Monday, April 28, 2008

Brief Lives

The news that a Harry Potter book may be a study item for exams in the UK is, perhaps, a dumbledore down too far.
With all the vast and varied range of fine books that have been written in the English language, to have selected a popular but not especially distinguished work, is an example of muddled thinking on the part of those in charge of edukayshun.
The argument is that the book will be easy to read and thus encourage the student to read more. Probably it will – another Harry Potter book to swell the coffers of Bloomsbury and Rowling.
But the whole point of such reading assignments is surely to broaden the literary horizon of the student.
However, things could be worse. They could have made it John Prescott’s biography.
But hang on a minute. Isn’t a biography a history of a life? The Oxford Dictionary says it is.
But it seems that dear old John, whilst recounting his eating habits in great detail, has seen fit to exclude the part of his life that was really the only one of much interest to the outside world. No, not the croquet playing bit, you know – the other.
It’s like writing a history of the twentieth century and forgetting to mention the world wars.
No doubt this example will encourage many other public figures to rush into print, now they see that honesty is no longer a sine qua non for their life stories.
Oh dear!

Monday, April 21, 2008

It's an Ill Wind..........

It must have been with much chagrin that many of the Francophobes of the British Isles found that they could not blame the perfume wafting over them the past few days on their nearest neighbours. They did their best by referring to it as ‘Le Stink,’ in preference to ‘Der Stink,’ rather in the same way as ‘Gallic Pride’ is used, always in exclamation marks, as though having pride is something to be ashamed of.
But there was an even less salubrious breeze rustling the kilts and sporrans north of the border.
According to Hugh Cheape, a leading Gaelic historian and expert piper: “The written and received history of the great Highland bagpipe reflects in many of its parts the triumph of sentiment over fact ... an orthodoxy has emerged from surprisingly modest origins in the first half of the 19th century and it was elaborated by repetition, speculation and guesswork in the second.”
Mr. Cheape, whom I am sure knows of what he speaks, strikes me as being a brave man to have come clean.
Apparently feeling that the memory of Bonnie Prince Charlie needed a bit of a lift, two loyal pipe makers crafted what can only be described as the Airbus A 380 of pipes in the early 19th. century. This was designed so that only those who had spent an apprenticeship tossing cabers and whose legs were modelled on hefty tree trunks could perform with any ease on the instrument, the behemoth of blow.
Pipes had, of course, been around for centuries but were hardly the gargantuan model now on display, requiring lungs like blacksmith’s bellows to operate.
Queen Victoria was delighted. She seems to have been easy to please and commanded a piper to play every morning outside her bedroom window.
We have a similar performance here by the feral cat population but find that a bucket of water and a half brick usually take care of it.
Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was about as Scottish as spaghetti bolognese, arrived on the Isle of Eriskay and was fortuitously befriended by a Piper MacNeil from Barra who was visiting at the time. It now seems that his pipes would have been little more elaborate that the sort of pibrochs that are still to be seen at the festivals in Brittany today, the biniou, although history says that an air for pibroch and bagpipes, ‘My King has Landed at Moidart’ was number one in the charts for a while shortly after.
Apart from royalty, bagpipes have had a mixed reception down south, where they are generally thought of as an ill wind that no one blows good. In Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat,’ he gives a graphic description of the trials of young Jefferson attempting to learn the machine.
The main trouble for we Sassenachs is identifying a melody and not confusing it with the tuning up bit.
Sir Henry Wood summed it up when he said that personally he had no aversion to the bagpipes but he did feel that they were heard to best effect from the far side of a mountain.
In his new book, to be published by the National Museums of Scotland, Mr Cheape claims the Highland bagpipe was never used to lead the Scots clans into battle against the English, nor was it used to play laments to fallen chieftains.
He added: “We have to admit that the great Highland bagpipe that we now know was part of this invention of tradition.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's Not Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog was so right when he sang his mournful little ditty.
And yesterday I found out just how hard it was when, quite inadvertently and without malice aforethought, I contributed my mite to the demise of man.
Or so my bank tells me.
It happened thus.
As many of my clients pay, when they feel up to it, in the coinage of Her Britannic Majesty, I maintain a modest Sterling account with a UK bank.
Thanks to the Internet, this I can administer on-line, albeit a little tediously due to the precautions taken to avoid it being rifled by unscrupulous bodies. This I am happy to accept as the price of convenience although I have my own strategy for avoiding fraud which is by never having enough in the account to warrant the most desperate scammer troubling with it.
However, I felt that it would be handy to have a debit card by which the modest funds could be accessed when needed. The bank’s website offered credit cards, which I avoid like the plague, and it was only whilst waiting on line for some transaction to take place that I spotted a very small item mentioning that debit cards were available.
I suppose they’re not much of a money spinner for the bank since there was no indication of how to obtain one.
So I fired of a message via the website service, optimistically labelled ‘Help,’ and asked how I could obtain one. Apparently this was beyond ‘Help’s’ area of expertise for I received a message from the delightfully named Sasikala Tnirumoorthy suggesting that I telephoned the Business Card centre on an 0845 number. Apart from the fact that this is far from being a free call and does in fact contribute to the bank’s coffers, my service here in France does not allow such calls.
There was then a bit of a lull in affairs, so I enquired, quite politely, that surely in some sequestered nook of the bank there would still be some relic of a bygone era who could write to me.
By now the shades of night were falling fast and there was a new name carrying the banner marked ‘Help’
He wrote “I provided you with a phone number as it is a quick and convenient way for you to receive a card for your account and is also better for the environment than sending out paperwork. What I have done now is sent you a Debit Card application form to your correspondence address, which should be with you within the next 10 working days.”
So you see, by asking for a letter I have upset their Green Credentials.
And this is the bank that, every month on the same day, send me a statement of my account plus a statement of the interest earned – in separate envelopes.
I’m tempted to alert them but they’ll probably just ask me to call an 0845 number.
So you see, it’s not easy being green.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hogwarts Ahoy!

There is something singularly unedifying in the sight of one of the world’s wealthiest authors traipsing into a court room to do battle with a harmless geeky fan who merely wanted to publish a lexicon of her work. Money does have its privileges since Miss Rowling requested that she should not have to come eyeball to eyeball with her naïve fan, a request that seems to have been rightly denied. However, she does have a ‘special room’ for her to retire to after the stress of her court appearance. Let’s hope her loyal and now litigated against fan has the same courtesy shown him.
It seems Miss Rowling is upset. She herself had intended to write the sort of lexicon of her Harry Potter books that she is now attempting to stop and would have donated the proceeds to charity. She feels ‘violated,’ it was “an act of betrayal” and she was unable to put pencil to paper for months, her creative juices having been cut off in mid-flow by this dastardly deed. It had, she said “decimated my creative work over the last month.” She would cry – except that it’s not British to do so.
I know exactly how she feels. Not so long ago, I was at work on my definitive history to be entitled, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ Proceeds were to have been donated to the SRG (Society for Retired Gladiators). I had already got as far as the part dealing with Libanius, the Sophist of Antioch, when a friend said, “’Ere, it’s been done already.”
And so it had been, by some bloke called Gibbon.
Well, I felt violated, betrayed and, not being British, shed a few tears. My creative work was decimated for a month. I also found that this Gibbon fellow was not worth suing having been dead for a while.
Undoubtedly Miss Rowling, who can probably afford expensive legal counsel, is correct that, in the eyes of the law, a certain amount of plagiarism has taken place. In my library I have a book which consists almost entirely of quotes from Winston Churchill, a rather better writer than JKR, dare I suggest. There has been no suggestion of taking the compiler to court.
But in this case, as so often, the law is an ass – and so is Miss Rowling, who has metamorphosed remarkably from looking like a rumpled bag lady to celebrity status, complete with wardrobe malfunctions that allow the tabloid newspapers to feature her bosom.
If Mr. Vander Ark’s book were to have any effect at all, it could only be to increase the sales of Miss Rowling’s work.
Perhaps the many fans of Harry Potter could now stand up and tell the author, whom they have made unbelievably rich, to go back to Hogwarts and learn something about public relations.
Good luck to Mr. Vander Ark.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Way with Words

It’s difficult to find anything good to say about Robert Mugabe but if there had been a verbal jousting contest last week between him and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, there’s little doubt who would have won the prize. Or in this case, the coconut.
For whilst Mr. Brown was castigating his ungrateful electorate, telling them that they would not recognise the booming economy he had engineered for them if it were handed to them on a skewer with Béarnaise sauce, Mr. Mugabe stuck to a telling one-liner.
Gordon Brown speaks from the Roget’s Thesaurus of Parliamentary Platitudes, published a few years ago by the firm of Wriggle and Squirm (edited by A. Blair).
Mr. Mugabe tells it like it is, in this case for once. Brown, he says, is a tiny dot on this world.
He would have got more applause had he used the word blot but one can’t have everything.
It is not, perhaps, quite in the same rich vein as the words used to the Duke of Windsor when he was Governor of The Bahamas. Remonstrating that Alfred du Maurigny had not addressed him as befitted a member of the Royal Family, du Maurigny replied:
“Sir, you are but the governor of a pimple on the arse of the British Empire.”
Not surprisingly, the Duke tried to have him hanged subsequently on a trumped up murder charge.
But Mugabe was right. Brown is proving himself to be not only a dot on the horizon but a pretty insignificant one at that.
Rhodesia, if we may revert to its proper name for a moment, was one of the better products of an often flawed colonial empire. It was both loyal and productive, even with the antagonistic Ian Smith in charge. Replacing him with a repulsive bully such as Mr. Mugabe has proved to be, was one of the classic errors of judgement of a former Labour government.
The population, both white and black, have been suffering for years under this tyrant with barely a murmur of complaint from Britain.
Now Mr. Brown has searched to find the right words. He is a well read man and one would have thought that he could do better. No hint of positive action as was taken against an equally ruthless tyrant, Saddam Hussein.
He said the situation in Zimbabwe was “appalling” and that the world’s patience was “running thin.”
But of course there’s no oil in Zimbabwe.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Olympian Folly

In ancient Greece there wasn’t much in the way of popular entertainment. Most of the plays were on the gloomy side although Aristophanes was good for a laugh and still is.
It seems most of the intelligentsia sat around philosophising with an occasional chat on the state of the Hemlock crop that year.
So it was not surprising that the younger and more frivolous members of society looked for a way to blow off steam. Olympia seemed to be a likely place, quiet and out of the way, today’s modern rock concert venue, and so it was there that the boys set out to have fun.
The Olympic Games were born.
Wisely, they excluded WAGS (Women of Ancient Greece) from the festivities and the whole thing went with a swing for a few hundred years until the Romans(who had hastily found Christianity) twigged that it was all a benefit event for Zeus, who not being a Christian, was thereby excluded from sponsorship and the event fizzled out.
For a good many centuries the world was left in peace, until at the beginning of the 19th. Century, a Greek poet, tired of scratching out stanzas, took it into his head to revive the games.
Those of you who thought that Much Wenlock in Shropshire was a sleepy, behind the times sort of a place should think again. By 1850, they had their own Olympic Games.
Worse was to follow for a Frenchman, Baron de Coubertin, (and ardent Francophile though I am, I feel he has a lot to answer for) proposed making it an International event.
And the world has not been at peace since.
Why nations should vie with each other to build bigger, more expensive and ultimately useless stadiums for athletes when they could be putting the funds to some better use for their citizens, is a mystery.
The event causes turmoil, back biting and dissent every time and the British taxpayer will long rue the cost of yet another whitest of white elephants arising in the swampy paradise of Stratford, E15. They’ll be a long time paying – and for what?
Probably the happiest man concerned is the mayor of Paris, whose city was lucky enough to dodge the bullet.
Perhaps the best thing to emerge from the games in modern times was Leni Riefenstahl’s magnificent film of the Berlin Olympics.
Pity it was sponsored by a dictator.
But then Britain has an unelected Prime Minister which is, I suppose, the next best thing.
And if Beijing have a film made of their efforts, the sub-titles should be good for a laugh anyway.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Popular Taste

Something of an oxymoron perhaps, but it does explain why a respected UK publishing house has elected to dump all their more serious forthcoming books in preference to an output of chicklit, misery memoirs and ‘celebrity’ biographies.
Looking at the bookshelves labelled ‘biography,’ it seems the stores are stretching the definition of the word. It’s hard to see that Amy Winehouse, Pete Docherty and a good many other luminaries of the pop and sports world have had much of a life to write about so far. In many cases, ‘get a life’ might be more appropriate.
But from the point of view of the publishers, it’s not hard to see their reasoning.
Although it’s a point missed by many frustrated authors, they are in the business to make money and as such are driven by consumer demand. And a glance at the popular tabloid newspapers must be very reassuring to them.
News is buried deep in an effluent of chit chat about nonentities, most of the female variety having IQs that are exceeded by their chest measurements, and charting their unsteady progression, often recounting how hungover they are having visited x number of bars and night clubs.
It’s hardly surprising that the young have a drinking problem in Britain. And that’s in addition to racy accounts of their marital, extra marital and just plain one night stands. Great role models.
Every country has its tabloids, France has one called, rather appropriately I feel, BlaBlaBla and America has its National Enquirer, but nowhere are they read as avidly and by such a wide spectrum of the population as in Britain. Neither are they regarded as ‘news’ papers.
And so the publishing business has to go with the flow.
And a pretty dismal and sewer-like stream it is.
Joseph Bazalgette managed to clean up the drains of London and prevented a further ‘Great Stink’ in the 19th. century.
Cleaning up the popular press might be a start for Britain in this one.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Happy Families

In the middle of the 19th. Century, John Jacques II, in between inventing the games of tiddlywinks, snakes and ladders and ludo, came up with Happy Families. It was, in those days, a pretty straight forward business.
Miss Bun, the Baker's daughter was unlikely to have one in the oven nor would Mr. Bung the Brewer have been caught selling cut price lager to teenagers. They were, indeed, happy families.
Britain is now one of the nations that, with the tacit encouragement of government, has largely abandoned the family unit in favour of an arrangement more usually seen in the feral cat population.
The social benefits of this become obvious when a mother with a brood of children from a diverse range of fathers can afford to take a six month vacation in India on the benefits provided for her by the rest of the taxpayers. A social paradise indeed.
And other mothers apparently swap partners with the same regularity as they change their underwear, although, judging from the unsavoury pictures in the tabloid newspapers, this may not be all that often.
It's hardly surprising to find so many teenagers hanging about on street corners of an evening. If they went home, they would probably not recognise the man of the house.
John Jacques II would have his work cut out for him to re-invent his game in Britain today.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Blow Up

That a group of terrorists should be standing trial in London accused of planning to blow up a substantial number of people strikes me as being odd. The trial is forecast to last six months and will therefore be a pretty sizeable expense to the tax payer (otherwise referred to as the 'blowupees' as opposed to the terrorists, the 'blowupers' ).
As most of the accused have already made their martyrdom videos which show quite clearly their intentions, surely there is a prima facie case for locking them up without trial and throwing away the key. Thus saving the taxpayer and proposed blowupees a lot of dosh as well as their lives.
But a more humane solution would be, of course, to grant them their wish and let them blow themselves up in some suitable spot such as a remote part of the Yorkshire Moors or even in that blessed plot so admired by Hazel Blears, Milton Keynes.
During the war, you know, the last really, really big one, I was sent to school in England.
It was the time of the big bang or rather the time of many big bangs and I and my chums spent many happy hours trying to emulate our elders. Modern kids, deprived of chemistry lessons, would have found themselves at something of a loss but I and my explosive cohorts had a remarkable degree of success. (my father wisely had me set up my laboratory in a disused Anderson shelter at the end of the garden).
We were, I can safely say, experts on producing sizeable bangs from the simplest household materials.
But had we been asked to produce the results from the materials we could smuggle on board an aircraft, I feel we would have been confounded.
Thus I think that, rather than wasting the time of the court, the accused should be allowed to take their materials on board a disused aircraft parked somewhere out of the way and challenged to blow it up.
Personally, I think they would fail.
But of course the airports would hate to have to get rid of all the jobsworths whose mission in life is to impound your toiletries and generally to make your travelling experience a miserable one..

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Celebrity Chefs

Mr. Gordon Ramsey, who, I understand, was a pretty good chef in a previous life, has opened his restaurant in Paris. Well, not really Paris. It's in the banlieue of Versailles which has lost a lot of its appeal since the Sun King died.
He (Ramsey, not the Sun King) is incensed that the notoriously testy food critic of Le Figaro has excoriated his efforts already.
“But he hasn't even tasted the food” cries Ramsey, for once composing a sentence that doesn't have to be filled with asterisks.
He misses the point. France has many indifferent chefs, many good one and some very famous ones.
What it does not have is 'Celebrity Chefs.' The French have this quaint old fashioned idea that a chef's place is in the kitchen – cooking by proxy is not their idea of how a restaurant should be run.
When I go to eat at one of our local establishments, Hotel de Paris (it's not in Paris but never mind) I can rest assured that not only will my meal be prepared personally by M. Didier Jarnot, le patron, but that it will be dished up by some member of his family.
In my village, at the one eating place which does a three course lunch for a hefty 12 euros, you will quite likely be seated by the chef himself. That's assuming you can get in, as the place is full to the brim at midday.
There is a daily TV programme where a chef is invited in to show how he prepares his favourite dish. They come from restaurants all over France and, having demonstrated their ability (and some of the recipes are wonderful) they disappear back into the kitchen from whence they came, never to be heard of again – unless you go to their place.
Many years ago in Paris, I used to eat at a little restaurant tucked away in a side street off the Champs Elysses.
Chez Joseph made few concessions to the tourist trade and Joseph would recount fondly of his one claim to fame.
During the war, he was give the dubious accolade of being sufficiently good to have his establishment reserved solely for Wehrmacht officers.
At Christmas 1944, when food was desperately short, he threw a dinner party for his friends. Held in the basement of the restaurant, the festive board was graced by the presence of several chickens, smuggled in from the shores of Lac Leman where one of his resistance friends, Freddie Lowenbach, ran a clandestine poultry farm.
“The birds were excellent,” he recalled, “ But what made them even tastier was that, over our heads, the Wehrmacht officers were celebrating with sausage and sauerkraut.” And, he added, “I was never any good at making sauerkraut.”
When he retired, instead of selling his business, he just closed it down.
“It was my cooking that made it. No one else could do it,” he said.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Tale of Two Glass Houses

“But Albert, do you really think it will be ready? We don't want it not to be our finest hour.”
“I'm sure it will be, my dear. It’s the culmination of an amazing project that began with one thought – to make connecting the world simple and pleasurable again. The result is a seamless and upgraded experience unlike any other in the world, and one that’s exclusively for our British people."
“But was it a good idea to have the place made of glass – and designed by a gardener?”
“ I assure you my dear, it will all work perfectly. Might I suggest your pink satin dress and the tiara with diamonds and feathers for the opening ceremony?”
And of course, it all worked perfectly on the opening day. As far as we know, not a single bag was lost.
But that was 150 years ago when the Great Exhibition, with a Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton, a building rather larger than British Airways new Terminal 5, was the envy of the world.
It's a pity that BA and BAA could not avail themselves of the services of Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and Henry Cole when they decided to build their new terminal.
I bet they'd have got it right first time.
They did at the Great Exhibition in 1861 – and they didn't even get a bonus!