Monday 28 September 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the Reading group's book for October. A delightful little book too. Set in London and Guernsey during 1946 the story unfolds via a series of letters. Just about all the letters feature Juliet Ashton either as the letter writer or the recipient. The book is very much Juliet's story and in essence it is a love story. As with all good love stories this one has many ups and downs and lots of false dawns, but it all ends happily.

Juliet is a single, 32 year old successful writer, and with the end of the war is looking for a topic for a new book. Quite by chance she receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams, a farmer among other things, who has, again quite by chance, come into the possession of a book by Charles Lamb, which once belonged to Juliet. It is now January 1946 and Dawsey is keen to get his hands on more books by and about Charles Lamb. Unfortunately there are no bookshops left on Guernsey after the war. As Juliet's address was on the inside cover, Dawsey decides to write to her on spec as it were, to ask her for the names of good bookshops in London that would send him books by post. In his letter Dawsey mentions, again almost by chance, the existence of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet is of course intrigued by the request and even more by the strangely named society. And thus begins her quest to find out more about the society and life in Guernsey during the occupation.

This brings Juliet into contact with a wide and interesting range of characters, nearly all of whom are only too delighted to share their experiences of living through the occupation. Juliet becomes so enamoured of the stories and the people that she decides to go and visit the island herself. Once there she becomes even more enamoured with the people and the place and eventually decides to remain on the island. By the end of course she has found true love and is about to get married. And she has adopted a little girl. Not bad for a research visit.

As will be garnered from the above this is a very lightly told tale. Though it does not hide from the horrors and suffering that people on the island had to live through during the occupation, the tone is always gentle and uplifting. This was the only book to be written by Mary Ann Shaffer who died, aged 73, just before the book was published. She writes in the acknowledgements at the end, “I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art – be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music – enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.” A fitting epitaph to a very enjoyable book.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Israel commits war crimes – it's official

The United Nations Fact-finding Mission on the Gaza conflict released their report last week. This 575 page report is the result of months of exhaustive research including 188 interviews. The independent mission was given its mandate by the UN Human Rights Council. This was to investigate allegations of war crimes and serious violations of international human rights law committed by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups before, during, and after the military operations in Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009 that claimed the lives of more than 700 Palestinian civilians and three Israeli civilians.

The mission was led by Justice Richard Goldstone, formerly a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and a governor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In accepting this duty, Justice Goldstone reiterated that his mission would undertake "an independent, evenhanded and unbiased investigation."

The report concluded that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups perpetrated war crimes and other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. However the report found that the vast majority of the crimes were committed by the Israelis. Many of these are detailed in the report. In general terms the Mission found that the Israeli offensive against Gaza was "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population". The inquiry also rejected Israel's argument that the war was a response to Palestinian rocket fire and therefore an act of self-defence. The conclusion therefore is that "Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity."

The report also includes a firm recommendation that the UN Security Council require Israel to launch its own investigation into the conflict within three months. Otherwise, the investigators called on the Security Council to refer the matter for action by the International Criminal Court prosecutor within six months.

While the publication of this report is good news and further confirming evidence of the murderous nature of Israel, it remains to be seen if any action against Israel will be taken. The omens are not good. As was to be expected the Zionist media machine got into action even before the report was published. And as usual the report and its authors were condemned as anti-Semites. This charge shows just how debased Zionists and their supporters have become. Justice Goldstone is Jewish and not only Jewish, but a supporter of Israel. Thankfully he is prepared to place the truth above his personal and political views. And this is what Zionists cannot stand – the truth.

What is more worrying is that the USA and it seems the UK are unwilling to back up the report's recommendations. Once again the USA fulfils its craven role as the protector of Israel in the UN. Contrast this with the threatening words coming from the USA and the UK against Iran. It seems that Iran has been secretly developing a nuclear energy plant. Now given that the previous US administration and the current Israeli administration have made no secret of their desire to bomb Iran – don't you think the Iranians have every reason for secrecy? Anyway as far as I am aware there is still no real evidence that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. And furthermore, the Iranians have not attacked or invaded anybody. The Iranians are not responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, unlike the Israelis. Yet our Prime Minister struts about the world issuing threat after threat against the Iranians for something they haven't done and may never do – develop nuclear weapons, while remaining silent about the all too real carnage caused by Israel.

Still the UN backed report is out and in the public domain and whatever the Zionists try to do about it the genie is out of the bottle – Israel does commit ware crimes. We need to do whatever we can to pressurise our governments to back the Goldstone report and its key demand that Israel launch its own investigation into the conflict within three months or face action by the International Criminal Court prosecutor within six months.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

The Schnebelhorn Horseshoe

The Schnebelhorn is the highest point in the Zürich Oberland and indeed in the whole of Kanton Zürich. The Oberland area borders on St. Gallen Kanton and is a lovely hilly landscape full of woods and farmland. The Schnebelhorn is only 1292m high which is pretty insignificant in Swiss terms, but high enough to compete with the highest Munros in Scotland. With an ascent of some 620m and about a 7km hike to the top it is also a fair outing by Scottish standards.

The hike starts at the little village of Steg, which is only about one hour's drive away from Zürich. From the roadside you start climbing pretty steeply right away and after a short section through some trees you emerge to a more open, but still rising area. Here you pass by some wooden houses, all richly decorated with flowers, and plenty of apple trees. As we did the walk in mid September the trees were all laden with fruit and we happily availed ourselves of some tasty sustenance.

The walk continues in this mode, with some short but very steep sections followed by longer and more gentle but still rising sections. You even have to edge your way past grazing cows.

Most of the way though is through wooded areas which makes it most unlike a typical Scottish walk. The summit itself though is open and has great views of the Bodensee, Austria and the Alps. Unfortunately for us we had chosen a rather cloudy morning and got no views whatsoever. Here is Cosimo appearing through the mist just below the summit, followed by both of us on the summit itself.
Luckily you can make the descent by a different route thus completing the horseshoe. Also luckily and again most unScottish there is a charming little inn just below the summit. This descent is very steep and rocky and the normally reliable Swiss markers got this one wrong as it took us quite a bit longer to manoeuvre our way down to the safety of the inn. Below is a view of the summit area with the inn in the foreground.
It was well worth the steep descent though as the inn was a most welcoming place. Very busy too and all the guests were very friendly and even the waitress was lively and friendly. The food and beer was very good too.

By now the sun had come out and the rest of the descent should have been relatively easy and straightforward. And yet. Faced with what looked like a shortcut – saving 15 minutes – we took this route. Big mistake. This section was really steep and almost straight down through a forested area. It seemed to go on for ever and ever. And all the time we could hear the ringing bells of cattle on some hillside. The sound of these bells can be quite pleasing, but not for hour after hour, particularly on a hard descent.
Still we emerged unscathed and were able to complete the walk along a more gentle path through open farmland. Throughout the walk we came across some lovely wild flowers and some unusual fungi growing on trees. We even caught a glimpse of a high flying bird of prey, but not sure what it was. Quite big though. All in all this was a fine outing. Including our R&R in the inn the whole walk took just over six hours. I definitely plan to get in more walking in the Zürich Oberland.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Julie and Julia

Last Monday afternoon in Zürich just about everything closed down for some kind of shooting competition for boys. Not sure what they were shooting – just hope it wasn’t other boys. Anyway, given the limited options we decided to go to the movies and the pick of the bunch appeared to be Julie and Julia. And a very good choice it turned out to be.

Written and directed by Nora Ephron, this is a lovely feel good movie, based on not just one, but two true stories. Unusually the characters in the two stories never really overlap or meet. The film starts in New York in 2002 and introduces us to Julie Powell who is thoroughly fed up with her life. She would like to be a writer but currently works in a call centre, answering the calls of people still suffering from the after effects of the 9/11 tragedy. The only saving grace in Julie’s life is her love of cooking. One evening her husband suggests she starts her own blog about her love of cooking. Which she does and to make it even more of a challenge she decides to cook every recipe in the classic (at least to Americans) cookery book – Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie’s story takes us through the ups and downs of the year she spends completing her challenge.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking was in part written by Julia Child and the second story is about the ups and downs in her decade long attempt to learn how to cook and then get her book published. This section of the film covers the immediate post second world war period and is set mostly in Paris, where Julia is the rich wife of an American diplomat. Like Julie, Julia is also thoroughly fed up with her life and is determined to find something useful to do. She loves eating and decides to learn to cook professionally, which she does successfully and in the process gets involved with two other women in composing a book on French cooking for American housewifes. This project takes much much longer than expected, but eventually in the early 1960s she does succeed and becomes something of a diva in the world of American cooking.

The two stories unfold some 50 years apart and in different continents, but the film goes back and forth between the various scenes from Julie and Julia’s lives. And of course the book on Mastering the Art of French Cooking provides a continuing and meaningful link between the two stories. Though the essence of the film is the struggle of two women in different eras to make something of their lives, the situations of each character could not be more different.

Julie’s life is pretty miserable. She works in a very stressful job in a nondescript open plan office in which she spends all her working day in a tiny little cubicle masquerading as her workstation. Her supportive husband works for an architecture magazine and it is clear that neither earns much in the way of money. In consequence they live in a tiny apartment in Queen’s, above a pizzeria and beside a very noisy road. It is in this environment with her tiny kitchen that Julie sets about making all the 524 recipes from Julia’s book. All in the space of one year.

On the other hand Julia leads what most people would imagine is an almost idyllic life. With rich parents and a well off husband she can do pretty much what she wants. And in the film she is always shown in opulent surroundings. She does of course have to overcome a variety of prejudices against women making their own way in the world – an even more daunting challenge in the 40s and 50s than today.

Though this is essentially a feel good comedy, the film does not shy away from showing the darker side of America, past and present. The working and living environment of Julie in the early years of the present millenium does not present America in a very flattering light. Long stressful hours, cramped and uncomfortable living conditions are not much of a recompense for working professionals. In the case of Julia, they live through the McCarthy years and this forms the background to their movements. Her husband is even recalled to Washington to face a grilling about his views and acquaintances. All this provides the film with just enough worldly realism to counterbalance its predominantly positive message.

All films depend to a large extent on the cast and in this case all the actors are excellent. Amy Adams and Chris Messina as Julie and her husband Eric, make a fine couple with senstive portrayals. Amy Adams in particular gives an engaging and convincing performance which shows Julie as someone who is both energetic and always on the edge. It is however the other pairing who steal the show. Stanley Tucci gives a stellar performance as Paul Child. This is an understated and subtle performance which conveys Paul’s loving and ever attentive support to Julia, but nevertheless manges to portray Paul as a man of substance in his own right. It is though, Meryl Streep who dominates the film with a magisterial performance. She radiates her presence throughout every scene she is in and from those who knew the real Julia, Meryl Streep has succeeded in presenting a convincing representation of her mannerisms. There is a haughtiness and grandeur to her performance which seems to me to capture the rich American abroad to perfection. The Julia character is though a really nice person, full of charm, warmth and love. It is almost as though she sails through life somewhat above the mundane tribulations of the rest of us.

Before watching this film, beware! The meals which are shown in their full glory require copious amounts of real butter, cream and wine. Red meat features a lot as well. I’m a little surprised that in the UK and America the film hasn’t come with a government health warning. Still for the rest of us – Bon Appetit!

Thursday 10 September 2009

The latest muslim terror weapon? – Minarets?

This should be a joke and sounds like it would make a very funny Monty Pythonesque sketch. It is alas no joke, especially not in Switzerland. There the two year old "stop minaret" movement is backed by the influential ultra-conservative Swiss People's Party (SVP). The campaign has gathered sufficient signatures to ensure that there will now be a referendum which if passed would amend the country’s Federal constitution to include a new article stating that, “The construction of minarets is prohibited”.

With a bit of luck the proposal will be defeated. The Swiss Council of Religions, which groups Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, has issued a statement rejecting the proposal. "For the members of a religious community, religious buildings are not only places to gather but also a symbol of their faith and an expression of their reverence for God. For many Muslims, therefore, mosques need to have minarets," the council stated in a 5-page declaration published on 2 September 2009. "Everyone has the right in this country to live their faith visibly, freely and in a community within the framework of the public order," it stated. "This also includes the construction of places of worship that are typical for their respective religion."

The Federal government has already opposed the demand and may try to prevent the referendum, citing reasons of national security and the impact on the country's international relations and interests.

This seemingly surreal piece of political theatre is of course just part and parcel of a wider, ongoing trend of anti muslim measures which have spread across Europe. As well as Switzerland, there have been controversies over mosque and minaret-building in Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands. While there seems to be an almost daily report of some dispute about muslim clothing, or at least clothing for muslim women. There is the touch of the unreal about this one, at least for people of my age. When I was younger the disputes were all about the shortness or sometimes even the lack of clothing worn by Western women. Nowadays it seems an amazing number of Western men are getting overexcited by muslim women wearing too much clothing. Seems women can’t win either way.

All these disputes are of course about power and the perceived threat to Europe from muslim immigration. At least the SVP in Switzerland are quite open about this. According to Ulrich Schüler, an SVP parliamentarian and leading member of the anti-minaret movement, minarets are political rather than religious. "They are symbols of a desire for power, of an Islam which wants to establish a legal and social order fundamentally contrary to the liberties guaranteed in our constitution," he said.

This idea that Europe is under threat from an Islamic takeover is becoming more and more mainstream. The German author Henryk M. Broder recently told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (12 October) that young Europeans who love freedom, better emigrate. Europe as we know it will no longer exist 20 years from now. Europe apparently is turning Muslim. This article appeared under the title The rape of Europe.

This kind of emotive and essentially irrational headline is unfortunately all too common. It also features in the titles of numerous books on both sides of the Atlantic, where it seems that Americans are equally obsessed by muslim immigration into Europe. A quick glance at throws up such enlightening titles as:
  • Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
  • Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom
  • Defeating Political Islam: The New Cold War
  • Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs
  • They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It
  • While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within
  • Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis
  • The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent
It is not clear what has prompted such vitriolic hatred for what is by any standards a small and persecuted minority. In Europe as a whole muslims make up only around 3.5% of the total poplulation. Even in Switzerland muslims represent only about 4% of the population. It is also interesting to note that in Switzerland nearly all the muslims come from other parts of Europe – Turkey, Bosnia and Albania.

However when it comes to hatred and fear of the other, facts and rational thinking have rarely played any role. Europe and America can invade and occupy muslim countries and in the process kill and maim hundreds of thousands of muslim civilians, with apparent impunity. Yet the presence of a small number of muslims living peacefully in Europe generates in the minds of some Europeans apoplectic visions of imminent catastrophe. It is most ironic that it is in Europe, the continent of the Enlightenment, where enlightenment appears to be in such short supply

Friday 4 September 2009

Por fin – the new season has begun

Late on Monday evening the final match of the first round of the Spanish League was completed, with FC Barcelona beating Sporting Gijón 3-0. Thus all the European leagues are now underway. Spain as usual is the last to get going, and as usual there is now a hiatus in the league programme as the final series of World Cup qualifying matches take place over the next two weeks. A crazy system!

Anyway the good news for Barça fans and lovers of good football everywhere, is that Barça won in a rather solid more than spectacular performance. The highlight of the match was Zlatan Ibrahimović scoring his first goal for Barça – a diving header to complete the 3-0 scoreline. So far most of the performances have not touched the highs of last season, but at least we are winning. Already two trophies have been won – the Spanish supercup and the European supercup. The Spanish one was won with a 5-1 aggregate victory over Athletic Bilbao, while the European supercup required an extra time winner. Barça dominated all three matches but found it difficult to convert chances into goals, especially against a well disciplined Shakhtar Donetsk defence. Still, two trophies is one more than Barça achieved in the 2006-2007 season the last time they won the Champions League. The Spanish supercup was their sole success in that season. So things are looking a bit better this time round.

As regards the team itself, not much has changed, despite the various comings and goings. Two of the new signings – Keirrison and Henrique - have, as expected gone out immediately on loan. The main additions to the squad have been in defence, with the arrival of Maxwell, from Inter Milan, a left back who should challenge Abidal for this spot. Indeed, Maxwell started the match against Sporting, and looked a good player, but had to be taken off due to injury. The other new defender is Dmitro Chygrynskiy, the Ukrainian international centre back who finally signed from Shakhtar Donetsk, immediately after the European Supercup final. Judging by his performance in that match he looks a very accomplished player and in a short time we could well see him partnering Gerard Piqué at the heart of Barça's defence. With Marquez, Puyol, Maxwell and the two youngsters, Marc Muniesa and Andreu Fontás, the defence is pretty well covered and definitely seems to be stronger than last season.

Up front the main change of course is the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimović as the new striker in exchange for Samuel Eto'o. It will be very hard for Zlatan to emulate, let alone surpass Eto'o's scoring achievements with Barça. However, he is a very good player and has different strengths to Eto'o, physical presence and heading ability among others. He should do well. The first choice strike partnership of Zlatan, Henry and Messi still looks very, very good. The back up is much the same as last season and most of us will be praying that none of the above succumb to serious injuries as happened during the 2006-2007 season. The main back up will come from the youngsters, Bojan, only just turned 19, and Pedro Rodriguez, who scored the winner against Shakhtar. Both played intermittently last season, so both should be that bit stronger, wiser and more mature. Both played against Sporting, and both played very well, with Bojan scoring the first goal.

It is in midfield where the greatest concern lies. The defensive or holding midfielder role will again be shared by Yaya Touré and Sergi Busquets. So there should be no worries there. It is the attacking, creative roles that give cause for concern. Or, rather the lack of cover that is potentially worrying. The main creative players will again be Xavi and Iniesta, two marvellous players who ended last season playing some wonderful football. Iniesta picked up an injury at the end of last season and has yet to play this season, though he is due to play in Barça's next league match. However, if either or both were to be seriously injured, then there does not appear to be any real cover. Two of last season's back up players, Gudjohnsen and Hleb, have both left. While neither featured much last season, at least both were experienced players. Now the main cover is Keita,who is a very good player, but offers different qualities to either Xavi or Iniesta. The nearest to a Xavi type player seems to be the youngster Jonathan dos Santos, who is only 19 years old. He has yet to play a competitive match for the club, though from brief glimpses he does look a good player. However Guardiola will be praying that he only has to play Jonathan now and again to build up the youngster's confidence and first team experience.

All in all the season has started well. The team is playing well, though below their capacity. From the matches seen so far there is plenty of commitment among the players and the new arrivals will ensure that there is some real competition for first team places. Repeating any of last season's trophies will be very difficult never mind repeating the treble. No team has as yet retained the Champions League, so a real challenge is on there. In Spain a rejuvenated Real Madrid, with a new and highly rated coach and some fabulous new players will push Barça to the limit. However talented players alone do not win trophies, for this you need a team and commitment. If Pellegrini can create a balanced team out of Real's squad, then they will be hard to beat. But then Barça are also hard to beat. If the players show the same commitment as last season then Barça should do as well. Not necessarily in winning trophies, that is always to some extent in the lap of the Gods, but in playing wonderful, exciting football, which is all that we can ask for. Winning trophies is always a bonus. There should be some cracking matches in the Spanish league this season.