Friday, October 10, 2014

Observation

There’s an interesting French word, “flâneur”. Translated it could mean: stroller, lounger, saunterer, loafer. An idle wanderer having no particular destination or objective. Flânerie refers to the activity of strolling and there are people in France, especially in Paris who are flâneurs. It sometimes seems as if the entire city is populated with them. And while they strolled, they observed and while they observed, some of them took notes. Sherlock Holmes once said to Watson ‘you see but you do not observe’. Most of us just ‘see’, most of the time.
The extraordinary slides imperceptibly into the commonplace, gliding past our consciousness as if non-existent, or it only existed as a fleeting, half-remembered impression, instantly forgotten. What colour was the coat the woman was wearing? What was curious about the dog across the road? Why did the man in the car seem to be waiting too long before turning?
Writers sometimes sit in cafés, watching. They fleetingly devise scenarios, stories about the people that pass them, who never notice that they are there. The mental filing cabinet fills with thoughts and ideas. It’s easier with individuals. An impression crystallises almost instantly, a collection of information about gait, facial expression, dress and a multitude of non-verbal signals which are assembled at lightning speed, the limbic and reptilian brain assessing threat, fear, anger or desire.
By way of explanation, I was turned loose in the city yesterday for a little bit of flânerie and found myself sitting at the interface between two arrondissements, drinking coffee. There was noise across the street. Several men, Afro-Caribbean in appearance, were talking loudly amongst themselves. Arms were waving, fingers being pointed and a few pushes and shoves exchanged. To Western eyes, this looked close to the breakout of a violent, possibly drug-fuelled confrontation. Very few stopped to watch. Parisians don't. After a few minutes, as swiftly as it had started, all was quiet. People went their separate ways.

I found myself wondering what were the circumstances that led to the small window of events that I had witnessed. Possibilities flitted ephemerally through my mind before I just filed it all away in the mental lockup. One of these days, I might pull all the files out of the filing cabinet, put them all together and call it a novel.

Work to Rule

This isn't altogether my own. In fact, it's shamelessly plagiarised from somewhere or other with a bit of my own creative editing to bring it up to date. To the individual who first produced it in an obviously bourbon-sodden haze, I raise a metaphorical 'l'chaim' to you.

From a pillar of British journalism. The facts on the ground.


"The unrest began last Tuesday when Hamas announced that the number of virgins a suicide bomber or other mujahid would receive after his death will be cut by 25% after Eid, from 72 to 54. The rationale for the cut was the increase in recent months of the number of  battlefield casualties whose sacrifice falls into the 'martyrdom' category and a subsequent shortage of virgins in the afterlife. Other terrorist groups followed suit, including ISIL and Hizbullah. The subsequent demonstrations stopped short of burning Palestinian flags, so a few Israeli ones were burnt instead. 

The suicide bombers' union, the British Organization of Occupational Martyrs (or B.O.O.M.) responded with a statement that this was unacceptable to its members and immediately balloted for strike action.

General Secretary Anjem Choudary (no relation) told the Press: 'Our members are literally working themselves to death in the cause of jihad. We don't ask for much in return but to be treated like this is like a kick in the teeth.'

Speaking from his five-bedroomed house paid for with jizya from the British taxpayer, he explained: 'We sympathise with our workers' concerns but we are not in a position to meet their demands. They are not accepting the realities of modern-day jihad in a competitive marketplace.'
'Thanks to Western depravity, especially in London, there is now a chronic shortage of virgins in the afterlife. It's a straight choice between reducing expenditure and laying people off. I don't like cutting wages but I'd hate to have to tell several thousand of my staff that they won't be able to blow themselves up.'
Spokespersons for the union in the Northeast of England, Ireland, Wales and the entire Australian continent stated that the strike would not affect their operations as "..there are no virgins in our areas anyway".
Apparently the drop in the number of suicide bombings has been attributed to the emergence of the Scottish singing star, Susan Boyle - now that Muslims know what a virgin looks like, they are not so keen on going to paradise."

Friday, September 19, 2014

Rain Dismal


I had forgotten how depressing rain can be. The kind that falls, straight down like a flat curl-free head of greasy, adolescent hair. Unremitting, continuous, surroundings become featureless, a grey mist that washes colour from the sky. The waterfall cascades angrily, audible from a hundred metres away. When the pool overflows it means that some fifteen centimetres has fallen rather rapidly. Lightning doesn't just rumble, it bangs and clashes like angry warriors in battle, occasionally sparking spectacularly close, leaving a sulphurous, electric odour and clouds of steam. 
This is not good. For electrical components in particular. Internet routers were not meant to be in such proximity to all that electromagnetic rage. Neither were telephones plus their fragile connecting wires, some of which are unsafely draped above ground, instead of being securely cocooned below the surface. Electrons, desperate to find the path of least resistance, envelop the wire. The jolt of energy caused the router to light up like a Roman candle and the phones to mutely expire.

Might as well be Scotland, plus a few degrees.

The Scots had their chance yesterday. The once in a generation opportunity to cut the three hundred year old umbilical, to slip their English moorings and leave the Sassenach behind. They almost did, at least some of them. But, they followed the money instead, led by the business strongholds of Edinburgh and Aberdeen. For the bankers, insurance companies and asset managers headquartered in Scotland, the risks of independence were large, obvious and manifold. They chose the last minute to speak out, leading the ace on the last hand with phrases like 'capital flight' which very probably swayed the floaters and delighted the Queen who might have had to get a passport to visit Balmoral. The Scots are still the unwilling janitors of a nuclear arsenal, they have lost an able First Minister who very sportingly stepped down after losing and still have little time for the Eton toffs in Westminster.




Thursday, September 11, 2014

Plum Delight



In order to write divertingly, some might even say, 'amusingly', there has to be a certain, shall we say, joie de vivre, even espèglerie about one's existence. Being mournful by temperament and being aware that "kvetch" is my favorite Yiddish word, I have not been playing to par in recent times, the old golf swing having developed a pronounced slice into the Slough of Despond. Much of this of course has to do with the fact that I seem to be retired. Again. The old war-horse put out to pasture in his declining years, no longer fit for the fields of Agincourt, just a little browsing and sluicing in the better neighborhoods of Paris. 
Just northward of the Place de la Concorde, however, is a small taste of England, a small taste is all that one really requires as it happens, since the smell of rain-sodden woollen clothing and endless queues around London's orbital roads can easily be brought to shuddering recollection. I refer, of course, to W H Smith. England's High Street bookshop. Having been mercilessly seduced by the fact that with one casual flick of the finger, my iPad adds to its not inconsiderable library, it is quite a change to walk into the bookshop - we call them 'shops' in England, not 'stores' if memory serves, and find volumes to delight, enamour and amuse.
Sebastian Faulks is a scribbler of no mean ability, who has dared to take on the languid world of P G Wodehouse's aristocratic ass, Bertie Wooster and his man, or rather, 'gentleman's personal gentleman', Jeeves, in what has been described as a "polished, sparkling, genuine fake". 
As a stripling of pre-pubescent years, I systematically went through all of the originals, like a determined silkworm demolishing a mulberry leaf. The Rev "Stinker" Pinker, boxing half-blue at Oxford and I became chummy and I was a peripatetic member of the Drones Club, clustering in the billiard room along with Gussie Fink-Nottle, Oofy Prosser, Bingo Little and all the others whose lives were made easier by a flat in Berkeley Square and a stonking great trust fund able to clear the National Debt of Bechuanaland. Like Bertie's Aunt Dahlia, I have my own Anatole, legendary hash-slinger who also acts as my sartorial maître d', much as Jeeves consigns his master's more eccentric purchases to the dungeons of poor taste.
In short, the philosopher Wittgenstein and I are in one accord that P G, or Plum, was a soundish egg and full of the right stuff. Interested readers might remember Fry and Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster; this is a classic episode.
Only the galactic talent of one S Faulks might therefore be in a position to imitate the Great Man, which he does with, as Jeeves might have murmured, remarkable verisimilitude. Once again, Bertie is in the soup and it requires all of Jeeves' best and brightest schemes and effortless machinations to ease him out of it, win the girl and make a small fortune on the Gold Cup.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ice Water and Seagulls

It would seem that the ALS icewater challenge, like the Hunger Games, has gone viral. Perhaps everyone is buying in to the Tribute mentality. I've been asked to do one, more than once - and thank you to the friends who were kind enough to include me. My instantaneous reaction was, 'Yeah, go ahead, why not?' But, then I gave it a little thought and as a result, I'm not going to, nor do I feel compelled to give whatereveritis to the nearest ALS foundation.
Just so as to be clear, I hate iced water on my head the same as the next man, but it's quite bearable. I know. I spent five years at public school and cold showers were often used as punishments.
I have two basic reasons why I'm not going to take part, both of which I think are compelling in themselves.
First, ALS research, due to the very nature of the disease, requires both adult and embryonic stem cells as biological raw material.  Embryonic cells are the harvest of abortions.  Go ahead, Sherlock. Join the dots. But, this is the weaker of the two reasons. Secondly, and more importantly,  the speed with which my gut agreed and screamed out 'go ahead' in itself gave me pause. Putting the bucket down for a few minutes,  I began to consider the effect that social media activism is having on our culture – and my/ourselves as actors and consequently participants in it. I've turned into a blogger with a slight political edge to me, consequently it's clear to me that this medium’s capacity for acting as a vehicle for good is beyond doubt, and yet the principle of instant, do-it-now connectivity has a flipside. Anyone who has ever commented on a social activism website sees how easy it is for a herd mentality to develop, where everybody is nodding in furious agreement and dissent is shouted down, often quite violently. This is, of course, absolutely OK, I suppose, so long as the herd is headed in the right direction and so we meekly trot along mooing and lowing with everybody else.

Peer pressure has a nasty habit of distorting perspective. We're all racing to belong without first pausing to think through all of the options before clicking “like”. How many, apart from Jonathan Livingston, have elected to fly against the wind because they don't like being just another seagull in the flock as well as stopping to investigate exactly how the money's being spent before emptying the ice cube trays? Exactly. I don't think anyone needs to beat themselves up over it - that's not the point. It's OK to feel a little excluded, even strange, and, perhaps more than a little prone towards caution and self-awareness in the future.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Safety of Stories

I read something the other day. No, I mean, I "read" it. It didn't just pass me by, like a half-remembered byline, or someone on the street that I thought I recognised. Opinion is like steady, unremitting drizzle, never really pausing for long enough for the landscape through which it passes to be observed in any detail. It clusters in the corners of our minds, waiting, like Godot, for a time, or even a space within the freeway of our consciously streaming interaction with the world for our own small, underpowered vehicle to find a gap in the traffic. Within all of us, there is a still, small voice asking impossible questions, like, "where is justice" when all around us we hear static and half-made sentences through shattered and distorted media headphones, crying with every syllable that it has departed, leaving a sulphurous and unpleasant odour behind. Realities are labyrinthine, complex. We seek a stationary metaphor to hold ourselves morally upright, sometimes abandoning the struggle for reality and retreating behind the more secure emotional bulwarks of fiction. Harry Potter may have influenced the political motivations of a generation - now old enough to vote. There were certainties there. Exposure to the strange, gladiatorial political arenas in "Game of Thrones" with its quicksand of changing allegiances generates a consonance more real than we know. It shines lights into places where we don't want to go, where the monsters are, and justice is a flyaway, ephemeral leaf, blown who knows where by rapidly shifting winds of change. We transpose this into present realities as the black-clad flag-wavers emerge from the shadows, their blades red with innocent blood, coming for us.
Martin Amis' newest novel supposedly helps us to see the Nazis as they really were, and makes black comedy of the Holocaust. This could be seen to be quintessentially Jewish, but it isn't, particularly in light of the blackguardly parallel to Nazism being levelled at the Israelis by the wilfully ignorant and cognitively dissonant flag-waving media junkies.
I'm not a particular fan of his work. In previous novels, the prose sometimes reads as if someone originally wrote in something like Estonian then used Google Translate for the  final version.
Even in fiction, what we read shapes our values,  threatens our security,  gives form to our perceptions. The word becomes flesh and dwells among us.