Friday 29 January 2010

The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson

There is an air of mystery about the author Stieg Larsson. He was mostly known as a graphic designer and dedicated campaigner against racism and right-wing extremism. At some stage he started to write novels in his spare time after returning home from his job in the evening. He had completed the manuscripts for three novels when he suddenly died from a massive heart attack, aged just 50 years old. The books were published successively in Sweden in 2006, 07 and 08 to great acclaim and success. Since then the books have been translated into most languages, with the English translations coming out in 2008 and 2009. A Swedish company - Yellow Bird has filmed all three novels and the first one is due out in the UK in March.

The Millennium in the title for the trilogy refers to a monthly magazine of that name. The magazine, or rather, staff from the magazine are intimately involved in the main stories that make up each novel. In particular each novel features Mikael Blomquist as the main character. Blomqvist is the middle-aged publisher and co-owner of the magazine, which focuses mainly on economics and social problems. He is also the main investigative journalist and each novel is built around one of Blomqvist’s special investigations. Blomqvist is in the main a very likeable character, though he is very self obsessed and tends to give his colleagues a wide berth when he is deeply involved in an investigation. He is single, though he has an unusual long term relationship with Erika Berger who is the editor of Millennium. Though she is married, Mikael and Erika are both friends and lovers. Their relationship is well known and accepted by her husband. Despite this relationship, Mikael is open to sex with other women, something which occurs quite regularly throughout the trilogy. Blomqvist and the other members of the staff at Millennium are what provide the continuity for all three novels. However each book can be read as a stand alone novel.

The first of the trilogy is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This starts with a failed attempt by Mikael Blomqvist and Millennium magazine to expose a corrupt businessman for financial fraud. As a result Blomqvist has to go to prison. This however alerts Henrik Vanger, a retired industrialist who wants to hire Blomqvist to investigate the disappearance of his niece almost 40 years ago. Vanger promises Blomkvist the means to clear his good name as part of the payment and Blomkvist accepts. Thus begins the gradual exposure of the dark underbelly of this famous Swedish family. The title of this book in Swedish is Men who hate women, and this is a more accurate description of what the novel is about. For the Vanger family hides a very dirty secret - incest and serial sex killings. Blomqvist does of course eventually ferret all this out. Not only the mystery of the disappearance of Vanger’s niece, but he finally succeeds in exposing the financial corruption with which the novel started. And he does so with the clandestine help of the rather unusual Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Lisbeth Salander does have a dragon tattoo - and much else besides. She is a very, but very determined young woman who has suffered atrociously and brutally at the hands of her family and the Swedish care authorities, and is legally under guardianship. By the time she appears in the novel she is 24 years old, pale and very thin with dyed black hair, a dragon tattoo on her shoulder and pierced nose and eyebrows. She is also almost completely asocial. However she does some occasional investigative work for a security firm on account of her special, indeed unique skills. For Salander is a brilliant computer hacker and has a photographic memory. As a result she also gets hired by Henrik Vanger and thus begins one of the strangest duos in detective fiction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reveals what will continue to be the main themes of the whole trilogy - violence against women and the abuse of power by those in authority. This particular novel starts quite slowly, but soon gathers pace, excitement and suspense. The novel builds to a quite thrilling and violent climax when all is revealed and resolved. Very good novel.

The second novel in the series is The Girl who Played with Fire. This is the only one of the trilogy to have the same title in Swedish and in English. Perhaps because this one is in part about Salander herself. The novel opens with an update on what has happened to Salander since the conclusion of the previous novel. Now an exceedingly rich woman, as a result of her hacking skills, she has acquired a fabulous apartment in an exclusive part of Stockholm and treated herself to a boob job. She is very proud of them and her now conspicuous breasts become a recurrent, lighthearted feature of the novel.

Salander has had no subsequent contact with Blomqvist, but continues to use her hacking skills to clandestinely keep in touch with his computer. She is therefore fully aware of what new investigative lines Blomqvist and the Millennium team are involved in. However on this occasion, as the story develops she becomes not only one of the hunters, but the hunted.

For what the Millennium team are researching is sex-trafficking in Sweden and the abuse of underage girls by those in high office. Abuse by those in authority is something of which Salander has personal experience and she decides to get involved in the case - but on her own, unbeknown to Blomqvist. Indeed it is not until the very end of the novel that they meet up again in person.

It is while pursuing her investigations that we, the reader, become more aware of Salander’s own past. We find out why some people in very high positions in the state security services have taken such a personal interest in her. In particular why she was placed under guardianship. As she discovers more about her past, those in authority, including Bjurmann, her current guardian, are trying to find ways to keep her silent for ever. At this point Salander discovers a link to one of the people involved in the sex-trafficking - the hitherto mysterious Zalachenko. For some reason this Zalachenko is important and significant to Salander and not in a good way. She becomes determined to track him down. However before she can do anything three murders occur on the same night - the key Millennium researcher and his partner and Bjurmann. Salander’s fingerprints are found on the gun which was left behind.

Things move even faster after this. The police, fed false information by sources in the security services, are convinced that Salander is not just guilty, but a dangerous psychopath to boot. Salander goes underground and continues her pursuit of Zalachenko and his henchman, Niedermann, while Blomqvist, equally convinced of her innocence tries to help her. The bloody climax takes place in an isolated farmhouse on the outskirts of Gothenberg, where Salander finally confronts Zalachenko. Though bloody, it appears that nobody has actually been killed and the novel ends in complete suspense.

The third and final novel, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, takes up the story at exactly the point where the previous novel ended. Both Salander and Zalachenko are quickly transferred to hospital, with Salander in particular in a very critical condition. She was so badly injured that in fact she spends most of the novel in the hospital. Niedermann has managed to escape leaving a trail of murder and mayhem behind him. At this stage the full implications of Salander’s past emerge. And a deeply murky and nasty past it is. Due to Salander’s relationship with Zalachenko and the knowledge she has of him, she is deemed to pose a threat to Swedish security. Or at least to the members of the “Section”, a small, secret core of very nasty people who have created their very own secret network within the official secret police - Säpo. It turns out that Zalachenko was a major Soviet defector and this secret group - The Section - gave him a new identity and have sought to protect him ever since. If the Zalachenko affair was to become open to public scrutiny the members of the Section would be themselves exposed and finished. To prevent this the Section decides to try and keep Salander quiet by duping a pompous prosecutor into seeking a court order to confine her permanently to an asylum. The Swedish title for this novel - Castles in the Air get blown up - makes clear that it is the machinations of this secret group that is the main focus for the book.

Thus the novel becomes a race against time as the friends of Salander - Mikael Blomqvist, of course, and some of the more honourable members of the police forces - try to find evidence of the existence of the Section. In this they are abetted by Salander herself, who from her hospital bed is still able to carry out her famed computer hacking. At the same time the Section continues to feed the prosecutor and his team false information. Bit by bit Blomqvist and Co manage to unravel the complexities and the faces behind the Section. On the way there is much suspense and not a little violence as people involved with Zalachenko seek to settle old scores or frighten off Blomqvist.

Finally Salander gets her day in court and very soon the prosecution’s case is exposed as a fraud, and Salander is freed and no longer deemed to be in need of guardianship. There are still some lose ends to tie up, including a rather brutal and bloody confrontation between the hitherto missing Niedermann and Salander. In many ways this is very traditional morality tale - all the bad guys end up either dead or in prison. Whether the rest will live happily ever after is less clear.

Overall this is an excellent trilogy. It seems that Larsson planned to write more novels and had apparently started on the fourth volume which leaks suggest has Salander somewhere in northern Canada. However the three published novels do justify the title of a trilogy. The finale does wrap things up very satisfactorily, while leaving open the possibility of further adventures and investigations.

Though Blomqvist and Salander are the key characters, it is interesting and most unusual that apart from the first novel they hardly ever meet each other in person. The internet is their favourite, indeed sole means of communication. This of course is in keeping with Salander’s asocial personality and her deep distrust of anyone in authority. However the third novel ends on a more positive note as it looks like she is at last prepared to accept Blomqvist as a friend.

The other characters are in the main well drawn and we see them as real people with lives of their own. This is particularly true of Erika Berger, Blomqvist’s friend and occasional lover. Only the main villains seem to lack a real, complex life. Perhaps this has to do with what is clearly Larsson’s main purpose in writing the novels - namely to expose the extent of male violence against women and the abuse of power. In Larsson’s eyes the two are inextricably linked. It is noticeable that in the Millennium trilogy all the bad people are men. While some men are clearly good - Blomqvist obviously - none of the women are portrayed as bad or nasty characters. They may not all be angels, but none of the women are shown as evil. In a way this makes the novels a bit one dimensional at times. But it is the very rage that Larsson feels against male violence that gives the storylines such an edge and a real sense of plausibility.

In conclusion a word or two about the differences between the titles in the original Swedish and the English translation. This applies to the first and the last of the series. As explained above the original Swedish titles - Men who Hate Women and Castles in the Air get blown up - are more in keeping with what the two novels are about. So why did the English publishers go for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the first novel and The Girl who Stirred the Hornet’s nest for the third? I can think of two justifications. Using the formula The Girl with ... or the Girl who .... emphasizes the continuity of the novels and makes it clear that this is a trilogy. While there is no doubt an artistic argument in favour of these changes the unity of the titles would also be a commercial advantage as it would make it easier for the buying public to see the connection between each novel. As the second of the Swedish novels, the one which has the same title in both editions - The Girl who Played with Fire, was already published before the first English translations, the English publishers would have been aware of this title.

The other justification seems to be purely commercial. By emphasizing the Salander character the publishers could make sure the covers featured a scantily dressed attractive looking young woman - to show off the tattoo of course. As a bit of an unreconstructed old man, I have to admit this ploy did work with me. I was attracted and intrigued by the title and the cover. If it encourages more people to read the novels then the means justify the ends? I do find the covers a bit controversial as they seem to fly in the face of what Larsson was writing about. Whatever, don’t let the titles or covers put you off reading what is a wonderful and thrilling trilogy.

Monday 25 January 2010

Security for Israel = Ethnic Cleansing

This month has seen the first anniversary of the end of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza which involved the death of over 1400 innocent Gazans. This massacre included the death of over 400 children. To mark this atrocious act Tayside for Justice in Palestine sponsored an art installation entitled “A silent scream for a’ the bairns o’ Gaza.” This installation was created by local artist Pat Donachie and consisted of 400 mini coffins draped in the Palestinian flag and two piles of children’s shoes - 400 pairs in all. The installation was on display at the Dundee Mosque and again in the City Square, where we attracted the interest of many passers by. Here are a couple of photos of the installation.

On the Gaza assault there is a excellent piece by Jerome Slater, a professor (emeritus) of political science at State University of New York. In his piece which looks in some detail at the Goldstone report, he succinctly demolishes the Israeli claim that Israel acted in self-defence. He points out: “that Israel’s obvious alternative to any use of force was to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians. In that light, Israel has no “right” to claim self-defense, for the true purpose of its siege and military attacks is to crush resistance to the occupation--or, as Henry Siegman has put it, “to protect [Israel’s] right to continue the strangulation of Gaza’s population.” Put differently, the Israeli attack on Gaza was a war crime in and of itself—the crime of aggression—even if its methods of warfare had not also been war crimes.” The piece, well worth reading in full can be found here.

Slater’s piece is a useful reminder that everything about Israel/Palestine comes back to the occupation. And what is most frightening and horrific is that this illegal occupation is still growing day by day. Yaniv Reich, an Israeli blogger, has a fascinating post entitled: “Strangely, Israeli security typically requires land cleansed of Palestinians.” In it he examines the social and psychological structures that allow Israelis to accept their little apartheid regime. In particular he looks at an article by the journalist Yitzhak Laor in Ha’aretz. The article describes Israeli reactions to the recent High Court injunction to desegregate highway 443, one of the West Bank’s main highways. Laor wrote: “What does Israeli logic say about Route 443 and barring Palestinians from using it for years, in the best traditions of apartheid? (Which is flourishing here but which we are not permitted to call by that name.) Logic dictates that we need this road because it shortens the distance to Jerusalem and eases congestion on Highway 1. But because this efficient road passes through occupied territory, and has done so for 42 years – a temporary occupation, of course (here, in the script, the Supreme Court justices call for a wink) – it endangers the lives of Israelis. This is because the inhabitants of the occupied territory don’t like the idea of their land being used without their permission.

Therefore, for our convenience, we have to prevent Palestinian drivers from using the road. Here, too, the Israeli argument ranges from arrogant fury, as in “Who are you tell us how to defend the lives of our children?” to “After all, we do want to see two states for two peoples, etc.” And as always, an examination of the argument reveals that what the Israelis call security, even when they are speaking absolutely sincerely, is not security but ownership of land cleansed of Arabs.” Laor goes on to make the essential point about Israel: “Whatever the nature of the solution, from the Israeli point of view it always entails the removal of Arabs from areas where Jews live.” Is this the kind of state that we in the UK should be supporting? An exclusive racist state. You can read the whole piece here.

Yaniv Reich has another little piece which highlights that Israel’s conception of peace involves a permanent West Bank presence. It seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel must have a presence in the West Bank even after a peace agreement is achieved, the first time he has spelled out such a demand. “This will require the Israeli presence on the eastern side of a Palestinian state.” As Reich puts it: “No freeze to settlements, no Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, permanent Israeli presence in the ostensibly Palestinian state. . . . This is a recipe for endless violence, advocated forcefully from the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem.”

Two further links to articles about the ongoing attempts at ethnic cleansing by Israelis in the West Bank. The first, here, is about an attack by Settlers on Ta’ayush at Hilltop 18. Ta’ayush is a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership. Together we strive for a future of equality, justice and peace through concrete, daily, non-violent actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all. As such it is regularly attacked by the settlers and their protectors in the Israeli Defence Force.

The second is an article about the growing resistance to Israel’s continuing land grab. Published on the net by Jewish Peace News, here is the introduction to the article. “Bypassing politicians, the bogus "peace process," and Israel's current pretense at a settlement freeze, an actual movement of political change and resistance is gradually but persistently taking place in Palestine/Israel. Palestinians, Israelis, internationals, women and men, youth and older people, join weekly to resist injustice, oppression and a land-eating dragon-wall. In the article below, published in The Nation, Jewish Peace News contributor, Joel Beinin, reports on and analyzes this movement and describes its evolution.” You can read the full piece here.

It is movements like those described in Beinin’s article that offer the best hope we have for a just peace. Whatever we can do to publicize and support their efforts is one way we can help these brave people. Let our MPs and government know that there is another way possible in Israel/Palestine.

This first anniversary of the Gaza massacres also coincided with a talk by Holocaust survivor Dr Heyo Meyer. This was a very well attended talk. Dr Meyer’s main subject was the Misuse of the Holocaust for political purposes. He contrasted what he termed traditional Judaism with political zionism. Traditional Judaism is essentially humanitarian and universalist and is based on the notion that all humans are fully equivalent. On the other hand political zionism is xenophobic, nationalistic, exclusive, colonialist and racist. According to Dr Meyer, Zionism has developed what he terms Holocaust religion - the idea that Jews have a monopoly on suffering. Nobody has every suffered or will ever suffer like Jews have, therefore Jews can do what they want to anybody.

Dr Meyer further outlined the basic similarities between the Nazi treatment of Jews and how Israel treats Palestinians. In both cases there are different laws, arrest without warrant and indoctrination through propaganda. This was a very impressive and powerful speech and he ended by calling on everyone to become active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Brideshead Revisited

This was the Reading Group’s book for January. Made popular by the 1980s TV series starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick, I had never actually read the book. I had never seen the complete TV series either. Though we now have the full set on DVD and started to watch the series last summer. However we lost interest after about the fourth or fifth episode. So I was was rather keen to read the novel itself.

While the book contains some wonderful writing I did not find the novel very captivating or that interesting. Like the TV series, which is very faithful to the book, the novel, or at least the first part is full of bonhomie, gaiety, splendour and ravishingly beautiful people. But the people all seem to me to be pretty empty. Most of the main characters are part of the well established landowning rich. And by and large their lifestyle is one of easy going self-indulgence. It was very hard to like any of the main characters.

Evelyn Waugh ostensibly wrote the novel to show the workings of divine grace on a disparate but loosely linked group of people. Well, I can only say that I saw little evidence of grace anywhere in the novel. And any divine intervention seemed more in keeping with the antics of the Greek Gods on Mt. Olympus. Very little good happens in the novel. The Marchmain family are examples of rich catholics, but none of the family seems to get much satisfaction or comfort from their religion. Indeed it is fascinating that each of the six members of the family seems to have a very different version of what catholicism means in terms of everyday living. Religion weighs very heavily on all of them. In fact it seems to weigh each of them down in unhappiness and bitterness. By the end it has deprived Julia, who had until then seemed a level headed woman, of prospective happiness with Charles.

The only really interesting character was Anthony Blanche the overtly gay friend of the family. That an openly homosexual should play such a prominent and contrasting role in the novel raises the question of what Waugh meant by divine grace. Waugh’s whole attitude to sex is another problematic question for the novel. Charles and Sebastian have a very intense relationship, but it is never spelled out just how far this went in a physical sense. Latter on Charles does admit that he loved Sebastian, but no more is made of it. There is strangely little actual physical sex in the novel and when it does occur, when Charles finally beds Julia, it is described very briefly, almost perfunctorily, and appears to more like a military conquest than love between two human beings. Not a lot of grace, divine or other there.

In sum, not one of my favourite reads. The description of the life of a rich catholic family during the inter war years and the protected life of students at Oxford is quite interesting, but overall, the novel failed to convince me.

Monday 18 January 2010

The EU - A Success Story

This is not the kind of headline you are likely to get in the mainstream media in the UK. Nevertheless there are good solid grounds for claiming that the EU is indeed a success story. The basis for this is a comparison with the US economy. The USA is usually held up as an example of an innovative, dynamic and growing economy, often to highlight perceived weaknesses in the EU. Turns out that this is not in fact the case.

Paul Krugman, the well-known American economist, in a recent article in the New York Times analyses the headline figures and comes up with some surprising facts. For example the headline figure most commonly used shows that since 1980 America’s real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown, on average at 3 % per year. While the EU15 (the 15 member states before the EU enlarged to include most of the former communist east) has grown only by 2.2% a year. However as Krugman points out, “All this really says is that we’ve had faster population growth. Since 1980, per capita real GDP - which is what matters for living standards - has risen at about the same rate in America and the EU15: 1.95% here; 1.83% there.” In fact once you take into consideration that American workers work longer hours than their EU counterparts, then real GDP per hour worked may be higher in the EU15 than in the USA.

Krugman also looks at technology and jobs and once again finds that there is very little difference, if any, between the USA and the EU. He notes for example that, “Broadband, in particular, is just about as widespread in Europe as it is in the United States, and it’s much faster and cheaper.” As regards jobs, while unemployment rates are usually higher in the EU, when it comes to adults working, once again there is little difference. As Krugman points out, “In 2008, 80 percent of adults aged 25 to 54 in the EU15 were employed. That’s about the same as in the United States.”

Thus in economic terms it seems that the EU is at least as successful as the USA. The differences are much more to do with collective choices about the balance between work and leisure time, family time as Krugman prefers to call it. As he puts it, “ Europeans are less likely than we are to work when young or old, but is that entirely a bad thing?”

In a much earlier article for the New York Times, Krugman looked in some detail at the differences in lifestyle between a typical middle-class family in France and one in the USA. This, according to Krugman, shows that while the French family would have lower disposable income and therefore lower personal consumption, there are corresponding compensations. “Because French schools are good across the country, the French family doesn't have to worry as much about getting its children into a good school district. Nor does the French family, with guaranteed access to excellent health care, have to worry about losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.”

Krugman concludes this article by referring to resarch by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth, who have it seems gathered some statistical evidence that working fewer hours makes Europeans happier, despite the loss of potential income.

So, there is some clear evidence that the EU is not just an economic success story, but has brought significant benefits to its citizens.

Europe’s OK; the euro isn’t.

This is the title of an entry in Krugman’s own blog. In it he voices his concerns about the long term viability of the single currency. The main worry is how will the EU adjust to asymmetric shocks. How will euro zone countries that have been much harder hit by the downturn than others react? With no currency of their own to devalue, there is no easy answer.

As Krugman puts it: “In the United States, such shocks are cushioned by the existence of a federal government: the Social Security and Medicare checks keep being sent to Florida, even after the bubble bursts. And we adjust to a large degree with labor mobility: workers move in large numbers from depressed states to those that are doing better.”

Krugman’s point is that the EU lacks these two essential features that help to make a single currency work. Namely a centralized fiscal system and high labour mobility.

Now to challenge as esteemed an economist as Krugman is a pretty rash thing to do, but here goes anyway. It is true that there is no centralized fiscal system nor a centralized social security or health system. However all EU countries have their own systems. And, as Krugman very well knows, for at least the EU15 countries, these systems provide unemployment, pensions and health benefits far more generous that those on offer from the US government. If a country’s social welfare system was adequate enough before the advent of the euro, I do not see why is would cease to be so now.

This leaves labour mobility - the willingness and ability of workers to move from depressed areas to those that are doing better. Now this seems undisputably higher in the USA than in the EU. However there are a number of caveats to this. In the first place fully reliable facts seem to be in short supply regarding labour mobility. A recent report from the European Commission - Labour mobility between the regions of the EU-27 and a comparison with the USA - had to rely on indirect indicators. The key one was the “share of the working age population who changed their region of residence within the previous year.” Clearly this information can only come from some kind of sampling. For what it’s worth this report found that internal mobility in the USA at 2% was approximately double that for the EU15, which was 1.15%.

Interestingly all the sources I researched mentioned that lower labour mobility is a factor within member states. As the above mentioned report puts it: “In the EU, the tendency for workers and people in general to move to another EU country or to another region of the same country is much lower. This applies to both the old and the new Member States, irrespective of their economic development or the openness of their labour market.” I find this rather strange as it very much contradicts the general consensus regarding Scotland. Just about everyone knows lots of people who have left Scotland to live in other parts of the UK, while movement further afield - either to Europe or the USA or the old Commonwealth - is far from uncommon. Scotland has always been known as a country that exported people. Labour mobility as such is almost impossible to pin down, however the Registrar General does keep data on general mobility. And the figures for in and out migration to and from Scotland from the rest of the UK and from overseas for the five years to 2008 show that each year on average 91,000 people or 1.82% of Scotland’s total population moved into Scotland. At the same time on average each year a further 77,000 people or 1.54% moved out of Scotland. These rates are not too different from the internal mobility rates for the USA.

Another point I would make is that labour mobility rates in Europe have changed considerably over the decades since the end of the second world war. Both Spain and Italy experienced considerable internal and external migrations in the 50s, 60s and 70s as people from southern Italy, southern Spain and Galicia moved in their hundreds of thousands year after year to the more industrialised north. This decade has seen quite significant movements of people from the new member states in Eastern Europe to EU15 countries. Something in the order of over half a million people were moving west each year. The stories about the legendary Polish plumbers must have had some basis in fact.

All this is by way of saying two things. One is that there may well be more labour mobility in the EU than academic research estimates. The second is that in some ways it is the very success of the EU with its relatively generous welfare provisions that keeps labour mobility lower than in the USA. This is borne out by a recent study into patterns of migration in Spain - Migration in Spain: Historical Background and Current Trends by Olimpia Bover and Pilar Velilla from the Bank of Spain. The authors found that in recent decades high unemployment no longer triggers migrations to more prosperous regions. Following the expansion of the welfare state, registered unemployed in the traditionally poor and high unemployment regions (Andalucia and Extremadura) rarely change regions. If anything movement is in the opposite direction. The authors found evidence that: “People that move now between regions are people with higher education and they seem to do so in search of cheaper housing, better quality of life and perhaps professional promotion.” This is why the better-off regions like Madrid and Catalunya have become net outmigration regions.

This is a particularly interesting study as it shows how patterns and rates of migration within and outwith countries change over time. Simplistic notions of labour mobility are a bit of a distraction from the real efforts needed to make sure the euro is a long term success.

Friday 15 January 2010


January is the winter month par excellence and this year January has come with a vengeance.  As I write this on the 14th, there is still snow lying about the garden and pavements.  It has been there continuously since the middle of December.  Something unheard of up here in recent times.  It has also been very, very cold.  Indeed the coldest for three decades or more.  Still everything looks very pretty.  Just a pity I haven’t been well enough to get out and about and enjoy more of the snowy landscapes such as this one.

Still, now that I am retired, I have been able to spend my time stitching and catching up on my reading.  The current book is the third novel in Siteg Larsson’s magnificent Millenium trilogy - The Girl who stirred the hornet’s nest.  A riveting read.

January is of course the start of the present year.  However I always associate this with December and the end of the previous year.  After all, here in Scotland the main celebration is on Hogmanay.  The 1st of January is a bit of a afterthought.  Not too many important festivals or holidays in January.  Unless you live in Spain, where they celebrate the Epiphany on 6th January.  As with Hogmanay over here the main event is on the evening of the 5th when there is a spectacular cavalcade featuring the three kings who shower the onlooking children with sweets.  This is one Spanish custom that I would welcome.
In Scotland of course the main event in January is Burns Night or Burns Supper.  Held on the 25th January this commemorates and celebrates the anniversary of the birth of our national poet, Robert Burns.   The origins of this distinctive party go back to 1801 just five after his early death.  As author Clark McGinn puts it:  “Nine men who knew him met for dinner in Burns Cottage in Alloway to celebrate his life and works. The Master of Ceremonies was a local minister – a liberal theologian and an equally liberal host. Hamilton Paul and his guests shared Masonic brotherhood with Rabbie and Paul devised an evening which looked a bit like a lodge ceremonial, centred on a fine fat haggis; with recitation and singing of Burns’s works and a toast (in verse) to the memory of their friend and hero.
It was such a jolly evening, all agreed to meet again the following January for a Birthday Dinner for the bard, little knowing that they had invented a global phenomenon that we know as the BURNS SUPPER – which still broadly follows the Reverend’s original plan.”  Here is a painting of the great man.
An important part of any Burns Supper it the saying of grace.  This uses the Selkirk Grace, a brief and simple example of Burns’ art.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Burns Suppers are now held all over the world, as Burns was such a popular poet.  Though some will be pretty grand and formal affairs with lots of dancing and speech making, the majority will be small scale home grown affairs.  I have not been to many Burns Suppers.  I vaguely recall attending some suppers while a schoolboy, but cannot remember any details.  The last one I attended was when we lived in Spain.  Some of the Scots staff at the school decided to organize a Burns Supper.  This was held in some restaurant in Castelldefells, just outside Barcelona.  Haggis was pretty much unknown to most Spanish chefs, so they were persuaded to prepare their own concoction, which did look a bit like a haggis, but was clearly something completely different - exactly what I dare not remember.  Anyway the evening was great fun for all.  In addition to the staff from the school, some of the more adventurous natives attended.  I remember this supper because I was asked to give the Toast to the Lassies. No doubt due to its brevity more than to its wit, the toast seemed to have been well received.  Though I will not be at any Burns Supper this year, we will have haggis, neeps and tatties with a dram of whisky on the 25th.
January is on the whole a good month for the Rutherford family.  I can only find one death for this month - my great great great grandfather James Rutherford, who died in Cameron Bridge Hospital in 1868.  Curiously, my aunt Betty, James’  great great granddaughter also died in this same hospital in 198 .   There are however at least four January births to celebrate.  The earliest was Mary Edie Cunningham who was born on 15th January 1836 in Leuchars.  She was my great great grandmother and the wife of David Rutherford, who was the youngest son of the above mentioned James Rutherford who died in 1868.  More recently both my Dad and my sister, Pat, were born in January.  My Dad was born in 1908 in Kanpur in northern India.  His father was a soldier in the British Army and was at the time stationed in India.  His older brother, James, was also born in India, in 1906.  Here is my Dad in later years in his favourite location - the Old Course, St. Andrews.
The most recent addition to January births is my second grandson - Jamie, who was born on 3rd January 2005.   Here he is getting ready to blow out the candles on his birthday cake.
Looking over my records I realize that I have very little information about the dates and months of the births or deaths of most of my ancestors.  I need to try and do a bit more research.  For example I have just discovered that last month I missed out mentioning the birth of my mothers’ paternal grandmother - Helen Wright who was born on 5th December 1861 in Old Machar, Aberdeen.  If there are any Rutherfords reading this who have details about the dates of birth or death of any of our ancestors please let me know.
When it comes to birthstones the most favoured seems to be garnet.  This is the gemstone of both the traditional and the Ayurvedic lines.  The reddish variety appear the most popular and the garnet symbolizes awareness, commitment, regeneration, insight and removing negativity.  A pretty cheerful lot then.  If you don’t fancy a garnet the mystic tradition favours the emerald.  
For flowers, while the snowdrop does come out in January, it seems that the traditional flower associated with this month is the carnation.  Again a wide range of colours to choose from, though the reds seem to be the most favoured.  The Carnation symbolizes love, fascination and distinction.

I want to end this little post with some of Burns’ poetry.  All the versions come from this BBC site on Robert Burns.  It includes audio and video performances of most of his poems.  First off is the last verse from his celebration of men and women’s inherent humanity, irrespective of origin - A Man's a Man for A' That
Then let us pray that come it may, 
(As come it will for a' that,) 
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth, 
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that. 
For a' that, an' a' that, 
It's coming yet for a' that, 
That Man to Man, the world o'er, 
Shall brothers be for a' that.
Next is one his wonderful love poems - My Luve is like a Red Red Rose.  This time I give the complete version.
O my Luve's like a red, red rose, 
That's newly sprung in June: 
O my Luve's like the melodie, 
That's sweetly play'd in tune. 
As fair art thou, my bonie lass, 
So deep in luve am I; 
And I will luve thee still, my dear, 
Till a' the seas gang dry. 
Till a' the seas gang dry , my dear, 
And the rocks melt wi' the sun; 
And I will luve thee still, my dear, 
While the sands o' life shall run. 
And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve ! 
And fare-thee-weel, a while! 
And I will come again, my Luve, 
Tho' 'twere ten thousand mile!
Many of Burns’ poems were of course songs and you can see a fine version of My luve is like a red, red rose here, performed by the great Scottish singer, Eddie Reader.

Though Burns did write in impeccable English, most of his works were written in the language of the countryside, as then spoken by most Scots in the latter half of the 18th century.  Nowadays of course many Scots find some of his poems difficult to follow without the aid of a glossary.  If you want to test your skills in Scots you can try this little quiz here.  I took the test and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I got 8 out of the 10 answers correct.  If you get 8 or more correct you’re informed “That wis braw! Ye ken yer neaps frae yer tatties!”  You can find out more about the Scots language at this site.

So a happy January to everyone and don’t forget your haggis and whisky on the 25th.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Palestine - the Future

Though life is still terrible for most Palestinians, we must never lose hope that justice will prevail. Many Palestinians and Israelis continue to look to a future based on justice for all. The two state solution is still the preferred option for most Palestinians and Israelis and is the only option that the main foreign powers are willing to talk about. However fewer and fewer people really believe that a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel will ever come about. Mainly due to Israeli intransigence. For over 40 years now Israel has done nothing to promote a viable Palestinian state. Quite the opposite, all Israel’s actions on the ground have been deliberately designed to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state on its borders. Hence the colonial settlements all over the West Bank and the illegal incorporation of East Jerusalem into Israel proper - though not the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem. Israel still clings to this notion that either the Palestinians will somehow just go away or that they will forever consent to be treated as a subject people. This is most unlikely to happen.

And as mentioned at the beginning more and more people, including Palestinians and Israelis are starting to look at alternatives to the two state solution. One of these is Ahmed Moor, a Gaza born Palestinian-American freelance journalist living in Beirut. He has a piece on his own vision of one state in Israel/Palestine. His vision is a federal state with four entities plus Jerusalem as a joint Federal District. Can’t say that I agree with all of his ideas, but it is encouraging to know that many people refuse to be put off by the present discouraging situation and are prepared to think seriously and creatively about a different and better future. You can read the whole article here.

One of the more depressing aspects of the current situation is the tendency of the media to ignore the extent to which the UK’s and the USA’s military escapades in the Middle East and their seemingly carte blanche support for all types of Israeli aggression contribute to the formation of what we in the West are keen to categorize as terrorists. The great Glenn Greenwald in his blog has a must read article on this blindness on the part of the media in the USA.

The article focuses on Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian who blew himself up, along with 7 CIA agents, in Afghanistan last week. He asks the obviouis question - Why would Balawi -- a highly educated doctor, who was specifically recruited by Jordanian intelligence officials to infiltrate Al Qaeda on behalf of Western governments -- want to blow himself up and murder as many American intelligence agents as possible? According to interviews with Balawi, it seems he “had been "changed" by last year’s three-week-long Israeli offensive in Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians.” Yet the mainstream media continue to by and large support our assaults against Muslims without making any connection between these assaults and the subsequent rise in terrorists. As Greenwald puts it succinctly at the end of his peice - “Just contemplate how many Balawis there are in the world: Muslims who begin with sympathy towards the U.S. and hostility towards Al Qaeda who are completely transformed into the opposite as a result of the constant civilian death we and Israel bring (regardless of intent) to that part of the world.” Greenwald’s piece can be found here.

Further signs that the previous monolithic USA support for Israel is finally beginning to crumble, comes in the shape of Marcy Winograd. Congressional candidate Marcy Winograd, of Progressive Democrats of America, is challenging incumbent Jane Harman for one of California’s seats (CA-36) in the June 8, 2010 Democratic Party primary. What makes this challenge so interesting is that Jane Hamsher is one of the most notorious of America’s pro-Israel lobbyists. Hamsher and her supporters have attacked Winograd on the grounds that she, Winograd would endanger the survival of Israel. However Winograd, who is herself Jewish, has come out fighting and has forcibly responded to these attacks. Her is an extract from an open letter she published.

“Like you, I am intimately aware of our Jewish history. On my mother’s side, my great-grandparents escaped the Russian Pogroms to make a better life for themselves in Europe. On my father’s side, my great-grandparents were killed in the Jewish Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Because of our collective experience with persecution, it behooves us to stand in opposition to persecution anywhere and everywhere, rather than sanctify reductionist state policies that cast all Jews as victims who can only thrive in a segregated society. Furthermore, we must stand in explicit opposition to the Israeli persecution of the Palestinians; the brutal blockade of Gaza, an act of war by international standards, denying children clean water, food, and medicine.

We are better than that.

In your letter, you reference my speech in support of a one state solution, one that would recognize both Israelis and Palestinians as equals in a land of great historical significance to both. Security for Jews and Palestinians will be increased, not decreased, by efforts to establish a state where all are welcome and treated equally, but such a day may be far down the road given the existing enmity and lack of accountability in U.S. foreign policy regarding ever-expanding Israeli settlements. To stop the suffering of the Palestinian people and to end the rocket attacks on Israelis near the border, I am ready and willing to accept a negotiated peace agreement that adheres to principles of justice and recognizes a two-state solution based on withdrawal of illegal settlements to the 1967 borders or a mutually-agreed exchange of territory.”

Let us hope that Marcy Winograd is successful in her challenge for the Democratic nomination. It is the continuing public efforts of people like Ahmed Moor, Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Winograd that give us all hope that in time a just solution will be found for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Tuesday 5 January 2010


Welcome to 2010! And bitter cold it is too, at least over here in not so sunny Scotland. This has been the worst cold spell since goodness knows how long ago. The media are calling it the Big Freeze. Certainly feels like that. Anyway to cheer us all up a bit, I decided to start the year with a bit of colour and a warm one too - red. So here are some photos taken over 2009 featuring red - to remind us all of warmer days.

We start with this lovely little robin, taken in Tayport on New Year’s Day 2009, another cold and frosty day. Still robins always manage to cheer me up, whatever the weather.

This is another winter scene, showing two under-graduates from St.Andrews University in their traditional red gowns. In the photo they are overlooking the Castle Sands from the ruins of the castle itself.

Now for some hot peppers to warm us up inside. One of my favourite vegetables, either cooked or raw in a salad. Good for you as well as beautiful to look at.

Next some spring colour with this collage of April tulips, mainly taken in our back garden. I love tulips, such beautiful flowers, especially when they are just about to spread open.

In June we all went to Mallorca to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary and we were blessed by some glorious sunny weather. Not hard to imagine the bright flowers that grew everywhere.

I just had to include some of my stitching work from the year. This features three coasters and one side of a biscornu.

More summer flowers - dahlia, poppy and a rose from Walenstadt in Switzerland.

More from Switzerland - yours truly with Alessio showing off our balancing skills on the shores of the Zürichsee. Not to mention our lovely bright red gear.

Another Swiss pic - a very lovely and happy mum and son, just after a dip in the pool.

I just had to include this one. You get such impressive window displays in Switzerland. This one is from some trendy boutique in Zürich.

Final photo from Switzerland. You get these colourful gourds on display all over the place in September. These were on a table outside a farm on the edge of Kilchberg. The gourds were for sale and we bought some to take back home and put outside our front door. They last a long time.

More autumn colour, this time back in Scotland. The berries are from a cotoneaster in the Barnhill Rock Garden, here in Broughty Ferry, while the roses are in the gardens of Falkland Palace.

Back to winter again and this is a gorgeous Christmas window display from a lovely craft shop in St.Andrews.

This final photo features my adorable grandsons, who are all avidly following in their grandad’s footsteps as cooks sublime. The cakes were delicious as well - an added bonus.

I hope this little photo essay has cheered some of you up a bit. Let’s hope the Big Freeze relents soon and we can all enjoy some real warmth.