Forbidden Talk

The culture gap between us and them – the West and the East – in this part of the world is sometimes unimaginably wide. Interfaith dialogue is all fine and dandy, provided both parties belong to the same species. For someone who would probably enjoy living in a cave, the Saudi cleric Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak has an impressive ability to occasionally make news headlines with his eye-poppingly mediaeval fatwas which it would seem ‘conservatives’ here – that puts a new spin on David Cameron – actually pay attention to, in an Orwellian kind of way.
The latest pronouncement from the gentleman, who, it would seem, has trouble smiling, concerns the evils of fraternisation.  He comments that ‘mixing of genders at the workplace or in education “as advocated by modernisers” is prohibited because it allows “sight of what is forbidden, and forbidden talk between men and women” ‘. Ah. OK. No chatting each other up round the water fountain, then…And, since most women are covered with a tarpaulin, it’s hard to figure out what’s actually there, never mind what’s forbidden.
“All of this leads to whatever ensues…. whoever allows this mixing … allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam … Either he retracts or he must be killed … because he disavows and does not observe the Sharia.” Barrak said. Lots of $50 phrasing there, it seems, and rather a high price to pay for a bit of a fumble behind the bike-sheds.
And furthermore..”Anyone who accepts that his daughter, sister or wife works with men or attend mixed-gender schooling cares little about his honour and this is a type of pimping”. Yeah. Just a little bit lost in translation, I think.
His website does not translate well from Arabic – but one anxious reader did feel emboldened to ask him..’Is pulling the penis after urinating heresy?’ The reply was long and detailed…
The image is from Summerhill School, A S Neill’s radical educational experiment, and the oldest democratic freedom school in the world. It probably wouldn’t go down too well in Riyadh.

Wisdom of the Aged

When I’m old, I’m going to be plaintive, querulous, badly behaved and probably smelly. In which case, I shall be able to say exactly what I like, when I like and to whomever I like, since the rest of the population will simply peg me as demented thus not responsible for my behaviour. I intend to become like Socrates, but angrier and less tolerant and with bigger hair in which small mammals make their homes. Mincing words will be a thing of the past. Perhaps I shall by then, and with malice aforethought, have inflicted my noxious presence on one or both of my children who in desperation try to shuttle me from one to the other like a red-hot coal, which is as good a way as any of getting a change of scenery. Very Jewish of me.
All this from a new book which I came across, tastefully entitled ‘Sh*t My Dad Says’ by Justin Halpern who is very probably as bald as an egg by now from tearing clumps of his hair out over the breakfast pronouncements of his father who, if it were possible, is more loathsome that I intend becoming.
“That woman was sexy…Out of your league? Son, let women figure out for themselves why they won’t screw you. Don’t do it for them.”
“The worst thing you can be is a liar. OK, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then Number Two is a liar. Nazi one, liar two.”
“Son, no one gives a sh*t about all the things your cell phone does. You didn’t invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that.”
“What makes you so special? Nobody cares what you think. They never have.”
Three of the above are actual quotes. One is not. The clue is in the phrasing, people. Tee hee.
Humour is quite subjective, one finds, and this post was more of a last, grim, pre-Holocaust despairing exercise in exploring what makes me laugh. Some women – not all, as it happens – find Kathy Lette hysterical. I read “The Llama Parlour” years ago and bought “Mad Cows” the other day in a secondhand bookshop for someone. Laugh? I almost ruptured a haemorrhoid. Had I been a woman, I would have done. Enjoy, ladies.

Travel and Tourism

I don’t camp. Unless it comes with room service. I haven’t camped frequently, hamdullah, but the occasions when I have are, curiously, etched into long term memory like a computer virus. After what seems like lifetimes of muddy English fields, or even enthusiastic European campsites with sinks and flushing toilets,  I still ‘don’t do canvas’. Camping and it’s even uglier sister, caravanning, is for those who can’t afford the Marriott. It’s for those with that appallingly British  ‘mustn’t grumble’ stoicism, determined to enjoy themselves in the teeth of a squall gusty enough to uproot marrows and lashing rain which systematically soaks everything whether directly exposed to the elements or not. On arrival, you discover with enthusiasm that there’s a kilometer or more to walk to find either a flushing toilet or a stand-pipe from which if you wait long enough in the queue, you can collect enough water to make a small pot of tea. Thanks. But, no.
The reason for all of this is that, by and large, British expats are hardy and longsuffering worldwide travellers, packing a clean pair of underpants, a toothbrush and a SpeedStick in hand luggage and grittily making do for the rest. They arrive in strange foreign towns, dusty and unshaven, find the nearest Y, play catch with the cockroaches, eat triple portions for breakfast to save the expense of lunch and, terror notwithstanding, travel by local bus and to hell with the risk of either fire or electrocution. They drink polluted water, reasoning that the fastest way to gain immunity is to expose oneself to the local bacterial fauna. This is travelling, it would seem. Tourism on the other hand, its gentler face, seeks to protect the visitor from the more unwholesome aspects of a foreign culture and just show them a good time, ferrying them en masse in a rum-sodden haze, from one ‘attraction’ to another. I suppose, to jeers and mingled boos, I am one of those who prefer the latter, minus rum. Marriott hotels worldwide are accessible from a Freefone number. To Omaha, Nebraska.

Through Glasses Darkly

We live in iconic times. I have to say, this had been in the back of my mind ever since I saw “A Christmas Carol” in 3D, clapping, childlike with amusement, much as the first cinemagoers must have done when the characters’ words were heard, tinnily synchronised, adding new reality to the visual experience. Really, it was only a matter of time. With over fifty releases planned for movies in 3D, for the cinema and DVD/BluRay, the glasses makers have been a bit slow on the uptake. Especially here, where it’s not at all uncommon to drop 150KD or more on designer sunglasses. Wearing geeky cardboard frames that other people have worn, possibly many times, is mercifully to become a thing of the past, as frame makers have finally picked up on the notion that there’s a buck or two to be made here. These I thought particularly tasteful, if 70’s retro is your thing. The only problem to be overcome is when people forget that they are for 3D viewing and attempt to drive their cars wearing them. Given the quality of driving here, on the other hand, I doubt it’ll make much difference.

"Oh Captain, my Captain"

Some suggest that Warren Harding was the worst US President in history. His speeches were once described as ‘an army of pompous phrases…in search of an idea’. But, boy, did he look presidential. Roman features, strong, manly jawline – the guy looked as if he could leap tall buildings with a single bound. Oh, no. That was the other guy. Never mind about the poker parties and bathtub gin during Prohibition, the man looked as if he could be trusted
Poor old Gordon Brown. He really never had much of a chance, did he? The man looks like an accountant, for Heaven’s sake, a bean-counter, a lackey before the generalship of nobler men. David and Nick, on the other hand, look as if they can govern a country. Something about Old Etonians, once one gets over the insufferably superior expressions, gives one a kind of, well, confidence.

They’ve all got it, these statesmen, to a greater or lesser extent, except perhaps Ahmedinajad, who always looks slightly deranged in front of a camera, that subliminally soothing air of competence, almost, but not quite, trust. Were he a doctor, you’d trust Nick Clegg’s professional competence, placing the life of your aged and much loved mother in his capable hands and, if she died, it surely wouldn’t be his fault and you’d find someone else to sue.
Tall people earn more money than short people because more people look up to them, metaphorically and literally, to run big companies. Speed daters make their minds up within a few seconds and to hell with all that stuff they wrote down about their perfect partner.
In spite of the perilously thin veneer of civilisation, we’re all gutter fighters underneath. Long ago, our very existence depended more on our unconscious, snap decision making abilities than by longwinded, reasoned argument and thus, by definition, we are the survivors.
As a small tail to wag the triumphant dog, a day or so after the party-poppers were all swept up, Johann Hari, of the Independent, the Eeyore of Fleet Street wrote..” looks like we are about to face years of a ConDem coalition we didn’t vote for (oh, really?) and don’t want. I hope I’m wrong (do you really, Johann..?)  and Clegg will tame the Tories, but I’m braced for this movie turning into ‘One Shotgun Wedding and a Bloody Long Funeral’ “ I can’t wait.


I’m not a great fan of Christopher Hitchen, whose rabid antipathy towards religion in all its forms reveals him to be scrabbling for personal recognition despite being grey and amorphous, which were he to read this, would enrage him. The ‘Proust Questionnaire’ which he devised with colleagues at ‘Vanity Fair’ is engaging enough for a general reader to amuse himself with.  I’ve omitted the more fatuous questions like “what is my favourite colour/bird?” Who cares if I happen to like duck-egg blue or vultures? Hitchen’s own responses are here. Mine, much less clever, less ironic, more monosyllabic, for amusement only, are appended. Those who know me well can draw their own conclusions.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Being without intellectual stimulus of any kind. Also, the prospect of no sex for the rest of my life
Where would you like to live? Wherever those who love me live. Alternatively, a log cabin in Montana or a beach in Fiji. Perhaps both.
What is your idea of earthly happiness? Feeling close to God, and satisfied with my day’s work.
To what faults do you feel most indulgent? Impatience. Especially my own
Who are your favorite heroes of fiction? Sherlock Holmes, Mr Micawber, Sydney Carton, Ivan Denisovich, Winston Smith
Who are your favorite characters in history? Galileo, Newton, Kierkegaard, Einstein
Who are your favorite heroines in real life? Mary MagdaleneGladys Aylward, the Missionaries of Charity.
Who are your favorite heroines of fiction? Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Moll Flanders – why are they all whores?
Your favorite painter? Titian, Botticelli, Frederick Sandys, Klimt.
Your favorite musician? William Byrd, Gabriel Faure, Antonio Vivaldi, Claudio Monteverdi
The quality you most admire in a man? Fortitude
The quality you most admire in a woman? Serenity
Your favorite virtue? Patience
Your least favorite virtue, or nominee for the most overrated one? Self-control. Causes high blood pressure
Your proudest achievement? I don’t know. Most achievements are little more than wood, hay and stubble.
Your favorite occupation? Travel
Who would you have liked to be? Leonardo (da Vinci, not the other one)
Your most marked characteristic? Ask those who know me
What do you most value in your friends? Loyalty
What is your principal defect? Pessimism
What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time
What would you like to be? A writer
What word or expression do you most overuse? ‘Of course’
Who are your favorite poets? Keats, Byron, Goethe, Schiller
What are your favorite names? Leo, Gabriel, Charis
What is it you most dislike? Pomposity, self-importance, especially in politics
Which historical figures do you most despise? Goebbels, Napoleon, Caiaphas
Which contemporary figures do you most despise? Osama bin Laden
Which events in military history do you most admire? Spartans at Thermopylae
Which natural gift would you most like to possess? Empathy
How would you like to die? Ready
What do you most dislike about your appearance? My nose
What is your motto? Nil desperandum

You can do it yourself  if you like. The original, considerably more self-indulgent version is here. The image is Sandys’ “Mary Magdalene” for obvious reasons.

Fifties Kids

A friend used an interesting word in an email to me the other day. The word was “autarchism” which I confess I had to look up.
Autarchism (from Greek, “belief in self rule”) is a political philosophy that upholds the principle of individual liberty, rejects compulsory government, and supports the elimination of government in favour of ruling oneself and no other.  Not a bad schema, one might suppose, particularly as it reminded me of an interesting snippet which I came across the other day. Apparently, in the UK, a child passenger in a car must “be restrained in a child’s car seat from the age of three to twelve, or up to 135cm in height.” Good grief, I know pensioners shorter than that. There is a fine of £500 – driver is responsible – if convicted and your kid is caught hanging out the window, as happens a lot here. The UK has turned itself into a nanny state and the election outcome the other day demonstrated its people don’t seem to have a clear idea of what kind of Government they want.

I was a fifties kid. I survived being born to a mother who smoked and drank while she carried me. She took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a tin, and didn’t get tested for diabetes.

My father painted my first cots with brightly coloured lead-based paint. I remember I used to suck the yellow off one end. I brought my mother presents of worms from the garden, having sucked them clean first. There were no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and I rode my bicycle in the middle of the road without a helmet. I fell out of trees, broke the odd bone and nobody got sued. I walked across roads to friends’ houses and knocked on the door or rang the bell or just threw pebbles up at the windows. Local teams had try outs and not everyone, especially me,  made the team. Those who didn’t, like me,  had to learn to deal with disappointment. Later, I hitched rides home if I didn’t have the bus fare and I was too late to walk four miles. Later still, I thumbed rides all over Europe, often with little clear idea of final destination. I once went to Yugoslavia. By accident. I was originally headed for Barcelona and the driver who picked me up just outside Paris was going somewhere else. I rode in vehicles without seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a farm lorry – especially a thousand miles from home – was a great way to get a suntan.
As a child, I drank water from the garden hosepipe, not from bottles, shared one soft drink with four friends from one bottle and nobody actually died. I ate cakes, white bread and real butter and drank pop with sugar in it, but I didn’t get fat because I was out burning calories all the time. I peed in the woods. I didn’t have an X-Box, a Nintendo, and for the early part of my childhood, TV. I didn’t have a mobile phone and neither did anybody else. So, if  I got caught smoking in the shrubbery by a friend’s father there was no-one to call and I had to take my punishment like a man and hoped he wouldn’t tell my parents. The same went for the time we borrowed a friend’s father’s twelve-bore to go rabbit hunting. Police were less to be feared than parental wrath. We built go-karts out of abandoned prams, neglecting to include trivial and unnecessary additions like brakes. Frictional resistance in the bushes or an inadvertent soaking in the lime quarry prompted  more careful design.
I had freedom,  dealt with failure, celebrated success and learned responsibility. My generation has produced some of the finest and most inventive minds the world has ever known. We should spare a pitying thought for today’s kids, enslaved to interfering Governments, nanny states, seatbelts, Nintendo and Facebook. I wonder if they’ll do as well as us.

Recognising Simplicity

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. So runs the old Shaker song. But, simplicity, I think, is not so easily grasped and I’m therefore in agreement with George Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard. Objects have their own simplicity of function, but not of form. A cellphone has a very simple function, easily recognisable but with a highly complex structure. Asking ‘why does it work?’ is not the same as asking ‘how does it work?’ The former can be answered by saying  ‘it works because I dial a friend’s number’, the latter by an initial discussion about microwave transceivers, all but unintelligible to anyone other than an expert in microelectronics. So, the complexity of the device is sufficiently intractable to obscure the simplicity of its function. A traffic flow system is at component level, a matter of interlocking straight lines, from journey beginning to end.  In a complex system, weird stuff happens if its components continue to be allowed to dissipate energy, which is why people are late for work. A paradigm emerges where chaos seems inevitable and simplicity is lost. We don’t like this, as a species. We don’t like imperfections in our systems, we prefer that each system that we build works perfectly and if it does we can overlay it with another one. Looking at the bitrate map across the world is phenomenally complex, but a Google front end, on the other hand is simple and reliable, it works because I type stuff into the box.
Cathedrals and pyramids are built out of stones, but if the stones do not fit perfectly, the stones become a pile of rubble and the function of the cathedral is lost. I sometimes delude myself into believing that human psychological systems rely on all the components fitting together perfectly. When they don’t and mismatch occurs, a systematic dismantling may be preferable to a pile of rubble.
The image is of a Shaker chair.

Help and Support

This was too good to miss.
I do love Americans. When they get it right, the world listens, and when it goes wrong, it’s spectacular. A prominent Baptist minister and anti-gay campaigner in the US – he thinks homosexuality is a ‘disease’, with a wonderful, gauche naivete, hired a ‘bag carrier’ from an Internet site. His doctor advised him to take a travelling companion since he was unable to lift heavy objects. Just because he innocently went to “” it is presumed he might have indulged in fornication. Quite a leap of reasoning, I think. Let him among us who has never visited in order to find a bag handler cast the first stone, I’d say. I was going to link to the site, but thought that morally weaker readers might not be able to resist the temptation to access it and compare prices.
Everyone knows that I, too, enjoy spending time with sinners (mainly church-goers and loose women) but only of course to show them the error of their ways. Their gratitude makes it all worthwhile and the cash is incidental.

Eeyore and the Talmud

Of all the characters in A A Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” I have often been (I think unkindly) likened to Eeyore, the gloomy, pessimistic donkey, whose glass, far from being half-empty, has only a drop or two in it.  Now do you see the likeness? The nearest modern equivalent to Eeyore is Marvin the Paranoid Android in “The Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whose legendary pessimism is almost contagious. It has been pointed out to me, I think most unfairly, that a more modern equivalent is Puddleglum from C S Lewis “The Silver Chair”. Puddleglum, the bastion of gloomy fortitude, is thought of as a bit of  a wet blanket by the children, but he does have a few memorable lines…”Puddleglum’s my name. But it doesn’t matter if you forget it.”
This being so, I have been amusing myself by reading a few Talmudic parables in recent times. The Jews are experts on suffering, so it was rather like returning home.

Once, Rabbi Akiva was asked to explain why people afflicted with disease sometimes returned cured from a pilgrimage to the shrine of an idol, though it was surely powerless. His answer was the following parable: “There was a man in a certain city who enjoyed the confidence of all his fellow citizens to such a degree that without witnesses they entrusted deposits to him, with the exception of one man in the city who always made his deposits before a witness. One day, however, this distrustful man forgot his caution, and gave the other a deposit without a witness. The wife of the trustworthy man attempted to induce him to deny having received a deposit from the distrustful man, as a punishment for his suspicion; but the husband said: ‘Shall I deny my rectitude because this fool acts in an unseemly fashion?’ Thus it is with the sufferings inflicted by Heaven upon man, which have a day and an hour appointed for their end. (I have to say, I did like this part) If it happens that a man goes on that day to the idol’s shrine, the sufferings are tempted not to leave him, but they say, ‘Shall we not fulfil our obligation to leave this fool, although he has behaved with folly?'” Emperor Antoninus asked Rabbi how there could be punishment in the life beyond, for, since body and soul after their separation could not have committed sin, they could blame each other (so Jewish…)for the sins committed upon earth, and Rabbi answered him by the following parable: “A certain king had a beautiful garden in which was excellent fruit; and over it he appointed two watchmen, one blind and the other lame. The lame man said to the blind one, ‘I see exquisite fruit in the garden. Carry me thither that I may get it; and we will eat it together.’ The blind man consented and both ate of the fruit. After some days the lord of the garden came and asked the watchmen concerning the fruit. Then the lame man said, ‘As I have no legs I could not go to take it’; and the blind man said, ‘I could not even see it.’ What did the lord of the garden do? He made the blind man carry the lame, and thus passed judgment on them both. So God will replace the souls in their bodies, and will punish both together for their sins”.
How very comforting. You will try to remember my name, won’t you.