Saturday, 23 February 2013


my eye fell on this post by Robert Halfon, Tory MP for Harlow. A man whose name I have heard quite a bit lately. He asks, whose story today is the most similar to that of the Jewish people, in terms of persecution, marginalisation, genocide and revival? The answer might surprise you, he says. But the answer was immediately obvious to me, and no surprise. The Kurdish people. Their homeland, if they can really be said to have one, is in Iraq, and Turkey, and neighbouring places. They have in effect their own nation now in Iraq, built on the mass graves dug by Saddam's slaves. In this context I would highly recommend Michael J. Totten, who, unlike so many who pontificate about the region, has actually spent a lot of time there and talked with many of the major figures. There is to be a debate in the House of Commons on recognition of what was done to the Kurds as genocide. The debate is to take place on 28th February. If I were in London I would be in the Strangers' Gallery to hear it. As I am not, I hope person or persons will live tweet it for my benefit. Oh and Robert Halfon, if you are ever in Strasbourg, let me buy you a cup of coffee or a glass of the finest Alsace pinot blanc, and shake you by the hand.

Friday, 22 February 2013

out in the cold

a friend in Finland who has three young children tells me that at nursery all the children play out every day, unless the temperature is below -15 C. You have to send them there with the correct, warm clothing, snowsuits, boots, mittens, hats etc, or you will be dismembered. This item from the BBC describes the Swedish practice of children sleeping out of doors in sub-zero temperatures, which parents believe keeps the children healthier. There seems some sense to this. However, the practice is not the same everywhere. I spent six months in Latvia, in the winter, some years ago, and the parents there do not do this. Latvians give the impression of being morbidly fearful of cold weather, and everyone seems to stay indoors until late March when it thaws. Even in July they will not open a window. In Latvia the January-February temperatures are often -10 C in the daytime, and lower at night. The year I was there the winter was exceptionally cold, and in late January reached -25 C in the daytime on occasion. I'm not aware though that Latvian children are less healthy than Swedish or Finnish ones. There is certainly a big commitment in Latvia to physical exercise - from the thaw in late March until the first snow in mid-November everyone is outdoors, cycling, roller skating, running, playing tennis, and just generally turning their faces up to the sun - when it shines. Latvia is not the sunniest country in the world. And ice hockey and skating are both year-round passions for most.

Latvia is significantly poorer than either Sweden or Finland, and people don't have so much living space. But staying indoors in winter is probably more cultural than to do with accommodation. Though not entirely. My mother's generation in England put their prams outside in almost all weathers. Their greatest fear was not cold weather (it doesn't ever get that cold in southern England after all) but cats, and elaborate strategies were developed to protect a sleeping baby from being suffocated by a cat. Has this ever happened? I doubt it. An urban myth of its time. Everyone "knew" someone whose child had been suffocated, but you never actually met anyone it had happened to. My children however never slept outside when they were babies, partly because we only briefly had a garden before the younger one was two, partly because I had little Maclaren buggies for them rather than big prams, but partly because once we did have a garden I was never sure they were quite safe out there unattended. Children do get snatched, though I am sure it does not happen as often as we tend to think it does. I had fears my mother did not have. My daughter will have fears for my grandchildren I did not have. Might be a worthwhile conversation to have. My grandchildren have their time organised for them, with activities and so on, more than my children did, and WAY more than I did.

Cold-weather thinking. Here in Alsace in late February it is still cold. But not Scandinavian cold: it was  -5 C this morning at first light, with an east wind.There is still unmelted snow on the ground even in town, and there is deep snow on the mountains: the ski stations are doing well this February (two weeks of school holiday this month means this is when they do most of their trade). The winters are colder, and longer, than the ones I grew up with in southern England. The summers are shorter and hotter. There is no spring to speak of - well, it lasts about ten days in April.  Autumn can be several weeks of beautiful sunny weather from early September to late October, or it can rain endlessly from leaden skies.

Parenting, and the weather. If we could choose the weather what would we choose? Sunshine, undoubtedly. For myself, the island of Cyprus from mid-September to early June, and the Baltic coast from June to September. Perfect.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

the mask slips

though it wasn't much of a mask really, was it. What i wonder though is - would Georgie have debated with an Israeli Arab? An Israeli Christian Arab? Or ...

Personally, I don't recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but it's an area of land in which people live. I have even been there and eaten lunch in a restaurant there. Why would I not debate the issue of Cyprus, or anything else, with someone from that place? With a passport that says they belong to that place? Just asking...

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

kill the bloggers

Rajib Haider
at a time when there is beginning to be evidence that some of those involved in the slaughter in Bangladesh when it was becoming a nation in 1971 have got to the heart of the British establishment, of which more in a later post, I learn from Harry's Place that two days ago this person was killed, his throat and wrists slit, outside his home. His laptop was left beside him to show the reason for the killing, namely what he wrote on his blog. He was 36 years old. He was targeted by Jamaat-Islam. He blogged under the splendid name of Thaba Baba.
Never forget, and never tolerate this. Or you could be next.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Candia McWilliam, 'A Case of Knives'

I came to Candia McWilliam through her memoir, 'What To Look For In Winter' (which is the title of a Ladybird book, since you ask) which I found beautiful and painful in equal measure. This novel is too. A straight woman (I believe), McWilliam writes wonderfully well about what it (must) feel like to be a gay man cruising lovelessly while besotted with a heartless creature who may provide his downfall. Some might think her language overwrought. Not me. She gets away with it, all the time. What was she talking about here "this mawkish abdication from hope for the sake of a puppet queen"? Doesn't matter, really. And I shall steal this one "handsome as weathercocks". The plot is not promising. Handsome heart surgeon Lucas Salik, who heals little children, darling of the media, closet gay and besotted with the heartless blond Hal. His best friend is the aristocratic Scottish widow Lady Anne Cowdenbeath, who has exotic taste in clothes, and blood and untimely death in her past. Into all their lives comes Cora, twenty years old, rootless, and pregnant. Animal rights are a plot feature. I will not say more, because a spoiler would be inevitable if I did. The device she uses, that of giving each character a voice for part of the book, then taking the story on in the voice of another character, works brilliantly - and I have read a number of books where it does not, and becomes tedious. But there is real shock in some of the events. I missed my tram stop twice while reading this, and that does not happen often. Some of what happens I saw coming, and some I did not. Shocking, dark, and beautiful.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

by candlelight

we had a power cut last night. It started early evening, when the rugby was on, and people had come in from whatever they were doing and had started cooking and generally using power. It is a shortage of capacity at peak times, not the first time it has happened - you switch something on, the trip goes and then there is no power until - well, until it comes back. Which, this morning, it has. Last time, also on a very cold day as yesterday was (and today is too) we got candles, and put them where they could easily be found. I even (which I had forgotten I had done) put in with the candles a little cigarette lighter I had found on the tram. How organised is that? Anyway, we had some marinated magret de canard, which at least did not have to be cooked, but it was a very modest dinner indeed. I had thought, as we had both done so well with our weight loss, we could permit ourselves a baked potato each, but no chance. I can remember the power cuts of the early 1970s, and we had candles then, and I think an oil lamp. I was a student then, and lived in a hall of residence which had its own generator, so did not notice much. Also, all that happened back then was that the telly went off. These days we depend much more on electricity. Sig other and I were both greatly concerned that, in the brief interludes when power was back, our phones should charge. He was following the football on his phone, and I was looking at Facebook. For a while I read a physical book by candlelight, which was OK. But we could not, much, go on line, and both felt a bit bereft. Home wifi of course disappears quite quickly once the router box has no power, so you are dependent on your phone for access to the world. While your phone still has battery life. And I have an iPhone 3 (yes I know, how charmingly retro of me) whose battery life is quite frankly shite. I have to take the charger to work with me and keep the phone charging under my desk, or it will not last the day.

France has nuclear power, and depends on it quite a lot, but less than it did. Our local power station, Fessenheim in Alsace, is set for closure at some point, though the government, which included closure in its election campaign, is rowing back on that, as well it might. Because reduction of dependence on nuclear means lack of capacity. We already buy electricity from Germany, in this part of France, and France as a whole sells electricity to the UK. I support nuclear power, but as part of a package of power sources, including wind and wave as well as solar in the sunnier places. Cyprus hardly has a roof without a solar panel on it. Here in Alsace, where the sun hardly ever shines, there would be less point. When we bought our place here it was inspected as part of the compulsory environmental impact assessment, and we were told that it scored quite low, because the long rather cold winters in Alsace mean that carbon consumption is always going to be quite high. We are always warm, because unlike in the UK the windows actually fit and do not let the wind blow in. We have building heating, so all ten apartments in our building have the same heating source, which is fuel oil. It comes on in late September and goes off usually in early May.

Last night we wanted to check and see if there were many power cuts locally - but how to do that? Computer not working, TV not working, radio not working, phones only kind of working. In the 1970s we waited until the next morning and bought the newspaper. On paper. Oh, but here they are currently on strike. Newsstands empty. Ah well.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

shopping our love around

I am indebted to "Libby T" at Harry's Place for citing a popular actor named Charlie Condon, who is in a soap which I believe may be named Coronation Street, who has this to say:

There remains the problem of the opt-out: individual churches can “opt out” of gay marriage on grounds of religious “conscience”. Does this mean that if we get married, we are going to have to shop our equal love around to various churches until we find a priest who is willing to allow it to be equal? That isn’t really equal.

Well, actually, it is. As Libby T says. Better than I can. I cannot, these days, call myself a secularist. Although I do, increasingly, believe in the separation of church and state. But think about it. If you believe that, then the state's laws (such as on gay marriage, abortion, racial discrimination, whatever) are just that. Anything which is state funded should comply with them. But a voluntary organisation need not, so long as it does not breach any law. If a church will not bless your union because you are gay, then personally I think that would be wrong, but that church is free to do so. And I, or you, would be free to attend a different church, or no church at all. Some churches today will not marry those who have been divorced. The Catholic church has a whole set of rules about that, and many other things, It remains my abiding view that someone who says they are Christian and therefore may object to housing, or working with, or dealing with, people who are gay, is utterly wrong. But the state should not be trying to stop them from holding or expressing that view. It just should not be funding them to do so.

One of the last things the murdered Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid wrote before he was killed (in daylight, outside his home) was "They can kill me, but they cannot silence me".  Those of us who live in places where being gunned down outside your home is unlikely to happen cannot really conceive of how much courage it takes to write that. He knew that he, and his family, would be safe if he just shut up and went away. But he didn't. I have had death threats myself for writing things which some people have not been comfortable with. I  have not taken them seriously. I have been condemned and criticised, and campaigned against, for writing what some people do not like. I treat that as cry-baby behaviour, and do not take it seriously. Read the comments on previous posts, especially about Israel and about Islamists, and you will see what I mean. Nobody is going to gun me down in the street. Largely because I am not an important person, just an individual. But not only because of that. Also because I live in a country where there is democracy,human rights and the rule of law. Which didn't just happen. In France, in living memory, Jews were rounded up and sent away to be killed. Sometimes their neighbours helped in this. The rule of law, which keeps most of us safe most of the time, can be damaged or destroyed. All it takes is for people who know something wrong is happening to do nothing.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

who wants a two-state solution?

in Israel/Palestine? Not Hamas, we knew that. Fatah? Israel? The Muslim Brotherhood? The USA? Well, you tell me. It's what I would like to see. I was struck by this eminently sensible comment by Petra Marquardt-Bigman, reporoduced below, on another post over at Harry's Place. btw it is usually when I post about the Middle East that the queeny behaviour, flouncing and foot-stamping ensues. Bovvered?

I am sadly convinced, now, that the goal of creating a Palestinian State is not that of either Fatah or Hamas. It never has been. That is why there was explicitly a rejection of sovereignty over Gaza and the West Bank until 1967 in the PLO Charter. That is also why the PLO has made it very clear indeed, repeatedly, that Palestinians will not have a right of citizenship in any future Palestinian state, unless they happen to live - as "non-refugees" - within that state already.
The definition of Palestine is "Wherever Israel Is" at any particular moment.
Fatah - fearful of defeat by the Islamist tide sweeping the Middle East - is beginning to talk about union with Jordan. Gaza is run by the same party as Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood. That party does not believe in national boundaries, and expects to re-establish a trans-national Caliphate. Irrespective of Israel's existence, the goal of an independent Palestine is not that of Hamas and functionally is not that of Fatah.
I suspect that at some point, we'll return to the situation, as it was after 1948, with a belligerent (but weak) Egypt and Jordan (who knows how it will develop) on Israel's borders in Egyptian Gaza and the Jordanian-Palestinian federation of the West Bank.

Monday, 4 February 2013

a hearse, a hearse

Richard III
the apparent confirmation that the skeleton found under a car park in Leicester is that of Richard III gives me an excuse to use this picture, which is the best-known portrait of him. Perhaps now his reputation will begin to recover from the Shakespeare spin.  And perhaps now he will get the burial his memory deserves, as a great king of England. Oh, and if you haven't read 'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey, then do so.

Friday, 1 February 2013

look what they've done!

Sylvia Plath in 1957

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, had a profound influence on me when I read it in my teens. At that time I had never heard of Sylvia Plath, and I read the book because a classmate had chosen it for a book report and it sounded interesting. I'm glad, as this blogger, Fatema Ahmed, is too, that I read it without knowing anything about Plath or her work. There is so much baggage around that whole story now, her husband, her suicide, that it is almost impossible to come to her work fresh - unless you have never heard of her or of Ted Hughes. I read the book again some years later and thought parts of it were very funny, which I had not thought the first time. I still have my paperback copy from that time - I quite often pass books on, but not this one - and its cover is the one on the left. Fab, I think you will agree. I was utterly horrified when I saw the cover on the right, which has been produced for the 50th anniversary
edition. Lipstick and a powder compact? What were they thinking? Twitter and other places have gone ballistic. But then I thought again. Not only is there a whole new generation, or two, of girls and women who do not know who Plath was (I don't think men ever read her - am I wrong?), but maybe the cover designer had a point. Whatever else Plath was, she was a woman of the 1950s. Lipstick and powder compacts would have been important to her. Maybe to buy the book with the cover on the left you needed to know already approximately what book you were choosing, and the cover on the right allows you to choose this book if you are just browsing, thereby increasing its sales. Nothing wrong with that. And in these days of Kindle and other e-readers (which is how I do almost all my reading these days) does the cover design matter? I submit that yes, it still does, but nowhere near as much as it did when books only existed on paper.  So I'm not joining the twitterstorm of outrage about this.

When I first read The Bell Jar I did not know anything about depression either. I'm glad to say I still don't, not really, in terms of personal experience, though I have lived with someone who suffers from it and have thus seen it at close hand from the outside. This book should be required reading for anyone who has encountered depression in any way, and that means most people.

I hope a great many people discover Sylvia Plath and her work this year, half a century after her suicide. Even the manner of it (gas oven) is ancient history now.