Monday, 17 December 2018

UP, UP AND AWAY



Michael Gove says he’d like to play Tyrion Lannister in the TV show “Game of Thrones”. What did he mean by that – being perpetually drunk and spending time with prostitutes like Tyrion? Perhaps not - perhaps instead he’s been seduced by Tyrion’s intelligence, wit and panache. 

For those unaware of Game of Thrones (are there any?) Tyrion is a smart dwarf who has great charm and a concealed lust for power. In what is a pigmy-brained conservative party Gove wants to be head pigmy but his colleagues all want to be the PM too. They must all be quite mad as it’s worse than a poisoned chalice. In a quote from series seven Peter Baelish describes something resembling today’s political world:
"Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb….. only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."
Many of us are obsessed just with the sensation going up – to what end? Once up there’s only one law that has much relevance. Gravity. 

Which reminded me of freeclimbing – that’s rock climbing without ropes. It’s been in the news  because American Alex Honnold recently free-soloed the 3000 foot El Capitan at Yosemite in just 3 hours 56 minutes. It made me feel sick just thinking about it. In the same week a British climber out walking there was killed by a massive rock fall. I’m beginning to hate heights and rocks and falling and futile ascent.

So what possessed me to take two visitors up the i360 in Brighton when they paid a visit to cold and windy Brighton?  Only as we started the ascent did one of them say he suffered from vertigo. The whole event is bit of a damp squib – it’s like  a rather slow lift dressed up as a BA “Flight” (they keep on calling it a “flight” when it’s clearly not.) Much is made of the pre-flight check and the ritual of being body scanned and searched. All the waiting takes a long time. The ascent is a slow business (although the view over Brighton isn’t displeasing)  and then it comes down again. £16.50 for a yawning ½ hour.
Richard French – one of the guests – got it spot-on when he said it can’t work commercially. They play dreadful music instead of having a running commentary. There’s no energy, no drama and what little theatre there is, is performed poorly by bored and under-rehearsed 20 year olds. BA should be ashamed to lend their name to it. He said it needed to be a faster, more breathless experience. Four ascents an hour at less than £10 a pop. The visitor numbers so far are unsurprisingly disappointing.

I was frustrated. This is my town and its key feature was being justifiably traduced. Getting to the top has never been more boring. Brighton deserves much better than this.

Monday, 10 December 2018

OH DOCTOR I DON'T FEEL WELL

 I was quite unfairly accused of being a hypochondriac last week when I groaned in a rather melodramatic way. But the fact is I was feeling a bit below par and the behaviour of our politicians was causing me acute mental anguish. In a word I thought I needed sympathy and treatment.


Perhaps however I was just suffering from an acute idiopathic condition which was probably sub-clinical and mercifully pre-terminal.  In other words I was really OK with nothing to worry about.
“Idiopathic” is a useful word. It comes from the Greek “idios” - one’s own and “pathos”- suffering. Widely used medically it actually means diagnostically “denoting any disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”. Or in plainer English “this chap’s probably a malingerer; I don’t know what’s wrong”.

The current situations in the UK, France and America are idiopathic and pathetic. It should, I suppose, make us feel less bad about Brexit to see the French setting fire to themselves and shouting very loudly. One commentator actually said sententiously “this is how the French Revolution started.” Macron is now the most unpopular President ever. In a run-off between him and his predecessor, the despised Francois Hollande, Francois would win by a landslide.


Meanwhile over in the States Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer has pleaded guilty to eight charges and will be going to prison. From the President’s viewpoint the most serious guilty plea Cohen made is that he made hush-money payments during the presidential campaign to women Trump had slept with. Worse – that the President had directed him to do this. So that’s clear. Donald is nailed. Dead as a parrot.


Ah, apparently not. Trump immediately tweeted “totally clears the President. Thank you!” There is something so barefaced about him you almost (almost but not quite) admire him for it.  Set against the 2nd French Revolution and the impending defenestration of the 45th President of the United States our Brexit squabbles in the UK seem quite petty if undignified but at a much lower level of disgracefulness than France or America’s woes. If we were to be generous we could argue there is a genuinely important disagreement between parliamentarians about a matter of principle. However I do not feel very generous-minded when the bulk of MPs are polluted by a naked quest for power. This is a case of MeMe# as opposed to MeToo# 


Alone and abandoned Theresa May makes a long suffering, resolute yet curiously impressive figure. I never thought I’d feel admiration for her but I do. Most of the rest of her colleagues are a clueless and sadly squalid bunch. The question for me has long ceased to be about Brexit but about whether we can trust many/any of the 650 MPs to oversee and direct the affairs of Great Britain Limited.


I don’t believe that many of them care for our collective wellbeing at all. Which is pathetic and very disappointing. Happy Christmas.

Monday, 3 December 2018

PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE - A WEEK OF TIME TRAVEL

Last week I had four adventures which gave me a new perspective. The first at the Christmas Market in the close of Winchester Cathedral, the second at lunch in the Oriental Club in London, the third a tour of Brixton and the fourth a visit to Coal Drops Yard at King’s Cross.

Winchester is a mediaeval wonder. The cathedral itself enormous and powerful, the Christmas fair a brilliantly created commercial event with over 100 wooden chalets selling craft products, an ice rink and a variety of food and drink. It gets up to ½ million visitors in the month it’s on. The only thing missing for me was the smell of mediaeval England. I wanted jesters, dwarves, lute players, stocks, gibbets and bonfires for heretic Christians. My wife said I’d gone mad and she could do without the smell thank you. The distant past.


The Oriental Club in Stratford Place is a huge, palatial club of the sort found in Pall Mall and St James. It’s full of colonials and ex Foreign Office mandarins gravely discussing affairs of state and the sending of gunboats. Lytton Strachey said “it has the best cellar in London, by Jove!”  It still has I gravely noted. The recent past.


I last visited Brixton in 1995. Much has changed. There’s a magnificent cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, unusual fish and Halal meat in the market. It’s a comfortable third world. It’s like being abroad but at home – a strange conjunction. And Pop Brixton – a series of multinational pop-up eateries is a gastronomic joy. Kricket started here. It serves splendid Indian small plates and it has restaurants in Soho, White City and back in Brixton, this time with a proper restaurant. A real world.


Finally Coal Drop Yard at Kings Cross.  It opened recently and the workman are still in. The unusual buildings dating from the 1850s were built to transfer coal from rail wagons to road carts. It’s been turned into an architectural wonder alongside the Regents Park Canal with those original Victorian buildings brought screaming into the 21st century. Shops include Christopher Raeburn, Vermuteria, Paul Smith, Tom Dixon. Interesting this one – there’s a shop, ‘factory’ and HQ all under one roof, with a roof terrace.  Coal Drop Yard is vast. Dubai meets Victorian England meets the first retail complex on Mars. Comfortable? Hell no, it’s a big echoing place that smells of money (no, not money - bitcoin). Nothing quite makes sense. The emptiness. The wealth.  We had a drink at Asaf Granit’s Coal Office. Unlike the rest of the place it was great value, with a better ambiance and astonishing service. Coal Drop Yard’s the future. Bring your platinum credit card (not to the Coal-Office though.).

Before.


After.


Last week I spanned 1000 years.  From ye olde England to Imperial Britain to melting pot UK to Global shopping centre.

I felt like I’d seen a revolution and it was a revelation. It was also rather exciting.

Monday, 26 November 2018

WE NEED MORE COCKTAILS

 Every year the OED nominates a word-of-the-year. Disappointingly this year it was “toxic”- the shortlist was worse. So I’m discarding these and choosing my own.


 “Cocktail”. Because it sounds fun, variegated and intoxicating.  And mixologists are becoming as famous as football stars.

We decided to have a “cocktail of events” on Friday in London. Yes, I know, but no one told us it was Black Friday. We passed through John Lewis, parts of which look absolutely fabulous - women’s clothes and the Christmas floor – wonderfully ho, ho, ho and slightly silly. How many new brands of gin and gin cocktails concocted into Christmas presents can there be?  You should see the array on offer and countless flavours like raspberry, quince and ginger. Really useful presents like £30 collections of miniatures of port or liqueurs. Meanwhile they have an ice rink on the roof selling exotic cocktails and hot gin. Hot gin? Yes, hot gin and tonic!

And next the National Gallery where various exhibitions are on offer. Mantegna and Bellini intrigued us. Bellini. How great to have a cocktail named after you. Who else can claim that? Rather briskly my wife replied “Tom Collins and Alexander”. Neither of whom, when I checked it out, seemed to exist as a direct link from a person to the beverage.

More exotic even than the Bellini cocktail were the paintings as we shall see. The cocktail first:
* Just peel and blend your peaches, whip up your peach puree then strain it and refrigerate until cold.
* Mix 2 parts of peach puree with one part of sugar syrup.
* Add about 20ml of the peach puree mix to your Champagne flute, then gently pour Prosecco into the glass. 


“Giovanni  - get me another one … subito ”.

So who were these Bellini’s? They were the royalty of Venetian art it in 15th century Venice.  Jacopo the father ran the biggest painting workshop there.  His sons were Gentile and Giovanni. Today it’s the latter that’s considered to have been the biggest creative influence on Venetian painting. Interestingly the family workshop was  probably the first in Venice to use oil paint seriously whilst it had been in use in Northern Europe for nearly a century. Mantegna married Giovanni’s sister Nicolosia – smart move. 


The paintings are fascinating but also  have conversations with each other – clearly Bellini and Mantegna got on. The cocktail theme continued in the National Gallery as we went on to see the Impressionist exhibition. Was it because we were tired or because we were intoxicated on Bellinis?

We disliked the obsession with technique, flat colours and the boring scenes – more people sitting in a park or another lily pond.  These were not cocktails; they were alcohol free lagers of paintings after the spiritedly colourful religious works of the brothers in law that preceded them.


The Impressionists just left us with artistic hangovers.

But we are committed to living a cocktail life with lots of variety and flamboyant fun.




Monday, 19 November 2018

STUPID TIMES

Thinking about the turmoil over Brexit I recalled a story which struck me as relevant:

“Once upon a time friend of mine (I call him that but he constantly irritated me by being so misanthropic) decided that he was getting fed up with his job. Odd that because he had a very senior position in a huge corporation. You could hardly call him a team player but he was well paid and well favoured despite his mood swings. It was a job with some special trimmings like a super car for him, one for his wife, a gold plated pension and cheap holidays in the Mediterranean. Lucky chap. But that wasn’t enough; he wanted to be independent.


So he resigned.

He started negotiating what he called his exit package. It took a long time and it didn’t go too well. I remember listening to him going on about his wife’s reaction to her car being taken away and what he called ‘naked constraint of trade’ because of the clauses they’d inserted in his severance agreement. He got rather aggressive when I suggested his quietly trying to steal some of the corporation’s clients wasn’t on.

He’d snapped that I was being soft.

“The only thing these people understand is a damn good thrashing…I’ll demand they give me what I deserve…look at what I’ve done for them…I’m not going to be bullied…frankly they can keep their miserable money. I’ll just quit and start all over. Easy. I’ll outsell, under-price and outwit them. Then they’ll be sorry.”

He’d got a bit drunk one night and said this as I recall:

“It’s my talent and my honour that matters. When I shave in the morning I want to look in the mirror and say: I’m my own man. I’ll tell them to get stuffed.” When like that there was no reasoning with him."


Matthew Paris in Saturday’s Times wrote that the UK was the petitioner not the aggrieved party. Like my friend there’s a disconnect between  the grumpy treaty-objectors and the reality of the situation. The UK resigned, not the other way round. When you resign you get what you can.

Listen to what business said last week, that the agreement might not be perfect but it was more or less OK and please can we just say ‘yes’ and get on with it. Business people understand deals and pragmatic negotiations. They look at the histogram below and say – big market – be realistic - carry on trading/working there devoid of friction. Negotiations can’t go on forever and can very seldom be started again.


Politicians only understand power and tomorrow’s headlines. It serves them and us ill at times like this. But I try to avoid politics - it’s not my thing and as I watch the current pantomime, I wonder who could possibly enjoy it or  benefit from it. 

RA Butler Tory politician in the 1950s called politics ”the art of the possible”. I wonder what he’d make of all this.


Monday, 12 November 2018

A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR HELPS THE MEDICINE GO DOWN

Should it take a Mary Poppins song composed by the Sherman Brothers to inform the way we should manage our lives? Yet it seems so obvious, I thought, when I saw an anecdote about drugs and sport – not normally an amusing topic – in the Times. This involved (probably apocryphally) The Duke of Arundel, a trainer, a jockey and a horse. The place Melbourne Australia. The year 1960.


The Duke a fanatic owner, follower of racing and a stickler for probity noticed the trainer surreptitiously feeding the horse a substance in the parade ring. He rushed up puce in face and asked what the hell was going on. Quick as a flash the trainer said ‘Little lump of sugar Your Grace, have one yourself’. The Duke suspiciously examined the sugar then ate it as did the trainer who popped one into his own mouth. As the jockey mounted about to gallop to the starting gate the trainer said:
‘Two furlongs out take the brakes off. No one’s overtaking you unless it’s me or the Duke.’

Nearly everyone I know is essentially an optimist – even many of the homeless have hope. I saw one with a  little poster which said: ‘No home, no money, no food, still cheerful’. I gave money to this guy (yes I know we are supposed not to but I couldn’t help it. Besides the smile of gratitude made it worthwhile.)


Talking of the poor homeless I’d really like to go round at Christmas giving them all bottles of wine but that would get me into terrible trouble with the do-gooders, the ‘Happy-Christmas-here’s-a pair-of-socks' brigade. Talking of wine I was walking home in the rain on Friday my umbrella turning inside out in the wind when a cultured but slightly inebriated voice said:  ‘Escushe me do you know how to open a bottle of wine?’


She was young, pretty and miserably holding a bottle of pink champagne. One handed I removed the ‘muselet’ – that’s the wire cage over the cork. She looked impressed but still nonplussed. I told her to grip the cork and turn. Loud pop. Happy laughter.  Should I have confiscated the bottle and told her about the joys of sobriety? Not much fun that. Do I know how to open a bottle of wine!

Our world is full of mustard, lemon juice and chilli powder…not enough laughter, niceness and sweetness. I belong to the Richard Curtis school of schmaltz  (by the way ‘schmaltz’ originally referred to the fat rendered from geese or chickens).


Good news for those like me that the all-time great Christmas films are on Channel 5 non-stop between now and Christmas – everyone a tear jerker full of young love, loneliness made happy, bad made good. Only watch if you’ve a handkerchief.)

Back to the Sherman Brothers. Here are more of those lyrics:
‘In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun’
Go on, Mary, enjoy that lump of sugar.





Monday, 5 November 2018

GATHERINGS, HAPPENINGS AND DELIGHTFUL DAYS OFF

It’s John Scott who introduced me to the word “gathering”. It has a rich sound to it – a gathering together of ideas and creative thinkers – it beats the hell out of a “meeting” (too sterile) or a “get together” (too casual) or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, a conference call (a handy alternative to Valium.)


And after a week of Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes we’ve witnessed happenings evolve. Otherwise sensible men and women dressing up as vampires and witches, smothering themselves in tomato ketchup and screaming hideously. Or burning twenty pound notes in handfuls or what we call fireworks.  Something has changed though. We live in a world where the principal enemy is boredom (pity poor David Cameron our ex-prime minster who claims to be bored being out of government – try being decapitated for creating today’s chaos Dave -  that might be a bit less tedious than lounging about).


We live in a world where we need glitzy events to keep us going. We need more anniversaries and events. We need delightful days off and why not? If it makes us happier it’ll make us more productive.
Birthdays used to be a casual affair when you were lucky if you got a cake and where Christmas and birthday presents were not infrequently combined (still are for my poor wife who was born close to Christmas). We really knew austerity in our young day but now there are eight or nine events and I suppose given the increasing success of Hallowe’en, Guy Fawkes and Mothers’ Day the marketeer in me is surprised we haven’t created more of them.

So how about adding the following (source countries are shown in brackets):-

  • January 26th:  Hygge Day – miserable chilly month - time for log fires, soup, stews, pies, gallons of red wine and whisky. Time to hug and chill out. 
  • February 19th:  Chinese New Year – given the importance of their economy we should hold great banquets - crispy duck, hoisin sauce , pancakes, gallons of red wine and whisky.
  • April 2nd:  Tomb Sweeping Day (Hong Kong) – we should celebrate those we loved in our lives who’ve passed on. A second Christmas. Memories. Watch Some Like It Hot. Feel sad. Drink copiously.
  • May 24th:  Culture & Literacy Day (Bulgaria) – give a book, go to a gallery, listen to great music. What a wonderful idea. Gallons of red wine….yes I know
  • June 23rd:  Mid Summer’s Day – the summer Christmas -  Turkey Caesar Salad, Salmon, lobster, celebrate English wine – big promotion so those overpriced  £15 bottles are sold at a more reasonable £10
  • August 6th:  Picnic Day (Australian Northern Territories) – what a great idea. Communal picnics. Street parties. Celebrate summer.
  • September 17th:  Respect for the Aged (Japan) – we put on parties for everyone over 70 – the lonely, ignored and isolated. Conversation, food, wine and laughter. 

Time to gather, create what my mother used to rather grimly describe as “fun and games” and celebrate being human beings living together.