Miriam Gross

Diary - 31 December 2015

Also: my Muslim friends’ radicalisation worries; facts about Proust’s Paris; a Parisian dentist in London

Diary - 31 December 2015
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Disappointingly, the recent film about Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, does not include the thing about him which most struck me in Walter Isaacson’s biography: Jobs habitually parked in disabled parking bays. Naturally, this is something that I (in company with many drivers, I suspect) long to do whenever disabled spaces are the only available parking, especially when two or three of them are standing empty. But I don’t — even for a five-minute dash to Tesco. The fear of exposure stops me, as well perhaps as a smidgen of unselfishness. The fact that Steve Jobs unhesitatingly committed this minor offence reveals more about him — that he was unscrupulous, that he didn’t care what anyone thought, that he thought rules were made to be broken — than anything shown in the film. Another annoying aspect of the movie is something that it shares with many recent TV thrillers (especially English ones): the action starts right in the middle of the story. As a result, one is thoroughly confused and fed up long before one has worked out what’s going on. The notion of starting a narrative at the beginning and proceeding chronologically seems, unfortunately, to be regarded by directors as unacceptably inartistic and old hat.

For a few years, I have been giving lessons to two Muslim immigrants who are eager to improve their English and their knowledge of England. So I have witnessed at first hand how pained these young men are by Islamic terrorism and how worried they are about Islamic radicalisation. They feel deeply grateful to be living in England. One of them recently sent his eight-year-old son to a madrassa — once a week — to learn the Arabic script and study the Koran. After a few weeks, the son started coming home and making critical comments about his mother: she was not wearing the right kind of hijab, hers was too small; she ought not to go out on her own (the mother works part-time at a hospital). My student (who asked me not to name him) immediately removed his son from the madrassa. He had not sent him there to learn how Muslim women should behave. Such schools, he told me, could be set up by anyone — no qualifications were needed and, as far as he could tell, no criminal record checks were made. He now teaches the boy himself.

The recently published Proust, The Search by Benjamin Taylor is not just an extremely perceptive account of the writer’s anguished life, it is also full of surprising facts about Paris in the first years of the 20th century. For example: the Théâtrophone service. This enabled housebound people to listen by telephone to live performances at the Opéra, the Comédie-Francaise, the Opéra Comique and the Concerts Collonne. Proust took out a subscription to this service in 1911 and was thus able to enjoy, in his cork-lined bedroom, the first night of Pelléas and Mélisande, among other works. Better known perhaps, but not to me, was the great Paris flood of January 1910 which engulfed the city for nearly two weeks. Labourers took to the streets in boats to rescue people from second-storey windows; shelters were improvised in the upper floors of schools and churches. The high-water mark reached 8.6 metres. Plus ça climate change.

While I was sitting in the dentist’s chair the other day, a very distinguished-looking man briefly entered the room to exchange greetings with my dentist. It turned out that the man was a top French orthodontist who came from Paris to Harley Street once a week at the request of numerous of his patients who have opted for a new life in buzzing London but don’t much care for the local dentistry. There are now dozens of French dentists working in London, their speciality, apparently, being the creation of ‘naturally perfect smiles’. Even non-French people — notably the Duchess of Cambridge — are said to have taken advantage of their skills.

Antonia Fraser, probably the best-read person I know, recently urged me to read Harrington, a little-known novel by one of my favourite authors, Maria Edgeworth — a contemporary of Jane Austen. It is a gripping work, written with one sole object: to make amends for various instances of unthinking anti-Semitism in her previous fiction. Edgeworth had received a letter, in 1815, from an admirer, an American Jewish woman, who protested at the depiction of Jews in some of her novels. By way of reparation, Edgeworth immediately set to work on Harrington, the story of a man whose extreme anti-Semitism gradually turns to extreme admiration. The novel contains the first full-scale portrait in English fiction of a sympathetic Jewish man (possibly too good to be true), with whose daughter, needless to say, the hero falls in love. On racism, among other issues, Maria Edgeworth was well ahead of her time.