15 January 2014

Philip Larkin's "Born Yesterday"

larkin.jpg (5177 bytes)
Born Yesterday
For Sally Amis

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love -
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you're a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn't, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull -
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

14 January 2014

Tom Stoppard on what it means not to be free

From http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/oct/11/tom-stoppard-pen-pinter-lecture.

. . . Until I read Isaiah Berlin, I didn't know I could put a name to each: positive freedom and negative freedom. I had little reverence for positive freedom, the proactive freedom promised by a centralised state; freedom from unemployment, say, or freedom from exploitation by private landlords; or from vulgarity by newspapers, for that matter. Such freedom was concomitant with the withdrawal of negative freedom whose value, I thought then and think now, cannot be overstated: autonomous freedom, the freedom to think for oneself, to use one's discretion, to name things for what they are and not for what they purport to be, to apply common sense, and common humanity.
As it happened, positive freedom in the USSR meant empty shops, rubbish goods and rubbish lives for millions, but that was not the point for me, that was not the dystopia. The horror was the loss of personal responsibility, of personal space in the head, the loss of autonomy, of the freedom to move freely, and the ultimate Orwellian nightmare which is not to know what you have lost. In Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs she tells of a group of friends discussing the case of a one-legged war veteran who was given the special privilege of moving his abode across the country, so as to live closer to his sister. The group of friends wondered whether such permission would have been granted in the west. Mrs Mandelstam explained to them that in the west anybody could live anywhere, even if they had two legs. They couldn't get their heads round it. They were intelligentsia, and they didn't know what was lost. I was much struck by that story in Mrs Mandelstam's book. It was the touchstone of totalitarianism for me. I kept it in my pocket like a pebble to remind me of what we had to fear, to defend against, and it was also a rock on which I founded my sense of comfortable national superiority.

A familiar liff

From Jon Canter's Guardian tribute to Douglas Adams:


Your party of 12 finishes its meal. The bill is passed to the one among you who's the best at mental arithmetic. "Twenty-six pounds each, including service!" they shout – to which, inevitably, someone responds "Does that include service?" Then another inevitable thing happens. You all place notes and coins in the middle of the table. Some of you remove notes and coins as change. Then a volunteer counts the assembled money. Logically, since you've each put in 26, there has to be £312. But there isn't. There just isn't. Instead, there's a bodmin, as defined by The Meaning of Liff as Bodmin (n.) The irrational and inevitable discrepancy between the amount pooled and the amount needed when a large group of people try to pay a bill together after a meal.

The article continues:

The Meaning of Liff (1983) was a comic dictionary written by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, who invented hundreds of such "liffs" – a liff being a common experience, feeling, situation, object or kind of person for which no word existed. Liff, as all Dundonians will tell you, is also a hamlet north-west of Dundee. But to Adams and Lloyd, who recycled place names for all their definitions, Liff was just one of those "spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts". And so Bodmin stopped loafing about on signposts in Cornwall and went to work as a universally recognisable group-dining experience which now, at last, had a name.
In the winter of 1989, Adams hired a house on Palm Beach, just north of Sydney, and invited Lloyd and various friends to join him. I was one of those friends, having known both men since we were students in the early 70s. The two men got down to writing their sequel, The Deeper Meaning of Liff. Or rather, they didn't. Instead, Douglas, a famous procrastinator, enjoyed various friendly conversations with his various friends. After much cajoling by Lloyd, a man of discipline as well as talent, Douglas sat by the pool looking miserable and occasionally writing things down – which is virtually the dictionary definition of comedy writing. (Apart from the bit about the pool, of course, which only applies to comedy writers as successful as Douglas.)
Was I just going to sit there, storing up anecdotes about their liff-writing crisis? No. As a comedy writer myself, I lobbed in the odd liff. Gribun (n.) The person in a crisis who can always be relied on to make a good anecdote out of it. The Deeper Meaning of Liff duly came out in 1990 and the UK editions of the two books have sold nearly 400,000 copies. But the two men, sadly, won't be writing any more. In 2001, when he was 49, Douglas died of a heart attack.
Last summer I recieved an email from Lloyd, now the Baftastic producer of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image and QI. He asked me to co-write a new volume of liffs. It would be called – with an affectionate nod to our absent friend – Afterliff. He told me he'd like it to embody "the spirit of Douglas". I was overwhelmed. Douglas was a departed genius. Capturing his spirit would be like trying to emulate Freddie Mercury. Could I hit the high notes in Bo Rhap? Could I wear the white vest? Could I do that thing he did with the mic without poking myself in the eye? Then I calmed down. This was nothing like replacing Freddie Mercury in Queen. This was like stepping into your ex-flatmate's rather large shoes. It was weird but it was destiny. I thought about it, for just under a second, and said yes.
As a flatmate, the 6'5" Douglas did everything on an epic scale, from buying Coca-Cola (in crates) to making 13 successive phone calls on the subject of the new Paul Simon LP. And then there were the baths. The baths! Sometimes he was in there for an hour and a half. If he wasn't in the bath, he was getting out the bath, or planning to go back in. It's a miracle he didn't shrink. That bathroom door, shut against me. Who hasn't had a flatmate like that? On my first day at the liff wordface, I saw, in a gazetteer of French place-names, Beaucroissant. A spirit-of-Douglas liff hit me like a towel. (You may recall, from The Hitch‑Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that a towel not only provides warmth "as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta". You can also "wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat".) Of course. The towel-obsessed Douglas was a Beaucroissant (n.) A male flatmate who spends all his time in the bathroom.
The Big Man, as John and I always call him – with our devastating writerly insight – was a beguiling mix of the macro and the micro, a cosmic thinker frequently stranded between The End of the Universe and the end of the sentence, which he couldn't quite bring himself to write. Brampton Bierlow (n.) The chuntering noises made by an old photocopier to let you know it's thinking about doing something. "Thinking about doing something": in its pathos and its bathos, its putting off of the thing it's meant to do – in his case, write – that's as Douglas as bath-steam.
The old photocopier, though, is not Douglas. The man was fascinated by new technology, new ways of generating and disseminating information. He'd want Afterliff to define those 2013 tootgarooks who never once feel fowey as they stare at the sorrento. (Tootgarook (n.) One who retweets praise about himself; Fowey (adj.) Filled with self-loathing and despair after six hours surfing the internet; Sorrento (n.) The thing that goes round and round as a YouTube video loads.) But it's not just the content that's evolved for an interactive age. The methodology has too. Liffmaster Lloyd has adopted and adapted liffs from Douglas's website h2g2.com, from his own website qi.com, from listeners to the Radio 4 programme The Meaning of Liff at 30, from competitions run by Douglas's brother James to raise money for Save the Rhino. Who knows? Next year, we might be sourcing them at Glastonbury. If John and I went out for a meal with everyone who's contributed to Afterliff, there'd be the most humungous bodmin.


The Big Man … Douglas Adams pictured at home in Santa Barbara in 2000. Photograph: Dan Callister/Getty Images

13 January 2014

Tech talk

Tom Chatfield in the Guardian, 17 April 2013:


1. Avatars
This word for our digital incarnations has a marvellously mystical origin, beginning with the Sanskrit term avatara, describing the descent of a god from the heavens into earthly form. Arriving in English in the late 18th century, via Hindi, the term largely preserved its mystical meaning until Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash first popularised it in a technological sense.
Fusing notions of virtual world-building and incarnation, it's the perfect emblem of computers as a portal to a new species of experience.

2. Hashtags

In 1920s America, the # sign served as a shorthand for weight in pounds (and they still call it the pound sign). It was first brought to a wider public thanks to its adoption by telephone engineers at Bell Labs in the 1960s as the generic function symbol on their new touch-tone phones – and if you're looking to sound clever, you could call it an "octothorpe", the tongue-in-cheek term coined at Bell to describe it. It's on Twitter, though, that hashtags have really come into their own, serving as a kind of function code for social interaction #ifyoulikethatkindofthing.

3. Scunthorpe problems

Computing can be as much combat as collaboration between people and machines, and the Scunthorpe problem is a perfect example. Entirely innocent words can fall victim to machine filth-filters thanks to unfortunate sequences of letters within them – and, in Scunthrope's case, it's the second to fifth letters that create the difficulty. The effect was labelled in honour of the town in 1996, when AOL temporarily prevented any Scunthorpe residents from creating user accounts; but those who live in Penistone, South Yorkshire – or people with surnames like Cockburn – may be equally familiar with algorithms' censorious tendencies.

4. Trolling

Although the archetypical emblem of an online troll is of a grinning bogeyman, the word can be traced back to the Old French verb troller, meaning to wander around while hunting. "Trolling" entered English around 1600 as a description of fishing by trailing bait around a body of water, and it was this idea of baiting the unwitting that led to the idea of online "trolling", where experienced net users would simulate naivety in order ensnare the naive. The noun "troll", meanwhile, does refer to a wide class of monstrous Nordic creatures: a sense that has dovetailed neatly with the increasingly viciously art of trolling.

5. Memes

Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as a shortening of the Ancient Greek term mimeme ("an imitated thing"). He designed his new word to sound like "gene", signifying a unit of cultural transmission. Little did he know that his term would become one of the most iconic of online phenomena, embodying the capacity of the internet to itself act as a kind of gene-pool for thoughts and beliefs – and for infectious, endlessly ingenious slices of time-wasting.

6. Spam

The most enduring gift of British comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus may prove to be a digital one: the term "spam". The key episode, first broadcast in 1970, featured a sketch called "SPAM": the brand name used since 1937 by the Hormel Foods Corporation as a contraction of the phrase spiced ham. Set in a cafe where almost every single item on the menu featured spam, the sketch culminated in a chorus of Viking warriors drowning everyone else's voices out by chanting the word "spam".  A satirical indictment of British culinary monotony, it took on a second life during the early 1980s, when those who wished to derail early online discussions copied out the same words repeatedly in order to clog up a debate. Inspired by Python, the word spam proved a popular way of doing this. "Spamming" came to describe any process of drowning out "real" content – and the rest is repetitive history.

7. LOLs

If you type "LOL" or "lol", you're not literally "laughing out loud". You're offering a kind of stage direction: dramatizing the process of typing. It sounds simple, but this is part of a radical change in language. For the first time in history, we're conducting conversations through written words (or, more precisely, through typing onto screens). And in the process we're expending immense effort on making words and symbols express the emotional range of face-to-face interactions. Yet it's all, also, performance; a careful crafting of appearances that can bear little resemblance to reality.

8. Meh

There's a special place in my heart for the supremely useful three letters of "meh", which express an almost infinitely flexible contemporary species of indifference. In its basic exclamatory form, it suggests something along the lines of "OK, whatever". As an adjective, it takes on a more ineffable flavour: "it was all very meh". You can even use it as a noun: "I stand by my meh." Apparently first recorded in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, some theories trace meh back to the disdainful Yiddish term mnyeh. Its ascent towards canonical status, though, embodies a thoroughly digital breed of boredom.

9. Cupertinos

Also known as "auto-correct errors", a Cupertino error occurs when your computer thinks it knows what you're trying to say better than you do. The name comes from an early spell checker program, which knew the word Cupertino - the Californian city where Apple has its headquarters - but not the word "cooperation". All the cooperations in a document might thus be automatically "corrected" into Cupertinos. Courtesy of smartphones, Cupertinos today are a richer field than ever – a personal favourite being my last phone's determination to transform "Facebook" into "ravenous".

10. Geeks

"Geek" arrived in English from Low German, in which a geck denoted a crazy person; in travelling circuses, the geek show traditionally involved a performer biting off the heads of live chickens. By 1952, the sense of a freakishly adept technology enthusiast had appeared in science fiction maestro Robert Heinlein's short story "The Year of the Jackpot" ("the poor geek!" being the phrase) – and by the 1980s it had become a common label for socially awkward children obsessed with new technological devices. As this generation of tech-savvy youngsters provided the first generation of internet millionaires, and then billionaires, the unthinkable happened: geeks became cool (not to mention chic) – and ready to inherit the earth.

11 January 2014

Don't take criticism too seriously

Great story about renowned architect Richard Rogers, the opening for a Guardian interview by Nicholas Wroe:

Richard Rogers's 1958 student report from the Architectural Association School exhibited a remarkable level of consistency: Elementary Construction; Concrete Design; Specifications & Materials … he failed them all. As his tutor concluded, Rogers "has a genuine interest in and a feeling for architecture, but sorely lacks the intellectual equipment to translate these feelings into sound building. His designs will continue to suffer while his drawing is so bad, his method of work so chaotic and his critical judgment so inarticulate."


05 January 2014

Réveillon 2013/14

With toasts to what we hope will be a year where all surprises are good surprises, here's how we celebrated.

Only one star course on New Year's Eve, an osso bucco to take advantage of the beautiful veal shanks available across the border at Tramuntana in Spain. We again made our Christmas lemon pasta, this time with spaghetti instead of linguini.

Osso bucco recipe, with gremolata 
from http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/8828/osso+bucco. We used jellied veal stock instead of beef, fresh tomatoes instead of canned, eliminated the tomato paste, and added white wine and basil.

·        60g butter
·        4 tablespoons olive oil
·        2 carrots, cut into small cubes
·        3 sticks of celery, cut into small cubes
·        2 onions, finely chopped
·        3 cloves garlic, crushed
·        3/4 cup plain flour, seasoned
·        8 veal shanks (about 1.5kg)
·        1 tablespoon tomato paste
·        800g diced Italian tomatoes in juice
·        2 cups beef stock
·        1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
·        2 bay leaves
·        finely grated rind of 2 large lemons
·        2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
·        1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

Heat 20g butter and 2 tablespoons oil in a frying pan. Add carrots, celery, onions and garlic. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove to an ovenproof dish.Place seasoned flour into a plastic bag. Toss, two shanks at a time, in flour. Shake off excess and place on a plate.
Preheat oven to 200°C. Melt remaining butter and oil in a frying pan over high heat. Brown both sides of veal in 2 to 3 batches. Place on top of vegetables.
Add tomato paste, tomatoes, beef stock, thyme and bay leaves to pan. Bring to the boil, stirring. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour over vegetables and veal. Cover roasting dish with lid or foil. Transfer to oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours to 1 3/4 hours until veal is tender.
To make gremolata: Mix ingredients together. Sprinkle over veal and serve.

New Year's Day began with Michael's mousseline omelette with strawberries, a breakfast speciality since we first had a sweet omelette for dessert in Indian Village, Detroit, forty years ago. Obligatory accompaniment, as with our Christmas French toast: bubbly and orange juice.

Several hours later, we were ready to eat yet again. I'm not the fan of raw oysters that Michael is, so he searched for and found a recipe that even I loved:

Crispy Oysters with Mango Sauce and Red Horseradish (http://hogislandoysters.com/node/234). [We used a just-add-water tempura mix from Tramuntana that worked beautifully. Skipped the horseradish. The spicy mango sauce on its own was perfect (another keeper of a recipe).]

from the Hog Island Oyster Lover's Cookbook, by Jairemarie Pomo 

Hot, hot, and sweet is the best description for chef Bobby Flay's Southwestern oyster appetizer.  The mango sauce balances the snappy chili horseradish that tops each delectable cornmeal-crusted oyster. It's more than just a combination of wonderful spices: The colors in each shell look like a New Mexico sunset.
If you can't find fresh horseradish, prepared horseradish is fine, drain off some of the liquid. The mango sauce is so good that I've actually seen people lick the bottom of the shell to get the last drop.  
| Makes 20 oysters; serves 4 as a hearty appetizer |
Mango Sauce
1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a food processor, combine all the sauce ingredients except the salt and pepper.  Process until smooth, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Red Horseradish
1/4 cup freshly grated horseradish
1 tablespoon chili powder
In a small bowl, combine the horseradish and chili powder; stir to blend.
The Oysters
20 small Hog Island Sweetwaters (Pacific) oysters, shucked and drained, cupped bottom shells reserved
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely minced
Preheat oven to 250 D Fahrenheit. Scrub and shuck the oysters. Place oysters in a shallow bowl, set aside.  Preserve the bottom oyster shells. Scrub, rinse and dry the shells and place on baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes to preheat the shells, which will be used to serve the oysters.
In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, cayenne, salt, and pepper and blend well. Drop 10 oysters at a time into the cornmeal and, using your hands, gently toss to coat. Shake off the excess coating and put the oysters on a plate.
In a medium saute pan or skillet, heat the canola oil until shimmering.  Fry 10 oysters at a time for 30 seconds on each side or until lightly browned. Be careful not to overcook. Transfer cooked oysters to paper towel to drain. Repeat steps with remaining oysters.

Spoon 1 teaspoon mango sauce into each warmed shell.  Place a cooked oyster on top of the sauce. Top with 1/4 teaspoon of the red horseradish and sprinkle with the minced cilantro.   Serve immediately.

Below is the magic tempura mix that we'll buy again. Can't be reused, though. A few nights later we tried some raw vegetables with a steak fondue (our new pot, center of table, was used on New Year's for a classic cheese fondue, accompanied by mushrooms stuffed with tapenade and pâté). Failure. The refrigerated batter slipped right off.

For dessert, cookies and the syrup from Kate's Moroccan pears with saffron and rhubarb that we had at last Christmas Eve's pull-out-all-the-stops dinner. Frozen for a year, this became a fabulous granita.

04 January 2014

Haute homemade (not!)

Oh dear. Michael and I were feeling quite pleased with ourselves for having actually chopped, stirred, grilled,and roasted over the holidays. Then I read this Guardian piece by Genevieve Fox on the "tyranny of haute homemade" — http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/14/whats-happened-to-home-cooking-from-scratch. No sherry vinegar pearls on our table, much less smoked butter with a Saturn-ring surround of the same jelly. Three and a half hours of our lives saved!

For a far more modest spread, here are some of the best recipes Michael found for Christmas Eve, plus a photo of our Picard main course for Christmas Day. I'll write up New Year's in a separate post. I did the baking — florentines with candied cranberries and orange peel, pecan lace cookies, lemon cheese tarts — but otherwise was pretty much just the sous chef for my enterprising husband

The main source of inspiration this year was Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells, an American expat who divides her time between Paris and Provence. In addition to having been an International Herald Tribune restaurant critic for more than twenty-five years, she was for a while also the only American food writer on the L'Express staff.

As usual on the 24th, we started with lightly sautéed foie gras. Since the selection of exotic fruit at Carrefour was minimal, I made a simple compote of dried figs poached in red wine with a few spices, which also went well with the traditional fig loaf the supermarket did stock as well as the surprisingly uninteresting sliced squares that dominate the bakery section.

Our holiday luxury was excellent lobster tails from Picard, grilled and served with a simple crème fraîche and tomato sauce. The side dishes, both destined to be long-term family favorites, came from Bistro Cooking. They're easy to make and delicious.

Le Procope's Pasta with Lemon, Ham, and Black Olives, pages 68-69 (thanks to Malvasia Bianca for putting this shortened form of the recipe online). We used Iberico ham instead of prosciutto and could only find dried thyme.

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
8 oz prosciutto
1/2 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
2 tsp freshly snipped thyme
grated zest of 2 lemons
black pepper to taste
1 pound thin pasta (capellini, angel hair, etc.)
Mix lemon juice, salt, olive oil in a small bowl. Combine everything else. (Except for the pasta, of course!) Cook the pasta, mix everything together.

Layered Vegetable Gratin, pages 83-84 [gratin simply in the sense that the vegetables are cooked in a shallow, oven-proof dish; you don't need to be this precise — we made it again with leftover aubergine, onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes, no weighing, again excellent]

2 small onions, each weighing about 4 ounces (125 g)
2 small eggplants, each weighing about 10 ounces (300 g)
4 small zucchini, each weighing about 4 ounces (125 g)
5 small tomatoes, each weighing about 3 ox (90 g)
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 teaspoons fresh thyme [again, we had to use dried]
1/4 cup (6 cl) extra-virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
2. Wash the vegetables, and peel the onion. Cut vegetables into thin rounds.
3. Generously rub the bottom of a shallow 5-cup (1.25l) gratin dish with the garlic. Sprinkle with some of the thyme. Add the sliced onion in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt to taste and more of the thyme. Drizzle on some of the olive oil. Continue layering in this manner with the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, sprinkling each layer with salt, thyme, and oil. Cover securely with aluminum foil. Bake until the vegetables are very soft and tender, about 1 hour. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.

On Christmas Day, we were far less ambitious. France's extraordinary frozen food chain, Picard, provided canette farcie (duckling with a stuffing of cèpes, flavored with Armagnac), rosaces de pomme de terre (rounds of crispy scalloped potatoes), creamed leeks, and creamed spinach. The only bit of cooking I did was traditional cranberry sauce and a very interesting variant on red currant sauce I found online. We'll be having this again, too:

Red currant sauce
300 g red currants
150 g brown sugar
3 tablespoons malt vinegar [I used red wine vinegar]
1. Combine ingredients in medium saucepan.
2. Start cooking over medium temperature and lower after a while to maintain a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally.
3. Cook for around 20 mins. [I used fresh currants but frozen would also work.]

During all this eating, we were enjoying fabulous weather. No snow, no floods, unlike many of our friends in the US and UK. Here's a view of Canigou from our patio, presiding over the holiday landscape: