Friday, March 31, 2006

Home of the brave?

It may be the land of the free, but it certainly isn't free to enter. Perhaps because of its perceived desirability to immigrants, who think the country will provide a better standard of living than anywhere else, the entry requirements to the USA are (dare I say it?) ludicrously onerous. I've heard stories of people being deported as soon as they arrived in the States because of previously overstaying their visa. Of course there was the story about Yusuf Islam and moderate Muslim clerics being refused entry - presumably on the grounds that they were Muslims. I'm sure that the difficulty of actually getting into America serves only to discommode the law-abiding majority of visitors, and does not dissuade those few who have more felonious or murderous intentions.

This post was sparked, however, by news that the venerable British orchestra, the Halle, had been
forced to cancel a proposed tour of America because of excessive red tape. To obtain work permits for all 100 people would have cost the orchestra £45,000. And this is on top of the cost of touring itself. Then all these people would have had to travel to London from Manchester to fill out forms and submit photographs to the US embassy, presumably to prove they weren't potential terrorists.

Before the First World War, British people didn't even need a passport to travel abroad. Soon we will have to have identity cards (or, as Jack Dee called them, identity crisis cards), with details of our biometric data (which will soon be required for entry to the USA), all to prove that we are sane, law-abiding people with no interest in blowing up the United States. Or anywhere else, for that matter. All hail to the European Union, then: which doesn't seem quite so bad now, does it?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Give me sunshine

When I walk to work in the mornings I generally pass the same people. Schoolchildren, their mums, occasional cyclists. With very few exceptions, it's like getting blood out of a stone to drag a smile from most passers-by. Unless I smile at them first they stare at me blankly or even avert their gaze. It's not so early in the morning that everyone would be asleep, and is isn't as if (surely) that I am intimidating - though one woman gave me a very strange look the other day, perhaps having heard me saying a cheerful, "Hello, cat," to one of the many felines I encounter during my walk. There's a nice old gent who wishes me Good morning when I see him, but he's about the only one.

Perhaps it's something in the Peterborough air, that makes everyone so gloomy.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

To sleep, perchance to dream...

I bought my futon in 1996, when I was living in a shared house in Guildford. The bed that was provided with the room was as soggy as a sponge, so a friend took me to IKEA (I think for the very first time!), where I bought a single futon plus wooden base. The mattress soon went thin, so I bought another and used both. Apart from a year or so in a flat in Preston, I've been sleeping on it ever since. I had found it pretty comfortable, but lately was very conscious of my hip-bone digging into the underlying base, so I gave in, and bought a new bed.

The new bed is a double, and takes up almost a quarter of the room (I still live in a shared house, by the way). Probably if I didn't have so many books it wouldn't be quite such a problem (and that's the subject for another post, I'm sure). Still, if I keep the room tidy, it should appear cosy rather than cramped.

I snuggle up beneath my new down duvet (I recommend goose down - it might be pricey, but it's so light and warm that I think it's worth the extra) and fall asleep in five minutes. Oh, the bed is so comfortable! I wonder how I managed to put up with my futon (now honourably retired) for so long.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


I had a post here about doing a personality test to find out which superhero I was. Spiderman, it turns out. But I fiddled with the html code to try and make it look better, and now the template's gone all rubbish. Boo, hiss.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Influential books

Melvyn Bragg's latest book is not a novel, but an exploration of twelve books that changed the world. Brian Walden gave his own opinions in an article for the BBC news website, so I thought I'd list twelve books which influenced me.

  1. The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien: I read The Hobbit first, like most children, and then read its more grown-up sequel when I was about ten. It's a book I come back to, year after year, and every time I read it I find new things to admire and cherish. It's certainly influenced my own writing, as it has influenced countless other writers published or unpublished.
  2. Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson: I could have put in all three parts of Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, but it's the first part that really opened my eyes to a period of history which I knew very little of. The author's vast canvas stretches from Massachusetts to the furthest corners of the Hapsburg Empire, and the cast of characters is correspondingly huge, whether real life (such as Newton, Wren and Leibniz) or imaginary. Eye-opening and mind-expanding, it proves that fiction can be almost more informative and certainly more interesting than real history!
  3. The Greek Myths - Roger Lancelyn Green: I could have been poncey and put down Robert Graves' two-volume version (which I have actually read), but it's Lancelyn Green's versions of the Greek myths that I remember from my childhood reading. The stories aren't bowdlerised, and are very fresh and vivid. For me they were my first introduction to the fabulous world of myth.
  4. Persuasion - Jane Austen: People rave about Pride and Prejudice, but for me Persuasion is the best of Austen's books. It's a very quiet story, with little of the sharp humour or ridicule present in some of her other works, though Anne's family is presented satirically. The writing sets it apart from every "romance" novel ever written since.
  5. The Chronicles of Clovis - 'Saki': A series of brilliant, sharp and satiric short stories whilst, although set in a limited milieu of upper-class Edwardian privilege manage to be still relevant and witty. Human nature, after all, hasn't changed much.
  6. Jonah and Co. - Dornford Yates: Something of a guilty choice. Yates' works are dated, occasionally xenophobic (particularly towards Germans) and often anti-Semitic. The lower classes firmly know their place, and Communist is a dirty word. Yet the author's love for a past England, with woods and fields, and quiet roads long before the advent of motorways and rush-hour, is convincing and often lyrical.
  7. What A Carve-Up! - Jonathan Coe: Utterly riveting and terrifying. Polemic in the form of fiction, but weird and moving as well. The chapter on farming did more to convince me to buy free-range organic produce than anything else.
  8. The Pattern of English Building - Alec Clifton-Taylor: A comprehensive survey of the building materials of England, and how they have influenced the character and look of the English countryside and towns. Fascinating and erudite, and not afraid of expressing his own opinions about modern architecture and building materials.
  9. Chaos - James Gleick: Before reading this I'd been vaguely aware of Chaos theory, but not being a mathematician didn't know much about it. Gleick tells its story through the personalities of the people who became interested in it, and makes the whole story readable. Popular science at its best.
  10. Pigeon Post - Arthur Ransome: This is still one of my favourite books, but its influence (compared to, say, Swallows and Amazons) was more that it was the first Ransome I bought for myself. It and its forbears and sequels influenced my childhood and imagination, and for that I am grateful.
  11. An Incomplete Education - Judy Jones and William Wilson: Although biased towards an American readership, this is probably one of the best, wide-ranging and readable books about everything. Confused by the difference between imply and infer? Want to know about trends in philosophy? Want to understand what a quark is? Unsure what arias to sing in your shower? This book has it all.
  12. The Bible - Authorized Version: While not a big reader of the Bible, one can hardly grow up a Christian without reference to it. I was used to the Catholic, post Vatican-II translation we had at Mass every Sunday, so when I first came across the Authorized Version it was a revelation. The language speaks to me in a way that modern translations do not - like poetry, you might not always understand what's going on, but it sounds gorgeous.

I don't suppose that Melvyn's list resembles this one in the slightest.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dark and light in Africa

At the risk of sounding simplistic, there were two contrasting stories about Africa which caught my eye in this week's Economist. One, the good news, was about the recent elections in Benin; the other, yet more problems besetting Zimbabwe.

Benin is a small, very poor country, formerly one of France's colonies, sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria. As such, it's a somewhat surprising example of democracy in West Africa. The president has reached the age limit set by the constitution and has said that he will retire. This contrasts wonderfully with most of Africa's so-called democratically elected presidents, who would rather extend the age limit than step down. The elections have been largely fair, and turnout for the first and second rounds was 70% and 67% respectively; which puts the UK to shame. I visited Benin two years ago - the port and city of Cotonou, on the Atlantic coast - for work: we were only there for a couple of days, but the restaurants were good and the people friendly. And the weather was better than in Abidjan!

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe seems to be going from crisis to crisis. The Economist reported this week that inflation is over 700%, foreign currency earnings are coming largely from mining, and imports (even of such necessities as sanitary towels) are severely disrupted. The government had attempted to regain its IMF borrowing rights again by paying back some $9million, but the IMF has still not lifted its currency embargo. Foreign currency earnings are thus coming almost exclusively from mining. Zimbabwe has very large platinum deposits (not on the scale of its neighbour, South Africa, but still large); platinum is rising in price; and there are several international companies who want to invest huge sums of money to extract the stuff.
But the government plan to nationalise their mines, taking 51% of the profits from such operations, and yet unable to provide 51% of the investment needed. Mines have warned that this extension to the Mines and Mining Act could cause the collapse of the country's mining industry, and lead to yet more misery for a country whose economy is already on the brink of collapse. World leaders seem reluctant to interfere with Zimbabwe's government, and to be fair, it's unlikely that all of its problems can be laid at Mugabe's door, but you do wonder how on earth the Zimbabweans can keep going under such conditions. Its educated professionals are leaving, which of course accelerates the problems. Something needs to be sorted out, if only the will is there, from within the country.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

So the Ashes weren't just a fluke

Rather relieved and happy that the England team managed to outbowl India in the final day of the Test in Mumbai today. The team has been plagued with ill-luck since arriving in India - losing Vaughan and Giles almost immediately through injury, then Jones and Harmison; and Trescothick returning home for personal reasons. I wonder how long Flintoff can manage to be both batsman, bowler and captain, as well as having the hopes of the entire (cricket-loving*) country hanging on him. It's amazing he's managed to pull so many important performances during the last few matches. Good luck to him!

Apparently this is the first Test England have won in India for 21 years. I don't know whether this says something about the quality of the respective teams since 1985, given that India's record at home to all visiting teams is pretty good. Of course England and India don't play each other as often as England and Australia do, so a losing (or not-winning) streak can last longer because of fewer opportunities.

Although the bowlers performed well - nice to see James Anderson back in the side and taking wickets - it is little worrying that one of the spin replacements for Ashley Giles was the 37-year old Shaun Udal. I've got nothing against Udal at all, and his bowling today was very tidy, but surely there are some younger spinners out there who would take to Test cricket? Aren't there?

I check the New Zealand cricket results from time to time, partly to marvel at Stephen Fleming's ability to hit hundred after hundred, and partly to see what new injury has stopped
Shane Bond fulfilling his awesome potential. If the man could stay fit he would be the best fast bowler in the world - he's very fast, accurate and his economy rate is astonishing. When he's actually on the field. Sadly (at least for him and for New Zealand cricket, anyway - I don't suppose the other teams are weeping at the loss) he doesn't seem able to keep fit for long, whether it's because of injuries or stomach bugs. Still, his absence doesn't seem to have hampered the Kiwis beating the West Indies. NZ are one of those teams who don't really have star performers (Fleming and Bond, perhaps, excepted), but their talents seem to combine synergistically, so the whole team performs better than the sum of its parts.

Ah, roll on summer, with Sri Lanka and Pakistan visiting...

* I recognise that the vast majority of Brits don't care two figs whether the cricket team win or lose, though some of them might have heard of Flintoff by now...

Monday, March 20, 2006

We're terribly House and Garden...

Visiting the Ideal Home exhibition at Earl's Court this weekend was an odd experience. I remember being taken there when I was a child, but I didn't recall anything about the place or the event itself. The whole set-up makes you wonder how it's financed: entrance fee is a hefty £15 per adult, and you're charged £4.50 for a guide, of which the only useful pages are the maps at the end; one assumes that the exhibitors also pay some fee to have a stand, small or large; and the whole thing is sponsored by various companies. So one has to wonder - who makes any money? The exhibitors presumably make up their costs in increased orders or profile, and perhaps homeowners visiting can get some good offers.

Most of the stands had a mixture of presenters - young and old, male and female, presumably designed to appeal to the various people visiting. It was noticeable that (I'm generalising here, and there were exceptions) the pretty young women adorning their stands were able to answer the first, trivial questions: however, as soon as one asked a slightly more complicated question, one was handed over to the experienced, generally middle-aged male, colleague. The thing that astonished me about the totty was how they managed to stand around all day in high heels - and most of them seemed to be wearing four-inch spikes. My feet were aching after a day wandering around in comfy flats.

Admittedly, there were some interesting and useful products and services being sold, but also some really useless stuff - the kind of redundant kitchen gadgets such as rice cookers and auto-dicers that made one wonder why using an ordinary saucepan or knife is considered such a crime. The low point was the stand displaying the kind of glowing "moving picture" that I thought was the provenance of Chinese restaurants. They really were terrible: so tacky. I'm pleased to say that I managed to come away with nothing but a book of "vouchers" for my pains, and an increased respect for the people demonstrating all these things, who must wear out their voices and sense of humour answering the same old questions and trotting out the same patter.

The BBC bemoan the theme of the show as not being ambitious enough: certainly most of the show is just a big department store. I didn't get to see much, because of other preoccupations, but the big waterfall in the middle was quite spectacular!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's cooking?

After all the panic stories about Britain's children getting ever fatter, there's now even more worry - that children aren't being taught to cook at school. While this is all very dismaying for our nanny state, teachers are complaining that the low priority given to teaching cookery in schools is because of the government's insistence on giving greater priority to things like English or Maths. Apparently kids nowadays are more likely to draw pictures of how to ice a cake than to actually bake one. While I appreciate that for many children, the only experience of preparing or cooking food will come at school, it comes to the point that, yet again, schools are being asked to teach things that parents should.

I had two years of cookery lessons at my secondary school, and I can honestly say they were useless. I daresay my Home Ec teacher still remembers me with a shudder: and the Cornish pasty so large I could only fit it diagonally onto the baking tray, or the pastry I made at home not under my teacher's supervision. Cookery lessons at schools need to be practical: ingredients are expensive if the finished products don't turn out well, and I don't ever remember making something (apart from the gigantic pasty) that would have served as a full meal for a family of four. In fact, I learned more about cooking from my parents, and because they were willing to let me try things at home, than from school lessons. As for learning about nutrition - well, that's what biology lessons are for, surely?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Am I turning Conservative?

It comes as something of shock to realise that I have views in common with Ann Widdecombe, of all people. On this week's Any Questions on Radio 4 (which I heard on Saturday), a question was asked about the woman who had recently lost her case in the European Court of Human Rights to have a baby from embryos created using her ex-fiance's sperm. Miss Widdecombe made the excellent point that "children are not a right, but a blessing", and I found myself thoroughly in agreement.

While sympathising with those women whose biological imperative makes the desire for children an overwhelming one, one wonders if IVF is really justifiable. When there are so many children living in foster care or local authority homes, spending vast amounts of money on conceiving one's own child seems downright selfish. If circumstances arise (such as in the case above) whereby a woman or her partner is rendered infertile, surely that is something that both parties have to come to terms with, rather than resorting to desperate measures. Adoption services are notoriously picky (which seems ironic when many natural parents are seemingly far less fitted to the task of bringing up children), but why not try to adopt a child? If the couple are too old, then really, should they be attempting to have a child at all?

Monday, March 13, 2006

No-one really wins (note - plot spoilers)

I had wanted to see Good Night, And Good Luck, but that isn't showing in London (at least not at the Cineworld at Westferry) any longer, so I went to see Syriana yesterday. It's a long film, but I didn't really notice the time passing, so engrossing was the story. Anyone who has seen Traffic will recognise the multiple plot strands and locations interwoven throughout - which is hardly surprising, as it was written by the same person, Stephen Gaghan. There are four major plotlines: a Washington lawyer is commissioned to find out if any inducements were paid to obtain rights to a natural gas field in Azerbaijan; a CIA agent is sent to Beirut to have the elder son of an Emir assassinated; a Pakistani boy is made redundant from a Persian Gulf oil facility; and an energy analyst is hired by the same Emir's son after his own son dies in an accident.

The actors are uniformly excellent, but singling any of them out in such an ensemble piece seems wrong. No one character dominates the plot strands. The cinematography is excellent, particularly of the desert scenes, and the film is relatively easy to follow (though it is not clear how Bob Barnes [George Clooney] gets hold of the information which sends him back to the Middle East in an attempt to save the man he previously tried to have assassinated).

The obvious villain is American big business - oil, specifically - and how its influence distorts and manipulates foreign policy, both of America and its Middle Eastern allies. Whether people are caught up in this willingly, blindly, or unknowingly is up to the viewer, but one does get a sense that seemingly small decisions made by a handful of very wealthy and powerful men can have cataclysmic consequences. There are no real heroes, either. The most affecting storyline is that of Wasim, the Pakistani boy who, losing his job, and mistreated by the people of the country where he works for being unemployed, drifts slowly but inexorably towards the sort of behaviour which would be inevitably condemned as terrorism. The film shows that he is not really motivated by fanaticism, for he doubts his faith, but more sheer desperation at a situation he cannot control. In fact, one could argue that none of the characters is in control of their lives and circumstances, however much power or influence they appear to possess.

In all, a thought-provoking, interesting, affecting, intense and excellent film. Go and see it.