Saturday 22 November 2008


“Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” - George Wildman Ball

As time passes our memory dulls acute pains of yesterday while the pleasures we have felt in former times become idealised into something exquisite. The nostalgia we feel for the past sometimes intrudes into the present moment and jars our experiences, which somehow feel deficient. If used well our album of memories can be a balm, a soothing unguent for the present’s woes. If we look backward all of the time and choose to live in the past, nostalgia becomes poisoned wine.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favourite romantic composers – perhaps the last great romantic. Here is a piece of his that reeks of nostalgia. There is both balm and poison in this piece and depending on your frame of mind it can heal or kill…

“Vocalise” Op. 34 No. 14 published in 1912 as the last of his Fourteen Songs, Opus 34. Written for voice (soprano or tenor) with piano accompaniment, it contains no words, but is sung using any one vowel (of the singer's choosing). It was dedicated to soprano Antonina Nezhdanova. Here is Renée Fleming singing it with orchestral accompaniment.

Friday 21 November 2008


“He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” - Henry David Thoreau

Today is World Television Day and seeing as it is also Food Friday, I’ll combine the two and talk about TV chefs and TV food programs. Any channel worth its salt has one or two of these programs around and it is not unusual for TV chefs to become national or international celebrities as a direct result of these programs. Julia Child, Jeff Smith (a.k.a. The Frugal Gourmet), Justin Wilson (a.k.a. The Cajun Cook), James Beard (a.k.a The Father of American Cooking), Jamie Oliver (a.k.a The Naked Chef), Gordon Ramsay (a.k.a The Chef of Hell’s Kitchen), Nigella Lawson, Madhur Jaffrey, Kylie Kwong, Stefano de Pieri, Iain Hewitson, Vefa Alexiadou, Ilias Mamalakis, Gabriel Gaté, etc, etc, etc.

They come from all places, cook in an amazing array of styles, national idioms, have mind-boggling variety of approaches, employ different gimmicks and have hundreds of thousands (some millions!) of loyal followers that often extend beyond the confines of their own nation. Their programs can be quite straight-forward and to the point “how-to-cook-xyz”, brief and no-nonsense, but many of them have themed extravaganzas that pull out all stops and besides the obvious primary theme of food, have secondary themes including travel, culture, nutrition, self-sufficiency, etc.

The term “celebrity chef” is often applied to these TV chefs in a derogatory way. They are often seen by the serious foodie as charlatans who prostitute their art and who are peddling their craft to the marketplace in a virtual world where the products of their toil in the kitchen are not enjoyed as they would be if they worked in a restaurant. A real chef working in a real restaurant, producing real food for real people is what a foodie would describe as an ideal situation. If that real chef is consummate in his art, then his fame will be well earned and surely his celebrity status is deserved.

I personally don’t like the TV chef. Especially so if they are gimmicky and rely on heir notoriety more than their skill to attract viewers. I abhor the tactics of Gordon Ramsay and find his manner odious, in fact I doubt whether I’d even taste any of his food (remember the finger incident?). Jamie Oliver is similarly distasteful. The ones I like tend to be low key and rather boring for general consumption. They tend to be more pedestrian in their approach and they see themselves as teachers of their craft. There is much science in food – chemistry, physics, thermodynamics. One must understand the processes in order to be successful and some TV chefs are happy to share their knowledge.

The celebrity chef is not a new discovery. The first such chef to attain this status was Antoine Carême (1784-1833) who was called “The king of chefs and chef of kings”. He built on the “haute cuisine” style of French cooking, full of elaborate, complicated and grandiose dishes. Although born in poverty and abandoned by his parents as a child, he managed to be apprenticed in a cheap Parisian eatery and gradually worked his way to the top in a fashionable patisserie. He progressed to being the chef of many a crowned head and many an influential person in Europe.

Carême is credited with creating the standard chef's hat (the toque), with the invention of new sauces and dishes, and the establishment of the haute cuisine. He published a classification of all sauces into groups, based on four basic sauces. He is also credited with replacing the practice of service à la française (serving all dishes at once) with service à la russe (serving each dish in the order of courses). He wrote several cookery books, above all L' Art de la Cuisine Française (5 volumes, 1833–34), which included, aside from hundreds of recipes, plans for menus and opulent table settings, a history of French cookery, and instructions for organising kitchens – a veritable encyclopaedia of cooking. He died at the age of 48 in Germany, possibly from the effects of inhaling toxic gases from the burning coal of the kitchen fires he was constantly exposed to.

Wednesday 19 November 2008


“Be not the slave of Words.” - Thomas Carlyle

Do you know what a “ghost word” is?

ghost word |gōst wərd|noun
a word that is not actually used but is recorded in a dictionary, grammar or other reference work. It usually gets into that scholarly work as a result of a misreading or misinterpretation, as by mistaking a typographical error for an actual word.

The classic example of a ghost word is the word “dord”. It began its short life in 1931 when G. and C. Merriam Company's staff included it in the second edition of its Webster’s New International Dictionary, in which the term was defined as “density”. It is due to an error made when transcribing a card that read "D or d" (meaning a capital D or lower case d) as an abbreviation for “density”, such as in “The formula for finding density is D = V/M” (Density equals volume divided by mass).

A new typed up slip was prepared for the printer and the part of speech assigned along with a pronunciation for typesetters to include in the printing. The word got past proofreaders and appeared on page 771 of the dictionary around 1934. In 1939, an editor noticed “dord” lacked an etymology (word origin, or derivation) and investigated. Soon an order was sent to the printer marked “plate change/imperative/urgent”. The word “dord” was removed and the definition of the adjacent entry “Dore furnace” was expanded from “A furnace for refining dore bullion” to “a furnace in which dore bullion is refined” to close up the space.

Since major dictionaries are very carefully compiled and edited (I should know!), ghost words are rare in reputable reference works. However, dictionary writers have been known to copy entries from one another without looking for citations, where the word is in use (i.e. in books, magazines, newspapers, journals, etc), which means that some ghost words can be propagated.

Other examples of ghost words are: “pornial”, a mistake for “primal” which appeared first in the Century Dictionary and was then copied into Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary. When the original Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled ghost words would regularly appear, or were close to appearing in the dictionary. One which almost did appear was the word “brean” The lexicographer was suspicious, however, contacted Robert Louis Stevenson directly (from whose work came the citation which contained the word) and asked him about it. It turns out “brean” was a printer’s mistake and the word should have been “ocean”.

Bad eyesight, bad handwriting, bad transcription, bad work by volunteers and bad dictionary writing practice (copying other dictionaries!) all traditionally contributed to the appearance of ghost words in dictionaries. However, apart from traditional dictionaries, there are a whole host of less scrupulously compiled word lists that pander to people’s lurid appetite for odd or unusual words. A mistake, or even a misleading definition, can definitely propagate ghost words (especially nowadays with the Internet where odd words get passed around – no questions asked!).

So if you want to know the “dord of the pornial brean”, it was less dense than today’s oceans because there was less salt dissolved in it!


“Love is, above all, the gift of oneself.” - Jean Anouilh

Without your Love

Without leaves, a twig is dead wood.
Without water, a river is not worthy of the name.
Without music, a song is so many empty words.
Without your love, I am nothing.

Without stars, the night sky is an abyss.
Without fish, the sea is but a bucket full of water.
Without birds, the air is not alive with song.
Without your love, I am not whole.

Without an oasis, the desert is endless hopelessness.
Without sunshine, the night will last forever.
Without abatement, the storm will drown all.
Without your love, the world ends for me.

Tuesday 18 November 2008


“In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods than in giving health to men.” - Cicero

I had a meeting with my publisher today and we discussed a project of mine concerning a book to come out next year. In our discussions we started talking about the history of medicine and more specifically we talked about the ancient humoral theory of disease. This was a philosophy that originated with the ancient Greeks and which aligned the four “elements” (earth, fire, water and air) with the four body fluids or “humours” (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). The importance of this system of medicine in history cannot be stressed enough as it held sway for many centuries before it finally gave way to the new ideas heralded by the Renaissance and which took over in the age of enlightenment.

The four elements was an attractive theory, because it seemingly explained how all things were made up. If one took wood, for example, it was full of water when fresh and one had to dry it to remove it. When one heated it, it was set alight, liberating its content of fire and ultimately, as the air was driven out of it in the form of smoke, ash would be left behind as the last component, earth. Different things were made up of different proportions of earth, fire, air and water, accounting for their different textures and properties.

Similarly, the four humours of the body made up the flesh and fluids. When one was healthy, there was a good balance of these humours. We still speak of someone being “good-humoured”. There are disorders of the blood that the haematologist still refers to as “dyscrasias” – literally a “bad mixture”.

An excess of blood made the person “sanguine” or “plethoric” and these people tended to be obese, but also robust and active, moderately hypersexed with a good appetite and a full strong pulse. The way to treat them was to bleed them, relieving them of their excess of blood! Many poor patients were bled to death by the overzealous ministrations of their physician. A sanguine person nowadays still describes someone cheerfully optimistic.

Too much phlegm made the person “phlegmatic”: Flaccid and obese with thin hair, narrow blood vessels and white pasty skin. They were said to be slow in movement and intelligence, even-tempered and not given much to gastronomic or sexual pleasures. We still use the word rather disparagingly to describe someone who has an unemotional and stolidly calm disposition.

Having too much black bile in your body made you “melancholic”, which term has been retained in the language to describe someone who feels sad, gloomy, or depressed. In humoral medicine the melancholic type was usually, dark, hairy, with narrow blood vessels, slow pulse, large appetite and inclined towards excessive sexual activity. Quite often these people were purged with powerful drugs or herbs in order to rid the body of the excess humour.

The last humour yellow bile, in excess, made someone “choleric” (meaning today bad-tempered and irritable). This type of person tended to be thin, energetic, with a strong inclination to sexual pleasure, fastidious of food, a strong rapid pulse and good blood vessels. Emetics were prescribed to rid the body of the yellow bile which was in excess (an obvious in the vomit brought up!).

Around about 450 BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles developed the theory of correspondence between the four elements with the four bodily humours and described disease in terms of imbalances between the elements and the humours. Unfortunately, this philosophically attractive theory which was not based much on fact or supported by experiment became the dominant theory in medicine, influencing many Greek and Roman medical schools, Islamic medicine and subsequently European medicine well into the Renaissance.

We no longer think there only four elements, and we know precisely what makes up the body and it’s not four humours. We know about disease, its causation, its diagnosis and its treatment. However, it is amusing that even in this day and age we retain the antiquated terms of the humoral theory even in our common language…

Monday 17 November 2008


“We are born princes and the civilising process makes us frogs.” – Publilius Syrus

Last weekend we watched Mel Gibson’s 2006 film “Apocalypto”. I had been aware of the mixed reviews this film received when it first opened, but had missed catching hold of it until now, where once again I found it in the bargain bin of our local video store. The concept was an interesting one and when reading the back of the disc package I was intrigued to see that the film was in the Maya language with English subtitles. This was reason enough to see the film as I had never before had heard a single word of Mayan! This represents an authenticity that some films nowadays try to attain where one is transported to a time and place where the film-maker has attempted to recreate as much as possible the atmosphere and ambience as realistically as possible. It actually reminded of the other Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ”, which was shot with the actors speaking Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, the language actually spoken by most people at Christ’s time in Palestine. I love subtitles, so these are not an issue for me and the authenticity of hearing the right language spoken in the time and place the movie is set is a great touch.

Apocalypto is set in Central America, at the peak of Mayan civilization. The film starts innocently enough in a small village where a group of villagers hunt a tapir (yes, it is a scene full of blood and gore). Jaguar paw, is a simple villager whose idyllic life with his young family is brutally disrupted by a violent invading force of more “civilised” Mayans. The village is burnt and pillaged, many are killed and the young men are taken as slaves to the Mayan kingdom’s capital. Jaguar Paw faces certain death but through a quirk of fate he manages to escape and tries to return to his village in order to save his trapped wife and child.

In this film, Gibson combines many elements that spell success in Hollywood: Drama, adventure, hero versus villain, struggle and final redemption. However, what is novel is the exotic setting, the many authentic details (although the film is not historically accurate in its totality) and the richness of the striking visuals. The movie is very violent and if human sacrifice depicted graphically will disturb you then this is not the film for you. This is a major problem with the accuracy of the movie as it was the Aztecs and not the Mayas that sacrificed humans in the way depicted. The other inaccuracy has to do with the solar eclipse that seems to surprise everyone, but this is unlikely as the Mayans had excellent astronomical knowledge and very accurate calendars.

However, if you do not see the film, you will be missing out on some touching, some spectacular, some highly entertaining and some poignant parts that make the whole of the film quite enjoyable and overall a positive viewing experience. The cinematography is quite spectacular and the central portion of the film set in the Mayan capital is awe-inspiring in its barbaric splendour. I would have preferred more scenes in this very visually rich and amazingly intricate setting rather than the long chase sequences in the rain forest, however, the film works as it is. The music was not memorable, which I guess can be interpreted as an advantage – it must have not been jarring or obtrusive at the time and complemented the visuals. The acting was excellent and Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw does a remarkable job. The other actors (nearly all completely unknown and draw from the native populations of Mexico and central America) all play well also.

The film’s last scene depicting the arrival of the Spaniards is another historical boo-boo (The peak of the Maya civilisation was between 200-900 AD, and the Spaniards arrived about 600 years later!), but one can forgive Mr Gibson for introducing this as it is a warning to us. Just as the “civilised” tribe terrorized and destroyed Jaguar Paw’s village, the more “civilised” Spaniards would go on to pillage, destroy and massacre all of the pre-Columbian societies they came into contact with in Central and South America. This can be a warning to our present “civilised” society also with its overwhelmingly destructive “globalising” pressures.

Sunday 16 November 2008


“Twilight drops her curtain down, and pins it with a star.” - Lucy Maud Montgomery

For art Sunday this week, a favourite painting of mine by Thomas A. Graham (1840-1906), a Scottish artist. I don’t know much about this artist, nor can I find out much from the internet. However, I like this painting as it has a great deal of atmosphere and a beautiful sense of luminosity that is evoked in the twilight it depicts. The solitary figure, looking towards the horizon is forlorn and withdrawn, in keeping with the loneliness implicit in the title: “Alone in London”.

Enjoy your week.