Sursum Corda

Screenshot 2019-04-19 at 01.23.04I’m not usually much moved, or even much impressed by ritual. The effeminate clothing of cardinals hiding their hypocrisy in plain sight, with theatre, incense and mood music to manipulate the emotional waves on which we all sometimes reluctantly ride, is not, as the Russians might say, my ‘glass of tea’.

I don’t much do happy-clappy. Not any more. I don’t do Calvinistic holiness preaching which is tantamount to a sin management program where one emerges as if a flail has been applied to the soul. I don’t do whiter than white, beaming profiteers with Gulfstream jets and a nice line in collective hysteria.

Then there is Pesach – not in a vernacular sense, as in ‘pass over’ but ‘to have compassion’, or, perhaps, ‘the sacrifice of mercy’ having stark, inescapable parallels with the Easter narrative in the Gospels.

This I rather think I do do.

There are as many Haggadot or stories told (the text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of Pesach including a narrative of the Exodus) as leaves on a tree. Yet, despite many creative differences, the overarching principle of deliverance and salvation is gripping, so much so that the story is commanded  to be passed down from generation to generation. There is even a section in the Haggadah prayers which enjoins the participants to ‘lift up their souls’ almost a Sursum Corda, and having an almost identical meaning – a cry of encouragement to escape the surly bonds of earth and reach for a mystical space beyond reason or comprehension, flying with the wings of a dove.

No, there is no escape – we who find ourselves reluctantly grafted may not care much for lamb and bitter herbs or for the ruinous effect of fresh blood on our beautiful mahogany doorposts and lintel but the story of our redemption and the feast of unleavened bread is inextricably intertwined in memory and tradition, opening doors to the sacred.

Ten years ago, I wrote this:

“Throughout civilisation, people have explored ways to experience the sacred, the ‘other’. Some have followed Huxley’s exploration of mind-expanding drugs, no matter how dangerous it is, Christians sometimes go to church no matter how tedious it is, Hindus plunge into the Ganges no matter how ghastly, overcrowded and foul it is, Muslims do the Hajj to Mecca no matter how far away and expensive it is.

“So it is that monks kneel and chant, that Jews eat a Pesach meal, Polynesians dance, and Quakers sit still.” writes Joseph Martos in “Doors to the Sacred”. Trivial locations, activities, ‘things’, yet all can be sacramental, symbols of something else, mysterious and hidden, yet waiting to be revealed, out of which flows a sense of the sacred.”

Electing to find a way to the quiet, amidst every howling wind that throws us around as if in a frail boat about to capsize requires both courage and humility. Courage because stepping into the unknown is perilous and humility because in so doing, we lay aside our own small ambitions and again see through the eyes of a child, one who asks “why is this night not like other nights?’

Chag Pesach sameach and a happy Easter to any who stumble across this, believer, pagan or agnostic. It makes no difference either to me, or to God, wherever you may find him since, paraphrasing Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, it is ‘the jagged edges not the smoothly sanded shiny bits of our humanity is what connects us to God and to one another.’

 

Paris Burning

Screenshot 2019-04-16 at 01.57.08Eight hundred and fifty years ago, a building was commissioned on the Ile de la Cité in the IVth arrondissement, the island jutting out into the Seine like the prow of a boat, with the marshland, artisan shops and markets of Le Marais to the north and the fledgling University of Paris on what is now the Left Bank.  It took a hundred years to build her. She survived desecration during the Revolution, a  Nazi plan to destroy her during WW2 and she was damaged by stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944. Her twin towers, the calves of a giant, have stood guard for centuries.

She is home to Emmanuel, a gigantic medieval bell weighing in at over 13,000 kg, three massive thirteenth century rose windows on three sides and an organ of incomparable beauty with over eight thousand pipes. The great west entrance shows the Last Judgement, sinners transported into hell and the righteous to heaven. All around were visual messages for illiterate worshippers, symbols of the evil and danger that threatened those who did not follow the teachings of the church.

On April 15th 2019, during Holy Week, she burned.

Screenshot 2019-04-16 at 01.53.15The wooden ceiling  and spire collapsed, folding gracefully like a mournful ballerina into the nave. The crown of thorns relic, the Roman nail and the splinter from the Cross were saved, as was the cope of St Louis – the saintly king who set out from Poissy  for the Crusades.

The French journalist and historian Franck Ferrand wrote in ‘Le Parisien’:

Notre-Dame, c’est la paroisse de la France, la paroisse mère de Paris. Elle est à l’épicentre de toute notre histoire. C’est là que tout se passe et au-delà du symbole religieux, c’est un symbole de civilisation. Lors de chaque événement national, comme la Libération, c’est à Notre-Dame que le ‘Te Deum’ est chanté. Voir flamber Notre-Dame, c’est toucher la France en ce qu’elle a de plus sacré, de plus universel. C’est d’abord le chef d’oeuvre gothique de notre pays.”

“Notre-Dame is the parish of France, the mother of the parish of Paris. She is at the epicentre of our entire history. This is where everything happens and beyond (all) the religious symbolism, she is a symbol of civilisation. At every national event, such as the Liberation, it is at Notre Dame that the “Te Deum” is sung. Seeing Our Lady ablaze is touching France in that she is (the) most sacred, most universal (symbol) It is the pre-eminent Gothic masterpiece of our country.”

Paris holds a special place for me. Wandering its streets, listening to the thrumming engine of the city, finding quiet, unadopted corners far from madding crowds, the unique smell of the Métro, the grandeur of Haussmann…

I have spent many hours peeping around serendipitous corners, finding little parks where flowers bloom in spring and eating bavette saignante at the tiny, family-owned restaurant a stone’s throw from Place Vendôme.

To witness the media frenzy as the world watched the destruction of her beating heart is ineffably sad. People sang the “Ave“, some, perhaps many, quietly weeping.

This image reminded me of the morning in November 1940 after German bombing destroyed St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. An unknown man found two charred beams in the shape of a cross in the smoking rubble and he bound them together. It now forms the altarpiece of the ruins. I was married there.

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Yet all is not lost. The roof may be gone, but the towers survive and the glory of the latter will undoubtedly be greater than the former.

This, in conclusion, an excerpt from Choruses from ‘The Rock’, by T S Eliot.

“I have loved the beauty of Thy House, the peace of Thy sanctuary,
I have swept the floors and garnished the altars.
Where there is no Temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbor’s;
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”

 

 

 

 

 

Love and Freindship

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Ms Austen, looking disapproving

FaceLivre, the All-Knowing, the All-Powerful has suggested in its collective wisdom that I ought to write something engaging – whatever that’s supposed to mean – in order to hoodwink all my freinds into leaving comments on my blog. Thank you, all of you, who were kind enough to illuminate the little blue Smurf to indicate that you ‘liked’ my page. If indeed you did, or even if you didn’t, do drop a comment in the comments box WordPress so helpfully provides. I’ll italicise to make copying and pasting easier for you; “what a load of narcissistic twaddle”. I have a feeling I know at least half a dozen people who might actually puncture my self-esteem by doing it.

I make up words sometimes, often out of sheer laziness, the inertia of not going to a thesaurus to look for something better, unlike the incomparable Stanley Unwin, whose entire comedic career was built around imaginary words. The master was the incomparable Lewis Carroll whose ‘Jabberwocky’ is brillig and one can almost hear the mome raths outgribing. But, he went to my old school and can thus be forgiven for having made up a whole language.

Jane Austen, poor child, was probably dyslexic and muddled up her letters. I myself tend not to make too many spelling errors because I have the rather rare gift of, having seen a word written down, I can usually recall how to spell it, unlike the teenaged JA who tended to forget that ‘i’ usually precedes ‘e’, except after ‘c’, hence the title of this meaningless attack of logorrhoea and her book of the same name. In her defence, she started it when she was eleven and it took her quite a few years to complete. And she can spell ‘prejudice’ correctly.  I know adults who still can’t.

Making words up is like making up mathematical symbols. James Joyce created the word ‘quark’ long before Murray Gell-Mann adopted it to describe the inner structure of hadrons such as protons and neutrons. Isaac Newton, who was incorrectly credited with asserting that ‘he could see further because he stood on the shoulders of giants’, made up a whole symbology to describe the calculus, over which he and Gottfried Leibniz fought like a couple of cats in a sack for most of the rest of their lives. Integration is only a fancy method of adding up, after all. For the purists, in Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes or “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries” was attributable, it is supposed, to Bernard of Chartres four hundred years earlier.

Enough, already. I am off to the People’s Republic of Nod where all God-fearin’ folk should be at this time in the morning. Like it or not – leave a ‘comment’.

Secrets and Lies

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“Creation of Adam” (so-called)

Once, early in the morning, I had the Sistine all to myself, except for the constant presence of a black-robed priest. Built in the 1470s under Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it takes its name, the Sistine Chapel serves a crucial religious function. Beginning in 1492, it has hosted Conclave, white smoke and the cry of “habemus papam” signalling a candidate has received a two-thirds majority to pastor over a billion souls and to govern one of the most secretive states in the world.

The ceiling, Michelangelo’s reluctant masterpiece, was painted just over thirty years later and took four miserable years to complete, mostly with the artist horizontal. The centrepiece is of course, the section entitled “The Creation of Adam”, figures representing God and Adam reaching for each other with outstretched arms, their fingers almost touching. Some theorists think the scene also contains the unmistakable outline of a human brain, formed by the angels and robes surrounding God. Perhaps Michelangelo meant to evoke God’s bestowal of intelligence on the first human being, or, a more sinister, heretical interpretation whereby God and man could communicate directly, without interference from the Church. Cue Protestant cheers and Catholic boos. The Last Judgment fresco, one of the last in the Chapel to be finished, seemed to suggest this and Pope Paul VI suspended his pension in consequence.

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Cardinals, Palm Sunday, St Peter’s Square

He was an expert at concealing messages. In two places in the masterpiece, Michelangelo left self portraits, both of them depicting himself being tortured. He gave his own face to Saint Bartholomew’s body martyred by being skinned alive, and to the severed head of Holofernes, who was seduced and beheaded by Judith. But, there are more secrets. The gay community is spellbound by the eroticism clearly shown in the Last Judgment – men kissing and, as one gay site described them, “beautiful bottoms” is perhaps a paradigm for the secrecy surrounding homosexuality in the Church itself.

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The Last Judgment (detail)

Thoughts about these ideas came from three separate and unlikely sources, the shame of Cardinal Pell in Australia, a new book “In the Closet of the Vatican” and the Sultan of Brunei.

The pitiless hound of truth is catching up with the Catholic Church, as the iceberg of paedophilia has begun to be seen for what it is, a longstanding cover up for priestly misbehaviour, often with young boys. While it is quite wrong to conflate homosexual activity between consenting adults with paedophilia per se, the link between them is undeniable, since convicted priests have systematically abused those predominantly of their own gender, suggesting they are both homosexual and paedophiliac, unpalatable as such may seem.

The almost pathological secrecy of the Roman Curia is well-known, and a new book “In the Closet of the Vatican”, four years in the making – ironically the same time as it took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine – exposes the moral fraudulence of Rome which for centuries has been homosexuality’s fiercest critic, calling down the judgment of Heaven upon “unnatural practices” when the reality seems to be that a very high percentage have turned out to be unabashedly gay. Such moral turpitude is breathtaking. I was reminded of the story of David and Batsheva in 2 Samuel 11. The priest Nathan exposed David’s sin with the beautiful wife of a soldier in his army and reminded him that he had in effect committed not only covetousness and adultery but manslaughter by placing Uriah in the heat of the battle where he was struck down.  In the story, exposure brought repentance. The sin of the Church is not to be gay but to use the weight of its own authority to denounce it on the one hand and practise it on the other, simultaneously seeking to cover it up. No exposure, no repentance.

Finally, Wesboro Baptist Church (“God Hates Fags”) and the Sultan of Brunei have little in common, except a visceral detestation of gays. The Sultan of tiny Brunei, made fabulously wealthy from oil, is used to getting his own way – this time by despotic implementation of a strict, medieval code of Shari’a, announced today.  In addition to punishing theft by amputation of hands or feet, lashing for adultery and drinking alcohol, it mandates death by stoning for “sexual intercourse . . . done against the course of nature” which will have the inevitable effect of driving the gay community there underground.

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The human race still has a great deal to learn, it seems.

 

 

 

Inside the Box

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Stirred not Shaken

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The perfect Martini

I do confess to having a taste for the good stuff. Montrachet was recognised as AOC Grand Cru in 1937 and a bottle of 2001 Hannibal sells for a whisker under $7800 or, about $110 per millilitre or five hundred bucks a swallow. Heroin is cheaper. Perhaps I need to lower my sights a little bit.

Both tequila and absinthe are made from the most unlikely of ingredients; agave, which looks like a cactus, but isn’t and wormwood, a herb. Absinthe was banned in France until comparatively recently because it caused blindness, hence ‘blind drunk’. These, together with Jamaican rum and Jägermeister are the four most unpalatable drinks on the planet and even I have only ever tried them once.

Ernest Hemingway once drank, improbably, fifty-one, or perhaps fifty- three straight Martinis in the Ritz Hotel in Paris; losing count was almost inevitable. Whether or not this is true is a matter of conjecture but he was sufficiently well-known there that they named a bar after him. Cole Porter would spend up to nine hours a day in the Hemingway Bar; legend has it that he composed “Begin the Beguine” there. F. Scott Fitzgerald had his favourite seat; Hemingway and Gary Cooper made it their go-to watering hole, talking for hours and, in all probability, sliding gently off their bar stools.

Making a good Martini isn’t easy and the Ritz is coy about its prices. Just imagine eye-popping, then double it. A simple enough recipe, really. James Bond had it all wrong – vodka is far too harsh; good gin, redolent with juniper, is much preferred. In a metal cocktail shaker, Lillet or Noilly Prat first, then high proof Tanqueray gin (or Bombay Sapphire if you must) in a 4 to 1 ratio, stirred briskly for no more than ten seconds over cracked ice – never shaken, it dilutes it too much – poured into a chilled cocktail glass with either an olive, or better, a twist of Provençal lemon.

Let’s just say that mixing with the well-heeled and often famous comes at a premium. It’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists. Having visited both, my preference is for the Crillon,  overlooking Place de la Concorde where I was once charged 20€ for a rather small portion of päté en croute. The wine list had nothing for under three figures and sometimes four, so I declined a drink there. Two of the high end suites were designed by the recently deceased Karl Lagerfeld.

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Crillon courtyard

Beer. American beer is appalling, bland and watery-looking and tasting like yesterday’s urine, chilled beyond endurance. Belgian Trappist beer is ridiculously strong, and since the abbot allowed them to drink eight pints of homebrew a day, the monks made the most of them, drinking as they did in silent contemplation. There are, of course all manner of brews in the middle in various states of alcoholic content and taste. If Foster’s is Australian for beer, then Crown Ambassador Reserve must be Australian for expensive beer, although not the most expensive in the world – that is reserved for a brew copied from an ancient Egyptian recipe and named Nefertiti. The Aussies are close behind, however. Aged in French oak barrels for a year and packaged in what looks like a champagne bottle, Crown pitches Ambassador as an alternative to wine, which speaks volumes for the Australian palate. The brewer has produced four iterations since 2008, each batch limited to 8,000 bottles with an ABV of 10.2 (this is high, people – be advised) and a price tag of close to $75 a bottle. Even this is modest compared to beers so rare that only eight bottles exist. You can buy one of them for $800 but it comes in a bottle made from a stuffed animal. There really is no accounting for taste. The Schorschbock 57, can claim to be the strongest beer in the world, with an insane ABV of 57, about the same as schnapps. The stuff probably tastes like cough medicine.

Why all this discussion about rare and exotic beverages which get you a tad squiffy and sometimes just a wee bit dysfunctional? The reason is, I have decided to treat my long-suffering liver to a well-earned vacation.  Poor old girl, she was beginning to show signs of the metabolic equivalent of metal fatigue. For too long she has had to put in a lot of overtime on a zero-hours contract and she will not be troubled to have to process indecently large quantities of Uncle Johnnie Walker or Cousin Jack Daniels for some time. Instead I shall be squeezing fat blood grapefruit with Devin mineral water, very slightly pétillant, unlike Perrier which gives people indecently rapid flatulence. Stirred, not shaken.

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