Friday, 31 May 2013

The Great Jimmy Gatz?

In preparation for not watching the latest cinematic attempt to turn perfection into something less, I reread the novel.  If you haven’t read it, either look away now or carry on reading – like Nick by the end, I don’t really care either way.
So, applying the rule of five:

1.      What’s great about him?  He and Daisy are in a child-child relationship, mediated by a controlling parent/child (Tom) and several powerless adults (Nick, Jordan, even Myrtle).  He’s an infantile manipulative wimp, who collapses under the least pressure.  He cheats even when he doesn’t need to.  He doesn’t even bother to make an appearance until page 54 (out of 188).  So what’s to love?
2.      Answer: precisely those flaws.  Scott proves – and remember, this was 1923 – the fragility of America.  Bubbles are designed to burst.   The genius is to condense that fragility into a single person, conceal him behind his own defences, and then prick him in such a way that you end up not even sure if there’d been a bubble in the first place.
3.      The strand of the novel.  It opens with ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice …’ and ends with ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’  Although the peroration is impersonal, I like to think that Nick himself is being borne back; indeed, that the story is his as much as Jay’s or Daisy’s.
4.      Indeed, the more I reflect the more I think this is a fictional autobiographical narrative.  But then I have to admire Nick Carraway’s skilful ducking and weaving in and out.  Now you see him, now you don’t.  We don’t know what happens to him afterwards (did he marry that Midwest girl, who never gets a name?)  The others all end up either dead or gone; Nick himself fades away, in the last chapters, like a green light in the fog.
5.      The words.  Oh, the beauty of the sentences!  We all know the famous quotes, so just a couple of examples of perfection:
(page 101): ‘The rain was still falling, but the darkness had parted in the west, and there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea.  “Look at that”, she whispered. And then after a moment: “I’d like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around.”’

And (page 159): ‘He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him.  But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.’

Oh, and all right, maybe the most poignantly banal phrase in literature, where Nick makes his peace with Tom, despite himself: ‘I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.’

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Hughenden Manor

 Number three in what’s obviously a very very occasional series on stately homes, if you click the label.
It’s very frustrating when the infinite resources of the internet fail to yield up what I’d call basic information.  So I can’t tell you when Hughenden Manor was originally built, by whom, or why.  These probably quite boring facts have been overwhelmed by two items of history: Disraeli, and mapmaking.
Dizzy bought it in 1848 (from whom, I wonder), with a heavily leveraged mortgage (he was, and remained, on the verge of bankruptcy) granted by some of his aristocratic chums, and immediately gave it a complete makeover.  It shows.  The house looks big from the outside, but feels small inside, because it consists of a bewilderingly large number of rather poky rooms.  Clearly the idea was to give the impression of a Chatsworth or Cliveden; but the result is more like several posh suburban terraced properties, haphazardly knocked through.  This is part of its charm: I imagine it reveals a lot about the man’s character.  (I want to know more about him – can anyone recommend a good biography?) 
The National Trust have curated it beautifully; they seem to be at their best with smaller places.  You can see objects – furniture, artifacts, pictures – close up.  You can touch them, and are trusted not to when it’d be silly or damaging.  Children can even play with a fragile Victorian zoetrope.  (I suspect the picture strips aren’t original though.)

So far, so stately.  They all have their quiddities.  The surprise, though, is downstairs.  Hughenden was, from 1941, the top secret base of Operation Hillside, the mission of which was to produce accurate maps of key targets in Germany so that Bomber Command could achieve ‘Bomber’ Harris’s objective of blanket-bombing the enemy into smithereens.  In 1932 Hitler had, in an early indication of his long-term plans, barred the production of up-to-date maps of Germany.  So once war broke out, squadrons of spy planes, Mosquitoes mostly, were sent over to take photos, which would become the raw material for a team of skilled map-drawers to create the best possible guidance for the bombers.  (See this fascinating first-hand account for much more.)
All this was classified until only last year, and the NT have done a superb job of reconstructing what it must have been like to be doing that work.  So much information seems to be coming out quite recently about the nitty-gritty of wartime operations.  You have to wonder why it’s been kept secret for so long.

Anyway, the gardens and woodlands of Hughenden are lovely.  The walled garden contains more healthy rhubarb than anyone could possibly eat, and some well advanced redcurrants.  And the views are wonderful.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Flex Your Molluscs

Scene: an old-style fishmongers’ somewhere in England.

Dramatis personae:
A Fishmonger.
A Customer.
Some Mussels.

The Customer is enquiring of the Fishmonger concerning the freshness and potential health risks of some Mussels.

CUSTOMER (C): A lot of these seem to be open.  Doesn’t that mean they’re dead, and will poison me?

FISHMONGER (F): You give them a sharp tap, like this.  (Raps a Mussel on the counter.)  It takes a moment, but see?  (The Mussel slowly closes its shell.) They’ll close up.  So that one’s alive.  Perfectly safe to eat.

C: Right.  (Raps another Mussel on the counter, and waits.  The shell stays open.)  So that one’s dead?

F: That one’s dead.  (Pause.)  But the dead ones are all right too, long as they haven’t been dead for too long.

C: I see.  (Pause.)  How long?

F: Oh, four or five hours.

C: Right.  (Pause.)  How do I tell how long they’ve been dead?  (Longer pause.)  I mean, you can’t ask them, can you?  (To the Mussel:)  Please Mr Mussel, how long have you been dead?


F: I see what you mean.  (Begins to tap the open Mussels.)

C: Oh, don’t bother.


Author’s note:  Later, after they had been exquisitely prepared by C (who is B), I ate many of them.  They were delicious, and I’m still alive and well.  (Unlike the Mussels.)

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Tax avoidance: something to add after all

Thinking further about this, I realised that at least one aspect doesn’t yet seem to have been discussed at all.  It’s this: what happens if all the loopholes get closed and the internet businesses are forced to pay their full corporation tax and whatever other dues they are currently dodging?  Will they a) hold up their hands, say ‘you got me bang to rights, guv’ and take the hit on their profits?  Or b) pass it on to their customers in the form of higher prices?

I suspect I know the answer, and here’s a clue: it’s not a).

If I’m right, what it boils down to is this: either the exchequer loses out, as at present; or the buying public does.  Makes the issue a little bit cloudier, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Tax avoidance

Prompted by Z at the Razor-blade of Life, I was going to pen a rant on this subject, but Sir Simon Jenkins beat me to it here in today's Guardian.  Nothing to add.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Bouillabaisse – an update

Well, after last Friday, I know how to spell it, and, sort of, how to make it.  All I need to do now is find out how to pronounce it.  

It was agreed that cod cheeks are nearly as good as monkfish fillets, at a fraction of the price.  And that clams are a waste of space – you end up with empty shells.  Whole prawns too.  I’d rejected the giant nine-inch prawns (Dublin bay, langoustines, whatever they’re called) at £5.50 each, beautiful though they were, in favour of the smaller, though still huge, basic ones; but once you’ve picked the meat out of all that head and crawly bits and shell, you end up with quite a small bit of actual edible.  The picking’s fun, though: large finger bowls, plenty of napkins, and a sense of humour essential.

Also, is saffron the biggest con since Ponzi schemes?  (Answer, no, it predates them by centuries.  Or does it?  A question for another day.)   The stuff smells mildly nice and costs more, by weight, than avruga caviar.  Which, I told, at least tastes of something.  By the time you’ve diluted half a teaspoon of saffron into a litre of fish stock and white wine, all you’re left with is yellow.  Next time, I might try a pinch of that turmeric that’s been in the spice section for three years and probably doesn’t taste of much either by now.

I used Rick Stein’s recipe from ‘Taste of the Sea’, which worked fine, mostly, though it does contain a few quirks.  For example, you have to peel your tomatoes (no problem) and retain the skins – which are never seen again.  And he suggests that you should slice your mussels before adding them in the shell.  I somehow missed out the celery in the vegetable base, but I think I got away with it.

I have resolved to visit Frost’s in Smelly Alley more frequently (not hard, given twice in the past six years), buy whatever they tell me to, and take the meal from there.  Real-time cooking, as Keith Floyd used to say between slurps.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Five good things about where I live

This may be of specialised interest.

Reading regularly figures in top fifty lists of crap towns in Britain, and I can’t argue with that, not having visited, let alone lived in, most of the others.  I don’t want to go into the details of what constitutes a crap town (although I could, believe me), but I’ve been spending some time recently thinking about relocating, so here’s the case for the defence [*generalised: a couple of more personal items in the footnote]:

The Inner Distribution Road.  This bisects the town with an amalgam of  seventies concrete brutalism and upgraded ancient routes – sometimes briefly disappearing entirely – in order to, well, distribute inner traffic, I suppose.  The flyover by what’s now the Oracle was, I’m told, left uncompleted for a long time, earning it the nickname ‘The Ski Jump’.  This road has a unique feature: the sliproads are dual purpose, serving both for joining and for leaving the IDR.  Try and map that onto a motorway junction and you may get a feel for how this has contributed to Reading’s special style of driving.
Brickwork.  The old houses are built with local bricks (once made, confusingly, by the London Brick Company) in distinct shades of red and grey arranged in patterns, up the side of a wall, which to an amateur eye are random but in fact must conform to arcane rules, which have been known to hold up planning applications for years.  Anything that can achieve that, whilst also being beautiful, has to be kept and cherished.
Smelly Alley.  Union Street, to give it its official but never-used name.  it’s definitely an alley, not wide enough for two prams to pass, as I observed the other day on my way to Frost’s, the fishmongers, from which Smelly Alley gets its name.  I’d searched them to make sure they still existed – they certainly do, have a look.  I said “I’m making a bouillabaisse”, and walked out ten minutes later with monkfish, cod cheeks, giant prawns, mussels and clams.  When we’d eaten it, B and I had a conversation about localism.  “It’ll come around, eventually,” she thought.  If you agree, please seek out and buy from wonderful shops like Frost’s.
The Prom.  This is the gateway to the best walks in Reading, which are beside the Thames.  Turn left from the car park (still free, though the cash-strapped council are targeting that) and you’ll follow the wide river, full of canoes and cruisers and swans, past posh palaces on the other side, with their pergolas and turrets, and jetties, some possibly with green lights at the end.  Turn right and you’ll enter a confusing world of gasworks, confluences, brick bridge arches (constructed in the Reading style), and low-rise hitech offices on the widening horizon.  And a couple of good old run down riverfront pubs.
The Oxford Road.  (The ‘The’ is essential if you want Read-Cred.)  This is just down from where I live.  At my last count there were seventeen hairdressers/beauty parlours/tattoo joints.  I haven’t counted the halal butchers yet, nor the thriving charity shops or the community centres.  Willis and Shorts, the newsagents where I buy my paper, is a community centre.  There’s another one just across the road, jointly run by the council and the police.  What were we saying about localism? 

* Reading also contains at least two of my favourite bloggers (although one of them has, temporarily I hope, given up), and a lot of my good friends.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Influential Albums #2

James Taylor: James Taylor (SAPCOR 3) 1968
1968 was a bad year, for music as well as so many other things.  The Beatles themselves had imploded into self-indulgence; Cream had split, and their brave experiment had spawned the horrors of Blind Faith and Blue Cheer; Pink Floyd were denying the existence of their burned-out genius progenitor, Syd, and churning out ‘Saucer Full of Secrets’, the first trickle of decades of gunge; Dylan had disappeared, like he does.  I was consoling myself with Coltrane and the Beach Boys.
I was bogged down in Italy, bereft and desperate for fresh music, when two albums somehow made their way to me from the Beatles’ adventurous new Apple label, like scented breezes from an unknown place.  One was Jackie Lomax’s ‘Is This What You Want?’  This was the other.

James Taylor’ was the best-sounding album yet to be produced outside America.  (The Yanks were streets ahead of the Brits technically, as even George Martin admitted.)  This was quite an achievement given that Peter Asher had hardly any production experience, and James was, let’s say, unreliable in every respect except songwriting and musicianship.  Asher has called it ‘over-produced’, but that’s hindsight.  At the time, it was just ‘produced’ – full use of the new eight-tracks, proper stereo balance, good deployment of equalisation …  Those were refreshing techniques to someone like me who was spending half his free time crammed inside his headphones, analysing. 
So that’s the first way it was influential on me: it was an early step on my route to becoming a career analyst.  The other was making me realise that I was never going to be a great guitarist.
But influential in the broader spectrum?  I think so, again in two ways.  Most importantly, it presaged a direction that would dominate the early seventies.  Previously, there’d been folk, there’d been rock, there’d been singers who wrote songs.  This was, I’d say, the very first instance of the folk-rock singer-songwriter. 
More trivially, the title of track 6 was reused by George Harrison as the first line of track 2 of ‘Abbey Road’ (as he later acknowledged); and the album contains the first ever recorded occurrence of the phrase ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.’

The album’s not on Spotify, but is available in iTunes.  (It’s the one with him lounging on the cover wearing braces.)  I recommend the very last bonus track, a solo demo of ‘Carolina In My Mind’, which will show you what I mean about being a great guitarist.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Of delicious sticks and birds

I recently showed you my collection of walking sticks, both of them, remember?  Well, I've just taken delivery of a third:

This isn't the first time Crosta e Mollica, purveyors of fine grissini, have delighted me with their imaginative breadstick designs.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

You don’t have to work here to be mad…

… although it probably helps, if ‘here’ refers to the American Psychiatric Association, which has just announced [DSM-5] a whole new raft of mental illnesses, including over-eating sometimes, saying ‘no’ to your parents whilst being a child, liking sex too much (possibly whilst being a teenager), finding it hard to throw Stuff away, and having a strop over and above your assigned quota.
I exaggerate for comic effect (EXFCE syndrome, probably), but the serious point is that all these conditions are supposedly mainly rooted in biology (genes, diet and so forth) and correctible by pharmaceutical means, rather than environmentally rooted and correctible by listening and talking.  Of course, the truth is, and always has been, a mix of the two.  Nature vs nurture, ho hum.  The debate rages, apparently.
Anyway, extensive research within my own imagination has uncovered some as yet undiagnosed mental disorders:
OMM: Only Money Matters.  The belief that owning increasing volumes of the means of exchange trumps every other measure of well-being.  A secondary complication is PPDM, Poor People Don’t Matter.  The condition may well be hereditary.
MOAG: Must Own A Gun.  The concept that the only way to modify another’s behaviour is to kill them.  Prevalent in the Americas, but on the increase everywhere.  Either environmental or not, depending on whether you take ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ to be literal truth.
BLAT: Big Lies Are Truth.  Not new, but resurfacing in subtle, genetically or statistically modified forms.
ADS: Austerity Deficit Syndrome.  The capability to persist in self-destructive activity because not to do so would be even more self-destructive.  Actually, that one’s quite sane, isn’t it?  So that means George Osborne is sane?  Oh, I see my case collapsing …

No known medication exists for any of these (believe me, they’ve tried them all), but a simple behavioural remedy is available, commonly known as a vote.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Caravan continued

I’m keeping it.  Last September I was seriously considering giving it up, after twelve years, and went so far as to semi-seriously offer it for sale, in a blog post.  The response was politely quiet, about which I’m now pleased.
I created the patio ten or so years ago, having spent a year observing how others were making theirs.   Over several weeks, deliveries would arrive from Travis Perkins, cement mixers would churn day and evening, waves of frustration and anxiety about levels would waft down the hill, and later over a glass Dave or Alwyn would  wonder why they’d bothered to start this.  I held my whisht and decided to do it in three days flat, applying third world construction techniques.  Levelling (Joseph'll do that once I peg it out); sand (borrow a wheelbarrow); lay the slabs on top.  Completed on 14th July, my birthday, and half the population of the site rocked up clutching bottles to celebrate.  I expected it to last three years, then I’d just do it again.
It’s lasted ten, but when I went down to open up the other Tuesday, my heart sank.  Apart from the moss and the weeds and the general dilapidation (redundant water barrels, an old portapotty, rotting beach chairs, plastic bodyboards), there was the huge mistaken plant [Agave Americanus, I suspect] which had grown to six feet and was threatening to undermine the van as well as blocking out the view.  (I’d meant to take photos of this monster, but now I’m glad I didn’t.)
Joseph came round to say hello and collect the rent.  I happened to mention that I’d be down again at the weekend, with a friend.  He nodded and smiled.  “So are you happy, then?”

We arrived early afternoon on Saturday.  I walked round to the door, and shouted.  “He’s done it!”  B required elucidation.  “What?” she incisively enquired.   “Bloody hell, he’s done it!” I clarified.  Joseph had eradicated the vile plant and scrubbed the whole place clean.  The steps down towards the gulch (more of which another time) were visible and treadable.  We could see the view through the still bare trees across the sea to Monkstone Point.  (I’d always thought of those trees as a view-spoiler, until B pointed out that they are a view.  Black nervous systems against green, turquoise and more black.)
Joseph is a hero. “I thought I’d tidy it up for you, like,” he said, possibly with a wink, when I thanked him.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

News From 2020

It’s hard to credit that, back in 2013, scarcely anyone managed to predict what now looks like the inexorable course of events which led to our current interesting times.  As an early adapter of Googapple’s ‘iToldUso’ app, I’m sending this summary back to an obscure blog.

In 2014, the Scots voted narrowly to secede from the hitherto United Kingdom, and to apply for new-country membership of the European Union, which was rapidly granted by a filing clerk in Brussels with too much time and an antique rubber stamp on his hands.  A mischievous condition was that they had either to join the Euro or create their own currency.  Naturally, the new Scottish government under President Ferguson chose the latter, and the Scottish Poond was born.  In a far-reaching compromise, it was agreed that it would be tied at parity to the Pound.

There was much debate as to the name for the remainder of the old United Kingdom.  ‘The United’ was rejected as divisive, especially given the Scottish president’s background, and an acronym from ‘Kingdom, England, Wales, And Northern iReland’ was deemed provocative.  Eventually, after a joint campaign by the Sun, the Mirror and the Telegraph, it was decided simply to call it ‘England’.

It all went quiet then, until in 2017 the Lawson government led England to victory in the referendum to leave the EU.  (Cameron having been forced to resign after his abject failure to renegotiate the shape of bananas and policemen’s helmets.)  The details are not yet clear, or even emerging, but it seems that the Poond has to stay tied to the Pound, which in turn may be tied to the Dollar, or maybe the Rouble.  Or the Renminbi.  Or something.  Meanwhile the Euro might, subject to a Europe-wide referendum, be split into two – the Neuro and the Seuro – leaving the European Central Bank isolated on the periphery. 

We shall see.  The planned referenda on Welsh, Cornish and East Anglian independence could prove to be influential.  Interesting times.  Unfortunately I have just been informed that the pilot of the iToldUso app has been cancelled due to lack of interest.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Not (*&^%$£(&

Just as an antidote to Zig's rant:

I finally got round to booking in some maintenance.  First stop, British Gas.

Three rings, short recorded message about gas leaks, two options, press 1, prove I'm me, then: "I need to book my annual service."  Quick availability check.  "This afternoon?"  "Yes please."  Turned up at 2 o'clock.

Second stop, ADT Security, alarm checkup.  Similar dialogue.  Choice of four dates, elected for Friday afternoon.  I'm confident they'll be here, probably for lunch.

I'm forming a theory that recession is good for us.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Not much to report, really

I haven’t been blogging a lot recently, because things have been haywire, in both good and bad ways.  The bad bits, to apply a bit of perspective, are mostly to do with technology.  Why do inanimate chunks of expensive metals and plastic alter their behaviour without being told to?  Microsoft and Toshiba, I’m looking at you.  And Vodafone.  And BMW.
I daren’t even venture in the direction of the waste zones of news and politics and economics and all that, I’m not ready to kill myself or anyone else.
I can’t tell you about the good haywires either, because … well, just because.  I’ll come clean eventually (maybe).  Meanwhile, here’s a smidgeon of good cheer.

Oh, for avid longterm followers (both of you), the Caravan Is Open.