Saturday, February 28, 2009

Air Sea Alarm Clock

Mrs Hideous' lie-in was rudely interupted by this air sea rescue helicopter searching the Tay this morning. All worth it, if they mange to pull someone safely out of those dark waters.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Addiction

Book Notes: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a short, easy-read, which for all it's delicacy, charm and rich scene-setting observation, is disconcerting, and troublesome. The book, (of which there are countless on-line reviews following its short-listing in the Man Booker 2007) is set in a Lahore cafe in which a lone - and entirely silent- American is approached by Changez, a young Pakistani, whose love-affair with America has turned sour.

Two things mark out this book as unusual. The first is its method of story-telling. The entire book is the spoken words of one man, the answers given by the other person in the story are not recorded, merely alluded to. The character who emerges from this is wounded, angry, intelligent, educated, patriotic, but feels emasculated and betrayed by his encounters with the West. The second element is that the author allows one character to speak, but never allows any other interaction with, or evaluation of his story. As such the book is full of allusions, allegories, suggestions and possibilities, but suggests more than it reveals, leaving the reader with countless tense ambiguities with which to wrestle. It is this element of the book which the author quite deliberately plans and achieves with considerable force.

Whenever there is a terrorist outrage, a psychologist is wheeled onto the TV to explain 'what makes them do it'. Some, of presumably more Freudian leanings, talk about a crisis of masculinity, and note the profoundly erotic nature of the rewards such fanatics believe await them in Paradise. Mohsin Hamad plays a devious game with such theories in this book. As Changez tells his painful tale of rejection in the bed of an American lover, who is unable to give herself to him because of her own mental scars - he initially presents the beginnings of radicalisation in such terms. However, the story is interwoven with an alienation and rejection from his position in a global capitalist corporation, suggesting that more than just love, lust and sexual identity are at stake here. This is re-enforced by the names that Mohsin Hamid has given his characters. The lover who initially adores him but who can never be fully his is Erica, and her failure is because of her completely self-destructive attachment to her long dead lover, Chris. It seems that while this individual story of loss and pain is played out, it is also to been allegorically. Erica is surely America, and Chris presumably Christianity. If so, then America can never embrace Changez himself, either as an individual or a people.

The lone American in the bar, gets increasingly shifty and nervous as the tale is told. The ambiguity is that Changez could be a gracious host - or could be a potential kidnapper. He is certainly charming, urbane, vulnerable and engaging. He wins the confidence of the reader even as the confidence of the American is being won in the book - but to what happy or sinister end? The growing menace is intensified by the fact that neither the American, nor the reader (who are of course addressed together as the book is written in the first person) is completely sure how to gauge Changez and his heart-rending tale. Bombs are raining down from American planes in neighbouring Afghanistan, anger over American foreign policy is intense, this is clearly coupled with an intense personal narrative; the glowering angry waiter does hate Americans and he is following them... all of which leads to a crescendo of tension, and a climactic....... ambiguity.

I suppose the outcome is related to the title. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in itself an oblique phrase, as it asks us not to picture a chanting fanatic in a state of religious fervour about to commit a heinous act of violence - but rather a somewhat bewildered, beaten-down and world-weary soldier trudging to a duty. The author makes this point when the American worries that the aggressive waiter is praying and is told by Changez that he is merely reciting the menu in Urdu! The question upon which so much of this book hangs though is 'what fundamentalism' was reluctantly embraced? On one hand it might refer to Changez embracing of American Consumer Capitalism, especially as the job he had within it was what we might call a 'corporate-evangelist' roaming the world evaluating smaller companies for American takeover. If this is the case then he has backed away from his dangerous fundamentalism and so the American in the bar is safe. On the other hand, if the fundamentalism into which he has entered is the dark heart of Islamism, which he has embraced as the only viable vehicle for his increasingly powerful Anti-Americanism, then the American has not long to live. The fact that we are not told, leaves the reader in a tense, dangerous scene, full of intrigue, misunderstanding and menace - as individuals are locked between two unresolved fundamentalisms, Islamism and Americanism. Indeed the human carnage of such clash seems to be exactly the point of the nervous end to this serious book.

Monday, February 23, 2009

JLBarclay James Harvest for Perth?

Perth Concert Hall have yet to confirm, but internet rumours suggest that John Lees' Barclay James Harvest are booked to play there on October 23rd. Young Boris and I are big fans of this band, who are the underrated giants of British 1970s rock, whose intelligent and intriguing lyrics, overlay John Lees' melodic guitar lines and Woolly Wolstenholme's classically influenced arrangements and atmospheric mellotrons. UK Gigs from Barclay James Harvest have been few and far between over recent years, I last heard them in Edinburgh three years ago where they delivered a stunning set of material from their classic era (quietly avoiding their less convincing pop experiments of the 1980s) to a wildly enthusistic packed Queen's Hall. The days in which the band used to spend months on the road, performing show after show on endless tours have gone, along with their stadium-filling European adventures, but why Perth has been chosen as a venue on their more modest 2009 tour, I don't know. We are not quite the last ditch motel at the end of the road to nowhere, but then again we are hardly a bustling metropolis, either! I hope they do take the risk of coming to this little outpost though, it's scheduled to take place the night after Boris' tenth birthday - and he's already decided how he wants to celebrate!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Notes: Paisley by Steve Bruce

Steve Bruce, a Sociology Professor from Aberdeen Uni, has produced a book about the Northern Irish militant Unionist, and Fundamentalist Protestant leader, Ian Paisley. His book is not a biography, more a thematic assessment of the influences that came to bear upon the formation of his religion and politics; his religious and political visions for Ulster; his successes and failures in seeking to achieve them; tensions between those ends - and a fascinating chapter about his relationship to the violence in general and to the various loyalist terror gangs in particular.

Bruce writes as a social scientist who neither backs Paisley's political stance, nor believes in Paisley's God. What makes this book so fascinating is that he avoids the trap of so many books of writing simply to demonise a controversial figure - but rather seeks to understand and interpret him in context. He has taken the time to interview countless leaders and members of both the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church in order to comprehend their world-view.

Bruce believes that the heart of Paisley's appeal has been harnessing the inherent distrust in middle-class liberal elites within both the political and religious spheres. The usual line is that Paisley has generated such distrust - but Bruce argues that given the UUPs increasing willingness to forge a conciliation with Nationalism (culminating in the post Good-Friday-agreement Trimble-ism, of government now - guns later) in the political world and the embracing of theological liberalism by the hierarchies of Irish Methodism and Presbyterianism, Paisley's non-compromising stands haven given voice to a section of society feeling deeply threatened and betrayed. Worse still, on many occasions elites were moving away from traditional views but publicly denying it! That gave Paisley his trump card, of declaring his opponents as hypocrites and traitors - which, when he was proved to be correct, gained him huge credibility. When he accused John Major of negotiating with the (then still active) IRA, Major famously denounced him and him thrown out of Downing Street, to great public acclaim. Yet, Paisley was proved to be the truth teller and Major the liar (even if one agreed 100% with both Major's aims, strategy, and economy of truth!). Likewise, it was Paisley's rejection of the Good-Friday deal, that actually put pressure on Sinn Fein to persuade the IRA on decommissioning, Bruce thinks.

There are two weaknesses with this otherwise remarkable book. The first is that it ends prior to the recent massive changes in Northern Irish politics and in the Free Presbyterian Church - despite its very recent publication date. It does not deal with the DUPs post-IRA weapons disposal, partnership in government, does not address the infamous "chuckle-brothers" routine with Martin McGuiness, and does not discuss his retirement from both his major roles, following increasing unpopularity amongst his own followers. Perhaps a second volume is required. The other disappointment is the way in which the author repeatedly makes the very error that he accuses Paisley of. He explains the way in which Paisley's analysis of the world reduces everything from the SDLP to the EU to the opening of shops on Sundays to a 'Romish Plot' - and so fails to perceive the huge differences within these bodies. Yet, Bruce repeatedly uses the phrase, "evangelicals think" to describe Paisleyism, or "in evangelicals' eyes" to describe the DUP position. In so doing he fails to see the vast differences between the Paisleyite extreme and a hugely varied landscape of belief within Ulster Evangelical Protestantism, in which on many issues 'the big man' speaks with a decidedly unrepresentative voice.

Bruce is however very good when he comes to discerning the tensions within Paisleyism (and between Paisley-ites), making his discussion sensitive and nuanced in seeing neither the DUP nor the Free Presbyterians as a monolithic block, but riven with differences of emphasis and aspiration. The sometimes awkward relationship between the Free-Ps and the DUP is also probed, and the massive overlap in personnel between the two not assumed to mean that the two are the sides of one coin. Tensions have specifically arisen, he argues, between the DUPs need to reach out to as wide an electoral coalition as possible; and the Free P's constant haranguing of others about their heresy, apostasy, treachery, spiritual adultery and so forth. Bruce nicely argues that the differences between the two can be seen clearly in the issues of Sunday Trading. While the Free P's fervently (prophetically they would claim) have denounced the "Republican Sunday", as a violation of God's laws under the influence of the antichrist; DUP councillors have often voted to allow such activities. What unites both is a belief in democracy, for the Free P's it is a gift that comes from the Reformation; for the DUP it is the basis for a secular political philosophy, based not on biblical commands but on fairly traditional social contract theory. What both accuse the Republic of Ireland of having is undue church influence in the state, which they denounce - and so allow popular opening of sports facilities on the Sabbath, even where it is perceived as offensive to God.

Social Contract theory is in itself fascinating. If the state and the people are locked together in mutual agreement of protection and compliance respectively, then all well and good. Where Paisley has been most controversial is where he has begun to suggest that the state is either beginning to, or planning to violate its requirements, leaving the people to enforce the rule of law themselves. His repeated denunciations of terror and violence (from both sides of he sectarian divide), have been infamously accompanied by various flirtations with "third forces". Bruce analyses all of these and contends that while Paisley has on occasions contributed to the environment which others have used for terror, has consistently opposed terror, denounced violence, expelled people drifting towards it, and is absolutely hated by all the loyalist terror gangs - not least because he so fervently calls their violence "sin", calls for the execution and fought against their early release under the Belfast Agreement. In Bruce's analysis, Paisley is a brandisher of unpleasant words, provocative placards and civil disobedience, but not weapons. Bruce compares the percentage of young men involved in terror in Northern Ireland's loyalist population, with the percentage of them in the Free P church. He finds that a member of Paisley's church is less likely to be involved in sectarian violence than a non-member. Fascinating!

This is a very well researched and illuminating insight into one of the most colourful, controversial and strange political and religious characters of recent times. If it could be completed with a chapter on the chuckle-brothers era and retirement, it would be much improved.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Perth on Monday

In London they are getting proper snow - all we have had so far is this derisory dusting...


My Dad has been up here helping us decorate for a week (he just got back home as the snow began to fall last night). In only a few days a lot was achieved!

Attic Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

More Decorating

Bathroom Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5