Saturday, April 30, 2011

Royal Wedding Special Part Four -- Finale -- Up To Me

Oh, The only decent thing I did 
When I worked as a postal clerk,

Was to haul your picture down off the wall 
Near the cage where I used to work.
Was I a fool or not to protect your real identity?

You looked a little burned out, my friend,
I thought it might be up to me.

Reader Note:  Although it's always good to hear Roger McGuinn's voice, the version of Bob Dylan's "Up To Me" linked above cannot match Dylan's far superior performance of this great, great song.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Theological Defence of Islamic Painting


Akbar as a boy, ca. 1557 AD

         A theological defence of the painter on somewhat different lines was put forward a little later by the Emperor Akbar [1], who according to the report of his devoted minister and panegyrist, Abu’l-Fazl, declared on one occasion,  ‘It appears to me as if a painter has quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the Giver of Life, and will thus increase in knowledge.’  Such a defence obviously has in mind the condemnation embodied in the Traditions, discussed above, and attempts to refute it by suggesting that, so far from the art of painting being regarded as blasphemous, it may serve as a stepping-stone towards advance in  divine knowledge.

Akbar riding an elephant, ca. 1609-10,
Staatliche Museen zu berlin - Museen für islamische Kunst

         It is characteristic of the mental attitude of Muhammedan thinkers at that period, as during most others, that this new appreciation of the art of painting should find for itself expression in the language of theology, and seek to confute the unfavourable  judgement of the older theologians with their own weapons.  In Muhammedan literature no attempt has ever been made to work out any independent system of aesthetics or arrive at any appreciation of art for its own sake.

Abu'l-Fazl presenting Akbarnamah to Akbar at court by Nar Singh, 1605

[1]  Akbar in his youth had taken lessons in drawing.  (Abu'l-Fazl, Akbarnamah, translated by H. Beveridge, Vol. II, page 67).

From Sir Thomas Arnold, Painting In Islam.  Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1928.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Foretold: A Market In Soho (I Am Your Brother)

. . . and broke my heart and left me so alone !  It was so beautiful and all is gone !”

        And nothing is wrong with these words and still – no—it’s probably this voice of this blowsy woman, thin and haggard, yet bloated and blown up, swollen in the middle like a drowned cat floating down a muddy river toward a dark ditch.  She stands in clothes too old and worn to be sold, on bony feet :   high shoes, that are only holes and heels and torn laces.  Here she stands in the street, on the cold pavement, and sings without ever stopping, accompanied by her husband with a piano on wheels, or whatever you may call this shamelessly naked , mauled contraption which gives out dead sounds without any vibration, though the man stamps on the pedals.  He has only eight stumps of fingers, a fact explained by the death-sentence of a perfectly good existence chalked on the back of the instrument  :  “Ex-soldier, out of work.  Wife and five children.”

      . . . and all is gone !”  Why does nobody stop to give them a penny ?  They would move on then and disappear down another dark, short street off the Square.  There seem to be hundreds of little streets in this part of London :  Soho.  But, of course, everyone is busy, as it is Thursday, market  day . . . . Push-carts and burning oil lamps and sizzling, whistling acetylene lights.  A butcher’s shop :  “J. Bellometti, Charcuterie.”  Over there, in the background.

     Dangling electric bulbs glaring over duck, pheasants – feathery goods ;  and hunks of meat dripping blood from rusty iron hooks.  Kidneys, tripe, liver.  Split waxen bodies of sheep.  Decapitated bulls.  Frozen.  And huge signs :  “Scotch Beef.  Buy British. New Zealand Mutton.”

      In the foreground, right here, baskets of brussels sprouts and turnips and huge round cabbages, and small fingery parsnips, parsley and onions, not only in baskets, but squashed on the pavement.  And shoes and ribbons and buttons sewn on cards and stockings in bundles and woolen socks . . . . And here again fishes  :  cold, slimy, dripping fish with dead, glazed eyes.  Big, open-mouthed cod, and bundles of snaky eels, and glittering bodies of little herrings.   Cut chunks of smoked salmon, four shillings and sixpence a pound.  And all this is cooked, fried, boiled or stewed, and eaten, and liked.

     In between walking, tramping, sneaking, waddling women and children.  And stocky-looking men in shirt sleeves  :  muscles and sweat, and dangerously-fat  bull necks.  There are hundreds of people, and a thousand voices.  Arguing, fighting, quarelling.  Yet everything is subdued and almost ghostly, for cold, darkness, night, and thick November fog drowns the whole picture.   A market in Soho . . . .

Chapter 1:  G. S. Marlowe, I Am Your Brother.  London, Collins, 1935.
Please see also Here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"If the prime minister came, we'd all just feel like punching him" -- Emperor and Empress of Japan Visit Earthquake and Tsunami Victims -- Reposted (Thinking of Japan 5)

Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have visited the disaster-stricken town of Asahi in the Tiba prefecture on Thursday.  Asahi, a coastal town of 70,000 residents, suffered a double blow on March 11 when it was hit by an earthquake and tsunami. 13 residents were killed and two went missing. The disaster flattened 900 houses.
MINAMI-SANRIKU, Japan – Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Japan's tsunami-battered northeastern coast on Wednesday, offering encouragement to residents who lost homes and loved ones in last month's disaster.

The deeply respected royal couple visited a school gymnasium where 200 people live in the town of Minami-Sanriku, 250 miles (400 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo. Excited crowds began gathering almost two hours before their arrival.

"I'm thankful he has come so far. It makes me so happy," said Mitsuko Oikawa, 73, who has been living at the shelter since the tsunami. Her house was washed away by the powerful waves, she said, shaking her head.

"I saw it happen right before my eyes," she said. "It hurts just to think about it."

But the emperor's visit gives her strength, she said.

The royal couple spent about 30 minutes at the gymnasium, speaking to evacuees sitting between stacks of blankets and futons.

They also surveyed the destruction in the seaside town, bowing toward the wreckage to pay their respects to victims.

Last week, they visited Kita-Ibaraki, a port that was ruined by the tsunami, which left about 27,000 people dead and missing and is thought to have caused $305 billion in damage.

Nearly seven weeks after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, some 130,000 people are still living in about 2,500 shelters. The government has promised to build 30,000 temporary homes for them by the end of May and another 70,000 after that.

But volunteer Shin Kageyama, a Yokohama resident who came to Minami-Sanriku to help, said the government seems to be preoccupied with the nuclear accident in Fukushima prefecture and has neglected the humanitarian needs of the region.

While the emperor brought hope and joy to the evacuees, "if the prime minister came, we'd all just feel like punching him," Kageyama said.

"Maybe it's taboo to say this, but the emperor is truly like a god," he added.

Akihito's father Hirohito publicly renounced the idea he was divine after World War II, but the imperial family continues to be widely respected and treated with great deference. Interaction between the royal family and ordinary people is rare.

One teenager who spoke with the emperor on Wednesday was 15-year-old Kazuna Abe. The gym was off-limits to anyone other than evacuees, but she said a friend sneaked her in. Her house was damaged but is still livable, she said.

Akihito, 77, asked about tsunami damage at her high school and told her to stay strong, she said.
"All I could say was 'thank you.' My heart was racing," she said.

"I still can't believe it," she said. "I wonder if it was OK that I took pictures with my cellphone."

Deraa (درعا‎) Today and in November, 1917

          I"The 2011 Syrian uprising is a series of major protests taking place in Syria, which began on 26 January 2011, influenced by concurrent protests in the region.  The uprising has been described as "unprecedented".

           Hundreds of protesters and security personnel have allegedly been killed, and many more injured, in the largest protests to take place in the country for decades.  The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the use of deadly force against protesters as "unacceptable".

          Syria has been governed under an Emergency Law since 1962, resulting in the effective suspension of most constitutional protections for citizens. President Hafez al-Assad was in office for 30 years and his son President Bashar al-Assad has been in office since 2000.

25 April, 2011
      Tanks and soldiers entered Daraa and Douma. The border with Jordan was also closed. According to an activist, 18 people were killed in Daraa."

27 November Deraa: News update link from New York Times, click here

II.   From The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (T.E. Lawrence, 1922) -- Deraa, November, 1917:

        "They kicked me to the head of the stairs, and stretched me over a guard-bench, pommelling me.  Two knelt on my ankles, bearing down on the back of my knees, while two more twisted my wrists till they cracked, and then crushed them and my neck against the wood.  The corporal had run downstairs; and now came back with a whip of the Circassian sort, a thong of supple black hide, rounded and tapering from the thickness of a thumb at the grip (which was wrapped in silver) down to a hard point finer than a pencil.

        He saw me shivering, partly I think, with cold, and made it whistle over my ear, taunting me that before his tenth cut I would howl for mercy, and at the twentieth beg for the caresses of the Bey; and then he began to lash me madly across and across with all his might, while I locked my teeth to endure this thing which lapped itself like flaming wire around my body.

        To keep my mind in control I numbered the blows, but after twenty lost count, and could feel only the shapeless weight of pain, not tearing claws, for which I  had prepared, but a gradual cracking apart of my whole being by some too-great force whose waves rolled up my spine till they were pent within my brain, to clash terribly together.  Somewhere in the place a cheap clock ticked loudly, and it distressed me that their beating was not in its time.  I writhed and twisted, but was held so tightly that my struggles were useless.  After the corporal ceased, the men took up, very deliberately, giving me so many, and then an interval, during which they would squabble for the next turn, ease themselves, and play unspeakably with me.  This was repeated often, for what my have been no more than ten minutes. Always for the first of every new series, my head would be pulled round, to see how a hard white ridge, like a railway, darkening slowly into crimson, leaped over my skin at the instant of each stroke, with a bead of blood where two ridges crossed.  As the punishment proceeded the whip fell more and more upon existing weals, biting blacker or more wet, till my flesh quivered with accumulated pain and with my terror of the next blow coming.  The soon conquered my determination not to cry, but while my will ruled my lips used only Arabic, and before the end a merciful sickness choked my utterance.

     At last when I was completely broken they seemed satisfied.

     In Deraa that night the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost."

III.    "Daraa (Arabic: درعا‎), also Darʿā, Dara’a, Deraa, Dera ("fortress", compare Dura-Europos) and Derʿā, is a city in southwestern Syria, near the border with Jordan, with a population of approximately 75,000. It is the capital of Daraa Governorate, historically part of the ancient Hauran region. The city is located about 100 kilometres (62 mi) south of Damascus on the Damascus-Amman highway, and is used as a stopping station for travelers.

                   Daraa is an ancient city dating back to the Canaanites. It was mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphic tablets at the time of the Pharaoh Thutmose III between 1490 and 1436 BC. It was known in those days as the city of Atharaa, and was later mentioned in the Old Testament as Edrei in the Kingdom of Bashan. Located in the city itself are a few ruins including caves and ancient dwellings, a Roman amphitheater, and the old Oumari Mosque which is of some architectural significance, dating back to the Umayyad and Ayyubid eras.

                Daraa has recently suffered from reduced water supply in the region. Thousands of people protested in the city as part of the 2011 Syrian protests"

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Royal Wedding Special Four -- Finale -- Up To Me

Oh, The only decent thing I did 
When I worked as a postal clerk,

Was to haul your picture down off the wall 
Near the cage where I used to work.
Was I a fool or not to protect your real identity?


You looked a little burned out, my friend,
I thought it might be up to me.

Sherry (Julian Jeffs' Acute Observations)

A venenciadora pours sherry drawn from a butt into a copita.

I.          No one has the right to tell others what they should drink, but that has never prevented them from asking.  The only possible answer is that people who drink sherry regularly generally agree about which styles suit certain occasions, and it is as well to try following their example before attempting something original .  But one’s own taste is all that matters. To be dogmatic is a form of ignorance, and it is often a manifestation of wine snobbery. Other people’s views may act as a guide, but they are only opinions, and they should be treated as such.

Gonzales-Byass's superb Del Duque amontillado sherry.  American Master of Wine Mary Ewing- Mulligan writes: "If you know Sherry, particularly amontillado, then you can get a sense of how Amontillado del Duque tastes by imagining a dryer, more concentrated amontillado than any you have tasted."  Served with olives here, I think it might be even more delicious with a biscuit (see below).

          For those who enjoy a glass of wine and a biscuit in the morning, any style of sherry is suitable, though the majority prefer a dry wine when the weather is hot and a sweeter wine when it is cold.  Likewise a wine that tastes too sweet as an aperitif before lunch may be acceptable before dinner in the cool of the evening.  Very dry sherry has an unaccountable snob appeal, but habitual wine drinkers do generally prefer such sherries as aperitifs;  others, who wish to appear knowledgeable, ape them, and often drink very dry sherries at the most improbable times.   My own preference is certainly for a wine without the least trace of sweetness, save in the depth of winter, when the sugar in a slightly abocado sherry is very comforting.

Professor George Saintsbury (1845-1933), author of the classic Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920)  and professor of English literature and rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh photographed in 1910 by James Lafayette.  A remarkable man.

Manuel-Maria Gonzales statue near the east end of the Jerez cathedral.  Gonzales founded the sherry firm that makes Tio Pepe fino sherry in 1835.  The sculpture is contemporary, however (1997).

        The great Professor Saintsbury suggested a meal with a different sherry for each course, and it is surprising that more people have not tried it.  Sherry is generally at its best with food.  In Spain, it is taken with a tapa.  The word means a lid, or cover, and  it is said to be derived from the old Spanish custom of putting a plate with a morsel of food on top of the sherry glass.  Bars in Spain compete with one another to provide good tapas, and the choice includes such things as cheese, prawns, fish, small steaks, tomatoes, olives, potato salad, chips, pate, fried squid, fancy sausages, egg, meat balls, salt cod, ham and a multitude of specialties.  Such tapas should be served more often in Britain; they are delightful in themselves and show the wine off to the best advantage.

Outside a tapas establishment in Barcelona.

Croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes) -- my very favorite tapa.  There are really no words sufficient to describe the lightness and subtlety of these when they are properly prepared.

II.        Fino sherries are particularly good with food and my own favourite working lunch is a large glass of fino sherry with a salad or with more easily portable food such as a slice of quiche or a well-filled sandwich.

An Andalusian mount at the feria in Jerez-de-la-Frontera, the city from which sherry takes its name.

Feria in Jerez-de-la-Frontera at night.

III.       While the second edition of this book was in the press, I got married and I proudly took my wife to the vintage feast in Jerez.  Soon after midnight the two of us, walking with a sherry-shipping friend in the feria, began to feel the need for dinner.  We were passing by a stand where they were spit-roasting chickens, basted with oil and flavoured with the most delicious herbs.  I ordered a chicken and a bottle of fino.  ‘A whole bottle for three?’ Deborah asked, aghast.  But she did not bat an eyelid when I ordered the second.  It is, after all, not so very much stronger than any table wines and one drinks more with impunity when well exercised and in the air of Andalusia.

The sea wall in Cadiz, near Jerez, during the day.   You can almost taste the tang of the sea, which reminds  you of sherry.  I wish I were in this photo right now.

IV.          There is a dictum of Robert Benchley that ‘Drinking makes such fools of people and the people are such fools to begin with, it’s compounding a felony.’  A man who drinks fine wine because he enjoys it will never become a drunkard:  wine stops being a pleasure long before it becomes a danger.  Taken the right way, it is wholly good.  During the Great Plague, only Dr Hedges, of all the London doctors, escaped contagion:  he drank a few glasses of Sherris-Sack every day and wrote in his memoirs:  ‘Such practice not only protected me against contamination, but instilled in me the optimism which my patients much needed.’  There is a legend that many years ago there lived an archbishop of Seville who so far exceeded the decent complement of years laid down in Holy Writ as to reach the age of a hundred and twenty-five.  He was a man of regular habits and drank a bottle of sherry with his dinner every day, save when he was feeling at all unwell; then he drank two bottles.

Diego Velasquez, Portrait of Gaspar de Borja y Velasco, Cardinal and Archbishop of Seville (1590-1645), Museo de Arte de Ponce (Puerto Rico).  Probably not the archbishop mentioned above.

V.          When a Jerezano opens a bottle of sherry, he throws a little on the floor before filling his glass.  There is good reason for this, as it gets rid of the wine that may have been corrupted by contact with the cork.  But it is also a ritual – a sacrifice to the earth that gave the wine its being.  Then he does the really important thing and drinks the rest of the bottle.  But he bears in mind the rule of St. Gildas, the Wise:

                          "If any monk through drinking too freely gets thick of speech so that he cannot join in the psalmody, he is to be deprived of his supper."

St. Gildas, the Wise (500-570), British cleric and author of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  Renowned for his learning and literary style.  Fragments of letters he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere than the Rule written by his contemporary, Saint David, and set suitable penances for its breach.


Julian Jeffs recording notes at what appears to be a sherry  tasting.

I-V excerpted taken from:  Julian Jeffs, Sherry.  London, Faber & Faber, 1982 (3rd edition).

West facade of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.  Climbing and walking within its walls is a very good way to test one's susceptibility to vertigo.

Reader Note:  Of all the books I've ever read concerning food and wine (there have probably been far too many), I think Julian Jeffs'  Sherry is the very best.  A former member of the sherry trade turned patent lawyer (Jeffs took his Cambridge undergraduate degree in science), Jeffs's book gives a concise, but complete and detailed account of sherry's history and manufacture, also weaving in the social history of this profound and important wine, which implicates deeply both Spain and England.   

Jeffs' Sherry has a special place in my mind and heart because it reminds me of the annual visits to Spain that Caroline and I used to make when we were much younger and Spain was incredibly affordable and welcoming to Americans -- especially Americans who tried their best to speak in Spanish and showed their enthusiasm for the country.  I will never forget an afternoon spent in Barcelona climbing through the walls of Gaudi's unfinished Sagrada Familia church.  Afterwards, we we stopped in at the closest cafe for a refreshment of fino sherry, served of course in the elegant glass called the copita, and presented with the traditional accompaniments of toasted almonds and green olives served in small bowls.  

I had always detested olives but, because I was in Spain and generally had near the front of my mind  my mother's oft-repeated advice to continue occasionally to try well-loved, popular foods for which  I had not yet acquired a taste, I decided I should give olives another try.  I then experienced one of those "eureka!" moments, leading to a happy olive-filled adulthood (well, the olive part, at least).  

A sherry cask with one transparent end showing the naturally occurring growth of the yeast "flor" on the wine.  Flor generation occurs with finos and amontillado sherries (not olorosos) and accounts in part for the specific character of these wines.

The top of Pedro Domecq headquarters in Jerez.  Domecq's La Ina flagship fino wine is always wonderful.  As with non-vintage champagnes, the fractional "solera" blending method, combining wines of many different vintages, yields very consistent levels of quality on a year-to-year basis.

Aging sherry casks of different vintages for fractional "solera" blending.

Jose-Ignacio Domecq.  One of the great men of the 20th century sherry business, a trade that combines art, business and science.  He always took a dramatic and distinguished photograph.

I find the sight of a copita filled with fino uplifting and filled with incredible promise.

Official coat of arms (escudo) of Andalusia.

Flag of Spain