Sunday, 30 December 2007

Happy Winterval

The German origin of the modern Christmas tree. The Germans had quite a religious feeling for their Weihnachtsbaum, which in turn stemmed from the pagan ancestral worship of the trees of the wood.

"Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

For the customs of the people [are] vain: for [one] cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

They [are] upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also [is it] in them to do good."

^Yet another reminder against idolatry in Jeremiah 10:2-5 in the King James Version of the Bible. It was also the third Commandment if I remember correctly. But I believe it shouldn’t matter if you are a heathen.

It was a random quirk of my rota that I had a long period off over the Christmas season this year. So we had great moments simply spending time with loved ones and that was what mattered most. I was also most impressed to see the use of the Dyson airblade hand dryer at Gatwick airport and various London train station public toilets as I have been a long-term fan of the Dyson vacuum cleaner because it actually sucks.

But back on topic.

I have spent most of my life celebrating Christmas and I have many fond memories of them too. However I have stopped ritualising this hybrid pagan-Christian holiday years ago the moment I found out about its origins. I could not stand myself being a phoney so I stopped. It was really as simple as that and it’s no big deal. In fact I am more than happy to work over Christmas usually in shift swaps with colleagues as I know how much it means to many people.

I don’t mind at all if others celebrate it and I am not remotely offended so all this PC BS to ban religious symbols is nonsensical. It is often the Jews and Muslims who ask where have all the Christmas cheer gone? After all, you might be a pagan or a Christian (although a Christian should not celebrate Christmas and I know many Christians who don’t. Don’t kid yourselves about how much fun it is for it goes against many teachings of the Bible from the Old to the New Testaments). I find in fact that it is atheists, agnostics and those who are most uncomfortable with religion (and these include nominal Christians) that worship and celebrate the customs of Christmas with the most fervent zeal. When I kindly ask what exactly are they celebrating, it never ceases to amaze me how tongue-tied they become when such a blasphemous thought is introduced.

One has to be profoundly ignorant to be unaware of the numerous pagan customs shoe-horned into the supposed celebration of the ethnically Jewish Jesus’ (PBUH) birthday (why exactly do we give each other gifts if it is his birthday? Yes, it’s another pagan custom…go find out for yourself) or the mass crass commercialisation that has increasingly crept into it year on year. Okay, even if we accept it as a secular commercial holiday, it is still a deadweight loss under orthodox (ahem) microeconomic theory due to the massive surge in gift giving. And for the greenies out there, please consider the environmental impact of the clutter of waste, the millions of trees destroyed for the production of billions of cards and the purely pagan custom of setting up of a “Christmas tree”, the amount of electricity consumed by decorations bright enough to be seen from space or the carbon footprint from transportation of goods, people and junk. What I am saying is that there are greener ways to celebrate Christmas if you must.

Also, being fiscally responsible when you worship and sacrifice your moolah at the altar of the First High Church of Retail Therapy is a must. After all, you won’t be able to afford 72 virgins when you find yourself on the other side of existence called “spiralling debt”.

But surely when this does not amazingly happen (Christmas Day alone accounted for £84 million in online sales in the UK) is it appropriate and fair to place this under “Life & Style” sub-section “Women”? How sexist of the Times! Tsk. Tsk.

Other than that Christmas was great for me this year and I hope everyone else had a Merry Christmas and will have a happy and healthy 2008.


Sunday, 16 December 2007

Izzy Boo

I spent the weekend with my 2 year-old niece who is getting to be quite the chatterbox. Amazing sentences like “I’ve got a wedgie!” or announcing proudly in a full train carriage, “I’ve done a big poo!” were run of the mill.

We took her to the Shark Capital of Scotland at Deep Sea World at North Queensferry where she was fascinated by the piranhas, frogs and “ho, ho, ho”. It must have been the fourth Santa she had seen in two days and it’s not clear what she makes of him. She would stare at him timidly for minutes and then declare unanimously, “I want to go home!” Hmmmmmmmmmm. But it was the toys and stickers at the gift shop which would fascinate her more whilst I larked about with a hand held toy shark with movable jaws that bit her bottom making her laugh.

She absolutely loves playing hide-and-seek and we spent many fine minutes hiding in all the rooms, closets, curtains and cupboards at my place. She would loosely count to twenty and declare, “Ready or not, here I come!” accompanied by a devilishly cheeky face with narrowed eyes bent on mischief. She is so utterly adorable.

She thinks she is hidden. ROFL.

And wow, it snowed for the first time as soon as they got here!

She can negotiate. Eyeing and then grabbing a bag of Haribos, she would make her demands pretty clear, “Mommy, Daddy I want sweets!” Tantrums would be Plan B. Never fails. But then she is caring and readily shares the sweets with me freely without any prompting.

She loves to dance and every time a musical interlude she recognises is heard we would hold hands, do a little twirl and shake da booty.

She is very sharp and picks things up quickly after hearing or seeing things only once. She can sing some Christmas Carols in a semi-literate shy way with a huge smile on her face. And she LOVES reading books…or at least she pretends to since the only books at my place have words and no pictures. She would grab a whole pile off the shelves from my towering bookcases and ad lib stories to me in a delightful sing-song fashion.

At the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, she would literally drag me by the hand to take me see the world that is full of delights and try the various hands on exhibits in the science section. And this is the age where everything is questioned with a plaintive “Why?”

She makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Children are essentially a blank cheque for hope. That’s what they are.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, Atheist And A Vampyre…

…walked into a bar. Okay, okay…actually they are characters from the last few books I read. Well, along with tempting offers to the mind-numbing paradise that is digital satellite TV, I got yet another Official Warning in the post today from the TV Licensing Board threatening me that if I do not pay my annual TV Licence I could be slapped on the wrist, incarcerated with soap-dropping spotters or horror-of-horrors…forced to watch re-runs of TV reality shows ad nauseum.


It’s been over 5 years 5 months since I’ve binned the dead metal. I refuse in principle to pay good money for being a passive consumer of commercial shit. Plus I don’t really have the time to watch shit (far more profitable to waste my time in front of the computer, of course). I’d rather see what I want, when I want (the internet and DVDs serve that purpose well enough for me). But I’ve also ended up reading more books, devouring at least one a week. Anyway…the last random few were…

Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian” (2005)

This book left me anaemic with horror. Horrified at how interminably boring it was.

First off, it’s pretty damn obvious that this is a labour of love for an author who adores history, genealogy, librarians and the legend of Dracula. I mean, that in theory should be a winning combination for me…especially when a character utters thus:

"It's my belief that the study of history should be our preparation for understanding the present, rather than escape from it." (p335)

Yup, pretty much the standard aphorism I do in fact utter but that was all the enjoyment I got I’m afraid because several things annoyed the hell out of me. The novel started off promisingly in a gothic way but vapidly descended in the most protracted way possible into a sappy love story between the standard atheistic dashing academic chap (why of course) and a beautiful atheistic intelligent jaded woman (you don’t say!) using a hybrid attempt of crosses and a touch of Islam to fight off the undead. C’MON! Maybe it's because I am a cynical bastard but there were a lot of suspiciously fortuitous happenstance and serendipity used to drive the narrative from point A to point B plus gratuitous doses of rose tinted idealism between the interactions of human characters that I found utterly unbelievable. They were also convenient walking-talking-encyclopaedias of history, furniture and what-have-you, to the point they all conversed in the same bland way…even Vlad Dracula himself, who just seemed so emasculated and wooden when we finally meet him (who incidentally is the titular “Historian”…to the in-joke of him actually having a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his own library…*winces*). Seriously, a trimming of the fat here and there and a stake through its heart would have made a more taut novel. Bite me.

(For the record, my favourite Vampyre novel of all time, besides Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" (1897), is the much under-rated Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s "Carmilla" (1872). The 19th century Irish seriously knew how to wield the gothic pen.

For the study of Vampyre lore in literature, Christopher Frayling’s “Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula” (1992) comes highly recommended by moi.)

Sam Bourne’s “The Last Testament” (2007)

Another Da Vinci Code wannabe that actually has a good McGuffin looted from the Iraqi National Museum during the war in 2003 that may change the Middle East conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s the same formulaic religious history thriller in bite sized chapters ending with useless non-suspenseful mini-cliff-hangers, a hot intelligent ballsy lapsed-Catholic babe© and a handsome macho yet sensitive Jewish man© (yes, they do bang each other) in a race against time to locate…well, read it to find out what it is.

But having found out what it is, any Tom, Dick and Ahmed can guess the uncontroversial pedestrian ending. It’s undemanding pulp fiction full of clich├ęd cardboard characters for people who know jack-shit about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Abrahamic religions. Which means it should sell.

Justin Cartwright’s “The Song Before It Is Sung” (2007)

This is a moving well-crafted piece of work that is elegant, morally and intellectually engaging and poetically elegiac. I would rate Cartwright amongst the best of contemporary British writers and this book was simply a delightful find. By the use of differently named characters, it’s essentially a fictionalised historical story of the relationship between Isaiah Berlin, the Jewish Oxford philosopher, and Adam von Trott, the German aristocrat who had been a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, and a token card carrying Nazi but true German patriot who plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the “Wolf’s Lair” in 1944. The book’s narrator, a dreamy Conrad Senior, having been bequeathed various personal documents, becomes obsessed about finding out the past (and the location of the only surviving film of the German patriot’s eventual execution ironically filmed by a Jewish cameraman still living in present day Berlin) to the detriment of his relationship with an emotionally frigid unsympathetic lover who cheats on him.

The history is essentially iffy but ignoring that one stain, the novel’s delving into the larger questions of fate, friendship, and the contrast between talk and action as exemplified by the two main characters was masterful.

Shimon Ballas’ “Outcast” (English translation from Hebrew 2007)

This is a rare little gem from a contemporary Israeli writer originally from Iraq. Admittedly this review was what got me interested:

" . . . reveals more about modern Iraq than nearly all Americans put together know, and Ballas creates one of the most relevant, most important characters in contemporary fiction." – Booklist, Starred Review

Ouch. That was a bit harsh hyperbole heaped on the Americans (even though it might be true…heh). It’s a fictionalised historical memoir of Haroun Sassoon (based on the real figure of Ahmad Nissim Soussa), an Arab Iraqi Jew who embraced Islam in the 1930s and his personal interactions with family and friends set against the tumultuous background of Iraqi politics. Now talk about a Pandora’s box of issues.

I loved the insights the narrator made on himself, people, religion and politics. The depressing narrative sometimes rambles a bit and goes off into seemingly unpromising tangents but it does tap into issues of identity, loyalty and family dynamics as it does so…a scene where the narrator stands in front of the cross of the grave of his wife with his Jewish son and Muslim daughter pretty much sums up the poignancy of his life. This book could probably benefit with a timeline of Iraqi history for the general reader since even with my paltry knowledge I felt it was hard to follow.