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In the May/June edition of the American journal Foreign Affairs the editor of Newsweek International, Fareed Zakaria, sets the US today alongside the British Empire in 1897 and dissects the fall of the latter in order to show that it is not inevitable that the US goes the same way. He chooses as the apogee of the Empire a pageantry moment – June 22, 1897 – when 400 million people were given the day off in order to celebrate with Queen Victoria the 60th anniversary of her ascension to the British throne. But even by 1897 the Empire was in economic decline. Its hey day had really been almost half a century earlier when it was producing 30 per cent of global GDP, when it accounted for one-fifth of the world’s trade and two fifths of its manufacturing trade. The Empire covered about a quarter of the earth’s land surface and included a quarter of its population, though only 2 per cent lived in Britain itself. But Britain shed its empire and its economic power dwindled. The mantle was taken over by the US which has accounted for roughly a quarter of the world output for over a century (32 percent in 1913, 22 per cent in 1980, 26 percent in 2007).

So, the two countries were similarly economic giants. But the similarity did not stop there, for Britain became a political pariah as a result of the Boer War so that by 1902 it could be described as “friendless”. If America is still surrounded by friends (and perhaps many of those friends are the sycophantic “good time” friends that disappear if the money begins to run out) the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made more enemies than friends, sullying its image abroad and has left a moral void into which there are only too many other opportunistic states wanting to step.

So much for the similarities. Zakaria writes that the wonder is not that the British Empire declined, but that it held on to its political power for so long after its economic decline. He credits a redoubtable diplomacy and a wise policy of ceding power to the friendly American younger relative with the long tail or the the long goodbye which Britain continued to enjoy, arguably continues to enjoy, as it still punches above its weight as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Even Churchill’s place at the table at the Yalta Conference was a reflection of the man’s personal ambition and skill, not the real due of the country he represented.

America still leads the world with an economy ranked the world’s most competitive and is proofing itself against future decline by leading the world in futuristic technologies such as Nanotechnology and Biotechnology, in designing and distributing products rather than manufacturing them. Further, despite a perception that the American nation is poorly educated, the truth is that it leads the world in university level education with either seven or eight of the world’s top ten universities, and continues to train more engineers than either China or India does. At the level of higher education, the quality delivered is extremely poor in these two countries, which is why so many of their students find their way abroad. It is not just a numbers game, however. The critical tradition of thinking encouraged in American universities leaves the Asian world behind. Students are engaged, instead of being spoon-fed.

America is not yet at risk from the East. It continues to outspend every other country several times over on defence, is a strong economy, and has an educated workforce. It has less superiority over Europe than it imagines – if the US has the top spot for its competitive economy, nine of the other ten are European countries. Trouble is, apparently, we don’t deal with our immigrants well enough: “European societies do not seem able to take in assimilate people from strange and unfamiliar cultures, especially from rural and backward regions of the world of Islam” whereas “The United States … is creating the first universal nation, made up of all colors, races, and creeds, living and working together in considerable harmony” evidenced by the candidates for the Presidential election. Europe’s failure to make up for the reluctance of its native population to adequately reproduce by accommodating immigrants stokes up a time bomb of citizens who increasingly spend more than they save and are expensive drains on pension funds and health services. Although native-born white Americans have the same low fertility rates as Europeans, foreign students are soon to represent the majority of Ph.Ds awarded. If they can be kept in the US, their dynamism will ensure the continued economic success of the US. Ultimately, Zakaria writes, “this is what sets the country apart from the experience of Britain”.

Jumping on a popular bandwagon, Zakaria warns of the end of the unipolar US-dominated world. In this post-American world, America may still economically hold sway, but it is politically bankrupt. Its downfall, if it comes at all, will be the reverse of that of the British Empire: political not economic. But its salvation will be the same. If it wants to enjoy the same long goodbye, it needs to gracefully cede some of its own power, and accept a world with a diversity of voices and viewpoints, or its risks its own destruction as a result of the rise of the rest.

Read the whole article here.


I had a few peaceful moments yesterday in a Christian bookshop in the Strand.  I bought a couple of books, one of which pointed to this passage in Matthew Henry’s Commentary of the Bible, first published in 1708.  Matthew Henry was the son of the dissenting Scottish clergyman who refused to agree to the Act of Uniformity acknowledging the supremacy of the (then) corrupt Catholic church.   Matthew was sent to finish his education not at Oxford or Cambridge, but at one of the Dissenting academies set up in Islington, London.   The Academy was forced by persecution to move five times in the time that he was studying there, and eventually he returned home.  Later he studied law before becoming a Presbyterian minister.  His sermons were “expository but never political” and he taught catechism classes for children and visited all those who were in need irrespective of their faith.  He was constantly troubled by the poor quality of religious life in England, and died when he was only 52.  The passage relates to the creation story in Genesis Chapter 2, and to verses 21-25.

That the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.

Adam lost a rib, and without any diminution to his strength or comeliness (for, doubtless, the flesh was closed without a scar); but in lieu thereof he had a help meet for him, which abundantly made up his loss: what God takes away from his people he will, one way or other, restore with advantage. In this (as in many other things) Adam was a figure of him that was to come; for out of the side of Christ, the second Adam, his spouse the church was formed, when he slept the sleep, the deep sleep, of death upon the cross, in order to which his side was opened, and there came out blood and water, blood to purchase his church and water to purify it to himself. See Eph. v. 25, 26.

II. The marriage of the woman to Adam. Marriage is honourable, but this surely was the most honourable marriage that ever was, in which God himself had all along an immediate hand. Marriages (they say) are made in heaven: we are sure this was, for the man, the woman, the match, were all God’s own work; he, by his power, made them both, and now, by his ordinance, made them one. This was a marriage made in perfect innocency, and so was never any marriage since, 1. God, as her Father, brought the woman to the man, as his second self, and a help-meet for him. When he had made her, he did not leave her to her own disposal; no, she was his child, and she must not marry without his consent. Those are likely to settle to their comfort who by faith and prayer, and a humble dependence upon providence, put themselves under a divine conduct. That wife that is of God’s making by special grace, and of God’s bringing by special providence, is likely to prove a help-meet for a man. 2. From God, as his Father, Adam received her (v. 23): “This is now bone of my bone. Now I have what I wanted, and which all the creatures could not furnish me with, a help meet for me.” God’s gifts to us are to be received with a humble thankful acknowledgment of his wisdom in suiting them to us, and his favour in bestowing them on us. Probably it was revealed to Adam in a vision, when he was asleep, that this lovely creature, now presented to him, was a piece of himself, and was to be his companion and the wife of his covenant. Hence some have fetched an argument to prove that glorified saints in the heavenly paradise shall know one another. Further, in token of his acceptance of her, he gave her a name, not peculiar to her, but common to her sex: She shall be called woman, Isha, a she-man, differing from man in sex only, not in nature—made of man, and joined to man.

III. The institution of the ordinance of marriage, and the settling of the law of it, v. 24. The sabbath and marriage were two ordinances instituted in innocency, the former for the preservation of the church, the latter for the preservation of the world of mankind. It appears (by Matt. xix. 4, 5) that it was God himself who said here, “A man must leave all his relations, to cleave to his wife;” but whether he spoke it by Moses, the penman, or by Adam (who spoke, v. 23), is uncertain. It should seem, they are the words of Adam, in God’s name, laying down this law to all his posterity. 1. See here how great the virtue of a divine ordinance is; the bonds of it are stronger even than those of nature. To whom can we be more firmly bound than the fathers that begat us and the mothers that bore us? Yet the son must quit them, to be joined to his wife, and the daughter forget them, to cleave to her husband, Ps. xlv. 10, 11. 2. See how necessary it is that children should take their parents’ consent along with them in their marriage, and how unjust those are to their parents, as well as undutiful, who marry without it; for they rob them of their right to them, and interest in them, and alienate it to another, fraudulently and unnaturally. 3. See what need there is both of prudence and prayer in the choice of this relation, which is so near and so lasting. That had need be well done which is to be done for life. 4. See how firm the bond of marriage is, not to be divided and weakened by having many wives (Mal. ii. 15) nor to be broken or cut off by divorce, for any cause but fornication, or voluntary desertion. 5. See how dear the affection ought to be between husband and wife, such as there is to our own bodies, Eph. v. 28. These two are one flesh; let them then be one soul.

IV. An evidence of the purity and innocency of that state wherein our first parents 21 were created, v. 25. They were both naked. They needed no clothes for defense against cold nor heat, for neither could be injurious to them. They needed none for ornament. Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Nay, they needed none for decency; they were naked, and had no reason to be ashamed. They knew not what shame was, so the Chaldee reads it. Blushing is now the colour of virtue, but it was not then the colour of innocency. Those that had no sin in their conscience might well have no shame in their faces, though they had no clothes to their backs.

I have another commentary as well, first published a hundred years later in 1810, and written by Anglo-Irish Methodist, Adam Clarke.  He caught the attention of John Wesley who ensured he was brought to Kingswood School near Bath to finish his education, and he was appointed a Methodist minister when he was only 20.  This is his commentary on the same passage:

And he took one of his ribs.  It is immaterial whether we render tsela a rib or part of his side, for it may mean either: some part of man was to be used on the occasion, whether bone or flesh it matters not, though it is likely, from v23 that a part of both was taken; for Adam, knowing how woman was formed, said “This is flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bones.”  As God formed her out of part of the man himself, he saw she was of the same nature, the same identical flesh and blood, and of the same constitution in all respects, and consequently having equal powers, faculties, and rights.  This at once ensured his affection, and excited his esteem.”


Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Enjoy.  At Wembley Arena, London, tonight.


One of the early posts I wrote on this blog was about the public profile of the armed forces.  It was provoked by my recent experiences in America, and by the reporting of a speech by Sir Richard Dannart which called for a more public show of appreciation for the work of the armed forces.  The public responded almost immediately with warm homecomings for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – no government involvement there.  Things have moved on.  Now a new report proposes a new public holiday to celebrate armed forces.  This article from the Guardian.

New report proposes a new public holiday to celebrate armed forces

The review of civil and military relations also called for a new law to make discriminating against people in military uniform a criminal offence.

The 40 recommendations include more state school cadet forces, encouraging service personnel to wear their uniforms off-duty, putting military awareness on the national curriculum and encouraging local councils to organise homecoming parades.Armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth said the report would “ensure that the work of our armed forces is better understood and recognised by the nation they serve”.
The Ministry of Defence said it would respond in detail to the recommendations later in the year but was already working on many of the proposals.

The report suggests that a Friday or Monday at the end of June would be a suitable time for an armed forces public holiday.

Ainsworth confirmed that the government was considering creating a new public holiday, adding: “We do want to take forward the proposal to recognise our armed forces.

“Whether that is a separate bank holiday of itself, whether it’s a weekend, is something we would consider.”

MP Quentin Davies, who was asked by Gordon Brown to undertake the review, denied that any of his proposals would threaten the significance of Remembrance Sunday.

“There are moments for sadness and commemoration of our heroes of the past, and there are moments to look to the future,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Davies said his inquiry had found a “divergence” between the military and civilians, with people showing less understanding as their contact with them had gone down. Former Conservative MP Davies quit the Tories to join Labour last year.

Ainsworth confirmed that the government was examining how it could implement Davies’s call for legislation making discrimination of those in military uniforms an offence, with assaults or threats of violence against anyone in uniform considered an aggravated offence.

It follows reports that personnel at RAF Wittering near Peterborough were told by senior personnel not to wear their uniforms in public for fear of abuse from people opposed to the war in Iraq.

The report also highlighted incidents including troops at Birmingham and Edinburgh airports being told to change into civilian clothes or avoid public areas, and injured veterans being abused by members of the public at a swimming pool,

Currently there are only 60 cadet forces in the comprehensive school system in England and Wales, compared with 200 in the grammar and independent sector.

However, the report’s proposal to expand them, which would see pupils who sign up given weapons training, is likely to prove highly controversial.
In March teaching unions denounced schools-based cadet forces as a questionable recruiting tactic.

The Conservatives claim the government has copied many of its own ideas.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, said many of the proposals were common sense and should be welcomed but he said “pageantry should not obscure the hard facts” about the way the government treated the armed forces.

“An armed forces day is welcome, but it will ring hollow for those forces families who still have to put up with sub-standard housing,” said Harvey.

General Timothy Granville-Chapman, vice-chief of the defence staff, welcomed the report, adding: “The report compliments the work going on in the services, is comprehensive and makes firm recommendations which my fellow chiefs of staff will find very useful in harnessing appropriate public recognition and understanding of what we do.”

Last year, the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, warned that a lack of public appreciation for Britain’s military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan was in danger of “sapping” the willingness of troops to serve on such dangerous operations.


This morning’s Guardian G2 has a piece written by Professor Germaine Greer about Posh Spice’s superlative dress-wearing skills.   One particular dress is given as an example, a dress that other women have worn, apparently, with far less success.  Professor’s Greer’s argument may be reduced to this: other women wear the dress too tight and the dress looks dreadful on them because their breasts begin to squeeze out of the armhole.  Otherwise put, Posh Spice is very thin and has tiny breasts so the dress looks good on her.  In addition, shoes, that Professor Greer has previously described as “f**k me” shoes, set off her body to great advantage by tilting her pelvis provocatively forward…

Posh Spice is wearing a dress designed by French designer, Roland Mouret.  It is called the “Moon” dress and has become almost iconic.  Impossible to get hold of, costing a thousand pounds.  Mouret designed the dress to show off a woman’s curves.  This is what the designer said to one journalist about the dress:

“The point with the Moon dress is that it is not about any shape except the exquisite natural shape of a woman … Men are simple creatures: if an outfit becomes too intellectual or complicated it’s not nice. My dress is not about perfection. I prefer to see the girls I work with slip out of their jeans and trainers and into my dresses than any model, because it’s all about the transformation and the look on their faces.”

Ironically, Professor Greer, Victoria Beckham had to have the dress altered because even the smaller size was too large for her tiny frame.  She is curve-less though breast implants and a wonderful designer would have us believe otherwise.  It is Mouret who is the star.  Here are other celebrities wearing an earlier Mouret dress, the Galaxy.

The girls and I went to hear Germaine Greer last week and afterwards she told us she was writing this article about Posh Spice.  Lola B commented that she had moderated her language since her descriptions to us (no mention of “tits”), and Elder Daughter noticed that in the by-line thumbnail photo she was wearing the same “Elephant” Dress that she had worn last week, that we now know she always wears.  We queued up afterwards with some friends to get a book signed, one for each daughter.  Ms Greer looked at the girl ahead of us in the queue, a beautiful statuesque girl with peroxide hair and braces who was recently scouted as a model.  Ms Greer looked very pointedly at the girl’s stomach, then at her braces.  Then she said that she hoped that the girl did not stick her finger down her throat because the bile from her vomit would rot her teeth.  We were all stunned.  Where did that come from?  What right did Germaine Greer have to speak like that to a fifteen year old girl whom she has never met before and with whom she had never exchanged even so much as a word?  Up close and personal, none of us liked Professor Greer – there seemed to be no kindness in her.

I had been warned about going to see Professor Greer, that I would feel very angry afterwards.  I imagined that my advisor thought it would bring out any latent misandry in me.  It did anything but that, but I was left feeling angry.  More angry than I realised until later. 

My daughters had not wanted to go to hear Professor Greer.  It was another crackpot idea of their mother.  So I resorted to my default tactics.  Each was bribed with a pre-talk meal of pizza or pasta according to her taste, and a girl friend to dilute the boredom.  I did want to go, having already heard her speak several years ago when her book about beautiful boys had just been published and I had been amused by her wit.  The delight with which both daughters pounced on G2 this morning makes me feel vindicated in my insistence that they accompany me to hear this world famous arch-feminist in person.  If only I knew what to do with my anger.

She kept us waiting forty minutes and then did not apologise.  Why should she, she is Germaine Greer, after all.  We should have been grateful that she bothered to come at all, especially since she had recently broken her ankle falling down stairs in her rain forest home.  She mentioned her rain forest home quite a lot, actually, more than was strictly necesssary, or necessary at all.  I felt inferior, because I did not have a rainforest home, but that is exactly how she intended that I feel.  I also felt inferior because I am not as educated as Germaine, but then almost nobody is. 

She is a large women.  Tall, big boned, and wearing one of the most unflattering dresses that you can possibly imagine, and that my elder daughter has so aptly described as The Elephant Dress.  A dress that can only have been chosen to make a point, or several points all at the same time.  Amongst the many points that this dress (grey, kitted, figure hugging) were surely these: “I refuse to make my body look more attractive than it already is” and “Why should I dress up for you lot?” and “Comfort above everything” and “I’m almost 70 and look at me”.  You see, the odd thing about the dress was that it accentuated her stomach, a stomach which was worthy of Lucian Freud’s attention.  I thought that somebody should definitely appraise her of the benefits of a gluten free diet, as her upper and lower stomach both appeared distended and swollen.  You may think it rude of me to comment, but the dress forced me to spend a long time looking at her stomach, especially since she chose to speak to us perced on a bar stool, in a position which advanced her stomach towards us.  She might as well have been wearing a leotard, or nothing at all. 

Germaine Greer in the Elephant Dress

Chop off her body, and her head is remarkably well preserved.  She is striking, beautiful perhaps, and does not look her age.  Her hair is subtlely coloured to be an interesting grey and it is well cut.  She has globular balls of large pearls hanging from her ear lobes, and invisible glasses so that we can see her as well as she can see us.  She wears several rings, one on top of the other, on one of her little fingers, not dissimilar to the family-crested signet worn by the British upper classes.   She looks well off, educated, healthy, arty.   Her ankle showed no signs of being broken, her shoes were sensible if adorned by a bow.  Her voice is mellifluous and her delivery lively.  She shocks and amuses and informs by turn, and I could listen to her for a very long time. 

It struck me that talking about “women” in general is a very good way to keep people away from this woman in particular.  She was very closed, quite aggressive, easily put out, not at all generous or kind.  She described herself as a “bolter”, someone who runs away from difficult things.  She was married once, for three weeks, but slept with seven other men (previous boyfriends who were all too willing to comfort her when she asked) in that period and the marriage did not last.  Which must have surprised a lot of people.  Not.  In another interview she said she was not sure that she could tell the difference between love and lust.  She has never had a child, therefore never been a mother.  She has only briefly had any kind of in-law.  She is a feminist.  Which, according to her, means that she thinks of herself as a woman before she thinks of herself as anything else.  That makes me a feminist too. 

She constantly, constantly, derided her stupid male colleagues for their phallocentric interpretation of Shakespeare.  She said she had years of teaching at Cambridge as evidence that men are good looking in inverse proportion to their intelligence and left us in no doubt that intelligence mattered least, yet pitched much of her talk at post-graduate level.  She spat out her regret that the hebraic traditions in literature had been eschewed in favour of classical knowledge, and moved on without explaining though there is a whole book in that single comment.  She threw out her conjectures about Ann Hathaway’s rock-like-ness and Shakespeare’s abiding love of her.  She combined scholarly learning and research with wild guesses.  It felt as if she looked at those of us who queued up with our daughters to have books signed, as “breeders”, women whose only role is to reproduce, yet she left us a picture of Ann Hathaway knitting to support her brood. 

Afterwards I read that Greer’s father was absent a lot during her childhood and mother used to whip her around the face with a kettle flex because the face was the only place where she could hurt her daughter, and I wondered how much she liked mothers and whether she had chosen never to become one (she says her fertility was impaired early in her life and she later wanted to be a mother).  She seemed to be a creature of enormous contradictions who was still not sure what she really thought and who was probably happiest away from everybody in her rain forest home. 

I already had one book by Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, and have read parts of it at numerous times in my life.  One passage, in particular, had haunted me for several years.  I’ll include it as a separate post since it deserves its own angst ridden introduction. 

The other book was a collection of 101 poems by women which she had collected together.  Reading through some of them in the forty five minutes that we were waiting for Ms Greer, I came across a poem by Maya Angelou.  It is an I will Survive poem, a fillip for down days.  Afterwards, I asked Professor Greer if she would sign the book on that particular page, and dedicate it to Lola B.  She started, looked up at me, and down again at the book.  Very pregnant pause.  I thought she was going to refuse.  But she didn’t. 

Instead she said “I’m her co-wife”. 

Another hugely pregnant pause.  Not the sort of pregnancy that Victoria Beckham can hide in her Mouret dress.  I wasn’t sure how to take this loaded comment, and so asked her to explain.  “We were both married to the same man,” she said.  I wanted to lie on the floor and kick my legs in the air with laughter, so funny and full of serendipity life is.  I had had no idea, so I looked it up when I got home. 

Germaine Greer was married for three weeks to a French cartoonist who later posed nude as a Cosmopolitant centrefold.  Maya Angelou was married to him for much longer and counts it as her happiest marriage.  Germaine Greer signed the page and after her name she wrote, in brackets, “Co-Wife”.  At least she didn’t smile.  I had the feeling that it was all about “power” in her unsafe world, not love.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou 

Professor Greer (Co-wife)

Every Tuesday I go to a two hour French Conversation Class.  It’s at my daughters’ tea time so I am invariably late and flustered when I arrive, but I so enjoy my chance to speak French.  We are a motley crew of people, all of whom have a deep love of France and many of whom have lived there for short periods, or married into the country.  One young man comes with his mother.  Several are retired.  We include a general practitioner, a renegade Czech who allegedly fled his country during the Revolution and reads everything through a magnifying glass the size of a plate, an engineer at the local nuclear powerstation, a telecommunications research engineer, a retired polyglot and a couple of local businessmen.  I continually count my blessings that a class so perfectly suited to my language ability should be offered in my provincial home town. 

Our tutor is French and the Head of Languages at the local college of further education.  He is … excellent, no other word for it.  Full of enthusiasm, very organised, flexible and approachable.  And probably prevented from running this course next year because it is technically run by our local council, not the college that employs him, even though it takes place in a room provided by the college, and even though it is one of the high points of the tutor’s week to teach a group of such an ability.  This year he managed to arrange the course without anyone noticing until it was too late.  Next year he thinks he will be more closely watched.  We have spent several weeks talking about student demonstrations in France, so are already collecting our cauliflowers to use as weapons if need be.  We are all very keen to continue such a wonderful opportunity.

last week we had to give a short presentation to our peers on a chosen subject.  I chose to talk about the recent wedding I attended in Burgundy – lots of material, and little preparation.  Other people chose subjects as diverse as a novel and a film called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the Tour de France.  Then we adjourned to the language lab to hear an extract from a radio programme about an event which happened in November 2006 and which threw millions of people into the dark. 

A large newly built cruise liner, the Norwegian Pearl, was navigating the river Ems in North Western Germany and as a precaution the German electricity supply company decided to suspend operation of a very high voltage cable that crossed above the river.  The German network is part of a pan-European network comprising 27 countries currently, with a list of wannabees, such as Syria, Jordan and Libya, queueing up to join.  It notified its nearest neighbour, France, of its intention to shut down the line, but there was inadequate co-ordination amongst other suppliers and distributers of electricity with the result that the electricity which could not be routed via the German cable caused a surge in other networks.  The surge threatened to cause the other lines to overheat, and so emergency shutdowns occurred.  Each shutdown reduced the capacity of the network, producing futher surges and shutdowns.  In all 10 million households were left without electricity, of whom half were in France.  The breakdown highlighted both the interdependence of so many countries and also the poor communication between suppliers. 

The Norwegian Pearl

The disruption was, however, also a reflection of an inherent drawback with electricity: it is impossible to store.  A Gas pipeline may suffer catastrophic disaster interrupting supply, but gas may also be stockpiled so that a few day’s supply is kept in hand.  At this point our Czech friend piped up.  He told us about a pumped-storage hydroelectric station in the Czech republic which uses electricity in slack periods to pump water uphill to a storage lake.  In periods of high demands the water is then allowed to flow downhill again, operating turnbines which generate cheap hydroelectric power.   At least, our Czech friend gave us the outline, but the engineer at the nuclear power station gave us the detail.  He told us about two power stations in Wales that operate the same system, and there are another two in Scotland.  Although each centre uses more electricity than it produces, the output is produced at peak times when it can be sold at peak rates, whilst the electricity is consumed mostly during the night when it can be bought at cheap rates, close to zero often.  What is being stored is not the electricity, but the capacity to generate electricity cheaply.  Elecricity is not “stockable“.  Electricity output of these plants is about 70-85% of the electricity input. 

There is an additional benefit of these hydroelectric stations to the grid as a whole – they even out demand.  That is to say, they increase demand on conventional power stations during slack periods (because they call for electricity to pump the water uphill) and they reduce the demand in peak times.  This ensures that convention powerstations, which operate best when kept running consistently, may continue to operate at peak efficiency. Demand can be very quickly satisfied too. The Welsh power plant at Dinorwig can supply 1320 MW of power to the national grid in only 12-16 seconds if there is a sudden surge. This is quick enough to rescue a network in meltdown and compares with a conventional power station which takes at least 12 hours to reach full power from cold and needs 45 to switch to the grid if they are on “hot standby”

Pumped storage was first used as long ago as the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland.  The Czech Republic had one of the earliest plants built on modern lines at Stechovice in 1947 although this original station was closed in 1991 and a newer plant with reverse turbine technology built in its place.  Globally Europe has a 32GW capacity for pumped storage hydroelectricity.  This compares with a capacity of 19.5 GW in the US.  Twice as much electricity in Europe is accounted for by pumped storage hydroelectricity (5.5%) than in the US.   Centres are expensive to produce, especially if the optimum geographical conditions do not exist naturally: ideally there will be a large body of water close to a mountain with a good connection to the national grid.  All possible sites have been exploited in the UK and similarly in the United States.  Further suitable sights may exist in the developing world, but the huge capital costs remain a disadvantage.

Et voilà!  A la prochaine fois.

More: Wikipedia




une panne d’électricité – powercut

à tres haute tension – very high voltage

sauter – to trip

un reseau – network

des moyens d’urgence – emergency measures

une centrale électrique – power station

un black-out

une coupure – interruption to supply

en surcharge – overloaded

l’effet domino/l’effet papillon –

délesté – taken out (electricity … of the network, from le lest, ballast)

la capacité de production – generating capacity

stockable – storeable

la kyrielle – chain (of events)


We were like a gossamer spider’s web around the birthday girl, threads of connection linking each of us to the other.  Synapses waiting to fire, links waiting to be discovered.  One woman was a child psychotherapist, who lived very near to us, and who was happy to chat about some of my favourite subjects, and whom I would like to be a kindred spirit – so much did I like her spirit.  Another had been hiking with my parents-in-law when they visited Hong Kong many years ago, and breathed the same rarefied public school air as them.  Another outdid my passion for food and horses, raised pigs and kept chickens.  Another had taken her children to the small church primary school opposite our house, and had recently buried her husband in a beautiful village church high up, overlooking the river.  It was the church of my mother’s native village, and a recently discovered favourite haunt of mine.  She was generous enough to share her disappointment and her frustations.  Others I had known longer, from church or from my daughter’s school.  As as I knew some women already, others knew each other from another school, from a choir, as neighbours.

At the centre of the web was a friend to all of us, though we were, some of us, strangers to each other.  Ruth had assembled a group of women which whom she wanted to celebrate her birthday, and God had blessed us with glorious sunshine and a cool breeze.  A clutch of us were the same age as her, with children the same ages.  The others were smiling older, wiser, women whose children had flown the nest and who were enjoying their retirement or about to retire.

We began our walk at a small hamlet on a promontory in a wide shallow river fringed with reeds.  An old church surrounded by freshly mown grass and cherry blossom offered a cool, damp refuge from the heat of the afternoon.  Here, at Ikenhoe, more than a thousand years ago St Botolph almost certainly founded a monastery from which he evangelised the pagans. We poked around a bit, feeling the ancient carving on the 9th century Saxon cross discovered underneath the tower when it was being repaired.   At home we have two small watercolours of this church painted from shore of the river that we bought each other, and it is the backdrop to a portrait of my husband that hangs in our house.  Next to the church is a house.  The house that belonged to the great grandfather of the man who was renting us a house in Tuscany for the Whitsun holiday.  We knew that because we had been to collect the key to the Italian house only that morning, and he had told us, and the spider’s spun thread travelled back from there and wound round the places and the people.

  As the path leaves the church it winds down to the river.  We walked along the sand, next to the reeds until a bay appeared in which a small barge was moored.  The bay is enclosed in sandy cliffs up which I clambered in my wedding dress on my wedding day.  We had celebrated our marriage further upstream and had been taken away by a clinker-built fishing boat dressed overall.  Our boatman had landed us at the base of the cliff and our getaway car was parked in the yard of the pig farm at the top.  Nowadays there are steps cut into the cliff; then there was just a helping hand from my husband.  My own threads of history, glistening in the sunshine, pulled me backwards.

We walked on, each of us moving backwards and forwards through the group of women like bees going from flower to flower, alighting, tasting the honey and moving on, pollinating each other as we went.  Now flowers and bees in turn. 

Eventually we arrived at the red brick maltings that grew to fulfil Benjamin Britten’s dream of an international concert hall.  Here, in summer, we come almost nightly to sit on cushions with our children or our friends and listen to the best music in the world.  The concert hall restaurant looks over the river and it was from here that the two of us watched the little boat winding it way through the withies to come and take us away, whilst all our wedding guests knew nothing of our plans.

We all magicked books out of our rucksacks for our friend – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, 1000 places to visit before you die, a audio-book of Middlemarch, a book of Italian recipes and food stories, and a crime novel. We had been wonderfully fed by the conversations as we walked, but we ended a beautiful afternoon with a meal altogether sitting in a cosy pub inside a wooden cocoon.  Ruth asked us to name one thing that we would take to a desert island and between us we furnished our island with a man (the widow), a pocket sprung bed, an armoire, a bottle of champagne, a pair of binoculars, a boat, a large bottle of olive oil, and an endless supply of anti-histamine cream.    I’m glad that Ruth allowed us to enjoy her birthday with her, to explore her friendship web.


This week is Nettle Awareness Week in the UK.  Only in the UK could a week be devoted to the glory of the weed that has caused more children to cry than any other, that has caused more adults to curse.  I liked the darker side that celebrity cook and food writer and herb specialist, Sophie Grigson, gave to the celebration.  She sees it as a clarion call to take our revenge on the nettle by reducing it to soup and, as we sup, to cry “Got you, you bastard!”

So, here are three recipes for nettle soup that take the sting out of the weed.  The first is one for all those aristocratic nettles that refuse to be cowed.  The second is a common or garden recipe that will work for all nettles, and the third is the recipe that I concocted this morning out of ingredients in my store cupboard.  All recipes are gluten free, and mine is dairy free.

All recipes begin with the instruction “First pick your nettles” …  In my case this involved the poignant use of Twiglet’s basket, lined with a tea towel, and an odd pair of industrial gloves that had at various times been used whilst painting the fence and tending the bonfire if the residue on the gloves was anything to go by.  One is supposed to pick only the freshest, juiciest leaves from the top of the plant.  The aristocratic version of the nettle soup recipe requires you to remove the leaves from the stalk, but I did not do this and can vouch for it not being necessary.  I filled half a basket with the nettle tips, then rinsed them (having substituted my dirty gloves for a pair of plastic bags since I do not possess washing up gloves).  Now my nettles were ready to use.

To amuse you whilst you consider whether you wish to go and harvest your own nettles, I thought I would tell you some of the more positive attributes of the dastardly plants.

First, they are a haven for insects, and butterflies in particular.  It is the stinging hairs that account for the nettle’s attraction because these prevent almost all grazing animals from venturing to eat them and leaves the insect larvae safe from harm.  Small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are some of its most ardent fans.  These butterflies belong to the Nymphalidae or Brush-footed group of butterflies whose shortened front pair of legs are covered in hairs like scales.  Aphids overwinter in the nettlepatch and provide springtime food for ladybirds.  Nettleseeds are late summer food for birds.  One gardening tip is to plant nettles in a tub or pot, much like mint, and to position it, or sink it, into your border.  That way the nettles do not spread, but they can attract to your garden the butterflies that love them.

Secondly, nettles are supposedly very good for you.  In particular research has shown them to have effective anti-rheumatic/arthritic properties.  Research carried out by the Plymouth Nettles Research Group (I joke not) of the University of Plymouth post-graduate Peninsula Medical School has shown that nettles can help relieve arthritis symptoms.  They contain silica, particularly in the stringy stems, and it is this element that apparently helps joints.  Research was reported in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Association (vol 355 of 2000). Dr. Colin Randall, of Plymouth University, studied 27 patients who had osteoarthritis, none of whom had used nettles before. They applied stinging nettle leaf for one week, then white deadnettle (which doesn’t sting) as a placebo. They reported that pain and disability were significantly lower after one week of treatment with the stinging nettle, and there was a reduction in their use of drugs.

Other medicinal claims include treatment of internal kidney, liver and bladder problems and to treat diabetes.  Once you’ve read this you will never want to be without the nettle again:

Despite the unpleasantness of its sting, the nettle has been highly regarded in Europe since at least antiquity as both a food and a medicine, with both the Greeks and the Romans using it for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. In the first century, Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen reported the leaf of the nettle had diuretic and laxative properties and was useful for asthma, pleurisy and spleen illnesses. By medieval times the stinging nettle was in common use throughout the continent, being used for treating rheumatism, arthritis, allergies and eczema, baldness, bladder infections, cough, bronchitis, bursitis, anemia, gingivitis, hives, laryngitis, gout, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, premenstrual syndrome, prostate enlargement and sciatica. According to Nicolas Culpeper in the seventeenth century, the seeds of the nettle were thought to be beneficial in the treatment of bites from “mad dogs” or the stinging of “venomous creatures.”

Seeds were also used at that time as an antidote to poisonous herbs such as nightshade and henbane. In early American medicine, bandages soaked in a leaf and stem infusion were used to stop the bleeding of wounds. An account of this use was recorded by Dr. Francis P. Procher, a physician in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Nettle leaves were also recommended as a nutritious food and as a weight loss aid by the famous American plant forager and naturalist, Euell Gibbons.

For some purposes the leaf of the nettle was recommended, for some purposes the stem, for some purposes the seed, and for others the root, and accordingly the whole of the plant was utilised in traditional medicine and revered for its healing properties. It was also popular as a food in many countries and we know today that nettle is highly nutritive, being rich in chlorophyll, beta carotene, vitamins A, C, E and K, several of the B vitamins, tannins, volatile oils, flavonoids, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphates, and various other minerals, especially silica. The stinging nettle is a remarkable nutritional treasure and has often been compared very favourably to spinach.

Today nettle is recognised as having astringent, expectorant, galactagogue, tonic, anti-inflammatory, hemostatic, and diuretic properties, and is recommended for treating bone and joint conditions, inflammation and irritation of the urinary tract and for preventing urinary system gravel, whilst the diuretic action of the plant has been shown to significantly increase urine volume and can help to alleviate bladder infections. However, the most popular application of stinging nettle today is the use of the root for treating the symptoms of prostate enlargement or benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). This condition is hormonal in nature, caused by testosterone and the conversion of testosterone to the extremely potent dihydrotestosterone, a conversion which increases as men age. An excess of dihydrotestosterone causes pathological prostate growth. Estrogens also play a part as they too increase as men age and also stimulate prostate growth. These hormones travel around the body in a free state, as well as bound to proteins. One such protein is called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and its role is to maintain a dynamic hormonal balance in the body. SHBG binds or attaches to hormones and carries them to different receptor sites on cell membranes throughout the body where they can be utilised in different ways. The effect it has depends on which hormone it binds to and which receptor site it is carried to. In the men estrogen and dihydrotestosterone bound to SHBG are usually carried to the receptor sites on the prostate gland and once there in excessive amounts it stimulates prostate tissue cells to divide and grow rapidly – resulting in BPH.

Some of the more recent research on BPH and stinging nettle indicates that the nettle root can interfere with or block a number these hormone-related chemical processes in the body that are implicated in the development of BPH. In clinical research, nettle has demonstrated the ability to stop the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (by inhibiting aromatase, an enzyme required for the conversion), as well as to directly bind to SHBG itself – thereby preventing SHBG from binding to other hormones. Other research also reveals that nettles can prevent SHBG that has already bound to a hormone from attaching to the receptor sites on the prostate, as well as to decrease the production of estrogens (estradiol and estrone) by inhibiting an enzyme required for their production. In summary, most of the intercellular processes required to trigger the prostate to grow new cells and enlarge seems to be inhibited by nettle root. Human and animal clinical studies have confirmed these effects and also demonstrated that nettle root works as well as the drug finasteride which is prescribed for BPH and is also better tolerated than the drug.

The effect of nettle root on dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels has also made it a treatment for hair loss, as male pattern balding has often been linked to an excess of DHT, as has hair loss in women too. In folklore it was always believed that nettles were an effective treatment for baldness and modern science appears to validate this belief. Nettle root is also valuable as a source of lignans, a type of phytoestrogens, which have become more and more valued in recent years, and which accounts for its galactogogue property. Nettle root also contains a number of chemical compounds which appear to significantly stimulate the immune system.

(from Vortex Health)

Finally, when you are the only family left on this planet, you can use nettles to produce fibres that you can weave for clothes.  The fibres are currently only used on a industrial scale in Japan, but they are capable of producing a linen-like fabric, albeit coarser.  Hans Andersen’s fairytale, The Wild Swans, tells of the mute princess, Elisa, knitting nettle shirts to help her eleven brothers regain their human form after they have been turned into swans by the evil stepmother. But apparently nettle fibres were used for centuries in Scotland to produce fabric for tablecloths, and nettle fibres were even woven in Germany to produce uniforms for the army during the Second World War when cotton was hard to come by.


1 lb potatoes
½ lb young nettles
2 oz butter
1½ pts chicken or vegetable stock
sea salt & black pepper
4 tablespoons sour cream


Cook the peeled, chopped potatoes for 10 mins in salted water. Drain.

Wash & chop coarsely the nettles (Only pick the new, young tops,using gloves!)

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the nettles and stew gently for a few minutes. Add the potatoes and heated stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until tender.

When all is soft, cool slightly & purée in a blender, adding seasoning and the sour cream.


½ carrier bag full of nettles, tops or young leaves
55g butter
1 large or 2 medium onions, finely sliced
1 large carrot, chopped (optional)
2 celery sticks, chopped (optional)
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
1 litre good chicken, fish or vegetable stock
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
3 tablespoons cooked rice or 3 rice cakes
2 tablespoons thick cream or crème fraiche
salt and freshly ground black pepperTo Garnish:
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
A small bunch of chives, chopped
A few sprigs of wild chervil or parsley, chopped 


Pick over the nettles and wash them thoroughly. Discard only the tougher stalks, as the soup will be liquidised. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the onion, plus the carrot, celery and garlic if using, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and pile in the nettles. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the nettles are tender. Season with salt and pepper, and with nutmeg if you wish. Puree the soup in a liquidiser with the cooked rice or rice cakes (you will probably have to do this in 2 batches). Return to a clean pan, stir in the cream and reheat, but do not let it boil. Check the seasoning, then serve, garnishing each bowl with a swirl of cream and a generous sprinkling of chopped herbs.

To serve cold:
An alternative is to serve this soup cold. After liquidising and adding the cream, pour the soup into a bowl and leave to cool, then transfer to the fridge for a couple of hours before serving. For accelerated cooling, fill a large basin or saucepan with ice cubes and water and place the bowl of soup in the iced water. Stir to chill, adding more ice cubes if the first batch melts. Stir well just before serving and ladle the soup out into bowls. Garnish each with a swirl of cream and a sprinkling of chopped chives and wild chervil.

Serves 6

Additional notes:
This is the basic recipe for nettle and other ‘wild greens’ soups, including fat hen and chickweed. It will also freeze extremely well. For a variation mix the nettle leaves with watercress or Cos lettuce. The carrot and celery are optional but make the soup more robust and full-flavoured. You can also add a few fresh or frozen peas, to give sweetness and improve the texture. Using fish stock will give a more unusual taste. If using a stock cube the best ones are monosodium glutamate free. If you prefer you can use a medium potato to thicken the soup instead of the cooked rice (or cakes) – peel and dice it fairly small and add it just before adding the stock.

Nettle Soup is featured in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘River Cottage Cookbook’, published by Harper Collins, ISBN: 0002202042, price: 19.99

3. Nettle and Coconut Soup


A washing-up bowl of nettle tops
1 onion, chopped
250ml of orange juice
1 tin of coconut milk
1 tsp Marigold swiss vegetable bouillon powder (or clear vegetable or meat stock)
Olive oil for frying onion


In a large deep saucepan, fry the chopped onion on a medium heat until transparent and just beginning to brown. Add the rinsed nettles and cover saucepan. Sweat the nettles and onions together until the nettles have wilted and started to give out their juices. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Add the orange juice and the bouillon powder and bring to the boil. Add the coconut milk and some water (about 1/2 litre) and continue simmering for a further 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Liquidize the soup and serve hot or chilled.

Oh dear.  I’m not looking forward to collecting Lola B from school and telling her that the Tawny Owl chick that she had insisted we name “Twiglet” has died.  I expect wails of grief.  The Wildlife Centre rang to tell me.  His body condition was very poor, apparently.  On a scale of 1-10, it was only 1.  Indicative of not being fed for a while, suggesting that either his parents had stopped feeding him days ago and were concentrating on other chicks, or that he had fallen out of the nest days earlier and we had not been there to spot him.  Perhaps we should have left him where he was, and let Nature take its ugly course.

I’ve been impressed recently by Lola B’s ability to find creative ways of dealing with difficult things.  Next to our little nuclear family and Wolf, the most important thing in her life is Diamond, her pony.  Lola B is, despite her best efforts, growing out of Diamond and, sooner, rather than later, she will have to give Diamond up to a smaller rider.  The mere mention of Life-after-Diamond used to reduce her to tears, but after a recent episode, we made some progress.  She wanted me to name a date, insisting that it would make it easier for her.  I understood that it made everything more certain: it was a known horror that had to be faced rather than an uncertain, unimaginable happening that might creep up at any moment. The known rather than the unknown.

Then, only hours later, she came down stairs, having talked to a friend on Messenger.  She looked much happier, composed.  She had worked out a solution.  Her friend also has a pony, and is also growing taller.  They agreed that they would both move on together so that they could share their grief …

Just one of the many times when I’ve looked at my children in amazement and wondered how they seem to be about thirty years ahead of me.


Getting married in this recent French wedding was a long affair.  The service included Holy Communion and was conducted almost entirely in Latin, save for the vows exchanged by the bride and groom.  Four priests officiated.  Mass lasted over two and a half hours and included the Litany of the Saints, a long exchange between priest and congregation when a seemingly endless list of saints were named and prayed to.  The ancient church, dedicated to St Bernard, dominated the city, crowning a hill on the outskirts.  To hear the whole building swell with the voices of the hundreds in the congregation who had sung these verses all their lives was to want to kneel and pray.  I reflected that we had spent part of the previous weekend with our friends celebrating Holy Communion in Greek.  The beauty and universality of these ancient languages took us away from the here and now, stripped away our everyday concerns and left us with only wonder and awe.  Charpentier’s Veni Creator was God’s introduction.