Inside the Box

Screenshot 3.jpg

Alice falling down the rabbit hole

Third time unlucky for the PM as of late this afternoon. Politics is broken. Spectacularly, irretrievably broken. In my lifetime, I have never seen such a meltdown of an order that for centuries looked unassailable. Democratic structures have ossified, their certainties have withered on the vine. The bipartite House, where Prime Ministers Questions – the tribal, gladiatorial sideshow of irrelevance and acrimony has never looked so utterly bereft of all reason. The very structure of the Chamber invites hostility and frequently behaviour close to hooliganism.

No wonder Europe is laughing at us.

The Leave campaign was won by strategy, statistics and the ever-present willingness to follow the leader who shouts loudest and the most repetitively with promises of money, freedom and the right to choose. Remainers had no defence against it, so, rightly or wrongly, here we are on Brexit Day 1 – there are going to be several more – so we’d all better get used to peering over the cliff edge.

What a post-Brexit Britain is going to look like in five years is a matter for fiction writers, believers in fairytales and snake oil salesmen. The absolute truth is, as the events of the last few weeks have taught us, is that we have no idea what we are doing, don’t know the right questions to ask and the whole uncertain stew is being stirred with a massive spoonful of hubris from those who actually think that they do.

We have brought this upon ourselves because we have neglected an essential ingredient, doubt. Doubt revisits partial solutions. Without it, we lose the ability  to reimagine, to set apparent certainties aside. We forget, like the dodo, how to fly and thus extinction beckons.

I have been (almost) certain for years that our education system, which  is the pathway to producing the marionettes who pretend to govern us, is not just flawed, but not fit for purpose. Our philosophical ground rules are built on a quicksand of false merit, useless degrees are awarded by half-educated academics in towers made, not of ivory, but of straw, who fill students’ heads with the same tired ideas in the same cracked pots.

The Nobel-winning physicist, Murray Gell Mann, one of the architects of the Standard Model of particle physics and namer of the ‘quark’, has described a need for an ‘Odyssean’ philosophy that can synthesise mathematics and the natural sciences with the social sciences, and the humanities and arts, into necessarily crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking about complex systems. This is ‘inside the box’ thinking, bouncing all kinds of different ideas off its multifaceted walls.

Screenshot 4

‘Today the network of relationships linking the human race to itself and to the rest of the biosphere is so complex that all aspects affect all others to an extraordinary degree. Someone should be studying the whole system, however crudely that has to be done, because no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behaviour of the whole…

‘Those who study complex adaptive systems are beginning to find some general principles that underlie all such systems, and seeking out those principles requires intensive discussions and collaborations among specialists in a great many fields. Of course the careful and inspired study of each specialty remains as vital as ever. But integration of those specialities is urgently needed as well. Important contributions are made by the handful of scholars and scientists who are transforming themselves from specialists into students of simplicity and complexity or of complex adaptive systems in general…

‘[There is] the distinction (made famous by Nietzsche) between “Apollonians”, who favour logic, the analytical approach, and a dispassionate weighing of the evidence, and “Dionysians”’, who lean more toward intuition, synthesis, and passion. But some of us seem to belong to another category: the “Odysseans”, who combine the two predilections in their quest for connections among ideas… We need to celebrate the contribution of those who dare take what I call “a crude look at the whole”…

This isn’t arrogance – a crude look at the whole means that one is both sitting in the helicopter as it hovers and looks, often unsuccessfully for links, connections, meaning in the chaos and also being part of the chaos itself, on the ground. As a species, we are in love with linearity; time marches inexorably forward, second by predictable second, governing everything we do and think about, from breakfast to train timetables. Great ideas, however, don’t flow out of linear progressions. They are squeezed into existence out of great wells of doubt, uncertainty and a willingness to admit we were wrong and start over. Tinkering with the edges doesn’t work any more. If only we could bring ourselves out of a zero-sum mentality, embrace, celebrate and reward integrative thinking and trans-disciplinary collaboration. Dominic Cummings, the sloganeer whose ‘take back control’ mantra, endlessly repeated like ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ from Animal Farm wrote: “Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced a new paradigm of education and science without neglecting the arts as its defining mission and therefore changed the nature of the people running it and the way they make decisions and priorities”. Italics mine.

Who knows indeed.

Owls of Minerva

This, of course, is Hedwig, Harry Potter’s Owl

It’s been quite a week. Recently, it was reported that an Iranian asylum seeker was refused entry to the UK because the Home Office considered his religion “too violent”. Oh, good, we all thought. At last the Home Office has grown a backbone and is being a bit stern with potential jihadists. But, no. This man is a Christian. A convert from Islam. The immigration officials wrote back to him insisting that the Holy Bible was “filled with imagery of revenge, destruction, death and violence”, and quoted a few verses from Revelation for good measure. They further suggested that if Jesus was his saviour he should muster up all his faith and go back to Iran where Jesus would undoubtedly save him from whatever ghastly fate awaited him there. If he is sent back to Iran, there is a firm likelihood that he will be murdered, or worse. Who appoints these people? Or are they just turned out like blood sausages from Oxbridge as fully – fledged imbeciles?

Last time I looked, the UK is, by virtue of culture and constitution, a Christian country. We have our own archbishops, Cantuar being primus inter pares.  Never mind, either, that the penalty for apostasy in Iran can be death, by hanging, shooting, stoning or being pushed off a “high place”. There are lots of things the state will kill you for in Iran, probably including making a paper aeroplane from a page of the Qu’ran. But apostasy is just about the worst, much like turning up to an audience with an ayatollah wearing a joke pair of false breasts. My thanks to Rod Liddle of the Sunday Times for this image, which I’ve had trouble getting out of my head. The last time I saw a pair of those was on Stephen Fry in Blackadder.

Not a peep from Lambeth Palace. Come on, Justin, say something.

Following (ha!) Brexit has become a labyrinth, a mind game where the rules get hurled out of the window like an Iranian homosexual at frequent and irregular intervals. The headlines, ranging from the phantasmagorical to the fatuously absurd, loop the loop, with fresh doses of mania, idiocy, froth, bubble and squeak and just like every politician in Westminster, it seems, we’re all on the same treadmill or, as the Victorians quaintly put it, the cockchafer, desperately trying to catch up. The PM is driving by the seat of her pants, hoping against all the odds that her flimsy little motor manages to stop before the cliff edge. Someone suggested that March 29th should be a national holiday and we could call it “Mayday”. This, the international callsign for vessels in dire straits, might be perhaps a euphemism for “abandon ship” as well as “abandon hope”.

All frivol aside, it seems self-evident to me that ubiquitous globalisation and integration of nation states, their political differences and sovereignty issues notwithstanding, is the way that the future is marching, whether we like it or not. In previous times, such blocs were maintained by force of arms – the Roman Empire, Alexander the Great, the Mongol conquests, all brought the unwilling to the table and the penalties for leaving it were measured in blood. Today, the penalties for leaving are economic – the notion that we will find partners in a world which huddles together in vast trading alliances, we, a little island, literal and metaphorical, which hopes to sit at the top tables is the Brexit dream but may evolve into a nightmare.

Finally, a word about the ‘owl of Minerva’ which was rather cleverly quoted by someone this week – I forget who –  it just got lost amidst the dust storm that passes for journalism. It refers to a quote from Hegel. Minerva is the Roman name of the Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom and philosophy, and associated with the owl as preserved in the saying “bringing owls to Athens” which means bringing something to a place that already has more than enough, like cats in Jerusalem or chaos in Parliament. Put another way, human beings tragically come to understand things fully only when it is too late.


Schindler at 25

There are a number of compelling, memorable movies dealing with the Holocaust. ‘The Pianist’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ spring to mind.

Screenshot 2019-03-13 at 14.42.34Commenting on a 25 year old movie is unlikely to generate much interest, except for the fact that it is, perhaps, the most iconic film about the Shoah ever made, and a Spielberg masterpiece. From December last year, it has been released as a digitally remastered version around the world, most recently in Lithuania and France, where its release merited a news item on France 24 today.

‘Schindler’s Ark’, Thomas Keneally’s novel, was published in 1982 – I must have read it within weeks of its publication. I can still remember that I bought the hardback which was unusual for me, since paperbacks were a lot cheaper.

More than ten years later, ‘Schindler’s List’ was’ in the hands of a master director with a strong vested interest. Spielberg came from an Orthodox background and was, in his own words, “smacked and kicked around” by the neighbourhood kids who did not attend Hebrew school as he did at that time. The movie was released in black and white, with just one small splash of colour in the form of a little girl in a red dress walking through the slaughterhouse of the Krakow ghetto. Later in the film, Schindler sees her dead body, recognisable only by the red coat she is still wearing. Spielberg said the scene was intended to symbolise how members of the highest levels of government in the United States knew the Holocaust was occurring, yet did nothing to stop it.

The casual, indiscriminate shootings in the labour camps, the desperation of women cutting their fingers and using the blood to colour their sallow cheeks so that the SS would not single them out for special treatment, the lavish bribery Schindler realised he would need to adopt in order to snatch seven hundred people from the gas chambers of Auschwitz…. they all make the hairs on your arms stand upright, in shock and outrage at the savage, mindless cruelty.

Ben Kingsley’s paraphrase of the Talmud, as he holds a gold ring up like a Host before giving it to Schindler as he flees the Brinnlitz camp after the surrender is worth quoting in full. ‘Whoever destroys a soul [of Israel], it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9)

The film still resonates at so many levels.

Why is it important to be re-released? After the original screening in 1993, people were questioned as to whether they knew anything about the subject matter. Many did not, supposing it to be fictional. Mitzvah 614 – ‘never again’  is a mantra that has to live from generation to generation so that Hitler is not granted a posthumous victory and as more of the original Holocaust survivors succumb to old age, a new generation has to be educated afresh. The Eternal Flame in Yad Vashem reminds us all of the lasting importance of fanning the flame of memory. The Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, credited with Mitzvah 614,  puts it well:

“We are commanded, first, to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.”

Amen to that.


Shrove, Ash and Fat.

Screenshot 2019-03-07 at 11.45.35

Paczki from Poland

Lent. The Christian equivalent of Ramadan, when we’re all supposed to give something up, like beer, in recognition of the forty days Jesus allegedly spent in a decidedly beer-free wilderness and the opening curtain before Easter, or Eostre, to give it its old pagan name; Christians being shameless plagiarisers.

To the Jews, the number forty is significant. It is a number that, when used in terms of time, represents a period of probation or trial and chastisement.  It isn’t generally used to signify a specific number, but rather more as a general term for a large figure.  When used in terms of time, it simply means a “long time”.  Thus, the phrase “40 days and 40 nights” is just another way to say a “really, really long time”. Which is encouraging, really, since forty days without a spot of nutriment to keep the metabolism ticking over is a pretty extreme way to shed a few kilos.

So, back to the last three days. Working backwards, we are now in Fat Thursday,  Not to be confused with Maundy Thursday where HMQ totters round to poorer districts handing out little coins. Or, she did once; now it’s a bit more formal. Washing of feet is also involved, but we don’t need to go there, since all this happens at the end of Lent, not at the beginning. Traditionally Fat T is a day dedicated to eating when people meet  with their friends and relatives and shovel down large quantities of sweets, cakes and other delicacies usually not partaken of during Lent. Among the most popular all-national dishes served on that day are paczki in Poland or berliner which are fist-sized doughnuts filled with rose hip jam.  Stoking up on sugar before the penitent season.

Wednesday. Only in California. A drive-thru (sorry, that is how they spell it) where commuters wind down their car windows, where a priest stands ready, a fast confession, absolution, administration of ashes, then off to work, cleansed and forgiven. Marvellous. I did wonder if a particularly penitent commuter, having a good deal to confess, might cause the traffic to back up as far as San Diego, but, no details were given.

Oh, and before any Canadian friends have a hissy fit, they did it in Vancouver as well. I imagine it was a good deal chillier in the Great White Up ad the priest wore his thermal vest.

Forty eight hours ago was Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, or Mardi Gras, depending on where you live. The idea once was that one “makes a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs one need to repent of, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth one especially needs to ask God’s help in dealing with”, before getting shriven on Wednesday. Alternatively, you get to dress up in silly costumes and have a party, with or without pancakes. In New Orleans, they make rather a big deal of it all, festivities beginning two weeks earlier, the final parade being on Tuesday. Cross-dressing is positively encouraged, if this is your particular glass of milk.

Screenshot 2019-03-07 at 12.14.24

Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana

Why did I post this?  Because it illustrates that we take what we need to take from festivals, high holy days, or holidays, and remake them in our own image, sometimes refreshing the old, sometimes discarding the apparently arcane and reconfiguring them to be culturally relevant and possibly a bit more fun.  Is this ‘sinful’? I don’t think so – there are very few Catholics who adhere to the Tridentine (Latin) Rite – most people realise that they get more out of it if they can actually understand what’s going on.

So, pig out, people. It’s gonna be a long Lent.

The Necessity of Food

Screenshot 2019-03-13 at 13.58.16

I did this…

Living with a world class chef had its disadvantages. All the skills I ever learned evaporated, the pitying looks became too much and most of the time I just stood and watched like a guppy fish as the hands moved at lightning speed, performing what looked like three or four culinary miracles at the same time. One wonders what she might have done with the loaves and fishes. But, autres temps, autres mœurs and one finds oneself between the Scylla of the restaurant, which even here, on a daily basis can work out expensive, or the Charybdis of ankling down to the supermarché to purchase whatever one can immediately recognise from its well-stocked shelves, labelled with an impenetrable language and taking pot luck to see whether I can make something, at least  if not altogether edible, will not give me salmonella. Cheeses are a problem – they all seem to look alike and taste like pencil eraser. Bacon in the proper British form, fat-laden and thinly sliced is, it seems, not on the Bulgarian menu, so after a couple of false starts involving unspecified cuts of pork, if I want bacon, I just overcook a pork chop instead.

Fortunately, I know an onion when I see one, together with the  familiar white florets of what look like quite good quality cauliflower which will form the basis of this evening’s plat. A disastrous attempt to cook stroganoff the other night left me with half a tub of crème fraiche which I felt I ought to try to find a use for, lest my refrigerator turn into a seething biohazard.

My apartment did not appear to be equipped with appropriate armamentaria – pots and pans – for advanced culinary enterprise, but the shop down the road has a few bits and pieces and since I am unlikely to metamorphose overnight into Paul Bocuse, I have been slowly equipping myself with a survivalist guide to cooking – or at least, staying alive –  chez moi. A proper Bain-Marie would be nice, but I’ll have to get by with a saucepan and strainer. My cooker is brand new – I turned it on somewhat experimentally  the other day for the first time, navigating the little dials that tell you whether you’re using the fan or not. When heated it actually smelled new, a virgin grill exuded a newer-been-touched kind of odour and the oven compartment was as clean as a well-scrubbed face, which I now intend to dirty up.

To whom should one turn for advice?  There are a multitude of possibilities and the Internet is stuffed to the gills with expert opinion. Given that simple is best, who else should I turn to but dear old Auntie Delia, who taught me how not to burn chicken à la King to a cindered frazzle over twenty years ago. Apart from a slight tendency to exotica, she is the thinking man’s culinary crumpet and what is more if instructions are followed more or less precisely, the result is frequently quite edible. Liberal interpretation is de rigueur, on the grounds that if Gruyère cheese is demanded, one just has to find an appropriate substitute. I am going with Emmental, since it is the only other cheese I know with holes in it. Failing that there’s some blue, crumbly stuff resembling Roquefort which might be worth a tumble.

By now, you have so cleverly divined that I’m gonna make cauliflower cheese. I suppose I ought to try to find a bay leaf or two – I wonder if I could pinch one from somebody’s garden – together with freshly ground nutmeg. That looks like being dead in the water, since I have no mechanism for grating the stuff apart from rubbing it on a paving stone,  and besides which, I don’t like it much. The same goes for cayenne pepper.

At only 4pm, this is all dangerously theoretical. By dinner time, I may have produced something fit for the servants’ hall if not for High Table. Should you not hear from me, assume the worst.

Screenshot 2019-03-06 at 12.16.44