31 May 2012

A Royal at the Door

There’s an awful lot of flag-waving going on in my neck of the woods at the moment.  It may not have escaped notice that we’re gearing up for the Olympics at the end of July– an event not without its shockwaves.  From a close reading of the map and the planned road closures for the long-distance cycle race, it looks as though this little patch of territory is going to be barricaded in, with no escape route other than swimming to the far shore of the River Thames. 

Which is precisely the body of water where a flotilla of ships will be bobbing by on Sunday in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the other noteworthy impending national occasion.  We are now heading into four solid days of unabashed jollity. 

When I was younger I used to have dreams in which I met the Queen.   It was all fairly ordinary stuff - she would drop in to share a hotdog (no mustard), or play Monopoly, or leave some ermine in the dressing-up box.  But in the intervening years, something has got very garbled on the aspiration front.  Nowadays, instead, I dream about meeting Simon Cowell.  It’s a recurring scenario.  There’s a mediaeval banquet taking place.  The entertainment is going down the pan – the lutes are untuned, the minstrels frankly appalling.  Simon Cowell is rolling his eyes and holding his head in his hands.  In despair he looks across the table to me, chewing on a beef shank and gulping mead from a tankard.  “So,” he says wearily. “Know any good tunes?”

I’ve never met royalty up close and personal, though I’ve waved at the Queen at the Cenotaph in Ottawa.  Oh and Prince Edward came to the college where I used to work.

The first surprise was that the large shiny Daimler with flapping union flag, chauffeur and insignia that pulled up outside the new art block, which was waiting to be officially opened, contained no Prince Edward at all, but the Mayor.  HRH parked behind him some minutes later in a comparatively unobtrusive black Mercedes with his minder in the passenger seat. 

The party of dignitaries detailed to greet him had already been in the refectory snacking on finger food.  (I can’t believe they produced Menu A, observed my colleague Pete Hinton.)  Then, the Principal, the Chairman of Governors, the Mayor and other bechained people escorted the Prince inside the art block while we, the indignitaries from lesser corners of the college, looked on - scarcely a throng, given the low-key advertisement of the visit, and the absence of students who, now that exams had finished, had shown a clean pair of heels. 

In my humdrum T-shirt and not-quite jeans, I tried to duck the sightlines of our head of department who had scrubbed up particularly well and was striding around in a trim suit.  Pete and I managed to breach the atrium and knocked back what Buck’s Fizz we could lay our hands on, while Prince Edward did the rounds, talking politely to staff, and to the handful of students who had been roped in for the day.  

After about 40 minutes, HRH reappeared in our midst, and the Principal gave a brief speech, claiming that the building would change in the region of 30,000 lives.  Prince Edward did not bat an eyelid at this number but did a minor comedy turn: the one about a prince well used to unveiling plaques to commemorate the official openings of buildings, who – you would think - should know what he's doing, but actually is still practising because anything could go wrong and did you see that gap in the makeshift stage that he might actually fall through?  And in any case, what did the people who’d already supposedly been working in this building think they were playing at since it was only today that the building was official?  It was good-natured and got the required laughs. 

He made his way to the front door,  knelt down to talk to a group of children from the staff nursery, gave a final wave from the driver's seat of the Mercedes and was off, followed at a measured interval by the greater pomp of the chauffeur-driven limo of the Mayor.

Pete and I finished the dregs of the Buck’s Fizz.

24 May 2012

Poetic Form and The Eurovision Song Contest

I was just about to send off some of my ditties to a prestigious poetry competition when I had the bejasus scared out of me by reading the helpful comments of the judge, who said she preferred classical forms.

So I scratched around for any old sonnet scrumpled at the back of the wardrobe, wishing I’d gone ahead and signed up for classes on poetic form run by Katy Evans-Bush, and got to grips, at least, with the odd villanelle or sestina.

And I wish I’d got into the habit of making more use of those ten-syllable lines that worked wonders for Shakespeare, you know, limbic thermometer.

I mean Olympic amateur.

No. Incumbent perimeter

Sorry.  I’ve got that wrong.  It’s enjambement speedometer.

No.  Wait.  Atlantic chronometer.

I give up.  Thrombic barometer?

Iambic pentameter.  That’s the one.  Greek scholars will spot the penta bit that means five.  Iambic: concerning the use of iambs – one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, giving a total of ten syllables per line.

And what’s all this got to do with the Eurovision Song Contest? 

As you may know, The UK is being represented in Baku on Saturday night by the septuagenarian Engelbert Humperdinck.  He and I actually parted company when I took him at his word, and released him, and let him go because I didn’t love him any mo’ -  back in the sixties when his sideburns were  growing for England.

Now, we all know very well that he is not the German classical composer who lived between 1854 and 1921 and wrote the opera Hänsel und Gretel.  But I leave you in the hands of Eddie Izzard to explain what on earth our national songster is doing with such a name, and to tie up the loose ends of this blog…

18 May 2012

In Which Coffee is Drunk, A Mug Finds a New Home, and Muffins Beg for Attention

Cafe Central, Vienna

Does a cup of strong coffee turn you frothy?  Ebullient?  Stunningly witty?  Or, do you think it does?  Then you’re in good company.  A survey of workers done by Dunkin Donuts has apparently found that the biggest coffee drinkers are, in order: scientists, marketers, PR people, education administrators, and editors and writers.

In other words, people trading on ideas.  Not so foolish, then, to turn to the brown elixir in order to pump up your creative thoughts.  In a famed quotation, the French writer Honoré Balzac eulogised on the state of mind that coffee produced: "Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”  (From the essay The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee translated by Robert Onopa.)
In truth, this “cavalry of metaphor” surged very successfully through La Comedie Humaine, all ninety-odd tomes of it.  So what if gallons of the beverage per day sent him to an early grave, his output was of a prodigious quantity that any other free-thinker might think it worth buying a percolator for.  No wonder in Canada and Germany chains of cafés have been set up bearing his name – the author whose oeuvre plus coffee fixation represent a colossus of achievement. 
Me?  I’m usually on decaf, which could explain the dribble of product  compared to Balzac.  But coffee is an essential part of my working day –  to clutch at for warmth and security, to punctuate yawning moments of inaction, and to provide the excuse to get up and go somewhere else altogether. 
For writing has always been a lonely activity.  Peace and quiet are over-rated.  Which is why taking up your scribblings and marching to a suitable café to seek hubbub and gossip has such appeal.  The further afield the café from your own patch the better, so that right under your nose something preposterous is taking place for which you need to messily fill in the blanks.  That the establishment should also have angles and corners you can get your back into, with no passers-by sniggering over your efforts, is a prerequisite.  You’ll need to monitor the number of other writers tapping more adeptly on their laptops or eavesdropping more intently on the same conversations as you.  Which means definitely no J. K. Rowling over by the newspaper rack, already on her third latte and fourteenth manuscript, and much too palsy-walsy with the proprietor. 

Cafe Hawelka, Vienna
Nor do you want the aroma of freshly-baked cakes and pastries to be so tempting that all creativity goes into the girth of your thighs rather than the thickness of your novel.  Here you’ll need to steel yourself against the ice cream confections at the Café Lepanto in Malaga and the Schokozauber at the Café Central in Vienna, but there again in a place such as The Nest in Ripley, Surrey, a new favourite of mine, your conscience could be salved by the beetroot part of the delicious chocolate and beetroot cake.

And so, clutching shitty first drafts  (as the writer Anne Lamott calls them) and hoping to salvage anything from the wreckage, I’m ever on the hunt for the ideal café, a place  to sit smack-bang up against other lives that spill noisily and imperfectly. 

And I was thinking how wonderful it would be to share coffee with you, good reader, in such a place.  As second best and in an act of coffee solidarity, I’ve decided to put the names of the loyal followers of this blog into a hat and pull one out.  He or she is going to receive the very first, inaugural A Woman in Goggles mug. 

And so, the lucky recipient is……..here goes…….wait for it………just juggling the names now…….oops, butterfingers……. the recipient would seem to be…………Diary of an Unfinished Woman.  

Unfinished Woman, I wonder if you might also be interested in the following recipe that I’ve been road testing, worryingly frequently, in my household over the last couple of months.  It’s for healthy muffins – an excellent way to soak up the coffee contents of your new mug.

(I tend to measure in cups – a hangover from my Canadian days.  But don’t get into a flap about exact amounts.  These muffins are robust, and can cope with a shaky hand on the measuring device.  I’ve measured out the amounts in cups, weighed them – and yes, the oatmeal is light so 1 cup did weigh the same as ½ cup of maize flour.)

Oh So Fab Guilt-Free Oatmeal Muffins

¾ cup Greek yoghurt (6 fl oz/ 200 ml/ 340 grams)
1 cup oatmeal   (4 oz/ 100 grams)
½ cup maize flour* (4 oz/ 100 grams)
½ cup polenta or cornmeal* (4 oz/ 100 grams)
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup olive oil (3 fl oz/ 90 ml)
2 large eggs
2 medium-sized mashed bananas
½ cup raisins or sultanas (4 oz/ 100 grams)

  1. Set oven to 350◦F or 180 ◦C.  (This will be 160 ◦C if you have a fan oven.)
  2. Line a muffin tin with 12 muffin cases.
  3. Mix the oatmeal into the yoghurt and allow to sit while you prepare the other ingredients.
  4. In a separate small bowl beat the eggs into the oil then add the mashed banana.
  5. Combine the maize flour, polenta, baking soda and baking powder in a third bowl.
  6. Add the egg/ oil/ banana mixture to the oatmeal mixture.
  7. Then add the dry ingredients also to the oatmeal mixture and mix only just enough so that the batter is moist.
  8. Stir in the raisins.
  9. Spoon into the muffin cases.  They will be quite full.
  10. Bake for 20 minutes.

Best eaten warm, with a modicum of butter.  (Or lashings of butter.)  If you have left them to go cold, they are delicious if heated up individually in a microwave for 20 seconds.


*Instead of maize flour and polenta, I’ve also used a combination of rice flour and wholemeal flour with excellent results.  

1 May 2012

What Am I Doing Here? Sean Bobbitt, Cinematographer

I am curious about where individuals derive their personal set of mores.  How they set their compass to live a good life, a purposeful life.  And how they reconcile their own existence upon this earth.

It’s been my observation that many people change tack throughout their lives – either throwing out wholesale the beliefs of their parents to adopt new ones, or none at all.   Some seize on science to embolden an atheistic approach.  Others seek New Age philosophers. Yet others reaffirm the faith of their forebears.

In this first of an occasional series What Am I Doing Here?, the award-winning cinematographer Sean Bobbitt talks about the ethics that have informed and shaped his life.

Sean Bobbitt

Born in Texas, but educated in both England and the USA, Sean Bobbitt is the cinematographer who filmed the raw and uncompromising Steve McQueen films Hunger - about the Northern Irish hunger-striker, Bobby Sands - and Shame, a depiction of sex addiction.  Other films, for example Wonderland, The Killer Inside Me, United 93 as well a long list of TV credits which include Nicholas NicklebySense and Sensibility, Unforgiven and episodes of Spooks and The Canterbury Tales have displayed his considerable skills in different genres. 

Films he has worked on that are due to come out within the year are: The Place Beyond the Pines, (directed by Derek Cianfrance and starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes), Hysteria (directed by Tanya Wexler and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathyn Pryce, Hugh Dancy and Rupert Everett) and Byzantium (directed by Neil Jordan and starring  Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan  and Sam Riley).

Nominated this year for a BAFTA award for Crack House, he has also won a BIFA for Hunger, a BIFA nomination for Shame, BAFTA nomination for The Long Firm, RTS award for The Canterbury Tales (The Man of Law’s Tale) and RTS Yorkshire nomination for Unforgiven.

But cinematography is, in fact, the second part of a career which saw him first as a news and documentary cameraman, a role which took him to the most conflicted spots of the globe.

Sean, in the first part of your professional life, you were a news cameraman.  Were there any events that were real epiphanies for you?

It’s been more of a gradual process.  Yet, coming out of Beirut in 1982, after the invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut, in which probably 40,000 innocent people were killed, I was enraged.

I can remember having a discussion late one night with my father and being very angry at him for not letting me know that things like that happened in this world.  To which he replied: “Why would I destroy your childhood by telling you the world can be a really horrible place?”  He’d spent all his time making money to try and protect us from such things, even though as children moving around in the Middle East and Africa, we’d witnessed poverty and violence.  The anger was completely unfairly focused on my father at that point, because I had always looked up to him as being the power that explained.

Lebanon was the first of many, many civil wars that I covered that, ostensibly, have religious justifications to them.  But were actually just families against families, or individuals against individuals, plying for the wealth of that nation.  But religion was the rallying point for both sides.

Did you yourself grow up with a religion?

My brothers and I were brought up, baptised and confirmed as Roman Catholics, but at around the age of fourteen or fifteen we were given the choice whether to carry on.

And what was your choice?

Not to.  I had done a lot of reading - psychology, sociology, but also looking at the history of the world and the number of conflicts and deaths that had occurred through  religious ideology.  The whole spiritual element seemed to me to have been subverted by political control. 

Would you say it was the symbolism of the Catholic rituals that you were rebelling against?

It wasn’t a rebellion. I was also reading a lot of Lenin and Marx, religion is the opium of the people, and to me at the time there was a lot of sense in that.  But I didn’t feel that people who did believe were in some way beneath me.  I could see, looking back historically, the need that mankind has to put faith in something and, to me, religion is simply one of the methods by which, as a gregarious community, we come together. And we need to come together.  It’s a primal instinct we have.

And so at that point, how would you say you met that need in yourself?  What did you then put your faith into?

I don’t think I put my faith into anything as such.  I think also as a by-product of the fact that we moved around a lot of different countries, I’ve always seen myself as a bit outside and looking in to different cultures and societies.  I haven’t felt the need to become part of a larger group for any specific reason.  If there were a religion that I would be attracted to, it would be more towards Buddhism, where the emphasis is put on the self.   I don’t feel any great need for there being an overall set of rules that I need to conform to in order to have a perfect life.

But rules do allow civilised behaviour to occur.

Absolutely.  But rules can also subvert.  Some of the most uncivilised behaviour history has ever seen has been based around one group of people disagreeing with another group of people’s rules.  And so, from a historical perspective and specifically a modern historical perspective, and having witnessed a lot of conflict, the conclusion that I’ve always drawn is that politics and religion are both inherently, I was going to say inherently evil.  But that might be a bit extreme.

Inherently divisive, perhaps?

Inherently divisive, and open to an incredible abuse of people’s ideology.  There is a lot of validity in the Ten Commandments, and having been taught them as a child, it does tend to be the basic tenet of your morality.  It’s the one thing that from an early age you are brought up to understand and believe, and it sets a baseline.  But that would have come from my mother, who was a Roman Catholic.  My father is a very practical classic American self-made man.  So his morality is much simpler.  And was something that was imbued in us from an early age.

How would you characterise his  morality?

It’s one mainly of respect. That you respect your elders, that you respect others. That you would treat them as you would want them to treat you.

Did that rage that you later expressed to him, after your experience in Lebanon, manifest itself in any way? Did it lead to a hardened resolve?

When you are working as a journalist, you try not to take sides. And that has always been something of interest to me – that there is always another side.  It’s trying to find the other side and find what the truth is. I’ve never come across it, but in the end you find layers of truth that you’re able to believe in.  Until they’re torn asunder by another revelation.

There was one other thing that happened that was specifically in relation to my own animosity towards the Roman Catholic Church, which has grown over time. I was filming a documentary in the Vatican, funded by a Polish group who were in the process of trying to beatify a Polish nun.  It was at the time of the Polish pope, John Paul II.  They had raised two million dollars to make the documentary as part of the beatification process.  They’d brought in a public relations company and hired a big-time director and screenwriter.  That in and of itself I found really disconcerting.

We were taking the equipment down into the catacombs of the Vatican where there is a small chapel to this nun.   As we passed through a long hallway of very high vaulted doors, all of which were sealed down either