On Arab Civilisation

You must read this. A respected Arab journalist says Arab civilisation has collapsed and will not recover in his lifetime. Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of a Dubai satellite channel, says the Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism than at any time since the Ottoman Empire disintegrated a century ago.

In “The Barbarians Within Our Gates”, in Politico Magazine, he says: “Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic form.”

It is a despairing piece. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – possibly set to be the first country in the world to run out of drinking water – the Lebanon, etc. Melhem points out that place like Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus, once cosmopolitan centres of learning and creativity, are now nothing of the kind.

The early Arab nationalists believed that Arab language and culture were enough to unite different cultures with different levels of social, political and cultural development. No more. The hard men, the dictators, opened the doors to the Islamists through their repression and incompetence.

Every Muslim state, from al-Andalus in the 11th century to the Saudis in the 1920s, has been bedevilled by extremists. The Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic Stare are nothing new.

See the link here.



Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour

Three vignettes from the past few weeks. Scene one: a woman is running as fast as she can downhill to try to catch a bus waiting at the stop. One hand is clapped to her ear. Yap-yap-yap-yap-yap… She is in danger of falling over and breaking her neck. Or, much worse, her mobile phone.

Scene two: a woman is climbing the stairs of a fast-moving bus, with her toddler. Toddler keeps falling over and slipping down the steps. She guides him with one hand, because the other is clamped to her ear. Yap-yap-yap-yap-yap… Toddler is in danger of falling down and breaking its neck.

Scene three; man walks into gents. Right hand is fiddling with his mobile phone. He approaches the urinal, fishes out what he needs with his left hand, and does what he must. Meanwhile fiddling with his mobile in his right hand. Hiss-hiss-hiss, fiddle-fiddle-fiddle. I didn’t much care to check his hygiene arrangements.

When do you people ever stop?

My Old School

I went to one of the best schools in the country, though perhaps you wouldn’t guess. It is now even grander than it was, and able to restrict itself to some of the ablest pupils in the district, and charge enormous fees.

It was a squeeze for my parents, neither of whom even went to university, to afford this. We certainly, such is the rate of inflation in independent school fees, could not have afforded it for our offspring.

I receive the odd letter from my old school, along the lines of, come back for various alumni gatherings. Never been tempted; it is pretty obvious, reading on, that you are going at some stage to be asked to put your hand in your pocket, and I have better things to do with my money. Like educating those same offspring elsewhere.

A strange letter arrives from My Old School. Someone called the development director is worried that I reacted badly to two, yes, two cold calls to my home that, again, were an attempt to extract money. Was it being called, or being asked to donate? I might like to know that, of those approached, more than half had been willing to hand over money.

I don’t greatly like being called at home by hucksters, certainly not twice. My displeasure must have been clear. My Old School is not some impoverished inner city comprehensive, having a whip-round among grateful former pupils to pay for textbooks. It is one of the richest public schools in the country, able to buy a local feeder primary school outright and afford expensive ads in national papers. Our commercial  relationship, which involved my parents handing over money in return for my education, ended 40 years ago.

Do all posh, rich schools do this?

On “Pride”, Again, And Paisley

I was talking to The Boy last night about “Pride”, the film we saw at the weekend. I told him that when I was his age, or a little younger, a man was beaten to death on Wimbledon Common, close to where we live, because he was gay. It was called queer bashing, how some people liked to spend their time. I don’t think he had even heard the phrase.

He nodded, as if I was describing a medieval witch burning. Something immeasurably far away in time. I’m glad I don’t live in times like those, he said.

Ian Paisley died the other day. His personal journey took him from believing the Pope was, literally, the anti-Christ and that Catholics were the spawn of the Devil to sharing power with them. No one is murdered today in Northern Ireland today simply for being Catholic, or Protestant. We don’t turn on the radio to the phrase, last night in Northern Ireland another soldier…

Maybe the world is, in some ways, becoming a better place.


I have written a piece for my newspaper about how the National Grid, which is responsible for carrying electricity and gas around the country, has been talking to the people who supply temporary power generation plant about how they can help if there is a threat to electricity supplies this winter or next

The two British companies concerned are more used to supplying their standby generating plant to Third World countries that are short of capacity. Places like Libya and Iraq. With the exception of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan, this is the first time such resources would be deployed in some quantity in the developed world.

As it happens, on Saturday we woke up to discover that, along with much of south west London, we were without water. A burst main somewhere near Kingston had meant the pressure was too low to fill our cold water tank, which is in the loft.

It is surprising how powerless one feels, no pun intended, when such an essential service goes down. You are never sure when it might come back again. Dread thoughts of the loos blocking up, and much burrowing around under the stairs for old bottles of Evian to brush your teeth with.

The water came back within hours, of course. We live in a developed economy where we expect no less. But the UK is heading for a crisis where, in a few years time, we will no longer be able to rely on the lights staying on. This is not scaremongering – people who know a great deal more about this than I do, and have no vested interest in exaggerating the problem, have said so.

We have neglected our power industry just as we have neglected our transport infrastructure, to the point that the latter is no longer reliable and has been reduced to developing world status. (See posts passim, and my godawful journey into work today.)

So we will have to get used one day to the electricity supply being as reliable as the Northern Line, that is, working most of the time pretty well and some days not at all. Have a little think about that for a moment. “London Electricity regrets to inform you that you will have no power for the next couple of days. We regret any inconvenience caused, as well as all those bodies piling up in hospitals which have run out of standby generating capacity….”

How has this happened? Because government after government has put off the decision to build new power stations, nuclear or otherwise, as old ones have come to the end of their natural life, just as your car ceases to be functional after 15 or so years. This is what happens to machinery – it wears out.

So let’s say the authorities make it clear that they intend to build a third power station at Little Puddlington, where there are already two operating. What happens then? First, a bunch of unwashed middle class loonies staple themselves to the chain fence, complaining about the ozone layer, dead polar bears, carbon emissions, whatever takes their fancy.

Then out come the Nimbies. We don’t want another power station in our area. But you’ve already got two. Yes but there might be more traffic/pollution/lower house prices…

Meanwhile the producers of the Radio 4 Today Programme, who have every single pressure group on earth on speed dial, are onto the Royal Society for the Protection of Newts. Will newts be harmed in this project? Well, there are a few in the Puddlington area. They might be. We had better not to go ahead with the new power station, says the man from the RSPN. Because of the newts. Or badgers, or nightingales, as in a story on R4 Today only a few days ago about a new housing estate. Or one of the UK’s few remaining herds of dragons.

Faced with all this, what do the politicians do? Best to kick the decision into next year. Hey, we might not be in power then, it’ll be someone else’s problem.

This has been going on for years. I despair.

On “Pride”

Apparently gay people are normal human beings. I have this from “Pride” a film that depicts the cash raising by a bunch of London gays and lesbians in 1984 for the striking miners, which I have just seen.

The film is ludicrous but has its heart in the right place. Gays are depicted as having lives, relationships, parents, whatever, which are as difficult to negotiate as the rest of us. Well golly gosh. As these strands played out, the audience in my middle class south London cinema cheered.

I like living in a society where we can find aspects of gay culture amusing. And worth celebrating, rather than the subject of purse-lipped opprobrium, as was true 20 or 30 years ago. I know. I was there.

Walk a few streets away, though, and you will find people who find the whole notion disgusting. In Iran, they hang you for being gay, and they hang you from (Western-built) cranes, which makes the whole process agonisingly more painful.

Sorry to rain on your (gay) parade.

On HP Lovecraft

Film director Guillermo del Toro is reported on a geek film website to be continuing work on a film of “At The Mountains of Madness”, a project he has been working on, intermittently, for a decade. The reports suggest this time it might actually happen.

This will rekindle interest in the works of its author, the American cult horror writer HP Lovecraft. Expect a spiffy new edition of his various short stories and one novel if the film appears.This is not entirely a good idea.

HPL is one of the most interesting published authors of the 20th century, and arguably one of the worst. There is an assumption that horror writers have to be unbalanced, their neuroses giving rise to their iteration of all of our deepest fears. Though Stephen King seems to be an exception.

Lovecraft fits the mould. Totally bonkers, mad as cheese, crazy as a rat in a biscuit barrel, and weirdly influential and enduring, given the quality of his writing. He should have disappeared along with other pulp writers of his time such as Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. Instead he seems to have been rediscovered at least twice.

It is hard to convey the sheer awfulness of his writing, far, far worse than, say, JRR Tolkien, another  writer whose works are immensely improved by being transferred onto the screen. Others before del Toro have laboured on “Mountains of Madness”. He was forced to abandon it several years ago, though sketchings of his designs are easily found on the Internet, because its planned $120 million budget would be hard to get back from a film from which most teenagers would be excluded.

He has had success since with “Pacific Rim”, which I can confidently recommend as one of the noisiest films ever made, an experience akin to having a metal bin placed over your head which is then regularly struck with a hammer. For two hours. Del Toro has also, apparently, been convinced to tone down the violence to get a more youth-friendly certificate.

It is hard to imagine how. ATMOM is about an expedition to Antarctica to investigate some ancient ruins. Spoiler alert: it does not end well. Dismembered bodies everywhere. HPL was himself morbidly afraid of low temperatures, one of his many little oddities. Like thorough-going racism and misanthropy, an unwillingness to venture out in the daytime, and a dysfunctional relationship with his mother. That horror of the cold comes across in the story.

The truly weird thing about a truly weird man was how influential he became. Stephen King cites him as inspirational. He was discovered by the 1960s counter-culture – there was even a San Francisco rock band named after him. Perhaps it all makes sense if you’re stoned.

He is also well thought of by the IT crowd, and references pop up regularly on techie websites such as boingboing. Again, God knows why. He was certainly a bit of a proto-nerd. Anniversaries of his birth and death are celebrated by fans. There are even occasional attempts to bring his work into the mainstream, and to conduct a serious literary appraisal.

If the del Toro film finally arrives, this odd footnote to 20th century literature looks set for yet another resurgence.

On Transport As A Commodity

Someone called Claire Perry, who is apparently the transport minister – no, me neither – has been lambasting the train operators because some of their services are overcrowded.

Ms Perry, who has plainly spent the past three decades in a Tibetan lamasery, has said They Have To Do Something. One service is running with slightly more than twice the number of passengers it is designed to accommodate.

Unfortunately the wicked media, with their monstrous bias towards their capitalist pay-masters, have refused to report the second part of Ms Perry’s speech, in which she spells out Just What They Ought To Do. Or so I assume. Let’s see if we can fill in the gaps.

Space on public transport is a commodity. This means it is subject to the rules of supply and demand. Currently, demand outstrips supply. This is why some services resemble a student Rag Week prank. How many people can we get into a carriage, assuming they are allowed to stand on top of each other?

To take the Tube, the last new line was opened to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. In 1977, which is before most people using the Tube were born. The Docklands Light Railway doesn’t count, as it was created to serve the new business district at Canary Wharf and did nothing to relieve congestion elsewhere.

Meanwhile Tube journeys are rising by 3 per cent a year, which means at the end of every decade there are four people on the platform where, ten years earlier, there were three.

In the normal universe, when demand so outstrips supply, the price goes up, there are fewer buyers and the two move back into equilibrium. A bit of this has been happening. Average transport fares have risen by a fifth over the past five years, while average earnings have remained stagnant. Transport is now a fifth more expensive in real terms, then.

The decision to implement a flat rate of £2, now £2.40, on London buses was a tacit attempt to limit demand, by persuading those only going two stops or so to walk.

Neither of these appears to have done anything to reduce the overcrowding, though one could argue it would be even worse without them. An economist would deduce that the only way of cutting demand was to raise fares to an extent that a sufficient number of people were no longer able to travel.

20 per cent didn’t work. So let’s put up fares by 50 per cent at first. If not, double them. At some stage, supply and demand will come back into equilibrium, and those remaining plutocrats on public transport would be travelling in comfort again.

It isn’t going to happen. So the transport system will get worse. And worse. No amount of grandstanding and posturing by little known junior ministers is going to change that.

On Scotland

Like about a third of people living in England, I have Scottish blood. Some time in the 1920s, though the exact timing of events is unclear, a young man called Frederick Stewart exited his home town of Dundee in about the only way he could, as a stoker on a merchant vessel heading to points south and the Middle East, initially.

It was his escape from grinding poverty, and it was not an easy one. My grandfather would entertain me as a child with descriptions of crew mates going mad with sunstroke and having to be tied to the deck and drenched with fire hoses.

He eventually settled in a sedate north London suburb and never showed any desire to return to the land of his fathers. Understandable, really, there wasn’t a lot to go back for, though he had a fondness for its most successful export.

I feel absolutely no emotional pull for the place either. Been there four times, for varying reasons, no temptation to go back. I have more in common with the French, the Germans or the Dutch, like many in the South East, I suspect.

I doubt I would be made very welcome. There has always been an undertone of what would, under other circumstances, be called racism in the Scots’ attitude to the English, and the independence debate has made it much worse.

For what it’s worse, I suspect next Thursday will bring the worst of all world, a narrow “No” vote that will only intensify that sense of grievance. I am fast ceasing to care.

On The Peace Of Westphalia

I confess, I had never heard of the Peace of Westphalia. This was a series of peace treaties signed in 1648 that brought to an end, among others, the Thirty Years’ War.

It features heavily in a piece sent to me by a City contact, written by Henry Kissinger, no less. It is startlingly relevant to current world events. If you want to understand what is going on in the Middle East, it is worth considering.

What the Peace did was to usher in the structure of the modern world by creating a new form of world order, a framework that spread around the world and, by the last century, was pretty well accepted by all. Sovereign states would refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs.

The creation of a number of these would create checks and balances. Alliances between some would deter interference from others. Different states with different forms of government, not all democratic, would co-operate to promote their shared aims.

This, plainly, did not mean no more wars. But it created a structure that would develop what is now currently accepted as international law. At the centre of it is the notion of a sovereign state, unified in itself if it was made up of different nationalities and ethnicities.

In 1947, as Kissinger explains, Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian watchmaker and religious activist, offered an Islamic alternative. He outlined the principles that would underpin the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then al-Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and the rest of the grim crew.

This, although not explicitly, rejected the Westphalian model. Islam was indivisible, and transcended the sovereign state. (Though Islam is nothing of the kind; see the endless Shia/Sunni schism.) Non-interference in other country’s affairs is no governing principle, because national loyalties are superseded by Islam.

Islamic State is merely a continuation of this, though the consequence of its rise would seem to be a Middle East even more balkanised into enclaves, small religious groupings and splinter states like Kurdistan. We can take it that its leaders, if they are aware of the Westphalian model, disapprove. As indeed they appear to disapprove of pretty well everything.

Putin, whatever his faults, is on the side of the Westphalia model. He has his own reasons to oppose Islamic fundamentalism. Draw your own conclusions.