Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Road Home

Rose Tremain’s The Road Home was the Reading Group’s book for July.  I had already read the book, so I decided to listen to the audio version this time.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the audiobook is also very good.  The reader is Steven Pacey and he does an excellent job in voicing all the different characters.
The Road Home is the personal Odyssey of Lev as he journeys from his homeland to London and back home again.  His homeland is an unspecified east European country, now a member of the EU.  From the descriptions of the place it sounds like one of the more deprived and desolated parts of the Ukraine.  But as the Ukraine is not in the EU, it is more likely to be some equally desolate part of Poland.
Lev has chosen to leave his home as he has lost his job in the local timber factory, which has closed as all the trees have been destroyed.  His wife, Marina died a few years earlier, from leukemia and he lives with his mother and young daughter.  The loss of his wife was particularly devastating, and a major theme running through the novel is how to deal with, and if possible, overcome loss.  With little or no prospects at home he decides to try his fortune in London.
Though Lev is the central character in the novel and every chapter is about him, this is not a straightforward voyage.  For a start, though most of the time Lev is in London, he is constantly reminiscing and reflecting on his life back home.  Thus we learn all about Lev, his parents, his wife, his daughter, and most significantly, about his best friend Rudy, who has remained back home.
While in London Lev of course meets up with a cross section of people form modern London.  While he does suffer some hardships and is at one stage mugged and robbed, on the whole he is met with kindness and friendship. He also comes across some of the other economic migrants from his homeland.   In some respects the novel is a paean to multi-cultural London, as Lev is helped on his way by people from all kinds of backgrounds.  
As a result of his forced sojourn in London Lev comes to re-evaluate his live.  He finds a regular job in an upmarket restaurant and discovers that he not only likes this work, but is in fact a very good cook.  His dream is now to return home and open his own restaurant, in memory of his dead wife, Marina.  The remaining part of the book is about Lev’s attempts to bring this dream to reality.  In this there is a parallel tale about Christy, with whom he lodges for most of his time in London.  Christy also has a daughter who he never sees as she now lives with his estranged wife.  Fast declining into drunkenness, Christy is revived by Lev and slowly begins to recover. 
Though entitled The Road Home, Lev doesn’t actually end up back home, though he does return to his own country.  By the end Lev has realized that there is nothing to be gained by trying to return to a past that has gone.  So, though home in one sense, it is not the home he left and Lev is no longer the same Lev who started out on his voyage.  A new life and new challenges beckon.
This is the second novel by Rose Tremain that I have read.  This was very good.  The first was Music and Silence, which is a wonderful tale about love and suffering in mid 17th century Denmark.  I would definitely recommend both books.

Monday, 28 June 2010


In a bid to extend my artistic experiences I recently attended a two day course on Bookbinding at the DCA in Dundee.  This was a special course for beginners entitled From Tokyo to Timbuktu.  We got to sample bookbinding traditions from Japan, Nepal and West Africa.  As this was an introductory course we just used whatever material was lying around the workshop.
We started with the Japanese technique.  Though it could probably be just as much Chinese.  At any event the paper we used came from China.  This was a beautiful and delicate paper called Zuan, which our tutor, Emma, had brought back from her recent trip to the country.  You start by folding the large sheets into four and here are my eight folded sheets.
The process is fairly straightforward though it does involve a lot of cutting and trimming so that you eventually end up with about 32 folded pages.  Just to add a bit of colour you can include an inside page.  I used some cast offs that were lying about as you can see below.
The outer cover has to be made of something pretty firm and solid and again we could make use of old bits and pieces of work lying about the studio.  I used a rather bright and colourful print that reminded me of an African pattern.  For an extra special finish you can cover this with a translucent silk paper.  Which we all did, though it was a bit finicky glueing it onto the cover.  You finish off by hand stitching the papers.  This was not as difficult as we all thought it would be.  We used a very strong linen thread.  The stitching has to be done in a very precise order, but otherwise is pretty straightforward. The finished book is below.  
Here are some of the books made by my fellow students on the course.  As you can see we all used the orangey silk translucent paper to go over the outer cover.  This one book took up all the Saturday.
On the Sunday we had two completely different books to make.  The first was a very strange little book that is or was popular in Nepal and parts of northern India.  There the outer covers would be made of bamboo leaves, but we had to make do with plywood.  You start by cutting the wood to the size you want, using a Stanley knife.  I found this pretty hard and in fact impossible to keep a perfectly straight line.  Afterwards you sandpaper the surfaces and the edges to get a nice smooth finish.  This is what the finished product looks like.
As you can see this is not your typical book by any means.  In Nepal the inside paper would probably contain Buddhist sayings and images.  As we did not have the time nor the resources to do this, we made do with some of the colourful prints lying about.  Once again they need to be trimmed to size.  Then comes the putting it all together part.  This involves a bit of precision drilling.  With a hand held electric drill you bore through the centre of all the pieces.  It is then a fairly simple task to thread some ribbon through the holes, attach beads to either end and hey presto you have a little Nepalese booklet.  Here is what mine looks like when opened out like a fan.
The final book was another strange affair.  This is based on West African traditions.  Emma, our tutor is particularly interested in this work, as previously it was assumed that Africans relied on an oral tradition.  But it seems that books were produced in West Africa.  The type we tried to copy comes from Timbuktu and there the outer shell would be made of leather.  We of course just used card.  I along with another student used a card printed in black and dark grey diagonals.  It is quite a laborious and precise process to make the outer shell as it involves lots of folding and cutting.  This is what the shell looks like before the final stitching.
The stitching and inserting the paper sheets was quite simple by comparison.  In Timbuktu these little books might contain some verses from the Koran.  The outside covers would also be decorated, often by cutting out shapes from the leather.  We tried to do something similar, but it  was very difficult without proper cutters.  Anyway here is the final product.
And here are some of the books made by my companions.
To finish here are the three books I made over the weekend.  A most unusual collection!  But it was all great fun and I certainly enjoyed it all.  I would now like to learn a bit more about bookbinding.  Another course perhaps?

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Coalition turns nasty

With the recent so-called emergency budget it is becoming clearer by the day just how nasty our new coalition government is.  Despite a few lollipops here and there - designed as a sop to keep the LibDems on board - the overall package is one of cuts in the income of most people, with severe cuts in public services still to come.
And despite the government’s best efforts to portray the budget as ‘fair and even handed’, further analysis shows just how unfair and regressive the budget actually is.  The Financial Times has churned over the figures and come up with this chart to show the effects of the budget on different income levels.
What the chart shows is that people with the lowest income will suffer a net reduction of nearly 8% in their income.  On the other hand the richest 20% of the population will only see their income reduced by less that 3%.  Unusual idea fairness!   H/t to Richard Seymour for putting up this chart on his blog.  
The coalition has of course been unrelenting in ramming home its message that there is no alternative.  The country is living beyond its means we are told, and without these swingeing cuts the markets will punish us.  Nick Clegg was on the radio this morning churning out this nonsense - that the government had no alternative as we are threatened with a fireball coming from Europe.  When asked what he meant he could only come up with the lame and months old example of Greece.  It is important to nail this one on the head.  There is no market threat to UK government debt.  In the first place the borrowing figures are a little less than expected - no doubt due to the stimulation measures taken by the previous Labour government.  Secondly, in contrast to Greece, at least two-thirds of UK government borrowing is financed internally.  And most importantly, most of the debt is long term and not due to be repaid for another 10 - 12 years.  So there is no ‘emergency’.  And as Samuel Brittan points out in this article in the FT;  “an expanding economy itself generates most of the savings required to finance Budget deficits, and much else.”  However, by severely cutting back on public spending the government is putting the recovery at risk and we now face the prospect of an even deeper recession.  

But why?  Here is where it becomes very difficult to avoid using the word nasty to describe both the motivations of the government and the government itself.  As Richard Seymour puts it in his post mentioned above:  “This is the ruling class in full battle cry - bail out the banks, pay off the bond traders, keep the basic infrastructure working, and make the poorest bear the cost.”   For it will be the poorest who will suffer the most.  Not only is it pretty nasty to impose such burdens on the poorest off, but the way in which the government is going about all this is even nastier.  First of all is the deceit about the need for all these cuts.  Secondly there is all this banging on about how ‘we are all in this together’.  How much suffering will be felt by those in the boardrooms of UK plc?  Or even by those around the cabinet table?  What impact will the budget measures and the cuts to come have on the Cameron, Osborne and Clegg households?   Then there is their proposal to involve public service workers in deciding what should be cut.  How nasty can a government be!  
Finally to cap it all, it seems that in the future we are all going to have to work longer.   The government are now proposing to raise the state retirement age to 66 from the year 2016, eight years earlier than proposed by Labour.  All because some of us now live longer and healthier lives.  What should be something to celebrate and rejoice in has now become something to bemoan and use as an additional weapon with which to beat working people.  Nasty is almost too kind a work to use about this lot in charge.  
When we link this proposal with the continuing dreadful news of more and more deaths in Afghanistan is is hard to avoid the conclusion that working people here in the UK are being asked to work longer for less pay in order to enable the UK military to kill even more Afghans.  Nasty indeed.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Stitching - Biscornu and more

I have only managed to complete two new pieces over the past month or so.  The first was my first, and probably only, attempt to make a 15 sided biscornu.  As with the mini biscornu I did earlier the design came from Louison’s lovely site.  The biscornu is made up of 15 mini squares which are grouped into three different patterns.  Here are the finished squares before the final assembly.

For the colour scheme I used a different colour wheel from the usual.  Instead of the common three primary colours this wheel has four primary colours - red, yellow, blue and green.  This wheel was developed by a German physiologist, Ewald Hering and he called them “psychological primaries”.  Apparently Leonardo da Vinci had also identified these four primary colours.  They make up two pairs of opposites:  red and green and blue and yellow.  Anyway I found it a useful tool and used it to help me work out the colour scheme for the biscornu.  I used shades of plum for one set, shades of red and mauve for the second and shades of lemony green for the contrast.  
Anyway the stitching is pretty straightforward.  The difficulty begins with sewing the little squares together to make the biscornu.  The sewing is not complicated, but I found it almost impossible to get the tension right at the corners where five squares come together.  The result is a bit untidy.  Still I persevered and then had the problem of stuffing the bloody thing!  I use a polyester fibre and again I found it impossible to get the filling into each corner.  Nevertheless I did finally complete the darned thing.  Below is the finished biscornu.

Though the finishing was very tiresome, I am glad I ventured to complete this type of biscornu, though I don’t think I will do it again.  Regular and mini biscornus are fine and I will return to them again.  If you want to try one yourself, visit Louison’s site for inspiration.
The other project I completed was this very simple piece which only used vertical stitches of varying lengths.  I even managed to put this in a frame.

The idea behind this piece is somewhat interesting.  During our recent holiday in Berlin we visited various museums and one of our favourites was the Kunstgewerbe Museum or Museum of Decorative Arts.  This houses a wonderful collection of artefacts from the Renaissance to the present.  The modern section included some lovely tea and coffee sets.  I don’t know if you are allowed to take photos or not, but I did manage to furtively take a few.  Including this rather attractive coffee set by some American designer I believe.  I don’t have any details unfortunately.
Anyway I liked the pattern so much that I decided to use it as the basis for a stitching piece.  I kept more or less to the original colours, with the addition of another shade of blue.  I rather like the simplicity of the completed work.
I am currently in the early stages of another in my series of Five Easy Pieces.  These use Bargello patterns.  This one has a circle as the centrepiece.  Here is what it looks like just now.

As well as stitching I have been busy with a couple of other artistic ventures.  The first involved putting together bits and pieces to make two little compositions which brighten up the outside of our front door.  Made up of pieces from my driftwood collection, some pebbles and shells from the beach in the Ferry, and some old lanterns. 

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Treachery of the Liberal Democrats

The lunatics are back in charge of the economy - and with a vengeance. The recent government reports on the state of the economy and the public finances are all meant to frighten us into accepting severe, if not savage cuts in public spending. This of course was the Tory message throughout the election campaign and on the back of this they won a measly 36% of the votes. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats argued against immediate cuts due to the fragility of the economy and together they won well over half the votes in the election. Despite this the LibDems have decided to join with the Tories in a coalition government. And in so doing they have betrayed their voters.

How can the likes of Clegg, Cable et al argue so convincingly against the Tory proposals and now so convincingly argue for them? What has happened to that so-called LibDem principle of trust? Vote for us LibDems - we are different, you can trust us. Turns out they are just as conniving as the rest. They either have no principles whatsoever or they were lying during the campaign. Probably both. After all what have the LibDems got out of the coalition? A promise to hold a vote in Parliament which may, just may, result in a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which is not even remotely proportional. Oh how cheaply and quickly did the LibDems sell out.

Unfortunately it will be us, or at least the less well off among us, who will have to pay the price for this treachery. In terms of reductions in income, pensions and the loss of important services. For many of us, our quality of life will be seriously affected for the worse. And all so the LibDems can enter government to prop up a Tory party that was rejected by over 60% of the electorate!

The coalition government’s economic prescription is complete and utter madness. In the midst of the deepest recession in generations they are going to make deep cuts in public spending. How on earth is that going to help the economy grow or even maintain its current level? As Larry Elliot points out in a Guardian article: “Just as in 1937, private demand in most advanced countries is too weak to sustain the recovery. Budget deficits are a reflection of high unemployment and low levels of private investment. Consumers are worried about losing their jobs and are having their incomes squeezed. That makes businesses anxious about investing.” And yet we are to believe that by making even more people unemployed and taking even more spending out of the economy the private sector is somehow going to start investing! Pigs no doubt will soon begin to fly over Westminster.

The coalition often refer to the Canadian experience of the mid 1990s as an example of how savage cuts to public spending can work to the benefit of a country. What this superficial comparison fails to mentions is that the Canadian economy was only able to grow and thus take up the slack from reduced government spending, thanks to a sharp devaluation and a boom in the US economy. Canada also experienced a sharp rise in private debt during this period. Now none, absolutely none of this applies to the UK in 2010. We have already devalued, but alas, with the fall in the Euro this is not likely to benefit us much more. Secondly our major trading partners - the EU and the USA - are also in sharp decline. To quote Larry Elliot again: “we now have the bizarre spectacle of China, Japan, the eurozone and Britain all set on reducing budget deficits while simultaneously pursuing export-led growth. This is a logical absurdity because somebody, somewhere has to be importing all the exports. If the rest of the world assumes that the US is once again going to become the world's spender of last resort it is seriously mistaken.” And with household debt at record levels is this really the time to be asking people to take on more debt? Truly this prescription is madness.

The government again and again intone that we must make these cuts or the markets will punish us. This claim has been much used by LidDems to justify their change of heart re the need for cuts. However this claim is pure nonsense and completely belied by what has actually happened to countries that have made savage cuts. Spain finally did announce a package of cuts and what happened? The next day one of the three major ratings agency downgraded Spain’s debts. So the response of the markets was to punish Spain for its budget cuts. The reason - this would reduce growth in the economy and make the repayment of debts more difficult. Clearly our coalition does not listen to the markets.

To return to the LibDems, the kind of economic policy pursued by the coalition is what one would expect from a Tory government. They argued for this during the election. However the LibDems did not, so why are they now so enthusiastically advocating this nonsensical and disastrous policy? One can only conclude that the LidDems under their current leadership - Clegg, Laws and Cable - are reverting back to a classic LIberal Party of yore. They seem all too willing to jettison their more recent social democratic inheritance. Only this can explain their all too willing acceptance of the neo-liberal agenda. Will this treachery spell the end of the LibDems? Time will tell, but if the economy does not make an improbable recovery soon, things are likely to turn nasty for the LibDems.

If you want to read a bit more about the lunacy behind the coalition’s economic proposals here are a couple of suggestions for further reading. Larry Elliot’s piece for the Guardian can be found here. Paul Krugman has written two interesting pieces for the New York Times. The first explains the bad logic of fiscal austerity and the other looks at real market response to austerity measures. And to end, a post by another Dundee blogger which punctures the myth of private sector jobs replacing public sector jobs, at least in Dundee. You can read that post here.

Saturday, 12 June 2010


With the arrival of June we are definitely into summer. Though there is some disagreement as to when summer really does begin. For some people summer starts on 1st of June while for others summer only begins with the summer solstice. This should really be Midsummer, but unfortunately the weather is rarely that warm in Scotland and other northern countries in June. The warmest months tend to be July and August. So far June has not got off to a great start over here, with cloudy, rainy and quite cold days. We had Liam and Jamie at the adventure playground in Carnoustie the other day and after only a few minutes they wanted away - it was too cold! Ah, the youth of today are not as hardy as of yore. Allegedly. Anyway it was a good idea for it was pretty miserable with a cold wind coming off the estuary. We ended up inside the local library which was lovely and warm. And as an added bonus we met my sister, Pat who was there with one of her granddaughters, Erin. So it all turned out well.

Back to June, and no doubt due to the hard winter, everything is a bit later in blossoming in the garden. The tulips have all gone and only now are some of the summer flowers beginning to show. Though the poppies have yet to emerge we do have some lovely irises and cornflowers in bloom. And the patio and window boxes are full of summer plants just waiting to burst into full bloom.

June is as already mentioned the month of the summer solstice, at least in the northern hemisphere. This year the solstice will be on the 21st. The celebration of the solstice goes back to pagan times. Nowadays there does not seem to be much made of the solstice. Though some people still like to turn up at one of the many pre-historic stone circle sites around the country. The most famous is at Stonehenge in southern England and every year a large gathering takes place there to celebrate the solstice.

For most people in Europe Midsummer is most likely to be associated with the feast of St. John the Baptist which is held on 24th June. This is still a popular time for parties and parades especially in Scandinavia and Spain and Portugal. In Scandinavian countries the celebrations usually take place on the evening of the Friday which falls between 19th and 26th June to ensure a long weekend of partying. In Spain where St. John - San Juan is the country’s patron saint the 24th is a public holiday. This means of course that the main events take place on the evening of the night before. As usual in Spain there are lots of bonfires and fireworks and the parties go on all through the night.

Corpus Christi is another Christian festival in June. It is mainly commemorated in Catholic countries and one of the most colourful celebrations takes place in Sitges. We always loved this time in early June when we lived there. 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. The local school usually participated and Emma and Elena have both been involved in helping out.

There does not seem to be much in the way of popular celebrations in Scotland in June. Nor do I remember any from my childhood. I guess that Midsummer festivals were too pagan in origin and too catholic in their joyous excesses for our rather dour Presbyterians of yore.

June is though a good month for sports fans. Tennis lovers have Wimbledon fortnight to look forward to. But of course this year the sports highlight, at least for soccer fans, will be the World Cup which kicked off yesterday in South Africa. This is the first time such a major world event has gone to an African country. From the previews it all looks very colourful and exciting - let’s hope the football lives up to all the expectation. As Scotland has once again missed out my three favourites are 1. Spain, 2. Argentina and 3. Brazil. That’s my wish list anyway.

For the Rutherfords, June has been a good month for weddings. So far I have only identified one death, that of my great great grandfather, David Rutherford who died in St. Andrews on 21st June 1896. My great great great grandfather, James Rutherford was born on 18th June 1796 on Easter Balady Estate, near Kinross. June was also the month of the birth of one of my oldest know ancestors, James’ father and my great great great great grandfather Robert Ferguson Rutherford. I don’t have a date for his birth but he was christened on 26th June 1764. A peculiarity of the weddings is that all four were on or around the summer solstice. David Cunningham and Lilias Dewar were married on 22nd June 1822 in Logie parish in North East Fife. They were my great great great grandparents, as their daughter Mary Cunningham who would go on to marry David Rutherford. The other three wedding were all on the 21st the day of the solstice itself. The above mentioned Robert Ferguson Rutherford married Margaret Tulloch in 1795 in Dunfermline and by chance the parents of David Cunningham were also married on the same day in the same year in Kinross. I do not alas have their names. The 21st is obviously a special day for Rutherfords, at least my branch of the family. For it was also the day on which I got married to my dear Kathleen - this was in Glasgow in 1969 so later this month it will be our 41st happy anniversary. Here is the wedding group from 1969.

In most traditions the birthstone for June is the Pearl. This lovely gem symbolizes loyalty, faithfulness and friendship. It is also the gift to give on your 30th wedding anniversary, though I think we forgot all about this at the time.

The Rose at the beginning of this post represents the birth flower for June. The red rose, which is probably my favourite signifies love, passion, beauty, respect and romance. No doubt this derives from the Greeks and the Romans who thought the rose represented Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love. Some pagan cultures believed no undead creatures could cross the path of a wild rose. This seems to be the origin of the custom of putting a rose on the coffin of the recently deceased in order to prevent the rise of a vampire.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Gaza blockade - Legal or Illegal?

With its murderous assault on the Turkish registered aid ship the Mavi Marmara, Israel has inadvertently opened up the whole issue of the legality of its blockade on Gaza. Israeli spokespersons and the whole pro-israeli hasbara brigade have intoned again and again that the blockade is legal and that the killings, though perhaps regrettable, were a necessary part of maintaining the blockade. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the legality of how the Mavi Marmara was impounded, I want to focus on the narrower question of the legality of the blockade itself.

Now I freely confess that I am no expert on International Law and even less of an expert on the various laws that govern blockades and other naval engagements. What I want to point out is that whether the blockade is legal or not does not make that much of a difference. The implications for Israel are bad either way.

Therefore let us assume that the blockade on Gaza is, as Israel claims, legal under International Law. In making this claim Israel usually refers to the San Remo Manual on Armed Conflicts at Sea, which seems to be the bible on these matters. The key point here is that the use of a blockade is only allowable in the context of an International Armed Conflict - a state of war to you and me. So Israel can only claim that the blockade is legal if it is at war with Gaza. However Gaza is not a state. What this means, as I understand it, is that the legality of Israel’s blockade of Gaza seems to depend on its willingness to concede that it is occupying Gaza and is thus in an International Armed Conflict with Hamas. But Israel does not want to do that, because it would then be bound by the very restrictive rules of belligerent occupation in the Fourth Geneva Convention.

What would this mean for Israel? In the first place it would turn Hamas militants into ” privileged belligerents” and when captured must be treated as prisoners of war, something which Israel has never done. Secondly Israel would have to recognize its continued occupation of Gaza, something it has spent years trying to persuade us to forget. Thirdly the firing of rockets by Hamas at military targets would be legal and Hamas would be fully justified in not only fighting off Israeli incursions into Gaza but also in attacking Israeli forces wherever they are found. Fourthly Israeli soldiers would no longer be kidnapped, but legally open to capture.

But of course Israel has always strenuously denied that it is still occupying Gaza. Which makes its claim that the blockade is legal pretty much null and void. Which is the view taken by most international observers, at least those outwith Israel and the USA.

The point of all this is that it is way past time for Israel to be held to account for its actions. It just beggars belief that the UK and the rest of Europe continue to allow Israel to avoid meeting its legal obligations. If the blockade is deemed to be legal that Israel must be held responsible for the well-being of the inhabitants of Gaza and must treat any captives as prisoners of war and not terrorists. If the blockade is deemed to be illegal then Israel must stop it immediately. In either case if Israel refuses to comply with its international obligations then the UK and our partners in the EU should at the very least impose a diplomatic and commercial blockade on Israel, until it does comply with international law.

A brief note on why it is unlikely that the blockade is legal. First up Kevin Jon Heller of Melbourne Law School. He admits that if the conflict between Israel and Hamas is an international armed conflict (IAC), there is no question that Israel has the right to blockade Gaza. However he goes on question the validity of this claim and writes that, “it is difficult to argue that Israel is involved in an IAC with Hamas. First, it is obviously not in a traditional IAC, because Gaza is not a state. Second, not even Israel claims that the conflict has been internationalized by the involvement of another state. And third, although the Israeli Supreme Court held - controversially - in the Targeted Killings case that armed conflict between an occupying power and a rebel group is international, Israel’s official position is that it not currently occupying Gaza.” This comes from a piece entitled Why Is Israel’s Blockade of Gaza Legal? which first appeared in Opinio Juris an online forum for informed discussion and lively debate about international law and international relations. The full piece can be read here.

Another take on the legality issue comes from Associate Professor Ben Saul, Co-Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law at The University of Sydney. In an article for ABC he dismisses the legality of the blockade by pointing out that the San Remo Manual “prohibits a blockade if "the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade". In the same article Ben Saul also makes the claim that the IDF may have committed crimes. He points out that, “if Israeli forces killed people, they may not only have infringed the human right to life, but they may also have committed serious international crimes. Under article 3 of the Rome Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation of 1988, it is an international crime for any person to seize or exercise control over a ship by force, and also a crime to injure or kill any person in the process.” You can read the full article here.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Berlin - First Impressions

This is an attempt at a photo-essay to present an overview of my first impressions of the city shortly after our return from Berlin. We were only there for four nights so only part of the city is covered. I hope to post about some features in more detail later on.

Berlin - an Imperial city
One of the first things that stands out in visiting Berlin is that the central area is one impressive statement of imperial power. The area from the Brandenburg Gate to Alexanderplatz remains a well planned sequence of state buildings. All designed and built to impress - both locals and visiting dignitaries. Here are or were the main seats of power - the Kaiser’s palace, the Chancellory and the Reichstag; religious centres including Berlin Cathedral; the Humbolt University and some outstanding cultural sites including various museums and the State Opera. Much was destroyed during the war, but many have been rebuilt in their original form, which in most cases was in Neo-classical style. All are very impressive and the whole is a series of gigantic public spaces. Nowadays mainly filled by tourists of one kind or another. First up is the red brick Town Hall which is just off Alexanderplatz.

Next is the Berlin Cathedral seen from northern bank of the river Spree.

And here is famous front façade of the Reichstag. When we visited the queue to get into the glass dome was so long that we passed on this.

The following is a collage of the buildings surrounding the lovely Gendarmenmarkt. They include the German and French (Huguenot) Cathedrals and the Konzerthaus.
More neo-classical buildings, this time from around Unter den Linden. Clockwise from top left - St Hedwig's (catholic) Cathedral, the Neue Wache (New Guard House) which is now the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny, the front of the StaatsOper and the Humbolt University.

This whole area is framed by two contrasting symbols of Berlin. One is the modern TV tower at Alexanderplatz which lies in the former East Berlin.

The other end is of course the famous Brandenburg Gate which was originally built in 1791 as a symbol of the rising power of Prussia. It has been restored to its former glory and still stands as an iconic symbol of Berlin.

Though originally a symbol of power, this area is now open public space for all kinds of people and when we passed through we were entertained by some wondrous sights.

Museums, museums, museums
Berlin is a paradise for lovers of art and culture. There are some 180 or so of them in the city! We managed to sample nine of them. You can buy a three day museum pass which for €19 gets you into 60 museums on three consecutive days. Only one was a disappointment - the Museum for Contemporary Art in the former Hamburger Bahnhof. I guess I just don’t like most of what passes as contemporary art. All the others were really good or outstanding. The ones that stood out, mainly because they show stuff that you can’t see much of elsewhere, included the Berlinische Galerie which has a wonderful collection of modern art by people working in Berlin from 1870s until today. The other very impressive collection is in the Neue Nationalgalerie which currently shows a wonderful collection of German Expressionism.

Currywurst and other delicacies

Neither Berlin nor Germany as a whole is well known for its cuisine. However I was intrigued to try the famous currywurst, which has become a Berlin speciality. It seemed such a strange and almost impertinent concoction. Especially to someone from the UK, where we pride ourselves on our intimate association and knowledge of all things Indian (aka Colonialism). So for an upstart like Berlin to appropriate curry, well - not cricket chaps! Anyway there are currywurst stalls all over the city and I finally managed to sample one on our last day. Below is a photo of what it looks like.

While it was rather tasty, it doesn’t have much to do with curry, at least not as we in the UK would recognise. Pieces of pork sausage generously smothered in tomato ketchup with a light sprinkling of curry powder on top. And that’s all folks! Served with chips as above or a bread roll. If you want to know more about currywurst here is a short BBC film on the subject.

Berlin of course has much more to offer the palate than currywurst and we enjoyed some very tasty meals during our stay. The first thing to say is that, like many international cities, there was not too much in the way of traditional German fare. As it turned out we ate every evening in one of the restaurants on the same street as our hotel - Knesebrechstrasse with Savignyplatz a little way down. And what a rich selection of restaurants in this short space. They included a Syrian, a Jamaican, a French brasserie, at least two Greek, a few Spanish and countless Italian restaurants. We sampled one of the Greek restaurants and two of the Italian. Each one was was very good - both the food and the service. And because we were after all in Berlin we did try one of the German restaurants. A rather special and (slightly) famous one - Die Dicke Wirtin (The Fat Landlady).

It apparently became well known with students way back in the 1960s and still serves hearty portions of traditional German food. We had something called an onion roast with potatoes followed by apple strudel - both very good. The Fat Landlady was only to be seen in a painting on the wall. The current landlady or waitress is very slim and rather attractive. Here is the original Fat Landlady and her rather Fat Chef.

Berlin also has some lovely cafés and we were able to sample a few of them. The pick was probably the Operncafé opposite the StaatsOper. This is a very traditional, almost Viennese establishment with a sunny terrace. The selection of cakes is outstanding - all light and full of cream. I couldn’t resist the one called Schottische Himbeerentorte (gateau with Scottish raspberries), and delicious it was too.

A work in progress

Though much of old Berlin has been restored, there is still so much work going on. There are building sites everywhere - either restoring former glories or adding extensions or putting up something new. The stretch between the end of Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz is at the moment just one huge building site. Much of it is in fact closed to traffic. Not sure what exactly is going to finally emerge here - not sure the Berliners know either as there seems to be a bit of controversy over what to build and how much it will cost. Bit like the controversy over our own Parliament building in Edinburgh. The following photo gives a glimpse of the present mess around Musem Insel and Alexanderplatz.

Jewish Berlin
It is difficult to visit Berlin and not be aware of its Jewish past. Not that there is much left of the old Jewish areas of the city. Most of the buildings no longer exist and of course most of the Jewish population was killed. However there are still some remembrances of the Jewish past. The oldest Jewish cemetery was built near Hackescher Markt and nearby there is the Neue Synagoge, which is a now a Jewish cultural centre. And in Prenzlauer Berg there is another Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately both were closed when we passed by. The montage below shows on the right a sculpture outside the oldest Jewish cemetery and below two grave stones. On the left the top photo is the gate to the Jewish cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg and below a view inside.

More modern memorials to the Jewish presence in Berlin are the Holocaust Memorial, or to give it its full title - Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Pretty impressive it is too. A completely abstract construction with over 2700 concrete stelae.

The other memorial is the Jewish Museum which is housed in an unusual building designed by American architect Daniel Liebekind. The building is shaped a bit like the Star of David and contains bizarre angles and voids to symbolize the Holocaust.

Inside there is a very comprehensive collection of artefacts and images which trace the history of Jews in Germany. It is such a large collection that our two and a half hour visit only allowed us to get a brief overview of the collection. Still even a brief visit gives you a good insight into the lives of Jews in Germany. It is a story of (very) gradual acceptance and integration into mainstream German life, which of course all ended very abruptly and violently with the arrival of the Nazis to power. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, which are covered, the collection is mainly about explaining and celebrating Jewish culture and life and on the whole gives a positive feel. Though getting into the museum is like getting on an areoplane with electronic checks. And for some reason to get the audioguide which costs an extra €2 you need to supply the staff with some kind of identity item. AlI I had was my EU health card and Kathleen had to hand over the keys to our hotel room. All this for a €2 audio guide!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Second Gaza War: Israel lost at sea

So once again the great might of the Israel Defence Force - the self styled most moral army in the world - excels itself in the art of killing and wounding innocent civilians. A balance of nine dead and countless wounded as a result of the Israeli attack on a Turkish vessel carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. To make matters worse for Israel the attack took place in International waters. Which makes the attack either an act of piracy or even worse an act of war against Turkey. And despite Israeli claims their Forces did use violence against the other ships in the convoy. CNN has an interview in which an American woman who was on the flotilla headed for Gaza offers a first-hand account of the raid.

And all for what? To stop aid reaching the beleaguered Palestinians living in Gaza. Israel’s excuse that it needs to impose a naval blockade in order to prevent arms smuggling is laughable. Israel has one of the biggest and best equipped militaries in the whole world. While Gaza has what? Rockets from Gaza have only rarely killed anyone. And what right does Israel have to determine who can import arms anyway?

The real reason for the blockade is to punish Palestinians in Gaza for having the temerity to elect Hamas to power in the last free and fair elections in Palestine in 2006. Democracy anyone? Only if you elect our man or woman. Israel immediately imposed a ban on dealing with the Hamas government and started the blockade, supported alas by the USA and the UK. The result has been to create immense suffering and degradation, compounded of course by the massacres during the assault on Gaza in which some 1400 Gazans were killed. Ilegal, inhuman and insane: a medieval siege on Gaza in 2010. This was how the director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, John Ging, described the current situation in a recent speech in London.

But why does Israel fear Hamas so much? Precisely because Hamas can be trusted to fulfill its side of a bargain. As Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the UN, points out in an article in the Guardian: “the Hamas government in Gaza has been pretty effective in controlling the few militant groups intent on threatening Israel with rockets – imperfectly perhaps, but not a single Israeli citizen has been killed (alas, one immigrant worker was) by a rocket since the Gaza bombing stopped in January 2009. They are also the implacable opponents of al-Qaida. They won a fair election in 2006 and claim to respect democracy. Let's test them on that. At present, Hamas security people are being sniped at by the Israeli Defence Forces when they try to arrest other militant groups. This is genuinely getting insane.” The trouble for Israel is that Hamas demands that Israel withdraws from all the post 1967 territories including all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Which up till now no Israeli government has been willing to even contemplate let alone implement. So Hamas must be ostracized and if at all possible destroyed - hence the blockade.

The Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla has vindicated the Goldstone Report and its central claim that Israel used disproportionate force and deliberately attacked civilians in the Gaza assault—just as Israel, albeit on a much smaller scale, did in the massacre aboard the flotilla. And just to emphasize that the use of disproportionate violence is the norm for Israel, here is an account of the horrifying fate which befell Emily Henochowicz, a young American who lost one eye during a peaceful demonstration in the West Bank.

The continuing use of violence by the Israelis however is beginning to have a counter effect. More and more voices are being raised in calling for a complete removal of the blockade. Gaza needs to be open for normal commercial and human activity-- not just for the trucking-in of international aid. Unfortunately the last country to face up to the reality of what is happening in Israel/Palestine is the USA. Here is Glen Greenwald recounting his recent experience on MSNB. This is what counts as a liberal, progressive cable channel in the USA. And we get three Israel-cheerers, followed by Greenwald for "balance". Among the Israel cheerers is guest-host, Eliot Spitzer, Hopkins law professor Ruth Wedgwood (nee Glushien) and former Netanayahu chief of staff, George Birnbaum. As if that were not enough, Wedgwood, known for her neocon political views and her support of Bush administration policies like military tribunals, was brought back to respond to Glenn Greenwald.

The good news is that in Israel itself there are still some courageous people speaking out against the madness that seems to have taken over the Israeli government. The title for this post has been taken from part of the headline to an article by Brandon Burston in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz. In the article he makes the damning point (for Israelis): “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege, which is itself becoming Israel's Vietnam.” Also in Ha’aretz, Gideon Levy has another fine piece with the heading - Gaza flotilla drives Israel into a sea of stupidity.