Monday, February 24, 2020

101 Things #66 - The Benefit of Clergy

It's a lovely day today. I have no household duties and commuting is no longer a daily necessity. Mrs C. has decided to take herself off to the National Gallery, as is her wont, but the exhibition she intends to visit is not one that grips my attention. I decide to have a look at what others feel is worthy of their time, the items that go on their bucket-lists, and see if I can conquer my natural cynicism and do one myself.

What shall it be? Yes, of course, the one that all aspirants to a lifetime of achievement will treasure and fondly remember years later. I shall become a Man of God.

Mind you, having stated it as baldly as that, it does feel somewhat uncomfortable. In fact, now I come to think about it, it seems utterly wrong, ludicrous and risible. I shall explain why this notion is worthy of never being achieved and that it truly belongs in my anti bucket-list set 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die and consequently why I shall defy the recommendation from Bucket List Journey to

Get Ordained

There is a certain social cachet in being a signed-up religious professional, no doubt. At any street accident, one can push through the gaping crowds with the helpful cry "Let me through, I am here to save this man's soul" and then, when the press arrive, it will be your beaming face that makes it to the front page. You will be given first choice of the chocolate biscuits at social gatherings. You can wear long flowing robes, affect a thick bushy beard (sorry, not for the ladies) and smile benignly at passers-by. People will ask for your advice and benedictions. They may even wish to confess their sins - and who knows what you may learn as a result.

How does one go about becoming ordained? To the dedicated bucket-lister, no problem at all. One finds an appropriate internet vendor and purchases a certificate. For example, you can join the Universal Life Church, hand over $29.99 and look what you receive in return:
  • Ordination Credential (Minister License)
  • 1 ULC Wallet License
  • 1 Black Clergy Badge
  • 1 Parking Hanger
  • 1 Minister Window Cling
  • 1 Press Pass-Parking Placard
  • 1 ULC Bumper Sticker with symbols
  • 1 Minister Bumper Sticker

Not only a certificate to hang on the wall and a mini version for the wallet but free parking. This alone must justify your seeking out your calling in this way. You can park anywhere you like - on a double yellow outside the supermarket, say, - and when the wardens come round you merely indicate the hanger or placard or bumper sticker, accept their stammered apologies and make some sort of sign over them1 before driving off leaving them still kneeling on the pavement.

But why pay anything at all? Here's a certificate that looks totally believable which I knocked out in my shed, with a little help from this site and it didn't cost me a bean.





 Rather spiffing, no? I could therefore tick off this one from my bucket-list, if it were ever on it in the first place. And that is the reason why this form of 'ordination' is utterly without worth. You can have all the fancy certificates, parking hangers (what is that, I wonder) and bumper stickers you like, you can declare yourself to be a Cardinal, an anti-Pope, a Grand Enlightened Master of Solomon, a Chief Rabbit or High Priest & Archimandrite of Great Cthulhu, perhaps all of them at once if you have a really large certificate, but it means nothing.

Of course our friends at Bucket List Journey might have meant a real ordination - spending years studying the religion of your choice, learning ancient languages, writing scholarly essays on abstruse matters of theology, debating weighty matters of morality with your peers and working at a congregation, school or mission, before finally you receive an affirmation of your elevation to the ranks of the confirmed clergy at a ceremony in front of your fellow worshippers. Somehow, given the dedication and work that is required, not to mention some sort of suitability for this role in the first place, I don't think so. I think they had in mind the strange laws of the United States of America by which anyone can call themselves a minister of religion and thereby solemnise marriages and the like. All you really need is a certificate and people have to call you 'Reverend' - by law! Isn't it fantastic? Yes, it is. Is is worthy of our respect? No.


Footnote
1. I know the sort of sign you are thinking of and you disgust me. Put your thought to higher things.

-&-&-&-&-

Special enlightenment offer to our readers

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  • A certificate (sent as a digital photo).
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Warning: Your immortal soul may be in peril if you fail to take heed of the Terms and Conditions, especially the clauses about keeping up your monthly subscription to The Way.

*Or until they close us down

Saturday, February 22, 2020

101 Things #65 - Going for Broke

As you may know, if you've glanced over this column in recent months, I have been building up a register of activities, aspirations and achievements [Nice alliteration: Ed], all of which I utterly refuse to attempt or even to contemplate undertaking. I shall stop when I have reached 101 of them and for this reason it is named 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Usually I link the topic to a single website that is promoting it but there is a bonus today because I have cunningly merged suggestions from two bucket-list proponents - Aussie on the Road and Life Listed. One thinks that playing the casino in Las Vegas is a good idea, the other plumps for Monaco. It doesn't matter. I am not going to

Gamble in a casino (no matter how glamorous the setting).


First a true story. Many years ago, young and fairly strapped for cash, I crossed America on a camping trip with a small group. Our route took us through Reno in Nevada; like Las Vegas, a town dominated by gambling. We visited a casino. I decided to risk $1 on a likely looking machine. It took dimes so I exchanged my note for coins and placed one in and pulled the lever. The dials spun and I lost. I tried again. And again. And repeated until the whole lot, my entire stash of dimes, had gone.

 I know how, in popular literature, a gentleman behaves having incurred financial ruin at a casino. He smiles, orders drinks all round, gives the croupier a tip and saunters out, hat at a jaunty angle, to contemplate the waves crashing on the rocks below. But I am not that sort of gentleman. I knew in my aching heart that I would never see that dollar again. Aware of the cameras, I did not commit any acts of violence or make obscene gestures. My face a mask, I determined that I would henceforth never gamble in a casino again and I never have.

There is no reason not to enjoy visiting the great hotel complexes of Vegas or the elegant surroundings of Monte Carlo. What rankles is the idea that gambling in a casino is worthwhile. The machines are exactly the same wherever you are so, if you like losing cash, why not go to your local pub and play the slot machine there? You will lose wherever you play but you will spend a lot less on the journey and the accommodation. Should you have some skill at card games, particularly poker, your trip may be more profitable but, if that is the case, you don't need this one on your bucket-list because you will already be doing it. As for roulette and all the "systems" that are supposed to help you beat the house, consider that if any of them really worked, then the casinos would cease to be in business.

Forget about the glamour of the casinos. They are designed for one purpose and it is not a pleasant one. Watching ranks of dead-eyed gamblers mechanically jabbing at buttons while lights flash and sound effects blare out is only of interest to social psychologists. You may deal me out.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

101 Things #64 - Name That Star

It is the morning of your 110th birthday. The King1 sends a telegram. The staff in your nursing home bake a special cake. A fresh-faced reporter from the local paper comes to see you.
"Tell me" she asks eagerly "What was your greatest achievement?"
"Well, young lady" you say, as the wonderful memories flood back "They named a star after me, you know"
"Wow. A whole star? Fantastic. What did you do to deserve that?"
"Ermm ... I paid for it on the internet and received a certificate"
"Ah" says the crestfallen reporter "Been so nice meeting you but I've just heard that a dustbin has blown over in a freak 8 mph wind so I have to be off"

And this, dear reader, is why the notion posited by a contributor to Pinterest that one should

Have a star named after you

goes smoothly and without regret into my anti-bucket list compendium
101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Stars are named by international convention. They are not named after people, apart from rare exceptions such as Barnard's star. You cannot simply point to a glittering dot in the sky and say "That one, that one there, it shall be forever known as Zelda Potrezebie III".

What you can do is to pay to have your name recorded on a list and to receive a few bits of rubbish to display on your shelves. The list is one kept by the vendors, there is no meaning to it at all and as anyone can start a list of stars and sell them, there can be any number of people all thinking that the same star bears their name. It is a con to which the old fashioned hucksters who used to sell London Bridge to unsuspecting tourists would doff their hats in respect.

Here, just for example, is the blurb on the World Star Register website if you select, not just any old star, but a supernova (you will note, in passing, that they don't understand the difference between a star and a constellation)
Name one of the brightest stars in the sky, a Supernova star. You can choose a constellation or allow us to select one for you. Included with your lovely presentation box will be a 20mm Swarovski® Star crystal, the Swarovski® star has a hole size of 1.4mm so can be worn on a thin necklace, or hung as a pendant near to a window.
Your star name and its coordinates will be entered into the World Star Register™ for eternity, and available to locate anytime via our online database, with a physical copy published in the British library.2
You'll also receive all the required information to locate your supernova star in the night sky, and your gift will arrive packaged in a presentation gift box to keep all your documents safe.
.....
Rated 5.00 out of 5 based on 1 customer rating (1 customer review) 


Your crystal and pendant and other tat will cost you a mere £129 in this case.

I love that glowing rating, based on a massive customer response of one whole vote, but the silliest bit is "Your star name will be entered into the World Star Register for eternity". Eternity? Not just a rather long time but for all time and beyond, an infinite amount of time. I wonder how they can be so sure.

Whatever they may mean, as it is pretty unlikely that this business and its register will be around in thirty years (based on normal small business life-cycles), and absolutely certain it will not be trading on Earth in about 3 billion years when the sun swells to become a red giant, I think we can cheerfully dismiss this claim as garbage however tongue-in-cheek they may claim it to be.

 It is a bit of fun, of course, to have a glossy certificate and a presentation album and some crystals and things. But you do not end up with a supernova, or an ordinary star, named after you in any meaningful sense. And to have this as a bucket-list achievement fails on two counts - it doesn't work and it merely involves sending some money off. There is nothing to feel good about and, as our little vignette at the head of this column suggests, bugger-all to be proud about  and that is why I steadfastly refuse to do it.

 -&-&-&-&-

 Readers: Forget all this nonsense about having a star named after you. That is so 2018! Impress your friends by having an entire GALAXY in your name. Yes, a swirling mass of up to 400 billion stars*, plus huge amounts of dust, dark matter and possibly advanced alien civilizations, will bear your name not only to the end of time in this universe but in all other universes that may come after. Simply pick one of the galaxies shown in this photo (and every dot is a galaxy) and send us your chosen name and just £493.

Pic: ScienceMag.org

Terms and conditions apply for most of the rest of eternity and, for just £150 extra, can be sent to you in a presentation album bound in genuine faux-Morocco with a red tassel on the outside and a certificate that shows you alone are the owner of that particular copy of the T&Cs.

* No refunds can be made should your selection be of a dwarf galaxy with only a lousy few million stars.


Footnotes:
1. Surely Her Majesty's long and distinguished reign will have terminated by then
2. The British Library receives by law a copy of all books published in the UK. This is not in any way a sign of official approval.

Monday, February 17, 2020

101 Things #63 - The Mystique of Minerals

This series of pithy and somewhat derogatory comments on the sort of things that others have on their bucket-lists generally considers specific recommendations. From time to time I avert my eyes from the breathless excitement of "50 dangerous sports you must try before they ban them" or "100 places you have to visit before you die because they look really nice on Instagram" and ponder matters of social behaviour. Under the microscope today, and definitely worthy of a place in my anti-bucket-list, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, is
.
Believe in the mystical power of crystals.


You see them at any craft fair or in "new age" shops. Naturally occurring crystals of minerals and salts to which are attributed powers of healing, or of restoring energy, or of improving mental well-being or in finding love, or just about anything you want, really. Some sellers will explain that there is no scientific basis for any of these claims; others keep quiet about it, but all persist in pushing the idea that "ancient" knowledge proves that crystals are good for you. They cover themselves by using weasel phrases like "It is said that" or "Crystal are claimed to ...".

Here, by way of example, are a couple of quotes lifted from the Healthline website.
 Jasper
This smooth crystal is known as the “supreme nurturer.” It’s said to empower the spirit and support you through times of stress by preparing you to fully “show up.” It’s claimed to protect you from and absorb negative vibes while promoting courage, quick thinking, and confidence. These are traits that are extra helpful when tackling important issues — which is exactly what this stone may be good for.
Obsidian
An intensely protective stone, obsidian is said to help form a shield against physical and emotional negativity. It’s also said to help get rid of emotional blockage and promote qualities of strength, clarity, and compassion to help find your true sense of self. For your physical body, it may aid in digestion and detoxification while potentially helping reduce pain and cramps. 

 Well, where's the harm in that? I shall tell you. The constant drip-drip of "claimed" and "said" gradually builds a conviction in the gullible that there must be something in it. The little disclaimers are said once, the assertions that really there is something going on, even if nobody can explain what it is, are made constantly.

I wonder how obsidian helps in "emotional blockage". If I was wearing one the next time my football team go down to a 2-1 defeat, with the winning goal scored in extra time, would it help me let out some primal yell of despair? Or will I simply let it all out by writing something nasty on the message board?

And how, exactly, does it assist in digestion? Does it increase the strength of one's stomach acid? I'm sure every pharmaceutical company in the world would like to know that one because so far it certainly seems to have passed them by.

Of course we all want to avoid negative vibes, whatever they may be. Sounds simply dreadful. It would be interesting to observe precisely how a lump of jasper can "absorb" them and how, indeed, they are measured in the first place. A vibe is some sort of waveform, is it not? Does it radiate at the speed of light? Does it interact with the electrons in the jasper in a series of quantum mechanical exchanges of photons or what? Again, many eminent physicists and all businesses in the energy sector would be desperate for a piece of this action, should it exist. Presumably one could plug one's jasper into a suitable charger, give off some really unpleasant negative vibes and bingo! There's another four hours on your phone battery.

According to a website called Law of Attraction Crystal Healing is used to treat people and their energy system, by placing the crystals on and around the body, which can help to draw out any negative energy. Yup. And what is "negative" energy? Does it mean anything that makes us unhappy or is there some connection with the negative charge on the electron (a scientific term and not a value judgement on the little particle's state of mind)? How does the crystal know that you are unhappy and how does it absorb the unhappiness?

Don't bother looking for an explanation on any of the sites selling crystals because they simply assert that negative energy exists and that crystals can deal with it. Of course if people choose to believe in crystals then they may feel better when they wear them due to the placebo effect, and I am not knocking this as such; the trouble is that to make it work there has to be a belief in the first place and that belief can only be there if rational thinking is removed to make way for it.

The "crystals as healers" notion is fine if treated as an amusement or a fashion but worrying if any credence is put on the ludicrous claims for it. In an age of growing uncertainty and displacement, we should put our trust in our brains and believe that which can be articulated, tested and reviewed openly, not unsubstantiated (and unsubstantial) claims issued by people who, (and this is purely an amazing coincidence, surely), happen to selling the very products they say are so wonderful.

There is one crystal form that I can assert really does provide a feeling of well-being. A chunk of ice in a glass of whisky.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

101 Things #62 - I call upon... er, who are you again?

Do you like disrupting social events to which you were not invited? Are you a confident, loud-mouthed and fairly strong individual? Then the ludicrous suggestion found on the website Lifelisted is one you may wish to add to your bucket list of things you wish to achieve. And while you are doing it, I shall be quietly adding it to my own collection of non-achievements that future generations will honour with the name of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die

The recommendation under review is to

Give a toast at a stranger's wedding.


Let me first clarify those personal characteristics of a speech-crasher [I'm not even going to bother to look this one up, it's obviously made up: Ed] that I listed above.
  • Confident - Clearly someone who hesitantly advances to the front, asks the Master of Ceremonies if they can say something if it's not too much trouble, tries to claim the microphone and then stammers uncontrollably is not going to deliver a toast before being forcibly ejected. 
  • Loud-mouthed - When they cut off the amplifier then only the vocally powerful will be heard above the hubbub of guests asking each other "Who the hell is he?" 
  • Fairly strong - Some of the more alcohol-fuelled and enthusiastic of the groom's pals are likely to enjoy themselves seeing how many can pile on top of you - your toast will be muffled fast unless you can stand up for yourself

We have established that only a select few can really aspire to do the stranger-toast business but of course we must first examine why on earth anyone would want to do it in at all, before considering how one might bring it about and what this toast might amount to.

Why?


It is a stranger, or to be more precise, two strangers whose festivities are to be interrupted. The mystery toaster has no reason to like or dislike them, indeed nothing is known about them. They might belong to a strange religious cult whose faith requires them to remove the tongue of any who speak out of turn, so wearing running shoes could be a useful precaution. Or they could be from two long established families of expensive litigation lawyers and your financial ruin is guaranteed the moment you open your mouth.

Be that as it may, there is no reason for their carefully thought-out order of ceremonies to be disrupted other than the personal gratification of the interrupter. And, unlike the vast majority of bucket-list items that have been disparaged in these columns, the pleasure of said interrupter comes at the expense of the interrupted, who must look at one another with raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders, at the very least.

What is the nature of the pleasure that the speech-crasher derives from her performance? Is it the thrill of holding an audience, playing with their emotions, inspiring and enthralling them with the drive and passion of the unscheduled toast? Seems pretty unlikely, given the circumstances, and the puzzled shouts of "Who let this idiot in?". It must be the selfish desire to annoy others and to be the centre of attention, the attributes in fact of your typical dictator. Is that a worthwhile trait to aspire to?

How?

Let us consider how one might end up on the dais facing a bemused audience of celebrants. Weddings may be advertised in the traditional way of the banns in church or announced in the small ads of a paper but it is less usual for the reception to be known to any but those attending. How does the speech-crasher select a target? Do they drive around looking for cars bedecked with ribbons or listen for the bells? Perhaps they stand around outside registry offices. Then comes the tricky part, finding out where the do is being held. Awkward enough to grab one of the wedding guests, hold them with your glittering eye and regale them with a terrible tale of the seas1 but child's play to saying "Excuse me, I'm just a totally innocent passer-by, where are you all off to now and can I please tag along?".

Perhaps the experienced crasher haunts the hotels and private function rooms that often host weddings. They wait till there is a crush of arrivals, infiltrate them (saying "Haven't you grown?" to a sulky 10 year old playing with her Wii will establish credentials) and hand over some gaudily-wrapped box (contents: half a brick) with a smile and "Please put this somewhere safe, it's rather valuable". The bride's family can assume they are with the groom and vice versa. There's bound to be a big sign outside saying something like "Ferdinand and Isabella warmly welcome family, friends and hangers-on. Drinks reception in the Torquemada suite" so bluffing is pretty easy.

Of course, there is no place for the crasher on the table plan. They must eat and drink as much as they can during the reception while smiling at everyone and milling about where the throng is thickest (People looking at someone on their own who is squinting awkwardly and furtively checking out the exits is not what is wanted). Then there is the difficult transition as the guests are called in to dine and somehow the crasher must evade the queue and find a quiet place to lurk, where no waiter will look them over suspiciously, and where Great-Aunt Catherine will not peer at them through pearl-handled lorgnettes before announcing to her companion "This must be Algernon's youngest, I always thought he would come to a bad end, Mavis come over here, you won't believe who's here, how he has the nerve to show his face after that incident with the bulldog I cannot imagine".

The first two courses have been served, the guests are drinking heavily and are happy but not yet fighting drunk, the bride has not yet slapped her chief bridesmaid nor has the groom's mother exchanged angry words with her brother's ex. The best man saunters to the fore, coughs unpleasantly into the microphone and the toasts begin. The time has come. As soon as there is a pause the crasher must take charge, beam at all on the top table and seize the microphone with a flourish
"Happy Couple, honoured guests, reverend sirs, my lords, ladies and gentlemen2 if I could just have your indulgence for a second there's a couple of things I must share with you about Ferdy...."

What?

Yes, what are those couple of things? What can actually be said once they are eagerly awaiting some juicy titbit to savour with the profiteroles? The crasher does not know these people. They certainly don't know or want to know Great-Aunt Catherine who is grimly regarding them as she beckons her rather muscular nephew over from his table where he has been showing his younger cousins where he keeps his stiletto. Here we are at the very climax of the whole speech-crashing business, the reason for donning a dinner suit, polishing one's shoes and obtaining half a brick from the builders' merchants down the road to put in the fake present. There may be only have a few seconds before the microphone is recovered, some rugby players practise a maul over the interloper's recumbent form and the doors to the wet street are opened prior to him being heaved out to fall heavily onto it.

"Um, ladies and gentlemen I give you the bride and groom" and with those squeaky words the crasher can make a bolt for it, scattering the waiters and several portions of fresh fruit salad, dodging the beefy grasp of the nephew and the champagne bottle slung at them by a remarkably accurate great-aunt recalling her days of throwing the javelin for her county.  He squeezes through the doors, He races down the street. It is over. He can tick off an utterly pointless bucket-list objective. What a shame he had to leave his coat behind, a coat that, he suddenly remembers, has got his train season ticket, iphone and house keys in the inside pocket. And it's raining.

-&-&-&-

Is the game worth the candle? Will you glory in the anguished postings on Facebook the next day as various of the guests accuse others of having smuggled you in and Great-Aunt Catherine declares a jihad against Cousin Victor and all of the Warwickshire branch? Or, given that your identity is unavoidably compromised by the possessions inadvertently left behind, must you forge a new one and sail for South America as a deck-hand at once?

I am happy to renounce any intent to gatecrash the matrimonial bliss of others and strongly suggest that you do, too. If the lure of the wedding is still strong, then why not put on some old clothes, cover yourself in soot, get a big black brush from those builders' merchants and do your Dick van Dyke impersonation instead. Everyone will be happy, you get to kiss the bride and the bridesmaids (best avoid Great-Aunt Catherine) and may even be tipped handsomely for bringing luck to the happy couple.3 

Footnote
1. Thank you ST Coleridge for helping me raise the literary level
 2. This is the traditional preface to a toast in the UK but of course these days it might well begin "Yo, dudes, how's it hanging?"
3. You'll probably be tipped even more for steering well clear of the happy couple in their expensive clothes, but don't forget to throw in a few "Gor bless you sirs" at the right moment.

Friday, February 14, 2020

101 Things #61 - At Home with the Stars

For several months I have been steadily amassing and writing about stuff I don't want to do. Here is one more, all wrapped up and ready to add to the compilation known to the world as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

That it should be recommended by now less than an authority than the Huffington Post  makes not a jot of difference. I am not going to

Go on a Hollywood coach tour to see where your favourite stars live


A Hollywood tour is not possible without going to Hollywood. That means a very long flight, the unpleasantness of US Immigration and staying in Los Angeles. I've been there (albeit many years ago when finances dictated staying in fairly modest accommodation) and have no great wish to return.

My "favourite stars" are not film actors. Even if they were, why on earth would I want to look at properties that they happen to be living in? They do not disport themselves on the front lawns giving friendly waves back to the gawking tourists. All you see is some big houses with the doors and windows tightly shut. I can see any amount of those in the nicer parts of beautiful Ruislip. And anyway, if the stars were at home, why should members of the public feel they have the right to drive slowly past taking pictures of them? It might be slightly more intriguing if the actors had designed the houses themselves. This, I am pretty sure, is not the case for the vast majority of them.

I can also imagine the fawning commentary from the tour operators, the gasps of my fellow passengers and my own reactions should I be mad enough to take that tour.

TO: "And now this is Clinch Hardcase's mansion in a 60 acre park. It used to Zack Metro's when he founded Metro-Goldwn-Mayer. When Clinch moved in every tree was ripped out and replaced with trees of the same species but bigger because that's the way he likes it"
FPs: "Wow, that is so awesome"
Self: "Urgh. What am I doing here?"
TO: "Coming up on the right is Merylene Tressburger's modest six-floor 49 room Spanish hacienda. It has been owned by Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Paul Newman, Nanette Newman, No-No Nanette, the Invisible Man, the Thing with no Face and the Face with no Thing, and each of them loved it so much they spent literally days here. Those men lounging against the wall wearing sombreros, drinking tequila from the bottle and randomly shooting into the air are real Mexicans, specially imported just to to add a little authenticity"
FPs: "That is so neat"
Self: "Why, oh why did I have that second burrito refried-bean slop for lunch?"
TO:" Over there is Marshall Sheriffs house, an exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, except that Sheriff had it tilted round the other way to celebrate the launch of his film 'Alien Bloodbath 3 - Return of the Intestines'.
FPs: "Way to go, that is so cool, hey Mary-Lou take a selfie of me taking a selfie"
Self: "Is there much more? Tell me there's no more"
TO: "Through the trees there you can see the four mile drive leading to Haliburton Lockheed's palace. It's just like the Palace of Versailles but bigger! And with a much bigger pool than old King Louis had, you bet your life! And in his kitchen there's a real French chef cooking the French fries as well"
FPs: "OMG!! Quick honey, get a shot of me taking a shot of you onto Instagram while I take another selfie"
Self: "Oh death, where is thy sting?"

Well, you get the idea with this one. I am not aiming on revisiting California any time soon and if I did then gawping at film stars' places is not going to be on the agenda, not even on the back, not even written down tentatively in pencil and then crossed out. Frankly my dears, I don't give a damn.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

101 Things #60 - Rails to the East

This is going to be tough. I, like many, (such as the contributors to Lifeline 24) have nursed the ambition to one day alight from a taxi at the Gare de l'Est station in Paris, entrust my steamer trunk to a smartly dressed porter, stride calmly and with authority to the appropriate quai and nod approvingly as we reach the little steps leading to a gleaming compartment. A uniformed attendant salutes. "All aboard for Istanbul, M'sieur".

Hearken to me then as I explain why this no longer something I wish to achieve. I'll go further. I shall recoil utterly from travelling in this way and shall consign the very idea that I should

Travel on the Orient Express

to my surprisingly popular and increasingly authoritative compendium 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Before we proceed to the case for the prosecution, let us revisit the glorious literary past.

Grahame Greene despatched eastward an unhappy group of misfits and loners in Stamboul Train, Agatha Christie caused a murderous bunch of revenge seekers going the other way to encounter Hercule Poirot (in Murder on the Orient Express) and here, in an extract from From Russia with Love, we find Ian Fleming's James Bond arriving at the station.
The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris.
Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another. Wisps of steam rose from the couplings between the carriages and died quickly in the warm August air.
The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul's main station. The trains on the other lines were engineless and unattended–waiting for tomorrow. Only Track No. 3, and its platform, throbbed with the tragic poetry of departure.
The heavy bronze cipher on the side of the dark blue coach said,
`COMPAGNIE INTERNATIONALE DES WAGON-LITS ET DES GRANDS EXPRESS EUROPEENS.
Above the cipher, fitted into metal slots, was a flat iron sign that announced, in black capitals on white, ORIENT EXPRESS, and underneath, in three lines:
ISTANBUL – THESSALONIKI – BEOGRAD
VENEZIA – MILAN
LAUSANNE – PARIS

Bond finds sex and death on the train but that's just his normal working day.

For an antidote to the romance I recommend Paul Theroux's 1975 book The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux travelled by train from London to Japan, going out on the Orient Express and back on the Trans-Siberian. He was on the Orient Express as it was declining rapidly from flagship to unwanted and unloved.
The Orient Express, once unique for its service, is now unique amongst trains for its lack of it
Theroux encounters unhelpful conductors, uncaring station staff and shoulder-shrugging officials, but no glamour on this leg of his huge journey. Experienced travellers brought plenty of booze and spent most of the time drinking it for want of anything else to do.

I learn from the fascinating article about it on The Man in Seat 61 that there was no such thing as "The" Orient Express. Trains from Paris to Vienna were first called by that name, then a route using the Simplon Pass to Milan, Belgrade and Constantinople became identified with the classic route but there were variants going off to Ostend, Calais and Berlin amongst others. Greene's train was the Ostend-Istanbul, Christie invented one with Pullman cars that didn't exist, Bond took the Simplon route. In any case the last through trains to Istanbul were in 2009 and today the luxury train that still bears the name Orient Express runs merely from Venice to Paris (with a few add ons). Glamorous it may be but it is not the train of legend and it is very expensive (about £2,800) for just one night on board.

And there you have it. If you take this train you are travelling with relatively affluent tourists. You are not mixing with desperate salesmen, runaway actors, dodgy duchesses, elegant but unassuming detectives or men with a past. You will not be requested for 'papers' at several frontiers. The train will not halt in a bleak unpopulated landscape without warning for a few hours. The police will not halt it with a roadblock and proceed to search every compartment. It is just a posh train ride across Western Europe.

Monday, February 10, 2020

101 Things #59 - Ripping Yarns


You may have spotted that I have been steadily compiling a list of aspirations that, whilst they may form part of the dreams and desires of others, fill me with disdain. The majority of such items have been culled by some painstaking research of the bucket lists of such people [Quick bit of Googling in between mindless YouTube browsings: Ed] and I am therefore careful to explain just why I deem each suitable for inclusion in 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

No such need drives me today. I had no trouble in identifying one of today's key fashion trends that leaves me cold (and would leave cold in another sense, were I to try it). I will not now or at any time in the foreseeable future

Wear jeans with holes in


Yes, yes, I know that all jeans have three holes in, one that goes round the waist and two for the legs. I refer, of course, to rips and tears either inflicted by the wearers or, and this is the bit that I find weird, done by the manufacturers. People actually make jeans as normal garment and then cut them open and distress them. Consider these two beauties:






Jeans by Shein. £16.99Jeans by Mr Porter. £1040

I am impressed that for just 1.6% of the price of a Porter you get a hell of lot more hole for your money from Shein. I also impressed that anyone would pay over £1000 for what looks amazingly like the jeans I used to keep for working in the garden, long after I had a bought a decent new pair. And that is as impressed as I am going to be. The idea of actually buying something ripped to pieces that looks filthy is a perfect commentary on our modern society - the first generation of humans in history to buy and wear clothes that every other generation would have rejected instantly as faulty.

I know that this a fashion trend but so what? I don't give a toss about it, I'm not going to wear them and I'm not going to admire anyone who does.

[That seems to be it, folks. He's slammed the study door with some mutterings about 'buggered if I'm going to waste any more time on this'. It doesn't look like there'll be the usual witty punchline. Sorry. Oh, by the way, clever title eh? Ripping as in ripped, Yarns as in the stuff they make clothes out of: Ed]

Friday, February 07, 2020

101 Things #58 - Dining in the Dark

I enjoy eating out, particularly in the company of Mrs C. And, as part of the experience, I like to look around at the dishes others have chosen, or to watch passers-by. If there is a pleasant view of a riverfront or over a mountain landscape so much the better. Above all I like to look at my food before I eat it. In top-end places this is a pleasure in itself, in others it is a more of a sensible precaution. This should be enough to explain why I regard the proposal of Bucket List Journey to

Eat in a pitch black restaurant


as suitable to include in my ever-growing dossier of avoidables known in these parts as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

With some of these pieces I work entirely from the bucket list idea and do no research, allowing pure thought to shape my words. I am sure that Plato and Socrates would approve*. In this case I found my thoughts stuck in a loop, for if the restaurant is indeed without any form of light, then how on earth could anyone safely convey food from the kitchen to the diners? A little light Googling seemed to be in order and rapidly I found help from The Takeout. These good people had eaten at a leading blacked-out joint, in Paris no less, and the account is worth reading.

I learned that the waiting staff are themselves blind or visually handicapped so moving about is relatively straightforward for them, that there is no choice of what you eat, cutting out the obvious problem of how you read a menu, and that guests make their way into the dining area with each laying a hand on the shoulder of the person in front. Whether that means an entire conga snakes its way into the kitchens or the loos en route to a distant table is not clear.

All this is meant to enhance the sensations of smell and taste and thus to increase one's enjoyment of the meal. Our friends at The Takeout managed to knock over glasses, which would definitely detract from my enjoyment (I don't know about you) and of course had no idea exactly what they were putting in their mouths. It might have been the napkin:
"Delightfully chewy, this thickly textured escalope but perhaps a little more sauce?".

        Do you prefer to see this?                Or this?
Pic: Mine, taken at L'Epicier, Avignon
Pic: I made it. Dead easy. Just black


I have no idea how you can be sure you are not dropping tomato sauce on your shirt, eating from your plate or that of your neighbour, and how many times you will pick up and spit out the same bit of gristle before chucking it over your shoulder safe in the knowledge that you will get away with it. I am not keen on having no choice at all in what I eat and what on earth do you do if you need to attract the waiter's attention - stand up and yell "Over here mate"?

In any case the concept behind the pitch black restaurant is way too tame to be out there at the cutting edge of sensory enhancements. Surely what we need is a black and silent dining room, one where not only is there no light but all the waiters are deaf and guests wear noise-cancelling headphones. This would not only remove the irritations of hearing your companions chomping on celery and the conversation at the next table about how simply awfully Nora is behaving, but would force the diner to hear the sound of his own mastications in a sort of private concert. The waiters would communicate by tapping you on the head - one tap to announce the arrival of food, two for you to move aside so they can clear the table and three for when the hell are you going to leave, there's people waiting outside, you know. To keep it simple there would be just one course, gruel, served lukewarm, with unidentifiable lumps in. In this way guests can concentrate on the sheer excellence of the concept without any of the ridiculous distractions of seeing your food, being able to talk about it, or tasting it.

I have no intention of paying to eat food I cannot see, and certainly not of doing so whilst being deprived of hearing as well, but I don't mind reading about others undergoing the experience. We need laughs in these dark days.

 -&-&-&-&- 

*No, I don't mean the centre backs for the Brazilian football team. Those Greek blokes.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

101 Things #57 - Avoiding Morris

Humans have sent probes to the edges of the solar system. They have worked out how we reproduce and how atoms stick together. They have constructed inspirational works of art and literature. They have explored every part of our planet, sometimes undergoing perils and difficulties that are at the extreme of survival.


They have also invented morris dancing1. If this were confined strictly to indoors and for consenting adults only, as in the picture below, I would be fairly sanguine about it. But it is not ...



I have been compiling a list of items to populate a collection I call 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die and I have no hesitation in stating that one of the things I will not do (ever) is voluntarily to

Watch morris dancing


First, do please note that get-out adverb "voluntarily". There may well be times when, chancing down a village street on a warm afternoon, eagerly anticipating the cool satisfying taste of a pint of bitter in an ivy-clad local hostelry, the fatal sound of bells being rung and bits of wood being clattered may reach my ears too late. Between me and the pub are about a dozen men, clad strangely in white with silly hats and garters.They face each in two lines. Perhaps an accordion is being warmed up. A few onlookers watch, numbed. I have come too far to turn back now. I take the few steps needed to gain the entrance but even as I do the dancers spring to life, jogging up and down and uttering pointless exclamations.

"Sorry about that sir" says the barman sympathetically as I shut the pub door, hoping to muffle some of the din outside, and stagger in, appalled. "We can't legally stop them. I mean, we've had petitions and written to our MP but, as it's on the village green, then it's sort of open to the public, you see.  Have a drink on the house, it's the least I can do".

We are agreed then, that it may be impossible on certain occasions to avoid being caught up in some sort of morris dance event. My resolute objective is never to do so if it is possible in any way to take appropriate avoiding action.

I am not disputing the authenticity of this form of group exercise. It has been recorded since the fifteenth century. Though the practice nearly died out in the late nineteenth century, sadly it was revived, has become widespread not only in Britain but around the world and now you can even, if you really must, watch it on YouTube2.

My point is I do not want to watch a bunch of men (and it usually is just men), waving handkerchiefs and bashing wooden batons together. What on earth do the spectators observing the scene below, in the US in this case, make of it?


Is this really a suitable activity for grown men?
Pic: Pinterest

Nor am I impressed to see them all skip forward a pace, then back, then turn, then repeat. I did country dancing at primary school and the memory still sears. As a spectator sport it fails to grip. It could be made more watchable if they adopted some of the following friendly suggestions:
  •  Have sticks with a small explosive charge that goes off at random
  •  Wear things that squeak instead of bells tied round the legs
  •  Given that they must, by some ancient bye-law, wear silly hats, how about doing quick changes with varying styles and having to instantly change the dance to match the hats as they are taken at random from a proffering helper?
  • Have high speed dance eliminations, two teams hurtle into the village square on skateboards from different directions and they have to knock the other team off their boards
I fear that none of these eminently sensible ideas are likely to be adopted and that our beautiful villages will continue to harbour gangs of legalised prancers.


Footnotes:
1. Opinions differ as to whether the "m" in morris should be capitalised. As morris is a type of dancing, rather than being named after some medieval jerk who couldn't keep his feet still, lower case is correct. Also, the authorities on this sort of thing, the English Folk Dance & Song Society spell it this way. 
2. You may be expecting a link or two here. Sod that, you can look it up yourself.

Monday, February 03, 2020

101 Things #56 - Roaming Fingers

Imagine the scene, if you will. You are a little older than you are now. Gathered about you are the eager faces of your grandchildren (alright, someone else's grandchildren if you don't have any of your own, it doesn't really matter) and one says
"But when you were young, Grandma/Grandad (delete whichever is not appropriate), what did you really want to do?
"Ah" you smile wisely, tousling the hair of the little ruffian "What did I really want? I'll tell you. I wanted to pick someone's pocket"
There is a short pause. These children are moral and well brought up. They turn puzzled faces to you.
"But isn't that stealing?"
"Normally, yes" you reply "But not if it's something you really, really want to do. If it is one of your bucket-list items to be done before you die, then it's perfectly all right. Ask any lawyer"

It must be obvious from the forgoing that today's candidate for the refuse heap of crap objectives, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die is a recommendation to

Learn to pickpocket


and it was found on the Life Listed website. I don't know if the author of that page was writing from his prison cell or maybe he was out on day release and found an internet cafe. Perhaps he has been charged but the case has yet to come to trial. Or maybe he was so skilful that he got away with it and is sitting down in his lair (pickpockets do have lairs, don't they?), thumbing through someone else's wallet, counting out the banknotes and filing away the calling cards from "massage" parlours for future reference.

Now why should this skill be something that is so important to learn that it constitutes a bucket-list objective? It cannot be enough merely to slide a hand inside the pocket of some unsuspecting bystander. That is no more than a friendly gesture, as I understand it, in certain establishments [Those charges were false, I tell you, it never went to court: Ed]. To count as a true act of pickpocketing then, booty must be removed and a clean getaway accomplished. In short, what the gang at Life Listed wish you to do is to steal.


I covered the inadvisability of becoming dragged into the criminal justice system in a recent post; take it from me that there is nothing glorious about watching a policeman using two fingers to laboriously type your name into a database of local villains. It could be that the idea behind learning to pickpocket is to do it without risk of detection but that is jumping ahead. Learning to pickpocket must mean a training period in which our lack of skill could be our undoing. Perhaps we are supposed to practice on a volunteer. They can walk casually up and down the room whilst we fall in alongside, strike up a casual conversation and then, distracting them cunningly by pointing and saying "Oh my God, what's that?", we insert a couple of twiddling fingers and withdraw their keys.

The trouble is, until we do it for real, outside, how can we know that we are able to succeed? Let us now assume that we have trained diligently and have located a suitable subject, let us say a rich American gazing bemusedly at the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. A thick bill-fold is half in, half out of his back pocket. We glide into position and extract it. Now what? Yes, we have learned to pickpocket, and yes, we are now in line for a few years at Her Majesty's pleasure. Do we hand it back or merely slope off and enjoy a more expensive coffee than the one we had lined up? Of course we hand it back.

"Gotcha" says a suddenly very hard and focussed tourist, who snaps cuffs on our outstretched wrists whilst showing us credentials that establish him as sheriff of one of those little towns we failed to enrol at ourselves on yet another futile bucket-list washout. "I'm here to clean up this town and you know what, buddy, I'm starting with you!"

 It's too dangerous, that's what I'm saying, and furthermore it is pointless. Why learn a skill unless you intend to practice it for real? Fellow citizens, your pockets are safe from my hands.