Thursday, 28 August 2008

Guardian balances nonsense on Georgia with good sense on Gaza

This morning I completed an online survey from The Guardian, in which I used the suggestion box to rail against the one-sided nature of its comment pages. Now I'm feeling a little shamefaced, having read today's paper and seen how they neatly balance some predictable tosh on Georgia from Seamus Milne with a well-argued piece by the Israeli ambassador on the recent hearing-aids-and-balloons showboat to Gaza.

We were in Italy when the Georgian crisis began and, despite intermittent access to newspapers and CNN, it was difficult to get the measure of what was going on. This analysis by Michael Walzer throws some helpful light on the situation, as does this piece by Christopher Hitchens. Both are useful antidotes to Milne's simplistic article, in which he concludes that - guess what? - it's all America's fault and that we should welcome the revival of Russian military power as a 'counterbalance' to US domination of the international scene. Milne seems to revel in the prospect of a renascent, autocratic Russia and is certainly sparing in his criticism of its recent actions, in contrast to his habitual virulent antipathy to the United States.

In his piece on the Gaza boat-trip, Ron Prosor takes the protestors to task for their silence on Hamas' contribution to the sufferings of the Palestinian population. I hadn't realised that, as well as the ridiculous, publicity-seeking Lauren Booth, the passengers also included Yvonne Ridley, filming the whole thing for (who else?) Iranian TV. The situation in Gaza is dire, for complicated reasons rarely addressed by grandstanding celebrity protestors, but how can you take seriously a demonstration that includes characters like these?

'This is a part of our religion'

A 44-year-old Salford man, Syed Mustafa Zaidi, has been convicted of child cruelty after forcing two teenage boys to beat themselves with a curved blade whip, as part of a Shia Muslim ritual. According to the BBC report:

The 14-year-old boy, who was 13 at the time, said Zaidi told them both: "Start doing it, start doing it." The child told the court: "We said 'we don't want to do it'."  He said he saw Zaidi flogging himself before washing blood from the whip and handing it to the 15-year-old boy. He said Zaidi was "pulling him and pushing him", telling him to "keep doing it" and telling people "this is a sad moment and look he's not doing it'. The boy said Zaidi continued to pressure the older teenager to whip himself. He said the 15-year-old boy "swung it once or twice and said 'I don't want to do it anymore'."

As a result of their participation in the ritual, the boys sustained 'multiple lacerations' to their backs, with 'several deeper cuts'.

Despite the horrific details of the case, I confess to feeling a twinge of sympathy for Mr. Zaidi, an otherwise law-abiding man who seems to have had no idea that he was doing anything illegal, and who claimed as his defence: 'This is a part of our religion'. After other recent cases in which the courts have concluded that religious belief trumps anti-discrimination legislation, not to mention common sense, why shouldn't he assume that it would also override the laws against child cruelty?

Superintendent Nadeem Butt of Greater Manchester Police is reported as saying that 'the sensitivities this case raises - both legal and cultural - are significant'. Rough translation: let's not do anything to upset the fundamentalists. Meanwhile Carol Jackson of the CPS has stated that the prosecution 'was not an attack on the practices or ceremonies of Shia Muslims'. But if those practices or ceremonies routinely involve lacerating the backs of minors - why not?

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Holiday reading round-up

Being a brief review of the books with which I've whiled away the hours this summer, on deckchairs and bar stools from St. Ives to San Quirico d'Orcia. 

I began with Charles Nicholl's The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which takes a lawsuit in which Shakespeare was a witness, and that includes the only record of his spoken words, and uses it to reconstruct details of the Bard's life (and those of his landlords, neighbours and associates) in London. The book has obvious attractions for anyone as fascinated as I am by the social history of London, but to begin with I found it slow-going and thought it added little to James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Earlier this year, I also read Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, which (even if you don't agree with its thesis about the playwright's secret Catholicism) throws fresh light on the plays' meanings by filling in much of the contemporary political and religious context. Nicholl's interpretations of the dramas seemed thin by comparison. However, the book grew on me, as I became caught up in the author's detective-like quest through the archives, its pleasures and frustrations reminiscent of those experienced by every amateur family historian.

On holiday a couple of years ago I saw a German man reading a book entitled Nachtzug nach Lissabon. This was shortly after my first visit to Lisbon, and during a period when I was reading everything about the city I could lay my hands on. I failed to find an English translation until recently: in the interim Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier has apparently become an international bestseller. The book is strongly reminiscent of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, with its quest to uncover the secrets of a distinguished family living through political upheaval (for Barcelona read Lisbon, for the Spanish Civil War read Salazar and the resistance to his quasi-fascist regime), but with an overlay of literary and philosophical introspection. Initially I found the quest absorbing, with its knowing references to Pessoa, Eca de Queiros et al, but after a while I grew weary of the extended quotations from the invented works of the fictional philosopher at the heart of the story. The book was just far too long.

For light relief after Mercier's tome, I whiled away a day or two on Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin, a kind of coda to his 'Tales from the City' series. It was light, frothy and mostly enjoyable, both updating and rounding off the stories of the characters from the original series. The best scenes were those in which proudly gay and newly 'married' Michael visits his straitlaced Floridian family, which demonstrated that Maupin has lost none of his flair for depicting the comedy of social embarrassment. But others things about the book I found irritating, such as its throwaway remarks about the Iraq war ('killing children for oil') and its assumption that the only people supporting the war on terror are right-wing fundamentalists. As in much infantile leftist reaction to 9/11, the characters who act as the author's mouthpiece evince much more anger over the inconvenience of new security measures than at the original crime, and the simplistic pieties of the Bush administration find a mirror-image in the narcissistic, black-and-white 'Left Coast' worldview of Maupin's characters.

Next up were a pair of books about World War Two. Firstly, War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, by Iris Origo, an Anglo-American who married an Italian count, restored the villa and gardens at La Foce, not far from where we were staying in Tuscany, and then found herself caught up in the German occupation and Allied liberation of Italy. The book is written in a simple, straightforward way, but is extremely moving and utterly compelling. The account of leading a party of refugee children across open country, dodging both German gunfire and Allied bombing, was like a much less sentimental version of the final scene in The Sound of Music.

Finally, I read Alan Furst's The Foreign Correspondent, a story of Italian emigres and resistance fighters in the late 1930s, which moves between Paris, Barcelona, Genoa, Prague and Berlin, and has Furst's usual compelling mixture of idealistic left-wing politics and rattling spy thriller. Not quite as satisfying as Night Soldiers, but still streets ahead of the competition. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Home again

On Sunday we arrived home after two weeks in the Val d'Orcia in Italy. It was the first time we'd been to Tuscany in about 20 years, and our first visit to this stunningly beautiful valley in the south of the region. The weather was mostly very hot, so a lot of our time was spent sitting around, reading, drinking, that kind of thing. But we did make a few trips out - a return visit to Siena, which was being readied for the Palio, and shorter drives to the hilltop towns of Montepulciano and Pienza (from the walls of which the above photo was taken). My love affair with Italy had cooled a little in recent years, but returning to Tuscany after a number of years visiting the harsher, less accommodating south of the country, has certainly renewed it.

Celebrity-spotting footnote: after last year's possible sighting of composer James Macmillan, this year we had a definite close encounter with someone even more in the public eye: the diminutive director of a certain national civil liberties organisation was staying at our hotel. 

Friday, 8 August 2008

Gone south

Things will be pretty quiet at this blog for the next couple of weeks, as we'll soon be heading off here:

A couple of links

A propos of too many posts at this blog to mention: here are a couple of fine contributions - from Shiraz Socialist and Max Dunbar (both recently added to my blogroll) - to the debate on religion, secularism and what Max calls the 'pro-faith left' (I know who he means, but there was a time when this might have been an honourable term, used of Christian socialists and liberation theologians, rather than today's pseudo-leftists kowtowing to fundamentalism).

Thursday, 7 August 2008

On religion, intimacy and the bluster of religious bloggers

Andrew Sullivan wrote a lovely post the other day about the intimate friendship between John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John (topical now that the former is being considered for canonisation). He quotes Newman's words on his friend's death: 'I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's of wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one sorrow's greater, than mine'. Andrew adds: 'Newman and St. John lived together, loved one another and even left express wishes that they be buried together'. He's careful not to assume that this is evidence of a homosexual relationship, rather than a deep platonic intimacy, but he's surely right that there was a decided element of high camp in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. 

I think Andrew is also right to conclude that 'Newman, like the current Pontiff, was an effeminate, delicate intellectual who had almost no real interaction with women at all and bonded mainly with younger men'. Nothing controversial or condemnatory, in that, you might think. Unless you're Catholic blogger Mark Shea, who responds by claiming that everything Sullivan writes about homosexuality is 'tainted with obsession' and adds: 'It's not the first time he has told absolute lies about the pole star of his journalism. On this matter, I would not trust him as far as I could throw him'. Sounds like Mr. Shea is a tad obsessive himself, not to mention blusteringly defensive when anyone dares, however tentatively, to 'taint' any of his revered religious figures with the slightest hint of gayness.

How did Andrew react to this slur on his journalistic integrity - with a stinging counter-attack of his own, perhaps? No, by recommending (as he has often done) a recent post by Shea and praising him for his 'integrity'. Andrew clearly regards Shea as a moderate voice in the often dogmatic shouting-match of religious blogging - and believe me, as one who has searched in vain for thoughtful, open-minded religious blogs, there aren't many of them out there. But moderation among religious bloggers obviously has limits, and in this exchange it's clear to me that it is the maligned, 'obsessive' Sullivan who embodies the more truly Christian spirit.

Speaking of hidden homosexuality among churchmen: I loved that quote, attributed to a participant at last month's Lambeth conference, about secretly gay clergy who are 'so far in the closet, they're in Narnia'. Somehow the popularity of C.S.Lewis' fantasy cycle among Christians adds piquancy to the joke.

From Studio 60 to Shakespeare in one post

Of relevance to this, this and also this: check out this excellent review by Andrew of the now sadly defunct Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Meanwhile, what's a conoisseur of US TV imports to do over the summer, now that Brothers and Sisters, Mad Men, and even the gloriously hyper-real Dirty Sexy Money have finished? We've been reduced to working our way through DVD boxed sets of Ally McBeal, which somehow passed us by first time around. Watching five series in quick succession, at a rate of about an episode per night, is strange: Christmas seems to come round every few days.

I also enjoyed Andrew's enthusiastic post on David Tennant's Hamlet. We haven't been to Stratford for ages, but Andrew's review has made me keen to see the play when it transfers to London later in the year.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The right to offend, secular space and onesided book lists: some links

Butterflies and Wheels links to some excellent articles which may be of interest to regular readers of this blog. A propos of this post (and many others on the right to offend religious sensibilities), read these two worrying pieces about the campaign by some Islamic regimes to have 'defamation of religion' outlawed by the UN. 

And following on from this post, about the threat to Southall Black Sisters and similar organisations from local authorities implementing the government's 'community cohesion' policy, here's Pragna Patel on what the case tells us about the need to defend secular spaces from patriarchal fundamentalism.

Finally, with reference to these posts on the Guardian-like tendency of the London Review of Books to alternate between thoughtful political coverage and obsessive anti-American, anti-Israeli polemic, read Rosie Bell on those Verso ads that regularly fill the LRB's back page. Bell reproduces a typical recent list, stuffed full of titles about the Middle East and international affairs by the likes of Tariq Ali and Norman Finkelstein, blaming the woes of the world on Zionism and American 'imperialism' - but, strangely, silent about the role of Islam or Islamism.

Bell comments:

Given that over the past year all but two issues of The London Review of Books carried an article about Israel, Verso is no doubt correct in estimating that this is what the LRB readers want - a little about the USA, a lot of Zionism/Israel and nothing overtly critical of Islam or Islamism. The LRB has had few articles on the subject and has not covered Defending the West by Ibn Warraq (a critical examination of Said's Orientalism) or in fact anything at all by Warraq, if my search of their site is correct.

For the LRB an article about the USA almost every issue - yes, fair enough. But Israel? And Verso - a little USA, a lot of Israel. It does seem a little obsessive and one-sided.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Reflections on Cornwall and conceptual art

We spent last week in St. Ives, Cornwall. It was a mostly wet week, bookended by a few glorious days of sunshine, which we spent on Porthminster Beach - still, for my money, one of the best in Britain. It certainly enjoys some of the best views - the Mediterranean-looking white cottages tumbling down to the harbour in one direction, Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired Virginia Woolf) in the other. And the restaurant continues to justify its place in the list of top beach cafes: the food is excellent, the ambience perfect, the waitresses charming (the same things are also true of its sister cafe round the bay at Porthgwidden beach). And we were a safe distance along the coast from David Cameron's Boden catalogue photo op at Padstow.

On the wet days, we joined the kagool-clad crowds thronging the pasty and fudge shops in the narrow lanes of St. Ives. We also paid our annual visit to Tate St. Ives, as well as driving over to Newlyn to take a look at their revamped gallery. The Tate had a small exhibition devoted to modernism in St. Ives, showing a selection of works by the 20th century big names, but the main draw was its retrospective on 'the dawn of a colony', which included paintings by the first (Victorian) generation of artists to base themselves in the town. This was fascinating, revealing that the St. Ives discovered by these early visitors was a dirty, smelly, fishing and mining town: it could be argued that the apparently 'natural' beauty of the place was actually a creation of the tourist industry, which began with the arrival of the railway, and to a lesser extent the burgeoning colony of artists.

Both the Tate and the Newlyn Gallery also featured big (in the sense of taking up a lot of space) exhibitions by 'conceptual' artists: Adam Chodzko at the former and Bedwyr Williams at the latter. I'm afraid neither did much for me. I found Williams' humorous installations too idiosyncratically autobiographical (one piece, featuring pool tables and a model railway, was presented as revenge for a teenage humiliation), while both exhibitions seemed to require the viewer to read the explanatory notes in order to grasp the 'point'. Another of Williams' pieces consisted of a multilayered shoe rack, complete with a selection of the huge shoes that he has managed to find to fit his outsized feet: the labels on each told their 'story'. Interestingly, I notice that Chodzko created something similar for an earlier exhibition.

I know that I'm revealing my sorry lack of understanding of contemporary art here, and that the expressionist paintings that I like were also considered strange and unappealing in their time. I'm aware too, that I'd be sniffy about someone expressing this kind of 'I know what I like' attitude in a field that I know something about - e.g. literature. But to me there really does seem to be a huge aesthetic shift in moving from a modernism which, however odd at first, was still in the long tradition of art appealing directly to the viewer's sensibility, and a conceptualist post-modernism which invites you to take in the work, then step back and read the accompanying notes in order to 'get it'.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Secularism the only alternative to more religious grievance cases

Back from a week away, I find I missed the business about the Sikh schoolgirl and her bangle, which has some similarities with these cases. I see Shuggy and Norm have been having a bit of a to-do about the issues raised. For me, Nick Cohen's piece in yesterday's Observer offered the best take on the affair. Like Cohen, my initial reaction was that the court case could easily have been avoided:

It was a trivial case, which made you wonder about the dogmatism of both sides and the quality of the lawyers. The school could have given way - the bracelet was little more than a slim band. Watkins-Singh's parents could have accepted that they had a duty to uphold the authority of the teachers.

But I also agree with him that the judge's ruling in this case, as in the recent case of the anti-gay Christian registrar, established the worrying precedent that religious belief offers a unique get-out clause from laws that should apply equally to all. The judge in this case should have ruled that all girls at the school had a right to wear bracelets, not just Sikh girls. And referring to the registry office case, Cohen observes: 'The court offers no protection to workers who have no religious reasons for their homophobia.'

As I noted in relation to the registrar's case, and the story about the headscarf-wearing would-be hairdresser, employers are under no obligation to placate, nor the state to compensate, believers who deliberately choose jobs that conflict with their beliefs. As Cohen says:

If Ms Ladele thought homosexuality sinful, she should not have wanted to work for an institution that organised 'gay weddings'. The same objections applied to the Muslim checkout staff at Sainsbury's who refused to scan alcohol. If the sale of alcohol was as offensive to their religious principles as they claimed, they would no more want to work for a company that sold wine than a pacifist would want to join the SAS.

And Cohen concludes that this rash of religious grievance cases provides a powerful argument for a secular society:

The way out of the mess is for the state to commit itself to secularism; to offer full religious freedom, while striving to keep religion out of the public sphere. Leaving all considerations of principle aside, secularism is the only ideology that can make a multifaith society work. The alternative is a future of competitive religious grievance and unremitting vexatious litigation.