Saturday, February 28, 2009

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It's hard to believe that the first Hary Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in 1997. Over the years readers have followed the characters growing up, and since 2001 have watched the screen characters grow up - and indeed the actors, who have done so with considerably more dignity than other celebrity youngsters, like the Osbourne brood or Macauley Culkin.

The Character of Harry Potter famously popped into the mind of authoress JK Rowling while on a train in 1990, and spent a long gestation being fleshed out before Rowling put pen to paper.

There's been a lot of controversy over the magic depicted in the Potter series of books, with concerns expressed about occultism and pandering to those sectors of society which would see our Judaeo-Christian heritage cast away like a spoilt child's toy.

Not all of these objections, I feel, reap the benefits of knowing what one is talking about. For example, in Harry Potter and the Bible (subtitled The Menace behind the Magick), author Richard Abanes explains that "the word 'magic' refers to stage illusions by sleight-of-hand, whereas 'magick' refers to occult practices". He would have gained more of my respect had he shown an awareness of the origin of the word "magick". The unfortunately all-too-real Aleister Crowley (who had sinister tendencies even before he decided he was God) in his rush to befoul as many religious traditions as possible realised that in Jewish number theory (gematria) eleven represented unbalanced force, and therefore appended the eleventh letter of the alphabet to "magic".

But all of this is objectifying what was never intended to be anything more than an œvre of fiction, which I don't see containing more magic than, say, Disney's interpretation of Cinderella or Snow White - or, indeed, Sleeping Beauty, towards the end of which the Wicked Witch reveals herself as Satan. (My Mum took me to see this latter when I was a young'un - we both hid behind the cinema seats at that point.)

The central stream of fiction which runs through the Potter series is a battle between good and evil, the personification of which is Voldemort, who as a baddie has captured the public imagination in a way unknown since Darth Vader's first appearance. Voldemort has sought power and deference to such an extent that he has dehumanised himself, similar to the degradation wrought upon Gollum through his covetousness for the One Ring in Lord of the Rings, another work featuring magicians, spells etc which has not been demonised, and is one of Potter-buster Abanes' favourite books.

Through the series of books, Harry learns more about Voldemort's murder of his parents and about the similarities between himself and his enemy. Deathly Hallows is a perfect end to the series, drawing together themes which have been developing since Philosopher's Stone.

During this book we learn more than we ever have about the character of Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, who is killed at the end of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore is a morally upright character and Harry's moral compass; like Odysseus, even Dumbledore is not immune to temptation, but while Odysseus has his ship's crew tie him to the mast of his ship then block their ears so that he can listen to the call of the Sirens and survive, we discover that Dumbledore took no precautions when he tested one of the Deathly Hallows - rumoured to provide protection from death - in Half-Blood Prince, which led to his downfall. Harry, on the other hand, does not seek the Deathly Hallows for himself, which leads him to the realisation that the only road to Voldemort's defeat is the one that brings Potter to present himself for destruction at his hands.

What caused me some consternation was JK Rowling's announcement after Deathly Hallows' publication that Dumbledore was gay. I'm on the same page as Townhall's Ben Shapiro when he says that "there is nothing in any of the books to suggest that Dumbledore is gay". Obviously Dumbledore is JK Rowling's creation and he can be of whatever disposition she decides, but with the announcement - which surprised even Peter Tatchell, arguably Britain's most militant gay-rights activist - she's coming over all deconstructionist and going off the margin of the page to explain something which is already well explained within the context of the story.

Blogger Jimmie of The Sundries Shack notes that although Rowling commented Dumbledore

was "blinded" by love for Gellert Grindelwald and that was his great flaw, but he could just have easily have been blinded by love for a great and lifelong friend. I suspect that very few folks even contemplated the sexual activities of Albus Dumbledore because they just weren’t all that important.
In fact, Deathly Hallows makes it clear that what seduced Dumbledore was the same thing that led Sauron, Vader and their real-life models to destruction: the prospect of accruing power. Gellert Grindelwald - who is allegedly the object of Dumbledore's "crush" - wishes to lead the magical community out of their self-imposed exile in plain sight under the slogan "for the greater good", which is carved over the entrance of the prison Grindelwald built for his enemies - echoes, I think, of arbeit macht frei, the assertion that "work will make you free" which featured in the architecture of many concentration camps and, famously, covered the gates of Auschwitz.

Just as the backstory of Lord of the Rings can be seen as an allegory of how the Allies stood by as Germany rattled sabres before and during the Chancellorship of Adolf Hitler, so in Deathly Hallows we see what all the agitation about pure-bloodedness in the previous six books has lead to. Gone is the Ministry of Magic's golden statue celebrating harmony between the races depicted on the back cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to be replaced with one depicting two pure-blooded figures seated on thrones that are made of tiny "muggles" - non-magical folk.

It isn't difficult to see this sort of totalitarianism born of the arrogance of believing oneself naturally gifted to order the existence of "lesser beings" in our own lives. Ironically, given that Harry is a survivor of infanticide, the Telegraph reported recently that Anne Furedi, of major abortion provider the British Pregnancy Advisory Service welcomed the news that half of teenage pregnancies in Great Britain are now ending in abortion as "a positive sign" and "entirely a good thing". Even Children and Young People's Minister Beverley Hughes recoiled from such bloodlust in an unprecedented manner by calling this the abortion statistic "disappointing". Later this month, as Radagast explains, our children will be invited to contribute to the bloodshed as Comic Relief uses them to raise money that will be dispensed in part as "large grants to Brook Advisory, Marie Stopes International, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and organisations overseas involved in 'reproductive health'." John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, reveals that the last Comic Relief gave £1.5 ($2.15m) to the African Women's Development Fund, whose Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists (their title - honest) demands "Freedom of choice and autonomy regarding bodily integrity issues, including...abortion".

Deathly Hallows does indeed contain its dangers, notably in Dumbledore's rationale for having Snape kill him at the end of Half Blood Prince, to prevent a terrible reckoning falling upon the person Voldemort has commissioned with the murder. While it works in the context that having succumbed to the temptation of trying to unite the Hallows of the title so that he might have eternal deferment of death and paying the price for his hubris, it's easy to see how his explanation in chapter 33 is open to hijack: "I ask this one, great favour of you...because death is coming for me...I confess I should prefer a quick, painless exit".

Deathly Hallows is a well-paced novel accessible to people from teens upwards, containing horror, humour, action and an exploration of our darker places worthy of the ancients - in burying Dobby the House Elf, who was killed without conscience by members of Voldemort's forces because he was of a different magical race, Harry eschews magic and digs the grave by hand; the scene could have been penned by Virgil.

The whole series is one in which we see the reality of the soul affirmed, as well as life after death and even a hint of the resurrection of the body; it's well worth reading if you're interested. It may even, eventually, gain a following comparable to that of Lord of the Rings. We need to remember that what lies between a novels' cover is just fiction, but not let that blind us to the many insights into the human condition that wait for us to discover them.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J. K. Rowling
pp 607
Bloomsbury 2007

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ivan Cameron - recquiescat in pace

There's been some debate about the suspension of Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday to mark the death of Ivan Cameron, the six-year-old son of David, leader of the Conservative Party.

Ivan was born with cerebral palsy complicated by Ohtahara Syndrome, a form of epilepsy which can severely affect the quality of life of the child affected as well as families.

Despite this, the Cameron family decided from the off that little Ivan would play a full part in their lives, and indeed he was featured in their Christmas card for last year. He became ill after Shrove Tuesday celebrations, and died yestarday morning in the company of his parents, who have released a statement asking for donations to various charities for children with special needs instead of flowers.

Cranmer, while acknowledging yesterday the grief of losing a child, reflected today that the death of Baby P, that of the 146 children killed in 1966's, Aberfan disaster or the weekly death-toll of troops in the middle east might be "more worthy of parliamentary lamentation and the suspension of democracy".

David Cameron might possibly agree with this, as he had lined up his second-in-William Hague to deputise for him at question time. On the other hand, Parliament has been used too often as the vehicle for rubber-stamping policies engineered by people who would rather that Ivan and other disabled children did not see the light of day, so it's good to see a celebration of the life of one young child with special needs bring the British parliamentary machine to a halt.

I can only finish this post by quoting the virtual prelate again: "Bless you, Ivan. May you find eternal joy and peace in the place created for you from the foundation of the world." Please say a prayer for his mother, father, brother and sister, who now have to find a way to manage without him, for a while.

Ivan Cameron helping his Mum open a lift for disabled children - click to go to more pictures on the BBC

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Harriet potters with Cambridgeshire car fees

congestion chargingI promise I haven't doctored this picture of Harriet HarmanThere was an interesting article in the Telegraph yesterday, stating that Harriet Harman MP, whose hagiography lists her as "Deputy Leader of the Labour Party...Chair of the Labour Party, Leader of the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Equalities, Minister for Women and Lord Privy Seal", wishes to "move bus routes from affluent suburbs to poorer areas".

The piece caught my eye because a congestion-charge scheme is being pushed for Cambridge, whereby anybody driving into the city would have to pay a toll. In yesterday's Cambridge News, John Morgan reported that a Liberal Democrat councillor from South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC), covering the mainly rural area that surrounds Cambridge like a doughnut - effectively forming, with the rest of Cambridgeshire, much of its suburbs - has urged his fellow councillors to accept the measures because it would result in "vastly improved public transport for the majority of [the area's] residents".

Public transport is a major concern regarding congestion charging, on the part of the inhabitants of all the old fens as well as the people of Cambridge. Last May, the Cambridge News reported that 61% of people across Cambridgeshire opposed the introduction of a charge, although many would change their view if "attractive alternatives" for travelling into the city were presented. But if "the suburbs" are going to lose public transport in favour of areas the Labour government classifies as poorer...

I'm not on a country-versus-city kick here: I lived exclusively in cities and towns until I found the Draughty Old Fen. I merely agree with the Telegraph's political editor Patrick Hennessy, in the article linked to in the first paragraph of this post, that Ms Harman is "'positioning' herself to the left of the Labour Party in an attempt to win support for a future leadership contest" so that she can add the title of head chef to her menu of responsibilities.

Head for head, I'd say there's as much financial poverty in villages as there is in urban areas, but possibly less of the more damaging types of poverty that scar the soul. Villages are not as vulnerable to ideologues whose idea of social responsibility is herding poorer populations into vast ghettoes - as happened, for example, when Glasgow's Labour-dominated council transported people out of slGlasgow's Red Road flatsums adjacent to the city to shiny new slums in places with names like Drumchapel and Easterhouse.

And that, I think, is the nub of the thing. Limit public transport to the villages outlying a town, and you limit options for people without cars to move out of the town and arguably out of a demographic which is seen as Labour-friendly. A similar thing has already happened, as Andrew Marr notes in A History of Modern Britain. Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain - click to read Dominic Sandbrook's review for the Daily TelegraphArchitects like Erno Goldfinger intended their "cities in the sky" to be built in the countryside so that workers could be free of the environments they laboured in, but corporatist minds saw an opportunity to concentrate as many votes as possible in a relatively small urban area. So the tower-blocks ended up as prisons in the sky - especially when the lifts were broken, as my Mum found out when we lived in one - and Goldfinger was immortalised as a camp übervillain in a mysogynistic spy-fantasy.

It's a shame that Lib-Dem Councillor Stephen Harangozo has chosen to swallow the Government line on congestion charging, down to the suggestion that by adopting the scheme Cambridge can bid for £500m ($725m) of government money. Not only does this money originaRichard Normington, Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Cambridge - click to go to websitete from taxpayers in the first place, but, as Cambridge Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Richard Normington reveals in his blog, at least 10% of this will have to be raised by local taxpayers, who could find themselves with even higher taxes to shore up the scheme should it stay in the red. What's also sad is that parish (village) councillors of most political hues co-operated to force Cambridge City Council to hold workshops for residents of the "necklace" of villages around Cambridge who would have to pay to go to work or to visit the city, and outside whose houses rat-runs of cars and lorries would race to avoid crossing the charge boundary. Richard has also pointed out that, since one of the members of the committee exploring traffic-management issues has proposed introducing a congestion charge elsewhere in England, the process runs the risk of being a stitch-up. Peter Topping, Corporate Governance Committee Chairman, South Cambridgeshire District Council - click for webpage
Tom Bygott, of the Local Development Framework Special Meeting, of South Cambridgeshire District Council - click to go to webpage
There is, of course, hope. Conservative councillors Tom Bygott and Peter Topping of SCDC have tabled a motion showing how bad the congestion charge will be for rural residents. With Richard Norminton showing how bad the charge would be for people living in the city of Cambridge, one can see how ironically successful the Government is at uniting groups it is trying its best to put at one another's throats. You could say that it's a situation Harriet Harman would find taxing.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

how do they know it's Christmas?

I remember Band-Aid vividly - it was a time of great hope, of course, because rock'n'roll was going to change the world. I was in Italy when the single Do they know it's Christmas? was released, and it was huge there. Home in Glasgow for the summer, I watched the concert intermittently through a sweltering summer's day, intrigued by a headline I'd seen in a van-shop saying that the Beatles were going to unite for the occasion (they didn't). The music was good, and everybody observed the appropriate reverential silence when David Bowie's act ended and scenes from Michael Burke's broadcast from famine-stricken Tigray in Ethiopia were set to the music of the Cars' Drive.

Of course, what Buerk had left out of his original broadcast, which led to the Band Aid/USA for Africa/Live Aid projects, was that the famine was much exacerbated by attacks upon civilians in Tigray ordered by Ethiopian dicatator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Since most of the nearly £1bn ($1.4bn) was donated by governments who by standard practice deal with foreign countries on a governmental level, much of the aid was skimmed off by Mengistu so he could intensify his warmakinStella - click to read her storyg on his own people, and his paramilitaries became known as the "wheat militia" because of the cut they took from aid in kind.

Bob Geldof, who so memorably bludgeoned viewers to "give us the [expletive deleted] money", was an accomplice to the deception, because in typical paternalistic fashion the BBC decided that access to the truth would seal public wallets shut. One wonders if his sidekick Bono, whose band U2 is currently enjoying free publicity courtesy of the BBC's licence-payers, was also aware of the artifice. Even though the movers of Live Aid are so sacred within liberal hagiography that to question their results is even now frowned upon, fundraising projects - especially for Africa - have been sullied ever since through a sense that something went badly wrong.

Then, coming to the Draughty Old Fen, I learnt of the Watoto movement. It offered no naïve promises about feeding the world: one of the founders, Zimbabwe-born pastor Gary Skinner, upon visiting a Ugandan village, met with aEdward - click to read his storyn older woman who had lost six of her seven children to AIDS, was nursing her seventh through her last days, and was responsible for the care of 23 grandchildren. He was reminded of James 1:27: "Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphan and the widow in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world".

I might have remained sceptical had I not actually had the chance to meet members of the globe-trotting Watoto choir, who have played more than once in Cambridge's Trinity College Church. They sang both hymns and traditional songs, and testified with hands raised as to how Jesus had saved them. The latter is not a way in which I personally am accustomed to expressing Christianity, but it was disappointing to hear some of the audience mutter about "brainwashing": neither they nor I had seen a generation of our families wasted away by a disease spread as much through custom and prejudice as by the usual channels, nor indeed had we been abducted to serve as child soldiers - another constituency Watoto serves. It's a term bandied about so often as to have lost much of its meaning, but reading Ron Borges' hard-hitting yet inspirational story of boxer and former child soldier Kassim "the Dream" Ouma illustrates the hellish life of a child abducted in order to kill.

girls from the laroo school for war-affected children: click to read about Watoto's work with former child soldiers

Barrack - click to read his storyThrough the same people who introduced me to Watoto, I met a worker from the Spring of Hope foundation, again operating in Uganda, which works with children who are neglected or even abandoned because they are disabled. Again a Christian outfit, it recognises three criteria for judging the success of a project:
  • When the disabled children and their families are fully allowed to participate in any community event without discrimination.
  • When the perception of the community changes from negative to positive and the disabled are seen as being assets rather than liabilities.
  • When they will not label a child as disabled but instead talk of "Jessica - the girl with the great smile".
I recently attended a coffee-morning for Spring of Hope where I bought a bowl paintedFred - click to read his story with the world centred on Africa - into which I can put the things I buy at coffee morning that I imagine I can't manage without - and we learned of stories of the children the charity has worked with. Their pictures are mounted around this post; click on the pictures to read the stories.

One thing that impressed me about Watoto and Spring of Hope was that neither of them request something for nothing, although donations are obviously welcome. Both sold locally-produced jewellery, ceramics and textiles, and the members of the Watoto choir literally sing for their supper all around the world - and are begged to return.

Like many charities, they're also "adopted" by various institutions: for example, here in the fens, Spring of Hope is helped by, among others, Godmanchester Community Primary School and the RNIB [Royal National Institute for the Blind] College, Loughborough.

In'Jessica with the lovely smile' - click to read her story Great Britain at least, larger charities with matching overheads are pulling back on some of their smaller operations at the moment, for instance distributing blankets to nursing homes or knitted toys to children. Personally, I prefer to act locally: not necessarily in the sense of charity beginning at home, as important as that is, but when looking abroad, dealing with smaller groups acting to ease a specific group of problems in an easily-identified locality. Money's even harder to find than it has been for a long time, so my own solution as Lent comes will be to forego a couple of pints a week and send the money on.

I trust Spring of Hope and Watoto because they follow the example of Jesus in taking care of people's earthly needs before talking about God, and there are many more like them. If there's a time for asking do they know it's Christmas, it's probably quite a way down the road from gaining folks' trust, dressing their wounds and listening to their stories.

Friday, February 20, 2009

immortality ignored

Immortality, Inc. by robert Sheckley
Immortality, Inc.
Robert Sheckley
ACE 1959
pp 279
(Also published in 1958 as Immortality, Delivered)

I love sci-fi novels from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, where through looking at the author's vision of the future one sees a view of where the future might be going. Towards the end of the '70s the sci-fi market started to be saturated with various Star Wars and Star Trek novelisations and spin offs which, while being fair reads individually, became cumulatively rather too much of a good thing.

Robert Sheckley's novel of temporal bodysnatching is filled with the sort of humour acting as a trojan horse for piquant social comment that earned him the accolade of "Voltaire and Soda" from fellow sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss.

Thomas Blaine dies in a collision with another car, having driven his rather aggressively. He awakes in a clinic, rather disorientated - understandably - and finds recording technicians commenting positively on the quality of his anguish which they have been saving on a disc that will go on general release, so others can vicariously experience his trauma from inside his head then return to the safety of his living-room.

It turns out that the Hereafter Corporation has been experimenting with grabbing people from the past to solve the problem of "zombies". These result when the mind of a paying customer cannot bond properly with the body of somebody who has been given Hereafter Insurance as the price for selling his body for the customer's continued corporeal existence.

The premise of the book is that a way has been discovered of detecting the mind after death, the backstory that following this revelation, people started to sate their appetites for all sort of risky activities in the belief that death is not the end - deceived by false hope: it is not guaranteed that everybody's mind will cross over.

Which is where the Hereafter Corporation steps in, having found scientific methods to virtually guarantee not only the survival of the mind in the, well, hereafter, but also the transfer of a mind from a body that is in some way unsatisfactory to another model. Poorer individuals sell their bodies for money that will pay their families' bills and the aforesaid insurance. For especially lucrative customers the transfer is done in a clinic, otherwise...Sheckley describes a queue of sad individuals waiting to do their deal in a "suicide booth".

Blaine finds himself in the body of the proto-Chippendale we see on the book's cover and, when he is unable to reprise his career as a junior yaught designer, becomes a hunter, being paid to provide a showstopping finale for those who have been there, done that, and, having paid up their policies, are tired of a priveleged life. Free to do this because Hereafter have decided that it would be too controversial to use Blaine as marketing material, he finds that he is now hunted. With a love story and the de rigeur slipping of a mickey in a bar, it's a thoroughly entertaining and challenging novel, no less so than at the ending.

It seems to me, though, that our materialistic culture hasn't diverged much from the path Sheckley foresaw in novelised form. We can't yet see the world from inside other people's heads, but TV schedules are creaking with reality shows filmed 24/7 from every angle, with contestants urged to spew out inanities in camera on camera.

CasJade Goody, with thanks to the Daily Mirrore in point: in Great Britain, having been force-fed Jade Goodie's life, loves and lazy assumptions, we are now pummelled with incessant updates of her impending death from cancer in a metaphysical Big Brother's house with walls so porous that great swathes of society are osmosing into the diary room. I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping things go well for her in her own hereafter, but do we really need to know about her fiancé's post-prison curfew, his fight with her mother at her hospital bedside or her sinister elevation to the status of national treasure?

A pathological desire to seat oneself in somebody else's sensorium, however, only drives a sub-plot of the book. The main part deals with the desire for eternal deferment of death and its strange bedfellow, the compulsion to self-destruct. This can be seen in two news-stories that are currently in the news.

Last July, I blogged about Dr Iain Kerr, who had been suspended from practicing a scorpion's tale: Iain Kerrmedicine for 6 months after being found guilty by the General Medical Council of prescribing large doses of barbiturates to people, mostly older, whose medical presentations did not remotely suggest that barbiturates were appropriate. I then lamented that while Dr Crippen was hung after being convicted of killing one person (his wife), "now a man who is happy to publicise his murderous suspended from his profession for 6 months, but otherwise at liberty".

However, Kerr now states that he has cut his ties to Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), and adds, "I appreciate that it is not acceptable for an individual doctor, no matter how well intentioned, to act in those sort of circumstances as an individual...".

But there's a sting in the tail. Immediately following the above statement is: "without the benefit of some formal process governing any sort of activity like this". Kerr elucidates:

I realise that if there is to be any form of physician-assisted suicide, it will have to be within a proper legal framework and that there is no place for a practitioner to become so empathic with a patient that he may be tempted to go contrary to the current advice on physician assisted suicide
He says, furthermore, in the first article linked to, "If the law is to be changed, it must be politicians and lawyers who draft the changes".

Debbie Purdy and partner Oscar Puente: does being photogenic mean being right?His comment is germane to another breaking story, that Debbie Purdy has been unsuccessful in her appeal to secure an undertaking that her husband would not be arrested for abetting her suicide should he help her travel to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. A commercial concern, it makes a lot of money helping people with chronic pain, terminal and/or degenerative illness or depression go gently into that good night. Her original case against the Director of Public Prosecutions, as Joshua Rozenberg explained, was thrown out because the DPP was unable to give an undertaking based on a hypothetical scenario. Tellingly, in relation to Dr Kerr's view that "politicians and lawyers" must pave the way towards the anti-utopia Sheckley novelises, the law-lords have reinforced the point that it isn't a job for lawyers and judges to make law, rather "it had to be parliament which decided if the law should change".

So if the Labour Party takes the bait and legalises physician-assisted suicide, it will certainly win itself a sort of immortality: it will be cursed until the end of history by victims of the liberal totalitarianism which seeks to knock down concepts of objective right and wrong while ever strengthening its belief in its own infallibility.

Yet even the dismissal of the appeal has a sting in its own tail, as Paul Tully of SPUC comments:
Today's judgment, however, is disturbing in that the judges seem to hPaul Tully of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Childrenave shown support for the idea that some (disabled) people are right to want to die. The judgment acknowledges the wrongfulness of giving practical assistance to people who want to die, but asserts that it may be "inexpedient to take action against relatives for assisting a disabled person's suicide". The presumption underlying this thinking is that the lives of people who are enduring long-term disabilities are of low value, and should not be protected in the same way as other people.
This disregard for disabled people can be seen in action even as Sheckley was writing Immortality, Inc. Author Dick Wittenborn recalls a conversation with his pioneering psychiatrist father:
In the mid-Sixties, after one of my dad's cocktail parties, I told him how cool I thought a colleague of his was...this eminent man of medicine had won the Lasker Award and was then thought on his way to a Nobel. My father answered, 'Yeah, Dr X is a good guy. Of course, he's killed hundreds of his patients.'
It sometimes seems overwhelming, so it's good to see good news when it comes in: Wesley Smith of Secondhand Smoke reports that "Hawaii's assisted suicide legislation looks like it isn't going to make it this year."

Sheckley makes a wise move when he has one of his characters announce that the Hereafter Insurance Corporation deals with the mind, and makes no pronouncement on the survival or fate of the soul, something which the Government seeks to deny at every available opportunity through its pet outlets like New Scientist and the BBC.

Out of my parents and grandparents, a group of six people, five died of cancer and the fate of the sixth is lost to posterity, so what life has in store for me is a closed book; like all of us, I guess. But, when all's said and done, the school of thought that believes immortality consists purely of existing as a memory is poor man's meat: there's only one book I want my name in.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

why we need to talk about the Muslim Problem

In Lionel Shriver's literary thriller We need to talk about Kevin, we are presented with a series of letters from the mother of a deeply disturbed boy, who goes on to massacre other children in a school, to his father.

That section of the press which is free of ideological blinkers is increasingly sending us warnings - letters, if you will - about a problem we have in Western society, an elephant in the room which will soon crush those who delight in pretending it isn't there.

The sustained Muslim surge towards hegemony in our civilisation is revealed in the pedestrian as well as the horrific, in footnotes and appendices as well as screaming headlines.

For example, the Telegraph's Nick Britten reported recently that in Birmingham's "mixed-race area of Hall Green", it is no longer possible to buy ham on the produce of Domino's Pizza, although Halal options are available - an honour whose equivalent has never been extended to the city's 3000-strong Jewish comunity. The Halal Food Authority's president, Masood Khawaja, commented sinisterly: "This is only the beginning".

This week, it was reported that Leicester City Council's libraries department has decided to put the Koran on upper shelves, as Muslims believe that their sacred text should be "placed on a high shelf above commonplace things". The news that this was happening was broken by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in their publication Guidance on the management of cotroversial material in Public Libraries in section 5.1 of Appendix C, on page 41 of a 42-page document.

Although the city's Federation of Muslim Organisations advised the council, who sought it's advice, that all sacred books should be put high up so that the major religions' texts are seen to be equal, it remains to be seen whether the Muslims of Leicester, who have been repositioning the Koran unilaterally, will tolerate their book being placed alongside the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

What I find somewhat concerning is the use of the word "appeasement" in these stories and many like them, no doubt meant to evoke images of Neville Chamberlain flapping his piece of paper on which was Hitler's guarantee, gained at the 1938 Munich Conference, not to go to war with Great Britain in return for a promise of non-agression upon Germany's imminent annexation of Sudetenland, the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. The point about this story is often missed: Hitler had wanted negotiations at Munich to break down as a pretext to start a war, because he knew Britain's air defenses were inadequate, and some trade-unionists were agitating to slow down the already hesitant process of producing Spitfires, preparing to make their opposition to production of war matériel overt when the secret non-agression pact between Hitler and Stalin would be made formal with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939.

Hitler was furious with Mussolini for crowing about his role in bringing about the agreement on Chamberlain's piece of paper, for in deferring a war the victory was Chamberlain's. I think a much more appropriate comparison for the present situation comes from the First World War, when the German High Command arranged for Lenin to be transported in a sealed train from Switzerland to Russia, where the disorder caused by his agitation would take Russia out of the war and let Germany concentrate on its western front. The Soviet empire that resulted from German strategy displayed the law of unintended consequences in spades.

Similarly, Labour has encouraged the growth of a militant atheist clerisy that favours Islamism at every turn in order to oppress our long-standing Judaeo-Christian culture. Gone are the days when socialism owed more to Methodism than Marx, a point Gordon Brown was at pains to demonstrate in his biography of the left-wing Scottish MP, James Maxton. Just as Kaiser Wilhelm INadia Eweida - victim of political correctness.  Thanks to the Daily Telegraph and the PA for the pic.I's recruitment of communism as a weapon of war eventually led to the fracturing of his country for 45 years, so corporatist fawning to radical Islamism in the self-declared fight against traditional British values has cloven Britain into effectively untouchable radical militant preachers of hate and terrorism, their cannon-fodder, and the rest of us. And political correctness, a concept formed upon the orders of Lenin, is the favoured armament.

The attrition is visible all over the place. Nadia Eweida, banned by British Airways for wearing a cross visibly at work; Lilian Ladele, the registrar who had to resort to litigation against London's Islington Council because she felt that "marrying" gay people was contrary to her Christian beliefs; Caroline Petrie, a district nurse suspended by the NHS because she offered to pray for a Lilian Ladele - victim of political correctness.  Thanks to the Daily Telegraph for the pic.patient; and, most recently, Jennie Cain, sho was suspended from the school where she works as a secretary, her crime being having emailed friends from her home asking for prayers when her five-year-old daughter was reprimanded for talking about Jesus to a classmate.

On the other side, as Archbishop Cranmer explains, militant Labour peer Lord Ahmed recently bullied the House of Lords into banning democratically-elected Dutch MP Geert Wilders with the threat that he would mobilize a private army of 10,000 Muslims against Parliament if he were to arrive to give a talk and show his film, Fitna. Given that Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's high commissioner to Great Britain, has made a thinly-veiled threat about emotions running high among the million-strong Pakistani diaspora in the UK over allCaroline Petrie - victim of political correctness.  Thanks to the Daily Telegraph for the pic.ied actions in the war upon terror, I can easily believe that Ahmed's figure of 10,000 stormtroopers under his command is realistic figure.

Breaking news today is that the preacher of hate Abu Qatada has been awarded compensation by European Human Rights judges because he was imprisoned without trial. Qatada is fighting deportation to Jordan for fear that he might be tortured there. If he was truly Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, why isn't he being encouraged by all necessary means to provode intelligence here that might protect British and US civilians and troops? I'm sure Allah would reunite him with his fingernails before deciding what to do with him and his associates for trampling the reputation of a fine religion into the mud.

And there's the rub. Islam once had a wonderful reputation for scholarship and tolerance that is fading fast. This is affecting me as well. For example, when lawyer Saleca Faisal Parkar won a discrimination case against her employers for egregious abuse on the grounds of race and gender, I was left feeling cold because of the actions of her co-religionists.

Anyway, here's something for you that the House of Lords was never allowed to see: the first part of Geert Wilders' film Fitna. I don't link to it, containing as is does disturbing images, out of any desire to cause offence, but because the elephant in the room has grown to such mammoth proportions that it threatens to trample us all, and this is why we need to talk about what I can find no name for other than the Muslim Problem. If watching it makes you feel a bit overwhelmed, try singing a hymn afterwards. How about Onward Christian Soldiers?

Monday, February 16, 2009

A 45º-turn on battery farming

freedom to protestRecently, the Cambridge News ran a story about students from Cambridge's Anglia Ruskin University picketing a Tesco's store to try to persuade it to stop selling eggs from caged hens, a subject which becomes close to my daughters' hearts every time it gets an airing; they then bring it close to my ears. (Maybe the protesters took advantage of the student union's free bus to Tesco...)

I'm sorry that animals are living in squalour and misery to feed us for less. But, in our broken society where kids live with drug-taking parents in a narrative so bleak it would have rendered Dickens suicidal, parents look at the financial news and weep, and older folk live emptily in the carpeted gulags of some nursing-homes, the fates of our feathered friends are not that high on my agenda.

Nevertheless, I'm not made of stone, so as I had to be in town today, Ia section of Cambridge's Mill Road had a walk down Mill Road, the cosmopolitan thoroughfare that the anti-Tesco campaigners are always going on about, and which is on Anglia Ruskin University's doorstep. My mission: to find out whether the small, independent traders whom the above state they defend are on-message as regards caged hens. My report follows:

If you want compassion for chickens, then Al Amin at number 100 was the clear winner, as it sold only eggs from free-range hens. On the other hand, Winfield Chinese Supermarket at no. 58 sold only caged chickens' eggs; I don't know the status of the quails and ducks whose produce was also available. (I only recently found out that there was such a thing as battery ducks, when Minora told me.)

Balv's Superette at no. 160 sold eggs from both caged and free-range hens, as did the Nip-In Express at no. 30. Conversely, there was no identification visible on the eggs for sale in unmarked boxes in Notun Bangla Bazar at no. 194, or in Spice-Gate International Food Centre at no. 14.

One store I dropped into was sold out of eggs, and in another where I couldn't find them a harrassed-looking lady behind the counter was trying to convince a young man that four cans of 9% lager was quite enough for him - he was rather a big chap.

I'm not quite sure why the campaigners have chosen Tesco's, which gives shoppers a choice between free-range and caged chickens and their eggs. It could be that they are yet to devise coping-mechanisms for the misery of other beings that is woven into many of our daily choices; possibly they ascribe to the view that most of us are economic automata; or maybe they just don't like Tesco's. Probably all three, and more, are intermixed.

Also to be factored in is celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's campaign against Tesco's intensive-rearing techniques. However, this man has form: in January 2008 he was unmasked by an industry watchdog as having "allowed needless cruelty" at the battery-farm he set up to show viewers the horror of it all. Apparently it wasn't horrible enough already.

I don't doubt the sincerity of the protesters at Tesco's, I merely doubt their appreciation of situations where the pennies matter. If they really want to make a difference, they could lobby the Government to make it more rewarding for farmers to breed free-range chickens than it is at present, without increasing their impact on ordinary folks' pockets. Who knows, they might even be inspired to give the many Halal meat outlets in Cambridge some friendly advice on animal welfare.

But if they still think that campaigning for eggs to come from free-range chickens is the answer, then maybe as well as picketing Tesco's they might have a look at some of the establishments I've listed above that sell eggs from caged hens.

you choose: click to go to the homepage of Compassion in World Farming

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saint Valentine's night

I don't always have the sunniest disposition, but excelled myself this morning, not having slept well for several nights. I growled through a shift at XV, the draughty old fen's charity shop, then went home for some kip. Awaking a bit more refreshed, I was still a bit unsure about going to a Valentine's night dinner at a place in another old fen I'd never been to before.

When she'd dressed up, Maxima looked amazing, and indeed looks better on a daily basis than I think of giving her credit for. An older friend of ours had laid down the law to me that I was NOT to have her cycling through the country in her good frock, so some friends called to pick us up.

Our destination was a barn that's functional around harvest time, but for the rest of the year it has flooring put down and gets hired out for weddings, dances and general events. It was high-roofed, with an intricate array of beams supporting the roofing, and tables waited on by a mixture of professional staff and local clergy.

I'm told that Cambridge and its environs has the highest concentration of choirs per square mile in the world. I don't know if that's true, but the local old fens have their fair share of singers. A group of four of them sang Grace in Latin before we started eating. I calmed down - food tends to do this for me. The dinner was exquisite beyond my descriptive skills. But the night was composed of far more than food: candles burnt on every table, with a little wooden heart, painted red, for everybody and a rose for every woman. I initially had a headache looking at Maxima through a candle-flame, but once some of the wax had melted I realised she looked amazing by candle-light, her eyes glittering like Loch Lomond under the full moon.

There was a "silent auction" whereby guests could submit bids for a list of promises, from an hour's conversation with a French-tutor to the whole works for a dinner-party for eight. In many of the old the fens, poverty and riches live cheek-by-jowl, as they have done for centuries, and even now ideologues of a certain political hue haven't managed to set the relatively poor and the relatively rich at each others' throats - but that's for another time.

I believe there were some pretty good bids made, by people who make a reasonable living out of doing jobs that need to be done, and doing them well. And amidst the bolting of stable doors almost a decade too late because of the actions of a few madmen, some are upping sticks and heading for foreign climes where they aren't treated as pariahs, and all the best to them. Settings like tonight's are where payouts and bonuses are recycled quietly - the auction, and indeed the whole night, was set up by Rector Pellegrina to help build a primary school in the diocese of Vellore in India, which is the twin diocese to that of Ely.

Our singers treated us to madrigals from different ages, starting from Hélas Madame by Henry VIII; I hope they were singing it because of the serial widower's facility with a bon mot, and not through any insights he might have had into keeping a partner. They took us, in several sessions alternated with a local girl playing music from Bach to the Bee-Gees on the piano, through Victorian times to the roaring twenties, then left us with what they (rightly, in my opinion) described as the best love-song ever: Robert Burns' My Love is like a Red Red Rose. I can't find it in madrigal form, but here's Scots songstress Eddie Reader singing it:

I am never in any doubt about how good Maxima looks in my eyes, but it was good to see her light up when other people told her she was looking lovely. Note to self: tell her how good she looks more often.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

happy birthday Charles Darwin

fluI have mixed feelings about the flu vaccination. I once had an argument with Professor Calculus, who said he'd had the flu jab every year it had been available, and hadn't had the illness since 1988. I replied that, never having had the jab, I too hadn't had the flu since 1988. But Calculus is somewhat older than me, so perhaps the jab is indicated in his case.

So I was interested to read in the Cambridge News about a talk on the evolution of flu in Cambridge University's Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies as part of the celebrations for the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth.

The Leverhulme Centre was difficult to find at first, as there's a warren of throroughfares in that part of the city; but once I'd located Fitzwilliam Street the imposing, if foreshortened, façade was immediately visible. The glass doors opened automatically, which was a bit of a shame, because I'd been trying to read the finely-crafted inscriptions on them. I think they were quotes from Darwin.

The presentation was actually entitled the evolution of influenza viruses: seasonal flu Dr Colin Russelland vaccines and was given by Dr Colin Russell of the university's Centre for Pathogen Evolution, and facilitated by Chris Smith, a doctor and scientist who presents the Naked Scientist show and podcast for BBC Radio Five Live, and also pops up on Australia's ABC Radio National; sponsorship was from British Council Bulgaria, who had supplied a video-link to a group of students in Sofia. I'm informed by the organisation's Lyubov Kostova that the BC in Bulgaria are still talking about his presentation!

Dr Smith began the seminar by assuring us that his nudity was metaphclick for details of British Council Bulgaria's Café Scientifiqueorical, which was a relief. Dr Russell kicked off with the numbers, which I found surprising: 600 million people are infected worldwide with the influenza virus each year, leading to 100,000 hospitalizations every year in Great Britain, and 20,000 deaths. Russell is part of the World Health Organisation committee which analyses samples of bird flu, which often migrates across species to infect humans, to try to predict how the viruses will evolve in order to work out which ones to put into the vaccine which will try to protect vulnerable people from the disease at the end of this year. He will be part of the final decision-making process later this week.

The problem is that every time a scientist makes a comment about flu vaccines or influenza-related mortality, the subject of the 1918 pandemic - named the "Spanish flu" or "Spanish Lady" because Spain was one of the few countries not to suppress reports of the attrition, which exceeded that of the Great War - comes up in an often unmeasured way in the populist press. Smith referred to a headline on the BBC website, which I haven't been able to find, which comprised the word FLU dripping with blood. "I'd long thought the BBC was a bastion of jounalistic integrity", he commented.

Russell referred to the flu pandemics of 1893, 1957 and 1968, which are mentioned much less often than the 1918 one, but which determined the shape of the seasonal influenza outbreaks between themselves and the next outbreaks. The reason 1918 was different, however, was that the thing reproduced so quickly that it was present in all organs - including the brain - and had elements of a haemorrhagic fever like the Ebola or the Hanta viruses, which came to us from animals.

Russell engaged both academics and eejits like me in seconds, and his talk was fascinating from beginning to end, alighting on many subjects: but it was here that my own interest was especially piqued. Ebola comes from bats, with whom it appears to have coexisted for so long that virus and bat do each other no harm. But then a bat bites a gorilla, which is found by a West African villager who is looking for bush-meat to sell and is, probably, desperately poor. The virus kills him gruesomely, then his fellow villagers honour their tradition of giving the corpse a communal bath to clean him up for the afterlife. You can guess the rest.

Similarly, rats with the Hanta virus have been found to be more resistant to infection with the plague virus Yersinia Pestis, while the beastie causes a similar death to Ebola infection in humans. Smith added that measles appears to have migrated to humans from cattle 5,000 years ago, in whom the causative virus causes rinderpest; flu started coming to us from birds in the far east 2,000 years ago, and smallpox appears to be caused from a virus descended from the one which causes camelpox.

At this point, Smith picked up on a "throwaway figure" of Russell's on the amount of bacteria in the body; he'd estimated that only 10% of the DNA in the body is human, the rest belonging to our bacterial guests. Smith ran with this to talk about how "we have a huge population" in the world, adding that "one of the places with the biggest population density is this bloody country", and finishing off by declaring, in respect of there being 50 bacterial cells in our bodies for each human one of ours, "we are passengers in our own body". Russell stepped in to clarify that we humans do have our own genome, of which bacterial DNA is not a part.

This seemed to reflect the debate going on in some parts of the scientific community over whether Charles Darwin's "tree of life", suggesting that we ultimately descend froclick to read the New Scientist article disestablishing Charles Darwin's tree of lifem a common ancestor, is a valid representation of how evolution works. Some biologists are suggesting that genes can travel horizontally as well as vertically, as laid out in a recent edition of the New Scientist in an issue on whose cover was emblazoned Darwin was wrong. On of the chief engines of this horizontal gene transfer is reckoned to be viruses - Richard Dawkins introduced this concept to the popular consciousness in the first part of his documentary on The Genius of Charles Darwin, when he talked about HIV straight after dealing with Malthus' theories on how disease and war curb overpopulation - this may have been the reason for Dawkins' presence at the seminar.

There seems to be a wider debate, which threatens to develop into a battle, over who owns the heritage of Darwin: radical militant atheist philosophers of science on the one hand, and practicing scientists on the other. Russell showed how the battle-lines are not clearly demarcated when he predicated intentionality of nature with phrases like "nature selects" and even "nature moves in mysterious ways"; but the manner in which he acted to prevent the seminar's narrative from drifting into more contentious ground speaks volumes for his place in the camp containing scientists who want to do science.

A thawing of some scientists' attitudes to religion, or at least a recognition of the truth of the aphorism with which Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus - "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" - may be indicated by timing. Darwin's bicentenary falls on 12th February, but this celebration of his achievements ended with this seminar on the 10th - the day before the anniversary of Bernadette Soubirous' first sighting of Aquero, the beautiful lady in the grotto of Massabielle at Lourdes later revealed to be the Virgin Mary. New Scientist, on the other hand, marked that particular anniversary with a disquisition on How your brain creates God.

I'm not sure about Russell's views on religion, and that's how it should be: a warrior fighting for the lives of people vulnerable to death by influenza, he was there to talk about the disease and how to mitigate its worst effects. And he did so admirably. I have to swallow down my doubts about the global vaccine industry to recognise that he is working against natural selection, flying in the face of the foul precepts related to social Darwinism that so horrified Darwin to follow a star that Richard Dawkins, Darwin's false prophet, lacks the ability to comprehend: altruism.
click to hear Elizabeth Francis perform her songs on myspace
Having ridden shotgun with a colleague doing training earlier in the day, my head was spinning with ideas by the end of the seminar. So it was good to retire to The Snug on Lensfield Road to hear Elizabeth Francis breathe smoky life into songs of life, loss and obsession while jazz and soul fell in love on her keyboard under classically-trained fingers. If music is the uniquely human response to thinking too much, play on!

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin, I hope your legacy will soon be free of the ideological accretions that co-opt your posthumous approval of concepts you would doubtlessly have spat on.

Related post: swine flu and the hazard of hysteria

Swine flu - is it time to panic yet?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

top ten songs about places

Today I went to buy my first single for 8 years - I didn't succeed, though, because when I went to HMV I couldn't find the singles section. It was a bit simpler when you just had to look for the racks with 7" 45 RPM's...then I found out that the track I was looking for was only released as a single digitally.

I liked the warm, winsome feel of Mykonos by the Fleet Foxes the first time I heard it. It was redolent of many sounds, like CSNY, the Byrds etc while being beholden to none, the way a fine wine can suggest cinnamon, ginger and strawberries without any of those ingredients having been near it. And when Terry Wogan gave the track his seal of approval by calling it "strange but beautiful", I knew I had to have it. I found a version of their eponymous album containing an extra disc which had Mykonos on it, and which, in fact, to date contains all of their recorded music. So I breathed in the country-rock harmonies married to pastoral music - it was as if much of popular music from the Bay City Rollers to Robbie Williams had been nothing but a bad dream.

This gave me an idea. It occurred to me that many of the songs about places that I've heard over the years have struck a chord with me, stayed with me as it were. I'd like to share ten of them with you. Maybe you might even like to do the same.

10 - Mull of Kintyre

The place is at the end of the Kintyre peninsula in a part of South-West Scotland I never got to know as well as I would have liked; the McCartney family bought a farm there shortly after the break-up of the Beatles.

I remember dancing to this at a school disco in Glasgow, at a time when you didn't hear many songs about Scotland in the charts. Some pseuds suggested that it wasn't Paul McCartney's best work, but I would put it up there with Eleanor Rigby, Let it Be, Pipes of Peace and all his many classics. I heard that the bagpipe band was offered either a one-off payment or a share of the royalties, and, deciding that a song with bagpipes would never make it, asked for the former. I bet they were kicking themselves!

9 - The Alamo

After Johnny Cash looked at a map of Ireland - never having been there - and used the names to write Forty Shades of Green, he couldn't do anything wrong in the eyes of the various Scottish/Irish communities of the world. Even so, it was a surprise to go to Rome to study and find a group of Scottish blokes singing the college song, Remember the Alamo in thick (mostly) Glaswegian accents. I think a couple had relatives in the US, but the reason for the adoption of the song had been lost to posterity long before they came. Some suggested it went right back to Scottish singer Donovan's version of the song, released two years after Cash's in 1965. Whatever the origins, this stirring tale of the bravery of a group of men following Travis, Bowie and Crockett in their doomed attempt to prevent the surge of Santa Anna's troops into the (then) Republic of Texas has as its chorus the battle-cry of of the troops in the Battle of San Jacinto, when the Mexican army was driven out of Texas: Remember the Alamo!

8 - Tozeur

We never worked out why Alice e Battiato, the duo singing for Italy in the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest, were singing about a deserted Tunisian town, but in terms of writing and production this is a consummate pop song and they deserved to win. It was certainly better than Britain's Love Games, sung by Belle & the Devotions, who made it sound like a half-hearted warm-up for a Three Degrees tribute band. The winners were Sweden's The Herreys with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, in which they sang about their magic shoes. But the lyrics of I treni di Tozeur are perfectly crafted - and the video's got a steam locomotive.

7 - The River Clyde

During the spring and summer, the people of Glasgow had a venerable tradition of taking a ride on a paddle-steamer down their river to one of several coastal and island towns - Dunoon, Rothesay, Tighnabruaich, etc - that was called going "doon the watter". Only one ship does this now: the Waverley, the world's last ocean-going paddle-steamer. The ship features in this video of The Song of the Clyde, which is about going doon the watter, sung by tenor Kenneth McKellar, a Scottish "national treasure" whose fine voice was ignored by the classical world because he chose to sing traditional folk songs for a popular market instead of pursuing a career in opera. Looking at the careers of Pavarotti, Domingo et al, his crime appears to have consisted of being ahead of his time. I hope you enjoy the song, and looking at my old stamping-ground.

6 - Palace of Aranjuez

This is a section of a classical concerto, not a song, but I didn't want to make the title of the blog too unwieldy. This is the adagio, the middle of the three segments of the Concierto de Aranjuez of 1939. Some people have asserted that the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War may have had an input into the piece's sad theme, and that may be, in part, true. But others have asserted that Joaquín Rodrigo wrote it after his wife suffered a miscarriage. This is closer to the truth, but again not quite accurate. Rodrigo gave an interview, aired on British TV shortly before his death, in which he said that he composed this piece while his wife was going through the miscariage, the hell - for both of them - of wondering whether their baby was going to live or die. The slow, minor theme between guitar and clarinet that kicks off the piece is Rodrigo praying to God for his and his wife's baby; this eventually gives way to ever more frantic flamenco-inspired strumming, as he begs so feverishly for the child's life that man and prayer become inseparable; and then we have an orchestral reprise of the guitar's original theme - if what went before was his Gethsemane, this is his "your will, not mine" moment. It's one of the few pieces of music that make me want to weep and is, I think, a perfect international anthem for the unborn.

5 - London

Noël Coward is said to have written this song while sitting in a bombed station during the Blitz. Much more of a "man of the people" than either his accent or detractors might suggest, he was fiercely patriotic: if you listen carefully, you can occasionally hear short parodies of Deutschland über alles. London Pride (Saxifraga urbium) is a perennial flower: both it and Londoners can thrive just about anywhere, not least in the bombed-out shells left by the Blitz.

4 - Galveston

Jimmy Webb wrote three place-name songs for Glen Campbell: Wichita Lineman, By the time I get to Phoenix, and my favourite is this - although it wasn't until recently that I found out the meaning of the song, that US Marines would leave Galveston to travel to Vietnam. When I realised that, then the words, coupling the optimism of youth with an ever-present awareness of one's mortality that perhaps belongs to older heads, took on a whole new meaning.

3 - Leidenstadt

Né en 17 à Leidenstadt was written by Jean-Jacques Goldman, who wrote songs for Celine Dion when she was singing in French. Goldman, who is French but has Polish Jewish forbears, imagines himself being born on the site of a humiliating defeat for the Germans towards the end of World War I and asks if things would have been different for him had he been born German. Then the focus goes to Belfast (this was 1990 - before the Peace Process): would one have been able to reach a hand beyond one's tribe? And finally, the late great Carole Fredericks sings the lyrics wondering if she'd have heard the voices saying that things would never be the same if she's been born white and rich in Johannesburg. A very engaging song - and the sampled bagpipes in the chorus are the icing on the cake.

2 - Loch Lomond

I was taught this song as a young'un, and was delighted when a Scottish group called Runrig, who came originally from the isle of Skye, released it in 1979. It was good to hear a Scottish group singing in a Scottish accent; although it's a bit strange, now that original singer Donnie Munroe has left, to hear Canadian Bruce Guthro speaking in an American accent and singing in a Scottish one. I hope you enjoy the video of Donnie performing it with the band.

1 - Home

I knew I wanted to end this blog with the idea of home, but wasn't sure about the song: Home Loving Man by Roger Whittaker, for example, or Back Home Again by John Denver, or Going Home by Runrig? The thing is, to me, home isn't so much a function of the location of one's birth, as of the people that accrue around you as the years go by. I think, personally, that the process of going home is a pilgrimage from culture to identity and from place to people, whether or not life leaves you where you were born. Personally, I was born in Glasgow, and, moving forther afield, upon meeting Maxima knew that I'd come home, which was no longer a set of co-ordinates but a person, then a group of people. There are still some people I love in Glasgow, and I enjoy going to visit them; then I come home.

Related posts: click here for more top ten songs about...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

blood, tears and celebrity dentists

The first time I saw a DIY dentist kit was in the early 90's, when I was working in France and a workmate, who had previously worked with Voluntary Services Overseas in Tanzania, showed me his. The tools looked standard dentist's issue, with enough temporary filling to last until you could get to a dentist, but I never worked out how you would be able to use the mirror while keeping your eyes in their sockets.

Last year the Telegraph's Lara Clout reported the case of grandmother Elizabeth Green, who was in a desperate state due to her toothache but, havinpicture with thanks to the Daily Telegraph - click to read storyg phoned round dentists' surgeries after government reforms of the industry, was unable to find any that were taking on NHS patients. Luckily the two front teeth causing the problem had become loose, so she was able to pull them out manually after working them forwards and backwards with her fingers. Even though dentists whose caseloads are predominantly made up of NHS patients can earn up to £96,000 ($138,500), their reluctance to take on more NHS patients who are now less rewarding has led, according to Ms Clout, to people repairing broken crowns with glue; she even found one person who had performed several extractions with houswehold pliers.

Not that dentists and their goods and services don't have their uses: in Croatia, Stipe Cavlovic's life was spared when a bullet with his name on it was stopped in its tracks by his false teeth. Perhaps dentists know something that the makers of bulletproof vests don't?

In my hometown of Glasgow, false teeth are called wallies, after the tiles made of china ("wally") that lined entrances to the more élite tenements - something the same as the US regional terms "chiny teeth" and "chinaware" to describe prosthetic laughing gear. When my Mum came of age, which then meant turning 21, the NHS hadn't yet been set up, so her family saved up so that she could have all her teeth removed as a special present. This would save her many years of prohibitive fees - or so she thought; two years later, the Health Service was founded.

I understand that we have to contribute to dental care, as only certain materials can be used in such a sensitive, vulnerable part of the body, and must be manipulated by highly-trained individuals. But, as in the rest of medicine, as time goes by more treatments are available in more highly refined formats, and there has to be a limit as to what can be partly or even wholly funded by the state. teeth in bracesmouth ulcers - click to read how to treat them and other problems with bracesFor example, last year I took my brother Asinus' daughter Perturbata to the orthodontist to have braces attached on the NHS and therefore free as she is a minor - something which, according to one website, can cost up to £7,000 ($10,000). Asinus is looking for dental wax at the moment, to shield mouth ulcers that perturbata's developed from the braces, which are exacerbating them.

I don't grudge Perturbata'The Dentist' by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1622, in the Gelämdegalerie, Dresden - click to see a larger picture her braces, especially as their wearers are enriching orthodontists through playground peer pressure, and children who try to resist this can find themselves targeted. I'm not suggesting a return to eighteenth century dentistry, especially as braces were known to the ancient Greeks and their predecessors; but I wonder how closely related the perceived need to have perfect teeth is related to that of conforming to other attributes of assorted supermodels and stars, like starving oneself half to bewilderment and mortgaging one's life for enhancements.

Dentistry can of course be absolutely necessary. Perturbata contributes robustly to her NHS dental treatment; when she wanted a tooth taken out because it was causing her severe pain, the dentist refused, putting her through the first part of a (more expensive) root-canal treatment, in breach of the General Dental Council's Standards for Dental Professionals, which states that practitioners should
Recognise and promote patients’ responsibility for making decisions about their bodies, their priorities and their care, making sure you do not take any steps without patients’ consent (permission).
To cut a long story short (there are a couple of links to backstories at the bottom), on the second visit, during which I accompanied her, the dentist decided that an extraction was now indicated but the tooth had been weakened by having a hole drilled through it, and snapped, leaving part of the root in her mouth.

Patientia was referred to Addenbrooke's hospital on a non-emergency basis. What a difference: the dentist there sat her down in an ordinary chair, not hovering above her and offering expensive options while she was semi-recumbent, bleeding and in tears, in a dentist's chair. He went through the options and guided her towards a decision, but armed her with the information that there would be pain and blood.

Unfortunately, Patientia neglected to mention this to her friend Fidelitas who, both Asinus and I being unavailable for the appointed day, accompanied her to the outpatients' dentistry department. When Fidelitas realised that Patientia would have to have her gum cut open in order to remove the fragment of root, she informed her that she was terrified of the sight of blood.

So Patientia followed the nurse alone into the clinic shaking somewhat, but was a little rhandsome? BAH AND DOUBLE BAH!elieved, somehow, when she saw that the dentist bore a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt. (Maxima accuses me of being jealous of his looks, but I protest that I simply don't understand what women see in a man with a face like a bag of spanners.)

Anyway, Patientia sat in the dentist's chair and, suddenly blonde, said "do I really need to have this done?" Brad the Dentist nodded and, root extracted and the reservoir of blood and pus it had been blocking sucked out of her mouth, she left with dissolving stitches in her gum. She half-reluctantly said goodbye to him.

There's certainly a lot of unmined potential in dentistry. For example, last August scientists removed the pulp from the wisdom teeth extracted from a ten-year-old girl, which they have frozen should the need arise for stem cells to be created for her, with no embryos destroyed nor any wannabe Frankenstein emboldened.

Generally, though, the government advised people to go to their dentists less in 2004, two years after the present downturn had first shown its ugly face. I won't find that a problem - unless the NHS starts hiring dentists that look like Gillian Anderson.

why oh why didn't Gillian become a dentist?

Related posts:

The Orthodoxy of Orthodonty

Good dentistry - it's like pulling teeth

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

golliwog-gate: the racism of anti-racists

First we had the debâcle of Jonathan Ross leaving obscene messages on a young girl's grandfather's answerphone on air. By debâcle I don't so much mean the actual incident - although heaven knows that was bad enough - but the BBC's initial response. At first it lied about not having received a complaint from Andrew Sachs, actor and grandfather of burlesque dancer Georgina Baillie, then attempted to smear those of its own listeners who complained, saying that they were offended after the fact, not having heard the broadcast (it pulled the incriminating sections of the broadcast out of the listen-again facility, but they were all over YouTube).

Now we have the siCarol Thatchertuation whereby a presenter on its evening magazine programme, the one show has been fired for allegedly having made a "racist" comment on Thursday, 29 January about an unidentified tennis-player off-air, in a private conversation in the green room. She is said to have compared the hair of a tennis player to the hair of the golliwog that used to be depicted on the Robertson's jam pots, and suddenly the ideologically beautiful press is screaming that she called a black man a golliwog.

The BBC said it would decide on whether Carol Thatcher could continue on the programme after an apology from her, which she promptly gave, and the decision was that she had to go.

Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia gives a compsee the Project Gutenberg entry for The Adventures of two Dutch Dolls and a 'Golliwog'rehensive account of golliwog iconography, starting with its origins as a rag doll in the southern states of the US in the form of a minstrel - a white man blacked up - and going through its first gallant appearance in Bertha and Florence Kate Upton's 1895 The Adventures of two Dutch Dolls and a "Golliwog" to its less gallant appearance in Enid Blyton's series of Noddy stories, and in between its aforementioned appearance on jars of Robertson's jam.

Right away, though, we run into difficulties. The minstrels were represented on British TV in the BBC's own The Black and White Minstrel Show, the hugely popular variety show which finished after a campaign by ideological guerrillas in 1975. The most famous face click to see what Lenny Henry's doing nowto be launched by this show is Lenny Henry, probably Britain's best-loved black comedian and actor; had the show not been pulled, more black people may have similarly seen their careers launched.

I detest abuse on the grounds of the genetic accident of skin colour, but it's not even certain that Thatcher's "golliwog" epithet, made in the context of last week's Australian Open tennis championship, referred to the barnet of a black fellow: the top two contenders for golliwog-hair are Scottish Andy Murray and Frenchman Gaël Monfils. Both crops are shown below with that of our fictional friend.

golliwog-gate: it's about the hair, nothing else
The thing is, as (surprisingly) The Guardian's Michael White blogs, militant anti-racism can be as selective as the discrimination it deplores. When a thin white girl with long blonde hair is compared to Barbie, it isn't usually a complement - as used, for example, about Claudia Schiffer, by the liberal-socialist media machine. Multiple enhancee Sarah Burge, however, has turned the discrimination on its head by presenting herself as the "Real-life Barbie".

I think Lenny Henry was doing the same thing when he agreed to provide the voice, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (my favourite Potter movie), of Shrunken Head, who is animated as a rasta-haired trophy on a string similar to what might have been produced by headhunters as imagined in, say, King Kong. This is in its own way as much of a race-based distortion as the gollywog, as of all the world's headhunters, the only ones to produce shrunken heads were the Jivaro of what is now Ecuador and Peru, who would not have encountered black people speaking English with a Caribbean accent. This isn't to try to take the fun out of Harry Potter, merely to amplify White's point about the selectivity of anti-racism.

That a Guardian journalist should agree on one point with an ennobled Conservative shoclick to go to the Margaret Thatcher Foundationws the depth of public dissatisfaction with the BBC's double standards. Both point to what has largely remained the elephant in the room - Carol Thatcher's parentage. As Norman (now Lord) Tebbit told the Telegraph, "It is probably a bit of a way for the BBC to get back at Carol's mother". Carol Thatcher is daughter of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who was Great Britain's greatest peacetime Prime Minister, and fought running battles with the BBC over their coverage of, for instance, the Falklands War, the Miner's strike and the fight, which still continues, against hard-left influences in some unions which see political influence at the highest level as more important than the pay and conditions of their members.

Meanwhile, Michael White ends his article on a chilling note:

The idea that [racism] is a vice unique to white Europeans or north Americans is also a bit of a chuckle, as the Chinese will one day demonstrate when their looming hegemony provides some scope.
Get ready for the BBC to ban the Fu Manchu films. But I won't be watching the BBC by then, so I'd better start dusting off my Mum's old videos of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

denial of choice attack