Monday, May 28, 2012

Deliver Us From Evil

A friend posted an image the other day depicting dead Syrian children, massacred by who knows who for their own inscrutable reasons. Here's part of it.  Howls of protest. As gadflies do, by way of comment I posted a YouTube link to 'The Battle belongs to the Lord' - a rather cheesy battle hymn around the theme of Proverbs 21:31 which had the desired effect - one poster, by all accounts an Anglican priest, demanding angrily 'what has this got to do with it?' I've deleted additional exclamation marks. If we imagine for one moment that God is unconcerned in our affairs then the right response is 'nothing at all - the song is just a few overexcitable arm-wavers getting wound up and those of us who've grown up don't buy into such silly nonsense any more.' If, on the other, we suspend disbelief for a moment and just dare to speculate that the Evil One whom all right thinking people believe doesn't exist has raised his ugly rebellious head again and carnage and devastation result, then I can think of fewer places in the world where his Babylonian river of evil has surfaced so manifestly clearly. I'm not sure which outrages me more, the disregard for human life in Syria or the willingness of some in the Church to attribute such to nothing more than mankind's inevitable propensity for screwing it up.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Never Again

Every year I say it to myself - 'never again'. Marking external papers is a challenge to wit, ingenuity and the ability to crawl inside the head of the Chief Examiner - probably not a very wholesome environment if you get off on setting physics questions. In times past, postpersons in Transit vans delivered piles of scripts to the front door. You marked them , filled out large swathes of paper and sent them all back, laden with red ink. Not so nowadays - did I really use that word? How very twentieth century of me. This year, as last, the Internet has caught up with us and we - the physicists and mathematicians at least -  are using an online marking 'tool'. Scripts are scanned then "zoned". RSI notwithstanding, one clicks away and the answers obediently pop up and a single click awards the mark. It's new and feels over-engineered, so it falls over a lot, rather like an overfed woolly mammoth toppling into the undergrowth. When this happens, the last hour's work is flushed away in a welter of random bytes which the system euphemistically describes as 'refreshing data'. There then appears a pleasing cloudiness on the screen and a little rotating bezel, which, well, just carries on rotating until you hurl the machine off the balcony with weeping and gnashing of teeth. In addition, one script in ten is 'seeded'. This means that His Nibs, the Chief, Big Brother to us all has already marked this one and if one's modest efforts are not consonant with his own, the system is supposed to throw up a disapproving little message saying that one has been 'suspended', or confined to Room 101 until the errors are rectified, which so far has not happened. It's all a bit Orwellian - Winston Smith drowned his paltry sorrows with gin which of course is no substitute for the fresh red grapefruit juice which I rather prefer these days. 

Quis custodiet custodies, je me demande...

I think I've worn away enough dental enamel for one night.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Short Thought from Leviticus

"The sage, Rabbi Yisrael Kagan (1838-1933), known as the Chafetz Chaim, was once visited by a wealthy admirer. When the visitor entered the rabbi’s tiny home he got the shock of his life: The living room was furnished with nothing but an old table and rickety bench. The kitchen was tiny and primitive. There were no modern amenities at all. The man turned to the Chafetz Chaim and asked him: “How do you live like this? Where are all your possessions?”
The Chafetz Chaim asked him: “How did you get here?” “By coach” the visitor replied. The Chafetz Chaim went outside to look at the carriage that brought his visitor to him. After examining the carriage, the Chafetz Chaim commented to his guest: “I don’t see a dining room, kitchen, or even a bed inside of this thing!” “But Rabbi, I am just traveling through your town. Travellers don’t bring their beds and kitchens with them!”
The Chafetz Chaim answered: “I too am traveling…Traveling through this world to the World to Come. This lifetime is temporary - why should I amass amenities and possessions?”
This is the lesson of Sh'mitta - the Year of Rest: Every seventh year, no planting or harvesting is done. After seven times seven, there is a Year of Jubilee. Life is temporary, almost fragile. We are just passing through."
As I prepare to leave, it might be worth reminding myself that I have been here for six years. Over that time, I have acquired quite a number of 'things'

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shakey, shakey

All England was rather miffed when a gentleman on the football field last February refused to shake another gentleman’s hand because of various crisply expressed opinions off-field. The papers went on about it for weeks and first gent has since been left out of the England squad for the European Championships. Which brings me nicely to the subject of greeting. In France, men and women kiss. A lot. Not the old full-frontal tongue-wrestling, of course, but a three or fourfold collision of cheeks – depending how well you know each other. Once, in Paris (where else) a woman from the French Caribbean licked my face by way of greeting. Apart from the sexual frisson this engendered, I found myself more pleasantly surprised than not. But, back to ‘shakey, shakey’. Egyptians swing their hand like a mallet towards you, which you're expected to catch. In Anglican churches, there is the cringingly time-honoured tradition of ‘passing the peace’ where we move solemnly around and shake hands with everyone in some kind of medieval gesture of solidarity, tempered with British reserve, sometimes barking the imprecation ‘Peace!” at each other.
Now, while I most certainly do not condone the discrimination of anyone based on the politics of the football field or the colour of their socks, but I have to say that I’m all in favour of giving handshakes a miss. They may well be the unspoken greeting of gentry and look marvellous in photographs when accompanied  by big cheques, treaties and politicians, but they are really quite repugnant to my sensitive, hygienically-manicured soul.
Think back to the last handshake you were forced to engage in, I say “forced” because let’s face it, clasping hands with a stranger doesn’t come naturally, does it? Tell me, was it enjoyable? Did you want to carry on shaking that hand for the rest of the day? No, you did not. It was probably something you wanted done with as fast as possible and never speak of again. It was either bone-crushingly painful or suspiciously feeble, like being handed a dead turbot. At worst it was post-bathroom moist so you began to wonder if the shaker had washed after visiting the bathroom. If you’re not worrying about how best to strap up the broken fingers on your own hand without becoming openly tearful in the face of your overbearing assailant, you have to worry about the etiquette and hidden meaning of your own grip. Too firm and you come off as a ball-busting megalomaniac who uses orphans for target practice, too weak and everyone will know you cry yourself to sleep at night because you can’t open a jar of peanut butter that’s been sitting in the cupboard since 1984 and that your mother still sews name tags into your Calvins.
Then there’s the whole issue of going top or bottom. No-one ever wants to be top or bottom but sometimes you’re forced into it. Stop sniggering. There have been whole books written about whether you go top or bottom; top means you’re an aggressively overbearing testosterone-fuelled alpha double plus and bottom means you have the spinal fortitude of a jellyfish. Shaking hands can be a sociological minefield of judgement made worse by the twiddles and fumbles that the Masons append to the gesture.  Which brings me to the delicate matter of hygiene. Those who know me will be aware that I might be said to have a rather overdeveloped  sense of the pernickety, but, c’mon, now – be honest - those appendages at the end of your wrists are basically bottom wiping, bogey picking, armpit scratching, sweat mopping, bellybutton fiddling harbingers of grime. No matter how clean you think you are, the person who borrowed your pen for a moment may have just played solo pocket billiards and they almost certainly didn’t use anti-bacterial  gel afterwards. Epidemics have been started with less.
What I’m trying to say is that when you kindly offer me your hand in a gesture of mutual goodwill, what I actually see coming towards me is a slightly moist, used repository for at least seventeen kinds of contagion and the last thing I want to do is hold it while we get our formalities out the way.
Is there, I wonder, a suitable alternative to shaking hands besides face licking and canine bottom sniffing? What are we really trying to achieve with a handshake? We’re trying to ingratiate ourselves, get physically close to someone and show that we mean them no harm by putting them at their ease and show that we are on an even social and cultural playing field .  Perhaps we should learn to bow instead. Or, shake penises. Some do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Memory and Conflict

I sometimes want to write. Writing tries to make sense of the intractable, the Sisyphean stone of despair. People say that you have to write exactly what you know. I wish I could write about Jewish settlers in the West Bank, but I cannot. Their conflicts, mirroring wider confrontation, are in places I can only imagine, their thoughts, feelings and interactions with their neighbours is a closed book. Perhaps for me whatever flowed from my mind would pour forth as a dreary tangle of sadness and pretence, of narcissistic longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.

Which brings me to a discovery. Amoz Oz's deeply personal 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, thought to be the biggest-selling literary work in Israeli history, is an exploration of why his mother killed herself, and the effect on him, a sensitive, intelligent boy growing up in Jerusalem during the last years of the British mandate and the war of independence which laid the groundwork for what became known as the ‘Yawm al Nakhbah’, the ‘Day of Catastrophe’.  Oz reveals a huge talent for the big narrative picture, for character portraits worthy of Wilkie Collins and a fusion of history and personal life.

I wish I had something like this to write about - a memoir capturing the grand sweep of life and history - the longer we live the more the taglines of the past find shape and root in our lives and how as time goes on, the timeline clears like mist as we realise the debt of gratitude we owe to those who have sharpened and crystallised our own thinking. Perhaps it's not very correct to admit to being a nonconformist at heart. A nonconformism not based on rebellion which seeks to overthrow a status quo which is cramped and irksome, but a rebellion of the heart which recognises seeds sown decades ago which have formed themselves into thoughts and actions which now shape who we are. Memoirs stripped of politically correct platitudes which muddle thinking and allow dangerous compromise to displace whatever stability we might have had.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Bad Tempered Gauls

Twenty million French stayed home yesterday to watch a televised contest. In the Blue corner, Nicolas Sarkozy, 57, the current champion. Defeated once in a lesser skirmish, he came to the ring bad-temperedly thirsting for the blood of Francois Hollande in the Red corner, who bloodied his nose last time out. Not bad for a marshmallow.
Sarkozy hoped that his political boxing skills – he’s known to be a bit of a bruiser – would demolish his rival in the early stages. But, the wrestling skill of his opponent and the essential requirement of a cool head proved more than a match for the champ’s best shots.
It’s always worrying when the media use words like ‘vowing’ when discussing political promises. Nevertheless, Mr Sarkozy, it would appear, is ‘vowing to boost industrial competitiveness, hold referenda on contentious policies, crack down on tax exiles and make the unemployed retrain as a condition for receiving benefits’. No details are given as to how he hopes to achieve these elaborate goals, but, there you go. Politics is politics.

More recently, seeking to court the 6.4 million National Front voters, he has further vowed to cut immigration and threatened to pull out of Europe’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel unless the European Union’s external borders are strengthened. A transparently nutritionless sop to Cerberus, I think, not for a moment enough to satisfy the voracious appetites of the Far Right. His nemesis, the formidable le Pen woman, has still not placed her bets for the big event in a few days time, despite the legendary seduction techniques of Mr Big Nose.

Mr Hollande reminds me of John Major. Plodding, agricultural and inoffensive, he appeals to the ‘none of the above’ faction in France more than having anything constructive to offer as credible opposition policy. His slogans are bleating rather than thunderous. He seems less comfortable on the media whirligig than Sarkozy whose media wizardry is legendary, but, is Sarkozy, like melancholy Macbeth…

..a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
 — Macbeth (Act V, Scene V)

The clever money was probably right, a draw. The vox populi has yet to be heard, however and Sarkozy doesn’t have the persuasively unifying skills of Vercingetorix. Five to four on the grey gelding next week. And, no comments about the cartoon, please. Not before breakfast.