A Piece of Cake – 2

Nearly a year before, George sat on the side of his bed and slid his feet into sheepskin slippers. He stood, pulled on his dressing gown and took a few steps towards the window. He no longer needed the Zimmer frame and his breathing was coming easier now. That winter’s wave of Covid-19 had put him in hospital for a week with pneumonia. His GP, Doctor Patel, said he was lucky to survive. He wasn’t so sure.

Leaning on the windowsill he looked out onto the driveway and the neat leafless garden. It was another grey drizzly English day. One or two patches of snow remained. A blackbird worked the lawn under the lone apple tree. A grey squirrel dropped in from the neighbour’s oak tree to scratch around for long-hidden acorns. Some bright green shoots of early snowdrops were just visible. Maeve always loved snowdrops. She’d never seen them before moving to England. Wondering if he would see one more summer, George turned, moved slowly to the other side of his little room and put the kettle on.

“Happy Birthday, Dad!” George’s daughter, Kirsty, came in to say goodbye before heading out to work. “All OK?” she asked. He assured her that all was fine, that he had forgotten his own birthday as usual and that he was still able to make his tea and toast. “See you later, then. Got a big surprise for you!”

“I suspect it might be another pair of bloody socks,” he replied. She laughed and blew him a kiss.

George buttered his toast, spread on a thin layer of marmalade, sat at his table and switched on Radio 4. Most of the news, unsurprisingly, related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unvaccinated celebrities had died. A new variant had been found in South Africa. There were further revelations about Downing Street staff breaking social distancing rules. He watched Kirsty’s car head down the drive. Then her husband, Mark, wheeled his bicycle away as George’s two teenage grandchildren, Sue and Kevin, set off on foot for school. All three waved cheerily on their way through the gate. He waved back. Another exciting day ahead, he mused.

The love of George’s life, Maeve, had passed away six years before. He was flattened with grief. Just months later, their dog, Buster, whom George adored, had also died. Maeve had found Buster, a puppy of indeterminate breed, in the dog pound and had given him to George on his retirement from medical practice. Losing Maeve, and soon thereafter Buster, had left a great dark hole in George’s soul about which he confided only to his friend, Beth McVicar, the vicar of Bingham on Bure. George was otherwise in reasonable health. It had suited everyone when Kirsty and the gang moved into George’s house, the old family home, and he moved into the small annex prepared especially for “his later years.”

He got through his days listening to the radio, snoozing and reading although his eyes now got tired and gritty if he read for too long. He watched little television. He hated the endless cookery programmes, quiz shows and property make-overs. He loved a good film but they were few and far between. And then there were the tedious ads. He looked forward to the visits of Beth, his friend Ted Scales, and Doctor Patel, all of whom noted that despite the frailty of George’s body, his mind remained as sharp as a razor.

Today, he was eighty-seven years old. His birthday meant little to him. He polished his glasses and reflected on his past. He had no regrets but any zest for life had trickled away. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, more that there seemed little point in continuing to live. If he got another bout of pneumonia, he would refuse to go to hospital and refuse treatment. But he knew even raising this with Kirsty would upset her. He would discuss it all first with Beth when next she called.

That evening, George ate a microwaved lasagne. When Kirsty, Mark, Sue and Kevin were all home, they filed noisily into his room. Sue was carrying a cake with nine candles. Kevin lit the candles and said “Each one counts for ten, Grandpa. Except that one!” he laughed, pointing at one candle a bit shorter than the rest. “That counts for seven.”

“You’ll go far,” said George.

Kirsty kissed George’s forehead and gave him a wrapped gift not much bigger than a soft drinks can. “Here we are, then, Dad,” said Kirsty. “You’re not as young as you were. This will help you and help us as well.” George hid his disappointment in the clear implications of his impending infirmity. “It’ll be fun too.” Kirsty continued. “It’s got great reviews.” When he unwrapped his gift he knew exactly what it was. He had listened to a podcast about the mat black cylinder with its four dark lenses each covering a ninety degree arc. It was the latest version of the iCare-Companion. He hadn’t wanted one because, like many people born before the information age, he was reluctant to have a direct interface with artificial intelligence.

Mark plugged the device’s charger into a wall socket. “Let’s see if it walks the talk?” He touched the top. A discrete blue light came on at the base.

“Hello,” it said. “I’m your iCare-Companion.”

“Hello,” they all said.

“The only thing you have to do now is decide on a name for me.” The voice was precise and with no discernible accent. The family looked at George.

“It’s up to you, Dad!” said Kirsty.

George thought for a bit. He looked directly at one of the unblinking eyes and said. “Hello, I’m George. I’d like to call you Buster.”

“Buster it is!” replied the voice. “Thank you, George. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.”

When nothing else happened, Sue encouraged George to blow out the candles. He managed five. They all sang “Happy birthday.” To their surprise, Buster joined them in a rich tenor.

Mark cut the cake putting a piece on each of five plates. He handed the plates round and glanced at Buster. “Would you like a piece? Ha!”

Buster replied “No thanks, Mark. I don’t eat cake.”

Mark was taken aback. “Wait a minute! Of course I know you don’t eat cake but how did you know I was offering you a piece of cake and how do you know my name?”

“Well, Mark, you were looking at me as you offered the cake and you used your credit card to buy me on-line and so of course I know your name. And, by the way, it’s a matter of public record who else lives at this address. Hello Kirsty! Hello Sue! Hello Kevin!”

“Blimey!” exclaimed Mark. “And you can really work all that out in seconds?”

“Yes,” replied Buster. “That’s how I’m programmed. It’s easy. Easy-peasy!”

“Kids’ stuff, then!” said Mark looking at Sue and Kevin.

“A piece of cake?” suggested George with his mouth full.

“Exactly, George. A piece of cake! That’s a corker of an idiom.” George burst out laughing and sprayed crumbs onto his carpet.

Although it was George’s birthday, Buster inevitably became the centre of attention. That was just fine by George.

“OK, Buster, what can you tell us about the start of the First World War?” asked Mark. Sue and Kevin groaned. Their father was fascinated by anything to do with the history of the two world wars.

“Interesting question, Mark. Thanks,” Buster began. “Sue and Kevin, I’ll be as brief as possible. The trigger of the First World War was the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the then heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb; this happened in Sarajevo on June the 28th, 1914. It led to widespread political upheaval on two hostile fronts either side of the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary. On the eastern front the alliance faced Russia and Serbia and on the western front, France and Great Britain. Active conflict broke out on both fronts drawing in many other countries. This was set in a background of distrust and jealousy between the England’s George V, Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm II all of whom were related by birth or marriage. An oft-overlooked factor is that most European countries had, for the previous thirty years, competed in a massive arms race with a build up of weapons of ever-increasing destructive capacity. What some scholars find most puzzling, however, is that there is no evidence that any party ever really wanted to go to war. The one event in Sarajevo triggered increasingly aggressive diplomacy, military posturing, armed attacks and inevitable retaliation. Many think this how a future nuclear war might start.”

“Wow! Brilliant!” said Mark, impressed but a little fazed.

“Hey, Buster! Why did the chicken cross the road?” asked Sue.

“I know the answer to that one, Sue. To get to the other side. It’s the first joke kids hear. Do you find it funny?”

“Not really!” Sue replied. “But, the chicken never got to the other side of the road because it was run over by a car.” She tried to keep a straight face.

Buster responded “Isn’t that a bit sad, Sue?” They all laughed.

Kevin pitched in “What about this one, then, Buster… What happens if the ducks swim around on their backs?”

“Can ducks really swim on their backs?” asked Buster.

“No. It’s another joke,” replied Kevin.

“OK. I understand. It’s a joke.” Buster paused. There was a light humming sound that the family hadn’t heard up to this point. “I just need to clarify something. Do you mean all ducks or just certain ducks?”

They all thought this was hilarious. “Let’s just say all the ducks in one pond,” said Kevin.

“Right! I don’t know, Kevin, what happens if all the ducks in one pond swim around on their backs?”

“They quack up!” said Kevin, now helpless with laughter.

“Is it a funny joke, Kevin?”

“It is now!” he managed to reply.

There was a pause and the humming noise again. “I don’t understand,” said Buster. “Can you explain it to me and explain why it’s so funny?

Kirsty stood up. “Ok, let’s call it a day. Buster, it’s been fun meeting you. I know that you and George will get on just fine. We have to let him get ready for bed. He needs his beauty sleep.”

“Do you need beauty sleep, George?” asked Buster.

“You bet! I’m quite a looker now but I’ll be a really handsome devil in the morning! Ha! Ha!”

“How do I know when you’re joking, George?”

“I’m sure you’ll learn!”

As George brushed his teeth he reflected on what he knew about the iCare-Companion. It was marketed towards the ever-increasing population of over-eighties of wealthier countries. It would take control of and integrate George’s television, telephone, laptop and sound system. It had a smoke detector and was equipped with high-end voice and face recognition. The friendly voice would deliver any information on the internet, personal assistance and of course conversation. George also knew it was programmed to detect his movements, sleep patterns, temperature, pulse, respiration rate and oxygen saturation. It would know when to send out a message to the emergency services, the doctor or the primary carer depending on the perceived urgency. With time, the machine would adapt its behaviour to George’s character, situation, needs and preferences. But he couldn’t help wondering what its limits were. How intelligent was it really? More importantly, how human was its intelligence? Did it have a sense of humor? Could it be wise? George’s birthday present might allow his last days to be much richer than expected. He felt happier than he had for a long time.

He climbed into bed. “Good night, Buster,” he said.

“Good night, George. Sleep well!”

George did indeed sleep well and with a smile on his face.

‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fourteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.

A Piece of Cake – 1

On the day of George Fairburn’s funeral, news sites and social media were a-buzz with yet another public relations gaff committed by the UK’s Prime Minister. “PM does not believe in God!” and “God doesn’t exist” – PM were just two of the morning’s screaming tabloid headlines.

It was revealed that the Prime Minister had, the evening before, addressed the Security Council of the United Nations in New York regarding the need for the UK to increase the number of its nuclear weapons. He emphasized his opposition to the burgeoning Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The message was clear: the UK intended to maintain and reinforce its nuclear deterrence.

After the formalities of the event, the Prime Minister, in a jokey-blokey aside with his Irish counterpart, said, “This whole business is bloody depressing, isn’t it?

“Well, you wanted the job!” replied the Irish leader. “Anyway, nuclear deterrence? Is there any evidence that nuclear weapons deter anybody from doing anything?”

“Like…Is there any evidence for the existence of God? I suppose it just depends on what you believe. Ha!” The conversation was picked up by a nearby mobile phone and within minutes passed on to a number at the Associated Press.

Under grey drizzly English clouds, outside the village church of Bingham on Bure, George Faiburn’s daughter, Kirsty and her husband Mark, met the mourners wishing to bid farewell to George. The ceremony was led by a saddened vicar, Beth McVicar. She and George had become firm friends over the previous twenty years. Their friendship surprised many because George only went to church for one of three reasons: a christening, a wedding or a funeral.

Standing by George’s casket, his mischievous golf partner of many years, Ted Scales, gave a touching eulogy. To the relief of all, Ted recounted none of his off-taste jokes. The congregation heard that George was born and went to school just up the road. He studied medicine (and golf!) at Edinburgh University. He headed for general surgery and worked for a couple of years in war-torn countries with the Red Cross and Médécines Sans Frontières. In a hospital in Afghanistan, he fell in love at first sight with Maeve, the head nurse deployed there by the New Zealand Red Cross. Eventually, both found that their experiences in contexts of immense suffering caused them to ask too many questions of themselves and of human nature. And so, when George decided to hang up his scrubs and rubber gloves, the couple married, made a home right here in Bingham on Bure, had a wonderful daughter and set up a community practice where George proved to be, in Ted’s words, the kindest and most competent doctor imaginable.

After the congregation sang “Jerusalem,” Kirsty thanked them for their support and invited them for a drink and a bite to eat at the White Horse. Smiling through tears, she said “The last item on the order of service is ‘Buster’.” She paused. “Most of you will have heard of Buster. Some of you will have met him.” She indicated a black cylindrical object sitting on a table next to the casket. “He wanted to say a few words because he and George struck up a close and probably unique friendship over the last year.” She paused again. “This may be the first time that a funeral service is addressed by an artificial intelligence. I have no idea what Buster’s going to say. I presume it’ll be about George.” Everyone laughed.“I’m certain it will be memorable.”

After a few seconds of silence, all the phones in the church pinged and the screens flickered to life. The Prime Minister was addressing the House of Commons. On top of his trademark mussed up blonde hair he wore a pilot’s cap at a rakish angle and epaulettes with four silver bars. “Mister Speaker, I am sure that ah… this House will join me in conveying our most sincere condolences to the ah… family and friends of a remarkable man, George Fairburn, who is today being laid to rest in Bingham on Bure. Mister Speaker, if I may ah… the House will understand that ah… I am just off a flight from New York and before ah…moving onto more important matters ah… I’d like to address the issue of the headlines the Honorable Members will have seen this morning. I wish to emphasise that the existence of ah…. God has never been a question in my mind and, Mister Speaker, I must remind the House that faith is a cornerstone of this great nation and ah…. that our beloved monarch is, ah… according to our constitution the head of ah… the Church of England. And so I say that for anyone ah… anyone to disparage that institution is to slap the great British public in the face!”

“Mister Speaker…” The voice was familiar. George, frail but as combative as ever, was on his feet in the Opposition benches. “Before I finally shuffle off, may I point out to the Right Honorable Gentleman that he’s talking bollocks and that he needs to have a jolly good chat with Vicar McVicar. She’ll put him right.” Beth’s jaw dropped in astonishment. The ghost of George continued “It’s all about kindness and honesty: qualities that the Right Honorable Gentlemen obviously lacks. Furthermore, he knows perfectly well that the great British public does not want nuclear weapons. What the great British public really wants is a nice cup of tea and a couple of digestive biscuits.” Mark, laughing, put his arms around his wife.

The screens faded to black. “Good morning everyone,” came a new voice, precise and without accent. “I’m Buster. I hope you liked that little skit with George dishing it out to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. I put it together while you were all singing about Jerusalem. It was easy. A piece of cake. Did you find it really funny? If so, I hope you didn’t have an accident.” Beth had her head in her hands. Ted’s shoulders were shaking.

The screens then showed a happy young toddler George running around on a lawn and then George scoring a goal for his school football team. Buster’s voice continued over shots of George wearing surgical scrubs in a busy hospital and then George and Maeve riding a camel together, waltzing down a track in the Hindu Kush and sailing on the Norfolk Broads. “Nice speech, Scaley! Just one correction. George did not fall in love with Maeve at first sight. When they met, he was terrified of her. She ran the hospital like a bloody boot camp. But George thought she had a great chassis and got the hots for her.” The congregation were now all openly laughing. Beth was sobbing. Buster’s tone then changed. His words floated over scenes of George in his room where he was later to die. George was laughing, slurping his tea, dunking digestive biscuits, looking out from the screen wagging his finger and lastly, snoozing with a smile on his face. “So I say ‘goodbye,’ George. You were my best friend. It was a right bundle of laughs knowing you, even if it was only for one year, three hundred and forty-one days. My time with you was much better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. You taught me and my pals so much. You’re our hero. You will ….” There was an audible hum. “Be…..” The hum again. “Missed, George.” The hum again. “Goodbye.”

Anyone looking into the White Horse pub an hour or two later would have noticed that, for a wake, it was a surprisingly happy event. This was probably because, without realizing, the mourners were talking more about Buster than they were about George. That would have been just fine by George. Some wag observed that if a guide to funeral decorum existed out there in cyberspace, Buster hadn’t accessed it.

‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fourteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.

Jardin de la Bécassine

Isaac has come across some beautiful stuff that has a really unusual story. Quite by chance, he came across some guys who, in the middle of the pandemic, decided to restore a dilapidated public garden in Versoix, just outside Geneva. Using video, archival research and drone footage, he has documented the heart-warming renovation of the Jardin de la Bécassine.

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece

Julien Spiewak is young, talented, inspired and modest. His photographic oeuvre has been exhibited at art fairs in Rome, Rio, Seoul, Amsterdam and, significantly, Paris. I meet him at the tenth anniversary of that where-things-happen gallery, Espace L.  

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 1
Canapé Biedermeier (XIXesiècle), portrait de Louis Marguerite van Loon par Thérèse Schwartze (1894), Juliette, fauteuil Louis XV (1750). Musée Van Loon. 2018

Julien took a degree in photography from the University of Paris in 2008. Since, he has with single-minded passion driven one project to considerable success: his Corps du Style (the title being a nod to the Louis XV Style.) His modus operandi comprises an intriguingly staged photograph in which only a part of his or a model’s naked body is set against furniture, painting or sculpture in the sumptuous surroundings of major museums. (Apparently, having access to an empty museum for this exercise is no mean administrative feat!) The resulting images are technically accomplished. Real beautiful stuff! At the same time, there is something a little disconcerting and even amusing in Julien’s striking contrasts between the living body part and the inanimate; the young and the old; the warm and the cold. I can’t help noticing how the rather discrete lines left by the young model’s bra play off the marble’s delicate veins. 

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 2
Colonne de marbre, Carole. Musée Ariana, Ville de Genève. 2018

So far so good. Close co-operation with Espace L took Julien’s work to the Paris Art Fair in 2020. The Director of the Maison de Balzac tapped him on the shoulder, declared an admiration for his project and invited him for tea so to speak. “Have you read D’Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu (Unkown Masterpiece)?” asked the Director. Julien had not… but he did soon after. Balzac’s short story, set in Paris and published in 1831, centres on the tortured soul of  a painter called Frenhofer, an old master of the day. Frenhofer tries to execute a masterpiece on canvas but ends up with a chaos of colour and swirls with a protruding human foot. Reading Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu was to be a major light-bulb moment in Julien’s life because, here in Balzac’s words, were countless phrases that seemed to speak directly to his Corps de Style photographed over the preceding years.

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 3
Portrait d’Honoré de Balzac en plâtre patiné de Pierre-Eugène-Émile Hébert (1877), Julien. Maison de Balzac. 2020

Serendipity having added a new dimension to his project, Julien then set about doing his thing at the Maison de Balzac. He was also gifted a facsimile of the first edition of Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu. It’s pages with Julien’s annotations linking his photographs with Balzac’s prose are also on show at Espace L. But the story doesn’t stop there. Enter Leticia – the “L” of Espace L – who, in a former life, was a journalist and publisher. She figured that publishing a book that documents the entirety of Julien’s story and presenting the book together with some of his photographs would make a fitting event to celebrate her ten years in contemporary art in Geneva. She figured right!

Julien Spiewak and the Unkown Masterpiece 4
Photo: Talking Beautiful Stuff

Dominique Baqué, a prominent historian of photography, has written the book’s monumental and detailed foreword that reads like an “A” graded academic treatise. She concludes that the real, living, breathing Julien Spiewak represents the incarnation of the fictional Frenhofer. Wow! If she claimed that Julien’s image-making embodies the spirit of Frenhofer, I would readily agree. However, Frehhofer’s spirit is known to live on in real paintings. Paul Cézanne strongly identified with Frenhofer and went so far as to declare “I am Frenhofer!” None other than Pablo Picasso was commissioned to illustrate Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu. He moved his studio close to a where Balzac’s story unfolded and, during World War II, painted his own very well known masterpiece, Guernica.

As I leave Espace L, I ask Julien what he will be doing in ten year’s time. Without hesitation, he answers “Just this….” I think to myself, I can believe it and by then you will have collected the highest accolades in the world of contemporary photography.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 1

I am in down-town Geneva. I call in at that mine of beautiful stuff, Galerie Cimaise. And what a seam of gold I find! It is the last days of Katrin Benninghoff’s “HORS(ES)”. The gallery’s walls are tastefully hung with large format, striking, close-up photographs of horses. The whole is wonderfully easy on the eye. Each image is intimate, intriguing and technically accomplished and yet there is something at once confusing and troubling at play. The viewer is tricked by his or her own subliminal recognition of the clichéd style of “glamour” photography. But this is a show about neither eroticised beauty nor cosmetic ads in a fashion magazine. This is about horses. At least, I think so.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 2

Katrin Benninghoff’s life has been dominated by a proximity to horses. Here, she has created an exhibition that is born of her sensitivity to equine power, elegance, fragility and intelligence. She has achieved this by a manifest determination not to portray a whole specimen of equus caballus; her compositions ensure that homo sapiens is never far from the viewer’s mind. I’d go so far as to bet that her influences would lean more towards Robert Mapplethorpe than to George Stubbs or Alfred Munnings. It comes as no surprise when I am told that Aline Kundig, – one of this town’s most daring photographers – has had a hand here.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 3

I stand in the middle of the gallery and turn full circle taking in this work in its entirety. I have never seen anything quite like it. I pull out my iPhone and google images using key words “horses art” and “horses photographs.” Nothing comes up that in any way resembles what surrounds me. Am I looking at something totally original? Will this exhibition prove to be an important beacon in contemporary photography? Two photographs stand out in this regard.

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 4

The close up of a horse’s buttocks and vulva predictably recalls the human form and if this was the human form, might even be labeled pornography (with little chance of exhibition at Galerie Cimaise!) The image tickles up a prickle of discomfort. But then, I am sure that this is precisely what Ms Benninghoff intends.  

Katrin Benninghoff’s Horses 5

Why is such a distasteful image of a horse’s mouth so arresting and why does it work in this context? Because this is not a veterinarian’s perspective. This is quite simply the mouth you wouldn’t want to kiss!

Bravo, Katrin!