Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Schism schmism

A day rarely goes by now without the press quoting, as if it were news, some inane pronouncement on the subjects under dispute within the oddly named Anglican Communion. Most are by top clergymen, archbishops and other elite shock-troops of the church, but laymen are not far behind in coming up with resounding idiocies, like this from a reader of the BBC website:
The most important thing is that everyone accepts the authority of scripture, even if their interpretations differ.

This would leave the way open for the formation of the broadest possible church, offering a welcome to all those who think the Bible is the word of God and permitting them to make it mean whatever they want. However, this would still exclude me and those of my friends who would find it difficult to interpret the mad fantasies of Revelation and the muddled ravings of Leviticus (summary here) so as to make them acceptable. There is no way, for example, no way at all, that I could bring myself to comply with the command to scourge my bondmaid after having lain with her, though I suppose I might try to persuade myself that Moses had taken it down all wrong.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Eric or Nyree?

The great Anglican debate does drag on so, doesn't it? Whether or not God hates gays and Jesus doesn't want women dispensing the blood 'n wafers is really of concern to very few. But never mind about all that: a much more interesting argument was raging forty years ago among eighteen million people in the UK, among one hundred and sixty million around the world in the years immediately following, and among untold millions in the years since.

No-one who watched the 1967 BBC TV adaptation of The Forsyte Saga every Sunday night for 26 weeks could fail to take a stance on the relative virtues of Soames Forsyte and Irene née Heron, then Forsyte, then Heron, then Forsyte again. The divide was not along gender lines: many women thought Irene tiresome and wet, and not all men were on the side of the arrogant and boring Soames. Perhaps the majority view was that neither would be any fun to know and that it was only the brilliance of the two actors which made watching them tearing bits out of each other week after week an experience to savour.

And watch them we did. First it was Saturday evenings on BBC2 from January 7 to July 1, 1967 and then it was repeated on Sundays on BBC1 starting on September 8; for six months after that, on every Sunday evening the pubs were empty and attendance at Evensong was very poor. Each instalment ended with a cliff-hanger, and indeed the bosses of one U.S. television station decided its viewers could not be expected to wait for the next episode, and showed the entire series in one chunk, which lasted twenty-three hours fifty minutes.

I have been watching it on rented DVDs and have reached Episode 13, just halfway, up to where the first generation of Forsytes has started dying off, not before time.

Where do I stand on all this, you ask? Well, I seem to remember that the first time round I identified with the younger set and rooted for Irene with her sensational wigs and impossibly long neck, but now my sympathy is all with Soames who had the rotten luck to fall in love with the wretched woman.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Dear charismatic old Dr Dabic

It was hardly surprising that Radovan Karadzic should have spent the last few years making a living from alternative medicine, for he was said by many to have great charisma. This is what you need—one might say it is all you need—to peddle the ragbag of dangerous rubbish that is homeopathy, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic medicine and the technique of channelling energy into your head through a grubby topknot.

For some notes on the harm that such superstitions can do, go here. It is an American site; over there there they have even more practitioners of this sort of thing than we have, but they also have many energetic opponents of it, and have coined the useful word woo to describe everything that is subject to New Age credulity.

Charisma: A gift or power of leadership or authority; aura. Hence, the capacity to inspire devotion or enthusiasm. Applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super-human, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.

A book about the coming to power of that most charismatic of all twentieth century leaders explains it thus: A leader who is invested by all his followers with the attributes of a man of destiny may be designated as a charismatic leader. Such a leader is one supposedly endowed with ‘special grace’ (Charisma), for the fulfilment of a given mission.

Sieg Heil!

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Not suitable for children

One of the Psycho Buildings in the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (until 25th August) is a cinema, or rather what the creator, Slovenian artist Thomas Putrih, calls an eclectic baroque theatre, though neither of these adjectives seem to me to be in any way appropriate.

It is showing short films by other artists and these weren't particularly baroque or eclectic either. We did not sit through them all and probably didn't miss very much, but one of them we did quite like. It was called Little Frank and His Carp and was filmed at the Guggengeim Bilbao; this has a fish-shaped tower at its heart which I suppose could be a carp, but Little Frank does not appear.

The film follows performance artist Andrea Fraser in the role of a museum visitor listening to the official audio guide and its climax (I use the word advisedly) comes when the guide encourages her to caress the 'powerfully sensual' curves of the fish. This she does, with a will.

When her thong came into view, we heard some commands being hissed at the school party behind us and a dozen (not very young) children scampered down the gangway and were ushered out. This was a sensible precaution on the part of the teachers, for the accounts of the visit given later to the parents might very likely give rise to some concerned enquiries of the school authorities, or even complaints.

What surprised me was the children's reaction: the commands were obeyed instantly, with no giggling. This showed commendable discipline and sense of decorum, but none of them even attempted to dawdle, which suggests that they had been inculcated with prudery. Or maybe they just lacked curiosity.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Psycho Buildings

Having enjoyed the free exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, we still had some time to kill so we forked out for the one you had to pay for. The art works in Psycho Buildings are said to be "by turns visceral, pungent, meditative, absurd, threatening and atmospheric... and probe the ways in which built structures shape our imaginative and physical lives". They might have added "and some are bit of a giggle too", but anyway the exhibits are mostly fascinating and in some cases it is actually possible, with some help from the catalogue, to grasp what the artist is getting at.

One of the exhibits we liked very much, Fallen Star 1/5 is the first chapter of a project in progress by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh which documents the cultural displacement that he experienced in moving from Korea to the USA. He sees his sudden transplantation as analogous to the Kansas cyclone that transports Dorothy to the land of Oz, and presents a 1/5 scale replica of his childhood home crashing into the apartment building he lived in when he first arrived in the United States. Here are photos of the front and the back.

Psycho Buildings is nowhere near as baffling as an exhibition I saw years ago at the Pompidou Centre. It was called, I think, Les Immatériaux (abstract things, intangibles) and seeing it was an unforgettable experience of which I remember nothing at all: this is as it should be, for most of the exhibits were exactly that, empty spaces configured in significant ways or in some cases not configured at all. The whole thing had a sort of profound superficiality, and was the very epitome of all that modern French intellectualism has given to the world.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Hyperbolic Crochet Jam

I have never been a keen crocheter (pron. crotchetter? crowshayer?); this and other crafts such as needlepoint, quilting and macramé have never really impinged on my life to any great extent.

Nevertheless I was intrigued by an event with the above title which took place in the Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall on 21st June, as follows: "...Join a mass of fellow crochetters for live music, crochet and chat. Limited materials are provided, but bring your favourite yarn, hooks and used plastic bags". This sounds a real gas (sixties slang seems appropriate here), and I am sorry that I missed it; had I heard in time, I might well have gone along to it with a rollicking yarn and some plastic bags, though I would have had to borrow some hooks.

This may all sound rather unlikely: why did crochet come to the Royal Festival Hall? Clearly, I must explain further. The Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring has organised a project called The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, "...a large-scale constantly mutating series of hand-made crochets that replicate the forms of natural coral ...Fusing science and mathematics with fine art and handicraft, the reef is constantly updated by an ever-expanding group of participants from around the world". There is currently an exhibition of the project at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank.

This is one of the exhibits, and here there are photos of some of the others, which should be viewed by anyone who finds it difficult to imagine being fascinated by a display of crochet. We saw it by chance, having wandered into the Hayward Gallery to fill in a couple of hours; this exhibition was free, otherwise we might not have bothered.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Sacred dissension and profane accord

Amusing as the Church of England brawl is to those of us who are largely indifferent to the points at issue, it is depressing to see how easily the professional faithful, some of whom are probably men of goodwill, have temporarily given up lives devoted to meditation and prayer in order to spend time tearing into each other like ferrets in a sack.

It is heartwarming, therefore, to note that on another matter of national unimportance there is near-unanimity, at least among Guardian readers, and I suspect among many other people who know what's what, about the proposal to grant Margaret Thatcher a state funeral; published comments have been along the lines of: "...only if the contract is put out to compulsory competitive tender and awarded to the lowest bidder", "...if there is a shortage of armed forces to line the route, plenty of ex-miners will be happy to do the job, just to make sure she has gone", "...suggest it takes place at Port Stanley, where presumably her popularity remains undiminished", " ...much that is wrong with 21st-century Britain in social terms can be traced back to the selfishness strongly promoted during her time as prime minister", "Does that include the grave/dancefloor combo? When is it booked for?" and similar tasteless and appropriate remarks.

Clearly, Maggie unites much of the nation in a way that the Primate of All England, or for that matter his boss, is quite unable to do.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Grass widowers make the best of it

Last week Grumio's wife was away working in Sydney and mine was working in Eastbourne, so we went off to Dorset for a few days. We stayed in one of a block of ten Grade II listed Georgian stables from which the horses had long since departed, and self-catered without any dissension, deploying our respective skills: Grumio did all the cooking and housework and I did all the complaining about the weather. This called for acerbic comment on most days, and the beauty of the Dorset countryside was not much in evidence.

Thinking a glimpse of the sea might be jollier than gazing at sodden fields, we drove to Poole one morning to find that grey waves in the driving rain do not do much for this rather dull town. I later read that a local councillor is saying that Poole is really the Miami of Britain; he bases this wild statement on the fact that beach polo was being played at Sandbanks, a millionaire's enclave nearby: Miami and Dubai are the only other venues which have hosted this pastime for rich yobs. Had we known, we might have gone along to watch a couple of chukkas, but although there would no doubt have been plenty of posh totty among the spectators I doubt if the game offers the same delights as beach volleyball, and anyway they probably wouldn't have let us in.

The highlight of the trip was an evening Schubertiad at a country house near Salisbury once owned by Lord Nelson. Sadly, we were just 180 years too late to have had Franz at the piano as he was at the original Schubertiads. Still, we were very happy sitting in this lovely room listening to two of the pieces he wrote in the last year of his life: the Piano Trio in B flat opus 99 and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.

The audience behaved well, much better than the friends who used to go to his parties, whose rowdiness must surely have disturbed his playing. Otto Deutsch lists a few in the index to Schubert: A Documentary Biography:
Artaria, Bibl, Bocklet, Grob, Gross, Pachler, Pinterics, Pompe, Pratbavera, Prinke, Probst, Prokesch, Sauter, Schellman, Schlecta, Schnorr, Schober, Schweighofer, Schwind, Seidl, Siboni, Sonnleithner, Spaun, Stadler, Streinsberg, Teltschner, Traweger, Umlauff, Weissenwolff.

Immortal Franz, in Muses' garden,
Sing, ere my Arterias harden
Schubert, sing thy sweetest songs,
Ere awesome alphabetic throngs—
Tinker, Teltschner, drunk or sober—
Spoil the garden, tramp all ober
Grass where we should be alone!
Goss and Grob, begone! I groan
Schlecter, shoo! and scarper, Seidl!
To try and take in tunes is idle
When Schellman, Schweighofer and Schnorr
Shout so I can't hear the score
And miss the Master's modulation.
Pachler, peace! and wrap up, Rieder!
I can't hear the lilting lieder;
If your din is not diminished
Every symphony's Unfinished!

Ah, Schubertian scholarship
Is a thing I should not skip.
Burbling Bocklet, babbling Bibl,
Spill the cup and let it dribble!
Pampered Prinke! I'd be glad
To share in Spaun's Schubertiad,
To drink and sing and greet as crony
Pompe, Umlauff, Grob, Siboni,
To drink gemütlichkeit and chocolate
In Wien with Weissenwolff and Bocklet.
Pachler, peace! and pardon, Probst!
Move me nearer him thou mobst;
Prokesch, be thou my enlightener,
Let me bask in bright Sonnleithner
Schwind! I show you this for sign—
Friends of Franz are friends of mine.

Monday, 14 July 2008

What Every Newly-Wed Should Know

This was the title of a publicity brochure distributed by a furniture-maker at the 1947 Ideal Home Exhibition. It included a 'Day-to-Day Plan' for new brides:

Monday. Is not essentially a day for laundry. Scour the kitchen after week-end catering activities, check up on rations and shop for vegetables, canned foods and breakfast cereals for a few days ahead.

Tuesday. Manage the light personal laundry laundry, leaving the sheets and bath towels. Get all items dried and ironed during the day whenever possible.

Wednesday. Clean thoroughly bedrooms and bathrooms and use early afternoon for silver cleaning.

Thursday. Change bedlinen, launder 'heavies'. While they dry, clean the lounge. Iron early afternoon.

Friday. Plan meals for week-end, making provision for Monday 'left-overs'. Shop. Give dining room or dining alcove a thorough clean and polish.

Saturday. Keep this free for the family as far as possible. Prepare vegetables for Sunday and manage some cooking in the morning. Then relax.

Sunday. Belongs to you and those who share the home with you. Confine all essential cooking to early part of morning.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Climate, energy and all that

Lewis Page in The Register writes about a book being written by Professor David J C MacKay, who has weighed into the ever-louder and more unruly climate/energy debate with several things that so far have been mostly lacking: hard numbers, willingness to upset all sides, and an attempt to see whether any of the various proposals made would actually work. Mackay, of the Cambridge University Department of Physics, holds a PhD in computation from Cal Tech and a starred first in Physics, so we can take it that he knows his numbers. And, as he points out, numbers are typically lacking in current discussion around carbon emissions and energy use.

He’s coming at the issues from a green/ecological viewpoint, but climate-change sceptics who are nonetheless concerned about the UK becoming dependent on Russian gas and Saudi oil—as the North Sea starts to play out—will also find his analysis interesting. Eliminating carbon largely equates to eliminating gas and oil use. “I don’t really mind too much what your plan is,” MacKay says. “But it’s got to add up.” He says he’s largely letting his machine-learning lab at Cambridge run itself these days, and is personally spending most of his time on trying out different energy scenarios.

The book is called Sustainable Energy—without the hot air, and you can download it here (a .pdf file of about 14MB, or there is a synopsis here). It isn’t quite finished yet, and Mackay says he’s always glad to hear from someone who has something to add or has spotted a mistake.

The Green Party, or Greenpeace, might want to give him their comments on one of the plans he discusses, starting on page 209 (Plan G, Producing lots of electricity):
Some people say ‘we don’t want nuclear power, and we don’t want coal!’ It sounds a reasonable goal, but we need a plan to deliver it. I call this plan ‘Plan G’, because I guess the Green Party don’t want nuclear or coal, though I think not all Greens would like the rest of the plan. Greenpeace, I know, love wind, so plan G is dedicated to them too, because it has lots of wind.

Mackay is not at all judgemental in comparing the various options: he just gives you the figures. But those for Plan G suggest that the Green Party hasn't studied them.

There is little point in arguing about these matters with anyone who has not taken the trouble to read Sustainable Energy right through and ponder its content. And, in case anyone asks me, no, I haven't. But I shall, any time soon.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Christians on the catwalk

The struggle for fashion supremacy among top prelates of various persuasions continues unabated, with photos being released to the press almost weekly showing the heights of gorgeousness reached by the latest outfits.

My impression is that Rome is currently winning on points; the snide remarks about the Pontiff's predilection for designer gear (Prada knickers or whatever) have done him no harm and were probably inspired by envy of the stunning all-white get-up he wore to descend the aircraft steps the other day; this was brilliantly set off by his red slippers, allegedly not made by a famous name but by the Vatican's own little cobbler.

The Anglican response to this sort of thing has been rather feeble. The current Primate of All England has always been keen on flashy gold numbers which give him a vaguely showbiz aspect, and of course even the most spectacular mitre loses some of its style when it surmounts a rather sad beard and spectacles (think how soppy the Imperial State Crown looks when the Queen puts on her glasses to read her speech to Parliament).

And now, disappointingly, Michael Nazir-Ali, the 106th Bishop of Rochester and former possible candidate for Cantuar, clearly lacks all sartorial sense, not having realised that if you have your mitre made up from cloth with a chintzy, tea-cosy sort of pattern then you are going to look not so much like a great leader of a great church but merely like a man with a tea-cosy on his head. Lamentable!

[For a note on headgear that is de rigueur for papal obsequies, look HERE.]

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Foreign cuisine in Liverpool

In the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Alf Garnett's socialist son-in-law was played by Anthony Booth, whose daughter later became the wife of Tony Blair. Alf frequently called him (Booth, that is) randy scouse git.

The word scouse for a Liverpudlian or the way he speaks was first used because the Mersey in Roman times was called Scusa Fluvium. The dish known as lobscouse, still popular in the region, was named for scouses or scousers, with the addition of a prefix from the Old English lobben, meaning to munch.

Such etymological tit-bits are sometimes widely accepted as gospel, but often they are total rubbish, as in this case; the first paragraph above is perfectly accurate, but the second I made up.

But there is something called lobscouse and the Oxford Companion to Food gives the true story:

Lobscouse is the English name for a group of dishes which almost certainly had their origin in the Baltic ports, especially those of Germany. In all its forms, the name refers to a seamen's dish and is particularly associated in recent times with the port of Liverpool, which is why Liverpudlians are often referred to as scouses or scousers, though the dish has a long history in other nearby parts of England.
There are many variations, but typically it is made in a single pot by frying onion, carrots and turnips in dripping, then adding beef, lamb or mutton, chopped potatoes, water, and a cow-heel or pig's trotter to give a gelatinous body to the dish; crumbled ship's biscuit may also be added. Then it is put in the oven to cook for a very long time.
Labskaus, the German version, may be made either with fish (Fischlabskaus) or meat, in either case preserved rather than fresh. In Denmark the dish, traditionally made with salt beef, is known as skipperlavskovs and is supposed to be thick enough to eat with a fork but not so thick that the fork can stand up in it; some Liverpudlians agree and say that it should be firm enough for a mouse to be able to trot over it but mushy and capable of being spread to make a 'lobby butty'.

That's all very well, but where does the word labskaus come from? The Oxford English Dictionary is inadequate on scouse, giving it 'obscure' origin and making no reference at all to the fact that lobscouse relates to a foreign dish. Anyone got a German etymological dictionary?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

De facto President

Former knight Robert Gabriel Mugabe enjoying the Harare sunshine.

Friday, 4 July 2008

More First Names

Another 25 rather uncommon ones which have been given to (fairly) famous people. Four are fictional. Can you supply the surname for each?

1 LaVerne
2 Mycroft
3 Dinsdale
4 Kofi
5 Jedediah
6 Maundy
7 Dashiell
8 Lambert
9 Perkin
10 Lorna
11 Calvin
12 Woodrow
13 Ogden
14 Sacheverell
15 Sexton
16 Zane
17 Diego
18 Orlando
19 Emmeline
20 Clement
21 Garth
22 Benito
23 Jawaharlal
24 Maximilien
25 Mahalia

Answers HERE