Monday, 28 February 2011

In memoriam E.A.B. (1922-2005)

My father died 6 years ago today. As luck would have it I was back home on one of my long trips back (6 weeks, my boss raised an eyebrow but as I hadn't taken a break in the previous two years there was nothing much he could do about it. My father passed away in the last week of my holiday and I will always be glad that I had timed it as I did then).

I was inwardly shocked when I saw him. He had a full growth of beard whereas he had alway been clean shaven before. He was also much smaller and shrunken than I had remembered, reduced in stature and vitality and he seemed strangely disengaged. Most of his time was spent channel surfing, at other times he would sit in his favourite chair by the door, watching people and traffic pass by. The only thing that really perked him up was his favourite, my niece Ann, who was the first child born into our family in over thirty years. She spent her first 6 years growing up in the same house as my parents before my brother and his wife moved out into their own place, and she still spends the weekdays at my parents (I can't stop thinking of the place as if they're both still there) because of school. He would make sure to see her off safely on the schoolbus, say a short prayer to himself for her safety, and shuffle off to his room and wait through the day for it to drop her off home in the evening. Because traffic could be unpredictable, whenever she was slightly late back he would begin to fuss and worry, eventually sending my mother out to the road to catch a glimpse of the bus turning around the corner (exactly how this helped matters was always a mystery to the rest of us). I think he caught an echo in Ann of my eldest sister C, his firstborn, who was always his favourite and maybe distantly, the memory of himself when she was of Ann's age and he was in his prime. I am reminded of a saying of Trotsky's, "Old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man".

I had come back on holiday with my wife and son, J, who was three at the time. My father had only seen J once before, on our previous trip when he was 10 months old. I had hopes that he (my father) would be all over him as the rarely-seen grandchild but no, he was just unenthusiastic and incurious, and after the initial burst of excitement after our arrival, he settled back to his old routine. This hurt me somewhat at the time, but now I realise that he was already drifting off, disengaging and it was just too much to expect for him to form new connections and re-engage. The week before he died I made perhaps the most awful discovery of my life. My father was an inveterate news-junkie, CNN and BBC World were a God-send to him and he would spend hours daily taking in the news cycle. I had noticed him watching the TV and scribbling furtively with a pencil stub in an old notebook. That night, (it was a Thursday and he passed away the following Monday), I leafed through the notebook with mounting sadness. It was filled with minutiae like "Donald Rumsfeld, US Defence Secretary", "Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard", and other clearly topical news snippets. But I was horrified to also read "Herman, Lee's husband" (his brother in-law of over thirty years), "Kenny, Dave's friend" (my brother's best friend, well known to the family for over 20 years). He was clearly aware of the lapses in his memory and perhaps other signs of cognitive degradation that had escaped us, and was scribbling facts down in quiet desperation as an aide-memoire to hold together, perhaps for a little time at least, his personality intact like a brave, little boat on stormy seas while underneath the dissolution of the consciousness carried on remorselessly. In a way I am proud of his stubborn defiance to go gently into the good night but it also breaks my heart to think how frightened and alone he must have been since he was just too ashamed to reveal it to anyone.

That Monday my mother hammered at the bedroom door, and with a catch in her voice asked me to go downstairs and help her to wake Papa, that he was limp and wasn't responding. She already knew but was putting it off for as long as she could. As soon as I walked into his bedroom I could see it was over. He looked peaceful, there was no sign of struggle and he had the duvet pulled right up to his neck. He was cold, preternaturally so even given the situation as the air-conditioner was on at full-blast, and must have been so for hours. I checked his eyes, hoping against hope, but they were lifeless mirrors and I noticed a trickle of blood at the edges. I pulled off the duvet and he was lying recumbent like an effigy with his hands on his stomach. He looked even more pitifully small and shrunken then, and I held his hand in mine, hands that have stroked my hair, patted and spanked me, and now feeling cold and alien like frozen wood.

I didn't cry at the funeral and I never have actually. It must be a flaw in me but its not to say that I didn't love him or that I don't miss him terribly. He lived a better life than most, and when he went he had four grandchildren and was surrounded by his wife and children and had nothing to want for. We should all be so lucky. And it would have been selfish of us to wish for his life to be prolonged when he was slowly succumbing to dementia.

When I returned to Basel, everything seemed unreal. It was like nothing had changed and yet I had been marked, and everything was different. Throughout the spring I got back in the old routine (one can always count on scientific research to throw enough work in ones direction), but there was always a niggling feeling of something unresolved. At some point I started doing something I haven't done since my twenties and began scribbling down snippets of lines and couplets about my father, childhood, life, loss and memory. It quickly grew into a rambling and disorganised mass/mess. I put it aside eventually, maybe the impulse had worn itself out, but there was also the new life of my growing son to consider which pushed aside all thoughts of lapsing into solipsistic self-indulgence. I haven't read it in years, perhaps it will still feel too raw and it would, at any rate, certainly require a miglior fabbro to hew into any semblance of coherence and structure. But the concluding lines I can still recall and dedicate it today to my beloved father.

And when the end comes
The waves of the endless sea rise
Lapping your feet in sleep
Raise the sail, put out to sea
Overhead a high star shines

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair......

This has got to be the Omega Point of guitar technique.

And he's got a great sense of humour as well (which kind of makes it hard for me to hate his guts).

Nice to see that not all Asian musical prodigies are cardboard cut-out clones after all.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us

I've recently discovered Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a blues and gospel singer with a long career. Great voice, excellent attack on guitar (a Gibson SG with three (three!) humbuckers no less) and that indefinable ability to come out of the speakers and grab the listener by the throat.

Check out this YouTube clip especially the solo starting at 1:25 

Performed several years before the Bluesbreakers album and makes Eric "God" Clapton look like a simpering lily-white school-boy.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Sucking a Negro

Spotted this un-PC product in the local Coop. It's a bag of licorice from Serbia. Of course it just means "black" because licorice is after all, black duhhhh..... but somehow I feel the name just won't pass muster in the Anglosphere.

The man on the packet cover, of obvious Caucasian descent, is a chimney sweep, a job entailing getting covered in soot and ending up blackened in the course of work, hence the obvious brand-product linkage. Nevertheless, despite the total lack of reference to anything African related, any product marketing remotely approaching this in the west is almost certain to generate howls of outrage. I'm old enough to remember the original "Darkie" toothpaste packaging (a popular brand in SE Asia) before it evolved into "Darlie". Oops, that's it, I've committed a thoughtcrime by implying that progressing from a blackface minstrel to a quasi-caucasian is an example of evolution into a higher form ;-) In this case, the name change followed protests from western pressure groups to the parent company.

A metamorphosis pre-dating Michael Jackson's
The sweets themselves are rather tasty (although licorice isn't normally my candy of choice. I confess to buying them just for this blog post).

Indeterminate filling (I don't know any Serbian and the list of ingredients is in Cyrillic anyway)
I whipped one out!
Gingerly I placed the rigid, oblong Negro on the tip of my tongue. As it slowly moistened I took it into my mouth, savouring the feel of it like a welcome intruder into my moist orifice. Gradually, as my excitement mounted, I began sucking harder and harder and greedier and greedier until suddenly, it burst open, spilling its load and flooding my mouth with its exquisite white, creaminess.

Yeah, it was quite good.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Well I'll Be......

......blowed. One can dream :-). But seriously, this post is a random collection of facts with one unifying theme, they completely overthrew any pre-conceptions I had on the subject at the time. It's instructive, yet humbling to plumb the depths of ones ignorance.

First off, 

1) Russian Dolls
Everyone knows of the famous Matryoshka dolls with their unique nested design, an apparently quintessential example of Russian folk art of presumably time-shrouded origin. Right? Wrong on both counts. The dolls are neither originally Russian, and are a rather recent development. The first "Russian dolls" were created in 1890(!) by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and painted by Sergey Malyutin on a commission from a wealthy industrialist Savva Mamontov. The design was inspired by a set of Japanese religious figures of the Seven Lucky Gods (a Korean acquaintance tells me that they are in fact originally Korean, in particular the defining feature of nestedness). Mamontov's wife later exhibited the dolls at the 1900 Paris World Exposition where they won a Bronze Medal sparking off interest and demand for the dolls that over time became associated as typically Russian. Winston Churchill almost certainly had them in mind when he describe the Soviet Union as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" in a speech in 1939, showing how quickly the meme of the dolls' Russian-ness had burrowed itself into the popular consciousness.

The original 1890 Zvyozdochkin/Malyutin set

2) Are Israel and the US allies?
The surprising answer is no, but let me qualify that. They are not formal allies, never having concluded a treaty to that effect. They are instead de facto allies, enjoying a close (some would say too close) alliance that puts Britain's much-touted "special relationship" in the shade. As someone generally well-disposed to Britain, it pains me to see how Britain allows itself to be treated so dismissively by the yanks. I just hope the current leadership (sic) would grow a pair and remember the words of Lord Palmerston "We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow". But back to US-Israeli relations, the reasons why no formal alliance has been inked have been hotly discussed/disputed on the web. It could be reluctance on the part of the US which doesn't want its hands tied in order to play a role as an honest broker in Middle-Eastern diplomacy (the Arabs would need to be really dumb to fall for that. Oh, wait...). Or it could be the Israelis wanting to keep their options open. Israel leads a precarious existence and has thrived thus far mainly through uncritical American support and largesse, often even to the detriment of US interests. This may not always be the case and perhaps Israel prefers to be unencumbered to seek another superpower patron (China, Russia?) should the need arise. Another reason is that Israel prefers to have its borders undeclared for some unknown reason (tin-hats on!). This precludes any formal alliance as allies are compelled to come to each others aid in the event of an assault on their territorial integrity (fortunately Georgia's application for NATO membership was turned down, otherwise its deserved bitchslapping from Russia could have escalated into WWIII). So why are Israel's borders undeclared? To facilitate future land-grabs? To have more chips on the table for a future land-for-peace deal? I'm not getting into this one!

3) Mandarin is an Indian word
Yes, you read that right.  The first substantial European contact with China in modern times was in the south-eastern coastal regions of Canton and Fujian. While ordinary people spoke the respective local dialects, the officials spoke the, err...."official" standard Chinese which was based on that of Beijing, the seat of imperial power (the written language is of course dialect-neutral). This is one positive feature of Chinese civilization, the system of Imperial examinations to select the brightest candidates, (regardless of background), for a lifelong appointment as a career bureaucrat. In a culture otherwise reeking of nepotism (under the guise of Confucian fidelity), the meritocracy of the civil service allowed the efficient management of a vast sprawling empire despite the lack of modern communications. This system spawned a class of scholar-bureaucrats that reached into every corner of the empire to perform the necessary  task of administration. As an institution, over the centuries it developed its own sub-culture with the adoption of the Beijing dialect as its internal lingua franca (Guanhua, "speech of officials") and communicating in a hifalutin style laden with literary allusions (well, one just can't let all those years spent mugging up on the Confucian classics go to waste after all). Back to etymology, when the first Portuguese landed in China, they referred to the officials as "mandarim", a word that can be traced back to Sanskrit (mantrin, for minister or counsellor). The Portuguese may have encountered the word from the Malay menteri, for minister. The Malay language contains a lot of Sanskrit loan-words and even today, the word for a minister (i.e. head of a government department and not a professional God-botherer) in modern Malay is menteri, which the Portuguese may well have picked up after their conquest of Malacca in 1511. Of course the Portuguese couldn't fail but notice that the mandarins communicated amongst themselves in a different dialect to that of the locals leading to a transference of the term to include the spoken language as well. And in the fullness of time, the word worked its way into the English language to denote a high-grade civil servant (e.g. Whitehall mandarins) and their particular brand of bureaucratic obfuscation.

Sir Humphrey could have been speaking in Mandarin for all the good it did the committee