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Reading Aloud 2

Aldous and his wife

I had had a break from them for quite a while and my spirits had recovered. I therefore asked my husband, would he like to see them. He said ‘yes’ and I rang them up to invite them. Aldous’ wife who answered the telephone was delighted and relieved, I suspect, because I probably sounded my normal self. They would never break away from dear friends, she said, and wouldn’t it be lovely to see us.

We had a fire going when they arrived and spent a relaxed evening together. First of all they told us about their recent holiday and all the food they’d had, too much, she said, you’d get a big hump after a short time. They apparently hadn’t felt like eating for a day or two after their return. Apart from eating they’d done a lot of walking. I named a place in the area where somebody I knew lived. That wasn’t a nice place, she said, she didn’t like it. Much nicer where they’d been. The most beautiful part in fact of the whole country. An absolute must. She couldn’t wait for us to go there. I suppose we shall do in the end. We had followed her advice to visit another part of the country, also the most beautiful one, a few years ago and have been going there ever since.

We talked about newspapers, acid rain and the Prime Minister being mobbed by angry Norwegians : brand-new power stations in our country without anti-pollution devices! All the pollution blown to Norway! Aldous said he was ashamed of being the nationality he was, his wife said she was too, and ended up by discussing art. Aldous introduced the subject by comparing pop-music to ‘degenerate’ art. Present day pop-music, how horrible, how absurd. Think of the music they had listened to when they were young. They had seen a film recently, ‘Casablanca’, where you could hear all the lovely songs of the thirties. That could be called music. His wife agreed altogether. What would our youngsters think to them, I asked. Maybe we all accept what we’re used to? That’s right, Aldous’ wife said eagerly, we’re accustomed to them. We didn’t pursue this point further.

However, this horrible pop-music nowadays. Aldous couldn’t get over it. Just like degenerate art. I told him that the latter was a well-known slogan in Germany at one time. And Aldous : I don’t see that everything these people did was bad. I don’t think everything the South-Africans do is bad. And I sympathize with Stalin’s view of art, he did away with this degenerate stuff. What did he put in its place? I ventured. Aldous shrugged his shoulders. Little did he know, I suppose. In any case, it wasn’t a point of interest to him. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, one’s personal opinion, no more, I said, subjective, relative … However, Aldous likes it ‘absolute’. He believed, he said, in absolutes and he felt sure they existed in art, just as they did in music, esthetically pleasing, that was important. I said what one person finds beautiful another one might not. He answered, we all have an esthetic sense which responds to what is beautiful, but maybe some people have a poorer esthetic sense than others. I think I can safely assume that he would like to see his own idea of beautiful generally accepted, even if he was too modest to actually put this into words. He pointed out that ‘non-representational’ art was completely senseless because devoid of any relationship with reality, ‘I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. What’s the good of the damn picture ?’.

He told us about the case of an unfortunate art student who, having applied for a grant, had to be interviewed by Aldous. How can you tell that something is a work of art, he had asked the candidate who hesitantly answered that a work of art should be able to move us in one way or other. Move us in a good way? Aldous questioned. Yes, was the answer. What about it moving us in a bad way, Aldous carried on asking, is that still art ? Yes, the wretched person answered and never got the grant.

Bad art appealed to base instincts, such was Aldous’ conviction. What were his bad instincts, I wondered. He answered seriously they were … vanity, I thought that was quite remarkable but didn’t interrupt him, selfishness … and we didn’t hear any more because I unfortunately remarked that we all suffered from these unpleasant things. We certainly were all egoists. He said with fervour : We’re not as bad as some people. Look at the leading character of such and such a nation! There’s an egoist! And so many more! I said they would probably claim to serve their country’s interest. How do you mean? he exclaimed, that’s outrageous! His wife complained in general about the existence in this world of so many hypocrites and I could see my husband smile. I had no more to say.

Aldous’ wife then talked about the Vicar’s wife. A dangerous lady, she said, and divulged a little gossip from the Choir. I didn’t know where she had picked it up because they had left choir practice well before me. That woman is dangerous, she concluded and added that she was pleased that Johnie had said so, too. You want to be careful what you say to her, she said, looking straight into my eyes. I assured her that I was on the best of terms with both the Vicar and his wife. She was pleased to hear it.

This subject of conversation exhausted, we decided to do some music. Aldous had brought the music for two songs, he said, which he hadn’t done for years, and they might be a wee bit high, but why not have a go at them and he looked invitingly at his accompanist. The two songs turned out to be “Una furtiva lagrima” and “La donna è mobile”. We have them both sung by Gigli. I must give Aldous that he did what he could. Unlike the Vicar’s wife’s doctor he was not able to do more than he could. The volume was certainly there. And it was in Italian, the easiest language to sing in, Aldous had explained to me more than once. When they had finished, Aldous’ wife said “very nice” and “you two will have to practise that, so you can perform it at our next party”. I said to her, I thought it was on the high side for Aldous. She gave me a reprimanding look and said : Do you know why he’s finding it difficult ? Because he’s having to sing it slowly … I could see what she meant : the pianist wasn’t quite up to his task. I pointed out that after all my husband was sight-reading. Oh yes, of course, she said. Steve told me later that he had had to slow down because Aldous couldn’t follow, being out of practice.

I didn’t contribute any music myself being out of practice and preferred reading to them a first sample of my writing, an innocent little essay about our dog and my husband. Aldous was visibly enthralled by the reading, perhaps he liked my new skirt and romantic blouse, for he kept looking at me, and said ‘very good’ at the end. I don’t remember what his wife said, probably similar. No other comment was made, except by Steve who remarked that their minds should be at rest now.

They took their leave soon after, not before having expressed their satisfaction about my looking much better. They thought in fact that I looked well. We were seriously worried about you, Aldous said in quite a serious tone, and discussed it. Who with ? I asked, bearing in mind what I had heard from Yan. Between ourselves, he said, and then, giving a funny little laugh, added that to be truthful, we thought that you were a little bit Zn deficient. He chuckled. So did his wife. I informed him that he had been seen through a long time ago and that I had an essay on this subject ready in my drawer! He kept on laughing, I don’t know why. They invited us to come and see them in their house next Saturday.
On Aldous’ wife’s birthday I dutifully went to pay our compliments. I was lucky: they were out and I saved a lot of time by just depositing card and flowers on their doorstep. When I came home I found a bag with biscuits outside our door and a little note about who they were for. Aldous and his wife had also been to pay their compliments … to our dog. His birthday is the same as hers (sixteenth September).
They both had a cold next time we met, but were ‘delighted’ to see I was looking ‘so much better’. Quite remarkable what the rest from the Orms and the Georges did to me, I gathered from Aldous’ wife. I don’t know what she means by ‘rest’, she might not have understood my meaning. I expect she wouldn’t think I was as hard as that.

Our conversation seems to follow a certain pattern lately. First of all it’s food. Their neighbours, who are moving, had taken them out for a meal, to the most expensive place imaginable. Using up his entertainment allowance, Aldous reckoned. The meal, quite apart from being dangerous – tepid meat! think of all the micro-organisms growing on it! – had been of the lowest standard conceivable. And they went a little into detail, talking about cheese rind being served and three tiny noisettes of lamb at the above-mentioned temperature and one or two other tiny little portions. They came away hungry, they said, which didn’t stop Aldous from experiencing a ‘heaviness’ in his stomach until mid-morning next day. Anyway, Aldous’ wife said they were sorry about their neighbours leaving, the gentleman being such a nice person, and as for the lady, she might have come to terms with her in the long run.

The next subject was sex or something related. They had been to see a comedy on the above birthday. It was about a woman who manages three or four lovers all at the same time. And all the little incidents. Her cleverness. How she gets away with it. And the end! All the wives turn up and she has the presence of mind of transforming herself into a Matron looking after her patients, her lovers more exactly. I seemed to have heard a similar story before. Repetition doesn’t make a thing more interesting. They thought it was hilarious and were convinced that Steve and I would have enjoyed it, too. I like people with a sense of humour, Aldous said. How do you assess a person’s sense of humour, I asked. The answer I had was certainly one to be expected : Somebody who laughs about my jokes! And he laughed about his joke. See, his wife pointed out, he can laugh about himself.

I asked, why did they laugh about something in the theatre which in normal everyday life I knew they would frown upon. It is true, Aldous laughed, it is quite a disreputable little thing really, but he didn’t bother to answer my question. His wife, though, took up the reference to everyday life and drew our attention to a house in the village which had changed hands recently : Do you know what has become of that ? I didn’t. A love-nest, she said. I must have looked amazed, for she said it again. Aldous seemed to think I didn’t understand and explained that this was a word frequently appearing in certain newspapers like The Morning, etc. I was even more amazed to hear her use it. The house one of their friends had sold, the previously mentioned sixty-year-or-so-old lady, Kate, had turned into one, too. I didn’t know what comment I should make and said nothing. Aldous’ wife laughed a bit uncomfortably saying : Better than a hate-nest. She had, by the way, drawn her information from people living in the neighbourhood of these houses, we heard.

The topic was dropped and I asked about the meaning of laughing. Why do we laugh? What does it do to us? My personal theory was that we laughed mostly at the expense of others. This didn’t go down well with Aldous, because it is obviously an unkind thing to do. He had laughed about the lovers in the play because they were fools, I said. Oh no, he retorted, the situation was just so funny, so surprizing and unexpected. It was the woman, in this state of suspense, would she be found out or not, etc., etc.
Laughing about others is hurtful. We wouldn’t like to be hurt ourselves. Why are we liable to be hurt, I asked.What happens psychologically when we’re hurt? Somebody’s been unkind, was the answer, somebody has done or said something nasty which causes pain. Aldous didn’t seem to understand that this was not what I was interested in. I was not interested in any other person, only in myself. You can’t see it like that, he said, it’s interaction, somebody doing something and somebody else reacting. I said, we’re hurt when we find we can’t have our way, when our thoughts or ideas concerning a particular subject, our feelings concerning a person, receive a blow. Our psychology goes in a certain direction and we don’t like it to be crossed.

Aldous said we’re hurt when we’re disappointed, let down …I said this was precisely what I meant, we’re expecting something and our expectations are thwarted. Aldous said, imagine you have a little wart in your face and you know it isn’t much. Now, if somebody turns that into a big thing and makes a nasty remark about it, that hurts. I said, that’s easy, that’s your vanity called upon. Aldous said, somebody says a lie about you, that hurts. I said, you know it is a lie and can therefore be easy. Aldous said, you have to have a thick skin not to be hurt. Like such and such a well-known tycoon. Kicking round about him, hurting people left, right and centre. But so thick-skinned. Nobody could hurt him. I said, I bet a silly woman could by telling him he’s not the perfect lover or something similar. Aldous laughed, he likes that sort of remark. You have to have an analytical mind to look at things like that, he then said, not everybody is capable of that. Look at Kate (their lady-friend), she would never be able to do it. I said, anybody can do it who claims to be intelligent… Nothing to do with that, he interrupted me. What he meant was, I imagine, that people’s intelligence shouldn’t be questioned, especially not the intelligence of those present. I must give him that we have to defend ourselves. You have to be hard indeed, he said, not to be hurt. Very hard, his wife confirmed. Enormously insensitive, he said, implying that this wasn’t exactly a desirable condition. If people are hurt, I said, it’s because they hurt themselves. This is ridiculous, he said, it’s like one man shooting another man and saying it’s that fellows own fault for being in the way. I told him that this was not a logical argument and he asked me to put my argument in a logical way. He is always quick …

We eased off after that, fixed a time when to meet for a concert we were going to, wished them a good night and went home.
Aldous did say once during the conversation that I had thrown up an interesting subject. What would he have meant by that ?