Sunday 30 August 2009


This was the reading group's book for September. This was in truth not a particularly enjoyable read. In fact it left me feeling pretty confused as the point of the book or indeed what actually happened. Almost too clever by half. The novel could have been subtitled The diary of the eponymous hero, though Engleby is no hero. He is not even much of an anti-hero. It might better be described as the diary of a nobody. A very bright nobody who seems to suffer from a form of Asperger's syndrome. Though the description of the main character is a bit unfair to people with Asperger's. It is hard to find anything positive to say about the novel. It is well enough written and some of the scenes where Engleby gets viciously bullied at his private school are very realistic. However Engleby himself resorts to bullying and seems to have no redeeming qualities of his own. He leads a remarkably uninteresting life and the only interest is his “thing” for or with Jennifer, a fellow student he met at Cambridge. I say “thing” for it is never really clear whether it goes much beyond his fascination and fixation for her. Jennifer goes missing however and many years later her body is discovered and Engleby is charged and found guilty of her murder. However he is found to be suffering from a personality disorder and is sent to a special hospital and he seems to find his long years in this institution quite pleasant. In this latter part of the novel there is much scope for lots of pseudo psychology and pseudo Buddhist philosophy, which the Engleby character ridicules with great relish. All in all it is difficult to know what to make of the book, other than it was not worth reading.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Beware of Israelis talking peace

The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu was in London recently to meet with our Prime Minister and try and win support for his zionist project. Lots of interviews and newspaper reports with Israeli government officials outlining how earnestly they want peace and a final settlement with the Palestinians. And there is no doubt about their sincerity – they do earnestly want a settlement – provided it is on their terms. During the visit Netanyahu made it clear time and time again that peace is available when and only when the Palestinians accept that:

East Jerusalem remains part of Israel and will never be returned to Palestine.
The existing settlements in the West Bank will continue to expand and become part of Israel.
Palestinians must agree to recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state.

Now of course Netanyahu knows that no Palestinian leader could agree to these terms and yet he continues to get away with his claim that he is serious about wanting a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. He gets away with these outrageous demands with little or no challenge from the UK media, or one suspects from the UK government.

All the demands are inherently unjust and completely against international law and UN resolutions. In East Jerusalem for example the ethnic cleansing that is and always has been an essential part of the zionist project for Israel as a “Jewish” state continues unabated. For an example of the thinking of Israelis towards their Palestinian fellow citizens please read this short piece from Max Blumenthal about a day out and about in Silwan, East Jerusalem.

Colonial style settlements are another essential feature of the zionist project and they are not confined to the West Bank. What is now regarded as Israel proper is founded on the destruction of Palestinian villages and the building of new settlements for Jews. The great Israeli organization Zochrot is a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948. Zochrot means Remembering, and they seek to encourage Israeli Jews to acknowledge the past as a first step in taking responsibility for its consequences. This must include equal rights for all the peoples of the land, including the right of Palestinians to return to their homes. Here you can read about a tour they organized recently to the ruins of the Palestinian village of al-Damun. In 1948 more than 1500 Palestinians lived in the village. About half of them remained in Israel, but they're forbidden to return and are unable to reclaim their property. Another example of the fruits of the zionist project.

The final demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state is the most audacious and demeaning demand. One can see why chutzpah is a Jewish word. The apparently innocent request in fact goes to the heart of the zionist project and in effect demands that the Palestinians recognize the irreversibility and legitimacy of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and creation on their land of a racist regime. It is no wonder that no Palestinian could or can accept this. Even Salaam Fayad, the mild mannered and pro-western Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority has made it clear that, “No Palestinian leader can ever accept this demand even if the whole world recognizes Israel as Jewish state. The state of Israel belongs to all its citizens, the Palestinian owners of the land and the Jews living there.”

This demand is a monumental affront to the Palestinians and says everything about the racist and expansionist nature of Israel. It is not just Palestinians who oppose this preposterous demand. Anti-Zionist Jews oppose it too. As Henry Lowi, an IDF veteran and a veteran of the peace movement and of Palestine solidarity puts it:

Just as Zionism is predicated on taking Jewish people from our countries of origin, in which our families have lived for generations, and ingathering us to the Promised Land -- the State of Israel is predicated on keeping Palestinians out of their country of origin, in which their families have lived for generations. The essence of a “Jewish state” in Palestine has always been: Jews in; Palestinians out. This is a central, permanent feature of the “Jewish State”, one that links Herzl's theories with Israeli practice, and one that cannot be changed by adding the adjective “democratic” to “Jewish State”.

This extract is from an article entitled - Why Israeli Anti-Zionists do NOT “recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.” It is well worth reading the whole piece and it can be found here.

Another excellent article on the pernicious thinking behind the zionist demand for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state can be found here. This one is by Michael Neumann, a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, and is entitled, The Core of Zionism.

It is depressing to see our UK government meekly accept Israeli pronouncements on reaching a peace deal. As they used to say in another context, Israelis speak with forked tongues. Along with the USA we seem to be prepared to impose severe sanctions against Iran for something it has not done and may never do – develop nuclear weapons. Yet in the face of a murderous, expansionist and racist state we do and say nothing. Sad. Not all is lost though. The image of Israel has been seriously damaged in the world, at least at the popular level, if not at governmental level as yet. The demands for a boycott of Israel continue to grow and we are encouraged that even from within Israel there are voices prepared to speak out in favour of the boycott movement. Here is a thoughtful article in the Los Angeles Times by Neve Gordon, who is the author of "Israel's Occupation" and teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel. For more information about the call to the world to impose Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel until it complies with international law, you can access their site here.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali

I came across this book by chance while browsing in the local library and was intrigued by the title. I assumed it would be a very light and simple read. While it is easy to read, behind the deceptively simple writing there is a serious and not just enjoyable tale. The first novel by Zambian born Gaile Parkin, Baking Cakes in Kigali is more a series of short, linked stories than a traditional novel.

The link is provided by Angel Tungaraza, who runs a small business making cakes for special occasions. In effect each of the 14 chapters is about a different cake and the story behind the special occasion. And there are some very harrowing personal stories to tell. For the novel is set in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a country mostly famous in the west for the terrible massacres that took place in the 1990s. Angel is perfect for this role as she is an outsider. She is a Tanzanian woman who is living in Kigali while her husband works at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. Not all the stories are about Rwandans as Angel and her family live in a block of flats which houses a mini united nations – people from various parts of the world who have come to Rwanda to help the country recover from the ravages of the war. This allows Parkin to include tales about female circumcision, dowries or bride money and a story about a bullied wife.

However most of the stories are about ordinary Rwandans and how they go about the business of surviving the horrors of the war and the continuing devastation caused by AIDS. There are some very sad and heart wrenching tales, though the tone is always upbeat and positive. Though men feature significantly in the book, and some of them are portrayed as good characters, it is the women who take centre stage. Not all are described in a favourable way, but it is women, and girls, who have suffered the most and who continue to bear the greatest burdens in surviving discrimination and oppression both within the family and in the wider world. Angel as well as the link that holds the other characters and stories together is a central character with her own story to tell. Both of her children are now dead and she now looks after her five grandchildren. As the novel progresses Angel also progresses as she learns from the other characters how to face up to the truth about her own family. There is a lovely scene in the book when Angel buys some woven cloth from Ghana with which she will make a wedding dress. The cloths have all been made by members of a women's co-operative. Each pattern had a special meaning and Angel chose one that meant: Help me and let me help you. In many ways this would make a fine subtitle for the book.

While reading the book I couldn't help but get fascinated by the cakes, so much so that I have even started to bake again. So far just an apple cake and some lavender biscuits. But a start nevertheless. I then realized that one of the reasons for this was that Angel reminded me a bit about my own mother. She too was a wonderful cook and made mouth watering cakes. Tea and scones was a regular feature in the house for anyone who visited. Just like Angel she used to use all kinds of colours for the sponges and the icing. It was so exciting to bite into a green or pink or blue cake with richly decorated icing on the top. Then adding colours kind of went out of fashion – some kind of health scare. Not sure the use of colour can have done much harm, as it has been used for generations all over the world. Anyway bring back a bit of colour to our cakes. And enjoy reading Baking Cakes in Kigali.

Friday 21 August 2009

Al-Megrahi - a follow up

Now that the decision has been taken this post looks at the immediate reactions. While the American relatives and the US government have strongly criticised the decision, it is interesting to note that this is not front page news in the USA. Apparently most of the main newspapers carry the story on inside pages. So perhaps the opposition in America is not as strong or as uniform as we are led to believe. Further confirmation of this comes from a brief perusal of the blogsphere in the USA, or at least some of the progressive blogs. As far as I could see only one blog mentioned the decision at all and that was in complementary terms. This post was found on the Talking Points Memo (TPM) group blog.

Justice With Compassion

08.20.09 -- 2:43PM

By David Kurtz

I want to set aside for a moment the issue of whether the terminally ill bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 should be released to die at home in Libya. Instead watch Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill explain his decision to set Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi free.

TPM Reader MK flagged it for me and writes:

I would simply ask whether and when we can remember -- can we even imagine -- a public official in American life speaking with this kind of eloquence, thoughtfulness, and most of all courage? The public discussion of crime and punishment -- not to mention terror -- have become so toxic in our country that I expect that you would hesitate before posting this, even if you were so inclined.
It is worth watching, though, if only to remember what we as individuals are capable of contributing to public life, and to recognize the compassion and the reverence for all human life that we have the capacity to practice collectively.

While we share a common legal tradition with the UK, our own legal system increasingly seems like a moribund vestige of our common history, rather than a self-sustaining creation which we continue to ratify and renew. On a gloomy day, it's hard for me to envision the U.S. adopting the Anglo-American system today if we were starting from scratch. As it is, our legal system labors under enormous tension between who are now and the values we once idealized. MacAskill's statement, regardless of how you view his decision, is a living, breathing example of those legal traditions being carried forward in practice, not merely as totems from another time.

So perhaps Scotland's good name has not been damaged by the decision. In the rest of the world the decision seems to have attracted very little special attention. While all the main online editions of the European press have covered the story, very few have done more than just report the decision. The Suddeutsche Zeitung carried a very strange opinion piece entitled Realpolitik in a kilt. The piece claimed that the decision was all about access to Libya's oil and was in fact co-ordinated with both London and Washington. Talk about conspiracy theories! Could be true though it is hard to see the SNP willingly being a party to this. The Corriere della Sera also carried a very brief opinion piece along similar lines – there was more to this than meets the eye and the more is Libyan oil. Interesting to note that as far as I could see none of the European papers criticised the decision. So much for an international outcry against little Scotland.

The European press has also covered the welcoming reception for Al-Megrahi in Tripoli and though most headlines refer to Western outrage, the actual reports only mention official reaction from London and Washington. Again none of the European reports make any issue about the flying of Scottish flags. This is seen as purely a Libyan affair.

Back in the UK our beleaguered PM, Gordon Brown has been conspicuous by his silence on the decision as has all the other cabinet ministers who are still around. In Scotland the three main opposition parties have all condemned the decisions. Whilst this was only to be expected from the Tories – the political wing of the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade, the stance of the Lib Dems was somewhat surprising. Their Justice Spokesperson, whoever he is stated that while he was in favour of compassion he would have kept Al-Megrahi in prison for longer and only have let him out for the last two or three weeks of his life. What a pathetic and revolting response. Further evidence of the complete irrelevance of the Lib Dems to Scottish politics. More nonsense from New Labour in Scotland. Their leader in the Parliament, the aptly named Iain Gray, who refused to say what he would have done before Kenny Macaskill made his decision has now rushed out to say that he would not have granted release on compassionate grounds. One has the very strong suspicion that Mr Gray has no independent view of his own and was determined to oppose whatever decision the Scottish government came to. Hence his unwillingness to say anything beforehand. As to why New Labour would have opposed compassionate release this is apparently because Al-Megrahi was convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in our history, the mass murder of 270 people. Not sure is this means that if only 200 people had been killed he would have been entitled to compassion. Or is it 150 killed or 100 killed? Seems to me that Iain Gray and New Labour have no idea what compassion is actually about. New Labour MSPs and MPs have also claimed that Kenny MacAskill’s conduct has damaged the Scottish Justice system and, in turn, Scotland’s international reputation. Judging from the muted international reaction mentioned above, this is again New Labour talking nonsense.

With the media there has been a more mixed reaction. The right wing and gutter press have uniformly condemned the decision and many have used this to bring out the usual suspects to take yet another dig at the existence of the Scottish Parliament. Some people have never accepted the re-establishment of our Parliament and will use any opportunity, even something as tragic as Lockerbie to attack the institution. Again most of these papers make wild assertions as how damaging this will be to Scotland's reputation. The prize for this type of article must go to the Daily Mail's Hamish Macdonell who in a piece entitled How the SNP turned allies into enemies, goes on at some length about how angry the Americans are and what damage they could do to the Scottish economy in revenge. One is tempted to respond, with friends like this who needs enemies? However as most Americans don't seem to be much bothered or even that interested in the affair his claim is a tad over the top. As was his final point in which he complained about the absence of First Minister Alex Salmond from the scene, alleging that Salmond was unhappy with the decision and leaving Macaskill to take all the flak. Just a pity then that Macdonell's article appeared on the very morning in which Alex Salmond was all over the air waves eloquently and forcibly supporting and justifying the decision. Don't these reporters ever do even minimal research? I guess not.

Thankfully the more liberal papers did come out strongly in support of the decision, including the Independent in London. Curiously the Guardian did not cover the decision in its editorial, but there was good reporting in the news section. However both the main Scottish titles, the Herald and the Scotsman had strong editorials supporting the decision which may go some way to justify Macaskill's claim that “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.” Clearly not all Scots share this view, just as not all Americans are opposed to the decision. But Macaskill in his decision went to the heart of the matter – compassion is not dependent on liking the person. As he eloquently put it, “The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live. Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them. But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.”

Well done Kenny Macaskill!

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Compassion for Al-Megrahi?

The fate of Al-Megrahi is much in the news these days. It is fast becoming a matter of international (megaphone type) diplomacy. Currently languishing in jail in Greenock, the terminally ill Al-Megrahi is awaiting the decision of the Scottish Government as to whether they allow him to return to Libya to meet his death with his family. Such a decision would be made on compassionate grounds – the prisoner is fast approaching death due to prostate cancer. This prospect has annoyed a lot of people who feel that Al-Megrahi's culpability for the hundreds of deaths resulting from the Lockerbie plane crash means that he is beyond the pale as it were, and should die in jail. The USA in particular seems to most upset by the prospect of his release. The views of the still grieving relatives of those who died in the crash are a bit mixed, though most, again especially the Americans, want him to remain in jail. Others, less sure about Al-Megrahi's guilt want him to pursue his challenge against the conviction in the hope that the “truth”, or at least more of the truth will emerge. Leaving aside the question of whether Al-Megrahi really is guilty or if he is the sole or even the most important guilty person, little of the media frenzy seems to focus on the role of compassion in our justice system.

Firstly what is compassion? According to Wikipedia, Compassion is a human emotion prompted by the pain of others. Commonly this feeling gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. The article goes on to emphasize that compassion is considered as among the greatest of virtues in all the major religions, including the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions.

Compassion in this sense is a key element in both the English and Scottish judicial systems, and both systems allow for a prisoner to be released early on compassionate grounds. In Scotland the regulations for this are set out in the Prisoner and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1992. As is the case in England, early release may be considered where a prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and death is likely to occur soon. In both jurisdictions a life expectancy of less than three months would appear to be the appropriate period for granting release on compassionate grounds.

As regards Al-Megrahi, since he is suffering from the latter stages of a terminal illness, there would appear to be very sound legal grounds for granting release on compassionate grounds. In England of course the well-known, if not infamous train robber, Ronnie Biggs was recently released on compassionate grounds. This too caused some upset and media outrage, though nothing on the scale of the current stushie over Al-Megrahi. Why all this outrage and why are the Americans so incensed?

It seems to me that there are three aspects to the growing frenzy about the possible release of Al-Megrahi. The first is the increasing attempt by people to invoke the concerns of the victims into our judicial system. This was the main reason for the outcry against the release of Ronnie Biggs. This elevation of the concerns of victims is to my mind deeply misguided and potentially dangerous. The creation of our judicial system and indeed of all other law based judicial systems is one of the great achievements of humanity. Previously crime and punishment was pretty much a hit and run affair. If you had the resources and physical power at your disposal you tried to seek revenge for any crime committed against you. This of course gave rise to years and years of feuds and vendettas, which were to the benefit of no-one. The creation of an impersonal law based justice system was precisely to do away with personal revenge. Alleged crimes would be prosecuted by the lawful authorities and judgement would be pronounced by judges and juries and judges would determine the appropriate punishment. And all would proceed according to due process as laid out in laws and regulations. All decisions on punishment should be taken by the relevant legal bodies guided by the relevant regulations, which is what is happening in the Al-Megrahi case. We do not in Scotland live in a society ruled by revenge, but by justice and the complaints of the relatives should have no bearing on the case.

The other two aspects to this case both relate to its American dimension. As the plane that was blown up was an American plane flying for an American company and most of the dead were American citizens, then there are sound grounds for the USA to take an interest in the case. In addition as the suspects were alleged to be acting on behalf of other states seeking to carry out an act of terrorism it is clear that the USA would have a further reason for its interest in the case. At this stage in the proceedings the American interest seems to be base on two factors. This first is that most of the American relatives and most Americans in general just want Al-Megrahi to die in jail. This stems from the fact that the American justice system does not seem to allow for compassionate release, or indeed for compassion at all. Which is surprising given that compassion is such a highly regarded religious virtue and that most Americans profess to be deeply religious. Whatever the reason most Americans are deeply resentful of the idea that someone like Al-Megrahi can be even considered for compassion. Which just goes to remind us that Americans are not really like us at all. Compassion is something that comes from the goodness of the giver and has nothing to do with the goodness or badness of the receiver. To not want to help relieve the suffering of someone near to death is to be motivated more by revenge and retribution than by justice.

The other factor that motivates many Americans and almost certainly its government is the terrorist connection. Punishing Al-Megrahi and letting him die in prison is seen by many Americans as a good and worthwhile message to send out to would be terrorists. Which again leads one to question the judgement of leading Americans. I would have thought that to die in prison would ensure some kind of hero and cult status for Al-Megrahi and act as an even greater incentive to would be terrorists. At any rate to judge by the public comments made by Hillary Clinton and various senators I would imagine that there is a lot more private lobbying and arm twisting going on between Washington and London. Given that the UK government sanctioned the early release of Ronnie Biggs it will be interesting to see if they give in to US pressure and try to influence the decision of the Scottish government or if they are strong enough to publicly and privately stand up for the principle of compassionate release which is fundamental to justice in both England and Scotland.

As I, like everyone else am not privy to the details of Al-Megrahi's illness I refrain from judging the case. This is something for the relevant authorities who will be in possession of all the known facts. This is how our justice system works. What I am most concerned about is the need to restate and uphold the sound moral and legal principles behind the practice of granting early release on grounds of compassion.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an outstandingly talented young writer. She has now had three books published, two novels and a collection of short stories. I have read all of them and have thoroughly enjoyed each one. Chimamanda is an Igbo, but all her work is written in English. She was born in 1977 in Nigeria and grew up in Nsukka in the heart of what used to be known as Igboland. Her father worked at the University of Nigeria which was located in Nsukka. He was Nigeria's first professor of statistics, and later became Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University. Her mother was the first female registrar at the University. By a happy omen for a future writer they lived in the house formerly occupied by Chinua Achebe, one of the greats of Nigerian literature and like Adichie also an Igbo.

When she was nineteen Chimamanda moved to live in the United States to pursue her University studies in communication, political science and creative writing. She now spends her time between the USA and Nigeria. While still at University she started writing short stories and began what was to become her first novel, Purple Hibiscus.

Purple Hibiscus
was published in 2003 and won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book), and was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction. This is a very assured and impressive first novel and Chimamanda makes a significant statement right from the very first sentence: "things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagère." This not only introduces some of the key themes of the novel, but starts with an almost direct quote from the title of one of Chinua Achebe's most famous novels - Things fall apart. This is no ordinary talent here. This is the literary equivalent of a young Mozart showing off his precocious talents. The novel unfolds in the 1990s Nigeria, and the narrative unfolds from the perspective of 15-year-old Kambili Achike, the daughter of a wealthy catholic family. Though, or perhaps, because he is a strict catholic the father is an extremely violent man with his family - wife, son and daughter. The story emerges gradually as Kambili discovers more and more about her father. In this she is helped by her experience of living with her aunt Ifeoma and her altogether more open and relaxed family. The background to the story is the advent of another military coup and though this plays a significant part in the development of the story the focus is always on the family and Kamili's growing self awareness. A very sensitive and engaging novel.

Her second novel, Half a Yellow Sun, was published in 2006 and won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. The novel is again set in Nigeria, this time in the 1960's and covers the period just before and during the Nigerian-Biafran War. This is quite an ambitious novel as it covers the war from its origins through the actual fighting to the eventual ceasefire and peace. As with Purple Hibiscus we experience all this through the interweaving personal lives of the main protagonists. The two key ones are Olanna and Kainene, two sisters of a wealthy Igbo family. Both live for most of the time in Nsukka, the university town. Other perspectives are provided by their respective partners, Odenigbo, an Igbo professor and Richard, an English lecturer at the University. Though crucial in the development of the story, neither features as prominently as the sisters. All four are of course relatively well off and much of the earlier part of the novel describes the rather attractive, lively and interesting livestyle of members of what might be called the burgeoning "liberal" middle class of Nigeria. We do however get to see the events from the completely different perspective of Ugwu, Odenigbo's devoted house-boy who comes from a poor rural family.
The novel gradually gathers pace as the horrors of war and there effects on the various protagonists become more and more the centre of the drama. This is a very compelling and moving account of how war can destroy lives. Though there is no happy ending as such this is nevertheless very much a life affirming novel and a wonderful read.

Chimamanda's latest offering is The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories published this year. As is the case with collections, many of these stories were written and first published some years ago in magazines. The stories are fairly evenly split between Nigeria and the USA. The odd one out is Jumping Monkey Hill, which is set just outside Cape Town in South Africa. It stands out in other ways too as the focus is not on Nigeria but on the challenges facing writers from all over Africa. A group of African writers have been invited to a workshop organized by the British Council. The leader is a British academic who tries to impose his own ideas of what a real African story should be about. A rather dry tale and a bit atypical of her work. In all the stories bar one, the main character is a woman, as is the case with her novels. They are all about the challenges, hardships, violence and humiliations facing women living in Nigeria and as immigrants in the USA. Most are set in the present day or very recent past, though a couple go back to the times of civil war and religious and ethnic strife. One of the most moving is A Private Experience,in which a well off Igbo woman, a catholic, recounts how she was sheltered and helped by a poor uneducated Hausa woman, a Muslim, during an anti Igbo riot. The final story is set in the distant past and in some ways this brings us full circle back to the first sentence of Purple Hibiscus. The Headstong Historian though a short story gives an account of the changes in Igbo society and culture brought about by the arrival of the white man in the late eighteen hundreds. This recalls the works of Chinua Achebe, many of whose novels highlight the inner conflicts brought about by the intrusion of European ways into traditional Igbo life and culture. Altogether a highly recommended collection.

Thursday 13 August 2009

How much is a banker worth?

Just how much money is the Chief Executive of a large bank worth? Eric Daniels of the new Lloyds Banking Group gets £1 million as his annual salary, while Stephen Hester of the Royal Bank gets £1.2 million per annum. In addtion of course there are very substantial bonuses on offer. In the case of Stephen Hester these include a £2 million non-cash bonus, and nearly £6.4 million of long-term share and stock options if the bank's shares rise to 70p per share (currently 37p per share). Top executives at Goldman Sachs in both London and New York are also eyeing up obscenely high bonuses. The question has to be asked what exactly do these men, for they are nearly all men, do to justify these obscene earnings?

I'm not sure that earning is the right word for the amounts of money we are talking about here. Let us leave aside the bonuses for a moment, what justifies the basic salaries, which in the case of Lloyds and RBS amount to £1 million plus? There seem to be two basic arguments advanced in favour of these high salaries. The first is that the chief executives and other top managers have a very demanding job and that it is a very tough market out there. The othe justification is that banks and other financial institutions work in a very competitive market - if they didn't pay the "going rate", then their top managers would be snatched up by the oppostion. Both arguments are pretty much self serving crap.

While running a large bank may be a demanding job, lots of other jobs are very demanding and some involve a degree of personal risk. There are plenty of jobs in the health and education sector, for example, that will be extremely demanding, with far more direct exposure to criticism from the public than running a large bank. Furthermore there never seems to be any financial risk at stake. No matter how catastrophic the mismanagement, the outgoing management never seem to suffer financially. They are in a win-win situation. If the banks do well they make millions of money, if the banks collapse, they still make millions of money. What is demanding about that? There does not appear to be any reward or incentive for managing a sustainable concern. Manipulate the share price and you hit the jackpot. Who cares what the business actually does.

The other argument, that banks work in an internationally competitive market is also absurd. The fact that nearly all top managers are male, reduces the competition quite significantly. As does the fact that most top mangers are white. Given that Asian business schools produce top class graduates year after year and most of them speak English, why are most of our top managers not Asian? If there was real competition then most Asian managers from India, China, Taiwan etc would work for a lot less than £1 million. And probably do at least as good a job. The reality of course is that there is no competitive market for top managers. The salaries and total renumeration packages are agreed by the boards with their non-executive members who are often executives in other companies and the packages are then sanctioned by various committees made up of top managers from other companies. Since they are all in the same game they are most unlikely to recommend paying less. This is about as closed a shop as you can get.

Another fundamental flaw which affects both arguments is that the continual pursuit of obscene amounts of money is not what motivates the overwhelming majority of people. This is not to suggest that most people don't want a decent income, but vast sums of money are not what motivates people. All the evidence points to the opposite. To restrict ourselves to banking for the moment, the majority of people working in banks are the relatively lowly paid counter staff. The tellers of old, the people who provide the front line service, the public face of the bank. None of them earn a great deal - in the case of the Royal Bank, counter staff probably earn about 1/80 (one eightieth) of Stephen Hester's basic salary. Yet these lowly paid bank staff turn up every day, work away under great stress and always have to put on a polite and cheery face to the public, however grumpy they - the public - may be. What motivates them? Not their measly salary - important though that is. They simply want to do a good job and support their colleagues in their branch. Sure, they would love to get paid more, probably a lot more, but they don't wait until they get a decent salary before they put in a decent stint at work. And what about our chief executives? Without his £1.2 million basic annual salary are we to believe that Stephen Hester would not turn up for work? Or if he did turn up that without the £1.2 million he wouldn't work that hard. He would only be a half hearted chief executive? Before heading RBS, Stephen Hester was the chief executive at British Land and only earned half of what he now gets at RBS. Are we to believe that Stephen Hester only worked half as much then as he does now? A pretty preposterous notion.

Two further points. People who make a fortune starting from scratch, people such as Bill Gates or Richard Branson, start off by pursuing a dream or an idea. Money is certainly a factor, but rarely if ever the main motivating factor. They simply want to make something or provide some new kind of service. If it works well they may then go on to make a fortune. But, millions and millions of people go down the same route year after year and never make anything. Some only make losses and end up bankrupt. Nevertheless they continue and other people keep on trying. Further evidence that obscene levels of remuneration are not needed. The final point is the vast army of unpaid workers - all those volunteers who freely give of their time and expertise to help others. This is what makes the world go round. Most of the current chief executives, not just of banks, but of all companies would continue to do their job and give of their best for much, much less in the way of salary, providing it happened to everyone. Those who are only motivated by money, should not be in charge of anything.

Monday 10 August 2009

Barry Mill

On Sunday we visited The Barry Mill which is only about four miles away. It is one of the very few remaining water powered mills in Scotland and is now run by the National Trust for Scotland. Partly because it is so close by we have always put off visiting the place. Also I have to say it did not seem to be a very interesting site. How wrong can one be.

To a large extent this is due to the fact that we got a guided tour by Peter, a former miller who comes from Leicester and now lives in Barry village. He is a craggy old man with a wide, bushy beard. As a miller by trade, he can work the mill and part of the tour included seeing the machinery in action. He is also a mine of information. In effect you get a social and economic history of rural life in Scotland. Unfortunately I did not get his surname, nor did I take a photo. But we will be back – you can't get too much of a good thing.

The mill building is a three storey affair built of stone, and there has been a mill here since at least 1539 when the mill was the property of the Abbot of Balmerino, which lies across the river Tay in Fife. The present structure seems to date from the early nineteenth century and milling continued until the 1980s. Inside it looks much as it must have looked in the nineteenth century with lots of straw, dust and sacks of corn lying around.

The machinery is powered by an overshot water-wheel made of iron and wood. The wheel is 4.7m in diameter and is fitted with 30 wooden buckets. The water-wheel is enclosed within a lean-to wheel house for protection against winter ice and wind. As a result it is not possible to get a good photo of the whole wheel, but here are some to give you an idea of the contraption.
Inside the mill in the lower floor, a pit wheel mounted on the inner part of the water-wheel starts the process of gears and vertical shafts which transfers the water into power for the machinery.

The water-wheel drives two pairs of millstones, both 1.40m in diameter. One is made of monolithic sandstone and is used for shelling the husks from the grain. The other pair are made of French burr stone and agreed to milling the shelled grain into meal. Here is one of the French millstones.
The whole process starts with the delivery of the oats. In the past individual workers would bring their own sack of oats to be milled. For a married man this was 32kg or two firlots per month. A single farmhand got half that amount. The sacks arrived in the ground or middle floor and after drying in the kiln, the sack of oats was lifted by a sack hoist (also powered by the water-wheel) to the upper floor. Here is a sack entering and emerging through the gates.
Once on the upper floor the oats were cleaned and shelled and then poured down a hatch to be milled by the millstones. The resulting meal was repacked in the sack and hoisted up to the ground floor again for collection by the owner of the oats.

As well as showing us around the mill, Peter was constantly telling us about the traditions and language associated with milling. All the mills were known as cornmills. The corn however changed in different parts of the country. In most of Scotland the corn was oat and the meal produced was oatmeal, which the lady of the house would use to make porridge, various kinds of oatcakes and goodness knows what else. In the north of Scotland the corn was barley, while in most of England the corn was actually wheat. In Scotland the oatcakes would often be quite large and a hungry worker would break off a piece for a snack while out at work. This apparently is the origin of the use of the word piece in Scots as in a jammy piece or a jelly piece, which for thousands of Scots children was a jam sandwich. This use of the word piece is confined to Scotland. In the midlands of England, particularly in and around Staffordshire they also make oatcakes, but these Staffordshire or Potteries oatcakes are made from a mixture of oats, wheat and yeast and the finished product is more like a soft pancake than the traditional hard Scottish oatcake.

While milling, if too many grains were allowed to enter the millstones the stones would eventually grind to a halt, the origin of that common term. In the old days not everyone was paid by corn and those who were not could go to the local corn exchange to buy someone else's surplus corn. In Bristol outside the corn exchange are four brass tables, known as nails. Money for buying corn was placed on these tables, hence the expression to pay on the nail. Peter was full of little gems like these, too many for me to remember – I should have brought a little tape recorder. Still there is always the next time.

Thursday 6 August 2009

More ethnic cleansing from Israeli occupied East Jerusalem

The Israeli government has embarked on more ethnic cleansing in occupied East Jerusalem, with the recent eviction of 53 people from their homes. This time around the evictions have raised a fair amount of media coverage and comment both in Israel and elsewhere. The woman in the photo is Jana Hannoun, one of the people evicted. This photo originally appeared in, an online magazine.
The following is an account of the evictions and some excellent background information with links to other sources. The article was published on the online blog of Jewish Peace News.

Israel's "Hamas": the Sheikh Jarrah evictions

The eviction by Israeli authorities of two Palestinian families (53 residents in total, including 19 minors) from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on August 2 has produced extensive international condemnation. The evictions were authorized by Israeli courts in a highly controversial decision (here's a timeline of the 37-year case: <>), and the Netanyahu administration's effort to hastily enforce the ruling seems intended to fortify Israel's disputed claim to sole sovereignty over Jerusalem. Beyond the shameful events themselves, what is particularly outrageous, writes Jerry Haber (the pseudonym of an Orthodox Jewish Studies professor who divdes his time between Israel and the US), is how Israeli national radio has dishonestly framed the information about the evictions of the al-Ghawi and al-Hanoun families.

Haber's article <> is a must-read, because it details a typical case in which the Israeli government-run media presents a version of events that fits the government's deeply distorted ethno-nationalist narrative, rather than the facts. He also dissects the blatant falsehoods of the Netanyahu administration's claim that Arabs can live anywhere in Jerusalem, and therefore so should Jews.

Haber concludes: "if you are a decent human being, you cannot but shout, My God, how long will this robbery -- or to use the Biblical Hebrew word, this 'Hamas' --continue? Isn't what we stole after 1948 and 1967 enough?"

In response to tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations generated by incidents such as this, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman adds some surprisingly blunt criticisms <> of Israel's ongoing settlement activity -- which, he remarks, has been greatly abetted by major American Jewish organizations:

"For years, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby, rather than urging Israel to halt this corrosive process, used their influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure on this issue and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people -- people who care about Israel -- are sick of it.

"The Times's Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, captured the we-are-untouchable arrogance of the settlers last week when he quoted Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, leader of a religious academy at the settlement of Nahliel, calling Mr. Obama in a speech 'that Arab they call a president.'"

--Lincoln Shlensky

Sarah Anne Minkin adds:

These evictions are also a story about the abuse of the law by a supposed democratic regime. Both Jerry Haber's post and this article by Marcey Gayer <> describe the ways in which the courts and other governmental bodies, including the Israel Lands Administration, use the legal methods at their disposal to dispossess Palestinians and make material and symbolic claims -- of both land and history -- for Israel's Jewish inhabitants. Note, too, the heavy involvement of the American doctor and casino magnate, Irving Moskowitz, who has a hand in much of the settlement building and dispossession of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Mairav Zonshein and Joseph Dana have a new video on the evictions, including an interview with the father of the Hanoun family, evicted yesterday: <>

In July, President Obama called on Israel to halt settlement expansion in East Jerusalem; Israel continues to defy the U.S., evicting Palestinians and moving Jewish settlers into their homes under the protection of the Israeli Defense Force. A short video on the Judaization of East Jerusalem, focusing specifically on the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, is posted here: <>

Here is short testimony from Ofra Ben-Artzi about being arrested while trying to visit the evicted Palestinians: <> (she's Netanyahu's sister-in-law and mother of the long-jailed military refuser Yonatan Ben-Artzi)

And here is Ha'aretz's article on Clinton's objection to the evictions, which also includes quotes from Egyptian & Swedish diplomats about them: <>

Joel Beinin adds:

Stand Up for Jerusalem has posted videos <> of Israeli police evicting two Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem at 5:00 am on August 2. One of the families, the Hijazi family, claims to have deeds to the property dating to the 19th century. The Sephardic Community Committee also claims to have owned the properties before the 1948 War. Twenty-eight Palestinian refugee families were resettled in Sheikh Jarrah by the UN and the Jordanian government, which occupied East Jerusalem during the war. After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 they were granted the status of "protected" tenants (meaning ordinarily they could not be evicted). The putative Jewish owners claimed the two families were delinquent in their rent and therefore subject to eviction. With the consent of the Sephardic Community Committee, settlers have already occupied the homes.

This appears to be a further step in the process of "judaizing" Sheikh Jarrah, a project which has been under way for some time. Nahalat Shimon International, a settler-related real estate group which also claims to have an Ottoman-era deed, has been seeking to build a 200-unit settlement named Shimon Ha-Tzadik in the area. Settlers already occupy several other houses in the neighborhood.

A full report on the legal background to the case is available at the website of 'Ir 'Amim, an NGO that seeks an equitable and shared Jerusalem in the framework of an agreed political future. <>

The Sheikh Jarrah evictions have aroused a storm of international protest from the USA, UK, the EU, Sweden, Egypt, and others. Secretary of State Clinton called the eviction "a very regrettable action," and the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was called in for a scolding. Verbal protests seem unlikely to be enough to halt the Netanyahu government's determination to build more Jewish colonies in East Jerusalem.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Z. Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News archive and blog:

Sunday 2 August 2009

The New Barça takes shape – slowly

The new season for FC Barcelona has finally taken off. With all their stars back in training the full squad plus a couple of youngsters is currently in the United States as part of their pre-season build up. So far there have only been a few changes in personnel. Sylvinho retired and Hleb and Cáceres have left the club for Stuttgart and Juventus respectively. Gudjohnsen may also be leaving if he can find a suitable club. As for newcomers there has been a great deal of media flurry, but little in the way of real transactions.

At present Barça have just three new players, and one of them may not last long. This is Henrique, a Brazilian centre back who was signed last season, but was loaned out to Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen. He is now back at Barça, but according to media reports has yet to fully convince Pep Guardiola. The first completely new signing was a surprise – another Brazilian, left back Maxwell, who signed for about €5 million from Inter Milan. Maxwell has previously played with Ajax so has plenty of experience playing in Europe. This looks like a good piece of business for Barça as Maxwell should provide not just emergency cover for Abidal, but should be a real challenger for the left back slot.

The big signing so far has of course been the Swedish striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović, who has come from Inter Milan in a complex deal which involved Eto'o going in the other direction. The total deal is reckoned to be around €65 million, which is a lot of money. Barça will pay about €45 million and the other €20 million is what Eto'o was valued at. Only time will tell how this deal will work out, but Eto'o is a hard act to follow. Zlatan will need to score a lot of goals and important goals at that to even match Eto'o's record let allow beat it. However by all accounts Zlatan is an exceptional player with apparently exquisite touch. Guardiola justified the deal by saying that there was no feeling between him and Eto'o. He used the word in English. Boy, Guardiola sure has balls! You get rid of the club's greatest goal scorer because of a lack of feeling! However, all in all this should work out as a good deal for Barça as the team does need to be shaken up a bit and Zlatan is a very good striker.

Everybody expects that there will be more signings. A wide left player to challenge Henry, a midfielder and a centre back are the three positions that Guardiola would like to strengthen. However that are not that many options available. The great dream was Frank Ribéry, but Bayern Munich want around €80 million. Liverpool's Argentinian holding midfielder, Mascheranno and Arsenal's Cesc Fábregas (an ex Barça youth player) are also on the wanted list, but again the asking price is in the astronomical sphere. Also neither club is really willing to sell anyway. Barça are also apparently interested in Shakhtar Donetsk's Ukrainian international centre back Dmitro Chygrynskiy. The asking fee in this case is “only” €25 million. However Chygrynskiy has now played in a Champions League qualifier so Barça would not want to pay anything like that for someone who would be ineligible for Europe. Their interest in signing another centre back clearly shows a lack of confidence in Henrique. A fall back option is to use one of their own young centre backs, either Marc Muniesa or Andreu Fontás.

Midfield is probably where the team most needs to be strengthened. Hleb has gone and both Keita and Yaya Touré will miss a considerable part of the season when away on international duty at the African Nations Cup. In the case of Touré, Guardiola can always use Rafael Màrquez as the defensive midfielder as he has often played there before. For an attacking midfelder, the club may once again have to rely on home grown talent in the shape of Jonathan Dos Santos. Only 19 years old, Jonathan is already played for Mexico's under 21s.

Up front it is a similar story. With Ribéry discarded there are few options of guaranteed class available. As in previous seasons, Iniesta can always be relied upon to deliver in the wide left position and of course there is the option of using one of their own youngsters, either Pedro Rodríguez or Jeffren Suárez.

The new Barça is taking shape and no doubt there will be a few surprises before the season officially starts. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the financial position of clubs like Barça. The local Barcelona press are always full of stories about who Barça are about to sign for some astronomical sum and at the same time they frequently state that the club has only a limited transfer budget. No explanation is ever given as to how the club can afford such fantastic outlays. Another bewildering feature of Barça's tranfer policy is their recent ventures into buying a player only to immediately loan him out before he even sets foot inside the Camp Nou. This happened last year with Henrique, signed for €8 million and loaned out to Bayer Leverkusen. If he doesn't make the grade this season what happens – do they try to sell him on? At what price? This year they have done it again, but at a significantly higher price. Another Brazilian, this time a young striker, Keirrison has been signed for €14 million from Plameiras and promptly loaned out to Benfica. I guess the reasoning is that young players from another continent need time to ajust to Europe and European football. If they develop you then have a top class player for not too much outlay. Doesn't seem to have worked yet. Anyway good luck to both Henrique and Keirrison.

So far the pre-season has gone well and if Guardiola can get in a couple of really good signings then the coming season may go pretty well.