Friday, 29 July 2011
I was sitting between an elderly man with far-away eyes, and an even older woman with an imperial spine and watchful look. A large window to my right opened out to a sea of corn and the rolling hills of Herefordshire. And before me stretched a table laden with salads, various flans, a huge game pie, coffee and brandy cake rich with cream and so moist it oozed on a glance. There were other desserts, a massive Kiwi Pavlova; looming behind that an even larger cheeseboard.
The elderly lady, for some reason, was thinking on breakfast and ascertained that most of us didn’t eat it, or nibbled on toast. A few brave souls risked muesli with low fat milk. This greatly puzzled her. ‘I’ve spent ninety years eating a full English breakfast,’ and she proceeded to list, with some relish, the bacon and eggs, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried bread she attacked each and every morning. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her. ‘Never did much me harm,’ she concluded, her tone curious rather than an inflammatory attack on a mineral water and Statin obsessed culture.
The man to my left coughed, the far-away look replaced by a smile. ‘There have been studies.’ He wiped his lips. ‘These people who live extraordinary long lives all had high cholesterol levels.’
Well, knock me down with a feather. The table glared in a Damascene light. A Michael Crichton moment. So high cholesterol was the key to a long and healthy life! And all those years of fibre chewing; was it all part of some great, far reaching conspiracy – actuarial calculation and science - a way of dealing with aging populations and spiralling pension costs? Were we consuming aspirin and Statins, slurping tubs of cholesterol-beating, low fat spread and munching vegetables - Gaderene hypochondriacs – worried lemmings unwittingly rushing to an early grave?
I drank more wine and considered the matter. The old man could have been talking nonsense, but there was more game pie, and the coffee and brandy cake looked awfully good, and then the cheese of course.
I suspended judgement.
At worse it would provide the plot for a third-rate thriller, perhaps add a few more conspiracy theories to the net and a few more pounds to the waist.
Saturday, 23 July 2011
I had a window cleaner once. A real window cleaner who carried his own ladder and bucket, and climbed said ladder at what ever the angle or height of the house. He also whistled so you could choose not to be in, or draw the curtains hurriedly depending on circumstances. In every sense, this man was a paragon, and more - a bibliophile.
One summer’s day, squeezed between two rosebushes, he accosted me like an ancient mariner in search of an albatross:
“Tell me your favourite book of all time.”
“I don’t have a favourite book of all time.”
“Well then, tell me one you’d recommend to me – one I would like to read.”
“It depends on what kind of books you enjoy.” I was floundering, and still holding the bucket of fresh water he’d initially requested. He ignored my outstretched arm, the water dripping strategically over his shoes.
“Complex fantasy with a Victorian feel,” he said.
This was no ordinary window cleaner – but my answer was swift. ‘Gormenghast,’ I said, ‘by Mervyn Peak.’ He made me spell it, but didn’t write it down.
“Now I’ll recommend a book to you.” His finger touched me on the chest with conviction and zeal. He could have been saving my soul.
I smiled, caught in a book-trap I hadn’t seen coming.
“You must read ‘Barnaby Rudge.’” His eyes burned into mine. “You must read ‘Barnaby Rudge.’”
“Dickens, eh,” I said, as one bibliophile to another.
And the strange thing is that I did read Barnaby Rudge and lost myself in a vast, sprawling, chaotic and evocative world. The bugger was right. But I’ll leave it there in case any of you fears the ancient mariner’s curse might be infectious.
But whether he read Gormenghast or not, I never found out. I asked him once and he just tapped his nose and winked, like window cleaners do. I still live in hope that one day he might accost another householder with the same artfully designed trap and proclaim the merits of ‘Gormenghast’.
Friday, 15 July 2011
Justice is beautiful, says Socrates to a poor, befuddled Polus in the Gorgias though I prefer the more ambiguous, double-edged fable that Justice is blind. And there’s the miracle because justice is both blind and selective. The sins of some become elevated to cultural taboos.
Who now will happily admit that they like Gary Glitter – not the man (Paul Francis Gadd) but the artist and music of thirty or more years ago? We’re talking high heels and glitter suits here, over the top hair and cheesy anthemic songs that evoke a time and place. Immense fun and tongue in cheek bubblegum. And yet it has somewhere been decided that to like Gary Glitter somehow suggests you also like molesting children. On this criterion one should also despise the works of Socrates, Alcibiades, Roman Polanksi, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry.
Gary Glitter’s downfall began when child porn was found on his hard-drive. Career in ruins, he was hounded out of the country and his demons pursued him, his proclivities now unchecked by the discipline of having something to hide. When you compare the two images of Glitter in his hey-day with Paul Gadd as he is now, justice is almost Shakespearean.
But the question arises as to whether a more sinister justice is at work, sinister because it is unaccountable. Quietly and without judge or jury, self appointed arbiters of what’s good for the public, have removed from British play-lists, so in effect he is being punished twice in terms of royalties and revenue from work that bears no relation to his crime. This particular punishment also effects his band.
You may decide it’s what he deserves, but it wasn’t part of the sentence passed down on him. Moreover, removing him from the playlist of the state broadcaster is reminiscent of Stalin's erasure of 'enemies of the state' from the public record. Not that I'm comparing Glitter to Trotsky.
If it were ever discovered that Bob Dylan had committed similar, heinous crimes would his oeuvre be omitted from BBC play-lists? If not, are we suggesting that Justice is dependent on the perceived value of one set of songs over another ‘Tangled up in Blue’ Vs ‘I'm the Leader of the Gang( I am)? 'Great Balls of Fire' Vs 'Rock and Roll, Parts One and Two' Polanski's 'China Town' Vs 'I Love You Love me Love'?
It’s an interesting game. Which artists do you think would transcend any crime because of their cultural significance - Phil Specktor? And who would get the Gary Glitter treatment because their music is seen as dispensable? And is this even handed justice?
Friday, 8 July 2011
When the new school curriculum decreed that every child should learn about the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ History Departments up and down the country had a problem: how to persuade children that history was more interesting than Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame, and Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny? And don’t get me started on ‘Turnip Townsend.’
In short, how were we to persuade the brightest and best to choose History as a GCSE option and so maximise the grades by which a Department was judged?
The process was inexorable. Child poverty and abuse, became ‘entertainment;’ the ‘Slave Trade,’ the Workhouse, children in mines, exploited again in order to provide cheap thrills for otherwise bored students; prurience and sympathy curiously mixed.
Titillation reached its peak just before students came to make their final choice of options for Years 10 and 11.
Then we moved on to the Holocaust and Kennedy’s brain. These were ‘taster’ lessons, pedagogic commercials for the joys awaiting them should they choose to do history the following year.
These two years of modern history have formed in my mind a sombre montage of Horst Wessel and wasted corpses, lynchings and burning barns, men ranting in white pointy hats, others in uniforms and surrounded by flags. And every year we dissected Kennedy’s brain in our search for who murdered him.
This was the highpoint of our coursework for over a decade, the reason why many chose to do history in the first place. Who killed President Kennedy? It had everything: a who-dun-it caught in colour and never resolved. It combined serious analysis of varied and conflicting evidence with the gravitas of Greek tragedy.
Twice a year for a decade or more, my life would be briefly dominated by endless freeze-frames of Kennedy’s head jerking back…or was it forward? Trajectories, Oswald’s marksmanship, or lack of it, Jacqueline’s undignified scramble out of the car, or was she trying to grab a piece of her husband’s head. No reverence here, the children wanted to know.
And I was part of the process, at one with Oswald lurking behind that window, or the possible second gunman behind the white picket fence on the knoll. Only every year, unlike Zapruder, I knew what would happen. I stood poised to freeze-frame what Zapruder had filmed. I had the remote, doomed to pause and repeat history year after year. Had a president died for this?
Friday, 1 July 2011
Would a kindle look as good?
When Ruth Keppel became the first person to win £1m on ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' my stock in the classroom rose, at least amongst Year Eights, for they, too, knew the answer. Eleanor of Aquitaine was the wife of Henry II, and that was the answer that won a pleasant, but previously obscure lady a million pounds. There was a point to history, then, at least one they could understand:
“We knew the answer to that, sir.”
“We could have won a £1m.” The logic was faulty, but positive at least; and positive logic has a very nice ring.
There is no real point in writing love-letters in Sumerian cuneiform, other than the fun of it, and perhaps in showing the limitations of this early form of writing.
What does it profit a man to know that though we'll never know the year Silbury Hill was built, we can be sure it was started in July sometime after three or more days of rain? Such certainty stems from the discovery of a preserved flying ant found in its base.
Who cares that the people of Madagascar, far from being ‘African’ are in fact descended from the Waq Waqs who, for reasons known only to them, sailed from Indonesia some time around the year 400 AD? Again we can’t be certain about the year, though we can, with reasonable certainty pin point the months between May to October when the equatorial trade winds blow towards Africa. Their small fleet of six man outrigger canoes would have taken a month to reach their destination, one based on hope rather than certainty.
And why should we ponder the fact that had not the ancient Chinese had an insatiable appetite for a certain species of sea-slug, their ships wouldn’t have exhausted the sea-beds of a chain of islands that led like culinary stepping stones to the continent of Australia. A small jade Buddha was found in the roots of a Banyan tree in Northern Australia, and the aborigine, though complex, never contemplated Nirvana. No. In their search for a delicacy the Chinese discovered Australia centuries before Captain Cook, but because they had no use for it, they left it there.
Thing is, you never know what may eventually prove useful as Ruth Keppel found out and Chinese Mining conglomerates are finding out now.