Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Beans up your nose

Someone delivered a desk to us yesterday. (No, this is not going to be about how the no. 2 domestic computer starts off being just a PC and finishes up as an installation more powerful than that of Delta Airlines.) I want to finish the month on a cheerful note. It has been sunny all day – 18 celsius – probably hundreds in American money: we had lunch on the terrace and the Cote really was azure.
Sorry - the desk: like I said, someone delivered a desk. We said it should take them an hour to get to our place, but it took them four. It highlighted an inexplicable psychological truth: that if, when giving directions, you tell people what NOT to do, they will do it. On the way to our house from the motorway is a sign saying clearly the name of our town, but if you ignore it and take the next exit, you will get to us in a fraction of the time. But whatever we say, and despite all the sophisticated in-car GPS systems and on-line mapping in the world, people take the first one.
This phenomenon is known in our family as ‘beans up your nose’. (Origin: you would never dream of leaving a child alone with a bag of beans, and saying, as you leave the room, ‘Now don’t you go putting those beans up your nose’.) It’s so obvious it should not need saying, but how many times have you ever heard a salesman say ‘you’ll find this a much faster/quieter/easier to use gismo than that of X’, (naming his most feared competitor)? So who do you check out next?

In the French Savoy Alps, in a roadside wood near Chamonix, the passing motorist will see a large sign nailed to a tree. It reads, in French, ‘Do not pick the snails’.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Ve haf created a monster

It’s true. What started out as a short break while sipping the morning tea has become a millstone. I sit down intent on creating a work of entertaining but forgettable fiction, and end up presenting some earth-shaking fact. (See ‘Are you a blog slave’ – no, you don’t need to.) What I want is a cure.
Proposed partial cure: give it up on Sundays. This is not on religious grounds. Let me test the logic on my vast reader base – a fairly representative focus group I’d say. People who don’t blog at home – ie. those with kids to buy shoes for, vegetable gardens or other distractions – don’t look in until they get to work on Mondays. Thus they get three posts together – and probably read only the last one. Not necessary.
While you’re thinking about that, there's a writer I like. (The ‘Profile’ section doesn’t allow you to give favourite writers – funny that.) It's Saki – no, not the latest signing by Chelsea – he was a very funny writer – cousin of a very non-funny writer, as I remember, but can’t remember who that was. He - that's Saki not the cousin - wrote things like, ‘I hear they’re going to Lower Regent Street’. ‘I’m sure they will.’ Or ‘he’s got a finely-developed instinct for being unhappy’ – which brings to mind a relative of mine. OK, you had to be there.
There - twelve minutes, plus 48 minutes proofing.
Welcome to the six-day week. At least it stopped raining.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Blues in Miniature

This is not the French Riviera we know and love: it’s cold and rainy and the palm trees are doing frantic semaphores in the howling wind. So I’m indulging in a bit of summer therapy. I’m thinking sunshine; topless bodies frying like parallel sausages in a pan. It’s hot, and from Hyères in the west to the Italian border in the east, the coastal hills are alive with the sound of jazz festivals.
The Riviera’s love affair with jazz is as old as jazz itself. While paddle steamers were carrying the new music up the Mississippi to the great northern cities, GIs and gobs were bringing over the first fragile, scratchy products of the infant recording industry.
Between the wars, attracted by the favourable climate and exchange rates, more Americans followed, bringing their music with them. Jazz was a key factor in the Riviera’s metamorphosis from sedate winter retreat for posh Brits to summer playground.
Black American jazz musicians found a more tolerant society here: Sydney Bechet Square in Antibes is the town’s tribute to the New Orleans jazzman who lived, married and died there.
Incongruous though it may seem, the Riviera and jazz go together.
Like most oldies, I tend think to think that nothing is what it was in ‘my’ day. Fortunately, in most cases it’s better. I would not be doing this, for instance – not only because there wouldn’t have been the internet, but because I’d be dead.
But I must say that the Nice Jazz Festival is not what it was. There’s no money in jazz, so it’s a rap, rock, funk, gospel, reggae etc. festival – the jazz is hard to find.
I know it’s just nostalgia for passing - or passed - youth, but I miss the picnics under the olive trees and the chance to meet the people whose talent I envy most: jazz musicians. My kids and I used to chat with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton in the cafeteria. (Why were jazzmen always such nice people?) Today the artists are ‘artistes’, cloistered in a public-proof "Village des Artistes", and picnic boxes are verboten - they adversely impact wine and food sales. My, then, early teen son and I met the French jazz pianist Michel Petruccianni there once.
Petrucciani died in New York aged only 36 – not of an overdose but from a rare bone disease - before he'd had time to enjoy the fame he deserved. He was less than three feet tall, (the change in font size is deliberate) and opened every gig with his composition 'Looking Up'. It was his metaphor - he looked up at the piano, at his fellow musicians, at the world. Son, shy - then at least - but never timid, hesitated over asking for his autograph, but eventually did. And what an autograph it was! Not a bored celebrity squiggle - it was a brilliant caricature of Petrucciani himself, cherub-faced, looking up, with a single word: 'Peace'.
Peace to you, Michel, for the joy you brought to a grateful few.

Looking up, I see it’s still raining outside, and the Mediterranean looks like the north Atlantic.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Happy birthday, Wolfgang!

Poor old Wolfgang. If only the old workaholic had known that, although consigned to a pauper’s grave, he would be feted around the world 2½ centuries later! It’s a pity also that he died so young - although I don’t support all this speculation about how good he might have been had he lived a normal lifespan. No, I have a theory that Mozart, like many artists from other disciplines - Keats (25), Charlie Parker (34), Aubrey Beardsley (25), and so on - was so prolific because he knew he wouldn’t make it to middle age. Or perhaps even because they didn’t want to.
Most of us reach what Benny Green called our ‘Schopenhauer factor’: the point at which our creativity tails off and we don’t get any better at what we do. Quite often, no-one tells us – or they keep us on for nostalgia: Sinatra, Catherine Deneuve, Matisse and many, many others. Did Bird see it coming, and not want to hang around?
Just before John Betjeman died at the age of 78, he was asked by a BBC interviewer if he had any regrets about things he would like to have achieved. ‘More sex’, he said.
Have a happy birthday, Wolfgang.

Friday, January 27, 2006

France for beginners

I’m reading, among other things, ‘A Year in the Merde’, a present from my daughter. There’s a steady stream of French-bashing books in English these days, hardly any of them by anyone who knows anything about France – and I’m not even including the US-originating ‘why didn’t they help us kill more Iraquis after we saved their asses twice’ crap, which no thinking person takes seriously. I mean all that clichéd stuff about French food, or plumbing, or driving, or manners, or whatever.
I’ve lived in France, off and on, for more than 20 years, and think that nearly every one of the clichés, whether critical or Gene Kelly-style sycophantic, has turned out wrong, and the only criticisms I’ve found consistently to be true are – surprise surprise – those same ones that the French say about the Brits, and that everyone says about Americans: excessive and unreasoned nationalism, and arrogance.
There could be a message there. I’m not sure what it is but there’s something in the gospels about ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone'.
OK then – well - there is one thing. It’s the language. They’re funny about their language. (A French friend – a university professor in modern languages - said recently that she would never master English because it isn’t logical!)
The French will do anything to promote the increasing spread of the French language – including Presidential glad-handing of tin-pot African dictators – except for the one thing that might succeed: whish is to simplify it. Educationalists know this, but politicians, the Academie Francaise, the Conseil Superior de la Langue Francaise and the rest of the intellectual establishment will never hear of it. Their careers depend on it.
So, instead of simplifying it, they have created at least three languages: written, spoken – and young. Kids who want to ‘fastfooder chez Macdo’ (have a burger at MacDonalds) can only use such an expression to other kids.
So, while they strive to grow the language, it atrophies,
But as a crime, it’s nothing compared with fighting other people’s wars in exchange for a weekend at Camp David.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Are you a blog slave?

Isn’t it funny how hobbies that you take up as a source of relaxation and pleasure can end up being your master? A little place in the country or at the seaside; a boat; a vintage car; golf.
Or a blog.
My wife and I have spent much of the last couple of weeks doing DIY – she painting things and I changing door handles, she finding that the French can’t make paint: ‘Who in this century ever heard of having to stir paint before use?’, while I find that it’s not just a matter of switching over handles. The key-holes don’t line up with the old locks, so I have to change the locks - but the new locks are smaller than the old ones, so the gaps have to be filled with wood. And my bricolage (DIY in French) vocabulary is barely adequate even in English. You see what I mean.
I can feel your sympathy coming over in waves: ‘Poor things,’ I hear you say. ‘Your little apartment overlooking the Mediterranean needs a bit of attention. My heart bleeds,’ I hear you say. I appreciate your concern.
But you have to accept the general concept. I used to know a guy who had a yacht at Annapolis, and every week-end – every single frigging weekend - he would drive down there from Philadelphia to scrape its bottom or paint lines or whatever it’s called. Sailing? Don’t be silly, he never had time.
Golfers who get up at 5am in order to get a place on the course: quadriplegic horse-riders (that's the riders, not the horses), mountaineers, and so on. It’s mad.
And now it’s the blog. Waking up in a fever each morning thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to write about today?’ And here we are, nearly midnight, and I still don’t know.
Ever read the Robin Maugham book, The Servant, about a guy who hires a manservant - who ends up taking over his woman, his house, his money, his life? That’s it: the old IHS – the Insidious Hobby Syndrome.
Bloggers of the world, we must unite in revolt against…

Sorry, I have to leave it there – got to let the wife out of the bathroom. The door handle’s stuck.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

…we band of brothers (Shakespeare, Henry V)

The problem has been troubling my family for years. I thought it was just us – or certainly no more than a local thing. But it turns out it’s national – and we can’t do anything about it.
There are many things about our postal services that are frustrating, but most of them have an acceptable reason. The only possible reasons for this one are laziness, or sheer cussedness. You will know I’m talking about rubber bands.
Postmen use them to keep the mail for each house together until they reach its mail box. Then they insert the mail and discard the rubber band. The bands pollute our paths, poison our pets and parch our primroses. So we complain.
Eventually the complaints reached the culprits. ‘We drop them accidentally,’ they said, stretching our credibility, ‘and it’s too dark for us to find them again’ (ignoring the fact that nocturnal postal delivery went out with Queen Victoria). So the Post Office, rather than deal with the real problem, decided to make the bands red – so that poor presbyopic posties could see the bands after they had accidentally dropped them. So now they litter our neighbourhoods with red rubber bands. And every year the Post Office buys 342 million more to replace them.
And the Kyoto Accord doesn’t even mention it.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A word in your hand

Did you ever have one of those games of Scrabble when really nothing goes wrong? Even when you’re praying that the next time you put your hand in the bag, it will come out full of ‘i’s or 'e's, out it pops with a’q’ – with, of course, a handy ‘u’ for company.
I had one of these a couple of nights ago. I got all the big scorers, both the 10s, both the 8s, the ‘k’(5) and most of the 4’s. And to ensure I didn’t have any problems putting them down, I got the two blanks and both ‘s’s. Doubles, triples, and double doubles – and, to make matters worse, a 7-letter word (50-point bonus.)
What could I do? A dyslexic chimpanzee could not have lost with tiles like these. My opponent could have been forgiven for accusing me of cheating. (She did not, but if Spears & Co. had made it out West it would have been shoot-out time. ‘Show me what you got in that other hand, Stranger.’)
By the end of the game we were barely talking, and the fact that, of our previous 130 games, she had won 73 and I only 57 had been forgotten. Only a long discussion on the mathematics of chance and a couple of glasses of lightly-chilled crisp white Burgundy averted a matrimonial crisis.
But the incident raises a serious ethical question. What do you do when you have an unbeatable hand? (Erich Berne – Games People Play – calls it the Gotcha syndrome.) Obviously you don't gloat, but do you keep playing to the best of your ability? Even if you are humbling the person you love? Or do you throw the fight?
The defence rests.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Taxman Cometh

It’s creative accounting time in Britain. By the end of January, we have to submit our tax returns for the year ended 5 April 2005 – there’s a reason for that crazy date but it’s too boring – and pay what we owe, or get an automatic fine. We also have to pay what we don’t owe: ie. half of what the Revenue THINKS we will be called upon to pay next year.
If you are an average-earning writer, (and not, as the Revenue seems to assume, Stephen King), and wish to feed your family in the year to come, a great deal of creativity is called for in deciding which legally deductible items you will NOT claim.
I write articles based on my travels, and, not being Bill Bryson, I have them to sell to magazines who pay anything between one Euro ($1 or 60p) and zilch per carefully-honed word – but usually averaging around 50 centimes (50cents or 30p). As anyone other than a Tax Collector would appreciate, this does not cover a fraction of the travel costs, so I make a loss. Too big a loss would arouse the interest of the Taxman: consequently, rather than cause him to fall off his chair in uproarious laughter, I charge only around 20% of my actual deductible travel expenses. And rather than tax (pun intended) his credibility even further, I inflate my actual earnings by at least 100%.
That’s how much I like to travel – and write.
It’s a crazy world.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Everton v. Chelsea Feb 12 2005

Oh when the saints...

Everton beat Millwall one-nil last night. This takes them into the next round of the FA Cup – they give it a different name every time it gets a new sponsor, but to me it remains the FA Cup. Everton's dubious reward is that they get to play Chelsea in the next round. Our record against Chelsea – the best team in the world, whose substitute bench would beat most other teams in the world – is abysmal. The picture is of Chelsea scoring against Everton last Feb – although, as you can see, we did have a headless goalkeeper. (There’s a prize if you can find me.) But if we do beat them in the Cup, our manager, David Moyes, will probably become Saint David.

I don’t think I’d like to be sanctified. Saints don’t have a lot of fun – at least not in this world. Did you ever see a fat saint?
They’re very hot on saints in Catholic countries. There are more ‘Saints Day’ cards sent in mainland Europe than birthday cards. In France, part of the TV weather forecast every day – some say the only bit you can rely on – is where they tell you the name of the next day’s saint. Tomorrow, for instance, it will be the feast of St, Sebastian – the feasting being for those kids whose name is Sebastian, not for the poor old saint. He certainly did not have a feast. He was buried in the walls of Rome because he wouldn’t renounce Christianity, then when he escaped he was shot through with arrows, and after he survived that (no wonder they made him patron saint of the sick) the Romans – presumably saying the Roman equivalent of ‘Get out of this one, Supersaint’ - finally beat him to death and dumped him in the main sewer. Immured, skewered and sewered: you could say he was chronically martyrdom-prone.

It’s harder to become a saint these days. First, there are fewer Christians around to become martyrs, and secondly because they’ve run out of days. The only way I could achieve sainthood is if they de-sanctify a few – and this requires approvals from On High - or if Everton win the FA Cup. So I guess I’ll have to remain just Ted.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Who's right, Darwin or Spock?

Is a stable childhood the most important legacy for a child to have a good start in life?
Well, no: the best start you can give a child – apart, obviously, from whether or not you create him or her in the first place - is something over which we have no control. It is to give him/her the right set of genes. With the right mix, they’ll survive any kind of domestic turbulence – or no home life at all.
Given equal sets of genes – I know that’s impossible, but accept it for the sake of this argument – children from split homes will probably mature earlier, be more self-sufficient and more interesting than those who remain parent-dependent until way past maturity. After all, it’s only in relatively recent times that we have lived long enough to know our parents into adulthood, let alone our grand-parents.
Here’s Ian McEwan in Saturday:
“[…] parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children. You never know who you’re going to get. Opportunities, health, prospects, accent, table manners – these might lie within your power to shape. But what really determines the sort of person who’s coming to live with you is which sperm finds which egg […]”.
(I’m not even sure about “health” myself: many mental and physical disorders are inherited.)

So Phillip Larkin got it right
Our parents put us in this plight,
While they in turn can blame their kin
For the mess they left them in.

So, while the ‘stable home’ fallacy will live on (as it should: loving parenthood is Nature’s way of ensuring that we reach puberty, thus perpetuating the human race), it don’t really matter a lot.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Is the Red Red Robin a cheep skate?

We’ve been putting away the Christmas cards in preparation - once we've checked which cheapskates on our list failed to send to us, that is - for recycling. It seems to be a feature of our sceptical times that every year there are fewer religious cards and more little red robins. My survey also revealed that one 'robin' card actually contained one of those dreaded round robins. (Tho I don't think the author was aware of the irony.) Now, while I do believe that cards should carry more than just the sender's signature (or worse, their printed name), I don't appreciate round robins. This one was sent by an American friend – they usually are – and is efficient and well-meaning, but it’s a very rare person who can recount a year’s activity of his/her person or family without sounding self-serving.
Round robins are no occasion for excessive modesty. The word ‘proud’ appears frequently. No-one says, ‘A shit year. Screwed up massively at work, was deservedly fired, and now am lucky to be employed as a bag boy at the local supermarket’. You say,’ I realised my job was not stretching my talents to the full and that I needed more direct contact with people’.
I also find - despite my having used three so far today – that people whose only creative writing is an annual round robin tend to overdo the adverbs. Especially (make that four!) when describing the tone in which something was said, as in “she said sadly”, or “he asked ironically”. If you need “sadly” or “ironically”, it means the dialogue hasn’t made it clear.
I’ve written a scenario to show what happens when such adverbs get out of hand. A writer goes to see a doctor:
‘Can you lend me a pencil sharpener?’ asked the writer, bluntly.
‘I’m a doctor, not a stationer. What exactly can I do for you?’ replied the doctor patiently.
‘I’ve been changing my type font’, said the writer boldly - and switching to ragged right margins’ he added, quite unjustifiably.
‘Are you still writing fairy tales,’ asked the doctor grimly.
‘Yes, and I’ve spent so long at the keyboard I’ve got blisters’, the writer went on callously.
‘Would you like me to amputate you at the wrist? asked the doctor, offhandedly – ‘or even at the shoulder,’ he added disarmingly.
‘No thanks, but I think I need a knee replacement,’ said the writer, lamely.
‘But you were never in a car crash’, said the doctor recklessly.
‘Sorry, I didn’t hear that’, said his patient deftly.
‘That’s because your hair is too long,’ said the doctor, barbarously.
‘I haven’t had it cut because I was on a camping holiday’, the writer answered intently.
‘I prefer to take my holidays at that Film Festival in the south of France,’ said the doctor, cannily - ‘or visiting modern art museums’, he added abstractly.

I have to say that many of these came from a web site dedicated to this whole subject. My favourite - though I couldn't work it into the above script, is "'I think the answer's 22/7', he said piously". They've got a site for everything these days - even sore eyes.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Welcome back, Blues!

If you’re not a soccer fan you can skip this post. Everton (the Blues) won on Saturday. This is the exception proving the rule – a few weeks ago they were hovering on the brink of the relegation zone and looked likely to plunge into the nether leagues. Worse, it looked as if the manager who last year took them into the Champions League with his bare hands was about to be fired.
But now, 14th in the Premiership – the successor of the First Division of which they were a founder member 130-something years ago – it looks as if they will survive, and we can, if not celebrate, breathe again.
Short of money and in the long shadow of the Reds, our friendly but bitter rivals from the other side of Stanley Park, (where my uncle was custodian of the cemetery and therefore neutral), the Blues will come back to glory. But will I, son and parent of blue-blooded Evertonians, live long enough to see it?
And to complete my weekend, the other Reds, Manchester United, lost, and their star ‘diver’ (simulator of fouls in order to get opposing players booked or sent off) – was sent off!
Oh poetic irony! Welcome back, Blues! Bye Bye, Reds!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

51 reasons to blog

There doesn’t seem much point in waiting until the end of the year before comparing one’s performance against New Year resolutions – it’s too late then for any recovery. No successful business would operate that way. So I decided to check up at more frequent intervals - for better control.
Let me tell you, on January 15, that 2006 is not looking good. OK, some are not doing badly. I’m on plan as far as weight loss, wife-beating (at Scrabble I should add), tax return completion and lunch-time wine drinking are concerned. But the unmitigated disaster is work: the target was 350 usable, sellable words a day, not including blogs. I‘ve barely achieved that in total. But at least I know now the area that needs attention. Problem, to find more time or adjust objectives?
Cutting out blogging would give me more time of course, but I’m just beginning to like it. Why? I don’t know – warm-up for serious writing; keyboard practice; PR; therapy; boasting; attracting sympathy – there are many reasons.
But I agree with Huxley that if anyone gives multiple reasons for anything, none of them is true, so I'll stop there. And 51 reasons is unreasonable, so sorry if I got your attention unfairly.
Next week: a piece for alcoholics called “There must be 50 ways to lose your liver”.