Why I don’t Want to Live in Britain

I rather think that I have to – with some reluctance – describe myself as ‘antimulticultural’. Travelling the world as a fly on the wall allows exposure to a number of different cultural identities. Here in France, the sense of identity is firm and well-developed but in Britain, this is far less in evidence. Having been born and brought up there, one reason why I left was that I had less and less idea what it meant to be ‘British’ any more. Multiculturalism is a moral vacuum, and “into a moral vacuum always bad things creep.” Of course, I felt guilty, because pluralism or multiracial societies seem to me to be good and desirable things – learning from others, and so on – but a multicultural society where group differences are actually encouraged, especially when such differences are in moral, spiritual or even legal conflict, seems to me to be a very bad thing. It leads to a defensive, ghetto mentality which, if threatened, spills over into antisocial behaviour, or worse, defence of the prevalent mentality in the ghetto which spawned it. According to Douglas Murray, Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, a London-based think tank, the problem is “that the British government has pushed young Muslims into becoming young Muslims when it should have pushed them into becoming young Brits. In other words, the direction of travel it sent them in has been deeply backward.”
British Muslims might ask ‘You tell me to integrate, but what are we integrating into? What is Britain, what are British values?’ It’s very hard to tell people to integrate if you don’t tell them what they are integrating into. It’s very hard to tell them to be British if they don’t know and you don’t know what Britishness is. The fact is that we have been very poor in saying what we are and we have also been very poor is saying what we expect people to be. We’ve been very good in stressing what rights people get when they come to Britain and very bad at explaining what responsibilities come with them. Once so-called multicultural societies decided that they didn’t have a locus, that they didn’t have a centre of gravity, anyone could ride in and teach the most pernicious things,” Murray goes on. “It didn’t matter. It was just another point of view.
Saul Bellow once wrote “When public morality becomes a ghost town, it’s a place into which anyone can ride and declare himself sheriff.”

The Hard Life

There are certain advantages about fraternising with arty-farty types, in particular when food is involved. The chef is never satisfied with anything less than five star quality for both the photography and the flavour, which means that everyone gets a really, really REALLY good lunch.

On the menu yesterday – just for the cameras, you understand, was rough duck terrine with pistachios, sea bass, prunes with guinea fowl, onion and blue cheese tart and wild strawberries with sheep’s milk yoghurt (it’s a subtly sweeter version with a slightly rougher texture – am I becoming a professional foodie or what..?) 

I am informed that the fowl – or indeed the fish, when wrapped in the peritoneum of a pig retains flavour and provides a natural environment for perfectly succulent cooking.

Furthermore, Mediterranean populations, who consume large amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids as well as omega-3, also fruits and vegetables have a lower cardiovascular risk than other European populations. How very encouraging.

Tomorrow, it’s a winter menu. Lightly curried monkfish with winter vegetables and, because venison is out of season, we’ll have to make do with ostrich en croute instead – for the colour, you understand. It’s tough being a writer.

Huddling Penguins

As an expat, I sometimes ask myself why people go to church. They might just be looking for a community to belong to, like huddling penguins or perhaps it is because they are searching for resonances of home, English gardens in the rain and the familiarity of the Anglican liturgy. I don’t look down on such an attitude, I just don’t really understand it.  Yet, the ‘non-vagabonds’, in other words, people not like me for whom ‘home’ has a root and a landscape, some of them are doing, I suppose, what I and others used to do, exploring the cultural validity of the creation’s response to the Creator within the securer contexts of cultural familiarity – a reinvention of worship in a relevant context – an emergent church, a modern parousia, the God of the iPad.  So-called contemporary or emergent churches have seen visitor numbers rise threefold in the last ten years. They come perhaps because they feel that their lives really are reflected in the worship they see there. Church is no longer a remote, good-for-you pursuit in which in order to take part, you have to be educated in the long and arduous narratives of Western church history. It has exploded into a multicultural, multimedia spectacle in which worshippers have embraced all the technologies available, a natural successor to the culture of consumerist identity, specifically musical – Woodstock mature, if you will. The multivalency of media is mirrored by a multivalency of cultural rooting. There is no longer just one church history to be followed; the invitation is there to challenge and recontextualise the histories that we have accepted from the past. The Church is in a position to do something extraordinary to reflect the diversity of modern life. It can be a reinterpreter  of inherited histories and a producer of a new awareness, in which the validity of any one history is never put before the direct, one-to-one primal experience of a single worshipper in the face of a single act of worship in a single space – the rediscovery of awe and wonder, like one’s first visit to the Guggenheim, or Glyndebourne, or whatever floats the boat. The spectacular explosion of popularity for Hillsong United is one of many worldwide examples.
I still wonder where I belong.

Too Good to be…

Most of the time, I am OK about being a tourist. There’s a lot to do and strangers are to be seen peering myopically at maps and street signs, orienting themselves appropriately. It does therefore come as a small jolt to one’s pride, especially one as urbane and street-savvy as I should dearly like to be thought of, to be ‘taken for a ride’.
I have to say, it was neat, however. A personable young woman approaches the mark in a crowded street, clutching what looks like a large gold ring in her hand. After a moment’s recalibration, I realise that I am being asked if the ring she has allegedly found on the street at my feet belongs to me. I reply, with an insouciant smile, that it is not – figuring on the fly that the woman can then keep her prize, and by the look of her somewhat shabby and underfed frame, she could use a little good fortune. Surprisingly, she then presses the ring on me, telling me it does not fit her, but might fit me quite well,  not failing to point out how handsome it is and how there is a ‘hallmark’ proclaiming its authenticity as 18 carat gold. At this point, the first tendrils of doubt begin to cloud my reasoning along with what I can only describe as naked, undiluted and shameful greed. The woman suggested I might like to ‘give her a little something – perhaps enough for a Coke or a cup of coffee.’ With comprehensively asinine stupidity I pulled out my wallet to find a small bill. The ring looked and felt like gold; I gave the woman 5 euros – her face darkening – she was clearly expecting more, but, nameless suspicions aroused, I simply shrugged and walked away, feeling simultaneously smug and ill at ease. It was only after a minute inspection at a table in a cafe on rue Madeleine  including dropping the article on the ground that I realised that brass is less dense than gold and has a different timbre when dropped on to a hard surface. Onlookers presumably doubted my sanity. The scam is apparently widespread and is practised by Eastern European gipsies. Furthermore, I was incredibly lucky not to have my wallet filched by an accomplice during the conversation.
I rather thought my luck had turned, as it happened, since there was seemingly no queue to get into the Pompidou Centre, which still looks unfinished – I wanted to see the Brancusi exhibition. Like all other public museums, it’s closed on Tuesdays. Ah. Oh, yes, and in case anybody was wondering, I was laughed at later without mercy, which did me good. Probably.

Calvados Country

When Normandy is mentioned, the English subside into glowering silence, since the pretensions of the short little man who established a beachhead near Hastings almost a thousand years ago still rankles, since he brought with him smelly cheese, better cider and men in pointy hats. We did, of course, bring it on ourselves since the match ain’t over till the whistle blows and gazing up into a hail of Norman arrows isn’t the brightest strategy for the King of England.
Nevertheless, these days, Sundays in Normandy are cultured, peaceful affairs. The Honfleurais are proud of their ancient harbour from which goods were transported from Rouen to England to satisfy the bestial appetites of the fascist rapacious invaders. 

A decent fish lunch at a Michelin-rated restaurant – quite a departure for a meat and potatoes man –  then the exodus from Deauville (so chic) after an invigorating paddle on the world – class beach to the autoroute, avoiding the vacation stampede via quaint little towns with seventeenth century architecture and almost as many canals as Venice. Most satisfactory. The soundtrack is, of course, from Taizé and I can’t remember why the pigeon breasts stuffed with foie gras got into the video. Senior moment. Never mind.

Let it go…

Forgiveness is an attempt to solve the problem of feeling injured, slighted or maligned at the conscious level at which the problem is created. In other words, it’s personal. I rather think I’m in agreement with Einstein when he suggested that one has to arrive at a different ‘level’ to heal emotional injuries.

Truth is, we can cut a tidal wave of resentments off at the ankles just by deciding to be hurt only by people we know intentionally and maliciously tried to screw us over. This, as opposed to getting ruffled and feathery over incidents of thoughtlessness, miscommunication and insensitivity where no real malice was involved.

By way of example, a friend knocks our bowl of cereal on to the floor, making a mess and in addition breaking a bowl we quite liked. We might choose to take this personally, inventing a variety of interpretations around how we’re not valued by this despicable, thoughtless, clumsy and quite careless individual; how we deserve better, and so forth. On the other hand, we might consider whether we positively know that our friend intended to harm us. If they didn’t, we can, indeed should let it pass. There’s nothing to forgive. All of us injure and are injured with frightening regularity when there’s no ill-will involved whatever. Wouldn’t it be nice to cut others some slack, and in kind, have others assume the best about our intentions?

It is here that we move on from our first piece of Einstein’s wisdom: “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness (i.e. the same level) that created it,” to this:

“The most important
question you’ll ever ask
is whether the Universe
is a friendly place.”

Albert Einstein
 “What a curious segue,” I hear you say.

It is here that we shift towards the level of the impersonal. The first step is to crystallise our own beliefs about the relative friendliness of the universe. To help get started, here’s a couple of checklists. Tick the ones that resonate.

The Universe is a friendly place if…
1. Your best friend stands you up and you assume he must be saving a hapless kitten from a neighbour’s tree, or some such heroic and time-consuming activity.
2. Your acquaintance doesn’t show for a lunch engagement and you assume he must been run over by a bus and begin to pray for him.

3. When a motorist cuts you up in traffic, you think, “his wife must be in labour and he’s off to help bring a new baby into the world — how glorious!” This does not apply in Kuwait. If you live here, delete this one.

4. When friends fall silent as you approach — you don’t think, “they were talking behind my back,” but instead see yourself rather like Jesus on the Mount of the Beatitudes – they stand in awe of your presence. I have to admit this might involve somewhat more than thinking the Universe is friendly and be a precursor to a descent into delusion.
The Universe is an unfriendly place if…
1. When someone knocks your elbow whilst passing by you in the produce aisle, you grind your teeth as you run your grocery cart full-on into them, determined that no one’s gonna take a swipe at you without consequence.

2. When the waitress charges you for two coffees when you only had one, you demand to see the manager and try to have her fired for cheating you.

3. The teller at the bank is slow to process your transaction and you think this is a mendacious ploy to convey to you that you are worthless and undeserving.

4. You genuinely believe road menders are going out of their way to personally make you late for work.

Based on our responses, a pattern may emerge.  For those who, as of this very moment, are thinking that all the latter examples are justified, and furthermore, that to refrain from acting vigorously and swiftly to avenge such slights would surely lead to their increasing in your life with ever greater and more malevolent frequency , I have some news. It’s not true.

Wet Hats

I have had occasion in recent times to sit by a riverbank, sparsely populated by ducks and rowers which has led me, via a series of curious and unrelated leaps, to notions about making decisions – a course which I used to teach in a previous and less congenial lifetime. Any problem – in other words a series of events involving decisions – necessitates making a choice from the set of available alternatives at each stage. Therefore, our decisions will only be as good as the alternatives we have to select from. So much for the obvious. Being aware of the alternatives available to us has two immediate benefits : First, if we know all possibilities, we are in the best position to choose the most suitable for our purposes. Second, we may sometimes find ourselves in a situation where there is no rational way to decide between them so the best we can do is to make a blind or intuitive choice. Should our chosen course of action lead us to a dead end, we would at least be aware that we made a choice earlier in the design and another course is still available to us. A failure to investigate the existence of valid alternatives might be the difference between a messy or elegant outcome.  Sometimes, I tell my students to walk round a problem and a small door to the solution may present itself which might look very different to the more obvious main entrance.

This simple problem illustrates the idea that if we start from the most useful place, matters can be simplified greatly.

A man has a boat that moves at constant speed in still water. He starts on a boat trip, moving upstream at 4 km/h. After 15 minutes, he realises he dropped his hat the instant he started the trip, so he turns around to get it. When he finally catches up with his hat, he is 2 km downstream from where he began the trip. Assuming the turnaround time is negligible, how fast is the stream moving relative to an observer on the bank?

This problem was found in the question paper of a competitive exam where the examinee is required to solve it within forty-five seconds. Most people implicitly choose to attack the problem as if they were a watcher from the riverbank, hence getting tied up in algebraic knots. Instead, try forgetting about the speed of the boat; instead try sitting on the hat as the end point and working it from there.

Quatorze Juillet

Today is a public holiday commemorating the Storming of the Bastille, which occurred in Paris on the 14th July, 1789 in the wake of considerable civil disobedience and public unrest which is, I suppose, a polite way of saying that the people were starving, homicidal and outraged. The medieval fortress and prison represented royal authority in central Paris and was stormed by the mob in search of weapons and ammunition on the morning of July 14th 1789. While the prison only contained seven prisoners at the time of its storming – the Marquis de Sade had been moved out ten days earlier- there was allegedly a shedload of explosives to plunder (there wasn’t as it turned out) and its fall was the flashpoint of the Revolution.  It rather seems as if so many constitutions have thrown out the baby with the bathwater – Russian Communists were replaced by despotic oligarchs, the Chinese imperial dynasty with Mao, and the foppish and extravagant French court of the incompetent Louis XVI (who, it would seem, was asleep during sex-ed and didn’t quite get the idea at first of what was expected of him with Marie Antoinette), with the bloodiest revolution in recorded history. Marie Antoinette was certainly enough of a bubblehead to have uttered the “let them eat cake” remark widely ascribed to her but there is no evidence that she actually did so – another urban myth. The peasants-have-no-bread story was in common currency at least since the 1760s as an illustration of the decadence of the aristocracy.  But, enough history. Each year there is a firework display in every centre of population across France and in many places where the French reside in any significant numbers. The last time I was in France in July was in 1976 – fireworks cancelled in Lyon because of a drought, but this time, the clouds rolled away and a dazzling display lit the heavens for the hour preceding July 14th. The largest and most extravagant is on the Champ de Mars – most recently the venue for a gigantic screening of a rather bad-tempered World Cup Final, but traffic is gridlocked across the 7th arrondissement, so it seemed a sound move to stay away. As an historical footnote, the Constitution allows for a presidential pardon on July 14 and since 1991 the President has pardoned many petty offenders (mainly traffic offences) on 14 July. In 2007, President Sarkozy declined to continue the practice, so nobody is going to get away with running a red light on the Place de la Concorde any more, where Louis and Marie lost their heads, and, ironically, people still do in the manic traffic. Boo.

Anyway, here’s a really bad video taken with my pitiful little phone camera of the festivities in Poissy. It’s traditional to dance with the firemen afterwards, I am told. Whatever…

Sunday Brunch

Various persons known to me have been taking an interest in my diet, thus I have pleasure in introducing you to Eggs Florentine, which is a variant on the staple New York brunch of Eggs Benedict. it’s not easy to get right, despite looking remarkably simple. Everyone has a Benedict recipe – this one is from Delia Smith, and some use Montreal bagels instead of English muffins, but getting it all together at the right time isn’t easy. Cooks reckon on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being ‘difficult’ this dish rates between a 3 and a 4, depending on whether you cheat on the Hollandaise or not. The wilted spinach is underneath and also forms part of the salad – the little Sicilian tomatoes are cut in half and melt in the mouth. This has a slice of cooked ham underneath, the eggs must have perfectly fluffed whites and be runny in the middle – they were –  and a decoration of fried and spiced onion. Perfect? Oh, yeah. Egg McMuffin it ain’t.

Hazelnuts and Parables

 A mashal in Hebrew literature is a short, pithily aphoristic saying – loosely translated as a parable. I was in idle conversation with a lapsed-or at least very repressed-Catholic today about the existence of God – as if he had little better to do than simply exist-and if he did, what was he like? I felt like a conjurer pulling theological rabbits out of non-existent hats and realising uncomfortably that this kind of dialectic was circular at best and incomprehensible at worst. In other words, I wasn’t really secure in my powers of intellectual persuasion. The person I was talking to looked up at a hazelnut tree and pulled a branch containing three fruits from it. They took one of the fruits, removed the leaves then smashed the pithy outer shell with a brick. Careful peeling revealed a smooth, white core, falling neatly into two halves, one of which was popped into my mouth. The taste was strange, fresh, exotic and luxurious. “This”, the individual said, “is what God is like.” Deconstructing the sequence was an exercise in humility.