Thursday 31 March 2011

Scottish Elections - the campaigning has begun

At long last Parliament has been dissolved and the campaigning has now begun in earnest.  As the actual election is not until 5th May, there is a lot of campaigning to go.  It has kicked off with another opinion poll and various policy announcements from the main parties.  We have even had the first of three TV debates involving the party leaders.  Well, at least four of the parties.  For some reason the Greens, despite representation in each of the three previous Parliaments, have been excluded from these debates.  
Early impressions.  Policy wise there does not seem to be a great deal of difference between Labour and the SNP.  Labour has after lots of dithering finally decided they too would freeze Council Tax for at least the next two years.  Nobody really likes the Council Tax and how to change it was a big issue four years ago.  With just about everyone in favour of a freeze it is unlikely to be such an important issue this time around.  Which is a great pity as the whole future of the structure, functions and financing of local government is a major issue facing the country and ought to be a central issue for debate during the election.  Obviously too controversial for the main parties.
What will be the main issues this time around?  Too early to say, as yet.  Everyone is in favour of growing the economy, increasing employment and protecting public services.  Well, apart from the Tories, who are all for cutting swathes of public services.  A couple of issues may emerge as significant - funding universities and nuclear energy.  With the massive changes in university funding in England, especially the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 per year, the future funding of Scottish universities has suddenly become a bit of a hot potato.  Again, apart from the Tories, all the other parties are against introducing tuition fees in Scotland.  This though could prove difficult for the LibDems, as their colleagues in Westminster are part of the Coalition which has raised tuition fees down south.  Who will trust them up here?  Labour too have a bit of a problem as it was previous Labour governments which first introduced tuition fees.  Can they really be trusted on this issue?  If this does become a major issue then the SNP and to a lesser extent the Greens are the likely beneficiaries.  The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan has brought nuclear energy back to the forefront of political debate.  As the recent Land elections in Germany have shown nuclear power plants are even less popular than before.  Once again the Tories are a bit out on their own here as firm advocates of nuclear energy.  However, the LibDems and Labour have a bit of a murky past to overcome.  Some senior members of both parties are still active supporters of nuclear power.  While in government at Westminster Labour was committed to building more nuclear power stations, as are the LibDems as part of the Coalition deal with the Tories.  So, as with tuition fees, if this does become one of the key issues, then the SNP and the Greens, who have both consistently opposed any new nuclear build, will be the clear beneficiaries.
 The big elephant in the room is of course the money which will be available to the new Scottish government.  As part of the Coalition’s programme to cut the UK deficit, the block grant which Westminster graciously sends up to Edinburgh will in real terms be reduced year on year for the lifetime of the next Parliament.  While most parties, again with the exception of the Tories, will oppose these cuts, there is not much they can do about it, lacking any power at Westminster, which controls the purse strings.  So it will be all about how to manage the cuts here in Scotland.  In this, the SNP and the Greens have a possible important advantage in that they can and no doubt will argue that with independence there would be no need for any of these cuts.  So they can try to deflect at least some of the criticism that will come their way by putting all the blame on the Tory/LibDem Coalition in London.  Labour will try to do the same, but have two major handicaps with this approach.  Firstly Labour was the UK government in charge when the financial crisis broke and at the last UK election Labour promised severe cuts, just not quite as severe or fast as the Tories.  Secondly Labour as a Unionist party, cannot use the option of independence as a way out of the crisis.  As for the Tories and the LibDems it would be very difficult for them to argue persuasively against the cuts while their colleagues are in power in London.   Once again if the issue of who is best placed to protect Scotland from the worst excesses of the LidDem/Tory Coalition emerges as a significant factor in the campaign, the SNP and the Greens are likely to benefit most from this.
However as yet the campaign has not really caught on with the public at large.  All the parties have still to publish their manifestoes.  The TV debate was a pretty dull affair, most noticeable for Labour’s leader, Ian Gray’s snarling finger jabbing interventions.  Alas he had little of substance to say.  Annabel Goldie for the Tories, was as charming and irrelevant as usual.  Alex Salmond was the clear winner for most observers, without ever having to do very much.  The most recent opinion poll confirms that the SNP seems to be closing the gap with Labour - they are now virtually neck and neck.  The LibDem vote continues to disappear.  This could well be the crucial factor in the final outcome - where do the previous LibDem voters place their vote?  For, unless there is a dramatic reversal of fortunes for them, the LibDems are on target for one of their worst electoral results since God knows when.  We will need to wait for a few more opinion polls for some enlightenment on this one. 
The polls also show that Alex Salmond is by far the most popular of the party leaders, with even Annabel Goldie pushing both Ian Gray and Tavish Scott into near oblivion.  As this is not a presidential election and there are still lots of undecideds out there, we should not read too much into this.  However it does show that if the election comes down to who do you most trust to lead the country as First Minister, then the SNP are likely to do well.  As Labour have seemingly decided not to compete against the SNP on policies, then this may be a key issue after all.

Sunday 27 March 2011

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

The latest Woody Allen film finally reached Dundee last week.  In a surprising change Allen has left his home turf of New York to locate the film in London.   You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has all the strengths and weakness of recent Allen films.  The strengths are the usual - an ensemble piece with a good cast, great filming,  great music and great directing.  The cast is an interesting mix of internationally famous stars and British stalwarts.  From around the globe come Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.  The local cast includes well kent faces such as Gemma Jones, Pauline Collins, Lucy Punch and Phillip Glenister.  They all work well together and as ever Allen leads us in and out of the different strands of his tale with effortless ease.  As usual with Allen the cinematography is wonderful, with some lovely and unusual views of London streets.  It is also a very pleasing film to watch, with some beautiful and carefully crafted interiors and a fine swathe of (mostly) classic fashion on display.  Another plus is that Allen continues to resist the current fad to produce ever longer films and sticks to the traditional hour and a half or so.  This helps to keep the pace of the action tight and sharp.
Alas the usual weaknesses are there, and this time in super abundance.  The main disappointment with the film is the story itself.  Now all Allen films deal to some extent with a few key recurring issues.  One is how relationships succeed or more often fail.  Another is how to find happiness in the world here and now.  This theme nearly always involves an older man seeking solace in the arms of a younger woman (usually much younger woman).  There is a pervading nihilistic feel to all Allen films in that they are all premised on the view that life basically sucks and is meaningless.  Nevertheless his best films always manage to say something positive about the struggle for meaning and offer some kind of hope for the future, however fragile that might be.

With You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger this is not the case.  All the main characters make disastrous choices at key moments and for all but two it looks like they will live to regret it.  And for good measure just about all the main characters are pretty mean, if not downright nasty people.  The plot revolves around two failing marriages.  Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) leaves his wife Helena (Gemma Jones) for a young ditzy blonde prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), whom he promptly marries.  Helena finds solace in friendship with a charlatan fortune teller (Pauline Collins).  Meanwhile Alfie and Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is struggling with both her career in the art world and with her marriage to failed writer Roy (Josh Brolin).  Sally tries and fails to start an affair with her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), while Roy does succeed in starting an affair with the young and beautiful violinist Dia (Freida Pinto), who just happens to live opposite him.  
Things then very quickly turn really bad for everyone, with little prospect of a happy ending in sight.  That is for all except Helena.  And in many ways this is what makes the film such a depressing statement.  For Helena is not only a thoroughly nasty person, who seems to have no real feelings for her daughter, but she is also clearly mad.  Under the baleful influence of her charlatan friend, she quickly loses any sense of rationality that she possessed and becomes more and more loopy and hurtful to her daughter.  After discovering the virtues of a belief in re-incarnation she finds happiness with another deeply disturbed and loopy soulmate.
It is interesting to compare this ending with Allen’s previous film, Whatever Works.  That too was about the struggle to find happiness and meaning in life.  The message of that film was that anyone and everyone could find some kind of happiness, if not meaning in life.  You just had to work out what worked for you.  In his latest film though the only people who seem to have found any kind of happiness are mad and nasty too.  Not only is there no meaning to life, there is no point in even looking for happiness. Life is just so haphazard and without reason that you are only likely to find comfort if you are a touch mad.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger also falls down in comparison with Whatever Works in terms of the writing.  Whatever Works was very funny with some great lines.  The current film has no such redeeming features.  The dialogue is lacking in the wit and sharpness that have been Allen’s hallmark.  It is just not that funny a film to overcome the remorseless bitterness and bleakness of the story. 

Thursday 24 March 2011

The Budget - Much Ado about Nothing?

Another budget and lots of newsprint and heated debated on the airwaves.  But has this budget made any significant difference to the economy or the short term prospects of most individuals?  I suspect not.  In a way I feel a bit sorry for our boy George, (well not really), as he has to present a budget each year, but all the key decisions were taken last year.  This was when the Coalition make their reckless and ruthless decisions on the future direction of the public finances.  And despite the fanfare this year about a budget for growth, this is clearly no such thing.  
For the overall strategy of the Coalition is much less a dash for growth than a dash to cut.  To cut just about anything and everything.  If the Chancellor was serious about growth in the economy he would not be aiming to cut the deficit in four years, nor would he be slashing back on public spending.  It is already clear that there has been even less growth than forecast and the prospects for next year are none too good either.  To cap it all government borrowing has actually gone up.  Nothing too surprising in any of this.  Before the last election just about everyone warned that a too precipitous dash to cut the deficit would not just damage the lives of individuals, but would damage the prospects for future growth in the economy.  Even the Liberal Democrats criticized the Tories for their economic policies and warned that this approach would damage the economy.
The Coalition’s decision to cut the deficit in as short a time as possible has nothing to do with economic analysis.  All the evidence shows that slashing public spending in a crisis will not, on its own, lead to growth.  The Tories are using the deficit as a red herring to cover their real aim - which is to slash public spending in overall terms and welfare spending and public services in particular.  All this is classic Tory policy - the nasty party has not changed its spots.  There is nothing surprising in any of this, the public knew what the Tories stood for and what they were proposing to do.  Which is why they were massively rejected by the electorate at the last election.  It is always important to remind ourselves that the Tories did not win the election.  If the country had wanted the Tory prescription, more of the electorate would have voted Tory.  But they didn’t. 
What is really surprising is that the LibDems have ended up supporting this nasty lot.  Especially since the LibDems campaigned strongly against the economic policies of the Tories.  So why did they decide to enter into a Coalition?  I know that some LibDems are as neoliberal in their economics as the Tories, but most of us assumed that there were enough LibDems with a Social Democratic background to resist the blandishments of office.  Oh how wrong we were.  A clear lesson from the last UK election - never trust a LibDem.  With the Tories at least you know what you will get - though it always seems to turn out even worse.
Back to the budget.  There is nothing in this year’s budget which will change the country’s economic prospects.   Taken as a whole the various budgets mean a pronounced reduction in the living standards for the majority of us.  With inflation at 5% or so, future rises in personal allowances to be limited to the CPI as opposed to the RPI, rises in VAT, cuts to public services - minor adjustments here and there make little difference to the loss of income for most of us.  Even the 1p reduction in the price of petrol is a bit of a con.  Its very minor effect is more than offset by the earlier rise in VAT.  Not to mention that the North Sea oil industry is up in arms about the rise in its tax burden - all to pay for this 1p reduction in the price of petrol.  The after effects of this imposition on the oil industry will be very interesting.  Will they carry out their thinly veiled threats to cut back in investments in the North Sea?  If so the government will look pretty silly, and all for a mere 1p reduction in the price of petrol.  Of course if they do not cut back on investment and there are no job losses, this would be a pretty good indication that there was no need to reduce corporation tax.  This minor move in the budget could prove to be the most interesting of all.
A final comment on the overall economic strategy of the Coalition. Just after the budget two of the main ratings agencies have made public their concern that the low growth forecasts for the UK mean that the government could in the future be faced with a downgrading of its AAA rating.  What would that do to the government’s borrowings?  Plan B anyone?

Monday 21 March 2011

Learning to mount and frame

Last weekend I attended a two day introductory course in mounting and framing at the DCA.  There were six of us on the course which meant we got lots of help from the tutor.  You had to bring along something to frame and I of course came with one of my stitching pieces.  It was a very good and interesting course and we all ended up with a finished work of art.  Here is what I brought to the course, one of my Bargello pieces - Broken Ribbons.
The course starts with preparing the mounting board.  For this we used acid free Arcadia mount board 1400 microns thick.  This is the thinest size available and suitable for our artwork.  First up you need to work out the size of the mounting board you want for your particular artwork.  This in turn depends on how much space you want between the artwork and the frame itself.   A matter of choice and judgement.  As my piece was longer than it was wide, I went for a relatively narrow space - 55mm to be precise, though you add on an extra 10mm at the bottom.  Apparently you need to do this so that the eye “sees” the final frame as balanced top and bottom.  
The most difficult part of working with the mounting board was the initial cutting.  The board comes in very large oblongs 1120mm by 815mm.  So it was quite a challenge to cut this into sections.  The first cut was the whole 815mm which called for quite a stretch.  You had to keep the weighted ruler in place and needed a fair amount of pressure on the stanley knife to cut through.  We all needed three or four goes to get right through the board.  The other cuts were relatively easy.  We used two mounting boards - one as the under mount and the other for the window mount.  
The top mount, the window mount, has to be cut so as to leave a space - the window - for the artwork.   This calls for more measuring and drawing.  You need to mark out on the reverse side of the board exactly where the window has to be.  Cue for rulers, set squares, pencils and rubbers.   Once satisfied with the measurements you have to cut out the window.  This gets a bit more complicated as you need a special tool in order to get the bevelled edge on the inside of the window.  Here is a photo of what the mount cutter looks like.
To get the cutting right you need to place the weighted ruler along the line to be cut and then clamp the board to the worktable.  The mount cutter just slides into one of the grooves on the ruler.  You press the blade down through the board and push the cutter along the line the required distance.  You repeat this along the four edges and hey presto you have a nicely cut window.  This was easier to do than expected, though you do have to apply a fair bit of pressure to the cutter.  Here is one of my fellow participants using the mount cutter.
At this stage the mounting boards are put safely aside and we turned our attention to the frame.  For this we used a 20mm wide moulding made from obeche wood.  This comes from a tree native to West Africa and is good for almost all types of finishing.   Once again you start with lots of measuring and marking.  To add to the complications the shape of the wood is a bit strange as one side is slightly wider to allow it to support the mounting board.  As the cut pieces need to be put together to make a rectangle, each piece needs to be cut on a 45° angle to get a mitred edge.  This last requires the use of a special set square.  Then comes the cutting, which in this case is done with a special mitre saw, which looks like this.
 Quite a handy tool as the blade can swivel so that it can saw in both directions and straight across.  Once again you need to clamp the wood to the saw, making sure it is correctly lined up.  The sawing was OK, though it was difficult to get a steady rhythm.  Here you can see the saw in action in the steady hands of another of the participants. 
Once the pieces are all cut you glue the corners together and put on corner clamps to keep the frame nice and tight and allow the glue to set.  This was all for the first day as the frames are left overnight to set properly.  Here is my frame all clamped up.
The second day began by finishing off the frames.  Wood filler is applied to any little gaps and the wood is then lightly sanded to ensure a smooth finish to the edges.  To give greater strength to the frame V-wedges are pushed into each corner on the underside using a push tool.  Surprisingly difficult, as you have to get the push tool exactly vertical or the wedge will not go in.  Our tutor kindly ensured that our hands were in the right position.  Here you can see another participant pushing in the V-wedge. 
Then comes applying the finish.  It can of course be left as it is, but most people prefer to apply some kind of finish.  Beeswax is popular, which some like to paint the wood a different colour.  I chose white liming wax, which you apply with a cloth.  I gave it two coats.  Quite easy to apply though not so easy to get a smooth even finish.  Dries fairly quickly.
Back to the mounting boards and assembling the artwork into the aperture.  First the window mount and the under mount are hinged together with acid free tape.  The artwork is placed on the under mount and by trial and error you work out the correct placement so that the artwork can be seen through the aperture.  The artwork is then secured with tape and the window mount is closed over.
To complete the job you need glass to cover the window mount and the artwork and a back board to keep everything in place.  These were the only bits we didn’t cut out ourselves.  The tutor cut the glass and the back boards, made out of double sided craftboard, for us.  The final assembling consist of placing the mounting boards with artwork inside over the back board and placing the glass on top.  The frame is then placed over this “sandwich” and everything is flipped over for the final finishing.  Gummed brown paper tape is used to cover the edge of each of the reverse sides of the frame.  D-rings are screwed into each side about 1/3 of the way down and cord is attached and your finished frame is ready to be hung.  Below is what the reverse of the frame looks like.
And finally my newly framed Bargello work.  Most satisfying to have completed the whole thing from design to finish, more or less on my own.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Libya and Bahrain

At a recent party I attended we got round to discussing events in North Africa. And someone made the claim that the reason Gaddafi in Libya was able to fight back successfully against the opposition was because his regime had a lot of popular support.  This comment generated quite a heated discussion, though nothing was resolved.  However it did get me thinking about this idea of popular support for non democratic regimes.  For it is undoubtedly true that not all non democratic regimes are the same.
My conclusion though, based on the recent tumultuous events in the Middle East is the exact opposite.  I would contend that it is precisely because the Libyan regime is narrowly based and without widespread support throughout the country that Gaddafi had to fight back.   By all accounts Libya is run by and for the Gaddafi clan.  The key military forces that back Gaddafi are mainly mercenary forces from other parts of Africa.  The speed with which senior members of the government moved to support the opposition indicates that Gaddafi’s support is quite thin.  The relatively easy way in which the opposition won complete control of the eastern half of the country and parts of the west is another indication that the Gaddafi regime does not rely on a broad base of support.  In such a case those who do rely on the regime for their wealth and power have only one option - to support the regime.  Even if this means using violence.  Otherwise they will lose all or most of their power and influence.
Something similar is clearly the case in Bahrain.  There the ruling family and their wealthy supporters are all Sunnis.  While the majority of the population of Bahrain is Shia.  In Bahrain the Shia, though representing a majority of the population have no power or influence in their own country.   A more democratic Bahrain would inevitably lead to a loss of power for the Sunni elites.  They have only to look further up the Gulf to Iraq to see what happens to the Sunnis when democracy comes to a Shia majority country.  It is hardly surprising that the Bahraini regime and their supporters are desperate to cling on to power, even if this means killing their fellow citizens.  As in Libya, it is the unrepresentativeness of the ruling regime, which has forced it into defending its powers by the use of force.
Contrast this with what has happened in both Egypt and Tunisia.  There, paradoxically, the regimes have survived to a greater or lesser extent.  True that both Mubarak and Ben Ali have had to resign and give up their personal grip on power.  However in both countries the moves to a new constitution are being led by members of the previous regime.  This would seem to indicate to me that the regimes in both Egypt and Tunisia were in fact more broadly based that in either Libya or Bahrain.  That is to say that many, many more people in Egypt and Tunisia are confident that they will continue to have access to wealth and power in any new constitutional set up.  This was clearly the case with the regular army in Egypt.  A very large, rich and powerful institution.  They could have squashed the uprising in the blink of an eye, but chose not to.  I can only suspect that the leading brass in the army reckoned that even in a new regime there would still be room for a large, rich and powerful army.   A bit more democracy here, a bit less corruption here, a lot less police brutality and a more open media and the rich and powerful can continue to be rich and powerful.  Only this time with even more popular support.  After all how do the rich and powerful survive in our western democracies?
So my lesson from the current wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East is that they are more likely to succeed the more broad based and open the existing regime is.  The narrower the regime is, whether by tribe, clan, class or religion, the more likely it is to use force to remain in power.  Simply put the more the members of a regime have to lose, the more likely they are to fight to remain in power. 
I will leave to others to see if this thesis fits in with other developments in the Middle East.

Sunday 13 March 2011

More Stitching News

I continue to stitch away on a regular basis.  In fact I probably spend more time on stitching than anything else.  I try to get in between two to three hours work every weekday morning.   Fairly keeps you busy.   Anyway I have now completed another four little projects.  The first was to finish the project I had started in January, which I call Broken Ribbons.  The basic pattern is from Pauline Fischer and Anabel Lasker’s wonderful book, Bargello Magic.  There the pattern is called French Ribbons.  As you can see I have cut out two little circles from the fabric, which I have filled with pieces of painting done by my grandson, Jamie.  Here is the finished piece.
The idea was to add a bit of texture to the stitched fabric.  I now hope to finish it off by mounting and framing the piece.  To this end I will be attending a two day course on mounting and framing at DCA next weekend.  So wish me luck with this new adventure.
The next project was also an experiment of sorts.  At least for me.  Another of my collection of books on stitching is called Free-Form Bargello, by Gigs Stevens.  I must admit that after leafing through the book I was never too sure about whether I liked this approach or not.  Basically you draw on the canvas a series of concentric and irregular shaped circles which you then fill in with simple vertical stitches.  Anyway I gave it a try and here is the outcome.
Now that it is completed I quite like the overall design.  It was also good fun filling in the rows as you could vary the vertical lines of stitches to create mini patterns within each row.  To add a bit of interest to the piece I started off with two pomegranates in a more traditional bargello style.  This project was stitched on white interlock canvass using Anchor tapestry wool.
For my next project I decided to give bargello a little break and went back to my collection of traditional Palestinian motifs.  Harp and Lilies has a harp in the centre flanked by two lilies.  The harp is framed with a line of edging known as Bachelors’ cushion.  To finish it off I added some Moons of Bethlehem.   This piece was stitched on an 18ct Aida cloth in bright Christmas red using DMC cotton threads.  The colour scheme was blues and greens.  As my collection of Palestinian motifs is only in black and white, I have no idea whether my choice of colours is is any sense “Palestinian”.  Anyway here is what it looks like.
My latest project was to make another little cube using some new designs from Louison.  This was Série No 8 négatif, which consists of six 30 pt squares.  Designed to be used to make biscornus, if you stitch all six squares together you can make a lovely little cube.  I have filled mine with hollow fibre and some lavender to make a lavender cube.  The fabric is an 18ct Aida in pale yellow and the threads are all DMC cotton in various shades of reds.  Here are two views of the completed cube.
For my next project I am about to start on another kind of Free-form Bargello, which should be pretty exciting.  Happy stitching to everyone.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Not only nasty, but incompetent too

Over the last few weeks we have been presented with a new facet of our ruling Coalition.  It turns out that they in addition to their nastiness they are also pretty incompetent.  This should not really come as much of a surprise.  However it has been shocking to see just how incapable they are.
First up was David Cameron’s rather hasty visit to Egypt and the Middle East.  Nothing wrong in principle with such a visit.  But the timing was all wrong.  Just as the region is in the continuing throes of popular democratic uprisings.  Made the Prime MInister look a bit like a Johnny come lately - over keen to jump on the bandwagon.  But only when it has shown some signs of success.  The big, but big gaff was to go accompanied by legions of military salesmen.  Not just accompanied by them, but our Prime Minister seems to think it is his job to actually promote these sales.  In the Middle East of all places - a region already awash with billions of pounds worth of the latest killing machines.  And just at the moment when masses of people are protesting against dictatorships - some of whom are quite happy to use our weapons to shoot and kill their own citizens.  It is quite incomprehensible how David Cameron could have gone ahead with this visit in these circumstances.  Not much in the way of real leadership here.
Shortly afterwards we had another example of David Cameron’s unfitness for high office.  As the Libyan government’s reaction to the popular protests begins to turn violent we have our Prime Minister at his most gung-ho, issuing all kinds of threats.  What can only have been an impromptu action on his part - designed no doubt to bolster his macho and military image.  For no sooner had his stirring words been uttered than it emerged that no-one else was on board for this kind of action.  Not the USA, not his partners in the EU, not Egypt and certainly not Russia or China.  This is not leading from the front  - this is foolhardy grandstanding of someone pretending to be a leader.
Then we have the sorry tale of William Hague our Foreign Secretary  Who initially doesn’t seem to have a clue as to the whereabouts of Gaddafi  - was he in Venezuela perhaps?  Then the delays in getting UK nationals out of the danger zones.  Something which all other countries seemed to manage without any fanfare or delays.  And of course the granddaddy cock-up of them all - the Keystone Cops approach to diplomacy in the desert.  A helicopter of armed SAS soldiers flies into rebel held territory.  Unannounced and they end up captured.  What a disgrace for the proud SAS.  At the same time we have a British naval ship in the port of Benghazi - the centre of rebel held territory.  So just what was the point of all this bravado?  The Keystone Cops approach should remain forever in Hollywood.  Not the sort of action that even a halfway sensible Foreign Secretary would sanction.
These recent foreign escapades have been the most obvious of the Coalition’s incompetence.  The others have yet to emerge fully into the public domain.  They could however prove many times more damaging to the future well being of our country.  I refer of course to the reckless way the Coalition is going about slashing public services, reducing the living standards of most people, while at the same time indulging in an untested and badly thought out so-called reform of key public services.  All to increase the opportunities for private profit and to benefit the already rich.  Time will tell to what extent these so-called reforms will turn out to be the greatest example of both nastiness and incompetence from any UK government.

Monday 7 March 2011

Photo of the Month - February 2011

February, alas, was not much better than January photo wise.  Still stuck too much in a bit of post Christmas lethargy.  However I did attend a one day course in Japanese and Korean Calligraphy at the DCA.  Very interesting and enjoyable ti was too.  Below is a photo of some of the fascinating range of brushes that get used in calligraphy.  The really big on the left is horse hair I think and is very difficult to use.  All of them are in fact, at least for beginners like me.

The calligraphy is of course done with ink.  And to give us an inkling of the real oriental experience we had to grind our own ink.  Below you can see my little container starting to fill up with ink.  The small blocks of black ink were lovely to both look at and feel.  This activity was done as a form of meditation.  Very relaxing it was too.
The actual activity of making characters with the brushes was very challenging, but also very satisfying.  Here are a couple of my attempts.  The first is the Japanese character for fragrant or full of flavour.  The second is another Japanese character - passion.

As part of the introductory course the Korean tutor wrote out our first names using Korean characters.  Here is what Alister looks like in traditional Korean.
I continue with my stitching and the loose ends of cotton threads are beginning to mount up in by bottle.  This is two months cast offs.
During February we visited Kathleen's sister Jacqueline, way over in Erskine, in the far west.  While there we tidied up the grave of her parents and laid down some fresh flowers.  John and Mary are of course the maternal great grandparents of Liam, Jamie and Alessio.
While there we had a lovely meal with Jacqueline and her youngest son, Adam and his lovely partner Gemma.  Here is Kathleen enjoying a glass of wine while relaxing on Jacqui's fancy chair.
February finally brought a bit of welcome colour to the garden.  Though it was difficult to see much due to the covering of leaves and other detritus from last year still lying profusely around.  Still a little bit of clearing away and some brightness was quickly found.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Ending the Occupation

Though the recent popular uprisings continue to spread through most of the Middle East, Israel/Palestine remains, as yet, relatively calm.  Only “relatively”.  Palestinian peaceful protests continue and the Israelis continue with their brutal and violent reprisals.  And, surprise, surprise, pro-settler right wing Israelis have today attempted to block the entrance to Jerusalem in the first actions of a declared nation-wide “day of rage”, organized to protest the Israeli government’s demolition of illegal outposts in the West Bank.
This somewhat hilarious attempt by the illegal settler community to hijack the tactics of the popular uprisings in Arab countries only serves to highlight once again the centrality of the (illegal) Occupation.  For, whichever way you look at it the conflict in Israel/Palestine always comes back to the Occupation.  All the way back to 1948 and Israel’s massive land grab.  When the newly created Israeli state seized 78% of historic Palestine as opposed to the 55% they were awarded by the UN.  In the process of this land grab the Israelis forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee their ancestral homes.  Their descendants now make up the five million plus refugees who live in poverty in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.  Israel has continually refused to even contemplate the return of these refugees.  An action contrary to every tenet of International Law.
Israeli Occupation is never meant to be a temporary situation.  As can be seen to this day as Israel continues to confiscate and appropriate Palestinian land in the post 1967 Occupied West Bank.  The annexation of East Jerusalem and the always expanding and increasing number of colonies in the West Bank - all of them, every single one of them illegal - are all evidence of Israel as an expansionist colonialist state.
That Israel has no intention of ever leaving the West Bank is clear from its policies towards the Palestinians.  The whole of Israel/Palestine is one customs Union - controlled by Israel.  The only legal currency is the Israeli shekel - controlled by Israel.  The international borders of the West Bank are controlled by - Israel.  All this is part and parcel of a policy to keep the Palestinians in a state of permanent underdevelopment and totally dependent on Israel.  The construction of the illegal settlements, the Jewish only roads and the Wall are other key elements in this policy of permanent subjugation.  Along with the Apartheid Wall the Jewish only roads break up the West Bank into little Bantustan type enclaves surrounded by Jewish colonies or roads.  Though the Wall is partly designed to keep Palestinians out of Israel, a major purpose of the Wall is to keep Palestinians divided.  As Shir Hever puts it in his book on the Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation;  “ reality, Israel is surrounding Palestinians with a wall.  The proper term is not fortification, but incarceration - because the Wall is being built around Palestinian communities in the West Bank.”  Thus it is pretty clear that official Israeli policy is to permanently divide the West Bank and to make life for Palestinians as unbearable as possible and most important of all to make the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank unachievable.
Further evidence for this has recently emerged with the publication of the Palestinian Papers.  These show just far the current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank was prepared to go to meet Israeli demands.  In fact Mahmoud Abbas and Saed Erekat were willing to give Israel almost everything the Israelis wanted in terms of land.  Yet it was not enough.  And remember, this was the supposedly moderate Israeli government that refused to make any concession whatsoever.  Once again the Israelis have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Quite clearly the Israelis in refusing to even negotiate over the Palestinian proposals, demonstrated that they do not want a resolution to the conflict.  After all why should they? The current situation on the ground is just fine for almost all Israelis.  There is no violence in pre 1967 Israel and in the West Bank the peaceful protests are kept under control with a combination of army and settler violence against the peaceful protesters.  The illegal settlements continue to expand and more settlements are planned.   The Israelis control the scarce water resources, diverting them to the settlements and into Israel itself.  Economically the Palestinians form a captive market for Israeli goods.  Why give any of this up?
Unless and until the Israelis feel some kind of real pressure from the outside nothing will change.  The Palestinians could move from trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a rump state in the West Bank, and instead demand full Israeli citizenship including voting rights.  After all there already is one state and it is run by Israel.  If the Palestinians were to give up on the two state option and simply demand equal rights within Israeli rule that would be a game changer.  But it does not seem that a majority of Palestinians are as yet ready for such a momentous step.
The other kind of pressure that could force the Israelis to change is economic pressure from the rest of the world.  This is where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement comes in.  Already in a few years BDS has won a series of important victories.  In Scotland and in the rest of the UK, more and more local councils are beginning to exclude Israeli companies from bidding for contracts.  The cultural and academic boycotts are also beginning to bite.  The big change will come when governments come on board.  But that will only happen when there is enough popular support for BDS.  So this is one are where individual action, if repeated by enough people, can lead to real change at government level.  So whatever you do - just refuse to buy any Israeli products.