Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I am, for the most part, comparatively peace-loving, one might say, even quite languid, in a gentlemanly sort of way. Over recent days, however, whatever patience I possess has been strained to the limits of its endurance and the decorous constraints imposed by an excellent public school education have been let slip like dogs of war, resulting in an almost homicidal rage.

A well-known telecoms company, seventy million subscribers worldwide, is the focus of my vengeful thoughts, muttered imprecations, cursing and gnashing of teeth and a wish for homicidal retribution even unto the third and fourth generation of each and any representative of the nest of vipers masquerading as a competent and upright organisation.

The story runs thus. In April or May, seduced by cheesy advertising, I bought into this company's fastest Internet dongle but from the outset, the device ran very slowly, was clearly overheating and after a few days failed altogether. Not unreasonable. These devices are assembled by sweatshop labour in some polluted,half-forgotten Chinese city and the probability of defect is high. I contacted them, who sent an engineer having poor English and halitosis who visited at home and attempted to reconfigure the device to look for a different receiver. The irony of the fact that this company is the largest telecoms service provider in the country and the device should function, albeit slowly, even in the middle of the desert seemed to have escaped him. Not unsurprisingly, he failed to make it work, I agreed (I had thought) with the young man that despite his undoubted skill and in the absence of his offer of a replacement (he was probably absent the day they taught Customer Relations) I would text him. He would cancel the contract on my behalf, since the fee for early closure was 14KD which I had no intention of paying since I had already paid up front for the first month's instalment. I heard nothing more from him or them, thus I assumed with trusting, spectacular naivete that the matter was closed.
I checked in early September on my return to Kuwait and discovered that the company had been billing me for the last four months  presumably via a defunct Internet dongle and the current amount outstanding was a little in excess of 84KD. 
Their complaints procedure is inflexible and invariant. On calling 107, I was told repeatedly that a Technical Services representative  would call me to resolve the matter. I made a total of ten calls, spoke to a variety of different helpful young men who promised me faithfully that my problem was their problem, soothingly told me 'don't worry', something would be done and someone from Technical Services would call. Do stay with me here. I waited, eager to speak with someone who could and would solve my problem. How many calls did I receive? None. Not a single call. Nada, as attested by the absence of missed calls on my phone. Finally, today, I received a text threatening to cut off my phone account unless I paid the outstanding amount. On the eleventh attempt, and after a number of return calls, I insisted on speaking to a call centre supervisor who contacted his opposite number in Technical Services in Head Office, Shuwaikh, suggesting I go to said Head Office and plead my case before this gentleman. With remarkable presence of mind, the Supervisor did tell me that even if I did track all the way uptown to the Airport Road, this new participant in the drama might actually not have the authority to resolve my problem. No doubt it has occurred to you, as it did to me, that there seemed little point in going at all. I am unable to justify time spent and indeed am strongly disinclined to make my way to Shuwaikh and track down this person who may indeed be unable to advance matters further. Additionally, the man I have been advised to speak to seems unavailable by phone - a call to Head Office sends one on yet another merry-go-round of 'pressing 1 for service'.
I have today paid  84KD. This is transparent, daylight robbery and I now intend seeking redress with as much vigour, wasta, desk-thumping and histrionics as I can. British gentlemen do not enrage easily but when injustice is so cavalierly administered, they become bloody, bold and as tenacious as a bulldog. If I do not receive satisfaction, I shall go to the Press and the consequent PR damage which this company will suffer as a result of nothing more than incompetence will cost them rather more than the money which effectively has been stolen from me.
I feel so much better now.
Postscript. Please ignore all of the foregoing. I met a man who knows a man who has simply and efficiently sorted everything less than twenty four hours after first contact. Now I really do feel much better. Isaac, my new friend and hero, thanks. A giant amongst pygmies.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Godot's Weight

I really haven't felt like blogging for a few days. No, that's not strictly true, I simply have nothing to say, no particularly favourable wind to set sail by, no firm opinion to hold, no ground upon which one can stand with confidence. It's as if I'm waiting, like Vladimir and Estragon, for something to happen or someone, but not Godot, to arrive. Plenty, I suppose, of weighty things to think about, whether Abbas' pre-emptive speech in Ramallah on Wednesday will turn the Arab world a notch or two on the wheel of fortune or whether the Israelis have a counterpunch which carries sufficient weight, given the alarmingly rapid deterioration in diplomatic cosiness between them and their southwestern neighbours over the hill. Whether the world will allow an entire country, the birthplace of democracy, to go bankrupt and grown men will be seen weeping on the steps of the Acropolis. 
Giving thanks at Eden Park
Whether the Fighting Irish could hold back the Australian behemoth at Eden Park today - against all odds they did - and in some style. Fair play to yis, lads. and no tempers lost. I wonder if the unexpected, the fortuitous, the serendipitous, Lady Luck, the Goddess of Fortune or whoever else cares to masquerade as an oracle of the unexpected will turn a favourable card this week. I do hope so. 
Social interaction, Tokyo
In the meantime, I await Haruki Murakami's epic novel 1Q84 which is 'poised to take the West by storm'. On his website one reads this lyric...'In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.' A Japanese Arthur Koestler, perhaps, a postmodern, post-Marxist voice for a forlorn, connected urban generation without direction.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

We all remember where we were and what we were doing the day Kennedy was shot, Diana died, and …9-11.

Ten years on, Al-Qaeda is no longer the force to be reckoned with that it once was, although the ideologies and motivations that spawned the malevolence continue to be taught in Waziristani madrassas and elsewhere. Yet,  its wayward sons, whose indiscipline in Cairo the other night came close to catastrophe – the guards in the Israeli Embassy  had been instructed to open fire if their lives were under threat – was averted at the last moment, with the symbolic loss of a flag.

Psalm 46 comes to mind.

At Ground Zero today, President Obama also read from Psalm 46, which seemed to be something of a curious choice since it not only emphasises the trustworthiness of God in face of adversity but also His retributive power..

Matthew Henry comments:

This psalm…encourages (us) to hope and trust in God; in his power and providence, and his gracious presence with his church in the worst of times. We may apply it to spiritual enemies, and the encouragement we have that, through Christ, we shall be conquerors over them.

Perhaps the speechwriters were sending a message.

Jonathan Aitken (convicted of perjury, incidentally, former Cabinet Minister and president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide) comments under the title ‘God in Catastrophe’ quoting John Stott.
‘The name of Martin Luther will always be associated with this psalm. His famous hymn "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" is a free paraphrase of it. He and his collaborator, Philipp Melanchthon would sing it together in times of dark discouragement. Thomas Carlyle has made it familiar to English readers by his translation "A Safe Stronghold our God is still". It is a sublime expression of quiet confidence in God's sovereignty amid the upheavals of nature and history.’
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.
Though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling, there’s a river whose streams shall make glad the City of God, the holy place of the Tabernacle of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her. She shall not be moved. God shall help her just at the break of dawn.
The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved. He uttered his voice. The earth melted.
The Lord of Hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come behold the works of the Lord who has made desolations in the Earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the Earth.
He breaks the bough and cuts the spear in two.
He burns the chariot in fire.
Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the Earth.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Ten years ago, Ariel Sharon declared a national day of mourning. Today, Shimon Peres phoned Obama, telling him:
"The Israeli nation has shared happy times with you, but has also shed tears with you a decade ago. Today Israel once again bows its head as America mourns the loss."
By contrast, many erupted in celebration as the Twin Towers burned. In Palestinian Authority held territory it was reported at the time that the safety of journalists reporting on the jubilant response in the streets 'could not be guaranteed'. H’m. 

Sunday, September 04, 2011


There's a certain poignancy about spending a final Sunday in Paris. Much as the day itself turned out, weather was changeable - storming hard with great dark droplets, then blue skies breaking up fluffy white cloud. I had promised myself a return visit to Theatre Bobino in Montparnasse to Hillsong Paris, not least because Brian and Bobbie Houston, senior pastors, were in attendance which is a bit like an Archdeacon's Visitation but much less formal.
Things were going well, the place was packed to the rafters - it seats 850 and they're going to need to find something bigger soon - and the worship songs, mostly French translations from the new Hillsong album were obviously well-known. English subtitles were up on the multimedia screen. Within ten minutes of Brian's opening, the smoke alarms went off and the entire placed plunged into silence and darkness, with the exception of emergency lights and instructions over a temporary PA from  the firemen in attendance - a legal requirement. They were using some dry ice earlier and I did wonder if the guy working the valve had been a bit over-enthusiastic with it. I watched with interest since the whole outfit is multimedia based, so lighting, computers, sound systems all collapsed and I wondered whether people would stick it out or leave while the organisers figured out what to do. We waited, chatted and sang a bit a capella. Brian has a fine Pentecostal pastor's voice, but didn't attempt to carry on with his message, just suggested that since there might be a few spare minutes, if you had come with your girlfriend, now might be a good time to propose to her. I sat next to a very nervous and rather proper-looking young French girl who looked as if she were probably a Catholic since she sat woodenly most of the time in contrast to most of the rest of the crowd who were letting it all hang out with a good deal of abandon. She told me that she'd been 'invited by a friend to come and have a look' but seemed as out of place as a Muslim at an Irish wake.
After almost half an hour, we were back online. I was impressed with the fact that preacher Brian didn't repeat everything he'd said originally - the word du jour seems to be that when a lot of people recognise and exercise their abilities rather than just a few buttressing the whole structure, the Church gets built - 1 Peter 4:10 being the main text. The meeting did go a bit formulaic after he'd wrapped up with general prayer for healing, prosperity, salvation and so on. I left during the last part of the meeting to find His Own Self standing in the foyer, so, being me, I stuck my hand out and we exchanged a few words. Which was nice.
Lunch in the Marais on a Sunday is always a buzz. The Jewish places are open and the gays hangouts are crowded - a satisfying interlude with good charcuterie and cheese without tourist prices.
Paris itself is surprisingly crowded everywhere on a Sunday, mostly with locals reclaiming their city - not a Japanese camera plus attached tourist in sight. We wandered down to Opéra to catch a movie. Melancholia was on the list. Lars Von Trier (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking Waves) is an interesting director and something of an acquired taste. This psychological disaster movie is apparently somewhat autobiographical since his childhood was plagued with fears of nuclear war.  Critics seem divided, so you might like to judge for yourself whether it's worth seeing. The movie starts and finishes with a planet crashing into the Earth so since we know how it's going to end it's what happens in between that's interesting. Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland, a raffish and exceedingly wrinkled John Hurt and beautifully waspish Charlotte Rampling provided some heavyweight personality. Dunst goes commando, if you like that sort of thing. The score from Tristan and Isolde was quite beautiful, in a regretful kind of way.
Finally quite a good dinner at Brasserie des Capucines, around the corner. Few tourists.Very bobo...

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Foodie? Moi?

Skipjack tuna tartare with salicornia ( Ile d'Oléron), August 2011
The longer I live in France, the fussier I get. No, that's not true. The more aware I become when people serve me rubbishy, careless food in restaurants. Having a perfectly cooked chicken, with exactly the right sauce - even with potatoes superbly crisped in duck fat - if the poor, impoverished fowl itself was reared in some kind of Dotheboys Hall of a slaughterhouse where, were it human, the Health and Safety people would put the owner out of business, you can't expect it to taste better than mouldy cardboard. Why in otherwise quite luxurious hotels do people serve breakfast bacon the colour of unhealed wounds, mushrooms swimming slimily in overheated brine and desiccated tomatoes with blackened skins which masquerade as 'grilled'? In many parts of the world, people don't ask how your hamburger should be cooked, they simply char it to blackness for 'health and safety reasons', which is petty, juvenile and suggests that the meat has not been minced and prepared on-site and the management can therefore take no responsibility for its bacterial content. Asking for good steak to be 'well done' is an insult to the animal who gave its life to feed you.
Which brings me to salads. Ungarnished salads are like turning up to dinner at the Archdeacon's stark naked. So, Caesar salad. A surprisingly easy recipe. This is how to do it properly.


1 large, free-range egg.
1 or 2  largcloves of garlic, peeled and crushed.
Juice from half a lime.
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce.
4-5 anchovy fillets, chopped (this is not optional and the anchovies must be salted, not marinated).
3 tbsp good quality olive oil, plus a little extra for frying.
 freshly ground black pepper.
25g/1oz parmesan cheese, coarsely grated, not the sawdust from the supermarket
1 cos (aka romaine) lettuce, washed, spun and torn into pieces.
2 thick slices of white bread, crusts removed, cubed.


Place the egg in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for 1 minute and then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking process.
Once the egg is cool enough to handle, crack the egg into a food processor and add the garlic, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies and oil. Process well and add pepper to taste.
Place the lettuce in a bowl.
Fry the bread cubes in a little olive oil until crispy, then drain well on kitchen paper.
To serve, pour the dressing over the leaves and add the croutons and parmesan. Toss well and serve at once.

And finally...
Adding pineapple to pizza and calling it 'Hawaiian' insults the intelligence and should be punishable by electrodes being attached to sensitive body parts.

Not that I'm fussy, or anything like that.  

Friday, September 02, 2011


When I was a child, my father was friends with a tall, energetic man called John Stott who died just over a month ago. He was educated at the same school as I was, where he was Head Boy. When I was there, I remember reading some of his work. A good deal has been written about him, almost all of it positive and affirming. He was not a stage preacher, a rabble-rouser but a quiet, scholarly and methodical preacher of the Gospel, author of over fifty books and was described as ‘making light shine on the words of Scripture’. Not a bad epitaph.

His death is a watershed moment in the history of modern evangelicalism. He represented a faith which was not neo-fundamentalism but a bold effort to engage and love a rapidly changing world. He wrote in “The Cross of Christ” : 

“Good Samaritans will always be needed to succour those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands.” 

He was the figurehead of  a renewal movement in Christianity which was genuinely  reformational in spirit, in that a major focus was sharing theology with the men and women in the pews in recognition that these people with jobs and families were the real priests on the frontline. In contrast with the pietism of past generations, this infusion of knowledge was intended to spur an outpouring of love; not only was the traditional evangelical emphasis on the "great commission" of disciple-making celebrated, so was the "greatest commandment" of loving your neighbour.

Neglecting denominational prejudice, the ‘evangelical wing’ of the church is a behemoth, a vast network. Millions of Chinese converts, South Korean missionaries, South American Pentecostals, Congolese immigrants to Dublin – the world is suddenly a village. Personally I have no time for neo-Calvinist claptrap which emphasizes predestination and which has often so easily been confused with “evangelicalism’ the sniggering of the Anglo-Catholics notwithstanding. Neither am I impressed with the Romans Road soterians who build an entire church culture around their view of salvation since this is nothing more than growth without depth.

These are troubling thoughts – since I ‘know’ how to share Christ, which is really tantamount to nothing more than giving testimony, but  discipleship is quite another matter, since those who are influenced by what we say are sometimes often rebranded versions of our own poorly thought out and frequently misinformed theology. Opinion most prevalent is that we are all too often left to ‘work out’ our own salvation with a good deal of bewilderment as well as fear and trembling but this isn’t discipleship and I’m comforted by the fact that this isn’t what the church is for. As for loving my neighbour, the more I think about it the less I really understand what it means. This is of course no bad thing. Wearisome as the phrase is, the Holy Spirit does not just comfort the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable.