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This is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, commonly known as “Boris”, the Conservative Party’s candidate for the Mayor of London.  Voting is tomorrow, 1st May 2008.

Wikipedia has wicked information on Boris whose early life began thus:

“Johnson is the eldest of the four children (including Rachel) of Stanley Johnson, a former Conservative MEP and employee of the European Commission and World Bank and his first wife, painter Charlotte Johnson Wahl, the daughter of Sir James Fawcett, a prominent barrister[4] and president of the European Commission of Human Rights.[5] (Stanley Johnson also has two children with his second wife.) On his father’s side Johnson is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal Bey, a liberal Turkish journalist and interior minister in the government of Damat Ferid Pasha, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire who was murdered during the Turkish War of Independence. During World War I Boris’s grandfather and great aunt were recognised as British subjects and took their grandmother’s maiden name of Johnson.

Johnson was born in New York and educated at the European School in Brussels [5], Ashdown House and then at Eton College, where he was a King’s Scholar. He read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford as a Brackenbury scholar, and was elected President of the Oxford Union, at his second attempt. It has been claimed by Frank Luntz[6] and Radek Sikorski[3] that, tactically, to gain the Presidency he touted himself as a supporter of the Social Democratic Party, then a dominant current at the University, though Johhnson denies that he was more than their preferred candidate. While at Oxford he was also a member of the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive student dining society known for its raucous feasts, and was involved in the British-Arab University Association. He was a close friend of Darius Guppy, who was later convicted of fraud, at both Eton and Oxford.”

Read the rest here:

So far, so good, one dodgey friend aside. Lots of clever boxes ticked. I am preternaturally diposed to like those unusual characters who have been King’s scholars at Eton, but I make an exception for Boris for a very particular reason. 

A while ago, but not that long ago, I was part of the audience for an edition of Question Time.  Question Time (for those who don’t know) is a programme comprising topical questions posed to a panel made up mainly of politicians and the “Commentariat”.  The show is hosted by old timer David Dimbleby and moves around the country with its portable studio.  The conversation is invariably lively and the audience’s contribution is generally indicative of the nation at large.  It is a useful litmus paper, watched by those who need to know what the country thinks.  Anyone may apply to be in the audience, but the selection process is not transparent.  I found myself chosen, and to my delight (but not surprise) so was my Muslim girl friend.  Together with another acquaintance we sat on the very back row, mere observers since none of our carefully prepared questions had been chosen to be panel fodder.  High above the stage, we had a perfect bird’s eye view of the members of the panel which included Boris Johnson and the gamekeeper-turned-poacher human rights activist Shami Chakrabarti, constantly in the media’s eye.

My opinon of both of them changed irreversibly that evening in the period before the programme went live, when nobody who mattered was watching.  My opinion of Ms Chakrabarti took a dive as I watched her fawn over Boris, leaning over him, stroking him.  My stomarch lurched. This was Shami Chakrabarti, left-wing rabid human rights activist, oozing over Boris Johnson, editor of the right-wing Spectator, former member with David Cameron of the despicable Bullingdon Club, and buffoon of the Conservative Party.

Bullingdon Club, ready for a night out.  David Cameron, back row, one in from left.  Boris, blonde, front row

And Boris?  What did he do to earn my disdain?  Why, he frequently, even once the programme was live but he was off-camera, messed up his hair quite deliberately.  He ran his fingers backwards through his white mane, flipped locks from left to right, ensuring that he presented the dishevelled appearance that is his trademark but which I now knew to be just an affectation.

Boris’s Bendy Bus being blown up by Bond

Watch Boris at his best here, standing up to Jeremy Paxman on replacing “bendy buses” with good old fashioned routemasters, his best hope for the regeneration of London.

Or here, in a very amusing clip from Have I Got News For You (stick with the patchy bit in the middle) getting stuck in a conversation about his friend, the fraudster Darius Guppy.  He is hung up to dry by Ian Hislop, the cheeky gnome, whose editorship of the satirical weekly, Private Eye, has given him a great deal of practice in catching people out, like Boris, for instance …

If Boris wins, it will not be a vote for Boris, but a vote against Brown.  Brown may be not the most charismatic leader this country has ever had, and I wonder what Simon Baron Cohen would make of his ferocious intelligence, but he is honest to the core.

Talk about a storm in a teacup.  I’m not a great fan of people who whinge that they pay too much tax. But my prejudice really rises to the surface with a case reported everywhere today. The newspapers have been covered with reports of a recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, illustrated by pictures (such as the one below) of the victims, the two Burden sisters, who lost their court action today.

It does not take much for me to feel sorry for people, but I am afraid that I do not feel sorry for these two ladies. 

Their argument was that they were unable to benefit from the same inheritance tax exemptions enjoyed by spouses or those in a civil partnership (reserved for same sex sexual relationships) on the death of the first sister.  In English law there is no inheritance tax to pay on property devolved by one spouse (or civil partner) to the other.  The sisters argued, and our hearts were meant to start to bleed, that when the first sister died, the remaining mourning sister would have to sell the house they had lived in together for more than thirty years in order to settle the tax debt due to the government.

I’ve had a look at the judgment, and this assertion simply does not seem to hold any water.

The judgment says that the couple owned the house they lived in jointly, and it was valued at £550,000.  In addition they owned two other properties (!) worth £325,000 and each had savings and investments worth £150,000.  This means that they had assets between them worth over a million pounds.  £1,175,000 to be precise.  Or £587,500 each.

“11.  The house is owned by the applicants in their joint names. According to an expert valuation dated 12 January 2006, the property was worth GBP 425,000, or GBP 550,000 if sold together with the adjoining land. The sisters also jointly own two other properties, worth GBP 325,000 in total. In addition, each sister owns in her sole name shares and other investments worth approximately GBP 150,000. Each has made a will leaving all her property to the other.” (from the judgment)

So, let’s assume one of the sisters dies.  Inheritance tax will be payable on her estate of £587,500, but the first £312,000 is taxed at the nil rate.  The remaining £275,000 will be taxed at 40%, so the surviving sister will have to find £110,000 out of the total assets of £1,175,000 that she now owns.  Only £550,000 of this is accounted for by the house she lives in, so she will still have another £650,000 out of which to pay her tax bill. This will leave her with net assets after inheritance tax of £1,065,000 to leave to the local cat’s home…

Moreover, according to the judgment, she could choose to pay the tax bill in instalments over ten years, at a derisory interest rate of 4% :

“14.  Interest is charged, currently at 4%, on any tax not paid within six months after the end of the month in which the death occurred, no matter what caused the delay in payment. Any inheritance tax payable by a person to whom land is transferred on death may be paid, at the tax-payer’s election, in ten equal yearly instalments, unless the property is sold, in which case outstanding tax and interest must be paid immediately (section 227(1)-(4)).” (from the judgment)

Pleeeeease, put away your hankerchiefs, or use them instead to cry for those poor people hit by the government’s removal of the lowest 10% rate for income tax …

Or read these reports in the Times or the Telegraph, with its emotive but untrue headline – “Sisters cannot inherit house they lived in since birth” – and  the Guardian and spot the difference.  The Guardian says the house is now valued at £875,000 …

I should add that only where the house lived in by siblings is valued at more than £628,000 will inheritance tax be payable in a “Burden” situation.  If the house were worth more than that, and there were no other assets which could be realised to meet the tax obligation, there are all sorts of financial arrangements which could be used and which would leave the surviving sibling sitting pretty in the house.  The average detached house in the UK is, according to the BBC, currently worth £343,000.

If the Burdens were Mr and Mrs, not sisters, the tax bill on their estate of £1,175,000 on the second death (there having been no tax to pay on the first death) would be £344,400.  In the case of the Burden sisters, £110,000 would have been paid on the first death, and a further £300,400 would be payable on the second death, making a total of £410,400.  The difference between the two is £66,000 – which is probably about what their legal bill is, given that they instructed one of the most famous (and expensive) QCs specialising in European law and sure as heck did not qualify for legal aid.   They may also have to pay the legal costs of the UK government, though they will be considerably less.

Oh well, better in the lawyer’s pocket than the Chancellor’s, don’t you think?

If only journalists actually read the judgments, could do simple mathematics, and were not so hung up on trotting out predictable party lines.  The reporting of this case has been about the politics of inheritance tax, not about these sisters.


Take a glass of water, and spill into it a spoonful of sugar.  The sugar will dissolve in the water to make a syrup so that its crystals may no longer be seen and it and the water are one.  But heat the water until it boils, and evaporate it away, and the sugar will be left as before.

Again, take a glass of water.  Cool it until it freezes.  The water changes from a liquid to a solid, but only until it thaws.  Then it becomes water again.

Or take a candle and light it, holding it above the glass of water.  The wax around the wick melts and drips down the candle into the water, and becomes a solid again.

Take some clay, turn into into a pot and fire it.  The transformation of the clay is fixed. It will never, once it has been fired, become clay again.

Or take wheat ground into flour and bake it into a loaf of bread.  The loaf includes the flour, and the flour has become part of the bread.  Never again will it be flour.

Or the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly.

So it is with transformations.  Some are reversible, like the sugar solution, the ice, and the wax.  Others, once they have taken place can never be undone.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

2 Corinthians Ch 5 v 17

That was the theme of this morning’s service in the church opposite my home.  It used to be my spiritual home for many years until the Toronto Blessing drove me reluctantly away and we retreated to a less challenging place.  It still feels like home, especially when Freda, a Church elder who never gets any older though she must be over eighty, hugged me, and called me by my name, and moved a strand of hair off my face.  I felt like the lamb that the shepherd stayed up all night for, and I wanted to cry.

I only have one photograph of my mother with my sister and me.  That was taken when I was about six, and we are all in the cockpit of a sailing yacht, and my mother is helming.  My father must have taken the photograph.  I only have one other photograph of my mother and me together.  It was taken by a stranger, outside the Law Society in Chancery Lane, London.  I had just been admitted as a solicitor.  I was probably 25, and am wearing a skirt and top that I made myself.  My mother was very proud of me.

I am wearing clothes I made myself in most of the photographs I have of me when I was younger, from the age of nine or ten when I was photographed wearing orange corduroy hotpants (shorts with a bib).  I have a couple of rubber balls pushed down the front of the bib to, well, to make it stand out …  These hotpants were the first things that I ever made on a sewing machine. 

Here are three more old photos of me wearing clothes I made.  The first was taken on the Embankment in London.  I suppose I was about fourteen.  The fabric was a Liberty print cotton lawn which I would happily wear now.  I think it must have been fasionable to have a purse hanging round your neck.  The scarf was a favourite, made of silk and covered in paisley patterns.  I have had a long love affair with paisleys but they give my husband nightmares.

The second was taken at Law School after the Final Exams: I had made the pink striped skirt.  I was 22 and the sun was shining.  The final one was at a friend’s wedding.  I was a bridesmaid and had made my own dress out of beautiful silk bought from Borovick’s, an Aladdin’s cave of fabrics in London.  The dress is in a bag upstairs with two other bridesmaid dresses and my wedding dress.  My friend was marrying an East African Asian Ismaeli, a refugee from Idi Amin’s regime (and a doctor, now at the top of his field internationally, though that was irrelevant), and her father (my own father’s boss) refused to have anything to do with him or the wedding.  He never even met him, and died of cancer a couple of years later.  My friend is still married to her doctor husband, and they have two children, now both teenagers.   Her mother always supported both my friend and her husband, and is a wonderful Catholic woman.


And finally, a picture of Elder Daughter on her christening day, wearing a christening gown I made when I was fourteen, at school, and kept until I had a baby of my own to wear it.  I had to sew the lace on by hand with the tiniest stitches I have ever made.  Elder Daughter wore this gown for half the time, and for the remainder of the day she wore a gown that my mother and all her family had been christened in.  Now both of them hang in a cupboard waiting for the next generation.  I have four sewing machines.  One is an old hand-driven machine, more than a hundred years old, enamelled in black and decorated in gold with the legend “The British Queen”, good for my daughters to learn on.  Another was an 18th birthday present from my parents.  Another was bought with a small legacy from the spinster that my mother visited every Thursday for more than twenty years and who taught me in Sunday School.  The last one is an overlocking machine that I bought second hand, which cuts and neatens the seams at the same time, and which makes everything look much more professional. 


So many of my memories are tied up with my sewing.   My first sewing memory is making an appliqued picture of a horse, in felt, standing in a field of apple trees laden with red apples, sewn on to rough hessian.  I was at primary school and about nine.  It was supposed to be a wall hanging.  I sewed a small piece of paper behind the green felt of one of the apple trees, and on it was written the name of the boy I was sweet on at the time.   I still have it somewhere.

I can remember so many of the clothes I made, and all the things for my houses.  Endless pairs of curtains.  Clothes for my daughters (thank goodness they were daughters).  I made trousers for friends, and curtains for a log cabin in the Lake District that we used to stay in several times a year.  I made bedspreads and table covers and napkins and aprons galore.  I made a skirt and top for a very smart party I had to go to, that I was very nervous about, in France when I lived with a family in Bordeaux for a year.  I made fleece jumpers as presents for nephews at Christmas.  I still occasionally make fancy dress costumes for the girls.  The most recent costume was for Elder Daughter who wanted to be a Jam Tart for a food-themed party.  I made her a red net tutu with a frilled pastry edging.  This afternoon she cut off the edging so that she could use it to be a red fairy when she went on a fancy dress ride through the countryside.  She has red net wings and a wand instead of a whip. 

I have boxes and boxes of unused fabric, bought on a whim with a project in mind.  I think I stopped sewing almost at the time my mother died.  I ought to start again.  I enjoyed it so much.

Merci au blog Chez Luc

I was there, you see, he was next to me.
We were six years old.
We were playing, like children do, at doctors,
At being doctors
I was there. I saw on his body the wounds, the marks, the bruises.
I didn’t believe my eyes,
My eyes.
And he who said to me “I’m a man.
You see those burns there on my arms?
I don’t feel them.
I don’t feel them.”
I was there. I said nothing.
And then I left his house.
If I had gone back?
Never again.
Never again.
I was there. Like him I was barely fifteen years old.
We were in the cellar of his parents’ house.
I loved him so much.
I have to say that he was good-looking, but he injected, my hero,
I was there when his mother came to tell me
“It’s over – his funeral is on Monday,
I cried. Of course, I cried,
Then I started hanging about outside again,
I was there in October 1980, after the bomb in the rue Copernic*.
Yes, I was at the demonstration
With all my friends.
I was there. It’s true I didn’t understand what it was about
But we thought it was fun,
Yes, I was there to help those with AIDS, those who had no papers.
I sang (shouted)
Sure that I was there to celebrate!
And I raised my glass to those who had nothing.
Another glass: we can’t do anything.
I was there in front of my television at eight o’clock.
I saw the world turning itself upside down
Upside down
I was there. I knew everything about Somalia, Bangladesh, Rwanda.
I was there.
I saw what the North did to the South,
Include the despising.
I was there to count the dead.
I was there and I did nothing
And I did nothing
I was there, however.
I was there, and I did nothing.

*The Palestinian terrorist group, Abou Nidal, planted a bomb outside the synagogue on the rue Copernic in Paris. It exploded and 4 people were killed and 30 injured. It was timed to go off when everyone was due to leave the synagogue, but the worship had begun half an hour late that day. Had it begun on time there would have been hundreds of casualties.


Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

“I have noticed in the changing fortunes of a long life that the periods of the sweetest joy and keenest pleasures are not those whose memory is most moving and attractive to me. Those brief moments of madness and passion, however powerfully they may affect us, can because of this very power only be infrequent points along the line of our life. They are too rare and too short-lived to constitute a durable state, and the happiness for which my soul longs is not made up of fleeting moments, but of a single and lasting state, which has no very strong impact in itself, but which by its continuance becomes so captivating that we eventually come to regard it as the height of happiness.

Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Always out ahead of us or lagging behind, they recall a past which is gone or anticipate a future which may never come into being; there is nothing solid there for the heart to attach itself to. Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment; I doubt whether any of us knows the meaning of lasting happiness. Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: ‘Would that this moment could last for ever!’ And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come?

But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate on its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but his duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or feat than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul…

What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own God. The feeling of existence unmixed with any other emotion is in itself a precious feeling of peace and contentment and cherished by anyone who could guard against all earthly and sensual influences that are constantly distracting us from it in this life and troubling the joy it could give us. But most men being continually stirred by passion know little of this condition, and having only enjoyed it fleetingly and incompletely they retain no more than a dim and confused notion of it and are unaware of its true charm. Nor would it be desirable in our present state of affairs that the avid desire for these sweet ecstasies should give people a distaste for the active life which their constantly recurring needs impose upon them. But an unfortunate man who has been excluded from human society, and can do nothing more in this world to serve or benefit himself or others, may be allowed to seek in this state compensation for human joys, a compensation which neither fortune nor mankind can take away from him.

It is true that such compensations cannot be experienced by every soul or in every situation. The heart must be at peace and calm untroubled by any passion. The person in question must be suitably disposed and the surrounding objects conducive to his happiness.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Meditations of a Solitary Walker

Xanthippa drew my attention this morning to an exhibition that took place in Managua, Nicaragua, in October last year. The artist, Guillermo Vargas Harbacuc, exhibited one of the city’s starving dogs, tied up. The event was not reported at the time, and nobody now seems sure what happened, but it has caused world-wide-web outrage with on-line petitions and blogs devoted to the horror.

Is it art to exhibit a starving dog, possibly even (if the rumours are true, which seems unlikely) to allow the dog to starve to death in public?

I wondered what the web-world would have thought if the artist had only exhibited a portrait of a starving dog painted from real life. I imagine the degree of offence would have been much reduced, despite the fact that the dog still had to exist in its starving state in order to be painted, and despite the fact that it had been left to starve afterwards, and despite the fact that the dog’s “starvingness” would have been “used” in exactly the same way as with the real exhibit.

There’s a review in the Guardian’s G2 today of an exhibition by a near-nonagenarian Carinthian artist, Maria Lassnig. This is how the reviewer describes part of her exhibition:

Du oder ich

“I told Lassnig I found a strange, exhilarating mix of tenderness and violence in her art. Careful with her words, she said: “I am interested in painting the finer feelings,” which took me aback. But then she asked, “Have you seen in there?”, pointing through a doorway. In there are several paintings of a fat, naked, middle-aged man. In one he’s kneeling over what appears to be an inflatable toy. No, Lassnig tells me, not a toy, a girl, and the painting is about child molestation. The girl is pink, formless somehow, and she has no mouth – no voice, in other words; one dumb little button eye looks skyward while the man peers down at her. In another painting, the fat guy supports the horizontal body of an adolescent waif on the palms of his hands. They are the hands of a butcher, toying with a slab of steak. The girl’s high-heeled shoes are drawn with a light, dainty touch. The expression on his face is neutral, as though he were far away. Hers is, too. Presumably he’s locked in his fantasy world, she in wishing it were over, wishing she were dead.”

Now, I don’t hear the reviewer questioning whether this is art. Nor am I, for one moment, suggesting that it would be art to have real people engaged in the horrible acts she describes. But why is it art for someone to represent what we all know happens in reality, when that art is less shocking than reality itself …

In the same G2 edition was this short piece:

“My donkey, Little Vijay, is a light brown gelding with large brown eyes and a white muzzle. He was adopted for me a year ago and I’m told that he’s very gentle and likes carrots.

What’s not to love about donkeys? I’m obviously not alone. New Philanthropy Capital, a philanthrophy watchdog, has pointed out that the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, where Little Vijay lives with 400 other donkeys, received £20m in 2006 – more than donations given to prominent charities supporting women who have been victims of violence. Refuge, the Women’s Aid Foundation and Eaves Housing for Women have a combined annual income of £17m.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – the British public’s love of animal charities is nothing new. According to the Charities Aid Foundation figures, the NSPCC receives just £2m more in donations than the RSPCA. The Dogs Trust receives around £34m in donations every year and Cats Protection around £27m. But how did donkeys get to be such good fundraisers?

The Devon sanctuary, which provides homes for 2,000 rescued donkeys and funds projects abroad, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, pulling in more than 160,000 visitors a year. This means the charity can get by on a small advertising budget.

Its spokeswoman, Dawn Vincent, puts its success down to the personal touch. “You can visit the sanctuary and you can see exactly where your money is being spent,” she says. “Once people become supporters, we keep them up to date. We acknowledge every donation, no matter how small, with a thank-you letter.” Around 70% of the charity’s donations come in wills and donors’ names are inscribed on plaques dotted around the sanctuary.

Does it trouble her that people give more money to donkeys than to charities that support women who have experienced violence? “We would never tell people to give money to us instead of other causes. It’s individual choice. Our aim is to ensure the welfare of donkeys.”

So how is Little Vijay? “He’s very well,” says Vincent. “His coat has been clipped so he won’t get too hot in the sun. He’s all ready for summer.””

Which makes me wonder whether Guillermo Vargas’s statement wasn’t an important statement after all. We are more concerned about ill-treated donkeys than we are to prevent violence to women.

St Kilda is a remote island off the west coast of Scotland.  It was evacuated at the request of its inhabitants just over 75 years ago, bringing to an end thousands of years of occupation.  Less than a handful of those evacuated are still alive.  One of them is Norman John Gillies.  Now he lives far from Scotland, in a riverside village in the Suffolk countryside.  I’ve only met him once or twice, but his story has always fired our imagination.  His daughter, Shirley,  and her husband were members of a Christian fellowship group that met in my house for several years, and they were some of the first people to meet my husband in the three brief weeks of our courtship before our engagement.  Later Shirley looked after Lola B and picked Elder Daughter up from school, when I became a student again at University.  Their daughters have all been babysitters for our daughters.  One daughter still cuts my daughter’s hair.  Shirley’s husband does the lighting for pop concerts (how cool is that), and gave us the confidence to make our country garden into an occasional magical mystery with his huge blue and green lights.   My God-daughter’s mother, Anna, made all the food for their elder daughter’s wedding to a fellow actuary and Greek Cypriot.  The dreadlocked tree surgeon who cut down our trees last week turned out to be Shirley’s nephew.  And when my husband turned on Radio 4 this Sunday morning, Norman John Gillies was speaking.

St Kilda is a tiny group of islands perched out in the Atlantic, the furthest outpost of the British Isles and part of the Outer Hebrides.  The three islands – Soay, Dun, and the mother island Hirta – have been occupied for at least 5000 years, though the occupation has probably not been continuous for the landscape is hardly hospitable.  Hirta rises in sheer cliffs from the sea and is often covered in mist.  There was little to eat, and little land to cultivate.  Islanders lived off fulmars – seabirds caught on the cliffs by intrepid cragsmen and kept pickled in brine through the winter – and sheep.  The sheep were taken to the outlying smaller islands in summer to graze on vegetation enriched by puffin droppings and brought back in the winter.  Winter seemed endless and food ran short.  Stores of oats, potatoes, cabbages and turnips ran out and by springtime the population was emaciated.  Dry stone “cleitean” dotted the island and were used to store peat and more dried fulmars, and larger cleitean sheltered the sheep from the winter winds. 


Women worked and worked, dressed in earthy shades, with scarves often covering their black hair.  They spun the wool of the sheep.  The men developed toes that were almost prehensile to enable them to cling on to the rocky cliffs as they were lowered down to where fulmars gathered.  There the cragsman would use a long rod with a noose at the end to lassoo a bird, draw it towards him, and break its neck.  Fulmar oil and feathers were accepted by island landlords in lieu of rent, but the birds were shared out equally between the inhabitants, regardless of the contribution made to catching them.  The young, the old, and the sick all had their share.  Eggs from the fulmars were never disturbed, so that next year there would be birds to kill.  Eggs from gannets, from guillemot and razorbills were taken and eaten: often the egg shells were blown and decorated for the occasional visitor to take home as a souvenir.


Every morning the men of the island would gather outside a house in the mainstreet for the island’s  “Parliament”.  The St Kildans could not afford to be other than collaborative, and the Parliament meeting was used to decide what needed to be done that day.  There were no set rules and no designated leader: the schoolmaster in 1889 said that the Parliament:


‘very much resembles our Honourable British Parliament in being able to waste any amount of precious time over a very small matter while on the other hand they can pass a Bill before it is well introduced’.


The island was seen as a democratic utopia:


“If St Kilda is not the Eutopia so long sought, where will it be found? Where is the land which has neither arms, money, care, physic, politics, nor taxes? That land is St Kilda. No taxgatherer’s bill threatens on a church door-the game-laws reach not the gannets. Safe in its own whirlwinds, and cradled in its own tempests, it heeds not the storms which shake the foundations of Europe – and acknowledging the dominion of M’Leod, cares not who sways the British sceptre. Well may the pampered native of happy Hirt refuse to change his situation – his slumbers are late – his labours are light – his occupation his amusement. Government he has not – law he feels not – physic he wants not – politics he heeds not – money he sees not – of war he hears not. His state is his city, his city is his social circle-he has the liberty of his thoughts, his actions, and his kingdom and all the world are his equals. His climate is mild, and his island green, and the stranger who might corrupt him shuns its shores. If happiness is not a dweller in St Kilda, where shall it be sought ?



Lachlan Maclean, 1838


The lives of the St Kildans revolved around their Christian faith.  Each day began and ended with prayers and each meal began with grace.  An elder of the church accompanied the men on longer expeditions, leading the prayers whilst they were away from their home.  The religion was harsh, punitive and pervaded everything that was done, particularly during the period 1865 to 1889 when the Free Church of Scotland was represented on the island by the Rev John MacKay. His successor was a kinder man who even took lessons in midwifery and the use of antisceptics on the mainland so that he could help his flock.  He defeated the lethal neo-natal tetanus that over a twenty year period in the mid nineteeth century had claimed almost all the infants born on the island.  He also introduced book learning, and some children learnt to speak English and even Latin.  He retired in 1903.


Summer brought visitors.  The novelist Antony Trollope recalled his visit:


“Then we walked up among the cottages, buying woollen stockings and sea-birds’ eggs, such being the commodities they had for sale.  Some coarse cloth we found also, made on the island from the wool grown there … many of them went on board [the ship’s boat used to land the visitors], not unnaturally desiring to satisfy some little want, and to see the last of their strange visitors.”


Finlay MacQueen was one of the  last to leave the island.  He married a member of the Gillies family, Mary Jemima Otter Porcupine Gillies.  Mary was named after the wife and ship of Captain Henry C Otter, Admirality hydrographic surveyor, commanding the Porcupine in St Kildan waters at the time of her birth.  Unaware of the events of the First World War, Finlay rowed out in friendliness to meet a circling submarine, only to find the island bombed by 70 German bombs much to the embarrassment of the Royal Navy who situated a gun on the island after that.


By the late 1920s the population had declined to only 15 males and 22 females.  A resident nurse and visiting doctor realised that the population was doomed and in 1930 the question of evacuation was raised by the nurse.  Reluctantly the islanders agreed with her conclusion and the following petition was sent to the Secretary of State for Scotland, signed by every adult on the island:


“We the undersigned the Natives of St Kilda hereby respectfully pray and petition Her Majesty’s Government to assist us all to leave the island this year and to find homes and occupations for us on the mainland …

We do not ask to be settled together as a separate community, but in the meantime we would well and truly be grateful of assistance elsewhere where there would be a better opportunity of securing our livelihood …”


On Friday, August 29th, 1930 thirty six men, women and children, including Finlay MacQueen and Norman John Gillies, boarded His Majesty’s sloop, The Harebell.  Another boat, the Dunara Castle, took their furniture and belongings.  Eight of the ten families disembarked at Lochaline and the men were given jobs on the mainland with the Forestry Commission at its Ardtornish estate.  Two other families continued with the Harebell to Oban.  For a while a wealthy tweed merchant organised an annual trip back to St Kilda for the islanders.  In 1935 they spent nine weeks on the island, rounding up the feral sheep who thought “nothing of leaping high in the air over your head”, and bringing old looms back into service.


The island is now managed by the National Trust for Scotland, and Norman John lives in Suffolk and his flame-haired granddaughter is building a house on another island with her Greek Cypriot husband.



Norman John, on St Kilda, with Shirley (far right)




Xanthippa posted a comment on my piece about the Asperger’s Marriage, and I found her blog – Xanthippa’s Chamberpot.  I thought others might like to have a look at it.  Xanthippa, her husband, and her two sons all have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which (at least) means they all understand each other.  Xanthippa presents her view of the world, and, amongst other subjects, describes the difficulties that children with Asperger’s encounter.  I am hoping that one day she might write a post about friendship as she understands it, and whether – for those with Asperger’s – it ever goes beyond the “utility” type friendship that Aristotle described …

I love her very clever “About” page which includes this story of how her blog came to bear its name:

“Well, a while ago, there was this guy named Socrates. Very famous chap….ancient Greek city of Athens, the ‘father’ of the ‘Western moral philosophy’, died rather than compromise on his ideals…if you haven’t heard of him, curse your education system and Google him.

Socrates used to stroll about Athens, a clump of students/admirers/hangers-on following him like puppies, and he demonstrated his supreme cleverness by asking questions……well thought out questions, where everyone but his poor victim knew he was faking daftness in order to draw them into saying something that would prove to the audience the silliness and stupidity of the victim, and how clever and sophisticated Socrates really was. One
day, he began to question a pretty young girl….named Xanthippe.

Though never formally trained in this mega-smart field of philosophy, Xanthippe’s intelligence, ready wit and composure soon showed that she was neither silly, nor stupid… She is the only person ever known to have bested Socrates in a debate!

From here, the story takes a familiar turn: elderly respected man meets a hot, smart young woman….can’t dominate her intellectually, so he does the next best thing – he marries her! First, they are happy….but three kids later, he is still walking about Athens demonstrating how stupid everyone else is, while she starts asking him to actually do something to put food on the table. He may be wined and dined, but his kids were whiny and hungry. It is at this point that Socrates realizes that what he really can’t stand is an argumentative shrew of a wife!

So, theirs was not the most harmonious household. But, can you really blame Xanthippe (the name literally means ‘yellow horse’)? Her grandfather-of-a-husband was busy being admired by his groopies, making tons of ‘wild yellow horse’ jokes (some claim that Xanthippe was a natural blonde – and that Socrates was the originator of the ‘dumb blonde’ jokes, though I wouldn’t bet on it), and avoided all parental responsibilities…I’d be a tad miffed, too.

There is a story that one day, Socrates got up and prepared to abandon his family again, when Xanthippe had a few choice things to point out to him about the pragmatic considerations of physical existence….but could not engage her husband’s attention. To help him focus, she emptied the contents of a chamber pot over his head…. Rather an effective technique, I think (though some ‘cleaned up’ versions of the story report it was a ‘bucket of water’ rather than a ‘chamber pot’).

The moral of the story is that in ancient Greece, if you were intelligent, insightful, eloquent and male – you became a famous philosopher. If you were intelligent, insightful, eloquent and female – you became an archetype of the quarrelsome, unreasonable shrew of a wife!”


Brick Lane is one narrow street, one long vein-like narrow street which, like a stick of pink seaside rock, has the history of immigration to Britain running through it.  At one end are dozens of popular curry houses bearing witness to the Bangladeshis who settled here – in Banglatown -from the 1970s onwards. 

A few bagel shops remain – a modern day testament to the older influx of Ashkenazi Jews to the area in the early 18th Century.  These were poor immigrants fit only for the “sale of old clothes or in peddling goods such as fruit, jewellry and knives”, unwelcome because of fears that they would “deluge the kingdom with brokers, usurers and beggars”. They, in turn, took the place of Irish weavers who arrived in the 1730s, competing with the French immigrant population.

For, longer ago, the street was occupied by Huguenots refugees in dwellings more humble than the Hugenot house in nearby Folgate street that remains infused by spirits of ages past from the Rake’s Progress to the Christmas Carol.  These refugees were Calvinist Protestant silk weavers who had fled from France after the Edict of Nantes in 1598 revoked their their right to worship as they pleased. Like the 20th Century immigrants, the Huguenots were mistrusted, accused of trading secretly among themselves, of engaging in illicit commercial practices, and contributing to overcrowding by dividing up houses and filling them with lodgers and others. Though their children were by law English, they remained foreigners by “inclination and kind affection”. In 1567 there was “a great watch in the City of London … for fear of an insurrection against the strangers which were in great number in and about the city”.

Each wave of immigrants sought to displace the previous wave, each leaving it history on the street.  Part of the street still retains an East End Englishness too, even if a little gentrified in places.  Artisans rent small shops to sell unusual jewellery, vintage clothes and pop art and residents of the quartier like Ralph Fiennes provide a colourful population against a background of graffiti art by the likes of Banksy.  Lola B’s godmother and her husband hang out in Brick Lane, in trendy museum-quality post-modern living.

Monica Ali wrote a novel called after the street, about its Bangladeshi population and a small nuclear family in particular whose make-up matched both my own little family and that of my family of origin: a father, a mother and two teenage daughters.  I tried to read the book several times, but it defeated me.  A film of the book was made late last year and released on DVD a month ago.  My husband brought it back from the local bicycle shop that doubles as a video shop, and all four of us watched it together, mesmerised by a world contained in a very ordinary council flat, coloured and scented by vivid memories of Bangladesh.

At times the film is very difficult to watch as we are unwelcome voyeurs of forbidden intimacy. At times my husband and I exchanged amused glances as two very familiar British Bangladeshi daughters fought over toothpaste and pushed the boundaries. Both our daughters howled with tears as they thought themselves inside the girls and we spent many minutes afterwards mopping up tears and soothing anxious orphan-anxieties.

Nasneen is a beautiful, spare, caramel coloured elder sister who is sent to England by her widowed father.  She is only eighteen.  There, in the area around Brick Lane, she begins married life with a man twice her age and twice her weight.  He is a self-educated Bangladeshi man so steeped in the English literature of Shakespeare and Thackeray that he spews it out constantly: she is a village girl who misses her younger sister.  They have two daughters and – for sixteen years or so – Nasneen tends them and her husband, scrimping and saving pennies to pay for a flight back to Bangladesh to see her sister.  She buys a sewing machine, and takes in blue jeans and sequinned boob-tubes to finish, brought to her house by a delicious young man, whose political radicalisation we watch day by day, just as their entanglement threatens to strangle the whole family.  Nasneen blossoms, beginning to burst out of her irritating depressive passivity, even whilst her husband slowly deflates like a pricked balloon.


But the story is about more than a young Bangladeshi woman transported from a rural childhood to a decaying estate of council flats in London and an arranged marriage with an overweight man who has lost himself.  It is about where home is, and what home is.

I enjoyed reading a blog called “Domina Grecia” which, like Theophilos’s previous blog, sadly disappeared without warning a couple of weeks ago, leaving its regular readers wondering what on earth could have happened to him. One of the last posts provoked an interesting discussion which reflected the range of feeling that I see amongst my friends. It was a post about “home”, whatever that is.

For some people “home” is where they are, wherever they are.  In the words of the song, home is “wherever I lay my hat”.  Or, like like the tag on a recent Louis Vuiton advert with Catherine DeNeuve, “Etre chez-soi n’est pas un endroit, c’est un sentiment” (Home is not a place, it’s a feeling).  For others, “home” is a distant place in the past that they may never return to, or something that they dream of creating in the future when things are better for them than they are now.  For some “home” is where their family is, thousands of miles away, going on without them but visited by them now and then.  Our idea of “home” may change too: parents in our old home place die and with them our link to a place dies.  Children root us to a place which we have only previously felt vaguely connected to.  Good friends move away and a place seems less like home.  Bad things happen at home, and we drift until we find a safer one.

Home is many different things for the characters in the film.  For the two daughters, roughly the same age as my own, there is only one home that they have ever known, and that is the unprepossessing flat in East London.  The father has tried to adopt all the ways of the English and appears ridiculous in the process, but any pretence at having “become one of them” falls away when the English rise up in prejudice against him after 9/11 – because of his faith.  He finds that he has lost his home, and needs to find a new one.  Nasneen knows where her home is, until she is about to go back there and discovers that it has moved without her noticing.  Home is where her heart is, where her daughters are.

It is also a film about love, and how it, too, surprises us, metamorphosing constantly and being found in places that we thought were loveless.