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GP 2 April 2008: Homo Sapiens in a Barnum and Bailey World

It’s a barnum and bailey world,
Just as phony as it can be,
But it wouldn’t be make believe
If you believed in me.  – from “It’s Only a Paper Moon”

The United Nations.  Everything’s a bit tattered at the UN these days.  Whereas this seat of world government once lifted the spirits, there’s nervousness, grey hues, and bowed heads as one makes one’s way down the corridors.  An arrogance radiates through the staff, so much so that the guides are commonly haughty and rude to citizens of the world who have come to pay a visit.  This surplus of ‘attitude’ is matched, inversely, by a supreme lack of accomplishment.  It is not the place we always knew and loved.

The apt word for the undertone there might be arrogance.   As we lunched in the Delegates Dining Room last week, we reflected that Jesse Helms, the troublesome onetime Senator from North Carolina, might have been on to something when he took on the institution.  We heard on our visit about copious turf wars and realized that the UN of the moment could not rise to transcendant global chores, stuck as it is in an unheroic moment.  Like our own government, like governments around the world, it is out of kilter.

Irony prevailed at lunch.  Our two guests, previously unknown to each other, achieved remarkable unity as we ate foie gras and beef, quickly asserting their feelings and their goals, all inside the confines of a yet another institution that substitutes herd behavior for meaningful cooperation. Their closeness was a repudiation of the alienation echoing through the halls. We’re a a time when unusual people are heroic, and our institutions knaves.

Rumpole of the Bailey.  A good place to begin and a good place to end when taking in John Mortimer, the immensely prolific barrister and writer, is Rumpole of the Bailey.  That’s not just because Rumpole provides so many laughs that he rids you of any depression you are harboring.  But because he provides an exemplar example for all mankind in a world that is out of whack.

He’s a Don Quixote.  He does battle with windmills.  Overweight, underpaid, seemingly always behind the eight ball, he nonetheless secures justice for many who would be ploughed under by the legal system.  It is full of respectable, posturing judges and toadying lawyers who at best do nothing, but as often do in the innocent when left to their own devices.  It’s not that Rumpole will save the world.  But at least he does good for  people who come his way, works hard and cleverly at his craft as the defender of the accused, and eternally pokes holes in all sorts of stuffed shirts.  We can reasonably claim that in a world where all our institutions seem to have defective DNA and all their systems appear infested with malevolence, only an eccentric, comedic, go-against-the-grain kind of guy will comport himself honorably and with some effect.  He only knows how to swim upstream.  The rest, at best, just shift around the deckchairs.,

To get started on Rumpole, we  would recommend Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, a sort of memoir, where he recounts his earliest big victory.  His lead on the case is his head of chambers, later to become his father-in-law.  The head, and everybody else, is ready to let a young man take the blame for a murder.  But the hanging is avoided, because Rumpole doesn’t follow his orders, looks hard into the case, and discovers who really did the deed.  Of his future father-in-law, he said, “C.H. Wystan was in no way a bad man….  The trouble was that he regarded the whole business of being a barrister” and following the traditions of the bar “as more important than the Bill of Rights or the presumption of innocence.”  One has to be an odd fellow like Horace to go against the conventions of trade and society to try and do the right thing.

Mortimer’s Rumple is an example of the English novelic form at its best.  It’s a comedic style where affairs often turn out happily in the end, despite supposedly insurmountable obstacles.  We would expect that novelists, rather than policy wonks, could better prescribe for the daunting problems that the 21st century is turning up.  Creativity has more to offer than pedestrian analysis.

Companies You Love to Hate. A while back the Harvard Business Review ran a terribly important article that has attracted very little notice.  Called “Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them,”it shows how banks, cellphone companies, and others trick their customers.  The basic accounts or products offered are reasonably priced, but the companies design the plans so that their customers will have to buy extras—extras which are horribly overpriced.  The companies rely on the surcharges to make their profits—just as contractors depend on change orders to inflate their coffers.  Crudely described, companies are really doing a bait and switch.

Such behavior has become  pandamic.  These days we are pressed to think of a major company that does not try to slip in an extra charge or two on the sly.  And, increasingly, that is why we are so in need of Horace Rumpoles.  Windmill-tilters who feel honor bound to take on systematic dishonesty offer us some hope in a Barnum and Bailey world where we otherwise are bereft of belief or hope.

Secret Gardens.  If your task in an unruly world is to work hard in your profession to help others and comport yourself with honor, you occasionally have to withdraw from the chaos and disorder to a protected garden where you can enjoy tranquility.  The Greeks more or less offered us two options in this vein.  First, you could become an Epicurean—retreating to pleasures behind the Garden Wall.  Or you could become a Stoic, withdrawing into your own mind and shutting out the world, making good use of what the shrinks call the art of denial.  Perhaps this need to avoid the pain of the world is what accounts for the overblown rise of gardening, cooking, and several cerebral and virtual pursuits that allow for an escape from the here and now.

Losing Oneself in BologneseWilliam Grossmann, a plasma physicist based in Berlin, recounts for us his end-of -March adventures with Bolognese sauces, at the very moment when  another friend has announced an upcoming trip to Bologna:

I looked in the latest Saveur and saw a section on Bologna with emphasis on Bolognese or Ragu sauces.  I love a good Bolognese but had never tried making one.  So … I went shopping and found everything in two shops ... a great German butcher shop within 10 minutes walking and an Italian almost Dean-&-DeLuca-like delicatessen also 10 minutes away….  Next, I studied the directions for at least 1/2 hour and dove right in.  Dicing the veggies, caramelizing them in oil & butter and then the ground beef, pork plus Pancetta.  After browning the meat, it was time for 1/2 cup of dry white wine and stirring until it had evaporated.  Then pureed tomatoes and simmering for about 3+ hours until thick and zesty.  We had it with fresh Fettuccini and a very good Chianti Reserva.

We, too, are certain that some version of Bologna would provide us with adequate retreat from this disordered world. Soon all roads will lead to Bologna, renowned for its quality of life, rather than Rome.

Mojito.  St. Clair Newbern of Fort Worth, a bankruptcy lawyer, is a photographer of some diligence who has provided several contributions to our Scenes from the Global Province.  He is not above a fine drink and has smuggled from Socialist Cuba keen intelligence on the making of a mojito. He must be working for the CIA, but we have never asked.  A lovely drink when made right, it can sustain our mellow stoicism of a Spring evening.  We invite you to peruse his keen observations on Best of Class.  We are determined to add to our store of knowledge on mojitos, since it is a topic of pressing importance.  Run-of-the-mill bars turn out versions that are no better than swill.

Eccentric behavior, Bolognese, Mojitos—now there’s a recipe for modern life!

P.S.  Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida illustrates the present moment.  Circumstance mocks the hero and turns him a bit silly.  When brutes and buffoons become our leaders, heroes turn into caricatures.

P.P.S.  The guards and maintenance staff at the UN are as polite and friendly as one might hope.  For some odd reason they have not caught the high and mighty virus that animates the bureaucracy.

P.P.P.S.  For those with time on their hands, we include a recipe from Saveur as a proper introduction to Bolognese.

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