Friday, November 30, 2012

Flash For Ever

This post has been more than heavily influenced by Tim's wonderful little blog about P.G Wodehouse the week before last. Currently, I'm in book finishing hell (a little non-fiction number I will tell you about anon) which has involved a) writing it very quickly and b) then doing a major rewrite because of a). I've been working seven days a week, 15 hours a day for the past few weeks, and as any writer knows when they're faced with that kind of work load you need to dangle yourself one almighty carrot at the end to help get you through the slog.

I have two carrots. One is researching another book, which involves cricket (yay! you all cry) and I can't wait to start. The second is a promise to escape into the world of a fiction, and specifically the world of one of English literature's greatest comic creations, Flashman.

I first read the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser when I was a teenager and loved them. I've re-read a few since then and still loved them. Now, or at least in a week or so time, as a treat I'm going to read them all from start to glorious finish, and I can't wait.

I should hate Flashman. He is a sexist, racist, empire-loving coward. I once read an interview with Fraser and it was clear that Flashman's opinion were not that much of a caricature of his own. But Fraser wrote like a dream, he knew his history backwards and inside out, and in Flashman he created a character for the ages. Or re-created him. Flashman first turns up as the school bully in the very dreary Tom Brown's Schooldays. Fraser had the wonderful idea to take Flashman, still have him as a bully, but make him an incorrigible shagger and carouser who would turn and run at the first hint of trouble, putting the safety of his own skin above that of all others, and then place him at the scene of some of  the 19th century's most famous and infamous events.

So, we have Flashman at Little Big Horn (his Native American - though Flashy would laugh uproariously at such politically correct pussyfooting - name: He Who Rides So Fast He Breaks the Wind, or Windbreaker for short) at Harper's Ferry, the first Anglo-Afghan War, The Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, taking the first hat-trick in cricket history; and meeting Queen Victoria (who fancies him obviously) Custer (a psychotic), Abraham Lincoln (cool and collected), John Brown (another psychotic), Otto Von Bismarck (see Custer and Brown), Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar and Oscar Wilde ('an overfed trout in a toupé') and countless others. If they're female, he beds them. If they're warlike and brave, he hates them. If they're craven and cowardly like him, he gets the hell away from them before they rumble him as another wuss.

The central conceit is that wherever he goes he ends up hiding and crying and whimpering, but inevitably ends up being crowned the hero despite himself. Despite this predictability, the books are so much fun and so funny that you don't care. They also work as good introductions to history. They're so accurate and well researched that the occasional dopey historian was known to write to Fraser asking if they could have a look at the papers that Fraser draws the stories from (the basis for the books is that Fraser 'found' the memoirs in 1965 in an antique tea-chest in an antique salesroom 'wrapped in oilskin.')

Rather annoyingly, one of the insults hurled at our Prime Minister, the posh, arrogant and short-tempered David Cameron, is that he's like Flashman. Perhaps in Tom Brown's Schooldays, but Flashy fans know their hero is funny, self-deprecating and charming, despite being an obvious cad and a bounder (or because of it.) About the only trait he shares with our horrible PM is cowardice, though the crucial difference is that Flashman admits his.

So, after these past mad few weeks, I'm looking forward to Flash for Sanity!


Dan - Friday

Thursday, November 29, 2012

One of history’s finest no-results

Dan has waxed lyrical on several occasions about the greatest of sports – cricket.  I share his love for this amazing game.  I will leave it to him to give you a brief description of how it is played.

However, there are two basic facts that you need to know to appreciate what I am going to write.  First, at the pinnacle of all the various forms of cricket is the Test Match.  It takes place between two countries and lasts five days of 6 hours play a day.  Elapsed time per day is a little longer to accommodate drinks, tea, and lunch.  

Second, a fundamental difference between cricket and baseball is that a Test Match ends at a particular time on the last day, say 6:00 PM.  If the side that is batting last is not all out, the match is a draw.  That means it is possible for two sides to play for 5 days and end with no result.
As with any sporting contest, there are matches that live in history for one team beating another in difficult circumstances or because a player has been so outstanding that he (or she in today’s cricket world) has singlehanded changed the course of the game.  These are the games where one team has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.  Of course, the flip side of the same coin is that the other team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

[Please don’t yawn – here’s a chance to learn a little about what may be the world’s second most popular ball game.]

Last week, a Test Match ended in a draw that will be remembered for years to come.  I think it was one of the most memorable no-results since I have been watching cricket – ie for the last 60 years.  (I am sure Dan will remember another no-result of similar historic proportions where England saved themselves from defeat.)

South Africa and Australia are ferocious competitors – South Africans support any side playing against Australia, and vice versa.

Last week the second Test Match of this year’s series took place between SA and Oz at Adelaide.  The first Test had been drawn, with Oz having the upper hand.  (The series is very important because if it wins the series, Australia will knock South Africa off its #1 perch.)

In the first innings (each side has two in cricket), Australia totally dominated South Africa’s bowling (equivalent of pitching) attack, setting numerous records for high scores for individual batsmen (OZ captain Michael Clarke scored his fourth innings over 200 runs this year), as well as accumulating an enormous score for the first day (455 with only 5 of the ten batsmen out).  We South African supporters were down in the dumps.  On the second day, Australia continued to bat and were eventually all out for 550 runs – a huge total.  South Africa started its first innings well, but later collapsed and were all out for 387. In the middle of the third day.

[Come!  Stick with it!  Only a few more paragraphs to read!]

It is at this stage of a cricket match that the rule that the game must end at 6:00 PM on the fifth day plays a huge strategic role.  For Australia to win, it had to amass more runs than it thought South Africa could get, but at the same time, leave itself enough time to get all of South Africa’s ten wickets (that is, batsmen out).  
If all ten wickets have not been taken, the game is a draw.

Australia batted a second time and declared at 248 for 8 wickets. (This is another fundamental difference between cricket and baseball – because of the fixed end time, a side can end any innings whenever it wants, even if all ten players have not been dismissed.)  This is how a team can try to achieve the balance explained above – having enough runs versus leaving enough time to get the other side out.

When Australia ended its second innings, South Africa had to get 429 runs to win, but had to stay in the game for about 9 hours to prevent defeat – a highly unlikely task.  In reality, South Africa had no chance of winning, and little chance of forcing a draw.

But dogged determination, a dream debut by a South African, and a gutsy two hours’ batting by a stalwart, kept everything that Australia could muster at bay.  The clock reached 6 PM with South Africa having two players still not out.  The match was drawn.  Faf du Plessis, playing in his first Test Match and in the side only because of an injury to a regular player, became the first South African to score over 50 runs in one innings and over 100 runs in the second.  Jacques Kallis, whose been around for a long time, had a pain-filled (from a strained hamstring) innings of nearly two hours.
Kallis (left) congratulates Du Plessis on his century
But what makes a match like this memorable is not only the determination of the South African players to stave off defeat, but more so because of the unbelievable tension that grew and grew throughout the last day.  It is no exaggeration to say that the last hour of this match that ended with no result was as tension-filled as any match that was won or lost.  I’m sure the crowd in Adelaide was ecstatic when a South African player was out, and white-knuckled and seat-edged for the remaining time.  People would have sat with eyes glued on the action, invoking every superstition they could muster to cause South Africa to succumb.  
Australia desperately appeal for Du Plessis' wicket. To no avail!
Six hours batting can take a toll.  Du Plessis is treated for cramps.

There is no doubt in my mind, because of the time span involved, that the tension in cricket reaches peaks not experienced in other sports.

I am always happy to take someone to a cricket match, even one that lasts half a day, to introduce the delights of the game.  I am sure Dan will do the same. 

But only if you have the time.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Empty headed (beats beheaded)

I was googling to see if I had previously blogged about the Icelandic Santa Clauses, i.e. the naughty Yule lads. I started typing: Murder is e…. The suggestions that appeared once the “e” was in place were the following:

Murder is easy
Murder is everywhere
Murder is evil

So we are sandwiched between easy and evil. And easy murder is more popular than evil. Which sort of makes sense if you are a murderer but less so if you are a reader of mysteries.

December is almost upon us here as elsewhere. In the southern regions of Iceland we have yet to see much snow and if I was to be consulted I would ask that it stay that way until the holiday season. It can remain until New Year’s Day as it is as much needed as a receptor for fireworks sticks as it is for festive atmosphere. After that it can go bye-bye as long as it is not replaced by cold rain, which is unfortunately the only likely alternative.

Weather is of great interest to us here in Iceland. It is a subject of discussion that never depletes and quite frequently used as a fallback topic in awkward situations. “I did not know your wife died. I am so sorry to hear that. Was it raining at the funeral? It feels as if it has rained constantly for months now. Someone mentioned that we are close to breaking the rain record from 1983.” And so on.

Since my mind is still depleted of any original thoughts since wrapping up my book – which is now on the shelves here and hopefully able to fend for itself – I could revert to discussing the weather. I am too wrung out to tell you about the Santa Clauses this week but promise to do so next Wednesday. But discuss the weather I will not. You have probably stopped reading anyway at the mere hint of me doing so.

For those that have endured I must sadly notify that it was not worth your while. At all. So to make it up to you I have decided to add a few photos that will hopefully make up for my lack of ingenuity tonight.

And for those of you who left messages last week regarding my little dog – thank you for your kind words. The stitches have now been removed and new ones put in. Stitches rev. 2 are a lot better that rev. 1 since they are no longer used to sew the eye shut, leaving him looking like some sort of voodoo doll. Now they are used to realign the upper and lower eyelid - separately  We are told it remains to be seen if he has lost sight in the eye. All I now care about is that he keeps it and does not need to have it removed. I don't think the zombie look of an exposed eye socket will suit him any better than the voodoo look he just got rid of. 

You see I know he is blind in the mangled eye. I got out of bed during the night and passed him fast asleep and snoring. Good eye shut. Hurt eye wide open.

Light obviously bothers this eye as much as it would bother an ear.

Yrsa - Wednesday

photos originate from

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Coluche - restaurants des Coeur

Coluche - a French comedian and actor - infamous for his ireverent 'everyman' routine passed away in 1985 in a motorcycle accident.  This 'mec' who wore overalls and a yellow Tshirt in his act lived life in the fast lane and broke a world speed motorbike record of 252 km an hour.  He was 41 when he died in 1986. But his legacy lives on in the foundation he began, Les Restaurants du Coeur. In a famous radio interview Coluche gave less than a year before his death he said "I have a little idea..." which gave way into a charity that helps more than 600,000 people a day providing food and clothing for the needy and homeless. 
Coluche, in his act, left no establishment or person safe from his  barbed comments. He once said, "Your father doesn't work, like mine, so he's a Fonctionaire right?' meaning those government employees hired for life in the French system who basically do nothing and can't be fired. Coluche, to many, was the voice for the forgotten and the ignored in the system. His novel idea, for the Socialist government, of this private foundation recruited 40,000 volunteers who help in almost 2,500 Restos. Every year there's a gala fundraiser,  with a group of famous celebrities known as les Enfoires, the assholes, who keep true to Coluche's humor and raise tons of money for les restaurants des Coeur. 
The cold weather in Paris makes life hard for the SDF, sans domicile fixe, or homeless. I took this shot in Place des Vosges in the Marais, one of the most exclusive addresses in the City of Light. I hope this SDF got to one of Coluche's resto's that night.

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, November 26, 2012

About Lefties

No more than 10 % (and perhaps as little as 5%) of the world’s population is left-handed.
I’m one of them.

Most of us have terrible handwriting.

In my case, it’s partly because the school desks of my youth looked like this:

Notice where the arm-support is? Notice that it’s fixed?
When we, the left-handed kids, were developing our penmanship we had to twist around in our seats to get support on a corner of our desks.

And not only that.
Did you notice this thing in the upper right-hand corner?

It was a place into which an inkwell was inserted.

Back then, we were taught to write with nibbed pens.

And left-handers, as they wrote, invariably “blotted their copybooks” (ever wonder where that phrase came from?) as their hands passed over the wet ink unless they positioned their hand, as they wrote forward, so that the heel passed over the top of the line. (Yes, it is possible. All left-handers, back then, did it.)

But it came at a cost.
I got terrible grades in penmanship.

And my cursive handwriting, to this day, is so difficult to decipher, that I usually write notes to other people in block letters.

Leonardo da Vinci was a “lefty”.
And his famous “mirror writing” was a practical solution to a real problem.

By composing from right to left, he could allow his hand to precede what he was writing – just like a right-hander does naturally. And that hand never ran over wet ink.

I tried to talk my third-grade teacher into letting me do it.
But she wouldn’t go for it.

We left-handers are also challenged by scissors (generally contoured to be used in one’s right hand), checkbooks (that open on the left, leaving us no place to rest the heel of our hands when we’re writing a check) and all sorts of other stuff like manual pencil sharpeners and cheese grinders.

There are other disadvantages, too:

On the average, we live nine years less than right-handed people.
And we’re three times as likely to become alcoholics. (This, because we make more use of the right-brain than right-handers do, and the right-brain has a lower tolerance to alcohol.)

The trade-off for writers, painters and musicians is that creativity is a right-brain function.

Artists in our ranks, in addition to Leonardo, include Raphael, Michelangelo, Holbein, Dürer, Klee and Escher.

We also have a few world conquerors like Alexander the Great and Julius Cesar.

Some football (soccer) greats like Cruyff, Pelé and Maradona.

 And the all-time Olympic great Mark Spitz.

And, yeah, okay, I admit it, such famous criminals as John Dillinger, The Boston Strangler and Jack-the -Ripper.

How about some of you other lefties reading this contribute a comment and be counted?

Leighton – Monday

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Political Gas

We had riots here in Bangkok this week.  They were held by a "royalist" opposition party, Pitak Siam, dedicated to the overthrow of the current democratically elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra; her party, PheuThai; and all things Shinawatra.  Pitak Siam announced several weeks ago that they were going to bring down the Evil (Democratically Elected) Regime by massing a million protesters and, essentially, striking a decisive blow for the freedom of the very rich traditional ruling elite.

Well . . .

Even the most flattering estimates of the size of the crowd put it at 20,000, or about two percent of the target.  Most of them had it at roughly 12,000, which means that the demonstrators were literally outnumbered by the cops and soldiers on hand.

So the demonstrators listened to speeches from the stage that had been set up and generally stood around drinking bottled water.  The police, in a common-sense move, had limited access to what was supposed to have been the riot's authorized site by putting concrete blockades across all but two of the major streets that provided access.  This outraged the protesters.  The cops and army had also set up checkpoints at many of the main entry points into Bangkok proper.  This outraged the protesters.

Forget that Thailand is currently suffering almost daily attacks by Muslim extremists in the South and that there have been a couple in Bangkok as well.  Forget what an enticing target a closely-packed crowd of one million people (or even a sparse little cocktail party of 12,000) would have been.  Forget the howls from Pitak Siam if a terrorist (or several) had been allowed to penetrate the crowd and set off explosive devices.  I mean, imagine the outrage.

But forget all that.  That's future outrage. What mattered to the Pitak Siam leaders was current outrage.

So there's the crowd, milling around and probably telling each other jokes, and there are the cops, resolutely declining to put their snipers into action or to get the army to roll tanks over a few protesters as a photo op.  So the Pitak Siam leaders order their hapless followers to storm the barricades, and they do, and the cops fire some tear gas and whack a couple of people with nightsticks and everybody runs away.  The Pitak Siam leader, in a paroxysm of self-pity (It's not about the country, it's about me.), said, “I have already died.”

We should be so lucky.

But, of course, the TV news channels enlivened the permanent IQ sink they inhabit with extensive footage of the tear gas, and many newspapers, following the 21st-century journalism precept, “If it bleeds, it leads,” did the same.

And, of course, this debacle crowned an amazing couple of weeks for Yingluck, in which she represented Thailand at a Southeast Asian leadership conference, looking, in the lineup of her neighboring heads of state, like a rose in a bowl of artichokes, and then held a joint press conference with President Obama, answering, in English, questions posed in English—something the opposition said she'd never dare to do.

And just to avoid charges of my being infatuated with Yingluck's womanly charms (the opposition press ran cartoons that Thailand's first female prime minister seducing the U.S. President like a bar girl), let's focus for a moment on the often-neglected concept of majority rule.  Remember majority rule?

Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was elected Prime Minister twice, the second time by the only absolute majority in the history of Thai politics and was then thrown out of office in a coup by the power elite.  They held an election, and Thaksin's deputy was elected.  He was thrown out of office, and the elite put one of their own in the prime minister's chair and suspended elections until they absolutely had to hold one, at which time Yingluck was elected by the second absolute majority in the history of Thai politics.

I don't actually believe that Pheu Thai, Yingluck's party, has the people's interest much closer to their hearts than the power elite does—they're certainly doing nothing about the ongoing seizure of rice farms in the poverty-stricken Northeast—but listen up, you boneheads in the power elite. The people elected her.  They're probably going to elect her again.  Get used to it.

Oh, yeah, she faces censure hearings this week.  Maybe they'll fire tear gas at the opposition leaders.  That would be nice.

Tim -- Sunday

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Greece Is Slaughtering Its Elephants.

What elephants?  Bear with me (no pun) and you'll see.

Forty years ago, amid another life, I attended an event in a close friend’s Upper Eastside NYC apartment filled with glitterati out of a Dominick Dunne novel.  The nation was in turmoil, torn apart and galvanized into intractable positions over the Vietnam War.  That night we were introduced to a decorated navy man and his organization, John Kerry and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

It was a fundraiser and I was standing next to a local TV reporter buddy I suspected felt just as fiscally out of place in that crowd as did I.  I still smile when I think of him leaning over and whispering to me, “Jeffrey, what are we doing here?”  Today, that’s not a question Geraldo Rivera would likely ask in any crowd.:)

The highlight of the evening came when I was introduced to a group of three men chitchatting in a corner.  They graciously brought me into their conversation, though to be honest—and as hard as it may be to believe—my total contribution was a star-struck “hello” and on-cue nods to the back and forth among Messers Kevin McCarthy (actor and brother of author Mary McCarthy), Andy Warhol, and Kurt Vonnegut.

It was all a blur, except for one comment made by Kurt Vonnegut that I shall never forget.  And perhaps never fully understood until this morning as I contemplated what to write for today’s post.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007
In response to a question from Kevin McCarthy about what each regretted most about The War, Vonnegut said, “The elephants.  The slaughter of the elephants.”

Yes, elephants are a symbol of strength, honor, stability, and patience; a vibrant bulldozer of obstacles to success.   But I didn’t see that, and my immediate reaction I dared not voice: “What an isolated, intellectually pretentious thing to say in the face of all the human suffering experienced there every day.”

That just goes to show how little I knew then…or now.

I doubt there is an informed individual anywhere on earth who is unaware of Greece’s fiscal crisis.  On top of that, each day more learn of a homegrown terrorist organization seeking to cleanse “their” country of those they believe are not “true Greeks.”

But this is not about any of that, for ultimately Greece alone will bear the burdens of its fiscal and national identity decisions. Yes, there will be financial turmoil in world markets and undoubtedly some will suffer, but the world will adjust and go on to prosper.  

No, this is about the ongoing slaughter of Greece’s elephants.

The best and brightest of the nation’s youth are fleeing Greece in torrents unmatched in decades.  They see no future in an economy geared to protecting the connected and already successful, where all the bickering and battles between those in favor of and those opposed to the status quo are seen only as words, and change is not expected no matter whom the ultimate victor.

I ask you Greece, does it really matter who wins if you’ve slaughtered your elephants? 


Friday, November 23, 2012

Crack the Pigeon

Every now and then a news story comes along that's so fascinating it's difficult to think of anything else. My post a fortnight ago about Jimmy Savile was one. I came across another, slightly more light-hearted you'll be happy to know, this week.

A few weeks ago David Martin of Surrey was renovating his chimney when he came across the remains of a pigeon. Attached to its leg was a small red canister. Inside that was a piece of paper headed 'Pigeon Service.' Beneath that were 27 blocks of handwritten code.

The pigeon had been dispatched during World War Two with its coded message, but had obviously experienced difficulties. The message never arrived. Now after two weeks of trying, the finest minds in Britain have conceded defeat. They can't break the code. They're hoping the public can help them crack it.

Given the pigeon was found in a chimney, the only suggestion they've had so far is that the first two blocks mean 'Dear Santa.'


Dan - Friday

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Good News Week

I was very impressed with Tim’s take on the news a couple of weeks ago, and thought I should do something similar on the South African scene.  I do have a problem, however.  I’m enough of a snob to get most of my news from the New York Times, where it’s well written and has an international perspective, rather than from the local newspapers, which tend to be in the league of the Oshkosh Observer, and believe that good writing means that a sentence often contains a verb.  So my local news tends to come from spotting newspaper headline posters as I drive to work.  Some of them make no sense to me whatsoever.  I presume a headline like VAN DER SPUY EXCELS has something to do with a sport in which South Africa is a world leader.  Biltong eating competitions or disabled swimming would do it.  (Actually we’re pretty good at abled swimming too.)  Or SWEDE VICTORY FOR STENSON which I guess has something to do with growing vegetables.  However, some of the others make perfect sense to me and I thought I’d share a few of those with you.

Last week I saw: ZUMA INSULT LAW MOOTED.  Now I have to say I’m opposed to this.  While there is plenty to insult Zuma about – infidelities, enough wives for a hotel and enough children for their own school, various rumors of improprieties of the financial kind, and a quaint attitude to AIDS – I think that the man has been insulted enough.  He is after all the president of our country.  Why should we be compelled to insult him?  Following his rather charming comment that he didn’t mind having unprotected sex with an HIV positive lady – make that woman – because he had a good shower afterwards, he never appears in cartoons other than with a shower head halo, with the pipe uncomfortably stuck down his backbone.  Surely this insult should keep him going for some time?  (He considered it significant enough to sue Zapiro, the cartoonist, and the newspaper concerned, but recently withdrew the suit.  I had the pleasure of sitting at the next table while the newspaper celebrated this triumph with good food and wine.)  Furthermore, how is this law to be enforced?  Will Zuma police knock on your door in the middle of the night and demand an off-the-cuff insult?  
We already have a variety of laws which are good in principle but impossible to implement in practice.  For example, you are not allowed to use a cell phone while driving.  Yet people do this all the time and even use smart phones to watch Youtube clips while casting occasional glances at the traffic.  No prizes for guessing what sort of clip appeals.

Yet this was followed the next day by an even more surprising revelation.  I can’t wait for the NYT to give us the details: I’VE BEEN PAINTED BLACK – ZUMA.  Now this is a biggie.  We’ve always been rather proud of the fact that we had a black president here before it became so fashionable to do so, and no one has ever suggested that Mandela is anything but black.  But it seems Zuma is actually only colored black.  Come to think of it, he looks pretty white in those cartoons...

This is amazing news, and suggests that all the black economic empowerment contracts which have gone to members of his family need to be withdrawn.  Perhaps some of them are black, but are they black enough if he isn’t?  He was already struggling to get re-election as ANC president next month.  I suspect this may be the last nail in the coffin.  I don’t think South Africa is ready just yet for a president who has come out of the color closet.

Moving off politics, the Star newspaper has a supplement called VERVE directed at women.  It, too, trumpets headlines along the lamp poles as I drive to the university.  On the same day we were threatened with compulsory insulting, Verve announced: MEN – SIZE DOES MATTER.  Now this one I understood at once.  Clearly they are referring to the new cell phones.  As they get smarter (in inverse proportion to our ability to use them), they also sport larger screens.  With the Ipad, at least Apple doesn't pretend it's a phone.  Samsung has a phone about the same size.  This makes you look a total idiot if you get a call – rather similar to walking around holding a dinner plate to your head.  You have to shout so that your voice reaches the mike.  (That’s no problem; people always seem to shout at cell phones.)  Alternatively, of course, you can use Bluetooth with Ice Cream Sunday or Gingerbread or some other variety of dessert and wander around looking like Mr. Spock.  So why was this article directed at MEN specifically? Presumably your girl is impressed if you can hold the phone up to your head long enough to make a date.  Keep working on those biceps, guys.

My final offering is from Verve the next day.  This time it proclaimed: THE RETURN OF CHEST HAIR.  I didn’t even know it had left.  Hopefully this one also refers to men!  Or maybe there’s a new South African pop group out there – just back from abroad – that I’ve never heard of.  I’ll keep you posted.

Michael – Thursday. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Seeing is believing

I  no longer care what laser eye treatment did to Tiger Woods' golf game, I am going to have my eyes done. Reading glasses are such a drag and trying to get along without them can lead to mix-ups and messes.

At the moment I am in beautiful Leipzig on my way to Berlin tomorrow for a reading in conjunction with the publishing of Todesschiff - translated directly: the Death ship.

For four years prior to university I studied German as my fourth language and although I can somehow line up perfect German sentences and speeches in my head, the vent connecting my brain to my tounge is kaput. I sound like a four year old, which is probably all one can expect after learning to talk it for four years.

My hotel room is a jumbled mess since I have been shopping and have yet to get the proceeds of this venture into my suitcases. For this reason I put a "do not disturb" sign outside the door last night and intended to keep it there all day.  Despite this the cleaning woman seemed intent on entering this morning and before leaving the room I had to be quite abrupt to her so that she would stop her attempts to get in. It was a bit odd.

When I left the room I put on my reading glasses and these coupled with my cracked and splintered German allowed me to see what had happened. It does not take a detective to see what is coming as I had of course turned the sign the wrong way, unable to see well enough bare-eyed that the sign read "please clean". No wonder the woman looked at me funny when I kept closing the door in her face.

So I turned the sign around and left. Upon my return just now I enter the room and the poor woman has somehow managed to tidy everything up despite the state of the room. Understandably the turning of the sign must have caused this - if I did not want her when I put up the sign asking for her services then I must want her to enter when I put up a sign saying I want her to stay away.

Speaking of eyesight. In other news (as if the above can be considered news) my beloved little dog was in an altercation the evening before I left and one of his eyes popped out. Something no one wants to experience. He had an operation and they put the eye back in and sewed it shut  but this being a weekend the vet had no assistant to help and we had to step in. My husband did it - although I can write horrible stuff I am unable to hold an eye in place while someone uses a needle and thread on an eyelid. Next week we will know if he will keep the eye or if the sewed up lid is a permanent fixture. Fingers crossed. Worst comes to worst he will look like a cute pirate.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, November 19, 2012

Murder in Brazil #6 – Cops And Robbers

On Saturday, the 3rd of November, the woman pictured above was opening the garage door in front of her home in São Paulo when two assailants drove up on a motorcycle and shot her ten times in the back, throat and abdomen.

Maria Umbelina da Silva was a forty-four-year-old cop. Her eleven-year-old daughter, who’d witnessed it all, screamed for help, but it was too late. Her mother never made it to a hospital.

Two days earlier, another police officer was murdered at the jiujitsu academy where he gave classes. Two days later, a third was shot dead in front of his family while returning from a church service.

All together, almost a hundred São Paulo cops have been killed, half of them assassination style, since the most recent wave of violence began.

The cops have reacted to the threat by doing some killing of their own: almost 300 people in the course of the last two months.

Some were known criminals.

Others were perfectly-innocent victims who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s an eye-for-an-eye escalating war going-on between the forces of law-and-order and the PCC, Brazil’s largest and most notorious gang.

In the past week, we’ve seen helicopter coverage of a high-speed chase and deadly shootout on the belt road around the city, a video (shot by a bystander on his cell phone – and aired on a national network) showing five cops killing an unarmed felon in cold blood, the arson of several buses, and the death of more than fifty non-combatants, including a sixty-three-old man who was run over when a bus driver tried to flee attackers.

It all goes back to May of this year when three police officers murdered a PCC member in the course of a drug bust.

The police were jailed, and face charges, but it wasn’t enough to mollify the leaders of the gang.

Outraged, they ordered their members to take revenge by killing officers.

Most of those orders have been issued, via mobile phones, from incarcerated gang leaders.
Why not simply take away the phones?
Prison officials do, but the crooks are constantly being supplied with new ones, generally by other, more corrupt, prison officials.
Jam the signals?
It can’t be done without interfering with mobile coverage in the area of the prisons – and that has been blocked, in court, by both service providers and citizen’s groups.
But it’s also true that the cops aren’t working too hard to overturn the judgments. Instead, they’re tapping the calls and, although the criminals have learned to speak in codes, the police have become adept at cracking them.
Another complication is that São Paulo’s prison system doesn’t have the capacity to isolate dangerous inmates.
The federal prisons do, but the last time the state government tried to move PCC leaders into them (in 2006) it unleashed a wave of violence resulting in attacks on police precincts with automatic weapons and hand grenades.

And in the death of almost five hundred people.
Like I said, it’s a war.
Leighton - Monday  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

First-Person Perfect

“Don't you love this time of evening, Mr. Wooster, when the sun has gone to bed and all the bunnies come out to have their little suppers?  When I was a child, I used to think that rabbits were gnomes, and if I held my breath and stayed quite still, I should see the fairy queen.”

“Talking of shedding tears,” I said firmly, “it may interest you to know that there is an aching heart at Brinkley Court.”

This held her.  She cheesed the rabbit theme.  Her face, which had been aglow with what I supposed was a pretty animation, clouded.  She unshipped a sigh that sounded like the wind going out of a rubber duck.

There we have Madeleine Bassett, certainly among the dampest female characters in all fiction, as presented through one of comic literature's few perfect first-person narratives, that of Bertie Wooster, in P.G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves.  I go for years between Wodehouse novels, and then, when I read one, I ask myself why I read anything else.  Bertie is nonpareil.

These are, of course the “Jeeves” novels, but Jeeves—although he's certainly the world's greatest fictional butler—is almost a plot contrivance.  The genius is Bertie's narrative, absolutely consistent, totally confident, unerringly wrong.  Look at the verbs alone: “cheesed,” “clouded,” “unshipped.”  Unshipped?

And the rubber duck.  Not just the comparison of the sound of a sighing woman with a rubber duck, and the duck's perfect position at the end of the sentence, but the fact that rubber ducks figure strongly in Bertie's frame of reference and this does not surprise us.  In this book alone, he has two encounters with a rubber duck

Here's Bertie's description of one of the unfortunate secondary characters of What Ho, Jeeves:

Gussie Fink-Nottle lived year in and year out, covered with moss, in a remote village down in Lancashire, never coming up to London even for the Eton and Harrow match.  And when I asked him once whether he didn't find the time hanging a bit heavy on his hands, he said, no, because he had a pond in his garden and studied the habits of newts.

Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeleine Bassett's charms notwithstanding, it's no wonder that the Jeeves books haven't really worked in dramatic form (and I include the very good BBC series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, pictured above) because without Bertie's narrative, what you've got is somewhat mechanical drawing-room comedy with plot reversals that wouldn't look out of place in a sitcom.

This is not a knock on Wodehouse.  These elements suffer an almost mystical sea-change when filtered through Bertie's skewed and somewhat filmy perspective.  But only on the page.  As an example, one of the highlights of this book, Bertie's account of an eighteen-mile bicycle ride, over unlighted country roads on a dark night, to fetch a key no one actually needs, would be, on film, a man on a bike in the dark, whereas in Bertie's telling it takes on almost Homeric proportions.  If Homer had been an upper-class twit in whose frame of reference rubber ducks were prominently featured.

Wodehouse's magic is (to me, anyway) unique.  It's not just funny--I laugh more or less continuously when I read him--but it's comforting, this world of well-tailored dimwits named Bertie and Gussie Fink-Nottle and Tuppy Glossop and Pongo Twistleton and (best of all) Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, and gargoyle aunts and country houses and damp debutantes who can turn predatory in between the noun and the verb.  It's comforting to me in the same way that the so-called Golden Age mysteries are to those people who got all savage with me a year or so ago when I dared to suggest that they trivialized murder.  Wodehouse relaxes me the way only the very best writers do--he lets me know from the first sentence that he's in control, and that the world of the book, although it may not be much larger than a good-size snow globe, will be explored thoroughly, so thoroughly that it will seem, in retrospect, that I peered under every carpet.  And enjoyed it.

Few things are trickier than intelligence.  We've all read presumably brilliant characters whom we wouldn't trust to button their shirts straight and less-gifted characters whose relative thickness is suggested mostly by their use of short words.  In Wodehouse, we have acres of completely convincing idiocy on display, in varying degrees, and best of all, it's described by one who is supremely, even blithely, unconscious of his own shortcomings.  It is, I think, one of the funniest ideas in fiction.

Here's Bertie on Madeleine again:

It was not her beauty, mark you, that thus numbed me.  She was a pretty enough girl in a droopy, blonde, saucer-eyed way, but not the sort of breath-taker that takes the breath.

Two sentences.  Do you need to know anything else in the world?  About either of them, the observer ot the observed?  Every writer who breathes can learn about perspective, tone, and economy from these books. I rest my case.

Tim -- Sunday

All About Greek Superstitions

I started off thinking I’d write a piece on the Goddess Athena, in thanks for her sparing my farm from the wrath of her namesake of a Nor’easter storm.  It struck me as unwise not to do so, which led me to thinking about superstitions and how there are no people I know of more superstitious than the Greeks.  So, with all due respect Athena, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for another slot.   This week it’s all about Greek superstitions, many of which are shared in different forms among other world cultures.  

Though I don’t consider myself superstitious, permit me a moment to say ftou, ftou, ftou, representing the Greek superstition of spitting three times to chase the devil and misfortune away whenever you talk about bad things.  Such as failing to properly thank a Greek god for saving your farm.  

On that segue here are some of the basic Greek superstitions, for which I wish to credit the assistance of
two websites, The Embassy of Greece and Susie Atsaides.

Without question the biggie is the Evil Eye.  In fact, many other Greek superstitions are designed to deal with risks presented by the Evil Eye.  It can strike at any time, and is taken very seriously. Educated, level-headed people believe in it, as does the Greek Orthodox Church (calling it Vaskania), and those with the “gift” for casting it away from those put upon by the Evil Eye are revered.

The process of casting away involves techniques passed down in secret from generation to generation and involves prayers coupled with a lot of yawning by healer and victim.  In these modern days, I’ve seen healers perform the process over cell phones, or respond without any sort of contact with the victim beyond an SMS or email plea for help. 

In a nutshell, the Evil Eye can be put on you, your children, your livestock or your fruit trees by anyone who looks at them with envy and praises them.  Envy is the big villain in this.

The number one defense against the Evil Eye is the little blue eyes ormati sold virtually everywhere in Greece.  Greeks drape them around their necks, wrists, rearview mirrors and in myriads of places in their offices and homes. It is the universal protector. All of which is attributed to the color blue that is said to reflect away evil.  I guess that means the eyes now offered for sale in other, “more fashionable” colors leave you open to being much more than just a fashion victim.

Some Greeks go so far as to say to be aware of blue-eyed people offering compliments, for that could be particularly dangerous.  I wonder if that would deter a Greek from the flattery of a Paul Newman look-alike or the baby blues of a modern day Grace Kelly?  Some how I think they’d simply opt for an extra mati or two and take the risk.:)

Garlic also works to ward off the Evil Eye.  Some carry a clove with them at all times, in their pocket or—as I’ve seen suggested—in their bra.  Garlic, along with onions, is also said to have great healing power if you’re feeling ill—perhaps over losing your shot at Paul and/or Grace to a whiff of your garlic stash.

If you want the evil eye protective quality of the garlic, without the scent, when someone gives you a compliment, mutter skorda(garlic) under your breath and spit on yourself three times. If you want real protection ask the person who gave you the compliment to spit on you too, though that may lead to an immediate reassessment of the person’s original opinion.  A word of caution: some say if a compliment is given to a child in your presence you should spit on the child.  I suggest asking the parents before attempting that kindness.

Another common practice for warding off the Evil Eye is a thorny-spiked cactus close to the front entrance to your home.  Be particularly careful is one if nearby should you choose to spit on someone else’s kid.

Some superstitions offer a conundrum. Bat bones are considered very lucky, but killing a bat (to presumably get the bones) is said to be very bad luck.

Crows, on the other hand are just bad luck period, as omens of bad news, misfortune, and death.  Guess Poe got it right.:)

If a Greek ever asks you for a knife, never hand it directly Put it on the table and let the other pick it up. Otherwise, superstition holds you two will soon be in a fight.

Another sure fight starter is if two people say the same thing at the same time.  Such as “I love Target: Tinos.”  The only way to avoid an imminent fight is for each to instantly touch whatever red they can find around them (like the cover of A Vine in the Blood, The Fear Artist or any of Michael Stanley’s covers) and say piase kokkino(touch red).

And never leave your shoes soles up; it’s very bad luck and even an omen of death.  But don’t fear if it should happen to you some day. Just say skorda (remember, it means garlic) and spit three times for good measure and you’ll be fine.

I understand the skorda whisper technique also works to ward off the bad omen of seeing a priest and black cat on the same day. Some say it whenever they see just the priest.

If you sneeze, that means someone is talking about you and there is a way to figure out whom that is.  Frankly, all I’m interested in knowing at such moments is who has a tissue or Claritin.

Greeks also believe money attracts money, so superstition requires you to never completely empty a purse, pocket, wallet or bank account.  I suspect that one’s being sorely tested these days.

But the superstition that I find most telling about the Greek attitude toward life is how they treat Friday the 13th.  Why ruin an otherwise perfectly good weekend with worries about a Friday of bad luck? So, they stick in the middle of the workweek. To Greeks, Tuesday the 13th is the bad luck day…possibly settling on a Tuesday for much for the same reason the US uses it as its election day—to keep the bad news away from spoiling a weekend.

Which brings me to the final superstition I want to talk about today. Salt.  Greeks sprinkle salt in a new house to chase away any lurking evil.  But that’s not the use of salt I find most intriguing.  It is believed that you can get rid of “unwanted human presence” by sprinkling salt behind them.  I think Americans should bear up arms of salt to cast behind any politician who dares to run for President before 2014. 

That’s all folks. Ftou, ftou, ftou.
Mati also come as cookies, courtesy of the Sparta (NJ) Public Library