Friday, 31 December 2010


The one important concession made to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreement was a referendum on voting reform in May. If it is lost then the issue will be dead for a generation. But the Coalition is itself the greatest obstacle to winning it.

A new voting system would make it virtually impossible for any party to get a mojority in Parliament. In other words it would be the beginning of an era of coalition governments, and after the current experience coalition is going to have a bad name. To make things worse, the Tories will campaign against reform, and so may many Labour supporters, leaving the unpopular Lib-Dems the main campaigners.

What we need in addition to voting reform is a system that prevents politicians from ditching their policies for the sake of seats in Cabinet. It should be possible for voters to censure their members of Parliament. For example, it might be made mandatory to hold a rerun of the election, if more than say 10 or 15% of electors in a constituency sign a request. The same system could deter members from fiddling their expenses.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


I have just had the message: "The video you are trying to watch cannot be viewed from your current country or location". It is entitled To see if I am Smiling and it consists of an hour of interviews with six young Israeli women about their experiences as conscripted soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank. So someone has authorized censorship in Great Britain; a bit more creeping authoritarianism.

The wikileaks from U.S. diplomats show how the biased American attitude to the Middle East is maintained. The kings, emirs and presidents, who depend on America for the dollars, helicopters and cattle prods to stay in power, naturally tell their protectors what they want to hear. And so we get a litany of hostility to Iran (easy enough for Sunnis, which most of the protected leaders are). And back in Washington, these messages are believed to be expressions of 'Arab Opinion'. It is a self-perpetuating system.

Anyway, the censor has not blocked the description of the film, so here it is:-

Israel is the only country in the world where 18-year-old girls are drafted for compulsory military service. In the award-winning documentary To See If I Am Smiling, the frank testimonials of six female Israeli soldiers stationed in Gaza and the West Bank pack a powerful emotional punch. The young women revisit their tours of duty in the occupied territories with surprising honesty and strip bare stereotypes of gender differences in the military. The former soldiers share shocking moments of negligence, flippancy, immaturity and power-tripping as they describe atrocities they witnessed and participated in.

The psychological transformation that these young women underwent as a result of military service is both upsetting and riveting. The culture of war transforms people: personalities change, moral codes are subverted, values are supplanted and masks are constructed to dull the pain of what they did and didn't do in uniform.

“A brave and powerful testimony to the corrosive effect of power.” - Silver Wolf Jury, Int’l Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam (IDFA)

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Gathering storm

"The people of Nuremberg voted overwhelmingly in 1930, in a referendum proposed by the Nazi Party, not to submit to Jewish Law." Did it really happen? Probably not, but what has happened is that the good people of Oklahoma have voted overwhelmingly not to submit to Islamic Sharia Law, although nobody has ever suggested that they should.

Islamophobia seems to rise and rise in America, peddled quite openly by the Republican Right. The Oklahoma vote shows how fear, disgust and rank ignorance can be exploited to become a mass movement. In theory the U.S. Constitution should make this impossible, but we have already seen what a fragile protection it offers when the Government decides to authorize secret surveillance, torture by extraordinary rendition and imprisonment without trial in on off-shore prison camp.

The occupation of Iraq continues by another name. The war in Afghanistan is clearly unwinnable. Pakistan is in a state of undeclared civil war. Egypt is edging towards a North-Korean type of succession. How many more Islamic-majority countries will America try to control before admitting defeat, and what will be the consequences for the world? As Muslims say "Allah alone knows".


Five Church of England bishops have gone over to Rome under an arrangement offered by the Pope while he was on his state visit at the expense of the British taxpayer. A nice irony that something that would have got their heads chopped off under the first Elizabeth is sponsored by the Government of the second Elizabeth. They have done well: shining careers and the support of their wives, and now they can be Catholic priests and keep their families!

I find it amusing that the chess pieces that stand next to the King and Queen are called bishops. In the original Indian game of Chaturanga they were elephants - one of the four corps in Indian armies. In Arabic that became 'fil', which the French heard as 'fou' - madman! So a confusion between bishophood and madness goes back several centuries. In the current instance, the problem was with women bishops. I wonder what is so special about possessing a Y chromosome? And what about women who have a Y chromosome but suffer from androgen insensitivity syndrome? Could they be bishops, and if not why not?

However, the original folly was surely to think that the message of Jesus needed a hierarchical structure to put it into effect. Where in the gospels is there an unambiguous statement that there should be priests to come between disciples and their God, and bishops to control the priests? But perhaps it is just human love of authority. Muhammad never said that there should be Sunni caliphs or infallible Shiite Imams, and yet his followers very quickly instituted them.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

France on strike

After ten days criss-crossing France by train, I am astonished how normally everything seems to function. The high-speed trains are less frequent, and each day an ad hoc timetable appears, but I have been able to travel each time I wanted to. The worst problem was crossing Lyon as all the main roads were blocked by demos, but the metro was running normally, as it was in Paris.

The thing that most struck me, coming from England, was how powerful the CGT is. It is something like what the British TGWU was thirty years ago - a huge general-purpose union, capable of bringing tens of thousands of people on to the streets. The language is very class-ridden, workers versus bosses...

The other thing, which alas is not as striking as it would have been thirty years ago, is the swarms of police on the streets. Britain has now caught up with France and perhaps overtaken it in this respect. The French police seemed for the most part to be behaving very amiably towards the public. No doubt sooner or later somebody will get killed or injured, but so far it all seems to have been rather laid back.

Sites of London

In London a fortnight ago I noticed three things in particular: you now have to pay 50p for a pee; Hamley's toy shop is 250 years old; and after a couple of years there is still a huge gap in Oxford Street. The 50p charge is a sign of things to come, but is it Boris Johnson or the Coalition that did it? Anyway, clearly it is the poor who will suffer, especially the homelss and the jobless, who have neither a house nor a workplace to pee in; and of course everyone will be inconvenienced by the mess and smell in parks and dark corners.

Hamley's quarter millennium is interesting. It shows that the desire to give toys has been steadier than most other kinds of business, but even so, for a shop to last so long it must have been astonishingly well managed. Visits there are among my earliest memories. I fell in love wih a chess set and pestered my mother to buy it next time she was in town. I didn't know the rules and spent nine months organizing royal weddings until my father came home from America and taught me to play. I used to marry the white queen to the black king - a good start in colour-blind politics.

And the huge hole in Oxford Street is a sign of the times; whover bought the site must be unable to borrow any money to build on it. For a while it housed a temporary dinosaur exhibition - more toys! But now it is just a big gap surrounded by plywood walls. Instead of laying off thousands of public sector workers, the government should step in to get something built there, even if it is just the biggest helter-skelter in the world.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Koran versus Qur’ân

I see that some Muslims think there is something insulting about writing Koran instead of Qur’ân. That just shows that they are so traumatized by Islamophobia that they will see insults anywhere. Actually the only correct spelling is qaf, ra, alif with madda, nun, but my computer can't do that.

Koran has been the English spelling for hundreds of years, just as Moscow is our spelling of Moskva and Algeria is our spelling of al-Jazair. Then along came the Arabists and invented a system of transliterstion using lots of consonants with dots under them or vowels with accents over them. Unless you know Arabic this does not get you any closer to the correct pronunciation.

Qur’ân is actually misleading for English speakers, who do not know the difference between qaf and kaf, and who will not understand why there is an apostrophe in the middle. In English qu is pronounced kw, so people are likely to say quoran, as if it had something to do with quorum. Koran will actually take them closer to the Arabic pronunciation. No insult there!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Koran Burning

With a Koran Burning Day announced for Saturday, America is looking more and more like Germany in the 1930s. Two differences: Muslim-hatred is not government policy, and there were not a billion Jews outside Germany eager to come to the rescue. However, the President is believed by a fifth of Americans to be a closet Muslim (and by more than half to be a 'socialist' - read 'communist'), and there is not much that Islamic countries can do to help, apart from restrain violent reaction.

The roots of this go very deep - to the hatred of Muslims and Jews in medieval Europe. In fact historic Christianity had an in-built intolerance of other religions, especially Judaism, because the Jews were held collectively guilty of the death of Christ (though that was supposed to be part of 'God's Plan'), and Islam, because it was a powerful rival with a plausible account of Prophet Jesus. The problem is that America, though in principle a secular republic, is under the influence of an increasingly medieval Christian Right, blaring its message in mega-churches, TV and radio stations and a host of anti-Muslim websites and blogs.

We in Europe must keep cool and hold fast to our secular culture. If we could remove Bishop Blair from public life it would help; he preaches a slightly watered-down creed, claiming that radical Islam is the greatest threat to the world. Bishop Dawkins and his atheist disciples are almost as bad, because they demonize Islam as much as - or more than - Christianity. We need to remind the world that we are all individuals, with the same right to respect and freedom of opinion, and that a person's religious beliefs are a private matter.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Lose lose

Poor Palestinians! It's heads you lose, tails you lose. If they refused talks with Israel they'd be accused of not wanting peace, but they cannot agree to talks without being asked to accept all the 'facts on the ground' that Israel has created since 1948. The 'two-state solution', which effectively existed until Israel destroyed it in 1967, has long since been made impossible, with much of the West Bank illegally occupied by settlers and their exclusive roads.

The Israeli tactic is still what it has always been, to play for time, hoping that the Palestinians will finally give up and either submit or emigrate. The astonishing thing is that these people still will not go away. And meanwhile, increasing numbers of Jews inside and outside Israel are refusing to support this inhuman policy, which degrades its enforcers as much as its victims. Stolen land and water, bulldozed homes and olive trees, imprisoned men and terrified women and children - these things are not what Judaism is about.

There does seem to be a gleam of hope for a one-state solution. Rubi Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset is the latest and most senior Israeli to go on record as saying it is unacceptable to go on offering the Palestinians nothing but permanent inferiority: 'Barak, Livni, Peres and recently Netanyahu are not even talking about a real state for the Palestinians. They’re talking about an autonomy with no army, borders, control over airspace or telecommunications... {but] you have the basic fact that contrary to Barak’s slogan — "We’re here and they’re there" — Jews and Arabs today live both here and there, on both sides of the Green line, especially in Jerusalem. Partitioning Jerusalem would lead to continuous bloodshed between segregated enclaves, like in Belfast some years ago. If there’s a threat to Jewish statehood, its less in a bi-national solution than in partitioning the land.'

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Just watched Blair defending his record on TV. What a ghastly man. He still justifies his invasion of Iraq with the same old lies and evasions. On his domestic record his main regret is the Freedom of Information Act - one of the best thing his government did!He even claims 'credit' for the boom that led to the bust of 2008.

And now he is ready to support a military attack on Iran. Not a word of criticism of Israel's occupation and building of settlements, still less of Israel's nukes. He thinks it is the job of Britain and America to reform Muslim societies. He seems totally unaware of the history of British colonialism in the Middle East.

I hope nobody will buy his book, apart from political analysts and commentators who need to. Read a library copy if you must. He earns hundreds of thousands a year for jobs he shouldn't have - most notably 'Peace Envoy to the Middle East'. He doesn't deserve another penny.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


I haven't blogged for six weeks. Not knowing whether anybody ever reads me is quite a disincentive. Anyway, I must get something in before August is out.

I have been thinking about the word belonging, and I realize what a huge difference there is between saying 'I belong to this place' and 'This place belongs to me'. The first should be true of everybody, though it must be very hard if not impossible for a refugee to feel. The second should be obviously ridiculous. How can a transient little ego lay claim to a place?!

The point about belonging to a place is that it is the fundamental ecological fact. A place, with all its plants and animals and soil and stones and water, is what feeds each living thing. Ownership is quite different - an abstraction, a legal notion. So when the Chinese arrived in Tibet or the Indonesians in New Guinea or the Zionists in Palestine and said 'This place belongs to us', the unanswerable reply was 'We belong to this place'.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

"If Israelis do not change their attitude and will continue with war, they will be expelled from there forever, just because Iran is militarily stronger. After all, isn't it how things are decided in Western world? If other nations will decide to interfere on behalf of Israel, Iran would have to use her nuclear arsenal. You should understand that we are fed up with you, guys, and if we have to go down we will, only we will take all of you with us. So, back off or die. There are no more choices."

Just what you expect from Ahmadinejad? Well, sorry, I cheated. Here is the actual text sent to me recently by an American acquaintance of mine - an immigrant from Russia:

"If Arabs do not change their attitude and will continue with war, they will be expelled from there forever, just because Israel is militarily stronger. After all, isn't it how things are decided in gentile world? If other nations will decide to interfere on behalf of Arabs, Israel would have to use her nuclear arsenal. You should understand that we are fed up with you, guys, and if we have to go down we will, only we will take all of you with us. Remember Gideon? Zealots? Masada? We'll do it again. So, back off or die. There are no more choices."

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Israeli art student scam

Having ploughed through several websites, I think I now know how the Israeli art student scam works. The paintings are produced in China, using inferior oil paints, sold to wholesalers in various countries for $5 each, and then picked up by backpackers, mainly Israeli, who sell them house to house for $150 or $200. The 'art students' profess a poor knowledge of English or whatever the local language is, perhaps to avoid awkward questions. They usually claim to have a contact who will frame the picture for a further fee. There is no money-back guarantee. Exactly what the arrangement with the wholesaler is I don't know; it may be a package including the air ticket to the target country.

It may seem innocent enough, young Israelis desperate to get out of Israel and finding a way to fund their trip, but the economics of it are horrible. The Chinese painters get a miserable wage, the wholesalers presumably make an excellent living, and the Israelis get a lengthy trip at the expense of the naive householders who buy the pictures. To put things into perspective, the GDP per head in The West Bank in 2002 was $759 per head and falling; in Gaza it was $576 and falling still faster - roughly the profit on three or four pictures!

There is a general case for making doorstep sales illegal. There is always an element of moral pressure, with the salesperson evoking pity. The longer the bargaining goes on the harder it is to turn him or her away without feeling bad. And vulnerable people - the aged, the infirm, the housebound - are always going to be at risk of exploitation. Short of banning such sales, we should publicize the scam. It only goes on because too many people fall for it. So tell all your friends: beware of Israeli art students! For my part, as long as there is no peace and justice for Palestinians, I am boycotting Israeli goods, even when they are made in China!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


After Monday's visit from the Israeli girl, I regretted that I had not acted differently. I should have invited her in, offered her a cold drink, perhaps have offered her a bed for the night, before launching into a hopeless attempt to get through her ideological blinkers. But then I thought 'Don't be so naive, she's no artist; she's part of the new charm offensive of the Hasbara. She's not walking around Boars Hill with a sheaf of paintings; she has a minder waiting for her in a car round the corner.'

And then I remembered the strange case of the Israeli 'art students' in 2001. A whole lot of these fake students were caught in America and Canada visiting sensitive addresses and offering to sell paintings obviously made in China. The mystery was never cleared up. So I googled 'Israeli art student' and got 1,390,000 hits! It seems these people are popping up all over the world. Scary!

To add sauce to my week, I had the following e-mail from a chemist of my acquaintance, with whom I had tried to argue the case for justice and peace with Palestinians: 'If Arabs do not change their attitude and will continue with war, they will be expelled from there forever, just because Israel is militarily stronger. After all, isn't it how things are decided in gentile world? If other nations will decide to interfere on behalf of Arabs, Israel would have to use her nuclear arsenal. You should understand that we are fed up with you, guys, and if we have to go down we will, only we will take all of you with us. Remember Gideon? Zealots? Masada? We'll do it again. So, back off or die. There are no more choices.' Weltmacht oder Niedergang!

Monday, 12 July 2010

True believer

I was just enjoying a quiet evening when a very beautiful young woman called and started showing me a portfolio of paintings. She told me she was from an art school in Israel, so I asked whether there were any Arabs there. She proceeded to pour out a series of statements that could have come straight out of a Zionist propaganda pamphlet:-

In our Bible it says that God gave the land to us.

There is nowhere else in the world that we can go.

The Arabs want to kill us.

The Arabs started the fighting.

I asked her why her country continues to occupy the West Bank and pour settlers into it, but she claimed not to understand what was meant by occupation or West Bank. Nor was I able to interest her in the idea of equality. In the end she packed up her portfolio and left, no doubt pleased to have found further evidence that 'everybody hates us'.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


Why do I always have too many clothes? I hardly buy any since all I need is 8 shirts (white because it goes with everything), 8 underpants, two prs. trousers, 2 or 3 pullovers and a few prs. socks. Actually one of each would be fine if they didn't have to be washed. And yet I have a cupboard full of clothes that I never wear! I don't even know where most of them came from.

I realize that other people are different. Most women seem to need lots of clothes because (a) they don't want to be wearing the same as another woman, and (b) they don't want to be wearing something too different from what other women are currently wearing. Strange how many men like to be in a sort of uniform (look at male MPs, differing only by their ties!).

For me, the beauty of having the minimal lot of clothes is not having to choose. Life is complicated enough already without adding avoidable choices. For the same reason I eat the same few dishes when I cater for myself - porridge for breakfast, salad for lunch, pasta for dinner. I hate the way governments keep wanting to offer us more choice - of schools, hospitals, railway companies, pension options...! Why not just aim at good provision for everybody without alternatives?!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Mrs Thatcher became known as TINA, short for 'There Is No Alternative' (to unbridled capitalism). Now George Osborne tells us his budget is unavoidable. I suggest a new slogan OPIUM 'Our Policy is Unavoidable, Mate'.

He even claims his budget is 'progressive', when it is the poorest who will suffer most from the rise in VAT and whose benefits will fail to rise with inflation. It seems rather kind to bankers, too, although the whole problem is how to pay the bill for keeping them afloat.

So think back to 1979, when the first budget of the Thatcher era threw Britain deeper into recession and unemployment. She became so unpopular that an election defeat became likely, until she was boosted by the Falklands War. So shall we get a new war sometime in 2014? Or will that simply be the year that we finally find an excuse to withdraw from Afghanistan?

Saturday, 19 June 2010


There seems to be a new militarism in Britain, fuelled by the regular return of bodies from Afghanistan and the parades and funerals that they engender. Now Mr Cameron tells us we should sing the praises of our military "more loudly and more proudly". He wants a massive display of enthusiasm next Saturday on Armed Forces Day.

And what is this Armed Forces Day? Looking through old diaries - and even this year's diary - I see no mention of it. Veterans Day is first listed in 2008, and it seems to be June 27th. What happened on that date? According to Wikipedia it was the day that America decided to send troops to Korea in 1950, and Yugoslavia invaded Slovenia in 1991 - nothing to do with British veterans. I don't grudge veterans their day, but now we are to have a whole military weekend.

Another sign of the times: my neighbour has booked Oxford Town Hall for a concert in aid of the charity Help for Heroes. Well, of course those wounded in our current war should be helped, but out of public funds. As I understand it, the government is trying to fight this war on the cheap, so it is their responsibilty to compensate the victims - and I would hope that would include Afghan victims. But what the hell are we doing there anyway, apart from continuing G W Bush's "Crusade"? You can't conduct other countries' revolutions for them.

Friday, 11 June 2010


Some of my friends have wonderful e-mail names, for example 'prettypinkpig', 'sultanofsin', 'lucyskywalker', 'tallstraightA'. An extreme example was 'sukitanc'; as I was grappling with an Indian organization called ANC at the time, I thought it was some obscure reference to them, until my friend explained that it meant 'suck it and see' - an invitation that I declined.

I have been trying to get a new one-letter word into the English dictionary: 'to e' meaning to e-mail someone, also to be used in compounds such as 'e-address', 'e-friend'. So far I have not succeeded, but I hope friends will use it so that eventually the dictionary writers will notice.

My other language project is to create an alternative to 'he or she'. I find the use of 'they' or 'one' very clumsy, and still more the arbitrary use of 'he' or 'she' where no gender is implied. My idea is to recruit 'a' as a pronoun; it comes from the word 'one' in any case, so there is a precedent. The possessive 'as' looks odd on paper but is easily accepted by the ear; after all, it sounds rather like 'hers'. If the reader has as doubts a should at least try it.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


This falling out between Israel and Turkey is very interesting. Their strange alliance had the unspoken basis that each wanted for different reasons to maintain that Hitler's mass murder of Jews was without parallel. Zionists want to use the Holocaust to demonstrate that Jews are a unique people, always and everywhere in danger and therefore needing to live in a fortress. Turks want to maintain that Hitler's genocide was a one-off and that there was no comparable Armenian genocide.

Netanyahu has shown himself completely out of touch by suggesting that the violence on the first boat resulted from it being full of Muslims, i.e. "terrorists", while the peaceful seizure of the Rachel Corrie was possible because it was full of reasonable Europeans. His readiness to infuriate Turks, and indeed Egyptians and Jordanians, shows that he does not feel any need for any Middle Eastern friends.

The great irony is that the more extreme the nationalism of Israel, the more it demonstrates that Jews are not a peculiar 'race' but very ordinary human beings, as capable as anybody else of blindness and brutality in a futile cause.

Monday, 7 June 2010


I have often seen George Orwell quoted for his defense of clear language as the key to clear thinking, so I thought I should read The Road to Wigan Pier. The first part is a very moving account of poverty in 1930s Britain, which he explored by staying in doss houses and miners' homes. But the second part is a confused and repetitive account of how he became a socialist in spite of the awfulness of his fellow socialists. Here is a sample of his dislikes: "England was full of half-baked antinomian opinions. Pacifism, internationalism, humanitarianism of all kinds, feminism, free love, divorce-reform, atheism, birth control - things like these were getting a better hearing than they would get in normal times."

He sets up Socialism as the only alternative to Fascism, but he is at a loss to explain. He repeatedly says that the essence of Socialism is "justice and liberty" and seems unaware that there might be any conflict between the two aims. This was in 1937, at the height fo Stalin's purges, so it seems a very serious oversight. It is hard to see how he got from there to Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Things have not evolved at all in the way Orwell expected. The battle between socialists and fascists has not taken place. Instead the world has been stealthily taken over by giant corporations, which deliver enough of the goods to enough of the people to keep them quiet. However, pacifism, internationalism, humanitarianism, feminism, divorce, atheism and birth control are flourishing.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Rachel Corrie

The British media hardly said a thing about the seizure by Israel of the Rachel Corrie. There was no violence, so that's all right then?! Much more fun to talk about a freak gun rampage in the Lake District! I have not yet seen any mention of the location where the ship was boarded; presumably either in international waters, which is piracy, or in Gaza's territorial waters, which is abusive occupation.

And it does matter that the ship was not allowed into Gaza. Israel says it will deliver the aid by road, but it will weed out whatever is on its embargo list, including any of the building materials that are so desperately needed. The siege goes on, illegal and immoral though it is, and anybody who does not denounce it is guilty of complicity.

The one piece of good news is that Egypt has been shamed into reopening the Rafah crossing, but for how long? Egyptian and Jordanian collaboration with Israel were bought by American dolllars, but will Obama continue to make aid conditional on acquiescence in policies that most people in Egypt and Jordan abhor?

Monday, 31 May 2010


News of the Israeli seizure of the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza will be controlled by the Israelis, since they have taken over the ships, have transferred the wounded to Israeli hospitals and are moving the entire flotilla to Ashdod. They are already claiming that their soldiers were violently attacked, though what is the boarding of ships in international waters if not an attack - indeed piracy!? We can safely assume that what Israel tells us will be propaganda. Only an international enquiry can establish the truth.

A little history: the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 (which was contrary to the UN principle of self-determination, since the Palestinian majority were never consulted) divided the coast into three areas, only the central one being for Israel. In the subsequent war, Israel grabbed the northern part, as well as Jerusalem and everything else except the West Bank. Gaza became an island, into which poured hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Since the Egyptian agreement with Israel, it has been effectively cut off from the outside world, all movement in and out being controlled by Israel and its Egyptian cronies.

For the three years since they elected Hamas in a process that was attested free and fair, the people of Gaza have been under siege, malnourished and deprived of essential medical supplies and energy sources. Since the Israeli invasion of January 2009, they have not been allowed the materials to rebuild their shattered towns and infrastructure. However, this is only the latest phase of a 62-year torment. Successive Israeli governments have seemed ready to accept only total submission, in exchange for which they offer nothing. There will be protests all over the world against this latest atrocity. Find one near you and join it!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Philanthropy for the poor

I bought The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists years ago but have not had the courage to embark on its nearly 800 pages. Now I have at last got through it. I nearly gave up after 50 pages, because I found the hero, Frank Owen, rather unattractive. He despises his fellow workers for not listening to his socialist preaching; they are the philanthropists who slave away to provide profits for their masters.

I persisted because the book gives such a lively picture of the everyday life of working people a century ago. It was the world of my grandparents and their brothers and sisters, and what a harsh existence, with unemployment and hunger always round the corner! It makes one realize how different things are now in the richer countries, thanks to what is left of Keynesian economics, progressive taxation and successful trade union action.

But our prosperity is partly bought at the expense of people in the poorer countries, for whom life is still like that of the novel, and whose goods we buy cheaply thanks partly to an iniquitous financial system, which overprices our labour and underprices theirs, allowing America to run a trade deficit of $40 billion and a budget deficit of $1.56 trillion without devaluation. Time for a change!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

That volcano!

It bothered me not knowing how to pronounce Eyjafjallajoekull, so I wanted to buy a teach-yourself Icelandic book. Amazon offered three, so I began to read the reviews. The general agreement was that Glendening's primer was terribly difficult because it expected you to understand grammatical terms like 'nominative' and 'subjunctive'. I suddenly realized how handicapped - sorry, lingusitically challenged - the younger generation of Britons must be. Actually, I already knew it; I even have to teach undergraduates what a paragraph is. Fifty years ago we were taught the grammar of our own language.

That reminds me of my shock in reading a statement of Prime Minister Bliar, who clearly didn't know the difference between 'may' and 'might'. That becomes important when it comes to knowing that 'Saddam Hussein may have weapons of mass destruction' is not the same as 'he might have them'. Clarity of thought, as George Orwell always insisted, cannot be divorced from clarity of language.

There is a lot to be said for the use of a 'dead' language for international relations. As long as people used Latin, everybody knew that it required effort to write it clearly. Now that sloppy English is considered good enough, disastrous misunderstandings can arise, as for example in the argument over whether Israel is required to withdraw 'from occupied territories' or 'from the occupied territories'.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The hollow dollar

At the moment both the pound and the euro are low against the dollar, and the feeling is that they will go down still further. But the dollar itself looks very shaky, with trillions of dollars of public and private debt, so how can it be seen as a refuge? What makes it different is that it is still the international currency. China and the Gulf states and the other holders of dollars don't dare sell them as that would bring down the price of their remaining dollars.

The only way out of this global mess is the creation of a true world currency governed by an international body answerable to an assembly with fair representation of the nations, based not on their wealth but on the size of their populations. Keynes proposed something like this in 1944 but the American government blocked him, preferring a dollar hegemony that would guarantee them economic domination.

While waiting for an international currency and if you can't stand the stress of speculation, for your personal needs I believe it is best buy durable and portable things of lasting value, with the lowest possible transaction costs. Unless you plan to live in one, a house is a bad placement as prices go up and down and the transaction costs are high. Antique jewellery is probably the best bet (but insure it properly!); it has already proved its worth by lasting. It is an ancient answer, but there is no new thing under the sun.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Same old

So they are back, the public schoolboys, plus some public schoolgirls, resuming their right to rule, with help from what was our only radical opposition party. They've promised a referendum on voting reform, but they'll do their damnedest to make sure of a No. What's the betting that the next election will be on a first-past-the-post basis, that the LibDems will be wiped out and that we're in for another 18 years of Tory rule?

In my local constituency there may have been something particularly unpleasant. A friend writes "I wonder if you received any 'church interest' leaflets opposing Evan's religious and ethics opinions? I had heard that the Tories were conducting a rather backhand and nasty campaign with local church organizations highlighting his opinions about abortion etc... but this was only rumour..."

Unfortunately I put all the Tory leaflets in the bin, but it seems plausible in view of the opinion piece in the Telegraph by their religious affairs correspondent, hailing the defeat of Evan Harris as "the best result of the election" and calling him "Dr Death". I note also that the new MP says she is a "lifelong Christian" and spent her gap year on an unspecified mission in the Middle East. Has the Christian Right made it into Parliament? One more step in our Americanization?!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Short memories

Has everyone forgotten that Lord Jenkins, at Blair's request, chaired a commission on electoral reform and that it reported in September 1998 recommending the AV+ system of voting? Why should the LibDem negotiators now allow Cameron to talk about a future commission when we have already had one that gave a clear recommendation? LibDems should not even contemplate coalition with the Tories without a firm commitment to an early referendum on this proposal. Coalition with Labour is the lesser evil.

Jenkins was one of the biggest political figures of his time, remembered especially as the last great reforming Home Secretary. He abolished the death penalty and birching, decriminalized homosexuality, legalized abortion and ended theatre censorship. He was later an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer. After twice failing to be elected Leader of the Labour Party he became President of the European Commission. In 1981 he was one of the founders of the Social Democrat Party, which later merged with the Liberals to form the "LibDems". He accepted a peerage and was elected Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

Yet here we are only twelve years after his commission's report and only seven years after his death, and everyone appears to have forgotten. Strange, because people still seem to remember the miseries of the 1980s; otherwise how can we explain the fact that two thirds of us voted not to have a Tory government?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Republican Britons

In all the calculations about possible coalitions, everybody seems to think it normal that the Sinn Fein candidates elected on Thursday will not be able to take their seats in Parliament. Little has changed in sixty years. I remember listening to the election results in 1951, when I was twelve, and asking my father why it was that in Northern Ireland, over and over again, we heard that the Sinn Fein candidate had the most votes but the Unionist was elected.

Well now at least we allow the Sinn Fein candidate to be elected, but he or she cannot come to Westminster. And why is that? Because M.P.s have to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, which of course a republican cannot do. There was a time when the oath had to be sworn on the Bible, which ruled out anyone who was not Christian of Jewish. We changed that, and it would surely be equally easy to change the terms of the oath of allegiance.

This is why we have no Republican Party in Great Britain. Those of us who would prefer to elect a president cannot have our views represented. We cannot even test how many people would vote for such a change. It is one more reason why it is very difficult to call the country a proper democracy.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Hung Parliament

So there we are: we got the hung parliament that we deserve, and now the children are scrapping over who gets to do what. It sounds ominously as if Nick Clegg is going to do a deal with the Tories, which would be iniquitous, since 63% of us voted not to have a Tory government. But then a deal with Labour might be even more unpopular.

Perhaps we should just let the Tories form a minority government. After the ghastly economic events of the next year, whatever party rules will be deeply unpopular, so why not just give them enough rope to hang themselves, and meanwhile renew the Labour Party and rid it of the Mandelson-Blair-Brown heritage?

How pleasant to escape from the turmoil in the human anthill into the little world of actual ants! I have just read E O Wilson's new novel, Anthill, in which 70 pages are devoted to the rise and fall of ant empires. The whole book is a good read, strongly recommended.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Aircraft carrier

It is the stuff of comedy. Suddenly taking his mind off the election, Gordon Brown discovers that hundreds of thousands of British air travellers - voters! - are stranded around the world. He goes for the dramatic gesture: send a battleship to pick up soldiers stuck in Spain, (together with a hundred or so civilians)! Why didn't he send an aircraft carrier? There would have been standing room for thousands. Oh yes, and there were 100 fantasy coaches on their way to Madrid.

Then British Airways announces that 20-odd jumbos are converging on Britain and all of a sudden 'new scientific evidence' emerges that it will be safe for them to land. For the two weeks remaining until the election there will be an awful lot of egg scraped off faces. Looking at the maps of the cloud curling round the anticyclone, and hearing that the dust was mostly in a thin layer, I thought it evident all along that there must be safe passages in.

Equally volcanic has been the explosion of popular support for the Lib Dems. People have suddenly realized that they don't have to vote Tory to keep out 'New' Labour, nor Labour to keep out the Tory toffs. There is a major party that wants more progressive taxation, firm control of the banks, voting reform, the scrapping of the Trident replacement programme and much else that is genuinely different. This should have happened in 2005, but this time the Lib Dems have a leader who is not on the bottle.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


I don't know what Eyafjallajoekull means in Icelandic, but it looks to me like Eyefuljoker. And what a practcal joke it is playing! Its little digestive problems as it swallows a glacier offer humans one huge problem for which we have no immediate solution.

Taking a longer view, it shows how risky it is to depend so much on air transport. If we had not pampered the airlines by building airports for them at public expense and subsisizing aviation fuel, and had spent the savings on more high-speed trains across Europe, the problems would now be half as big.

Also, it is time to re-assess how much transport we really need. Now that people simply can't go, they are bound to realize that in many cases it doesn't matter. Those who suffer most are families with members on the other side of the world, but it was cheap flights that encouraged much of that emigration in the first place.

Friday, 16 April 2010


When my grand-daughter Lila, aged 22 months, came to stay this week, I picked her up. She looked into my eyes and said "Picture! Me!" I think it amazing that she noticed her reflection in my eyes. Or is it amazing that so many adults do not realize they can see themselves in another's eyes?

It must have been well known to the speakers of the original Semitic language, since precisely the same expression is used for pupil in both Arabic (insan al-ayn, 'eye-person') and Hebrew (ishon, 'little person') - another case where Israelis and Palestinains should see eye to eye.

There is something beautiful about the fact that we see ourselves in each other's eyes. It is a sort of natural symbol for the capacity for empathy that evolution has given to our species. Misanthropists call humans 'selfish', 'cruel', 'the most terrible predator since Tyrannosaurus', but what other species makes efforts to save the whale or the elephant or the orang-utan?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

How many miles to the litre?

I remember feeling great pleasure when the British government decided in 1965 to go metric. I had resisted all attempts at school to make me learn how many rods or perches there were to a furlong or how many troy carats in an avoirdupois scruple, and I was proud to be one of the few Brits who knew their height and weight in metres and kilos.

Yet here we are 45 years later still muddling along with a mixture of systems. The height of absurdity is the fact that we meaure petrol in litres and distance in miles. Whether you want to know your vehicle's performance in miles per gallon or litres per hundred kilometres, you have a head-cracking calculation to go through.

Our failure to carry metrication through is perhaps another mark of the growing American influence of America, where they crashed a probe on Mars because one team measured its altitude in feet while another calculated its speed in metres per second. Yet the Americans don't strictly use Imperial units, since they have their own pints and gallons. And how shall we ever replace knots by metric speeds with hundreds of airlines working in knots and feet? What a mess!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Al-Khalil or Hebron

Here is a deeply moving blog about life under occupation in the Palestinian city of Al-Khalil (in Hebrew Hebron):

Al-Khalil, 'The Friend', is the name given to Abraham in the Koran, and this is his city where he is supposedly buried. It should be a place of meeting and friendship between Jews and Arabs, who both claim to be descended from him. Muslims seem more ready than Zionists to forgive and forget the current struggle.

It has become common to call Christianity one of the 'Abrahamic religions', but considering the long history of Christian hatred of both Jews and Muslims this seems false. 'Scriptural monotheisms' has the same number of syllables and would be more accurate.

Saturday, 10 April 2010


Two handwritten letters came this morning addressed to Philip Stewart Esquire. It is a quaint old way of suggesting that a man was not quite Sir So-and-So but nearly. It comes from old French 'escuyer' from Latin 'scutarius' shield-bearer to a knight. I didn't think anyone under the age of 80 wrote 'Esquire', and sure enough one letter was from a lady aged 98, but the other was from an ex-student of mine aged not much more than 45.

My former student told me she refuses to use e-mail because it makes the pace of life too fast. She harks back to the days of Jane Austen, when letters were like small books and visits lasted for months (ouch!). I think, though, that if you added together all the e-mails I send and receive, the content would fill a small book every year, and it's nice to find out quickly if anything good or bad has recently happened to your friends.

But I do wonder how biographers and historians will write about this generation. Unless you print out your e-mails and store them safely, there will be hardly any trace of your passage in 100 years time. There is no guarantee that anything stored on magnetic or optical media will survive. So we should at least write our memoirs and print them out before our memories fade. Perhaps we need archive libraries where they could be stored in confidence until whatever release date we choose.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

16 degrees

Just a couple of degrees extra and life bursts out: baby rabbits on lawn for first time this year - bumble bees buzzing - ladybirds everywhere - tits nesting in hole in wall - blackthorn blossom in hedges... I rolled back the roof of my deux-chevaux to drink in the spring air.

Best of all was cycling to Oxford without any extra layers of clothing, whistling as I went. I wonder why there are not more whistling cyclists. It is the one form of mouth-music that you can make breathing in as well as out. And it helps pedestrians to hear you coming.

I wonder when early humans learnt to whistle. It seems to be something you need to be taught, but the first whistler must have foud it out for himself - or herself. A few days ago I was standing by a tree trunk with a hole in it, and the wind must have been at just the right angle and speed, and it began to whistle. Perhaps that's how it was discovered. Are there any other whistling mammals?

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Egg Day

This is the time of year when I used to read the final chapters of the gospels in order to remind myself of their contradictions. No longer! There is really nothing new to say. Nor am I going to remind people of my regret that Christians chose not to use the Babylonian/Hebrew calendar. But I have just read an e-mail about the nasty attack on Obama by Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, accusing him of being like those who failed to denounce Hitler in the 1930s - indeed of being 'anti-Semitic', because of his snub to Netanyahoo.

I personally refuse to use the term 'anti-Semitism', since the Arabs (and most Ethiopians) also speak Semitic languages and claim common descent from Abraham. Judeophobia would be more accurate, though 'phobia' means fear rather than hatred. 'Misojudism' would be better (formed like misogyny, hatred of women).

Anyway, my point is that the essence of Judeophobia is the belief that Jews (racially defined) are and always have been and will be, different from the rest of humanity, and will always be hated. This is the central doctrine of Zionism, which draws the conclusion that they must band together and defend themselves against all comers, even though it means that the Jewish State is exempt from all the norms of international law in its endless struggle against its enemies.

Actually the belief in Jewish exceptionalism was for about 1800 years specifically a Christian belief, based on the theory that they bore eternal guilt for executing Jesus (in accordance with God's Will!!!). In the 19th century, when increasing numbers of Jews were abandoning Judaism and asking to be accepted as equal citizens, some Christians, desperate for reasons to go on hating them, invented the idiotic racist theory. Now that they see what that led to, few Christians are still willing to say anything against Jews, however defined.

The alternative is to believe that Jews are normal human beings with all the normal virtues and vices, subject to the same emotions and the same logic as everyone else, and that the only basis for lasting peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world is the application of the normal conventions on international relations.

Actually, I have to admit that there is something special about post-exilic Judaism, which is at the origin of many of our ideas about universal values of justice and compassion. If I were going to adopt any form of monotheism (which I am not) I might well choose Reform Judaism, as a cousin of mine did.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Palm Sunday March

A large number of Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, accompanied by Israeli and international supporters and a horse and a donkey, tried on Palm Sunday to exercise their right to march peacefully to Palestinian East Jerusalem, armed only with palm branches. They managed to get through the fearsome gate before it was closed behind them, leaving them trapped between it and the Israeli police, who arrested many of them including the horse and the donkey. Watch it on YouTube:

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Popes and lost hopes

The Catholioc Church is again deeply mired in sexual scandals, but how can it be otherwise when it is run by a large number of celibate men? Could anybody suppose that all of them would stifle their sex instinct completely? Anyway, there is nothing in the gospels to require priests not to marry, indeed there is no clear requirement to have priests at all; Jesus got on very badly with the Jewish priesthood. Unfortunately there is an economic problem: how would the Church pay adequate salaries to men with families?

The answer seemed available in the 1940s, with the worker-priest movement; priests with jobs could have supported themselves, but that was squashed by the hierarchy. Pius XII, who was Pope from just before the World War till 1958 was not a liberal man. Indeed his attitude towards the Nazis seems suspect. But then came John XXIII. It is easy to forget now that there was, in living memory, a pope who was respected and indeed loved by non-Catholics. His warmth and openness made everything seem possible.

Dear old John lasted only five years, and then came Paul VI, who put the lid back on, and John-Paul II, who despite all his qualities was an extreme conservative. There was a glimmer of hope when Church of England ministers were allowed to become Roman Catholic priests and keep their wives. But now we have Benedict, who brings back memories of Pius XII... It all seems rather hopeless really.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Daylight saving

Why must we wait so long to start saving daylight? When we put the clocks back on 31st October there were only 9 hours 45 minutes from sunrise to sunset (on the latitude of London). Tomorrow, 28th March, there will be 12 hours 40 minutes - nearly three hours more! 31.10 was only 51 days away from midwinter, tomorrow will be 80 days away.

It gets stranger. Evening sunlight, which is what we are supposed to be increasing, ended at 4.36 GMT on 31.10. Today it ends at 6.26, which will become 7.26. Part of the difference is because our clocks do not follow sundial time. True noon today (when the sun reaches its highest point) is at 12.6 by the clock; it was at 11.43 on 31.10. So the shifting of noon has already added 23 minutes to the afternoon since the clocks went back.

These odd dates were fixed by some committee many years ago, and now they are just adjusted each year to make them fall on a Sunday. Meanwhile the climate has changed, and March is warmer than it used to be (though this year cold weather lasted longer than usual), so please can the committee meet again and throw light on this matter?

Friday, 26 March 2010

BBC science

I had been thinking that BBC science programmes had got considerably better lately when up came a monstrous blooper. In 'Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds' on Tuesday, he informed us that if the electromagnetic spectrum were represented as a piano keyboard, with light as one octave, you would need a keyboard stretching to the sun.

One octave means one doubling of frequency, or one halving of wavelength. Taking one attometer (the upper limit for the size of a quark or electron) as the minimum wavelength and 14 billion light years as the maximum (absurd!), that gives a size range of 44 orders of magnitude or 146 doublings or halvings. Piano keyboard equivalent about 24 metres - less than to the end of my garden!

It is ridiculous even to do a calculation. It doesn't need two seconds thought. So how could the BBC let such a gross error through? More improvement needed!

Thursday, 25 March 2010


No, I am not going to crow over the snubbing of Netanyahoo (mis-spelling intended!). It was only what he deserved after decades of snubbing Pelestinians. But I hope Obama will stand his ground. The last U.S. president to stand up to the Israelis was George H Bush, and look where that got him!

What was intersting was that it came the same day that Britain announced the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the use by Mossad of forged British passports. How many other fake documents are out there, with the attendant risk to their true holders?

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Espionage and subversion must be just about the only industry that has grown steadily through all the recessions of the last eighty years.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Pi Day

I was interested to see from Facebook that a lot of British people have adopted 14th March as Pi Day. This is yet another bit of American cultural invasion. I wonder whether social networking is going to complete the takeover, with all these young people addressing each other 'Hi hon!' 'Hey you guys!'

In Britain we give the day before the month, and there is nothing special about 14.3 (nor about 9.11, the 9th of November). Logically we should write the numbers in the order of the size of units, just as we say first the millions, then the thousands, then the hundreds, tens and ones. So today is 2010.3.20. In fact the British reverse the order: 20.3.2010. Americans put the units in the middle, which doesn't make sense: 3.20.2010.

Actually, what a pity we are stuck with the Gregorian calendar! The length of its months are in crazy disorder and the year begins on a day of no astronomical significance. It is very accurate in relation to the sun, but it leaves the poor old moon completely out of account. We should go back to the good old Babylonian and Jewish calendar, with months that follow the moon.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

New intifada

Palestinians are feeling abandoned and betrayed after Hillary Clinton's latest speech, responding to Israeli plans to build 1600 homes for Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem with talk of America's 'unshakable bonds' with Israel and their 'shared values'. Any hopes raised by Obama's election and his Cairo speech seem to have vanished into thin air.

This comes the day after Channel Four showed a heart-rending film about the children of Gaza, still living amid ruins, mourning lost family members (a boy of nine shot through the head, a beloved father), talking pathetically of growing up to be engineers though deprived even of proper schools since Israel won't allow the import of building materials for reconstruction.

These Gaza children spoke chillingly but understandably of revenge and of killing Jews, when the only Jews they have ever seen were spraying their homes and schools and hospitals with bullets and white phosphorus. Meanwhile the Israeli ' Defense' Force has been declaring prohibited areas around Bilin and Nilin and Beit Sahour to stop peaceful protests against the occupation, now in its 43rd year with no hope in sight.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Big Issue issue

Do Big Issue sellers upset other people? I have got to the point where I cross the road rather than walk past one. It's not because the last time I bought one the bloke snatched it back saying 'Hey, don't take it; it's my last one!' Nor is it because the previous one I bought turned out to be second-hand and out of date. No, it's because they make me feel powerless to help. I can't walk past without looking a vendor in the eye, and I don't want to buy a magazine that I don't have time to read.

The Big Issue has been going for twenty years and during that time governments have done little or nothing to cure the problem of homelessness. On the contrary, houses have become increasingly a speculative asset. The replacement of the rates by council tax lightens the burden on people who own houses without occupying them, and grotesque increases in house prices give speculators an incentive to hold out for a profit.

It is all part of the growing inequality in our society, and I am sure there are cures for that. We should send a mission to find out how they do things in Scandinavia; I'm sure they don't have tens of thousands of people sleeping rough in the snows of Norway or Sweden. But which MPs are going to take a lead on that? They all seem to have second homes anyway.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Operation Iraq Liberation (O.I.L.)

Remember the mystery of General Jay Garner, appointed Governor of Iraq in April 2003 and replaced by Bremer a few weeks later? Well I have at last seen the explanation, given in Armed Madhouse by investigative journalist extraordinary, Greg Palast. The problem was not that America had no plan for post-invasion Iraq but that they had two. Plan A, favoured by the State Department and Big Oil, was for immediate elections and quick withdrawal, leaving the Iraqi economy and administration intact. Plan B, coming from the neo-cons and the Pentagon, was to do a 'Pinochet', sell off all state assets, especially oil, to international corporations, and only then have elections. Jay Garner was sent to execute Plan A, then removed by the proponents of Plan B.

Plan B was in fact lunacy, and Bremer more than anyone else was responsible for setting off first insurrection, then civil war. In a year of decrees, binding on all subsequent governments of Iraq, he demobilized the army, sending all the soldiers home with their weapons, destroyed the civil service by sacking all Baath Party members, ruined the economy by selling much of it off to foreigners and by removing all protective tariffs and quotas, and offended both Sunni and Shia communities.

George W. of course snoozed through all this, and there is no evidence that he understood at any point what was going on. It was left to Cheney to direct the response from the White House, and he was in favour of parts of both plans; as an oil man he wanted the oil policy of Plan A, but as a neo-con he wanted the Pinochet part of Plan B. In the end it was Big Oil and James Baker III who decided what should be done with the oil: keep it together as a state asset, firmly under the control of American 'advisers' who would hold production down to enable Saudi Arabia to keep OPEC prices up, to the benefit of the international oil corporations.

As for General Garner, the story was put about that he was sacked because he was incompetent. In fact he had long experience of Iraq, was popular with the Kurds and Shiites and was sympathetic to the Sunnis. He was probably better fitted than any other American to steer Iraq quickly to a peaceful and prosperous solution. But then of course, the interests of the Iraqis were of no consequence in Washington or Texas. The only Arabs who counted were the Saudi princes.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The democracy money can buy

If anybody was surprised to learn last week that Lord Ashcroft, major donor to the Tory Party pays next to no income tax in Britain, they have not been following the news for the last thirty years. The buying of political influence has been becoming more and more flagrant. If anything it got worse under the Blair-Brown-Mandelson regime. There is now little to choose between the US and us.

The sad truth is that corporations have taken over the world. Ministers and civil servants are increasingly just the front men - and women - for their operations, conveniently changing laws or failing to change them, and deflecting criticism to suit them and their shareholders. Tiny Blair was caught at it in the very first months of his reign, exempting formula one racing at Silverstone from a ban on tobacco advertising, in gratitude for a donation to New Labour by its owner Bernie Ecclestone. Blair told us he was 'a regular kind of guy' and handed back the money, so Ecclestone had his cake and ate it. Having swallowed that scandal, it was clear that the public would not choke on anything.

That's why people can't be bothered to vote. Smooth Mr Cameron and his Etonian friends sound as devoid of principles and policies as Blair at his worst. In fact many people might in the end decide that they prefer gruff Mr Brown, not that he is any less susceptible to corporate pressure. But either way the corporations will continue to rule, and they will pay the money needed to win over the few tens of thousands of floating voters in marginal constituencies who will decide the election result.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Poor Mr Brown

He can't get anything right. First he spells a soldier's name wrong. Now a Tory group finds that somebody in his office complained of being bullied (back in the Blair-Prescott days, it seems). They can't make their attacks trivial enough because they dare not mention the main charge: that for ten years he managed the economy on the same basis as the chancellors of the Thatcher-Major years, that he sunk our best chance of joining the euro, and that he agreed to spend large quantities of taxpayers' money on Tiny Blair's wars.

Thirty years ago, Mrs T. decided to let British manufacturing go and to rely on the brokers and bankers and bookies of the City of London to pay for our imports, and it has gone on ever since, through three recessions. Now that those nice bankers have let us down again, we have built up huge debts in order to help them get back to 'normal'.

Now the cuts in public spending are due, but they mustn't hurt before the election! Guess where they will come: in education, health, care for our environment - not in military spending or prestige projects (must look good for theOlympics!); and taxes will not increase for the wealthy (mustn't scare them away!) nor on aviation fuel. How much longer will people go on tolerating this system?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


I caught and released ten shrews in my house last week - all in 36 hours (including nights, when I didn't put the trap down, as they get hungry once or twice an hour). They were so tiny - the biggest 5 cms long, plus tail. It is marvellous that you can get an entire mammal into such a minute volume - heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, guts, brain (not very much!). And the mother must have got into the house with nine teeny-weeny babies inside her.

It makes you realize how extravagant nature is producing huge creatures like us, and in such large numbers that we are now clearing the world's tropical forests to make room for oil palms and soy beans. But there was a preposterous article in the Times recently, saying that vegetarianism is more damaging for the planet than meat-eating. The analysts, at Cranfield University (of all places) compared people scoffing quantities of tofu with eaters of English mutton. Well it's obvious that clearing forests to grow soya in Brazil puts more carbon into the atmosphere than grazing sheep on established British grassland, but they failed to notice that most of the world's soya production is fed to livestock to produce meat, and that much of the pasture on which the sheep graze was once forested.

Warm-blooded animals like sheep and pigs and people are altogether very expensive for the planet because we waste a lot of energy keeping our bodies warm and moving ourselves around (though most pigs, alas, are not allowed to move at all, and they are kept warm by burning fossil fuels to heat their barns). And I haven't mentioned the methane-rich belches of cows. If meat-eaters seriously want to avoid destroying the world's forests, they should raise cold-blooded animals like snails or earthworms. Plenty of scope for new recipes there!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

"The only democracy in the Middle East"

I receive a regular e-mail newsletter from Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian Christian. His latest tells of an attack by Israeli police on a peaceful demonstration at Ush Ghrab, on the edge of Beit Sahour, a Christian-majority town near Bethlehem. They have already lost land to the illegal expansion of Israeli East Jerusalem. The Israeli army used Ush Ghrab as a base until 2006, when they evacuated it. The municipality has since installed a children's playground on the site and wanted to build a children's hospital, but were not allowed to do so.

On Sunday about a hundred demonstrators walked peacefully to Ush Ghrab, led by a priest, with the intention of celebrating mass. They were accompanied by Israeli and international supporters. Suddenly Israeli police jeeps arrived and gave orders - in Hebrew - to disperse within one minute. The demonstrators asked in English and Arabic for an explanation, but soon the police were throwing tear-gas grenades at them. The priest continued praying for humanity and understanding. A father carrying his child kicked a gas canister away. The crowd held their ground, and eventually the police left. The demonstrators will be back next Sunday; watch this space. The incident can be seen on youtube:

It is important to remember that not all Israelis - still less all Jews - are Zionists; the most vocal opposition to the government comes from Israelis inside the country and from groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestine outside it. Nor are all Zionists Jewish; on the contrary, many of the most uncritical supporters of Israeli government policy are gentiles such as George Bush and Tony Blair. One suspects that in many cases fervent declarations of love for Israel come from those who are anxious to hide a secret anti-Semitism.

Israel can only be called democratic if you ignore the fact that it exercises almost total control over the lives of millions of Palestinians who are not represented in the Knesset. True democracy will come only when it is recognized that the massive colonization of the West Bank has made the 'two-state solution' impossible and that some form of federal single state must be brought into existence.

Sunday, 14 February 2010


It's all on to Iran again. When will the world learn that attempts to humiliate a great nation only result in defiance? Iran has existed for two and a half milennia, and every Iranian knows that Cyrus was running a great multi-ethnic society when the British were still dancing about in woad and long before America had even been thought of. Yet we will not treat them as equals.

Of course, it does not help that Ahmadinejad is a jumped-up little demagogue, but he is no Hitler, just the front man for the ayatollahs, who themselves are constrained by a religion that preaches human brotherhood and compassion for the poor and downtrodden. And Iran still has the largest surviving Jewish community in the Middle East.

Iran is doing nothing illegal under international law. 20% enriched uranium is a valid fuel for a nuclear reactor, and Iran is a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation pact. Even if Iran did develop a nuclear bomb, the West turned a blind eye when India and then Pakistan did the same, so what is different.

It is of course Israel that is different - Israel, which has had nuclear warheads for forty years or more and which has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation pact. Israeli propaganda claims that Ahmadinejad is a new Hitler who wants to destroy Israel. But what has he said? That Israel should be 'wiped off the map'. But East and West Germany were wiped off the map without a shot, as was Czechoslovakia, as was the Central African Federation, as was Austria-Hungary, as were many past political constructs.

At present five million Palestinians are totally controlled by the representatives of six million Jewish Israelis. If the two were meged in a single political entity, Israel and the West Bank and Gaza would be wiped off the map, and a new democratic state would be born. In the long term that is the only possible solution, for no Israeli government is going to have the power to remove hundreds of thousands of Israeli colonists from the West bank, without which a Palestinian state is impossible.

Ahmadinejad has also said that Israelis who are not wiolling to live in peace with their Muslim and Christian neighbours should go back to Europe or America; but how is this different from the spirit of UN General Assembly resolution no. 194 of 11th December 1948 (ignored by Israel), which resolved that 'refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return...' Why should Israelis who do not wish to live at peace with their neighbours be permitted to stay?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

I keep getting requests from people to be their LINKEDIN contact. I don't have the heart to refuse, but it strikes me as a completely parasitic network, a bit like a chain-letter or a faceless Facebook. I suppose it plays on people's insecurity and their need to show what important friends they have - but in that case why should I get asked? I have no influence, no contacts in high places and - thank goodness - hardly anyone knows of my existence.

The desire for fame is a deeply rooted thing, going back millions of years into our primate ancestry. The alpha males produced the most offspring and the alpha females gave their status to their sons and daughters, so the craving for attention got passed on. I felt it myself until 1989, when I decided I wanted to be obscure, but by then I had five children.

However, I think I'll start a website. I have too many unpublished things, and that would be an easy way to publish them. I already have this blog, but it has mainly been for ephemera, and I don't get much feedback.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Blair Witch Prize

I learnt the other day that last February Blair was given the Dan David Prize by the University of Tel Aviv as the "Laureate for the present age in the field of leadership". It value: one million US dollars!!! Well he certainly was a brilliant Fuehrer. He led Britain back to 1956, when we thought we could send the army in to sort out those unruly A-rabs. He led us out of the counsels of Europe and into the arms of the worst American administration of all time. And he divided Britain more deeply than even Mrs Thatcher did. Full marks! $1 Mn to add to the proceeds of his five jobs! Incidentally, I was glad to hear from a friend at Yale that his professorship of religion there has caused some protests.

One of his knacks as leader was getting rid of his best ministers. He sacked Mo Mowlem from the Northern Irish Office so that he could take the credit for her peace agreement. He removed Robin Cook from the Foreign Office, where he had been the best Foreign Secretary in my lifetime - author of an 'ethical foreign policy', which, if it was not 100% ethical, was the best we could do. Actually, that sacking, in May 2001, was probably done at the behest of Bush, who was already plotting to remove Saddam. And he drove out Clare Short, our best ever International Development Secretary, by lying to her to keep her from resigning with Robin Cook over the Iraq War.

Well Mo and Robin are, alas, dead, but Clare is still there to tell the truth, and she brought the house down with her revelations to the Chilcot Enquiry. Unfortunately she is leaving Parliament when the election comes. Incidentally Brown's recent promise of a referendum on voting reform is totally cynical. This should have happened more than ten years ago, when the Jenkins Commission recommended the abolition of the iniquitous first-past-the-post system. But then we wouldn't have had the Blair/Brown continuation. He just hopes to seduce the floating voters who want voting reform. If it worked he could then forget about it for another five years.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Blair's appearance before the Chilcot Enquiry was pretty nauseating. His absolute belief in his own judgement is positively pathological, and his expression of no regrets is disgusting. I'm afraid I don't expect much from the Enquiry though; two of its members, Gilbert and Freedman, are long-standing Blair supporters, and Gilbert was one of his foreign policy advisers!!!

The fact that Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish has led to accusations of 'anti-Semitism' against anyone who questions their suitability, but the complaint is not that they are Jewish but that they are Zionists. It would have been equally bad if they had been Christian Zionists (of whom there are millions - probably out-numbering Jewish Zionists). If they had been non-Zionist Jews, that would have been fine.

This is the third loaded and toothless enquiry into the Iraq War. There is something 1984-ish about this persistent attempt by the Government to re-write history.

Thursday, 28 January 2010


So Holocaust Day is over and we can get back to our normal practice of forgetting human inhumanity? I must say I feel uncomfortable about being asked to remember only one ghastly example when the suffering continues in Darfur and Burma and Tibet and Western New Guinea. And it's not as if Europe were now safe; the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia have been covered over, but without constant vigilance they could start again.

As for Hitler's Holocaust, the memory of it has been contaminated by the way it has been used as a justification of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the continuing oppression of the Palestinians. When Norman Finkelstein exposed this in his book The Holocaust Industry, he was persecuted for it and eventually lost his job. He was not a 'Holocaust-denier', simply a scholar who refused to exploit the past to justify injustice in the present.

Ultimately our problem is the glorified tribalism called nationalism, bane of minorities and spawner of wars. The European Community is an inspiring example of amulti-national society, and what a pity so man of the English are too nationalistic to join in properly.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Peace Envoy

Does anyone happen to know whether our ex-PM is still on the payroll of the Quartet as Peace Envoy to the Middle East? If so he is not being paid by results. Similarly, is he still getting his retainer as consultant to J P Morgan on investment in Iraq? And has anyone seen reports of his lectures on religion at Yale University? I haven't heard anything about him as expert on climate change or ambassador for Africa either. Could it be that he has a bunch of sinecures? Well at least he isn't President of the European Commission.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The F-word

Why do I hate the F-word so much that I cannot even write it, let alone say it? It seems to me horrible that a word that should mean something good has come to express whatever is bad. Even worse is the way that it is used in all sorts of places that have nothing to do with its original meaning. It used to be used mainly by men - mostly those with limited vocabulary - but now I hear it even from educated women. The only hope is that, now that it is meaningless, people will get tired of using it.

It seems like a hangover from our Christian past, in which sex was usually sinful and always dangerous - as it still is for the conclave of elderly bachelors who rule over the largest of the Christian churches. It must delight them that so many people who have never even opened a Bible still pay lip service to this ancient doctrine.

Even when used in its literal sense it seems the wrong word. As a verb, it always has to have a subject and an object, when what it describes should be a shared activity in which neither partner is doing something to the other, which is no doubt because it was originally a male word, used by those who saw themselves as the only agents.

Which leaves us without a plain word for something important. I like 'bonk'. When used as a verb its subject is usually plural and it takes no object. Also, it lends itself to compounds, such as solo-bonk, duo-bonk, tri-bonk and multi-bonk. And it sounds rather comic, as should be the case for something so laughable as the activity it describes. Seriously!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Back where we were?

'Hurray!' they say, 'It worked. The stock market is back where it was before the crisis. Banks are handing out huge bonuses again. Whoopee!' Except that millions of people around the world have lost their jobs and/or their homes, and a whole generation is going to have to pay off the debts that the bankers saddled us with. And there has been no radical reform. The wings of extreme capitalism have not been clipped. The almighty dollar still rules, thanks to its Chinese creditors. Inequality within and between countries is still immense. So no celebration yet!

Friday, 8 January 2010

Brocard's Number

Thank you to the kind friends who won't let me forget my birthday! Needless to say I reached for the Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers and discovered that 71 is the largest known solution to Brocard''s pr0blem: 71 squared is 7!+1 (the exclamation mark in 7! means 7x6x5x4x3x2x1). Also 71 cubed is 357911 - the first five odd numbers in sequence (not counting 1 as odd). 71 is the atomic number of lutetium, so at last I am out of the lanthanides!

Apart from that I don't get any kick out of having completed 71 journeys round the sun. This is not my favourite angle from which to look at the sun; April and May offer very pleasant views, and there is a lot to be said for September and October. What is amusing though is that in the past year I have met my exact twin, born on the same day of the same year - and we both love the poetry of Arthur Clough!!!

Speaking of Clough, on 3rd February an English Heritage blue plaque is being unveiled on the house he lived in from 1854 to 59 - 11 St Mark's Crescent, London NW1. Ironically, he wrote no poetry while he lived there, but that is very appropriate for this most paradoxical of poets. I am giving a talk at a seminar afterwards, and I shall try to explain his eight-year silence - something to do with his marriage, I think.