Wednesday, 29 September 2010

La Vendange

Ah yes, two days to October. So, for some weeks it’s been that season when, all across the Northern hemisphere, horny handed peasants have been taking to their fields with their grape-scissors, gathering the harvest from their weighed-down vines and casting the ripe, sweet-smelling bunches into ancient wicker baskets, to be emptied into vast wooden baths and there trodden into fermenting pulp by cackling village crones and delirious olive-coloured bambini; or piled on terracotta platters for the menfolk to pop at lunchtime, one by one, into their juice-stained mouths beside chunks of last year’s Compte or Taleggio and great swigs of a previous treasured vintage … Well, something like that.

I too have this problem, on a smaller scale. Five years ago I accidentally planted a vine, just down near the apple tree, and gave it a puny bit of trellis to climb. ‘Mmm, I like it here’ thought the vine. ‘More trellis, if you please’. Last year, the area of trellis was doubled – but was the creature satisfied? This summer, it’s been aiming for the apple tree. Next year I’ll have to take detours to reach the car.

But that’s nothing. The grapes are the real trouble. They don’t come in huge quantities; it’s the quality. They’re red (that’s fine) but very small. Most of the content is a large pip; and most of the rest is skin, which is tough enough to weave into a handbag or clothe a GaGa. Annoyingly, if you chew one and spit out the resulting waste products, it’s delicious.  (A grape that is, not a handbag or ...)

So, what to do with my crop? Last year I ended up just leaving it there for the pigeons to eat and get drunk on (though I don’t know how you can tell if a pigeon’s drunk – they seem to fall off things regardless). But this time I plan to do better. Here, in brief, is a list of some options I have considered:

Wine. The obvious first choice, recommended by innumerable well-wishers. So I dug my ancient home wine-making manual out of the bottom of the recipe book wardrobe. Sure enough, there are instructions for something called ‘Grape Wine’. (Latour, Ramon Bilbao and co., please do get in touch.) Four pounds of grapes, it said; I can probably muster that much. I have some old demijohns down in the garage, I think. So I read on. The first instruction was ‘Place the grapes in a bowl, add the boiling water and leave for a month, stirring daily.’ So that did it for wine.

Culinary use. There are remarkably few recipes that use grapes. Constance Spry has one which involves halving each grape and stuffing them with cream cheese, to be served on cocktail sticks. Very funny, Constance. Many years ago, faced with an over-purchased glut, I wrote down a recipe for ‘grape puree’, which read: ‘Get some grapes. Puree them. Leave in fridge for three weeks. Throw away.’

Give them away. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work.

However, I may have hit on the answer. Grape vodka. To be concocted along the lines of sloe gin, which I’ve made many times. It can’t fail, can it? Going to have a go, anyway. It’ll take a few months, so if you don’t hear from me after about February, you’ll know it’s been really successful.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Rainbow over Reading

6.45 p.m. today, just after an earth-shaking electrical storm.
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Sunday, 19 September 2010

On a more serious note ...

Faith and Reason

I listened, as reasonably as I could, to the Pope’s explanation of why John Henry Newman deserves to be recognised in calendars and diaries, celebrated every year on the twentieth of October, beatified (the last step on his road to becoming a full-blown Catholic Saint). The gist of it (leaving out miracles) seemed to be that Newman (who incidentally reneged at a fairly early age from the Protestant religion of his birth to the Church of Rome, for reasons which the Pope chose not to go into) in some way uniquely encapsulated a kind of conjunction of two seemingly opposite, irreconcilable attitudes, or foundations, from which or on which we can base the way we lead our lives and try to affect the way others do – Faith and Reason.

Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. 

Sorry, Pope, I don’t buy it. You are starting from the wrong place. Without getting either too philosophical or too mystical, here’s a nutshell’s worth. Ready?

O.K. All that we start with, all that we possess from the day we’re born, is the input of our senses; and then, as we grow, our power of reason. Neither of these is infallible, or even reliable. I know that my senses are a blunt instrument, otherwise I’d be able to see the spaces in between electrons; and my logic frequently makes mistakes (if you doubt that, just look inside my fridge).

But that does not justify the introduction of a third element to the mix, this thing called Faith.

Let’s be quite clear: by Faith, we are not talking about the day-to-day power which enables us to fail to notice electron collisions or fridge contents.  On religion’s own terms, we are explicitly talking about belief in God; and by that the Pope explicitly means, again in his own terms, belief in the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religious systems. But that’s not the end: by virtue of the insistence on that particular belief set, we are also instructed to subscribe, unthinkingly, unreasoningly, to the body of legalistic (at best), perverse (at worst) dogma and practice which has stuck, like congealing effluent, to the pure core of that belief. How precisely does that chain of reason, or leap of faith, lead to the beatification and sanctification of John Henry Newman?

I have, as I said, followed the events of the last four days quite closely, because I do think (believe? am advised by my observation or my logic?) that this stuff’s important. And that worries me.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Papal Beef

So, "atheist extremism" and "aggressive secularism", eh?

Right: tailor-made international charter flights (on time); custom-built bullet-proof Mercedes skyscraper; one-off rock-festival podium and sound system; phalanx of black-suited bodyguards straight out of Reservoir Dogs; costumes that would make Kiss blush; orchestrated cheering weeping street mobs; twenty-four hour uncritical media coverage; oh yes, and £15m+ of public money.  (Have I missed anything?)

Looks pretty aggressively extreme to me, at least in marketing terms.  Not many atheists get that lot.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Word music

I enjoy reading, as you know.  And it appears that as time goes on, the content of what I read matters less and less.  Written words sometimes aspire to the state of music; and the more abstruse the music, the more I like it.  I'm not thinking of bad writing, that's just boring; nor of deliberately obfuscatory scrivening (see what I did there?), which is just people who think they're clever.  No, I'm thinking of a piece of writing which is clearly taut, focussed, finely honed - but which has a subject, syntax and vocabulary of which I know absolutely nothing, and yet which grips me as only the very best poetry can do.

OK, here it is, my weekly treat: Victoria Coren, in the Guardian, on poker.  A correspondent recently rightly suggested that her column is best read, out loud or in your mind's ear, in a De Niro or Pacino accent, as if it were a clip from Goodfellas or The Godfather.  Try it.  The great thing is that, probably, none of us has a clue what it means, or indeed if it actually means anything, or whether she's just having us on.  So, yeah, just like the very best poetry.