Saturday, 10 December 2016

It's all about the baby Jesus


It has been perpetual dusk since dawn this morning, and I think it is going to stay that way until the real one comes around. I wish I could stop thinking about Christmas, but living here in the middle of a tourist town makes that impossible. The above is this year's Christmas card, from our compact but adorable city apartment. Consider it personally sent to you.

It is the preparation, you see. If I don't get these cards printed by next week, it will be too late and various family members keep changing their minds about me cooking for them on the 24th.

Every year, I try to come up with an image which is both secular, uncontentious, reminiscent and evocative - without resorting to robins and logs with snow on - but we are all fighting a losing battle, I think.

You have to hand it to the Church. All of the best historical Art fell into the category of 'sacred', probably because they were the only ones who could afford to commission it, and devotion to a deity is far more effective than devotion to a monarch - the only other establishment who could afford to commission it.

Bach spent his entire life as a church chorister on a meagre but steady income. These were the days when it was shameful - if not heritical - to declare yourself an atheist, rather than the other way round as it is now. At least he got to hear every one of his compositions thanks to the vast human resource at his perpetual disposal. All he had to do was flatter God. Life must have been a lot more simple.

Friday, 9 December 2016

101


A few days ago, the red light appeared on my router and it would not connect to the internet. A few hours later it connected, and I found a message informing me that the server was aware that some of its customers were experiencing difficulties connecting to the internet and had red lights on their routers. They might as well have sent me a telegram.

The thing I remember most about telegrams is the motorcycles with which they were delivered. A very young lad in a red uniform rode on a little two-stroke bike which was painted a dirty red colour - a BSA Bantam. Despite the size of these little things, I always secretly wanted one.

The delivery of a telegram meant - for my parents generation - either very good news or very bad news, neither of which could wait. The importance of the message was obvious from the beginning, because they were so expensive to send. Priced by the word and with words as punctuation - STOP - they were dictated to telephone operators and kept as brief as possible, as in: SON KILLED IN ACCIDENT STOP REGRETS STOP, or CONGRATS ON 100TH BIRTHDAY STOP THE QUEEN STOP

For an ordinary household to receive a telegram during the World Wars would only mean one thing, and that thing was bad. We only had a couple at our house, and I cannot remember what they were about - except for one. I thought I must send at least one in my life, so I sent one to myself. I think it cost about six shillings. I almost gave my parents a nervous breakdown when the little red bike with the little red rider spluttered into our front drive. My father thought it was a shocking waste of money, especially since my pocket money was two shillings a week, but I suspect he was just disappointed that it was not the news that he had won the Pools which made him so angry.

I would have wasted the money anyway, because almost every Saturday for about a year I would go into town and buy a box of 100 .22 blank cartridges for my little starting pistol - at two shillings per box.

As soon as I got home I would load up 8 into the magazine and begin firing them. My brother would count the bangs (he must have had more time on his hands than I had) and would shout out the numbers to me as I let them off in the garden. I was not - for understandable reasons - allowed to let them off in the house, where they would have been deafeningly loud. In the open air, a .22 blank is a sharp pop.

At last, my brother would shout, "99!" and then there would be the final crack, at which he would shout "100!" with joyous relief. One day I had borrowed a single blank from a friend, and when he shouted '100' I left it for a few seconds before defiantly firing it. That was satisfying.

This is the time of year when, if you want to get one over on relatives you dislike, you buy their child a noisy toy for Christmas.

The classic Tin Drum used to be a perennial favourite, but these days there are electronic gadgets which do the job so much better.

When the Grandson was about 10 years old, his mother bought him a full-sized drum kit which was installed in his bedroom of the tiny house. I don't know what she was thinking, but luckily he had destroyed it by the following year.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Services to tourism


Last night I met up with an old client who has turned into a friend, because every Christmas time he comes to Bath and rents the most interesting property he can find for a few days. He loves organisations like The Landmark Trust and The National Trust. This year he took General Wade's house, which is in spitting-distance of Bath Abbey (literally, if you are a good spitter) and - right now - the Bath Christmas Market. I know which one I would rather spit on.

Normally he arrives with his wife, but this year he has come with a fellow barrister who is very recently bereaved. So recently bereaved in fact - his wife's funeral was last Friday. Because I have never met this man before, I do not know if he is always as simultaneously abrupt and considerate in equal measure, but I would imagine that his emotional state is extremely turbulent right now, and I admire him for just getting out of the house as he has. His worst times are yet to come.

So I had a view of Bath last night when I delivered a present to them, which I have never seen before. The vast illuminated West Front of the Abbey as seen from General Wade's study. Sorry, no time to take a photo.

I arrived at the huge front door with a parcel under my overcoated arm, and rang the doorbell. I looked round to see a large group of tourists watching a real resident pay a visit to a famous building and whoever lived in it. Some of them were taking photographs.

It occurred to me that the scene must have looked to them to be straight out of a Charles Dickens book, and I was glad that I had not cut my hair. Hopefully I enhanced their Christmas Market experience.


Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Silent Night


I hear rumours of unseasonably warm weather coming here to the South in the next few days. I don't like that idea. I think Winter should be cold once I have begun wearing my overcoat, and stay cold right through until March.

Right. Now a rare give-away for all you bloggers. I seem to have more commas than I need, so if ever you find yourself running short, you have my permission to come over here and help yourself. Take as many as you want.

Cher (my garden) has just posted a very festive and photo-heavy blog piece on Bath's Christmas Market. In the immediate background of one photo, you can see the banner for H.I.'s exhibition, so it is just a matter of chance that I am not in the picture too, standing outside and smoking a cigarette as I did every half hour or so.

Both Cher and I chose to throw ourselves into the middle of the Christmas Market, but the difference is that she enjoyed the experience, whereas I regretted it, having discovered that Christmas shoppers are not in the least bit interested in looking at paintings of warm environments, let alone buying them. We (I) decided that it could be worth the extra money to hold the show during this hectic time, but how wrong we (I) were (was). The other difference was that she was free to leave, but I was not.

Very close to the gallery was a man with a ten-inch wide moustache selling hundreds of wooden objects in the shape of animals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and each one made a noise which was supposed to be a representation of what the real animal, reptile, amphibian or bird would sound like if it were really alive.

The owls, for instance, would let out a feeble but loud hoot if you blew into them, and the frogs had notches cut into the ridge of the back which sounded a little like a frog-call if you ran another bit of wood along them. There were water-whistles which let out a not unconvincing sound of a mad blackbird when you blow them. One creature made a noise like an out of tune recorder, and he played one line of 'Silent Night' on it every ten minutes.

If anyone approached his stall, he would demonstrate all the noises in quick succession, just to show the potential buyer what they were capable of. These sounds were the audio back-drop to my life for seven days, between 10.30 in the morning and 7.00 at night.

Halfway through the week, I could bear it no longer, so I went to visit the man and his stall. He immediately began blowing and tapping, thinking that I might buy something. I told him where I was spending the week, pointing to the gallery a few feet away.

"You must want to kill me," he admitted. "I'm sorry, but if I don't make these noises, nobody will buy anything."

I assured him that I understood, and just wanted to find out if I liked him or not. Luckilly I did. It would have been intolerable if I didn't.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Article from the New York Times

NEW YORK — The long wave unfurled at last. Perhaps it is no surprise that the two societies that felt its furious force — the United States and Britain — are also the open societies at the hub of globalized turbo-capitalism and finance. For at least a decade, accelerating since the crash of 2008, fears and resentments had been building over the impunity of elites, the dizzying disruption of technology, the influx of migrants and the precariousness of modern existence.
In Western societies, for too long, there had been no victories, no glory and diminishing certainties. Wars were waged; nobody knew how they could be won. Their wounds festered. The distance between metropolis and periphery grew into a cultural chasm. Many things became unsayable; even gender became debatable. Truth blurred, then was sidelined, in an online tribal cacophony.
Jobs went. Inequality thrust itself in your face. What the powerful said and the lives people lived were so unrelated that politics looked increasingly like a big heist. Debacle followed debacle — the euro, the Iraq War, the Great Recession — and their architects never paid. Syria encapsulated the West’s newfound impotence, a kind of seeping amorality; and, in its bloody dismemberment, Syria sent into Europe a human tide that rabble-rousers seized upon.
And so the British voted to quit the European Union, symbol of a continent’s triumph over fascism and destructive nationalism. Americans voted on Nov. 8 for Donald J. Trump, who used much of the xenophobic, fear-mongering language of 1930s Europe to assemble an angry mob large enough that he triumphed over a compromised Hillary Clinton. Neither victory was large, but democracies can usher in radical change by the narrowest of margins. To give the Republican president-elect his due, he intuited an immense disquiet and spoke to it in unambiguous language.
A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown and Marine Le Pen may demonstrate in the French presidential election next year, is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,” Muslim migration and the tyrannical consensus of overpaid experts. The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear. Nobody excites Mr. Trump as much as Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, who is to democracy what a sledgehammer is to a Ming vase. Strongmen and autocrats everywhere — not least in Egypt and the Gulf states — are exulting at Mr. Trump’s victory.
It is too early to say what Mr. Trump will do and how many of his wild campaign promises he will keep, but it’s safe to predict turbulence. Irascibility, impetuosity and inattention define him, however curtailed they may prove to be by his entourage and the responsibilities of power. He is, for now, in over his head.
NATO will grow weaker. Baltic States will feel more vulnerable. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, backed by a Putin-Trump entente, will grow stronger. Chinese-American trade tensions will sharpen, in approximate sync with military tensions in the East and South China seas. The Iran nuclear deal, painstakingly negotiated by the major powers, could unravel, making the Middle East exponentially more dangerous. Any jihadi attack or other assault on America will not be met with restraint; Mr. Trump seems to regard nukes as an underused asset.
Fossil fuels will make a comeback. The world’s Paris-enshrined commitment to fight climate change will be undermined. The approximately 65 million migrants on the move, about one-third of them refugees, will find shelter and dignity scarce as xenophobic nationalism moves into the political mainstream across Central Europe and elsewhere. Technology’s implacable advance, and the great strides being made by artificial intelligence, will test Mr. Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. Some forms of employment are gone forever, and not even a self-styled savior can conjure their return. The Trans-Pacific Partnership already looks dead; other trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which symbolized the ever-more-open trading system of past decades, could be nixed or substantially diluted.
Will all this assuage the people’s ire? Perhaps Mr. Trump really does have some fairy dust he can scatter for a while. But of course “the people” were only part of a divided population, millions and millions of whom did not want — and will resist — the global nationalist and authoritarian lurch. They will do so on the streets, in the courts, via the press and through the checks and balances the framers of the Constitution created precisely to rein in a demagogue. Still, Mr. Trump has enormous powers, a Republican-controlled Congress and a mission to make America great again, whatever that means or takes.
The struggle to preserve liberalism will be long. It may well be led now by the likes of Angela Merkel in Germany and Justin Trudeau in Canada. The mantle of custodian of the well-being of the free world sounds like a rip-off to Mr. Trump, who thinks deals and little else. It could well be that America has passed the torch.
Western democracies are in the midst of an upheaval they only dimly grasp. Virtual direct democracy through social media has outflanked representative democracy. The impact of the smartphone on the human psyche is as yet scarcely understood; its addictiveness is treacherous and can be the enemy of thought. Mr. Trump hijacked the Republican Party like a man borrowing a dinner jacket for an evening. His campaign moved through Twitter to the aroused masses; it had no use or need for conventional channels. The major political parties in Britain and the United States will have to prove their relevance again.
Democracies, it is clear, have not been delivering to the less privileged, who were disenfranchised or discarded in the swirl of technology’s advance. A lot of thought is now needed to find ways to restore faith in liberal, free-market societies; to show that they can be fairer and more equitable and offer more opportunities across the social spectrum. Germany, with its successful balance of capitalism and solidarity, its respect for the labor force and its commitments to both higher education and technical training, offers one model. The rage of 2016 will not abate by itself.
The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.
This is an article from Turning Points, a magazine that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

Bruleé

At this time of year in the kitchen of our compact but adorable sity apartment, when I boil water for vegetables, my cigarette smoke mixes with the steam and condenses against the wall to turn the paintwork from bright, Summery blues into the nicotene yellow of a caramel custard topping.

I love it.

A temple by any other name


Some of the merchandise being worn by the girlfriend of its creator. You can now buy the t-shirts.

During the exhibition, someone walked in, scanned the walls, then walked out again saying, "This isn't very Christmassy."

That gallery was a little oasis of calm and warmth - set in the epicentre of the Christmas Market - which some people used in the same way as they use the room of 'contemplation' at airports.