Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Seeing Double Seeing Double

A funnny thing happened to one of my daily reads today. The Independent newspaper went tabloid. Or, perhaps I should re-phrase that. Some of the Independent went tabloid in Londra, whilst nationwide, they're still a fine old broadsheet newspaper. They say they're the first in the world to go both ways. What a fine thing is schizophrenia.

Being a collector of ephemera (see Beta-Blogs passim) I got myself a copy of the new tabloid Indie of course, and must say I'm disappointed.

The Independent is a relative newcomer but a fine newspaper which set many trails blazing in the newspaper world. True to its name, the early Independendent started on a strong independent note, refusing to follow the norms of the established Fleet Street. It had a bold design, and against prevailing convention, refused to give prominence to stories about the Royal House. So the Queen or Princess Di may have coughed and sneezed, but the Indie remained generally unimpressed. They also refused to connive in what's known as lobby-briefings, I think, but later changed that for practical, journalistic reasons. This briefing is used by the establishment to put stories out to the world by briefing selected correspondents, and yet they're not responsible for them. The "I'm telling you this but you didn't hear it from me " school of news-mongering.

The Independent also revived the use of spectacular photographs to fill a page, sometimes across pages; a practice used to great effect by Harold Evans in the Sunday Times when the newspaper was still a great paper. But Murdoch put an end to that.

The new tabloid Independent has the same design as its daily broadsheet twin, but somehow I don't think the style does transfer into the compact form. For the style to be effective it needs an expansive host, but the tabloid version looks like an overcrowded house.

The Independent has also turned many newspaper conventions on their heads. Filling the front page with the full run of a strong story without using a prominent headline is another Independent innovation, though I think this is something it shares with another great newspaper here, The Guardian. Both the Independent and The Guardian have set many new standards in newspaper design. The latter, for instance, went against design-rules by mixing types (see its masthead) and was first laughed at, then widely copied. It also started using white space as a design statement. Something that the Independent (and other newspapers) followed to great effect.

We don't know if this new tabloid Independent will end as a foolish experiment, or will spread nationally as a bold alternative. Or perhaps, one day, Independent fashion will cross the channel and come up with a mini-broadsheet like Le Monde in France. ß

Age of Unreason

Well, compartmentalisation, that's the Neo-Freudian word for it. All those people who say one thing, then do another. Labour politicians - old Labour I mean, which includes Blair up to a point - who speak of the glory of state education, then send their own children to private schools. Blair himself is a product of the latter of course, even if in his early days as Labourite politician he ranted all day long about Labour virtues. It's New Labour now, so that's old hat.

Then we have our own folksy religious folk back home - the ulama - who rave and rant on the virtues of moderation and charity, then wheeze home in their smart new Mercedes cars (Mers as they're called out there). Not all of them mind, but there's enough out there to make you think.

Compartmentalisation all that, so it's ok then. Does this apply to other aspects of one's social-political life too? Does it apply to those who talk of democracy, justice, fair-play, then conveniently put them aside when the crunch does come? They do this by the device of compartments too. This is different, they say, so we deal with this differently. Look at Guantanamo Bay prisoners, detainees, suspects, Fundamentalists, murderers (choose your own compartment if you please) and you'll begin to wonder. Don't they deserve a fair trial too? Look at the way of those invaders in Iraq, how they've applied their glory, their democracy, their rules of play. Iraq must be another compartment, thank God for Neo-Freudians. No normal rules apply, except those of the blowing-in-your-face free-enterprise way.

I'm personally unimpressed by this Freudian name-calling, old or Neo. They say I'm mad, but as you can see, I'm sane as a silver dollar. Well, if I keep taking the tablets that is, and return to ward before dark. My point is (and I'll have to make it before nightfall) is that names tend to make things look not as they really are, but in another guise, as Trouble-Lite, or Liar-Lite, or whatever else that's drained of the poison that it hides. Remember being 'economical with the truth' ? That was invented by a resourceful chap here in Bighty to mitigate the fact of his, er, not telling the whole truth. Yesterday, someone else - a blessed psychologist - tried to explain Blair. Well, as we all know, Blair is a man who loves a pat on the back, being told that he's a swell guy. He revels in that. But now that he's down in the popularity stakes because of his role as Bush's mate, he will do the exact opposite and say that he doesn't care, and he'll plod on in his Bushy way. There's psychosis for you the psychologist man hinted.

Perhaps we'll ask him about that other chap Rumsfeld too, a rum fellow, because every time he appears on the box I get this urge to put him in a neat compartment (well, give him that), and throw away the set of keys. And then in this confined space he can snivel and smile and be smug as much as he bloody well cares.

We're talking here of leaders of this Neocon world who rave on about being civilised and democratic and free and this and that, then go about doing the exact opposite. Is it those compartments in their minds or is it their natural double-dealing ways? Excuse me while I go and think about that. And also because it's getting dark and I have to hasten back.

And this week, at the Labour party conference, they're bringing that man of Afghanistan Abdul Hamid Karzai in his flowing cloak. He is the chicest man on planet earth, says one man at the head of a well-known fashion house. So the leader of one of the craziest countries in the globe is a chic man for that. So it must be all right then, madness rules ok. And who do we thank for that?ß

Monday, September 29, 2003

Perchance To Dream

Awoke this morning remembering a very strange dream. Crowds milling under a famous window in Putra Jaya, waving their hands and saying "Goodbye, Dr M!", "Goodbye, Dr M!". Then more people came and said much the same thing.

Dr M appeared at the window and waved back at them. After a few waves and kisses blown in their direction, he turned to his aide and asked, "Where are they going?" ß

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Illusions, Delusions, Who's In The Cage?

A man called David Blaine is now aloft over Tower Bridge in East Londra, in a cage of perspex. There he has been for the last 22 days, eating nothing, drinking only water, pissing through a tube, and sleeping, and waving back listelssly to those who care to wave at him, and doing limbering up exercises when the mood takes him. Blaine, an illusionist, is attempting to achieve a world record for one of those things I've mentioned, but at the moment I'm not sure which.

This is a new form of indulgence, starvation (or any one of those things I've mentioned above) as a public art. At other times when he's not caged, illusionist Blaine would be performing levitation in the street, impressing passers by with some card-tricks, or generally enchanting an audience.

But public reception to this performance has been mixed. Instead of being awed by the sheer endurance of the man, some sections of the public, the yob element, have been pelting him with rotten tomatoes, eggs, and other unmentionable stuff. One enterprising person has been waving a succulent hamburger before him through the means of a remote-controlled aeroplane. Others, more adventurous and more able to seize the moment in the recent spate of hot weather, have taken to mooning at Mr Blaine. And then came a vicious man who tried to rock his cage by tugging at one of the anchor ropes, and another tried to equal this mindless act by trying to cut off his water supply. They've splattered paint at his perspex cage, and they've even asked him to go home to the States.

Why this public resentment at someonme who's trying to do a feat? From what I've been reading, Mr Blaine is an enterprising and successful young illusionist, but I've come to conclude that his judgment may also be suspect. To pull an illusionist's trick while the entire Blair government is now under suspicion of having done a deception in the build-up to the Iraq attack is not a very clever thing to do. It merely gives the nation an opportunity to give vent to their anger over one illusionist on another who, as far as I know, is an innocent party.

An inquiry, conducted by a Judge named Hutton, has just concluded in this here town, and while its findings will not be ready for sometime yet, it has given the public many insights into the 'spin' activities of this government. The main issue is the recent death - by suicide, reputedly - of a scientist named Dr David Kelly who tragically, was found dead in the woods near his home just as the tiff between the Government and the BBC was hotting up. It all centred around the source of BBC's information to back up their allegation of Blair's spin to justify the Iraqi invasion. Saddam's ability to deploy weapons of mass-destruction within 45 minutes, to be exact.

So what do we know so far from the enquiry? Many things on how the spin doctors operate. After the BBC government-bashing expert Andrew Gilligan first made the allegation of spin on "Today", an early morning programme on BBC's Radio 4, the scramble began to identify his source. The media were finally led to Dr Kelly, but not without some help from the Ministry of Defence. Then one of the spinners tried to discredit him by calling him a 'Walter Mitty' character, and then when asked in the Hutton enquiry, this spinner denied that it was meant to insult.

Mitty, a creation of the late American humourist James Thurber, was a day-dreaming person. Constantly nagged by his wife, he became an ace surgeon, a key figure in a ship sailing through iceberg, and a man bravely facing a firing squad without a blindfold. All in his daydreams, of course. But what did the spinner say when asked to explain why he said that? Er, he didn't mean to insult at all, but apologies all round. Then in the heat of battle between the Government and the Beeb, another spinner dismissed Kelly as a mere middling-figure in the Ministry, whilst the turth is that Kelly was the nation's leading expert on germ warfare, a leading member of the UN weapons inspection team, and someone who'd been to Israel to be consulted on WMDs. So how did this spinner explain herself to the Hutton enquiry? Well, the remark wasn't meant to belittle Kelly, but to make sure that the press realised that he wasn't a lowly figure. And so the spin went on, blah-blah-blah. Or, as Thurber would've put it, poketa-poketa-poketa.

So back to the other David. Blaine. Why is he so reviled by some? Well, as a transfer activity for their anger against illusionists all.

But I hope he will be able to sleep, and wave, and drink and pee undisturbed in his perspex cage for the next 22 days in the knowledge that while he's doing his thing from behind pieces of perspex, those other illusionists are doing theirs in a Whitehall of mirrors.

Iraq Note: There's going to be a big demonstration today, starting from Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, to mark the 3rd anniversary of the Intifada and to protest against the occupation of Iraq. A large turnout is expected. ß

And Then Some...

Iraqis Have All The Luck

Australian sheep farmers have a problem. 54,000 of their flock of sheep, now in limbo somewhere in the Gulf, have nowhere to go because the Saudis have rejected them, and other countries have turned them down too even though they've been offered for free, thank you very much. These sheep are believed to be infected with scrapie, a disease not too far removed from BSE which recently devastated the British farrming industry, and which still makes beef a suspicious commodity worldwide.

Now, relief is at hand. It is reported that the Australian livestock exporters have come up with an idea that will save their flock (farmers, I mean) from ruin. They're buying back this bleating consignment for about A$10 million, and then, the suspect sheep will be given to the Iraqi administration, to be slaughtered for feasts during Ramadhan. Source: Melbourne Age ß

Prayerful Nation

In Blighty they're becoming more God-fearing and more prayerful on the road, according to a survey done by the Royal Automobile Association (RAC), among the motoring flock. Many admit to taking a moment to pray while on the road. And what do they pray for? "God, get me out of this," (traffic jam), and, "Please make sure the speed camera didn't have film." ß

Nothing New Under The Desert Sun.

And almost 50 years before Iraq:

Newly discovered documents show how in 1957 Harold Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a CIA-MI6 plan to stage fake border incidents as an excuse for an invasion by Syria's pro-western neighbours, and then to "eliminate" the most influential triumvirate in Damascus.

Continue reading in The Guardian ß

For the past three months now I have been in and out of the hospital, with days marked by lengthy and painful treatments, blood transfusions, endless tests, hours and hours of unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling, draining fatigue and infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking, thinking, thinking.

But there are also the intermittent passages of lucidity and reflection that sometimes give the mind a perspective on daily life that allows it to see things (without being able to do much about them) from a different perspective.

- Edward Said, on how his cancer treatment gave him clarity and time to reflect on the Palestinian siituation. For the full text of this piece, his last before he died, go to Counterpunch.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Prince And Premier

They honoured the man yesterday, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, Malaysia's first prime minister, at his college, St Catherine's, Cambridge, on this hundreth anniversary of his birth.

Tunku was a Malaysian Prime Minister unlike any other, royal yet humble, patrician yet approachable. In the early days of modern Malay nationalism, when Datuk Onn Jaafar left the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), later to become the core party of the Alliance (later Barisan) coalition, he said that UMNO was leaving the people - the rakyat - to return to the palace. He was both right and wrong. The man who came from the palace to lead the rakyat was Tunku Abdul Rahman, a jovial figure and a man of understated gravitas who quickly won the hearts of the masses.

I met the Tunku towards the end of his life, when he stopped here in London en route to Germany for medical treatment. We spoke for almost an hour in a flat that he'd rented in Paddington in central London, and even though we'd never met, he welcomed me like a son. And I'm sure he'd done that too to many other people. I mentioned to him a document I'd found in the British archives where a British official made some uncomplimentary remarks about one of his political colleagues from another ethnic coalition party. His eyes lit up and, with a hint of mischief, he asked me to post it on to him at his address in Malaysia.

Politics after the Tunku was never the same again. It seemed like it'd left the gentelmanly parlour for a dangerous arena.

At his old College the Malaysian government has set up the Tunku Abdul Rahman centenary fund worth £2 million to help research in East Asian studies. The Tunku took his law degree at St Catherine's and from there too he received an honorary doctorate in law. He later returned to the College to become an honorary Fellow.

He became the first Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) which he helped to set up in 1969, the year that he stepped down as Prime Minister following the 13 May troubles. He later also initiated the establishment of the Islamic Development Bank as a specialised institution within the OIC.

The Tunku was a colourful man, an unlikely politician, a selfless and an honest son of Malaysia. He had many sterling qualities and a few faults. But he had qualities that our present day politicians would do well to emulate.

It was a fitting tribute to the man. al-Fatihah. ß

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Edward W. Said, 1935 - 2003

We mourn the passing of Edward Said, wonderful man, great mind, Palestinian patriot, and author of the seminal work 'Orientalism' which ruffled many feathers.

Said was a formidable academic and a brilliant pianist. A writer, thinker, and an aesthete. He lived his life as he represented it in his BBC Reith Lecture in 1993, "Representations of the Intellectual". Eight years later he re-examined the subject in his Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on the roles of the intellectual and the writer.

Many would have seen him for the last time in a BBC TV interview here in Britain last summer when he appeared with conductor Daniel Barenboim to explain their joint-project which brought young Israeli and Palestinian musicians together. He looked gaunt and was a shadow of his former self. Said had fought leukaemia for some years, but one report said today he'd succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

May the Palestinians be blessed with many more Saids in times to come. ß

Secularism With An Ugly Face

Let's now praise God for secularism, for it's the stuff of the free.

And as for you secularists everywhere who deny God, please do not feel left out for we'll gladly do it for you. But if only you'll let us. For it looks to me now that you and your fellow secularists both believers and non, are interferig so much in our religion that very soon you'll even instigate for the prohibition of our daily prayers.

You see, I find it difficult to understand how you can purport to be unconcerned about people's beliefs so long as they do not interfere with other people's ways. And yet you're now interfering very actively in the manner that many Muslim women now prefer to dress, and you are now the greatest mockers and chiders of what they do in their own way to express their choice to be free.

Yes, I'm back now to the subject of the hejab, or the head-scarf, that took up my entire blog yesterday. And I still stand by every word I wrote even after I've had a good night's sleep and some extra time to think about it over rmy breakfast tea. A belief further re-inforced after reading an eMail from Mohsan, a fellow-blogger from France, telling me how things are now going the same way over there. Too true, for, in the Guardian newspaper today I read of two brave school-girls, Alma and Lela Levy, who will soon be permanently expelled from their school in the suburbs of Paris for refusing to remove their head-scarves. And as a collector of delicious irony and Camusian paradox, I too have noted their surname, and I've learnt that whilst their mother's Muslim, their father's an atheist Jew.

It goes against the grain, doesn't it? I mean this business of secularists asking that religion be put on the underside, while they themselves are prodding relentlesly into our affairs. Well, the Muslim religion to be specific, for the affairs of other religions now seem to be as yet untouched by their marauding ways. I have always thought that secularism meant that we can believe in what we want to for as long as we do not impose it on other people. There's mischief now going on in the house of Secularity, if I may coin a word for this new breed of self-righteous people.

As you may have noticed from previous Beta-Blogs I've not cared much about this subject before, but this new rise of Parisian zealots (who have alas, found ready followers in Kemalist Turkey, some parts of little Blighty, and even in littler Singapura) has got me very worried. For they are dangerous for what they stand for.

Many thanks to those who wrote in about yesterday's Beta-Blog ("Pain In the Hejab", 24th Sept.), both supporters and detractors. But if my modest mailbag does reflect what the turth is like, then praise be to God that there're more of the former than the latter out there in the world. ß

Dear Abbey

Well, what's in a name?

If you're Ahmad, or Muhamad, or Abdullah in the Land of the Free, you're done for. Very few doors will open for you, very few employment letters or business opportunities. This is the reality in the land which probably does not know that there's Allah in Tallahassee. Check it for yourself in the history of Native Americans and be surprised.

A friend of mine from the Horn of Africa is an able scientist and a skilled corporate manager who moved from Blighty to Belgium to take another post in a research laboratory. Then came September 11, so he's now back in Blighty, suitcase still unpacked and still seeking recompense for unfair dismissal.

I woke up this morning to find my former bank Abbey National, which graduated from being a big Building Society, into a big-player bank, then fell down with a whoop! down the slippery slope of financial uncertainty. Now they're trying to re-invent themselves, and have re-named the bank simply Abbey.

And a sigh of relief from me too, as in my idle moments I'd been studying their fromer name besides wondering if they'd ever move to the U.S of A. Then the name Abbey National US wouldn't have made an agreeable case of corporate initials would it, dear Abbey? ß

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Pain In The Hejab

I want this off my chest at once: I have a problem with Muslim-baiters because they stink, no matter how sweet they sound.

This is a problem that we must face I suppose now that the world has declared an open season on Muslims and Islam, and Islamophobes (hate the word) of all shapes and sizes crawl out of the woodwork and declare themselves peace-loving people. They're pseudo-academics who're now writing books that chime to the tune now ringing in the air (stand up please, Bernard Lewis), writers, bakers, tinkers, tailors who've lived in the Muslim world and so declare themselves experts on these 'perverted' people. And there're people brimming with hate who openly lash out at the cultural aliens in their neighbourhood.

I welcome the last for giving it straight out, but as for the rest, it's a different matter.

Last Monday when Malaysian PM Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad surprised all by delivering a speech that was both well-delivered and reasonable, a man purporting to be President or whatever of the British-Malaysia Society stood up to air his credentials. He'd been to Malaysia many times he said in an ingratiating way. In the tone of an old Malaysia hand who knew the natives better than they knew their own uncle. But he had a problem he said, and this was where the smile on his face became the smirk on the tiger. And I shall let him speak for himself:

"But I have a problem. Each and every time I go to Malaysia I see the problem I am going to identify. On the one hand we see increasingly the women in Malaysia coming into top positions...on the other hand - and this is my problem - I find more and more of the younger ladies wearing more and more conservative Muslim dress, and I just wonder whether they are passing a message to their non-Muslim friends, or if they are becoming more Islamic, demonstrably more conservative. It seems to be a contradictory situation."

Well, contradictory my little foot, little man, why don't you just come straight with it and hide not in fluff the germ of your miserable thought?

I have friends, and aunts and dearly beloved ones who don the hejab and I do not have problems at all in this matter, but this little man here feels offended by young nubiles around him who've chosen another style of dress. Well, what's exactly the matter? Let's put this another way. I have friends too of the opposite sex who do not wear the hejab and there's still no problems with me here. Why is this little man getting all knotted-up in his nether area?

Or, let me put it another way that he might understand. I walked the streets of Hendon in London and saw men wearing little yarmulkes on their heads walking the streets, and I still didn't see in it an inkling of an idea that would have resembled those despicable thoughts of this President of the British-Malaysia society in any way. And I walked in Stamford Hill and saw men with plaited hair and clothes resembling the aristocratic garb of old Poland - of hats and of long dark overcoats - but still I didn't feel any pains in the head or an offensive sword prodding me hither and thither. In fact I understood it very well that those were religious people who differed from me in some insignificant way; but they were true to themselves in the religion they were holding true.

In short, unlike the President of this Brit-Mal Society, I did not find them in the least offensive in any way. And more importantly, I did not consider it any business of mine to interfere in the ways they chose to dress.

This President was not of course a lone ranger lost in the wilderness of unrefined thought that'd come loose on a quiet day. This was an educated person speaking out in the hall of an academic institution to and among many people who'd played host to him in their own country. In the council estates, in deprived areas it would have translated into other things. We read about this almost daily in the newspapers, of expresisons of racial hatred. In the supermarkets which now sell halal food, Muslims again confront an expression of this perverted thought in another way. A slice of pork, or packets of bacon are sometimes thrown into the Halal shelf by people who are just too dangerous to be simply dismissed as mere pranksters.

They undoubtedly share this blighted thought: that people who wish to express themselves in their own way are blots on their tranquil landscape, and are offenders against their sensibilities.

It is common knowledge of course that this present Islamophobic climate has drawn out all sorts of erstwhile liberals into the field of open speech to express their true nature. And consider that good for us for knowing their true nature. In the US, until as recently as the last century, black people were mobbed and lynched, got thrown off buses and were openly spat at not because they dressed differently, but because they were what they were. And I see striking similarities between that and the burgeoning thoughts of the President of the British-Malaysia Society, whatever they do. Maybe he hasn't himself seen this consequence of his idea.

We owe him no apology because he saw our hejabed girls in the streets of Kuala Lumour as a 'problem' to him. If he thought that they were also trying to pass on a message to him, well bully for the girls, for this man is seeing snowfall in Kota Baru. But maybe we should also give him a little something for his next trip: maybe a pair of 3-D glasses so the truth will pop up clearly for him; or a polite reminder in a note, that it's rude to interfere in the private matters of your host country. ß

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Pink of Dawn

It was the late comic genius Spike Milligan, I think, who wrote about the phantom custard thrower somewhere in Blighty, in Bexley Heath perhaps. Since last month we've been awoken every morning by a 'thud' followed by a ritual with our neighbour.

Whilst the colour of the object hurled by that Milligan character was yellow, ours is pink, and it's sometimes called the Financial Times. Why we've been given this treatment I do not know, but it's given me a lot of insight into their skills at finding just the right door. Needless to say, for some mornings now I've had to redirect the Pink Paper personally from our door to our neighbour's across the road.

The pink paper comes neatly packaged in cellophane wrapper, with the recipient's name neatly printed on a label which also gives a helpful guide to the deliverer. 'Brown Door', it says. 'Tree In front'. Though my name certainly isn't the one on the helpful label, our door is, I must admit, brown. And there's a tree in front of it. Just like our neighbour's across the road, except that theirs is a far more orderly household. It could be that in the mind of the FT crack-of-dawn deliverer, our house, with its brown door and a messy frontage and a potential Zen garden underneath the overgrowth, is more the home of an FT reader. ß

Monday, September 22, 2003

Hooray For Free Enterprise

Capitalism, bless its golden heart, is doing very well in Iraq.

The oil is flowing already along the pipelines, with just a few minor glitches, and the telephone system is this very moment being installed by a contractor from a neighbouring friendly state of Shalom. Well, let's not make too much of a fuss about this folks, Israel has already actually declared Iraq a friendly state for the purpose of business, so it is   alright. And as for those minor glitches in the oil-flow, if only those uppity "pro-Saddamists" would stop blowing up those pipelines. . .

But this is war and its aftermath, and healing takes time. But just a thought, if this continues for a bit too long, maybe they'll auction the peace-keeping work to other nations whose sons will die for them under the flag of the UN instead. What a wonderful thing is free-enterprise.

Now, fresh after Cancun, they've announced a car-boot sale on a scale not seen before in this planet earth. Everything in Iraq will be up for grabs by companies from just anywhere, but quietly, maybe preference to those who're friendly to us. No, not nations you idiot, people - real people - like those who run the Halliburtons and the Bechtels of the leading country of the free world. And we'll all say a whoopee!  for Iraq 'R' Us!

Well, in case you've missed it, the announcement was made at the meeting of the G7 countries in Dubai by the Iraqi Governing Council, which of course has nothing to do with US. (Er, lower the case if you please, that's a good boy!). Nothing less than a free for all: 100 per cent foreign ownership, full repatriation of profits, interests, dividends, royalties to the host country, and privatisation of everything on the ground, as far as the eyes can see. No income tax for a year, and taxation capped at 15 per cent. But not anything in the ground, not just yet. Oil will still be held by [please insert your choice of word/country here].

What a wonderful thing, what a wonderful world. You cannot make it up, as they're bound to say. A country that's not yet ready for democracy because the natives are restless is now ready for free for all, full-blown free-enterprise. Just suck it and see for yourself: trade tariffs slashed. Just to show that Iraq is a country that practises free trade, say the Governing Council. And that's more than what the parent country of Iraq R Us is prepared to do even in their hometown, and what developing countries were crying out for in Cancun. Free trade? Yes, free trade for all, not just developed nations. Talk to those tomato farmers, banana growers, and bankrupt market gardeners in developing countries who now have to go on a starvation diet because their trade has been ruined by subsidised cheap fruit and veg from the rich, developed world.

Treasury Secretary John Snow put it rather succinctly, "Capital is a coward," because it won't go where it feels threatened. So what's a bit of protectionism among friends for the sake of free enterprise? For the good of democracy. For US. ß

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Schadenfreude On A Plate

I've just heard that the best lobster noodles in the world was served at a restaurant in the W2 district of Bayswater, in central Londra, which has now sadly closed. And more, the restaurant was a Malaysian place.

I don't know what lobster noodles are or do, but being the bestest in the world is surely not something to sniff at. So here I am, late in the day, telling you all this so you'll know if you're asked by people of discerning palate. The person who told me that also said that there was another joint nearby, a Chinese seafood restaurant, that also did lobster noodles, but they charged £40 a bowl or a plate (how do you serve lobster noodles, in a bowl or plate?); but our gallant Malaysian place, now deceased, charged a mere £ 20. Now that he's put it that way, I must say that it was a throw at that.

My informant is also no less formidable a person, starting in the higher stratum, and then crashing down because his restaurants priced themselves out of the market in those economically difficult days. He owned 2 restaurants, but in places I wouldn't have ventured to without assistance or mortgage. One was in a place where nightingales sang in that famous square, and another further north, where the Londra canals come to a lock. They were upper crust places frequented by crowned heads and the silver-heeled, with formal dress requirement and singers to sing you Afro-American numbers while you wined and supped. They're now closed, said my man from the Blues, who's now gone into real estate.

There are at the moment at least four Malaysian restaurants that I know of in central Londra that are, how shall I put it, acceptable to us Malaysians who long for impossible things like sambal belacan  as Mama made it, and tempoyak   on a plate. There was one in Edgware Road which survived for a long time but which I shunned in as many years because one of its waiters was rude to me when I ate there in my student days. But recently, very recently, it too closed. Schadenfreude also comes to those who only stand and wait, as Milton should have said.

And that is why waiters always have the last word.ß

Saturday, September 20, 2003

L'Étranger In Fool's Paradise

While breakfasting at Pechon's this morning, I was minded to read Camus again. This came about after reading a news item over tea and croissants about the man now held as suspect in that sad murder of Swedish minister Anna Lindh. The man, it is said, read Camus' The Outsider   with passion, but it still doesn't explain what it was that got him going to such ridiculous lengths.

Camus was a complex man who saw life not as paradis   but paradox, blaspheming for love, not hate. The bored civil servant in The Outsider   murdered an Arab out of boredom, and so, as speculation now goes, did the man in Sweden. Though the life he allegedly took wasn't an Arab's but a white female politician's. God help us if murder becomes the antidote for ennui becomes the fashion.

I remember reading The Outsider   when I was living in this area where I'm now typing out this blog, in Bayswater in West Londra, and it was from this district too that I embarked on a long trek to the Maghreb and beyond, many years ago. In that journey I met many good people, and many, many exasperating ones, including Ammi Fawwaz in that little consulate in downtown Cairo. But I was never minded to follow Camus and do the thing. That's why I feel I should read the book again to find out what it was that I'd missed out.

Actually, on the street that I'm on right now, something strange too happened some years ago that probably connects with that murder in Sweden. Two public school boys, presumably susceptible Camus readers, bored to their eyeballs with their over-privileged existence, took a ride to Londra early one morning and walked this street looking for things to do to lift themselves from their pathetic lives. At that moment an Arab chef, just after work, was at the driving seat of his car at a junction, waiting for the lights to change. Finding his rear door unlocked, the two boys jumped into the car and proceeded to strangle the poor man, for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do at 5.00 am. Is this lack of compassion for human life a post-modern phenomenon?

Many things have happened to me this morning that are somehow inter-linked. Prior to leaving home this morning I was reading the comments in a fellow blogger's page about the Café in Paris (see Beta-Blog below), the café was of course frequented by Camus, among others. Then, at Pechon's, an old café I've been frequenting since student days, Camus appeared in that report on the Lindh murder. Then, walking into this internet cafe after breakfast, I saw that the Frenchman now working here is someone I used to know from Pechon's, and who now flits daily from there to here at different times. We had a good natter about Pechon p ére   and fils   and other things, and he's a good man as I can see.

When interconnectivity like that happens it makes you want to take a deep breath. ß

Even Ephemera Aren't Forever Anymore

Of the many vices that I have, the one that annoys Z most is my passion for ephemera. Old train tickets, railway maps showing stations now defunct, fly-bills, laundry lists, menus from restaurants long dead. But now even this is under threat by the technology that is all-pervading, affecting even my private vice.

Recently, when I was in Paris with my friend The Reader, we visited the famous café Les Deux Magots, now frequented only by ghosts of French intellectuals and curious tourists like us. When we left I made sure to keep their till receipt safely in my notebook, but I knew that it wouldn't last. This is because Les Deux Magots, following the trend of the day, now prints their receipts on thermal paper – a boon maybe to the thermal printing trade, but a bane to collectors of ephemera like me.

The ticket is lying still between the pages of my notebook, but even now I see it yellowing, barely a month after our visit. There's a little coffee-coloured stain in one corner, caused by a careless sip, but soon, very soon, the whole ticket will take the same hue, and more's the shame for that.

On this subject I must refer you to a blog by The Reader on the café, especially the comments that followed. And for this I'm grateful to fellow blogger Kura-Kura who put in the last word on the origin of the café's name. He did take a long time though to do this, but to misquote Mandy Rice-Davies from another context, he would, wouldn't he, do just that! ß

Friday, September 19, 2003

My Times In The Can

So far, in my brief career, I've been to prison twice. But not for reasons you'd like to think.

This prison memory came back to me yesterday when I had to drive very slowly behind what used to be called the Black Maria, but which isn't anymore. The long vehicle in front of me was light coloured, had darkened windows on the back and sides, and bore the name of a famous security company. It was late afternoon, and the A40 dual-carriageway, which cuts through our neighbourhood, was chock-a-block with motor vehicles going at snail's pace because of an earlier incident involving a motor-cyclist and a 4-WD vehicle. During this busiest hour of the day our section of the A40 had to be cleared for the arrival of an air ambulance to take the poor man to a hospital. The resulting snarl up was a sight to see, there were tailbacks from east to west and vice versa, and the surrounding roads were all choked up by the overflow.

I'd seen the depth of traffic whilst crossing the pedestrian bridge on my way to collect the car from where I'd left it in the morning, for reasons described in my blog below ("Living In Londra Part 5023", Sept 16th). Thirty minutes into the traffic that was almost congealing, I pulled the car over to the roadside and walked all the way home. I felt those eyes looking at me from behind those darkened glass in the back of the Black Maria. I may have met them before when I was in prison at my own, and not Her Majesty's, pleasure, if you don't mind.

The first prison I went to was the famous Wormwood Scrubs, noted for violent criminals and allegedly equally violent warders. Its notoriety collided with the Cold War romantic when the famous spy George Blake was sprung from there in 1966, and then spirited away to sunny Moscow. But I was there on a lesser mission, many, many years later: to meet a Malaysian who was arrested at Heathrow with not one but nearly two dozen credit cards, all bearing different names. And he had a story to tell.

Later, I became friendly with an evangelising Imam of West Indian origin, a well-built man and a former boxer. One Friday he invited me to join him in prayer in Her Majesty's house in Pentonville Road. And that was how I found myself with assorted men of many convictions - my friend the Imam's captive flock - while he stood sternly at the pulpit telling us to mend our ways. ß

Back On The Farm

After my short note yesterday, ("Worst In The World," Sept 18, below) someone calling himself Farmer Giles (are there really farmers going by that name?) left an informative note. But yes, farmer Giles, I do actually know, re item 3 in the Worst Jobs list, that it refers to what you do to farm animals, not what you do to yourself in a quiet corner of the farmyard.

And as for the non sequitur  about weather forecasting, Red sky at night / is the shepherd's delight, etc. I seem to remember something similar from the yokels of old Trengganu,

Red sky in the morning,
Shepherd's house on fire.

Thanks for the rhubarb Farmer Giles, may your muck spread well. ß

Thursday, September 18, 2003

The Lie Of The Land

Many friends get very dismissive when the topic of Palestine/Israel is mentioned. Their thoughts can be encapsulated in these words: I'm tired of this never-ending problem. It's so sad I've just stopped reading about it. Well, what more can we do?

Yet Palestine exists even if they choose to close their eyes. Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, suffer daily humiliation, assaults, attacks by helicopter gunships that take out not just intended victims but also innocent bystanders. These are facts that are widely known yet many, like my friends, choose not to bat an eyelid. Maybe it's because their eyes are closed anyway. It is difficult to justify this usurpation of land already occupied by thousands of people, this demolition of homes to make way for new arrivals from another country who, argument goes, have greater rights to settlement. Many come from Russia, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia even, while thousands who were born there have been denied return to places they were born.

Talking to a Palestinian friend recently, a man now 80 years old, I asked him about his place of birth. "My family," he said with a sad smile, "held the key to the waqf  ," and he named a famous place. But he was still able to smile even knowing that he'd never return to his home again, or be buried in the soil of his birth. This whole sad affair is a blight on the liberality, and the spirit of fair play that the West likes to tout to the world. Many so-called facts about Israel are swallowed whole by the West as 'turths', the fiction that the lands were unpopulated when they were taken, that the Arab population were urged to leave by the Arab army. A fine example of this was a book by Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial,   published some years ago, which purported to show the true   history of Israel. The work was soundly demolished by the Palestinian academic Edward Said in a scathing review.

Now even trees aren't safe.

The West that does a double take when forests are demolished in other parts of the world has said little about the destruction wrought by the Occupation Forces on the agricultural land and the arborial heritage of Palestine. If it is mentioned at all, it is merely as cold fact, without judgment. Because trees aren't people? No, the fact seems to be this, that that they couldn't care less, about trees or   people.

Hidden from the world's sight is the grim fact that the Occupiers are in an orgy of destruction that will soon leave the occupied lands with little left of their history, their means of livelihood. This destruction has been going on for sometime, and is now getting more intense with the building of the 'apartheid wall' which some accept as legitimate, just as it was legitimate for East Germany (East   Germany, note) to build their Wall. But the East German wall, if it was at all acceptable, was built on the border between 2 opposing sides, not in   the land of the other. About 11,000 Palestinian farmers will lose all or some of their land holdings to the fence, and 200,000 olive trees have been destroyed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the past 2 years to provide this wall of security.

These olive trees mean something to the Palestinians for they are, as I've said, part of their heritage, their spirit, their claim to the soil. Many of them date back some 400 years, though exaggeration has seeped into this with claims that some have survived from the time of Jesus/Isa al-Masih   (Messiah to both Christians and Muslims). True, the Occupiers have offered compensation for the loss, but the Palestinians have refused to make a claim, because to do so would be to accept this illegal act. Jayous is a village near the Israeli town of Kochav Yair where lives a farmer, Shurit Omar. And he has this to say: "I have lost 2,700 fruit and olive trees, and 44 of the 50 acres I own have been confiscated for the fence."

Two days ago, Palestinian Minister of Agriculture Rafeeq al-Natsheh said that agricultural losses from the Occupation have reached more than US$1 billion in the last three years due to systematic destruction of the agricultural infra-structure.

" 940,313 trees were uprooted and burned while 60,467 donums of arable land were razed by Israeli civil army (armed Jewish settlers) and the Israeli official army (IOF) during the last 35 months," Natsheh said. [One donum = 1000 square metres.]

Natsheh was talking merely of destruction, he did not go on to say that those lands taken for the benefit of illegal settlers who water them and farm them for their own benefit. So the next time you buy those fruit and vegetables from Israeli supporting shops like Selfridges and Marks & Spencer, please bear this in mind.

And to top this is an added cynicism. Olive trees, known for their resilience, have also become items of trade. A contracting company that moved in with bulldozers into Palestinian farmlands to start work on the apartheid fence realised their value and offered them for sale for £150 each. Some of the older ones fetched prices as high as £400. These trees are parts of the history of this troubled land, and they are highly prized to be transplanted into the lush gardens of Israel the bastion of freedom and democracy.

This is not a figment of some Arab imagination, or some Palestinian fabrication. Two Israelis who were offered those trees were journalists, and their experience was recounted in Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper.

These are things that happened, dear friends, while your eyes were closed. ß

Worst In the World

Alright, you have problems. So what do you do in life?

According to the magazine Popular Science, some of the worst jobs in the universe - well, I exaggerate, the world, not the whole wide world, but the world of science - are:

1) Flatus Odour Judge. Where you stand up all day judging the relative merits of other people's halitosis. A job taken to greater heights (or lower down) by gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently. He paid two workers to assess the stench of other people's farts.

2) Dysentery Stool Sample Analyzer. Self explanatory, and a growth industry. Techlab, a leading maker of stool-analysis kits, sells T-shirts with cartoons showing two flies over blobs of dung. One says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?"

3) Barnyard Masturbator. Help me with this please, someone, I'm a Trengganu boy, untutored in ways of the world.

But you'll know now won't you, why pigs will fly. ß

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Easy As Pie

There's a steady growth now here in Londra of Malaysian master chefs in the making. A few days ago (see Blog, Sept. 15th) I mentioned meeting one, A, an award-winning student at a leading catering college here who'd just taken a B.Sc degree in his area of expertise. Now another one comes beaming on the horizon, SF. I've known SF since his salad days, but now he's gone on to lighter things - souffles, profiterolles, and stuff of dreams.

SF did his initail training at the same College as A, then took employment as commis chef at The Garrick, in the Covent Garden area of Londinium centrum. The Garrick is a famous Gentlemen's club frequented by actors and the ilk. Soon, his justifiably proud mother now tells me, he will be promoted to chef de partie, but there is one problem. Taking on new responsibilities will mean rising early, but SF is a noon-day man, rising to start his breakfast at the strike of twelve if left to his own devices. Even now, his mother says, she has to phone him from work everyday to make sure that he's up, about, and ready for work. "Oh dear me, what shall I do?" she asks.

Dear Proud But Anxious Mum,

Ask your son SF to make some bread every night, then make him chew some dough before going to bed. Rest assured dear mother that in the morning, he will rise.

Yours faithfully,
Auntie Beta-Blogger

Next Problem! ß

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Living In Londra, Part 5,023

A friend who'd lived in Londra for nearly 20 years returned to Malaysia for good last month and left me a white elephant. Well, a silver one to be exact, an old banger. So every morning since then I've had to do the ritual of driving the car to a specially allocated car park for non-residents, purchase a 20p parking ticket to stick on its window, then walk home again to continue what I'd left behind. Then, if I'm home all day, I'd do the same again at 2.00 pm because the car is liable to another parking charge for another hour from then. Another 20p. The penalty for not doing so is a severe £40 if paid within 7 days, then £120 after that plus restless nights thinking of the bailiff's impending arrival.

Ours is a quiet backwater of a sleepy hollow, but our local Council, in their wisdom, decided some years ago to impose a yearly parking charge for residents, and another charge for non-residents between those hours. The idea, they said, was to stop non-residents from leaving their cars in the neighbourhood while they train to work. They wanted us residents to have parking space to ourselves, they said. But we knew that their main purpose was to collect revenue.

I have not purchased an annual Residents' Permit for my friend's old banger because I do not intend to keep the car, so the daily ritual will continue for sometime yet. Today I faced rejection by the machine that issues the parking tickets. My 20p kept dropping out with a clink much to the amusement of passing schoolchildren who find such things very delightful. On closer inspection of the machine I found that the Council had made an overnight increase to the parking charge. From yesterday's 20p per hour, the charge has now gone up to 60p per hour, a jump of 200 per cent. This is the second bad news in 2 days for embattled residents of Londra after yesterday's banner headline in the evening newspaper of MASSIVE RATES INCREASE to come.

Ours is a Labour council known for their spendthrift ways, but not in ways they were accustomed to. If Labour councils in the past exacted money from residents who were able to pay to serve the under-privileged and to improve the quality of life in general - for the upkeep of social amenities, council housing, minority groups, and so on - these new Blairite New Labourites are as puzzling in their ways as the Conservatives that the bulk of us here in our less well-off borough have tried to avoid. A few years ago our Labour council closed our local Library and community centre and turned it into a privatised keep-fit centre for the well-heeled. Another Library in another part of the community is now under threat, and many believe that the public swimming pool adjacent to it will soon go the same way.

In the face of all that there's still room for delicious irony. To keep away from the marauding council charges I may have to seek refuge in private enterprise from today onwards, and park my friend's bequest in the car-park of the local supermarket until such time as they've found out that I'm not such a desirable customer. ß

Irma La Douche

There is a Car Wash in our neighbourhood which gives special discounts for sections of their clientele on different days. Half price for blue cars, for instance, or Two Washes for the Price of One For New Customers. Today, I saw this very intriguing sign posted at their entrance:



Monday, September 15, 2003

It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding.

It is said that when those big ships from the West loomed large on the Pacific horizon a few hundred years ago, the islanders faced an interesting problem. Their idea of seaborne vessels did not include anything so large, so those invading ships failed to register in their sight.

It now appears that The US in Iraq are facing a similar problem. They're having difficulties seeing how many of their soldiers are injured or dead.

According to official figures, 69 US soldiers have died since the war was officially over on 1st May, a small figure considering the scale of the exercise, the size of the country, and the number of disgruntled people there bearing arms. But can this be right?

The following paragraph appeared in a report in the London Observer last Sunday:

The true scale of American casualties in Iraq is revealed today by new figures obtained by The Observer, which show that more than 6,000 American servicemen have been evacuated for medical reasons since the beginning of the war, including more than 1,500 American soldiers who have been wounded, many seriously.

The US army in Iraq adopts a policy of not announcing injuries sustained by soldiers unless they were involved in incidents that involved a death, the report said. It quoted detractors who believed that the number of US soldiers injured in combat since war began on 20th March could be as high as 1,178.

The world has heard little about injured US soldiers returning home in C-17 transport jets which land at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, every night. The Observer report added -

As the planes taxi to a halt, gangplanks are lowered and the wounded are carried or walk out. A fleet of ambulances and buses meet the C-17s most nights to take off the most seriously wounded. Those requiring urgent operations and amputations are ferried to America's two best military hospitals, the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, near Washington, and the National Naval Medical Centre, Bethesda.

The hospitals are busy. Sometimes all 40 of Walter Reed's intensive care beds are full.

The true state of play in Iraq may be a far cry from what Secretary of State Colin Powell said on his visit there last weekend, that all was bright and blue in Iraq where people were "hard at work rebuilding a nation, rebuilding a society."

Today, in the Independent newspaper, veteran Middle East hand Robert Fisk had this to say about the situation in Iraq:

...US Forces are now being attacked up to 50 times every night, that missiles are being fired at US planes almost every day, that neither Baghdad nor Basra airports are safe enough to open.

It's all so different from what we do not  read in the rest of the press. And more's the shame because, in the land of the free people and press, even less is heard about that. But is Fisk the only person not afflicted by this blurred South Sea vision? Well, here's what my fellow blogger in Iraq, Riverbend had to say last Friday, September 11th.:

Three days ago there was a huge explosion in Arbil (one of the northern Kurdish areas). They say it was a suicide bomber in a car in front of the American intelligence headquarters. The number of casualties varied from news network to news network, but one thing is sure- a child in a house across from the headquarters was killed. Horrible.

There was also an attack on Mosul Hotel in central Mosul where American troops are staying. This was yesterday and no one is giving the number of casualties.

There were attacks on troops in Ramadi and Falloojeh yesterday. In fact, in Khaldiah (an area between Ramadi and Falloojeh) they say there was actual fighting and gunfire lasted over an hour and a half.

And so, my friends, as the Queen of England has said in another context, there are things in this world that we do not know about. ß

Cooking Phat

Last night I met a friend, A, a brilliant chef who'd just taken a B.Sc degree from a leading catering school in Londinium. As a student he'd won many prizes there, and had done Malaysia proud. Now he is among the first batch of students to have gained the Bachelor's degree in catering in this land of fish and chips and Shepherd's pie. I naturally asked him how he was doing and where he was employed.

"Oh, I'm doing fine," he said. "In fact, I'm working in a very trendy organic Vietnamese restaurant in the equally trendy Kings Road. Americans go there just to buy a souvenir T-shirt."

And what's the name of this restaurant?

"Phat Phuc. "

Please someone, do something for him. This boy really needs help. ß

Sunday, September 14, 2003

A Word In Your Pocket

Who do politicians remind you of? Well, comedians, I would have thought.

I'd forgotten about Victor Borge - brilliant pianist, wonderful comedian - until I noticed recently that the word belanjawan  had vanished from the Malaysian language, to be replaced by the less inflationary bajet.  The reason for this, so the logic goes, is that poor old belanjawan  has this embedded notion of belanja,  meaning 'spend', which politicians detest because if anything, it shows them up in the one activity that they're very good at. Look around for yourself to see how they've misspent.

This is not to say that belanjawan  wasn't a very good word. On the contrary, it served its role very well, and was one of the too few words these days that arose solely from our linguistic bootstraps, not just another knee-jerk invention by our terminology makers who seem to have invented for themselves an energy-saving device for their over-taxed minds. Look at the myriad number of words like peletfom  (platform), sentral  (central), ensiklopedia  (encyclopaedia) to see what I'm getting at. Why, as I was saying to a friend the other day, thanks to the creative genius of our forefathers, we now have words like taliair,  kapalterbang,  keretapi,  which we now take for granted whilst overlooking the seed of creative genius that they contain. Left to the minds of latter day word-inventors these words would surely have entered our language as kenel  plen,  and tren.

But back to belanjawan  which has been around for as long as I can remember but which is now dead because some politicians have ruled that it is an unsuitable word. Why? Because it shows the government to be 'spending', not 'saving', so bajet  it is nowadays in our delightful press. I don't know what thoughts are aroused in you by that, but mine seems to be simply this: why not change our country's name to Niu Ziland for the number of sheep that we now have?

Shame therefore that our man Victor Borge died in December 2000. If he were alive today he'd surely find our linguistic travails so wonderfully amusing. Belanjawan,  in the category of spendthrift words? Why that's right in Borge's court! In his prime, Borge invented what he called Inflationary Language, or how language should keep up with rising costs. 'Wonderful?' No, let's now make it 'twoderful'. Before? Let's make it 'befive'. Wonder? Make it 'twoder', to keep pace with rising prices. And so he went in a hilarious sketch. Try it for yourself here and inflate your favourite politician's speech.

So let's now raise our songkoks  to Victor Borge for having given us this precious thought: that politics and comedy aren't that far apart. ß

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Diego Who?

Diego Garcia is too small an island too far away from us, wherever we are. Diego Garcians - Ilios as they are rightly called - even further. They were moved from their homeland between 1967 and 1973 to Seychelles where they still remain, not as Seychellois, but as the urban underclass, despised and unwanted. Some of them are in Mauritius too, and there, ditto.

Now some of them are in Blighty to shout their cause. One peasant woman sold everything to be here to reclaim her rights. Others are hoping for the same too, but it's an uphill battle. In 2000 they obtained a ruling that their evacuation was illegal, but then there was a red and white catch to it that was striped all over. And with cruise type missiles zapping in all directions from their once peaceful fishing village they should know better. That they're fighting against heavy odds.

The Court that declared their evacuation invalid also confirmed its military status. And this said that no one could be there without the permission of the military leaseholders. And this was where the big boys came in. It was Britannia that waved goodbye to them. Why? Because they ruled the waves (and waived the rules); and once the Ilios were gone, Mother Brit leased out their island to - you guessed it - the United States.

And it was from Diego Garcia that cruise missiles went flying, one after another one after another, to Iraq during Desert Storm, and then, after September 11, to Afghanistan to whack the ghosts out of the Talibs and the man now running a video production house from some mountain caves. From Diego Garcia to Iraq is a mere 3,000 miles; to Afghanistan, a little closer, but cruise missiles don't walk. It's the Ilios that do, and at the moment they're on an endless road, because the Americans don't want them in their place of birth.

This is food for thought during this week of 9-11. In Iraq a contingent of the bold and brave hoisted the Star and Stripes in Fallujah as a symbolic gesture that tyranny was dead. Ah well, it's them what have the tyranny and us what have the dead.

9-11 is reminder too of another anniversary, so let's remember them both so things can be put in their proper place. On September 11, 1973, a General called Augusto Pinochet, aided and abetted by - yes, you guessed it - our new citizens of Diego Garcia, stormed the Presidential Palace, overthrew the elected government, and murdered the elected President Salvador Allende. Needless to say, Chileans were plunged into an abysmal darkness that took another 17 years to lift. During that time there was an orgy of murder, rape, torture, imprisonment, and other things approved of by the superpower government that gave Pinochet the green light in the first place.

But this isn't all we should be thinking about during this week of 9-11, because freedom is best, and brutality is beast, and human life is precious no matter where it is: in the Twin Towers of New York, the marshes of Basra or the padi fields of Indo-China.

Nicaragua was another country visited by our friendly peacekeepers who're now in Iraq to, well, keep the peace. They had proxy rebels fighting there, the Contras, who fought for all the virtues that made life great, or so they were told by a superpower from the north. Meanwhile, from the sea came ships of the Super Navy to mine the port, but someone in the government had this bright idea of taking this mining power to the International Court for nuisance in their waters. And the big power of course did what superpowers were wont to do when so pressed: they declared themselves outside the jurisdiction of the international Judges. Nicaragua pushed ahead nevertheless, and got this declaration, that the government that sent the naval force had acted like a terrorist state.

So let's put this now into our heads lest we forget: that the US was once declared a terrorist government by the International Court.

And let's hear it now for Iraq: Why are they there now, why are lives lost, why are children in ill-equipped hospitals dying from wounds and ills brought by the radioactive poison of uranium waste? Why, for democracy of course, for justice, apple pie, and what mother knows best. ß

Friday, September 12, 2003

Deja View From The Top Of The Arab World

By afternoon, I promised my travelling companion The Reader, we'd be drinking shai bina'na'  (mint tea) and eating baclava in the rooftop restaurant of L'Institut du Monde Arabe, a place I found serendipitously some years ago when I did the walk from Shakespeare & Co at kilometre zero to the Paris Mosque a few kilometres away. It was at the height of the Rushdie affair when the Imam of the Paris Mosque was fatally stabbed for his moderate opinion on the Satanic book. I wanted to see for myself the kind of congregation that wielded the sword to vanquish the word.

But last Saturday we were on a mission of higher gravitas. We'd been walking about the Latin Quarter and had earlier done the Champs Elysees down to L'Etoile, then onwards to the Trocadero, and of course, the Eiffel Tower. At Shakespeare & Co. we'd found George, the owner, minus his shirt (see two blogs below) and now we needed to rest our soles.

Besides, the Institute was a dandy place for tea, being part of Mitterrand's Grands Projets  in the second half of the 1980s, and the work of award winning Jean Nouvel, an architect who makes great play of light and transparency in his works. Clearly the man who should've designed our Putrajaya, wink-wink say no more.

At the Arab World Institute, Nouvel had introduced something totally unexpected: behind his glass curtain wall he'd placed metal sunscreens with apertures that opened and shut like camera apertures according to the amount of light available. To an observer from outside the building, the shutters looked like a screen of recurring geometric patterns that characterise the architecture of the Muslim world.

A building that regulates the amount of light needed within - a dizzying thought. But I didn't realise the significance of this until we were travelling in the glass lift going up to the 7th floor restaurant, when The Reader was behaving like a sailor fallen out with the sea, going all queasy and light in the head, and declining my exhortations to look at the floors that were receding from us. He clung on to the bar in the glass cage and was interested in nothing that I was pointing out.

From the rooftop, the Notre Dame of the flying buttresses was a magnificent sight, sitting on its island in the river. Paris untouched by the high rise fever of modern planners, cause for thanksgiving that Mitterrand didn't live long enough to despoil the skyline of the entire city with more buildings like this Institute beneath our feet. Londra and the Thames and the Festival Hall monstrosity on its south bank came to mind. The best view of Londra can be got from the Festival Hall they say, because from there you can't see the Festival Hall.

The best view of Paris can be got from the rooftop of the Arab World Institute I say, because...

Avoiding a table too close to the edge, we sat down and waited till the camels came home, for our mint tea and sweet baclava. The waiter finally came with a tray, and the dark announcement that they were closing shop, and all they had left was on the tray. Th é wysiwyg sans baclava.

We grabbed the glasses much to the chagrin of two Arab ladies at the neighbouring table - they blinked and were deprived. As we sipped the tea the light was fading over Paris, and The Reader was coming home from the sea. ß

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Orwell, and Again. . .

Lucan was upper, not lower middle professional class. But that's just an inconvenient detail; in all other respects he must qualify for inclusion in Orwell's classification of murderers that'll withstand the test of time.

His act was domestic, for a start, even if in 1974, in the prevailing darkness, he missed his intended target and got poor Sandra Rivett instead, that most unfortunate member of his domestic staff. There must've been somwhere in his motive the wish to escape some domestic embarrassment, humiliation, and then there's something else that even George Orwell couldn't have foreseen in his essay lamenting the Decline of the English Murder, that the murderous hooray Henry Lord Lucan has now died twice.

Lucan was of fine pedigree. One of his ancestors led the charge of the Light Brigade, and he was leading himself into a fine cesspit of pointlessness - an aristocratic gambler, untarnished by work - when he suddenly disappeared with wife distressed and heavily bandaged in the head, and nanny dead. There followed by what was seen by many as a classic case of the upper class looking after their own; trails going cold, denials and half-truths, and Lucan went missing, believed dead from drowning, suicide. After some period of absence and false spottings in various corners of the earth, he was in fact declared dead by a coroner's enquiry, and now, this week, he's dead again in Goa of all places, and in the guise of a posh-speaking, long grey bearded folk singer Barry Halpin.

Looking at the published photograph of Barry Halpin I can say that I'll not be surprised if the trail of Lord Lucan will hot up again by someone claiming that he's now still very much alive and well and living in Malaysia in the guise of our national treasure Datuk A. Samad Said.

Sorry Pak Samad, but I couldn't resist that after seeing the picture of old Barry sitting in his Goan chair, walrus moustached and grey beard flowing down his bare chest. And thanks for the autographed copy of the book you sent us. I shall read it soon as I can stop falling off the chair thinking of Lord Lucan.

But it wasn't just me who couldn't resist the laugh. Barry's friend Mike Harding, folk singer and now DJ on BBC Radio 2, also fell off his chair and immediately wrote to The Guardian newspaper to say that Lucan/Barry was in fact his old chum Barry Halpin,

Otherwise known as Mountain Barry (not Jungle Barry [as widely reported] ). . . musician, storyteller and Good Time Charlie of the 1960s folk revival in Liverpool, Manchester and beyond, who went to live in India because it was cheap, sunny and more spiritual than St Helens - which is where he was living when I first knew him.

Poor Barry passed on in India in 1996, and is now resurrected as Lord Lucan by former Scotland Yard detective Duncan MacLaughlin who's now celebrated his discovery in a book.

Harding, who actually gave Lucan the epithet of a murderous hooray Henry, has this to add: "Tonight in the pub I shall raise my glass to Barry; he's made me laugh yet again, this time from beyond the grave - that takes some doing."

In the India where Barry lived they believe in reincarnation, the transference of life from one to another. In the case of Barry we must salute him for another achievement of transmortification, the ability to reincarnate in reverse, transferring death. ß

Monday, September 08, 2003

Shakespeare, By George!

At kilometre Zero once again last Saturday, within the ding-dong of Notre Dame bells, and old George was there in the top floor window of his shop, looking down. From where we were it looked like he'd stripped down to the waist, and he was urging us to come up.

My fellow traveller and blogger The Reader had not met or seen George before, and was slightly taken aback by the sight. There he was, looking like he'd finally lost the shirt on his back, and there we were on firmer ground, about to enter Shakespeare & Co., Paris' landmark second-hand/antiquarian bookshop; my umpteenth, but The Reader's first. And there was George, shirtless, not frowning but waving. At us.

Inside the shop I quickly checked with the young female assistant George had put at his desk (and they get younger with every visit). Wasn't that old George up there waving at us?

"Yes, it was, maybe he wanted you to go upstairs."

The Reader was getting more confused by this tableau in le bookshop, seeing as how frantically George was beckoning us, shirtless, at mid day in Paris in the mild September sun. And not knowing how good George could be at his hospitable best, "Is he . . .?" he asked, making an index twirl around his head during that pause.

"No," replied the young person, "that's our manager!" An answer that I found extremely hilarious, in the same vein as that perennial retort of that's no lady, that's my wife.

Shakespeare & Company had 'modernised' somewhat, with a small Antiquarian section in the shop next door, behind a door that remained locked. Inside the main shop, many signs of the past that'd given so much joy to my visits in the past were no longer so obvious. I couldn't see that famous sign that I'd quoted zillions of times to people who'd asked about George:


It is the motto of George's life.

Later, sitting in the garden on the bank of the Seine, The Reader remarked what a wonderful thing it'd be to make a long journey, worked out to every detail, and find everything in its place. I begged to differ on that. My journeys are never planned, I said, roads are meant to be taken as found. After my graduation day, after paying my landlady the last rent and handing back to her the keys to the door, I took the road from Bayswater in London, through parts of Europe, across North Africa, and found myself in Sudan and Arabia within two months, without even a road map in hand.

Perhaps overcome by the sheer irresponsibility of the remark, The Reader felt giddy and forced us on our feet again looking for mint tea, a presumed panacea in a heady situation.

As we were walking past Shakespeare & Co the second time I saw an elderly man teaching a young novice the finer points of arranging books in a box. This time the elder was wearing what was unmistakably, a shirt.

"Hello, George, " I ventured, and shook his hand. "I'm sorry we didn't respond to your waving from upstairs. "

"You want to go upstairs? Here take these keys, " he said. Typically George.

He was getting on in years now, 88 at the last count. I remembered that the last time I asked him to pose for a photograph in front of his shop, more than five years ago, he said, "Oh come on then, let's get it over and done with," before disappearing upstairs into his flat.

The Reader wanted a photograph with George, so I told him that. "Ok then, let's do it quick, " he said. So he posed with my mate, in a photograph that I'm sure will make The Reader proud. Then George disappeared into the shop - his turn now to mind the till.

I shall talk about George again in another blog. ß

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Fashionability In A Bag

We were not ten minutes on the Champs Elysees when we were propositioned by a Shanghainese couple - young, chic, and thrusting with the spirit of free enterprise. And were desperate for help.

The male of the pair elaborated, producing a wallet from the breast pocket of his coat: "We want to buy another one. You Japanese?"

This was a rare occassion. A couple in need of a wallet so early in the morning in a Parisian boulevard, as the cars were wheezing off to work in the morning sunshine, and circumnavigating the traffic island where the Arc de Triomphe was standing proud in a good to be French sort of way. This a trick question?

Pas Japonais, mais...

He became more conspiratorial as his lady beamed on, bowing slightly just in case we were Japanese but were just not letting on. "You see," he said, "We need another wallet, can you help?"

The lady Shanghainese gave more information. "We want to buy one more for our friend, but shop sell only one and check our passport."

"You can buy us one? We give you money," The male half came back.

The gist of it came soon afterwards. The French, for whatever reason of high fashion, was rationing the supply of their fashion wallets not just to this handsome pair from Shanghai, but to the world at large. They needed help from us, two bloggers escaping from the loop - my friend The Reader, and I - were about to be shanghaied in the broad daylight of the rue de shops. We made our excuses, needless to say, and left.

Not fifty yards from there we saw a gathering of people just like them, from Shanghai, from Japan, with a sprinkling of Iranians too, clutching something precious outside a shop, or a shrine. Louis Vuitton it said, the sacred name. They were standing outside, expectation in their faces, with more of the same inside the shop.

In the shop were bags, handbags, ladies wallets, expensive pens, more bags. And people were queueing, milling around, paying the price for products with the marque. They were indeed rationing sales, and they were indeed queueing up to pass on their hoards of cash.

China is a nation that has broken off from its repressive past, and is now hooked to the international grid of fashionability hallowed be thy names.

Louis Vuitton is fashion dictating terms, and they had come to pay homage, and pay the price.ß

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Powder Nation

We are a nation in a cloud, caked in dust, powdered down like some Turkish delight. And I have good authority for that.

For my displacement activity this week I had to talk to someone who moves in with pan and brush and toilet cleaning paraphernalia soon as tenants move out of a block of holiday flats. She had this stark observation to make about the stuff that we're made of: while folk from certain parts leave a tidy sum, and folk from some other parts leave a tidy mess, we Malaysians always, always leave behind a powdery puff.

"I have never seen a nation so in love with the talcum powder, " she said, studying me very closely for proof of contention.

Before I could even plead anything in defence of our national complexion she was already rattling a catalogue of exhibits. Why in this one flat alone she found two puffers in the master bedroom, and another one in the room occupied by the children. She said. Last week she had a bumper load of talcum powdery harvest all gathered in a bucket. She said. All left behind by departing Malaysians from all walks of life.

Needless to say I was scarcely prepared for this assault. I thought we were made of sterner stuff, but as it turned out, there we stood as a nation, doused head to toe in scented dust.

I scratched my head for just riposte, only to recall some long lost palliatives for prickly heat. Talcum powder, no doubt. Then I remembered hexachlorophene, a condiment now banned for deleterious effects, but which once laced our powdery talcum throughout the length and armpits of the land. Then I remembered names. Cuticura was dust on babies' bottoms, and Yardley, the stuff on many an adult mind after a burst of cold shower after coming in from the tropical sun. Do we still have use for them?

But no, lady caretaker, we're made of sterner stuff. But wait, what's this now coming back?

I was once told of a radio phone-in by someone who swore that it was true.

A certain female radio personality once offered a question on her programme, broadcast in broad daylight to an unsuspecting nation. There is a prize, she said, if you'll just answer this simple question.

In came an eager caller from, well, let's say Penang.

Radio Personality: Caller, do you have an answer to the question?

Female Caller: I know, I know, but can you repeat the question ah ?

Radio Personality: Well, what is Sodium Chloride?

Female Caller: Er, ummm, I know, I know. . .

Radio Personality: [Getting impatient] What do you put on your husband's eggs every morning?

"Talcum powder!" came the answer, quick as a flash.

Suddenly I remembered I'd things to do, and said farewell to my acute observer of ourvolks fetish. But it just left me slightly wondering: are we really, as a nation, so obsessed with dust? ß


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