Letter from London: A Razor’s Edge

Photograph Source: Antediluvial – CC BY 2.0

Maybe it was in defiance of the latest rumour doing the rounds that beauty had become a kind of luxury of sorts, something inaccessible to those without funds, that sent me on a quest last week. Classical Western philosophy always claimed beauty was one of the three major components in human understanding. This was alongside good and truth. By the twentieth century, it was considered expendable, certainly non-essential, though no one bothered to tell many of us that. This was presumably only for those inside those intensely esoteric philosophical circles.

Dorothy Parker — ‘like a Sappho who could combine a heartbreak with a wisecrack,’ said philosopher Irwin Edman — herself once said: ‘beauty is only skin deep but ugly goes clean to the bone’. Voltaire, a great writer but unapologetic racist and anti-Semite, reckoned beauty impossible to define. ‘Beauty is a short-lived tyranny,’ said wealthy Athenian Socrates. ’How goodness heightens beauty!’ quipped late Czech-born author Milan Kundera, whom writer Simon Petherick reminded us last week was someone ‘so much more important than all those Brit authors who were forever in the papers’. By the way, Petherick’s new book — ‘Jack and Barry’ — imagines a 1964 friendship between Jack Kerouac and Barry Goldwater. Beauty and the beast, it could be argued.

I guess beauty has long been the preserve of writers. Maybe this has been part of its problem. A kind of over-wordy grip attached to it. Beauty is something for all, a physical as well as mental thing: at its best abstract and intangible. The idea of a beauty within feels good, though it need not be selfish. And when we bathe in warm evening sunlight, guests of the golden hour, so to speak, surely it is natural to wonder if it ever gets any better than this. Let us just hope right now is not the modern equivalent of the summer of 1914. Beauty is honest like that — it does not promise the world. Even if Kafka knew that anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty, as he put it, never grows old, it does not mean immortality.

The artist knows a thing or two about beauty. (‘Art is the only serious thing in the world,’ said Oscar Wilde. ‘And the artist the only person who is never serious.’) When both her parents worked in education, they lived in some of the most beautiful grounds in England, grounds which the artist and sister and brother would often enjoy until sundown each summer when not being driven around the north of Scotland in the trusted family Dormobile. They didn’t have to own these grounds in order to enjoy them. In fact, who actually owned them — the National Trust — didn’t come into it. It was all down to the subliminal hospitality of the excellent landscaping, the tall trees, the follies and fountains, conspiring towards a kind of regimen of beauty within, which has long fed the interior life of the artist. My point being that we do not need to own something in order to appreciate it. Beauty is not price-tagged. Contrary to the legions of the super-rich scouting the edges of London society, beauty is in the eye, not the pocket, of the beholder. (‘Beauty is in the heart of the beholder,’ furthered HG Wells.) So I refute pretty strongly any notion that beauty is somehow peculiar to the rich. Notwithstanding the fact I am all for a ‘wealth’ of beauty available for all.

It was sitting in the park with the artist last week when I began this whole train of thought. It is a public park, one of the most resplendent in Europe. Everyone is welcome there. Crime, surprisingly, feels non-existent. There is no entry fee. We don’t have to shave the grass or prune the trees or plant fresh flowers. Also, the idea of egalitarian beauty as a sort of lasting response to our over-acquisitive world seems perfect. I was trying to remember that Rainer Maria Rilke quote again: ‘If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.’ I was watching people pause in the summer heat to rub their backs, as if as well as catch their breath they wanted to savour the view and delight in the more than 3,000 trees, including old-hand oaks and primitive chestnuts, statuesque English planes and evergreen cedars. It was hardly the foothills of the Himalayas, which I have also enjoyed, but to each and every visitor a kind of beauty. Comparing the expressions on the faces of those entering the park with those leaving is to witness progression.

I hate to say it but when I was a little boy it was the sugary joy of Turkish delight — the forerunner to the ubiquitous jelly bean — which matched my idea of beauty. Was I confusing it with the exotic? There was definitely something mysterious and attractive about the boxes and their very powdery cubes, a puff of which was like a magic trick from a Bergman movie. For all I knew, this was the beginning of a longstanding love for all things Arabic. Maybe it was not reading ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ or — as it became known — ‘Arabian Nights’. There have been stranger origin stories . I was impressed last week for example with the resolve of English footballer Dele Alli, freshly back from rehab in the States. He was telling former Manchester United full-back Gary Neville in an interview how he would love in the recent past to have lots of total strangers partying at his house because it remained him of when he was a boy living with his mother, herself forever partying with strangers. (Dele Alli was a drug dealer by the age of seven and was hung from a bridge by an adversary aged eleven.) His recovery to date is a form of beauty — ‘you can’t drive your car looking in the rearview mirror,’ he has said of his new plans — especially if he can rediscover his talents on the pitch. After a brief stint playing in Turkey, as it happens, he is now with Everton. In fact, I guess you could also say it was Turkish delight on the face of Turkey’s president Erdogan last week after the State Department told him they were supporting the provision of F-16 jets at the same time as backing Ankara’s continued yearning to join the EU. Chewing over all this — more Turkish delight? — another way of looking at it might be to say Sweden’s admission to NATO came at a price. As Jeffrey St Clair pointed out to us in ‘Roaming Charges’ last week, it also gave the Turkish leader ‘the green light to crack down even more repressively on Kurds, inside and outside Turkey’.

Maybe what these kinds of situations require is more time to untangle, which we simply do not have. We need the sort of thorough analysis found presently in director Miloš Škundrić’s excellent Serbian documentary ‘The Long Road to War’ about the complicated lead-up to WWI. Despite the obvious gravity of the subject matter, it is refreshing not to receive a strictly Anglo-Saxon perspective. Peace ain’t always beauty but it sure beats war, as our American cousins might say. Just as Operation Atlantic Resolve may in time earn some pretty serious scrutiny too.

There is beauty in sport, I believe. I happen to be a major Test cricket fan. Many of us watching the present Ashes series for instance between England and Australia are in a kind of bliss at the moment. (That said, I took on board fully Binoy Kampmark’s suitably prickly ‘Graceless at Lord’s: The Class Goons Strike Back’ in these pages a few weeks back.) What used to be a pretty macho encounter is now made unstinting — and quite frankly kind — with its Ruth Strauss Foundation helping families deal with terminal cancer diagnosis. Sport is such a magnificent platform these days for teaching embarrassed and denial-laden men how to live longer lives. We see even the most hardened observers soften at this. Look at the success story of the originally Australian and now global initiative of Movember in promoting health awareness among men in prostate cancer, testicular cancer, even men’s suicide. Also, the Australian cricket team through its own McGrath Foundation has been raising breast cancer awareness for some time now. (Both Australia and England had two former players in Glenn McGrath and Andrew Strauss whose partners died prematurely from cancer.) As someone who lost their own mother to cancer at the age of one — cervical cancer is 100% curable: please get your smear test — I will go so far as to say this for me is like a kind of beauty with a spiritual dimension. That said, I hope the Ashes series goes all the way to the Fifth and final Test at the Oval here in London and that Ben Stokes finds a way to defeat the genuinely competitive Aussies. Beauty isn’t always for losers.

Finally, I also noticed rainbow colours on the wooden stumps either end of the wicket during the Third Test at Headingley last week. (To non-cricket lovers, these are the three upright polished pieces of wood which form what they call the wicket: I won’t confuse things by saying the word ‘stumps’ also mean close of play.) The rainbow design was there to promote the worldwide campaign of the LGBTQ+ community. While still marvelling at such a sight in a traditionalist world at a deeply traditionalist ground, still recoiling from its own tales of racism, I learned that police here in London are in the middle of investigating a horrific recent homophobic attack on the London Tube. They had just released a photograph of someone they wanted to speak to. In other words, there is clearly a long way to go before beauty can be truly clasped. That sunlight, however, catching the rainbow-coloured stumps, is a beauty to behold. It strikes me that we just need to work on the ugliness now. I suspect we may be some time.

Peter Bach lives in London.