September 21, 2012

Stop, I’m getting off.

At least for a while.
I know I am not alone. Everyone is complaining of having had a bad summer or at best having had no summer. The devastating heat in the East, the burn-out in the Midwest and now we in the West are in the hot seat. Hell has arrived and the world is in a global meltdown.
This is beyond the usual. I hear astrologers predict daily financial wipe outs (the Jamie Dimon descent was just the beginning). Everyone is going up in smoke. There are no happy days are here again.  Global denial ... it’s exhausting.
Everyone is spent. Talk about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Two weeks ago I started feeling dizzy and extremely tired. My doctor insisted it was all "stress related" (what isn't nowadays) and told me to unplug for a few days.

Rather than medication, I chose my favorite retreat a foolproof getaway shrine.  I’m packed, ready and on my way.
I am going to end this post with a comment from Frenchtoast to a recent post on this blog-
“I was thrilled to learn Gore (Vidal) end his life with these final words: ‘STOP IT.’ Grant it he said it to his nurse who was stretching(!!!!???) his leg. But I think Gore was saying a lot more than that. I believe he left us with THE mantra of THE moment. Now ... I dare you to use it ...

À bientôt.

September 18, 2012

Okay, let’s be really honest about this.


No matter how hard we try, no matter how noble our intention, and no matter how loath we would be to admit it, most of us still hold fast to various tired, timeworn stereotypes about people from other countries.  No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we all seem to have some dark corner tucked away somewhere that’s just right for keeping these embarrassing beliefs alive.
It’s not our fault really – it’s a failing that can be chalked up to that catch-all usually referred to as human nature.  All right, maybe we should accept a little of the blame, so long as it’s only a little.  After all, what are we supposed to do about the fact that there are Swiss who seem a little more fastidious and compulsive than the rest of us?  Or that there are French people in Paris who can be a trifle less than friendly to visitors from other countries?
Anyway, it seems as if every time I think I’ve finally snuffed out that last smoldering urge to blithely generalize about another culture or its people, something happens to relight the small flame of bias that burns in my subconscious. 
What brought this post on?  A conversation with Charles who told me that there had been a study conducted many years ago at the Royal Hospital in Edinburgh and after extensive research they found that the British are–how can I put this delicately?-shall we say more inclined than other people to act in a peculiar manner.  The study actually revealed that Britain seem to have a higher percentage of loopy souls than other places.  We’re not talking here about people that are seriously ill, but rather the kind of genuinely off-the-wall behaviour that’s usually categorized as eccentric.
For anyone who thought that the oddities of British behavior consisted mostly of peculiarities like warm beer, chilling baths, eating kippers first thing in the morning, and having some kind of unnatural affection for darts, the study proofed to be a real eye opener. 
For instance; a man who bathes in nothing but baked beans, a potato inspector who eats nothing but potatoes and spends his holidays studying the ur-potato and its offspring in Peru, and an aristocratic woman who came to be interviewed with her plastic lobster (which she continually stroked) and mentioned that she had a plastic crab at home to keep it company. Anyone still wondering where the cast of Monty Python got its material?
In any event, the idea that looniness is somehow endemic (epidemic?) to British society was simply too fraught with amusing possibilities to let a little thing like fear of contributing to or perpetrating stereotypes get in the way. So I nosed around a little to see just how heartwarmingly loony the British actually are. Quite daft, I can happily report.
And lest you think that all of this was done strictly for your amusement, there is a sobering side to eccentricity.  It can only flourish in a tolerant society and that it often produces radical new ideas by virtue of its willingness to cast off accepted norms.

To wit-
A few years ago, a construction worker from a place called Plumstead was arrested at a bank in the City of London. He'd arrived there in a Rolls-Royce, dressed up in Arab robes and a burnoose, and had tried to persuade the bank's staff to part with some $1.7 million. The bank was ready to go for it, but then someone noticed that "the Arab prince" had forgotten to change his work boots. He got eighteen months at Knightsbridge Crown Court.

This episode, I thought, could have been lifted straight from Monty Python (with John Cleese playing the hopelessly forgetful brick carrier). But then the whole Monty Python series could be interpreted as a string of documentaries on the follies and foibles of British life. For British life can, from time to time, be even battier than anything dreamed up as these ads in The Times of London attest:
"Tutor with Scottish accent urgently required for intelligent parrot."
Or: "Bombing strongly stimulated the adrenal glands: genuine inquirer ... seeks a substitute."  
Or these, the lonely exploits of British pioneers recorded in early editions of the Guinness Book of Records (before it went international): "Carrying an open bag of coal for thirty-six miles" or "Smoking fourteen full-sized cigars simultaneously, while whistling, talking, or giving a bird imitation."

Now I'm not sure whether the people who did or required these things should be called nuts, screwy, loopy, or just plain demented. (Can you imagine working your way up from one cigar to fourteen, or spending your life in search of a satisfactory substitute for bombing?) But I suspect that most people in Britain would simply call them eccentric. For eccentricity is one of those things that the British hold in high regard.   
I remember for example a friend who when he was a student at Oxford told me that people still talked fondly of the Reader in Spanish who carried a lump of sugar around his neck "to sweeten my conversation," and an ear trumpet "for catching clever remarks." They remembered with affection the professor who prowled the streets reciting poetry to himself and jumping into the air when he reached his favorite passages. And they positively doted on the memory of William Archibald Spooner, who was the warden of one of the colleges shortly after the turn of the century. Spooner had a reputation for mangling the English language in an unconsciously hilarious fashion. (He is in fact the father of the spoonerism, the accidental transposition of the initial sounds of two or more words, e.g., blushing crowl crushing blow.) But he also seems to have been quite genuinely cuckoo. He once went up to a student and said to him in all seriousness, "Now let me see. Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?" He also invited a new don to dinner, saying, "Do come to dinner tonight. We have that Fellow, Casson, coming." "But, Warden," said the don, "I am Casson." "Oh, well," said Spooner. "Never mind. Come anyway."
Having learned early in my life to appreciate the dotty and the wacky I was delighted to discover, that Charles had devoted some considerable time to the subject.  And he's found some, well ... how shall I put it in scientific terms? Some absolute lulus.
The thing that first caught my interest was just how off-the-wall some of the people, Britons especially, seemed to be.  There was the Barking Vicar of Berkshire, as he was called, who enlivened sermons with an array of sound effects; the Ministry of Defense chemist who was so obsessed with Robin Hood that he carries a bow and arrows and dressed up in Lincoln green in the evenings; and the cave-dweller in Wester Ross whose third wife left him because their bijou home was flooded whenever the tide carne in. And there's the inventor (mostly of strange, impractical machines) who, to raise money for kidney patients, rappelled down tower blocks dressed as a pink elephant. "I've probably cured more alcoholics," he said modestly, "than most doctors."
Well, this brief account of selected British oddness was enough to whet my appetite for more. So being an investigative sort, I immediately ask Charles to send more information on the subject.
A few days later it arrived and delivered up a number of new prospective candidates for a British Eccentrics' Hall of Fame. There's the pacifist and long-distance tricyclist who lived in a bombed-out shell on the outskirts of Belfast. And there's his opposite number in the peace-war continuum, a zealous militarist who lived hemmed in by models of tanks and who, during an interview (conducted in bed), pulled out a hand grenade and said, "Frightened, dearie?"  
But there is also something more interesting: an attempt to measure and account for what the eccentric personality might be; how it might be related to various forms of madness; and whether it could be connected to the peculiar quality of British life.
In the English dictionary an eccentric is defined as "an irregular, odd, or whimsical person." But it's not a word or a concept that translates easily into other cultures or languages. The Japanese equivalent is a character that is "out of the ordinary, disobedient, and evil," and I suppose the nearest equivalent in a totalitarian state is that ominous word for "one who thinks differently," dissident.  So clearly the first thing you have to have for the emergence of a true blue, dyed-in-the-wool eccentric (in the British sense) is a fairly tolerant society. That, I think, they probably have: a society that is by and large loath to send for the men in the white coats just because Aunt Emily has bought her six hundredth garden gnome.
There is something of this spirit of tolerance in a letter by the poet Dame Edith Sitwell (no mean eccentric herself) from her castello in Florence. "An old gentleman, aged 92," she wrote to a friend in 1951,"... came to a lunch party here two days ago and broke down and sobbed at lunch because his pet hen was dead. This bird used to sleep in his bed, and was in the habit of kissing him good night. There were also rows at hotels because he would bring her into the dining room." (All this may be batty, she seems to be saying, but it's not certifiable. It's interesting!)
But, according to my reading, there's a second thing you have to have: a society that is receptive to novel ideas.  For the contention is that eccentrics (apart, apparently, from tending to think in images and to be vivid dreamers) have a unique ability "to cast off preconceptions and to produce radical new ideas which can be put to good use."   
Now this is not something that I would myself claim for Britain, even in my rosiest of humors. (It seems to me in many ways an awesomely hidebound place.) You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read that over half the world's new commercially adopted ideas and inventions have come from Britain.
I immediately spoke to Charles. "Yes," he said, "quite true. There was a worldwide study conducted. " But does this necessarily have anything to do with your eccentrics? "I don't know," he said. "But I suspect there are parallels."
I remembered a line from John Stuart Mill: "Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded. . .  That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time."
This new vision of Britain as a place packed to the gunwales with slightly cracked inventors (all taken semi-seriously) filled me with some joy.  And I began to plague my friends with questions about any eccentrics they might have known. My friend remembered his Oxford tutor who, if he saw him on the street, would regularly come to a halt and start a conversation with him while he was still fifty yards away. And he recalled that the dippy William Archibald Spooner had lived to the ripe old age of 85.
I rooted about in Charles’ papers to see if there were any other advantages to being a fully paid-up eccentric like Spooner. There were, indeed. Eccentrics, I read with rising enthusiasm, are self-confident. (Well, they'd have to be, wouldn't they, to bathe in baked beans and go long-distance tricycling?) And because of this, they tend both to ignore other people and to be free of stress. The result?
They're almost unbelievably healthy. "The average eccentric," I read, "visits his doctor sixteen times less frequently than his 'normal' compatriot."
And so, I have joined in his network of those who are searching them out. I've even decided that there's much to be said-given the clear health advantages-for becoming an eccentric myself. Oh, I don't mean that I intend to go all the way just yet. (Just think what it must cost to take a bath in baked beans or to have that long-distance love affair with the proto-potato.) But I've recently been watching reruns of Monty Python for a few documentary tips, and I've begun noticing, well, how dementedly individual some of my neighbors actually are. Soon I am hoping to launch into an unsuspecting world (sotto voce): "I am trying to become a cultivated enigma." When I've done that, I'll try out my favorite: "Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light."
In the meantime, I am doing what I can to carry to a yet wider audience (I hope there are thousands of you out there) the message with which the Royal Hospital in Edinburgh started:  "Are you eccentric? If you think you are, or know someone who may be, contact the Royal Edinburgh Hospital."  Soon, I shall introduce the hospital to the would-be bank robber from Plumstead who, for the want of the right shoes, just missed out on $1.7 million. I think, with the hospitals help, he's got a great future.

September 13, 2012

Who did kill Roger Ackroyd?

A place in the city.  London real estate can take first price for Shakespeare’s greatest subject –deception.  On site for a restoration project I was looking for a place to stay.  As I penetrated one marvelous facade after another I discovered suicidal claustrophobia in the unmanageable boxiness of the rooms.  The invariable nightmare of the “lower ground” floor in which a so—called kitchen and dining room had been wedged together in the dankness, an interior suitable for a beheading.  Something spacious and airy would take a year to find.  I was about to go to Paris -“Whats wrong with Paris?” Clive asks, “it’s just a skip and a jump to London and you’ll have a view of Notre Dame.” – when I was offered a place, love you friends.  “You’ll love it, being a mystery buff and all, and it is a lovely small cottage, just as you like it”, Angela cooed.  Well, yes I do, provided they come with 90% less clutter than the ones I had been looking at.
The exterior was a cheerful mishmash of wood, stone, shingles, and leaded windows-all different sizes, one leading to a diminutive wrought-iron balcony.  On the side a blue plaque asserting that Dame Agatha had lived here. Undeniable charm.  I entered with some hesitation but what a surprise the place had been beautifully updated. 
The house had a history.  Designed as a “picturesque” mews in the 1880’s, consisting of stabling and a tiny apartment, it had been bought and converted to a cottage by the author in 1929 with the proceeds from the novel that brought her fame, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  It was a bit of a barnyard,” confided the host.  “The dear old thing apparently kept geese in the living room.”
Thanks to high ceilings and skylights installed during one of the re-models the place was not claustrophobic.  I loved the top floor aerie under the eaves where, gazing out over the venerable hodgepodge of London houses I could imagine how the Queen of Crime had been able to people her pages so vividly.  Everything was perfect I could move in immediately with Agatha’s ghost.
Sitting in the top floor aerie I saw tourists with their cameras at the ready snapping away at the blue plaque with the excitement of Livingstone discovering Victoria Falls.  I could see myself becoming preoccupied with the Christie Crusaders, neglecting my project, enjoying being the keeper of the shrine, the tenant of . . . history.
A few days after I had moved in I spent less and less time there.  Why, the agreement allowed me to be there.  I really did not know why this house – the recipient of so much care and imagination, the embodiment of this visitors “perfect house in the city”-had remained so…alien.  Or perhaps something else-Agatha’s ghost.
A ghost is something about a place that never lets you say, “This is mine.”  No, it belongs to someone else.  I don’t know who.
I wish I could have called Agatha back to ask how she felt about the cottage.  I was told she went on to many other, grander houses.  But she never sold this one.  Why?  What hold did it have over her?  What secret?  Why did her widower, the archaeologist Sir Mallowan, choose after her death to live out his last months in the cottage?  Is it because ghosts, like geese, need to be kept? 

September 10, 2012

Enjoy yourself...

...It is lighter than you think.
~John Cage

Good morning friends, following that oh-so-tiresome theme of my last post...
...another pearl from cyberspace.
Just when you thought...

A handsome 36-year-old single Parisian posed (clothed) for a full-page photograph in a popular, French woman’s magazine.
Readers desiring a romantic relationship were invited to read an interview with the man and write him, care of the magazine, with details of their lives and romantic aspirations.
185! women replied. Each letter was a manifestation, often powerful, of female desire. The bachelor, overwhelmed, decided to not meet a single woman.
The letters, ten are typed, 175 are handwritten, collectively represent a striking case study of female desire and loneliness, impulsiveness and creativity. Best of all, they could have been yours for a paltry $12,200 on EBay.

Further excerpts from the seller’s eBay listing:
185 love letters in French, sent from 185 women to a Parisian, offering an unmediated view of female desire in turn-of-the-millennium France. Ten of the letters are typed; 175 are handwritten.
The manuscripts are sold as a single lot. Many contain poems, drawings and photographs. Some of the sheets of paper, parchments and envelopes have been sprayed with perfume, painted with watercolors. One envelope contains a stick of still-fragrant incense. The collection includes a large selection of stamps affixed to envelopes for replies. (The buyer will receive the part of the self-addressed stamped envelope with the stamp or France’s La Poste sticker, but not the part containing the writer’s name and address.) The letters were written in France, save a dozen or so penned in Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, Spain and Switzerland. The letters embody France’s strong epistolary tradition, which greatly values detailed expressions of sentiments, romantic recollections and beautiful penmanship. (Only 10 of the letters are typewritten; one is partially typed.)
The letters offer an unmediated view of fair-sex sentiments in turn-of-the-millennium France. Taken together, the collection provides insights—unfiltered by academics and sociologists—into French women’s emotional prerequisites for sex. (Careful reading is not always necessary; a large number of letters were written with disarming directness.)
Broadly speaking, the writing styles are variations of come-hither prose, at times perhaps coy. One young woman writes: “Le plus beau cadeau que j’ai pu offrir est mon corp [sic] mon âme oui m’offrir à un homme est le plus beau cadeau je crois.” (“The most beautiful gift I can give is my body, my soul, yes, I believe that giving myself to a man is the most beautiful gift.”) Another writes of her “charmant accent du Midi” (“charming Midi [southern-France] accent.”). Another explains that her favorite way to lift her spirits when feeling blue is to “faire l’amour” (“make love”). Another promises her “premier cadeau” (“first gift”): A “massage très long et très doux” (“a long and tender massage”).
The lot is sold with the agreement that no letter in its entirety may be published (electronically or otherwise). The buyer must return a signed legal agreement before the box will be shipped. Entire letters may, however, be used in art projects. Excerpts of the letters may be used for art projects, scholarly works, press articles, poetry, scripts, screenplays, novels and non-fiction writings. Publishers or authors interested in publishing the letters (or a selection of the letters) in their entirety should contact the seller to discuss a special arrangement.
The buyer is encouraged to use the letters for the teaching of French, French culture, psychoanalysis, psychology, gender studies, penmanship or other subjects. As time passes, the letters will provide an increasingly rare and poignant portrait of turn-of-the-millennium France and its women.
Interested buyers may review the letters for free and without obligation in Paris (contact the seller to discuss other possible arrangements for pre-sale review of the letters). Sales are final.

And how was your weekend Vicomte de Valmont?

September 08, 2012


I am (add any name you like) and I have not improved my message.

It’s the summer of our discontent and once again, it is web weaving time, “Charlotte” has just finished hers.  That intricate pattern of empty ideas that includes all and speaks of absolutely nothing, (zilch, rien, nada, nichts, netchego, bubkes, etc.,ect.)
The right and left wing of the American eagle likes EVERYBODY. We didn’t know that. Now we do.
Both wings (where are the representatives for the non-wing registered voters?) have a plan to make the next four years better. Really? How? And after watching the conventions, and listening to ALL the blather, I still don’t know.
All I know is that we all need to go forward together. ALL of us. Together. United. As one. No dissent. And no cutting in line. Forward. Together. MOVE it!
We’ve all moved forward out of the Stone Age and progressed as a society to the point where black men can make death threats against President Obama, and convention delegates feel unafraid to say they want to kill Mitt Romney.  But we are cool!   As actor Kal “Kumar” Penn enthused from the Democratic convention sideline, “I felt like it was cool to be engaged in politics” What a cool thing to say!
There obviously wasn’t enough hope last time, so if you’re feeling all hoped-out, keep hope alive.  That’s an order.
During a Republican delegate roll call, South Dakota’s spokesman bragged that his state was the “pheasant-hunting capital of the world,” which lent a strong impression that there’s not a lot going on in South Dakota.
Notably absent were the last two Republican presidents, who by happenstance share the surname Bush, as well as there is a reason they call me Dick (Cheney).
I suspect there were snipers perched in the nosebleed section with orders to shoot any speaker who deviated from the tightly controlled lifeless script. Speaker after speaker informed us that what makes America “America” is its uniquely American sense of Americanness. There was much talk of “personal responsibility” but not a whisper of who was personally responsible for putting on such a boring convention.
Ann Romney said, “Tonight I want to talk to you from my heart about our heart,” confusing everyone about which heart she was talking about.  Rick Santorum said, “I shook the hand of the American dream, and it has a strong grip.” No, I’m not kidding. Those were his words.
Darling Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair which was supposed to represent Barack Obama but more suitably reflected the entire convention’s message.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney made it quite clear who butters his biscuits by mentioning “Iran’s nuclear plan” and how Obama “has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.” As his speech ended, over a hundred thousand Viagra-filled balloons dropped from the rafters before everyone returned to their cocoons.
Ex-president and serial philanderer Bill Clinton gave the Democratic convention’s best speech, blaming the Republicans for everything and sidestepping all ‘inconvenient truths’.
Vice President Joe Biden literally misused the word “literally” at least five times, at which point I stopped counting. The country has “literally stood on the brink of a new Depression,” it was “literally on the verge of liquidation,” it “literally amazes him” that important issues “literally hung in the balance,” and how “the direction we turn is—not figuratively—literally in your hands.” We literally didn’t know you could turn a country’s direction using your hands. A film showed Biden claiming that Obama “has a backbone like a ramrod.” Am I reading too much into that?
And finally, President Obama, spoke of hope, and of moving forward, and of moving forward hopefully, claiming that he wasn’t merely peddling “blind optimism or wishful thinking.”
FORWARD! The Republicans want to go back, but the Democrats want to go forward. Going forward is always good, even if you’re headed toward an iceberg.
And the only way we can move forward is together. The Democratic Ministry of Truth informs us that “Government’s the only thing we all belong to,” whether we choose to or not. Overheard was this vaguely terrifying line, “You may not be thinking about politics, but politics is thinking about you.” Ouch!
The only thing we need to move forward together is hope. More hope. There obviously wasn’t enough hope last time, so if you’re feeling all hoped-out, keep hope alive. They hope you keep hoping. Keep re-hoping.
Keep hoping, even though our challenges and the solutions to them are global, not a concept even remotely addressed (it is OUR economy, OUR financial markets, OUR environment, OUR 4-year hope plan, OUR oil, OUR problem, OUR planet).
Keep hoping, even so, we are disconnected from an ever more interdependent planet.  
Keep hoping, even though, instead of uniting us in the struggle to face our woes we are fragmented like shattered glass.
Keep hoping through four years of … what exactly?
Keep hoping, because we finally have a nation where people of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds, can fail united.
  and I approve this message.

September 06, 2012



once upon a time…enthusiastically recited, sung, played and shouted by Frenchtoast  


September 04, 2012

Clothes make the man…

…Naked people have little or no influence on society.
~Mark Twain

From Beau Brummell


the tailors of Savile Row in London have stood for style with a capital S by always leading the trends, not following them.
It was in 1856 that James Poole’s son Henry inherited his father’s firm. He earned the title ‘Founder of Savile Row’ when he made the Savile Row-side of his father’s tailoring workshops Henry Poole & Company situated at No 4 Old Burlington Street into an all new grand classical style entrance.  The address became known as No 32 Savile Row.
The term “bespoke” is understood to have originated on Savile Row when cloth for a suit was said to “be spoken for by an individual customer". The talented ‘bespoke’ tailors who still survive today are much sought after, albeit by a much smaller but just as exclusive as always, clientele. They are and while they continue to survive changes in fashion, the expansion of well made ‘off the rack’ suits. An assault on their competitiveness and competency will always be associated with taste, fashion, elegance, sophistication and timeless attitudes.
They are currently calling coats and suits from Savile Row “Sherlock chic”, although there isn’t a deerstalker hat or pipe in sight.

It seems the 2010 show that placed Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes firmly in the 21st century has turned him, and the actor who plays him, Benedict Cumberbatch, into a fashion icon.
Sherlock is definitely Shrewd, Sexy and New Age and turned heads again during the second season early in 2012. Top designers in London reported a flood of customers queuing to emulate his style, with gentlemen keen to copy his extra-long tailored Milford coat.
It is a modern reproduction of an Edwardian driving coat that is worn by Cumberbatch, who has also been seen around the town wearing impeccably tailored Savile Row suits.

And it is very hard to surpass Cary Grant wearing a Savile Row coat you will have to agree that he looked the picture of sartorial elegance.
The stylish Kilgour suit worn by Grant in Alfred Hitchock’s North by Northwest is considered one of the most famous suits of men clothing in movie history. Shot at, chased, and rolled around drunk, he still managed to stand on the side of a dusty road in Indiana (actually shot on Garces Highway (155) near the towns of Wasco and Delano, north of Bakersfield in Kern County, California)  about to be 'crop dusted', looking as cool as a cucumber.

At No 1 Savile Row the tailors have also recently established a Savile Row Archive, curated by James Sherwood. The Savile Row Bespoke Association founded in 2004, acknowledged the work of Mr Sherwood and his research. It has also resulted in a book about the brief history of the glamour, and sometime squalor of the Row, with the fine attention to detail that characterizes a well dressed man.
Dismayed at the word ‘bespoke’ being bandied about in the first decade of the 21st century the Savile Row Bespoke Association hit back laying down some laws about what can be considered bespoke.
‘A suit must start with an individual pattern created by a master cutter, who will also superintend all production; the tailors will be based in England; and all work will be done by hand and require a minimum of 50 hours. The garments resulting from this time-honored process—and only those—will be worthy of bearing the label Savile Row Bespoke’.
Its personal relationship that develops between a gentleman and his tailor is a time-honoured part of the service still offered at Savile Row, London.
While tradition may have kept its bespoke tailors a cut above the rest, it is the upholding of a standard in excellence in tailoring that makes the clothes fit the man so well that is at the heart of Savile Row and its continuing success.