Reluctant Irishman

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bullet dodged

I’ve looked forward to writing this blog posting. It was never a sure thing that I would get the opportunity but at last it has come to pass. Obama and Biden have been re-elected  and the American people have seen through the prejudice and lies of those that contested the election.

I have already written of how Obama proved a disappointment in many respects. Back in 2008, after eight years of the worst President in living memory, it was easy to be swayed by his high-flown rhetoric and to believe that this relatively young, energetic orator would lead America and the world to a land of milk and honey.

In fact, he failed to right many of the wrongs of his predecessor, and even added some new ones on occasion. Nevertheless, he did break the downward slide of the economy, while Obamacare is a historic achievement. In any event, faced with the alternative of Romney-Ryan, it was easy to swallow the disappointments and rally behind the incumbent.

It was plain from the outset that Romney saw the White House as the only fitting pinnacle to a career of self enrichment and self aggrandisement, and that it didn’t matter what he had to do or say in order to get there. In order to court the conservative Tea Party wing of his party, he quickly abandoned the moderate approach of his Governorship of Massachusetts on issues like healthcare and abortion. He engaged in reckless sabre-rattling against Iran. And he even characterised FEMA as immoral.

Then, when it was clear he was losing ground after the mask had slipped when he made the notorious forty-seven percent remark, he re-invented himself yet again.  No, he would not lead America into war, he said. And – after Hurricane Sandy – no, he would after all see that FEMA was adequately funded. It was the classic incarnation of the Groucho Marx line; that these are my principles but if you don’t like them I have other ones.

That same forty-seven percent gaffe, together with his career in gutting viable businesses to send the jobs abroad, his casual references to wealth that most could only dream of, and his unwillingness to furnish tax returns past two years ago all contributed to the image of an acquisitive man, out of touch with the cares of everyday Americans.

Romney is a narcissistic jerk but he cannot compete for sheer nastiness with his Vice-Presidential running mate. Ryan’s worship of greed and wealth make Gordon gecko look positively benign, while his bigotry and misogyny are positively poisonous.

The plausible middle ground defence of the Romney-Ryan ticket articulated in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere required one to believe some statements that were outright lies.

The first lie was that the Republicans had nothing to do with the current budget deficit. That was hard to sustain, given that George W Bush inherited a surplus and left a massive deficit. So the defence was to avoid mentioning Bush entirely and to dissociate the current candidates from his deeds. This might have cut some ice were it not for the fact that Romney’s team included a number of Bush’s advisors.

The second lie was that Republicans only sought to achieve the perfectly reasonable goal of wiping out the deficit. Ruth Dudley Edwards, in the Daily Telegraph and Irish Independent, criticised an article in the New York Times attacking Ryan, saying that this was all that Ryan was trying to do. In fact, Ryan and Romney were not primarily interested in this aim, and Romney eventually postponed its achievement until 2020 (despite still criticising Obama for not achieving it in four years). No, this rhetoric about the deficit was simply a smokescreen to hide the aim of deepening the inequities in an already inequitable tax regime that blatantly favours the super-wealthy at the expense of the middle class. In order to give the impression that they were doing credible arithmetic (which they weren’t) , and in order to show that they could “kick ass” they advocated swingeing cuts to America’s public services targeting the most vulnerable in society.

The same defective arithmetic was apparent in Romney’s energy policy. Despite the avowed aim of achieving energy independence by 2020 (an aim that is unachievable as long as the Americans fail to cure their energy obesity), Romney’s plan was just about giving the keys of America’s wildernesses to the oil and coal barons that back the Republican Party so that they could produce greenhouse gas-generating fuel more expensively and less efficiently than it could be produced elsewhere.

Oh yes, while I am about it, perhaps the most fantastical notion is that the media were skewing the race in favour of Obama. This might have been true had the Americans relied on European media but, since Fox News is the most widely watched “news” channel in the USA, it is hard to see how even the most brass-necked Republican can expect us to believe such nonsense.

While it is disappointing, therefore, that Republicans still hold control of the House of Representatives, it is heartening to see them failing to wrest either the Senate or the White House from the Democrats. It is also heartening to see that their lies about the economy were not believed; most of those dissatisfied with the economy voted for Obama.  The poor showing by extreme right-wingers is also good news, with the drubbing of Richard Mourdock (pregnancy from rape is God’s will) and Todd Akin (a woman’s body can shut down to stop pregnancy from legitimate rape) is the icing on the cake.

There is still a lot to worry about. Although the ghoulish, racist, woman hating, creationist, climate change-denying wing of the Republican Party (the one that says science is a conspiracy to confuse people) didn’t do well electorally, they are still a force to be reckoned with and I don’t see that Obama has either the strength in Congress or the strength of character to face them down. However, the demographics are against them. This group of aging, white, mostly male and, yes, mostly less well-educated voters opted for Romney en masse. But they are a dying breed, that will be outvoted increasingly by the young, women, and Hispanics.

So I say to John Boehner and Sean Hannity who vowed to make Obama a one-term President; I say to people like Carol Coulter, that adulterous libertine, Rush Limbaugh; I say to the commentators in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere that should have known better:
You’ve LOST! Now get over it!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A unique institution

Last weekend we made a short trip to Burgundy (the region of France, not the much larger medieval duchy, which extended up into Flanders and which is the backdrop for my soon to be published novel). We were able to visit a building which is both an architectural treasure and the embodiment of a great institution.

In 1443, Burgundy was still ravaged by the Hundred Years War and the lawlessness which followed it and the people of Beaune were destitute. Against that background, Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, decided to set up a hospital for the sick that would admit patients free of charge. The project would be financed by a small number of wealthy paying patients, who would have their own rooms,, and - more importantly - by a grant of land. Located in one of the most prestigious wine-growing regions in Europe, this land - and the wine it produces - remains the main source of funding to this day and renders the institution self-financing.

The Hotel-Dieu, as it was then know, turned out to be a masterpiece of design and engineering. Rolin was anxious to create a building that would be pleasing to the eye and what resulted is still a delight to behold. The interior courtyard roof, decorated with patterns of coloured glazed tiles, is especially spectacular (it was restored in the early 20th century). The Room of the Poor , where the non-paying patients were housed (restored in the 19th century), and the chapel are the most outstanding elements of the interior. Rolin insisted that it be built over a river - in order to have access to running water - and this greatly complicated the construction of the foundations. Nevertheless, despite financial troubles and other complications, the hospital admitted its first patient on 1452.

Over the centuries the institution suffered many vicissitudes. The Revolution led to the temporary expulsion of the nuns and the destruction of most of the statuary in the chapel. The greatest artistic treasure of all, the polyptych over the altar painted by the Flemish artist, Rogier van der Weyden, depicting the lat Judgement, was safely hidden at the time and is now back on proud display. At the time the name of the institution was changed to the Hospices de Beaune.

Nowadays, the building no longer functions as a hospital, that role having been taken over by a custom-built building on the outskirts of Beaune (it is still financed by the proceeds of the annual wine auction). Instead, visitors can come and admire its beauty and learn about how medicine was practised down the centuries.

It is one of France's must-sees!

The courtyard
The room of the poor
The pharmacy

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The perfect roast spud

People are generally complementary about my roast potatoes, although to me the quality varies a little from one dinner to the next. So what are the things that contribute to getting it right?

Well, as usual I start with Delia Smith's recipe ( but I've modified it over the years.

Firstly, the variety is important. This varies from country to country so you can't go by her specification of Desiree potatoes. Records work well in Ireland. In Belgium I used Francelines. In Switzerland and France I look for a variety which is specified as being good for puree or boiled potatoes.

The potatoes should all be about the same size, which means that larger ones should be cut in half - or even in three. I

Then parboiling is essential. You can do potato wedges or cubed roast potatoes with garlic and rosemary without parboiling but the traditional roast spud needs to be parboiled. Having misread Delia's recipe the first time, instead of pouring boiling water over the potatoes and simmering them for 10 minutes, I put them in cold water, brought it to the boil and then simmered it for 10 minutes. That turned the potatoes to mush - not surprisingly, with hindsight (so I mashed them!). After that, I reduced the simmering time to 5 minutes and that generally works. So either bring to the boil from cold and simmer for 5, or add boiling water and simmer for 10. The idea is to soften the outside of the potato but not to cook it right through. Delia suggests testing the outside with a skewer, which is a good idea because otherwise the next step might not work as intended.

The next stage is to drain them, of course. The, holding the pan and lid tight, you give it a good shake - hard enough for the potatoes to bounce around. If you've done everything right this will roughen up the edges, making them floury, and result at the end in a crust that is crisp without being greasy.

What fat to use? Well, goose fat or duck fat are the best, while olive oil or sunflower oil are the healthiest. In general, you would use the fat from the roast meat - if you are serving them with roast meat. Whatever you do, it's essential that you get the fat sizzling hot by allowing it to melt in the oven before you add the potatoes. When you add them you make sure they get evenly coated with the fat before putting them into the oven.

Oven temperature for roast spuds, at about 220 degrees Celsius (200 for a fan oven, gas mark 7) is higher than that for roast meat. In practice, though, if you follow Delia's recipe to the letter you have to start the roasting before you take the meat out, even allowing for the fact that you need time for the meat to rest whereas the potatoes can't be done far ahead of time. Whenever I had a second oven I used that but if you don't have one you can still juggle. One trick is to use the oven grill combination with shorter cooking time. Ovens vary so I can't be more specific.

I disagree, though, that you don't need to turn them halfway through the roasting time. if you don't do that, you risk the side that is in contact with the tin getting leathery. I think you get a better overall finish if you turn them.

Finally, although they can't be done far ahead of time - and can't be taken out to "rest" the way the meat should - you do have wriggle-room to keep them warm for a short time if you're running late - by turning the oven right down.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Standing Alone

My last post, over two weeks ago, was written in the aftermath of the rejection by an Israeli court of a lawsuit by Rachel Corrie's parents over her death at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces.

I've since read her book, Let me Stand Alone, which I advertised at the time. Here's the link again, by the way:

The book is a compilation of letters, journal writings, press reports, poems and other fragments, starting in Rachel's childhood and going up to the day before her death. The shortcomings arise from the fact that her parents had to put this together after her death, with only limited information about the precise dates of some of the pieces. Inevitably, therefore, it is fragmentary and hard sometimes to fit into the chronology of her life, despite the notes at the back. This is neither their fault nor hers; if anybody is to blame it is the thugs in uniform who took her young life.

In spite of this limitation - and allowing for the fact that I was predisposed to admire her - as a writer I was genuinely taken aback by the quality of the writing; her powers of observation, her descriptive skills and her perception. Before that I was already humbled by her courage and her willingness to undergo hardship; now I am humbled by her talent.

Most of the book is a touching account of a normal, if sensitive, teenager growing up in America. Even then, it is heartbreaking to read it knowing that this young life has been cut short, with the loss of so much talent that might otherwise have blossomed. The last section, which describes her short time in Gaza, reminds one just how bad things were at that time; they are even worse now. As such, it makes me very angry but also very humble and ashamed that I have never followed my beliefs through in the way that she did.

I recall that the late Mick Doyle, an Irish rugby player, said once that he read The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham Smith's classic and moving account of the Irish potato famine, the night before his first international match against England. He remarked that it made him want to go out and murder anyone in a white (English) jersey. Having read Rachel's book, I have to resist the urge to react in a similar fashion. It would not be true to her memory, nor to the many decent Israelis who are ashamed at the behaviour of their country. However, I won't be buying Israeli products any time soon.

This book is a must-read, heartbreaking as it is.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A peculiar mindset

I am writing this piece the day after the news broke that an Israeli court rejected the negligence suit lodged by the parents of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American woman who was killed by an Israeli Defence Forces bulldozer on 16 March 2003.

The verdict was not surprising. Taken overall, it would have to be acknowledged that Israel's tolerance and its capacity for official self-criticism  is considerably greater than that of its Arab neighbours, even after the Arab Spring. However, as the Guardian points out today, even when it comes to internal political issues, such as the recent cost-of-living protests, tolerance and freedom of expression are coming under increasing threat. And in matters pertaining to the activities of the military, there has never been serious judicial oversight. In these circumstances, I would have fallen over backwards if the court had ruled in favour of the Corries and I anticipate, sadly, that the appeal will go the same way.

In fact, it could be argued that the Israeli military is as arbitrary as that of any tinpot dictatorship. Rarely have the courts or the leadership of Israel been prepared to criticise them and they have pretty much a free hand to do whatever they like. The circumstances that gave rise to Rachel Corrie's homicide illustrate this. It happened because she was trying to prevent the demolition of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family. Israel justifies such demolitions by arguing that these are the homes of terrorists but there is no due process to establish this. Moreover, it is contrary to humanitarian law; indeed, even if there was a prior judicial process,  it could not be justified. In circumstances where an Israeli murderers his fellow-citizens (and organised crime is rife in Israel, by the way), I doubt if the public at large would consider it proportionate for the authorities to drive the man's family, including his children, from their home.

Home demolition is by no means the worst abuse, nor the only one that can be carried out with impunity. Even leaving aside those killed by bombing and shelling, numerous Palestinian civilians have been shot by Israeli military. In one case, a 13-year-old girl had an entire magazine emptied into her; the soldier who did it said afterwards that he would have done the same had she been three years old - yet he was cleared by an Israeli court. In another infamous case that pre-dated Rachel's death, a complaint lodged by the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem about the shooting of an 11-year old boy, was rejected by the Judge Avocate general's office but the office made the mistake of appending the report of its own confidential investigation which, in fact, substantiated the complaint.

Rachel Corrie's case bears many resemblances to that of Sophie Scholl (see my post of May 4 2011). Most obviously, both of them have garnered more limelight because they were young women, compared to the greater number of young male activists who lost their lives in similar fashion (Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst were executed together with Sophie Scholl; James Miller, Tom Hurndall and Ian Hook were a journalist, a photographer/ activist and a UN worker respectively murdered by Israeili military on separate occasions). In Rachel's case, also, she is one of a tiny number of non-Arab victims of Israeli state-sponsored violence; a drop in the ocean compared to the thousands of Palestinian civilians who lost their lives. It is sad that, in both cases, it takes the image of talented young women being cut off in their prime to really fire our indignation - and white women at that. I am sure neither of them would have wanted it that way.

It may seem harsh on the Israeli authorities to juxtapose these two cases. Indeed, I acknowledge that simplistic comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany are gratuitously insulting, considering the historical circumstances. However, the former regime has one thing in common with the latter; it's increasing intolerance of peaceful protest. Supporters of Israel argue that peaceful protest movements, such as the international Solidarity Movement of which Rachel was a member, are equivocal about violence. Well, in their day, the British Authorities said the same about Gandhi and the Americans about Martin Luther King.

We should, nevertheless, salute the courage and integrity of organisations like B'Tselem and the fact that, despite an increasingly difficult climate, they are still operating within Israel. Moreover, despite the stridently partisan pro-Israeli stance adopted by some Jewish-born public figures outside Israel - such as the actress Maureen Lippmann in the UK or Ireland's cabinet minister Alan Shatter - there are numerous Jews that oppose Israel's policies to varying degrees and are even ashamed of them. This should be a warning - if, indeed, such a warning is needed - not to confuse the official policy with either the nationality or the race. It also gives the lie to those, such as Tea-Party radio host Mike Graham in the US, that equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. In recent days, after a 2010 on-air shredding of Graham by Michael D Higgins, now Ireland's President, went viral, Graham tweeted "if opposing Arab terrorists and supporting Israel's right to self-defence still means I'm a w**ker, nothing's changed."

This tweet epitomises the mindset that has impeded fair and rational discussion of the Israeli question in the mainstream media in the US and elsewhere. It smacks of George W Bush's infamous "if you're not with us you're against us" quote. If it doesn't equate Arabs with terrorists it certainly  equates criticism of Israel with support for terrorism; exactly the insult that prompted Michael D's use of the "W" word. Moreover, it encapsulates the view that Israel is unique in the global community of nations in that it just has to assert its right to self-defence in order to place itself beyond scrutiny for any alleged atrocities, however brutal, arbitrary or disproportionate.

So yes, Mr Graham, I'm afraid you are a w**ker!

Rachel Corrie's writings are available now as a book, entitled Let me stand alone.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It's been a while

I can't believe it's been over a month since I posted anything. How lazy is that?

Well, I do have some mitigating excuses. At the time of my last post (July 17) I was in the thick of preparations for the 2012 meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, the body that governs the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in between meetings of the Conference of the Parties (CoP). It was my busiest such meeting to date (I've been to six week-long ones and several one-day meetings in all told), with WWF issuing a rather provocative report in advance criticising some key countries' compliance with CITES rules on rhinos, tigers and elephants. Along with other members of the species team, I had to field media interviews for radio and print media (one here at and to lobby to get our key demands adopted at the meeting (with some success, though not 100%). The meeting was also an opportunity to catch up with friends from the National parks and Wildlife Service; the weekend before one such friend joined Magdalena and myself, first for a concert at the Paleo festival in Nyon and then for a hike in the Juras.

From there I went on a flying visit to Krakow to attend a wedding of one of Magdalena's cousins and i quickly realised that nobody can do weddings like the Poles can, especially when it comes to food and drink. Despite the weather being insufferably hot during the day, we had a great time. The next day we visited the Schindler factory, now a museum of the German occupation of Krakow; one, moreover, like its sister museum on the Warsaw uprising in that city, is heartbreakingly sad.

From Krakow, it was back to Switzerland for a few days of tidying up and brain-dumping in the office, as well as trying to prepare for my flat move. Then, the following Saturday I was off to the US - again! (having never been there until this year I've now been there twice and I have to admit I like it!). There I attended a meeting in the offices of the Pew Environment Group to prepare a lobbying strategy to get more shark species listed on CITES at the next CoP next year. Then from there, almost directly, to Edinburgh, to see my daughter, who is working for the Fringe Festival. We saw some outstanding Fringe shows, including Outland, about Lewis carroll, and a grimly eerie adaptation of 4 Edgar Allen Poe stories. We also visited the Elephant House Café, where JK Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter books; the most interesting thing there was the graffitti in the loo.

After that, it was the flat move proper, which still isn't quite over, though at least the boxes are unpacked. I've had an exhausting week of unpacking boxes and assembling furniture.


The best news of all is that my Brussels novel has been taken on by MuseItUp publishing, initially as an e-book and will emerge next March, hopefully. The title isn't confirmed yet but I will be using the pen-name Philip Coleman. So I will have to re-think my online identity and the future of this blog...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A sensitive subject.

One of my favourite memoirs is David Thomson's Woodbrook, a beautifully written, but ultimately sad and wistful account of the period in theScottish-born author's life when, as a young man in the 1930s, he worked as a tutor for the Kirkwood family in Woodbrook House, Co. Roscommon. It's rich in descriptions of local rural life, the Woodbrook estate and the eccentric Kirkwood family, as well as very sympathetic reflections on Irish histroy and the injustices of British rule there. Central to the book, however, is Thompson's undeclared love for the eldest Kirkwood daughter, Phoebe, who was only 13 to 14 years old at the time.

Even though one gets the impression that Phoebe's mother noticed enough to be worried, there are plenty of reasons for concluding that there was probably nothing too inappropriate in Thompson's feelings. While Phoebe is portrayed as a beautiful and vivacious specimen of girlhood, one must also remember that Thompson wrote the book in his sixties and that his nostalgia for those apparently innocent and idyillic times is heightened by the fact that Phoebe does not survive the end of the book, dying tragically of an unexpected illness in her early teens. Nevertheless, I know people who have been brought up sharp by this aspect of the book and I myself wasn't entirely comfortable with it.

Similar things are said about Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll. Everyone knows that he was uncomfortable around grown-ups and boys, but was almost obsessed by young girls, even to the extent of taking nude photos of them. Such behaviour would be entirely inappropriate today, and should have been even then. However, whereas nowadays we would be aware that we were already crossing a line at that point,  that awareness would not necessarily have been widespread in repressed Victorian society because sex was such a taboo subject that no rational discussion of behavioural boundaries could take place. This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that Dodgson engaged in any more physical forms of misbehaviour. All the indications are that he was disgusted by any kind of physicality and that his admiration for the juvenile female form, although inappropriate, stayed at the platonic stage. He may even, as Jonathan Miller suggests, have been a repressed homosexual. Yet people often get five from adding two and two, and jump to the conclusion that he was a pedophile.

There are other instances where art and our modern sensitivity around the sexual exploitation of children clash. May people are uncomfortable with Balthus's paintings of young girls, for example, even though I for one consider them well-observed and not the least bit erotic. However, the best-known and most controversial case is that of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita - both the book and the subsequent realisations in film.

I have to say I simply loved this book. And I say this as someone who gave up on reading the rest of Nabokov's works because I found them tedious. Of course Lolita is deeply disturbing - even shocking. It is certainly not suitable for children. And there are valid concerns around the films, especially the later Adrian Lyne version, which is the one that is closer to the book, in terms of the effect that it had on the very vulnerable lead actress.

Nevertheless it offers unique insights into many profound questions. These include loss of innocence (both that of boys and girls, but in different ways); the predatory element in male sexual behaviour that exults in the conquering of the vulnerable and defenceless; and the uncertain boundary between admiration of the physical beauty of children and their exploitation as objects of pleasure (a topic that Victorian society fought shy of and one that, for different reasons, we seem unable to treat maturely today). It also presents a satirical portrait of modern society - American society in particular - that is as true today as it was over 50 years ago when the book was written (Lolita could never have been written before WWII because the suburban society it describes is very much a product of the post-WWII boom).

Nevertheless, there are those, even outside ultra-orthodox Christian, Jewish or Moslem circles, who regard the book as disgusting, and its author as depraved. Many of these people assume that Nabokov must have been a pedophile because his portrayal of Humbert Humbert is so believable. I've never had the opportunity to consult an expert as to whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of a pedophile (I suspect not) but I find it incongruous that, despite the numerous instances where writers of fiction have convincingly entered the mind of a murderer, no-one assumes that all these authors have been murderers in real life.

Exploitation of children as objects of sexual pleasure is cruel, disgusting, and profoundly disgusting. However, it seems to me that Lolita, rather than being a manifesto for such behaviour, is a sensitive examination of the issues around it.

What I take from the three examples I've addressed in this piece is that the protection of children is not served by prurience.