Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sarnies with Grandma

Mexicans call it La día de los Muertos; the French Toussaint, posh English All Saints', but as linguistic imperialism spreads, we will all soon call it "Hallowe’en". Not belonging in any of the above categories, as children we called it "Duck-Apple Night". I don’t know if that was a uniquely Liverpool thing - but it was an evening on which we did silly things with apples – floated them in basins of water or hung them from ceiling beams, and tried to eat them without the use of hands or implements. Apples being autumnal, I guess it was the Scouse Hallowe’en.

But no one does it like Mexicans. In Guanajuarto, in the central highlands, some 200 miles north-west of Mexico City, I was asked if I’d like to see the museum. “What museum?”, I asked. “Las Momias”, he said. It sounded friendly, but it turned out to be a ghoulish library, its shelves within easy touching distance on either side, except that on the shelves were, not books, but dead bodies.

There were men, women, and children; most of them naked, but some were partially clothed in funereal black. They were emaciated and covered in parchment-like skin that stretched across their bones like over-filled shopping bags. In eyeless faces, skin was drawn tightly across cheeks and jaw to reveal blackened teeth in demoniac grins.

I kept thinking that I must be more than half way in, so that I would see fewer of them if I kept going than if I turned back - but on and on went Las Momias - the Museum of the Mummies - room after room of corpses piled on corpses from floor to ceiling, most of them frozen into agonized positions that did not say “RIP”. By the time I reached "the smallest mummy in the world" - the petrified foetus of a woman who had died in labour - I'd seen enough.

It was my first taste of the Mexican fascination with death. In Mexico, La Día de los Muertos is a national festival, a day on which families load up picnic hampers and folding tables and chairs and trip merrily off to cemeteries to cavort among the ancestors, the adults drinking wine and beer and the children eating skull-shaped sweets.

Outside, kids in Nike trainers were offering coloured postcards of the bodies - lying on shelves, sprawled in the dusty street, or standing in line like a cadaverous Miss World contest. Other kids sold rock effigies of corpses.
That’s not 'rock', as in archaeology, but 'rock' as in Brighton.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Don’t Tampa with history

One thing about Villefranche is the strange signs they put up. Every pedestrian crossing has a sign saying "If you want to cross the street, press the red button below", and there's an arrow pointing down to the button - which is green.
Outside the Post Office, a notice says "Open Monday to Friday - except Thursday and Saturday". And in the middle of the town there's a building site. They're going to build 44 houses. The notice outside has been there a long time. It reads: "Completion date October 8, 2007". That's right, 200seven. The only problem is they haven't started work on it yet.

Tonight’s the night folks. This is the night the Phillies walk off with the World Series of baseball. You can't get odds on them not to. Why is it called the World Series when the teams all come from the same country? And it's not even an American game? You don’t have to go to Coopertown, NY to celebrate the alleged birth of baseball – in 1839. The rules of Base-Ball were established in England – in 1744. I like Tampa – nice weather, great Dali museum - but the Phillies will do it tonight, you'll see.
If you can stay awake long enough.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Senator wrecks Jazz Festival

That Chicago – it sure is one laid-back city. One of our reasons for choosing it was jazz. It was the first northern city to get into the blues – thanks to a river with a long name and lots of New Orleans jazzmen looking for work. Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven – that sort of thing.
“Hyde Park Jazz Festival!!” the brochure screamed, “Sunday from 11am till late”. Wow, this is it, we thought, pity we fly out to London that evening, and that it’s two buses and two train rides from the city and the same to get back. We’ll have to leave it at 1.30, but still, a couple of hours’ jazz before we leave will be fun – a lasting memory of Chicago.
At 11.30 there's no one there. At 12 noon some sound equipment turns up. At 12.30 some locals and a photographer arrive. There’s a problem: some nouveau-riche Hyde Park resident has his house surrounded by Secret Service men 24/7 and they can’t even walk their dogs, let alone drive. “God – if he gets elected it’ll be worse!” they say.
At 1 o’clock the stalls are opening – near-beer and pretzels. 1.30, still no jazz, and we have to leave.
Moral 1 – don’t believe tourist brochures
Moral 2 - Don’t go to a jazz festival near a presidential candidate’s home.

Chicago has two other famous sons: Ernest Hemingway, who spent his first 18 years in Oak Park, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who began his architectural career with the great Louis Sullivan, then started his own practice in Oak Park. In fact Oak Park really rocks, especially Louie’s Bar. (Has the number of Louis’s in this town anything to do with Satchmo?)
A week later, back in Villefranche, a letter arrives from Chicago: “I found this notebook in Oak Park, Illinois. Hope it finds you”.
Nice people, even if they can’t run jazz festivals.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bread and Baroque

When someone says Turin you think of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino and Juventus – the former familiarly known as Fiat and the latter as Juve. But it’s not all Fiat and Juve - after this weekend we’ll remember it as Baroquesville. Every public building and street seems to have been designed as part of some sort of Grand Plan – which of course they were. We went there because it was the only city within a thousand or so miles we hadn’t been to – and loved it. Neitzsche said, “This is the only place where I am possible”, which is about as helpful as what he said about Nice – “like a plant I grow in sunshine”.
Not a lot of sunshine in Turin – but they have the answer to Piedmontese weather: the streets are lined with cloister-like (but baroque of course), marble-clad arcades, and you can walk 18km. of the town - including intersections - without getting wet. It doesn’t help a lot against the wind but then neither does it seem to impact the sales of bread or ice-cream – or the warmth of the people. We'll be back when they play Everton - forza Blues!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pit-bulls on parade

After Chicago it was a nice change to hear a few different things in the news other than The Campaign - things like the FTSE and Rooney's form. But now, just as I'm getting ready to start listening to it again, and just when I thought it was relatively clean, it's turning nasty. Here's Frank Rich in the NYT today:

'[...] what has pumped up the Weimar-like rage at McCain-Palin rallies is the violent escalation in rhetoric, especially (though not exclusively) by Palin. Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” He is “palling around with terrorists” (note the plural noun). Obama is “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” Wielding a wildly out-of-context Obama quote, Palin slurs him as an enemy of American troops.

By the time McCain asks the crowd “Who is the real Barack Obama?” it’s no surprise that someone cries out “Terrorist!” The rhetorical conflation of Obama with terrorism is complete. It is stoked further by the repeated invocation of Obama’s middle name by surrogates introducing McCain and Palin at these rallies. This sleight of hand at once synchronizes with the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts and shifts the brand of terrorism from Ayers’s Vietnam-era variety to the radical Islamic threats of today.

That’s a far cry from simply accusing Obama of being a guilty-by-association radical leftist. Obama is being branded as a potential killer and an accessory to past attempts at murder. “Barack Obama’s friend tried to kill my family” was how a McCain press release last week packaged the remembrance of a Weather Underground incident from 1970 — when Obama was 8.'

Not that I'm entirely in favour of that particular legislation, but I don't think that sort of talk is permitted in the UK these days. But then, neither are pit-bulls.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's in a name?

Newcastle’s new manager - football’s answer to Gordon Ramsay - used 46 expletives in his first press conference. So said The Telegraph: the more sensitive Times made it 50. His complaint is that the press doesn’t understand him. Now that surprises me.

The other Gordon is chucking our money at the financial sector in the hope that it defibrillate the economy – as the FTSE drops another 314 points today. One wonders, since the beneficiaries of his largesse are those same people who mismanaged their shareholders’ money, why they are being given another try using the taxpayers’?
But there’s a more important question. Is it fair to reimburse British savers who put their money into foreign financial institutions that failed because they were badly managed – and not to reimburse British savers who put their money into a British financial institution that was subject to government regulation and went belly-up because the government regulated it badly?
We are of course talking about Equitable Life - to which a million British savers entrusted their pensions. They did so because it was government regulated, and because most MPs – including our prudent Prime Minister – also entrusted their pensions to Equitable. It went bust eight years ago and the Parliamentary Ombudsman gave maladministration by the government as a critical cause. But Equitable pensioners still get less than 2/3 of the pensions they paid for and the Treasury won’t say anything, let alone do anything. How Equitable is that?
The reason for the Treasury delay seems to be either that the government is deliberately taking its time, knowing that demographics will eventually solve its problem. (More than 30,000 Equitable pensioners have died since the crash and obviously the death rate - currently 15 per day – is increasing.) Or, do MPs not want to explain why they did not lose their pensions?
There’s only one solution. Equitable Life – a name that opens up whole new vistas of irony - could change its name to include the word “Scotland”.
Talking of ironic names, the Schools Minister, Ed Balls, who once endorsed SATs as a better way of comparing schooling quality, then, when the SATs system collapsed, said it wasn’t his area of responsibility, now says that SATs have been dropped in favour of school report cards, to present a more accurate measurement. Hey! School report cards! Great idea, Ed.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Apostrophically yours

This is how a Villefranche gift shop promotes its products to departing cruise passengers. It may infuriate Lynne Truss, but I bet they sell more gifts and T-shirts than copies of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves". (It's next door to Michel's.)
American politicians have known ever since Truman’s "If you can't stand the heat..." that voters prefer their politicians folksy and illiterate - hence Sarah's "Doggone it" and George W.’s "Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?".
As Alistair Cooke once observed - and Maureen Dowd quoted in the NYT (punctuation corrected) - “Americans seem to be more comfortable with Republican presidents because they share the common frailty of muddled syntax and because, when they attempt eloquence, they tend to spout a kind of Frontier Baroque”. Sarah just shoots.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Grapes, anyone?

A bit tense around here today – they’re announcing the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not that I’m over-optimistic: it’s supposed to be about your life’s work and I only started writing after senility set in – or perhaps because senility set in. And there are many who’ve been in the queue longer than me - just look how long Pinter had to wait for his (it takes longer for lefties – Greene never got one at all - he should never have called the hero of Brighton Rock "Pinkie".).
And besides, what chance has anyone got with a bourgeois name like mine?
I'm not holding my breath, but still, I'm cheered after Horace Engdahl’s recent words – he’s permanent secretary of the body that awards the Prize. In fact, I never had a better chance, because he seems to have ruled out American writers this year.
Maybe it’s part of the world trend today, but he's been saying things like “Europe is the center of the literary world,” and that “the U.S. is too isolated, too insular”.
Charles McGrath in the NYT seems to agree. It’s because, he says, “in the United States, a Nobel usually doesn’t produce even [a] modest uptick in sales”. Could he be confusing cause with consequence?
Who wants the Nobel Prize anyway? Beckett thought it was the worst thing that happened to his career; Sartre refused it; Yeats thought it wasn’t generous enough; Steinbeck never wrote a decent thing after it: and Hemingway shot himself.
So keep your capitalist bauble, Mr Engdahl. It wouldn’t exist had it not been for the explosives industry.
Grapes, anyone?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My kind of town

The good news: Chicago was fantastic. Everything about it, with one exception, (see bad news). It’s a sort of mini-New York, but calmer, quieter and more polite – they even stop at Stop signs. Incredible buildings, great galleries, interesting museums, nice people, perfect weather. All-in-all nine wonderful days.
The bad news: the food. Amazingly bad. In nine days, we hit about a dozen restaurants, and only one you would think of going back to. OK, so we’ve been spoiled by Nice and Villefranche, but you never in your life saw such theatrics – glamorous hostesses, chatty waiters, (“Good evening, I’m Matt and I’ll be looking after you this evening”), poster-sized menus, incessant iced water top-ups, (not by Matt), all building up to cold, bland, half- cooked crap.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on Tempo, which did excellent but obscenely large breakfasts, and the Bistro 110, but please, don’t even go near to Devon Seafood Grill, Bice, Italian Village, Ditka’s or the Art Institute Restaurant. Their chefs should be dragged forcibly to McCormick and Schmick – the one we went back to, twice - to see how it should be done.

But those buildings – we’ve got stiff necks from gazing at them. Because of the great fire that flattened the city centre in – was it 1871? – they’re all relatively modern, but different, from the mock-Gothic Chicago Tribune to the mock-funnel Trump Tower (right). Collectively, they make excellent backdrops for views of Lake Michigan.
More later – we haven’t finished with Chicago yet.