Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.

The Missing Narrative

It is Thanksgiving eve. Actually, it is one thirty in the morning and Thanksgiving eve is behind us. And here I am in bed making these notes…

I was reflecting during the course of the day, that is has been a strange day, for at one level, I have been living, alive and well, with my wife, celebrating in a non-celebratory way, Thanksgiving in 2010 here in the US. But at another level, I have been living – one can’t say at, in, on, or around 1954-1956, but in a way, yes, I have. As the previous posts, Absence and Presence, indicate, I have begun piecing together a narrative for those years.

And it is so strange at so many levels. As I street view googled 13 Rothesay Terrace, I could not enter the street. Google does not go in that close. So in effect, also in some strange way, even 50 or more years later, Rothesay Terrace is closed off to me.

I have puzzled over the hours of the day about this story, my upbringing. And what has had me go get my diary and make these notes, at this time of the morning, is that, somehow, somehow not yet clear to me, 13 Rothesay Terrace – curious number – is the key to the whole family narrative. The key lies in opening the door to those years.

From the day in 1950, or so, when we arrived at the empty house, prior to taking up residence there, with a huge black coal scuttle, or coal box, of about six feet square and some four or five feet high, inexplicably sitting there, at an angle of some 35 degrees to the square, in the center of the empty living room or entry hallway, – I don’t know which. A strange object indeed to have in an empty house. A strange greeting. To the point in 1954 or thereabouts – I was seven – when the Edinburgh city council, in the person of the child welfare service, or whatever its name was, came and removed us, my brothers and I, from my father’s care to a children’s home.

The story may not be the one that my wife envisioned when she encouraged to write of this gap in my life, and, since the years of 13 Rothesay Terrace remain shut to me, it seems the key to the whole story, The family narrative. With the entry made to those years, all else surely falls into place.

So I am not attempting, I do not attempt, I do not seek to open that door at this time of the morning, but simply to record what I feel, with every fibre of my being, is the Miss Havisham moment. That here is the centre of the Sargasso Sea.

I have the energy. I am wide awake. No calls are to be made upon my time tomorrow that I am aware of.

So what is the key? The key that opens the door to the memory of those years?

Vague memories of my time in the house are with me still. But they are vague.

What event during those years is the clarifying moment? Is it the moment when my father threw my mother out of the house? How did he announce it to us? In what way did he tell us? I know that any number of times later he justified his act to us. But what did he say to us at the time?

He threw her out of her own home, his home, our home, for what she did.

But what did he do? What act, or action, did he take that drove his wife to seek affection – an affection hungry woman – elsewhere? I think it could be fairly said, with the little knowledge that a son, the eldest son, might have on such matters, that mother could not live without men, without a man.

But wait a minute. In the timescale I have sketched out earlier, Absence, there is a key area: – My God, here it is: – Between the time, from when my father threw my mother out, to the when we were taken by the council to the children’s home to be rescued from there by my mother, during this period we would visit my mother. I know we would visit her, for the memories I have do not link to the time when we were staying with her.

How do I know that? Because my father’s voice is in the background of every visit we made to her, mocking and belittling everything about her.

There are two things to consider, so let’s pause for a moment to look at them.

One is that I am employing the language that was used at the time to describer the actions taken at the time.

That my mother “dumped” us on my father. Where does that particular expression come from? Who in this narrative used it first? My father? My brothers and I? Hmmm.

To use other language in the direct narrative of recounting the events of those years would not be honest.

If I I step back, as an adult, to comment upon these events, then surely another vocabulary is entirely appropriate, indeed is necessary.

The other deserves careful examination. Too strong a term? Perhaps, let’s see.

I think it is this brief period, of my mother being thrown out – let’s say MTOTD (mother thrown out the door) and us being retrieved by the council men (I don’t remember any women) and PIACH (placed in a children’s home);

So between MTOTD and PIACH is a brief period and the pause is to consider the effects of this and I am going to diagram it for clarity.

So there you have it. Let’s spell it out. What we have diagrammed is an untenable situation.

Put simply: you have two people whom you love equally. You love both. As a child there is no concept of being asked to choose on over the other. Of loving one more than the other. But that is not the correct formulation. Of being asked who do you love more? Of being challenged: why do you love your mother? why do you love your father?

There are no answers to these questions and the questions themselves are senseless to a child. You cannot choose.

Indeed, the questions are senseless to an adult. But to say they are senseless questions is not sufficient. That is not quite the case.

You, as a child, can be in the custody of one parent, and that parent can bad mouth the other parent to you, and indeed, demand that you respond, that you show your love (translate: loyalty) by disavowing your love for the other parent, and by affirming your love for the present parent, the one in front of you. You, as a child can cope with this situation. What, I think, cannot be coped with is if you have both parents making the same demand at the same time.

An adult in such a situation; it is a well known torture technique, will find it extremely difficult to cope with. If the situation is prolonged, it will drive most adults mad. We can find it in us to imagine such a situation.

A child is much more vulnerable than an adult in such a situation. Can even our imagination help us? No, it is not much use. What a child goes through in such circumstances defies comprehension, defies imagining. And it is perhaps best left that way.

Filed under: Memoir,


I have a horror of houses, of homes. Not the houses, homes that other people inhabit. Their homes, their houses are a pleasure to visit. No, the homes, the houses, I have a horror of are the ones I inhabit.

There has to be room for other people.

What struck me in writing Absence with the treated picture of Rothesay Terrace beside me is that a part of each of us that lived there is still locked up there. Most of us that did live there are now dead. My father, my mother, my one brother.

I have a brother that is still alive, though, for reasons I shall not go into here, I refer to him as the more dead than my dead brother.

So the insight is true for me. I still live. I am alive to look at the treated photograph. And the strange thing is that the treated photograph is more powerful in its treated form than the plain 2010 photograph of how Rothesay Terrace is today.

I took the photograph and treated it, subjected it to an effect available in a well known art software. A simple effect that transformed the photograph. Did that make it powerful? Yes it did. How much played a part in giving it a title: Rothesay Terrace as my mother might have painted it?

Writing the piece had a powerful effect on me. A friend arrived to the house to visit me and we went out for coffee and, in his company I could feel the cloak of the piece, the past, a swelling unconscious subsuming me. I felt drugged. I felt that if I talked about it that the feeling would dissipate. I did not talk about it. The feeling still nonetheless dissipated and I began to feel normal again. When I got home with my friend, I felt that claustrophobic feeling that being in house can bring upon me. I wanted to go out. To go anywhere. Just to get out, Into the open air. Houses have this effect upon me.

I go into a house and bring with me the ghosts that live invisibly with me. They inhabit the house with me. They are an unseen unspeaking presence.

My most vivid experience of this phenomenon with which I have lived for many years. Maybe we all live with it. Maybe each of us carries these ghosts of the past. The unresolved presences, the unresolved conversations, the unresolved issues. 

In South Africa, in Johannesburg, I sang with University of Witwatersrand Choir. The choir was led by a very nice fellow, Jimmy, a member of the Music Department faculty. He was aided in the running of the choir by his wife, Sandy. Sandy and Jimmy were going with their children out of town for a week, a fortnight, I don’t remember which, and they asked me to look after the house for them. They thought it would give me pleasure. They knew me to be single, to not have a steady girlfriend at the time. They knew I lived in a small bachelor’s pad. They thought that I would enjoy having the run of a house. I don’t remember if there were any pets to look after. If there were, then looking after them was effortless for I don’t remember that aspect.

What I remember vividly, as I say, is that I did not enjoy staying in that house. It is possible, is it not, that I am a sensitive, even oversensitive person and that the vibe that the regular inhabitants of the house had endued the house with was unpleasant? That is quite possible. But what is also possible is that I took in my own ghosts.

In the tiny little one room pad in which I lived in Rosebank, Johannesburg, there was no room for the ghosts. That in a single room I was much less aware of the presence of these unseen creatures. That in a large house there was room for these ghost to echo off the walls and into the other rooms.

So why do I say that something of each of us is locked in the house at 13 Rothesay Terrace? I say it because for a moment, for an undefined length of time, between 1950 or so when we entered the house and took up residence there, and 1954 when my parents split up, each of us was happy there. And it doesn’t really matter for how long it was, for happiness unites a family, gives it bonds unbreakable, will give each member of that family an undertow to which they will refer throughout the rest of their lives. Hatred, strife, these too bind a family. They do. But in quite a different way.

A single moment of happiness in any person’s life, especially if experienced in early years will echo down the years, will serve as a reference point by comparison of which all other experiences will be judged. That happiness cannot be created. There is no means by which it can be induced. It is a spontaneous joy that reaffirms the very essence of what it is to be human. And it is understood, regardless of age, position, wealth or lack thereof. A tiny child understands it as much as an old man or woman teetered on the edge of the grave.

The well from which that happiness springs is love. And yet love itself seems not sufficient in itself. Love, I would say is an essential, necessary but not sufficient. What else is required? I think the answer lies with why that happiness occurred at 13 Rothesay Terrace and not at 44 Constitution Street, Leith, our prior home.

I think the other requirement is security. It may be that I am speaking purely from a child’s point of view but I don’t think so. If I reflect for a moment on the moments of happiness I have experienced as an adult. Pure happiness. Not pleasure, such as the news of good exam results. The security of feeling free from immediate concerns, of immediate worries. Does wealth bring this sense of security. I don’t know. I am not wealthy. Those with wealth might better be able to address the question. Again, I don’t think so. I think that a home, that having a home, can bring that sense of security.

That we could be a family in the Amazon. That our home could be the open air. That we owned not a great deal if anything at all. I think that sense of security would come from each member of the family feeling it. That the father was capable and had to means to protect and defend. That the mother had, under the shield of the father, the capacity to love and to tend. That the children sensed and responded to the love offered with love and felt cared for and protected. That each member was fulfilling to the greatest extent that nature could provide the role to which nature had allotted each.

And so, I think, that for a while, at 13 Rothesay Terrace such a realm existed.

Then why do I say that for each of us, something remains locked indoors at 13 Rothesay Terrace? Because we were rent asunder. We did not leave freely.

A child, knowing a happy childhood will inevitably grow up. Will inevitably leave the nest. At least most children do. The transition is gradual, of childhood into adulthood. Few humans report a continuance of the happiness they have known as children to attend them in adult life. But the transition is gradual.

In the case of my family, we were all wrenched from Rothesay Terrace. My brothers and I, by being placed in a children’s home. A city department, a set of city officials made the decision to deprive my father of his rights, to father is own children.

My mother too was separated violently from her home, from our home. My father had come home to hear that my brother had witnessed my mother dancing naked upon the marital bed in front of a stranger. My father, the phrase goes, threw her out.

And my father, too, was violently separated from the home, his home, our home; evicted by the same city, different department, different officials. He was evicted for occupying, as a single person, a house that was intended and reserved by those same city officials for families. Such as we had been.

Did 13 Rothesay Terrace then become some sort of myth implanted in my mind, in the minds of my brothers, during the course of the years in which we spent in our father’s care. Entirely possible. Possible, but not probable. For why is that treated photograph of Rothesay Terrace in front of me so powerful? Why is it so evocative?

Why is its presence still felt?

Filed under: Memoir, ,


On the 6th of April 1965 the incoming British Labour government canceled the British Aircraft Corporation (now BAE Systems) TSR2 Mach 2 reconnaissance aircraft, then being developed at its Military Aircraft Division at Wharton in Lancashire, England. The Labour Government premised this decision on the Duncan Sandys Defence White Paper of 1957 which had predicted the demise of manned military aircraft for defence purposes.

In an effort to protect its trainees from the resultant drastic cuts in its work force, BAC farmed out its graduate and undergraduate apprentices, on a temporary basis, to its various other divisions, principally the Commercial Aviation Division in Bristol, in the west of England, and its Defence Avionics Division at Stevenage in Hertforshire, located about 30 miles outside London.

During my final year at Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh, I had applied to, and had been accepted by, British Aircraft Corporation at its Military Aircraft Division for a Undergraduate Apprenticeship training programme. This allowed me to study for a degree under the auspice of BAC while at the same time to support myself from the small stipend paid to its undergraduate apprentices. I therefore joined BAC at the end of the summer of 1964.

Late in 1954, my mother had rescued my two brothers and myself from a children’s shelter where we had been placed by the city council after complaints from the neighbours that my father had been leaving us out in the streets until he returned home late at night.

In 1956, after eighteen months in her care, my mother decided to return us to the custody of our father, since she intended to leave the city to go to live in London.

Residence at 13 Rothsey Terrace, Edinburgh, had been contingent upon it being maintained as a family home. My father, therefore, was ejected from it and went to stay at his mother’s house in Merchiston Avenue, where he had grown up. Along with the separation from his wife, the loss of custody of his children, the loss of his home, my father now lost his job with the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Rothsey Terrace, Edinburgh, as my mother might have painted it

So, the man that my mother deposited us with in 1954 was unemployed and staying with his mother.

My father was born in 1904 in Newcastle Upon Tyne and met and married my mother just as he was being demobbed from the British Army at the end of World War 2 in Liverpool in England. It was at my mother’s mother’s home in Rockferry, Cheshire, that I was born in 1945.

With jobs and housing scarce in the immediate post war years, the family ended up in Abedour, Fife in Scotland where a second son was born in 1947. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Edinburgh where a third son was born in 1949. The family was now complete …at least until 1954.

My parents had agreed that my mother would leave us at the street door of the four-story set of flats in Merchiston and we that would go up the stairs to my father. This we duly did and knocked on the door of the flat. My father had always carried a beard. A large, full beard, in the style of learned Victorian gentlemen, reaching to his chest. The man that opened the door of that flat in Edinburgh on that day in 1956 was beardless and gaunt looking. The look my father gave me, without a word from either of us, had me dash back downstairs to my mother who was waiting for a signal from upstairs on a successful reunion.

“I want to come with you,” I said.

“I’ll come back and get you.” my mother replied, “Now, go back upstairs.”

My mother’s absence was punctuated by occasional tourist postcards from London and various places in Europe. More occasionally still, a display selection of fruit, complete with ribbon,rotten after is journey from London to Edinburgh through the care of the Royal Mail, would arrive.

From time to time, my father would say, “When the opportunity comes, you will go back to your mother.”

“No, no, I won’t,” I would reply, in an effort to display a loyalty I did not feel.

In Stevenage, I had with me one of my mother’s postcards from years earlier. On it was my mother’s London address. Several weeks into my stay in Stevenage, I traveled by train into London. Ladbroke Grove is a fine set of white faced Georgian buildings curved in a lovely crescent on the west side of London. At that time they were roughly divided into flats, two or more to each floor. I climbed up the steps to the front door and studied the list of occupants against the rows of white pushbuttons. Against one of them was my mother’s name. I pushed the bell button and waited.

A large woman of medium height with dark, shoulder-length hair appeared in the doorway. My mother looked like an older version of the woman who had left us with our father nine years previously.

“Hello, mother,” I said.

A small, pained, wistful smile winced its way across my mother’s face as she said,

“You’re my son?”

Filed under: Memoir,

The Teller and Tale United

The Tale of Sinuhe: and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC, Anonymous, translated by R B Parkinson, published by Oxford University Press

The Tale of Sinuhe is a Middle Egyptian story written around 2000 BC.  Many copies, mostly fragmentary, survive which attest to its great popularity. Sinuhe is a high Egyptian official who flees his own country, and, in first person, relates the events of his travels and of his eventual return home where he awaits his own burial in a tomb built for him. The story is highly evocative to us because of the compelling, unselfconscious nature of the way Sinuhe tells his tale.  Despite the distance of 4000 years, Sinuhe addresses us in a manner so direct that he places himself amongst us. He speaks from a deceased civilization to the members of one that still exists. What else, besides his tale, might link us to Sinuhe?

Agriculture lies at the bedrock of what we view as civilization. In fact, it forms the basis for every civilization that ever existed. And many of those civilizations have gone and no longer exist. As will our own in time.

Agriculture is so important to a civilized society that it is surprising that it is not taught more widely. Actually, I should correct that. It is not taught at all as a general subject. Yes, agronomists and the like study it. But the likes of you and I have never been, and, as a consequence, something so fundamental to our well being and so foundational to society, we take completely for granted.

Consider for a moment, if you will, how important agriculture is. We need to do this since the mechanisation of agriculture has hidden it from us inside factory buildings and behind fences and hedges. We need to do this since we give hardly a thought to the vast history and development that allows us daily to put its products into our mouths. Agriculture comprises essentially two activities: plant cultivation and animal husbandry. With each, humankind has, over the millennia, engaged in a vast Darwinian process whereby we have domesticated plant and animal species to best adapt each species for our purposes. True, with the agricultural revolution we mechanized both.

The domestication of animals is fairly straightforward: herding, birthing, and pasturing being the main activities, along with warding off prey, providing shelter during inclement weather, and guarding against disease. Animal husbandry on its own does not necessarily make for a civilization. In fact, it simply moves a group from being hunter-gatherers to pastoralists. And pastoralism, as a way of life, does not necessarily mean settling in one place, the absolute central feature of a civilization. On the contrary, the herders can migrate with the animals to and fro from winter to summer pasture grounds.

Plant cultivation, on the other hand, is of a different order. Land has to be occupied that is suitable for a particular crop. The land has to be cleared and prepared. Tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting and storage all have to follow each other in a carefully controlled sequence. The seasons and weather are of prime interest. Thus time is a controlling and ruling factor. Natural disasters and disease are a constant menace. The zodiac became a carefully observed calendar for the agriculturists.

Animal husbandry is not labour intensive, plant cultivation is. Animal husbandry does not require a settled existence, though it may. Plant cultivation absolutely does.

Soil depletion, climate change, such as that arising from a river course change, or being forced off the land by invaders may, in turn, force a search for fresh arable land. But plant cultivation absolutely requires a settled existence.

The adoption of plant cultivation forces on the adopters a dramatic change of life style, from one of constant movement as hunter-gathers or animal husbanders, perpetually following the food, to a sedentary way of life tied to the vagaries of crop production.

A whole series of artifacts, changes and events are required to bring about successful plant cultivation for a community.

Crops have to be carefully hoarded to guard against future crop loss due to weather or disease. A surplus of crop is a basic requirement. Who says how much surplus and who safeguards that surplus?

Each member of the community growing his or her own crop is not an effective use of the land or of production. The idea of communal effort comes into play, as does labour specialization. Then, how is the crop distributed? Weights and measures are required.

To avoid the problems of monotony of diet and of mono-crop production, multiple crops will be cultivated or exchanged with adjacent communities. Trading by means of barter or money occurs. A value is attached to each crop which will vary based on supply and demand.

The crop counters and weighers in highly successful communities, that is ones with large or vast crop productions, will become specialists.

And here we come to why this essay has started by looking at agriculture. Because the demands of agriculture led to writing.

To be sure, writing at first restricted itself to the creation of crop lists and the careful recording of surpluses. But crop production itself led to an enhanced vocabulary.

The language and writing that Sinuhe uses (The Tale of Sinuhe: and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC, Anonymous, translated by R B Parkinson) grew out of just these developments.

Not all neighbouring communities were necessarily crop producers, and therefore did not need writing. But humans are great imitators. When London first introduced traffic lights in the 1920s, the idea spread quickly throughout the land and elsewhere. The ARPA-Net became the World Wide Web.

Neighbouring communities adopted the writing of another group, adapting it to meet the consonantal needs of their own language.

Writing began as signs and symbols but evolved into a cursive form to offer greater flexibility, and to reflect the language it was being used to express.

Archeology has dug up the past for the better part of two centuries, beginning in a systematic way with Napoleon in Egypt.

But archeology does not tell us from the remains how the people were. Bogman (Tollund, Denmark, 1950) and Iceman (Schalstal, Austria, 1991) cannot speak to us, however well preserved they are.

But Sinuhe is building himself a tomb, he tells us in The Tale of Sinuhe. And, since Sinuhe’s tale is autobiographical, why should we not believe him?

Imagine then, if we found his tomb. If we found the man. We can match man and voice. We can hear and see Sinuhe tell his tale. After 4000 years teller and tale are united.

Filed under: Arts, ,

Who Defends the Blogger? – Who Dropped the Ball on the Blogger in Australia?

Editorial Courage

Somebody dropped the ball with regard to a blog in Australia today and I wonder if anyone else heard it. It is a pity my blog is little read because the topic affects every blogger.

Let’s stroll away from the immediate topic to give it some context. In almost any story of outstanding courage shown by a single individual, there are human elements, which, rightly or wrongly, get edited out of the story. Many stories have been hung on the quotation from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a 1962 American Western film directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart and John Wayne: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Here are a couple of examples. The first is from the blog Stones and Paste, December 5, 2008, which hangs its post around the quotation just given. The post concerns William C. Ayers, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was a co-founder of the Weather Underground. Ayers had been characterized as an “unrepentant domestic terrorist” in the run-up to the election of Obama as President of the United Sates. The post centers on Ayers’ opinion piece in the New York Times, The Real Bill Ayers, published on the same day as the blog post. In the opinion piece, Ayers defends himself against the slight or smear.

I personally have to admire the NYT for publishing the piece. Talk about nailing your colours to the mast!

The second example shows all of the grist and gristle which is at the heart of the wonderful quote from the John Ford film. Should you take the trouble to follow the link, I urge you to read the comments which append the post. The story the post quotes is the stuff of a film. The comments that follow the post are the exquisite subplots of a very good novel.

The title of the post PBS airs documentary on gay Idaho Falls reporter is on the blog AfterElton and was posted by Dennis Ayers, Managing Editor, on September 14, 2007.

Two things are worth noting as a peripheral to the post. Notice the comment entitled Newspaper involved hiding the facts? posted by “Jimmy” on September 27, 2007, in which Jimmy points to how an earlier comment had been has been edited and gives extracts from the original posted comment. The comment he refers to, by Beechwood45789, is dated September 28, 2007. Notice the dates.

The second peripheral item to notice is the comment by Beechwood45789 in that post of September 28, 2007, “I realize now — with regret — that nothing on the Web can be undone.”

In reading this post you may come to wonder is that is true.

It will be clear that my concern for the moment  is editorial courage or the lack thereof.

In recent times, the single greatest act of editorial courage in my mind lies at the heart of the decision to publish the 12 Islamic cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, and the decision to stand by their publication during and after the furor their publication created.

No good stone-story should be left unturned and this one has, no surprise, an underside. Having agreed to publish the book, The Cartoons that Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen, in 2009, Yale University Press decided to, just prior to publication, remove the offending cartoons and some other pictures of Mohammad. A statement by John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press, supporting the removal of the cartoons, was issued on September 9, 2009. The statement itself makes interesting reading.

Who Dropped the Ball on the Blogger in Australia?

My concern is of smaller import than that just cited but of greater potential impact.

I say of greater potential impact because what happened earlier today in Australia has impact upon every blogger worldwide. How many are there of us? I am guessing, which is all everyone else does: 120 million? 240 million? Some figure in-between? My contention is that each one of us is affected by what happened this morning.

One last comment for now. In recounting the following, the temptation is to over-egg what is necessary to say. I shall do my best to avoid that temptation.

In a twice or thrice weekly round of the world’s aviation press, I usually begin with Ben Sandlinds blog at Plane Talking.This morning was no exception. Two of his posts are cause for concern.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner ZA002 after the fire posted November 21, 2010 at 8.46 pm and Boeing versus blogger posted November 22, 2010 at 10.54 am.

Here is a screen shot of the second post since it serves to speak to both posts.



The post opens with a letter which says:

Dear Mr Sandilands

Photographs – 787Flight Test

Last night photographs from an internal Boeing report about a 787 flight test incident were posted on, specifically at the following link:

We request that these photographs be removed from the website immediately, as they contain Boeing proprietary information.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Yours faithfully


Allison Bone
Communication Director

Ben Sandilands says, “Plane Talking has removed two images of the fire damage inside the the second Dreamliner test and certification aircraft, ZA002, from the preceding article at the request of Boeing. ”

He then goes on to relate that similar images had been removed at Boeing request from the Seattle Times website and two online industry websites.

Note that Mr Sandilands has deliberately cropped the Boeing letter so that company letterhead and date of the letter are removed. One can only surmise as to why this was done.

Boeing’s website is here. Note that Boeing has a massive presence in Australia; I count 16 locations. And Allison Bone is indeed their Communication Director for Australia and New Zealand.

What action could Boeing have taken had Mr Sandilands demurred from agreeing to Boeing’s request?

They could have sent the inevitable lawyer’s letter. Alternatively, or in addition, they could have barred Mr Sandilands from all of Boeing’s locations and exhibitions stands worldwide. How much this would have affected Mr Sandilands in conducting his business is difficult to know. Not much I would have thought. Given his length of time in the businesses, more than 40 years, his contacts likely weave far over Boeing’s head.

The merit of a lawsuit, supposing that was the path that this incident took, is difficult to assess. A picture of fire damaged equipment does not sound like it would give much away of proprietary value. Much more likely, given Boeing’s long history of attempting to spin, suppress and lie about every single setback associated with the design, manufacture, and flight testing of the 787, which Mr Sandilands, bless his heart, has recorded on his website in all its technicolour splendorous glory, suggests that “proprietary information” is simply a ruse to suppress or control the publication of details of the on-board fire.

It is impossible to think well of Boeing’s action.

As some point, long before the history of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is written, Boeing will, in continuance of this behaviour, cross a bridge too far and will have its comeuppance. The schadenfreude of certain members of the aviation business and of Boeing watchers will echo to the moon. I doubt that the sage and sober Ben Sandilands I know from his exemplary reporting will join them.

Who defends the blogger?

I do not know what Mr Sandilands’ relationship to and its owners is. If he is a contractor, then he has no more rights as a blogger than have you and I. If he is employed direct, then the question arises of the courage of the editorial team at, and owners of, After all, describes itself as an online newspaper. If the latter is the case, then falls into the same category as the Seattle Times (the error page results from Plane Talking‘s link).

We have already addressed editorial courage, or lack thereof, earlier in this discussion. No more for now need be said.

If Ben Sandilands’ is an independent contractor to, then he is placed no differently from any other blogger. He had little choice but to capitulate.

The capitulation is indeed painful to witness. And one feels appropriately for Mr Sandilands.

But there is a much more important question to be asked.

How many incidents like this will it take before we have a blogger’s bill of rights? When the heavy hand of the powers-that-be see how easy it is to silence any irritation, of whatever kind, caused by a blogger, where will it end? How bad does it have to get?

Better to plan now. Better to open the dialogue, somehow, somewhere, as to what is needed, and how best what is needed can be met. Better to address the lava of the volcano before it leaves the crater than wait until it arrives at your front door.

We now come back to the question I asked in the first place:

Who defends the blogger?

Postscript: Anybody notice a strange coincidence? My two opening stories on editorial courage shared a last name: Bill Ayers and Dennis Ayers. Tennis anyone?

Filed under: Culture, , , ,

Understanding Metaphors and Parsecs

Understanding Metaphors and Parsecs  discusses fiction and nonfiction and how the two differ and how the two are differently understood.  Both fiction and nonfiction are examined in terms of meaning.  Meaning in fiction is understood in a very particular way.  What is it about meaning in fiction that rewards understanding? Some answers are suggested. While various types of nonfiction are mentioned, it is scientific writing that is dwelt upon. Meaning is crucial to scientific writing and the understanding of meaning in scientific writing poses very particular challenges. These challenges are closely examined.

Put aside, for the purpose of the present discussion, fiction’s use of plot, character, style, setting, and all the other elements used by fiction, save one, meaning.

Meaning in fiction can be grasped at a superficial level based the words and terms being employed. The words and terms used fall into two categories: the dictionary definitions of words and terms, and historical, mythical, religious and cultural references.

A good dictionary will immediately solve problems of vocabulary. A word used in a particular context by the writer might not make its meaning immediately clear. The dictionary should solve that.

Historical, mythical, religious and cultural references are more problematic. The use of a particular reference, of what ever kind, by the writer, may be overt or it may be illusional. Overt references are there on the page, such as the phrase the Jazz Age. References by way of illusion are more problematic. The context of the story might suggest the setting for the illusion. or an earlier, more overt reference in the same work. The writer may betray a fondness for certain kinds of illusions, say biblical. The writer will be relying, for the most part, on the reader’s knowledge to understand what is being alluded to. This reliance may be as simple as a knowledge of the writer’s previous works.

The use of references, either direct or indirect, is one of the strengths of fiction. The use of references deepens meaning and moves the text away from the merely literal.

References are only one means by which fiction invests itself with meaning. Fiction also uses metaphors and symbols. Metaphoric language, the use of figures of speech such as symbols and metaphors, divides, just as with references, into the overt and the not so overt. Symbols are overt. This doesn’t mean that you will spot that a writer is employing a term as a symbol. The word cross, for example, has a literal meaning, with crucifix being a close synonym. In addition to using the word in a literal sense, the writer may be employing it in a symbolic sense, and here we have a pointer as to how religious, cultural and other references are placed, or embedded, in the work.

Metaphors, and all of the other figures of speech, are less obvious. In fact, the strength and skill of a writer will rest with the ability to use metaphors, an other figures of speech, appropriately and well. Metaphors work by comparison. Fragility, for example, if compared to the murmuring of a breeze will suggest one thing, but if compared to a twig, will suggest something else.

A tale teller will weave a story out of warp and weft. The warp of a tale consists of the elements we referred to in the first paragraph: plot, character, and so on. Weft, the references and the metaphoric language, provide the riches of the story, emphasising its resonance with the reader. Quite simply, this resonance is an emotional appeal. But an emotional appeal that is subtle. Subtlety is what metaphoric language is all about.

The understanding of the metaphors and symbols may not be immediate. Firstly, metaphors and symbols may be used as public metaphors and symbols, those used by society at large, at least in the society in which the writer is writing, and accepted by that society’s members and readers. Or the metaphors and symbols may be private; in other words, particular to that author. In either case, the meaning of any metaphor or symbol may only be apparent from its context, and its repetition in different contexts. Or its employment may be so slight as to render as uncertain whether it is there in the text at all.

The art in fiction comes from the skill in applying effects to the story that work. Figures of speech, as already mentioned, will frequently be used in fiction and their meaning may be implied rather than spelt out. If implied, then interpretation will come into play: “This is what the author means, or intends to mean …” A number of interpretations may be possible and the author is only one possible source of interpretation. If living, the author may, or may not, be able to say with any certainty what he or she meant in a particular phrase or passage.

Summarizing what we have said so far, fiction seldom has direct literal meaning. Understanding may be gained unconsciously or subconsciously, and such understanding will be difficult for a reader to convey to others, even to those who have also read the work in question.

In fiction, meaning is often suggested rather than made plain. The fiction may be said to have layers of meaning that may be penetrated only by repeated reading. Good fiction is said to be that fiction which rewards successive readings.

At the heart of fiction is understanding. A book, story, or passage may be read and understood but its full meaning may not be immediately grasped. This may not be essential to the enjoyment of the work. If fact, some works may require successive readings to fully penetrate in terms of meaning. However, for most readers, a single reading will reward sufficient meaning for the work to have been successful in its impact on the reader. The measure of certain kinds of fiction is this ability to reward successive readings with greater and greater penetration of meaning and of understanding. This is what we usually mean when we speak of a work of art.

As already stated, this deeper penetration of meaning is not necessary for the work to be fully understood. Now, this is absolutely not true for certain kinds of nonfiction writing. For those works to be fully understood, a full penetration of meaning is required. Let’s look generally at nonfiction forms of writing as a prelude to discussing this more intractable form.

Nonfiction is a broad church of writing, so to speak. It takes many forms. Some of these kinds of writing resemble fiction in some respects. Such writings may not be viewed necessarily as nonfiction. On the other hand, they may. Prime examples of such writing are philosophical and religious writings, amongst others. Such writings frequently employ the devices familiar in fiction. In attempting an understanding of such writings, the reader faces similar difficulties to those faced in some forms of fiction. Such writings frequently also reward re-readings in an effort to penetrate meaning.

Let us turn now to a discussion of what most of us will agree is nonfiction. Nonfiction takes many forms, as we have said. By its self-evident definition, nonfiction writing is all those kinds of writing which is not fiction. Nonfiction will include, but not be limited to: most journalism, dictionaries, self-help manuals, travel guides, memoirs and biographies, and all of the soft and hard sciences. Soft sciences are those sciences which do not lend themselves easily to experimental proof. Examples are economics, sociology, archeology, psychology, and so on. Hard sciences are those sciences which rely upon experimental proof for their furtherance. Physics and chemistry are obvious examples of hard science. Biology, with the rise of molecular science, more and more becomes a hard science. Mathematics is problematic. Applied mathematics is generally subject to experimental proof but abstract mathematics is not. On the other hand, abstract mathematics does not use, as its principal conveyance of meaning, English or other spoken language. Abstract mathematics generally uses specific symbols and the language used has particularly specified meanings. Understand the language and you will not necessarily understand the math, because abstract mathematics is about the conveyance of ideas and concepts. The language is used by abstract mathematics as a means of conveying those concepts and ideas.

In almost all of the nonfiction writing we have discussed so far, there will exist both a popular level of writing and a more specialized form. The distinction between the two lies in the vocabulary used. The sentence you have just read is at the heart of the discussion of nonfiction we are about to embark upon.

The understanding of scientific writing relies heavily upon the understanding of the fundamentals and principles involved. Once again a distinction has to be made between popular and more proper or technical scientific writing. The difference between the two are many.

At the most basic level, in considering popular scientific writing, you have, on the one hand someone who is a writer, who is skilled in the craft, who approaches the scientific area and makes a sincere effort to understand it and who attempts to convey that understanding to the reader. On the other hand, you have the scientist, who writes for a living. Most scientific research has to be written up. Scientific writing at this level is so arcane that questions of style and readability are often beside the point. The specialist scientific writer has to convey information to others in the specialty, usually in the form of summarized data. Not an easy job, to be sure, but assuming that the data is accurate; the conveyance of it is straight forward, if not downright laborious.

So, you have, on that other hand, such scientific specialists adopting to write in a more popular style. Very few specialists are able to achieve this skill. By its rights, the popular scientific writing is better served if the writer is a specialist who fully comprehends the terms being used. After all, writing is a skill that both the popular writer and the scientist acquire early on in life. But it is not so easy. There are many more popular science writers who are not specialists in the science than the other way round.

It is one thing to acquire an understanding of the terms of  the scientific specialty. It is quite another matter entirely to be able to explain those terms to others, including, it may be said, fellow specialists. The first two sentences of this paragraph, together with the key sentence of earlier now move to the heart of where we are headed.

At one level, what I might term proper scientific writing will aim itself at those readers who are familiar with the subject matter and will have a background, education, training and experience in that field.

Popular scientific writing aims at a larger audience, one that will include those with a general scientific background, or background in a field different from the field of the topic being written about.

A distinct hallmark of popular scientific writing will be the avoidance of the terms particular to the field being written about or, at the very least, a ready explanation of those terms that are used. So popular scientific writing on astronomy, for example, might employ the term light years without explaining the term. Most readers will grasp what is being implied by a light year, without explanation. There again, it may use the term astronomical unit (AU) because the term can be readily explained. Such writing, though, would avoid a term such as parsec. The expressions light years and astronomical unit can be explained in terms which are readily understood by most readers, scientific and non scientific. The term parsec is not so readily explainable as we shall see.

I trust I do not try your patience, dear reader, too far if I attempt to illustrate how explainable the terms light years and astronomical unit are. If that is the case, then skip the following sentences and go to the next paragraph. Roughly put, a light year is the distance traveled by a ray of light in a vacuum in one year. I say roughly because the year in question is a tropical year, which is the time taken by the earth to make one revolution of the sun. It is also known as a solar year. If we were measuring, we would have to be more precise in our definition but we have defined light year sufficient enough for the sake of understanding. The astronomical unit is the mean distance from the centre of the earth to the centre of the sun. Mean distance because it is that distance between when the earth is furtherest away from the sun and when the earth is closest to the sun. You may take my word for it, for the moment, that parsec takes rather more words to adequately explain.

In fact, discussion of the term parsec might very well be the key to any discussion of the understanding of proper scientific writing. I don’t suggest the actual term as such, but to point to the fact that difficult concepts are invoked on the way to understanding the term. Any similar term would serve the purpose. What we have here is a distinct process through which we go on our journey to fully comprehending the term in question.

At the most basic level, an understanding of proper scientific writing will rely absolutely on an understanding of its basic terminology. The basic terminology will be that terminology without the employment of which proper writing on the subject is seriously impeded if not made impractical. At the same time, proper scientific writing will employ terms which are not central to an understanding of the topic and whose meaning can be imperfectly understood without seriously impairing comprehension of the topic. This is not true of all the terms that such writing will employ. Readers will determine from their understanding which terms are key and which are secondary.

However, if the discussion is on the relative motion of cosmic bodies and the term parsec is employed frequently, the discussion will be imperfectly understood, if at all, if the term parsec is not fully understood. In reading of the relative motion of cosmic bodies, the term parsec is used to refer to distance between cosmic bodies and is the preferred term used by astronomers over the term light years, and, for that matter, astronomical units. I do not propose to examine the term light years and why parsec is the preferred term. My interest lies in the parsec as an example of a highly technical term which we might break down into its basic parts in an effort to fully grasp what is meant by the term. The basic parts will be those words and terms used in the definition of the term.

In seeking to fully understand the term parsec so that I could comfortably explain it to others, such as you, dear reader, it took the examination of a number of sources, each of which struggled to explain the term, before I realized that parsec is a contraction. It looks like a contraction, but none of the initial sources consulted said so. Sec is obviously short for second and the second in question is as in seconds of an arc, at that. To step back for a moment, a circle can divide into degrees, minutes and seconds. An angle subtended in seconds is a small angle indeed. How small? Well, if there are 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes to a degree and 60 seconds to a minute, then a second of an arc is 0.0003 degrees, to four decimal places. Par I eventually discovered is a contraction of parallelax.

Now, even before I go further, I am sure most readers will require a moment to refresh in their minds the meaning of parallelax, as I had to. Parallelax is perhaps the most difficult part of parsec to understand, so be encouraged. Once we are past that hurdle, we are on the home straight.

Parallelax describes the change in apparent position of an object, relative to its background, caused by a shift in position of the observer. If we are discussing an object in space, and the observer is viewing the object from earth, then, given any period of time, the position of the object will appear to have moved due to the motion of the earth. Other factors are involved but we will, just as good scientists do, ignore them for the purpose of simplicity. Still puzzling over parallelax? If I point out that our eyes, being a distance apart, employ parallelax to give a sense of depth, you will almost certainly grasp the concept.

A parsec, then, is defined as the distance subtended by one second with a base of one astronomical unit. Just for jollies, let’s point out that the distance subtended on such a basis is quite large, 206,265 AU. You can find far lengthier definitions. I know I did. Most often, though, the simplest is best.

Two curious things about the definition of the parsec I have employed. First of all, despite its name, its use in astronomy ignores the effect of parallelax since 206,265 AU is very much greater than 1 AU. We have heard this sort of argument before, when we were studying calculus. The second curious feature is a confounding one. While parsec is the preferred unit of measurement by astronomers, it is defined in terms of one of the non preferred units, the astronomical unit. Such paradoxes abound in science.

Of course, for us, the paradox is that by no stretch of the imagination, at least using my imagination, can we have any sense of what distance a single parsec is. An astronomical unit; yes, just about. And a light year, while not imaginable is, at least, comprehensible. This is a problem that popular science writers will grapple with in almost everything they write. We’ll leave them to grapple.

To return to where we started, and to bring the discussion to a close, the understanding of fiction, even the most, shall we say, difficult, is not limited to our comprehension of the text. We may not have penetrated the work to all its possible levels but we will have gained an understanding such that we can relay that understanding to others. Scientific writing, by contrast, of specialist scientific areas, putting aside papers which seek to convey data and findings, but staying with writing which seeks to convey the fundamental ideas, will frequently employ terms which are not readily explainable by the specialist, nor are they easily understood by others than those with years of training in, and knowledge of, the field. The challenge to the lay person to achieve even a modicum of understanding of such material is very great.

Filed under: Culture, , , , ,

Is Fast Food Style New Journalism Hazardous to Your Health?

The continued eating of fast food notoriously creates health problems. Here is a rather old report from the National Institutes of Health in the US:  Eating at Fast-food Restaurants More than Twice Per Week is Associated with Weight Gain.

Why do I mention fast food? Because I am going to suggest that the new journalism is the journalistic equivalent of fast food. Before we do so, allow me to digress for a moment.

In preparing for the present article, look at what I found. Wikileaks? More like Wikihole. At the present rate of digging we shall reach New Zealand around noon. Those of you who have been following my Wikileak posts will know that I have been pursuing the question of who Wikileaks gave access to in advance of the general release date of the Iraqi War Logs. I was researching the present article and did not expect to uncover more on the Wikileaks story.

You will see from the title of the following piece from Télé what I was actually looking for, and we will get to that later:

How OWNI and the French Helped Wikileaks Run the Iraqi War Logs.

In the paragraph after the introduction we have this sentence: “A dozen newspapers on five continents (including Le Monde), who received a preview of these documents, published excerpts.”

The French journalist’s (Antoine Mairé)  math is impressive. Beats the “several newspapers” of the English language sources I have explored so far. But I am missing three continents. Later in the article Mairé refers to the famous twelve again: “…and for the more traditional outets, the twelve newspapers, as previously mentioned, …”

A quick search of two of the usual suspects was conducted. A search of the site of the newspaper Japan Times reveals only the standard stories carried elsewhere at the final release of the Iraqi War Logs (October 22-23, 2010). The Times of India also does not appear to be one of the twelve. Its announcement of the release is a wireline report.

WikiLeaks releases 400,000 Iraq war logs, AP, Oct 23, 2010, 09.56am IST.

The report of the newspapers given prior access to the Iraqi War Logs is the same as we have seen elsewhere: “WikiLeaks said it provided unredacted versions of the reports weeks ahead of time to several news organizations, including the New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. It gave The Associated Press and several other news organizations access to a searchable, redacted database hours before its general release on Friday.”

To return to our main topic, there are a number of ways to refer to the kind of journalism I am speaking of: new journalism, online journalism, digital journalism. I want to contrast the new journalism with the old.

The new journalism has a distinct style which can be readily seen in the example from the BBC (The lead US story 11/19/2010  from the BBC website).

The story has an introductory paragraph which summarizes the whole story.  The story is then expanded in single sentences, each on a line of its own.

Each sentence is standalone. That is to say, the reader can break off at any point. Each sentence is a topic sentence and no subsequent sentence expands on a previous sentence. The story is told through essentially a series of bulleted item points.

Contrast this with a traditional newspaper’s, even in its online presence, handling of a story (Lead story 11/19/2010 from the New York Times online edition ). The differences are pronounced.

There is no story summary by way of introduction. Instead the story is properly introduced in the opening paragraph. The story is fully developed in a series of six or seven paragraphs, or more. Subsequent paragraphs have topic sentences followed by sentences which then expand on the topic.

Notice that the BBC web page is designed to fit into a single view on the computer screen. The NYT article. despite being on the web requires a scroll down to view the lower half of the story. The story is then continued on a second page, which in turn requires a scroll down to complete the reading of the article.  The NYT is aware of the posibilities of the web, since a sidebar multimediaon the story is offered.

My contention is this: just as fast food is dangerous for the body, is the new fast food journalism dangerous for the mind? Just as fast food may lead to overweight or fat bodies, will fast food journalism lead to skinny minds, to an inability to develop ideas.

The problem with the single sentence paragraph is that ideas are not developed. Context is lacking and background is reduced to a simple statement.

The new journalism reports in terms of sketches. Traditional journalism gives a fuller more developed picture. Often, in the traditional sources, there will be analysis and comment on particular stories so that  the impact of the story can be more thoughtfully be developed. The new journalism is totally lacking in these.

Filed under: Culture, , ,

So Who Else Had Prior Access to Wikileaks’ Iraqi War Data?

Never ending trail this. I suppose there is a definitive source somewhere that lists all of the entities that Wkileaks gave prior access to the Iraqi War Logs.

I refer of course to my post of November 3, 2010: Who Had Prior Access to Wikileaks’ Iraqi War Data?

Thumbing through I guess what is a favourite news source, the Guardian of London (now that the BBC have dumbed down their news pages), I idly clicked on their Wikileaks button. Scanning their list of stories, one datelined Thursday 28 October 2010, caught my eye:

Iraq war logs: media reaction around the world – How the media around the globe have been covering the WikiLeaks revelations, and which parts they are focusing on

It was not the headline in particular that caught my attention, but the reporting team: Martin Chulov in Baghdad, Chris McGreal in Washington, Lars Eriksen in Copenhagen and Tom Kington in Rome.

Rome, Baghdad, Washington looked innocuous enough. But Copenhagen. Copenhagen! Scanning through the article, I reach a section headed Denmark.

Ah. What have we here? Nestled three paragraphs into the article, we have:

“The newspaper (Dagbladet ) is one of a small number of media organisations, including the Guardian, which were given access to almost 400,000 secret US army reports released by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.”

We are back to journalistic arithmetic: “small number of media organisations.” Let’s not count Iraq Body Count, let’s not include OWNI. So we have NYT, Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Dagbladet, BBC, Swedish Television, Channel 4, and Al Jazeera in English.  Oh and BFIJ. I count 9.

Let’s have a look now at the Wikileaks site and see if we can find anything there. There are two areas devoted to the Iraqi War Logs: Diary Dig and War Logs. OWNI designed the War Logs software. Personally, I don’t much care for the interface. The interface suggests online war games and that may be deliberate. It seems to me to depersonalize the tragedy associated with the whole set of Iraq war reports.

Diary Dig I am not familiar with. We may take  a look it later. Digging through the Wikileak web pages, we find  Press Release. Took a few pages to find it for it is not on the menu of every page. The release is long and densely written.  I am going to print it off because it is too long for web viewing.

It is quite unlike any press release I have seen. Six paragraphs of closely typed text followed by about 40 answers to what they refer to as FAQ. I think they mean: “Answers to questions we anticipate being asked.” Let’s skip all of it and go to the bit we are interested in.

The press release in fact mentions only three newspapers. Neither Le Monde or Dagbladet are there, nor is there mention of any of the television stations. Here is the paragraph is full:

“Iraq Body Count –  Public Interest Lawyers  –  Bureau of Investigative Journalism –  The Guardian  Der Spiegel  The New York Times –”

One new name: Public Interest Lawyers cannot be considered a media outlet and their role is mentioned in the previous paragraph to one quoted above.

The next question to ask is this:

How will the release of both the Afghan and Iraqi War documents affect the future conduct of war by the likes of the Americans and their allies?

And an inevitable sister question that has me sick in my stomach to ask:

What addional steps will governments (US and others) take to control the release (and holding of) war zone information?

Filed under: Culture, , , ,

Well Known International Book Prize Announces Its Long List

Long list for fiction prize just announced?  By whom?  Well known?

Pulitzer?  National Book Award for Fiction?  Man Booker?  Orange Prize?  The Governor General of Canada’s Award for Literature?

If you guessed any of these, you were wrong?  At 100,000 Euro ($135,840 at today’s exchange rate) for first prize the award is not to be sneezed at.

You lovers of translated literature know the answer.  The IMPAC Dublin prize, to which libraries from all over the world nominate a work of fiction in English (original language or translated).  The long list was announced today for the 2011 award.

Why are we lovers of translated fiction excited?

Because of 15 previous winners, 7 have been translated works. Of the 162 works in the longlist for the 2011 award, 26% are translations.

It is worth looking at past winners because there are some favourite authors in there.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
(Dutch), translated by David Colmer; Vintage UK, Archipelago Books, US

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
(Norwegian), translated by Anne Born; Vintage, UK, Picador, US

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
(Moroccan) translated by Linda Coverdale; Penguin, US and UK

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
(Turkish) translated by Erdag M. Göknar; Everyman, US, Faber and Faber, UK

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
(French), translated by Frank Wynne; Vintage US and UK

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller
(Romanian), translated from German by Michael Hofmann; Picador US and UK

A Heart So White by Javier Marías
(Spanish), translated by Margaret Jull Costa; New Directions, US, Vintage, UK

How many of you don’t have at least one favourite work/author is this list?

Final question for now. How many of you don’t already own every title?  OK, the forfeit – remedy immediately by purchasing the missing title(s).

New to all this?  I’ll let you off.  Go off now and purchase at least one title from the list, go home and read.  You won’t regret it.

They are all worth reading. Not all of them are to everybody’s taste, to be sure.  But that could never be. Nor should be.

posted November 15, 2010 on Goodreads > Lost In Translation

«Écoutez, vous coquins du monde anglophone, ce mal avez-vous été jusqu’à aujourd’hui?»

«Aucun, vraiment!»

«Nous ne vous crois pas. Avouez.»

«Oh, très bien. Nous avons lu quelques nouvelles aujourd’hui que tout nous a plu.»

«Et qu’est-ce que c’était?»

«Eh bien, nous lisons que de 2011 IMPAC Dublin longue liste pour l’attribution de fiction a été annoncé.» (Langue n’est pas une barrière que longlist Impac Dublin prix prend sur le monde)

«Bah, l’attribution de la fiction en langue anglaise. Pourquoi devrait être nous être intéressés à ce sujet?» feignant un bâillement.

«C’est très intéressant. De 162 écrivains dans la longue liste, il ya un peu plus d’un quart qui sont traduits en anglais.»


«Et de ce nombre, 11 sont des écrivains français. Deux fois plus que toute autre langue. Espagnol était à côté de 6.»

«Ils seraient, n’est-ce pas. Quelqu’un que nous connaissons?»

«Hélène Cixous, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Ben Tahar.Jelloun.»

«Ben Jelloun ne va pas gagner. Il a gagné auparavant. Nous entendons de Dan Brown sur la liste. Qui lui a proposé?»

«Les Maldives, en Grèce. Bien sûr, nous savons pourquoi vous avez fait si bien. Les bibliothèques participantes français désigné qu’un seul titre non-français.»

«Nous voyons. Et où était-il du?»


«Donc, Brouillons vous, ce que vous êtes à aujourd’hui?»

Posted November 15, 2010 in Belgium at où à ?

Filed under: Arts, , ,

For Whom Is South Africa the Home Country?

Is the title question even a valid question? Let’s try and find out.

When I was just a year old, I was moved by my parents from my birthplace, Birkenhead, Cheshire in England, to Fife, in Scotland, and from there to Edinburgh, where I had my schooling. The years immediately after WW2 were difficult years for many Britons. My father had just been demobbed from the British Army, and jobs and housing were scarce. I have wrestled ever since as to whether I am English or Scottish (Scotland threatens rather emptily from time to time to declare sovereignty. Thank Heavens there is little reality to the threat.)

I have settled in recent years to declaring, in response the question, “Where are you from?” that I was brought up in Edinburgh. That resonates nicely with most people.

I have not resided in the United Kingdom since 1972. So, where is home? For me, home is where I live. Duidelike en envoudige, ja?

Anthony Lekhuwana in a piece entitled “SA, a Place I Call Home,” in Thought Leader, at the Mail and Guardian Online, Thursday, November 11th, 2010, raises this issue tangentially. Stating that he does not intend to leave South Africa, he says, “I love my country and intend to stay and fight for this country and to make it a better place …”  He closes a fine piece of writing by making an exhortation, “Will the real South Africans please stand up and make South Africa a place where all will feel proud to call home.

His touching upon the subject of “home,” in a South African context, brought to the forefront of my mind a column I read a couple of months back in the London Guardian. Something said in the Guardian‘s Letter from Africa: Johannesburg literary festival revived, had me tuck the topic into the back of my head, meaning in the future to explore it further.

David Smith’s “Letter from Africa” explained how, after ten years, a literary festival in a country suffering high illiteracy rates came to be reborn. In the course of his letter, he says:

“The following day, questions about identity and indigeneity were at the centre of debate. Curiously, Rian Malan, arguably the most gifted non-fiction writer in South Africa today, was relegated to a seat in the audience and could later be seen pursuing his other artistic talent, the guitar.

“The author Kevin Bloom recalled a Sunday afternoon in Soweto with a group of volunteers, one of whom opened up about how his mother was dying from Aids.

“Bloom recalled: ‘We stopped walking and he cried a bit. And then he looked at me and said, “When are you going back to your country? It remains the most profound thing that has happened to me ever as a journalist in this country, because I lived 15km away from him and so much is asked in that question. What is the notion of home? How do we explain home to ourselves in the context of that question? On the deepest level, certainly for people of my generation, “When are you going back to your country?”  is one of the most profound questions about the concept of home.’ “

I did not, at the time of reading the article, know who Kevin Bloom is, what his background is, or where he is from, thinking that, when I returned to the question, I would find out. Others with whom I discussed the article said to me that he must be British. I kept an open mind.

Why does it matter? Well, if he was speaking as someone from Britain, that gives the question one slant. If he was speaking as a South African, then the question he was asked is much more interesting.

Not only is David Bloom South African, as is well known to the South Africans among my readers, since he has reported well and deeply on the country, but he has explored the question of “what is home?”, “where is home?” more closely than most of us. Rather than simply thinking about it, which is the resort to which most of us, myself included, would retreat, he went out into the heartlands of South Africa and duly reported his findings in his book, Ways of Staying, published in April, 2010.

So, when Kevin Bloom reported from the Mail and Guardian‘s Johannesburg Literary Festival, September 3 to 5, 2010, of the question he had received from one of the volunteers that Sunday afternoon in Soweto, we are not told what his reply was, if any. Did the question come before or after writing the book?

If the question came after writing the book, then, were it me who was the recipient of the question, I have to say I would have been poleaxed. If this is the case, one begins to understand Kevin Bloom’s response.

Whether I can bring more light than noise to this issue, I don’t know. I think the shortest answer is the following: Expressed at its simplest level, the man asking the question of Kevin Bloom lives in one world and Kevin, me, and, perhaps without exception, all of you reading this post, live in a different world.

Of course, I cannot hope, nor do I pretend, to know what the man intended by his question. I can only surmise, as I think did Kevin Bloom.

At the time of the London Guardian‘s report, I exchanged a number of emails with friends discussing various issues that David Bloom’s “Letter from Africa” raised. (If you care to look at the report, you will very quickly spot at least one of those issues.) In one of those emails, I made the following observations:

Christopher Hampton has done post war theatre in English an enormous service: you know him from his translations of, among many, many others, Les liaisons dangereuses.

Long before he got into translations, he was a playwright in his own right. A favourite with me is Savages (1974). You may have seen a performance.

Anyway, there is a passage in that play that I am particularly fond of. So much so, that I have used it as an audition piece. The central character is an anthropologist, and, at one point in the play, he tells of how he had spent time in the Amazon with a tribe who owned nothing, nothing, not a stick nor a stitch. He had been staying with them and studying them. First rule in on-site anthropology: learn the language. Anyway, he tells his listeners – and us – that it came time for him to leave them to return home for a couple of months, and on the final night, he, as usual, is going to sleep in his sleeping bag, and they are a little way off, in a circle, feet towards the fire.

He hears them crying. He gets up, and goes over to them. “Don’t cry”, he tells them, “don’t cry because I am leaving, I shall be back.”

One of them responds, “We are not crying because you are leaving, we are crying because you can.”

(Due to a reordering of my bookshelves, I am unable to lay my hands on my copy of Savages to check the accuracy of my quotation. Comment if you feel compelled to correct me.)

I hasten to add that I do not attempt to draw too much of a parallel between Kevin Bloom’s questioner and Christopher Hampton’s South American tribe. What strikes me, though, is this:

In the present world, no matter where you live, to play a cliche, the world is your oyster. This is so obvious that it needs to be elaborated on for us to appreciate that there are still two worlds. A world inhabited by those for whom this is true, and a world inhabited by those for whom it is not.

Take an example learned of through a friend here in the United States. Some time following his bereavement, after a lifetime marriage, he met a middle aged Chinese woman and married her.

When the woman arrived here in the United States, some years ago, she spoke no English. She worked in an endless series of Chinese restaurants to pay for her attendance at the local university, and eventually gained a degree in Computer Science. I am telescoping the story in the sense that I don’t know how long the process took. It is important to note, nevertheless, that the woman, despite not speaking English, arrived here, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, gained in China. She occupies the same world as does Kevin Bloom and myself, and, for those of my readers for whom opportunities also abound. Opportunities exist for us far beyond the borders of the country in which we were born.

I suggest, and it can only be a suggestion, for I don’t know, that, for the man asking the question of David Bloom, there exist for him few opportunities in his own neighborhood, never mind beyond that.

Now, opportunities come in various forms. I do not know of the present situation, but when I lived in South Africa, the mines in the Witwatersrand were populated with people from other parts of Africa, including those bordering South Africa. I do not know the present working conditions in those mines, but I do not wish upon anybody the opportunity that the mines then afforded in terms of working conditions.

It is possible, and a possibility only, that what the questioner of David Bloom was expressing was of a desire for a simpler life. That if the David Blooms of this world were removed from the landscape of South Africa, with all the complexities of life that such people, regardless of colour, bring, then a return to a simpler life might be possible.

If indeed David Bloom’s interlocutor had this view in mind, then I would have to fall mute in the face of such a question. I fall mute now at the prospect of it. My pain is very great with my muteness. For I sincerely wish it were possible for that man to have his simpler life. But it is not. Wishing away the Kevin Blooms of this world will not bring him such a life.

For, in 2010, were all those South Africans, for whom it were possible, of whatever colour, to leave tomorrow, I fear that living in the land that was left is too awful a prospect to contemplate.

I cannot leave it at than. I cannot. Were David Bloom’s questioner to be among my readers he might too easily misunderstand me.

What we have everywhere in the world is not simply the result of colonialism. Though, that, to a great extent, is absolutely true. What we have cannot simply be described as the Western way of life, though that is where it originated. What we have is a way of life that is being adopted in every corner of the globe. It is being adopted and adapted in places, regardless of religion, culture, background, skin colour.

The simplest term with which to describe it is as a consumerist society. The pursuit of material comfort. No country anywhere seems exempt from its charms. If one views North Korea as one of several possible exceptions, then that only serve to show the rule.

However one views this world, one has to acknowledge that its rise is unstoppable. It may not, in anything other than the shortest of terms, be sustainable, but, for sure, it is irreversible. There is no going back. What results, after we have cooked the planet, I am sure some of us, presently living, are going to find out.

Once again, muteness descends upon me. What am I to say to such a man as my imagined interlocutor? My compassion and my humility render me speechless. Nothing said to such a man, or woman, matters, only action.

But were I politician, I would have to have an answer. I would have to say, were I a politician, bound as I would be to do something about such conditions, “I may not be able to do much for you, my friend, but I shall strive with all my heart to make sure that your children have better opportunities than you presently have.”

So I answer Anthony Lekhuwana’s exhortation with a question: Does South Africa have those politicians? Does it have any like that?

But I can’t leave it at that. What about me, what can I do?

While I lived in South Africa, I wrote a song, the chorus of which went as follows;

Somewhere there’s a place for us, somewhere there’s a place for you and me …
Somewhere there’s a place for us, somewhere where we can feel a tiny bit free.

I can help fight for the freedom that gives my imagined enquirer of David Bloom the opportunity he craves. And my imagined response to my imagined enquirer, for I cannot imagine David Bloom’s response, were he to give one, only he can do that, would be, “This is my country. When is now. I live here. And here I intend to stay.” As David Bloom has, in fact, done. And I would remind my questioner that, among the freedom fighters, those who fought for Azania, for a free South Africa, were blacks, coloureds, Indians, Malays, Khoikhoi, whites. “South Africa belongs to all of them, to all of us,” I would tell him, “This is my country, this is your country, this is our country.”

Filed under: Culture

Blog Top Sites

Previous Posts


November 2010

Top Rated