Sunday 27 June 2010

A momentary distraction

I've finally given into the pressure from Blogger and opted for one of their new designs. Looks quite nice, doesn't it?

Anyway, it was quite a pleasant distraction from the agony at Bloemfontein.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Thursday 24 June 2010

Madness in their Methodism

Linking to my recent Engage post, Bob describes me as 'taking on the Catholics'. Well, in the interests of ecumenical fairness, it's my turn to provide a link - to a post by Joseph Weissman over at Seismic Shock, in which he scrutinises the anti-Zionist and pro-boycott tendencies of certain Methodists.

It seems that Dr. Stephen Leah, a Methodist minister and a member of its Israel Palestine Working Group, is also chair of the York PSC and an advocate of complete divestment from Israel, not just of the West Bank. Leah's group recently got itself into hot water by suggesting that Zionism might be incompatible with Methodist beliefs.

It gives me no pleasure to draw attention to this example of political naivety on the part of Methodists. I was brought up a Methodist and there's an unbroken history of involvement in the church on my dad's side of the family, going back to at least the 1840s. Methodism was a key influence on my political formation, as it has been for many others: my East End grandfather, for example, combined his lifelong Methodism with trade union activism and support for Labour.

But it seems modern Methodists are as prone as other Christians (see Seismic Shock, passim) to a dangerous gullibility when it comes to Middle East politics. Their sympathy for the plight of Palestinians may arise from spontaneous Christian compassion, but that same religious outlook tends to divide the world simplistically into villains and victims. Somehow, they are unable to grasp that Israelis under constant threat from neighbours who don't recognise their right to exist might also be victims. And they fail to see that among the apparently passive 'victims' of Gaza, and manipulating their plight and the sympathies of westerners, might be forces whose ideology is deeply hostile to the tolerance and compassion in which Methodists claim to believe.

This analysis, of course, gives these Methodist activists the benefit of the doubt. I'm trying to avoid the conclusion that behind this recent upsurge in Christian anti-Zionism lurks something more sinister - the whiff of anti-Jewish prejudice that has dogged the church (though, to be fair, not usually Methodists) for centuries.

Sunday 20 June 2010

The archbishop, the activists and the all-female flotilla

I have a guest post over at Engage.

Literary comings and goings

Mixed feelings on hearing of the death of Jose Saramago. On the one hand, he wrote one of my all-time favourite novels, was my point-of-entry to modern Portuguese literature, especially the work of Fernando Pessoa, and was responsible for initiating my love of Lisbon. I shall probably pack one of his novels when we go to Sintra this summer.

On the other hand, Saramago was a Stalinist hack who made stupid and hateful comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. Yesterday’s obituary in the Guardian only glanced at these matters, noting that Saramago worked for various newspapers after the death of Salazar and that ‘political wranglings’ and the writer’s ‘uncompromised and uncompromising communism’ were partly responsible for his being fired in 1975. In fact, Saramago was deputy director of Diário de Noticias, which had been a fascist organ but was nationalised and became communist-dominated after the revolution. The obituary fails to mention his ruthless attitude to those who failed to follow the party line. In a previous post, I quoted the view of Jorge de Azevedo:

For Saramago, black is black; there were no different viewpoints, no debate. He was hard on people working at the newspaper who were not party members; he made life extremely difficult for them. Because of this, he has a tough image that remains.

There is only the briefest reference in the obituary to Saramago's fervent hatred of Israel. A summary of the contents of his late publication The Notebook describes it as ‘a series of blogs, more often in fact essays, articles and a few rants – against Israel, fundamentalism, George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi – covering the year from September 2008 to August 2009.' But 'rant’ is an inadequate word to describe the author’s comparison of a Palestinian city blockaded by the Israeli army to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He also described Israeli soldiers as ‘experts in cruelty with doctorates in disdain, who look down on the world from the heights of the insolence which is the basis of their education.’ He continued, in words that betrayed an antisemitic as well as anti-Zionist cast of mind: ‘ We can better understand their biblical god when we know his followers. Jehovah or Yaweh or whatever he is called, is a fierce and spiteful god, whom the Israelis always live up to.’

In other literary news: I can be less equivocal in welcoming the appointment of Geoffrey Hill as the new Oxford professor of poetry. Without wishing to sound elitist, when I heard the news I thought: at least they've given the job to a proper poet. When I was a student, it felt as though Hill's Mercian Hymns had been written to appeal to all of my youthful enthusiasms: the history of early England, modernism, sacramental Christianity. And to someone whose socialism had been sparked by reading Ruskin, the twenty-fifth section of the sequence had a particular resonance:

Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in

memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent

in the nailer's darg.

The nailshop stood back of the cottage, by the fold. It reeked stale

mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its low roof. In dawn-light the

troughed water floated a damson-bloom of dust ---

not to be shaken by posthumous clamour. It is one thing to celebrate the

'quick forge', another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.

Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in

memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent

in the nailer's darg.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Who was that masked man?

So farewell then, Brigada Flores Magon, whose blog 'On a raised beach' has come to a sudden end. As I wrote on a similar occasion:
The disappearance of a blog, especially an anonymous or pseudonymous one, is rather like that final, unbelievably poignant scene in Philip Pullman's 'Dark Materials' trilogy. The portal between the two parallel worlds has to be sealed, never to be re-opened, and Will and Lyra realise that there is absolutely no way they can ever contact each other again.
A little melodramatic, perhaps, but there you go. It's particularly poignant when the blog is as good as this one was, and when you feel some affinity with the blogger concerned. Of course, I have no idea of Brigada's true identity, but I picked up some biographical hints that we might have in common: a Leavisite literary education, possibly at one of our older universities, and an early absorption in matters theological followed by a falling-out with religion and a turning to left-wing politics.

A couple of years ago, another anonymous blog with some similar characteristics - Freens' Scottish Wholesale Cooperative Republic - also disappeared without warning. I've often wondered: were Freens and Brigada actually the same person? We shall probably never know.

Anyway, if you're still out there, BFM, you should know that you'll be missed, and I hope that one day you'll consider making a comeback to the blogosphere, perhaps in some new pseudonymous guise.

While I'm here: I should apologise for neglecting this blog of late. Blame that damn Twitter. I shall endeavour to do better in the near future. Watch this space - and also Engage, where I'm hoping to submit a post soon on the latest twist in the flotilla saga.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Alternative footie anthem

This seems timely (via Stephen Fry). Doesn't seem fair, though, that gay men are 'allowed' not to like football, whereas the rest of us have to pretend we do, if we don't, especially over the next four weeks...

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Once upon a time in Afghanistan

Where do you think this photograph was taken: somewhere in Europe or America, perhaps, circa 1960? In fact it's a picture of a record store in Kabul, Afghanistan, at around that time. It's one of a remarkable series of images from a photobook of the country published by Afghanistan's planning ministry in the late '50s or early '60s, and bought in a market by an Afghani schoolboy, Mohammad Qayoumi, who emigrated to the States and is now president of California State University, East Bay.

Other photos (which you can see here) show mixed-sex groups of students and workers, in modern dress, at universities, factories, parks and cinemas. In case we're tempted to think this was some kind of sub-Soviet propaganda exercise, it's worth remembering that the pictures date from before the Russian invasion, which initiated the process of dismembering modern Afghanistan that continued during the civil war and Taliban takeover. Qayoumi uses the photographs to counter the myth, recently reinforced by Liam Fox with his 'broken 13th century country' jibe, that Afghanistan has always been 'an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills'. Qayoumi begis to differ:
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. [...] A half-century ago Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
Qayoumi admits that the images were 'perhaps a little airbrushed by government officials', but they serve as a reminder that, even in a country ravaged by decades of conflict like Afghanistan, 'disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable.' Some of the photos, and Qayoumi's comments on them which point up the contrast with the current situation, are incredibly poignant: 'Remembering Afghanistan's hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic'.

There is an overpowering sense of generations of lost opportunity, of lives constrained. The images are a reminder, too, of the sheer barbarism of the fundamentalist ideology that laid waste to much of this burgeoning modernity, and the stupidity of a cultural relativism, present as much in pseudo-leftist posturing as in Fox's post-imperial condescension, which assumes that secular modernity is a 'western' phenonomen whose benefits are not relevant to the lives of people in other 'cultures'.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Van Morrison: mastery and misanthropy

Added to my Amazon wish list: Greil Marcus' new book, Listening to Van Morrison. In yesterday's Guardian, Marcus described his experience of touring cities in America, reading from the book:
Usually, when a writer shows up at a bookstore and reads from or talks about a book he or she has written, people ask questions: how do you write? Where do you get your ideas? What made you write this book? But not this time. This time, in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, people weren't necessarily interested in my stories about Morrison. They wanted to tell their own stories.
According to Marcus, many of those stories revolved around a 'fundamental contradiction: that they could be so moved by, so caught up in, something made by someone who seemed to want nothing to do with them'. One example will serve to illustrate the paradox of Van the Man's ability to move audiences - and his notorious misanthropy:
'We went to a show,' a man said in Portland, 'and it was magnificent. It seemed like there was nothing. He was finding songs inside the songs, songs we'd never heard, it was like they were songs he never head. When it was over, we went next door to a bar, a lot of people who'd been to the show were there, and of course that's all we were talking about. How great it was, and did you notice this and did you hear that - and then Van Morrison walked in. He came in, walked to the bar, everyone stood up and applauded, and he just sat down at the bar. Finally I got up the nerve. I went over to him, and I said: "Mr Morrison, your music has meant so much to me. Sometimes it pulled me through, when I didn't think anything would. I couldn't live without it." He waited for me to finish, and he looked at me, and he said: "Why do people feel they have to tell me these things?"
On the other hand, Marcus recounts this gem of a story:
'I was talking to my father today,' a woman in Portland said. 'He asked what I was doing tonight, and I told him I was going to hear someone talk about a book he'd written on Van Morrison. "Oh, Van Morrison!" he said. "You know, I used to work with his father on the docks in Belfast. After work he'd take me to his house to listen to his records. I'd never seen anything like it. Hundred and hundreds of 78s and LPs, jazz, blues, country music, everything. And there'd be the little boy there, dancing around the room, saying play that, Daddy! Play that!'
I came to Van Morrison quite late. I was already in my mid-20s, and living in Manchester, when an older friend introduced me to his music. I'd soon bought all the early albums, and they became part of the soundtrack of my life as I left university, started my first job, got married. H. and the children have never quite shared my enthusiasm for Van, though putting 'Moondance' or 'Caravan' on in the car will usually meet with general approval. For me, it's Astral Weeks that still has a special place in my affections, recalling particular times and places, and I never tire of it.

Here's the title track, perfect for waking up to on this summer Sunday morning:

Thursday 3 June 2010

'The activists were aiming for a fight'

Michael Sean Winters' article on the flotilla fiasco is so good, I've decided to reproduce it in full. After 2000 years of Catholic antisemitism, and the recent upsurge in leftist anti-Zionism, it's good to read a progressive Catholic commentator telling it like it is:

The world has rushed to condemn Israel for the deaths of nine so-called pro-Palestinian activists who were killed trying to deliver supplies to Gaza. Israeli forces, which have been enforcing a blockade of Gaza since 2007, seized the vessels and, when met with armed resistance, a firestorm broke out. An investigation will determine what precisely happened to ignite the shooting. But, no investigation is needed to know that anyone who is genuinely concerned about the future of the Palestinian people will recognize that the single most important step towards peace and justice for them is for Hamas to be removed from power in Gaza. A true pro-Palestinian activist would do nothing to aid and abet that criminal regime.

One thing is clear. The pro-Palestinian activists were aiming for a fight. If their goal had been simply to supply the humanitarian needs of the people who live in Gaza, they could have delivered their aid to any one of a number of humanitarian organizations that legally supply Gaza. 15,000 tons of such supplies are delivered by Israel every week. But, the vessels involved in yesterday’s flotilla were carrying building supplies that are banned by the blockade.

Imagine for a moment if the U.S. government knew that a group of sympathizers with Al-Qaeda were delivering supplies to an Al-Qaeda stronghold in Afghanistan. Any commander who permitted the supplies through would be court-martialed. We would rightly consider the sympathizers less sympathetically because they were aiding terrorists. Make no mistake about it, the difference between the Hamas thugs who rule in Gaza and the Al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan is a difference of degree not of kind. This is recognized by no one so much as by the moderate Arab states which, I am sure, are secretly applauding Israel today even while they publicly denounce her. They have more to lose in the struggle with Islamic extremists than anyone.

Evidently, some 120 of the activists on board the flotilla are currently being held in an Israeli jail. Before reaching the conclusion that Israel acted unjustly, ask yourself a quick question. If you were a human rights activist, would you rather be in an Israeli prison or a Hamas one? Or an Egyptian prison? Or a Turkish prison? It may turn out that Israel acted stupidly, or that its military forces acted rashly, but no one should deny that in their struggle against Hamas, their cause is the cause of justice and human rights.

Murder and masculinity

What can on earth can one say about the awful mass shooting in Cumbria yesterday? I only hope that in all the legitimate discussion of tighter gun laws, the possible influence of violent videos, etc, some attention is paid to the question of masculinity.

Whatever the 'explanation' for these apparently pointless murders turns out to be - whether its origins lay in a family property dispute, a row with fellow cab drivers over status, or taunts about being a 'mummy's boy' (depending on which tabloid you believe) - there's surely something to be said here about male anger, and the easily wounded pride inherent in certain kinds of masculine identity.

As I listened to neighbours and friends describing Bird as a decent, ordinary type, I was reminded not of Dunblane or Hungerford - this wasn't a psychopath or someone already known to the authorities - but of those news stories about men who suddenly and unaccountably flip from being doting fathers to murdering their children. As in the case of Bird (who began his deadly spree by killing his twin brother), their intense male narcissism can't conceive of anyone surviving and thriving without them. If they have to go down, then they're going to take everyone else - including their 'loved ones', whom they actually only love as reflections of themselves - with them.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but despite the currently unfashionable nature of this kind of gender analysis, we need to keep asking the questions...


Wednesday 2 June 2010

More flotilla reflections

Here are a few more flotilla-related reflections - all of them broadly sympathetic to Israel, but by no means uncritically so. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, it seemed important to link to pro-Israeli voices, since these were getting silenced by the general clamour of online outrage. (Part of the massive PR disaster of this event for Israel was the result of a strange delay in providing a convincing official explanation for what happened.) Now that the dust has settled, more critical evaluations can emerge. One of the things that shocked and saddened me most over the past day has been the lack of willingness - among governments, media outlets, 'progressive' commentators - to give credence to pro-Israeli positions, and a preparedness among many of the same people to take the supposedly 'humanitarian' and 'peace-loving' nature of the flotilla at face value.

Update: more recommendations

Chas on the flotilla incident as Israel's history in microcosm

The New Centrist on the real purpose behind the 'peace' flotilla