Archiv für November 2010

Yesterday is History. Tomorrow is Mystery.

25.11.2010

Every Sunday afternoon BBC TV puts out a programme on antiques. It’s mostly quite interesting, not only because of the antiques themselves, but also because of the locations. The locations are usually in the wonderful gardens and / or parks of castles, palaces or similar large houses. These buildings, themselves, are usually antique, from an architectural aspect.

People bring along their various belongings where, experts classify and value them, which they do in the friendliest, entertaining way.

Other TV channels have programmes where items are sold at auction. Sometimes teams A and B compete in buying and then auctioning objects to see which can make the most profit.

Then there are car-boot sales (The boot of a British car is the compartment at the back for carrying luggage, etc.)

Cars park in a field, then the drivers take out the goods they want to sell. Quite often, genuine, valuable antiques exchange hands here, sometimes for peanuts.

Many buildings including old houses, are classified according to their individual history, so that it’s quite possible to buy an old house with the idea of renovating it; then finding out that it has a historical classification. This means that the buyer may be refused permission to change the structure. Hard luck!

All this antique activity has got me wondering. Will there always be antiques in the future? By which I mean, will, for example, our now modern houses, ever be seen as antique by our grandchildren’s grandchildren? All the concrete buildings lining our streets today – will they ever be seen as antique?

The same applies to our modern often minimalist furniture and other household articles. It’s hard to believe that they ever will. Nevertheless, ‘ever’ can be a long time. Will our modern buildings last for ‘ever’?

Some of you out there, may be involved in these areas. Perhaps you may be able to put my mind at rest, about some of my uncertainties.

Your feedback would be very welcome.

Glossary

Put out:  in this context to transmit a TV or radio programme.

Programme:  here, any show which transmited on TV or radio.

Belongings:  the things which we own.

Value:  here, a verb meaning to suggest how much money something is worth.

Genuine:  real, for example a genuine Rembrandt painting is one painted by Rembrandt and not by someone else.

Valuable:  worth a lot of money.

Concrete:  please see here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete

Minimalist furniture: please see here :  http://www.articlealley.com/article_1094838_47.html

Links

The BBC:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/

The Antiques Roadshow:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/

Choose Your Democracy

18.11.2010
On BBC radio this morning, I heard a Chinese diplomat being interviewed, on China’s position in today’s world. He was politely defending  China’s economics and politics. I was puzzled by his attempt to equate democracy with continuing one-party rule. Does the word ‘democracy’ have a  fundamentally different  meaning in the Chinese languages from the western languages.
We also have Burma (Myanmar) voting as I write this. The Burmese have practically no option but to vote for the military junta, still in absolute power for decades. The generals seem to be disguising their dictatorial system with what they would like us to believe is democracy at work. A few African countries have similar ideas. This brought me back to one of my previous blogs on how democratic is democracy, etc.
Let’s have a look at the present British voting system. A party which gets more votes than any other single party, is the winner. It is colloquially known as ‘the first past the post’. (taken from horse racing). But, let’s take a closer look. Suppose that there are three main parties hoping to be elected (a typical scenario in the UK).
Let us further suppose that Party A receives 40% of the votes. Party B receives 30%  and Party C also receives 30%. This means that Party A is elected to govern the UK, although Party B and C together have 60% of the total votes, whereas Party A only has 40%. Is this democratic? Is it fair?
Smaller parties would dearly prefer a Proportional Representation system. This might, at least, give them the possibility of being included in a coalition form of government. The big parties argue that coalitions are not able to be decisive enough for effective government. Only a single party majority can run the country effectively.
Now let us look at the results of the recent election, a few months ago. The Conservative Party won most votes, but by such a small majority over the Labour Party, that it would have been unable to pass the necessary measures in Parliament, to combat the country’s indebtedness. What happened? the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party (rather similar to the German FDP), which had received 18% of the total votes. Luckily the coalition is working fairly well at the moment.
But for how long? Your guess is as good as mine. These two parties have many basic policy differences. I think we shall  see a lot of coalition in-fighting, after the panic of the present national indebtedness dies down. By the way, despite the Lib Dems big say in the present coalition, they still very much want a form of proportional representation to become law. They call  it ‘AV (the Alternative Vote). We’ll see!
Can there ever be a form of democracy that is 100% fair to everybody? It seems not.
Do you have the perfect solution? If so, I’d like to hear it.

Glossary
Puzzled:  confused.
Colloquially:  in every day speech.
Scenario:  an imagined sequence of events.
Proportional representation:
Decisive:  to be able to make firm decisions quickly.
Combat:  to fight.
Indebtedness:  in this context the amount of money owed by one person or nation to other people, institutions or nations.
In-fighting:  conflicts or arguments between members of the same organisation.

The British government:  http://www.britannia.com/gov/gov4.html

‘Remember, Remember, the 5th of November.’

10.11.2010
Yesterday should have been the 5th of November, but it wasn’t the 5th, it was the 6th.

Now why that?

Well, it was on the 5th of November 1605, that a certain gentleman by the name of Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He had smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the cellars there, but was caught as he was about to ignite the explosives. So what’s new about the terrorist bombings the world is experiencing today? His punishment was to be ‘burnt at the stake’.

I’m not going to go into the details of this act of treason. You can find them on your laptop. Enough to say, that since then British have commemorated this event on the 5th November ever since.

How? By burning an effigy of Mr. Fawkes on a ‘bonfire’ (in gardens and fields) together with firework displays. Another religious quarrel between protestants and catholics. History just doesn’t stop repeating itself!

There was a time when we small children went from door to door, asking for a penny for the guy. Usually we pushed an old trolley or buggy around, with a child-made ragged resemblance to ‘guy’. We spent the few pennies we had collected on fireworks. Then, in the evening of the 5th, we gathered around the village bonfire in a field, setting off our individual crackers, squibs, etc. Great fun !

Now, coming up to date in my story, the 5th November was on Friday – not the ideal day for our purpose. By ‘our’ I mean the local Rotarian club. Rotarians raise funds for a host of charities, not least for international catastrophies. The great thing about Rotary is that nobody is paid for his/her work. Every penny raised, reaches its target.

So, here am I, a member of a local Rotary club. The club organised a bonfire night in the nearby town of Didcot (famous for it’s history in the development of steam railway locomotives). As I said earlier, Friday would not have brought the crowds of people necessary for good fundraising.

The bonfire was made up of hundreds of broken, wooden pallets. The firework display was by a local company specialising in fireworks (this was the main expense borne by our club).

Saturday morning was spent setting up the event, e.g. fences, barriers, flood lighting, entertainment booths and stalls. A great deal of planning and organising was necessary, not forgetting the legal fire and injury requirements. The public was then charged an entry fee into the field.

They arrived in hundreds. The bonfire was enormous, lighting up the night sky (which favoured us by not raining). An hour or so later, after the fire started to die down, the firework display started. Fantastic!

I don’t think the public interested itself much in the history of the event. They just came to enjoy themselves. They were mostly young families. You should have seen the sparkle of joy in the eyes and smiles of the little, innocent toddlers, in buggies or their parents arms, and wearing colourful hats and bonnets, etc. It was really their evening.
Now, perhaps you can understand why the Brits have been slow to take up fireworks on the 31st December, as many other countries do. But it is starting to develop. As they say, ‘watch this space’.

Nevertheless, these two firework evenings have such different origins and atmospheres, that I’m sure there will always be Guy Fawkes night for the Brits.

Glossary
To blow (something) up:  to destroy it with an explosion.
Smuggle:  to bring something into a country, building, etc. illegally.
Barrel:  a round wooden container used for storing wine before it is bottled, for example.
Ignite:  to cause something to burn.
Stake:  in this context a long, thick, pointed stick fixed in the ground.
Treason:  the crime of trying to overthrow a government or kill the leader of a country.
Effigy:  a model of someone who is disliked – often used in political demonstrations.
Bonfire:  a large outdoor fire made of wood and leaves.
Quarrel:  a strong disagreement or argument between two or more people.
Ragged:  in this context something made imperfectly.
Crackers, squibs:  types of fireworks.
A host of (something):  a large quantity of something.
Toddler:  a young child learning to walk.

‘Food for Thought’

03.11.2010

London has some of the best restaurants in the world. Book shops are full of recipe books. TV daily transmits cooking competitions, celebrity chef shows, and supermarkets constantly offer the most exotic elements and ingredients for superb food with which to grace the table in the average home.

That being the case, why, when I eat out at an average restaurant, do I often find it a mediocre experience?

Sometimes I think it’s the fault of the British chefs – scared to over-season their cooking in case they offend their customers. Then, perhaps it’s the fault of the customers who simply accept what is put on the plate in front if them, and are not adventurous enough in their tastes.

What often irritates me in British eating establishments is the rather poor service. By which I mean the obvious lack of training of the waiter/waitress staff. They are mostly very friendly and want to please the diners. But they clearly lack finesse.

In the days of long distance horse and coach travel, the route was divided into stages – places where the tired horses were exchanged for fresh ones. there the traveler could eat and rest, and get a bed for the night. They functioned like mini-hotels and were known as ‘inns’. In those days, these establishments were recognised to be the best in Europe. Home cooking was also of a relatively high standard (where money allowed).

So, what went wrong in these islands of tasty gastronomy?

Well, I’ve thought about it quite a lot and here are some of my conclusions, justified or not.

Continental establishments are mostly family run, down through the generations, with traditional know-how as part of the norm. In Britain pubs, cafes and restaurants are bought and sold like paper on the Stock Exchange. No tradition, just profit.

I also think the original inns died out when travel became motorised. Cars could travel much longer distances without stopping than horses, thus making inns somewhat obsolete.

Perhaps a significant factor  is the well-worn British Sunday lunch custom. A special once-a -week meal. Typically made up of roast meat (preferably beef), roast potatoes, plus vegetables. Often with Yorkshire pudding (not a sweet pudding), all with plentiful  gravy (meat sauce). Street restaurants just couldn’t compete with this, so why have a restaurant if nobody visited it at the week-end?

During and for some time after WWII it was difficult to find a restaurant open on Sundays. On the continent, of course, it was normal to eat out on Sundays. It was a long time before British restaurants started to appear in the numbers we come to expect in today’s Britain. But of course, they didn’t develop with all the finer aspects of the continental ones.

Now we come to the pubs (public houses). Suddenly they began to understand that they could make a greater profit on food than on drink. Since about the 1970s they have steadily increased the serving of food on their premises.

Today, most pubs are known as gastro-pubs, having both restaurant and bar. My feelings about these places is mixed. The food is often good, but still without the extra chef’s experienced touch, and the old pub atmosphere, which used to be a special British characteristic, is suffering at the expense of catering.

Not to be forgotten, the modern super market has many shelves of ‘ready food’. So why should the modern lady of the house bother to cook, when she has ready food and a microwave oven?

Have I got all the reasons and answers correct? I wonder. Nobody starves in the UK, indeed, too many of them are obese.

Oh, how I long to sit in a restaurant on the outskirts of Rome, or in a Gaststätte in the Alps area. My mouth waters at the very thought. But there is one place, I can take you to in Oxford. You would love it!

Glossary
Recipe:  instructions for preparing something to eat or drink.
Chef:  a trained, professional cook, often the head cook in a good restaurant.
Ingredients:  in this context all the items listed in a recipe.
To grace the table: to make the table look special (seldom used in spoken English).
Mediocre:  of ordinary quality; a little below average.
Season:  in this context from seasoning, ingredients such as salt and pepper which improve the flavour of food.
Offend:  in this context, to hurt someone’s feelings.
Custom:  here, it means a tradition.
Yorkshire pudding:  please look at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorkshire_pudding.
Obese:  very fat or overweight – corpulent.