Wednesday, January 23, 2013

weather retrocast

Had I not gone for a run at lunchtime today, I would have never realized what a wonderful day it was. From my desk by the window, it looked grisly. Thick flakes of city snow, more gray than white, tumbled down onto wet ground. The library, a box of dirty concrete topped with an extension of reflective glass that sits opposite the building I work in, seemed to hover, its appearance unsteadied by traces of fog and the beaten snowflakes. There was nothing visible beyond the library; the weather had swallowed it all. There was no sky, there were no trees, there was no London.

Already on the way in, in the morning, it had been gruesome. The air was frosty and heavy with pollution that didn't find its way out of the city. Over the last week or so, the temperature has rarely ventured above the freezing point of water. In the UK, this is called a cold spell. It spells doom for homeowners with poor insulation and for airports, which regularly capitulate in the face of meteorological inclemency.

For me, despite rickety windows and an apathetic boiler, the cold is less of a concern than the permacloud that hangs low over the city. The sun went down some time in December and hasn't come back out at all this year. Or maybe it has, but no one has seen it. The days have been drained of all color. There has even been fog, a return of that old London staple that was consigned to history and people's imagination when coal heating was phased out in the fifties. To use a metaphor that's so fitting it can't possibly be my own invention, the city has the exact color of depression.

London isn't really like this, never mind popular stereotypes. When I interviewed in England in the summer of 2004, I was amazed at how nice it was. Forget drizzle and clouds, it was sunny and warm and felt like summer. When I pointed this out to a prospective colleague over lunch he went on about the beneficial effects of global warming and insisted that the weather had improved dramatically over the previous ten years.

Joke or no joke, the increase in average temperature and number of sunny days were real enough to convince vintners to attempt the creation of champagne in the south of England. The climatic condition, they said, were much like they used to be the Champagne. But who can say whether it's the more favorable climate or a more serious approach to the task that has led to the emergence of rather drinkable English wines?

The effects of climate change, in any case, mustn't be trivialized. Much of it won't happen linearly but a rather chaotic way. Temperatures might increase steadily for a few years but at some point all hell will break loose and weather patterns without precedence will reign, outside the realm of prediction. Last year was a case in point. It started so dry that a drought was called in large parts of the country and a hosepipe ban enforced, but then it turned dramatically and ended as the second wettest year on record.

As always, the country had difficulties coping, and when the first hesitant flurries of the year were on the horizon, severe weather alerts went out. Obligingly, Heathrow all but shut down. But severity is relative – and it's not in the weather. The perceived severity is a function of the lack of preparation multiplied by the incompetence of the response. On a personal level, there's no bad weather either. There's only inappropriate clothing.

So when my colleague asked me if I were up for a run, I said yes and went to bundle up in onionskins of hi-tech fiber, grabbed my lobster gloves, and jogged towards the park with him. After half a loop there, we were faced with the ever-same decision: donut or pretzel? Are we just going round the park or are we inserting the extra loop around the Serpentine? Six kilometers or ten? It was an easy decision, on more than one level.

Most fundamentally, there's no point getting changed for six K. More philosophically, if you go out to suffer in the wet cold, there's no point shortchanging yourself. If you're going to be miserable, you might as well do it right. We hung a right and ran along the partly frozen pond while the snow beat into our faces. What a nice day for a run!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

more meat

I'm loth to flog a dead horse, but in the UK people are still worked up about adulterated beef burgers, imagining what else might be amiss with their food. The Guardian goes a step further than imagining and quotes "industry insiders" on a magic ingredient in cheap meats called dehydrated rind:

"Additives made from boiled hide or offcuts of carcasses are typically used to bind in added fat and water and increase the protein levels of economy beef products that have a low meat content. These may legally be identified simply as "seasoning" on the label."

There isn't really anything to add for me, except: Think, then eat.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

horsing around

Never mind the helicopter that crashed onto a busy road near Vauxhall Station this morning, the fireball causing two deaths and a rush-hour chaos that was remarkable even for London, the hot topic on the news was frozen hamburger patties containing up to 30% horsemeat.

The meat was produced in Ireland, but that's not the story. The connection that I made to the thousands of abandoned horses that apparently roam the Emerald Isle is erroneous. It is true that back when the Celtic Tiger was roaring and everyone rode the property bubble to everlasting prosperity, a stallion was just the thing to put onto a newly constructed, expansive estate in the countryside. When the bubble popped and the economy readjusted, the horses, suddenly prohibitively expensive to keep, were let free. Those with comprehensive health logs were slaughtered but not for the domestic market because, as has been quoted in every news bit on this, "it's not in [Irish] culture to eat horsemeat".

I believe that the producer of the burger patties acted in good faith and procured and processed meat it believed to be beef. But, and here's the story, it supplied grocery chains that compete primarily on price and was under immense price pressure itself. By the logic of discount retailing, cheap is good, no matter what it is exactly that is cheap. Globalized supply chains obscure most unappetizing details, and the meat mincer does the rest.

But wait, the power of science comes to the rescue. Investigators with the Irish Food Standards Agency PCRed up a selection of beef burger products. Of the 27 samples, 10 contained horse DNA. Twenty-three contained pig DNA, uniting Jews and Muslims in outrage.

Now you might say that you don't mind eating horse, that it's no different than eating cow or lamb or pig or a cute little bunny. I agree with that, but the point remains the same. You're better served with expensive meat whose origin can be traced. Ask your butcher for horse if you want horse. Don't buy cheap because you don't know what you will get.

Case in point is a recent story on This American Life about imitation calamari. Think about this for a minute. Where could this go? Even better, download the episode and listen to it while having breakfast. Can't wait? Well, here goes it: The story is about hog rectum allegedly sliced up, deep-fried and sold as calamari on a grand scale. It's a bit of a wild-goose chase because the end product remains elusive. But the morale of the story stands strong: Eat meat you know, from an animal you know if you have the chance, or don't eat meat at all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

big brother

London is the world capital of vigilance from above. There are more CCTV cameras here than in any other city on the planet, with numbers of up to two million floating around the internet. They are usually harmless, hapless even, like when another assault or knife attack is committed and police apologize for having only the grainiest images of the suspect, or when Banksy, still unidentified and certainly unapprehended, puts a funny little tag around one. The cameras have become so much part of the urban fabric that people hardly notice them. They're like rubbish bins, except there are fewer moments when you feel you need one.

Today, Hammersmith & Fulham Council, my local authority, felt such a need. They had captured a guy who, after a night on the town, ran into a bit of a predicament and relieved himself on Shepherds Bush Green. We're talking pants down and ass on the grass. To help identify the guy (and presumably make him clean up his mess, though the infraction happened a week ago and it has rained and snowed since then), the Council is appealing to the public. It has put the surveillance video online.

It's 2:40am, the middle of the night, but the images are crisp and clear. There are not a whole lot of lights on the Green, but the man is clearly recognizable. You don't have to be his mother to see a familiar face. The camera, high-definition and infra-red-equipped, starts tracking a suspect, keeping him in sharp focus as he wanders behind a fence in the distance. The night vision technology is top-notch. When he's in the middle of his act, he's caught. A council worker in the control center in Hammersmith where the footage is streamed in real-time flips a switch and a spotlight comes on, trained on the crouching offender from the same post that holds the camera.

From a technical point of view, the video is amazing, but you will not see it here. You will also not find a link to it, both for the simple reason that I'm outraged and need to keep to the moral high ground while I rant. As much as I'd like to, I can't bitch and moan with a clear conscience if I show what I'm about to condemn.

Let's start with the Council's deeply flawed approach of judgement without trial. We see clearly what's going on but we know nothing of the background. Has the guy a medical problem, a weak sphincter for example? Has he mental-health issues and is thus one of what compassionate politicians like to call "the most vulnerable members of our society"? Maybe he's had one too many wings at one of the grubby chicken shacks along Uxbridge Road. Should he be punished twice for that?

There are automatic toilets near the Green, in front of the former library. If the Council website is up to date, their use is all but 10p. But maybe the guy was out of money after a long night out. Should empty pockets condemn him to have his pants full? In the video, he doesn't look minutes from disaster, rather leisurely walking over to a dark area on the Green before dropping his jeans. It's still possible that he had a long ride home ahead and was just accelerating the inevitable to the benefit of his fellow passengers on the night bus. And even if he is what the honorable citizens of this borough would call an "antisocial element", he still doesn't deserve to be exposed in public like that.

No crime has been committed. It is telling that it's not the police who've put this video online but the council whose business it is to run local services like schools, libraries, swimming pools; collect the rubbish; maintain parks; and keep roads clean and smooth. Now they're starting to run an online pillory. I'm not comfortable seeing my council tax spent on medieval punishment and abuse.

You could say that someone behaving like a dog is asking to be treated like one, but I haven't seen neglectful dog owners officially pilloried, so that's a moot point. You could furthermore argue that it's not that the Council is demeaning the guy but the guy is demeaning himself, and that's a fair point. But to what purpose other than humiliation is the entire video put online? A few screenshots and a short explanation would aid identification just the same. Sadly the Council's response is as repugnant as the behavior that triggered it.

Any of the preceding points should be reason enough not to put the video online, but none of them drove me to write this post. What I find most odious is the extraordinary hypocrisy in this story. This is, after all, the Council that presides over combined sewer overflows every time it rains. This is the local authority that fights tooth-and-nail, with distorted facts, truth-twisting propaganda and pathetic name-calling, the only plan that exists (proposed by Thames Water and rather expensive and disruptive) to solve the problem of inadequate sewers. This is, in other words, the Council that keeps shitting in my river, discharging millions of liters of dilute fecal matter into the Thames in 2012, the wettest year in recorded history. Someone needs to put the spotlight on them.

Monday, January 14, 2013

reading the news

In an attempt to get my mind off the things that are currently on my mind, the things that have been on my mind for the entire last year and some time before that, the things that have driven this blog towards terminal dormancy, with just about a post a week in 2012, the things that, as this exhausting circumlocution shows, mostly remain unsaid, I went to the newsagent this morning and bought an Observer.

It might be an anachronism and on its way out, but I like printed paper. I like that I can unfold, separate and spread it until it covers the entire coffee table, burying everything else of lesser importance. I also like that it doesn't glow at me with the eyes of hungry wolf like the computer screen I stare at all day at work.

Paper is comfortable but also obsolescent in many ways. No one needs a daily newspaper, for example. Those addicted enough to news that they crave a shot every day will not stop there. The web updates constantly. Why wait until the morning? Why wait indeed when the Standard is handed out every evening for free?

The Observer is not exactly a newspaper; it's a bit of a weekly. It's technically the Sunday Guardian, because it shares offices, layout, editorial leanings and web space with its daily sister, but it has astutely remained a brand apart. I predict that there will be a time, not too long in coming, when the illustrious legacy of the Guardian will be ditched and the Observer flourish on its own, maybe published a couple days earlier to leave the whole weekend for its perusal.

The weekend is the best time to catch up on news, which, in my opinion but against my deplorable habits, best remains unconsumed the rest of the week. No one needs general news on a daily basis; no one benefits, to put it less kindly, from factoids of dubious relevance and a short half-life that the news industry produces relentlessly. The false sense of being informed comes at the cost of a tremendous waste of time.

Infrequent news consumption in the appropriate media preserves the important news, while the irrelevant or already superseded bits have been purged. Getting a monthly summary of economic and political developments is probably enough (imagine you had never polluted your brain with the fiscal cliff), but I prefer weekly news, rotating through the Economist, the New Yorker and Die Zeit as inspiration strikes me.

For the purpose of this discussion, a distinction should be made between acute and chronic news. Acute news is reported live on the web, fluffed up by twitter feeds and What's hot boxes. Acute news goes straight to the bin. Chronic news is analysis, commentary, intellectual rumination on what goes on. Chronic news is what's important.

This week's Zeit, for example, has a wonderful, substantial piece – a dossier, as they call it – on the war in Syria. Syria becomes acute news when a gas station is bombarded or a general defects or a village is wiped out, but the war is continuous. The three-page article doesn't tell anything that would make the news but a lot of what's going on. Reading about Aleppo as a war zone, seeing this wonderful city in ruins, learning about idealists with dreams of a better future – the images will stay with me.

This week's Observer didn't contain anything of similar heft or interest, nothing that I could possible regurgitate and publish here, intermingled with my own irrelevant thoughts. As a consequence, there will be no post today.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

no hands

"Pre-Raphaelites is closing this weekend and advance tickets have now sold out. There are a limited number of tickets available for purchase in person in the gallery every day this week – we advise you to arrive early to avoid disappointment if you would like to purchase any of these tickets."

This is the message I found on Tate Britain's website this morning. I had toyed with the idea of seeing the Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition before it closes but was deterred by two equally unpleasant possibilities: being turned away because tickets were gone or having to cue and then body-check my way though overcrowded galleries after paying fourteen pounds for an exhibition that years earlier, thanks to my membership (which, in a bout of optimism about leaving London, I canceled at the end of 2011) would have been free.

One of the first exhibitions I saw thanks to said membership was, in late 2007, a John Everett Millais retrospective. Millais is a revered figure in British painting, on par with JMW Turner and second to none. Before the show at Tate Britain, I had not heard of him. I hadn't even noticed his statue, grand and bronze but not exactly prominent, out of the way on a bit of open space behind the museum.

Millais took my breath away. He was the most masterful painter of hands, and he manages to tell the stories in his paintings through the hands alone. One fine example, The Order of Release is available on the Tate website. Notice how every hand is essential for the narrative: holding the keys, handing over and receiving the eponymous order of release, tenderly touching after long separation, holding wife and sleeping kid, carrying a little welcome flower, hanging limply in sleep.

Once I had identified the first talking hands, I saw them in many more paintings and amused myself by mentally reducing them to the essentials, cropping to around the hands to distill each painting's essence. It was a masterclass in composition. It was also a masterclass in the anatomically correct drawing of hands, a skill that is in short supply these days, as a visit to the Saatchi makes abundantly clear.

The Saatchi Gallery is a vanity project of staggering proportions. Charles Saatchi, its owner, came to fortune with an advertisement agency co-run with his brother and then to fame with early art acquisitions that turned into gold. He launched Damian Hirst's career into utterly unjustified stratospheric heights and earned healthy millions in the process. In 2008, his gallery moved into a stunning space near Sloane Square that rivals any national gallery. Sadly, the architecture will forever outshine the art, which appears haphazard, randomly assembled, scattered about. Each show gives the impression that a few dozen failed art students had called their schoolmates-acting-as-agent to present them with their latest creations. "Look at this awesome piece", the inept artists proudly demand. "Where can I exhibit?" There's a lot of embarrassed scratching of heads, furtive suggestions to bin the lot and start all over and then the last resort: "We could always try the Saatchi." And so the new exhibition slowly takes shape.

Maybe I exaggerate, but probably not by much. I've been to all the shows at the Saatchi since 2008. The artistic quality of many pieces and the level of skill evident in them are rather poor. Hands are never painted well. Abstract works don't invite the same kind of targeted criticism, but bafflement is more often my spontaneous reaction than admiration. And yet, I return. If nothing else, what I am shown is unusual and unexpected, it makes me think (Can it really be that bad?), and usually there are a few good pieces among the rubbish.

At Tate Britain I know what I get. There are very few surprises. Maybe I should have gone to see the Pre-Raphaelites after all. But Millais was a founding member of this group. What's the point of going back to a thing you know? If art ain't new, it's just old hats.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

memories of Christmas

Marcel Proust, somewhere in his accumulated ramblings that go by the name of À la recherche du temps perdu and stretch a nick over 3000 pages in paperback, conjures up the madeleine as a symbol, universally recognized by now, of the association of involuntary memories with smells, of the power of smells to evoke long-forgotten memories that couldn't possibly be retrieved in any other way.

Christmas is a feast of smells and I wouldn't want to do without my little smoking man burning incense cones inside its wooden body, but my strongest association to the holiday is not olfactory. My Christmas is always audio-visual. For as long as I can remember, Christmas always started with the playing, first from vinyl and later from a CD, of Bach's Christmas oratorio, and there's nothing that puts me in Christmas mood more than hearing the first bars of the first part. It works like a switch.

I've described Christmases before, but the audio-visual aspect has never been told. Back from church, mom retires to the living room and gets busy while my sister and I grab the gifts we wrapped more (her) or less (me) artfully and reassemble in the hallway. My grandmother used to stand there beside her bulging black-and-red leatherette duffel, enjoying the excitement growing in us. After long minutes, fuzzy lights would start flickering beyond the frosted glass-door into the living room, the candles on the tree being lit one by one. Then the Dresden Philharmonic would launch into Jauchzet, Frohlocket and moments later a bright bell would sound the go-ahead. We would barge through the door and start the giving and opening of gifts. It was Christmas. (Not even in the deep recesses of memory untapped for decades is there any hint of Santa Claus.)

As I write this post, it's the thirteenth day of Christmas. The candles should be blown out, the decoration put away, but I'm a day late. I'm having tea and the last few marrons glacés. The Räuchermann has its last smoke and from the stereo hails the Christmas Oratorio in the same glorious 1974 Eterna recording that I remember, but whose musical value I never appreciated until today. The 3-CD-box was a gift from my mom to help me survive my absence from comfortable traditions this year, to give me a strong foundation on which to build future traditions, reinterpretations of what I know.

With Flucha and me celebrating together, Christmas henceforth will be a mix of things. To launch the future off into the right direction, I contributed the music, the church (Church of England midnight mass rather than Protestant afternoon service) and the incense; Flucha the insistence on having the big dinner on Christmas Eve and santons she made herself. I had unfortunately no time for practicing, and the recorder performance had to be canceled, but that's something for the years to come.


Some astute last-minute shopping provided me with a slotted spoon and a big heavy skillet that ensured I was well placed for the cooking. Magret de canard with creamed Savoy cabbage and homemade gnocchi sounds sophisticated but was a (rather long) snap to cook once I had sourced the duck breast in a local butcher's shop. We sat down to eat, smells in our noses before we dug in that will anchor in all infinity the memory of this Christmas.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

gone and out

When the bang of the door falling into the frame had dissipated, an eerie calm took possession of the flat. The week before, ten days maybe, though it felt like a month, there had been constant chatter, activity, music, smells and noises from the kitchen, dishes clanking in the sink, shower running and steaming up the bathroom, the asthmatic boiler pushing hard against the winter cold that tried to force its way inside through rickety windows. It was the days of Christmas, however many, and I had visitors.

A couple from Italy had joined my girlfriend and me after Christmas. We had done this before on other occasions, but this time was different. There was a one-year old around to readjust priorities. Where there used to be hot espressos and maybe drinks after dinner, there were now herbal infusions and furtive breaths taken during rare quiet moments. My friends hadn't exactly been irresponsible hedonists, but they used to enjoy their life in a much different way. Now they are parents.

My sister, in a very similar situation, told me about her New Year's party, recalling a 75-year-old couple as they stepped onto their porch to watch the neighbors' launching batteries of fireworks from a hill a hundred feet away from the house. A few moments out in the night, a few sips of champagne and a hug and good wishes, and they had retreated back to the comfort their sofa, oblivious of the world around them.

By that yardstick, I felt at least 90 when 2013 came around. I didn't even go outside. No mingling with the millions down at the Embankment, no countdown shouted deafeningly. I stuck my head out of the window as Big Ben announced the new year on Radio 4, looking for signs of party in the street. Revelers shared hugs in The Goose, but at the bus stop, people waited for their ride as if it were any old night. I saw reflections of distant fireworks that might have been ambulances passing by or just the spinning beacon of the minicab office below. After just enough time for some fresh air, the window went down again and the curtains across. We went back to card games, the Champagne a refreshment rather than a decadent pleasure.

When the door closed on Wednesday and my friends were on their way back to Italy, I was left with the accumulated debris of the festive period. Another change. Usually a recycling sack lasts a month. Now I had two of them clogging the kitchen. At least the rubbish is picked up daily in my part of town. It took half a day to exorcise the demons of sociability and restore order, cleaning the slate for a year that will see big changes.

Happy New Year!