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Blood and violence in Turkey

Saturday, 16 July, 2016 0 Comments

Snow Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel Snow is recommended reading for those trying to understand the forces at work in Turkey these days. Early in the book, the central character, Ka, is sitting in the New Life Pastry Shop in the east Anatolian city of Kars when an Islamic extremist kills the director of The Education Institute, who had barred headscarf-wearing girls from attending class. Because the victim was carrying a concealed tape-recorder, Ka is later able to get the transcript of the fatal conversation from his widow. In this excerpt, the killer pours forth his murderous ideology:

“Headscarves protect women from harassment, rape and degradation. It’s the headscarf that gives women respect and a comfortable place in society. We’ve heard this from so many women who’ve chosen later in life to cover themselves. Women like the old belly-dancer Melahat Sandra. The veil saves women from the animal instincts of men in the street. It saves them from the ordeal of entering beauty contests to compete with other women. They don’t have to live like sex objects, they don’t have to wear make-up all the day. As professor Marvin King has already noted, if the celebrated film star Elizabeth Taylor had spent the last twenty years covered, she would not have had to worry about being fat. She would not have ended up in a mental hospital. She might have known some happiness.”

Upon hearing this nonsense, the director of the Education Institute bursts out laughing. Pamuk describes the end of the transcript thus:

“Calm down my child. Stop. Sit down. Think it over one more time. Don’t pull that trigger. Stop.”
(The sound of a gunshot. The sound of a chair pushed out.)
“Don’t my son!”
(Two more gunshots. Silence. A groan. The sound of a television. One more gunshot. Silence.)

Talking of Turkey and fanaticism, of blood and violence, From Russia, with Love, the fifth 007 novel to feature the British Secret Service agent James Bond, might not be where one expects to find insights relating to last night’s coup, but it’s full of surprises. Ian Fleming wrote the book in 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, and the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Turkey on behalf of The Sunday Times to report on an Interpol conference. Fleming returned to London via the Orient Express, but found the experience drab, partly because the restaurant car was closed. Bond observes:

“From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.” — Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love


Impressions of Nice before the Terror

Friday, 15 July, 2016 0 Comments

Ce fut le temps sous de clairs ciels,
(Vous en souvenez-vous, Madame?)
De baisers superficiels
Et des sentiments à fleur d’âme.

Paul Verlaine

It was a time of cloudless skies,
(My lady, do you recall?)
Of kisses that brushed the surface
And feelings that shook the soul.


The barbarity of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel

Friday, 15 July, 2016 0 Comments

The terrorist responsible for murdering up to 84 people by driving a truck into a Bastille Day celebration in Nice has been identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a delivery driver and petty criminal. How do we respond to such barbarity? With more useless hashtags? Ineffective cartoons? Meaningless interdenominational prayer ceremonies? Hollow declarations of “je suis Nizza”? Hand-wringing gestures by political leaders? We’ve had lots of those in the past but they made little impression on Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. Maybe we should consider the words of J.R.R. Tolkien:

“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” — The Two Towers


The Johnson Factor

Thursday, 14 July, 2016 1 Comment

The main point of The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, is that one person can make all the difference. Snippet:

“Churchill decides from very early on that he will create a political position that is somehow above left and right, embodying the best points of both sides and thereby incarnating the will of the nation. He thinks of himself as a gigantic keystone in the arch, with all the lesser stones logically induced to support his position. He has a kind of semi-ideology to go with it — a leftish Toryism: imperialist, romantic, but on the side of the working man.”

Boris Johnson The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History

The Churchill Factor


English: Going nowhere and everywhere

Wednesday, 13 July, 2016 0 Comments

Andrew Linn is Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Westminster. He studied English and Modern Languages at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and he was Professor of the History of Linguistics and successively Head of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. So, he should know what he’s talking about, then, when it comes to the future of the English.

Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere” was the title of his article that appeared in The Conversation (motto: “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”) on 4 July. A week later, it was given a wider platform when it was published by Quartz, the global business news website of the Atlantic Media Company. This time, it had a different title: “English is and will be the lingua franca of Europe in spite of Brexit.”

Was the headline change prompted by the, er, Atlantic divide? Or because of literal and figurative incomprehension? Let’s look at the language and the meaning of go nowhere.

Confusion arises because the phrases “going nowhere” and “not going anywhere” have literal and figurative meanings. In the figurative sense, both can mean “not changing” or “not making progress.” Example: “His career in Brussels is going nowhere.” Meaning: He’s not climbing the greasy ladder at Eurocrat HQ. But here’s where it gets tricky: “not going anywhere” can have the same meaning as “going nowhere”. Example: “His career in Brussels is not going anywhere now, thanks to those chavs in Sunderland.”

But “not going anywhere” can also mean “constantly in existence.” Example: “Theresa, you know you can count on me here in Brussels. I’m not going anywhere.” Meaning: I’m in the Berlaymont building and I’m staying here to support you during this nasty Article 50 business, no matter how long it takes.

Keep Calm As regards the content of the dual-headlined piece, that will be the subject of another post, but one thing requires addressing right away. Andrew Linn writes: “The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain…” This is daft as it suggests modern British culture, from The Beatles to Monty Python to J.K. Rowling to Idris Elba, plays no role when English is being taught in Munich, Dakar or Lima. English is everywhere now and the the influence of Britain is key to understanding why this is so and why so many of its teachers draw upon certain models that affect how learners acquire the language and absorb the prestige that makes it so attractive. The influence of Britain, like the soft power of Miss Marple or James Bond, is global, linguistically, whatever about politically, diplomatically or militarily.


It’s just a different wolf

Tuesday, 12 July, 2016 0 Comments

“Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Wolves have survived in the wild, Terry Pratchett once remarked, because they learned that human meat has sharp edges. But not all humans are human. Some are far more lupine than the wolves and neither mother nor father are spared their sharp edges. Those sharp edges were to the fore in the excellent drug-cartel thriller Sicario.


Instant indignation impact

Monday, 11 July, 2016 0 Comments

This is an era of instant indignation impact. People now spend hours online each day searching for videos, photos and stories about “injustice” and then instantly share them with others. The result is increased indignation impact. Social media has changed the rules and the playing field has not just been levelled; it’s been paved over. The antiseptic output from traditional media outlets has been replaced by raw, unedited, personal input reports from the front lines that have an immediacy that intensifies their emotional impact. This makes them more effective at triggering outrage and makes us more vulnerable to emotional manipulation.

The paradox is that many people would like their police to be militarized when confronting terrorists, but unarmed when confronting protesters. But what happens when the peaceful protest in Dallas is joined by the armed warrior Micah X. Johnson? Wanting to have our cake and eat it has never made for good policy, however.

Baton Rouge


A bevy of mysterious, beautiful swans

Sunday, 10 July, 2016 0 Comments

A group of swans in flight becomes “a wedge,” but it’s called “a bevy” on the water. The genus Cygnus has its own terminology of the collective and the literature also offers “a colony of swans” and, best of all, “a whiteness of swans.” When W.B. Yeats observed The Wild Swans at Coole, he was taken by their transitory nature:

“But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away.”

Wild swans


With Wales and God in France

Saturday, 9 July, 2016 0 Comments

No, not for Euro 2016. The date was 29 September 2007 and the game was Wales vs Fiji in the Rugby World Cup. The venue was Stade de la Beaujoire, which is the home of the FC Nantes football club. Huw Griffiths provided the tickets, the sun shone and the Fijians won in style. Afterwards, we ate cuisses de grenouille (frog’s legs) and washed them down with lashings of the local Muscadet. Despite the volume consumed, a green apple bottling stood out with its bouquet and name: Michel Delhommeau Symbiose. Later, we found out that it’s made by Michel and Nathalie Delhommeau, a husband-and-wife team based in Monnières. The German maxim, “leben wie Gott in Frankreich” (to live like a god in France), summed up our weekend with Wales in Nantes.

2007 Rugby World Cup Nantes


Brexit: The Big Decision

Friday, 8 July, 2016 0 Comments

The poem Che fece… il gran rifiuto has appeared in publications with the title translated simply as “The Big Decision.” C. P. Cavafy took the heading from Dante’s Inferno and the original couplet refers to the decision of Pope Celestine V to abdicate the Papacy in 1294 and allow Dante’s enemy, Pope Boniface VIII, to gain power:

Vidi e conobbi l’ombra di colui
che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.

(I saw and I knew the soul of him,
who cowardly made the great refusal.)

A fortnight on from the historic Brexit referendum that resulted in an overall vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, that Big Decision has upended British politics and sent shockwaves around the globe. Deciding to declare “the great Yes or the great No” has consequences, whether in the 13th or the 21st century, says Cavafy.

Che fece… il gran rifiuto

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes from honour to honour, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say No. Yet that no — the right no —
drags him down all his life.

C. P. Cavafy (1863 — 1933)


Christian Schreiber: 1965 – 2016

Thursday, 7 July, 2016 0 Comments

The death on Monday morning of Dr Christian Schreiber was a tragedy with many facets. Tania lost a loving husband, Ella and Alma a caring father and his colleagues at the German Heart Centre in Munich a brilliant cardiac surgeon who was doing ground-breaking work in the fields of paediatric and congenital heart surgery.

But that’s not the end of this list of tragedies. Christian was the victim of a truly terrifying disease: ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This progressive neurodegenerative illness affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and those who are afflicted suffer unbearable physical and psychological pain. The suffering extends to family and friends, who are forced to witness its degradation of a person they love. All of this was amplified in Christian’s case because he was so young, so gifted, so multilingually charming and had so much to offer to those who needed his life-saving skills.

In the coming weeks, many personal and professional tributes will be paid to this wonderful man, but on the day when Germany play France in the semi-final of the Euro2016 tournament, it should be mentioned that football for Christian Schreiber was more than a game — each match was a morality play and the fans were his tribe. After completing an intricate operation in Kiev, or delivering a paper in London or attending a conference in Beijing, he would dash back to Munich to make the best use of his season ticket at the Allianz Arena, the stadium of his beloved FC Bayern. It was my good fortune to be his companion on some of these occasions and each one featured a non-stop assortment of scandalous stories, informed commentary, hilarious observations and a never-ending stream of questions that sprang from a curious mind insatiable for knowledge. One of the most memorable of these get-togethers was on Wednesday, 6 December 2006 when Bayern played a hard-fought 1-1 Champions League draw with Inter Milan. It was a bitterly cold night, but we were well insulated and had excellent seats near the half-way line. While the TV cameras followed the ball, we spent the evening watching the mighty defender Lúcio and the great striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic “get it on” in a terrific mixed martial arts battle. And all was well with our world.

For those who believe in such things, Christian will be looking down on tonight’s Germany-France game, enjoying every moment. For those who are broken-hearted by the loss, the memories of the moments are what we are left with now. The old Gaelic expression, Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann (“There shall not be his like again.”), sums up this unique, loving, loved, very much missed man. RIP

Christian Schreiber and his daughter Alma at the Allianz Arena, Munich

Dr Christian Schreiber and his daughter Alma at the Allianz Arena, Munich