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Archive for March, 2007

When I was a kid there was an ice-cream store right in the middle of Portsmouth, just by the Guildhall. Portsmouth is a naval town on the extreme south coast of England, parts of which date back to long before Henry VIII started ridding himself of all those wives. The Mary Rose went down in the channel there and Henry VII made his way to Agincourt from there. Nelson sailed off to Trafalgar on his flagship Victory past the Old Point [and came back pickled in a rum barrel but that’s another blog] and the Bounty Mutineers were hung out in the Solent within sight of The Castle. The British Naval Fleet from time immemorial spends much of it’s time anchored in the natural harbour there. Even the D-Day ships left for France from Southsea Pier.

 

But I was talking about ice-cream. The ice-cream parlour was called Verrechias. It had marble topped tables and stone floors and within its walls was made the very best ice-cream in the world – or at least the very best ice-cream *I* had ever tasted. For all I know it was bought by the tub down at Sainsburys but I doubt it. The best of the best of the offerings of Verrechias was the Knickerbocker Glory – an ice-cream sundae to break your heart. An Ice-cream sundae that was served in a tall frosty glass with a very long, very cold, metal spoon that you could dip into swirls of chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts, cherries, strawberry sauce and vanilla ice-cream so rich, so creamy, so cold that you thought you might pass out with sheer delight.

 

Along the beachfront at Southsea, the Victorian resort part of Portsmouth that winds it’s way from Clarence Pier at the west end to Southsea Pier at the East end, there were other ice-cream stalls that sold cornets and ice-lollies that you could suck on while you strolled along the ‘front’ or around the Canoe Lake where I once used to catch tadpoles and ‘tiddlers’ to bring home in a jam-jar. And if you were lucky to be there on one of those rare summer days when the wind was light and the sun was hot and brilliant in the sky you could walk out to the very end of Southsea pier and listen to a Jazz band or a brass band while you watched the big Atlantic rollers gently surge from far out over the horizon to swirl on the pebbly beach below.

 

Down at Old Portsmouth when the tide was out the mudlarks would roll and dive and slither over the seaweed and the silt to catch pennies thrown by passers by. They would be kids of all ages dressed in droopy woven bathing drawers that were constantly in danger of falling off and exposing the skinny little bums beneath. My Uncle Bert used to drive his cab along by the sea-front picking up American sailors from the many visiting ships that were anchored in the harbour. They would offer a handful of money for the fare and he would scoop the lot, on the premise that Americans were rich and we were poor by comparison so they could afford to lose a few bob to a crafty cab driver.

 

But I was talking about ice-cream. Down in Cornwall when I was a kid they made ice-cream from thick yellow clotted cream. This was before uncomfortable things like calories and Trans Fats and jogging and keep-fit was invented. In those days you could sit by a picturesque harbour wall watching the fishing boats and have fresh baked scones with clotted cream and home-made strawberry jam for tea without the slightest guilt, or you could gorge on thick wadges of hot toast lathered with butter that ran down your chin followed by big slices of Victoria Sponge with mounds of thick fresh cream in the middle and powdered sugar that flew up in puffs when you bit into it and went up your nose .

 

Ah – those were the days.

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The weather here in Canada is unpredictable. It is entirely possible to have winters where the temperature plunges to 40 below zero and summers where the temperature climbs to 40 degrees above. At least that’s here in Ontario. In British Columbia I hear their winter weather is very much like England i.e. rain, fog, rain, fog, with a little bit of sleety rain and a smattering of snow thrown in for a bit of variety – except in the north of England of course where the wind and snow howl around your willikers so furiously that it’s quite possible to freeze off some precious bits before you know it and where the cows all lie dormant in snowdrifts ten feet deep until Spring. In England the main topic of conversation is the weather. “Nice weather we’re having don’t you think”, “Oh yes but there’s flooding on the way you just mark my words. Of course it’s all the fault of the bloody asylum seekers and Tony Blair don’t you know?”

 

When I was a kid my old Auntie Doris [not the one who used to dance on the table and show off her knickers to Spanish waiters in Malaga, that was Auntie Cissie], used to blame all the bad weather we were having on “That there H-Bomb.” I used to laugh but in retrospect it’s possible that she might have had a point since we now know that we have been screwing up the Earth’s atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer for decades. It at least makes more sense than her warning that if I didn’t stop swallowing my gum it would wrap itself around my liver and kill me.

 

In Canada, unlike England, we never just have a grey day with the fine mist that the Brits call ‘drizzle’. Drizzle seeps down your collar and flattens your hair in clumps to your scalp and grows mold on your socks. No, when we Canadians have rain, we have rain! I have seen torrential downpours, sometimes accompanied by hail the size of golf balls, so violent that you can’t see across the street and thunderstorms so terrifying that you might as well be at the Battle of Tobruk and the only safe option is running down to the basement and hiding under the coffee table with a cushion on your head. Fortunately we don’t have too many tornados but we do get the odd ground tremor, situated as we are on one of the active fault zones along the St. Laurence Valley. I was once asleep in my water bed – ok ok it was the seventies alright – when the whole thing shook like Jello in a blender. I was halfway down the street in my jammies before I realized that I wasn’t in some scene from “Earthquake”.

 

We did have a tornado once in a small town not far from Toronto called Barrie and another in a small town called Woodstock. Obviously living in small towns, especially ones with trailer parks, can be detrimental to your health – and your belongings. When she was a child a friend of mine was driving with her family in the car when a tornado charged down on them without warning and left them all hanging upside down from their seatbelts in a ditch. And I was once driving down a country road when a bolt of lightening hit a tree with such an unearthly and ear shattering BANG that I hit my head on the roof and snorted my Coke [not that kind of Coke]. Of course that was less exciting than seeing a flaming meteor suddenly appear out of a deep black sky, whiz over me with a hiss and disappear in a green glow into a farmer’s field. Either that or someone had just evacuated the toilet tank on a 747 on its way to Iowa.

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Seconds Anyone?

A few weeks ago I went to Las Vegas with the family. This was the second time we had been to Sin City and the second time we had stayed at Circus Circus which was full of people not so much sinning as eating. Have you seen the size of the buffets in Vegas and the size of some of the people who frequent them? I’ve coined a new term – the “Jumbo People” which if you think about it would make a pretty nifty movie title. “Revenge of the Jumbo People” featuring Nicole Richie getting eaten in one gulp in the first frame while people the size of Mount Kilimanjaro thunder their way up The Strip to get to “The Pharaoh’s Feast” at the Luxor.

 

It’s obvious that Americans can eat for – well – America. Portion control means not having chocolate sauce with your whipped cream, strawberry puree and syrup on your pancakes. This is after you have piled your plate with bacon, eggs, sausages, roast beef, shrimp, pork chops, lasagna, tacos, potato patties, mashed potatoes, biscuits, gravy and grits [which is evidently left-over wallpaper paste], and washed the lot down with a gallon of Coke. And this is breakfast. The desert table at the buffet is usually so vast that the cinnamon swirls and lemon meringue pies disappear off to infinity in a blue haze in the distance, while the salad bar contains four lettuce leaves, a tomato, and a plate of beans.

 

When we went to Orlando last year the Jumbo People were there too, wobbling their way towards Space Mountain clutching a whole turkey leg in a greasy paw, creating impact waves in the pond and crushing lesser mortals underfoot. Smaller people, primarily from Asian countries, were flattened like Frisbees and various little children, including a few disgruntled employees uncomfortably dressed as Minnie and Tigger, were side-swiped into the Reflecting Lake at Epcot. And what we thought was Typhoon Lagoon was actually the swimming pool at the Best Western with Jumbo People doing Cannonballs at the shallow end.

 

On another trip, this time to Nashville, we had dinner one night at Ruby Tuesdays who served us each a plate of food so big that it took two waiters and the cook to carry it across the room to a specially reinforced table with bars underneath to prevent it from collapsing. It was the restaurant’s proud boast that no-one yet had finished off one of their “Mammoth Burgers”; an apt name for a sandwich that consisted of an entire cow between two slices of bread with a pickle.

 

All this eating is getting out of control. What worries me is not so much that the Jumbo People want to end up dead and buried at a very early age under a mound of dirt the size of Texas but that they might very well be traveling home on the same plane as me. I swear that that last plane I flew on took off sideways into the wind to get more lift and the pilot had to circle Detroit twice while they reinforced the runway for landing.

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Have you heard of something called Product Placement? If you haven’t then you obviously don’t go to the movies much. Product placement is all the rage nowadays now that the studio system is run by bean-counters rather than the Sam Goldwyns and Oscar Mayers of the past [who also apparently made wieners]. Movies have always been made to make money – obviously. The movie tycoons were legendary, as were their larger than life stars. Once upon a time the success of the studios and the blockbuster movie was inextricably entwined. Auteurs like Mike Todd could engage in spectacle, chariot races, Charlton Hestons abs, the downfall of Rome and Panavision. David Lean could set up cameras actually on location in the desert with real, not stuffed, camels, plus a million extras, and Kubrick had HAL. Now we’ve just got Industrial Light and Magic and a blue screen. In these days of quick market success and huge potential revenues and turnover the studio system is largely controlled not by creative genius but by corporation. Big movies are big business, what with spin offs, lateral and vertical marketing, after markets and memorabilia.

 

Next time you go to the movies take a look around the scene before the heroine is hacked to death by the guy in the mask with the chain-saw. You will probably find that she’s got a Coke in her hand and a is wearing a T-Shirt that says GAP while the clock radio behind her is flashing Emerson on and off and her Sony cell-phone is beeping in her ear. As she lays there in a spreading pool of blood the camera pans on her Levi jeans then the killers’ Timberlands and his bloody gloves by Body-Glove until he takes off in his Ford Mondeo and boards a flight to Swaziland courtesy of Virgin Airlines. James Bond downs a glass of Absolut while he cunningly outwits Le Chivre using cards fresh from Caesers Palace, a secret service agent scans the skies with binoculars by Bushnel and the waitress plunks down a bowl of Planters. And of course while Bond is chasing villains up construction cranes and across bridges hair-raisingly suspended by one frayed rope over raging chasms you’ll note that he stops now and then to take a sip of his Starbucks Mocha Frappachino.

 

Dialogue is now often inserted into movies with a similar purpose in mind. Villain “Unless you hand over the plans, jewels, secret code, girl, I am going to [stops to take big swig of Red-Bull] glue your testicles to your knees with Crazy Glue. What do you say to that! I bet you wish you had a can of Bud Light right now don’t you?” Hero “You’ll never get away with this McCabre [lights up a Benson and Hedges Filter tip with a shaking hand and a Zippo lighter] because I am going to kill you first with my handy-dandy ice-pick tool that comes free with the Swiss Army knife that you didn’t know I had taped to my buttocks”

 

So next time you’re at the pics take note that the movie you are about to watch is only an acclaimed and commercial success because you are willing to sit through what is really a thinly-veiled two hour commercial with characters and story as annoyingly expensive incidentals. Boy, it’s enough to make you want to go out and buy a Happy Meal with action figures from Star Wars and a Ford, Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks and toga by Gucci isn’t it?

 

 

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Food Fads and the SAS

I hear that members of the SAS will eat anything in order to survive, according to the SAS Handbook and Survival Guide I was thumbing through today. Good thing you’re not a member because if you were you would have to exist for long months in the jungles of Borneo on a diet of dirt, leaves, frog bellies and spiders. That’s if you weren’t chewing the bark off trees and strangling little indigenous [and unsuspecting] animals to eat raw or boiling up a few grubs in a hot spring in the same water you used to wash your feet in this morning.

What accounts for our unique food tastes? I had a cat once that went wild for pickled onions, another [current] cat who just loves Portobello mushrooms, and a dog who likes spicy stuffed olives in hot sauce.

 

Brits, like me, have long had an affinity for Marmite, which is an evil smelling yeast-based black concoction that you spread on toast and eat with your eyes closed and a peg on your nose. Chip butties are also very tasty [that’s a large handful of fries stuffed inside two hunks of bread with lashings of butter] and so are sarnies [sardine sandwiches]. When I was a kid one of the highlights at Christmas was to lather congealed turkey drippings straight from the roasting pan on to toast – or even, as a really special treat – to lather turkey drippings straight from the roasting pan on to several rounds of fried bread. This is why if you were to conduct a study, you would probably find that there are no Brits left alive over the age of fifty. They all died off from heart disease long ago before Jane Fonda and Twiggy decided that we should all be thin. We Brits just loved our fat. All recipes started off with the words ‘Take one pound of Butter’, even the ones for soup.

 

When I lived in England it was quite normal to eat about seventeen times a day – breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper – with very possibly five pints of lager down at the pub and a take-out curry just before bed. And yet I don’t remember ever seeing overweight Brits. It must be rapid metabolism or very possibly they just shrink in all that rain.

 

In Japan I believe they like to eat jelly-fish but I don’t know if they go for the tentacles because of the tripping hazard and Japanese restaurants tend to be small – just a few tables and a karaoke box. They also like to eat fish that contains a poison sack that kills you stone dead if you eat it. In order to counter the low attendance of patrons who want to try this there are special chefs who are trained in the art of cooking the fish in such a way as to render the poison innocuous – you hope. They also have people who are solely employed to massage best beer into the rumps of Kobe cattle to make them tender. “And what do you do for a living Mitsubishi san?” “I’m a bum massager you Gaijin”.

 

Of course we all know of those tribes in Africa who eat locusts. It’s called getting your own back for all those lost crops. Na Na Na Na Na – take that, little flying buzzard thing [I don’t know the word for it in Swahili but it probably has several loud glottal stops]. And in the Middle East people sit around in the desert talking about the weather, “Do you think it’s going to rain this century effendi?”, and popping sheep’s eyeballs like gumballs.

 

So if you’re going to join the SAS better start now and educate your palate. You never know when you will be dropped into the jungle with nothing but a shoelace and a rusty pen-knife and called upon to whip up a quick batch of ‘worm surprise’ for you and your mates as the sun goes down over the swamp.

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A sense of humour is a very strange thing. It appears that only we humans possess it. When was the last time, for example, that you witnessed a beetle having a real belly-laugh; or a red winged black-bird having a real knee-slapping moment? Well you couldn’t because birds don’t have knees but that’s another matter entirely. Chimpanzees do appear to exhibit a form of laughing behaviour and so do laughing hyenas of course, but that doesn’t mean that they have any deep appreciation for knock-knock jokes.

 

It also appears that humour is not only species specific but race and nationality specific too. Americans for instance find people sliding on banana peels inordinately funny, and if they break a leg while doing it well that just adds to the general hilarity. You only have to watch ‘Funniest Home Videos’ to witness the evidence of that. The more people being crushed by falling tree branches while wielding a flying chain-saw, or slam-dunking themselves into a wall or sliding off the stage into the wedding cake the better. And babies being terrified at the sight of dad in a Halloween mask is pretty hysterical too. Brits prefer sly, witty, sarcastic humour with lots of sexual innuendo thrown in. Ab Fab the TV show for example was so successful because it was filled with sarcasm heavily laced with pithy ‘one-liners’. Edina to Mother “Inside this body is a thin woman trying to get out” Mother “Only the one dear?”.

 

A friend of mine from Jordan would be convulsed with laughter at the site of us [his English-Canadian friends] being convulsed with laughter. He would laugh himself silly at the sight of us laughing ourselves silly even though because of the language gap he himself missed much of the dialogue and could only follow the actions of the actors on-screen. And of course the sight of him laughing himself silly at the sight of us laughing ourselves silly made us laugh ourselves silly even more. It was almost necessary to call an ambulance.

 

Writers can be pretty funny too. Sometimes I just crack myself up. I have to keep going back and reading that last bit to see just how funny it was. I bet Shakespeare did it too. Not that I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare, that would be like a small kid with a stubby pencil comparing herself to – well – er – um – well, Shakespeare. I bet he fell off his stool laughing when he had those three witches stirring the cauldron and throwing in the odd bits of chicken bums and lizard brains. Of course, had he been an American rather than a Brit he would have preferred the bit when Julius Caesar got his in the back from his bumbling pal Brutus. And if he fell down the steps of the senate with his legs in the air and his toga up around his ears that would have brought the house down.

 

So obviously humour, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You can take it any way you like it – nudge nudge wink wink.

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The difference between art and ART is a subjective one. Some of us believe that Leonardo da Vinci, or Rembrandt van Rihn, or Vincent van Gogh [it’s obviously necessary to have three names to be a great artist], made ART, while others of us believe that Julian Whatsisname who submerged half a goat [mercifully a dead one] in a vat and coloured it purple created ART – likewise, when Rauschenberg nailed a sheep to a board with what appeared to be a tire around it’s middle he was hailed as ‘The most important American artist since Jackson Pollock’. And Jackson Pollock of course was renowned for throwing paint around on the floor while in a drunken frenzy – he may even have dragged a few nudes across his canvases, I can’t remember. Which reminds me of another artist who dragged nudes around. His name was Benvenuto Cellini. He tells us in his autobiography that he lost his temper one day when his model wouldn’t sit still and wouldn’t stop talking so he dragged her around the floor by her hair until she shut up. Fiery blokes these Italian Renaissance types and not averse to a bit of bitch-slapping once out of sight of the Carabineri. Mind you – they probably wouldn’t have cared too much – women’s lib being the last thing on their minds at the time. They were too busy quelling drunken bar fights and stopping people running each other through with their rapiers, or dragging people like Michelangelo back to the Pope so he could finish painting the ceiling in the den.

Rauschenberg was also famous for erasing a drawing done by de Kooning [you know him – the one who made violent slashing pictures of women looking like they had been torn apart by wolves. You can see them in MOMA in New York – a raving misogynist or what?]. Of course we only have his [Rauschenberg’s] word for it since we now only have a blank page. How do we know he didn’t erase someone else instead? Perhaps some doodles his kid did or his grocery list. We only have his word for it – and how far can you trust the word of a man who goes around bolting sheep to boards? Maybe de Kooning got one over on him and erased one of *his* sketches in retaliation. Then we would probably end up with de Kooning erasing Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning – so there!

Andy Warhol painted soup cans and Coke bottles and became famous for 15 minutes – Ducharme hung a urinal from a wall and Picasso turned people inside out [shades of de Kooning] and gave them a couple of extra eyes in the middle of the forehead for good measure. So is it ART? You tell me. ART is what we say it is whether it be a sublime landscape or a wondrously sculpted Pieta that could only be inspired by the hand of God – or perhaps it’s just a stuffed goat with a nude model on it’s back singing Dixie.

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