Sunday 30 January 2011

Haggis and Burns, Fish and Hugh

As a self-confessed foodie – a word surprisingly first used by Graham Greene in the New York Magazine in 1980 – it was delightful that last week was the annual opportunity to indulge in haggis to commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday.

Regardless of having no Scottish ancestry, the idea of eating a particular meal to remember an eighteenth century poet who immortalised the foodstuff in verse is too appealing to miss. While I know little else about Burns (apart from his poem To a Mouse providing the title for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men), his apostrophic poem Address to a Haggis is a celebration of both food, and its importance to Scottish society.

Where is the English equivalent? I know food is seen throughout literature and I have read some intriguing (and some less so) academic studies on the subject, but I cannot think of any text celebrating English food in such a patriotic way. While opinion is divided over the national food – is it fish and chips, roast beef, the fry-up, or chicken tikka masala? – no writing seems to have captured the public’s imagination in such a way as Burns. Or possibly, it could be the lack of interest in literature. Burns’ night celebrates a poet and, apart from the RSC’s local celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon in April, England has not chosen a writer to remember as Scotland has adopted Burns.

The other glorious thing about haggis is its ingredients. My supplier uses a mix of lambs’ lungs and liver (eschewing the oft-included heart) and oats and while the ingredients do not necessarily have the enticing ring of most people’s shopping lists, I have yet to serve it to someone who has not enjoyed it; three of my twenty-one diners had not had haggis before and all had their preconceptions pleasingly dashed.

Haggis is made of the bits of the animal that the poor were obliged to eat centuries ago (the first written record of ‘hagws’ is a fifteenth century cookbook), but in doing so, little of the animal was wasted. I have just caught up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent series of programmes bringing the issue of discards to the public’s attention. The problem is that for conservation reasons, fishermen have a quota for each species of fish they are allowed to catch. If they catch a species which has reached their quota while fishing for another species, they are obliged to throw over-quota fish back into the sea, dead. Figures show about 50 per cent of their catches are wasted in this way. Jeremy Paxman is quoted as saying ‘Humpty Dumpty said that “words mean what I choose them to mean”, but if this policy is ‘conservation’ then I’m the Mad Hatter’: this summarises the issue succinctly.

Haggis is a delicious historical example of preventing food being wasted, and in the twenty-first century it is ridiculous that food is being thrown away when prices are soaring and people are starving. While I did not intend this blog to be political, in the case of Hughs Fish Fight I will make an exception.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Coffeshop? Coffee Shop? Cafe?

Britons are perceived to be a nation of tea drinkers and I am happy to be included within the generalisation. What is more refreshing, in any season, at any time of day or night, than a cup of tea? What is the one thing that is always missing on holidays beyond British waters? The typically idyllic (but generally fallacious) view of an English town always includes one or more tea shops serving leaf tea in bone china cups accompanied by crustless cucumber sandwiches and a three-tiered array of sweet delicacies.

However, over the past decade, the proliferation of coffee shops – note the two words, not to be confused with the Dutch single-word, and slight misnomer, ‘coffeeshops’ – has marked a change in the British hot beverage appetite. Looking at the companies’ histories, Costa began spreading its tendrils throughout the UK in 1995 when it was acquired by Whitbread, and Starbucks started appearing on every other street corner in 1998. Despite Costa having been retailing in the UK for longer, it seems to have been the American style Starbucks that led the nation’s change of heart.

I remember several years ago being in a Starbucks in the US and gawping at the incongruity of people sitting with laptop computers, or books, or a pad of paper and pen, working. Yet, I am now sitting in a Costa writing this in long hand (a strange experience in itself), watching people come and go with their cappuccinos, lattes, and sickly flavoured coffees; despite making my coffee last for nearly two hours, I have yet to see any of the British public with a pot of tea.

Being a weekend, most people seem to be coming in to relax, meet friends or to read the newspaper, but during the week, I have seen business meetings take place and exchanged the silent acknowledgement of solidarity with other people working and monopolising a seat for more than the twenty minutes it takes to drink a massimo coffee. While I have been scribbling, a teacher has just taken her seat: she has, like me, bought a combination of school work and personal reading and the obligatory bucket of coffee.

Apart from the increase in coffee as the drink of choice, the blurring of the boundaries between the spaces of work and home and the public and private is interesting. (Eavesdropping, I learn that she is also a secondary English teacher.) While people have always brought work home, the concept of bringing it home to take it out to complete in public feels indicative of the exhibitionist lives that many of use now lead online when we tweet our every move or regularly update our statuses. Through the internet’s democratisation of society (more blurred boundaries) we seem, as a nation, to be slowly losing our stiff-upper-lipped, tea-drinking identity. But are we becoming more European with our cafĂ© (a word deriving, of course, from the French for ‘coffee’) culture? No. We are becoming more American with our adoption of the coffee shop as a space for working and thereby losing more of both our personal, and previously private, space and identity.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Virtual or reality

In the past week I have sung at six choral services at Lichfield Cathedral and listened to a newly released CD on which I am singing as part of Birmingham Cathedral Choir. Every second of the CD was recorded at least twice and edited to produce the final product which can be listened to repeatedly, but the services took place at their allotted time and all that is left is an ephemeral memory of the occasions.

While the ultimately polished performance on the CD is an important artefact in its own right, the transitory nature of a live performance must be accorded greater respect. Turning up to a cathedral, concert hall, or theatre to see and hear a group of individuals performing for the assembled audience – be it four people at a weekday Evensong or thousands at the Albert Hall – where everything is happening at just the moment is a potentially electrifying experience for both the performers and audience.

Over the past few years, an industry whereby concert performances are recorded and CDs of the event burnt and sold to the audience as they leave has developed. While this must prove a profitable scheme for the performers, how many of the CD’s listeners will be disappointed when they attempt to relive the experience of the live concert in the comfort of their own home? The National Theatre and Metropolitan Opera have recently broadcast their performances to cinemas throughout the country so people can enjoy the experience of going to the theatre or opera more cheaply and conveniently, but how can this detached presentation of the performance offer the ‘cinema’ audiences the excitement of seeing the real performance?

When teaching drama texts, I often think how useful it would be to have a recording of a staged performance of the play (rather than television or cinematic adaptations) so the text can be shown as it is meant to be seen rather than just being read in the classroom, but these are few and far between. Ultimately, I believe this is probably a good thing; although useful, they would deprive people of the experience of seeing a live performance. If a recording of each of the RSC’s performances of Shakespeare’s 37 plays was available to watch, why would they ever have to stage another play when a DVD could simply be shown for the audience’s delectation?

While a planned, edited and published recording provides a valuable historic record of artistic performances, there is an immediacy missing in a live performance mediated through screen or amplifier. In a world where is it easy to access recordings of nearly anything through the internet – think live events, mobile phones and YouTube – the combined human effort that goes into a live performance must not be overlooked. The experience of seeing or hearing a performance live provides something infinitely more valuable for an individual’s understanding and appreciation of the world and the capabilities of people around them and must not be underestimated in our ‘on demand’ age.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Personal pricing

This week, Facebook was valued at approximately £32,000,000,000. Initially, this may seem a phenomenal sum of money for a website that people merely use to keep in touch with friends, make witty remarks on status updates and peer voyeuristically into others’ lives.

When we remember we pay nothing to use Facebook, the question of what makes the company worth anything surfaces. Is it the hardware infrastructure running the site? Is it the programmers who make it all work? While these might form the tiniest part of the valuation, the £32 billion is what the information about its users is worth.

Think about it. In signing up for Facebook you entered, inter alia, your age, gender, location, schools and universities attended, courses taken, employers, personal beliefs and the interests you have. You then made virtual friends with people who you have encountered because they – usually – have something in common with you. Therefore, when one of your friends finds something new they enjoy or they are interested in, Facebook can recommend it to you as there is a good chance of you being interested in it too. In short, having shared your life with it, Facebook knows what will interest you before you do. Think about that from the marketing point of view.

Before you dismiss this as unrealistic, consider the last purchase you made on Amazon. Did you notice the list of recommended books or DVDs ‘that you may like’ which had been bought by other people who also bought the item you have just paid for? All you told Amazon was that you liked a certain book or DVD by purchasing it. The information you have chosen to give to Facebook covers far more of your life.

We would all like to believe that you cannot put a price on human life but this is what Facebook’s valuation has done. According to its own statistics, Facebook has more than 500,000,000 active users. This means that each of its users’ lives is worth around £64. For less than the price of a tank of petrol, you have been sold to the marketing executives of any forward thinking company which looks to Facebook for access to their target market. Unlike a traditional survey which might identify consumers at a single point in time, your profile on Facebook changes as your interests change and with this the forward thinking company either knows it is no longer worth chasing you or that they need to double their efforts in appealing to you.

Does this mean that I am going to delete my Facebook profile and stop posting online? No. I, like so many others, find the free service that Facebook provides both useful and fun. I am willing to tolerate the advertisements dotted throughout the site, but I would like think that I understand some of the implications – both for now and the future – of the privacy agreement saying what our data can be used for which we are obliged to accept when joining.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Tabula rasa

When faced with a blank piece of paper, a blank canvas, a blank sheet of manuscript paper or, most likely in the twenty-first century, a blank space with a cursor flashing expectantly at the left hand side of the screen, the prospect of all the emptiness to be filled is – to me, at least – frightening. I said this to a friend recently who suggested that I should, instead, see it as an opportunity.

I can understand that it is the opportunity to write, draw or compose and the possibilities are therefore endless – and for that we should be pleased – but the question of what to write, draw or compose worries me. Choosing words to fill in blanks, or colouring in a paint-by-numbers or reharmonising a tune all appeal to me as there is a structure in which to work or at least to provide a starting point for my own attempts.

But, when faced with a blank page, I panic.

I admire the discipline of columnists and diarists who have to write a certain number of words each week for publication and this has spurred me to decide to endeavour to write a regular blog post of a fixed length. A ‘blog post’ is a somewhat nebulous term as blogs can – and often do – contain many things, but in the age of the internet it is one which we must use. In using the term I want to see it as an electronic equivalent of a diary or a column which thereby satisfies the part of Wikipedia’s definition of a blog post which includes writing commentaries or descriptions of events.

Having decided I wanted to blog (on the internet word classes seem to be interchangeable) I tried to decide what I should focus on as a subject. I have previously never successfully kept a diary – or blog – or done any regular writing on any topic; however, I realised that I do enjoy using my status updates on Facebook and the ability to post links to newspaper articles as a form of ‘micro-’ (or even ‘nano-’) blogging’. Having been doing this for some three years now, and regularly receiving comments and ‘Likes’ in the process, I feel that the wide range of topics on which I ‘microblog’ are all legitimate topics to include.

It is therefore my intention to write about things I know about and understand: this means that I would hope to write about English (both the language and literature), technology, cathedral music, and food and drink at a bare minimum. However, I do not want to prevent myself from writing about those things which I appreciate and attempt to fathom such as science, or fine art amongst many others. In order to make the whole endeavour manageable both in terms of writing and reading, I have imposed upon myself a limit of 500 carefully selected and judiciously edited words.

And with that, my screen is no longer blank and I look forward to the opportunity to try writing.