You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2008.

Bsketti has gone to try to repair the broken relationship with her muse, who was so disgusted by Bsketti falling so low as to blog about cake which looks like sick that she has threatened never to visit Bsketti again.

Bsketti hopes to find her muse living somewhere near a camera repair shop.

In the interim, readers may find themselves pleasantly diverted by listening to The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash, I Feel by Cat Power and Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition on a loop while reading Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing (surprisingly good, but it’s safe to skip to the end after chapter 15).

It is extremely annoying that my camera is broken, because the bakeries here have started to sell a kind of cake that looks Exactly Like Sick, and I would love to provide photographic evidence of the true horror. Said cake is the size of a small dinner plate, or, indeed, a small puddle of spew, and has a kind of glazed streusel topping that gives it the shiny lustre of regurgitated cheese on toast.

(For some reason, I am being reminded while I blog about vomit of what Doris Lessing said about the “inanities” of the internet, but I’ll press on. By the way, I’ve read one of her books now – totally weird.)

I would like to buy a few of the cakes and leave them on pavements in a street art-cum-Jeremy Beadle prank. Mind you, I suppose people are no more likely to voluntarily tread on a cake than in a pool of drunkard’s vomit, so that little experiment would be unlikely to prove much, but at least it would bring a piece of little England to Bonn’s streets.

Speaking of chunderous activities, this part of Germany seems to be in the middle of something called Karneval. I think it’s like Pancake Day, only with fewer pancakes and more clowns. The finer detail eludes me – I’m told that various committees are set up (natch), and there’s something about female staff cutting off their manager’s tie – but in broad brushstrokes, everyone gets dressed up like an idiot and goes out on the pull. Apparently it has been going on since mid-November (can that be right, religiously speaking?), but momentum is building as we approach Shrove Tuesday. Indeed, I am beginning to notice people dressed up as Napoleon on a fairly regular basis. I think I saw a Visigoth on the train today, but that might have just been the way he was sitting.

Ah, fancy dress, organised fun and beer – truly music to my ears. Clearly your intrepid correspondent fully intends to join a local Karneval association and go out in Cologne dressed as a Prussian in the name of investigative journalism, but I had better warn you in advance that I might be busy conjugating verbs on the nights in question.

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In other news, I have been reading up a bit about Idi Amin to do some research for a possible Karneval costume after seeing an old documentary about him in the cinema and being transfixed by his face for 90 minutes. Given the spotlight by the filmmakers, he did not cover himself in glory. But I did like it when he divorced three of his wives for “not being revolutionary enough”. I believe that not being revolutionary enough is actually the second highest cited reason for marital separation in the UK (after “eating with their mouth open at the dinner table for 12 years”), so it was quite prescient from a divorce litigation point of view, really.

“Europe’s environment chief has admitted that the EU did not foresee the problems raised by its policy to get 10% of Europe’s road fuels from plants.”

(EU rethinks biofuels guidelines)

Oh, for God’s sake.

Bloggy interregna are intriguing, don’t you think? I always wonder what the author is up to when they haven’t posted anything for a while. Have they been arrested? Had a personal crisis? Been whisked off to Moscow on her majesty’s secret service?

In my case, I stopped blogging because, as well as thinking about reducing the frequency of my Bsketti output into intensely entertaining weekly columns, I have been feeling a bit uninspired and, well, January about things, and no one wants to read about that, do they?

One thing I have been doing is reading. Since returning to Germany at the end of December, I may or may not have read 18 books. I know that sounds bad. But given that I am a compulsive skim reader, I have probably only read 7.25 books, all told, which isn’t so terrible, is it?

Here, for want of anything else to blog about, are my conclusions of said textstravaganza.

Number of books read that were remotely brain-expanding: 2.
Aaargh, why do I read so much fiction? I might as well slowly feed my brain into a bucket through one of those automatic pencil sharpeners. Anyway, the non-fiction brain expanders were When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce and Poor Story by Giles Bolton. Quite good! I liked Poor Story, in particular, which is about how the complexities and inefficiencies of overseas aid can sometimes make things worse for countries, not better.

Number of times while reading Poor Story that I decided to give more money to overseas aid charities: 7

Number of times while reading Poor Story that I decided to stop giving any money at all to overseas aid charities: 6

Number of times while reading Poor Story that I decided to read more about the World Bank and its recent policies: 1

Number of times while reading Poor Story that I wondered if author Giles Bolton is good-looking: 3

Number of times I have entered a search for “Giles Bolton” in Google: 0 (so far)

Classics read to at least try to look intelligent: Vanity Fair and Far From The Madding Crowd.
I had never read VF before, but always thought I should, cause its heroine Becky Sharp is supposed to be a wizard character. Well, readers, she is not wizard: she is really horrible. As you probably know, she does things like flirt with other people’s husbands and scam old ladies and would certainly have pinched lovely Terence Stamp from Bathsheba Everdene. By the end she gets her comeuppance, and it is said that she “chiefly hangs about Bath and Cheltenham” – what a fate!

Filthy secret thought: Isn’t Far From The Madding Crowd just very long chicklit with scythes? (I mean, what sort of name is “Gabriel Oak”?!)

The criminally early Saturday closing times of places in Bonn where you can get books cheaply or for free: Bonn Central Library, 1pm. The Oxfam shop, 2pm.

The time I arrived outside Bonn Central Library last Saturday: 1:50 pm.

The time it takes to walk from Bonn Central Library to the Oxfam shop: 12 minutes.

Current fine at Bonn Central Library for returning Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland late: 14 euros.

Chief emotion felt at owing such a large fine: Happiness.
By the way, here is an interesting observation: the library doesn’t even bother opening at all on Tuesdays, and yet brussels sprouts are very popular here. Coincidence?

Number of goats I could have bought for a village in Kenya with the money I have spent on brand-new books recently: 5

What Giles “Poor Story” Bolton says about buying goats for villages in Kenya: “When the first goat projects began in Kenya, many of the animals soon suffered from abcesses, diarrhoea, pneumonia and worms and later died. This was partly because the aid projects were trying to introduce high-milk-yielding foreign breeds that the beneficiaries simply weren’t used to looking after[…] Many such projects require ongoing veterinary support, not to mention purchasing food aid for some of the poorest families when drought hits, to avoid them eating their [goats].”

Number of Doris Lessing books that I bought in Bonn’s classiest bookshop to offset embarrassment of buying a romantic comedy entitled Love Potions: 2

Number of Doris Lessing novels subsequently read: 0

How Romantic Male Lead in Love Potions scores against romantic literature conventions:
Introduced within at least five pages of book’s opening? Check
Stupid romanto-Oirish, Gabriel Oak-ish name? Roger (actually it’s Derry Kavanagh)
Battered, macho car? Oui
Works with his hands? Ja wohl (he seems to make balustrades; ooh, fancy!)
Utterly perfect, unrealistic character? Present and correct. (In one scene he actually gives up his entire Sunday to help the heroine dig up herbs and brew homemade aromatherapy oils in her kitchen.)

Percentage of 30-year-old-males in United Kingdom who would give up their Sunday to help a woman brew homemade aromatherapy oils, and furthermore, know what myrtle looks like: 0.2%

Mitigating reason for buying Love Potions: It is set in Berkshire.

Books that I probably subconsciously chose because their titles reminded me of Scandinavia: Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller, Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Milano and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida.

I am afraid that this little collection was by far the most skimmed. The only one I read properly was the Northern Lights one. This was quite good. A young woman sort of has a breakdown and runs away to Lappland to find her real father. It has reindeer in it.

What I found annoying is that the reviewers quoted on the back of the book have used completely unnecessary Nordic metaphors. For example: the text is “as bracing and beautiful as an unexpected winter frost”, “deceptively light”, “has the purity of the Lapland winter that it describes”. How lame. I hope that if the book had been rubbish, they would have written things like, “As slushy as a Swedish pavement in March”, “a plot as addled as a drunken Finn” or “as boring as an evening out in Tromso” (no offence to anyone living in, or originating from, the Tromso area)…

Example of weird, matter-of-fact, plinky-plonk writing in Henning Mankel’s Firewall, which is also set in Scandinavia but that isn’t why I bought it: “Wallander put the phone down and wondered if she would ever get a real job and think of settling in Ystaad. She’s got something on her mind, he thought. But for some reason she won’t tell me what it is.”

How plinky-plonk Kurt Wallander would react if a woman asked him to find myrtle in her back garden:
“Wallander was incensed. He felt a strong urge to punch her but he managed to control himself. This woman is mad, he thought. She believes that I can help her brew aromatherapy oils in her English country kitchen, when I’m a murder detective in southern Sweden. This whole country is going to the dogs. ”

Extremely annoying cliché used in Match Me If You Can (yes, that really is the title, and the hero’s name is Heath Champion, for God’s sake): This book contains a subplot: a subsidiary romantic thread. These are often more interesting than the main ones; like in Last of the Mohicans, where there’s that super-cool romance between Jodie thingy and Daniel Day Lewis’ Mohawk brother (who is actually the last of the Mohicans!).

Anyway, in this subsidiary subplot, the author writes of the newly smitten male: “As a kid, he used to bring home injured animals and try to nurse them back to health. Apparently he was still doing it.” This is a METAPHOR, by the way: the man was feeling protective towards a woman rather than setting broken limbs of raccoons or anything. But it is still annoying. Childhood animal caring is the standard shorthand in books for describing A Sensitive Character, and I think this is a vastly over-used device. How many children actually bring home injured animals? If the proportion of animal-tending children in real life matched that of fiction, you would never see roadkill, and children would actually be fighting over bloodied bodies of birds to look after.

In fact, some children might actually wound pet animals just to take them home and put them to bed in shoeboxes lined with tissue, which would detract from the whole sensitivity thing about their characters, I suppose.

Match Me If You Can also contains the surprising line, “She began to eat the chicks one by one”, which I don’t think you would expect to read in a romantic comedy.

Worst book read: Why did I read that Gone Baby Gone? I thought Mystic River was rubbish and still I read another Dennis LeHane book. Hateful books. Dennis La Haine, more like. A ha ha ha ha.

By the way, Gone Baby Gone had one of those prologue things at the start, which Dean Koontz-type books always have. I NEVER read them, do you? I just can’t be bothered. Plus they’re ALWAYS unpleasant: usually a first-person account of some child shut up in a cellar somewhere or a serial killer about to skin someone. Hmm, I hope the Doris Lessing books don’t have prologues. “I’m sorry, Miss Lessing, I don’t care if you did win the Nobel Prize: I’m going to start at chapter 1 and not before.” But then, of course, I am not going to be reading Doris Lessing books, I am going to be doing Interesting Things that I can blog about…

Number of pages of Vanity Fair I could have read while writing this blog post: 43.

At this time of year, we are full of good intentions. Tradition dictates that it is so. I bet even the people who say they don’t make new year’s resolutions have secretly decided to eat more Marmite in 2008.

Very often, what we are resolving is to engage once more in the age-old battle between the long-term dream and the short-term desire. In this battle, the force of good is the dream of having clear lungs some day; the force of evil is the packet of Bensons leering at you from the table. It is the vague notion of completing a marathon in April pitted against the temptation of sitting on the sofa today. It is the earnest wish to be able to look your neighbours in the eye as a decent suburban citizen locked to the death with the homemade S&M machine in the basement that has been calling to you insidiously all morning (as has the girl strapped to it).

Watching other people’s resolutions crumble is nearly as tragic as watching the demise of your own. And the problem usually seems to be our inability to balance logically the immediate and the material (e.g. a nice cream cake) with the speculative and the intangible (e.g. future weight gain, possible bowel cancer, the unspoken censure of modern society and the prospect of having to wear very large pants indeed). Why else would there be such a problem with obesity if people were able to give equal weight to the short- and long-term implications of eating a bucket of fried chicken and make rational decisions accordingly thereon?

With this in mind, readers, I think I may have been a bit hypocritical when expecting the entire populace of the Western World* to make swingeing (I love that word!), long-term-ish changes in the name of saving the planet. If we poor, embattled, obesified humans cannot even make the right decisions about whether to eat cream cakes or not when the adverse consequences of doing so are well known and may be only months away from attaching themselves to our gluteus maximus (possibly sooner, depending on number and size of cakes eaten per diem), what hope do we have of making much harder decisions about our lifestyles, just to prevent something that we think may or may not be very bad for the Earth and may or may not happen, some might say equivocally so, in approximately 30 years’ time, give or take a few decades?

Perhaps I need more understanding of the human difficulty in making long-term decisions. After all, it is not just everyday people who will have to make short-term sacrifices. For climate change to be arrested, governments and corporations must also take far-sighted decisions that are anathema to the utterly bogus and futile short-termism of financial quarters, political terms and football seasons (sorry, I realise that football isn’t entirely relevant but I wanted to put a shout out to “troubled Toon boss” Sam Allardyce).

The solution
I believe society must undertake a huge experiment in changing short-term thinking to long-term thinking. We could call it The Great Longing. It would be like the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, only with more women and less stupid headware**. In academia, traditional knowledge would be placed at the centre of curricula, not just to improve and broaden national strategies for adapting to climate change and the end of oil, but also so that great thinkers of the world knew how to knit sausage dog-shaped draught excluders like their grannies used to make. We would prize those who take decades to attain expertise, such as monks, Qi Gong masters and actuaries. In popular society, we must scrap short-term fripperies such as instant messaging and the 24-hour media, and instead cultivate a deep reverence for slowness. Wikipedia would be replaced by the 1982 version of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which would be left extant for at least 15 years except for obvious factual inaccuracies, any old-fashioned sexist bits or passages making out that Rhodesia was the best thing to happen to Africa since Prester John, which would all be updated in bulletins published by a Slightly-Slower-Than-Rapid Literary Reaction Force.

In The Great Longing, society would have much greater acceptance of short-term sacrifice, and it would become permissible to question political or economic decisions whose consequences lay beyond the immediate horizon. I also predict that applications to study geology at university would increase by 2,500%, but that’s a side point.

What do you think? Is there not a pressing imperative for such a revolution? I have been thinking about it (slow day), and I don’t think it would take much. We could start by holding underground events, a bit like Victorian seances, where child actors play weather-ravaged scamps from the future pleading for their grandparents to turn down the heating. Perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger could reprise his Terminator role and return to gun down members of the oil lobby? Or we could affix fake plaques in towns in order to comemmorate decisions taken 47 years ago and foster appreciation of long-term thinking. Sadly, most of the plaques would be rubbish: “On this spot in 1963, Councillor Sid Legacy agreed to tear down an elegant eighteenth-century terrace and build a modernist shopping precinct in its place. The children of the future thank you, Councillor!”

Speaking of children, a grant should be made available to give all pupils a share in a packhorse and an allotment, which they must farm every week instead of studying the Egyptians, cos-sin-meh or media studies (harsh, but really, when did you last measure a hypotenuse?) so that they could learn the slow rhythm of the seasons. Actually, forget that. What with everyone living longer, let us double our time units, so that a year is measured in 24 months. This would mean that we could eat Easter Eggs twice a year, which I don’t think anyone would have a problem with. There would be only two opportunities to buy Robinsons’s sugar-free squash: spring and spring. Everyone would can peaches. I am not sure what this actually means, but I think it involves thinking ahead.

It would be marvellous.

Uh…
The only problem might be that, pretty soon, what with rapid and unpredictable climate change and everything, long-term thinking is not likely to be very useful. It is going to be very difficult, for instance, for the insurance industry and town planners and foresters and, no doubt, taxidermists and the peach canning industry to know what the weather and climate are going to be like, how an area’s flora and fauna are going to respond, or even what an area’s flora and fauna are going to be. But hey, let’s not worry about that for the moment…

*Except Norwegians.
**I am not entirely sure what headware was worn by people like Erasmus, Descartes and Spinoza, but I am willing to bet it was pretty stupid.