Wednesday, March 29, 2006

atanarjuat - the fast runner

'Getting top performance from an Inuit cast and crew required creating an Inuit 'culture of production' -- with good humour, no fear, a lot of patience and a spirit of flexible cooperation and teamwork rather than military-style control. Inuit have learned through the millennia that people cannot overpower reality. Our objective was not to impose southern filmmaking conventions on our unique story, but to let the story shape the filmmaking process in an Inuit way.'
(Zac Kunuk - Director)

we seem to be living in the midst of a global plague of lists. top ten tips infest the silly pages and the daytime schedules - kissing, teeth-whitening, getting seat upgrades on planes - wherever you look, whatever you're doing, there's someone bursting to advise you on how to do it better, faster, cheaper. by far the most irksome, though, are these top 100 lists. whenever I pay attention (increasingly rarely - apart from Neighbours, of course) to the box in the corner, there seems to be yet another meejah proto-sleb slithering onto the bottom rung of the sleb ladder by hosting yet another cheapskate piece of programming called the one hundred best .... songs, cereals, serial killers, septicemia victims, sump-oil addicts, cervixes .... it just seems to go on and on, hyperbole humping hyperbole until finally - desperate drum-roll - they come to the final superlative - the best!!!! voted by you!!!!! the public!!!!! which is always something by the beatles.

even if it's cereals.

which makes it just a teeny bit embarassing to have to announce that, actually ( meekly raises own stumpy little hoof), I've just watched the finest movie I've ever seen in my entire life.

whenever I've been asked in the past, my stock response, for want of having to go yet again through all that tedious conditional stuff about genres and defining classics and developing tastes and depending on this that or the other, has been to say Tarkovsky's 'Mirror', and leave it at that. but, from today onwards - move over Anzdrey - I have to practice yet another difficult name and title - Zac Kunuk's Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner.

I was little prepared for what this turned out to be, apart from having glanced at a review which had made it sound sufficiently interesting to bother adding to the ScreenSelect list. the fact of its having been released all of four years ago and won a clutch of prestigious international prizes had passed me by completely. these things happen when you take your eye off the ball. I knew it was going to be beautifully crafted and interesting, but I was totally unprepared for an experience which, if you'd told me a day earlier, I'd have said was impossible: the being flung back, as a spectator in the comfort of my own living room, into something very closely resembling that intensely visceral, pre-literate experience of what dear old Aristotle called catharsis.

in the Hellenic dramas, catharsis meant an audience at a tragedy becoming so closely involved in the acted-out experiences of people whose lives are transformed by forces of destiny directly attributable to divine interference that a form of spiritual cleansing and recharging takes place - a rehab for the soul involving purging and renewal through identification. the ancient Greek katharsis has the same root as the word for menstruation. when Aristotle used it to describe the proper objective of the dramatic tragedy he was employing the word in a uniquely affirmative sense that might, incidentally, give pause to those whose view of older civilisations sees patriarchy only as a form of oppression, but that's by the by.

the need for the dramatic experience per se hasn't changed much with time, although the theatre has, and it's been a very long time indeed since I felt anything like what I'm talking about here in the arena of the modern theatre. which just makes it all the more remarkable that this movie should ring that bell so resoundingly, being, as it is, a first major outing for the tiny independent Inuit production company (actually the only Inuit production company), Isuma, filmed entirely on location in the Canadian Arctic using a cast of mostly amateurs, with the dialogue exclusively in Inuktitut. thank heavens for subtitles, although I suspect that the sound of this language alone, one of the strangest I've ever heard, is a significant contributor to the overall effect.

the film is based on an ancient Inuit legend - a simple story about love and jealousy, murder and revenge, atonement and forgiveness, that might have been lifted from the epic canon of any culture at any time. without revealing too much - the less you know about what happens the better - it's safe to say that it contains one of the most astonishing screen chases ever - the protagonist naked and barefoot, running across the melting sea-ice, where the coldest of deaths is one mistake away. it makes the car chase in Bullitt seem like a stately procession in a padded bumper-car.

but that accounts for only five minutes of a three-hour movie which passes by unbelievably fast - astounding that three hours can fly by like that - as if Kunuk himself had temporarily assumed the time-bending mantle of one of the disturbing shamans who play a small but inordinately significant part, negotiating the uneasy relationship between the living and the spirits in this icy world where starvation is an invisible but omnipresent family member, always imminent, and kept at bay only by sets of survival skills that truly beggar belief.

if this were just a docudrama - a kind of latter-day Nanook of the North - it would probably have won anthropological and ethnological prizes for its realism alone: a hundred-times better funded wardrobe and properties department would have been pushed to achieve these sorts of levels of authenticity: from the sinew-belted sealskin longjohns to the polished-bone sunglasses, it all rings resoundingly true, and lacks only the smells (which, clearly, in a sweaty igloo stuffed with the farting and belching bodies of too many randy young men, are mind-bogglingly awful) to complete the picture of life lived as if on another planet entirely.

and the sounds! the crunch of mukluks (or are they kamiks?) in snow, the wind on the tundra, the swish of spit-polished caribou bone sledge-runners on ice, the crunch of fist on cheekbone, the howling of the dogs, the crunch of ice-block laid on ice-block to construct those extraordinary domed homes.

but this isn't an anthropological exercise; however lovely the people (who smile like angels) and however beautiful the landscape, this movie is not about - or only tangentially about - their different kinds of beauty. Kunuk's movie is a hair-raising accomplishment - the enactment of a legendary tale that is so immediate and compelling that, until you stop to think about it (later, when the movie's done what it has to do) you really have no clear idea when it is supposed to have taken place - not now, obviously, because there's no snowmobiles or satellite dishes, but, until you realise that there's no use of metals at all - something that was unavailable to the Inuit until the Europeans arrived in the seventeenth century - it might as well be happening anytime in the last thousand years, up to and including yesterday. the point being that, unlike countless movies that have authentically recreated the appearance of a particular time in order to tell a story, or countless theatre productions which have translated the classics into a different time in order, supposedly, to refresh their impact, Atanarjuat succeeds somehow in melding the timely with the timeless in a totally artful, but seemingly artless way, telling the story exactly as it comes - true to fifty generations of oral tellings-on, whilst simultaneously making it seem as though it is happening right here, right now, and succeeds, what's more, in fusing the epic concerns - of morality, of justice, of the proper application of power and responsibility - and the human concerns - of love, friendship, family duties, work and pleasure - into one seamless, magical garment that favours neither but exalts both.

Atanarjuat is a great artwork in that it totally transcends its immediate concerns, illuminating areas of understanding and empathy that can only be illuminated by great works of art, and which are as needful of illumination now - probably more so now - as when the first artists struck the first flints of artistic illumination. it is our experiences of such artworks that provide, aside from those self-constructed time-markers composed of our own memories and experiences, the most important milestones: markers in the timeline of the experience of mankind that synchronise, momentarily, with our own, and confirm our sense of belonging, of being on the right path, of being, actually, in the right time.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Leslie Walter Roylance 22nd May 1916 - 15th March 2006

As you probably know, Dad was born in Gorton, in east Manchester, in May 1916. He was the eldest of four, having two younger brothers and a sister. Sadly, Godfrey and Raymond predeceased him, although his sister, Molly, who caused something of a stir in the family when she married a missionary and sailed off to Papua New Guinea, is still very much alive and kicking down in Australia, and has just announced that she's planning a visit this summer.

When Dad was born, a mere eight years had elapsed since the first man-powered flight by Wilbur Wright at Kittyhawk. Claude Monet was painting his famous 'Water Lilies' and cementing the reputation of the Impressionists in art history forever, and the composer Gustav Holst was completing his suite, 'The Planets'. Overshadowing everything at that time, of course, was the terrible conflict of the First World War, with the Battle of the Somme only two months away, although the poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were forging a famous friendship on the Western Front, and writing the poems which were possibly the only good things to arise from that conflict, and Lawrence of Arabia was charging about on a camel meeting Omar Shariff on the Mesopotamian Front.

Dad was an almost exact contemporary of Len Hutton, a cricketing hero not only of his but of mine as well. He also very nearly shared a birthday with Gregory Peck, Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable, Yehudi Menuhin, Margaret Lockwood, and Roald Dahl, although if any of these people had anything at all in common apart from a coincidence of birth, I've failed to identify it. Perhaps they all liked ice-cream and mum's strawberry trifle, too.

I have very clear memories of that house in Oakfield Grove where Dad was born and brought up. It was at the bottom of a sloping Victorian terrace and on the edge of a park. Dad's upbringing was obviously strict but generous: my grandmother was a shadowy intimidating matriarch who smelt of mothballs - she died when I was seven or eight. But I used occasionally to call in at Grandad's on my way home from school. We played dominoes and I was allowed to light his cigarettes. He smoked Park Drive and occasionally Capstan, I think, and also had a Rizla rolling machine that I assumed worked by magic. I bought a copy of Roget's Thesaurus with the book-token he gave me on my thirteenth birthday, two months before he died. I still use it.

During my early childhood, Dad was a lay preacher at the local Baptist Church. I found nothing exceptional about this - I assumed, as children do, that that was what Dads did on Sundays, just as they played cricket and mended bikes on Saturdays and went to work during the week, and it wasn't until years later that I realised how exceptional this was amongst Dads, and furthermore, what a fine writer he was and a truly inspiring speaker.

This talent came to a late and glorious secular flowering when, after retiring from the bank, he embarked on a further career as a sometime lecturer, giving talks on his speciality of probate law. Although he finally had to give that up a few years ago as his failing sight prevented him from driving, I know that he got great pleasure from giving those talks, sharing the benefits of his experience with large numbers of people up and down the country. He was as witty as he was erudite, succeeding in making a talk about the amendments to the Inheritance Act of 1938 and the Law of Comorientes seem as much fun as an evening in with Morecambe and Wise.

There's no law, fortunately, that says fathers have to be repositories of homespun wisdom and advice. I say fortunately, because, if there were, I'd be a major transgressor. Either that, or I've inherited, as well as a host of fairly useful things like knowing instinctively how to reverse park and change a plug, the supremely sensible instinct as to when to hold your tongue. This might not be true for Nigel and Yvonne, but it was certainly the case for me - Dad recognised very early on that if he were to try giving me advice, I'd more than likely do the exact opposite out of sheer bloody-mindedness. So I don't, as some people seem to do, have many memories of his ever actually advising me to do anything.

Apart from the business of the little-known Denton West End Primary School playground wars of '54 - I was seven - when he took me aside one evening - he must have got wind of something going on - and said to me that if - he stressed the 'if' , because this was coming from one of the most pacific men I've ever met - if I were ever to find myself needing to fight someone, I should always remember one thing. My breath was truly bated. I assumed he was about to initiate me into some arcane martial arts secret that would have my enemy, David Winston, begging for mercy within seconds of my applying it. It was all about a girl, of course. Susan Haggas, of fond memory. If, he said, this were ever to happen, just remember one thing: don't keep your thumbs on the inside of your fists.

Which, if you think about it, is probably the most useless piece of advice any father ever gave to a son. I mean, what's that about?

Anyway, in the resultant melée, not only did I get my nose bloodied, but I got so confused that I almost dislocated both of my thumbs. Total triumph of David Winston. Except that, to the utter confusion of both of us, I got the girl. But that's women for you.

Tne only other piece of advice I can remember him giving was fairly obvious really, coming from someone whose working life was bound up with untangling the terrible messes people leave to their successors by dying intestate. Almost as soon as I was old enough to sign a legal document , he advised me to make a will. Sound advice. And, to give credit where credit's due, he's been banging on about it ever since. Have you made a will yet? Not yet, Dad. You ought to, you know. I know, Dad, you've been telling me that since 1968. So when are you going to?
Alright then.
Alright then.
You won't, will you?
I will, Dad.
Will you?
I will.

In common with most people of his generation, Dad's capabilities extended into areas that would put most of my generation to shame: to us, multi-tasking is just a computer buzzword - Dad embodied it.
His career had made him an expert in probate law, although he was well-versed in general legal principles from the solicitor's apprenticeship he had undertaken before deciding to enter the world of banking.
Aside from the expertise he brought to his work, however, he was more than capable, it seemed, of undertaking any of the practical tasks associated with running a household: from concrete-laying to shoe-mending, furniture-repairs to glazing, he seemed to be able to put his hand to anything, as well as playing a mean organ, having a beautiful calligraphic hand, and playing a ruthless game of scrabble.

He was generous to a fault, infinitely patient, scrupulously honest, and unburdened, it seemed, with an ounce of selfishness beyond that required of individual autonomy: you'd almost have to hold a gun to his head in order to get him to admit that, yes, he really wouldn't mind if you offered him that last chocolate truffle.

As is often the case in families, most of my memories of him are connected with family events, and very happy memories they are indeed, but, quite recently, when I was visiting Manchester with one of my own sons, we were walking down Moseley Street so that I could show him the bank where his grandad had worked for most of his life, the Head Office of what used to be William Deacons, long-since metamorphosed into something else in that strange world of corporate evolution, and, as we passed those imposing entrance doors, I suddenly remembered a meal we had shared together, just the two of us, more than fifty years ago. For some reason I don't recall, Mum had dropped me off at the bank, and Dad had shown me around: I was completely overawed, of course, by what seemed to me to be a kind of palace - vast halls, echoing marble floors, dark wooden panelling, ornate light-fittings, and people talking in hushed whispers about very important things. I was introduced to some of his colleagues, and felt very proud to be associated with this man whose life here - quite separate from our home in Denton - had a whole set of meanings which were quite indecipherable to a child of eight or nine, but who was clearly liked and respected by a bewildering number of men and women who were complete strangers to me. Then he took me down to the staff canteen, and there we sat at a table, just the two of us, and ate lunch. I don't recall anything that was said. That wasn't important. I clearly recall what we ate, however: ox-tail soup, roast beef, carrots and mash with gravy, and apple pie and custard. And there we were, just the two of us, me and my Dad, and me glowing, my heart overflowing with pleasure and pride and love.

Parenting is a catalogue of firsts: first gurgle, first smile, first tooth, first step. What gradually creeps up on us as time passes, however, is a corresponding catalogue of lasts, most of which pass by unnoticed: the last broken night, the last nappy-change, the last piggy-back, the last bed-time story. And, little by little, the list of lasts inevitably begins to overtake the list of firsts, until, one day, there's this final set of last things to remember: the last time we ate together, the last time we shared a joke together, the last time we spoke, the last time we embraced.

The sorrow of Dad's passing is great, but I know that time will eventually heal that sorrow and replace it with an ongoing remembrance of his life, an exemplary life, full of kindness, generosity, and laughter, a life which, in the midst of our mourning, we should celebrate, with hearts overflowing with pleasure and pride and love.

Friday, March 17, 2006

the creatives

it's normal to talk about this thing or that thing as being a 'work of art' when, in fact, it's just a pleasing construction: I've used it myself most recently with reference to someone's notebook, a salad, and a haircut.

so why do my hackles rise every time I hear someone talk about a TV commercial as a work of art?

for the simple reason that my own moral universe is predicated on the search for truth, which is a non-negotiable phenomenon, and the advertising industry is entirely about lying - which is not; and, more and more, I get the feeling that there are people out there - especially in the advertising industry - who really believe that some adverts are 'works of art' because they have failed to absorb the catastrophic social consequences of getting confused about this.

so they cruise around, these pampered agency hacks, on some convenient Panamanian-flagged yacht that's completely adrift from any recognisably responsible moral anchoring point, beholden to no form of compliance other than the needs of the client, and, having devoted the entirety of their creative energies to persuading us to purchase something that is utterly superfluous to our needs, compound that impertinence by trying to convince us that the manner in which they are doing it is somehow analogous to the work that an artist does.

bollocks, I say.

and yet again, bollocks.

there isn't an ad in existence that isn't a lie - no brand is the best, all products are subject to a process of market discrimination, our identities are not definitively endorsed by what we consume, Orlay will not stop time and recover lost youth. this doesn't really need saying, does it? if we truly believe that we need this thing rather than that thing merely because it bears a Sony rather than a Samsung logo, we are rightly condemned to spending the rest of our days in the peer-pressure infantilised, arrested-development state of a twelve-year-old.

these so-called 'creatives' of the industry are the evil spawn of a treacherous education system that teases creativity out of our children from the kindergarten onwards only to hijack it finally by trawling the major art colleges for potential artists who are willing to trade their souls for the astonishingly disproportionate rewards of being a 'creative.' so successful has this process become that they don't even have to do any pimping - by the time the struggling young student has arrived at the hallowed doors of Central St Martins or wherever, they've already been absorbed into the bowels of a system that, having industrialised art a long time ago, regards it as just another commodity, and the artist simply as a supplier of creative ideas.

I've yet to see a supposedly original advertising idea that hasn't been purloined from another artist, beit a classical or a contemporary one. the world of low-budget independent film - as vital a forum of genuine artistry as you can hope to find anywhere - is a favourite quarry, shamelessly strip-mined and repackaged as imagery devoid of context, but the entirety of the art world is fair game to these shameless shysters. Vivaldi's Four Seasons used to be a wonderful piece of music. now it's impossible to hear it - especially Spring - devoid of its association with a dozen kitsch, Tuscan-themed commercials for anything from holiday villas to toilet paper.

an image-junkie myself, I'm as susceptible as the next man to the lure of creative brilliance, and subscribe to the suspicion that there's growing to be more creative substance in the commercials than in the programmes they bracket, but as long as that substance is disengaged from any function more necessary than urging distinction between two or more identical brands of beer or jeans or mobile phones, I'll pass, thank you, on greeting them as works of art. I'll also continue a personal scoffing campaign at the toadying meejah-led hagiography of the ludicrously overpaid directors and lackeys of these agencies. as if having supervised a globally successful campaign to persuade people to buy one brand of deodorant rather than another were somehow a laudable thing, rather than a mildly contemptible and totally inexplicable waste of time and resources.

there is, of course, the possibility that I'm completely wrong, and that, in our effectively secular society, whose success is largely dependent on the fabulous profits to be made from waste and excess, 'truth' should be redefined as 'that which confirms our sense of purpose', which, almost by stealth, has acquired the tacit rider 'as consumers'. in such a society, the true purpose of art is to illuminate this truth, or at least to explore the boundaries of choice that contain it, and the ads, since by definition they fulfill this function, are therefore art.

in such a culture, the advertising industry has come to usurp the place formerly occupied by the reactionary establishments of the academy, and in such a case, when art's subversive potential has itself been subverted to such a reactionary cause, the only choice the true (!) artist has left is to withdraw from the field entirely, to refuse either to participate or to negotiate, and to engage only in such activities as could not under any circumstances be defined as art.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

all flesh is grass

it’s a funny thing, food. at one extreme, it’s just something to fill our stomachs when we feel hungry, at the other, it’s an art form – close to a religion – with its high and low forms, its galleries and temples, its priests, its acolytes, and its zealots.

there can’t be many people who discover the pleasures of cooking who don’t realise, eventually, that the bibles were written in a different time and a different place (and, more often than not, in a different language), when food preparation was a full-time supervisory activity, the assumption of small armies of assistance was automatic, and the idea of washing-up as you went along absurdly quaint, if not faintly insulting. it’s fun, certainly, and certainly impressive when dished out, to follow the recipe for cochon de lait rôti au four to the letter, but you’ve really got to love your guests a helluva lot to do that sort of thing on a regular basis.

for diurnal purposes, most of us stick to a few old favourites that get rotated until someone says ogod it’s Thursday isn’t it looking down at their plate of pasta and you realise it’s time to change the rotation.

then there’s the meat question.

ecologically, there’s one overwhelmingly convincing reason why we should all become vegetarians: of the world’s major protein sources, the humble soybean makes the most efficient use of land, at 356lb per acre, whereas beef, the favoured protein source of the industrial west, at 20lb per acre, contributes the least. this ratio of relative productivity per cultivar is heavily weighted, throughout the food chain, in favour of the grains and pulses and against the animals. however, by much the same process of cultural carelessness that refuses to accept that an oil economy is a doomed economy in the long-term, hell will freeze over before we happy chomping carnivores accept that a carnivorous diet is unsustainable in the long-term, and besides, tofu compared with bacon? it just doesn’t cut it.

the most efficient use of the sea is something else, with the overfishing of many of the world’s traditional fishing beds having resulted in a seriously alarming number of conservation-driven moratoria on the taking of certain once-common species such as cod. by much the same token as the tofu-bacon analogy, though, I don’t see much future in any attempts to educate us in the nutritional advantages of algae and seaweed over and above those of salmon and lemon sole.

we’re such pussies about eating flesh. either you feel that it’s acceptable to kill an animal in order to eat its flesh – or, more precisely, its muscle - or you don’t, and, if you do, and, at the same time, you consider yourself someone who likes to discriminate between good food and bad food, ie whose taste extends beyond salt and sugar - the fast and the processed and the packaged - you have, at some point in your life (because the person who considers themselves to be a gourmet tends also to be the sort of person who enjoys travelling to those foreign parts where the exotic cuisine is the native cuisine) to confront your cultural prejudices.

the truth is that very few French people (in my experience) choose to eat snails and frogs legs – they leave that to the tourists. considerably more Chinese people, however, eat dogs, lots of Mongolians eat horses, many Japanese eat whales, and the inhabitants of equatorial cities like Manaus like to eat monkeys. to most anglo-saxon christians, of course, this is a partial definition of barbarity (just as our own culture of beef- and pork-eating puts us beyond the pale to an Indian hindu or muslim) because dogs are pets, horses are what wealthy idiots breed and bet on and their idiot spoilt daughters ride and masturbate on, and monkeys are – well – cute. (the whale issue is probably the most divisive amongst Europeans because of the cultural argument – another time perhaps.)

of the four-legged beasts, I have eaten, in my time, the cow, the sheep, the goat, the horse, the pig, the hare, the rabbit, and the deer; of the fowl, I have eaten the chicken, the turkey, the goose, the duck, the pheasant, the quail, the grouse, the woodcock, the wood-pigeon, and the guinea-fowl; of the sea-water fish, the cod, the haddock, the skate, the plaice, the lemon sole, the halibut, the flounder, the salmon, the tuna, the john dory, the swordfish, the herring, the mackerel, the whitebait, the whiting, the turbot, the sardine, the pilchard, the anchovy, the shark, the monkfish, the red snapper, the sea bass, and the skate; of the freshwater, the trout, the pike, and the eel; of the crustacea, the crab, the lobster, the crayfish, the shrimp, and the prawn; of the molluscae, the mussel, the oyster, the clam, the scallop, and the snail; of the cephalopods, the octopus and the squid; and of the amphibians, only the frog (once).

that’s quite a menagerie of creatures destined to have been absorbed into my own organism, to be converted into my mass, my energy. I salute them all, and cherish the memories of those meals – at least one memorable one to each species – which they provided. I regret, on the other hand, every mouthful of sustenance stolen from the miserable lives of those battery chickens and veal-calves whose flesh I have, either through ignorance or misguided choice, consumed, and wonder sometimes, when I consider the vast quantity of blood spilt in order that I might live, whether I have been deserving of that.

once a species such as our own has arrived at the very top of the evolutionary tree, has evolved far beyond the point of being driven by the need to survive only, has discovered the myriad permutations of pleasure in general and that derived from the deliciously clever taste-buds in our deliciously clever tongues in particular, and, having discovered fire, is no longer obliged to chew and swallow the raw – beit root, leaf, grain, or flesh – this omnivorous capability of ours is duty-bound (to the memory of our fire-bearing progenitors, if no-one else) to be explored to the limit, alongside that other remarkable evolved facility – the ability to discriminate at a moral as well as a tactile level.

if what we eat is what we are, why don’t we eat each other?

from a nutritional perspective, there’s nothing wrong with eating human flesh – unless it’s the flesh of a human so pumped up on big macs and cokes and phunny pharms that their flesh will corrode cutlery – but the majority of cultures proscribe it, not for the evolved-instinct reasons that govern the common cultural proscriptions (the pre-scientific cultural encoding of the genetic dangers of inbreeding, for instance), but for the post-moral, crypto-legal reasons that recognise the sanctity of human life – even that of an enemy. it’s recognised as bad – very bad – to mutilate the corpse of someone you’ve killed, but to then eat their flesh is as abhorrent as it gets.

this tension between edibility and moral restraint has extended into differentiating the rest of the animal world as either food or not in ways which reflect cultural conditioning as much as social evolution. in Elizabethan times it was quite common – amongst the aristocracy – to eat swan. for a commoner to be discovered doing so the penalty was death, because the swan belonged to the queen (and to do so now is still to risk a criminal prosecution, because the swans still belong to the queen, although I don’t believe she actually eats them anymore). apart from the obvious illegality, however, I can’t imagine there being many people now – apart from that caucus of sick thrill-seekers that infest every civilisation in the throes of decadence - who would happily sit down to a meal of haunch of elephant, roast panda, poached dolphin, braised koala bear, or seared osprey’s tongues. however, the envelope of what’s acceptable and what’s not is, clearly, extending: there are a couple of ostrich farms in the UK which are trading in more than just big eggs, and kangaroo burgers are appearing with more frequency in the more expensive burger bars.

the religious rules about ‘unclean’ food were established thousands of years ago by the same set of god-crazed patriarchs who made the rules about how women were to behave on the days when they, too, were ‘unclean’. in the days before fridges and of poor sanitation and in total ignorance about bacterial infection such regulations might have been sensible, although it’s hard to justify their continuation - these so-called hygiene laws - into perpetuity, outside of their irrational origins. it’s equally irrational, though, to replace cultural rules based on superstition (or belief, if you believe) merely by rules based on sentiment and aesthetics: the standing rule that a species is exempt from the pot so long as it’s perceived as being either endangered or cuddly is just as arbitrary, and just as meaningless. well – the cuddly part, at least. if it were still around, the mammoth would today be considered cuddly. that a large number of currently endangered species have been driven to near-extinction by hunting for sport – not food – is one of the historic crimes that our species is going to have to come to terms with one day.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

somerset boulevard

the front page and two centre pages of the local weekly newspaper were dedicated, last week, to the news that Nicolas Cage had been in town, house-hunting, apparently. literally. I didn’t think that was how mega-slebs did it, but he and his relatively new wife of twenty-two walked into two estate agents in the High Street and made enquiries about properties in the local area. I’d give good money to have been a fly on the wall at one of those encounters.

hi – I’m looking for a house
yes, sir, and in what price range would that be?
oh, let’s talk about that later, shall we?

so there are photographs of him emerging from the Abbey Tea-Rooms, interviews with people who spoke to him, including the owner of the Abbey Tea-Rooms and the person who sold him a few books (titles listed) on spirituality and esoterica in The Speaking Tree, photographs of him signing autographs, photographs of him talking to a reporter, photographs of people who got his autograph, interviews with people who got his autograph -

he was really nice
he was quite normal really

- and a resumé of his career.

and this tiny town is agape at the possibility – the remote possibility – of having a Hollywood film star living here (for a few weeks a year).

apart from the fact that we share a birthday (true) I doubt if Nicolas and I would have much in common, but I nurse, in common with everyone else in town, the sad fantasy that, once settled in, he and I, through some chance encounter or random act of fate, might become friends, and that he and his charming young wife Alice would become regular droppers-in to our slightly humbler abode to pass the time in frivolous pursuits and idle banter. I base this fantasy, as does everyone else in town, on no more solid foundation than the fact that he’s famous – I know diddley-squat about him as a person, although anyone who’s friends with Tom Waits and a cousin of Sofia Coppola earns instant credit by default in my book (and I have to admit that I’ve only seen three films of his – the magnificent Charlie Kauffman’s ‘Adaptation’, the wonderful ‘Wild at Heart’ and the bleak ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ – although I thought his performances in all three were class). this aspiration involves nothing more than desiring to bask in the beneficence of his charisma and inspiring the envy of everyone I know – none of whom would ever admit to it. the bleak actuality of having to hold a conversation with someone who, for all I know, although, since he’s an actor, it’s a fair assumption, doesn’t do conversation unless it reflects on his wonderfulness, doesn’t even enter into the equation – being able to say “oh, have you met Nick” to one or two people I can think of and watch their struggle to retain equanimity against overwhelming odds would be worth a few minutes memorising his IMDb profile.