Out Now!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A day in New York

A male florist was stroking my foot, which I found perturbing because my wife was sitting alongside. I counted to four – out of courtesy - and then moved my leg out of reach. We were sitting in Central Park at the greatest open air picnic I’ve ever attended with music to boot. It was a Leonard Bernstein concert at the Park and we were the guests of Bob and Tom.

The day was magnificent and confirmed my love of New York. I thought Bob and Tom were pushing the boat out with the large expensive rug, picnic baskets and amazing food, but they knew what they were doing and only barely avoided being upstaged by those surrounding us. Imagine Napoleon’s Grand Armée with picnic baskets and Candelabra. Candelabra, I kid you not. And with every fresh extravagance people applauded.

And then the florist came with the biggest flower arrangement I have ever seen in my life. He weaved his way through the crowd – no small feat – to a growing ripple of applause and placed them on our fine tartan rug. It was one-upmanship at it’s most playful and a far cry from my own austerity-provincial upbringing, where the most likely response would have been a muttered ‘Flash bastard’.

Going to the toilet posed its own problems. Finding one was difficult. Finding your way back almost impossible. The day ended with a twilight walk through Manhattan and the subway home to Jackson Heights. We stopped at sallow-lit Bagel shops that opened all night, my wife holding the flowers.

A short and sweet post, and a reminder that life is to be enjoyed and nothing taken too seriously. In the words of Julian of Norwich “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Until they’re not.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The politics of salt

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. Matthew 5:13

I’ve always loved this; always wanted to be salty – anything than be trampled by men, which sounds uncomfortable.

Mark makes the same point, adds an intriguing question, and ends with a paradox. "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

Well, I don’t know how you can make salt salty again – or indeed how it lost saltiness in the first place, but I worry about the last sentence. ‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other’.


The thing is one man’s salt is another man’s poison. Foodies and gourmets clash over salt: rock salt or sea salt, and doctors warn about having too much. My children grab it from me with warning glares. Salt heightens blood pressure, contributes to Alzheimer’s and strokes. Perhaps I should quote: ‘Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other,’ when next they hide it from me, but I know it won’t work, and besides it’s not really the point.

Oliver Cromwell was a salty soul. He had an abundance of salt. You knew where you were with Oliver Cromwell and the other salty souls that made up Puritan England. We were a fun-free zone, merriment flattened in a salty dead sea. That’s the trouble. Salt can be totalitarian. Too much of it.

And what if your salt is different from your neighbours? Bin Laden had salt, Donald Rumsfeld had salt, Maggie Thatcher had a handbag full of it. Then there were the Bolsheviks, the Conquistadors, men of opinion and truth, men not ashamed to shine their light or rub their salt in your face.

But, I hear you say, Christ wasn’t talking about such people when he talked about salt. Well what people, what salt was he talking about?

Good people, obviously, kind people. The problem isn’t with the adjective but with the noun. People.

Four centuries ago, Oliver Cromwell had much the same idea. Abolishing monarchy was one thing, find a replacement another. Cromwell left it to God. Salty man.

He announced that in forming a new Parliament he would be guided by God’s providence: "as we have been led by necessity and Providence to act as we have done, even beyond and above our own thoughts and desires, so we shall... put ourselves wholly upon the Lord for a blessing".

The result was the ‘Parliament of Saints’ – a hundred and forty good souls drawn up from the most religious men in the country. One of its leading lights, Thomas Harrison, argued that their duty was to accelerate the coming of the kingdom of Christ by putting power into the hands of godly men. Cromwell was so enthused with this that he opened the new parliament with a speech two hours long.

His joy was short lived.

Salt is contentious.

Within months he was complaining that the members "being of different judgements… most seeking to propagate their own, that spirit of kindness … is hardly accepted of any.”

I like people of strong opinions – left or the right, atheist or Christian, but, like salt, in moderate amounts and a beer in between.

Now if the Lord had said ‘pepper’ that would be an entirely different story ‘You are the pepper of the earth…ginger… capsicum…chilli.’

But don’t get me on to: Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house.’ Hadn’t they heard of dimmer switches…light pollution…Las Vegas?

Monday, 6 February 2012

Terror and 'Disgust'

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice expressed her ‘disgust’ at the bloodshed in Syria and at those countries that thwarted a U N resolution. She either knows little history or the disgust is a matter of convenient pretence. Terror has always been used both by the state and by those who oppose it. Choose any period of history.

Cromwell, and one word, Drogheda

Or go back still further.

In 1066, William 1st destroyed the small fishing village of Romney, killing all with extreme barbarity. As a result the much larger and fortified town of Dover surrendered without a fight. It was a favourite tactic of William. London, an even larger and more strongly fortified town, held out against him. William marched round it burning surrounding hamlets and killing those he found. Suitably terrorised, London surrendered and William was crowned on Christmas day.

And how did an army of eight thousand control a hostile Saxon population of one and a half million – not to mention large settlements of Danes and not forgetting the Welsh? The answer is what every regime with a sense of history understands.


Terror is old as time. Sherman employed the technique of mass civilian terror in his burning of Atlanta and his march to the sea. He didn’t mince words. ‘I propose to demonstrate the vulnerability of the South and make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms.” To another he wrote: ‘I am going into the very bowels of the Confederacy, and will leave a trail that will be recognised fifty years hence.’

This, though not so brutal, was straight from the text book of William 1st, had he written one.

In 1069 after yet another revolt, William marched north and burnt every living thing in a wide circle from Lancashire to York. Desperate peasants resorted to cannibalism and the area remained devastated for another fifty years. There were no more revolts.

Bashar el Assad’s regime faces much the same thing in Syria. Like William, his powerbase is small and dependent on the Alawi representing just 12% of the population. He has Christian support - 9% of the population. But if William could enforce his will with a powerbase representing only .05333…% of the population the mathematics are clear. It is only a matter of brutality and will; that, and whether the rest of the world will intervene.

To return to the C11th once more, when William died, his son, William Rufus enforced the Forestry Laws with increasing savagery. Every dog in a neighbouring village had his front paw mutilated so it could not pursue deer. Indeed, killing a deer was punishable by death, those who just shot at a deer had their hands cut off, and blinding was common for those who merely disturbed the deer.

The younger son of William the Conqueror, Henry 1st, was so put out by bad coinage in the realm, he had every Royal Coiner blinded, castrated, or mutilated in some other way. There was no more bad coin.

My point?

When Henry died there was no successor that the barons could agree on. With Royal authority shattered all hell broke loose. For nineteen years civil war raged and in the words of one chronicler ‘God and his angels slept’. People actually looked back to the ‘Golden Age’ of the two Williams and Henry, when ‘one could walk from one end of the kingdom to the other with a bag of gold and remain unmolested.’ Exaggerated no doubt, but then all ‘Golden Ages’ are.

Be careful what you wish for. Assad’s regime is brutal. The body count will continue to rise. The question is if he is toppled what then? Will ‘God and his angels sleep’ once more?

There’s every chance the body count will be even higher in a fragmented culture of 74% Sunni, 12% Alawi, 9% Christian and 3% Druze. Then there are the Kurds, Armenians and Turkmens – before we even get to the possibility of outside intervention.

The other question is who benefits from the collapse of Syria? There are strings being pulled as people die.

Idealism and tyranny both have a price, and neither side should complain if and when that price is exacted. And no one should look away. The horror of a dead or wounded child is universal. But events should be left to play themselves out.

I am not defending repression. I’m suggesting that no one should be surprised if the alternative proves worse. I’m suggesting that every ruling class – and that includes the American elite and every regime in the western world - will defend its own status quo by similar means when ‘democracy’ fails. It is the lesson of history.

And what a pompous note to end on. The truth is I think but I don't know - just this. Tyrants follow their own dreams and so do idealists. Each will pay a price but the biggest price is too often paid by those unwillingly involved.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Bugger Kropotkin

In many respects the Russian aristocrat and anarchist Kropotkin had a remarkable life, dying in squalor in the early years of the Russian Revolution. There is much to admire in him, but one thing sticks in my craw. In his words and actions he betrays a sense of ineffable superiority to the deprived or less gifted. The very thought would no doubt appal him. He spent most of his life ‘fighting’ for the poor, the operative word being ‘for’. This word unites both Bolshevik and Fabian, and in this case Kropotkin. The anecdote below illustrates the point to perfection.

'…the teacher of writing, Ebert, who was a German Jew, was a real martyr. To be insolent with him was a sort of chic…His poverty alone must have been the reason why he kept (teaching us) But…he had made an agreement: ‘One frolic during each lesson, but no more’ – an agreement which, I am afraid was not always honestly kept on our side.

One day (a student) soaked the blackboard sponge with ink and chalk and flung it at (him) ‘Get it, Ebert!’ he shouted, with a stupid smile. The sponge touched Ebert’s shoulder, the grimy ink spurted into his face and touched down on his white shirt. He took out his cotton handkerchief and wiped his face, ‘Gentlemen, one frolic, no more today! The shirt is spoiled,’ he added in a subdued voice, and continued to correct someone’s book.

We looked stupefied and ashamed. The feelings of the whole class turned in his favour. ‘He is a poor man, and you have spoiled his shirt! Shame!’ Somebody cried. The culprit went at once to make excuses. ‘One must learn, sir,’ was all that Ebert said in reply, with sadness in his voice.

All became silent after that, and at the next lesson, most of us wrote in our best handwriting, and took our books to Ebert, asking him to correct them. He was radiant, he felt happy that day.

This fact deeply impressed me, and was never wiped out from my memory. To this day I feel grateful to that remarkable man for his lesson.'

It’s a horrible story. As an ex teacher I feel it more so. The worst that ever happened to me was that some little bastard surreptitiously drew a blue biro mark on the back of my fawn linen coat as I was marking some work. I still resent it. I’d like to strangle him, or at least kick his head in. ‘One frolic’ be damned.

But look at the language Kropotkin uses. The teacher here is to be pitied. He needs to be championed. Indeed poor Ebert is so socially cowed that he is ‘radiant’ and feels happy all day because the boys feel sorry for him and hand in good work. I’d like to hear Ebert’s side of things as to how ‘radiant’ he felt. In fact the whole miserable story is told to illustrate Kropotkin’s sensitivity for the feelings of others. Ebert’s misery is a hook upon which to hang Kropotkin’s finer feelings. He feels grateful for a lesson taught, so that’s all right then. Bugger Kropotkin