Sunday 28 November 2010

Of Snow and Turkeys

We woke to a fairy dust of early snow and plenty of ice yesterday morning -

 ... just a taster of what's to come, apparently, as it spreads down from the north of the country, already deep in snow - see here - (my Scots lassie buried in white stuff! - here)

By late afternoon it had vanished, in time for a Thanksgiving celebration with American friends who live in nearby farmland

(And grateful we were that the snow had melted, having been stuck more than once on these steep country lanes)

Lighted windows and open fires invited us inside from below-freezing temperatures.

It's all about abundance, harvest, friends, counting your blessings and indulging in a jolly pig-out ...

And with vegan tofu-turkey -

- and Turkey-Buddha bestowing his blessings 

how could we not feel thankful?

Wednesday 24 November 2010

An English Education

Today across Britain people gave vent to their anger ...

 ... in mass demonstrations by students, academics, parents and school children

... over plans for massive cuts to higher education budgets,  the scrapping of government aid to students in the form of the education maintenance allowance,  and tripling university tuition fees ...


... by a coalition government comprised of a party that failed to win a clear majority and a party that lied and reneged on its election promise to do none of these things



and who appear bent on burying the notion of universally accessible higher education and returning universities to the preserve of the privileged.






Photo source:

Thursday 11 November 2010

José Saramago

Having just finished reading Portuguese author José Saramago’s Seeing (see here), I was moved to brush up on my sketchy knowledge of the writer (and struck by a series of related incidents).

Saramago, who died in June this year, was known for his political activism as much as for being a Nobel prize winning author. As a committed communist and atheist, his views were bound to rub some people up the wrong way, but what comes through most strongly to me in his writing as well as interviews with him (see here and here for example) is humanity and compassion. These are a few of the events of his life and opinions I found interesting …

Born into relative poverty and sent to a technical school to become a mechanic, he was largely self-taught through his own reading in public libraries, acquiring the skills, incredibly, to translate French and German classics and ultimately become deputy editor of Portugal’s daily newspaper Diario de Noticias.

With Pilar del Rio, his Spanish journalist wife, who he described as "my home ... I see our relationship as a love story that has no need of being turned into a book"

He was a life-long member of the Communist party, which he joined  at a time when (under the Salazar dictatorship) this was a risky and dangerous business. I liked his description of himself as “a hormonal communist - just as there's a hormone that makes my beard grow every day. I don't make excuses for what communist regimes have done … but … I've found nothing better." Carlos Reis (rector of Portugal’s Open University) felt Saramago “lives his communism mostly as a spiritual condition - philosophical and moral” – a  turn of phrase that might confound his religious critics but makes perfect sense considering the beliefs that drove him …

… on human cruelty: “Man invented cruelty. Animals do not torture each other, but we do. We are the only cruel beings on this planet. These observations lead me to the following question, which I believe is perfectly legitimate: if we are cruel, how can we continue to say that we are rational beings? … This is an ethical issue that I feel must be discussed, and it is for this reason that I am less and less interested in discussing literature.”

 “I am a pessimist, but not so much so that I would shoot myself in the head”

… On Blindness (made into a film by Fernando Mereilles in 2008) and Seeing: “Blindness is a metaphor for the blindness of human reason. This is a blindness that permits us, without any conflict, to send a craft to Mars to examine rock formations on that planet while at the same time allowing millions of human beings to starve on this planet. Either we are blind, or we are mad.”

Magritte: The Son of Man

Saramago used his raised stature following the Nobel prize to engage more actively in the world political arena. A review of his political blog noted that Saramago aimed to ”cut through the web of "organized lies" surrounding humanity”. He spoke of globalization and the increasing power of multinational corporations as the new totalitarianism. His Blindness was a metaphor for the way richer nations pursue ever greater wealth to the continuing impoverishment of the poor, while the abject failure of democracy to staunch this process was the underlying theme of Seeing.

And as a footnote:

Seeing explores what might happen if voters give up the pretence that the electoral system gives them a choice worth making, by casting blank votes. Events of the last few months in Britain have caused echoes of Saramago’s ‘universal liars’ to ring in my ears. Yesterday, tens of thousands of students demonstrated in London (see here and here), attacking the Conservative party headquarters, against further cuts to higher education and moves to raise fees to unprecedented levels ...

with the implication that:

“The notion that higher education is open to all, regardless of class, has become a quaint, amusing, historic fiction. The idea that it is possible for children of intelligence and imagination to compete with the offspring of the wealthy on an even vaguely level playing field has finally been buried.”

Here’s what one commenter wrote, after describing his sense of betrayal over the Lib Dems’ reneging on their ‘solemn promise’ in this regard:

“All I can say is that like so many before me – hence the falling turnout at general elections – I have finally come to the conclusion that no politician will actually do what he or she says they will do, however much they may tell you beforehand that they will. The party political system of government is inherently flawed and cannot deliver what voters want of it. I now have a lifetime of political cynicism ahead of me. I only hope that come general election time I can muster the enthusiasm to visit the polling station to scribble "None of the above" on my ballot paper.”

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Young girls are for pickling

This was too good not to put out there. Daughter the Younger was somewhat alarmed to see this sign while on a school trip to Blists Hill Victorian town in Shropshire.

I am happy to report that she escaped being pickled and bottled and is safely home.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Gunpowder, treason and plot: Bonfire night in England

Bomb plots, religious extremists, figures of hate? Nothing new about that in England. But when it's all wrapped up with roasted bangers and chestnuts and a spot of fireworks, it seems quite benign - a bit of family fun rather than a metaphor for religious intolerance.

Last night we joined the people of Cookham Dean Village in Berkshire for the annual burning of not just one guy, but quite a few, on this pyre on the village green.

These guys were made, following longstanding tradition, by local school children. Though it seems the tradition of dragging them around the neighbourhood on wheeled carts shouting "A penny for the guy!" (which I remember from childhood days in London) is over.

Observe the resemblance! This one below is practically the spitting image of Guido himself!

Fawkes was not actually the leader of the gang of Catholic conspirators who, fed up with continued oppression of their faith, plotted to blow up both King and parliament on the 6th November 1605. He was the powdermonkey, the explosives man, and therefore the one unlucky enough to be caught in the cellars under Parliament the night before (5th November), waiting to detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder.

King James I responded by cracking down even harder with the anti-Catholic measures and apparently decreed that all loyal (read Protestant) subjects should celebrate by lighting bonfires every year on the anniversary of the foiled plot. No, I don't quite follow the logic of that last bit either, but it must have seemed a good opportunity to give vent to fear and prejudice by burning effigies of the Pope or, in more recent history, Guy himself.

More than that, the date happened to tie in quite neatly with All Hallows Eve (Hallowe'en) and the much older Celtic festival of Samhuin (still celebrated in Scotland - read here) marking the chasing out of summer by winter at the start of November, in which bonfires played a big part.

The area around the village of Cookham Dean was settled 4000 years ago. Successively, Celts, Romans, Saxons and Vikings have made their lives here, so no doubt all of these rites have played out on or around this green for millennia. It appears in the Domesday book of 1086 as Cocheham (containing '32 villagers, 21 cottagers, 4 slaves, 2 mills, 2 fisheries and woodland at 100 pigs'). 

This is also the site of the Wind in the Willows:  Kenneth Grahame lived and wrote here, inspired by the Thames at Cookham to  enjoy nothing better, like Ratty, than 'simply messing about in boats', while the adjoining Quarry Wood in Bisham was the original Wild Wood.

As the guys went up in flames one by one, the fireworks started, lighting up the sky for miles around with pyrotechnic colours.

Whether or not one harbours either pagan or anti-Papist sentiments, we set the clocks back on 31st October, bringing suddenly darker evenings and the prospect of increasingly longer nights. There's something about fire - the warmth and comfort, driving out of darkness - that has undeniable appeal at this time of year.
Happy bonfire season to one and all...

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