Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Stitching Update

Since my last post on stitching in November I have managed to complete just three pieces, with a couple of little bits thrown in. However the three were pretty large works. The first was based on a pattern we saw on a steeple in a village in the Klettgau. This is a wine growing valley in Kanton Schaffhausen, which we visited last September on our trip to Switzerland. The steeple stood out as it was extremely large and was covered in very brightly coloured tiles. I stuck to the original pattern and colour combination as best as I could. The stitched area is approximately 27cmx25cm. It was stitched with wool threads on canvass. This is what is looks like. At present it is lying in my stash box, as I still haven’t decided what to do with it.

My next project was a slightly smaller version of the Five Easy Pieces I had done in the autumn. It is about 18cmx12cm and also features five sections and uses primarily Bargello patterns. This time though one of the sections, the upper right corner was a rectangle filled with straight lines. These stitches are all diagonals over three threads. This piece was stitched on Aida 18ct fabric using two strands of DMC cotton thread. I am tempted to call it Five Small Pieces. It also lies in my stash box. As usual with Bargello projects I try to use an analogous colour scheme with the odd bit of complementary thrown in to jazz things up a bit. As you can see this one predominantly uses blues.

Before Christmas I did a couple of very small pieces, a bookmark for someone’s birthday and a round coaster. Over Christmas and New Year I put away my stitching things as we had Emma and Co. for company. Alessio is still a bit young to be introduced to the delights of stitching. Since then I have spent most of my stitching time completing my largest project so far. This has been my attempt at a Palestinian mini wall hanging. I used Aida 18ct fabric and two strands of DMC cotton thread. The final stitched area measures 45cmx24cm. I started on 7th January and finished stitching on 19th February. Never before spent so long on one project. I have still to attach it to some pieces of driftwood which I intend to use as the top and bottom attachments. Here is what it looks like at present.

The hanging is made up of nine different traditional Palestinian patterns. Below is the top part in a bit more detail.

The outside squares down the sides are known as the Moon of Ramallah. The top and bottom borders use a pattern called the Crowns. The main features working from the top are 1. Cockerels on top of 2. Flower Pots. Next is the middle section in a bit more detail.

First comes 3. a pattern known as Roses and Birds. This is famed on the sides by 4. Lilies and above and below by 5. Variations of Chick Peas and Raisons. The central section 6. features two Harps, framed by 7. part of the Kohl bottle pattern. The sequence from the Roses and Birds is then repeated to form the bottom half of the design. Though the patterns are genuine traditional Palestinian ones there are two caveats. The first is that Palestinian needlework uses the cross stitch while I use a simple diagonal over one fabric thread. This changes the pattern slightly as the right hand side is not an exact replica of the left hand side. The second caveat is that I know next to nothing of the colour schemes used in Palestine. From the little I have discovered on the net, they do seem to favour bright colours, particularly reds. Hence my choice of colours for this mini hanging.

My current project, which I have just started this week, is based on another of the photos I took last September in Switzerland. Once again I am back to canvas and wool. After this project is finished I need to sort out and find a simple way of tidying up and organizing my stack of threads etc. This could take long enough.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Missionaries

This was the Reading Group’s book for February and is the second Robin Jenkin’s novel I have now read. The first was the Cone Gatherers and curiously that was also via the Reading Group. I enjoyed the Cone Gatherers immensely and was looking forward to reading The Missionaries. Unfortunately it was not a very good read. There is probably the makings of a good novel in the tale, but this is not it.

Set mainly in the imaginary small and now almost uninhabited island of Sollas, somewhere off the west coast of Scotland, the novel is about the reactions to an attempt by a small group of Christian sectarians to settle on the island. The island’s owner wants them off and secures a court order for their eviction. A Sheriff from the mainland, backed up by a motley crew of police officers sets off to carry out the evictions. Into this dispute steps the idealistic and highly moral Andrew Doig, who in a student pamphlet takes up the cause of the sectarians. In a double twist Andrew meets up with the daughter of the island’s owner - Madeleine Vontin - who is, surprise, surprise, both beautiful and intelligent. Andrew is of course well smitten with this vision, especially when she invites him to visit the island to see for himself what is going on there. It also turns out that the mainland Sheriff is Andrew’s uncle. Andrew’s father is a Church of Scotland minister and Andrew is torn between entering the ministry or the legal profession. Cue for lots of personal introspection and moralising.

Once on the island and having met up with the sectarians Andrew is appalled by their appearance - uncouth, unclean and uneducated. Not at all what God’s chosen ones should look like - at least not to a son of the manse. Andrew is apparently seriously torn between the charms of Madeleine and the pull of the sectarians. He is almost on the verge of a breakdown when he suddenly sees sense and wanders off to the comforts of Madeleine and her warm, genteel life.

Difficult to take the novel too seriously. It was published in 1957 and describes a period in Scottish history and society when matters of religion and propriety were of much greater import than they are now. It does read as a rather dated tale. Jenkins tries to add a bit of spice by giving some life to the lesser characters, but in such a short book - just over 200 pages - he is not able to do justice to these characters, and only succeeds in prolonging the outcome. Though there is some well crafted writing, this is not one of Jenkin’s more interesting novels.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Afghanistan - the final push?

So the UK and the USA have started another stage managed offensive against the Taliban. Embedded journalists send back reports, pictures and films for our newspapers and TV. And our boys are winning. Of course they’re winning - the Taleban were never likely to stand and fight. Which guerilla movement ever has? The Taliban had already retreated into the mountains or become invisible amongst the locals. So what is left for the poor squaddy to do now that he has been deprived of his real job - killing the enemy? Judging by the reports, sitting down and blethering with the remaining locals. With the aid of interpreters the UK and US soldiers are trying to convince the local Pashtun to turn their backs on the evil Taliban, give up growing the evil poppy and everyone will live happily ever after. Sounds like a fairy tale to me.

And no doubt to the Pashtun as well. Just imagine things from their perspective. Here are all those strange soldiers, armed to the teeth, from far away countries, who cannot speak the local language and in 6-12 months time will be back home in the UK or the USA. Meanwhile the Taliban are just around the corner, biding their time. For the Taliban fighters, unlike the UK soldiers actually live there. Afghanistan, including Helmand province is their homeland. They have nowhere else to go and will carry on with their guerilla fighting until they achieve something.

The key deceit in all this is the pretence that the Taliban are some alien force or part of some global terrorist campaign. All the evidence is that they are a nationalist group which represents a significant section of Pashtun opinion. And the Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Not a good choice for an enemy. So once upon a time they had an agreement with Osama Bin Laden. Didn’t the USA once upon a time have an agreement with this same Osama Bin Laden when he was a freedom fighter blowing up Soviet soldiers?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a some stage, sooner or later, the allies will have to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Now this may be jazzed up as only dealing with the moderate elements in the Taliban. Lovely word moderate - who decides who is and who is not a moderate? Why the UK and the USA. Whatever, any final settlement is likely to involve bringing the Taliban back into government. And that agreement will almost certainly include a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. What happens then? Who knows and I suspect few will care.

Sounds unlikely? Anyone looked at the current situation in Northern Ireland recently? Last I remember Sinn Feinn was sharing power with the most die hard of the Unionist parties. Yes the very same Sinn Feinn, with the very same leaders who spent decades fighting the UK and killing and maiming hundreds of soldiers and civilians. The very same Sinn Feinn that UK ministers and Ulster Unionists would berate and condemn and vow to never negotiate with and never surrender to. Now I am not suggesting that there is a simple comparison between the situation in Afghanistan and what happened in Ulster. But one is the same, namely that for all the distaste and hatred that Sinn Feinn provoked, nothing could alter the fact that they did represent a significant section of catholic and nationalist opinion. And they lived there. So short of a bit of genocide, there was ultimately no alternative to negotiation and power sharing.

The big difference is that northern Ireland was part of the UK. While this was disputed by Sinn Feinn, the rest of the country, including of course the majority in northern Ireland itself, did not. So in a sense that meant that the UK wasn’t going to just go away. Too many of its citizens lived in northern Ireland and they weren’t going to go away. And Sinn Feinn was never in any position to embark on a bit of genocide on its own. Hence the stalemate and hence the current power sharing.

Afghanistan of course is not and never has been part of the UK, nor the USA. At some stage the majority in these countries will weary of the whole ghastly escapade - the deaths, the maiming, the cost. And at some stage our troops will come home. Everyone knows this - including the Taliban. All they need to do is survive - in the mountains, in Pakistan or lost among the local Pashtun. Perhaps this current offensive really is stage managed. We claim a glorious victory over the radical elements in the Taliban and negotiate a settlement with the remaining moderates. Declare victory and come home. Sounds good.

Monday, 15 February 2010

In Praise of Sitges

Sitges is a small town on the coast south of Barcelona. It is one of our favourite places to visit. In fact in the 1980s the whole family lived there for about three years. We had a great time. The girls went to the local Spanish speaking school - Esteve Barrachina. As a result they became pretty much fluent in the language. In the 80s it was still a traditional town and very safe for children to walk and play about the place. With its mediterranean climate people were out and about till very late at night. We lived in a flat very close to the town’s centre and only about 15 minutes from the beaches and esplanade. The only downside was next door was a very lively Irish pub. This was only a problem at the weekends. The source was not the pub itself, but rather the racket from the street, just below our bedroom window. Early in the weekend mornings - shortly after midnight - dozens or more young people would congregate outside the pub and talk and shout away. The worst was the motos. They would be revved up and revved up a bit more and then a bit more again. This revving up often lasted 20 minutes or more before the owners finally decided to swoosh off home. Still the rest of the time the place was quiet and Sitges itself is such an attractive and interesting little town.

The town is about 40km south of Barcelona and when we lived there the road from the city wound its way up and down and round several very rocky coves. With sheer drops to the sea, there were some very scary experiences driving along that road. Now there is a modern motorway which goes straight through the mountains in a series of tunnels. The town is at the end of this mountainous section. The old town is built on a rocky promontory which rises from the beaches on either side. People have lived in this area since time immemorial. By the middle ages Sitges had become a small fishing village. Wine making was also important and even today you can still sample the locally produced sweet dessert wine, a kind of malvasia. Sitges began to take on its current shape and character in the years preceding the 1st World War. The town became a favourite haunt for all kinds of artists - writers, painters, musicians and other intellectuals and an important centre for the spreading of Modernisme (Catalan Modernism). Nowadays Sitges is a popular tourist destination for people from all over Europe, while it still attracts people from Barcelona for weekend breaks. Here is an aerial view of the town.

The old town is still a maze of narrow streets which stretch from the railway station all the way down to the esplanade and the beaches. Some of these streets date back to medieval times and some are pretty steep. Most of the buildings are a feast for the eyes. Old Sitges is a wonderful mix of architectural styles. In particular there are some lovely examples of neo-classical, modernist and Catalan Art Nouveau styles. Most of them were built by the “Americanos” - Sitgetans who had made their fortune in Cuba or other parts of what used to be the Spanish American Empire. Now rich they returned home determined to show off their wealth with the building of extravagant homes. Here are a couple of examples.

While Sitges now has its fair share of drab recently built buildings, good modern architecture can still be found in the town. Here are some examples of new houses built along the Esplanade.

The pride of Sitges must be its main church. This is set high on the rocky promontory and its front façade overlooks the sea. The church is dedicated to two saints and its full name is Església de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla. It is a seventeenth building which dominates the seafront and has become the iconic image of Sitges. The inside is richly decorated with many side chapels, but it is the façade and its setting which sets it apart.

Sitges is still home to many artists. There are many private studios and a good number of little galleries in addition to three sizable museums. One of our most prized paintings is this little gem by Aragonese painter, Manuel Blesa. He now lives and works in Sitges and we bought this from the artist himself. He is a lovely old man.

As one would expect from a tourist destination, Sitges has an extensive and varied range of bars, cafés and restaurants to suit all tastes and expenses. While there are many to choose from along the front, we tend to prefer those in the old town. A must for anyone who likes to sit quietly and watch the world go by is Café Bar Roy. This is a Sitges institution on one of the main shopping streets leading away from the main square - Cap de La Vila. Here you can sit outside on the raised platform, supping your coffee and watching the elegant and the not so elegant Sitgetans and tourists pass by. Another favourite little bar and café was Bar Xatet, which was located on one of the corners of Cap de La Vila. This was a truly wonderful little bar-café. Tiny really with only about four or five little tables, plus a few outside. But Xatet served a great range of tapas and had some really impressive legs of cured ham - the famous jamón serrano - hanging from the ceiling. Some nice brandies as well. But what made Xatet famous were the pictures and photos on the wall. They covered every available space. Original paintings and cartoons and photos of famous people from all over the world. A cosy and comfortable atmosphere that reminded you of life in a bygone age. Unfortunately it is no longer a café, and has become an expensive sandwich take-away. The hams are still there though. Our favourite bar is probably Bar Baron. This is an even smaller establishment run by Sr Baron himself. We frequented it a lot when we lived there. It is a very unpretentious affair - a few tables, a small choice of tapas, a couple of beers and very cheap wine. However it is central and popular with both locals and visitors. Anytime you go there would be a few locals and some Belgians, or Dutch or Britons. Most clients just popped in for one or at most two beers and then moved on to be replaced by new customers. Sr Baron was always very friendly and welcoming. The place is a bit modernised now, with bright new toilets downstairs. Sr Baron is still there, though it is eldest son who runs the place.

Sitges is justly famous for its lovely sandy beaches. The main beaches run south along the coast from below the church for about three kilometres. Originally this would have been just one extensive beach area and where the fishing boats would have landed. Now the coast has been sectioned off into about six or seven separate beaches. The one nearest the church still has a few boats lying on the sand. The others are all popular sunbathing beaches. Running alongside the beaches is a very fine wide Esplanade. This is a popular place to take a paseo. At any time of the day or evening the Esplanade is full of people of all ages and sizes and states of dress or undress. Roller skating, cycling, skateboarding, jogging or just walking. This is a view along the beaches from just below the church.

Sitges also has a smaller beach - Sant Sebastià - and this has always been our favourite. On the other, northern side of the promontory, Sant Sebastià is a lovely enclosed beach, as it is bounded by another, smaller promontory at its other end. Rarely as busy as the other beaches, it is perfect for us to paddle about in the water, take the occasional dip and just lie down and enjoy the sun. We usually would go in the morning. Behind the beach there are some fine cafés and bars. We would usually end up sitting outside one of them enjoying a cool beer and some anchovy stuffed olives and perhaps some artichokes. Such a pleasant and civilized way to live. Here is a view along the beach. You can see the edge of the mountains in the background.

Though Catalans tend to be a bit more restrained than people from other parts of Spain, they still like to celebrate in style and often. Not for nothing is Catalunya home to Cava - Spain’s very own champagne. In fact cava is produced just a few miles inland from Sitges. And there are plenty of opportunities to open a bottle or two. For Sitges has developed a passion for festivals. There is hardly a month of the year in which there is not some special event or other excuse for a party. Carnaval, which I wrote about in a previous post is probably the earliest festival time. Sitges of course has two saints and thus two big festivals. Sant Bartomeu is honoured at the Festa Major which takes place towards the end of August. A slightly smaller festival in honour of Santa Tecla is held towards the end of September. Both are very lively affairs with something for everyone - dancing, music and street parades. The festivals always end with a terrific firework display with lights up the sky and the church façade. The street parades are fascinating and enthralling events. Key participants include traditional music and dancing groups, giant representations of historic figures from Catalunya’s past and the wonderful castellers. This involves building a human castle of four or more stories high. At the top a small child clambers to the top to great applause. Here is an example of a six story castle and two giants.

To see the gegants in action you can watch this youtube video here.

The most spectacular feature of the parades are undoubtedly the mythical creatures which torment and sometimes terrify the onlookers. Life sized representations of fierce animals, the devil and dragons rampage about with fireworks exploding right, left and centre from the dragon’s mouth. Here is a particularly fiery dragon.

For a youtube video of the dragon in action try here.

Other popular events in Sitges include a film festival, a wine festival and a tango festival. Midsummer - St John’s Day - is of course celebrated everywhere in Spain and Sitges is no exception. Here he is known as Sant Joan and there are the usual parties and fireworks. Corpus Christi is another special time when the main streets of the town are turned into carpets of flowers. On the days preceding Corpus local groups draw in chalk intricate designs on the street surfaces. During the night and into the wee small hours they then fill in the designs with petals from hundreds and no doubt thousands of flowers, especially carnations. Here is an example.
Sitges is a gem of a town, and one we delight in returning to as often as possible. If you get the chance to visit the place, jump at it. As Barcelona is only about 30 minutes away by a very good train sevice, you can get the best of both worlds - a city break and some relaxing by the sea in an historic and charming town.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

PIIGS and the Euro

Recently much coverage in the media has been given over to the alleged crisis facing the Euro and to the worries about the economic prospects for the Eurozone. In particular the focus is currently on the group of countries sometimes referred to as PIGS - Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. This has sometimes become PIIGS, with the inclusion of Ireland. This insulting and possibly racist term has of course been coined by Anglo-Saxon commentators. No doubt displaying their centuries old distaste and disapproval of southern and catholic Europe. Ireland, a recent addition, though not southern, is a catholic country. Given the recent performance of the the UK and USA economies and their joint responsibility for the financial and economic mess most of the world is in this is a form of chutzpah that even the most ardent Zionist would find hard to voice.

It is of course ridiculous to group together such disparate countries, each with its own economic and social characteristics. In the USA, the distinguished economist, Paul Krugman has been quite vociferous in disentangling the differences among these five economies, though he is still happy to use the acronym. In particular he has confirmed that whatever problems face the Spanish economy, they are not due to fiscal irresponsibility. What is interesting about Krugman’s contribution is that he seems to identify rising wage costs and uncompetitiveness as the main reason for Spain’s current troubles. And by implication, that the solution consists at least in part in lowering wages. And this from a self proclaimed Liberal. No wonder we are all in such a sorry mess, when even the apparently good guys still blame the poor. Krugman also places part of the blame, or at least the difficulty of finding a solution, on the Euro.

Krugman’s analysis has not gone unchallenged and many commentators to his blog have pointed out that the Spanish economy has in fact done remarkably well over the past decade or so. In particular, it seems that real unit labour costs in many sectors, for example car manufacturing, are in fact lower than in Germany. Spain is it seems still competitive in many markets. In fact, Spain is one of the few Western economies to have gained market share of world trade in the aftermath of the crisis.

Spain has also welcomed over five million immigrants over the last decade, one of the highest rates in the whole of Europe. So, what is really remarkable is not the level of unemployment but actually how much employment the Spanish economy has managed to create over the last decade. And, contrary to popular belief, many of those jobs have been created outside the construction sector and are not low-skilled jobs. Spain is, even after the crisis, the country that has created more jobs in the Eurozone since the creation of the Euro: twice as many jobs as Germany and three times as many as the UK. And many of those are permanent, high quality jobs.

As regards what is causing the current economic woes, various suggestions have been put forward. In the case of Spain the relative collapse of the property market has had a major impact on the economy. Where Spanish firms have become less competitive it is claimed that this is due to high corporate margins and therefore that it is lack of competition in some sectors rather than salaries that is the real issue. The lack of a transparent and effective tax system seems to be a major contribution to the Greek crisis. In most of southern Europe there is still much to be done to improve the transport infrastructure that is a key part of any competitive improvement in their economies.

All of which suggests that there is no one answer and that hitting the poor and leaving the Euro is most definitely not part of the answer. It is interesting to note that much of the glee about the troubles facing these countries is a thinly veiled hope that the Euro will collapse. For nothing worries the UK financial elites - the ones that brought us the current financial crash - is that the Euro succeeds. If the lack of competitiveness is part of the cause of Spain’s current woes, then how does leaving the Euro make any difference. If anything it is the existence of the single currency that is exposing this lack of competition. The same applies to the need for better transport networks or the need for a efficient and effective tax regime. What positive difference would leaving the Euro make to either of these challenges? None as far as I can see.

Much of the current media coverage given to the travails of our southern European partners is of course a useful scam on the part of our elites to avoid too much scrutiny of what they have done and what they intend to do. And what they intend to do, whether it is New Labour or the Tories, is to put most of the pain onto the backs of the poor and the not so well off. Only the timing and the intensity of the pain is in question. Still no sign that it is the elites, particularly in the financial sectors who should bear the brunt of any pain. Seems we’re not so different from the PIIGS after all.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


Winter is still with us in February, though we often begin to see the first signs of new flowers in the garden. This early in the month there is not much to see this year. A couple of crocuses and snowdrops are about to burst into bloom. By the end of the month there should be more colour. If cold winter does actually go away! This has been the worst - snowiest and coldest - winter since records began. And to tell the truth, I’m getting a bit fed up with it all. Let’s hope that spring brings some sustained sunshine and warmth.

Unfortunately the omens are not too good. Groundhog Day has come and gone and Punxsutawney Phil has emerged to see his shadow before chilly revelers in Gobbler's Knob, meaning winter will last another six weeks. At least in Pennsylvania. With a bit of luck Phil’s forecasting doesn’t extend as far as Scotland. It seems that Groundhog Day in the USA comes from an old

German tradition, which holds that if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2 -- the Christian holiday of Candlemas -- winter would last another six weeks. If no shadow was seen, legend said spring would come early. I wonder if this tradition is still alive and well in Germany today.

Back to February, and in addition to the three day festival in Punxsutawney, there are quite a few enticing festivals around the world this year. St Valentine’s Day is not exactly a festival, but any excuse will do for a night out with the person you love. The 14th is also the day for celebrating the Chinese New Year. This will be the year of the tiger. How about a Chinese meal for St Valentine’s Day? Another festival that caught my eye is the Buenos Aires Tango Festival, which takes place in the last week of February. It is summer down in Argentina just now, so this would be a good time to go. Too late to book up for this year, but one I must definitely put in the diary. Any excuse for another picture of tango dancers.

This year of course all the pre Lent festivals take place in February. This is the period of forty days before Easter when traditionally one would fast and pray, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert whilst being tempted by Satan. As a predominantly Protestant country there are no lively festivals over here unfortunately. The most we can offer is Pancake Day. This is the popular name given to Shrove Tuesday throughout the UK. The name Shrove comes from the old word "shrive" which means to confess. On Shrove Tuesday, in the Middle Ages, people used to confess their sins so that they were forgiven before the season of Lent began. Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence, because it's the last day before Lent. Throughout the United Kingdom people indulge themselves on foods that traditionally aren't allowed during Lent. Fat, butter and eggs were forbidden during Lent, so people would prepare and eat wonderfully rich pancakes as their last piece of culinary indulgence before the beginning of Lent. Not that popular nowadays, it was still a big occasion in my childhood. Some places would hold pancake races and whole TV programmes would be given over to the making of special pancakes. Whatever, go on and indulge yourself with a nice, rich and buttery pancake with dollops of real cream. Then it’s bread and water.

In Catholic countries the days before Lent are celebrated with a popular carnival. It seems the word carnival comes to us from the Latin "carne vale", which means either "farewell to the flesh" or "farewell to meat". Hence the indulgence associated with the most popular carnivals. The most famous is probably the carnival in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Exotic, hot, sexy and steamy are the words that are most associated with Rio’s festival. The Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans is probably pretty hot and steamy too. I wonder if it is still as popular post Katrina?

In Europe the most famous is probably Il Carnavale in Venice, which I always associate with wonderful masques. The only carnival I know of personally is the one in Sitges. There, Carnaval has become one of the biggest and most popular festivals in the whole of Spain. Here is the beautiful poster for this year’s festival, designed by local artist Blanca Benítez.

When we lived there in the mid 80s, the place was jumping during Carnaval. Thousands of people would come from France, Germany and the UK to mix with the locals. Sitges has a large gay community and some amazing and gamourous drag shows abound. There are also some lovely impromptu sessions outside the most popular bars. However, the Sitges Carnaval is not a particularly gay festival and the local Catalan women, young and old, are more than happy to indulge in a bit of Rio style glamour with fancy dress, feathers, sequins and plenty of female skin on display during the street parades. As can be seen here.
February seems to have been a mixed month for my ancestors. A couple of deaths. Elizabeth Lily Philip, who was my paternal grandmother, died in St. Andrews on the 23rd in 1965. I remember her well, as lived just along the road from us. I was a regular visitor at her house, where she lived with her daughter, my aunty Betty. Lily’s mother, my great grandmother, Elizabeth Robertson also died in February, the 22nd in 1925, also in St. Andrews. Strangely, this Elizabeth was born in February, the 11th in 1844. My aunty Betty was named after this woman, her grandmother, as Betty’s full name was Elizabeth Robertson Rutherford.

There were two weddings in February and curiously they involved a father and son. Henry Mohring Henderson (where did that middle name came from?) and Helen Wright were married on the 6th in 1880 in Dundee. They were my mother’s paternal grandparents. Henry’s son, James Davidson Henderson, then went on to marry Jessie McGregor Melville on the 10th in1905, also in Dundee. They were of course my mother’s parents and my grandparents. James died young, while Jessie lived to a ripe old and died well into her 90s. Like my other grandmother I remember Jessie very well. When I first knew her she lived on her own in a two roomed attic flat in a very old stone tenement off the Hilltown. You had to climb up an enclosed spiral staircase, which was built separate from the main tenement to reach the attic landing. The outside loo was built into this stairwell. From the landing you then had to climb another steep stair to reach her flat. Wonderful it was. In the kitchen room there was a bed built into a recess in the wall, just like you get in some old Dutch houses. The other room was full old things like a spinning wheel, a mangle and other items from a far away world.

February’s flower as you may have gathered is the violet. A rather pretty little flower, it symbolises faithfulness, humility, chastity and protection from evil. Alternatives if you don’t like violets are the primrose or the iris.

Most of the birthstone traditions have the amethyst as the gemstone for February. The legend of the origin of amethyst comes from Greek myths. Dionysius, the god of intoxication, was angered one day by an insult from a mere mortal and swore revenge on the next mortal that crossed his path, creating fierce tigers to carry out his wish. Along came unsuspecting Amethyst, a beautiful young maiden on her way to pay tribute to the goddess Diana. Diana turned Amethyst into a stature of pure crystalline quartz to protect her from the brutal claws. Dionysus wept tears of wine in remorse for his action at the sight of the beautiful statue. The god's tears stained the quartz purple, creating the gem we know today. The amethyst symbolises stability, peace, balance, sincerity and a calm disposition. Here’s a lovely example to end with. Wishing everyone a happy Chinese New Year and a bit of spice for Carnaval.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Was the Iraq war legal?

The Chilcot inquiry in London into the Iraq war is getting a fair bit of coverage in recent days. In particular many people are hoping that the enquiry will answer the question - was the war legal? This may be an unrealistic hope for many reasons. One is undoubtedly the sheer incompetence of the inquiry committee members. The other is that there is alas, no established body to adjudicate on questions of international law. Strange, but true. Thus many of the witnesses simply make assertions with little or no challenge from the enquiry.

It may therefore be helpful to go back to first principles. From a UK perspective it is important to note that the pressure for an authoritative legal statement came from the top brass in the military. Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, was worried about possible prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC). He therefore, on behalf of UK forces, demanded an unequivocal assurance from lawyers that the war was legal.

The ICC is a relatively new body based in The Hague. It is an independent, permanent court that tries persons accused of the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC is based on a treaty signed by 110 countries.

In general terms war crimes are divided into two broad categories. The first are called crimes against peace. Crimes against peace include the planning, preparation, or initiation of a war of aggression. This violates the principle of just cause (jus ad bellum). In other words one country cannot make aggressive war against another country. The second category are what are called crimes against humanity. These are violations of the rules as to the means and manner by which war is to be conducted once begun (jus in bellum).

As regards the Iraq war any charge brought against the UK military or government would primarily be on the basis that this was a war of aggression and therefore a war crime. Absent a just cause, no force can be used, period.

Was there a just cause?

Interestingly there is a pretty fair analysis of this question in the 13-page legal opinion sent to Tony Blair on 7th March 2003. This was from the UK Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith and in it he offers his advice on the legality of military action against Iraq without a further resolution of the Security Council. You can read the full document here. He starts by outlining the three possible bases for the use of force:

  • self-defence (which may include collective self-defence);
  • exceptionally, to avert overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe;
  • authorisation by the Security Council.

Goldsmith then goes to exclude the first two as a just basis for the use of force. He states that force may be used in self-defence only if there is an actual or imminent threat of an armed attack. Goldsmith clearly did not believe that in 2003 the UK was under the threat of an actual or imminent threat from Iraq. He also dismisses the arguments of those, particularly in the USA, who claim a right to take preventative action to pre-empt an attack. As Goldsmith says: “this is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognised in international law.” He is equally dismissive of the notion that force is needed to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe. As the noble Lord puts it: “I know of no reason why it would be an appropriate basis for action in present circumstances.”

With the first two possibilities dismissed we are left with authorisation by the Security Council as the only legal basis for the use of force. Goldsmith himself puts it succinctly: “The key question is whether resolution 1441 has the effect of providing such authorisation.” Most of the rest of the memo is Goldsmith’s attempt to find such authorisation. Alas for Tony Blair and the UK government, he was unable to find any clear and unequivocal authorisation. The most he could muster up was the following: “Nevertheless, having regard to the information on the negotiating history which I have been given and to the arguments of the US Administration which I heard in Washington, I accept that a reasonable case can be made that resolution 1441 is capable in principle of reviving the authorisation in 678 without a further resolution.”

Despite his best attempts at seeking authorisation for the use of force, Goldsmith is forced to concede that: “In these circumstances, I remain of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorise the use of force.”

Yet by 17th March Goldsmith had issued a second, single-page opinion authorising military intervention, based on the existing UN resolutions. Most strange that in such a short space of time all doubts had been removed. For there is little doubt that his opinion had changed.

Two clues can be found in the March 7th opinion. Note the very careful selection words - a “reasonable case can be made” .........”that in principle....” Not much of a ringing endorsement there. And hardly the basis for a considered legal opinion that the use of force was legal. Secondly, note the clear admission of the involvement of the US Administration. It seems inconceivable and a possible gross dereliction of duty that the Attorney General would only consult those already committed to war when seeking advice about the legality of the use of force. Why did he not consult the legal opinion of other countries? The only conclusion must be that he was not interested in giving impartial legal advise.

This view - that he was not interested in offering impartial advice is further borne out by the treatment of the UK’s own legal experts. Both Michael Wood, the then chief legal advisor to the Foreign Office, and his deputy, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, his deputy, made clear that their considered view was that the use of force against Iraq in March 2003 was contrary to international law and had not been authorised by the Security Council. This was also the view of the International Commission of Jurists. In 2003 they stated that: “Security Council Resolution 1441 does not authorise the use of force. Upon its adoption, France, Russia and China, three permanent members of the Security Council, issued a declaration indicating that the Resolution excludes such authority.”

So Lord Goldsmith disregarded the legal advice of the Foreign Office’s own legal team and failed to consult with any international jurists. In reaching his final opinion he admits that he was helped by the USA. And this is supposed to constitute sufficient advice that the use of force against Iraq was legal? No wonder that in his March 7th paper, Goldsmith makes it clear that going to war without further UN authorisation would not actually protect UK soldiers and members of the government from possible charges either in the UK or internationally.

Regarding the Chilcot inquiry, it is pretty clear that this is a typical UK government stitch-up. A genuine, independent enquiry would not simply consist of people nominated by the Prime Minister, as is the case with Chilcot. The members are all government insiders of one kind or another. The two historians both strongly supported the decision to go to war. No-one on the enquiry opposed the war and none have any legal training or experience. Most tellingly, none have any proven inquisitorial skills. Given their previous record of support for the war it is hard to see how they could possible come to a conclusion that the war was illegal. A perfect group of gents and one lady who know just when to probe and when to go easy. A disgrace. If the UK had a genuine functioning democracy with real accountability, it would Parliament that set up the inquiry and determined who its members should be. But here in the good old UK, Parliament is totally subservient to the government of the day.

They do things differently in other countries. For example In the Netherlands, where it was the Dutch Parliament which set up its own committee of inquiry on Iraq. In this case the seven commissioners included the former president of the Dutch supreme court, a former judge of the European court of justice, and two legal academics. Their conclusion, which was published in January: The war in Iraq had no basis in international law.

Two final points. The first concerns the actions or rather non actions of those in high governmental positions who knew the war was illegal and yet did or said nothing, at least in public. For example take the Foreign Office legal team then led by Michael Wood, the chief legal advisor to the Foreign Office. As mentioned above all of this team of experienced legal advisors held to the view that the use of force was illegal. Yet only one of them, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, his deputy, was honourable enough and brave enough to resign and go public with her views. The rest remained stumm and in place, content to further their careers in the service of a government which they knew was acting illegally. And these are the people who are supposed to represent the crème de la crème of Western civilization!

My final point returns to Lord Goldsmith’s legal opinion of 7th March. There he is quite adamant that: “regime change cannot be the objective of military action.” And of course, absent any weapons of mass destruction, regime change has become the post war justification for the war for the likes of Tony (I would have done it anyway) Blair. Saddam was such a bad man and look how terribly the Iraqis were suffering under his rule. Interesting to note that way back in 2003 even Lord Goldsmith confirmed that regime change was most definitely illegal.