lot to learn. I have done about half of a dozen at each, and I know something of what is on offer.
So, at half six, I approached the appointed place at the college hall not expecting grace in Latin, or at all, as I used to get at Maddingley Hall, but a reasonable meal with reasonable wine in good company. My heart miss-gave as I heard a racket emerging from the hall. I could recall eating in the hall. It is one of those stately halls garbed in timber, but it has some modern portraits of people who look frankly fascist, and a column embraced proscenium where you think some impeccably dressed white gentleman might do something unfortunate to a goat. Tonight the hall could have hosted a pregame function for Man-U.
It was choc-full, like a footy crowd, with cafeteria service. Start with the pudding, Dear, then choose between ravioli and roast chicken, and you can add chips, and one of those little bottles of sham red with little round glasses that you used to get on TAA in the fifties. Which you pay extra for – remember, Ducky, the bar’s shut.
I bore my tray to a spot where I spied some room for my plate, and wine, as unworthy as they both were, and I sat down. When one of a group of aquiline matrons told me that there was no cutlery in my spot. I recall now it was the end of the table. I was – really – minded to ask whether she had adored Jefferson to utter such a self-evident truth, but I was morbidly preoccupied by wondering whether the excision under her bottom lip had been transposed to the top of the nose. Before she moved away – not without ostentation – she told me that that since I had been to Cambridge before, she might tell me that people had previously been seated in the hall by reference to their standing, or words to that effect, but that that rule had been recently relaxed. She just wanted me to know that I was in a state of grace. But that I should know better.
Now, this kind of balls-up happens. And we chuckle about it after a few drinks, and we try to put the outrage to good use. That which does not kill us makes us better, some say.
The whole overturn now going on in the West refutes that silly saying. As does the decline and fall of the Roman Empire – or anybody that whose time is up.
This balls-up at Selwyn College was an outrage – the insolence of office. And it is a terrible symptom of our times. People who should know better are just failing us – and the revenge of the losers looks frightful. If this kind of insult can be put on us at Selwyn College, Cambridge, what hope have we?
My late father – God bless him – told me that he was used to being insulted, but that he preferred to be insulted by experts. Tonight I learned again what Mac meant.
The two courses taught at Oxford were first class – John Milton and the French Revolution by David Smith and The French Revolution by Dr Sean Lang. These people really teach – a novelty for me at a university. The plenary lectures were also good.
You can usually tell when you arrive at a command economy – you keep running into people, mainly men, who appear to hold some position but have nothing to do. You see it in China, Turkey, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and now Vietnam. (It is the direct opposite of what you get in the U S, and its most toxic form could be seen in the USSR.)
But there is something different about Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City. This is more like the old smelly, squalid Asia of Singapore 60 years ago or Hong Kong 40 years ago or Bangkok twenty years ago. Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo are too big and shiny for us now, western footprints on the Asian littoral, and New Delhi and Calcutta are too in-your-face for us. At least Saigon feels Asian, although I have not seen anything like a red light area. Perhaps that is just as well, the local ladies are quite happy to look you straight in the eye.
You can also see the French influence, especially at my hotel, The Majestic. This nation may be the one former French colony that is not a smoking ruin. Its government is locked in a freezer, but the nation looks content.
Endless rivers of scooters wave trustfully up and down beside a yet wider river in a way that bespeaks trust. The traffic is not nearly as loud or angry as that of Paris or Rome. Every time you go on the road you experience the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. You can be drifting along in a line abreast at about 45 k’s when two or three will come at you at 45 degrees and no one bats an eyelid.
There are women of angular elegance who know how to show it; a lot of men appear to be employed by ‘security.’ Although you receive offers of lifts, there is little evidence of caste and not the poverty on the streets you get in Scandinavia. Perhaps the government does some things right.
The Bristol and Frey’s were three to four star hotels with plenty of local personality. You could say the same for the Majestic in Saigon. It was French inspired; it is not as grand as the old Raffles in Singapore or the Peninsula at Hong Kong – it is more like the Imperial at Tokyo, and with a charm of its own as well. The girls are determinedly pretty in their black and gold and the boys are determined to show savoir faire. And there are plenty of both – although I saw nothing louche.
The roof top bar is a favourite – even if over the river might remind you of Coode Island on a bad day. As I said, we are in old Asia – a land of Smiley’s people. It is the kind of place where a solitary person like me can get lachrymose. I did twice. On the second night, a Japanese lady turned up with her eight year old son for dinner. When they took cocktails, they reminded me of the Japanese ladies who took their kids to the Imperial for brunch – they touched glasses.
Courtesy is what separates us from guerillas – and people like Trump and Corbyn – and I still get stirred get stirred up when I see it somewhere I don’t know people.
I suspect that this might be my last big trip – God only knows my run has been good enough, but I feel now I’ve had enough. Going over there from here is punishing, too punishing for me now.
But this notion of courtesy being passed on is a good way to finish. When I called for my chit, and said that I would add the tip to the account for my room- as I had done the night before – the main waiter – who had allowed me to retire both the bottle and the glass to my room the night before – said that this was impossible. I then wrestled with the absurd local currency (16000:1) to give to him – and the very nice man who had looked after me that night – a cash tip – and he said that I was offering far too much.
The people of Vietnam certainly look content enough. They are convivial and communal; they share food on street corners, they play dice on stools or sit demurely in their skirts and flatties on their scooters, they look to be at peace in their own skins and with the world. And then you come across an old lady in a coolie hat put-putting her way through the traffic on an absurdly overloaded Vespa.
I doubt if I have seen so many people so obviously content. Is perhaps the only flaw a strain of obedience? Is it, indeed, a flaw?