Sunday, 28 July 2013

Travels with Harry

Mausi and the Monk have found travelling with Harry educational. For his part, he seems to take the travel arrangements philosophically, and enjoys the new experiences on the walks and pauses in between. His reaction to wavelets surging ashore in Lulworth Cove was pure amusement for us as he first recoiled, then approached cautiously and finally tried to play ith the water. He travels reasonably happily in his travel box, secured between our seats in the Mobile Home we've hired, but is eager to get out and explore the new 'pitch' whenever we stop.

Of course, in most places, he has to stay on a leash, but even so manages to find games to play. Yesterday we arrived at Sennen Cove, near Land's End in Cornwall and gave him a run on the beach in Whitesand Bay. He raced around, dug frantically, obviously puzzled by the water which filled the hole as he did so, and even tried a little wading - cautiously. Where he found fresh water trickling down the rocks in Lulworth Cove, at Looe he found only salt water and now at Whitesand Bay, the water in the ground is salt only. I will try to post a more pictures once we get somewhere I can get a decent 'upload speed' on an internet connection.

Today he had a good walk in the wind and occasional rain, along the coast path. His interest in all the new smells and sounds is fun to watch. We did wonder, as wewatched him 'air scenting' from a viewing point, what 'race memories' the smell of the sea and the sea vegetation is stirring in him. What a shame we can never really know.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

No Dogs Allowed ...

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in South Africa, I was used to seeing dogs accompanying their "families" everywhere. On the beach, on walks, in parks and on picnics. When I first moved to the UK in the 1980s, dogs were still popular, but one did notice an increasing number of restrictions being imposed. Partly this seemed to stem from hysteria over "dangerous dogs" who attacked or bit people and other dogs, but then there was a new assault - "fouling" - in which a number of "studies" found "dangerous infective agents" in dog faeces and campaigners began to run with the scare that contact could cause serious health risks for children. Then the allergy campaigners got into the act.

Now it seems that wherever one goes, if you have a dog with you, you are persona non grata. In part the over reaction is due to the legislators, councils and enforcement agencies always looking for the cheapest solution to a problem. Thus responsible pet owners who clean up after their dogs, take good care of them with regular health and parasite checks and so on, are treated as irresponsible, and banned from all manner of places and activities because - as one restuarant recently told me, "People with allergies might complain". Luckily the weather was fine and we were happy to sit outside with him anyway, but at another restuarant he wasn't even allowed to do that. Britain a nation of dog lovers? Only in folk legend it seems.

A number of dog owners we have met here tell us it is becoming increasingly difficult to find anywhere  a dog is welcomed, yet we have noticed that wherever we go, many shops place a bowl and water at the door. Restuarants that allow dogs into their terrace or other outdoor seating also happily provide bowls for the dog as well. In many places though, the only option is to leave your dog in the car or van - and in the current weather conditions, that is simply NOT an option.

Here is the funny thing, most resturants we visit in Germany welcome dogs with their owners, asking only that they be controlled at all times. They are welcome on beaches, unlike the UK where they are now banned from anywhere someone can swim. In the countryside a dog can be legitimately shot on sight by a farmer who thinks it is "worrying" his sheep so one is obliged to keep them on a leash, trained or untrained. At least the Caravan Club welcomes dogs on their sites and the firm we have hired our Mobile Home from welcomes dogs in their vehicles.

So, with Harry in our company, we will continue to explore the 'wilder' places and find alternatives. You do wonder, however, what will eventually happen to dogs as pets. Increasingly they are neutered to prevent uncontrolled breeding, in some places their vocal cords are severed to silence barking. Is this 'humane'? Advocates argue that it is, I would put it on a par with child abuse. If you are taking responsibility for a pet of any sort, you have to adapt your life to accomodate certain aspects of animal behaviour. At least learn how to 'read' your dog's signals and teach him yours.

Above all learn to accept the fact that a dog, or a cat for that matter, is NOT "just an animal". They have feelings, emotions and insecurities as well. They aren't children, but they aren't stupid either. They trust us and ask very little in return, give them the respect they deserve.

It was Pythagoras who said that "humans and animals have and share souls." If you live with animals you very swiftly learn that he was right. Perhaps it is time to stop responding to the prejudices of small minorities and feeding their desire to control the lives of everyone and everything around them.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Harry's Unhappy Adventure...

It is annoying when one has taken the trouble to check, recheck, research, make further enquiries and finally go in person to make the necessary bookings, to have everything go bad right at the last moment. But, that is exactly what happened to us as we tried to board our flight to London for the wedding of Alli and Jim. The problem? Harry was suddenly NOT allowed to accompany us, he must instead be carried on a cargo flight, booked and processed by the only DEFRA "approved" agent - and, of course, this could not be done in less than 48 hours.

That left us standing at the check-in desk, just hours away from Alli's wedding, with an already distressed pup. all the "correct" paperwork notwithstanding, and DEFRA's little bombshell - which is NOT on their website and which was NOT communicated to us by any of the "experts" we took the trouble to check with - and unable to take our flight to the UK. To put it politely, the Monk went spare. Not only had he and Mausi taken considerable trouble to find out everything we could before booking our flights and then planning our holiday, but we were going to the UK for the very important purpose of attending Alli's wedding.  Now it appeared that everything was in ruins. You can't just dump a dog at an airport, and you certainly can't just walk into an animal centre and dump one for three weeks. As we'd used a taxi to get to the airport, our car was in our garage 60 km away, and returning home, and then driving 800km wasn't going to work either. After all, we were expected to dinner at 18:30 in Orpington with other members of the family.

The Lufthansa staff set to work to find a solution, and there appeared, after considerable internet searching, to be one. Fly to Paris or Brussells and take the Eurostar through the Chunnel to St Pancras. According to the Lufthansa staff - after several telephone calls to various authorities - the DEFRA rule concerning dogs accompanying passengers applied only to flights. (I have in front of me the list of "authorised carriers" allowed to bring animlas to the UK - the Heathrow only - and Lufthansa is on it). These rules did not, we were informed, apply to the trains. Harry could go by train and they very helpfully switched our tickets to take us to Brussells and a connection with the Eurostar.

The flight to Brussells was bumpy to say the least, and Harry didn't enjoy being carried in the baggage hold. At Brussells he was dumped in the Excess Baggage collection point while we went in search of the counter we had been instructed to find him at. By the time we found him he was terrified and in shock. But worse was to follow. We were now in Brussells, and went to collect our tickets for the Eurostar. Ah, mais non. Le chien cannot travel to London. New rule!

What are our options now then? We are now stranded in Brussells. We have no car available, we cannot travel by Eurostar as we had been advised, and we still cannot reach London. The Monk set off to try and hire a car. You've guessed. No car hire available for cross-channel hires. The car must be left in a Belgian depot. This left us with the option to go to Ostend (no ferries available from there) or Zeebrugge, but the car would have to be left in Ghent or in Brugge. Even the companies I have regularly used in the past could not help. The car may not leave the continent. By now desperate the Monk phoned his son and explained the dilemma (No internet access now so the Monk was unable to access the Ferry operators and find ways to get a ferry passage) and Nick was magnificent. He found the ferry company, ascertained that we could travel with a car and the dog, but not as foot passengers with a dog. Right, back to square one, we can't hire a car to go across the channel (One company offered a hire to Calais, and then a new hire from Dover, but the car must be handed in in France and a new one collected in Dover), so the "travel with car" is not going to work either.

With options now exhausted and the Monk's patience stretched beyond all limits, Nick came to the rescue and volunteered to drive to Dover, take the ferry, collect us, and then get the ferry back to the UK. We, in the meantime, had managed to catch a train to Lille where we would change to a train to Calais, with the final thought that if all else failed, the Monk would take the ferry while Mausi and Harry remained in a hotel in Calais to await his return on Saturday or Sunday. That plan could now be shelved. Nick collected us in the Foch Place at the War Memorial at 23:50, loaded us and took us straight back aboard the ferry. Harry's documents were checked at the Terminal and passed "in order" as we knew they were (Remember? We'd planned and prepared for this!) and the crossing went smoothly. Despite our labels at Dover, there were no further checks to our plans, so we attended the wedding after a brief rest at the superb Selsdon Park Hotel.

It has take us and Harry three days to recover, though, as you may imagine, the "adventure" had repercussions. Not only was the pre-wedding dinner we were supposed to attend disrupted, but the Monk's family and their plans, preparations and comfort have been disrupted as well. Nick had even less sleep than we did, because, having delivered us (at 03:30) to the hotel, he had to drive to his flat 40 minutes away to snatch a few hours rest. After all the careful planning and the preparations this major family event was almost totally ruined by the totally pointless, stupidly obstructive and frankly, profiteering, regulations DEFRA impose on animals arriving by air into the UK. The very fact that the airline and their sources failed to spot the key "rule" concerning "inward bound" animals, speaks loudly of how DEFRA have managed to slip this in cunningly. One can only wonder which lobbyist and which civil servant are reaping the rewards. This rule applies ONLY to the airports, the train companies apply a ban which is alongside that of the ferry companies and "foot passengers", but none of this is explained on the DEFRA website!

Harry has the full "Pet Passport" and the full set of innoculations DEFRA require. He has been tested, wormed, tested again, and finally, 48 hours before the entire debacle, dosed against tape worm even though the vet can provide proof he does not have one. All to be told we have to ship him as "freight" on a separate flight, through a single agent in London. Oh, and that must be arranged at least 48 hours in advance. To add insult to injury, the cost of this "privilege" is €1,500 as opposed to the normal fee for a pet accompanying a passenger of €100. Nice one DEFRA, but which of the Civil Servants responsible for it is getting a fat commission from it? That is something I'd like to know. THis is yet another example of UK Bureaucrats "gold plating" regulations for their own benefit. No wonder that all over Europe the authorities, the transport companies and the professionals are getting more and more exasperated with us.

Harry has had an adventure of the most unpleasant kind, but it has taught us an important lesson. If there is a "next time" we will not travel by air with him. Thankfully he has also recovered rather well, though we are now looking forward to getting down to Dorset and starting our planned holiday. Perhaps a few days of running on beaches, some treats and lots of "playtime" will make up for it. Oh, and just to show how stupid these "rules" are, taking him home again, is, we are assured by Heathrow, "no problem". There are NO restrictions on animals going from the UK to Frankfurt am Main.

Isn't it nice to have some sense?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Wedding Sermon

From the Lesson: And now these three remain; faith, hope and charity, but the greatest of these is charity. (1 Corinthians 13: 13)

In 1940, the island of Malta was defended from the might of the Italian Air Force by three outdated Gloster Gladiator Biplanes from the Fleet Air Arm. Some wag had named them Faith, Hope and Charity. In faith and hope they daily joined battle with the overwhelming onslaught from the Italians, and daily were patched up and somehow kept flying. By the end of 1941 Faith was dismantled, Hope was no longer able to fly, but the parts salvaged from both kept Charity in the air, though now supported by modern Hurricanes and Spitfires. There is an interesting lesson for us all in that. Faith may waver, hope may fade, but it is love that keeps us going and often saves the other two. 

The 17th Century poet, theologian, philosopher and traveler, John Donne, wrote that 'no man is an island, entire of itself' and in one sense, he is right. None of us is complete on our own, we are always at our best, and sometimes at our worst, when we are in partnerships with one another. Yet, at the same time, we are all unique, individual, one of a kind, there is only ever one of me, or of you.

We are the product of our genes, our parents, our family relationships that form and make us through childhood, and to that must be added our experiences, every bump and knock, every painful rejection and every joyful acceptance. Every little triumph at work or at school, and everything we learn - or don't learn - from those with whom we interact on life's journey leaves its mark and influences the way in which we respond to every challenge, to the manner we tackle any task, to our choice of career and to each other.

What attracts two people to each other? A scientist may say it is the pheromones, a psychologist will say it is conditioning, a romantic may say it was Cupid and some may say it was 'fate'. As reader's of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels will know, it is probably all of those things, since there is a large element of chance involved in everything. It never fails to astonish me how quite often a casual encounter or conversation can lead someone  into a change of direction that completely alters their lives, and this is often true of successful and long lasting relationships.

According to Pratchett's philosophy, meeting each other and forming a lasting relationship is a million to one chance. And, as we all know, million to one chances come up nine times out of ten. Sometimes I have to admit he may have a point. Whether we call the meeting and the subsequent development of any relationship, be it marriage or simply lasting friendship, fate, chance, kismet or destiny, no relationship survives without mutual respect, consideration and the effort to make it work. If we do not make the effort, we cannot expect the other person to take the trouble to make it work either.

Donne's famous 'Mediation' spells out how we are all part of a greater whole, yet, function within it as individual components. That is especially true in a marriage, where both halves of the partnership must work together, share each others triumphs and tragedies and sometimes even 'carry' the other. Our language has, in recent years, been impoverished by the loss of the original meaning of the word 'charity' - the non-erotic form of 'love' that neither asks for reward, nor expects it, is always giving and in a real 'marriage' is always mutual - though it may take the day off occasionally. 

All of humanity lives with three key elements in our lives and relationships. The first is faith. We put our faith in many things, religious, scientific or ideological. Some of us fly aircraft where the entire airframe is attached to the rotating wing by a single bolt, and place a great deal of faith in the quality of the steel, the process of making it and the resistance to metal fatigue. We all have hope. We hope for stability, for love, friendship and fulfillment in our careers, our lives, our relationships. Hope is sometimes what lifts us through the difficult times and drives us forward to meet the challenges, climb the next hill, walk the difficult path or take the rickety bridge across the chasm. 

Finally there is love. Often we take it for granted, we shouldn't, but we do. Yet, as St Paul, a much more famous author than I, wrote, love is the greatest of all our human experience. When we love, we are at our spectacular best in everything.

So, as the small outnumbered and outgunned fighters defending Malta, were used to support each other and keep one flying, remember these three things. Keep faith in one another, even if in nothing else. Keep your hopes for each other, your family and yourselves, and let your faith in each other, and your hope for each other, support and maintain your love for each other.   

Friday, 19 July 2013

Wedding Bells

Today the Monk, Mausi and Harry are attending the wedding of the Monk's youngest daughter to a super young man, whose surname just happens to be the same as the Monk's middle name. The are being wed in the Parish church of St Mark, Bromley South, where Alli was once in the choir and the Monk a Reader.

The Monk hopes his readers will join him in wishing the happy couple a long, happy and fruitful marriage. He is preaching at the wedding by invitation, the first time he will be standing in that particular pulpit since he moved to Gloucestershire 21 years ago.

As you may imagine, the Monk is delighted.

Blogging over the next few weeks may be erratic as the Monk and Mausi take Harry on a short tour of the South West following the wedding.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Final Preparations

The last few days have been exceptionally busy for the Monk and Mausi. We fly to London tomorrow, with Harry vom Goldbachmoor, our Sheltie. We will be spending almost three weeks there doing a little touring in a hired Motor Home (RV to my US readers), but first we are attending my youngest daughters wedding on Friday.

As you may imagine, there have been a number of things to prepare, not least the making sure Harry has all the innoculations, worm treatments and all the other things Defra seems to think essential for any dog accompanying his family. We are now in the final stages of packing and I have a worried looking Sheltie watching every move just in case we plan to leave him 'home alone'.

Where is Dr Doolittle when you need him?

Monday, 15 July 2013

A Question Of Worth?

A recent set of exchanges sparked by the announcement that MPs are to get a 9.6% pay increase on the annual salaries of GBP63,000 plus very generous expenses, got me thinking. One of those in the debate argued that the MPs 'deserve' this since they are 'dedicated, public spirited individuals who do this often thankless work, not for the money, but because they believe they can make a better society.' It took me some time to stop choking, and I'm still not sure whether the attack was caused by anger or laughter. The commentators argument suggested that the MPs 'dedication' often imposed great strain on his family, and required them to spend long periods away from home.

That is true. It is also true that they could earn more in banking, law and one or two other professions, but they have chosen the path of politics. At their present salary - excluding expenses - they earn roughly three times what the average soldier, sailor or airman earns. They get considerably more than any firefighter, ambulance man, and most policemen. They earn vastly more than most teachers, and twice the average nurse's pay. None of those categories get a travel allowance to go to and from work, and none of them are paid any additional allowance for a 'second home' - so just why are our MPs awarding themselves almost 10% salary increases when the vast majority of public servants in the military, police, Emergency Services, medicine and the teaching professions are getting 2% or less?

I do not accept the argument that these people are 'working to improve society'. The vast majority of them - from the Labour side of the House - have gone from student activism at university, to Union activism as a Shop Steward or Union Organiser, to Local Councillor, to Parliamentary Candidate/Secretary/Researcher and then become an MP. On the other side of the House the majority have gone from University Debating Society, to Law, Banking or another Profession, thence, via Local, County and City to Parliament. In my view they have no experience of real world work, or of any of the matters they routinely regard as something to be 'improved' via their meddling. This is what gives rise to their endless legislative agendas and programmes. Half the time this is about building fences to protect their own interests or the interests of the various lobbyists they really represent, and the other half seems to be more about being seen to 'do something about "X" (Insert Latest Political Issue Here).

As Gilbert and Sullivan's sentry sings in Iolanthe,

When Britain Really Ruled the Waves1
Solo: When Britain really rul'd the waves -
(In good Queen Bess's time)
The House of Peers made no pretence,
To intellectual eminence,
Or scholarship sublime;
Yet Britain won her proudest bays
In good Queen Bess's glorious days!
Yet Britain won her proudest bays
In good Queen Bess's glorious days!
Chorus: Yes, Britain won her proudest bays
In good Queen Bess's glorious days!
Solo: When Wellington thrash'd Bonaparte,
As ev'ry child can tell,
The House of Peers throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well:
Yet Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George's glorious days!
Yet Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George's glorious days!
Chorus: Yes, Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George's glorious days!
Solo: And while the House of Peers withholds
Its legislative hand,
And noble statesmen do not itch
To interfere with matters which
They do not understand,
As bright will shine Great Britain's rays
As in King George's glorious days!
As bright will shine Great Britain's rays
As in King George's glorious days!
Chorus: As bright will shine Great Britain's rays
As in King George's glorious days!
Personally I think the present denizens of the House of Commons would do well to take particular note of Verse 3.

As for their increase in salary, let me say only this. They should consider this very carefully indeed. Show an example to the rest of us. The 'increase' they plan for themselves is more than my State Pension, which makes up roughly half of my total occupational and State Pension income combined. I had the privilege of working in the UK for a little over 25 years (If I had managed 40 years I'd have a bigger State and Occupational Pension), and served the Crown and my communities as a Fire Fighter and Officer. I too had to make decisions, many of which could have resulted in serious injury or death to those under my command. Some of my decisions could have wiped out the employment of many people and could, in some circumstances, be the difference between someone surviving and being rescued from a fire - or not. 

No, I never earned the sort of money MPs think they're worth, and nor do the vast majority of those who work in the Public Sector. Nor do we seek to interfere in the lives of those around us, to regulate things we don't understand, or to impose our opinions and ideologies on everyone else. We 'served' in the truest sense of the word. MPs simply don't. In fact one often has the impression when listening to them debating changes to laws or regulations that they are being told what to say, how to vote and even what to think by their lobbyists. Most have no understanding of the impact of their decisions in real terms at all - at least that is the overwhelming impression of those of us who have to try and work within their final decisions.

It is argued that they should receive more than anyone else, because their 'employment' can be taken away at the drop of a hat. Perhaps, if they stop to think about it, that is why Parliament was always the preserve of those of private means, or retired professionals who had both the knowledge and understanding of the real world to support them, and the means to support themselves. In this day and age everyone faces this problem. Employment is, we are told by the MPs, no longer for life, and while most of us struggle towards a pension (or are in receipt of one the last government asset stripped to pay for their disastrous spending plans) - they look forward to receiving a full parliamentary pension after serving just two terms in office.

No, I don't think they're worth a 10% pay rise, and I certainly don't think they deserve it.  

Friday, 12 July 2013

Tragedy on the Nile

The upheaval in Egypt doesn't seem to have any likely end in sight, even with the military arresting several of the Muslim Brotherhood's key people for inciting unrest and violence. Once again it would seem that the democratic hopes of some will be trodden underfoot in the arguments about which extreme should rule. But, as they say, there is always that spark of hope. The problem on both sides does seem to be a misunderstanding that winning a democratic election does not confer absolute right to do as the winner of the election pleases. In a real democracy, the winner must always take account of the opposition's wishes as well - but that is something it seems has got lost even in western democracy.

The Syrian situation seems to be an even worse mess all round. The death toll among civilians caught in the cross fire has run into the tens of thousands and no one seems to be bothered to count any longer. It is a toss up as to which side is now worse, Assad's military or the rebels, who now include a large number of foreign militants, some of whom have formed their own units and fight for an 'Islamic Republic' even though they are not Syrian. One such unit was recently exposed (by a Christian Aid organisation) for 'executing' a 15 year old Syrian boy for uttering what they deemed to be 'blasphemy'. Apparently they were not familiar with a local colloquialism and misunderstood the expression. The boy was beaten up and then executed with a bullet through the head in front of his friends and family. I'm pretty sure that the establishment of an 'Islamic Republic' ruled by a bunch of Ayatollahs with grandiose plans was not the reason many Syrians originally supported the rebels against the Assad regime. But this is what they may end up with if the slaughter and faction fighting continues to be supported by Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

According to an Egyptian journalist, the problems in Egypt began when Morsi decreed himself 'absolute' powers in order to circumvent the Constitutional Court and appoint a committee of Muslim Brotherhood people to write a new constitution. Even though he backtracked on this as soon as the committee was in place and he had the constitution he wanted, things were already on the slide. There has been silence in the west on the broadcasting of 'hate' speeches and TV shows against Shia Muslims, Christians and Jews. Morsi officially encouraged young men to go to Syria and fight a 'Holy War' there. It came to something of a head when he appointed new governors for every county in Egypt - all from the Association of Muslim Brotherhood. The angry populace had had enough, and protesters prevented them from entering their offices. The heavy handed retaliatory action of Muslim Brotherhood thugs resulted in numerous deaths - and raised the temperature of the protesters even further.

It is reported that when the mothers of dead 'activists' held up signs saying 'Honk if you don't want Morsi' the noise was deafening. In the end the anti-Morsi faction raised a petition for his removal - and got 22 million signatures (total population 83,688,134 of whom 43.4% are urban dwellers(Source: IndexMundi)), just over 25% of the population. Surely that alone tells you there is something going seriously wrong somewhere - but apparently Mr Morsi and his supporters felt they could ignore these 'rebels' which led to a demonstration of anger which is now officially recognised as being a few over 25 million people on the streets of every major town and city. No government can afford to ignore that sort of anger, but the President thought otherwise. That forced the military to act. Now it remains to be seen whether their action restores democratic process, or simply sweeps it aside.

If the former is the outcome, let us hope that the politicians on all sides have learned from Morsi's serious mistake. If not, the Egyptians may have yet to see the worst.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Right, So We've Got a Few Years Then ...

I'm surprised this hasn't made the front pages of several pro-AGW newspapers and magazines yet. Perhaps it's the timescale that puts them off. Still, it could be amusing to see how they'd like us to respond and 'prevent' this one.

Say what? Well it's simple really, you see some of those wonderful chappies who live in cloistered and sometimes hallowed precincts in Universities, have calculated (or perhaps even modelled) how things will go downhill for us over the next few dozen millennia. The sun will get hotter and brighter as it ages, for a start, then the CO2 in the atmosphere will decrease, and the water will boil away. Now, the problem is this, the CO2 keeps some heat in and keeps the place habitable and temperate. It is also rather essential for plant life, and plants are essential for animal life.

So, in a billion or so years, the earth will have no living plants, animals or aquatic life. The oceans will have dried out, and any life left will be microbial. UV light will sterilise whatever is exposed to it and humanity will, of course be long gone. Quite possibly before most of the other larger mammals depart.

You can read all about it in the article Life On Earth to Die Out in One Billion Years.

Of course, if we are serious, we will do one of two things. We'll either find a way to get off the planet before then and find a new home, or we'll simply wait for the inevitable. With the current drive by NGOs trying to stop climate change and wasting billions on technologies that won't sustain our current civilisations, I'd say the latter choice is likely to be the outcome.

Fortunately, on a timescale as long as this one, I'd say we've a few years to sort something out. Even if it is a case of the more willing finding ways to head for the stars, and leaving the terminally green to face the decline with a pristine planet all to themselves - until the sun fries it.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

An Act of Defiance; Verdi's Requiem sung by the inmates of Terezin

Every now and then one stumbles across something so remarkable that it leaves one almost breathless. It can stop you in your tracks, and change the way you look at some aspect of society or even change your perspective on something, and a few days ago I read something that did just that. It was an account in the Huffington Post concerning the recent honouring of the memory of Rafael Schachter by the Czech Republic.

Who, you may ask, was Rafael Schachter? The answer is that he was a young Jewish composer and musician, and one of the 120,000 killed at the Terezin Concentration Camp for Jews set up by the Nazis. The why he was honoured is what stopped me in my tracks. This young man, driven by the lunacy around him, and probably by the knowledge of the fate awaiting him and everyone else in the Terezin Camp, trained and then led a choir of the inmates in a performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass.

It led Adolf Eichmann to exclaim, "These crazy Jews are singing their own Requiem!"

For those doing the singing it was many things. It was an act of defiant courage in that they knew what the Nazis intended their fate to be; it was an act of therapy as it took them out of this living death and into realms beyond, and it was an act of faith, even though it was the music and theology of Christianity and not Judaism.

Those who know Verdi's Requiem will also know that it is a monumental work. Complex, moving, magnificent and definitely not for the faint hearted to attempt to sing. Yet, as a survivor confirms, each line of the Mass conveyed a somewhat different meaning to the prisoners than it would mean to the ordinary listener. Hence its choice by Schachter who drove hundreds of his fellow prisoners to learn the parts by heart, working from a single score they had managed to smuggle into the camp. In all there were sixteen performances given, though, at first, the Nazis tried to suppress it, then used it as a propaganda tool. When the inmates were relocated, immediately after the last performance, to Auschwitz, Rafael Schachter was one of the first group sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. Of the 140,000 inmates, just 20,000 survived.

It is a fact that there were 350,000 Jews living in Czechoslovakia in 1939, today there are fewer than 10,000 in the Czech and Slovakian Republics.

An American conductor recently unearthed this incredible story, and, seventy years after the original, persuaded the Czech government, and the Roman Catholic Archbishopric, to stage a performance in the Dom of St Vitus. The audience included a handful of the survivors, now in the 90s, and the performance was supplemented by the screening of pieces of the propaganda films made by the Nazis to hide the genocide. By all reports, it was a moving experience for everyone, and I, for one, will never again hear the Verdi Requiem with quite the same understanding I had for the words of the tremendous prayers it launches in the music.

As the Requiem says so eloquently -

"O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest."

How fitting it should have been sung by the inmates of a Death Camp. By Jews destined for death to those who wished to exterminate them.

Monday, 8 July 2013

So there's no archaeological evidence of the Jews as a people?

Recently there have been a number articles, statements and even books which make the claim that the "Jews" have no history and that there is no evidence of their historical presence in Jerusalem. Most recently the Palestinian Authority has issued a statement to the effect that Jerusalem has always been a Palestinian city, and was never the capital of any Jewish state. This comes on top of a new statement made by the Al Aqsa Mosque Council, who make the outright statement that the Temple of the Jews never existed on the Temple Mount.

This does rather deny the evidence of the Roman records of 70 AD, and the depictions and inscription on the Arch of Trajan, showing the looting of the Temple following the sack of Jerusalem. It also denies all the archaeological evidence still visible to those prepared to look, of the Temple itself. There is, despite the propaganda and the rather vague statement  that the Romans razed it, quite a lot of it still standing. The difficulty of course, is that any attempt to examine what is there on the main platform is continuously blocked by the Muslim hysteria that any such attempt is purely to destroy the Al Aqsa mosque or to desecrate it and the Dome of the Rock. According to them, the Prophet ascended into heaven from here - having flown here from Medina on a winged horse. The "Rock" the Dome covers has been identified as an ancient threshing floor, and is located in the position identified by Roman and other ancient accounts, as the site of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary of the Temple. The Dome itself sits on the foundations of a Christian Church built there long before Mohammad was born.

The last time the platform itself was properly examined was shortly after the 1967 war, when an American archaeologist was able to do a complete survey. He and his team were able to identify a number of features, some of which need further investigation, which are associated with the Temple. Among many things they identified were some now walled up entrances, a colonnade that dates to and resembles a colonnade described in the accounts of Solomon's Temple (Second Temple) as being part of the main entrance to the Temple enclosure. This was further enriched by Herod in his rebuilding. What is known, and has been for a long time, is that the so-called Wailing Wall, once the Western side of the Temple platform, is not the only part of the original that remains. Parts of the walls of the other three sides are also extant, one part built into the later city wall on that side. Like the western wall, the present walls are actually built onto earlier walls which have only been partly examined - largely because of the religious sensitivities of both the Muslims and the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Between them they are preventing any examination of a site which is of huge importance to the whole world, not just their own narrow interests.

Unfortunately, the Temple platform, and the other sides of it, are controlled by a group known as the Waqf. They strenuously resist any examination of the platform itself, and have embarked on a number of projects which have destroyed early Jewish and possibly older archaeological structures in order to create several huge subterranean mosques. It is claimed that the Dome of the Rock, which stands separately to the Al Aqsa, is the second oldest Muslim structure in existence, but an excavation in the 1930 found a Byzantine mozaic floor beneath it and traces of earlier foundations belonging to a Christian church or monastery. Both are built over the site of the Holy of Holies of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.

Despite what is often stated concerning the Jews and the Bible with regard to the historic truth of Jewish history, there is a wealth of archaeological evidence for its being factual. The earliest existing depiction of a "Jew" is found on an obelisk dated to 841BC. It shows an Ambassador from the Jewish king to Shalmanesser III, the Assyrian. Sennacherub's siege of Jerusalem is confirmed in a six sided 'prism' in the British Museum. These are things mentioned in the Bible specifically in Chronicles, Isaiah, 2 Kings and Daniel. Other artifacts confirm many other people mentioned in Biblical accounts of events, but, much of this remains unadvertised as it would undermine rival claims and alternate histories more in keeping with the current ideologies of the Middle East and supporters of the anti-Israel factions. 

Quite a large body of evidence and related artifacts exist, stretching back to 2000BC correlate with events described, obviously from a Jewish perspective, in the Bible. An ancient papyrus dated to 1500BC describes a range of natural disasters suffered in Egypt at this time, and some scholars translate one such as "the river is blood" something that is mentioned in Exodus - though some Egyptologists reject that relationship and even dispute (there's a surprise) the translation. It has to be said, that for those disputing it, it is a matter of protecting the Islamic belief that the Jewish accounts are entirely false and a 'modern' creation to deprive the Arabs of their rightful place as the Chosen of God. A full-ish list of these artifacts can be found on Wikipedia  

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the General Synod

Archbishop Justin of Canterbury is a man of undoubted faith and of vision. His address to the General Synod needs to be read and considered by everyone who calls themselves Christian, and they need to be considered carefully. I am taking the liberty of posting it here in its entirety. My source is the Archbishop's own website.

Archbishop Justin's presidential address at General Synod

Archbishop Justin at York Synod today. (Picture: Keith Blundy | Aegies Associates)
Friday 5th July 2013
In his first presidential address to General Synod in York today, Archbishop Justin called on the Church to engage with sweeping economic, political, social and cultural changes and "be the answer that God provides". Read the full text below 

Before I begin I would like to thank all the staff at Lambeth and around the NCIs, and at Bishopthorpe and the Anglican Communion Office, who have been so effective and kind in dealing with the frightening and unsettling impact of a new Archbishop. Transitions are always very complex, and taking on a new Archbishop is as demanding as it gets. But there’s invariably been a warm welcome and extremely hard work, for which I am extremely grateful. Chief amongst those who have led the way through the process is Chris Smith, the Chief of Staff at Lambeth. After more than ten years of faithful service, working night and day and every weekend – he’s the biggest menace to my capacity to have a quiet evening in on a Saturday night because I get an email from him – after more than ten years of never stopping he is moving on to other things later this year. His contribution has been largely behind the scenes, but he has served the Church of England and the Anglican Communion – not only for a long time but with huge effect – and our debt to him is more than we can imagine. So on your behalf I would like to thank him.
As you know too from public announcements, Bishop Nigel Stock, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, has with great generosity and considerable sacrifice, I’d imagine, agreed to become the Bishop at Lambeth, in a new configuration for the role, working alongside the new Chief of Staff. I could not be more grateful to have such a wise and experienced person, who will enable my many weaknesses to be compensated for more than adequately.
One of the things about this job is you tend to carry a lot of baggage – physical, metaphorical; probably more than I know. We arrived yesterday, the car having broken down en route – there’s a nasty metaphor there. But we did arrive – and we found ourselves with a ton of baggage to carry from one end of what seemed to be a much bigger campus than last year, to the other. And it reminded me – as I was staggering along with what seemed to be enough robes to rival Wippell’s – that we come to this session of Synod with a certain amount of baggage; and it’s good to find ways of getting rid of it. A friend of ours – of my wife and mine, from our days when we lived in Paris – worked for many years for an American company but living in Paris. We went to stay with them about six of seven years ago – he’s now ordained; there’s no connection – and he was still laughing about an experience at Kennedy airport the day before. It was a February and the weather in New York had been very bad, and he’d arrived and everyone was in a grump and the flights were late. And when he got one from the front of the check-in, the person in front of him was incredibly rude to the poor check-in operator. And John, our friend, is always gracious and polite, and when he got to the front he said, ‘I’m embarrassed to be a passenger when people treat you like that. I don’t know how you were so patient.’ And she said, ‘Well, sir. I shouldn’t really tell you this. There’s sort of bad news and good news. The bad news is he’s sitting next to you on the flight to New York. But the good news is I’ve sent his luggage to Tokyo.’

There are a number of obvious applications to that, one of which is we could do with some people like that at the beginning of a Synod session – for the baggage to go somewhere else.
You don’t want a lot of baggage in a revolution. And we live in a time of revolutions. And the trouble with revolutions is once they start no-one knows where they will go. Of the most serious type, the physical type, the practical type… Bishop Angaelos, Head of the Coptic Church in the UK, whom I met in Egypt last week, and who is sitting with us today, knows exactly about revolutions. While we were in Egypt, we heard much talk of what would happen this week – and we’ve seen. And the grace and leadership of Christians in that country is something to behold.  
But we live also in a time of many revolutions in this country. And as the Synod meets today, we are custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals, nations and societies. We are called by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts – contexts that are set up by revolutions. I want to thank you, and to say what a privilege it is to share with you, in the ministry of shouldering the heavy burden of facing these changing contexts, and grappling with them in this Synod, now and over the years to come, and to thank you for your commitment in your work here you show to Jesus Christ and to His church. It is genuinely a privilege to be among you.
The revolutions are huge. The economic context and position of our country has changed, dramatically. With all parties committed to austerity for the foreseeable future, we have to recognise that the profound challenges of social need, food banks, credit injustice, gross differentiation of income – even in many areas of opportunity – pressure on all forms of state provision and spending: all these are here to stay. In and through the church we have the call and potentially the means to be the answer that God provides. As Pope Francis recalled so memorably, we are to be a poor church for the poor, however and wherever poverty is seen, materially or spiritually. That is a revolution. Being a poor church for the poor means both provision and also prophetic challenge in a country that is still able and has the resources to reduce inequality – especially inequality of opportunity and life expectancy. If you travel north from parts of Liverpool to Southport, you gain almost a year in life expectancy for every mile you travel. We are debating these questions in this Synod. But prophetic challenge needs reality as its foundation, or it is mere wishful thinking; and it needs provision as its companion, or it is merely shifting responsibility.
The social context is changing radically. There is a revolution. It may be, it was, that 59% of the population called themselves Christian at the last census, with 25% saying they had no faith. But the YouGov poll a couple of weeks back was the reverse, almost exactly, for those under 25. If we are not shaken by that, we are not listening.
The cultural and political ground is changing. There is a revolution. Anyone who listened, as I did, to much of the Same Sex Marriage Bill Second Reading Debate in the House of Lords could not fail to be struck by the overwhelming change of cultural hinterland. Predictable attitudes were no longer there. The opposition to the Bill, which included me and many other bishops, was utterly overwhelmed, with amongst the largest attendance in the House and participation in the debate, and majority, since 1945. There was noticeable hostility to the view of the churches. I am not proposing new policy, but what I felt then and feel now is that some of what was said by those supporting the bill was uncomfortably close to the bone. Lord Alli said that 97% of gay teenagers in this country report homophobic bullying. In the USA suicide as a result of such bullying is the principle cause of death of gay adolescents. One cannot sit and listen to that sort of reality without being appalled. We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality, and we have not fully heard it.
The majority of the population rightly detests homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it. And sometimes they look at us and see what they don’t like. I don’t like saying that. I’ve resisted that thought. But in that debate I heard it, and I could not walk away from it. We all know that it is utterly horrifying. to hear, as we did this week, of gay people executed in Iran for being gay, or equivalents elsewhere. With nearly a million children educated in our schools we not only must demonstrate a profound commitment to stamp out such stereotyping and bullying; but we must also take action. We are therefore developing a programme for use in our schools, taking the best advice we can find anywhere, that specifically targets such bullying. More than that, we need also to ensure that what we do and say in this Synod, as we debate these issues, demonstrates above all the lavish love of God to all of us, who are all without exception sinners. Again this requires radical and prophetic words which lavish gracious truth.
The three Quinquennial Goals of growing the church, contributing to the common good and reimagining ministry, are utterly suited to a time of revolution. They express confidence in the gospel. They force us to look afresh at all our structures, to reimagine ministry, whether it be the ministry of General Synod, or the parish church, or a great cathedral, or anything between all of those three. For that reimagination to be more than surface deep, we need a renewal of prayer and the Religious Life. That is the most essential emphasis in what I am hoping to do in my time in this role. And if you forget everything else I say, which you may well do – probably will do – please remember that. There has never been a renewal of church life in western Christianity without a renewal of prayer and Religious Communities, in some form or another, often different. It has been said that we can only imagine what is already in our minds as a possibility; and it is in prayer, individually and together, that God puts into our minds new possibilities of what the Church can be.
The Quinquennial Goals challenge our natural tendency to be inward looking, calling on us to serve the common good. That covers many areas, and between us all, not singly, we are able to face the challenge. May Synod rise to that. But the second of my personal emphases, within that goal, is reconciliation, within the church but most of all fulfilling our particular Anglican charism to be reconcilers in the world, in our communities, in families, even, dare I say it, amongst ourselves. Even if we do sometimes conduct our arguments at high volume and in public, to be reconcilers means enabling diversity to be lived out in love, resisting hatred of the other, demonisation of our opponents.  
The common good goes much further than that. Our unique presence across the country enables us to speak with authority both in parliament and here, and in every church and cathedral and synod and gathering place across the country. Our extraordinary presence across the world as Anglicans enables us to speak with intelligence from around the world. As Anglicans we are called to reconcile incredible differences of culture in over 150 countries. What an extraordinary heritage we have under God. So we seek to be renewed here and across the Communion, and to find the reconciling presence of God. This Synod meets in an era of revolution, but we have together the means and the courage to seize the opportunities that revolution brings.
The Quinquennial goals aim at spiritual and numerical growth in the church. That includes evangelism, the third of my emphases. The lead has been set by the Archbishop of York. Here again we need new imagination in evangelism through prayer, and a fierce determination not to let evangelism be squeezed off our agendas. At times I feel it’s rather like me when I have to write a difficult letter, or make an awkward phone call: even things like ironing my socks become more attractive. We treat evangelism too often in the same way. We will talk about anything, especially miscellaneous provisions measures after lunch on Sunday; and we struggle to fit in the call to be the good news in our times through Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed THE good news for our times. God is always good news; we are the ones who make ourselves irrelevant when we are not good news. And when we are good news, God's people see growing churches.
Attitudes to hierarchy and authority have changed, and continue to change; there’s nothing new in that. And the more they do, the more we are perceived, often wrongly – but genuinely – to say one thing, about grace, community and inclusion, and do another.
And yet with all these revolutions, which raise such huge challenges to us in our lives as the Church, we see clearly that God is working a wonderful and marvelous revolution through the Church in the wind of the Spirit, blowing through our structures and ideas and imagination.
There is a new energy in ecumenism, not least shown by Pope Francis. There is a hunger for visible unity. Many churches across England are growing in depth and numbers. People are looking for answers in a time of hardship and when we show holy hospitality and the outflow of grace, we are full of people seeking us. There is every cause for hope. This Synod had a shock, depending on your view, good or bad, last November; but there is here assembled, in weakness or confidence, in all sorts of fear and lack of trust, people with the faith and wisdom who in grace will seek the way to the greater glory of God.
In some things we change course and recognise the new context. Revolutions change culture. In others we stand firm because truth is not set by culture, nor morals by fashion. But let us be clear, pretending that nothing has changed is absurd and impossible. In times of revolution we too in the church, in the Church of England, must have a revolution which enables us to live for the greater glory of God in the freedom which is the gift of Christ. We need not fear. The eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.
There have been many times where the Church of England felt that change was in the air or this was a moment of crisis. Because we are not an organisation, let alone a business, or even an institution, but in reality the people of God gathered by the Holy Spirit to walk together in a way that leads to the greater glory of God, there are bound to be many crises and turning points.
So let us not imagine for one moment that because we are in revolutionary times what we are going through currently is either more dangerous, more difficult or more complicated than anything faced by the generations before us. We are in the hands of God; the eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms. We need not worry, but we must give all that we have and we are, for the uniquely great cause of the service of Jesus Christ.
So how we journey here is essential, and that is why during these next few days, certain things are being reimagined: not least what we do tomorrow. What is clear to all of us is that there exists, as we gather – and let’s be honest about it – a very significant absence of trust between different groups; and, it must be said – and the evidence of this is clear, though sad – an absence of trust towards the Bishops collectively.
One thing I am sure of is that trust is rebuilt and reconciliation happens when whatever we say, we do. For example, if, while doing what we believe is right for the full inclusion of women in the life of the church, we say that all are welcome whatever their views on that, all must be welcome in deed as well as in word. If we don’t mean it, please let us not say it. On the one hand there are horrendous accounts from women priests whose very humanity has sometimes seemed to be challenged. On the other side I recently heard a well-attested account of a meeting between a Diocesan Director of Ordinands and a candidate, who was told that if the DDO had known of the candidate’s views against the ordination of women earlier in the process he would never have been allowed to get as far as he did.
Both attitudes contradict the stated policy of the Church of England, of what we say, and are completely unacceptable. If the General Synod, if we decide, that we are not to be hospitable to some diversity of views, we need to say so bluntly and not mislead. If we say we will ordain women as priests and Bishops we must do so in exactly the same way as we ordain men. If we say that all are welcome even when they disagree, they must be welcome in spirit, in deed, as well as in word.
Lack of integrity and transparency poisons any hope of rebuilding trust, and rebuilding trust in the best of circumstances is going to be the work of years and even decades. There are no magic bullets.
So how we travel, and our capacity to differ without hating each other and to debate without dividing from each other, is crucial to the progress we make.
Integrity and transparency depend utterly on a corporate integrity and transparency before God, above all in our prayer and liturgy. I sometimes wonder if one of the drivers of our lack of trust is that we have lost from our experience and our expectation two of the great moods of liturgy: of lament and of celebration. The ability truly to lament, to rage at circumstances, at loss, at decline, at injustice, at our own sin or the problems we face, is one that enables us to find afresh the mercy and grace of God. Lament is a liturgical mood that builds our capacity to trust God in the face of change, and then we trust each other. Encountering the face of Jesus Christ in pain, grief or anger transforms us.
Equally the capacity to celebrate, to lift our hearts and voices in true and passionate praise and thanksgiving because the presence of God is known among, restores our perspective. Not only does it renew our faith and strengthen weary limbs in the long journey we are undertaking, but also the act of celebrating that which we share together cuts across our great barriers and difficulties. We celebrate because who can not be overwhelmed by the love of God?
Take for example the two Anglican Dioceses I saw a week ago in the Middle East, in Jerusalem and in Egypt. In the midst of terrible and confused situations, with unspeakable human suffering, tension and fear, they shine with brilliant light. And they are part of us. In each of them there is a profound commitment to the common good of the populations in which they live as a minority – populations of whatever faith and ethnicity. In each of them there are more schools, hospitals and clinics than there are churches. In each of them the Bishops have established confident and effective relationships with other churches, with Muslim leaders and with governments that enable them to speak frankly and truly and with great courage. And we need to remember that as what they do there affects us, lifts our hearts, shows us the grace and glory and power of God, even more so what we do here affects them and every other church in the Anglican Communion. We have great responsibilities.
We should do no less, be no less effective, no less bold than our brothers and sisters in Christ in those Dioceses; in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in places of persecution and suffering, of revolution, change and disruption. The eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love. AMEN.
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Saturday, 6 July 2013

Confrontation on the Nile

Egypt seems to be very rapidly descending into an open war between the forces of ultra-conservative Islam and those who want a modern, more open society. The rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood and their increasingly inane accusations - one claim is that the interim President is actually a Jew - has drawn battle lines in the sand. As more than one commentator has noted, they simply fail to grasp the fact that democracy is far more than just holding elections. That is what the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to understand. To them, winning the election meant they could ignore all other voices and impose their agenda without restraint.

What is disturbing is the fact their leaders are now urging open warfare against Christians, the army and all those who oppose them. In Northern Sinai the army has declared a 'terrorist war' with insurgents armed by Libya and supported from Gaza's Hamas, and now the rest of the country seems to be being sucked in as well.

It is worrying that Morsi's supporters are already trumpeting that it is the Christians (about 10% of the Egyptian population) who are behind the ousting of their man in the palace. It is only a matter of time before they commit some atrocity in the name of Islam against the Coptic Christian community. Following the events of yesterday, it will be sooner rather than later as well. I was surprised to see that Al Jazeera, which I have long regarded as one of the saner news reporters in this troubled region, reporting the claim by one of the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesmen, that the interim President was a Jew on the basis that he had joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church, sought baptism from the Coptic Pope (which was apparently refused) and that this all made him a "Jew". As an example of the twisted and convoluted "logic" of these folk it would be hard to beat.

If western government's are wise, they will stay out of this conflict and allow the Egyptians to work it out for themselves. It will be difficult to do so, because of the impact a civil war will inevitably have on the Suez Canal and shipping, on the neighbouring states and the likelihood of a massive "insurgency" from Al Qaeda and all the other fundamentalist terrorist organisation operating in the Middle East. I suspect that this is going to be far more than just a struggle for political control, this is a struggle initiated by a significant section of the population of Egypt - representing large slices of similar people in all the other Muslim nations - for control of their lives and their freedom of choice. This is a war against the rule of the narrow interpretation of the Quran as the arbiter of every aspect of their lives - in much the same way the "Glorious Revolution" in Britain was a rebellion against the Theist domination of Parliament by the Puritans and Presbyters of Cromwell's twisted Christianity.

I suspect the Egyptian rebellion against the rule of the religious fundamentalists and their Mullahs is just the tip of a very large iceberg. I hope and pray the forces of moderation and inclusion can succeed, but I suspect there will be a lot of blood spilled before there is a settlement. In the meantime we can do little more than watch and pray for those caught between the factions.

Friday, 5 July 2013

When is Democracy not Democratic?

Egypt's 84 million people are causing a lot of hand-wringing in western political circles. The military ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood's President Mursi (or Morsi ...) has many western government's more or less trying to avoid being "hoist on their own petard" and desperately trying to work out how to respond. Probably not a good place to be either way. Even the Egyptians can't seem to decide, some think it worth celebrating the ousting and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and others feel the military have damaged the democracy Mursi represented. It does seem to depend on whether you are an educated urban dweller from the Middle Classes, or a worker from the poorer or more rural areas, a 'liberal' or a 'traditionalist'.

As ever the situation is a complex one, far more complex than most news media or politicians admit. For one thing almost all major businesses are owned, managed or controlled by ex-military. The Muslim Brotherhood wants a nation subjected to Sharia Law and piety, with the religious scholars having more say in the law, the administration of justice and a scrapping of the peace treaty with Israel. A large portion of the population want more freedom of personal choice, speech and activity. The military want stability, and preferably no involvement in any "adventures" of conquest against their neighbour. Mursi, a civil engineer from a farming family in the Delta, seems to have fallen into the trap all those thrust unwillingly into positions of power get caught in - he mistook having won an election with a mandate for absolute power. The right to do as he saw fit without taking account of what the significant portion of the electorate who did NOT vote for him wanted and thought.

So he pushed ahead with the imposition of a Constitution written by his Muslim Brotherhood chums who removed the hard earned rights of significant groups and made provision for the imposition of Sharia Law. He ignored the Judiciary, and began issuing Presidential Decrees, removing the right of challenge from the courts to to any of his decisions. The Parliament, dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood, began pushing legislation that further endangered and disadvantaged the rights the people who sparked the anti-Mubarak uprising had fought for. Then he made the mistake of ignoring the legitimate objections of the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square to make their feelings known. It has certainly been inflamed by thugs from the Muslim Brotherhood roaming the streets and enforcing the wearing of headscarves by women, making demands from small businessmen and even beating up those who objected. This was not the "democracy" the people had ousted Mubarak to gain, nor was it the enlightened democracy the West thought would emerge.

To cap it all, the economy has all but collapsed thanks to the incompetence of Mursi's ministers. So the military removed him, and now we have the spectacle of the former Chief Justice as Acting President and the prospect of new elections. Plus, we have the Muslim Brotherhood diving for cover as the angry crowds burn their offices and centres and the military arrest their leaders.

Western leaders face a difficult choice here. The Muslim Brotherhood is a very well organised movement, but it is also very anti-western and fundamentalist. Yes, it won the last elections, largely, it appears, because it was better organised than anyone else, not because it was more popular. Its TV station has broadcast a stream of anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian hate material with impunity. That has undoubtedly incited a number of attacks on Christian families, businesses and churches. Several prominent Jews have been murdered and their deaths linked to blatant anti-Jew and anti-Israel propaganda from the Muslim Brotherhood's broadcasts. Is this really what we, in the west, would call a "democratic" movement or government? Probably not, but now comes the crunch, a military "putsch" isn't really anything to celebrate either.

So who should we support? In my view we should keep our noses out. This is a matter for the Egyptians themselves to resolve, not western governments, the UNO, NATO or the western media. We have to accept that their concept of government is not the same as ours, and that they are better placed to understand the problems and tensions within their own society than any outsider can ever be. This calls for a pragmatic approach, less rhetoric and a lot of diplomacy. Only the Egyptians can find the way to go forward and achieve the democracy they want and can live with.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Spring turns to Winter - or a new Spring?

Events in Egypt over the last few days are raising more than a few questions for the liberal western media and politicians who, only a year or so ago, where rejoicing at the overthrow of all the "Arab" dictators in North Africa. Apart from the fact that very few were "Arab", the outcome in most was not at all what they expected, in fact most were replaced by Islamic fundamentalists who, unsurpirisingly, had the support of the large rural populations of these nations. Now the first of those has been overthrown despite being democratically elected. President Mursi's policies of adopting increasinglz fundamentalist ideals and policies, his mishandling of the economy and his ignoring the wishes and desires of the large urban middle classes, has finally brought him down.

The military have imposed an "coalition" government and announced new elections. Who will win these is now an open question, since the Muslim Brotherhood enjoy huge support among the less educated rural populations and among the large student population of certain universities. It often amazes me how little our western media actually understand of the cultures, thinking and heritage of anything outside of the European/US environment. The idea that everyone is the same, therefore all cultures, all people and all nations share the same ideals, desires and religio/political aspirations  seems to dominate. There is often no attempt to see another culture from that people's point of view, much less to even begin to understand it.

There is a complete failure to understand the impact on "democracy" of the lack of education and the stress on religious issues in the Middle East. I have been astonished at the complete absence of any acknowledgement of the fact that there are large Christian populations in all these countries living under extremely difficult conditions, and often the victims of targeted and even genocidal persecution. It is reported that ten percent of Egypt's population is Christian, and the Muslim Brotherhood and the ex-President certainly didn't endear themselves to them. For the Middle Classes, the Christians and other minorities, Spring went direct to Winter in Egypt, with almost daily reports of Muslim Brotherhood thugs strutting about and imposing punishments, dictats and their wishes on ordinary people without restraint. Has the tide turned sufficiently to ensure a more 'liberal' candidate wins this time round?

I have my doubts, but I don't think the Summer has yet dawned. It may yet prove to be a very stormy Spring before the Summer finally arrives. In the meantime it is fascinatig and not a little disturbing to watch the handwringing of the media, and the writhing of the politicians as they dither about who to support and how to talk their way out of the trap their ignorance of any other culture and ideology than their own has dumped them in.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Crisis In Politics

According to a news letter I subscribe to, the latest Opinion Poll on political beliefs among the voting public in four of Europe's major nations, the UK, France, Germany and Sweden, shows that what is referred to as the Centre-Left is losing ground rapidly. The reason for this is that people no longer believe the Centre-Left Parties are any more caring, compassionate or any more likely to solve the social problems than anyone else. Significantly, in all countries, the Centre-Left are seen as the least competent to manage the economy, and they are no longer seen as representing the interests of the wider population.

The survey looked at a wide range of things, and some differences in response emerged according to age group and social status, but the trend is, generally, downward in all groups for the Centre-Left. The biggest fall in confidence toward this ideological position is in Germany, with Britain a close second and Sweden third. Even in France, the only one of the four currently governed by a socialist party, the majority of those polled feel that they are over taxed for what they receive in services or benefits, and that government is too large. In all countries there is a strong trend of opinion that governments are inefficient in the way benefits, pensions and health care is provided. A majority of those polled felt they wanted lower taxes, and smaller, more efficient governments, neither of which are hallmarks of the Centre-Left.

In Germany, the poll revealed that the Social Democratic Party (Germany's oldest political party, founded in the 1850s on socialist principles as expounded by Marx et al, is losing ground, though it remains the second largest party in the Bundestag and holds a number of key Landestags and Mayoraltys. If the poll results are accurate, there is a strong chance the Party will not achieve the required majority it needs to form the next government here. There is an added element in Germany, since the Christian Democratic Union (and its sister Party in Bavaria, the CSU) are the only Centre-Right parties, the SDP, the Green/Bundes 90 and Die Linke are Centre-Left, Left or Far Left! I would place the FDP, currently the partners of the CDU/CSU in government as 'centre' (officially they are Liberal) and as for the National Socialist Party (Yup, they're still around, despite a strong desire on the part of almost everyone to outlaw them) the less said the better. There is, however, a new Joker in play. There is a recently founded, and as yet untried, Party which is the German equivalent of Britain's UKIP. They want the same agenda as the current UK government, renegotiation of the EU and national sovereignty, vetoes for the states that are net contributors and less interference from Brussels. There stance is that the Euro must go, national sovereignty must be respected, and EU Commissioners should be elected directly by the people, not the by the relevant 'Ministers' acting as 'electors' on behalf of the electorate.

In its present form the EU is very much a reflection of the centre-left thinking of the 1950s. The idea being that the "State" should be the driving and controlling force behind solving social issues, employment problems and almost everything else. The truth is that it has failed, simply because it is far too inefficient. There are too many duplications, far too many overlaps between Brussels, National Bureaucracies, and even down to Regional and Local Government. The mechanisms of government have taken on a life of their own, and become entirely self sustaining. Ironically, as they have expanded and grown, they have also become less and less efficient at delivering what they were set up to do.

If this poll truly represents the public perception, then, as the commentator suggest, the Centre-Left will have to accept that it is no longer the 'campion of the underdog' and find a new way to win votes. All Parties will have to become far more responses to real people and real issues rather than their current modus of listening only to the loudest lobby groups and the self-interests of the civil servants who inform them. They will also have to become far more visionary in their planning and thinking - as the poll discloses, few, if any, political parties think beyond a single term of office.

Overall the Poll shows why there is such a large loss of confidence in the political system in Europe and the West. Let us hope that somewhere, is a leader capable of taking this on board, and bold enough to act on it. Otherwise, we in Europe could soon be looking at the sort of upheaval currently visible in the Middle East.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Someone had to say it, and who better ...

There are times when you read something that simply resonates through you, and an article in The Spectator today does just that for me. Entitled "Chief Rabbi: Atheism has failed", I find myself nodding at almost every well considered sentence. A trawl through the many comments, most by those who claim to be atheists, shows the reasons why. They simply cannot get past their concept that 'religion is responsible for all the problems.' One even tries to claim that pre-Christian Europe had a better sense of morality, and another that Sweden having the highest rape count in the world is because their 'secular' society 'enables' the victims to report it.

In fact the level of commentary and opinion in the comments alone underscores exactly what the Chief Rabbi says -
A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society. Does it matter? Should we not simply accept that just as there are some people who are tone deaf and others who have no sense of humour, so there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving? Some people get religion; others don’t. Why not leave it at that?
Ironically, those making these comments all consider themselves to be intellectually superior to anyone of faith. Once again, the Chief Rabbi says it far better than I can in his observation -
Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it. 
That is the key. Don't worry about morality, it's someone else's problem. That is how Sweden has got where it is, with soaring rape statistics, major problems with immigrants not integrating, a loss of moral compass in many areas of public life. We should take note of his observation that humanity has been here before. In Ancient Greece in its decline and in First Century Rome as it started to slide. Epicurius of Greece and Lucretius of Rome were, in there day, the 'Atheists' and Secularists of our time. Ironic then that the Rabbi can quote Bertrand Russell to make his point -
These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.
As we are learning, the barbarians are at the door, in fact they are among us, but exactly how do we fix it? The Chief Rabbi is right when he says the 'religious fundamentalists' of all faiths and none are the chief threat within, but there are others waiting without. It now becomes a question of whether we can - or wish to - pull back from the brink.