Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I am writing this sitting at -- Starbucks! Where I haven't set foot for weeks now, and the young counter girl didn't answer "Good morning!" to my "Good morning!", but just gave me her bright smile and said: "Vente coffee?"

Yeah... I didn't even pull out the pad until I had my first delicious sip.

All the way here, my heart was singing, and I was wondering what I would rant about today. Thanksgiving in Tokyo? My first American Thanksgiving? Aunt Marie and prescription drugs? In honor of the Medicare reform bill, which has passed, dammit.

Then the pad I picked up happened to be filled with scribblings I made before the start of the present Iraq war, and of course I could pick up right there, but that would not necessarily lead to blogging, just another bit of shaky framework for the great opus, my book on the war on Iraq.

I think I'll just flirt a little with anything that comes up.

One: thankfully they are not playing Christmas carols at Starbucks. They have already started in other places. I received a glossy magazine junkmail-advertising-jumbo-number, "Grand Opening" for a store that is launching itself with the uniquely ambitious, quite brilliantly inane idea of selling the world -- giftwrap and boxes for the season of giftgiving. I would just love to see what kind of a financial plan they flashed under their banker's nose, to be able to bankroll this particular boondoggle.

When I first came to America, before most of the people alive today were born, the Christmas season only started as soon as we had put Thanksgiving behind us. Naturally it then lasted as long as anyone wanted, and I have known in my time people who only took their Christmas tree down in July, when it had become a real fire hazard, and others who waited for the dog days of August to clear the decks, while I have also known some enthusiastic celebrants who never took their Christmas lights down, ever at all: they just refreshed them every new Christmas, maybe removed them for a day or two to clean the windows and wash the curtains, and then they replaced whatever little bits were no longer working and put them right back up, maybe in a slightly different configuration.

After the death of my mother, as a child, we only had Christmas with our father when we stayed in our flat in London. It was a very small, West end mews flat, with no central heating. I don't suppose many people had central heating in England in those days. It had a small, very cold bedroom for our father, and a frigid bathroom next to that, which guaranteed noone every overstayed their allotted time there, with a gas water-heater which activated when you turned on the "hot" water tap (faucet to you Americans), and a small eat-in kitchen next to that, that had the "hot" water tap hooked up to the same gas water-heater, and next to that the living room, where my brother Alain and I each had a bed, one on each side of the room, lined up against the freezing wall so that the first thing you did before climbing into it at night was to pull it a little bit away from the wall. This living room had a very small grate fire, and every evening, we built a tiny coal fire in it. The coal bin was downstairs outside, and we kids were supposed to get the coal up in a coal bucket, which meant going downstairs into the outside weather, and shovelling up enough coal to fill the bucket, and bringing it back upstairs. I just loved that chore, don't ask me why, I was that kind of kid, so I took my turn more often than Alain, who probably doesn't even remember ever doing it by now -- but then, he hardly ever did.

My father had been a scout, and a rover, so you know he could start a fire. The French always say great lovers and madmen are the only ones who always can, even with wet wood. I don't know which my father was, but he could start a fire with the most miserable wet coal, full of sulphur and heavens knows what other kind of crap, and that without any kind of kindling wood. He would first sift through the ashes from last night's fire, retrieving all the clinker that might remain, and then start with a semi-circle of the best, largest pieces of coal, a sort of little retaining wall of coal. Then he would tear up an old phone book, or yesterday's newspaper, and fold it up into very tight small knots of paper, which he placed inside this containing wall, on top of a single, wadded-up-loosely piece of newspaper, and the old clinker went on top of that, and he would start the fire by scratching a match, usually from two separate spots on the newspaper sheet, right in the center underneath, as far as the match would reach. When the paper knots "took", and the flames and smoke came up through the clinker, he would add small pieces of fresh coal, here and there, and we would just wait for a while, until the whole thing was securely lit, when it didn't really matter any more what you might put on the fire, or where, the fire was well and truly lit and would burn as long as you kept feeding it.

There were periods in the London of those days when the available coal was of a pathetic quality, and this little family scene, multiplied X-times in every English living room, accounts for the infamous smog that London was famous for, the well-remembered "pea soups" that killed off old pensioners and turned everyone's white underwear a permanent dirty brown that would never, ever wash out.

Anyway, that little coal fire eventually would mature into a mellow block of glowing embers. And we would cook dinner in the little kitchen and eat it, the three of us sitting on the floor around that warm hearth, with our faces flushed and our backsides frozen, maybe listening to something on the BBC radio. There was always a peaceful moment when that fire developed gaping canyons, licked now and then by sudden purple flames contrasting pleasantly against the reds, yellows and oranges of the incandescent coals, surrounded by the pitch black crust of glistening slag waiting for its moment of glory. And I thought how beautiful these canyons were, and how, if I were small enough, if I were a tiny Asbestos Man, I could walk in there and explore the beauty of this marvelous, mysterious landscape.

It was when I came to New York and experienced the lights of the Wall Street skyscrapers, fully lit on a winter evening, that I understood I had in a way fulfilled my childhood dream and managed to become an Asbestos Man. To be frank, I admit it has sometimes tasted mostly of ashes.

Bathurst Mews Christmas had certain rituals, of course. There was always the evening Aunt Doll next door made her famous "steak and kidney pud'", a great fireside favorite. There was always the last minute purchase of a Christmas tree, barely decorated because we just didn't have that many decorations, but it would always touch the ceiling of our little living room and bring in that lovely piney smell of the forest. And there would be the making of some infamous Christmas pudding, without recipe, naturally (my father appeared to have an inborn aversion to them), no, our Christmas pud' was an impromptu, no holds barred, kind of affair, with my father making pronouncements such as: "I seem to remember my mother put carrots in". You never really knew what it was going to turn out like, but it didn't matter, because the one thing we all of us knew really well was how to make a truly spiffy brandy-butter sauce.

Another thing my father always made during these Christmasses was something he called a "Christmas glug", which was a hot, citrus-based toddy, laced generously with gin, or vodka, or whisky. I guess my father wasn't prejudiced about alcohol for kids, it certainly only happened once a year.

I don't know whether this still happens in the London of today, but in post world War II London, people went carolling, great globs of them. They would hit your knocker a few rattling shots, and start singing, and you would remove yourself from the cozy fire and come barreling down the stairs into the cold, not forgetting to bring a few shillings, and you would join them. Sometimes, you would also offer them some of the "glug".

Presents? To be honest, there were not many presents, by modern standards. Certainly nothing that had ever seen the inside of a "Grand Opening" giftwrap emporium. Our father would take us to Foley's, or W.H. Smith's, or some bookstore on the Edgeware Road, or anywhere else, and set us loose with a budget to select whatever books we fancied, and that was our Christmas presents. For Alain, who as far as I know may have read at most two or three books in his life, except for cookbooks and books on how to train your dog to become a champion, I have no idea how this sat. Maybe, actually, he had a separate understanding with our father, and his budget was diverted into model plane kits, certainly our home smelt of glue at all times. But for me, books was bliss. And it still is.

As for the presents we kids gave, well, Alain never had factored this into his pocket-money budget. So, I would usually buy our father something smoking-related, tobacco jar, cigarette box, that kind of thing, and our Aunt Doll something boozy, like a bottle of gin (always welcome), and I would say to Alain: "What are your getting Puss? What are your getting Aunt Doll?" and he would always say: "I don't have any money left". And I would always say: "Do you want to come in with me?" And so, the presents always came with a handmade card: "With love from Patalain". The funniest thing about it is that if you were to ask Alain to tell you the story today, he would tell it like: "Do you remember the tobacco jar we gave Puss, one Christmas?" Excuse me, you were not even with me on the Tottenham Court Road, when I chose it and bought it, all on my own. I don't actually remember a single occasion where he chipped in on one of the "Patalain" presents.

My friend Irene would never buy or read any book without reading all the reviews (that's also how she picks the movies she sees). On the other hand, Janna and I became friends initially because she herself is such a voracious reader. In fact, she is probably the best-read person I have ever met in my life, period.

Actually, it's an amazing thing about Janna, being born in Siberia, being raised entirely in the heart of the first, original Evil Empire, how broad and universal her education was. She has very few gaps. Voltaire, Stendhal, Balzac, Nietsche, Kant, on and on, she can discuss the most boring classics, actually, the ones people wish they had read, but didn't, and the ones which most people have only heard of enough to pretend familiarity with them when they never actually held them in their hot little hands, but Janna can recite chapter and verse, I say, as if she had read them only yesterday.

But then Janna is one of 35 kids who attended kindergarten in the Soviet Union, 28 of whom are still friends, and these women, who are now in their sixties, still meet whenever they can, even though they all live very far apart, and even though all of them have married and had children, and some of them, though not all, now have grandchildren, whenever they do meet they talk about -- kindergarten! As if nothing that had happened to any of them in between really mattered all that much, or was as interesting.

Not that they don't remember. Be mindful of that. Not that they don't know all the details of each other's lives.

I asked Janna once how come she only had one child. She answered simply, very quietly: "You know, I just could not bring another child into the world to be a slave for that state..."

What a chilling motive for birth control.

Talking of birth control: an interesting thing is that the birth rate, in England today, which has no official regulation about how many children any couple may have, is actually lower than the birth rate in mainland China, which limits the child allowance to one per couple.

That sort of brings me up short. I shall talk about Aunt Marie and prescription drugs tomorrow.

Happy Turkey Day! Everyone. I shall have lentil stew.
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