Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

forgotten- irish slavesThey came as slaves; vast human cargo transported on tall British ships bound for the Americas. They were shipped by the hundreds of thousands and included men, women, and even the youngest of children.

Whenever they rebelled or even disobeyed an order, they were punished in the harshest ways. Slave owners would hang their human property by their hands and set their hands or feet on fire as one form of punishment. They were burned alive and had their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to other captives.

We don’t really need to go through all of the gory details, do we? We know all too well the atrocities of the African slave trade.

But, are we actually talking about African slavery?Fascinatingly, in this case, no.

King James II and Charles I led a continued effort to enslave the Irish. Britain’s famed revolutionary Oliver Cromwell furthered this practice of dehumanising one’s next door neighbour.

The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children most of whom died. Britain’s solution to their penury was to auction them off as well.

During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England.

In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: slaves. They’ll come up with terms like “Indentured Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish, and it is true that some were, and were held under less onerous regimes than the slaves. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle. They never became “free”, and they never returned home.

Meanwhile, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. And it is well recorded that ironically African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.

African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). But Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African.

The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.

mulattoIn time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in some cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: the settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves. Some mulatto children obviously were born as a result of rape or consensual sex between owners and black slaves. Many more were the result of a deliberate breeding programme.

This practice of interbreeding Irish females with African men went on for several decades and was so widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.” In short, it was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.

England continued to ship tens of thousands of Irish slaves for more than a century. Records state that, after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia. There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat.

It is hardly ever spoken about, but there is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as Africans did. There is, also, very little question that those brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish ancestry. In 1839, Britain finally decided on it’s own to end it’s participation in this highway to hell and stopped transporting slaves. While their decision did not stop pirates from doing what they desired, the new law slowly concluded at least this chapter of nightmarish Irish misery.

As we look ever more clearly at our past, Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from our memories. Or is their story to be one that their English pirates intended: to have the Irish story utterly and completely disappear as if it never happened?

None of the Irish victims ever made it back to their homeland to describe their ordeal. These are the lost slaves; the ones that time and history books conveniently forgot. It is time they were remembered.

Abdullah ElmirA Sydney teenager who ran away to join jihadists in Syria is the pawn of terrorists who “groomed” him just like pedophiles groom their child victims, a terror expert says.

Abdullah Elmir has turned up in a propaganda video for the IS group, also known as ISIL, after disappearing from his Bankstown home in June, saying he was going fishing.

The video is the fourth in a series called “Message of the Mujahid” which features foreign fighters, with previous releases showing British, French and Moroccan jihadists.

Grand Mufti quick to condemn "Islamic" extremists

Grand Mufti quick to condemn “Islamic” extremists

The Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, urged Muslims to reject calls from abroad tocommit violence against Australia and said it was “utterly deplorable for violent extremists to use Islam as a cover for their crimes and atrocities”.

In a joint statement, the nation’s peak Muslim organisations expressed “profound concerns and sadness” over Abdullah’s appearance in the Islamic State video and said there was an “urgent need” to examine how and why the teenager felt the need to leave the country and fight with a terrorist organisation.

In the clip, the 17-year-old threatens Australia and any nation that would try to stand in the group’s way.

Professor Greg Barton from Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre says Elmir was recruited by wanted terrorist Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an Australian based in Syria.

He says terror recruiters lure targets by making friends through social media, like many sexual predators.

“It’s like sexual predation,” Professor Barton told the media.

“Somebody might strike up a friendship in an online chat forum and present themselves in a different fashion – to try to get them into their web. By the time they actually meet the people they’re speaking with, they may be in too deep to know better.”

He says the boy appears as a “pawn in the machine” in the chilling video.

“He thinks he’s the star … but the reality is, his new friends have got him a one-way ticket,” he said. “He’s not in charge of his own destiny at all, he’s being used.”

Prof Barton says young people are the easiest to radicalise.

“Teenagers, 20-somethings, particularly young men more than young women, are vulnerable to making rash judgments,” he said. “And they tend to be more rebellious toward (older) generations and sceptical of establishment figures.”

It is believed former Kings Cross bouncer Mr Baryalei, 33, recruited Elmir through western Sydney street preaching group Parramatta Street Dawah.

“He’s said to have recruited 30 plus young people – mostly in western Sydney through Street Dawah” Professor Barton said.

We agree with Professor Barton. What we are seeing is teenage braggadocio. No 17 year old understands the geo politics behind the likes of IS, they have no idea what the reality of death and injury is on the battlefield, they do not yet have an understanding of the terrible implications of the violence they may wreak on other families or what it really means to take another life, nor do they have the discretion to understand varying views of their own religion. What we are seeing here is the sophisticated internet version of the gathering of child soldiers by unprincipled militia in Africa and elsewhere.

abdullahThis young man will, one day, without any doubt, die a bloody death unknown, unmourned and unmarked in the conflict in Iraq. Those who recruited him as a footsoldier will not bat an eyelid at his passing.

Even if he does not, his life is effectively ruined, as he will no longer be welcome in his home country. The very best outlook he probaby has is to become a stateless refugee, in hiding.

It is all very sad, and a huge burden of guilt lies on the souls of those who recruit our innocents. The cases recently of two young Austrian women who travelled to join IS only to find themselves pimped out to fighters, impregnated, and now unable to leave after becoming utterly disillusioned, is yet more evidence that these people deserve our unflinching condemnation.

Meanwhile,  Abdullah’s family have said they are shocked and devastated. They believe he has been “brainwashed” and they want to know who paid for his air ticket and encouraged him to go. They have described him as academically bright and caring: and it is often so - those with intelligence, compassion and passion are the easiest to turn to the darkness.

We should all pray this young man somehow survives and is reuinted with those who can care for him. That, however, is vanishingly unlikely.

fallenA very sad story in the newspaper in Melbourne today, noting that over 104 people over the age of 50 died in their homes in 2011, and lay there dead for a week or more before their bodies were discovered.

Even sadder is that some of those people – victims of heart attacks, strokes, and falls, for example – might have survived if found sooner. And saddest of all is that the same litany of little tragedies are surely repeated every year in every city in the world.

We live in a world which is theoretically more connected than ever. And yet, as more people live alone – especially more older people – any sense that we all live in a village with an eye on each other’s welfare is receding into distant memory.

We recall growing up in a typical middle-class street, with friends and neighbours in abundance in all directions.

Connections were not made because people were nosy and inquisitive, but simply because people were polite and caring. It would be unusual not to greet the people who lived nearby with a cheery “Good morning” when walking past them. Indeed, more so: to nod, smile and utter a greeting to complete strangers, who often became, in due course, acquaintances, and then friends. Nowadays, likely as not, people would shy back, concerned you were a nutter or from a religious cult.

We live in a colder, harder world, where the idea of a harmless conversation over the fence or sharing a quick cuppa on the back step seems immeasurably quaint.

Do yourself a favour. Do the world a favour. Go knock on their door. Any excuse will do – or just ‘fess up. “I thought we should know one another.”

Especially if they’re old, and alone. Just do it.

 

MRS TURKINGTON

She used to stand, proud and erect, the Colossus of Assembly.
Headmistress of St Catherine’s Church of England Primary
Concentrating Camp
For David and Gareth and Julie and Helen and Me.

Talons grasping the eagle-winged lectern
she would gravely announce
“All God’s Creatures Here Alive
Ancient and Modern, Number 35”
,
and God help you if you didn’t sing.
(Except he wouldn’t.
because he was silenced by a glance
from Mrs T, as well.)

She had a cane, but never used it.
If found running in the quadrangle
she just pinned you to the blue breeze-block walls
with Yorkshire-steel eyes and asked you what
exactly it was you thought you were doing?7
And whatever it was, you stopped it.

Bubble-gum swallowed, marbles pocketed.
Prize conker? Dropped it.

I heard some time ago Mrs T had died.
They found her on the floor.
No-one called, no more.
So no-one saw.

Been there for days, they said.
All thin, and gnarled, and very dead.

In later life, she’d mellowed.
Her skin had yellowed.
I used to see her in Church, a bit
when time had pushed her shoulders up in the middle.
She just got all bent, when the rheumatics hit.

Always sent me a Christmas card,
even when her life got hard.

Mum used to shove one under me nose to sign for her
so I suppose she’d always got it,
and then thought I never forgot it.

I never thought I would, but
I felt sorry when they found her,
fallen and forgotten at the bottom of the stairs.

She had a cane, you see.
But she never used it.

beaver lodge

Beaver Lodge, then home of the Attenboroughs, where we momentarily shared the high life.

So Dickie Attenborough is dead, at 90.

We knew him. Well, not so much knew him, you understand, as “We met him once”.

Back in 1987, there was an election on. The Liberal Party, for which we campaigned, had entered an uncomfortable “Alliance” with a new political grouping called “The Social Democratic Party”, which was essentially a small group of right wing rebels from a Labour Party that had been temporarily overwhelmed by the irritating forces of the trotskyite Left. The new “SDP” appealed to a sort of vaguely left of centre middle class consensus type – they’d be called “soccer Mums” in America or “doctor’s wives” in Australia.

Anyhow, for some bizarre reason lost in the mists of time deep in the last millenium, the leaders of said Alliance decided to hop on a barge and meander down the River Thames one Sunday afternoon, ending up at Dickie’s pile in Richmond. The vague plan was that there were a string of Liberal-SDP Alliance target seats in a row along the river, and this was a spiffingly good wheeze to make a news impact on all of them in one hit to try and shake loose a few of the seats that had voted Tory since time immemorial in that area. Needless to say, as a photo op it simply made the Alliance leaders look like a bunch of middle class numpties and it was largely ignored.

Attenborough and his equally well-loved brother, documentary maker David, share a happy moment.

Attenborough and his equally well-loved younger brother, documentary maker David, share a happy moment.

It is why, though, late on a lovely summer’s afternoon, we came to be standing around in the Attenborough’s charming little pied-a-terre, and standing around very uncomfortably to boot, given that we were unquestionably in the presence of the great and good … a sprinkling of theatre people, some famous politicians, a clutch of local grandees … and as we (and by we, we mean a bunch of local campaigners who had been invited to turn up to rub shoulders with the glitterati who had descended upon us) were dressed almost universally in jeans, odd t-shirts covered in campaign buttons and sporting scraggly beards, we felt somewhat out of place.

Since that time we have become more familiar with the questionable joys of small talk, clinking crystal and nodding with glazed eyes while not really listening. At that stage, however, the art form was unknown to us. So we stood near the front door of what was undoubtedly the grandest room on the planet, exquisitely furnished, and shuffled uncertainly from foot to foot, muttering darkly to one another about how we’d rather be out canvassing for votes on council estates instead of all this wank.

Suddenly, though, Attenborough himself swept through the crowd, making a beeline towards us with a tray of champagnes weaving memorably past the obstacles presented by overweight councillors and gesticulating theatricals. I am reasonably sure there were black-tied waters in attendance too, but for some reason he was doing the honours himself. “You chaps look like you need a drink!” he grinned, and his charm and bonhomie was infectious. We took a glass each and smiled uncertainly. “Yell out if you want another!” he cried, disappearing back into the maw of 200 or so of his closest friends. It was a gentle and kindly act, and perfectly typical of the man, apparently.

Richard Attenborough was one of the most famous and talented actors of his generation, with a string of credits that sound like a potted history of 20th century British and Hollywood cinema. Stolid and honourable in “The Great Escape”. Menacing and psychotic in “Brighton Rock”. Avuncular and deluded in “Jurassic Park”. Pugnacious  in “The Angry Silence”. Utterly chilling in “10 Rillington Place”.

As a director, he made some of the more important movies of the era, reflecting his own progressive view of the world, such as the memorable filmed version of “Oh! What a lovely war!” and in the historically accurate and star-filled exposition of the disastrous military adventure of Operation Market Garden in “A Bridge Too Far”, tackling courage against the apartheid regime in South Africa in “Cry Freedom”, and, of course, with “Gandhi”, the triumphal conclusion of 20 years effort, for which he received two Oscars.

Less well-known is that during the Second World War, Lord Attenborough served with the Royal Air Force, and was seconded to the newly-formed RAF film unit at Pinewood Studios after initial pilot training. He appeared in the 1943 propaganda film Journey Together before qualifying as a sergeant and flying on missions all over Europe filming the outcome of Bomber Command sorties. He saw enough of the horrors of war to imbue “Oh! What a lovely war!” with a heart-rending immediacy, as seen so well in the closing sequence of the film, below. As we remember the 100th Anniversary of the First World War, we could do no better to show respect those who fell than to play the whole film on free-to-air TV in all the combattant countries. It is a theatrical tour de force, and deeply moving.

And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, no, we’ll never tell them:

We spent our pay in some cafe,

And fought wild women night and day,

‘Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,

The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them

There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

As an aside, and notably, Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, who though stricken with dementia survives him after nearly 70 years of marriage, also co-starred in the original West End production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in 1952, which has since become the world’s longest-running play.

David Owen

David Owen

Anyhow, the afternoon drew on towards evening and the champagne grew warm, and then leader of the SDP, Dr David Owen, who it must be reported had looked grumpy and perfectly bored the entire time - an impression he managed to give for his entire career, to our eyes – decided it was time to leave.

He bustled his way towards the door. Attenborough, seeing his star guest leaving, struggled through the crowd waving to get Owen’s attention, seemingly unsuccessfully. In the end, he called out plaintively “David! David! Call you, darling!” but in vain: he was talking to thin air. Owen was gone.

I caught Dickie’s eye, and he smiled and shrugged. He waggled his hand to indicate “Another glass of bubbles?” but we politely demurred. We were heading down the pub for a proper drink. He smiled again, good naturedly, as if in understanding, and turned back to tending to his other more civilised guests. Momentarily, I considered suggesting he join us for a hand of dominoes and a couple of pints, suspecting he might enjoy himself more, but I didn’t dare.

Richard Attenborough may have been a luvvie, my darling Reader, but he was a ferociously talented and genuinely big-hearted version of that uniquely British theatrical caricature.

And that’s why everyone loved him. A decent bloke: a life well lived. Our condolences to his family and innumerable friends.

Footnote

In British use, luvvie is a humorously depreciative term for an actor, especially one regarded as effusive or affected. The reference is to a stereotype of  thespians habitually addressing people as ‘lovey’. When the OED revised its entry for lovey in 2008, this sense, which had by then become established in the variant spelling luvvie, was made a separate entry. The earliest quotation found at the time was from author and actor Stephen Fry, writing in the Guardian in 1988:

Acting in a proper grown-up play, being a lovie, doing the West End, ‘shouting in the evenings’, as the late Patrick Troughton had it.

1988 Stephen Fry in Guardian 2 Apr., p. 17

The off-hand manner in which the term is used here suggests that the word may already have been somewhat established in this sense at the time.

Spoons

Stephen Yolland is a Melbourne poet and author/editor of Wellthisiswhatithink. You can find his book of poetry here. The book is also available as a download from lulu.com.

Many moons ago, we submitted an article to the New Yorker. They rejected it. This is not an uncommon experience for writers submitting to the august magazine, which sets an stratospheric standard for its contributors, which is why it’s such a good read, of course. Indeed, on the remaindered shelf at a bookstore many moons ago we bought a “best of” collection of the famous New Yorker cartoons which is still one of the funniest books we have ever read.

We may submit another article to them one day if we can ever think of anything worth saying. Anyhooo … Fruit of One’s Loins was sent this article which is apparently doing the rounds on the Internet from November 2013 and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s a hilarious mental ramble based on a very old joke, and it’s simultaneously both witty and a clever commentary on the modern world. It’s by Simon Rich*, who is clearly much funnier and talented than me. And younger. And better looking.

Bastard.

Guy Walks Into a Bar

So a guy walks into a bar one day and he can’t believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there’s this one-foot-tall man, in a little tuxedo, playing a tiny grand piano.

So the guy asks the bartender, “Where’d he come from?”

12 inch pianistAnd the bartender’s, like, “There’s a genie in the Mens’ room who grants wishes.”

So the guy runs into the Mens’ room and, sure enough, there’s this genie. And the genie’s, like, “Your wish is my command.”

So the guy’s, like, “O.K., I wish for world peace.” And there’s this big cloud of smoke—and then the room fills up with geese.

So the guy walks out of the Mens’ room and he’s, like, “Hey, bartender, I think your genie might be hard of hearing.”

And the bartender’s, like, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”

So the guy processes this. And he’s, like, “Does that mean you wished for a twelve-inch penis?”

And the bartender’s, like, “Yeah. Why, what did you wish for?”

And the guy’s, like, “World peace.”

So the bartender is understandably ashamed.

And the guy orders a beer, like everything is normal, but it’s obvious that something has changed between him and the bartender.

And the bartender’s, like, “I feel like I should explain myself further.”

And the guy’s, like, “You don’t have to.”

But the bartender continues, in a hushed tone. And he’s, like, “I have what’s known as penile dysmorphic disorder. Basically, what that means is I fixate on my size. It’s not that I’m small down there. I’m actually within the normal range. Whenever I see it, though, I feel inadequate.”

And the guy feels sorry for him. So he’s, like, “Where do you think that comes from?”

And the bartender’s, like, “I don’t know. My dad and I had a tense relationship. He used to cheat on my mom, and I knew it was going on, but I didn’t tell her. I think it’s wrapped up in that somehow.”

And the guy’s, like, “Have you ever seen anyone about this?”

And the bartender’s, like, “Oh, yeah, I started seeing a therapist four years ago. But she says we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

So, at around this point, the twelve-inch pianist finishes up his sonata. And he walks over to the bar and climbs onto one of the stools. And he’s, like, “Listen, I couldn’t help but overhear the end of your conversation. I never told anyone this before, but my dad and I didn’t speak the last ten years of his life.”

And the bartender’s, like, “Tell me more about that.” And he pours the pianist a tiny glass of whiskey.

And the twelve-inch pianist is, like, “He was a total monster. Beat us all. Told me once I was an accident.”

And the bartender’s, like, “That’s horrible.”

And the twelve-inch pianist shrugs. And he’s, like, “You know what? I’m over it. He always said I wouldn’t amount to anything, because of my height? Well, now look at me. I’m a professional musician!”

And the pianist starts to laugh, but it’s a forced kind of laughter, and you can see the pain behind it. And then he’s, like, “When he was in the hospital, he had one of the nurses call me. I was going to go see him. Bought a plane ticket and everything. But before I could make it back to Tampa . . .”

And then he starts to cry. And he’s, like, “I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye to my old man.”

1974 Plymouth VoyagerAnd all of a sudden there’s this big cloud of smoke — and a beat-up Plymouth Voyager appears!

And the pianist is, like, “I said ‘old man,’ not ‘old van’!”

And everybody laughs. And the pianist is, like, “Your genie’s hard of hearing.”

And the bartender says, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”

And as soon as the words leave his lips he regrets them. Because the pianist is, like, “Oh, my God. You didn’t really want me.”

And the bartender’s, like, “No, it’s not like that.” You know, trying to backpedal.

And the pianist smiles ruefully and says, “Once an accident, always an accident.” And he drinks all of his whiskey.

And the bartender’s, like, “Brian, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

And the pianist smashes his whiskey glass against the wall and says, “Well, I didn’t mean that.”

And the bartender’s, like, “Whoa, calm down.”

And the pianist is, like, “Fuck you!” And he’s really drunk, because he’s only one foot tall and so his tolerance for alcohol is extremely low. And he’s, like, “Fuck you, asshole! Fuck you!”

And he starts throwing punches, but he’s too small to do any real damage, and eventually he just collapses in the bartender’s arms.

And suddenly he has this revelation. And he’s, like, “My God, I’m just like him. I’m just like him.” And he starts weeping.

And the bartender’s, like, “No, you’re not. You’re better than he was.”

And the pianist is, like, “That’s not true. I’m worthless!”

And the bartender grabs the pianist by the shoulders and says, “Damn it, Brian, listen to me! My life was hell before you entered it. Now I look forward to every day. You’re so talented and kind and you light up this whole bar. Hell, you light up my whole life. If I had a second wish, you know what it would be? It would be for you to realize how beautiful you are.”

And the bartender kisses the pianist on the lips.

So the guy, who’s been watching all this, is surprised, because he didn’t know the bartender was gay. It doesn’t bother him; it just catches him off guard, you know? So he goes to the bathroom, to give them a little privacy. And there’s the genie.

So the guy’s, like, “Hey, genie, you need to get your ears fixed.”

And the genie’s, like, “Who says they’re broken?” And he opens the door, revealing the happy couple, who are kissing and gaining strength from each other.

And the guy’s, like, “Well done.”

And then the genie says, “That bartender’s tiny penis is going to seem huge from the perspective of his one-foot-tall boyfriend.”

And the graphic nature of the comment kind of kills the moment.

And the genie’s, like, “I’m sorry. I should’ve left that part unsaid. I always do that. I take things too far.”

And the guy’s, like, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just grab a beer. It’s on me.”

 

Simon Rich*Rich was born and raised in New York City. He attended The Dalton School and then enrolled at Harvard University where he became president of the Harvard Lampoon. His older brother is novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich, and his parents are Gail Winston and New York Times author Frank Rich. His step-mother is New York Times reporter Alex Witchel. After graduating Harvard, Rich wrote for Saturday Night Live for four years where Rich and the staff of Saturday Night Live were nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Series three times in 2008, 2009, and 2010 and twice won the Writers Guild of America Award for Comedy/Variety Series in 2009 and 2010. Rich then departed to work as a staff writer for Pixar. In 2013 and 2014, Rich was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List. We hate him. In a good way.

 

Heaven

It is a matter of public record, Dear Reader, that I do not deal well with bereavement, or even, for that matter, with simple uncertainty.

Apparently I was alone with my dead father for a couple of hours after he collapsed with a heart attack when I was just two years old. I am told by people who should know that such experiences can leave traumatic psychological scars that therapy can help us understand, but not necessarily “cure”.

Such is life. In many other ways my time thus far has been rich and varied, and I am not going to rail against the less wonderful moments. Into each life a little rain will fall. It was ever thus, and my ledger has far more weight in the pluses column than the minuses, for which I give thanks.

But it is, nevertheless, the very nature of human existence that we are cursed as well as blessed by self-awareness. The remnant of my childhood sadness is that I seem acutely aware of the possibility of death, not just for me, but for those around me that I care about, and I am more anxious than I need to be as a result.

Yet such fear is surely not erroneous. Media Vita In Morte Sumus: in the midst of life we are in death, as the famous quotation that plays its part of the Latin funeral rite solemnly reminds us. Awareness of death is rational. It happens.

What matters for our peace of mind is how we deal with its ever-present imminence.

It was my birthday yesterday: nowadays, an event that feeds inexorably into my deepening contemplation that less of my life is ahead of me than is behind me, and that how I live and what I achieve with my life, and what I leave behind me as a legacy, is now a matter of some pressing concern.

Simon

Simon

I flicked open my emails expecting to enjoy the usual (and very welcome) crop of messages from the worldwide diaspora of friends and family who always so kindly send me a brief note on the day.

Instead, I saw a torrent of emails informing me that one of my oldest and dearest friends, Simon Titley, had been rushed to hospital having collapsed at a family lunch, that he has a massive and inoperable brain tumour, and not long to live. Worse, that he is currently suffering, with the dreadful combination of poor communication abilities and obvious fear at what is happening to him.

Simon was and for a while still is one of those individuals who enter our lives and fill it with things we wish we could say about ourselves.

He was hilariously funny. His humour ran the entire gamut of the things we call “funny”. As a consummately political animal his grasp of satire was complete and un-yieldingly courageous. He understood that to be effective satire must combine genuine wit with social insight, and time and again his wry, askance view of the universe infused his writing with piercingly accurate observations that changed the lives of others, in line with his fiercely held beliefs, all the while making them laugh uproariously.

“Words? He could almost make them talk”, as Roger McGough once memorably remarked about someone.

The same presence of mind infused his dialectical invective, so often seen in the pages of Liberator magazine, the radical street-sheet of which he was a collective owner and editor, which enlivened and informed the politics of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Liberal tradition especially, for 40 years. Of this, more in a moment.

He was also a consummate master of silly, scatalogical humour, searching it out in the byways and alleys of human existence and gleefully circulating it to his friends. With roguish good nature he thoroughly enjoyed “bottom jokes”, well aware of how ludicrously sensitive the British are to anything remotely to do with bodily excrescence or functions. He reveled in the laughter and embarrassment he unearthed, knowing full well that every silly gag was just one more brick in the wall of sniffy fussiness removed. Indeed, I still have a small plastic toilet of sweets he mailed me from one of his peripatetic travels around the Continent he loved so much, chortling no doubt as he popped it in the envelope, now many years ago. It will remain unopened.

Simon and co-conspirators Mark Smulian and Peter Johnson man the Liberator stall at a Party Assembly - for a generation it was a hotbed of ideas, humour and occasional insurrection. Simon is on the left.

Simon and co-conspirators Mark Smulian and Peter Johnson man the Liberator stall at a Party Assembly – for a generation it was a hotbed of gossip, ideas, humour and occasional insurrection. Simon is on the left.

In his serious writings, in Liberator and many other outlets, he was nothing more nor less than the most cerebral yet coherent and intensely relevant commentator that the Liberal side of politics has produced in my lifetime. A PR professional of some reputation, he could have devoted his life to simply piling up gold, yet he could never drag himself away from the pressing need to inform the body politic long enough to end up a mere careerist.

His was, above all, the polemic of personal responsibility, and he was as hard on himself as anyone. Where he saw cant and obfuscation instead of candour he exposed it consistently and ruthlessly. He continually advanced new and exciting ideas on how to construct a society where all were participants, where opportunity was available to all, and where the deadening hand of conservatism was lifted off the levers of power when it was serving no remaining purpose. He fought for innovation both within the party he loved and without, but always, especially, within it, infused with the passion of the ironed-on supporter, the pick and stick determination that is born of the deepest convictions.  One only has to pop the words “Simon Titley Lib Dem” into your preferred search engine to gain an insight into the breadth and depth of his influence.

With Simon gone, as another of my closest friends remarked yesterday, we shall simply have to learn to think for ourselves. I genuinely fear we will struggle to reach both his levels of perspicacity and expository skill, and the world will be a poorer and less hopeful place as a result. That he leaves us at a time when his beloved party is in an unprecedented state of internal flux and focus on its future direction is a bitterly cruel irony.

Yesterday, as I say, was my birthday. I am somewhat sidelined at the moment, as my daughter has galloping glandular fever, and we are yet to ascertain whether my wife and I are also going down with the annoyingly infectious and ubiquitous Epstein-Barr virus, or whether we are immune. The next seat to mine at the office has an expectant very-soon-to-be-father in it, and I am not taking any risk of spreading the bug there, so discretion is the better part of valour and I am working at home this week.

Thus, as I wasn’t chained to my desk, my family prevailed upon me to take a short drive to the nearby Yarra Valley for a couple of hours to both celebrate my birthday and lift my spirits. Which is how we came to be sat in a newly-opened chocolate factory, enjoying the delights of their highly inventive production line, and gazing over the patchwork of green, lilac and grey fields and trees fortified by an excellent coffee, observing the whirling clouds of sulphur-crested cockatoos perfectly reflected in the glass-still dams and lakes.

blackAs I sat there, I reflected on the side of Simon that was always the most accessible and, ultimately, memorable. His was a life that was lived joyously and with celebratory appreciation of all things gastronomic. Just up the road, he and I had enjoyed a memorable lunch at the De Bortoli winery some fifteen years previously (I realised the passage of time with some shock) and with a quiet smile I recalled how he had marveled at both the inventiveness of their menu and the unique, luscious quality of their “sticky” dessert wine, the “Black Noble”.

Unique. Like their fan.

Unique. Like their fan.

A true connoisseur of not just wine but beer and food – especially his much-beloved Lincolnshire sausages, about whose pork and sage recipe he could wax lyrical, and for which he typically launched a campaign for EU recognition of their special and unique status – and as many will attest a massive fry-up organised by Simon after a night on the tiles was an experience never forgotten – the Black Noble was unlike anything he had experienced to date in his rich and full life.

When the botrytised Semillon grapes are being harvested for the famous De Bortoli legend “Noble One”, a discrete parcel of fruit at about 20-22 baume is selected to produce the dessert wine’s intense and ripe botrytis flavours. Very little fermentation occurs before fortification with a neutral grape spirit, which is added to inhibit any further fermentation. Black Noble is then clarified, a touch of brandy added for further complexity before being transferred into used Noble One barriques. The winery suggest enjoying its astounding toffee, raisins and mandarin-peel complexity with Christmas pudding or sticky date pudding, or poured over vanilla ice cream.  Never slaves to convention, we sat on the balcony and toasted each other over a sideplate laden with a fine local blue cheese, and just gazed over the vineyards. Afterwards, he pressed the winemaker at the cellar door for more and more detail, before buying as many bottles as he could fit in the trunk of my car. “How are you going to get all those back to England?” I asked, concerned. “Oh, we’ll find a way,” he smiled.

“We’ll find a way” seemed such a Simon-like thing to say that I didn’t give it any more thought. When he left, he took a bottle or two with him, and left the rest secreted in our spare room for later discovery.

To understand the measure of the man, know that he once drove the length of France to pick up the right ingredients for a Christmas lunch he was cooking for my family, and various friends. In a world where a hundred celebrity chefs had not yet made cooking roast potatoes in duck fat a commonplace thing, he insisted it was the only possible medium in which to burnish the unusual species in which he had especially invested because of their world-beating crispness when par-boiled then roasted. And not just any duck fat. This particular duck fat.

Witness, also, as he whisks my ailing mother away into Paris for the longest of long lunches so our little troupe can enjoy a trip to Euro-Disney, creating a lifetime of memories for a tiny daughter who remembers to this day the frozen waterfall of the Disney castle. It was minus 4 degrees. Simon knew that my mother attending would have, of necessity, have led to our visit being curtailed, so he stepped into the breach. Over breakfast: “There’s this little place I know off the Champs Elysee, Betty,” he grinned. “Fancy a trip?”

My mother loved Simon and not just because he shared her adoration of chilled chardonnay and langoustines. He was “an old style gentleman”, she said. Yes. Yes, he was, indeed.

In a kinder universe, Simon would have been some Georgian grandee, dispensing largesse to the peasants with the same enthusiasm with which he consumed it. Or an avuncular and reforming Minister of the Crown, leaving yet a deeper mark on the lives of many.

As it is, he was what he was, and we are bereft. Our friend and brother is on a journey we can’t take with him, and we are suddenly all – again – more alone than we ever realised we could be. And yes, the pain will dull, given time, to be sure, but it is currently very intense. And it will never quite go away: there will always be a space. A gap. A hole. That only Simon can fill, that only Simon could fill, indeed, because the space in our lives he created was huge and unexpected and unparalleled and bright and blinding and warm and funny and above all ineffably kind and meaningful.

And sometimes, without warning, we will sense that gap, and weep silently inside ourselves.

Despite professing faith, and meaning it, I am never quite entirely sure whether we are reunited with those we lose along the way. I hope so. I would like to meet my Dad.

And I would like to share another thick, luscious pint of real ale with Simon, or an anis in a little bar somewhere in some heavenly Brussels.

They do that in Heaven, right? Please tell me they do. I do hope so.

Further reading:

http://liberator-magazine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/simon-titley-living-obituary.html

 

UPDATE

An operation to remove at least some of Simon’s brain tumour took place a few days after this blog was written offering him some respite, and the opportunity to say his goodbyes to those who loved him, and some time to come to terms with his predicament.

Simon Titley died peacefully on August 31st 2014, mourned by innumerable friends and his family, to all of whom we send our heartfelt condolences.

Wonderful Chinglish example

Posted: March 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

To Knox City in Melbourne’s outer east where, wandering around before the conference, your intrepid reporter spotted this in the window of the Dragon Boat restaurant.

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The “hassle and bustle” of Yum Cha? I don’t think we’ll be hustling to correct this happy error. In our experience, Yum Cha can indeed be a hassle, albeit a delicious one … “No, for the third time we don’t want the chicken’s feet, but can we puhlease get some more prawn dumplings?”

“Hassle and Bustle.” We may nick that.

Stephen "Yolly" Yolland:

           A heartfelt and well-sourced comment on a tragic death while
           working of a young film professional. Deserves to be read by anyone
           who ever works with or on a film crew – or who whoever watches a TV
           show or movie or advertisement, for that matter. Rest in Peace, Sarah.

Originally posted on matteringsofmind:

Something strange might happen at the Oscars this Sunday night. At some point during the evening, as the Hollywood glitterati are giddy on the excitement of the awards a sober moment will come. That is when the Academy will remind everyone of those who are no longer part of the cast, the famous actors who have died in the past year.

The Screen Academy have tried for years to stop the audience from applauding after each actors face appears oscarsbecause some get louder appreciation than others and it was turning into a kind of popularity contest. So now they have a big name singer who performs as the visual litany takes its course up on the big screen – with a huge round of applause at the end. The sober moment is short lived, there’s a lot to gallop through during the evening.

There is always some speculation about who…

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As the world bickers as to whether the depth, frequency, date of arrival, or peristence of the polar vortex over Canada and North America has been affected in any way by global warming/climate change, there’s little doubt that a cold world can also be a very pretty one.

These astonishing shots of a partially frozen Niagara falls were taken from the Ontario side of the falls. They show how some of the torrent of water has been changed, instead, to icicles.

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Meanwhile, I can report it is a balmy 31 degrees Celcius in Melbourne today, as it was yesterday, and getting hotter next week. Our swimming pool is clean and leaf free, surf’s up, the beaches are vast and inviting, and the beers are always cold, so if you can get a flight out of your frozen local airport, you know what you should do.

Otway waterfall

This waterfall is in the lovely Otway ranges, a couple of hours from Wellthisiswhatithink Central Control

OK, there’s been thousands of votes from Premier League fans, and here’s the prediction for who is going down this year … polling is now CLOSED.Reading 31.43%

Queens Park Rangers 31.14%

Sunderland 24.86%

Stoke 5.43%

Wigan 4.86%

Aston Villa 1.14%

Southampton 0.57%

Norwich 0.57%

Fulham 0%

West Ham 0%

Newcastle 0%

I must admit I am surprised because I think the Hammers are still up to their necks in it, possibly Newcastle too, but I also suppose if you HAVE to pick three they are not the MOST likely.

Anyway, a bit of fun, might repeat it in a little while!

Here’s a good list of all the winners at the Golden Globes with pictures. I can’t wait to see Lincoln when it comes out – always loved Daniel Day Lewis’ work, not to mention Game Change about the truly appalling former Governor of Alaska. Down here in the backwaters of the known universe we need to wait awhile for such joys, but they will be here soon enough.

http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/golden-globes-awards-winners-list/story-e6frfpmi-1226553541084

Jodie Foster accepts her lifetime achievement award

Jodie Foster accepts her lifetime achievement award

Jodie Foster was up for a lifetime achievement award, which seems a bit early given that she is only 50. Mind you, she started so young that it seems like she’s been around forever. I always loved Peter O’Toole’s response when turning down such an honour from the Academy Awards – “Tell them I am not dead yet.” Still, Jodie obviously felt it was valuable, so good on her.

I would just like to say that her speech, which I have seen called “rambling”  and “bizarre”, (which means, of course, it simply went over the heads of the entertainment hacks writing their reports), was, in this writer’s humble opinion, the most elegant and beautifully turned speech I have ever heard at an awards ceremony.

She completely stole the show, which is saying something, because it was a good show. In particular, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were inspired hosts, and to Poehler goes the award for by far the funniest line of the night – back announcing William Jefferson Clinton she asked the hagiographically excited audience, wide eyed, if they realised “that was Hilary Clinton’s husband?” Bang. That is comedic satire approaching genius.

Anyhow, Jodie Foster made a clever, witty and impassioned speech in praise of her industry, her friends (to whom she seems much more wedded and loyal than most “stars”) and to her own right to privacy, which I applaud.

Whether or not Ms Foster is a lesbian, a bisexual or straight is no-one’s business but hers unless she chooses to make it so. Her skewering of the obsessive cult of personality that has surrounded her for nearly all her life was apposite, and yet warm-hearted, witty and intelligent. Little wonder her directorial efforts have often garnered as much praise as her acting.

She seemed to float the idea that she was retiring from acting, although she later apparently denied it. I trust not. She is as compellingly watchable being funny as she is being angry or scared, as her performances always combine a certain awe-inspiring intensity of focus with a solid dash of humanity and humility.

Oh, and an honourable mention to Will Ferrell, too. He really is such a funny, funny guy.

What was your favourite moment from the evening?

Drug cheat or hero?

Wellthisiswhatithink says: The inevitable conclusion that will be drawn from this is that Lance Armstrong is admitting, per se, despite his continued denials, that he took drugs to boost performance.

As an avid follower of the Tour de France, my heart is heavy today.

He may, indeed, merely be tired of the fight with USADA. But USADA do not pursue athletes capriciously.

Whatever happens now, Armstrong’s legacy is surely tarnished, irreparably, for ever. Very sad.

JIM VERTUNO | Associated Press – 1 hour ago

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong said Thursday night he is finished fighting a barrage of drug charges from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, putting his unprecedented string of seven Tour de France titles at risk along with his legacy as one of the greatest cyclists in history.

The decision sets up a likely lifetime ban from the sport and the possibility that Armstrong will be stripped of his signature achievement — the extraordinary run of Tour titles he won from 1999-2005.

Armstrong, who retired last year, declined to enter arbitration — his last option — because he said he was weary of fighting accusations that have dogged him for years. He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests that he has passed as proof of his innocence.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, “Enough is enough.” For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. He called the USADA investigation an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”

“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999,” he said. “The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense.”

USADA will almost certainly treat Armstrong’s decision as an admission of guilt, and hang the label of drug cheat on an athlete who was a hero to thousands for overcoming life-threatening testicular cancer and for his foundation’s support for cancer research.

The agency can impose a lifetime ban and recommend Armstrong be stripped of his titles. That would put the question in the hands of the International Cycling Union, which has disputed USADA’s authority to pursue the investigation and Tour de France officials, who have had a prickly relationship with Armstrong over the years.

Armstrong insisted his decision is not an admission of drug use, but a refusal to enter an arbitration process he believes is improper and unfair to athletes facing charges.

“USADA cannot assert control of a professional international sport and attempt to strip my seven Tour de France titles,” he said. “I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours.”

USADA maintains that Armstrong has used banned substances as far back as 1996, including the blood-booster EPO and steroids as well as blood transfusions — all to boost his performance.

The 40-year-old Armstrong walked away from the sport in 2011 without being charged following a two-year federal criminal investigation into many of the same accusations he faces from USADA. The federal probe was closed in February, but USADA announced in June it had evidence Armstrong used banned substances and methods — and encouraged their use by teammates. The agency also said it had blood tests from 2009 and 2010 that were “fully consistent” with blood doping.

Included in USADA’s evidence were emails written by Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after a positive drug test. Landis’ emails to a USA Cycling official detailed allegations of a complex doping program on the team.

USADA also said it had 10 former Armstrong teammates ready to testify against him. Other than suggesting they include Landis and Tyler Hamilton, both of whom have admitted to doping offenses, the agency has refused to say who they are or specifically what they would say.

“There is zero physical evidence to support (the) outlandish and heinous claims. The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of (doping) controls I have passed with flying colors,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong sued USADA in Austin, where he lives, in an attempt to block the case and was supported by the UCI, the sport’s governing body. A judge threw out the case on Monday, siding with USADA despite questioning the agency’s pursuit of Armstrong in his retirement.

“USADA’s conduct raises serious questions about whether its real interest in charging Armstrong is to combat doping, or if it is acting according to less noble motives,” such as politics or publicity, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks wrote.

Now the ultra-competitive Armstrong has done something virtually unthinkable for him: He has quit before a fight is over.

“Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances. I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong could have pressed his innocence in USADA’s arbitration process, but the cyclist has said he believes most people have already made up their minds about whether he’s a fraud or a persecuted hero.

It’s a stunning move for an athlete who built his reputation on not only beating cancer, but forcing himself through grueling offseason workouts no one else could match, then crushing his rivals in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Although he had already been crowned a world champion and won individual stages at the Tour de France, Armstrong was still relatively unknown in the U.S. until he won the epic race for the first time in 1999. It was the ultimate comeback tale: When diagnosed with cancer, doctors had given him less than a 50 percent chance of survival before surgery and brutal cycles of chemotherapy saved his life.

Armstrong’s riveting victories, his work for cancer awareness and his gossip-page romances with rocker Sheryl Crow, fashion designer Tory Burch and actress Kate Hudson made him a figure who transcended sports.

His dominance of the Tour de France elevated the sport’s popularity in America to unprecedented levels. His story and success helped sell millions of the “Livestrong” plastic yellow wrist bracelets, and enabled him to enlist lawmakers and global policymakers to promote cancer awareness and research. His Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised nearly $500 million since its founding in 1997.

Created in 2000, USADA is recognized by Congress as the official anti-doping agency for Olympic sports in the United States. Its investigators joined U.S. agents during the federal probe, and USADA chief executive Travis Tygart had dismissed Armstrong’s lawsuit as an attempt at “concealing the truth.” He said the agency is motivated by one goal — exposing cheaters in sport.

Others close to Armstrong were caught up in the charges: Johan Bruyneel, the coach of Armstrong’s teams, and three members of the medical staff and a consultant were also charged. Bruyneel is taking his case to arbitration, while two medical team staffers and consulting doctor Michele Ferrari didn’t formally contest the charges and were issued lifetime ban by USADA. Ferrari later said he was innocent.

In a sport rife with cheaters, Armstrong has been under constant suspicion since the 1990s from those who refused to believe he was a clean rider winning cycling’s premier event against a field of doped-up competition.

He had tense public disputes with USADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, some former teammates and assistants and even Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France.

Through it all, Armstrong vigorously denied any and all hints, rumors and direct accusations he was cheating. He had the blazing personality, celebrity and personal wealth needed to fight back with legal and public relations battles to clear his name — and he did, time after time.

Armstrong won his first Tour at a time when doping scandals had rocked the race. He was leading the race when a trace amount of a banned anti-inflammatory corticosteroid was found in his urine; cycling officials said he was authorized to use a small amount of a cream to treat saddle sores.

After Armstrong’s second victory in 2000, French judicial officials investigated his Postal Service team for drug use. That investigation ended with no charges, but the allegations kept coming.

Armstrong was criticized for his relationship with Ferrari, who was banned by Italian authorities over doping charges in 2002. Former personal and team assistants accused Armstrong of having steroids in an apartment in Spain and disposing of syringes that were used for injections.

In 2004, a Dallas-based promotions company initially refused to pay him a $5 million bonus for winning his sixth Tour de France because it wanted to investigate allegations raised by media in Europe. Testimony in that case included former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy, saying Armstrong told doctors during his 1996 cancer treatments that he had taken a cornucopia of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

Two books published in Europe, “L.A. Confidential” and “L.A. Official,” also raised doping allegations and, in 2005, French magazine L’Equipe reported that retested urine samples from the 1999 Tour showed EPO use.

Armstrong fought every accusation with denials and, in some cases, lawsuits against the European media outlets that reported them.

But he showed signs that he was tiring of the never-ending questions. Armstrong retired (for the first time) in 2005 and almost immediately considered a comeback before deciding to stay on the sidelines, in part, because he didn’t want to keep answering doping questions.

“I’m sick of this,” Armstrong said in 2005. “Sitting here today, dealing with all this stuff again, knowing if I were to go back, there’s no way I could get a fair shake — on the roadside, in doping control, or the labs.”

But three years later, Armstrong was 36 and itching to ride again. He came back to finish third in the 2009 Tour de France.

Armstrong raced in the Tour again in 2010, under the cloud of the federal criminal investigation. Early last year, he quit the sport for good, but made a brief return as a triathlete until the USADA investigation shut him down.

During his sworn testimony in the dispute over the $5 million bonus, Armstrong said he wouldn’t take performance enhancing drugs because he had too much to lose.

“(The) faith of all the cancer survivors around the world. Everything I do off the bike would go away, too,” Armstrong said then. “And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that. It’s not about money for me. Everything. It’s also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased.”

This is what it’s meant to look like. Cross your fingers, Dear Reader

One of the things that really gets to me is when people die and they take their folk wisdom to Heaven with them, or into oblivion, depending on what you believe. (I don’t believe in Hell, but that’s another matter.)

My dear old Mum, whose birthday it would have been recently as I noted the other day, was a dab hand in the kitchen.

Provided the meal you were cooking had its genesis prior to the Second World War, she could cook it.

Better still, she knew all about meat, poultry, fish and more. She was a fish merchant’s daughter, and married into a trawling family, and was a sometime fishmonger’s wife – although she insisted on Dad being called a “Wholesale Fishmonger”, which he was, although they did have a small shop in Carbery Avenue in Bournemouth, too – I think she thought “Wholesale Fishmonger” sounded grander than “Shopkeeper”.

Anyway, Mum taught me a lot about cooking, and I have added knowledge over the years. But what I miss, now she’s gone, is being able to pick up the phone and say “So how do I do such-and-such again?” or “How do I choose the right cut of ….?” She would always know, cheerfully handing down her expertise in her delightful sing-song Welsh accent, which I can still hear in my head, when I try.

Today was one of those days. She-who-must-be-obeyed was rushing off, late, to her studio to make more glass, when we had the obligatory “So what are we having for dinner tonight then?” hallway conversation.

The week’s menu is never especially planned in our household, essentially because we lead peripatetic, busy lives, and people grab what they want depending on their schedule and how they feel. We do try to do better, though, really we do – every now and then we have what we call “a big shop”, which entails her indoors and I heading off to the supermarket full of lists and good intentions, meal plans in pocket, where we proceed to buy pretty much everything in sight.

What’s that? They’re going shopping again? Hope they get those pork and leek sausages, they’re my fave. Stay calm now. Look disinterested.

Invariably, though, half of it whizzes past its use by date faster than you can say “I reckon use by dates are a con to get us buying more”, and rather than risk self-inflicted dysentery or cholera it ends up being given to the dog, who apparently isn’t affected by food bacteria of any kind, and is also apparently evolutionarily equipped to eat the entire content of a fridge freezer over a couple of days without getting sick, should he need to. Or rather, should we need him to.

The dog eats better than we do. Well, the dog eats as we are supposed to, let’s put it that way.

So today, I grunted, trying to recall what we had invested in during the last big shop, and murmured, “I dunno, um, Chevapchichis? Chops? What does everyone want?”

It’s not everyone. I am advised that the fruit of my loins is heading into the City to do with her friends whatever 21 year olds do when their parents are not watching, and that it’s just the Leader of the Opposition and I for dinner this evening, and what’s more the free range chicken in the fridge is two days past it’s use-by date, and what did I think? Well, after a moment what I thought is bugger it, I shall cook the chicken even if it’s only two of us, cause it’s freezing bloody cold today and a roast chicken sounds just the go on a chilly winter’s eve, and anyway, it’s been in the fridge, so honestly it’s bound to be alright. Isn’t it? I mean, they always stick a day on that’s too early cause of being safe and not getting sued, and anyway I am sure it’s fine. Specially after I have roasted the life out of the bloody thing. So suitably mollified, wife sets off for the studio and I set off for the fridge.

At the fridge, though, I am plunged into indecision. The chicken looks alright. I know, I’ll ring Mum and ask. No, idiot, you can’t do that. OK, what would Mum have done? Smelled it. That’s right.

Unpack chicken and stick nose near it. Can’t smell a bloody thing, nose is all bunged up. Into bedroom, into nose with decongestant spray, back to kitchen, sniff, try again. Hmmm. Chicken smells like … raw chicken. But when is raw chicken a “Yup, all good, chuck it in the oven” smell, and when is it a “Give to the dog or throw it in the bin, but do not eat because salmonella is real not an urban myth” smell?

To tell the truth, I have always disliked the smell of raw meat. I have never dared try a steak tartare for that reason. So I give up using the olfactory nerves and wash my hands and take to poking it, uncertainly. I remember something Mum said about the flesh bouncing back if it’s fresh, or maybe the flesh bounces back if it’s the chicken equivalent of primordial soup. But she can’t tell me which it is any more, so after a few minutes of inconsequential worrying, and a large vodka, I just decide to cook the shit out of it and hope for the best. Peeling some spuds is surprisingly soothing, as is a second vodka.

I turn the uselessly slow and inaccurate oven onto its highest setting, with is somewhere roughly around “warm summer’s day in the Yukon” and turn to start loading it up.

But wait! Stuffing!

One simply cannot cook roast chicken without stuffing. It would be like serving roast beef without Yorkshire pudding, or roast lamb without mint jelly. Eating a peanut butter sandwich without jelly. (Well, actually that last one is quite a good idea, unless you’re an American, and their cuisine is simply peculiar.) Biscuits and milk. Beer and … well insert any bad-for-you-snack you like in here. Hamburgers and french fries.

A roast chicken just isn’t a roast chicken till it’s been stuffed. But never fear, Dear Reader, because there’s always a packet or two of Sage & Onion stuffing or perhaps Parsley & Thyme in the pantry, pending just such an emergency.

Except there isn’t, of course.

So now I have a raw chicken, a heating up oven, impeccably peeled potatoes. And no stuffing. And the clock is ticking.

Stuffing is essentially breadcrumbs of course. I remember the Trouble ‘n Strife blathering something the other day about “I need to use up all those breadcrumbs in the freezer, we need to have roast chicken soon”.  Saved! But on rushing to the freezer, it turns out “all those breadcrumbs” is actually about half a cup in an old Chinese takeaway container. Undaunted, I start feverishly searching for day old bread to make some more breadcrumbs. But instead of finding, as one usually would, about four half-eaten loaves of bread of various kinds secreted around the kitchen, all I can turn up is one perfectly fresh white loaf.

“Can’t make breadcrumbs with fresh bread” I hear my mother carolling from Heaven. “I know, I know”  I grimace, and get out the old-fashioned grater nevertheless and start furiously rubbing it with soft, squishy white slices of Baker’s Delight Low GI. After a few minutes, having taken the skin off a couple of fingers and successfully having turned the slices of bread into one glutinous, impenetrable ball of dough with no resemblance to breadcrumbs whatsoever, I resort to tearing it to pieces manually. That works well. Somewhere, legions of dead relatives chuckle to themselves.

So. Breadcrumbs. Now what?

Leek, mushroom and bacon stuffing – now why didn’t I think of that?

The silence is deafening. I think as calmly as I can while chopping a couple of onions as finely as possible, just like the TV chefs do, except when I turn the onion round to chop in the other direction half of it always skitters off the chopping board, across the benchtop, and down to the dog’s waiting nose, where he lazily opens half of one eye, and ignores it, knowing that a tube of Liverwurst and a pound and a half of only vaguely green chuck steak is probably coming his way later if he doesn’t fill up on discarded onion first.

Breadcrumbs, onions, and …. herbs! Yes, herbs! Then you just bind it all up with some water, and shove it all up the chicken’s arse. Except when I turn to the two hundred and seventy three ex coffee jars which the lady owner of the property has rigorously scrubbed clean so that they can be filled with pulses, dried fruits, Bi-carbonate of soda (what is that for?) and, of course, every kind of herb you can possibly imagine, Dear Reader, it rapidly becomes clear that there is nothing my limited pre-war mind can recognise – no Sage, no Thyme, just a lot of other strange things which I have no idea what they smell like let alone taste like.

Clearly the recent ‘big shop’ expeditions skipped the herb aisle. The hands crawl steadily round the clock as I dance in frustration, daring me to add a pinch of Marjoram, a sprinkling of Cumin, and something brown off which the sticky-taped label has fallen, but which looks and smells alarmingly like dried horse droppings, and for all I know is. I know it shouldn’t have a bay leaf. In the end, into the stuffing mixture goes some Tarragon, because I am sure I remember a recipe for Chicken and Tarragon from somewhere, although I swear I have never cooked with Tarragon before, and some Oregano, because I like it, and some dried Parsley. Pepper and salt to taste. Whoever heard of a chicken stuffing like this?

Cautiously, I give it a smell. And it smells pretty good, actually. Sort of citrusy, somehow, and fresh and interesting. Emboldened, I add the zest of a half a lemon. I am not quite sure why I do this, except when you watch the TV chefs they always “add the zest of half a lemon”, and I’ve never done it before, and if I am ever going to, tonight is the night, right?

And you know what? It smells really good now. And lemon goes with Chicken, as any Chinese person can tell you. So I pop the whole lot into the Chicken, and the Chicken into the oven, and suddenly the whole house is filled with an impenetrable, cloying and rather wonderful miasma of deliciousness, wafting its way into every nook and cranny.

And that’s when I realised that even though Mum has moved on, she had left behind in me something even more valuable than a mental book of recipes, something even more valuable that knowing how to fillet a Dover Sole successfully.

She imbued in me a joy of cooking, the sort of joyous, uninhibited cooking that celebrates life with a dash of this, a slosh of the other, and a whim and a prayer of that. Not to mention a belief that I can solve problems for myself, with just a little application. And some courage. Of course I could have just consulted the internet. But you know what? Sometimes that just seems like cheating.

As I write this, the meal is almost cooked, the night draws in, lowering and menacing, but I am warm in here, thank the good Lord, and soon my lady wife will come through the door, and predictably exclaim “That smells good!” as she always would, whether or not it did. I am going to open a nice Chardonnay to go with the chicken, and hang the expense.

And the damn dog isn’t getting any. So there.

If you’re not feeling as experimental as me, here’s the best recipe I found on stuffing after I made my own. Sausagemeat and roast chestnuts feature in this one. Yum. Maybe next week. This one’s for a turkey, I guess just make less for a chicken.

Sausagemeat stuffing

  1. 75g unsalted butter
  2. 2 tbsp olive oil
  3. 1 onion, finely chopped
  4. 100g fresh white breadcrumbs
  5. 600g sausagemeat
  6. 600g pork mince
  7. Large handful fresh flatleaf parsley, chopped
  8. Small handful fresh sage leaves, chopped
  9. 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  10. 1 large free-range egg

Chestnuts

  1. 50g unsalted butter
  2. 200g peeled and cooked chestnuts (in the UK choose Waitrose fresh, peeled and frozen chestnuts, defrosted)
  3. 100ml fresh turkey or chicken stock
  4. Handful fresh flatleaf parsley, chopped

Method

  1. Make the stuffing first. Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the onion until soft. Add the breadcrumbs, fry until golden, then leave to cool. In a large bowl, mix together the sausagemeat and pork. Add the breadcrumb mix to the sausagemeat with the remaining ingredients. Season and set aside.
  2. For the chestnuts, melt the butter in a frying pan over a medium heat and, when foaming, add the chestnuts and fry for 5 minutes. Add the stock and cook until it’s almost all absorbed. Season, add the parsley and set aside.
  3. Preheat the oven. Put the turkey in a big roasting tin (keeping the giblets for stock, if you like). Stuff a quarter of the stuffing into the neck end of the turkey (save the rest for the stuffing-filled red onions recipe, and stuffing balls for Boxing Day) and secure the skin with a skewer. Place the chestnuts in the cavity too.
  4. Cook. Eat.

(Okay, I added number 4.)

 

Just checkout this story, if you would.

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_WRONGLY_CONVICTED_CRIMINALS?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2012-05-21-00-10-51

Shocking. OK, let’s be glad these people were freed, but one has to ask. How many more? How many more are killed or incarcerated when they’ve done nothing wrong?

The American legal system is a disgrace. Yes, the same is true in many other jurisdictions, including Britain and Australia, but in America this casual attitude to sentencing is allied to some of the most insane “mandatory” sentencing regimes around.

For example, The Age in Melbourne has now caught up with the outrage over one such case which was first reported in Well This Is What I Think some weeks ago: this link also includes a petition you can sign to free the woman concerned … http://wp.me/p1LY0z-xZ.

People often ask me why I bash on about America so much. The answer is simple. It is the greatest experiment in particpatory democracy in the history of our species and we all need it to succeed. So: I hold them to a higher standard.  It’s that simple.

Hello world!

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Hello everyone, and welcome to “Well, This Is What I Think”.

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