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Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

Cusack’s Diary

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Diary

It is truly a sad thing for a summer to end, and yet it is an inevitable part of the endless cycle of life. July was full of its annual rites: two weeks in Lebanon and then the traditional festivities associated with the return of the OMV contingent from Lourdes — jugs of Pimm’s at the Scarsdale followed by the manic dinner, drinks, dancing, and smoking at Pag’s late into the night. Miss S. had always avoided the Pag’s part of the festivities, decrying it as a futile attempt to prolong the jollity. She decided to come along this year, however, and enjoyed it so much she stayed well past two in the morning. In fact, I think she was still there when I left.

So it didn’t really seem like summer really kicked off until August. (more…)

November 15, 2013 7:30 pm | Link | 7 Comments »

Late Summer, Early Autumn

As the light of summer dies and the cold grey monotone of winter approaches, here are a few photos from the past month or two.

(more…)

October 18, 2013 3:30 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Florence to London on Twenty Euros

Our roving continental correspondent Alexander Shaw recently hitchhiked from Florence to London on a mere twenty euros. Herein he recounts his tale, which in his customary fashion is usually calculated to offend. (Readers are reminded that the writer’s views are his own, not mine).

THERE COMES A POINT in every young man’s life when his trust fund manager goes on holiday. It is fitting that what follows occurred during International Poverty & Homelessness Awareness Week and, certainly, I hope that my experience will raise awareness among the demographics concerned as to how they should conduct themselves.

ITALY

Let me tell you about poverty: there is poverty, there is urban poverty, and there is urbane poverty. The story of my rapid regression through these strata starts in the billionaire’s playground that is Forte dei Marmi. I had already accepted the invitation when I realised I had blown my last €30 on a bottle of Frescobaldi (I’m not a wine snob, but I only buy from friends). We had arrived in Vieri’s 1988 Posche 911 and being a Friday night in early August, Mina’s Bussola club was chocked to the gunnels with a vast array of Eurotrash. There were refugees from Biarritz, Ibiza clubbers who got rich, Moscow clubbers who fell out with Putin, abstract artists, Botox-pumped bankers wives and industrialists’ daughters from Munich and Frankfurt, all vamped up on HRT, champagne, and Prozac. It was as raucous as the bombing of Dresden, and nearly as fun. Imagine someone had pumped laughing gas into the celebrity arrivals gate at Heathrow, and you’ll get the picture. (more…)

September 24, 2013 9:05 am | Link | 8 Comments »

Into the Qadisha Valley

THE HOLY VALLEY cuts down like a gash in the earth, with the cathedral city of Bcharré on the clifftop, almost hanging off of it. One almost wonders if you started building at the other end of the town, it might force St Seba’s Cathedral off over into the deep beyond. There is something almost Lord of the Rings about the setting, a Levantine Minas Tirith, if only Tolkein had been a Maronite.

The Qadisha Valley (Ouadi Qadisha, وادي قاديشا, literally the “Holy Valley”) takes its name from the Aramaic word for saintly and for over a millennium its natural caves have provided shelter for hermits seeking solitude as well as others seeking refuge and safety. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Paleolithic era, and the Qannubin Monastery here is said to have been founded by the Emperor Theodosius the Great in the fourth century. While this is the holiest ground of the Maronite Catholics, hermits living in these caves and in these monasteries have been Melchite, Nestorian, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian. When the Monastery of St Maron was sacked by Antiochene Monophysites, many monks fled to the Qadisha Valley, strengthening the presence of this Eastern church which has always remained in communion with Rome. For over five hundred years, the Maronite patriarch made Deir Qannubin his seat. (Since 1830 the Patriarchate has been based at Bkerké above the pleasant Mediterranean city of Jounieh).

It was a hot summer’s day when we arrived and as chance had it we couldn’t even get very far into Bcharré.

“A man has died. We can’t go on,” the driver mysteriously intones. (A funeral procession is underway).

Very well. We carry on down circuitously weaving through the outer-lying portions of the town, through a small necropolis, and then finally into the valley proper. While the Qadisha valley attracts many pilgrims and travellers, this is not some easy tourist route, though nor is it difficult as hiking goes (unless, like us, you have a partially blind Paralympian among your party).

Up and down you go amongst small rivulets and meandering paths joining and divorcing from your own, led by a guide who speaks neither French nor English (thank God our Lebanese friends were with us).

Eventually, having passed a considerable way down, and then up a little ways, we are taken to a cave which has been segmented with stone walls into a chapel.

Much to my surprise, murals still survive in this exposed environment, protected by the overhanging rock.

The iconoclastic damage looked quite recent, and our guide explained it probably dated from as recently as the Syrian occupation (1976–2005).

Monasticism began in the East, of course, and Western monasticism is a slightly different kettle of fish. While hermits once lived in these caves, almost all of today’s Qadisha monks are gathered into the formal Maronite communities (Baladites, Aleppians, and Antonins) or into the other non-Maronite monasteries in the valley.

Brushing the dust of the Qadisha Valley from my shoes at the end of the day, I wondered if the first monks slapped their sandals together, discarding the very same sand sixteen hundred years earlier after they finished their Liturgy of the Hours for the day (though I somehow doubt it).

July 22, 2013 5:56 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Lebanon Diary

Early evening sun illuminates the pendentives and architraves of the Maronite church. Discoloured prints of numerous saints — of East and West — crowd one of the few side altars. The Arabic numerals indicate the date of its dedication: 1971 — before the war.

Without internet in a remote village in northern Lebanon, elevation 500 ft, we are cut off from the outside world. Word reaches us of a military coup in Egypt. (I hate missing a coup!) The reactions are a mixture of relief and caution, and a little wonderment at how things must have moved very quickly. Curiosity is sparked as to what else is going on in the world outside Sourat.

Dappled sunlight. Unfamiliar saints. A lizard scurries past, its long processional tail trailing behind it.

D.G. of the Financial Times drops in and brings that commodity we most desire: news from elsewhere. I quiz him on the coup in Egypt, how it played out, how it was orchestrated, and what he thinks of it, but there is little time.

At night, reading Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love on the terrace with a Gauloise and a bottle of Almaza. Two wolves cry in the distance and I remember hearing the snorting of a wild boar a few nights previous. One chased Emmanuel on his way back from ‘the Palace’ (as we have dubbed the Abouna’s house, where the honoured guests stay) and was shot and killed — the photos of the quarry being displayed on an iPhone handed round.

The night is punctuated by the sound of repeated explosions in the distance. Luckily these are fireworks — a particular Lebanese obsession. It seems symptomatic of the Lebanese mentality that — having spent so long being so close to death — it is necessary to celebrate being alive. One may as well have a good time, and the Lebanese are experienced at having a good time.

In the car on the way to the pharmacy, Mahe our indispensable handyman (and a refugee) talks to Niall about Syria. “Syria. Big war. Boom boom. Muslims fight Assad. Assad fight Muslims. Big war.”

• • •

BUILD! BUILD! BUILD! Beirut is abuzz with cranes and construction and wood boarding over the site of new projects. That tower wasn’t there last year, was it? No. And doubtless by next year new spires will scrape the sky over St George’s Bay, where the saint slew the dragon. Is he dormant there beneath the waters still? Something lurks perpetually beneath the Lebanon, occasionally raising its head above the surface in open violence. Just then a Hezbollah building in the southern suburbs is bombed. The list of assassinations in this country’s history is long and depressing, from that of Maarouf Saad which (arguably) sparked the fifteen-year Civil War, and of course the former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s killing in 2005. Even since Hariri’s death, no fewer than twelve Lebanese public figures have been assassinated.

Have you ever been to Rafik Hariri’s tomb? It’s a slightly vulgar thing, still shrouded in its temporary marquee, giving it a somewhat transient feel, as if it might up sticks and away to Sidon or Tripoli at a moment’s notice. We nipped in the other day after a trip to the adjacent mosque he had built, completed in 2007 with its brilliant blue dome. The mosque’s design is traditional but not entirely perfect. The massive crystal chandelier hanging from the vast central dome is impressive but perhaps a bit much. Somehow, we are deprived of ancillary spaces: going through the main entrance one feels a certain lack of procession. No narthex, no nave, you just take off your shoes, step through the open doors, and are there. Why not one of those spacious courtyards which grace so many older mosques? Land in Beirut doesn’t come cheap.

Of course, when it was completed it was noticed that the minarets overshadowed the campanile of the adjacent Maronite cathedral, which meant the Catholic bell-tower had to be rebuilt to be at least the same height as the Sunni minaret, or perhaps an inch taller. Just to be on the safe side.

We had arranged to meet G. and the others twenty minutes later at the Grand Café on the Place de l’Étoile, which was a silly idea. A wedding was finishing at St George’s, the Greek cathedral, as we rolled up and we joined in the applause for the happy couple when they exeunted the church. In between, however, we nipped in to Hariri’s tomb, or perhaps shrine is the more appropriate word. It is choc-a-bloc with oversized portrait photographs of the smiling premier in his prime — a mix of political, semi-tribal, and religious devotion. The soldiers guard it nonchalantly and seem glad for some visitors on a Saturday afternoon. One presumes plans are being made for some grand mausoleum to supersed the transient tent with its faint hint of a vagabond yurt. We had to move on to a rather trendy place in Gemmayze, Mo stopping along the way as he ran into friends.

• • •

These nuns are magnificent: it is impossible to respect them enough. They do an impossible task taking care of so many physically and mentally handicapped, on very little resources. They take anyone and everyone under their wing — Christian, Muslim, Druze, whatever. Their founder, Abouna Yaacoub (Père Jacques), is up for canonisation and the fruits of his foundation are still flowering. We’ve visited a number of the care homes they run — in Antelias, Dar al Kamar, etc. — and while the conditions are very basic I think the love these nuns have shines through. They have devoted their entire lives to serve these men and women who often, ignored and forgotten, have no one else. They are also completely clued in; you wouldn’t be able to get anything past them. The Mother Superior’s mobile rings, she answers and buzzes off away to put something right.

• • •

Arabic is a beautiful language, though at its most beautiful when spoken by women. (But then: isn’t every language?)

“Our relationship to France is completely different. We were never a colony, only a protectorate, a mandate. My grandparents still refer to France as the mother country.” Still, the decline of the French language here is noticeable, as is the concurrent advance of English. The new global tongue dominates billboards and advertisements, not to mention the radio. In some places in the countryside, I’ve seen new streetsigns in Arabic first and English second: no French. (Beirut seems to have escaped this phenomenon).

If Lebanon ever loses the French language, it will lose part of itself. But the Lebanese, who have many admirable qualities, are expert businessmen — merchanting is in their blood — and English is the language of business. Not just business, but culture too: if you’re given a handbill advertising some small art show or exhibition, it’s invariably in English.

An evening party at a family home in Bsous, on the hills overlooking the capital. Everything is simply perfect. R, S, and I sit down amidst the grove of olive trees and immediately a small table with nibbly things is moved to just before us for our convenience. Beer, wine, and merriment flow and while the pool shines glows eerily as the lights of Beirut twinkle before us. Our hosts speak little English but we make do with French. P.A. claims (in that way that he often does) that P.’s father is so brilliant he was Minister of Finance to both Lebanese governments during the Civil War. When was this house built? 1890s? 1910s? It’s hard to tell. It suffered during the war but has been restored well and sensibly. Its location is beyond envy and I only wish we were here during the day to see the view across Beirut to the Mediterranean beyond.

July 22, 2013 5:52 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Lebanon Without Comment

July 22, 2013 5:50 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

Curiosity Killed the Cat

Or: our love/hate relationship with the Phoenix, Chelsea

It was an unusually warm evening for a night in March, which is to say that it was not horrendously cold and you could tarry a while outside without fear of frostbite. Given the nature of his job, Nicholas is not frequently free to socialise, as he has to be doing certain things in certain places at certain times, which sometimes involves being in Greece or a sudden trip to Anguilla (“I’m not doing any more Caribbean islands — I’m fucking tired of them.”). But when he does manage to free himself from indentured servitude, we often find ourselves at the Phoenix on Smith Street.

All sensible right-minded people love the Phoenix and hate the Phoenix. It is a wonderful place, comfortable and delightful, yet somehow attracts the very worst and most tiresome lot of humanity. “Look at these estate agents,” Nicholas moans in the put-on snobbery which has become one of his traits. “They all live in Fulham I’m sure.” (Which is rich, as I live even beyond Fulham). Kit and H. were dining there with Ivo & la B a week or two earlier (or later) and such was the tiresomeness of the crowd that Kit texted Ivo “What a bunch of overgrown yuppies” (or something along those lines).

It’s delightful during the day, and there was one afternoon not long ago when, sauntering down the King’s Road, I ran into Prof. Pink on his way to John Lewis and managed to waylay him into an enjoyable conversation at the Phoenix over two large glasses of the house white. But during the evening the crowd gets so horrendously up-itself that it almost becomes an attraction in itself. “It’s ten o’clock on a Friday night. Shall we drop in to Smith Street and see how awful everyone is?” The experience ends up infecting one with a reverse snobbery almost as snobbish and pretentious as the pretentious snobbery one is reacting against in the first place.

As I was saying, it was a warm evening and Nicholas managed to find an ideal parking spot within sight just round the corner on Woodfall Street. I think it was a Friday or a Saturday so naturally the place was packed inside and I’m partial to the occasional Dunhill so enjoying an exceptionally refreshing cider outdoors with a cigarette was the obvious way forward. I lit up and Nikolai — very generously, as I’m sure it was my round — went inside to brave the crowds in search of drink. Now the curious thing about the smoking ban is that it has turned previously insular cells of humanity — smokers, that is — into a sort-of fraternité universelle. People who have absolutely nothing in common but for being at the same drinking establishment now, for better or worse, through the medium of tobacco, enjoy a recognisable commonality which can frequently turn conversational.

A little Spanish man with a moustache had a party inside celebrating his birthday — 31st, I think — and he ventured outdoors for a smoke and somehow or other conversation was initiated. A pleasant enough fellow but his chat was unexceptional and was suddenly interrupted by the arrival by cab of two tall-ish and rather fashionable Azeri girls, who may have been friends of friends of his or may have had nothing to do with him at all. Being a chatty Spaniard (and perhaps a bit ambitious) he engaged them in conversation almost as soon as they alighted their cab.

After the innocuous pleasantries of introduction all round he eventually asked the Azeri duette, “So where do you girls live?” “Knightsbridge” they replied. “Ah, cool, I’m in Knightsbridge a lot,” our Spanish friend replied as Nicholas, turning away, launched upon a severe, disapproving rolling of the eyes. “Why?” I interjected, somewhat mischievously pricking the balloon of his pretentiousness. After all: what possible excuse could anyone who neither works nor lives there reasonably have for being in Knightsbridge a lot? He turned towards me and with an irritated smile said “My friend, you are too curious; you ask too many questions.”

The Azeri girls remained unconvinced of him, and the birthday boy, having finished his cigarette (which I think came from my pack), sheepishly returned inside where his presumed friends had doubtless continued the celebration of his birth in his brief absence.

But we still all love the Phoenix.

June 14, 2013 1:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

The Roman Corner

Friends are continually sending me postcards from Rome, such that they have gradually accumulated in a pile in my room. An English friend sent me one, and then an Irish friend saw it while visiting and, doubtless moved by the spirit of one-up-manship, sent one himself, whereupon the first friend sent another, to be followed by the most recent one (which arrived today) of the Chiesa di S. Agostino in the Campo Marzio. A miniature St Peter’s Basilica was recently added to the mix as well.

April 15, 2013 9:00 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Vienna Views

My written views of the city you will have to wait for (presuming they ever see the light of day), but here are a few photographic impressions from my jaunt to the Kaiserliche Hauptstadt. (more…)

April 7, 2013 10:50 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Ever Useful Haggis

Culinary skills are not prominent among my varied talents, though I was pleased that the guests at the last dinner party I held in my riparian West London abode received the evening rather well. (If the food was only so-so at least the thought behind the choice and mixture of guests was appreciated). In my limited (but slowly expanding) experience, I have found haggis a rather useful addition to the repertoire.

T’other day I cooked a haggis for supper, alongside some chips and peas — an unjustly neglected vegetable I can’t help but feel. (Boring old botanists insist the pea is actually a fruit, but never you mind). Unfortunately I lacked a suitable gravy or sauce, so had to make do with ketchup and mayonnaise (plus a dash of HP).

But what to do with the leftover haggis the next day? I tried spreading it on oatcakes but that was far too dry — oatcakes must be reserved for pâté, it seems. So instead I crumbled bits of haggis into a pot of tomato sauce, dobbed it with oregano, some mixed herbs, sea salt, and freshly crushed peppercorns, and enjoyed a surprisingly delicious meal which I’ve decided must be christened linguine alla scozzese.

April 7, 2013 10:30 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

London Lately

From a Pimlico rooftop, Friday afternoon.

At lunch, Friday.

A Saturday Mass in St Wilfrid’s Chapel, the Oratory.

A surprisingly sunny afternoon, yesterday in Ennismore Gardens.

February 18, 2013 5:30 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

A Rainy Day in Winchester

IT WAS LATE summer, neither particularly warm nor cold, and a bit rainy. I hadn’t seen Nicholas in a while but he wasn’t particularly keen on travelling into London. “Why not meet in Winchester?” he suggested, and, never having been to England’s former capital, I thought it was a good idea. I popped on the tube to Waterloo, got on a train, and in no time at all was in the county town of Hampshire. It’s a humanely size town, admirably located, and most famous for its medieval cathedral.

The thieving Protestants, not content with stealing all the cathedrals we built throughout the width and breadth of the land, highten the insult by charging admission to these former shrines and places of worship. I had arranged to meet Nicholas in the Cathedral, though, and the blighters got a good £6.50 out of me. I had a good wander round, though.

These mortuary chests contain the remains of the Saxon royalty of the kingdom of Wessex and later England.

Norman architecture is woefully underappreciated, and might form a useful style to return to today given its relative simplicity. So much Norman architecture was destroyed and replaced by Gothic during later periods of medieval prosperity, but at Winchester the Norman transepts remain.

William of Waynflete, buried here, was a high-flyer in his day. He was, varyingly, Bishop of Winchester, Headmaster of Winchester College, Provost of Eton, Lord Chancellor of England, and founded Magdalen College, Oxford. Not a bad innings.

Richard Foxe chose a more macabre memorial, but enjoyed similar success in this world: he was Bishop of Exeter, then of Bath & Wells, then of Durham, and finally of Winchester. He was Lord Privy Seal and founded Corpus Christi College at Oxford. Foxe and Erasmus sometimes wrote to eachother, and his elaborate crozier is on display at the Ashmolean.

The tomb of Henry Cardinal Beaufort is my favourite memorial in the cathedral. Beaufort — a Plantagenet — was Dean of Wells, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Bishop of Lincoln, Lord Chancellor of England, and finally Cardinal Bishop of Winchester. He was a sometime papal legate for Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia, and most famously presided over the trial of St Joan of Arc.

One of the walls was inscribed with graffiti.

The cathedral is also the final resting place for the earthly remains of Hampshire native Jane Austen, but nevermind that.

Tours of the College were available, but we decided to leave it for another visit, and went on a wander in the direction of the Hospital of St Cross.

The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty is the oldest charitable institution in England and the largest medieval almshouse. The church could be a small cathedral in and of itself, but as we arrived an interment was taking place, so we thought it best that it, too, was left for another day.

February 6, 2013 8:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

A Bill Committee in the Commons

A Bill Committee meeting in one of the richly decorated committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster. The Minister is standing, rattling on in an explanatory defence of his government’s bill. Ostensibly these committees exist so that MPs can examine legislation in line-by-line detail and raise questions about whatever points or aspects they believe might cause problems if enacted.

“The question is that Clause 15 stands as part of the Bill.”

The Chairman, an MP of considerable experience, presides, assisted by a retinue of civil servants. He chews a pen and stokes his brow, frustrated by the boredom of the subject at hand. He is perhaps thinking of the weekend and the extreme unlikeliness that he will get down to the coast, and his sailboat, given the inclement weather.

A Scottish Member rises on a Point and the Minister yields the floor. Concerns are expressed about the precise meaning of Subclause 36 Paragraph C and insinuations made about potential costs. The Minister rises and suggests the Member’s criticism is excessively harsh. He then concedes he may have been imprecise in his explanation of the process involved in Subclause 36 Paragraph C.

The Doorkeeper, absurdly and arcanely attired in white tie, tails, and with the royal arms hanging from a gold chain round his neck, wears thick-rimmed glasses and leans back on a desk in a carefree fashion, blissfully paying little attention to the point the Hon. Gentleman has made in response to the proposed amendment.

“Just for the sake of clarity, we are not now talking about Amendment 13?”
“I have no intention of moving Amendment 13.”
“On a Point of Order then, Mr Chair, is it proper that the Member discuss Amendments 21 and 26 when he is not moving Amendment 13, which is the first Amendment to be considered?”

The Chairman corrects that it is perfectly alright for the Member to discuss whichever amendment he would like.

There are at least eleven civil servants in the room. One on the side hands a paper to another. He reads it and nods approvingly before passing it on to the civil servant next to the Chair. Another Member rises to discuss Amendment 54 Clause C.

“There’s an important role for an independent body to exercise scrutiny over this area and it would be wise for it to have a statutory basis.”

The entire proceedings are overshadowed by the continual sound of shuffling papers. One Member doodles on the day’s order-paper. A journalist leaves. The Member stops doodling and consults his iPhone. Then the Minister is grateful for that point. He is surprised but aware, since he was given this junior ministerial role, by the frequency with which this matter has arisen and has spoken before the relevant Select Committee.

Another Member’s face is illuminated by the glow of the iPad he is leaning over.

“Now before I become too Churchillian,” the Minister continues, “I think we’d better turn to the matter of the Amendments. Now the Honourable Member has, perhaps understandably, raised the point…”

A female Member smiles and shares a jest with one of her party colleagues. The Doorkeeper’s shift ends and he is replaced by one of his bearded confrères. The civil servant beside the Chairman folds a paper and stares unthinkingly into the distance.

“In respect for the Hon. Gentleman’s desire for continuing debate and discussion with the relevant authorities…”
“He hasn’t addressed my point about Subsection 2!”

The portly Doorkeeper moves with surprising adroitness in delivering a note from a Member to a civil servant across the room. The Minister’s PPS hands him a relevant paper. The Chairman smiles in response to one of the Minister’s light-hearted remarks.

“I’m sure the Minister will agree that this is not the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning.”
“If only!” a Member interjects.

It is 3:32pm. The MPs will be here for hours yet.

February 4, 2013 10:00 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Ten Random Photos of 2012

In roughly chronological order

Such has been the massive exodus from Facebook that I am forced to return to my previous practice of sharing random photographs via this platform. I suppose it’s just as well, as it will assure relatives in other places that I am actually alive. Keen observers will note that there are, in fact, more than ten photos, but nevermind. Apologies for the lack of explanation and the occasional in-joke (that’s in-joke… with a ‘Y’).

Burns Supper, Fulham.

Reunion of Scottish University Students, outside the Brompton Oratory.

Me and Johnny at Lourdes.

Downtown Beirut.

Nightclub, Beirut.

Party chez Jabre in the Lebanese mountains.

Marian procession, Malta pilgrimage, Walsingham. (Photo: Stephanie Kalber)

Autumn Drinks afterparty (disaster!) & Chabrouh fundraiser the next night.

Anastasia’s birthday.

A midwinter night’s run-into on the KR.

Yuletide, the West Country (…with a ‘Y’).

The Photo of 2012: Don Finiano convinces our favourite Member of Parliament to try out his new motorbike.

January 20, 2013 8:05 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Tradtastic Hertfordshire

The bishops of England & Wales cunningly arranged for the Feast of the Epiphany to fall on the actual Epiphany this year. We had a great big festive lunch at our favourite little Italian place in South Ken, but the night before I went out to Hertfordshire, where I witnessed the tradition of a door being CMB’d with holy chalk for the new year (above).

Those unaware of this tradition can read a bit more here. The C+M+B stands both for Christus mansionem benedicat (“Christ bless this house”) and the names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

January 10, 2013 10:10 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Lady in Red

Or: Where to sit in church on Sunday

IT IS A LOGICAL TRUISM that good habits are good. But good habits — well and fine as they are — can also produce ancillary habits that, while not ‘bad’, might perhaps also be worth denying the dignified title of ‘good’; they are ammoral rather than immoral. Hearing mass on Sunday is a good habit — indeed it is an obligatory good habit binding upon all the Faithful. Some people express their habit of Sunday mass at varying locations — an attitude which I find surprising, which itself is surprising given until very recently I varied my Sunday mass locale myself.

In New York, it was easy: there was only one real place to hear Mass and that was the Church of St Agnes on 43rd Street. Of course, some dangerous rapscallions dissented from this point de vue and attend the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue. I remember one Sunday on Lexington Avenue seeing the group of lads who serve the 11 o’clock mass at St Agnes come down the avenue while the like gang who did the same at the Church of Our Saviour were coming up it on the same side and it was like seeing the Sharks and the Jets meet in “West Side Story”.

In London, I used to go here and there; mostly dividing my Sundays between the Oratory and the Cathedral but every now and then sneaking in Holy Redeemer in Chelsea. But for a year or so, I have been an Oratory regular, and now look strangely upon those who, when the insouciant inquiry at a dinner party or over drinks or such is made “Where do you go to Mass?”, reply “Oh, you know, sometimes here, sometimes there, sometimes I even go to the local parish.” (I never believe the last assertation; I, for one, have only been to my local parish twice: once this past St Patrick’s Day to pray, in vain, for an Irish victory at Twickenham, and lastly on one of those lesser-remembered Holy Days of Obligation.)

But the ancillary (ammoral) habit to the (moral) habit of hearing mass on a Sunday is the custom of sitting in the same place. If one is new to a particular church, one can sit here and there for quite some time, but eventually you find a bit of the church and you realise one Sunday “Ah! This is just right!” and from that day forth you have “your” seat. The chaps who do the collection obviously must have their proper places. The one-legged lady in the wheelchair who shouts at people has her usual spot. A certain sturdy Knight of Malta enjoys sitting in more or less the same location every Sunday, and one friend of mine inexplicably likes sitting in the middle of the row towards the middle of the first section of seats beneath the dome. Inexplicable to me because I cannot abide having to climb over people to get to and fro at mass.

Anyhow, needless to say, I have my preferred seat at the Oratory on a Sunday. It is not even a neighbourhood of seats, or a small vicinity, it is a specific seat and I am loathe not to have it. This is because it is at the confluence of the various important factors. It is not so close to the front that you are mistaken for the religious fanatic, the overly pious, or Princess Michael of Kent. Yet it is not so far to the back that you have to walk a mile to receive Our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar come communion time. (And have you ever sat towards the back at the Oratory? Barely anyone says the responses! The Fathers should set up a specific mission towards the last twenty-odd pews at the 11:00 on a Sunday — I suspect they are unbaptised the lot of them).

Furthermore, there is a duality to the mode of seating at the Oratory: the first two sections, comprising about the first third of the church, are actual seats, whereas the last section is composed of hard, uncomfortable wooden pews. (Perhaps they don’t say the responses because they’re embittered by discomfort?). Also, I dislike being in between the pulpit and the sanctuary, thus necessitating that you have your back turned to the priest when time comes for him to preach. And I prefer to nip up to communion rather swiftly, so I can return and get all my prayers in and not spend half the time standing in a queue awkwardly awaiting the reception of the Eucharist. This, therefore, necessitates that I be directly on the aisle.

“My” seat — I will not reveal its specific location within the Oratory Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Brompton, for the obvious reason of inviting competitors — “My” seat is thus located in precisely the perfect location. Needless to say, I’m used to the others who have found that “their” seat is adjacent or nearby (though I’m glad that one chap who objects to dogs being at mass has given up and gone elsewhere). I feel we all implictly know and understand each other without actually intercommunicating, in that way that researchers who frequent the same stacks in university libraries feel a certain affinity.

About a month ago, we received a new regular to our midst: a white-haired lady in what might be described as late middle age, hebdomidally clothed in a red overcoat. She began to take the seat next to mine. Very well. Pas de problème, etc. Then one Sunday, a slow-moving Italian family attending the previous mass were lingering in “our” row and both she and I assumed positions ready to take possession of our regular seats. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Lady in Red, in full knowledge of my presence, took my seat! Friends were in from the country that week and said they watched the entire scene in detached amusement from the other side of the church. Needless to say, I was reduced to taking the next seat over, usually the Lady in Red’s seat.

What did this fresh assault upon my dignity betoken? I knew not. But I was determined that, in the immortal words of an American president, this aggression would not stand. The next Sunday I made sure to arrive extra early and secure my seat succesfully but untriumphantly. (Triumphalism is a tiresome bore in others and a poor reflection upon one’s self). The Sunday following that she appeared in pole position to usurp my place yet again, but then she didn’t: she let me have it. This, of course, was really a back-handed triumphalism. Haha! See! I shall be the better Christian and let you have the seat to which you have been accustomed since time immemorial! Look ye mighty upon my works and despair!

“Very well!,” I thought, “two can play at this game!” I was determined the Sunday following to arrive early and to deferentially allow her to have the place to which I had grown to know and love so well. But, friends, the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley. This past Sunday I arrived a mere minute or two before mass was to start, and thus I was forced to sit in the north transept instead. What’s worse, the Lady in Red wasn’t even sitting in my seat: she had ceded it to a mantilla’d Filipino lady.

This raises a fresh quandary. If this past Sunday was “my” week to defer to her, but I failed, and she deferred to someone else, does that then mean that I must defer next week, and the rotation begins anew? Or do we stick to the previous rotation of her week / my week? I know not, but I must be off now, as my French flatmates are wailing, and I suspect there may be a mouse for me to kill. Abientot!

October 30, 2012 8:40 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

The Perfect Place for Coffee

I’m not sure when I became the sort of person who lounges around drinking coffee. I was never much of a fan of coffee, and remain deeply suspicious of it (hence, for example, refusing to become a daily coffee drinker — very dangerous!). I suppose it was on pilgrimage to Rome in my fourth year of university when I was introduced to the blessed simplicity of cappuccino e cornetto for breakfast; a total riposte to the traditional Scottish morning meals of my habit up ’til then.

After Rome, my daily habit became to rise around 9 o’clock, complete one’s morning toilette, head out around 10 to pick up Le Figaro and maybe The Scotsman if I was in the mood, and then a sugar doughring from Fisher & Donaldson, after which I would sit in Taste, the minuscule place on North St at the top of Murray Park which serves the best coffee in the Royal Burgh, for about an hour or so reading and staring out the window episodically while nursing a cappuccino. This was an exceptionally enjoyable routine, brought to an abrupt end by the cruel realities of the forward movement of time and finishing one’s degree.

Whether rightly or not, I’ve no idea, the concept of dwelling over coffee seems more a habit north of the Alps than south. The quick coffee seems more Italian, and more than once I stopped into Taste with Stefano or others for an unponderous espresso when an afternoon pick-me-up was deemed amenable.

But for the most part, I prefer to rest with a bit of coffee, and read something interesting. Last summer I found myself with a lot of free time in London and spent the greater portion of it in a curious little café-bar not open to the general public reading long historical articles off of JSTOR on such fascinating subjects as the origins of Argentine militarism or the unexpected nineteenth-century German Catholic revival as well as translations of the indispensable Pierre Manent printed in Modern Age.

There was barely ever anyone there in high summer except the two barstaff, myself, and a haggard journalist in late middle age sitting at the bar nursing his first pint of the day. I still go there from time to time, and recently enjoyed sitting there reading Perry Anderson’s trilogy of insightful, deep, and informative articles on India from the London Review of Books (‘Gandhi Centre Stage’, LRB 5 July 2012; ‘Why Partition?’, LRB 19 July 2012; ‘After Nehru’ LRB 2 August 2012).

There is a Pret near my flat where the staff are very nice, but I remember one Saturday morning when I actually stirred from my slumber and fancied catching up with the weekend Irish Independent. I happened to sit next to an awkward Indian computer engineer on a blind date with a Polish girl lacking in self-esteem. I found I could barely get any reading done with them nextdoor and instead relayed the essence of their conversation to a pretty girl sitting in bed in Oxford reading Glamour, who relayed back her own thoughts. The pros and cons of your average Pret come to mind and encourage me to explore what the perfect place for coffee would be like.

First, a coffee place should be mildly popular. There ought to be enough people milling around that it feels lived-in but not so many that you can rarely find a place to sit. The staff must be highly competent in their coffee making, and preferably either young, pretty, Italian, and female or else French chaps with a slightly haughty demeanour until the third or fourth time they see you. We will also accept vaguely hippie/alt-ish characters mostly from the Continent or occasionally the Antipodes. And Inez. (Inez, you can work at any coffee place approaching perfection).

Counter space! This cannot be emphasised enough: there ought to be counter space. I dislike when places have large, tall, bulky displays of the variety of pastries and such on offer and then have a tiny little open space to give your order and pay, etc. Broad counter spaces relay a certain openness and give the impression that the staff behind the bar are accessible. By all means display your delectamenta but you should aim for balance and harmony in your serving area.

There ought to be counter seating as well. Lots of coffee places put this at the window, which is acceptable, but as I like to sit in a large comfy chair and stare out the window, this is impeded by window counter seating, and thus I am mostly against it. And windows: we must have windows, preferably big giant ones with a single plane of glass looking out on a somewhat busy street, or even better a small public square.

Seating is one of the most important aspects. Hard or soft? High tables or low? In a word: both. There ought to be more café-style seats and round tables for when there’s three or four of you gathering, but also soft big comfy chairs for when that feels more appropriate. Different coffee-imbibing situations require different kinds of seating, and the perfect place for coffee should offer both.

I’ve yet to find the perfect place for coffee in London. I was quite fond of the Caffè Nero on Warwick Way in Pimlico with its huge glass panels that open up on summer days, but now that I no longer live in Pimlico it has ceased to be useful or easy to get to. As chains go, I tend to err on the side of Pret, perhaps merely out of habit. Whatever you do, just don’t go to Starbucks. Have some dignity and self-regard.

And if you do find the perfect place for coffee, do let the rest of us know.

August 5, 2012 8:08 pm | Link | 13 Comments »

A Mantelpiece

ONE MUST ALWAYS have a mantelpiece. That, at any rate, is my considered opinion. It is a focal point where one can place random objects of vague significance upon it as a salutary reminder of the varied importance of the numerous sectors of one’s life and the gentle interplay therebetween. In my admittedly brief (yet increasingly less brief) existence, I have had several mantelpieces. Indeed, I was even for a year at university in possession of a listed mantelpiece though, sadly, it was abused by the presence of an interloping non-functioning electric heater. But my current riparian London residence is augmented by a number of mantelpieces, one of which fortuitously sits in my own bedroom. While I generally prefer to leave things unexplained, here is a little guide to my mantel as it now stands.

Behind the entire tableaux hangs a French map of Africa I picked up during the summer I lived in Oxford. The recent independence of South Sudan renders it inaccurate, in addition to two or three vexillological changes in its corner display of flags. From left to right, we have the pennon of the Order of Malta in Scotland; the piece of the Berlin Wall my kindergarten teacher brought back from Germany for me; a Rackham postcard from Don Riccardo illustrating depicting a scene from Baron Foqué’s Undine (“Soon she was lost to sight in the Danube”), to which Don Riccardo has added the cryptic line “The fate, it seems, of all Cusack’s loves”.

Next is the glass flask with leather covering I picked up at an antiques place in Millbrook when wandering around hunt country with the Gills; a postcard of Bonnie Prince Charlie sent by the Cap’t as a thank-you note for hosting lunch at Rocca with our favourite ancient veteran of King’s African Rifles; the order of service from the University of St Andrews Alumni Club London carol service; a small bottle of Unicum brought back from Hungary by E.W.; a Marian prayer card from Tom & Alice; a little unpretentious triptych some relative bought; my Order of Malta Lourdes pilgrimage medal; an Infant of Prague retrieved from my grandparents’ house; a St Benedict medal (perhaps obtained at Downside).

The bottle of Boplaas Port was kindly (and perhaps unintentionally) left by one of the previous South African residents of our flat. It was finished off by our Continental correspondent Alexander Shaw and I late one night when he had just alighted the Eurostar and not yet had time to drop his bags off at his grandmother’s place a few minutes up the river on Chiswick Mall. Cornelius Bear is dressed in the red gown of a St Andrews undergraduate. Behind him is a Quebec automobile numberplate and a prayer card from St Philip’s Day 2012 at the Oratory. My Magister Artium diploma is rolled up in its tube next to an empty box of Dunhills purchased in Milan — “Il fumo invecchia la pelle” it warns. Surmounting all is a palm from Palm Sunday at the Oratory.

July 29, 2012 9:00 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Milan Diary

I STEPPED OUT OF the airplane and the long line of the Alps smacked me in the face about the same time as the freshness of the Lombard air. One of the more boring innovations of today’s world are those mechanical arms that stick out of air terminals to usher you from hermetically sealed environment to hermetically sealed environment. (One of the reasons why Bristol Airport is among my favourites, besides being in Somerset, is the total lack of those loading arms.) Landing at Malpensa, I was pleased to step out onto the stairway with the sun behind my back illuminating the glorious string of snow-capped peaks in the far off distance — a reminder that Milan is indeed a different Italy from the hills of Rome or that Greek-speckled island of Sicily. The polizia di frontiera manning the Unione europea queue takes the barest glance at my maroon passport before handing it back with a forlorn grazie and waving me on my way with a nod of the head.

I made my to the train station, bought a ticket from the little machine — brushing aside a little taxi man with a dismissive no grazie — and boarded the treno diretto a Milano Cadorna. I had left behind a rather grey, miserable, and cold London just two hours before and as the Malpensa Express hurtled through tunnel, cut, and way, I’ll confess the tiniest swivel of excitement — augmented by the glorious sunshine — at the prospect of discovering Milan, a city with which I had no previous acquaintance.

Milan boasts one of the greatest railway stations of the world — Milano Centrale — but I was heading into the smaller and more convenient Cadorna station. Alighting the train HM phones and barrages me with information as I confusedly try to stick my ticket into the slot to let me through the barrier oblivious to the words coming at me through my telefonino. Victory — success — I’m through, and agree to phone HM later when I know what’s what.

Finn’s instructions had been to take the Metro to his, but confronted with the cloudless beauty of the sky I found the idea of scuttling about underground lacked any appeal. A walk would do me good. Following the gentle curve of the Foro Buonaparte under the shade of the graceful trees, I took my measure of the city. I hadn’t any idea what to expect, really, but am pleased with what I find. There are awkward post-war modern bits (American bomber crews were not unfamiliar with Milan) but for the most part the city’s architecture betrays a sturdy late-nineteenth-century confidence that’s been sensibly updated to keep with the best of today’s standards. What’s more, the population are a positive adornment to this city: snappily dressed men of business wait at pedestrian crossings while pretty girls on bicycles sail by. The motto of Dublin is the slightly scary ‘Happy is the city where the citizens obey’ — Milan’s might as well be ‘Happy is the city where the citizens dress well’.

I turned onto the via Dante, continued down the Orefici, and was there at the piazza del Duomo, just a stone’s throw from Don Finiano’s. Dropping my things off in the flat, Finn suggests an immediate walk around the middle of town. “Luckily you can see everything here in a short space of time,” he avers with the assurance of his short attention span.

And so around Milan under the blue sky. The Duomo: “It’s the heaviest building in the world!” Still? “Maybe, maybe not.” Through the Galleria, as civilised a shopping promenade as ever existed, to La Scala. “Have you ever been to the opera? Here, that is.” “YES, with the Pogg!” On to the Castle and through its bifurcating series of portals to the park on the other side as Finn explains his various options for after his eventual departure from Milan. Swinging around and down the via Dante again, I run into a shocked Signora Bubesi who had no idea I was going to be around. (HM, typically, told her nothing). I kiss her hello and tell her I’ll see her later on. (We met up the next morning to see ‘The Last Supper’).

A late lunch by the Colonne di San Lorenzo as I offload the latest news from London and receive information, counter-information, and pure speculation about mutual friends and those in the general circle of things.

The sun still shining, we made our way to the roof terrace atop Finn’s flat. It actually belongs to the genial neighbourhood fascist who has allowed Finn the free use of it and emblasoned it with a quote from Mussolini. He once enlisted Finn’s help in carrying to the ascensore a large and heavy bust of Il Duce. The lift is absolutely tiny and just barely held the two of them, Il Duce, and a confused old man heading for the dentist’s office on the first floor. (The dental staff, reassuringly, use the rear balcony next to Finn’s as their smoking area).

Several larges bottles of Nastro Azzurro are consumed before we head back down to the flat to continue with spritz. The glories of spritz! Appropriately it was Ivo who introduced me to the ambrosian concoction — “Mate, try this. You won’t regret it.” — and I’d had Ivo, Hubert, and Callum round for dinner just the Thursday before; a night that rather typically ended with half-remembered lyrics to Irish rebel songs.

I’ll just pour myself a little more spritz. Oh very well, a full glass, must make up for the ice after all. The genial neighbourhood fascist pops round (in a black shirt, of course) and says hello as we discuss the possibilities of what to do for the evening, the sun having set over the course of the spritz being consumed. The Pogg goes onto Skype and summer plans are discussed for after Finn and Nick’s great Rome-to-Somerset motorbike expedition. We prefer Malta but the Pogg objects and absurdly suggests Isola d’Elba instead. What?!? We’ll see. Wherever the axes of price, sun, and proximity to water converge is where we’ll end up.

And again through the streets to the rather swish place atop that department store on the Piazza Cinque Giornate. After a Moscow Mule and something to eat, a cigarette on the smoking balcony. Looking out towards the city’s western flank and the night sky above it, we gaze downwards and watch the trams sleekly gliding through the piazza before turning our glance towards the appartamenti around the piazza. A surprising number are strangely dark for this time of night and we infer they’ve been bought by dodgy types as tax dodges or money-laundering manoeuvres.

Eventually we end up by the Colonne di San Lorenzo again, crowded with giovani as well as the occasional sketchy foreigner offering to sell you drugs. No grazie. Somehow we find ourselves chatting away with a group of people into the night. Finn, who is fairly fluent from living here, is mistakenly impressed by my knowledge of Italian, which confuses me since — unlike Irish, French, or Afrikaans — I’ve never studied it. A weekend in Milan, however, is enough to convince me it’d be a worthwhile endeavour.

And, having whiled away in conversation, at some unknown hour the police arrive to gently encourage everyone along their way, and returning to the various places from whence we came, we dispersed into the night.

April 26, 2012 9:07 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Diary

Erika Larsen, Sami Herder, Scandinavia
Photograph, National Geographic, November 2011

WHAT WOULD it be like being a reindeer herder in Lappland? The perpetual attraction of some mode of living other than that which is immediately at hand lurks somewhere in human nature, especially at one might be described as the points of transition in life. But then, when properly considered, life itself is one permanent transition period. Indeed, not just life, but perhaps all existence, as I am discovering in the Purgatorio. Having breakfast in Oxford the other day I was informed I should read the Divine Comedy, as Dante’s ideas about the natural order of the universe supposedly coincide with precisely with mine. A few days later, as the sun was shining and giving us a delicious foretaste of spring, I decided to walk across Green Park, up Duke of York Steps, and over to the Piccadilly Waterstones to pick up a copy and have been duly transfixed by it. I am totally ignorant of theology and philosophy, all of which goes completely over my head, but I phoned up Rob, who’s properly clever, and he averred that Dante’s conception of order is based on Aquinas, and Aquinas is absolutely correct, so apparently we’re all quite sound. (Which is a relief). (more…)

March 10, 2012 2:30 pm | Link | 3 Comments »
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