Wednesday 26 January 2011

Monkey Glands

I asked Dani if she wanted a drink. She said she'd like a sloe gin with orange juice in. We weren't sure what such a drink might be called, so we looked it up on a cocktail website and found that it's a Sloe Screw. The Sloe Screw was listed alongside its variants: the Sloe Comfortable Screw, the Sloe Comfortable Screw against the Wall, the Sloe Comfortable Mexican Screw against the Wall, the Sloe Comfortable Screw between the Sheets and the Sloe Comfortable Fuzzy Screw against the Wall.

Underneath, there was a link to 'If you liked this cocktail, try these...' with a list of drinks that included one called a Monkey Gland. We couldn't resist clicking on this to find out what it was. We stumbled on two important pieces of information.

Firstly, a Monkey Gland is made as follows:

2 oz gin
1 oz orange juice
1 dash absinthe
orange slice for garnish

Swirl a dash of absinthe in a chilled cocktail glass to coat it, then dump any excess liqueur. Pour the other ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes, and shake well.

Dr Serge Voronoff
Secondly, the Monkey Gland is so called in honour of Serge Voronoff (1866–1951), a French surgeon of Russian extraction, who pioneered the technique of grafting slices of monkey testicle on to the testicles of men. It was claimed that this treatment would improve memory, eyesight, stamina, sex drive and, above all, prolong life. His operation brought him a brief run of fame and fortune across Europe and America, and he treated anyone who could afford it, from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to Wolverhampton Wanderers' wing forward Dennis Westcott. He was able to establish his own monkey farm on the Italian Riviera, run by a circus trainer, to which the soprano opera singer Lily Pons was a frequent visitor. He married three times. His second wife was the wealthy socialite Evelyn Bostwick, the mother of eccentric powerboat racer Betty Carstairs. It was Evelyn who translated into English his major work: Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life (1920). His research captured the popular imagination; for example, Irving Berlin included a reference to monkey gland therapy in his 1925 song 'Monkey-Doodle-Doo', which later featured in the Marx Brothers' film The Cocoanuts. My guess is that the South African condiment known as monkey gland sauce is also named in celebration of Voronoff.

Voronoff's theories were wrong. Transplanted animal tissue is rejected by humans (using the testicles of convicted criminals was attempted, but he considered this to be unethical), and the substance later identified as testosterone does not prolong life. His amazing 1941 book From Cretin to Genius, which I am currently reading, attempts through numerous examples from history, to show exactly what the miraculous substance is in the brain, a surfeit of which will produce a genius and a lack of which will produce a cretin. Yet he also stresses how narrow the divide is between genius and cretinism. The book has lyrical, quasi-religious tone to it, and it comes as little surprise to learn that Voronoff had dealings with the Cosmic Movement, a spiritual group linked to Martinism. By the end of his life, his work had been completely discredited, and the same scientific establishment that lionized him in the 1920s now mocked and rejected him. He shared the modernist idealism of some twentieth-century eugenicists, yet his aims were to improve the fortunes of all Mankind and to seek out the very stuff of life. He was a true scientific alchemist.

A relative of Voronoff has published this terrific archive, with plenty more details about this fascinating man, here.

Friday 21 January 2011

Improvathon 2008

I don't want to get into the habit of using this blog to post old things, and I don't particularly want to use it to write about impro, but as the 4th London Improvathon is about to begin, I couldn't resist resurrecting this review I wrote of the 1st London Improvathon, dated 23 January 2008:

What I Thought

Woody Allen had doubts about the wisdom of casting Christopher Walken and Christopher Biggins in the joint role of the Baron Wolfgang von Sträcke. But why? What sort of thing is reasonable’ to expect in a 50-hour improvisation? By what established criteria do we judge whether what happens is successful?

There were of course some inspired comedy scenes, clever dialogue, ambitious plotlines and dizzying character arcs. Mark Meer and Oliver Senton as the Baron and Sebastian Fields remained most coherently in character throughout the fifty hours, and provided a strong fulcrum around which the entire mechanism turned, vast and complex. And although they were not major characters, the Gibberish Brothers (Matt Alden Dykes and Jamie Knifefight Cavanagh) maintained much of the energy that drove that mechanism, even though it was necessary for them, like most of the other characters, to explore the darker, more subdued side to their personalities. The brutal murder of Jeff Bouldernuts was shocking, but aren’t all chimney sweeps scary? It sparked further tension and ultraviolence later on. Other characters were more mutable still, and took time to develop.

Lightweight that I am, I took two breaks and missed hours 15-20 and hours 31-38. I would very much like to have known what happened to some of my favourite characters. What happened in the end to auteur filmmaker Winley Carter? And BMW, the chauffeur? And what were the true origins of the Man who Became One Hundred Bears?

Yet around the 28-hour mark, an abrupt and universal change happened. Every single performer simultaneously forgot everything that was going on. An emergency summit was called on stage to try and resurrect some plot, any plot at all, but to no avail. This transformation roughly coincided with Dana’s furious intervention in a quayside scene, in which he broke away from his station and launched himself, like a drunken tramp, at the terrified seagulls on stage. This may have caused some of the insanity that followed, but I rather think it was a symptom of it. In any case, from this point on, anything was possible.

Kurt Smeaton was handed an enormous mimed cocktail. Beckoned to relax on the settee he realized that he would have to put it down somewhere. We saw panic come over his face as he looked around for somewhere appropriate. Having stayed hyper-alert, in character, for more than twenty-four hours, while carrying so much plot and dialogue in his head, to think up something so trivial as where to put a glass down was the last straw. It would have been so easy for a performer to give up, to abandon the mime, to compromise by abandoning the truth of what was in his hand. Instead, he simply released the glass into the air and spent several seconds watching it float gently towards the ceiling. In this sublime, childlike moment, we saw the gravity and plot and intellectualizing give way to a deeper, and madder, logic. The ‘letting go of the glass’ was of course a metaphor for the letting go of everything that stood in the way of the improvisers’ ability to create, and it is not a coincidence that metaphor was used in the final scene to finally defeat evil. Improvisers of short scenes are told to hold on to everything and reincorporate. For the purposes of the Improvathon, this was the rule that was temporarily holding the performers back and had to be abandoned, reluctantly in some cases. The remainder of the scene was spent writhing with Belinda Cornish.

What Kurt achieved physically (see also his ‘Nightmare of Ballet’ scene), Sean McCann achieved linguistically. His Shakespearean skills are well established, but once released from the censoring burden of sense and significance, he began, along with Adam, Oliver, Dylan and Josh, to create an entirely original freeform poetry, consisting of inside-out Shakespeare, washed through with David Mamet and eventually Dr Seuss. ‘Look! I’m a pillow!’ said Sean, abruptly, and somersaulted on to the settee, yet it made sense at the time. It was only a matter of time before we saw a helicopter eating a cake. And it made perfect sense, believe me, because it picked up a passing mention some six hours previously. For me, these lunatic scenes were the best things in the Improvathon, and I was almost disappointed as, around eight hours before the end, the line ‘time is running out’ started to appear, the overarching plot re-emerged, and characters began talking about ‘doing something’.

Yet the level of reincorporation in the final two hours was miraculous, and to a packed house, the whole play began to come together frighteningly coherently. In spite of the fact that much plot had been lost, this was done by giving each of the secondary characters an appropriate emotional send-off before the showdown and finale. My personal favourite scenes were the Last Judgment of Valentine (lovable Lucy Trodd), called to account for the sins committed in the name of her blameless philosophy of ‘I’ll try anything once’, and the melancholy departure of Natalie Klad (Maya Sendall). Having failed throughout the entire proceedings to inject a sci-fi theme into the plot, her farewell to her marijuana plant was genuinely touching.

Improvisation is often judged on how convincing an impression it does of something else, don’t you think? What I saw at the weekend was improvisation beginning to resemble nothing on earth but its true self.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Time and Identity

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about the pleasure of discovering something you don't remember writing. It gives us the illusion of seeing ourselves uncritically, as if for the first time, as a stranger would. Because we feverishly cook up our identities in layers of second- and third-hand perceptions of impressions, it is by unwrapping the past and seeing things in the present that we can resolve our problems of identity.

Warning: this story opens with a slightly tedious preamble that a) doesn’t have much to do with the point I am trying to make and b) is bogged down with nerdy technical details that are in themselves of no interest to anyone. I recommend you skip them, and begin reading this blog entry at paragraph 8, which begins: ‘This is where the story really starts.’

The story starts with a pair of Sony earphones. They are iPhone compatible, which means that they have a little control panel on the left-hand wire (for a right-handed person), with which I can pause, fast-forward or rewind music on my iPhone without having to take it out of my pocket and get mugged. (I warned you about the pointless technical nonsense, didn't I?) The pause button also works on the radio, but not the fast-forward/rewind feature, of course. It is ideal for someone who likes listening to music, but who also goes in and out of shops.

Then, one day after the warranty expired, the earphones stopped working. That is to say, they became temperamental, and began stopping and starting my music of their own accord. They would skim through some songs, and refuse to play others. They would go haywire, normally finally alighting on 'Clamour For a Fudge' by The Marthas & Arthurs, the only song they were happy for me to listen to without interruption.

I spent a few days not listening to music on the way to and from work, putting off buying new earphones because I was grumpy about have to do so. Then last night, I decided that I really did need to have earphones that worked, and that to help me resolve to do this, I would put them in and listen to them going haywire. For a few moments, they did their mischief of flicking and fast-forwarding between songs. Then, abruptly, the music started playing continuously. The chaos had ended. The earphones had fixed themselves.

Back at home, I was typing on my laptop, when I suddenly realised that my laptop's 'O' key, which had been sticky recently, and getting stickier, was suddenly working perfectly well. My laptop keyboard had also fixed itself, saving me considerable time, trouble and money to get it repaired. It was therefore reasonable for me to assume that a third electrical problem would be resolved without any action on my part (according to the Rule of Three), so I plugged my Macbook into my TV. Since New Year, my Macbook Pro had failed to recognize my TV as an additional monitor. According to internet forums, this problem seems to be shared by dozens of angry Macbook Pro owners, and no definitive solution has yet been offered. 

Alas, the all-to-familiar 'No Signal' message appeared. But I was now irrevocably distracted from what I was writing. Returning to the forums, I carried out some of the suggested operations (resetting the PRAM and the SMC – whatever that means) and was about to boot my Mac from the CD to see if the problem could be fixed that way, and this led me to a pile of miscellaneous, mainly non-music CDs stacked up in a pile at one end of a bookshelf in my bedroom. Flicking through the cases, looking for the OSX install disc (Yes, I knew this had precious little chance of working, but by this stage I was simply amusing myself), I came across a blank disc in a case with the word 'EVERYTHING' written on it (the case, not the disc) in black magic marker.

This is where the story really starts. If you took my advice in paragraph 2, and started reading from this point, the only important thing you have missed is that I have just discovered, on a bookshelf in my bedroom, a blank CD in a case with the word 'EVERYTHING' written on it (the case, not the disc) in black magic marker. I stuck it in my Mac and was a little astonished to discover that it was a backup disc of stuff I wrote between 1997 and 2000. Hundreds of Word documents, some small, some tiny, were organized in a mess of folders, and contained letters to friends, translations from French and Latin, unperformable theatrical sketches, scraps of thoughts, job interview letters, etc. etc. The whole treasure trove, rescued from a long-defunct computer, I'd presumed I'd lost, or at least wasn't worth keeping. I never expected to come across it again.

There was a more dramatic discovery to be made. In the folder called 'Writing' there was a further folder called 'And more', with more scraps of text in, as well as a further 'Untitled' folder nested in that. Inside were copies of the files of the novel that I began writing back in c.1998. This was the last thing I expected to find, because as far as I was aware, I'd thrown the whole damned thing away at least ten years ago. I distinctly remember the sense of relief, of satisfaction, even joy, when I finally picked up the folder with the text files (totalling around 30,000 words), plans and unplaced scraps of dialogue, dragged them to the Trash and emptied it. I was revolted by its style, which vigorously plagiarized Boris Vian (I  was seriously into him back then), and its plot and characters, which reflected my unsophisticated, adolescent tastes. The affected manner highlighted, rather than disguised, the ghastly self-indulgence of the contents. I've never regretted throwing out all that work. Yet all this time, a copy had existed. 
Here's a titbit. Our three heroes go boating in Hyde Park:

With undisguised relief he clocks the weight of great wealth causing their boats to take in water and capsize. Simon’s got an idea.
'What’s that then?'
'Just a mo.” he says, and sprints off to have a word with a very particular old chum he knows he’ll find somewhere round here. Tommy and Laura follow at an andante. 
'Take plums, for eggzample…' Tommy’s saying. 
'…a favourite fruit…'
'…and a very secksyoual one. It’s been documented. In Zanzibar they’re an aphrodisiac.'
'And in Renaissance painting they represent women’s bits.'
'What about greengages?'
'The opposite - sterility and winter. They appeared on the national flag of Greenland when it gained independence from Denmark briefly in 1974. The Vikings worshipped the greengage as a god. It was called Grnøngjë.' 
By the time they’ve caught up with Simon and his very particular old chum, they’ve finished whatever it was they’d been talking about. The stranger’s a stubbled chilled-out geezer with a digeridoo look about him. He holds out a long long finger, which Tommy, Laura and Simon follow to a solitary rowing boat moored in the shade of a mellow yellow tree. The man studies them carefully. Unbeknownst, even to Simon, he is an angel, a real one, wearing (as a nifty disguise) a khaki Che Guevara T-shirt, cut-back brown canvas togs, a knotty hanky over his deadlocked hair, and bright yellow sports sandals. He smiles at the three young sailonauts, and the sparkling water is reflected in his rippling eyes. 
Tommy and Laura got into the boat and sat at one end then Simon got in and took up the oars then Laura and Simon stood up and swapped places so that Simon and Tommy sat at one end with Laura taking up the oars then Tommy stood up and said Laura I’ll row so Laura stood up and let Tommy sit down and take up the oars then Simon said we’re still tied up so Tommy got out of the boat and untied the ropes and while he was doing that Laura said watch we don't drift off so Simon got up and took up the oars and when the boat was untied Tommy jumped back into the boat and sat down next to Laura and Simon pushed the bank away and pushed the water out from under the boat and rowed the boat out into the middle of the lake quite fast while Tommy and Laura sang 'Simon Row The Boat Ashore (Halleluia)'. 
With arms like bacon, Simon skillfully guided the little leisureboat to the centre of the lake (where the big fish were loudly discussing theatre). Then, with a deft backwardflick derollockment of the paddles, he set the crew on the thin edge of a leeward tidal windwash that would carry them onwards without effort. Tommy, Laura and Simon lay back in sunbathed ecstacy. With their eyes shut, they gazed into the empty sky. And the wind carried every sound in London across their dozing earsockets and away, very distant, very distinct: first the hypnotic gravel-grinding of the circular wheelbladers, then the flapping wings of a tiny sparrow atop a tree overlooking the execution site at Speechless Corner, as it choked on a cigarillo butt it had mistaken for food, then the mechanical rumble of traffic, a million million angry people encased in metal, one of them telling another to get a fucking move on - excuse my language but I gotta tell it like it is - then a child of three shrieking with tearful laughter. All these sounds, stripped of significance, drifted softly, clearly, beautifully, across the surface of the Certaintime, before finally disappearing entirely, and giving way to the music of more difficult origin. The sun fought fiercely through the breaks in the breeze, and the ultramarine sky became dotted with firefairies, singing highlow notes in rapidslow lines of melody, infinite in number, growing like tendrils from the rapidslow lines of melody, infinite in number, growing like tendrils from the rapidslow lines of melody, infinite in number, growing like tendrils from the horizons of vision and meeting and crossing and giving birth to fresh harmonies and fresh unisons. 

OK, it's pretty horrific. The novel was going to be called Tell Laura I Love Her, based on the 1960 Ricky Valance song about a young man who dies in a car crash. What was surprising, for a story I don't remember writing, was the growing subplot (a draft chapter-breakdown reveals this was going to be quite important) about a woman who has lost her memory. The themes of recollection and identity crop up again and again. Laura herself goes missing halfway through the story, and from that point onwards, her surname keeps being misremembered or mistyped, making attempts to trace her increasingly difficult, just as Ricky Valance is often confused with Ritchie Valens, who died in a plane crash the previous year.

I've moved on now, so I'm obviously not going to finish the novel, but it makes for fascinating reading. It's always good not to remember writing, but to read about forgetting is even better. I’m pleased I no longer feel the need to destroy what I write. Time makes it (almost) bearable to read again.

As I was putting the CDs away back on the shelf, I spotted something else that I'd thought I'd lost, but had simply been hiding. Behind a framed photograph taken on my wedding day propped up on the bookshelf, I found my copy of The Krishnamurti Reader.* I'd been putting off buying a replacement copy of it, even though it appeared it'd been missing for months (just as I'd been putting off bringing my Mac in to having the 'O' key fixed). A good job I gave it time. Give things time, time and forgetfulness, is the message, and problems of all kind will resolve. This is what Krishnamurti has to say on the subject of time and memory:

Without comprehending the present, which is rooted in the past, you will have no understanding. The present misery of man [woman] [humanity] is understood when through the door of the present, he [she] is able to be aware of the causes that have produced it. You cannot brush aside the present in trying to understand the past, but only through awareness of the present does the past begin to unfold itself. …. The present is of the highest importance; the present, however tragic and painful, is the only door to reality…. The present is the only time for understanding, for it extends into yesterday and into tomorrow. The present is the whole of time; in the seed of the present are the past and the future; the past is the present and the future is the present. The present is the eternal, the timeless….. Look only to the present, neither to the past nor to the future, for love is the present, the timeless.

We should live our lives in the present, like live radio. We should not strive to rewind or fast-forward it, even with Sony earphones.

* Penguin Books, London, 1970. Edited by Mary Lutyens, who was the daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens.

Monday 10 January 2011

The Camden School of Enlightenment

Ryan invited me to come and perform my stand-up routine (I have one, yes, and am currently working on another one) at 'an evening of open-mic enlightenment' at The Camden School of Enlightenment tomorrow night. Why not?

I ought to emphasize that, simply because I have started performing stand-up, I have no intention of becoming a stand-up comedian. In a variant of the Groucho Marx paradox, the fact that the open-mic circuit is now so bloated as to allow even me in front of an audience rather proves how worthless it has become, and how foolish I would be to want to get into it.

Apart from anything else, I don't like jokes, or anything resembling them. What is a joke supposed to prove? Isn't making people laugh a bit of a waste of time? The process of joke-creation is a reductive one, and the mechanism of mockery feeds on its own ironies rather than achieving anything worthwhile and concrete. Leave the joke-telling to the 'jokers', I say. François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was a great writer and diplomat, and he rarely made jokes. And he had a steak named after him. I'd rather have a steak named after me than be an object of mirth.

Unfortunately, however, I am an attention-hungry hypocrite, and deluded, so I will continue to make occasional public appearances in rooms above and below pubs on weeknights just so long as I can detect the faintest hint of approval. The Camden School of Enlightenment is not an open-mic comedy night, anyway. Not one bit. It promises to be both educational and inspiring, perhaps (dare I say) cultural as well. I'm very much looking forward to it; it may be the ideal arena for my stand-up routine, which is, as you've probably guessed, not very funny.

It's tomorrow night: Tuesday 11 January, at 8pm (doors 7.30pm), at The Camden Head on Camden High Street. Fran Isherwood will talk about the glory days of Music Hall, Racker Donnelly will read James Joyce, and Ryan Millar himself is giving a talk about Life and Death at Sea. Plus myself and other gems, no doubt. Oh, and it's free, of course.

Thursday 6 January 2011

A Book Arrives in the Post

Lots of people, even people who have known me for years, think that I am 'well read'. This is emphatically not true. I haven't read a huge number of books in my life (although my job involves a fair bit of reading – of non-fiction – in my spare time I'm inclined to rest my eyes) and certainly my knowledge of 'the classics' is very thin. I'm not proud of this fact. You should never be proud of anything you haven't done. On the other hand, I've read stacks of strange French stuff. I've read all of the novels by Raymond Queneau that have been translated into English (apart from A Hard Winter, rare copies of which sell for £50). I've read the whole of Fantômas, the thirty-two-volume crime saga cranked out by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre at the rate of one novel per month for thirty-two months in 1911–13. I've read acres of Gustave Le Rouge and Gaston Leroux, and my bookshelves groan under the weight of great names such as Cendrars, Roussel, Pinget, Allais, Vian, Obaldia etc.

Rare but affordable.
It must have been at least ten years ago that I first read Jacques Roubaud, doubtless in the thick of my Oulipo phase. I remember buying Hortense is Abducted and Hortense in Exile, and devouring them as a guilty pleasure: impossible not to love and impossible to put down, but almost too saccharine in their cleverness and arch-post-modernism. (By contrast, his incredible masterpiece, The Great Fire of London, is one of my Desert Island books.) The other evening, Dani asked me to read her something. When I asked her what, she said: 'Nothing depressing. I don't mind, so long as it doesn't have puppies being killed.' Out of pure mischief, I reached for my copy of Hortense is Abducted, a canine murder mystery written eighteen years before Mark Haddon's book (which I haven't read), but hilarious. I suddenly remembered that HisA and HinE are the second and third novels in a trilogy. They were both originally published by Dalkey Archive, but the first novel, Our Beautiful Heroine, could only be found* in a rare and prohibitively expensive second-hand edition by Overlook Press (on their website it is listed at $22.95 with the one-line description 'An absurd French detective novel'). So I immediately reached for my laptop and searched, to see if the once-unobtainable first novel were still prohibitively expensive. To my delight, it was now possible to snap up a used copy (a decade too late, so to speak) for a matter of a few quid, plus postage from the US. And here it is, complete with ghastly mid-1980s typography (though the artwork's pretty nice, eh?). I'm going to go back and read all three Hortense novels in order now, and the plot might just make more sense this time around. Lucky me.

* In English, that is. I can read simple books in French, but it takes me a long time, and Roubaud doesn't write simple books.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

My New Year

It's bad luck to keep your Xmas decorations up past Twelfth Night (6 January), but it's not bad luck to take them down before then. My tree was begging to be released back into the wild. It had dropped so many needles that it looked bald and abused, like a monkey on an anti-vivisection leaflet. Returned to the fresh air of the garden, it's already looking sprightlier. (By the way, it's also bad luck to keep Xmas songs on your iPod beyond Twelfth Night, so don't forget.)

Since we are defined by our habits, and whatever defines us confines us, a New Year's Resolution ought not to impose new habits, but rather release us from bad ones, and create more opportunities for creative activities. I have therefore resolved to 'Do two worthwhile things before 8.30am', without specifying what those two things should be. Candidates: juggling, writing, exercising, gardening, playing the accordion, thinking.

This time last year, I was just coming to the end of a very miserable bit of my life, and to help me capitalize on a not-quite-so-shit December, I vowed to increase my energy and vim by giving up alcohol, caffeine and wheat for a the month of January. (Wheat? It was due to an article I'd read, but in hindsight I believe the wheat abstinence made absolutely no difference to my state of mind.) This I did, and I also made an Important Change to my life, with the result that by the end of January 2010 I was feeling really rather good, optimistic for the first time in ages and full of beans. I went on a further 'detox' in September this year, following an unrestrained week at the Edinburgh Festival: for a month, no booze or coffee, but with all the tea I could drink and all the wheat I could eat. Also, no Important Changes to my life. The results were less marked. Drinking lime-and-soda in pubs irritated the hell out of me (alcohol makes other people seem more fascinating than they actually are). Nonetheless, I did feel vaguely more energetic and healthy by the end of the month. I even went on the odd run, goddammit.

Well,  I'm off caffeine and alcohol again for the whole of January 2011 (or at least the first four weeks of it). It's the fourth day of the month (not even Twelfth Night yet) and already I feel bad-tempered, lethargic and incapable of anything remotely worthwhile before or after 8.30am, and less inclined to dig myself out of the impro-less hole I'm in. Why am I putting myself through this ordeal yet again? What benefits will I see? Some, undoubtedly, as I'm not so unscientifically minded as to deny that booze and caffeine do me damage. They're inherently bad habits. (Don't give me that shit about 'cutting down', and 'everything in moderation', by the way. I simply don't operate that way.)

A wild civet eating coffee berries.
I do like good coffee. To reward myself at the end of my fast, I've ordered a 50g packet of kopi luwak, widely reported to be the finest (and most expensive) coffee beans money can buy. Farmed in Indonesia, the berries are eaten by wild civets. They pass through the animal's digestive tract, and the beans are recovered from the droppings by someone who I don't suppose is paid enough. This coffee is famed for its rich yet subtle flavour, and lack of bitterness. This is the sort of thing that can only have been discovered by chance. I can't imagine even the most radical, avant garde coffee grower tasting his latest roasted blend and thinking to himself: 'These beans are magnificent, but they'd be even more magnificent if a wild civet ate them first.' Yet, if kopi luwak was a chance discovery, it must be one of the most serendipitous of all time. 'Make the coffee, won't you?' 'No beans.' 'What? None at all?' 'Only these ones that the wild civet shat out.' 'I'm dying for a cup. Use them.' 'Are you sure?' 'Yeah, whatever.' Five minutes later: 'You know, considering where these beans came from, I have to say, this coffee is pretty good.' 'I'd go further than that; I'd say that this is the finest coffee I've ever tasted.' 'Fancy that.' I also wonder if experiments were made with other animals, with the aim of creating different taste sensations, but that the wild civet blew the competition away. Whatever it is about the wild civet's unique skill at producing high-quality non-bitter coffee, I understand that Creationists have seized on the poor animal as an important plank in their raft of evidence for Intelligent Design. I suppose they might be right.

You will have to wait until the end of the month to read my review of kopi luwak. Keep reading until then, eh?