Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

Sri Ramakrishna was a 19th century mystic who spent most of his life in the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, near Calcutta, where he was devoted to the Goddess Kali. There is quite an extensive wikipedia page devoted to him and his teachings. There is also this book: Nicola Barker was given a pamphlet about him when she was 10 and says in an afterword that she has been obsessed with him  since reading a biography of him 30 years ago. The Temple was started by Rani - she catches the eye of a rich landowner (she was aged 9 at the time), inherits everything when he dies and escapes the clutches of all those who would advise her. Barker devotes a few passages to her: she was a devotee of Kali and stood up for the less powerful members of society. There's a story about an unfair tax imposed on fishermen, which caused her to take up a lease of the river: this somehow gave her the right to block shipping, which gave her the power to have the tax reversed. When a neighbour complained about the noise made by musicians she'd employed for a religious celebration, she doubled the musicians. Again, she could use property rights to get her own way: she owned a segment of an important road that she denied access to until the fines were reversed.
But the book (even Barker hesitates to call it a novel) is about Sri Ramakrishna. There are very few references to cauliflowers - I don't think he liked them (they make him fart too much!), but there is one very strange episode in which a tiny camera, brand-name Cauliflower®, is hung round the neck of a small bird as it flits around the temple in order to give the reader some sense of the physical environment. The bird comes to a sticky end: it is attacked by a larger bird and is ultimately engulfed by a fish ("Seventy-six per cent of the budget up in smoke. The Cauliflower® is now officially inruins. Seventy six per cent! And that's from a total budget of ... uh ... um ... nothing"). So - it isn't clear why the book has the title it does: maybe because it is told in the style of a cauliflower - little florets in no coherent order but always connected to the stem, the life of Sri Ramakrishna. One reviewer has suggested that a cauliflower is a bit like a brain, so the title is a sort of insistence on the intellect despite Sri Ramakrishna's blind focus on enlightenment. The author herself has said that it reflects Ramakrishna's own way of looking at the world - childlike in his playfulness, ecstatic, crazy, serious.

He was different from the very beginning - at his own birth, he essayed a disappearing act and was found under some sort of machine and then every story of his boyhood is "very curious" such as the day he became mysteriously and immensely heavy or the other day when his form was replaced by that of an older man. Those who knew regarded these as signs of his being "oddly blessed". At school he refused to learn to read (education is for "wage monkeys and "worldly fools") and (much later) says he erased an inclination to reason (although he cannot explain to the truth-seeker how this was done). Instead, he gave Kali his all - leaping around the temple a if he was an ape, believing (not pretending) he was one; dressing and acting as a woman as a form of devotional love. He is sometimes rewarded - has spiritual visions and long periods of bliss (he cannot perform even the most basic of tasks at times because of being "drunk on spiritual bliss") but is almost constantly concerned he is not doing enough, because Kali is elusive, does not reveal herself to him - he even attempts to take his own life to please her with the gift.  

While the narrative generally starts at the beginning and ends just after his death, it certainly does not follow any sort of linear progression or have a single narrator. A fairly consistent voice is that of Sri Ramakrishna's nephew and helpmeet (although he married (a five year old) the marriage was never consummated - his mind was always on higher things), Hriday.Hriday is very human - he generally gets Sri Ramakrishna's devotion and selflessness, but sometimes gets annoyed because he misses out on the sort of attention he might expect from his uncle. He is especially pissed off when his uncle is towards the end of his life and after, and he is pushed aside by other family members. When Ramakrishna takes to wandering off alone at night, generally after not eating anything or sleeping and not wearing everything, Hriday's devotion to his uncle is sorely tested - concerned for his own reputation as the servant of a madman, concerned that he's not doing a good job, but sick with worry and anxiety and "tied to Uncle by the clinging vines of love".

There are many other sources - the occasional emergence of a clear narratorial voice, haikus, extracts from other texts such as the Bible and Bleak House, diary entries from an amateur anthropologist who visits in 1864, pages from a letter, references to a movie made about Ramakrishna in 1955 and so on. The narrator is present from the beginning: the first paragraph introduces Rani as the star of her own movie; the second starts off
How will it all end? we wonder. Temporarily disable that impatient index finger. We must strenuously resist the urge to fast-forward...
I used the word passages deliberately: there aren't really chapters. Instead, there are passages, running from a few lines through several pages, each headed with a temporal reference - sometimes a very precise date, others are more vague - just a year - and others simply say 40 years earlier (than what?) or 20 years later.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Forensic Records Society

Growing up, there was almost no music in my life. The radio was always tuned to one station that played almost zero music, nothing popular, and I didn't watch a whole lot of TV. The only live music was when there was a community gathering and someone would pull out the guitar and do the ever-popular ten guitars. I hit my twenties with maybe three records to my name (Dire Straights, Pink Floyd and the Motels). Going to University, I fell into a crew of people who listened to a lot of music - not because of any love of music but because there were competitions over which camp of high end stereo was the better (the Linn v Naim wars). I could never afford that level of kit but it did mean that I had to get a stereo, then acquire records - which I tended to buy cheaply and play alphabetically.

I think I would have fitted in quite well in those days with the six or seven blokes who comprise the Forensic Records Society, the latest by Magnus Mills. James and the never-named narrator are mates - when I think about it, absolutely no information is provided about either of them, such as how they met or their lines of work. Their only intersections are by way of the records they play to each other and the pints they drink in the Half Moon. They come up with the idea of creating a group of like-minded people - although it soon becomes James' gig. He puts up a poster inviting people to join and so for a few weeks, this handful of blokes go into the back room and play 2-3 records of their choice. The only rule is that there is to be no comment or judgement on anything played: when Chris quotes from records, an edict is eventually made that there are to be no quotes either. The idea is that they will simply play their 7" singles, (LP's are not specifically banned, not until someone brings one along) listen to them "forensically", have a pint or two and go home Alice is the only woman in the story: she is the bar maid and forms the view that these guys, particularly the narrator, do no not like music.

A fellow in a long leather coat tries to join but makes the mistake of being late to the session and is denied entry. Maybe this is why he starts a rival club - the Confessional Record Society. The details of how it works are obscure: James tries to have an infiltrator but his confession is not worthy and he is denied membership. The club is very popular: its membership is comprised of a horde of pink t-shirted young women. This and James' hard-line causes a splinter group to break away from the Forensic Record Society - the narrator kind of likes this group and that creates problems for his friendship with James - there is a distinct cooling. Clearly, James expects loyalty.

The novel could represent a tension between purist and populist approaches to a number of things, such as religion or politics but I was quite happy to read it as being about competing approaches to running record clubs, listening to music and the relationships that develop between the blokes - not just that between James and the narrator, but also how the other members form a kind of nucleus, one that doesn't include the narrator. For a while, he's left out in the cold, not that James seems to mind as he has formed an alliance with Alice.I really felt for him, as he didn't seem to have anyone else in his life. Of course, nothing is said - that's the nature of blokes, and ultimately, this book (like several of his other books) is about the nature of blokes and their relationships with each other.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

800 Words S3E3

They seemed to go full-farce in this episode. Woody can't marry Tracey because he is already married, but doesn't dare tell her. George is worried about the kumera network (grape vine): it will be awful if Tracey finds out but Woody is determined to find his wife (Mary Kelly), get a divorce and leave Tracey in the dark. Of course, by the end of the episode, half the town is in on it. George uses the phone book and finds all the Mary Kelly's he can, leaving Woody to make the calls (he's very chatty in doing so). They are hiding out in someone's bach: Smiler notices and comes in, uses geneology as his method to track her down. Constable Tom sees the vehicles lined up outside a place that should be empty, asks about their "command centre" and offers to help using official channels: only then does it turn out that Woody hasn't even given his wife's proper name. Good old Constable Tom - what does it matter if civil liberties are infringed in the name of love? Somehow seveal other people are involved by the end.

As for Tracey, she has work problems: no-one to teach the numpties. Katie brings some soup to school for Billy and lands herself in it: because she has taught in a kohanga reo, that makes her qualified to teach High School in Weld.

The other big story line revolved around Shay: she's having trouble dealing with the break up with Ike and why he has gone "full mystical" on her. Lindsay is surprisingly wise, says that Shay has not yet hit bottom - of course, that is a set up for her doing so. Shay loses it in the Super Centre when she sees Zac, goes off to him (and of course, some girls are there to film it and share it with all and sundry) and then hides out in the beer chiller. In another surprise, Siouxsie comes in and comforts her (and later on brings the oh so necessary ice cream). Eventually, Shay goes off and tackles Ike again - all he can say is that voices of his ancestors spoke while he was nearly dead, he has to find his "path" without Shay - it may or may not lead him to her. Instead of saying it is all bullshit, Shay sees he is more confused than she is.

Back to Woody - now that he has finally found Rosemary, he makes the call - she is in the Silverton Hotel (I've visited it, it is near Broken Hill - it has featured in many movies including one of the Mad Max ones and Wake In Fright). She does not seem happy to hear from him or even to divorce him: if he wants to sign the papers, he has to take them to her. In Woody fashion, he tells his mates there is "a bit of a complication". 

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Masterchef 14

This was the relay episode - I’ve seen some disasters with this, where cooks forget to be team players and really screw up the dish. It depends on the first member setting things up, then all others following along. They need to use a special ingredient - we're told it is something harvested from a tree for over 500 years “magic water” i.e. maple syrup. Volunteers are needed to start the cook - they jump in quickly - but are they up to designing a good dish? Benita is Green, Tamara is Blue, Benjamin is yellow and Diana is Red. Benita - chilli crab and prawn with maple syrup as sweetener. Judges “very interesting” when they get to hear - they don’t look convinced. Tamara - Asian sticky pork belly, slaw and bao buns. Benjamin  setting up idea not full dish - maple ice cream, others can add own idea. Gets the ice cream in the blast chiller in his time, couple of minutes downtime. Diana maple syrup ice cream, maple glazed bacon, jelly and crunch.

Second team:
Eloise is yellow, she cools ice cream over ice bath - but what is she adding? She sees it as the perfect centrepiece but wants complementary flavours - smoke the ice cream! Add white chocolate foam. Sarah is blue - really happy with choice made, portions the dough for the bao buns and she’s “all over this”, gets slaw under way. Tamara is watching from another room and is also happy - says Sarah is "a machine". For the green team, Ben is a “little bit perplexed - completely wrong dish” no maple syrup used yet - Benita frustrated, wants him to put more in. But he can taste the maple. Red is Trent - puts jelly in fridge, his team wants in freezer.

Third Team:
Bryan makes some inspired choices for yellow - adds crispy maple bacon crisps and pickled apple (includes bourbon) to the maple ice cream and his team mates are happy. For the blue team, Michelle hoped she would be working on something sweet but the dish is savoury, she gets very lost and stuffs the dish up. The pressure cooker confuses her, Sarah is worried, more so when Michelle puts bao in steamer too early, without shaping and not on paper - has she ruined them? For the red team ice cream dish, Samuel adds almond and maple syrup biscuit for texture and flavour. Will he put jelly in freezer? Sees is runny, but thinks the next cook can sort it. Poor Nicole in the green team: she can’t see how the dish will work, losing flavour of sauce because heating maple syrup destroys its flavour. Back to Michelle: she is chopping the pork belly up, but when it is deep fried, it will dry out, buns on too quick. Will the next cook fix it?

Fourth team:
New yellow member Eliza seems to get it, don’t really see her much. Michelle can’t explain her dish to Karlie, which leaves her a lot to sort out - “what a mess”. Buns - really odd and gluey, fried pork drying, soggy slaw - nothing that will work. Poor thing. Ditch two, start again. Now Michelle realises has taken team backwards. Karlie - goes rogue, adds crispy pancake - Sarah happy. Sticky maple sauce as well. This is tense! Red man = Callan. He finds the jelly, which is still liquid and finally puts in freezer. Green - no maple flavour in dish, maple syrup prawns. Jelly drama over - has set.

Fifth team:
Jess is blue - team happy with that. Finds some pork crackling for salad - banging! Dish has little resemblance to what was intended but looks tasty. Eliza does good hand over. More confusion for green team with Pete. No maple flavour in sauce - heating kills flavour. Yellow man Sam eating lots, forgets tuille - is a bit dark. Maple comb made - makes team mates very happy. Ice cream has just made it. Teams all shouting at their player - who can’t hear them! Ray on Red, dithering over plates.Does he even know about the jelly? After all that? Nope, it does not get plated.

Yellow up first - I think they like it! Yep. Amazing clarity - despite the way the dish was put together. Blue - judges like original idea. Clear expression. What of the finished product? There are things to love, but little mistakes - pork a bit dry. Green - is it about maple syrup? ”We used a whole bottle.” Nice dish, lots of flavour, but maple syrup lost. Red - “where’s the jelly?” Bacon sails - like ancient pirate ship. George - really enjoying it, flavours connect. Biscuits make it for Matt. Special mention for Diana in her set up. Got to be green which goes into elimination. Yep.