Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Last Word

And yet, I wonder, is it worth so much?
Although it gives great satisfaction at
The time of utterance, and comes with such
Alacrity and verve - a trifle pat
Perhaps, but always irrefutable -
I wonder, sometimes, if it would be wise
To be a little more inscrutable?
The Mona Lisa only needs her eyes
To counter argument, and who can doubt
Her silent smile won immortality?
The strong and sure have never need to shout
And know that wisdom lies in brevity;
Perhaps I'd benefit if no-one heard
How much I revel in that final word!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Slow Food in France!

I'm sorry, I know you're busy, but this letter needs to be read slowly. In much the same way, it needs to be written slowly - which is why this mug of coffee on the table beside me is intended to slow me down.

Why all this emphasis on slow? It's because of an absorbing book that I'm reading, 'In Praise of Slow', by Carl Honore. He quotes the words of Ghandi, 'there's more to life than increasing its speed', and the more read the more I agree.

Honore's research covers every aspect of our speed mania, from our round-the-clock culture to ever faster music. Did you know that whereas Liszt wrote of taking almost an hour to play Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, some pianists now play the same piece in thirty-five minutes?
Why the speed . . . ? Is this what Beethoven had in mind?
Fast food is one aspect of the cult of speed that we all easily recognise. But I was intrigued to learn did that the Slow Food movement is already well-established in Europe. The French and the Italians, in particular, have too much respect for what they eat to be wholly seduced by the concept of fast food.

I wonder . . . thinking of France . . . and thinking of food . . . . have you time to share a story . . . a slow story ?

Years ago, when I was in the film industry, I was approached by the studio at Elstree to see if I would join the crew for a feature film to be shot near Orleans in France. The actor Brian Forbes had turned Producer and this was to be his first production.

When we reached France I learned that the Production Office had changed its usual policy. The normal procedure, when going on location, was to take a firm of caterers with a catering van. From hot bacon rolls at dawn, to hot mugs of soup at sundown, the caterers kept everyone warm and well fed. On this occasion it seemed that the Production Office had decided to economise. Rather than being accompanied by an expensive team from Elstree, we would be fed by French caterers based in Orleans.

On the first day of filming we were surprised to see a large table being erected near the catering van. We normally queued up at the serving hatch. Nonetheless, this seemed an attractive alternative, particularly when the table was covered in a large, checked cloth and ringed with chairs. The morning's shooting schedule completed, we seated ourselves, curious and hungry, to see what was on offer.

What none of us had anticipated was the prolonged feast that was to follow. The French caterers took considerable pride in their cuisine and were determined to uphold the culinary reputation of their country.
The weather was pleasantly warm . . . the air languid . . . the atmosphere convivial . . . we were only too willing to relax and enjoy ourselves. This wasn't our normal fast fare, this was newly-baked bread . . . delicious cheeses . . . succulent local dishes . . . steaming pasta . . . crisp salads . . . freshly-picked fruit . . . aromatic coffee . . . and did I mention the wine? No matter that the various courses took time to put in an appearance . . . no matter that our lunch-break was ticking by . . . this was France . . . we were economising with a French caterer . . . what did an extended lunch-break matter?

A week into the shoot we were already a day behind schedule. Rather concerned, the Production Manager rescheduled the future programme. At the end of two weeks, plans were being made to see whether the hotel rooms could be booked for a unspecified extension. At the end of a very enjoyable month, the Production Office in Elstree decided that something had to be done. A team of caterers was sent to Orleans from England. With lingering regret, cast and crew watched the French caterers depart!

The shooting finished very quickly after this policy change. Back to a diet of fast food, we settled down to hard graft and soon returned to Elstree.
And the film? No, it wasn't very good . . . but those wonderful, leisurely, communal meals in the sunshine . . . I'll never forget them!
Slow Food . . . ? I'm all in favour!

Now . . . where did I put that mug of instant coffee . . . ?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Finding a reflection

May I tell you a story? Not one to make you laugh this time, but a story that moved me. It would be good to share it with you.

For many years, as you know, I've been part of a team of tutors for a correspondence course. It's a pleasure and a privilege. I learn far more from my students than they ever learn from me. These students come from all over the world. Some write frequently, some rarely. Some correspond with me for up to five years, some for only a year. They are of all ages, come from all walks of life and, every so often, I get a student from one of the state prisons in the U.S.A. It would seem that the prison officials look upon this course as a means of keeping the inmates occupied, and of promoting rehabilitation. Prisoners have plenty of time on their hands, most of them write frequently . . . and at length.

One of my current prisoners will shortly complete the course, we've been corresponding for over two years. A few months ago he wrote enquiring whether I would like the gift of a folder in which to store students' material. He had been a leather craftsman before entering prison and he wanted to use these skills to make me a gift. I told him that I would be happy to accept the folder on behalf of the college.

So, last week, the folder (which he calls a book) arrived. With it came a letter explaining how he'd made it.
It's best to let him speak for himself . . .

". . . the body of the book is constructed from backs from writing tablets. The average book like this takes about sixteen of them. This is the best kind of cardboard and, as it is solid, is able to be made wet and engraved.
I first draw the designs onto this cardboard, taking into consideration the measurements to make sure they are in the right place. Once drawn, I outline them in ink so that it doesn't wash off. Then I soak the cardboard lay it on a towel with a harder surface underneath and engrave the lines with tweezers because we don't have access to regular tools. The pieces are then allowed to dry and once they do, they curl up, you must put them under a mattress and sleep on them overnight to straighten them. Pieces are cut out using a razor blade that must be broken out of a disposable razor. We don't have hobby shops or any area to do such work, so it must all be done 'on the sly' so to speak.

Once the pieces are ready, it must be glued. We don't have access to glue so it must be smuggled in. The glue used in your book is regular wood glue.
Once together, then the book must be colored. I mainly use colored pencils as we can't get colored markers or paint. When colored the book is ready to wax. The shiny surface is industrial floor wax that is typically used on prison floors. It takes seven to ten coats for a typical book.

I tried something new with your closure - magnets. These magnets come out of some old radio earphones and are not that powerful. I would recommend you finding a stronger one and replacing them.
I've placed a paper insert in the middle. You can lace the paper in or use pins but you will have to trim the paper down in order to make it fit. You do have different paper sizes in England than we do, so mayhap something may fit . . .
Do not be afraid to use the book. It's not fragile.
You will notice some flaking, especially at the creases, but this is natural and will only add character to the book over time. And it's usually only for one or two of the micro-layers of the cardboard that flakes anyway.
I do hope you enjoy the book and use if for your students. It has been a pleasure making it for you."
I can only assume that, as the wood glue was smuggled into the prison, so this 'book' was smuggled out and posted. What was my student's crime? I don't know. He has never told me and I haven't asked. He has already been in prison for several years and should be leaving in the near future. I can only hope that such tenacity and skill will enable him to re-enter the working community and earn him respect.

But, before I go, may I tell you of one more student, also a prisoner in the States. This is what he wrote to me shortly before his release . . .

"Many men succumb to the trials of prison life. Enveloped by the darkness they cast no shadow. The pillars of light generated from within the heart of this course allowed me to not only cast a shadow, but to see my reflection. Knowing that I am made everything possible."

Thank you for sharing this story . . . it needs to be shared.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

This is it

Tell me, when you were young (a teenager, or thereabouts) did you have a moment of revelation? A moment when you suddenly awoke to the mind-blowing fact that 'this is it'?

Perhaps I was a very dozy teenager. Perhaps this is something that everyone else appreciates
from the moment they are self-aware. Maybe I was backward. But I'll never forget that moment. It was one of those experiences (and you don't get many in a lifetime) when everything freezes and the picture stays imprinted on your memory, complete with all its vivid detail and impact, as though it happened yesterday.

I was walking down the stairs when, suddenly, without warning, it hit me.

This life . . . my life . . . wasn't a dress rehearsal. I wasn't marking time in the dressing-room, waiting for some momentous event . . . practising for what lay ahead . . . preparing for a great day in the future. There was no 'other' . . . no alternative . . . no playwright working on an improved version in the wings . . . I was centre stage, caught in the full glare of the spot-light . . . this was it!

Ridiculous as it sounds, telling you about it all these years later, I was shocked . . . shaken to the core. I wasn't ready for this . . . I needed time to consider . . . if this was all there was, well, I had to take it more seriously.

With all the implications rushing through my mind, I hurried downstairs to tell my mother. Did she know?

I'm not sure whether she grasped what I was babbling about.
"This is it . . . !" I declared earnestly.
"Yes, darling . . . " was mother's calm response, "are you ready to go out?"

What revitalised this distant memory? It's the excellent, thought-provoking book that I'm reading at the moment, 'Defy Gravity' by Caroline Myss. She tells a similar story, only in her case it was the impact of the phrase, 'This day will never come again'.

Do you see what I'm getting at?
Not only is this 'it', but it's this precise moment - the moment when I'm writing and you're reading - that's 'it'.
Someone once said: 'the past is history, the future's a mystery, all we have is the present'.
It's a wonderful thought, the weight of the past and the weight of the future both drop away. Surely no phrase was better designed to lighten the mind?

So, please, if you ever catch me waxing lyrical over fictional future plans, or growing nostalgic over carefully-edited memories . . . well, you know what to say to revive my teenage moment of revelation . . .

'This is it!'

Monday, February 1, 2010

A liquid asset

It's a curious thing, but it looks as though the top-heavy income structure in this country could have planetary implications.
Have you a moment to spare? Then let me explain my thinking.

We all know about the bankers' bonuses, but how often do we stop to think what the bankers do with their wealth? If you've walked around the more affluent parts of London recently you'll have noticed the vast amount of scaffolding. Not only is there scaffolding, but there's also the constant whine of pile-driving, not to mention frequent road closures. For a banker, with an affluent home in London, you are limited in the ways you can expand. Local planning restrictions prevent you from going upwards, the proximity of your neighbours prevents you from spreading sideways, the only way you can go is down. And this is precisely what's happening. The wealthy of the capital are digging down, not just one level, but frequently two. What are they putting in their newly-claimed, underground territory? Swimming-pools!

London has always had its underground rivers weaving their way to join the Thames (the Bourne and the Fleet, to name but two), the city is also under-pinned by a labyrinth of sewerage and water pipes. Now, however, London also stands atop a growing acreage of captive water.

What are the planetary implications of all this? Bear with me.
Have you been watching the BBC's absorbing new series, 'How Earth Made Us' presented by Prof. Iain Stewart? Each programme takes one of the four elements that together comprise our planet: earth, water, air and fire. In the programme on water, Prof. Stewart told the viewers something that I, for one, had never heard before, and it's all to do with the way the wealthy hoard water.

Water is finite, the water of the world flows through its rivers, evaporates into its atmosphere and returns as rain. The only time it is held captive is when we trap it in reservoirs and swimming-pools. So long as the water is moving, the planet's stability is not threatened. But man in the western world has grown very fond of water. We like it for far more than the life-saving qualities it has to offer. We like it for its ornamental attractions, we use it for fountains, cascades and ornamental ponds. We like it for the frequent baths and showers that we consider essential. We like it for swimming and all forms of water sports.

We use a prodigious amount of water and, realising its finite quality, we hoard the water we plan to use in vast reservoirs. By and large, these reservoirs are concentrated in the prosperous northern hemisphere and, such is our growing demand, these reservoirs now hold five times as much water as that flowing in the world's rivers.

Just picture it for a moment, a top-heavy planet overburdened in the north with sedentary water. What do you think are the consequences?
You're dead right . . . over the past forty years the weight of this water has caused a change in how the planet spins on its axis, with an accompanying slight speeding up of its rotations.
And what's to say that this speeding up process won't itself grow faster?

Which brings us back to the bankers. No, let's not blame the bankers. When it comes to water, we are all millionaires compared to those suffering in the drought-stricken areas of the world. Can we be persuaded to cut back on our liquid assets and truly value this precious and finite commodity?

Water could survive without us . . . it wouldn't work the other way round!