Peevish Whining and Other Rambling Conversations with Myself

I don’t often write about sex. Which isn’t the same thing as thinking about it. Living in the Back of The Nether Regions, with  sand dunes for inspiration, one’s imagination occasionally develops a quantum leap of fertility. Which brings me to the first point. Reported recently in the British press was the remarkable and rather tragic story of the Kenyan mother who has, it would appear, been providing comfort to a variety of gentlemen resulting in six sets of twins. This would appear to be ‘a series of unfortunate events’ since the production of twins in her tribal grouping is considered a curse. The Bukusu people, to which her family belongs, believe twins bring bad luck – and that unless one of them dies, it means certain death for one or both parents. The Bukusu tradition of eliminating the second twin is no longer practised, though occasional cases of infanticide are still reported in rural areas of western Kenya. Her serially polygamous lifestyle counts for less, it seems, than her genetic misfortune.

It would seem that the small spikes of ‘curious behaviour’ in other words ‘not like ours’ which attract the attention of the media and lead us to the conclusion that there’s a vast diversity of culture around the world whose surface we rarely brush and when we do, it elicits oohs and aahs since our cultural or moral feathers are ruffled. I can still remember interracial dating being considered perverse, and the discovery that African blood was just as red as mine was a revelation to a culture-curious six year old. I was once asked – by my father, of all people, if I knew what the word ‘transvestite’ meant. I informed him with fourteen-year old loftiness that ‘of course I did, it was another word for ‘lesbian”. Many years later, I discovered, I found out that he had asked me because one of his closest Church associates, a churchwarden and reader, had been caught dressing up in his wife’s clothes.
All of the above is a demonstration that ignorance, stupidity and political myopia is endemic and morality evolves as a function of cultural necessity, a maxim Pope Benedict might do well to heed. The issue of ‘gays in the military’ is a case in point. On the Senate floor, critic and war hero John McCain ignored the advice of generals in uniform, he talked of “elites” and “liberals” who have no military experience. I’m one of them. But I don’t need military experience to have both common sense and a sense of decency. So Senator, when you were caged in that Vietnam hellhole, if a flaming drag queen swooped in with some artillery and a butch lesbian choppered you out of there, would you have objected? I think not. Imagine a soldier in Afghanistan, on patrol in a hostile village. Suddenly, he hears yelling in a language he doesn’t understand, and there’s a small explosion ahead, then a second one just yards away. The two guys he’s with  – would he prefer them small and straight, afraid of loud noises; or big and gay, one who’s been working out since he was fourteen, and the other a Tom of Finland lookalike who happens to speak Pashtun?

Iceland has now criminalised all strip clubs. Even quaint little topless bars with triple priced drinks; the repression of the 1950s is looking positively progressive, as the law makes it illegal for a business to ‘profit from the nudity of employees’. No girlies draped over Audis at the Rejkyavik Motor Show, then.
What makes this law particularly ambivalent is the crowing of self-proclaimed “feminists” and “women’s advocates,” who seem unable to grasp the simple notion of adult, thus, one might suppose, by definition, self-aware and responsible, choice. Member of Parliament Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir said, “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.” Ah, so David Beckham PLC should be shut down, then. It’s a fact that people make money out of others, sometimes the morality of their earnings is questionable and sex trafficking is repugnant to all but the most depraved. Most people might not choose to go to a lapdancing club, myself being one of them – not necessarily for high moral reasons but because I think it’s a waste of money, in much the same way as drinking oneself senseless. Both of which are unobtainable here. Allegedly. The little red building bottom right of the image might have been a lapdancing club, now it’s either a Pizza Hut or a mixed sauna.

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The Astonishing Benefits of Educational Television

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 4.30.21 PMTelevision is the final resting place of the terminally bored. Shrouded in a bathrobe, one lies on the sofa, listening to cerebral cells die. Kuwait’s English Channel Two is sometimes quite educational, however. Today, during a programme  called ‘How It Is Made’, I learned how to make what the Americans call ‘particle board’  and the English ‘chipboard’ which, as the programme told me helpfully, is a cheap alternative to natural wood and how it is turned into furniture. It was a tutorial in how IKEA  production lines work, from the moment the tree is sacrificed to the moment the final product arrives in-store.
There was then a little potted history of ice-skating, and I learned that ice skates were used as early as 200CE. Fascinating. Furthermore, there are 145 separate pieces in a modern ice-skate and I now know how to make one, including alignment and balance, where the white plastic insole goes and why the sole of the boot is sanded for good adhesion. It’s riveting stuff. We then had a little intermission while the mullah reminded us all that it was prayer-time, just before the really interesting part when we got to find out how the blade was attached to the carbon composite sole.
I wonder why I didn’t turn over. Channel-hopping, I chanced upon Channel Two right in the middle of a detailed tutorial on industrial winemaking. It included how much yeast to use, how the grapes should be prepared and crushed, the fermentation temperature (17 degrees Celsius for white, 30 degrees for red), how long the fermentation process takes and how to remove particulate matter on completion. I learned how to test for sugar during the process,  how to use a hygrometer to check for alcohol content plus the expected range, the benefits of corking and why green bottles are normally used.

Ah.

Voices of Compromise

Finally, Israel’s independent investigation into the May 31, 2010 interception of a Turkish-backed flotilla trying to break the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip has been concluded. In summary, both Israel’s action against the flotilla and the blockade itself were legal under international law. Much good will it do them.

Headed by retired Supreme Court judge Jacob Turkel, the investigative committee found that “the naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip – in view of the security circumstances and Israel’s efforts to comply with its humanitarian obligations – was legal pursuant to the rules of international law.”

If this is so, then Israel’s incursion into Gaza in an attempt to curb Hamas rocket attacks a year ago was also justified “in view of the security circumstances, under international law”.

Israel had the right to enforce that naval blockade, just as other nations have imposed naval blockades in international waters in the past (as Britain did during World War II and the US during the Cuban missile crisis).
It’s unfortunate that she’s damned if she does and damned if she don’t. A flotilla – the word sounds so inoffensive – of little boats sets sail from Turkish waters to bring much-needed aid to the beleaguered Gazans, as the world gazes down in sympathy. On board are ‘dissidents’, ‘activists’ and sundry other persons who, it would appear, engorged with moral outrage at the despicable Israeli tactic of preventing weapons smuggling, intend to deliver the contents personally, where, it was alleged, a hero’s welcome awaited them. Smoke and mirrors, froth and bubbles. Whoever is running Hamas’ propaganda unit, he or she is the one deserving a Palme’d’Or.

I wonder whether the anniversary of Dunkirk was deliberately chosen.

I found myself wondering at the time what course of action was presented to the politicians who made the decision and what analysis was made of the consequences of using live fire in any confrontation. Some claim that the demonstrators attacked IDF commandos with guns and other weapons, which is policyspeak for ‘the bastards fired on us’. This shifts responsibility from the political and military decision-makers to the soldiers, who acted in the heat of combat and quite properly fought back. No point in sending armed men if all they have to do is be reasonable. It may be convenient to Netanyahu and his partners in government to present the battle as a local incident that escalated – but they cannot, unfortunately, escape responsibility. Exactly what Hamas wanted. The clumsier and more politically inept  Israel can be made to look, the more sympathy is garnered toward  those who seek to bring her to her knees. It should not be forgotten that the rulers in Gaza are classified as a terrorist organisation. If a minority authority elects such people to attempt to govern it, they have only themselves to blame if those whom they have sworn to drive into the sea reciprocate using men with guns.

Operationally, Israel came out on top; of course they did – they have superb tacticians. Moshe Yaalon, and the defense minister, Ehud Barak, are both former chiefs of staff. Between them, they have almost matchless experience of military planning and combat. Netanyahu – a former elite commando – has a formidable intelligence and operational record. Of course the Israelis will win tactically if they bring Hamas to battle, but their very superiority on the battlefield is what brings about the propaganda losses they invariably suffer. The world wants a Palestine and doesn’t understand why Israelis can’t give it. The problem here is mindset. Both Hamas and Israel see themselves at war and the world has made a choice based on what looks like fairness, but is spectacularly ignorant of the cultural milieu on the ground.

The Turkel Committee took over seven months to meticulously collect and process testimony and other data. By comparison, the Turkish investigation into the incident took three weeks and concluded by accusing Israel of state terrorism.

Also by way of comparison, the Turkel Committee investigation was entirely transparent, having set up a public website where all milestones and findings were published and regular press conferences held. The Turkish investigation was held behind closed doors.

Israel now waits to see if UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will accept the findings of the Turkel Committee. I think it unlikely, but, watch this space. The world will not be satisfied until the Palestinians get as much as they can, but, even this may paradoxically work against them, since they make political capital from victimhood, with which the rest of the world as well as Hillary Clinton may ultimately lose patience.

Footnote. The publication of the so-called ‘Palestine Papers’ yesterday reveals that there are voices of compromise somewhere in Palestine.
Concessions the Palestinians made behind closed doors would never in reality have been accepted by the Palestinian public, negotiators at the time Abbas and Olmert knew this, evidenced by the fact that they talked a lot but never actually signed an agreement. The Palestinians never intended to conclude the negotiations; it has served them too well to stay perpetual victims, participants in a Greek tragedy.
It is also a clever negotiating tactic. Yesterday, Abbas openly called on Netanyahu to return to the negotiating table on the basis of what Olmert previously offered, omitting what the Palestinians offered in return. But if Olmert’s offer was sufficient, why didn’t Abbas conclude a deal with him?
Surely, most Western power brokers involved in the negotiations can see through the ruse, even if they don’t admit as much in public.

True Grit

It’s not often that I get to see two films in a day both of which, different as they were, could be described as masterpieces. I had avoided watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s finely tuned, beautifully crafted “True Grit” since I had thought that Jeff Bridges as the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn could never replace John Wayne in the original 1969 version. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to, this is really not a remake. Casting is more ‘primus inter pares’ and Bridges gives the other characters much more room in this darker, harsher interpretation than in the original. The beauty of the movie is in the weighty precision of the prose, lifted wholesale from Charles Portis’ original novel, as authentic as if reading Mark Twain and wonderfully offset by the landscapes of Santa Fe and Texas. The Coen’s have taken a “formal, reverent approach” to the Western genre, with its emphasis on simplicity, adventure and high quest. The stilted patois of the characters and the love of language that suffuses the film, makes it similar to their other work, but without irony. A man’s “yea” was indeed “yea” and his “nay” “nay” in those days of strength and wilderness, without a whisper of tongue in cheek.
Kim Darby’s Matty Ross has a worthy successor in thirteen-year-old Hailee Seinfeld. There is something fractious, irritating yet deeply admirable about Matty, in particular the Presbyterian-Protestant ethic so strongly imbued in a 14-year-old girl. “Is your every utterance to be indecipherable, Marshal? Your vocalisations are less words than outhouse rumbles after overconsumption of whiskey and chicken wings. Does your throat retain an unfortunate tumbleweed?”
The role that the soundtrack plays in rhythmic distancing of perspective lends the film a powerfully memorable breadth and the alternation of traditional orchestral “western” music with intimate folk gives it a spare, accurate feel. We become particularly aware of this in the final scenes, when the epilogue is set to a honky-tonk solo piano, a striking contrast from the mythic sweep of the stars as  Cogburn, exhausted, saves her life and  brings Mattie “home”.  What follows the epilogue is Iris DeMent’s haunting version of Elisha Hoffman’s 1887 classic from Deuteronomy 33:27 Leaning on the Everlasting Arms which plays over the credits and appears at intervals throughout the movie. I was spellbound and close to tears. Unmissable.

Stiff Upper Lip

“The King’s Speech”. Pip-pip, toodle-oo. Jolly good show, a showcase of British stiff upper lip idiosyncrasy it isn’t. Thrust reluctantly on to a world stage by the forced abdication of his urbane, sophisticated brother, poor Bertie is ill-equipped for the age of wireless. Attempting as the then Prince Albert to speak at the British Empire Exhibition in 1925 into a black hole of wretched, pitiful, agonising stammering and sweaty verbal indecision, the silences would have filled a football stadium. A monstrous microphone, a heat-seeking metaphor for the sum of all the Prince’s fears, hovers menacingly.  His wife – a spectacularly understated, subtle and emotionally-rich Helena Bonham-Carter, remarkable mother to the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, engages the services of an eccentric Australian, Lionel Logue, (Geoffrey Rush) a speech therapist operating out of a Harley Street basement. “My house, my rules. You come to me, I don’t come to you. First rule. My name is Lionel and that’s what you call me. I’ll call you Bertie”. Colin Firth as the future King George VI, looked as if he has been slapped in the face with a wet fish.
Logue realises that the underlying causes of Bertie’s affliction reside in his family’s history. Michael Gambon’s overbearing, impatient George V shows a complete lack of understanding as he imagines that all Bertie has to do is persist and he’ll somehow by dint of sheer effort of will overcome his affliction. Older brother David (Guy Pearce)– the future King Edward VIII – knows exactly how to reduce his verbally impoverished brother to ineffectual, frustrated, silent misery.
Bertie and Lionel fence and clash, agonise, sing and swear, creating together a landscape both epic and intimate.
Lionel is untrained and formally unqualified; his experience was gained in the emotional wreckage in the aftermath of the First World War. He is a failed actor, rejected for the part of Richard III by an amateur dramatics company in Putney, is given to grand gesture but is unintimidated by the blue-blood from the Palace whose entire training has been in ways to hold everything together. Logue guides his patient through the minefield of Coronation responses, ticking off a somewhat ovine Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) during the rehearsals. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; the film’s culminating scene is the triumphal King’s Speech of 1939, a rallying cry to an Empire to rise up, stand, and fight the menace of Nazi Germany.
The battlefields of emotional silence generated by the film are nothing short of stunning. An absolutely stellar cast includes a totally believable Churchill (Timothy Spall), who, casting off the unctuous obsequiousness of Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter series, is just beginning to develop the bulldog voice so beloved of a nation at war.
An avalanche of BAFTA’s must surely follow. Visually authentic and dramatically almost perfect, this one’s the best by far, for a long time.

Stellar Drivel







There has, it would appear, been debate in the astrology community as to whether or not Sedna, a spherical spit of rock an awfully long way away is the tenth planet in our solar system. Arnapkapfaaluk is an Inuit word meaning Big Bad Woman and also a word for Sedna, the Inuit Goddess of the Deep Sea who dwells in the depths of the Arctic and protects the sea-creatures. According to Inuit legend, Sedna was so huge and hungry that she ate everything in her parents’ house, then gnawed off one of her father’s arms while he was asleep. Big bad woman indeed, not the sort of chick you want to meet on a blind date when Mercury is in retrograde, but anything involving big, bad women gets my attention. Sedna is presented to many men but finding none of them to her liking, she marries a dog. Not unreasonably, her father becomes upset, takes her out to sea in his kayak and tosses her over the side, quite an achievement with only one arm. Sedna clings to the side of the kayak whereupon her father chops off her fingers until she sinks like Leonardo di Caprio into the underworld and becomes immortal, her huge fingers becoming seals and walrus to be hunted by the Inuit. Sedna is linked to the sign of Cancer, seemingly confirmed by its zodiacal location of early Cancer at “perihelion” or ‘home sign’. To astrologers, Sedna’s influence is ancient and primordial. It is currently in the zodiac sign of Taurus.

As today happens to be my birthday, a distinction shared with the population of Cairo, or about seventeen million anonymous others, I find myself in retrospective mood. In common with the multitudes worldwide who place their trust in astrologers and other persons with the time and inclination to seek meaning from celestial bodies, I  thought I should review my life and progress in the context of my star sign, also whether those born near the periphery of a zodiacal sign share characteristics of both.  I am, it seems, firmly rooted as a Capricorn, or sea-goat. According to that well-known oracle of celestial wisdom, “I Love India”, we sea-goats might, to a casual and superficial observer, be a tad curmudgeonly from time to time.
“It is very difficult to get close to a Capricorn man. He is always enclosed within a strong wall, which is not too easy to breach. He is not too gregarious & outgoing, but his personality traits include determination and patience. He has fierce ambitions, which he pursues with a strong resolve. If you look at him casually, it may seem as if he prefers solitude to company. Now, look deeper, inside his heart. Though he doesn’t show it, he wants admiration as much as other people. It’s just that a Capricorn male is too shy to express his feeling (sic) openly.”
Marvellous. How frightfully apt.
And yet, a dark cloud overshadows me. The horoscope is in disarray due to the gravitational pull of the Moon, and all the signs are now a month out of synch, necessitating the introduction of a new sign, Ophiuchus, wedged between Scorpio and Sagittarius. Were I to abandon the sign under which I was born, I now find  myself to be a Sagittarian, ruled, it would seem, by the planet Jupiter. From the same unimpeachable source I now discover myself to be…
“cheerful and optimistic by nature…sees just the brighter side of life, ignoring the darker aspect.” It appears that I am “ lucky in both, professional and personal fronts…very straightforward, sometimes to the point of being rude.” Surely not. “Sagittarian man believes that the nature of the person matters more than the appearance. …believes that looks can go weary (sic), but nature always remains the same. Innocent at heart and straightforward in talk, he is not at all deceitful.”
Hum.

Being Happy

It’s become a social imperative to be happy, or, at least, not to ever admit to being unhappy, except to psychologists who are paid to trawl through acres of human misery. My favourite Winnie-the-Pooh character is Eeyore, the lugubrious donkey, who made a career out of being unhappy, or, at least, pretending to be.  I’d like to share a rain-cloud with him. He once remarked:  “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”



The late British philosopher, Alan Watts once remarked “If I draw a circle then ask people what I have drawn, most will say ‘a circle’. Very few will say ‘a hole’. But, the circle and the hole, the inner and the outer, together make up the whole, if you’ll pardon the pun. Who we are is the inside, where we are is the outside. Both conflated, determines whether or not we might describe ourselves as ‘happy’. Vagabonds spend a lot of time rearranging their geography or, if you will, reconfiguring their circles in different places. For a brief, standstill moment in church yesterday, the geography sharpened to pinpoint accuracy, the mountains held their breath and outer and inner resonated with a pure, perfect tone.
As an inveterate voyeur, I have learned that I derive pleasure from watching other people engage in pleasurable acts. Neglecting pornography, I think this is an entirely normal state of mind, which is why I spend a lot of time in cafes and coffee shops. There’s a rather enterprising cafe in Tel Aviv which has completely dispensed with the notion of serving food and coffee altogether – it serves its patrons empty plates and charges real money. People still come to watch and listen, cocooned in an intimate, manageable microcosm of the world; every detail clearly focused. Men peck each other on the cheek here and it’s interesting to speculate about them, since the enthusiasm with which they do so is in some way unknown to me concerned with the relationship they have with each other. I was once in a hotel in St Petersburg and was fascinated by the behaviour of men towards a lone woman at the bar. She was clearly waiting for someone, but it didn’t stop at least half a dozen hopefuls from trying their luck.
I’m writing this sitting in a luxurious shopping mall. Ralph Lauren is a few metres away, a breathtaking selection of sunglasses, shoes, a cinema, good food. What more could a professional hedonist desire? In other words, this environment provides everything material outside the circle. Except a relationship with the inside. I think, like Dostoyevsky, that a visit to the coffee shop is if no use unless one is with friends to argue with.

Sea Nymphs and Caffeine

Living here makes one an expert on coffee. I so miss my Nespresso machine but having one here is a luxury which I can’t quite run to – rather like jet skiing. Starbucks is ever-present, however, which is some small crumb of comfort, not least because if you’re in Starbucks, by definition you have absolutely nothing better to do. I read yesterday that they are changing their logo, stripping away the outer green layer with the company name on. Perhaps a slight improvement on the original brown, splay-finned mermaid.


CEO Howard Schultz talked about the decision to update its emblematic logo on the 40th anniversary of the company in March.

“This new evolution of the logo does two things that are very important,” Schultz said. “It embraces and respects our heritage and at the same time evolves us to a point where we feel it’s more suitable to the future.”

Put another way, it’ll also sell more coffee in China.

I think the new version looks more like a logo for a hair conditioning product and emphasises the sea nymph as apparently naked with a sultry look in her eyes. What this has to do with Starbuck, first mate on the ‘Pequod’, the doomed Captain Ahab’s vessel in Moby Dick escapes me at the moment.

Why am I bothering to blog about this? What a trivial, vapid, irreflective life I lead…
Oh, yes. I’m in Starbucks.

In Beaune

Medieval French aristocrats were a duplicitous lot. Pausing in Beaune revealed the extent of their papish depravity. Beaune is a quite beautiful unspoiled part of Burgundy, with the exception of the A6 thundering northwards a few kilometres away, and the old town has a delightful charm which I’m getting quite used to appreciating.. 

It’s a hub of the wine trade, auctions still take place by burning candle, festering, mildewed bottles sell for vast sums at the local Christie’s auction house and you can buy a bottle of 1991 Montrachet for 950 euros in local restaurants.

But, returning to the Burgundian dukes. The auction house is in the Hôtel-Dieu with its beautifully crenellated roof which was founded on 4 August 1443, when Burgundy was ruled by Duke Philip the Good, who was, it seemed, a good mate of the Pope. The Hundred Years War had recently been brought to a close by the signing of the Treaty of Arras in 1435. Mahyem and massacres, however, continued with marauding bands (“écorcheurs”) still roaming the countryside, pillaging and destroying, causing  misery, hardship and famine.  Life in those days could well be described  in the words of Thomas Hobbes two hundred years later as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The majority of the people of Beaune were declared destitute. The building of the Hôtel-Dieu as a hospital and refuge for the poor served two purposes –  to ameliorate the appalling suffering the bastard English had inflicted during the war and, as a trifling incidental, buy the Duke’s way into heaven with indulgences.

The Hospices de Beaune received their first patient on 1 January 1452 and looked very much like this – the ‘Room of the Poors’. Elderly, disabled and sick people, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute have all been uninterruptedly welcomed for treatment and refuge, from the Middle Ages almost until the present day. The chapel is conveniently part of the building lest the ministrations of the carers proved insufficient and the patient expired, which judging by the surgical instruments on show in the museum, happened rather more frequently than not.
The Duke appears on the left with other luminaries in Rogier Weyden’s majestic polytych on the Last Judgement.. The saved are escorted into paradise on the left, while the damned are hurled into the abyss on the right.


Skiing Like A Belgian

“You ski like a Belgian” is a cheerily raffish Swiss insult to those, unlike themselves who had the misfortune to be born somewhere else and for whom sliding down precipitous slopes comes as naturally as breathing.

Surprisingly, a lifetime and a half ago, I used to teach people to ski. Before the days of parabolic skis which allow even an ill-balanced troglodye to turn, we learned on sleek, long, wood-core skis, legs glued together and carved compression parallels were achieved only after much effort and practice. Modern skis have taken a leaf from the skateboarders book, have a spectacular parabolic curve and turn on a sixpence with legs hip-width apart. All of which meant that with legs glued together and determined pressure, I found myself over-rotating hopelessly with shoulders facing the wrong way, amid gales of laughter. In my defence, the borrowed skis were a bit short, but I nonetheless felt briefly Belgian.