You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2008.

D’y’know that feeling when you come out of the cinema and you’ve just been so carried away by it all and then your real life comes up and smacks you in the face?  And you don’t want anyone to even breathe or break the spell and you want to carry on being the person you’ve been inside all through the film?

Dude, we have just been to see the COOLEST film ever.  I mean, man, Juno is just, like, SO cool.  You just have to go see this film, if only to have your real life hit you right between the eyes afterwards.  She is just a modern day heroine.  Orange Tic Tacs rule. And, boy, that hamburger phone is to die for.  Seriously, I mean, what greater love could there be than to give up your own child to another woman?  And did you know that foetuses have fingernails?  Hey, who says being a Fertile Myrtle means giving up your dreams, or losing your love.  You can have it all, right, as long as your folks are as cool as Juno’s parents and your sound track sounds like hers does.

Which I hope I would be, and it would.  Great film.  Girls loved it.  So did I.  Trailer here.  Enough said.

SCENE: an ordinary matrimonial bedroom anywhere in England.  Bed, wardrobe, chests of drawers.  Two windows with curtains closed.  It is just after midnight.  HUSBAND and WIFE are asleep in bed.  The walls and furniture start to shake.  WIFE sits up bolt upright in bed, eyes wide open in horror, holding her hand to her chest which is visibly pulsating with fear.  The shaking stops.  WIFE prods HUSBAND several times.  No response.  She tries again.  HUSBAND turns over without waking up.  WIFE sits stock still for several minutes, every muscle tense.  Then slowly lies down again, rigid, like a board.

Everything stays quiet until the morning.

WIFE: I thought there was an earthquake last night.  Did I imagine it?

HUSBAND (laughs): Must have done. 

WIFE: No, really, didn’t you feel it?

HUSBAND: No.  Don’t be ridiculous.  There are no earthquakes here round here.  It’s all mud and slime.  No rocks to rub together.

WIFE (goes to open curtains expecting complete desolation.  Sighs with relief): Oh, good, no damage.  

HUSBAND (opens curtains on other aspect): Quick, look over here!  A huge crack has opened up, right across the road!  Desolation everywhere!

WIFE (runs over to see, then, indignantly): I’m going to check on the radio or the computer.

HUSBAND goes to bathroom and switches on radio in bathroom out of hearing of WIFE.  A nice plummy BBC newscaster announces an earthquake of 5.3 on the Richter scale.  ELDER DAUGHTER arrives on the scene.

HUSBAND (to DAUGHTER): There was an earthquake last night.  5.3 on the Richter Scale.

WIFE comes into the room, on her way downstairs.  She hasn’t heard the radio.

WIFE:  He’s just making fun of me.  I woke up and thought I felt an earthquake. 

WIFE goes out and goes downstairs.  WIFE turns on the computer, finds the BBC home page and smiles.  Then checks how many people have looked at her blog since last night…


Telegraph Today

Report of 1896 Earthquake

Interesting historical account of earthquakes and their given significances, jumping from Ancient Greece to England (page 67).


Kosovo Maiden

A scene from the Field of Blackbirds

by Uros Predic, 20th Century Serbian realist painter

Stavros, who writes a blog called My Greek Odyssey which I very much enjoy reading, has posted the YouTube clip below on his blog.  Like many of his fellow Greek bloggers, Stavros supports the Serbian position, and has read far more about the history of the region than I have. 

The clip below is an interview with retired Canadian Major-General MacKenzie.  I am not sure what to make of him.  It annoys me that he is wrong about Resolution 1244 and this makes me wonder what else he is wrong about and how independent he is.  Resolution 1244, passed by the UN Security Council in 1999, refers to Yugoslavia, not Serbia as the Major-General says.  Serbia and Montenegro declared their own independence from Yugoslavia in 2003, at which point Yugoslavia ceased to exist.  Montenegro declared its independence from Serbia later in June 2006, upon which event the Serbian President sent a message of congratulation wishing the people of Montenegro “peace, stability and overall prosperity”.  

I do not understand how can you rely on a resolution which refers to a state which does not even exist any longer.  Nor do I understand why it is OK for Serbia to declare independence (but not for Kosovo), nor why Serbia congratulates Montenegro on its own independence, but the independence of Kosovo sparks violence and outrage.  How, too, is it that objectors say Kosovo is too small to be economically viable, when Montenegro is less than half its size? 

Major-General MacKenzie refers to 156 Serbian Orthodox monasteries having been destroyed by the ethnic Albians in Kosovo.  Here is a link to a sink with details and pictures of four.:

They make sad viewing.  Nothing justifies the destruction, the wanton destruction, of ancient symbols of faith.

He also makes a comparison with Israel and Jerusalem which is worth investigating.  The heart of the Serbian nation is buried in the bloody battlefields of Kosovo Pole, just outside Pristina, now in Kosovo.  “Pole” means “battlefield” but the battlefield is also called the Field of Blackbirds – and is where Serbians were slaughtered by Ottoman soldiers in 1389, regaining control of the area only more than five hundred years later during the First World War.  The most detailed accounts of the battle I could find are available here and repeats what seems to be historical consensus which is that the Serbian forces were ethnically mixed, including amongst others Albanians and Bosnians.  Nevertheless, the battle has acquired an enormous significance in the minds of the Serbian nation.  It represents the clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations, which Serbians insist is mirrored in the battle over Kosovo today.  I begin to understand the strength of feeling though feel more hopeless about a solution when the problem begins to seem as intractable as any other clash of civilisations.

Researching Major-General MacKenzie’s background (I rarely take anything on trust) threw up unsavoury allegations against him which refuse to go away, in much the same way as the allegations about Hashim Thaci litter the internet.  I doubt I will ever get to the bottom of the truth about the personalities involved.  But it seems to me that this is about Christians and Muslims and we kid ourselves if we see it in any other light.


A more nationalistic account of the 1389 battle here:

And, from the same site, a translation of the epic story of the Maid of Kosovo:

From the Guardian today. 

“Tracey Russell has several reasons to consider herself lucky, but one stands out. Around December 14 2006, after the bodies of five of her fellow sex workers had been found but before anyone had been arrested, she agreed to have sex with their killer.

Tracey and her best friend Annette Nicholls had agreed, after the first women went missing, only to go with regulars, but Steve Wright was someone they both knew well; Tracey had had sex with him several times in the three years he had been using Ipswich prostitutes – not a matter of weeks, as he testified in court.

On that occasion, however, she did not. Having gone back to his flat at 79 London Road and agreed the fee, she had prepared to have sex on his bed, but they were disturbed by a bang on the door or from a car outside, and he told her to get out.

Tracey, who is 31, spoke to the Guardian in December under a pseudonym, but as the end of the trial approached she agreed to speak more openly about Annette and the four other women, all of whom she knew, and about the man who killed them. The women knew Wright as just another punter, she said. “Annette went with him a couple of times, I knew that, I did, and I know a few of the other girls did.

“We were worried, but when you are on drugs, you think if you can open a car door … you would know that it was the murderer. Me and Annette said don’t get in cars with anyone we don’t know, just get in cars with regulars, and that’s what we did. But it was a regular that ended up being the [killer].

“He was always a late person to come out, he would drive round a couple of times, then choose the girl he wanted. We used to call them ‘window-lickers’ if they went around a lot. He was one of them. We didn’t suspect him.”

Annette, she says, had worked only infrequently until a few months before her death, when her heroin and crack addiction became more desperate. “She just got more depressed and the crack got hold of her.”

Their life, she said, was “horrible”. “You learn to blank it out over the years, and because you are on drugs, [you] just think of something else. I know that sounds odd, but you do. ‘Cos you get used to it, and it’s over within seconds. Hopefully.”

Shortly after Annette was confirmed dead, and with the help of a methadone prescription, Tracey stopped selling sex and using heroin, after six years on the game.

She is not alone. Of the 30 sex workers who were known to be working the Ipswich beat before the murders – some regulars, some working more erratically – only two are still working. Of the rest, 16 are in daily contact with drugs workers, seven needing less immediate support.

For the past 14 months the quiet success of those working to help women off the streets of Ipswich has continued.

Brian Tobin, director of Iceni, the small drugs charity that has spearheaded the effort, working with all the sex workers in Ipswich, describes the set of circumstances in the town as “pretty unique”, acknowledging that the killings themselves – one sixth of the town’s prostitutes were murdered – were critical in persuading the women and the relevant agencies to work together.

“We have to recognise that prior to the murders there were scant resources put into this area. I have worked in drugs for 16 years and I think [sex workers] are the most difficult and damaged clientele I have ever worked with. That needs resources.”

All the same, the women have been helped into new circumstances with a relatively small amount of money – less than £30,000 in grants and donations, which the centre has used to meet their daily bills.

The support of Suffolk police in arresting kerb crawlers and supporting the women, and of Ipswich borough council in part-funding a sex liaison officer has also been key.

“It ain’t rocket science,” says Tobin. “We phone them every day. If a woman goes missing for 24 hours we keep on the case until we find them. I think for the first time in their lives someone genuinely cares for them, because they certainly don’t.”

He sees no reason why Ipswich’s success couldn’t be replicated elsewhere, though resources, and intense effort, are critical.

“Our hardest part is yet to come. Now we have got to sustain this. We are now getting to the root of the problem, which was hidden by drugs.”

For Tracey, clean for a year, the conclusion of the trial is a relief. “Because I was on drugs at the time, you don’t feel a lot, but now that I’m off the drugs and I’m on the methadone, everything’s coming at once. It’s a bit hard to … you know. It’s all been quick, what’s happened. So I haven’t really had time to grieve over her. It’s hard.”

As for escaping Wright, she says: “I feel like my life’s been saved in a way, because it could have been me that’s dead now. It makes me feel a bit of relief, but guilty, because I got away. I feel a little bit guilty because Annette’s dead, and I got away.”

The secret of happiness sometimes seems as elusive as the secret of eternal youth or a rare bird that flits in and out of our life, gone almost before we can train our eyes on it.  When we are asked whether we are happy, it is tempting to turn the question back on the questioner and ask him to define his terms – what IS “happiness”?

There are as many answers to that question as there are birds in the sky but, for now, let us stick with a nice Greek word which is probably just a synonym but which includes an idea of movement, of growing, of becoming rather than a fixed state.  Eudaimonia.   And translate it as “flourishing”.  We are happy when we are flourishing.  We are unlikely to be happy when we are not flourishing.  We are equally unlikely to flourishing when we are not happy.

It seems a reasonable proposition that people want to flourish since the alternative is not flourishing.  Surely no mentally healthy person would set out NOT to flourish?

So, if we set out to flourish, how do we know what is likely to lead to our flourishing?

Is it something we find out for ourselves from trial and error?

Is it something that we can be taught, or learn from the experience of others?

These questions are the challenge facing two opponents who will debate whether or not it is possible to teach happiness.  “Yes” says the headmaster, Anthony Seldon.  “No” says the sociologist, Frank Furedi.

Lola B thinks Anthony Seldon is right.  I agree with her, but, of course, it all depends on how you define your terms. 

Anthony Seldon has begun a programme of lessons at the public (private) school, Wellington College, where he is headmaster.  The programme emphasises the importance of relationships and aims to help school children learn how they can have good relationships in four areas of their lives.  The most important relationship is the relationship the children have with themselves:

“Students learn how to manage their minds, their emotions and their bodies.  Bit by bit, they learn what makes them distinctive.  They learn to recognise and manage their negative and positive emotions.  They learn the value of accepting themselves as they are and appreciating others.  They are taught to calm themselves by deep breathing and other techniques and discover that three 20-minute bouts of exercise a week have the same effect on raising the spirit and avoiding depression as a standard dose of Prozac.”

Children are also taught how to have good friendships and other relationships and to avoid bad relationships.  They are taught about their relationship with the natural world around them, and with the technology they depend on in their daily lives.  A summary of the 10-point programme is available here.

Frank Furedi thinks this is all as waste of time because “how to feel well is not a suitable subject for teaching”.  He says that there is no evidence that teaching well-being works:

“In schools, decades of silly programmes designed to raise children’s self-esteem have not improved well being, and the new iniatives designed to make pupils happy will also fail.  Worse still, emotional education encourages an inward looking orientation that distracts children from engaging with the world. […] Children are highly suggestible and the more they are required to participate in wellbeing classes, the more they will feel the need for professional support.”

This professional miseryguts continues in the same vein, decrying “self-help” and “psychobabble”, but has completely missed the point as becomes clear when he tells us why happiness is not a suitable subject for teaching:

“Because genuine happiness is experienced through the interaction of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life.  One reason why well-meaning educators cannot teach their pupils to be happy is because feelings are contingent on encounters and relationships.”

Feelings are contingent on encounters or relationships or memories.  That is true.  The parent or the teacher cannot make the child feel happy.  But as parents or teachers, I hope that they can give children opportunities to feel happy, and suggestions about how they might flourish, and that by providing them with the building blocks and the tools to use, they might BE happy.  There is a question more important that whether or not it is possible to teach happiness, and that is whether we should be teaching happiness presuming that it is possible.  I think Anthony Seldon is only proposing that teachers do what parents do, or should be doing and what any educator desires to do, which is to help their pupils to flourish.  I doubt Mr Seldon believes that he can teach “happiness” any more than Frank Furedi, but, unlike the sad sociologist, he believes that he can help children to see how they might make the most of their lives and so have a chance to find that they are happy.

Frank Furedi does not even believe that happiness is a suitable goal for a life, describing it as “insipid” and reminding us that a good life is not always a happy one. 

“People are often justified in being unhappy about their circumstances and surroundings.  Discontent and ambition have driven humanity to confront and overcome the challenges they face.”

I hope that when writing this, Professor Furedi stopped to contemplate the very large hole in his foot, for he must surely have been able to see that the “discontent” was felt because the subject was not happy and the “ambition” was felt because he wanted to be happy.  People may have unhappy lives.  We all have unhappy periods and horrible things happen to most of us.  But most of us do not enjoy feeling sad, miserable, neglected, abused, or any of the other negative emotions and most of us want to feel better.  One is left with the inescapable impression that Professor Furedi is unhappy and that it may be a blessing that he is not going to be teaching happiness any time soon.

Still, in the meantime, to fill the vacuum, I will suggest an approach, called the “Human Givens” which I think makes a great deal of sense.   It has much in common with Mr Seldon’s 10-point programme.  A UK school of psychology, Mindfields College, teaches the ideas of the Human Givens Institute which grew out of earlier research conducted by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell into why some methods of therapy worked and others did not.  They identified a list of Human Givens or physical and emotional needs which all humans share, and a further list of the tools or resources that humans have been given with which to ensure they obtain those needs.

The Human Givens

Emotional needs include:

  • Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
  • Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
  • Being emotionally connected to others
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Friendship, intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n’ all”
  • Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • Sense of status within social groupings
  • Sense of competence and achievement
  • Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.

The Resources

  • The ability to develop complex long term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn
  • The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others
  • Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions, use language and problem solve more creatively and objectively
  • A conscious, rational mind that can check out emotions, question, analyse and plan
  • The ability to ‘know’ — that is, understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching
  • An observing self — that part of us that can step back, be more objective and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, apart from intellect, emotion and conditioning
  • A dreaming brain

I think Thoreau is saying much the same thing.  Happiness is a by-product of living a good life, rather than an end-in-itself, and we can learn what a good life is from emulating those from whom happiness radiates if they are gracious enough to impart some of their wisdom to us.


The Well-being Institute, University of Cambridge

The Human Givens Institute

Martin Seligmann, Authentic Happiness

Aristotle and Happiness, Stanford University

Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia has divided opinion. Instinctively I find myself siding with those whose desire for self-determination has led this newborn country to unilaterally take its first steps while the EU holds its hands and some EU members states stand a few paces away holding out their arms and encouraging it to walk towards them. For others, however, the declaration of independence and, worse, its recognition by the treacherous United States and Britain, is a travesty of the greatest proportions.

As far as I can see the objectors to the independence of Kosovo depend on these arguments:

  1.   Self-determination of peoples is in general a bad thing.  In the particular case of Kosovo it may lead to a precedent being set for other regions in Europe seeking autonomy.  A particular fear is that the quasi-state that occupies the Northern part of Cyprus, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, may be inclined to take similar steps leading to permanent partition of Cyprus.  Spain and Russia have fears that they may lose part of their territory to secessionists.
  2.   Even if self-determination may in some cases be a good thing (and, notably, was a good thing in relation to the destruction of the British Empire and the creation of independent states in its place), self-determination in respect of Kosovo is unlawful because a UN resolution (signed by the usual signatories including the Big Five) specifically stated that the territorial integrity of Serbia must be respected.
  3.   Even if there is a legal argument that the UN Resolution does not preclude independence, then it is morally wrong to reward the ethnic Albanians for their appalling ethnic cleansing of the Serbian population.
  4.   It is also morally wrong to reward the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the newly declared Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, for the role in terrible atrocities and violence against the Serbian minority.
  5.   Even if these last two objections can be overcome, it is extremely unwise to allow the ethnic Albanians autonomy because they are generally, and their leaders are specifically (a) Muslims and (b) in league with Osama Bin Laden and (c) corrupt and part of the Mafia and (d) drug traffickers.

Clearly it is impossible to overcome all those objections.  For whilst there are easy, sensible, rational arguments to deal with 1 and 2, and 3 might be addressed by reference to the hopes of the ordinary people in Kosovo and the young people in particular, and 4 might be dealt with by remembering other nations which were born out of foment and whose leaders had previously resorted to violence in pursuit of their political aims but where the a new peace had grown out of the ashes of discord and terrorists had become moderate politicians (Northern Ireland springs to mind), there is really nothing that will answer the fifth argument. 

This final basket of prejudices is so deep-seated and so tied up with the ethnic identity and religious faith of the objectors, that it would take a braver woman than I am to confront the anger and aggression that disagreement provokes.If feelings ran less high and opinions were less entrenched, I would wish to ask those who object to the declaration of independence what they would have wanted to happen.  Except I already know the answer.

They would have wanted the territory currently occupied by a majority of ethnic Albanians to become a majority Serbian province within Greater Serbia, so that the Muslim ethnic Albanians became a minority.  They would want to roll history back about a hundred years to the time when there was no ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo.  Presumably all the ethnic Albanians would be expected to move over the border into Albania.  This sounds like very polite ethnic cleansing to me, though I doubt it would be polite or bloodless were it ever allowed to come about.

Recognising that these are indeed the wishes of Serbia and those who support her, I am confirmed in my belief that independence was the only option for the ordinary people of Kosova.

Guardian videos

Serb demonstrations against independence

Joyful celebrations of independence 

Interactive history of Kosovo 

From official census data of the Kingdom of Serbia, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Year Total number     Ethnic composition (%)  
    Albanian Serb Montenegrin Turkish Muslim Other
1913 497,456            
1921 439,010 65.8 26.0   6.4  
1931 552,064 60.0 32.6       7.4
1948 733,034            
1953 815,908            
1961 963,988 67.2 23.6 3.9 2.7 0.8 1.2
1971 1,243,393 73.7 18.4 2.5 1.0 2.1 2.0
1981 1,588,400 77.5 13.2 1.7 0.8 3.7 4.1
1991* 2,000,000 90.0 8.0       2.0


* the data for 1991 is estimated, the census of that year was boycotted by the Albanian population.

Sources: Musa Limani, The Geographic Position, Natural Riches, Demographic Characteristics, and the Economical Development of Kosova (Prishtina, Kosova: The Association of Lawyers of Kosova, 1992); Miranda Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no-the right no-
drags him down all his life.


Like most of my friends, I had an Iranian boyfriend.  He was my boyfriend for about three years until our lives diverged to the point that we went our separate ways.  It was not a good relationship, but it had its good bits, and I learnt an awful lot about an awful lot of things.  Looking back, I think that his experience was very far removed from my own  and that I had little understanding of the struggles that he had to overcome.  Like most Iranians who found themselves in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was student and well connected.  His father had been an army officer close to the Shah but had died early, leaving his mother to raise three children of whom he was the eldest.  She came to England with him while he took his ‘A’ levels but returned to Iran, only to find herself a prisoner there once the revolution happened and the Shah was exiled.   He found himself without any money and imprisioned in his family’s expectations. 

He could not go back to see her, and she could not leave to see him.  They were separated for about five years.  Long, expensive telephone conversations were their only communication.  And yet he was the oldest son and responsible for everything that happened to his family.  From time to time he would hear of friends who had escaped Iran through the mountains.  One close friend tried this route in winter, but she was never heard of again.  His mother found living under the new regime almost intolerable.  Her sister had escaped with her Christian husband and lived in a council flat in Ealing but at night dressed in silk and painted her nails and piled her blonde hair on top of her head to hang out with other exiled Iranians at the Tara Hotel in Kensington.

Eventually when my boyfriend did return to Iran he stayed longer than his re-entry visa to the UK allowed and he was detained by Immigration officers at Heathrow.  Only the interventions of John Gummer, a Conservative Member of Parliament and government minister at the time, kick-started by my mother, made possible his return to the UK.   I remember being interviewed by immigration officers at Heathrow when he was detained, and for ten years or so afterwards I had some of the sun-dried limes and herbs that he brought back with him – and used them to cook lamb casseroles until an Iranian friend of mine bought some more for me.  Eventually, after a total of more than ten years in the UK, he was given permission to remain in the UK indefinitely and he rang to tell me that he and his brother were both OK. 

When the money ran out, as it often did, he used to support his studies by doing painting and decorating jobs, but always found enough to send his mother the best quality black tights that he could find, a small rebellion against the repressive regime.   A friendly bank manager allowed him to deposit his precious silk rugs as security for a loan when he really had no money left.  He drove a 2-litre red Triumph Vitesse that always seemed to need a new gear box, but at least it stood out from the crowd. 

The relationship left me with several important legacies, not least some understanding of what it means to be a refugee, a comfortable familiarity with Iranian culture, and an ability to cook rice quite well. 

My boyfriend was an excellent cook.  I thought perhaps his mother had taught him, but another Iranian friend suggested that perhaps it was more likely that he missed the food his mother used to cook when she went back to Iran and that those long phone calls were used to deliver instructions on how to prepare the Persian national dishes.  I think my old boyfriend owns or runs an Iranian restaurant in London now – which is as much as I want or need to to know about him.

There is really only one way to cook basmati rice, if you want beautifully light, separate grains every time.  The Iranian method is reliable and not time-sensitive and I never use anything else.

Here is one man’s description which uses the same method I was taught:

“The Iranian housewife goes through 14 steps to make a bowl of chelo, crusty steamed rice.  Starting with two and a half cups of good long grain rice, she washes it and rinses it three times in lukewarm water.  She soaks it overnight, covered, in heavily salted water.  The next day she sets two quarts of water to boiling with two tablespoons of salt, and adds the drained, soaked rice in a stream.  She boils the rice for 10-15 minutes, stirring it once or twice, then puts it in a strainer and rinses it with lukewarm water.  Next she melts half a cup of butter, and puts a third of it in a cooking pot, to which she adds two tablespoons of water.  She spoons the boiled rice into the pot so as to make a cone, and pours the rest of the butter evening over it. She covers the pot with a folded tea towel to make the rice cook evenly, and then puts on the lid.  She cooks it for 10-15 minutes over a medium heat, and for 45 minutes over a low heat.  She places the pot in cold water, to make the rice come free from bottom of the pan.  She turns it out so that the golden crust on the bottom, which is the specific asset that makes Iranian rice the World’s best, flecks and accents the whole fluffy mound of distinctly separate grains.  She puts 2 or 3 tablespoons of rice into a dish and mixes in a tablespoon of saffron.  She pours the coloured rice over the rest, and she is done.”

(W H Forbes, The Fall of the Peacock Throne)

I still soak the rice occasionally, but never overnight.  Twenty years ago it was common to find small stones in the big bags of basmati rice we bought.  Those stones floated to the surface when the rice was soaked, as did any other impurities.  Soaking removes some of the starch, and begins to open up the grains making cooking slightly quicker, but it is not really necessary.

Nor do I use as much salt, or cook it for as long before I drain it, or rinse it at this stage unless I have left it too long.  I always test a grain to see if the rice is ready to be drained.  The outside should be translucent, but the inside of the grain still brilliant white.  I think this is more likely to be after less than five minutes of boiling. 

When I return the rice to the pan, I will often slice up raw potatoes in slices about 2mm thick, and lay these across the base  of the pan.  I often mix butter and olive oil and stir a cupful of rice into it before returning the rest on top.  I do not bother with the extra butter poured over the rice. 

I have an Aga, an old-fashioned range-type cooker, and the cooler bottom oven is the perfect place to finish off the rice once it has been drained.  It can be left there for hours without coming to any harm.  The method becomes slightly more hairy on a gas cooker since it is fairly easy to set light to the trailing corners of the tea towel.  A low heat is essential otherwise the bottom of the rice will burn.

Iranian basmati rice is a comfort food for me.  After I’ve been ill, once of the first meals I will prepare for myself is Iranian rice into which a egg yolk has been stirred and then mixed with butter.  Try it.

In a perfect world the rice would turn out like this every time, but it rarely does.  Perhaps there is a Persian woman or man somewhere whose rice turns out in one golden cake every time. 

(with thanks to Farnaz and Ben, and to Fatima for the saffron!)

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska suffered from the same complaint as Nietzsche – what his friend, the poet Ezra Pound, described as “an appalling assembly of consonants”.  Unlike Nietzsche, however, Gaudier-Brzeska chose his name, linking his family name “Gaudier” with that of the Polish emigrée almost twice his age, Sophie Brzeska, with whom he also chose to share his life. 

Gaudier-Brzeska died at the age of 23 whilst fighting for France in the First World War.  His influence as an artist – a sculptor – has an importance out of all proportion to the length of his short life.  He represented the climax of the move towards the future that would be carried on by sculptors such as Henry Moore and his own work showed his progression from nineteenth century to twentieth century ideas.

Born near Orleans in 1891, the son of a carpenter, he won a scholarship at the age of 14 which took him to London.  Another French scholarship returned him to England, to Bristol, and in 1911 he moved to England for good to escape the scandal of his living arrangements and to live with Sophie in a relationship that was apparently never consummated but which nevertheless bound them together as acknowledged soul mates in a sado-masochistic dance where he exploited her insecurities.  A dance that slowed to a rythmn of mother and son and which endured for all of the rest of his short life.  He wrote from the trenches of his intention to marry her but died too soon.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Maternity 1913, cast circa 1965-6In France Gaudier-Brzeska had been influenced by Rodin in his sculptures and by Gauguin and Asian art in his paintings.  Once in England, he met up with a group of avant-garde aggressively modern artists including the philospher, T E Hulme, the sculptor, Jacob Epstein, and the poet, Ezra Pound and he admired Brancusi and Modigliani.  A group of these thinkers joined together as the Vorticists, in open revolt against the Futurist movement in France at the same time.   The Vorticists published their manifesto in a large red magazine called Blast which favoured heavy black types and capital letters and which only appeared twice, the second issue being a pale image of the first and an inadequate elegy to Gaudier-Brzeska after his death.  His statement of values in the first edition encapsulates the arrogance of a young man who represented “the climax … of all the artistic anarchy, all the wild aesthetic isms and cults that occupied the minds of the dilettanti of the capitals of Europe in the days immediately preceding the great war” *. 

Jacob Epstein’s Maternity

Pound described his first meeting with Gaudier-Brzeska as being with a young man who was “like a young well-made young wolf or some soft-moving bright-eyed wild thing”.

Gaudier-Brzeska’s letters and Sophie’s diaries form part of a collection of their writings held by the Albert Sloman Library of the University of Essex.  His letters cover the period from 1910 to 1913 and have been published in part in H S Ede’s biography, A Savage Messiah, published in 1931.

During his time in England, Gaudier-Brzeska defied convention and set out to shock.  Together with his fellow Vorticists he confronted sexuality that was happier hidden, and turned over the furniture of older ideas.  With Ezra Pound, he published an attack on Hellenist sculpture in the Egoist in 1914.  They decried its caressability.  Pound wrote “Regarding all this bother with the Greeks, some of us have at last been liberated from the idea that the BEAUTIFUL is the caressable, the physically attractive”.  Art was not particularly concerned with the caressable, and Gaudier-Brzeska cried that he and his friends, the Moderns, had mastered the elements and turned the sphere into a cube (from his Vortex Manifesto):

The knowledge of our civilisations embraces the world, we have mastered the elements.

We have been influenced by what we liked most, each according to his own individuality, we have crystallised the sphere into the cube, we have made a combination of all the possible shape masses – concentrating them to express our abstract thoughts of conscious superiority.”

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Sleeping Fawn 1913, posthumous castFor all the youthful aggression, Gaudier-Brzeska’s work is often full of vulnerability.  His Fawn (left) is without any protection, openly sweet and beguiling.  His Maternity (above) is a rounded cleaving of mother and child without any clear division between the two, too private to be on public view. 

Ken Russell made a film about Gaudier-Brzeska in 1971 with set designer Derek Jarman.  Russell apparently identified with the energy of the sculptor, but the film flopped and is not available on DVD.  The film borrows the title of the 1931 biography, A Savage Messiah, written by the man who owned most of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work and who displayed it in the gallery-cum-museum that was his home in Cambridge.  H S ‘Jim’ Ede had retired from working in museums (he was a curator at the Tate Gallery in London) at the age of 41 but acquired, mainly from gifts, a magnificient collection of works, principally by Gaudier-Brzeska but also by Alfred Wallis, Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miro, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson.  He used to open his house to students in the afternoon, welcoming them with tea and beautiful music.

An extension was built on to the three joined cottages in which he lived with his wife, and opened with a concert by Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim.  The extended house and a separate gallery are still open to the public in the afternoons.  The door is unlocked for each group of visitors but there is sadly no tea.  Visitors may sit on the chairs and read the books, and there are occasional concerts and drawing schools.

Joyce Kilmer wrote a thoughtful review of the development of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work in the New York Times only a year after his death.  Her article includes extracts from letters written from the trenches and she builds a strong case for the reality of war having marked him and moved him away from the characteristics typical of artistic revolutionaries that she lists him having displayed : hatred of the conventions, love of the most primitive and obscure forms of art, love of violence for its own sake, and passionate arrogance – arrogance, indeed, displayed as a virtue and an artistic principle in itself.   

Gaudier-Brzeska wrote “THIS WAR IS A GREAT REMEDY” and “IN THE INDIVIDUAL IT KILLS ARROGANCE, SELF-ESTEEM AND PRIDE” and in a later letter says that much will be changed “after we have come through the blood bath of idealism”. In a letter written on May 14th 1915 he writes from the trenches:

“Our woods are magnificent.  I am just now quartered in trenches in the middle of them: they are covered with lilies of the valley.  They grow and flower on the trenches itself.  In the night we have many nightingales to keep us company.  They sing very finely and the loud noise of the usual attacks and counterattacks do not disturb them in the least.  It is very warm and nice out of doors: one does not mind sleeping out on the ground now.”

He goes on to bemoan the absence of beautiful classical music, his favourite composers Chopin and Beethoven:

“Needless to say that here we can have nothing of the kind: we have the finest Futurist music Marinetti can dream of, big guns, small guns, bomb throwers’ reports, with a great difference between the German and the French, the different kinds whistling from the shells, their explosion, the echo in the woods of the rifle firer, some short, discreet, others long, rolling &c: but it is all stupid vulgarity, and I prefer the fresh winds in the leaves with a few songs from the birds.”

When he returns, he says, he will return to more figurative sculptures, since he is convinced that there is not much further than he can go with geometric shapes, planes and forms.

“Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was experiencing much the same change of heart and mind when a German bullet laid him low: had he lived there is no doubt that his sculpture would have shown the vigour and imaginativeness of his early work, and, in addition, would have been comprehensible and serious in purpose, marked by that directness and sanity which, paradoxically, seem to come to art from the insanity of war.”*

* Joyce Kilmer, ‘How the War Changed a Vorticist Sculptor’, New York Times, June 25th 1916


Sophie’s relationship with Gaudier-Brzeska

One of his letters to her

 Just before Christmas I met, for the first time, one of the first people to kindly comment on my blog.  He is, amongst other things, a speech writer for Mary Robinson, the former Irish President.  I remember a fascinating and optimistic discussion with him about racial and religious prejudice and its deep roots, informed by experiences in Ireland, and how children can point a way out. 

Mary Robinson was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002 and has recently been appointed one of Nelson Mandela’s 13 wise “elders”.  She was interviewed last week in the Guardian, and I was inspired by her words concerning the role of women as leaders and the different voice that they will often use.  I find that my measures of success or failure are frequently “male” measures that I have unwittingly adopted for my own, and that words such as “power” and “leadership” are construed in a male context that is uncomfortable with women.

Part of the interview is reproduced below, the remainder can be found here:

“Another commitment Robinson has taken on is as one of the Elders, a group of 13 global senior citizens including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter (plus a chair kept symbolically free for the detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) who hope to use their moral authority to intervene in crises around the world. She was sceptical about the Elders until they all met Mandela. “I wondered about the idea. Was it not a very arrogant concept? Then we had our planning meeting with Nelson Mandela, who I’ve met many times. He has such an incredible power of bringing out the best in people and from that moment on we knew our responsibility was in ‘eldering’.”

The word was invented by Tutu, whom Robinson clearly adores. He is full of wise words and so witty, she says. “He gets us to call him ‘the Arch,'” she says, smiling.

Robinson sees typically “female” leadership qualities in some of the male Elders – Tutu and the economist Muhammad Yunus are two who come to mind – but wants high-profile women to push for a new style of women’s leadership. “There are two types of women who get into high positions,” she says. The first she describes as “very talented” women who do it in a traditional – male – way. Like Margaret Thatcher? “Yes, and fair dos: to get through is not always easy. A lot of women in business accept that model. But there is also the other model I would very strongly advocate and this is equal to the contribution of men but different, complementary, exciting and innovative.”

It is this approach that Robinson hopes to harness in her role as chair of women world leaders (new invitees include the presidents of India and Argentina and the prime minister of Ukraine). She calls it an “enabling collective women’s leadership”. It’s a horrible piece of jargon, which she explains as a coming together of women from politics but also from the worlds of charity, business and the arts in order to change lives. She argues this approach is fundamentally different from male leadership in terms of women’s empathy, ability to work together and problem-solving skills. Traditionally, she says, women have been a bit defensive about exercising power but this has made them more reflective. “Women leaders are often more analytical and self-critical and more honest about it than their male counterparts. It’s as if they are still asking the question ‘Am I doing well enough?'” she says.

Most crucially, Robinson wants this women’s leadership to be directed beyond the traditional fields of health and education. “We deal with health and education, and empower women and girls, but are actually not crunching on the key issue,” she says. This fundamental issue is “security” and her mission is to reclaim the word and define it as most women would; not in relation to the war on terror but in terms of ordinary families; security, in other words, from poverty, climate change, abuse and discrimination.”

I’m posting below a YouTube clip to reflect her idea of “security”.  It seems relevant today when Darfur makes the headlines again, if only because it threatens to disrupt sport.

The clip is French in origin, hence the spelling of Darfur as Darfour.  The images are accompanied by music from Martha Wainwright.  I first heard her music accompanying an art exhibition in disused buildings on a former USAF base in the UK.  I waited until the room was empty, then sneaked a look at the CD playing.  I play her CD as much as any other music I can think of, though I have to check who is within earshot as the language on one of the tracks is obscene.

A few years ago, when Lola B was not quite four, I became a student again.  One eccentric lecturer thought that pubs were more conducive thinking places than conventional classrooms, especially since cigars could, then, still be smoked in them.  Our small group of a dozen or so students met in a variety of drinking places to study the workings of the European Court of Human Rights and to help the lecturer prepare to take on the British Government in a case brought by the families of members of the IRA killed by the British security forces in Northern Ireland in 1987.  The case resulted in a second landmark decision for this human rights maverick against the United Kingdom, Kelly and Others v UK.  The Court found that the UK had failed to properly investigate the deaths of IRA members at the hands of the security services, whilst the earlier judgment condemned the use of a “shoot to kill” policy by security services operating in Gibraltar. 

We felt enormously connected to the fight not least because we mocked up the hearing before it happened – in another pub somewhere in Cambridgeshire.  Together with another student, a keen military expert, it fell to us to “represent” the families of the terrorists.  I can place my fellows students now as a chief state prosecutors in Norway and Egypt, a UN lawyer in Geneva, a lawyer drafting judgments in relation to Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, human rights activists in Hungary and the former Soviet bloc.  I was lucky to have met them all.  I remember one particular sunny day, sitting on the tables that sprawled outside an ancient pub by the waterfront, as a moment of pure bliss.

Now every Tuesday I go back to the same waterside village to attend a philosophy class.  Our group is somewhat bigger and considerably older, and we meet instead in the local sailing club.  Our long table stretches along the floor-to-ceiling windows that open out onto the river wall.  I often take my terrier with me and take him for a run along the river wall before the class begins.  The river is prone to spilling its banks and so there is a marshy area behind the river wall, full of tussocky grass and ponds, over and around which my dog practises Harrier-like leaps and mad runs when his rigid tail takes on a right-angled bend and nothing will deflect him.
Each term we have a new subject.  This term it is, loosely, Consciousness, or Arguing about the Mind.  One half of the class will never speak, whilst I am locked in mortal combat with one half of the remainder.  We rarely divide along traditional, predictable gender lines, but along the analytical/Continental fault-line that divides philosophers.  I have long given up any hope of seeing the world as the analytical scientists do.  Each week this term we have four or five articles to read and discuss, usually by living philosophers, but we have read extracts from Descartes, and will read articles by doctors too.  As a fitting finale to the course, we hope to attend a confrontation between Daniel Dennett and Lord Winston entitled “Religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality that we face today.” 

Naturally we are concerned not only consciousness but also with the entity we called the “self”.  Absent a self we cease to exist or, certainly, descend into madness.

Daniel Dennett has written his understanding of this ghost-like being.  He is an exceptionally eminent American philosopher and a committed atheist, often spoken of in the same breath as Richard Dawkins.  I suppose it is relevant to his atheism to mention here that his father died when Dennett was five in an unexplained plane crash.  It is irrelevant but interesting to mention that he claims credit for having introduced the first frisbee into England whilst a student at Oxford University.  He is a “materialist“, convinced that there is no duality between the body and the soul, but that science can offer an explanation for everything.  Materialists have become the dominant force in the philosophy of the mind, dismissing dualists as religious self-deceivers, and trying to explain consciousness.   Almost always the materialist will fail to explain two other ideas which are connected to consciousness, and which present even more problems, namely “intentionality” and “free will”.  Consciousness is enough of a problem, and even here the world-class materialist, Dennett, is less than convincing. Daniel Dennett is sure that “We are all, at times, confabulators, telling and retelling ourselves the story of our own lives, with scant attention to the question of truth.”  We are “inveterate and inventive autobiographical novelists.” Our autobiographies are our “selves”. Our self does not exist in any more meaningful way than as a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes, for example.  A fictional character is very different from something that actually exists in fact, in reality.  In respect of real things it is possible to ask any question and for the answer to be either “yes” or “no” (the principle of “bivalence”.  Ask whether a particular car has four wheels and the answer is either “yes” or “no” depending on how many wheels the car actually has. Our “selves” are different, unlike motor cars.  You can ask whether my eyes are blue and the answer will be “yes” or “no”, but you cannot ask such a question about my self.  My self if a bit like a centre of gravity.  We treat a centre of gravity as existing in the sense that we know where we situate it, but we cannot see it, or touch it, and its situation is conditional upon other things existing in a particular form.

Our selves are dependent upon the information they receive from our bodies.  Things that happen to our bodies happen immediately afterwards to our fictional selves.  If you hit my body, my fictional self records that it has been hit.  My body is like a robot.  It does not choose to feel or not. It simply records in its brain what happens to it, though it is capable of a randomness that appears as unpredictability.  The record takes the form of a fictional novel.  It is, moreover, a fictional novel that can be rewritten over and over again, and parts can be refined with more detail added after the event.  The “me” after rewriting is different from the “me” before rewriting, a phenomenon which would be “utterly mysterious and magical” if my self was anything other than an abstraction.

Why would we tell ourselves these stories?  If I believe that science will be able to explain everything,  I will look for an evolutionary explanation.  Daniel Dennett is a confessed adaptionist, and what follows is his evolutionary explanation.

Before we were conscious (before we had given our “self” a name”) we communicated with each other but only in instinctive ways, blurting out information without any filtering at all.  When we had problems in this primitive state, we would blurt out a question to those around us and we came to be designed so that we provided answers when thus provoked by a question.  Then one day somebody asked a question but there was nobody around to answer it, and then an answer came to him from a part of the brain separate to the part that had asked the question.  After a while this talking and listening and responding got shorter until it all happened in the brain without the thought having to be vocalised by one part, heard and responded to by another part.  Conscious verbal thought had arrived.

It is a non-question to ask what the self is, since the self is an abstraction that does not have any real existence except as a work of fiction.

My self is made up of my stories, but, being a lawyer, I usually try to check them for veracity against all available evidence and to keep my self-delusion to a minimum.  I hope they are not fiction, and that I am more than the sum of my own confabulations.


Dennett, Daniel, ‘The self as a center of narrative gravity’, in Arguing About the Mind.

Searle, John R, Mind, A Brief Introduction, OUP, 2004