Sunday, July 31, 2011

Frame of Reverence

We all talk about "frame of reference."  In fact, I was typing that phrase today and I screwed up and it came out "frame of reverence."

And I looked at it and thought, Hmmmm.  It was early and I hadn't had much coffee, and Hmmmm was the best I could do.

But now that I've rectified the caffeine deficit, the phrase seems to be kind of useful.

If I'm anything, I'm Buddhist, but in terms of conventional religious belief (since Buddhism is more a guide to life than it is a religion) I'm atheist.  And yet I have religious, or at least reverential, reactions to many things, and  I've decided -- just this minute -- that they comprise my frame of reverence.

So, for those of you who have read this far, what are these things?

Natural beauty.  As I've said here before, nature seems to default to beauty.  I've heard the arguments that we perceive these things as beautiful because of some aesthetic aspect of the anthropic principle, but I don't care.  Surely, since beauty is a dialog between the seer and the seen, what seems beautiful is beautiful, period.  So I'll use as part of my frame of reverence the feeling provoked in me by the coast of Mykonos (thanks, Jeff) or the tumbled-stone cathedrals of Joshua Tree or the luminosity inside an abalone shell or the spiral of a galaxy or the contrast between the blue and the brown on this bird.

 Music, painting, writing, science, and other activities in which humans find something inside themselves, develop it, and put it out into the world, creating something where nothing was before.  But especially music, and most especially instrumental music, which is abstraction piled on abstraction, played through instruments that are themselves triumphs of the creative spirit, all adding up to an invisible structure of beauty, churches made of air.

Kindness.  The woman in a Southeast Asian village who picks up a crying child that's not hers and makes the day okay again.  People who slow to let you turn left.  Anyone who smiles at me on the sidewalk, which is probably the main reason I love Thailand so much.  A tiny act of kindness is something good and pure breaking through the noise and smoke to say hello.

Mockingbirds:  They look like God's first draft of birds but nothing in the world lifts my spirits faster than a mockingbird doing a little avian Mozart somewhere invisible (you can almost never see them), just ripping through song after song without repeat.  No conservation at all, just abundance.  On a very minor level, this says something to me about the infinity of good that surely exists beside, and is sometimes intertwined with, the infinity of evil.

And, okay, Love.  I've been with one person for 33 years now, and we're just beginning to know each other.  Love is the thing that shows me, by implication, that people aren't solely the short-lived silhouettes most external evidence seems to suggest they are.  Instead, like the mockingbird's song, they're pretty much an infinite series of surprises and discoveries -- both good and bad, beings who have internalized some part of the universe and are much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.  And we should always be grateful for the opportunity to explore one of them.

I could go on for days, but what about you?  Any signposts that help you define your frame of reverence?

(Photo: Bartram Gallery)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

I Have No Answers, Only Questions to Avoid

I am tormented this week by Why Questions.

Why is the American system of government so polarized along doctrinaire lines that even Greece’s political system seems more open to compromise?

Why are striking Greek taxi drivers who work so hard so intent on shutting down Greece’s seminal tourist industry, despite the far reaching harm their actions inflict upon their already suffering countrymen, and why is the Greek government unwilling or unable to do anything to stop them?

Why in this day and age did an industrialized western nation allow a gathering of its future leaders to take place at a remote locale without minimally appropriate security, and as a corollary question, why did none in the camp band together in some attempt to stop a lone killer systematically hunting them down for more than an hour and a half?

Finally, Why are those who ask such questions categorized rather than answered?

Thankfully, I found an escape from my search for answers.  I went to a panayeri. 

In the Greek Orthodox faith, churches generally are dedicated to saints.  On the night before a saint’s name day, services are held in churches honoring the saint, often followed by celebrations filled with food, dancing, and music.  In Mykonos’ “old” days—before its 24/7 nightlife—a panayeri was the only place for locals to party.  It was where the unmarried met, and on occasion eloped straight from the party.  But despite all the many changes to the island, panayeris are still big events on Mykonos.
Inside a Mykonian family church

The traditional panayeri actually begins the day before the formal celebration.  That’s when family and friends contribute their goats and lambs for slaughter in preparation for the next day’s cooking, as well as wine, bread, salads, fruits, vegetables, and special local dishes and desserts.  It’s all part of the sacrifice honoring a saint. 

I attended a panayeri honoring Saint Panteleimon (whose name, in a bizarrely coincidental fit for my state of mind, means “mercy for everyone”) and on that night everything served was homegrown or, in the case of the wine, made by the hosts–—the wonderful family of Nikos and Michele Nazos.
Nikos Nazos

The Nazos’ place is a treasure, with what many regard as the finest vegetable gardens on Mykonos.  Their church is tucked in the middle of their gardens, beside a broad, olive-shaded stone patio large enough to accommodate the hundreds who carefully circle this night on their calendars.

Traditional sampouna bladder pipes
I’m not precisely sure how the Nazos family goes about putting together their panayeri, but in other instances the men in charge of slaughtering the animals arrive at least a day before with their own food and wine.  Lots of wine.  They’re followed by friends who show up to help, bringing more food and more wine.  Somehow they always manage to get everything done on time.  It is, as they say, the Greek way.

The panayeri meal begins with a piece of bread blessed by the priest and a cup of broth derived from the boiled meat to come.  Then comes the real food: tables full of batter fried cod fish with skordalia garlic sauce, delicacies prepared from the goats and lambs, appetizers of every kind, salads, black-eyed beans and dandelion greens, and wine, wine, wine.  The boiled meat is next, followed by the yahknee, a savory, rich stew begun with the broth; developed with simmering, fresh island tomatoes, potatoes, onions, spices and herbs; and finished with the tastiest of the meat from the contributed animals. 

If you’re not full yet, don’t worry, lamb chops off the grill are still to come, and later, pastries, custards, yoghurts, and fresh fruits. 

All of this is accompanied by non-stop traditional music and dancing running up to the morning church service.  After church those who remain (or return for the service) finish off what’s left of the food—having no doubt prayed for room to do so.

I didn’t quite make it that far.  I was home by 4.  It was sad leaving such good cheer and wonderful people in a setting summoning up memories of simpler times.  Far simpler times.  God bless them.  God bless us all.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Explaining Weightlifting to Children

In exactly one year's time London will be agog and a go-go. That's right, the London Olympics 2012 start next year and there's been much preview and prediction in this week's media, as well as a fair bit of doom-mongering. How will our antiquated transport system cope? Is it really worth the cash? Who will report on it if all our journalists are in jail for phone hacking? And who the hell cares about women's weightlifting anyway?

Well, in answer to the latter, I do. Because it's the only event I managed to get tickets for. I'll try and explain how the tickets were allocated, but feel free to go away halfway through and pour yourself a stiff drink, or smash yourself in the face with a baseball bat if you want to. It's pretty tortuous.

Right. First of all people were asked to apply for the events they wanted on the dates they wanted. The tickets for each event were split into categories and divided by price. Presumably the higher the price, the better the seat. If you paid £1000 for the archery you were there, right next to the target. You could apply for as many tickets and events as possible. The only requirement was that you had enough cash on your credit card (which had to be Visa, the official credit card of the blah blah blah). Once your requests were submitted you had to sit and wait and see how you did. It was a lottery. And we all know the problem with lotteries - they're a bloody lottery.

I applied for a heck of alot of swimming and athletics tickets. Being a tightfisted northerner, I applied in the lower priced categories. The cynic in me told the better angel of my being that this meant I wouldn't get any tickets. The cynic was right. I got nothing. Most people I know who went for the lower priced tickets got nothing too. The ones who forked out more seemed to be more successful. Funny that. We also haven't been told how many tickets have gone to sponsors and corporate buyers. The cynic in me, who really needs to shut up and get a life, thinks it'll be very many.

But there was no need to despair. Those of us who missed out were given a second chance - a delightfully named Losers Ballot, aka get you hand in your pocket and pay over the odds for horse dancing ballot. On a specified date, a tranche of tickets would be made available. By the time I got online on the specified date there was a choice between weightlifting and dwarf-tossing. I was going to give up but my kids were desperate to go. I put in a ludicrously overpriced bid for some women's weightlifting. Oddly enough, and I can't fathom why, I 'won' those tickets. The kids were ecstatic. What's weightlifting, my daughter asked when she calmed down? It involves people lifting big weights above their head, cloaked in the suspicion they've taken performance enhancing drugs, I replied (I left off  the last bit.) Son and daughter both punched the air. 'That sounds wicked,' my son said, and he meant it. For a few delightful seconds I was swept along by their enthusiasm. We would be able to savour that unique Olympic atmosphere. Then I thought of the credit card bill. And the weightlifting...the only things I lift these days are a knife and fork.

The 2012 Olympics are being heralded as a chance to enthuse the nation's youth. A lasting legacy of sporting health and achievement. This morning I saw my oldest son lift my youngest over his head with a fine clean and jerk. I have done my bit. The next generation is safe.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The rise and fall of Louis Goodwill Nchindo

Louis Goodwill Nchindo at Debswana
I was tempted to title this blog ‘The story we wish we had written’. It has everything.  Local boy makes good and rises to the top. Becomes the confidant of presidents of countries and of chairmen of international companies. Arranges a tricky ‘bailout’ for the president of his country, but then falls out with the successor whom he helped to raise to the throne.  Suddenly, he is forced into retirement, then awarded his country’s highest honor before descending into disgrace amidst a corruption scandal threatening to bring down the government and embarrass international diamond-mining giant, De Beers. And finally a lonely unexplained death in a forest outside Gaborone. The only thing the story doesn’t seem to have is an ending.  But John Le Carré might say that indeed it has.

Former President Festus Mogae
Nchindo was born near Gaborone, excelled at a private school there and went on to study medicine in London.  But the hallowed halls of Balliol in Oxford called him, and soon he was studying there and hobnobbing with the likes of Festus Mogae – future president of Botswana. After graduating, he was snapped up by Proctor and Gamble for a senior post in Venezuela.  Returning to Botswana, he rose to chairman of the Botswana stock exchange, head of the Botswana subsidiary of Barclays Bank, resident director of Anglo American Corporation, and finally managing director of Debswana – the joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government and the country’s most important company.  He was a political power broker in the ruling party and it was said that he was consulted on the appointment of cabinet ministers.  Even with his stellar profile in the business world, his political clout was amazing.

Former President Quett Masire
But when Quett Masire stepped down as president of the country and was succeeded by Festus Mogae, things started to change.  At first Nchindo was as influential as before but then Mogae started to distance himself, and eventually in 2004 he blocked the renewal of Nchindo’s appointment at Debswana.  Later that year Nchindo was awarded the Presidential Order of Honour.  Nchindo didn’t attend the ceremony.

In 2008 thirty-six counts of graft and corruption were brought against him and three other executives including Nchindo’s son.  The most dramatic was the ‘bail-out’ he organized for President Masire.  When he was in deep financial trouble, De Beers ‘loaned’ him P5 million (about US$1 million) to rescue his ailing farm.  (Masire famously commented that the farm got into trouble because his duties as president had led to its neglect.  “I need a manager,” he said!) Nchindo went to see Mogae to ask for help. He wanted the charges to be quashed but the president refused.  Mogae subsequently claimed that Nchindo had threatened to blackmail him over his extramarital affairs.  (This was such an open secret that it is hard to imagine its value for blackmail.)  The case was set for 6th April 2010.  Nchindo made it clear that he wouldn’t go down alone, and threatened to implicate other senior De Beers directors (including chairman Nicky Oppenheimer).

De Beers Chairman Nicky Oppenheimer
On the 7th of February last year he left Gaborone and spent time at a favorite pub out of town.  That was the last time Nchindo was seen alive.  The next day his 4x4 was found locked and abandoned.  A few days later his body was found with one of his firearms nearby.  There was a single shot to the head.  Scavengers had begun work on the body.

There has been no finding since then. Rumors abound.  Nchindo was assassinated by political enemies, by De Beers, by the government.  A different take is that the whole thing was staged to keep him out of jail; another was killed and Nchindo is living abroad in luxury.  An autopsy was done, forensics, DNA, but nothing definitive has been made public. Then the body was cremated.

The corruption case eventually went ahead against the other defendants.  There were no embarrassing revelations.  No one else was implicated.  One defendant was acquitted, one found guilty but is out on bail pending appeal, and Nchindo’s son got a suspended sentence.  

There are still ripples, but those too will pass.

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beastly conduct

The title of this post is really not very descriptive as the act I will feebly be discussing could only have been carried out by a human, not a beast. No other animal on the planet attacks its own kind in the manner that Anders Breivik did this past Friday, taking the life of many by bombing and then brutally killing one young person after another, face to face with a shotgun at close range. I guess the word monster is more appropriate.

I am assuming most that read this will already have heard about the incident, it was of the magnitude to have obtained the attention of the world media. In the case that this is not so, what I am referring to is the attacks in Norway last week where one man single handedly bombed an office building in downtown Oslo and went on to kill dozens of people, mostly youths, on Útey, a small island not far from the capital. The exact death count has not been very clear, figures range anywhere from 75 to 90 people, in addition to the 20 or so that are still missing. Incomprehensible.

Norway lies down the western part of Scandinavian Peninsula, and is the country from which the Icelandic settlers originally emigrated. Here, the people of Norway are usually referred to as „our cousins the Norwegians“. They number 5 million and although I have not come across every one of them, I have yet to meet a Norwegian I did not like. It hardly needs mentioning that I have never met Anders Breivik. I would probably not be typing now if I had this past Friday at least.

Norway is a beautiful place, set with majestic mountains and trimmed with countless serene fjords. It is a kingdom, like Denmark and Sweden, and a very well off one at that. Aside from ample fishing grounds and lots of hydropower, Norway has oil and natural gas reserves surpassed only by the Middle East. The oil money, i.e. taxes, dividends, sales revenues and licensing fees from the oil industry, goes into a national fund that has a very fancy name but is always called “the oil fund”. It is to operate a some sort of a pension for the country, I believe to ensure the nation’s wellbeing in the case that the oil and gas run dry. Very smart and it is probably due to this foresight that the people of Norway have not become decadent and lost from the otherwise excessive influx of money into the economy.

So what happened? A perfect society if there ever was one acting as a breeding ground for human weed. I am not going to pretend to know or understand. I am not even sure I want to know or understand. Aside from the feeling of grief for the people that lost a loved one in the massacre I am mostly struck by the worry that such a seriously disturbed man could go unnoticed. He had a manifesto for god’s sake. Has anyone remotely normal ever had a manifesto?

But what’s been done cannot be undone. Anders Breivik will be sentenced to prison for 21 or 30 years, depending on what he will be charged with. Seems a bit insignificant considering how many people’s lives he either took or marred. But this is how the Nordic justice system works and you can’t turn it off and on depending on the case at hand. And if you think about it, executing him won't bring anyone back or lift the grief from the shoulders of the heartbroken. Keeping him alive might open the opportunity for studying him and trying to understand what makes such people tick, something that could hopefully be used to prevent future occurences of similar cruelty.

But I doubt it. No questionnaire or clinical study can encompass the malevolent working of such a diseased mind. No checklist exists for pinpointing evil and never will. Anyway, I think years upon years of being confined to a cell is a whole lot harder to chew than being put to death. At least I hope so.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

fete du Goemon seaweed festial

Last weekend Bretons took part in the annual Fete du Goemon - seaweed Festival near Esquibien in western Brittany. The festival re-enacts traditional means of gathering seaweed from the coast and burning it in open kilns to make fertilizer
People dressed in traditional Breton costumes sheltering from the rain.

The umbrella lady wears the 'coiffe' a traditional headress. Bretons are known for their culinary heritage of crêpes and salty galettes, apple cider, fresh seafood and fish, especially mussels and oysters. Their seafood platter is the typical gatronomic dish composed of an abundance of shellfish and crustaceans, served on a bed of seaweed. For centuries Britanny has been the gold standard for it's prized butter and salt, harvested by hand from it's sea salt beds.
Brittany's rich Celtic roots are evidenced by their traditional music with pipes, harps, hurdy gurdy, organ and Celtic and mediaeval legends of Merlin the Enchanter, Tristan and Iseult and fetes especially their folk dances in line or pairs between young and old generations.

However just days before this fears in Brittany over toxic seaweed were reignited after two wild boar were found dead on a beach. Conservationists say toxic seaweed has now spread to more than 200 sites along the Atlantic coast from southern Brittany to the beaches of Normandy. The amount of the foul-smelling algae collected from western French shores has doubled in a year.All the bays from La Baule, a top summer beach destination in the south to Granville in the Cotentin are now struggling to dispose of thousands of tons of Ulva lactuca - more commonly known as sea lettuce.
Experts have warned that the algae poses a health risk because when it rots it produces hydrogen sulphide, which if trapped under a crust and suddenly released can prove as deadly as cyanide.

Anses, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, has just issued guidelines for dealing with the green sludge, saying it must be picked up within 48 hours of reaching the beach before it can start producing gas. If not, in the worst cases, it can cause "loss of consciousness with cardiac arrest or coma."
The seaweed has been multiplying abnormally fast due to the use of huge amounts of nitrates in intensive pig and poultry farming that can seep into rivers and end up in the sea.
"This year, all the conditions have come together for a growth in green algae," said Alain Menesquen, an expert from the Ifremer marine laboratory. "The sun and warmth of May have allowed them to carry out photosynthesis, then the June rains brought all the nitrates they need to develop."
By the end of June, some 25,000 square metres of seaweed had been collected from the beaches of Brittany, twice as much as last year. The worst affected area is Saint-Brieuc in the Cotes-d'Armor coast where about half of all the seaweed has washed up.

The government launched an antitoxic seaweed plan last year after a horse died in 2009 from breathing in toxic fumes and the rider lost consciousness. Let's hope these Bretons gathered the sea weed in time.

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, July 25, 2011


On the 6th of March, 1889, this man, Father Cicero Romão Batista, a priest in the small town of Tabuleiro Grande, in Brazil's northeastern State of Ceará, was administering the sacrament to his parishioners.

As he inserted the host into the mouth of a religious sister by the name of Maria de Araújo the wafer was instantly transformed into blood.

Or so the story goes.

Back in those days, Tabuleiro Grande consisted of little more than Padre Cicero’s tiny chapel, a few houses of wattle and daub, and a few of brick. Not surprisingly, the folks who lived there were anything but sophisticated. And they were convinced that they’d witnessed a miracle.

They were confirmed in that conviction when, over the course of the next two years, the transformation was seen to occur again and again.
People flocked from miles around to join Father Cicero’s congregation.

The good father, initially, was cautious. He asked people not to talk about it. But, of course, they did. And it wasn’t long before the diocese dispatched a commission to investigate. The commission included a doctor, a medical school professor and a pharmacist from far-away Rio de Janeiro.

They concluded, after witnessing the phenomenon several times, that there was no rational explanation for it.

But the Bishop, Dom Joaquim José Vieira, remained suspicious. He dispatched a second commission led by two priests. And, this time, he got the judgment he’d been hoping for. The miracle was declared false. His priests weren’t exactly sure how the trickery had been done, but they had no doubt it was trickery.

The Bishop promptly forbid Cicero to administer the sacrament.

By that time, though, people had more faith in what they’d witnessed than in the findings of the commission.
And Cicero refused to be bullied.
In defiance of the Bishop, he continued to preach, continued to celebrate mass.
His flock continued to grow and continued to support him financially.

He bought houses, and land and cattle.
He became a social and political leader as well as a religious one.
He journeyed to Rome and got Dom Joaquim’s proscription reversed by Pope Leo XIII.

The Bishop struck back.
He managed to reinstate the prohibition, even managed to have Cicero excommunicated.

But that, too, had little effect in Tabuleiro Grande.
Cicero’s fame continued to grow.

He became a power throughout the region.
In 1911, he managed to have his little village split-off from Crato, the municipality of which it was a part. The new town became known as Juazeiro do Norte, and Cicero ruled it as a virtual fiefdom.

He died in 1934 at the age of 90.
And maybe it was a good thing for Dom Joaquim that he’d gone to his reward 17 years earlier.
Because the Bishop wouldn’t have been at all pleased at what happened next.

Cicero became even more famous in death than he had in life.

In 1969, he was honored with the erection of a statue 27 meters high. It has become one of the most famous icons of Brazil’s northeast.
In 1977 he was canonized by the Brazilian Catholic Church (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church.)
In 2000, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Crato, Dom Joaquim’s distant successor, Dom Fernando Panico, embarked on a campaign to rehabilitate Cicero at the Vatican.
In 2001, Cicero was voted Ceará’s Citizen of the Century.

And in 2010, more than 2.5 million pilgrims flocked to Juazeiro do Norte to visit his tomb.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Debt Ceilings

It would never occur to me to say to my wife, "Honey, let's raise our debt ceiling."

For one thing, I don't call my wife "honey."  For another, she would respond by demanding my credit cards and my checkbook and then letting the air out of my tires.

I know, I know -- there are no parallels between running a household and running a big, powerful, insolvent country like the USA.  Or Greece or Iceland or Spain or Ireland or Portugal, for that matter.

And you know why there aren't?  Because when it's time to take a good hard look at the debt ceiling, people in a household usually react by trying to get things under control.  Whereas the politicians who run countries take the issue and use it to frighten, cajole, and threaten voters.  They seem to want (in the US, anyway) one of two outcomes:

1.  The world does not come to an end and they can claim credit for the next election cycle.

2.  The world does come to an end and they can blame it all on the other party, in preparation for the next election cycle.

In other words, where my wife and I would look at expenses versus income and work together to set a path to recovery, professional politicians on both sides of the aisle use the issue to flummox the public into voting for them so they can hang onto power, prominence, fat pensions, total health care, and maybe--should the unthinkable happen and the voters see through them--a lifetime sinecure with a lobbying firm.

What don't they do?  They don't address the real problem, which is that our debt (here in the USA) now exceeds our gross national product and is four times the gross national product of Japan.  This is not healthy.  It cannot be sustained.

I'm not blaming one party over the other.  They both reek, as far as I'm concerned.  The Repuglicans want to slash social programs and little things like Planned Parenthood and the environment, but will allow no additional taxes on the rich or on corporations, and don't you dare touch defense.  The Damnocrats want to protect "entitlement programs" and raise taxes on (some) corporations and the wealthy and the almost wealthy and the almost-almost wealthy. They don't talk much about defense, either.

And both natter about, um, finding innovative solutions somewhere down the road.  "Down the road" means "after the next election."

So neither of them talks about slashing defense in spite of the fact that we've spent more than four trillion dollars in the past ten years fighting unwinnable wars in countries where we're hated.  And no one talks about the size and cost of government itself, which is completely out of control.  The fastest-growing sector of the American economy for the past 5-6 years has been government.

So here's what I'd do, and if I had 100 million Facebook followers, here's what I'd ask them to agitate for.

Cut defense spending immediately.  Bring home everyone, and that includes those "contractors," by next Tuesday.

Freeze government spending at all levels immediately.  Announce a 20% cut in the size of government through attrition and by firing deadwood.  Immediately reopen all government worker retirement and pension plans for re-evaluation.  Then reduce all government by another ten percent.

Tax the rich.  Tax corporations.  TAX RELIGIONS, through which hundreds of billions of dollars flow untaxed every year, some of it used for persecuting former Scientologists.

Make the House and Senate accept Social Security and Medicare as their retirement and health plans.  What we get, they get.  If they eliminate it for us, they eliminate it for themselves.

Get rid of everything that isn't essential: government dietitians and food Nazis, the Department of Alcohol Tobacco, and Firearms (which needs to be replaced immediately), all drug enforcement agencies, and hundreds of thousands of others who get overpaid to stick their noses into my life and force me to do things that common sense makes me do anyway.  (And the people who don't have common sense?  Let natural selection upgrade the American common-sense quotient.)  The Dept. of Education, since they've done nothing but screw up the schools.

And finally, vote against everyone.  Vote against Repugs and Damns.  Vote against incumbents.  Vote against politicians.  Elect hair stylists, street mimes, school teachers, ACCOUNTANTS, mothers and fathers, anyone you'd like to sit next to on a plane.  No clowns, please -- we're trying to get rid of them.

And encourage Arizona, which has put up a website to raise $50,000,000 through donations to fund a fence along the Mexican border.  I'm not talking about the fence--that's a whole different conversation--but the mechanism.  Let people who actively want a policy pony up money voluntarily to pay for it. Taxation by donation. If they don't, they don't.  If they do, well, that's $50,000,000 that can stay in taxpayers' pockets.

And no one needs to raise the debt ceiling.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tales of the Piano Bar, Part 7: The Silver Screen Comes to the Golden Island

It’s time for another story from Mykonos’ Montparnasse Piano Bar, the Greek Aegean’s own La Cage au Folles.  Its management forgave me for allowing my grandchildren to bump them out of their normal slot on the third Saturday of each month only because “we like their parents.”  For those unfamiliar with the Piano Bar’s other tales, it’s where tourists and locals have gone for over thirty years to see and be the characters making up Mykonos’ legendary 24/7 in-season lifestyle.  It is the creation of Nikos Hristodulakis and Jody Duncan, and they’re behind the bar every night. So, heeeere’s Jody.

Pauline Collins
Tom Conti
As far as I can recall such ancient history, the award winning film Shirley Valentine, directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Pauline Collins, Tom Conti, Julia McKenzie, and Joanna Lumley was filmed on Mykonos in 1988, although the England-based scenes may have been shot earlier.  It is the story of a middle-aged, middle-class, Liverpool housewife caught up in contemplating the meaning of her life finding resolution when fate brings her to Mykonos on holiday.  The film was based on a one-act monologue written by Willy Russell (who also did the screenplay) and performed in London’s West End by Pauline Collins.

In a way, Shirley Valentine captured the essence of the Mykonos of its time, and to this day it inspires new visitors searching for the “Shirley Valentine experience.”

I know that practically everyone on the island has a story about the filming here, but the Piano Bar actually had the major players in our bar every night, and when Paramount Pictures forgot to include a guitar in the props trailer for male lead Tom Conti’s seduction of female lead Pauline Collins, we loaned him our guitar.  I guess you could say we’ve been facilitating that sort of action in more ways than the obvious for decades.

Original Piano Bar
And, yes, the Piano Bar even made it into the film.  You can see our old location in the background of the wedding processional scene that bursts onto the screen as an introduction to the wonder of Mykonos.

We came to know the cast and crew through our dear friend, Jennifer Hero, who served as a location assistant to the production and as the nude body double for Pauline Collins, though I don't think she received credit for that latter part of her work.

Our evenings during filming saw the bar turned into a mini-rehearsal hall, with Nikos from behind the bar serving as stand in for Tom Conti while Pauline ran her lines for the next day's shoot.  Pauline and Alison Steadman, who played Shirley's friend, Jane, became regulars, along with Willy Russell, and even Tom Conti occasionally dropped by.
Playwright and Screenwriter Willy Russell

But of all those from the film who hung out at our place, one delightful fellow in particular stands out in my memory (none of the above-named I hasten to add).  He regularly had far more than his fair share of cocktails and yet never failed to make it to the set on time.  In fact, one night he was so drunk that after we closed for the night we had to carry him outside. 

Still, he wouldn’t wake up.  We didn't know what to do with him.  But it was a beautiful night in more innocent times, so we put him on a bench down by the sea with a pillow under his head and covered him with a throw. 

For the record, we saw no one kiss him good night.  Whether or not someone actually did we cannot say.   However, we did hear that in the morning he not only made it to the set on time but did some of his very best work!

Viva Mykonos.

The cocktail we chose to accompany this tale is not exclusive to us, but nonetheless appropriate for the story: Sex On The Beach.  Fill a large glass with ice, add one ounce of vodka and one ounce of peach schnapps.  Fill the glass with two parts orange juice and one part cranberry juice and stir. Then garnish with a slice of fresh peach, pick up a guitar, and…

Thanks, Jody, but I think I’ll stop you there.

P.S. I'm now blogging on the 19th of each month for my U.S. publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. My first post went up on Tuesday, titled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog."  And yes, full credit is given to my MIE blogmates for that teaching.


Friday, July 22, 2011

America - An Apology

I read this interesting piece the other day, about Americanisms that have entered the English language.
It has produced a fair amount of debate and response, including a few American responses claiming not to be fond of Britishisms (my favourite being the headline that read, ‘Hey Britain, we don’t think your Britishisms are the dogs bollocks either’. You would never see the phrase dogs bollocks in a family newspaper over here, if we had any family newspapers. Recent criminality reveals our newspapers to be of the Tony Soprano family variety. Which reminds me of the time, after I got married in Las Vegas – true story – and we were having a drink with an American couple. She said, as Americans are wont to do with we Brit men, that she loved my accent. I cracked a weak joke, so lame I can’t remember it, but she laughed politely, and then put on a  - really quite bad - English accent and knocked me playfully on the arm, saying ‘You wanker!’ I almost spat my Banana daiquiri off the roof of the Rio. Call someone a wanker in a bar in England and you’re likely to get a punch in the face. But I digress…)

The article set me thinking that we Limeys moan a lot about the influence of America. Everything from our supposed lurch towards presidential politics to a diet of fast food is pinned on our friends across the pond. I have to admit here I’m a committed Americophile (not sure that’s in a dictionary, but I’m sure Anglophile is – go figure (ooops...)) and some of my best friends are American. I love American music, American film, American literature, even American food. It was as big a cultural experience for me to walk into Graceland or Sun Studios as it was to walk into Versailles (and don’t even ask what it was like to go to Dollywood…) Most things I value have come from the States. Yes, there are many things that baffle me – the religiosity of public life, the idea that ‘liberal’ can be a term of abuse, American football (not the rules, just the fact that people would watch it) Everybody Loves Raymond and morbid obesity, but on the whole I think we Brits have much to be thankful to Uncle Sam for.

I’m not sure it works the other way. Yes, the Mayflower sailed from here, but they were a dull bunch of Puritans and killjoys and I doubt anyone missed them. And yes, The Beatles and The Stones were pretty good, though neither would have existed without the blues. Oh and we invented baseball, a great game. But most of the things we’ve given the US over the years have been pretty dire. We should be doing the apologising for what we’ve exported rather than criticising what has come the other way. After literally minutes of thought I came up with these five atrocities:

Piers Morgan – a pompous puffed up, self-serving, talentless cretin. Hopefully to be burnt in the fires of the phone hacking scandal very soon.

Simon Cowell – see Piers Morgan. Without the phone hacking bit. I see he tried to get the authorities to shift the World Series for the X-Factor final. Good to see he has a a firm understanding of his new market.

Reality TV – I wasn’t sure we can claim the credit for this one, but my US cousin says we started it. If so, sorry.

Benny Hill – what happened there? Though the French liked him too come to think of it. But old men chasing after women in public is pretty much a national pastime over there. But why you, Americans?

Newcastle Brown Ale –  over here, drunk only by, actually, you don’t see anyone drinking it over here. Even people from Newcastle don’t drink it. They get smashed on Budweiser instead.
Case closed. We’re sorry.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Guest writer Adrian Hyland writes about Black Saturday

 I recently received an email from an Australian DJ I know who lives in Adelaide.  I have copied it below.

Life in the Australian Army....

Text of a letter from a kid from Eromanga to Mum and Dad. (For Those of you not in the know, Eromanga is a small town, west of Quilpie in the far south west of Queensland )

Dear Mum & Dad,

I am well. Hope youse are too. Tell me big brothers Doug and Phil that the Army is better than workin' on the station - tell them to get in bloody quick smart before the jobs are all gone! I wuz a bit slow in settling down at first, because ya don't hafta get outta bed until 6am. But I like sleeping in now, cuz all ya gotta do before brekky is make ya bed and shine ya boots and clean ya uniform. No bloody horses to get in, no calves to feed, no troughs to clean - nothin'!! Ya haz gotta shower though, but its not so bad, coz there's lotsa hot water and even a light to see what ya doing!
At brekky ya get cereal, fruit and eggs but there's no kangaroo steaks or goanna stew like wot Mum makes. You don't get fed again until noon and by that time all the city boys are buggered because we've been on a 'route march' - geez its only just like walking to the windmill in the bullock paddock!!
This one will kill me brothers Doug and Phil with laughter. I keep getting medals for shootin' - dunno why. The bullseye is as big as a bloody dingo's arse and it don't move and it's not firing back at ya like the Johnsons did when our big scrubber bull got into their prize cows before the Ekka last year! All ya gotta do is make yourself comfortable and hit the target - it's a piece of piss!! You don't even load your own cartridges, they comes in little boxes, and ya don't have to steady yourself against the rollbar of the roo shooting truck when you reload!
Sometimes ya gotta wrestle with the city boys and I gotta be real careful coz they break easy - it's not like fighting with Doug and Phil and Jack and Boori and Steve and Muzza all at once like we do at home after the muster.
Turns out I'm not a bad boxer either and it looks like I'm the best the platoon's got, and I've only been beaten by this one bloke from the Engineers - he's 6 foot 5 and 15 stone and three pick handles across the shoulders and as ya know I'm only 5 foot 7 and eight stone wringin' wet, but I fought him till the other blokes carried me off to the boozer.

I can't complain about the Army - tell the boys to get in quick before word gets around how bloody good it is.

Your loving daughter,


What struck me about this email, other than an explosive laugh as I reached the end, was that it arrived just as I had started reading Australian Adrian Hyland's wonderful book Gunshot Road.  His Diamond Dove won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel in 2007.  After university, Adrian went to Central Australia in the 1980s and worked among traditional Aborgines.  He had the opportunity to spend time with people who had known the area before mines were opened there with the associated influx of white-fellers.

Adrian's protagonist, Emily Tempest, is as the Penguin Books blurb says "small, black, as snaky as a taipan's tooth and is the woman least likely ever to embark on a career in policing." She also reminds me of Susan above, except that she is an Aborigine living in the middle of the Australian Outback.  The trouble she gets into!  

In Gunshot Road she joins the police as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer under a prim and proper Superintendent Cockburn - a white-feller from the east coast.  And immediately sets out to find out who killed an old geologist friend of hers - despite there being overwhelming evidence that the police have the right man in jail.

This book is much more than a police procedural (Emily follows no known police procedures).  It is also a charming and alarming glimpse of the life of Australia's indigenous people living in a white-feller's world.  It is a vivid picture of the spirit world and how people have forgotten how to live on this planet.  "You move too fast: more better you slow down, take time for the country to know you," Emily is told after she is nearly bitten by a king brown snake.
I loved this book.  It reminded me of Aboriginal and Bushman paintings I have seen.  And it abounded with humour similar to that in the story above.

You can find out more about Adrian at J. Sydney Jones' Scene of the Crime blog by clicking here.

Please welcome Adrian, who tells us more about another remarkable and frightening Australian occurrence - Black Saturday.

Stan - Thursday

My life of late has been full of fire.

I live on a twelve acre property in the foothills of the Kinglake Ranges, near Melbourne.  A beautiful place to raise your family – the kids can gallop around on their horses, marvel at the orchids, watch mobs of kangaroos drift across our front lawn.

It’s also, alas, the most fire-prone place on earth.

A couple of years ago – February 7, 2009 -  a terrible bushfire swept through the ranges. One hundred and seventy three people died on what we now describe as Black Saturday, the vast majority of them in the Kinglake Ranges. An awful lot of them were our friends.

Like everybody else, I’ve struggled to make sense of the disaster. As a writer, the only way I know how to make sense of things is to write about them.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure where to start; the disaster seemed overwhelming. Then I began hearing about the heroism shown on the day by a neighbour and good friend of mine, Roger Wood, the police officer who was in charge of Kinglake on the day.

Photo by Alex Coppel
He had absolutely no warning that it was coming, but when it came roaring out of the bush, he immediately swung into action. He and a colleague spent the day frantically attempting to rescue people; he went charging into burning buildings, led a convoy of cars full of critically injured people down the burning mountain when it was deemed unsafe for the ambulances to come up. At the height of the fire, he received a desperate call from his wife to say that the fire was hitting their own property, and then the line went dead; he spent the day fearing the worst for her and his four children.
After the fire had passed, he and his colleagues then had the heart-wrenching task of going from house to house, uncovering the bodies, many of them people they knew.

I decided to turn his story into a book. Kinglake 350  - the ‘350’ was Roger’s radio call-sign-  is coming out shortly. In it, I try to capture this day from hell. It begins with my main character climbing out of bed on the Saturday morning, looking around and thinking: “Christ, bloody hot day today.” It finishes with him staggering home twenty four hours later, battered, burnt, badly injured, staggered by what he’s seen and the gruesome tasks ahead.

I’ve also attempted to put his story into a universal context, to understand fire and its role in our environment and culture. I’ve been completely enthralled by this journey of discovery.

Did you know, for instance, that fire is, as far as we know, unique to this planet? And that while the Earth was formed around four billion years ago, fire has only existed for the last four hundred million of them.  

Or that the ancient cultures which regarded fire as a living entity – the Slavs, the Ainu, the Vedic Indians – weren’t that far from the truth. It’s not alive, of course: it’s a chemical reaction between oxygen, fuel, and heat. But fire and life are inextricably bound. Fire only became possible with the appearance of life – prokaryotes in the first instance, which simultaneously produced both oxygen and fuel.

Fire has also been an important lever in the ascent of humanity.
There is a cave at Swartkrans, in South Africa, that dramatically illustrates this fact. Among the layers of fossil evidence uncovered there, three are of particular significance. In the first, the bones are those of hominids, scattered and torn so as to suggest they were eaten by predators. Then there is a layer of charcoal. In the final stratum, the bones are those of antelopes and warthogs, and they are burnt: cooked, by the hominids. The tables have turned. Somewhere in the intervening period, around the time of that second, charcoal, layer our ancestors learnt to control fire, and it had a transfiguring effect upon their relationship with their environment. It gave them a primacy from which we have never retreated.