Thursday, November 30, 2006

Presentation is all!

There are some Scrooge like characters who are getting their sneering into match fitness in preparation for the horrors of the forthcoming festive season (Oh cruel adjective!) They will be watching the more obvious manifestations of rampant capitalism with malevolent glee. How much raw material for their contempt is forming around them: fungus like in shop fronts; dripping like slime from supermarket aisles; framing newspaper advertisements like gallows and flooding from radio and television like suppurating wounds? Tasteless, vulgar, cynical, cheap and tawdry – and that’s the quality end of the market. The rest: contemptible and vile. How quaint the word “Humbug!” sounds to the modern Scrooges, hardly conveying the revolted rejection from the lips of the twenty first century reincarnation of the Dickensian ogre!

Let’s be fair, it’s a season which presents too many easy targets for even a lightly ironic personality. To speak of shooting fish in a barrel gives too spacious an image. The eager acceptance of Greed and Excess as honoured companions guiding everyone through the December frivolities has become breathtaking banal. To a modern child a Christmas present not needing an electricity supply is like ice cream without sugar, milk, cream, flavouring, additives and E406 to E511: it’s not a present.

Just imagine a modern version of one of the old Cries of London. Christmas lunch has been attacked and the surfeited stuffers have fallen into various aspects of sodden exhaustion sprawled in attitudes of despair on the sofas. The only activity comes from the pampered youth which turns in desperation to their mountain of toys to avoid the Movie Non-premiere droning interminably in the background. What do they discover as they select a random part of their loot which has cost 40% of the GNP of twelve small countries in equatorial Africa? They discover that they have left the ‘educational’ toy switched on after their cursory ‘playing’ with it for the statutory fifteen seconds. And the batteries are now flat. Horror! The only way to get power is to take batteries from one discarded present and put them in another. Unthinkable! What self respecting child would ever consider doing that, when the far more attractive prospect is to turn on the terrified parents who stare wide eyed at their unsatisfied progeny and are berated by the fruit of their loins for their parental failure exemplified by the complete lack of care by not having a bunker full of batteries stocked for just such an emergency. Cue arguments, recriminations and bitter words: a traditional Christmas afternoon meltdown!

Now imagine, if you will, the magical effect a mellifluous voice from the street outside calling through the stodge filled lazy afternoon with a modern Street Cry, a travelling peddler singing:

Who will buy my alkaline batteries?
Who will pay for some peace of mind?
Who will squander all their spare cash for them?
These little darlings the best you can find?
Who will buy?
They won’t die!
Still that sigh!
Hush that cry!
You know why!
Buy! Buy! Buy!

You could have a mark up of 1000% and you will still find desperate parents prepared to ‘pay for a little peace of mind!’

Of all the aspects of Christmas that have struck me this year the one that most interests me is the ALP approach of so many large stores. ALP, as you probably know, stands for Affordable Little Present: those well packaged gifts which all cost £5 or less and can be given with clear conscience to almost anyone.

I am fascinated by such gifts: you only see them at this time of year. Looking at the percentage of gifts dedicated to the sport, I would estimate that approximately 80% of the population plays golf! The great thing about golf gifts is that a substantial part of them is composed of tees – which are cheap and bulky and look like good value.

The other gifts are masterpieces of packaging where the full fatuity of the gift only becomes apparent when the item is extracted from the wrapping. At their best the gifts are presented in rigid plastic almost like an Airfix model plane with all the little bits ready to be put together. But in the case of the model plane when all the bits are brought together there is something to be proud of, while in the case of the cunningly presented present it is invariably disappointing.

There are also the gifts which only exist to fulfil the gift giving impulse: the seventeen function pocket penknives which are as thick as a double pack of playing cards and just about as useful in ordinary life; anything which is powered from a USB socket other than a printer or a mouse; humorous packs which rely on cheap contents and weak jokes; any drinking aid; all coasters which are not innocuous and, from my own experience, a barometer.

This barometer is actually a multi function piece of equipment, bought three years ago as an emergency present to be used if . . . if . . . Well, who the hell do you give a barometer to? No one. No one at all. I eventually kept it for myself and put it in the entrance porch, and there it has stayed for three years. Sitting there with its three small unreadable dials: temperature, barometric pressure and the time. I can truthfully say I have never actually looked at the dials to register what information they might have been giving until today when, cleaning, as is my wont, I finally noticed that the clock was some four and a bit hours out.

In some ways that barometric time temperature taker or whatever is the perfect gift: always in sight; never needing attention; looking mildly interesting.

Who could ask for more from an ALP?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

O that this too, too solid flesh and all that


Sometimes there comes a rare moment when suddenly you realise that your experience has put you in touch with the emotional state of some great character from literature. You gain an insight, through suffering, of what one of the tragic heroes has had to endure. An epiphany of sensitivity; a cathartic instant when your sympathy becomes almost universal, you reach for the infinite and Sorrow brushes your soul. A time to stop, take stock and ponder.

Such a moment has come to me. Today: in the domestic, nay, trivial surroundings of my living room. A moment unlike any other. A moment when, with all humility, I can say that Hamlet became, for a moment, my friend. I could say with him, “The time is out of joint.”

I have wrapped my first Christmas presents and it is still November!

As someone who relies on Christmas Eve Shopping for the bulk of his gift acquisitions this early seasonal activity is tantamount to the world being turned upside down. If I can start wrapping presents in November then anything is possible.

There is, of course, a partial explanation: the Catalonian relatives are arriving for a Traditional Christmas Dinner next week and part of the Great Plan is for them to take back the presents for distribution to other members of the family so that we can travel somewhat unencumbered when we join them later on Christmas Eve.

There is also the slightly more pressing incentive of my going down to Exmouth this Saturday and having to have presents for Ingrid and Hugh wrapped and ready, not to mention preparing a forgotten birthday present for Clarrie and getting Clarrie and Mary’s Christmas presents together. All in all an unnatural set of circumstances forcing me to appear to be efficient and Ready for Anything.

The most indicative test of Yule readiness of course (which is the British Standard Preparation Mark for Christmas) is whether you have your Christmas cards ready for the Scout Post.

Given the laughably extortionate rates demanded by whatever organization now runs what used to be the General Post Office, it is astonishing that mere members of the public still have the audacity (or cash) to think of sending anything through the normal post.

Nowadays the size, colour, shape, texture and the way you hand it over the counter all contribute to the pricing of an item: the simple uncomplicated days of paying a single understandable price have long gone. Our only pathetic wheeze of opposition to the callous giant of distribution is to take petty advantage of the breaking of the monopoly of the Post Office and once a year give some of our mail to an organization (the Scouts) which will only charge a large amount of money for delivery rather than a ruinous amount of cash!

This year the Scout mail poses problems for me other than mere readiness. Where will I get the special stamps and where will I post them? Problems yet to be resolved. As far as I know I may have already missed the deadline for the posting of the early Scout mail. Only my Aunt Barbara will know these things by instinct and I confidently expect that she has been prepared for Christmas for a considerable period of time and will regard my wrapping of presents at the end of November as unbelievably tardy!

For the last three years I have been attempting to emulate my friends Andrew and Stewart who have organised their Christmas cards so that they are chosen, specially printed and put in labelled envelopes all in good time for Christmas. What I would consider to be a fairly simple concept: typing names and addresses onto a pro forma so that they can be printed out has eluded me for the same period of time. I am determined this year that they will be printed: even if it takes me longer doing this way than writing them by hand. I am nothing if not counter intuitively stubborn over something which is inconsequential.

The new problem this year connected with the printing of address labels is that the addresses were typed using Works. I have since added a new version of Word to my computer and there are minor, but significant, differences between the transfer of one document into the format of the other – I think. Or not. It could just be one of those little built in Evils which Gates delights in scattering throughout his programs. It means that when the labels are printed out more than half of them are cut off and half is printed in the margin. It is very annoying. That is not what I would write if I could ignore the constraints of decent language and moderate expression.

I would like to know the person who owns a computer and has not personified it so that it could be heaped with vituperative, vile, foul mouthed (totally justified) abuse: physical and verbal.

I would not go out for a drink with a person who had maintained calm and measured speech during all his dealing with a computer. Just imagine what their reaction would be when their turn to get them in came around.

Point made

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How does it work?

So many pieces of electronic equipment that we humans ostensibly own, in fact own us. They sit there smugly, their little lights gleaming malevolently waiting for us to sacrifice peace of mind and sometimes fingernails (when is the last time you changed batteries without physical pain?) in a vain attempt to make The Machine acquiesce to modest human requests.

The time is long past when an individual was able to understand the way in which his life worked. At one time your happy peasant lived in a community where everyday articles were made by known individuals in close proximity. Shoes, clothes, farm implements, food, building materials; everything was a part of a whole understood way of life. Not only did you know who made your comb, but also you knew how it was made and what it was made of. You knew and comprehended all aspects of its manufacture from raw material to finished article and, even if you couldn’t fabricate something yourself you knew someone local who could.

Now we have watches where an electrically stimulated oscillating crystal somehow tells the time; where pock marks on a disc illuminated by a beam of very strong light give us films; where micro waves cook food; where atomic explosions make the electricity work; where something on a key ring holds more music than the whole of my youthful record collection and where a phone can fit comfortably in a shirt pocket without making an unsightly bulge.

Even when something has become an everyday part of normal life, we have little or no idea how it works. As far as I’m concerned my ipod which contains ALL of my (not inconsiderable) CD collection (with room for much more) is the nearest I get to magic. If I went back in time to, say the 1950s, and managed to get access to the brightest minds in the scientific world at the time, how much hard science would I be able to give them to make them believe that the description of the electronics with which we surround ourselves today was not merely the frantic gibberings of a crazed self delusional maniac? The transistor was invented in the late 1940s, how would I describe printed circuits? Laser technology: light concentrated through a ruby and able to cut through steel – not convincing is it? Personal computers? DVD players? The Internet? DAB radio? DNA? I can’t explain any of them. It’s as if I am an ignorant savage wandering through a world made by the gods who show their care by lavishing wondrous products on us; but products whose secrets are hidden from impious eyes.

I have never forgotten working for Securicor and taking made up wage packets to factories around Cardiff. That phrase ‘made up wage packet’ in itself shows how long ago it was: imagine firms wasting time by producing little brown envelopes with large perforations in the front (to check the coins) and a half flap on the back (so you could count the notes) just before you went back to the cash office to query the amount that you had been paid. I know; I did it in the steel works!

Anyway, when working on the vans for Securicor we went to one factory and most of the workers were women at long production lines. When my mate was taking the locked case with the money to the management, I engaged the girls in conversation. I asked them what they were making, and not one of them knew. They were working all day making something of which they knew nothing. They could have been making weapons or toys; it was all the same to them. The only important thing was the wage packet that we were delivering; their part in the production process was irrelevant to them. This is a perfect example of the dislocation that characterises much of the workforce and indeed the population today.

You might think that in my own profession of teaching this xxx would not occur. A teacher, after all, is alone in a classroom with his pupils and is teaching his subject in which he has a qualification or two. But even here there is a process going on which has some affinity with the dislocation of the general population. Although most teachers are on fairly safe ground when their subjects are discussed, they are not so confident when ‘education’ is talked about. Although I can teach the novel ‘Great Expectations’ to a class, do I really understand just why I am teaching it? And if I resort to the justification that Dickens is a great writer, or that ‘Great Expectations’ is a great novel, or that English Literature is important, I haven’t really touched on the wider ‘educational’ aspects of my activity. And even if I was confident about what my subject was, would I be able to place it in the idea of a curriculum within an education system within a society.

I’m sure at one time I would have been far more confident about what I was doing: I would not have had the feeling that the truisms which underpinned the ethos of what I was doing were up for grabs. That the society in which I was living was asking far more searching questions about the very basis of my activity, but that the questioning itself was the preserve of minds beyond the mere reach of a subject teacher. The actual process of education was something beyond a single subject and a single discipline.

Questions of education have been asked ever since discussion has existed. Theories of education abound and always have, but when you just cast a cursory glance over the pseudo technospeak which is the language of modern educational discourse then the sense that you are no longer a living part of the process of educational method is undeniable. Teachers have been marginalised within their own profession by those who seek to complicate the process and limit the knowledge to adepts who embrace metaeducation and denigrate subject knowledge.

Not for the first time, appearance has transcended reality. Education for theorists has become hyper reality which unfortunately has to rely on the grubby reality of teachers teaching things to get the thing working. I am reminded of a member of the Registry staff in my university saying to me once, “You know Stephen; it’s amazing how well this place works when the students aren’t here.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Presenting present presents!

Many (and I mean many) years ago I was given a superbly interesting Christmas present by one of my uncles: a tiny radio. It was blue and could only be listened to by use of an earphone. The reception was (how shall I phrase it?) erratic. The only time that you could possibly hope to listen to any recognisable sounds was when the moon was high, the pressure was low and you were turned reverently towards some mythical station whose name only appeared on the illuminated dials of ancient radios. If you deviated from strict alignment by the thousandth part of a degree then you were left with instant white noise, and, let me add, that degree of variation was produced by your beating heart, so constant listening pleasure was not really feasible. But, but, but, it was a wonderful present. Just because it didn’t work did not detract from its wonder.

There is a whole series of possessions that all normal people (I thought that I would use that little rhetorical device to protect the guilty) have which cannot be justified in terms of their utility or, indeed, in terms of anything at all.

The can openers that do not work well, or at all, but they have been in the family for over twenty years and so it is unthinkable that they be thrown away; the weighing scales which have to be scaled themselves to get anything like an approximation of correct weight; fountain pens that have not seen ink for three generations; towels (and this is one that I do not comprehend) that do not soak up water efficiently, but which are still kept and laundered and put back in cupboards to be used and scorned time and time again. How expensive is a bloody towel for god’s sake?

Cutlery that doesn’t work: knives, after all, are supposed to cut. So get rid of them all. Buy new. Create a new tradition. Pencil sharpeners that break the lead in the pencil and do not, and have never, sharpened a pencil in their miserable lives: but thrown away, no! Sellotape dispensers which do not allow the tape to be cut; the only thing that they dispense is angst and tape which folds back on itself. Mobile phones! Mobile phones which are the size of small flats; have batteries which stay charged for seconds and have all the sex appeal of a leprous yak. Are they thrown out or recycled? No, they are kept together in the darkness of an obscure drawer, presumably so that at the end of times they can rise up and take their place on the right hand of Marconi. And don’t you feel superior reading this, you think about your own home and the ostentatious detritus resting like terminal moraine in secret places in your domicile; stuff that never is used, never will be used and never will be thrown out!

When you start to pack up your home you find many things like that. I am loath to put a figure on the items that you find because it is too shaming. I would estimate that in any home which has been lived in for more than ten years, more than 40% (by weight) of the home is stuff which can be thrown away without any noticeable effect on the running of the house and the universe.

The point that I almost made a number of paragraphs ago was that the spectacular and innovative and exciting from years ago is now the quotidian and boring. My exciting mini radio: a present of awe and wonder is now to be found in a Christmas cracker. I know - I look at the backs of boxes of the things. I am fascinated by them. How ordinary that extraordinary gift in my childhood has become. I felt the same way about digital watches. I can remember watching ‘Tomorrow’s World’ with Raymond Baxter when he demonstrated one of the first digital watches. It was a thing of science fiction, amazing and in a true sense fabulous. It still had a little of that mystique when, wearing my own digital watch I went to see the first part (not the first part, the first film made, you know what I mean) of ‘Star Wars.’ As the glittering, futuristic epic began its filmic journey, I looked from the film to my wrist and back to the film and I felt that part of that amazing life presented on the screen was ticking (well, a crystal oscillating silently) on my wrist. The final disillusionment was when I noticed that a container of car oil had a free digital watch stuck to it!

But we keep around us all the superseded historical mementos from our lives. To throw them away is to throw away a part of ourselves. Each useless item is a tiny but essential anecdote in our autobiography. It is one of those charged artefacts that, like Proust's Madeleine, can cause memories to spring forth; something which has a worth which far outweighs its intrinsic value.

So I’m not throwing anything away. So there!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pirates and provincialism

What would a Sunday be like if there wasn’t a film to keep us quiet? It was with a childish excitement that I looked forward to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’ – an opportunity to wallow in spectacular rubbish and be unaccountably moved by the potency of the cheap music which accompanied it.

I was reminded from time to time, as I watched the film, of my responses to ‘The Devils of Loudun’ a film by Ken Russell. It was a remarkable film of considerable visual intensity, but I watched it with incredulity; to me it seemed as if Ken Russell and his motley crew had been wandering though Pinewood or wherever and suddenly come across this fantastic set and turned to the people who were with him as said, “Look, there’s no one here; why don’t we make a film?” And so, like a group of naughty schoolboys, they took advantage of the grown ups absence and make a thoroughly self indulgent film. And that is ‘Dead Man’s Chest’: a thoroughly self indulgent film with no grown ups to say to the director (it had a director?) you mustn’t do that; your audience has rights as well as you.

There are two writers credited with this farrago of nonsense and presumably, considering the amount of money lavished on his production, there must have been somebody asking, “Why are we doing this bit of the story now, because it doesn’t really make sense if we try and link it with that last bit?” Alas, the adults with narrative integrity were all at lunch, and the wayward kids were able to do as they liked.

What I am trying to say is that this episode (Part III – ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The End of the World’ couldn’t have been more clearly indicated by the non ending of the film) could hardly be described as a triumph of narration. Story strands appeared from nowhere and went nowhere all to end up (you’ve guessed it) nowhere! Commander Norrington? I’m sorry? Where the hell did he come from? Was it all part of the contracts of anyone who appeared in part one that they had to appear in part two? Unbelievable in oh so many ways!
It might be fair to say that to look for narrative integrity in something which is based on a fairground ride is asking too much. But the first episode did have a strong theme, well stated with humour and panache.

Well, we did have some humour in an atmosphere of total camp. The mincing performance of Captain Jack Sparrow has now gone beyond caricature into another realm of something which is only tangentially related to acting!

The set pieces of the action in the film are very well presented. Some scenes have all the verve of a much better production: one which actually is greater than the sum of its parts – but that isn’t this one.

At its best this film does not rise above pantomime and cartoon, which at least is an homage to its entertainment roots.

There are far too many ideas in this episode: cannibals, strange voodoo women, discredited commodores, free wheeling mill wheels, Davy Jones, the Kraken, fights, action, it’s all too much, giving the impression that it was made up as it went along.

The acting almost defies categorization: it’s easier to talk about prosthetics and scenery – at least we are on safe ground there!

As ever the music is fantastic, but somewhat repetitive; it’s as if the composer realised when he was onto a good thing and then plugged it for all he was worth.

Did I enjoy the film? Up to a point! It is easy to see that lots of people had fun making it: the tragedy is that the enjoyment does not always add to the spectator’s enjoyment of the production as a film for which they have paid hard earned cash.

One critic noted of this film that it didn’t matter what he said, the film was obviously going to make shed loads of money! In my view, this is where the director had a duty of care towards the paying public. He knew he had a hit, he could have experimented with his subject matter, taken a few chances and perhaps taken his faithful (paying) audience a little bit further in a cinematic sense, but, there you are, I’m being idealistic again!

On to more mundane things: I am beginning to realise that there is a whole sociology of putting things away after going to the supermarket. It is a process which is fraught with dangers and difficulties from the disposal of the surplus plastic bags to who puts away the stuff in the freezer.

Don’t know about you but there is a definite hierarchy of difficulty in the way in which things are put away. It’s almost like those competition divers: when they only do a straight dive then the tariff for the dive is quite low, but, when they are doing things before they hit the water that a number of years ago would have found them being burnt at the stake because of the ostentatious defying of Newtonian gravity, the tariff is quite high. In the same way there is a tariff for placing items in their appropriate places.

Take for example eggs. Eggs go (in our unenlightened domicile) in the fridge. How they go in the fridge is part of the ‘difficulty’ rating of the exercise. If there are eggs left from the last purchase, do you add the eggs to the old container; do you cut the container down to maximise space; do you place the new container in the fridge thus having to move other things around to find sufficient room or do you have another solution? There are no right answers, only answers which are woefully inadequate when your partner sees what you have done. That’s a simple example.

What do you do when you have something frozen? If your freezer is anything like mine then it will be full at all times. Any extra purchase will, therefore, necessitate the wholesale rearrangement of the freezer drawer at best or the whole fridge at worst. Frozen items are best ignored. So the best plan is to utilize your whole arsenal of displacement activities in the vain hope that The Other will weaken and take the things to the fridge with the implicit acceptance of rearrangement. Today, for example, I put bleach in the sink, cleaned the sink surround, filled the dishwasher and cleaned the taps – the last one mentioned being a sure sign of desperation. He weakened. Result!

Fresh fruit (keeping bananas apart; taking the little stickers off the apples; deciding where to put the grapes etc.) has problems too numerous to catalogue fully. Salad always forces crisis decisions about the efficacy of so-called fresh food chilled compartments which are of varying efficiency. Tins – made in wilfully, playfully, infuriatingly different, non-stackable sizes create vast problems before the decisions about where to place them come into play: by type, by size, by use, by God, it’s never easy.

There ought to be a special late start on Mondays for those benighted folk who go supermarket shopping together on a Sunday, so that the enormity of decisions made on the hoof on a lazy weekend Sunday can be considered more carefully on a careworn weekday. Then, and only then, can considered agreements be entered into to sort out misalignments of tins, wrong placements of salad and jammed contents of freezers so that a placid week can be enjoyed by all.

You know it makes sense.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Cornish Confection

I am Du Mauriered out. I have just finished reading ‘Jamaica Inn’ and enjoyed it, but not as much as ‘Rebecca’ which was quite different in quality.

The short stories were competent but, in retrospect, little more than that. Admittedly some of them were fairly early pieces, but they were forgettable and showed too much of the mechanics of the story to be essentially enjoyable.

‘Jamaica Inn’ was a surprise. I have seen adverts for the ‘real thing’ as far as this novel was concerned and, without having read the novel, I had expected the action of the story to be centred on a Romantic location which would bring hordes of tourists flocking to the inn to experience the ‘Jamaica Inn’ ambience and luxuriate in the Cornishness of it all. It came as something of a shock to find out that ‘Jamaica Inn’ was not the Olde Worlde centre of Wrong but Romantic smugglers set in an atmospheric quaint setting; instead we are presented with a brutally stark reality. The inn is harsh and unremitting in its repulsiveness. The scenery is harsh and unremitting. The characters lack all sympathy. It’s not the place that you would want to visit. The moors, far from being described as places of beauty are more the habitat of the exiled, the outré and the immoral. The landscape is something antipathetic to humanity not its solace.

The action of the novel is fairly predictable and the narrative is pleasingly unsurprising. The most interesting character is the albino vicar who has that quality of other worldliness which du Maurier seems to prize so much. He is a fascinating character and his eventually revealing as the master criminal behind it all is well signposted throughout the story. In spite of the obviousness of the strangeness of the man of God, du Maurier manages to make the denouement scene interesting because of the arrogance of the ‘evil’ character in his attempts to lure Mary away from the path of rightness. His conversation is enjoyable because we become involved in the contest between the two ‘equals’ as they struggle to ‘convert’ the other.

The final scene on the moors is well written and engages all the sympathy of the reader with elements of excitement found in the chase.

The actual end of the novel should be nauseating in its sentimentality, but is saved by the male/female contest: the last in the whole series of such contests which have characterised the novel. In this final battle of wills, we share the conflicting emotions and intelligent evaluation which motivate the character of Mary. The ending, yet again, is one which has enough ambiguity to satisfy!

No visit to the library: that will have to wait for next week, so that I can fully test the capabilities of the local library. If necessary I will employ inter library loan. Something I have not done for over thirty years! I wonder if it still works! I am determined not to buy another copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ – even I can see that this would be foolish expenditure.

It’s late and time for bed: hopefully a lie in tomorrow as Toni does not have overtime!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Choices, choices!

“What this blog lacks, of course, is a strong narrative thrust: the blog’s general title seems to promise much, but Catalonia too often fades into the background, and even Cardiff lacks a clear profile.” I can almost hear my alter ego talking, whispering critical words of admonishment to me as I merrily continue my self indulgent way pontificating as the mood takes me, butterfly like from topic to topic. Can I get away with the assertion that the essential eclectic nature of the writings and a predisposition to digression is what makes them interesting? Worth a try, I suppose.

But, today I do have a sort of link. The ever present question of where to eat on Christmas Day is one which has occupied Laura and Carmen. Once again I luxuriate in the knowledge that in Catalonia it is not that unusual to have lunch on Christmas Day in a restaurant and, (this is the really unusual bit for Brits) it does not cost an arm and a leg and various other bodily parts to partake of a meal at this time.

Looking around in Cardiff I have noted, with a sort of sadistic glee, all the pretentious foodie meanderings in ‘special’ menus which make up the normal Christmas time meal options in the restaurants in town. We accept the fact that we will be fleeced by unscrupulous restaurateurs because “it’s Christmas!” A mark up of anything up to 100% and more, much more, will be accepted as yet another of the penalties of being British. And, of course, being British having to exhibit that legendary reserve and inability to complain when complaints are the only way that afford the prospective diner any degree of self respect, for which we are justly famous.

To be fair some of the menus look mildly interesting with some local, seasonal variations on the tried theme of turkey and all the trimmings. There are sometimes a reasonable number of courses and, of course, it being the twenty first century, an edible vegetarian option or even (breathe in not in Garth!) options in the plural. People with allergies have been catered for, and all nut content (including traces thereof) is carefully printed underneath each offending dish.

In some generous and largess dripping effusions of the festive spirit there are even offers of a mini bottle of Champagne, or a bottle of wine to be effusively forced on diners as long as they share and they have a party of more than ten and it is not on a popular night. All other drinks, up to and including water and coffee will have to be bought. And bought at the absurdly inflated prices that we seem unable to refuse to pay, in spite of the fact that for the same wine that we are offered at £15 a bottle in a restaurant we would not think of paying more than £4 or £5 for in a supermarket. So, for example, one menu that I glanced at today was for £28 with no drinks. This means, of course, that the final cost of the meal after bottles of water (don’t start me!); wine, Cava, liqueur, coffee, is more likely to be closer to £50 or £60 per person. And these prices, of course, are not for Christmas day itself. Obviously.

Luckily none of this seems to govern what is offered and for what price it is offered in Catalonia! I think that the nearest that Catalonia comes to vegetarianism is to offer a tuna salad! And wine and Cava is part of the way of life and not something which must be consumed because of the price it cost.

The meal which we will probably have in Terrassa will comprise: Christmas soup; selection of fish; shank of lamb; ice cream; bread; water; wine; Cava; liqueur and coffee with turron for the princely sum of about £35 on Christmas Day itself. We do not, however, have crackers; it is not the tradition. The descriptions speak for themselves. I will let you know what it all tasted like after Christmas!

As for reading: I am now starting on the short stories of Daphne Du Maurier. The only previous collection I have read is ‘Birds and other stories’ published by Penguin with a particularly effective line drawing of an eagle like bird with blood dripping from its beak. The strangeness of many of the stories reminds me of Roald Dahl; almost normal but not quite, and that small element of the ‘other’ makes the whole relation disturbing. I am thoroughly enjoying reading them.

I’m not sure that Aunt Bet has started her re-reading of Dickens, but I am decided about the way that I am going to approach my own re-reading: chronologically. Obviously ignoring some of the more esoteric volumes that that compulsive writer wrote! According to a list that I’ve downloaded the next major novel that I should read is ‘Oliver Twist’. Now, I know that I own that volume, but it is safely in store in lower Rumney and not available for me to use. As Toni is becoming more and more virulently anti book in the house I will have to try and find an alternative way of getting the requisite volume. I loathe borrowing books because you have to give them back, and library books have a soiled appearance which I also find distasteful.

I am still recovering from the policy outlined by a very helpful person in my local library: we have no book more than five years old. If you want a classic novel then it will be ok as long as a version of it has been published in the last five years. Do you believe that? I will go down to the library tomorrow and find out for myself just how much of the Great Literary Tradition is available to the citizens of Rumney. Who knows, when I’ve finished reading the short stories of Du Maurier in the morning, I might be reading the second of the great novels by Dickens.

We’ll see.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Last night I dreamt . . .

It is astonishing how often some unwieldy tome weighed down with the appellation of ‘classic’ turns out to be, well, classic and well worth the read!

I remember when I had to read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky as part of my course I was intimidated by many facts about the novel. Firstly it was published in Penguin ‘World Classics’ the black spine books which indicated that they were not for mere ordinary people to read but only the good and the great and the intellectual. The second daunting fact about my edition was the introduction; it was lengthy and in small print. In other words the book was of such world importance that the introduction was necessary entry ticket before you could even be considered to be allowed the privilege of turning the pages of the story itself. The third disconcerting element in this tome was the fact that it was in two volumes, thereby claiming to be of massive importance not only by the name of the author and the fame of the story, but also by the size of the bloody thing. All in all it was not for me. But I did have to read it and so, with a heavy heart and a feeling that I was a complete fraud waiting to be discovered by the Intellectual Property Police and charged with being in possession of a superior example of western philosophical thought and taken away to be given a good hiding by Those Who Know, I opened the book and started to read.

And discovered that the intimidating book was a detective story and was a positive page turner with the story of the Grand Inquisitor being something which still moves me every time I read it! A classic because it was a gripping read!

There is a programme on Radio 4 called ‘A Good Read’ where three people talk about a book chosen by each which they think is a ‘good read.’ Whenever I hear the programme I mentally begin compiling my list of books which would qualify ranging from ‘Catch 22’ to ‘Great Expectations’. I have added another volume to the lists that I make: “Rebecca.”

This is hardly a surprising choice; it is, after all, a classic (with a great Hitchcock film as a bonus) which has been eagerly devoured by generations of readers since its publication. It has never been out of print and sells throughout the world. But I hadn’t read it before!

It is an extraordinary novel which is superbly written: you constant feel that you are in a safe pair of hands when you allow yourself to be taken over by the prose. The narrative voice is intriguing and, as the novel progresses and the reader finds more and more links with ‘Jane Eyre’ the complexity of the presentation is a continuing source of delight.

This is not an easy read, even though the pace of the novel makes it a real ‘page turner.’ The plot constantly confronts the reader with a sophisticated take on the characters and the period in which it was written.

There is a modern feel to the presentation of the conflict between the sexes which is especially surprising when the woefully subordinate position of the unnamed female narrator is considered. Deception and perversion are essential elements in the story and there are many uncomfortable points in the novel where the reader is torn by what is happening to whom! The sympathy of the reader is constantly moving: ambiguity and moral dilemma force unnerving decisions, and constant re-evaluation are essential in the flow of the narrative in which the reader is involved.

The ending of the novel (so unlike the film) is deeply disturbing. The destruction of Manderley is difficult to read: is it a necessary element in the development of the relationship of Mrs de Winter and Max, or a terrible revenge which destroys much more than the fabric of the house? As the end of the novel is actually the beginning of the novel the reader has to reconsider so much that it is impossible to close the book with a feeling that equilibrium has been re-established. A truly disturbing read! And a damn good read at that. My new first choice for the Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read.’

Should I be asked!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

And music shall untune the sky!

Happy St Cecilia Day!

Well, I expect that went down like a persecuted martyr in the reign of Alexander Severus. After all, who really knows that today is Saint Cecilia’s Day? Apart, that is, from listeners to Radio 3 who are regularly reminded of this important anniversary throughout the day? Oh, and sorry about the poorly chosen simile, because there weren’t any persecuted Christian martyrs in the reign of Alexander Severus. Silly me. I must have got the story wrong about one of the most revered martyrs of the Christian Church.

Saint Cecilia, patron saint of Music; object of various pieces of music celebrating the power of Music: the well known martyr not killed during the reign of Alexander Severus. Why is she the patron saint of music? Apparently she heard heavenly music in her heart when she was married. Was that her marriage to Valerianus or her betrothal to an angel, which she mentioned to her new husband when they entered their wedding-chamber after the ceremony? The previous betrothal of the angel precluded the possibility of any impurity with her new husband, of course. Don’t worry though, it does have a happy ending, a crowning with lilies and roses and then death. Such an improving story! You’ve got to hand it to Christians; they never impose on faith do they?

The one thing that this story does show is that the process of becoming a patron saint is simplicity itself. All you have to do is think about something in your heart and it’s yours: your own sainted possession.

It certainly is a more civilized approach than the usual way of saints being linked to their area of patronage. The normal method is to look at the way that the saint has been bloodily killed and then in a witty and cheerfully callous sort of way link the method of death with a profession or product or aspiration. So, following that sort of approach, if a person was killed by being, say, burnt to death while being crushed by plates of red hot iron, then the person could become the Patron Saint of George Foreman Lean Cooking Machines!

I’m not going to continue in this vein because I have just been to a web site which has a calendar of saints and it’s far funnier than anything that I can write I do urge you to visit it at:

I really wanted to fume about music. It is too easy for someone of my age to rant about the quality of music that I sometimes hear on the radio. I am not going to be a part of the continuum of persons of a certain age decrying the decline in music evinced by the quality of recordings that youth admire and acquire. Though, God knows, it’s bloody awful. Don’t start me on that homophobic, misogynistic, drug advocating, anti-musical adulation of violence known as rap.

No, I will (with a visible effort) rise above such easy posturings and (after a few deep breaths) merely confine my thoughts to the quantity of music ‘consumed’ by people today.

When I was young, growing up in Cathays in Cardiff, we did not have a television set. I must be one of the last generations to grow up without a television from birth. The most important entertainment element within the house was the radio and the stations on the radio were confined to the Home Service (the present radio 4) and the Light Service (the present radio 2). We did not have a gramophone player. I eventually acquired a wind up gramophone and a limited number of records (my parents came to hate with a vengeance ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’) which were 78s. We eventually got a black and white telly and, on my 10th (?) birthday I got a selection of LPs and we got a record player. LPs were relatively expensive in the very early 60s and it was only when I was into my teens that the cheap classical music LP became the basis of my music collection with, I remember Marble Arch Records being 9/11 (nine shillings and eleven pence or almost 50p.) So my access to music was basically via the radio and eventually via cheap LPs. My first tape recorder was second hand and hardly portable, so my music was confined to the radio and a few records.

Today, from the point of birth the child is surrounded by music: portable and adjustable music! The number of radio stations which are easily available (without pointing aerials and orientating radio sets) is growing daily. The use of ipods and other portable music devices, up to and including telephones means that music is available on demand at all times. Access to the whole range of music is available on the internet (at a price) and can be downloaded.

How I this all affecting people? The ease with which music can be owned and rejected is amazing. On my ipod I carry my entire CD collection of well over 900 CDs. I find this astonishing. On the latest version of the ipod this music collection is searchable so music can be found almost instantly. Obscure tracks which are part of a compilation can be fond by typing in a few letters of the track title; all composers’ works can be listed. ~This is a revolution in access to music and it must be having a profound effect and I’m damned if I know what it is.

It’s late, and Toni has overtime tomorrow. I’m for bed, but this theme must be developed by a fresher and more literate hand!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Brush and brush off

The first advert on British television was for Gibbs SR toothpaste. This simple statement came to mind when I was wandering down the aisles full of toothpastes, toothbrushes and other dental products. I seem to remember that our toothbrushes were colour coded when I was a kid, but the design tended to be just about exactly the same year after year. There was no excitement when buying a new toothbrush: it was a chore. Toothpaste was the same all the time with the excitement of the first striped one, which was, of course, deemed far too frivolous to be bought on a regular basis.

As both my parents smoked there was always a tin of Eucryl smokers’ tooth powder. Now that I’ve written that brand name I realise that it is the first time that I’ve ever actually written it down in my life.

I wonder how many other things – products, people, places, foods – that are as familiar as a flannel, but which we have never written down?

There was toothpaste which was bought from time to time: Euthymol. This was, as I remember it, a pink colour and tasted absolutely vile. It was bought on the principle that anything which tasted that disgusting must be doing you some good: the degree of unpalatability being in direct proportion to its efficacy. The same principle was used in the use of TCP as a disinfectant for those childish cuts and grazes. It hurt so it worked.

Nowadays the idea of no pain no gain in products is almost lost from the market place. The only product in which physical discomfort is a selling point is in a certain brand of mouthwash where the advert on television shows a man using the mouthwash and having to suffer the effect of what looks like a small explosion happening in his mouth; but even here the company has produced a version of the original product which has been watered down in its intensity so that it achieves the degree of blandness which products seem to need.

Today the choice of toothbrush is bewildering. The days when the only choice was the degree of firmness of the bristles is long gone. The head of a modern toothbrush looks more like a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth or a garish pop art frippery than anything else. The elegance of the handles of some toothbrushes are breathtaking in their svelte dynamism and you feel that you should be brushing your teeth while hurtling though the air attached to some formula One racing car rather than standing bleary eyed in front of a misted up mirror.

My present toothbrush is a masterpiece of chamfered sides, twisting planes, ergonomic stylishness and a ‘multi media’ head composed of differentiated tufts and a border of extended crenulations of funky plastic. Gosh! And all for under a couple of quid! I get the same feeling contemplating this morning and evening miracle that my Dad used to get from looking at a fizzy drink can which does indeed have an elegance all of its own.

The proliferation of electric and electronic brushes (yes, there is a difference between those two designation, ask the producers) should be a continuing source of delight to me given my predilection for gadgets of all sorts, but I have mixed feeling towards them. They fail the Euthymol test, because they make a chore easy; they take the work out of a task – therefore, it must be wrong! To say nothing about the changing of the battery: this gives rise to a whole series of problems. When should you change a battery? When you sense the power of the brush action is lessened? When pressing the brush against the teeth can actually stop the action? At a designated time after a predetermined number of days has passed? And what happens when you forget to change the battery? Such questions are of far more importance than most of the so called world shattering questions facing mankind about such things as what to do about global warming, the proliferation of atomic weapons or how to avoid even a glimpse of “I’m a nonentity get me a tarantula.”

I’ve finished ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and I’m at a loss to explain the affection which this novel commands. Its narrative structure is deeply unsatisfying and the nauseating sentimentality lacks the killing emotional charge that such writing has in the later novels. Sam Weller is the hero of the novel and by far the most interesting character, and the only one that you would fancy having a drink with! It is a reversal of the Don Quixote/Sancho Panza and Tom Jones/Partridge relationship, and is much nearer to the relationship of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

The ending of the novel is the usual tying up of loose ends and relationships. Everything ends well all because someone has enough money to make all things right. Mr Pickwick is cheered when he leaves The Fleet after his servant has distributed gallons of beer; but nothing is actually changed and only two colourful characters are (eventually) saved by the financial impetus of Pickwick.

It’s only a novel: why should the novelist be expected to make social comments and provide answers to great social problems; but there is an element of literary voyeurism; a use of human misery for the purposes of entertainment.

I don’t think that it will be a novel that I will reread soon.

The enjoyable question which I find facing me now is which novel will I read next? Any suggestions?

Meal matters

The rain continues: viciousness combined with vindictiveness and a personal animosity, character testing, will sapping moisture. If I spend another Christmas in this god forsaken water washed sun denied apology for a country in which I will not be able to top up my tan I will not be responsible for my writing. And the food . . . don't start me!

Food is becoming something of a problem in Catalonia, well, at least the food for the Christmas meal on Christmas Day. We have been presented with a menu for some fifty euros (£35) which Toni has derided as ruinously expensive and he has urged his sister to look for another restaurant. For this absurd sum of money we would have various canapés to start with pan Catalana, followed by a Christmas soup which is composed of pasta and small meat balls in a consommé; followed by fish (for my choice); finishing with a dessert. Included in the price is Cava, wine, water and coffee. As you can see, hardly worth it, is it? I sometimes feel as though I am living in a different universe; roll on living in Spain!

While reading The Pickwick Papers I have been both surprised and also disappointed by the format of the novel. The picaresque style is deeply unsatisfying, with the incidents being insubstantial and facile. The characterisation is weak to the point of derision with the character of Mr Pickwick himself being the least satisfactory with Dickens constant reinforcement of the quality of the character being less than convincing. He is a cipher; a mildly amusing cipher but a cipher nevertheless. In the preface to the edition of the novel that I have Dickens says that he rejected the stereotype of various characters going off hunting as the basis for the book, but the early chapters do not show that amount of originality. What you can see are the first ideas of elements which are going to be of major importance in the future novels.

Now that I have come to the part of the novel where Mr Pickwick has been sent to the Fleet the ‘real’ Dickens is emerging: the whole tone of the writing has been changed. The intensity of the descriptions and the emotional involvement is markedly more personal and engaging. The descriptions of squalor and the unfair systems which produce personal misery are immediately emotive and compelling. A feeling of personal fury is apparent in the writing: this is the Dickens that I like to read, though the weaknesses in his vision for improvement are immediately apparent with Mr Pickwick’s money providing relief rather than suggesting changing the system. I am beginning to enjoy the read!

And think of all the volumes to come!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Toilet traditions

“Do the Sunday newspapers make your feel ignorant?” asked Jimmy in ‘Look Back in Anger.’

This is a question which is of perennial relevance when reading the small libraries which pass for Sunday papers nowadays, especially when they have the intellectual clout of a paper like The Observer. There was a time when the last part of that sentence could be written without irony, but just glance thorough the selection of features in the present incarnation of a once great journal and the intellectual level is not necessarily something to be lauded!

However, never let it be said that I cannot find something to stimulate my capacities in the wealth of newsprint that I have cursorily perused. A burning question was suggested by the tail end thoughts in Rachel Cooke’s column. She made an assumption which triggered thoughts and immediate opinions. I do like it when journalists fulfil their most pressing public obligation and force the reader into a whole wealth of speculation which seems to have an immediate, pressing reality and which uncovers passionate, previously unsuspected, strongly held convictions.

I speak of course of what reading matter might be considered appropriate in the toilet. As someone who demands books in every room in the house, using the ancient dictum (perhaps formulated by me) that “a room without a book is like a person without a soul.” It therefore follows that a small library should be within reach wherever you are in a civilized home. This is not a determination which is shared by Toni who is rather more of the opinion that a small brazier should be on hand in every room into which to throw any printed matter which may have insinuated its way into a visible position anywhere!

There is also the problem of Benthamite utility and Puritan correctness connected with certain rooms. The kitchen of course should have books, but those related to the function of the room itself: recipe books. God knows these days cook books seem to be expanding their remit to include virtually anything connected with the process of living rather than mere functional recipes. My point is that the modern recipe book is much more than a manual; it is almost a philosophical autobiography and searing revealing of psychological angst and therefore has the same enjoyment value as a good novel! The kitchen books then, while retaining a semblance of functionality are, in fact more sweeping in their range and interest.

What then of the bathroom, especially if a bathroom should contain a toilet? I have never managed to read in the bath with any degree of satisfaction: however careful you are you always seem to get water on the pages of the book and I hate the wrinkled appearance of water spotted pages which never seem to dry out to their previously pristine flatness. Even worse is water finding its way onto the top of the pages and leaving a corrugated reminder of the bath experience at the top of pages yet to be read.

I hate anything which reminds me of the physical reality of the page: page numbers in an unorthodox position; eventfully cheap paper with chunky undulations in the paper surface; strange typefaces smudgy ink; poor bindings; superfluous book mark ribbons; impossibility of opening the book fully and print which is too small. I am well aware that all of the above could be used in a post Modernist approach to reading, but in those circumstances I would have a different critical apparatus to cope with such fripperies!

The toilet is a problem. The British and the Europeans have a different approach to the evacuation of the bowels. The French and the Germans seem to have a positively unhealthy interest in the products of the digestive system, with German toilets designed for close inspection of the results! The British have tended to be euphemistic about such things and to want to get them over with as soon as possible. The process of evacuation is seen as an animal necessity and should be completed with disinterested efficiency while maintaining a type of total concentration to get the job (!) done as soon as possible. Reading would therefore be considered as a species of frivolous behaviour when such a serious physical necessity is in progress. In and, as it were, out are the keywords here.

There is, of course, an alternative school of thought which states that time on the toilet is quality time and should be treated as such; so that reading could be seen as a worthwhile activity.

We now come to a consideration of what should be read. Rachel Cooke notes the increase in the number of rude and vulgar toilet books which are being published for Christmas and are designed to live on the cistern and provide jocular amusement to evacuees. At this point I must disagree, I dispute the connection of toilet and rude. I do not think that the vulgarity of the reading matter should match the action. Indeed I feel that the word ‘vulgarity’ linked to a natural process is totally inappropriate: it shows, surely, a depressingly Victorian denial of the details of ordinary human existence.

My own choice of reading in the loo has included such diverse volumes as ‘The City of God’ by Saint Augustine – given the sometimes contemplative nature of excretion the amazingly detailed discussion of theological minutiae is ideal material; books of quotations – which I am sure will come as no surprise to those who know me; ‘A Poem A Day’ – an almost perfect toilet tome, not only short but also day appropriate; An Illustrated History of Christianity; The Penguin Book of Comics, and A history of the World, to name but a few. None of them exactly frivolous, even the book of comics was more of an illustrated history more than a series of pictures. I am considering placing the book I mentioned yesterday (top 500 poems) in the loo replacing the purpose printed book which combines a book of themed quotations together with summaries of great works of literature, lives of famous people and improving manuals. It turns out to be by an American publisher. What a surprise.

Carmen has returned to Catalonia for a short period of rest and recuperation before returning to the fray with reinforcements in the form of her two daughters and young grandson. The only response that I have to this onslaught is to plan the ‘traditional Christmas meal’ that I said that I would provide.

Now I am beginning to worry about what food exactly is suggested by the world ‘traditional’ in that context. I will have an interesting fortnight in considering what to spread on the festive tables for them.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Poetry to Putrescence

I shall mark this day with a white stone. That was what Lewis Carroll used to write in his diary when something of moment which gave him pleasure occurred. I seem to remember reading somewhere that it was an old Roman custom and one worth keeping up.

The reason for the celebration was discovering two undiscovered books shops in Cardiff, both of which were discovered because Carmen wanted to buy a Welsh souvenir for a particular friend of hers. I wasn’t of course allowed more than a few seconds to consider the unsuspected existence of these emporia before the needs of a guest were considered, but I was able to find a book which I purchased for later gloating.

The book is called ‘The Top 500 Poems’ edited by William Harmon and published by Columbia in 1992, although second hand, it is in good condition. The title is fairly confrontational in its assertion and it takes a little time before the raison d’etre of the book is revealed. The selection of the poems is based on their inclusion in a series of anthologies; the anthologies are not listed by the authority which has been used is cited as ‘The Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry.’

What this selection purports to be is “the story of poetry in English” for the last 750 years. What it allows is a collection of poems which are exclusively Anglo-American. There seems to be no representation from other English speaking countries which are not directly connected by the Atlantic! However, this is merely a quirk which does not necessarily affect the quality of the individual poems selected. It should be the sort of selection that allows me to dip in with a fairly good chance of knowing the poet and a good chance of knowing the individual poem. This I tested as soon as I revealed the presence of the book in the shopping bag “just to see” and sure enough, it turned out that even if I didn’t know the whole of the poem cited, I certainly knew the ‘famous bit’ which made the poem famous! This was a relief, as I suspect that more and more of the poetry that I once knew is seeping away from my brain into the ether as if the poems were some sort of Mission Impossible tape which continues to self destruct after a short stay in my memory!

The volume is very satisfyingly thick and, although there are a fair number of sonnets in the collection there are also a goodly number of more substantial poems to read. Given that these are some of the most famous poems in the English language I hope that my reading will actually be more of a re-reading and if it isn’t then at least I will be filling in gaps which should have been plugged years ago.

As this volume is published in America and I suspect that the anthologies which are counted in the data base are American in their bias then there is a good chance that there will be a distinct leaning towards ‘famous’ American poems which may not necessarily correspond to the selections of poems in a predominantly British collection.

The poem in the first position as the one which h has been most anthologised is ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake and the first non British poet mentioned is Frost with ‘Stepping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. The first poem that I thought I did not know was number 28, ‘Helen’ by Poe, described by the editor as “seemingly a conglomeration of imperfections” yet, nevertheless “has been the greatest American lyric poem” for the last 150 years. Reading though it raised no real recognition in my mind until the lines:
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Was Poe the first to write that? If so, and given that I do know those lines, the first poem of which I know neither the poem nor its famous lines would be number 66 ‘Mr Flood’s Party’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson, an American described by the editor as unsuccessful in his early years but becoming in his last twenty years “among the most honoured American poets” with three Pulitzer Prizes and someone of whom I have never heard. I hope that there will be other discoveries along the way.

This is the sort of book which I need from a Spanish perspective so that I can find out the commonly accepted poetic knowledge of that Spain: discovering the equivalent in Spanish of things like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’; ‘The burial of Sir John Moore’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

Talking of differences in national psyche, today in the international edition of ‘El Mundo’ there was a large notice on the obituaries page for a certain Franco; the same Franco who died in the seventies to general rejoicing in Catalonia. The notice described Franco as dying a Christian and urging people to go to the Basilica in the Valley of the Fallen for a service. This Basilica houses the tomb of Franco in a structure which was hollowed out of rock by slave labour provided by captured soldiers from the Spanish Civil War. It is a living disgrace and it’s something that decent Spaniards would like to see destroyed. I find it hard to believe that this was in the Spanish editions of the paper. Worth finding out. It will be very interesting to see what happens on the actual anniversary of the dictator’s death which is on the 20th of November!

I shall keep my eye on the internet!

Wet! Wet! Wet!

Somerset Maugham wrote a short story about it; there are various poems concerned with it; conversations centre on it and recently it’s the first thing that I notice in the morning. Yes, you’ve guessed: rain.

You find yourself remembering the most arid moments in your last summer holiday; the memory of trudging though soft sand looking at rocky landscapes devoid of vegetation; the harsh rays of the nearest star beating relentlessly down on sun scorched earth and the wind raising dusty whirlwinds. You remember not the heat and the omnipresent aroma of Boots sunscreen and the slight feeling of nausea from drinking warm larger in the afternoon, no, you remember thinking to yourself, “This is all very well: but where is the greenness, the lush grass of home?”

Well, god knows its all around me now. The one thing that you can say about my country at the moment is that it is definitely green. Very green. The grass is growing, even though it is November and this fertility should be starting to slow down. Growing and growing.

It’s also easy to see where the idea of hydroponics came from: anyone making even a cursory visit to the principality of Wales could not fail to notice the growth of green shoots reaching for a notional sun though the still waters which surround the growing plant in the paddy fields which pass for pasture in this country.

Every day that Toni’s mum has been in Cardiff it has rained. Every stinking day! Not missing one. Sometimes, just to make things that little bit more ironic, the sun has cheekily shone for a nano second before disappearing like new Sony Playstations in a crowd of geeks.

I now have rain overload; rain fatigue; rain exhaustion. I have tried to rely on the well known inexhaustible ability of the British to use rain as the basis for a civilization; as the be all and end all of our conversational ability and the essential component in the foundation of our culture – but I can’t. My skin is fading and I hope to god that there is some unseasonable sunshine in December in Catalonia when I finally get there for the Christmas celebrations.

I have started to mirror my Aunt Bet by deciding to reread Dickens myself, but at the very start of this enterprise, I find that the text I have chosen to begin with is not one which I have read previously. This is the first time that I have read ‘The Pickwick Papers’. It is a very odd experience as so much of the novel (if it can be called that) is so familiar. I know the characters and I know that I have read chunks of the novel itself in the form of extracts. There are also moments when, for example, you read the poem ‘Ode to an expiring frog’ where the humour becomes acute and perceptive and well as something which is so much part of your literary experience that it hits you with an extra force as you actually read the whole of the context for this little gem. As usual I search for the comparison and one comes easily to hand. I remember buying my first copy of Berlioz’ [Is that right? Is a ‘z’ the same as an ‘s’ when making the possessive is impossible by adding another ‘s? Or should I just add an ‘s’ to Berlioz as in Berlioz’s? No, it looks better with the z’] ‘Symphonie Fantastique’.

Like so much else in my early literary and musical career the individual elements of it were determined by the superficiality of the packaging of the item rather than the artistic worth of the music or novels.

Most of my reading of Modern Literature was based on the choice of Modern Art chosen by cover designers in Penguin; similarly my choice of music was to a large extent determined by the cover designs of such music labels as Heliodor and Classics for Pleasure. The design of Heliodor was particularly impressive with the house style incorporating two banks of grey at top and bottom and an imposing, if often odd, choice of photograph to ‘illustrate’ the music. My first Nielsen and Mahler were courtesy of Heliodor and were chosen because of the seductive appeal of the photograph. The photo chosen for Mahler’s 4th symphony was a very tasteful photo of rustic and not so rustic looking bottles – I’m still trying to work out the significance of that one! I wonder if the cover art of the old record companies is now available in various web sites? Something to research!

The Symphonie Fantastique had a photograph of lightening: very impressive and promising that most essential element in my listening pleasure – quantity of loud sound. I much preferred the sheer volume of Bruckner than the more restrained moderate audio levels of Bach. At my first listening to this symphony I was quite taken with it and was enjoying the developing musical journey when the waltz music came through the speakers courtesy of Boots – the first cheap ‘stereo’ record player – and I recognized it. It was music I didn’t know I knew. Always something which is an enjoyable experience.

Almost at good as listening to something for the first time and being instant converted and buying the disc. Music in this category includes: the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony; ‘Jeux sans frontiers’ by Peter Gabriel; The Manfred Symphony by Tchaikovsky, the movement when the organ comes in is electric; Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen; Le Roi s’amuse by Delibes and the March from the Nutcracker suite by one of the above.

So much of The Pickwick Papers is familiar in another way too. Some of the (it has to be said) crudely interpolated stories within the narrative are reminiscent of other narrative devices in later novels of Dickens, one, for example, has the device of the transported criminal returning to his home country and finding himself in a churchyard which later was transmuted into the melodrama of ‘Great Expectations’ while there are other ideas which include elements of ‘A Christmas Carol’.

I am almost at the end of volume one in the Heron edition of the novel (“run your hands over the luxurious skivertex” I seem to remember as one of the commercial tags to sell edition after edition of Heron editions of the masters) and am looking forward to volume two, because that one has Christmas at the Dell to enjoy. I have not yet reached the description of Pickwick skating which opened the essay which gained Aunt Bet her highest grade in literary appreciation in Maesteg Grammar School some years ago.

Which novel to choose next? I think that I will consult with my Aunt and decide then

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Conversational confusion!

One of the true delights in not speaking a foreign language is that it allows for humorous delight in the attempts that you make in carrying on a conversation where the level of language you need to be understood is not available to you. A case in point is a conversation that I had with Carmen today in which I was trying to explain some of the history of Cardiff (in Spanish) and the importance that the city had in the export of coal. [I have just tried to use the internet to check what I am going to say next, but have been unable to find any evidence yet so you will have to take the following on trust.] I seem to remember that the first cheque for a million pounds was signed in Cardiff and was connected with the vast wealth that was being made in the city in the late years of the nineteenth century and the first few years of the twentieth when Cardiff and Barry together were the greatest coal exporting ports in the world.

In this lengthy discussion which turned into a serious disquisition about the growth of Welsh industrial power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the increase in immigration to fuel the employee needs of heavy industry; the decline of the Welsh language and the rise of King Coal, I found myself becoming more and more hysterical trying to find the Spanish words!

For an English teacher it is almost a perfect example of frustration when you find yourself struggling for the words in a foreign language to express yourself when you know perfectly well that you would have no problem at all as long as you were able to use your own tongue.

I was reminded of my optician who explained that my eyes had deteriorated to the extent that I was both long sighted and short sighted and I would have to start having bi focal assistance. As a confirmed contact lens wearer I rejected the idea of wearing glasses and so tried various forms of bifocal contact lenses: they were all failures. Eventually the optician said that he would give me one lens which I should use for reading and the lens in the other eye for distance work. In other words, each eye would have to do a different job and my brain would have to adapt to the different focal information. Over the next few months I trained myself to see different things with different eyes. It was only a partial success, but at least it meant that I didn’t have to wear glasses.

My attempts at Spanish are similar experiences in that I have had limited resources with which to attempt reasonable communication. If your foreign language skills are anything like mine then you will constantly find yourself in linguistic situations which are beyond your ability. You can actually feel new neuron pathways being formed as you frantically struggle to rearrange the limited Spanish vocabulary you have at your command to create new conversations!

One conversation with a monoglot Turk on a beach in Cinarcik is seared on my memory. After acquiring a few words in the local language my natural confidence, born of life long chattering in English encourages me to embark on such topics for foreign conversations as the Byzantine dispute on the dual nature of Christ (this example, I might add is not plucked from the imagination but from bizarre experience!)

After a simple start concerning names and domicile with this innocent Turk it escalated rapidly into a lecture about how to play squash and the differences between Islam and Anglicanism. This conversation is seared on my memory; not only because of the difficulty with individual words, but also with the realization that, the more I explained the intricacies of squash and Anglicanism, the less was I convinced about the sense of each, and eventually about their respective existence! I wonder if Kerem remembers our first conversation. I like to think that it was this bewildering logorrhoea that started his determination to master English – and look at how he speaks today!

My conversation with Carmen was on a level with my great conversations of the past; where the listener has to do a bloody sight more work than the talker! The only thing that kept her going was my unintended confusion in my use of words when talking about coal (‘carbon’ in Spanish). I was trying to say that Cardiff was the greatest coal exporting port in the world but, instead of using the word ‘carbon’ I used the word ‘cabron’. I will leave the word untranslated, but it did lead to hysterical laughter on both our parts.

Who knows what fortuitous infelicitous utterances I may commit tomorrow?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mud Glorious Mud!

The River Rumney is not exactly at its most rustic and lovely when it passes through the district of Cardiff which bears its name. It is so near its outfall into the Bristol Channel that it is tidal and twice a day it flows sluggishly backward. The situation of Rumney Pottery adjacent to Rumney Bridge is an ancient one: the Pottery will tell you that there has been a pottery there since Roman times. The location was a good one because the potter would have been able to use the mud which comprises the banks of the river, banks which are exposed at each low tide.

So much for history! The reality is that the Pottery now imports its clay from elsewhere and leaves the swathes of dank, sticky, unattractive mud; so that’s what I’ve photographed today.

Toni did overtime this morning so I stopped on the way back from his work (after the obligatory visit to Tesco) to snatch a few shots from the bridge over the river. Parking in the entrance to the permanently closed wildfowl park and walking past the relentlessly pounding traffic, the sight of the river was a strange contrast to the activity behind me. There was a sort of tranquillity about the scene which, in its unlovely starkness, had a sort of otherworldly feel to it. When I took up position there was a distant heron standing on the edge of the mud flats and forming a perfect profile against the slab like river. Needless to say, it moved as soon as I switched the camera on!

I moved from colour (what little there was) to black and white to try and emphasise the strong contrasts between the elements in this river bank scene, but, of the fifty plus shots, most of the end results were disappointing not only through the difficulty of getting a clear enough definition of the textures in the river, but also in gaining a coherent balance between the linear and non linear aspects of the ‘ground’ and the water.

Of the six shots I have selected only two are in colour (and one of those is almost monochrome) while the others might have benefited from using ‘real’ black and white photography rather than its digital equivalent. See what you think.

On the culinary front the abondigas were a success, but I think that the sauce could have been more liquid. Toni had demanded ten meat balls for him before the meal and, with the team work of Carmen and me he was able to have his quota and some left over!

The patatas bravas were cooked with loving care and the making of the aioli from scratch (with milk!) never fails to impress.

This evening it is paella, which we are about to start. My favourite.
Well, we've eaten it; to be a little more truthful I have eaten the major part of it. How anyone can not love paella is beyond my individual comprehension. What is there not to like in it? A winning combination of rice, meat, fish and veg - how can it go wrong? This evening it didn't. And I wolfed down the results!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Challenges abound!

Two challenges today: will the abondigas taste reasonable and can I match Aunt Bet in her re-reading? (Not to mention the production of the obligatory photograph in the pouring rain!)

I have discovered that Spanish meat balls are very labour intensive and, with the extent of the chopping that I have done it is little short of miraculous that my fingers are still intact. For this meal I have chopped garlic, aubergines, red peppers, parsley and courgettes all of which have been reduced to a most satisfactory fried pulpy mass in the best traditions of the Iberian Peninsular! We have made an industrial quantity of meat balls and I will be interested to see how many remain at the end of the evening.

I will watch carefully to observe the secrets of Carmen’s recipe for Patatas Bravas. I have been astonished by the wide variety of dishes which seem to lurk under the general heading of Patatas Bravas from the fried diced potatoes from the ludicrous tapas bar in Cardiff Bay to the Rolls Royce of tapas found in the seemingly never closed restaurant in Barcelona. The sauce which accompanies the tapa has varied in piquancy from the totally bland to the tongue burningly assertive – admittedly the last was made by my good self after a more than usually vigorous judder with the Tabasco bottle! We shall see.

The second challenge is the response to the task that Aunt Bet has set herself: the complete re-reading of the works of Dickens. As she said, the only thing that was keeping her back was the assertion by one of her friends who said that he would read the Bible from front to back and died before he completed the feat. Aunt Bet is made of firmer stuff than that and will survive to read the letters and the Lesser Tales and go on to the entire oeuvres of Dickens’ contemporaries starting with Wilkie Collins! The Challenge will be to match her, book for book.

When deciding to read the Complete Works there is a necessity for a Reading Strategy to be put in place so that the whole enterprise can have a structure and form. I asked Aunt Bet how she would approach the task. I had considered various ways of doing it. The historical approach using chronology is a time honoured way of experiencing the developing technique of a writer and one I thought would appeal to her.

The next method I had considered was to take the Major Novels and read those first. The problem here is, of course, which of the novels you regard as major, and then which order you read them in. ‘Great Expectations’ would have to be in the top five and ‘Martin Chuzzelwit’ would not make it into the top ten, but which other four novels would you put into the Big Five? ‘Bleak House’ would have to be there, and ‘David Copperfield’ too, but ‘Oliver Twist’? What about ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Pickwick Papers’? And is ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ anything more than an unfinished novelty? Then there is the Marxists’ favourite ‘Hard Times’ and the truly disturbing (on so many) ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. And what about the ones that I have left out? Some people I am sure will say that ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and ‘Dombey and son’ are masterpieces. And what about ‘Barnaby Rudge’? and ‘The Old Curiosity House’ and ‘Little Dorrit’? You are on a hiding to nothing in trying to rank the novels.

Perhaps the simplest way of reading them is starting with your favourite novel and working your way downwards. So, by this method, you would start with ‘Great Expectations’ and then go on to ‘Bleak House’ and ‘David Copperfield’ then ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and . . . I don’t like doing it this way because, now I’ve put ‘Bleak House’ second, I’m not sure that I can justify it to myself and I’ve always had doubts about the sub-plot of Mrs Joe and Orlick in ‘Great Expectations’ so its prime position is not always assured.

So why not fall back on the tried and proved method of re-reading what is to hand and then worrying about what to read next.

Or my personal favourite: go down town, enter a book shop, find a really well printed copy of any novel and start there and then buy the rest!

Aunt Bet said that she was going to start with what Dickens novels she had lying around (though she did tell me that she had given so many of them away to family and friends that there had to be another plan to supplement this initial idea) and she did speak about going to her local bookshop! Aunt Bet is another firm believer in the Ruskin dictum, “If a book is worth reading, it’s worth buying.” My mother always had a feeling of warm hatred for Ruskin as I frequently trotted out this quotation when justifying yet another literary purchase to add to the claustrophobic construction of shelves that constituted the ‘library’ that had taken over my bedroom.

Which method have I decided upon? I think that I will start with the novel that was dickens’ major breakthrough in mass popularity and one that I am still not convinced that I have read all the way through. My confusion is based on the fact that I quote the novel enough and I have memories of whole chunks of the novel: the great scenes of the election, for example and the character of Sam. But have I read the whole thing through from start to finish? So, it’s purchase of ‘The Pickwick Papers’ tomorrow, immediately after I sign on!

Such a life of incident and neat juxtaposition.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

To shop is to be!

I suppose that it had to happen: Pandora always has to open the box. She is never content with life as it is; always thinking of what has been unfairly hidden or forbidden.

Not content with taking ordinary photographs I have, like so many others before me, now discovered the ‘effects’ pallet on the photo program I am using. You see the results. I must admit that I am rather taken with them: the things you can do with a cyclamen and a rose. May I be forgiven!

I think that I will keep my experiments hidden from now on, at least until the techniques dangled before me like exotic carrots have lost some of their tempting sensual allure and have become something useful and rather ordinary. At least I am still taking photographs so the attempt to improve my technique is on going!

The obligatory visit to McArthur Glen when any member of the family from Terrassa visits Cardiff went well, with 66% of the shoppers purchasing something and only the shopaphobe Toni returning empty handed.

The shopping frenzy which accompanies the lead up to Christmas has obviously begun with ranks of children demanding ever more expensive toys as their god given right and parents and other adults looking more harassed and impoverished as they stare with stony horror at the goodies all too visible for the potential acquisition by the hordes of budding capitalists.

Christmas is obviously going the same way as Halloween with the increasingly vulgar accretion of electrical impedimenta as a necessary adjunct to the only tolerable celebration by every family in the land. More and more artificial box trees with flashing lights; waving Santas looking malevolent and distinctly shady; nodding reindeer looking as Dickens described oil pumps, like elephants in a state of melancholy madness; black Christmas trees with black decorations and black tinsel (surely an oxymoron?); Christmas scenes of revolting sentimentality and questionable spirituality. The thrust of this year’s impulse to buy seems to be emphasising the outside of the house even more than the inside. Inflatable creatures with integral lighting at vast cost are now de rigueur for every house with the capability to harbour a gleamingly horrific representation of some aspect of Christmas card reality that stands for the Festive Season in the American Mind.

I like cheerful vulgarity at Christmas time; the more decorous attempts to make the Christmas Tree a fashion accessory in carefully calculated and tastefully colour themed displays I find more at home in the shop front than the front room of a home. I don’t want to feel that Christmas is the sort of festivity which can be tamed to fit the design fascism which dictates some modern life interiors. Christmas is the Christianisation of a much older pagan festival which emphasised disorder and useful chaos rather than the decorous (if homely) birth of the religious founder. It should be more to do with raucous parties; inappropriate behaviour; gratuitous purchases and nary a thought for the morrow. In British terms, that’s not a bad description of most people’s experience of the time of the year.

It is also the time of the year when restaurants can begin to fleece their patrons by giving them basically the same that they have been used to for the previous eleven months, but add a 50 – 100% surcharge on the meals that they can enjoy in the goodwill season which lasts until Christmas and the New Year. I will have to moderate my comments on this avaricious, rapacious and cynical behaviour until I can compare it with what I am going to experience in Spain (Catalonia) this Christmas. We will see if the difference in value for money deserves a whole rant to itself!

The meal we had this lunch time was in a Harvester. There are those who will say that if you choose to eat in a restaurant which barely deserves the name then you should leave your critical apparatus at the door and just sit down and accept what you are given.

Why should we? The Harvester chain has gained its reputation by providing a basic menu of limited choices of guaranteed quality throughout the country. Let’s take it step by step. Firstly we found it difficult to find a table in the restaurant, in spite of the time (which was late) because they were packed with shoppers wanting a cheapish meal which they could eat. The success of such places is obvious and perhaps deserved: but only in the sense that every country gets the culinary service that it deserves.

Take my meal. The salad (a feature of the Harvester chain) was uninspiring to the point of almost literal invisibility. The choice of salad items was limited with a rather desultory service to replace the gapingly empty spaces. The items themselves were insipid with the beetroot being a cubed masterpiece of fatuity in flavour. My main course was grilled tuna with a spicy tomato sauced and some sort of Cajun (?) rice. The tuna was overcooked and the vapid rice was uneventfully graced by wrinkled peas and other detritus. It was edible but a disgrace. Roll on Catalonia when the menu del dia will be something to consume not to condemn!

Tomorrow Carmen will show me how to prepare her own version of meat balls. I will be the diligent student and look forward to a delicious repast, when my belief in the redeeming quality of food will be restored!