Wednesday 29 April 2009


Margaret Forster's short novel Over, is our reading group's book for May. It is in some ways a cautionary tale about what can happen if you don't get over a traumatic loss. In this case the Roscoe family have to come to terms with the death in a sailing accident of their daughter, Miranda. And fail. At least the parents fail with disastrous consequences. For the siblings, Miranda's twin sister Molly and younger brother Finn, seem to manage the healing better. I say seem to, as the novel gives us a very personal account of what happens – the thoughts of Louise, the mother, as recorded in a journal she has started some two years or so after the accident.

This journal is Louise's attempt to understand what has happened and as might be expected is both very intense and very constrained. There is no attempt to present us with a rounded account of how the accident affected all the characters. This is Louise, warts and all, trying to understand what has happened to her.

By the time she starts this journal Louise has left her husband, the family house has been sold and she now lives on her own in a small apartment. The journal covers a period of about a year and in it Louise mixes accounts of her current life as a teacher with reflections and reminiscences about her past. Louise has left her husband, Don, ostensibly because he had become too obsessed with finding out the truth about Miranda's death. Unwilling or unable to accept that it was an accident he spends evermore time and money on a fruitless quest to find out what really happened and who was at fault or to blame. The other members of the family find this strain too much and the family eventually splits up. Molly goes to Africa on a gap year, Finn goes to live with his aunt and Louise sets up on her own.

From the above it appears that Louise has coped better than Don and that she is indeed the put upon one. However we only hear about the events that Louise chooses to put in her journal and we only hear her side of what happens. In particular Don's actions and mindset is never revealed other than through Louise's lens. And as the year progresses it becomes clearer that Louise has not by any means got over the death of her daughter. She manages to fall out with or become more and more detached from all the people who were formerly close to her. Not only Don, but Finn and Molly and her three best friends from earlier days.

All this emerges gradually though Louise herself admits at one point that she “had not got over it any more than his father had. I simply hide my feelings better.” She goes on to add, “Don and I are not in a competition to see who suffers most, who cares most, who is scarred most but, nevertheless, I don't want to be outranked.” This mixture of frankness and egoism is what characterises Louise's confidences to her journal. It is what makes you feel that this is a pretty realistic and truthful account of what can happen.

Though there is no happy ending, there is a sort of catharsis towards the end when the surviving members of the family finally get together again. So that despite all the pain and suffering the novel ends with a message of hope. Louise decides to put away her journal and by implication the past and live more in the present. As she puts it, “I don't want people to say of me that my life was blighted by Miranda's death. I don't want my life to be defined by it. I have recovered a little, I will recover more.”

Saturday 25 April 2009

The Budget - or how not to solve a crisis

That was really exciting wasn't it? Even by the (very low) standards of previous budgets this one was pretty pathetic. Faced with an unprecedented global crisis all we get is a bit of tinkering here and there and an enormous amount of borrowing. The borrowing is actually OK. It makes no sense to cut back on public spending during a recession, especially one as serious as this one. What is most depressing about the budget is the complete lack of thinking and questioning that has gone into the budget.

It was very revealing that all three of our major UK parties are essentially singing from the same hymn sheet. One after another they parrot the same line – we cannot afford to pay for public services or pensions and there just has to be significant cut backs in provision. The only real difference is in degree. Labour says not just now, but the cuts will come in a couple of years, while the Tories say we need to cut back now! The Lib Dems as usual are somewhere in the middle.

Now who exactly is this We that can't afford to pay for decent public services? Why the good old United Kingdom. And is this very same United Kingdom not the sixth largest economy in the world and about the 16th richest country in the world? So, just to get this right, we are asked to believe that the 16th richest country in the world can't afford to pay for good public services and can't afford to pay for decent public pensions? Not only can the 16th richest country in the world apparently not afford this so-called extravagance, in fact we need to cut back on services and on the paltry pensions most of us currently get.

It is very interesting to note that the people who are saying this – the politicians in charge of our main UK parties, the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the leader writers of the right wing press etc, are all themselves pretty generously paid, to put it mildly. And they represent and speak for the well paid. Who in all of this is speaking out on behalf of the low paid, the poor and the majority of middle income families? Certainly not the Labour Party or New Labour as now is. Something would seem to be wrong with our democracy when none of the main UK parties is able to articulate an alternative vision of how to get out of this mess without punishing the less well off.

Without getting into to too many details here are two alternatives to the current prognosis. The first is to have a fairer and more equitable taxation system. Over the last three decades income and wealth inequality has risen dramatically in the UK, while at the same time the tax burden on the better off has declined. Labour's proposal to introduce a 50% rate for those earning over £150,000 per year is a welcome step, but is more about appeasing those residual Old Labourites still in the party, than a serious attempt to rebalance the tax system. Much more needs to be done.

From the perspective of reducing public spending, one major way to do so would be to revisit the Defence budget. Something that seems to be off limits for all three main parties for some reason. The very name itself – Defence - is absurd, when you consider how little defending we do and how much attacking, invading and occupying the UK does. And in addition to the vast sums currently spent, the government wants to spend even more on upgrading Trident and building two new aircraft carriers, at a cost of £25 billions or more. None of which have been or could have been of any use in Iraq or Afghanistan. If we as a country decided to just have a Defence force – based on fisheries protection and coastal security – we wouldn't need even a half of our current Armed Forces, let alone nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. This proposal would also I contend make the country safer. Invading and occupying Muslim countries is not an obvious way to reduce hostility to the UK. Nor for that matter is our carte blanche support for Israel's continuing occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

I would suggest that a combination of a fairer taxation system and scrapping our Armed Forces in favour of a realistic Defence Force would allow the UK to get through this crisis without the need for cuts in socially useful public spending. Why is it then that both these options are apparently off limits for our political leadership? Why is there no real debate in Parliament and in the mainstream media? We seem to have descended into a situation in which all our political elites, irrespective of party, are in such close cahoots with the main business and financial elites that alternative options are hardly ever raised. There seems to be something rotten in the state of our United Kingdom.

Monday 20 April 2009

Seven Jewish Children

This is a very short - ten minutes only - play by Caryl Churchill. Subtitled a play for Gaza, Seven Jewish Children was written in January 2009 in response to the Israeli aggression against Palestinians in Gaza. First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 6 February 2009, it has subsequently been performed at many other venues across the world.

Though children feature in the title, there are no children in the play itself. Rather the play is about the responses of adults – parents and other relatives – to the question of what to tell or what not to tell a child. There are seven scenes, each one set in a different period of recent Jewish history. Though the play does not give any specific details of where or when each scene is set, this can be inferred from the dialogue. The first scene is set somewhere in Nazi occupied Europe, and the child is in hiding. The second seems to be set just after the end of the Second World War and features survivors of the Holocaust. In the third scene the Jewish family are about to embark for Palestine, while the fourth scene has them in Palestine discovering that it is not an empty land after all. The fifth scene is the shortest, only six lines and celebrates victory in the Six Day War. The various Intifadas seem be the background to the sixth scene and the final scene is set during the Gaza fighting.

Apart from its intense brevity, Seven Jewish Children is unusual in that the author gives very little in the way of instructions or stage directions. The only qualification is that the characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. There is no indication of how many characters there are in each scene, this is left up to the director, as is the number of actors to use. Who the characters are and their background is also for each performance to decide. In the early scenes, 1 – 3, the Jewish family will be European, but from where in Europe? And what socio-economic status to give the family members? Would this make a difference anyway? In the later scenes the family could be Israeli in the sense of having been born there, or the family could be a recent arrival from the USA or Australia or Russia.

Another unusual and very powerful aspect of the play is that each line begins with the words Tell her or Don't. All the lines are short and the repetitive introduction to each line gives a very insistent and staccato like rhythm to the play. Apart from the very short Six Day War scene which is all boasting, the other scenes show elements of doubt and debate about what to do and what to say or not say. This is an example from scene 2, which features Holocaust survivors:

Tell her there were people who hated Jews

Don't tell her

Tell her it's over now

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews

Tell here there are people who love Jews

Don't tell her to think Jews or not Jews

And from the fourth scene where the Jewish family comes to terms with the existence of Palestinians:

Tell her for miles and miles all around they have lands of their own

Tell her again this is our promised land.

Don't tell her they said it was a land without people

Don't tell her I wouldn't have come if I'd known.

Tell her maybe we can share.

Don't tell her that.

All the lines are short, except for an outburst near the end, in which someone gives a longish monologue. (Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe....) This is quite out of keeping with the rest of the play and reads as a ruthless justification for self preservation, as Michael Billington puts it in his review for the Guardian.

However the play does not end with this outburst, but ends with these more considered lines.

Don't tell her that.

Tell her we love her.

Don't frighten her.

This is a play which can be staged in many different ways. A rather unusual and to my mind very restrained performance from Chicago can be seen here. Part 2 can be seen here. The play has of course engendered a lot of controversy from the usual suspects and a very good overview of the play by two Jewish American critics, Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon can be found here. If you want your own copy of the play you can get it free here. Seven Jewish Children can be performed anywhere provided that no admission fee is charged and that a collection is taken at each performance for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

Tayside for Justice in Palestine hope to put on a performance of the play as our contribution to the commemoration of Al Nakba on 15th May. Al-nakba means "the catastrophe" and throughout the Arab world, the word is used to refer to the devastation of Palestinian society and the dispossession of the Palestinian people resulting from the ethnic cleansing conducted by Zionist forces during 1947-48.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

The World's Wife

This splendid collection of short poems by Carol Ann Duffy was first published in 1999, so it has only taken me ten years to discover it. Apart from a reference to a Ms M Lewinsky the poems are pretty much timeless. Each poem is written in the voice of a woman, mostly the wife of some famous historical figure – some real, some literary. Women's revenge might be a subtitle for the collection as most poke fun, sometimes light, sometimes bitter, at men and their (mis)rule over women. A lovely example from one of the shortest poems – Mrs Icarus.

I'm not the first or the last

to stand on a hillock,

watching the man she married

prove to the world

he's a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.

Many of the poems express a confident female sexuality, almost machismo at times. These are no downtrodden victims. The beginning of Salome's own tale is a good example of this:

I'd done it before

(and doubtless I'll do it again,

sooner or later)

woke up with a head on the pillow beside me – whose? -

what did it matter?

Good-looking, of course, dark hair, rather matted;

Now and again a tenderness will surface, a recognition that not everything in a relationship was bad. The ending of Mrs Midas – him of the golden touch - expresses this loss of something good and wonderful.

I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,

and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,

even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.

This is a enormously enjoyable little book, full of wit, vigour and charm.

Friday 10 April 2009

Break up the Banks

A New Way Forward is a grassroots campaign which has recently started in the United States. The campaign centres on the demand to break up the big banks – the big banks that got us all into the current financial and economic mess. They plan to hold a series of public rallies throughout America on Saturday 11th April.

The new way forward involves three fairly simple steps:
NATIONALIZE: Experts agree on the means -- Insolvent banks that are too big to fail must be taken over by the state - no more blank check taxpayer handouts.
REORGANIZE: Current Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and board members must be removed and bonuses wiped out. The financial elite must share in the cost of what they have caused.
DECENTRALIZE: Banks must be broken up and sold back to the private market with strong, new regulatory and antitrust rules in place-- new banks, managed by new people. Any bank that's "too big to fail" means that it's too big for a free market to function.

This seems an excellent idea and one that could and should be applied here in the UK. Once again we need members of the public to protest loud and clear and often. In particular it is vital to attack the notion that big is good and the bigger the better. Any bank that is too big to fail is a danger to all of us.

This is seen most clearly in the recent actions of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). Bailed out by the UK taxpayers, RBS has still payed out huge compensation packages to the former top executives who were responsible for the collapse of the bank. Sir Fred Goodwin is only the most conspicuous of the culprits. Most of the current board and the other top executives are still in place – most of them will have been equally guilty and yet they are still in place, still earning very substantial salaries and bonuses. And to cap it all the RBS has recently announced a second round of massive cut backs which mainly involve massive staff losses. So the high heidyins who messed things up get huge pay-offs or get to keep their jobs while those in the front line who had nothing to do with the bank's losses and collapse are to lose their jobs. And who is to pay for all this? Why the UK taxpayer in a double whammy! First we pay for the bailout and bonuses and then we will have to pay for the unemployment benefits that will arise as unemployment soars. RBS has started this process of job losses, but almost certainly the new Lloyds group will be following in their footsteps soon. The only way Lloyds can make money out of their take over of HBOS is by getting rid of lots of staff – the blameless ones again.

What we have here is the worst of all possible worlds. We the taxpayers own the banks, but we do not control the banks. The people who created the mess are still in control and clearly have no conception of running the bank in the long term interest of the taxpayer – increasing unemployment in a recession is not in the interest of taxpayers. And this comes about because the UK government refused to nationalize RBS and HBOS. Nationalization would have enabled the government to demand the resignation of all those culpable of creating the collapse of the banks. RBS and HBOS could then have been stabilised by sorting out the good bits and the bad bits. The good bits could then be sold off as smaller banks under strict regulations.

This would almost certainly save the taxpayer money. And I don't just mean the obscene pay-offs and bonuses. With smaller banks there would be no need for the new directors and managers to be paid such excessive salaries. In addition the creation of smaller banks would avoid the need for large scale redundancies. This means that more tax is paid and there is less expenditure on unemployment benefits. Thus there is a double gain for the government and ultimately for all of us as taxpayers.

This seems like a no brainer to me. In fact it is so obviously a no brainer that even the Tories, God bless them, are thinking along the same lines. Just thinking about it at the moment. They need a bit of sustained pressure from us to make them do it. Just send a simple message to Brown, Darling and your MP: Break up the Big Banks – now!

The website for A New Way Forward can be found here

Tuesday 7 April 2009


Since autumn of last year I have become quite hooked on stitching. I use this rather nondescript term as I have yet to find a word that properly describes what I do. Stitching can cover embroidery, needlepoint, cross-stitch, tapestry, rug making and no doubt many others. What I do is probably a form of Needlepoint, but I'm not too keen on using that term as it conjures up images of young (and not so young) ladies daintily making a pretty picture of a house or an alphabet sampler. Usually in cross stitch. Which may also explain my aversion to cross stitch patterns. I am not too keen on dainty though I do work in rather simple stitches. My first finished attempt was this sampler. This was worked on a Penelope canvas (This is a double weave canvas and so two threads, not just one, are woven together to form a mesh) and features the Jacquard, Hungarian diamond and Scotch stitches, though most of the design just uses a simple vertical stitch. The threads are Anchor Tapisserie wool. I'm not sure about the colours on the outer edge.

After this I started making bookmarks and my favourite is probably this thistle design.

I made this design myself based on a stained glass window hanging we have. Other designs I have also made up myself while most are adaptations of patterns I have come across in books or on the internet. The bookmarks are stitched on Aida 14 count band and use three strands of DMC Mouliné cotton. In all I must have completed about 25 bookmarks and give some of them away to family and friends. I have now run out of the Aida band fabric and will give bookmarks a rest.

My current project is somewhat larger in scale. This is a Bargello design on 18 count Aida using two strands of DMC cotton. (Bargello is a form of needlepoint in which (typically) only straight stitches are used, usually in geometric patterns.) I found the design on the internet and it uses stitches of two lengths, over two threads and over six threads of the canvas. This is what it looks like at the moment.

I like to stitch most mornings for an hour or two – at least three mornings per week. My workstation is the table in our front room. The windows are southwest facing – so I get plenty of light, and sometimes even sunlight! The windows also overlook the front garden, so it is a pretty peaceful place to stitch away.

I like stitching as I like to feel I am creating something – however simple. There is also an intensity and relaxing quality to this kind of manual work. You do need to concentrate on following the pattern. On the other hand most of the time the mind is free to wander, meditate or whatever. I usually listen to music, either Radio 3 or a CD. If I can get a good audiobook from the library I will listen to that. I am not very good at just listening whether it is to music or something on the radio. I guess that is one of the many reasons why stitching feels good for me. I get to do something creative while indulging in another favourite pastime.

Friday 3 April 2009

Justice for Palestine

Justice for Palestine is the simple demand that is increasingly bringing together people from all backgrounds and from all over the world. This simple call has led to the creation of thousands of Groups for Justice for Palestine – many Universities and colleges have their own students for Justice in Palestine group and there are even a number of Jews for Justice in Palestine groups. I have recently discovered that there is now a Tayside for Justice in Palestine group.

What though is behind this apparently simple demand – Justice for Palestine? One of the key strengths of the call is that it does not ask anyone to commit to any particular outcome – two states, one state, confederation or any other political solution. Rather what unites all the groups is their commitment to a set of guiding principles. Student groups in the USA commonly express these principles thus:

We believe that while the Palestinian people must ultimately be able to decide their future in Palestine, certain key principles, grounded in international law, human rights, and basic standards of justice will be fundamental to a just resolution of the plight of the Palestinians.

This leads to three key demands:
1.An end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine
2.Recognition and implementation of the Right of Return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants
3.An end to the Israeli system of apartheid and discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian population

A just and lasting solution to the conflict can only be based on the acceptance of these three principles. The parameters of a final settlement and of any interim proposals is of course primarily the responsibility of the people who live in Israel/Palestine. Those of us on the outside can only support and campaign on behalf of all those in Israel/Palestine who struggle to bring about a just settlement based on the above three principles.

To further the cause of Justice for Palestine requires active campaigning, which can take many forms. The Tayside group supports the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel with local campaigns against shops selling Israeli goods. On the 11th April the group is to sponsor a public talk by two members from the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network – 12.30 – 2.00pm at the Friends Meeting Room, Whitehall Crescent, Dundee. Anyone living in the area is invited to attend and hear this particular perspective on the conflict.