The sound of music

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Zum Blauen Engel, Bern

We arrived here at our apartment in Bern, Switzerland, conveniently across the road from the conference venue, amid crowds celebrating the opening of the World Cup. Our second-floor accommodation is above a bar-restaurant, circled on four sides by huge screens and temporary outdoor seating. Our host apologised that he had hired a dj for the rest of that night. And so the matches have progressed…

The joke is that the thump-thump beat from below that first evening did not stop me getting to sleep. Instead, I was awoken by huge bells chiming 6 am. The nearby Pauluskirche counts each hour, and notes each passing quarter, and there it goes again. Much, much louder than the huge, sixteenth-century Zytglogge in the city centre with its mechanical jester getting in early every hour with his own bells, and the mechanical cock crowing three times. At least the local chimes shut down between 10 pm and 6 am.

The further joke is that I write in praise of Bern’s quiet. This is in the restaurants.

For several weeks we have moved (for Marion’s work) from Fremantle through Glasgow to here, and I have dined to much thumping beat, the seemingly necessary boost to meals these days. (I’m the old fogie in the corner.)

In Fremantle, we seemed lucky to stay adjacent to Bread in Common, to name a name. Quite good food in a vast warehouse conversion, so popular that you can’t hear yourself think. The thump never lets up, except if managing a coffee during the day at an outdoor seat. Fortunately, Fremantle is awash with great spots, albeit mostly also with monotonous mood-lifting.

Much the same in trendy Glasgow, although I must boast that our flat was between the Aragon and Lismore pubs (the video is from the Lismore), both with traditional musicians gathering in varying numbers on selected nights with their fiddles, flutes/whistles, underarm bagpipes, accordions, guitars, and bodhrán (Irish drum). Usually a fiddler starts off, and away they go, the leader mouthing key changes. I kept waiting for a cellist to come back; he’d led them in a wonderfully mournful selection. On another occasion, a tenor came out of the crowd, some notes wobbly, but he knew he had to hit the last one, and did. All determinedly acoustic.

A fellow whisky-drinker (no, I think he had an ale) explained that an Edinburgh conservatorium course in traditional music had generated something of a glut of young professionals.

Heavy “background” music obliterates the clink of cutlery and murmur of conversation. Accordingly, I recommend a couple of old-style places near here (warning: Bern is not cheap).

Being an unusually warm night, filling the outdoor tables, I was the only person inside at Zum Blauen Engel (Blue Angel). With no music whatsoever, I did get a distant exhaust fan. Otherwise, the dull thud of fridge door, clink of bottles, shaking of pans, sizzling from beyond the bench, occasional waiter exchange, old-fashioned clank of heavy glasses and crockery, my own knife and fork … I even heard the chef cut off a tranche of something. All satisfying.

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Waldheim

I felt part of the place, belonging to humanity, the world. Not some shouting cosmopolite out for a good time.

Around at the Waldheim, I lunched again almost alone inside, with just another four old fogies at seemingly their regular table, and across an enormous window-sill to those in the garden. The sound of people chatting outdoors, and birds… I could be dreaming (I don’t think so, even about the birds).

Again, a few clinks, waiter exchanges, the espresso being ground and a puck being bashed out, and people enjoying the peak of civilisation. The only odd note was the occasional phone-call announcing itself to a chirrup of Vivaldi.

Please Like Me’s restaurant decadence

We won #AACTA awards! @joshthomas87 won Best Screenplay in Television and Debra Lawrance (Mum) won Best Performance in a TV Comedy. Yeeeaah. Thanks guys. Go team. http://ift.tt/1ycBgmB
Debra Lawrance & Josh Thomas

YOU HAVE BEEN warned: Please Like Me is television brilliance. Perceptive, bold, exquisitely acted, and with a gastronomic thread winding throughout (a domestic comedy has to include meals).

Some movie-goers don’t like Eric Rohmer, and others avoid Woody Allen, so I shouldn’t be surprised that many also seem impervious to Josh Thomas.

If you do not yet know what I’m talking about (despite much praise, including mine a year ago), you could go straight to #PleaseLikeMe Season Four Episode 4 “Dégustation” for a devastating parody of restaurant decadence, the setting for an emotional reunion by Josh and his separated parents. Except for a couple of things.

Firstly, you’d be smarter to treat yourself to the whole six episodes of Season Four, taking them in turn, because the season openers (“Babaganoush”, “Porridge” and “Beluga caviar”) set the scene for “Dégustation” and then … well… watch them through.

Secondly, the “Dégustation” parody was shot in a real restaurant, using its actual parade of 15 dishes (even the culminating “cake”?). The half-hour was filmed over three days at Lûmé restaurant, South Melbourne.

Lûmé is a cheffy fantasy of tweezers, eye-droppers, liquid nitrogen, and, to quote the website:

Artfully deceptive, Lûmé takes a thoughtful and considered approach to dining. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t just serve food, rather, it creates experiences best enjoyed by curious minds. Pronounced loo-May, the word Lûmé evokes a sense of light, elegance and beauty. But its true origin is unknown, and its meaning controversial.

Early reviews of the restaurant mentioned a meal taking 5½ hours, everyone leaving plastered, and some unfortunate misses. After just seven months, two original partners left Shaun Quade to it. Yet, from other comments, the Please Like Me trio’s expressions of delight weren’t entirely acted. Here is a snap of cauliflower “camembert”.

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The new friend

See original imageMy temerity in telling someone the other night about being a “new friend” occasioned further pondering.

The urgent problem is the explosion of virtual friends produced by the start-up business model: become biggest first. Accordingly, Skype urges: “Tell your friends what you’re up to,” and: “Why not post your own status update?” Rotten Tomatoes, I think it is, “can’t believe” I have no friends, so click here. I can imagine the desperation, loneliness, and paranoia of exclusion with a low friendship count, and the never-ending shower of everyone else’s good-times snaps.

This increasingly heavy parade of prompts, pop-ups, pop-unders and peep-outs cruelly parodies social life. Twitter boasts: “Tweets are the basic atomic building block of all things.” Talk about propaganda, as arrogant as “The real thing” and “To inspire and nurture the human spirit“. The so-called “social” media are essentially marketing vehicles, giving the little people a fantasy of competing in an advertising free-for-all. Perhaps some people keep usefully in touch, if they have the time. But the marketing barrage packs us into silos, where some of my “friends” punctuate with “f—ing” in a desperate quest for attention. Need I remind you that Trump tweets?

I compose these thoughts on pen and paper at breakfast at the Deux Magots at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They no longer seem to serve fresh orange juice here, but, oh, the tartine and butter.

See original imageA couple of older women work on laptops, and one is now on a mobile – she has a friend, or maybe it’s work. A young tourist couple come in for double consumption – photographing their breakfast, before touching it. Are these zillion photos as expendable as Zuckerberg’s 75 million followers?

At least momentarily untied from virtuality, a pair of business types are greeted familiarly by a waiter, and enjoy a quick croissant, espresso and each other’s company. An aged gentlemen with a big scarf never takes his eyes off his newspapers throughout the hour or so we’re there. He remains glued to a declining medium that seems both wonderfully curated, and multi-vocal.

Altogether, to the gentle clatter of glass, silver and porcelain, a scattering of café-goers read newspapers, maps, screens, a notebook, and occasionally each other’s faces. Even the digitally-linked seem reasonably contented, presumably because a table across the room feels closer than up to a satellite via mass-monitoring and back.

See original imageHow odd, a tour group files in a side entrance and out through the heavy revolving door (which waiters manage with a packed tray on the arm), photographing the carvings of the two oriental-looking magi, their backs permanently turned on each other. My impression is that tour groups often lead to lasting friendships, people having taken meals together.

I don’t think we’re properly introduced until we’ve dined together. That “new friend” comment was based on two good dinners.

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.

How weird is Andrew Leigh? As exposed by Annabel Crabb, culinary investigator

Kitchen Cabinet - New Season

LABOR FRONTBENCHER and “economics brain box” Andrew Leigh enjoys the same lunch every day in his Parliament House office, Canberra. A staff member, Jennifer Rayner, confirmed “it’s pretty well the only thing I’ve seen him eat.”

Training an average hour daily for marathons – he has run three so far this year – Leigh told television journalist Annabel Crabb: “I run a lot, so I can basically eat what I like.”

And so what is his “usual”? His daily indulgence is peanut butter. Every lunchtime, Andrew Leigh spreads his canola margarine and peanut butter on a white bread roll.

Why smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter? inquired Crabb. “I can eat it more quickly.”

The former economics professor organises his life according to cost-benefit analysis, he explained, and peanut butter “tastes good, and doesn’t take long to prepare”.

Why then devote so much time to running marathons? Crabb countered. He must get pleasure from them, he decided.

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The senior politician said his grandfather, Methodist minister Keith Leigh, had celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, which is almost two marathons, back-to-back. He died shortly after, running up Mount Wellington in the snow, a route that Andrew Leigh repeated in his grandfather’s honour on 17 November.

Leigh’s lunchtime interview is Episode 13 of Annabel Crabb’s Canberra Al Desko, which is an online companion to her Kitchen Cabinet, a series in which a politician cooks the main course, Crabb brings a dessert, and they chat.

Her culinary reports have been condemned as “fluff” that “humanises” politicians. But such a reading certainly does not work for de-humanised Leigh. He must come near the top of the list of politicians Crabb showed to be manifestly uncomfortable in the kitchen.

Under the heading, “Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic”, Amy McQuire expressed her “disgust” (New Matilda, 29 October 2015). This was not my main complaint that Crabb’s vegetarianism unfairly narrows the menu. Rather, McQuire reported that the show was “about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts”.

For McQuire, the show represents the “insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians”. The interviews coat “with sugar frosting” the “numerous acts of structural violence” by some of the most powerful Australians.

Agreed, her kitchen visit with former hardline border protector, now Treasurer, Scott Morrison, showed him to be not quite as freaky as I had originally thought, but that was pretty freaky. As usual, Crabb was much sharper than “fluffy”, leaving my companion fuming at Morrison’s shallow, self-satisfied theology. In her defence, Crabb does not over-grill her cooks in the manner of the 7:30 Report, but brings out their natural flavour. The politicians’ openness in the informal setting is Crabb’s own defence.

Incidentally, if we believe in “structural” forces, then Morrison surely showed himself to be victim of capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all wrapped up in the Shirelive church’s prosperity gospel.

Furthermore, Crabb’s “humanising” is indiscriminate, revealing Greens leader Richard di Natale to be a culinary star, reaching back into his Italian roots to make salami and pizze. Sharing Ricky Muir’s beloved campfire showed the four-wheel-drive and wheelie enthusiast to be an unusually earnest politician (for whom fellow Senator di Natale also admitted admiration).

Fairfax television critic Ben Pobjie found it “easy to be nauseated by last week’s KC [Kitchen Cabinet] episode, wherein Annabel had a spiffing old time cooking with Scott Morrison, trading amiable banter while carefully avoiding the topic of irredeemable evil. Crabb is generously acting as a bonus PR arm for Australia’s parliamentarians.” I go along with Crabb’s belief that she’s helping democracy, rather than joining in its typical trashing.

Law academic Sarah Keenan discovered that the show “reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to”. She went on: “As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food [samosas] of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.”

Anticipating the bush tucker of Indigenous politician Nova Peris, Keenan predicted: “Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.”

Like many of the show’s politicians, these critics reveal frighteningly little appreciation of the gastronomic basis of life. They have fallen victim to the same dehumanising institutions and inhospitable policies as the ascetic Andrew Leigh, spreading his peanut butter, not offering any to his guest, and then even refusing to eat in front of the camera because eating would not look “attractive”.

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Comedians at dinner, or, Why I love Brydon, Coogan (and Winterbottom’s) Trip and Trip to Italy

A FRIEND SAW THE MOVIE version of the Trip to Italy, together with some of Sydney’s top Italian restaurateurs, and all were disappointed. New Yorker reviewer David Denby joined an audience “apparently expecting a beach-and-mountain travelogue. For a hundred and ten minutes, watching some of the funniest comedy in years, they maintained a puzzled silence.” Not everyone loves The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), so I promised over dinner the other night to explain my delight.

These are the adventures of comedians Rob Brydon (Welsh) and Steve Coogan (northern English), as they chat in the car during a scenic drive, compete in mimicking movie stars over a restaurant meal, pose for a snap in front of a plaque for a poet whose lines they recite, get shown to their hotel room by a young woman, sometimes have a brief encounter, and talk on the phone to a partner, child or agent or themselves in a mirror.

Without having seen the movies, I suspect the six-part series, upon which the movies are based, are preferable not only because they are longer but also because, accented with music, the same ritual every episode lends a melancholy predictability. dark-knight-rises-characters-hilariously-impersonated-by-steve-coogan-and-rob-brydon

My wife happily tolerates my enthusiasm, but wonders if our divergent opinions might invite gender analysis. True, David Denby of the New Yorker asserts: “Both movies, in fact, are about the impossibility—and the necessity—of male friendship.” However definitive that might sound, he also applauds several other basic themes. The men reveal their attraction to younger women – receptionists or at a nearby cafe table – and agree that glances are now not so usually reciprocated. I also wonder whether two female comedians might yet be allowed to retain the same dignity, while being so frequently silly, and mean, but will wisely leave further such conjectures to others.

Both series show some of the world’s loveliest scenery (the Lakes District and nearby parts of England, and the west coast of Italy), finest restaurant food and smartest comic impersonations (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen and Hugh Grant being ones I recognise), but the series are not particularly about any of these, nor quotations from Wordsworth and Coleridge in England and Byron and Shelley in Italy, nor celebrations of the craft of comedy, nor conversations about fading professional careers, about aging and death. Amalgamating such components, the Trips are classics of apparent simplicity, exemplified by the addictive rhythm.

The viewer accepts immediately that Brydon and Coogan play clever caricatures of themselves (Coogan more on top – including longer hair – in the first series, and Brydon winning in the second), and that they are not really reviewing the restaurants for the Observer, but a third, highly creative force is also hiding behind them. Using the same actors, director Michael Winterbottom developed some of the same techniques in Tristram Shandy: A cock and bull story (2005), and he had already done a road movie, In This World (2002), depicting the harrowing “smuggling” of two Afghan refugees from Pakistan across the Middle East and Europe to Britain.

Presumably also contributing to the minimal plots, Winterbottom has spent much of his adult life making movies far from home, probably getting used to luxurious accommodation, so that his former wife, Sabrina Broadbent, wrote Descent: An irresistible tragicomedy of everyday life (2004) about a movie director, always away, having affairs with his female actors. The shows revel in ambiguity, with the glamour constantly subverted. The beautiful food, places and people are haunted by insults and interruptions, quarrels about driving, agents sounding hopeful, relationship troubles, and time passing. As Denby reports: “Both films pursue the high and the low: a complicated deep-running sadness courses through the cynical, sybaritic adventures.” Winterbottom has captured the Nigella Lawson lesson – behind every façade lies pain (the “domestic goddess” had everything, including a nasty, public split with wealthy advertising entrepreneur husband Charles Saatchi).

A dear friend used to finish her emails with the tagline: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”, probably the invention of Scottish pastor, Rev. John Watson (1850-1907). The shows’ downers might seem casual and never worse than hit-and-miss communication, rivalry, nagging doubts and work pressures, but time is always fleeing. The implicit lesson is: “Eat, drink and be merry, … ” and I plan to write further in defence of that philosophy. For the moment, my argument is that the Trips witness the fundamental distinction between food and meals, and, at the risk of repetition, meals matter. Two or three brief shots from each kitchen show the cooks paying considerably more attention to the dishes than the two diners ever do. It is as if to say that celebrity chefs and photogenic plates have been accorded too much prominence of late.

As Brillat-Savarin wrote, table-pleasure depends not on fancy fare, but on four essentials: at least adequate setting, food and drink, companionship, and time. I’ll expand on this important point on another occasion, even if Brillat-Savarin gave two, differing lists of the four necessities (reconciled here). Nevertheless, Winterbottom has won me over by making the food and wine plainly important, but only one part of the picture. He has wondrously illustrated the peaks of all four necessary elements – glorious settings, fine comestibles, exceedingly witty and caring conversations, and apparently (only apparently) all the time in the world.