Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey Day Reprize

Well it's that time of year again when people drive hundreds of miles to see family members just so as they can remind themselves why they live hundreds of miles away from them.

It's known as Thanksgiving or Turkey Day. It's rather confusing but hey it's a couple of days off work. Last night I saw Trains, Planes and Automobiles, which is a rather funny and moving film in which corporate jerk Steve Martin and disaster-waiting-to-happen John Candy desperately try to make it home for Thanksgiving. It's kind of schmaltzy and a bit heart warming, even for my cynical heart at the and, even if it made me want to chuck a bit.

My other observation on this movie is exactly how old is it? The scene where Martin goes to the rental car lot looks more like Night At the Museum.

So what's the big deal with Thanksgiving? A good question when your fridge is broken. Fortunately, I had not even got round to buying a turkey to be ruined. Who says it always pays to plan ahead. The chicken nuggets may be ruined but there's still a couple of pots of powdered macaroni cheese. Who needs to go through that sham pretense of liking turkey anyhow? Particularly four days after Thanksgiving.

On the subject of recycling. I thought I'd recycle an old Thanksgiving post. I'm rather surprised about what a rant it was. Oh for the energy to rant. Happy Thanksgiving.

Someone's feeling peckish

I kept rather a low profile during Thanksgiving. To be honest I’ve never really seen the point of this schmaltzfest, unless you happen to be a turkey farmer in the US who gets to hit pay dirt twice in the space of a month. And what kind of an American expression is pay dirt, anyhow? What does it mean? You get paid so you have to go out and do something really dirty. Which may ensure you don’t get paid again for a while. Apparently it refers to gravel with a high concentration of gold in it; not like any gravel you get round these parts.

In short I didn’t post anything on Facebook saying 'I’m so Thankful.' That’s partly because I’m a curmudgeon, although I am thankful I don’t live in Syria or Somalia, even though I have this recurring dream that I have been transported to a war zone. I'm not even sure if the feeling of peace and thankfulness was enduring because sometime overnight on Thursday it was replaced by the urge to get a cheap flatscreen TV or pair of designer sneakers and not care if it involved trampling a few elderly women half to death to get them the next morning.

But really I don’t like Thanksgiving (apart from the day off work, of course) because it’s one of those glib and smug rewritings of history for the benefit of people of European descent so that we can pat ourselves on the back about how great America is as our stomachs grumble for the rest of the afternoon parked in front of Real Housewives of Atlanta or New York or Redneckysville, Alabama.

So what are the origins of Thanksgiving? According to the Northwest Herald which is, I presume a newspaper in a cold place, it’s….

“The proclaiming of a day of thanksgiving traditionally dates from the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford invited the local Wampanoag Indians to join the Pilgrims in a three-day celebration of feasting and recreation. The Pilgrims were especially giving thanks for surviving the harsh winter of 1620-1621, during which half of the 102 Mayflower passengers had died, and for the bountiful harvest, which hopefully would help them to meet the challenge of the upcoming winter.”

But there’s also some kind of school lesson plan that does the rounds about how the Indians gave the Pilgrims their corn, that ensured survival, taught them to hunt and they all lived happily ever after. This is surely the tale that prompted my daughter to ask: “If the Indians didn’t have microwaves how did they teach the Pilgrims how to make popcorn?”

This is from the lesson plan.

“Tell first winter the Pilgrims spent in their new home was very cold. Food was in short supply. Some days they had only enough food for each new person to have five kernels of corn for the day. Finally spring came. They planted food and it grew. All the pilgrims did not die. From then on, when a time of Thanksgiving came around, the Pilgrims put five kernels of corn on each plate to remind themselves of their blessings. Let us also remember: (Written on the poster paper).”

Well that’s as clear as mud then. What is clear is that a few years later the Indians weren’t happy bunnies with a valid cause as the settlers took their land and drove them out. Philip, or Metacom, the second son of old Massasoit, the longtime friend of the English, became the head of the Wampanoags in 1662.

King Philip’s War between the Indians and the settlers that was waged from 1675 to 1678 was a bloody affair and the single greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. Nearly half of the region's towns were destroyed, its economy was all but ruined, and much of its population was killed, including one-tenth of all men available for military service. Proportionately this was one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in the history of North America.

For the next 200 years or so the protracted and intermittent genocide of the Indian people continued, as they were pushed west to the badlands of Oklahoma until somebody decided they wanted those lands too, perhaps after hitting pay dirt in those hills.

This is one reason why Thanksgiving leaves a bad taste for me. The other is the way we celebrate the Pilgrims as Godly and goodly when they were religious extremists who used to kill women who acted in a peculiar way as witches. These folks were more extreme than the tea party. In modern America they would probably be going around cutting beards off Amish people (predominantly men folk).

America makes such a big deal about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact, that’s made out like a precursor to the Constitution, that they tend to forget the first successful English speaking colony was in Virginia not New England.

There’s also a certain irony in seeing descendants of these white settlers who drove out the native people arguing for the kids of Mexican immigrants who sneaked into the country, to be sent back south as punishment for their parents’ actions. Just saying.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bosnia 20 Years On and the Darkness Within

(note uncharacteristically heavy blog disclaimer)

If you have never read The Lord of the Flies by William Golding I'd recommend you get your copy now. You can even order it on Kindle. It's almost two decades since I last read it, but few novels are so chilling, moving or relevant.

You don't realize its significance immediately. A group of kids are marooned on a tropical island after a plane crash that kills the pilot. They eat berries and try to set up a primitive society. Then slowly but surely a darkness moves in their midst. The boys split into two groups  those who want to carve out a society and those who descend into savagery. The result is war and devastation.

Many people are very familiar with this novel so, if so, ignore the last paragraph.

Still Golding's novel touches on an interesting question. How far removed are we from the savagery we like to associate with the past?

Most of us were born into Western Civilization. People were law abiding and those who failed to obey the rules were dealt with by a well established system of justice. But how easy can it break down? People went to work and usually came back. We invited our neighbors round for tea. We tended not to kill them. Judging by some of my childhood memories there was a propensity to bore them to death.

I have had lively discussions with people who argue human beings are essentially good. I'm not convinced by it. My own belief is the screen that separates civilization from anarchy is more flimsy that we think and easy to punch a hole in. Maybe I have seen too much yellow tape during my days as a crime reporter.

About 25 years ago I visited the former Yugoslavia with my sister. Dubrovnik with its old churches, city walls, sleepy cafes and tourist shops on the glittering Adriatic could have been Italy or Greece. Still there was some latent savagery up in the hills that bore the name of Tito carved in a giant relief. We took a bus south to Montenegro and stopped at a place called Bar that comprised a weed strewn sea front against a backdrop of monolithic towers of an ugliness perfected by the old Eastern bloc.

We had no idea why we were here. Later we realized we had incorrectly written down the name of a place we were seeking from a friend back in England. We stayed in a ramshackle room and the owners of the pension invited us to sample the local spirit as they talked in hushed tones about the prospect of war in Kosovo. They spoke of the recent nationalist speech delivered by the Yugolslav leader Slobodan Milošević, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, and his reference to the possibility of "armed battles," in the future of Serbia's national development.

It was hard to look at the mountains and the gentle coast and to imagine war in this peaceful backwater.

But a year later war was looming Yugoslavia with its many ethnic divisions as the Serbian dominated army turned on the other nationalities. Slovenia broke away followed by Croatia.  At Vukovar in eastern Croatia, Serbian forces and paramilitaries mounted an 87 day siege with heavy armor and artillery. During the battle, shells and rockets were fired into the city at a rate of up to 12,000 a day, the most ferocious bombardment seen in Europe since Stalingrad in 1942. When the city was finally overrun, patients were dragged from a hospital and killed.

Over the next four years the former Yugoslavia descended into a nightmare. Refugees huddled under mortar fire under the same walls we had taken photos of in Dubrovnik, while in Bosnia, Serbians and Croats attacked Muslim Bosnians and pictures of emaciated people seen in concentration camps of the kind we hoped had been banished for ever since the Nazi horror, returned. Sarajevo, a city that had recently hosted the winter Olympics, became the scene of a Medieval style siege as Serbian forces shelled the Bosnian inhabitants for almost four years.

The Bosnian conflict was shocking on so many levels. The notion of "ethnic cleansing" with its casual homage to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, harked back to a barbarity that was meant to never happen again with the creation of the United Nations. The conflict also saw mass rape return as an instrument of war with an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women raped. It was a war in which people who had lived peacefully next to each other for decades, turned on each other and killed and raped.

In 1995, I had returned from the beach in Turkey. We stopped off in Oxford and sat on a sunny afternoon on a table by the water meadows, looking over the fable Dreaming Spires. I picked up a copy of The Independent and a heavy cloud passed over the sun and my post holiday euphoria as I read about how Serbian forces had overrun the desperate little town of Srebrenica, nominally a UN safe haven. More than 8,000 men and boys had been removed from the town. Srebrenica has since become a by word for the horrors of war because we know they were taken to fields and summarily executed.

Today an uneasy peace remains over the place once known as Yugoslavia and the famous Medieval bridge that was blown up at Mostar has been rebuilt.

But the events of those years made me aware of the indelible darkness that lingers in the human spirit. The death toll in Syria currently stands at more than 115,000 including 11,000 children. It's quickly becoming a conflict on the scale of Bosnia.

In America it's easy to turn off the news. We only hear about Syria when the President is considering sending in US planes. We hear nothing about the Central African Republic. A handful of hapless people will have tortured and killed in the time it takes to read this article.

But is it so easy to shut out. Every now and then a maniac with a gun shoots up a school or a shopping center. We can turn off the TV and lock the doors, but it's more difficult to lock out the thing that's dark and nihilistic within us.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bardot, Gunter Sachs and the Fleeting Nature of Passion

Sometimes a name, or an obscure news story will open up a window to another era and allow the glamor and excitement of a past time to come rushing back in for a short time. It was thus in Brideshead Revisited when Charles, a dutiful army officer going through the motions in a dull company, arrives at a camp close to a great house that’s now abandoned. He realizes suddenly it’s Brideshead where he spent so much of his audacious and dashing youth, alas now shuttered due to war and bereft of its inhabitants.

 Earlier this week, an article in The Telegraph also shed light on a romantic and glamorous episode, now long forgotten.

The 10-roomed apartment in Paris where French film star Brigitte Bardot and her German playboy-cum-art-collector husband Gunther Sachs, lived in when they were married is now up for sale for a mere 6.1 million euros.

Bardot and Sachs were described as “impossibly glamorous” when they were together, but few recall them now.

Bardot was one of the best known sex symbols of the 1950s and 1960s, while Sachs was one of the leading playboys of his generation. Bardot had put the tiny and little-known fishing village of St Tropez on the map in the Fifties after making the film And God Created Woman there.

They met in St Tropez and, by all accounts, the sexual chemistry fizzed. Sachs famously dropped hundreds of red roses over her St Tropez beach home from a helicopter, then dropped out of the helicopter and swam up to her back door with two suitcases in tow.

Later, knowing Bardot’s love of animals, he bought her a tame cheetah.   

It was a hard act to follow, and it seemed they failed to live up to the early pace. By the time they married in Vegas in 1966, Bardot was already becoming irritated by her lover’s antics. Their marriage lasted three years and died amid acrimony. In the latter years of their marriage, the apartment bore the brunt of the acrimony.

“The marble floors and lack of carpets must have made this anideal venue for cup-smashing. Mind you, there were plenty of rooms to stomp off to, including a rather elegant billiards room and an oval-shaped, glass-roofed discotheque, said to have been inspired by the celebrated Chez Rėgine nightclub, just off the Champs Elysées,” wrote Christopher Middleton in The Telegraph.

So, it seemed a relationship that started with roses ended up like the War of the Roses.

Still, it was glamorous while it lasted and the older we get the more we cling to those shards of erstwhile glamor.

We’ll never know if Sachs thought of the roses one day in 2011 when he took his life in his villa in the jet-set Swiss resort of Gstaad fearing an illness he would only call A, which is thought to have been Alzheimer’s, would take over his body.

Bardot is still alive but has lived a reclusive life for many years, her animals her best companion. A recent article in the Daily Mail described her as a recluse with a dubious private life who hasn’t aged well. In her defense, she is 79-years-old.

The relationship between Bardot and Sachs could teach us many things – passion is fleeting or the French will never get on with the Germans.

More than anything else, it’s probably a reminder to seize the moment before we are hobbling around seeking out a hip replacement.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Resurrection Blogfest II - The Human Touch

Soooo I entered Mina Lobo's Resurrection Blogfest II at Some Dark Romantic which is quite something because I don't have time to do blog hops anymore. I don't want this to sound pretentious. It's not that I am 'sooooo over blog hops.' I just have some dull worky stuff going on to complement my dull non working stuff right now.

But I thought hey - I did it last year and Mina is kool; not just because she like Duran Duran. There was also the not insignificant fact that this hop involves recycling an old post. However, I was rather concerned to just notice it's actually today and there are all sorts of linky rules and Twittery things to do to have any chance of winning a gift card. Now what did I do with that badge?

The Human Touch was published on December 28, 2012 and represented a rare foray into the world of flash fiction.

The Human Touch - a Work of Flash Fiction

Captain Jarrold Barnes lay back and the cyolene embraced him. He sunk deeper into the chair, there was a mechanical noise as its fine adjusters moved to meet his body. He breathed out and in, encapsulated by the moon - and then another.

Lo hung closest in the heavens, a brilliant orange sphere, half in darkness and half in brilliant light, stars twinkling around its dizzying circumference. Europa was smaller but less gaudy. Its pinks were subdued and paradoxically it was more attractive. Although pink from a distance, Barnes knew it to be a world of howling winds and blue ice. Barnes flipped through the pages of the feasibility study. Perhaps a colony all the way out there was not so far fetched.

"Beautiful," breathed the voice of the girl in his ear. He fell more deeply into the cyolene, a warm sleepiness moving over his features and he spoke back to the girl. "It's my favorite time of night."

And then he switched off the small speaker that hung on a long stem by his ear and the girl's voice was cut off. Sometimes he wondered about that voice. Had it ever belonged to anyone?

The pod was warm and he dozed close to the window, the craters and dead seas of the planet, sweeping away in all directions from the sweep of glass. Sometimes the idea of venturing out there seemed abstractly appealing. It didn't look like it was -480 degrees. He swatted away an image as if it were a speck of alien dust; the day Corporal Lizard walked out there and tuned to powder. Poor chap's odd utterances had been rattling round the base camp's usually silent walkways for weeks beforehand.

Barnes realized he had slept fitfully. A bleak, flat light was slanting across the bare plains revealing the nakedness of the land. It was refracted from a distant sun. It was multiplication day. He would dutifully walk down to the clinic and help ensure his chromosomes were used to build the next generation. There would be a blast of high sounding flute music and the probe would come out of the wall, prick his finger and the cloning machine would do the rest.

He heard it was a much more painful and messy business in times gone by. Nobody cared to elaborate.

After his appointment with Docktor Anality, a buzzing and flashing machine that barked out instructions in metallic little soundbites, he received a neuromessage that informed him to go to the delivery bay. He'd almost forgotten about the shipment of belongings from his great uncle Arthur who had died a couple of years ago on Mars.

Barnes had little perception of Mars or desire to go there. All he knew it was close to the old place that perished and his uncle had a reputation as an eccentric who researched the old ways and spent a good deal of time in a reeducation program that wasn't entirely successful.

Even picking up the package could be deemed as subversive. In the delivery bay Barnes sighted another humanoid form behind a frieze of plastic swirls. Such proximity was unusual. He checked himself a couple of times and considered leaving before he engaged the dark little girl in conversation.

"I'm picking up a package from Joseph Arthur," he said through the barrier.

The girl giggled.

"You find that funny?"

"No. Just a quaint sort of name," she said.

"Can I have the package?"

A door opened and a ragged box moved down a conveyor belt.

Barnes took the package and moved off quickly to avoid suspicion.

When he opened it back in his pod, a series of strange paper bundles trapped between pieces of cardboard with words on them fell out.

The dust between the covers immediately aroused Barnes' suspicion.

The line drawings alarmed him even more. Men and women entwined in the most curious and unthinkable of ways. It was entitled "The Human Touch."

The cycolene creaked and he fell further into it. A cold, cruel and haunted light crept around Europa in its freezing swathe of space. The images of the people entwined caused a tiny pain deep within him, so small it was closer to an itch than a pain. There was a germ here of a memory and suddenly it was gone. He willed the lights to go out above him and he was in high lunar darkness again.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bye Bye Blockbuster - BlackBerry and JC Penney Are Surely Next

I often wonder what happened to Steady Eddie whose tiny video store was the only show in town in a small market town in rural Norfolk where there weren't so many shows in town.

Eddie was a character and fearsome in his own way. To walk into the video store was like walking into a foreboding tomb in the mummy movies he was so fond of. You would fight your way through the thick blue fug of cigarette smoke to be confronted with Eddie with his lank black hair and equally black heavy rimmed glasses accompanied by a Welsh accent as thick as the smoke. He was like a caricature of Elvis, who was himself a caricature of Elvis in his last days. But Eddie was never a pretty Elvis.

Eddie's stare could terrify kids at 9 paces, 10 probably. And the omnipresent cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth gave off an odor as unpleasant as his demeanor. Eddie would give lectures about the best videos in the world and tongue lashings accompanied with heavy fines for late returns. He was a VHS fascist of the highest order but you didn't mess with him for fear of being barred from the only show in town and having to hang out in the nearby graveyard all night. I once drove all the way back from work one lunchtime, a 30 mile round trip to avoid Eddie's wrath and his fine.

I don't know what ever happened to him. I guess Blockbuster cleared up, but this is only an assumption. Blockbuster had a better selection of videos and large overpriced bags of M&Ms But I'm sure it didn't have the same sort of selection of under the table videos that Eddie used to hand over in brown paper bags with a sparkle in his eye and a lecherous wink.

In Barking some years later, Blockbuster was the only show in town. We'd walk through the rain and find the store was the only bright light in a Godforsaken street where glue sniffers and gangs hung out in alleyways.

Blockbuster was a fun Saturday night. It injected an element of glamor that we lacked overlooking the gas holders and the rail tracks. It brought Californian beaches and palm lined boulevards into our living room. We may not have been living but at least we could pretend we were.

The terraced house in the East End is long left behind. The terracotta patio we spent so much money on to fool ourselves we were in Tuscany is cracked and withered, the white walls faded. The rose garden I planted in pastels was allowed to die by tenants who filled the yard with trash. The oasis was a mirage. The terms are interchangeable.

Now even Blockbuster has gone. Today Blockbuster announced it is closing its remaining 300 stores in the U.S. The ones in Britain have already shut down. Staff are encourage to apply to BlackBerry and JC Penney, brands that may not survive 2014.

It occurs to me those nervous trips into Eddie's cave were almost 20 years ago. Although I can't imagine he is still there, I have found an online listing for him that makes me wonder.

Most of Eddie's advice was suspect. No the Mask of Zorro was not so fantastic. But one thing sticks in my mind. When we asked for a recommendation he pulled out the Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. We were hooked on the movie and I'd still say it is one of the best movies of recent years.

As for the Blockbuster story I should not feel sadness. Blockbuster put mom and pop shops like Eddie's place out of business. Now it has itself being killed off by Netflix and Red Box. But I can't help feeling sadness and nostalgia every time I see one of those closed down Blockbusters in a strip mall that time forgot.

Because for a while it basked in the sun and must have felt invincible. We can all remember that. Then it withered in the face of time and tide just like we will one day.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

It Seems I Just Became an Expat

Recently I joined a group called InterNations which is a community for expats ie. poor misplaced and misguided souls like me who are cast adrift in inhospitable foreign climes and forced to drink awful tea.

I had in the past avoided the expat tag. It made me think of stuck up English aristocratic types in Kenya who played too much tennis at the club, treated the locals like crap and murdered each others' wives. In other words I had watched White Mischief a couple of times too many.

Bruges (Cavalier JY)

But some of the problems I have had assimilating and relating to people who give my jokes odd looks, made me start to seek out some of the trappings of the old country. I think it was this more  than the lack of warm beer. The small reminders were not enough; the party down the English shop with cut outs of Wills and Kate on the day of their wedding didn't really do the trick but at least I was able to wade into a fantastic plate of sausage rolls with some old and befuddled and lost souls from Burnley.

On another occasion I sought out a nearby British shop to plunder some Jammie dodgers and real white bread. However, most of the clientele was Scottish and I sensed a small undertone of resentment to those south of the border. Don't get me wrong; the Jammie Dodgers were great.

I joined InterNations about six months ago but forgot I had joined almost as soon as I had forgotten my password. The invitations came and went but they were for nights out in DC. Then a group was set up in Norfolk. I resolved to go but still missed the first four meetings.

Then a meeting was organized at the German restaurant just 20 minutes from home. It was time to take some action and meet some people from the old world. It was time to be an expat in a non sneering way.

When I walked into the restaurant and saw a group of people on a table, I felt a sinking feeling. I think it was the dorky badges with our names and national flags on. Still something that struck me as soon as I arrived was the lack of awkwardness which is in stark contrast to meeting strangers who are American. There was no stilted conversation or small talk. Everybody was having a roaring good time in the total absence of mental mind games. There were no Brits. There was one American guy but no American women of the kind I usually run into who can easily spend two hours holding court on the virtues of the Shark cleaner against the Dyson as I find out whether or not it is possible to cut off my head with a plastic knife.

As I spoke with some ladies from Belgium, France and Sweden, I realized I had never met anyone from these countries in all the time I have been here. Everybody was drinking beer liberally without looking furtively around them for the beer police as Americans so often seem to do when confronted with the evil specter of alcohol.

I spoke to a German who had worked as a journalist in the old East Germany and a French Canadian. We spoke about Bruges, Cologne and Brussels. We spoke about drugs and old style man-woman athletes from the DDR and the way immigration has changed the old place so much. It hit me then how much of Europe I have left behind in a discarded memory pocket and how much I missed it.

The brown cafes of Amsterdam and the curious green light on the canals of Bruges suddenly seemed a long way away.

When my inflated beer and food bill arrived the organizer just smiled and said the night was on InterNations. All I had to do was spread the word and say something positive about it. Frankly that's not a hard thing to do.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...