Thursday, January 30, 2014

Rules for eating

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway recently wrote a piece on how she has stopped snacking at her desk at work, and is now an enthusiastic convert to restaurant reviewer A.A. Gill's rules of eating which run as follows:

1. Don't eat anything which can't be eaten with a knife and fork.

2. Eat at a table with a set place, preferably facing someone else who is also eating.

3. Never eat because you are hungry: always eat because it is lunchtime.

4. Never eat standing up.

5. Never eat anything with, or off, plastic or cardboard.

6. Never eat with a screen in the same room.

7. All meals must have at least two courses, except breakfast.

I don't know about all the specifics of these rules, but some such rules are definitely desirable. Like the rule once drummed into schoolchildren about not eating while walking in the street.

Of course, the focus shouldn't be on negative rules so much as on the social and psychological dimensions of eating (and not eating). On the ritual of food and drink.

As Kellaway points out, "food itself is curiously forgettable; what is not forgettable is the anticipation and the ritual."

Making tea is a paradigm case, and early last year I went back to making and drinking proper tea made in a pot. For me, tea bags were just a temporary (albeit decades long!) aberration.

As is generally the case with issues relating to manners and customs, all this is less trivial than it seems and is ultimately more about deep values than arbitrary preferences.

For rituals of eating and drinking not only contribute to defining our social and cultural environment but also, when they are functioning well, help to give us a sense of security, satisfaction and self-mastery.

Eating when you're hungry is just a little bit limp and boring, don't you think? Just a little bit ho-hum.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Death of an art form

I have given up on movies. There was a time when I trusted sections of the cinematic establishment sufficiently to willingly suspend my disbelief and surrender an hour or two of my time and attention to their products several times a week. There were writers and directors whose cultural background and preoccupations I shared to a great extent and who had (as I saw it) something interesting to say. They were people I respected.

It's a trust thing. Art forms are always about trust, even if they are also about making money.

Whilst government subsidies may attempt to keep local film industries alive, they inevitably encourage ideological conformity and artistic self-indulgence. And the main targeted audiences for mainstream films are now younger and globalized. Lowest common denominator. You know the deal.

A recent Telegraph article mentions that one of the people working as a quantitative analyst for American film producers – a former academic statistician – happens to be a distant relative of Albert Einstein. Symbolic somehow, don't you think, emblematic of cultural decline?

Nick Meaney (who is not a cousin of the physicist) runs a company in South London which assesses the earning prospects of film scripts based on algorithmic analysis of human-input scores relating to hundreds of categories (strength of location, proposed actors, etc.).

Their results are, apparently, much in demand by film producers. And they suggest, by the way, that nine times out of ten the big names have no effect on the box-office figures (assuming the replacements are competent).

So not only are movies not movies in the way they were, the stars are no longer stars in the old sense. Does the explanation lie with the actors, their image-makers, the changed nature of the product or the audiences?

Stars didn't come much bigger than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. But Meaney criticizes the movie classic Casablanca for being "too gloomy, downbeat and too long". He points out that it was only the sixth-best performing film of 1943.

It has performed rather well since, however.

I like Bogart's line as he (Rick) and Bergman (Ilsa) recall their last meeting in Paris at the time of the German invasion: "... You were wearing blue. The Germans were wearing gray."

Quantify that.