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13 entries from December 2008

Il a été si bon.

As a child in the 1960s, I recall The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. My parents would switch it off whenever the Beatles appeared.

The Beatles were a bad influence, they said. Disrespectful. Hair too long. Radical politics. Talk of free love.

But an equally subversive act slipped past their radar. One evening, amid the silly circus acts and mediocre comics, I sat mesmerised by a woman singing in French. Eartha Kitt.

If any woman could put a heterosexual spark in my gay loins, it was she.

My first career ambition was to become one of the tuxedoed dancers behind her, who spun a walking stick and snapped his fingers. Tall, handsome men who vamped si bon as she boasted, without shame, of her greed. All in French, save for important words such as yacht, Cadillac, and millionaire.

I had no idea of sex at that age, except to sense that these young gentlemen, and not the millionaire, would get most of it.

The real meaning of Eartha Kitt went straight over the heads of people like my parents.

On the surface, she sang songs about her quest for a man. It was easy to paint these as love songs. In reality, they were sex songs. Songs about sex and money.

Sexually unsophisticated audiences of the fifties and sixties really couldn't tell the difference. A woman singing about a man was reassuringly predictable; she idolised her lover, or pined over him. It never struck them that a gal who demanded, in exchange for sex, two apartment buildings labelled Hers and Hers, might actually subvert the patriarchy just a tad.

But those with a keen sense of irony got it. That included the producers of Batman in the 1960s, who cast her as the quintessential Catwoman.

She took no shit from the patriarchy, even as they blackballed her for a chance conversation about the Vietnam War. Later, of course, the patriarchy rediscovered her famous cocktail-jazz standards.

And you know what? She still goes over their heads, as this 2006 clip shows. (Santa sure gets it, though) Bear in mind, the woman was seventy-nine years old when they filmed it.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me boast that I once shared a plane with Eartha Kitt across the Pacific, as she returned from a tour to Australia in the late 1980s. I never struck up a conversation. I was scared. She has that effect on men.

Sad, but beautifully appropriate, that Eartha Kitt died on Christmas Day. It seems her biggest hit was not C'est Si Bon, I Wanna Be Evil, or any of that popular disco quatsch which paid her rent in the 1980s. It was, in fact, Santa Baby.

If you're reading this, Mr. Claus, you still owe her a sable. And a platinum mine, if memory serves.

* * * * *

Another sad, but beautifully appropriate death for Christmas Day was Harold Pinter, playwright and Nobel Laureate.

He gave one of his last interviews to Charlie Rose, on American public TV. Listen to the poem Rose reads, and hear Pinter speak of its inspiration. You'll see how few other men were better equipped to spoil a holiday than Harold. Were not two of his best-known works, The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, stories of celebrations ruined?

Pinter certainly went over my head when I first read him, at university. The English department swooned, but I just didn't get what the fuss was about.

Innocent talk which somehow made everyone uncomfortable, and eventually angry, seemed pretty normal. At least, at my house.

Reading Kafka helped me understand Pinter. Beneath Kafka's banal language of bureaucracy or polite society, hid contempt. Pinter unearthed the same bilious mess in the language of family and friends. Critics called it a "comedy of menace".

The notorious "Pinteresque pause" is commonplace between hateful intimates. It's a short breather in a little dance of hurt. Both parties, the attacker and defender, gird their loins for the next assault. Eventully, one of the intimates wins. As Pinters's plays show, the victory seldom tastes sweet.

Not hearing the dialogue hindered my understanding immensely. Even after all these years, I still haven't seen a Pinter play in production. Not until I saw Peter Brook's 1973 film of The Homecoming, could I actually understand what was going on.

This clip features Ian Holm as Lenny. Holm was one of Pinter's favourite actors, who instinctively knew what evil undercurrents flow beneath the commonplace. This seems to have equipped him for later roles that require an understanding of the Kafkaesque, from Dr. Putney in Strangers with Candy to Mr Kurtzman inTerry Gilliam's Brazil.

My appreciation of Pinter paralleled recovery from a toxic family of origin. Once I actually got what was going on in his plays, I shuddered to read them. They hit home.

The Economist obituary wonders how Pinter learned the language of loving cruelty, given his benign upbringing. I suspect he picked it up through his well-documented male friendships. Even men who are close to each other, and who admire each other greatly, engage in alpha-dog one-upmanship. They can't help it. In many of his plays, it is women who are the most uncomfortable with the state of affairs, and who sometimes call their menfolk's bluff.

His ear for the evil behind the bland served him well offstage, too. Increasingly, he devoted his later years to political causes.

His Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in 2005, is chilling. He delivered it by video, from a wheelchair, too ill to travel to Stockholm.

In it, he describes of a number of British artists and humanitarians, who met with the deputy American ambassador to the UK from the Reagan White House. They protested the senseless and deliberate slaughter of innocents by the US-backed contras in Nicaragua.

The deputy ambassador simply replied, that "[i]n war, innocent people always suffer." As though this were the most perfectly reasonable thing in the world.

Pinter tells us that a shocked silence followed. Now, when Harold Pinter says there was a pause, you damn well know there was a pause.

It was rather like his plays. The act of speaking attempts to conceal a truth which the silence reveals.

He adds, "So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you...at any time."

It's sad that Pinter passed away, just when much of this official language has begun, in many quarters, to crack under the weight of truth.

Photo Credits:
Eartha Kitt from 55 Secret Street.

Harold Pinter from Bujacob is Burning

Photo Friday: Best of 2008

Silvester+179a.jpgEDIT: On reflection, the best picture of 2008 goes back to January 1st. I was lucky and caught this picture of the free-for-all fireworks celebrations at just the right moment. The woman was, no doubt, dealing with a flood of Happy New Year texts.

The people at Photo Friday have challenged followers to choose their best photo of 2008. Not sure if this is the best, but it's one I like, and haven't used before. That's a candy stand at Oktoberfest. Enjoy!

Linguistic Creationists

The well-known Coffee Funny cafe, in the heart of Shitomachi.

From A Free Man, on pronunciation.

As much as I am loathe to, I've got to agree with your teenage antagonist on the 'natt-choes' thing. That used to drive me batty about the Brits (and the Aussies for that matter). And 'pass-tah'. Although I'm being told hear that our new car is not a Mah-zda, but a Maa-zda. Maybe you could ask Mister Right's opinion?

The Japanese View

Here's how you pronounce it: 松田.

Your new car is a Mutt-soo-da. That's the name of the family which once owned the company. The first kanji means pine-trees, and the second means field.

The family that now owns the company is called Ford, which the Japanese pronounce Fo-do. It derives from the middle-English verb to ford, which roughly translates as "we don't know how to build a bridge".

Mazda is already a deliberate corruption for markets abroad, so pronounce it as you like. In western Pennsylvania, we used to call them Mazzdas, like in Oz.

In truth, most Japanese would find it difficult to mimic either pronunciation.

Look at Datsun. Some say Daht-suun. Others say Datt-son.

Datsun was another concoction, this time an acronym of the original investor's names, which by chance sounded a little like datto, the Japanese word for rabbit. Nissan felt so unsure that their automotive ventures would succeed, they deliberately kept their name off the cars, for a time. Many Brits and Australians drive Nisss-anns, when perhaps they should drive Nee-sahns.

Anyone who pronounces Tokyo with three syllables is guilty of Anglicising it. The same goes for people who say Oh-SAHK-a, instead of OH-sucka.

The Japanese need to re-engineer borrowed words into their own language, often quite severely. They are patient when westerners do the same.

But they might have balked at my father, who, in his own words, drove a Mitsi-buttsi.

The Honourable Husband's View

The prominent gay writer David Sedaris once made an observation about Americans in France. Many, after learning basic French, will say Pa-REE instead of PAIR-iss, when speaking in English.

He thinks they're tossers. Touché.

The city where I live is Myoonshen, spelled München. But in English, I use the word Myoonick, spelled Munich. It would be silly to do otherwise.

The Italians have a similar problem getting their tongues around German, and their word for Munich holds a great deal of charm. They call it Monaco, or more precisely, Monaco di Bavaria.

That’s so nobody will confuse it with Monaco, the principality, whose name comes from the Greek. Monte Carlo, of course, is an Italianisation of the French Mont Charles, the name of the mountain which gives the city its name, but actually sits across the border in France.

The Japanese, interestingly, say Myoonshen. Germany is Doitzu.

I try to pronounce proper names as authentically as possible. But if my tongue doesn’t quite get there, who cares?

Americans are annoyed by Australians who say Chryzler. Australians are annoyed at Americans who say Mel-BORN, rather than MEL-burn. Big deal.

My own surname is plentiful with the letter a. My American family always pronounces them with flat-a’s, as in fact. When they see the spelling, most Europeans, Brits, and Australians prefer a rounded, Italian-style-a, as in the –abra bit of candelabra. How is it pronounced in the Russian dialect, spoken in eastern Slovakia, whence it came? Who knows? Should I enforce my received family pronunciation? Pointless.

It would be silly to pronounce the English auxiliary verb will as “vill”, simply because it came from the German word which performs the same function. Nobody would dream of saying on-for-ma-see-on, just because we borrowed the word information from across the Channel.

Eat Your Words

Words are like foods. They travel, and get adapted to local tastes.

Do you refuse a pizza, because it differs from that served in Naples? (Do you pronounce Naples as Napoli, while we’re on the subject?).

Pizza no more belongs to Naples, nowadays, than the hot dog belongs to Vienna, nor the hamburger to Hamburg*. Real Hamburgers, of the two legged kind, are quite surprised when you suggest that this strange squashed-meatball sandwich may have something to do with their city.

(I don't extend this idea to sushi. But that's a personal quirk.)

In fact, nachos itself (themselves?) present(s) the perfect example of fusion cuisine, even in name. By my reckoning, the word is already corrupted English-Spanish, for Nacho's (i.e. Ignacio's) special dish.

English steals words all over the place, and splashes them onto other languages with equal abandon. Can we ever hope to keep track of it all? Do we need to study every other language on the planet just to use our own?

Demanding perfection can sometimes kill the very linguistic richness it hopes to serve.

And can we ever, really, get it perfectly right?

* Or Mazdas belong to Hiroshima, for that matter.


Most of Munich's many fountains are shut off and boarded up, but the Fisherman's Memorial, near the Stachus, soldiers on.

EDIT: My bad. It's actually the Brunnenbuberl (1895), or Knave's Fountain. The Fisherman's Fountain is down the street, and covered in ice, it kinda looked the same.

@ Iggy:

Beneath the ice is a clothesless knave, trying to shut off the flow of water (wine?) to the elderly satyr above. When King Luitpold saw the naked imp, he asked for a fig leaf, but the sculptor refused. Which, according to city lore, shows that in Munich, the artist is king! Nowadays, pretentious, wannabe artists get the same priveleges, it seems.

Also @ Iggy

IG, you're an architect. If you click on the link, you'll see that the statue is mixed media: stone and bronze. Could the combination of materials explain why the city fathers don't need to shut off this fountain in winter?

Narrow Escape for Moose and Squirrel

Where is he gay today? Mayfair, London

G.F. Trumper. Official Barber and Gentleman's Perfumer to the Court of HRH Elizabeth II
Supplier of Straps for Child Discipline to Prince Phillip, the Royal Consort
No. 9, Curzon Street, Mayfair W1

"If I hear one more fucking Brit say natt-choes, I'll yell for a fucking Jedi to behead him with a fucking light sabre."

The young man, scarcely out of his teens, spoke with an American accent. Except for the fucking. He pronounced a distinct double-k: fock-king, in perfect British diction. A word, perhaps, that he'd learned outside his native land.

His dad beamed. It showed a special kind of fatherly pride, reserved for a son precocious in the manly arts.

The smile said, ain't my kid a real pistol?

Or it seems like only yesterday that I bought him his first whiskey, and now he won't touch anything but single malts!

Or she's pregnant? That's my boy!

Here's the reason the subject of Natt-choes came up. Master Right and I chose Mayfair's oldest wine lodge to dine that evening, in pursuit of an authentic British roast-beef-and-Yorkshire-pud, preferably washed down by a nice red before a cozy fire. We found that Mayfair's oldest wine lodge now serves a hybrid Polish and Mexican menu.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, there's much right with that. The management, wisely, attempts no fusion. The cuisines sit on opposite sides of the menu. Chorizo and kielbasa don't rub shoulders in the charcuterie, nor will you find red cabbage in your taco.
An elegant, engraved badge told us our waitress's name. Natasha spoke with a slight accent; the occasional W turned to a V, the odd dropped article. Combined with a leggy frame and high cheekbones, it gave her the air of a Russian supermodel.

Natasha had seated us in the cellar. Once used for actual cellaring purposes, I imagine, it was rendered useless with the invention of the delivery truck. It now holds a cosy dining area with brick walls and an uneven cobblestone floor. Our hostess held a pen poised for the order, when the father-and-son pair interrupted us.

If you embiggen the pic, you can see the plaque that confirms Mayfair's oldest wine bar serves Mexian and Polish food. I don't make this up, you know.

Natasha judged that these guests, perhaps unaccustomed to the manners which fine dining demands, would get antsy if left standing too long. She seated the pair at the next table, and took both our orders at the same time.

The wine list challenged our new chums. They chose a merlot, pronouncing it mur-low, in an exaggerated French manner, rather than mair-low, as the British would say.

I ordered a South African shriaz, pointedly pronouncing it shi-razz, rather than the silly, Frenchified shi-rahz. First, because the word isn't French. And second, because speaking English, in England, you can Anglicise shit.

Master Right decided on pierogi, a dumpling made of potato pastry that he thought might taste a little like gyoza. The Wild Game Feast caught my eye.

"Excellent choice, sir. But I varn you it includes pheasant, dot is hunted like vild animal. You may find some lead shot." advised Natasha. Misjudging my accent, she added, "I say this to American guests, since you often have wery expensive teeth."

"Ah, so you're American!" exclaimed the father, alert to a conversational gambit. "What state are you from?"

I hate questions like that. Given my rather odd life, a short answer is misleading in many ways. Of course, I could actually give a short answer, and mislead him any way I damn well pleased, just to shut him up. But the bastard snuck up on me.

"Um, currently, the state I'm from is Bavaria. We live in Munich."

The father chuckled. "Forgive me, but you don't sound German."

"OK. I was born in Pittsburgh, but spent many of my formative years in Australia, and I have both passports."

The long reply was, in fact, just as misleading as a short one. It misled him to think that I wanted a conversation.

He explained that his son and he hailed from San Francisco. The lad was studying in the UK, and his thesis had to do with the heroic archetypes of courtly legend and modern popular culture. It stumped me that Junior needed to come all this way; the subject had been well and truly studied right down the road at Skywalker Ranch. Given the young man's entrance, he'd probably logged a few hours there already.

Church of Christ Scientist, Curzon Street

The exchange was loud enough to attract the occasional gaze from others seated in the small cellar. The father interpreted these glances as an interest in our little chat. He asked an open question. "There seem to be a lot of Americans here tonight. What states are you all from?"

"I'm Japanese." said Master Right, who has little patience for meaningless talk. He hates this stupid-chit-chat about personal stuff that westerners, especially Americans, seem to love. A proper Japanese--and he's very proper--would need to be introduced by a mutual acquaintance, cards exchanged, and bows made, before you'd get into your backstory. You can't just blurt it out to a stranger on a bus. Or in a cellar.

"We're from New Zealand." said one couple, as they asked for the bill.

"And we're from Canada" said another, tersely. "You know, that state."

"I guess all the Brits are in Milton Keynes tonight, at the Pizza Express." quipped the son, showing off his deep knowledge of British culture.

Natasha rescued us for a moment, by bringing our meals. She explained the Wild Game Feast. "Forst, here is breast of pheasant. Second, here is sausage of vild boar. And this is your venison meatball."

"Venison?" Junior pointed at the meatball in mock outrage. "So, Natasha, that's what you did to poor Bullwinkle!"

"I don't think moose is venison, son," corrected his father. "I think moose is just moose. You, know, like chicken."

Helpful advice from the Guv'nor.

At that precise moment, their almost-full bottle of wine toppled to the floor.

I'm sure most in the room would have assumed that the uneven surface of the cobblestones caused the table to shift. But those of us who were watching it, know better. The wine veritably leapt off the table, in an arc that suggested a hand lifting it, and dropping it.

Perhaps the ghost of an ancient reveller tired of these antics. "Look here, you fuck-king tosspots!" it seemed to say. "It's bloody burgundy!"

Best to cut and run, we felt. That meant finishing our meals rather too quickly than they deserved, for they were indeed delicious, and leaving a hefty tip for the long-suffering Natasha. On the way back to the club where we stayed, Right noticed a building with an odd name.

Nightingale House. He asked me about it.

I dimly remembered lyrics to the famous song about Mayfair, and sang them on that very London street.

When two lovers meet in Mayfair
So the story goes
Church bells ring
Birds begin to sing

That certain night
that night we met
there was magic abroad in the air
There were angels dining at the Ritz
and a nightingale sang in Berkely Square.

Then, he kissed me. The evening had gone precisely to plan.

The Sacred and the Profane are neighbours.

Where is he gay today? Blackfriars, London

The young Victoria, outside St. Paul's.

Business tends to keep me on the western side of London whenever I visit. So does pleasure, what with the gay bit in Soho, next to the theatre bit in the West End.

This time, though, Master Right and I hopped the Tube to Blackfriars, on the fringe of the City, to London's east. Highly recommended.

First, the Gothic Revival grandeur of St. Paul's. They don't allow you to take pics inside, but trust me, the building is breathtaking. Cool crypt, too. Makes Westminster Abbey look mediaeval.

Modern art is supposed to shock and confront, and the Tate Modern is a shocking, confronting building in which to house one of the world's great collections of it.

The TM has curated its collection of masterpieces (i.e. stuff I've seen in books) so that it actually makes sense. And stuck the explanation on the wall in case you lose track.

Highly cool. Highly recommended.

The Blackfriars pub makes a great place for a pint on the way home, as well. The beer's too warm, but hey, what can you do? It's England.

A disquieting scene in the Tate Modern Turbine Room.
Louise Bourgeois named this sculpture Mother. She must have met mine.



Many of us have heard the story. A Japanese department store once created a giant Christmas display which featured a jolly Santa, nailed to a cross, smiling down on the busy shoppers below. The incident became known as Santa Cross, a near-perfect confusion of Christianity's two most sacred celebrations.

Speaking as a former resident, this has all the hallmarks of an urban legend. Some recall the events in Osaka, some Tokyo; some set it just after the war, some in the nineties. And conveniently, no photos. (You gotta be suspicious when there are no photos of something in Japan!)
If some Santa hats have bunny ears...well, that's just more proof that the Japanese are sexual oddballs, right?
But on Christmas Eve 2004, I saw something that gave me pause to reconsider. It was a poster at Ebisu subway station, promoting the DVD release of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of Christ.
The right half showed Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, the left showed a harried subway commuter carrying his own cross, amid a bustling crowd scurrying home with their Christmas goodies: presents, cakes, and a box that looked suspiciously like it might contain Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The headline read: Christ died on the cross. That's how Christmas began. The copy went on to encourage the reader to learn more about the true origins of the holiday with Mr.Gibson's helpful film.

Of all the holidays in the Christian calendar, Easter is the one which has gained least traction in Japan.
No coloured eggs. No baskets. No need for a spring break, because a home-grown holiday season starts every April 29, known as Golden Week. Buddhists believe in reincarnation as a matter of course, so Christ rising from the dead ain't such a big deal.
The story of the Passion is pretty unpleasant and not hugely optimistic. And, we're still waiting for the happy ending, aren't we?
Without Easter, how does one explain Christianity's brand logo? Graft it on to Christmas. Like I said, everything in Japan makes perfect sense.