Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ave Maria

Screen showing Jesuits arriving in Japan c. 1549.

This is beautiful: an Ave Maria set to a tune by an anonymous Chinese composer from the 16th century. It's from the album 'La Ruta de Oriente' by Hesperion XXI, a birthday present from my nephew, a talented musician, Ph.D student and  too-bloody-clever-by-half generally. (Nay, lad, I'm nobbut coddin.)

Ave Maria (pentatonica) by Jordi Savall on Grooveshark

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Night Dream and a Day Dream


In his book 'Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming' Anthony Stevens uses the term 'hermeneutic frustration' as an arsy academic way to describe the feeling of 'what the fuck was all that about???' that one feels after a dream or series of dreams that seems at once freighted with significance and maddeningly cryptic. Most of my dreams are unremarkable grey affairs involving nothing more intriguing than doing the washing-up or tying my shoes, but now and then a dream of such vividness will come along that you feel it has to mean something. A little over two years ago, I resumed the habit of recording all the dreams I remember after one such dream left me feeling as though an important message had been delivered, but written in a script I could not decipher. I still can't, although I've made dozens of attempts.

I'm in a production of the Philip Glass opera 'Akhnaten', in the role of 'the Page', which is not in the real work. It's the final dress rehearsal. The set is enormous and thoroughly impractical: outdoors, half the size of a football stadium and composed of scaffolding and planks, it ensures that you will get lost, miss your cues, misplace props and generally screw up. I am wandering along its walkways, bleachers and gantries, wondering if I'll be able to locate my shoes, glasses and mobile phone after the rehearsal. There is a break in the proceedings in which my mother appears, handing out shot glasses of whisky to the cast members, and my father, who was alive at the time, is there too, now a child-like presence, almost a simpleton, and something of an embarrassment. Suddenly, I am at a distance from the set, standing on a railway station platform and telling a train driver that I need to be back over there ASAP as the rehearsal will be resuming soon. As we speak, the huge, flimsy edifice lurches sideways and collapses. I'm back there myself now, still fussbudgeting about my shoes, specs and phone, and noting that the Akhnaten is now sitting in a little teepee of fallen scaffolding and planks under a gently settling cloud of dust. He looks forlorn and puzzled, and there's a comical, cartoonish criss-cross of elastoplasts on his forehead.      

So - a performance, a public presentation of complexes and conflicts, to be given here in a setting that is utterly impractical. This is an opera about an Egyptian king who has been called the first individual, the first monotheist (although he probably wasn't a monotheist) a megalomaniac, a despot, a failure, a visionary, and so on - 3,500 years after his death he's all things to all observers. Me as a page, a boy servant , not yet mature. My mother dispensing spirit: here it's scotch, but of course 'spirit' also means soul, essence, inner strength. My father there but not there, just as he was at that point in waking life, although I'd never have felt he was an embarrassment. Then the collapse of the whole job lot and the comically bathetic ending: it's only a pretend Akhnaten, sitting there looking like more like Stan Laurel, and I'm still fussing over my handful of belongings, each pertaining to such basics as walking, sight, and communication.

There seems to be a hell of a lot packed into this dream, but even after two years I cannot synthesise all these images into a coherent message: they all lead to other images, as if I were making some sprawling mind-map as useless as that absurd set.


On Wednesday, I had a waking dream, one where I just watch images drifting through my mind as I'm washing up or hoovering the sitting room. In this, I have taken it into my head to cook a Greek spinach pie to take to work. Getting a large spinach pie to work on the train would be impractical, so I see in the daydream that I go to Leicester to cook it at the house of a colleague who's an old Greece hand. We take our masterpiece into work and wow everyone in the staffroom. Now, back on your Earth on the same day, Sharon had indeed taken a large spinach pie to work, cooked by her son, and it was going down a treat with the teachers at the very moment I was daydreaming all this. When she mentioned it on Facebook, we were amazed at the coincidence and the perfect timing, and that she too had wondered at the practical problems of getting a large spinach pie to work on the bus without ruining it. Yesterday, somewhat breathlessly, we told a colleague of the coincidence.

'Yeah' he said, totally unimpressed. 'Funny things, dreams.'

Yes, I suppose we did look like a couple of credulous idiots, acting all flabbergasted at a coincidence. And reading through my most recent dream notebook with its two years' worth of attempts to interpret their imagery, I can't help thinking sometimes 'this is just insane: they're nocturnal brain-farts, they mean nothing, why are you indulging yourself like this, imagining them to be so significant?' But the recurring image is a disquieting one of botched public performances and of being forced into roles unsuited to me, and trying to understand why this should recur is what keeps me at it.

Spinach pie, or spanakόpita.



Saturday, 1 March 2014

And Even More Cheap Chow

Today, March first, is my birthday. It's St David's Day, which is why I'm called Steven. There will be no celebration, partly because I'm a miserable bugger and see no call for jubilation in being 55, and partly because I'm trying to economise. Those who know me will incline to skepticism here, but I am - honest I am. Really. I only bought one book and one CD last month, and resisted all temptation to switch on the lights and heating on even the greyest of February afternoons. I've realised belatedly how wasteful I am, buying food on impulse and shoving it in the darkness of the fridge instead of looking in the fridge first and making a shopping list informed by what I've got in already. This inevitably leads to my chucking out quantities of furry tomatoes, bendy carrots, and plastic bags of greenish slime that might have been parsley or coriander or frogspawn. I buy wholemeal bread from an excellent local bakery. It's good stuff but it doesn't keep: after a day or two, little communities of green and white things start to form and there's nothing for it but to pitch it. I've noticed that whilst I can chuck out manky veg without a daunt, slinging out bread induces a kind of atavistic guilt, as does spilling salt or wine. So now I'm more careful to cop each loaf just before the green meanies move in, and dry it in a very slow oven to make rusks. This probably costs more in fuel than throwing away the mouldering loaf and getting another, but the feeling of virtue it occasions is considerable.

I did actually look at what I had in the other day before going up to town. Peppers, a few lemons, two eggs, a reasonably youthful courgette, some middle-aged potatoes and a geriatric lime, hard as a golf ball. With a little inexpensive supplementation, this would make chakchouka, an admirable North African dish that's delicious, colourful, healthy and cheap. (The lime's still in the bowl. It's been so long, we're really rather attached.) To make chakchouka you need at the very least eggs, peppers, an onion, a can of tomatoes and some chillis. You can play with the colours of the peppers, add potatoes and courgettes if you like, and merguez sausage if you can find any. In the Arab world there is probably much tedious argy-bargy about which country has the most authentic recipe, and streets named for the date true chakchouka was first prepared there, but sod that. Once you've decided what you're going to make your chakchouka with, proceed in this manner:


Chop the peppers and whatever other veg you may wish to include into fairly uniform pieces. Chop the chillis. A brief digression here. In the Plaka district of Athens there is a popular restaurant called Scholarcheio, and there in the nineties they would bring to your table a little spirit burner so that you could roast chunks of sausage on a fork. The waiter would always warn you not to put the fork in your mouth straight from the burner, and you'd think, bloody hell, what sort of a pillock does he take me for? Even so, nobody left Scholarcheio without a burnt tongue or lip. So here's the thing: they always tell you in cookery books to wear rubber gloves when chopping chillis, and I get impatient with this nannying. However, I invariably end up wiping away onion tears with a finger incandescent with chilli oil, so I'll pass on the advice and also warn you that if you are the proud possessor of a penis, you shouldn't go for a pee before you have scrubbed your hands assiduously. Slice the onion and don't wipe your bloody eyes, what have I just told you, for Christ's... Fry the onion in olive oil until it is soft. Throw in the chillies, a level teaspoon or so of cumin and a little more of smoked paprika, then add the tomatoes, and if using, the potatoes to give them a head start. Chuck in some salt. Add the rest of the vegetables when the potatoes have had time to soften a little.

When all the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes are getting just a little jammy, make indentations in the mixture and crack an egg into each one. Cook until the whites are set, but don't allow the yolks to coagulate. Some recipes suggest you then stir the eggs through the ragout, but I don't like that idea: I think they look more pleasing left whole, but suit yourself. Before serving, tart up with chopped parley or coriander. This will be excellent with good bread and a glass or three or four of red wine - we might be economising, but as my grandma used to put it, 'there's shiteing, and there's riving your arse'.


March 7th. A young man recently arrived from Iraq told me today he was living alone in Leicester and had to keep talking to his mum on skype to find out how to cook all the dishes he'd taken for granted back home. I thought this was quite touching, and showed the group this photo, to show that being domestically helpless is not a prerequisite for true manhood. 'That's not chakchouka!' one of the Saudi women said. 'You don't put potatoes in it. And the egg should be like an omelette.' Yawn. 

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