Out Now!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

We've been here before


I was watching a programme called The Big Question a few weeks ago. The discussion centred on the wearing of the Niqab and I found my prejudices challenged. I admit I have them. I don’t like the Niqab. It makes me feel uncomfortable. As I listened to the discussion I tried to reason why I should feel that way. I could of course have gone for the high minded route by quoting Wittgenstein, who argued that ‘the face is the soul of the body.’ In fact he said more: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”
It’s human nature to want to see as much body and face as modesty allows.

 I could have gone the feminist route that sees the wearing of the niqab as a reflection of cultural subjection, though conversely other feminists argue it is a woman’s right to choose.

 I could have argued the evolutionary importance of the ‘blink’ factor whereby decisions are made in the space of a blink in the same way we also instinctively fear spiders and snakes. I’m not confusing the woman behind such a garment as a spider or snake. I’m suggesting evolution has probably made us distrust what we can't see.

I wondered whether it was the colour. 


Am I a ‘Black-ist’ or perhaps ‘Colour –ist’. Would I feel less uneasy if I saw a woman encased in rainbow silk? Would, deep down, I find it less threatening? For someone educated by nuns swathed in black, this may be the case. 

 The bottom line is, however, it’s a prejudice I’m sharing rather than acting upon. In a free and stable society prejudice must have its limits. As a highly articulate niqab-wearing woman said on the programme, it was her decision to wear such a garment. I was her right. It is a shame such ‘right’s aren’t reciprocated. On the same programme two students from the LSE recounted how they’d been disciplined for wearing this T shirt

The articulate woman behind the niquab was asked whether this should also be tolerated. The answer was firm. No. Definitely not. It is offensive. I don’t think she saw the irony. Are some rights more important than others? Is free speech only free when it doesn’t offend?

The story takes an interesting spin. On the same programme a Liberal Democrat candidate for Kilburn, also a Moslem, rebutted the woman, saying her view represented only an aspect of Islam, an aspect rejected by many. The candidate, Maajid Nawaz, tweeted the picture of the T shirt because by accident or design the cameras didn’t show it.

The response was immediate. A Muslim body called the MQT made this statement:
Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI)  has noted the controversy surrounding the tweeting of a cartoon portraying Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both) by Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation, and the condemnations from various quarters. MQI wishes to make it clear that pictorial representations of any prophets of God (including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad) are prohibited by Islam…“We call on Maajid Nawaz to apologise for his mistake of tweeting the cartoon. We urge people of whatever opinion, creed or religion they hold, to respect the boundaries of civil and respectful dialogue, and we condemn the death threats against Mr Nawaz.

The MQT is avowedly ‘moderate’ and so condemns the death threats, though the menace is still there. Equally chilling is their petition (20,000+signatures) demanding the Liberal Democrat Party de-selects him as their candidate.

 Intolerance isn’t the preserve of one particular religion as John Lennon found out in the 1960’s when he made the statement that the Beatles were now bigger than Jesus: a snappy but inaccurate statement. He, too, faced death threats and I doubt he’d ever have been elected for office in Alabama. That particular storm in a tea cup blew itself out. I don’t think this one will for some time to come.
Aggressive creeds and reaction against it are dangerous forces as C16 and C17 Europe taught us long ago.

For anyone ignorant of the Mo Jesus cartoon strip try this link here.
A particularly thoughtful piece on the subject can be found here.
Breaking news
Channel 4 broadcast a debate on the issue, covering Muhammad with a black circle and leaving only a cartoon Jesus on display.

  At thirty seconds into the program, the narrator states, "We've taken the decision to cover up the picture of Muhammad so we don't cause offence to some viewers." Define some viewers: all Muslims or a vociferous minority? The National Secularist Society sent this letter to Channel 4. Couldn’t have put it better myself:

"By redacting the picture of 'Mo,' you have contributed to a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and reactionary views of some religious extremists... By taking the decision you did, not only did you betray the fundamental journalistic principle of free speech, but you have become complicit in a trend that seeks to insidiously stereotype all Muslim people as reacting in one uniform way."

Thursday, 23 January 2014

At one with the universe

When the female capuchin comes on heat she acts like a drunk on Viagra. She pursues her target. She squeaks and she flirts. She teases, pulls fur, tickles, rubs her body against his. The male ignores her with implacable dignity. It withstands all her advances with statesman-like calmness.

On the fourth day it succumbs.

It is on the fourth day the female is at her most fertile and receptive. She doesn’t appear to appreciate this, the evolutionary drive to mate being a fairly blunt tool, as it were. But the male knows. The male is attuned to the universe.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A necessary sacrice. Discuss

What goes on in the minds of men and how does chance change destiny? The picture below is one of banal contentment. It’s pleasant but ordinary. Surely nothing extraordinary could ever have impinged on this man’s life. The other picture exudes interest and romance. How did their two worlds collide?

 Major Ranald MacDonell (retired)

 Stepan Shaumian and family
Stepan Shaumian was the Bolshevik Commissar for Baku at a crucial moment in World War 1. Bolshevik Russia was out or the war after the German imposed Brest Litovsk Treaty, but this left the great Baku oil-fields in a precarious position. Germany was desperate for oil, and its ally, the Ottoman Empire wanted both territory and oil. What was Britain to do? The issue became serious when a large Turkish army edged closer to Baku.

 Major Ranald MacDonell was our agent and consul in Baku. He sought to persuade Stepan Shaumian to accept British forces to organise and reinforce Baku’s defence against the Turks. A majority in the Baku Soviet were in favour of this, but greater forces were in play, forces that neither Shaumian or MacDonell controlled.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Lloyd George saw things in the long term. He would rather the Turks held Baku instead of the Bolsheviks. He saw Turkey as a power in decline and thus less of a long term threat than a regenerated Russia – our traditional enemy in ‘The Great Game.’

Moscow held a similar view. It, too, would prefer the Turks to hold Baku rather than the British for exactly the same reasons. As a result the Baku Bolsheviks were urged to oppose categorically the idea of inviting British troops for the defence of the city.
Peter Hopkirk in his book On Secret Service East of Constantinople describes their first meeting using MacDonell’s memoirs:

“I visited Shaumian late one night in his own flat…the door was opened by his small son aged ten. I explained who I was. The small boy made a grimace…then retired a few paces.” He began shouting: “You bourgeois…you damned parasite of the possessing classes.” The shouting brought out Mrs Shaumian. “After some laughter I was ushered in to the presence of the great man.” He found the revolutionary sunk in a deep chair poring over a thick file which he laid aside as MacDonell entered. “The room radiated middle class contentment. At one end of the big table was laid Shaumian’s supper. At the other end were school books lately studied by the small boy."

Shaumian greeted his visitor warmly and opened a bottle of wine. On a personal level the two men hit it off, both enjoying long, heated arguments deep into the night. Despite the ideological gulf, Shaumian appreciated MacDonell’s dry wit, and MacDonell admired Shaumian’s honesty, the way he dealt with food shortages and how his first recourse was to persuade rather than terrorise.

MacDonell sought hard to persuade him. General Dunsterville’s forces were in marching distance, and most of Baku soviet saw the advantage in British aid against the Turks, now dangerously close. But Shaumian held firm to Moscow’s line: British help must be rejected.

Shaumian at least knew where he was coming from. MacDonell however didn’t appreciate, until it was too late, that the British Government had no intention of aiding the Bolsheviks. He was now close to the family, the small boy who had earlier harangued him as a class enemy now a firm friend:

“Often  while his father read through a pile of documents we would play with his toy railway. I was usually the deposed Grand Duke, who had become a shunter. I was always sworn at and sometimes hit of the head for making mistakes, or for being late with the food train. Once I was executed. I often marvelled how Shaumian could work through all the din…but he said he would not have the children out of the room for anything. They were to him a greater inspiration than all his ideals.”

Despite the friendship MacDonell at last realised British interests would be best served by Shaumian’s overthrow. He was aware, too, that others in the Soviet shared similar views and that plots were already afoot. Shaumian sensed this new ambivalence and relations between the two men cooled, more so after MacDonell, on direct orders from London became actively involved in the coup. The coup failed. Shaumian almost certainly knew of MacDonell’s involvement but for old times sake allowed him to escape.

Shaumian was less fortunate. He was ousted a few weeks later and was forced to flee. He and his twenty five companions were captured in the anti Bolshevik town of Krasnovodsk. The town’s Commandent, a tough Cossack called Kuhn was at a loss what to do with them. To cut a complex story short, Britain washed its hands of him and Shaumian, with his companions were shot.

The two pictures below sum up a sad, contrasting story 

The execution of Stepan Shaumian and fellow Bolsheviks

The alternative

Thursday, 9 January 2014

In search of a Madeleine

In ‘Remembrance of Things Past,' Proust maunders on about the taste of a Madeleine, an unremarkable small cake. He examines ‘voluntary memory along with its limitations, the chief one being that because it's selective it is necessarily partial, and thus you lose the ‘essence’ of what was. 

In contrast the involuntary memory captures the moment, and chief amongst these in Remembrance of Things Past is the consuming of an innocent Madeleine:

"No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt LĂ©onie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea."

Well, knock me down with a feather, I once would have said, but I have experienced the process from the other end, or perhaps from a different angle.

As a child I was an avid reader, Evered Avenue library a home from home. At fourteen I read Henry Treece for the first time. The book was Jason. Or so I thought. There was a passage in it that has haunted me ever since. The paragraph describes a young boy witnessing a ritual dance at night, and Treece brilliantly evokes the mystery of fire and drums, and men’s pounding feet on night earth. He brought Bronze Age Greece to life. Liverpool vanished.

For Proust the Madeleine was a happy accident. For me it would be a deliberate act of time travel. I would buy Jason and read it again. Would that same passage take me back to the essence of a moment, or would it now read prosaic, the memory made magic by chance?

The parcel arrived, a first edition and in fair condition, the cover exactly as I remembered. I sat down with a bottle of good port and began to read. It was exactly as I remembered – except for one thing. The paragraph on drums and fire and pounding feet wasn’t there. 

This couldn’t be. It was akin to Proust staring at his plate, the Madeleine replaced by a donut.
There could be only one solution. I'd read the wrong 'Madeleine.' Treece wrote a trilogy on this period. Perhaps the passage was in another book - Electra

The search continues for my Madeleine moment. I’ll keep you informed. 

Post script
I did read one interesting review on Jason, but the reader, I think, was worrying the wrong end of the stick. He accuses Treece of being misogynist, castigates him for this portrayal of women. In fact the book is far better than that, though I concede if I was a woman I might not be best pleased. Jason has issues with women, not the author. Treece beautifully conjures up a damaged Mycenaean hero, one who experienced a traumatic human sacrifice to the Mother Goddess as a child and who, in consequence, bolsters up his own sense of masculinity by a defensive and self-serving chauvinism. For those who love unobtrusive poetry and crave to lose themselves in the far past, try Jason, Electra or other works by Henry Treece.  

Friday, 3 January 2014

The photo-shoot

Quick...hurry. They're getting away!

"Can't catch us, Missus"

"Caught one at least. Come here, son. There's someone wanting to see you."

Run, they're coming!

Down here. They'll never find us!

"Someone chasing you, miss?"

 "Child-catchers. They're close. I can smell them."


" I think we're safe"

"No use running, they're gonna find us anyway"

"I'm gonna pull my tongue out, me."

"We're gonna fight the bastards...soft-head's praying."


 We've a nice catch here.

"Don't worry boys and girls, Mr Dylan won't harm you."

Picking the best for Mr Dylan

The photo-shoot. Bob Dylan in Liverpool