Saturday 13 December 2014


“It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is to leave the superfluous notes under the table.” - Johannes Brahms

For Music Saturday a most delicious work for Clarinet and String Quartet by Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 - 3 April 1897). It is his Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, written in 1891.

00:00 - I. Allegro
12:21 - II. Adagio
23:26 - III. Andantino - Presto non assai, ma con sentimento
28:03 - IV. Con moto

When Clara Schumann first heard this quintet, she wrote: “It is a really marvellous work, the wailing clarinet takes hold of one; it is most moving. And what interesting music, deep and full of meaning!” These poignant words by Brahms’ closest female friend belie Brahms' disingenuous comparison of the work with his earlier Clarinet Trio: “[It is] a far greater piece of foolishness.”

From the first movement, the music pulsates with yearning. In its opening measures are the seeds that germinate in the rest of composition, which is equally perfect in its power of evocation and its structural rigour. The autumnal mood of the work results in part from the subtle shifts throughout between the closely related keys of D major and B minor.

Most notable is the second movement Adagio, a tender love song whose wistfulness seems to reflect the entire decline of the late Romantic musical ethos. Of course there is more to this piece than its dreamlike evocations. Listen to the Presto, with its Hungarian folk-dance style and the finale’s intriguing variations, the last of which returns full circle to the opening theme of the first movement.

The quintet received its first private performance on 24 November 1891 in Meiningen, with Richard Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet, led by Joseph Joachim who often collaborated with Brahms. The public premiere was on 12 December 1891 in Berlin.

Friday 12 December 2014


“Having grown up in the Middle East, eating beans for breakfast always seemed like a bizarre British eccentricity.” - Yotam Ottolenghi

A substantial vegetarian dish that is healthful, tasty and filling. Perfect for those cold Winter nights, or even hot Summer lunches! It’s interesting how in tropical climates people like eating very hot, spicy food.

2 tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, chopped
300 g carrots, finely grated
2-3 tsp chilli powder (mild or hot, according to taste)
1/2 tsp of ground allspice
Salt, pepper to taste
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
2 x 400g cans pulses in water, drained (mixed beans and lentils)
6 wholemeal tortillas
200 g Greek yogurt
100 g extra-mature cheddar cheese finely grated

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Cook the onions and carrots for 5-8 mins until soft – add a splash of water if they start to stick. Sprinkle in the chilli powder and cook for 1 min more. Pour in the tomatoes and pulses and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5-10 mins, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Remove from the heat and season well.
Heat grill to high. Spread a spoonful of the bean chilli over a large ovenproof dish. Lay each tortilla onto a board, fill with a few tablespoons of chilli mixture, fold over the ends and roll up to seal. Place them into the ovenproof dish. Spoon the remaining chilli on top.
Mix the yogurt and grated cheese together with some seasoning, and spoon over the enchiladas. Grill for a few mins until the top is golden and bubbling. Serve with a green salad.

Share your favourite recipes using the Mr Linky tool below:

Thursday 11 December 2014


“Faith is an oasis in the heart, which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.” – Khalil Gibran

Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931) the Lebanese author and artist was born on 6th January in the mountain village of Bsharri, now in Northern Lebanon and then Syria, part of the Ottoman Empire. The area is inhabited by Christians predominantly and is close to the beautiful and famous Holy Valley and Cedars of Lebanon.

Gibran’s family had originally been of some means but became impoverished due to the father’s gambling. As a result, Gibran received no formal education, but rather is taught by his mother, Kamila, whose deep religious beliefs were instilled in him from an early age. A local priest continued his education and soon he recognised Gibran’s inquisitive and active mind and taught his student the Syriac and Arabic languages and also fundamental religious precepts. Through this informal teaching, Gibran developed an interest in science, languages and history.

Seeking a better future, the family (excepting the father) migrated to America in 1895. They joined relatives and shared a tenement dwelling in South Boston, Massachusetts. Kamila Gibran sold lace to support her four children and opened a small dry goods store. While registering for public school, Gibran's name was shortened and changed. A Boston patron of literature and fine arts who was also an “artistic” photographer, Fred Holland Day used Gibran, his younger sisters Marianna and Sultana, half-brother Peter, and Kamila as models. After discovering Gibran’s aptitude for literature and art, Day proclaimed him a “natural genius” and became his mentor.

Gibran returned to Lebanon, spent some time there getting an Arabic education and then returned to the USA where he continued his education in English. Diverse influences, including Boston’s literary world, the English Romantic poets, mystic William Blake, and philosopher Nietzsche, combined with his Besharri experience and shaped Gibran’s artistic and literary career. Gibran opposed Ottoman Turkish rule and the Maronite Church's strict social control. After “Spirits Rebellious”, an Arabic poem, was published in 1908, Gibran was called a reformer and received widespread recognition in the Arabic world. Other Arabic writings, including “Broken Wings” (1912), were published in New York where a large Syrian-Lebanese community flourished.

His first work in English appeared in 1918 when his “The Madman” was published by the American firm of Alfred A. Knopf. The sometimes cynical parables and poems on justice, freedom, and God are illustrated by three of Gibran’s drawings. In 1919 Knopf published Gibran’s “Twenty Drawings”; in 1920 “The Forerunner” appeared. Each book sold a few hundred copies. In October 1923 “The Prophet” was published and this established its author’s success by having over 1,000 copies sold in three months. It has since then been translated into more than twenty languages, and the American editions alone have sold more than nine million copies.

Gibran considered “The Prophet” his greatest achievement. He said: “I think I’ve never been without The Prophet since I first conceived the book back in Mount Lebanon. It seems to have been a part of me... I kept the manuscript four years before I delivered it over to my publisher because I wanted to be sure, I wanted to be very sure, that every word of it was the very best I had to offer.”

“The Prophet” is a book of 26 poetic essays, which has become a classic of its kind. It is a philosophical book, it is a book of faith, a book of simple eloquence, one of timeless truths. Ostensibly, its plot (if one can call it that) is about a Prophet, who has lived in a foreign city 12 years, and who is about to board a ship that will take him home. He is stopped by a group of people, to whom he talks and reveals the mysteries of life. Each person asks a question and the Prophet’s wisdom is the gift he receives, for the Prophet possesses nothing material. The themes of marriage, children, friendship, work, pleasure are all explored and the life advice the Prophet offers is free of dogma, free of power structures and metaphysics. In simple prose, Gibran expresses life as something to be enjoyed in as many ways as possible. The message of the book is that life is short and must be lived without regrets.

Some people have accused Gibran of being a ‘cheap philosopher’. A man who panders to the needs of the masses. But most of the world’s chief religions do the same. The masses’ needs must be catered to and the ones most in need have the least funds to spend in order to buy hope. In this respect, Gibran’s philosophy is populist and it is cheap. Simple words to comfort those who need it the most and who have little else except the hope that the Prophet delivers.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself”, the Prophet says.  “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked, And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And he goes on: “Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”

The whole of the text of “The Prophet” is available online here:

Tuesday 9 December 2014


“Quiet is better than loud.” - Dieter Rams

Poetry Jam this week has set the theme of “quiet” for the participants of the weekly poetry challenge. My poem below is dedicated to the Northern Hemisphere readers who find themselves in the beginning of Winter…

Winter Reverie

Winter has arrived
Bringing with him,
The smell of decay: Rotting leaves,
Wet soil and the perfume of daphne.

Milky-white, still dawns,
With argent sun, feebly shining;
Plumes of grey smoke, evoking
Warm grates, hot buttered toast.

Lucidly cold nights,
Wet, shiny streets, on which
Only your footsteps echo, meandering
On the deserted, quiet, desolate footpaths.

Winter has arrived,
Clutching in his bony fist
Silken silences, fog-enveloped loneliness,
Cold, pure sheets and long, white nights.


“Peace hath higher tests of manhood than battle ever knew.” - John Greenleaf Whittier

On Tuesdays I often post about books, literature and writing, so I dub it “Literary Tuesday”. I pay homage to this meme by considering today one of my favourite books, which I first read in Greek translation when I was about 12 years old. I have subsequently read it in English but unfortunately cannot read it in the original, as it was written in Czech. Sadly, it is ever topical, especially in the wake of the news of continuing warfare around the world…

The book is “The Good Soldier Schweik” by Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923). Hašek was a Czech novelist, humorist, prankster, natural storyteller, and journalist. He was with Franz Kafka one of the key figures of literary Prague of the early 20th century, but much more colourful, blasphemous and with a sense of humour when one compares him to Kafka! Once, when Hašek was prevented from throwing himself off the Cech’s Bridge (Cechuv Most), he founded a political party called “The Party of Slight Progress Within the Limits of Law”, and spent the cash collected from this activity in his local pub. More details about his short but eventful life can be found here, in the Wikipedia entry.

“The Good Soldier Švejk” (transliterated to Schweik in English) is the abbreviated title of the unfinished novel written between 1921-22. It was fully illustrated by Josef Lada (his illustrations above) after Hašek’s death. The original Czech title of the work is “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války” (The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War). It was meant to be a six-volume work, but unfortunately Hašek died of TB after had only completed four volumes that are now merged into one book.

The novel is a biting satire of the army, soldiers’ life and one of the first anti-war novels to be written. It begins with news of the assassination in Sarajevo that precipitated WWI. Schweik is a Czech army veteran who is immediately enthused over the prospect of joining the army once again and fighting in this new war. His gung-ho attitude puzzles officials who can’t decide whether Schweik is serious (and thus an idiot), or whether he is a subversive antiestablishmentarian (and hence extremely clever) who is intent on sabotaging the Austro-Hungarian empire’s war effort.

It is a delightful work full of lively incident and Schweik charms and wins us over with his antics. The novel ends before Schweik has a chance to be involved in any front line action, but the message of pacifism is still very strong. I was rather pleased when I visited Prague a few years ago to be able to buy a Good Soldier Schweik puppet from a local market and it still graces one of my study walls.

A review by Bob Hicks in “the Oregonian” of a new English translation of the novel can be foundhere and is good reading, whetting your appetite to read this wonderful work.

Monday 8 December 2014


“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” - William Shakespeare

One of the things I love doing when the opportunity arises is to sit in the foyer of a big international hotel, in some exotic location around the world, and watch the people coming and going. One can tell a lot about people just by observing them, listening to the way they talk, how they are dressed, their manners (or lack of them!), the company they keep and the way they walk, stand, sit.  My mind is forever manufacturing stories around the people I see in those hotel foyers and I am busily concocting names, occupations, the relationships between them, the reasons why they are staying at the hotel, and so on and so forth…

We watched Edmund Goulding’s “Grand Hotel” (1932 – Won Oscar for Best Picture) last weekend) on an excellent digital transfer on DVD and I was able to play my game, but in a rather more restricted way, as the stories were all there for me and my imagination had to atrophy somewhat while I watched this film.  The Grand Hotel of the film title is Berlin's most expensive and luxurious hotel. It is the setting of (in the words of one of the cast, Dr. Otternschlag: “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”).

However, the good doctor seems to have missed some of the nefarious goings-on. For example, Baron von Geigern is broke and trying to steal eccentric dancer Grusinskaya’s pearls. Powerful magnate Preysing confronts the lowly Kringelein, one of his company’s bookkeepers, but it is the terminally ill Kringelein who manages to stand up to him. Flaemmchen, Preysing’s stenographer, is in love with the Baron, but she is willing to sell her favours to the highest bidder, or is she?

The cast is well-chose and they act superbly: The charming, desperate, vulnerable Baron played by John Barrymore; the cynical, sad, sexy stenographer, Joan Crawford; the pathetic, whining, but courageous Kringelein, Lionel Barrymore; the coarse, selfish, cruel Preysing, Wallace Beery; and of course, the great Greta Garbo as the ballet dancer, Grusinskaya (uttering her most famous line: “I want to be alone”). The art deco sets are fantastic and even the smallest details have been convincingly rendered.

The film won the 1932 best picture Academy Award and it is still a wonderful movie to watch. It is a soap opera, but the brand of the soap is the best and the suds last the whole wash through. The success of this movie led to a remake in 1945, the “Weekend at the Waldorf” with Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, the story being given a timely post-war take. However, this later version is somewhat more cinematic but pedestrian. It lacks the 1930s glamour evident in the earlier film.

This is a film from the golden age of Hollywood, well worth watching it!