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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

No Comment

Over the last month, there have been disturbances, let's say, in the Middle East. These disturbances are not small regional ripples, soon forgotten as the world finds other things to talk about.
As everyone knows, I have just returned from Jerusalem - in fact, about a week before I left - three boys were kidnapped. A  friend said that she thought they were dead. I didn't believe her and I was wrong. Shortly after, a deranged man murdered and set fire to an Arab boy, and Operation Protective Edge began.
A caliphate has been declared in what was eastern Syria and northern Iraq by an organisation whose thirst for blood and conquest outmatches anything the world has seen for a generation and is reminiscent of the early struggle for Islamic identity in the seventh century.
Millions of words have been written, hundreds of pundits have given us the benefit of their opinions on social media, blogs, TV and radio. Journalistic integrity has been compromised. Foreign politicians have thrown the weight of their country's moral outrage at either camp, for or against. What can I possibly add to an already overinflated debate?

For what it is worth, then, and in no particular order, this is what I have learned.

Rhetoric, both for and against, has been more savage and intemperate than at almost any time in my living memory. 

Many people believe that holding pro-Zionist opinions is tantamount to selling your soul to Beelzebub.

Anti-Semitism, defined as unreasoning hatred of Jews just because they are Jewish is alive and well, and the demonic forces that drive it are becoming bolder. Capitals all over the world saw and continue to see well-funded and well-organised "protests" which for the most part are thinly veiled excuses for fomenting anarchy and disorder as disparate and disaffected social groups find a common cause against which they can mobilise. If the protesters actually got what they wanted, Israel would cease to exist.

It is dangerous to be openly Jewish in some places in Europe. It is quite reasonable for Muslim enclaves in European towns and cities to fly the Palestinian flag, since offending Muslims cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

History means whatever you want it to mean and nobody is bothering to read it. Hence, words like 'occupation' have gained undeserved currency, since manipulation of the masses isn't particularly difficult and the volume of opinion so fuelled lends the same distorted legitimacy that Goebbels used to such great effect in the 1930's regardless of right or wrong. "Let me control the media and I will turn any nation into a herd of pigs", he wrote.

Trading land for peace won't work. It didn't work in 2005 and the Israelis have long memories.

A belief in evil is a subjective matter. The entity known as Hamas is simply evil undiluted. As a political machine, it rides, rough-shod, over those who brought it to power. Its supporters use public money to build tunnels instead of roads, use public buildings to wage war and it deliberately places civilians in harm's way, using them as human shields, with no apparent regard for their safety, hiding behind a flawed interpretation of their holy book. They have told the world, loud and clear, that Gazan lives are cheap.

Israelis can and will continue to protect their population. This means that she will be charged with war crimes, the adjudication for which will be in the hands of those who wish her destruction.

Militant Islam suffers no bedfellows. It murders, tortures and sweeps from its path all those who dare to hold any opinion or practice any faith other than its own.

Th events of the last month or so have caused a profound paradigm shift in me, and I understand, in others. Please don't bother commenting - share your outrage elsewhere in places where it may be more widely read. 

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But, perhaps it is the end of the beginning.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Game Beautiful

In the beginning...
Futbol. Footie. The Beautiful Game. The poetry of grown men kicking a bladder around a field, even an exotic South American one, leaves me yawning, tepidly. A few weeks ago, a friend squeaked excitedly that she was going to the World Cup which no doubt cost her fiancé a great deal of money. She apparently has tickets for two matches, the protagonists in both being unknown and dependent on elimination from earlier rounds, so she has to decide on the spot what colour she's going to wear. In the last week of school - international schools are so much fun - students emblazoned their faces with flags of their home countries and some staff were unsporting enough to send them to the washroom to clean up, on the grounds, presumably, that Germany's chances that afternoon were less important than vulgar fractions. Some say that football is a matter of life and death. The diehards would respond with "Oh, no. It's much more serious than that." The historical record is, however beyond dispute. In 1314, complaints by London merchants led Edward ll to issue a proclamation banning football in London because, "...there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; yea, we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future. Local towns banned it on the grounds that whole villages inflated a pig's bladder and kicked it and each other up and down the main street until people dropped from exhaustion or were trampled to death by their neighbours, which I have to say, does sound remarkably unsportsmanlike. In the early 1600's we read "With the 'fotebale'...[there] hath beene greate disorder in our towne of Manchester we are told, and glasse windowes broken yearlye and spoyled by a companie of lewd and disordered persons.  Hate to tell you, sport, but, there still is. Shakespeare had little time for it, either.  This from King Lear : "... you base football player" (1 iv).
Must get one, must get one...
James the First's "Book of Sports", on the other hand, encouraged people to play after church on the Sabbath, presumably in a spirit of love, tolerance and forgiveness and also because he hated the Puritans who liked their Sabbaths gloomy.

There are worse things, of course. I read the other day that American football is like prostitution where people ruin their bodies for the entertainment of complete strangers and savage violence is interspersed by committee meetings, surely the two worst attributes of American society. Still, this time around, the USA soccer team - why must they still call it that - made it to the last sixteen, only losing to plucky little Belgium. Shame, really.
"Our Father"

Postscript: as I was writing this last night the host nation were being unmercifully thrashed in an historic 7-1 defeat by the iron men of Germany who barrelled through a flimsy Brazilian defence like a Panzerfaust. The hosts' ramshackle performance means that careers will be ruined, bucketsful of tears shed and humble pie will be on the menu for months. Oh, well. It's only a game, as Mr Cholmondely-Walker was fond of saying. Pass the shag, gentlemen.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Momentary Me

I've been having a few randomly retrospective thoughts about some of my classes - something which I suppose all ex-teachers do, especially if they're in their educational dotage like me and prone to wandering off in mental flights of fancy into the undergrowth of the past. Small schools are better than large ones. Small classes are better than large ones, because in both cases, you get to know the student body very well, even those that you don't come across in class, and also because, by default, the student body gets to know you as well. Not the cardboard cutout , the squeaking posturer, the Nazi of discipline, but the momentary you, the you that  has been released to be human rather than the ironclad disciplinary machine, grinding the quadratics till the pips squeak and to hell with mixed metaphors, the laggers, slackers and irremediably stupid. Which tends to cause one to teeter towards "favouritism". Like "racism", "sexism" , "elitism" or any of the other "isms" in which the PC thought police love to entrap us, having a favourite means that you're BAD. 
What total eyewash.
I have a favourite shirt, pair of shoes, cologne, even day of the week, but because my favourite is animate, it is no longer appropriate to admit to having it. All my students fell, I suppose, into three categories: favourite, not favourite and "meh". Categorisation of these students was entirely subjective, as changeable as British weather and often spectacularly random. Admitting to such behaviour in school is like mooning in front of a crowd of Grade 10's - not really recommended. I'd confess in private if I had to, but I'd rather be caught stealing the office manager's stash of Nespresso capsules than be accused of treating students differently depending on their current 'favourite' status. That sort of thing would make me the kind of shoddy, attention seeking pseud that people complain to their therapist about. Even having a non-favourite has a certain masochistic charm about it. Oh, yes. You know who you are.
Aviator moment

My Grade 9's decided to smart up for Graduation, some in full evening dress. It was decided that we'd have an 'aviator moment' - they always were quite an enterprising group.  I hoped that they were happy that it was the end of the semester and not that we were parting company. They gave me more trouble than some and more joy than most. Farewells were genuine and heartfelt. I am going to miss all of them.