Sting of Stings

A frisson of doubt passed over me when a colleague and friend accepted a head teacher’s job in Tripoli three years ago, not least because in spite of the newly minted oil-slicked crocodile smiles of the British who seemed to have forgiven and forgotten Lockerbie, the man in charge was clearly a tapestry of personality disorders. Gaddafi is a complex individual, it would seem. He surrounds himself by an all-female bodyguard described as ‘Amazonian’ and a troupe of nurses, of one, Ukraininan Halnya Kolotnyska, it is said, Gaddafi is ‘very fond’. Miss K, whom WikiLeaks describes as ‘blonde and voluptuous’, has had to return home urgently since her mother is unwell, sources report. The Internet has a number of alleged pictures of her, in particular her upper torso which has been described as ‘impressive’. Most are in fact of an inoffensive Russian mail order bride, whose social cachet and marriageability is likely to be enhanced in consequence. And, no I am not posting a picture of her, potential bridegrooms must look elsewhere. 
Colonel Gaddafi (born in a tent in the middle of the desert in 1942) has a refreshingly inventive take on history. He has suggested, for example that William Shakespeare was in fact an Arab called Sheikh Zubair, and America got its name from Arab settlers who named it Amir Ka. Arab phonetics – so very confusing…
Africans seem to love him, however. As the ex-president of the African Union he was described as follows by the well-respected and totally unbiased Daily Trust of Nigeria, whose editorial staff bear total responsibility for errors in grammar and punctuation.


Some call him ‘controversial’; others ‘unfathomable’; still others call him ‘fatuous’ and yet, others out rightly  (sic) call him ‘mad man’; perhaps borrowing from Ronald Reagan who once labelled him as a “mad dog”. A skilled political operator, highly philosophical, an intellectual in every sense of the word, Gaddafi is a leader who is fondly adored by his people such that no single Libyan is raising an eyebrow as their leader turn himself into a life president of sorts. He is running his country based on the principles of justice, equity and fair play.


Of course he is. Describing his compatriots as ‘cockroaches’ and vermin’ is, after all, only merry, inoffensive banter amongst friends. As to the policy of ‘shoot to kill’, surely this is nothing more than a precautionary measure.

His speeches have been charitably described as ‘rambling’ and one has now been turned into a trance video which has gone viral on the Net. It was written by an Israeli and the girls were removed for a Muslim audience. Quite right.
Two hundred African leaders bestowed the title of ‘king of kings’ on Mr Gaddafi in 2008, ironically in Benghazi.  I rather think the permanence of a stable trumps a Bedouin tent, however. Almost a ‘sting of stings’, perhaps.
Oh, all right then. Here’s a picture of Mr Gaddafi’s nurse, just to put you all out of your misery; any alleged mammary hyperplasia having been left to your imagination….But, then again, it might just be another mail-order bride. It’s amazing what you can buy on the Net these days.



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Damages

The Devil wears Prada. No, she doesn’t. She wears sleek grey legal from Bergdorf’s. And, she’s not really the Father of Lies, just a very convincing facsimile.
With a blurred morality ahead of logical fallacy and a persona beyond Machiavelli, Glenn Close is Patty Hewes, the star of the best legal series to come out of the US for a long time. Probably. This one cuts Boston Legal’s lawn and then some. The first episode of ‘Damages’ left me almost breathless and since series TV usually leaves me yawning, then, be impressed. Be very impressed. This is to the law what ‘The Godfather’ is to the Mafia. Close heads a firm of New York damage litigators after the biggest, sleekest fish in the financial oceans, for whom a settlement under seven figures isn’t worth turning over in bed to make the phone call for. A grey-haired Ted Danson – he was once so cute in ‘Three Men and a Baby’ –  is Arthur Frobisher (Arthur? whose idea was that)  the mega-rich bad guy with a conscience-stricken wife, his suave joviality hidden beneath a thinly veiled menace and his dark side admirably played by his oddjob attorney Ray Fisk (Zeljko Ivanek) formerly of ’24’, whose thin-lipped performance almost rivals Glenn Close’s. Close represents Frobisher’s employees whom he has callously hung out to dry, the little people having been relieved of life savings. The lamb to the slaughter is a very smart – perhaps a little too wide-eyed – Rose Parsons, played by Ellen Parsons, constantly attempting to catch up without getting snagged on Hewes’ uncanny ability to ferret out lies. The episodes mess with chronology, the endings prefiguring the beginnings leaving gaping holes in the narrative that assumes we are smart enough to realise will be stitched together in later episodes, all of which, it seems, are devoted to one single case.
85%  for episodes one and two.

Change

This morning I awoke feeling as if the cold claw of the Grim Reaper was hovering dangerously close and came within a whisker of turning over in bed and surrendering to the sympathetic arms of Morpheus for the rest of the day. It so happened, however, that I decided that today was, after all, not a good day to die.  Muttering “Geronimo!” I tottered into the car which steered itself to the pharmacy. I spent sums guaranteed to loosen the bowels on medicaments of various kinds supplied by a sympathetic pharmacist with the commercial morals of a Levantine usurer. Concluding that the  local Corpus Christi might appreciate sharing a few airborne pathogens with me, after a jolt or two of ristretto at a convenient Caribou, I  presented myself at Church. I had forgotten it was a Family Service. Ah. Under normal circumstances, I smile weakly and edge towards the exit, pleading prior engagements. We began with something completely different, a little Bob Marley. Resisting the temptation to speculate to myself on the reactions of others, I felt my endorphins responding and fingers loosening up, especially when we were told that we didn’t get to hide behind the little red book today.
I knew someone once who often spoke of ‘awe and wonder’ in the context of early years education. It’s good for adults too, jaded, weary, worldly-wise, seen-it-done-it-done-time-for-it grownups because change for them is analogous to a child seeing something for the first time.
A little homily for the children contained a suitably macabre ending where, like Macbeth, nobody much lived happily ever after, which of course delighted them. The  Guild sang under my fingers and the highlight, apart from TBP (the barefoot priest) doing what he does best, was some Celtic ‘soaking’ music. For a moment, I imagined a mighty cathedral, vaulted to the heavens and choirs of the redeemed coming with singing to Zion and it became clear to me why it really was worth crawling out of bed for. A little awe and wonder…and just for a moment I briefly felt part of something. Oh, yeah. Change blew like cold, fresh air.
Managing change is often messy and disordered, so the next little while might turn out to be, as the Chinese say, ‘interesting times’. A gipsy woman I know is shifting her world on its axis. In the short term the wood disappears behind a jungle of disorderly trees, but, suddenly, the sun comes out and, almost effortlessly, order is restored and the path clears, the blurred images focus and sharpen. Nostalgia, like all the rest of the wreckage, is quietly left behind, a memory stub on the way to the jubilee.  Thanks, Mary.

Oi, Oi! Saveloy!

The Embassy played host to a pop legend last night; Chas and Dave are a British pop institution having been around for the best part of thirty five years and Chas Hodges at 67 with his trademark sunglasses still looks like Jerry Garcia. Their sound harked back to the glory days of music halls, pianos in pub corners and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Originally a session bass player – he owned the first electric bass in north London – Chas’s thumping chopstick jazz piano  reminded me of my own glory days. It was quite a buzz to hear Chas Hodges on his own – Dave left the duo last year after his wife’s death and “‘e ain’t fond of flyin’ mate'” The bass player would have looked more at home standing menacingly outside an East End nightclub. ‘…yer carn’t come in ‘ere, my son’….
Everybody over 50 has heard of them, evidenced by the frontstage crowds, some of whom still remembered the actions to the White Hart Lane anthem (Come on, you Spu-u-urs!) and “Snooker Loopy”.
Bean Counter and I bawled the lyrics of “London Girls” “Margate” “Rabbit” “Gertcha!” and “The Sideboard Song” (you have to listen to this…) into each other’s ears, both of us clearly having had something of a misspent youth in that over thirty years on we both remembered most of the words. Mrs Bean Counter got down and dirty with the other stagefront groupies.
Despite the amicable divorce between Uncle Jack Daniels and I, the alefest with over forty British beers which accompanied the gig whispered seductively to me. But, no. It’s one thing to sing old songs, quite another to fall over whilst doing so. Went home and popped a couple of Tylenol – seemed to have quite a headache. That’ll teach me to stand a bit further away from the speaker stack next time, but the craic was mighty, nonetheless.

No Shoes in Salwa

There’a new kid on the block. When my son was four we had a friend who became a monk who used to visit us from time to time, in habit and sandals. My son tugged my sleeve…’Is that Jesus?’ he whispered. The children in the basement on Friday morning might have thought similarly, tugging their own parent’s sleeve. The new kid showed up in a white cassock, ropes perfectly folded and a particularly tasteful stole and  strode around the congregation, winning hearts and minds, my own included. Someone I know was desperate to get a picture. Of his bare feet. Short of a camel-hair coat and insectivorous appetites, the effect was electric. They eyes had it, looking as if they had seen their fair share of the works of the Devil over the years and seemed more than prepared to get down and dirty should the occasion arise. He showed up at an Embassy gig later in the day, the Bishop’s Finger (ABV 5.4%) not having run out and requiring transformation.
I am impressed. With some reluctance.

Birth Pangs

It’s a day for fifty-dollar German words. A small dose of schadenfreude is supposedly a stress-reliever, which may be true but it does nothing to assuage whatever residue of Judaeo-Christian guilt I feel about laughing at the misfortunes of others. Unholy glee at the shenanigans of an ex-President of the USA caught with his trousers down is hollow compared to the misfortunes of the citizenry of  Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Algeria…pick one. The overthrow of despotic or politically inept regimes carries with it a certain moral authority, a condition that the masses capitalise on in the world media and the more the authorities attempt to prevent information flow, the colander of information that is the Internet finds ways of releasing it to the world. It is becoming increasingly clear that a young, often educated but jobless, media-savvy generation in possession of the electronic tools of rebellion are flexing their collective muscles and learning how to use them. The authoritarian, monarchical rule of the Al-Khalifas in Bahrain, whose Parliament is dominated by members of the Royal Family is beginning to look arcane, bloodstained and mediaeval in the light of the groundswell of democracy however imperfectly understood expressed by those whom they purport to govern. A new Arabic, perhaps global zeitgeist seems to be emerging. Overthrow might be comparatively easy, reconstruction is not and  how these power vacuums will ultimately be filled is at present nothing more than a crapshoot, which makes me nervous since it is the politics of illusion and immediacy which is the language most fluently spoken by the young. Many of these birth pangs may very well subside, but their repetition is inevitable, next time with greater intensity. The Old Guard feels it has the right to power, the young guns would take it from them by force. Why can’t they just kiss and make up. Naive of me.
The image is detail from Brancusi’s ‘The Kiss’ Happy birthday Constantin. See you in Paris.

Bunga-Bunga

I know very little about the shadowy world of corruption which I’ve always understood to mean the procurement or solicitation of money for real or imaginary favours. I was speaking with a Lebanese colleague the other day who was stopped at Alexandria airport and the customs official quite openly invited him to pay money in order for his luggage to pass through Customs unmolested. To his credit, the man refused, whereupon he was subjected to a humiliating search and his luggage confiscated for an hour for ‘further examination’, all of which was clearly designed to inflict maximum inconvenience on a perfectly innocent, if stubborn traveller.
Silvio Berlusconi has an extensive record of criminal allegations, including Mafia collusion, false accounting, tax fraud, corruption and bribery of police officers and judges. He has been tried in Italian courts in several cases and in three of them, accusations were dropped by the judiciary because of laws passed by Berlusconi’s parliamentary majority shortening the time limit for prosecution of various offences and making false accounting illegal only if there is a specific damaged party reporting the fact to the authorities. It does look as if crime does pay after all. Not bad for a former vacuum salesman and night club singer. But, like Al Capone, an Achilles heel seems eventually to have been found and since the man is arrogant beyond description he may well be brought down by that simplest of temptations – a little bit of friction. Prostitution is legal- it is not mentioned in the Penal Code as such – brothels and pimping are illegal and sex workers working from apartments are ‘tolerated’. Loitering is permitted but soliciting (‘unabashedly inviting clients on the street’) is illegal. If the ‘firefly’ is only seventeen, however, charges can and indeed have been brought. Berlusconi is of course, unrepentant, indeed he said after the initial allegations in November last year  “I am a man who works hard all day long and if sometimes I (use to) look at some well-looking girl, it’s better to be fond of pretty girls than to be gay”. OK, Silvio. Two out of ten for tact and a rather scary indicator of the degree of power you hold that you can make such remarks without fear of censure or even reprisal. It’s been suggested that absolute power tends to lead to absolute corruption, whether moral or financial. Those at the pinnacles of power who believe themselves impervious to litigation, it appears, develop an opiate-like addiction and reconfiguration of brain chemistry. The anti-corruptioneers may have the last laugh, it would appear, but just because Berlusconi may be brought down it will not take place out out of righteous repudiation of corrupt behaviour which his enemies have alleged for years but because he supposedly paid for sex with a teenage girl, subsequently using his influence with the police to get her out of a bit of bother. The Italians won’t be fooled, I suspect, as along as they don’t care about tarnishing the reputation of their country.
Good political morality cascades down to ordinary people – like airport workers – so they are not tempted to abuse their position in order to make an honest living. In the Church, we used to talk a lot at one time about accountability, where our behaviour and decision-making could be moderated by the counsel of the wise. Parochial Church Councils, I imagine, are supposed to operate under this, the Jethro principle. Such requires humility, however, in short supply not only in Rome, but in Cairo where police power is virtually unassailable and corruption and brutality is endemic, indeed the same sorry tale could be told almost anywhere in the world where one group holds absolute sway over another.

Ripples

A month ago, Tunisians were quietly selling camel rides to tourists on Hammamet beach. A week or so ago, Tahrir Square was a place on a map, not a place of pilgrimage. Watching Egyptians dancing like children in the square last night  – I found myself wondering how many are really there because of deeply held political convictions – perhaps fewer than the media in its quite unnecessary feeding frenzy would have us believe. The square has become a refugee camp, with mosques acting as makeshift hospitals and doctors treating patients on the street. Mubarak’s promise to step down in six months and hold free elections seemed to me, at least on the surface, to be a reasonable concession that could clear the protestors from Tahrir square and the streets of Alexandria and elsewhere, get people back to work and return some sense of normalcy to the country. Washington, initially coy, now seems to agree.
It’s understandable why the protestors wouldn’t take a tyrant with thirty years experience at his word, but the country needs normalcy and stability desperately, and with each passing day the population became more and more hungry, exhausted and angry – with their patience for the protestors quickly running out.  Did they really believe that by sheer volume of noise or weight of numbers the monoliths of power could so easily be persuaded to melt into the shadows on the whim of a minority? Cynical, wily old moi has the impression that there’s a devilishly subtle manipulative spin to all of this.  The Egyptians have long memories and a history of post-colonial unrest. The overthrow of King Farouk, the British puppet king by military coup, Anwar Sadat’s accord with Menachem Begin at Leeds Castle in England for which he paid with his life and the thirty year rule of the present incumbent all have the thread running through them of the ending of despotic regimes as their apparent objective. Yet, power vacuums have a habit of allowing less stable, even worse ideologies to surface. The Israelis are, quite rightly, very nervous since Mubarak at least allowed neutrality on the Sinai Peninsula and the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse, will almost certainly not be so tolerant. It would be instructive to be a fly on the wall at Cairo mosques over the coming weeks. In any event, a pincer movement of Islamic states on three sides is going to make Jerusalem a little twitchy, and possibly even trigger-happy.
Listening to ‘Something Understood’ on the World Service this morning, the presenter used circular ripples on a pond as an analogy of life, intersecting and flowing mostly peacefully through each other. The same might be said of nations, until a seismic shift, a tsunami of bad-tempered change turns normally smooth ripples into a maelstrom of chaos, their waves breaking on the bulwarks of rigid, inflexible political rocks.
But, hey. Who am I to comment? I have never waved a protest flag in my life and watched student protests with detached amusement. We are informed with tedious and monochromatic regularity that the entire country, all eighty million, is behind Mubarak’s overthrow; this is a completely righteous protest movement supported by most, if not all, of Egypt’s more than 80 million people. H’m.  What of the seventy-nine million bystanders like me, the non flag-wavers?
The narrative gains frills and flounces as it unfolds. All Mubarak’s hirelings are, we’re told, paid thugs, secret policemen in civilian clothing, or the poor unwashed masses that the state has threatened and extorted into hitting the streets. Either that or they’re the upper-class, traitorous collaborators who have benefited from Mubarak’s rule.

Has anyone sought proof? Of course not. Proof requires time, persistence and determination which the media is reluctant to acquire. In the propaganda chaos, it reports those who shout loudest, regardless of either the truth or accuracy of the noise they make. Have we seen any proof that all of the supporters were government agents or cowed peasants? Has anyone really begun asking what the other seventy-nine million Egyptians who didn’t take part in the “million man march” believe, or are they all either being paid off or hung up by the fingernails?  In its excitement, the world media has dropped the ball. It’s understandable and morally correct to side with democracy and human rights, but not enough hard questions were asked at the right time. If the media cannot control its emotions it should keep its mouth shut.