A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Zemblanity, Moscato & William Boyd
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I believe I am beginning to understand that children now are different from children then (my time). While I was thrilled at Gene Kelly's swordfighting skills and mesmerized by the beautiful but evil Lana Turner as Milady in The Three Musketeers Rebecca did not understand what was going on and soon got bored. We switched off the TV. Yet a couple of years back we had enjoyed Gunga Din. I have postponed indefinitely what I think should be a child's passage into early adulthood. This would be the watching of Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. Would I be able to take in stride my disappointment if Rebecca would be bored by it? I saw Beau Geste for the first time at the General Paz in Buenos Aires with my father and mother. I was 8 or 9. Could it be possible that she would not be thrilled by the burning of the toy ship in the Geste garden pond?

Yet three years ago Rebecca, Rosemary and I sat a block away from the General Paz in on Cabildo Street. We were eating on a sidewalk table the marvelous pizza at Burgio. It was a very hot Buenos Aires evening. It was 11:30pm. Rebecca asked me what I was sipping. I was sipping moscato which is a very sweet (it tastes of pure grape juice) wine that is served ice cold. Argentines of back then still indulge in this unlikely combination of sweet wine with pizza. This unlikely combination is uncommonly good. Rebecca asked me if she could have some. I passed her the glass and she had a couple of sips which she said she enjoyed. Perhaps my right of passage through Beau Geste with my father and mother somehow has the parallel with Rebecca sipping her moscato at 11pp in a hot Buenos Aires Evening.

As a child my grandmother (below, right) often told me of equally hot evenings in turn-of-the-20th century Manila. She told me of the old Spanish quarter called Intramuros (within the walls) and how people dressed and flirted with their Spanish fans.

She told me of going to little establishments to sip on ice cold horchata. This is a Spanish non alcholic beverage made from sugar, coconut, rice water and almonds. The beverage was acccompanied by ensaimadas which were pastry (very soft and spongy) that was made by twisting the batter (left to rise often) in a nautilus swirl. I enjoy a close approximation of horchata by buying the Italian version called horzata. I buy the syrup in Italian stores. At Goldilocks, on Fur and Broadway, I get the ensaimadas (spelled enzaimadas by the establishment's Filipinos). All I lack to go back to that turn-of-the-century and heavily Spanish influenced Manila is to read one of my favourite books. This is The Blue Afternoon. That the book would be written by a Ghana born Englishman, William Boyd is sort of strange. My Rebecca would not understand that this child (then) would instantly equate William Boyd with Hopalong Cassidy. Luckily I discovered this writer some years ago and I am a reader of his novels. I can tell you that Boyd coined the word zemblanity which is the opposite of serindipity. Boyd defines it as, " The opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design."

The Manila book by Boyd is a time machine into my grandmother's past. I can easily cite it as one of my ten favourite books from my collection. It involves an architect, a surgeon and a some early fliers who may have preceded the Wright Brothers. Reading about Manila at the turn of that century is like listening to my grandmother talk in her Castilian accent. But it is the killer prologue that kills me every time I read it.

Last week on Saturday afternoon I asked Rebecca to turn of the TV and we sat in the living room while I read to her:

The Blue Afternoon
William Boyd

I remember that afternoon, not long into our travels, sitting on deck in the mild mid-Atlantic sun on a slightly smirched and foggy day, the sky pale washed-out blue above the smokestacks, when I asked my father what it felt like to pick up a knife and make an incision into living human flesh. He thought seriously for a while before replying.
'It depends on where you cut,'he said.' Sometimes it's like a knife through clay or modelling wax. Some days it's like cutting into a cold blancmange or... or cold raw chicken.'
He pondered pondered a while longer and then reached inside his coat pocket and drew out a scalpel. He removed the small sleeve that protected the blade and offered the slim knife to me.
'Take this. See for yourself.'
I took the scalpel from him, small as a pen but much heavier than I had imagined. He looked down at the remains of our lunch on the table: an edge of cheese with a thick yellow ridn, a bowl of fruit, four apples and a green melon, some bread rolls.'
'Close your eyes, 'he said. 'I'll get something for you, an exact simulacrum.'
I closed my eyes and gripped the scalpel firmly between my thumb and first two fingers. I felt his hand on mine, the gentle pressure on his dry rough fingers, and then he lifted my hand up and I felt him guiding it forward until the poised blade came to rest on a surface, firm, but somehow yielding.
'Make a cut,'he said. 'A small cut. Press down.'
I pressed. Whatever I cut into yielded easily and I moved the blade down an inch or so, or so it seemed, smoothly, with no fuss.
'Keep your eyes closed....What did it feel like?'
I thought for a second or two before replying. I wanted this to be right, to be exact, to be scientific.
'It felt like....Like cold butter, you know, from an icebox. Or a sirloin, like cutting through a tender sirloin.'
'See?'he said. 'There's nothing mysterious, nothing to be alarmed about.'
I opened my eyes and saw his sqare face, smiling at me, almost in triumph, as if he had been vindicated in some argument. He was holding out his bare left forearm, the sleeve of his coat and shirt pushed back to the crook of his elbow. On a bulge of muscle, six inches above his wrist, a thin two-inch gash oozed bright blisters of blood.
'There, 'he said. 'It's easy. A beautiful incision. Not a waver, with even pressure and with your eyes closed, too.'
The expression on his face changed at this moment, to a form of sandness mingled with pride.
'You know,'he said, 'you would have made a great surgeon.'


Only later in the book did I find out (with a shock) that the above scene is between a father and daughter.


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