Month: December 2011

Food At Year’s End

New Year’s Eve can be quite a major deal here. People go out to friends, getting invited, dependent on who is doing the cooking. Ah. It would seem we are eight, sorry, nine for dinner tonight, rising to thirteen or more for dessert. Provisional menu herewith, written out by hand by chef for the purpose of instructing various minions, but, things change on a whim. The saucisson brioche has been made from  The Porcine Beast of Which We Do Not Speak (no, best not ask…) and tastes rich  and muscular. Those who pray might like to offer something powerful to the gods who control whether or not dishwashers malfunction at crucial moments. As the year closes, I find myself asking if the (pseudo)scientific Mayan folklore detailing the end of b’akt’un 13, or, if you like, the final wrap about a year from now will be heralded by voice recognition software (the next big thing – SIRI is light years ahead so far for those with an iPhone 4s) or if we’ll all still be eating potatoes in duck fat, just like tonight.


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Books At Year’s End

 

It is almost impossible to be blasé about Paris, even when skies are patchwork grey and rain threatens. The city has a life and breath of its own, tourists notwithstanding. A half hour from home is rue de Rivoli where WH Smiths, une bouffée d’Anglais, nestles almost cheek by jowl with one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the Crillon whose website gives no indication of the cost involved to walk through its hallowed portals. Dressed in Ralph Lauren, I felt like a pauper when taking this photograph. A little adroit navigation around the tourist traps reveals English books– blessedly uncensored – it seems that people do actually read these days, abundant and hot off the press. Bespectacled bibliophiles are thumbing languidly, myself among them. A word or two exchanged speaks volumes. A prize unavailable under burning suns is seized.  Rue St Honoré  runs parallel and one can find pairs of socks for only 50 euros. Amongst other things.
 
 
 

Hedgehogs with Buggies

The Greek poet Archilochus was one of the first to focus on human emotions and personal experience. He wrote “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Those who write and think view their world in one of two ways – hedgehogs who look at things in terms of one great defining idea, like Plato, Pascal and Nietzsche, or foxes who draw threads of experience together and for whom the world can’t be reduced to one single idea,  people like Aristotle, Shakespeare and James Joyce. The Amish are hedgehogs. A British reality show ‘Living with the Amish’ follows six British teenagers from a variety of backgrounds as they stay at five different Amish settlements from Pennsylvania to Ohio, cataloguing the responses of both their hosts and themselves when subjected to a regime of Benedictine severity. Clothed separately by each denomination – on their arrival they looked about as out of place as a stripper at the Eucharist, bereft of iPads, phones and the trappings of modern Western civilization, they were made to get up for milking at five, help with a barn raising – yes, the entire structure is assembled by hand – and learn the simple Biblical structures which underpinned each household they visited. I don’t often find myself caught up by reality shows, but this was a quite engaging experience. 
One had no choice but to attempt to measure the purity of one’s own Biblical interpretations against the clarity and straightforwardness of the kindly but firm Amish hosts. One thing plumblined their lives. The Word of God.  As written in the King James Bible. Full stop. No clever exegesis, no wriggling out of the awkward bits. There was a clear-eyed innocence about each of the families and their many children which was really quite touching. Amish children are homeschooled until fourteen, then work in family businesses; the contrasts were stark. Deliberately. The quiet Etonian, a rich, spoiled brat, a loud, black Cambridge undergraduate, an ex- foster kid in need of a father figure – all were received thoughtfully and the Amish gave more that they knew. One sensed clever editing – the British responses were careful never to offend, perhaps in deference to the Amish habit of weighing words carefully. Would that we could all learn to do the same, how much simpler diplomacy might become.

Fictional Morality

I sometimes find myself in what might be described as a blogging cycle. On one hand, light, upbeat – even frivolous. On the other, when something wrenches guts hard enough, a meatier, sugar-free post, rather like today’s. 
People often admire literary intellect, irrespective of expressed moral view and the notion gains credence that excellent facility with prose in some way excuses sins. Christopher Hitchens, the champion of vitriolic atheism has left this world, perhaps to discover that most of his tightly reasoned theories about God, the afterlife and the permanence of the soul have been set at naught. His style was excoriating and passionate, some might argue grossly offensive, even repellent – in his own words he once remarked that he ‘ought to carry with him some sort of rectal thermometer’, presumably to measure how rapidly he was turning into an old fart. The influence of such writers on popular culture, the axis of leverage which they are able to command over the mind of the reader is almost impossible to calculate. I was seduced, but not captivated. 
I don’t believe that the humanities are necessarily humane – in other words, shape our moral perceptions for good rather than evil. Indeed, I would go further: I think it more than conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text diminishes the sharpness  of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart. The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fiction, consequently the cry in the poem may come to sound louder and  more urgent than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Is there, I wonder, a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential for personal inhumanity? As we succumb more and more to the fantasy of aesthetics, we fail to realise that the moral plumblines keeping us upright have been twisted into grotesque, unrecognisable shapes. Thus, the more aesthetically refined we imagine that we have become, the more our internal moral structures decay until we become a satyr, a Dorian Gray.


Carols on Speed

The last twenty four hours have been catchup. Apart from a Skype call to NZ, (ain’t Skype wonderful, especially when it’s legal), an old friend from the Friends was in town in transit to San Francisco and we snatched a fast cafe or two together in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower before I headed for Bobino and he for Brussels.

The new churches don’t often do Christmas very well. Anglicans – especially Anglo-Catholics can get into the groove of welcoming the annual churchgoer who shows up at Christmastime. They get to sing a few carols while sober and listen to Nine Lessons which is as efficient a way of evangelising the heathen as any, I suppose, since they get the whole panorama of prophecy and fulfilment in a few easily digestible bitesize chunks, accompanied by choirs, candles and christingles. OK then. What about the New Churches? For them, doing stuff out of the book is a bit like asking Herod to babysit. It doesn’t sit comfortably with them, since carol singing is quite a traditional art form and that’s usually the last item on their agenda. Fetching up at Bobino earlier than usual, the sight of a full orchestra – with a drummer – playing the old faves, came as something of a surprise. The meeting started proper half an hour earlier than normal, miraculously on time and was billed as the Christmas Service. For once, I didn’t feel like the Oldest Member – some of the congregation had brought parents with them, I suppose. It was instructive to listen to what a group of creative people can do with some quite traditional music. ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful” rebranded as “O Come Let Us Adore Him” was, to be honest, quite breathtaking. Have a listen…Search on the site for the track. Yeah, OK, I bought the album. new this year, called ‘Born To Be King”. Brendan White was on fire and the crowd loved it. Including me. The place was tricked out with fake snow and big polystyrene snowflakes which surprisingly enough didn’t look at all tacky. The final set finished off with a group of clearly professional dancers, topped out by a Billy Elliott type with some spectacular classical ballet moves. As Christmas services go, this one was right up there…Lovely.

Peeping Bosons

Those who follow this blog know that from time to time I like to think a bit about physics, so it comes as no surprise that I make comment today on that faint aroma, that cloud the size of a man’s fingernail, that shrug of eternity, the Higgs. Few of us, myself included, have an intimate working knowledge of that ultimate racetrack-cum-wrecking-ball , the Large Hadron Collider about which I have written elsewhere, the worker bees who drive it  yesterday announced that they “might have found something”.  So far, it’s nothing more than a twinkle in the eye of God, but we live, as always, in hope.

Nevertheless, despite such earth-shattering news (pun intended), I am irritated. Those who know me realise that this is merely a façade, concealing a sunny urbane interior, but it is surely not beyond the pronunciation skills of the least literate BBC journalist to pronounce its name correctly. We get ‘ bozen’, ‘bosun’, even more improbably, ‘bozone’. It’s BOH-ZON, people. Do try to get it right.
Fearful and even wonderful

My A level class know about bosons. We talk about them a lot. Not the Higgs, I have to say, it’s a bit exotic even for us. For those unfamiliar, a boson is an exchange particle. Imagine two battleships firing cannon at each other. The guns, hence ships recoil as the guns are fired, representing the repulsive force between two protons, let’s say, in close proximity. As they do so, they exchange gunfire in the form of explosive shells. The shells are the ‘exchange particles’. To see a little animation, have a look here. Not difficult so far and all the other bosons have lost their virginity to the rapacious onslaughts of particle accelerators. Except the Higgs, which might have been peeping out the other day. Unfortunately, if we take it a few steps further we find ourselves enmeshed in labyrinthine gauge field theory and other exotica beyond my limited intelligence. Simply put, however, the Higgs confers mass on the building blocks of matter (quarks and leptons) and the mass of something is a measure of its resistance to being pushed around. Now, there’s something we can all understand.

Tree of Life

Yggdrasil – the Norse Tree of the World

Someone once remarked that cinema has become the new religion, with sacraments and doctrines. High-profile hits such as “The King’s Speech “or “Inception” inspire followings so devoted that disparaging remarks are seen as heresy. To criticise is to cast aspersions on someone’s fundamental beliefs, the very core of their existence, like a religious war in which neither side will tolerate the other’s gods, or lack the of them. Terrence Malick [Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005)] collected the Palme d’Or in Cannes with ‘The Tree of Life’ which people either loved or hated.  A few walked out on first screening of this vast, cosmic landscape upon which, if we choose, we can write our own narrative. To binarise the film in terms of a Beavis and Butthead ‘cool or sucks’, ‘like or dislike’, misses the point. It has been described as emotionally thin, American faux-angst, faux-reflection, taking longer and longer to say less and less. This too misses the point. Saying less is the whole idea. This is not a spectacle, it’s an interactive experience on a galactic scale. It evokes deep childhood resonances and intimate memory echoes – down to Beatrix Potter and hosepipes on summer afternoons, slowly drawing us to the central themes of innocence and loss. Brad Pitt is the embittered, tyrannical and unfulfilled father who once dreamed of becoming a great musician, trying to teach his sons that the way to worldly success lies in aggressive pursuit of perfection. Mother, (Jessica Chastain), believably saintly, offers the reverse paradox of Job, presenting us with a typology of goodness without reward.
The boys are encouraged to respect the violence of their father and secretly despise their mother’s gentleness, so that fear and love fuse in uneasy and strange paradox. The film contains bizarre symphonic passages of non-narrative spectacle, vast Hubble galactic images, impossibly high waterfalls, prehistoric jungles, Kubrick writ large. Most strange was the wounded dinosaur lying prostrate and helpless beside a river while another dinosaur comes along, plants its great foot on the other’s neck before moving heedlessly on. Is this the only message of the universe – pure survival? But then how is it we seem to want something other than survival? What do we want to survive for?
Five big stars. A masterpiece.