Monday, May 26, 2014

Philemon and Baucis

For my parents, who have been reunited.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Philemon and Baucis are visited by Jupiter and Mercury

Two ordinary-looking trees, an oak and a linden, growing side-by-side on a small hill, surrounded by a wall. But first, a tale of two gods wandering in peasant disguise, seeking hospitality in the homes of strangers, only to find mille domos adiere locum requiemque petentes, mille domos clausere serae: a thousand doors remain shut to their pleas. Until the gods reach the last house in the town, where an old couple live in freedom-giving poverty, each owing obedience only to the other. They take in the strangers, and the poet minutely and tenderly describes the table they set and the dinner they prepare, sharing the best of what little they have. The reviving of the fire from the day before, with leaves and dry bark. The cutting of a slice of an old piece of bacon, softened in water and washed of its salt. And then each of the courses, modest but proper and carefully laid out, accompanied with wine. Above all, vultus accessere boni nec iners pauperque voluntas: welcoming looks, and a warm, solicitous disposition towards the uninvited guests.

Thus begins the story of Philemon and Baucis, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. Its original source, if any, is unknown, although there is a biblical echo in what happens next, as the gods reveal themselves to the mortals – by magically increasing the supply of wine – and announce that they are about to lay waste to the town for the impiety of its inhabitants. Only the old couple will be spared, so long as they march to the top of the hill, without looking back. When they reach the summit and turn their ‘no more forbidden eyes’ (as per John Dryden’s liberal translation), Philemon and Baucis see that the town has been drowned in a lake of sludge. While weeping for the loss of lives they watch their old home, which was parva duobus – barely enough for two people – be transformed into a temple, with marble floors and columns sprouting like vegetation in a forest. Whereupon Jupiter asks the couple to declare their wish, which the gods will grant.

The story is all in the next two lines. Cum Baucide pauca locutus iudicium superis aperit commune Philemon: after consulting briefly with Baucis, Philemon tells the gods their shared desire.

They didn’t have to speak for long: their mind was already made up. Their wish had always existed, waiting for two passing gods to come along and fulfil it.

This is the part that has no biblical echoes whatsoever – it is all about earthly love, not the divine – and that my mother used to speak about with longing. The part where Philemon and Baucis ask to serve as priests in the newly erected temple, but above all that when their hour comes they be allowed to die together. Nec coniugis umquam busta meae videam, neu sim tumulandus ab illa: that she may not have to see my grave, nor I have to bury her.

When a loved one dies, it always feels as if death had just been invented. But Philemon and Baucis are the last people: by which I mean to each other, a state expressed by heavy-handed metaphor through the massacre of the rest of the townsfolk. And if there is no-one and else, if they are the last loved ones, to each be spared the death of the other is the ultimate gift: the promise to live their remaining years free of the fear of that pain.

When the time comes, the gods’ design reveals itself in poetic form. The couple are sitting on the temple’s foreground, reminiscing about what came to pass, when
...frondere Philemona Baucis,
Baucida conspexit senior frondere Philemon.
iamque super geminos crescente cacumine vultus
mutua, dum licuit, reddebant dicta ‘vale’ que
‘o coniunx’ dixere simul, simul abdita texit
ora frutex…
Frondere, what a magnificent verb: it means that the two have started to grow branches and leaves. And then ‘farewell’, ‘oh, my spouse’ they have time to say to each other before bark seals their mouths and the swift metamorphosis is complete.

Two ordinary-looking trees, an oak and a linden, growing side-by-side on a small hill, surrounded by a wall. What fate could be more sweet?

Monday, May 19, 2014

The great white luxury shop in the sky

It is a grave indictment on the theory of relativity that time on a plane is supposed to go faster than on Earth. Go tell the guy stuck at 30,000 feet, inside the poorly oxygenated economy cabin of a long-haul commercial flight. Subjective, emotional time can slow down to a crawl on those routes, more than reversing the effects of Einstein’s law. And so, once you’re thoroughly nauseated with the choice of televisual entertainment and made so listless as to judge the prose of John Grisham too much of a challenge, you will sometimes find yourself thumbing through the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine. Not to look for things to buy, but for a way to speed up time.

The surface fantasy of the Cathay Pacific in-flight duty-free shopping magazine is that you might be able afford any of the items. You can not. Not the US$ 4,872 Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph; not the US $115 bottle of Chateau Pontet-Canet red; not the US$ 93 Paul Lafayet Coffret Prestige set of 36 seasonal macarons (Hong Kong delivery only).

You doubt that any of your fellow economy passengers may have an appetite for such ostentatious or casual luxury either, but this is mere speculation: the near-vegetative state of the plane’s human cargo doesn’t yet allow for Ubik-like mind melding.

You develop a theory: the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine is a journey into the psyche of a sexually ambivalent space traveller from the near future. The alien is running through a catalogue of clothing and accessories, to be selected so that he/she may pass as human. As a female, it is required of her that she look demure and young. As a male, it is required of him that he look affluent and assertive. He chooses a Hugo Boss business suit with accessories – belt, tie, wallet. She chooses a La Perla negligee, BVLGARI Omnia Indian Garnet eau de toilette, La Prairie skin caviar liquid lift.

Yours for US$ 550
Running through a menu of available ethnicities, the alien discards the handful of Asian avatars and selects one of the many mathematically averaged Caucasians with metallic grey skin. Ms Bianca Balti.

Exploring your theory, you realise how many of the products are obviously designed to appeal to space-travellers. Like the Wine Art Eurocave, which for US$ 577 will keep an open bottle of wine in ideal drinking conditions for up to a week through the use of vacuum technology. Or the cybernetic Fitbit bracelet, which ‘tracks almost everything you do – from how many steps you take to how many calories you consume and how well you sleep’. Or the Saniti Spray from Oregon scientific, designed to create around you an atmosphere that is safe to breathe. Or the i.balance bracelet, which increases the alkaline levels of the body (of particular appeal to Venusians). Even the portable ILA alarm, which wedges a door shut and emits a piercing 130Db siren noise if someone tries to get in, will be useful on one of those reconnaissance missions.

A light-emitting capsule resembling a piece of alien weaponry, the Talika Light Duo+ ‘meets all skin-perfecting expectations – anti-aging, anti-dark spot and now anti-redness and imperfections – thanks to its 630 (red) wavelength’. Attuned to extravagant but scientific-sounding claims of effectiveness, the alien finds that this makes perfect sense, as does spending 126 US Earth dollars for a cream booster, that is to say a skin-care product designed to make other skin-care products more effective by means of ‘LED phototherapy, micro-vibration technology and ionotherapy’. For US$ 404, the alien purchases La Mer concentrate 30ml, an ‘agent of change for profound transformation infused with a powerful dose of nurturing Miracle BrothTM’. For US$ 126, a melanolyser from Lançome, ‘the No.1 whitening brand in Asia’.

By now, an alternative theory has begun to form: that the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine is a character study, a mirror to the aspirations and desires of the globalised upper middle class. Youth, beauty, success, pleasure and an end to work: all of these are made attainable through highly targeted acts of consumption, under the auspices of the world’s leading brands. Headlined by Giorgio Armani – the tailor who sells watches, eyeglasses, colognes – these in turn are neutral, empty signifiers of elegance beyond culture or history. Even when they appeal to the exotic, their products are designed to reduce the consumer’s image of self to the whitest common denominator.

Things that can be sold and bought anywhere – and what is more anywhere than mid-flight on an intercontinental route? Those maps on your personal screen purporting to show you where you are, they all lie. There is nothing more insignificant, less real, than your ground location at 30,000 feet. You haven’t been to China, you haven’t been to India. It’s an illusion. And you will never be remade on the image of the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine image either. Its model consumer is not of this Earth.

Monday, May 12, 2014

My night at the Canon Media Awards

It will be archived here some day, but for now this week's post resides at the wonderful Pantograph Punch.

Also: my first column as a featured writer for the print edition of Overland, 'On measuring our future', is now available online. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

In the vernacular

Now that my mother has moved into a rest home not far from the village of her birth, my trips to Italy have changed accordingly, and I find myself no longer revisiting just my childhood but hers as well. These are places that are very familiar to me but that I only ever visited, as opposed to properly inhabiting. It was my other home, but not quite my home. To Mum, it’s the birthplace she chose to leave so that she could get an education and escape its far-too-narrow horizons. It’s a past we share differently.

That familiarity begins with the shape of the buildings. This is one of the meanings of the word ‘vernacular’ in the language of architecture, and I find it quite appealing: it’s simply the way that houses speak to you in a given place. And in the south-east of Lombardy, the most common phrase – to my ear, at least – may just be the traditional farm-house, beginning with the very precise shape of its barn.

But you could say the same of the residential homes, or the forms that agriculture takes, for that matter. Walking through Villa Poma, I passed near my grandparents’ place, built around 1954. Here’s an old picture of it I found recently. The road wasn’t paved back then.

And here it is now: another common place. A house like so many others in a style that never went out of fashion.

These places don’t change. When I looked at the timetable to work out how to get there from Milan, I found that the trains still left at 20 minutes past the hour every second hour, as they did in 1981, the year my grandfather died and Mum and I took it every weekend. Then at Mantua you had to change, then change again in Suzzara, so that it would take you close to two hours to cover the last 40 kilometers of the journey. This is still the case.

It’s a lattice of small stations on single-track lines. This is Schivenoglia’s.

I love the details, the colours.

Since the stationmasters were let go, however, the ticket counters have all disappeared and the waiting rooms have fallen into disrepair.

On one of the more modern trains, an ad that encourages train users to take action against freeloaders. ‘People who don’t pay hurt you, too. Tell them to stop.’

I didn’t see a single inspector on that line in two weeks. I’m not sure how anyone was supposed to know if I paid for my ticket.

On foot, to cover the last three kilometers of my daily route, I encounter discarded road signs used as target practice for BB guns;

fog. They say it’s less thick and frequent these days;

a couple of retired garden gnomes.

At the edge of Schivenoglia, a small dairy factory

along with signs of that conservation slipping into decay.

And while I was pleased to see that the glassworks outside of Villa Poma – an important local non-farm employer – are still operating,

the For Sale sign on this local industrial building in Schivenoglia seemed more hopeful than realistic.

Which is to say that the business of the superficially unchanging nature of the area is a complicated one. For instance, I was shocked by the extent of seemingly fresh damage almost exactly two years after the 2012 earthquake, including a large piece of stone masonry lying outside the door of a public building in Quistello.

The temporary remedial work is carried out via wooden frames that have become a prominent feature of the urban landscape. They’re now part of the vernacular.

But their reflection on the window of a flash gaming parlour is a reminder that the economic texture of the whole country has suffered. Taxes on gambling are now the Italian government’s single largest revenue item, and slot machine proceeds are the main item within that category.

Whereas sometimes it was hard to tell if one of the old buildings was damaged in the earthquake, or let go over the years like so many others before it.

The rest are scattered impressions, in the vein of last week’s post. It was a difficult time, rendered bearable by the love of family and friends. These pictures don’t show any of that. None of the serious stuff.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in London anymore.

Just outside Villa Poma.

The sun in front of the trees.

The Corte Dall’Acqua, Schivenoglia.

This glass of Nebbiolo I had.

Temporary church arrangements. Another common sight after the earthquake.

A good May Day poster will signal that your small town is run by a left-wing council.

Outside the train station in Suzzara. It took me a bit to figure out that they meant to write the English name ‘Charlie’.

Said station is in Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. He was a socialist MP beaten to death by Fascist thugs in 1924. Here he is described in marble as a ‘martyr of the idea’. That idea is socialism. Our institutions no longer speak this way.

London has the doors. Mantua has the windows.

A fresco at Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. The two kissing figures have one nose between them – depending on which end of the room you look at it from, it belongs to one or the other.

A ceiling at the palace.

Outside of the very few homes of the former aristocracy, the style of the province is highly somber and austere. Which makes the rare embellishments – like the curl at the end of this bolt – all the more beautiful.

Finally, a concession to why I was there: me and my mum. She's a quite remarkable woman.