Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Very British Vote

The recent London mayoral election is in my view something of a revolution. Sure, this may come across as a bit of a hyperbole, but the facts are unsettling: 32% electoral turnout with one polling station in Bristol reporting a measly 6% voting attendance. Not to mention, the Liberal Democrats taking the brunt of the nation’s anger, as they are cornered into fourth place in the race for City Hall by the Greens. These are the facts worthy of mention. Boris Johnson’s re-election and the dire national results for the Tories, well these are merely technicalities – things which were decidedly easy to see looming over the horizon.

I personally refused to cast a vote. The Boris vs Ken boxing match was a stuffy, malodorous rumble in the urban jungle which only gave endless fodder for the Evening Standard’s editorial section. It was based not so much on promises as political campaigns almost always tend to be, but on a kind of acerbic ego-wrestling which rained pure, vapid negativity onto the already weary electorate. From Ken’s cavalier refusal to clear up his murky tax affairs, to Boris Johnson’s ‘fucking liar’ antics in the BBC lifts, the long-suffering, unemployed, dream-shattered common man became even more of a statistic, as his voice was drowned out by those two proud men’s contumely.

I was sympathetic to nobody in this election. Ken was more presentable than Boris, nowhere near as clownish but his cheaply populist political decisions, particularly prior to the previous election in 2008 are still hard to ignore. Boris’ politics, on the other hand, seem to rest on what is a typically British peculiarity, namely his quirkiness. You have the messy blonde hair; you have the bulbous face with the Falstaff-like manner: you have Boris. Even his name wades into our subconscious with the trappings of grandeur and that bit more quirkiness. He could effortlessly step into David Jasons’ shoes in Only Fools and Horses, or in more contemporaneous terms, play the lead role in a brusque Little Britain sketch. It is little wonder that predominantly middle-class, ‘leafy’ boroughs of London opted for him and even less of a surprise that my quintessentially British, white workmates swung the ball in the direction of the eccentric Etonian in our own in-house mini-vote. The largely white, relatively well-educated middle class, whose native love for glib remarks and pithy comebacks, vie for his affections. His quirkiness works on a subconscious level for them, and because this segment of the electorate represents mostly people who would usually make an effort to vote, Boris’ chances of winning were ever that bit higher.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I confess that Christopher Hitchens was a relatively recent literary discovery for me. I got to read his Hitch-22 memoir which was published earlier this year and I developed a liking not necessarily for his views and opinions but for the man himself. A prodigious wordsmith and a rigorous intellectual - he was truly a superior fellow.

While I strongly repudiated some of his views in an earlier post, I've always been held in awe of the potency of his rhetoric. In interviews, this came across even more brilliantly. Hearing him argue was like listening to David Gilmour sing - a commanding, fatherly voice with an elegantly measured tone. Aside from his brain, it was his greatest asset.

If he was drunk for the better part of his life, he damn well sobered up by the end. And a graceful end it was, calmly accepting his fate while fervently rebelling against it. It was a Camusian death, a truly 'happy' one.

It seemed to me he always had this inherently human quality about him. He was the arch-nemesis of anything which rendered man soulless, be it a totalitarian regime or an illusive religion, or an empty glass of whiskey. In one of his last interviews, he said he'd like to 'do' death, to take an active part in his own 'extinction'. Rather than falling into a chronic depression, he sought to make sense of his cosmic being right to the very end.

Whether it was his belligerent stance on the Iraq War or his revilement of God, you might have agreed or disagreed with him, but you would have promptly declined to take part in a debate against him. Sometimes you may not have necessarily trusted his opinion, but you could always count on his intellect.

If I had to pick out a character of literature that most resembled his persona, it would be the the famous doctor and avowed atheist Desplein from Balzac's The Atheist's Mass. Desplein attends Mass strictly four times a year in honour of his dead friend Bourgeat who helped him when he was in dire straits and eventually became his lifelong companion. Bourgeat was a devoted Christian but he never challenged Desplein's outspoken atheism. Upon his death, Desplein swore to regularly hold Mass for him as a kind act of gratitude and respect for their friendship, all in spite of his clinical lack of faith. Though religiously neutral, Desplein proves his humanity and strong devotion to the person he prized most as a friend.
Hitchens, like Desplein, was more human than he was Christian but still less of an atheist than he was human. He embodied the principle of not denying anything but nevertheless doubting everything.

Indeed, as intelligent doubt transcends blind faith, humanity transcends religion. This is how it is on Earth. Is it the same in Heaven too? It should be, otherwise it would be Hell.

May the Hitch rest in peace.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Today I Fall In Love Again

Forgotten classic from the early 80s - was not on YouTube until now...

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Tree of Life

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Book of Job 38:7

These are the opening words of wisdom to “The Tree of Life”, by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and to a smaller extent, Sean Penn.
I went to see it a couple of weeks ago, hooked on some flattering reviews, including a full four-star appraisal by Roger Ebert himself. The first half an hour or so did not look particularly promising as by then some people had walked out already. Indeed, the 30-40 minutes of continuous creation and evolution was heavy-going. The formation of the universe, of our dear planet Earth, of living organisms, of dinosaurs and marine creatures – it was all spectacularly overpowering. It felt like a National Geographic documentary more than a Brad Pitt/Sean Penn blockbuster, which I was secretly hoping it wouldn’t be anyway.

We are then immersed in the life of a typical, 1950s American suburban family - the O’Briens. The father (Brad Pitt) is ex-military and evidently took part in the war. He is a plaintive, Bible-bashing patriarch who insists his children address him as ‘Sir’. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is gentle and diplomatic, and she speaks very little, though she always looks as though she has a lot say.

For the majority of the film we slowly follow the three young children around the house and neighbourhood, as they develop as individuals and come to gradually lose their rose-tinted view of the world. We learn at the start that one of the children has died (perhaps in the Vietnam War), and we see the mother and father’s anguish as they cope with this tragedy.
The highlight of the film is not its stunning cinematography – this is a device primarily used for perspective. It makes the lens through which we see the world that much wider. Malick’s point of view is that of the Hubble Space Telescope, with huge aperture, peering into life’s cosmic depths.

The real beauty of the film is the O’Brien family. We are thrust into their lives, from birth till death. We see the boys growing up. We see O’Brien senior coping with his own disillusionment in life, by being a stern but loving father. He takes his sons to church on Sundays, while teaching them basic self-defence skills back home. “In this life,” he says, “you can’t be too good”. Or else? “People woul’ take advan’age of ya.”

Simple words, rendered eternal by the narrative’s slow but effective unfolding. From the point of view of a filmmaker, it is precisely the moment when a character utters such uncomplicated, almost clichéd words, that is the real gamble. Will it work? Will it be derided for being clichéd, or will it be cherished as poetry?

In Malick’s case, the gamble pays off. By the time these lines are pronounced, we are so fixated on the life of the O’Briens and have established such rapport with them that we feel almost a part of the family. We discern bits of our own childhood in there, from the mischief in the classroom to hearing your parents’ muffled arguments through half-open windows – these are all simple memories shared by us all. They can cause pain and turmoil when gazed at from a distance and this is what the film is compelling us to do.

The only other movie which achieves that very same effect as skilfully is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Of course, nothing comes close the Russian masterpiece in terms of pure lyricism and fluidity, but the essence is there, namely a sort of Proustian “a la recherche du temps perdu”.

We are periodically carried over to the present where one of their children (Sean Penn), now grown up and an architect, reminisces about his childhood, his parents and his brothers. Something obviously irks him from deep inside. It is a cocktail of guilt and nostalgia, served ice cold in the hourglass of his middle-age. The film itself offers us such a cocktail too and this is where it scores the most points.

Malick views art as a form of interrogation. First, it triggers an emotion: neurons are pumped up from one place to another. Then the heart picks up the pace. And then we see a bit of ourselves in there, among the many specks that make up the image we are looking at. The brain’s primary forte is association. It connects all those little dots that make up our consciousness, and then just as fast, it erases other dots and connections. Our mind impresses and represses at the same time. But somewhere along the way, the reverse happens, and there erupts within our psyche, the irksome, long-repressed memory of a distant past. This is what Sean Penn’s melancholy hero experiences as he wanders around the convoluted, almost surreal architectural maze of the city he inhabits – a landscape no doubt reflective of the state of mind he finds himself in.

How can one possibly reconcile oneself to this repressed memory? The pain of knowing that this precious little bubble of reminiscence is but an apparition of a moment, lost in time and space, never to come back – it is a shock from which we can recover only by reliving it again through art. It’s a mental simulation, an age-old survival mechanism.

Is it perhaps the same thing which deters that Troodon from killing the fallen Parasaurolophus by the riverside, in one of the film’s most enigmatic episodes? Mercy against all the odds? Note how right after this curious scene, we see an asteroid slamming into the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs. Is the Troodon divinely punished for defying its nature? Is this an allusion to humankind’s tendency to lose itself in hubris, revolting against the natural world, denying its own essence?

At the end of the film, we see all the O’Briens, dead and at peace with each other, on a seemingly endless beach .They are smiling, kissing and hugging each other. They are tenderly stroking each other’s cheeks with their hands. This is Malick’s vision of paradise. United in death, the family is together, happy and free.

Likewise, in its finest hour of great pity and selflessness, the Troodon is killed, along with all of its kind. In Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the faceless narrator dies stroking a dead bird which is mysteriously brought back to life at the moment of his death. It seems that for Malick as for Tarkovsky, tenderness is our most noble invention but at the same time, it is what’s killing us softy.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Derain's London

The best painted view of London in my opinion is Big Ben by Andre Derain. This 1906 Fauvist jewel of a painting struck me deep upon my first setting eyes on it. The brilliant luminosity, the casual dabs of warm colours set against a vast expanse of cold blues and greens – it’s a mesmerizing artwork. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are blue – cool, detached and distant. The sky and the water are part-blue, part-green. It’s a vision of a city bathing in dusky nonchalance. The sun’s gingerly rays are subdued, not by clouds or the London smog, but by the city’s inherent alienation. They can be seen only as a wayward reflection on the Thames.
This was the London back then. It is the London of today too. Like a badly-kept diary, the city hosts our most intimate experiences and ponderings, at once deeply private and precariously public.

Derain’s image is a universal one, irrespective of the time of day, or season.

Having had to constantly commute around London for years, I’ve come to understand the alienation of the big city, as written about in books and shown in films. These days, with the advent of Kindles and Blackberries, it’s decidedly worse. You board a train and every passenger around is glued to the one or the other, or both. You enclose yourself, trying to escape the suffocating mass of others around you, wishing you were home already. At first I was annoyed by this spectral anonymity – cold and impersonal, like Derain’s Big Ben. By the end, I had adopted the same method, only with an actual book instead of a Kindle.

But whether it is on a train or on the Tube, the sight of a row of people buried in their iPhones, iPads or Blackberries, texting away or playing games is somewhat unsettling. Not that there is anything wrong with it of course, but it is the true face of the big city – its most candid image. No historical landmark or cultural monument can claim to represent the city more authentically than this image. This daily hustle is its pulse. Sure, there are the parks – these are the pages written in invisible ink on the badly-kept diary that is the city: intimate and fresh, and when it comes to privacy, one of the few alternatives to the stuffy back rows of cinema screens. Finding peace and intimacy in London is a rare treat, much like catching a glimpse of the London sunset from Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath – magnificent but seldom cloudless or without fog. All in all, the sun is a marginal character on the London skyline, locked in constant battle with the grey clouds and white mists for dominion over its vast expanse.

Generations upon generations of organic growth – London is the city of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. One fictional, the other real; one good, the other evil, but both united in their profound knowledge of the city. Holmes himself says in one Conan Doyle’s stories – “the thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle , unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”

Having been out in London at night on many occasions, I’ve always kept this quote at the back of mind. My chance encounters so far have thankfully never been with any murderers or thieves. But strolling around the centre of the city at the early hours of the morning is the most intense experience the metropolis has to offer. At this point, it sleeps. Gone are the tourists; gone are the commuters; gone is the daily bustle. The city now dreams. Streetlights are reflected on the wet pavements and roads. Famous squares and landmarks are delicately illuminated, ethereal in the cool night air. Only shady clubs and McDonalds restaurants are still open, with crowds gathered outside throughout the night. It’s mostly quiet, save for some light traffic on the streets.

It’s dangerous but I feel bizarrely safe. Somehow I’ve grown to feel at home on these streets. The city acts as a sort of father-figure, embracing its sons and daughters. If I am walking late at night with a friend, there’s a ghost steadily walking along with us. It is no tiger waiting to pounce over us; it is London itself.

The city inhabitant (so called ‘urbanite’), is an adaptable creature. He is wary of what’s lurking around the corner, or who is walking behind him. He is confronted daily with human vice, in all sizes and shapes. In any big city, crime is a tradition, a spectacle, almost a ritual. Its dark labyrinthine alleyways enable crime, breed crime, from mugging to murder. The urbanite, engulfed by the ravishing spectacle of ubiquitous crime, becomes infected by its omnipotent presence. He is dwarfed by soaring corporate towers, stifled by congested roads, his voice lost in the buzzing metropolitan beehive. He is no longer the sturdy cowboy his ego urges him to be. Instead, he is a little rose-cheeked cherub, meek and shy, always finding himself around the edges on the epic canvas of city life. Such a peripheral existence makes him somewhat of a coward who sees but does not act. He enjoys the comfortable luxury of anonymity by being indifferent and invisible. A scuffle on a bus is of no concern to him – why risk getting stabbed to death or going through the arduous process of being a witness for the police, when he can walk out in one piece, free of the burden of civic duty?

With my dad being a bus driver, I’ve heard the same disturbing story time and time again- how when an argument erupts on the bus, or even a punch-up, and afterwards he calls for any witnesses among the passengers, they scowl and quietly depart from the scene.

This is the urbanite’s la condition humaine. Chin down, eyes low, brows high: snappy but subdued, with a shroud of fog descending upon his face at the first sign of trouble brewing before him.

In Derain’s painting, little specks of red and orange make up Westminster Bridge and show up on the Thames, and of course the sun itself. They are marginalised however, confined to a nominal existence on the peripheries of the image. Overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the blues and greens, they are nevertheless there. The sun’s rays still manage to illuminate a section of the Thames, and the contours of the bridge are almost entirely painted in red. These warm colours rebelliously assert their presence within the painting. So, in the midst of this dusky nonchalance, there are flickers of radiant warmth, rare and precious. Derain recognised the scarcity of this warmth and understood its true value, hence his defiant dabs of red and orange. He knew that London’s peace and warmth are as frail and fleeting as the colours of its sunset.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's A Balkan Thing

In a recent article by Christopher Hitchens, one of God’s most ruthless assassins, the Serbian ultra-nationalist issue is discussed from a point of view of religious fanaticism. Prompted by the recent capture of Gen. Radko Mladic, Hitchens sums up Balkan history in a nutshell:

“It would be nearer the truth to say that the entire history of the region is one long confessional feud that when allied to ultra-toxic nationalism was strong enough to drag the entire modern world into a catastrophic war in the summer of 1914.”

Except this nutshell is more like a hot-air balloon, inflated by Hitchens’ own ideological expediency.
First of all, blaming the incident of ‘summer 1914’ as the root cause of World War One is a rather crude example of blind historical negligence. It was more of a simple catalyst, a casus belli, an excuse than a truly fundamental cause. The reasons for full-scale war date back to times and events, prior to 1914 and are considerably more complex and certainly cannot be summarized in a single ‘hitchslap’ sentence.

Second of all, the claim that the “entire history of the region is one long confessional feud” is as vague as it is untrue. The entire history of the region does not revolve around Serbian nationalism and the Serbian Orthodox Church. There are other countries, other nations and other political agendas there – Yugoslavia is not the answer to everything.

Hitchens then goes on another of his coolly-controlled, anti-religious lectures, concluding that “religion nearly destroyed the economy and society of former Yugoslavia and did deep and lasting damage to its people and culture”.

Coming from the Balkans, but living in the UK, I have constantly had to contend with a wearisome paradox. I find myself deploring war crimes committed by the Serbs during the appalling wars of the 90s, but on the other hand I feel a fundamental closeness with this mystical region, inescapable and alluring. I know it well; I’ve lived half my life in it. I know its culture, its history, its people. I also know its problems. I remember being childishly awe-struck by the sight of two NATO F-16 fighters cruising in the sky above Bulgaria on a beautiful summer’s day, during the ugly Kosovo War in 1999. I remember the then infamous joke circulating from mouth to mouth around every village and town in Bulgaria, about the Serbs formally apologising for shooting down an ‘invisible’ American stealth plane – ‘sorry we didn’t know it was invisible!’, the joke ran.

When recently I was discussing the capture of General Mladic with a friend of mine, who is a Politics student, I found his fervent stance on the issue quite disconcerting. With powerful, unwavering conviction, he repeated over and over again: “8000 innocent Bosnians massacred”, “worst mass murder since the Holocaust”, and so on. As a Balkan native, I felt a big catch-22 lump in my throat. I knew I wouldn’t be true to myself if I had simply nodded off his invective against Mladic and the Srebrenica massacre. In such moments I always instinctively feel the need to be defensive; to produce a counter-argument that would instil doubt and suspicion within my friend’s Americanised line of reasoning. Striving to accept my Balkan background and acknowledge it wherever I go and whoever I meet, I find myself delicately exculpating alleged mass murderers such as Mladic. Not because I sympathise with them but because I sympathise with the land that produced them.
Is it to assuage a certain guilt that I bear over the fact that I come from a region largely in disrepute? It is as though the very fact that I am from the Balkans makes me indirectly complicit in any atrocity that happens or has happened there. Sometimes I feel my origin hanging around my neck like Coleridge’s albatross.

There is nothing in the Serbian Orthodox Church, neither rite nor doctrine that encourages babies to be slaughtered in the hands of their mothers. Hitchens’ reference to the Ustase catholic-fascist organisation in Croatia during the Second World War over-emphasizes the role of religion at the expense of the more accurate case of extreme nationalism which seeking to assert its fundamentalist values expediently utilizes the symbolic and propagandistic power of religion. Religious faith is a mediator not a cause in such conflicts. The prime mover in this case is ultra-nationalist radicalism which has seeped through the region with deadly infectiousness and has done so for decades, exacerbated by the still popular myth surrounding Marshall Tito and the nationalist pride which his name still yields in the hearts of many Serbs today.

In my experience, Serbia has always been the flagship of nationalism in the Balkans. The Serbs are innately hot-headed, ready to draw knives and guns at the slightest jolt of their patriotic self-identity. They are generally far more zealous in their convictions than say my fellow countrymen, the Bulgarians. Their naturally fiery passions coagulate in an ultra-nationalism that only time will shake off and destroy. And though these passions already seem to diminish and fade from the picture in today’s Serbia, as demonstrated by the relatively minor protests against General Mladic’s extradition to The Hague, the memory of the catastrophic wars of the 90s will be the albatross around the country’s neck. Such guilt is hard to swallow let alone acknowledge. Is it still deep inside, accumulating, and waiting to erupt? Unlikely, considering Serbia’s current pro-Western government, more interested in pragmatics than principles.

But in light of the media’s scorn for all things Balkan and appetite for murder and mayhem, Hitchens’ painfully biased article is a step too far. This is not a Michael Palin-presented, reader’s-digest travel show demagogically aiming to alleviate the West’s culpability in world affairs, but an essay by one of our heavyweight intellectuals, whose opinion counts and whose words are chewed over and over by many political publications and blogs. His views resound through the net and in print, written with a permanent marker on the white board of Balkan discourse, already graffitied enough with the smears and smirks of Western propaganda.

A single glance at the ending of Mr Hitchens’ article exposes his means to an end:

“Religion nearly destroyed the economy and society of former Yugoslavia and did deep and lasting damage to its people and culture. But in the journal of record for American liberalism, the profound connection between faith and fanaticism is treated as if it were a startling exception rather than a grim rule.”

From the affairs of the Balkans and former Yugoslavia, we are suddenly transported back to the US and find ourselves riding the waves of Hitchens’ life-long polemic against religion, through a critique of American liberalism. In the end, his fiery tirade against religion’s debilitating impact on the Balkans turns out to be nothing more than a vehicle to further his own personal anti-religious agenda.
If you read Voltaire’s entry on the Bulgarians in his Philosophical Dictionary (Part I), you will begin to realise that this ignorance and complacency is traditional and part of the norm in the West’s view of the Balkans. And if Voltaire himself could partake in this tradition, it would seem preposterous to expect anything less from our very own Enlightenment extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Marquise With Red Wine

I recall about a year ago I was working as a bar person at this annual regatta - a job a friend of mine got me. At one point as I was pouring yet another pint (it took longer for me to pour it than the customer to drink it) I glanced around, seeing as there weren’t many guests around, my eyes met with those of a well-dressed, blonde middle-aged woman who was peering straight at me, unflinchingly. I momentarily looked back down at the pint and then again turned towards her – she was still standing there at the bar, idle and frozen, and still gazing at me.

Though I felt slightly uneasy I only assumed she wanted a drink. I finally managed to pour the pint, after spilling twice its weight on the floor. I approached her and kindly asked her if she would like anything from the bar. Still looking straight at me, she shook her head, her lips gently motioning a silent no. Her head was slightly tilted down, eyes bulging forward – a feline, almost a Kubrickian sort of gaze. I looked at her again and her eyes were still locked onto me, as though she was challenging me on a who-would-blink-first competition. Her gaze followed me around as I moved to the other side of the bar to serve another customer.

Not only did I feel slightly uncomfortable but also somewhat intimidated. She was I’m guessing in her mid forties. I said she was well dressed but was she really? She had an office-like, indigo skirt with a matching jacket and a clean, crisp white shirt underneath. Presentable but lacking imagination, as though she was there to oblige a rich husband: she did not in the least care about the regatta. Casually holding a slender glass of red wine in her hand, she was standing by the bar, alone, with nobody, not even a ladyfriend in sight. This regatta was a posh event, with plenty of evidently wealthy guests. She was clearly part of the entourage.

Blonde hair down to her shoulders, she was fairly tall, with a shapely frame. Her stillness was stately but her tight-fitting skirt implied a coquettishness that I found particularly attractive. Her face was pretty but pending a wrinkle or two. It was her eyes that I found especially unnerving. I know that look. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it in films; I’ve pictured it in novels. It is the aristocratic middle-aged wife, all polished and accomplished, lonely and unhappy. It’s the sort of high-society woman, like the Marquise de Listomere that Eugene de Rastignac incessantly talks about and desires, in Balzac’s stories: “She has principles, she fasts, takes the sacrament, and goes to balls and operas very elegantly dressed; her confessor permits her to combine the mundane with sanctity."

Of course I doubt this woman fasts and takes the sacrament, but you get the point. Did the way she was standing there, completely by herself, detached from the other guests, momentarily removed from the world, peering at me, imply a loneliness of the kind Rastignac sees in women like Marquise de Listomere?

Even though I have often been told by guys and gals alike that I am good-looking and I admittedly do receive the occasional eye from girls wherever I go, I’ve often found it hard to accept these compliments and looks without a pinch of salt. Wearing a repugnant, oversized promotional t-shirt compulsory for the occasion, I did not exactly picture myself as an Adonis. And yet because I do get these sort of looks from time to time, I knew this marquise had something in mind. Her eyes were royal green, sharp and penetrating, almost predatory. This was a woman who married not out love but out of pure pragmatism. She was not a mistress or a high-flying prostitute: these women make more of an effort in the sartorial department. No, her bland style could only be of an unhappily married woman of worldly demeanour but sheltered character. And there is me, young and innocent, novice as much as in the pint-pouring business as in life itself. And there she was, the sun setting on her face, with a half-filled glass of red wine in her hand where its crimson rays converge. It’s a curious relationship, that of a younger man with an older woman- a scenario I have often pondered over. I am reminded of Aunt Pelageya’s words to the young Tolstoy that there was nothing better for a young man’s development than an affair with an older woman.

This fleeting encounter made me think about the veracity of this statement. There was something feral about this woman’s eyes. Even when I looked back at her and my eyes were interlocked with hers for a few seconds, she did not recoil. In this visual impasse, it was I who withdrew first. Did she purposefully seek to make me baulk under the weight of her gaze? For fun maybe? Were the crafty, alpha-female sparkles in her eyes the last remnants of this woman’s dignity? Behind her firm, unyielding facade, there was a girly vulnerability which I knew was there, hidden behind years of expert spin doctoring for the benefit of someone else. A woman does not seek money or security. Above all, she seeks attention. Constant, unceasing, undying attention.

I felt the urge to talk to her. Anything would do. No, it was pointless. As much as the resplendent fantasies of being with an older, attractive woman are alive and well in me and most young men my age, I was overcome by hesitation. I thought I should give her a polite smile, to comply with my good customer service skills. In the end I turned shyly from her and onto the next marquis or marquise, asking for a glass of red wine.