Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Brilliant Books 2 (Non Fiction)

André Chastell: The Sack of Rome

In 1527, the most Catholic King, Defender of the Faith, Bulwark of Christianity and of the Apostolic Roman Church, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, sent his Spanish tercios into Rome with the orders to destroy the place and massacre its inhabitants. He had a tiny little dispute with the reigning Pope over something or other, and the marginal fact that both were devout Catholics, and that His Majesty pretended to defend the Church against all comers was not considered an objection against such a nice little punitive expedition.

Now if you think that Mr Chastel’s book must consequently be a work full of blood, gore, rape and misery, you are wrong. This, after all, is the Renaissance, where cruelty and refinement, atrocity and art, grossness and sophistication, go hand in hand like infatuated lovers. And that is what you get: a picture of the age in all its aspects, paradoxical, fascinating, mind boggling and complete. I don’t think I have ever read a more comprehensive portrait of that brilliant, yet repulsive age.

Peter Missler: The Treasure Hunter of Santiago

History is full of madmen, but some of them were shocking air-heads on top of that. The worst of those are surely found among the hordes of treasure-seekers which have inhabited every age and every land. Of course, hidden treasure does exist. But the number of deluded, obsessive, idiotic and sheer crazy treasure hunters – men and women who sacrificed everything for the illusion of easy, instant riches – is a thousand times greater than all the hoards of gold ever entrusted to the earth. Mr Missler digs into the tale of a single one of these, the Swiss soap-boiler Benedict Mol, who went to Santiago de Compostela in 1838, sponsored by the Spanish Minister of Finance (!!), to discover a grand treasure sunk by Napoleonic soldiers into the cesspool of a hospital for syphilitics. Those who like reading of mankind’s March of Folly will thoroughly enjoy this one!

Para leer una reseña en Español, haga click aqui

Hard copies and Kindle versions: click HERE

Jerome Carcopino: Daily Life in Ancient Rome

I often wondered if, perhaps, all the archaeologists who knew how to write an elegant sentence had died tragically in the First World War. For the shortage of such scholars in the period which followed that inferno is truly shocking. Where giants such as Gibbon, Mommsen, Burckhardt and Prescott reigned supreme in the 18th and 19th century, in the 20th, the field was taken over by the likes of Stuart Piggott and Marshall Sahlins: bookkeepers who dabble in historical reporting and who manage to chill and kill even the most exciting narrative. Fortunately, from time to time, one discovers a lone soul who still knows how to paint the portrait of an age with flair, insight and human warmth. Mr Carcopino is one such man. His treatment of life in the Augustan age of Rome reads as if he were an eyewitness; and it is so complete, so feeling, so amazing that you come away as if you had spent a two month holiday in the place. An absolute Must for anyone who still understands that the Splendour of Rome has much to teach and tell us moderns!

Juan Campos Calvo-Sotelo: Naufragos de Antaño

Here is one for those who love the sea, who think of England with their eyes closed, and who enjoy the catastrophes suffered by others, while in the comfort of their well-heated, well-provided drawing room. Mr Campos – who himself famously suffers from sea sickness, yet threw himself into maritime history (a sure indication of his exquisite sense of humour) – took half a decade to research a dozen British shipwrecks on Spain’s north-western coast (the aptly named ‘Costa da Morte’, or ‘Coast of Death’), coming up with not only the bare story of each disaster, but with a veritable treasure trove of anecdotes and unknown facts about the ships, the crews, the traditions and the psychology of every man and woman involved. If you happen to read Spanish, this is one instructive and amusing book to take with you to the beach!

Available on the internet: click HERE

Henri Focillon: El Año Mil

Published 952 years after the year it describes, and strangely 7 years after the author’s death, this precious little book has been near forgotten for half a century; to such an extend that I never managed to buy a copy in the original French! Which only goes to show that genius is rarely recognized or acknowledged for its true worth. In just about 200 lightly printed pages, Mr Focillon reconstructs the feel, the facts and all the facets of that One Ominous Year which was the watershed of the Middle Ages, which made all the difference, which marked the Before and the After for generations of men. NOT the kind of reading for those who think David Beckham is an important person, that the recent Olympics were an expression of good taste, or that Saatchi & Saatchi are patrons of the arts on a par with Lorenzo de Medici. But regular readers of Metis Meets Mittington may wish to take a look at Mr Focillon’s splendid tour de force


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Brilliant Books for Holiday Reading

Tomorrow, dear reader, I will depart for Southern France. I will discourse at the opening of an exhibition in the Aix-en-Provence Cezanne Museum, I will attend the music festival at La Roque d’Antheron, I will visit with my dear old friend the author Ian Robertson in Arles, walk up and down the top of the Pont du Gard, as I have done yearly ever since I turned 16, and I will supervise the soccer championship of my old home town Auxerre-sur-Bloise, of whose football club I am the honorary president. It is a busy agenda which will fill the next three weeks. Hence there will be no Metis Meets Mittington until, say, September 7.

Yet do not worry! You will not need to bore yourself to tears. Nor do you need to reach for the bottle to attain blessed oblivion. I have drawn up a reading list of splendid books to keep you busy and happy over the next 21 days, half of them historical and half of them fiction. Go to your bookshop, order these titles, catch up on your reading. Oh, and do – of course – do so in a comfy hammock of your garden with that bottle within reach. What else is the summer for?

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird

Surely one of the very best novels to come out of the 20th century. It has children for its main characters (Yuk!) It plays in the racist south of the USA (Aaargh!) One of the children – they say – is based on the young Truman Capote (Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr… Bring out the Pitbull Terriers!) In short: it has every feature it needs for Alfred B Mittington to hate the guts of this despicable piece of work a priori. And yet… I have read it five times. And each time I like it better. It is brilliant. It is a work of genius. And the portrait of Atticus Finch (the children’s father) is simply beyond description: the narrative equivalent of Chartre Cathedral.

Patrick Süskind: The Perfume

Who would have thought that one of the most novel novels of the last 100 years would have come out of Germany? Germans have many outstanding qualities, but originality is not necessarily one of them. One rather looks towards Renaissance Italians for that kind of stuff. Or French authors with an absinth habit (yummie, by the way!) And yet: here you have it, dear reader: one of the most original ideas for a work of fiction that you ever came across. Something never done before. And then done so very well that it needs not to be repeated, copied, plagiarized or mass-produced in Japan at lower costs. The quest of a halfwit with one extra-ordinary skill for the purest scent of Love; and the cruel tale of how all success ultimately contains a proportional disappointment. Read it for yourself. The movie (which you may have seen) is but a shadow of this fine work of art.

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces

You couldn’t make it up. And yet one man of bottomless genius did: a main character who is a sophisticated intellectual of exquisite taste and yet possesses the personality of a gross, self-centred, deceiving ogre, a manipulative hooligan in the human arena who plays the lute and muses about Hroswitha and Abelard… No character in literature is all at once so revolting and so amusing, so shockingly honest and yet so utterly despicable. Set in New Orleans in the innocent age of the 50s or 60s – when nude pictures still constituted a major crime! – and peopled with a human zoo of unsurpassed variety, the book is by far too long; and yet it never bothers you, for Ignatius J. Reilly is one of those dishes of which the diner always desires one more serving…


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Cookbook: Peerless Potato Salad

I have often been asked, dear reader, how it is that I live so long, in such vigorous physical health and enjoying such inimitable mental powers. There are of course numerous reasons for that. A liberal intake of top quality Mayonnaise – Good for the Soul, Manna to the Mind! – has certainly to do with the little miracle. The music of Mozart, taken in fair doses at breakfast, helps to keep you young (particularly KV 299!) A little light exercise; an afternoon nap; the avoidance of all unbearable, arrogant, heartless authors like Céline, Cela, Lewis Caroll and other perverts; a sunny sense of humor in the face of life’s cruelty and dullness… Each of these things contributes no little to a long, happy, healthy and holy existence.

Most of all, however, I owe my health, genius and bliss to the yearly pilgrimage homeward: to my short summer holiday in my other motherland, la Douce France, whose lush and bountiful soil reinvigorates a son of Marianne in the same way the titan Antaeus was revived, time and time again, by the touch of his mother Gaia.

Antaeus and Hercules

This coming week I will depart on that voyage, dear reader, and Metis Meets Mittington must necessarily close down for a week of two. But do not worry! Fall not a victim to panic! Before departure I will leave you with some tips for excellent books, which you may read in the Mittington Absence so that your mind withers not and Time lies not heavy on your hands...

And as for my culinary duties, I will today be generous beyond reason, and share with you a very well-kept secret, one of the most delicious dishes in the Inner Cookbook, the family recipe for incomparable, matchless, unsurpassed and unsurpassable Flemish potato salad, which was polished, improved and perfected over more than a century by four generations of Coulon and Haasbroek country women, my direct ancestors from Picardie and Mon Plat Pays, and which – if the honest truth be told - belongs more properly to the realms of alchemy than gastronomy.

Grandma Haasbroek’s Peerless Potato Salad.
First and foremost: this is, once again, a ‘Chronos Recipe’. That is to say: in order to get the best out of this dish, in order to ensure that the hidden aromas will be freed from their shackles and will rise to the surface, it must be made AT LEAST 24 hours in advance. You can eat this Potato Salad shortly after making it. But if you do so, you might as well have a ham sandwich. It makes no sense to eat this potato salad immediately after mixing it. The difference is between Maria Callas singing Verdi and your brother-in-law yowling 'New York New York' under the shower. If you see what I mean.

Grandma Haasbroek

Ingredients and basic operations

For roughly 4 people, gather together the following ingredients:

1.5 kilos of good quality potatoes
A single slice of boiled ham of some 150-200 grams, cut into cubes
A fairly sized onion, chopped into small pieces
100 gr of pickles, cut into small pieces
Three fresh lettuce-leaves, broken into small pieces.
Half a cup of fresh parsley, chopped (dried if fresh is not available)
Half a jar of your favourite, top quality Mayonnaise

Boil the potatoes. Let them cool down. Once cool, put them in the fridge without a lid. Let them really get cold and dry. After about 2 hours in the fridge, take the potatoes out and mash them. DO NOT CUBE THEM, but MASH them. We are not Americans (who seem to think that one of the Ten Commandments prescribes the cubing of potatoes for potato salad… Funny fellows!)

The Prime Material (courtesy Nick Shay Deutsch)

Add to the potato mash the cubed ham, chopped onion, chopped pickles, pieces of lettuce, and chopped parsley. Stir well. Add as much Mayonnaise as strikes your fancy (but at least enough to keep the mixture together!) Add a little of the vinegar from the pickles jar (two spoonfuls). Add salt, pepper and a little mustard. Stir well. Seal with tin foil or a lid. Put in the fridge. Do not touch for 20 hours (but 36 hours of undisturbed peace is even better!). A true little miracle will be yours…

Serving the peerless potato salad

An hour before dinner, take the bowl of potato salad out of the fridge. Clean one leaf of lettuce for every diner. Put the leaf on a plate, by way of a bed, then spoon a fair amount of potato salad on top of the leaf. Put sliced hard-boiled egg on top, and cover with an ample dressing of Mayonnaise. Decorate with sprinkled parsley and paprika-powder as in the picture.

Some tinned salmon or tuna on the side goes very well with this dish. Also some buttered toast or French baguette. For further decoration I would suggest: two or three small pickles, some pickled onions, a slice of ham rolled up, slices of tomato, one or two asparagus and whatever else strikes your fancy!

Extras and optionals

This peerless potato salad can still be improved by the addition of one or several or all of the following ingredients: fresh chopped chives, half a cup of garden crest, a hard-boiled egg, some finely chopped capers, half a spoonful of horse radish, a tea spoon of curry powder. None of these is essential, although I personally always add the garden crest if I manage to find it (no easy thing in the health-food-alfalfa-addicted sort of supermarkets where one has to do one’s shopping nowadays!)

Those of you who cannot or will not eat pork have a bit of a problem. The boiled ham is rather an indispensable ingredient in Granma Haasbroek’s Potato Salad. You may always try to make it with such alternatives as corned beef or chicken breast, but I cannot guarantee that the outcome will be felicitous…

In fact, anybody who does not Live In The Right Place has a problem. Both boiled ham and pickles are produced in vastly different ways in all Western countries, and the taste of the ingredients understandably influences the end product. I have made this potato salad in at least 15 different countries in the course of my life. It did not come out identical even once…

If you want a really heavy, sturdy, filling potato salad, then try boiling the potatoes in their skin. Once done, the skin can be easily removed with the help of a fork and a knife, or simply by hand. The resultant potato mash is 25 % heavier than when made with peeled potatoes.

You may of course experiment and discover your own variation of this classic salad, starting, so to speak, a new genealogical line. But Do NOT ever ever ever add such things as boiled carrots or mushy green peas to this salad. Both are too sweet and too weak, and they will kill the effect. Those who desire such ingredients should go for Spanish Ensaladilla Rusa, of which I will soon give the recipy.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Train trip to Oporto (a true story)

I am sorry for a long silence, dear reader. I was gone for a few days. And since I find it ever harder to drag along the old portable Blickensderfer while travelling, my literary output was reduced to a picture postcard to good old Shimon Perez for his birthday, and a rhymed denunciation of Spotted Owls along the lines of Zola’s J’accuse, written by fountain pen (look up what that is on Wikipedia…)

The beautiful Blickensderfer

Anyway. I am back and I’m exhausted. Lisbon can be such a demanding place at this old age! Especially their unbearable habit of putting the best Fado places on opposite hilltops with a needless valley in between, which the old aficionado has to descend and climb at 3 in the morning because he cannot find an affordable taxi no more, now that VAT on transport has been raised to 36 % on the orders – I mean: the recommendations – of the Brussels Mafia.

So: no new texts for a while. The best I can do today is to reprint (repost?) an old text, first published on Colin Davies’s blog two years ago, about the adventure of taking train trips to Oporto, which tells a lot about the mental state of Iberia and how things are done over here.

A Train Trip to Oporto

I subscribe to your opinion, my dear Colin, that where systems or institutions in Spain are often callously inefficient (for the customer, that is), the personal sympathy of individual employees frequently compensates for the mess.

Allow me to illustrate the phenomenon with what must be the most brazen example I remember, from a towering heap collected over the decades. I think it happened in the spring of 2002. Being an unhurried traveller, who appreciates the advantages of a train-ride, I made the grave mistake of wanting to take a TRAIN from Santiago de Compostela to Oporto. You ought to have known better, Al, I hear many folks now sigh. And they are right. In Spain, one takes long-distance busses, which work well enough. Once does not get closer to RENFE than one absolutely needs to.

But Alfie is an idealist, so off he went at the ungodly hour of 6.30 a.m. and presented himself at the ticket-window of Santiago Central. He was received by an attendant who looked most like an old retirement-craving postman whose flat feet hurt him even on his barstool, and who deeply hated the world and humanity for Being There and having written so many love-letters which demand delivery. There was no smile. There was no good morning. There was just a frozen stare.

Alfred, however, is an experienced traveller and not easily disheartened. So I took out my VISA card and asked the good fellow to sell me a ticket to Oporto. Note that I had done this before, without any trouble. But the system had changed. And what system remained, was out to lunch.
‘I cannot do that,’ my grumpy postal clerk told me, leaving the plastic money untouched in the tray. ‘The machine is not turned on. You cannot pay by credit card.’ This was something of an aggravation, because at the time, paying your fare by Visa automatically activated some sort of travel insurance which I did not mind having. There were, however, impatient people waiting behind me, so I did not try the obvious ‘How About Turning Your Machine On?’ but merely raised my eyebrows, pulled my wallet and told him: ‘Well, in that case, give me a ticket to Oporto for cash.’
            ‘I cannot do that,’ he told me as he pushed the VISA card back through the tray. ‘I can only give you a ticket to Vigo. There you must change trains. And you can buy a ticket to Oporto. You have seven minutes for that.’
            ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ I exclaimed, remembering the time I bought a one way ticket from Alès to Vladivostok at the train station of Auxèrre-sur-Bloise (which a assure you, readers, is a fifth the size of RENFE Santiago and gets only 167 passengers a year).
            But working folks were waiting… And getting impatient. WITH ME!
            ‘So give me a bloody ticket to Vigo!’ I said tersely, as I pushed a 50 Euro bill towards the fellow over the tray.
            He looked at me with a blank stare. And I knew what that stare meant. A ticket to Vigo cost 3 or 4 Euros. He did not want to break my 50 Euro banknote.
            It was then that I growled, and tried to remember the exact motions of the kick I had learned during Paratrooper training, and which our sergeant-mayor assured us would take bullet-proof glass out of its frame, so that I might pull him over his counter, and do to him what his mother should never have done to his daddy. At 80, however, one no longer does such things lightly. So I merely looked at him like Nessy on a bad day, and vinegared into his face: ‘Now don’t you give me MORE trouble still…’
And that is where he started giving me lip. He told a paying customer whom he was mistreating that I had no right to abuse him. That he would like to sell me a ticket to Oporto and let me pay by VISA card, but that he was only a worker and following orders and that the Estatut del Trabajador entitled him to…
The train was to leave in 4 minutes. I still had to schlepp my suitcase up and down staircases. The crowd behind me was getting restless. It was either take care of this UGT apparatchik or get to Oporto for my date…
So I simple gave him the Mittington Stare. That, the fact that he had thrown the full Union Manifesto at me in the verbal way, and the fact that I did not make to evaporate and let him attend Nice Customers, finally made him decide to accept the 50 Euro bill, and to sell me a ticket to Vigo.

Bad luck, you say? Aaaaahh, we have the same in Britain? Perhaps. But it was Bad Luck with Bad Manners. It was Below Freezing Customer Service with Great Pride at our Asinine Behaviour. In my near 80 years I never had to deal with that in any other country, except (take care now!) in SOVIET republics! Any other place you know you can appeal. But I knew such a line of action was futile in a place where the customer is fair game. And that in a town which prides itself on receiving half a million foreign pilgrims a year!

Portuguese railway passage

But now for the Good News!

Clutching my one way ticket to Vigo between my lips, I rushed over staircases and strategically placed brick thresholds (Escalators? Who needs escalators? Old folks and invalids should not travel anyway!) I arrived panting at the platform. The train did not. Arrive, I mean. Of a sudden, there was an announcement over the loudspeakers, most politely put – for the benefit of half a million money-spending foreign pilgrims that visit Santiago each summer - in profound AND mechanized Gallego. Forgive me for not getting the drift, ye Galleguistas of the world! I asked for a translation from a student girl standing next to me who explained in remarkably correct English that the Vigo train would leave from platform 7 today. I rushed to platform 7 over staircases and strategically placed brick thresholds. I arrived panting. So did the train. Arrive, I mean. We all boarded. We found seats. We settled in. And then… nothing happened. The minutes passed. More minutes passed. TWENTY minutes passed. The train, as they say, was a little late. Normally that is quite okay for me. But I distinctly remembered my Oblomov Sovietovich Apparatchik telling me that I had only 7 minutes at Vigo station to change trains AFTER buying a ticket! No way I was going to do that, at my octogenarian pace. I was just considering hauling myself out of the train again, and raise All Hell in this City of God, when the train moved. Now what was I to do? I did not want to spend the night in Vigo, but it looked as if I would. And I was just considering getting out at Padron and call one of my co-padrinos who lives nearby to pick me up, when the ticket-checker appeared. She was a sturdy Wagnerian lady, who probably owed her job to some sort of Ministry of Equality program to get women to work in RENFE. But Bless the Ministry’s Feminists for that! I explained to her my dilemma. She frowned deeply. She looked at her watch. And she told me she’d call (somehow) to Vigo station, and tell them there were passengers for Oporto on this train who’d arrive late and needed time to secure their tickets.

In Britain, I’d have laughed in her face at the mere idea. Fool around with the train schedule to accommodate half a dozen customers? Getoutahere! But life, dear reader, is full of surprises…

We got to Vigo. We got out of our car. A train was waiting on the opposite platform. Incredulously, I went to the ticket-window. Me and six others were dispatched, faster than I had ever seen, being given pre-printed tickets to Oporto. That train, that steaming, impatient train on platform 2, it was still there as I paid. It was still there as I rushed out of the building. It was still there when I put my old foot on the steps and hauled my old frame to the safety of travel… I turned around. There, across the rails on the other platform, was my Brunhilde who owed her job to the Equality Program. She waved. I waved back. I even blew her a kiss. And I seriously considered stepping down again, and asking her to marry me.

But then, I figured there must be a clause in the Estatut dos Trabajadores which categorically forbids Employees to tie the knot with Customers (those mud stains on the gene-pool). So I went to Oporto instead, to sing Fados with an old girlfriend from my days in the Revoluciaoao das Claveles (or however the Lusitanians spell their recent history).

Aaah... Oporto! 

Efficiency? There you have Spanish efficiency, my dear Colin. And – of course – Portuguese, Italian, Southern French, and more such countries who take their cues from Ancient Rome. It works because of the personal sympathy of some. Which compensates for the below-zero planning, foresight and uppity attitudes of others.

Daily it surprises me that the place still keeps afloat!