Saturday, 27 September 2014
If this isn't nice, what is?
Thank Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex for the great writer's most valuable piece of wisdom, which I'm proud to say has been taken up by our nearest and dearest young generation (more anon). That it had a huge impact on America's sharpest and funniest literary polemicist is obvious from the places where he quotes it (or rather, to be precise, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'), not least often in a series of graduation speeches probably not meant to be anthologised. But it achieves its best definition in the nearest KV got to an autobiography, or rather a little book of wit and wisdom, A Man Without a Country (subtitled A Memoir of Life in George W Bush's America, misleadingly since its timespan is far greater. I only wish he'd lived to pen his thoughts about Barack Obama's America - that might have given just a little glimmer of hope).
The context begins with a negative before accentuating the positive.
When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, 'You're a man now'. So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.
Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.
But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.
So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.
Just before the great happiness of our Garrick birthday dinner for four of the godchildren - two reaching 21 this year, two 18 - along with their parents, a close friend and my mother (to celebrate her whizzing back to health after hip and heart ops), I picked up a copy of the graduation speech book compiled after Vonnegut's death.
I didn't use anything from it in my own speech, which was mainly to praise the two sets of estranged parents for each and every one passing on so many intimations of their own rich hinterlands, their culture and essential decency, to the fine young four who are now very much their own people. But Evi, Maddie and Alexander have all enjoyed the Vonnegut books I bought them; every teenager/twentysomething should read him. I think Kurt would have been pleased with Evi playing up to - which means half taking the piss out of - the taboid photographer at the Oxford May Ball in this pic which we saw to our surprise in London's free morning rag: at first I didn't think 'Eva Hale' was my very sensible goddaughter. How we all laughed.
Having shared Slaughterhouse Five with Alexander, I was delighted that he's been finding my personal favourite among the ones I've read, Breakfast of Champions, even better - if, of course, not quite as significant for Vonnegut's personal history.
The big payoff came when Alexander and father Christopher came to join me at the East Neuk Festival's all-day Schubertiade. Plans for lunch boxes to be delivered to Crail had failed, and we were more than happy to wait for some of the best fish and chips in Scotland. Which we took back to the house where cicerona Debra Boraston was staying with festival CEO Svend Brown and his partner Roy McEwan. In the garden by the sea, we ate our f&c to the strains of the Belcea Quartet warming up inside for their afternoon recital. And Alexander said exactly what I was thinking, as if on cue: 'if this isn't nice, I don't know what is'. Featured, clockwise, David Kettle, the Waltons, Debra, me, Alexander (Christopher must be taking the photo).
And from the other angle, shot taken with Ken's camera and duly posted by him on social media.
'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is' could also have been applied to the previous evening's post-concert time by the sea, just down the valley from Cambo House where I was lucky to be staying, with Alexander's ma Julie and her partner Andy. The sun was setting at the end of the concert (one of two photos taken with my crappy mobile, as the pocket Olympus had just given up the ghost)
but it still wasn't entirely dark at nearly 11pm.
Another moment of happiness was on the last day, where I took my bathing trunks and borrowed a towel at a lunchtime party hosted by the very charming, easy festival chairman and his wife at Elie. The garden gate has steps beyond it down to this most glorious of beaches - photo taken with Debra's iPhone - and there, once I'd cleared the jellyfish zone, I had a blissful North Sea swim looking over to North Berwick and East Lothian, and up to a flotilla of eider ducks who didn't paddle away.
Despite all the mounting world horrors, these happy times to treasure have been so many, this year so far at least, and they bring me back not only to Vonnegut but also to my own favourite poem, Auden's 'A Summer Night' and this stanza especially, which no doubt I've quoted before:
And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.