A Word About Artichokes

I rather thought I knew about artichokes. Small, rotund and cuddly, found in expensive salads from Lenotre in Marina Mall, smothered in dressing of blandly non-specific origin and (I am most reliably informed as I  write) “probably out of a can…”

It came as something of a surprise the other evening when a large, rough-hewn object, the size of a softball having been boiled upside down for exactly nine minutes was placed in front of me with a quite delicate mustard vinaigrette. I was also provided with a knife and fork, the sole purpose of the fork, it would seem, was to prop up the northern edge of the plate so as to drizzle dressing on to the south pole. I watched, cautiously. The leaves form what looks like an anticlockwise Fibonacci in several layers. One places the object upside down, the woody stem like a tree trunk, grasps a leaf, sawing as necessary since it is both tough and inedible, releasing a small quantity of flesh which one sucks out having first flavoured it with a little dressing. This, I gather is not an activity recommended for those who are about to lose their infant teeth, since the suctorial action required may very well dislodge one of them. The leaves become smaller and more fruitful as one proceeds – surely a spiritual lesson there somewhere – and finally the hay, like a perfect Mohican, is revealed. Like a stripper shedding the last item of clothing, a quick deft flourish reveals the prize, the artichoke heart, delicate and succulent. Leaves are recyclable on the compost heap, so I felt virtuous having had no meat and returning the leftovers to the ground from whence they came.

Clawing Viragoes

with thanks to Biscarotte’s Flickr photostream (adapted)

In Kuwait, Mohammed and Abdullah look out of the window and, if it’s a nice day, say to one another “I know. Today we will have a sale”. So, they break out the orange stickers and drop the prices by 20%. The French have a rather different, more revolutionary approach. On the day after midsummer, the ‘soldes’ begin – a principle enshrined in the immutability of the law – Medes and Persians meet on Boulevard Haussmann. The result is, of course, chaos. The metro overflows with dentists’ wives from Lille clutching huge Galeries Lafayette bags, having clawed, spat and punched their way to the front to grab the Lancel handbag whose price has plummeted from its original, eye-watering eight hundred euros. Even the silk  Dolce & Gabbana underwear is reduced. You get the idea.
I am one of the few men I know who quite enjoys a little amble around the temples of retail Mammon. This is not girly. Should anyone wish to debate this with me, I should be more than happy to have a full and frank exchange of views on the matter. Outside. I realised however that I was physiologically ill-equipped for survival in the environment of the Paris sales, not having hips the size of Hampshire and bosoms the size of Bournemouth which could be used as battering rams. As it happens, the above is not strictly true – French women are obsessed with their size so it’s more like being battered to death by sapphire-clad claws while running through a densely populated forest of bamboo. It’s the only place in the world where it’s cool to be anorexic. Gipsy calls herself a really cheap date; “don’t worry, darling, they don’t carry my size”. I therefore waited until evening, drove to Versailles – there’s a mall with all the big names (so chic) – and being almost dinner time it was quiet (the French let nothing interfere with gastronomic delight), and collected a few things I liked from Zegna,  Ralph Lauren and Hermes. A kindly friend bought me dinner afterwards in a rustic little place in the centre of town. I ordered calves’ liver. My dining companion was asked if I would like it well-cooked, being ‘un Anglais’ thus unable to speak the language and as subtle as a brick when it comes to culinary niceties. I glowered at the waiter as if he had just grabbed the last Ralph Lauren jacket on the rail and invited him outside.

The Tao of Pi

Mathematics peels back the semblances of perceived realities that most of us are happy with. Even the Egyptians did fractions with hieroglyphs – not something one thinks about on a daily basis. Mathematics has physics as its muse – the old joke about asking a physicist ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ is met with ‘I can tell you, but it only works for spherical chickens and infinitely long straight roads’. Sometimes it’s fun  to think about a world  where e is a Napierian exponent and not a recreational drug, where sliced bread doesn’t come in perfectly spherical loaves, and where proverbs become “tautoverbs”.  If pigs had wings, they still wouldn’t be able to fly, because aerodynamics has laws putting a stop to that sort of thing. If this cow was a sphere, would its milk yield increase, I wonder?

All this came about because I came across an article that attempts to depose physics as the concubine of mathematics, where she has resided unchallenged for millennia, in favour of the sassy new kid on the block, biology.

I know a man – I happen to have provided half his genes in fact, who is a mathematician and a biologist, a new guru, knowing lots about ‘systems level dynamic analyses of fate change in murine embryonic stem cells’ amongst other things. Catchy isn’t it..and means about as much to me as an iPad would have to Newton.

Apple Whore

It has taken thirty five years for me to evolve from the chrysalis of MSDOS into a fully formed Apple whore. No, that isn’t strictly true, since I won an Apple computer for the school years ago and loved it. Get a Mac, don’t look back. In the day, yeah, I have to shamefacedly admit to being if not a geek, at least a languid anorak, casually tapping shortcut keys which looked almost alchemical at the time and driving friends insane… “how did you DO THAT?”
Ten or so years ago, a mobile phone was an almost essential, but I would not have suffered permanent paralysis without one. Last week, I bought an iPhone, the Vuitton of communication devices. I can subside into a self-contained virtual reality with this thing – reading Heart of Darkness as well as sending banal little notes to people via a chic little message interface – while jolly little gnomes trot glibly across the bottom of my screen. There are thousands of apps to play with – a melancholic’s paradise. I now have one more thing to worry about – the cost of the bereavement counselling I shall assuredly need if I leave it on the train.

Apple’s first computer arrived when I was twenty-four years old – half a lifetime away for both them and me. It had a massive 4 k bytes of RAM with an ‘ 8 k byte capacity ON BOARD’ . Wow. This, together with a cassette interface, made it a world beater. They have come quite a long way from Steve Jobs’ slightly greasy chalk pinstripe Madison Avenue look – nice parting, Steve. The image is from the first edition of MacWorld, ‘dealer enquiries invited’, and a quite awful first logo of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree. The original machine was priced at – wait for it – $666.66. Say no more.

Annual Events

It’s quite nice to be back in Paris. In spite of the fact that it was raining; quite a novelty, there were 137 km of tailbacks in total around peripheral highways and we had to detour as far as Cergy Pontoise to get home. Parisians are mostly philosophical about  ‘les bouchons’ – corks as in bottlenecks – but the extent of a completely unexplained standstill seemed to have taken many by surprise. Rumour had it that the Paris air show was to blame but I doubt it, since the roads seemed clogged by what looked like a million behemoth juggernauts, all crawling remorselessly westward. The show was rather spoiled by an Airbus A380 with a rather careless driver – one hesitates to use the word ‘pilot’ who sliced a wingtip off in a collision with a building. Oops. It’s going to need more than a roll of duct tape, I think.

Suddenly, after doing what appears to have become an annual event, clear-out and move, I felt able to slow down. There’s a new Guatemalan hammock in the garden which in less wet weather will doubtless beckon invitingly, but doing nothing is unlikely to be an option for long. Neglecting the fact that I need to become reacquainted with my petrol-driven, Honda ‘tondeuse’ to clip the encroaching greensward,  Paris can be busy in June – Roland Garros being only one busy week of many. Tomorrow is another annual event, the celebration of the summer solstice which unlike dreary British anoraks who head for Stonehenge and start a riot when they can’t get near enough to do a bit of stone-hugging, France has a Fete de la Musique, which stops traffic just as efficiently but with a good deal more bonhomie. Paris will be crowded, hopefully just with locals who gather at a favourite arrondissement to listen to ethnic offerings from local residents.

Postscript. Rive Gauche was a bit busy, it has to be said. After half an hour of a truly awful concert from willing but talentless Romanian singers in the crypt of St Sulpice and a street art show, a short but congested meander in the sidestreets off the Boulevard St Germain subjected us to a randomly cacophonous macedoine of performers, from balding Rolling Stones tribute bands to dreadful post-punk wannabes, more decibel than dulcimer, with barely fifty metres separating each. All in all – a good-humoured but determined assault on the tympanic membranes which are still gently quivering some hours later. I must be getting old.

The Hangover

Part Two. No, it’s not me. It’s a movie. A sequel. Kind of. The three original characters from the (quite hilarious) 2009 film are transplanted from Vegas to Bangkok where a similar, nightmarish alcoholic blackout causes them all to retrace totally forgotten drunken steps. Three American men with a shared history of misbehaviour travel to Thailand for the wedding of one of them, a dignified and slightly anally retentive dentist  who is marrying a beautiful, educated Thai girl from a highly respected family. One little drink on the beach then morphs into an awakening with a drug dealer in a seedy Bangkok hotel room who promptly dies after snorting a line of coke, a missing teenage genius brother of the bride and a bridegroom with a quite fetching, if large, facial tattoo. Imagine the unimaginable and it probably happened. There isn’t really a story, more a concatenation of retrospective and highly unfortunate series of events, pieced together painfully and appallingly slowly around the general theme of finding the missing boy.  In case it’s not obvious, this is not suitable for children It’s violent, crass, offensive to every conceivable interest group, and liberally besprinkled with profanity and male nudity – yes, being Bangkok – a transsexual prostitute puts in an appearance with whom, apparently, the bridegroom-to-be had consensual gay carnal relations. Oh, dear. The whole point seemed to be to to make even seen-it-all-done-it-all adults laugh in shock at each dawning, ever more shameful recollection. 

It was awful. Why, then? Because it served as an object lesson to remind me why Uncle Jack and I parted company several years ago. But, it never got quite that bad, did it? I really can’t remember.

Blither and Squiff

There being little that has captured my attention in recent times – apart from a surfeit of violence just about everywhere, I feel justified in returning to a familiar theme. Not ‘the two-state solution’ – why not simply expand the  State of Israel to include everything from Syria to Yemen – that’d give the Palestinians a bit more room to move – no.  As the end of term gallops ever closer, I find myself trying to be gracious, tolerant and fair when compiling student reports, always an exercise in creative fiction and  which I’m not very good at any more, tending to say what I want to say rather than that which I am expected, indeed ‘told’ to.

In a similar vein, I am almost never ‘told’ I must be tolerant of other people’s religion, except by unctuous politicians seeking re-election who tell everyone on prime time TV. It’s just expected that ‘civilised people’ have no moral or intellectual scruple about  rational acquiescence to the notion that others may hold different opinions to their own. The validity of such opinions can and perhaps should be challenged since it’s logically fallacious to suppose that just because a large number of people have been persuaded by crappy logic it isn’t necessarily either right or expedient. So with a large, powerful lobby group who in my view cruelly and despicably determined to raise a triumphalist mosque near the site of the atrocities of 9/11 in New York, am I supposed to simply be tolerant?
Furthermore, I find myself wondering which tenet of their religion do you mean?  A religion, after all, is a system of beliefs and to say that all beliefs are equally worthy of tolerance is to say, essentially, that ideas don’t matter at all.  It’s just blither and squiff.
For instance, I always try not to think about burning or beheading those who hold different views on transubstantiation than I do – though there are days when it’s difficult, believe me, especially when such views are accompanied by the cushioned arrogance which a belief in Tradition tends to foster.  Whiffs of Popery have the stink of enslavement about them and I do think that Anglicans with Catholic, misogynistic tendencies who hide behind esoteric theology condemning the priesthood of women ought to just bugger off back to Rome where they belong. By contrast, if, like those Westboro Baptist clowns, you turn up at an American soldier’s funeral claiming he deserved to die because America tolerates homosexuality and “God hates fags,” then you’re off my Facebook list for good. Because your beliefs suck.

Mildew And Rust

When I didn’t think the Church could possibly get any weirder, someone sent me a link the other day of a video of a Catholic priest invoking God’s mercy on the current drought in rural France, a ritual first celebrated in 511CE. It’s Rogation Sunday shortly – one of four, apparently. The word “Rogation” comes from the Latin rogare, meaning “to ask,” and was applied to this time of the liturgical year because the Gospel reading for the previous Sunday included the passage “Ask and ye shall receive” (John 16:24). God obviously has the ‘out to lunch’ sign up the rest of the time. More probably, the liturgy was bent to fit the season since its likely derivation is  from the Roman Robigalia which has exactly the same function, namely a pagan ritual involving prayer and sacrifice for a good crop and ‘protection from mildew and rust’ . Sunday marks the start of a three-week period (ending on Trinity Sunday), during which clergy – can’t imagine why – didn’t let people get married. In England,  Rogation Sunday is sometimes called Chestnut Sunday for reasons unspecified. No doubt TBP could tell me.

The faithful typically observed Rogation days by fasting in preparation to celebrate the Ascension, and farmers often had their crops blessed by a priest at this time, Violet vestments – rather jolly, don’t you think –  are worn at the rogation litany and its associated Mass, regardless of what colour was worn at the ordinary liturgies of the day. A common feature in former times was the ceremony of “beating the bounds”, in which a procession of parishioners, led by the minister, churchwarden, and choirboys, would proceed around the boundary of their parish, marking territory by peeing in the corners perhaps, and pray for its protection in the forthcoming year. Let’s all march down the middle of the 30 – rush hour might be best – all we have to do is find an expendable choirboy or two and a couple of churchwardens. It was also known as ‘Gang-Day’, a precursor of ‘March for Jesus’, perhaps. In ancient times, it was followed by an alefest, thus guaranteeing participation. In Henry VIII’s reign the occasion had become an excuse for so much revelry that it attracted the condemnation of a preacher who declared “these solemne and accustomable processions and supplications be nowe growen into a right foule and detestable abuse.”  Ratso Joe it seems is quietly encouraging the revival of – er – ‘older rites’. Not surprising as the former head of the Inquisition. How about a good witch-burning?
Before the howls of protest, perhaps it’s just me getting older and less tolerant of (from my humble point of view) complete claptrap. Yes, it can be argued that some people need this kind of focus, but a solid encounter with a mighty, glorious, life-changing  Ruach HaKodesh might put a stop to much of the play-acting.

My Country, My Country

I love this country. The building site where I live provides shade and scale, in contrast to the flat, featureless desert landscapes others have to put up with. As a child, I had collections of plastic lorries and Caterpillar vehicles; now I can see up to thirty real ones, trundling, growling behemoths kicking up vast clouds of dust. What fun. Winter temperatures, with freezing noses and icy roads no longer trouble me. Instead, I can bask in the sunshine of temperatures in excess of 51 degrees Celsius, surely warm enough for anyone. It’s a shame that my pool is almost always covered in a fine film of dust, otherwise I could take advantage of it more often. Sandstorms, we’re told, seem to be becoming more frequent, generated in the Arabian furnaces, propelled by malevolent djinn and no longer confined to the summer months when expatriates are torn away from the deserts they love so much back home to more temperate climates. According to a study conducted by a US Navy researcher and reported by USA TODAY, US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait have inhaled microscopic dust particles laden with toxic metals,including aluminium, lead, tin and strontium-not counting any stray uranium from tank-busting missiles, also bacteria and fungi. If the troops have, all the rest of us have too. Quite alarming, really. The air we breathe has been described as a ‘toxic stew’ of bacteria and fungi. A toxic stew that may explain everything from the undiagnosed Gulf War Syndrome symptoms to high rates of respiratory, neurological and heart ailments. 

Now I understand why people walk around looking like this…

Big respect, of course. I don’t know these charming ladies but no doubt their family members recognise them.

Must I really leave this delightful place in a little under three weeks?