Monday, June 29, 2015

Flat Lands and Legends (Part Two)

When it comes to food, the French are the most obsessive on the planet. Yet they have rather lagged behind the curve when it comes to cooking outdoors; Texas muscle and Antipodean flair have rather led the field. But, the French are catching on and, as always, bring more than a little Gallic flair to the barbecue business.


On the beach in 2014, moved to town square this year
There was quite a crowd. Professional teams with slick uniforms and their own washers-up (in our case, me), amateur teams consisting of men in silly hats out for a good time happy to let their meat char to a cinder in favour of drinking a lot of pastis and having fun by the sea. Reality TV stars, coached by the sponsoring barbecue company, gaggles of photographers, pretty girls with fake tattoos and considerable razzmatazz. And, a serious jury, consisting of starred chefs and other head honchos. All converging on the little town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue, to find the best barbecue chefs in France.

Also, two middle-aged women in home made tie-dyed T shirts turned up to take on the 'best of the best' from all over France, Europe and as far away as French Polynesia. One of whom is quite well known to me, a legend in her own lunchtime.

The advertising budget was eye-watering. In addition to a lavish beach party for all those involved, each of eighty teams received the use of a brand new 300€ Weber charcoal barbecue, plus tools, competition aprons, charcoal and a large parasol, and, of course, meat, fish or vegetables from a top-flight local provider. Competitors could enter a maximum of three categories. Once the meat was received, they had two and a half hours to present.

Dear God, but it was hot. Most of the time, I hung around, dripping, like a spare usher at a wedding; when Gipsy slips into top gear, the best thing to do is just take cover. Hand movements are as fast as a concert pianist's and one can almost hear the vegetables begging for mercy.

Day one, the chicken and taureau day, went well and the food as always was outstanding, but the jurors reached us virtually at the end of the judging period. When the taureau was being tasted, a frisson went around the site as the chief juror, an elderly gentleman, suddenly lit up. He stayed for rather longer than his allotted time and questioned the team closely.


Taureau - after the jury had finished with it
We left for a night in a farmhouse in Vaccarès. Day Two was, if anything, hotter. The team were only doing the pork section so it looked like an easy day. However,  outrageous fortune's capricious nature being what it is, delay followed delay until mid-afternoon when Gipsy was hauled off to the ambulance with a hour to go, suffering from heatstroke. The partner was left to finish and the result was good but not outstanding, which was unfortunate.

These things are always a lottery. I told myself that it was the taking part that mattered and a prize was a bonus. Gipsy muttered grimly that 'she hadn't turned up just to come second'. Just as well, really.

The Blue Riband event is the bull, the 'taureau' of the Camargue. A special trophy is presented to the winner of this category, since it is considered to be the most difficult meat of all to prepare successfully, with originality and the perfection required at this level.  When she won, I shouted like a kid at the football match and might even have jumped up and down. When she got second prize for the hamburger section and third for the chicken, I clapped politely, having recovered my customary sang-froid.

The three-starred chef asked if he could use her bull recipe in his kitchen.  After all the packing up, we barely had room in the car for the winner's barbecue and the trophy. The former we get to keep, the latter we have to give back or defend next year. Apparently.


Champions Trophy 2015

Flat Lands and Legend (Part One)


Photo: Public domain
The Camargue is almost not France. Windswept and flat, the winter Mistral howls relentlessly across the salt marshes, whipping up the waters of the ragged Rhône delta and the Etang de Vaccarès from which thousands of pink flamingoes take flight, in spectacular V-shaped formation, their long necks extended like fighter jets.
Photo: Public domain
Wild horses, the hardy white breed thought to be one of the oldest in the world still live semi-ferally and are the  traditional mount of the gardians, the cowboys who herd the fighting bulls. At the southern apex of the delta lies Saintes-Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue. Catholic tradition has it that there were three Marys at the foot of the Cross, Magdalene, also Salomé and Jacobe, sisters of Jesus' mother and mothers to Apostles. Exiled by the Romans, they came with Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea and a black, perhaps Egyptian or Ethiopian "child servant" called Sara to the shores of the Camargue and brought Christianity to France. The Romani gypsies venerate this 'black virgin' at an annual ceremony where her effigy is carried waist-deep into the sea by the gardians.

Photo: Public domain
Today, the little town is full of well-heeled tourists - a pair of cowboy boots can cost as much as two thousand euros and the beaches are long and sandy. With few adjoining condominiums or big hotels, they are far less crowded that their immediate neighbours on ether side of the delta.

Last weekend, the town came alive. But for quite a different reason. End of Part One.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flags and Guns

I haven't been to many of the Southern states of the USA. I've met a number of people from the Carolinas, well-mannered, fiscally conservative folk who don't exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms. It was the English who enshrined the right to carry firearms for self-defence and legally defensible right to life in a turbulent and unstable period of English history; the American fledgling state simply copied the idea.
Even the most trigger-happy Americans are getting tired of having to defend the indefensible statistic that far too many people suffer mortal injury because of gun crime.


The image shows twenty-one year old Dylann Roof. He is holding two objects, both of which are venerated and highly dangerous. One is a Confederate flag, the other is a semiautomatic .45 calibre Glock 41 pistol, obtainable to almost anyone without a violent history at a cost of just over six hundred dollars. Designed for the Austrian military, it is used by police forces all over the world. This particular one took the lives of nine black churchgoers in Charleston a few days ago. Over sixty thousand died under the Confederate flag in Virginia and North Carolina alone during a war motivated primarily by a desire to end slavery. For the moment, it still flies in the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse, a grim reminder to the black population that the white man's wishful thinking is alive and well.

It is not enough for the State of Mississippi to remove the Confederate flag from its license plates, nor is it enough that the President makes yet more sympathetic noises. White supremacist websites radicalise those of fragile mind and limited intellect, deluding people into thinking that a race war is just around the corner and it is their duty to prevent it by violent means. If firearms are so easily obtained, it is hardly surprising if such people use them. Labelling this boy as a white supremacist terrorist, therefore not 'one of us' won't do since it distances his actions from a wellspring of US opinion that justifies the use of lethal force by private citizens by allowing them, any of them, to carry a weapon of mass destruction. It's time, just time, to reconfigure the software, update it for a new time and a different morality where we come to the realisation that private citizens do not need handguns. Only then will the Dylann Roofs of this world no longer be provided with the means to enact their warped, twisted fantasies.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jurassic World v Pope Francis

 
Went to see Jurassic World yesterday, in the rather uncomfortable awareness that I was buying in to a mega-product, under the guise of a little sentimentality, having enjoyed the preceding three in the franchise. I said to myself that I was really only going for the special effects – after all an extra 3 euros bought me my 3D glasses. But afterwards, a few uncomfortable thoughts remained. At first sight, it’s a Man v Nature movie – a stern Frankenstein warning not to meddle in God’s business, gene-splicing artificial monsters with unpredictable habits. One recurrent theme was that the public wanted bigger, faster, more aggressive monsters with ever-larger teeth, a metaphor for worst-case scenario consumerism. I thought it quite disturbing that Starbucks and Mercedes Benz should find it necessary to pay, one supposes, large sums in product placement to showcase their brand logo in a fictitious theme park whose star attraction was nothing more than a Pepsisaurus Rex. Furthermore, the presence of children, our heirs and successors, only narrowly avoiding being eaten by huge, flesh eating dinosaurs, left me with the feeling that that it wanted to tell us that no matter how bad it gets we’re all going to survive and normal consumerist existence, fuelled by reptilian, limbic thinking, will just carry on as before, with ever-increasing rapacity, heedlessness and greed.
When capitalism self-references so obviously, and parodies itself in such a thinly veiled pastiche it’s the first step to taking a long, hard look at itself.

Pope Francis is wildly popular and has global moral clout. His new encyclical “Laudato Si'” on climate change is designed, amongst other things, to influence the debate at the very highest level. His insistence that humanity collectively learns to protect the environment not only takes a swipe at capitalist greed but also deconstructs conservative arguments, attacking the deniers of climate change whose businesses and pocketbooks will suffer. 'Everything is interrelated', he asserts, such as sexual complementarity, climate change and economic inequality Changing the hearts and minds of individual Catholics could go a long way toward electing politicians with sound environmental polices, and, ideally, slowing our warming climate. Furthermore, Francis is well liked by non-Catholics allowing his influence to spread far beyond the walls of Catholic cathedrals.
I somehow doubt that the original Francis could bring himself to feed a flesh eating velociraptor and his successor is following his example.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Orwell's Carthorse




Like old, patient Boxer, Orwell's carthorse in 'Animal Farm', the well-trodden path around life's somewhat wearisome treadmill rather caught me by surprise recently, precipitating a Setback. Boxer forgot to look behind him. The pig, Napoleon, sells Boxer, his usefulness outlived, to the knackers in order to buy whisky - in this instance - the metaphor has grim but exact irony. 
Writers, I suppose, fall into two categories, those for whom anarchic rebellion bubbles subterraneanly, occasionally exploding into polemic and invective against - or even for - some 'cause' or another; hairy Esaus, jousting men of letters like Osborne and Wesker whose grist to their mills might today have included the moral turpitude of the US involvement in Iraq. And then there are the others, the Jacobs, the smooth men, the Ortons, the Stoppards, who wrote because they liked to fence with words, languidly flop-haired and elegantly dispassionate, the foil, not the sabre, contributing nothing but their example to a battle-weary debate.
For both, there are pitfalls, stones in the road, guilt-ready, beady-eyed and malevolent, to trap, ensnare and disable. John Keats once wrote in his 'Diaries' that '…the only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing - to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party.’ On that particular day, I imagined it to be raining, an endless, persistent drizzle, with no break in the clouds. Perhaps the iron vulture of melancholy perched briefly on his shoulder, too.
I have a friend who for many years has called me MathMan, which makes me smile, or rather, snigger inwardly, for such I am not. I know MathMen, those whose eye and armament never waver from the pitiless focus of logic,  pursuing it to its bitter and satisfying end, the proof of pure reason. Then, arriving sweatily on its summit they stand, sword in hand, defying all comers. As for me, I sometimes play childish games with numbers and symbols, which is nothing more than the flounce on the party dress of mathematics, a copycat despised.
Like Stoppard, who once described himself as ‘a timid libertarian’, when I write anything, I seem to have to reconfigure pre-existing narratives, much as he has done with such conspicuous success. He wrote the screenplay for the beautifully worked 2012 film version of ‘Anna Karenina’ let down by saggy performances.  Watching the giraffes of probability flying heartlessly overhead,  I should rework Macbeth in the genre of a power struggle in the Middle East, where the House of Saud, as Macbeth, does battle with the Shi’as, the ayatollahs, the thanes of Glamis. Perhaps a couple of dynastic witches, in the form of the Bushes, plus a black one, Obama, to stir the pot, Birnam Wood meeting Dunsinane in the blood-soaked oilfields of Mosul.  Ah, perhaps, but being bloody, bold and resolute sits uneasily on shoulders which slope as uncomfortably as mine and native idleness and preoccupation with the next pretty butterfly of logic flitting innocently into my path may postpone, perhaps forever.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

ISIL may be less permanent than we have been led to believe, its black feathers may yet tumble from the sky.

Now, all together, a collective sigh of relief.







Thursday, May 14, 2015

Friends and Places



Old City from Café Rimon, Mamilla
The ancient stones of the Old City are worn smooth and shiny by the feet of countless residents, pilgrims, and visitors. They seem unchanged and unchanging in the soft opalescent light that bathes the city. People come and go, taxi drivers on Jaffa Gate still asking extortionately unmetered rates for a trip to Bethlehem, the old man with sad eyes, dirty feet and sandals sitting on the street corner, the old woman peddling red string for a shekel or two to ward off the evil eye on the steps down toward the Kotel, a segula whose Kabbalist origins can be traced back to Genesis 38 where a red string is customarily wound around Rachel's Tomb and resurrected in times when people feel in need of personal or national protection. Everything in the shifting political sand seems sometimes to lack agenda and purpose, yet, in this medieval cocoon, all seems as it should be, as it was meant to be.
Judean wilderness, Arad
Returning here is always something in the nature of pilgrimage, but, beyond the endless queues at the holy sites and huckster tourist flim-flam, as one burrows more deeply into the reasons and motivations for so much of the tensions, wire-wound like an overstrung instrument, there is a resonant aura of tranquillity, caustic in its irony.
And yet, this is not all there is. Many come to Jerusalem, and fail to explore further. This time, a long road trip took us down past Be'er Sheva through the mountainously inhospitable Judean wilderness, where the bedouin outnumber the rest, down past Masada, Herod's palace still majestically overlooking the Dead Sea, to Arad, a town without a traffic light where the hikers go, their litre of water per hour strapped to their backpacks, trails winding through perilously steep wadis.
Eilat, Marina
And then, there is Eilat, a sliver of a town, once near-lawless, now a neon-clad Las Vegas, with its own puddle-jump airport, where people come to party, to swim with the fishes around coral reefs so impossibly close to the shoreline and lie on the beaches within sight of Aqaba to the east and the desert of the Sinai to the west.
My own focus had shifted. I came not to see and gawk, but to spend time with friends, teachers and students, which was, surprisingly, so much more rewarding. I spent time with the young men and women who had to sit under my tutelage, some more mutinously than others, and rediscovered their warmth and exuberance, tempered by a year of growth, and how deeply satisfying it felt to be with them and briefly share our lives once more. Colleagues were glad to see my return, wishing me well.
What a difference a year makes...
If a lasting peace ever descends on this place, it will not be because of the intervention of foreign enforcers with muscle and money, it will be because people who know and have learned to trust each other will no longer allow their political masters to dictate terms based upon self-interest and hubris.
On the eve of Yom Yerushalayim, may we see it, in our day.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tick Beautiful

Luddite I am not. If there's a man skipping and hopping, queuing up for the next all-dancing piece of gadgetry, he's behind me in the line. This said, there's no less flamboyant a way to say it. The Apple watch is released today. No, I have not ordered one online. Yes, I have been to the Apple store in Opéra and 'asked'. Am I going to wait for up to two months to get one? Um, on balance, no.
I like discreet, well-made objects. Not uncommon, which is why there are queues outside Louis Vuitton. I have expensively understated wee trinkets that I write with, amongst other things and every time I reach for one, I both hate myself for succumbing to high end advertisement and love the feel of a well-made artefact which actually does something useful. Ownership of such objects make us feel that we are important, more important than we actually are. Statesmen sign treaties with black and gold writing instruments - not ballpoint pens - I write shopping reminders, but the act of twisting that little cap a quarter turn reassures me that I too am about to perform an action which is affirmative and, for me, life changing, in the sense that whatever is listed determines what I eat, wear or even read.
How drearily trivial. So why am I so tediously old-school - I do rather like the phrase - why am I prepared to resist the blandishments of the advertising behemoth that is Apple and at which I have been remarkably unsuccessful in the past? Put another way, why do I prefer the quiet, efficient ticking of a beautifully made mechanical watch, a single, tiny precession every quarter of a second, when I could have something from Star Trek on my wrist? Because I don't think it would do me any good. I keep my iPhone in a small pouch, not necessarily to protect it from wear and tear in my pocket, but just to make it that little bit less easy to get out and do any one of a million somethings with, most of which are nothing more than random noise masquerading as entertainment. Watches are deeply personal pieces of functional jewellery and the fact that mine only performs one function very well is part of its attraction. Also, the Apple device is battery powered and vibrating quartz ain't so chic to folk of my generation. To save battery life, the watch goes dark when it 'thinks you’re not looking at it'. I find that quite scary. To turn it back on, you have to shake the device with enough momentum to, in Apple’s words, “Activate on Wrist Raise", put another way, a spastic jolting gets the thing going again which doesn't look good in meetings. In other words, develop a whole new, somewhat counterintuitive gesture to make the thing do what it was designed for when a real watch requires nothing more than a discreet downwards glance and a raised cuff. In any event, an iWatch can't 'beam me up' anywhere. Yet.