Anne Frank and us

The challenge of preserving art for posterity

Miep Gies, who died on Monday at the age of 100, was one of the few remaining people who had known Anne Frank. It is thanks to her that Anne's diary survived, after she collected the pages when the secret annexe was discovered and hid them, in hope of Anne's return, until Otto Frank came back. As The Diary of a Young Girl has never been out of print since, has sold millions of copies and has become a wider symbol of the Holocaust, it is difficult to imagine that, but for Gies, it could have easily been lost.

Many famous works have entered posterity by the skin of their teeth. Part of a Sappho poem was reused as an Egyptian mummy bandage. Diego de Landa and Bartolome de Las Casas preserved Mayan and Aztec oral culture by getting it down on paper. John Heminges and Henry Condell determined the way Shakespeare's plays have been handed down to us by having them included in the First Folio. By choosing The Marriage of Figaro for a performance, Joseph II prevented Mozart from carrying out his threat to burn the score. The Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom was missed by the rioters who stormed the Bastille where he wrote it. Kathleen Noonan stopped her father, Robert Tressell, from incinerating The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists after three publishing rejections by keeping the 1,600 hand-written pages in a box under her bed. The environment has also acted as a preservative; the Dead Sea Scrolls survived in dry desert caves for over a thousand years. Because of this, valuable links remain, through which we may reconnect with the past.

In the age of e-books, which lack the fragility of paper, but also their preciousness, and the Espresso Book Machine printing thousands of titles on demand in a few minutes, it may look as if the danger of literary vandalism has passed. But new threats to world's literary legacy and future will emerge. In a quiet act of friendship, Gies demonstrated how fundamentally fragile art is and how both its creation and survival depend wholly upon us.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt