Perfect and Complete

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“and the winner is…”

It’s been a pretty momentous week in Israel, apart from the unapologetically sunny Netta, complete with Minnie Mouse ears made with her own hair (a Photoshopped version of them on Bibi Netanyahu is doing the rounds on the Internet) winning Eurovision – the competition is only eight years younger than the State of Israel itself.

Seventy has always been significant, even before the seventieth anniversary of her founding. After the universal flood, seventy nations were named in Genesis 10. Jacob – renamed Israel –  and his family were seventy in number when they went down into Egypt. Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel, Israel was held captive in Babylon for seventy years and Daniel speaks of seventy weeks of years, all of which have been fulfilled except for the seventieth week. A “generation” or lifespan is seventy years. Seventy scholars allegedly translated the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint. And so on. The numbers themselves probably carry no significance but it’s interesting to see how often the number 70 appears, numerologists suggesting that its meaning is derived from seven (representing perfection) and ten (representing completeness and God’s law)

I am a day late, but Monday, May 14, 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of Israel becoming a nation. May 14, 1948, was the day some suggest that God decided he would once again bring His people to the land He promised to them as their permanent home. On that day, 11 minutes after declaring statehood, President Harry Truman was the first to recognise the new Jewish nation, later apologising that he had left it so late. Under a Muslim Shah, Iran, surprisingly, was the second, which today given its burning genocidal ambition to wipe Israel off the map is quite surprising.

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Somewhat overcome.

“We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel” – so spoke David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv on May 14th, 1948, to rapturous applause and tears from the crowd gathered at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. The ceremony yesterday to open the US Embassy in Jerusalem had a similarly spine-tingling sense of history as a palpable sense of triumph, excitement and resolve pervaded the speeches.

A moment in history

But, for the Palestinians, that day, seventy years ago, was a catastrophe.Yawm an-Nakba as they call it, resulted in the exodus of more than seven hundred thousand Arabs, who either fled or were evicted to neighbouring Arab states, as well as more than 200,000 internally displaced persons, who remained within the borders of Israel, but were unable to return to their properties once the Israeli-Arab war was over.

War is atrocious and in its fog, few can escape blame. In October 1948, Eilabun, a predominantly Christian village, was captured by the 12th Battalion of Israel’s Golani Brigade. Following the town’s surrender, the commander of the Golani troops selected a dozen residents and had them executed. The village was then looted, and all property confiscated, while most of the town’s residents were sent to neighbouring Lebanon. Harsh indeed, but what seems to have been left out of the narrative is the underlying circumstances and people are left to draw monochromatic, black and white conclusions. Prior to Israeli troops taking the town, the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) had set up a base there and killed two Israeli soldiers. The ALA gunmen and local inhabitants of Eilabun then paraded the severed heads of the Israelis through the streets of the town. It was not common for the nascent Israeli army to target Christian towns, but what happened in Eilabun made it an exception. Interestingly, the original inhabitants were permitted to return one year later in 1949 as part of an agreement between Israel and the Patriarch of Antioch.

But even in less exceptional cases, Israel is reluctant to accept allegations of genocide like those tossed about by various politicians and Western pundits. The government maintains, against other revisionist narratives, that it had no official policy of expulsion targeting local Arabs in 1948. Israel’s narrative is clear:  local Arabs were not expelled, but many did flee as a result of being ordered, cajoled or convinced to do so by their leaders or the leaders of Arab states who wanted to make room for the invading Arab armies and when the overthrow of the upstart Jews was complete, the armies would withdraw, releasing the land back to its owners. So convinced were they that they were going to win, the Arabs had no strategy for what might happen to all these people if they didn’t.

But even if they did leave, as many rich Arabs from Haifa and Jaffa did, for example, why does Israel refuse to let them come back to their property? The reason is simple: the original 700,000 Palestinian refugee population has mushroomed – in various refugee camps in neighbouring countries – and is now ten times greater, some seven million people (the actual refugees and their descendants). Together with the Arabs now living in Israel who make up some 20 percent of the population, Israel’s government is well aware that if everyone returned, the Arabs would then become a majority, bringing about the end of the “Jewish” state, which was the whole point of its creation.

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All quiet on the Western Front – for the moment.

According to some historians, during the War of Independence in 1948, Arab inhabitants of Israel were promised total equality in the new state if they remained neutral. However, if they fought or fled, they’d be considered a potential threat, a fifth column. It’s not hard to understand why the Israelis view the prospect of hundreds of thousands of legal but hostile residents with so little enthusiasm. The recent strategy of Hamas massing tens of thousands of people on the Gaza border in the hope of pushing aside the security fence and invading Israel by sheer weight of numbers has an ironic chill to it.

Postscript. The fury and outrage of the international community over the deaths and injuries of the rioters at the Gaza border has resulted in ambassadorial recall, UN condemnation, calls for proportionality and, bizarrely, Dublin City Hall flying a Palestinian flag in solidarity. Social media is awash with allegations of apartheid and occupation. Ten million dollars has allegedly been spent, however,  by Hamas in massing tens of thousands of people at the border, many will have been financially incentivised to turn out – intelligence suggests $14 per person or $100 per family. I am coming more and more to the conclusion that as the crisis deepens, and the possibility of wider conflict becomes more of a reality, everyone is going to have to pick a side.



Big Data

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This is the Internet

IQ tests are a crude metric. They rely on the ability to reason which of four or five answers to a particular, often quite limited problem, happens to be correct. Dependent on how many correct answers are scored, a number is assigned which carries meaning. But, an IQ test only measures a few key variables, and does so with remarkably little data. It cannot measure emotional intelligence, sense of humour, personality type or any one of a hundred variables which define us uniquely. It cannot measure whether what we read is true or not; it cannot distinguish between pornography and art. It is the difference between limited artificial intelligence and general AI. Limited systems are closed and numerical, such as computers learning to play chess, or crunching numbers to find available flights or using real-time routing software on a map,  general systems are poor at screening “undesirable” content on Facebook’s pages – they just aren’t very good at the requisite subtlety and discrimination, so, for the most part, humans still have to do it instead. Which is, I suppose, something of a relief, SkyNet won’t be going self-aware any time soon.

Of the dozen or so most valuable public companies in the world today, over half depend substantially on data-driven automated scaling, using relatively few real people – great news for their shareholders – since this makes them profitable beyond all dreams of avarice, for example, WhatsApp (monthly userbase, over 450 million) was sold to Facebook for 22 billion (yes, billion) US dollars, which will buy a freshly brewed Starbucks for every man, woman and child on the planet and pay off the national debt of Albania with the change. Artificial intelligence and “big data” enables these digital companies to grow in unprecedented ways.  Facebook, Amazon and similar companies are now reaching more customers with more personalised experiences than any others that came before them, which is touted as a huge advantage over previous, cruder advertising content. But this comes at a price. Alarmingly, Facebook uses phone-contact data as part of its friend recommendation algorithm and it is possible to download one’s entire phone records from them, which is deeply worrying. Most users are blissfully unaware of the sheer quantity of metadata that Facebook and others harvest about them and use to provide targeted advertising. While data collection is technically “opt-in,” in Messenger, for example,  opt-in is the default installation mode for the application, not a separate notification of data collection. Facebook has never explicitly revealed that the data was being collected, and it was only discovered as part of a review of the data associated with the accounts. Those problems hinge on Facebook’s various uses of automation that only inconsistently involve actual human judgment. Content-suggestion algorithms, which place a premium on user attention, have been shown to systematically amplify shocking and extreme material, including fabricated or misleading news. Facebook’s lightly-screened ad sales – which they described later as a ’technical failure’ allowed Russia-linked buyers to spend as much as $150,000 to try to influence US politics, and made it possible to run racially discriminatory housing advertisements. And this is possibly the tip of the iceberg. I wonder how much digital meddling has gone on between the Russians, the Chinese and the North Koreans. The North Korean change of heart over nuclear weapons came about with quite remarkable speed. I wonder why…
We have all experienced what happens if, for example, just for our own amusement, we explore the cost of a weekend in Prague, we are then bombarded with advertising seeking to either sell us airline tickets or discounted rates on tourist sites in the city. Even places we visited years ago occasionally surface with hotel deals.  Most of us, setting aside the irritation of such unwanted advertising,  have a trouble-free experience with social media and protective algorithms work well in most cases. However,  the instances where their systems fail – referred to as “edge cases”  – have proven deeply troubling to the public and regulators. And technological solutions may not be achievable before the broader idea of digital scaling itself is undermined, along with a global economy whose future is increasingly premised on it. For example, it was discovered that Google’s YouTube Kids app, touted as a safer destination than the main site, was displaying disturbing conspiracy videos to children. That same day, Facebook admitted that Cambridge Analytica had improperly harvested the data of what turned out to be millions of its users, and an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona. Uber has been operating at a massive loss for years and investors have continued to feed it cash largely on the premise that the company will become as profitable as Amazon once it masters the technology of self-driving cars and eliminates the cost of drivers, which the company founder believes to be an ‘existential priority’. Edge effect failure, death being the most spectacular example, undermines the whole concept and Uber could come crashing down incredibly fast. As an update, Uber’s ‘edge effect’ worries are not just confined to driverless cars; a Jewish diplomat in Chicago was ejected from an Uber in Chicago for answering a phone call in Hebrew. The driver threw him out in the middle of a busy highway.
I sometimes ask myself: is there a limit to the amount of useful data that can be collected about me, so that machines can predict with almost total accuracy what I am going to buy next, where I am most likely to go on my next trip, what medical conditions I will suffer from and so on. I very much hope that the cost of collection will outweigh the benefits that might result. I’m a subversive little creature, along with most of the rest of the seven billion or so data mining possibilities on the planet and I will take steps to hide, screen or otherwise mislead the number crunchers who want to know the size of my soul. I may never own a self-drive car – indeed if ownership will then be the right word, but as the old protest song said “die gedanken sind frei”.

The Joy of Words

Francis Bacon once wrote ‘It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.’ Why this is an ‘error’ is a question for advanced Baconians, which I am not. We kind of like writing  about or hearing the good stuff about ourselves, as well as about the rest of the world, and most people think that it’s good for us to hear and pass on positive thoughts, comfortingly reinforcing our sense of bien-être, or well-being. But, more foreign phrases anon. Meanwhile, confirmation bias, for those who don’t know, refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s worldview, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts it. We get uncomfortable when confronted with cognitively dissonant ideas. As a regular commenter on the pages of the Times of London, this is a self-evident truth which one sees every day. Political leaders have their online detractors and those who cannot argue a point successfully usually write a stream of vituperative bile, often about people who own golf courses or wear beards, or more recently, have wives old enough to be their mothers without much reference to any factual content.
On a parallel, not altogether unconnected thread, Messrs Macron and Trump recently met in what some are calling the ‘dandruff diplomacy summit’ which turned out to be quite the touchy-feely lovefest. I rather wonder if they were overcome by a distinct frisson of ‘hygge’ – the last word in joy.
 Speaking of which, as my tongue descends into the nether regions of my cheek, hygge is really quite passé, apparently, all its little books notwithstanding. The Danish term, which means “a feeling of great smugness that you are not in fact Swedish”, was all the rage for a while. Not any more. It has been superseded by the Norwegian ‘peiskos’ which refers, apparently, to that rather cosy feeling one gets when sitting by a roaring fire, or the Dalmatian ‘fjaka’, which means ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’.  My other half will simply look bewildered at this point since such a state is entirely beyond her comprehension. The Croatians believe it can actually cure diseases. I can say this with perfect certainty since I know nobody who is capable of correcting my Croatian, but since I read it in Croatia Week, it must be right. Excellent. Here are a few other words from different countries, shamelessly plagiarised from the Sunday Times. These words have no English equivalent, but they are all suggestive of bien-être.
From France, we have ‘etranger-plaisir: the feeling of contentment occasioned by pretending not to understand when a foreigner is asking you for directions. Since Paris is full of impatient Chinese and grumpy Parisians, the contentment level on the Champs-Elysées shifts up a notch when a busload of Oriental tourists disgorges near the Arc de Triomphe.
 Germany has lots of words which are just joined up fragments of others, such as ‘sudetenmarschierenfreude’ meaning the warm feeling of national wellbeing occasioned by annexing the Sudetenland. Variants might be polenmarschierenfreude, frankreichmarschierenfreude and so on, dependent on one’s degree of wishful thinking.
 Spain has ‘ladoza’ which is the pleasure gained by going back to bed at eleven in the morning and not resurfacing until dinnertime.
 The Scots have an accent as thick as treacle and even those who actually speak the same language are often quite uncomprehending when asking for directions on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. The phrase ‘seeyousestitchthatjimmie’ is a feeling of intense satisfaction when you have just stoated someone between the eyes on licensed premises in the east end of the city.
 Greece has the ubiquitous ‘gamoforous’: the delight experienced in not paying your taxes and in Italy the rather unlikely ‘bambinificio’ is the adolescent pleasure experienced by fully grown men in eating ice creams while wearing sunglasses and riding around on mopeds.
 Japan’s rather formal ‘ken-shi-yorokobi’ is apparently a bewildering sense of euphoria that occurs just before you ceremonially disembowel yourself. Not altogether tempting. There must be less painful ways to get high.
 Russia has few words to express satisfaction of any flavour, except the grim kind which revels in the capture of one’s next door neighbour for selling secrets to the Americans. There is, however ‘yadernoy-radost’, literally ‘nuclear joy’, which is a warm feeling of satisfaction that occurs when you have made an enemy of the state light up like a Roman candle through the covert application of plutonium. OK, I made that one up but ‘radost’ is Czech for ‘glee’ so, hey, close enough.

The Vocabulary of Genius

Being quite good, or even, moderately bad, at most things one attempts  is either a cause for commiseration or an art to be celebrated. My mother used to remark in that particularly snide fashion that sticks like Thai rice in the bowels of memory, in the rare moments that I crept into her consciousness: ‘Jack of all trades’ – then, very quickly, with the trademark sniff – ‘master of none.’

For centuries, cultures have wagged their heads at the generalist – he of the non-specific, butter thinly spread over the entire slice of bread: “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned the Chinese. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one - hunger.”
Not very ambitious thinking, you’d have to agree. Not quite the vocabulary of genius.
I once wrote a piece praising the joys of mediocrity; sometimes I rather wish I hadn’t. So sorry for the slip into narcissism – who else will toot my flute but me? Being interested in lots of different things doesn’t necessarily mean that one isn’t particularly good at any of them, in fact, quite the reverse. Many of the world’s most impactful individuals , both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman – he played a mean bongo – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci – his helicopter blueprint actually helped when the real thing came along five hundred years later.

If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, what about these?  Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell …is there a collective noun for  polymaths? Learning or indeed developing original ideas across academic domains is like travel, it broadens the mind. It seems to then act as a lightning conductor to attract left-field kind of thinking, a probing intellectual workup in the subject’s particular specialism at that time. Newton confirmed the inverse square law for gravitation – twenty years later he wrote a book on optics.

Modern polymaths go against the grain. They capture half an idea at the water fountain, gleanings from cast aside conversations; they build atypical, asymmetric patterns then – and herein lies genius – develop them in the arid space where competition is weak. Elon Musk is primarily an engineer, like half the Stanford graduates who work for NASA. Had he just concentrated on that, he’d be just as well-off as an average NASA high flyer. However, he was able to use his business training as well, hence Tesla and SpaceX. An image search turns up thousands of images of the man, not his achievements, so a gift for self-publishing is a helpful addition. Plus getting stupidly rich.

Being a Jack of at least a few trades seems like quite a healthy option. Being retired often leaves a black hole of guilt – perhaps I should go and learn Icelandic, just because I happen to  have time to do so. (Perhaps I should clean the guttering instead.) I used to spend a lot of time thinking about mathematics and physics – these days, I think about literature, theology, art, music and even poetry sometimes, none of which will, alas, make me rich or extend my Icelandic vocabulary. Nevertheless, what fun to trace out the beauty in the twinkling mathematics of Euler, or the symmetrical, Persian carpet perfectionism of a Mandelbrot set. That satisfaction of completeness where circles become squares. Yes.

Marching to Zion

6 for artistic impression

The British Labour Party, and in particular its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has become mired in controversy once again, this time over anti-Semitism. First, he praised an unabashedly anti-Semitic cartoon, then was seen in the company of those whose opinions can only be described as ‘non-mainstream’. He claims not to be an anti-Semite, the default position for a good Socialist, but his background in far-left ideology, where the rich and secretive cabal of Jewish bankers props up the cancer of capitalism must surely lurk at the back of his mind, as his defence of a mural depicting Jewish bankers controlling the world clearly demonstrated. As an atheist, he must, of course be an anti-Zionist – the idea of a Jewish land for a chosen people and holy nation is anathema to him. A simple Passover seder with some far-left ‘friends’ with revolutionary opinions casts doubt at the very least on his judgement. Implausibly, his defence was he was there on his own time and in a private capacity, which actually makes it worse. Either Corbyn understood what he was doing by spending Passover in the company of Jewdas, a splinter group which has compared Israel to a ‘pile of steaming sewage which needs to be properly disposed of’ and belittling  the accusation that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem, in which case he is unashamedly malign. Or – let us be charitable – the more likely explanation is that he did not realise the problems that his attendance would cause, at the end of a week in which the story dominated his political life, in which case he is myopically foolish and completely unsuited to the mantle of leadership should the country abandon all hope and elect a Labour government.

But, what is it about the Jews? Originally, relations between the Jewish Christians and the Jews were fairly cordial. The followers of the Apostles, as well as the Apostles themselves, recognised the sanctity of ancient law; they observed the rites of Judaism and as yet had not placed the worship of Jesus side by side with that of the one God. The development of the dogma of the divinity of Christ drove a wedge between Church and Synagogue. Judaism could not admit to the deification of a man; to recognise anybody as the son of God was blasphemy and as the Jewish Christians had not severed their connections with the Jewish community, they were disciplined. This accounts for the flagellation of the Apostles and other new converts, the stoning of Stephen and the beheading of the Apostle James.

Do I look like a young Jeremy Corbyn?

The Church Fathers, brimming with Pauline fervour, added fuel to an already out-of-control fire. Justin Martyr, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ argued that the Jews were originally selected because of their lack of spirituality – they needed the constraints of the Law to keep them in line. He blamed them for rejecting Jesus as Messiah and asserted that the destruction of the Temple was God’s punishment for such rejection. If this sounds strange, it was not so long ago that Pat Robertson blamed the AIDS epidemic on the sin of homosexuality.

By contrast, Rabbi Tarfon who lived and worked between about 70 and 135 CE was equally forthright. writing at a time when Christianity was considered to be a rather bizarre offshoot of conventional Judaism, he said ‘the Gospels must be burned, for paganism is not as dangerous to the Jewish faith as Jewish Christian sects. I should rather seek refuge in a pagan temple than in an assembly of Jewish Christians.
If nothing else, the current debate has raised awareness in a Gentile population of the depth of animosity that still exists towards the Jews, as well as clearing away some of the muddled thinking where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are conflated. At best, it will sharpen minds to the historical realities of anti-Semitism, at worst, it will provoke another Kristallnacht.

Stories of Doubt and Hope

Which way?

Reading newspapers encourages a rather juvenile partisanship where we seem to almost develop  crushes on particular journalists whose work we agree with and wordsmithing we like – regardless of gender or pulchritude . It’s impertinent to name names, so I won’t. It’s customary for some of them to write something ‘religious’ and even those specifically tasked to do so tend to be vague about  matters where they have to nail a particular theological position to their masts because if they’re a bit too strident , evangelical even, they get in trouble with their editor and have to endure raucous jeering in the comments section. But, at least they get to ask the hard  questions and  therefore, as their readers, so do we.

It’s Easter – or Eostre – again so if there were a day in the year on which cultural Christians might think about the possibility of eternal things, it would be today. Easter Day and the week running up to it tell the central story of our civilisation, a story of suffering, humiliation, redemption and ultimate triumph. Many people believe fully in the revealed truth of that story, others hold their doubt uneasily. One Passover, Douglas Murray (The Strange Death of Europe) once – rather rudely, I thought – asked a rabbi:  would he agree that a fair proportion of his congregation did not believe in God? Demonstrating a masterly ability at wrong-footing, he replied calmly, “Oh most of them, I expect.”  I know a lady who attends synagogue with scrupulously virtuous regularity who unhesitatingly admits to her non-belief.  As those of us from a Christian background arrive at one of the holiest days in our own tradition, if so many dared to be honest, they might cough sheepishly and say the same. We reluctantly belong without believing.

Screen Shot.pngAll surveys show a sharp decline in traditional Christian religious belief in Britain. In the 1980s, 40% of our population said they were Anglican Christians, mumbling ‘C of E’ when fillling out a form at the hospital. Today the figure is 15%. In her history of religion in Britain since 1945, the sociology professor Grace Davie identified our preferred practice of “believing without belonging”. But over recent decades Britain’s Christians have increasingly shown themselves disinclined either to belong or to believe. We don’t believe in God, don’t go to church and decreasingly wish even to acknowledge membership of that funny little club. Yet our awkward attitude towards our historic faith often asserts itself, usually frivolously, at this time of year since we seem to belong to a culture that has little idea of what to do with Easter other than to  give chocolate rabbits to children. Over recent years, however, if we’ve kept on top of the cultural tensions that fuel our thinking, this humanist-atheist view of modern liberalism has taken rather a beating. More and more of us have travelled around the world and noticed what some religious leaders had unpopularly insisted: that what we have developed in western Europe in our culture of rights, including human rights, is not just historically unusual but unusual at this present moment. Today, there is a growing admission that what we have did not emerge from nothing but grew largely from the philosophy and foundations of the faith we’ve all spent recent decades shrugging off. Whether we like it or not, we have embedded in the warp of our own intellectual history truths we’ve spent a long time either excusing, denying or resisting: that our political liberalism, sensitivity to racism and homophobia, our acceptance of others – the laissez-faire we enjoy – and even the existence of a welfare state derive not from lofty enlightenment but from our faith. Perhaps we are Christians whether we like it or not, having a hard time, as Bob Dylan remarked, accepting things that overwhelm us.

Many devout Christians will be attending church this morning. But what might be the approach of those who cannot literally believe or are actively disinclined to believe, but who are just as much products of Christianity as a rabbi’s congregation are products of Judaism? Not all doubters and non-believers adopt the sneeringly hostile stance towards their historic faith that celebrity atheists do. Although some believers may scoff, and other atheists may frown, to have some engagement with the Easter or Passover narrative is not only to seek a relationship with our past but to engage seriously with the questions of our present and future. There’ll be those who brave the crowds and squeeze into a pew this morning – were I robustly healed I would have been among them – joining the ones who are not believing, and not quite belonging. But are not filled with rejection either, instead making room for hope.

Civilisation, Catholicism and Syphilis

I tend to avoid historical, bloated vacation sagas – after all, who could possibly be interested in where I have been and what I’ve been up to for the last fortnight or so. There’s a certain rather metallic hubris in asserting my superiority over you – the “I was there and you weren’t” kind of bragging – that makes all normal people reach for the vomitorium, or make not particularly subtle comments about sunburned necks and how very painful they must be.
It began well enough, I suppose – the flight times allowed some leeway on stopover times – and we spent a deadeningly quiet evening in downtown Washington, only marginally more exciting than watching silver tarnish. The Big House – the one about which Bob Hope once said he’d never be President because his wife didn’t want to move to somewhere smaller – was tastefully floodlit and guarded by armed soldiery with ‘Secret Service’ prominently visible on the Kevlar and crowds on Penn Ave were conspicuous by their absence. The T shirts and other politically spiteful memorabilia on sale at Dulles were worth a wait in the departure lounge, however.
Cancún is a feisty, colourful place, divided into the glitzy resort all-in vacation residences and very modest hotels and hostels to cater for the backpackers and fixed budget types, us, in other words. Car rental was a surreal wait for over two hours in conditions more usually seen in the Gobi Desert. After an hour or so, I wanted to kill someone, preferably myself. I thought it ironic that nobody had bothered to put screen wash in the car. After the first few stops – two days in each and a drive down the eastern spine of the Yúcatan peninsula – they did begin to look a bit similar; “boutique” being the prevailing descriptor. Each had a pool with varying degrees of cleanliness and pet iguanas of variable sizes. These are spectacularly ill-tempered and repellently ugly, looking as if they are refugees from ‘Jurassic Park’, which, in a sense, they are.
One rather more upmarket residence had a massive bed, TV and kitchen, Netflix on demand and almost a walk-in fridge.  I could happily have stayed for a month. Another, a rather rural establishment, locked the dogs in a compound at night lest they be attacked by jaguars.
The scuba diving off the long north south reef is supposed to be the second best in the world, surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef in eastern Australia. It was evident that the reef head had been badly damaged, with less species that could be seen off Eilat. Diving pelicans were abundant and turtles could be seen on payment of a fee. A long, sleek barracuda glided morosely past me, with a flicker of interest in its flat, dead eyes.
We post-colonialists tend to forget that only 500 yeas ago Hernán Cortés came, saw, and thirteen years later, conquered, bringing civilisation, Catholicism and syphilis to a proud, well-ordered society, which had developed counting methods, the use of zero and business arithmetic long before the Arabs, and whose ancient  beach side temples were a fascinating glimpse into a culture which used  human sacrificial appeasement to keep the gods sweet.
Pure blooded Mexicans have almost Peruvian features, dark olive skin and a proud bearing, courteous and measured, evidenced by a quite unexpected lack of mania when behind the wheel of a car.
I was also fortunate in seeing a few places off the tourist track, in particular, the hospital at Valladolid, a well-ordered little place with proper checkerboard blocks and streets. Was it pleurisy? Apparently not. Pneumonia? No. Turned out after ultrasound to be acute pyelonephritis which feels like your kidney is being torn out by the talons of a malevolent dragon. Three days later I was well enough to no longer feel as if I was being electrocuted. Armed with enough antibiotic to slaughter the folic acid metabolism of legions of bacteria festering in the urinary tract and enough opioid analgesic to enable me to float pleasantly above the world, I am now realising that my body thinks that it is 4am. ‘Night, all.

Existential Fatigue

Screen Shot 2.pngIt’s snowing again outside, which is inconvenient for most people here but for me it provides me with the opportunity to look out at the world with fresh eyes. There’s nowhere to go at the moment, the narrow island road is sheet ice and the temporary car park is a quagmire. Finding stuff to do is the single most important occupation for people like me to prevent their descent into an abyssal of navel-gazing wrapped in a black cloak of boredom, accompanied by ambiguous fatigue. I was always told as a child that I should have no time to be bored, my days instead should be filled with wholesome purpose and activity, all else being sinfully slothful. What a shame. Chronic boredom has been an awkward little companion that I’ve carried around for a long time, sitting on my shoulder whispering nothing in particular into my ear. Sometimes, it feels like a piece of chewing gum, spat out and discarded, that has the nasty habit of lodging itself under the shoe of my life, making everything so wretched and annoying. Wherever I walk, it’s as though I’m always aware of this imperceptible presence that sullies the experience of whatever comes next with its infuriating stickiness. Burrowing down into some psychobabble the other day – how else does one spend one’s time –  I came across the phrase ‘existential fatigue’. I wasn’t altogether sure what it meant, so looked it up:

“Existential fatigue is the weight of the world on your soul, mind and emotions. A fatigue born of the search for meaning and purpose that your foremothers and forefathers returned to the soil without it wetting their dry tongues and cracked lips.” A little bit flowery perhaps, but I quite liked that part – very tribal.

Continuing the rather doom-laden theme: “This sort of fatigue peels the fear of death from your childish eyes. It hangs you upside down and bleeds the hope, the audacity to dream, and self-confidence from the veins of your soul. This is a form of lynching that allows you to go on living as you’re half-dead. It blinds you with generational anger and places your feet on the red coal of your ancestors’ bones.” There’s a kind of Camus-like absurdist certainty about this which is mildly disturbing. Those who know me will be aware that I have been, let’s say, ‘generationally angry’. I’m angry AT my parents – because of them, if you will, but I don’t carry the same externalised rages as they did.

Reading on: “It’s the kind of fatigue that shows you the naked and grotesque difference between perception and reality and inverts both.  You are now not sure whether it is you or the world that has gone crazy.” Some truth there – Nietszche would have agreed, but he was insane so his opinion can’t really be trusted.
So, this post is, if you like – or even if you don’t – my attempt to speak a new language to articulate the discomfort, to crystallise fleeting moments of possibility and so internalise intuitive truths. Against all odds, we – even I –  persist in our/my search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. So much for definition; what about solution?

Boredom is often a result of forgetting to be thankful for what we have. When the mind is in the habit of constantly finding gratification in a future-orientated thought or feeling, the present can never quite feel “good enough.” Not only that, but when we take for granted what we have, we often expect it to be even better than what it is capable of being by imposing our beliefs, desires and expectations on to it. The result is, inevitably, disappointment.

Ingratitude is a frenemy because it fools us (OK, me) into believing that there is something perpetually “better” than what we have, while at the same time causing us considerable present unhappiness.

One solution for ingratitude is stopping everything I am doing for a few moments, savouring my surroundings and forcing myself to think of five things  (more or less) that I am grateful for at this moment. The small things, as well as the larger, seemingly more important. Walt Whitman once wrote in “Song of Myself”:

“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

Also – I am such a merciless creature of habit. What If I were to forgo a morning shower and leave it until evening? It won’t materially affect personal hygiene and it breaks routine. What if, instead of choosing which watch to wear, I just didn’t wear one at all?

Please, will someone poke me with the proactivity stick sometimes? If left to myself, I tend to slip into apathy and laziness, basically becoming a slob, which is deeply unattractive both to myself and those around me.

I came across a fascinating phrase the other day – “hedonistic adaptation”,  which is the other side of the coin – too much proactivity isn’t necessarily a good idea either. It is a phrase that refers to the pursuit of happiness much like running on a treadmill because no matter how much we get, we aren’t completely happy, and we always want more thus, we keep running and running, seeking for the next ‘hit’. The result is, we get tired emotionally and tired people make mistakes when they look after themselves. The delight of ‘now’ eludes them.

Oh, enough. I am now going to go and live in the present for a while and play with my dog, who completely understands me.


Subway Walls

The Cold War ended in 1991, glasnost and perestroika were the new mots du jour. Totalitarianism, we were informed, had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century. We all marched optimistically forward,  believing that strong democratic arms would protect us. How wrong we all were. It seems an almost unwavering characteristic of humankind that if progress doesn’t get us, hubris will.


It’s becoming almost passé to assert that at this moment in history, it is democracy itself that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Turkey and Hungary, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule, indeed Turkey was for some time knocking with some optimism on the door of the EU.
Once the world’s bastion of liberal, democratic values, Europe is suffering what Douglas Murray has called a “strange death“, again having to confront demons it thought it had laid to rest. The old pathologies of anti-Semitism, populist nationalism, and territorial aggression are threatening to tear the European postwar consensus apart. The shallow disingenuousness of the leaders who pushed for the seismic upheaval known as “Brexit” is becoming more obvious daily as the British Government wallows in a quagmire of indecision largely of its own making while tens of thousands are still slipping illegally into Europe and many hover like bedraggled vultures around the Channel ports in hope of making passage to Eldorado, just across the water.  How is it that a vast migrant wave is exacerbating tensions between Europeans and their Muslim minorities?  Why is  anti-Semitism rearing its monstrous head again, causing Jewish schools and synagogues in France and Germany to become fortresses? How have Russian imperial ambitions been so easily able to destabilise nations from Estonia to Ukraine? It has been many years since 9/11, the day the world shifted on its axis and we’ve all learned a few dangerous Qu’ranic verses. Even the American president with a simple mantra of “America First” is now threatening to abandon America’s traditional role as upholder of the liberal world order and guarantor of the continent’s security, Europe has grown rich and decadently fat and may be alone in dealing with these unprecedented challenges and  unexpected crises.
Declining birth-rates, mass immigration and cultivated self-distrust have converged to make Europeans virtually incapable of arguing in their own best interests, instead kowtowing to the completely fictitious deity of political correctness. They have become incapable of resisting their own comprehensive change as a society, instead watching helplessly from the touch lines as the defeat of their hitherto unshakable certainties looks more and more likely. The unequivocal failure of multiculturalism, Angela Merkel’s collapse on migration, the lack of repatriation and the Western fixation on postcolonial guilt have caused some to redefine their priorities – in short – make a U-turn. Merkel herself made a significant speech in Davos at January’s meeting of the World Economic Forum, effectively back-pedalling on her previous open-door policy: “Polarisation is something we see in our country (as well), which we haven’t had for decades,” she said. She laid the blame on the lingering effects of the euro-zone debt crisis and migration and some German voters believe that other European countries were overly benefiting from Germany’s prosperity. Additionally, a “great influx” of migration made some Germans feel something was being taken away from them. When this is combined with unemployment, there is “a very poisonous mix” that creates social divisions, Merkel said. She didn’t go as far as to say she regretted that Germany welcomed the migrants, despite the toxic politics that followed. What she failed to offer were workable solutions – perhaps because there are very few to choose from, most being either unpalatable or unworkable.
Trevor Phillips, who had until recently been Britain’s foremost advocate of multiculturalism, recently remarked that “for a long time, I too thought that Europe’s Muslims would become like previous waves of migrants, gradually abandoning their ancestral ways, wearing their religious and cultural baggage lightly, and gradually blending into Britain’s diverse identity landscape. I should have known better.”
Yet, their very insistence on separateness may be their Achilles’ heel. Parallel societies are a poor short-term fix and almost certainly cause increased polarisation and the formation of undesirable, often violent ghettos. No immigrant population in the history of the world has succeeded in replacing the host’s culture with its own – unless by force of arms – so Europe may yet be safe, at least for a while. Thus far, we have the law on our side and it should be used effectively. One of the best outcomes of Brexit is it returns to us our ability to do just that. We should take comfort in the belief that the words of the prophets are still being written on the subway walls and their warnings should be heeded.

Jacob’s Ladder

British politics has never been so toxic. It’s like pouring cheap hard liquor down our reluctant throats and expecting us to swallow without spluttering. The Left and the Right polarise like a horseshoe, their wild opinions meeting at the edges of reason. “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out”: the muttered incantation of the emperor in Robert Graves’s ‘Claudius the God’ seems dreadfully apposite, almost predictable,  even.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, urbane, unfailingly polite, tough-as-nails Brexiteer has been touted as one third of what some are calling an unholy triumvirate, waiting to catch the headless chicken that the Prime Minister has become. Ministerial inexperience notwithstanding, he could be chancellor, but talk of him becoming prime minister is no longer seen as farcical. He was conjured  into being by an eccentric cult of personality with a seasoning of Leftist mirth. It’s like a badly cast spell, but it’s far too late to shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a flourish of our holly wand with the phoenix feather core. In the search for an alternative to a pantomime Prime Minister for someone who could guide the country through its most challenging negotiations since the second world war, we have somehow given allegiance to a person whose views appear to be preserved in amber like the mosquito in ‘Jurassic Park’.

We no longer have the luxury of certainty, no longer the indulgence to laugh at or dismiss the politically absurd, just in case an extreme  anachronism really is elected. Every scuffle in the Conservative party is another round of Russian roulette for the country, except nobody knows if the chambers are empty or not. With Brexit, the unthinkable is not only thinkable: it is entirely feasible. Jacob Rees-Mogg is beginning to experience a few slings and arrows, sharply barbed, attacking not only his politics but his style. He has been variously described by his detractors – he seems much too polite to have enemies – the mildest being ‘not genuine’. It gets a bit more vituperative: ‘He epitomises a certain kind of public school snob and was called out on his fakery at the kind of school where they can detect such snobs. (I suppose this refers to Eton which goes to a lot of trouble to not be snobby and upper-crust) There are always a few of them about. ‘Let’s ‘impress the plebs,’ they say. That’s not to say he isn’t intelligent but he has made a living from impressing the upwardly-aspiring middle classes who think he’s ‘class.’’ (Not entirely, dear boy, but you are craning your neck a bit, so it’s hard for you to see the forest for the twigs, y’see.) ‘He’s good at it but is only an imitation of the ‘real thing; – think Alec Douglas Home. The latter was the real thing.’  ADH’s aristocratic bearing earned him a few brickbats – Harold Wilson came across much better on TV and  JRM is a sharper version of Jeremy Corbyn. Another descends to this: ‘There is simply nothing gracious or laudable about Rees-Mogg, with his antediluvian views on women, the poor, the ordinary struggling citizen, the other, in fact anything beyond the narrow purlieu as seen from the leaded windows of his agreeable country pile.’ (Envious? Moi?) ‘Look at his appalling reactionary record on just about every social issue of the past two decades. Good manners come cheap (they don’t, actually) and just because he is an obsessive monomaniac (like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Gandhi…) with a sly, cunning and manipulative streak (oh, now,  downright nasty) does not turn him somehow into a morally upright and credible candidate for the leadership of a parish council, let alone the government.’ (I wouldn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn to run a bath, personally.) ‘He has no experience of leadership, and is most certainly a hateful, deceitful and divisive figure.’ Something similar was said about Enoch Powell, if memory serves. ‘The only plus to him ever succeeding Theresa May is that he will hopefully bring the civil war within the Tory party out into the open and take the entire ship of fools down with him.’ Petulant leftie ranting laced with ad hominem bile at its very worst, I think.
Rees-Mogg is climbing the ladder, either by default, invitation or by deep and Machiavellian design nobody yet knows. His star is rising not only because he seems to be the only plant capable of flourishing in the toxic Brexit soil, but because there is something, in these base political times, genuinely transcendent about him.
With thanks to Guardian and Times commentators. Also, Harry Potter.