Saturday, 20 September 2008


“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.” – Stanley Horowitz

The weather today in Sydney is definitely summery, with an expected top of 30˚C. The brilliant sunlight through the window in the hotel ensured I got up early in time for the breakfast meeting I had. Overall this trip has been very successful, and once again I am aware of how much work gets done over a meal. This is an interesting although not unexpected state of affairs, as it seems that people relax more over a meal and are willing to be more open to ideas and innovative proposals.

By about 8:00 am the temperature was already in the mid 20s and rising. This very unseasonable heat maybe presages a very hot summer ahead…

Some Vivaldi today. The gorgeous “Summer” from the “Four Seasons”.

Friday, 19 September 2008


“Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, but that the dead are living.” – GK Chesterton

The tradition of the “afternoon tea” or “high tea” is something that is essentially British and is still alive and well in Britain but also in most of the countries that once used to be British colonies and part of the British Empire, including Australia. It is a particularly civilised institution and elevates the simple act of satisfying one’s mid-afternoon hunger pangs to an art form. I am in Sydney today for work and after a full morning of meetings, which went through lunchtime and into the afternoon, it was very pleasant to be invited by my colleagues to partake of afternoon tea at one of the major hotels in Sydney, the Westin in Martin Place, close to the Post Office.

Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria is often credited with the invention of the tradition of afternoon tea in the early 1840s. Traditionally dinner was not served until 8:30 or 9:00 pm and the Duchess often became hungry, especially in the summer when dinner was served even later. She ordered a small meal of bread, butter, and other niceties, such as cakes, tarts, and biscuits, to be brought secretly to her boudoir. When she was exposed she was not ridiculed, as she had feared, but her habit caught on and the concept of a small meal, of niceties and perhaps tea, became popular and eventually known as "afternoon tea". Obviously the origins of the well known British tradition of afternoon tea cannot be credited to only one woman, but evolved over a period of time, as many cultural customs do.

In 1819 the Tea Dance started to become popular, and continued through World War II. Friends and acquaintances gathered between 5:00 and 6:30 pm, with table and chairs set up around a dance floor. Tea and snacks were served at the tables while couples danced. It was perhaps the Tea Dance, and not the Duchess of Bedford’s afternoon snacks, that were the direct precursor to the tradition of afternoon tea, although the Duchess may have been one of the first to hold afternoon teas in her home.

The “at home tea” was a common practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After deciding on a day of the week to hold “at home” hours, announcements to friends, relatives, and acquaintances were sent. On that particular day of the week one would remain at home all day and receive visitors. Some entertainment might be provided for the guests, but usually conversation, after the model of the French salon, was the primary entertainment. Tea and cakes, sandwiches, or other niceties were served. If sent an “at home” notice it was expected that unless regrets were sent that all who received a notice would attend. There was at least one person holding an “at home” day on any given day, and social ties were established as women saw each other almost every day at different houses.

A complex system of codes was followed during this rather formal social interaction. There were three types of social visits. The first type was to wish congratulations or condolences on the hostess when appropriate. A card was left with the message, and the visitor may or may not have been received. The ceremonial visit was brief, and when another visitor was announced the ceremonial guest, usually an acquaintance whose visit would increase the social standing of one of the parties involved, would excuse themselves and retreat. The third type of visit was that of friendship. A friend would only visit during the appointed at home hours, but the rules of behavior were less strict. For example, the friend was not expected to leave if another guest arrived, as one of the functions of the tea was to socialise with a group of friends.

When tea was served the hostess sat at one end of the table and supervised its pouring for her guests. The eldest daughter of the household, or the closest friend of the hostess, served coffee or chocolate if it was desired. The division of serving privileges was indicative of the varying importance of the three beverages served at this time. Tea was a valuable commodity, and stored in locked tea caddies for which only the woman of the household held the key. In allowing the eldest daughter, or friend, to serve the other beverages, and reserving the privilege of serving of tea to only herself, she set levels of social significance. This is an interesting parallel to the lord of the house serving the tea in China. In both cases it is the host with the most power who serves the tea, in spite of the gender differences. Men in nineteenth century Britain were higher on the public scale of social hierarchies, but the woman was in charge of the household, and creating the genteel atmosphere connected with formal social visits. As a result she was more powerful within the house than the man. Even when the British “lord of the manor” was present it was the woman's responsibility and privilege to serve tea.

The hostess also added the sugar, milk or lemon to the tea for the guests. By the 20th century, these substances were common and inexpensive enough to serve often and to many guests. However, the cultural legacy from when both tea and sugar were rare and expensive luxury goods, created a situation in which the hostess desired, or was expected, to be in control of the amount consumed. When sugar and tea were first introduced only the aristocracy were able to possess them. They displayed their power and wealth by consuming these rare, luxury goods. Tea and sugar were more common by the 1800's, but as consumable luxuries they still suggested power and wealth. The upper classes wealthy enough to hire servants had them serve the tea and guests were allowed to add their own sugar, milk or lemon to the tea. By releasing control over tea and sugar the upper classes demonstrated their wealth and ability to buy as much of these commodities as desired. This asserted their social standing through the careless consumption of luxury goods.

The menu for afternoon tea varied widely and depended very much on the status and wealth of the household involved. However, usually both savoury and sweet selections were available. A traditional menu of a wealthy household may have included the following:

Freshly baked scones (currant or plain) served with clotted cream and homemade preserves
Banbury buns served with sweet butter
Tea cake, Madeira cake, fruit cake (slices)

Assorted tea sandwiches including:
*Cucumber and watercress
*Smoked salmon pinwheels
*Rare roast beef
*Chicken salad with toasted walnuts

*Classic egg salad
*Thinly sliced cheddar and tomato
*Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese

Assorted bite-size sweets including:
Iced chocolate diamonds
Miniature fruit tarts
Fairy cakes with whipped cream
Miniature cakes filled with a vanilla mousse
Shortbread fingers
Handmade chocolate truffles

Seasonal fruit
Cheese and crackers

Needless to say that the status of the household was not only reflected in the quality and variety of comestibles, but also on the quality of the china and silverware in use. The three-tiered silver small cake or sandwich stands are particularly associated with the British afternoon tea tradition.

One of the most celebrated afternoon tea parties in literature occurs in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, where Alice meets the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare. Carroll sends up the Victorian tradition very nicely and pokes fun at what must have often been stuffy occasions designed to showcase nouveau-riche wealth.

Weather in Sydney today is delightful and Spring-like.

Hope everyone has a great weekend!

Thursday, 18 September 2008


“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” – Nikos Kazantzakis

We live in perilous times. This is a critical period of our existence in the wake of globalisation, which, however, co-exists with increasing nationalism and the rise of a myriad nations as larger countries are broken up into fragments – where are the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia nowadays? It important to stand back a little and differentiate between globalisation and internationalisation; ecumenicity and latitudinarianism; patriotism, nationalism and fascism.

Internationalisation is the process whereby the advocacy of cooperation and understanding between nations is espoused. Globalisation on the other hand is a concept that has become confined to the meaning that describes the capitalistic ideal of a market so wide, as to embrace all consumers on the globe. Ecumenicity is that policy that promotes unity among the world’ s Christian churches – different from latitudinarianism, a more inclusive term that allows latitude in religion, showing no preference among varying creeds and forms of worship. Patriotism is the noble virtue (or so we are taught at school) of vigorously supporting one’s country and being prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors, while nationalism is extreme patriotism, tinged with feelings of superiority over other countries. Fascism is an authoritarian right-wing system of government and social organisation that carries patriotic nationalism to its extremes.

Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek author, has considered these meanings and defines latitudinarian internationalisation as the only viable solution to the accumulating ills of the world. He maintains that in order for humans to survive on earth for the longer term, they need to find a balance between the extremes of slavery and anarchy. He purports that this happy medium was first approached by the ancient Greeks whose intellect achieved a balance between extremes, whose concept of the “golden mean” exemplified the ideal of moderation in all things. Kazantzakis, perhaps tottering on nationalism himself, names this breed of human being Homo hellenicus. Rational people worldwide may espouse his ideology, but it would only be the Greeks or philhellenes that would embrace Kazantzakis’ nationalistic characterisation of the new species of human being.

Homo hellenicus (for want of a better name) recognises freedom as the most valuable part of a human being’s self respect. Liberty is great responsibility as it rejects the anarchy of egocentricity. But liberty also respects individuality and repudiates slavery, while espousing the disciplined acceptance of society’s laws and advocates the good of society as a whole. Kazantzakis’ characterisation of this new breed of human and justification of the term Homo hellenicus is steeped in history. The classical Greek civilisation developed at a time when on the one hand great Empires of Asia and Africa ruled the earth and on the other hand uncivilised barbarians lived in anarchy. The Greeks developed at the confluence of three continents, in an infertile, mountainous, poor country where survival of the body was problematic. The environment was perhaps in part responsible for the acuity of the intellect and the richness of spirit that developed in Homo hellenicus.

Homo hellenicus over the centuries developed from this nascent spark of self-consciousness into the flaming ideals of democracy, good government, philosophy, beauty, moderation, respect of the sovereignty of individual city-states but unification against their common enemies. The innate worth of intellectual and spiritual values and the importance that Homo hellenicus attached to them, contributed to their survival and spread throughout the civilised world. The diachronicity of these ideals and their internationalisation show the value we place upon these ideals even today.

Nationalism and globalisation, egocentricity and anarchy are threats to the ideals of Homo hellenicus that beleaguer us today. Our society is threatened by stressors that stem from the placement of values on ephemeral, solipsistic, pecuniary, carnal pursuits. Selfish goals erode the good of society as a whole. The belief that money is the ultimate arbiter and that everything has a price destroys the real values of human existence. The upsurge of nationalism and neofascism destroys the true internationalisation of the human race and the aspiration after common goals based on the ideals of true liberty and respect of other human beings. Moderation in all things, appreciation of beauty, the cultivation of philosophy and intellectual pursuits are still ideals and if I am one to continue to try and attain them, I am sure that others are doing the same.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


“We shall find peace. We shall hear angels. We shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.’ – Anton Chekhov

The International Day of Peace is celebrated on September 21st every year. In anticipation, I collected my thoughts and wrote down a few lines of what peace means to me. All the more important to reflect on this, in these days of killings, bombings, dirty little wars and internecine ethnic struggles in emerging countries of fragmenting super-powers.


It is the laughter of children playing outside my window,
The smell of baking in the kitchen and the larder full.
It is the hurrying steps of a returning labourer,
Content with a full day’s work, eager to come home.

It is the fields that bloom, the grain ripening in the sun,
The cows dozing as they chew their cud.
It is my love in her summer dress reading her book
Under the shade of a green-leaf tree.

It is the sound of music drifting down the empty street
As dancing couples whirl in the town hall.
It is the two adolescents that kiss beneath a full moon
While the crickets chirp in approbation.

It is the careless saunter late at night,
The lights left on inside the house, burning like beacons.
It is the sound of airplane engines in the sky, that only
Stir the thoughts of distant exotic places and carefree holidays.

It is a rusty rifle driven into the earth to support a growing vine,
An old soldier’s helmet, now home to a budding flower.
It is the surety of watching your children surviving you,
The swelling pregnant belly and the double-joy of grandchildren.

Peace: It is a quietude and a celebration of the commonplace,
An all-increasing accumulation of small delights that add up to bliss.
Peace, it is a multiplicity of contentments and a realisation
Of what humankind has the capability of being.

What does peace mean to you?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving.” – George Eliot

Stocks on Wall Street plunged overnight after the collapse of investment banking house Lehman Brothers and the sale of another major player, Merrill Lynch. Meanwhile, the world's biggest insurance firm, American Insurance Group, is battling to find a capital injection. As the US economy takes another hiding the world watches on nervously and the stocks tumble all over the globe. This turn of events is no surprise – it was a question of when, rather than why. Many people’s lives around the world will be affected and as far as the USA is concerned, it will definitely hurt.

Weakness across the Australian share market has dragged stocks down about 1.8 per cent in response to the crisis on Wall Street. Banking stocks have tumbled with ANZ and National Australia Bank down 3.6 per cent. London and Tokyo tumbled to their lowest levels for more than three years on Tuesday after Wall Street had crumbled overnight. Russia 's key stock market index plunged more than nine percent awaiting the start of New York trading.

The share market volatility in Australia will affect the retirement plans of hundreds of thousands of people. Balanced superannuation funds have lost about 11 per cent so far this calendar year. Some people are going to have to stay in the workforce for one or two years longer to get over this hump and it is a significant event for a lot of people and it will affect hundreds of thousands of Australians who really have to clearly rethink their retirement strategies.

So what caused it all? After the warning signs in the late eighties, the USA chose to patch thing up with band-aids, rather with radical, solid solutions. The crisis was managed poorly and the financial problems of the country were swept under the carpet. This situation has been compounded and abetted by the most incompetent government in three-quarters of a century. History will record George W. Bush as the president who did most to weaken and diminish the United States on every front. The Wall Street crisis in part will result in financial power following the drift in economic power away from the USA. After this stocks cleanout, New York will emerge as a cleaner, stronger financial centre, a world financial capital – but not the financial capital…

That will ultimately be good news worldwide, as the USA stock market crash will not seriously affect world economy in the longer turn. Global growth continues around the 4 per cent mark. The BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will still invest about US$22 trillion in today's dollars on infrastructure over the next decade and never mind what the oil-rich Middle East states spend or the regional economies (such as Australia) that hang off the BRICs. China continues to build another Brisbane every month. The spreading of economic power more equitably around the world, ensures that the world is no longer so reliant on a couple of major Western nations, who up till now have dictated the world’s fate.

Sunday, 14 September 2008


“Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.” – Albert Einstein

Yesterday we watched a classic film starring a legendary actress. It was Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” (1939) with the great Greta Garbo. It was a refreshing comedy that still managed to sparkle, nearly 70 year after it was made!

The story is a wry sociopolitical satire that manages to work on multiple levels, but which can nevertheless be enjoyed superficially as a romantic comedy. The film is very much a sign of the times it was made, full of the pre-WWII decadence and gaiety, but with a heavy dark cloud looming overhead. The Soviet emissaries Buljanoff, Iranoff, and Kopalski arrive in Paris to sell some jewellery for the Soviet Government, but the luxury and jollity of the soft capitalist ways begin to corrupt them. The Grand Duchess Swana, formerly of the Russian Royal Family (but now exiled in Paris), and former owner of the jewels, sends her very good friend, playboy Count Léon d'Algout, to sabotage the sale and try to get the jewels returned to her. The Russian emissaries’ incompetence with their fund-raising mission attracts a special envoy from Moscow, the stern and quite Red, Comrade Nina “Ninotchka” Ivanovna. A predictable east-west romance commences, but there is quite hurdle to be overcome as Ninotchka’s ideals come into conflict with her feelings for Léon.

Grabo’s great comedic talent shines forth in this film and this, being her second last film, is a fitting good bye to the silver screen. She plays the icy communist Nina very convincingly, but when she finally breaks into laughter, the transition is utterly believable, just as the shine of the sun as it breaks through clouds on a Spring day. Garbo won an Oscar for her performance in this film and it was well-deserved. Melvyn Douglas plays the debonair Léon and he is perfect foil to Garbo’s Ninotchka, although this is very much her film. The three bumbling Russian emissaries (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) are very good, as is the swanning Swana (Ina Claire) as supporting actors. There is a memorable guest appearance by Bela Lugosi (the famous Count Dracula of the 30s), who shows another part of his acting talent as the Muscovite Komissar.

The scenario is based on a story by Melchior Lengyel, but the screenplay is a collaboration Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch. Witty dialogue with several well-delivered amusing lines interplay with touches of black humour (such as the “Heil Hitler” salute of some German tourists and the frequent references to “Siberia”). I find that so many of these 1930s film had such sparkling dialogue and witty scripts, that it is hard for films nowadays to match them. It is as though the talkies challenged the scriptwriters to do their best work and after a couple of decades the magic went out of their pens. Ernst Lubitsch is great director, but his touch is light in this film and he allows the actors to show their talent, rather than directing them with an iron fist.

Overall a delightful, fun film. Watch it, if you haven’t already!


“Youth should watch joys and shoot them as they fly.” - John Dryden

For Art Sunday today, a whimsical painting by a great painter, the Spaniard, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (born 1617, Sevilla, died 1682, Sevilla). The painting is a favourite of mine and is called “A Girl and her Duenna” (1670 - Oil on canvas, 106 x 127 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, US). This is a delightful painting, reminiscent of a candid photograph. The shyness of the duenna, who seemingly wants nothing to do with being immortalized but who despite her bashfulness still wants to be present and protect her charge, contrasts with the self-assuredness of adolescent exhibitionism. The young woman in her smiling confidence exudes joie de vivre and the invincibility of youth. The flesh tones sing out of the dark background and the touches of vermillion set a happy mood for this otherwise somber painting.

Murillo was active for almost all his life in his native Seville, although his early career is not well documented. He started working in a naturalistic tenebrist style, showing the influence of Zurbarán. After making his reputation with a series of eleven paintings on the lives of Franciscan saints for the Franciscan monastery in Seville (1645-46), he displaced Zurbarán as the city's leading painter and was unrivalled in this position for the rest of his life.

Most of his paintings are of religious subjects, appealing strongly to popular piety and illustrating the doctrines of the Counter-Reformation church, above all the Immaculate Conception, which was his favourite theme. His mature style was very different to that seen in his early works; it is characterized by idealized figures, soft, melting forms, delicate colouring, and sweetness of expression and mood. The term 'estilo vaporoso' (vaporous style) is often used of it. Murillo also painted genre scenes of beggar children that have a similar sentimental appeal, but his fairly rare portraits are strikingly different in feeling - much more sombre and intellectual.

In 1660, with the collaboration of Valdés Leal and Francisco Herrera the Younger, Murillo founded an academy of painting at Seville and became its first president. He died at Seville in 1682, evidently from the after-effects of a fall from scaffolding. He had many assistants and followers, and his style continued to influence Sevillian painting into the 19th century. His fame in the 18th century and early 19th century was enormous. With Ribera he was the only Spanish painter who was widely known outside his own country and he was ranked by many critics amongst the greatest artists of all time. Later his reputation plummeted, and he was dismissed as facile and sugary, but now that his own work is being distinguished from that of his numerous imitators his star is rising again.