Bah! Humbug!

I continue to be surprised at our ongoing fascination with ‘A Christmas Carol’, most particularly with Ebenezer Scrooge whose dismay on seeing the length of Marley’s chain is palpably obvious (right). As those who know me can attest, Christmastime for me resurrects ‘Bah!’ and ‘Humbug’ back into my vocabulary, which as everyone knows equally well, is just smoke and mirrors, disguising the fact that I detest the Santa hats, beery bonhomie, false gaiety (am I still allowed to use that word) and generally hollow merrymaking that seems to clothe the season, while my thoughts turn to starry Judean hillsides and quiet village stables.

The new 3D movie, however, is quite remarkable. Jim Carrey’s Scrooge , apart from a passing resemblance to Albert Steptoe, left, is juicily malevolent until his final, heartrending conversion, Tiny Tim’s roundly innocent face warms the heart and a gigantically motherly Mrs Fezziwig pirouettes improbably. The flying sequences where Scrooge journeys into his past, present and future like a superannuated Peter Pan are, well, breathtaking. All told, a grand night out.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in the movie was when a small, dirty foot appears under the cloak of The Ghost of Christmas Present, and two children are revealed. The Ghost explains “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” The dark rage on the boy’s face was haunting. The Ghost surely means  to contrast education which feeds the mind, a satisfaction of curiosity and a freedom to think for oneself with the insupportable yoke of Gradgrind’s ‘facts’. It is only a step further to imagine madrassas run by fanatical imams who cloak education in a disguise of righteousness to visualise the damage that can, indeed has been, caused.

Dickens himself worked tirelessly for a wide range of charitable causes, raising funds for soup kitchens, emigration schemes, housing associations, prison reform, hospitals, adult education, and disabled artists. He also believed that through his fiction he could promote moral solutions to social ills and could change society for the better. I think he succeeded. The final shot is a scene from Rochester’s Dickens festival, an annual event to celebrate Victoriana in my home town. Everybody dresses up and has too much to drink. I knew the King’s Head rather well…

December the Twenty-Fifth

Is it just me or is anyone else slightly ticked off at the relentless pursuit to remove the word ‘Christ’ from Christmas? Merry Xmas, Happy Holidays – do excuse me, but it’s Merry Christmas, and has been so for some time, if you’ll pardon the logical fallacy.
My son wrote me from NYC, from where ‘Happy Holidays’ appears de rigueur. When I was a child, this kind of remark was passed by waving neighbours as the car, loaded with luggage, set off, wheezing precariously, on it’s annual pilgrimage to Bournemouth. I used to wonder whether we’d ever get there and frequently demanded to know how much further it was, usually within five minutes of leaving.

So, a short Christmas tutorial. It’s perfectly true to assert that we’ve lost sight of ‘the true meaning’ of Christmas – whatever that is. The date is subjective and convenient, roughly coinciding as it does with the Roman Saturnalia, when slaves and free exchanged roles, briefly, and rioting broke out after successive emperors tried to shorten celebrations from a week to five or even three days. Evergreens and mistletoe are remnants of pagan fertility rites, as is the concept of bringing trees as symbols of everlasting life into the sitting room – always a problem in centrally heated homes. The reverse is also cited, unlike the one pictured, the tree is brought inside out of the pagan cold. The practice appears to have originated in Germany where trees were decorated with ornaments for a Druid festival, legend having it that Albert of Saxe-Coburg introduced the idea to Queen Victoria, who rather liked it. Martin Luther gets the credit for allegedly being the first to decorate evergreen trees with candles representing the light of Christ, fire hazards notwithstanding. The tree itself symbolises everlasting life, its form points like an arrow to the heavens, and circular evergreen wreaths represent eternity and brings to mind the crown of thorns. And so on and so forth.

Now to Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra. Born around 280 CE into a wealthy family, he became the patron saint of children because of stories that revolved around his generosity toward them. One story appears to have led to the practice of hanging stockings for Christmas. Nicholas knew of a man with three daughters nearing marriageable age. Knowing they would be forced into poor marriages by their lack of dowry, Nicholas sneaked by their house at night and threw a bag of gold through the window for each girl. The gold is said to have landed in the girls’ stockings where they were hanging to dry. We assume the weather to have been sufficiently mild for the shutters to have been left open and Nick had been practising with a basketball.

As for the picture, imagine Owen Wilson after a few years…

Oh, well. Believe in it or don’t bother, but you can’t make Christmas what it is not. ‘Bah!’ or even..’humbug.’ Alternatively, a little Victorian nostalgia. No tears, please…

Mystic Tyranny

From Ayn Rand’s “Faith and Force: the Destroyers of the Modern World” [1960]:

“Western civilization was the child and product of reason – via ancient Greece. In all other civilisations, reason has always been the menial servant – the handmaiden – of mysticism. You may observe the results. It is only Western culture that has ever been dominated – imperfectly, incompletely, precariously and at rare intervals – but still dominated by reason. You may observe the results of that.

The conflict of reason versus mysticism is the issue of life or death – of freedom or slavery – of progress or stagnant brutality. Or, to put it another way, it is the conflict of consciousness versus unconsciousness.”

Not quite, I think, but fighting talk nevertheless. Without the battles at Marathon, Thermopylae and the Straits of Salamis, Western civilisation would not exist – at least not in its present form. Aristotle, born about 100 years after Thermopylae, would have been a Persian slave and, without him, we might very well not be having the reasoned and sober debate which has so captured the public imagination about the newest Satan, Global Warming. Twenty-five years ago, we were taught with equal seriousness that a new ice age was imminent and a nuclear winter was a distinct possibility. Both were derived from an imperfectly grasped Aristotelian response. It would seem that we are no nearer to globally workable policy after Copenhagen than before it, if indeed workable policy or ‘doing something’ is an appropriate method for dealing with a problem that we cannot even define accurately.

It has been alleged that everyone is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Broad-brush, intellectuals are Platonists, everyone else is Aristotelian.

Plato supposed there to be two realities – a higher realm of timeless, abstract perfection and the degraded, illusory world we think we perceive with our senses. For Platonists, “higher truths” are revealed to an intellectual elite-presumably by the gods-and cannot be communicated or explained to the masses, who stubbornly cling to “common sense” – reason and logic.

Aristotle, the father of logic, held that there is only one reality, the world we perceive by our senses. For Aristotelians, all knowledge is derived from sensory observation by a process of abstraction and conceptualisation. Aristotle rejected Plato’s mystical, elitist tendencies and held that by adherence to logic we can and must make rational sense of everything. This being so, and with our cultural history, why are we failing to make sense of what is manifestly happening around us? If the Earth is getting warmer, why can we not predict accurately exactly why, hence what can be done to maintain the status quo? Perhaps the answer lies outside of Aristotle’s logic; instead it belongs to Plato’s ‘higher thought’. Perhaps the Earth itself is the mystic tyrant, bending us all to its will. One way or another.

The image is of the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, refusing to submit to the slavery of King Xerxes of Persia.


I guess you might describe me as a bit God-fearin’ if you weren’t really sure what it meant. We God-fearers get together from time to time and schmooze – good Yiddish word. We shoot the breeze, hang out, talk amongst ourselves and in the original, spread rumour…From time to time, a spectral reference is made to our activities on Fridays. Sometimes helpful, sometimes less so. There is an unspoken perception that we all actually believe the same thing – after all, we say the Creed, don’t we? It came as something of a surprise when I was jolted out of this cosy, bonhomous naivete by remarks made at one of the multitudes of Christmas soirees to which I have recently been invited.
‘It’s absolute rubbish that God still cares about Israel. The Church has taken its place.’
‘Israelis? – Nazis, all of them!’
What was surprising was not the remarks themselves – let the reader understand – people have every right to believe that butterflies can swim if they so choose and let’s lay aside reason and intellect, but the forcefulness of delivery was what caught my attention. Poor theology and political rhetoric notwithstanding, debate on such matters isn’t really interesting enough to open here, but when received teaching hardens into doctrine and doctrine solidifies into principle which people – even quite clever people –  then become prepared to defend, the tinklings of Kristallnacht become uncomfortably strident. H’m.
The Shoah Memorial in San Francisco is frequently defaced, as shown.

Unity and Concord

King Ethelred was not, as they say, a Good King. He had paid off the invading Danish bullies, changed his mind and rather than face them in battle elected to slaughter them all on the same day in 1002, a rather early variant of ethnic cleansing. This didn’t go down awfully well in Scandinavia, since a) it didn’t work and b) the Queen of Denmark’s sister was among those massacred. King Sweyn united the Norwegians and Danes, exacting a four-year revenge by way of blood and slaughter on the hapless population, culminating in drunken Vikings capturing the Archbishop of Canterbury and bringing his life to an exciting close by hurling animal skulls at him until he expired.
Why the history lesson today? Well, King Sweyn’s father was Harald Bluetooth – they had funny names based on rather odd peculiarities in those days – another was Thorfinn Skullsplitter, whom one might hesitate to invite for lunch. It was this Scandinavian ruler who, with his son united the warring and savage Northlanders in much the same way as Bluetooth technology unites computers, phones and PDA’s. Indeed, the Bluetooth logo is his name in Nordic runes.
I wonder if the current visitors to Copenhagen are making use of the technology? It’s unlikely that the sex workers’ generous offer will be captured photographically by those who availed themselves of it and bluetoothed to wives and families all over the world or, indeed, whether unity and concord will flow from the deliberations of the great and the good. The picture of a sex worker is self-explanatory.

Copenhagen? Wonderful.

It won’t be easy, nor cheap to find a hotel room in the City of Spires this week. The great, good and terminally tedious have arrived in town for the optimistic ‘Hopenhagen’ conference. I shall not be able to attend this year, since the magnitude of my own carbon hoofprint is unacceptably large. Prince Charles is dropping in, apparently, so my place will be ably filled. I hope he’s remembered to appoint someone to talk to his plants while he’s away. Perhaps he’ll avail himself of the not ungenerous offer of local prostitutes who are democratically offering free sex for anyone with a conference pass, in retaliation for the local council’s advertisement to ‘be sustainable, don’t buy sex’ posters. Carbon dating takes on a whole new meaning here.
The conference will itself generate a carbon dioxide per day equivalent of a town having a population of 140,000 – so 16,000 extra bodies commuting in and out in helicopters and limousines are each responsible for nine times the normal emissions, which hopefully has nothing to do with the sex workers.
If everybody took public transport from the airport, stayed in dormitories, rode bicycles to the meetings like the rest of the city does and ate communally, this might go some way towards ameliorating any small cynicisms I have. Copenhagen itself gave its name to the element hafnium which, I am informed, poses no threat to plants and is benignly non-toxic in small quantities, except for mucous membrane irritation and liver damage, so conference alcoholics and sneezers should be monitored carefully. Swine flu, or hafnium poisoning.. h’m…
But, of course, the whole shenanigan is eminently mockable, and even in the light of many countries’ failures to live up to the Kyoto Protocols, it might be a tad previous to write off the whole deal as a lot of hot air, however clean. In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that climate change however caused makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Watch this space.

Duck and Old Booze

The French, somewhat cruelly – let the reader understand – are said, usually by the English, that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This remains to be seen as Le Tour d’Argent, one of the most famous and oldest eateries in the world, auctions  off some of the contents of its wine cellar this week.

Over the years, the chief sommelier had forgotten they were there. And when the four bottles of 1875 Armagnac Vieux were finally unearthed from the labyrinthine wine cellar, they were covered in a black fungus that looked like matted cat fur. I am told that the fungus does no harm.
The restaurant, which claims to date back to 1582, is cleaning out its 450,000-bottle wine cellar, considered one of the best and biggest in the world. It is putting 18,000 bottles up for auction this week, an event that has rather captured my imagination. A gap-toothed pre-Revolutionary knocks the head off a bottle of Armagnac in a Left Bank alleyway and tips its contents thoughtfully into his mouth. From the same batch, another bottle finds its way into the cavernous depths of the restaurant next door, family-run for generations. Almost a quarter of a millenium later the brother of the original bottle will be reverently placed on an auctioneer’s block and sold for a year’s pay.
What, je me demande, is such an item really worth, and how its its value determined? The purchaser of the bottle will be able to brag to his friends and business associates thereby increasing, presumably, his social cachet. H’m.
I cannot imagine myself paying for something which in its drinkable prime sold for a few sous and now is representative of a French era that even many Frenchmen might care to forget about. The bottle’s contents, like Schrodinger’s cat, are unpredictable.
The image is of Frederic Delair; a bespectacled Ibsen who presided over the Tour in its glory days at the turn of the last century. Here he is, carving caneton presse, the restaurant’s signature dish, served, inter alia, to Ronald Reagan and Mick Jagger.
The prix fixe at the one-star Tour is $70. With apologies to purists, my text editor does not support accents….