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Friday, 29 March 2013

Robin Hood

Last night I saw the Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood and thoroughly enjoyed it – rather in the way I enjoy a thoughtless snuffle through a chocolate box. It was pure Disney, ransacking history with innocent abandon - and it was nice to see the French being the villains for a change - instead of the English. This is as it should be. One can only take so much of Brave-Heart - it’s portrayal of Edward 1st as a cold, clip-toned Victorian; and Patriot with its quota of English psychopaths. No, it was good to see red-blooded French villainy. The world was back in its place that night, and if the price involved reshaping history, so be it. 

I could take decaying Saxon Manor houses with large glass windows, Cate Blanchett looking beautifully enigmatic and bleak, taking on the role of Peter Pan and leading the ‘lost boys’ in the final battle. I could take the French invasion fleet that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the D Day landings. Those rectangular boxes disgorging fully armed knights ploughing through surf – pure genius. 

It was fun seeing Eleanor of Aquitaine in London, and showing surprise when she hears of her son, Richard’s death. Consummate actress, and presumably with her own executive jet - it’s the only explanation - since Eleanor nursed Richard in her arms as he died – in Southern France.

And I loved Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of King John as a medieval Russell Brand…was that deliberate? Johnny Depp based his pirate on Keith Richards. Okay, I know King John has a bad press, but Russell Brand? Strange – like one of those chocolates you’re never quite sure of.

To the very end the film amazes. When Robin fires an impossible shot at the fleeing villain – Godfrey - the arrow goes through Godfrey's neck at a trajectory that would have the Kennedy conspiracy industry at it for years.

Finally we have Robin playing a key role in the creation of the Magna Carta. That was a rich and chewy chocolate – especially when he reveals knowledge of C17th jurisprudence. “Every man’s home is his castle!” he declares – as did Sir Edward Coke in The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628: 
"For a man's house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man's home is his safest refuge]." 

Mind you, King John, initially confused by this, soon got his own back, riposting with another  C17th concept that kings ruled by ‘Divine Right.’

There was one, nutritious nut in this box of indulgence. The death of Sir Walter Locksley. He looked so peaceful and good, adorned in white and garnished in lilies – too good to be buried in fact. But, perversely, it reminded me of how many truly good men and women have died over the years Sic transit gloria mundi.
Sic transit gloria Robin Hood.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

I can't be doing with bugs

 There are forty tons of insect for each person and large parts of the world already eat them. In fact Bangkok is not only famous for Lady-Boys; it’s the insect eating capital of the world. And they’re imaginative rather than choosy: silkworms, scorpions, tarantulas, water-bugs, crickets, red ants – especially red ant eggs - praised as an alternative to Caviar.

The guy presenting the program was an excitable zealot, extolling the virtues of insects as food.  I imagine the early Christians must have been pretty much the same, though it is hard to imagine they could have been any more enthusiastic. The Second Coming - okay as it goes, but nothing to how insects taste on a plate. He stared into the camera, piling fact upon fact.

They reproduce quickly; one cricket laying a hundred eggs a month.
They are twenty times more efficient than beef in converting food into body mass.

They need little food or water to sustain them, and don’t emit sinful greenhouse gases.

Eating them will save on pesticides...antibiotics.

 In 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet. We will have to eat insects then. He said that with glee. 

I worked out that with a bit of luck I’d be dead.

I mean, I’m all for cultural diversity. I have no objection to Aborigines eating honey-ants as an alternative to pop-corn, or indeed Witchetty grub paste. I saw a documentary showing an African tribe netting water-flies in their thousands, and turning them into weird patties that resembled black-pudding. They pan fried them and the sizzle sounded appetising enough, but when they smiled there were bits of fly on their teeth. And, as we all know, the French have a penchant for snails.

No. To each their own. What bothers me is the suggestion that we should all be going down this route because what that means is that the rich will continue to eat salmon and beef while the rest of us crunch on MacInsects.

 And condiments - what about them?

 Deep fried crickets, once you get over their deep-fried baleful eyes, apparently taste like chicken flavoured crisps. So Ketchup and that weird American mustard might find a place in the new cuisine. But what about horse-radish sauce, mayonnaise, mint sauce, and mustard? What about vinegar...red current jelly...celebrity chefs?

And do we buy organic and free range - or factory? And what about animal rights? Just when we’ve started liberating chickens from undersized cages, are we going to replace them with vast, noise-some cricket farms on the basis that insects prefer it that way?

I was drowning my 'what-abouts' in beer, and pondering on the future of cross breeding: The Aberdeen Ant. The Tarantula Longhorn, when, all of a sudden, the nightmare faded, and then vanished. I saw this on you-tube and the world settled back on its axis. I recommend this clip. He’s a great lecturer and talks with the quiet authority that convinces. But what would I know? I’m a townie. It’s up to my frontier friends to tell me whether he makes any sense. I hope so. I can’t be doing with bugs.

Friday, 15 March 2013

'These are a few of my favourite things...'

 I was surprised and pleased to be given a reward I've never heard of before. It's called the Liebster Award. It comes with a snazzy badge and the bonus is I get to write about myself, which makes for an easy
 blogpost : ). The bad news is that I have to find eleven others, but unfortunately time doesn't permit and I'm rubbish at soliciting...as the Actress said.... Mind you, anyone who fancies being Liebstered just award yourself with it and get writing : )

What is your favorite...
...room in your house?
That depends on circumstances and the time of day. When I’m tired it’s the bedroom, a book, sleep and then dreams – most with more coherent plots than I’m able to manage when I’m awake. When I’m hungry it’s the dining room – or the kitchen where I benefit from ‘cook's perks’. When I’m writing it’s the study. When I’m watching TV it’s the lounge. When I have to do something urgent, it’s the toilet – an under-estimated pleasure. 

...flavor of ice cream?
High quality vanilla
My favourite holiday of all time was the 7 week circular camping holiday I took in America. It started in New York – Niagra – Dakota etc. We had an Austrian who came 2nd in his home country’s national cocktail championship. We drank a prodigious amount – cocktails mixed in large tubs and experienced the true size of America in a way you wouldn’t travelling by plane. Highlight, walking down the Grand Canyon. Low point, walking back up again.
...vacation spot?
Has to be America, though Italy – Rome and Pompeii is a close second. I had no idea how vast the ruins of Pompeii where, or how easy it was to lose yourself in time and place. Or how good water is in the height of an Italian summer. Fantasy location spot:  A coastal inn with good beer, a fierce log fire and the sea bashing against the mullioned windows. Sea shanties? Just no.
...genre for reading?
Too eclectic to specify. On a negative note I don’t like Romance – and I apologise to all my friends who publish romance novels – though I’m sure they understand.
...breed of dog?
Bull terrier, because my dad had one before I was born. It had to be tied to the mangle when strangers knocked at the door. On one occasion my grandmother found it hard to get rid of a salesman – and then very suddenly he went. She turned to find the dog – silent but getting closer, dragging the mangle behind it.
...time of the day?
When I’m writing, when I’m eating, when my family come home, when my head hits the pillow.
...sports team (any sport)?
Easy. Liverpool
...book from your childhood?
Kidnapped. By Robert Louis Stevenson.  I was always intrigued by Alan Breck. I’d also have to say Biggles
T shirt and shorts
...year in your life so far (not counting this one)?
I can’t do this one. It has to be four – the year spent in America – the year I was married – the year my son was born. The year my daughter was born. And, for obvious reasons I can’t be pinned down as to which of these is my favourite.
Thank you Linda. Hope I didn’t disappoint : )

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Hypocrits and Buffoons

 Lord Palmerston

Syria was once reasonably prosperous, secular and stable. It was also authoritarian and corrupt. As trade-offs go it wasn’t a bad deal and puts me in mind of the European Settlement after the Congress of Vienna. That particular congress sealed the end of the Napoleonic wars and the chaos of  the French Revolution. 

After experiencing the reality of chaos the eventual winners valued stability above everything else. Politicians like Castlereagh, Metternich and Tallyrand adopted a firm policy of suppressing any and every uprising and supported each other in doing so.  This policy continued for decades. It saw off the Polish Revolt of 1830 when Lord Palmerston, though sympathetic to constitutional reform, saw more danger in the increasing power of the radicals. Similarly, though  Palmerston had little sympathy with Austrian brutality,  he saw greater danger in Italian nationalism than Austrian suppression. 

1848 was the year of revolutions but the same principle held. Stability above everything. The Austrian General Haynau flogged women and children and there was great excitement in the British press – though Queen Victoria robustly declared the events had no doubt been exaggerated. Palmerston was indignant about the atrocities but it didn’t change British policy nor did it change General Haynau.

When the Hungarian revolt was crushed, mass hangings and public floggings prevailed. But it was only after the revolt had been put down that Palmerston felt the need to reprimand the Austrians for their brutality. British interests demanded a strong and stable Austria. 

British interests now, unfortunately, are championed by hypocrits and buffoons. Palmerstonian cynicism or, if you will, realism, is now more likely to be seen in Russia or China. These two countries understand the lessons of the Congress system that kept peace in Europe for much of the C19th. Both regimes understand where their interests lie, both value stability. Some of the shadowy forces supporting the rebels know, too, where their interests lie.

The initial disturbance in Syria in March 2011 was small scale. Unfortunately it acquired a ‘label’ and became part of the ‘Arab Spring’. Labels are dangerous and within weeks Syria became a war by proxy: Saudi, Israeli, American and British players all taking part – from the side-lines – encouraging and cheering on the rebels. Palmerston would be turning in his grave, Castlereagh and Metternich spinning.

Outsiders have provided money and arms. Al Qaeda  is now involved along with other strains of Islamic fundamentalism, and the media is bursting with bombast. Self important nonentities like William Hague strive for gravity while Syria burns, and the propaganda machine churns out heart wrenching pictures of tearful children and confused old ladies wishing they were dead. Over 70,000 people have been killed, millions are streaming out of Syria, and the war might overspill, destabilising neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile we are subject to much hand-wringing, reporters like Fergal Keane mournfully recounting the latest horrors, others placing the entire blame on Bashar al-Assad. The truth is that Assad is no worse or better than many present rulers. It depends upon which side of the propaganda war you’re on.

When Assad uses artillery and tanks against armed rebels the State Department refers to it as a "crime against humanity.”

 The power of words.

When America invaded Iraq in 2003 this same tactic magnified is rebranded as ‘Shock and Awe’

The truth is that  Bashar al-Assad is a pussy cat compared to his father Hafez –al-Assad. When, in 1982, he faced an Islamist armed insurgency, Hafaz conducted a scorched earth policy with no holds barred. His crackdown - the Hama massacre - killed tens of thousands – and brought peace. What is interesting is that then, neither Reagan or Thatcher felt the need to intervene. They were, perhaps, better advised.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Speaking of cannibals

On seeing the Queen for the first time, Hilary Mantel wrote:
“I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room…And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.”

 It sounds bizarre. The only parallel experience I can relate to – until very recently – was when I saw the Rolling Stones perform in the 1970’s. We were only three feet away from the stage. They were late. The hall went pitch black. Suddenly they were standing before us, floodlight and silent. And yes, my eyes (as the promoters intended) devoured them cannibalistically. Along with ten thousand other eyes eager to feed. So these things happen. Hilary made sense. 

And it made sense in a more personal way when I was forced to visit the doctor and I was devoured. This doctor is a lean man who looks a little like the actor Peter Capaldi. He stared at me, hungrily, it seemed, devouring every word I said, each hesitation, every moment of silence. I felt like an actor rehearsing his part, a soul before judgement recounting its life.

It had been easier the previous week. Easier still the week before that - before the pain began, and I was forced to make an appointment. 

As a fully paid up member of the ‘worried well’ I had checked up online and arrived at the surgery self-diagnosed but willing to let the Duty Nurse speak first. It seemed only fair. She threw the ball in my court. “What do you think it is?” she asked. I hesitated so as not to show arrogance. “Sciatica…perhaps…?” 

“No, it’s lumbago,” she said. “Most definitely lumbago.”

I was so relieved. My pain had a name. More, I got painkillers. 

The pain was manageable during the day. Mine was nocturnal, a fox in the buttocks gnawing its way into my lower vertebrae. An hour’s sleep if lucky, then downstairs wedged between strategically placed cushions watching appalling TV. Sometimes I paced the room, filling in time, and realising the Gestapo would have had a fairly easy time interrogating me. I’d have handed them the D.Day plans on plate in exchange for a triple strength codeine and a hip flask of laudanum.

As it was my painkillers were coming to an end and a repeat visit to the surgery was called for – along with a repeat prescription.

 “See the doctor,” my wife urged. “Not the Duty Nurse.”

“She’s very good,” I said. “She saw it at once – lumbago.”


I saw the doctor, and it was him staring at me like a Hilary Mantel cannibal. “Lumbago,” he said.

Ha! I thought. Lumbago endorsed. And then something made me say it - a minor thing that had erupted five day’s earlier – insignificant in terms of the blade gouging through my vertebrae. “I have a rash, bit itchy, bit unpleasant.”

His manner changed when he saw it, his expression more triumphant than devouring. “I should have seen that earlier,” he said. There was respect in his voice as though I had something infinitely more interesting than Lumbago. “Shingles,” he said. “You have shingles. The rash always comes later.”

I felt better, too. Lumbago was an old man’s disease in my eyes, something associated with whiskery Victorians when they weren’t having gout. Shingles is sexy. More C21st.

And not only that he gave me more pain-killers and Anti-inflammatory capsules (with some horrible potential side-effects but I won’t go into that since they haven’t occurred yet) 

And now I feel great. I sleep at nights. I snore with joy and abandon. And dream of cannibals. 

PS Bad things happen and then go away. I just had nothing else to write about this week.