Monday 30 August 2010

Who's Afraid of Islam?

An awful lot of people it would seem, judging by some of the events of the last year or so.  In the USA much of the focus for this outpouring of anti-muslim hatred has been centred on the proposal to build a mosque and cultural centre at Park51, near to the so-called Ground Zero in New York.  Opponents have made much of the claim that this area is now hallowed or sacred land.  This claim of course is pretty much absurd and anyway Park51 is two blocks away from Ground Zero.  Many opponents also assert that it is insensitive of Muslims to want to build a mosque there.  Though judging by the banners and the views expressed on recent protests there is precious little sensitivity on show from the opponents.  Associated Press reported that a recent protest drew hundreds of “fever-pitch demonstrators with opponents carrying signs associating Islam with blood.”
If two blocks from Ground Zero is too close, then how far away should the mosque be?  How about Tennessee?  Oops, it seems that there was an arson attack at the site of new Islamic centre in a Nashville suburb.  Just who is insensitive here?  This example from Tennessee is just one of many from across the USA.  The Associated Press has recently reported that, “Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation’s heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive.”
This is not just an American phenomenon.  Europeans are just as disposed to ugly expressions of Islamophobia.  Here in Europe the focus is more on the dress codes for women.  Several countries, including France, have voted to, or are proposing to, ban the burka and other face coverings.  Nothing against Islam of course, just wanting to promote the liberation of women.  Muslim women of course are oppressed and nobody could possibly choose to wear a burka or face covering veil.  So, they must have been coerced into it.  So in future the State will now force them not to wear the veil.  Some liberty!  Great sensitivity!  
Thus it appears that in Europe the focus for anti-muslim sentiment is women’s clothing, while in the USA it is the building of mosques.  Though as Switzerland has already voted to ban the building of minarets, it may not be long before some Europeans start calling for a ban on mosques as well.  What is going on here?  Why this fear of muslims, particularly in the USA, where muslims only make up about 1% of the population?
This is alas, an old story.  For centuries people everywhere have had a fear of the “other”.  Almost anyone or any group can become the “other” and the focus for hatred and persecution.  Witches were for centuries the victims of horrendous, not to mention disgusting treatment.  In more recent times, blacks, Jews and catholics have filled this role.  In Scotland it was Irish catholics who until relatively recently suffered discrimination, persecution and abuse.  Now it seems that in both the USA and in Europe it is muslims who have become honoured with the role of the “other”.
It seems to be a basic need for some people to have someone else to blame for whatever misfortune has beset them.  Unemployment, low pay, poor schools, too much crime, poor housing, you name it and it is always the fault of someone else - usually a poor immigrant.  It is just so much easier to blame someone else, than to stop and try and work out just what is causing unemployment, poor schools etc.  Could it have something to do with our greed based capitalist system?  Or the lack of a fair taxation regime?  Perhaps if we stopped invading and killing other people we might have more resources to care for people back home.  Not to mention that we would then have fewer enemies who might want to attack us.
All this requires some effort and a willingness to go out and do some positive campaigning - in favour of something.  So much easier to just shout abuse and oppose.  Especially in times of crisis, like now, the temptation to blame the “other”, can degenerate into something really ugly and dangerous.  Dangerous to us all.  I end with a quote from another Scottish blogger, Caron, who sums up perfectly the dangers facing us all, not just muslims.  “We human beings are a diverse bunch - we have a huge range of views and likes and dislikes. When you start chipping away at the edges and banning things which are practised by a minority for no good reason other than they're different, it's a slippery slope which could lead to us all having a right wing tabloid press conformity forced on us. I think that's a really worrying prospect.”

Thursday 26 August 2010

Blood River

This was the Reading Groups’ book for September, and demonstrates the advantages of reading groups.  For this is not a book I would have chosen for myself.  Despite this unpromising start, it turned out to be a truly fascinating book.  It describes the author’s attempt in 2004 to journey down the river Congo.  The idea was to retrace the steps of nineteenth century explorer H M Stanley, the first European to journey down the massive river all the way to the Atlantic ocean.
Though the book does indeed vividly recount Tim Butcher’s journey and his many travails, this is more than a mere travelogue.  Subtitled A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, the book is really about the Congo itself, its peoples and how it has become a country not just in decline, but “undeveloping”, as Butcher characterizes it.
The journey itself was a pretty terrifying and almost foolhardy affair.  Tim Butcher himself describes it as ordeal travel.  At every turn he faced challenges, difficulties and threats.  It involved travelling through thousands of kilometres of virtually impassable equatorial rainforest.  
The road and rail network was in ruin and overrun by forest.  Politically the country in 2004 was just embarking on a process to end the decades old civil war which had caused so much destruction.  This all meant that not only was there no transport network, much of Eastern Congo was a no-man’s land still under threat of civil war.
Tim Butcher was however nothing if not determined.  He was also incredibly lucky in the help he found along the way.  Whether it was UN agencies, international NGOs or local Congolese, he always managed to find a way forward.  Though the Congo is famous for its corruption, Tim encountered many Congolese who were of impeccable honesty, demonstrating that corruption is not some condition intrinsic to Africans.
His journey took him through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.  The constant struggle against the heat, humidity and malaria infecting mosquitoes brought home to me just why I am most unlikely to ever visit this part of Africa.  Beautiful and fascinating as it seems to be.  The route down the Congo starts on Lake Tanganyika and ends some 3 000km later by the Atlantic ocean.  Tim Butcher made this mammoth journey by motor bike, boat, canoe, helicopter and car.  The most unusual was the canoe, or pirogue as they are known in the Congo.  Simple canoes, dug out of felled trees they are still the most common means of transport on the river.  Modern pirogues do not differ much, if at all from those of hundreds of years ago as can be seen from the two photos below.
Though the river is navigable for much of its length, there are long stretches of rapids which prevent any river traffic.  One such is found below the capital, Kinshasa, shown below.
Throughout his account of the journey Tim Butcher takes every opportunity to reflect on the history of the Congo and in particular how this potentially rich country has become so poor, backward and violent.  There are no easy answers to this, though the ravages of colonialism play a big part in any explanation.  Belgian rule in the Congo was not just very brutal, but very racist.  Nothing was done to prepare the Congolese for independence when it came in 1961.  Not that Tim thinks the British would have made a better job of it.  As he puts it, “It might be extreme and it might be shocking, but what happened in the Congo is nothing but colonialism in its purest, basest form.”
Unfortunately with independence did not come freedom.  The outside world, in the form of Belgium and the USA, decided to intervene to protect their own interests or at least the interests of the giant international mining corporations.  The Congo was plunged into a bloody civil war and then the Western backed dictatorship of Mobutu who proceeded to misrule the country in his own interests - and those of the mining corporations.  More bloody civil war came with the fall of Mobutu and only now is the country beginning to experience some kind of peace and stability.  It will probably take decades however for the rule of law to become established throughout the whole country.
Other parts of the world also suffered from colonialism and post colonial exploitation, but none seem to have remained so trapped in under development as most of sub-Sahara Africa.  Was there something special about the colonial experience there?  My only thoughts on the matter are that in Africa the colonial powers more or less completely destroyed the existing African tribal cultures and their traditions of government.  As Tim Butcher puts it, “Society was tribal, with authority lying in the hands of village chiefs and, above them, paramount chiefs.  But local people enjoyed sovereign power to the extent that they could get rid of unpopular chiefs.  No chief could afford to ignore totally the will of his subjects.  Decisions had to be taken, at least in part, with the interests of the people in mind.”  All this was destroyed by colonialism and in its place came the centralising power of the state.  Tribal society was never given the opportunity to evolve into something different.  African writers themselves have written eloquently about this and one of the greatest of all is Chinhua Achebe who in a series of novels has chronicled the savage destruction of traditional Igbo culture in Eastern Nigeria. 
Blood River is a wonderful book, which raises more questions than answers and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes a good adventure and in particular to anyone who wants an introduction to what lies behind the tragedy of modern Africa.  Then go on to read Chinhua Achebe.

Monday 23 August 2010

Yet more nastiness from the Coalition

Our Coalition government is certainly doing its best to pass on the pain to the long suffering UK citizen.  We now face the prospect of what might be aptly termed a triple whammy.  First up came the decision to force through an additional £6.5 billion of public-sector cuts this year.  Next came the so-called emergency budget with a further £11.5 billion of cuts.  The latest wheeze is a new threat to the free bus pass, the winter fuel allowance and universal benefits such as child benefit.
The cumulative effect of all these cuts is quite astounding.  With the exception of the state pension, all other benefits will in future rise in line with the consumer prices index (CPI), instead of the retail prices index (RPI).  As the CPI is lower than the RPI, because it does not include housing costs, this means everyone relying on benefits will be worse off.  And all to save £6 billion a year.  It is not any better for people who are lucky enough to be in work.  All public sector workers earning more than £21, 000 per year will have their pay frozen for two years.
However it looks like fewer and fewer of us will be in work.  With the exception of heath and international aid, all Whitehall departments face real-term cuts of anything between 25-40% in their budgets over the next three years.  It is pretty much impossible to see how this can happen without a savage reduction of the workforce and an equally savage reduction in the quality and range of services provided.
And all for what?  According to the government and their apologists in the media, we need this dose of pain in order to protect the country from the “markets”, who might otherwise lower our credit rating and thus push up the costs of government borrowing.  This is of course all tosh.
In the first place there is no crisis in government borrowing.  Unlike the situation in some other countries, the vast majority of UK government debt is held by UK institutions and is not due to be repaid for 10 or more years.  The biggest threat to our credit rating is the prospect of a double dip recession.  Which is precisely what the government’s cut and slash proposals may end up delivering.
Secondly the government’s finances are not anything like as terrifying as the Coalition is want to portray them.  Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that net borrowing is already coming down.  No doubt to a large extent due to the stimulus measures introduced by the last government.  These have helped produce a pick up in tax receipts.
However all this is in jeopardy as a direct result of the government’s policies.  Already there are disturbing signs that the Coalition’s austerity measures are beginning to plunge the economy into reverse, with figures showing a slowing of high street sales and renewed falls in house prices.  With the prospect of widespread job cuts in the public sector to come the outlook for the economy is pretty gloomy.  The Coalition’s strategy, or perhaps more accurately, reliance on a miracle, is that the private sector with pick up the slack on the back of a resurgent export boom.  Fat change of this.  Although the German economy has shown recent signs of recovery, Europe as a whole is also deeply mired in recession.  While the most recent data from the USA is deeply worrying with shares plunging due to a increase in unemployment and weak signals from industry.  The USA too is facing the prospect of a double dip recession.  Where will all this leave the Coalition’s economic programme?  In tatters.
None of this of course is in any way necessary.  There are lots of things the  Coalition could do to rebalance the economy and gradually reduce the deficit while still maintaining or even improving public services.  I will highlight one area here.  Corporate tax avoidance is a massive industry in its own right and costs the rest of us taxpayers billions every year.  A recent  survey estimated that corporate tax avoidance comes to the incredible figure of £85 billion per year.  £85 billion - just think of it and what it could mean for the rest of us if even a quarter of that were to be collected each year.
This figure is particularly relevant as the Coalition has just announced yet another crackdown on benefit fraud.  Now nothing against trying to cut down on fraud against the taxpayer.  But a couple points are worth making.  The government claims that about £5 billion is lost in benefit fraud every year.  However it seems that up to £7 billion in benefits go unclaimed every year.  Is the Coalition planning to ensure that these people get the benefits they are legitimately entitled to?  Thought not.  And of course if the government was to invest at least as much money and effort into recovering the £85 billion lost in corporate fraud then we would all be much better off.
Of course no such thing will happen.  This is after all one of the nastiest governments in the history of the UK.  And there has been a lot of competition, but so far the current Coalition wins hands down.  The majority of us suffer the pain without any gain.  As US economist Paul Krugman puts it - though the story shifts, the moral is always the same: the little people have to suffer.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Stitching Update

Over the summer months I have had less time than normal for stitching, so I have only managed to complete two projects and finish off a previous piece.  The first new project was the fourth in my series of Five Easy Pieces.  As with the others this was made up of five Bargello patterns.  The patterns are all fairly traditional and come from either The Bargello Book by Frances Salter or Bargello, A Fresh Approach to Florentine Embroidery by Brenda Day.  
This time the central section was a circle, which is almost impossible to accurately create on a woven fabric such as the Aida fabric which I use.  Still the result is pretty close.  I chose a combination of pinks and blues for the main sections with black to form the borders.  As usual the threads are DMC cotton in two strands.  Unlike most of my work this piece was designed from the start to fit into a wooden frame I had picked up second hand.  So here is the finished article.
The second project was one of my “frivolities.”   The idea for the piece came from a photo which I found in a blog which I dip into now and again.  Miss Rosenthal blogs from Málaga about trends in fashion, design and creativity.  In March 2009 she put up a post entitled, “La Felicidad era esto”.  The happiness is remembering the joys of Spring.  Accompanying the post was this lovely photo of some clothes she had found in her wardrobe.
I just loved this photo - its vibrant, clashing colours and the unusual pose.  From the first I wanted to use this photo to create some kind of stitching piece.  And it has only taken me about a year and a half to do so!  However better late than never, and last month I finally got round to creating something.  As I do not do attempts at recreating pictures or photos, it would have to be something abstract.  The central section is my take on the tights and shoes, and for this I made up my own version of the jacquard stitch.  The border area represents the skirt, and is made up of scotch and cashmere stitches in various sizes.  For the colours  I used more or less what was in my stack, so the colours are not an exact match.  Plum and emerald make up the centre and orange, pumpkin, yellow and gold the border.   This piece was also made to measure, as I had recently acquired a little cardboard frame.  On reflection the border may be just a tad too big.  I may try and find another, slightly smaller frame.  But on the whole I am quite pleased with my little piece which I have titled, La Felicidad es esto.
In addition to these two major projects I have at long last managed to finish off a piece I stitched last October.  This was a mini-tapestry inspired by the spire of a church in Turckheim, which I visited last year.  In a little maze of a store in the village of Letham in Angus, I found a bunch of willow canes, more or less the right thickness.  I cut them into sections and wove them in and out of the canvas to make a kind of frame.  With the attachment of some green and blue threads I finally have my completed mini-tapestry, which now hangs in our hallway.
I have just started work on some mini biscornus which I hope to turn into lavender sachets.  For these I will use some of the new threads I have recently acquired from Les Fils du Rhin, a little on-line store in Alsace.  The threads are hand dyed and come in a wonderful array of colours.  Each thread is made up of three or more colours, so you end up with a most unusual pattern.  I am quite excited about trying out these threads, which you can see below.

Monday 16 August 2010

Is Israel a strategic asset to the USA?

This question crops up quite frequently and did so at a recent seminar on Palestine that I attended.  Most people, including those at this seminar, affirm that Israel is indeed a strategic asset to the USA.  I disagree.  
The reason for the question in the first place is of course the almost complete reliance of Israel on USA support.  This support covers military assistance and an unprecedented willingness on the part of the USA to veto any motion critical of Israel in the UN.  Whatever the issue, Israeli wars of aggression, illegal settlement buildings, killing civilians in international waters, destroying Palestinian houses and farms - the USA always, but always takes the Israeli side.  One example from many - the recent UN report into the Gaza massacres, conducted by former South African judge Goldstone, himself a Jew, was highly critical of Israel.  Yet the USA immediately followed the Israeli line of dismissing the report as one sided and biased.  This kind of carte blanche support for Israel is deep seated within the US establishment.  Though Democrats and Republicans disagree, often violently, on most issues, on Israel there is complete agreement.  “We in Congress stand by Israel.  In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel”.   Thus speaks the leader of the Democrats, while the Republican leader intones, “We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world”.
This support however, does not come cheap for the USA.  As Mearsheimer and Walt point out in their study, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,  “Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other side.  It has been the largest annual recipient of direct US economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War 11.  Total direct US aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars.  Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of American’s entire foreign aid budget.  In per-capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year.  This largess is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per-capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain”.  These are just the official on the record figures.  Israel almost certainly gets more financial and military aid, hidden within other budgets.
Why?  The conventional and apparently obvious answer is that Israel is a strategic asset to US foreign policy.  This view was widespread during the Cold War, and was memorably expressed by a former Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who put it thus:  “Israel is the largest, most battle-tested and cost effective US aircraft carrier that cannot be sunk, does not even carry one US soldier, and is located in a most critical region for US national security.”
This may have sounded plausible in the 1970s, but even then it is hard to imagine that the Soviet Union or its allies was about to launch an all out attack on the USA somewhere in the Middle East.  Just after Israel had smashed its rivals during the six day war?  Israel may have been in danger, though even that is improbable, but US national security?
Whatever may have been the alleged case during the Cold War, it is even more difficult to fathom out just what assets Israel brings to the USA nowadays.  A recent article in the Jerusalem Post tried to enumerate the many benefits that accrue to the USA.  They were:  much of the money is spent on US weapons:  the US and Israel are jointly developing missile defense capabilities;  Israel is a port of call for US troops, ships, aircraft and intelligence operations;  the US stockpiles arms, fuel, munitions etc;  the US has real-time, minute to minute access to one of the best intelligence services in the world;  Israel has destroyed Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear facilities;  Israel has undertaken many operations to foil, slow and disrupt Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.  So this is what the USA gets for its yearly $3 billion subsidy to Israel.
Does anyone, even in the USA believe any of this?  And even if they did, would they really think this was value for money.  Let’s just briefly go over this list.  The USA subsides its own weapons industry -  doesn’t need Israel to do this.  Joint development of weapons - why pay Israel a subsidy for this, if it is of benefit to Israel?  A port of call - what about Egypt or Turkey, no ports there?  One of the best intelligence services in the world - really?  This is the intelligence service that failed to spot Hezbollah’s capability and willingness to resist an Israeli attack?  The destruction of Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear facilities - assuming they really did have a nuclear weapons capability, could the USA not do this on its own?  And as for Iran - this seems to be simply an unproven and unprovable claim - all based on the assertion that Iran does have a nuclear weapon’s programme - something denied by Iran and unsupported by any independent evidence.
I would have thought that any independent observer would conclude that there is nothing in the above list that the USA really needs or could not get elsewhere for either nothing or considerably less than $3 billion a year.
On the other hand there does seem to be some very clear negatives for the USA as a result of its special relationship with Israel.  When it has come to the USA actually going to war in the Middle East, Israel has been of no use whatsoever.  The USA has in fact had to go out of its way to prevent Israel from helping out by supplying troops, aircraft and weapons etc.  The Israelis would just love to have been involved in the two wars against Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan.  I am sure the Israelis would have much to offer, especially in patrolling and controlling urban areas.  But despite all the vast amount of dollars and weapons given to Israel, none of this was of any use to the USA in any of these recent wars.
The pro-Israel stance of the USA has also damaged the USA’s standing in not just the wider Arab world, but in the whole of the muslim world - a not inconsiderable part of the world’s population.  Poll after poll shows that muslims have a negative view of the USA.  This even after the election of Obama as President and his so-called opening to the muslim world.  It seems that the reality of USA support for Israel counts for more among muslims that mere warm words.
It is also emerging into the public domain that this one-sided support for Israel is actually a threat to the lives of US soldiers.  In March this year, in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, listed “insufficient progress towards a comprehensive Middle East peace” as number five on a list of 15 threats to US national security.  Petraeus has also said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fomented anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism to Israel.  He added that Al Qaeda and other militant groups exploited Arab anger over the Palestinian issue to mobilize support.
So not only does the USA get virtually nothing of real worth for its $3 billion yearly subsidy, but it seems that this money actually makes the USA more insecure.  Some deal!  So why does the USA continue to give all this money to Israel?
Here we come to the really difficult bit.  I must admit that I can offer no satisfactory explanation for this continuing largesse.  It just does not make any sense.  Why would a superpower continue to waste money on subsidizing any ally that makes lives more dangerous for US citizens?  
For what it is worth here is my off the peg stab at some possible rationales for this waste of money.
  • the power of the Jewish/Israel lobby.  This is Mearsheimer and Walt’s explanation.  I am not convinced.  Though financial contributions from the Jewish community is an important facet of the US electoral system, I still find it hard to see how so many American congressmen and women would choose to support Israel simply because of the Jewish vote.
  • the power of the Christian Zionist movement.  As with the previous explanation, I am not convinced.  Though the Christian Zionists are almost certainly more numerous and more powerful than the Jewish lobby.
  • inertia - never underestimate the force of inertia.  Having got into supporting Israel during the Cold War, when there may have been some possible benefit to the USA, it can become very difficult to alter this mindset.
  • Imperial hubris - this is much like the previous explanation.  As the last remaining superpower, the USA can (just about) afford to bankroll Israel.  Even though there is no benefit accruing.
None of the above on their own is particularly convincing.  Though taken together they may account for the continuing unthinking support.  What may have started as a realist Cold War opportunity has, through the money and efforts of the Jewish and Christian Zionist movements, and the simple passage of time, become the default position for most, almost all, American politicians.  We do it because we can.  Not altogether satisfactory, but I find it impossible to come up with a convincing explanation, perhaps because there is no convincing explanation.  Any ideas out there?

Thursday 12 August 2010

Reading Challenges

Reading Challenges seem to be spreading far and wide.  I had never heard of them before, but now that I spend a fair amount of time reading, I’ve begun to dip into some of the thousands of blogs about books.  And through some of them I’ve come across all kinds of reading challenges.  The one that first caught my eye was the Scandinavian reading challenge.  The challenge is to read six books by Scandinavian authors by the end of 2010.  This challenge has been put up by Amy, a Californian who blogs at Black Sheep Dances.  
This is the only challenge that I have actually signed up for and I have already managed to complete nine books.  So far I have read: The Redbreast and Nemesis, both by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø;  The Draining Lake and Silence of the Grave, both by Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason;  The Ice Princess and The Preacher, both by Swedish author Camilla Läckberg;  The Man from Beijing by Swedish writer Henning Mankell;  Woman with Birthmark by another Swedish writer Håkan Nesser;  and Death in Oslo by Norwegian author Anne Holt.  All very, very good reads and all very different.  If you count Finland as part of Scandinavia, I need to add a book by a Finnish and a Danish writer to complete the set of all Scandinavian countries.  Will need to do a bit of research to discover Finnish and Danish writers, especially crime writers.  Two of the best sites for this kind of information are Eurocrime and Petrona, both a minefield of information and reviews of crime fiction.
Reading Challenges are not of course limited to crime novels or specific countries.  If you fancy setting yourself a worldwide challenge then the Global Reading Challenge is for you.  This comes in four levels from easy to extremist.  For the easy level you need to read one novel from each of the six continents - Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, North America (includes Central America) and South America.  The harder levels require you to read more novels and add in further challenges - eg two novels set in Antarctica.  For details see Globalreadingchallenge.  I’ve almost managed the easy level.  I only need to read a novel from South America.
Closer to home Book Chick City is sponsoring a couple of reading challenges.  The first is the Typically British Reading Challenge.  She doesn’t though specify what constitutes a typical British book, only that it must be fiction.  Anyway you can make up your own mind.  The challenge has four levels:
  • Put the Kettle On - read two novels
  • Gordon Bennett - read four novels
  • Bob’s Your Uncle - read six novels
  • Cream Crackered - read eight novels.

I’m already through the cream crackered stage, though whether they all count as typical British novels is open to question as they include authors as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, William Boyd, Robin Jenkins, Ann Cleeves, Ian Banks, Rose Tremain and Alex Gray.
Book Chick City is also promoting the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.  Though as this includes science fiction, fantasy fiction and horror fiction, it is definitely one challenge I will not be taking up.  However if this is your scene then you once again have four levels to aim for - from the inquisitive to the obsessed.
Back to the mainstream and lovers of all things Oz, can delve into the Aussie author challenge, promoted by Aussie Sheila, Joanne P.  This has only two challenge levels, but you do have not just read the books, you also have to post up a review.  The Tourist levels requires you to read three books by three different authors, while to reach the Fair Dinkum level you need to have read eight books by a least five different authors.  I am afraid not much up on Australian literature, and am most unlikely to even reach the Tourist level.  So far this year I have only read one book by an Aussie writer, The Truth by Peter Temple.  However this was an excellent crime novel, so I should try a few more from Down Under.  The only other Aussie writer I’ve read recently is Kate Grenville, whose work is also very good, but I read her novels last year.
To end with a, for me, almost impossible challenge - the fourth Japanese Literature Challenge.  This is promoted by Bellezza, an American blogger.  There does not seem to be any minimum number of books for this challenge - I guess reading even one Japanese novel is a bit of a challenge for most of us.  However she does include a very helpful list of titles to choose from.  If I can get one from the library I promise to read at least one Japanese novel.

Monday 9 August 2010

Post Cards from Switzerland

Another short visit to Switzerland is coming to an end.  As usual we have managed to pack in lots of outings, some short and some longer.  This little post highlights some of our visits. The main trip this time was to Solothurn, which is known as the Baroque capital of Switzerland.  It is a very impressive small town.  Though we picked a rainy day to visit it was still very pleasant to wander around the place, admiring the lovely buildings.  Below is a view looking up the main street to the very grand Cathedral.
Inside the cathedral was equally impressive.  On display were two beautiful examples of icons.  The one below is of Saints Urs and Victor.  The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Urs.
Solothurn is full of beautiful buildings, most of which are richly decorated as can be seen from the photo below, which was taken in the main square.
Solothurn is a river town and in good weather you can take a boat trip  along the river.  No boats were sailing when we were there, but the river banks are lined by some fine buildings, such as the old hospital, shown below.
A wonderful feature of Solothurn is the profusion of statues of (presumbly) famous historic characters from the town's past, which adorn the public fountains.  Here is one of the more colourful ones.
Next up was a short walk by the shore of the Upper Zürichsee.  The walk starts in Pfäffikon and winds its way to the little town of Lachen.  This is one of a series of walks which go all way round the Zürichsee.  Emma hopes to complete the whole lot between now and next year.  An interesting feature of this walk is that it takes place in Kanton Schwyz, one of the original Kantons, and one of the smallest.  The first part of the walk is through Pfäffikon, which is an industrial town and not particularly interesting.  Once past this though the walk becomes more enjoyable and soon you get to the lake shore to find views like this one.
A little further on and you come to the fairy tale hamlet of Seestatt, which consists of not much more than a dozen or so buildings.  All very special and the place reeks of money.  There is a restaurant in the place, but it was in the process of renovation at the time of our visit.  However below is one of the more unusual buildings.
The walk ends in Lachen, a lovely little town near the mouth of the river Aa.  We had a very pleasant lunch there by the waterfront.  The main feature of Lachen is its beautiful twin towered church below.
The third outing was specially selected by Emma and was to the Giessbach Waterfall.  On this occasion Cosimo was able to come with us, so we could drive there.  The Giessbach waterfall is in the Berner Oberland, only a short drive up the mountainside from Brienz.  The waterfall is really spectacular and drops down in seven successive falls.  The path that winds its way to the top goes under the water at one stage as can be seen in this photo.
We decided not to pursue the path all the way to the top, but instead wandered down to the hotel and restaurant which lies on a little plateau high above Lake Brienz. 
A beautiful hotel which offers good food which we readily accepted. 
From here you also get great views up to the whole waterfall rushing down.
On the way back from Giessbach we passed three, yes three red Ferraris.  Not really into cars myself, but these Ferraris did look very sleek.  The passed us a bit later on and Imanaged to get this photo of all three.
Our final outing was another of Emma's Zürichsee walks.  This one went from Gattikon along the river Sihl and then up and over the hillside to reach the lakeside.  Luckily I found a fine wooden staff to help me up and down the hillsides.
Once through to the lakeside you get wonderful views of the Zürichsee and the mountains beyond as you can see from this photo.
The walk ends in Horgen, one of the main lakeside towns and one end of the car ferry which crosses the lake.  It was a very hot day and we were most relieved to find a fine pizzeria in which to recover after our exertions.  Alessio in particular had been salivating about pizzas from halfway.  Horgen itself is a very fine town with some most attractive traditional buildings such as the one below.  A good place to end our last outing on this trip.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Why Switzerland?

This little post is a reflection on an article in the current issue of the Swiss weekly – Weltwoche.  The article in question is by Markus Somm and is entitled, Die Idee der Freiheit.  In it Somm tries to make out that the defining characteristic of Switzerland is precisely Freedom.  As he puts it:  „(Switzerland) exists for one reason only: because its inhabitants for centuries have wanted to be free.“

Now Switzerland is a lovely coutry and I always enjoy our regular visits here.  And I realize that the article was written on the occasion of Switzerland’s National Day, but come off it – freedom, even with a capital F, is something peculiar to the Swiss?  Methinks Herr Somm doth protest too much.

In the first place very few people think freedom is a bad idea.  Secondlly many other countries have longed valued freedom and many would also consider freedom a special characteristic of their traditions.  For example England with its Magna Carta and Habeus Corpus.  And in Scotland of course the idea of freedom has at least as long a history as in Switzerland. 

Take for example these stirring words from the Declaration of Arbroath:  „It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honour that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.“  Now this claim dates from 1320, during Scotland’s long wars of independence against England.  Note too that by then Scotland had already existed for at least 400 years.  So like the Swiss, Freedom is something that Scots have fought and died for, over and over again.

It is also pertinent to note that Somm’s notion of Freedom is pretty much restricted to freedom from.  In the case of Switzerland this was from domination by the Hapsburgs and in the case of Scotland from domination by the kings and queens of England.

These days have long passed and the notion of a Hapsburg take over of Switzerland is wholely in the realms of science fiction.  But Markus Somm has not written out of nostalgia.  He is one of the Swiss equivalents of our anti EU brigade.  Thus his little piece is primarily an attempt to justify Switzerland staying out of the EU.  His article ends with a somewhat hyperbolic claim that if Switzerland were to enter the EU, then this would mean the end of Switzwerland as a free country.

However what people like Somm fail to mention is just which Switzerland are we talking about?  For not to put too fine a point on it the Switzerland of today has little in common with the three tiny Alpine cantons that came together to fend off the Hapsburgs in 1291.  The successive expansions of the Swiss state has nearly always involved some degree of restriction on the freedoms of the cantons.  Just about all countries in the world have signed up to a whole raft of international obligations which clearly restrict their freedom of action.  Only the likes of Burma and North Korea remain aloof from this process.  And Switzerland has been at the forefront of many of these international agreements.  Specifically in relation to the EU, Switzerland has for decades now been a party to  successive Bilateral Agreements which in the opinion of many Swiss effectively mean that Switzerland is pretty much part of the EU already.  So it is not at all clear just how full membership would somehow cause Switzerland to cease to be Switzerland.

Monday 2 August 2010


Though for many people in central and southern Europe, August is the month of summer, for us in Scotland, August is more associated with the end of summer.  It is still generally a warm and sunny month - perhaps more so with the effects of global warming.  However we do begin to notice the darkening nights as the sun disappears ever earlier in the evening.  August is a good month for colour in the garden though, with agapanthus and Japanese anemones in full bloom.   As are the water lilies, hydrangeas and the fuchsias, one of my favourite flowers.  I love the drooping bells and the purple - red colour combinations.  Here are some blooms from a previous August.
Another indication that August is a transitional month is that August 1st was the traditional date for Lammas Day.  This was one of the old quarter days in Scotland and England.  These were the days, going back to the Middle Ages, on which contracts and leases would begin or end.  It was also a day for celebrating and feasting, as this day was regarded as the beginning of the harvest period.  The name apparently comes from the Anglo-Saxon for loaf-mass or bread-feast.
Lammas was and still is a very popular time in St. Andrews.  Every year the Lammas Market is held in the town.  This is claimed to be the oldest surviving medieval street fair.  And it still takes place in South Street and Market Street - two of the main streets in the town.  Originally it would feature primarily market stalls, though of course nowadays the streets are full of fairground rides.  In St. Andrews the Lammas Market lasted from Friday to Tuesday.  The dates varied from year to year as the fair always ended on the second Tuesday in August.  As Wednesday was a local holiday the Tuesday evening was the busiest time as just about everyone was out and at times you could hardly move.  No need to worry about a hangover the next morning!  Here is a video of some of the shows from a few years back.  Not long after the Lammas Fair ended it was back to school again - another indication that summer was more or less over.
August, like July is a great month for festivals.  One of the most popular is the Pittenweem Arts Festival which runs from 7-15 August.  Pittenweem is a small fishing burgh in the East Neuk of Fife.  With a population of about 3 000, it would a village in most places, but up here is it is a small town or burgh in the vernacular.  The Arts Festival has been going for more than 30 year now.  When we lived in the next door burgh, Anstruther (only one mile away) we went to the festival regularly.  We still do as Pittenweem is only about 25 miles from Broughty Ferry.  The Festival mainly features painting and crafts, and now has about 100 venues.  Most are just rooms in someone’s house or a garage or outhouse.  The Festival is great fun as you can just pop in and out of one venue after another as you walk along the main streets.  As well as local artists the Festival always features a number of invited artists.  Below is a photo of Pittenweem and a collage of some of the exhibits from a couple of years ago.
The major August festival in Scotland is the Edinburgh International Festival.  This is one of the biggest international festivals in the world and this year it runs from 13 August until 5 September.   The Edinburgh Festival is really a series of festivals.  The International Festival is the best known and concentrates on the high brow end of the cultural scene with opera, drams, classical concerts and so forth.  For more about this year's programme go here.  Alongside this has grown a number of other festivals, most notably the Fringe, which runs from 6 - 30 August.  This year there is expected to be an amazing 2,453 shows covering comedy, theatre, dance and physical theatre, events, exhibitions, children’s shows, music, musicals and opera.  The Fringe's website can be found here. There are also many other festivals in Edinburgh during August, including the International Book Festival, the Military Tattoo and the innovative Festival of Politics which combines the worlds of politics, media and the arts.  Edinburgh is a beautiful city and August is definitely the time to visit.
Down the road a bit there is another world famous festival in August the Notting Hill Carnival.  This is apparently Europe’s largest street party and second only in the world to Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.  This is a noisy and colourful celebration of Caribbean music and culture in the heart of London.   The festival ends with a spectacular street parade with dozens of floats on which costumed dancers strut their stuff in time to their own beat.
The most important religious festival in August this year will be the start of Ramadan.  This is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the holiest month form Muslims.  This was when the Qur’an was revealed.  The month is spent by Muslims fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset.  As the Islamic calendar follows the lunar cycle, the dates for Ramadan change every year.  This year Ramadan begins on 11 August and is projected to end on 9 September.
August saw two deaths and one marriage among my ancestors.  William Wright married a Mary Mathieson on 15 August 1851 in Old Machar, which is now part of Aberdeen.   William Wright was one of my maternal great great grandfathers.  His daughter, Helen would marry James Henderson who was the father of my mother.  The deaths were of two of my paternal great grandfathers.  The first was James Rutherford who died on 17 August 1897 in St. Andrews.  The second was Alexander Philp who died on 10 August 1933, also in St. Andrews.  This Alexander was the father of Lily Philp who was the mother of my father.  Looking to the future August is also the birthday of two new members of the Rutherford family.  Emma’s husband Cosimo was born on  August 1972 in Schaffhausen.  And my eldest grandson, Liam was born on 29 August 2003 in Dundee.  Happy birthday to both Cosimo and Liam.
There does not seem to be much agreement as to the birthstone for those born in August.  Different traditions have gone for very different gems.  So you can choose from diamonds, sapphires or carnelian.  The modern stone  for August births is the peridot, which is a lime green colour.  Peridot is considered a tonic for the whole body and protects the wearer from negativity.  It is also associated with stress reduction and relaxation.  A pretty useful combination.  It can also be a very beautiful gem as shown below.
The flower for August is the Gladiolus which can be seen at the beginning of this post.  The Gladiolus represents strength of character and moral integrity.  Given in a bouquet, they represent infatuation and that the receiver has pierced the giver’s heart like a sword.  Gladiolus comes from the latin word for sword.  They can also stand for splendid beauty, admiration, sincerity and generosity.