Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Log 319 I slog through 550 pages of a Tony Blairite functionary’s diaries, only to have my prejudices about politics and the political process confirmed

English: President George W. Bush applauds for...
English: President George W. Bush applauds former Prime Minister Tony Blair after presenting him Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009, with the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies in the East Room of the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have just realized a surprising thing about myself: it is that I have never been a reader of contemporary political memoirs, those colossal tomes produced by the likes of Pearson, Diefenbaker, Trudeau, or whoever. Such volumes, with their likelihood of containing endless self-justifications, have never attracted me, and I cannot think of a single one I have ever read.
I came upon this surprising lacunae in my political education this week because, for want of something better to read, I undertook a 550 pager by Chris Mullins, who had been a minor political functionary in the Tony Blair-led New Labour government of Britain, a government that lasted for just over 10 years, from May 1997 to the end of June 2007.
The volume of Mullins’ diaries that I have read is called A View from the Foothills, and covers his political life from the end of July 1999, when he was given a job in government by Tony Blair, until May 2005, following the election of that year in which Labour was returned to office, but with a reduced majority.
Mullin was a Member of  Parliament from 1987 until 2010, that is, 23 years, in a safe seat in Sunderland in the north of England. But for most of that time he was a backbencher. He apparently felt he had been a useful member while he was chairman of various committees, but when elevated to a lowly post in the Environment department he complained that his usefulness had come to an end. He was moved to another department, but after the following election he told the Prime Minister he wanted to leave the government because he had felt he was wasting his time. He made it clear he would accept in future only a ministerial position with real power, but when he was recalled by the Prime Minister a couple of years later, it was again to a lowly position, this time in the Foreign Office. In total he spent not much more than four of his 23 years in Parliament as a member of the government.
When Tony Blair won his third term in 2005, Mullins had for two years been an under-secretary in the Foreign Office, with responsibility for Africa, and he was so sure he would be reappointed that at quarter to four on the day he was sacked by the PM he had been on the phone to his opposite number in the US State Department discussing what to do about the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor. Then came a call from the Prime Minister, whom he refers to as The Man throughout his book, and he records the conversation this way:
“The Man sounded remarkably cheerful. No hint of what was to come. We exchanged chit-chat about the result and then came the fatal words, ‘I’m sorry, Chris, I am going to have to let you go.’
“ ‘Tony, I’m devastated. Why?’ There followed some nonsense about how he had to make room for new faces and how this was no reflection on my performance, which is no doubt what he says to everyone. Then he was gone, leaving me to contemplate oblivion.”

The curious thing about this description is that Mullin has sworn throughout the book that he lived a useful life as a Parliamentarian until he was given a minor office in government, at which point he disappeared into the very oblivion that on the last page of the book he complains he had been condemned to by losing his under-secretary job..
Another curious thing about Mullins is that I discovered only after checking his career on the Internet that he had been a supporter of Tony Benn during his years as the leader of what the newspapers called The Loony Left, and later still had been editor of the left-wing  newspaper Tribune, one of whose faithful readers I had been when in London during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact I had known the editor of the paper, Dick Clements, who preceded Mullins in its editorship.
But I read more than 500 pages of this man’s political diary, and not once had to occurred to me that he could ever have been a member of the Labour Party’s left wing. Strange. Passing strange….
As  presented in his own diaries, he comes across as an earnest, well-intentioned person of humanist values, who had a wish to do things that make a difference. Apparently, before he entered Parliament, as a TV journalist he had been somewhat responsible for the righting of a miscarriage of justice towards some convicted Irish bombers, and after he became a minister he seemed to think his most valuable work was when he intervened in personal tragedies that had befallen various individuals who somehow had become stranded in England and were being subject to harsh decisions to remove them taken by faceless bureaucrats. He does come across in the book as a man of humour and perspective. He was the author of the novel A Very British Coup, which had been made into a sensationally effective piece of TV drama, and it was on this account, if truth be known, that I decided to read his diaries.
Whatever his political faith was he never makes a declaration of it anywhere in the book, but rather presents himself as a small cog in Tony Blair’s management team, which is presented as if it was more like a company management than a political party. He gives several dazzling portraits of Blair in action, leading the reader to believe that, like Obama after him, he was one of those leaders who could spellbind audiences, talk people around who were opposing him, and for whom there was a minor connection between what he professed and what he actually did.
I have to confess I have been a lifelong admirer of the British Labour Party, which was founded by the trades unions in 1905 in order to advance a political agenda based on improving the lives of British workers. That it quickly fell into the hands of the British private-school educated elite was, I suppose more or less inevitable, given the class basis of British society. But nevertheless it continued to   struggle to represent the workers,  pursued for most of its life a dogged policy of economic and democratic socialism, and always had in its ranks many superb, self-taught politicians who learned everything they knew in the union movement, at least until it was taken over and utterly transformed into a routine political machine by Blair. 
I grew up under a working class  government in New Zealand, whose ministers, elected in 1935, were almost all self-taught, self-educated politicians, and I have always felt more comfortable when a nation’s affairs are susceptible to such down-to-earth people than when it falls into the hands, as it usually does, of lawyers, journalists and the like.
The minutiae of daily life inside the British government as described in Mullins makes one wonder if this can possibly be, as is so often claimed for it, the best way to run a country. Compromise is the operative word, compromise that has to be struck every day between contending interests (which these days I suppose could be said to be the very definition of politics). And of course, the misuse of power is one lesson that emerged from the behaviour of Blair and his pal and ally Bush in the US.
Blair used to say if you have a weapon, you should use it. And so he became an avowed interventionist, ready for the great metropolitan power he represented to intervene in any part of the world to pursue what he perceived was the interests of his country, and the world. Unfortunately, his support for George Bush’s war in Iraq was given under a cover of monstrous lies, lies that resulted in the death of many thousands of people, that have destabilized and created semi-chaos throughout the Middle East, have not apparently achieved the aims hoped for, but rather something close to the opposite, and have disgraced the name of the British Labour Party.
In sum, I have to say that being exposed to the inner workings of government as it was practised during these successful years of the Blair regime has done nothing to change my overall view of politicians. Although I covered politics in several countries, off and on, for more than a quarter of a century, I can count the politicians I admired on the fingers of one hand, and even fewer are those to whom I would be bothered to write a letter on any particular subject. Almost all of those I admired were outside government, and a common theme among them was that the moment they agreed to join a government, they virtually disappeared from public life, just as Chris Mullin complains he did.
Ah, well, so goes it, I guess.
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Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Log 318 Aug 23 2012 Masters of Argentine tango enthrall audience in concert given in 700-year-old Fort Revelin in Dubrovnik

Ástor Piazzolla with his bandoneón in 1971.
Ástor Piazzolla with his bandoneón in 1971. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Richard Galliano
Richard Galliano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 A few years ago one of my sons gave me a disc of the tango music of Astor Piazzolla, the man who from the 1930s rescued tango from its declining future. I played the record repeatedly until I knew every note, and was enchanted with it. Last night I had the immense good fortune to attend a concert by a man who has carried Piazzolla’s tradition on, a Frenchman by the name of Richard Galliano, who appeared in Dubrovnik with what he calls his  Piazzolla Forever  Septet.
I am always self-conscious when I write about music, because I am a member of that class that says of itself, I-don’t-know-anything-about-music-but I-know-what–I –like, and one thing I have discovered I like a lot is the sort of new tango as interpreted by Piazzolla, and nowadays by his successor Galliarno. The pleasure of the occasion was doubled because of the venue in which the concert took place. Dubrovnik is surrounded by a wall that runs more than 2000 yards around the old city, stands up to 72 feet in height, and is anything from 6 feet to nearly 17 feet in depth. In other words, it is an impressive structure, reputed to be one of the finest in Europe, and it is held together at certain points by a network of four ancient forts. People have lived where Dubrovnik now stands since the seventh century, and have been active since that time in repulsing attacks on it by pirates, Arabs, Normans, Serbs, Montenegrins and others on and off ever since. They were for centuries a self-governing city state, at one time with embassies throughout the known world, and the defensive works they built for themselves were constructed by some of the greatest stonemasters in history.
One of these forts, which was so strongly built that it survived the drastic earthquake of 1667 that virtually destroyed the city, is Revelin. It is notable that the fort even today is approachable only over a drawbridge that stands across what was once a moat, and once you have handed in your ticket you start on an upward journey of more than 100 steps towards your seat.  You pass through some beautiful vaulted rooms that are connected by arcades, and eventually come out on a huge roof terrace that is used today for concerts and other entertainments. And it was in this seductive place that Galliano and his six musicians played in the open air overlooking the ancient city.
I had never heard of Gaalliano myself, and he appeared to be accompanied by a different group of musicians from those whose photos appeared in the programme.  That didn’t matter because all of them, although French by nationality, were superb musicians who seemed totally at home with the unique rhythms and pulses of tango music.
That I had never heard of him does not signify anything except my appalling ignorance: he, like his master Piazzolla, who died in 1992, has appeared at the Montreal jazz festival several times. He was born in Cannes, France, the son of an accordion teacher, an instrument  he started to play at the age of four. As his musical studies proceeded he discovered to his astonishment at the age of 14 that accordion was never accorded a place in jazz. He had a distinguished career backing up such French icons as Aznavour, Reggiani and Juliette Greco, and has played jazz alongside many modern masters, in the course of which he met Piazzolla in  1983, who advised him to  return to the roots and traditional Argentine method of playing the accordion.
Last night’s programme notes implicitly gave him credit for introducing to jazz a “completely new concept of rhythm and harmonic style in order to make the accordion fit jazz.” He played three instruments last night, opening the concert with a lovely solo on some kind of South American flute, accompanied by his pianist, and later taking to the bandoneon, a type of concertina, which he could practically make talk, as well as the larger accordion.
I’ll take the programme notes at their  word, because I liked very much the lively style of the music, the contrasting and constantly changing rhythms, and particularly, I loved the melancholic tone struck by both accordionist and violinists as they interposed tunes subtly with the harsher rhythms produced by the base and piano. All I can say is it was marvelous, an opinion that to judge from the huge reception given the band, was entirely shared  by the capacity audience.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

My Log 317 Aug 16 2012 : Almost trapped in a Christian celebration, I am able to remind myself that Christianity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Dubrovnik's heart
Dubrovnik's heart (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Yesterday was some big holiday here, what I would call a mumbo-jumbo celebration. In other words, a religious holiday of some sort.
This town, Dubrovnik, has more churches than you can shake a stick at, and seems to be full of Roman Catholics. Of course, they got rid of their non-Christian co-religionists a few years ago by the simple expedient of driving them out at gunpoint. It is probably also worth remembering that it was the President of this great Christian nation, Tudjman, who gave expression to the totally unforgettable opinion that 
“Genocide is a natural phenomenon, in harmony with the societal and mythologically divine nature. Genocide is not only permitted, it is also recommended, even commanded by the word of the Almighty, whenever it is useful for the survival or the restoration of the kingdom of the chosen nation, or for the preservation and spreading of its one and only correct faith.”
Wow! Some expression of Christianity there! Fortunately, the expression quoted was in one of Tudjman’s interminable books, which, I have been assured, nobody ever read. Still, it is in black and white, and it can never be denied that such a foul opinion was ever expressed, and by the president of a nation that was engaged in war.
So, okay, yesterday morning, unaware of the holiday, I set out to take my regular morning walk, which, if I haven’t told you already, consists of my climbing 230 steps up the hill from the main town, then walking 355 paces downhill to another set of steps, 136 of which (down) deposit me in the centre of the old town, surrounded by the comforting (!) presence of its many churches with their over-abundance of  priests and nuns.
My first suspicion that something unusual was up came when I passed the vegetable market set up every morning at about 7 am. Only a couple of merchants had set up, but the rest of the area was covered by tables from the restaurant that takes over the space every day from lunchtime to closing time at midnight or thereabouts. These tables had obviously been left up from the previous night, which was a night of real celebration, because the members of the Croatian water polo team were welcomed home from the Olympics at a boisterous celebration for which loudspeakers were set up on the church steps. This water polo obsession came as a surprise to me: it is definitely the Yugoslav national sport, and they are frequently to be found playing games in the space right below our balcony in the Old Harbour. It turns out that some nine members of the Croatian team, counting officials, were from Dubrovnik, so their gold medal at the Olympics was a resounding national triumph that they were keen to celebrate.  Only the next day I had pointed out to me an old man who had won several Olympic medals for water polo as a member of the old Yugoslavian national team, on one occasion leading him to be named as the world’s outstanding player of the game.
Anyway, the market was not being set up as usual, and when I walked past the church that lies at the end of our street, the unmistakeable drone of a service within could be heard, and the promise of more action lay in the platform that had been newly built across the steps. I made a mental note to stay as far away as possible so as to avoid these festivities whenever they might happen.
The promised exterior action happened last evening, just as I was sent out to refill our wine bottles. At the local grocery store they fill one-litre and even two-litre bottles with white or red wine, grown locally, that is quite drinkable, and comes at a knockdown price, some six litres of it on one occasion having cost me 80 odd kuna, or about $13. (That would work out to eight normal bottles of our wine for something a bit over $1.60 a bottle. You see what I mean by a knockdown price?)
I felt a bit like a sinner with my bottles slung over my shoulder on my way to the wine shop, as I worked my way through the vast crowd that had gathered around the dignitaries, choir and functionaries who had assembled on the church steps, and that were going through their paces with a will as I pretended to hear nothing and to act as if nothing unusual was under way. It was the closest I have come to being in church since I was 10, when my mother, who was thinking about taking a trip to the Old Country, as we all called England in those days, had insisted that I become a candidate for confirmation (I think that is what it was called, but I never entered into it with any enthusiasm and can honestly say I learned nothing from the process, whether about the sacred world, or the temporal.)
Since I came here I have discovered there are many other fields of human life that have escaped my ken, especially in the field of classical music, about which I know nothing and in which I have absolutely no interest, and, I might add, in the higher fields of culture which have never been of much, if any, allure to me. My hostess here is constantly rushing off to concerts featuring the great composers of the past, played by leading European musicians, events that I have excused myself from on the grounds of my being a total slob.
This reference to culture reminds me of something that happened to me this morning. My grandson, an 18-year-old in Toronto, who generally makes a point of ignoring me (as, I hage to confess I tend to ignore him these days) has recently been bedridden with a broken jaw suffered in a skateboarding accident. These moments of enforced idleness seem to have given him time to think about the old man, at least once, and this morning I found from him a link to one of my favorite popular music performances by the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto. (In my typically curmudgeonly way, I am wondering if he would have sent it if he had known it would give me such pleasure.)
Anyway, I played the record once, and, enchanted again as I had been when I first heard it, especially by Astrud’s sultry, evocative rendition of the song in Portuguese, I played it again. This recalled to me how excited I was as I went along to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London when Astrud was the featured performer, because like every other man  in London, it seemed, I was totally entranced by her wonderful beauty and seductive voice. What a comedown it all was. The lovely diva, a tiny little thing, stood like a stone, emanating absolutely nothing as she moved through the flat, matter-of-fact song, sounding, especially when singing in English, as if she wanted nothing more than to get off the stage.
Ah, well, you can’t win em all, as they say. But my grandson’s thoughtful action in sending me this link has taken me back to a time I remember with pleasure, and given me a real lift in spirits this morning. Thanks a lot, Ngozi!
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Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Log 316 Aug 12 2012 Two remarkable novels by James Lee Burke, chronicler of Cajun Louisiana, told in an irresistable crime format

Excerpt from US Navy photo
Excerpt from US Navy photo, an aerial view from a United States Navy helicopter showing floodwaters around the entire downtown New Orleans area. The Louisiana Superdome is in the center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 An unexpected thought occurred to me yesterday as I finished reading  two of James Lee Burke’s novels about Cajun life in Louisiana. Even though Burke so vividly describes the landscape in which the Cajuns pass their lives, even though his characters are so compulsively drawn that one almost feels they could leap off the page into one’s lap, even though his tough guy prose and attitudes are underlaid by a persistent strain of homey  philosophy, could it be --- in spite of all evidence to the contrary --- that everything he writes does not depict any life actually to be found in Louisiana, that none of this is real, but is rather a complete world drawn from Burke’s vivid imagination?
I began to think about this when, recommending these books to a friend, I had to admit I have never met anyone who even remotely resembles the characters who inhabit Burke’s pages. Certainly it is hard to think there has ever been a real live detective anything like his hero Dave Robicheaux, and it is certainly hard to imagine anyone with the peculiar mix of characteristics --- a love of violence and willingness to use it, a dedication to a kind of warped idea of  justice, an ultimately maverick carelessness about what he does ---- like Robicheaux’s closest friend, Clete Purcell.
Burke wrote his first book when he was in his twenties, and I am pretty sure that was the one that set me off on reading his works. Unless my memory betrays me, it was about a man who was unjustly locked up in an horrendous Louisiana chain gang kind of prison, and it was so real it made my flesh creep.
Since then, through dozens of novels, most dealing with crime, and in the form of thrillers or mysteries, Burke has dazzled reviewers with the fluency and vivacity of his prose, the aptness of his descriptions of people and their works, and the sheer passion with which he records the usually nefarious works of his characters.
The two books I have just read are The Tin Roof Blowdown in which he has used the tragic destruction of New Orleans by the twin forces of Hurricane Katrina and the neglect, and possibly malicious inaction of the U.S. federal government, as the background for a tale of almost majestic hjuman folly and nastiness.  As thousands of people were swept away, overcome by the breaking of the neglected levies that were supposed to hold back the flood, and those who remained suffered, James Burke describes how looting and theft by the criminal and low-life elements of Louisiana society compounded the misery and overwhelmed even the few honest forces of law and order.
Specifically the book is built around two events: the first is when a junkie priest, who is a friend of Robicheaux’s, is trying to hack his way into the  attic of a flooded home in which twenty or thirty people are trapped by the still rising waters, a family of petty criminals, who have just raped two young women, hack the priest to death and steal the boat from which he was working. The second incident concerns what these low-life people did with the boat they had stolen: they used it to enter an abandoned home, where in an insensate attack of looting, they ripped the walls apart and found hidden stores of counterfeit dollars, blood diamonds (imported from Africa) and drugs of various kinds. When they learned that the house they had robbed belonged to the region’s main mafia connection, their fate was sealed, and Robicheaux was only hoping he could get to them on the rape charges before they were wiped out by the hired guns of the houseowner.
This book has been described as the novel which established Burke as one of America’s outstanding writers. His description of the Katrina hurricane and its consequences is probably the finest written so far, and its use as a backdrop for Burke’s grimly imagined events makes a continuum that is totally gripping. The book is studded with aphorisms, like this one:
“If you have stacked a little time in the can, or beat your way across the country bucking bales and picking melons, or worked out of a Manpower Inc. day-labor office on skid row, you probably already know that human beings are infinitely complex and not subject to easy categorization…I’m always amazed at how the greatest complexity as well as personal courage is usually found in our most nondescript members. People who look as interesting as a mud wall have the personal histories of classical Greeks. I sometimes think that every person’s experience, if translated into flame, would be enough to melt the flesh from his bones…”
One gets his point, although the method of describing it is entirely original. Or here is another one:
“William Blake described evil as an electrified tiger prowling the forests of the night. I wondered if Blake’s tiger was out there now, burning brightly in the trees, the pads of its feet walking softly across a lawn, it's slattern breath and the quickness of its step only seconde away from the place where children played and our loved ones dwelled.”
Sufficient to say that someone turned up who was hired by a prominent man to take care of his problems by whatever means he wanted. This person began to stalk Dave and his family, and Burke posits the confrontation as one between evil and good.
The second book, published in 2005, is called Crusader’s Cross and it concerns the memory of a young girl for whom Dave’s brother fell twenty years before when they were both sixteen. He discovered, too late, that she was already working as a prostitute, and just as he was about to run away with her, she disappeared and was never seen or heard of again.  The brother turns up, recalling to Dave memories of this unfinished disappearance, and the book is about a search for her to confirm or deny the brother’s belief that she was never killed, as most authorities believed. This one involves the full panaply of Dave’s peculiarity: a recovered alcoholic with an on-again, off-again relationship with police work, he finds the weight of this search so heavy that he goes on a bender which puts his job at odds again, and which finishes with him losing such self-respect as he was managing to carry through his life. The denoument is so life-like it is almost unsatisfactory. The girl turns up, but in circumstances that none of them could have envisaged. Dave has been following leads, and blaming the wrong people throughout the book, and he ends it with an almost customary outburst of social philosophy:
“Capitalists are hanged by the rope they sell their enemies. Mystics who help formulate great religious movements writhe in sexual torment over impure thoughts a shoe salesman leaves behind with adolescence. A Crusader Knight in search of the True Cross returns to Marseilles from Palestine with a trunkful of Saracen robes, inside of which is a plague-infested mouse. My experience has been, like George Orwell’s, that human beings are possessed of much more courage and self-sacrifice than we give them credit for, and when the final test comes, they usually go down with the decks awash and the guns blazing. Our moral failure lies in the frailty of our vision and not in our hearts. Our undoing is in our collective willingness to trust those whom we shouldn’t, those who invariably use our best instincts against us. But as a police officer I also learned long ago that justice finds us in its own time and of its own accord, and in ways we never, and I mean absolutely never, anticipate.”
A very remarkable writer is this James Lee Burke, who stands somewhere between the low-lifes about whom he writes, and the justice he would like to believe in.
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Friday, August 10, 2012

My Log 315 Aug 10 2012: Swifts, compared to frigate birds in their ability to stay aloft for hours, days and even weeks.

English: Dubrovnik from the aeroplane.
English: Dubrovnik from the aeroplane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English Harbour
English Harbour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was watching the swifts doing their enchanting perambulations across the Old Town of Dubrovnik the other morning, I remarked that it reminded me of when I watched frigate birds, in similar circumstances, in the island of Antigua back in 1974.
I had taken my whole family --- then early-teenagers --- for a holiday, with the intention of writing a book. Miraculously we managed to hire a beachside cottage around the corner from English Harbour in the south of the island, for $250 a month. (The next time we returned to Antigua five years later, the same cottage was renting for $250 a day.) Every morning I would write my book between 6 am and noon, while my wife would take the children off to one or other of Antigua’S 365 beaches, and at noon we would all pile into our mini-moke, drive up through the island to St. John’s, the capital, where we would go for lunch to the garden of the Kensington Palace Hotelk,m where a grouop of civil servants would emerge from their surrounding offices to play in a steel band over the lounch hour, while we drank rum and ate club sandwiches to our heart’s content,before taking off for one of the beaches where we would spend the afternoon in the sun. These are memories of happy times that have never left me: perhaps because I succeeded in finishing the book, and returned to Montreal feeling as if I had been on holiday, which, indeed, I had.
But before I got into this daily routine, I would bundle up the family and drive up to watch the frigate birds take off from the cliff above us. Our cottage lay just under a huge cliff from which, in the evenings, just as we would be settling for our evening gin and tonic, an army of bats would arrive to swoon around over our heads as they caught the myriad insects that came out at that time. Very similar to what the swifts do over Dubrovnik, or so I am told.
The cliff we drove up to was called  Shirley’s Heights, where an abandoned fortification from Napoleonic times stood on the top of the cliff, looking out to sea for any suspicious --- namely, French! --- ships that might heave into view. Just as the sun was rising, a flock of frigate birds would rise from the cliff below us, soaring up into the wind as still and quiet as if asleep,  never moving their huge wings as they caught the draught, and passed us almost within touching distance until, higher up, they caught the wind and headed off out to sea, every morning. It was such a wonderful sight I have never forgotten it, more especially since, on our return five years later, we discovered that the fortifications had been restored, restaurants and other impediment had been built, and the frigate birds had disappeared.
Oddly enough, when I looked up the indications for swifts, frigate birds were mentioned as having something similar to the swifts in characteristics, namely that they are both mostly aerial creatures which can live in the air for days without ever touching down, just like the swifts, especially those of certain species in some parts of the world.  There are five varieties of frigate bird, and the one that hangs out around Antigua and its neiughbouring island of Barbuda has become the subject of a scientific study which is trying to build more knowledge about a bird whose characteristics remain largely unknown to humans.
Swifts, apparently, in certain species, can live in the air for weeks at a time, and have even been known to mate in the air, as well as feed in the air from consuming insects. One Web site I read about frigate birds indicated that they are thieves, which steal food from out of the mouths of competing species, although in what circumstances they do this was not clear to me. I remember that in Antigua we watched in amazement one day as some frigate birds circled around a neighbouring bay and entertained us to an amazing exhibition of sharp-shooting --- that is, diving from a huge height and at a considerable speed into the water, and emerging holding a fish. So this seems to be one feeding characteristic not much noted by the experts on frigate birds, at least those two or three I have read.
Like the frigate birds, the swifts  seldom flap their wings, but they still manage to catch the draughts and soar at an immense speed back and forth in what looks like gay abandon.
This morning when I awoke and opened the door to the balcony I was almost knocked over by the wind. It is often like that for a short while in the mornings, but the wind soon moderates, and even sometimes dies away completely, as it has almost done already, two or three hours later. When these strong winds occur, the swifts are not to be seen, except perhaps one or two brave ones that have caught the wind and are soaring away up in the air above us, barely visible to the naked eye. 
I find it hard to believe that insects have been able to maintain themselves in such high winds, and I have some doubt that the species of swift we see here really does get most of its food from picking off insects in the air. Maybe I will meet someone I can ask about that in the month remaining to me in this extraordinary little town.
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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Log 314 Aug 8 2012:Tales from the Old Harbour: 2. Tourists, swifts, and an intermediary between them

English: Dubrovnik, Croatia - harbour and city...English: Dubrovnik, Croatia - harbour and city wall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dubrovnik has two species that distinguish it from other towns. One is the inevitable tourist, who descend on the town from the cruise ships in their thousands almost every day, thronging the narrow streets so that it often becomes difficulty to negotiate one’s way through them. The second species of note are the swifts, those fast-flying little birds that arrive every morning between dawn and the rising sun that emerges from behind the hills to pick out the spires, towers and forts of the old stone city; and again in the evening between sunset and dusk.
One day as I was negotiating my way through the tourists a middle-aged woman stopped me, held up a shoe box for my inspection and, carefully lifting the lid, revealed three tiny birds. She said, “Swifts. Swifts. Swifts,” and then moved on.
This was Téa (pronounced Theh-ah), and her story, as related to me by my reliable authority on the locals, began with a beautiful, antique chair in the home of the man my authority was living with at the time. My authority admired the chair, and her lover told her he had received it as payment for obtaining an acquittal of a man whom he defended in court against a charge of murder. The chair had been broken and was reduced almost to a piece of rubbish, but the family who owned it --- dirt poor at the time --- fixed it up and presented it to the lawyer as the only payment they could afford. This poor family had been reduced to squatting in an open-air structure whose stone wall fronts the harbour, a building that had been used in the 16th century as a place to quarantine sailors who came to port, but a place that still exists and is now used from time to time as a theatre. The court case concerned a feud involving elders in the family, which resulted in the charge of murder against Téa’s grandfather.
At high school Téa fell in love with a boy from a very wealthy family, and the couple eventually became teachers in exercise classes. They took their students on picnics and the like, including my reliable informant. Téa worked for a company called Sebastian, which ran several art galleries. With this first husband, she had a child who became a good ballet dancer. But unfortunately she went to Italy for training, never came back, and now lives in Milan.
All did not go well with Téa’s schoolgirl romance, and she divorced, and married for a second time a man who was in charge of post-secondary education for the town. Upwardly mobile, one might say. But when that marriage concluded Téa married a Welshman, a scientist who built his own boat and sailed to New Zealand in it. He already had several children, one of whom is still living in New Zealand, another in Italy.
Téa has reported that every day she asks her husband, “Am I the most beautiful woman in the world?” to which he makes the adequate response, even though it may not be true. One of Téa’s two sisters was held to be the most beautiful girl in the city. She believed that the first man you shake hands with in certain circumstances will be the one you marry. Obeying this edict, she shook hands with an Italian, and is today living in Italy.
Today Téa, an energetic and intelligent woman, is about 60 and active on a wide front. She has owned three or four art galleries, one of which is still active; having lived for some time in Italy she is able to make a living as a tourist guide in that language; she owns a shop dedicated to doing small repairs to clothing, bags and the like, the last of its type in the city, others having been replaced by shops selling T-shirts made in China; and she has a contract to take parties of children from time to time to the neighbouring island of Lokrum, which is essentially the city park of Dubrovnik.
But in addition to that, Téa looks out for the birds that swoon and dive over the old town morning and night, the swifts. She goes to one of the local beaches, as they laughingly call the collections of rocks from which swimmers dive into the ocean, and while there she feeds the geckos, that are reputed to recognize her and wait for her to come. And at the same time she finds injured swifts, picks them up, and takes them home to care for them until they are better.
These swifts provide a fascinating spectacle for anyone with a taste for bird-life. They resemble swallows, their similarities emerging from their common habit of catching insects on the fly. Swifts, found virtually all over the world, are said to be able to stay in the air longer than any other bird, some sub-species of them being considered to almost never touch the ground. Others, and I am sure those around Dubrovnik must number among them, find refuge in nooks and crags, on cliffs, rocks and within buildings such as those in this city that have narrow slits in the walls that provide ideal nesting for swifts.
Anyway, in my mind, devotion to these tiny birds, whose joyous exuberance of flight so enlivens our morning and evening hours, is the most praiseworthy of the many remarkable attributes of the life of Téa, a true daughter of the Old Harbour.
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Monday, August 6, 2012

My Log 313 Aug 6 2012: Tales from the Old Harbour: 1 The story of Goran, fisherman

Every morning at around 6 o’clock I sit on a balcony overlooking the Old Harbour of Dubrovnik. It is full of small boats, and a couple of larger ferry boats that ply back and forth to a nearby island that people use as a resort, but at this time of the morning it is almost deserted. The boats are sitting idly waiting for their day to begin. Only the odd person who has been unable to sleep, or a handful of workers concerned with getting the boats ready, or the occasional person going out to catch some fish before starting their daily work is out there when the sun comes up.
Suddenly a man points a small motor boat out towards the gap between the breakwater and the massive Fort Ivan that anchors the Old Harbour, over on our right, where the sun will come up in an hour or so. To me, irrevocably, it appears that the sun is rising in the West, and sets in the evening in the East, a problem of my perception, which seems to have been turned around. Who is this boatman going out to sea, I ask?
That’s Goran, I’m told. He used to live down the street from here with his mother and sister. He is well over six feet, wears a pony-tail, and always wears either white or red clothes, including his footwear. He is a handsome man. His mother remarried, and moved away. Goran married a girl from Slovenia, and they had a son. She went back to Slovenia, and took her baby. Goran went after her, kidnapped the baby, and brought him back here to Dubrovnik. Her two brothers came to rescue the baby. This was 30 years ago. They took the baby back. I don’t know what’s happened to that baby since.
Then Goran married Marie, who opened her flower shop. They had a son. Now Goran is with Victoria’s sister, who had been married to a Muslim from Kotor, with whom she had a son. It’s well-known that Victoria’s sister’s Muslim husband’s mother had tried to persuade her to wear those baggy Muslim-type trousers. They divorced.
Then Victoria’s sister fell in love with a guy who worked in the summer on the ferry boat going over to the island and in the winter was a fisherman. She married him. This was before the war. They had two children, a boy and a girl. They were living with his mother, but Victoria’s sister moved back with her mother, with her three children. Those children are all grown up, and have dispersed, and now she is with Goran, whom she met when they were teenagers at school. Goran is one of those men who sits on the seats just inside the wall, whom we pass whenever we are going towards the hole in the wall that gives on to the harbour. (NOTE: The city wall runs about 30 feet above the ground just below our balcony, and thousands of tourists parade past every day on their one-hour trek around the city walls. Fortunately we are above them, and they can’t see us unless we stand up and lean over the balcony.)
Victoria’s sister went swimming at Porporella yesterday morning. (Porporella is what they call a beach here, an assembly of rocks around the other side of Fort Ivan, from which swimmers dive into deep water. When a strong wind is blowing, the swell is too much, the water driven in from the ocean is too cold, and no one goes swimming in those circumstances.)
Virginia was married to that grey-haired guy we see from time to time who walks along the wharf looking at the boats. She works in a bank, and he is a seaman on a chemical tanker. They are divorced now. They had two sons, and she has a third son she had with the English ambassador. Victoria’s mother did not know who her father was, because her mother (that is, Victoria’s grandmother) was a hotel receptionist in Novi Sad in northern Yugoslavia, who had an affair, but who gave her baby (that is, Victoria’s mother) away, and she was adopted into and brought up by a rich family in Dubrovnik. Victoria’s grandmother ended up running a restaurant in Vienna.
This is the story of Goran, who went out fishing this morning, as told to me by a good authority.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 10:  Joseph Stiglitz d...MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 10: Joseph Stiglitz delivers a speech at the World Business Forum 2011 Getty Images via @daylife)

Renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz says it again, and as clearly as it could be said: what we (meaning everyone) needs for economic recovery is to reduce inequality. Read his fascinating and important contribution to this debate from the Los Angeles Times.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Log 312 : I’ve seen too much of the world to be able to judge anything objectively any more, unfortunately

English: Animated map of the Yugoslav Wars, en...English: Animated map of the Yugoslav Wars, ending with 1998 and the dissolution of the UNTAES. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)india calcutta bookstoreindia calcutta bookstore (Photo credit: FriskoDude)

A couple of films I have seen on successive nights here in Dubrovnik have pushed me up against a slightly disturbing fact. Namely, that I have become so entrenched in my opinions and outlook, seen through the perspective of my many years on earth with everything they have taught me, that I am no longer capable of taking the necessarily slightly detached view of any raw cultural material that drifts into my ken.

I could put this more simply: on this visit I am proving myself to be a completely uncultured barbarian whose taste in entertainment is limited to watching Rugby games and almost any other sporting event I can find on television. My hostess here goes to every available concert, mopping up performances by noted European musicians and performers, while I slouch, sloth-like, in the Pub watching Daniel Carter miss his latest kick for the Canterbury Crusaders, or hoping to see Usain Bolt break his own amazing record for the 100 metres.

The two films which precipitated this orgy of self-criticism are so dissimilar I would normally never be able to deal with them in one article. The first was a Croatian film called Halima’s Path directed by Arsen Anton OstojI, and with a cast headed by the expressive and wonderful Croatian actress Alma Prica. Essentially, the plot deals with the elemental hatreds held between Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Roman Catholics, which were exemplified by the Yugoslav war of 1991 to 1995. At about the same time I saw this movie I was reading a book called Balkan Ghosts, a Journey through History, by Robert Kaplan, a sort of travel writer-historian, whose work appears regularly in the Atlantic Monthly and other U.S. journals. Kaplan blamed all the current events on other events, long since past, that had stored up animosities among these (apparently) primitive people that caused them, at the slightest provocation, to cut loose and start to murder each other. For all I know it may have been an accurate description of the Yugoslav situation, but Kaplan used it as the excuse for arguing for full-scale American intervention, apparently not only here, but more or less everywhere in the world. Kaplan’s argument --- stripped of its historian’s sophistication ---seemed to be that Western history had left us with Western modes of action and of thought and Western beliefs so far superior to those of the Balkans that we were needed to sort them all out, straighten up their thinking and then allow them to get on with a life that they would live more or less as we live ours, or as the Americans live theirs. This is more than slightly inimical to my general attitude to the world at large, and its premises seem to have already been disproven by recent and past actions of the American empire, notably in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even in the Balkans, where their intervention did stop the war by having the Dayton Agreements signed, but which has left the place a tinderbox of hatreds that could explode again at the slightest provocation.

The film Halima’s Path is set in Bosnia, which, under the Western prescription for a settlement, is divided between Bosnia proper and the so-called Serbska Republic. The idea was that these parts would draw closer together over time, but most people agree that the opposite is happening, that the Serbs of Bosnia have withdrawn behind their own borders and are not interested in having any other ethnicity living among them. (This is so in spite of the fact that, according to Kaplan, Serbs and Croats come from identical ethnic roots, and have been divided throughout history only by their religions.)

This brings me back to my opening sentence. I am so hostile to all religions and their manifestations among human kind that I shuddered at the thought that this film, which opened with a young woman being beaten almost to death by her Muslim uncle because she had become pregnant by an Orthodox boy, was going to deal with religion-inspired hatreds. Give me a break, I silently cried, let them fight out their absurd hatreds, but why involve me?

The film was excellent, but although I cannot say the premise was ridiculous (since it was based on a true story) I do have to say that it dealt with elemental passions that I cannot for a moment imagine sharing. The forbidden child was born, and brought up by a relative, but its mother disappeared and thereafter lived as the wife of an Orthodox man, and with the murdering that was commonplace during the war, perhaps an imaginative reader could guess at the denouement. The story was tragic, but melodramatic, and it was excellently acted and directed, showing that Croatia, although only a small country, already has a thriving film industry.

Okay, that’s film No 1. The second film was called The Best Exotic Marigoild Hotel, a British fairy tale set in modern India that managed to be a sort of disquisition on aging (which I could relate to), and a childlike comedy based on a stereotype of Indians and India worthy of Peter Sellars at his worst. A disparate group of aging English people (beautifully acted by a cast of stellar performers such as Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and many others), having reached the end of their tethers in British life, decides to decamp for a rundown hotel in Jaipur, where they fall into the care of a comic Indian of the worst type, full of dreams and English non sequiteurs, and strange wisdom arising from his cultural background. Here again, I could not claim to be a detached observer, because many of these characters at key moments would speak for me, and about my life, but unfortunately this is the feel-good movie to end all feel-good movies (which I sincerely hope it does.) Maggie Smith’s character, which begins as the worst of entrenched racist bigots, ends magically transformed into a thoroughly acceopting efficient hotel manager: Judy Dench, who had lived her life in the shadow of her husband to such an extent that her son thought she would never be able to cope with real life, ends up zipping around on the pillion seat of a motor-scooter. And so on.

I went to India as a starry-eyed young idealist in 1951, and I have been told many times that the basics of Indian life have not really changed, in spite of there now being a huge middle-class. The poverty remains as widespread and as grinding as ever. Only the income gap between rich and poor has grown, so they say, like everywhere else. The India shown in this film had little in common with what I saw in 1951, but I did not feel confident, in view of the fairy-tale characteristics of this story, that I could trust the version of India before my eyes.

Once again, I felt I have seen too much of the world to be able to judge it objectively any longer. On which inconclusive conclusion I will leave you all to return to your particular version of the struggle, each of you.
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