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Paris Burning

I was in Paris yesterday. The plan was to go see a movie, perhaps, then join friends at home. The movie schedules meant that had we stayed, we would have returned home after dark, so, we left town early. For once, transport ran smoothly. A peaceful dinner with friends visiting from Montreal and Geneva. Then, the news broke and everyone drifted to the TV room to watch news of the carnage unfold in the 10th and 11th and the Stade de France.

This is France’s 9/11.
What happened in Paris last night is exactly what Europe’s security services have long feared, and tried to second guess. Determined, well-organized simultaneously rolling attacks, with automatic weapons and suicide bombers in the heart of a major European city, targeting multiple, crowded public locations. These tactics have been used before in Mumbai and elsewhere. Once shock and outrage have abated, there are many questions which will have to be answered, and the answers had better be right. How has such a well-organized sleeper group found its way undetected into the heart of Europe? Were the attackers French citizens, if so, how they were radicalised, armed and organised? In France, perhaps, or the Schengen zone, or further afield, perhaps in Syria, and by whom? Why weren’t they detected by the intelligence services? Is France, after two major attacks this year, uniquely vulnerable? Or does the carnage in Paris mean all of Europe faces new threats to our public places and events? And if a Syrian link is proven, will France’s instinct be to back off  or will it redouble its commitment to the fight against radical groups there? Today, François Hollande used the words ‘act of war’. It might be good to remember that wars brew slowly – the First World War was a tragedy of incompetent leadership, pride and brinkmanship for the preceding twenty years and the relatively unimportant assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that lit the powder keg that set Europe ablaze.


I have written before about the idolatry of ISIL, making mention of the fact that the severest punishments in the Old Testament are reserved for those who sacrifice their children to Moloch. In a recent debate with Richard Dawkins, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made the point that the story of Abraham and Isaac is the ultimate polemic against child sacrifice. The perpetrators and the ideology that drives them are transparently guilty of this very act and, this time, it’s personal. It can no longer be denied that radical Islam is a dark, malevolent and powerful force with a thirst for conquest and an appetite for retribution on a scale not seen for centuries. As I write, an audio communiqué from ISIL has just been released online, in fluent, Arab-accented French, claiming responsibility, indicating the targets were meticulously chosen for maximum impact.  If this is, as Jeb Bush put it last night, ‘the war of our time’, then we had better get ready.

Journeys of Hope and Despair

From idyllic Greek islands to the fertile plains of southern Hungary, an avalanche of human misery, deprivation and increasing desperation has massed, gathering momentum, overwhelming the flimsy processing agencies which have proven inadequate to manage the sheer numbers of applicants who are desperate to reach the security of Europe. Twenty thousand are wedged on the picturesque little island of Lesvos, west of the Turkish coast. Crossing the Libyan desert, paying out their life savings to unscrupulous and cynically passionless bounty hunters for a square foot of space on an unseaworthy little boat, many have perished en route in the greatest mass migration since the end of the Second World War. Some are escaping persecution because their brand of Islam is insufficiently jihadist. Others are fleeing because they are Christian, hence targets for persecution, imprisonment, or worse. Others have been bled dry by incompetent and corrupt governments incapable of performing the one single task justifying their existence, that of looking after and protecting their citizenry. Some just want to work and find a better life for them and their children. Still others may have a more nefarious agenda, to infiltrate the land of the kuffar and plot its takeover. They are given names like ‘economic migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ to attempt to distinguish and classify them, to decide whether or not they have a right to be here.

Of a party from Eritrea who all left together, almost one hundred and forty souls, bound for Europe, twenty survived. People are dying in trucks, bodies are washing up on Turkish beaches, dead as starfish. So many stories, making all of us sit down, appalled, and ask what we, or our government can and should do.

The sheer scale of the invasion and its rapidity this summer has taken everyone unawares. It is naive to criticise the use of the word ‘invasion’, since so many are using ingenious means to circumvent the authorities. Agencies are supposed to fingerprint new arrivals at their place of entry but some migrants do not wish to settle in Italy or Greece, where processing them could take months, even years, and the social security packages are paltry compared to those offered in Scandinavia. So, they burn their fingers with lighters or use the liquid goo from a burned plastic bag to make their fingerprints unreadable. Such is the scale of the problem, the authorities simply wave them on so the next country in the chain can take responsibility for them. Fake passports are on sale in Rome to make journeying easier.

An Egyptian billionaire has offered to buy an island from Greece or Italy to house everybody temporarily until they can be processed. A brave idea, but not one which many of the hopeful travellers would be prepared to invest in, I suspect. After all, islands have been prisons for centuries.

Why is it that Germany seems to be welcoming so many? Perhaps it is, brutally, a matter of demographics. The German population is shrinking, and there are less able-bodied and, above all, young workers to keep the industrial wheels turning with legendary German efficiency. Cynical as it seems, the Germans may have hit the motherlode by tapping in to a source of cheap labour for a generation, whose taxes will pay for an increasing number of pensioners in their system, assuming, of course, that new arrivals will be able, indeed willing to assimilate and not huddle in racist ghettoes as exist in parts of France. The rightist Government in Hungary, however, whose demographic problems are not dissimilar, is building a fence along its border with Serbia to just keep them out. A Syrian lawyer desperate to reach Germany, scrambled under its razor wire, leaving a bright, bloody trail behind him. The Slovaks are only admitting Christians, not Muslims; they can thank ISIS, bin Laden and all the other bloodthirsty crazies for that. And, how many are the GCC countries, the ideological home for Muslim refugees, taking? None. Not one. Someone should be asking them some hard questions.

As Angela Merkel pointed out, the world is watching us. How we deal with this as governments and individuals will speak volumes to those who detest our democracies and spit on our way of life.
A government has the moral responsibility to protect the welfare of its citizens. At the same time, each individual has the responsibility to love his neighbor. Many of us will shortly have new neighbors with strange, unfamiliar customs, curious, unintelligible speech, different social norms. We can choose to tread this unknown territory of rapprochement with fear, as children who fear the dark, the unknown, or, we can take firm hold of our own heritage, confident in its ability to protect us emotionally and spiritually to reach out, one-on-one and in our groups, to do justice, love kindness and, above all else, remember mercy.



New Labour for Old

Who’s he?

Sometimes, I wonder, idly, about British politics. The Canadians are about to vote, the Brits have a right wing mandate for the next four years and all credible opposition has descended into factional infighting and recrimination. Labour is not so much licking its wounds but has been placed on life support. All through my life the Labour party have been at the gates of Downing Street, and often enough stormed them, only to be beaten back at a subsequent election. Even Tony Blair’s soft centrism failed to sway my own instinctive pull to the right. But, what might happen to the Conservative party if those barbarians disappear? Jeremy Corbyn, the vegetarian cyclist and teetotaller represents the barbarian, old-school face of the Labour Party. Steeped in Marxist-Leninist ideology, a union man to his toenails, a fiercely combative and frequently bad-tempered debater, he may take some beating. But, one should not assume that he will lift the Labour leadership, despite the best efforts of the Socialist Workers, rightist fifth-columnists and Communists to inflate the voting numbers. The slender possibility remains that when second preferences are counted Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham will scrape through. But theirs would be a miserable, half-hearted victory: humiliated before they even begin. Their party now faces one of two alternatives: a ‘real’ hard left, miners’ revenge victory for Mr Corbyn, or a Pyrrhic victory for Ms Cooper or Mr Burnham who says the Labour party may split and I do not doubt him. The Right, and especially the Kippers will at first rejoice. The barbarians are fighting among themselves and no longer threaten us! Huzza! And it is true that a Labour party rushing headlong to destruction would guarantee the Conservatives’ return to office in 2020. Shall I, then, live under a Tory prime minister until I’m at least 75? Perhaps. But the isolationists’ pulling up the drawbridge may be too high a price to pay. Corbyn keeps strange bedfellows – he has hosted Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, amongst others which isn’t surprising since an irreligious man has sno understanding of the religiously motivated agendas of such people. He is the favourite by a mile at this point – so just as a marker, here’s the odds for today. Let’s hope the old saying is right, ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.’


Meanwhile…Calais migrants are storming the Channel tunnel in their thousands, desperate to get to the UK, seen still as the Promised Land and the Brits’ response is currently feebly ineffectual. All over Europe, people desperate to flee war zones and destitution are beating a path to their doors. Greek islands and Lampedusa are overrun by those who have survived the perilous and ruinously expensive journey, trafficked by those who have cynically  made money out of the desperation of others. The whole demographic of Europe is changing and the least that the British voter can expect is a Government both muscular enough and compassionate enough to take appropriate action. If Corbyn gets in, he’ll fling wide the immigration gate and have them all working down the Welsh coal mines he wants to re-open. 

Heavens Revealed

A long time ago, I used to take people on school trips. The comfortable chairs in the Greenwich Planetarium, elevated for skyward viewing, plus Heather Couper’s delectably seductive voice gently steering everyone through a year of constellations, is a fond, if hazy memory. Planetarium in the morning, plus waxy Astronomers Royal in fusty eighteenth century clothing peering into telescopes, followed by the National Maritime Museum or the Cutty Sark after lunch in the Park. 
Hamlet’s ‘brave, o’erhanging firmament’ has always held a certain wide-eyed fascination. As a jobbing physicist who has taught astrophysics as examination fodder, I know what a Cepheid variable is. I know about apparent and absolute magnitude. The fate of the Sun as it expands into a Red Giant – not a problem. As to being asked, off the cuff, where Betelgeuse is tonight, no clue. Not one.

Celestron Skymaster 25×70 binoculars

I had made up my mind that when I retired, I’d learn a bit more, principally because in the South light pollution is at a minimum and on clear nights the frosty ripple of the Milky Way is clearly visible and thousands of bright objects, some bluish, some red, keep watch during the night hours. Further north in Paris, the atmosphere is less forgiving but there’s still plenty to capture the imagination.
Turns out, astronomers were Internet junkies almost from its inception. There’s quite a body of astronomical knowledge out there and a very long observational history since people have been gazing heavenward in awe and wonder pretty much since we left off fraternising with the Neanderthals and struck out on our ownPtolemy of Alexandria lived 1900 years ago and his geocentric model of the Universe remained virtually unchallenged until Copernicus. My hero, for quite a number of reasons was the guy we always address by his first name, Galileo. Apart from standing up to the Pope – stout fellow for that – he was an observer of the heavens, which I am trying in some small way to become. Heeding the advice of seasoned astronomers, therefore, I have equipped myself with a decent pair of bins rather than a full-fledged Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, since I’d like to get a bit of practice finding stuff before I waste a ton of money on the optics. A camera tripod completes the setup, for now, since holding a pair of 25×70’s still is a near-impossibility.
Tonight, I’m hoping the clouds roll away to reveal Jupiter who will  be in “full moon” phase when it ( or is it ‘he’)reaches closest opposition tonight, a mere eight hundred and fifty million kilometres away, rising east-north-east and remaining visible all night until setting around sunrise, exactly like a full moon. As I write, he’s there, peeping shyly out from behind the neighbours’ winter trees with moons trailing behind in a line, like the tail of a kite.
Just at sunset, facing the other way, Venus is bright in the southwestern sky, fading Mars a little higher and more to the west. Perhaps I‘ll catch a glimpse as she settles down behind the tree-line.

Winter moon with Jupiter, 2008 (naked eye)

The Universe is a panorama in space and time. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, barely visible amid atmospheric pollution at this early hour tonight on the southeastern horizon and just over eight light years away. We see her as she was, eight years ago. Most of what we see and beyond vision is aeons older; of the three brightly diagonal stars in Orion’s Belt, the middle one is twice as far away than either of its neighbours, the light from it left it a few years after the Resurrection. I found it interesting that in M42 – the nebula in Orions’ Sword, just visible with the naked eye – still has unnamed stars in it. Fascinating.
The ancients believed that the firmament was a blanket covering the Earth at night. Imperfections in the blanket produced starlight, where the light of Heaven shone through.
Stargazing has a habit of bringing one down to size – the vastness of space, extending almost fourteen billion light years is, in some small way, comprehensible by a life form made of twisted nucleic acid and protein with the capacity to wonder at it.
















Funny! Ha, Ha!

This post is part of a piece to be published under a pseudonym.
Longer ago than I care to remember, I lived in a place called England. One or two of you might have heard of it. It’s overcrowded there and it pours with rain. Rather a lot, as it happens. With a name like Peregrine, of course, this should come as no surprise – not the rain, but my birthplace. My dear old mother, not, I have to admit, the sharpest chisel in the toolbox, adhered to the delusional belief that if she gave me what she perceived to be a name redolent of wealth and privilege, I might somehow in my maturer years actually get to move in such exalted circles myself. The result was, people used to make faces at me at school and call me ‘pelican’ and I still catch the bus home at night. The neighbours often remarked, in the words of Mae West, that “she should have thrown me away and kept the stork.”
 
But, back to England and my mother. She had a phrase – used tiresomely often – from which the title of this little offering is taken. She used to say… “Funny! Ha, ha!”. This was as close as she ever got to a breath of sarcasm, to which my father, a self-made man who worshipped his creator and, well-trained Pavlovian that he was, would rumble “No. Funny peculiar” from behind his newspaper, to gales of merriment underlain by the grinding of my pre-adolescent teeth. Which probably accounts for the horrendously awkward overbite which I now have the misfortune to suffer from.
 
Never let it be whispered that old Perry has a political bone in his body. I haven’t, and the thought of tramping about waving some species of placard bearing some outrageously simplistic meme does turn the old stomach a bit. Especially when accompanied by large women wearing glasses with a revolutionary gleam in their eyes and a hedonistic desire to be hauled off to the calaboose by the local constabulary. Nevertheless, in common with what appeared to be half the population of the republican Shangri-La where I now make my home, in response to the well-documented incidents in Paris, where people were actually killed because of a cartoon, I turned up the other week, and milled about anonymously for a bit, more out of idle curiosity than anything else to see what all the fuss was about.
A fat French bloke
Now, I want you to hear me clearly. In the soul of every Frenchman is the instinct to do two things. First, to pee wherever he pleases, whether in a public place or not and second, to think, say and even draw whatever he likes. It’s generally believed that this is called Free Speech.  You may not agree that this image of the grossly overweight French actor Gérard Dépardieu with the caption “ can Belgium welcome all the cholesterol in the world?” – he left France to live in Belgium in order to reduce his tax bill – is remotely amusing, but some people think that the right to say it is the important thing. It pokes fun at Mr Dépardieu’s excess poundage and it ridicules his decision to leave for a cosier fiscal climate.  The joke is supposedly satirical. The Purists among us refer –rather grandly – to Satire as a ‘genre’ of literature or art, in which all manner of vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to wider issues in society.
On the other hand, so my mother told me, satire is when people poke fun at their elders and betters to make a point and is a nasty, low form of gutter entertainment much like watching people being torn limb from limb in the Roman amphitheatres. She once referred me to this, without a flicker of expression.
We do live in an age of the quick-fire riposte, the headline tweet, the unforgettable meme. It’s never been easier to show off our satirical skills on social media and magazines. No, I’m not going to draw a cartoon, although we might notice that just about every newspaper known to mankind has a resident cartoonist. Perhaps a statistician might disagree, to which my response would be in the words of the anthropologist and literary critic Andrew Lang: “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts – for support rather than illumination.”For myself, I’ve always rather admired those who use the written word, irony and sarcasm with the skill of a master fencer but whatever happened to the art of the glorious, perfectly timed, off-the-cuff insult?
 
Before the English language got boiled down to four-letter words and textspeak and emoticons were a figment of depixellated imagination, you duelled verbally with the satirist at your peril. Imagine this, in the British House of Commons. A Member of Parliament once said to Benjamin Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” Not a bad opening gambit, but what about this for a response: “That depends, Sir,” said Disraeli, “whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.” Disraeli clearly had what Walter Kerr once described as “delusions of adequacy.”
Winston Churchill was a master at the put-down.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw was no admirer of the Great Man but it was politically expedient to include him. “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” Bernard Shaw wrote. Churchill’s response was masterly: “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second, if there is one.” After the performance, he might have quoted Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a wonderful evening. But, this wasn’t it.”
“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire” Churchill once remarked in reference to Sir Stafford Cripps, whose Marxist sympathies brought WSC out in a rash. He might have come up with this on the same subject, but it has been attributed to the American lawyer and wit Clarence Darrow: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”
Writers are often the most scaldingly abusive about fellow-members of their profession – after all it is their job to use words in ways others might shrink from.  William Faulkner was quite scathing about Ernest Hemingway, being quoted as remarking: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway, not slow to respond, replied:  “Poor Faulkner. Does he think big emotions come from big words?” Hemingway might easily have been the butt of Oscar Wilde’s famous funereal quip: “he had no enemies, but was intensely disliked by his friends.”
 
One of these days, I might get around to writing a book, as long as I can find a way to get over the suicidal disappointment of rejection from any and all publishers who might receive an unsolicited copy. Imagine how one might feel if Moses Hadas, the American teacher and classical scholar upon receiving one’s manuscript had replied: “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.”
 
Returning momentarily to Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”  So, this might be a good time for me to go, too. If I have upset anybody, by word or implication, I am sorry, perhaps I have Van Gogh’s ear for music. If I have, in the words of Mark Twain, “why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?”  Say something!
 

 

Hard Labour

Haven’t been down South at this time of year for a while. Last year, I was wrestling with an unfinished apartment in George Street, Jerusalem and the year before, Paris. So, the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, leaf mould, blocked guttering  and all the other little idiosyncrasies of a seven-acre plot all added up to a spot of Hard Labour. All the tasks that one could never find time for, delicately procrastinated into the sweet bye and bye descended like the Assyrian hordes, all at once. 
It’s been raining here. Rather a lot, as it happens. The high water table on the elevated parts of the land means that when there’s a deluge, it all finds its way south, carving pathways through stones and gravel. For weeks we had quite a few streams that moated the house, all of them having gathered momentum higher up, lifting stones the size of basketballs. In short, instead of delicate indentations in the unmade road, we now had ruts the depth of trashcans making visitors with low slung vehicles nervous. Gipsy with her usual optimistic insouciance airily brushed aside the task, claiming a few barrows of rubble would fix the problem, at least for the time being. I listened, gloomily, envisaging slashed tyres and broken axles followed by a requirement of lorryloads of gravel. Where’s some slave labour when you need it? I reminded myself that the place wasn’t Downton Abbey, rolled up my sleeves and started shovelling, pushing images of prisoners in labour camps to the back of my mind. G, being a solidly built creature, hauled and shoved with me and at least a few of the ruts are passably filled in. I recalled the Rule of St Benedict and smiled grimly.

Having a pool with pretty underwater lighting is delightful. In July. Having to bed it down for the winter involves a little delicate chemistry, plus encasement in its winter coat. Scorning all assistance, when G had gone on some small errand – nail varnish, as I recall, being on the list – I elected to unwrap the robustly constructed made to measure cover, all fifty-five square metres of it, and put it on unassisted. There were regrettable outbreaks of bad language, unheard except by local wildlife. I’m surprised they didn’t turn up to watch. I won’t go into detail, it’s too painful. G returned from her shopping trip, took one look at my sweat-sodden face and remarked “It’s the wrong way round.” Indeed it was. I had been attempting to force it to be the right way round for some time. She and I then unhooked it from its retaining divots or whatever they’re called, folded it, turned it, and on it went like a well-tailored suit.
The pool house door doesn’t shut. I am confident that with a little bit of paring with a wickedly sharp Swiss Army knife, any swelling can be expeditiously removed. The number for the ambulance is in the book and if I survive without too much blood loss, I’m going back to Paris.

Islam Reimagined

I’ve never really had much time for ‘interfaith dialogue’. One reason for this is that whatever the original branches of thought once had in common, they have now diverged so much that little fertile ground is left for debate. It came as something of a surprise therefore to read a balanced, thoughtful and altogether understandable piece written by a Muslim on why Islam has become what it now is. I’ve adapted some of the text and made additional comments where necessary. My thanks to Ahmed Vanya – an interview with him can be read here – worth a look, I think.

Paraphrasing “When Muhammad died 632 CE, it is well understood and accepted that the Qur’an had not been compiled as literature for scholars to read and interpret. The messages said to have been revealed from God, or Allah, to Muhammad over a period in excess of two decades were either orally passed down or written on animal bones, leather and scraps of parchment, without systematic collection or  adequate background or context. The Prophet himself provided no authoritative narration or explanation for the Qur’anic verses while he was alive. He also did not provide a method for selecting his successor, nor did he authorise his companions to record the Hadith (his actions and sayings) while he was alive. Later, therefore, subsequent generations had to sift through mountains of material of dubious provenance, in an age when record-keeping was primitive and during a period of discord, partisanship and violence, even among those who were close to the Prophet”. There was no Council of Nicaea to establish the weight and value of the material – all, it seemed, carried equal authority. When viewed in this light, it is little more than sophistry to an educated, free-thinking Muslim to expect historical accuracy or precise interpretation.

“In the early days of Islam, after Muhammad’s death, Muslims splintered into many sects and factions, in much the same way as Christianity had done, six hundred years earlier. There were endless debates about doctrine, theology, and religious law, due to divergent interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. Between the eighth and tenth centuries, a school of theology known as  the Mu’tazila flourished in what is now modern Basra and Baghdad. Their adherents were best known for their assertion that, because of the perfect unity and eternal nature of Allah, the Qur’an must therefore have been created, as it could not be co-eternal with God. From this premise, the Mu’tazili school of kalaam(best translated as Islamic apologetics) suggested that the injunctions of God are accessible to rational thought and inquiry and because knowledge is derived from reason, reason is the final arbiter in distinguishing right from wrong. Not unsurprisingly, they waged an intellectual battle with the traditionalists, who gave absolute primacy to strict literal interpretations of the revealed texts: the Qu’ran and the Hadiths. Unfortunately for the future of the Islamic tradition, the literal traditionalists won the struggle, and went on to establish among the Sunni Muslims the four legal schools of Shari’a, which became the dominant form of Islam from then onwards. This mainstream, legalistic, text-bound, literalist Islam, controlled by traditional Muslim scholars, a mixture of humanistic and ethical values with a supremacist ethos, developed through the centuries is what has reached us today. Due to its literalist tradition, it does not have the flexibility or the ability to overcome interpretations of the scriptures that are inimical to pluralistic and humanistic values. Many equate this literalist view to be representative of the “true” Islam”. But just because it is the dominant form, it does not mean that it is necessarily “true”. Religious traditions change and even metamorphose over time, based on understanding underpinned by cultural awareness and increased knowledge, interpretations, and practices of their adherents. By analogy, over the years, Christianity has on the one hand thrown up organisations as barbaric and brutal as the Inquisition, on the other, looked back to its founding fathers in a desire to ‘get back’ to the Second Chapter of Acts and in so doing, sought to impart ancient truth with cultural relevance. Therefore, using reason and common sense, why cannot modern thinking find a way to reinterpret Muslim texts to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values? Like most religious practice, the pathway of convenience, even laziness is often the most popular, which in some leads to support for Muslim charities and other agencies with little real thought for whether or not their money is being used for subversive, even violent causes. For others, thinking becomes subsumed into blind, unreasoning obedience and cults like ISIL flourish under its banner. As reasonable voices are raised in protest, however, it seems inconceivable that savage, medieval barbarity will overcome and drive the world back into the Dark Ages.