Friday, November 27, 2009

The Peating of My Heart

The Peating of My Heart

It’s a lonely thing,
The sudden silence.
Birth waters still; settling.
But, listen to the resonance
In the furrowing,
Where the whispering dead-wood
And deep-shadow crawling
To the peating of my heart.

(For Michael's recently deceased mother, and mine, 21st May 2001)

From Beneath the Faery Dew

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Executions – Gibbets, Guillotines and Henry Gillettes

Thierry Henry hiding behind a beard.

I love the notion, indeed the expectation, of any genuine sporting contest. It does not matter what the sport is as long as there is a genuine willingness to play fairly to the best of one’s ability. A naïve aspiration no doubt but I’ll hang in there. The soccer World Cup second-leg qualification play-off match between France and Ireland last Wednesday has left a bitter-sweet taste in many spectators mouths. Not the match per say, as it was the best soccer match I have watched Ireland being involved in for many years, but the nature of its conclusion. Thierry Henry pulling behind Ireland’s last defender, who to be fair should have done better to cover the run, controlled the ball twice with his left hand to prevent it going out of play and then with a flick of his right foot crossed for William Gallas to head home the goal from a short distance. An instant in time but in that instant Henry has achieved an infamy and it is a moment he will always be remembered for.

All sportsmen cheat, whether a little or a lot, to gain an advantage. Some call it bending the rules, gamesmanship, taking advantage of lax officialdom whatever. The pressure on professional sportsmen in particular is enormous (the French team were on a reported €400,000 bonus to qualify for South Africa) and also on referees. I was a rugby referee for 25 years and although serious and usually repetitive ‘cheaters’ were found out many, many players are coached from a young age to creatively ‘explore’ the margins of what it is possible ‘to get away with’. Indeed for many this marginal behaviour is admired. In most professional sports however modern technology has allowed the development of oversight techniques, which are called into use when a ‘critical incident’ would have a bearing on the outcome of a contest or an event. FIFA, the world governing body, will now have to seriously consider television official replays for any incident within the penalty box that leads to or denies a score.

On a tangential note, I also believe we have found a new type of French execution to replace Madame Guillotine: the Monsieur Henry Gillette; being a double-tap drop movement of the executioner’s arm. I also wonder as a result whether the Gillette company (part of Proctor&Gamble) will ease Thierry Henry from its ad campaigns for razors from the company of two acknowledged ‘true’ sportsmen in Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Almost certainly his sleight of hand will result in some sort of ‘guillotine’ motion at the next company AGM!

The Tarot card for the Thief

The Guillotine of French Revolution fame, named after the Professor of Anatomy in Paris who was on the commissioning committee, was a direct descendant of the Halifax Gibbet in use in Halifax, Yorkshire from as early as the 12th Century. Gibbets were primarily structures used for hanging dead bodies (sometimes in cages) for public display. The Halifax Gibbet was much more pro-active than this. Statutes going back to the time of King Philip and Queen Mary state:

“That if a felon be taken within their liberty, with goods stolen out or within the liberty or precincts of the said forest, either Hand-habend, Back-berand, or confess and cloth, or any other commodity of the value of thirteen-pence half penny, that they shall, after three markets, or meeting days, within the town of Halifax, next after such his apprehension, and being condemned, he shall be taken to the Gibbet, and there have his head cut off his body.”

Hand-habend is an archaic way of describing a suspect “having his hand in, or being caught in the very act of stealing” aka Monsieur Thierry Henry.

Russian Constitutional Court

On a more positive note the Russian Constitutional Court, the morning after the match, upheld an indefinite moratorium on the re-introduction of the death penalty which was due to run out next January when Chechnya becomes the final republic to introduce jury trials; the universal availability/absence of jury trials being the legal reason for the moratoriums introduction in the first place in 1999. That just leaves Belarus as the last country in Europe where the death penalty is still available as a sanction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Teddy Bears’ Picnic


A short whimsical blog. I suited up this morning (papoosed ) to take young grandson Leon and our dog across the tidal flats to the woods on the far side of the inlet that we live on. I know that aging has various effects, young Leon is quite light, but the presence of a papoose on my chest began to exercise muscles – and memories – of days gone by.

On the physical side alone one change those years have wrought is that there is now a reliance on needing to see where you place your feet, particularly when descending (where once rhythm and an innate ability to regain balance existed, and I am not just talking about dancing), and the papoose makes this impossible. Making my way down to the seashore on a slippery decline that is negotiated weekly without too much concern suddenly became a major hazard to the health of young Leon, and thoughts of having to explain any injuries to his parents rattled in my brain.

Young Leon and the Bears

On the mental side, the woods when reached also brought home the other changes of aging: being unable to recall the exact words of the nursery rhymes you had heard as a child and also sang (frightened!) to your own children. On a beautiful late Autumnal day I launched into Leon’s right ear Teddy Bears’ Picnic but for the life of me could not remember the fourth and fifth lines. The poor child is now probably scarred for life by the incoherent rendering.

The Words

Teddys’ Bear picnic, composed originally as instrumental music by John Walter Batton achieved its greatest fame when lyrics were written by Northern Ireland songwriter Jimmy Kennedy (of Red Sails in the Sunset fame) in 1932 and sung by Val Rosling.

I have always loved the song, even if the bears escape me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rihla (Journey 10): Australia – Nostalgia, Bitumen and Avoidance-Language

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about Wilpena Pound, Australia.

The 25th November is the anniversary of the birth of John Flynn in Moliagul, Victoria, Australia. John who? The Rev John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister was the founder of the A.I.M Aerial Medical Service in 1928, which subsequently evolved into the Australian Aerial Medical Service in 1934, the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and ultimately the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955. John Flynn died of cancer in 1950.

The first aerial medical service took off from Cloncurry, Queensland in a fabric De Havilland bi-plane on the 15th May 1928 to be greeted by 100 people 85 miles away in Julia Creek. In the year up to the 30 June 2009 the RFDS flew 24,000,000 km, serviced approximately 247,000 patients and conducted nearly 37,000 medical emergency evacuations or about 100 evacuations a day across Australia.

With the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1989
(That's me in the shorts like any good colonial)

This is where my nostalgia comes in. Between 1989 and January 1991 I was based in Adelaide, South Australia in the Queen Victoria Hospital (sadly no more) and was one of the on call-obstetrician/neonatologists for the evacuation of maternity and neonatal patients to Adelaide from places as far away as Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Broken Hill in Victoria. The on-call air service rotated between the St John’s Ambulance air wing and the RFDS and the calls could come at any time, day or night. Night evacuations in particular were an extremely nerve racking experience as you dropped out of a perfectly beautiful, star-filled sky to land on uneven packed earth airstrip in an Aboriginal homeland. I always feared that one of the many feral camels that roam in central Australia would choose that particular moment to cross the strip and I admired greatly the skill of the pilots and their sang-froid.

Australia is a beautiful country inhabited by probably the most hospitable and welcoming people on this planet. It is however a coastal strip of sunshine development and opportunity surrounding an inner land and islands where some 400 Aboriginal peoples (2.6% of Australia’s population) often live in dire poverty and neglect. I had never medically encountered syphilis or leprosy or terminal T.B. until flying into some of these homelands with the RFDS and some of the encounters still haunt.

Many Aboriginal groups have a well-developed Avoidance-Language when in the company of taboo relatives. It often struck me when I was there that there was an even greater use of Avoidance-Language on the part of white (of settler and convict origin) Australian officialdom when confronted with the taboo subject of Aboriginal rights. Things have significantly improved in the last 20 years but there is still some way to go.

In any event the RFDS is a service to be admired and supported. On the 16 November tickets go on sale for one of the most spectacular charity events (far better than the Rose Ball in Monte Carlo) you are ever likely to attend. It takes place in Wilpena Pound in February 2010 in aid of the RFDS. The Pound is a natural amphitheatre in the Flinder’s Range at the end of the ‘bitumen’ (sealed road) 429 kilometers from Adelaide. The black tie event with dinner and starlight and music and dance announced by the sunset is to….is to know you breathe.

An Abandoned Homestead near Wilpena Pound, South Australia.

And in the sky somewhere that night an RFDS team is evacuating and saving a life, a family, a community beyond the bitumen.

Further Information:

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Revolutions, Game Theory and the Bottom Line

An Old Door in Yazd, Iran showing old-style communication.
A genderised communication with differing shaped knockers giving a
different sound to announce a male or female visitor.

On the 27th September 2009 the Iranian Government sold a majority stake in the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) to a consortium comprising Tose’e Etemad (46%), Shahriar Mahestan (8%) and Mobin Electronic Development Company (46%) for $7.9billion (20% immediately and the remaining 80% over 8 years with interest). There has been some disquiet expressed about the nature of the bidding process (Mobin is a private joint stock company one of whose directors, Younes Bakhshmandi was deputy chairman of TCI) but also accusations of collusion between the consortium and the Sepāh e Pāsdārān e Enqelāb e Eslāmi or the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRG or IRGC).

A spice-bowel in the market in Yazd, Iran.
The many layers of Iranian society

The IRGC dominates the huge military-economic nexus that now exists in Iran and has established multiple commercial companies to exert and maintain this control at a boardroom level, a strangulation if differing in tactics does not differ in intent from the brutal strong-arm thuggery employed by the IRGCcompany workers’ against protesting citizen ‘dissident stakeholders’ on the streets of Iran in recent times. The IRGC is currently commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, originally from Yazd.

I find the IRGC’s cynical pragmatism both fascinating and depressing. It is one of Iran’s main contentions that the rapacious greed and interests of the large players are driving American involvement in the Middle East and points to the USA’s military-economic nexus political involvement in companies such as Halliburton (Dick Cheney was CEO from 1995 to 2000). There is some truth in this and President Ahmadinejad has been vociferous in his condemnation of these interests and predicted the demise of their influence. He stated in 2008 in a speech the UN that:

"The American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders."

And yet Iran is supporting a similar development of a powerful military-economic self-interest block. Is this of concern?

I am not, nor do I pretend to be, a political analyst but obviously, to any sane observer, control of the major telecommunication delivery networks allows inherent suppression and censorship but equally facilitates the transfer of political power, or the taking of it. And with this latest acquisition this is a distinct possibility in Iran. If the analysts are right and the successful consortium is linked to the Jafari-controlled IRGC then it is just a question of time. The theocracy is waning, its lifeblood, a dependence on popular support for its religion-based policies and a distaste for the demands of Mammon, spilling. And in the wings is an electronically savvy Mammon dressed in Kevlar patiently waiting to take control. And a return to a military dictatorship. And the days of the Shah?

The Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, Yazd, Iran
A redundant history?

I am not alone in this assessment. Recently I heard a radio interview with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He is the arch proponent of 'game theory' when applied to political developments and it was quite depressing to listen to him. He has no time for the conscious impact, for what I would have imagined to be important such as informative past historical input i.e. previous civilizations and regimes’ mistakes, successes, achievements etc. In de Mesquita’s assessment and game theory application past history is entirely redundant and really serves only to act as a validation of his predictions. Those predictions are entirely based on the self-interest of the ‘now’, the ‘players’ involved having no past just a present and a future. He has predicted that over the next four years, the theocracy and Ahmadinejad will be marginalized and that Jafari’s IRGC is the future, and will become along with the Bonyads (charitable trusts that control 20% of Iran's GDP) the major players in Iranian politics.

de Mesquita's 'game theory' prediction for regime change in Iran

Don’t call us, we’ll call you when the next revolution comes. And we’ll use your telephone credits to boot! And boot we will!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rihla (Journey 9): Bahamas – Abaco Beyond and Bones

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This one is about Abaco Island, Bahamas.

My First Bonefish
(Caught and released)

Things to do before you…. whatever! I recently had the precious opportunity of being able to satisfy my curiosity about two of these undone things – fly fishing (my brother Paul is an expert fly fisherman but I had never got around to it) and a visit to the Caribbean and the Bahamas in particular. I had always wanted to visit the small Bahamian island of San Salvador where Columbus landed first, or Eleuthera where one of the greatest travellers of them all, Rosita Forbes – my other great traveller heroine is Freya Stark – resided, or the capital Nassau on New Providence Island which was the hotbed home of the pirate heroes and heroines of my childhood: Blackbeard, Vane, Anne Bonny etc.

In the end I did not get to San Salvador or Eleuthera (another time if given half a chance) but did make it to Abaco where a friend of mine Peter Mantle has recently opened a fishing lodge dedicated to fly fishing, what are considered to be the best sports fish in the world, the bonefish.

The lodge, called Delphi-Bahamas at Rolling Harbour on the Southern coast of Abaco, is truly beautiful, and an oasis of elegance and charm that separates it spiritually and physically from all that is disheartening about modern beachside development in Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, the Caribbean, everywhere. I am acutely aware of the privilege afforded me but that said it is a place where even if you are not a fisherperson you will find respite and a place to replenish your soul.

Abaco (Ha-Bo-Ko-Wa in the Taino language of the original Lucayans meaning ‘large outer outlier' (island)) has an interesting if very recent history. It was colonised first between 500 and 800 C.E. by the Lucayan peoples, a branch of the Taino-speaking Arawak tribes of the Orinoco River delta. These gentle people who had first left their Orinoco home about 2100 B.C.E had been pushed ever northwards to island-hop by the more aggressive Carib tribes pressing behind. This gentleness was to cost them dear after the coming of the Spaniards in 1492 as most of the Bahamian islands were depopulated to provide slave labour for the development of Hispaniola and Cuba where they were to exterminated by disease and mal-treatment.

Abaco was then ignored for 100 years until the French tried to establish a colony there in 1595 (routed by the Spanish) and again in 1633 when the title of Baron des Bahamas was granted to Guilliame de Caen, a French Huguenot on condition he did not settle any of his fellow Huguenots there. It was the English however who were to establish permanent colonies, as a result of migration away from religious or political persecution, a dissent that was to always mark the islands future development. In 1647, seventy English settlers arrived on nearby Eleuthera from Bermuda and a second wave established on New Providence in 1650. By 1713 upwards of 1000 pirates (Teach, Vane, Bonney etc. were operating out of Nassau and the nearby islands such as Abaco until suppressed by the English navy and government under Woodes Rogers in 1718.

In 1783, following the Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of American War of Independence, 1458 loyalists and freed African-Americans from New York left to establish colonies in Abaco. The black migration of ‘freed men’ was undermined somewhat in that they were paired or indentured to a white migrant. By 1788 (the year of a black revolt against the indenture system) only 400 of these white settlers had remained on the island but were supplemented later by inward migration from Harbour Island nearby. This core group of white and black settlers were to remain intensely, if misguidedly, loyal to England to the extent that when the Bahamas was granted its independence in 1973 Abaco petitioned (unsuccessfully) the House of Lords in the UK to remain a crown protectorate. The island’s white people, particularly those associated with fishing and boat building still speak with a quaint early settler accent and pronunciation and derive much pleasure but little satisfaction in bemoaning the shortcomings of the central Bahamian government in Nassau.

Modern Abaco is laid back, a mixture of deep poverty in the shantytowns of recent Haitian migrants, and local pockets of prosperity bought about by the huge amount of money made and retained in the 1970’s when Abaco was a major staging post for South American cocaine transport to the US as well as the tourist infrastructural development. The people are polite and welcoming but the taxis are exorbitant. The only other place that comes close to the cost of taxis in proportion to the per capita income would be another island, Sicily. It reflects the enormous historical power the Taxi unions in the Bahamas wield because of their 1958 strike, which precipitated the beginning and ultimate achievement of Bahamian independence.

And back to Anne Bonny and the gynaecological connection! As I settled in the swing chair, waiting (pleading!) for dinner, I stared southwest towards Nassau and thought of her. Supposingly from my home county of Cork she became the mistress of a notorious pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, the designer of the ‘Jolly Roger’ flag of popular renown, until captured with another female pirate Mary Read with Rackham off Jamaica in 1720. Tried and found guilty they were both sentenced to be hung with the remainder of the crew until at that point of sentencing they suddenly pleaded with their bellies’ i.e that they were both pregnant. Under common law, following an inspection by matrons, if proven this allowed a reprieve of the intended sentence until the pregnancy was over. Mary Reed died in prison but Ann Bonny disappeared or was ransomed by her wealthy father never to be a pirate again.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

(The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that "Evidence provided by the descendants of Anne Bonny suggests that her father managed to secure her release from jail and bring her back to Charles Town, South Carolina, where she gave birth to Rackham's second child. On December 21, 1721 she married a local man, Joseph Burleigh, and they had eight children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty-two and was buried on April 25, 1782.")

In 1931 the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931 was enacted. Pregnant women were no longer to be hanged after giving birth and were given penal servitude instead. (Mary Ann Cotton became the last to suffer at Durham Castle on the 24th of March 1873, her baby being taken from her before execution).

Looking Southwest towards Nassau from 'the Chair'

Get to Abaco before you expire. Plead with your belly if you have to!