A Name to Conjure With

The name of England’s Foreign Secretary in 1917, Arthur Balfour, has been given to one of the more prestigious streets in Jerusalem, as is only fitting. After all, the official statement known as the Balfour Declaration, in which the Zionist leadership, as represented by Lord Walter Rothschild, was informed therein that “his Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” helped to give a seal of official approval to what had till then been a collection of piece-meal efforts to establish a Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

It did not do the trick, but it helped, and with that encouragement Jewish settlement in the region continued, being bolstered subsequently by the British victory over the Ottoman forces in the region. Despite Arab opposition and many setbacks, the Jewish settlement project persisted, culminating in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

So it seems rather ironic to hear in the press these days that the name of Balfour is used to represent two contradictory phenomena in the context of modern Israel, depending on one’s point of view.

First, the fact that the fine building at the top of Balfour St. now houses the official residence of Israel’s prime minister and his family has taken on an additional meaning. The behaviour, some would say shenanigans, of the first lady, Sarah Netanyahu, with regard to the staff of the official residence – even leading to court cases being brought against her by former employees – has led to the term ‘Balfour’ being used to represent the actions of the first family. Somehow ‘Balfour’ has become synonymous with ‘misbehaviour’ of various kinds on the part of the various members of the first family (there is also an adult son, Yair, who lives with his parents, has no known occupation and seems to spend his time attacking the media and defending his parents on social media).

A few months ago a handful of people started demonstrating outside the prime minister’s residence on a constant basis. Then it became a regular Saturday night event, eventually snowballing into gatherings of many thousands of dissatisfied citizens. There were calls for Netanyahu to resign in the face of his pending trial on several counts of misuse of his office, demands for compensation from small business-people who had lost their livelihoods, calls from artists, actors and musicians to reinstate public performances, and other groups with complaints of various kinds. Speeches were made, noisemakers were brought into action, the police tried unsuccessfully to break up the demonstrations – sometimes doing so violently – and an attempt at a counter-demonstration failed miserably. And still they demonstrate each week.

The demonstrators simply won’t go away, and since they’re located, you guessed it, outside the official residence, they’re also known as ‘Balfour.’ So, depending which side of the political divide you’re on and which particular section of the spectrum you’re referring to, the epithet ‘Balfour’ is bandied about to mean pretty much anything and everything.

As is often the case, it is important to pay attention to the context of what is being said, by whom and to whom it is addressed. Sometimes, in the fast-moving world of today’s electronic media, it isn’t always possible to work out exactly who is the object of opprobrium of any given report, article or interview, but there’s nothing wrong with making a little effort to try and understand what it is and why.

What is really saddening is that the name of the illustrious statesman Arthur Balfour is being maligned in this way.

P.S. My latest book, ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors,’ describes life in Israel in 1983. It’s available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Friends-Neighbors-Traitors-Dorothea-Shefer-Vanson-ebook/dp/B087G5NMGY

‘By the Olive Groves: a Calabrian Childhood’ by Grazia Ietto Gillies

 

In

In these Corona-dominated times, when travel is well-nigh impossible, we can console ourselves to some extent by reading about the places we would like to visit, and this book certainly fills that gap.

I really enjoyed reading this book, which describes the author’s childhood in a remote village in the southern Italian region of Calabria. Grazia Ietto Gillies, who is today an academic economist living in London, writes in an entertaining and insightful way, describing daily life in the village, the relationships within the nuclear and wider family, the way goods and services were provided and, best of all – the food her mother cooked. Thus, each of the twenty-five chapters ends with recipes as well as instructions for preparing the food mentioned in the chapter.

Only the first ten years of the author’s life (1939 to 1949) were spent in Calabria, as subsequently the family moved to Rome, but the memory of those childhood years is evidently still deeply embedded in her memory, and she is able to perfectly convey the feelings, aromas and activities she experienced growing up in that environment.

The life that is described in the book is basic, involving many hours of labour-intensive activity on the part of the housewife. Grazia’s family home had electricity and running water, which was not the case for all the families in the village performed by Grazia’s mother, but it took time until machines which could do many of Grazia’s mother’s daily chores arrived in that mountain-top village. The lack of a refrigerator meant that a daily visit to the market to see what was on offer and decide what to cook was an essential part of her mother’s daily routine.

In those early years, especially during and immediately after the war (WWII), food was not plentiful and people learned to make do with the fruit and vegetables that were readily available. Thus, there were figs and grapes in the summer, as well as chestnuts and olives at other times of the year, while nourishing soups were made from dandelions and other plants growing wild in the area. Women invested a great deal of time in bottling and preserving the fruit and vegetables that were plentiful in their season.

Particularly fascinating is the author’s account of her schooldays. At that time the village did not have a school building, although one was built later. Instead, each class was situated in a rented room in one of the houses. The account of the attempt of one unfortunate substitute teacher to keep the class interested had me in fits of laughter. Having decided to read out part of de Amici’s book Cuore (The Heart), which describes the (mis)adventures of a boy in search of his mother, children and teacher ended up ‘sobbing and wailing uncontrollably.’ The door suddenly opened to reveal the landlady, who threatened to throw them all out of her house if they did not ‘stop this nonsense and noise in my house immediately.’ The author concludes by recounting that she found out the end of the story only many years later, when she bought a copy of the book and read it for herself.

One of the first chapters describes the milkman arriving in the morning outside the family home with his goats and proceeding to milk one of them into the receptacle provided by Grazia’s mother. Other chapters describe the role of the church and the various festivals, the games the children played, the many members of the wider family (whose photographs are included), since both sets of grandparents and most of her parents’ adult siblings were still living in or near the village, and of course the relations between the various inhabitants of the village.

Many of the recipes seem easy to make and require simple but fresh ingredients. Salient among the lessons I am taking away from this book are the importance of good quality olive oil and the idea that it is better to tear up fresh basil leaves into a dish at the last moment instead of incorporating the herb in the cooking process. In some of the recipes the author adds the adaptations she has made for them to the ingredients available to her in London.

You can read about my take on expatriates’ life in France in my novel, ‘Chasing Dreams and Flies; a Tragi-Comedy of Life in France,’ https://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Dreams-Flies-Tragicomedy-France-ebook/dp/B01LW3D212

Hosting a Friend

 

This week I’m hosting a long-term friend of mine, Norma Levinson-Sedler, who is a talented writer and gifted rhymester. She has written the ‘ditty’ below, which is called ‘The Aftermath of the Ten Plagues.’ Enjoy!

Moses Crossy

Also Bossy

We don’t Likey

This long Hikey

Sun is Bakey

Feet are achey

Air is scaldy

O, Vivaldi!

Nasty Wavey

Not so Bravey

Bloody Muddy

Mumble Grumble

Manna Crummy

Dicey Tummy

Forty Yeary

Weary Dreary

Somewhere

Up there

Moses goeses

Days are Forty

People Naughty

Dancy Prancy

Taking Chancy

Pretty Calfy

Made of Goldy

Moses Scoldy

Splutter stutter

Loses raggy

Chucks from Craggy

Smashy Bashy

Wordy Lordy.

God Almighty

What a frighty.

Forty lines

Is in this story

Getting borey

God in Heaven

Thanks for Leaven

Nessun Dorma

Good night. Norma

 

 

On Becoming an Old Curmudgeon

One Friday night, when my grandchildren tried to tell me a joke (in Hebrew) and my sole response was to point out the linguistic fallacy involved, it dawned on me that I had become an old curmudgeon. And a bilingual one at that.

What riled me in that particular instance was the omission of the ‘h’ at the beginning of a word (and was the crux of that particular joke), which has become endemic in Hebrew in recent years. In English it is a sign of lack of education or a specific dialect, but is not common in received pronunciation. It is typical of the Cockney form of speech that characterises less-educated Londoners. It is also a built-in feature of current French pronunciation (though I gather that in mediaeval France it was pronounced, which is how I heard it sung by an ensemble performing the songs of French troubadours).

Be that as it may, in Hebrew the absence of the aspirated consonant at the beginning of a word can give rise to great confusion, and even dismay, as happened in my case. I hate the idea of becoming a stickler for proper language use (popularly known as a grammar-Nazi), but if we let our standards slide we will lose the ability to communicate in a meaningful and intelligent way.

There are other expressions that have come into common usage in Hebrew that irk my purist ear, and I see that I am not alone in this. Whenever someone who is being interviewed on TV uses the expression ‘zot-hi’ (omitting the ‘h’ to boot) instead of ‘zot’ the Hebrew transcription at the bottom of the screen contains only ‘zot,’ indicating that the language editor has rejected the jargon term. When I heard that a new restaurant called ‘Zotti’ had opened near us I knew that I would never set foot in that particular institution.

Another bugbear is the over-use of ‘ke-ilu’ which is the Hebrew equivalent of ‘like’ as used originally, meaninglessly and extensively in teenage speak but which has now entered into common usage. I hear politicians who should know better using all the terms I have denigrated above, and although I have no great love for Benjamin Netanyahu I have to give him credit for his correct usage of Hebrew (as well as English).

Sadly, the situation with regard to contemporary English is also in the process of sending my blood-pressure soaring. From where did the ugly expression ‘I/he/she was sat/stood’ come from? Has the average English person decided to abandon the present continuous tense? I continue to be horrified by this expression whenever I encounter it, but I’m sorry to say I have heard it used even by announcers who should certainly know better.

And of course, the endemic ‘like,’ as in ‘I was…like…’ instead of ‘I said…,’ not forgetting ‘she felt like she was drowning’ instead of ‘as if’ is also anathema to my ears, and to my eyes when I see it on the printed page. But it seems to stem from America, that land of linguistic mystery, where language usage is different, and almost every verb has to be embellished with a preposition, as in ‘head up’ instead of ‘head,’ ‘talk with’ instead of ‘talk to’ and goodness only knows how they manage to twist the simple term ‘visit’ to mean a simple telephone conversation, or ‘school’ to mean college or even university. But American usage is a world unto itself, and it is not for me to criticize the language used by our cousins across the ocean, merely to bewail its insidious entry into standard British usage.

There are other terms that rile me. Where did ‘so fun’ spring from? What’s wrong with ‘such fun’ or ‘so much fun’? And I also find that turning the word ‘concern’ into an adjective, as in ‘a concerning development’ is tremendously annoying. There are plenty of synonyms for the term, and it seems to me to be an insult to proper English usage to twist the meaning of a word to suit someone’s limited vocabulary (shades of ‘Alice in Wonderland’).

I have the feeling that I’m the only person left in the English-speaking world who cares where the word ‘only’ is placed in a sentence, as even learned books by university professors, not to mention newspaper articles, novels and of course everyday speech, almost invariably misplace it when using it to modify an expression. Thus, in a rather serious book by an Oxford don the sentence ‘archival evidence for them only surfaces during the Third Crusade’ is wrong, in my opinion, as the term referred to here is ‘during’ not ‘surfaces.’ A couple of pages later I came across, ‘Bernard of Clairvaux could only preach in French.’ Obviously the ‘only’ should qualify ‘in French’ rather than ‘preach.’ There are many more such examples, but nobody seems to care about that sort of thing these days, namely, precise and correct usage of the wonderful tool that is the English language.

I fear that I will have to remain mired in my antiquated attachment to the correct English of my youth, and continue to be adamant in my refusal to move with the times. And so, I will continue to constitute the solitary rearguard action against allowing the (mis)use of language to take over the treasure which is English.

You can see my novel, ‘The Balancing Game; a Child Between Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War,’ at: https://www.amazon.com/BALANCING-Between-Worlds-Society-Approaching-ebook/dp/B00PQKHVG0/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=The+Balancing+Game&qid=1551802061&s=digital-text&sr=1-3

‘Small World’ by Martin Suter

It seems strange for a book written in German to have a title in English, but this book was recommended to me by the teacher of the German class I have been taking for the past few years, so I felt honour bound to accept the challenge.

My hard-earned command of the German language has taken me on a journey from almost complete ignorance to sufficient proficiency to be able to read and understand texts, albeit with the help of a dictionary (or rather Google Translate, whose voice-activated feature I have only recently discovered). I feel a sense of achievement at having been able to read a book in a foreign language, and also regard it as my insurance against the deterioration of my mental faculties. And mental deterioration is precisely the subject of this book.

On the first page we encounter the following startling statement: “When Konrad Lang returned, everything was ablaze, except the wood in the fireplace.” We soon learn that Konrad Lang is a man in his sixties who is the rather careless caretaker and sole inhabitant of his employer’s luxurious, recently-redecorated vacation home on the Greek island of Corfu, and that he is somewhat partial to alcohol.

So far, so bad. We continue reading to find that throughout his life Konrad has grown up together with Thomas Koch, the playboy son of his wealthy employers, industrialists based in Switzerland. Throughout their joint childhood and youth, he has been Thomas’s companion and friend. Together they attended an expensive boarding school, learned to ski, play the piano, sailed, swam and travelled to the usual watering-holes of wealthy Europeans. Apart from a brief statement that the blonde girl he met on one of their holidays became Thomas’s second wife, we do not learn much about the relations between the two.

After the conflagration Elvira Senn, Thomas’s mother and the owner of the Koch conglomerate, instructs her lawyer to provide Konrad with accommodation in town, allocates him a monthly stipend, and hopes never to hear from him again. Konrad is told to take his meals at a designated restaurant and embarks quite happily on his new life. While he is eating lunch there one day an elegant lady joins him at his table, they establish a relationship, and he eventually moves in with her. Rosemarie is a wealthy widow, she and Konrad are happy together and plan to get married. She encourages Konrad to cut his ties with the Koch family, and promises to support him financially.

After a year or two Konrad starts to become forgetful. He mislays things or forgets how to get home from the supermarket. He writes himself little notes to help  his memory, but eventually the doctor diagnoses incipient dementia, possibly even Alzheimer’s. Rosemarie does her best to look after him, even employing someone to help her in this task, but eventually she is persuaded by her doctor to place Konrad in a care home. The conditions in the home are comfortable, but most of the other inhabitants are further down the line with regard to dementia, and Konrad begins to decline more rapidly, despite Rosemarie’s daily efforts to spend time with him.

Konrad has a tendency to wander, and at some stage manages to get into the grounds of the Koch family estate, which was once his home. While hiding in the gardener’s shed he is discovered by Simone, Thomas’s young daughter-in-law, and she undertakes to look after him. Elvira allows her to establish Konrad in the guest chalet near the house and arrange for round-the-clock care for him.

At this point the narrative sometimes describes the world as seen by someone with incipient Alzheimer’s as Konrad (Koni) recedes into childhood memories. Simone tries to help him by showing him photos from his younger days with Thomas (Tomi), and also obtains medical help from physicians doing research into the disease.

At this point the story takes some unexpected twists and turns. Was it the experimental medicine or some other event that helped Konrad’s memory to improve, and is the change real or imagined? Events from the joint childhood of Koni and Tomi come to light, and the book ends with an optimistic if somewhat unconvincing twist.

Nonetheless, in my opinion this book was well worth reading for the insights into different characters as well as times and places with which I was unfamiliar.

 

Books That Have Influenced Me

Anyone who has been reading my blog in the last few months may have noticed that it contains more book reviews than there used to be. For the sake of those of my offspring who find that subject boring I have tried to vary the subject-matter, but they can blame the isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Books have been my main consolation during this time but I have always been an avid reader, and my idea of purgatory is not having anything to read. In fact, since my childhood books have been my constant (and sometimes my only) companion. I am grateful to the public libraries in London which enabled me to satisfy my need to always have something to read.

And so, when a recent zoom meeting of the only group in which I still participate set as a subject for discussion ‘A Book That Has Influenced Me,’ I had no hesitation in choosing J.G. Frazer’s study of comparative religions, anthropology, history and sociology entitled ‘The Golden Bough; a Study in Magic and Religion.’ The paperback copy I bought in 1962, when I was a university student, numbered almost 1,000 pages and was touted as the ’abridged edition in one volume.’

Abridged or not, what I read was a true eye-opener. The author’s vast knowledge of classical literature and mythology, sheds light upon the similarities between many ancient religions and myths, encompassing the rites and rituals, totems and taboos, analogies and parallels in the beliefs of primeval humankind. The Golden Bough of the title refers to the Priest-King of the Grove of Diana, according to Vergil’s account, awaiting his own murderer under the sacred oaks. The death of the central figure is echoed in many religions, and it does not require much prior knowledge to extend the parallel to other faiths. The breadth and depth of knowledge displayed in this book served to make me stop and think about my own religion, Judaism, and the many parallels between it and other ancient myths and beliefs.

Many other books have influenced me, whether in my youth or more recently. Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus,’ which I also read when I was a student, helped me to see the importance of Israel in the life of every Jew, so that I determined to make it my home. Of course, there were other factors at work to impel me to leave England, but that was indubitably one of them. Uris’s vivid portrayal of the struggle of Jews in post-Holocaust Europe to reach Israel and establish it as a Jewish state gave a voice to the millions of Jews who perished in the gas chambers as well as to the survivors who emerged from the wretchedness of the concentration camps.

Another writer who had an effect on my thinking was Arthur Koestler. I had read his novels ‘Thieves in the Night’ and ‘Darkness at Noon,’ but in 1964 was alerted to his new book ‘The Act of Creation’ by a review of it in the ‘Observer.’ I still have my much-thumbed hardback copy of it. One of the basic premises of the book focuses on the important role played by the subconscious (or unconscious?) in artistic and scientific development. I learned a lot about the history and sociology of science from reading this book, but Koestler’s main talent was in bringing many different threads together into a coherent whole, pointing out the role of humour, language, art, travel, hierarchies and of course society, to name but a few, in the development of human thought.

There have been many other books that I have enjoyed, and I cannot end this effort at summing up my intellectual formation without mentioning the writing of Virginia Woolf, whose lucid prose, whether in her novels or her essays, never fails to fill me with envy and inspiration. And last but not least, I feel I must mention in passing the inimitable P.G.Wodehouse, whose fanciful and well-written accounts of the life of the British upper-classes never fails to have me in fits of laughter. And that is, after all, what we need to lighten our mood in these gloomy times.

 

‘Messiah: the Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece’ by Jonathan Keates

Attending an annual performance of Handel’s oratorio Messiah has been part of my life since childhood, and I have tried to pass this tradition on to my own children and grandchildren whenever and wherever possible.

Over the centuries since its first performance in Ireland in 1741 many legends and myths have developed around the oratorio, and this small book (only 150 pages) seeks to put the record straight about how, when and why Handel wrote it, and what happened to it after his death.

George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, Saxony in 1685, studied composition with various teachers, and also briefly attended Halle University as a law student. In 1703 he moved to Hamburg, where he joined the opera house orchestra as a violinist and keyboard player. It was there in 1705 that his first opera, Almira, was performed. In 1706 he travelled to Italy, visiting Venice and Florence before reaching Rome. He composed his first oratorio, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno there in 1707, and in the next two years composed and performed in various cities in Italy.

In 1709 he returned to Germany and was appointed Kappelmeister to Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, who was crowned King of England in 1714. Handel followed him to London that year, providing music for various royal events and serving as music teacher to the king’s children. Handel composed and performed operas and oratorios based on dramatic events or characters described in the Bible. The texts for these were generally provided by his friend and collaborator, Charles Jennens, and were performed in London and throughout England to general acclaim. 
                                                                                                                                                     
Jennens, who compiled the biblical verses which comprise the text of Messiah, was a devout Christian, and an active member of the Anglican church. In fact, it was Jennens who devised the original concept of Messiah, and sent his outline for it to Handel. Messiah was distinguished from previous oratorios by being devoid of a dramatic narrative line. It is divided into three parts, the first one portraying biblical prophecies regarding the coming of a future redeemer, the second the events around the birth and death of Jesus, and the third the message of redemption that is the essence of Christianity.

Parts of the book are fairly technical with regard to the scoring and performances of the oratorio, but on the whole the author provides a clear and erudite account of his subject, which is clearly one for which he feels great affection. The book concludes with Jennens’s outline of the content of Messiah, a bibliography, and a timeline giving the main dates and events in Handel’s life.

However inspired the texts selected by Jennens might be, the music written for them by Handel is something that is sublimely uplifting, taking the listener to spiritual heights that transcend any and every denomination or religion. This would seem in part to account for the widespread and enduring popularity that Messiah has enjoyed for hundreds of years. However, its popularity did not come immediately after its first performance in Dublin. It was only a decade later, when it was performed in London to benefit the recently established orphanage in Bloomsbury known as the Foundling Hospital, that it gained wide recognition. In the course of that decade Handel made adjustments to the music and the orchestral scoring to better suit the instruments and soloists at his disposal for its performance in various venues, as was customary at that time.

Thus, the original score of Messiah was destined for a much smaller orchestra and choir than is generally used in contemporary performances unless an attempt is made to reconstruct the more intimate ensemble used in Handel’s day. Nowadays performances tend to stress the stately and almost overpowering nature of the music, especially in the choral sections, rather than cherishing its more intimate, sincere and transcendent aspects.

Be that as it may, a performance of Messiah gives the listener an opportunity to commune with humanity’s better aspects, to transcend everyday life and ascend to the spiritual heights that only great art and inspired artists can provide.

 

So Near and Yet So Far

 

“You are invited to watch the ceremony to mark the graduation of the soldiers who have completed the Officers’ Training Course.” That was the text of the official invitation emailed to me and other family members by one of our granddaughters, whose sister was one of the soldiers concerned. We were informed that we would be able to watch the ceremony live, as filmed by the IDF’s official photographer, on the official IDF site on the internet.

 I’ve attended such occasions in person in the past, both for my own children and for some of my grandchildren, and usually these are very dignified and moving events, filling the assembled relatives with pride and joy, and maybe even a tiny bit of trepidation. The IDF does its best to make the soldiers’ relatives – including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even cousins – welcome in the base where these courses are held somewhere in Israel.

 But this was a totally new experience for me (and I expect for many others involved). First, of all, it involved making sure we were sitting in front of our computers on the appointed day at the requisite time, and that we had the link that gave access to the live telecast. Once the inevitable initial technical difficulties had been overcome, we settled down to watch.

 I’ll admit, it was a shock to see all our lovely young soldiers standing on the parade ground in serried ranks – all wearing face masks. My heart bled for the poor youngsters standing in the heat, all maintaining appropriate distance from one another, and all with their mouths and noses covered. I tend to get teary at the best of times on such occasions, but this time my tears flowed freely as I sat there in my comfortable study watching the ceremony proceed in the customary fashion, but with such a great difference (my eyes are damp even now as I write this).

 The IDF’s Attorney in Chief, Colonel Inbal de-Paz, who was accompanied by the commander of the base, reviewed the graduating class and gave an impressive speech equating the contribution made by the IDF to helping the general population during the current Coronavirus crisis to its contribution some seventy years earlier. Then, at the urging of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the IDF rallied to help the new immigrants whose accommodation was not suited to the inclement winter weather. I was especially touched to hear him congratulate the relatives of the soldiers watching from their homes as well as the soldiers on the parade ground.

 Officers’ insignia were awarded first to the outstanding cadets and then to all the soldiers. The IDF military band played stirring music, and the ceremony came to an end.

 This, too, was unlike the conclusion of any previous ceremony I have seen. No hats were thrown up in the air. No rousing cheers were heard. As admonished by their commander, there were no mutual congratulatory hugs and kisses among the young people or from excited relatives. I felt sad to see this thrilling moment damped down in such a low-key fashion, but I’m sure that all those involved were happy that their achievement had been acknowledged.

 And my husband and I went and had a celebratory drink to our granddaughter’s health.

‘The Second Worst Restaurant in France’ by Alexander McCall Smith

 

An easy read for a change, and this book provides a light-hearted view of life in France, focusing primarily on culinary issues. Paul, a writer specializing in subjects connected with food, is trying to write a book about ‘The Philosophy of Food,’ but his concentration is disturbed by the two Siamese cats belonging to his girlfriend, who is also his editor.

As everyone knows, cats do what they want, when and where they want and how they want, and so Paul finds it impossible to work. On one of her occasional visits to Edinburgh, where Paul lives, his ‘Remarkable Cousin Chloe’ offers him the use of her vacant flat somewhere else in the city, but that turns out to have noisy student neighbours. Finally, Chloe invites Paul to stay in the house she has rented in France for the summer.

So Paul goes to France, but the quiet village in which the house is situated turns out to be inhabited by a host of odd but likeable characters, such as Claude, the inept chef-manager of the local restaurant, his devoted nephew Hugo, the twin middle-aged ladies who own the house Chloe is renting, the dour baker, and Audette, the hapless pregnant young woman, whom the twins take under their wing.

And above all, there is his eccentric cousin, Chloe, who may or may not have had five husbands and who seems to be able to overcome every crisis by dint of her unfailing kindness and generosity. A woman of means, she extends a helping hand in the restaurant when it seems to be on the verge of going under, and even recruits Paul to tutor first Claude and then Hugo in the preparation of meals so that they are cooked in accordance with traditional French cuisine, avoiding the pitfalls that caused him to have food-poisoning when he first ate there.

Cousin Chloe comes and goes, Audette has her baby and is threatened by Bleu, the putative father of the baby (who is called Aramis but at one point – evidently due to an editing or proofreading failure – is suddenly called Artemis), and the caravan in which Bleu and his lady companion are staying is mysteriously blown up (without anyone being injured).

Paul decides to abandon the ‘Philosophy of Food’ project, focusing instead, with the encouragement of his girlfriend-cum-editor back in Edinburgh, on a putative TV programme plus accompanying book about the restaurant, which could previously have qualified as ‘the second worst restaurant in France,’ but is now well on its way to becoming one of the best (hopefully).

The book abounds in descriptions of French village life, with visits to local markets, sipping coffee in cafés, and general approvation of the beauty and laid-back way of life of rural France. It is, in effect a paeon of praise for life in France, and ends with a sentence consisting of just one word: ‘France,’

Between Hunkering Down and Resurgence

After the initial influx in February of the Coronavirusl, followed by the massive and rapid lockdown and attendant social and economic damage, in early June matters were gradually being restored to some semblance of normality here in Israel. Small groups were allowed to meet, some schools were able to function partially in what was known as ‘capsules’ and there was a general relaxation of the lockdown restrictions.

After receiving financial compensation for their losses, whether in full or partially, businesses and even restaurants, cafés and bars were able to open provided certain restrictions were met. The unemployment rate fell, synagogues were reopened, people returned to the open spaces and beaches, and finally schools were allowed to function fully.

Those involved in the performing arts – actors, musicians, stand-up artists, etc. – were indignant at being left out of the general return to normality. Protests and demonstrations were held, and eventually the government gave in and performances were permitted provided the audience did not exceed 250 people, or fifty percent of the auditorium’s capacity. This was met with scorn, as no theatre could be economically viable at that level, but eventually it was accepted, and plans went ahead to hold as many performances as possible in the open air (where the risk of infection is presumed to be lower). Buses and eventually also trains were allowed to function, albeit to a limited extent. And at last, promises were made to ‘reopen the skies’ and allow Israelis desperate for holidays abroad to depart for specified countries (Cyprus, Greece, Iceland), where infection rates were considered to be sufficiently low.

At first there were some rays of light here and there amidst all the doom and gloom. A large advertisement taken out in one of the national daily newspapers expressed the gratitude of ‘the theatres, the orchestras, the dance, the museums, the opera, the cinematheques, and the other cultural and artistic institutions, as well as of the thousands of artists, actors and workers who are returning to work’ to the support and cooperation extended by the Minister of Culture and Sport, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Health, and their staffs and the various institutions of culture. Gratitude was also expressed to several philanthropic institutions. That certainly warmed the cockles of any culture vulture’s heart, but what it actually meant in practice never came to fruition.

The euphoria lasted exactly two weeks. As June progressed the general rejoicing and premature self-congratulation on the part of the government came to an abrupt stop. The dreaded second wave had arrived.

The curve which had been flattened reared its ugly head again, and alarm bells started ringing as the number of infections rose drastically. The idea of returning to the theatre and the concert hall vanished like the proverbial mirage. Admittedly, orchestras and theatres have been putting on performances of one kind or another via the medium of Zoom, but that is not going to put much money in their coffers or provide audiences with the thrill of seeing and hearing performances by living, breathing human beings.

For a while the government dithered between re-imposing a full or partial lockdown or letting matters sort themselves out somehow. Not even our all-knowing and all-powerful Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to know what line take, swinging between threatening a return to full lockdown, trying to cajole people into following the guidelines and advocating stricter policing of public behavior. Suddenly his regular evening TV appearances to say how well we were doing came to an abrupt stop. No more nightly Bibi on our screens. Various ministers are given the task of haranguing the public. Only when there is something positive to say does the Prime Minister put in an appearance. And for the moment there is no such thing.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gave a gala performance gratis via Zoom which was introduced by Dame Helen Mirren. But there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of a live performance by the Phil. taking place any time soon. Especially considering that the average age of its audience is well over seventy-.

The idea of life ever returning to anything like normality seems to be more like a will-o-the-wisp that is constantly disappearing over the next hill.