March 2010


She was devastated.   After all she had come through, how could the Gods allow it to happen?  Wasn’t she still grieving for her husband, Sychaeus, killed for his money by her own brother, Pygmalion.  Hadn’t she had to take the gold and leave her home in Phoenicia at the dead of night and set sail across a vast sea?   Hadn’t she by sheer force of character and against enormous local opposition, created Carthage on this Godforsaken African promontory and established herself as Queen?  That had all taken some doing.  And now, along comes this chancer, this loser from Troy who quite literally tears her life apart.  

Dido was clearly an inspiring young woman,  beautiful, energetic and possessed of a powerful charisma that could get her anything she wanted or so she thought.  And she wanted Aeneas.  He arrived with his tales of valour; the wooden horse, the defeat of Laocoon, the shipwreck.  And what’s more he came with a ship full of treasures he had secreted out of Troy.  Was it his fault that he had lost Troy?   Hadn’t he been tricked by the Achaeans?  Hadn’t he been betrayed by King Cinyrus of Cyprus who promised a fleet of fifty ships to raise the siege, but sent just one.   Dido was entranced by this warrior prince with his broad shoulders and barrel chest and commanding manner, enthralled by his stories.  What they could do together.  They would make Carthage impregnable, an empire to rival even that of ancient Troy.  Yes, he was on a mission to found a new empire in Italy, but surely he could see what an opportunity Carthage presented and wasn’t he in love with her?  

She had played it cautiously. She would not submit to him without ensuring his loyalty and support.  She was not sure how long she could hold out in Carthage alone.  Armies were gathering to attack her claim in North Africa.  She might have been able to maintain her hold on him, were it not for the weather.  They had been out hunting and were forced to take shelter together in a cave.  She called it their marriage cave, for in it, he pledged himself to her.  Her future looked wonderful.   But then he reminded her of his promise to set up a state in Italy and he proposed leaving before  the weather  turned bad, but he added, he would love her forever and perhaps she could come and join him. 

What a louse!  What a sneaking, conniving, cowardly weasel!  Dido was beside herself with rage.  Aeneas tried to appease her.  Perhaps he didn’t have to go just yet.  Perhaps the Gods would relent. 

You see, he always had the excuse of the Gods to fall back on.  Zeus had been importuned to assist Dido’s enemies in North Africa in their land claims on Carthage.  Ibarus, King of the Moors, was a son of Zeus and had been rejected by Dido. He prayed to his father, who sent Hermes to remind  Aeneas of his promise to go to Italy.  So Aeneas spread his arms and said sorry darling,  ‘Would you have me disobey the Gods?’   Oh he was in such a dreadful bind, especially as Hera and Aphrodite will telling him to stay.  What was he to do?   ‘Let Dido down and lose his one true love or disobey Zeus and be punished forever.’  Put like that there was only one decision.  He had to go, but perhaps, if their love meant everything she said it did, he could return.  Besides, didn’t she have all the Trojan treasures?  Didn’t that mean anything? 

Apparently not!  She had compromised herself.  In her reckless love affair, she had not only incurred the wrath of the surrounding nomad chieftains, but had also lost the support of her own Tyrians.  There was no way to turn, but her response was uncompromising.  ‘ Get on your boat, sailor! And don’t come back.  But you will pay for this for the rest of your life’   She was true to her word.  As soon as Aeneas galley rounded the cape, she fell on the point of his sword and threw herself on her funeral pyre.  Aeneas didn’t hear of it until he had reached Italy and established Rome.  There he descended to the underworld and met Dido, who was reunited with Sychaeus and refused to talk to him, but she continued to haunt his thoughts until the end of his days.  .      

This is one of great love stories of all time, rivalling Abelard and Heloise, Troilus and Cressida,  Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris,  Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII.  It illustrates the dangerous and enduring power of love to transform or to devastate lives.  The Gods in this tale are really metaphors for emotion, there to symbolise forces of desire, anger, and duty.   The Gods battle in out in mortals whose souls are in conflict.  

So the Gods made you do it, Aeneas?  Baloney!  You wanted to go to Italy all along.  It was a challenge.  You’d lost Troy?  This was a chance to make up.  And although Dido was the woman of your dreams, your one true love, didn’t she come across a bit too strong.  She would  have your guts for a suspender belt if you didn’t do exactly as she ordered!  How would you cope with that?   

And what about you Dido?   Did the Gods make you give yourself to him?  No, you could see him slipping away and with that your toehold in Carthage.  So you decided to give him one night of magic that would ensnare him, bind him to you forever.  Oh yeah, that was Aphrodite’s work.  Convenient; only  it didn’t work.  It only served to unnerve him and made him more determined to do his duty.  He was but a man after all

So is this really the greatest love story of all time?  Or is it a tale of hubris and political power; the  risky deployment of romance and sex to achieve ambition?  Or is an example of the age old conflict between love and duty.   How often does love come along at the opportune time?  Can you always be so ruthless and single minded to give up all ties and responsibilities for what may be one great illusion?  Can faith and love move armies and mountains or are there always qualifications?   

Dido was devastated, but maybe not so much by loss, as by the thought that a bloody sailor from Turkey could treat her, Dido, Queen of Carthage, in such a manner.  But she would get her own back.  She would die on the point of his sword and he would never ever forget her.  Hell knows no fury like a Queen who is scorned and she would summon all the Gods in hell to enact it. 

Dido and Aeneas inspired some of the world’s greatest art; in England a play by Christopher Marlowe and an opera by Henry Purcell (1670).  Dido’s Lament in the last act is reputedly the greatest tune of the 17th century, simple in structure but containing sequences of chords that twist the heart strings like no other melody.  Dido ensured that she was never forgotten.

Eleanor Rigby  picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been , lives in a dream,

waits at the window wearing the face that she’s kept in a jar by the door.  What is it for?  

 

Father Mackenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear; no one comes near. 

 Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there.  What does he care?

 

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.

Father Mackenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.  No one was saved.

 

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people where do they all belong?

 

  

She’s a strange girl; pretty in a child like way.  She dresses in a frock and big boots, she collects smooth pebbles that she skims on canals, works in a cafe in Montmartre and lives by herself in an apartment block with other lonely people, Raymond, an artist with brittle bones, who constantly retouches his copy of Renoir’s ‘Le dejeuner des canotieres’, Madeleine,  the concierge abandoned by her husband who escaped with his mistress to South America, the greengrocer, Collignon, who bullies his assistant, and the stewardess who is rarely there but leaves her cat for Amelie to care for.  

 Amelie is quiet and introspective; she keeps herself to herself.  She lives in her own world.  Her mother, who was always afraid of what might happen,  was killed upon emerging from Notre Dame by a Quebecois, who committed  suicide by leaping off the tower.   Her father, a surgeon, cold and clinical, builds a shrine in the garden topped by the garden gnome her mother hated.  He decided many years ago that Amelie had a heart complaint because her heart raced whenever he listened to it through his stethoscope.  She didn’t.  It was just that she craved her father’s affection and these weekly examinations were the only contact she had with him.  Deprived of emotional contact all her life,  Amelie grew up wary of society.

Her life changed on the 29th August 1997.  The radio was on when the news  broke of Princess Diana’s tragic death in the tunnel by the Seine.   Amelie was in the bathroom.  The top fell off the perfume bottle she was holding, rolled across the floor and dislodged a tile at the bottom of the wall.  Amelie knelt down, felt in the gap behind the tile and pulled out a rusty tin containing childhood treasures; the photograph of a footballer, a model of the winner of the Tour de France, a toy racing car.  Amelie recognised the emotional significance of her discovery and was determined to find the owner and return his memories, but she can’t reveal herself.   So she concocts the elaborate device of ringing the phone booth he is passing so that he finds the box she has left there for him.  This instigates her mission in life, to help others cope with their loneliness by a clandestine series of good deeds,  each conducted indirectly with quirky imagination and providing her with a  secret social connection.       

She wants her father to get out more.  So she steals the garden gnome and gives it to the stewardess, who photographs it at all the tourist venues and sends the polaroids to her father’s address.   It works.  Her father decides to travel.  There is a news item of the discovery of objects that survived an air crash on Mont Blanc.  Using words and phrases photocopied from his old love letters, she creates a last letter to Madeleine expressing his sincere and undying affection.   She engenders a passion between one of the cafe’s regulars, an oddball who records the comings and goings on his dictaphone and Georgette,  the cigarette vendor.  And she destabilises the bullying greengrocer by sabotage and practical jokes so that he begins to doubt his own sanity and his assistant becomes more confident.   

But she discovers a kindred spirit poking around under a passport photo booth at Le Gare de l’Est.  There is eye contact, a recognition, but both are so wary.  She follows him.  In trying to discover the identity of the mystery man who repeatedly leaves his photos in the rubbish bin, he drops his bag and she finds the album he has created of scraps of photos from the booth.  She finds that he works in a porn shop during the day and on the ghost train at the funfair in the evenings.  His name is Nino. She stalks him and returns his book by luring him to a viewpoint telescope, which reveals her holding up his album and placing it in the bag on his bike.  Now it is her turn to be stalked.  He finds where she works and where she lives and after numerous escapes and evasions, and assisted by Raymond’s insight, who has recognised Amelie in the girl drinking water at the centre of his painting, they find the love they have both craved all their lives.           

From a social perspective, loneliness is the most common ailment of our time.   Between 35 and 40% of adults in the UK and probably more in the USA are living alone with just the television and the computer for company.    With little opportunity to make meaningful contact with other people,  except perhaps through the dubious media of email and text messaging,  people find it difficult to work through their fears and despair and many develop depression and a variety of physical symptoms.  And, like Amelie, too many children are deprived of emotional contact and numbed by television and gameboy, so that they lose the confidence to interact with anything resembling community even if it were there.  This is no training for life.  Like other social species, human beings all too readily succumb to isolation and become ill.

Amelie craves love; that complete security that comes from feeling really understood and cared for, but how can she find this when she is so nervous of people?   She is too scared to live and will only find the soul mate she is searching for in somebody with similar life experience; otherwise there is always the risk that her naivety will be exploited.  But their route to bliss is, like love making in porcupines,  going to be extremely difficult with so many mistakes, evasions and misunderstandings and so much pain.   One false step and communication will be severed and their dreams destroyed.   But this is make believe, a film, it has to leave us with hope and they have help from a guardian angel with brittle bones.   

 Amelie or ‘Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain’  is a bitter sweet comedy on loneliness directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet in 2001 with Audrey Tautou playing the leading role to shy perfection.  All the nuances of loneliness, shyness, fear, suspicion, oddness and paranoia,  are so well observed by Jeunet.  There’s a dream-like quality in French film, that encourages  quiet reflection on human relationships.  

The male is shaped like a fork with the central prong much longer; the female like a knobbly green tuber, but both can be used.  When they look ready, the villagers prop their  ladders up against the tree, just a bamboo pole with rungs on each side, and climb up.  Syrup can be harvested from both flowers, but they have to be ‘ready’, turgid and yielding slightly when squeezed. If there are too many flowers on a single tree, they remove some of them to concentrate the yield. They then ‘milk’  the chosen flowers by squeezing them gently between large wooden tongs, like those that were once used to get sheets out of the boiler.  This is known as ‘training’ and it is done morning and evening for a four days,  After each training session, they dip the end in a bottle of water.  Then when the flower seems ripe enough to harvest, they cut off the tip with a sharp knife.  If the tip seeps, they attach a bottle to the end and allow the juice to collect. At the end of the day, they pour the dilute syrup into a large metal bowl and allow it to simmer overnight.  The oven is made of the particularly pure clay that can only be collected from termite mounds.  As the branches smoulder, they advance them into the oven to maintain an even heat, hot enough the boil the juice but not too hot so it will dry and burn.

The concentrated syrup is brown and tastes like fudge or maple syrup. It is just right for cooking as a moderate heat makes it runny. It sweetens the coconut cream and fish sauce in Fish Amok.  It is delicious when poured on fresh mango and coconut sticky rice and when added to tamarind juice and lime, it make such a refreshing drink. Or just buy a packet of palm sugar lozenges wrapped up in a palm leaf. So much better than Kendal Mint Cake.

Fish Amok

Chop garlic shallot, galangal, lemon grass, the pool and juice of a Kaffir lime peel and pound together in a large wooden pestle and mortar until it is an even pasty consistency. Add real chilli paste (Kroenung) then top up with coconut milk,  a dollop of palm syrup, fish sauce and an egg.  Add chunks of fish.

To make the banana leaf container, fold the edges of the leaf over and seal with a tiny wooden sliver until you have created an open box, 3 inches by 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches deep.  Pour in the mixture and steam for 20 minutes.  Garnish with thinly sliced Kaffir lime leaves and carrot and eat with jasmine rice.

 

Sticky rice with mango and palm sugar caramel. 

Peel the mango by slicing level with the flat side of the stone and then cut diagonally. 

Boil the rice, allow to soak in the hot water and then steam it.  (In Laos, they soak it overnight in cold water and then steam it over muslin.  

Place a dollop of palm sugar (like maple syrup but nicer) in a pan with butter and coconut cream. Simmer until it caramelises.  Pour over the mango and rice.  

I’m lying in a hammock in the middle of the jungle in the Cardamom Hills.  I lie in comfort and listen to the sounds of the forest;  the roar in the river going through the rapids; the metronome of a frog, the persistant sibilant whispers of crickets, the two tone plaintive cry of the hunting Nightjar and  the cough of an owl.   It is quite idyllic; but there is that slight frisson of anxiety.  I know there are  poachers about.   The couple that camped here last night had returned  wide eyed with fear,  though all the men did was shine their torches on their hammocks, take some bread and crash off into the jungle.  Nevertheless it unnerved them.  So now there is no contact with the civilised world until the boat comes again tomorrow morning.  Nevertheless, I feel safe.  My hammock, a US Army issue, has a mosquito net built in.  I am enclosed in a psychic shield.  My logic says otherwise, but emotionally I have shelter.  It’s the big issue! 

But you need organisation to do this kind of thing.  It gets dark early and quick here; twilight at six, complete darkness at 6.30.  So prepare.   String up the tarp and then unpack and prepare the hammock, putting anything in it you are likely to need overnight.  In particular keep a torch handy.  Then light the fire.  This was easy.  There was a ventilated earthenware pot.  All I had to do was put a chunk of two of resinated wood at the bottom – an excellent firelighter -,   pack the pot with charcoal and soon there was a glowing brazier. 

I steam  the fish with herbs in its foil packet and roast  some vegetable kebabs on long sticks  and while they are doing prepare a salad.   The beer is a bonus, but not if Idrink it too quickly; I have to think clearly.  Everything can descend into chaos so quickly and then it gets dark and you’re slipping around amid a pile or rubbish.    

So prepare yourself first.  Put on long trousers and shirt to stop the mosquitoes biting,  apply plenty of insect repellent.  Keep any food you are not cooking in plastic containers. There are lots of ants about and they get everywhere.  Some even managed to get inside my camera.  I could see them walking across the inside of the lens housing and a flash was accompanied by a wisp of smoke and a whiff of scorched flesh. Make sure you have paper roll to clean your hands.  Find a flat rock to use as a table and another rock as a stool. Set everything out you will need; containers, utensils, beer, water, paper towels and torch.  Keep everything you need is to hand and the result is packed away.  Organise the fire than organise your food.  Think about the order of consumption and the amount, get everything ready first.  Go for a swim in the river, dry off, relax, have a beer.  There is still an hour before complete darkness.  Enjoy the moment. 

OK so that’s the ideal, but it needs so much foresight and attention to detail to achieve it.  It’s a clash of cultures, you see.  If I had longer, or could understand,  like Ray Mears, how to get all I need from the forest; if I really knew how to live feral, it might be very different.  But to support  one night’s adventure in the jungle, fuel, food, drink, bedding, utensils,  everything has to be imported, just to keep the unsettling wilderness at a safe emotional distance.  But doesn’t that defeat the object?     

A poem and instructions written on the wall of Tuol Sleng internment centre,  Phnom Penh.

 

No chatting

No laughing

No discussion

No answering back

No opinions

 

No theatre

No music

No poems

No literature

No religion

 

No priests

No doctors

No lawyers.

No study

No glasses

 

No football

No games

No playing

No running

No schools

 

No parents

No children

No brothers

No sisters

No house

 

No friendship

No flirting

No sex

No love.

No life

 

 Instructions.

  1. You must answer according to my questions.  Don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts about this and that.  You are strictly prohibited to contradict me, contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool, for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes of electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing.  Sit still and wait for my orders.  If there is no order, keep quiet.  When I ask you to do something you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea in order to hide your secret treachery.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules you will get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

     

It is 7 o’clock in the evening just a few days after the new year; the year of the tiger.  Any baby born this year will be strong and fierce, like the tiger.  A man is squatting in the gutter tending a little bonfire.  I make as if to take a  photo, but he waves me away.  I look again, hardly able to believe what I am seeing.  For there, on a street in Hanoi, one of the poorest and overcrowded cities in the world, he is burning dollar bills, not just one or two but hundreds of them in all denominations.  There must be about five thousand dollars going up in flames in front of my eyes.  A few yards away, another man is doing the same thing, and on the corner a woman is stuffing twenty dollar bills into a big brazier. All over the city they are burning money. 

What is going on?   My guide explains.  ‘At the new year, we remember our ancestors and we make gifts to appease their spirits and give ourselves good karma.   It’s not real money, but fake paper money.  Some also burn paper models of cars, servants, possessions.  You see, we believe in the afterlife here.  If we can appease the spirits of our ancestors, then we will have a good life too.  It will bring us luck.’

In the Buddhist temples, they sell paper effigies like soldiers in red coats and hats to burn.  Buddhism sits comfortably alongside superstition here.  Many of the tribes in the country are animist, they believe in spirits.  In a wood outside a village in Northern Laos, just a dozen miles or so from the Chinese border, we came across a group of huts on stilts topped by a pole bearing the remains of a flag.  The huts were surrounded by a stockade and a moat.  There was a wooden board in front of it bearing a photograph of the deceased and the dates of his life.   His possessions were stacked under the eaves together with the remains of food and flowers. 

‘When a parent dies, we look after his spirit in death in the same way as we looked after his body in life.  That way we will get good karma and show our children how to look after us when our time comes.’

‘But the people who live in the village, the Black Tai, do not go to the wood after dark.  They are afraid of the spirits.’ 

A few days later, in the Khmer village, we came across an structure that looked like two sets of poles for growing runner beans.  Between it was a table with clay figurines on it. 

”The people here believe that if they touch the body of a dead person, they will die.  So the shaman  builds these arches and covers them with leaves and symbols.  The relatives then pass through the arches three times and leaves a clay model on the table to protect them from the spirits who might take them too.’

We met the shaman, jolly toothless man with a wispy beard, no shirt and a cigarette tucked behind his ear.  My guide left him some indigestion tablets for his wife.  Strong medicine!

Alfred Russel Wallace, who nearly beat Darwin to the discovery of evolution, described it like this.  “It is like buttery custard, flavoured with almonds intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, ground cherries [sherry wine?] and other incongruities.  It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy.  Yet one feels the want of none of these qualities for it is perfect as it is.  Eat it immediately.”

The durian is a large fruit, like a spiky rugby ball.  It is so smelly that it is banned from airline cabins and some hotels. But the Asians love them; they consider them an aphrodisiac.  There’s a Malay saying that when the durians are down the sarongs are up.

Every morning at Rainbow Lodge, we were served a plate of exotic fruits.  It was an education. 

The Soursop is related to the Durian, only smaller, not spiky, but with an irregular surface. It has a chewy, sweet white flesh with flat black seeds. 

The Custard Apple is like the Soursop.  It has overlapping greenish flesh and is very juicy, sweet yet slightly acid.

 And then there’s the Mangosteen.  These when they are ripe are small, dark purple, round fruits with a rosette of sepals on the top of them.  The flesh is juicy, white and sweet yet slightly acid.  The bark and the skin of the fruit can be used to treat diarrhoea.

But for flavour, I just love the Long yong or Durkin.  It tastes like a lychee, but is softer and sweeter and one the flesh is peeled off, it is in white segments like garlic.

The Pomelo is the largest grapefruit.  It can be used as a salad vegetable or fruit.

The Dragon’s Eye Fruit, is a true lychee but contains a much larger black seed  and has the smooth white surface and disconcerting consistency of an eyeball.

The Rambutan is a hairy lychee.  “Rambut” means “whiskery hairs”.

The Sapodilla is one that I really like.  It’s a brown fruit that tastes like toffee, like a pear flavoured with maple syrup. 

The Snake Fruit looks interesting.  It’s shaped a little bit like an inverted comma or the head of a cobra.  The brown spotted skin also resembles that of a snake. The flesh is milky and sour. 

Then of course there are the sweetest mangos and papayas, (though the Cambodians also like to eat them unripe in strips as a vegetable) and pineapples.  The seeds of the pineapple are arranged in a spiral.  Cut them out in a shallow wedge with a sharp knife for a perfect presentation.

And did you know that the cashew nut nestles into the base of the green cashew apple, which tastes sweet not unlike an apple.

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