Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Christmas Question

It seems to me there was a time when everyone I knew celebrated Christmas with eternally fixed beliefs, customs and menus - but that was back in the days before cultural diversity became the norm. The few non-Christians in my circle then generally kept a low profile as the party rumbled on without them. Lately, however, their number has grown, swollen by ranks of atheists, agnostics and vegetarians - all bent on questioning the basis, abjuring the symbolism and rejecting the customary festive fare - while still taking advantage of a few days of sanctioned idleness and self-indulgence. In order to take a step back from this cultural confusion I decided to spend this Christmas in Istanbul.

In a city so used to visitors and with a population estimated at 15 million there was bound to be some recognition of the great Western knees-up - decorated trees in hotel lobbies and inflatable Santas in a few of the shops - but really it was business as usual even though there appeared to be very few tourists rattling around the extensive infrastructure dedicated to serving them. Streets full of shops, cafes, restaurants and stalls were open but bereft of customers, their owners prowling the pavements, relentlessly entreating us with their impressive multi-lingual pitches. I had hoped to blend anonymously into the general population so as to experience the subtle everyday pleasures of being in the city but I underestimated the power of small differences to betray my identity and, despite my attempt to avoid dressing as a tourist, the natives instantly recognised me as a foreigner and homed in remorselessly. My polished leather shoes, especially, were an obvious target for the hundreds of shoe-shine boys. I soon learned to avoid eye-contact with them.

But the most precious thing that Istanbul possesses, its history, needs no selling. It is a product of its location and is everywhere evident in its buildings, its customs and its activities - none of which can be fully appreciated without some rudimentary knowledge of events from the time Constantinople was founded as a Christian city-state in 330 AD, through the time it fell to Islamic forces in 1453, subsequently becoming known as Istanbul, and to the creation of the secular state of Turkey in 1928.  All of this story is to be found within the city and is there to inform our view of modern world events. And, while I may have eschewed the outward appearance of a tourist, I did fully embrace the historical sightseeing opportunities, picking off the monuments one by one.

But, while I never became blasé about the quantity and quality of the sites, I did soon begin to suffer a growing sense of outrage at their very existence. It started in the Harem of the Topkapi Palace when my admiration for the architectural and decorative skills of the builders gave way to consideration of the purpose for which the place existed - a gilded prison where people were enslaved for the personal pleasure of its creators, the Sultans. Even in the lavish sacred buildings, the churches and mosques, I experienced a similar revulsion at the way in which the established authorities used them to justify their position and control their subjects with the collusion of organised religion and its ability to subjugate the minds of men.

But my spirits were lifted at the last stop, the Basilica Cistern, a great underground reservoir built by the Emperor Justinian around 550 AD to supply fresh water to the citizens. The astonishing magnificence of the work and its antiquity make it a classic example of Roman engineering but what I most admired was that it was a civil engineering project and, as such, was of material benefit to the otherwise deprived population.

Suitably cheered I emerged into the cold, sunlit square and made straight for the nearest shoe-shine boy. I overpaid him with a generosity born of empathy for the oppressed people of the last two millennia, then pointed my gleaming feet in the direction of the airport and contemplated the fleeting time-span of the Christmas pudding.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Sleeping Ambitions

Historical research shows that, before industrialisation and its consequent introduction into society of regular jobs, artificial light and alarm-clocks, people would normally have had a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’ separated, in the middle of the night, by an hour or two of refreshed, wakeful activity which, although limited in scope due to a lack of modern conveniences such as lighting and heating, would surely have been compatible and harmonious with life’s then natural rhythms.

Those of us who experience this ancient pattern of sleep nowadays (for it is not extinct) may not recognise it’s provenance but can certainly benefit from embracing it, especially as we have many more options for intermission activities, some of which might involve actually getting out of bed. The modern-day torment of nocturnal bouts of agonising over small details and assorted trivia while all the time willing ourselves to go back to sleep can be banished in favour of the two-sleep system: go with the flow and use the time between sleeps profitably.

During one of these sleep-intermissions I was mulling over the newspaper advert placed by MI6 for the position of Spy. The traditional title is Intelligence Officer but, now that they have decided on a broader, more democratic approach to recruitment by adopting the populist terminology, I imagine that their HR department will be overwhelmed by spurious applications from all sorts of unsuitable individuals. In my case, however, I could see that my key qualities of perception and discretion might be invaluable to MI6.

In fact my conviction grew as I noted that the advert was carefully worded so as not to exclude any applicant (apart from non-British nationals) and that there was no stipulation of experience, qualifications, age or gender. They even emphasised a need for operatives of all kinds and at all levels – not just the gun-toting, photogenic athletic type. Perhaps this indicates an ominous shortage of Officers and desperation to encourage every wannabe to apply, in which case they would surely jump at the chance to employ someone of my experience and maturity: after all, I have seen every one of the Bond films. Before drifting into my second sleep period I determined I would take the matter up the next day.

I should have made a note because I completely forgot about it until some days later when I read about another piece of research, the implications of which could seriously strengthen my application for the position of Spy in Residence, Central Manchester. Researching linguists at Manchester University claim to have discovered that more languages are spoken in Manchester than in any other place - except New York City. Quick as a shot I deduced that there must, therefore, be an awful lot of foreigners living here and that, simply by hanging out and listening in to their conversations, I could garner masses of information which would keep my back-office team fully employed sifting and filing for years. It’s true that I am not fluent in any of the 153 languages spoken by the foreigners but it’s also true that most of them speak English as well so it shouldn’t be a problem. My next step was to visit the MI6 website and take the on-line aptitude test, as recommended, prior to beginning my application process.

I was a little disappointed when I failed it, although I had no right to be surprised: it did require a precise and timely recall of vital facts and figures, whereas my speciality is actually the opposite - a vague and untimely recall of non-vital (some would say inconsequential) facts and figures.

How could I have so misinterpreted the brief and my ability to fill it? Maybe I should just sleep on it next time.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Philosophy Lite

  Some of the statistics released this week from the National Census reinforced the widespread preconception that our country is being overrun by immigrants who come here to take our jobs and houses and, instead of being grateful, introduce their foreign cultural mores and upset our established and perfectly honed way of life. Any number of anecdotes can be conjured up to illustrate this story and to confirm the stereotypes associated with it.

But we like stereotypes because they help us make sense of life: they tidy everything - and everybody - into clearly labelled, instantly recognisable pigeonholes. We do like to know precisely which group we belong to and how it differs from others so that we can be confident in our dealings with them. And when something or someone conforms to stereotype, it is comforting to know that we were right all along.

With this in mind I attended a public lecture entitled " Divergence and Convergence: Traditional Chinese and Western Modes of Thinking" given by Dr. Keekok Lee, Professor of Philosophy. I have long been aware that, in some fundamental but esoteric way, the Chinese approach to life is 'different' from ours so I took this opportunity to gain some understanding of how and why.

Although I took my seat feeling smugly pleased with my open-minded attitude, I was inevitably confronted by my own prejudices. To start with, the Professor was not a middle aged, pipe-smoking man but a tiny, grey-haired lady! Then there was the fact that she was Chinese, which obviously accounted for her diminutive physical presence; my observation that she was bizarrely dressed, proving, beyond doubt, that her mind was on a higher plane; the impression that she gave of being slightly batty, which always accords with professorship; and her self-confessed technical incompetence vis-à-vis Powerpoint which, as we all know, is only to be expected of an old-fashioned book-worm. All the boxes were ticked.

And then, with a set of props comprising three projected 'slides', a pair of chopsticks and a glass, half-full or (crucial to the argument) half-empty, she put her case. Here it is in summary:

  • The Chinese started thinking in an organised way 8,000 years ago - long before the West.
  • Chinese logic is based on the principles of Yin-Yang or I-Ching which both assert that reality has variable positions: nothing is simply black or white. This she somehow likened to the movement of chopsticks, one of which is held firm while the other moves against it.
  • Westerners only got started 2,000 years ago when Aristotle popped up. Greek philosophers initiated a system of thought which is binary: something either is or is not. But how do you then describe the glass containing water? It must surely be either one or the other. It cannot be both. Duh!
  • But the Danish Physicist Nils Bohr proved, in the 1940's, that some atoms exist as both particle and wave simultaneously: ie they are neither one nor the other - they are both!
  • Since then the West has been converging towards the Chinese model (which, of course, has been reassuringly correct all along) and has contrived a new name for it - “Fuzzy Logic”.

The enlightenment I seek is elusive: as of now I remain inclined towards the stereotype of the Chinese thought process being evasive and duplicitous. Lacking an appetite for in-depth study, however, the best argument I can muster is the following succinct précis of the development of the Western thought system in recent times:
 "to do is to be" - Kant
"to be is to do" - Nietzsche
 "do be do be do" – Sinatra
which clearly demonstrates divergence as opposed to convergence: or, perhaps, a schizophrenic breakdown suffered as a result of this whole argument.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Moving with the Times

My partner's new phone finally arrived - an event which, coinciding with the end of the year and the need to buy a new desk-calendar for our joint activities triggered the idea that we ought to harness the power of technology by diarising in The Cloud instead of on paper. The perceived advantage of this would be to give each of us access, at all times, to all three diaries: hers, mine and ours. A mere two days after starting the process I (and it was I) managed to jump all the hurdles - the passwords, domains and internet identities placed in the way of fulfilment - and to connect us at last to the wireless wizardry of simultaneously synchronised calendars. The word ‘phone’ hardly does justice to such a remarkable device.

Our new diary system should ensure we act in unison when it comes to events such as the extraordinary cluster of 'significant' birthdays presently overwhelming us. The ages 40, 50, 60 and 70 have been sneaking up on various of our friends and relatives, bringing in their wake dismay, consternation, distress – and a few parties. It's tough, as is well known, to pass through a decade barrier: with the possible exceptions of 10 and 20 they are unwanted milestones along life's highway and so we empathise with those whose turn it is to encounter them. Less well appreciated are the niceties of acknowledging these markers. Some choose to keep it quiet, while others brazen it out. But suppose, for example, a party is proposed: then what sort of arrangement would delight guests of differing ages and backgrounds? Should it be themed or freestyle? Fancy dress or casual? At home or at a venue? And how do you send invitations? By snail-mail, email or publicly via Facebook?

But with several parties attended so far - and more to come - I am enjoying the experience of all the different formats. There was just one disappointment: the party that ran out of my preferred tipple - red wine. So I was delighted, during a recent stay in London, to be invited to a tasting of wines from a particular Côte de Beaune producer. The preliminary lecture concerning the merits of chalk ridges, terroir and south-facing slopes and incorporating anecdotes about the Domaines and their owners heightened my anticipation so that the first taste of wine was guaranteed to please – even though it was white (well, yellow actually – but that is an etymological mystery, in the same way as the origin of the word ‘phone’ will be one day). The next three whites, however, convinced me that the wines were seriously good and I became excited at the prospect of the reds. But they didn’t live up to my expectations: I was disappointed by their lack of substance and their harsh tannins (Pinot Noir is so prone to variable weather conditions) and I was obliged to wait until supper time for a decent bottle of something plumper, juicier and redder.

I was staying with a relative, whose patience I must have stretched many times with my particularities, but who still seemed genuinely pleased to accommodate me and, although she prefers to drink white wine, had thoughtfully laid in a bottle or two of red. But on the last night of my stay, having retired early to my bedroom with what remained in my glass, I stumbled and spilt it onto the white bedclothes. Distraught I rushed downstairs hopeful of finding some sort of remedy and, perhaps, forgiveness. "Oh, never mind" she said "I'll just stick it in the washer". The perfect host! Nevertheless I have since been thinking of cultivating a white wine palate.

I hear you can get professional tasting notes downloaded onto your phone, which could be useful when choosing from restaurant wine lists. And just imagine the tweets: “Quietly celebrating 70 with oysters + Puligny-Montrachet Les Referts 1er Cru Olivier Leflaive 2008”.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Outrageous Injustice!

Isn’t it marvellous how everything is online nowadays? It’s all so convenient, efficient and simple. Want to upgrade your phone? Just log in to your account, choose the model and it will be sent to your door. There’s no need to go to the shop for a humiliating encounter with a young man who knows more about phone technology than you ever will: no need to speak to a bothersome human at all. Thus seduced by the prospect of a comfortable, care-free experience, I logged on, sailed through the streamlined procedure and, soon after, received an email telling me that my new phone would be delivered on Friday between 10.37 and 11.37. My amazement at the sheer precision of the process was tempered, just a little, by scepticism. Was it possible that a man in a van could so precisely predict his arrival at my door?

My qualm was justified when, on Friday, the delivery failed to materialise. I waited patiently until 11.38 before resorting to the website in search of a number I could call. What I saw instead, however, was a cheeky message informing me that, since I was not at home, the delivery had not been possible. Now, I am well aware that the degree of outrage I felt on account of this was out of all proportion to the significance of the situation but, driven by a sense of deep injustice, I felt urgently compelled to tell someone that I had been at home during my allotted time-slot.

I found the phone number in an obscure section of the website and, calming myself so as not to sound unreasonable, called in hope of a sympathetic ear. But the recorded voice on the line was intent only on guiding me back to the website where, for a small fee, I would be able to rearrange the delivery at a time convenient to me. I now felt desperate to regale somebody with this tale of compounded injustice but, still capable of a degree of rational behaviour, I decided not to pursue the issue. Instead, I would leave it to the delivery people to resolve what was, in fact, their problem. Still, I spent the next few hours feeling disgruntled and unhappy.
The delivery did come eventually but it brought with it more problems which, ironically, can only be resolved by my visiting the shop and speaking to a real, live person. I am in no hurry.

 Meanwhile, in order to gain some perspective, I devoted a whole morning to the leisurely appraisal of an exhibition of the art, culture and politics of Mughal India. From their power base in Central Asia the dynastic Mughals swept south into India in 1526 and established an empire which, for about three hundred years, waxed and waned over the continent. Despite their Islamic tradition, the Mughal emperors were relatively tolerant of the predominantly Hindu indigenous religion. They cultivated a sophisticated lifestyle for themselves, encouraging painting and poetry, while building beautiful palaces, impressive forts and a bureaucracy to manage their diverse empire.

But after an hour or so of closely examining colourful, intricate (and quite small) paintings I began to feel uneasy. The objects themselves are wonderfully executed but the subject matter is relentless: a succession of emperors and their entourages, decked out in fabulously rich costumes, idealised as super-humans and lording it over the rest of humanity. I could feel my sense of injustice rising and, when I got to the display showing the Emperor Akbar’s ledgers, it went critical. There was documented how everything grown, harvested and sold was taxed to pay for his pompous, self-important lifestyle. He may have been a patron of the arts but he cared not for the poverty, ignorance and deprivation which were the lot of his subjects.

Which goes to show that injustice is nothing new: I’ll just have to get used to it I suppose.