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Thursday, November 05, 2009
A tale of three kidnappings
An interesting trial concluded recently.
Twenty-three Americans were [recently] convicted of kidnapping by an Italian court at the end of the first trial anywhere in the world involving the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme for abducting terrorist suspects.Two cheers for Italy! Those who kidnap people, whether they are working with the sanction of their government or not, deserve the full force and opprobrium of the law. However, I am reminded of another, earlier kidnapping that took place in Italy where the outcome has been even less satisfactory.
Do you remember the case of Mordechai Vanunu?
He was an Israeli nuclear worker who decided to alert the World to Israel's atomic weapons programme. In 1986, he flew to the UK with photographs and other evidence of Israel's nuclear status. He presented his evidence to the Sunday Times who took an inordinate amount of time to decide on publication, so he went also to the Sunday Mirror whose proprietor – the late and sorely missed Robert Maxwell - promptly and secretly ratted on him.
This gave Mossad time to mount a form of 'honey trap':
Masquerading as an American tourist called "Cindy", Israeli Mossad agent Cheryl Bentov befriended Vanunu, and on 30 September persuaded him to fly to Rome with her on a holiday. Once in Rome, Mossad agents drugged him and carried him to Israel on a freighter, beginning what was to be more than a decade of solitary confinement in Israeli prisons.Eventually, the Sunday Times published the story, verified additionally by the kidnapping so it was perhaps counterproductive, except in punishing Vanunu. One wonders what the Italian authorities thought at the time and, indeed, what they now think. Did they file charges against the Mossad agents and/or given their success in getting convictions against the CIA agents recently, could they now chase Vanunu's kidnappers once more?
The final kidnapping story concerns an attempt at apprehending the fugitive Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs.
In 1981, some 18 years after he took part in the Great Train Robbery, "the Houdini of the criminal world" was still living [a]t large in Rio, earning a nice living signing autographs and glad-handing visitors from around the globe. There was a kidnap attempt on Biggs, by a group of former military men led by ambitious security expert Patrick King… …in a thoroughly British farce.King and his gang took Biggs to Barbados, expecting a reward from the British police but, because Barbados had no extradition treaty with the United Kingdom Biggs was sent back to Brazil.
So, here we have three kidnappings with different results. The stories serve to illustrate the way in which Israel and the US are cavalier in their behaviour towards suspects and host countries while British privateers are only capable of making a hash of things. The US & Israeli governments were clearly culpable. One wonders what would have happened had King and Co been able to get Biggs to British territory or somewhere with a suitable extradition treaty with Britain. One is tempted to hope that, unlike the US and Israel, the British authorities would have returned Biggs to Brazil on the grounds that the kidnapping was illegal. But that is simply speculation…
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Barrack Obama: the great orator (?)
From time to time, a senior politician puts in an abysmal performance and gets away with ludicrous, or non-existent, answers. George W. Bush was 'a class act' in this respect. I particularly remember watching his televised news conference on 13 April 2004:
American President George Bush grimaced, sighed, rambled and chuckled under his breath on Tuesday, before saying he could not think of a single mistake he had made since the September 11 attacks.Here's how Reuters reported it.
Bush appeared a total buffoon, not for the first time.
Move on five years and we have a new US president who is hailed as a great orator. The contrast with The Shrub is, of course, quite marked but, faced with a similar, very well thought-out, question from the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson, did Obama do much better? I happened to watch the news conference live and I thought that, although he waffled for some time, Obama actually said very little. Here's the devastating question:
A question for you both, if I may. The prime minister has repeatedly blamed the United States of America for causing this [economic] crisis. France and Germany both blame Britain and America for causing this crisis. Who is right? And isn't the debate about that at the heart of the debate about what to do now?A pretty good probe, don't you think? It's clearly a question more of the Have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-yet? type, to which there isn't a diplomatic answer.
Well, here's a link to an amusing transcript of Obama's waffled reply, together with the author's suggestions about what Obama is thinking while he is 'replying'.
This reminds me of nothing so much as George W. Bush at his best. According to many accounts, Obama has been well-received around the World, but the nonsense he talks about Turkey may come back to haunt him and, indeed, us all. Here are some Turkey facts: the country is secular, even though its 72 million inhabitants are more than 90% Muslim. For Obama to talk about the country as being part of the Muslim world is risible and dangerous: there are religious Turkish parties that want Turkey to become a Muslim state and Obama's words will only encourage them.
Several years ago, I had a discussion with a former Turk, now a naturalized Briton; he explained that, with such a large population, an attachment to 'The Nasty Religion', and exaggerated literacy rates, the country would not be a welcome member of the EU for many years. Monsieur Sarkozy and Frau Merkl well-realize this. That's why they oppose Turkish membership. For Obama to push this is a bit much: he doesn't seem to understand Europe at all.
The Turkish army is the one secular institution that 'can be relied upon'. They have made it clear that attempts to Mohammedanise the country would cause a counter-coup. As democrats, we don't want that, do we?
Obama has made a good start; by contrast to his predecessor, he's brilliant, but The Shrub wasn't much competition. If Obama, through ham-fistedness or over-concern for the American view when a guest in Europe, creates a Muslim Trojan horse, there would be the devil to pay.
If you don't understand, keep your trap shut, Barrack; you managed it pretty well with Nick Robinson's question, didn't you?
Sunday, April 05, 2009
Modernizing the Monarchy
I see that the 'The Palace' has been discussing some reforms to the position of the Crown under the 1701 Act of Settlement. One of the Act's provisions is to secure Protestant succession to the throne. Thus, (prospective) monarchs forfeit their hereditary rights should they marry a Roman Catholic, given Rome's strictures about mixed marriages which should, effectively be Catholic.
At the same time, the feudal precedence of male heirs, irrespective of their ages, in the matter of succession to the UK throne, is also under consideration. Public opinion in the UK is very much in favour of both sorts of reform. A BBC poll suggest that
89% of Britons are in favour of equal rights for women andIt appears that the changes, one day, will be made as a package. There is a possibility that the Vatican would lift its strictures about the upbringing of children only in the special case of those born to a reigning, or prospective, British monarch married to a Catholic.
You can read the BBC article here; so far, so good: it all looks pretty sensible, doesn't it? However, contrast this with the following.
A 9-year old Brazilian girl was recently given an abortion after years of abuse by her stepfather. The local archbishop excommunicated those associated with the surgical termination but not the abusing stepfather. Read more here.
Then, there's this:
One of the world's most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting science in his remarks on condom use. It said the Pope's recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences. The Pope had said the "cruel epidemic" should be tackled through abstinence and fidelity rather than condom use.Read the full story here.
Richard Dawkins was reported in the Daily Telegraph as saying 'The Pope is either stupid, ignorant or dim'. Dawkins himself denies that he said that,
I did not say the Pope is "stupid, ignorant or dim" – I hope I would never say anything so repetitive. My exact words were "stupid, ignorant or wicked."That's a bit more like it! (See Comment 3.)
With respect to the changes sought to the 1701 Act of Settlement, even the most committed of feminists would, I suggest, forgo the primacy of the eldest female child if it meant associating the UK more formally with the Vatican's extreme and idiotic misogyny. My vote goes against changes to the status quo until we have a married, female pope.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
The problems with Fitna
Several people have asked me to comment on Geerst Wilders's film Fitna, and the British refusal to allow his attendance at a private screening in the House of Lords. Before I do that, I'd like to say a bit about the position I come from. Firstly, I regard all religions as silly: I object to the way in which most religions are dogmatic about the 'truth' of their faith, in the face of lack of evidence. Secondly, I object to the way in which all religions are afforded an unjustified reverence in modern society. And thirdly, I think that, in addition to being silly, some are quite nasty. These views illuminate my position on Wilders's film.
I have had some experience of Mohammedanism, the religion criticised in Fitna. I was in New York, just a few doors away from Salman Rushdie's publishers, Viking Penguin, when the demonstrations about The Satanic Verses started. As soon as I had the opportunity, I went out and remonstrated with the demonstrators. There was no doubt in my mind about their bloodthirstiness. Later, I tried to attend public readings of the book by prominent Americans, but the crowds in support were too great.
I have to say that I think the US's reaction to the Rushdie affair was rather better than that in the UK: John le Carré's comments, for example, were totally pusillanimous. The general reaction among the British establishment seemed to be encapsulated in an unexpressed hope that either the Mohammedan aggressiveness, or Rushdie himself – or both - would simply go away. This reaction was mistaken. Something much stronger was required.
Over the years, Europe has absorbed large numbers of Mohammedans. Children born here have been indoctrinated and the ever-expanding population now causes growing difficulties for administrations. Governments have either modified laws (e.g. introducing religious protectionism in the UK), or ignored them (e.g. in failing to deal firmly with polygamy, honour killings, and female genital mutilation, again in the UK), in the interests of 'multiculturalism'. The problems implicit, for the essentially liberal West, in Mohammedanism, have been ignored for too long. As a consequence, the difficulty is all the greater now.
Given the cowardice of the main political parties, it now falls to the extremists, such as the British National Party, or 'phobes' such as the UK Independence Party, to speak antagonistically about Mohammedanism. The film Fitna, which I have seen, comes from a Dutch director who appears to have extreme views. However, I think he makes a valid point: Mohammedanism is indubitably a nasty religion; there is no getting away from it.
Fitna is not an artistic masterpiece, but Wilders is rightly critical of the Koran. I have read it and I find much of it distasteful. It may have been a sensible social manual for desert groups more than a thousand years ago but it isn't relevant in the 21st century. An easy example, beside those given by Wilders on violence, is to be found in Sura 4: it is derogatory about women, regarding them as an inferior species. This only goes to confirm the view, gleaned by listening to the experiences of women in 'newly liberated' countries like Iraq, that Mohammedanism is a male-power thing. For that alone, it must be considered nasty: the overthrow of Saddam put the plight of Iraqi women back seventy years.
It is a pity that Wilders has been prevented from appearing in the UK. I think his visit could have done a lot of good. Our politicians are frightened of opposing this nasty group; when Mohammedans like Iqbal Sacranie, who advocated Rushdie's death - "Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him…" – and who is highly critical of homosexuality, find themselves ennobled, it's obvious that we've gone wrong somewhere.
Fitna is rightly critical of Mohammedanism; it is a nasty religion. We shouldn't be shooting the messenger, especially when he's a Netherlands MP, even if we do not agree with him wholeheartedly.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Reflections on the UK's atheist bus campaign
People have had some time to get used to the idea of these buses. The upset, apart from a few dotty complaints, has been very mild. The very gentleness of the message is a point strongly in its favour.
With a campaign like this, it is important to establish in the public's mind that religion and belief are not sacrosanct and that they are fair game. Additionally, having achieved this, the advertisements, light-heartedly and non-dogmatically, make the point that it's quite acceptable to be a free-thinking non-believer.
Too often, religion gets a free ride; it seldom has to be justified. It is simply accepted. The atheist advertisement undermines this mindset both subtly and appropriately; the deliberate use of 'probably' in its explanation and an implicit exhortation to feel neither guilt nor fear contrasts strongly with most religious messages.
Since the Enlightenment, the 'God-given' nature of 'God' and religion has been increasingly questioned; this campaign continues the process. The tube campaign cards, which will appear shortly, also make the point carefully, without being confrontational. No-one could possibly take exception to Douglas Adams's lovely question 'Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?'
Atheists spend too much time rehearsing and repeating the arguments among themselves; seldom do they do something important and strategic. Carefully argued books like Dawkins's The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell challenge the cosy position occupied by faith and religion. Faced with the arguments, many of the religiosi have shifted to ground where they no longer claim the literal truth of their religious books. Instead, they now talk about the metaphorical point of many of the stories. The bus – and other transport - campaign is an important step further forward; it keeps up the pressure on those who would promulgate faith, requiring them to justify themselves more than they've hitherto been expected to do. Watch out for further retreat into the world of metaphor and simile.
A prominent complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority comes from Stephen Green, the national director of Christian Voice. It includes the claim that the advertisements break the ASA’s codes on substantiation and truthfulness.
It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules. There is plenty of evidence for God, from people’s personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.This complaint can only help: either the ASA will rule the objection too trivial to consider – (Ariane Sherine has already checked out the 'probably' with the ASA and, in any case, one would have thought that if 'God' were half the person his acolytes claim, s/he/it could surely take care of him/it/herself) - or Green will be asked to substantiate his assertions. Whichever way things go – and the case being ruled 'beyond an earthly court's jurisdiction' being far more likely – the atheist campaign will benefit from yet more favourable publicity.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
God's wrath against sin
In June 2008, a blog article in The Guardian – arguably the best newspaper website in the blogWorld [I think he means blogcolon(y); see Wikipedia - Ed] - described a UK Christian advertising campaign, including a website reference, to bring religion, unbidden, to non-consenting citizens. The warning article, by Ariane Sherine, included the arresting comment
It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.The slender rocket then carried on to describe one of the features of the associated Christian site, principally God's reaction to sin:
You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits) (Matthew 25: 41).Her article then went on to propose an ingenious riposte. She argued that it would be possible to have free-thinking advertisements on buses, too. She reasoned
…you can buy a "bendy bus streetliner" for only £23,400 for two weeks. Which means that if there are 4,680 atheists reading this and we all contribute £5, it's possible that we can fund a much-needed atheist London bus ad with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life."Her campaign was an outstanding success and the necessary £23,400 was raised very quickly. The money hasn't stopped - if anything the flow has quickened - and currently the total is over £140,000. The buses are to be seen, not only in London, but all around the country. Other countries have followed suit. You can read more here. On the positive side, as Ariane puts it: 'You wait ages for an atheist bus, then 800 come along [all] at once.'
Australia, that bastion of freethinking has, however, banned their light-hearted version. What a shame! I think it worth pointing out that the City of Sydney subsidised a visit by the Pope last July, to the tune of at least $Aus40 million. As an Australian taxpayer, I object; by contrast, the banned Aussie 'Sleep in on Sunday' ads were financed by individual subscription. Grrr!
The UK campaign, having raised so much money, will also be extended in London:
From Monday January 12, 1,000 tube cards will run on London Underground featuring atheist quotations from Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn... alongside the original campaign slogan.These quotes will be amusing, as well as thought-provoking. For example, the Emily Dickinson quote observes that because 'it will never come again is what makes life so sweet'.
An animated version of the slogan will also appear on two large LCD screens on Oxford Street (opposite Bond Street tube station), so that you can see the advert live without having to wait for an atheist bus. And, to thank all donors and show the strength of atheism in the UK, every ABC advertisement will contain the line "This advert was funded by public donations".Ariane's soaring campaign may not change minds, but it may have several important effects. While, to many - atheists included - Richard Dawkins is a pain, he has made atheism more acceptable: someone had to start 'The Emperor has no clothes' ball rolling. The 'Get on with your life' message is likely to make free-thinkers of all persuasions less reluctant to talk about their irreligion: the religiosi ought to be made to feel ashamed of their beliefs; it is not for the rationalists among us to be disconcerted. My personal slogan: Religion: an activity for consenting adults in private sums the matter up and could, perhaps, be considered for inclusion on a bus poster...
This is unlikely to be the end of the dispute. On the one hand, the money is still pouring in; on the other, there have been complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. Stephen Green's complaint (he's the national director of Christian Voice) includes the claim that
the advertisements broke the ASA’s codes on substantiation and truthfulness. “It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules. There is plenty of evidence for God, from people’s personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.”Ho hum! The polite response is to describe this statement as utter balderdash, but other, less polite, expressions also come to mind. Does Stephen Green perhaps lack a few glarneys among his marbles?
The best result might be to insist that religious ads include 'possibly' in their message, to match the 'probably' in atheist ads. A close second would, of course, be a ban on atheist advertisements and on those of a religious nature. This ban would include all signs, having the slightest religious content, outside religious establishments.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Why are Swiss glaciers shrinking?
I mused over an interesting item, this morning.
Swiss glaciers are melting away at an accelerating rate and many will vanish this century if climate projections are correct, two new studies suggest. One assessment found that some 10 cubic km of ice have been lost from 1,500 glaciers over the past nine years. The other study, based on a sample of 30 representative glaciers, indicates the group's members are now losing a metre of thickness every year. Both pieces of work come out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.What will the Global Warming cabal make of it? Rather too much, if I am not mistaken. The graphs at the end of the piece - in which glacial decay since 1880 is shown – would seem to make a powerful argument supporting the whole schmear of Global Warming. Before we jump aboard the bandwagon, lets see if there's another explanation. Could there be something special about Switzerland?
Consider this report:
No charges will be brought over the death of a paralysed rugby player in a Swiss [my italics] assisted suicide clinic… After the accident he tried to kill himself three times. His parents were at his bedside when he died at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland [my italics] on 12 September.Or this one in which a suicide is allegedly actually shown on TV. (As a decent, God-fearing person, I dared not watch it; hence the 'allegedly')
The wife of a man whose assisted suicide was filmed for television has defended a programme about his death. Motor neurone disease sufferer Craig Ewert, 59, from Harrogate, died in Switzerland [my italics], having been helped by the controversial charity Dignitas... Mary Ewert told the Independent newspaper it would help people "face their fears" about death. Sky has also defended the programme.Do you see the link here? The glacier shrinkage is nothing to do with Global Warming: it's a clear warning from God to Switzerland to stop this assisted suicide business (or 'murder' as we evangelicals call it). We carry on mocking God at our peril. Just imagine what he'd do to Airstrip One if we were to consider following Switzerland's example; he might even send us a recession.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Credit where credit isn't due
Curiously, only the other day, I was thinking of one of Private Eye's funniest covers, based on what is arguably Phil’s most famous utterance. The Duke of Edinburgh is saying to Brenda
‘Our children have all done pretty well,' he says.Lo and behold, this great perception has just been trumped by Dick Cheney:
In his first television interview since the presidential election in November, Cheney displayed no regrets and gave no ground to his many critics within America and around the World. He summed up his record by saying: "I think, given the circumstances we've had to deal with, we've done pretty well."You can read the full article here. Here is some more from the sage Cheney
He referred to a comment from Hillary Clinton likening him to the Star Wars character Darth Vader. "I asked my wife about that, if that didn't bother her. She said, no, it humanises you."Some human!
But his lack of any introspection over the decisions made under his watch – in contrast to Bush who recently said he had been sorry about the false intelligence over Iraq – will renew Cheney's reputation as a combat[ive] and uncompromising vice-president.As a point of information, in no meaningful way is this quoted assessment correct. It never was. It's probably best to let one of the former Weapons Inspectors – Scott Ritter - deal with another of Cheney's more extreme, self-serving remarks. This comes from Ritter's Grauniad piece titled 'Dick Cheney's fantasy world'
Cheney defended the invasion and subsequent removal of Saddam from power by noting that "this was a bad actor and the country's better off, the World's better off with Saddam gone". This is the argument of the intellectually feeble. It would be very difficult for anyone to articulate that life today is better in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra or any non-Kurdish city than it was under Saddam. Ask the average Iraqi adult female if she is better off today than she was under Saddam, and outside of a few select areas in Kurdistan, the answer will be a resounding "no".I have been saying this sort of thing for many years, haven't I Myfanwy?
Invading Iraq and removing Saddam, the glue that held that nation together as a secular entity, was the worst action the US could have undertaken for the people of Iraq, the Middle East as a whole and indeed the entire World. For Cheney to articulate otherwise, regardless of his fundamentally flawed argument on WMD, only demonstrates the level to which fantasy has intruded into the mind of the vice-president.Here's the link to Ritter's full article. People who claim that Iraq under the religious nutcases is better than Iraq under Saddam, in virtually any way at all, have serious perception problems. Or is it that they actually enjoy lying?
Friday, December 12, 2008
Away in a manager
I frequently find myself typing the wrong word; most of the time, it involves a transposition of letters or the omission of one. I am beginning to wonder if this example of human frailty is catching.
Given the state of the country's finances, I thought I would consider offering my services to help get Airstrip One out of its current hole. Never having worked in my life, and feeling that simply the addition of my name to someone's letter-heading might well bring about a total reversal of fortune, I therefore determined to find out something about the world of work. Where better to start, I thought, than to look at some job advertisements and see what workers have to do these days. Accordingly, I found myself wondering about the nature of a few jobs to be found in the pages of the highly literate, glitch-free Grauniad.
Being from the leadership class, I eschewed anything that smacked of servility, serfdom or service. (I find Acts of Service totally beneath me.) There were no vacant positions for 'millionaires', or even 'retired millionaires' so I was more or less forced to look for managerial positions.
Here are three examples
The first one is for an Account Manger - Corporate PR. Here's the linkThe list goes on and on. I know it's getting near to Christmas, Myfanwy, but you can have too many mangers, you know.
The De Menezes verdict
I have just heard the verdict of the jury in the De Menezes inquest. This is how the Guardian reports it
The jury at the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes today rejected Scotland Yard's claim that he was lawfully killed as part of an anti-terrorism operation.Not much of a surprise, then, given the coroner's instruction. I wonder what other instructions the jury was given. It looks at first glance as though the jury have returned the most critical verdict available to them
In a series of answers to a list of crucial questions, they dismissed the testimony of the senior firearms officer who shot De Menezes, suggesting they did not believe that he was acting in self defence.But I think the jury were perhaps unfairly - and perhaps illegally - directed. Many years ago, I attended most of the inquest into the 'Friendly Fire' deaths of nine British soldiers killed by US airmen, during the First Gulf War. Here is what I blogged subsequently
After the Gulf War, the inquest on nine British soldiers killed in the notorious friendly fire incident returned a verdict of ‘Unlawful Killing’. Under normal circumstances, such a verdict would result in a criminal prosecution. The report on such a prosecution seems to have escaped me.There was a lot of discussion at the time as to what verdicts were available to the jury; these included 'Unlawful killing, 'An open verdict', 'Accidental death', and 'Lawful killing'. However, it was generally agreed - with the jury being instructed accordingly - that they were completely unfettered and could have devised their own verdict, using their own wording, had they so desired.
When I compare the two situations, it would appear that there was even more culpability in the case of De Menezes than with the 'Friendly Fire' incident: both involved mistakes amounting to more than criminal negligence.
While an open verdict is clearly – and rightly – implicitly critical of members of the Metropolitan Police, it does not carry the force of 'Unlawful killing'.
During the 'Friendly Fire' inquest, Geoffrey Robertson several times blatantly disregarded instructions from the coroner. Perhaps you have to be an eminent human rights barrister to be able to get away with such disobedience; it would have been a powerful blow for British justice had the de Menezes jury been similarly bold.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Do I complain too much?
It occurred to me yesterday that I am being inundated with material, news, and events quite deliberately designed to enrage me. These irritations come from a multitude of sources, so there is quite clearly some sort of conspiracy going on. I hesitate to call it a vendetta but it is a conclusion difficult to escape. Think of it: I am calmness and reason personified, yet I am irresistibly driven to the use of curses and intemperate language, something as far from my normally polite and civil nature as it is possible to get. Consider the following, apparently unrelated, events.
Here is a Grauniad article, titled 'Warning of measles epidemic risk as cases rise sharply'. It then goes on:
Britain is at risk of a serious measles epidemic breaking out in the near future, the Health Protection Agency warned yesterday, after a sharp increase in the number of children infected.This is indubitably attributable to the reduction in uptake of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, due to the autism scare.
Here's the link. The article doesn't point the finger in the right direction: it was press speculation about an unscientific association, of no statistical significance, which led people to withhold vital vaccines from their children. Of course there is no association between autism and the MMR vaccine. On the other hand, the risks of measles are very real: the disease can be fatal and it sometimes, and significantly, causes chronic bronchial problems. So who do we have to blame for this? Virtually all of our sensation-seeking media, led by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press.
Then, a few days ago, I was driving through heavy traffic in Oxford when two motorcycle cops appeared and stopped the smooth flow of traffic. Since, at the time, I was near the John Radcliffe Hospital, I automatically assumed that the holdup was for an ambulance carrying some dangerously ill person, an organ for transplant, or some vital equipment for someone critically ill. Not a bit of it! It was HM the Q and Phil de Greek! Over on the wrong side of the road went their entourage. Much chaos ensued, considerable choler was raised, and many approaches to apoplexy doubtless supervened. It makes it even worse to learn subsequently that Her Maj and her esteemed Orientalist hubby were on their way to lunch at Magdalen College.
'Why can't Royalty sit in traffic jams like the rest of us?' I demand to know. And why can't I have a police escort when I'm in a hurry for my lunch? (Actually I thought I was being thus rewarded once but it transpired that the cop only wanted to give me a speeding ticket. Grrr!)
Then, on to Boots for some boots, but I found none. However, I did come across something very useful to the aged: something that purported to be a 'The Sanctuary Overnight Body Renewal Bag'; I kid you not. I was pleased that the bag wasn't claimed to replace bodies – there didn't seem to be anywhere to dump the old ones, and the bag itself was too small, anyway – so I spoke to an assistant about the remarkable claims made for the product. I am, after all, in serious need of having my body renewed. To have it done overnight would be highly desirable and miraculous indeed.
Alas, I think the claims were hyperbolic (nothing to do with conic sections here) and I shall be referring the matter to the Advertising Standards Authority, not that I think anything will be done. So many lies abound in modern advertising. I blame it all on the adulteration of our beautiful language; it has lost precision at the hands of the opinionated, self-proclaimed brainless, the talentless, tasteless, yet well-known, and TV presenters/newsreaders whose ignorance knows no bounds. Why, the other day I heard a Sky newsreader refer to Sydney as the capital of Australia, Grrr!
Recently, driving out of London, I saw an advertisement for Stella Artois. In case you can't read it properly, it says that Stella Artois contains only four ingredients: hops, malted barley, maize, and water. There is a clear implication that these things are nice, pure, and wholesome and that there are no nasty additives in the mix.
Well for a start, that isn't true: there are bound to be trace amounts of yeast and finings (finings, the clarifying agent, used to be made out of ground fish-heads), plus a few other things used during the production process – catalysts perhaps.
Then, seeing that the operative word is 'contains', there are the various fermentation products. The desirable one is ethanol – why not mention that? – but, from memory, there will be measurable amounts of other products ('chemicals'), including methanol, higher alcohol homologues, esters, and benzene; they are all clearly undesirable.
This is such a misleading advertisement that it should be immediately withdrawn. The company should be fined heavily and forced to display 'Sorry' advertisements of the same size and number. These advertisements should now include the same advertisement, suitably modified to mention the twenty odd real ingredients, rather than the 'harmless' four.
It should also be prominently endorsed 'We are lying bastards'.
I asked, at the outset, if I complain too much. Well, since I wrote the Stella piece, deriving it from a draft letter I never sent to the Advertising Standards Authority, I have answered my own question: I didn't send the letter so I don't complain enough.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Poetry and children
The position of Poet Laureate becomes vacant in May and, after a moment or two of soul-searching, I have decided not to apply. To those among my reader (sic) who may feel that my serious – if brief - contemplation smacks of excessive earnestness, I can only say 'keep reading'.
In a delightful consideration of several possible candidates, Mark Lawson writes in the Guardian
Sweating slightly under television lights, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Wendy Cope and Pam Ayres perform in turn a new sonnet while wearing T-shirts printed with the phone number we dial to vote for them. Raising with a flourish a card marked with the figure 4, Andrew Motion, the chief judge, has to raise his voice above the booing of the studio audience as he drawls: "Your second sestina last week was magic, Seamus. But though you won the Nobel, your sonnet rang no bells with me!"Oh to have someone of Larkin's 'character' among the candidates! I still remember thrilling to hearing one of Larkin's best know poems - 'This be the verse' - for the first time, recited by my son
They f*** you up, your mum and dad.You can read the full, unexpurgated version here. En passant, I think it would also be nice to consider the perceptive soul who wrote
An author had an asterisk;as a candidate. Mind you, when I think about it, I'm not quite sure how useful an asterisk might be in the bedroom; a bit like toast-crumbs, I'd have thought.
So who might we choose? Given Larkin's non-availability – he's dead - how about Roger McGough? Here's some of his work, very definitely in Larkin's vein. It's called 'Pay-back time'
O Lord, let me be a burden on my childrenThe poem concludes
It's been a blessing watching them developYou can read the full version here, at the bottom of the web page.
I write without apprehension; it's unlikely that my children will read this, so I'll make a point of emailing it to them. I want them to read it. I want to make sure the whippersnappers, and their children, have enough money saved up for when I need my Stannah stairlifts in all their houses - in sixty years or so.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
A few days ago, I awoke and, as is my habit, turned on Radio 4 expecting to hear the usual perceptive and adroit analyses of World events. My ears – how appropriately – were assailed with an expression of birthday greetings to HRH (I'm pretty sure it wasn't 'HMS') Prince of Wales. This was followed by a mellifluous rendering of our dirge-like National Anthem. Americans would, of course, recognise the tune as 'My country 'tis of thee'.
Despite the terrible goings on in the World, the Beeb still has a deep understanding of the relative importance of things. I mean, who wants to hear about the state of the economy or problems in The Congo when we can be reminded of the birthday of the loveable Prince Charles? Who, under the circumstances, (apart from the clinically sane P. Hitchens) can claim that the Beeb displays socialist tendencies or republican sympathies when they can lead with such important news?
But, whoever it's played for, The Airstrip One piece is not of the first water. Nevertheless, it is superb musically compared to many other national tunes. When, occasionally, I watch a Formula One race, I hope against any victory involving anything (Ferrari), or anyone (Trulli, Fisichella), Italian. This is nothing to do with patriotism on my part; it is to do with my musical soul. The Italian anthem is a dreadful piece. To help you understand my point, listen to this melody sung by a talented choir, on a joyous sporting occasion, here.
The music of the Italian National Anthem was composed in 1847 by Michele Novaro, to words by the young poet, Goffredo Mameli. This song, known as L'Inno di Mameli has been the national anthem of the Republic of Italy only since 1948. How on earth can the country of Verdi, Vivaldi, and Rossini live with something so awful? They could easily use the Grand March from Aida, for example. They might have to write new words, but that'd be a small price to pay…
I'd be the first to admit that I haven't chosen an ideal rendering, so compare it with a similarly dire performance of the German National Hymn – composed by Josef Haydn - and the difference in class is immediately apparent, despite the out-of-tune singing.
The ideal (musical) F1 result would be with a German driver in a German car - that way we'd get the German National Anthem once and alone. It isn't clear who'll be driving for whom next year. There used to be some musical consolation when Michael Schumacher won so regularly. But even that couldn't make up for having to listen to Novaro's & Mamelli's ghastly pomp (for Ferrari).
Finally, to give you an opportunity properly to appreciate Haydn's artistry, here's a string quartet version. It's a long way from 'Glorious things of thee are spoken', isn't it? Doesn't it help to have music written by a real composer, though?
Sunday, November 23, 2008
One man's propaganda…
A few weeks ago, I made one of my biennial trips from Bagshot to the delightful city of Oxford. The purpose of my visit was either to look up some obscure management (management – moi?) reference, to prepare for an audience with The Master, or to have a haircut. And - d'you know - I can't remember which of those it was.
But that is of no matter because, while walking up St Giles, I bumped into a familiar-looking individual whose name I could not immediately place. (You have to understand that, because Oxford is The Centre of The Known Universe, everyone passes through the place several times in a normal lifetime (or - if they have the slightest measure of distinction or discrimination - more frequently)).
It was hardly surprising that I failed to identify him: it was the renowned Peter Perceptive-Person but he and Oxford are not readily associated. Fortuitously, yesterday I listened to Radio 4's The News Quiz and learnt from it that PPP had been running down this amusing programme.
Here's what Peter Perceptive-Person wrote in his blog, in a 'piece' (that's a very flattering description for, what is actually, an ill-structured rant) titled God, schools and television. Here is a small extract - although, what the implied link between 'schools' and 'television' is, PPP fails to tell us - to give you the flavour of one of the better-considered arguments:
Amid the necessary rage over the Ross-Brand affair at the BBC, it is often said that the Corporation still produces a lot of high-quality material alongside the Leftist propaganda and the low-brow dross. I’m not so sure of this.I am pleased to see that The News Quiz team take this absurd generalisation as an endorsement of their programme. In their usual fashion, they poke fun at all and sundry, including those noted right-wing fanatics: Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, and Liam Byrne, the new Cabinet Office Minister. Quite right, Peter Perceptive-Person; such 'appalling, shameless and unchecked Leftist propaganda' ought not to be permitted on the airwaves.
This Peter Perceptive-Person is, in fact, Peter Hitchens of The Mail on Sunday. He needs to learn a thing or two so, while I'm currently inclined towards advice rather than admonition, let me offer some help to PPP to improve the quality of his journalism. (More examples of P. Hitchens object lessons are to be found here.)
Now, Peter: firstly, if you are an alleged journalist and you have a blog, make sure that both the writing and arguments in the blog are as lucid, well-researched, and as detailed as those you include in your 'proper' newspaper articles. (This advice presumes, hopefully, that the two types are, in practice, distinguishable.)
Finally, Peter, I think you ought to consider the possibility that the political axis in this country has moved a long way to the right since the days of Harold 'Socialist' MacMillan, yet you have not noticed. It is a time-honoured habit of people with extremist opinions, particularly those on the right, to accuse almost everybody else of being an extremist, but on the other wing. If you must attempt to promulgate your views to the unthinking, use evidence rather than supposition, argument rather than dogma, and objective statements rather personal assertions. Your work may benefit.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Do finance and chess mix?
Well, yes, if you get your metaphors correct…
I was reading an article about the forthcoming UK budget, this morning, by the Grauniad's political editor Patrick Wintour. I wasn't so much taken with his arguments about the economy as with his cavalier use of metaphor, tantamount to publicising his own ignorance of sporting terminology. Here's how the article opens
The run-up to any budget, or indeed the lesser pre-budget report, is a game of cat and mouse in which the government tries to massage public expectations, and keep the opposition guessing.Now, if anyone in the government is 'claiming checkmate', then they are wrong to do so, too, but I see no sign of that. 'Checkmate' means that the game is over – it comes from the Persian Shāh māt (the King is defeated) - and that one side has won. Surely that isn't what Wintour means: the game is very far from being over.
I wonder if, before I explain which chess term Wintour should have used, he would be likely, now challenged, to offer, instead, the less final notion that the government has the opposition 'on the back foot'. Here, I must revisit another of my strictures about sporting terminology: the expression is invariably used to mean 'on the defensive', assuming that no attacking strokes are made while 'on the back foot'. This isn't true, as we shall see.
(And in case you're totally nonplussed by the 'foot' expressions, 'on the front foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the front foot. Similarly, 'on the back foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the back foot. This, of course, excludes the many strokes involving weight transfer.
In cricket, defensive strokes are actually played on either foot. One defends on the front foot to balls that are well pitched up, i.e. that strike the ground close to the batsman. One usually plays on the back foot to short-pitched balls. The ideal ball, from the bowler's point of view, leaves the batsman not knowing whether to play forward or back. I'm glad we've got that straight.)
Just to give you a flavour of the attacking strokes played off the back foot, here are a few from memory: the glance, the square cut, the late cut, the fine cut (nothing to do with marmalade) and leg glances of all descriptions (except those applying to well-turned ankles). Even if we concede that there are relatively few attacking back foot shots, those I have listed surely demolish the notion that 'on the back foot' means defensively. At the very best, the expression should mean 'having reduced options' but I see very little sign of that in the many examples I have looked at.
Here's where I step out to the crease – not 'up to the plate' (aargh!) – and put Wintour right. He should have written: '…the government has the opposition in zugswang.'
Zugswang means that the player to move has no valid option that will not make his position worse. Whether you are right or wrong in your analysis, Wintour, old fruit, please understand terms properly before you use them; I'm not always going to be around to put you straight.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Strictly for elephants
It seems two hundred years since last I attended Dotheboys Hall. Actually it was more like one hundred and sixty. Ah well: how time drags… Among the many useful things I learnt – and here I don't really count formal lessons – were to smoke a cigarette smokelessly, and to spend time in the local pub, during school time, without making pub staff and teachers suspicious.
But I do not rate these 'aping the grown ups' activities highly; in no way did they add to my adult enjoyment. There were, though, three things that stick in my mind as having been worthwhile. The first was to play a reasonable hand of contract bridge, it being one of the few card games requiring skill, that can be enjoyed whether you win or lose. The second was to play a pretty fierce game of chess, and the third was to be able to waltz, quickstep, and foxtrot to a high standard. You see, in my young day, we actually enjoyed holding someone of the opposite sex closely, while moving elegantly together. For the last fifty years, dancing has been carried out in lines, or as far from your partner as possible. This seems a pretty pointless exercise when licensed cuddling was once available. Is romance totally dead?
I have seen occasional snippets of Strictly Come Dancing, a programme, as I understand it, that takes 'celebrities', matches them with professional dancers, and expects them to dance competitively against other, similar couples, on a knock-out basis. Many of the dances hark back to an earlier, more graceful time and there is some elegant and accomplished dancing indeed. A further 'nuance' is that, although the dancing is assessed and marked by a panel of professional dancers, the decision on who stays in and who is eliminated is determined by the vote of the home audience.
One might expect the audience to follow the professional judges, but it doesn't seem to work like that. John Sergeant, an amusing and erudite journalist is not, apparently, built to be a ballroom dancer, yet the audience seems to like him enough to prefer him to people with genuine skill, and aesthetic appeal.
He's been called a "dancing pig" and a "ballroom chancer" whose moves are "like seeing your grandad give a turn every Saturday night", and so far John Sergeant has borne it all with irrepressible good humour and a clodhopping clack of his Cuban heels.I wonder why audiences do this sort of thing. Is there an element of encouraging the less talented? One can read more about L'affaire Sergeant here.
Everyone knows that the first Strictly Come Dancing, in 2004, was deservedly won by Natasha Kaplinsky. This win did no harm at all to her career, although it caused other problems… It is less well known that Australian TV immediately copied the format and called it Dancing with the Stars. I confess to watching a few episodes – being Down Under at the time - having been surprised at the inclusion of Pauline Hanson, a right-wing Aussie politician, best summed up as being a rather less graceful, less charming version of the scintillating Sarah Palin. She had once held a parliamentary seat - Oxley - for a short time, and was promptly dubbed, by some erudite Aussie wag, 'The Oxley Moron'. Shortly afterwards, she was jailed for some irregularity. Oh dear! She never recovered.
Anyway, she progressed steadily through the competition, displacing many others with more grace, talent, and charm, until she reached the final. One wondered whether or not she would end up winning, either due to her political appeal, or to the perverse, larrikin, convention-adverse nature of the average Australian. In the event, she lost and (I think) a young man of considerable talent, whose name escapes me, deservedly prevailed.
I do not wish to draw parallels between John Sergeant and Pauline Hanson, but might there be a similar audience belief in supporting the underdog? Everyone, including, I suspect, the audience that voted for the Oxley Moron, could hardly have thought her a good dancer. Did they want to humiliate her, poke fun at the judges, or simply demonstrate their independence?
We shall have to see what happens in the end. Will genuine ability win through or will the engaging charm and wit of John Sergeant overcome the British audience's supposed love of fair play? I can hardly wait to read about it.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
The tragedy of Baby P
Among all the nonsense that has been talked about the sad case of baby P, here's one article that gets a lot of it right. However Simon Jenkins, writing in the Grauniad dated 14 November, still manages to miss parts of the bigger picture
How we all hate the nanny state - until nanny takes a day off. Then we want nannies galore. We want nannies with whips, nannies with locks, keys and public inquiries. Labour, Liberal or Tory nannies are suddenly the order of the day. The response to the case of 17-month-old Baby P has been a classic of incoherent social comment. The media, which normally excoriates every case of local authority meddling and red tape, has torn into Haringey council for failing to spot a dreadful case of child abuse. Every paper salivated over the most ghoulish photographs.Spot on, so far Simon, but then you have to spoil it by having an irrelevant – and wrong – rant about social workers using computers
Panorama next Monday has surveyed children's departments across Britain. It reaches the grim conclusion that many social workers spend 60% of their time in front of computer screens, time that should be spent with families. Like policemen who sit in cars, it is the surest way to fail a service.This is total nonsense. So that there is a continuous record of contact with the client family, this contact, and the associated comments, have to be documented. Computers provide the best method of compiling a complete record of contact and assessment.
In his final paragraph, Jenkins implicitly acknowledges this, but does not draw the obvious conclusion
In personal services there is never a substitute for a well-trained professional in continuous contact with a problem client. Anything that deflects attention from that central purpose will merely ensure that more children suffer.Quite right! But hold hard: the only constant point is the child at risk; the reality of social work, as with any occupation, is that staff move, move round, get promoted, or simply give up. The next social worker needs to have a record of 'work in progress', to avoid visiting a client cluelessly. While it is ideal to have 'a well-trained professional in continuous contact with a problem client', that just isn't possible for the reasons given. Further, the standard of training seems to have fallen over the years, 'continuous contact' is impossible given the vast size of an individual social worker's caseload, and investment in local authority social services is totally inadequate. The flight of highly qualified staff, aware that the job has become impossible, exacerbates the problem.
Children 's Departments in 1948 were founded in part in response to a child care scandal. (I.I.r.r., a child was treated like an animal and kept in a chicken coop.) Under the 1948 Children Act, it became the duty of a local authority to 'receive the child into care' in cases of abuse or neglect. Local authorities gained powers to investigate neglect in 1952, and there have been many changes since, including the merging of children's departments with other social services. This resulted in the dilution of the most highly qualified staff - Child Care Officers – with an influx of barely qualified 'social workers' from other disciplines. Social Services never recovered.
Is it, perhaps, time to consider separating out the Child Care function, once more, and this time treating and funding it properly?
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
The end of an era in the USA
I have followed enough US elections to recognize this one as something quite momentous. Others have commented about the end of the racism era - I'm not sure they're right, though – but there's another massive change, too. If we compare him to much-loved presidents like Nixon (crooked), Carter (disengaged), Reagan (vacuous), Clinton (impractical), George Bush Snr, (patrician), and The Shrub (chump), Obama presents an extraordinary contrast.
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to be in St Paul's Cathedral to hear Martin Luther King give (one of) his 'I have a dream' speeches. I remember wondering if I would live to see his dream come true. Now that it has, I can only welcome the return of American good sense: electing a person for his character, thoughtfulness, and judgement, rather than for his amiableness (by all accounts, The Shrub is an amiable chump). Nevertheless, I wonder why it is that so many Americans are frightened of knowledge and would rather vote for a 'patriot' (McCain) or 'an amiable chump' than someone as clearly able as Kerry or so engaging as Obama.
There were many reasons for Obama's success; some of it, at least, is attributable to humour. Here's an extract from How satire changed the course of history
Then, something truly astonishing occurred. Tina Fey, the lantern-jawed alumnus of Saturday Night Live, and creator of the critically esteemed sitcom 30 Rock, made a return visit to Saturday Night Live and began doing a dead-on impersonation of McCain's gee-whiz, aw-shucks running mate, Sarah Palin. Her send-up of the intellectually anaemic Alaskan was seen by countless millions on YouTube and soon became the No1 topic of conversation in AmericaOne always wondered why Bush and his crew hadn't been laughed out of office long ago. However, the choice of Sarah Palin, in an attempt to appeal to the 'knowledge is a dirty word' crew, may ultimately have backfired. Read this article to get the long list of other, unconventional, and mostly satirical/ironic big guns that brought about the Republican debacle.
I am aware of a few only: several times I watched Obama being interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show before a very partisan, supportive audience. Obama came across as likeable, amiable, thoughtful, and highly intelligent. He was the first American politician I had heard, during the campaign, refer to the need for good judgement. Remarkable.
To return to the humorous and ironic* nature of recent events, here are some suggestions how The Shrub might now be gainfully employed. Perhaps I'd prefer if the choice were to be appropriately adapted from One Hundred Uses for a Dead Cat, though.
*And may we please hear less about Americans not understanding irony? Here's a brilliant article from The Onion: Struggling Lower-Class Still Unsure How Best To F*** Selves With Vote
If that isn't irony, my name's not Dick Cheney.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Sidney Nolan in Melbourne
Today, I went to the Ian Potter gallery, part of the National Gallery of Victoria. I have always regarded Victoria's galleries as among the best in Australia and this Nolan exhibition keeps, or perhaps even lifts, the standard. It is all the more surprising to find that the curator of this fine exhibition is Barry Pearce, Head Curator Art Gallery of New South Wales. One mustn't hold this against him but, the last time I looked, the NSW gallery was but a pale shadow of its Melbourne counterpart(s). Perhaps Pearce comes to Melbourne to do his real work.
The exhibition opened only a few days ago. It is the first retrospective since Nolan's death in 1992. I heard about it quite fortuitously on ABC Classic FM (no relation to the insipid version with partly the same name in the UK). Nolan is not an artist with whom I've been over familiar but he combines elements of Spencer and Bacon with what is typically Australian rawness thrown in. Some of his best work is driven by constructive rages: when one of his rich relatives refused him a small loan - about 25 pounds - Nolan reacted by painting furiously. Some of his greatest works came from his aggression. This aggression is apparent in one of his self portraits ('Self Portrait 1943') - one wouldn't want to meet such a man in such a rage, although he comes over very rationally in recorded conversation. But he was also influenced by Rimbaud and Ned Kelly, a strange combination. He saw much of himself in these strange, rebellious characters. There were the early times in Victoria - along the Goulburn Valley, for example - that illuminated perhaps his greatest work: Riverbend I (1964-5) & II, a virtually identical piece. The spectre of Ned Kelly is there, too.
These two great works remind me of nothing so much as Monet's massive water lily painting that sweeps across a wall in New York's gorgeous MOMA. It is in the hanging of Nolan's exquisite work that one finds the very best of a brilliantly-curated exhibition. These two long and dramatic works, sitting opposite each other at the insides of a nearly circular display space, are the highlight of the exhibition. While I would not try to steal them, given the opportunity, I wouldn't say 'No' to either (or both) of them as presents. I'd have to move to a bigger house, though.
Among those I'd make off with would be one of the most representational: one of the views of the unyielding red Australian landscape in Central Australia. I might also go for one of the mine paintings e.g. 'Pretty Polly Mine', or 'The Temptation of St Thomas', an amusing picture of St Thomas being 'tempted' in an Australian landscape, with the devil falling to earth, defeated. One is also aware of the hand of God in one corner... Nolan never quite shuffled off his Catholicism. Looking at his artistic output, the exhibition brilliantly shows Nolan's journey from abstraction, through representation and then back to abstraction again, painting some remarkable scenes in China ('White swans flying over the Karokoram range') and Antartica ('Mt Erebus'). I was slightly surprised not to see his arrestingly naive painting 'Footballer', though.
Nolan's paintings seldom give one pleasure but they do evoke admiration. It was one or two lucky breaks that led to Nolan's recognition outside Australia, otherwise he might have stayed 'just another Victorian painter', of whom there are so many, that just do not travel.
One of his breaks came in the 1970s, when Kenneth Clark was passing through Melbourne on his way to give a talk. He chanced upon one of Nolan's works: 'Old dog mine' or somesuch. Clark couldn't control his excitement, found out Nolan's address and had a difficult bargaining session with one of Nolan's wives - Cynthia, I think - but came away with a work that was to lead to Nolan's fame in Europe and his moving to England/Wales virtually permanently. I shall be looking at Clark's Civilisation and at several Gombrich works to see what they said 'definitively'.
The minor downside is some of the spelling in the descriptions e.g. 'concieved' instead of 'conceived' and 'Ripoin' paint instead of 'Ripolin'. At times, I simply abandoned reading the displays and relied, instead, on the excellent audio guide, on an iPod, of all things - not very reliable, I hear. Such criticisms are minor indeed.
If there is one thing that stands out as a memory of this exhibition, it's the sensation of having seen a masterpiece; but the masterpiece is the exhibition itself: a retrospective of a prolific, painterly painter without a single false note, with the solitary exception of the very early 'Head of Rimbaud', which itself is of historical interest. According to Pearce, Nolan was apt to insinuate newer paintings inappropriately into exhibitions while he was alive. However, at the NGV Potter Gallery, there is nothing substandard about the works nor their presentation. While I would never claim Nolan as my favourite artist, I might well claim that this exhibition is the best I've seen. Mind you, I have yet to see the Russian exhibition at London's RA so I must hurry back to find out, mustn't I?
At least one authority, whose name escapes me, suggests that Nolan's later works, using spray paint, are 'No good.' Pearce never says that explicitly, neither in his notes, nor in his interviews but, given that the latest work exhibited is dated 1986, and that Nolan went on painting prolifically until 1992, the year of his death, one has to draw the conclusion that the unknown critic may have been right.
It isn't very often that I find myself describing an artistic event I have attended. Still less do I wholeheartedly recommend one. I do so in this case; it's well worth the fifteen bucks entrance fee. If you're in Melbourne, or within 1000 km, get yourself there but allow plenty of time and use the audio tour with its extensive additional information, including video. You won't regret it.
[Edited and expanded on 27 & 29 February]
Labels: "Sidney Nolan" Melbourne Art NGV
Monday, December 31, 2007
On getting 'it' right
During the nineteen forties, India was given its independence; its constitution was secular. Meanwhile, the dual Pakistan states were created for Muslims. At the time, this partition was seen as a wise move in that it reduced the terrible bloodshed at the time. Until recently, despite the rise of India's BJP, an aggressively conservative, religious party, I would have been inclined to agree that partition was, on the whole, a fine piece of judgement, even though some of the detail, e.g. Kashmir, may not have been handled correctly at the time.
Faced with the current deteriorating situation in Pakistan, one wonders whether, after all, it might have been better to stamp on religion and encourage secularism in a larger India, without a separate Pakistan. (I mean, what civilised country would, these days, call a major/capital city after a religion? Well, I suppose there's Stalingrad, now Volgograd, and Leningrad, now Sankt Petersburg, but Islamabad…What sort of nonsense is that?)
Whether or not partition was a mistake, it would now indubitably be better for the West to be dealing with a unified, albeit fractious, monolithic India, than with two nuclear-armed countries, where one at least is full of antipathetic religious zeal.
As the Irishman said, 'I wouldn't start from here, if I were you'. Quite! So how did we get here?
Many years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary – I guess it was in the late seventies or early eighties - about Afghanistan under Najibullah, supported by the Russians. I wish I could remember more but the part that made the biggest impression was seeing girls going to their new school and sitting down learning sensible things. Unsurprising to us, but then, in an Islamic country, that was absolutely unacceptable. In researching this piece, to help my memory, I read several articles that indicated that Afghanistan was moving in a democratic direction under Najibullah.
If there's one thing that Communist countries have a name for, it's for educating their children, both boys and girls. And they do it very, very well. Their literacy rates are excellent. The UK currently has many examples of these people, brought up under Communism, from behind the former Iron Curtain. Their countries having joined the EU, these young people have come here to work. (And I'm not talking about legendary Polish plumbers but about Slovenians, Slovakians, Czechs, Estonian and Lithuanians.) They work as opticians, receptionists, shop assistants, even as wine waiters. They are competent, well-educated, polite, and they have the most beguiling accents.
Faced with a Communist regime running an Islamic country, what's the best thing to do? Apart from cheer, that is. All you have to do is wait: no need for invasions or anything of that sort. You simply wait for education to do its work, and for the educated masses to dump the religious straitjacket, ditch the Communism and join the consumer society. It's easy when you think about it. The film I saw was optimistic about Afghanistan, despite its troubled history.
So, what did the Americans do? They provided the religious fundamentalists, the Mujahideen, with arms and support with a view to expelling the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Such strategic naivety!
What on Earth could have motivated such a crazy strategy? All they had to do instead was sit back and wait, perhaps without even providing the Afghani government with discreet material help.
America is a country where Communism, Socialism and even Atheism are dirty words. The fear of egalitarianism is fostered by the very rich who have so much to lose. Socialism can't be allowed to work anywhere in the World because people might want it in the US. This explains why America is so keen to stamp on a less tribal, less religious, gender-equal Afghanistan. D'you know, I once heard a US politician go unchallenged on UK TV when he claimed that there had never been a democratically elected Communist government in any country in the World. I was thinking of Chile… The lie should have been rammed down his throat with a remark such as: 'No democratically elected Communist government has ever survived naked political interference from the US.'
So this is what brought the Taliban and Al Qaeda, morphing from the Mujahideen, to power in Afghanistan. This is what led to 11/9 and other horrors. Here we have two Islamic states next door to each other, with their contiguous mountain areas and backward tribes. There is a vast area where it is a crime for a woman to be unveiled, and where the highest forms of excellence are to memorise the Koran and/or to die fighting in the name of Allah. Total effing nonsense.
Not content with creating a monster in a misjudgement about the nature of 'the World-wide Communist conspiracy', (e.g. Vietnam: more Nationalist than Communist), the US finds itself faced with a religious hydra, that it has created, that suddenly turns its rage on America itself. To put it down effectively in its homeland, Afghanistan, it was essential to have done something about the adjacent tribal areas of Pakistan but this was unacceptable, if not impossible. To compound the error, they attack Iraq, a sophisticated state where religion was discouraged, probably on the way to democracy given some help, as a method of dealing with terrorism. At the time, there was no anti-Western terrorism in Iraq. There is now, though. It takes spectacular incompetence to create terrorism where there is none; step forward the entire US administration. The best we can now hope for Iraq is that it will emerge as a semi-democratic theocracy.
Not only was the invasion of Iraq a catastrophic adventure in its own right, it meant taking the eye off Afghanistan. Having created the Afghanistan problem in the first place, the administration virtually abandons it midway through an attempt at reform. Here's a short piece about the situation in Afghanistan. It begins
After two years in which the violence in Afghanistan has become worse, it is hard to see signs of hope in 2008.Is it likely that Afghanistan will survive as a democracy of any sort? Currently unthinkable without an occupation force five or ten times its current size. Here's Paddy Ashdown:
He comes with experience from a similar role in Bosnia, but Afghanistan is a far larger task as he acknowledged recently, going as far as saying, "We have lost and success is unlikely".And what about Pakistan? A basket case I fear. A nineteen year-old, Oxford-educated student in line for PM? Absolute lunacy.
It was my intention to start this year-end round-up of the World situation with a quote from Winston Churchill:
Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities.Apposite enough, but this time they've painted themselves so far into a corner that it's difficult to know what 'The Right Thing' is. It was possible once, but that was in Najibullah's time.
I was going to conclude with another quote, this time from Eisenhower:
Only Americans can hurt America.Quite right, Ike, but they can do an awful lot of harm to the rest of us, too...
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Christopher Hitchens, in his atheistic perambulations around US chat shows, news studios, and other modern versions of the bear pit, has issued the following challenge to all and sundry: "Can you name me a good action done or a good thing done by a believer that couldn't have been said or done by a non-believer?"
As I write this, I'm just hearing that Tony Bliar has, at last, been received into the Roman Catholic Church. This gives me the opportunity to let everyone know that, to compensate, I've just started to worship Satan (Have I got that right? I have such poor vision these days that I may have committed a typo. I was also reading recently that 'Satan' is an anagram of 'Santa'). Now, where was I?
I wonder if we could apply Hitch's test, suitably modified, to Blair's behaviour. We should ask "Do you think that Blair's behaviour exhibited, in any way, the sort of thing you couldn't find in a non-believer?' I'm thinking particularly of his passing off the Iraq decision as something that could only be judged by god.
Yes, I think that is something that only a believer could do: completely avoid responsibility by arrogating a vital matter to 'god'. A non-believer would have put such a decision down to his/her own poor judgement – no hiding in anyone else's beard/church/cloud cuckoo land – and move on, trying to dodge the brickbats from people (like me) who predicted the debacle.
So good luck in your new religious home, Tony Bliar. I wonder how you'll cope with the legacy of your worthwhile achievements: support for abortion and stem cell research for a start. Then there's the crap you'll be letting yourself in for, beside virgin birth, the trinity and resurrection that you're already stuck with. Transubstantiation, eh? No women priests; no female popes… I hope you get a nice, cheap indulgence. Cheaper than a peerage, I'll bet. Don't you still wish you had Campbell to tell Ratzinger that you don't (really) do god?
Finally, here's someone else with something to say about the Church of Rome. Click here. (Sound needed.)
Hmm, I think I may well lose my entry on the list of UK 'God Blogs' for this little bit of petulance…
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Creationism comes to Britain
I was astounded to read this in today's Observer.
The latest salvo in creationism's increasingly ferocious battle with evolution is about to be fired in Lancashire. Not in a fiery sermon preached from the pulpit, but in the form of a giant Christian theme park that will champion the book of Genesis and make a multi-media case that God created the world in seven days.We mustn't assume that nonsense like this is confined to the US.
Peter Jones, one of the Lancashire theme park's trustees, said the emphasis would be on multimedia rather than the costume re-enactments of famous biblical scenes favoured at Holy Land [Experience]...We all know, don't we, that Peter Vardy has partly financed a city academy that teaches Creationism. The majority of the money comes from the UK taxpayer. Aaargh!
I guess that normal planning rules would apply and that the planning application would be decided on the impact of the development on the area. However, I was pleased to read this bit.
The theme park's anti-evolution bias and its emphasis on Genesis has raised eyebrows among planning officials, according to Jones, who originally wanted to build the park at the site of an old B&Q store but was refused permission by the council.The buggers will keep trying though. They're bound to find somewhere they can put it.
'Wigan council slammed the door in our faces. You mention the C [Christian] word, and people don't want to know,' Jones said.Well that's an interesting comment, isn't it? In this case, the aversion is bugger all to do with Christianity. People don't want to know because Creationism is still regarded as lunacy in the UK. But for how much longer…?
More about bishops
A few days ago – well, 10th December to be precise – I was bemoaning the fact that Fresno had elected to secede from the Episcopalian church on the grounds that the established church was too tolerant of homosexuality. Well, Rowan Williams is standing firm, at last. This is from The Grauniad
The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican communion, yesterday condemned attempts by conservative church leaders to undermine the US Episcopal Church for its support for gay rights and effectively refused calls to disinvite American bishops from next year's Lambeth conference of all the church's bishops.I have often argued that those who oppose progress are inconsistent in that they no longer, for example, permit the selling of family members into slavery (Exodus 21:7), or make slaves of citizens bought from neighbouring countries (Leviticus 25:4), or even kill people who work on The Sabbath (Exodus 35:2). If it's possible to dump some previously acceptable practices, going against biblical teaching, why all the fuss about homosexuality? It isn't as though being gay is implicitly (or explicitly, come to that) mandated for church membership. The bigots are not expected to be gay themselves, merely to accept it in others.
Apparently, the ordination of women presents further difficulty. Well, if we can let men box, then women should be allowed to do so, too. Similarly, if men are allowed to become bishops, then so should women; they should be eligible for the position of pope, too. Mind you, I'm not sure that I approve of popes and bishops per se but it's only when you've removed the sex restriction that one should think of a ban.
It is surprising that it has taken so long for this split to come about. Rowan Williams first tried very hard to persuade the liberals to back down. He's now on a loser in confronting the secessionists; he'd be better off kicking them out and controlling the schism that way. In fact, he should have done it years ago. None of his fence-mending has worked. All we've had is the sorry spectacle of the Archbishop persuading a gay, but celibate, applicant to refuse the offered position of Bishop of Reading. Here's what Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford wrote about the incident earlier this year. This extract is from Harries' article in The Grauniad dated 8th April 2007.
…the pivotal point was [Rowan Williams'] refusal to go ahead with the consecration of Jeffrey John, whom I had nominated as Bishop of Reading. In retrospect, the archbishop and I could have handled things differently … the Anglican Communion was already dividing on the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the United States, and opponents, quite wrongly in my view, put Jeffrey John in the same category (because Jeffrey had been celibate for a considerable period of time)Clearly Harries believed, along with the rest of the sensible Episcopalians, that this would have been a corner worth fighting at the time. By delaying, Williams has made a mess of his hand. By attempting to appease the bigots, he has antagonised both them and the more moderate wing of the C of E. The church will now fall apart more messily than it could have done.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
At the swimming pool
Imagine a group of children at the swimming pool. They've all been a bit careless about where they peed – too often they'd just go right where they were, instead of going off to the loo, properly. Now, the pool chemicals can cope with a certain level of impurity but there is a limit. After that limit, the pool becomes irrevocably foul.
Most of the children come to the conclusion that peeing in the pool is a pretty disgusting habit and that they'll not do it any more, in the interests of everyone. They can see that it's rather inconvenient to traipse all the way to the toilet but it's something that just has to be done. If everyone acts together (or forbears from acting selfishly), the chemicals will have less work to do and the pool will stay fresh and healthy longer, perhaps almost indefinitely.
A few of the kids are reluctant to join the co-operative community. John, a notable pisser, is banned from the pool and replaced by Kevin, a notable continent. Unfortunately, though, George, the biggest of the boys, and rather a bully, thinks selfishly and decides to carry on peeing in the pool. What's more, he decides to add even more pee.
What clever, co-operative children to look after their pool so responsibly but how nasty and selfish George is. He is freeloading on the good nature of the more perceptive and responsible children, George is effectively saying 'I can forever go on peeing in the pool and you poor mugs who've stopped doing so will, by your forbearance, permit me to do that because I'm the biggest and I'll thump you if you complain'. (Well, he would say that if he were a bit more articulate; actually, he may be big but he's remarkably maladroit and out of touch.) George doesn't have it completely his own way, though – someone from his family: big Al – who's not really big enough to control George - keeps on pointing out to the bully the error of his ways.
This reminds me of another story I read today:
The EU was in a showdown with the US over climate change policy today, demanding Washington "wake up" and describing next month's US-led talks on emissions cuts as "senseless" without binding targets…Of course, there's no similarity at all. The problem with the pool is that the civilised kids could always find another pool, just for the hygienic among them; there's no similar possibility with our lovely World, though…
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The tragedy of Conrad Black
I have followed the trial, in the US, of the saintly Conrad Black. Now that the unjust sentence has been handed down, I spend much of my time weeping for this maligned man. This is how The Grauniad described it
Conrad Black was sentenced yesterday to six and a half years in an American prison for abusing shareholders' trust through a sophisticated plot to embezzle $6.1m from his Hollinger media empire.I was interested to discover that she fined him $125,000, the merest fraction of the amount embezzled. This is slightly puzzling but, I suppose, it can be attributed to one of the more cynical views of American justice, surprisingly left unexpressed by the victimised Black: that it is retributive rather than restorative.
In thinking about poor Black's fate, the image of him that comes most to mind is that of him dressed as Cardinal Richelieux, accompanying his wife, Barbara Amiel to some fancy dress function (Although I found the picture, the link doesn't work. Sorry.) It reminds me of nothing so much as another of our business worthies, the equally maligned and late, lamented Robert Maxwell arriving at a function, dressed as a sheikh. (Alas, I am again unable to provide a link for you. Such inefficiency!)
Both men shared a similar, justified view of their own importance, inviolability, and perhaps a touch of folie de grandeuer, too. Yet both came to grief in different ways. We can only mourn their passing and hope that it will not be long before we see their likes again, cutting their confident swathes through the finance and media worlds without a thought or care for the next person.
I wish them both well, wherever they may go/have gone.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Following the nonsense with the teddy bear in Sudan, a Sudanese Official has said, according to the BBC that
Westerners going to live and work in Sudan should pass an exam on the local culture…Well, that's interesting. Let us, today at least, with respect to the teddy fiasco, put aside the knowledge that none of the parents complained of the way Ms Gibbons gave the teddy assignment to their children. (I happen to think that it was an imaginative project.) Let us also set aside the knowledge that the complaint to The Ministry of Education was made by a disgruntled employee of the school at which Ms Gibbons taught. And let us not dwell upon the consequential loss that Sudanese society will now inevitably suffer in its education of the young, for to do so would suggest that Mohammedanism is backward and that it, at the slightest opportunity, embraces archaic notions rather than attempting to engage with living in the modern world.
Instead, though, let us consider the modern world, exemplified by the United Kingdom, in its relationship with resident or 'home-grown' Mohammedans. Let us also wonder if the wise words of Khalid al Mubarak have any relevance to this relationship.
Perhaps we could 'advise' British Mohammedans that polygyny is a criminal offence and remind them that 'honour' killings are murder. We might also remind them that exhortation to suicide is also criminal as, too, is child abuse. I am thinking of female genital mutilation here, or even non-medical circumcision. Then there's the matter of wife-beating – criminal again. Of course, there are many other things that are 'local culture' here. I would suggest it's worth being aware that things like eating pork and drinking alcohol are part of our local culture. And perhaps I might point out that the strongest stricture against alcohol in the Koran amounts to 'Do not go drunk to your prayers'.
So, Khalid al Mubarak, perhaps you would be good enough to consult Mohammedan leaders and communities in this country and let them know what is expected of them – for some of them seem to be remarkably ignorant. Or, at least, they behave as though they are ignorant: I suspect that they do know and ignore our laws and customs in a calculated way. This is far worse than anything Ms Gibbons inadvertently did. I think an exam for these people might be appropriate for your co-religionists here, don't you? D'you fancy giving it a try?
God is grott, merdeiful.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Episcopalianism starts to fray
There used to be a special place in my heart for Fresno CA. Sometimes referred to as the worst place in the US, partly because of its very hot summers, cold winters and accompanying fogs, I nevertheless found it pleasant there. I spent New Year at an anonymous motel, completely alone there, some twenty years ago. I can't remember much of the detail, except that it was cold and foggy but it was 'nice'.
I was therefore rather disappointed to find the following piece, relating to Fresno, in The Grauniad
The conservative Diocese of San Joaquin voted Saturday to split from the liberal-leaning Episcopal Church, becoming the first full diocese to secede from the denomination in the debate over the Bible and homosexuality.I hold no brief for religion/faith of any sort. I have often rejoiced at the number of bishops sacked or refused official confirmation, not at the homophobia relevant to the decisions, but because bishops, Richard Harries excepted, are 'a bad thing'. Anything that undermines religion, that places the bishopric under siege, is 'a good thing'.
It is therefore with mixed feelings that I express my disappointment at the split reported. I am content to see the C of E falling apart, but I am sad about the cause and the reasoning. I see absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality; it's not for me but that's no reason to refrain from criticism of institutions that use biblical references to endorse their prejudices. If we were all literalist about the bible, we'd still be selling women into slavery – see Exodus 21:7. [What's that: we still do?]
Yesterday, I argued that boxing was a bad thing. That was based on incontrovertible evidence that the 'sport' causes brain damage. I didn't do it because of some dubious piece of bronze-age writing, allegedly about a vicious psychopath called 'God', but because it made sense. We have legislated on crash helmets and safety belts in the interests of people's safety. We should legislate about boxing according to the same principle, unpopular though such a move might be.
Citing scripture as authority is dubious, particularly when it comes to matters that are strictly personal. It isn't as though homosexuality does any harm. And if people have a predisposition towards falling for people of the same sex, why should we try to stop them doing so?
Fresno, I'll not feel quite as favourably disposed to you as I used to.