PC 38 Cutlery & Etiquette?

This is a potential mine field, isn’t it? …… and I tread a path with care, although maybe I should have managed to find someone to clear it first! At the end of my last PC I said: “……but it stands in splendid silence, a memory to a different time and a different generation, and that silence is broken only by the bell being rung to summon the staff, to clear the dishes from the dining room table.” ….. and I am reminded of attending afternoon tea with my step father’s physically diminutive high-born Scottish mother. As a teenager one sat very formally, jacket and tie (!), at the huge, polished mahogany table, waited until we were spoken to, and tried not to grab too many scones!! When we had demolished the pile, Dummy (as she was called!!) would ring a little silver bell and we waited, expectantly, until Mrs Gold the cook came in with a large cake. She was good at her craft and we were not disappointed.

I am prompted to scribble about cutlery, table manners and etiquette because of something I observed towards the end of last year. I don’t set myself up as the arbiter of right or wrong generally, can be as hypocritical as the next person (!) and appreciate there are real cultural differences between nations and social classes. We were out at a local restaurant, a group of people, some we know well, some not at all. I was finishing my main course and looked across the table …… to see a woman licking the end of her knife. I wanted to ask her not to …. but I did not know her, and it would have been rude (ruder than …..?)! It might have been covered with yummy sauce but she should have resisted, surely? And then, to compound the felony, 10 minutes later when she had finished eating … out came the dental floss and …. and I sat there amazed while she proceeded to …. clean the food from between her teeth. I was speechless, completely lost for words; later I thought of many things I could have said, most extremely rude, but I’m slow with the acerbic retort! According to Wikipedia, that wonderful (?) online reference, toothpicks in some shape or form have been used since Neanderthal man or woman walked this earth ….. and Debretts tells you how to use them …. but dental floss? That’s a whole new ballgame!

If you haven’t heard of Debrett’s, (www.debretts.com) it’s been a guide to “the stewardship of Empire and the arbiter of society etiquette” since 1769 and, whilst it makes no mention of dental floss, it offers guidance on how to eat, use cutlery and how to behaviour at a table. For instance:

Ensure the handle of both knife and fork rest in the palm of your hand.

When eating, keep your mouth closed …. and don’t talk!

Pips and stones should be discretely spat out into a cupped left hand

          Puddings: “always eat with a spoon and fork.”

 …… and don’t gesticulate with either a knife or fork

For those tricky vegetables like Globe Artichokes and Asparagus it also offers advice. Cute huh? It even mentions the use of chopsticks, that ubiquitous eating implement used throughout Asia. Funny how eating utensils have developed differently, in this case because a fork will damage a lacquered bowl and chopsticks won’t! Some of us master their use, others can’t be bothered. Bit like eating spaghetti; here in the UK long Spaghetti is becoming very difficult to buy, as we seem to have lost the art of eating it without sucking hard, when the free end sprays tomato sauce everywhere. So the short stuff is more popular, and easier to eat.

My mother, who had been a very accomplished cook, became completely disinterested in food in her dotage. She simply cut the food up as if she was a child, and then pushed it around her plate ….  and around! If it was fish and someone said: “Be careful, there might be the odd bone!”, the eating process took forever.

Back in Germany in the 1970s as a junior officer, I was sent to the headquarters in Rheindaland to have what was generally referred to as a ‘knife & fork’ test. I was being ‘interviewed’ for a job with the most senior military general, which clearly required lots of wining and dining and I had to have lunch with General Sir Harry & Lady Tuzo! Mind you I could spin a yarn about dining with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1976 and being on one’s best behaviour; well, me and 131 others!!

It was a Mrs Beeton, in her 1860’s book on ‘household management’, who observed that “all creatures eat but only man dines.”! So cutlery and its use became the norm, to stop our hands getting greasy ….. and then we got all ‘strict’ about how to use it, eat and behave. There were even special knives and forks for eating fish! I still have some but I don’t think I’ve used them this century. Then we started cooking chicken drumsticks using BBQs and eating Pizzas …. and we started to use our hands again!

In Singapore there is, or maybe ‘was’ for this was many years ago, an Indian restaurant called The Banana Leaf Apollo. It had a terrific reputation but was fairly basic. I have this rather romantic notion that the ‘plate’ was a real Banana leaf and the food simply dumped onto it. OK! It could have been green plastic but then if you’re a romantic that doesn’t sound so good! There was no cutlery so it was a choice of which hand, left or right. I know that there is a rule about this in Arabic countries, a rule I’ve never learned but I appreciate that we do other things with one’s hand!

A William of Wykeham wrote, in the late 1300s, ‘Manners Maketh Man’. And that’s right, isn’t it? Without developing good manners we run the risk of behaving like Neanderthal man … or woman.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. Chinese saying: “Man who can catch fly with chopsticks can achieve anything!”

PC 37 A Small Town in ….. Brazil

“A Small Town in Germany” is the title of a 1968 John le Carré novel of the Cold War era. At the time, Germany was divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’, with the capital of the latter a small town called Bonn. The story is one of espionage and intrigue in Bonn. For some reason the title of the book remains with me, which is more than I can say for the contents!! This scribble has a European connection hence my mentioning the title (!) …. and I think it’s an interesting story …. OK! … rather historical but ……… see what you think?

The Canton of Friburg in Switzerland lies north east of Lake Leman; it’s capital on the river La Sanne, midway between Berne and Lausanne. In the early 1800s the Brazilian (Portuguese) government encouraged European emigration and in 1818 some 1500 people from Friburg settled in a mountainous area some 130kms north east from Rio. The place was chosen for its similarity with their Alpine home. Can you imagine making such a journey, in 1818 (three years after the Battle of Waterloo)? I guess the publicity campaign must have been extremely clever! Six years later a large party of German immigrants added to the population. Together they founded a little town and called it Nova Friburgo. Today Friburgo is mainly known for its tourism, but it has been, according to a guidebook, a thriving manufacturing hub for the ‘undergarment’ industry. Funny word that – ‘undergarment’!! These days we would probably say ‘lingerie’, and as you drive into Nova Friburgo the lingerie shops with scantily-clad models are ubiquitous. The architecture of this rather charming town reflects the nationality of its original inhabitants – somewhat Alpine and not a Portuguese-style church in sight.

The largest coffee plantation owner in Friburgo was not, however, of Swiss descent but a member of the Portuguese aristocracy, a Baron San Clemente. He was a hugely rich landowner and had become the mayor of Friburgo. In 1860 he built a large mansion befitting his status; these days one might think it suggests a certain ostentatious display of his wealth. A French landscaper, Glaziou, created a wonderful park and numerous lakes to complement the scale of the house. Today it’s known as Parque Sāo Clemente and is open to the public. In the late 1800s coffee was a major export of Brazil and the plantations up and down the country were only economically viable if they were worked by slaves. Somehow the plantation owners never believed that their vested interests would be ignored, but slavery was eventually abolished by royal degree in 1888, a year before Brazil expelled the ex-Portuguese monarch and declared itself a republic. The lack of cheap labour created a crisis and Baron San Clemente was not the only one to be affected. Unable to harvest his coffee bean crop, he eventually went bankrupt. In 1913 his large house on the outskirts of Friburgo was bought by Eduardo Guinle, the oldest son of Eduardo Palassim Guinle, a wealthy industrialist. Guinle senior, whose family had emigrated from the Haute Pyrenees area of France in the C19th, had been educated in the United States and, with two other entrepreneurs, developed under licence the main port of Port Santos, near Sāo Paulo. Additionally he became the Brazilian representative for, inter alia, two giant American companies, General Electric and Otis Elevators …. just when Brazil was embracing electricity! Talk about right place, right time!! He and his partners worked extremely hard ……. and made a fortune! His son clearly had the money to buy the large mansion from the bankrupt Baron.

In 1953 his grandson César divided the estate in Friburgo, selling the mansion to the Nova Frigurgo Country Club and building a house for himself in another part of the grounds. Whilst the current drought remains a top story here in Brazil, in 1995 it was severe floods that caught the headlines. The water from heavy rains in the mountains surrounding the town eventually made its way into Friburgo. Accumulated rubbish thrown into the river channels dammed up under bridges. Eventually the pressure was sufficient for it to break free, causing a wall of water to rush downstream, engulfing the Guinles’ house. It was Christmas Day …. lunchtime … and various members of the Guinle family had travelled up from Rio. They were eventually evacuated to safety by the local fire brigade. Once the waters had subsided, it was clear to see the enormous damage that the water had done and the house was never the same again. You can still see the ‘tide mark’ of the water in the exposed stone walls.

In 2011 another terrific thunderstorm brought further flooding and landslips to Friburgo, killing 1000 people and again inundating the ground floor of the family home. The lake in the garden retains a huge amount of silt and today needs to be dredged. The dark wood floors, once much lighter …..and polished …. and even, are rather dull and warped. The house is owned by four siblings who want to sell it …. but so far they have been unsuccessful and it’s become a real millstone around their necks. And whilst they attempt to interest those developers with money to convert it to something different, it soaks up money just keeping it secure and rainproof.

Old Long Playing records lie abandoned on the dusty top of the grand piano, as if the last guests from some fun 1950’s weekend had just left. I felt somewhat awkward visiting this house that I had heard so much about, a house that holds so many memories …… yet belongs to another time. Family portraits and photographs stare at the empty rooms, the office of the man who built it a shrine; dusty and untouched …. but very much loved. There is a reverential feel to the place, this family ‘millstone’, and I can understand the conflicting emotions that run through those who own it. But it stands in splendid silence, a memory to a different time and a different generation, and that silence is broken only by the bell being rung to summon the staff to clear the dishes from the dining room table.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. Celina is the great great granddaughter of Eduardo Palassim Guinle

PC 36 Corruption and Public Money

I sit on the chair, up against the dining room table, with my laptop in front of me. Through the windows I can glimpse the palm trees and tropical plants of the family garden and in the distance the tower blocks that line the shore of Sāo Conrado. The electric fan, sitting on the floor, stirs the air and keeps me moderately cool.

Dateline Monday 2nd March 2015 Rio de Janeiro . ……” I stare at the empty screen, praying my weekly ‘copy’ for the Times of London (I can dream, can’t I?!!) is going to flow ….. although I know from experience it never does! My battered notebook, full of scribbles, lies open. Yesterday was the 450th anniversary of the city of Rio de Janeiro; the founding fathers would not recognise this beautiful city of 2015.”

It depends on your perspective and the reliability of your information, as to how you view this world of ours. But recently I have been rather open-mouthed, hence this PC follows sharply on the heels on the last one!! In The Times of London of Saturday last week there was a long article on how much money the Blair government of New Labour, in 2005, had wasted or was unaccountable. The author has suggested the figure was some £230bn! There was the normal run-list of items such as failed IT projects and how the taxman had written off some £37.6 bn but most interesting to me was the amount of smuggling that apparently goes on. I thought that that had disappeared with sailing ships and rocky shores in Cornwall … but I can be very naïve sometimes!! It seems that enough fuel oil is smuggled into the UK to deprive the country of some £5.5bn of tax. And tobacco? Well, just how many cartons of packets of 20 cigarettes account for £21.4bn of lost tax? Unbelievably, the Government announced that they would increase the surveillance at 11 of the 43 points of entry. So the smugglers simply used the other 32! I was shocked. But I guess I shouldn’t have been. It’s natural that everyone wants to pay as little as possible to the government, especially if the Government wastes money, so tax avoidance becomes a game. And this report says that the government wasted £230bn, that’s £230,000,000,000! Isn’t someone accountable, you might think?

In simplistic terms we have a National Audit Office that scrutinises public expenditure and a Parliamentary Accounts Committee that can call anyone to appear before it, to question them. Both bodies write reports and everyone goes: “Oh!” and “Ah!” at some revelation of waste or profligacy …and shakes hands:  “Job well done”.  And ……… that’s it. Neither organisation points the finger of blame and cries: “Off to the Tower!” Maybe they should. Ah! But these are the people, those we elect to govern us, who bend the rules governing their own expenses … and declare all innocence when they get caught. There was the famous case of one Member of Parliament who used public money to do maintenance on a little duck house on the island in the lake of his country house. And he thought he could!! The arrogance!

And yet I suppose if you’re Greek, you have a different perspective; you think you’re the only country in the world with corrupt politicians and civil servants. It simply depends on where you live. The other day the ex-president of Yemen, one of the poorest countries on the planet, was accused of taking kickbacks from foreign companies wanting oil & gas exploration rights. Ali Abdullah Saleh also took a 10% slice of the ‘National Fuel Subsidiary Programme’. He is accused of amassing a personal fortune of $60 billion ….. robbing one of the poorest countries of its wealth. There is news everywhere of people milking the system and thinking it’s OK

And where am I typing this from? Well, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where for some months now the absolute scandalous story of corruption at the highest levels in government and business is laid bare through one company – Petrobras. Founded in 1953 this semi-public company (public 36% Government 64%) dominates the Oil & Gas Sector here and accounts for 90% of oil production and some 1/5th of the Brazilian economy. The figures appearing daily are breath-taking. One spotlight shone on the story of the Pasadena (USA) Oil Refinery. Bought by a Belgian company in 2004 for $50m, it was then sold to Petrobras two years later for $1bn, twenty times the earlier price!! Or the chairman of Petrobras who seemingly had 5% of the turnover of the company added to his paypacket! The money has allegedly gone to fund the governing Workers’ Party for years, despite continuing denials from the past and current Presidents. Completely unbelievable!! Sitting in a makeshift jail in Curitiba, those who stole billions of the nation’s wealth protest ….. some offering millions of dollars to buy their ‘plea bargain’. Disgusting!

Brazilians love their Soap Operas and now we have a real life story that sounds like one. It runs alongside the daily dosage of corruption news from Petrobras, and is a bankruptcy hearing of a faded industrialist, Eike Batista. He had built his fortune on oil forecasts from unproven drillings. The judge hearing this case is one Flavio Roberto de Souza. Well, maybe he isn’t anymore, as last week he was seen driving around in Batista’s impounded Porsche Cayenne and parking it in the underground garage …. of his apartment block! “I felt it needed to be protected from the sun and rain.” he said in mitigation! And the ex-Batista grand piano was also seen on its way to an apartment in the same building! You seriously couldn’t make up a script such as this for a soap opera – except this is life here in Brazil.

It’s often thought that in Britain we ‘do the right thing’ and that we are an ethical country. Sometimes I wonder what we would really find if we did more than scratch the surface. Waste and corruption, greed and dishonesty? Probably!

Something to chew on over breakfast, wherever you are. Just scribbles really!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com