Friday, 28 September 2012

The Debt to Pleasure

Still Life with dead birds, fruit and vegetables by Juan Sanchez Cotan
A welcome arrival in the post yesterday: The Debt to Pleasure, a novel by John Lanchester (the cover of the paperback is a detail from the painting illustrated above). I started to read it quite late in the evening after a long, difficult day and am pleased to report that it made me laugh until the tears were streaming down my face. Suffice to say (the author's style is catching) that the book defies genre. It is ostensibly an account of a short journey from England to France, structured around a series of seasonal menus, interspersed with anecdotes and personal observations by a fictional character - the 'I' of the novel - Tarquin Winot. I experimented in my own small way with food this week: I made my first gumbo. I cheated slightly by using a pack from Harvest Time. Gumbo originated in the southern states of the USA. I had only eaten it once before in my life, on my only excursion into Harlem in New York. The taste of my homemade version brought back immediately memories of that visit which was truthfully pretty dire. Gumbo is a thick, spicy rice-based soup containing typically okra, and certain herbs which impart its unforgettable flavour -  alongside shrimp and/or smoked sausage . I added spinach and squash which I had roasted in the oven

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

What was the meaning of this event?

Like a herd of sheep?
I had to go into Glasgow yesterday, just to take proof of my ID into a building society. I arrived on the X74 shortly before 2pm, went and did the ID thing and returned to the coach station to catch the 3pm X74 home to Moffat. There was a great crowd of people waiting to board the coach at Bay 5 when I turned up at 14.50. As more and more people continued to join the group, I became aware, as one does, that there was no underlying WWII ethos of an orderly queue. I began vaguely to worry that there were more people than seats on the bus. I wondered what the coach company policy was in that event. Would I just have to wait for three hours for the next coach at 6pm? The coach doors remained closed. Eventually at 3.10pm, ten minutes after the coach should have left,  I turned to two young women standing behind me and wondered out loud if someone should go and find out what had happened to the driver. A large man in an official yellow safety jacket had patrolled past and been approached but had replied that it was nothing to do with him. One of the young women said that one risked 'losing one's place'. 'Maybe if I go you could keep me a place?' I said. She agreed, and I headed off down towards the main building. As I went, I reviewed in my mind's eye the layout of the coach station, changed my mind and veered off into the arrival yard where three or four men were directing coaches as they arrived into the right bays. Seeing me advancing, as if across the landing runway of an airport, one of the men in yellow jackets waved me back, and I stopped, beckoning him to come to me. I explained that the driver of our coach had not turned up. He immediately switched on his walkie-talkie and a call reverberated round the whole area for the driver of the X74 to report immediately to the coach. Inside the coach, towards the back, a figure rose and took his seat at the controls. Our driver had been 'resting' inside. My thoughts on this episode were: it would be helpful to travellers' blood pressure if a system were installed to allow people as they arrive to take a numbered ticket showing which order they arrived in. Some respectable-looking older people barged in front of me to board the bus. If we had had a ticket I would have been able to say to them politely 'what is your number ?' Last but by no means least: how long would the crowd have waited before anyone went to discover where the driver was had I not done so? No-one commented on his being found to be on the coach, but one man dressed in army camouflage with an NHS crutch explained to me, showing me his bus pass as if I might report him to some unknown authority, that it had expired that day but he had been unable to renew it because he had had an appointment at the hospital. The general impression was a curious mixture of the benign: compassionate fellow-feeling (it could happen to anyone) and the less favourable: a herd-like indifference, and reluctance to stick one's head above the parapet. The outing ended on a happy note - I sat next to someone from Dumfries and we chatted all the way to Moffat. She told me that the 'Devil's Porridge' visitor centre is well worth a visit - and I told her that there had been an announcement at the arts hubs meeting in Dalbeattie last Fri Sept 21 that the attraction has been given a large grant to be improved and extended. I was also able to tell her that Moffat Mill is planning a redevelopment of their present site to include an upmarket retail 'outlet' similar to Gretna but better in Moffat by this time next year.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Maurice Keen

Marlene Dietrich
Maurice Keen
The news yesterday of the death of Maurice Keen hit me disproportionately hard. Maurice was a young don at Balliol in the mid 1960's, and he was one of two or three guests at a 'dinner party' two flatmates and I attempted to throw in our attic flat at the top of a large detached house on the Banbury Road in Oxford. We were, by definition I suppose, on the brighter side of average intelligence but we hadn't the faintest idea how to cook or plan a meal. We decided - insanely - to attempt roast duck with peas and possibly potatoes. Our batterie de cuisine consisted of some tiny cheap tin saucepans, dented and (I assume) a roasting tin. We had virtually no money. When our guests arrived, our tiny duck was hardly even hot let alone crisp. We had no table or chairs. I seem to remember that we sat on the floor, which was covered in very uncomfortable matting. We had bought a bottle of the cheapest red wine we could find and my goodness it was nasty. Maurice and another guest, Luis de Sanjurjo, an exquisitely-mannered Puerto Rican,  - there may have been a third, if so I forget his name, was it the Greek icon painter? the biker? The man who inherited the rights to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap? the American who knew Marlene Dietrich? - were the soul of discretion and tact. Maurice's lifetime study, aptly was 'chivalry'. Thanks perhaps to the red wine that is really all I remember of the event. Luis was the first man I knew to die of Aids, in 1987 by which time he had worked for the Civil Rights movement in the south of the US, investigated the activities of the FBI, been right hand man for a while to Warren Beatty and, at the time of his death, was a literary agent in New York, representing Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Arthur Kopit and others. Vanished days.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

First frost

Artspace pavilion under construction yesterday at 21 Well Road, Moffat
Right smack on time, the first frost of autumn was to be seen on the grass this morning, and on the roof of the new pavilion under construction at 21 Well Road. Today, as the free online Writers Almanac reminds us, is the anniversary of the landing of the Normans on British soil, leading to Conquest. Scots sometimes forget - well maybe it's just that they don't talk about it much - that many of their national heroes such as Robert Brus were Norman French.  It was this week that William the Conqueror of Normandy first arrived on British soil. The French-speaking Normans eventually defeated Old English-speaking Saxons at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 -- which had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history.
Norman French replaced the Germanic-based Anglo-Saxon as the official, administrative, and ceremonial language, and Anglo-Saxon was demoted to everyday, common use. The sturdy English cow, calf, and sheep on the hoof became French once they were on the plate: beef (from boeuf), veal (veel), and mutton (mouton). The word vellum, for a type of parchment made of calfskin, also comes from the French word for calf. In all, some 10,000 French words were adopted into the English language, and within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.
The Normans of course also imposed their ideas and practices of governing on their conquered English subjects, and our vocabulary still reflects a huge number of French-based words. Government is a word of French origin that came in during Middle English. The Old French word is governer from Latin "to steer" or "to rule."
Under the present constitutional arrangements, we in the UK are strictly speaking subjects, not citizens. We owe allegiance to the crown. Allegiance is a distinctly Anglo-Norman word -- it's a variation of the Old French ligeance, from a Latin word describing foreign serfs who were allowed to settle on Roman land and till the soil.
Subject, no surprise, was a word introduced by the Norman invaders, and when it first came into Middle English from Old French (suget, "brought under"), the word meant "a person owing obedience."
 The French-speaking Norman leader of the invaders, William the Conqueror, actually tried in his middle age to learn to speak English, the tongue of his newly conquered subjects. But from the invasion, English gained several synonyms of French origin that meant, essentially, kinglike or kingly. These include royal, regal, and sovereign. Royalty developed in the late Middle Ages to include a sense of "right to ownership" over minerals, which in the mid-1800s began to also apply to payment given by a mineral harvester to the person who owned the land from which the mineral came. Later, royalties applied to the sales of copyrighted materials.
From the Norman Conquest came the Anglo-Norman French word corune, from Old French coroner, ultimately from Greek for "circle, ring." It formed the basis not only of the kingly crown, but also of corolla -- the inner ring of petals in a flower -- and corollary, coronary, coronation, and coroner -- who in Norman times, as an officer of the crown, was appointed to investigate any seemingly unnatural deaths of members of the ruling class.
Words from the Anglo-Norman legal system also form the primary basis for the vocabulary of our modern legal system. A defendant is summoned to court, from the Old French cort, from the Latin word for yard. If it's a civil affair, one might hope that all people "present at court" (the original meaning of courtier) will be courteous, which originally meant "having manners fit for a royal court." A complaint is filed by the plaintiff, from the Old French word plaintive -- a "lamentation" -- which is itself derived from a Latin word, planctus, meaning "beating of the breast."

Monday, 10 September 2012

A parish priest

Father Alexander Men 1930-1990
Twentytwo years ago this morning, which was also, like today, a Monday, I heard the fax machine upstairs in my home office spring into action. The stark message, sent from the office of the  deeply secular Soviet government owned 'Raduga Press' by Father Alexander Men's close friend, parishioner and liberal colleague Ekaterina Genieva reported that the previous morning he had been murdered on his way to take early morning service. My daughter Abi was the only other member of the family at home that day. Fr Alexander had baptised her five months earlier at his small country church at Novaya Derevnya, a village where she spent weekends with Katya and her family while on Russian language practice in Moscow as part of her degree. The murderers, almost certainly professionally- trained (the wound caused by the murder weapon was similar to those caused by sapper's spades carried by Soviet special forces in the massacre at Tbilisi not long before) have never been caught. It is still a matter of speculation at what level of government or the church the assassination of a social reformer and teacher, parish priest and author might have been authorised. 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' echoes down the years, and inspired a theatre piece still in the repertory of the prestigious Theatre at The Nikitsky Gates 'A Russian Rehearsal' about Men's murder, set in a theatre where Russian actors are rehearsing T S Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral'.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Pirate ship moored in the garden, 21 Well Road (pic by Euan Adamson)
I knew the seasons had turned as I walked back from Brodies yesterday evening in what felt like frosty air. Also, I have stopped taking my anti-histamine tablets which means the midge season is over. And tomorrow I go back to school - well, the Crichton campus of the University of Glasgow -, to embark on a year's study which may lead to an M.Litt in 'Environment, Culture and Communication' devised and supervised by Dr David Borthwick. Not coincidentally, I am well on my way through a re-reading of Jonathan Raban's masterpiece Passage to Juneau - a sea and its meanings. This is a masterly, well-researched in depth account of a courageous single-handed sailboat journey from Seattle to Juneau in Alaska, through the perilous waters of the marine highway of the northwest Pacific coast of Canada and the USA, incorporating apparently seamlessly the history of the native peoples and the western explorers who charted the waters and the author's shocking personal discovery on his arrival at his destination.