Sunday, September 30, 2012

Oh, the fun to be had in wallowing in filth and vomit. Or why the West is disappearing up its own arse, perhaps mainly because we have had it so good for rather too long

Many Muslims often make the point that, with its emphasis on ‘rights’, its insistence that we should be ‘non-judgmental’, its almost slavish acceptance of our right – often apparently seen as our duty – to express our ‘individuality’ and the encouragement to push all boundaries, the Western world is disappearing up its own arse and not at all that slowly. They might well have a point, though in honesty I must add that social attitudes in some Muslim countries are, to put it mildly, nothing to write home about. Who would be gay in Iraq or a woman in Saudi Arabia and the more benighted parts of Afghanistan?

Having said that, what too many of us here in the West see as ‘Muslim’ is often nothing of the kind: we would be wrong to regard the fundamentalist and intolerant Wahabi Islam as more or less what all of Islam stands for, rather as it would be exceptionally silly to think of the far-out whacky elements of fundamentalist ‘Christians’ as representative of all Christians. But I
personally think there is a great deal of substance in the suspicion that the ethos of the Western world is becoming increasingly more self-centred. The irony is, of course, that over these past 45 years, the West has convinced itself that it has become far more caring. From where I stand nothing could be further from the truth.

So I offer you these images, although they are not, in fact, the subject of this entry. What I should like to highlight is how increasingly many in the West, mainly those who regard themselves as being ‘progressive’ and ‘forward-thinking’ are apt to tie themselves into knots trying to excuse the inexcusable. These images are not new and have been knocking around for several years (and are all, incidentally the copyright of the photographer who took them, Maciej Dakowicz). Many were published in 2011 by the Daily Mail (which has its own axes to grind) and, I think, were previously published by the Mail a year or two earlier. But that isn’t the point, either.

I believe these photographs are being exhibited in Cardiff, and a review of that exhibition was published in The Observer this morning. And it is the frighteningly woolly think betrayed by that review (by a chap called Sean O’Hagan) to which I should like to draw attention. You can read his review here, but just one excerpt might serve as an indication that the way the ‘progressive’ left is disappearing up its own arse could well be, in microcosm, how the West is slowly, but surely, losing the plot. O’Hagan writes:

Because of the subject matter of these photographs – the ways in which young people choose to enjoy themselves to excess on a Saturday night – you could say that Cardiff After Dark [the exhibition being reviewed] is a visual essay about Britain's binge-drinking culture. If you were you so inclined, you could even view it as a snapshot of what has gone wrong with Britain since deference and good manners gave way to lack of respect and vulgarity . . . On closer observation, though, Dakowicz's work evades this kind of reductive appraisal. The photographs in this book are loud, the behaviour they show often vulgar. The more you look, though, the more you glimpse a certain collective doggedness in this wild pursuit of pleasure and abandonment, a doggedness that suggests much deeper discontent.

So there you have it: black becomes white, wrong becomes right. The young folk, all the worse for wear, are not, as they might at first seem to be, merely total chavs who think that getting rat-arsed all night, then spewing up, not giving a flying fuck for anyone else and wallowing in the filth of a late-night cityscape are unacceptable, but – according to O’Hagan – something far more noble: they are demonstrating a certain collective doggedness in this wild pursuit of pleasure and abandonment. Not only that but in the same sentence the blame for any bad behaviour is shifted to everyone else in that their doggedness suggests much deeper discontent.

The implication is plain: they are not to blame for behaving like pigs, we – society – is. Certainly, many of them might find themselves in boring jobs and certainly many of them would like to be paid far more, though it has to be said that a great many other folk the world
over, not least 25pc of all young people in Spain, would give their eyes’ teeth for one of those boring jobs. But what else do they have to be ‘discontented’ with? Is it that they don’t have clean water to drink and wash themselves in as do several hundreds of millions around the world. No, it can’t be that, because whatever else its failings, Britain ensures that 99pc of its households, unlike tens of millions of non-British households, have more than adequate sanitary arrangements.

Is it that they are being denied an education and being made to work very long hours for a pittance from a very early age? No, it’s not that either. Britain has very strict laws on child employment and a free education is available to every British child until the age of 16 at the
very least. Perhaps they are forced to live in slums and insanitary shanty towns as do hundreds of millions of folk elsewhere in the world. Are they ‘discontented’ with their healthcare and the benefits they get if they become unemployed? Well, I can’t think that that is the cause of their discontent, either, although hundreds of millions around the world might be astounded to learn that the healthcare of every British citizen – and even those who visit Britain – is absolutely free. And if they do find themselves unemployed or homeless, the state arranges that they will, at least, not starve. Those arrangements are most certainly not perfect, but at least they exist. Hundreds of millions around the world have no such arrangements, not even imperfect ones.

So just take a look at the pictures of these ‘discontented’ chavs and ask yourself who, exactly, is to blame for the way they chose to wallow in their own vomit, detritus and filth: them or us? And then ask yourself whether those who would prefer to argue that black is white and that
wrong is right really should be taken as seriously as they would expect us to. Or perhaps you might agree with me that their woolly – and, it could be argued dangerous – thinking demonstrates rather neatly why as far as I am concerned the West is disappearing up its own arse.

. . .

It is not the sign of a great mind to quote a line from a soap opera by way of passing on a wisdom. We might all be agreed on that even if the soap opera in question, The Sopranos is not usually regarded as a soap but as something more upmarket, the rule of thumb is soap scripts tend to deal in clichés and seemingly try to avoid any originality as much and as often as possible. (A case in point might be one of my favourite bêtes noir, The Archers, of which, as chance has it, I usually hear a few minutes on a Wednesday night as I drive home from London to Cornwall and a Sunday morning as I drive to work in London: the script is at best abysmal and so choc-a-bloc with clichés – ‘well, as they say, time will tell’ – that it surely deserves some kind of award.)

But great minds or not (and I’m slowly and sadly realising as I approach my dotage that my mind was, is and never will be great), I shall pass on the observation of one character who featured in The Sopranos. She was Svetlana, a one-legged Russian woman who was a friend and confidante of one of Tony Soprano’s former bit on the side and is later hired to keep house and look after Uncle Junior Soprano when he is under house arrest and starts showing signs of dementia.

One day while at Uncle Junior’s house, Tony has sex with Svetlana (or possibly Svetlana has sex with Tony – she is very much her own woman) and afterwards when Tony starts bemoaning his life, she tells him (and here I must paraphrase) that the trouble with Americans is that the are always seeking perfection in everything and are thus necessarily disappointed and unhappy. Russians, she tells him, on the other hand always expect things to be pretty shitty and are quite often pleasantly surprised and as a rule thus a lot happier.

This rather relates to the pictures in the entry above and by contention that we are in the West are now in our declining years. Our problem, to put it bluntly, is that life is generally far too easy for us. Few of us are in want. On the contrary, if we want something, from a two-week holiday abroad twice a year to a new car, a widescreen TV set or any other number of luxury goods, we can – make that could – get them immediately. What with insurance, social and unemployment benefits, state pensions (fabulously good for some in Europe) and infrastructure which makes life very easy indeed, we should have little to grumble about (and let me concede here and now that there are many, though a minority, who don’t share in the good life, but I am talking about the majority of us). But are we grateful? Do we value and cherish our advantages? I would suggest increasingly not: the general rule is that the more we have the less we value it. And the less we have the more we value it. It is a curious fact of life that the poor who have little for themselves are apt to be more charitable and fellow-minded than their more prosperous cousins. It gets worse: the more we have, the more we expect and the more unpleasant we get when we don’t get it.

I have no idea whether you reading this agree with these observations, but I might, in this instance, be forgiven for passing on a piece of wisdom from a soap opera. Pip, pip!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Another civil war in Spain? Too much Spanish Burgundy or has he finally lost his marbles? It could never happen! No, of course, not, and nor could the massacre at Srebrenica

The obvious question is just how long can it all go one, and by ‘it’ I mean, of course, what might well now be regarded as the ‘phoney war’ in the euro crisis. Superficially, it might all seem to have gone quite, with good ole’ Mario Draghi trying desperately to calm nerves by insisting he and his train set will do everything to make sure the good folk of the island of Sodor will continue to get a rail service second to none - no, look, I’m getting confused: Draghi runs the European Central Bank, not Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends.

It’s all so confusing what with everyone being so brave and insisting the euro is here to stay, you mark their words, and this is all just a glitch, a rite of passage through which the currency will pass from adolescence to adulthood. In years to come they, the bankers and politicians and commentators, will crack open a find bottle of brandy and swap anecdotes and memories, and reflect on the high drama when - well, if the truth be told it did, at times, seem touch and go for the dear little euro (such a sweet little currency, who’d have thought it was capable of potentially bringing such grief when all it was intended to do was to be the cement the great European Union and bring peace and goodwill to all good men and true).

But, of course, I’m rambling (as I am apt to do), a mood brought on by some troubling news. There was a demonstration in Madrid today outside Spain’s parliament by the Occupy Congress movement who feel that the government returned by a large majority at the end of last year hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of solving this crisis or any future crisis. But it wasn’t the demo which rather alarmed me - demos come and go and are largely forgotten within days. What I thought more notable was that the Spanish province of Calalonia (do they call the provinces?) is getting mightily fed up and its government has called a snap election with a view to gaining more independence, both political and financial from Madrid. This is not very good news. You can read about the latest developments here and here.

Ordinarily, such a move could well be pooh-poohed as just so much sabre-rattling, signifying nothing, but these are surely not ordinary times. Is it really conceivable that a part of Spain could declare independence? Isn’t that the kind of thing which happens only in history books and which we debate many years after the event?

More than 20 years ago, the American historian Francis Fukuyama published an essay called The End Of History (and later developed his thesis in a similarly entitled book) in which he argued - if I have got it right - that the world had more or less evolved politically as far as it would ever evolve and the our liberal democratic form of government (in the West, at least) was more or less the end stage of that development. What he had so say was a little more subtle, but the general idea was that ‘lads, this is it’. I remember at the time thinking what a crock of shit the idea was, but at the time I didn’t really know what he was suggesting.

Now I know a little more, I can see the point he is making, and although I no longer think it is total bollocks, I do feel he is being a tad optimistic. My point is, though, that the West generally, which has, despite one or two local wars, most notably in the Balkans in the Nineties, enjoyed a sustained period of peace and prosperity, is finding it increasingly difficult to imagine (and accept) that things will not always be like that. Were I here and now to suggest that, for example, there is a distinct possibility of another civil war in Spain, the consensus would be ‘the chap’s off his head/doesn’t know what he’s talking about/has he been drinking?

Truthfully, I know very little about domestic Spanish politics and affairs, but merely suggest the possibility of a second civil war in Spain as the kind of utterly unexpected development we find it almost impossible to get our heads around. And because we find such things impossible to grasp and thus give credence to, they are deemed to be utterly implausible. Brussels and the rest of the EU wouldn’t allow it, you could say. Or you could argue that Western Europe has become far too civilised to countenance any such action on its soil. All I will say to that is: never count your chickens.

The total disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc was, for almost all of us, a pretty unexpected development, but it happened and it happened pretty damn quickly. We are accustomed to hear of massacres and wholesale slaughter in, say, the Congo or Uganda, or Afghanistan and other points east, but we never expected any such wholesale massacre in Europe. Then several thousands Bosnians were massacred in Srebenica. And, most tellingly, they were massacred while Dutch ‘peacekeepers’ more or less looked on and did nothing because any prevention of that massacre ‘wasn’t in its remit’. That would have seemed impossible just days before it happened. And the total inaction of the Dutch to do anything to stop it would have seemed even more unbelievable.

So when this loudmouth points out that things aren’t looking too healthy in Spain and could even perhaps lead to the kind of violence we haven’t seen in Western Europe for 70 years, jeer at me by all means. But at least be a little more prepared to expect the utterly unexpected.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hypocrisy comes in many forms - try the variety favoured by (some) Muslims

Forget, if you can, that Peaches Geldoff has recently taken her son Astala and dog Parpy for a stroll and that Kourteny Kardashian has already managed to get back to a ‘fighting fit’ slim figure just ten weeks after giving birth to baby Penelope. Forget even - yes, I know it’s difficult, but, please, just try, even if for just a few minutes - that Kelly Osbourne thinks that Lady Gaga is pregnant, not just getting fat on too many pizzas and that Kim Kardashian has charmed her way into the hearts of police on promotional tour in Australia. (What is she promoting? Kim Karadashian, of course. Silly me). Today, in its customary lighthearted mood, this blog intends to turn its attention to a rather more mundane mattter, that is the Muslim ‘outrage’ the world over.

And what has upset them? Why an extremely badly made film in California which was subsequently overdubbed to insult the prophet Mohammed. In fact, so outraged were Muslims in Libya that they felt it necessary to murder the U.S. ambassador to express their outrage, and since then outraged Muslims have been demonstrating, sometimes violently in other predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and Malayasia. Talk about a sense of proportion - it seems these lads don’t give a fig for the latest Lady Gaga, Peaches Geldoff and Kardashian family gossip.

A mob is a mob is a mob anywhere in the world, whether in Cairo, Benghazi, Woking, Galashiels, Peoria or Buenos Aires, and in an odd kind of way a mob seems to become more than just the sum of its parts. So when ‘a mob’ is responsible for the death of one or more people as it expresses its outrage, no one in that mob feels him or herself (though it has to be said it is invariably himself) specifi - ‘the mob’ is to be blamed for the death, not individuals.

Furthermore, mobs can easily be manipulated, a fact which no end of unscrupulous men and women have known for centuries and successfully made use of. We know that once whatever idiot it was who made the film which insulted the Prophet Mohammed had - very badly - overdubbed it to include the insults (apparently the film started life as some kind of D movie about the desert), the film was channelled into Muslim countries - one report I heard was that a fundamentalist Christian group was involved which enlisted the help of Egyptian Coptic Christian. Whoever did that knew exactly what the consequences would be and knew also that unscrupulous Muslim rabble-rousers would gleefully seize upon the film to futher their own agend.

It has been recorded that the outrage of many Muslims was based on the ‘fact’ that apparently ‘U.S. state television’ had broadcast the film. That the U.S. doesn’t have, and has never had, a ‘state television’ is quite irrelevant: the mob believed it to be true, and so it became ’a truth’ and so the mob went on its self-righteous rampage. Yet ironically, however stupid ‘the mob’ is, in a sense it is blameless: it has no mind and its violence is literally mindless. But far, far more disturbing is the attitude of Muslims who should and quite possibly do know better.

Last Monday, four of them were interviewed on Radio 4’s The World Tonight. They were all, three men and a woman, British Asian professionals - they insisted that the programme should highlight that they were professionals: one was an engineer, one a businessman (or woman) and two were doctors. They were articulate and - I assume - intelligent, but they were certainly educated people. Most significant was that they were all members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which likes to describe itself as ‘the Liberation party’ and which organised a demonstration last Sunday outside the US embassy in London. These four, who had all taken part in the demo and who, one imagines, listen to radio and TV news, would most certainly have been aware of the untruths being put about in order to fuel the mobs’ outrage: it is inconceivable that - as intelligent, educated and professional people - they sincerely believed that the US government had indeed brazenly broadcast the insulting film on ‘state TV’. Yet they chose to ignore what they must have known to be untrue and took part in the demo and later agreed to be interviewed on Radio 4’s The World Tonight to justify their actions and the actions of violent mobs in many parts of the Muslim world. You have to ask yourself: why?

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s website has published an open letter to non-Muslims about the film and the ‘insult to the Prophet Mohammed’ (you can read it here) and it has the gall to castigate Western ‘hypocrisy’. The first paragraph of this open letter reads:

'It is a centuries-old Islamic tradition to engage in debate, tolerate criticism and hear the critiques of others. But insults against Islam, such as those in the recent film and cartoons, are unacceptable provocations that cross a red line that no Muslim or decent human being would ever accept. As such we condemn them in the strongest possible terms, as we do any such insults against Islam and the symbols of our religion; especially those against the greatest man ever, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.’

The open letter goes on:

We do not condone the recent violence that has broken out in response, but the blood-stained track record of Western foreign policy and hypocrisy regarding free speech means that all right to take the moral high ground has been forfeited when arguing that violence is an unacceptable response to this provocation, or when arguing that freedom of speech is sacred.

Does Hizb up-Tahrir and its four intelligent, educated and professional members who agreed to be interviewed on Radio 4 really believe that outright murder and innocent deaths are justifiable in defence of imagined insults against the Prophet Mohammed? Well, apparently they do.

I also wonder what Hizb up-Tahrir would have to say about the hypocrisy of its fellow Muslims who are quite happy to hand out awful insults to other faiths and their followers. Because or all the noble talk about not tolerating insults to Islam, many Muslims are far from shy about grossly insulting not only Jews and Christians, but their fellow Muslims. Here is a list (which I have taken from the New York Times website and which appeared here in one of its columns) of exceedingly gross insults made by Muslims (follow links for original source):

ON CHRISTIANS: Hasan Rahimpur Azghadi of the Iranian Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution: Christianity is “a reeking corpse, on which you have to constantly pour eau de cologne and perfume, and wash it in order to keep it clean.” — July 20, 2007.

Sheik Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi: It is permissible to spill the blood of the Iraqi Christians — and a duty to wage jihad against them. — April 14, 2011.

Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, a Saudi professor of Islamic law, calls for “positive hatred” of Christians. Al-Majd TV (Saudi Arabia), — Dec. 16, 2005.

ON SHIITES: The Egyptian Cleric Muhammad Hussein Yaaqub: “Muslim Brotherhood Presidential Candidate Mohamed Morsi told me that the Shiites are more dangerous to Islam than the Jews.”  — June 13, 2012.

The  Egyptian Cleric Mazen al-Sirsawi: “If Allah had not created the Shiites as human beings, they would have been donkeys.” — Aug. 7, 2011.
The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan video series: “The Shiite is a Nasl [Race/Offspring] of Jews.” — March 21, 2012.

ON JEWS: Article on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website praises jihad against America and the Jews: “The Descendants of Apes and Pigs.”  — Sept. 7, 2012.

The Pakistani cleric Muhammad Raza Saqib Mustafai: “When the Jews are wiped out, the world would be purified and the sun of peace would rise on the entire world.”  — Aug. 1, 2012.

Dr. Ismail Ali Muhammad, a senior Al-Azhar scholar: The Jews, “a source of evil and harm in all human societies.”  — Feb. 14, 2012.

ON SUFIS: A shrine venerating a Sufi Muslim saint in Libya has been partly destroyed, the latest in a series of attacks blamed on ultraconservative Salafi Islamists.  — Aug. 26, 2012.

It does seem to me that for many of the more fanatical Muslims there is one rule for them and another for everyone else. There is very little quite as unpleasant as the stench of hypocrisy. (All the above references were published in a piece by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. You can read it here.)

. . .

I keep a keen eye on the so-called ‘stats’ provided by Google which tell me not only how many people have chanced up - or even knowingly returned to - this blog in any given day, week, month or year, but also where they live, what browser they use, what computer operating system they use, whether they are using a computer, tablet, iPad or smartphone when visiting and, crucially, whether they loathe hypocrisy as much as I do. The stats also tell me which sites are used to ‘refer’ the searcher to this blog and what are the most visited blog entries.

By far the most popular is one which features one Tony Blair, one Christine Keeler and one Mandy Rice-Davies. It includes a cartoon of Blair and a photo each of Christine and Mandy (my familiarity is gratuitous in that I don’t know either of the two ladies and am highly unlikely to meet either at any time soon.) But it did occur to me that to drum up more visits, I should include in each post a pic of both of them. So that is exactly what I intend to do.

(Incidentally, this second part of this entry has bugger all to do with Muslim, Muslim outrage, the Prophet or anything of that kind. The principle I am working on is that you can, indeed, have too much of a good thing.)


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Welcome to the new look, as unexpected for you as it was for me — but needs must and I’m making the best of a bad job. Then there’s Disney’s take on a Cathar castle

First things first: You might think ‘oh, what a nice chap, he’s redesigned his blog to make us feel more welcome, more valued, to show us that our ease and comfort is his dearest wish’, but you’d be bloody wrong. It’s all down to my terrible habit of dicking around, and in this instance I noticed that Google are touting some new all-singing, all-dancing ‘dynamic’ template and decided to investigate.

Well, I did investigate, decided I didn’t like it and have spent the best part of an hour trying to get my blog back to what it was. This is the result. Given that I couldn’t totally recreate it, I’ve given it a few tweeks to try and improve things but basically I’m a tad pissed off with Google and a tad more pissed off with myself for again dicking around when a lifetime of coming a cropper dicking around should have taught me to leave well alone.

. . .

Today (yesterday - Ed), the last day of our two weeks, it was off to Carcassonne to visit what at first sight seems a rather spectacular ‘Cathar’ castle. I say seems because although it is truly magnificent to see as you cross the bridge at Carcassonne heading south, then wind your way up through the town up to the visitors’ car park, you get a closer view and bugger me if it doesn’t vaguely and rather disconcertingly remind you of Disneyland.

This was, in fact, our second visit to Carcassonne. The first time it was getting a little late after we had wandered through the narrow alleyways surrounding the castle and we decided to come again. This we did today and went straight to the castle. Quite soon it became quite obvious what had gone wrong and why you expect Mickey Mouse himself suddenly to loom large over the turrets and give you a cheery wave. For although the Romans had built a fort here (and one or two of their towers are still standing) and although some dude called Count Raimond Bernard Trencavel expanded it because he was top dog in the area and needed a court (that was in the 11th century, several centuries before this part of France came under the control of the French throne and even longer before it was actually a part of the French kingdom, and although when he finally got his mitts on the castle the French king had it substantially expanded, what is standing today is, in fact and in my view, a rather failed attempt at renovation by a chap called Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.

He initially called in to renovate the nearby St Nazaire cathedral, but then decided to have a go at the castle itself. The trouble was that many parts of it had largely fallen into ruin (as castles do) and what was left was a hotch-potch of different styles from different ages. But Viollet-le-Duc was not to be thwarted. He spent a great deal of time trying to work out what had been what and eventually decided to rebuild most of the castle on what it might have looked like in the 16th century. The trouble for us is that when Walt Disney decided to design castles to feature in his various cartoons, he looked to the same age, which explains the rather baffling resemblance Carcassonne castle has to something dreamed up in Hollywood.

It doesn’t help that the alleyways of the ‘village’ within the outside curtain walls (I hope I’ve got the jargon right and if I haven’t, I’m sure some smartarse will email in with a comment setting me straight) are wall-to-wall tat emporiums, ice-cream parlours, overpriced restaurants, twee memoribilia shops and bars, all designed with the same Disney dedication to taste and crammed with tourists.

Two days ago, we went to see the Chateau de Termes, which was something else entirely. This is now wholly in ruins, but must have been truly spectacular in its heyday. It was also held my the Trencavel family, and when the then Pope took against the Cathars who were more or less declaring UDI from Rome (the usual story: they reckoned the Roman Church was corrupt - Lord, what a cheek! - and wanted to live purer lives), the Trencavels protected them and they thrived for a while.

Finally, the word went out that anyone who put down the heresy and its protectors could keep the land won from the protectors, which was an offer far too good for a certain Simon de Montfort to refuse (he is the grandfather of our Simon de Montfort). He besieged that castle and it finally surrendered after many months. Here are two pictures: one is as the ruins look today, and below it is an impression of what it would have looked at when it was still intact.

. . .

That was written yesterday, and this is today, written at my kitchen table at home. To emulate The Economist, ‘so the worst is over. What lessons have we learnt?’ Well, we have learned that despite the British middle-class infatuation with all things French (‘Lord, we could learn a thing or two from them about how to live. And their women - so elegant!), they have just as many chavs as we do; McDonald’s are devastating their country at an alarming rate just as in Britain; yes, on the whole their women are a tad more elegant, mainly because they just try a little harder and have an innate sense of something which apparently eludes British women (except the very rich, but they tend to shop in Paris anyway), and on the whole the French drive more like lunatics than we do, and their womenfolk are especially bad. Can everyone really be in so late over there? I rather doubt it.

But I’m back, can’t say I had two glorious weeks off, for one reason and another, but I did have two weeks off work with a change of scenery, so whose complaining. As I got up at 6.45am to get to Toulouse airport (that’s 5.45am in pounds, shillings and pence) I am bushed so I shall wish you all a bonne nuit (French for good night) and climb the wooden hill.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It’s over far too soon, but at least I can get outraged by greedy opticians, who don’t just want my money, but, apparently, my blood. And a crucial decision must be made: do I move with the times and apply super-duper whizz-bang 3D dynamic styles to this ’ere blog?

Caunes-Minervois, Languedoc (last day but one)
Well, the truth is out: brother Mark, who had his early upbringing and education until the age of 13 in France, has uttered the words I would never have thought I would hear from him: ‘I can’t wait to get back to Britain.’ For one thing the house we are staying, dating back at least 450 years and which us undoubtedly pokey, is built all wrong and he keeps banging his head everywhere and finds it difficult to negotiate the steps, of which there are far too many anyway. Furthermore, ‘France is too big’, this after he looked up the Cathar Chateau de Mauriac and found it was at least a two-hour drive away but is still in the same department!
Me? Granted the house is rather pokey in that it is undoubtedly very cosy in the winter and a haven of cool in the very hot summer months – cool as in temperature, not as in New York artsy-fartsy attitude – and granted that ideally I should have liked a terrace or a courtyard to go and sit in, for me our departure on Thursday, the day after tomorrow, has come around far, far too soon.
One thing I have learnt these past few weeks is that I both like being on my own and like having company. In the past, I have gone on holiday on my own and enjoyed my own company, although I am one of those kinds who, when enjoying something, seems to enjoy it more if I can share the experience (and no – stop sniggering at the back – I am not talking about sex). That goes for food, music, visits to galleries, films and a lot more. On the other hand, there is a certain joy in solitude once you have overcome the novelty of relying on yourself for company, and I do suspect many reading this will be familiar with the occasional quiet desire to be alone. But to do so here might well have come across as unfriendly, so I didn’t do it.

There are indeed rather a great deal of tourists hereabouts, and not just in Caunes-Minervois. Now, I know that I am on thin ice complaining about tourists, especially British tourists, when I am one myself, but when I go abroad, I do like to be with the people of the country I am visiting. Many other Brits, indeed, I suspect most other Brits don’t. They get a little uneasy. What has been very disconcerting is to visit the local Intermarche, Carrefour, Auchon or Spar and find a substantial section of one of the food aisles devoted to Marmite, Bovril, Gale’s honey, golden syrup and various other abominations (or at least I shall deem them abominations for the duration of my stay here) without which your average Brit really cannot face life. This in a supermarket where even the cheapest pates are 1,000 better than the slop sold in British supermarkets and in a country where in a race of cooks it would have completed the course where the Brit contender was still pulling on his running shoes. (NB Note the topical allusion there, running? Not too out of day, given that the Olympic Games finished less than a month ago. Neat, eh?)
. . .

My brother and I visited the nearby Canal Midi lock at Homps the other day, and then drove on to adjacent Olonzac for a beer. (Mark has developed a thing about canal locks and likes to watch them in operation. Or if he hasn’t newly developed it, he has revealed a side to himself with which I was unfamiliar. I don’t mind watching one or two being opened and closed, but after that it all rather loses the element of surprise.) And was the place crawling with Brits? Does the Pope shit in the forest? There were more Brits knocking around (it would be unfair to single them out as the local paunch-carriers as you do get to see one or two fat Frenchmen and women) than on any given day in High St Kensington. Unfortunately, I don’t speak French (‘have French’ I think they say if they are trying to impress each other), so I keep my mouth well and truly shut when out and about locally, and get Mark to do all the talking as he speaks French (‘has French’)

. . .
I was somehow careless when taking out my contact lenses and putting them in their little barrel cannister last night and dropped one before shutting its relevant compartment. I am usually super careful as I have lost them in that way in the past, but it nevertheless happened, although I didn’t find out until this morning when I went to put them in again.

When packing for my trip to Bordeaux in July, I found I had somehow mislaid my spare spectacles for use in just such an emergency, but was lackadaisical in getting a replacement pair and went, the week before leaving for France for this holiday I went to my optician’s to get them to make up a spare set, they refused to do so point-blank on the grounds that it had been more than two years since my last sight-check and that it was ‘illegal’ to provide a set without a new sight-check. As far as that is concerned, that is so much bollocks and I even downloaded and read the relevant paragraph in their professional body’s ‘code of conduct’, but I have to say what they say is as clear as mud and one could equally interpret the body’s guidance as legally binding as mere guidance.

But all that is irrelevant in the optician’s refused to order me another pair using the more than two-year-old prescription. The upshot was that I don’t have spare spectacle with me, but because of the possibility of just such and emergency as has now happened, I dug out three old lenses left over from when I had previously lost a lens or it was damaged and  - glory be! – one was an exact match. I then rang my optician’s in Bodmin to order a new pair. ‘No problem,’ they said, ‘that will be £130 for the replacement lens.’ My jaw must have dropped audibly because the very helpful chap at the other end of the phone added: ‘It’s £260 for the pair’ (thus demonstrating that in matters mathematical he is most certainly no slouch).

I protested that the last pair I had bought – and I stressed ‘pair’ – had only cost me £120. ‘Ah,’ said the very helpful chap at other end of the phone, ‘that was because you were then still in our customer care scheme. But your membership has since lapsed (and to be fair they did bombard me with junk mail at the time warning me to renew it).  ‘But I can renew your annual membership for £45 and then the replacement lens will only cost £75.’
So renew I did. But it all left a very bad taste in my mouth, and the most definite suspicion that someone is taking the ‘valued customer’ for a very long ride. Given the original developmental costs involved when coming up with the ‘latest technology in gas permeable hard lenses’ was underway and given that the cost has to be reflected in the price a little, and given the production costs involved for each lens even though physically each lens is just a then circular piece of bloody plastic about 5mm in diameter, we, the punters, can’t, of course, expect to get our contact lenses for next to nothing. If we were, it would surely undermine the very notion of modern capitalism and bring our Western democracies, for whom it is an essential building block crashing to the ground, though no doubt one or two entrerprising businessmen would find ways of making a welcome bob or two out of the ensuing chaos. But here’s the thing (©Siobhan in Twenty Twelve): whatever I pay for my lenses, those  developmental and production costs will be identical in either case.
So when, not in the ‘customer care scheme’ I am to be charged £130 for the replacement lens, but only £75 as part of it, someone somewhere is making a fuck of a profit and taking the piss in spades. And given that the development and production costs will surely and most certainly be no more than a fifth of the £75 – around £15, although even that figure is surely far higher than the real cost – ‘a fuck of a profit’ is certainly a crude but quite exact description of what is going on.
I feel several letters coming on: one to Boots, one each to the Telegraph and the Mail, and to the ruling council of this breed of bloodsuckers and one to the Minister for Health. Oh yes! Never underestimate the outrage and letter-writing ability of an Englishman when he feels he is being made to pay through the nose! Oh no! I know, of course, that my various letters will achieve absolutely nothing at all, but that isn’t the point is it? It’s something along the lines of ‘not playing the game to win but just to play the game’ (which might explain why when we win the football and rugby world cups, the element of fluke should never be discounted.) Now I think I should move to Tunbridge Wells, (a joke no doubt completely wasted on 99pc of people reading this, but in my present mood of seething outrage all I can say is: what the hell!
. . .
Thanks to those clever dicks at Google, I am faced with a dilemma: they have come up with exceptionally, almost obscenely, snazzy new and dynamic - their word, not mine - blog layouts which will allow the reader to decide exactly how they want to view a blog. I’m not too sure any of them really add to a blog, and if a blog is crap, it will still be crap, although in now and modern new clothes.
On the other hand, I tell myself, if I don’t move with the times I am very much in danger of becoming an old buffer for whom any innovation is at best suspicious and at worst the work of the Devil. So I shall investigate further and see what it what. I know, I’ll set up a committee to look into the matter, which should kick any decision either way into the long grass for a while.

LATER: Well, I tried it out and fucked it up. I have tried to revert to what I had before but because Google’s fuckwits can out fuckwit any other fuckwit on the planet - and that would be me - I can’t quite get it back to what it was. Oh well, maybe it was time for a change anyway. I’ll see what I can do overt he next few days. Love and kisses ...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

If the truth be told, I feel a little out of sorts…

Caunes-Minervois, Languedoc
Day whatever it is in the heaven that is the South of France (© the various travel supplements of the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator (‘the Speccy’ to various right-of-centre fuckwits) and, perhaps, the News Statesmen on those days when the revolution is on hold and they feel guilt-free enough to acknowledge their middle-class or aspirational middle-class roots (‘I’m working class and proud of it’, a statement which, on only the most superficial analysis, proves itself to be complete bollocks). Day whatever it is and I am curiously out-of–sorts. I don’t really know why. I think it is the result of a number of things which are all conspiring to ensure I am not quite my usual jovial, devil-may-care self.

For one thing, where we are staying – it is a renovated house in a narrow alleyway of the medieval part of Caunes-Minervois – as, for me who is on holiday, one flaw. If it can be made sufficiently warm in the winter, and I imagine the temperature can drop quite a lot in these parts, it would be superbly cosy. But in the summer it is perhaps a little poky and, crucially, there is nowhere to go and sit in comfort, no terrace or courtyard or anything of that sort. And sometimes I should like to do just that, sit outside, perhaps with a drink, perhaps without one, and read or even just sit outside and do nothing. But there is nowhere, and nor is there anywhere nearby which might do the trick.

Then there is my brother who is curiously inert and, to my sheer surprise, tonight announced that he is ‘old’. I have two brothers and as I have never been close to my older brother, I have always felt close to this younger one. We both share an ironical outlook on many things, but whereas my cynicism is to a large extent a pose and at heart I’m just another sweet little pussy cat, his seems to have taken hold rather alarmingly over the past few years and especially this last year. He is an interesting chap and a fount of information – I won’t say knowledge as he, too, can be rather brimful of prejudices – but there is a lack of something there which I have long been aware of, but this year seems to have become more marked. I’ve noticed that he has no small talk, no chat. He can talk at length about many things but I’ve realised he never initiates a conversation of any kind, never asks questions, never talks unless he can talk about something.

Years ago, he told me that as far as he was concerned ‘life is just a question of filling in time’. A day or two ago, I reminded him of that and asked him whether he still thought so. Yes, he said, he did. He’s always been a solitary sort, and that was one reason why I persuaded him to come on holiday with me last year and why I suggested we should go away again together this year. Quite simply I wanted to get him out and about a bit, out of his rut, and I thought I had succeeded last year. But in a strange kind of way this year is different.

There was, for example, his rather startling claim an hour or so ago that he is ‘old’. While we are here and because of the lack of a terrace or courtyard in which we can sit, it has become our habit to prepare two very large gins and sit in the alleyway outside on two concrete bollards (pic to come). This isn’t quite as public as it might sound and is well in keeping with the Mediterranean practice of living more in the open, and as local French pass by as well as a variety of tourists, we wish each other bon soir as is the French habit. Each large gin will be followed by another large gin while whatever meal I am preparing (going on holiday like this is a chance for me to cook which I enjoy very much). Some of time he will scrutinise preloaded tweets on his iPod Touch. Then we might talk a little about this and that. Tonight, I don’t know how or why, he announced that he is ‘old’.

The point is that he is only 54, whereas I am 62, and although I don’t regard myself as a spring chicken, I honestly don’t yet regard myself as ‘old’. But he does regard himself as ‘old’. And this, as well as his otherwise almost totally solitary life, is disconcerting. I told him he should socialise a bit more, but in insists he has socialised in the past and has had enough. I suppose it comes down to how one socialises and with whom one socialises, but how, for heaven’s sake can, one be fed up with socialising.

. . .

The other odd thing is that increasingly I just feel like spending a bit of time on my own. I could happily sit in the sun somewhere for hours on end doing nothing at all but day-dreaming, but I would feel a heel informing him that I want to get away for a day to be on my own. So, of course, I don’t. The trouble is, I still want to. Incidentally, he doesn’t read this blog (as far as I know), and although my sister does, I don’t think there is anything personal I have written here which would upset her.

. . .

 There are two other things which have rather unsettled me, one of which has now been resolved, but I shall come to that in a minute. The first was the other night: I drink rather less than I once did, but the other night, my brother Mark and I had three large gins each, then I finished off a rest of the white wine I had used for cooking, and then – it was while writing the blog entry before this one – I had two glasses of pastis. And while we were drinking outside and then while I was writing, I must have smoked at least five, if not six, cigars. It became a very long night and I didn’t get to bed until very late, much later than usual here.

I knew I was not sober when I went to bed, but nor did I feel in any way drunk, although I was aware I had drunk to much. Then, at about, 3am, I woke up. I found I had been waking up at that point every night, but this night was different. I did not feel any chest pain, but I felt a growing, and physical, feeling of unease working it’s way up towards my neck. And my pulse was racing. This is it, I thought, the second heart attack. Sod’s Law, well, at least the French health service is efficient and - thank the Lord - I remembered to bring my NHS health card.

I talked to myself rationally and reminded myself that I was not feeling any chest pain and that a heart attack usually involved chest pain, but it all continued for several minutes until the sensation encroaching my neck abated. I lay quiely in bed for a few minutes, wondering what to do. I knew I had drunk rather too much and smoking cigars does no one any favours (though they do taste good), and then it started all over again. I took my pulse, and registered that it was about 120 beats per minute. I have gone far above that in the gym, but it shouldn’t usually be that when one is lying in bed quietly and then waking up halfway through the night.

Several years ago, in the early 1990s, I suffered rather badly from panic attacks (which can be extraordinarily unpleasant and which, before I actually had a heart attack, always convinced me that one was in progress or, at least, imminent). Bit by bit I persuaded myself that I was not, as I feared, about to suffer a second heart attack, but that is was somehow akin to those earlier panic attacks.

The trouble was that at the same time I was quite aware that I was – and possibly am – rationalising it all. The following evening I didn’t have a cigar and did not drink gin but just one can of lager, and I slept better than I have slept since we arrived. I have not had any gin or pastis since, though I have been back on the cigars. The bottom line is that it all very disconcerted me.

. . .

The third thing which managed to get me out-of-sorts was a text from my 16-year-old daughter asking whether she could go on a ski trip sponsored by her sixth-form college. She said that she would contribute from the money she is earning from her newly started waitressing job, but could the rest be as her Christmas present? The killer was the price: £899 for, what I later discovered, was just a one-week trip. We have funded other school trips for her, but none was anywhere near as expensive.

I spent the night mulling it over and decided that no, she couldn’t and that I would have to tell her. I wrote her an email saying as much, but in the course of it I also told her a few home truths: that she is in the habit of taking just a little too much for granted and that, for example, she has, despite my repeated requests, never bothered to haul herself off her sofa, where she half-watches TV, half-texts her friends and dabbles in a little Facebooking if she has the time, to walk the few hundred feet down the lane to drop in on my stepmother, who is an invalid and very much cherishes little visits. I told her that it might be no skin off her nose, but that old folk are touched by such attention, that even a short 20-minute visit can cheer them up enormously.

I was not unpleasant but not did I pull my punches. I then sent her the email, asking her to text me as soon as she had read it. The trouble was that I felt awful. When she was born, a friend who then had two slightly older children remarked to me that ‘we need our children just as much as they need us’, and boy don’t I know it. Life would be unbearable if I knew my children disliked me. So I feared that my email laying it out straight would achieve something but not least that she would hate me. And until I spoke to her this afternoon on the phone, that has been at the back of my mind ever since. Happily, it seems she has not taken that point of view (and happily my wife agreed with me that £899 for a one-week trip was far too much).

. . .

In some ways the purpose of this entry, mentioning my unexpected thoughts about my brother, my fears of suffering a second heart attack and my fear that I might lose my daughter’s affections, is a strategy of sorts to allay those fears a little more if possible. I’m sure most of you reading this have been there, too. But there again, there’s nothing much wrong with that and very little to loose except readers deeply disappointed that I haven’t rattled on again for the umpteenth time about what a dog’s dinner the euro has become. And on that note . . .

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Beethoven, Scarlatti, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, S.O.S. Band, Purcell, Alexander, Pink gay and straight, belly port (roasted with onions, white wine and crème fraiche, and leeks), pastis, gin and surprising tourists everywhere – it’s all here. Oh, and I might play a little early Prince, just to round of the cultural experience. Read on (and get in touch, especially those of you in the more obscure parts of the world like Leicestershire or Durham. White trash is especially welcome – I’m nothing if not modern, liberal and enlightened)

Caunes-Minervois, Languedoc
Day whatever it is in the back-of-beyond-but-tourist-stricken Languedoc parish of Caunes-Minervois – ‘Minervois’ to distinguish it from the 1,001 other Caunes parishes here in the French Quarter of the glorious European Union – and in one or two odd ways I am relaxing a little more and wishing I – we, as I am here with my brother – had rather more than just another six days on holiday.

But last things last, as they say: my brother Mark has one of those little gadgets which are speakers for an iPod Touch, and we – lately I as he, at the time of writing, has now gone upstairs to watch German TV - have just listened, in order played, to the fourth, choral movement, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, then Bill Evans playing his own composition Young And Foolish (which I can recommend to anyone dying rather slowly – that’s everyone over 40 – who wants to recapture the emotion of being young but doesn’t want any of the concomitant hassles), followed by Scarlatti’s piano sonata K466 in F minor (and that would be Domenico Scarlatti – there was a whole tribe of them but I am not familiar with the music of any of the others), followed by Purcell’s Dido’s Lament from – I think his opera – Dido and Aeneas, then Ry Cooder with Earl Hines playing Diddy Wa Diddy (or however it’s spelled and I don’t actually think there’s a definitive version of the spelling), then Chet Baker’s version of Autumn Leaves, followed by one of Miles Davis’s versions of the same tune and (now brother Mark has fucked off upstairs) the glorious S.O.S Band with Just Be Good To Me.
That finished several minutes ago and the album is still playing. And how, I hear some of you asking – though most certainly not all of you – can anyone who thinks Beethoven composed some of the best music ever, with his Ninth Symphony being some of the very best even bear to listen to the S.O.S Band? Well, sweethearts, I’ll tell you: it’s just as glorious, though in a very different way (apropos which Weekend Love is now playing and just to spite all the snobs, once it has finished I’ll play Alexander O’Neal’s track Innocent which is just as glorious. Then to persuade you innocent doubters that I haven’t totally lost my marbles, it will be Bach, Mozart or something entirely different – if I feel like it.
Which all gets to tell you: absolutely nothing. Great music to listen to is great to listen to whatever it is. I do so dislike snobs. As my brother has just come down to the kitchen, I thought I would play him Wicked Soul by Kubb. The rest of the album it’s on isn’t much cop, but this track is ace.
. . .
It’s a little late and tonight I’ve had three gins and a glass or two of Chardonnay. Unfortunately, there’s no wine left, so it might have to be a weak glass of pastis and possibly regrets tomorrow. I’ve now put on Karen Tweed, who I’m sure is not well known, but she is a superb accordion player. More great music, as much in keep with Mr Beethoven, Mr Scarlatti, Mr Miles Davis, Mr Chet Baker and the S.O.S. Band as anything else.
. . .
In keeping with previous nights, I did the cooking tonight (as I love cooking) and I roasted on of the most underrated pieces of meat known to man: belly pork. It is not difficult, though a damn sight cheaper than many other cuts. I made a sauce from the juices, a little of the Chardonnay and some crème freche, using the onions I roasted at the same time. The crackling was a little – er – burned, but tasty just the same. Served with roasted par-boiled potatoes i.e. not too roasted, and leeks sautéed in butter. And if the whole shebang cost more than a couple of pence for two, I shall be very surprised. Still holding off from the pastis – a spirit, which is not good news after gin and wine – but I don’t think I can hold off much longer. A cup of tea would do the trick, but what’s tea when there is a glass of – albeit weak – pastis to be enjoyed.
. . .
Mark rather surprised me tonight by something he said as we were sitting outside. It has become our habit, for want of a terrace to use for a pre-dinner drink, to sit outside in the very narrow alleyway on two bollards to enjoy our gin and me a cigar. And sitting there, in the alleyway, we are passed, every few minutes, but all kinds of folk, mainly locals who live hereabouts but also tourists, but French and Brist, but, as far as I can tell, every other nationality under the sun, to whom we both always say a polite and friendly bon soir.

We were sitting there when Mark announced that they all, the locals and tourists, probably think we are a couple of woofters (his word, not mine). And it was that which surprised me. Mark is both gay and my favourite brother with whom I get on, 99pc of the time, extremely well. I’m not gay (or at least not the last time I looked, but I do rather think these things are settled. I have never felt like a touch of rumpy-bumpy with a guy and I really do doubt that life has any surprised in store for me on that score). What surprised me was that Mark, who is now 54, should worry about such stuff. I should better add that the only member of my immediate family who reads this blog is my sister, who knows the score, and, as far as I know – with two exceptions – no one else who knows me reads it, either, and both of them – one a former colleague and friend, the other a guy who went to my school but who I have so far never met (hello, both) has never met Mark. So there is little chance that by writing what I am I am in in danger of embarrassing him, which I wouldn’t want to do, anway. The odd thing is that he makes loads of camp, gay jokes, yet doesn’t seem keen on anyone thinking he is gay. Any suggestions as to why?

LATER: Actually, perhaps I can make my own suggestion: I fell asleep last night with the radio on and woke at about 3.15 our time to a documentary about how gays are simply being murdered in Iraq. It was quite horrific. One guy told of being held at a checkpoint, then raped by nine policemen before being set free again. Sounds contradictory, but according to Iraqis interviewed, the blame for being gay attaches wholly to what they regarded as the ‘feminine’ partner. The police do nothing because, according to the documentary, many of them are in the various religious militias when they are off-duty. Generally  speaking , life for gay men and women in Iraq is utterly miserable from the point of view of the state. Ironically, gays were freer and less hassled in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and in Syria Assad dad and lad.
Things have progressed by several centuries in Britain and Western Europe, but it was only 50 years ago (these timespans don’t seem quite as large when you are, as I am, 102) when any kind of sexual relations between men were illegal. So maybe I should accept my brother’s point of view on this one and not see things quite so much through my own eyes. And my apologies to anyone reading what I originally wrote who felt offended. At first, I was going to remove it, but then I thought that not doing so and adding these few paragraphs might have more point, especially as many will not know quite how nasty and brutish life can be in some parts of the world for gay men and women. Africa is especially intolerant of lesbians some believe a rape or two will help them see the error of their ways. I don’t mean to be po-faced, but perhaps we in the West should count our blessings just a little bit more.
.  .  .

Talking of any suggestions, I always look at the Google blog stats to see how often the most recent entry has been read and where they are. So here’s a request: why don’t you – that is those three (see above) who haven’t already done so – make yourselves known and tell me a bit about yourselves. That request goes out to several readers in the U.S., several in the UK, and as far afield as Australia, Indonesia, Chine, the Ukraines and Russia. Come on, lad and lasses, get in touch.
One last statistic for our American cousins: Mark told me yesterday that he came across an interesting statistic: Mitt Romney and his backers are keen to do well in Ohio in the coming presidential election. Well, it seems that a survey of Republican voters there established that almost one in five of those surveyed are astonished that Mitt isn’t getting the credit he deserves for the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

On that note, I’ll raise my glass of pastis and drink a toast to all those glorious folk keen on introducing democracy to the rest of the benighted, undemocratic world: we’re glad we are safe in your hands. Perhaps bin Laden will do you a favour and have himself resurrected so that Romney can have another shot and this time get the recognition he deserves. Bon nuit (as they say in the more pretentious parts of North London.)

PS A late plea for all and sundry to listen to Alexander O’Neal and his numerous cracking good tracks. OK, so I’m an 80s freak but... Hearsay, Criticise, A Broken Heart, Never Knew Love Like This - fucking classic. What first got me hooked? If You Were Here Tonight - 24-carat bollocks, lovers’ rock crap. I love it. And I’m really not joking. Yes, Beethoven's Ninth, Bach's St John Passion, squeaky gate music and If You Were Here Tonight. It all fits. Somehow. And don’t get me started on Freddie Jackson. Fuck the 90s.

. . .

I posted the above and then read it through and started amending it. And then I thought it really did need a little more: Freddie Jackson? Alexander O’Neal? Beethoven, Scarlatti – and, I might add, Hildegard von Bingen, Schuman, Schubert, Haydn (especially Haydn, who was born to early in an odd sort of way), Mozart, Steely Dan, Teleman, Purcell, Vaughan-Williams, Dave Fiuczynski, Kid Creole, Johnny Winter, Dylan, Elgar, Delius, Shostakovish Pink et al – is the guy serious? Well, of course I am: music is music is music is music. And if you disagree and start coming the cunt about ‘serious’ music or any such nonsense I hereby officially ban you and your kind from ever reading this blog again. Ever.
. . .

Finally, a public service announcement: Is your partner missing? Has your bed been cold these past few hours? If you recognize the character below, please get in touch and we might be able to re-unite you.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Do I know how to be a person? Well, yes, I do, but it’s not thanks to Radio 4

Caunes-Minervois, Langudoc
The great thing about the internet, quite apart from giving me the chance to bore people the world over and not just in my immediate surroundings and social circle, is that when you are abroad you are able to continue listening to Radio 4. Wherever there is a wifi signal, whether here in Caunes-Minervois or the back of beyond in the Australian outback – I’m assuming broadband has reached those parts because the reference is completely hypothetical – all I need do is fire up my internet radio app (I use Tunein Radio on both my smartphone and iPod touch, but, as they say with one eye on the lawsuit, other apps are available) and within half a minute I can listen to the News At One, Just A Minute, Great Lives or, if I’m really bored and really have nothing better to do, the fucking Archers.

Here comes the first bucket of cold water: there is a certain British type – it’s insisted that we are all ‘individuals’ and that there is no such thing as types, to which I say nonsense, the world is full of ‘types’ – who will describe – usually herself, but not exclusively – as ‘addicted to Radio 4’ or some such nonsense. In fact, it is part of their self-image, and for the aspirants among them listening to Radio 4 is de rigueur if they are to have any chance of being taken seriously by the social circle to which they would like to belong. Well, I am not ‘addicted to Radio 4’.

(A few months ago, Radio 4 ran a series of utterly nauseating ads along those lines with all kinds of celebrities informing the world just why they ‘loved’ Radio 4 and why it was ‘essential listening’ and such an ‘intricate part of their life’. I describe the ads as nauseating because I would want to vomit each time I heard one. In fact, I did once, although to be fair the ad wasn’t the cause of my bout of vomiting but merely the catalyst. The cause was far too much cheap red wine).

I listen to the programmes which interest me and avoid those which don’t, of which there is quite a long list, very prominent among the being The Write Stuff, which has middle-class smuggery oozing from its pores and Saving The Planet (of Costing The Earth as they insist on calling is). But why, I hear you all asking yourselves, from the West Coast of the U.S. to the East Coast of the former USSR and all points north and south, is today’s rant about Radio 4 when the chap is sitting in the Languedoc and surely has far more French aspects of life to rant about? Well, I shall tell you.

Yesterday, I was listening to one of the Radio 4 programmes I do like, Great Lives, and it was about the film director Karel Reisz. The host was Mathew Parris, everyone’s favourite public gay (or one of them, the list is now growing ever since the Western World was finally persuaded that gays aren’t (a late edit: aren’t instead of are. Thank Christ for late edits. I might well have ended up in court) necessarily the Devil Incarnate) and one of his guests was Stephen Frears, one of our very own British directors who might be known beyond North London and BBC White City. And Mr Frears came out with a line which ultimately led up to this rant. Karel Reisz, Mr Frears informed Radio 4 land and its people, had ‘taught him how to be a person’. Do you understand what he meant? No, I didn’t, either, so I’ll repeat it in case your attention wandered there for a moment: Karel Reisz taught Mr Frears ‘how to be a person’.

For the rather more slow-witted among you, of which there are surely one or two, I should point out that ‘taught him’ is not meant literally. It’s more along the lines of ‘Frears learnt how to be a person from Mr Reisz’. And I’ll repeat the question: what the fuck does it mean? What can it mean? Of course, there’s the possibility that I am simply too thick to understand what Frears was trying to say. And, to be honest, I can vaguely glimpse what he might be trying to say, but that doesn’t make it any the less pretentious. Yet Radio 4 in particular and our broadsheets and many folk in general are apt to applaud such sentiments as ‘so human’.

Well, not me, squire. Perhaps I’m lucky, perhaps I’m one of the saved, but when it comes to knowing ‘how to be a person’, I find I have no problems whatsoever and need no lessons from anyone. I might indeed need lessons in other respects, for example, in ‘knowing how to be a bit more tolerant’ and ‘knowing how to be a little less irascible’, but not knowing how to ‘be a person’. No, dear hearts, it’s rather like falling off a log, and anyone who needs to be taught ‘how to fall off a log’ really is in trouble. Tune into Radio 4 is my advice.

. . .

Yesterday it was off to the Chateau Lastours just down the road, which is rather spectacular. It is, in fact made up of three castles, all of which were built on top of rather steep hills in the
The Chateau Lastours in Languedoc. Jewson's had a terrible time getting all the necessary up there, but they managed it
11th century, although they were demolished a century or two later and rebuilt on more or less the same spot when Languedoc finally became part of the kingdom for France and they were used to guard the kindgom’s southern frontier. This is ‘Cathar’ country (as big signs everywhere inform us), and there are a great many castles hereabout, of which I intend to see a few more.

My brother is a little less enthusiastic – ‘is it another bloody castle? We’ve already seen one, they’re all the same!’ – but if necessary I shall take off on my own. There is one particularly spectacular one about 50 miles south of us. Then, of course, there’s still Carcassonne castle to investigate, except that the hordes of tourists does the tourist trap surrounding it, which is horribly reminiscent of a slightly – but only slightly – upmarket Disneyland. Once expects a giant Mickey Mouse to appear above the castles, waving frantically and urging us all to buy as much tourist tat as we are physically able to carry off.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Day Three at Caunes-Minervois and not yet much to report, except that the wife of a former German president is trying to cope with rumours that she once earned her living doing tricks in a brothel

Caunes-Minervois, Languedoc
Day three of our two weeks here in the tourist-infested back of southern French beyond. I say tourist-infested, but in fact now - children back at school and Jez and Jess plus the little and not so little ones back on the treadmill (Jez works in IT and Jess is a part-time counsellor and homemaker) - the only sign of tourists is when Brit and Australian voices drift into the house as they walk past in the narrow alleyway outside. In high season, late June, July and August, I’m certain Caunes-Minervois is a certain kind of hell (unless, of course, you like going abroad and mixing almost exclusively with your fellow countrymen discussing exchange rates and where to get the best). There is, surprisingly, quite a number of Aussies her, though, of course, they are invariably retired and, coming from so far off, are here for three or four months rather than the mere two weeks I can allow myself.

All that sounds rather dyspeptic and, if so, it gives the wrong impression. I find I can’t help but send up Brits abroad because they are so send-up-able, but all the time I have to remind myself that I am Specimen No One: The Brit Abroad. Maybe there is subcategory: The Brit Abroad, genus Smartarse, sub-genus Conceited. Along those lines four lines by Jonathan Swift might be appropriate:
‘Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.’

What I am trying to say might not be obvious, so I shall add that I also take it to mean that the purveyor of satire all too often thinks that he is one of the redeemed few, that as he is able to spot and send up the foibles of others, he is in some curious way never guilty of any of them. Well, if that’s your view, dream on: we are all, or can all be, equally ridiculous.

None of which has included a description of the house, the town and the area. As for the area, I haven’t a great deal to say as both of our excursions have been in search, first of an Intermarche (my brother and I both like mooching around hypermarkets, although why I really don’t know) and the following day in search of a Spar. I can say that Caunes-Minervois is on the edge of a range of hills and so a little more interesting than its sister town Peyrac-Minervois which is well and truly on the plain which stretches as far as Carcassonne and beyond, a good 70 miles probably, to the sea.

The town is more or less in two parts: our house is in the medieval part and then there is more to its, straight streets rather than narrow winding alleyways, which will have been built in the 19th century. The house was renovated by a Dutch-born German who has lived here in France since he was two. He and his wife, who is German and grew up near where my German relatives lived, are hoping to sell it and renovate another. She is very nice, has a 16-month-old son and another child is on the way.

The house is narrow but four three stories high, with the ground floor being on two levels and the second bedroom in a kind of attic alcove above the third storey. There is a lot of climbing up and down stairs so it is always good to think ahead and take with you what you want when you move between floors or else you are in for another trip up or down to fetch something else. That probably doesn’t sound particular onerous, but believe me it can be irritating when you climb and descend the narrow, steep stairs several times in just a few minutes merely because you are going senile and your memory, to use the quaint euphemistic phrase, ‘isn’t what it once was’.

(Actually, I’ve noticed it’s become some kind of strategy of mine to claim to be far more feeble and ancient than I am. I suspect it is a kind of superstitious device to outwit life and to stave off the inevitable process, perhaps to defeat it forever. Some hope, so on that note I shall come clean: I am not old and feeble, my memory is still what is was (whether good or bad is thus quite another matter), I am fitter than many my age, despite the increasing number of cigars I smoke, and an enviable bonus is that I am quite, quite charming. You doubt it? Well, if you are between 30 and 60 and a woman, get in touch and buy me lunch and I shall persuade you within minutes. Charm? I wrote the book.

Well, so far that is it. Mark (my brother) and I are planning a walk somewhere or other today
A terrine au poivre like the one some of which I just had as part of my lunch
now that we have finished lunch for me a salad of raw, thinly sliced leek and apple and olive oil, terrine au poivre, brie and fromage de moulis - what ever that is, but it was nice) to get a little exercise. Be back later.
. . .

By chance I’ve just come across a rather mysterious story and claims. It is that a certain Bettina Wulff née Körner worked as a prostitute in a brothel in Osnabrück called Chateau-Club and earlier Chateau 71. Now I’m sure there are many respectable women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who when younger earned their daily crust by opening their legs and providing other services. What makes the claims about Bettina Wulff more interesting is that she is the First Lady of Germany (although the Germans don’t use that term), i.e. the wife of the former German president Christain Wullf. Frau Wulff, who is said to be taking legal action again Google to try to stop it conducting searches using the terms ‘Bettina Wulff’, ‘escort’ and ‘prostitute’, has a star tattooed on her right shoulder.

Although this doesn’t condemn her in any way, it is a tad unusual (and in my books tacky). Her hubby is also not without controversy. He was elected president at the end of June 2010, but had to resign in February 2012 after coming clean about a €500,000 loan from the wife of a millionaire businessman. Not only did he initially deny accepting the loan, but at one point he left a message on the answerphone of the editor of the Bild, the leading German tabloid (which is, confusingly, a broadsheet) threatening to wreck his career if he published any details. That didn’t go down at all well. Now there is all this business with his wife possible past as a paid whore.

My initial reaction was ‘leave the woman be’. None of us is kitchen clean, although my past is a pure as the driven snow compared to those who sold their bodies for money, but we all have done things in the past of which we are ashamed. Then I looked up the biography of Christian Wulff and noted that he had been married before, in 1988, and fathered a daughter in 1993. He divorced his wife in 2006 and married his second wife, Bettina, two years later (when she was seventh months pregnant with their child).

None of us is entitled to judge others, but we are entitled to have our thoughts, and mine is that I never respect fathers and mothers who more or less abandon children when they divorce their spouse. Naturally, there will be individual circumstances and doubtlessly life with the soon-to-be divorced spouse became impossible (and I mean objectively impossible). But divorcing a spouse is one thing, divorcing a child - which is what it amounts to - is quite another. Whatever we say - or in our guilt choose to believe - about ‘how resilient’ children are, in my book it is total cobblers. A child 15 will find it very hard to be rejected, which is what it will seem like to him or her, and one does have to ask just what role Bettina Wulff née Körner played in the disintegration of her husband’s first marriage.

Given Christian Wullf’s political background - at one point he was even about to be considered as a the Christian Democrat’s possible candidate to become Chancellor of Germany - it is also not unlikely that his political enemies are doing their damndest to fan the flame of rumour of his wife’s alleged murky past. What truth there is in the claims remains to be seen. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

We’re here, but with a couple of irritating hick-ups

Caunes-Minervois, Languedoc, South of France.
First news from the holiday front in Caunes-Minervois somewhere in the glorious French quarter of the European Union, where even the dogs in the street are more charming and have more chic than our mangy old British dogs. My brother and I arrived here rather later than expected, but the house we are renting is very pleasant. Newly-renovated with imagination, the only drawback is that it doesn’t have a terrace of any kind, but as it is narrow, but on five floors, sandwiched in a very old part of town, there isn’t very much room for a terrace.

The journey was, unfortunately, rather fraught, partly due to an excessively zealous ticket inspector on the train to Gatwick Airport from London, partly due to my brother playing a prank which rather went awry and partly due to my satnav proving to be totally bloody useless in this neck of the woods.

We climbed aboard the Gatwick train at Clapham Junction to find that it was jam-packed with bright young things on their way to the Isle of Wight festival, all with bulky backpacks. We happened to have entered the train in a first-class compartment and started to make our way through to second-class (also euphemistcally known as ‘standard class’ - do euphemism fool anyone? And if they don’t, and I suspect they don’t, why do we bother using them?).

The train was so packed that I suggested we sit down and wait for the passageway to clear, but we were barely out of the station when what appeared to be the ticket inspector appeared with a sidekick and when he discovered we had second-class (i.e. standard-class) tickets, he immediately told us we had to upgrade. I pointed out that we were on our way to find space in a second-class compartment and that at that point it was impossible to move but he was having none of it and insisted that we would have to pay up. I refused and he said in that case he would have to call the police. I told him I would look forward to meeting them. At that point my brother, who dislikes confrontation, caved in and agreed to pay for an upgrade.

Later, I the real ticket inspector turned up and revealed that the chap we had encountered was in fact a Southern Railways ‘revenue protection’ officer who are overzealous bastards. If he had had his way, he would have declared the train ‘class-free’ given the crowds in it everywhere. The fact that the first chap was not a ticket inspector but a ‘revenue protection’ officer clarified something which had earlier puzzled me: I told him what had happened was ridiculous and that I would be getting in touch with his commanding officer or whatever they call them in the railways. What, I asked him was his name. He told me willingly and helpfully pointed out that I should also have ‘his number’ which was printed on his name tag.

This struck me as a little odd because he hadn’t otherwise been overly keen to assist me, but when I told him I would write to Southern Railways to tell them what an officious little cunt he had been, he was eager to make it as easy for me as possible. Why? I’ll tell you why: because he wanted his commanding officer to know what an officious little cunt he had been and would probably be praised for so assiduously protecting Southern Railways revenue. Well, fuck that: I shall now make a point of not complaining to Southern Railways and not telling them what an officious bastard he was. See how he likes that! Thinks he can get clever with me!

When we got to Gatwick, I happened to be in the corridor between two coaches talking to the real ticket inspector. So my brother collected our bags and my laptop and got off without alerting me we had arrived. He thought it would be a wheeze for me to have to carry on to the next station, which I had to. The trouble was that once, 20 minutes later, I had got back to Gatwick, I could see no sign of him or our bags anywhere on the platform. Thinking he must already have gone into the South Terminal, I went there too, and could still see no sign of him. Up and down I walked, closely scrutinising the queue lining up to check in to their easyjet flight, back to the other end in case he was looking for me, off to the information desk to get them to give out a Mayday announcement asking the little creep to make himself known, but none of it was of any use, and time was running out before we were due to board our plance.

Finally, I realised he might still be somewhere in the station part of the terminal and went back and got the railway information desk to ask him to make himself known. Sure enough, he had been waiting we me on the platform all the time and we simply missed each other when arrived for the second time. He was all excuses and explanations, telling me this and that and why he hadn’t told me to get off at Gatwick, but it was all bollocks. He knew it, I knew it, he knew that I knew it, and I knew that he knew that I knew he knew it. I’m just glad we get along well, because for about ten minutes I was bloody furious.

My mood was not improved, either, when we eventually did get around to dropping off our bags. I had checked in online but - apparently - forgotten to check in our two bags. That would have cost £16 had I done so earlier. As it was easyjet took me for a cool £50.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

This, that and t’other (in no particular order)

I’ve rather lost track of what’s going on, for several reasons. First, August is always a bit of a dead month, although this year Fleet Street’s fabled silly season stories were swamped by more ‘real’ news stories, that’s if any story which appears in our mainstream media is ever ‘real’. There was a glimmer of hope last week, when every member of Essex’s finest was mobilised to find a lion which might – or, crucially, might not – have been on the loose. The Mail did itself proud as usual, accompanying the front page story (it wasn’t strictly the front page ‘lead’ story because there is rarely room for any more stories on the Mail’s front page now that is has a tabloid format) with totally gratuitous picture of a gloriously aggressive looking lion in full attack mode. It was not, of course, the ‘lion’ apparently spotted prowling around the Essex countryside, merely that the ferocious beast spotted in a Billericay nail salon was a ‘lion like this one’. Anyway the story was dead on its feet the following day when it was decided that the ‘lion’ was most probably a rather large, rather fat, ginger cat, and Essex’s finest were recalled to barracks where, no doubt, to a man and woman they set about calculating how much overtime they had earned themselves trying to track down a non-existent lion.

As for the troubles the euro has been finding itself in, there was very little development on that front, too, it being the August holiday season and the various fuckwits delegated to sort out the mess had all buggered off on holiday. Things should at least brighten up – from my point of view – or darken – from the point of view of others – nicely over the coming weeks. The one conspiracy theory I have come across is that Greece will not be allowed to go bust by the U.S. because (so the thinking seems to be) a bust Greece will lead quite soon to a bust Spain and a bust Italy, which will lead to a bust Eurozone and – this is the important point – and already horribly sluggish U.S. economy will also face even harder times. The point is that in November America goes to the polls to elect it’s new president, and Obama, the sitting duck (is that the right phrase?) would rather like to be re-elected, so he doesn’t really want his country’s economy to go tits up until after the election. Well, actually, as a patriot he doesn’t want the economy to go tits up at all – who does? – but it probably will at some point so the disaster should at least be postponed till the end of November.

But that is, after all, just another conspiracy theory, as is the one which claims Greece, Israel and Cyprus have entered into some kind of informal alliance, but what it’s purpose might be, I really don’t know. I think – I think – it has something to do with vast oil reserves under the eastern Mediterranean, but there again I might have got that very wrong.
. . .
 I am sitting in the outside smoking area of the Scarsdale Tavern in Kensington for my usual post-Sunday shift drink and cigar, but not a lot is happening. This place is either heaving with loads of young American bankers who seem to live locally (probably in company rented houses) or it is quiet, as tonight. The only people of interest are sitting directly behind me and the only interesting thing about them is that they are alternately conversing in English and French. They are speaking impeccable English, but as I don’t have French, I can’t gauge how impeccable their French is, if at all, but it does sound very fluent and they both, a young man and a young woman, seem to be very at home in the language. They don’t seem to be a couple (I can’t look, because they are behind my back and turning round would seem very odd), and I think they are either good friends from college or from work. But they way they are dressed I suspect college.
They are making me rather envious, because long ago I was not just fluent in German but bi-lingual in English and German. Trouble is, I’m no longer bi-lingual (stop the sniggering in the back), largely because I don’t ever speak German very much any more – no call for it. I console myself that were I to go to Germany and live there for a week or two, it would all come flooding back and I would one again be bi-lingual, but … who knows. Am I kidding myself?

Just solved the ‘mystery’: both were at French schools and both have spent a long time living in France.
. . .

Speaking of French, the French and France, my brother Mark and I are off to France again for two weeks this Thursday, this time to a little town called Caunes-Minervois the far south. I am just looking forward to doing absolutely nothing whatsoever. The routine normally consists of relaxing for the first few days, then once one feels a little more refreshed and enthused, doing whatever one feels like doing. The secret is to make no plans at all, none whatsoever. Another reason I enjoy going with my brother (apart from the fact that he is good company) is that he is still – me at 62, he now 54 ‘my little brother’ who I can still feel a little concerned about. He is very solitary and doesn’t really make an effort to socialise at all. Never has done, for that matter. So I try, as I managed to do last year, to get him out of his pit, if only for two weeks.

We both think that September will see huge developments in the euro crisis and are both looking forward to two weeks of political entertainment. I did, a few months ago, suggest to him – not quite seriously, but more seriously than jokingly – a trip to the Middle East to see for ourselves what is going on, but he wasn’t having any of that. Would I have gone? Yes, I think I might have done. Experience has taught me that not a great deal of organization is needed for that kind of trip and you always meet interesting people.
. . .
I’ve been in touch with an old girlfriend who I tracked down in order to see whether I might not interest her in reading my novel. I say ‘old girlfriend’ but there wasn’t really a great deal to it: I met her in Roscoff at something called the Celtic Film Festival and asked her whether I might see her again. Yes, she said, and then told me she lived in New York. A few months later I flew off to New York for a week, then didn’t see her again until the following October when she was relocating to Europe and used my flat in Cardiff as a dumping off site for her goods and chattels. She is French and from Britanny, and speaks very good English, although not quite as good as she imagines. She also speaks Breton and Welsh. That was all more than 22 years ago. It came to nothing for a number of reasons, two of which are my rather parochial outlook, at least parochial compared to hers, and the fact that, unfortunately, she has (in rather too large a dose for my liking) that certain kind of French intellectual arrogance and conceit.

She is holding off reading my novel, and to be honest I don’t really care either way. As it is, it was written quite some time ago, is so far the only thing I have written which I think might – might – be regarded as halfway decent, but makes me ashamed that I have not yet attempted anything else. In mitigation I could plead that it was written before I had children and that I was fully able to sit down once or twice a week and write in eight-hour stints. That would, at the momeht, be impossible, but I still cannot rid myself of the sneaky feeling that I am conning myself. Oh, well. I did imagine that her opinion would be interesting and worthwhile and that because of her background and interest she might finally be someone to understand what I was trying to do. But what with the questions she asks me about it by way of finding out whether reading it would be worth her while, I rather think she will eventually decline. Again, oh well.