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Will this man make you happy?

The government’s ‘happiness tsar’, Richard Layard, thinks he knows why we’re all so miserable – we’re overpaid, over-materialistic and lonely. But, he tells Stuart Jeffries, he has a plan to banish the blues in Britain, once and for all 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Stuart Jeffries
Tuesday June 24, 2008

Guardian 
 
 
 
 
 

 

‘Happiness is … ” begins Professor Richard Layard. He pauses. I sit forward in my seat expectantly. Which definition will the government’s happiness tsar pick? “A warm gun” (Lennon)?; “The greatest good” (Bentham)?; “The meaning and the purpose of life” (Aristotle)?; “The motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves” (Pascal)?; “The greatest gift that I possess” (Dodd)?This isn’t a small matter. How he defines happiness is one of the most fascinating questions in British public life today, because Layard is quietly effecting a revolution in this miserable, materialistic, overworked country. A Labour peer since 2000, he has been able to influence first Blair’s administration and then Brown’s into making his happiness agenda government policy. His calls for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for school lessons in emotional intelligence, and other allegedly happiness-causing reforms have been greeted warmly by education secretary Ed Balls, health secretary Alan Johnson, the health guideline-setting National Institute for Clinical Excellence and by local authorities up and down the country. Layard is founder director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and runs its Well-Being programme. He speaks cheerfully of how the word “well-being” now figures in job titles at government departments, how the new government policy includes commitments to well-being, how the Office for National Statistics is developing the measurement of well-being, how Ed Balls’s Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme is devoted to making secondary school children focused on well-being. For Layard, you see, well-being is just another way of saying happiness.But what is this thing called happiness? After a pause, he finishes his sentence thus: “Happiness is inversely related to income at higher levels of income because of the declining marginal utility of getting richer,” says Layard. “Let me show you.” He draws a graph: on the X axis is income per head, on the Y axis is average happiness. A curve ascends boldly and then tails off ignominiously. At the bottom of the curve, you will find countries such as Zimbabwe or Russia, where increases in national income per head will increase levels of happiness. “Think of economic growth in India – it has been associated with rises in average happiness.” On the ignominious bit you will find a cluster of western countries, including our own, where such rises in income per head don’t cheer us up one bit.
When do income rises stop making us happier? Around $20,000, according to Layard. Or, in sterling, £10,128.89. After that there is an inverse relationship between more money and happiness. Quite a lot of you might be thinking you should apply for massive salary cuts, but that’s to misunderstand Layard: he’s talking about average national incomes rather than individual pay rises.
“When I realised that pursuing national income per head wasn’t necessarily a panacea, it was like a bolt of lightning. It made me question what economics is about. It made me ask, what is progress, if not rising GDP?” So, then, what is progress? “It’s the reduction of misery and the increase in enjoyment of life. If rises in income aren’t doing it, then you have to find out what does produce progress. That is where happiness comes in. Aristotle said that happiness was the only thing that man wanted for which he could give no reason. Anything else – income, sex or whatever – was always for something else, be it to buy things or for the future of the species. But happiness was, for Aristotle, a self-evident goal. And he’s right: men and women want to be happy.”
It is Layard’s contention that, during the past 50 years, consumer society has become dominant and yet happiness has declined. We are richer, healthier, have better homes, cars, food and holidays than we did half a century ago. Unemployment and inflation are low, and yet so are levels of reported happiness. This is due, he says, to a series of things – the break-up of the family, fractured communities, a loss of trust. “The same thing has happened in America, but it hasn’t happened in the same way on the continent. I think this shows we are suffering from the extreme individualism that we have reported from America. We are unhappier as a result.”
Layard talks in simple ways about these problems. “People would be happier if there were nice people when they went outside. But there is little confidence that there are nice people out there. Here and in the US levels of trust have fallen from 60% to 30% in the past 50 years. We are consumed with status, with envy.” This makes the world a much more discombobulating one than economists traditionally thought: individual preferences are not constant, but shift in rhythm to cultural trends and peer pressure. It’s a world in which one’s accumulated possessions depreciate in value. Like Jacob Marley’s chains, they drag us down rather than make us happy.
Layard had a problem, though. Happiness was not regarded as measurable. “I showed in 1980 that surveys showed happiness wasn’t increasing, even though income per head was. I stopped thinking about the issue then, because I couldn’t see how social policy could change that depressing fact; I had nothing to contribute because happiness was not yet objectively measurable.”

Then, in the late 1990s, something happened that revolutionised Layard’s career. Happiness became a new science. Or at least Layard, despite wails of derision from sceptics, says it did. Psychological researchers found a close correlation between reported happiness and activity in the cerebral cortex. As a result, Layard insisted, lots of the scepticism about reported happiness was misplaced.”I have been so struck with the sophistication of the science in this area,” he says. “It’s really impressive.” It gave Layard hope that he could both define happiness objectively, measure it accurately and then set about creating more of it.

What is happiness, Layard asked in his 2003 lecture series Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue? His answer was simple: “By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful. And by unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different.” To his satisfaction, he had cut through a philosophical Gordian knot. Yes, many philosophers didn’t think the matter was so simple. And true, Nietzsche did write derisively in Twilight of the Idols: “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

No matter. Layard was reclaiming an Englishman’s birthright – the intellectual heritage of utilitarianism handed down by Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century philosopher who argued that what was really important in ethics was “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. But Bentham was not advocating that each person should acquire more and more happiness in the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes. Just before he died Bentham wrote to the daughter of a friend: “Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove … And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom.”

Stirring stuff. Only one problem, identified by John Stuart Mill: “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” Everyone from Socrates to the Dalai Lama argued that happiness was a recalcitrant little bugger: you couldn’t create it, particularly not in someone else’s bosom. And so to set happiness as the overarching goal of social policy might seem to be a terrible error.

Layard discounts Mill, Socrates and everybody else’s views on this. He thinks happiness is something one can create by working on one’s dispositions towards well-being – or getting someone else to show you how. Layard has no doubt there are some of us who are predisposed, perhaps genetically, to being happy. Many of the rest of us, though, need help.

Last year, Layard visited Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom where government pursues the goal of gross national happiness (GNH). “Bhutan seems much happier than countries that have a materialist rather than moral ethos. Relationships are rather equal, there’s very little status anxiety.” He was impressed by the four pillars of Bhutan’s GNH: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance. “What really struck me is that as a matter of policy, there is very little extreme poverty. Bhutan realises that a redistribution of wealth that favours the poor most is better for producing happiness.”

Layard’s mission now is to make Britain a bit more like Bhutan. It is a mission that has revivified him intellectually and politically late in a distinguished career. He is 74, and has been married since 1991 to Molly Meacher, a social worker who specialised in mental health and now sits as a crossbencher. In his bestselling 2005 book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, he cited his wife as a key influence on his thinking.

In 2005, such was his access to government, that he presented a paper called Mental Health: Britain’s Biggest Social Problem? to the No 10 Strategy Unit. There he argued that the scourge of unemployment had been replaced by that of depression. He pointed out that more mentally ill people were drawing incapacity benefits than there were unemployed people on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Depression was thus bad for both GDP and GNH. One in six people suffered from depression or chronic anxiety, but only a quarter of sufferers were receiving treatment – mostly drugs. Layard recommended that CBT was as effective as drugs and was preferred by most patients.

In his subsequent The Depression Report he recommended scaling up CBT for people suffering from depression and anxiety through training an additional 10,000 clinical psychologists and psychological therapists. The report seemed to promise a great leap forward in British happiness: a national service of 250 local treatment centres, with 40 new services opening each year till 2013, would offer courses of therapy costing £750. Each course would pay for itself in money saved on incapacity benefits and lost tax receipts. Everybody – including the Treasury – would be happy.

But CBT, and Layard’s support of it, has been derided. Typical was the GP, Mike Fitzpatrick who, writing in the British Journal of General Practice, charged that Layard was committing a fallacy similar to that of his LSE predecessor William Beveridge, whose 1942 report predicted that improvements in health resulting from better health services would rapidly result in a reduced demand for health and welfare services and hence in a declining burden on the exchequer. It did not. “The notion that a few weeks of CBT will transform miserable people languishing in idleness and dependency into happy shiny productive workers is embarrassing in its absurdity,” added Fitzpatrick.

What does Layard make of such criticisms? “Nobody claims that CBT is going to cure everybody. There will still remain roles for medication, family therapy. And for some personality disorders it won’t be relevant either. But for many people currently suffering depression it will.” Isn’t CBT overrated? “No. CBT takes great trouble to evaluate itself. Other forms of treatment such as psychodynamic ones haven’t evaluated their methods.”

What are the success rates of these courses? “Something like 50%. Which is not bad. The main problem now is that not enough therapists have been trained.”

But it is not only depressives on incapacity benefit who need to be helped to become happy. British children need it too, Layard insists. A 2006 University of York survey found that UK children are the unhappiest of any wealthy European country. At the time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: “The selling of lifestyles to children creates a culture of material competitiveness and promotes acquisitive individualism at the expense of the principles of community and cooperation.” “He’s right,” says Layard. “We need better role models than Britney – for our children as much as for ourselves.”

But how? Layard hands me a book. It’s called A Quiet Revolution and it chronicles an initiative at West Kidlington primary school, north of Oxford. There, head teacher Neil Hawkes has sought to instil emotional intelligence in his children by devising a positive value lexicon. This consists of a series of 22 words devised by parents and teachers that have positive values. The lexicon includes trust, respect, love, friendship, humility, hope, simplicity, tolerance and (Gordon Brown’s favourite) courage.

Each of these words is dramatised in assemblies, and used throughout the school day – in the playground and in dedicated values lessons. “Deep understanding of the positive concepts gradually permeates the layers of individual consciousness by a kind of osmosis,” writes the book’s author Frances Farrer, “and ultimately is internalised to the point where the concepts govern action.”

Isn’t this the nanny state gone mad, I ask Layard. He replies that learning such values is about instilling character, which is the only way children can become strong, secure and autonomous. “So it’s not nannying. It’s the opposite. Any happy society is one in which people feel in control of their own lives. The government can develop a school system that encourages self-determining agents to flourish.”

Why should such inculcation of values be important? Partly, Layard argues, because we live in a mostly secular society. “I had an education that included a religious component and, even though I’ve become agnostic since then, I recognise that those with religious beliefs tend to be happier.” Layard contends that there has been a catastrophic “failure to develop a secular morality. People find it hard to talk about moral issues. A moral vocabulary is what is lacking for many children.”

In this, Layard claims popular support. He chairs the Good Childhood Inquiry set up by the Children’s Society. Its aim is to work out what might be good values to instil in children. His inquiry will report early next year, but he already has some ideas. “We need to get different people into teaching.” He wants to encourage more psychology graduates to become teachers, not least because they will appreciate the behavioural psychology that underpins Layard’s happiness philosophy. “We must use time in the school day devoted to values in a more distilled way. Again, the problem is that there aren’t teachers trained to do such things, so classes given over to values can be waffly.

“We need some people going into schools with missionary intent. Before I became an economist in my 30s, I was a schoolteacher, and at that time the missionaries were the ‘use of English’ people who, under the aegis of FR Leavis, believed that teaching great literature could provide a moral education. Like the Matthew Arnolds of the Victorian era, we need intelligent missionaries in our schools.”

He tells me about the Local Well-Being Project, a new three-year trial involving three local authorities (South Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire) which has the goal of increasing happiness and which, if successful, could be replicated nationwide. The aim is to wean children from binge drinking, adolescent suicide, anxiety and depression into happier, more wholesome futures. Fingers crossed.

This new politics of well-being is one of the greatest experiments in British social policy for generations. It could be a wonderful thing, steering us away from the Scylla of materialism and the Charybdis of selfish individualism, just when we thought we were doomed.

Or maybe Layard’s happiness agenda is misplaced. It’s too soon to be certain. The revolution is still under way, and there are problems. There are waiting lists for CBT, and positive psychology classes have not yet delivered compelling results. But there’s a bigger concern. Aren’t you worried, I ask the happiness tsar, that this whole agenda is based on an imposture, and that happiness is neither a desirable nor an achievable political goal? “You’ll be happy to learn,” says Layard, as he kindly shows me to the lift, “that I’m not”.

Interesting article which raises lots of questions:
1.  Is it fair to blame America for our nation’s unhappiness?
2.  Isn’t it more likely that Nietzsche is to blame, if he killed God?
3.  If America is to blame, who imported her ideas into the UK?
4.  May I blame Margaret Thatcher?  I’d like to.
5.  Is happiness even a goal we should be pursuing?
6.  Isn’t happiness just a by-product of a good life? 
7.  Does happiness as a constant state, lasting more than a few weeks, only exist in retrospect?
8.  Are happiness and autonomy inextricably linked?
9.  Do unhappy people try harder and therefore achieve more?
10. Why is my dog always happy?

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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.

Ingredients


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 

Method

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

Ingredients

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

Method

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.

 

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.

The European Court of Human Rights decides cases brought before it by states or individuals who claim a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, an international human rights instrument dealing with civil and political rights and to which all members of the Council of Europe are signatories.  There are 47 member states of the Council of Europe including Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey with a combined population of 800 million potential applicants.  The court is often confused with the European Court of Justice which decides on matters relating to EU treaties and sits in Luxembourg.  They are very different.

The European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg which is where, to add to the confusion, the EU Parliament holds its plenary sessions.  Strasbourg is in northern France, close to the German border.  Within living memory it was briefly part of Germany having been annexed first in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, restored to France at the end of the First World War, reoccupied by Germany during the Second World War and liberated in 1944. 

Panorama from the Barrage Vauban with the medieval bridge Ponts Couverts in the foreground (the fourth tower being hidden by trees at the left) and the cathedral in the distance.
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The Court occupies a striking steel and glass building on one of the many waterways in Strasbourg.  It is sinking under its caseload.  At the end of 2007 there were more than 103,000 cases pending before it.

Although the Court rarely makes large compensatory awards, its judgments are usually honoured by the state against whom the complaint has been found and are often politically embarrassing.  Notable British humiliations have been in respect to “shoot-to-kill” policies in relation to terrorist suspects, the treatment of homosexuals in the armed forces and practices of the armed forces in Northern Ireland.  This last case, Ireland -v- UK, resulted in a finding that certain practices used by the UK against Irish terrorist suspects amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment” and were thus unlawful under the European Convention.  Happily for the US, however, the Court stopped short of finding these five practices (wall-standing; hooding; subjection to noise; deprivation of sleep; deprivation of food and drink) were “torture”.  The US definition of torture has been drawn by reference to this judgment; relying on the Strasbourg court’s findings the US allows those same practices that were prohibited by the court’s judgment on the grounds that they have been found by an internation court not to amount to “torture” (even though they have been found to be inhuman or degrading treatment …). 

The UK government decided that the provisions of the European Convention should become part of UK law, creating rights that could be claimed in domestic courts without the need for public shame on the international stage.  The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the main substantive articles of the Convention.  Cases from the UK now need to exhaust any domestic remedies in UK courts, or argue that there is no domestic remedy.  In practice this will mean that a case against the UK is lodged at the European Court of Human Rights only when it has already passed through the supreme court, the House of Lords.  It may still take more than four years for the case to be heard. 

In other countries where there is less domestic human rights legislation, the European Court of Human Rights may be the only forum in which a spotlight can be thrown on human rights abuses. 

Russia regards the Strabourg court with no affection.  In 2007 the former Swiss judge of the European Court of Human Rights, and also its former President, said that he had been poisoned whilst on a visit to Russia.  Officials in the Court trod a careful line.  Whilst there was nothing to link Mr Wildhaber’s illness (acute septicaemia) with his visit to Russia, the Guardian reported that officials conceded “the Kremlin had been annoyed by a series of judgments by the court and regarded it as pathologically anti-Russian and biased. The court has regularly condemned Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, and has ruled against complaints of discrimination by ethnic Russians in the Baltics”.  Mr Wildhaber claimed that he had been threatened by the Russians.  Russia was similarly unhappy with monitoring carried out by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe into its record in relation to freedom of expression of the media, with the result that the monitoring programme was abandoned.  Russia has, however, allowed the Council of Europe to monitor its recent presidential elections – almost the only outside monitors after the OSCE withdrew.

Originally the enforcement mechanism of the Council of Europe comprised a part-time two-stage Commission and Court.  This was replaced by a single full-time Court in 1998.  By this time there had been a huge increase in the number of Contracting States following the break-up of the Soviet Union – twenty one states have joined since 1989.  The number of cases grew exponentially, flooding the court.  Each Contracting State is represented by one judge, appointed for a renewable six year term.  The Contracting States put forward three applicants and the Council of Europe decides on the appointment, voting via  its Parliamentary Assembly: the current UK judge is Sir Nicholas Bratza.   He was appointed by the skin of his teeth when the new Court came into being.  Despite having been a member of the preceding European Commission on Human Rights, and despite being the preferred candidate of the UK government, the sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe charged with the appointment of judges to the court, and comprising politicians of the Council of Europe member states, refused to recommend him and supported the appointment instead of Richard Reed, a Scottish barrister and QC.  The sub-committee was apparently swayed by the fact that while a practising barrister, Bratza had several times represented the then-Conservative UK government in its defence when it had been the subject of cases before the European Court.  Only a full vote of the Parliamentary Assembly overturned the sub-committee’s recommendation and allowed Nicholas Bratza to be confirmed as the UK’s judge.  

Incidentally, Nicholas Bratza’s father was the famous Serbian concert violinist, Milan Bratza, who settled in Britain after the First World War.  His mother came from the Russell family, a family that has produced three generations of Law Lords (judges in the House of Lords).  A Telegraph article describes him as feeling:

 “a natural affinity with central Europe, though, having been born and brought up in Britain, he is sure that his ancestry has no effect on the way he approaches cases. He is, however, “very pleased” that Serbia and Montenegro joined the Council of Europe in April and signed the Human Rights Convention.”

Judges in the Strasbourg court are divided along geographical and gender lines into five sections.   Each section will first hear cases from the states which it includes.  Thus Nicholas Bratza sits with judges from a motley collection of countries – Andorra, Malta, Albania, Moldova, Finland, Poland, Bosnia and Slovakia – and this section, Section IV, will hear all cases emanating from the UK and those other states. 

Sadly judges almost invariably decide in favour of their state.  It is unheard of for particular judges to ever decide against their state, even if the majority of the other judges in the section find in favour of the applicant and against that state.  Dissenting judgments are, therefore, quite usual, but cast grave doubt on the independence of the judges from some countries especially.  Judges depend on the support of their state when it comes to their re-appointment every six years.  It is very unlikely that a judge who has regularly castigated a state for its human rights abuses will find himself or herself on the short list.   Yet the rule of law is severly compromised if judges cannot afford to be independent and impartial.  The European Court of Human Rights differs from the European Court of Justice in allowing public dissent by judges.  The European Court of Justice only issues a single judgment and any dissent is walled in.

Attempts have been made to streamline the court procedure in order to reduce the backlog in order to make the Court more effective, and to strengthen the independence of the judges.  Judges, it is proposed, will be appointed for a nine year term which may not be renewed.  This will allows judges, once they have been appointed, to “go native” without having to worry about securing support for future appointments from their home state.  It will also be much easier to declare cases inadmissible, particularly if they are similar to previously decided cases.   The details of the revised procedure were set out in the 14th Protocol to the Convention, but cannot replace the existing procedure until all of the Contracting States of the Convention have ratified the protocol.  Without the reform the Court cannot do its job. 

So far every state belonging to the Council of Europe has ratified the protocol, bar one.  Russia.

 Postscript

Apparently the Committee on Juridical Affairs and Human Rights at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will meet in Paris on 6 March (Thursday, this week) to discuss ratification of the 14th protocol of the Convention by Russia.  Also on the agenda is violation of human rights in the North Caucasus, religious freedom of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and of Muslim minorities in North Greece, and the EU joining the Council of Europe.

Also, two more links dealing with Russia’s refusal to ratify the protocol, and the particular decisions of the ECtHR that have annoyed Russia – an interview with the Chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and an interview with the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma.

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

Everything stays quiet until the morning.

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

HUSBAND (laughs): Must have done. 

WIFE: No, really, didn’t you feel it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More:

Telegraph Today

Report of 1896 Earthquake

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

From the Guardian today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wanted to know how much the Ministry of Defence paid out to a family of a solider killed in action and was reminded of the Military Covenant which exists between the soldier and his country:

“Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice – in the service of the Nation.  In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces.  In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service.  In the same way the unique nature of military land operations means that the Army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the Nation.   This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history.  It has perhaps its greatest manifestation in the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, when the Nation keeps covenant with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in action.

This summary is part of a much larger document – Soldiering – setting out the standards of behaviour expected of those serving in the British Army.  I found it a very surprising document which emphasises above everything the necessity of a proper morality, but a morality which cannot be taken as a given since the Army, like society, is subject to changing forces.

“British soldiers no longer come from societies which share broadly common roots and horizons based on traditional, usually Christian ethics and morals. Traditional ethics can be widely regarded as reactionary and authoritarian. Contemporary morality puts a higher premium on individual rights than on duty to society. Notions of duty or obligation are much less apparent, except in terms of respect for the rights of others. Material rewards play an ever greater part in the benefits expected by individuals in return for their labour. The rise of the importance of the individual in society, and the associated stress on the rights rather than the responsibilities of the individual has profound implications for the Army. Established structures and traditional principles are questioned. So even those who volunteer to be soldiers do not necessarily share common standards and values. Hence it is fundamental to the Military Covenant that the Army is responsible for identifying and articulating its ethical tenets, adjusting as appropriate to wider change, and inculcating and sustaining them in its soldiers.”

General Sir Richard Dannart sticks to his guns.  His ethics are firmly Christian, evangelical and include an insistence that soldiers are told that death is not the end.  In October last year he gave a talk at Spring Harvest (a well known Evangelical Christian festival) at which he said: 

 ‘In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal, and I think there is very much an obligation on …a Christian leader to include a spiritual dimension into his people’s preparations for operations, and the general conduct of their lives. Qualities and core values are fine as a universally acceptable moral baseline for leadership, but the unique life, death, resurrection and promises of Christ provide that spiritual opportunity that I believe takes the privilege of leadership to another level.’

Soldiering is aspirational as much as it is contemporary.  There are sections entitled Self-less Commitment, Discipline, Integrity, Loyalty, Respect for Others and the extract below is taken from the section on Courage.

“Courage is not merely a virtue; it is the virtue. Without it there are no other virtues. Faith, hope, charity, all the rest don’t become virtues until it takes courage to exercise them.  Courage is not only the basis of all virtue; it is its expression.  True, you may be bad and brave, but you can’t be good without being brave.  Courage is a mental state, an affair of the spirit, and so it gets its strength from spiritual and intellectual sources. The way in which these spiritual and intellectual elements are blended, I think, produces roughly two types of courage.  The first, an emotional state which urges a man to risk injury or death – physical courage. The second, a more reasoning attitude which allows him to stake career happiness, his whole future on his judgement of what he thinks either right or worthwhile – moral courage.  Now, these two types of courage, physical and moral, are very distinct. I have known many men who had marked physical courage, but lacked moral courage. Some of them were in high positions, but they failed to be great in themselves because they lacked it. On the other hand, I have seen men who undoubtedly possessed moral courage very cautious about physical risks. But I have never met a man with moral courage who would not, when it was really necessary, face bodily danger. Moral courage is a higher and a rarer virtue than physical courage.  All men have some degree of physical courage – it is surprising how much. Courage, you know is like having money in the bank. We start with a certain capital of courage, some large, some small, and we proceed to draw on our balance, for don’t forget courage is an expendable quality.  We can use it up. If there are heavy, and, what is more serious, if there are continuous calls on our courage, we begin to overdraw. If we go on overdrawing we go bankrupt we break down.”

“Courage and other broadcasts”, Field-Marshal Sir William Slim

The Armed Forces Compensation Scheme has been running since 2005 and is intended to provide a no-fault compensation for injury or death where service is the only or main cause.  Pensions are payable to surviving adult dependants and to children.  In the case of a surviving spouse, the deceased’s salary at the time of death is multiplied by a factor to reflect his or her age at the time (0.853 at age 28 and 0.913 at 33, for example), and a pension equal to 60% of this reduced salary is paid to the spouse.  Children are entitled to a pension of about 10% or 15% of this figure, depending on the number of children in the family. An additional Bereavement Grant of up to £20,000 may be payable.  Many soldiers take out additional insurance to cover for the eventuality of their death and the existence of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme does not prevent relatives from bringing an action in negligence against the services, claiming a higher amount in damages.  The 2007-2008 Request for Resources made by the Ministry of Defence to the Treasury asked for £1,027,007,000 to cover the cost of providing pensions and compensation.

I could not see that a single mother losing her eldest son would be entitled to anything as of right, though I know that money is paid out – perhaps if the mother can show she was financially dependent on her son.  There again, I suppose money is no compensation at all.  It is a Mother’s worst nightmare.

© Stephen Message

Ending the week on a favourite note. 

My musical awakening seemed to happen in 1971.  Rachel lived next door and was six or seven years older than me and wild.  I heard this record first in her bedroom which was full of exciting things.  I still love this record, especially that groan.  Not sure I realised quite what the record was about when I bought it with precious pocket money.  My first album was called Hot Hits 4 and had a woman on the front in a shocking state of undress.    It included songs such as “Is this the way to Amarillo (every night I hug my pillow)” and “My Sweet Lord”.  How I loved that record too.

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